Thrift Store Scavenger Hunt (with FREE printable game form!)

Shopping at thrift stores is for people who have more time than money. To show you what I mean, please refer to this garish infographic that I spent all night making. If your green (money) lines are lower than your orange (time) lines, then thrift store shopping might be right for you!

infographic 3As the graph shows, in my late twenties I experienced a brief span of having more money than time. I actually bought clothes and stuff brand-new, at fully-staffed retail outlets with working bathrooms. It felt so indulgent: The dressing rooms had mirrors and the price tags weren’t stapled to the clothes. I didn’t even have to check the sweaters for burn holes.

Then my two youngest were born in quick succession, and suddenly I had neither time nor money, but — perhaps out of boredom — the urge to thrift grew even stronger.

Most kids won’t fight a trip to the thrift store. It provides endless stimulation and lots of new smells. Now that they’re too big to be strapped down, I let them play with whatever they find in the toy aisle… Until I get a friendly reminder from the manager that the toy aisle isn’t a drop-off day care center. IMG_4478To maximize my scavenging time, I decided to give the kids jobs. “Go find mommy a giant bra!” or, “See which one of you can find the most disturbing clown figurine!”  Guess what? It worked! No longer were they playing hide-and-seek in the plus-sized men’s pants, they were busy discovering the magic and wonder of second-hand retail.

As a public service to the other Scavengers with bored children or spouses, I’ve developed a Thrift Store Scavenger Hunt, guaranteed to give you at least 45 minutes of carefree shopping time.

INSTRUCTIONS: Print out this FREE scavenger hunt form and hand out to your whiny spouse or children:

Give each player a time limit and a shopping cart. When you have finished your shopping, add up the points and give the winner a special prize, like a half-used bottle of hand lotion. Each time you play, encourage your little scavengers to take their game to the next level.


Now, let’s start scavenging! Below is a preview of the items and their point values…


  • Microwave cookbook ①

Now you, too, can make Moroccan-themed baby poop in your microwave.

  • Church cookbook ①
  • 100% non-English cookbook ①
  • [Anything] for Dummies ①
  • Chicken Soup for [Anybody's] Soul ①


  • Outdated Pregnancy, Baby, or Parenting Books (1 point for each decade old)
  • Christmas Album ①
  • Polka Album ①
  • Vintage Striptease or Erotic Polka Album ②


  • Tupperware in the shape of food it’s containing ①

Only a MILLIONAIRE would take a slice of pie to work in its own custom Tupperware!

  • Coffee mug expressing frustration at having to work ①
  • Coffee cup expressing ethnic pride ②

Can’t argue with that logic.

  • Jell-O mold in the shape of an aquatic animal ①
  • Someone’s crappy art project being resold as a legitimate, food safe container ①


  • Taco Holder ②


  • Sheer, lacy, “grandma” curtains ①


  • Clown-themed porcelain figurines ①

The placement of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus on this shelf could be inspiration this year’s Nativity Scene.

  • Framed portrait of Pope John Paul II ①
  • Framed portrait of Pope Benedict ⑩
  • Any furniture seen on the set of the “Golden Girls” ①

Note the rain barrel full of golf clubs

  • Antique Furniture re-upholstered in Muppet fur ②


  • TVs more than a foot thick ①


  • TVs more than two feet thick ②
  • Grab bag of cables, wires or chargers ①


  • Grooming appliances that Mommy used in 8th grade ①


  • Unsealed pack of adult diapers ①
  • Sealed pack of adult diapers ②


  • Bra sized 32-AA to 44-DD ①
  • Bra sized 44-DDD to 58-J* ②


  • A real Muu-Muu dress** ①
  • A Bridesmaid’s Dress ①
  • A Wedding Dress ③


  • Three-ring binder albums ①


  • Albums with photos still in them ②
  • 3½-inch floppy disks ①
  • 5¼-inch floppy disks ②
  • 8-inch floppy disks ③


  • Corded telephones with giant numbers ①
  • Electric typewriters ①


  • Disney Princess Sleeping bag ①


  • Assortment of plastic toys in a sealed plastic bag ①
  • Dolls that are missing either a shoe or a whole foot ①


  • Board games that reinforce outdated gender stereotypes ②


  • Trophies ① (Bonus points available for oldest trophy, most obscure sport, and furthest location)

Is anyone gonna call that foul?

  • Golf clubs ①
  • Baseball or golf cap bearing the name of an alcoholic beverage ①


  • Find a thing you already own that you probably bought new at IKEA

Yup, that’s our bedspread.

  • Find a group of unrelated items in a pile and create a theme. For example: Suitcases on top of Foosball on top of patio furniture = Vacation Fun?


  • Untangle all the vacuum cleaner cords


  • Locate a working and sanitary bathroom.


* I looked it up, 58-J is the largest bra size on earth.
** The plural of Muu-Muu is Muu-Muu.

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Homemade “Snappy Birthday” Plaque

Do you have a friend like Megan? If not, you should run out and get one right away.

We all love Megan. But then again, sometimes we hate her. Because in fleeting moments of fitness ambition we agree to run with Megan the next morning at 6:15 a.m. When the alarm explodes at 5:55 a.m., we thaw ourselves out of deep sleep, one limb at a time, and wrestle our way into a sports bra.

It might still be dark, it might even be snowing, but we have to go because Megan is ALWAYS there. She is the friend who shows up when she says she will, on time, every time, with an easy cheerfulness that doesn’t seem quite right at that time of day.

Glorious Ladies of Running Year Round

The Gorgeous Ladies of Running Year-round (G.L.O.R.Y.) laughing in the face of a Polar Vortex.

But Megan’s not just a maddeningly reliable fitness partner. She is the friend who brings the giant jar of homemade granola to your shared beach house – the jar that you slowly pick at for days until all that remains are sweet, greasy crumbs, no questions asked.

She is also the friend who brings a gorgeous salmon mousse to your Superbowl Party – in the shape of a salmon, no less – but frets because she forgot the the eyes (green olives worked in a pinch).  To everyone’s surprise, all the little kids devour it in minutes.

IMG_3257And without any fuss, Megan arrives at the neighborhood potluck with a 12-layer Jell-O® mold that would fit right in at the most exuberant pride parade. We stare at its wonderous glimmering layers. We nudge the plate and watch it dance. We hope nobody notices that all we brought was a six-pack and a bag of stale corn chips and she brought THIS:*

jelloThat night, I savored Megan’s non-Newtonian treat with another neighborhood hero (and running buddy), Gin.  We decided that something must be done to acknowledge Megan’s understated awesomeness. And her birthday was only three months away….


STEP ONE – PREPARE THE MOLD: Head to your friendly neighborhood thrift store and go straight to the corner where they keep all the miscellaneous kitchen trinkets. At our store, the kitchen wares are grouped by material – a shelf each for plastic, wood, metal and appliances. You’ll have to dig around for a few minutes in the metal pile, but you are guaranteed to find at least one or two molds; They are the detritus lurking in the underbrush of the thrift store. This one seems cheerful:

IMG_4321You may have to scrub off any residual aspic, especially if you chose a fish-shape (remember the salmon mousse?).

IMG_4246STEP TWO – CRAFT THE PLAQUE BOARD:  Normally I would just scavenge a piece of scrap wood from the construction pile next door. However, this was a special occasion, so I shelled out $2 for a plank of the hardware store’s finest pine. I bought a piece that was at least twice as big as needed, in case of screw ups. Also, I was really in a hurry and there was nobody staffing (or even guarding) the scary, blood-splattered cutting station.

IMG_4320I played around with a few plaque shape designs, and settled on a simple – but elegant – arrowhead model.  Then I used one of Scott’s dozens (!) of stencils and rulers to trace the shape onto the wood.

IMG_4324I clamped the wood securely to my dining room table and used my new jigsaw to cut semi-circle shapes off the top corners of the plank.

IMG_4328IMG_4333IMG_4338PRO-TIP:  If you are new to jig-sawing** – like I was a week ago – you’ll want to start the motor at its slowest setting while you establish your dominance over the tool. Gradually increase the speed until you reach that sweet spot where you are just about to lose control over the saw, but don’t. Never let the saw see you lose control. You will lose all respect, and possibly, a finger.

Flip your wood, clamp it down, and slowly cut your bottom shape with the jigsaw.

IMG_4339Since my orbital sander was out on loan, I smoothed down my freshly-cut wood with a sanding block, paying special attention to the jagged edges left by the blade.

IMG_4345Wipe off the sawdust with a damp rag and air dry.

Next, slop on a coat of wood stain with a rag or old baby sock. I used “walnut” flavor – leftovers from the can I bought to refinish the Church Chair.

IMG_4348IMG_4350Let the stain sit for about 10 minutes and rub out any remaining wet spots with the rag. Give the stain between 12-24 hours to dry before applying the clear coat. Or, if you’re a big cheater like me, put it in a 150 degree oven for half an hour to speed up drying time. Actually, no, please don’t do that. That’s a terrible idea. Even though 24 hours is a really long time to wait for anything.

IMG_4352When your stain is dry, apply three very thin coats of water-based polyurethane with your nice brush. Wait two hours between coats, and be sure to lightly sand out any weird bubbles or boogers that appear. If you seem to have a lot of bubbles in your finish, it’s probably because you didn’t read the directions and shook the can. Don’t shake the can.

IMG_4353STEP THREE – FINISHING TOUCHES (AND A TRIP TO THE PET STORE): It’s not a plaque without an engraved message. Otherwise, it’s just an aluminum fish glued to a cutting board. Think of something sweet, yet clever, to say to your friend. A pun would be ideal. I agonized for days, but like most great ideas, it flew into my brain as I was trying to fall asleep the night before the surprise party. I sat straight up in bed and elbowed Scott: “SNAPPY BIRTHDAY – get it? Like, lobsters?!”  He did.***

But where do you even get stuff engraved? The mall or something? We don’t even have those around here. But we do have a big box pet store about a half mile away. Sam and I headed there first thing in the morning, first visiting the shelter kitties in the back:
IMG_4360Then back to the very front of the store for this futuristic machine:

IMG_4363Buy one of these dog tags from the cashier (not a bone-shaped one) to feed into the machine.

IMG_4364Use the touch-screen to type out your message. It doesn’t even have to be the name of a dog! It can be anything you want. Even a birthday pun. Or worse.

IMG_4366When you get home, use a black permanent marker or a dash of black paint to mask this tacky display of branding:

IMG_4369Mark the spot on your board where you want to screw your engraving, and drill pilot holes. Not surprisingly, the dog tag didn’t come with wood screws, I had to forage some out of my screw stash. Screw the engraving into the plaque.

IMG_4382Finally, fire up the hot glue gun and squeeze a bead of adhesive around the underside perimeter of the lobster. Work quickly, this stuff dries fast.

IMG_4374Place the birthday cake on top of the freshly-glued lobster to hold it down while the glue sets.

IMG_4376Take a few pictures of your finished plaque before heading to the party.

IMG_4387IMG_4386IMG_4396Send ten more frantic text messages to Matt (the husband), checking again that Megan will definitely be at tonight’s party, and to Gin, to make sure she printed the half-marathon registration that we all pitched in to buy her. Carry the plaque in an Aldi freezer bag, cause nobody would think to look in there for something as classy as this. After a few beers, present the birthday girl with her honor:


IMG_4415* This photo is a simulation. Sorry, we didn’t take a picture of the actual dessert that night, but you get the idea.
** Is Jig-Sawing a verb? It is now. Or possibly a gerund.
*** Scott had suggested, “They broke the mold when they made you,” but it seemed a little clunky, too long for a dog tag, and it’s not clear who “they” are. Also, you never want to tell a lady that her existence will cause anything to break.

Alley Lamp Make-Over: Just Add Spray Paint and an Old Pillow Case!

My husband will gladly tell you that I’m never wrong about anything. Ever. But lately, I’ve been thinking that perhaps I’ve given you, my loyal readers, some bad advice over the past year.

Remember when I was a big know-it-all about “How to Live in Style with Small Children”? I bragged about how smart I was to buy a polypropylene indoor-outdoor rug for easy cleaning in the dining room: Picture 1257

After about a year of scrubbing oatmeal, bananas, rice, spinach and avocado out of its repulsive synthetic fibers, I simply gave up. A burst of adrenaline bubbled up out of my shame at our filthy existence:  I pushed the table to the side, rolled up the rug and hauled it down to the alley, where it slumped, rejected, against our back fence.

The ugly truth is that no rug on earth – aside from a plastic tarp – would survive the daily shower of slop falling from our dining room table.

To my delight, a couple of days later I peeked out the back window to see one of our bachelor neighbors hosing the old beast down in his backyard. The cycle of stuff continues!

IMG_4221Then, later that day, as if pulled by some cosmic scavenging force, I went out the back gate only to find a little present waiting for me between our trash cans. Normally, I’m not a scavenger of anything with wires, but I just had… a feeling about this one.

IMG_4223Scott declared, That thing will never work!  So I screwed in a light bulb, plugged it in and there was beautiful, stunning, FREE light! As usual, I was right.

So what’s the catch?  The lamp was ugly (in my opinion): Black with a translucent coating that made it seem like it had developed a nasty blister, and a shiny, flowery pattern on its bulbous parts. It was also scratched, and (for some reason) really, really  SANDY.

IMG_4227But, I needed a new lamp for Estelle and Max’s room, so it was time to get to work.  Nothing a little paint and a new lampshade can’t fix.

STEP ONE – CLEAN: Use a damp rag to wipe off the outer layer of dirt and sand (!). You may have to do this several times if your lamp was buried at the bottom of a swamp, as mine appeared to be.

IMG_4230Did I mention how nasty this thing was? Let’s see that old baby bib now:

IMG_4233STEP TWO – PAINT:  First, I needed to rough up the shiny surface of the lamp to prepare it to grab on to the paint, but the delicate surface would require very fine sanding. I found this very fine 400-grit sanding paper in my pantry, among Scott’s table-top-war-gaming supplies. I didn’t even know they made sanding paper this fine.

smoove_b“Oh girl,” Scott enticed, “I will bring you the finest sandpaper from the deepest, sandiest caves of Madagascar. When you complete your extra fine sanding, I will suck up your dust with the most luxurious and powerful shop vac, like the one they use on This Old House.”

Then we will wipe down with a damp rag and let everything air dry.

Ahem. Next, wrap the cord and neck/socket in a plastic bag.

IMG_4236Use masking tape to guard all the other shiny parts you don’t want to paint, attaching the bags to the base with the tape.

IMG_4238Take it all out to the front porch and spray paint in several thin coats.

IMG_4241PRO-TIP! After painting, consider taking the lamp inside to fully cure. If you are working on an uncovered porch or yard, you run the risk of leaves, bugs, dirt and dust attaching itself to your paint job. Perhaps I’m feeling a little paranoid because birds have pooped on me twice in the last week; they’re definitely out to get me. Nothing is safe during mulberry season.

STEP THREE – NEW SHADE:  They alley did not provide me with a shade, but I found this one abandoned in a deep corner of our pantry, and it worked fine I guess.

IMG_4253But it was just, well….vanilla.

I wanted a pattern to go with the white and green of the kids’ dresser.  Loyal readers know that I recently replaced my old green apple-n-pear patterned pillow cases with new yellow shams.  That night, as I laid in bed not sleeping, it hit me (this is my second-best time to get ideas): Use the apple shams to recover the lamp shade!

IMG_4248Since the shade is cone-shaped (the industry term is “coolie shade”), you can’t just wrap a straight strip of fabric around it. First you need to make a pattern. Lay out some newspaper or butcher paper on the table, then place the lamp shade down so the seam lines up with the bottom corner of your paper.

IMG_4258Roll the shade across the paper, tracing the outline of the bottom with a marker until you hit the seam again.

IMG_4266Roll the shade back to the original position and roll-and-trace with the top of the shade.

IMG_4269Cut around your lines to make the pattern. Sorry, that “3-Day Truckload Meat Sale” was in St. Louis last weekend. Too bad you missed it.

IMG_4276If you’re recycling old pillowcases, use a seam ripper to release the seams and “open” them back up again. If your pillowcase is clean, go ahead and iron it, using lots of heat and starch. You won’t want to waste time pulling wrinkles flat once you’ve sprayed the glue on, so iron them out now.

IMG_4280Lay the ironed fabric flat on a clean table, and place the pattern on top of it.

IMG_4281Before you trace the pattern on the fabric, add an extra half inch to all sides to account for the “hem” – the fabric you’ll need to fold over the inside edge of the lamp shade.

IMG_4282Cut out the fabric and again lay flat on the table with the underside on top. It should now look like this:

IMG_4284Make sure your lampshade is clean and dry.  I didn’t have a lint roller, so I used some rolled up masking tape to pull off dust and lint before the final adhesive step.

IMG_4254Grab some multi-purpose spray adhesive (I used Elmer’s, cause I liked the picture of the smiling cow on it).

WARNING: This is krazy glue in aerosol form. Think about that for a minute. And think about a coat of krazy glue over all your nice things, if you have nice things (I don’t).  Then open the back window as far as you can and stick your lampshade out the window. With your other hand out the window, spray some glue all over the outside of the shade, and also a little bit around the top and bottom inside where you’ll fold the fabric over.

IMG_4287Place the lampshade over the fabric so that the seam lines up with the outer edge of the fabric; center the shade so that you have a half inch of fabric on the top and bottom for folding over.

IMG_4296Carefully roll the sticky shade over the fabric, pulling and smoothing the fabric as you go. You have a couple of minutes before the glue sets, so if the fabric isn’t going on straight, pull it off and start from the beginning. It took me a couple of tries.

IMG_4297Fold the very end of the fabric over itself and lightly spray with glue to create a finished “hem.” Add a little more glue and press the “hem” down over your starting point.

IMG_4301Pull the extra half inch of fabric over the top and bottom of the shade and press down.

IMG_4305Let the glue dry overnight and screw the shade onto the lamp:

IMG_4316IMG_4314How does it look in the kids’ room? (Not that they appreciate it anyway):



Glamorous Up-Cycled Recycling Center

Memorial Day – the unofficial start of summer – always sneaks up on me like a kitchen gadget I ordered online with the slowest shipping option. Delivery took so long, eventually I forgot that I bought it. Then one late spring day a man in brown (or maybe purple) uniform struts up to our building with a package wedged in his arm pit, studies the row of doorbells, but then flings the package over the fence and screeches away in his doorless brown (or purple) chariot. I scamper down with a box cutter and greedily tear open my shiny new summer.

This year, Memorial Day landed on our doorstep as a family of three. They had lived upstairs from us for 5 years, but then returned to their ancestral land of Ohio, and have been terribly missed ever since. We’d bought our identical condos a week apart, been pregnant at the same time, our babies delivered by the same midwife. We kicked off our long weekend together with a BBQ, and lots and lots of beer, and debated which couple would have been the “wacky neighbors” in the sitcom version of our lives.

IMG_4083The empty beer cans quickly piled up in an ugly, dark nook of our kitchen that I affectionately call the “recycling center.” The Center is normally a couple of cheap plastic bins or paper bags overflowing with yogurt containers and junk mail. You may also find splatters on the wall from us tossing a wet, mostly-but-not-quite-clean, can of beans into one of the bins.

IMG_4160For months, I’d been dreaming of erecting a formal structure to contain all this ugliness. And then just when I needed it most, this messed up little cabinet appeared in the alley two blocks away:

IMG_4042I struggled to get this beast onto the back of my cargo bike, when a couple of young bearded gentlemen rolled past. “Could you guys give me a hand?” In minutes, my cabinet was secured under a tight web of seat belts and bungee cords. And no, there wasn’t a small child still wedged under there:

IMG_4043I knew right away this cabinet was the one. The perfect size for our kitchen nook, it could snugly hold two small trash bins. And like all great treasures from the alley: Messed up in every way except structural. Ugly, but solid.


IMG_4086STEP ONE – STRIP N’ SAND:  First, the fun (i.e., destructive) part — pry these crazy floor tiles off the top of the cabinet. I used a six-in-one painter’s tool and scraper and a bit of swearing to get it all off..

IMG_4092…only to find at least four coats of paint, even over the door hinges. And those doors had to come off.

Now that I’m done reproducing (not that it’s any of your business!), it was time to satisfy my curiosity about Paint Stripper – full of chemicals known to the State of California to do all sorts of harm to my nervous and reproductive systems. But we’re in Illinois, Scott joked, so it doesn’t count! Following the directions on the can, I got one or two coats off the top.

IMG_4096But most importantly, I got enough paint off the hinges that I could finally remove the doors.

IMG_4105Next, I filed a huge gap between the back panel and the top panel with wood filler. When it dried, I sanded the excess wood fill by hand.

IMG_4128Finally, I sanded over the entire “skin” of the cabinet and the doors using my orbital sander and 150-grit paper. I didn’t go nuts with the sanding — I just needed to rough up the surface enough to accept the new coat of paint. A light intimidation, really.  See, this cabinet was made with cheap, thick plywood; there’s no point in sanding down to the “natural beauty of the wood” as all those trolling internet paint-haters would say (you know who you are). Some things must be re-painted.

STEP TWO – CUT THE CAN HOLES:  Speaking of experimentation, this project presented the perfect opportunity for me to splurge on a new toy – a jigsaw! As per my custom, I arrived at the hardware store having done no prior research and bought the third most expensive jigsaw. Or third cheapest, if you’re a glass-half-empty sort (there were five total). It’s the Goldilocks approach to tool-purchasing, and it’s worked pretty well so far.

I got home and watched exactly four instructional videos on YouTube, with the volume on. Since I couldn’t figure out how to properly remove the shelves without taking the cabinet completely apart, I just cut trash-can-shaped holes in them with my new saw. Did I mention how nasty the inside of this thing is?

IMG_4115IMG_4116To make the recycling holes at the top, I traced two shapes. One was small and circular, for cans, which get separated for an old neighborhood lady who collects them for money. The other was the shape of a large take-out container.*

IMG_4117To saw into the MIDDLE of a piece of wood, you must first drill a pilot hole at least as big as your jigsaw blade.

IMG_4118Dial your saw down to the lowest speed and insert the blade into the pilot hole.

IMG_4122 Very slowly, saw around the perimeter until you hear the satisfying thump of that perfect shape of wood falling down into the abyss.

IMG_4127Once you complete hole-cutting, sand down the inside and edges of your holes.**

STEP THREE – PRIME-N-PAINT:  Everything is now covered in a fine misting of sawdust, including your lungs. Wipe it all down with a damp rag. Since we are dealing with an array of unknown finishes, we need to start fresh with a coat of oil-based primer on the cabinet and doors. I suggest using a roller brush, and coating your tray with aluminum foil for easy clean-up (sorry, you’ll have to toss the brush).

IMG_4130Then apply two or three coats of white latex (water-based) paint to everything, including the inside of your recycling holes.

IMG_4136You’ll probably need to steal one of your kids’ crappy little paintbrushes to get in the nooks and crannies of the cabinet door slats.

IMG_4137Sand it all down with a high-grit sandpaper (220 is good), and wipe down clean.

Finally, apply three coats of clear Polycrylic finish, sanding lightly between applications. Trust me – if your family is like mine (as in, likes to toss not-quite-clean tuna cans across the room), then you’re going to need a hard, smooth finish for easy clean up.

IMG_4154STEP FOUR — DOOR DÉCOR:  I confess, I cannot stand the look of horizontal slat doors on cabinets, or really anything. Maybe because my house growing up had faux slat shutters framing the windows, and it drove my kid brain crazy that they couldn’t actually close. Like eyelids that couldn’t blink. Just a big lie in plain sight.

Um, but anyway – even with my fancy saw, it was too much trouble to cut the horizontal slats out, so I came up with a distraction. Bright yellow, uneven, VERTICAL slats,inspired by one of my Grandpa’s paintings.

Luckily, those greedy developers are still gutting the building next door, so there is always a big pile of unsecured wood pieces headed for the landfill:

IMG_4151I sanded them down, and cut 16 pieces, each about 18 inches long. With my jigsaw!

IMG_4135Then I painted them with a couple coats of bright yellow paint leftover from my hubcap wall art project.

IMG_4139I playfully arranged the slats so that each door would mirror its “pair.”

IMG_4173Once I found a pleasing pattern, I slathered the back of them with wood glue and set them in place, making sure to press down and wipe off any glue that had oozed out the sides. You’ll have about five minutes to make minor adjustments before the glue gets stiff.

IMG_4174 I covered all the newly-slatted doors with various combinations of cookbooks, skillets and trophies. You want to apply pressure, but not enough to crack anything. Be gentle — all this stuff came out of the trash!

IMG_4179Let the whole business rest for at least half an hour.

Now, alert readers may have noticed that this cabinet came with only one of its four door pulls attached. But on the way home from school last week we found this old dresser in the alley. It was D.O.A. – that’s scavenger-talk for too messed up to be salvaged – but the drawer pulls were fabulous. I told the kids to keep watch while I unscrewed all of them and slipped them into my purse.

IMG_4133I never imagined having to tell my daughter, “Please don’t climb on that soiled mattress!”

The pulls were nasty, but after a multi-day soak in a jar of vinegar and a little scrubbing, they were gleaming and ready for their new life. Before and after:

IMG_4156I had to drill an extra hole in each door to accommodate them, but at this point, who’s counting?

STEP FIVE – LEGS:  Even with fresh paint, my cabinet looks so heavy and downtrodden. A sulking, defeated beast lurking in a dark corner of my kitchen, dutifully devouring my milk cartons. However, if my superficial understanding of modern design is correct, the way to lighten the load, visually, is to PUT LEGS UNDER IT.

In another perfect twist of fate, I had recently sent Scott into a nearby alley to pick up what looked like a decent modern shelf hutch thing. He phoned to say it was D.O.A., but that he could pull the legs off for my “collection.” That boy knows how to please a woman! (but just between you and me, I think I could have saved it.)


IMG_4189I drilled holes in the four corners and twisted the new legs in place.

IMG_4195Flip your cabinet over, screw on the doors, and insert the trash cans. It’s almost too pretty for garbage. Almost.

IMG_4197IMG_4203IMG_4202IMG_4198IMG_4205Let’s see that sad corner of the kitchen now!



* How do you describe restaurant food that you take home in YOUR land? Take out? Take-away? Carry-out?
** I’m perfectly aware that I’m switching freely between past tense declarative and present tense imperative sentences.

D.I.Y. Door Curtains for a Clothing-Optional Kitchen

shawn-fanning_TimeWho’s old enough to recall the early days of the Internet, when every business still had the word “online” in its web address? The TV was blaring with ads claiming that you could: Buy plane tickets in your PAJAMAS! Check your bank account in your UNDERWEAR!  Pay your gas bill in your BARE ASS!

Back in 1999, the future was here, and it meant never having to get dressed ever again.

The only problem? That pesky combination of windows and curious neighbors. The problem hit home for me last week, when I came home from my morning run, kissed the kids good-bye, and stripped off all my sweaty synthetic running clothes (I have a somewhat rational fear of becoming permanently fused to my sports bra).

As I cooled off, I wandered into the kitchen to reheat some coffee.  Before I could press the “quick minute” button on the microwave,* I heard loud footsteps just outside the kitchen door. I scampered away to the modesty of my bathrobe. My upstairs neighbor was tromping down the back stairs with his laundry, and came within seconds of getting a show through our kitchen door window. Here’s his view:

IMG_4012As an emergency measure, I used binder clips to attach some IKEA fabric over the mysterious Victorian-era hardware that was stuck to either side of the window.

IMG_4009While sipping my stale coffee, I stepped back and thought, Hey, that looks pretty good! The baby blue perfectly matched the walls, the brown made the woodwork pop, and the dark cyan blue even picked up the color of my Bowling Alley Chairs in the dining room. Maybe it was time to get serious about my backdoor modesty!

 —Simple D.I.Y Modesty Curtains for the Clothing-Optional Kitchen—

STEP ONE – PICK YOUR FABRIC:  For full-sized windows, it’s always cheaper to buy pre-made curtains than to make your own, due to the sheer volume of fabric it requires. Really cute (i.e., Japanese) designer fabric will cost you at least $15 a yard. And as many times as I’ve tried to use old bedsheets for curtains, they always end up looking just like old bedsheets.**  Loyal readers know that my favorite place to get cheap and stylish curtains is a certain Swedish Big Box store. However, for this tiny window, I could spare some of my adorable designer fabric (which was from IKEA anyway).

To determine how much to cut, first measure your window. Then add 1 inch to each side, 1 inch to the bottom, and 3.5 inches to the top of your fabric. Use chalk to mark your cut lines:

IMG_4017STEP TWO – IRON & SEW:  Let’s start with the sides of your curtains. Fire up your iron (or just plug it in).  Lay the fabric wrong-side-up on the ironing board. Fold ½ inch of fabric over and iron flat.

IMG_4018Then, fold the fabric over again another ½ inch, and iron flat, again.

IMG_4024Pin the seam in place, placing the pins perpendicular to the edge – this will make the pins easier to remove while sewing.

IMG_4022Repeat on the other side. Take your fabric over the sewing machine, and stitch along your ironed and pinned edges. Leave the iron plugged in if there’s no small children around.

IMG_4029Back to the ironing board, and repeat the steps above (fold and iron, fold and iron, pin and sew) to create the same hem for your bottom edge. Take it to the sewing machine and  connect it to your sides. The bottom corner should look like this:

IMG_4040Back to the iron, one last time, for the top panel, or what I like to call the “Rod Pocket.” Fold and iron yet another ½ inch over the top, just like you did for the sides and  bottom. Now – here comes the exciting part – fold the fabric over again about 2 ½ inches.


Sorry for the terrible light in these ironing board shots. I guess our bedroom lighting is permanently set to “romantic.”

Don’t get cocky: Be sure to use a ruler or measuring tape to make sure the Rod Pocket is uniform throughout.  Iron and pin, as usual.

IMG_4033PRO-TIP!!  Always err on the bigger side when sewing your Rod Pocket.  In past curtain projects, I’ve foolishly made the rod pocket only slightly wider than the rod. This makes it nearly impossible to slide the curtain back and forth across the rod, and looks tight and uncomfortable for the curtain.  Have you ever bought a sweater from some tiny woman at a yard sale, and when you tried it on later you realized you couldn’t even push the sleeves up your arms cause they were too tight? Don’t do that to your curtains.

When you are comfortable with the size of your rod pocket, sew it shut.

IMG_4039The back of the curtain should now look like this:

IMG_4036STEP THREE – HANG THE ROD: First, I had to pry off whatever strange old hardware was stuck to the back of my kitchen door, which is always kind of fun.

IMG_4053Next, I drilled pilot holes and then mounted the new hardware, which I found in our pantry:

IMG_4058Now, this project wouldn’t be complete without me dragging some garbage into the house. Since I didn’t have an actual curtain rod, I grabbed this rusty “tetanus rod” out of a weed-filled planter in the back yard. I’m guessing my landlord left it back there ten years ago:


(Don’t tell my design friends about my experimentation with IMPACT font.)

Can we see that rod close up? Yes, those are toddler fingers, and yes, he’s had all his shots.

IMG_4047Scrub the rust off with steel wool, and wipe down with some of that Metal Polish stuff that everyone has under their sink:

IMG_4048Let’s call it “Oil-Rubbed Bronze:”

IMG_4054Finally, slip the rod through the Rod Pocket and hang on the door.
You are now free to prance around with confidence in your clothing-optional kitchen!


* A “Quick Minute” is approximately 58 seconds.
** We all have someone on our block with bedsheets for curtains – don’t let it be you!

Mother’s Day Special: DIY Knee Pads for More Comfortable Floor Scrubbing

OK everyone, just simmer down!  Not only am I a mother myself, but I have a degree in women’s studies (or whatever they call it now), so I’m allowed to make jokes about my own oppression.

You see, the secret to happiness is to take the crushing obligations of domestic life, and turn them into a hobby. Baking, sewing, cooking, child-rearing – these are all pursuits that some people enjoy very much, even obsess over. In fact, there are entire TV networks and sections of the New York Times devoted to them.
But for some reason, nobody gets excited about cleaning.

And cleaning is the inspiration for this week’s project. More specifically, a book that I bought for my own mother* called, My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag. Mom heard the author interviewed on Terry Gross** and scribbled down as many cleaning tips as she could between pledge breaks.

Since I’m such a thoughtful daughter, I bought her the book for Mother’s Day.  Now, of course I read the book myself before I sent it to her, which she would appreciate.  And after I got over the writing style (Because, gross! is not a sentence, sweetheart), I actually learned a few things about cleaning, or at least confirmed many of my suspicions.

Specifically, that mops are useless. They just get your floor too wet, and move the dirt from one place to another. The secret? Get down on your hands and knees and clean it with a damp rag. I KNEW IT!

This technique isn’t nearly as humiliating as it sounds, but it IS hard on the knees. I usually kneel down on an old towel, and then awkwardly scoot around on it as I progress. However, this towel-under-the-shins business has really been holding me back from achieving my floor-cleaning goals.

What I need– what every Mother needs—are some stylish Floor Cleaning Knee Pads!

– Foam
– An Old Swimsuit
– One Pair of Toddler Underwear
– Two Buttons
– Scissors, Needle/thread or Sewing Machine, Fray-Check, Spray Paint (optional)
– Mother with a sense of humor

STEP ONE – SCULPT THE PADS:  I happened to have a few big chunks of 4-inch foam laying around. I found it in the alley last year, and already used a big piece of it to recover my IKEA bench. Four inches is too thick for knee pads, so I first cut it in half using a scary kitchen knife of unknown origins.



I had no idea the inside of foam could be so beautiful. Feel free to stare.

Cut the foam into a pleasing oval shape using  your Good Sewing Scissors. Don’t worry too much about getting the exact shape of your kneepad – these are really more like shin guards.

IMG_3957STEP TWO – SWIMSUIT SHOPPING:  If your inner-Cathy is saying “ACK!” to the idea of swimsuit shopping, just relax.  An old swimsuit provides the ideal fabric for floor scrubbing knee pads. It’s soft and smooth, so it won’t scratch the floor, and it can dry quickly. Plus, it’s stretchy and forgiving (just like Mom!). If you don’t have an old suit ready to sacrifice, pack up the kids and hit the thrift store. Luckily, it’s the season for used swimwear shopping. Pick a color or pattern that will hide dirt stains — no whites or pastels.

knee padsPRO-TIP!  Buy the biggest swimsuit possible. I got a size 12 because I liked the color, but if I had gone with black I probably could have gotten up to size 22. Don’t feel bad about taking advantage of our nation’s obesity crisis. It’s not your fault Doritos taste so good.

To retain as much fabric as possible, cut the suit in half along a side seam using a scissors or seam ripper.

IMG_3958Place your foam pad on the fabric to get the approximate size, then cut out a piece of fabric approximately double that size, with an extra ¼ inch along the perimeter to account for seam clearance.  You can save some sewing time by cutting two “Siamese” oval shapes, which you can then just fold over and sew on one side. We’re basically making two little pillows. Set aside while we make the strap.

IMG_3959STEP THREE – MAKE A STRAP OUT OF TODDLER UNDERWEAR: And you thought this project couldn’t get any more sophisticated! Whenever I need to add a touch of class, I just reach in my toddler’s underwear drawer. These undies were actually hand-me-downs from some other kid.

IMG_3966The waistband is the perfect width for my knee-strap, and that bright red elastic will really pop against the deep blue of the cushion. Carefully liberate the waistband using a seam ripper.

IMG_3967Cut the waistband in half for the perfect amount of strap. This of course depends on the size of your knee and your child’s waistline. If you have strangely-sized knees or children, just experiment.

IMG_3968Each strap should have one “finished” edge. Fold that edge over itself about a ¼ inch. Use a sharp scissors to cut a little hold in the waistband, big enough to fit over a button when stretched.

IMG_3969Since this isn’t a “fashion” item, we’re not going to do much to the waistband except squirt some FrayCheck on it to keep it from, well, fraying. I’m not sure what this stuff is; I suspect it’s Super Glue mixed with clear nail polish (Hey, that’s actually a pretty good idea). And, since it smells really bad, you can be sure that it’s working!

IMG_3972STEP FOUR – ASSEMBLE THE CUSHION:  With the fabric inside-out, use your machine to sew the edges shut.


This picture is a lie. My machine couldn’t deal with spandex/lycra, so I did it by hand.

However, STOP when you get to the middle of oval. Find the end of the strap that does NOT have a hole, and place in the path of your seam. Sew over the strap, so that when the cover is inside out, you should only see the very end of the strap, as the rest of it is inside.

IMG_3973Keep sewing all the way around the perimeter, but stop when you’ve got about 1-2 inches remaining, so there’s a hole to shove the foam in. Repeat with other pad.

IMG_3976Turn your cover back right-side-out. Roll up the foam pad as tightly as you can and squeeeeeze it through the little hole.

IMG_3977IMG_3978Then sew the little hole shut. Your pads should look like this:

IMG_3980STEP FIVE – FINISHING TOUCHES: I was lucky enough to inherit my grandfather’s button collection,*** so I just grabbed a couple of mid-sized buttons and headed out to the porch with a can of bright orange spray paint. I mean, at this point, why not?

IMG_3982I have no idea where this paint came from, but loyal readers may recall me using it to decorate a trophy for our SuperBowl of Snacks Party.

IMG_3986Give the paint a couple hours to dry, and then sew a button on the side of each knee cushion, exactly opposite of where you sewed the strap in.

IMG_3989And yes, it would have been much easier to sew the button onto the cover BEFORE I stuffed the foam pad in and sealed it up. So you should do it that way. Finally, do a quality control check and make sure the button hole fits snugly over the button.

IMG_3990Present this gift to Mommy, perhaps with a refill of her favorite dish soap, a gift card to the Laundromat and a plastic rose.

IMG_4006IMG_4007IMG_4002* Don’t worry, Mom’s not on the Internet, so we’re not spoiling any surprises here.
** Yeah, I know the show is called “Fresh Air,” but every fellow NPR-phile I know just calls it Terry Gross.
*** When planning end-of-life issues, I strongly recommend that you and your loved ones have a frank conversation about what will happen to their button collection after they pass.

Separation of Church and Seat: Resurrecting a Fallen Chair

This is the story of a chair that had fallen from grace, a chair in need of salvation.

Not to get all spiritual on you, but sometimes the universe sends a sign, a calling.

In this case it was an actual phone call, from my friend Lisa. “Just wanted to let you know the church down the block is throwing a bunch of cool old chairs into the alley. You better get some now before they’re gone. Also, could you grab a couple for me?”

The call came on Saturday morning, and I was at the Lincoln Park Zoo with three preschoolers. Scott was in another state. It was the worst possible time for me to scavenge furniture. Perhaps it was a sign – the chairs weren’t meant to be.*

Then a miracle: A couple of days later I got a message from Gareth, another neighborhood hero. He had grabbed some of the chairs, and asked if I wanted one. “Sure,” I said. Like an angel from scavenger heaven, Gareth was at my front door ten minutes later. “If you do something real nice with this one,” he promised, “I could maybe give you a couple more.”
IMG_3861It was the best kind of alley chair – a simple mid-century design in a sturdy, solid wood frame. It was just kind of … crummy. Disgusting, actually. The wood frame looked as though it had been used simultaneously as a napkin, a floatation device and a chew toy.

IMG_3871The wood had dulled to a jaundiced, sickly yellow, where it wasn’t black with years of grime. I found three pieces of gum; one was sporting a mustache of little black hairs.

IMG_3872By some sort of miracle, the vinyl seat and back cushion were perfect. No tears or blemishes. It was just so… filthy.

IMG_3869IMG_3863I had been given a new mission that day — to resurrect this fallen chair; to give it new life through the healing power of sandpaper, wood stain, polyurethane and spray paint.

STEP ONE – DISSASSEMBLE:  The autopsy has always been my favorite part of furniture restoration. Taking a chair apart satisfies a curiosity both about how it was made, and about its personal history.

First, determine which screws are holding the seat cushions to the frame, and which are actually holding the frame together. I started unscrewing by hand, but with more than two dozen screws in all (see blue arrows below), I thought it best to use my power drill. Be careful not to use full force. The drill may strip the heads of your screws, especially if they are old, stubborn and rusty.

→Without the seat cushion attached, the frame was actually quite delicate. I decided to remove the piece holding the back cushion (we’ll call it the “spine”), so that it wouldn’t snap off from the bottom frame while I was sanding. The screws were super rusted, so it required a few squirts of WD-40 (which smells like my landlord’s cologne) and a lot of swearing to get them loose.

IMG_3884Here’s the frame, with the spine still attached, ready for sanding:

IMG_3885STEP TWO – REFINISH THE FRAME:  With the spine and legs separated, use a power sander with 80-grit paper to sand down to the bare wood, grinding away both the scratches and the old finish. Feel free to skip the parts that will be hidden by the cushion.

Sweatpants don't necessarily mean you've given up.

Sweatpants don’t necessarily mean you’ve given up.

My orbital sander couldn’t quite caress the sexy curves of this frame, so I had to use a sanding block to get into the awkwardly round spots. Finish with 150 or 220-grit paper, and wipe the dust off with a damp rag. Let it dry next to the space heater.
IMG_3901When the wood is dry, use a clean rag to apply a coat of wood stain. Now, I’ve got a never-ending can of dark walnut stain that I’ve used on my coffee table, my  two-toned credenza, my Gentrified Alley Chair , and my Standing Desk (whew). Feeling a little burnt out on such a dark color, I grabbed a can of “just plain walnut” from my local hardware store.

IMG_3903To keep the color light, I wiped on a thin layer and wiped it off after only a couple of minutes – because the longer you let the stain sit, the darker the color.



AHHH….Just the right amount of walnut!

Allow the stain to dry for about 24 hours, and then apply a water-based polycrylic in three light, even coats.
IMG_3917STEP THREE – PAINT THE CUSHIONS: Yes, you read that right. Paint. You see, the vinyl was in astonishingly good condition. I loved the “woven” texture, and even the pale mustard yellow was growing on me. But the years of grime, dirt, boogers and gum had been ground permanently into the “fibers” of the vinyl, and no amount of cleaning could release them. It seemed silly to re-upholster a perfectly good cushion, but I had to mask that unsightly perma-grime. Then I remembered a magic chemical I had used to paint chevrons on my vinyl roller shade: Vinyl Spray Paint.
As loyal readers know, the sale of spray paint is banned in Chicago. But the smart urban crafter will befriend a family of equally crafty Piano Tuners. Neighborhood heroes Anika and Mike** make frequent tuning trips to the suburbs (there’s pianos there, too!) — and are always happy to grab me some contraband spray paint. I suppose you could order it online, but really, what’s the fun in that? ***

Take your cushions outside and spray them with thin, even coats of paint.

IMG_3932Let the cushions dry for about 8 hours before re-attaching to your frame.

STEP FOUR – POLISH THE FEET:  The chair feet were also sturdy, but covered in a film of rust and white stuff(?).
IMG_3921Use fine-grit steel wool to scrape off the layers of church basement crud.
IMG_3922Then, polish to a shine with some goopy metal polish stuff you found under your sink:
IMG_3931Here’s my attempt at showing you how shiny the chair feet are now. See the reflection?


Finally, screw the pieces back together, drape a bedsheet over your kitchen table and document the rebirth of your church chair!


* I’ll add it to the list of crushing sacrifices I’ve made for my children, which I’ll give them on their 18th birthdays.
**For those keeping track at home, four Neighborhood Heroes have contributed to the restoration of this chair.  It takes a Village of Scavengers and Travelling Piano Tuners to make this miracle happen.
** Actually, the fun is in the customer reviews. My favorite: “Works perfect on soiled boat seats.” The imagination runs wild.