Sidewalk Hustle: 10 Secrets for Yard Sale Success

Yard Sale season is winding down here in Middle America, but in Australia – where most Projectophile readers reside – the scavengers are just now rousing themselves from a long winter hibernation, ready to forage for bargains.

Scott and I hosted our own yard sale this past weekend, and learned that informal commerce is more than just throwing your junk out on the lawn. It requires a detailed marketing plan, inventory control, and lots of quarters and $1 bills.  Follow these ten easy steps for a successful sale in any hemisphere!

IMG_4832BRAND YOUR SALE:  A few days before the sale, you’ll want to post an ad on Craigslist and various neighborhood online forums. As you draft your ad, be sensitive both to regional customs and deeper shades of meaning. I called mine a YARD SALE, even though most sales in Chicago are actually conducted on the sidewalk. Other possibilities include:

Garage Sale:  Is your sale actually inside a garage? Unless it’s raining, this is a terrible location. Garages are dark and musty. Your customers will be surrounded by grease spots, spider webs, and lots of rusty items that are not actually for sale. Take it outside.
Moving Sale: This name suggests an expansive inventory and many big-ticket items that the seller can’t fit in his dad’s station wagon.


You think these two know each other?

Moving out of the Country Sale:  A more drastic version of the Moving Sale, it adds an element of intrigue. Diplomat? Spy? Arms Smuggler? Either way, she’s selling everything she can’t fit into the airplane’s overhead compartment.
Divorce Sale: If you don’t mind sharing a few details about your failed relationship, you can entice drama-hungry shoppers with a love of Schadenfreude. But check your pre-nup agreement first.
Estate Sale: Appropriate only when the owner of the merchandise is actually dead. Attending an Estate Sale is more than just a shopping trip; it is a chance to trample through a person’s house and most intimate belongings.

At this Estate Sale advertised below, we find remnants of a well-rounded life — Christmas decorations, Precious Moments figurines and Pornography (emphasis mine):

preciousmomentsandpornDEVELOP YOUR SALES STRATEGY: Ask yourself: Do you want to get rich, or get rid of stuff? You may be tempted to mark up some of your nicer items, but consider how much cash the average person at your yard sale will be carrying in his pocket. If your stuff is really that nice, sell it separately on Craigslist.

Feel free to print out this IRS-inspired worksheet to determine which items to sell on Craigslist and which to sell at your yard sale:

matrixCONDUCT SOME LIGHT BAIT & SWITCH:  Take a few sample pictures of what you plan on selling at the yard sale: A pair of shoes, a chair, a kitchen gadget… that sort of thing. Next, take pictures of one or two really nice things that you are NOT selling: An $800 stroller, your Danish Teak Mid-Century Modern Dining Room Set in Perfect Condition. Casually mix the pictures together in your ad. Remember, you don’t have to actually sell these things, you just want to give your Yard Sale a certain je ne sais quoi. You will inevitably be asked about these items at the sale, in which case you respond, “Oh THAT? It already sold. But can I interest you in this bin of obsolete cell phone chargers?”

DON’T BE A XENOPHOBIC, CHILD-HATING CRANK: This fellow didn’t notice that our neighborhood is full of children and non-English speakers. But he does have “leather pants & more.”

yardsaleadcirclesV.I.P. PREVIEW: If you truly care more about shedding stuff than raking in the Benjamins,* then consider holding an exclusive, Friends-Only Preview sale the evening before. Dim the lights, pour champagne, spin some light jazz, and watch your possessions melt away.

STAGE YOUR SALE:  Is your sale easy to find? We held ours on the sidewalk and parkway, so that innocent pedestrians had to squeeze past our bargains to get to the end of the block. We hung the better garments on the fence so that passers-by were forced to make eye contact with the ghostly remnants of my pre-baby, mid 2000s business casual wardrobe.

IMG_4841Don’t make your customers assume undignified positions – limit the squatting, kneeling and bending over that must be done to examine your product. Instead of throwing them on the ground, place items on a table or hang them on a tree or fence.

And please, take stuff out of the boxes and garbage bags before you try to sell them (and preferably before you take pictures):


I wonder if their punctuation marks are at the bottom of those boxes?

CHECK YOUR JUNK:  Every sitcom in history had the “rummage sale” episode – when the kids accidentally sold Grandma’s love letters from Mussolini, or the cookie jar with $40,000 inside. Empty the pockets of your coats and pants, and shake out your books for sentimental bookmarks, especially if you keep your place with $100 savings bonds.

Also, make sure your kid doesn’t put a pair of his tighty-whities in the yard sale pile:

IMG_4848MAKE IT A PARTY!  Ask your pals and neighbors if they’d like to display their own wares. It’s an easy way to double your inventory, and the extra bodies milling about will generate buzz in the neighborhood. You might call this “SYNERGY”**, but it’s also a fun excuse to have pizza delivered directly to the yard sale.

IMG_4836¡PRO-TIP!  Before yard sale-ing with friends, initiate a frank discussion about trades. For example, allow each family to take three things of similar value from the other before the sale is open to the public. Be very careful that you don’t end up with more stuff than you started with.

CHILD LABOR IS OK FOR A FEW HOURS: We thought an affiliated lemonade stand would be cute; we even let the 5-year-old design the marketing materials:

IMG_4834However, the kids guzzled down all of the product within 15 minutes. The bees made sure nobody touched the rest.

And, while it’s fun to let the kids sell their own stuff, you may want to give your little Robber Barons a crash course in business ethics. For example, when a customer indicated that she wanted to buy a book with $1 price tag, one of the kids (not mine!) told her the book now cost $2.  Never negotiate with a 7-year-old.

CONSIDER A “FREE BOX”: Let’s be honest: You have things that are just plain worthless. Save yourself the humiliation of putting a price tag on your kids’ old underwear and throw it all in a “FREE BOX.” Not only does the free stuff help move inventory, the free-loaders might actually buy something.

NO TAKE-BACKS: When the yard sale ends, bag up the clothes, shoes and books, and drop them at the charity box. Leave everything else in the alley or the street corner – nothing comes back in the house except leftover pizza. The invisible hand of the free market has spoken, and it doesn’t want to pay $1 for your women’s studies textbooks from the early 1990s.

IMG_4850CELEBRATE: You’re now 50 pounds of junk lighter and $67 richer. Most of your profits are in the form of $1 bills, but that doesn’t mean you can’t imitate your favorite rock star, rapper, or hedge fund manager. Fan the dollars out and wave them in your friends’ faces, or spread them over your bed and roll around in them (and then promptly wash the sheets). Just don’t set them on fire, because I’m pretty sure that’s a felony. You’ve already broken enough laws today.


* For my Australian friends, “Benjamins” is American Slang for $100 bills, which display the face of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was not actually a U.S. president, but is well-known for inventing electricity, libraries and tight pants.
** The words synergy, webinar and deliverable are not allowed in our house.

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Rusty Victorian to Danish Modern: Cover your Radiator with Old IKEA Bed Slats

On a recent date night, Scott and I split a bottle of champagne at our favorite sushi restaurant, then stumbled the five miles home, strategically zig-zagging past every apartment we’d lived in.

I approached a young woman smoking on the front stoop of the 6-flat* I’d occupied when I first met Scott a decade ago. In the time it took her to finish that cigarette, I spun a frightening tale of my cheap, but (lowering my voice to a gravelly whisper) truly terrible apartment.

The first time I saw that apartment ($700 for a huge 3-bedroom!), a young couple with a baby were scrambling out the door, the old Polish landlady warning them, “This is no place for children!”

The place in question was heated by a “Visual Gas Flame Vented Room Heater;”  the apartment version of a burning trashcan: Hot enough at the core to melt lead, but a few steps away and you’re back in the tundra. My neighbor across the hall had snapped this blurry shot of the death furnace, featuring my two cats who – coincidentally – are now both dead.


Squint your eyes — this picture was taken before megapixels were invented.

We only shivered through one Chicago winter before moving up to a place with steam radiators — the apartment equivalent of a being hugged by a really warm panda bear. And, there’s no better place to hang your wet socks after a long romp in the snow.**

But, radiators are a design nightmare. Awkwardly-placed hunks of rusting iron standing between you and your Interior Design Fantasies.

IMG_4721IMG_4723I’ve been dying to camouflage the ugly radiator in our kitchen – which we use as a shelf for bike helmets and hats, and an occasional “buffet” for overcrowded parties. I’ve seen plenty of schemes for fussy D.I.Y. radiator covers, but they all seemed more at home under a doily and an orgy of Precious Moments figurines. I wanted something more sleek and modern.

As usual, inspiration struck from the alley, where I spotted an IKEA slatted bed base: 16 birch slats stapled to two polypropylene ribbons (Sweden doesn’t allow box springs within its borders). The slats seemed about the size of my kitchen radiator, so I dragged them home and hid them from Scott while I planned my Scandinavian radiator makeover.

IMG_4730_arrowIMG_4728This is how I transformed my rusting old radiator into a light, modern shelf space. Drilling only four tiny holes in the wall, this project is not only beautiful, but very renter-friendly.

Gently-used IKEA Slat Bed Base
Big Slab of Scrap Wood from the Pile Next Door
Any length of quarter-round wood moulding
Staple remover
Staple gun
Power sander (optional)
Polycrylic finish
Drill and wood screws

STEP ONE – CONDENSE THE SLATS: Clear off your radiator and place all that crap in the middle of the floor for your family members to trip over. Next, drape the wooden slats over your now-naked radiator.

IMG_4732I loved the look – the blonde wood perfectly matched my kitchen’s cheap pine flooring. But the slats were too far apart to effectively hide my shame, and would look too much like a ladder to a curious three-year-old (or a drunk 38-year-old).

I measured the radiator, grabbed my staple remover, and pulled out all off the extra slats that had been draped over the BACK of the radiator.


IMG_4737Next, I placed the liberated slats in between the existing ones and stapled them to the ribbon.

IMG_4746The slats fit perfectly, but I worried that the two ribbons wouldn’t be strong enough to hold the now densely-packed slats. Remember, this product was designed to lie flat under a mattress, not to be hung by its ribbons.

I scoured the house for something strong, thin and flat, and then remembered that I had found a box of these promotional aprons in a dumpster last year:

IMG_4748Since I don’t believe in the militarization of baking, I gave most of the aprons away, but still had one I could scavenge for the neck and back ties, which I stapled to the slats for reinforcement.

IMG_4750To attach the slats to the front of the radiator, simply tie the top of the ribbon and apron ties under and around the pipes (depending on your radiator layout), knot, and hope for the best.

IMG_4779Like anything from IKEA, these slats are sixteen times heavier than they should be, so ask a spouse or lover hold them up while you fasten the knots. And like all IKEA products, expect some sweating, swearing and struggling before it finally comes together.

STEP TWO – CREATE THE SHELF:  Shady developers are gutting the house next door, which means plenty of free scrap wood for me! Grab a nice piece of pine or birch (plywood is OK), and place it over your radiator to mark the desired width and length. You want it to be slightly cantilevered for a dramatic, Mies Van Der Rohe-inspired effect.  If necessary, mark a cut-out for the pipes leading to the ceiling:

IMG_4754PRO-TIP!! Have a little fun with your wood scraps before you begin the hard work of sawing it down to size.  Create a “bear trap” for unsuspecting family members by placing a cupcake, magic wand or a hardcover copy of the art of Jean Giraud Moebius under some precariously balanced planks:
IMG_4752Use a jig saw to cut your wood down to size, including the pipe-hole.

IMG_4757IMG_4758To keep the shelf from shifting laterally, we need to install discreet “stabilization slats” on its underside. Find a piece of scrap wood and cut a couple of slices off that will fit in the space between the pipes. Mine were about 8 inches long and ½ inch wide. Drill wood screws to secure the slats to the bottom of the shelf – it doesn’t have to be pretty.

IMG_4771This is what I’m going for:

IMG_4775Sand the top and sides of your cut wood to a smooth finish:

IMG_4769 Finally, give it three coats of water-based polycrylic, sanding lightly between coats to eliminate unsightly “lacquer boogers.”

IMG_4776STEP THREE – INSTALL SHELF BRACKETS: If you don’t have a good pile of scrap wood next door, head to the hardware store for an arm’s length of quarter round wood moulding. Cut two pieces: The first piece should be about the length of the wall where your shelf will rest. The second piece will be hidden, so who cares how long it is. After marking where your shelf will sit, drill the two pieces to the wall using wood screws on either end.

IMG_4767Slide your shelf between the two pieces of moulding to make sure the fit is snug. Take a few beautifully-staged pictures before your family starts to pile their crap back on top of it again!

IMG_4784Discover all the new uses for your radiator cover. Display your collection of over-ripe tomatoes:
IMG_4786You’re only steps from the stove! Try a new recipe from the internet:

IMG_4790…Or invite a few friends over for cocktails. Discuss who among you keeps leaving bottles of Costco Vodka behind:
IMG_4787* Six-Flat is Chicago-talk for a building with six apartments: Three stories tall (if you count the basement), and two apartments deep.
**  Projectophile does not condone hanging wet socks on pandas. They’ve got enough problems already.

Test Your Marriage by Re-Upholstering This Alley Chair

Scott recently declared a moratorium on chairs. Specially, a ban on anyone (me) hauling more junk chairs into our apartment.  Our front room is a halfway house for furniture that’s been rehabilitated, but ain’t quite ready for the outside world. Our dining room (slash studio) is a no-kill shelter for my favorite four-legged friends, the alley chairs.

But a few weeks after the moratorium was announced, on the way home from grocery shopping, I spotted this fuzzy four-legged fellow wimpering behind a row of trash cans:

alley (2)He was tattered, dirty, and soaking wet from an overnight storm. Awwww! There was just enough room in the bucket bike to haul him home:

IMG_4459I stashed him in the crawl space under my landlord’s back porch (technically not our apartment) and checked out every book the library had on upholstery – for some reason, all written in England in the late 1980s. I was ready to test out my new academic understanding of (British) upholstery, which I thought would mean simply tearing off and replacing the fabric. But like all good projects, it got complicated, fast:

A few of the supplies you will need for this project. Not pictured: Power drill, electric sander, tea kettle, flask of bourbon and marriage counselor.

A few of the supplies you will need for this project. Not pictured: Power drill, electric sander, tea kettle, flask of bourbon and marriage counselor.

Even though this project caused me to ignore my wifely duties for days on end, Scott became quite attached to the chair, and finally, welcomed him into our home.

STEP ONE – DISMANTLE:  My favorite part of any project! Especially during the summer when I can do it in the backyard while “supervising” my children. First, I flipped the chair over and pulled out all the staples from the bottom rails.


Screw this. The next day I bought a dedicated staple remover.

Two hours and 1,031 staples later, I still couldn’t get the fabric up from under the arms. But I did get a peek under the fabric — cotton padding over rubberized hair (yes, that’s a thing). It makes me itchy just to show you this picture:

IMG_4611I desperately wanted to play Romance Novel, recklessly tearing the fabric off the carcass* in a frenzy of passion.  However, I needed each panel intact in order to create a pattern for the new fabric. Which meant patiently, lovingly, and tenderly removing each and every @#$%* staple on this chair.

PRO-TIP! It’s summertime! Be sure to lather yourself in a thick, creamy layer of sunscreen while dismantling old furniture. Then all the dust, rotting fabric and decades of snack food crumbs will stick right to your skin.  Like all this stuff in the crevice of the seat cushion:

IMG_4569Scribble notes and snap pictures of your chair at every step to remember how you took it apart. Rehabbing takes many days, and your mental trail of bread crumbs will vanish minutes after you walk away. Try writing clues like “front of seat cushion” on the fabric with marker. You’d be surprised at how stupid you are, especially after using paint stripper.

Once all the bottom staples were removed, I unthreaded the back cover, which was slip-stitched up the sides of the back cushion. Then I pulled the staples from the tack cushion to remove the entire back panel.

IMG_4557The fabric had been liberated from staples, but the arms and legs were holding the fabric in place, even though it wasn’t clear how the legs were attached to the main carcass.

Time to amputate. First, I removed the only two visible screws from the bottom back. It loosened the back legs a little, but not enough to free the fabric.

Then, I used a syringe to inject HOT VINEGAR into every joint I could find, in order to dissolve all the wood glue. If you share a home with small children, diabetics or IV drug users, then you probably have at least one syringe in your medicine cabinet or purse. If your lifestyle veers towards meat and firearms, try a turkey baster or water gun.

IMG_4572Now that you’ve softened the glue and smell like pickles, it’s time to get angry. Use a large chisel or the back of a hammer to pry the joints apart:

IMG_4575OK, now just start banging on stuff with a rubber mallet. There’s no other way to do it. You will cuss and spit and your husband will take unflattering pictures. And you will let him.

IMG_4580Whew! The effort paid off.  We now have three intact pieces of fabric – 1) the seat cover, and the 2) front and 3) back cover of the back rest. And now now you can refinish the wood in convenient, bite-sized pieces, if you can get your kids to stop hitting each other with them.

IMG_4582STEP TWO – REFINISH LEGS AND ARMS: First, use toxic chemicals to strip off the old orange varnish.  IMG_4587Apply with a disposable brush and scrape off the resulting goo with a plastic scraper. If you did it right, you should have a pile of what looks like baby poo.  Wipe it on one of your kids’ rejected paintings for full effect:
IMG_4590With the finish off, smooth off any scratches with a power sander.

Before you apply a new finish, you have to remove all this dried wood glue from the dowels and joints so that the new glue will work. This might be an even bigger pain-in-the-ass than those staples.

IMG_4596You can chisel off the dry glue, or wrap it for a few minutes in a rag soaked in hot vinegar to soften it first.  If you’re really desperate, use your kettle to steam it off.

IMG_4598All my joints were held together with dowels, and a couple had cracked off. I had to drill out the pieces and locate fresh replacement dowels. Apparently, 3/8 and ½ inches were not standard dowel sizes in 1962, so I had to chisel my own 2/5-inch dowels.

Now that the wood is clean and bare, I applied one coat of pre-stain wood conditioner, so that different parts of the wood absorb the stain at the same level. You don’t want your Mid-Century Modern chair looking like a bad spray tan from 1998.

IMG_4600Then apply a sloppy coat of stain (I chose “walnut”), let it sit for 5-10 minutes, then wipe off the excess. I stopped after one coat, but you can go darker with more coats. Just like spray tan, I guess.


I let the stain cure for 24 hours, then applied three coats of polycrylic in satin finish, with a light sanding between coats. We’ll put it all back together after the upholstery is done.

IMG_4623STEP THREE – RE-UPHOLSTER!  First, I covered the entire chair in polyester batting to smooth out the lumps and keep the stuffing intact, and (let’s be honest), to create an additional barrier between me and the cooties (real or perceived).

IMG_4612As you can see, I covered about 85% of the chair before I ran out. It was nighttime and I was too lazy to get more:

IMG_4615The next day, I used a 40% coupon to buy a couple yards of the most forgiving home décor fabric I could find in solid, serious gray. Since this is my first “real” upholstery project, I shied away from patterns or prints, which I would have to keep straight and aligned between sections of the chair (and inevitably screw up).

Lay the original fabric carefully over the new fabric and trace the outline, following every nook, cranny, slit and hole. They are all important. Cut the new fabric and iron flat.

IMG_4610Based on my notes, I knew to start with the bottom seat cover, which was also the easiest. Position the fabric carefully over the seat, making sure it is even on all sides. Push the back of the fabric through the “crotch” of the seat (my term) in order to staple it onto the bottom rail.

IMG_4617Flip the chair over and begin stapling the fabric to the bottom rail, starting in the center front, then to the center of the sides, and moving gradually towards the corners. Don’t be afraid to pull some of your first staples out in order to re-position or pull the fabric as tight as you can.

IMG_4620 To achieve the smoothest finish, you should have no more than 1/8 inch between staples – basically back-to-back. Don’t you want the person who finds this in the alley 30 years from now to have to work as hard as you did to take it apart?

When you get to the corners, tuck the extra fabric in for a nice square fold and staple down.

IMG_4630Now we repeat the same process for the front of the backrest. Looking back at my pictures, I knew that the sides should be stapled first. But before I did that, I centered the fabric over the top of the back rest and punched one staple to center it in place. Position the fabric carefully over dowels or dowel-holes for easy re-assembly. When in doubt, refer back to your original fabric, noting the slits, holes and areas crusted with wood glue.

IMG_4628Staple up the sides, ending at the corners. Fold, tuck and staple the corners down.

IMG_4632Now, for your final test:  The back of the backrest. This is tricky, so pay attention..

First, we need to staple the fabric to the top rail using a cardboard tack strip, which creates a straight edge for your fabric to drape over. You can buy tack strip if you want, but I just cut a ½-inch strip from a cereal box. And yes, they do sell organic Cherrios at Aldi:

IMG_4636 Lay the fabric wrong-side up over the top of the chair, so that the bottom edge is parallel with the top rail of the chair (where you just stapled the top of your front back rest). Lightly tape or pin the tack strip over the bottom edge of your fabric (which is inside-out), and staple down in a very straight line.

IMG_4639Remove the tape or pins, and flip the fabric over to be right-side-up, draped over the back of your chair:

IMG_4641Turn the chair back to an upright position.  Fold the sides of the fabric in, and pin it to the front cover fabric that’s already stapled to the side rails:

IMG_4642This is the only act of sewing in this whole project, but it requires the use of a special curved upholstery needle and a special stitch, sometimes called a blind stitch, slip stitch or ladder stitch. I could try to explain it to you, but this old British lady does it best:


Terrible shot of my amazing slip stitch. Note the curved needle.

Stitch down to the bottom of the chair, and staple the remaining fabric to the bottom rail.  All the fabric should fit very tightly over the chair:

IMG_4646STEP FOUR – REASSEMBLE:  It’s 9:30 p.m., you’ve finished the upholstery. All that’s left to do is pop the arms and legs back on.  Easy, right? You call your husband away from his own Important Creative Work and ask him for JUST A FEW MINUTES of help.

It’s so romantic:  he holds the beautifully restored chair arms while you squirt wood glue into their holes.  He’s even wearing that robe you bought him 9 years ago that says “Snuggle Champ” on the back:


Why yes, we DO have a “Tite Bond!”

But again, things get complicated. Dowels don’t quite fit into their corresponding holes and must be chiseled out, the puzzle pieces don’t snap together so easily and must be banged on with a rubber mallet. At midnight.

IMG_4648All this glue will set in the next 20 minutes and you can’t figure out how to keep it all together! Clamps, saran wrap, cookbooks. But in the end – together – you figure it out. You always do. Three hours later, you go to bed and hope the wood glue sorts it all out. The next morning, your new throne awaits!


IMG_4659* No, this isn’t an endorsement of necrophilia. “Carcass” is what we expert re-upholsterers call the frame of the chair. It is also the name of an extreme metal band from Liverpool.

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.

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.