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.
The 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.
I 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:
I 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.
BUILDING AN UP-CYCLED RECYCLING CENTER
STEP 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..
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.
Finally, 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?
To 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.*
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).
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.
STEP 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:
Then I painted them with a couple coats of bright yellow paint leftover from my hubcap wall art project.
Once 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.
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!
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.
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:
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.)
* 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.