15 Dec

Project: Chalkboard stairs

I have a stairway that goes up to the attic level of my house (that’s where my bedroom is, though originally the attic was unfinished.) The stairway was last painted some decades ago with boring gray floor paint. The walls are dingy “landlord white.” I’ve meant to do something with the stairway for 18 years, but was never sure exactly what. Bright colored steps? Dark? Wood-finish? And what to do with the walls?

I spent a lot of time looking for ideas and inspiration. I made a Pinterest board that currently contains 244 pins of interesting staircases. But the solution to the stairway eluded me.

This is about the best the stairs ever looked. Because you are far enough away not to see the flaws.

This is about the best the stairs ever looked before now. Because you are far enough away not to see the flaws.

You can see in the photo what my stairs looked like. Plain gray, with a curtain to hide them (and keep the heat downstairs when necessary). They look better in the picture than they did in reality. In reality, they are so dull, old, and dirty-looking. No amount of cleaning makes them look nice.

Redoing them is an annoying task — finding the right floor paint, and the right color, and setting up a gate to keep the cat off the stairs, and keeping off the stairs myself while the paint dries. I just haven’t had time to think about it much. But I realized that I could just decorate the risers — the front part of each step — without much fuss. I could draw on them, paper them, paint something, whatever. Eventually when I redo the whole stairway — which I still need and intend to do — I can remove or paint over whatever I do now.

I thought about lettering something interesting on each riser. A quote of some kind. And then, I remembered chalkboard paint. Ah, chalkboard paint. So fun. And, at the moment, so trendy. One thing led to another, and a few days later, this was my stairway:

Yes, I'm a Beatles fan. How did you know?

Yes, I’m a Beatles fan. How did you know?

The risers are now chalkboards, and I can change the lettering any time I like. Or I can just draw things on them. I could even write reminders on them like “Don’t forget to pick up the laundry while you’re up there!” if I wanted to.

The top of each step is still the ugly old gray paint. But even with the dingy grey steps and white walls, the stairs look 100% better than they did before, and the whimsy of my chalkboard steps makes me smile whenever I see them.

Closer look at the stairsIt’s also a fun place to practice some chalkboard lettering styles. Chalk is pretty forgiving! Some of these words were easy to write, and others involved some erasing before I was happy with them.

“Chalkboarding” your staircase is easy. I used Rustoleum’s chalkboard paint in a quart can (not the spray paint). The paint goes a very long way. This is the second project I’ve used it on, and I am maybe 1/4 way through the can. Ideally you are supposed to use a foam brush or roller to get the smoothest finish, but I just used a normal brush. (Living dangerously, I didn’t bother taping around the steps, either. It worked out fine, but unless you like to live as dangerously as I do, you might want to tape some paper or plastic down.)

Clean the surface you are going to paint. If it’s rough, sand it or your writing surface won’t work well. (I didn’t need to do this — the surface is a bit rough here and there, but it seems to be OK.) Paint a coat of chalkboard paint. At this point, you’ll probably ooh and ahh at the deep, rich black finish. That is, if you use black paint. Chalkboard paint really does look nice when it hasn’t been chalked on yet!

Wait four hours before the next coat. Then give it at least one more coat. Two, if you can. (I used one.)

Now comes the hard part. If you’re like me, you want to start writing on your new chalkboard steps! But you can’t. You have to wait three days for the paint to cure. Three days! If you don’t do this, I’m told that the words you write on the board might be permanent. And you don’t want your steps to be that unforgiving, do you? So be patient, and wait.

In three days, break out the chalk. But, wait! Don’t write yet. First, you have to condition the chalkboards. (You may need a lot of chalk for this step.) Take some chalk on its side and cover each step completely with chalk. Then wipe the chalk off with a dry cloth, leaving a fine film of chalkdust on the surface. (At this point you lose that beautiful deep rich black color, but instead, the surface gets that slightly cloudy chalkboard look. Don’t stress out about it. That’s what it’s supposed to look like!)

Now you can write on it! Be a bit gentle with it at first while the paint continues to cure a bit more. What will you write on yours? I started with a Beatles lyric. But I have other ideas — poems, famous quotes, Burma Shave ads…

Eventually, I’ll paint the walls and the steps and brighten this area up a bit. I may or may not keep the chalkboard risers at that time. But in the meantime, I have something I can enjoy, in a part of my home that always depressed me before.

hallway before and after

19 Nov

Pinterest and the bedroom project

It probably goes without saying, but Pinterest was an immeasurable help in getting the bedroom project designed and completed. Back in the old days (by which I mean 2009), when I planned my new kitchen, I did it semi-old school by creating a digital inspiration board:


and a digital materials board:


Both of these were helpful, but they were a bit tedious to put together. I had to find the images I wanted, copy or scan them, and paste them into Photoshop, where I would try to make them fit into the page.

Pinterest has made that process completely simple, as long as the images you want to use are in digital form somewhere. Click a button, edit some text, boom! You’ve got an inspiration board. Or a materials board. Or a brag board. Or some combination of the three.

I used one to compile ideas for this project for a long time: possibly a couple of years. And now it also contains images of the finished room.

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 12.24.37 PMCertain patterns became obvious almost from the beginning: painted white floors; pink, red, and orange; rich fabrics; attic doors; built-in bookcases. And so the design developed almost organically from the collection of things I loved.

Some pins very specifically inspired me, however, and I’d like to credit them here. Click on the photos to see the pins on Pinterest (from which you can usually click through to the original source material).

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 12.33.45 PM

The painted red table is easier to clean than the old unfinished pine.  The basket on the lower shelf hides things that might otherwise be messy.

When I saw this pin, with the coral-red painted RAST nightstand, it was a revelation. I already had two of those nightstands, still unfinished pine, that I’d owned for more than a decade. I hadn’t decided yet whether to keep them. This pin (unfortunately, I do not know its source, but I will credit it if I find out!) showed me that a painted RAST would be well worth keeping. A can or two of Rustoleum later, and I had glossy red nightstands that look great against the pale pink wall and white floor. Read More

19 Nov

Before and after: the bedroom project

My bedroom was bad news.

After 18 years of living in the house, the bedroom walls were still the same dingy white they’d been on the day we moved in. Only dingier. The nasty blue carpet had been partially removed, revealing plywood with random splotches of paint. The Venetian blinds were broken. And the worst thing? The horrible, awful fluorescent light fixture that blighted the ceiling. It was like this one:

Yes, one of those. In a bedroom. I hated it. And yet, for 18 years it stayed. And stayed. On as little as possible, but it stayed.

Here are a few “BEFORE” pictures of the old bedroom.



Note plywood covering big hole in the wall. Note also, horrible blue carpet. And cat tree.


This is about as good as any part of that room ever looked. And yet… the dingy white walls, brown trim and blue carpet are not a look any room should have.

It doesn’t look like that any more!  Read More

13 Mar

Baking pans that sparkle

More kitcheny stuff — sorry, but I keep falling into a rabbit hole of interesting stuff when I research things.

Have you ever seen a pan that looked like this?

Photo by JillHannah via CreativeCommons/Flickr.

How about this?

Photo by GranniesKitchen via Creative Commons/Flickr.

These are Ovenex vintage baking pans. I have never seen one in person, but stumbled on this blog post this week, showing off a beautiful assortment of these pans, all decorated with that starburst pattern. Aren’t they just gorgeous?

See more of them in this Google Images search or this Flickr search. And of course, Pinterest has a few to look at as well.

The last thing I need is something else cool to search for in thrift stores!

07 Mar

Thrifting pays off!

(Hmm… this is three posts in a row about either cooking pans or a stove. Perhaps I need to diversify.)

Some of you know how much I love Le Creuset enameled iron cookware. I’ve lusted after it in many a kitchenware store since I was old enough to think about furnishing a kitchen. (Sur la Table has seen me come in “just to look” a ridiculous number of times.)

It took some doing, but in almost exactly three years, I’ve managed to acquire a relatively complete set of Flame color Le Creuset pans at the local Goodwill. (Not to mention a red LC stock pot, a red LC utensil crock, a big new oval red Dutch oven by another brand which looks like a Le Creuset, a matching trivet, many cast iron skillets, and a ton of cool stuff that has nothing to do with my kitchen.)

Le Creuset is usually incredibly spendy, but the colors of the pans are irresistible. The quality is also very good. When you buy a set of Le Creuset, it’s supposed to be an investment to last for the rest of your life. You need to know that you can live with the color you choose.

Many years ago, through a screaming great deal, I bought a set of cobalt blue pans as my first ever credit card purchase. I still have the tiny skillet and a small saucepan, but the rest of the set was accidentally left behind when I moved in 1992. (Someone has my pans. Please send them home.) A few years later I got a cobalt blue Kitchenaid mixer as well, then realized I didn’t want a blue kitchen any more. Oops.

A few years ago, my ex-husband bought me a set of cherry-red LC pans. And I do love all things kitcheny and red. But the flame was also calling my name. It didn’t hurt that this picture was all over Pinterest (click the image to see the original source):

I decided that I don’t care if my pans don’t match each other — that having a bunch of different colors would be even more glorious. And especially if one of those colors was the original LC color, the flame orange that was supposedly inspired by the cauldron of molten iron that gives the company its name.

So, three years ago this month, on my last thrift store trip with my ex, I saw two beautiful flame-colored saucepans for, if I recall correctly, $12 and $13 each. I jumped on that deal so fast your head would spin. And in the three years since, through diligent thrifting, I’ve found a few more. (And, sadly, left some in the store that Goodwill decided they wanted to charge the big bucks for.) This week, I realized that I have a pretty good set of the flame cookware now. Combined with the red and the remaining cobalt blue, I’m going to have a very colorful shelf of pans. (What? You thought I’d hide them in drawers or cupboards? Never!)

Total cost of my three saucepans, one French oven, and an omelet pan? Well, I didn’t keep track, but I know no item was more than $15. Most were way less.

However, they are from Goodwill, and some of them are closer to new than others. Two of the vintage saucepans had essentially new interiors, as does the omelet pan. One of the pans had a badly damaged handle I replaced. The small French oven has had the interior worn to bare iron somehow — which isn’t really a long-term problem since I’m seasoning it like any non-enameled cast iron pan.

Most of the pans looked pretty grungy in the thrift store, which is why they were cheap. But grunge cleans off. (Uh oh. Should I be giving away the secret?) The pans really do last a lifetime and beyond, if people are willing to treat them properly.

Thank you to all the folks who didn’t want to bother cleaning their gorgeous orange kitchenware, and who gave it to Goodwill for me. 😉 Keep your eyes open at the thrift stores — you have to go a lot, but you can, in good time, find some amazing stuff.

20 Feb

Guess which of these stoves isn’t in my kitchen anymore

Hint: not the old-looking one.

On a whim, a few weeks ago I removed the microwave from my kitchen. It took up too much space, and I realized that all I really used it for was to heat up frozen dinners I shouldn’t be eating anyway. Reheating food and cooking soups and such? That I do on the big stove. It’s better that way. (Microwaved pizza is nasty. It’s so much better when I reheat it on the pizza stone in the oven.) So I decided to try to go a few months without the microwave to see if I miss it enough to bring it back.

So far, the only time I’ve missed it much is when I was trying to de-crystallize some honey. Putting it in the microwave is the quickest way to do it. But it’s not worth keeping it around just for that.

I didn’t have a microwave until I was well into my adulthood, so I think I should be fine without it.

Anyone else given up on their microwave?

16 Feb

Cast iron rocks

Egg and (veggie) bacon.

Egg and (veggie) bacon.

I love my cast iron pans.

I always heard how great cast iron was supposed to be. How a decades-old seasoning on the pan is something to treasure. How properly-seasoned pans are completely non-stick. How easy iron is to care for. And I didn’t believe any of it.

My ex-husband and I picked up a humongous cast-iron pan once, and I do mean huge. One of those giant skillets that has a second handle so you can carry it without dropping it. It was a new pan, a Lodge, completely unseasoned. I don’t recall what we did to try to season it, but we did use it at some point. I think it’s possible that all we did is start cooking in it, figuring that the seasoning would then develop. Which is sort of true. But as soon as we tried to clean it, we discovered it was a pain. It started rusting quickly, and it was too heavy to use regularly, so we gave up.

But, more recently, I’ve been converted. With good pans and the right treatment, cast iron is non-stick, and is incredibly easy to care for.

The pans

I bet when you think of cast iron you think of a rough, rustic sort of pan, right?

It turns out that modern pans aren’t like the old ones. You can get modern pans, made in the U.S.A. with reasonable quality, from Lodge. Now they come with a bit of pre-seasoning so you can use them right away. They are heavy, and a bit rough. Some other pans on the market are rougher and more rustic. You can get them to be nicely seasoned, eventually.

But the old pans — pre-1960 or so — they are a completely different beast. Old pans were more finely finished — machined mirror-smooth. They are thinner, so they are lighter weight. And being so smooth already, once you get them seasoned… well, they are amazing. Better than any modern non-stick pan. So I buy vintage pans when I can find them at the thrift store. Mostly I’ve found Wagner Ware. Sometimes they are so abused you can’t even tell what brand they are, but you get a nice surprise when you clean them up.

Caring for them

It turns out that once you get the pans ready for use by reconditioning and seasoning (both of which are thoroughly addressed at the Black Iron Blog), taking care of the pans is dead easy. Here’s what you do:

  1. Cook your awesome meal. Eggs, fish, bacon, fried chicken, deep-dish pizza, whatever.
  2. Let the pan cool a bit so you can handle it.
  3. Run hot water on it. Don’t worry, it won’t rust if it’s seasoned. Rinse out some of the crud.
  4. Wipe out the rest of the crud with a towel. If there is something you can’t get out, you can use a paste of salt and water to get it out, or a plastic scrubbie. Not one of those flat green pads. If you absolutely can’t get something out, put a bit of water in the pan and bring it to a boil. That will loosen up the stubborn crud. Wipe the pan as thoroughly as you can. Spotless.
  5. You know what you don’t do? That’s right. Use soap. “But,” you say with a look of horror, “how can I not use soap?” Here’s why and how. Dish soap is designed to cut down grease and oil. What do you use to make a good seasoning on your pan? Grease and oil. So what does dish soap do to the developing seasoning layer? It damages it. Eats away at it. You don’t want that.

    Instead, you wipe it as clean as possible. Run more hot water on it if you must. And then — you dry it off thoroughly, wipe it with the thinnest possible layer of oil, and set it on the burner, set to low, for seven minutes. This dries out any remaining water to prevent rust, and it also gets the pan temperature so damn hot that no nastiness can survive on your cast iron.

  6. Leave the pan on the burner until the time is up. (Don’t forget it!) Then take a clean cloth or paper towel, and wipe the pan down, removing the excess oil (there will be a bit more now that the pan has heated) and leaving an even thinner layer. You want it thin, or it might get sticky. Don’t worry, even with a very thin layer, the pan will be happy. Your pan is now ready to store.

The oil you use is something that everyone has an opinion about. I seasoned my pans initially with Crisco, and I think that works just fine. But now I mostly cook with olive oil, and so that’s what I wipe the pans down with too. Olive oil isn’t supposed to be great for this, but with the technique I’ve been using, it works just fine. It does contribute to the seasoning polymer that builds up on the pan, which keeps getting better and slicker as I use it.

Keep doing this everytime you cook in the pan, and pretty soon you will have what I have — a pan that is completely nonstick, that allows you to flip an egg by shaking the pan (well — it takes some practice), that even burnt teriyaki sauce won’t stick to.

When you cook in it, heat the pan first, then add oil. This also prevents sticking. I heat it until drops of water tossed in it sizzle and jump around, then add some olive oil or any other oil I may need to use.

01 Jan

“Lives snuffed out before fear is even felt”

When I was looking through the January 1, 1914 Seattle Times last night, I found some coverage about a disaster I had never heard of. 73 dead — 59 of them children — died in Calumet, Michigan, when someone shouted “Fire!” in the crowded Italian Hall where striking mine workers and their families were celebrating Christmas. There was no fire. Eight witnesses swore that the shouter was wearing a Citizens’ Alliance badge; Citizens’ Alliance was the anti-union organization funded by mine management.

Woody Guthrie wrote the song “1913 Massacre” about it:

“The piano played a slow funeral tune,
And the town was lit up by a cold Christmas moon,
The parents they cried and the miners they moaned,
‘See what your greed for money has done.'”

The Italian Hall Disaster Resource Center Facebook page maintained by Steve Lehto is posting a day-by-day report of what happened 100 years ago:

December 31, 1913 – 100 years ago today, the Coroner issued his ruling exonerating the guilty and placing the blame on the victims. The English-language papers continued blaming the unions for everything while mine management told people they would continue to investigate (which they wouldn’t). Management wanted to buy time, so their guy could get away and witnesses could be intimidated into silence. Meanwhile, the grand jury was hand-picked by management (and loaded with friends of management – it included a slew of men who admitted being members of the Citizens Alliance!) They would eventually refuse to indict anyone for any of the illegal acts against the workers. They would indict the union leadership, calling their actions a conspiracy.

Lehto is the author of a book about the disaster, Death’s Door: The Truth Behind the Italian Hall Disaster and the Strike of 1913.

Last month, PBS aired a documentary about the strike and the tragedy, Red Metal: The Copper Country Strike of 1913. You can watch it online.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 3.07.17 PM

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 2.47.52 PM
Seattle Daily Times, January 1, 1914

03 Nov

My surnames book is out!

kindle-cover-wakefieldIt may not be the Great American Novel, but I do have a book out as of a week or two ago. Middle English Surnames in West Yorkshire is a book version of my MA thesis, and it should be of interest to folks into genealogy, onomastics (names), language, the SCA or similar groups, or English history.

The first part of the book is an overview of surnames and the names in the Wakefield Manor court rolls. The rest of the book — most of it — is a list of all the names with etymologies and references, divided by type.

If you are looking for a medieval name for the SCA, this is a good source. Every name in the list is from the 13th or 14th century, so they are all documented during SCA period. Many of the names are from place names as well, so this is also useful when looking for a place name to use.

Here are a few places to buy it:

It should appear in other locations soon as well.

14 Jun

“Women Who Rock” and wear sparkly things

Tina Turner, represented by two dresses. All photos on this page by Wendi Dunlap.

The new “Women Who Rock” exhibit opens today at the EMP Museum. I saw a preview this week, and though I enjoyed it, as I left the exhibit I had definite mixed feelings about it.

The exhibit opens with a great photo of Joan Jett with a “takes no shit from anyone” look and a guitar slung over her shoulder. The next thing you see is a timeline, then a piano — Lady Gaga’s childhood piano, as it turns out. Appropriately, the exhibit starts with the music, or at least, one of the tools to create it.

Around the corner you go, seeing memorabilia of some of the earlier influences including Bessie Smith, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and LaVern Baker. It’s good that the exhibit reaches into pre-rock history, though I wanted more of it, history geek that I am.

Turning to your right, you see an impressive US-flag-style dress on a headless mannequin in a glass case, next to another mannequin frilly black and yellow dress sprinkled with tiny musical notes. The flag dress was made for Wanda Jackson by her mom; the yellow one was worn by Ruth Brown. There are some other memorabilia pieces in the display — Jackson’s guitar, Brown’s record — but what draws your eye here is the costuming. And this focus continues through the rest of the exhibit.

Joan Jett has a “Bad Reputation” and also NO HEAD.

We see sparkly dresses worn by members of the Supremes, really short sparkly dresses worn by Tina Turner, and flowing dresses worn by Stevie Nicks, Mama Cass, and the Wilson sisters from Heart. Loretta Lynn’s dress is essentially a 1980s wedding dress in pink: sparkly beaded bodice, big puffy shoulders, and a chiffon skirt. And a nice guitar next to it, but the “ooh, shiny” steals its thunder.

Some costumes are less girly: Joan Jett, of course, with a leather jacket (sporting a Keep Abortion Legal badge), and the outfit she wore on the I Love Rock & Roll album cover. Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth is represented with a shirt bearing the phrase “Eat Me” and the Rolling Stones’ tongue logo.

The definition of “rock” is pretty broad by the time you get to the Britney Spears and Shakira outfits, basically sequined pants with bikini tops. Both mannequins have belly buttons. I think Shakira’s gets a six-pack; no such luck for Britney.

There is a case nearby with a mannequin wearing something that looked like something out of a horror film, red and gross. Yes, it’s Lady Gaga’s meat dress — “meat jerky by now,” we were told. At this point I heard one of the other reviewers mumbling thoughts similar to mine: “Why is it all clothes?” To be fair, it’s not all clothes. Quite a few of the mannequins come with guitars, and some have album covers or magazine articles on display showing the clothing being worn. A few have handwritten lyrics or letters. There is a wealth of text to read about each performer. But the fundamental format of the exhibit is basically mannequins wearing cool stage costumes.

Cyndi Lauper: “She’s So Unusual” because it is definitely unusual to have no head!

The focus on the costumes seems to be both a positive and a negative. On the negative side, the heavy emphasis on costumes seems to crowd out memorabilia that I have seen in other exhibits — more letters, press, vintage posters, tickets, etc. It tends to define almost all the artists by their clothing, displayed on those (mostly) headless, nearly interchangeable mannequins. (The only ones with heads were ones with hats. And those heads were generic.) What’s important, it says, is what’s below the neck. This is what defines each artist. And this is problematic.

Women in rock are not about their clothes — the clothes are a sideline and kind of a distraction. Show me more video, show me more memorabilia — how about the kind of display where it feels as if “you are there” seeing some of them perform, instead of dead faceless mannequins wearing pretty clothing? What was it like to see Ruth Brown sing “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” at the Mambo Club in Wichita, Kansas in 1956? What was it like to see Blondie at CBGB’s in 1977? The display is more “Nordstrom window” than “rock and roll.”

On the positive side, seeing so many mannequins does give you a bit of a feeling that “hey, there are a lot of women in rock, and this is only touching the surface.” And at the same time, it gives you that sense that they are just people like yourself — maybe shorter than you are, maybe thinner, maybe not — not some onstage demigods glowing under a spotlight.

I must admit that I personally find costume interesting. I’ve researched it, and it’s one of the aspects of history that draws my attention, so I enjoyed seeing the clothing, but I did not like that it really seemed to be the focus. Having costumes there is good, but the exhibit seems kind of imbalanced.

That does not mean you shouldn’t go see it anyway, though. Imbalanced or not, the exhibit is still fascinating. I just wish it could have been more.

Is this the Nordstrom half-yearly sale? How much for the dress in gray?

05 May

Pinterest pinner of the moment: Craftsman Junky

Craftsman Junky's collection of pinboards -- this is only a partial section of the list. Click through to see the full page.

Craftsman Junky’s collection of pinboards — this is only a partial section of the list. Click through to see the full page.

Instead of choosing one Pinterest board to write about this week, I’ve chosen a collection of pinboards by a single pinner: Craftsman Junky. Craftsman Junky is actually Sharon from the Laurelhurst 1912 Craftsman blog about renovating a 1912 Craftsman home in Portland, Oregon. Since I have a 1911 Craftsman bungalow in Seattle, this is relevant to my interests.

The blog is great itself, but the collection of images and links that Sharon has compiled on Pinterest is really stunning. Check out this list of boards:

  • House Interiors (early 1900s)
  • House Exteriors (early 1900s)
  • Craftsman Dining Rooms
  • Craftsman Living Rooms
  • Craftsman Bedrooms
  • Craftsman Remodel
  • Early 1900s Bathrooms
  • Remodeled Bathrooms
  • Early 1900s Kitchens
  • Remodeled Kitchens
  • Shopping Resources
  • Craftsman Furniture
  • Craftsman Stencils, Wallpaper and Paint Colors
  • Early 1900s Tile

There are more, including collections of early 20th Century clothing. If you have an old house, or any interest in Arts and Crafts style of the early 1900s, these are great boards to follow.

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