Bathroom remodel | A do-it-yourself farmhouse-style makeover

textured wallpaper being covered by tongue-and-groove pine

When I left off in my last post, our downstairs bathroom looked something like this:

white medicine cabinet

We had just tiled the shower — and it looked fabulous  — but the rest of the room was still stuck in a 1995 time warp. We wanted to update the room with modern materials but also make it look like it belonged in the vintage farmhouse that it actually resides in.

The first thing we had to address was the yellow textured wallpaper, which was covering a layer of blue plastic paneling. And the blue plastic paneling was covering a layer of very old, very cracked plaster. None of the layers was pretty.

reversible knotty pine planking

We’ve swallowed enough plaster dust in DIYs past that the idea of demolishing the walls and hanging new drywall didn’t sound all that appealing.

We figured it would be easier — and less plaster-dusty — just to cover the old walls with another layer: this time, tongue-and-groove pine planking.

walls with pine tongue-and-groove on the bottom and wider planks on the top

The boards we used were reversible, with narrow strips of beadboard on one side and wider planks on the other. We decided to use the narrow beadboard side vertically on the bottom of the walls and the wider planked side horizontally on the top.

textured wallpaper being covered by tongue-and-groove pine

This is the wall where the sink and the medicine cabinet normally hang. Jim took them down to install planks there. (The hole in the wall was already there; it had just been hidden behind the medicine cabinet. That’s where the vanity light hooks into the electrical system.)

wall in front of shower with pine planks installed

On the shower wall  we decided to use the wider planks. Just because.

trim around edges of pine planks

We covered all the raw edges with trim pieces.

cracks that need to be caulked

After we had all the boards installed, we painted everything white — it took three coats to cover and to get paint into all the nooks and crannies. (Let me tell you, beadboard is nothing but nooks and crannies.) Then when we were finally done painting, we had to fill in the cracks between boards with caulk. (And there were lots of cracks.)

Jim rehanging the sink on the wall

After painting and caulking, it was time to start re-assembling things.

As you may have noticed, this bathroom is really tiny. It’s about 6 feet wide by 6 feet deep — with the shower literally 3 feet from the door.

compact 20

Our old sink was a compact 20 inches wide by 16 inches deep, which was the right size for the space — plus, it was still in pretty good shape — so we decided to keep it.

sink with old-fashioned rubber stopper on a chain

The pop-up drain assembly wasn’t functional anymore, but that was an easy fix. We replaced it with a brand new old-fashioned rubber stopper on a chain. I didn’t know they even made these any more, until Jim brought one home after one of his many runs to the hardware store.


Like the textured wallpaper, the old medicine cabinet (which had a built-in Hollywood-style lightbulb strip at the top) also had outstayed its welcome. I wanted to replace it with a vintage mirror and put a black barn light above it. Jim wasn’t feeling the vintage mirror. He thought a medicine cabinet would be more “practical.”

low-profile white medicine cabinet

I may have treated him to one of my signature passive-aggressive eye rolls when he said that, but I let him get his way. Mostly so I could use it as leverage when it came time to choose a light fixture.

I’d been ogling black barn lights online for months before we started this project and had an entire Pinterest board full of them. I was willing to give in on the mirror, but the black barn light was non-negotiable.

red barn light from Home Depot

Here’s the light fixture I ended up buying.

red barn light installed in bathroom

You may have noticed it’s an odd shade of black.

Home Depot was sold out of black barn lights on the day I went to buy one. They had this red one in stock, though, and I fell in love with it on the spot.

red barn light above medicine cabinet

Apparently I’m fickle that way.

bathroom with white plank walls, red barn light, pedestal sink and subway tile in the shower

Jim actually liked the red barn light, too, so maybe I should have fought harder for the vintage mirror. Sigh.

Anyhoo, Home Depot sells this light fixture in their outdoor lighting department, not in their bathroom lighting department, but electric lights are electric lights. There’s no reason you can’t use an “outdoor light” in an indoor bathroom.

white towel with red stripes hanging on chrome towel bar

Our old chrome towel bars were still in good shape, so we re-hung them.

brown louvered closet door with small cabinet knob

Then I turned my attention to the closet door that I had been passive-aggressively ignoring because I didn’t know what to do with it. My original plan had been to paint the door black to match the black barn light I was going to buy. But when the light fixture ended up being red, I had to reassess the situation. My gut said I should paint the door red now, but the cautious part of my brain said a red door might be crazy.

bathroom closet with door open showing cluttered interior shelves

As I dithered about what to do with the the door, I decided to pull everything out of the closet to redo the inside.

cabinet shelf with dated blue and mauve quilt-square-style shelf paper

The 1980s called. They wanted their shelf paper back.

dated shelf paper being peeled off of wooden shelf

The wood underneath the shelf paper was pretty rough — but I figured a good sanding and a coat (or three) of paint would make it look like new.

bathroom cabinet with fresh coat of white paint on interior

Here’s the inside of the closet after it was all painted.

closet door on saw horses with a gallon of primer setting on it

And here’s the door, just as I was starting on the first coat of primer, which was followed by three coats of …

bathroom closet with red painted door

… red paint. Now that I look at it, I don’t know why I dithered.

close-up of brushed silver handle on red closet door

We bought a new handle for the door to replace the little knob that had been there before.

two open shelves above red closet door

We decided not to reinstall the upper cabinet door, which wasn’t so much a door as it was a piece of plywood with a handle on it. It didn’t match the lower door in style, and once I had the inside of the cabinet painted, I thought it would look better to leave the top two shelves open.

galvanized metal containers

I looked all over for baskets that would be the right dimensions for the shelves. The best option I could find were these galvanized steel tubs that were on Walmart’s website. They were sold out online, though, so I had to go store to store looking for them. I found one at the Beaver Dam store. Then I struck out at the Monona store, the Sun Prairie store and the Portage store. Finally I found a second one in Baraboo (and it was the last one they had left). Apparently these were a popular item.

small red bathroom garbage can

I had plenty of red paint left over, so I painted our old garbage can to match the door.

bathroom with white wood walls, subway-tiled shower stall and red accents

Here’s the whole room today. (Or at least as much of it as I could get in a picture.)

3/4 bathroom with yellow textured wallpaper, green shower curtain, pedestal sink and dated medicine cabinet with Hollywood-style lightbulbs at the top

And, as a reminder, here’s what it used to look like.

We still have to redo the floor. We just placed an order for black cement tile. It’s supposed to come in in the beginning of October. This will be our first time laying floor tile. If it turns out OK, I might blog about it. If it doesn’t, let’s just pretend I never mentioned it.

Thanks for reading. As always, let me know what you think. Unless you think my red barn light sucks, in which case you’re already dead to me, so don’t bother.

Bathroom remodel: Installing subway tile in the shower

lath on walls inside shower stall

Today’s post is about home decor, which, if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know is a topic I don’t write about very often. If you’re wondering why, allow me to introduce Exhibit A: “My Downstairs Bathroom, circa 2017.”

3/4 bathroom before remodeling

About the only good thing I can say about the room is that it’s slightly less ugly at the time that this picture was taken than it was when we first bought the house 20 years earlier. Back then the walls were covered in shiny robin’s egg blue plastic paneling.

We wanted to pull the paneling down as soon as we moved in, but the plaster walls underneath it were cracked beyond redemption. In order to avoid a full-on, down-to-the-studs remodel (which we were already doing in several other rooms at the time) we decided to just hang wallpaper over top of the paneling and call it done. (I believe this is what technically is referred to as “a half-assed job.”)

The wallpaper was supposed to be a short-term fix, until we had the remodeling finished in the other rooms and had saved up some cash to tackle the bathroom properly. But somehow two decades went by and we were still living with that “short-term” solution.

shower stall with plastic shower surround

Then last fall a pipe sprang a leak, and we had to take down the plastic shower surround to access the plumbling in the wall.

cracked plaster wall inside shower stall

Here’s what we uncovered behind the shower surround. Those aren’t ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics you’re looking at; they’re dried glue trails. Apparently the DIY’ers before us wanted to make extra sure the plastic was adhered securely. They succeeded. That plastic put up quite a fight as we pried it off the wall and wrestled it to the ground. By the time we got it down, it was ripped and cracked and destined for Shower Surround Heaven.

We figured the ruined surround was a sign that it was time to finally get serious about making renovations. So after Jim fixed the leaky pipe, we pulled the crumbling plaster off the wall and made plans to hang subway tile.

lath on walls inside shower stall

Here’s the old lath that was behind the plaster. Pretty, right? Unfortunately, we had to remove it, too, so we could hang concrete backerboard.

concrete backerboard inside shower stall

Here’s the backerboard, partially installed. You have to use this stuff (as opposed to regular drywall) in places like shower stalls because it’s mold- and mildew-resistant.

Once we had the backerboard up, it was time to start tiling.

shower stall with seven rows of tile laid

When it comes to Cestkowski family DIY projects, our general division of labor goes something like this:

Things that require brute force and/or the use of power tools: Jim.

Things that require patience and/or attention to detail: Lisa.

Ergo, most of the project up until this point was on Jim. Tiling was on me.

subway tile with plastic spacers between

For the most part, I just worked from the bottom up, setting the tile in a “running bond pattern” so that every other row lined up. To ensure that the tiles were equidistant from each other, I wedged these god-awful spacers in between each one.

In all fairness, our spacers were probably no worse than any other spacers out there, but I had tiled once before — in our upstairs bathroom — and the tiles I had used then had bumpouts on their edges. The bumpouts made spacers unnecessary. I didn’t know how much easier that made the tiling process until I started working on this project.

shower stall in the process of being tiled with subway tile in a running bond pattern

The plastic spacers were my nemesis. Every time I would nudge a tile one way or the other, the nearby tiles would shift, and all of the spacers around them would drop to the floor. Then I’d have to bend down, pick up the fallen spacers and replace them before I could set the next tile.

I wish I could tell you I eventually figured out a way to stop the spacers from falling, but I didn’t.

shower stall with subway tile being hung

Despite the cursed spacers, I eventually made progress.

shower stall before tiling inset shelf

Jim helped out by trimming the tiles to fit in all the spots where I needed partials,  drilling holes for the spigots and shower head, and, most importantly, nodding sympathetically every time I went off on a profanity-laden rant about the evils of plastic spacers.

shower stall after tiling inset shelf

When I got to the inset shelf, I had no idea what I was going to do. Then we found this 12-inch-by-12-inch mosaic tile at Menards. It filled the niche almost perfectly.  Maybe that’s what these tiles are designed for? I don’t know. I could write a book, or at least a blog post, about what I don’t know about tiling.

subway tile with grout

Eventually, I got the tiles all adhered — hallelujah! — and it was time to grout. This was actually my favorite part of the process. There’s something really satisfying about smooshing grout into the cracks between the tiles and seeing what the finished wall is going to look like.

I was more than a little surprised to see how straight all my lines ended up. It almost looks like I knew what I was doing.

chrome shower head inside newly tiled shower stall

With the grouting complete, Jim installed a new shower head …

close up of hot and cold water handles in shower

… and new hot and cold water taps.

shower stall with white subway tile

Ta-da. This project was a pain, but we were very happy with the results. In fact, we were so happy with it that we decided to keep going with the renovations. More on that in my next post.

And if you’re interested in seeing what became of that beautiful lath that we pulled down, check out this post.

Now showing: The making of a movie theater sign

With Hollywood abuzz about the Oscars next week, I thought this would be the perfect time to show off the Now Showing sign I made (with a little help from my husband).

home theater

The sign was actually a gift for our cinephile son who was moving into his first apartment and wanted to decorate it in a movie theater theme. He had looked into buying a sign online first, but the prices were too high for his college-student budget.

Then I looked into buying one for him, but the prices were too high for my newspaper-designer budget. (One website said, “List Price: $1,658. Our Price: $1,499 & Free Shipping!” Apparently, this was a good deal?)

I studied the pictures we found online. They didn’t look all that complicated: just wide frames with lights around the perimeters. “How hard could it be to make one?” I thought. (Turns out, it was pretty hard.)

The project started off easily enough. I found a 24″ x 36″ wooden frame in a thrift store for $3. I bought it, hoping that that was the default size for movie posters. It was. So far, so good.

Then I found round patio lights at Target that were the style I needed. I was on a roll.

From here, things got a lot more complicated.

As my thrift store frame was only 2″ wide around the edges, it wasn’t beefy enough to hold a row of lights. No problem, I thought. I will just glue the thrift store frame onto a piece of plywood a few inches wider and taller than the frame and drill holes for the lights into the plywood, like so:

I found a scrap piece of 1/2-inch plywood in my husband’s workshop that looked like it would work.

At this point, my husband, who, I would like to point out, is much more supportive of my hair-brained schemes than he really should be, wandered in. He looked over my  thrift store frame, my lights, my plywood and my plan.

He liked the frame and the lights. The heavy plywood and the half-baked plan, not so much.

He suggested a few alterations and drew up a new plan that called for a frame of 1×4’s attached to a thin, lightweight backer board, then a frame of 1×3’s sitting on top of that, creating a ledge that the thrift store frame could rest on. He called it a sandwich. Here is a cutaway profile view of the new plan:

now showing sign

With his plan, the frame would be lighter weight, the light sockets would be supported and stand up straight, and the unused portion of the light string would be contained inside the enclosed back instead of just left to dangle. (In other words, his plan would actually work.)

Within an hour, we were in the husband’s F150, en route to the local lumber yard to buy supplies. (See I told you: way too supportive. He enables this kind of behavior.)

Once we got home, we ran some of the 1×4’s we’d bought through the table saw to rip them down to 3 inches in width. Then I cut those down to length with a miter saw. (My first time using a miter saw; it was very exciting.) Those pieces became the frame (pictured below) around the thrift store frame.

home theater
Then I cut the 1×4’s down to length, creating the second, wider frame that would sit underneath the narrower one.

home theater
Next it was time to make the holes for the lights. I had to do math (I hate doing math) to figure out the spacing of the lights. I marked where the holes would go in pencil on the 1×3’s and then tacked the frame together, so I could drill all the way through the 1×3’s and partway through the 1×4’s underneath.

home theater

When I was done drilling all the holes, I took the two layers apart again, so I could rout out channels on the bottom 1×4’s to run the excess cord through. (Also my first time using a router; also very exciting.)

home theater
Isn’t that ingenius? (I take no credit for it; the channels were all the husband’s idea.)

home theater
To get around the corner, I just made sure the channels lined up from one piece to the next.

home theater
I needed 34 lights for the project. Target only had strings of 25 lights. So I bought two strings and left all of the unused sockets hang in the middle of the sandwich.

home theater
When all the lights were in place, I tacked the two layers of wood together again and then attached them permanently with finish nails.

Then I flipped the sandwich over and attached the backing.

home theater
After the backing was secured, I flipped the sandwich back over again and did a ton of sanding. (My miter cuts were not exactly precision accurate, as you can see below.) I stuffed tinfoil into the light sockets to keep the sawdust out.

home theater
All that was left to do after that was to paint all the wood gold and then attach the thrift store frame onto the top of the sandwich. The frame is attached with screws, so the poster can be swapped out easily if our son ever gets sick of Star Wars (not likely).

home theater
I was very nervous about the lights actually working after everything was done, but, happily, they all lit up.

home theater
The tail of the green cord hanging down on the left really bothers me. The next time I’m at my son’s apartment, I am either going to paint the cord white or his wall green, so it’s not so noticeable.

now showing sign

I probably saved $1,399 by DIY’ing the sign vs. buying the On-Sale-With-Free-Shipping! version. But I now understand why the price was so high. This was not a simple project.