Pruning Palms, Not Fingers

Hardly seems possible that it’s already been over 5 years since we cut down the oak tree in the back yard that was causing so many problems with the pool. But recently I went to battle with another tree back there—this time the Washington Palm in the opposite corner.

I had long since neglected the palm because I had no idea how to prune such a foreign creature. And the viral trumpet vine that’s perpetually laying siege to the flowerbed below had crept up the fence and lept over to the tree. While this made for a attractive mix, red trumpet flowers dangling between the fronds, the vines woven in and among the palm made the prospect of pruning the tree all that much more daunting.

But fed up, armed with good advice from Dave I., and with much more audacity than aptitude, I propped up the ladder, gloved up, and went to war:

Before
The palm tree before battle

After
The palm tree after battle

When the dust settled and after more than 2 dumpster-loads of debris, I not only cleared out all of the invasive vines, but also removed all of the dead palm fronds that were weighing the tree down. In the weeks since, the tree has responded with lots of new growth and appears to be more healthy than ever before!

Master Bedroom Overhaul, Part 3: Odds & Ends

New Closet Interior

After the dust settled and the paint dried (in Dolphin Fin grey, per my earlier mention that all of our paint color selections have names that “speak” to Dede), I finally got busy with outfitting the interior of the new closet with a ClosetMaid shelving system.

I was able to make use of nearly every square inch of the space inside the new closet so I ended up with almost 20′ of angled shoe storage, about 20′ of hanging clothes rod space, and almost 14′ of open shelving. The shelves up top are a bit of a stretch to reach and only have about 12″ of clearance below the ceiling, but there’s a ton of storage inside that small space! Here’s a peek:

ClosetMaid angled shoe shelves   ClosetMaid hanging rods

New Fan Control Knob

One of the more bizarre things left behind by the previous owners of Kirkwood Manor was the big honkin’ circa 1970s ceiling fan control box in our Master Bedroom. Since we were going to have to do some re-texturing anyway with the new closet construction, I took the opportunity to replace that limping scrod (Thanks, Rich!). Extending and snaking the wires for this through the wall stud just to the left of the original switch was a real challenge, but the end result was certainly worth the effort:

new ceiling fan control knob

Landscaping

Knowing that our door project was coming up, I had intentionally neglected the flowerbed/planter off of the patio area just outside the Master Bedroom. Once things were wrapped up with the new door install, I was ready to spring into action to rehab this area:

flowerbed before planting

With some expert guidance (Thanks Dave!) I settled on a interesting mix of perennial plants that seemed like a good fit for the area, given its size and the amount of direct sunlight it receives. So here’s what we ended up with:

flowerbed after planting

Door Hardware

As is often the case, once I had found a terrific deal on a handleset for the new Master Bedroom patio door, I couldn’t just let it go at that single purchase…

brass handleset   new nickel handleset

nickel handleset detail photo

So since I had found the Kellington double-cylinder door hardware at HandleSets.com for a fraction of what the local home store charge, I opted to also replace the brass lever/deadbolt combo on the other patio door (coming out of the kitchen) and the brass handleset & kickplate on the front door with matching nickel handlesets so they’d all look and be keyed alike. And I got all 3 for less than what I would’ve spent for a single handleset at retail price!

I ran into a slight problem with the new brushed nickel kickplate looking much more “aluminum-y” than “nickel-y” and therefore not quite matching the finish on the handleset. But I’ve since seen some other homes where this is slightly off too, so that’s kinda comforting. And most people may not even notice the difference…

Be sure to also read parts 1 and 2 of our sprawling Master Bedroom overhaul project!

Master Bedroom Overhaul, Part 2: New Patio Door

Although I mentioned the new closet first, that was really the lesser of the changes to be made with our overhaul of the Master Bedroom. No, the big ticket change, the driving force behind the whole thing, was all about a new door.

Our bedroom had a large 6′ x 9′ bank of old windows that looked out onto the patio. Since we spend a great deal of our time during late-Spring to early-Fall out back, we longed for direct access to the patio. The windows were original to the house (meaning they were the old, inefficient single-pane variety) and looked like this on the exterior (apologies for the late-night, low-quality photo):

Exterior view of Master Bedroom windows

…and on the inside they were covered with the same terrific Plantation shutters that the home’s previous owners had installed on the guest bedroom, den, and living room windows.

Plantation shutters on Master Bedroom windows

Earlier this year, we got kind of serious about this project and started calling around for estimates from “window and door” companies. But we ultimately discovered that we could get exactly what we wanted at a much lower price by purchasing the door independently and paying a contractor to install them. We had found a contractor thru our friend Donna P. who we felt we could trust to do the job right and I lucked into a great sale on a Jeld-Wen fiberglass-clad unit that featured two fixed panels and one hinged door in the middle (all with integral mini-blinds within the panes of Low-E glass) at Home Depot.

So 18 days later, the custom-ordered “triple” arrived—in one piece that was too big to even fit through any of our gates to get to the back of the house. So thanks to my contractor Roger, his helper Caleb, and two very cooperative & helpful Home Depot delivery guys, we brought the 81″ x 110″ door unit over the fence instead:

new patio door arrival

Once eased off the forklift and brought gently to the ground, we wrestled the behemoth to an area just beside the existing windows:

new patio door staged on site

In a single, action-packed day, the guys tore out the old windows and bricks, a plumber capped off the exterior hose bib that had been just beneath the old windows, and for a harrowing couple of hours, there was nothing but a huge hole in the side of the house:

hole in the wall

But by late that afternoon, the new door was tacked in place. The following day, they secured the unit, added casings to finish the exterior, and added tile to cap off the bottom row of existing brick and dress up the threshold area:

hinged triple patio door

What a thing of beauty! And we were especially pleased with the very budget-friendly and sturdy Kellington Double-Cylinder Handleset door hardware from HandleSets.com!

Finally, they trimmed out the interior in a regal fashion befitting such a king-sized door and I got busy with more Behr Azul Tequila paint:

Be sure to read part 3 of the Master Bedroom overhaul to see some of the odds & ends finishing details.

Master Bedroom Overhaul, Part 1: Closeted

Almost from the very first time we toured Kirkwood Manor in December ’09, one of the “somewhere down the road” wishlist projects was to convert the unused home office space (a.k.a. reading nook) in the master bedroom into some valuable closet space. As a part of another big change to that room, we’ve finally brought that little vision to life.

The reading nook had a built-in desk and bookcase that may well have been original to the house. So out those went…

And to make the most of the space, we opted to bump the ceiling in that area back up to the same height as the rest of the room…

A wall was built to box in the closet, complete with a pocket door that slides back into the wall so it doesn’t eat up any space within the closet nor does it swing out into the room.

(We used a Johnson Pocket Door kit that’s available via hardware stores or online retailers like Amazon.com or doitbest.com and a stock interior 6-panel door from Home Depot.)

Of course, with the new wall and texturing to blend in with the existing walls—and given the thoroughly-unmatchable custom faux finish that the previous owners had applied—I had to repaint the entire room.

But luckily, my ever-eager assistant was there to help with the painting…

Liam Painting

So here’s the end result, complete with trim and the new paint color (Azul Tequila) for the room:

You may be noticing a trend here—all of our paint colors at Kirkwood Manor have names that “speak” to Dede. (Just wait ’til you see the Dining Room re-done in “Dolphin Fin!”)

Keen observers will also catch that we dressed the room up with crown molding but you’ll see more on that in the next part of the Master Bedroom Overhaul!

Big thanks go to Donna P. for the contractor referral!

Be sure to read part 2 of the Master Bedroom overhaul to see details of the new patio door install!

The Green, Green Grass of Home

lawn chairs in the desert

(Giving credit where it’s rightly due, this started as a response I was drafting to Eric’s “Water Musings” post
earlier this weekend but I didn’t want to hijack his blog with such a lengthy comment.)

 
Starting today, the City of Odessa has enacted even more stringent—some would say extreme—exterior watering restrictions for homeowners. That is, we’re allowed to water, via bubblers or by hand only, a scant 2 hours per week within a given 4 hour window. As you can imagine, area residents are doing a lot of hand-wringing over how they’ll even keep their trees & plants alive, much less their lawns.

Ah, the lawns. That’s the thing that’s really bothering me. Simply put, we have conditioned ourselves to an idyllic 50s-TV-inspired notion of what a home should look like. And it’s an unrealistic image that’s especially ultimately unsustainable when you live in the West Texas desert. We’ve convinced ourselves that a suburban home without a lush, green carpet of weedless turf is somehow much less cared about than those in the neighborhood that do have such. We’ve bought fully into the notion that the guy on the block with the best yard wins. And I’ll admit I’ve been as much a part of this problem as the next guy, having spent lots of money, time, and effort in years past to foster and maintain just such a showpiece front lawn.

Now of course, some locals are opting to have water wells drilled on their property so they can continue right on with the same watering practices, but that seems short-sighted at best and downright irresponsible at worst. Plus, there’s a reported 4 month average wait time now that so many are turning to this alternative source of water. And then there’s the considerable expense with little or no guarantee that a long-term personal supply of water actually does lie directly beneath your feet.

Perhaps it was inevitable that we’d run low enough on water that concessions would have to be made, but I think our civic leaders have done us a disservice in enacting severe water restrictions without first giving us homeowners some guidance on low-water (or no-water) alternatives. And likewise, the city officials should be offering some kind of incentives to those who opt for no-water solutions, as is common in many other areas of the country.

I certainly don’t want to concrete in the front yard and I’m less than crazy about crushed rock, and sadly, I’m not quite creative enough to visualize other, more attractive options. But certainly, I’m especially interested in alternatives that don’t negatively affect my property and/or resale value—and that’s something that a brown yard will almost surely do.

The artificial turf that’s available now looks and feels authentic, complete with little strands of dead thatch to complete the illusion. And it’s a long-term, nearly maintenance-free option. However, that plush, realistic synthetic lawn material must’ve been developed in a NASA lab, because they come with suborbital price tags! (Ya gotta wonder why the vendors offering this aren’t pricing their product more competitively to capitalize on the desperation of area homeowners.) And again, even if artificial turf were anywhere near affordable, that only goes to perpetuate the “lush lawn” stereotype that’s gotten into the jam we’re in.

So, if you’re in this area (or another with similar drought-stricken conditions), how do you plan to deal with the exterior water restrictions? And how does this shape your long-term home plans?

Ikea Pilgrimage

Ever since the dust settled on our move, Dede & I have been wanting a few pieces of furniture to round out our home office and replace some old mismatched stuff from our old house. So, we embarked on what’s quickly becoming one of our favorite road trips (from Odessa to Austin, via Brady) on Easter weekend to do some shopping at our favorite store—Ikea:

Round Rock, Texas Ikea store

We shopped, quite literally, until some of us dropped:

Shopping begins at the Round Rock, Texas Ikea store     Done shopping at the Round Rock, Texas Ikea store

We arrived at Ikea Round Rock near Austin with detailed shopping list in hand, having measured very carefully to ensure that everything we wanted would fit into the always deceptively-cavernous Element. As was the case with our Ikea Frisco trip nearly 5 years ago, we had the car loaded to the gills! (I even removed one of the back seats entirely to free up some extra cargo space!)

Loaded car at the Round Rock, Texas Ikea store

Of course, since nearly everything at Ikea is flat-packed, the adventure has only just begun once you get your haul home! With cordless drill, mallet, glue, and a deep breath, I started assembling stuff…

Here’s a glimpse of the first pieces put into service—our new Malm nightstands, which are hung on the wall with a pair of 18″ Hangman Picture Hanging System brackets, a.k.a. French Cleats (Thanks for that tip, Ryan!):

Ikea Malm nightstands

Watch for more photos of the Ikea furnishings as they come together and are in place!

Cloudy Forecast

Cloud computing is a concept that—if you haven’t already been hearing about—you’re certain to be inundated with in the coming months. Even the U.S. government has dubbed 2011 the “Year of the Cloud.” But there’s another type of computing cloud that’s also been looming on the horizon, building momentum, and is becoming popular even among non-techies: word clouds.

A word cloud (sometimes also referred to as a “text cloud” or “tag cloud”) is a visualization of word frequency in a given text (news articles, blog posts, love letters, whatever) as a weighted list. These graphical representations of words are usually constructed out of individual words (although short phrases can also be incorporated) and often use varying colors, font size or letter weight to emphasize more frequently-used words. A cloud can be free-form, but often the text is used to “draw” relevant shapes, so it’s sort of a hybrid of an informational chart and an eye-catching graphic.

(You can see my first foray into word clouds in my Word Up! post from a couple of years back.)

A couple of months ago, I discovered Hardy Leung’s fantastic new word cloud tool called Tagxedo via one of my favorite blogs, Gerard Vlemming’s The Presurfer.

Tagxedo is a web-based app that turns words—famous speeches, news articles, love letters, your website, whatever—into a visually stunning tag cloud, words individually sized appropriately to highlight the frequencies of occurrence within the body of text. It offers nearly-infinite customization of over a dozen different variables allowing you to create some truly unique & artistic word clouds.

For the best results with this, you’ll most likely need to tinker with the contrast and brightness of your source image. To achieve the desired effect, I punched up the contrast, converted Liam’s photo to greyscale, and applied some filters to make the shading even more sharply-defined. Once in Tagxedo, I found that I got better results with a larger pool of text that I had manually removed some of the really common words from (like “the,” “and,” “or,” and such) but I believe there’s even now a way to configure the app settings to do this for you. So the progression went something like this:

Word cloud image prep progression

So, armed with the cropped and heavily-tweaked version of a recent studio portrait of Liam, the text contents from our Russian Adoption Journal, and Tagxedo, I went to work. Once it had generated a cloud that I was especially pleased with, I saved it and printed the image on a very high-resolution laser printer loaded with high-grade linen paper. I used paper with a very pronounced texture to give the text a bit more character & interest. We mounted the print in a floating frame and hung it in our Den. The end result is, I think, really impressive!

Up close, the grouping of the word cloud text is interesting but it’s a bit tough to visualize the shading and form being suggested by the placement, size, and weight of the text:

Tagxedo word cloud image detailTagxedo word cloud



I urge you to visit Hardy’s Tagxedo blog for some usage tips, the Tagxedo Gallery for some stunning examples of what can be done, and finally, the 101 Ways to Use Tagxedo document for an in-depth tutorial.

I’ve discovered that, in the few weeks since I did our word cloud art project and started drafting this article (a few blog posts got pushed to the backburner in the hustle & bustle of the holidays), Hardy has made loads of additions and refinements to Tagxedo. But be forewarned: Although these updates do simplify and speed up the process, you can still easily fiddle away a few hours playing, tweaking & adjusting. But chances are, your cloudy results will blow you away!

Two For Tuesday: Painting Tools

I’ve done a few Tuesday Tool Twofers posts in the past to highlight software or web-based apps that I’ve come to rely upon. But this time, I’m breaking out of the digital realm and showcase a couple of “real” tools that I’ve been using lots lately.

Not long after we moved into Kirkwood Manor, we asked our trusty handyman Truett to replace a few of the old, cruddy interior doors. (The guy is a wizard, literally replacing a door, hardware and all, in less than 30 minutes!) Well, he took it upon himself to do all of them. Right, he swapped out every interior door in the place except for the bi-fold closet doors in our master bath! Now, the new 6-panel doors do look fantastic, and we were very pleasantly surprised to discover that he’d done them all, but it did leave us with one small problem…

Painting all of those newly-hung doors!

Months later, I’m finally getting some traction on that project. Painting is a bit of a chore anyway and the raised panel styling of these doors made that even more tedious a prospect. Add into the mix an eager-to-help 4 yr old, and you can begin to see why I dragged my heels on getting this started for so long. But I splurged on a tool that’s making a huge difference: the Graco Spray Station 2900.

Graco Spray Station HV2900

The Graco is working very well! I do have to thin out the latex paint to get to a viscosity suitable for spraying, and this took a little trial & error to get just right. Otherwise though, I’m very happy with this! It’s an easy-to-use paint spraying system that requires minimal adjustments. And cleanup—the thing I feared the most—is much easier than I had imagined.

So, I’ve got a makeshift assembly-line setup (complete with Dexter-inspired plastic sheeting) in the fenced off carport behind Liam’s room where I’m knocking out the doors 2 or 3 at a time:

spraypainting interior doors

Wooster Painter's CombIn keeping with the painting theme, the 2nd tool that’s become an essential part of my toolkit is a very inexpensive gadget I read about in Family Handyman magazine (a very practical Christmas gift, courtesy of my bro Rich!) called a painter’s comb.

I found mine, a Wooster brand, at Home Depot for about $5 and it makes cleaning out paint brushes a breeze! The stainless steel pins work paint out of the interior of the brush and reshape the bristles after washing so they dry straight & flat. This tool will help you get lots more mileage out of your brushes!

Some painting tips we’ve picked up along the way:

  • Splurge on better brushes. They yield much better results when painting, clean up easier, and hold their shape better if you clean them thoroughly (with a painter’s comb, of course!).
  • If you’re going to leave your brush idle for even 5-10 minutes, toss it in a ziplock baggie and squeeze out as much air as you can. This will help prevent the paint from setting up within the bristles, which makes cleaning all the more difficult.
  • Forget the evil blue masking tape and instead go green! Get some Frog Tape for masking off areas when painting around trim molding, cabinets, etc.
  • You can keep your paint cans clean, dribble-free, and easy to reopen by snapping one of these inexpensive spout stretchers on the inner rim before pouring the paint into a tray or other container. These little gems are only about a buck at nearly any home improvement store and while they call them “disposable,” they’ll last forever with a little care.

Have any tools that you find indispensable? Let us know about ’em! Any painting tips you’d care to share? Please leave a comment!

When Life Gives You Trees, Make Firewood

It’s been suggested that chopping down a tree in barren West Texas could be considered a sin.

Well brother, if that’s true, we are sinners!

Unquestionably, the biggest, most aggravating, ongoing chore we’ve had since moving into our wonderful Kirkwood Manor has been keeping the swimming pool clean & free of debris. The big old oak tree in the back yard was perpetually dropping something—we were overwhelmed with bucketloads of leaves back in March & April, pesky little pods scattered by the handfuls daily during Spring & Summer, some kind of cottony fluff started falling during late Summer, and of course there were a couple of different types of seeds & acorns that dropped off the tree almost all the time (for which the neighborhood squirrels were very thankful). Especially bothersome, the high tannin (yup, the same acidic compound that gives your mouth that dry, puckery feeling when you drink wine) content causes oak debris to quickly leave nasty rust-colored stains in the pool and surrounding decking.

Even beyond the constantly-falling tree debris, the tree’s roots had already caused some minor damage to the concrete decking that the previous owners had patched up. There was every reason to believe that the this would only continue to worsen since the tree was just a couple of inches from the decking and less than 6′ from the pool itself. And I’m a little surprised that this hadn’t already caused any problems with the pool’s plumbing. Really, whoever had the pool installed should’ve removed the tree at that time.

But maybe worst of all, the big oak tree almost completely shaded the swimming pool except during early morning and evening hours, so even at the peak of Summer in triple-digit West Texas heat, the water was still a bit chilly.

Even as much as Dede & I both really hated the thought of getting rid of a big, thriving shade tree, we finally decided that, for the sake of enjoying the pool and prolonging the life of the pool plumbing & filter equipment—and preserving the pool cleaner’s (that would be me) sanity—the tree needed to go. So, last week, I found a really nice tree guy, Seth Moore, who had the gear to tackle the job, offered to do it for a reasonable price and came highly recommended. And down the mighty oak went…

oak tree

The mighty oak tree in its previous glory

cutting down an oak tree - day 1

Tree removal progress - Day 1

About halfway through Day 1, I got a call from Seth reassuring me that, “The firemen said there’s no problem. These things just happen.” I instantly had visions of smoldering embers in a pile where our new house had previously been. Fortunately, the house was in no danger, but the tip of a large branch had snagged a nearby high-voltage power line and snapped it, causing all manner of chaos. Fire department crew and electric company linemen in large “bucket trucks” ascended on the scene to restore service to the neighborhood.

When we came home from work that day to survey the progress, we saw a whole row of birds perched on the nearby power line—yeah, the very same one—and I’m fairly sure they were cussing us fiercely over the loss of their beloved tree.

cutting down an oak tree - day 2

Tree removal progress - Day 2

Keen-eyed readers will also notice that the pool water went from sparkling, clear blue to a brackish, black swampy catastrophe by day 3. Yup, there’s nothing like a 40′ tree’s worth of sap, sawdust, and stray clippings to thoroughly wreck a swimming pool. So, the cleanup begins again. Seems even on its way out, that danged ol’ tree was determined to get one last cruel dig at me!

oak tree removed

Day 3 - All gone!

What else is left in the wake of this carnage? Lots of firewood! My best guess is that we probably ended up with well beyond a full cord of wood but from according to what we’ve heard & read, it probably won’t be “seasoned” enough to use in the fireplace for nearly a year.

oak firewood

oak firewood

Wonder if this is going to negatively affect my Arbor Day Foundation membership…

Let There Be Light

We’ve been in our “new” house just over 6 months now and we’re finally starting to wrap up a few little projects that we had put off to make way for the bigger ticket items. We love having a nice, big formal dining room and we use it almost exclusively for mealtimes. Liam uses the table for coloring with crayons or squishing Play-Doh. I suppose we don’t use it in a very formal fashion, but we do use the room a lot!

We’ve never been too fond of the rustic chandelier in there though. The size of the fixture was nicely proportioned for the room, but the style just wasn’t “us” at all.

rustic dining room chandelier

We wanted a bit more modern-looking light in brushed nickel or steel finish, but those we found at the local stores were way too expensive, so we just waited. Finally, Rob found the Pierce Brushed Steel Nine-Light chandelier at Bellacor.com, a web-based lighting & decor showroom. This new fixture is the right scale for the room, the glass shades really brighten up the space, and was available at a price that couldn’t be beat:

brushed nickel dining room chandelier

Best of all, Rob was able to install it in just a few minutes (with some welcome help from Ryan, a.k.a. “Mr. I Can Touch The Ceiling Without a Ladder.”)

You can see a bit more of our dining room progress and photos of other areas of the house via the interactive floorplan that Rob has been working on here. You can click a room on the diagram to see what we’ve done in each area. Note that many of the rooms don’t yet have a project page, but those will be online very soon, so check back in the coming days & weeks for more updates.