Friday, July 30, 2010

The Noren



The Japanese mount a short curtain across the top of a doorway to define space. A spring rod from the hardware store would be an easy way to support a simple panel of unbleached muslin. Folded over the rod, the fabric would soften this expedient row of lights. I pulled the shower curtain across the space to show what a noren (“no-wren’”) might do.

To get the most from your lighting dollar, keep the bulbs clean. With a noren in place, it would not be hideous to try daylight fluorescent bulbs or clear incandescent ones. Changing to utility bulbs would free these pricey ones for other sockets.

A noren would not diminish the dressing value of these lights-there isn’t any. Close work with make-up can happen in another room with a grooming kit and portable light, relieving pressure during morning take-off. An LED clip light or two resting on one of the shelves in the medicine cabinet will support a close shave or efforts with a blow dryer.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

French Vanilla


Housekeeping week continues its look at a freshly rehabbed rent-controlled bathroom. This is a pretty decent job, considering. It wouldn’t hurt to paint out those plastic towel bars, replace them with white ones, or at least detail the tiny spots that found their way onto the stock.

If I were in a hurry, I’d try covering a spot with a permanent black marker, and I’d look for consistency in the towels. This room is a good argument for buying white towels that can be bleached and finding entertainment value in something else. Coherent linens make even modest quarters look dignified and well considered.

Mounting a mirror on the back of the door would improve eating habits and expand the space in the room. The landlord would want you to leave the mirror, but it would be worth it.

A quick ploy would be to cover the panel behind the towel racks with a venturesome poster trimmed to size. Bold graphics would pull together the racks and miscellaneous collection of towels. Roll blue painter’s tape into a short cylinder to mount a poster invisibly, but as always, check with the management. Liquid laundry starch is an easily reversed adhesive that doesn’t mar paint. Test it in an obscure area.

These racks are a convenient place to hang clothing when bathing in this room, so it might make sense to have few towels on display.

This building was constructed as a small hotel of luxury suites, and the hardware reflects its origins. Under all those coats of paint are undoubtedly fine chromed brass fittings-the shape is the giveaway. It may not be worth one’s time to detail someone else’s fittings, but a little constructive procrastination would pay off. Spray a minor part, like a screw, with oven cleaner to see what's under the goop, bearing in mind that any paint older than 1970 has heavy metal in it.

I never could put my finger on why, uh, affordable quarters look the way they do until I read the painting chapter in the U.S.Navy’s Bluejacket’s Manual, the maritime Joy of Cooking. I learned that anything that’s meant to be shiny should not be covered with paint. Getting the bright work right makes the whole paint job look better, whereas perfect paint and walls with sloppy hardware will never look finished.

-30- More after the jump.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Rear-View Mirror



Puttering week's third project is the medicine cabinet. A small investment in reflective glass pays huge dividends in an ordinary bathroom. It’s surprisingly cheap to have mirror cut to order. A frame shop can probably oblige, and they may carry featherweight acrylic mirror. Give them a paper pattern. It’s easy to hold a page of newsprint up to the area to be fitted and run a fingernail around the margin, scoring a line to be cut later on. Make the pattern to exact size and then trim it a bit smaller to allow a comfortable margin of error. Mark the right side of the pattern and ask if the edges of the glass can be burnished for safety.

A square sized to fill the panel on the back of this medicine cabinet door would, for starters, shave quite a few seconds off the dressing process. Mount it with tape. Lining the back of the cabinet with mirror would afford a rear view when grooming, improve the light, add depth to the space, and set off toiletries. One could hang hiker’s grooming kits from a towel bar to conceal utilitarian gear and allow fast exits when traveling. And best of all, a snoopy guest will find a witness.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Air Shaft


Housekeeping week continues with a look at ventilation. This is a good building-there’s no junk at the bottom of the air shaft. It’s also a rent-controlled building, so it might not be realistic to expect careful detailing on this window of very old textured glass.

The building was originally a small hotel of luxury suites. Conceiving of the apartment as a choice short-term rental rather than an inadequate substitute for a tract house gives the space a chance to shine on its own terms.

It’s amazing that the glass is as clean as it is, since there are around a hundred and twenty years of paint on the sash. The light that shines through this window is a little dreary, because there’s urban fallout on the outside of the panes. If I weren’t pressed for time, I’d detail the landlord’s glass with carefully tested paint remover. I’d probably get written permission to test the process and then use a soft brush to get the glass clean.

Failing that, I’d spray the glass with window cleaner, let it sit for a minute, and use a soft brush to get the texture as clean as I could. It would probably take several rounds to do that. I’d wash the brush, dry it, and burnish the glass to get it dry and clean. I might have to repeat that process, too. Cutting short the natural bristles of a cheap disposable paint brush will give you a good tool for this job. Hold it by the ferrule like a toddler grasping a spoon.

This window deserves a navy curtain: two spring-mounted rods from the hardware store holding in tension a simple panel of, say, unbleached muslin about twice the width of the sash. Sew two tubes near the top and bottom wide enough to slip in the spring rods. A local dry cleaner may have a seamstress on the staff who can run a couple of straight seams for you, or you can sew by hand along a a pencil line. Google how to sew by hand. Leave an inch or so margin outside the top and bottom tubes to form a casual ruffle when the curtain is installed. The ruffle will forgive minor misjudgments of length, and it will block air flow from the shaft, allowing the curtain to function as a low-tech filter.

An urban curtain like this one should have a backup unit, because fallout from the street will quickly dirty the one in place. This is good: it means that soot is not going up the tenants’ noses or onto the floor. Soak a dirty curtain in cold water for an hour or so to loosen the dirt before washing it. The so-called “glass curtains” that hung between the window and the draperies in old-fashioned interiors were there to screen the daylight view and filter sooty air. In the Fifties, these curtains were made of a nearly indestructible fine white nylon mesh, one of the first uses of nylon, inspiring when fresh and deeply depressing when dingy. A fine mesh would filter the air more freely than light cotton muslin.

If you want to do only the minimum, it would probably work to get a couple of spring rods and a package of cheesecloth from the grocery. Use double-sided mounting tape to lash the cheesecloth to the rods, finagling ruffles or at least a flap to screen the sill from grit.

If there’s very little energy for this project, finesse a curtain, wash the window, and skip the detailing. But do something, because what’s here looks neglected, and filtering the air will eliminate most of the maintenance in this space.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Scut Work


In the past, English families of privilege would move to modest quarters during warm weather so that the staff could do heavy maintenance in the big house. Living away was called keeping secret house. I like to shut the world out for a week or two in July and see to details that raise my standard of living for almost no dough. It’s a vacation of sorts and refreshing, that lets me live much faster the rest of the year.

Since this is a development property, I put capital only into home improvements that are strictly necessary. Consequently, the house is a good working lab for tenant dodges that make a rental more congenial. An old art school buddy came by for the first time a couple of months ago, walked through the rooms, and called out every move I’ve made. This week’s posts are devoted to unglamorous chores with a big payoff.

The lead eyesore is the bathroom sink in a rent-controlled building in San Francisco. Renewing a sink is simple. Put on gloves. It doesn’t hurt to keep disposable vinyl ones near each sink. Latex will compost, but there’s a risk of developing an allergy. Change your toothbrush and use the old one to scrub details with liquid detergent or shampoo. Keep a light touch, so the brush doesn’t flick little dots of cleaner all over the place. Detail faucets, drains, and finally the toilet hinges and base every time you change your brush, or oftener. It’s distasteful work, but I’m too proud not to do it. Keeping the edges clean makes a spectacular, subliminal difference in the way a room feels. Wear eye protection for suspenders and belt security. Throw away the brush when you’re finished.

This is a good sink, made of cast-iron with a thick layer of enamel baked onto it. It’s been doing its job for about a hundred and twenty years. The white enamel probably has lead in it, because it’s so old. A surface like this is tender, so experiment to find out what will erase the rust. Start by filling the sink with uncomfortably hot water and detergent. Let it soak until the water begins to cool, drain it, and scrub gently with part of a pad of 0000 steel wool, the secret weapon. A light touch is the secret part. I find that fine steel wool short-circuits most of the toxic, expensive cleaning products carried in grocery and hardware stores. It does miracles with old chrome and gookie on paint. Store it in a zip-top plastic bag.

It may be necessary to scrub several times. Turn and pull at the pad to keep fresh fibers at work. Be judicious in your efforts. The rust may not disappear completely the first time you tackle it. There are powerful rust-removing products on the market. I tried one on my claw-foot tub, and it left dirty pockmarks around the overflow vent. That was a long time ago, and since I’ve been using fine steel wool to clean the tub, the stains are gradually disappearing. The brightwork on the fittings looks better, too, all the time.

The trick in a bathroom is to get it clean and then keep it clean with the things you use to clean yourself. Wipe the fixtures every morning with a towel that’s on its way into the hamper. You can go for years without heavy cleaning if you do this. Sanitize with rubbing alcohol, zip away soap residue with vinegar, and massage the tub after a bath or many showers with fine steel wool and ordinary hand soap or shampoo.

As a gift to my host, I cleaned the tub in this week’s bathroom. It too is enameled cast-iron and was so far gone, it looked like filthy marble. Half an hour’s aerobics turned the drain to gold and left the surface like a clean sheet of paper, unavoidably porous but pristine and slip-resistant. The manager called on my host to discuss having the bathtub resurfaced, and it was sweet to witness her reaction. The old tub won’t be as easy to clean as new epoxy, but it will be safer. Saving it is a kindness to a rent-controlled building.

I have learned much from my host, a fastidious man who maintains that a rubber duck is a personal item. The world is more elegant than when that tub was new and a slavey kept it looking good by grinding away the surface with pumice. We’re still abrading, but the rate is slower and the going is easier.

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More after the jump.