You have to give in order to get.

I spent my day yesterday torturing graduate students at Pratt – I was a critic for design juries.  I even introduced myself with “good morning victims.”  I apologized in advance for scarring them for life.  Little did I know it may have actually happened.

There were nine students.  7 of them had serious problems with their projects of varying degrees.  At least one of them was what I’d consider a disaster.  Of the two successful projects, only one of them was both successful and potentially realistic enough to work without significant alterations to the plan. Almost none of them got out of the 2d phase.  They just ran out of time to pull it up and work with it properly.  Im fairly sure they all hate me now, but I’m used to that.

The truth though is that none of this was their fault (and if you’re one of those students reading this right now? Yes, I told your professor that, and he told HIS chair that.  I’m about to stick up for you guys, because I don’t think what happened was your doing.)

I was told  “They’re grad students, they should be able to do this.   If they don’t have the information they should know to go look for it.”  No.  This statement presupposes that they were *taught* how to do this – and not in their current studio(because they weren’t, due to lack of time), but at some previous, unknown point that may or may not have ever happened in undergrad.  In order to look up the information, they need to know what the hell they’re looking FOR. Was *I* taught how to do the kind of project these students were handed? Yes.  I hated *EVERY MOMENT* of that semester, but I learned it.  But these students I saw yesterday are not me.  I don’t know where they went to undergrad.  Many of them did not get their undergraduate degrees in the US.  You cannot presuppose what they have learned, and to expect them to draw upon knowledge based on lessons that may never have been taught is fundamentally unfair.  The problem is the program.

Confused yet?  Let me show you:

A twice divorced investment banker in his early 70’s has bought the top floor and penthouse of a residential
building in Chelsea, in the hopes of enticing his daughter and son-in-law with their young children to move into
the space if he offers to renovate the two floors into two separate apartments. Although he is a young 72 year
old, he realizes that in another 10 to 15 years, he may want or need to have his family close. He plans to
create two living quarters, giving his children privacy, but is also interested in the possibility of some shared
space- even if only the lobby on the top floor. With the offer of free babysitting services, he has convinced his
daughter and son-in-law to move into the building.

He has slowed his business to pursue his passion of collecting indigenous ceramics from Northern Europe.
Through his extensive travels, he has acquired a taste for all things culinary. He likes to cook and have
intimate dinner parties.

His daughter is a sales manager with as well as the mother of two children, a four year
old son and a six month old daughter. She has negotiated a schedule which allows her to work at home four
days a week. His son-in-law is a high school biology teacher who fancies himself a lepidopterist, and has a
significant butterfly collection.

You are to design two apartments situated on the fifth floor and the penthouse level at 33/35 West 26th Street in
Manhattan. Two floors of two buildings operating as one residential complex are the locus of your investigation into the
nature of public and private space for a multigenerational residence. Consider notions of community and domesticity
in an urban context while addressing the distribution of spaces between the two apartments and the two floors as ways
to connect, separate, and identify, activity and identity. Consider materiality driven concept development as well as the
nature of collections and the objects of daily life as they make and mark the interior. Focus also on an investigation of
the impact of color, texture, joinery, and application of materials in the definition of identity and space.

General Requirements
The site includes the area indicated on the attached plans. This penthouse level roof decks are also part of the site.

You must maintain the existing elevator core and fire stairs in both 33 and 35 West 26 street.

A portion of the bearing wall that separates #33 from #35 may be removed, but not the whole wall. The structural
framing between floors consists of 2” x 14” joists @ 16” on center spanning east and west from the center bearing wall.

No additional exterior enclosures on the roof deck are allowed, but the design of the exterior area is encouraged.

A 5th floor lobby will serve as the entrance to both apartments.

Consideration should be paid to the distribution of the space between the two apartments (one duplex, and one top
floor, one penthouse and one top floor, two duplexes, etc.) and the shared space(s) for the extended family.

The shared space should include the lobby on the top floor but could include more – a shared living area, roof deck(s)
on the penthouse level, etc.

Program Requirements
Shared Lobby Area
Storage for bikes (up to 5)
Recycling and trash storage area

Apartment #1
Coat closet, Powder room
Seating for 8 (minimum), sound system
Table for 8 (expandable to 12), serving surface, storage for table linens, china, glassware and silver
Counter space for dining, range, dishwasher, refrigerator/freezer, appliances, sink, storage of food, cookware,
and silverware; trash and recycling bins
Washer, dryer, iron, counter space for folding clothes
Master Bedroom
King size bed, side tables, dresser, closet/storage of clothing
Master Bath
2 sinks, WC and bidet, bathtub and shower, linen closet, storage
Desk space for 2 plus necessary technology (computers, phones, printer, etc,), storage for books and files,
sound system and TV
Children’s Bedroom(s)
Bed(s), bedside table, storage for clothes, toys and books
Children’s Playroom
Seating, work/play surface, storage for toys, games and art supplies, sound system and TV
Children’s Bathroom
2 sinks, WC, bathtub and shower, storage

Apartment #2
Coat closet
Seating and dining for 6 (minimum); serving surface, storage for table linens, and silver, counter space for
dining, range, dishwasher, refrigerator/freezer, appliances, sink, storage of food, cookware, silverware, and
china, glassware, trash and recycling bins, sound system

Master Bedroom
King size bed, side tables, dresser, closet/storage of clothing
Master Bath
Sink, WC, bathtub and shower, linen closet, storage
Work space
Desk space plus necessary technology, storage for books and files
Display and storage of art collection

Project Requirements
Process: Sketch models, drawings
Plans at both levels @ 1/4” = 1’-0”
Sections @1/4” = 1’-0”
Elevations @ 3/8” = 1’-0”
Final Model @ 1/4” = 1’-0”
Detail model at 1” = 1’-0”
Detail Elevation or Section/Elevation of wall(s) that demarcate or join the two apartments at 1” = 1’-0”

Requirements above are minimums. Students are, as always, required to determine beyond the required forms of
representation & process what might be required to adequately, poetically describe their projects.

Project Goals
1 To study and apply the principals of universal design to spaces of dwelling.
2 To engage the relationship between furnishings, selected or designed, and interior conditions and affects
3 To explore materiality and its impact upon spatial experience while also considering the affect of specific material(s)
on construction and detailing.
4 The acoustical properties necessary to support the activities of the various spaces

Project Objectives
1 To explore the spatial relationships between private and public space in residential design
2 To engage the potential emotional and psychological connection to the interior
3 To address the intersection of technology and contemporary lifestyles

Gather/ Evaluate/ Synthesize/ Apply: appropriate and necessary information, research and/or precedents.


So let’s talk about what is so fundamentally unfair about this.  :

1 To study and apply the principals of universal design to spaces of dwelling.

Let’s *start* here.  Universal Design is not something you throw someone into without making *damned sure* it was actually TAUGHT at some point.  Designing for aging/elderly/aging in place is not something you toss people at and say “wing it.”  This is a real and specific subset of design.  There’s an entire industry devoted to it. There’s architects and designers who do *nothing but this thing*. This is NOT something you presuppose when you have students coming from wildly diverse backgrounds and educational experiences. YOU HAVE TO TEACH IT.

The social dynamics in this project are *VERY* complicated.  The dynamics of multigenerational living in a modern western framework (where it is not an expected norm) are complicated all by themselves.  Further, you have two children of opposing gender here.  Sure, they’re little now- but last I heard kids grow up.  The concept of being able to design for children in an adaptable way is not something you pull out of your ass. You have to have been taught it.  One might HOPE that it happened in undergrad, but unless you know that (I don’t know, try asking?) there’s no way to determine whether or not this is true.

Oh wait, that wasn’t complicated enough:

With the offer of free babysitting services, he has convinced his daughter and son-in-law to move into the building.

This right here is a sentence fraught with tension.  Of course since the students were in way over their heads on this, all of them had a hard time even addressing this little gem, so they mostly ignored it, pretending that everyone was happy to be living together.  Though they struggled (and for some values of the word) succeeded in dealing with issues of privacy, this sentence tells you something that goes beyond a mere privacy issue. This is a *reluctant* situation.

Oh wait, still not done. Let’s talk about the class related social dynamics here.

Grandfather? Loaded.

Daughter? Also loaded.

Son in law? High school biology teacher, now living with father in law where FIL is the patriarch and owns the house.  Predictably, 8 of the 9 students seemed to have forgotten *he existed*, which you know probably would mimic his feelings day to day anyway.

None of these complex social relationships was explored.  They got handed this hot mess and told to make sense of it without finding out what sort of lessons had been taught previously.  When I questioned the fairness(and sanity) of this, I was told there was no time to impart the lessons.

Well then, don’t give the project.  Don’t set students up to fail.  It was clear that no matter how bright, talented or otherwise good these students were, the one who actually nailed the project had been *taught* these lessons as an undergrad (I should have asked her where she went.)  Further, she was from the US- she had no cultural barrier. She had no language barrier.

I don’t enjoy doing residential design. I am *good* at it and people like my work, but it’s not really my thing.  However- residential design is SOCIAL design.  It is *culturally complex*.  It has a framework in culture, in time, in location.  It must adapt, and be flexible.  If you aren’t going to teach that yourself, the least you could do is make sure your students have been taught it elsewhere.

Meantime if you overlook the entire aging in place aspect to this project, which really seems to be its ultimate focus, you may as well skip the whole thing- the students will be lost without those lessons.  This is NOT the project you hand people who have never designed for an older/aging person before.  It’s not. It’s got too many complex variables, and you’re not teaching them any of them nor giving them enough time to get it right.

You have to *give the lessons* in order to *get back successful projects*.

This is not their fault.  It’s their school’s fault.






How to start this..

One of the primary reasons (at least in the top two, anyway) I got a Second Life account way back in 2008 was to be able to create designs, that while virtual, could still be used, walked through and (let’s be honest) paid for(this is me, after all- I didn’t suddenly become someone else.).  I wanted to be able to work out potential design problems in 3d space, create walkthroughs and identify trends.  It just took a long time for me to get to the point where I could consistently do that. But this year I seem to have arrived at that place, at least the beginning of it.

There’s a strong architectural community in SL. A lot of RL/SL networking, social interaction, etc.  All of that is a little hard for me.  I’m not exactly the most social individual in the world (stop laughing, all of you. I have a gift of understatement. Shh.)  I’m not much more comfortable at an SL networking party than I am at one in RL.   In SL things can be painfully slow.  The modeling tools are clunky, there’s a steep initial learning curve and most people never make a nickel out of the SL economy, so in that sense I’ve beaten the odds- but it took a long time to get there, and most people wouldn’t bother. On many days I wonder why *I* bother, so I don’t fault anyone else for not wanting to.

But back to Virtuatecture.  See, what virtuatecture ISN’T, is Architecture. I want to make that really, really clear because fundamentally they’re not the same thing. When you remove the laws of physics, problems of sustainability, budget and zoning, but apply other limitations (hello, prim count, primitive manipulation limits and script lag) to how you design/build a thing, that process changes and becomes something else.  It’s all still design process- that doesn’t change, but it’s not Architecture.  Virtuatecture might have some similarities but it’s not the same thing at all, and I’m always mildly shocked when people who design structures in SL call themselves Architects (assuming they’re not architects in meatspace, of course.) Then again, I’m shocked when people who call themselves designers aren’t designers either, but that’s an old rant.

Virtuatecture is the process of creating structures (whatever they may be) in a virtual environment that are going to be used within that environment solely (again, laws of physics will prevent you from porting them out.) I’ve been doing a lot of that lately.  I’ve also been designing a *lot* of furniture lately (I really need to figure out a prototyping solution, seriously.  There’s an ICFF booth calling my name, if I can get that stuff prototyped and con Bethany into manning the booth (you didn’t think it would be me, right?)

Anyway, back to virtuatecture. What’s also interesting, besides the creation/design process of it all, is watching what people want to *buy*.  Witnessing the trends of what people want, what sells and what doesn’t sell is really interesting.  I don’t think I have nearly enough raw data yet to draw realistic or sound conclusions, but that will come in time.  It’s also interesting (maybe) to note that the house *I* live in in SL, is a warehouse loft with a watertower on top.  Even with anything in all the realms of imagination to choose from, I will always go for that.

Since the beginning of this year, I and my building partner (I do the designs, he does the builds) have released one house a week.  For those unfamiliar with time frames in SL, that’s a *brutal* schedule.  Really, truly brutal.  So much so that if we can keep it up for an entire year, we would have more different house designs than almost anyone on the grid, and most people who create houses have been doing it for much longer.  This doesn’t include all the design/build work we do for specialized club venues, which happen at a rate of about 3 per month on average.  It’s a blistering pace.

What we’ve stayed away from (and will continue to stay away from except for one-off custom structures) are building things like enormous castles, which are ubiquitous within the SL environment and frankly bore me to *tears*. My issue with the things other than the tedium of them is about ego and prim limits.  For those who just got confused- on every (full) sim in SL you are allotted 15000 “parts” with which to create objects, called primitives.  The demand for these huge (have I mentioned boring?) castles is staggering.  But the issues begin when you try to FILL them.  There’s no real way to fill the things up without blowing your prim count, so what they are most of the time are big empty warehouses, serving no purpose but to look imposing and impressive. They’re a facade of ego, and nothing more.  I can’t be bothered- I’d rather build houses people live in. They may be much smaller, but you can actually fill them with things and they don’t feel barren.  They’re just like houses (except you know, kitchens don’t translate well, and you have no need for closets.)

So far, Ive found the process to be really good for keeping my design muscles flexible- design process is design process no matter the thing in question.  So here’s some of the houses done so far.

Yes, all the houses have interiors too, don’t be silly.

So that’s part of what I’ve been up to lately.

Furniture Project part 8: The finish and the finish.

I know this has been a very long time in coming.  In truth, the cabinet was finished before Gothmas, but until recently it had things sitting on top of it, preventing me from getting good photos of it conveniently as a finished product. Then when I finally did get photos, I was also working on eggs(still doing that, btw) and  this post loomed in the back of my mind.

But I’d like to finish it up, so here goes.

When last we left the cabinet, I was babbling on about perfection and how ultimately boring it is.

I had finished all the mosaic work and the only thing really left was to put finish coats on it.  This is where I get frustrated and threaten to shave all the cats.  But assuming you can manage to do this without losing your sanity, here’s how it goes.  I’m only going to show you how this works on one side of the cabinet, because it’s the same process for all of them.

So first off, the cabinet’s been rotated a number of times while it was worked on.  It’s been handled, touched, jumped on by cats and generally abused throughout this entire recycling process.  So it needs some touchups.




Ok, with me now? You can see from these various shots that there were areas where the stain needed to be fixed up.  Not difficult to understand.  But before I can do that I need to get all the accumulated dust, cat hair and other random detritus off of the surface I’m about to work on.  That takes a tack rag.

For those who don’t know what a tack rag is, it’s a piece of cheesecloth (lint-free, yo.) that has been impregnated with a small amount of finish (usually a very, very weak spit coat of shellac/alcohol or poly/thinner) so it’s just sticky.  You run it over the surface of your piece and the dust and other assorted crap stick to the surface of the rag.  You can make them yourself. It’s really easy.  Frankly, I find it also really easy to grab one for 79 cents, too, which is what I did. You open it up, wad it into a loose ball and gently go to town on the surface.  If an area gets full, rewad, and find a cleaner spot.

It’s a lot better looking once it’s clean, even when you haven’t done anything else to it. You can see how much ick and overstain comes off onto the rag.



Once that’s accomplished(and don’t wait too long cause it will only get covered in crap again…) I touched up the areas that needed more stain with a small brush. Fortunately, I’m not too invested in how even the stain coat is.


Let it dry as you would with any other stain coat. Once it’s dry enough to finish over, you need to decide what kind of finish you’re going to put on your piece.  This is not always an easy choice, and I’m going to divert here to explain that.

Folks, not everything in the world needs to be covered in polyurethane.  As happens *THIS* piece is, but again, there’s choices to be made here.  However this is something you should understand, and I will put it in big, bold letters:

Do not cover fine furniture in polyurethane.

Do not cover fine furniture in polyurethane.

Do not cover fine furniture in polyurethane.

Repeat as necessary.  Polyurethane is a lovely thing. However it’s not a reversible thing, and as such it’s NOT SUITABLE for fine antiques.  Polyurethane has problems. There is no way to repair it if the finish breaks. It’s impossible to actually remove.  It’s problematic and if you bring your fine piece in later for repair the restorers will give you That Look, and for good reason, since you’ve largely handed them Mission Impossible.  Polyurethane is a cheap, all purpose coating that is very hard wearing. But it’s not, not, not to be used for fine furniture.  Fine furniture does quite well with shellac and a bit of wax for protection, or a natural varnish or other resin finish.  Those things are reversible and repairable.  Poly? Forget it.

THIS piece is covered in poly because it’s from fucking IKEA and made of MDF. I got it for *free* and cats are going to leap all over the damned thing.  THAT is why *this* piece has poly on it.  However my good carved 1918 chair in the back room?  Wax.   With me now?


But you still have to decide how shiny you want your piece to be, no matter what you use. Matte? Semi-gloss? Gloss?  A gloss like a bowling alley in the sun?  I chose the latter, because most of the room it’s in is at best a combination of dead matte and a light gloss (the walls are venetian plaster, but they only have light wax- they’re not really glossy) The floor is a semi gloss.  The ceilings and floors are *black*, and on its best day this room doesn’t get a ton of light.  (in the winter it’s ridiculous since the windows face west, it may as well be a cave.).  So anything that will reflect light around the room a little? That works for me.

I used a foam brush (no brushmarks) to apply a first coat of finish.  It’s not very impressive looking afterward, honestly.


Ok big deal.  That’s one coat down.  Four zillion to go. But what is important is what happens between the coats.   See, your furniture has flaws. It’s not dead level. You’ll have missed spots.  It looks like HELL and now you can see just how uneven it all is, because the light bounces off the surface differently highlighting each one.

That’s okay. That’s why we have 400 grit silicon carbide wet/dry sandpaper to the rescue.  Also, apparently, a pink plastic cup of water.


The whole thing with using wet paper is that there should be a “suction” that happens where the paper meets the surface that keeps the paper flat.  Remember to rinse off your paper often to unclog it. Now, I’m trying to eliminate anything resembling grain, so I’m using an orbital sanding motion.  Don’t worry about the water on the surface.  It’s going to show you something important in just a few moments.


What you’ll start to see is where your high spots are, because they will now be matte.  Your low spots will still be glossy.  Ideally, the entire surface will be the same. But that doesn’t really happen on the first coat of finish.  You’re trying to cut the high areas, and build up the low ones.  Since I have no grain to care about , I can use an orbital sanding  pattern, which you can see in the photos.  Folks, don’t use an orbital pattern on bare wood- go with the grain.  Finish coats COVER grain- you’re trying to make a flat surface, which is the critical difference.


What will also happen is a white residue will appear on the surface. Don’t panic, that’s supposed to happen. It’s the powdered finish you’ve removed, mixed with the water on the paper to make a paste. It will come off with a tack rag. Promise.


Speaking of tack rags,  use yours and clean this mess up again. Now it looks like piebald shit. Great. You’re by now cursing my name and wondering why you listened to me.  Patience, padawan.

What comes next is a whole lot of lather, rinse, repeat.  Same steps over and over. What is important to know though is to brush your finish on *in the opposite direction* from whichever way you started.  So if you went the long way the first time? Go the short way the second.  All your odd numbered coats go one way, and all your evens the other.  You are trying to avoid ridges and get an even coat.  Generally one uses an odd number of coats.  Normally 3 will do it, but it really, really depeneds on the piece, because again, ideally, as you’re sanding the last between coat your piece should be a uniform gray all over, indicating a flat surface.  You can tell when you’re getting close. Once that happens, switch to a 600 grit paper rather than a 400.  If you really want to have a glass finish, go to a 1200 after that. I don’t need to for a piece like this. 600 was as far as I got.   But as to the whole lather, rinse, repeat thing:


With each coat you’ll see a more uniform surface. But it takes a while to get there.





You can see here, after several coats, that the finish is starting to become much more level and even.


In the end, though, it’s really about where you say “Okay, good enough.”  Which for me, was here:

Finally, finished.

Once the top was finally done, I put on a coat of wax. Honestly? It’s plain old garden variety Turtle Wax, like the kind you’d use on your car.  Works just fine.  I waxed the top because it gets foot traffic from the cats and needs more protection. I wax it whenever I can feel it starting to tack up as I dust(if you’ve ever gone bowling regularly, you know when this point is, because you get stuck and practically kill yourself as you try to release the ball when your shoes stop and the rest of you keeps moving.)

So, this is it:

To remind everyone where this piece started…


And now, it looks like this:

So that wraps this one up.

What’s next? I have a table design I need to work out, I’m still working on eggs, and I am also trying to get a built in bookcase ready for finishing.

That should keep me busy a while.

Furniture project part 7: The pursuit of perfection.

So here’s the thing.

I finished the top of the case a couple weeks ago. The only thing I have to do now is the finishing part and putting it all back together. I haven’t yet because I need a tack rag (which I know yes, I can make myself..) and I need a couple of foam brushes (no brushmarks, yo.). But I’ll get to that. What I wanted to talk about really, is this point. This point in any project where all that’s left is the finishing. and once the finish goes on, you’re kinda stuck with what’s underneath it. So you’re looking over your project and NOW, this moment, is the one where you’re looking at it with a super critical eye to see if there’s anything you should do over again. You’re looking for something that needs fixing. You’re looking for flaws.

Don’t get me wrong. There are times when things really should be flawless. Those times certainly exist. If you’re making a new piece of furniture, custom, from scratch, for sale. Flawless is good. But recycled furniture is not about flawless(neither, btw is restoration.) It’s just as much an art project as a design project, if not more so. You need to be able to see those flaws, own them, and for the most part, unless they’re minor touchups, be able to let them go.

This is really, really hard for some people- self included, though it’s even harder for people who are very detail oriented. They get lost in the bark of the tree, when the forest is all around them waiting for them to get on with and over themselves.

“Oh SURE, it’s easy to say that- it’s not your project with all these errors and mistakes in it… You’re a professional!”

But it is. And I am. And I’m going to prove it.

So we have this project, right? You’ve watched as it’s slowly come together over the summer. Okay, great. And now we’re at this moment. The one before the finish, where if you’re going to fix something, now is the time. Other than minor touchups? I’m not fixing the following things:


I’m not fixing the fact that this mosaic circle is cup shaped, when it should be flat. This is the result of the chisel not being sharp enough.


I’m not fixing the fact that this “circle” is supposed to be round, and isn’t. (see: chisel.)


I’m not fixing the evenness of the grout on the right top quadrant of this circle.


I’m not fixing the fact that this circle isn’t flat.


There’s nothing wrong with this one. Actually, it’s near perfect, which illustrates how imperfect those others are.


I’m not fixing the fact that the purple circles are splotchy, and the black is darker and less painterly than I’d like.


I’m not fixing the fact that that drawer up there? Looks different than the door front below:


Or that this side:


Is not like that side:


Because perfection simply isn’t necessary here. Flawless isn’t really important (though I would love to get a flawless *FINISH* on these, I know better. I have cats.)

So I’m going to get some brushes and a tack rag and forgive this piece (and its maker) their flaws. No one else was ever going to care about them anyway.

Furniture project part 6.4- top’s done.

4th verse, same as the first.


Mosaics are done, purple polka dots filled in.


Same thing, different angle.


First coat of black goes on around the spots.


Same thing, different angle.


Again, same thing, different angle.


Top, finished. There’s a lack of light here, so the black looks a little more solid and uniform than it is.


Same thing, different angle.


Same thing, different angle.

So now, all that’s left is the finishing/putting back together part. I’ve decided to use a high-gloss polyurethane. I could use shellac but since it’s alcohol based I decided against it- if someone spills their drink on the thing my finish needs to be seriously fixed. I could use lacquer, which would match my coffee table, but I really, *really* hate working with lacquer. It’s toxic as shit, and the fumes are miserable. Even worse is lacquer *thinner*, which obviously, you need to use as well. It’s not fine furniture, so I’m not going to use another resin based finish. Poly will do fine. I can throw three coats on, finish it out with some pumice and rottenstone, and wax the bad boy up like a bowling alley.

Furniture project part 6.3: Drawer front.

Drawer front is done, as is the front and rear of the case. Only thing left is the top.


I’ll dust the thing off after it’s dry.  🙂

Furniture project part 6.2: the second side of the case.

Long time, no progress. Unfortunately, some rather serious real-world things have kept me away from continuing on this project as fast as I’d like. However I just finished the second side of the case so I figured I’d post a photo.


You can check out either of the previous tutorials on how to accomplish this. I don’t need to rehash it a third time. I do have to blot off just a tiny bit more of the purple stain, though.

While this dries enough for me to set the case upright again so I can get to the top, front, and back, I am going to be working on the long drawer front. I got some new tile, also. $24 worth. Basically I ran out of the two pink colors there on the lower left about 3/4 of the way through that circle, so I needed to grab those. However I have realized that though I own a lot of tile (like, a lot.), it’s heavily tilted towards blues and greens. There’s a lot of under-representation of several other colors, and I wanted to be able to provide a balance on the piece. So I wound up getting six bags. The two pink colors you see there, so I could finish up that circle, a bright red, a sort of a black with white speckles, a metallic blue/copper swirl and a red-violet. I had meant to grab some orange as well, but unfortunately there were no small bags of orange tile to be found- it only was available in 1/2 lb. bags, and I really, REALLY don’t know why I’d need 1/2 lb. of orange tile. I may try to find some online, though.

Right now Im on track for finishing up this project by the end of the summer, since it’s going to need a lot of finishing to make it look nice and smooth.

Oh also, and this is totally unrelated? I want to thank Jennifer from Design Hole (which is a design blog everyone should be reading, because she’s very talented and updates way more often than I do.) , because she really made my day yesterday, even though she probably doesn’t know that.

Jennifer had written a post about (of all things) Motel 6, and their proposed new look. Knowing that I love, love, love hospitality design (really, it’s my second favorite design topic only because you know, there’s no food involved), she shot me an email specifically asking for my opinion on it. Which I thought was really very kind and flattering and made my day, honestly. So thanks, Jennifer. 🙂

furniture project part 6.1: The small doors.

I told you guys, this wasn’t a weekend project. After finishing the first side of the case, I turned my attention to the small doors, because the oil based stain takes forever to dry and I didn’t want to flip the case over while that side was still wet.

Basically it’s the same process- seal the carved areas, do the mosaic, and stain. One of the doors had another additional problem. The carved circles were too deep. This meant I had to fill them in a bit with some lightweight spackle and sand the result to it created a flat base to which I could apply the tile. I also used some stainable wood fill in order to fix some minor problems with the doors.

So let’s review (we’ll be doing this a lot- there’s another 4 sections to go…) how this goes:

Here’s one of the original doors, before I did anything to it.


I then put a thin coat of shellac on the MDF to stabilize it, and then began to add mosaic tile. This has to be done in stages or you keep pushing tiles around on the wet glue. It’s time consuming, and requires patience.




I did the same thing with the other door. This door however, has a layer of spackle on top of the MDF since the chiseled portion was too deep (this happened more and more as my chisels became more dull.)


I then taped off the mosaic work in preparation for grouting. I mixed all the grout colors by hand and applied them as described previously.




That being accomplished, I turned my attention to the stain. It required multiple coats for each color. This was taken after the purple stain had been completed. (It needed two coats.) Once dry, I put a thin coat of shellac on both the purple circles and the mosaic work in order to protect it from any black stain that might get on it accidentally.



I then sanded off all the extra stain that fell outside the perimeters of the circle, and taped off all the areas I’d worked with previously.


I then started working on the black stain, which took multiple coats, with a shellac resist coat between each one in order to layer the rag effect (If you don’t apply the resist coat, the stain will just dissolve when you add another coat- the pattern you’ve applied will disintegrate.)


So one coat, leads to two…


To three…


Then I did the touchups.


Next up is side two of the case.

Furniture project part 6: the pain of stain.

I thought I was going to be glad I had finally finished the mosaics and could move on to staining. I was wrong.

Until yesterday, I’d never used a water based stain before. Now I know why. Normally, for bright colors I prefer to use aniline dye, using alcohol as the solvent. But I was in Home Depot at the time and minwax had a water based stain that came in purple. I figured “hey, I’m already here. I don’t have to order online for this.” and brought it home.

Yeah. There’s a reason I order online. I am sure that realistically, there’s wood surfaces this works well on. This just wasn’t one of those projects.

The first thing I did was once again, clean my surface thoroughly so it was free of dust, dirt and any residue. However be careful of your pencil lines, so you don’t accidentally erase them.

After that, I applied the purple stain to where it needed to go. Before anyone asks, yes I did this freehand- no tape.



I left the stain on longer than I should have (I am used to oil based stains and alcohol dyes) so I had to fight to get it off. It stuck like paint. This is what it looked like after that first coat came off:



So…not great. Not terrible, but not great. I was less than impressed with the stuff, to be honest. So I went back and tried another coat.





To be honest, I wasn’t sure if this result was better or worse. I put the problem aside and decided to work on the background. I taped off all the stained and mosaic areas first, so I could, in theory, avoid getting stain on them.


I then gave up on water based stains for the moment and went back to an oil based stain for the background.


This is where you can see any unevenness in the sanding process. I wasn’t too concerned, since I knew I would be doing multiple coats anyway.



That got me this result, once the tape was removed:


So I realized I hated that, and tried again.


I realized I hated that too, and finally realized that because of the veneer I was never going to get the kind of saturation of color I wanted without running the risk of breaking through the veneer entirely. I painted all the purple parts and the mosaics with a thin coat of shellac to act as a resist, and then I went back with the stain and instead of just wiping it off as normal, I ragged it off with a paper towel, creating a mottled appearance (which was at least done purposely.)


I was finally happy with this, and so I left it alone. At this point, I am going to leave this alone to dry, and in the meantime, work on one of the doors. By the time I’m done with that, I can feel safer about moving the case so I can get to the other side to work on it. I won’t start finishing it until the whole thing is done, so it can dry thoroughly. I also have to decide what I’m finishing it *with*, and what level of sheen it will have.

But next up, I’ll work on one of the doors.

Furniture project part 5: Grouting.

So after many hours, I did finally manage to finish the mosaic work on that large circle on the left side of the case.


I really do want to stress that what you’re looking at takes hours. You can only put down so many pieces until you have to wait until the glue firms up so you can continue, and that number is much smaller than you think; usually fewer than ten pieces. The glue I’m using is water based, and is honestly not too much different than plain old Elmer’s. The only difference is that this has a slightly longer open, or working time, so you can get the pieces exactly where you want them before the glue sets up. That also means you’re waiting longer for the glue to firm up enough so that you can continue working. Remember, this is only the first side of the piece- I still have five other pieces in which I have to install tile.

Once it was done though, I masked off all three tiled areas. Normally I use blue low-tack painter’s tape but I’m low on it, and so I used ordinary masking tape. I *WOULD NOT* use masking tape for anything involving paint. It’s *terrible* for that purpose. But for this, it’s fine, and when it gets wet, it doesn’t lose its’ grip.


Once everything was masked off, I mixed up some grout. Yes, you can buy it premixed and pre-colored. I have a box large enough to tile a swimming pool in my house, and so I just used what I have (which is kind of a very light gray) and I tinted it using ordinary acrylic paints. To be honest, using powdered pigment would be better, but also more expensive, and I don’t have any in the house. I mixed up just enough grout of each color (really, I just winged the colors- there’s no science here.) and applied the grout with my hand (I was wearing a glove at the time.)

The important thing about mixing grout is it’s sort of like cooking. It has to have the right consistency or it falls apart. You’re only looking to add enough water to form a smooth paste. If it’s the consistency of cream, you’ve gone too far. If you want to know what it should look like, put a bit of toothpaste on a plate and smoosh it around a while. That’s it. You then let it sit out in the bowl for about 15 minutes, stir and *then* apply it.

When you do large areas of tile, you should use tools to apply grout. In areas this small and when the pieces are irregular, your fingers work just fine. Just be sure to wear gloves.



After about 40 minutes or so, you can start to clean off the extra grout. **BE GENTLE**. Both the grout and the glue you’ve used on your tiles are water based. If you scrub too hard, you will pull tiles up as well as grout. If this happens, just re-glue the tile in place, being careful not to drop grout in the hole. I use a little pad and some water. Don’t use too much water. Just enough to dampen the pad, and rinse the pad (and change your water) frequently. You will be doing two cleanings, so it’s not imperative to get all the extra grout off in one shot. Also, remember your grout color will lighten as it dries, so if it looks super dark, don’t worry about it.




About an hour later, I do my final cleanup. On the second pass I just use a paper towel or a rag. You can use even less water- you want to make sure all the grout and haze comes off your tile and not remove much if any grout from between your tiles.

Once this is all done, you can remove your masking tape and clean up any final bits.



Once everything is cleaned up, you can get things prepped for staining, which is our next step.