Hey there! Remember that time our furnace died in the middle of an extreme winter, and we had to scramble to find, buy and install a new HVAC system before we turned into human icicles? We recently talked to Johnny and Joanna over at Our Freaking Budget about how having an emergency fund helped us get through that unexpected crisis with a lot less stress and worry. Read our interview with them here.
Thanks to Johnny and Joanna for featuring us (and this very important financial advice for homeowners)!
Last week, we talked about moving our treasured family nursery dresser into Baby T’s room, and shared our DIY plans to design a modern furniture look with the Ikea Tarva three-drawer dresser in Toddler E’s big-girl bedroom. Using dark wood stain and white paint, we wanted to create a sophisticated but classic design that would be timeless, and work with E’s evolving style and functionality needs over the next several years. (You can see some of our inspiration images for this project on our Pinterest board!)
So after buying the Tarva and bringing it home, we unpacked the individual dresser parts and set them up in our garage. John took on most of the work for this particular DIY furniture project (while I was busy painting the fabric drawers for the nursery), and he wanted to stain and paint the dresser parts in their unassembled state before putting the final piece together.
For the stain, we decided to try Minwax Polyshades. It’s got a built-in polyurethane coat to protect and make the surface more durable, which eliminates the need for a separate topcoat. Traditionally, wood staining involves rubbing the stain onto the surface with a soft cloth, wiping off any excess, and ending with a protective finish. But with a combination stain-polyurethane formula like Polyshades, you apply thin coats with a brush and let them dry without wiping off. We’d never used this one-step product before, but it sounded convenient and potentially time-saving. So we went ahead and bought a quart of the Espresso Satin finish, a nice dark color that looked like it would match the toddler’s bed frame. (According to the label, one quart covers 120-150 square feet – plenty for our little dresser project.)
To paint the drawer fronts, we wanted a soft paint color that would work well with the warm tones in the toddler’s bedroom. In order to keep our DIY costs low and stay within our total budget of $100, we surveyed our “leftover from previous projects” paint arsenal, and chose Swiss Coffee by Behr, a nice clean shade that’s bright but not blinding white.
With the materials assembled and the dresser pieces spread out and ready, John got to work. First, he focused on the parts to be stained: the dresser’s top, sides, legs and knobs. In order to get complete stain coverage on the small legs and knobs without touching them and making fingerprints during the staining process, he attached them to larger pieces of scrap wood. Then he sanded all the wood surfaces lightly and wiped them clean.
Next, he used a foam brush to apply wood conditioner to the unfinished pieces – an important pre-staining step that properly prepares the wood surface and helps the grain open up to absorb stain more evenly.
As you can see below, this really makes a difference when working with a soft wood variety like the Tarva’s white pine.
Once the wood conditioner was dry, John used a natural bristle brush to “paint” the Polyshades stain onto the conditioned wood in the direction of the grain.
Knowing he wouldn’t be able to wipe off any excess stain, John was careful to use long even brushstrokes. But he still found it difficult to cover the surfaces with a uniform layer of stain. Applying too much pressure on the brush created a thin streaky coat that let the bare wood show through more than we wanted. On the other hand, brushing with a lighter touch tended to deposit uneven patches of stain across the wood. It was a lot of trial and error to find a technique that worked – and even then, we weren’t able to eliminate every single brush mark.
The Espresso color was also not quite as dark as we wanted yet, which meant we’d need another coat of stain. So John left the first coat to dry for several hours, and in the meantime he moved on to painting the drawer fronts. For these, we wanted solid paint coverage that would still allow the texture of the wood grain to show through, something we knew we could achieve by doing multiple thinner layers of paint instead of one thick coat.
John brushed the first coat of Swiss Coffee on the three drawer fronts, thin enough that the knots in the pine were still visible.
With the first paint coat on the drawer fronts, John jumped back to the stained pieces (now dry), sanded them lightly, and wiped off the residue to prepare for another coat of Polyshades. The first coat still looked a little streaky, and we hoped that the second coat would be dark enough to camouflage the imperfections. But even though John had sanded between coats to give the surface better adhesion, the glossy polyurethane in the first coat still made it difficult to get a continuous finish with the second coat. He had to brush the stain on lightly to keep it from pooling, and it turned out to be even more tricky to apply than the first coat.
After finishing the second stain coat, John switched back again to the painted drawer fronts (also now dry), sanded them lightly, and painted on a second thin coat of Swiss Coffee. When that dried, he painted a third and final coat. Then he left both the stained and painted dresser pieces to dry overnight.
The next day, we brought everything up to E’s bedroom, and she and John went to work assembling the dresser.
And here’s the finished piece!
The dark stain with white drawers is a classic look with a modern twist – and just as we hoped, it fits perfectly with her decor without looking babyish or cutesy.
We love how this custom-finished dresser came out, and so does Toddler E. It’s the perfect size for her – she can reach all the drawers and pick out her own clothes each morning.
But would we use the Polyshades stain again? The pros: its Espresso color does look deep and rich, the streaks from the brushstrokes aren’t too noticeable, and the surface is well sealed and protected. The cons: it was a LOT trickier to apply than we thought it would be, and while it did save John the extra step of adding a separate protective topcoat, there was definitely a trade-off of extra effort and time as he attempted to create a smooth finish. So… we’re not sure if we’ll use this stain-plus-polyurethane product again, and we may go back to the traditional stain method for our next wood staining project.
But in the end, we’re very happy with our DIY kid-friendly Tarva project! And hopefully Toddler E will be using this dresser for many years to come.
We’re curious – have you ever used Polyshades before? What was your experience with it? Do you have any helpful tips or stories?
Today we’re sharing our inspiration and ideas for a classic modern Ikea dresser hack, plus the history behind our vintage DIY nursery dresser!
As you know, we’ve been transforming Toddler E’s former nursery into a big-girl bedroom (see the moodboard and plans here). We’re slowly but surely updating things like furniture, artwork, window treatments and lighting, and even the closet. Last summer, before Baby T arrived, we tackled one of the big projects on our to-do list: replacing E’s vintage oversized dresser.
This multi-functional piece had been perfect for her infant needs – we stored everything from clothes and baby gear to diapers and wipes inside, and also used it as a changing table. But by last summer, E was potty trained and her bedroom no longer required diaper-related storage or functionality. And we wanted to move this perfect-for-a-nursery dresser into the new baby‘s room, so it was time to find something different to fit E’s big-girl lifestyle. But before we talk about our search for her new dresser, let’s share a little backstory on the old one.
The perfect nursery dresser
There’s history behind this piece of furniture. It was actually John’s childhood dresser nearly 40 years ago, and his parents gave it to us when we were getting ready for E’s arrival. We were excited to keep it in the family and re-use it for a new generation – the dresser’s solid wood construction just needed a little DIY refresh for its next phase of life.
Here’s what we started with:
John removed all the drawers, took off the dated brass hardware, and lightly sanded the dresser’s case and drawer fronts. Then he primed the bare wood and painted it black, to match the crib we had bought for the nursery.
Finally, we added new hardware (classic nickel pulls and some fun blue and green knobs), filled the dresser with little onesies and lots of diapers, and put a changing pad on top.
We used this DIY nursery dresser in E’s bedroom until last summer, when it was time to move it into Baby T’s room. We kept the black color and just changed out the top knobs to coordinate with his nursery decor.
Which brings us back to our search for a new dresser for E and her big-girl clothes. We planned to put a toddler bed in her bedroom where the old dresser used to be, so the new dresser would have to go against the opposite wall and be small enough to fit in a narrow space between the closet door and a heating vent.
New dresser and inspiration
We looked around at retail stores, thrift shops, and on local online resale boards for dressers that might fit the bill. Our requirements were:
- Solid, sturdy wood construction with smooth-rolling drawers
- A width less than 32 inches, to fit between the closet door frame and the vent cover
- Simple design with clean lines that we could customize with some DIY love
- Budget-friendly – we wanted to spend less than $100 on this entire project (including furniture purchase and DIY supplies)
After considering many different options, we decided on the Tarva 3-drawer chest from Ikea:
The Tarva is a nice size that’s very user-friendly for Toddler E – she’s able to reach all the drawers to access her clothes, which is important as we encourage her to be more independent. It’s narrow enough to fit in the 32-inch wide space we have available between her closet door and heating vent. We also liked its strong and solid wood frame and its smooth-rolling drawer mechanism, making it sturdy but easy for little arms to open and close.
And of course, I immediately started thinking about how we could customize it for her new room design.
There are tons of Tarva design hacks out there – it’s the perfect base for DIY customization with its simple shape and clean lines – but I didn’t want to go too crazy with this piece. I really liked the idea of a stain/paint combination – dark wood around the case to match the dark wood bed frame, and white drawer fronts for a fresh contrast to keep it from feeling dark and heavy. I found some inspiration photos, showed John, and we both thought this look would fit really well with the toddler’s other room elements.
It’s a sophisticated but classic style that looks timeless. We didn’t want anything too trendy or cute or age-specific that might be dated in a few years (like a pink princess theme – yikes!), but this dark-stain-white-paint design is so fresh and simple that it should easily coordinate with any future room decor changes.
In our next post, we’ll share a little DIY tutorial on how we stained and painted the Tarva dresser. (Update: check out the tutorial here!) In the meantime, here’s a sneak peek of the finished piece…
Many more details to come, including our process, our experience with staining wood furniture, and how Toddler E likes her new dresser!
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We’re back in the garden, and this time we’re pruning our smoke tree… again! You may remember that we originally tried this last year, with disastrous results. Well, now we’re changing up our landscaping techniques and hoping that this second time will be a charm.
What is a smoke tree? It’s a colorful ornamental plant (genus name: Cotinus) that gets its common name from unique billowy flower clusters that appear in spring and resemble puffs of smoke. There are several smoke tree varieties (Royal Purple, Velvet Cloak, Grace, Golden Spirit and more), with deciduous leaves that vary from green to deep red to dark purple, depending on the season and species. Often used as a prominent accent in the garden because of its brilliant colors and unusual flowers, this plant can range in size from 8 to 30 feet in height, and it’s drought- and cold-tolerant. In other words, it’s very hardy and it grows fast! We’re not sure what variety ours is – John is thinking Royal Purple, but I’m leaning more toward Grace.
Last year, we planned to trim down our smoke tree to make it smaller and more contained than before. We talked about our subsequent pruning attempt (and failure) in this post, but basically we pruned it at the wrong time of year (mid-winter) and in the wrong spots (we cut the branches at their ends, instead of at the branch collars). This caused the tree’s branches to skyrocket once the weather turned warm, rather than grow into the tidy compact shrub we were hoping for.
Our goal – a cute little smoke tree underneath our dining nook window – was figuratively buried under the smoky monster that grew over and completely obliterated our backyard garden view. I mean, who needs curtains when you’ve got giant overgrown leafy branches?
And by autumn, the tree branches had grown all the way to the roof line. While the bright reddish-orange color was really beautiful, the tree totally obscured our ornamental cherry tree and little Japanese maple. (Can’t see them in the photos below? That’s my point! They’re hiding next to the stairs on the left.)
So, obviously not the results we were hoping for when we first pruned the smoke tree. And once the summer growing season was in full swing, any further pruning would just spur more growth, so we had no choice but to sit on our hands and wait. In the meantime, we did some more smoke tree pruning research (see our sources at the end of this post), and that’s when we started to consider rejuvenating the smoke tree by cutting it almost all the way to the ground. In theory this pruning method will encourage a smaller bushy plant instead of the taller splayed tree we’ve had for the past couple of years. Ideally, we’d like to end up with something about this size:
(image via Gardenista)
Fast-forward (through a long snowy Midwest winter) to a few weeks ago. With the plant still dormant in the chilly late-winter weather, John gave our new smoke-tree-to-bush pruning method a try. He started by trimming off the numerous small upper branches with long-handled loppers.
As he worked his way down the tree, he switched to a bow saw to cut through the thicker branches. (While he’s used this versatile tool on a variety of projects over the last 20 years, a more common saw for pruning is a folding saw like this one - it’s better for maneuvering around dense branch growth and conveniently folds up in your pocket when not in use.)
The previous owner had tied the smoke tree to a wooden trellis staked into the ground, to support it as it grew. But when John started removing the ties to take out the trellis, we realized that it had already been pulled out of the soil by the tree’s overgrown strength. It was literally hanging on by a thread!
After detaching the trellis, John revved up his trusty chainsaw to cut the main trunks of the smoke tree (the same way he sawed through our giant yew bushes last summer).
This is what we were left with when it was all over.
And our view to the backyard is much improved!
Now we just have to wait and see how things grow back this summer. According to our research, smoke trees usually experience a rapid growth rate after pruning (and we found that out firsthand last year) – up to 6 feet or more in height! But while the leaves will be bigger and more colorful than before, the signature “smoke” flowers may not appear until the following year.
It’s hard to imagine that this plant could go from 2-inch stumps to 6-foot-tall branches in one growing season, but we amateur gardeners are definitely intrigued – and hope we pruned it right this time. We’ll keep you posted on the progress!
Some of our sources for smoke tree information include:
The Arbor Day Foundation
Houzz article on using smoke trees in landscape design
Gardening Know How
What do you think – did we prune the smoke tree too much? Will it grow back, or will we be left with a big empty space in the garden this summer?
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I’m over at Porch.com today, sharing some important questions to ask yourself during your house hunt! For us, homeownership wasn’t just about buying a house, but also about joining a neighborhood community.
Doing some in-depth research to find a location that would support our young family’s lifestyle helped us discover a great neighborhood that’s been perfect for us.
How did you decide where to live? What do you like about your neighborhood, and what would you change about it?