Secret Sources 2008
Our 2008 guide to home improvement products and services you won't find at the home center
Welcome to our biggest, baddest (as in good) annual guide to the little-known items and resources that'll transform your house into a home like no other on your block. To create it, we tapped experts, both here at This Old House and among the tradespeople we know—as well as a few superhandy readers—to point us to those specialty products and services that are lifesavers when you're tackling a DIY project or need professional fix-up help. We've rounded up our list of favorites, including a bathtub refinisher who'll renew your vintage claw-foot and a no-polish zinc countertop that'll trim your KP duties, and we're excited to spread the word. Like you, we're all pretty budget-conscious these days, so we've included some special penny-pinching editors' budget picks for you to profit from. Read on for our top finds to get your own old house humming again. Then, in the spirit of giving, pass it on.
Since 1913, Kilian Hardware has offered Philadelphia residents all the trappings of a classic hardware store: creaky floors, narrow aisles, and tall shelves loaded with every sort of item imaginable for the care and upgrading of old houses. Need a sack of plaster washers, herbal moth repellent, or a 3-pound window-sash weight? Kilian has all that, along with more than 25,000 other items. If you can't experience Kilian's firsthand, go to its website and wander through its virtual aisles.
Installing a vintage doorknob on a new door can be like trying to fit the proverbial square peg into a round hole. Enter Weber Wilson of Old Rose Hardware Co. in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. He created universal spindles and set screws, as well as decorative rosettes and lock plates, that are compatible with modern locksets. You just supply the old knob. About $62.50 for the retrofit hardware and trim set.
Rather than shelling out big bucks for a consultant to, say, specify a mortar mix for re-pointing the brick on his 1880s rowhouse, TOH senior technical editor Mark Powers gets the advice free on the National Park Service website. Since 1975, experts in the building sciences and trades have compiled preservation briefs on a number of topics, including how to properly clean a marble mosaic and the best methods for restoring plaster-and-lath walls. Download one of the 47 pamphlets.
Streakies and Opalumes may sound like lyrics from a psychedelic Beatles song, but they're actually just two product collections from the country's oldest manufacturer of opalescent and stained glass. Indiana's Kokomo Opalescent Glass Co. makes rolled sheet glass and pressed jewels in the same hands-on fashion used in 1888 when Louis Comfort Tiffany placed the first order. Following your template, Kokomo will trim glass for a new window or an antique restoration in any one of its 300 colors and 14 textures. Starting at about $7.50 a square foot for rolled glass; a box with 200 samples showing all the patterns and Kokomo's most popular colors is about $65.
If you've ever fallen for a vintage tub or sink only to reject it because of chipped or worn porcelain, take heart. Mike Ripp of Ameriglaze can apply a new finish that, according to Tabitha Long, co-owner of Chicago's Island Girl Salvage, is "more durable, more consistent, with a better sheen" than any other. Long should know, having put a variety of techniques to the test on the tubs she rescues from demolished houses. Ripp is based in Skokie, Illinois, but he can recommend a pro in your area. Reglazing from about $350.
The quickest way to transform an old light, other than changing the shade, is to replace the vinyl cord with an elegant fabric-covered one. The The Antique Lamp Co.. in Buffalo, New York, carries rayon cording in gold, white, brown, and black, companion Bakelite plugs, and a variety of other lamp parts—even brass socket housings. About 90 cents per foot of cording.
Vintage frames are easy to come by, but the beautifully aged mirrors to fill them, well, not so much. For Robert Hines of R Squared Antiqued Mirror Co. in Charleston, South Carolina, the answer is new glass made old. Starting with a sheet of glass, he applies silver nitrate, then distresses it to achieve patinas from lightly aged to heavily distressed. The finished product rivals a period original. Just ask the museum curators and antiques dealers who seek him out. From about $45 a square foot.
Ceiling fans from the late 1800s to the 1930s, with their heavy metal bodies and old-growth wood blades, were built to last. So why forsake your antique for a less sturdy repro? Do what TOH's 2008 Reader Remodel Contest winner Sharon Wade did and send it to Vintage Fans LLC in Keller, Texas. In addition to making an old fan look and work like new, the company can apply any paint color or stain to the base and blades. Vintage Fans also sells whirlers to be restored, including an original 1934 Emerson Silver Swan with aluminum blades that capture the spirit of the Machine Age, along with the breeze. Starting at about $1,400 for a mechanical overhaul; about $2,750 for a complete restoration.
Spotted in the workshops of many an architectural salvage dealer and woodworker is a battered tin of Briwax. Manufactured in England and imported Stateside, the blend of beeswax and carnauba removes dirt and built-up wax. It then seals the surface in a film that, unlike oil, doesn't attract dust. Available in nine colors and clear; about $22.95 per 16-ounce can.
To keep deer from nibbling your garden, spray plants with…salad dressing? The active ingredients—garlic, egg solids, and capsaicin
(a compound in chili peppers)—in Deer Off come from the kitchen and act as a dual deterrent with a foul flavor and odor. An earlier version, infused with stinky egg alone, was hands down the most effective repellent in an extensive study by Auburn University's College of Agriculture. A 16-ounce bottle is about $10.25 from Havahart.
We love stainless steel for its sleek look, but all those smudgy finger-prints it attracts are downright crazy-making. Stainless Butler, a commercial-grade cleaner from kitchen sink and faucet maker Elkay, removes them all with a
quick spritz and wipe. The nonabrasive, no-drip gel is mild enough for daily use. A 16-ounce spray bottle is about $18.
Out, darn spot! Or ring or scratch. For maintaining stone countertops, shower stalls, and floors, repair and restoration pros like Fred Hueston of Stone Forensics in Florida swear by the products from Stonecare Central. Whether it's stain-absorbing poultices or marble-polishing compounds, every formulation is tested by professional stone contractors. Hueston's favorite cleaner? Stonecare Pro Signature Stone Plus. A 32-ounce bottle is about $10.
If a DIY project is wallet-friendly and can be done in
a weekend, editorial assistant Sal Vaglica is game to try it. Up next, installing a fireplace-mantel kit like this one from Decorative Concepts, which he'll use to update the focal point of his living room. To keep prices low, there's assembly required, but nothing that can't be done with a drill/driver, wood glue, fasteners, and a miter saw. Kits come sized to fit your particular firebox and in various wood species, including oak, walnut, and alder. Paint-grade medium-density fiberboard (MDF) starts at about $197.
Were she still alive, no doubt Julia Child would forsake her kitchen's Peg-Board for the sturdier and more colorful metal panels on which to mount her batterie de cuisine. And she would have warbled the praises of accessories like bins, spring clips, and slotted tool holders. Made by Wall Control, the paneling can also help organize your workshop. A 16-by-32-inch slotted panel, in eight colors, is about $23.
Fold-up Murphy beds are the perfect solution for creating double-duty rooms, but prebuilt systems can be really pricey. Such trifles never stop TOH reader Murray Cohen, whose restored Los Angeles bungalow was featured in our December 2006 issue. He built his own using a kit from Create-A-Bed in Louisville, Kentucky. Included in the box are the piston-operated mechanism, which allows the bed to open and close, DVD instructions, and a full-size template for designing your own enclosure. Cohen built his housing out of MDF from the lumberyard. About $299.
Full of the same tools—fill sticks, markers, graining pens, and spray finishes—that some furniture-delivery guys use to erase in-transit damage, the H. Behlen Master Delivery Kit is easy for us regular folks to master, too. Senior editor Kelly Beamon put it to the test, erasing scuffs and scratches
on some of her Arts and Crafts antiques. And considering the hourly rate that a pro conservator charges for a one-time touch-up, the approximately $133 kit's a steal.
Ever wonder how we find all those remarkable—and remarkably cheap—Craftsmans, Queen Annes, and Colonials featured in Save This Old House? Many come straight from readers and local preservation groups, of course. But associate editor and Save writer Keith Pandolfi also gets leads from the mother-daughter team of Sharon Hinson and Marjorie Ellena. Their website, HistoricProperties.com, is ideal for searching for an old house. A recent scan of the site showed 130 properties around the country listed for less than $100,000, including a half dozen for just $1.
Estate sales are prime spots for snagging vintage home furnishings at low prices, but finding good ones used to be tough. That is, until formerly frustrated scavenger Dan McQuade created an online directory, EstateSales.net, where sellers could post detailed listings and photos of their wares so that local buyers like him could cherry-pick which to hit.
A couple of enterprising Cornell University grads took what they learned competing in the Department of Energy's 2005 Solar Decathlon and created a consulting firm that helps homeowners save money by lowering their energy bills. Based on your particular home's schematics, Zero Energy Design recommends efficiency-boosting improvements and works with local contractors to calculate what it'll cost to make them in your area. For new construction, energy savings are 30 to 50 percent. Reports from $4,000.
Craigslist, the online community bulletin board, is multimedia editor Alex Bandon's main source for buying all sorts of home stuff, including much of her outdoor furniture. But until recently, searching for what she needed was purely provincial. A comment from a savvy reader on thisoldhouse.com's message boards pointed her to the site Craig's Helper, which lets you troll through all Craigslist locales, or just specific ones, to find the best bargains around the country.
You spy the perfect paper for that bedroom accent wall. Then you discover it's "available to the trade only." Assistant editor Natalie Rodriguez found a way around such old-school rules. Many high-end design centers now offer on-staff buyers to do the shopping for you—no decorator required. You pay what the pros pay, about 25 percent over wholesale, saving the additional 30 percent decorator markup. For 10 yards of wallpaper at about $30 per yard, that's about $90 in your pocket. A few to try: L.A. Mart Design Center; Decorative Center Houston; New York Design Center
Rectangular, octagonal, or hexagonal, Gazebo Creations will ship off your very own custom-designed and partially assembled modular garden structure in as little as two weeks. All you need are basic carpentry skills, a helper, and decisiveness at the outset, because the options for gazebos—as well as sheds, pavilions, playhouses, bridges, and arbors—are endless. The interactive design tool on the company's website helps you sort through the choices. From about $2,700 for an 8-foot octagonal gazebo in treated pine.
You know the story of George Washington's run-in with a cherry tree (no, he didn't cut it down). But you probably don't know that you can plant your own sapling propagated from his Mount Vernon estate. The nonprofit conservation group American Forests sells offspring from some of the 2,000 historic trees it helps to protect. Offerings include a Martin Luther King live oak and a Gettysburg Address sycamore. Most are delivered as 4-foot saplings. About $40 at American Forests' Historic Tree Nursery
Made from ancient limestone or Istrian marble and depicting Greek gods, antique garden ornaments can cost a fortune. Features editor and Salvage writer Amy Hughes's search for affordable repro planters, urns, and benches ended at Black Dog Salvage in Roanoke, Virginia. After cycling through wares from several makers, Black Dog's Mike Whiteside now stocks only concrete ornaments from North Carolina's Unique Stone because of their solid construction and design detail. A 3-foot urn based on a $1,000 original costs about $200. For dealers, visit Unique Stone.
A century's worth of wear can take a toll on your Queen Anne's facade. To touch up the details, we found Vintage Woodworks, a maker of decorative and restoration woodwork for porches and home exteriors. Since 1978, Vintage in Quinlan, Texas, has been making handcrafted spandrels, screen doors, railings, and fretwork for gable ends in a variety of woods, including cedar, poplar, and cypress. Brackets start at about $5.
Concerned about sustainability and the harmful health effects of off-gassing chemicals in many residential floor coverings, longtime carpet makers Bill and Terry Green switched from using synthetic nylon fibers to natural wool in 1993. Not only is wool renewable, it's also nonallergenic, dirt-resistant, and flame-retardant. Even the backing material on the Calhoun, Georgia, company's Woolshire carpets is green; it's made from a low-VOC soybean-based polyurethane. About $7 to $9 per square foot.
You'll always have Paris, but what you really want is that zinc countertop from your favorite French bistro. Texas-based Handcrafted Metal Inc. fabricates counters in low-maintenance zinc or pewter with a soft silvery finish that only grows richer with age. A countertop with a rolled and indented edge profile will transform your kitchen and your housework (no more polishing the stainless steel). Each job is priced individually, but expect to pay about 20 percent more than you would for granite.
As the sleuth who unearths many of the products featured in TOH's Step-by-Step column, editorial assistant Jennifer Stimpson knows where to find high-quality materials for cheap. One of her favorite sources for one-of-a-kind wood flooring is the Bargain Basement at Pioneer Millworks. It's where you can find a variety of reclaimed planks—mostly leftovers from big jobs—milled from old barn timbers and industrial buildings for as much half off. Starting at about $5 per square foot.
We can't go to Cuba…yet. But we can sample its bold and vibrant style in patterned cement tiles drawn from its historic libraries, churches, houses—and even barber shops. Choose from 13 traditional patterns handmade by Miami-based Cuban Tropical Tile since the 1940s, or come up with your own; the company will create custom combinations and keep them on file for reproduction at a later
date. About $5 to $10 a square foot.
While searching for a thrifty way to obscure the neighbors' view into her kitchen without blocking sunlight, assistant editor Meghan Dockendorf found the solution right here in our offices. The 3M industrial window film that the building-maintenance guys use to cordon-off glass-walled cubicles has an elegant frosted look, and starting at about $8 a square foot, it's a fraction of the cost of etched replacement glass. To apply the coating, spray the glass and film with soapy water, put them together, and smooth out the bubbles with a squeegee.
Mike Reggio has been casting top-quality grilles and registers for forced-air heating systems for 30 years. In addition to brass and iron grilles in traditional geometric patterns fit for an Italianate, Reggio produces a contemporary grid design in aluminum or zinc with more of an Art Deco flavor. Wood grilles in red or white oak, maple, or cherry are also available. From about $23 for a 21/4-by-10-inch metal grille, from Reggio Registers.
Lend your French doors even more flair with a Euro-style cremone bolt. The surface-mounted lock shifts long rods in opposite directions to secure a door—or casement window—at its top and bottom. Von Morris offers a dizzying array of nearly 20 different knobs and decorative rosettes for its bolts, in more than 30 hand-polished finishes. You can even order an exterior cremone that can be locked from the outside with a key. From about $1,250 in polished brass.
Some of today's most high-tech and eco-friendly lighting comes in surprisingly low-tech packaging. Of Eleek's more than 100 fixtures designed by Eric Kaster, the vast majority can be wired for LED bulbs. The new lamping technology is far more energy-efficient than compact fluorescent. All of Eleek's fixtures are handcrafted in the company's Portland, Oregon, factory. The Art Nouveau–inspired Illuminata, which is cast from 90 percent recycled bronze and adorned with a handblown glass globe is about $990.
The individual hot and cold taps on many vintage bathroom sinks make for hazardous face washing. The water's either burning hot or freezing cold. DEA Bathroom Machineries in Murphys, California, solves the old-fashioned-faucet problem with a bridge adapter that spans the distance between the two taps and mixes the water to your desired temperature. Based on an original 1908 design, the bridge faucet comes in various lengths to fit a number of sink styles and sizes. About $330.
If you want a retro-style refrigerator or range for your period kitchen, Elmira Stove Works' Tom Hendrick is your guy. For 33 years he's been designing appliances that recall bygone eras but don't compromise the latest technology. The Ontario, Canada, company's Northstar Line, which takes you back to the Eisenhower years, can even be custom ordered in just about any color to make your kitschy kitchen unique. Choose from the hundreds of hues in Dupont's durable Imron Elite automotive paint line. Custom paint is about $300, plus the cost of the fridge or range.
Deep in historic Charleston, South Carolina, Urban Electric honors tradition by moving it forward, turning out sophisticated lanterns and sconces. More than 100 designs can be custom lacquered in any Benjamin Moore color, expanding the choices exponentially. You just supply the aint chip number. Sconces start at $295, lanterns at about $655.
The granddaddy of domestic range hoods has a custom-hood division that's been a sleeper—until now. "You draw it, they'll build it," says Vent-A-Hood's Monica Feid of the craftspeople in the company's custom department in Richardson, Texas. Many of the artisans have been in its employ for 30 years, graduates of an apprentice training program the company still maintains. Hoods made of copper, an increasingly popular aterial, particularly get the white glove treatment since the metal scratches so easily. Can't spring for a one-of-a-kind hood? Customize an off-the-shelf model with banding, rivets, pot rails, and even a warming shelf. From about $3,000.