Tuesday, November 30, 2010

In-laws and Almonds

Just back from a wonderful week with the in-laws in Miami. Weather was fab (mid 80s). We ate our way through anything and everything, which is why I've been researching diet cleanses for the past hour. I kid, sort of. But these Cocoa Roast Almonds from Emerald are no joke. MIL and SIL recently discovered them and started buying them by the caseful (apparently they occasionally go on sale at the local Publix for BOGO). Anyway, they are amazing...roasted almonds covered with a light dusting of dark cocoa powder. I think these would make the perfect midday snack, and a great alternative to the handful of candy you might normally grab (oh wait, is that just me?) They also come in Cinnamon, but I prefer the Chocolate. Buy them now!

Monday, November 15, 2010

how not to refinish a wood table, part 2

So, you did your research and decided refinishing your furniture is what you want to do. Yay! Here is my step-by-step experience for chemically stripping and staining wood furniture:

MATERIALS (most purchased at Home Depot):
*Chemical stripper (I used a fast-acting stripper that turned the paint and varnish to goo in about 15 minutes. There are environmentally-friendly and less noxious strippers available, but those take way longer to work.)
*Plastic stripping tool
*Steel wool
*Chemical stripper wash
*Wood conditioner
*Wood stain (I used a classic oil stain by Minwax, but I read that gel stains are a bit easier to work with, especially for non-horizontal surfaces.)
*Polyurethane finish (I used a Minwax Wipe-On Poly that I was really happy with.)
*Several cheap brushes
*Plenty of lint-free rags (I used old, cut-up tee-shirts.)
*Metal trays
*Metal container (or an empty and dried-out paint container)
*Sandpaper (medium-coarse in a 180-grit and fine in a 220-grit)

Make sure you are in a well-ventilated and open area (I worked on the patio and away from the door and windows). Spread a dropcloth down with cardboard on top. Wear fitted clothing and tuck your sleeves into protective gloves.

Pour the chemical stripper into a metal tray. The stripper will be viscous and gooey. Liberally spread it with a brush over a portion of the furniture to be stripped. I worked with small areas at a time. You'll know the stripper is working because the surface will begin to ripple and bubble. After the recommended application time, remove the stripper and paint (it will be a goo that comes off in sheets) with the stripping tool, disposing of the waste in the metal container. Don't worry about getting every little piece of paint off...it will come off when you apply the after-wash. If a considerable amount of paint is left, or you did not get down to the wood surface, apply another liberal coat of stripper and repeat the process.

Once the majority of the paint is removed, you'll need to neutralize the surface. Pour the after-wash into a plastic container, and 'wash' the wood with steel wool (much like you'd use a sponge and soapy water). The steel wool allows you to really get into the surface and also remove those remaining specks of paint and finish. Repeat until the surface is completely bare and clean. Let the furniture dry for 24-48 hours before proceeding. This is what my table looked like after stripping (and adding new legs, see below):

*If you get any stripper on your skin, you'll know immediately (it will begin to burn like crazy). Run to a sink and douse your skin under running water for 5-10 minutes. Water neutralized the type of stripper I was working with, so this prevented my skin from being eaten away. Hey, I wasn't kidding...that stuff was NASTY.

*I began to do the legs of the table and realized it would be nearly impossible to remove the paint from every crevice of the curves. I ended up tossing the legs and bought new unfinished legs from Lowe's. Thanks to Husband for drilling new holes so we could assemble the table.

At this point, you should have a nice and bare piece of wood furniture. Yay! Sand the entire piece with the medium-coarse sandpaper. I'm sure this is MUCH easier if you have a hand-sander, but for my fellow city-folks, be prepared for a workout. You want to make sure the wood is raw and will easily take the stain, so sand liberally.

If your wood is softwood, you'll need to condition it beforehand. I think this is because soft wood won't take stain evenly, so if you don't condition it beforehand to fill the pores a bit, you'll end up with blotchy and uneven color. You can test for soft wood by seeing if you can leave an indentation with your fingernail on the underside. I ended up conditioning every part of the table (top and new legs), even though I think the top was hardwood.

Apply the conditioner liberally with a brush. It'll be watery and yellowish in color. After 5 minutes or so, wipe off the excess with a rag. You should stain within at least 2 hours of conditioning the wood.

There are many different versions of stain to choose from. I went with a classic oil-based stain. This is what my dad always worked with, and what was available in the widest choice of shades. I generally knew what to expect.

You can apply stain a few ways - with a paintbrush, a foam brush, or a rag. I originally opted for a foam brush, leaving the stain on for 15 minutes before trying to wipe it off. Unfortunately, the brush applied way too much stain, and it was so tacky that I could barely wipe anything off! To make matters worse, the new legs, being a different type of wood (unfinished pine), absorbed the stain like a sponge and turned a deep brown. To remove the excess stain, I ended up applying a liberal amount of stain right on top of the tacky disaster, and wiping away immediately (same premise as removing nail polish with nail polish in a pinch).

The wood tabletop was left darkened, but not nearly as dark as I wanted. So I did about 3 super thin coats, applied with a tee-shirt rag, in circles (almost as if I was lightly buffing the wood). I wiped the excess off within 5-10 minutes with medium pressure. Any light spots can be spot-stained. Each coat should dry for 6-8 hours before re-coating. This is what the table looked like just after 2 coats of stain, but before evening out the light, uneven marks:

At this point, you should have a piece of furniture that is relatively uniform in color. You'll need to apply a polyurethane topcoat to seal in the stain and ensure the piece is water-resistant and will stand up to everyday wear. I opted for a satin-finish Wipe-on Poly, which is a mix of regular poly varnish and mineral spirits. It's very thin and designed to be applied in several layers. The great thing about this is that it's totally idiot-proof (ie: the one step that I had NO problems with) and easy to apply on irregular surfaces (curves and vertical planes). It's also great for use in areas that are dusty...the surface dries to the touch fairly quickly, so you can avoid having dust settle into the wet varnish.

I poured some of the poly into a shallow, plastic take-out container. Using a tightly rolled tee-rag, I applied the poly in long, single strokes (going with the grain of the wood). I overlapped previous strokes to ensure that I was getting a uniform look. Because it's applied so thin, and in several coats (I've read people recommend anywhere from 4-10 coats), you won't get application marks and will eventually end up covering the entire piece. Each coat should dry 2-3 hours before re-coating. Before re-coating, lightly sand the surface with very fine-grit sandpaper (I think this is to remove bubbles or imperfections), but I only did this between the 1st and 3rd coats. I did 4 coats total.

Let the piece dry 24-48 hours before use. I wouldn't even handle it for at least 8 hours. I'm so happy with how our table turned out...the slightly imperfect color is awesome and gives it a handmade feel. I completed the whole project over 2 weeks, with 2-3 days of work at a time. For fun, I also stained our new Ikea Tryta bench (which comes as unfinished pine wood). Does it look like a $9.99 bench to you?

how not to refinish a wood table, part 1

I intended to blog about a table that I painted several months ago...a table that had been sadly abandoned on the sidewalk. The table is solid wood, with a double dropleaf, and pretty well-constructed. Unfortunately, some misguided soul (or marker-happy child) had defaced the surface with a heavy Sharpie. I figured the only way to hide the marker was to prime and paint the table in a clean, true white.

Fast-forward to moving day. The table had been moved and rolled around between two apartments - each time leaving a trail of white paint. Yeah, the paint was chipping and peeling off, and marking up any surface it came into contact with. I'm guessing that a lack of any protective topcoat, a heavy hand with the paintbrush, and a cheapo can of trim paint, all contributed to this epic fail. Clearly we could not use this as our everyday dining table.

After a ton of research, I decided to strip the paint off and refinish the piece with wood stain. On paper, it sounded so easy. But as these things usually go, it was one disaster after the next. Thankfully, I'm super happy with the end product, but learned a ton of lessons along the way. Here are a few tips to know in advance of attempting a project of this magnitude.

* As Emily Henderson advises, if the wood is in good condition, or if the piece is vintage, don't paint it. I tend to agree. It's a crime to cover up good wood (guilty as charged here). Staining, when done right, really brings out the beauty of the wood and makes it a unique piece.

* Estimate how much time you'll need for each step, and then multiply that by 3. At the very least, ensure that you'll have 2-3 consecutive non-rainy days for each step. Seriously. This project has taken me way more time than I anticipated. Part of the problem was that I had to do all of the work on the patio, and plan around rainy days and freezing cold weather. A garage would have made things much easier.

* Make sure you have PLENTY of ventilation. Every material, from the paint stripper, to the poly finish, is nasty nasty stuff. The fumes are strong. Even when working outside, I'd sometimes find myself a little nauseous or light-headed. If I had to do it again, I'd use a mask throughout the entire process.

* Similarly, make sure you have plenty of protective gloves. Like heavy-duty, chemical-resistant gloves.

* Don't attempt to chemically-strip unless: 1-it's a piece that has only linear shapes (as in no curved legs or intricate carvings) or 2-you have a lot of space and a hose. Getting the previous finish off is nasty work...you need to scrape it off the piece with a spatula-like tool. You can get into small crevices with steel wool, a toothbrush, pipe cleaner, etc, but it's a huge pain. There are chemical strippers that can be hosed off after the application time, but make sure you're in a well-ventilated, open space and you collect the goo after it's been hosed off (it needs to be disposed of in a certain way or it can spontaneously combust-yikes!)

* Follow the directions on the containers to a t. Don't try to cheat dry times or application tips. Something will definitely go wrong and trying to undo mistakes (like removing an excess of stain that you didn't wipe off correctly) is often very difficult and messy.

* Temperature makes a difference. I had trouble with tacky stain that wouldn't wipe off properly, and chemical stripper that wouldn't peel up, and I think the low outside temperatures contributed to my problems. The containers state that you shouldn't really work in conditions below 65 degrees or excessively hot and humid weather.

* Don't freak out if at first the piece doesn't look exactly how you envisioned it. I was so unhappy with the look of the table until I applied the first coat of poly. Once it had that little shine and smoothness, the color and grain really stood out beautifully.

Up next: the play by play!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Latest lusts

My wishlist this holiday season is small, mostly because I've been consumed with the outfitting of our new apartment, rather than myself. I'm pretty proud of the fact that it's all things I would actually use on a regular basis...not just something gorgeous to look at hanging in my closet.

Lululemon Savasana wrap

Does this not look like the coziest thing ever? Even though it's unstructured, I could see it looking great with skinny jeans and some tall boots. Instant chic outfit, even if you're still hiding a pajama top underneath. I'd wear it to brunch, while walking the dog, for travel, in spring/summer, to keep me warm in the freezing library...everywhere! In other words, I need this in my life. The website is perpetually sold out, and I haven't had any luck with my local stores, so for now, it's on the wishlist.

Marc by Marc Jacobs crossbody bag

I realized the other day that I don't have a good everyday black bag. I have a small Andrea Bruecker woven bag, that is just too small for all-day jaunts around town, and a Botkier Trigger that is wonderfully constructed, but too heavy on the shoulders. I'm thinking a black MJ crossbody from the Classic Q line would be perfect. Currently torn between the High Schooly bag (slightly big, and do I really need the hand strap?) and the Natasha ($100 cheaper, saw it on a girl in the subway and was super cute).

Gym bag
I've been carrying my gym stuff in an old Herve Chapelier tote (like nearly every other girl in the city), but realized I may need something more specialized. Since we live out in Brooklyn now, and I work from the library part of the week, I'll need to schlep my gym stuff around with me all day. In my head, I'm picturing a medium-sized bag that can be used on the shoulders or crossbody, with a few different compartments, and easily washable. Maybe something like the Gap bag pictured, but not as shiny and cheap-looking?

FitFlop Mukluk boot

I swear, turning 30 ushered in a whole host of new health issues. My back hurts if I'm doing too much 'manual labor', I have chronic heartburn, and have achy feet in anything other than running shoes. What gives? The most comfortably shoes I own are my FitFlop sandals - they are perfectly cushioned and have great arch support, so when I found out they make boots too I was thrilled. One Nordstrom reviewer describes them as orthopedic UGGs. Ha! I would LIVE in these until spring!

Price/Source List:
*Lululemon Savasana Wrap ($118)
*Marc by Marc Jacobs Classic Q High Schooly Bag ($498)
*Marc by Marc Jacobs Classic Q Natasha ($398)
*Gap Crossbody Gym Bag ($49.50)
*FitFlop Mukluk Shearling Bootie ($149.95)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Samsung N230 review

After tons of research and considering the Windows OS, RAM, keyboard size, and screen appearance, I decided to purchase the Samsung N230, which is one of Samsung's newer models. Overall, I am extremely happy with it.

I won't bore you with the specs of the machine, which you can easily find on the retail sites that sell the netbook. I will say that Sammynetbook.com is a great resource if you do decide on a Samsung. Since the N230 was fairly new, I couldn't find many deals or applicable coupons, and ended up purchasing through a back-to-school sale on Buy.com. I used an American Express card for the warranty and purchased through ebates.com for cash back.

Shipping was super fast through Buy.com and they sent several emails notifying me of my order status (much appreciated - especially for such a big purchase). On first handling, the netbook is tiny! It's only 2.2 pounds and the top cover is a shiny black (picked up a ton of fingerprints, but since I planned to use it within a case, this was not an issue). I installed the new RAM straight from the package, and before I even turned the netbook on (it took less than 5 minutes). The initial setup is somewhat complicated, as you have to partition the hard drive (I believe we accepted Samsung's suggested partitioning). Next, I installed MS Office and Stata 11, but not before setting up a network with our existing PC. Husband set this up, and it appeared to be easy (Windows walks you through the steps). The great thing about having the network is that I can share files and programs quickly and on a regular basis, through our home wireless setup.

The netbook itself is easy to type on, with a keyboard that is 93% the size of a standard keyboard (and good spacing between the keys). Samsung boasted a crazy battery life of 7 hours with a 3-cell battery on this thing (and over 13 hours with a 6-cell battery...it's unclear to me whether this is available in the US just yet), and so far it hasn't let me down. Admittedly, I can't comment much on the touchpad since I use a USB mouse, but it does seem a little tricky to get used to. The screen resolution is good - takes a little getting used to - and if I have a particularly long day in front of the screen, my eyes do feel tired. On a typical day, I'll have running Google Chrome, Stata 11, and MS Word, and never feel that anything is slow (I have even opened programs beyond that and they work, despite hearing complaints that W7S only runs up to 3 programs simultaneously.

Obviously, the N230 is a dream to travel with...easily slipping into a tote bag or even a large purse. I never remove it from the case to avoid scratches and damage (although I don't feel that the machine is at all overly delicate). As far as the case, I purchased this option from Slappa. It's a tad heavier and thicker than the ubiquitous neoprene sleeves, but is water-resistant, super durable, and even has my initial on it (ha)!

At $400 retail, it's at the higher end of netbook costs, but despite the price, I'm confident that I bought a solid machine that will last for a while (unlike the pieceofcrap Dell). Don't be put off by the marketing...the Samsung website features two women sitting on a blanket in an urban park, laughing as they glance at the screen. I guess they are hoping that young professional women on-the-go will be the target here? Even though the campaign is flighty, the machine is definitely not.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How to Buy a Netbook

So I mentioned that I started going to the NYPL on the regular. Awesome place to set up shop for a day and get some serious work done. Even better that Husband's office is close by, so we started have regular lunches together! What wasn't awesome were the red marks and bruises left behind on my shoulders from lugging around my (godforsakenstupidihateit) Dell laptop along with papers, notebooks, etc. Not to mention the Dell started to seriously crap out on me (killing every new battery I purchased for it). At first I thought about going the refurbished route for another laptop, but then discovered the wonderful world of netbooks.

A netbook is basically a mini-computer. In the 'old days' they were pretty basic and meant for little more then email and basic word processing. Nowadays, these little machines pack a big punch, and can run even statistical software (my main use for the machine). Asus and Acer seems to lead the netbook market, with machines that are priced well. HP and Sony make the 'sexy' machines marketed to trendier peeps. Basically, every computer brand can deliver a netbook to you. So, how to choose?

First, I researched the top-selling netbooks from the last few years. Asus, Acer, Samsung, and Toshiba seemed to lead the pack. Next, I visited my local Best Buy to handle the machines and get a feel for them. From there, I made my decision based on several features:

Windows 7 Starter vs. Windows XP
In was pretty comfortable with Windows XP, and after the whole Vista fiasco, was not jumping on the new Windows OS bandwagon. I found that computers with Windows XP were, in most cases, much cheaper then those with 7 Starter. I also read that Starter can be a memory drain on the computer. However, I was swayed towards Starter when I learned that Windows XP is being phased out by Microsoft...soon they won't even offer support or updates for it! Also, Windows 7 seemed to be relatively bug-free and smooth. I decided to take my chances on the newish operating system.

To ensure that my netbook would run smoothly on W7S, I knew that I wanted to upgrade the RAM. Most netbooks come with 1 GB RAM standard. This is the available memory that the computer uses to run applications. More RAM = programs starting up quickly and multiple programs running smoothly at the same time.
A quick glance at netbook reviews show upgrades to be fairly common, even for the least tech savvy peeps. Memory is fairly cheap to buy (about $40 for new RAM through online sources like Tigerdirect.com, Crucial.com, or Amazon.com) and easy to install on most computers. Once I decided to do the upgrade myself, I searched for a netbook that had an easily accessed memory slot (on the back, as opposed to underneath the keyboard). You'll want to make sure that the RAM you intend to purchase is fully compatible with the computer (Crucial.com makes this easy to figure out, and their customer service is helpful and quick to respond).

Keyboard size
This is where is pays to read the countless netbook reviews available online. I discovered that on Asus and Acer netbooks, the keys on the keyboard are closer together, and typing tends to be difficult (this was reaffirmed when I saw the machines in-store). There will be always be a learning curve when first using a netbook as your muscle memory adjusts to a smaller, more compact keyboard, but I wanted a quick and easy transition. I discovered that some companies, like Samsung, offered machines with larger-then-average keyboards...newer models boasted full-size keyboards or keyboards greater than 90% the size of the standard. Based on this, I focused my searching on Samsung and Toshiba netbooks.

Screen appearance
Since I would be pretty mobile with my netbook, I decided to seek out a machine with a matte screen that could easily be read in all kinds of light, as opposed to glossy screens that are difficult to read in direct sunlight (similar to my Droid Incredible screen, which I could barely see all summer).

Now keep in mind, a netbook is pretty no-frills...only some ports for the power cord, modem, and USB. To install programs, you'd have to do it over the internet, or set up a network with an existing computer and install the program from there (fairly easy to do, or so Husband tells me). But if portability is the goal, then a netbook would be perfect. Up next...the machine I purchased and a review.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Umm, hi?

Holy wow. Is it really November? My sad little blog has been sitting here without an update since the summer. I don't have much of an excuse, except for "life' got busy" and "things came up" and blahblahblah. But seriously, how fast
is the year flying by? I feel like I blinked and summer ended and the holidays are around the corner. Not that I miss the eternal inferno of the past summer...that heatwave was god-awful and I'm happy to not walk around with perpetually sweat-drenched clothing.

I originally wrote this post during some unseasonably warm fall weather, which is long gone by now (today marked the earliest recorded frozen precipitation for the NY Metro area, lovely). I had a collection of fab pictures all set to go, but really, no one wants to see bright sunny days in front of the NY Public Library or giant bloody marys garnished with Slim Jims overlooking the San Diego waterfront. It's just depressing when winter feels like it came too soon.

The bigger and better news is that we welcomed the fall with a new apartment! In Brooklyn! It's a two-bedroom with a patio. A huge patio. Did I mention there was a patio? We couldn't be more thrilled for the space and a fresh start. I have so much to share! From the few purchases we made to freshen up the place with a different look, to paint colors, to a few DIY projects that I (probably stupidly) took on...we've been learning a lot!