An Army Wife’s Home Improvement Valentine

Her top-secret operation is transforming their house one DIY project at a time.

Designing and tiling the kitchen wall. Photo: Photograph by T.J. Felix

“Operation Chaos”: Outlining the Plan of Attack

“If you ever need anything done, ask an army wife,” says T.J. Felix from Manhattan, Kansas, otherwise known as the “Little Apple.”

Feeling guilty for not mailing her husband a care package nine months into his deployment to Iraq (her boys go stir-crazy in the post office), she came up with a secret mission — which she dubbed “Operation Chaos” — to conduct a series of home improvements with which to surprise him upon his return.

This was an ambitious campaign. “I didn’t know what ‘sheen’ was,” she admits. “I had to Google ‘sheen.’”

(For those in the same boat, sheen, or “luster” in a general sense, relates in this case to how much light a paint reflects from its surface. Paints that have a semigloss or glossy sheen reflect light whereas flat or matte paints absorb light.)

To get up to speed, she did online research, watched how-to video tutorials, consulted with a contractor friend, and set up a “top-secret” photo album on Facebook. Her friends and fellow army wives cheered her on from the virtual sidelines, offering advice and sharing resources, and occasionally mailing her materials. Sometimes, friends or family would come over to help babysit T.J.’s three children while she ran to the store or applied a coat of paint.

She worked her way through a long list of projects while her children napped. “I don’t mess around,” she says. “I don’t wait well.”

Her husband knew something was afoot, but apart from seeing the Home Depot bills, didn’t have knowledge of any of the specifics. His savvy army wife made sure to position the camera carefully when they would Skype so as not to spoil the surprise.

So, where to begin?

(L): Repainting the bathroom; (R): After repainting the bathroom. Photo: Photographs by T.J. Felix

Project 1: Painting the Two Bathrooms (two days each)*

T.J. decided to start by painting the bathrooms.

Paint Tools, Techniques, and Color Advice

On November 27th, she applied paint to the walls for the first time. Her neighbor had just painted her entire house and so T.J. asked her for painting advice, such as which brushes to use. T.J. taped a little, but found she did better freehand. The bathroom walls were yellow and so she applied two coats of paint to make them pale blue. In hindsight, she wishes she had picked something bolder. But “it’s staying for now,” she says. She’s already moved on to other projects.

At the time, she wasn’t aware of VOCs — volatile organic compounds — but said that the bathroom paint smelled quite strong versus the living room paint, which barely had a smell. Checking the paint cans the other day, lo and behold, the living room paint had a VOC level roughly 1/3 of the bathroom paint. Lesson learned!

Challenge:  Painting Behind the Toilet Tank

T.J. had been apprehensive about how it would work with the kids, so she started with the small bathroom while they napped, then moved onto the bigger bathroom. One complicated matter involved painting the wall behind the toilet. Should she remove the tank and do it right? Or stop short of the tank and hope that no one would ever notice?

Online, her Facebook friends gave her conflicting advice. One wrote in to say that no one ever removes the tank, that if you’ve lived in an older house and replaced the toilet, you’ll have noticed missing paint behind the tank. Her take? “It would be easier and quicker to remove the tank than tote three kids to Home Depot for a less invasive fix!” So she did it right. (Watch video: how to paint a room or visit Bob Vila’s community forum for painting.) 

* T.J.’s Disclaimer: “Keep in mind, all the time frames include caring for the kids. If the kids weren’t bothering me, everything would have been done much quicker.”

(L): T.J. shows off a difficult tile cut; (R): The finished tiled kitchen wall. Photo: Photographs by T.J. Felix

Project 2: Tiling the Kitchen (4 days including 1 day to grout the tile)

Next, T.J. decided to tile the kitchen walls — a project that was interrupted throughout the process as she didn’t have help with the children and then also for a few days while the family celebrated an early Christmas.

She says that part of what motivated her was “keeping up with the Joneses,” as many houses in her suburban area featured tile as part of their decorating schemes. But she also thought it looked like fun and asked herself how hard it could be. “I got very bold,” she says, “and went straight for the tile.” Her friends online egged her on, providing encouragement.

How-to Tiling Advice

She turned to a friend who’s a contractor for tips and pointers and went online to read some how-tos and to watch some of Bob Vila’s tiling videos. She used some of the kids’ construction paper and laid it out to get an idea for how the pattern would look. “I wanted to do it right and wasn’t 100% confident about making the pattern. I crossed my t’s and dotted my i’s,” she said. She shored up her base knowledge.

She bought a wet saw to cut the tile. It turned out to be cheaper to buy than to rent and she figured it would come in handy again in the future, especially as she and her husband plan to finish the basement once he’s home. (Watch video: one family finishes a basement.) “Some of the cuts were difficult, using a circular saw to cut a hole in a tile. I had to think outside the box…It was very challenging. I had to cut it three times,” she said.

Challenge: Working with the Backsplash

She ran into a predicament with the laminate backsplash, unsure if she should remove it and then tile or if she should just tile the wall itself. Her Facebook friends argued the merits for both approaches. This time, she decided it would be more trouble than it was worth to risk removing the backsplash. She left it as is and decided to tile the wall just up to the point where the backsplash ended.

She also made a sensible decision about the tile pattern. She had posted different patterns online to solicit her friends’ favorites. In the end, she found a pre-made decorative tile at Home Depot that featured a square of glass within a tile, versus having to perfectly position a tile of glass between ceramic tiles. She still had to make “u” cuts and ‘l” cuts, to accommodate the light switches on the wall. She accomplished the decorative look she wanted in a more straightforward way. (Watch video: touring a ceramic tile showroom or visit the Bob Vila community forum for floor & tile)

She learned a thing or two about grout — there are many color choices, and the color becomes lighter as it dries — and was pleased with the end result of a light grout color that contrasted with the tile color. She wishes the glass tile was centered better over the oven. Live and learn!

While tempted to put in under-cabinet lighting, she decided to wait for a contractor.

(L): Before decorating the living room; (R): After decorating the living room. Photo: Photographs by T.J. Felix

Decorating the Mantel (a few hours)

T.J.’s husband Nick was home for two weeks of R&R in August, and they had family photographs taken during this time by a photographer. T.J. decided to enlarge one of the photographs and place it over the mantel.

She used an online photo service,, to make the enlargement, and then had the frame custom-made, with a mat.

She asked her online friends what they thought of the size, and the consensus was that the mat would give the photograph more visual weight so that it wouldn’t appear too small in terms of dimensions over the mantel.

“If I had to do it again, I would have gone bigger,” T.J. says. Next time!

Updating the Window Treatments (4 hours to sew the drapes and install the curtain rod)

The next project leveraged Facebook and the regular mail as T.J. worked with an out-of-state friend whom she had met online to select drapes to complement the color of the walls and the furniture. T.J. sent her friend a video of the house since she couldn’t come by in person and tasked her with picking a wall color (T.J. almost left the color as is, but decided to change it regardless from a flat paint to an eggshell, a more kid-friendly choice). Her friend picked out fabric and paint samples and mailed them to T.J., who visited the same store in her hometown, Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores, to buy the fabric. She just had to figure out how much material she needed to buy. She took as her inspiration some window treatments that she had seen at Pottery Barn, although she confesses her drapes are more decorative than functional. Naturally, on Facebook, T.J. posted photos of the fabric swatches next to the furniture and the walls so her friends could weigh in with their opinions.

Painting an Accent Wall (2 hours total)

T.J.’s friend had recommended pale jade for the walls. But T.J.’s house has an open floor plan, meaning that she would have had to paint the kitchen and the living room this color, and she wasn’t sold on it. Then one Saturday, on a whim, she decided to paint an accent wall. Another friend had come over with a sample can and T.J. pulled out a brush to paint a little by the fireplace. Her friend said she’d watch the kids, and the next thing she knew, T.J. had run to Home Depot (where she’s a regular), come back, and painted the wall pale jade. All told, from the time she decided to do an accent wall to the time it was completed, just two hours had elapsed, and that included the drive back and forth to the store.

She’s still decorating the living room but hopes to be done before her husband returns home.

Bob Vila’s word of caution: Painting fast without much prep work can spell trouble later.

Project 4: Decorating the Master Bedroom (1.5 days)

In the master bedroom, T.J. painted, sewed curtains, and installed curtain rods. Her mother watched the kids while T.J. worked and shopped for supplies. She’s still working on wall decor but hopes to be done in time for the big reveal.

(Watch video: Bob decorates his Shingle Style home or visit Bob’s community forum for design & décor)

(L): Installed garage shelving; (R): The completed arbor. Photo: Photographs by T.J. Felix

Project 5: Installing Garage Shelving (30 minutes)

T.J. decided to tackle the garage. Her father, who she describes as “a diesel mechanic who’s lived in rural areas his whole life,” provided installation advice and went with her to purchase the materials. She bought the ClosetMaid system from Home Depot. He showed her how to knock on the wall to see where the studs were, which she did herself once he had left. She ended up using more studs to support additional weight.

She didn’t attempt to do the wiring herself. “My dad’s ‘old school’,” she says. “He wired his whole garage, to code. He knows what he’s doing. When he told me to get a professional to do the wiring, I got a professional to do the wiring.”

Project 6: Building an Arbor (nearly 30 days)

T.J. and her husband had designed an arbor when he was home on leave in August. After he returned to Iraq, she started working on it. It took her most of the month of September, though she didn’t work on it every day. She describes the project — complete with 12-foot boards — as “the biggest feat I’ve ever accomplished.” Both parents provided a form of assistance. Her father described how she should screw in the supports and rest the boards in order to do it without help, and her mother visited and watched the kids while T.J. screwed things in.

Wrapping up the Project

All told, from late November through late January, T.J. single-handedly painted two bathrooms, tiled the kitchen, decorated the living room’s mantel, accent wall, and window treatments, revamped the master bedroom, installed garage shelving, and built an arbor, all the while caring for three children under the age of four. This does not even include earlier projects, such as creating a vegetable garden so that her children could eat in a healthy way or devising a metal composting bin.

It will come as no surprise then, that T.J. hasn’t stopped there.

All that stands in between her and more home improvements for her Valentine is the non-obliging weather.

Once it gets warmer, future projects will include adding a cobblestone walk to the arbor and putting a solar tube in the kitchen. (Watch video: a salvaged house is outfitted with solatubes)

Says T.J., “I’ve done my research and I’m dying to get it done. I want to put a solar tube, like a skylight… it’s just so cold. The next time we have over 50 degrees, I’ll be up on the roof!”

Her husband is due to return home in two weeks, after a year away from his family. He just got promoted, and T.J. isn’t sure what that means in terms of their future whereabouts. She expects to still be in the house for a year, and plans to rent versus sell if they have to move. So all this “decorating to make up for nine months of no care packages” won’t be for nothing.

“Operation Chaos,” with its top-secret photo albums, clandestine discussions, online and offline maneuvers, has been a success.