Author Archives: LuAnn Brandsen

Planning Guide: Home Theater

Design a blockbuster theater room for convenient, casual, cinema-style entertainment at home.

Home Theater Ideas

Photo: HGTV

Millions of Americans are plugging into dedicated home theaters as their ticket to relaxation and casual entertaining. Though any space with a TV and a surround sound audio system qualifies as an entertainment area, only a home theater room simulates a sensory cinema experience. Here are four key considerations to help make an attractive, comfortable space with top-quality acoustics and viewing.

Room Place, Shape and Size
Unless you have exceptional wall insulation, locate the home theater room in an area of the house where ambient noise won’t disrupt viewing, and where cinema sounds won’t interfere with other household activities. Possibilities include a basement or a space adjacent to the family room with minimal natural light.

Choose a rectangular-shaped room rather than a square space where sound build-up bounces off the walls. For excellent acoustics, most design experts suggest an area that measures about 20′ x 13′. Others point to an acoustics room ratio, which indicates that room width should be 1.6 times, and room length should be 2.6 times, the ceiling height. Considering cinema sound is as powerful as its imagery, acoustics deserve to be a big deal.

Projectors vs. Big-screen TV
Deciding between a television or a projector should be based on how you plan to use the room. If you’re keen on TV programs or gaming, then image quality is usually better on a flat-screen TV. But if you’re more interested in watching movies (DVD, Blu-ray, HD-DVD) and entertaining friends, then a projector offers the better picture, the largest screen size, and a more authentic experience. Projectors trump televisions in tendering realistic 3D escapades, too.

Screen Size and Viewing Experience
Remember the days when owning a 27″ TV model practically ensured you’d be hosting the next Super Bowl party? Today 4′ and 5′ screens are the norm (with 6′ and 7′ models gaining ground). Bigger isn’t always the best choice, however. When the screen is too large for the viewing distance, the individual pixels are evident, and the eyes are strained by the need to scan the whole thing. When the screen is too small, viewers miss the experience of being drawn into the show.

As a general rule, select a screen size that is about one third of your viewing distance. For seating about 13′ (156″) from the television, for instance, opt for a 52″ screen. One way to test optimal viewing distance is to measure between your seating area and the television, then stand that far away from the displays at the store. If you can see a model’s whole screen without moving your head or eyes, you’re in the right range.

Finally, when it comes to size, projectors go up to 300″ diagonally, compared with 70″ to 90″ for flat-screen TVs. Keep in mind that projectors have “throw” ranges, indicating the distance between the projector and the screen. (Find a throw range calculator on individual manufacturers’ websites.)

Home Theater Ideas - Cinema

Photo: HGTV

Furnishings and Lighting
A home theater room can trump even the poshest cinema in terms of comfort and personal style. To set a specific mood, turn to theme decor ranging from swanky Hollywood glamour to cozy wine bar or lively ’50s drive-in. Or take design cues from favorite genres like Westerns or from beloved series like Lord of the Rings.

For the sake of both comfort and acoustics, begin with carpet that adds warmth and absorbs sound. Next, indulge in comfortable seating. Though sofas, chairs, and even bean bags will work, the ideal arrangement is a row or two of cushy chairs facing forward to mimic theater seating. Consider using risers or platforms to elevate the second row and add LED step lighting that can be dimmed. In fact, wall sconces and subtle lighting controlled by a remote can greatly enhance mood—everyone enjoys the suspense when the lights go down. And because you want things as dark as possible for improved viewing, choose deep colors for walls and dress any windows with blackout curtains.

Finally, add in special touches like a star ceiling made from fiber optic tiles, acoustic panels on the walls, a mini concession stand with popcorn machine, movie posters and a velour curtain to trim out the screen.

3 Steps to a Successful Garage Makeover

If a messy garage is driving you crazy, here’s how to steer things back on course.

Garage Makeover Ideas

Photo: Gladiator GarageWorks

Let’s face it. For most of us, the garage serves as a dumping ground for old paint, broken toys, and boxes of clothes awaiting a ride to the local thrift store. No wonder our vehicles feel the squeeze—provided they can fit inside the garage at all.

If the thought of organizing your garage fills you with dread, take courage. Here’s how to break the task into three steps, so you can curb the chaos once and for all:

Garage Makeover Ideas 1. CLEAR THE CLUTTER
Begin with a serious cleaning, if possible hauling everything onto the driveway. Group items you’re eliminating into four piles: toss, recycle, donate or sell. “Be brutal when you are sorting,” advises Erin Gentry, Associate Public Relations and Consumer Engagement Manager at Rubbermaid. “Get rid of anything you haven’t used in the past year.” If parting with perfectly good items proves paralyzing, find motivation in a moneymaking garage sale or gain satisfaction from helping a favorite charity.

Here are additional sources to get you started:
• 1-800-GOT-JUNK: This national franchise will remove everything from appliances to tires to trash, donating and recycling whatever is possible. (Ask the hauler to obtain a tax receipt if you are donating to a charity.)
• Check here to find local recycling centers where you can safely dispose of paint and chemicals.
• Use this site to match your items with a local charity and arrange pickup.

Now that the garage is empty, avoid the common mistake of hastily rushing out to buy organizational products. First consider whether the space could benefit from a fresh coat of paint. Then begin grouping items by task or interest. “Your pots, fertilizer, and garden hose should be grouped together for a gardening zone,” says Tim Keaton, Head of Brand and Product Marketing for Gladiator/GarageWorks. “And your golf clubs, soccer balls, and baseball bats should be kept together for a sporting zone.” Other logical zone groupings include holiday decorations, kids stuff, and a workshop area with space for a sturdy bench, plus pegboard or cabinets.

Once you’ve determined what zones you’ll need, work logically to fit them in where they’ll be easiest to access. For instance, it makes sense to keep garden equipment and the lawn mower by the door leading to the yard. Plan to store frequently used items close at hand. Stash seasonal items like holiday lights in higher, harder-to-reach spaces.

Garage Makeover Ideas - Ceiling Storage

Photo: Family Hanydman

In fact, thinking vertical is key. “Look up and you’ll find a ton of wasted space,” says Keaton. “Using vertical space leads to creating more useable space. In addition to hanging rakes and tools, consider hanging up your bikes and wheelbarrow.” Hoists and overhead racks maximize space near the ceiling.

Now that you have a plan, put it into action with smart organizational products that require minimal effort to use. The good news is there are plenty of options, from inexpensive DIY hooks and chrome racks to customized, professionally installed systems priced in the thousands. Here are key categories worth considering:

Wall systems, such as those from GarageTek, Rubbermaid, Schulte and Gladiator/GarageWorks, wrap any or all sides of your garage with panels that can be outfitted with your choice of accessories, including ball holders, bins, cabinets and hooks. Though some systems can be priced in the thousands, they do offer excellent flexibility and get everything organized and off the floor. Models that use tracks or rails are easiest to install.

Slideshow: 10 “Neat” Garage Storage Solutions

Storage cabinets range from freestanding units to modular wall-hung models. Locked cabinets are ideal for storing toxic items, while tall cabinets make great use of vertical space. Look for the versatility of adjustable shelves to ensure you can store everything from camping gear to automotive parts.

Workbenches provide an ideal spot for home improvement projects, repairs, and woodworking. Models may be wood or steel and might include cabinets, lighting, or pegboard backs.

Racks help get all kinds of items off the floor. Specialty racks include space-saving corner models and overhead platforms that attach to the ceiling. The latter is ideal for holding memorabilia or off-season sports equipment.

Garage Makeover Ideas - Storage Racks

Photo: Gladiator/GarageWorks

Shelves are among the most common and versatile storage solutions, providing “see, grab, and go” functionality that keeps frequently used items at the ready. Choose from metal, plastic, wire and wood models in freestanding or wall-mounted options. Invest in deep shelves for larger items like snow tires.

Hooks are easy to use and inexpensive, and in different sizes they are tremendously versatile. Small hooks can hang keys, twine, and hand tools, while larger hooks can get bikes, cords, and equipment off the ground.

Bins and tubs stash toys, holiday decorations, craft supplies and more. Choose stackable ones with lids to eliminate dust, and be sure to label each clearly to avoid having to dig around.

Perforated hardboard offers an easy DIY solution for hanging tools. Pre-drilled holes accept pegs or hooks. Look for options in wood fiber, wood, or metal.

Don’t miss our roundup of organizing products—10 “Neat” Garage Storage Solutionsfor even more on achieving a clutter-free garage.

Counter Intelligence: Choosing the Right Countertop

All kitchen countertops are not created equal. Here are the pros and cons of today's more popular choices.


Countertops pull double duty as a visual design element and a hardworking surface. Cost depends on materials, with prices ranging from $2–$250 per square foot or more. Today’s popular countertop options support a strong natural theme with stone, wood, and renewable materials. Look for surfaces that can stand up to the demands you’ll dish out, and mix them to personalize your space. For instance, put quartz or granite on the main countertops, then use a butcher block on the island to chop fruits and veggies. Here are materials to consider:

The Naturals. Durability and good looks keep granite and quartz in high demand, but other natural materials are also gaining ground. In luxe kitchens, timeless marble is coming on strong, though it’s not as durable as granite, and the more historic-looking soapstone has also become more popular. Semi-precious gem slabs, such as agate, amethyst, and rose quartz, are also gaining attention for their dazzling good looks. Limestone and sandstone are alternatives for those who want a more natural, soothing palette. As for prices, granite and soapstone begin around $40 per square foot, and low-maintenance quartz begins around $120.

Du Pont Corian Solid Surface Kitchen Countertops Cirrus White Rev Sustainable Choices. Going green is always in vogue and manufacturers now offer countertops fashioned from renewable and recyclable materials like ground glass, metal bits, bamboo, stainless steel, and concrete. Repurposed architectural salvage offers one-of-a-kind countertops. And on the budget-friendly end are laminates made with recycled-wood particle board and non-VOC adhesives.

Woods. Take a look at hardwoods like maple, mahogany, and cherry, as well as current popular choices like madrone. Not only do these time-honored materials add a warm, cozy feel to any style kitchen, but they can be refinished numerous times and will age beautifully. Cost ranges from $30–$100 per square foot.

Laminates. If you’re looking for a budget-friendly countertop or a retro look, simple laminates keep costs in line (prices begin around $5 per square foot). The material is fairly durable but not heat-resistant. Installation is relatively quick, helping to keep costs down.

Tile. Durable and affordable, tile comes in various colors, sizes, and textures and can be made of porcelain, ceramic, or stone. Prices vary, with the least expensive choices beginning at $2 per square foot. Seal any grout used between the tiles to ward off bacteria buildup.

Solid Surfaces. Made of durable, man-made acrylic, solid surface countertops are designed to withstand years of wear and can include an integrated sink with seamless installation. Solid surfaces resist stains, moisture, sunlight, and heat and can be repaired with light buffing.

Planning Guide: Kitchen Remodeling

Take the stress out of kitchen remodeling by becoming more familiar with your design, material, and budget options.

Kitchen Remodeling

Kitchen designed by Chris Novak Berry and Emily Castle, Brooksberry & Associates. Photo: Alise O

Kitchen makeovers remain popular as homeowners continue to invest to create a warm, stylish, comfortable, and efficient heart of the home. In addition to improved aesthetics and organization, kitchen remodels also hold reasonable resale value. According to Remodeling magazine’s 2011-2012 Cost vs. Value Report, midrange minor kitchen remodels—new countertops, appliances, cabinet fronts, and hardware—have an average national cost just shy of $20,000 and get 72% return on investment. Midrange major remodels, which include new appliances, cabinets, countertops, flooring, and lighting, have a mid-range average of $57,824 and a nearly 66% return. High-end renovations can easily cost $100,000 and up.

Though aesthetics are important, the driving remodeling force is functionality. Start by doing some research and tour show houses and kitchen show rooms to see product up close and personal. Next, set a budget that reflects your main priorities for the new space and familiarize yourself with basic elements of design.

Planning Your Best Kitchen
Today’s kitchens average 200–300 square feet and are increasingly part of an open-floor plan. Other trends include a move towards simplicity, uncluttered looks, energy efficiency, and natural materials. Look to design books, magazines, and websites for ideas. And check out the helpful Kitchen Planner by the National Kitchen and Bath Assocation (NKBA), which is available as a free download.

Here are some key points to get you started:

How will you use the kitchen? Before you do anything, determine how you like to cook and entertain in your kitchen. Do you cook alone or with someone? Is your kitchen a multi-purpose room where kids do homework and friends love to gather? Keep track of what currently works well and what doesn’t. For instance, if you’re forever crawling into the back of lower cabinets to retrieve something, jot that issue down.

Stop the clutter. Now is your chance to take inventory of everything you need to store, then plan accordingly. Fortunately, cabinet makers realize storage and organization features drive sales, and they’ve responded accordingly.

G Shaped KitchenThink about efficiency. If your kitchen feels more like an obstacle course than an organized work place, consider two tried-and-true kitchen layout basics:

• The Work Triangle. This imaginary triangle features the stove, refrigerator, and sink at the points. The old “26-foot rule” dictates that the perimeter of this triangle should not exceed 26 feet and that each side should be between four and nine feet long. Make sure that the triangle doesn’t intersect an island or peninsula for more than a foot. (To see additional layouts, select Galley, L-shaped, Corridor, and G-shaped floor plans.)

• The Work Station. Create separate stations for food prep, cooking, baking, and cleaning. Each area is centered around a major appliance and needs at least 15 inches of counter space.

Stick with a Budget. In all likelihood, you’ll need to make some choices on where to save and where to splurge. “Keep your priorities front and center,” advises the NKBA Kitchen Planner. “A $500 range or a $10,000 one? A $100 sink or one that’s $3,500? A $4 polished brass knob or a $98 crystal model? What’s important to you?”

As for budget breakdown, the NKBA Kitchen Planner notes that you can expect cabinetry and hardware to run about 29% of your investment, appliances and ventilation can be 14%, countertops typically run 10%, and installation is about 17% of the total project cost. Set aside 10% or 20% of your budget for contingencies.

For more on kitchen planning, consider:

Fresh Ideas for Kitchen Flooring
Counter Intelligence: Choosing the Right Countertop
Kitchen Cabinets

Landscaping Made Easy

Beautify your yard with our five simple landscaping ideas that add distinctive structure, easy-growing color, and notable curb appeal.

Landscaping Ideas

Photo: Better Home Gardens

If you think landscaping design requires heavy machinery and an even heftier checkbook, think again. Enlivening shade gardens, transforming boring lawn, and creating a sense of sanctuary mostly comes down to smart choices and creative ideas. So regardless of your yard’s challenges, here are five ways to spruce it up without breaking your back—or the bank.

1. Create a Stone Path
Avoid the expense and work of a structured walkway by laying a more casual stone path that requires no thick base installation or laborious fitting. “Many different sizes of natural stone will work, but I like twenty-four by eighteen-inch pieces so that it feels more like a walkway than small stepping stones,” says landscape designer Susan Schlenger, author of Landscape Design Advice. “As long as the soil underneath is firm, you don’t have to get too involved in how you install. Simply cut out the soil and set them in. If you think you need extra support, put a two-inch layer of crushed stone underneath.”

Determining a pattern depends on personal preference and space. You can place geometric stones one in front of the other, stagger them creatively, or add in curves. As for spacing, you can butt pieces, allow a few inches for grass or mulch between, or leave enough room to intersperse drought-tolerant plants like thyme that will create softness, interest, and charm.

For twelve easy-to-imitate stone garden paths, click here.

2. Add Strokes of Color
Few things can enliven a yard as quickly as well-planned color. Here’s how to ensure the effect is harmonious, not chaotic:

Please Repeat That. A beautiful yard doesn’t need lots of different plants, but it does require a sense of rhythm and continuity. Visually unify your outdoor space by using multiples of the same plant, color, shape, or texture as a recurring theme that takes your eye gently across the landscape.

Create Mass Appeal. Plant annuals and perennials in groupings of at least three of a kind. One lily is pretty, three make a statement, and an entire swath gives dramatic reason to pause.

Choose Looks that Last. That bloom that catches your eye in the garden center today might sadly be gone tomorrow. Overall, Susan suggests planting long bloomers like Sedum “Autumn Joy,” Fountain Grass, Yarrow, Catmint “Walker’s Low,” Coneflower, and the repeat-blooming Knock Out™ rose series. And for shade? “Forever and Ever® Blue Heaven hydrangeas are amazing,” she says. “You will see masses of gorgeous blue flowers from early summer into the early fall.”

Pick a Pocket. Plant flowers in front of evergreen foundation plantings where their color will pop against the vibrant green backdrop.

Add sculpture, furniture, and art. Introduce year-round color with pieces that express your personality. Possibilities range from a painted yellow bench nestled in the shade to a mosaic birdbath to attract feathered friends.

landscaping3. Sprinkle in a Garden Fountain
An outdoor fountain presents a win-win feature for your yard. In addition to creating an attractive focal point on your patio or lawn, a fountain also adds a soothing dimension and the mesmerizing movement of water. Numerous styles are readily available, but you can also create a one-of-a-kind fountain by transforming found objects with a reservoir and a pump. Consider just about any weatherproof item a possibility, including a large urn, a birdbath, or a set of bowls. Choose a waterproof basin to hold the pump then select from scores of different fountain sprays and nozzles to get the water pattern you desire. (If you get an adjustable recirculating pump, you can alter the flow to drown out nearby traffic noise or to slow to a gentle trickle.) And if you don’t want to go to the work of burying an electric line, consider a solar pump instead.

To see a slide show of 10 beautiful garden fountains, click here.

4. Use Drought-Tolerant Plantings
There’s good reason gardeners love drought-tolerant plants. These low-maintenance picks can tame a tough slope, create water-wise containers, and bloom in the face of withering heat. That’s terrific news for those gardening in areas with water restrictions, and equally attractive to anyone who doesn’t want to spend hours holding a hose. Your best option is to buy native plants that thrived in your area long before gardeners arrived, then plant them in groupings so they can take hold and thrive. Favorites that suit most regions include Agave, Lavender, Yarrow, Agastache, Russian Sage, Salvia, Lamb’s Ears, Blanket Flower, Amsonia, and Sedums.

5. Personalize with an Arbor
Few things can lend instant character quite as dramatically as the addition of an arbor. Vinyl, wood, and aluminum options abound, but the most striking arbors are altered to reflect the garden’s personality. Wood structures can be painted or stained, and all arbors can be embellished with finials or the addition of a gate. You might choose an arbor as thin as a single metal pipe or deep enough to tuck a small bench between the two ends. Or, arrange a series of inexpensive arbors to create an inviting alle´e.

To see a selection of arbors available at retail now, click here.

Fail-Safe Colors

Color experts share personal favorites and offer tips for finding a paint color that you will love for years.

Choosing a Paint Color - Neutral


Are there really such things as fool-proof paint colors that will work well with your existing furnishings and be easy to live with for years? “We all want to think that there are fail-safe colors, but it’s difficult, because everyone’s space has different lighting sources and furnishings that impact a paint color,” says Sharon Grech, color expert for Benjamin Moore. “Still, I have a few colors that I’ve used for 15 years, because they seem to work well in just about any setting.”

For Sharon, those tried-and-true favorites include neutrals like Manchester Tan (a warm off-white), Chelsea Gray (a mid-tone gray), and Sag Harbor Gray (a gray with a tiny hint of green). All are from the company’s historic collection, and all manage to look good with modern furniture, transitional pieces, and antiques.

Related: 12 “Expert Picks” for Fail-Safe Colors

Not surprisingly, perhaps, paint companies sell tons of neutrals. “I think the grays, taupes, beiges, whites, creams, and blacks are fail-safe,” says Debbie Zimmer, color expert for The Paint Quality Institute. “But at the same time, you have to pay careful attention to their undertones. You can choose a gray that is rich, almost platinum, or you could end up with a steely battleship on your wall.”

Though technically a neutral is stark with no undertones, there are very few pure neutrals in the paint world. Instead, they are infused with warm red, pink, and yellow undertones or cool hints of green, blue, or purple. While this makes for an array of interesting neutrals, it also adds to the confusion—a fact confirmed by anyone who has gone to the store to “just pick white.”

If you want the timeless backdrop hues that will work well with the materials generally found in living spaces, these neutrals are a best place to start.

Choosing a Paint Color - Hall

Grays. “Gray is the desired neutral now,” says Jackie Jordan, Director of Color Marketing for Sherwin-Williams. “It’s a little more contemporary, and it’s good with yellows, golds, plums, blues that aren’t too gray, yellow-based greens, and reds.” It’s a chameleon, able to blend into any decorating scheme.

Beiges and Taupes. Color experts describe beige as being more on the yellow, warmer side and taupe as being a cooler blend of beige with gray. Jackie offers two favorites: On the warmer side is Kilim Beige (SW6106), which is great with a lot of warm woods. Accessible Beige (SW7036) is right in the middle and leans a little toward gray.

Whites and Off-Whites. “For me, the most challenging choices come when choosing whites and neutrals,” says Myke Reilly, designer and co-founder of the Happy Collective in San Francisco. Reilly points to two Benjamin Moore colors as his new go-to whites. “Gardenia AF-10 has a very soft glow that is tranquil. Frostline AF-5 is great when I need a cooler white for a clean, modern look.” Another option: Sherwin-William’s Natural Choice, a neutral white that’s not too yellow, not too gray.

A New Classic. “We’re seeing a very interesting direction with the beautiful tints, tones, and shades of white used along with black trim,” says Debbie. “You could paint your ceiling one white and the walls a tinted gray white (or something more on the cool side) that has a softness and envelops the room in a relaxing sort of way. Then accent doors and moldings that have been traditionally white with a deep semi-gloss black. This classy black-and-white scheme can be rich, casual, traditional, or anything you want it to be. It’s timeless—and timely.”

If you are looking for fail-safe colors, don’t miss 12 Expert Picks

How To: Paint Like a Pro

Take it from the pros—a superior paint job requires a lot more than choosing the right paint color.

How to Paint

Photo: Flickr

When it comes to painting, homeowners often adopt a weekend warrior mentality, skipping or rushing through prep work in a quest for instant gratification. “A huge difference between a professional job and a poor job is what happens before you paint,” says Tony Severino, founder of Professional Painters in La Grange, Illinois, and board member of the Painting and Decorating Contractors of America. “I just cringe when I watch TV decorating shows where the designers don’t use primer because they’re trying to finish quickly.”

Indeed, pros know that new paint is only as good as the surface you’re covering. For top results, wash the surface with water, using a mild detergent if there are stains or residue. Fill holes and cracks, sand the surface to ensure it’s smooth and dull, and use a tack cloth to remove dust. “Don’t skip primer when you’re dealing with an unpainted surface, when you’re painting over stains or patched areas, or when you’re making a drastic paint color change,” says Joe Kowalski, Training Manager for Glidden Paint servicing The Home Depot. “It makes all the difference.”

Another key to success is to purchase top-quality paint and painting tools. “All finishes and textures require high quality products, good surface preparation, and high quality application tools,” says Karl Schmitt, VP of Marketing Research and Design for Sherwin Williams. “The higher the gloss, the more critical it is to use high quality products.”

Quality paint will go on easier, provide better coverage, and last longer than cheap paints. Likewise, top-notch tools contribute to a better finish. “One of the biggest mistakes homeowners make is to buy a cheap paintbrush that will shed and fall apart,” notes Severino. “Purdy and Wooster are brushes that will yield a professional-looking finish.”

You’ll need to match your paint to the right brush or roller, too. Generally, water-based paints need synthetic bristles that won’t absorb water and swell; oil-based and alkyd paints are best applied with natural bristles that eliminate brush marks. Similarly, choose a roller with a short nap for glossy finishes on smooth surfaces and one with a thick nap for textured walls. According to Severino, the question of roller vs. brush comes down to this: “Professionals brush only when they have to. Rolling saves time and gives a better finish.”

Popular interior paint jobs focus on ceilings, walls, trim, and kitchen cabinetry. Here are helpful tips for tackling each:

How to Paint Ceilings. Adjustable fiberglass extension poles for rollers will save you countless trips up and down a ladder. “Cut in to create a 2-3” border where the ceiling meets the wall,” says Kowalski. “Then paint one coat lengthwise and one widthwise so that you’re crosshatching and don’t miss a spot.” (Use a stain-blocking primer on ceilings with water stains to prevent continuous bleed through.)

Special ceiling paints are available—including those that go on pink or blue so you can see where you’ve been and those that minimize splattering—but most pros agree that any good flat paint will suffice. “Buy the flattest paint you can to hide the imperfections,” suggests Severino. “If you use a sheen, the light will bounce all over to highlight flaws and your roller marks.”

How to Paint Walls. Prep and use a 2-3” angled brush to cut in around trim and at the ceiling, then move to a roller to save time. Paint a 3-4’ W or N in a top corner of the wall and fill in with vertical strokes. Overlap any areas where you cut in corners and edges, and finish an entire wall before moving on.

How to Paint Trim. Prep the surface, using a liquid deglosser rather than sandpaper if you have any concerns about lead paint on trim painted before 1978. Paint windows from the top down, leaving the sill for last. For baseboard and molding, start in a corner and paint in a straight line to follow the length of the wood. To make the trim stand out, use a higher sheen than what is used on the walls.

How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets. After washing the cabinets, remove the hardware and move doors and drawers to a workbench-type area. Use a fine-grit sandpaper to roughen the surface. (For a high-gloss finish, use a sandable primer that can be smoothed before painting.) Patch cracks and divots with wood putty and fill any hardware holes if you’ll be using new hardware requiring different holes.

Finally, prime with an oil-base primer, then sand and wipe with a tack cloth before adding a topcoat. Kowalski suggests oil-base primer and top coat, noting that it is the most chip resistant. “If you can’t use an oil-base topcoat, then go for a high-gloss latex” he says. For doors with panels, paint the interior section first, then paint the rails (horizontal pieces) and stiles (vertical pieces).

Holiday Lights 101

Your guide to selecting and storing outdoor display lights this holiday season.

Holiday Lights


Christmas LightsHome holiday light displays—including those megawatt extravaganzas that require an extra generator—have their humble origins in the 17-century German tradition of using small candles to light the Christmas tree. Despite the obvious fire hazards, the candles were so enchanting that people simply kept buckets of sand or water at the ready should the tree ignite.

For safety’s sake, it was fortunate that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in 1879. A few years later, an innovative Edward H. Johnson strung 80 colored bulbs together to decorate his Christmas tree, an idea that took decades to become affordable. Now each season brings new innovations to light the way.

Related: Holiday Lights Go Neutral: 9 Options

“This year, two thirds of our sales are LED lights,” says Sandra Schafsnitz, a buyer for Bronners, the world’s largest Christmas store in Frankenmuth, Michigan. “They’re longer lasting, don’t burn as hot, and are very bright.” She notes new color-changing LED lights for rooflines and synchronized LEDs that give yard figures a sense of motion.

LED lighting, in fact, is changing the decorative landscape. “Because LEDs require about a tenth of the energy of incandescent lights, you can pile on the lights without worrying about overloading circuits,” says Mike Marlow of Holiday Bright Lights, a national chain that provides professional holiday lighting for homes and businesses. “One of our best selling LEDs this year is a light tube that almost looks like falling rain and is spectacular hanging from trees.”

Christmas Lights
It’s easy to be blinded by the numerous types of holiday lights, but here’s a quick look at what’s available today:

Incandescent. These traditional lights are covered with paint and cast a warm glow. They’re less expensive than LEDs, but more costly to operate.

Christmas LightsLight-emitting diode (LED). Made from solid-state chips that convert electricity to light, LEDs have no filaments that can burn out and are 80-90 percent more energy efficient. If you prefer the glow of incandescents, new LED varieties create that look, too.  Those shown left, are GE’s Color Effects G35 LightShow, available at the Home Depot.

C7 & C9 bulbs. These heavy-duty light sets feature large 5- or 10-watt bulbs that make a bold color statement. Offerings range from frosted incandescents to new LED retrofit lights.

Net lights and trunk wraps. Mesh with uniformly spaced lighting makes it easier to cover shrubs, bushes, and tree trunks.

Icicle lights. Mimicking their name, these lights most frequently dangle from rooflines.

Christmas LightsRope lights. Highly versatile, rope lights are enclosed in a flexible plastic casing so they can easily wrap around architectural elements, such as railings and windows. Options include blinking, flashing, and chasing. The green rope lights shown here are from Christmas Lights Etc.

Incandescent mini-lights. Strings come in varied lengths and colors and are inexpensive to buy and to power. The miniature bulbs create the effect of twinkling stars in trees.

Snowfall tubes and snowdrop lights. These 2 and 3-foot tubes feature chasing LED lights that simulate falling snow. Shorter 5, 7, and 9-inch icicle-shaped tubes hang beautifully from eaves.

Animated and synchronized decorations. Nodding reindeer and color-changing spiral trees can enliven any area of the yard. Look for multifunction controllers that can synchronize patterns, too.

Pathway markers. Light your footsteps with themed shapes like presents and stars.

Battery-operated lights. When you don’t want a cord hanging around (think wreaths), these lights do the job.

Container Store Wing Lid Light Storage Box Bob Vila Holiday Lights
Store holiday lights properly and you’ll both preserve their life and avoid a tangled mess.  Make sure outdoor lights are allowed to dry and store in a dry area without temperature extremes.

You can purchase spools and reels designed specifically to store holiday lights or use sturdy cardboard squares or tubes. Cut a slit in one end to hold the plug, then wrap without overlapping. Or loosely loop each strand and place in individual plastic bags.
Finally, take a few minutes to label each strand with electrical tape noting where it was used, and you’ll make next year’s decorating even easier.

The Wing Hinged Storage Box and Holiday Light Cord Wrap shown here are from The Container Store.

If you are hanging outdoor lights, be sure to read Bob Vila’s 8 Safety Tips.

For more holiday content, consider:

How to Keep Your Christmas Tree Fresh
Christmas Trees—Real vs. Artificial?
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In Search of Antique Tools

An Antiques Roadshow tool expert, collector and dealer offers tips for acquiring old tools.

antique wood plane

Classic New England crown molding plane by A. Smith, Rehoboth, MA, valued at $1,999.. Photo: The Best Things

Lee Richmond’s foray into the world of antique tool collecting was simply a young man’s means to an end. As an engineering student, Lee frequented the Philadelphia Museum of Art on weekends where 18th-century Queen Anne and Chippendale furniture caught his eye. “I knew I couldn’t afford such pieces, so I started building period-style furniture in the college shop while everyone else was partying on the weekends,” Lee says.

When Lee began assembling his own workshop after graduation, he focused on hand tools because he didn’t have the space for machinery. Their superior results and relaxed feel soon won him over. He started buying box lots at auctions, taking out the few tools he wanted and selling the rest. That’s when he discovered he liked dealing, too.

Twenty-six years later, Lee still loves period furniture and the tools that made them. He is the founder of The Best Things Corporation, specializing in fine woodworking tools. He is also a 10-year veteran tool expert for the traveling PBS series, Antiques Roadshow, exchanging appraisals for close-up encounters with old tools and the local people who bring them in. One of his favorite assessments was an 1830s drafting set shared by the family member of a surveyor who was sent by the US government to help map the country’s interior.

Like any collectible, it’s smart to buy what you like or what you will actually use. Woodworkers choose tools for their quality, craftsmanship, and functionality. Collectors who never intend to use an antique tool are more interested in the history, aesthetics, and condition. They generally collect based on the type of tool, the time period, the region, or the patents on the design.

Here are some tool-collecting categories worth checking out:

Planes.  Aside from being prevalent and highly useful, many planes are also visually aesthetic and have intriguing histories. Styles and types range, and you can expect to pay anywhere from a few dollars for a scruffy unmarked wooden plane to tens of thousands for one made by a celebrated 18th-century craftsman. Lee groups the category into four types:

1. Molding & other wooden planes. Before factories, individual cabinetmakers owned as many as 30-60 different wooden planes, most of them being molding planes. Sheer number makes them a reasonably accessible collectible with prices beginning around $50 for interesting and usable 19th-century examples.

Lee estimates there were more than a hundred individual pioneering American makers creating 18th-century planes, though some are quite obscure. “One favorite that brings the most money is Cesar Chelor, a freed slave from Massachusetts,” Lee says. “Cesar apprenticed under his master, Francis Nicholson, the first noted American plane maker. When Nicholson died in 1753, he willed Cesar his freedom, some tools, and enough land to establish him as the first independent African-American toolmaker.” Today, any of the estimated 200 planes remaining with a stamp of Cesar’s name tug at emotions, as well as pocketbooks. Last year, Lee appraised one between $6,000 and $8,000; others have gone much higher.

Antique Disston Saw

Rare Henry Disston & Sons 8 brass-backed dovetail saw.. Photo: The Best Things

2. Patented planes. The  late 19th century brought the Age of Invention, along with thousands of patents. “All kinds of weird planes emerged,” Lee says, “and they are considered hot for collecting right now.”

3. Collecting by Manufacturer. This category often overlaps with patented planes, but collectors view it as focused more on the products of a particular manufacturer than on the patents behind the tools. Stanley planes are by far the most commonly collected (along with all the company’s tools), but other manufacturers, like Sargent, are also collected. Part of Stanley’s appeal is its history. Founded in the 1850s as a manufacturer of rules (now called rulers) and levels, the company made its fortune after buying the rights to the patent for an adjustable metal plane from Leonard Bailey. “It was the most successful iron plane design of all time, and Stanley went from an obscure little company to a big name in a relatively small amount of time,” Lee says.

4. Infill planes. Tools of remarkable precision and quality, these British metal planes were made in the early 1900s, a time when industrialization saw many handcrafts disappear. The most widely recognized makers are Thomas Norris and Stewart Spiers, though lesser-known makers proliferated, some of them offering tools of similar quality. “These were kind of the last word in smoothing planes,” Lee says. “A good one would cost a week’s wages for workmen at the time, and only the best craftsmen would buy them. They were incredibly well made.”

Measuring Tools. Collectibles include everything from squares and bevels to gauges and rules. Several books on rules published in the last decade have fueled added interest in this category.

Levels. These common tools were sometimes works of art in themselves. Designs range from the straightforward to cast-iron styles with intricate filigree patterns and gold painted trim.

Saws. Beautifully weathered handles and a patina finish on blades put this category in a nostalgic cut above others. Collectible types include crosscut, rip, back, and coping blades. Disston was the most successful saw maker of all time, and like Stanley, it has a collectors’ following of its own. Many smaller makers flourished in the US and Britain and just like with wooden planes, some collectors strive to have examples of as many makers as possible.

Under the category of frequently asked questions is whether new or old tools are better. Lee explains that 19th-century society focused on handwork, and their best tools were state-of-the-art. In the 20th century, things moved toward manufactured goods and mechanization, and the emphasis on making great hand tools was gone. “For the most part, I think old tools are better, but there are some small makers out there today making amazing tools,” he says. “The Blue Spruce Tool Works, for instance, makes chisels that are truly as good as the best antique chisels, with steel that is better than what they could make in the 19th Century. There are others, but this is the exception.”

Stanley Bailey Number 5 Jack Plane.. Photo: The Best Things

Determining the value of a tool is generally based on its condition, its rarity, its current demand, and its history (provenance). Check a current antique tool price guide, or what online dealers are asking for tools, to get some clue as to fair market value. The Fine Tool Journal publishes a useful grading system, as well. Once you’re ready, these sources can get you started:

Dealers. Expect to pay more for reputable antiques dealers and specialty tool dealers will give an accurate assessment to the tool’s condition and value. Expect to pay more for this expertise, but remember that you’re buying peace of mind, too.

Ebay. Antique tools appear daily, but many are sold by non-users who unknowingly describe them inaccurately, not even realizing that a tool has the wrong blade, is warped, or is missing a part.

Auctions. A few good dealers and collectors remain who only sell at auction. Both Live Free or Die Auctions and the Brown Auction Services in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania offer large antique tool auctions each spring and fall.

Estate and garage sales. You won’t find the tools like you used to. Still, it’s an option if you understand the inefficiencies and simply enjoy the hunt.

Tool collector clubs. “You can go to flea markets until the end of time and not find what you can find being connected to a tool club,” Lee says. The Mid-west Tool Collectors Association claims to be the world’s largest tool collecting organization with a national membership of about 3,500 and several area meetings to get you involved. The Early American Industries Association is a more academic group responsible for research on the history of tools, toolmakers, and tool usage. And then there are several regional groups, such as Potomac Area Tools and Industries Associaton or tool-specific groups like the Missouri Valley Wrench Club.

Once you’ve made a purchase, protect it. “Nothing should be done that is not reversible,” Lee says. “For example, if it is dirty, clean it. But don’t refinish it.” Likewise, store implements properly. “If you keep tools in the same kind of atmosphere you’d be happy to live in—warm and dry—they’ll be fine,” Lee says. And if you never intend to use the tool, Lee has advice on that as well. “The majority of collectors have a dedicated room with shelves,” he says. “They’ll invite you over and you go in to pay homage to the tools all over the room. That’s your next step. It’s kind of like a shrine.”

Bathroom Flooring: A Wealth of Options

Find the type of bathroom flooring that withstands moisture, looks attractive and feels good underfoot.

Porcher Lutezia Collection. Photo: Porcher

When it comes to bathroom flooring, you’ll find a wealth of options to fit any budget and style. Keep in mind the needs of the people who will be using the bath as you make selections, then let your style preference and budget be your guide. Choices abound, but stick with materials that can withstand moisture, look attractive, and feel good under bare feet. Some of the more popular options include:

Ceramic tile. This material tops many lists because it offers variety, durability, and good looks (a few even mimic stone). It is also fairly inexpensive and highly waterproof. On the downside, ceramic can be cold and slippery when wet. Choose textured finishes or smaller tiles that require more grout, thereby providing better traction.

Vinyl. A budget-conscious favorite (about $10-$13 per square yard), vinyl is available in 6- or 12-foot wide sheets or as tiles that are typically 12- to 18- inches square. While sheet vinyl is seamless and won’t come up like tiles tend to do, it is more difficult to install than the DIY-friendly vinyl tile. Both are soft underfoot, resist moisture, and are easy to clean.

Hardwood. Few materials can match the warm, inviting characteristics of wood, but moisture issues give reason to be cautious. Consider it a viable option if you’re willing to put on extra coats of varnish, make sure there are no gaps where moisture can sneak in, wipe up any water spills right away, and install a high-efficiency vent to help keep humidity in check. If you’re not up for that kind of maintenance, take a look at engineered wood, which has a plywood base that better withstands moisture.

Carpet. In general, carpet and baths don’t mix, but modular carpet tiles—like Flor—are one exception. Super easy for do-it-yourselfers to install on top of existing surfaces, these tiles have an antimicrobial backing to inhibit the growth of mold and bacteria. Plus, they come in numerous colors and patterns and can easily be pulled up, dried, and replaced.

Natural stone. Flooring like marble, limestone, and granite requires a strong subfloor and some deep pockets, but there’s no denying it makes an impressive style statement in a bath. If you’ve ever walked on slippery wet rocks along the coast or in the woods, you’ll know firsthand that these natural beauties require textured or honed surfaces to make them safe.

Cork. If you’re looking for something a little different, check out this natural material that readily resists mold and mildew and feels soft and natural underfoot.

For more on bathroom remodeling, consider:
Planning Guide: Bathroom Remodeling
Bathroom Essentials: Tubs, Showers and Sinks
How to: Create a Spa Bath at Home