Small table, large demands

Whether you’re a teacher, a doctor or a cabinetmaker, it’s sobering to subject yourself occasionally to the kind of conditions your students, patients or clients experience while in your care. The past few weeks have reminded me how disturbing a kitchen remodel can be…which seems appropriate, given that I’m working on a book about kitchens for Lost Art Press.

Mark: Where the *#@$ are the knives?

Mark: Where did you put the salt and pepper? Salt and pepper! How is it possible to forget the location of such basic things?



Time to do some dishes? Nah. There’s still plenty of room in that tub.

At such moments I feel a special kind of empathy for my kitchen clients: the ones who wash dishes in the bathroom sink not for weeks, but months, because they just had to have that handmade faucet from England (the one that arrived damaged and had to be replaced — apparently with plating made from nickel newly mined and shipped on a slow boat from Botswana). The ones who have to endure complaints from their smart-Alec kids (“Why are you tormenting us?” — overheard in a kitchen where Daniel O’Grady and I were working in 2005). The ones who plan their remodel in two phases stretching over a calendar year so their income can catch up with the costs, and patiently live out of boxes. And especially the ones who camp out in their basement while doing their own remodel and building their own cabinets.

Granted, our chaos is more pervasive than it should have been. We’d had this kitchen work on the horizon but hadn’t planned to let rip when we did. Mark had an unexpected opening in his schedule one morning when a client wrote to say she was seriously ill and suggested that he and his crew might prefer to avoid exposure to contagion. I leapt at the chance to get our kitchen started and (like a champ) dispersed the contents of the cabinets to the far corners of the house before work that morning.

How did we get here?

When planning the hayrake table I built last year*, I decided to modify the original dimensions of the 1908 drawing by Ernest Gimson so that Mark and I could use it in our home. Our house has no dining room; we cook, clean up, and entertain guests in the kitchen.


Getting there. This pic documents the stretcher and legs assembled dry so that I could measure for the apron.

It seemed like a good idea. We missed the farmhouse table in our previous kitchen, which had also served as our dining room. Even though the old enamel-topped worktable I’ve been moving around for more than 25 years worked fine for meal prep and eating, we thought it would be lovely to have a homemade table where guests would feel like guests instead of warm bodies who might be pressed into service chopping or kneading.

But as soon as we carried the table into the kitchen I realized I’d opened a can of worms. The delightful retro-style vinyl composition tile I’d put down when I first moved in (because it was affordable and I could do all the labor myself in my spare time) was an affront to the Cotswold School-style table, never mind the pair of two heart chairs based on a turn-of-the-century design by C.F.A. Voysey. That floor would have to go. The table called for flagstones softened by centuries of wear; the least we could give it was a floor of wood.


Yes, I know. It’s out of sync. The hayrake table and chairs (made for the book on English Arts & Crafts furniture) along with the pair of bona fide 19th-century English antiques call for something more austere than the surroundings visible here. My apologies to the furniture.

As tends to happen when you tinker with one feature of a room, we decided that if we were going to the trouble of replacing the floor (which would entail removing *everything* from the kitchen), I should strip the cabinets I’d made in my spare time, years ago, when I was using my home to experiment with unusual materials and finishes. (Translation: The finish looked like crap.)

“Well, if we’re taking out the cabinets so you can strip them, I’d like to talk about a better sink,” Mark said. The sink was a salvaged double-drain model (though, being from the ’50s, it was made of pressed metal instead of cast iron as its forebears would have been a half-century before) — perfectly serviceable, and really, quite charming, but with basins that were annoyingly shallow and too-thin enamel that had worn through in some areas, allowing the steel to rust.

And if we were going to get a better sink… Well, there went my cheerful retro linoleum counters.

A simple table brought into our home proved the tip of a shipwrecking iceberg. At lunchtime on Thursday we reached a point sufficiently up the other side of the bell curve that I thought it was time for a punch list. Wishful thinking. It looks as though there will still be a few weeks of “Where’s that *%^& pan” and “What did you do with the oregano/pasta pot/tin foil/fruit cutting board?”


Still to do (and no doubt I’m missing a few things, but “strip rest of doors” and “new drawer faces” are too central for a punch list). (And no, I don’t really spell light “lite,” other than when writing in haste.)


No guest room is complete without an espresso pot, book about brewing by @ladybrewbalt and copy of Hammer Head.


Sure, I get that these are trifling inconveniences compared to going weeks without running water or months without electricity, never mind facing war, disease or starvation. But I’d forgotten just how deeply my basic ability to function — mentally as well as physically — is grounded in the orderliness of the kitchen. It really is the nexus of our home.


Doesn’t everyone have a mixer in his or her office?


A demonstration of the ingenious device known as a Shoulder Dolly: Why use a dolly with wheels when you can bear the weight of a big-a$$ fridge on your spine? (Seriously, though, it is a clever and useful bit of strapping.)

–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

*for a book about English Arts & Crafts furniture scheduled for publication by Popular Woodworking this June

About nrhiller

cabinetmaker and author
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20 Responses to Small table, large demands

  1. SSteve says:

    I feel for you. Seeing the dirty dishes in the clawfoot tub brings back memories I’d rather keep buried. When my wife and I moved into our current home in 2000, remodeling the kitchen was priority #1. It had cabinets made from 3/8″ plywood, painted dark brown, with blue linoleum counters, and linoleum 12″ square flooring that looked like brick. It was dark, dark, dark. We put in a light tube, replaced the 2’x3′ window over the sink with a 4’x5′ garden window, got custom cabinets made, and put in light-colored Pergo. But while that was happening, we worked from an ersatz kitchen set up in the carport with the cabinets we tore out of the kitchen.

    We set up the kitchen in April. Two weeks later it snowed. I was in the carport kitchen having coffee that morning when the contractor came by. When he shook my hand he looked at me as if he was checking to make sure I wasn’t a frozen corpse. When he came back that afternoon he brought a propane space heater and said I could borrow it until we were back in the house.

    Good luck!


  2. Gary Schultz says:

    I would have the guests do dishes for entertainment; before I clean and cook them ( refer to paragraph 4). We, too, have the eclectic dining chair setting around my homemade hickory farm table.


  3. Hey . . . Your hayrake table looks beautiful! . . . and “eclectic” is an honored and
    valid approach to decorating. Celebrate your accomplishments !

    Sent from my iPad


    • Bruce Lee says:

      I think the currently fashionable term is Wabi Sabi. 🙂


    • nrhiller says:

      Thank you. I have no objection to eclecticism; to the contrary! But there are some extremes that jangle instead of harmonizing. This was one. I know I’m not alone in seeing character and personality in artifacts, and even going further to ascribe to those artifacts something along the lines of feelings, even as I recognize these as projections of my own sensibilities. This table and the Voysey chairs were not well served by the funky, cheerful surroundings. They warranted a simpler grace — if not severe austerity, at least something more pared-down. That’s what I’m in the process of doing, as my work schedule allows. Of course these things are also reflections of where we, as individuals (or families) are in our own lives. I’ll take that perspective, too.


  4. GravelRoad says:

    Beautiful table!

    I’m getting ready to tackle my own kitchen cabinet remodel and your situation is spooling up the anxiety! My cabinets are all high quality custom built-in, but the finish is worn and I want to change the style of the doors to shaker. To speed up the process, I’m going to try to find someone to make all of the new doors while I focus on stripping and refinishing the bases.

    Do you recommend a product / process for stripping the cabinets?


    • nrhiller says:

      It really depends on the finish. Some people swear by chemicals. I would rather avoid them, though the various brands of orange-based stripper work reasonably well on some finishes. For paint (and perhaps other finishes; you’d have to check), a reasonable choice today is Peel Away. Other methods I’ve used for finishes other than lead-based paint are scraping (the safest, from the point of view of your health) followed by sanding, or sanding with a HEPA filter-fitted vacuum attached to your sander. There will always be some work to finish up by hand with a scraper, chisel, or sanding block.


      • Lex says:

        To this i’ll add that if you think there’s lead in paint to be stripped, sometimes a heat gun is the safest for at least the large areas. Keep the setting below 1100 degrees to maintain the lead’s solid state within the paint matrix. The greatest danger of lead is breaking the paint into respirable sized particles (less 4 um, though some would take that up to 10 um). Consequently, sanding is the most dangerous impact activity on lead based paint. Scraping usually produces particles much larger than respirable size, but not always.


        • nrhiller says:

          Yes, thank you for adding this, Lex. In my sentence beginning “Other methods I’ve used,” I should have clarified that I was no longer referring to paint, but to the kinds of finishes more typical of manufactured cabinets. I will try to edit the comment for clarity. Some years ago I did the EPA-mandated training for working in sites with lead-based paint; as someone who occasionally has to remove areas of old walls that are more than the maximum size a professional is legally allowed to remove without complying with the EPA’s protocol, I wanted to avoid trouble. Peel Away is fantastic for lead-based paint removal on interior or exterior applications. I have no idea how effective it may be on other finishes such as catalyzed lacquers or conversion varnish.


  5. Richard Mahler says:

    After 42 years in this house where we have removed walls for an open plan, added a large living room wing so that the old one could become a spacious dining room with a table and chairs for twelve, and a huge screened porch with french doors into the kitchen, more than a decade it is hard to believe we are planning to enlarge and redo the kitchen at our age! At least we had the sense to plan to push one long wall out twelve feet so that while foundations, floor, walls, roof, wiring and plumbing and most of the interior is in progress we can use the old kitchen until we finally take out the wall between the two spaces, limiting the time when there will be the inevitable dysfunction. We will simultaneously build an extension off two bedrooms to add ensuite baths and walkin closets while using the current bath in the hallway before turning it into a half bath with washer and dryer (no more descending a flight of stairs to the utility room).Still, life will be disrupted – the cats will hate all of it until it is done – but a nearly 60 year old kitchen finally needs to go, more baths add to convenience and home value, and we will enjoy having the space for visiting family and friends if we have another ten to fifteen years here. When we had the hardwood floors refinished in the entire house 20 years ago, we backed a rental van up to an exterior door, moved the entire contents of the house into it, locked it up and went away for a week while the crew had their way with the place. There is always a way, but never without some pain and days of having your panties in a wad!


  6. nrhiller says:

    That sounds like a daunting project, and one that will yield big-time satisfaction. Best of luck!


  7. Richard Mahler says:

    The shoulder dolly you describe and show for moving a refrigerator brings to mind the movers who brought our furniture and appliances to our house 40 years ago: there was one member of the crew who they called Shortman, a 5’ brick of a man who entirely alone used a strap to hoist the refrigerator onto his back and walk up five steps into the kitchen. He showed no strain whatsoever. We could not believe our eyes and have never forgotten it!


  8. fitz says:

    Heh. I’m laughing with you, not at you.


  9. snwoodwork says:

    We just closed on a fixer-upper this past Friday. Your posts leave with a confusing mix of fear & excitement. We have the original 1978 cooktop & oven; the initially brown cabinets have been spray painted white. The grill & Instant Pot will soon be our best friends.


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