The Kitchen Renovation: A postponable project finally finished

I say finished, but for Susan it still needs a new window.         

From this (2 scanned photos from 1991 and 1 from 1989, the year we moved in)

kitchen corner 1991 kitchen party 1991 kitchen cupboards October 1989

To this (taken approximately from the same three angles in April 2012)

kitchen corner with new island counter, stools and broom cupboard new kitchen from the diningroom door looking accross the island new kitchen cupboards view from the diningroom door

Unless you do it before taking up residence, renovation of the kitchen is likely to become the last thing you want to tackle. Within minutes of arriving and beginning to move in, the essential kitchen supplies are unpacked and the kettle is on for tea. From that moment on, there is no convenient time to interrupt this room's vital service simply to make it prettier and a little more functional.

Unlike other rooms in which furniture is relatively easily changed, or moved and covered to allow painting, carpet removal and floor polishing, kitchen cupboards, counters and sink obstinately stay put and challenge any thought of modification. There is no sensible piecemeal approach to changing it. Yes, the facade of the cabinets can be changed, but, as in our case, the former owners probably did that minimal improvement already. As long as one believes that it will eventually be renovated, it is even difficult to work up any sense of urgency to discover what the wallpaper is hiding and paint the walls. After all, the colour must match the soon-to-be-replaced tiles and counter top, even though “soon” may somehow stretch to 21 years!

The inconvenience of being without a kitchen for the renovation period is a major impediment to progress, but another is the cost. We moved into our 32 year old house with a toddler, a baby, and the largest debt, the mortgage, we had ever assumed. Bringing up the children and bringing in the money were our preoccupations for many years. Whenever there were savings enough for house maintenance, we looked at projects which would preserve the house and improve heating efficiency: The roof, its ventilation and insulation; new windows starting from the top of the house; new garage door; foundation work, French drains and new sump pump installation. The kitchen, still satisfying basic needs, if not aesthetic sensibilities or ergonomic aspirations, could wait.

The magical, motivational mixture of factors making the kitchen renovation project a reality this year (2012) included the following: an essentially empty nest; I retired in 2011, so had the mental and physical time to deal with it; Susan's pragmatic view that we should get it done so that we can have some years enjoying it before deciding we should consider moving to a smaller place or reaching that inevitable, irreversible biological system breakdown; posthumous financial help from my mother, who would have approved (on a visit to see us in our new home 21 years ago, she contributed a couple of the most useful kitchen appliances for a young family — microwave oven and dishwasher).

The job was started in February for a few reasons. The winter is a slow period for the workers, so we could get it done quite speedily before the summer. It was anticipated that our road would be the next in line for total infrastructure renewal including replacement of water and drainage pipes, and the work would start in the summer. During that upheaval, renovators' vehicles could not reach our house. Susan had decided it was our top priority project, and she knows how to convince me she is right.

We had thought often enough over the years about our imperfect kitchen, that we had several general and a few more particular requirements in mind, but I had not expected a plan to be worked out so quickly. Susan had assessed the reliability and experience of a person who has planned and coordinated kitchen renovations for many years. Jackie, who worked with Labo Concept & Fourniture Inc. (Repentigny, QC)1, brought that experience and her knowledge of the possible and the practical to our kitchen table one evening, Ideas bounced around, some were discarded, others emerged as new. With these ingredients — tape measure, pencil, paper, discussions and cups of tea — we cooked up a good working plan for our modest 10 by 12 foot kitchen. It could be adjusted and refined over the next few weeks before work began.

Our responsibilities were to dismantle and remove everything but the kitchen sink, and later to do some of the plastering and all the painting. We also had to make decisions on details and go shopping.

a temporary kitchen workspace in the family room

Their responsibilities were to: remove the kitchen sink; remove old plaster from the outside wall and add insulation there; remove the old floor cover and install plywood sheets as a base before doing the floor tiling; do some rewiring and plumbing; put moulding around the ceiling, new skirting board and trim round doors and window; build the cabinets in their workshop and then assemble the modules on site; install sink and dishwasher; tile the backsplash for the counter.

At the beginning of February when we were not making meals which could be frozen and easily reheated in the microwave, we were devising temporary kitchen-duty workstations in other rooms, and visiting various web sites and stores in our area looking at colour schemes, cabinet styles, handles, floor tiles, wall tiles, grouting, counter tops, dishwashers, stove hoods, light fixtures, kitchen sinks and faucets.

The first decision had to be the colour and style of the cabinets, so that the lads in the workshop could begin working on them as soon as possible. It was a fine convergence of taste when Jackie pulled a demo cupboard door out of her bag which was exactly the same as we had picked out while window shopping. We wanted a light, natural-wood appearance and a simplicity which was easy to live with and easy to clean. The demo door, on loan, went shopping with us for other items.

With other choices still unsettled, despite many hours of research, we heard that a couple of men would be ready to start within the week. We had expected two weeks before they got to our job. But, now committed, we were not going to hamper their on-the-fly work-flow schedule, so we stepped up the effort to clear the kitchen and demolish the old cabinets.

corner with the benches gone

Our daughter was the first and most enthusiastic to begin the destruction. She and her friend applied hammers, chisels and brute force to remove the benches which had served as storage spaces below the seats. In the past, the benches had provided places for children to sit around a corner of the room on two sides of a small square table. Being uncomfortable for taller people, their use as storage space had dominated their role since the children became teenagers. Behind the benches crude inscriptions were revealed in white paint on the exposed old grey wall: “Oct 25th / 72” (or 73) and “by SHIRLEY”.

Roger dismantling cupboards

I admit it, after a moment for quiet reflection and farewell, I did enjoy ripping out the old cabinets. But even though I had become accustomed to signs of the unsophisticated assembly of these Magil split level houses through various past repair jobs, it was astounding to discover that only nails had been used in the construction of the old cabinets. In places there were clusters of four or more nails, apparently whacked in until at least one of them found a wood target behind the plaster, or until the sum of each weak grip in the plaster made the anchor just secure enough. Much plaster came away with the extracted nails.

The counter top had been tiled. We thought it would be easy to lift the tiles off, because two near the sink had become loose spontaneously long ago. But the rest of the tiles resisted removal. The most practical way to remove the counters it seemed was to chip away tile pieces to expose the wood in three narrow tracks from front to back, and then to saw along these in order to remove the counter in several sections. The south and the west (window) counter tops had been constructed and tiled independently, so there was just one easily broken line of grouting where they joined.

Meanwhile, wallpaper, trim and skirting boards were being removed. We managed to squeeze the refrigerator, its doors removed, sideways out of the kitchen to its temporary spot in the dining room. By the time Mario and Yvan arrived on Wednesday, February 15, almost all was gone from the room — all but the kitchen sink. Within about 20 minutes of them bringing in tools and setting up a small workbench in the garage, the kitchen sink was out in the yard, and the water pipes were gone. They had been neatly cut and capped below in the basement. By the end of the day, the plaster was gone from the outside wall, two (!) layers of linoleum tile had been removed to reveal the basic floor boards, and new plywood sheets had been secured to them to provide a firm, flat foundation for our yet-to-be-delivered ceramic tiles.

the professionals begin work What a mess partway through day one dangling debris in basement

That was the dustiest day. When we entered the basement below the kitchen, we stood transfixed by the sight. It was prettily decorated with debris-adorned strands of spider silk and other fibres hanging from the floorboards above. Everything below was awfully dusty. In fact it was pretty awful! At that point, a kind neighbour lent us an industrial strength vacuum cleaner, which was used almost daily until after the renovations.

day two insulation
day two trim

In the second day of their work, Yvan put most of the new wiring in, and then teamed up with Mario who was putting insulation, vapour barrier and plaster board on the outside wall. Then most of the moulding, skirting board and door trim were put in place. They chose a good looking trim, but it was a bit thicker than our original, and this had future consequences for Benoit, who would install the cabinet modules which were being constructed in the shop.

There was uncertainty about when the floor tiles would arrive, so our workers had arranged to do another job on the Friday. That gave us a three day weekend for some plastering and priming of ceiling and walls. We also continued shopping for items not yet chosen.

time to do some priming of the walls

It turned out that the tiles did arrive for Friday, so they were ready for Mario and Yvan to install on the Monday. Choosing the tiles had been a tricky job. The counter surface pattern had to be chosen before the tiles and wall paint, but every attractive style had to be imagined within the whole context of kitchen colours and textures. This kind of decision is more naturally left to the subconscious and less prone to analysis paralysis. We interspersed several bouts of research with other, distracting activities, and our gut feelings eventually focused on just two patterns in the granite textured Formica 180fx collection. Finally, the aesthetic appeal of the grey-green Olivine River trickled away in favour of the warmer earthy quality of Antique Mascarello (pattern 3466).

laying floor tiles

Having decided upon the counter and developed some sense of what might work in tiles, we headed for Reves et Renovations Inc.2 in Dorval to look at tiles and grouting with Bozena Miller. She had helped with paint choices in the past, and we trusted her good sense of colour and design. The tiles we agreed upon for floor and wall were very similar in colour to some tiles we had considered while shopping in hardware stores, but the quality and textures were more satisfying. We chose for the wall Ceratec: Verde Agata, Beige (3.1”x6.3”) and for the floor Daltile: Concrete Connection CN94 (13”x13”). The first choice for the floor was Parmesa: Gamma Musgo, but it came only in a long 12”x24” format, which would have required a more consistently level floor than our kitchen could provide.

the dog finds a safe spot away from the work

Incidentally, while at Reves et Renovations, we saw a faucet in a showroom display which had the style and features we had been looking for but had not seen in any other store. When we heard the price, we understood why. But, luckily, it was an old model which was to be replaced with a new one in a few days, so it was offered to us at half price. Even at half the price the Franke ATO 480 would cost more than we had intended to spend on a faucet, but immediately approved an increase in that particular budget allocation, and have no regrets.

The floor tiles were laid on Monday. On Tuesday Benoit and another Mario brought the cabinet modules. The doors would come later when the cabinets were in place. By the end of the day, the floor-standing components were in position and the fitting problems had been identified. Small problems were to be expected, and none was without a relatively simple solution, be it levelling adjustments to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of our kitchen's construction or remodelling of some plaster to allow the so-called pantry section to tuck slightly into the edge of the ceiling slope below the stairs.

By the end of Wednesday, all cabinets and cupboards, without counter or doors, were in place. At this point, Benoit had discovered the consequence of the thicker trim choice. After some discussion as to whether to replace the trim or adjust a cabinet to recover the necessary space for the stove, Benoit kindly allowed the trim to stay, accepted the challenge to make compensatory adjustment to the cabinet which would house the sink, and succeeded brilliantly when he returned several days later.

Almost a week passed before the next stage of construction. The counter top modules had been ordered and work would continue as soon as they arrived, so Benoit and Mario were back on the following Wednesday. We were quite content with the break. It allowed us to complete the shopping for sink, hood and dishwasher, to do a bit of cleaning, more plastering of gaps, holes and imperfections, and continue the priming.

cabinet modules in place counter and doors installed backsplash tiles on the walls

Four more working days transformed the kitchen. What a difference the counter top, doors and drawers make. The final transformation took place on March 6th and 7th when Mario and Yvan returned to tile the backsplash sections of the walls. The next day we had a kitchen. The plumbing for the sink and dishwasher was completed and the stove was moved back into position. The rest was up to us.

Before moving the refrigerator back, we painted. We had revisited Mrs Miller with a photo of the new kitchen for advice on paint. She helped us choose Benjamin Moore's Simply White for the ceiling and Rocky Road for the walls. After two coats of paint had dried and we were beginning to enjoy using the kitchen, I brought the telephone wire up from the basement through what we are calling the broom closet to place an outlet over the end of the island counter, installed a good-looking ceiling light fixture, installed a switch with electrical outlets behind the “cache-neon” under the cupboard on the south wall, and engineered 3 sections of strip LED lighting3 above the counters in that corner.

final coat of paint on the ceiling final coat of paint on the ceiling LED installation

With the return of the refrigerator, its doors at last switched to open from the more appropriate side, we began to occupy and use the space, and kitchen utensils and food items began to find their places. But there was still something missing. We needed stools to go behind the island. Large, small and even speciality retail stores were helpful only in eliminating candidate counter stools on the basis of discomfort, poor materials, or less-than reliable construction. Then we remembered TRAS Solutions de Bureau4, a wonderful used and new office supply store from which we had bought filing cabinets quite a few years ago. Not only did we find the right size, comfort and robust construction in some new stools, but the chocolate leatherette seat and back on a chrome metal frame were a perfect match for our colour scheme. The receipt for the two we purchased lists them as NHF GTT-9900ST Bistro Height Stools.

THE FOLLOWING PICTURES were stitched from several photogrphs using the Hugin5 Panorama photo stitcher software. (Curved distortions are inevitable in such pictures).

kitchen in evening viewed from dining room door
View under artificial light (the centre light is off to highlight the LED counter illumination)

kitchen in evening viewed from dining room door
Kitchen in use in daylight (10 overlapping images tiled 5x2 for an approximately 90 degree horizontal pan)

Because Susan and I have similar tastes and work well as a team, it was not very stressful, but it certainly was an upheaval, and it gave us plenty to do for a few weeks.

Was it worth it? You bet!


  1. Labo Concept & Fourniture Inc., 104, rue l'Écuyer, Repentigny, Quebec J6A 8C4
    Tel: 450-585-4021
    I was given these email addresses to contact the company: and
    Another contact email address for one of the teams is
    Jacqueline Simard planned the kitchen with us and ensured the work well.
  2. Rêves et Rénovations, 720 boulevard Montreal-Toronto, Dorval, Quebec, H9S 1A1
    Tel: 514-422-8009
    Bozena Miller helped us pick out the tiles and grout for floor and backsplash and the paint for walls, trim and ceiling
  3. LED Ribbon (Cold White) (about $5 per foot) was from:
    Accès Électronique, 43b, boul. Brunswick, Dollard-des-Ormeaux QC. H9B 1P7
    Tel: 514-421-2755
    Web link
  4. Counter stools were from:
    Tras Solutions de Bureau, 70G boul Brunswick, Dollard-Des-Ormeaux, QC, H9B 2C5
    Tel: 514-685-0007
  5. The panorama pictures were stitched together using the excellent Hugin - Panorama photo stitcher (recommended).

Last Modified: 2012-05-05 (ymd)
Copyright © Roger Palfree.

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