Fail fast.

This is a common phrase at start-ups.  The idea has been around for a while, but the jist is that it’s better to get some data and feed it back into your plan, rather than working out the plan in full before taking the first step.  At a company, that means getting the customer involved to define their needs before you have your product ready to sell them – they are more likely to buy the product if it actually does what they want.  In science (or at a company), that can mean making a hypothesis and testing it quickly, rather than spending time refining the hypothesis before taking data.  If the data disproves the hypothesis quickly, you’re better off since you can already move on to the second hypothesis.

But, there is always a balance.  The old adage ‘measure twice, cut once’ reminds us of the value of planning ahead before diving into an idea.  And, if you dove into your idea above too quickly, you’re often left with a pile of uninterpretable data and the necessity of repeating the experiment (but hopefully you failed so fast that the experiment can be repeated in less time than it would’ve taken to plan it perfectly anyway!).

My natural tendency is to fail fast.  I’ll even measure once and cut twice – I know someone will read that and shudder.  The good news is that after 22 years of school and even more years of life, I’m well-practiced at learning from mistakes.  I constant looking out for ways that something can be done more efficiently or just faster.  (And the corollary is that I suspect my own judgement on my initial pass is pretty harsh after the fact.)

So, if you’re reading about my home improvement experiences, you’ll find a lot of tips from me on the mistakes which I made and how you can avoid them (and how I recover from them).  My first-time projects at home often don’t go according to plan because I’ve learned along the way and can improve the plan – or I’ve just learn along the way that the plan was bad and I need to stop and regroup.  Our kitchen was unique since I’m pleased with most of the major decisions, but even then my hindsight was clearer than my plan…I did not consider that it’s tough to open a pull out garbage that has a knob (not a handle) with your pinky finger if you happen to be in the midst of onion chopping.  Our bathroom countertop is one great example of a fast failure turning into a nice final result. I’ll likely be one of the few bloggers who can tell you that you can erase tiling mistakes with a rubber mallet and a small chisel.  And I appreciate most store’s return policies since I almost never like the first incarnation of any of my decorating plans.

Here’s to hoping that fast failures can help us all move toward high quality results more quickly and efficiently.  My mistakes are most valuable if even one person out there on the internet can skip directly to plan B because I’ve demonstrated that plan A is insufficient.


Refinishing a pic-a-nic table

“I say there, Boo Boo, I am in the mood for a pic-a-nic … table!”  -paraphrasing Yogi Bear

Everyone does know who Yogi bear is, right?  If he and his little pal were to take a trip from Jellystone and visit our yard, they would find a nice space for dining with their stolen pic-a-nic baskets.  Here is the saga of sanding and refinishing (and selecting a finish) our picnic table.

When we bought our house, the former owners asked us if we would like to keep their picnic table.  It was purchased circa 1952 from gypsies for two cans of peaches, two cans of tomatoes and five dollars.  Considering its rich history, its perfect fit to our porch, and the fact that it is in good condition and will probably seat 12 people, keeping it was a no brainer.  It might have even been made of a giant redwood that wasn’t protected by government yet, so all the more reason to keep it in service.  We found ourselves eating there a lot while we were doing some renovation before moving into the house and we like have dinner out there when it is still light.


Yes, that is our kitchen table sitting behind the picnic table.  It was hanging out on the porch during the kitchen renovation.  And, if I ever finish tiling our bathroom, I have plans for it too!

There are two benches, but you get the idea in the photo.  The surface was worse for wear and pretty dirty – but since the surface was so rough, we couldn’t get it clean either.  After going in this circle a couple times and forcing guests to eat at it, I decided it was high time to refinish it.  Besides, nobody needs a splinter in their tush either.

Once again, sanding was the first step of the refinishing process*.  After my sanding experience with the bathroom countertop, my goal was to only sand this project once.  I fired up my little plug-in hand sander and went to town.  The light area on the left in the photo below is sanded and the other area is unsanded.

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First lesson: I have this 1/4″ sheet Ryobi hand sander.  It comes with two surfaces: a foam meant to soften the blow of sand paper that is clipped on, and a hard plastic piece that is for sticking adhesive sand paper to – at least I think that is the point of the hard plastic.  I can tell you that you should NOT stick adhesive sand paper to the foam pad, because it will remove the foam, especially at the corners.  And then your hand sander will cut nice circular groves in the wood, even if you cover the exposed hard corners with painting tape.  Fortunately, you can replace this assembly (or almost anything else you can figure out how to break) for about $1.00 by buying the spare parts here.  The fix took me all of 5 minutes and led to much higher quality surfaces.


See how everything is kind of orangey?  That’s this dust AFTER I shopvac’ed the whole thing.

Anyway, I digress.  When I started sanding this picnic table, I really had no idea what type of wood it was even made from.  After removing the first couple layers, I concluded that it was redwood.  It seems that not all approve of using power tools on redwood, but I had a lot of damage to erase and a lot of area to cover so I just sanded away.  I actually didn’t have any of the issues I read about online – once again, there is no right answer for home improvement.

Lesson #2: Soft wood is much softer than hardwood.  🙂  I sanded the oak bathroom countertop in the garage for one of the repeats and didn’t generate noticeable dust.  My wrath on this picnic table, however, left piles of dust all over the drive.  I actually had to shop vac the driveway after the top AND the bottom of each bench and the table.  My clothes were also pretty gross.  I definitely took off a good 1/16-1/8″ of wood and damage in practically no time at all, which could be why folks don’t use power tools on soft woods.

I always wear a respirator and safety glasses when sanding since dust masks don’t fit my face well and I don’t like to breathe wood dust (nor 50-year-old gypsy paint dust).  It is surprisingly not good for you, especially in the large doses that this project generated.  This is kind of funny in a way since we visited Redwood National Park the weekend before undertaking this project, which is full of decomposing redwood dust!

After sanding, quite a bit of this dust clung to the table.  I did not have tack cloth, plus there was a complete coating of dust so I think it would’ve been futile.  Instead, I hauled the stuff into the yard and hosed it down with a jet attachment.  Again, I’m quite sure that I violated the many Rules of Handling Soft Woods, but it was very fast and efficient.  I have noticed that logging companies hose down the piles of logs, presumably to prevent fires, so one dose of water can’t be that bad.  I then toweled down the pieces and let them dry overnight.  The furniture seemed no worse for wear afterward. Here is a before (right) and after (left):

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Lesson #3: Redwood discolors after sanding.  The difference in the photo above is a dead giveaway, but that is 50 years.  What surprised me is that the sanded surface actually discolored slightly after only the week between sanding and refinishing.  It wasn’t too noticeable so I just plowed forward, but I did make an effort to sand and refinish the other bench and the table on the same weekend.

Lesson #4: There are many types of finishes that one can apply to wood.  I’m not an expert by any means, but here are the options I considered (read more here):

  • Polyurethene – oil-based coating, hard finish that goes over the wood.  Protects from scratches, hardens by cross-linking polymers (which means an actual chemical reaction leading to hardening), nasty to deal with
  • Poly-acrylic – water-based coating, hard finish, dries quickly, required sanding between coats, protects from scratches, hardens by cross-linking polymers
  • “Varnish” – this word is a general name for clear coatings, but also means a specific finish based on resin dissolved in solvent.  It dries and hardens as the resin evaporates.
  • Shellac – similar to varnish, but the resin is specifically derived from a insect’s secretion
  • Drying wax – hard finish, ingredients seem to vary – maybe like a drying oil?
  • Drying oil – naturally derived oil, dries as reacts to oxygen.
  • “Exterior wood finish” – typically oil-based (above), soaks in (won’t peel off), semi-transparent stain colors or no colors, weathers a little and protects the wood.  I am not totally sure what falls into this category or how they all work, but think naturally-colored porches.  I have found one water-based version.

My goal for finishing the table was to give it a durable (remember Tilley, who has no idea what is and is not hers?  Everything in our home must be “durable”) and water-resistant finish.  The table is under a covered porch so it will not see rain, but it does see pollen and want to be able to wipe that off with a wet cloth.  The durability was also important since I don’t want to redo this project anytime soon.  Along the same lines, I did not want to apply more than 2 coats of my chosen finish; while I’m sure tung oil looks nice, I was not up for 12 coats with a month of dry time.

I also wanted to try out a finish that is environmentally friendly.  Water-based products have more environmentally friendly options (and you don’t have to deal with flammable, hard-to-clean oil-based products).  I have come across two options of water-based sealers through searching around the web.  The first, Safecoat Acrylaq,  I found out about here.  I couldn’t tell how well this would weather.  When I emailed the company, I expected that I would be staining this wood (didn’t know it was redwood yet).  They were very helpful but they actually recommended another of their products, WaterShield, for outdoor furniture.  I couldn’t find this product locally so I can’t comment on it.

Instead, I used the other option that I found, Polywhey ExteriorWood Finish by Vermont Naturals in Caspian Clear.  I also found it to be a good sign that Vermont Naturals had a picture of folks finishing a picnic table on their website!  This product I COULD find locally in a paint store, except I think their stock was out of date so my can looks like this:

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On the website, it is labeled “Exterior Wood Stain”, which is perhaps a bit confusing since stain is not usually clear.  I emailed Vermont Naturals to ask about the discrepancy and they assure me that it is the same product.  It is actually made from whey, a cheese-making by-product that is usually waste.  So, we get double environmental points for repurposing waste AND not harming the environment with toxic chemicals in a paint finish.  For this surface area, I used two quart cans completely.  I applied it with an angled Purdy paintbrush in the middle of the afternoon.  I mention the time of day because it was HOT in direct sunlight.  The finish dried quickly on the furniture but it also left my brush a little tacky, even after cleaning, since it was drying at the top while I was finishing.  I would recommend using this finish out of direct sunlight for the comfort of your paint brush.

The finish went on purple and even milky in some places, which was a little scary at the time.  After drying, it had a nice clear color.  The wood looked a little darker than right after sanding, but this is standard for clear finishes.

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The purplish tint only lasted about 10 minutes before drying away.

I liked this product.  It was quite easy to work with, did not smell at all (no respirator needed for terrible fumes!), dried quickly and left a nice coating.  More like an exterior porch finish than a polyurenthene, the polywhey soaked into the wood (that’s the “penetrating” part) and left a subtly shiny finish.  This particular finish is not supposed to be as “hard” as a polyurethene finish, but it is perfect for an unassuming, outdoor picnic table with a history.  As to appearance, the coating isn’t as reflective as the Minwax polyacrylic that I used on the bathroom countertop.  I did not sand between coats like I would’ve with the hard finish and had no issues.  In fact, this finish did not bubble at all.  The can says to wait 2-3 days for the second coat to dry before using, but we put a water glass down after 5 days and it left a ring 😦 .  I would recommend waiting a week to avoid any issues – water glasses do not leave marks anymore.  Spilled water even beads up, as advertised:

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Here’s the finished product:

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Much nicer than the before.  (The kitchen table moved back in and now there’s backerboard there…)  Here’s a direct before and after:

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*Want to read about my first experience refinishing and appreciate what is possibly the ugliest piece of re-finished furniture in the blogsphere?  Try here, here , here and finally here.  I’ve published every mistake I’ve made so you can get off scot-free.

Not-so-hard hardwood bathroom vanity top

To review a little: Since already we had contractors coming in and out of our house for the kitchen, we decided to add a shower to the guest bathroom, which had a tub with broken handles, but no shower.  Since the tiling only went halfway up, this means retiling the tub, which also meant ripping out the matching countertop…or at least we decided to go this far down the rabbit hole.  The bathroom looked like this:


After buying all those cabinets for the kitchen, I was tired of spending money on new cabinets.  Plus, I actually didn’t mind this vanity, which fits the slot perfectly and has three little drawers on the side.  It just needs a little paint and maybe some hardware for updating.  To save the vanity, I decided that we (I) would make our own countertop.  Because this is a super long article, here is where we are now:

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You can read all about the first failure here, where I tried to make a concrete countertop via internet instructions.  I do not think that feather finish, which is very sandable, is actually that durable.  Generally, things that sand well also damage well – which is why we finish hardwood with protective coatings rather than just walk around on freshly sanded surfaces.

For the next try, I took this very approach and we made a countertop out of wood – which I then finished with poly-acrylic!  I don’t have a jig to attach boards adjacent to one another and I was too cheap to spend money on good hardwood.  I definitely borrowed a fair amount of detail and planning from addicted2decorating for this project, but I was creative enough to make several more mistakes along the way so that everyone else on the internet can learn from them.  For our approach, we needed one piece of 3/4″ plywood, 2 pieces of oak trim, several pieces of so-called oak “hobby-board” from Home Depot.  The hobby-board is about 1/4″ thick, often warped (choose carefully from the bin) and still probably a rip off for the quality, but was easier to deal with than the full 1/2″ boards sold as lengths of hardwood.  The reason that I chose oak is because the hardwood in the rest of our house is walnut-stained oak and I thought it would be nice to carry that theme into the bathroom.  I had also never stained anything before and I had read that oak accepts stain well.

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We had Home Depot cut the plywood to size after carefully measuring the vanity…plus we already screwed that up once here so we knew the size pretty well at this point!  The thicker oak trim piece is lying across the top of this pile.  Home Depot actually sells hardwood by the foot, but they also RETURN hardwood by the foot.  So, I had them cut the pieces for me, but took home the whole length in case I measured poorly (if it ain’t broke, you’re not trying hard enough).  I lamely asked my husband to cut the thin pieces to size with a fine-blade in a Skilsaw donated by my dad.  Since our wood skills are akin to Laurel and Hardy, the thin pieces needed to be ever-so-slightly longer than the plywood.  Then I carefully glued the boards to the plywood, kneeling on them and nailing them down with 2-4 nails.  While the nails may not be strictly necessary, I only had one clamp, plus I was a little concerned about the warp-i-ness of the thin oak boards so I decided a nail or two would make me feel better…I later felt otherwise about these nails.

.Lesson #1: Home Depot lumber is labeled as a certain width.  It is never this width.  Note that, when buying plywood, when laid side to side, the width of your thin boards should be equal to or slightly deeper than the depth of the plywood.  I used three ” 6″ ” boards, three ” 2″ ” boards and one ” 3″ ” board…to cover an actual 22″ of depth – note the 5″ difference.  Here they are glued down:

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Next, we had to sand down those uneven edges we had since we didn’t want to gamble on being a bit overzealous with the Skilsaw.

Lesson #2: Hardwood is called HARD wood for a reason.  It is much harder to sand than plywood or pine.  Removing that 1/8″ you see in the bottom left took quite a while with my little Ryobi hand sander.  Alternatively, you can probably use a grinder if you have the right disk (and not only a diamond blade from sanding goo off of your garage floor).  But, the sander worked fine.  I have to strongly recommend this Norton sandpaper from now on.  It really is 3x as fast as other brands – and it’s color-coded!  I have used lots of sandpapers and polishing cloths in various walks of life and this stuff is pretty amazing.

After that, I applied some wood glue and nailed on the trim.  I (unnecessarily) filled in a couple gaps with wood filler.

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At this point, we should have cut the hole for the sink.  Foreshadowing…

Instead, I decided to sand the surface nice and level with my Norton sandpaper and hand sander again, then wipe the dust off with water.

Lesson #3: Not all nails are created equal!  I used finishing nails for this project, which were made of steel.  After I sanding the surface down, I wiped off the saw dust with a damp sponge, wiping only from the top to the bottom of the photo below.  This caused blue streaking marks to appear (do you see 4 of them below?).  At the time, I didn’t know what it was either, but apparently an iron reaction with wood tannins in moist environments is a common problem with exterior wood.

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Oh, you don’t have a clue what that means either or why it matters here?  Great.  Let’s straighten this out then.  (beware chemistry ahead) A tannin is a typical of phenol which is a weak organic acid.  This is why tannins are capable of etching the iron (or possibly zinc) that is present in the nail dust which I wiped down the wood with the sponge, simultaneously dissolving the tannins in water.  Dissolving the tannins in water created a weak acid, like vinegar.  This reacting with the nail dust resulted in a blue chemical compound (and it really was very bright blue, suggesting a transition metal compound) streaking you see in my wood.  Not knowing exactly what is in our very hard water or the nail, it could be anything from iron chloride to some zinc compound etc. (but it would be so much cooler if I had actually found out since that IS my day job!).  Had I not sanded, the steel would probably still have had a nice stable coating and prevented this reaction, but apparently my awesome Norton sandpaper is literally tougher than nails.  (Chemistry over)

A note on scary chemicals: The article above recommended cleaning this streaking up with NaHF2 or oxalic acid.  Anything containing HF is scary stuff!  In my day job, this is the last resort of chemical you pick only if nothing else works.  It etches glass.  It etches quartz, which is super resistant glass!  This is the stuff that etches your bone without pain until you are out of bone.  [And we used this stuff in freshman college chemistry laboratory – really, no college students should be handling anything stronger than weak coffee at 8am so who thought that was a good idea?]  Not to go too deep on this, but the chemical warning on the door of a Home Depot is scarier than many companies in Silicon Valley…so pay attention to what you’re buying!  And how to get rid of it later!

Instead of using anything scary, I skipped the chemistry and just sanded off the marks.  Good as new.  Then I used a dry brush to remove the sawdust this time!

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I used an oil based stain pre-conditioner to prepare the wood with a foam brush, waited for 15 minutes, then wiped off the excess with a piece of old t-shirt.  The Purdy brush pictured was just to remove the saw dust.  If you have a water-based stain, my understanding is that you can just use water!  However, I am relieved that I had the smelly oil based stain and pre-conditioner because other wise I’m sure the blue marks from above might be back!  Here’s after the pre-conditioner:

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Then I used a new foam brush and applied the wood stain in walnut.  I did this in an open garage with a Home Depot respirator on.  A little goes a long way.  I just wiped it on along the grain evenly in a thin coat, then waited for 20 minutes.

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I used another old t-shirt piece to wipe off the excess.  I really rubbed, not just wiped, to remove the excess.  A few of the wood defects actually continued to leach stain out for a couple hours to follow, which I kept chasing down with a rag to avoid dark splatter-looking spots, but the coating was overall quite even.  Any excess will result in a dark, sticky goo.  Let the stain dry for 24 hours.  Finally, speaking of scary stuff…dispose of the stain rags and foam brushes appropriately.

Lesson #4: Wood filler does not take stain very well.  Stain tends to emphasize the variation in wood.  The variation in wood filler just isn’t very pretty, so emphasizing is also not pretty.  It isn’t entirely wood so the stain is absorbed differently.  I’ve read here about using a stain pen on wood filler.  In my experience, the stained wood filler just looked like dirt caught between the wood boards and it would’ve been better left out.  Fortunately, by the time I’d screwed this thing up twice, most of the filler sanded away.

The next day, I came back to do my first coat of water-based poly-acrylic.  Does Home Depot have some kind of deal with Minwax?  It seems to be the only option.  For this, I used a nice Purdy brush and was careful to wash it with warm soap and water right after use.  the coating would start to dry within 10 minutes on either the brush or the wood.  I found that thin coats were best, but I did short but slow back-and-forth brush strokes to blend them all rather than long smooth strokes down the length of the table.  I went over the same small regions more than once, but covered the whole table in one pass going from one corner to the one kiddy-corner.  This is kind of what you do sweeping a floor or raking leaves.  I think this evened out the bubbles a little too.

After two coats, I remembered that the neighbor’s jigsaw had a little metal foot at the bottom and started to worry about damaging the surface.  So I said, “ok, I am ready to cut the sink hole since I have two coats of finish to protect the surface against gouging, but I can still repair it with the next coat.  Bryan, can you please use the neighbor’s jig-saw to cut this hole for me from the sink template?”

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Lesson #5: Finish cutting before you sand.  Before you stain.  And before you finish anything.  Duh.  Because the jig saw gouged my lovely finish.

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And it removed ALL of the finish under that spot.  No, I was not lucky and the over-mount sink did NOT cover the damage.

I resanded.  And got this:

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Note that the grain is still actually stained compared to the brand new board, which gave kind of a cool contrast.

Then I stained again.

And I finished it again, gently sanding each layer of finish before the next, as instructed by the can.  I’m not totally sure this made a difference.  It did make dust that I had to brush off every time.  I put on 4 coats of finish since this will be a bathroom countertop.

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Much better.

Finally, here it is installed again:

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Our contractor installed the counter top, sink (Kohler) and faucet.  Do not buy this Delta faucet.  Installed by a contractor and 30+ year experience plumber, the faucet would not turn off.  Hooray for Home Depot’s return policy.  Instead, we removed it, returned it and installed this lovely Moen faucet.  Murphy’s Law demanded that the first faucet was a lemon if only because my parents were coming to visit in two days, and we really wanted the sink to be working for their arrival.

Project cost:

  • $60 for the countertop, including my previous flop I think
  • $29 for the sink
  • $128 for functional faucet

This homemade guy is roughly half the cost of a cheap big box store vanity top and 1/10th of a granite countertop without a sink, if you already own the granite!

As you can tell, we have plenty more work to do in the bathroom, but I think I will be painting that cabinet white.  Chalk paint?  Or Ben Moore Advance?  Leave a comment.

Catch up on the bathroom saga:

Tiling: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Painting the bathroom