Friday, March 14, 2014

Refinishing kitchen cabinets with time, effort and savings
How I stayed busy, got a new kitchen and read 5 books over 26 weekends
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel March 21, 2014

A recent article in Popular Mechanics says that the national average cost for a minor kitchen remodel is about $18,500, while a major overhaul comes in at almost $54,000. Better Homes and Gardens reports that the average price of an upscale kitchen is a staggering $107,973. These numbers might encourage us to do something we shouldn’t with our 401(k) or kid’s college fund. But when I told my contractor that I wanted to spend less than $10,000 (including new appliances), he told me it was possible if I kept my 1980s cabinets and refinished them myself.

Cabinets typically make up one-third to one-half of the average total kitchen-remodeling budget, according to the National Kitchen and Bath Association. But there are ways to trim cabinet costs such as:
  • Using standard-sized stock or RTA (ready-to-assemble) cabinetry. RTA cabinets are finished, pre-drilled and delivered in a flat pack along with all the hardware needed for assembly.
  • Replacing cabinet doors, drawer fronts and cabinet moldings, but keeping and refacing the existing cabinet boxes and framework with veneers.
  • Opting for doorless upper cabinets.
  • Adding new hardware, a few glass inserts, and paint or stain to update the existing cabinets.
Throughout this months-long process, I “read” several
books, so earbuds are an essential component of cabinet
 refinishing. Of course you’ve got to crank up the volume
 when sanding the cabinet doors after stripping.
Another option is illustrated on the cover of the hipster guidebook, “It’s Lonely in the Modern World”: forgoing upper kitchen cabinets altogether, and just stacking your dishes on simple shelves.

I decided to strip and re-stain rather than prime and paint because I preferred the look and warmth of wood. I refinished some cabinets long ago, and hoped there was new technology to make the process safer, easier and faster. Like any home-improvement project, there are multiple ways to go about it, so it took some time to research and compare methods and materials. Basically, refinishing involves these seven steps:

1)      Remove hardware and wood trim:  Use a drill or screwdriver to remove all the hinges and pulls, and a taping knife and pry bar to remove the wood trim. I decided to replace the hardware, but if you are going to reuse it, store pieces in labeled Ziploc bags until you have time to soak and scrub them clean. Also label the location and orientation of each drawer and front with painter’s tape. Mask the surfaces around the cabinet boxes with painter’s tape and cover the floors and counters where you are working with plastic garbage bags.

Liquid strippers work best, but for vertical surfaces use
gel, which won’t drip as much. I used Citrustrip,
 a bright orange gel that smells decent enough,
worked pretty well, and claims to be non-corrosive,
 non-toxic and biodegradable. Paint on with a cheap brush,
 allow it to work awhile, then remove with a plastic scraper.
WORK WISELY: Stripping is a nasty business. Whether you are stripping oil-based paint or varnish and stain, spare no expense on protecting your health. Buy thick rubber gloves, a big box or two of disposable nitrile gloves, eye protection, a sanding respirator, and a vapor respirator (the serious, $50 kind). Work outside or with windows and doors wide-open (drought years are optimal in this case), read all labels and use the appropriate protection whenever you are using chemicals or sanding, even when working outdoors or with so-called safe products. Also be conscientious about how you are disposing of all work materials—many of which don’t belong in your garbage can. For every step of this process there are products that claim to be safer to use than traditional solvent-based products, so I suggest reading some online MSDSs (material safety data sheet) to know all the risks before you choose.

2)      Clean:  Remove grease and dirt from the cabinet and drawer front surfaces with a trisodium phosphate solution (TSP), and wipe off with a wrung-out sponge. Allow the surfaces to dry completely. If you’re going to install new hardware that won’t use the same screw holes, fill in the old holes with wood putty. (If you are going to paint your cabinets, you don’t need to strip them—a HUGE time-saver. Roll on primer tinted to match your top coat, allow to dry, then roll on the paint.)

3)      Strip: I used Citrustrip, a bright orange gel that smells decent enough, worked pretty well, and claims to be non-corrosive, non-toxic and biodegradable (but still use gloves and a vapor respirator). Paint on with a cheap brush, allow it to work awhile, then remove with a plastic scraper. Apply a second time if necessary. Remove any remaining residue with fine steel wool (.00001) and odorless mineral spirits or pre-stain.

4)      Sand: Using an orbital or finish sander and 150 to 180 grit sandpaper, sand all surfaces until the bare wood looks uniformly clean and feels smooth. You may need a stiff brush or detail sander to get into corners or groves. (I used bamboo skewers.) After sanding, wipe the surfaces with a dry cloth to ensure all dust is removed.

TAKE A BREAK: Breathe a big sigh of relief (away from any dust and fumes) because the hardest, most tedious part is over.

I spent about $500 on everything I used to refinish my kitchen cabinets—including replacement hinges, pulls and knobs. Most of the tools can be used again for other home improvement projects.
5)      Stain: Find a paint store like South Bay Paints in San Jose, where a clerk spent about an hour with me, opening cans of stain and dabbing various shades onto the back of my stripped and sanded cabinet door until I was satisfied with the color. Gel stain is rubbed on and the excess removed with cut-up tee-shirt strips. Follow the directions on the can, and don’t let the stain sit for too long or it will start to gum-up and the excess with not wipe off. Let the stain dry for 72 hours before applying the finish coat.

One of my favorite aspects of Holly Scrimsher’s
 remodeled kitchen is her magnetic knife and scissor
 strips, hung above the sink on her wood laminate walls.
6)      Apply finish: I chose to brush on a polyurethane top-coat on with a 2-1/2 inch, white china bristle brush, but polyurethane can also be sprayed on. Following the grain, make about two passes with the brush, and then one very light final pass, before moving on to the next piece. If you apply too heavy a coat, you must continue to brush it out to avoid runs and drips, so strive for light coats. After a few hours you can sand very, very lightly with 220-grit sandpaper and apply a second light coat. No matter how careful you are, there will most likely be a few drips, but only you will notice them.

7)      Replace hardware: If you’re using existing holes and hardware that fits those holes, this will go fairly quickly. If you are making changes, use a plastic template to mark the screw holes, so that they are consistent from cabinet to cabinet. Use a tape measure to find the center of drawer faces and center the template on that mark. After reattaching the fronts to the drawers, drill pilot holes before screwing new drawer pulls into place.

REALITY CHECK: Lowe’s website has a helpful refinishing guide with a chart for determining the type of the existing finish on your cabinets (wax, shellac, lacquer, water-based, varnish, polyurethane, oil, or paint) in order to use the proper stripper. At the very end of the guide, in tiny print, they say, “Before undertaking refinishing, remind yourself that it takes a lot of time and effort.” In retrospect, I don’t think I read this warning in any of my other sources, and if I had, it was probably much too subtle to have discouraged me. Working 2-4 hours a weekend, it took me about 6 MONTHS to complete the cabinets (with hardware help from my family). But it was worth it, because I saved thousands of dollars by doing it myself, and my whole kitchen remodeling project would have been beyond our budget without it.

Tina Baine
For an archive of my columns go to

Lisa Jensen and James Aschbacher’s kitchen is all about those Bermuda Teal cabinets. “We didn’t want to spend a fortune on either fancy veneers or (ulp) entirely new cabinets,” says Lisa, so they decided to keep their 1960s plywood cabinets and power up the color. “We wanted something more fun,” she says. They scrubbed all the surfaces with a vinegar solution to remove the grime, and James (a professional artist) then painted all the cabinets “very meticulously” by hand. “Our friends and other visitors loved the new color instantly,” remembers Lisa. “During Open Studios, it’s hard to steer people out of the kitchen & back to the art! I was the only one who had reservations after James finished painting the first cabinet. An hour later I loved it!” (photo by Lisa Jensen)

With wood (or wood laminate) on every surface, Holly Scrimsher’s kitchen feels like a cozy mountain retreat. Holly, and her grown children Wendy and Jess, spent last summer remodeling the space from floor to ceiling, doing all the work themselves. She says she spent about $3,400 (not including appliances) for the entire project. Her maple-finish cabinets were purchased assembled at Home Depot, replacing old cabinets with about six coats of paint. A seasoned woodworker and all-around handy person, Holly was able to create, customize and improvise whenever necessary, like when she and Wendy used a car jack to hold the upper cabinets up while they fastened them to the wall. After trying vinyl floor tiles as a backsplash/wall covering, she finally decided to use laminate flooring instead for a much more practical and economical version of wood paneling.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Yoga for the brain
Zen Doodling
Originally published February 7, 2014 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel
Jann Griffith has drawn several beautiful underwater
 scenes using her vast collection of Zentangle designs.

The author of "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers," Stanford professor Robert M. Sapolsky, has focused much of his neurological research on the effects of stress on animals, and by extension, humans. Sapolsky believes it is vital to understand the difference between survival stress, and the everyday human kind brought on by memories, emotions and thoughts.

"For 99% of the species on this planet, stress is three minutes of screaming terror in the savannah, after which either it's over with or you're over with," he writes. "if you're running from a lion, your blood pressure is 180 over 120. But you're not suffering from high blood pressure--you're saving your life. Having this same thing happen when you're stuck in traffic, and you're not saving your life. Instead you are suffering from stress-induced hypertension."

"When you look at the diseases that do us in (heart disease, cancer, adult-onset diabetes, Alzheimer's), they are predominately diseases that can be caused, or made worse, by stress," Sapolsky writes. "As a result, most of us . . . will have the profound Westernized luxury of dropping dead someday of a stress-related disease. That's why it's so urgent that we understand stress-and how to better manage it."
A classic Zentangle—by Jennifer Miller—is drawn
 on a 3 ½ x 3 ½ paper tile, using a black archival pen
 to draw patterns in each random section.  Jen calls
 drawing mistakes “a beautiful oops,” since you can
 easily incorporate an unplanned line into a new design.

While studying laboratory rats that received random electric shocks, Sapolsky observed several ways rats are able to cope with stress. The first way is to take their stress out on another rat by “biting the crap out of it,” writes Sapolsky. The second is to anticipate stress with predictive information—for example a warning bell ten seconds prior to the shock. The third stress reducer is having the perception of control—even if it’s only a placebo—such as having a lever to press. The fourth is to have a friend—social affiliation helps control stress.

But for me, the most intriguing stress-reducing strategy for a lab rat was the fifth way: gnawing on a piece of wood. “The guy’s not going to get an ulcer, because he has an outlet for his frustrations. He has a hobby,” writes Sapolsky. If this is true—if hobbies help us cope with anxiety and live longer healthier lives (and not resort to “biting the crap” out of our family and friends), then having an artistic outlet—especially one that is therapeutic by design—may be worth exploring.

The Joy of Zentangle

Zentangle is an art form that promotes drawing as meditation. The theory behind Zentangle is that, by making simple, repetitive strokes, you become totally focused on what you’re doing. As you become absorbed in the process, you find yourself getting calmer, less stressed, less judgmental, and feel happier and more content—like yoga for the brain.

Matthew Fitch, 7, proudly shows the
 valentine he’s just created to the January
 meeting of the Morgan Hill Zen Doodler Club.
Maybe you already doodle on a notepad when you’re bored or daydreaming, or just want to escape. It’s relaxing and transporting. Like doodling, Zentangle (also known as Zen Doodling) is easy and requires no artistic skill. says, “You cannot fail to create a Zentangle. Since it is not a picture of something, you have no worries about whether you can draw a hand or a duck. You always succeed.”

I recently took one of Nancy Domnauer’s monthly Zentangle classes at BookSmart in Morgan Hill. I’ve never practiced any form of yoga or meditation, but I definitely experienced a calming, focused state while creating my first Zentangle. A classic Zentangle is drawn on a 3 ½ x 3 ½ paper tile. Using a pencil, we drew a dot in each corner of the tile about ¼-inch from the edge and connected the dots with straight or wavy lines to create a border. We then drew a loopy “string” inside the border creating four or five random sections. Using a black archival drawing pen, we drew patterns she taught in each of the sections.

Jennifer Miller draws Zentangle
 designs on shrink plastic squares
 and then hinges them together
 with jump rings to make bracelets.

The creators of Zentangle—Rick Roberts, a former monk, and Maria Thomas, a lettering artist—developed Zentangle ten years ago as a method for anyone to achieve a peaceful, meditative state through simple drawing. Today there are more than 400 CZTs (Certified Zentangle Teachers) worldwide, thousands of Zentangle enthusiasts, and many books and websites devoted to the practice.

Nancy has also organized monthly meet-ups—the Morgan Hill Zen Doodlers Club—where her student can gather, exchange new patterns and resources, and draw together. Karen Fitch, who brought her 7-year-old son, Matthew, to the January meeting, says Zentangle is great for her son because “he can do it and be successful. We try to draw something together at least once a week, after he’s done his homework,” she says. “You’re really engaging both sides of your brain.” That evening they each worked on making valentines—filling in the letters L-O-V-E with Zen Doodle patterns.

Pam Drayton is quite enthusiastic about her latest hobby. “I’m addicted. I have to get every book there is. I’ve given this to all my nieces and nephews, and now they are Zen Doodling all over the Midwest,” she says. “I work in high-tech and it’s a very stressful job.” She says that within minutes of drawing her first Zentangle, she felt calmer. “It’s just the most relaxing thing in the whole wide world,” she says more than once. “You don’t expect it to be pretty, but this is so cool. I’m a 70s girl. I used to get detention for drawing stuff like this in class.”

Zentangle can be done anywhere with only a black pen, white paper and a pencil. No eraser is needed because there are no mistakes. An errant mark can be easily incorporated into the design, and may even “take you in unexpected and exciting new directions,” says Nancy. Its portability also allows you to improvise wherever you are—on a business card or a napkin—anytime you feel the need to relax and focus.

Jolene Hall and her daughter Nikki work on designs during
 the January Zen Doodler Club at BookSmart in Morgan Hill.
 Jolene says, “This helps me to concentrate better.
 I’ve always doodled, but now I feel I have purpose to my doodles.”
The official Zentangle website ( offers instructional videos demonstrating the basic technique, products, a newsletter, CZT training dates, and a blog with project ideas and links. There are quite a few books available on Zentangle and hundreds of pattern ideas and applications online. Zentangle patterns can also be used to decorate fabric, note pads, shoes, jewelry, cards, mugs, journals, scrapbooks, furniture, gourds, tiles—any surface that will accept ink.

Nancy Domnauer writes that, “A completed Zen Doodle project looks complicated, yet if you slow down, focus and take your time, you will create an attractive work of art!” She views the Zentangle process not only as a stress-reducing, art-producing hobby, but as a metaphor for life. “You can transfer the insight and experience of success and accomplishment to any life experience,” writes Nancy. “Something may look complicated, but you now know that you can do it, one simple stroke at a time.”

Side Note: Nancy Domnauer’s next Zen Doodling for Adults class meets Monday, February 17, from 6:30 to 8:00 pm at BookSmart at 80 E. 2nd Street in Morgan Hill.  Call BookSmart at (408) 778-6467 to register for the class, or email Nancy for more information at  Also check-out her collection of Zen Doodle designs and applications on her Pinterest page: 

Sandra Dunie of Morgan Hill made her Christmas cards
from Zentangle designs. She says, “Sometimes you
 wake up in the middle of the night and think, what can
 I do next. I never felt like I had the talent to do art.
With this, I just feel comfortable.”