apartment progress: living in progress.

June 7, 2021

There’s a cardboard box in our kitchen filled with sandpaper and paintbrushes, scrapers, screw drivers, putty, primer and paint. It’s topped with a folded up drop cloth and every day for the last week, James or I have taken it down from the top of fridge and gotten to work on our current apartment project: refinishing our kitchen cabinets. When we’ve had the time free from kids or other work obligations, we’ve been chipping away at the project. Even though the cabinets are relatively few, refinishing them is a multi-step process that can’t really be rushed through. I’m working on a post about the specifics of what we’re doing to the cabinets, but in the meantime, I’ve been getting lots of questions about how we find the time and space to tackle projects like this in the first place. So, in hopes it’s helpful or encouraging, here are a few of my strategies for living with projects in process, especially when those projects are on a scale that can turn things a little topsy turvy.

+ Temper expectations: Folks often ask me how I manage tackling projects at all with kids underfoot. The short answer is that I don’t typically try to work on them while they’re home. I wait until there’s a time when they’re in school or at a playdate or with a grandparent or a babysitter, which means that the work largely happens in stolen hours and on an expanded timeline. For me, the realities of living in a small apartment with three small kids means the time it will take to finish the projects gets doubled or maybe even tripled. Going into a project knowing that it’s going to take awhile keeps me from being disappointed when it inevitably does.

+ Make a supply box: To put it mildly, I’m someone who thrives in a calm and quiet space. Living in the midst of a construction zone, no matter how small, is not what I’d call my comfort zone, but wrangling the specific supplies I need for a project and being able to box them up and push them out of sight between work sessions makes tackling projects possible for me. There’s no question that cleaning everything up after a stretch of work and setting it up again later adds to the overall time that a project takes, but for me, it’s a crucial part of the process. Having a box filled with supplies feels like a good compromise because I’m not necessarily returning everything to its forever storage spot, but I’m also not trying to make morning coffee on a counter crowded with supplies. If I run into a timing hiccup where there are several days that lapse between having an opportunity to work on something, it’s nice to know that I have everything I need still relatively accessible, without also being stuck with a mess while I wait for my next window of work time.

+ Get the messiest stuff done all at once: As much as is possible, my goal is always to mitigate the amount of cleanup that I have to do. Whenever possible, that means I try to get the messiest stuff done in the longest stretches of time I have. In the case of kitchen cabinets, for instance, this meant one afternoon where we emptied every cabinet and scrubbed and sanded all of the boxes in one fell swoop. It meant a long day of chaos as everything was out of the kitchen, but it also allowed us to get a big chunk done at once. Had we done this part cabinet by cabinet, needing to cordon off the kitchen and thoroughly clean up dust and debris after each individual cabinet, we would have been looking at a far longer process. Other stages of the project, like priming and painting, are easier to do little by little. Determining ahead of time what makes sense to tackle piecemeal and what needs to be done in one fell swoop cuts down on the overall time and exasperation. (NB. At the time of writing, I’m writing from a supine position on my bed, icing my back. I’m sure I spent too many uninterrupted hours scraping paint on Friday, so be careful for what you wish for in terms of long project days.)

No doubt, many of the challenges we face, and much of the ease we enjoy are specific to our own lives. We live in a small city apartment without a garage or a basement or a spare room. We don’t have a backyard or a patio, but we do have a rooftop that’s relatively easy to access (if not officially sanctioned for use). James and I are lucky to have relatively flexible work schedules this time of year, which means we can work on some of these projects during the day when our kids are at school or daycare and attend to computer work in the afternoon and in the evenings after they’re asleep. As always, there’s no perfect way to take on the challenge of doing something yourself, but at the end there’s huge reward and satisfaction of having done it. (Maybe also a sore back.)

Feel free to chime in with questions or solutions you’ve found during your own works in progress!

For the curious:

+ Our dishes are from East Fork Pottery. We have their Everyday Bowls, Breakfast Bowls in eggshell and their Side Plates in morel.

This post includes affiliate links. Reading My Tea Leaves might earn a small commission on the goods purchased through those links.

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  • Reply Steph June 7, 2021 at 1:43 pm

    My partner hates home improvement, so I try to send him off (with our 9-year old and without). This summer I’m pushing for him to go on a week-long backpacking trip with our son, so I can have a new bathroom cabinet installed in our 600 sqf rental, and some painting upgrades. Like you I believe that investing in a rental is a huge improvement to my life quality and mental sanity.

  • Reply Megan June 7, 2021 at 2:42 pm

    We recently re-enamled our metal tub and that meant I spent 10 hours out of the house with a 2.5 year old and a 9 month old while my partner did the tub/tile work with a respirator+air filter+open windows. It was a marathon day for BOTH parents 🙂

  • Reply Ris June 7, 2021 at 3:29 pm

    Oooh where are your dishes from? Those are gorgeous.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE June 7, 2021 at 3:52 pm

      Oh thanks so much! They’re from East Fork Pottery. I just updated the post with affiliate links!

      • Reply Ris June 8, 2021 at 10:06 am

        Thanks, Erin! My sister lives in Asheville and confirms this company is amazing. Will definitely be snagging some of these with your link. Much appreciated!

  • Reply Sara June 7, 2021 at 5:47 pm

    Your supply box is a genius idea! We are in the very early stages of preparing to sell the house we have lived in for 18 years, identifying what we were happy living with but not willing to move. While a lot of items have left through the local Buy Nothing group, we are planning to have a yard sale later in the summer. Yesterday as I looked at various rolls of tape, piles of markers and pens, and packing supplies strewn across our gorgeous dining table, I was so discouraged. Thanks to your suggestion, now those items are tucked away in a tidy shoebox in a (newly) empty kitchen cabinet. Thank you for making life a little less chaotic.

  • Reply Sarah June 7, 2021 at 5:49 pm

    Currently, as I enter a home project season for the summer, my go-tos are: research a ton (one day, the to do list might just be “read all the instructions and make sure I have the parts”) and invest in good tools. If I’m spending money, by far I get the most out of quality tools that are right for the job. Crappy tools, or trying to use something not quite right can totally increase the frustration level.

  • Reply mackenzie June 8, 2021 at 2:11 pm

    I am enjoying following your kitchen re-do progress on Instagram 🙂

    • Reply marion June 8, 2021 at 6:08 pm

      it’s gonna look so nice!

  • Reply Kirstin June 9, 2021 at 6:55 am

    I have a kitchen straight out of 1947 with painted white metal cabinets and a porcelain sink. I put down Mirth Studio removable floor tiles in a bold pattern and it’s really transformed the room. It has similar counter tops like you have and I keep searching fir how to improve the look of them. I’ve looked all over for matte contact paper that would have a chance to actually look real. Do you have any suggestions?

  • Reply Jay June 10, 2021 at 4:18 pm

    Morel may just be my favorite East Fork color! Is the tiny bowl with the blue glaze East fork as well?

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE June 10, 2021 at 4:24 pm

      The super tiny one isn’t east fork! I forget where we found that one many years ago! Maybe Canvas Home?


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