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Diary of a Home Makeover

Martha Stewart Living, September 2009

We can probably all agree on this: Renovating isn't easy. Between the nail-biting decisions and the subcontractors who conveniently disappear after making a giant hole in your wall, the process is daunting. But it doesn't have to be. With this column, I hope to demystify some of the challenges, using my own experience as an example. 

Last year, I moved into a modern, window-filled apartment in New York. Most of the major construction is over, but certain details continue to elude me. How can I maximize space in a tiny kitchen? Should I upgrade the plain but otherwise just-fine bathroom? What closet system will actually keep me organized? Over the next year, I'll tackle these questions and more, tapping design pros for their expertise at every stage. (Yes, even decorating editors need help sometimes.) 

I'll also discuss the project on the Martha Stewart Living Radio program "Living Today" (Sirius XM Radio), review design options with Martha on her TV show, and share behind-the-scenes secrets on my blog. Next September, we'll present the "big reveal," with all my final choices. Stay with me through the process of remodeling the space and, as Martha likes to say, "taking it from a glass box to a home."

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The Project: Redo the Floors
One of my apartment's most distinctive features is the floor, which is made of wenge, an exotic wood with a rich coffee color. It's beautiful, but I really wanted whitewashed floors, which are easier to keep clean -- dark floors show every speck of dust and dirt. 

Plus, wenge tends to fade from sun exposure, and this place gets a ton of sun. But what were my options? Would it be possible to brighten such a dark shade?

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The Game Plan: Lighten the Wood Floor
For help, I called Craig Margolies, a specialist from New York flooring firm Haywood-Berk. Craig assured me that it was possible to go lighter, and presented samples of the whitewashed look I wanted. To achieve the finish, the original wenge floors had to be sanded, bleached twice, stained, sealed, and finished with a satin water-based polyurethane. (My situation was unusual. Getting that look with a paler species, such as oak, is much simpler. You can also do a pickled or ceruse finish, in which the wood grain is accentuated with white.) 

Things didn't go so well at first: A bad reaction between the bleach, the sealant, and the oils in the wood resulted in a splotchy mess. Craig's team had to resand to the bare wood and start over using different products. But the second time around -- success! The floors came out perfectly. Among the valuable lessons I learned from Craig: The hand of a sander isn't always consistent, so refinish all your floors in one shot if it's feasible.

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Against the Grain
Craig Margolies tried various ways to lighten the wenge floor and came up with a five-step process: sand, bleach, bleach again, stain white, and then seal and finish. The wheel shows the progression on plain-sawn and knotty quartersawn boards -- Craig performed tests on both cuts of wood because they yield a different look.

Craig advises: "Always view stain samples 'in the field.' Have your refinisher sand an area and apply a range of colors and sheens, from matte to high gloss, so you can see how they will appear in situ."

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The End Result
Many hours of skilled labor later, the floors finally have the envisioned warm-white hue. Over time, the color may change slightly from exposure to sun and air.