Thursday, December 29, 2011


While rummaging in the basement for holiday decorations, I came across an old cupboard – a “toy chest” my Grandfather made years ago.  Its stained and the paint is peeling so it looks a sorry mess, but the cupboard itself remains sound. With a little loving care it could, once again, be cute and functional.

So, I’ve begun gathering information, making price comparisons, and perusing décor ideas (finishes, appliqués, hardware, etc.)  During these preparations I came across some startling statistics on furniture disposal versus renewal (from the US and UK) as well as cautionary articles on testing for and removing lead-based paints.   These paints were banned a few decades ago, but when in doubt about the age of the furniture (or its finish) its best to test the item before work begins.  Test kits are available online and in hardware stores.  Armed with this knowledge, I’ve made a list of essential supplies and am preparing the work area.

To refinish most furniture usually requires only basic supplies:
  • Paint, varnish, or stain
  • Paint brushes of varying sizes for broad coverage and finer detail work
  • Sand-paper of different grades (from coarse for stripping, to fine for finishing work)
  • Standard safety equipment:  goggles, a particle mask, and gloves
  • Tarp(s) to protect the work area and help contain mess and waste
  • Optional equipment:  power sander and/or spray painter
  • Sometimes required:  primer, to seal old stain which resists removal and could bleed through new paint

For projects involving the removal of lead-based paints, sanding is strongly discouraged.  In fact, most articles I read on the subject recommend these jobs be done by professional refinishers to avoid poisoning family, home, and the environment.  If deciding to take on these projects at home, then heightened precautions should be taken, and other supplies will be needed:
  • Gel or liquid paint-stripper and a putty knife
  • Painters respirator
  • Disposable, full-coverage, painters coveralls and gauntlet-length rubber gloves
  • Heavy-gauge plastic, to seal the work area (including ventilation ducts)
  • Before beginning, locate a safe disposal site for all hazardous waste and contaminated supplies

Refinishing furniture can be thrifty or extravagant, depending on the products used.  Designer hardware and appliqués may elevate the furniture’s appearance, but will raise the project’s overall cost.  If budget is a concern, assorted painting techniques can also achieve visual interest.  Paint prices vary, but a regular latex indoor paint is all that’s needed.  There is also the expense of time, but I balance this and other costs against professional refinishing rates.  Besides, I enjoy having something crafty to do during these dark days of winter.

I’d like to share images of my project but I’m still awaiting information on a safe disposal site before beginning work – yes, the paint I’ll be removing is lead-based.  Fortunately, the cupboard is small and I’ll have the necessary protective gear to do the job with the utmost caution.  In the end, the chest my Grandfather made will be restored to service, saved from the landfill, and may even find its way to future generations.  For me, this renewal project of will be a very gratifying start to the New Year.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Deck the House

Despite all the shopping, the gift-wrapping, and the baking, it’s when home decoration begins that my holiday spirit really picks up.  Like a magpie, it’s the vivid colours and sparkling lights, the smell of garlands and tree, that cheer me most.

Last week, a friend dropped by with arm-loads of cedar boughs and pine cones so I’ve been busy making a wreath for the front door and a centrepiece for the table.  Granted, it’s not as easy as buying ready-made items, but it’s definitely budget friendly, especially if you prefer the fragrance of fresh over plastic.

Making a wreath is easy and inexpensive.  If you don’t have access to fresh boughs – or kind friends who provide them – you can trim lower branches from the (undecorated) tree.  If you don’t have the budget to buy craft wire, you can use (wire) hangers and (stripped) twist-ties.  Ornamentation can be achieved with nature’s bling – pine cones and seasonal berries – or cloth remnants and tree curios…whatever you have on hand.
Stripped twist-ties

To make your own wreath, garland, or centrepiece, you’ll need:
·         Boughs of cedar, spruce or fir (avoid poisonous hemlock or other evergreens for which you have sensitivity)
·         Heavy gloves (and long sleeves) to avoid skin irritation when handling the boughs
·         Heavy wire (gauge 10, or thicker) or wire clothes-hangers for the frame
·         Lighter wire (gauge 20 or thinner) or “stripped” twist-ties (see image at right) for attaching boughs and ornamentation
·         Pliers (needle-nose work best)
·         Ribbons, cloth remnants, bows, tree ornaments, seasonal berries, tree cones, glitter, spray snow and/or bells for decoration

Image #1
Straightened hangers

For the frame, I use two wire hangers, “opened” and the bends straightened with pliers (image #1).  Then, I rejoin the hangers, using their curly ends (image #2) to secure them together.  With gentle thumb pressure, form the wire into a round (image #3.)  If you desire a perfect circle, bend the wire around a large bowl. 
Image #3
Form a round frame

Once the frame is ready, put on your gloves, gather the boughs (image #4) and begin weaving.  Start at the top, propping the stem end of a large bough behind the hook, and wind the stem gently around the wire.  Secure the stem to the hanger with pieces of fine wire.  Do the same on the other side of the circle and weave the lower tips of both branches together at the bottom.  Then weave smaller boughs into these larger base branches.  Secure as needed, concealing wires with loose fronds.

Image #4
Ready to weave
After you’ve placed the boughs, add the ornamentation of your choice, securing these with fine wire also. I attach decorations at the top, when using cedar boughs – it’s easiest and doesn’t clutter the boughs sweeping appearance.  Spruce and fir have sparser branches so I detach branchlets from the main bough and  finish the wreath by securing the branches with ornaments around the circumference.  As an added touch, wrap ribbon around the hanger’s hook and then bend its open end into a tighter loop for hanging.
Image #2
Secure hangers at curly ends

Employing similar methods, I use only one hanger (bent to a round, hook removed and the curly end bent into the round,) for a table centrepiece frame.  Once the greens are attached, a pretty bowl in the  hub keeps candles from igniting the boughs, or fruit and nuts from  contamination.   Opened hangers, bent in pleasing twists, and joined where necessary, work well for garlands and can be easily “fit” to door top, railings, or mantelpiece.

The fragrant, natural wreath or garland can be used indoors or out but will dry more easily when indoors.  It’s a good idea to spritz these decorations daily with water to keep the evergreens hydrated as long as possible.  For this reason, when making indoor wreaths, I avoid using glitter or spray snow as watering spoils these applications.

Whatever your traditions may be,
I wish you and yours
peace and much good cheer this holiday season.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Personal Touch

What kind of holiday shopper are you?  Do you shop ahead, finding bargains or “perfect gifts” throughout the year?  Or, do you wait until the twelfth hour, joining the pressing crowds, revelling in last minute deals or the challenges of competitive shopping.  I used to be a member of the latter camp but found, after stressing our December finances beyond tolerance, that the former method was more easily managed…both by our budget and my nerves.  As years went by, I also realized that some gift-giving options wouldn’t have been available when shopping last minute.  By shopping ahead, I could make points redemption from certain online merchants to ensure gifts, shipped directly to recipients, arrived in time and wrapped.  In leaner years, to spare our budget, early preparation enabled us to gift in more creative ways, yet still impart our love and care.

Gifts from the kitchen proved popular.  Soup mixes – varying mixtures of beans, grains and spice blends with ingredient list and instruction labels – are a great way to bring warmth to someone’s winter day.  You’ll save even more money on each jar if you’ve been bulking up.  Hot-buttered rum mix is another popular gift from the kitchen though, requiring refrigeration, it either needs specialized shipping or personal delivery.  Hot drink mixes hold up better if your shipping gifts.  A batch of home-made noodles, dried and packaged in an air-tight container, makes a fabulous gift for the pasta (and soup) lovers on your list.  This might not ship well, either, as the home-made noodles tend to break easier than store-bought varieties.  Some home-made truffles ship well and are delicious at any time of year.  Candies and brittles are another sweet yet thrifty treat most people enjoy.  In years past, I’ve also prepared traditional holiday foods – old-world recipes mostly producing copious quantities – and distributed these familiar treats to family members who also love those recipes but don’t make them because of the volume results. It was a great way of sharing traditional meals when we couldn’t actually get together.

PJ's for the Grandkids
Well-crafted, home-made items are not only a thoughtful way of gifting, you can  make for high-quality items for much less cost, particularly if you buy on sale or from “remnant” bunks.  When I was a child, my mother made new pajamas  for my sister and I, each Christmas -- that “soft gift” under the tree always confirmed the eagerly anticipated plush flannel nighties.  A few years ago, I did the same thing for my grand-children and those gifts were apparently worn thin, too.  Home-made personal products (creams, body scrubs, lip balms, etc.,) make nice gifts, particularly if prettily packaged.  It’s a good idea to include an ingredient label for recipients so allergic reactions can be avoided. Home decor objects like curtains, pillow covers, calendar hangers, or a set of matching napkins and placemats are quick and easy projects with a sewing machine, some rudimentary skill, and careful fabric choices.  The sense of smell is most commonly linked to memory, so to be long-remembered, craft some closet or drawer freshener sachets.  It can be hard to find something unique and special for unique gifts for the elderly or infirm.  Sometimes being of service means the most to them; they may need something heavy moved or a difficult household chore done.  Or, plan a special meal  as treat for a shut-in.

Don’t forget cards and packaging.  If gifting  cash or retail gift cards a home-made card with heartfelt sentiment can personalize the gift and reduce shipping costs to a minimum.  Attractive packaging and containers add a long-lasting element to gifts of all sorts. You can embellish common containers for reinforcement or to provide a dark environment for light-sensitive foods or creams.

Whether or not the budget is tight, or time is a crunch, there’s distinct joy in cooking, baking or crafting gifts; a greater sense of connection to the people for whom I’m tailoring the gift.  It needn’t be costly to share one’s love:  a box of goodies from the kitchen, a simple pomander tied with ribbon, or some time spent cleaning Great-grandmother’s ceiling fan.  Personalized care is always gladly received.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Optimize Your Seasonal Spending

All it takes is a look at the news to know this holiday season will be a struggle for many.  If you’re budget is feeling the pinch, save yourself time, money, and (possible) disappointment, with focused preparation before heading out to shop. 

First, establish your spending limit and then break that total down, budgeting for each purchase.  Next, prepare lists:  a list of those for whom you are shopping; a list of stores you plan to visit; and a list of items needed for home decoration and entertainment.  On your gift-recipient list allow room to record pertinent sizes, preferred colours, favourite games, authors, past-times, or other personal details you’ll need while shopping.  On the list of stores, leave room to record any items of interest you find, noting prices, warranties and special offers.  Then shop around.  Details you record will aide comparison before making the actual purchases, ensuring you get the best deals.

Also before buying, ask each merchant about their policies on returns, refunds and exchanges.  Quite often, sale items cannot be refunded or returned.  Exchanges are generally allowed but, when it’s a popular sale item, odds of the preferred colour or size being available diminishes quickly with each passing day.  Another option to consider, particularly when shipping packages, is a gift receipt.  These generally exclude price but contain all other the pertinent  information for the recipient to affect an exchange or return in their own hometown, saving both of you time and more shipping charges if amendments are required.

Pay attention to packaging, too.  Some retailers will only make refunds, returns, or exchanges on items in their original package.  Occasionally, merchandise is so securely enclosed they don’t allow for in-store inspection. Even if the merchant provides a display model, you can’t be certain of the sealed-product’s functioning and wholeness.  To avoid holiday let-down, it’s best to open and fully inspect the item when you get home and prior to repackaging, wrapping and/or shipping.

In this tough economy, it pays to make the most of your time and money.  By preparing, you’ll save both and keep frustration to a minimum, and that’s a good start to imbuing any holiday season with peace and joy.