Renovation & Design

Do-it-yourself to perfection

Homeowner's handiwork saves big bucks

The entire upstairs of this bi-level home has been covered with T&G oak including the treads of the staircase.
Terina McPherson and Ken McCracken have extensively renovated their home.
Large curved entrances lead from the kitchen to the living room and to the main staircase.

Ken McCracken is one of those people: a self-taught DIYer capable of most of the trades required to renovate a house -- in this case, a 2,700-square-foot bi-level near Matlock built in 1984.

"During my life, I've experienced a lot of hands-on work, including a summer stint as an apprentice ceramic tile-layer for an outfit that had a contract with McDonald's," said McCracken, adding his employment included tiling the face of an Allen Expressway overpass in Toronto.

As it turned out, he said the apprentice did most of the work while the master smoked cigarettes and occasionally checked the trainee's progress.

Over the years, he has garnered on-the-job knowledge of different trades or learned techniques from YouTube or how-to TV shows.

"If people are prepared to put some sweat equity into their homes, the amount of money they can save is substantial," he said.

For example, he was quoted $18,000 from a professional renovation firm to lay several thousand square feet of oak T&G flooring throughout his house.

The original kitchen had scuffed linoleum and the living area was weary-looking parquet.

When he priced out the cost of the flooring at a big-box store, he elected to do the work himself.

"I bought the hardwood for $6,000, then I invested about $150 in a pneumatic flooring gun on sale at Canadian Tire. I saved about $12,000 and ended up with enough extra material to do another large room."

McCracken replaced all the upstairs floors and the stairway treads in the large split-level home with oak.

When it came to upgrading the plumbing, McCracken said he purchased a package from Rona that contained all the parts required to do the job.

"It was put together by an older gentleman who had been a plumber most of his life and worked at Rona to earn some extra income during his retirement years," he said, adding how-to tips on plumbing were included in the deal.

McCracken made his own corner round trim out of one-inch-by-six-inch spruce boards.

"I ripped them to size then rounded the edges with a router," he said.

Using this technique, he created 40 feet of solid wood corner round for $4 or 10 cents per foot. (By comparison, æ-inch-by-æ-inch finger-jointed poplar corner-round costs over $1 per foot at Home Depot. If you've worked with finger-jointed material, you're aware of how easily it falls apart.)

McCracken realized further savings by making his own door casings from spruce boards that he edge-routed and painted to match the home's decor.

"The eight-foot boards cost under $4 each. I made a three-piece wood casing set for about $10, or half the price of an MDF set sold by big-box outlets," he said.

Yet another DIYer trick that kept some cash in his jeans was to rip two-inch-by-four-inch by stud-length boards (about $3 each) into balusters for his back deck, accessible from sliding glass doors in the kitchen and living room.

He got four balusters per board at a cost of 75 cents each, then fancied them up by routing four sides with a cove bit and attaching them to the deck so the screws didn't show, an unsightly problem encountered when screwing bevel-ended pickets from lumber outlets to a deck's apron.

McCracken and his wife, Terina McPherson, wanted to give parts of their home a classic look, they installed a claw-foot tub in the upstairs bathroom, including an antique vanity with his-and-her basins, twin oval mirrors framed in dark wood and a composite countertop with a curlicue front edge.

They completed the traditional look by creating wainscotting out of pre-moulded MDF sheets capped at the top (about 1.2 metres up the wall) by chair railing and finished at floor level with spruce baseboards made by McCracken.

"We painted the wainscotting and moulding white, then used suede paint by Ralph Lauren to add a splash of colour and texture to the top half of the walls," said McPherson.

(She mentioned that Ralph Lauren may have discontinued its line of suede paints; however, Western Paint sells a similar product made by Para.)

McPherson said she would like to update the kitchen by painting the original red oak cabinets white or replacing them with something new.

"I appreciate the classic look of some of the rooms in this house, but I'd like the kitchen to have a brighter, contemporary appearance," she said.

She is thinking about painting the cabinets matte white by Benjamin Moore, a colour that is very popular with designers and decorators, and perhaps adding a grey feature wall with a red undertone to complement the black appliances and red dish towels in the kitchen.

In the home's lower level, she owns and operates Terina's Touch, a coed facility that offers facials, eyelash enhancement, body waxing, manicures, pedicures and suntanning services. (Call 1-204-389-4328 for an appointment.)

"Ken did a great job of tiling the floor with white ceramic that is easy to keep clean and withstands the daily traffic of my clients," she said, adding he also built a small office for her.

For his part, McCracken is pleased the renovation is nearing completion.

"I'm a self-taught drywaller, so I still tend to over-apply mud when working on inside corners. This means time lost because of the extra sanding needed," he said.

However, he did manage to festoon the kitchen and other rooms of the house with pot and hanging lights, which can require special attention when mounting the electrical boxes in Gyproc.

He also rewired a good portion of the home, doing most of the work himself.

"Three- and four-way switches can be a challenge," he said. "But when the wiring inspector shows up, you learn to fix your mistakes pronto."

For insurance and safety purposes, he said plumbing and wiring permits must be obtained if the work is undertaken by a DIYer.

Moreover, laminated wood or steel beams used to replace structural walls require an engineer's stamp to prove they are of sufficient strength to shoulder the weight of a building's roof.

"With steel beams, the engineer will specify where to place each bolt. In the case of wood laminations, he will include how many screws, layers of lumber and the amount and type of adhesive to use," said McCracken.

Is there any renovation to his home he can't undertake?

"Yes," he laments, "The skylights started to leak this winter, so I hired a professional roofer to take care of that problem."

Kudos to Ken McCracken. Many people half his age would not undertake, much less complete, the DIYer tasks he has successfully tackled. And how about the thousands of dollars he saved?


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