Showing posts with label Earth Friendly. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Earth Friendly. Show all posts

Monday, January 27, 2014

{business 101} The beginning, fear of failure, and why passion is a good motivator.

Welcome to the Business 101 series at The Friendly Home! This is not where I teach you about business. Because I don't know anything. Yet. This is where I share my business journey with you. Maybe you teach me, maybe you learn something from me, or maybe we all just laugh and roll our eyes together.

You see, this is all new to me. I've never taken a business course, never read a book about business (until last week, that is), never tried to understand what makes small businesses work.

But as of Saturday, when we registered with the Colorado Secretary of State, we're officially running a business. (Re-reading that sentence makes me kind of want to slap myself.)

I've heard that running a small business comes with some struggles. Here's my first one, my first gripe: when you try to get an EIN (Employer Identification Number) on the IRS website at 10am on a Saturday morning, you'll end up on a "please come back during regular business hours" page.

Really? Isn't this what websites are for?

I'm sure that will be my first of many gripes.

Oh, wait, here's my second one. Small business owners work at 10am on Saturday mornings. And 10pm, too.

Okay, so that's something I already knew. And it was something that held us back a bit when deciding whether or not to take on this new challenge.

Here's how the whole thing went down. Our friend Andrew, who became our friend when we hired him to re-do our backyard, approached us in November about buying his organic lawn care business, Whole Yards. He is moving out of Colorado and had started this business just within the last couple of years. It's very small and he hadn't had time to grow it in the ways he'd planned, but it has a lot of potential and a decent foundation.

I was familiar with Whole Yards because after Andrew did our backyard, we hired him to take care of our lawn and plants last summer. Andrew knew that we were passionate about organic food and non-toxic living. Combined with the fact that I'd just spent two years staring a gigantic school and community garden, and believing that we are relatively tenacious, loyal, stick-to-it kind of people, he thought the business might be a good fit for us.

And if I step outside of myself for a second and try to see it from that perspective, it is a great fit for us. Or, at least for me. It's important to remember that Scott has a full time job working for a big company. So while I will always say "we" run a business, right now it's actually "me" running the business with Scott contributing when he can. Maybe someday it will really be the two of us working together. That's a possibility we tiptoe around a little. Like if we say it out loud too many times or think of it for more than a few seconds, we might jinx it. If we think about it, it becomes an actual goal. If we don't eventually achieve that goal, we'll have failed.


The possibility of failure is what really held me back from saying yes to this opportunity. It wasn't because our market is not very organics-friendly. It wasn't because for the first season I'll be driving a pickup truck with a tank full of compost tea on the back and I'll probably spend days smelling like seaweed. It wasn't because I have no background in lawn or landscape care. What held me back was the idea of failure.

I am afraid of failure. Always. I know it is ridiculous. I know we all fail. I know that failure is one way that we learn. But failure is uncomfortable and embarrassing. And failure as a small business owner is not like failing in your job at a big company. If Scott ever failed to do his job well (which he never does, by the way), his company probably wouldn't feel the effects. His company would adjust and other people would pick up the slack.

If I don't do my job well, it's over. I've failed. Our company has failed.

When I was giving birth to my two girls, the process of labor felt like a long, hard swim practice. I loved it. While I was growing up, I spent enough time on swim team to know how to get through a grueling workout. I know how to put my head down, ignore the pain, and keep counting laps or singing in my head until I get to the end. When I'd get out of the pool and head to class or go home, I'd feel exhausted but triumphant. Like I accomplished something great that day.

This is the lens through which I'm learning to understand what it will take to run a small business. I know how to live in discomfort, but it's been a long time since I chose to do so. It's been a long time since I challenged myself like this, since I purposely put myself in a difficult situation, one where I knew I would feel exhausted and frustrated and scared, but one where I might learn something about myself and about the world. About where I fit into the world and the role I play.

What makes me most scared about this particular business is that I think it is important work. I think that converting people's yards from toxic to healthy is important for us and for our kids. I think that if we don't do it, our kids will continue to grow up sick and our waterways will continue to be polluted. The immediacy and urgency of this task takes the business up a notch for me. Now it's not just, "I'm scared to fail because I'll look silly." It's, "I'm scared to fail because my community needs this change."

And that – the passion that Scott and I feel about this topic – will probably be what keeps us going.

If you're still with me, it's probably because you're looking for some nuts and bolts. Here's what this is going to look like:
  • I will try to continue blogging about home stuff, carpentry, etc. I don't think I'll have a lot of time, though, and so the hobby of blogging about home stuff will move down my priority list while I learn to run the business.
  • We don't officially own the business yet. Andrew was kind enough to give us a trial period. So, while we have transferred the business into our names and we are using all of Andrew's equipment, paying the business expenses, and keeping the profits this season, we have until September to decide whether we want to buy the business. It's nice to work with someone who trusts you and believes in you the way that Andrew trusts and believes in us. It's also nice to have a way out in case we discover that being small business owners is really not for us.
  • The lawn and yard care season in Colorado Springs goes from May or June through September or October, depending on the weather. Until the season ramps up, I'll be spending my time learning more about organic lawn care (here's the manual I'll be using), participating in webinars with BeeSafe Lawn Care, learning how to market a small business, updating our website, setting up systems for tracking customers, talking to past and potential customers on the phone, and visiting potential customers' homes to chat about organic lawn and yard care.
What about you? Are you a small-business owner? Do you have any resources I need to check out? Does failure freak you out as much as it does me?

Monday, November 25, 2013

Homemade play dough with plant-based dyes

The last time I made play dough was about 8 years ago. I made a huge batch so that we could give some away as birthday gifts to my kids' friends. That dough lasted a good four or five years but it was kind of boring. Plain white. What fun is that?

It's a good thing kids have such great imaginations, right?

This time around I decided to try adding plant-based dyes to the dough. I've been wanting to experiment with plant-based dyes ever since we started juicing a few years ago. The intense colors of the juice made me want to do something fun with it...besides drinking it. I decided to try making plant-based dyes for this play dough without doing any research first...just to see how fool-proof it is. Or how smart I am?

I followed the basic play dough recipe with a few modifications to get the dyes to work. For each color, I made a separate batch of dough using the full dough recipe below.


Homemade Play Dough (makes almost two cups of dough)

For the dough:
1 C water/dye combined
1/2 C salt
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 C flour
2 tsp cream of tartar

I bought that giant cream of tartar from a restaurant supply
store about 10 years ago!

For three dye colors (purple, green, and orange):
1/2 C frozen blueberries, thawed
2 -3 C fresh baby spinach
1 small red beet + 2 Tbsp tumeric powder

  1. Juice your produce, cleaning your juicer between colors. If you don't own a juicer, chop up your produce and add a bit of water to it (just enough to cover your produce). Simmer it on the stove for a few hours. Strain.
  2. Using one empty jar per color, combine one color of juice with enough water to make 1 cup of liquid. 
  3. To each jar, add 1/2 C salt (and 2 Tbsp tumeric powder to the beet juice jar). Cover the jar and shake until the salt is dissolved or nearly dissolve. I was using coarse salt because it's all I had on hand. It never did dissolve completely, but the dough came out smooth despite the coarse salt.
  4. Add 1 Tbsp of vegetable oil to each jar and shake.
  5. In a pot that holds at least 1 quart, combine 1 C of flour and 2 tsp cream of tartar over medium heat. Add liquid (juice/salt/oil concoction) and stir vigorously with a flexible spatula until the mixture begins to look like play dough. This step took me about 2-3 minutes.
  6. Remove the dough from the pot and knead it until the color is uniform and the dough seems ready.
  7. Wash your pot and repeat the process with other colors, if you're making additional colors.
  8. Store dough in an air-tight container. If it starts to dry out, knead a bit more vegetable oil into it to bring it back to life.
Spinach juice, beet juice (right), and blueberry juice (left)

Juices combined with water and salt. Waiting for the salt to dissolve.

Making more than one color was a bit of a pain, to be honest, because of all of the containers and cleaning the juicer between colors. (Of course I did the research after I finished making my dough, and read here that you can knead your juice into the dough after making a big batch of plain dough. I also found out that carrot juice works to make orange dough. Duh.) But, I love the three colors I ended up with. And, while I think it's fun to be surrounded by neon colors like you find in the play dough you buy at the store, I love the earthiness of this dough and I really love that I don't have to wonder what's in it. 

If I were to do this again, I'd use carrot, spinach, and beet juice to make my three colors (that would give me green, orange, and pink instead of green, orange, and purple). The purple is beautiful, but blueberries are kind of pricey to be grinding up for play dough dye. I'd also try making one big batch with triple the recipe above and using pure water instead of water/dye mix for the dough. Then I'd knead the juice in at the end. The kneading would take more time, but the amount of time (and water) saved doing dishes and washing the juicer would probably be worth it!

Is this something you'd be willing to tackle at home? I loved experimenting with plant-based dyes. Next summer: plant-based tie-dye!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Using an Old Shutter as an Air Vent

I finally did it. After our beer fridge died twice from overheating, Scott and I finally created a solution.

You see, on the other side of that shutter is a 19" wide beer fridge. When we remodeled our kitchen, we created this space for it, but the space won't accommodate a standard sized built-in fridge (nor will our bank account). And stand-alone beer fridges aren't meant to be inside a cabinet – they need ventilation. A few inches of space around the edges of the fridge won't cut it.

So after we killed two fridges in six years, we decided enough was enough. Out came the drywall knife and up went...a shutter.

Yep. Because, as you know from this post, I think standard vents and cold air returns are ugly. I can live with the ones that I don't see often, but I walk down these stairs every time I go from the kitchen to the backyard, to my bedroom, or to the garage. So this ventilating solution couldn't make my eye twitch.

I got the shutter for $5 from the ReStore. Scott cut it to an appropriate size before cutting the hole in the wall. I trimmed the shutter, primed it, and painted it. Then I screwed on some D-rings and hung it on the wall. It seriously took me an hour of active work time and I had all the supplies lying around, save for the shutter itself.

What I think is great about this solution is how many problems it could fix. Used shutters are available in so many sizes – you could easily use trim to join a few shutters and cover a wide space like a cold air return. If your cold air return cover needs a filter, it would be easy to attach one to the back of the shutter. Also, shutters hang easily and are easy to remove if you want to clean behind them. (What? Did I say that?) And if you don't do trim (don't have a saw, don't have random pieces of lumber lying around your garage), it would be simple to join a few shutters using a mending plate like this before painting and hanging on the wall. This really is a simple, cheap, and accessible project that just about anyone can do!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

{backyard bunk-alow} Part One: From Fort to Cabin

As part of our backyard renovation, we promised the girls that we'd tear down their old fort and replace it with something bigger and more grown up. They are, after all, 8 & 10 years old now. You wouldn't know it by the way they still fought over the fort's one swing...until it fell off sometime this summer. But still, a fort with a fake telescope and steering wheel just wouldn't do anymore.

The idea was to give them a place where they could have sleepovers (with their dad and grandpa and maybe me, too) and a place where they could kick back, read, and chill with their friends. The hillside where the fort sits is pretty steep and not an easy place to landscape nor is it a great place to play. The new cabin will reclaim some unused space and give them a bigger piece of the backyard to call their own.

The inspiration for our cabin comes from Ashley and Jamin at The Handmade Home. I had a chance to get to know Ashley this summer when we were both invited to an event for bloggers at Delta Faucet. I'd pinned her Handmade Hideaway long before I met her and when I finally made the connection that SHE was the one with the world's cutest backyard hideaway, I was stoked. Because not only is her hideaway super cute and exactly what I was looking for, but also because she is one of the most genuine, caring, and entertaining people I know.

Image via Pinterest. Here's a link to the Handmade Hideaway tutorial.

See how dang fun this thing is? For the past few days I've been working my rear end off to build something similar. I started by taking apart, piece by piece, our old fort. The girls happened to have the day off of school on Tuesday and they helped me out by organizing all of the hardware that I pulled out of the fort so that I could re-use it. They had about ten different containers full of screws, bolts, nuts, and washers with a sign that said,

"Brynn's Hardwear. Bring in your old wears. Buy new. Buy used. Awsimniss is in the air when you come to Brynn's Hardwear."

I know. Kids are too stinkin' funny. I especially love their spelling.

Here's the old fort:

Yep, it was a little out of square thanks to years of kids swinging on the swings (which used to hang off to the right but are now missing). My kids, at a combined total of about 140 pounds, were still spider swinging on the one remaining swing a few months ago. Scott and I would cringe as we'd see the whole fort twist every time the swing moved and we weren't that sad when the swing finally fell off. Thankfully, not while a kid was using it.

The fort actually has a bit of history in our neighborhood. Our neighbors across the street built it for their kids when they were young. When they outgrew it, the fort was dragged across the street to our next door neighbors' yard where it served two kids well. We acquired it about five years ago. We buried the base in our hillside since we didn't have a flat place to put it. Then we took off the plastic sides and replaced them with the wooden railing you see in the photo above. Eventually we removed the plastic slide that came with the fort. One swing bit the dust while we were living in Mexico a few years ago. The second finally saw its end this summer.

Although the fort had seen better days, the wood from which it's built is still in decent shape. So, being the re-user that I am, I'm hoping to incorporate as much of it into the new cabin as possible.

With that in mind, here's how the fort looked at the beginning of day two, after a day of disassembly:

And at the beginning of day three:

So those 10ft long 2x10s that make the frame for this beast? They're from our old deck (aka: The Raft). They're heavy. And, you know, I build heavy furniture and don't use the term "heavy" lightly. They're really heavy in a way that I've found to be atypical for lumber this old. I think it's because they are (or were) pressure treated. But despite their weight I got this far on the new cabin's base while Scott was at work. I did it by myself. That front right corner? It's more than 5' off the ground. All I'm saying excuses, my friends. If I can do this, you can do anything. You don't even need a buff partner to help you out. I mean, this deck is even level. Maybe not square (although I did my best to get the posts in the right places while wondering how many neighbors were spying and laughing every time my tape measure hit the ground), but it is definitely level.

The footprint of the posts is 10' wide and 8' deep, the reverse of Jamin and Ashley's. Since we have enough space I cantilevered the deck out an additional 2' 8" toward the front (making it 10' x 10'8" total). Most of the leftover 2x10s from The Raft (our old deck) were just barely long enough to make 10'8" work -- I'm glad I could find those giant boards a new home in our yard. They're old but they are in decent shape and have a lot of life left in them.

I thought I could build the deck for the cabin without moving all of the posts from the old fort. As it turned out, it made more sense to move all four of them and re-dig those holes.

More on that later this week...because everyone should know how to dig a good post hole.

Until then, follow me on Instagram to see progress of our cabin every day. Or follow me on Facebook to get intermittent updates (read: when I remember to post).

Lastly...any ideas on what to call this thing? The kids are calling it "the cabin." I wanted "backyard bungalow" but Scott says that "bungalow" sounds too much like "gigolo." We've tested out "chalet" and I've thought of "casita" and "cabana." We can't even consider calling it a "playhouse" or our oldest kid won't use it. If you can think of something better (and I'm sure you can) throw it out there. We just might grab it.

Edited to add: Callie found the perfect name! We're calling it the "Backyard Bunk-alow," and I've updated the title of this post to include the new name. Click here for part two where you'll hear how we came up with the name.  Click here for all of the Backyard Bunk-alow posts!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

{making the switch} Avoiding Palm Oil

This morning a short post on the Yale Environmental Blog caught my attention. I hadn't thought about palm oil in a while, but after reading Yale's report about air pollution caused by the illegal clearing of land for palm oil plantations, I had to take stock of our household's palm oil status.

Unlike a typical American household where an abundance of palm fruit oil, palm kernel oil, and palm oil derivatives can be found in the pantry (processed foods), under the sink (cleaning products), in the shower (shampoo, conditioner, and soap), and on the bathroom counter (body products), our home now (finally) houses very little palm oil. It's something I've been intentional about removing from my home, but it required a few years of adjusting and changing our buying habits before we could totally clean it out.

Palm fruit. Source:

If this sounds a little crazy to you, let's back up a few steps and talk about why I want to get palm oil out of my home. Here are a few things that prompted this change:
  • Reason #1. My family's health. While the reason for the majority of the surge in demand for palm oil is health-based (palm oil contains no trans fats, although it is extremely high in saturated fat) the foods that contain palm oil are generally unhealthy, processed foods (with big "no trans fats" marketing appeal). Palm oil comes from a fruit similar to an avocado in that it has a fleshy, oily outer part (from which is derived palm fruit oil) and a big seed in the middle (from which is derived palm kernel oil). These oils are used in processed food because they are very cheap, they are stable at room temperature, and they have a long shelf life. This is like the oil trifecta for cheap American processed food. You can find palm oil hidden in most processed foods (like Triscuits, Wheat Thins, and Oreos) but it is also found in butter-alternative blends (like SmartBalance Buttery Spread) and no-stir peanut butter (like Jif and Skippy, but any no-stir peanut butter you find will likely contain palm oil). None of those food products are good for us, so our family has almost totally eliminated them from our grocery list.
  • Reason #2. Disappearing rain forests. Palm oil producers first log forests and then use slash-and-burn techniques to clear remaining vegetation from vast swaths of rainforest (mostly in Indonesia and Malaysia, although apparently they're now moving into Africa as well), killing everything in their paths. There is so much information available on this and it has been in the news so much in the past few years that it seems redundant to repeat it all here. I thought I'd learned most of what I needed to know about palm oil production, but when I started researching it this morning I was startled anew by the massive destruction caused by palm oil plantations and the ecological devastation left behind. Say No to Palm Oil is a rich source of images and facts about palm oil production -- I highly recommend taking a few minutes to check out their website. It was there today I learned that, at the rate we're going, the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia will be gone within 15 years and wild orangutans, who depend on those rainforests for their habitat, will be extinct in 10 years. Not only will wild orangutans be extinct, but in the meantime these animals who have the intelligence of an average 6-year old human will continue to experience unthinkable torture. Orangutans found in and around palm plantations are routinely maimed, burned alive, purposely run over with vehicles and left to die, forced to perform in circuses or live as pets, and even tied to beds and used as prostitutes. You can learn more about the orangutans' plight in this remarkable short documentary focusing on the work of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation.
Forested peatlands cleared for oil palm plantations in Indonesia. Source: Greenpeace
  •  Reason #3. The ripple effect. When rain forests disappear, we don't just lose pristine habitat for thousands of plant and animal species, we also lose an important part of the global climate system. Peat bogs, like the one pictured in the photo above, help keep 500 billion metric tons of carbon sequestered in the ground. That's roughly "twice as much as is incorporated into all the trees in all the world's forests." By both cutting down the rain forest and decimating the peat bogs, we are doing an environmental double-whammy -- releasing carbon (as the peat bog is drained or dries out) and taking away the earth's ability to absorb more carbon. In addition to losing bogs and trees, we're causing air pollution by burning  forests and causing water pollution by setting aside more land for industrial agriculture and all of its toxic runoff. All of this to say that palm oil production is a catastrophic environmental nightmare.
A palm oil plantation in Indonesia. Source: WWF

Are there sustainable or green alternatives to conventional palm oil? Apparently they are. But they are policed by an organization called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) which is made up of the giants of the palm oil industry itself like Unilever, Cargil, and Nestle. And since the RSPO came into existence, palm oil production has only gotten bigger, dirtier, and more out of control.

So what do we do to avoid palm oil? It's hard. Really hard. Especially if you use mainstream American products and eat a standard American diet. It takes time and, even if you're paying attention, you'll inevitably end up with some palm oil in your house (apparently 50% of all packaged goods in the supermarket contain palm oil). First, you've got to check out this fantastic list of palm oil and its derivatives at the Philadelphia Zoo website. With that in mind, here is what my family does:
  • We avoid processed food. When we do eat processed food, I check the label to see if the ingredients include palm oil or any of its derivatives.
  • We check labels on our body products before we buy them. Not all of ours are palm-oil free, but the ones that contain palm oil we try to use sparingly or buy alternatives when we can find them.
  • We make our own household cleaners for the majority of our cleaning chores. Sometimes we use 100% vinegar, sometimes we dilute it to 50/50 vinegar and water. For cleaning the carpet we use the water-vinegar mix with a drop of laundry detergent added. Scott still insists on using the "green" version of Clorox toilet bowl cleaner (which contains alkyl polyglucoside, a possible derivative of palm fruit) and, until I decide that I'm ready to take on that job, I have to give in there. 
This graphic is from

    I think that making this switch away from palm oil comes down to awareness and label-reading. And maybe a little bit of fortitude mixed in, along with a some grace on the occasion when you just have to have something that contains palm oil.

    What do you think? Is this a switch you're making? Or one you would consider making? Are there any products you don't see yourself giving up?

    psst...check out the rest of the {making the switch} series here.

      Thursday, August 22, 2013

      Shepard Kitchen Island

      How's that for a fun and functional kitchen island? The color makes me want to sing a Jimmy Buffet tune. In person it actually reads more teal/green and less blue than it does in these photos.

      At bar height (42"), this one is great for tall families or anyone who loves to belly-up to a bar. And, it's big. The counter top is 3'x5'. Without the overhanging counter, the piece is about 2'x5'. And it weighs approximately one ton. Seriously. I built this for a friend who lives down the street. The walk from my house to hers seems short...until one tries to walk there whilst carrying a gigantic kitchen island. It didn't even have the counter top on it when we carried it. No drawers, either. Still. Bruises. On my hip. And moving guys with a moving truck snickering at us as we walked past. Carrying a kitchen island.

      The top on this piece is stainless steel, which I had fabricated by a local metal guy for $400. We thought about getting a pre-fab stainless steel top from Ikea, since those are only about $120, but it just wasn't big enough to do the job.

      The piece is really just a basic box built of plywood and face-framed and trimmed out in pine (edited to add: Ana White made plans for it – find them here). The total materials cost (2 sheets of 3/4" plywood, one sheet of 1/4" plywood, 1x2s, 1x3s, 1x4s, 1"x1/2" trim, 3 sets of drawer glides, 2 sets of hinges, knobs/pulls, 2 support brackets, one quart of CeCe Caldwell paint in Destin Gulf Green, and a quart of Vermont Natural Coatings PolyWhey) came in at just under $400. Together with the stainless steel counter, this isn't a cheap build. It could be made cheaper, though, by using framing lumber for the top like Daniel does here for his kitchen counter, or like Sandra does for her laundry room counter.

      The design is based on the Gregory Console from Ethan Allen, but it's taller and deeper and a few inches wider, too.

      The toughest part of the build was the X in the middle for the wine storage (but the plans could easily be modified to take shelves or even drawers in the middle instead of the X – it's easily a big enough space to handle pots and pans). After putting it off for as long as I could (procrastination doesn't, in fact, make it any easier) I had to make some adjustments to get the angles right. Once it was together (with plenty of glue) and the face frame was attached, it seemed sturdy enough to hold all the wine that will fit. I waited to install the X until the whole piece was painted and sealed – painting it in place sounded like a nightmare.

      The front, before the doors were trimmed.

      The back before painting. I love the trim detail on this piece.

      For the finish, first I sprayed on a brown primer coat. I like to use Sherwin-Williams multi-purpose primer tinted to dark brown. After that I sprayed on a coat or two of CeCe Caldwell's paint in Destin Gulf Green. To spray CeCe's paint, it needs to be watered down by about half in order to spray smoothly, and then your sprayer needs to be adjusted to spray a super fine mist. Once the paint was dry, I gave it a light sanding with 400 grit paper and rubbed the edges with a damp sponge to remove some of the paint and let the brown primer show through. The whole piece got a light wipe-down with the damp sponge, which brings out some of the different tones in the paint. CeCe's paint is multi-dimensional in color once you've wiped it down with a damp sponge or rag. This is one of my favorite characteristics about CeCe's paint, but if you don't want the different tones in the paint to show through, then just spray it, give it a light sanding, and spray on a sealer.

      After priming with brown primer.

      Yeah, if you don't have a sprayer and you don't want to see different tones in your piece, then you shouldn't use CeCe's paint. Or you should get a sprayer and then tell me how glad you are that I gave you this valuable advice. Here's the one I use. It rocks.

      After priming, painting, and sealing. The color in this photo reads the truest.

      Once the piece was primed, painted, sanded, and sponged, I sealed it with my favorite sealer, Vermont Natural Coatings PolyWhey in satin.

      And then I picked it up (with a friend) and walked it about 200 yards down the street. Too bad I don't have any photos of that.

      Sunday, July 7, 2013

      {making the switch} Cloth Napkins

      A small change I made a few months ago is inspiring a new series here at The Friendly Home.

      I'm going to call it "Making the Switch," and I'm hoping to use the series to introduce small changes that I've made (or am in the process of making) in order to contribute to a healthier eco-system, a healthier body, or a healthier home.

      Today's Making the Switch post is...drumroll please...cloth napkins.

      While we were on our spring break trip, we stayed with a childhood friend of mine near my hometown in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was astounded one morning when I went looking for a napkin to go with my breakfast and all I could find was...cloth.

      Why was I so surprised? First of all, she's got three kids. Little kids. Like, kindergarten and younger.

      Second, these cloth napkins were like none I'd felt before. Cloth napkins have always given me the willies. The only ones I'd used before were made of polyester or cotton-poly blends that were about as absorbent as teflon-coated nylon and felt kind of like wiping my face with sandpaper.


      These were soft. Cotton. I fell in love immediately.

      So I asked her where she got them and she pointed me to Cost Plus World of my favorite stores. Within a couple weeks of getting home from our trip, I'd bought four 6-packs of the same napkins and I love them.

      Are they the end-all, be-all of eco-consciousness? No. So don't attack me, all right? Baby steps, my friends.

      Here are some issues you might have with my napkins, if you're so green that people mistake you for Kermit:
      • They're made of cotton, a typically thirsty (read: water-hogging) and pesticide-laden crop. A better alternative would be organic hemp, but when I bought them I was just trying to make one (budget-friendly) step in the right direction, I wasn't trying to conquer the world.
      • They're white, which means the cotton was bleached. Colored cotton napkins are dyed (and, for all I know, probably bleached too) which is potentially nearly as environmentally damaging as bleach. For more on that, check out this great Patagonia essay called "Dyeing Rivers."
      • We only use them once before we wash them. At this point in my life, keeping my napkin separate from my kids' napkins is not something I can tackle. So even though they don't really need to be washed after each use, we toss them in the wash and run them whenever we run the next load. (This is a lovely benefit to having our washing machine in the kitchen.)
      • We use our dryer to dry them. These napkins would dry quickly and easily on a line in the sun, but I don't have a line and I don't dry my laundry in the sun. Maybe you'll see that change here in the Making the Switch series someday far, far in the future. It might happen after I master closing my car windows and sunroof to prevent surprise thunderstorms from flooding my car (true story: that happened last week).
      Here are my answers to some questions you might have if I've piqued your interest in making the switch to cloth yourself:
      • How do you keep them clean? Eh, it's actually not that hard. I use cold water (my washer thinks it is warm water but for some reason we never have warm water in our washing machine). I use this natural laundry detergent, which I get at Costco. Occasionally I soak them in this plant-based, non-bleach whitener before running the load (although ran out of the whitener, so today I soaked them in water and {gasp} a few tablespoons of conventional bleach -- I know, I'm totally headed for eco-hell). 
      • How messy are you? (Or, the more socially-acceptable version, how messy are your kids?) I'm not that messy. But my kids? They're pigs, just like every other kid out there. Barbeque sauce, curry, tomato sauce, sweet potatoes...they've smothered the napkins in it all. I haven't had a problem getting them clean.
      • How long does it take to fold them? Like five minutes. Especially since I rarely wash them all at once. A few come out with each load of laundry (we probably run 3-4 loads of laundry per week) and it's actually been a great chore for my 8-year-old. When I fold the napkins I get scolded by both my girls for doing it wrong. You can probably guess what my response is to that. They do the folding now.
      • Aren't you using more water and energy keeping the napkins clean than it would take to make/distribute paper napkins? This is the argument Scott used when I first mentioned the possibility of switching to cloth a few years ago. Between his resistance and my history with scratchy polyester napkins, I postponed the switch indefinitely. The answer is no. No, even if you wash them after only one use. Even if they're conventional cotton. Even if you use conventional detergent and maybe even the occasional tablespoon of bleach. Even if you dry them in your clothes dryer. Even if you do everything wrong, cloth napkins are still a friendlier choice than paper. You can google it yourself, but here are a couple of posts I found to be helpful when I was researching cloth vs. paper napkins and whether making the switch was really an eco-friendly decision, even if I did it all wrong.
       Okay, and I'd be remiss if I didn't give you a warning about these particular napkins. After you wash them a time or two they will no longer be square. And by square, I'm not referring to all sides being the same length. I'm referring to the corners -- they will no longer have four ninety-degree corners. Your napkins will be shaped like parallelograms. Or maybe rhombuses. Someone in one of the online reviews says that this is because the fabric is cut incorrectly? I really have no idea nor do I care.

      They're going to be covered in spilled, dropped, and sometimes chewed up food anyway. So the shape? Yeah, that's really not a huge concern for me.

      But when my kids are ready to start doing napkin origami with them, I might have to upgrade.

      Monday, July 1, 2013

      {backyard redo} Outdoor Bar from Reclaimed Wood

      As part of our continuing work in our new backyard, I'm excited to show you the bar I built out of reclaimed wood from a neighbor's fence.

      I built it using a design similar to this bathroom vanity. And, actually, I built a bathroom vanity for a client at the same time -- the designs were the same, just different dimensions, making it pretty efficient to build them together.

      Here are the dimensions and the cut list for this piece:

      36" tall x 68" wide x 17" deep

      4 4x4 @ 34.5 (legs)
      1 2x4 @ 30 7/8" (back middle leg)
      3 2x4 @ 59" (front bottom stretcher and front/back aprons)
      2 2x4 @ 27 5/8" (back bottom stretchers)
      4 2x4 @ 10" (side aprons and stretchers)
      5" fence wood -- 4 @ 24 1/8 (side insets)

      The cut list doesn't include the top or shelves. For those, I used whatever I had on hand that I could throw together to do the job. I can foresee replacing the top at some point -- maybe with a tile mosaic or even a remnant from a stone yard.

      If you've built a few pieces of furniture using pocket holes, you'll have no trouble dissecting the design of this piece. I started by cutting everything and then drilled my pocket holes at the ends of all of the 2x4s except the back middle leg -- it just got pocket holes at the top.

      So...the back middle leg. It's totally unnecessary from an engineering perspective. The only reason I put it in there was because I was out of 2x4s long enough to make a back stretcher. Instead, the back leg joins the bottom of the back apron with pocket holes, and the two back stretchers join the sides of the back middle leg using pocket holes.

      Are you with me?

      Those fun little curtains are (probably overpriced) used coffee sacks I picked up at an architectural salvage yard in Charlotte, North Carolina last spring. I wanted something to lend a little protection to anything inside the bar, but I didn't feel like making doors and I wanted whatever I ended up with to be as rustic as the rest of the piece.

      The curtains are hanging using screw eyes, a turnbuckle, ferrules, and wire rope like this tutorial at Modern in Minnesota. It's an easy process -- I actually hung curtains from our pergola recently the same way. I'll post about that soon. As soon as I can get a decent photo.

      To hold back the curtains, I used a couple of robe hooks from Lowe's. They only cost about $1.50 each and did the job perfectly.

      Once I was done building, I definitely needed a few of these...

      Which were super easy to open with this...

      We picked up our bottle opener at New Belgium in Fort Collins last summer. We've been waiting for a place to put it and, now that it's up, our kids have become beer-opening experts. Now we're working on perfecting their pours.

      Ahhhh...summer. I wish it would never end!

      Saturday, June 15, 2013

      High Chair -- from scraps!

      When we gave away our old Peg Perego high chair it was with anticipation of building a replacement. We don't need one for ourselves (although Callie would probably still sit in it if she could -- she'd like to stay a baby forever). Since we've got visitors with a one year old coming into town this week, I finally had my chance to build this chair! I promise, it's a DIY-friendly project. You can build one, too.

      My goal for the high chair was to build it without buying any materials but still come out with a sturdy chair that would last a long time. Long enough for my grandbabies to use someday. Other than the red paint, which I had to buy, all of the materials came from my house.

      The Ana White plan for this high chair calls for 1x2s for the entire frame, but I used 1x3s for the legs and supports, 1x2s for the upper side rails, and an old dowel for the front. I also changed the way the seat was built in order to bulk it up a little.

      The 1x3s had been sitting in my garage for quite a while. They'd even been stained, painted, and distressed for another project that never happened. The dowel for the front came from an old roman shade -- actually one of the shades I used for the back of this media center. The seat is made of a 1x3 for the face, a 1x6, a 1x3, and then a 1x2 for the back. They're joined using pocket holes. 

      For the center strap, I used one of Scott's old belts. This is one side-effect of switching to a plant-based diet...lots of too-big belts. I was hoping to use this one belt for the center and also to strap over a kid's lap when they're seated in the chair, but it wasn't quite long enough.

      The belt is screwed into the underside of the chair using two small cabinet screws. At the top it wraps around the dowel and then I joined the two parts of the belt using a small bolt with a washer and nut. Scott punched a hole in the belt for me using his leather punch (he's pretty experienced with it, since all his belts are too big).

      For the finish I used premixed cherry red glossy Valspar paint -- I was looking for something that would be easy to clean, but also only took one step to finish because I didn't have a lot of time. If I were finishing an every day high chair, I'd probably clear coat the chair with PolyWhey to make it more durable. But for occasional use, I think this will be fine.

      I applied the paint using my favorite tool, my Fuji Mini-Mite 3 HVLP sprayer. The sprayer is so fast and even and easy to clean that I've almost totally abandoned my brushes!

      Once the finish was done and the leather strap was in place, I added two 1 1/2" Kreg screws to each side going into the back rest, just to give interest and a little edginess. I wonder if a high chair can even be edgy? I also added sliding feet like these to keep the chair from scratching up the floor.

      Although this cute high chair will probably spend more time in the attic than it will with a baby's bottom in it, I'm hoping that we'll get some use from it and maybe even be able to pass it around the neighborhood for our friends' visitors, too. Or, maybe since it's so cute I'll just leave it sitting at my table and enjoy looking at it without the responsibility of feeding a baby!

      Friday, May 31, 2013

      {backyard redo} Reclaimed wood outdoor sofas

      One of the reasons I was excited to rip out our old deck (besides the fact that I was always tempted to dive off of it like I would from a dock into a lake) was to use the old deck wood to build new patio furniture.

      I hoped that after the pergola was built, there would still be enough lumber left to build some little sofas or benches or something. And so, with that in mind, I bought some cushions on clearance at Land's End. I wanted the cushions to be red to go with our red tabouret chairs and I didn't want to make them myself. I know my limits, and piping is definitely outside of my limits.

      So, for about $130 (which is still quite a chunk of change but actually a great price for two long cushions) I got two red outdoor cushions and then built the furniture to fit.

      I used Ana White's outdoor sofa design as inspiration, but had to modify the plans substantially to fit my cushions, my space, and my lumber. Here is her design:

      via Pinterest

      Hers is built out of 2x2s and 1x lumber and is designed to fit big box cushions. Mine is built from 2x6s ripped down to about 2x4 along with a little new lumber under the cushions.

      I left the back unattached so that it would be easy to take apart and cover in the winter. Hopefully I can muster the desire to sew some more outdoor slipcovers to protect the furniture when the weather gets too cold to use it.

      Yep, I left the pocket holes unfilled.

      For the back pillows, I looked around for outdoor pillows that I liked and could justify paying for. But even the least expensive ones I could find (Marshall's, World Market) were at least $12/each and also not the right colors or patterns. So instead I picked up eight Ikea 20"x20" INNER cushions for $3/each. They're not marketed as outdoor pillow forms, but since they're filled with polyester (as opposed to a material that doesn't dry easily) I knew they'd work fine.

      Then I found some fun (and colorful) outdoor fabrics at If you follow my fabric board on Pinterest, you probably noticed that I went crazy pinning fabrics one day. Well, here are the ones I ended up with:

      via Pinterest

      via Pinterest

      via Pinterest

      I'm still not totally sold on the yellow one, but the fun floral and bright turquoise up against the red cushions? They kind of rock my world. And the yellow fits in just fine and brightens it all up. I love looking out my bedroom window and seeing them in the morning, I love catching glimpses of them as I walk through the front door, I love that I can see them every time I walk down the stairs.

      You get the idea? Yeah, we can see this furniture (and visitors can see it) from just about everywhere in the house, so it was important to me that it reflect us. Bright, a little quirky, and somewhat unpredictable.

      Here's a link to the method I used to sew the pillow covers. 

      And now for the spending breakdown for these two sweet little sofas:

      • Lumber - free
      • Furring strips for under cushion - $10
      • Cushions - $130
      • Pillow forms - $24
      • Fabric - $46
      • Wood glue - $5
      • Screws - $5
      • Total - $220
      So, $110 each? With fabric left over for another project? Yeah, I'll take that. In fact, to me it's totally worth raiding someone's backyard project (by offering to take away their old deck wood) to get the lumber for free. I do have one bit of wisdom, though...if you're looking for old deck wood and you know a neighbor who is pulling out their deck, ask them about getting the wood before their deck contractor comes in to rip out their old deck. One thing I've learned is that deck contractors typically cut an old deck to pieces with a circular saw, they don't take it apart piece by piece. So if you want intact lumber, you'll probably have to go pull the deck apart yourself. I would do that (have done that, actually, more times than I care to admit) but I know it isn't for everyone. It's absolutely a labor of love.

      Besides the lumber being free, here are a few other benefits to working with old wood.
      • All the warping's done. The wood is dry and whatever shape it's in is the shape it's going to be. And, for reasons that I don't understand, I seem to have better luck finding straight old wood than I do finding straight wood when I go to the lumber yard.
      • The wood doesn't need a finish. Maybe you put on a sealer, or maybe you don't. If I never had to finish another piece of furniture, that would be okay with me. So to build with redwood and know that I can leave it out in the elements without messing with the finish? Priceless. Yes, I'll probably seal it with something at some point, but I'm not worried about it rotting and falling apart (this is Colorado Springs...maybe where you live things get wet and rotten, but not here).
      • By building with old wood, I'm keeping perfectly good lumber out of the landfill.
      • By building with old wood, I'm keeping perfectly good trees in the forest. Where they should be.
      • The furniture has immediate character. I'd like my patio to look like it's been here for a while, not like I just put it all together. With old wood, it has an immediate sense of history. I love that feeling.

      And here's the best part..our little raft of a deck gave us enough lumber for not only the pergola and these two sofas, but also a coffee table and a dining table. It's little deck that could! The ugly duckling that grew up to be a beautiful outdoor room!