The Ups and Downs of a DIY Kitchen Project

Our cost-saving idea to install new cabinets spanned four months and involved three contractors. While we were at it, we tacked on two new bathroom vanities for good measure.

Sherry Beck Paprocki
The pandemic seemed like a perfect time to launch a DIY kitchen makeover.

The pandemic turned us into our own kitchen installers. Exploring this new home renovation project, I did some quick math to understand that we could save a bundle by installing our own cabinets. 

“Doing our own work will be easy,” I told my husband. “It isn’t brain surgery.” 

Had the pandemic lifted, this endeavor probably would have never happened. But we were working and living together, just the two of us, 24 hours a day. Never in our lives has this occurred. After three months of consideration, my husband agreed to the project. We joked about pitching a TV show called Badass Designers. That was very premature. 

I sought help from the Home Decorators Collection website, and followed the directions posted. I tediously made measurements in our kitchen and then developed a fluid relationship with the young designer named Eric on the other end of my emails and phone calls. Working with a kitchen designer wasn’t very different from working with the designers who create these pages for Columbus Monthly Home & Garden and affiliated magazines. 

You get three tries to make your project perfect before they get really irritated with you. 

I promised my husband that we wouldn’t deal with many wall cabinets. Wall cabinets are passé in many kitchens, with current styles opting for simplicity. People who buy houses now apparently want to see things on shelves. Thus, I selected a few, tall curio cabinets and some shelving. 

The digital questionnaire asked about my budget. I low-balled it, so when Eric called and said a kitchen of our size could cost twice as much as my budget, we were all good. “Let’s do it,” I said. 

The first sign of my depression occurred when the delivery truck drivers failed to notify us that they had dropped two flats of 12 cabinets in a parking space in front of our building. When we noticed them just sitting there, we rushed outside into the drizzling October rain to find the cabinets, barely covered with plastic, in a neat pile. My husband grabbed his new flatbed with wheels, I grabbed the oversized cargo wagon from our storage unit, and one by one, we began hauling each cabinet into our space. 

The unfurnished guest bedroom, unused during the pandemic, became our staging area. I called 1-800-Got-Junk to cart away the debris that would gather over the next several days as we demolished the kitchen. That was in lieu of getting a permit to bring in a dumpster. That evening and the next day, my body ached and my muscles recovered after hauling my share of the 1,000-pound load from the parking lot, into the elevator and then into our home. 

The masked and socially distant plumber was scheduled to detach our faucets a few days later. My husband used a sharp, new saw to cut apart the old countertop. Part of our deal was that he could buy any new tool that he wanted to accomplish this installation task. 

On my way out one day, I was accosted by an unmasked neighbor with a walker who complained about the noise coming from our place the evening before. She wasn’t very nice, but we likely hadn’t been sensitive to her situation living home alone. (Later, she apologized, explaining that she spoke to us after returning from her attorney’s office where she had updated her will.) 

The masked electrician came and went, unhooking wires from any cabinets where they were located. 

Our schedules went like this: My husband awoke really early haunted by each day’s new challenge. He’d spend an hour or more roaming around all the cabinets throughout the house, doing the mental work his next cabinet step required. As though installing our own kitchen wasn’t enough, we also decided that installing two bathroom vanities at the same time made sense. 

By 8:30 a.m., or so, we would settle in with our laptops to work throughout the day. On occasion, he would bounce out of his office at noon and announce, with drill in hand, that he was about to make some noise. (We had become sensitive to our nearby neighbors’ concerns, so avoided late evening work.) 

During one “lunch hour” as I politely tried to ignore his construction work, I heard my husband say, “Oh, no.” Rushing toward the kitchen, I found him on a ladder holding a cabinet and the microwave oven, both falling off the wall. After a panicked 15 minutes in which we took turns trying to hold this bundle, both were removed. We were both still standing. The newish microwave was secured for reinstallation later. 

Evenings meant another hour or two of work, massive hauling of cardboard to the recycling area, sweeping and dusting so that my dust allergies wouldn’t worsen. 

Early on a Friday, the plumber finally arrived to detach a total of three sinks—this would be nearly a waterless weekend for us except for the master bathroom. Just like Glinda the Good Witch, the plumber was here and gone. He’d keep the ticket open for the following week, when he would return and reinstall, he explained. 

By the end of the weekend, my renovation depression had turned into a roller coaster of emotions: happy when all base cabinets fit together well, sad when I realized we would not have water in the kitchen for at least four more days, even sadder when I realized I forgot to put coffee pods into my Shipt order. 

It was election week in November. On Monday, I complained to all the people digitally texting me, reminding me to vote. “I’ve done it!” I responded, taking out my renovation crankiness on them. 

The finished kitchen

Online, I looked up the one last wall cabinet I had overlooked for our kitchen. Well, truthfully, now I needed to order a few more because we’d changed the location of those curio cabinets due to their close proximity to the stove. We surmised that we could handle a total of four wall cabinets. 

The days of autumn wore on. I edited pages. I emailed with writers who would help produce this issue of Columbus Monthly Home & Garden magazine. I laughed when one homeowner sent me a note explaining something about underpants, an obvious autocorrect as he tried to email me from his phone. I was desperate for humor. 

My husband worked at his desk, keeping our renovations out of the picture during his Zoom calls. We waited for the plumber, who always arrived too early in the mornings. The electrician returned again and again, usually in the evenings, after leaving his regular job. We replaced ceiling fans, light fixtures and such. When the plumber finally restored water in the other bathroom we saw it as a special treat for the weekend. Both bathroom vanities were now in place. 

The kitchen was measured for countertops. 

At the last minute, the measurer noted that the window between the kitchen and dining area would need to be “shaved” a bit lower to accommodate cabinet height. I saw my husband’s jaw muscles clench. “Just what exactly do you mean by shaving?” he started, launching the measurer into a full-fledged explanation about removing a two-by-four, cutting down the drywall and then reinstalling a two-by-four at the right height. 

“Do this without removing cabinets,” the measurer warned. “Or I’ll need to remeasure and it will delay everything.” 

By now we had celebrated a big anniversary, giving each other new countertops as a gift. Holidays were fast approaching. The plumber, Louis, now a friend, advised that a “temporary sink” in our kitchen wouldn’t be worthwhile due to costs involved. We made the best of it, praising the benefits of bottled water since there still was none flowing in the kitchen. 

The electrician, Alex, also a friend now, was in our home even more often than Louis. We kept our social distance and shouted over the noise. Both men made successful attempts to keep our unwieldly ideas of luxury living while under renovation at bay. 

I grumbled as I Swiffered that latest round of sawdust. I quickly pulled out my wallet when my daughter-in-law suggested a Thanksgiving meal at their home, with dinner provided by Whole Foods. 

One of my superpowers, as I tell my husband, is planning our lives for three or six months into the future. (I’m not sure how he feels about this, by the way.) This should keep me optimistic, right? But as he swung his new drill around the kitchen one rainy Saturday, I watched YouTube videos about floating wall shelves that would be the final phase of this project. 

Floating shelves would be no easy task. (Let me be clear. There was no easy task in all of this renovation.) 

We were planning a week in Maine during Christmas to visit our daughter and her family. The minute the counter installers caught wind of this, it was a holiday reprieve for the busy men, who pushed our installation back three weeks. 

At a quaint inn in Maine, we gladly pulled out our wallets to pitch in on a restaurant-provided family holiday feast that we ordered “to go.” 

It was Jan. 14 when the countertop was installed. That week I proofed a story for the February issue of Columbus Monthly

“Small—or manageable—projects are key,” explained Kelly DeVore, who chairs the interior architecture and design program at the Columbus College of Art 

& Design. 

We had tackled not a small, nor a manageable, project during the pandemic. Floating shelves with installation “made easy” by an Etsy vendor somewhere in Kentucky were finally on order. 

While on the Etsy site, I also ordered a custom sign from a vendor somewhere in North Carolina. “Cake for Breakfast,” it says. That’s the name I decided on years ago for a restaurant I likely will never open. 

Our new custom kitchen sign

Cake, indeed. 

The oven is preheating. 

This story is from the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly Home & Garden.