Basking in the warmth of Liese Gardner’s sumptuous Spanish-style kitchen, it’s hard to believe what she is saying: that she and fiancé Dave Lidstone did the entire remodel with their own hands, from planning to plumbing to painting.
“We took the room back down to the bone,” said Gardner, who worked nights, weekends, holidays and vacations with Lidstone on the kitchen in their home on the edge of the historic West Adams district.
“They say if you don’t like the heat, stay out of the kitchen,” Gardner said. “Guess we like it hot because we literally did not get out of the kitchen for 18 months.”
The effort paid off. “It came out exactly how we wanted it,” said Lidstone, an engineer. “It’s all in the details.”
The finished kitchen — with cherry-stained alder cabinets, stainless steel appliances, custom-made tile counters, handsome tile floor and pounded-copper sink — offers no ready clue that it is a do-it-yourself job. But the price tag of less than $30,000 does.
One contractor told them that, despite some high-end purchases, including $15,000 for the cabinets, the project cost one-third to one-half what professionals would charge to create such a room.
The homeowners saved money on labor, as well as by being thrifty and shopping at salvage yards, Craigslist, the Recycler, EBay, specialty shops and big-box stores.
Before the remodel, the kitchen had bland white cabinets, a vinyl floor, which covered three layers of linoleum, and original wood, outdated electrical and plumbing systems and layer upon of layer of lead-based paint that had been applied since the house was built in the 1930s.
The couple bought the Los Angeles house in 2001 and lived with the kitchen the way it was for a few years while they tackled less challenging projects. “We knew this one would be a lot of work,” said Lidstone, who did several other D.I.Y. remodels in his native London.
As a warmup, they refinished the living-room and dining-room floors, stripped and refinished window frames, redid a bedroom with a refinished floor and French doors, turned a room into an office for Gardner’s marketing business and transformed the service porch into a laundry room.
When they were ready to begin work on the kitchen, the first step was figuring out “what we would both be happy with,” Lidstone said. They knew they wanted something in keeping with the tile-roofed bungalow’s Spanish Revival architecture, and they agreed to keep the original floor plan, with the 29-foot-by-9-foot kitchen separate from the dining room, rather than breaking down the adjoining wall to create a great room. This would confine cooking odors to the kitchen, and the couple believe that unaltered vintage homes hold their value better. They did later decide to create more wall space by sealing a door to the laundry room, which is now accessed through a bedroom.
Next step: Window shop. They found a Spanish-style exhibit they liked at Bradco Kitchens & Baths in Los Angeles. But rather than hire Bradco to build the kitchen, they set out to re-create it themselves in their home. They did, however, purchase the custom tile there.
Demolition began in August 2004. Gardner recalled a very tidy deconstruction period with a vacuum cleaner at the ready to sweep up the dust. “We’re the neatest demolition people there are.”
After the room was gutted of cabinets, flooring, fixtures and plumbing, they pulled sheets of drywall off the ceiling, where it had been hung to hide cracked plaster. Their new kitchen, they decided, would again have early-20th-century plaster walls and ceiling, rather than drywall.
The first months of the reconstruction included installing all new plumbing and electrical fixtures and wiring, including recessed lighting in the ceiling. Much of the work was done inside walls, in the attic and in the crawl space under the floor.
After exhausting work weekends, Lidstone recalled, he or Gardner would remark, “Well, there’s more work no one will ever see.” And he recalls family and friends saying: “You haven’t gotten much done, have you?”
But once the walls were ready for paint, spirits rose and progress became readily apparent.
Although professional remodelers tend to set the cabinets in place before painting, the couple wanted all the walls painted first. They struggled over the color selection, testing it out on sections before agreeing on the hue.
As the kitchen came together, the couple scoured the Internet and classified ads for deals. They found a copper sink for $700 on EBay, as well as a faucet. They drove up to Santa Barbara early one morning to pick up a $3,500 butcher-block table they found on Craigslist for $400. And they drove to Topanga to buy a $4,500 DCS stove they found in the Recycler for $1,000.
Making purchases this way requires quick action, Gardner said. “You have to be willing to go right away and get it, or someone else will get it.”
In what Lidstone called a “bold and daring” design, they brought together several different metals: copper, brass, stainless steel and wrought iron. Somehow it works, and the kitchen has an old-world feeling. “We didn’t want it to look too new,” Lidstone explained.
Besides the hard work and long hours the project required, it was “taxing on our relationship,” Gardner said, explaining that the two learned “more about each other and our work ethics, our styles and our hot buttons than we ever wanted to know.”
What they found out was that Lidstone enjoys the big and spectacular projects such as laying tile and installing cabinets, while Gardner finds a meditative peace in stripping paint off the mahogany moldings. “I really, really like putting on the music” and working all day, she said.
They also decided that they would not like to repeat the experience of living without a kitchen for 18 months. “It gets old pretty quick,” Gardner said.
But as the memories of the labor fade, the results of their work — a handsome galley kitchen — endure. And so does their relationship.
“Here’s the kicker,” Gardner said. “We are still talking.”
At a glance
Project: Kitchen remodel
Area: Los Angeles
Duration: 18 months
Cost: $29,000 (See where the money went.)
Floor tile: Mission Tile West, South Pasadena, (626) 799-4595
Counter tile: Bradco Kitchens & Baths, Los Angeles, (323) 936-3457