Terrific Broth

The life of two scientists, creating a small home, in big mountains

Terrific Broth

Category: Thrifting

A Thrifted Secretary Desk

Happy Monday everyone! I hope you had a relaxing weekend. Things are pretty busy here in the ranch this week, but Slav and I still managed to get some things done. We are moving along nicely with the ceiling demo in our garage, which I am hoping to show you soon. We even had a little time to restore another piece of furniture – a 1919 secretary desk!


I’ve been looking for a desk like this one. I prefer a big surface to work off, where I can spread out my papers and three different cups of tea (which happens regularly). The problem is? Slav also loves a big desk. And he already had one. So we just do not have room for another.

In the past, I have been always working off our dining table(s), whichever one we have/had in the house. It is not a bad setup if there are just two of us, since we both eat in front of our computers 99% of the time (bad, I know). But now with in-law’s visit, we would like keep my papers and laptops off the dining table. So a few weeks ago, we hit the Mile High flea market , in hope to find an expendable table with a small floor print for me.

And this is what we came home with, $20 less in our pocket:


It is a secretary-style writing desk, which was made in 1919 (!). This is the first “antique” piece I even have owned, and truth to be told, I am beyond impressed by how solid this 98-year-old desk is. It is so heavy that it takes two people to lift it.

Please excuse Charlie in the above picture – I could not get him to stop licking the table, as if some other dog has done something really naughty there – now I think about it, it might be the case.


The whole desk is 20 inches deep, with the shelves taking up 10 inches of the depth. Luckily, the writing surface can be pulled out another 6 inches, making a 16″ depth. My computer can fit comfortably.

The top board of the desk can be closed to conceal anything inside the shelves. It acts like the fallboard/keylid on a piano. When not in use, I can push back the writing surface, close the lid, and make a 20″ x 35″ flat surface. This style is called “flip-top” and was very popular among antique writing desks.


Below the writing surface, there is a very shallow drawer. It is merely 1 3/4″ deep, presumably for storing papers, envelops and pencils. It is perfect for storing my laptop away when it is not in use.


The writing surface can be pull out and lift off the desk completely. In the picture below, you can see the shallow drawer as the bottom of the desk.


This desk does not have lots of decorative mouldings, but I do love the curved edges and the little details on the front.

This secretary desk is in amazing shape considering its age – it is almost 100 years old! But like any piece of antique furniture, it has some dings and scratches. Last weekend, I decided to use similar method as restoring the vintage guest bed to bring it back to life:


I started by taking the desk apart as much as I could, and cleaning it with some soapy water with grade 0 steel wool:



After drying, the pieces looked really pale.


I chose danish oil as a wood finish with the vintage guest bed, because I love the color of the bed and danish oil does not change the color of the wood. However, this desk is a bit yellow to my taste. I’d like to make it darker, maybe more mahogany.


I like how the little side table turned out with Restore-A-Finish, which was also too light and too yellow before. So I decided to give Restore-A-Finish another go. The picture above shows the difference between the first coat (left two legs), and before the Restore-A-Finish (the ones on the right). The wood just drank up the finish right away, and resulted in a slightly darker and much richer color. Here is another photo right after I gave the left side of the board its first coat:


I did two coats on every pieces back to back, wiping excess shortly after each coat, and let the whole thing dried overnight. Restore-A-Finish does have a pretty strong odor, so I used it in the garage with a mask, and left the garage door open with a small gap at the bottom overnight. While I was at it, I cleaned and coated an old wooden box we had as well. We used it to store remotes in our living room and it could seriously use a refinish after 4 years of heavy use.


The wood pieces were in no doubt a lot richer color. I had not even put wax on yet at this point.


The next morning, with all the Restore-A-Finish dried and odor disappeared, I used the stain marker to touch up some lighter spots.



As the last step, I finished everything with a generous coat of Feed-N-Wax. This is my favorite furniture wax, not only because it protects the wood and makes it shine, but also because it smells wonderful! It has a sweet citrus smell that is close to honey-marinated, lightly-toasted orange peels.


We put the desk together a few hours after applying the wax. And here is the desk now:


And our storage box:


When we were at the flea market, we also rescued this little guy:


He costed us as much as the secretary desk, but we adore him. He looks innocent from one angle, and a little naughty from another angle:


From below, he looked a bit annoyed:


He is definitely living on my desk now, along with my stationary. The beer mug on the right is my “good-luck” departure gift from my last job, which was engraved by my co-workers.


Another precious gift I got from my previous job is the cactus next to the desk. My old boss broke this piece off a 15-feet tall cactus, which he had been growing for decades in his office.


This cactus is the only plant I moved across country with – wrapped in bubble wraps and protected by packing peanuts. It still went through a hard time. It is nice to see it putting up new growth again.


Here you have it, my new thrifted desk! Right after we got the desk for $20 at the flea market, I came across this Ebay post selling the exact same “Antique Early American Style Mahogany Flip Top Secretary Writing Desk”. And guess how much it is selling for? $625! That is $600 difference if we count the cost of the steel wool, Restore-A-Finish, and Feed-N-Wax!


A Vintage Guest Bed

Slav and I love to have people over. We love hosting dinner parties, movie nights, and occasionally overnight guests. We always have a good spare mattress, but never a guest bedroom, or even a guest bed. Whenever our friends stay with us, we throw the mattress on the floor with some comfortable pillows and comforters. Such simple setup did not make our time with friends any less enjoyable. We make it up by cooking amazing breakfast in the morning, and Slav makes a killer cappuccino.

Now we bought a five-bedroom house (!), we finally have the space to set up a real guest bedroom. In fact, we are tossing around the idea to convert the entire basement into a two-bedroom guest suite. With its own kitchen and bathroom, whoever is staying with us will have complete privacy, which makes a breeze for long time stay of family and friends, as well as short-term rental.

Here comes the exciting news: next week, we will be welcoming the first long-term guest in the ranch house – Slav’s mom is visiting us from Poland!

Mom Anna had lived in the States for decades before she moved back to Slav’s hometown, Nowy Wiśnicz. Slav’s parents built a beautiful house there when Slav was a baby. After living in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn for years, mom could not wait to go back home.

But living in a three story house by herself can get lonely. Mom has been craving some family time with us, and this winter, she finally pulled the trigger and comes to spend Christmas with us! We have been eating less for the last a couple weeks to prepare ourselves for the inevitable weight gain (mom is a really good cook). At the mean time, we want to set up a real guest bedroom  – with real bed.

If you remember our basement plan, we have opened the drywall in the utility room to convert the 3-bedroom basement to a 2-bedroom suite. The current two bedrooms are both on the northern side of the suite, directly below Slav’s office and our bedroom.

Ranch basement_proposal 1

We picked the smaller bedroom on the northwest corner for mom, which is below Slav’s office. The carpet in that room is in the best shape – relatively speaking, and our bedroom floor squeaks a lot, which can be noisy.


This room has been known as “Charlie’s bedroom”, because our dog Charlie sleeps here. The other room is bigger and a lot brighter, but Charlie picked this room as soon as he walked into the house. This room rocks a pair of fluorescent purple curtains, which gives off a brothel-like lighting when they are closed during the day. Charlie digs it.

Without any time and budget, we decided to focus on setting up a good bed for mom. We have picked up a pair of head board/foot board sets from Habitat for Humanity months ago, and we inherited a small table that can be used for bedside storage.




This head board/foot board set is made of beautiful hardwood, and is in pretty good shape. There are some scratches and small dings, but it is structurally very sound. I love the simple shape and small details – not too modern, not too complicated either, a perfect balance.



We have a pair of railing that fits the bed, but no frames. So our work includes to come up with some kind of bed slats for supporting the mattress, and give the head board and foot board a nice cleaning and refinish.


For cleaning and restoration, I followed the method from the Manhattan Nest, which was adopted from the Brick House. Basically, it involves

  1. Cleaning the old grease off the wood with Murphy’s Oil Soap (I used warm soapy water) and fine steel wool (grade 0 or 1)
  2. After the bed is dry, soak the wood with Danish oil or other wood finishes
  3. Wax and Polish with Howard Feed-N-Wax

I started by popping up the boards on a piece of plastic drop cloth, and scabbed it down with warm soapy water and steel wool. I used grade 1 in most of the places, and grade 0 on the second pass.


It was a true arm workout, but the boards cleaned up nicely:


The wood looked a lot lighter after cleaning. Since the boards are not painted or stained, the color you are seeing now is the true color of the wood, without grease and dirt.



After it dried, the boards looks pale at some spots. But do not worry, the oil is supposed to bring the rich color back to the wood.


Before I oiled it up this baby, Slav glued down a piece of loose trim and clamped it into place:


I had to wait a few hours for the glue to dry before applying oil, so Slav took the opportunity to make some bed slats. He cut up some 1″ x 8″ pine boards to fit in between the railings:


After the glue finally dried, it was time for the oil! I soaked a microfiber cloth with danish oil and gave the boards a good wipe. The color of the wood immediate changed. The image below was taken right after the first coat of oil. The left 2/3 of the hand rail has oil on top, and the right 1/3 is without. You can see the color difference:


Drier the wood pieces are, more oil they drink up. In my case, I could see oil “disappearing” within minutes. So I came back every 5 minutes to give the boards another coat of oil, especially at the hand rails and legs, where there were more wear.


It took five coats before the oil started sitting on top of the wood. With each coats, the color of the wood became richer. The picture above was taken after the third coat, and below is the finished product with five coats.


Here is the foot board after five coats of danish oil. I love the color so much.


I let the last coat of oil sitting on the wood for about half an hour, then used a clean microfiber cloth to wipe off the excess. I followed by polishing both boards with the Feed-n-Wax. It only took one pass to give the boards a great shine:


Slav cut up 8 pieces of slats, which covered 2/3 length of the bed. They together give a strong support for the mattress.


We popped the mattress on, with a brand new mattress protector and a pair of pillows with pillow protectors.


I finished the bed with crisp white sheets and linen duvet cover. A floral down comforter on top keeps the bed warm and cozy.


After finishing the bed, I moved onto restore the small bedside table. It was pretty beat up with paint and stains on top. It also got a lot more fade and wear compared to the bed.



Danish oil does not change the color of the wood, so even through it could give the table a richer color, it would not be able to mask all the wear. To restore the color of the table, I decided to give Restore-A-Finish a try. This is another Howard product and I’ve seen how it does wonders. I followed the same steps as those refinishing the bed – first using steel wool and soapy water to clean the surface, followed by rubbing on some Restore-A-Finish, then finishing it with Feed-N-Wax.


This is the finished result:


A pretty big difference from before restoration:


We opened the vent in the basement to make it toasty, and cleaned all the walls, floor and closets. Charlie’s bed is moved out of the bedroom (poor boy!). Now we have the guest bedroom ready!


Five Yard Tools That Make My Heart Sing

Mid-October, we entered gorgeous Colorado fall.




Our backyard looks like a heaven – I love the fallen leaves so much. The pups love to run through them too.




However much I love the leaves, they need to be raked up for a healthier lawn. An early snow and wind also filled our yard with branches:


We have been slowly accumulating gardening tools and gadgets to make yard maintenance easier. Even though I did not know about many of them, I was immediately a fan. Here are a few of my favorites that made yard work more enjoyable:

1. Electric Pole Saw

We have some tall trees on the property. Because of the uneven ground, trimming them with a chainsaw on a tall ladder is not always safe. So we invested in a pole saw when it was on sale. It makes taking down tall branches very easy. But what I did not expect, is how fun it is to use it! Slav almost treated it as a toy. He waved it around the yard taking down dead branches from our trees with such an excitement. None of our poor trees escaped; they all got some kind of haircut one way or another.


This pole saw is pretty powerful – it cuts into brunches a few inches in diameter like butter, and does not bounce much. It eliminates the need of a tall ladder 95% of the time, which made trimming trees a lot safer. Slav used it to trim some big branches off the tree on the side of our house. It is technically our neighbor’s tree, but its canopy shades our side yard and roof. It now looks much better.


2. Portable Branch chipper/shredder


Fall brings so much branches and leaves, especially after we got the pole saw. Branches started accumulating in our yard and we could not burn them fast enough. Not wanting them to suffocate the lawn, we got a compact branch chipper/leaf shredder from Harbor Freight Tools. This one is small and compact, but powerful enough for branches up to 1 1/2 inch size, which is what we needed. Anything bigger than that we usually burn them as firewood.


The chipper came in one piece, so the only installation we did was to put the chipper on wheels, which took me 5 minutes:



We not only use it for small branches, but also for shredding leaves as well. There are tons of videos showing how it operate on Youtube (here and here). Check it out!

The leaves and branches are shredded into small chips, similar to a fine mulch. We do not have lots of plants to mulch yet, so I put them into our compost.  We get tons of kitchen waste and always need more carbon-rich materials. A clean lawn and a growing compost – a total win-win in my book!

3. A Garden Caddy


To transport more things while doing yard work, we found this wheelbarrow caddy in the Habitat for Humanity for $10. I had never used one before – heck, I have never used a wheelbarrow before! For $10, I decided to give it a try.


It is basically a caddy that goes on top of a wheel barrel, so you can put small items inside while transporting soil and mulch. It should fit snuggly onto standard size of wheel barrels. For ours, it does not fit perfectly, but does stay on top.


It is pretty useful to keep small things separated and clean. I listen to podcasts while gardening, and I keep my phone in the middle compartment. The green lid can be closed to keep water and dust out, and the small compartments on each side are great for snacks and speakers. I also like to carry some hot tea in my coffee mug, so the cup holders got used a lot. The big compartment carries a hose, garden gloves, and a set of small gardening tools, which I use regularly.

Coming next Spring, we have big plans of setting up vegetable beds and maybe a green house to raise seedlings early. I am sure the wheel barrel and this caddy will get lots of use.

4. A Potting Station

When we renovated our garden shed, we got rid of an old potting bench to gain more storage. We knew we want some kid of work surface in or near the shed before next spring. One day, Slav spotted this potting station for $40:


It is made by backyard gear as a garden cart as well as a BBQ serving station. Being plastic and tolerates sun well, it makes a great potting station. Similar carts are sold for over $100 brand new, so $40 is a pretty reasonable price to us.

The left side handle can be used to move the cart around as well as hang tools, and there is a fold-able shelf on the right:


It comes with a small drainer that you can put on top:


And the top panels fold out to provide more working surface.


The middle panels folds out to the back and there is a small sink below:


Pretty handy for washing and draining vegetables:


To bring water to the faucet, there is a port at the back for connecting to garden hose:


The bottom cabinet offers shelves and drawers – lots of storage space:


So far, I have kept it on our back patio as a serving cart. The sink can be filled with ice, and it just looks so cute on our new patio.


5. A Compost Update

It has been a little over a month since we first set up our compost.


If you remember it, I layered the left one with grass clippings and kitchen scraps and left it alone, while using the right one for new kitchen scrap accumulation. I watered the left bin well and basically left it alone – I probably turned it twice since setting it up.


And here it is as of today, 5 weeks after:


The pile has reduced to 40% of its volume and I think we are getting some compost:


The cardboard I laid at the bottom has completely disintegrated:


The stuff in the right bin also composted at the bottom, but with new things added every day, the top is still in works:


The back of the shed does not get much sun. Since winter is coming, I decided to move them to the right side of the shed in order to keep the temperature in those bins as high as possible:


I combined all the half-way-ready compost into the left bin and layered some new glass clipping on top – this bin will be left alone again for the winter:


On the right, I laid down leaves and this will be our accumulation bin, which means new things will be added as we go.



These bins worked very well for me – despite the food waste we put in, there was never any rodents. I did not even find bugs in the compost, which means the temperature was high enough in these bins to keep them out. The compost kept moisture well too – I think I only watered the bins once during these 5 weeks and our air is usually dry. But everything broke down nicely.


Here you have it, five garden tools/gadgets that make gardening easier. Do you have a favorite gardening tool? How did you find it? We have big plans to convert this backyard to an urban farm/garden, so there will be lots of gardening next spring!


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