Ways to Utilize Wasted Space in the Home

Ways to Utilize Wasted Space in the Home

Those of you with small homes have probably wished for more space. But what about the wasted space you do have, and probably hasn’t it given a second thought?

Think about the various areas of the house that often go unused: awkward corners, small attics, and that space under the stairs.

These are just three examples among many. Now that you have thought about it, where do you have wasted space in the home, and how can you utilize it?

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Breakfast Nooks in the Kitchen

Double up on your space-saving techniques by designing a breakfast nook with storage. Do you have a corner with windows on both walls that sit empty because you cannot place cabinets on either wall?

You can always use this space in some way. For example, a breakfast nook is perfect because you can place an L-shaped bench in the corner.

A small table completes the breakfast nook. But that’s not all–the benches can double as storage for cooking utensils, hats and gloves and so on.

Cozy Attic Library/reading Nook

Most attics serve as storage space for boxes and totes full of things you are saving, or perhaps seasonal gear. Don’t have anything to store in your attic?

How about that collection of books you don’t have a library in which to display them?

If your attic is safe for spending time, why not design a cozy little library where you can escape and lose yourself in that novel?

Besides adequate lighting, built-in bookshelves, and some overstuffed pillows or beanbag chairs are all you need to get cozy in your attic library.

Storage Under the Stairs

That space under the stairs doesn’t have to be wasted. I have seen numerous creative ideas for storage under the staircase.

Open bookshelves are just one way to display your books or any other collection you might have. You could turn it into a storage cabinet with doors for house cleaning items.

The most creative idea I have seen lately, though, is a staircase that consists entirely of cabinet-style drawers and doors, complete with hardware and a stain that matches the stair treads.

Use that space under the stairs in any way that would meet your needs.

Where do you have wasted space in your home? How can you utilize it to fit your family’s lifestyle?

How to Make a Deadly Staircase Safer to Use

How to Make a Deadly Staircase Safer to Use

Our home possibly has the most dangerous staircase in the entire Northwest. Back in 1890, the home’s builder wasn’t one to waste valuable floor space.

Rather than building a functional staircase with wide treads, a gentle climb, and landings, he went straight up in a style our family had dubbed “Victorian Mine Shaft.”

Our witty friends refer to it as “Whoa, is that your staircase?” Staircases tend not to be remodelable without tearing apart half the house. To make a killer staircase less hazardous without remodeling your home, it takes thinking creatively.

image - deadly staircase

Once known as the ‘mine shaft’ because of it’s dark, steep ascent…this period staircase was remodelled into a safer and brighter entrance into the upstairs.

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Evaluating the Problem

Before reworking your staircase, it helps to evaluate the problem. Take a careful look at the lighting, the handrail, and the treads and note areas that can be improved.

In our home, we felt the biggest hazard of the staircase was the lack of light. The 1930s remodel closed up the stairwell in two locations which cut out natural light, a significant mistake since the staircase was only lit with a 25-watt closet bulb.

Adding to the darkness was a flat parchment green paint on walls, ceiling, and millwork which contributed to the “mine shaft” feeling. A substandard handrail was also a problem since it tended to pull out of the wall when held.

Last but not least, the bare wood treads had been painted with glossy red paint which was entirely too slippery to walk on.

Once we identified the problems, coming up with a plan was really pretty easy. Here’s what we did to open up the staircase, and make it one of the more inviting features of our home. These tips may help your staircase safer as well.

Bring in Natural Light

If your staircase is dark, look at the possibility of bringing in natural lighting through a skylight or by installing either an interior or exterior window.

With our staircase, we removed a retrofitted dividing wall that separated the staircase from the back bedroom hall and removed a fake “Craftsman” archway at the base of the staircase. These two modifications brought in incredible amounts of light from the bedrooms and eliminated the “mine shaft” look.

Paint or Wallpaper the Walls as Light as Possible

Since staircases do not tend to receive direct sunlight, semi-gloss paint and shiny wallpaper can reflect natural light around a room and make it appear both larger and brighter.

For our staircase, we brought the foyer wallpaper up the staircase and into the halls. The millwork was painted a semigloss white and the ceiling painted a mid shade of yellow. From the photograph, you can see the natural light bouncing on the walls.

Replace Existing Light Fixtures

In older vernacular homes, staircases often had a minimum of lighting. One small fixture at the top of the stairs was typical. By adding a second fixture, or relocating a more substantial fixture in the center of the stairwell, you can increase the brightness of the area.

Since our staircase was illuminated by a tiny closet fixture, we had our electrician move the parlor chandelier into the center of the stairwell, and update it to hold three 100 watt bulbs.

The old fixture was removed and placed in a coat closet elsewhere in the house. The combination of light paper and the new 300-watt chandelier made the stairwell comfortably bright.

Replace the Handrail

If your handrail is substandard, replacing it with a sturdier model will make it easier to grip.

Many vernacular homes I’ve been in over the years seemed to use a simple dowel for a handrail. These dowels usually rested on brackets that were anchored into the lathe and plaster.

Our staircase had also had a dowel handrail that had pulled away from the walls after 130 years of folks grabbing for the rail as they tumbled down the staircase.

Part of our remodel included removing the existing lathe and plaster from the walls and replace it with sheetrock.

The new handrail was secured to new support studs and now is sturdy enough to hold a person who trips while coming down the stairs. The curved profile of the new handrail offers a hand better purchase than the old dowel.

Slip Proofing the Treads

While there are many ways of making a staircase slip-proof, what you use depends on how your stairs are designed, to begin with. While a hardwood staircase looks wonderful, with the steep pitch of our staircase, plain wood would have been a safety hazard.

We opted to carpet the staircase in a commercial Berber carpet which provided the slip-proof surface we needed without showing wear and tear.

All staircases have different challenges, and what worked for us might not necessarily work for your home. However, by providing more light, a good rail to grip, and a solid place to set one’s feet while climbing or descending, you can make any staircase safer.

Home Improvements that Save You Money, Save the Planet and Make Your Home Beautiful

Home Improvements that Save You Money, Save the Planet and Make Your Home Beautiful

In today’s economy, going green is more than just an effort to save our planet it is also a way of trimming your budget. Eco-friendly home improvements do not need to be costly or time-consuming to be effective.

The following simple green projects will increase the eco-friendly value of your home while saving energy and money.


Begin your eco-friendly upgrades in your home in the one room that uses more water than anywhere else in the house — your bathroom. Between the sink, shower, tub, and toilet a family can consume thousands of gallons of water each year.

However, there are simple green ways to conserve water in your bathroom with easy eco-friendly upgrades.

Install showerheads that save water while providing a fantastic shower or install a toilet that will save water and lower your utility bills without sacrificing comfort and performance.

Light Bulbs

One of the easiest eco-friendly home improvements is replacing your light bulbs. Energy-efficient light bulbs are readily available at most home improvement stores and discount retailers.

Light bulbs that have the Energy Star label meet the high standards set by the U. S. Department of Energy and are guaranteed for two years.

Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFL), Light Emitting Diode (LED) and halogen light bulbs are all eco-friendly upgrades to your home because they save money by lasting longer and using less energy than incandescent light bulbs.


When redecorating your home, use eco-friendly paint and green accessories throughout your home. Eco-friendly paints are free from or emit very few harmful VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) that contribute to air pollution.

According to GreenLivingIdeas, natural interior paints do not contain metals or VOCs and are an all-natural alternative to harmful chemical paints. You can purchase natural, organic bedding for a relaxing, comfortable and healthy bedroom.

Water Heater

Unfortunately, at some point, homeowners will face the task of replacing their hot water heater. When this happens, replace your conventional hot water heater with a solar water heater to save energy, reduce utility bills and reduce pollution.

Solar water heaters are gaining in popularity and installing a solar water heater is an easy eco-friendly home improvement that will also save you money in the future.

The U. S. Department of Energy has information available to consumers about solar water heaters – how they work, how to choose a solar water heater, installing and maintaining a solar water heater and where to purchase a solar water heater.


Heating and cooling your home is a necessity; however, properly installing and setting your thermostat will reduce the amount of energy you consume heating and cooling your home.

A simple eco-friendly home improvement you can do yourself that will maximize these savings is to install a programmable thermostat.

A programmable thermostat is designed to save energy by controlling the temperature in your home without sacrificing a comfortable environment.

Green Christmas Gift Wrap is Recyclable or Reusable

Green Christmas Gift Wrap is Recyclable or Reusable

Pretty papers are attractive, but using Christmas gift wrap once and throwing it away is not eco-friendly. Try these green alternatives to wrapping paper.

Stores are filled with Christmas gift wrap paper: Shiny, pretty papers block the aisles and are stacked up at checkout counters in supermarkets, drug stores, stationery stores, and virtually every other shop that sells small gifts and notions. ‘Tis the season to fill the landfills.

Wrapping paper is such a big part of gift-giving that we don’t even think twice about the irony of buying beautifully made papers that will be used to make a five-second impression, only to be torn off and thrown away. Coated and painted with metallics, gift wrap ends up in landfills. What a message to send to children!

Here are some green alternatives that will make special and clever Christmas wrappings, and reduce your holiday carbon footprint.

Read Also: Craft a Festive and Fragrant Christmas Twig Tree from Nature

Wrapping Gifts with Newspapers and Magazines

Using pages from newspapers or magazines to wrap gifts can look smart and crisp, especially if you take a few moments to select a page with lots of bright colors. Or take the time to select a page that has something to do with the gift itself, such as a book review of the book you are wrapping, or a page from the finance section to wrap a wallet.

Newspaper works especially well on books and similarly shaped packages. It’s not such a good choice for irregularly shaped gifts.

Baskets, Gift Bags, and Gift Boxes

Gift baskets make wonderful holiday presentations, with contents especially chosen for the recipient. You can “hide” the gifts in the basket by wrapping them in a newspaper or burying them in tissue paper. Choose a high-quality basket that the recipient will enjoy reusing throughout the year.

Gift Bags are another solution:

More and more gifts are presented in attractive little holiday bags, which are easily reusable. Indeed, while most people don’t even think twice about rumpling up beautiful wrapping papers and tossing them, they carefully keep the gift bags.

Just be sure you store them neatly so they are in good condition for reuse. Or, your children can use them next year to make Christmas arts and crafts.

Gift Boxes are an increasingly popular variation on gift bags. These cardboard boxes can come in shapes ranging from tubes for posters to boxes usable for clothing. They are sometimes given out at high-end stores.

The store’s logo is sometimes on the box somewhere, so the store gets a bit of branding benefit (and they reduce staffing needs in a department store’s gift-wrap department). The boxes are usually festive and attractive and don’t need to be wrapped. Boxes can also be bought at stationery stores.

image - Recyclable Gift Bag

Recyclable Gift Bag

Creative Gift Wrap: Using Scarves and Fabric

In Japan, silk scarves are sometimes used to wrap special gifts. There’s no reason you can’t do the same.

If you happen to travel a lot, note that scarves can be bought for as little as a couple of dollars in many developing countries, especially in Asia and the Middle East. So your gift includes not only wearable wrapping paper but a souvenir from a far-off land.

Along the same lines, if you happen to sew, you probably have a collection of gift-wrap sized fabric scraps that you’ve never found a use for. Now you have a way to use them!

Reusing and Recycling Gift Wraps

With your holiday supplies, keep a Christmas scrap box of small bits of old or odd-sized wrapping papers that will be good for wrapping little items such as jewelry, wallets, or ties. Bows and trimmings can also be reused if they are in good condition.

Good quality gift wrap can also be reused. The cheap metallic paper probably won’t survive in good enough condition, but thicker papers that were carefully folded can be used more than once.

Finally, if you feel you simply must use a newspaper for a special gift, be sure it is made of post-consumer recycled paper, and that it can be recycled. At least that way, you’re doing your part to reduce Christmas waste and keep the holidays from making too much of a contribution to the town dump.

Craft a Festive and Fragrant Christmas Twig Tree from Nature

Craft a Festive and Fragrant Christmas Twig Tree from Nature

A Christmas twig tree is hung on a wall or door like a wreath or given as a gift. The natural decorations from the garden and woods change with the seasons.

Making a twig tree can be a solo project, partner endeavor, or family adventure. While nature provides an endless storehouse of decorations, human imagination generates infinite combinations and variations.

The use of natural materials to create a Christmas twig tree in December can be the inspiration to adapt the tree for every season and reason throughout the coming year.

Framework for a Twig Tree

The framework for the twig tree is made of branches from trees and shrubs found on your property or on walks in the woods. The triangular frame requires three twigs. Two or three more twigs are needed to form crossbar branches for support.

Sturdy straight hardwood twigs with bark are best. The following specimens provide good twigs but experiment with what is in your surroundings:

  • Birch
  • Cherry
  • Maple
  • Oak
  • Persimmon
  • Pistache
  • Sassafras
  • Grapevines

The size of the framework depends on the space allocated for hanging the tree. For beginners, the manageable tree size is 36 inches tall.

Assembling the Twig Tree

Lay the three long sticks in a triangle on a clean flat surface indoors or outdoors. After deciding how large the tree will be, cut twigs to the desired lengths, allowing them to overlap an inch or two. Tie the twigs together at the three corners using cord, fishing line, floral wire and tape, raffia, ribbon, rubber bands, twist ties, yarn or wire.

Space, cut, and fasten the crossbars between the two vertical sides of the triangle. These branches add to the strength of the frame and provide additional space for decorations.

The tree framework should hold together firmly when held upright. Test hang the framework at its potential site.

Natural Materials for the Twig Tree

Use your imagination, ingenuity, and the natural materials at hand to make your first tree before branching out from there.

Start by taking a collecting walk across your property with pruning shears and basket. Snip colorful cuttings from each of your most berried trees and shrubs like:

  • Holly
  • Nandina
  • Photinia
  • Pyracantha
  • Wax myrtle

Snip cuttings from fine long-lasting broadleaf evergreen trees and shrubs specimens including:

  • Acuba
  • Boxwood
  • Camellia
  • Mahonia
  • Magnolia
  • Podocarpus
  • Tea olive

Snip cuttings from conifers like:

  • Arborvitae
  • Juniper
  • Pine
  • Spruce

Take cuttings from evergreen vines:

  • Ivy
  • Smilax

Collect decorative structures from the following:

  • Crepe myrtle seed pods
  • Golden rain tree pods
  • Groundsel shrub pappus
  • Lunaria pods
  • Milkweed pods
  • Pinecones
  • Sweet gumballs
  • Sycamore balls

Trimming the Twig Tree

There are many ways to trim the tree. One way is to space clusters of the most colorful foliage and berries at all of the angles of the triangle and cross branches. Then fill in the bare spaces with greenery and pods. The flexible vines can be wound around the twig surfaces.

Or, twine plant material around the framework first. Evergreen vines work well for this. Once the frame is covered in the vine, berries or pods are hung to dangle from the crossbars.

Having the framework on a flat surface allows you to arrange, rearrange, and tweak your design before fastening all with string or yarn for the final display.

Experiment with a variety of materials and hanging methods. Herb gardeners tie small bundles of dried or fresh herbs like rosemary, oregano, thyme, and sage to the frame.

Flower gardeners make an everlasting twig tree with bundles of dried flowers including babies’ breaths, candytuft, celosia, globe amaranth, hydrangea, lavender, statice, strawflower, and yarrow.

If the twig trees destination is a kitchen, then garlic, dried peppers, and dried ears of strawberry popcorn are appropriate decorations.

Another scent for a Christmas twig tree is citrus. Make dried lemon, lime and orange pinwheel ornaments sprinkled with cinnamon or studded with cloves and hung from the crossbars with ribbon.

Variations on a Twig Tree

The twig tree is an excellent activity for students learning to identify plants and plant parts. The activity also is one to teach elements of design in art class.

The simple triangle twig tree design with the use of scented natural materials is an activity visually impaired students can successfully participate in.

Making twig trees is a fun and frugal activity for families and for children’s parties. Provide the tools, twigs, and materials for guests to make their own twig trees to take home to hang.

Whether you make a twig tree as an alternative to an evergreen Christmas tree or an additional holiday decoration, it is a versatile natural craft for all ages and many occasions throughout the New Year.


  • Haynie, Don. “Christmas Crafting.” The Herb Companion. December/January 1995/1996. pgs. 60-63.
  • LeVan, Marthe. Nature Style. New York: Lark Books, 2002.
How to Paint Over Stained and Varnished Wood Paneling

How to Paint Over Stained and Varnished Wood Paneling

Wish you could paint over your old wood paneling to brighten up your home? This article explains how in simple English for the do-it-yourself enthusiast.

Recently I published this article How to Bring Life to Old Wood Paneling Cheaply and Easily explaining how to restore a new shine to old paneling and woodwork easily.

After reading the article, a fellow writer dropped me a line wanting to know if she could just paint over old wood paneling, as she “has too much of it.” As someone who loves the look of finished wood, I didn’t know that such a thing was possible.

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Paint Over Finished Wood? I Wouldn’t Do it, But …

But, while I happen to love the look and longevity of stained and varnished wood, and would not usually recommend painting over it, I understand how some may not feel the same way. That being said, I decided to write this article detailing a couple of methods used to cover old varnished wood.

First of all, it depends on what the wood is on. For instance, if you’re looking to cover an old desk or coffee table, then you’re going to want to completely strip the old varnish and stain away before painting.

Any surface that would be considered “high traffic” would qualify to be stripped before painting. This is because these surfaces would be more prone to chipping and flaking because of repeated use.

When Completely Stripping Varnish From the Woodwork

Removing the old stain and varnish can be done with any of several brands of stripper on the market, such as Jasco Varnish and Stain Remover or PVR Paint and Varnish Remover. This is usually a labor-intensive task, requiring multiple applications and cleanup, as well as sometimes including the use of protective clothing or masks.

Different brands have different sets of instructions, and their formulas vary from highly toxic to environmentally friendly, and although the highly toxic ones tend to work a little better, the environmentally friendly ones are, well, environmentally friendly. The choice is of course yours.

  • A Typical Regular Varnish Remover (Jasco Varnish and Stain Remover)
  • A Typical Environmentally Friendly Varnish Remover (PVR Paint and Varnish Remover)

If You Want to Paint Without Stripping the Surfaces First

However, if the surface is not going to be handled or touched often, such as the surface of a paneled wall, then you can paint over them, with just a little preparation first.

Keep in mind that if your paneling has a “textured” surface such as in the image accompanying this article, the texture will most likely show through the final coat of paint.

The first thing you’re going to want to do is to thoroughly clean the surface with a degreasing agent and a scouring pad or steel wool. This will remove any wax or oils on the surface that could cause the new paint not to adhere well. Be sure to wipe down the surfaces well to remove any detergent residue.

Next, you’ll need to lightly sand the surface of the varnish with medium-grit sandpaper or a sanding sponge. Around 150 grit works well, and be sure to sand any grooves or scrollwork as well. For grooves, I usually fold a piece of sandpaper over the edge of a plastic squeegee or plastic putty knife.

Remember, you don’t need to sand away everything, you just want to take the shine off of the varnish. This will provide a coarse surface for the new primer to bond with.

After you’ve finished sanding, wipe down the surfaces with mineral spirits to remove any dust left behind, and allow to dry completely. Be sure to check any grooves or scrollwork before painting as the mineral spirits can collect in these and still be wet, which would cause the primer coat to not adhere.

Now you’re almost ready to begin painting. Tape off any edges with Blue Painter’s Tape, and apply a good oil-based primer to the surface. Be sure to use a high-quality roller or brush to prevent any “texturing” or “bristle marks” on the surfaces.

Allow the primer to dry completely, then check over the surfaces for any blemishes that the primer may have revealed. Any nail holes or dents can be repaired with Wood Filler Putty and sanded smooth. Be sure to re-prime these areas after repairing them.

Pay Attention to the Small Details, Like Grooves or Scrollwork

Once you have a smooth surface, you can apply your finish coats. Depending on what quality paint you choose, it may take as many as two to three coats for complete coverage. Watch any grooves or scrollwork carefully for buildup, and use a brush to pull the paint very thin on each coat in them.

Excessive buildup can cause a “blurring” effect on the sharp edges of the grooves, which will detract from your finished look.

If you’d like a very smooth finish, you can lightly sand before your final coat using a medium-fine grit, around 200 to 280, to knock down any drips or imperfections.

That’s all there is to it. It’s a little labor-intensive, but for those who think they have too much woodwork in their home and would like to brighten things up a bit, this fairly easy procedure will do it. Good luck!