Maxwell’s for Hair, getting there…

Okay, so where were we? When we left off, Russell was standing with his hands in the air, a grin on his face, and a giant pile of rubble and mess behind him. Our contractor had just started demo, and the the shop was a frightful glorious mess.

Maxwell's for Hair | Brooklyn Homemaker

I have to admit, we really lucked out with a contractor who worked quickly and efficiently, and things (mostly) went nice and smooth all through his work. The demo went well, new drywall went up, things were patched and beginning to take form. To help save a little money I would go in after the crew left to prime and paint the patched up walls and ceilings myself.

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We did run into a little hiccup with the floors, but it wasn’t his fault. We knew there was a concrete slab under the layers of laminate and tile, and we hoped that, best case scenario, we could just clean and polish them up and we’d be good to go. We should have known better! Once the old flooring came up and we saw what shape the concrete was in, we knew we had to find some extra money for new flooring. We did some quick hunting around online and found a sale on engineered hardwood so that’s what we decided to go with. We’d have the contractor install it, but we’d be in charge of picking it up and getting it to the space.

Of course, that was all easier said than done. Russell had to leave for a trip to London that he’d planned and paid for well before the shop was even a glimmer in our eyes, and the flooring order took longer than expected and wasn’t ready until after he left.  Since we don’t have a vehicle, I decided to take the subway to a neighborhood in Queens I’ve never been to before, google maps my way to the warehouse, and once the order was ready and brought out to me, call a taxi service to pick me up and carry me and my 11 cases of wood flooring back to Bushwick. You can’t imagine the looks I got from the warehouse guys when they asked if I wanted help putting my order in my truck and I had to explain that I was calling a car service! It also just happened to be a crazy hot day, and I was so embarrassed that I waited outside in the sun the whole time. Then, of course the driver got stuck in traffic on his way to me, and I sat there sweating my ass off for over 30 minutes!
This whole experience has been just one giant exercise in firsts! Hahahaha!

Anyways, in retrospect I kind of wish we’d shelled out a little bit more for solid hardwood. The engineered wood looks great, and in theory it’s supposed to hold up well to water and wear and tear, but the planks are super thin and the flooring feels a little flimsy underfoot. Since the concrete subfloor isn’t perfectly level (and we couldn’t afford having a new subfloor installed), I’m a little worried that we’re going to have to replace it a few years down the line. Hopefully I’m wrong and I’m sweating it for nothing. I guess only time will tell.

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It does look great though. And it all went in the day after I lugged it back to Bushwick.

Before we knew it, the contractor was nearing the finish line and the place was just about ready for tile. Almost everything had gone seamlessly and Russell and I couldn’t wait to get started on our end of the work.

Of course, as you may have guessed, the key word there was almost. I was at work and Russell was still in London the day I got a call from our contractor. Apparently while trying to get the AC unit working, they’d realized there was a BIG problem that he wasn’t going to be able to fix. I totally freaked out and left work early to run over to the shop and see what was going on. It turned out that the someone, at some point, had done some really really weird and confusing work on the electrical panel in the shop. Unfortunately, the way it was done was difficult to see if you weren’t actually looking for it, which is why it hadn’t come to light until then.
Essentially, they had disconnected one of the electrical input wires coming into the space from outside, and split the other one and bridged it to connect to the panel. What that boiled down to was that the space no longer had the 220 volt power that it was supposed to, and while that didn’t affect the function of the outlets and lights, the AC and heating system in the space didn’t have enough current to actually work.

At this point in the game, we’d already spent a good chunk of our in-case-of-emergencies money, and the idea of needing to have some major electrical work done just made me want to curl up in a ball and cry.

After some incredibly stressful days and a bit of further investigation, it came to light that the disconnected wiring coming into the building wasn’t live, which is probably why it had been disconnected in the first place. We put in a call to our utility company with the help of our landlord and his electrician, and had no other choice but to move forward without any AC and hope we’d get to the bottom of it eventually.

So, onward and upward, and off to pick up our tile and supplies in a rental car!

Maxwell's for Hair | Brooklyn Homemaker

We knew from the very beginning that we wanted to cover most of the walls with simple white 3×6 subway tile. I know it’s sort of ubiquitous and “hipster-y”, especially here in Brooklyn, but there’s a reason it’s used so often and in so many applications. It’s attractive, timeless, compliments lots of different design styles, is relatively easy to install, and is even easier to keep clean. Also, most importantly to us, it’s freakin’ CHEAP! $0.22 a tile for American Olean subway tiles from Lowes meant that our whole shop was tiled from floor almost to ceiling on three walls for under $1,000 including the cost of mortar, grout, and all the tools.

I literally have no clue what this job would have cost if we’d paid a professional to do it, but I’m sure it would have been waaaaay more than we would have been willing or able to spend.

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Anyway, well before this whole hair shop adventure, my sister and I were discussing a bluegrass music festival we to go to together when my mom said she’d like to join us this year. We bought our tickets well in advance (they’re cheaper that way) and started planning our family camping adventure. Long story short, they have a weird system for taking time off where my mom works, and even though she only needed off from Wednesday to Monday, she ended up having to take two full weeks off in the middle of the summer. When she first put in the request she figured she’d just use that extra time for some R&R, but as fate would have it she got the exciting opportunity to come down to Brooklyn and spend quality time with me and Russell, doing manual labor in the middle of a heat wave, in a tiny room with no air conditioner! GOOD TIMES!

Neither of us had ever tiled before. I’ve always wanted to tile the backsplash in my kitchen, but every time I think about it I decide after weighing the options that it’s not worth the effort. In this case though, it was absolutely worth the effort if it meant having a gleaming showcase for Russell and his hair shop. And hey, I read Manhattan Nest. How hard could it really be?

So, there we were, my mom and I (from proud, cold-weather German stock), sweating our asses off in 90 degree heat with no AC, learning by trial and error how to tile walls from floor almost to ceiling. We were also trying to keep the whole thing under wraps until we were closer to opening, so we couldn’t even open the door for air!

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At first the whole thing took a little getting used to. We started by making a level line above the baseboard, (which of course wasn’t even close to level) and then cutting each tile lengthwise to ensure our first row would have a completely level top line that all the other rows of tile could build off of. Then we had to figure out the best texture for the thinset, the best way to apply it, whether we preferred to schmear it on the wall or back butter each tile as they went up. (mom’s into the schmear btw, but I prefer to back butter each tile)

We started on one wall to get the hang of the process and slowly started creeping upwards and to the left. Once we got the first row level, the rest was actually surprisingly smooth sailing. By the time you get the hang of mixing and applying the mortar and arranging the tiles, things move along *relatively* quickly. That’s not to say there weren’t any frustrating moments or times I wanted to did throw a fit and/or cry, but for the most part the hardest thing was keeping our lines level, keeping straight rows on wonky 0ld walls, and measuring and cutting corner pieces. Mom and I worked out a pretty good system in the first few days though. She manned the tile cutter while I was in charge of mixing mortar and applying tiles. Of course we took turns and alternated duties sometimes, but we definitely figured out where our strengths and weaknesses lay, and thankfully they were mostly complementary.

Since we were just working with small inexpensive ceramic tiles, we decided we didn’t need to splurge on a wet saw to cut them, and just went for an inexpensive score and snap tile cutter, and a pair of tile nippers for more detailed cuts. There were a few places where a wet saw may have come in handy, but we were fine for about 95% of what we did, and we found ways to make it work everywhere else.

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Before we got too far up the walls with the tile, we took some time to plan out where we wanted the shelves and mirrors for the stations to be hung, and mounted pine cleats (not sure if that’s the right word for what we did btw, so if you know, please share the knowledge!) attached to studs in the walls. That way we wouldn’t have to worry about trying find studs through a layer of ceramic tile, and then having to drill holes through the tiles we just put so much effort into putting up. It looked kind of weird and cheap and crappy while we were in the process, but once we were done and were able to actually attach the stations it all made sense and we were SOOO glad we did it.

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I wasn’t originally planning for this, but mom also insisted that we use bullnose tile for a nice clean finished look at the tops of the walls and on the edges and corners. One day when Russell and I were at work she even took it upon herself to pull the (admittedly crappy) trim off from around the bathroom door and then informed us that we were going to do bullnose trim around the door instead. At the time it just seemed like extra work to me, but in the end looked amazing and I’m so glad she made us do it! Always do what your mama says folks!

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I am so SO glad I got to do this whole project with my mother. Some of it was fun, and some of it was grueling and exhausting and sweaty and disgusting, but most of the time it all overlapped! I know some people might not want to spend so much time in such close quarters with their mother, but I loved every minute of it. I won’t lie and say we didn’t snap at each other a couple times. We were in cramped quarters, exhausted and dripping sweat, and I have a tendency to get snippy when I’m hungry and/or tired and/or frustrated…

Mom, you’re a very patient woman, and we literally would never have gotten this all done, not nearly as perfectly and professionally as we did, without your labor, skill, input, and patience!

Now, sorry friends but I’m not going to go through a whole step-by-step, how-to instructional thing here because, as I’ve already made perfectly clear, we are absolutely not professionals and had no idea what we were doing until we figured it out along the way. We had a little lot of help from the internet, so if you’re interested in taking on a project like this for yourself, I’d suggest you start by looking here, and here, and here.

On the very last day when we hung the very last tile, we finished our work a little earlier than expected so we decided to try our hand at grouting just for fun. (SO DUMB).
The tiling went smoothly, but it was HARD work, so we figured the grouting process couldn’t be any harder right?

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The first batch of grout I mixed up was too thick and it was too hot and we were too tired after working all day. I spread the grout over too big an area, and because it was so thick it dried faster than we were able to clean it off and it wouldn’t come off with the soft sponges I’d purchased for the job. It started off okay, but within an hour or two things went downhill fast.

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After hours and hours of wiping and scrubbing to get the dried grout off the walls, I literally laid on the floor and had an honest to goodness temper tantrum, right there in front of my poor mom. I was hot and sleep deprived and hungry and completely depleted and my arms felt like jelly and I was sure that the grout was going to set and permanently ruin our beautiful tile and all I could think about was how stupid I was and how we were going to have to rip out the ruined tile and re-do it.
In a panic I called Russell to come help us, but at that point there wasn’t much he could do either. He did his best to get as much off as he could, but in the end we had to just leave for the day and hope we’d find a better solution to get the grout off when I got home from work the next day.

While I was at work I did a little online research and found that as long as the grout hadn’t been set for too long, it should be possible with to scrub it off with some little nylon scrubby pads and a good bit of elbow grease.

I crossed every piece of my body that I was able to cross, and when I got to the shop I literally did a little dance of joy when the nylon scrubbies worked out and angels sang and rainbows and unicorns shot out of my ears.

Maxwell's for Hair | Brooklyn Homemaker

As you can imagine, the next batches of grout I mixed were much thinner and were spread on in much smaller patches at a time. We worked out a system where I’d spread it on and Mom and Russell would come behind me and wipe it off.

Maxwell's for Hair | Brooklyn Homemaker

Everything I’d read online said to wipe and wipe and wipe with clean damp sponges until the tile looked completely clean, then to let it dry overnight and come back and wipe it again to remove any film.

The thing is though, that everything I was reading was talking about white or light colored sanded grout, and not only was I using dark grout for contrast, I was also using un-sanded grout to avoid scratching the glossy surface of my tiles.
No matter how much I wiped, the tile never looked “clean”, and if I just kept wiping and wiping and wiping, after a certain point I was just wiping the grout out from where I wanted it to actually stay. So again, thanks to a little trial and error, we learned that with dark, un-sanded grout you just have to wipe until you have a very thin hazy grey layer of grout and you’ll be fine. Then once it dries you can just wipe it off with a clean dry rag to reveal the beautiful shiny tiles beneath.

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Unfortunately, in the middle of the grouting process mom’s vacation was up and she had to head home and leave me and Russell to finish up on our own. After pouring so much of her blood, sweat, and tears into our shop (especially sweat), she was never even able to see the finished product. Poor mom. :(

And sorry friends, but poor you too. Yet again I’ve been blathering and blathering and blathering and I’m pretty sure no one’s even reading this anymore…

I promise you’ll get to see the end results of all our work soon though.



  1. I loved every minute of it! I love spending time with you no matter what we are doing. I love you and the shop is so beautiful. It was worth it! BTW When we do our next project together let’s do it when there isn’t a heat wave. Love you, Mom

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It looks amazing! It also sounds like such hard work…I’m looking forward to seeing the final result and hopefully an end to the blood, sweat and tears! All the best for a smooth finish :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You’ve convinced me to pay whatever it takes to let a professional do work like this. There is so much to learn and you get better and better the more times you do something.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much!!! My mom really is the absolutely best!
      It was definitely not my intention to convince you NOT do try to do this work yourself, but definitely don’t want to give people the false impression that it’s a quick and easy DIY project either!


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