Thrifting With: Anne Kenealy

Victoria and I spend a lot of time in thrift stores. There’s nothing quite like that rare delight of finding the perfect kitchen chair or end table for only a few dollars. Far more often, though, I find myself wading through piles of legless tabletops and stained armchairs, wondering if I have the time, elbow grease, and expertise needed to transform a long-unloved piece of furniture into something beautiful and useful.

A few summers ago, I was wandering through a thrift shop in Platteville, Wisconsin, where my family keeps a hobby farm. In the rural Midwest, folks tend to hang on to their belongings for a long time, resulting in a local thrift shop filled with decades-old treasures. I happened upon this desk:

It was covered in chipped faux-bois veneer and the drawers didn’t close just right. However, I had borrowed the pickup truck, I had a spot to stow the desk until I could get around to working on it, and it was only $3. Perhaps most importantly, it was summer, so I had time to kill and an apartment to fill when Victoria and I moved to Philadelphia a few months later.

With my wise father and Google as dual advisors, Victoria and I set to work painting and restoring The Desk. Because its veneer is plastic, getting a few even, thorough coats of paint took some ingenuity, but a project similar to this one is easily doable in a few hours over a couple of days.


If you’re a furniture-refurbishing wizard, you already know: clean, sand, clean, prime, clean, paint. However, if, like me, you run with the Design*Sponge-ogling common folk and the list of materials above was enough to make you decide against this project, don’t turn away just yet. This project is simple and yields great results.

  1. You’ll first want to clean the piece thoroughly with TSP. Because TSP is such a powerful cleaning agent, it is recommended that you wear rubber gloves and work in a well-ventilated space. We used the great outdoors. (It is also recommended that you don’t walk into a home improvement store asking for “trisodium phosphate” like we did. No one seems to refer to TSP by its full chemical name, and our clerk looked at us like we were Walter and Jesse back for a re-up.)
  2. Using fine sandpaper, rough up every surface you intend to paint. With a plastic veneer, this step might be the most painstaking of the entire project, but it pays to sand well. The better you sand a surface, the more likely the spray paint is to stick.
  3. After sanding, clean the piece once more with TSP, then run a tack cloth over the whole thing to remove any grit or dust. If you intend to prime later, wipe the piece down with a tack cloth once more just prior to priming. It really pays off.
  4. If you want the legs or drawer pulls of your piece to remain untouched by spray paint, remove them or cover with painter’s tape. Then spray an even coat of primer over every surface you intend to paint. Attaining the “even coat” was a process, so it helped me to practice on a sheet of newspaper first. Let dry for a few hours or overnight.
  5. Once the primer has dried, run a tack cloth over the piece again. Spray a thin, even coat of paint, taking care not to linger too long in any given spot. With each coat, it is better to apply too little paint than too much. Let dry for a few hours or overnight.
  6. If you have overapplied paint anywhere, you can sand down the pools or bubbles that may have formed and then clean any dust away with a tack cloth. Then apply a second coat of paint, attending to the bottom of any overhangs and the edges of drawers.
  7. Once dry, make sure the richness of the color is consistent and that the satin shine is even across the piece. If you feel you need a third coat of paint, feel free to apply. (This may require a second can of paint, depending on the size of your piece.)


To add a nice finishing touch to this desk, we asked my dad to polish the tips of the legs with Brasso and some fancy buffer tool that I don’t pretend to know how to use. The most exciting part of this project was finding drawer pulls that suited the style of the desk; we discovered  Menards had a nice selection.

The chair isn’t a perfect fit for the desk, but it was $5 at Uhuru, a thrift shop around the corner from our apartment. Victoria and I found the birch tree needlepoint at the Platteville Thrift Shop on a later trip, and spray painted the frame a glossy black. The antique desk lamp has a cast iron base and is on loan from my dear old ma.

A refurbishing project like this one may seem labor-intensive, but the payoff is great. Here’s to more lonely thrift store cast-offs receiving similar treatment!


Day Trip: Milwaukee, WI

There are many cities in the U.S. that don’t get the credit that they deserve.  Between New York and Los Angeles lie a bounty of small cities that offer cultural experiences unique to their regions.  One among them is Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  As the state’s most populous city, Milwaukee and her triple-threat attractions (beer, cheese, and sausage) do not disappoint.

This year, Anne and I spent the Christmas season with her family outside of Chicago.  As the festivities died down and the whirlwind of crafting, wrapping presents, and eating slowed, we all decided to take a day trip to Milwaukee.  A recent article in the Travel section of The New York Times piqued Janet’s interest.

Milwaukee lies an hour and a half north of Chicago, along Lake Michigan.  Upon our arrival, some of us explored the Historic Third Ward neighborhood while others went to the Harley-Davidson Museum.  Some favorite spots in this neighborhood included: Colectivo Coffee Roasters, Hot Pop Gallery, and Milwaukee Public Market (the equivalent of Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia).

Our journey continued onward when we met up for a tour of Lakefront Brewery along the Milwaukee River.  It proved to be a fun and informative tour for all.  We tasted a white ale, an amber lager, a pumpkin lager, and a kolsch-style ale.  Lakefront Brewery was the second brewery in the nation to brew beer with pumpkin, and the first brewery since prohibition to brew a fruit beer.  Pretty neat!

Believe it or not, we ended the evening at Milwaukee Brat House.  Before even ordering brats, we enjoyed a giant soft pretzel that came in a pizza box.  Go big or go home, right?  It was amazing.  We should have stopped there, but alas…  Our day trip was capped off with Kopp’s Frozen Custard.  Despite feeling as though we might keel over, our trip to Milwaukee was a success!  The weather was beautiful, and the city broadened our (Lake Michigan) horizons.

Note: Click images to view in slideshow.  Images taken by Victoria Vitale and Janet Kenealy.

On The Farm With: Janet Kenealy

From Janet:  An article in the travel section of the Sunday Chicago Tribune piqued our interest in Southwest Wisconsin.  It touted rolling hills dotted with cows and sheep, charming towns filled with antiques and artisans, and–of course–cheese!  Dave and I planned a weekend in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, and we were quickly smitten with the area.  Soon afterward, we were working with a realtor to find a little place in the country for weekend getaways for ourselves and our family.  A check list was created (our family is famous for its list-making), noting all of the features we would like in a second home: a bit of green space in a quiet spot, a simple house with a screened porch, and a location not too far away from civilization and our year round home in Oak Park, Illinois.  We saw plenty of houses during our search but most weren’t quite what we were looking for.

After a full day of house hunting, our realtor showed us one final listing that she said met most of our parameters but was a bit farther away and slightly larger than what we were looking for.  She also warned us it had been on the market awhile and was “a little dated.”  She also called it a hobby farm.  We were intrigued.  Hidden behind a white picket fence and a tall stand of Arborvitaes stood a charming little red brick home built in 1858 with several farm buildings, including an old wire corn crib, and the loveliest assortment of trees – including a little apple orchard!  The property was now 3 ½ acres but had been part of a larger farm years ago.We were immediately enamored with the expanse of grass, the assortment of trees – several varieties of pine, maple, and a mighty oak just outside the front door. But what really struck us was the silence except for the birds and rustling tree leaves.  We could hear cows mooing on the neighbor’s farm and birds were darting through the trees to the feeders by the kitchen window.  The interior of the home was indeed dated – yellow shag carpeting, indoor/outdoor carpeting in the kitchen (!), and 1970s wallpaper on every wall.  The rooms weren’t large but they were light-filled.  There was a good feeling in that house.  So we bought the farm!We set out on a major renovation to make it safe (updated electrical/plumbing) and to make it our own (new kitchen/bath).  We also took a strange little room off the back of the house and added windows to create a lovely little porch which looks out onto the garden.  New windows were installed, the carpeting was removed and the original oak floors were revealed.  Wallpaper was taken down and fresh paint rolled on all the walls.Once the work on the inside was completed it was time to turn our attention to the garden.  The previous owner had an expansive garden.  Starting small, we rototilled a 30 by 60 plot and set out planting.  We learned rather quickly we should never have rototilled the soil, as it churned up centuries of dormant weed seeds the likes of which we had never seen before!  We learn something about our garden (and ourselves) every year.  Lavender, zinnias, pumpkins, black-eyed susans, sunflowers and cat mint all grow very well without needing too much help from us.  We’ve planted hydrangeas around the foundation of the house and have added to our little arboretum by planting a few small trees. In the spring, we plan to add two Asian pear trees and a row of raspberry bushes to our little garden plot.Our next project is to turn a small parcel of our property back to its origins as a prairie.  We took a class on prairie restoration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and have read books and blogs on the subject.  We’ve also consulted with experts and learned that we have some very stubborn invasive species that have taken over much of the space.  Some of these plants have been on the property for years and will require heavy machinery to uproot them.  It will take tremendous sweat equity and an investment of funds to make it happen, but we hope to someday return the land to its original beauty.When I’m not busy on the farm, the area has some nice little antique shops and thrift stores in which to poke around. I also enjoy browsing the aisles of the local Farm and Fleet.  A neighboring town has an emerging artisan community with galleries, shops, and a few nice restaurants. There’s even a brewery nearby. I continue to learn lessons from our little farm – lessons of patience, mostly.  I am learning to be patient with the land and with the rhythms of the seasons.  The biggest adjustment I must learn to make is to balance the hard work of the farm with its many joys and pleasures.  Now if I would only park the wheel barrel for a moment I will experience them!

What an inspiring story, Janet!  Thank you for sharing your exciting journey.

Note: all photos were taken by Janet Kenealy.