The identities above have been concealed as part of the highly secure Pet Shop protection program  – but fret not! For now, they lay safely under trees, tied up with bows, and come Christmas Day, they will rest easy in the homes of their persons. The last handful of pets crossed my painting table this week, and those, too, will soon be in the arms of their moms and pops. (And that makes us feel just as warm and fuzzy as your little buddies themselves!)

If you’re still on the hunt for that just right gift for the pet people in your lives, today is the last day for holiday shipping!* (We’re still in the scrambling-for-last-minute-gifts camp ourselves, so judgements are reserved. We totally get it.) Pick up a gift certificate (or two!) for custom painted pet portraits, or treat yourself to a 2014 pre-order and be at the top of our list in the new year.  We’ve said it before – and we’ll say it again! – giving the gift of custom art not only shows off your thoughtful side (hey, look at you, rock star!), but you’re also allowing the recipient to take part in the creation process while supporting our non-profit animal rescue partners. (We love a good triple-win; don’t you?)

To ensure a timely Christmas Day delivery, order today!

*For all orders placed within the United States. Orders placed after Tuesday, December 17th will still be happily received + shipped, however, those items cannot be guaranteed for delivery by Tuesday, December 24th.


  • Carrie @DreamGreenDIY - December 17, 2013 - 8:21 AM

    This is far too cute for words =) Love it!! Happy holidays to you and your furry little ones!ReplyCancel

  • Kate - December 17, 2013 - 8:32 AM

    Hey! I know two of those sweet stripey faced dogs. They are hanging up right above the leashes and other dog things near my front door. Best. Birthday Present. EVER.ReplyCancel

  • Kim - December 17, 2013 - 9:21 AM

    Kate, I’m so happy you enjoyed the top secret gift! You have a good guy making all those sneaky plans…ReplyCancel

  • Kate - December 17, 2013 - 12:33 PM

    He is a good guy and very sneaky…and apparently, takes a hint :) I almost did the same thing for his birthday in November. Went with pictures of me and the dogs instead. We’re a little dog obsessed…ok a lot.ReplyCancel

  • Kate - December 17, 2013 - 12:34 PM

    He is a good guy and very sneaky…and apparently, takes a hint :) I almost did the same thing for his birthday in November. Went with pictures of me and the dogs instead. We’re a little dog obsessed…okay a lot.ReplyCancel


Amidst the chaos of completing construction, finishing up the basement, hosting a Thanksgiving crew, diving into an infuriating stair makeover (lead paint, arugh!) and staring down our unpainted and spackled walls, missing baseboards and scuffy, bright white front door, we put up our tree.

It’s no different than years past; it’s not a new tree, and nothing fresh or inventive was done. We didn’t purchase any additional tree decor, no, just the same ornaments from our childhood and the ones we’ve collected together over the last five years of marriage. (Although in true Christamaversary tradition, we did pick up one ornament while we were in Mexico!)

Back in October – before timelines were shifted and no one could predict how long our construction job would be delayed (and delayed and delayed) – we had tossed around the idea of getting something larger for our front window; we’ve never been able to have our tree seen from the street before. We could replace our skinny tree – and put it in the studio, perhaps? – for something larger, fluffier. But as time passed by and the year’s end became thisclose, we decided to keep what we had – for now, for sanity’s sake. At one point, I admitted to Scott that perhaps, this year only, we should nix the tree altogether (we haven’t found time to go to the grocery in over a month; how could we possibly squeeze in tree trimming?). This was greeted with shock from Scott (but you love Christmas! he said), and he insisted – for traditions sake.

No bells, no whistles, but for an entire Sunday evening we put everything aside. Within these four living room walls (half primed, half painted), we spent more time than usual putting up that tree, stringing the lights, reminiscing over the story of every ornament and lighting candles while we sipped on bourbon and red wine.

I’m so glad we did.

PS: December 25th is less than 2 weeks away (how did that happen?)! If you’re still looking for the perfect, super custom and thoughtful gift for the pet lovers in your life, it’s not too late to pick up a gift certificate from The Pet Shop. (Or spoil yourself and get on the 2014 pre-order list!)

  • Laura @ Rather Square - December 12, 2013 - 9:42 AM

    I know what you mean about feeling like there’s just no time for tree-trimming! Even though we’ve been in our house a few months longer than you (I think?), we haven’t done much in the way of holiday decorating. I’ll have to post a photo of our tree on our blog before Xmas arrives: It’s a little cardboard tree that John made out of a diaper box a couple of years ago, and he wraps it in tinsel and blue lights. It’s (relatively) cat and toddler safe. One day we’ll do something a little more grand!

    How are your pets around the tree – do they ever knock it over or swat at the ornaments?ReplyCancel

  • ashley @ - December 12, 2013 - 9:49 AM

    i think scott is totes right too! now you’ll remember that first christmas in your new house together and i can guarantee you’ll be happy that you put that tree up together! plus doesn’t it just make your house feel more and more like a home? something about those twinkling lights make everything all cozy!ReplyCancel

  • Kim - December 12, 2013 - 9:52 AM

    Laura, the girls – especially Maddie – like to stare at the tree or take naps under it, but they’ve never tried to knock anything over, thank goodness. Jack couldn’t care less!

    Ashlee, don’t you hate it when Scott is right? Ha! You’re right though… it’s our first Christmas together in this home, so it was really important that we just do it!ReplyCancel

  • Rachel - December 12, 2013 - 9:53 AM

    So glad you were able to put up your tree – it looks beautiful :-) I know what you mean though – every year before we put it up I think that perhaps this year we should just skip it. And last year we did just that (we live in NJ and Hurricane Sandy hit in October and it wrecked my mom’s home pretty bad – she still is actually not back in it one year later) – we didn’t put up a tree because I just didn’t feel like it was a time to celebrate but it was terribly sad and depressing on Christmas day and I think that showed I should always, always put up a tree as I will never regret it once it’s finished.
    I love that Jack was there looking on – he looks like he is a good supervisor :-)ReplyCancel

  • Kim - December 12, 2013 - 9:58 AM

    Rachel, I’m so sorry to hear that, but like you said, sometimes those traditions are really worth the effort in the end. We hope you were able to get it up this year, and you’ll spend Christmas morning enjoying the twinkling lights!

    Yes, Jack. Always the supervisor. He’s so bossy.ReplyCancel

  • ann - December 12, 2013 - 10:07 AM

    I was hoping you would put up your tree. It’s a must do!ReplyCancel

  • Emily @ Adventures of a Dog Mom - December 12, 2013 - 11:26 AM

    With our move this past fall and everything else on our overflowing plates of things to do we almost didn’t put our tree up either. But, this is the first time we’ve had a mantle to hang our stockings on and I figured we just had to get everything out and up. And, now I’m glad we did!ReplyCancel

  • Jessica - December 12, 2013 - 12:20 PM

    I’m glad you did it! There’s something so homey about a tree in the window.

    If you’re looking for a new fake tree, a few years ago I went out the day AFTER Christmas and bought a pre-lit tree for 50% off. I saved something ridiculous like $80. If you don’t mind braving the crowds and/or going out early, that’s definitely the day to buy one!ReplyCancel

  • misie - December 12, 2013 - 2:34 PM

    you two are adorbs! We had designs of getting a tree this year but we are being bums so our friend snuck over one afternoon and put a wreath on our door and lights on the tree outside our window. In the midst of life changes, it’s the little things the help you get in the holiday spirit…and other times it has to be forced on you :-)ReplyCancel

  • Julia@Cukoo4Design - December 12, 2013 - 6:20 PM

    The trees that stay the same with the collected ornaments are the best, I think. We have one too in our family room and it’s our kids’ favorite and so fun and sentimental.ReplyCancel

  • Kelly G. - December 13, 2013 - 7:48 AM

    Isn’t it nice not to bother with the fuss of it all, and just do something simple? It looks wonderful, too!ReplyCancel

  • Michelle - December 13, 2013 - 9:12 AM

    We bought a very similar ornament during our honeymoon in Mexico. It’s one of my favorites!ReplyCancel

  • Julia at Home on 129 Acres - December 15, 2013 - 1:41 PM

    I confess that for the second year since moving to our house we’re tree-less. Honestly, it just seems like more work at this point. I’d rather spend an afternoon patching the walls and getting them ready for painting than cutting down a tree and decorating it. Maybe I’m Scrooge, but this holiday I’m looking forward to relaxing and home improving. “Christmasing” actually plays a small part for me.ReplyCancel

  • Jaime Lopez - December 18, 2013 - 12:07 PM

    I got so excited to see your ornament from Mexico… mainly because I picked up a nearly identical one 2 weeks ago while I was in Riviera Maya! I put up my tree last week and proudly displayed the gem on the front of my tree too.

    – JaimeReplyCancel


Now that the basement is done, our house guests are gone and winter has really settled into Chicago, we’re in full blown hibernation-le’ts-work-on-our-house mode. The project list is long, long, long, but first up? We decided to take on our entryway staircase – step by step, ha! – and turn one of our home’s biggest eyesores into something, at the very least, a little more livable. Over the weekend, we took those messy stairs (originally covered in maroon carpeting and hundred-year-old filth, remember?) and prepped it for paint:

At this point – and in the least amount of words possible – the stairs were primed, patched + filled, sanded down and primed again. They’re officially ready for paint, new trim along the base and tile on the first floor, tongue and groove wood on the second (hooray!). However, deciding on our process and actually doing it was quite the journey; lessons were learned, backs are aching, and two days later, we’ve completed the first phase of many for these guys and the entryway as a whole.

The much longer version of this story starts with our 3M Lead Check, and even before we rubbed that little stick on a stair, we knew it was going to come back not-so-nice and rosy (pink = lead). The stairs had been covered in carpeting for decades, upping our chances for lead paint underneath (since lead paint was common in the 1970s and earlier), and unfortunately, we were right (boo!):

You might remember that we were hoping to strip down our stairs, stain the treads dark (almost black) and paint the risers white. But when it really came down to it – in all honesty – the idea of messing with lead paint again was so far from our idea of a good time that we found ourselves asking, what now? We could…

  • …suck it up and just strip that lead paint right off. We could purchase Peel Away (as recommended by a few of you guys – thank you!), but we had a lot of ground to cover. And again, lead paint. Even the best removal systems would turn the paint to goop, creating a big mess and large time commitment inside the house – around the fuzzy kiddos.
  • … replace the treads and risers altogether. They’re nicked and scuffed, so perhaps a fresh start was in order!
  • reface the treads. Yes, yes this could work! We found this method which would require sawing the bull nose off each tread, then adding new layers of treads and risers on top of the existing ones.

But the more we weighed each option, the more we felt paralyzed. What if cutting off each bullnose damaged the stair construction? Maybe we should just rebuild them altogether, but holy smokes replacement treads are expensive; can we afford that right now? We went back and forth on a solution countless times, and at one point (a moment of madness, if you will), I pulled up a tread – just to see.

It turns out, pulling up those treads required quite a bit of muscle (I even pretended to grunt in frustration and threw in a handful of swear words for good measure, hopeful that Scott would come to my rescue; no such luck!), and I realized: These stairs are solid. They may be over 100 years old, but they were built very, very well – and come to think of it, they don’t have creaks or squeaks.

In fact, this further reinforced that the only problem with our stairs was the lead paint! The old, chipped, crummy paint.

Rather than turn this into a debate that never gets solved – and to avoid putting it off for weeks – I emailed Alex from Old Town Home. We’re fairly new to OTH, but after so many of you recommended that we dig through the archives (thank you!), we knew that Alex and Wendy were no strangers to situations similar to ours. Almost immediately, he wrote back with a handful of suggestions (see his full list right here), our favorite of the bunch being this:

First, I’d grab a random orbit sander and hook it up to a shop vac that has a HEPA filter attached to it […] Then, paint the stairs with a high quality alkyd/oil exterior primer. You’ll paint before filling any of the chips or gaps. Once the paint dries, fill all of the things you need to fill with a high quality wood filler. Sand the wood filler smooth with the sander, but since you painted the stairs with the oil based primer, you’re not throwing dust all over the place; the primer is your barrier. Still, wear a good mask while doing this. Once smooth, prime the stairs with another coat of oil based primer.

Finally, paint the stairs with a high gloss exterior grade oil enamel (like the stuff they use on porches). Make sure it’s meant for wood. It will dry really hard and will seal in any lead paint. This is easily the most economical, easiest, and most effective. 

Done! While we had thought about encapsulating the lead paint as an option, we were unsure of how to do so safely; enter the sander + HEPA filter double whammy. We thanked him a million times over and the next night, we picked up all of our supplies at the hardware store. By that time, we were feeling really good about just painting our treads black (still with white risers) and moving forward with our navy front door. We were so ready to get this show on the road.

Needle nose pliers
Drill + long wood screws for repairs
Shellac based primer (we used Zinsser B-I-N)
3M™ Safety Products
Paint sprayer (to fill every last imperfection)
Bondo all-purpose putty
3M Wood Filler
Putty knife
Electric mouse sander
3M Advanced Abrasives, ranging from course to fine
Shop vacuum with HEPA filter

We  knew that with our game plan, the stairs would never be perfect. While the construction is rock solid, they would never look slick, shiny and new, and we would always see flecks of flaws through our layers of paint. But! That’s the charm in an old home. We would move forward regardless, tighten the nuts and bolts – so to speak, and give it it’s first freshening up in countless decades. (On a side note, being unable to use the stairs was a non-issue, as we have a large back deck that connects all the floors. So, while it was freezing, we used those to go up and down as needed.)

First thing Saturday morning and manned with our pliers and hammers, Scott and I went over the steps one last time, pulling up staples and nails. We knew there were a few left behind from my first round (although I had pulled up hundreds and hundreds of them!), but we had no idea this would take us almost 2 hours.

We then had to replace the one tread I pulled up (I had used so much force, that it ultimately cracked in half; there was no salvaging it), and Scott put a handful of wood screws in two of the treads with hairline cracks. He did so very slowly as to not crack the tread any further, and he was able to tighten everything up perfectly.

It’s been a long time since we’ve messed with oiled based paints and primer, so we made sure to suit up with (my new favorite) 3M™ Safety Gear, and despite the cold, we opened the door to ventilate the tight staircase. We used our paint sprayer for our initial coat of primer, with the hopes of filling in every last crack and crevice. (In hindsight, clean up took much longer than we anticipated since the primer was oil based, but that first coat was thick and smooth; perfect.)

We allowed the primer to dry for a couple of hours, then we spent Saturday evening going over as many imperfections as we could, while keeping in the back of our minds: These stairs cannot be perfect. Charming, yes. Perfect, no. (Also, this doubles as a full confession for a hoppin’ weekend night at the Vargos!) After seeing Jenny’s luck from Little Green Notebook using Bondo, we decided to take her advice and give it a try. For smaller dents and knicks, we used 3M Wood Filler and used Bondo for deeper cracks – such as the treads that Scott had to repair with wood screws.

By Sunday morning, it was time to sand! We purchased a HEPA filter for our shop vacuum, as well as a small connection that would allow the hose to fit directly into our electric sander. (And of course, I wore my safety gear and taped off the living room!) For the most part, sanding took away the excess Bondo and wood filler, although, full disclaimer, there were a few areas that were taken down lower than the primer. I started sanding using 80 grit Advanced Abrasives, then worked my way down to 220 grit for a smooth finish. The vacuum sucked up nearly all of the dust created, with only the most minor dusting left behind (like, really minor).

Finally – after 4 hours of sanding! – I was able to wipe everything clean using just a wet rag and microfiber cloth to pick up the small amounts of loose dust and apply my final coat of primer. For the second round of primer, I actually opted to use a brush and small roller to avoid the paint sprayer clean-up. Below, you can see ONE) the before – layers and layers of lead-laced paint, TWO) the stairs after they’d been pried free of staples and nails, coated in primer, patched and sanded, and THREE) finallythe second (and last) coat of primer!

Scott walked into the entryway as I was halfway completed with the last coat of primer (he had been tending to a fun plumbing issue), and he was floored. Floored! There are still teeny, tiny pocks and dents in the finish (again, with the whole charming thing), but the improvement is astounding! Now, imagine fresh white risers and glossy black treads:

We’re still missing the trim that I ripped up a few months ago – it was beyond salvageable – but we’ll be taking measurements this week to purchase 1″x2″s to patch them back in.

Yes, there is still a lot to do to bring this entryway together. Finishing items like the main light fixture and flooring will wait until we’ve completed painting (we’ve laid down plain black mats to soak up winter sludge in the meantime), and of course artwork, a small console or mirror – while something I love daydreaming about! – are still a faraway thought. Even still, getting the stairs in this condition was a not-so-small victory (even if it did stray from our original plans of staining the treads), especially knowing that we can rest easier now that we’ve distanced lead paint from little four-legged paws.

This weekend, we’ll be popping open paint cans for the entryway walls!

This post was brought to you in partnership with, and all opinions belong to these two. Keep up-to-date on projects, products and sampling by visiting, and find them on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest.

  • Julia@Cukoo4Design - December 10, 2013 - 7:13 AM

    A ton of work but it looks so good. Lead paint is so scary, yuck!ReplyCancel

  • Jane @ The Borrowed Abode - December 10, 2013 - 7:26 AM

    Sounds like the best (easiest/cheapest) safe approach. Alex and Wendy are such a wealth of DIY knowledge – and they are awesome! So glad you found them for some guidance.ReplyCancel

  • Lindsey d. - December 10, 2013 - 8:37 AM

    Wow! Not bad for a weekend! ;) Also, I can’t help but think that connecting the sander to the vacuum is a great tip for ANY indoor sanding project. Will keep that in mind!

    So glad to hear the paint sprayer works well with oil paint. Fiance purchased oil for the trim and I want to use my new paint sprayer on the doors, but was worried about the oil. It all still has to wait until after the holidays and when we have better weather, but I’m hopeful!ReplyCancel

  • Kim - December 10, 2013 - 8:43 AM

    Lindsey, you’re right – any indoor sanding project could benefit from hooking it right up to the shop vac! Regarding the oil paint with the sprayer – yes, it was super easy to use. It sprayed evenly, and it felt no different than using latex. The only thing that made the job more complicated was cleaning the gun (taking it all apart as you need to do, etc), and using the mineral spirits to really soak all the components. The actual spraying took about 3-4 minutes for the entire staircase, and the sprayer took about 60 minutes to clean.

    All that to say, clean-up with oil paint is always more tricky, whether you’re cleaning a gun or maintaining your brushes. Good luck!ReplyCancel

  • Lindsey d. - December 10, 2013 - 8:58 AM

    Thanks for the heads up, Kim! With 16 internal doors to take down and paint (both sides), I’ll take a long clean up over all that brush work any day! I’m not looking forward to the oil paint and I’ve never used it, but c’est la vie!ReplyCancel

  • Laura @ Rather Square - December 10, 2013 - 9:09 AM

    Oh no, more lead paint drama! But what a great solution. And I LOVE that your staircase isn’t perfect and still has some charm. You are so right, that’s what old homes are all about. I was just contemplating all the cracks and dings in our plaster walls last night, and wondering, what if we had filled them in somehow before painting (we did with the major ones, but there are still lots of little indentations here and there)? But I actually don’t mind the imperfections. It’s like a history map on the walls of the house.ReplyCancel

  • Kimberly | Turning It Home - December 10, 2013 - 9:12 AM

    Although I’m not familiar with lead paint OR staircases, I am very familiar with pretending to grunt and mumble obscenities in hopes of a husband-rescue.ReplyCancel

  • Kim - December 10, 2013 - 9:28 AM

    Lindsey: oh my, well then, YES! It will be so worth it! You could always use water based primer… just a thought. Our favorite is Zinsser 1-2-3 (about $20/gal), and we’ve used it on furniture easily. Oil based was necessary for the lead paint cover-up this time though.

    Kimberly – sometimes it works, sometimes they know it’s all for show ;)ReplyCancel

  • Jodi - December 10, 2013 - 10:00 AM

    it looks amazing!ReplyCancel

  • Amy - December 11, 2013 - 2:33 PM

    Ah! I think you’re going to love your solution! My husband and I recently refurbished our 150 year old staircase and (omg!) it was an endlesssss project. It literally took us six weeks of working almost every night. (The tutorial is here: I think you’re going to be super happy with your result and you’ll still be sane at the end of it! I’m excited to see the final result!!


  • Kim - December 11, 2013 - 2:47 PM

    Amy, THAT is amazing. And they look SO beautiful! We’re really lucky we didn’t have to deal with a baluster, and the wall stringers were in decent shape overall. Bravo, bravo for you guys!ReplyCancel

  • Frank - December 12, 2013 - 1:51 AM

    This looks awesome – it’s really coming along! Stairs have always been my arch nemesis when it comes to any remodel job, but you are doing fantastic!ReplyCancel

  • bekah - December 12, 2013 - 9:12 AM

    Well done!ReplyCancel

  • Nikki Kelly - January 9, 2014 - 3:49 PM

    They look so much better! I bet they feel better on bare feet too! I’m in the process of refacing our stairs from carpet to wood and boy do they feel a lot better under foot! I’m excited to see how your foyer turns out!ReplyCancel

  • RenovationMan - January 22, 2014 - 2:37 AM

    You created way too much work for yourselves on these stairs. This is why most people just call the carpet man, and have the stairs covered in a nice fresh new carpet. Besides, carpet is much safer to walk on, is warmer for the feet, and looks much better. (carpet reduces the slips and falls on stairs dramatically, especially for kids)ReplyCancel

    • Kim - January 22, 2014 - 8:09 AM

      Hi RenoMan, thanks for the input! We definitely prefer the look of wood stairs, although once we get them nice and painted, we’ll be looking for a stair runner just to add some texture and color in the foyer.ReplyCancel

  • Shannon - June 20, 2014 - 7:44 PM

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Just what I needed for our 100 year old fir stairs. Hoping bondo can do the trick on my pesky cracked tread. Stringer is over treads and no underneath access so replacement would require major disassembly. There is no way I can manage rebuilding it all, but now feel like I may have a shot at polishing it up while kids weekend and grama’s. Thanks for all the great directions. Fingers crossed that I don’t end up with a bigger mess than we have already.
    Love your blog. Your entry tiles made me drool.ReplyCancel