Kneeling on the floor of his sister’s partially remodeled kitchen, Mark Stillwell Jr. slides a grouting shovel across large white rectangular tiles on the wall underneath the breakfast bar. Meanwhile his father, Mark Stillwell Sr., surveys the unfinished work of laying red subway tiles around the kitchen’s backsplash, which will add a pop of color between new white beadboard cabinets and charcoal granite countertops.
Don’t be fooled by those DIY shows,” says Mark Sr. of his daughter Sarah LeGrand’s kitchen renovation. “They make it look like they did it in an afternoon.”
Mark should know. This is his fifth DIY kitchen remodel. And he and Mark Jr. have been knee-deep in construction dust at Sarah’s house for nine weeks now.
When Sarah and Michael LeGrand bought the four-bedroom cottage blocks from St. Augustine Beach, they envisioned it as the perfect home to raise their family of five. But with a kitchen still trapped in the ’80s, the heart of the house needed resuscitating. Newly married and cost conscious, the couple decided to tackle the renovation themselves – with help from family.
“It’s definitely been a family effort,” says Michael, a professional photographer. “Her parents would come down, and her brother. My parents live two houses up from us, and my mom made dinner for us every night. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
Since the moment the old cabinets came tumbling off the walls, the LeGrands and the Stillwells have joined forces in a labor of love. On the front end, Sarah, 34, and Michael, 38, handled the design and bargain shopped for materials. Michael estimates that buying appliances on Black Friday saved them about $2,500.
Affordability drove their decision to remodel the kitchen without a professional contractor, but not at the cost of style. Decorative details like cabinet pulls in the shape of spoons and forks, barstools with seats that look like red bottle-caps, and a silver camera decoration perched atop the kitchen cabinets speak to the LeGrands’ own personal style and interests.
Michael studied photography and architecture at Drexel University in Philadelphia, and says he knows enough about renovations “to be dangerous.” But he leaves complex endeavors like wiring a stove and installing a kitchen sink to the seasoned hobbyists in his family.
“I have some ideas of what I like and what I want, but it doesn’t always translate into the real world,” he says. “At some point you rely on someone else.”
Sarah’s father, a retired financial-services professional and serial renovator, and her brother, a local construction consultant, have swung most of the hammers on the project, with Michael acting as “weekend helper.” Almost every day, the father-son DIY team travels to St. Augustine from Jacksonville, where Mark Sr. has restored two historic Avondale homes.
Michael’s parents, Pam and Bill LeGrand, also retired, have entertained the grandkids and cooked meals throughout the project. Bill remembers Michael and Sarah using a five-gallon bucket to carry dishes between the two houses. For a while the couple washed dishes in the bathtub, which lead to the rigging of a temporary kitchen sink, despite having no countertops.
One of the more painful moments of the project came when the kitchen cabinets wouldn’t open properly after installation. Although Michael and Sarah had worked with a Home Depot expert to design the layout of the cabinets, some sections didn’t line up as planned. A few shims later, however, Mark Sr. had the doors opening and closing with ease. Together the family figured out simple solutions to unforeseen challenges, from blocked cabinets to uneven floors, and avoided major additional expenses.
With the final subway tiles still setting in the couple’s new kitchen, they plan to host everyone for a celebratory dinner soon. Then Mark Sr. along with Sarah’s mom, Jan, will leave for North Carolina to vacation at their mountain home – where a few DIY projects await.
Tips for a DIY kitchen renovation:
1. Don’t be misled by DIY shows in which kitchen renovations happen overnight. A DIY kitchen remodel can take months to complete, depending on the number of skilled people involved.
2. Establish a timeframe and budget for the remodel and then double both. Unexpected problems almost always arise.
3. Before demolition, formulate a design, create a set of plans and double check that the design works in the space.
4. Be flexible. Plans may need to change to address unforeseen obstacles.
5. Hire professionals for complicated elements of the project like design, electrical and plumbing. Stores like Home Depot offer expert resources.
6. Jacksonville-based store Floor and Décor caters to DIY projects and offers a wide variety of materials at affordable prices.
7. Make temporary arrangements for meals. Living without a kitchen for weeks can create stress, especially for families with children.
8. YouTube offers myriad tutorials on everything from installing appliances to recipes for cooking in a toaster-oven during a remodel.