Enhancing Your Home’s Natural Light (Part 2)

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Part One of Enhancing Your Home’s Natural Light

3. Paint and Color Magic

Paint, correctly chosen, really can work wonders. The lighter the color, the brighter and lighter the room. This is also true of wallpaper and paneling. Ninety percent of a quality paint job is proper prior preparation. Libraries are fill of helpful books on how to paint a room. Get one and follow the directions about cleaning, spackling, sanding, priming, etc. Don’t skip priming; primer is NOT the same as paint. And don’t use cheap paint! Check out Consumer Reports for details on paint brands or ask at your local independent paint store. The vast majority of painting cost isn’t the money spent on paint and primer. It is the time it takes to do the job. Latex paint works very well and is easier to cleanup afterwards than oil paint. Your paint brushes will last for years if you are meticulous in cleaning them. Rollers take so much water to thoroughly clean them that I buy cheap ones and throw them out after each painting job.

Have you every wondered why some rooms feel like caves, even at high noon? The answer is color choice. Begin at the top with your ceilings — the only correct color for a ceiling is white. Forget the decorating magazines if you want more lighting bank for your buck. Most rooms should be painted with “ceiling white”. This is a standard, low gloss thicker white paint made for ceilings. It is easier to work with overhead than regular white paint. Bathrooms and kitchens should be painted with a glossier white because the glossier the paint, the more washable it is. I use Ultra High Gloss white latex enamel, normally only used for trim. It is super washable, super reflective, and demands lots of surface preparation. Bathrooms get lots of moisture and kitchens get lots of greasy moisture so make it easier to maintain by having cleanable paint. Ceilings painted with “ceiling white” usually have to be repainted to clean them. If you have smokers in your house, your ceilings will end up a dirty yellow and you will have to repaint them more frequently to get them white again.

Walls are the largest surface in a room. Lighter colors will make the room feel a little larger as well as brighter. Careful surface preparation will give a better, smoother, longer lasting paint job. No matter what the can says, flat paint cannot be washed. It has a lovely, velvety, glare-free texture that will be instantly destroyed by a tot with a crayon. The glossier the finish (a range from eggshell to ultra high gloss) the easier it is to wash. Each uptick in shine means more surface preparations as every spot you miss spackling and sanding will show. Careful surface prep and several coats of ultra high gloss paint will look almost like a lacquer finish as the walls become shiny and mirror-like. I have painted every wall in my house with ultra high gloss enamel and my walls reflect every bit of light there is. They are so shiny, they look can look wet, and I have had people touch the wall to see if it was dry. That shinier finish can let you choose a slightly darker color, but to maximize light, stick with paler tones.

Closets should be painted from top to bottom — trim, ceiling, walls, inside of closet doors — with ultra-high gloss white and nothing else. No matter how pretty those jewel tones look in a magazine photo, in real life the closet turns into a dark hole. Stop putting your things into caves! Gut the space, prep and paint, install wire shelving (doesn’t block light or air flow) and see how bright your closets can be. Once done this way, closets need never be repainted, even if you change the color of the room. At most, you may need to touch up scrapes and wash the baseboards and walls.

Kitchen and bathroom cabinets should always be painted bright white on the inside. The inside shelves can be lined with light colored sheet vinyl cut to fit and glued down with floor adhesive. This makes a permanent, wipe clean, water and bug resistant surface. We use scrap flooring left over from other jobs. Thick, cushioned flooring makes it quieter to use the cabinets too. The exterior of your cabinets: well. If your cabinets are some beautiful wood like real, solid cherry, it would be a sin to paint them. If they are made of some dull, nondescript wood, then paint away. Remove the doors, clean everything thoroughly, sand lightly, prime and paint. It is disruptive and takes a while to get an entire kitchen done, but you can also do the work in stages. Just do one set of cabinets at a time and in a few years, they will all be done.

All my wood trim and window frames are painted the same ultra high gloss white. They present a uniform appearance throughout the house and can be easily washed. The interior doors are, very slowly, changing over from dingy, dull tan luan mahogany to the same white. The finished doors bounce light down the hallway into dark corners.

Painting your entire house takes quite a while and some money but it lasts a long, long time if done right. Assume it will take a week to prepare a room and paint it (one coat primer, two coats paint, plus ceiling and trim); much of that time will be spent doing something else while the paint dries. It is tremendously helpful if you can send your toddlers to spend a week at Grandma’s while you paint. It sure made the job easier for me when I could do this. If you can’t enlist grandparents, double the time you think you will need.

Look around and see how much of your house can be painted. With the right primer, almost ANY surface can be painted. Good, careful surface preparation ensures that the paint sticks well to less traditional surfaces. I painted the drop ceiling panels in my finished basement. It was slow, tedious work as each panel had to be moved to saw horses. They could not be painted in place. I also painted the metal grid that holds the panels. I painted all our dingy, fake wood paneling. Some had been painted over previously, some not. Very dark paneling may need more than two coats of paint over the primer. Our basement bathroom had fake wood paneling that was almost black. It took five coats of yellow paint plus the primer to keep the paneling from showing through. I painted the vinyl siding in our Florida Room. The paint is now in its second winter and is holding up fine. A fancy faux finish over the bright white turned that vinyl siding into an interior wall and gave us more living space. I have not painted over wallpaper: I suppose you can, IF the paper is adhering tightly to the walls with no rips, tears, bubbles, etc. If you have those problems, you will have to strip off the paper before doing anything else. Again, reference books from the library will tell you what to do.

4. Floor Coverings

Floors reflect light up to your newly white ceilings. As you might expect, paler or shinier floors mean a lighter space. When we had the hardwood floors sanded, I went with a high gloss finish. I knew regular usage would turn it into a matte finish but until then, how it bounced light around. A few years later, I got lucky in the clearance corner at Ollie’s Discount House and found a huge, cream wool rug. I knew it would make the living room instantly warmer and quieter. I knew it would not stay cream for long with three kids, three cats, and a dog but the price was so low that it was worth the risk. I did not know that the living room would become instantly brighter but it did. And at night, with the drapes closed and the lights on, the magic worked even better! The pale rug bounced the light off of the white ceiling and back around again. It was like adding another light fixture compared to just the plain hardwood floor. Unfortunately, light colored floors do need more maintenance. Without regular vacuuming and occasional cleanings, little kids turn white carpet into dirt colored carpet. If you change your floors, consider the color and reflectivity of the surface: carpet, hardwood, rugs, sheet vinyl, tile. Each one has its advantages. Your choice will affect your lighting and maintenance budget, so choose carefully.

5. Light Fixtures

Your choice of light fixtures and their shades will determine how much light you get from the bulb. You start, of course, by thoroughly cleaning the fixture. Just like the windows, the first washing is going to be the hardest. Lampshades (fabric or paper) should be vacuumed inside and out with the dusting attachment on your vacuum. A feather duster won’t help much when the shades haven’t been cleaned for years. The light bulbs build up a layer of dirt too. Take the cold bulb out of its socket and gently wipe it clean with a damp bar mop. Dry it off completely and put it back. Compact fluorescents get especially dirty since they are so long lasting and have all those swirly dust trapping tubes. Take the bulb out of the fixture and carefully dust all over. I use a feather duster and then a dry bar mop to get in between the tubes. I don’t like using damp clothes on this type of bulb so they have to get dusted more often. Glass shades (called fitters) have to be removed and hand washed in the sink with warm water and dishwashing liquid just like any other dish. Dry them off completely before putting them back. Bill was sure that the glass fitters on the ceiling fan light were yellow. They weren’t: after washing the glass was clear. Wash or dust every single fixture in your house. Even the ones that appear to be closed will still collect dust and dead bugs inside them. After this first go around, you will have to do this every year or so to maintain them. If you need to change a bulb, take the time and clean the fixture.

If you have a fixture with crystal prisms, you will have to remove and hand wash all the prisms in the sink. They cannot be cleaned or dusted effectively in place. Each prism is held in place by a tiny wire with a pin head at one end. Twist open the loop and remove the wire before you wash the prism. Replacement wires and prisms are available at any good lighting store so you can replace missing parts on your chandelier. Faithful, devoted dusting of chandeliers will postpone this tedious job but not for very long. Vacuum the fixture itself while the prisms are drying and get all those cobwebs.

When you buy a light fixture, look it over carefully before you spend any money. Opaque glass lets less light through than frosted; frosted less light than clear glass. Colored glass blocks and distorts light. Dark, heavy, or thick lampshades (paper or fabric) will block most of the light coming from the light bulb. Giant drum shades give a circle of light on the ceiling and one on the table and no light anywhere else. Wooden or metal trim won’t let any light escape at all. Ask yourself why you want to use a 100 watt light bulb and only get 25 watts worth of light out of it. Paper or fabric lampshades can be replaced or refurbished. I have remade shades to get more light, reusing the existing form and wrapping it in lace. Heavy paper shades can be perforated to let more light through. Before you replace a glass fitter, wash it to see what it really looks like. I have gotten lampshades and fitters at yard sales, thrift shops and of course Lowes and electrical supply houses. Many, many lamps are made for ambiance and looks and style. They are certainly not designed for functionality. An electrical showroom will let you turn on the lamp so you can see how much light it releases. You will just have to guess with a yard sale one. Dimmer switches are another word for sitting in the dark.

While you are washing all your fixtures, get all the glass on your hurricane lamps, oil lamps, kerosene lamps, and candle holders. They get dirty even faster because of soot buildup.

6. Mirrors

Mirrors are incredibly useful for reflecting and bouncing light. I really like mirrors and have a LOT of them. Every room in the house, in fact. With the exception of the mirror backsplash behind the stove, all my mirrors came from yard sales, thrift shops, family, or trash picking. If the silvering is still good, the mirror is worth picking up. I have several very large mirrors that used to be attached to dressers. I am guessing this from the construction of the mirror as the dressers were nowhere to be seen when I pulled the mirrors out of trash piles. Many of my mirrors had those awful fake wood plastic frames. Lightly sand the frame, prime it, and paint the frame with leftover paint from other projects. The previous owners will never recognize their junked dresser mirror with its snazzy new flamingo pink frame trimmed in black and white and hanging on a wall.

For best results, place mirrors opposite windows and behind lamps to reflect and double your light. Wall mounted candle sconces really benefit from this treatment. You get twice the light from each candle and you have a heatproof, washable surface. The extra light and added fire safety is why so many traditional designs for candle sconces have that shiny metal wall mounting. If your wall mounted sconces don’t come with a mirror backing, hang a mirror directly behind the sconce or over top of the flat part that holds the sconce to the wall.

You can install mirrors in unexpected places. A mirror tile can be mounted in the far back of an awkwardly shaped kitchen cabinet so you can more easily see what is inside (after you paint the interior ultra high gloss white). We built a fake transom window in our last house with mirror tiles left over from our wedding reception. Twelve inch tiles fit perfectly between the ceiling molding and the trim of the extra wide doorway. Each mirror tile was separated from the next by a strip of screen bead trim (cheap and easy to work with) painted to match the molding. Eight mirror tiles and screen beading made a transom almost nine feet long. It really did make the space brighter and even fooled a few people as we put it on both sides.

As mentioned earlier, I have a mirror backsplash behind my stove. I wanted a wipe clean surface that would double the light from the range hood. A mirror fit the bill nicely. I actually bought this mirror as it had to be a very specific size to fit. It is mounted permanently with mirror tape, mirror mastic, and plastic clips. We also have large mirrors hung on opposite walls so they reflect each other endlessly, bouncing ambient light into infinity.

I have two upcoming mirror projects. I want to make over the drab luan mahogany door in the hallway into a faux French door. Ultra high gloss white paint, screen bead, and eight twelve inch mirror tiles should work. If it does, Dear Daughter’s bedroom door will get the same treatment. Her door lines up with the hallway so when closed, it will reflect any ambient light back. When open, it should bounce light from her windows into the hallway. The kitchen counter behind the toaster is like a small cave; that entire corner would benefit from being mirrored. I have some salvaged mirror. It can be professionally cut and fire polished. The hard, expensive part is cutting out openings for the outlets.

So look around. Make your mirrors work for you. Keep them dusted and cleaned and they too, will give you more lighting for your money.

Next Week: The thrilling conclusion to enhancing your home’s natural light.