DIY Renovations Don’t Have to Be Scary With These Tips from the Brownstone Boys

Brooklyn design duo Jordan Slocum and Barry Bordelon emphasize fun and fearlessness when it comes to tackling any home project, big or small.
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At the intersection of heritage and modern design, you’ll find renovators and designers Jordan Slocum and Barry Bordelon—the Brownstone Boys.

In 2018, seven months into their relationship, the intrepid pair bought their beloved 1890 Brooklyn brownstone. As the pair documented their journey on their blog, YouTube videos, and social media posts, viewers followed the couple’s adventures in renovating their 120-year-old home.  With backgrounds in design and DIY projects, Slocum and Bordelon eagerly jumped into their cosmetic and historic renovation. "We wanted to learn the home’s history and we really felt the best way of doing that was doing it ourselves," Slocum says with a smile.

Their audience became their clients, and in just a few short years, a personal passion project became their full-time career. Slocum and Bordelon are beyond busy as renovation project managers and interior designers. What makes their projects unique are the personalized touches that generate a gravitational pull, creating spaces that homeowners love and want to enjoy to the fullest.

While the idea of doing any renovation whether it be painting your hallway or changing the hardware in the kitchen can feel intimidating, it doesn’t have to be. If you're interested in dipping a toe into the world of home renovations, large or small, heed this advice from the Brownstone Boys.

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Planning pays off

The Brownstone Boys are no strangers to doing their homework to help projects go smoothly, attributing project success to all their prep work. They subscribe to a measure three times, cut once philosophy (literally and figuratively) in their approach to home renovation.

Having an honest conversation around budget is first and foremost. Knowing how finances affect your project can make a difference in which projects you start, the materials you use, and whether or not you can afford professional help if you need it.

A part of planning that homeowners may not consider is the flow of their space. The Brownstone Boys recommend understanding how you live and use a room so you can renovate it to suit your lifestyle. Slocum points out that there are certain nuances that you pick up on once you spend time in a home. "You want to live in your space before renovating so you understand how everything moves together," he says. "It’s an opportunity to get your configurations right and then handle all the smaller [cosmetic] projects afterward."

Be prepared with the essential tools on hand. Whether you beg, borrow, or rent what you need, Slocum says, "Tools are the most important thing in any DIY and having the right tools will definitely set you up for success." He recommends a drill, a ladder (which people always seem to forget), and a saw for a basic DIY setup.

Should you live in your space during a renovation? It depends. There’s no need to relocate for small cosmetic projects that are done and dusted in one afternoon. If you’re ambitious and have contractors working on features that affect your electrical, plumbing, or noise levels, temporarily leaving your abode will do wonders for your peace-of-mind.

Find resources

Benefit from the experience of others who have taken on projects you're considering. When the Brownstone Boys started, they couldn't find answers to their specific questions about historic renovations, bringing older buildings up to code, salvaging the home’s original elements, and more.. They researched, did a lot of work themselves, and became a resource for others undertaking brownstone renovations.

Seek advice from people you know, watch YouTube videos, follow experts on social media, participate in targeted community forums or websites about your project, and get inspiration from plenty of online sources. Some of these folks are very engaging and willing to answer your questions, which can help make your project easier.

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Start small with a paint project

Paint can be transformative, and there is a lot you can do with it—add accent walls or murals, create texture, and use different techniques. There are very low stakes with a painting renovation. If you’re not fond of the result, repaint it with another color or revert to your original hue.

Before picking up a brush, Bordelon advises to, "spend a lot of time taping everything out so when you start painting, everything is protected."

Collect everything you need before you start—rollers, brushes, trays, and inserts you can swap out so you don’t lose momentum. A trick the Brownstone Boys picked up from professional painters is wrapping brushes and rollers in plastic bags between coats, which keeps them from drying out, even overnight.

Learn how to apply wallpaper

Wallpaper is having a moment right now, and countless designs are available. Wallpapering can be intimidating for many DIYers due to its precise measurements, pattern matching, potential for air bubbles and creases, and how time consuming it can be. It feels like there’s a lot of pressure to get it right. 

Whether you’re adding an accent wall or papering an entire room, the Brownstone Boys have some words of wisdom to help the application go smoother.

First, they prefer the wallpaper where you paint on the glue because you can move it around on the wall to get it just right. Some new peel-and-stick wallpaper is not so forgiving for adjustments. "The peel-and-stick wallpaper is easy because you don’t have to use the glue, but once it’s on, it’s on. It’s very difficult, so you can’t really move it around as much," Bordelon says.

Second, when coming up to a corner, trim your wallpaper in place using a sharp razor blade, as the walls in many homes aren't a perfect 90-degree angle.

Lastly, wallpaper patterns only repeat so many times, so make sure that you factor that into your plans by laying out the paper and lining up the pattern before adding it to the walls. You may not have enough if you calculate the amount of wallpaper you need based on square footage alone.

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Order more materials than you think you need

It’s better to have too much than too little material for home renovation projects like flooring, tile, and paint. Depending on where you source your materials, they may have a buyback program for leftover supplies, so get these details before you purchase your goods. Other options the Brownstone Boys recommend are getting creative with excess materials, like turning tiles into a beautiful mosaic for a tabletop or another out-of-the-box project.

In the planning phase of your project, also understand lead times—especially if you are ordering anything custom or handmade, as you don’t want to cause delays in reaching the finish line because an item is on backorder.

Change out lighting fixtures or doors

The Brownstone Boys know a lot about doors—as statement vintage doors have become something of a hallmark in their designs. Doors can be a bit more tricky because you want to ensure the sizing is just right and the handle is on the correct side. From swapping out the laundry room door to changing bifold closet doors for closet French doors, this is often a DIY most homeowners can accomplish.

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Most novice home renovators should be able to change their lighting fixtures and doors. You can find some stunning light fixtures for under $100 that change the ambiance of a home. The fixtures are often simple to install on your own or with a friend (when in doubt, search YouTube for a tutorial!).

Have patience with paint stripping

Paint stripping provides a smoother surface, improves paint adhesion, and achieves a more professional and durable finish. Stripping is essential when changing colors dramatically and dealing with damaged or uneven surfaces.

When it comes to trim and moldings, the Brownstone Boys say they can tell every decade they’ve been through because they see a rainbow of colors come through with trending colors from years past.

"When we go into new projects, we always assess the original materials that are still in the house," Slocum says, brightening. "Wood stripping is one of our favorite things to do." The Brownstone Boys actually wrote an excellent blog post about their paint stripping techniques and essentials, which includes information about which respirators, protective gear, and heat guns, among others, they like the best. 

But first, determine if paint stripping is a worthwhile renovation by starting with a small project, like a window casing, rather than an entire story. Paint stripping takes a long time, so bring in extra hands to help with the workload.

Know when to ask for help

If your renovation requires permits, plumbing, electrical, moving walls, or other projects where expertise is warranted, a good project manager or contractor is worth their weight in gold. A skilled tradesperson has an understanding of this scope of work, and they can help set you up for success with your next significant home renovation.

Home renovations don’t have to be high risk to be high reward. Homeowners can often do an excellent job themselves with the small aesthetic details that make their dwelling feel like an extension of who they are. The best advice from the experts is to know when to contact a professional. Cosmetic renovations like hanging curtains, installing a new light fixture, or painting the walls are excellent places to start for somebody who wants to help their house feel like a home.

Are you ready to renovate? If you ask the Brownstone Boys what to expect with these types of projects, Slocum keeps it realistic: "We haven't had a renovation without hiccups. It’s a rollercoaster ride. Whether you’re hiring professionals or you are completely DIYing the entire renovation, you need to prepare yourself... but it’s so much fun."

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