Archive for the ‘DIY’ Category

The greatest loo, sir?

Friday, February 15th, 2013


Can there be a more annoying chronic DIY subject than the humble flush toilet. A seemingly simple device, it suffers from an amazing variety of degradative failures: flakey flaps, varicose valves, and the dreaded waxseal wipeout. Hardly the ideal environment for an extended repair session, I actually dread the sheer fiddliness of the thing more than I do the aesthetics.  It remains a rocky throne.

Across the course of my adult, and especially spousely life, I have pulled the ring tabs off of countless toilets, in several continents. While I hesitate to speculate on the source of wear (and I once inherited a suburban commode that could only be explained by a decade of corn cobs), it’s the equally mystifying question of alignment that finally brought matters to a head this week.

Most of the seemingly countless toilets that have fallen victim to my wrench have been blessed by a standard size and hole configuration. Once the inevitable happens, and a seat has reached its final bottom, the only factors leading into a choice of replacement are quality and color. The local home repair superstore has a choice of white seats priced for 10,000, 25,000, or 50,000 wipes. Inside of a few minutes, the deed is done, and you’re ready for a long-deserved sit down. Until our second rental house in England, which had seat alignment weaknesses in multiple dimensions, it never dawned on me that a nation could even survive without standardizing Returning to the USA, I looked forward to a more commodified approach.

Disappointingly, it turns out that ‘American Standard’ does not refer to the hole centers for the saddle mounts. Our latest high-tech loos add a ring wrinkle: a pair of adjustable pins attach to the top of the rim with stainless steel hex screws. The seat slides down over the retaining pins and locks into place. Removal of the seat, for those who are especially fastidious with the Lysol, or for those who anticipate frequent replacement, is a simple matter of pressing a single button, neatly releasing two internal clamps from the grooved pins.

The frustration with this model is two fold.  First, no matter how seemingly snug the results of a 5/32” hex key may be (and over torqueage would almost certainly lead to denial of service, if not an expensive replacement), physics always triumphs.  The forces of leverage ensures that the pin positions creep over time, with the front edge of the seat gradually, unsightily, and even uncomfortably, increasingly cantilevered over an unwilling tile floor. Second, its a pain in the ass to adjust the pins.  They not only have to be the exactly correct distance apart to fit into the base of the seat, they also need to be in the correct fore and aft position.  As is the case whenever taking aim, windage needs to be spot on, although at least elevation is fixed.

Such a high maintenance item, let alone 4 of them, could drive a person potty, and I find it no comfort station.

Breast Drills and Eggbeaters

Saturday, November 10th, 2012

Heavy drilling, not to mention constant screwing, obviously benefits from rechargeable hand tools, but I’ve been rediscovering some of the lost pleasures of the human touch.

Millers Falls 77a

As a youngster, I was not allowed to use Dad’s electric drill, an intimidating monster, its die cast interior sparkly with alternating current.  With its chuck key and missing ground pin, and long before double insulation, maybe safety concerns were justified.  If I wanted a hole, I had to gnaw it out myself using a Stanley eggbeater hand-cranked drill.


In a sort of return to the safer and quieter days of my youth, I’ve been experimenting with a Millers Falls 77a. As long as you chuck up a sharp bit, its surprisingly effective, and there is something satisfying about using a tool without a plug. I’m not sold on the way the left handle is concentric to the drive wheel—it reduces your leverage, encouraging the entire drill to rotate around the handle when you crank it.  The Stanley I grew up with had the left handle offset from the axle, and people tend to be most comfortable with the drill of their childhood.  The arrangement of the 77a means you have to put your left hand on the rear handle, which probably helps add some thrust, but if I need that much pressure on the bit, there’s a better option.

Val D'or Breast Drill

For heavy-duty, human-powered, hole-hogging, I’ve got a brute of a breast drill that I picked up at the Windsor, Berks car boot sale. Its got a 2-speed gear box (change speeds by moving the crank to the other axle), a sturdy ball bearing thrust bearing behind the 3-jaw chuck, and a breast plate so you can hold it against your chest and really lean on it. It’s labeled ‘Val D’Or’, apparently a French company from Tours.

I’m Never Fully At Home Without Tools

Sunday, November 4th, 2012

Our species is characterized by tool use, and I just feel more human when I’ve got the right tools and a place to use them. Living in an urban apartment in Austria, and then a rental house outside of London, I was always short of some vital tool, and whenever something broke, I had to take a trip to the hardware store to buy a screw or part. I was chronically short of pieces of wood to beat on, or to use for a joint brace on some deteriorating Ikea furniture.

Cabin Basement Work Area

Soon after we were able to move into the cabin, I setup a work area in the basement with tools and fasteners for patching, prep, and putzing. The workbench was built by my Grampa Heiser for my 5th birthday, and he designed it so the table height could be raised as I got taller.  I used it through high school, and later re-milled the oak top and repainted the base, in its original machine shop green, for Kirk.

Cabin Basement Work Area

Elizabeth found a $1.50 rechargeable jig saw, the stoo,l and the retro red toolbox at garage sales. She also got a great deal on a pair of vintage Luxo L-1 lamps, one of which I clamped to the workbench.  I’ve got a favorite subset of tools to carry around in the red tray, along with a well-worn Ryobi rechargeable drill, inherited from Elizabeth’s dad.

Cabin Basement Work Area

I admit to being a screwdriver junkie.  Craftsman are always cheaper by the 2 or 3 dozen, so I splurged and bought a large set, with their reassuring red & blue slotted screw, and clear-handled Phillips.  Black & clear handled Torx turn out to be necessary for chainsaw repairs.  The only non-Craftsman are a #2 square drive that I needed to fasten the cover on the junction box for the septic leach field, and a large Yankee of unknown provenance. I’m gonna try to get along without the Reed Prince that Sears used to toss into the set (red and white handle?).  The Marples chisels, which I once spent several hours lapping (but got bored before I fully flattened the backs), have seen a surprising amount of action on picture frames, wobbly furniture, and door frames.

Stanley Wooden Bottom Smoothing Plane

Summer humidity meant that several pine-framed doors needed the edges planed down so they would shut.  A few years ago, I found a small treasure trove of planes and spoke shaves that had belonged to my Grampa Grender, including this old Stanley  wooden base smoothing plane.  In storage since my grandfather’s death in 1971, the tools are all scary sharp. Both of my grandfathers were artists with the whetstone, and even though it wears slightly every time I use it, creating two-foot long, paper thin shavings from the edges of our Amish doors is a transcendent connection to my grandfather .

Cabin Basement Work AreaCabin Basement Work Area

Grampa Heiser’s 1964 workbench had a small pegboard that arrived with a uselessly small pipe wrench, a small claw hammer with a handle that I eventually broke, a slotted screwdriver with a purple wooden grip, and a hacksaw—my first tools.  Grampa Grender took me to Uncle Bills (an early and short-lived discount store chain in northern Ohio) to buy a small and long lost wood saw with interchangeable blades.  I don’t know where all of my hand tools went, I don’t know where all the stuff pictured above came from, but a half century later, that useless little pipe wrench is still hanging on the pegboard behind Grampa Heiser’s workbench.  Grampa Grender carved a new handle for the tack hammer, and after 45 years, the cherry has darkened nicely.

Every Castle Needs a Throne

Monday, April 9th, 2012

Toilet in upstairs bath

After a busy 5-truck day last week,  involving plumbing and an amazing amount of window hardware, our Amish carpentry crew pulled the plastic coverings off the windows, and we had our first night’s sleep in the cabin.  We are still waiting on some plumbing fixtures and shower doors, but at least we’ve got a working trio of toilet, sink, and shower in the downstairs bathroom. After a noisy startup, our old washer and dryer have settled into their new Ohio home and have been busy cleaning tractor mud from my one pair of work jeans. Other than a balky dishwasher, another transplant from Virginia, the kitchen is operational.

Elizabeth has done an amazing amount of cleaning, unpacking, and nesting.  Days of sweeping, vacuuming and scrubbing, including hiring a pair of women with mops for a day, and putting my mom to work on a couple shower stalls, has mostly removed the thin, and sometimes thick, veneer of construction dust, mounds of glop, and piles of wire trimming.   One week ago, it was an empty building, full of cardboard boxes and dirt. Now it feels like a home.

A new place requires a huge amount of screwing. I mounted a couple of poplar 1x3s to the utility room wall (without breaking any cement screws this time), and after trimming it to size, attached a pegboard.  Then I hung up a paper towel holder in one of the relatively few gypsum walls.  There still seems to be an infinite queue of towel racks, toilet paper rolls, mirrors, lights, and electrical plates that needs to be hung, so I’ve got lots of drilling and screwing to look forward to. At least the plates already have holes.

A couple years ago, we developed a taste for metal switch plates.  We like being well-wired, and lots of walls have 2 or even 3 outlets on them.  Even before finishing all the outlets in the basement level of the cabin, our Amish electrician had bought out all the white metal outlet plates in a 3-county area.  A quick count shows that when the a shipment of plates arrive, I’ve got over 2 dozen to screw in. The electrician already hung the ceiling fans and most of the lights, so I’m not on the hook for that (Electrician: “Do you know how many light switches there are in this house?” Elizabeth: “60?”  Electrician: “65.” Elizabeth: “Is that a lot?” Electrician: “Yup.”)

Elizabeth found a swing in Coshocton that matched the color of our porch, so she sent me down on Saturday to see if it would fit in the back of the Subaru. It came with a chain, which solved one problem,  but not with something to hang the chain from.  After I managed to squeeze the swing into the back of the wagon, I went to the lumberyard in Coshocton to see what they recommended.  They talked me into a pair of screw eyes and a pair of springs.  I wasn’t sure if comfort dictated suspension, but he seemed to think the springs would be the perfect interface between the eyes and the chain. (“Do you have something for those eyes to screw into?” “They are going into a 6×6 beam.”  “That’ll do.”)

Porch Swing Spring

Dad and I decided to start with one screw eye to see how it went.  So I climbed up on a step ladder, drilled a hole, screwed the eye in using a screwdriver as a lever. Then I climbed down the ladder and we stared at it. And then we stared at the puzzle represented by the spring unit.  As it turned out, the suspension mechanism did interface nicely with the chain, although it meant pulling the chain thru the center of the coil spring, hooking a metal loop through it, and then pulling the loop and chain back through the spring.  As far as the other end of the suspension unit went, there was no way the entire cabin was going to pull through it.  There was no way the screw eye was going to pull through it. The solution turned out to be a pair of S hooks between the eyes and the springs, but the hardware store hadn’t sold me any of those. Dad found a pair in the barn, and now we’re hanging easy.

Newly Installed Porch Swing


[If you want to see all the entries for the cabin building project, they start here. The next Building the Cabin entry is Finishing the Cabin.]

Cabin Heating Up

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

Elizabeth and I spent the first week of March sleeping in the Millersburg Comfort Inn, working on the cabin and getting it ready to move in.  It still needs plumbing and electrical fixtures, but things are heating up.  Just about all of the trim is finished.  The woodstove for my office was delivered and installed, and we cranked it up to make sure that it worked. We’d purchased a fridge months ago, and it was also delivered and plugged in. There’s nothing quite like that first beer from an indoor fridge in a new place. The geothermal has been plumbed up and running for at least a month, but the thermostat wasn’t install in the upstairs zone was waiting for some drywall and paint.  The installers stopped by to wire it up and they gave us a quick briefing on how to change the 2 large air filters on the heat pump.

Elizabeth and I had a long visit to Keim lumber. While she talked countertops in the remodeling center, I looked at tools I wasn’t going to buy, and then scheduled a delivery of dimensional lumber and pegboard.  Kirk helped me attach 3 poplar stringers to the cement wall of the garage and we hung a pegboard from it.  Feeling more confident with my cement screw skills (hint: set the adjustable clutch on the drill to 19, and if the screw doesn’t seat, don’t try to torque it in. Back it out, open up the hole with the hammer drill, and try the screw again), I attached 4 2×4 cleats to the wall and proceeded to build a shelf frame around it.  I used scavanged scraps of floor sheath for the shelves.  Maybe its a bit overbuilt, but if a tornado hits, I will be curled up on a shelf that is screwed into a poured concrete wall, 8 feet below ground level. I also hung up some old flourescent light fixtures.

After the last of the carpentry work was done, Elizabeth spent hours with a rented shop vac cleaning up the floors, and late morning on Friday, the truck arrived with most of our stuff.  Above shows Elizabeth in our upstairs bedroom with the furniture that belonged to her grandparents. Long story short, our 2001 move to Austria wasn’t expected to last very long, but it turned into an indefinite stay in England. When we moved back to the USA in 2009, we decided that we’d bring back some furniture, plates, cooking stuff, stuff, and stuff, so we’d have enough stuff for the original house and the new cabin.  All that stuff stayed in boxes in the basement, garage, and several rooms of our house for 2 years and 5 days. At least one piece of IKEA furniture has now been in 3 countries, 1 apartment, and 4 houses.

Speaking of contributions to the Swedish economy, back in January, Elizabeth had taken the dimensions for 4 closets to the local Container Store and worked out shelving plans.  The store provided 10 neat bundles of precut hangers, shelving, and rods, along with all the necessary hardware.  I spent Friday afternoon and a couple hours on Saturday continuing to screw.  One advantage of a log house is that you don’t have to worry too much about finding studs. The shelf I’m hanging from is screwed into the main pine beam that holds up the top floor of the cabin. Elizabeth kept careful track of which utilities were inside which interior walls, so she knew that there was a 2×4 behind the barn board panel at the top of the above closet on the left.  The main shelves and rods in our closet are attached to an outside wall, which is made out of solid wood.


[If you want to see all the entries for the cabin building project, they start here. The next Building the Cabin entry is Every Castle Needs a Throne.]

After a decade, does my garden remember me?

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

The last time I grew any veggies in my garden was 2000, and I didn’t have time to do much. That December, we packed up all our things and moved from Vienna, VA to Vienna, Austria, and for nine seasons, my garden was at the mercy of our tenants.  I’ve missed the feel of dirt in my hands, the thrill of God’s gift of life, and the taste of heritage tomatoes, fresh from the garden.  I knew that some gardening had taken place during the last 9 seasons, but I just didn’t know what I was going to find.

View from my office before cutting trees (looking north)

I didn’t really want to do any gardening this year without dealing with the trees that had always prevented the garden from having full access to the sun. Hundreds of white pines had been planted in our neighborhood in the 1980s, and three of them that were along the south edge of the vegetable garden, and what is left of the orchard, had grown into 50′ monsters. It was time to take them down.

Looking SW across the veggie garden

Looking SW across the veggie garden, 1 more tree to go

The photo above shows the last, and smallest of the trees, just after it was topped. The stump of a larger one can be seen just to the left of the compost bin. Besides the shade, it was making a mess of the garden, sending big roots diagonally underneath at least 6 of my 15 garden squares.  I ended up chopping out 2 big sections of root that are about 3’ long, and 3” in diameter that were distorting a frame and hiding berry roots. I put my new mattock to the test, and it held up better than I did, although a new shovel is not.

Raspberries have been dug out, but it still needed a lot more digging

I’m a follower of Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening method.  Arguably it is not the most productive method, but I sure think it is the easiest, keeping the weeds to a dull roar and minimizing the need for digging, fertilizing, and spraying.  Someone had planted raspberry, which for very good reasons is not normally co-located with lettuce and beans, so this week saw me trying to clean the canes out of the 3 garden squares that were playing host to what was becoming a huge prickly weed that was ready to take over the rest of my garden. The photo above shows the 3 squares that needed to be cleansed of berry cane roots, which required removing the pavers between the squares.

I ended up pulling one of the wooden frames out to dig the root and berries out, I took the opportunity to dig down farther on the uphill side and level it, making it into sort of a mini terrace. I pulled up all the pavers around it, and the ones on the cross path heading to the edge of the garden, and did some grading, hopefully improving the drainage.  The last tenant also had at least one dog, and had nailed wire mesh fence around most of the squares, so I spent a couple hours pulling those off, instead of taking advantage of 78 degree weather to plant.   One of the garden squares had a small bush growing in it, so I ended up disassembling the wooden frame to dig out the bush. Putting in a new frame is a project for later. Maybe I’ll grow potatoes there.  I’ve never done ‘taters before, and I’m going to plant 4 different varieties later this week. 

Raspberries have been dug out, the bush and mesh fencing is next to go

Berries and bushes and other barriers aside, I was pleased with the dirt.  Unlike the red Virginia clay a few inches underground, the plots that I dug up were filled with rich dark soil, with lots of fat earth worms.  I was more than a little worried that after a decade without me, all the organic matter would have leached out, but that seems not to be the case. Although they are well dug at this point, I decided to leave the raspberry squares for later, on the assumption that any roots left behind would sprout and be easier to find later.  I quickly and lightly fluffed up one 4×4 square and planted peas, spinach, lettuce, and radish. I decided to take a chance and went no-till on the 2nd square. I find that lots of plants do just fine without my wasting time doing preparation that they don’t need. Besides, all that digging freaks out the worms.