Archive for the ‘DIY’ Category

Bulembu: Service Day 2 outdoors

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009


The crews working on the physical plant made a lot of progress on the first day, but started running into roadblocks. None of the battery packs for the rechargeable power tools were keeping a charge, slowing work on the toilet doors. They finally managed to finish hanging new doors on the stalls by the end of the day after borrowing a power cord from one of the other crews.

They also put new sinks in both the boys and girls sides, and added some new drainage to relieve some trouble spots.

They also replaced several of the window panes along the back of the toilets.


The building used for the centre is actually a former bar–one of the many repurposed buildings in Bulembu. Like many of the buildings in town, it and the building next door have metal multipane windows that apparently date to the 1930s. Lots of glass needed replacement. Our glaziers got off to a bit of a slow start learning how to trim glass panes without breaking them, but they figured out the tricks and used up all the panes that were purchased before we arrived.


They painfully scraped and chiseled out the old putty, replaced the panes, and then used huge bags of old-fashioned window putty to hold and seal the panes into the metal windows. Trimming window glass to size was relatively easy–stretching undersized glass to fit into larger panes turned out to be the biggest challenge of the week.



Trash is stored outdoors behind the building next door. It was unsafe to leave bins of trash in an area full of children, so our crew built a sturdy lockable wooden enclosure around the garbage storage area.


The ICC volunteers completely repainted both the building used for the centre, and the building with the toilets.




Holes in the wall and Toilet Seats: DIY around the world part 3

Wednesday, August 6th, 2008

I’ve just written the following email to several suppliers of plumbing equipment:

WhaleOfAToilet-4469.jpgSUBJECT: My toilet doesn’t have a flat rim, resulting in broken seat hinges

I’m having difficulty finding a suitable replacement seat for a toilet marked ‘Savoy.’

After the hinges broke on several replacement toilet seats, I took a good hard look at my toilet. It turns out that the rim is not flat, which means that all of the weight of the occupant is falling on the front two bumpers, and the hinges. There is ¼” of space between the bottom of the back bumpers, and the toilet rim.

No wonder the hinges keep breaking-they are not meant to be weight bearing.

Is my toilet defective, or is there some sort of special curved seat that I need to buy (comfort factor?). What do you recommend I do, replace the toilet, find a special seat, or is there a high-adjusting hinge?

Thank you, Jay Heiser

I don’t think that we are especially hard on our toilet seats, but we have been replacing them at an unacceptably high rate.

I need to explain that toilet seats, like so much else in England, are special here. Apparently, nobody established a single standard for the width between the hole centers where the seats mount. The solution, at least whatever you can buy at a DIY store, the local ironmonger or online, is a one-size fits all seat that is very fiddly. The need to accommodate variations in mounting hole centers necessitates a kludgey adjustable design for the hinge flanges. As can be seen in this site, replacing a toilet seat in this country is not a routine matter:

As shown on this photo (after the first couple broken seats, I began saving the parts for future use), The hinge post is screwed into the top of the mounting flange with a simple machine screw. Loosening the screw allows the mount to rotate, changing the relative position of two holes. Its your choice which of these two mounting points you use for a threaded rod that is inserted through the toilet and tightened underneath with a nylon wing nut. This means that there are two cheap machine screw threads inside the mounting assembly to loosen up, which they do with regularity. Having already spent too much time fiddling with these in our last English house, I had already started using Loctite.

Hinge looseness is contributory, but alone, it does not explain the high failure rate of toilet seat hinges in the master bath. I originally thought it was a quality problem. The seat I bought at the DIY store broke, and we needed a quick fix for a guest, so we bought what was available at our local ironmonger. I nice husband and wife run the place, but they both gave me a nasty look when I suggested that their thin plastic £30 seat didn’t seem especially sturdy. Apparently, you aren’t meant to sit on top of the lid, because this one broke very quickly. As shown at the top of the page, Elizabeth tried to make the best of it, but we bought yet another seat before my parents arrived for Kirk’s graduation. (She heard on a radio show that an open toilet flings fecal matter a distance of one meter, so we prefer a seat with a lid).

Now that I’ve figured out the problem, and realize that any plumber or DIY store will treat me like an oaf if I try to explain it to them, I’ve decided that the only solution is, once again, Powerputty. I pulled the two rear bumpers from the toilet seat, kneaded up a couple balls of epoxy putty, stuck them onto the base of the bumpers, stuck them back onto the bottom of the toilet seat, and then pushed the seat firmly down. I fiddled with them joint between the seat and the bumpers a bit, but it is neither an aesthetic nor a hygienic masterpiece. However, in use, all 4 bumpers are now firmly resting on top of the warped toilet rim.

Holes in the wall and Toilet Seats: DIY around the world part 2

Sunday, July 27th, 2008

The English feel that American houses are horribly dangerous. Not only are they flimsily constructed from sticks of wood, but they are unhealthy, blowing hot air out of all the walls in the winter, and cold air in the summer. The English have a natural trust for thermal consistency, preferring to heat their homes in lumps, instead of centrally.

Moving into a house in England, although a rental one, I was sure that I’d have plenty of opportunity to drill more holes in the wall, and buy more tools. When Elizabeth wanted to hang an IKEA bathroom cabinet, I figured it was a great opportunity to use my hammer drill. Putting an adapter on the Continental cord so that it could fit into the overly large English socket, I was ready for some major holeage. The external walls on most English houses are a sort of breeze block or cinder block stuff–a sort of fluffy masonry. Figuring that the wall was this stuff, I decided to drill a big hole and use a toggle bolt to solidly anchor inside the wall. To make a long story short, I stuck the toggle into my hold, and it didn’t catch like I expected, so I pushed it a little farther, and the next thing I know, Elizabeth is complaining that some piece of hardware just fell down the stairway. We got out of that house.

Still not fully cognizant of the different construction of interior and exterior walls, I ran into all sorts of metal pieces and masonry when trying to rehang a heavy curtain over the sliding door. My predecessor hadn’t done a very good job of it, and I naively assumed that I could just drill a bigger hole and put in a bigger screw anchor. This is what you do when brackets periodically fall out of the wall. You drill out the hole, put in bigger anchor, and then move before your local DIY store runs out of anchors (der Dübel in Austria, although I haven’t figured out what they use them for, given the cement walls).

Making the hole bigger wasn’t an option in this case because the (apparently) thick metal flange I ran into partway through the wall meant that I couldn’t go deep enough. Stepping back and taking a closer look at the problem, I realised that the reason the middle curtain bracket was off center was not because my predecessor was unable to use a tape measure, but because he’d already given up on the optimal spot because the hole had been widened too many times.

I walked 5 minutes down the high street to Chapmans Ironmonger and threw myself on their mercy. I left with an expensive little package of Power Putty, an epoxy compound uniquely suitable for filling holes in the wall (70kg/cm2 according to Euro Std EN 1465). It isn’t just drillable, sandable, paintable, and sturdier than whatever used to be ther, its fun. I started looking for other holes, just for the sheer pleasure of filling them full of kneaded epoxy putty (hint–spit on your fingertips so that you don’t glue yourself together).

Several months later, the drapes are still firmly attached to the walls of the living room. That’s one chronic problem solved.

I wonder how well Power Putty works on toilet seats.

Holes in the wall and Toilet Seats: DIY around the world part 1

Sunday, July 20th, 2008

You’d think that home repairs would be pretty much the same everywhere, but this turns out not to be the case. There are lots of differences in construction convention, and when you don’t grow up there, home repairs become very mysterious.

Take something simple like drilling holes in a wall. In America, the walls are all made of a sort of solidified cottage cheese, covered with heavy paper. You can drill a hole in a wall with a toothpick. Moving to Austria in ’01, I had this romantic and eventually frustrated notion that I’d be traveling all over the continent, buying gourmet organic hand tools the likes of which you just couldn’t get in America. The few I’ve found, like PB, a Swiss brand of screwdrivers that are made like surgical instruments, are now available in the US, so where’s the prestige value of that? (

We arrived in Vienna without furniture, a temporary situation that resulted in two marathon 8+ hours in IKEA (I’ve spent hours in business meetings speaking German, but still don’t know how to fluently say “My wife says that your other store has a removable cover for that couch in a darker shade of gray with a heavier texture.” What’s the word for couch? Davendingsbumm?) Suffering from chronic tendinitis (see subject Computers Will Break Your Heart), one of my first metric tool purchases was a rechargeable Bosch drill and a set of screwdriver and hex bits. If you’re going to do a lot of screwing, you gotta have the right tool.

The drill worked well until Elizabeth wanted me to put a hanging on the wall. Our apartment was in a lovely and newly renovated building that, unlike some of its neighbors in the neunzehnten Bezirk, had lived through the war quite nicely. Teutonic speakers like to build things to last, and apparently this one was especially Teutonic. My first attempt to drill a hole with the cheapie twist drill from the DIY store barely put a dent in the wall. So I tried a smaller bit and I pushed harder, which snapped it off. So I got wise, and bought a masonry bit. The walls still could have been made out of diamond, for all the good I could do using my suddenly feeble ni-cad powered hand tool.

After a couple weeks of complaints that I wasn’t fulfilling my husbandly role of drilling holes in walls, I found a used 1-HP Binford hammer drill. 220Volts!! Man, I HAMMERED those walls. First the white dust came out, then the red dust came out, and then your drill bit bottomed out. ZOOM! I quickly ran out of holes to drill, and only used that drill in Austria one more time. I did try it on an IKEA project, but the screw went in one side of the shelf and right back out the other. Swedish pine just doesn’t need as heavy a touch as Austrian cement.

I pretty much kept my hand off the electricals in that apartment, in contrast to my later experiences in England. In order to touch anything electrical in Austria, you need to be a Diplom Ingeneur. Unless you’re from Yugoslavia and paid in cash–then you’re allowed to do anything. We’d never get anything done without a constant string of moonlighting guest workers. In Austria, your apartment doesn’t come with light fixtures–you have to wire them in yourself. From a wife’s point of view, this is a marvelous opportunity to go shopping. From a husband’s point of view, this is a royal pain in the ass. I guess I should consider myself lucky that we didn’t have to install the entire kitchen, which is not uncommon.

We were the first ones to move into the apartment, so there were some repairs and projects already in process under the sponsorship of Frau Magister Doktor Zimm, our landlord. More than once I came home to find Elizabeth and some Yugoslavian guy, neither of whom spoke much German, pointing at the electrical or plumbing diagrams in a Duden Bildwörterbuch (picture dictionary), each with a half-finished bottle of Stiegl beer.

Not only were the ceilings higher than my ladder, but I admit that the electronics of the place were mystifying. The wires weren’t the colors and configuration I was used to in America, all the fixtures where lights were supposed to attach were different than American fittings. Being 220V, you would be twice as dead if you grabbed a bare wire and jumped into the bathtub. Of course, you can’t do that most of Europe, because they even put the light switches outside the bath, just to make it that much harder to electrocute yourself.

In another of the gross contrasts with our upcoming English experience, the electrical panel was of 21st century design. A gleaming, blinking example of Teutonic technical glory, it apparently ran itself, because I never had to touch the thing, which was good, because it had no instructions.

The floor heater in the kitchen had no instructions, either. An extremely minimalist, it only had one button on it, although the temperature could be controlled to a precise degree on a rotating schedule based on a clock and calendar. Elizabeth cracked the code before Frau Magister Doktor did, subsequently waking up every morning to toasty feet. The lack of instructions were probably an advantage in this case.

Unfortunately, the economy didn’t really cooperate, and I called a premature end to our Austrian experiment in Sept 2001, when I found a new job in London. This turned out to be a huge opportunity to learn all sorts of new things about DIY.