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.

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.]

Unfurling the Tannenbaum

Saturday, December 13th, 2008

Tannenbaum08-3.jpgBefore leaving on my trip, I had to perform one last ritual, the ceremonial unfurling of the Tannenbaum, which is a purely male task in my household. I used to think that it took a lot of effort to purchase and ‘plant’ a natural Christmas tree. I remember my dad struggling with the tree and a flimsy sheet metal holder, made out of red & green sheet metal. It had 3 screws to hold and center the tree, and he used to put pennies between the ends of the screws and the tree to keep them from just boring right thru the tree. We had a similar holder when first married, but when I found a heavy welded steel holder at a shopping mall gadget shop, I bought it, intending it to be a lifetime purchase. It still took between 30 and 120 minutes of fussing with saws, hatchets, and acetylene torches, usually in a constant downpour that was just a bit to warm to freeze, at least until it was under your collar.

Moving to Europe, and renting our dwelling, we decided that artificial would be most appropriate. I guess we’ve gotten our money’s worth out of the current tree, which I’ve just spent over an hour straightening. The tree is made from a central stalk with a bunch of brushes hanging off it from wires. Once you’ve found it in the garage, taking it out of the box (last year, we bought a special bag for it), and putting it together is about a 5 minute task. Then you start preening and straightening the branches. This is when you start wondering if a real tree wouldn’t be less work. Its a trade off between the sticky sap and pleasant smell of a real tree, and the straightening and increasingly moldy whiffy smell of the Fuller brush tree. I should borrow one of those pine tree scent gidgets that all cabbies have hanging from their rear view mirror (some are pine, many are vanilla, and a lot of them are just something abstract and stinky to compensate for the loss of tobacco privileges).

Listening to the recording of a recent NFL game, just to get me into an American mood, I started in on the lights, which is another male responsibility. Christmas lights used to be big hunky fiddly things that were so expensive you’d repair every year. Now they are delicate little fiddly things that break even more often, but aren’t worth repairing. Like the tree, they come from China, so they are probably unhealthy to eat. Light strings don’t just plug into the wall any more–they plug into a 24v wall wart. This means that you not only have to find the lights, but you also have to figure out where your son put the transformers. Even though he’s at college in the States, he still managed to hide them before leaving, using them for his Chinese-themed (again) 18th birthday party. The market seems to have standardized on a common voltage and plug, so the good news is that you don’t need the transformer that came with the light string your wife wants to use. I managed to get about 80% of the lights working on a string of incandescent bulbs, and all the lights were burning on an incredibly blue LED-based string.

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.