Sunday, November 22, 2009

So much for that schedule...

The blog-updating one, not the house-working-on one. Apparently I didn't make a single post while on vacation (surprise, surprise), so I'll have to catch up ... some other time. Meanwhile, let's get the typing started again with, if nothing else, a not-very-elucidating list of things I did around the house today.

- husked the last of the walnuts
- raked the last of the leaves from the front and side yards
- plugged the couple of carpenter bee holes from last summer with that savior of old houses, Abatron
- created more tool hooks in the back room

More stuff later, as always.

Monday, November 9, 2009


Wow. Has it really been two months since I posted anything? The mini vacation I'm taking will give me a chance to catch you all up I'm sure. Meanwhile, here's a little bit of what grows on three tenths of an acre (untended for a few years):

That's a vast amount of buckthorn pulled out of the area around the old shed foundation. There's some more on the west edge of the property, but I'm not going to deal with that until I decide what I'm planting over there.

And here's most of the leaves that fell in the yard. I know! This blog is just so scintillating sometimes:

Monday, September 7, 2009

Shelve it

The good news is I'm doing things around the house. The bad news is I'm doing many things around the house (as well as client work, the very start of ObieGame planning, and a campaign) so updates will probably be horribly behind going forward.

Yes, that made sense.

Here's a project from the other week that, of course, was more involved than I expected. The newer cabinetry in the kitchen included a microwave shelf - handy, but it made the counter space in that area feel too cramped. I decided to pull it and put in a simple open shelf in its place.

Taking it down was a little tricky. The shelf, and the cabinet above it, were screwed into a stud on one side, but didn't line up with one on the other. They were mounted, as you do, by sandwiching screws with heads coming out the back of the units between two pieces of 3/4" particle board screwed to the studs and into the wall with plastic anchors. I should have taken a picture for you, but the short of it was to get to this point:

... took half an hour so the wall wasn't damaged more than it needed to be. Some spackle in the screw holes and in scraped areas, a cover plate for the outlet I decided to remove, and we're in good shape.

Oh, the outlet - it's on the same circuit as the pair below, and it was real easy to deal with. Turn off the breaker, remove the faceplate, pull the outlet out of the box, unhook all wires - there will be many more than you'd expect since it's in series - and simply attach all wires of the same color to each other (all blacks together, all grounds together, all whites together) making sure they're capped and taped so the only exposed wire in the box is the ground (which should be pigtailed to the box still). Push the bundles back into the box and you're done.

Wall painted (thanks to Mike for hauling reclaimed remainders of a variety of useful products down from Michigan; I love freecycling) a nice plain white. The shelf supports are actually from my local garden supply store - the simple design stood out last summer when I wanted to install another simple shelf in the kitchen (see bottom of this entry). Both had to be mounted using plastic anchors into the drywall - this is one of the redone walls of the house so it has drywall over insulation as opposed to the heavy plaster and lathe elsewhere.

The shelf is reclaimed pine from what looks like it was a shed shelf many years ago (there was a finish applied that had weathered in much the same way your wooden school desk might have looked, and faded bracket mount prints on one face). A half hour out back with the random orbit sander, and this thing looks pretty good, if I do say so myself. I may stain it at some point (installation involved one screw per support, so it's pretty easy to take apart if need be).

No more parentheses. Here's it's sibling from last summer:

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Can you identify these holes?

They're by a section of wood that is largely rotted/eaten away and that is going to be replaced (I hope) in the next couple of weeks. Meanwhile, I'm dreading searching online and finding out that these are clear signs of a _______ invasion where _______ equals carnivorous and unkillable bugs from hell.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Pump piping

Loyal readers (hi Ezra!) will recall last summer's adventure with my sump pump, and later issues with the hose getting tangled and once getting frozen. I said last year that I should just replace the hose with PVC piping - and now I'm finally getting to it.

First things first, turn everything off, pull the pump, and see if the pit can't be dug a bit deeper. This will keep the water level lower in relation to the basement floor. I'd poked at this last year and thought the pit had a concrete bottom - meaning no digging. Upon closer inspection though, turns out there was just a LOT of accumulated silt...
and two large bricks acting as a ledge on the dirt bottom (not pictured). Pull everything, dig some more, find two bricks of equal depth, place them carefully, lower sump pump. Now we're getting somewhere.

As usual, these project require way more tools and equipment than one might think. Ignore the caulk gun - that was actually for something else.

Here came the fun part. The sump pump manual has a basic diagram for setting up piping. It calls for a roughly 15" run of pipe running from the pump to the check valve (a one way valve, necessary to keep your pump from getting slammed over and over with water still in the pipes) with a small relief hole drilled into it; then the check valve, then a run of pipe to an elbow joint, then a run from the joint to the outside. This is actually fairly straightforward and should take about 15 minutes, cutting included, EXCEPT most check valves I've seen have one threaded end and one smooth end. I found it easier to buy a couple of connectors to make the whole system a) fit and b) be somewhat disassemble... able.

The above pic shows the end result. A male thread connector at the bottom going into the pump itself, cemented to the short run of PVC. Two different connectors (you might be able to do it with one, but this is what the hardware store had) ending up with a female thread end pointing up. The check valve will screw into this, and on its other end it's cemented to the longer run of pipe with one last connector.

Yes, I did finish this project:

One last important note: I put PVC cement on everything at the bottom of this contraption since I knew how it would fit together. I held off on cementing the check valve to the pipe (which requires all-purpose cement, incidentally - the check valve is made out of a different kind of plastic) and on cementing the pipes at the top (the elbow joint) together so I could make sure the whole thing was placed correctly, allowed for a slant on the horizontal run (to reduce the chances of anything freezing closed this winter), etc. This was a good idea since I discovered that a couple of additional trims and refittings would reap benefit in the long-term. HOWEVER - I was measuring and refiguring and left this all fit together, but not cemented, overnight - and of course that night it rained. Even PVC fittings you have to wrench apart may not be snug enough to withstand repeated pushes of water against the joints - in other words, the following morning, the joint finally separated and water spilled onto the floor a couple of times. No big deal for my unfinished basement, but if you're doing this project you might want to try and complete everything, including cementing, as soon as you can.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Baseboard - your key to not looking like a hovel

The previous owner had mostly redone the upstairs bathroom, but, among a few other things, hadn't had the chance to install baseboard. While prepping the composite baseboard I was planning to install, I realized that there was no stud located at a convenient enough place to put a doorstop, giving me the opportunity to add a small architectural flourish:

I suspect you could do the same thing with an already milled corner block or the like to directly match the profile of your baseboard, but making your own is pretty easy. A simple 45-degree mitre at the top edge will match most simpler baseboard styles. I cut this block about an inch taller than the surrounding baseboard.

Mark off and pre-drill for the doorstop itself.

Testing to make sure it's straight and centered. Remove the doorstop, paint, and voila:

Ignore the lousy linoleum and odd spots on the wall, if you would. The entire bathroom will probably be redone in the next few years.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


These trees are three stories tall. All of the brown leaves are (now dead) creeper vines. I was so busy with the summer theater festival back in July that I didn't notice the massive infestation that was threatening to envelop the trees. Fortunately my dad was in town and pointed it out (thanks dad!) When I delved into the bush to find the main stem, it turned out to be a dual stemmed monstrosity about an inch thick. Heavy pruning shears did the trick, but not without a fight.

Let this be a lesson to us all - have your parents visit more often.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Why it took four weeks to get a porch swing

I have high hopes for building a porch swing from scratch one of these days, but the initial idea was to use wood from a black walnut in the backyard which a friend and I have yet to examine and see if it can be milled. Meanwhile, my neighbors tossed a broken porch swing a few months ago and I figured a rebuilt swing was better than no swing, at least until I carve my own swing straight from the raw timber of my land.

The swing is a bit old but in overall good shape save for the four cracked boards that connect the back of the seat to the bench:
No problem, thought I - I have enough 1x4 (which is wider than the existing boards, but that's not an issue) and I can even use my new dado blade set to easily carve the groove. Of course it wouldn't be so simple. The arbor nut on the table saw didn't want to budge, so I was forced to improvise using just the normal blade. I ran each board through multiple times, shifting the cut width to cut the outer edges of the groove and remove some of the wood in the middle, then used a chisel to clean everything out. The only tricky thing, really, is to remember that the blade will cut further on the underside of the board than on the top - I marked a second line further down the board to compensate and tell me when to stop.

Since this isn't the 'final' porch swing for the house, I took the opportunity to test out some all-natural stain samples to see how they look, and how they weather:

And a porch swing chain set from Lowes:

Now to paint the porch.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A danged menagerie, that's what I have here

A couple of young groundhogs took up residence under my shed. I borrowed a larger live trap from a neighbor and staked it out with delicious bait (cantaloupe apparently works well). Of course, something walked off with the bait without tripping the trap. Fortunately, young groundhogs are notoriously... naive. Leave the empty trap out near their den, and within a day or two:

Looks like he scraped himself up on the trap or before getting in. Released him in the woods and, a few hours later, did the same with his partner in crime (who may have been attracted to the trap by the first one's scent for all I know).

Even though I'd only seeing these two wandering around, I reset the trap and left it out that evening. Came home to find a young raccoon inside, and a very anxious mother prowling around. Despite the youngster's whining, I let everything sit overnight - raccoon mothers are notoriously protective and I wasn't certain I could scare it off long enough to release the kid. Come morning though, mom was nowhere to be seen and the young one was half asleep in the cage. Open it up, tap the back end a few times, it finally lumbers off - under the shed. Time for some cayenne pepper I think.

To conclude this post about trapping tiny animals, here are some pretty pictures of a bird:

When the only tool you have is a hammer...

You really need to go to the flea market. Amongst the other tools I picked up was a cold chisel. While digging out one of the pilings in my backyard, I ran into a series of tough roots. The smaller ones split under the shovel, but the thicker ones just sheared off a layer and stayed put. Cold chisel plus hammer plus two or three taps at each point on the root equals no more root.

Hard and deeply buried targets

That's not an innuendo, just a reference to my days working for DoD. It's also an appropriate title for this post about pulling a set of old pilings that had once supported a deck in my backyard. The deck is long gone and the thick pilings are now just in the way of various plans for the space.

Incidentally, these pics were taken over the span of at least a month. Plenty of things have been happening at the house, but since June 2 plenty more have been happening with the theater festival I'm in this summer. My days have been a combination of rehearsals/performances, housework, client work, eating, and sleeping. No time for reportage.

Back to the reportage:

This is one of five pilings that need to be pulled this summer. Thick, heavy, sturdy wood that's been sunk in the ground for a number of decades now. I asked the previous owner how deep they were and if there was any concrete. To the best of his recollection, they're buried about three feet down, and there was no concrete. You can see where this is going.

They are buried three feet deep.

There is a ring of concrete a few inches down, about 4-6" deep. Fortunately I'd recently bought a three-pound sledge. Remember to wear safety goggles when taking out your aggression on some harmless (but very in the way) concrete. Also, dig out underneath the concrete as much as you can with either a shovel or spade before wacking the rocks.

Pulling an old piling isn't that difficult a process, just time and labor intensive. Dig, break up any concrete, pull any rocks right by the base, keep digging...

If they're buried three feet deep these things'll be pretty hard to pull straight up (although far from impossible - see the last pic in this series). I found the best way to remove them was to rock them back and forth (it also loosens some of the dirt at the base, although if you rock it too hard you'll start compacting the dirt), digging out more of an oval to allow the piling to 'fall' further with each shove. Eventually you should be able to do one of two things - either get a 2x4 under the buried end and just lever the piling out:

Or, if you really loosen all the dirt around the base enough, and there's something to grab onto, you can lean the piling against the side of the hole and drag it up and out:

This third one was a real problem. Aside from the bricks I'd stacked right next to it before the winter that had to be moved, two sides of the piling had obstructions that made it very difficult to dig a full hole. On the right (not visible) are some old tree roots about as thick as your arm. On top is either an old cement/brick pour from who knows when, or some additional heavy fill put in when the piling was sunk. It just took a little longer to work around everything, but now it's done. Hooray!

Oh, and fill the holes back in before you close up for the day. It's always these little details that escape us after hours of manual labor.

Friday, May 22, 2009

More wildlife

But this I'll put up with:


The house has a beautiful old (huge) front door that gets comments from many visitors. Not clearly visible in the pictures is that the door use to hang the other way and it was switched probably well over 60 years ago. It needs some refinishing and a couple of accent bits but those can come later. Meanwhile, functionality is obviously paramount.

A few months back, though, the door began rubbing in its frame more and more. Mishandling (slamming) didn't help things and the situation got worse. I took a look at the frame and found a couple of things. First, there are at least three different types of screws in the hinges, indicating it was patched over time and probably not in the best way.

Second, the door stop was adjusted at some point and when it was reattached to the frame - with just a screw or two - it wasn't properly lined up.

Straightening the stop was an easy fix, and it made it a bit easier to close the door. But it was still rubbing, and getting worse. The top hinge was the worst culprit, and I tried a temporary solution of tightening the screws as far as they'd go. This helped, but was definitely temporary - and more slamming worsened the problem quickly. Soon, the screw holes - already over-wide and partly stripped from the patch jobs - weren't holding the threads and the door was essentially leaning on two hinges.

Talking with several friends and carpenters the diagnosis wasn't great - while some were more than willing to help make it happen, we were talking about replacing an entire side of the door frame. It would be time intensive. With expert friends, it might not cost too much, but it would still be a pretty big project.

Fortunately I emailed one other friend to confirm the diagnosis - O.T. emailed right back with a quick, simple, cheap fix he's found extremely effective: chopsticks. Worth a try, he said, before getting into a costly, big repair.

Rather than pack the old screw holes with putty or replace the entire frame side to give the screws something to sink into, all that might be needed is enough strong wood to surround most of the threads. Typical takeout chopsticks are still bamboo, which is very strong.

A few quick steps and this job is done:

1) Pull one screw at a time. Push in a chopstick as far as it'll go, mark off.
2) Cut the stick - heavy kitchen shears worked for me. Because of the thickness of the hinges, I clipped at least 1/4" shorter than my mark - cutting short in this situation is fine - cutting too long will just screw you over since it'll be hard to pull the chopstick back out.
3) O.T. said wood glue couldn't hurt - I used it on about half of the sticks, just a quick coat on two sides.
4) Put the shortened stick all the way in (use another chopstick to firmly seat it). If you used wood glue, you might as well wait a little while for the glue to dry. Otherwise, just put the screw back in - I felt immediate results with the hinge tightening back into place.
5) For really drilled out holes or thick diameter screws, multiple chopstick pieces can be necessary.

Doing this repair is pretty easy, but it only works if the screw holes are at least the diameter of the chopstick. Doors are often hung with heavier screws, so you'll probably be fine - I would have been very reticent to drill out the holes if the chopsticks didn't fit.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

What the....??

Was just sitting in my dining room when something in my semi-dark living room caught my eye. Turns out it was a bat. A bat flying about my living room, trying to get out. When/how it got into the house, I have no idea. Fortunately a quick dash around to the front door and it flew itself straight out.

Tomorrow, must check for previously unknown gaping holes in exterior...

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Compost bin

Maybe I'll catch up on some - what, two months? - missed posts at some point (treasure hunt, circus, now summer theatre festival all conspire to suck my time from updating this blog, if not also updating the house). Meanwhile, let's go with what we know (and have pictures of). Today's illustrated lesson: how to make a compost bin for $4.

Start with scrap wood. I took some 1"-square posts - probably from an old wooden swingset - cut them down to 3' with a 45-degree cut at one end so they became stakes. Miscellaneous scrap of a huge variety of widths cut to 3' gave me the planking for the sides.

Depending on the weight of the scrap wood you'll probably want to assemble (or at least connect the sides to each other) closer to where you plan to place the bin. This next image shows three completed sides, leaving about a foot of each post at the bottom to be driven into the earth. This turned out to be unnecessary (and hard to do) so I wound up driving them about 6" deep, and moving the top plank on each side to close the bottom. I think planning for 6" of clearance at the bottom of each post should be fine.

Locate the bin, pound into the ground with a mallet or hammer and woodblock. Here you can see the 'swapped' planking, leaving some space at the top of each stake - handy if I ever string or fit a cover over the top.

As luck would have it, I stumble across what looks like part of a shipping crate in a junk pile - and it was the perfect width to serve as the bin's gate. If you don't have handy piles of pre-built salvage lying around your neighborhood, just remember that the gate you build out of scrap won't be as wide as the other 'walls'. Two hinges and a hook from the hardware store were the only materials costs on this project - about four bucks in all.