Tag Archives: DIY

Free time

Here is some of the stuff I’ve been doing in my free time since I finished the draft of the novel last weekend:

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In February, I pulled up our stained, worn-out wall-to-wall carpet to find a beautiful hardwood floor hiding underneath. Instead of spending the better end of $5 a square foot on cork-look luxury vinyl tile, I spent less than $100 on sandpaper and Danish oil.

Before I could start working on the floor, I came down with bronchitis. Then the pandemic hit, and I had to figure out how to teach, put out a paper, and coordinate the production of a yearbook, all remotely, while writing the first draft of my latest novel.

I finally got a hand free Monday to start working on the living-room floor. At my dad’s recommendation, I sanded it by hand and gave it a couple of coats of Danish oil. It was time-consuming, physically demanding work, but I think it turned out well. We used part of the money we saved on the floor to buy a new wood-slice coffee table with hairpin legs. *Swoon*

To keep my neck and shoulders from completely seizing up on me while I was sanding and oiling the floor, I stopped every hour or so to stretch and spend a few minutes working on the new mural I just sort of randomly decided I needed in my office. I’m designing it on the fly, but I think it will look pretty cool when I’m done with it.

I’ve always sort of wondered what I could accomplish if I had a big enough block of time on my hands with relatively few distractions, and the pandemic has pretty well answered that question. I have several other projects brewing. We’ll see how many of them I finish before the world reopens.



Eco-Saturday: Incense energy audit

Want to find all the spots in your house that are making your furnace work overtime? Grab a stick of incense and a lighter and spend a few minutes performing a sort of informal energy audit. Here’s how:

1. Shut off the furnace and any fans you might have running.
2. Raise all the blinds and pull back the curtains.
3. Light a stick of incense. Holding it very steady, pass it around the edges of all your windows, doors leading to unheated spaces, and electrical outlets and switches on exterior walls. Use a slow, steady motion, and pull the stick away from the burning end rather than pushing toward it. As you move, watch the smoke. It should rise smoothly from the burning end of the stick. If it shimmies, pulses, or otherwise appears to be disturbed, you have an air leak that needs to be sealed. (You’ll also want to pay attention to the burning end, taking care to keep it from touching curtains or other flammable materials, and be sure to have something handy to use as an ashtray as you work.)
4. Make a note of all the places you found leaks, and find an appropriate method to seal them.

If you find leaks around windows, the easiest solution is to seal them with plastic film; if you’re feeling ambitious, you can also insulate the panes themselves with bubble wrap or make Roman shades out of blankets to put an extra layer of warmth between the great outdoors and your living space. You can plug leaks under doors with an inexpensive DIY draft stopper made from rice and fabric remnants. You can buy insulating shields for electrical outlets and light switches, but I prefer to make my own for free out of the polystyrene trays that come with meat and some produce at the grocery store.

You won’t find every single source of wasted energy with a stick of incense, but in the absence of a professional energy audit — which can get pricey if your utility company doesn’t offer them for free — it’s a good, inexpensive jumping-off point to help you identify some of the most easily mitigated culprits. A stick of incense and an a little elbow grease can go a long way toward reining in high heating bills.


Make-It Monday: I paint because I’m lazy

Longtime readers will recall my adventures in drywall repair last winter, necessitated by the slipshod home-improvement work done by the previous owner of this house.

The drywall in our bathroom was installed as poorly as the drywall in the rest of the house, and the paint job was even worse — drips and cracks and alligatored spots everywhere.

I could retape the joints, sand everything down, and repaint the walls in there with some textured finish that would conceal any flaws, but I’m not going to, for two reasons:

1. My projects earlier this year in the bedroom and office taught me that I haaaaaaaate working with drywall in tight spaces and rag-painting around obstacles.

2. I need a sample of trompe l’oeil mural work to show prospective clients, as most of my murals — with the exception of my faux-neon pieces — are done in a more cartoonish style.

With all that in mind, I decided to make the cracks in the bathroom wall look purposeful.

This is a work in progress, obviously, but here’s what I’m up to:

Preliminary sketch.
Preliminary sketch.
Closeup of a section that's about 95 percent finished. I need to come back and soften up some of the mossy patches on the stucco, but this is the upshot.
Closeup of a section that’s about 95 percent finished. I need to come back and soften up some of the mossy patches on the stucco, but this is the upshot.

It’s not perfect, but neither is the wall. Intentional imperfections, rendered in careful detail, seem infinitely preferable to imperfections created as a result of someone’s sloppy attempts at home improvement, and hopefully the end result will be realistic enough to earn me another paying mural gig or two somewhere along the line.

I’ll post an update when I finish the project.


Make-It Monday: Hot-process soap

Making homemade soap has certain benefits. Among them:

* It’s cheap, especially when compared to the small-batch soaps you find at gift shops and farmers markets.

* You control what goes into it, so if you love one ingredient or hate another, you can find or develop a recipe to suit your preferences. (Teatree essential oil, for instance, is great for treating and preventing skin-level fungal infections, while peppermint and eucalyptus will open your sinuses while you shower.)

* It doesn’t require packaging. For personal use, I keep a Tupperware container full of unwrapped bars in the pantry.

* It makes a nice gift.

Soapmaking has a few drawbacks, the three main ones being that you have to work with lye; you have to be very precise in your measurements, temperatures, times, etc.; and you have to make it six to eight weeks before you plan to use it, lest you end up with chemical burns from insufficiently saponified soap. (Saponification is the chemical process by which lye and oil turn into soap.)

The hot-process method eliminates two of these problems. There is no such thing as soap made without lye, so there’s no workaround for that one, but the heat cooks out most of it, allowing it to saponify fully in two weeks instead of six, and it requires far less precision than the cold-process method, particularly where temperatures are concerned.

My favorite hot-process recipe is one that uses a slow cooker to heat the lye and oil. Rather than plagiarizing it for your convenience, I’m just going to tell you to click here to find it. (Important note: DO NOT use a slow cooker you love dearly or intend to use for anything else. The lye WILL etch the ceramic crock and shorten its lifespan. If you can find a Crock-Pot at a yard sale, that’s probably your best bet.)

It looks awful, but it's good soap in spite of itself. Just imagine how great it would be if I'd actually stuck to the recipe instead of screwing up and skipping steps.
It looks awful, but it’s good soap in spite of itself. Just imagine how great it would be if I’d actually stuck to the recipe instead of screwing up and skipping steps.

Remember what I was saying about hot-process recipes being very forgiving? The bars pictured above are from a batch that turned out OK despite the fact I did basically everything wrong because I hadn’t made soap in a while, forgot some important steps, and had to make adjustments on the fly. It still turned out ugly but usable, which absolutely would not have been the case if I’d been using the cold-process method.

If you read the recipe closely and follow the directions carefully, your finished product should be much prettier than mine, and eminently suitable for using at home or giving as gifts.

Happy soapmaking!


Make-It Monday: Cheap cabinet storage

I couldn’t decide whether this was a Make-It Monday entry or a Tiny Tuesday entry. The two often overlap, as many of the things I make around here are meant to increase my storage or organize my stuff. This one is kind of a combination.

First, the “make it” part, which is pictured above: I got sick of looking for the lid to my big saucepan — which has a bad habit of hiding in the back of the cabinet when I need it — so I got online and found some storage ideas. This one wasn’t the prettiest, but it was cheap and practical, and I knew I had a package of tiny screw eyes in the junk drawer and a roll of wire in my craft closet, so I grabbed the drill and rigged up an easy way to keep track of that lid.

While I was thinking about the unused space on the back of the cabinet, my eye fell on the small graniteware stockpot I’ve been using to store cooking utensils since we moved to Cape almost four years ago.

I really could have used that stockpot a few times last winter, but it was busy storing utensils on the countertop — handy but not really the highest and best use for the space or the stockpot.

I went back to the junk drawer and rustled up a handful of Command hooks, which I pressed into service holding measuring spoons and cups, kitchen shears, quail-egg scissors and any other odds and ends I could hang back there without hitting the shelf every time I closed the door.

Stick-on hooks aren't exactly a new concept, but I reclaimed some unused space by putting them inside a cabinet door above my jury-rigged pot-lid holder.
Stick-on hooks aren’t exactly a new concept, but I reclaimed some unused space by putting them inside a cabinet door above my jury-rigged pot-lid holder.

I stuck a couple more on the back of the door to the cabinet where I keep mugs and drinking glasses and hung up my tea infuser and bottle opener.

IKEA came through the other day with an elegant solution to the problem of oversized utensils that wouldn’t hang well on the cabinet door, but I’ll save that post for another day.


Make-It Monday: Free cord concealer

As part of my redecorating project this summer, I got rid of the rickety, cheap-looking vertical shelf that had been supporting my turntable and DVD player and replaced it with an open-front credenza fashioned from a storage-cube unit and a set of mid-century-style legs. I love the credenza — which looks sleek, provides a lot of storage, and goes well with the rest of the furniture — but because it’s much shorter than the shelf it replaced, the cords for the television and peripherals were visible, and they looked anything but sleek.

See that f'ugly mess?
See that f’ugly mess?

You can get fabric cases for cords, but they don’t always match the walls. I wanted something I could paint the exact same color as the wall. I looked at some of the rigid PVC cord hiders at the hardware store, but they seemed unduly expensive, and they were all designed to mount flat against the wall, which wouldn’t work well with our swivel-mounted TV. I needed something lighter and more flexible but still paintable.

Enter the humble wrapping-paper tube.

Cardboard tubes are big enough to hold several fairly thick cords, and they’re lightweight enough that you can cut them with scissors and fold or twist them as the situation warrants. Perhaps best of all, they’re free. Here’s how to turn one into a cord concealer in about 10 minutes.

Slit the tube.
Slit the tube.

1. Use scissors or a sharp knife to slit it all the way up one side and trim it to the length you need.

It's OK if it tears a little bit. That's why God made Scotch tape.
It’s OK if it tears a little bit. That’s why God made Scotch tape.

2. Use leftover wall paint to cover the entire outside of the tube, the ends, the edges of the slit, and a few inches up the inside. (Note: You do NOT need to be very neat about that inside part.)

That's a tomato-stake tie. Handiest stuff this side of duct tape.
That’s a tomato-stake tie. Handiest stuff this side of duct tape.

4. Bundle the cords together and use twist ties, Velcro strips, tape, or string to secure them in a couple of places.

Much neater.
Much neater.

5. Once the paint dries, slip the tube over the cords with the slit pointed toward the back. If necessary, secure it with a little transparent tape.

Free, easy, and it took me less than 15 minutes of actual work to create and install mine.


Make-It Monday: Failed attempt to defog headlights

I keep seeing these dramatic before-and-after photos on Pinterest that show how you can defog old plastic headlight covers using cheap toothpaste.

I was pretty sure this was crap the first time I read it, but I figured it was worth a try, since the headlights on the Dreamcar were covered with black walnut sap, the plastic was yellowed, I’d gotten overspray on them after forgetting to mask them off last time I painted the hood, and toothpaste costs a dollar a tube. If it didn’t work, I was going to have to replace them anyway, so why not give it a try?

Have I mentioned how much I hate the black walnut tree next door?
Have I mentioned how much I hate the black walnut tree next door?

Following several sets of instructions I found online, I applied some Ultra-Brite toothpaste to the headlights with an old toothbrush.

Here we go.
Here we go.
Totally covered.
Totally covered.

I scrubbed it around with the toothbrush for several minutes and then hosed it off. The sap came off, but the plastic still looked pretty bad, so I took some advice I found on another how-to-clean-your-headlights post and reapplied the toothpaste, using a Scotch-Brite pad to scrub it off.

When I rinsed, it looked pretty good — not perfect, but less yellow, maybe, and most of the overspray came off — but as the water dried, the plastic fogged back up and looked worse than it had to start with:

I'm not sure this is an improvement.
I’m not sure this is an improvement.

Back to Pinterest. A commenter on one of the how-to articles I’d found suggested applying olive oil. Another suggested vinegar. I’d made a pretty effective furniture polish out of a mixture of the two and still had some left under the sink, so I ran in and got it. Definitely an improvement:

Shiny again. Sort of.
Shiny again. Sort of.

Another commenter said the best method was to attach an old sock to a belt sander, put the toothpaste on it, and use it to buff out the scratches. Several commenters agreed with this, so I found a worn-out running sock and gave it a go.

At least I'm recycling.
At least I’m recycling.

Buffing seemed to help some, and I suspect if I’d done it first — before I took out after the plastic with that abrasive Scotch-Brite pad — it would have helped more, but I was still underwhelmed.

Yet another commenter insisted WD-40 is the way to go. Well, of course. Anything that can’t be fixed with WD-40 or duct tape belongs in the trash. I rummaged around under the kitchen sink, found my WD-40, and applied it, buffing it in with a fresh sock on the sander.

This was the result:

I swapped sap and discoloration for scratches.
I swapped sap and discoloration for scratches.

Not bad at first glance. Maybe an improvement. But as soon as it rained, they fogged up again and looked like frosted glass in the dark — very pretty, but I’m not sure you’re supposed to drive with a Streisand filter* over your headlights.

Conclusion: This method is, indeed, utter crap. The sock on a sander might work without any of the substances I applied, but the toothpaste and Scotch-Brite just scratched up the plastic and made it worse. I’d also be leery of using anything abrasive or acidic near a factory paint job, as I’m not sure what it would do to the finish.

Pinterest fail. I’ll take the Dreamcar to the Honda dealership next weekend.


*My friend Brandey’s term. We used to watch a lot of old Barbra Streisand movies, and Brandey noticed the cinematographers always used a soft camera filter on her close-ups.

Score one for Pinterest.

Most of the crap I find on Pinterest is … well … crap. But I went looking for storage ideas today and liked this excellent little space-saver so much I wound up using it as my excuse du jour for taking a field trip to the hardware store.

The whole unit fits neatly between the fridge and the wall.
The whole unit fits neatly between the fridge and the wall.

The version somebody pinned from Classy Clutter (which is an excellent site, BTW) looked prettier than mine, but I’m lazy. And cheap. And lazy. And my station wagon is in the shop at the moment, getting its transmission rebuilt, so I didn’t have a good way to bring home a ginormous piece of bead board for the back. And did I mention I’m lazy?

Here it is before I loaded it, so you can see how it's put together.
Here it is before I loaded it, so you can see how it’s put together.

If I feel ambitious later, I can unload it and take it outside and hit it with a few coats of spray paint, but I think we all know that isn’t going to happen.

Anyway, instructions for my version are below the fold. I made it four feet high, partly because of the aforementioned station-wagon-going-AWOL issue, partly because my refrigerator is only five feet high, and partly because I could buy an eight-foot-long board and have it cut in half for $2.22.

Continue reading Score one for Pinterest.

Eco-Saturday: Change your furnace filter

The old filter, left, and new one, right.
The old filter, left, and new one, right. Photo by Ron, who was kind enough to snap a quick iPhone picture last time he swapped out our filter.

Changing your furnace filter isn’t the most glamorous or visually stimulating Eco-Saturday tip you’ll ever get, but it’s an important bit of home maintenance that really shouldn’t be neglected.

A filter clogged with dirt, pet hair and other debris limits the amount of air moving through your furnace, forcing the blower to work harder, dragging down the energy efficiency and potentially shortening the life of your system.

If you’ve never changed the filter, go look at your furnace. Locate the existing filter (you’re looking for something that resembles the end of a long, flat cardboard box) and pull it out. Printed somewhere along one edge will be the dimensions — a series of three numbers telling you the length, width and thickness of the filter. Write down the numbers.

Put the filter back and go to the hardware store. Most hardware stores carry approximately forty-eleven billion different types of filters. If you have allergies, look for one designed to filter out allergens. If you don’t have allergies, buy whatever’s cheap; the differences in quality aren’t significant enough to make the expensive kind worth the extra money unless you have serious issues with indoor air quality. The important thing is to get the right dimensions, which is why you wrote down the numbers on your old filter. If those numbers don’t match, the filter isn’t going to fit right or function properly in your system.

Take your new filter home, pull out the old one, and put the new one in its place.

If you need a visual, here’s a pretty good YouTube video on the subject:

That’s all there is to it. The whole job takes about two minutes (20 if you count the time you spend going to the hardware store) and will save you a lot of money on energy costs. We change ours every season — the same time we test our smoke detector batteries and change the water filter on our kitchen faucet, which helps us remember to do it.


Eco-Saturday: Cheap all-purpose cleaner


I use vinegar to clean almost everything. I don’t mind the smell, but then again, I’ve been known to order Pickle Pops by the case. Some people balk at using vinegar as a household cleaner, because the smell can get a little intense.

Enter this excellent idea I found somewhere online (Pinterest, probably) for recycling citrus peels into all-purpose cleaner.

You will need:
A good-sized jar with a lid
Distilled vinegar
Citrus peels

Cut up the peels into manageable chunks. Roll up each piece of peel as tightly as you can, shiny side out, and put it in the jar. (Rolling causes the pores of the outer skin to release citrus oil, which is the key ingredient in those pricey biodegradable cleaners you get at the health-food store.)

Cover the peels with distilled vinegar, close the lid tightly, and let it sit on the counter. Add peels as you get them. Every time you add some peels, add enough vinegar to cover them. Any kind of citrus peel will work — orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit, etc. I bought a juicer recently and caught a sale on grapefruit, so I had a lot of grapefruit peels handy. I also had some Clementine oranges and a lime, all of which went in the jar.

Let the jar sit for at least a week after the last addition of vinegar. The longer it sits, the more it will smell like citrus instead of vinegar.

Strain the vinegar into a spray bottle and use it as you would Windex, Formula 409 or similar multipurpose cleaners. The peels can go in the compost pile. (Unless you’re vermicomposting, of course. Citrus and vinegar are both too acidic for worms.)