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Handyman Letter
November 15, 2001


1) Surviving the "next" plague ...a message from the Natural Handyman

2) Our appreciation to sites and publications that have recently linked to, listed or featured NH!

3) Sweepstakes Central... winners and new contests!!

4) What's new at

5) Q&A with our readers


7) "Pass the hammer, would ya?"... NH's readers speak out!

8) Featured in the Natural Handyman Bookshop...
"Refacing Cabinets: Making an Old Kitchen New" by Herrick Kimball

9) Recommend our newsletter to a friend... or rate our newsletter!!



As a young adult in the 60's, I found it easy to grasp the "circular" nature of life. The theme appeared everywhere, though most notably represented by Peter, Paul and Mary in their song, "The Great Mandella"... the "wheel of life" that always returns us to familiar though not necessarily safe places. Or as Yogi Berra is once said, "This is like deja vu all over again!"

These concepts are perhaps best expressed through the pithy words of Mark Twain and George Santayana...

1) History repeats itself.

2) Those who disregard the past are bound to repeat it.

At first blush they seem contradictory, don't they? If history repeats itself, what difference does it make if we disregard it? Won't history repeat itself anyway?

Yes and no. Even though human nature leads specific individuals, societies and armies to make choices similar to those before them, it is not they who must not "disregard the past"... it's us, those of us on the "receiving end" of their decisions and actions. To not note the warning signs of dangerous behavior is to allow history to rule us!

Special report!! The date... somewhere in the mid-thirteen hundreds. An Italian merchant vessel arrives in Sicily from a Chinese port. China is already suffering from an unknown disease that is killing millions. Infected sailors bring the disease ashore. Though they were quickly expelled, the damage was irreversible. People begin dying horribly... by the tens of thousands!

In a short but devastating 5 years, one quarter to one third of Europe died... over 30 million people. It was hundreds of years before medical science made the association between hygiene and public health. Little did they know that the rats so common to shipping vessels were packing a cargo of deadly, plague-infected fleas... the real source of the disease. Once the local rat populations became infected with plague, the disease spread rapidly through the human population.

The line between superstition and science blurred. Bathing was discouraged... it was believed that it would open the pores and allow the disease in. Thinking that the disease was inhaled, some doctors speculated that breathing pleasant odors would cure the plague!

History repeats itself in unexpected ways. Fast forward to 1930. According to Japanese and Chinese scholars, the Japanese military infected prisoners in Manchuria with plague to test its efficacy as a biological weapon. Imagine that... using a disease that could spread worldwide as a weapon of war! What were they THINKING?

Hiccup. Forward to the 1940's. Japan again engages in biological war with China, dropping plague-infected fleas mixed with wheat from planes and killing over 2000 people. Gee... deja vu again?

Forward to 1965... a law suit was brought against the Japanese Ministry of Education for removing all references to biological warfare from history textbooks! Saburo Ienaga, an octogenarian professor from Tokyo University, worked for thirty years to have his case heard. In 1997, the suit finally reached the Japanese Supreme court. To his chagrin, he only gained a philosophical victory. The court concluded that censoring history was indeed wrong and undesirable BUT they did not order the Ministry to stop! A high court rules that ignorance is indeed bliss... life goes on.

It is clear that many societies resist learning from history. In October of 1997, the US Center for disease control celebrated the 20th anniversary of the last recorded case of smallpox... a truly amazing accomplishment needing uncommon worldwide cooperation. Not to diminish their celebration, it is important to note that the vaccination against smallpox was invented by Edward Jenner in 1796... meaning it took nearly 180 years to eliminate smallpox "in the wild".

180 years! Yet, despite centuries of tragedy and this apparent victory over a deadly disease, smallpox is not really gone. It still survives in laboratories for the purpose of experimentation and production of vaccines... vaccines that we shouldn't need if smallpox was truly wiped from the earth.

In the light of current events, the medical and political establishment is wondering if it was a mistake to stop giving routine vaccinations against smallpox. What do you think? What decision would you have made given the words of Twain and Santayana? And do you think any attention was paid to history?

The lessons of the plague and of smallpox are more than just a need for vigilance and scientific method in disease control. They are not lessons of science at all... they are lessons in human nature and of history... a history that will repeat itself in awful ways unless we realize that we cannot escape the "Great Mandella".

Recognizing that this wheel of history exists is a first step. Doing what needs to be done to confront the historically inevitable is the second and more difficult step. Just as putting off buying life insurance until you are uninsurable or not saving for retirement... societies also need to look to history and historians in planning for the future. Difficult and perhaps unpopular social decisions will have to be made, with emphasis on educating the people in matters of history and human nature so they truly understand that our very existence is at stake.

To not do so will surely bring ruin to all. But you don't have to believe that which I have written. It is history... recorded, written history. Read, listen, learn.




HOW'S THAT GAS GRILL?? Though many uninformed folks think that grilling is strictly a three-season sport, many gas grill owners keep firing up those old briquettes all year long... even in snow country!

So to keep your grill smokin', read the tune-up tutorial we have posted courtesy of APPLIANCE REPAIR PARTS.COM. It covers all aspects of gas grill repair, plus offers you the ability to purchase parts online.. just in case your local stores don't have the right parts!



Dear NH,

I had a ballast fail on a florescent light fixture. After replacing the ballast, only one side comes on. The fixture has two horseshoe-shaped tubes. I wired the new ballast but only one tube light up. Yes, I've checked the bulb by switching it around and it does work. I was almost positive this was the way it was hooked up before but now I'm questioning myself. HELP!

RM from West Fargo, ND


Ballast installations are pretty straightforward, but with the number of wires you have to deal with they can be quite confusing... a two-tube ballast can have 10 wires! And, to make matters worse, sometimes the new ballast may have a different color configuration or number of wires than the original. Scary!

Had you consulted me prior to your adventure, I would have told you to make a detailed diagram of the wires and their colors... just in case... but it's too late for that now. So I will try to give you a little low-key fluorescent wiring theory to help you figure this problem out yourself.

First I will assume you purchased a compatible ballast by bringing the original with you to the hardware store. Also from your description, I gather your fixture has two bulbs so with that in mind...

There are two wires that connect to the electrical source... black and white. Black goes to the "hot" wire of your service and the white goes to the "neutral" wire. Since modern wiring conforms to this color scheme, the ballast connection is normally black-black and white-white.

One end of each fluorescent tube, regardless of the tube's shape, uses a common ground wire, which in your case would be yellow. Therefore, BOTH WIRES of the socket on ONE END of EACH BULB should be connected to the yellow wires.

The socket serving the other end of each tube would be connected to two wires, one socket going to the two red wires and the other socket connected to the two blue wires.

To reprise... one bulb has two yellow wires on one end and red wires on the other. The other bulb has yellow wires on one end and blue wires on the other.

Good luck... and next time LABEL THOSE WIRES!!


Dear NH,

We are restoring a staircase in our house that was built in 1885. The stain on the wood is dark brown/black. What was the name or color of that period for interior stain on wood?
I have stripped some of the wood and it is pine.

BN from Flovilla, GA


Stains of that era were most likely hand-mixed and colors were not as consistent as modern manufactured stains. So forget finding a color match by name!

I suggest getting a piece of similar pine and a few cans of Minwax or other brand of wood stain that closely match the original... and test them on the scrap pine. If necessary, intermix them to obtain an intermediate color. I have done this successfully in the past and, since you are going to do the entire staircase matching is less of a problem. The resulting color should look great!

Just don't mix stain brands OR mix oil and water-based stains. Who knows what brew you might come up with!


Dear NH,

I have an old house I bought that was sided with vinyl siding in the 1970's, it is in good shape, except it is so discolored. Can it be painted? Also, what is a good way to clean it... it is a two-story!

KS from Minnesota


There is some debate as to whether vinyl siding should be painted. The controversy surrounds the expansion and contraction of vinyl siding, which is much greater than wood or aluminum siding. Paints that do not expand with the siding will crack.

However, this is not a problem if you use top quality acrylic latex primers and paints. Acrylic latex paints are remarkably flexible and, providing the surface is thoroughly cleaned, will work well on vinyl.

The siding should be cleaned and dried thoroughly. For hand washing, Owens Corning recommends the following cleaning solution: 1/3 cup powdered detergent (Fab�, Tide� or equivalent powdered detergent), 2/3 cup Spic & Span� or equivalent powdered household cleaner dissolved in 1 gallon water. If your vinyl has mildew, substitute a quart of household bleach for one quart of water in the mix.

Apply the solution with a sponge or an automobile brush. Rinse thoroughly while still wet.

Of course, you could simplify your life and rent power washing equipment, which would be quicker and also make cleaning the upper level somewhat easier!! Just be sure to get a cleaning solution designed for powerwashers... or you might end up loosing you home in a mountain of soap suds!!



7) "PASS THE HAMMER, WOULD YA?"... NH's readers speak out!

Dear NH,

I just received a form message concerning the question I submitted to you.
What a polite way to tell me to F&%$? OFF!!





It is always amusing... and now somewhat annoying... to receive a response like yours to the automated message that is sent to all our questioners.

You should be ashamed! Our automatic mail server was very hurt by your crude language. After all, it was only following orders and doing its job!

For your information, our automated messages are intended to 1) let folks know that we received their question and 2) that an answer is not guaranteed. Nothing more. I do in fact respond to quite a large number of questioners each month, though the business of making money outside of "cyberspace" precludes manning a full-time help desk... at least for now.

Of course, all of this information is clearly stated on the page where you submitted your question; perhaps you should read it.

Time's up! Excuse me, now.... I have to answer a few more questions from people who don't expend their energy by verbally abusing helpful strangers!



Last newsletter, MR from Pittston, PA wrote about a problem he was having with a noisy fluorescent fixture. Some of our readers offered suggestions that are worth noting... and passing on...

GB suggested replacing the inexpensive magnetic ballast with an electronic ballast. However, he was wise to note that the replacement ballast might cost more than the fixture!! (In my research I found that electronic ballasts, besides being more expensive, are also more sensitive to heat than magnetic ballasts. Since some fixtures have the ballasts located right next to the bulbs, this heat MAY be an issue.)

KG offered two suggestions concerning possible problems with the wiring. First, if the fixture was as the end of a long run of wire, there might be a voltage drop that could cause a "dimming effect". Fluorescent fixtures are generally not dimmable... trying to do so can either cause them to go off OR produce some vibration in the ballast. KG also wondered if the installer properly grounded the fluorescent fixture. Old incandescent fixtures were typically not grounded, and lack of a ground could cause a ballast to become noisy!

CF and SR suggested checking that the ballast was securely mounted. Many ballasts vibrate to some degree, but a loose ballast will be even louder! CF suggested checking the entire fixture, not just the ballast. SR went a step further to suggest using a heat-resistant silicone caulk if tightening was futile.

There was wide consensus, though, that the cheaper the fixture, the noisier it will probably be! Thanks to all!