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Handyman Letter - July, 1998


1) More than just rot... a message from The Natural Handyman

2) Hello and thank you to web sites and publications that have recognized the Natural Handyman in the past month!

3) What's new at Demystifying 3-way circuits

4) Q&A with our readers.

5) LINKMEISTER's Corner... Plastic laminate countertop repair, padlock combinations, gardening links, and "green" resources!!

7) Surprise, Surprise... You've got to see it to believe it... a bathroom vent that get's right to the "source" of the problem!



One of my clients has 20 foot high square wood columns on her brick front patio supporting a decorative overhang... a stunning visual centerpiece of their 6000 square foot suburban mansion. (And as an aside, you other weekend warriors would die to have their basement!) These columns, 18 inches wide, have lately been showing some evidence of insect activity and peeling paint near the base, so she asked me to investigate. The exterminator had been by but the ant problem continued in the house, though none were visible outside where the spraying was done.

Wood rot is one of those repairs that are minimized by homeowners. "Just a little paint peeling..." "I didn't notice anything until just last week..." or "The house is only 5 years old...". Maybe it's a defense mechanism, or just innocence. Whichever it is, it makes the dismal disclosures I must often make all the more unappetizing. This house was only 5 years old. With a little paint peeling. But by the look on my face... the slack jaw and glazed eyes... she knew to steel herself for an unwelcome surprise.

She was not home when I began my exploratory surgery a week later. As I removed one side of a 10-inch high pine base molding surrounding the bottom of one post, it crumbled in my hands. A few carpenter ants scurried more deeply into the post, and more began circling in the hammer of sunlight. Behind the molding was the three-quarter plywood that faced the post. It too was soaking wet and degenerating into pulp. I probed into the post, and my 5-inch awl disappeared into the saturated wood

This was a moment of truth for me, since I had neither the tools nor inclination to continue. Being the "small job pro" that I am, I could see that neither small nor job applied here in this soggy cellulose mess. I cleaned up the scattered wood pieces and rusted nails and took a closer look at the post. Now it was obvious what had happened. The TRUE base of the post was BENEATH the level of the brick!

Suddenly my eyes were opened. The posts were resting on a cement base, and the brick was installed after the posts were in place. The wood base molding hid the fact that the posts were literally marinating in a brick well, damp 24 hours a day for 5 years. No wonder they were in such sorry shape!

If I only saw this type of construction sin occasionally, I would not be so angry. But I see this too often to write it off to human error. In fact, another house on the same street built about the same time had a similar problem with a brick set of front steps built against a wooden cornerboard. Couldn't the mason have had the wood removed before he began his work, or at least have installed flashing? Or would it have interfered with his schedule? We will never know. Again, ants and rot within 5 years.

I must admit I have a bad habit of ascribing motives to people I don't know...a very bad habit... but is it too unkind to wonder if some contractors intentionally "overlook" these flaws in their work? Is it laziness, or cost-cutting, or a way to hide a lack of knowledge or foresight?

And I wonder why the either the town's or the home buyer's independent building inspector did not notice this construction blunder? Or is the inspector, overburdened with work and, worse, the contractors know it? And then again, I'm wondering if it is fair to ascribe motives here?

I really don't expect any of you to storm city hall and demand answers. We each move to our own music and it seems today that there is little time in our busy days for drum beating. But I would emphasize to all of you that shoddy, lazy workmanship occurs every day. Just as you responsibly and caringly strive to do your best in the raising of your children and the performance of your chosen careers, you should strive to know as much as you can about your home and how it works. Your home is your haven, and knowledge coupled with a willingness to act are the necessary defenses we can use against these abuses.

We all need to keep our houses in order.




Dear NH,

What is the difference between green pressure treated wood and brown pressure treated wood? I recently purchased a preservative that says "for green pressure treated wood." I have a 5 year old PT deck, so is this the product I want to put on it?



Fresh PT wood arrives at the lumberyard green (in color) right from the factory, but over time weathers to a gray color. Some stain and sealing products will not work on new PT wood because of the high moisture content caused by the manufacturing process. See our article on PT wood in the article index for more info...

If your deck is over a year old, it has sufficiently dried out, so you can use any stain or preservative, regardless if it is intended for PT wood or not.


Dear NH,

I have a light switch and rheostat for the ceiling fan on the same faceplate. The faceplate becomes very hot after the fan has been on for a few hours. I also detected an odor coming from the faceplate area. Since the rheostat is 14 years old, I decided to replace it, hoping to correct the problem. The wires all look good, but I am worried that there may be a more serious problem. The smell was very pronounced when I removed the cover. What do you think?



Replacing the speed control was a good choice. They do absorb power, especially when used at low settings, get hot, and eventually burn out. Since you did not notice any heat damage to the insulation on the wires, I think that you have completed the correct repair, based on the info you gave me.


Dear NH,

I just recently had the flashing around my chimney repaired. The roofer who repaired the chimney suggested that I have air vents installed at the peak of my house. My house is a Cape with a room on the second floor and walk-in storage space on one side of the room. He is recommending installing a ridge vent along the peak of the house. Will this lower the attic temperature enough to make it a worthwhile expense?



I am a big proponent of ridge venting as a supplement to gable vents. You really can't have too much attic ventilation, and the sad truth is few homes have enough.

The primary purpose of ventilating the attic, is not to lower attic temperatures, though admittedly a nice fringe benefit... at least in the summer months. The benefits of ventilation are twofold. The first is to reduce moisture levels all year round, which lengthens the life of roof decking by reducing mildew and rot. The second benefit is to equalize inside and outside temperatures in winter to reduce ice dam formation. Seethe ice dam article at

You may or may not notice much of a temperature change, since other factors such as prevailing winds and the amount of shade on your house will affect the final results. One thing for sure... the hotter your attic is to start with, the greater the temperature effect of the ridge vent will be............................................................................

Dear NH,

We have textured walls in my bedroom. Can this texture be removed so I canwallpaper?WL from Collinsville, IL


If the texture is not too deep, level and smooth the walls using drywall compound. It would be very difficult to REMOVE the texture... and some wall damage could occur... so using drywall compound is the better and less difficult way to go.

Use the first coat to fill in all the major depressions. A 12" taping knife is essential for leveling broad surfaces.

The second coat refines the first coat. Use the taping knife... dry... to knock off any high spots from the first coat. Then fill in the defects left in the first coat.

After the second coat dries, you might want to do a little sanding with a120 grit paper or sanding screen. A vacuum with a sanding screen attachment is the lowest dust option. Now apply the third coat of compound. This third coat may not even be necessary, or at worst should be a final leveling of any remaining unevenness in the wall.

Do a final sanding with a 220 grit paper or screen to get the walls flat. Vacuum thoroughly and wipe the walls with a slightly damp sponge... rinse frequently... to remove any residual dust and smooth in any scratches from the sanding.

Prime the walls with any high quality primer intended for drywall. If any stains or discoloration have appeared in the compound, use a stain killing primer such as Kilz. Then apply sizing over the primer before wallpapering.


Dear NH,

Our clothes dryer has not been drying clothes as effectively as it once did. It is about six years old. I read your tip about making sure the exhaust vent is clear. I took apart the front of the drier and vacuumed out the lint trap area. I also took off the hose from the back of the drier. I noticed that there was a cup of water in the vent hose. Is this normal? I also used a leaf blower to blow through the vent. A helper noticed that the flap would open completely, indicating to me that the vent was not obstructed. Is there anything else I can try?

JH, Twinsburg, OH


Water collecting in a dryer vent hose is not normal, but can occur when long lengths of hose pass through an unheated area. The water is produced by condensation of the warm, moist dryer exhaust air within the hose. If you are absolutely sure the vent hose is unobstructed, then your problem is internal to the dryer, and needs repair. Unfortunately, we don't do appliance repair issues here. You didn't mention whether you tried to dry a batch of clothes with the vent disconnected, or connected to a length of hose running out of a window... as a "control" test of the dryer. This would eliminate the vent hose from consideration immediately! (And would be the "message" that it's time to call in an appliance repair company)

Additional note: If the clothes do dry with the hose disconnected, it means that the hose does have a blockage. I had a similar situation with a blocked vent that "appeared" to be clear when using a high power blower. The blockage was a bird's nest in the hose! The nest moved enough for the blower to open the vent flap. The dryer does not produce as much force, so flow was restricted enough to prevent proper drying.


Dear NH,

I own a house built in the 1940's. Someone covered the floors with black felt paper and vinyl tiles. The tiles came up easily enough, but the black paper will not. I have tried using a heat gun and scraper, but the results are very slow. Any ideas on how to speed up the process? I have a whole house to do!

VJ, Kernersville, NC


The first thing to try would be warm or hot water. Try spraying a little on a portion of the paper and see if it will absorb it. If it does absorb the water, it may soften the paper enough to make your scraping easier. Don't dump buckets of water, work a little at a time. If it works but the going is slow, you could try a wallpaper steamer. You can rent one from most any tool rental store and some paint stores.

If water doesn't work, you may have to try a paint remover. I would avoid using solvents except as a last resort, due to the toxicity and flammability inherent in them. Because of the large area involved, use a low odor, water-based remover, again testing out the production a small area at a time. The going will be slower with this less toxic product as compared with a methylene chloride remover... but it will be healthier for you and yours.


Dear NH,

I have an 80 year old home with wood casement (?) sliding type windows. Someone has cut the ropes that used to operate the counterweights inside the frame. The windows crash down when opened. How do I repair these mechanisms? I remember at some time seeing a handyman tip that claimed you could repair these without opening up the wood frame, but this hardly seems credible.



Now you know why to this day they call your type of window "double hung". Each window is balanced with two foot-long cylindrical iron weights. They are attached to each side of the window with rope. This rope is routed over pulleys, which are located within the upper part of the window track. When the window is raised the weights drop within a hidden channel on either side of the window, counterbalancing the window so it remains in position... more or less.

Needless to say, the major maintenance for this style of window was replacement of broken ropes! To facilitate the repair, there is are movable panel in each side of the window frame, called a "pocket piece". When it is removed, you have access to a hollow channel, or "pocket", containing the counterweights and the rope. The front window stops and the parting strips must also be removed. This lets you take out the window sash, so that the new rope can be attached.

The new rope is tied to the counterweight, then looped over the pulley. The rope was cut to the right length, the end knotted, and the knot inserted into a cutout in the side of the sash. Reinstall the panel, and the job is completed. A very simple, awkward-but-straightforward procedure.

Unfortunately, many folks did not realize that removal of this panel was critical to the repair of these windows. Out of ignorance, they would paint the window frames without removing the panels, effectively gluing it into the jamb. When the poor handyman arrived to attempt a repair, he had to try to cut the panel loose, sometimes even necessitating paint stripping! Since the ropes could last for many years, multiple thick coats of paint often impeded the quick completion of this handyman's appointed rounds!!

There were other options. Some people would cut the ropes, letting the weights drop inside the frame. They would use wooden blocks to hold the windows up. In fact, there was a special design of block that was designed with cut-out steps. Something in my memory tells me it is of Amish origin. Anyway, when you open the window to the height you wanted, you put this wooden block in place, and just rested the window on the nearest step toy our chosen height.

Back to the "handyman tip" you read... now that my brain is awake... perhaps it was referring to a replacement window balance. These are of varying styles, but all are self contained mechanisms that are installed in place of your existing... or in you case dysfunctional... window balancing system. In a nutshell, the stops that hold the window sash in place are removed on both sides, and your window sash are removed. The sash are sandwiched into these new tracks, and the combination window/track sandwich is put into your existing window frame and nailed or screwed into place.

These replacement tracks use friction to hold your windows in position. They are available in a number of sizes, based on the length of your window frame and the thickness of your sash. You can purchase or order these through any home store or lumberyard. They are popular with renovators and homeowners that don't want to bother with a true restoration of the windows.

If you do use these replacement balances, be judicious in your use of any lubricant on them, because too much lubricant may cause the sash to not hold position. You will be back to where you started.


Copyright 2018 G George Ventures Inc.