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Handyman Letter - March, 1999


1) Cow catchers and the long view ... a message from the Natural Handyman

2) Hello and thank you to web sites and publications that have recently linked with or featured the Natural Handyman

3) What's new at

4) Q&A with our readers





One of the pleasures I fondly recall from my childhood was my Lionel train set. Not the puny excuse for trains that today's kids must contend with, but the REAL O-gauge room-filling train sets with large steel engines so heavy that dropping one on your foot was a guaranteed trip to the emergency room! It was a ritual... my father would carry the 400 pounds of equipment down from the attic in early December as part of our Christmas decorations. We would spend hours assembling the tracks, laying out the lichen and little buildings, hooking up the transformer... a seemingly massive electrical converter that probably wouldn't pass today's electrical code but somehow didn't kill me, even when I used it for purposes it wasn't intended for! Another story. It was truly a fun time for me; it symbolized the coming of the holiday season AND also subtle permission to leave the living room in a permanent state of kid disarray. My small bedroom suddenly got huge as it expanded into this usually adults-only space.

I was fascinated by the early toy trains and their bulky, functionally ornate design. Just holding the heavy diesel replica gave a sense of the power these turn-of-the-century locomotives had! But to me the best thing about them was... the cow catcher! A wide cast iron wedge mounted on the front of the engine down near the tracks, the cow catcher (also known as a "pilot") acted like a plow to clear the tracks of obstructions. Pity the poor cow that would become airborne if the engineer, asleep at the stick, neglected to drop from cruising speed for the bovine interloper. Ouch!

But toy trains can derail and cow catchers can only do so much. Especially toy trains set up on carpets without a board underneath, as was my seasonal foray into locomotives. Enough speed cooperated with the rug-sagged track to cause a riotous crash. Fortunately there were no casualties (aside from a new nick or two in the leg of the nearby love seat) and the derailed train would be placed back on the track by giant child-hands.

Fascination with cow catchers, I discovered, was not the exclusive purview of young boys. In 1886, Agnes MacDonald, the wife of the Canadian Prime Minister, had herself strapped to the cow catcher of a train traveling through Kicking Horse Pass in the British Columbia Rockies! She then took a breathtaking ride at over 50 miles an hour. She claimed she wanted to do this because the view was better. Personally, I think she did it because she could. (Bungee jumping hadn't quite caught on yet!) Eventually, the cow catcher was retired as the rail system became a staple of society with both train tracks and ranches well fenced to keep animals safely away.

Can you imagine yourself a train... a big, black steam locomotive... hissing and spitting dribbles of hot gas and billowing clouds of white coal-fired smoke trailing behind? You are strong, confident and know exactly where you are going. Your cow catcher is firmly bolted to your tummy, acting as your sword and shield against the unknown forces whose purpose is to derail you from your path. The engineer within you pulls back on the throttle and powerful jets of steam move through your pipes and valves, starting your day in motion. You start slowly, feeling the conflicting powers of inertia and movement.

Once you are moving at a good clip you begin to relax. The trip is going well, progress is swift, and your goals seem to be right around that next bend in the track. Then, suddenly, there is a shadow in the distance... a fog slicing across the tracks far ahead. An avalanche, rockslide, fire? Hard to tell from here. Your engineer must make a hurried decision. In about 5 minutes you must face the unknown. You are a hundred miles from the next town, your well-trained crew may be no match for Mother Nature's whims, and you wished you were going in the other direction. All the power and majesty you felt mere moments before is squashed beneath the uncertainties that lay ahead.

Even your sturdy cow catcher may be no match for the upheaval rapidly approaching. You doubt your ability to cope and question your commitment to your goals. So you slow down. You ease your way into the fog, with two of your crew piloting ahead just within view. After ten minutes, you emerge from the fog... that's all it was this time... and slowly return to cruising speed. Slurping up a deep breath of scorching steam, your pistons again pump with unstoppable strength towards that next turn in the tracks, whatever it may bring.

Trains taught me to keep my eyes open and to never put down my cow catcher! Just as the engineer must keep watch down the tracks, you too must also have a "long view" in all life's journeys. Knowing when to speed up, slow down, change tracks, and even stop are impossible if you keep looking down at your own gears and pistons. Keep your head up... your eyes on the prize! It may be on the other side of the fog.




Dear NH,

I need to do something to repair a problem with my plaster walls. The current finish is smooth, but all the walls have cracks that span the walls and in some areas the plaster has "egg shell" or a maze of fine cracks. We both work full-time, so I would like to take the easiest way out that would be a good fix. What do you suggest. PS. I can wallpaper, paint, patch cracks, etc. The house is about 70 years old.

VJ from Danville, VA


Those spidery cracks are typical of old plaster and have been caused by years of stress on the walls. (I feel that way sometimes myself!) Simple patching is not practical since there are so many cracks and they are too fine to hold a patching compound. The amount of labor you would need to invest to open the cracks up sufficiently for patching is better spent elsewhere, such as intense solitaire playing!

In my opinion, the best repair for you would be to cover the walls with a special type of wallpaper designed to restore the wall surface. Any paint or home store can get it for you though most stock it. Do all minor repairs, such as hole filling, before applying the paper. The better the smoothness of the underlying wall surface, the better the final results will look. Prime all repairs with Kilz or another stain killing primer before papering. Ask the paint store for recommendations for sizing (a special type of primer to prepare walls for wallpapering) and the appropriate paste... unless the paper is pre-pasted!

Those spidery cracks are common and annoying which is why this wallpaper product was developed. Unlike patching compound, the paper will flex with the walls and remain crack-free for years. The best part is once the paper is applied and painted, your walls will look like new. You may treat the seams with a light coating of drywall compound, sanded smooth, to make them invisible. Of course, you must prime all the walls before painting with your finishing paint coat.


Dear NH,

I have a 20-25 year old house. My problem is that in my master bathroom there is very little water pressure. In the hall bath though I have excessive water pressure, and in the kitchen the water pressure is normal. I have copper plumbing throughout the house. I am stumped???

SH from Tempe, AZ


Pressure variations in different parts of a home can almost always be found within the fixtures themselves. Newer fixtures have various flow restriction devices mandated by the Feds to reduce water use. If you purchase a new showerhead, for example, and are used to an old one, you will be amazed by the loss of water volume these newer fixtures produce. Some have removable flow restrictors, some incorporate permanent restriction. Permanent flow restrictors can sometimes be enlarged by deft drilling of the restrictor. This should be done with much caution to prevent damage to the fixture.

We can't rule out what I fondly call "Amazing Plumbing!"... amateurish pipe installation that features varying pipe sizes to use up whatever the plumber or homeowner had laying around in the basement, over -soldered joints which affect water flow, etc. So a thorough examination of your system may reveal the mystery bottleneck! And don't forget to check the shutoffs... the "last guy" may have intentionally or unintentionally closed a shutoff and not fully reopened it!

If the problem is with a shower or tub faucet, you may have a problem with the anti-scald valve. This is a feature of modern faucets that prevents a blast of hot water in the shower when some thoughtless (or sadistic) person flushes the toilet down the hall! It is basically a spring-activated valve that senses a drop in cold water pressure and immediately reduces the hot water pressure. These valves can become defective with age and with exposure to chemicals in the water causing a reduction in water flow to the fixture. Some faucets have the anti-scald features integrated into the valve cartridge while others have a separate anti-scald valve. In either case replacement of the defective part is the repair of choice.

With sink faucets, the two most common causes of low pressure are 1) one or both of the shutoffs are partially closed or 2) the aerator screen has become blocked with dirt particles. Sometimes the aerator screen can be cleaned, though replacing it is usually the better choice. It the aerator is old and has not been disturbed for years, chances are you will damage it during removal. In either case, replacement of the aerator with a new one is an inexpensive and complete repair.


Dear NH,

I am undertaking interior painting and using a roller. What should I do to avoid streaks or rather obvious places where the roller has been?

MJC from Sunnyvale, CA


Here are a few of the rules of paint rolling:

1) Be sure to never use a roller that is too dry. You should have enough paint on the roller so that it is fully covered but does not drip. Trying to "stretch" the paint on the roller will only result in an uneven paint thickness and uneven appearance, forcing you to apply unnecessary additional coats. With a standard 9" roller, you can cover about two to three feet square max. If you roll out farther than that, you will have less even coverage and the too-thin coat of paint will not blend into subsequent roller work.

2) Don't overload the roller with paint! Though it is a temptation to try to speed the job along, all this poor technique will produce is unsightly paint lines and excessive dripping. The extra time it can take to smooth out overly heavy paint application will eliminate any savings from fewer dips into the roller tray.

3) Roll in multiple directions. Don't just roll up and down. Go over each area a few times... this evens out the thickness of the paint and also spreads out any lumps or lines of paint.

4) Look back over your work frequently for missed spots and errors. After every two or three rollers-full, go back and check your work with a critic's eye. This is especially crucial with latex wall paints. Unlike oil or alkyd-based paints that can be sanded smooth (which is why they are still the professional choice for shelving and trim work), latex paints do not sand well but instead tend to tear and scratch. To make a long story short, it is extremely difficult to eliminate a rough, amateurish paint finish with latex paints... so do it right the first time!

5) Don't paint in the dark! In painting, "dark" means not having enough light to catch your mistakes! It is especially helpful to have a light at an angle to the wall so you can see the "gloss" of the paint. This helps you to see missed spots and unspread drops, lumps and streaks. This "angled" lighting is even more important when you are repainting a wall in the same color or for second coats.



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