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Handyman Letter - June, 1999


1) Look under any rock and you will find an expert... a message from the Natural Handyman

2) Hello and thank you to Websites and publications that have recently linked with or featured The Natural Handyman

3) What's new at

4) Q&A with our readers


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




Look under any rock and you will find an expert. With the glut of cable television channels it seems a new expert is inaugurated every day. There are political experts, legal experts, home repair experts, cooking experts. And of course peer reviewers... experts who comment on the other experts. So many experts... so little time.

What is the purpose of experts, anyway? I had always thought that an expert was someone who would guide me towards the best solution to a problem. Or at least offer me a short list of reasonable choices. I suppose I have been spoiled by the more cut-and-dry field of home repair. If your roof is leaking like a sieve there is no complex formula to follow. And no spells or incantations are necessary. Just call a few contractors to get repair cost estimates or quotes.

Quotes are neither magic nor science... just formal opinions derived from the contractor's expertise concerning the nature of the job and the cost. Getting more than one quote is important for all but the smallest home repair jobs. It is an education to the less-than-savvy that wildly different quotes can be given when the physical job and materials are the same.

To be useful, all quotes should include a detailed description of the work, materials involved, a timetable for getting the work done and the estimated price. This gives you a reasonable basis for comparing the estimates and maybe even the fuel for negotiating a lower price with a "favored" contractor. Here is where life meets home repair... getting complete information gives you the power to make an enlightened choice. An "expert" choice, in fact. It is not an exaggeration to say that the most knowledgeable people about home repair projects are often the homeowners themselves; the time and effort invested in researching their unique project almost qualifying for college credit!

On the other hand, media legal and political "experts", in a way, do us a disservice. Admittedly, they present biased opinions, even though they may have a depth of facts or information we are not privy to (especially relating to the roots of their biases). But their biases are not the major problem. In their gut, all freedom loving Americans know that diverse opinions (and the right speak, write and hear them) are the mother's milk of a healthy society. It is the talking head's haughty confrontational style that can make us so very distrustful of experts in general. Too many experts... with too much air time! Even the "talking heads" I agree with sometimes leave a bad taste in my mouth! (This said, I must confess that I am "slightly" addicted to the wrangling and debate. Just slightly.)

You... there... behind the tree! I bet that even you have been singled out (or bulldozed by circumstance) to be an expert... dragged kicking and screaming into the limelight. Perhaps you have been approached by those north or south of you in the "pecking order" for your take on a work-related issue. For that moment... your minute of "fame"... you are an expert as eyes and ears turn to you for your learned judgment. No pressure! Why you? Because your opinion must be thought to have value.

Then there is parenthood. When young children look to us for guidance and advice, we cannot present all the arguments for and against our positions. Instead, we try to choose the best course of action for them... one that both moves them towards their goals but also gives them room to learn and grow and, yes, make mistakes. For all the youthful posturing and pride, children need guidance to help them to make choices, not just to be given a list of options they lack the experience to understand. Our "expert" guidance is sought, though don't ever expect the kids to admit it!

I truly believe that most people can do most things... within and outside the realm of home repair... if they understand the problem, know where to go for answers, have the perseverance to see the project through even if it means going back to correct mistakes. Oh... and know their limitations without engaging in self-deprecation. To work around our limitations is to embrace the most our lives can offer... it is a noble and honorable way to live.

Choose your experts wisely. Try to keep an open mind and realize that other people can offer you insights that you may not find on your own. But also let your experts earn your trust. Just don't expect them to live your life, make your decisions, or take responsibility for your choices. That's your job. Become expert at it!




Dear NH,

I suspect we've got a dead rodent inside walls, behind a cabinet. What next? Cut through drywall? pry cabinet apart? (no access from above or below -- concrete slab, too near outside wall to access from attic space) Can I drill holes to try to locate .... remains ... before I cut through drywall? Or should I just go ahead and pull off a large enough piece to make sure I can get to it? Suggestions about getting rid of the smell? Great Site, BTW! Hugely helpful, and helpfully arranged!

MR from San Antonio, Texas


Thanks for the kind words!

Though it may seem insensitive to your plight and eagerness to get rid of that nasty smell, my suggestion is to just open the windows and let the smell disappear on its own. You can cause a lot of damage trying to find the little critter, and with no guarantees! There are too many places that the body could be! What wall do you rip apart first? Which cabinet?

The good news is that the odor will dissipate in a few days on its own as the creature desiccates. Living in a wooded area myself, my clients and I have had to relive your agony many times over the last 25 years, so we all "feel your pain". I think, though, that your pain will be greater if you spend many hours and dollars trying to find this thing with no sure hope of success.

Dear NH,

What type of paint do you suggest for trim, garage doors, etc.? I am at a loss regarding the "gloss factor"? Is high gloss too shiny? Is it the most durable? Or both? UGH!! I'm desperate! (P.S. Just repainting old wood.)

C from Brookline, Mass.


The most durable paints are the most glossy, as a rule. Gloss paints tend to be harder and less porous, meaning they resist moisture better. Usually, a glossier surface is preferred when you anticipate the surface will be cleaned often or have regular contact with hands or other objects.

For these reasons, moldings, trim, bookshelves, doors and windows are usually painted with semi-gloss or gloss paints. However, there are also paints that are called "satin" or "eggshell" which are somewhere between semi-gloss and flat in appearance... just a touch of sheen. They are often used for entire homes... trim and siding... with success. They are not quite as tough as a semi-gloss or gloss, but have the advantage of being more washable than a flat finish while not showing up every surface imperfection as the glossier finishes will.

Then there is the eternal question... latex or oil paint? My choice for garage doors is oil-based paint for reasons related to long term maintenance. Oil paints can be sanded more smoothly than latex paints... an important quality for any surface that may be repainted often.



Dear NH,

I have just painted my bathroom. Some of the walls are new "green" water resistant drywall. The ceiling is old sheet rock. I have primed all walls. I have just finished my second coat of latex gloss paint and, to my chagrin, the ceiling paint began to bubble and peel. It has been more than 24 hours between coats, so I don't think the paint was still wet. Please help, I really am at a lost. This simple task has turned into a night mare.



The problem you describe is typical of a bathroom ceiling painted without proper preparation... cleaning and/or priming. Bathroom ceilings and walls differ from other paintable surfaces in the home because they suffer much more abuse... in ways even more than some outside surfaces. Steam from bathing carries particles of dirt and soap in the air, which stick to the ceiling as the water vapor condenses.

In some cases, this "contamination" spurs the growth of mildew, darkening the surface and giving the budding painter a clue that he should, at the very least clean, the surface thoroughly. He can see the filth and it is intuitive that the surface should be washed. It is when the contamination is invisible that the amateur gets into trouble. Thinking that the surface is clean, he applies a coat of paint, only to have it inevitably lift. The end result? A labor intensive repair job!

My rule is simple... never paint a bathroom ceiling without preparing it, no matter how clean it appears to be! Flat or "solid" textured surfaces (stucco, for example) should be washed with a pre-painting detergent cleaner such as Soilax with bleach added to kill mildew. This should be followed by a prime coat with an oil-based stain killing primer, such as Kilz. This will assure that the surface will be sealed and ready for finish coating.

Spray texture ceilings... so called "popcorn" ceilings... cannot be washed because the texture will be damaged. If there is no visible mildew staining... from black "dots" to wide areas of dark discoloration... apply one coat of the stain killing primer. If mildew is visible, lightly spray the stains with a mix of one cup of bleach to one quart warm water. Use with caution with skin, eye and lung protection, since bleach compounds can be very irritating to all parts of the body. The bleach will cause the mildew stains to disappear as it kills the mildew. Re-spray if stains do not disappear within a half hour. As an alternative, you may use a premixed bathroom mildew stain remover. Be sure you are not using a cleanser... you do not want to put any detergent on this textured surface, because it can't be rinsed off! Let the ceiling dry out thoroughly before applying the oil-based stain killing primer.

Unfortunately in your case my advice is too late. To salvage your job you must 1) sand or scrape off all loose paint, 2) use drywall compound as necessary to fill and smooth the bubbled areas, 3) sand surface and remove all dust by wiping lightly with a damp sponge and finally 4) reprime the entire ceiling prior to applying the finish paint. Use the same stain killer primer mentioned earlier.



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


Dear NH,

Please sign me up for your "handyman" newsletter. But how about "handywomen"? I am a 20 year veteran to the building trades, not too many of us women are out here actually "doing" the work and getting our hands dirty! Would be great to hear from some women handypeople or women contractors!


I agree. I have only met one pro handywoman in 25 years, not counting painters and paperhangers. I will mention this issue in the next newsletter. Perhaps I can get some feedback on the experience of being a woman in what is essentially a man's profession even today.



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