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Handyman Letter - November 1999


1) Do you trust your handyman?... 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


IF YOU ENJOY THIS NEWSLETTER... forward a copy to a friend! They will appreciate your thoughtfulness... and so will we!



So much of what we do is based on trust. And so little gets done without it. In our business relationships, trust takes an especially powerful role. What does a deal finalized with a handshake mean? Between two people who trust each other, I think it is worth a million legally correct clauses, disclosures, amendments, covenants and contracts. You cannot legally force honesty, only the illusion of it. Have you noticed how many contracts are broken... and how often the winner is the one who broke faith and trust by reneging on the agreement? There are people who sign contracts every day with no intention of keeping faith. I believe that in our close business relationships, we need to be able to trust the intentions of our partners, associates, employees and clients. Relying exclusively on the written word is not adequate.

Since the writer here is a handyman, NH, I feel quite strongly about professional trust in my chosen field. You would think that being trustworthy would be a handyman's goal. After all, our customers allow us to enter into the most private areas of their homes. Do we inspire professional trust in you, or instead are you uncomfortable or hesitant when dealing with tradespeople?

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this quandary is that many people have little choice in who to hire! They scour the want ads and classifieds. They must risk trusting because they need our skills and help... and then are often disappointed. A local TV station in the Hartford area recently ran a very short piece on hiring a handyman. Titled "Handy Scam", a wheelchair-bound gentleman was interviewed concerning a so-called "handyman" he had hired via a newspaper ad to perform a really basic task... installing an additional telephone line. The so-called "handyman" not only did the most shabby job of splicing wires I had ever seen on film but the splice failed, leaving the homeowner without phones! Sadly, the homeowner admitted that he paid the so-called "handyman" full rate for those two unsuccessful hours.

What happened? What should have been a simple business transaction turned out to be a nightmarish situation. The homeowner had opened up his home to a stranger... a supposed professional... to perform a service. He accepted the word of the stranger at face value... that the so-called "handyman" could do the work asked of him. He offered trust and his money for 'good' work and received deceit for his trouble.

I am always troubled by these subtle contractor-bashing pieces, often feeling a vague uneasiness as if I have associated myself with an ignoble profession. It angers me to know that each disreputable contractor portrayed in the media will make my job more difficult. "The work"... home repair... is fun, at times a challenge and always fulfilling! But the real work and challenge in "the business" of home repair is the absolute necessity of gaining the trust of my clients regarding my professional knowledge and ability. Without this, I cannot ply my trade.

Small home repair is a growth industry. People working long hours often don't have the time or inclination to do the little jobs around the house and they depend on repairers like the so-called "handyman" to help them. It would be wonderful if someone came forward to protect us from the unscrupulous. But who... government perhaps? Unfortunately, regulation of handymen is difficult if not impossible. The questions abound... what is a handyman? What should he or she be allowed to do and what shouldn't he do? How can you regulate a business that is so vague and personal... where each tradesman has different skills and education? Can a test of a handyman's skills be developed? What are a handyman's skills, anyway? Should the profession be banned and all the little parts of it made into individually licensed trades? Impractical. Can you imagine the cost of hiring six different contractors , each doing a ten minute job... at a minimum hourly charge each? "Harriet, let's install a new dishwasher... I'll call the electrician, the plumber and the countertop guy; you call the flooring guy, the staining-the-scratches-on-the-cabinet guy and the clean-the-floor guy." Talk about total idiocy AND putting small home repair out of the financial reach of many households!!

I think the real solution lies with all of us... handymen and customers... in our perceptions of trust in business and how we react to breaches of that faith. The Natural Handyman will continue to try to be a source of information, ever striving to improve his knowledge and his working and writing skills to earn your respect. Now you must be cautious in both your home repair work and your home repair HIRING!

YOU are party to this contract! Your ability to eventually gain trust in the people you employ is important; equally important is the skill you use in asking the right questions and sharing honest information with those helpers you may invite into your home. Striving to develop a working relationship with mutual trust and respect is a worthwhile goal.

Choosing the right handyman is not always easy and you may go through a few before you find one who suits your needs. But she or he is out there. And when you find that special person, you will have the security of knowing that you made the best choice humanly possible.




HOW TO HIRE A HANDYMAN... the second of a two part series on hiring home repair help. Being a handyman by trade and fiercely proud of his beleaguered profession, NH holds no punches in helping you make the best choice in hiring a handyman... or handywoman! The article awaits you at



Dear NH,

What is the cause of "dry rot"?

GW from Crescent City, Ca


"Dry rot" is a misleading term, since it gives the impression that the wood deteriorated in the absence of moisture. Some folks think that the heat of an attic can cause wood to suffer from this elusive "dry" rot. Sorry, there is no such thing as... DRY rot.

ALL wood decay is caused by one of a variety of wood-infesting fungi. That's right... second cousins once removed to our bathroom nemesis, mildew! The fungus occurs naturally and becomes established within the fibers of the wood if, and only if the wood is damp for a long period of time. Around the home, the typical situations for breeding a healthy crop of wood rot fungus are leaks in roofs, water getting trapped between wood and concrete (such as behind poured concrete steps), wood siding that is too close to the ground, siding shaded by or in contact with overgrown greenery and wooden posts that have not been treated with a rot-resisting preservative.

The fungus is very resilient and can survive with little or no moisture for a long time... sometimes years... only to become activated again upon contact with water. Fortunately, the growth of the fungus ceases if its water supply is cut off. Once a roof leak is repaired, for example, the progression of the wood rot will stop. Unfortunately, the wood will not heal... the decay is permanent.

Now here is the sneaky part. If you were to take down a wall in the area of that OLD leak, what you might find is perfectly dry but rotten wood... soft and brittle as can be. Though your first reaction might be "Ugh! Look Harry... DRY ROT!". In reality the rot occurred totally while the wood was wet.


Dear NH,

I'm going to stain a fireplace mantle. It's new pine and has never been finished before. I'm using Minwax stain with polyurethane. Should I use a pre-stain wood conditioner?

JR from Staffordsville, KY

Dear JR,

As a softwood, pine does not absorb wood stain evenly. Simply applying a stain with no preparation may result in a "blotchy" appearance with contrasting dark and light areas. Applying the wood conditioner equalizes the absorbency of the pine so that a more even finish is obtained. Follow the directions on the can regarding proper application of this product.

Be aware that if you wish to apply a second coat of stain to darken the finish, you should apply the wood conditioner AGAIN prior to restaining (especially if you wait overnight before applying the second coat) or the stain may not absorb evenly.


Dear NH,

I am planning to install exterior doors on my home, How do I tell a right hand door from a left hand door? This is really confusing. I thought it may have to do with which side of the door the hinges are on. Do I face the door from the inside or outside to tell which I need a left or right handed door. Thanks

CS from Dothan, AL

Dear CS,

This is one bit of information that I ALWAYS forget. Never fear... NH's trust home repair library has the answer for you.

Stand so that the door opens towards you. If the doorknob is on the left side, it is a LEFT HAND DOOR. If the doorknob is on the right side, it is a RIGHT HAND DOOR.


Dear NH,

I have about an 1 1/2" overhang on one end of my laminate countertop in the kitchen. Can I cut this extra off without taking the whole countertop off? I need this extra room for the new refrigerator to fit.

SB from Vienna, WV


Yes, you can. It is just quite a bit easier if you can move the countertop away from the wall. That's always easier said than done, considering moving the countertop can entail disconnecting the sink plumbing and disconnecting whatever fasteners hold the countertop in place. Since some are glued AND screwed down, moving a countertop can be a really challenging project.

The cut can be made using two saws... a circular saw and a jig saw. The circular saw will make most of the cut and the jig saw will finish up close to the wall. As an aside, I have heard some pros recommend using a jig saw for the entire cut. You can do this if you want, but I have found it to be less satisfactory since the jigsaw blade is more prone to "wander" giving you a less-than-straight line.

The first thing to do is to lay masking tape over the cutting line. This will protect the surface and also help prevent chipping. Apply a few additional strips of tape on the countertop where the saw base will travel. Reason? Because there is a slight chance that the circular saw base could scratch the countertop... especially if you have a beat-up-but-ever-reliable old circular saw like NH.

Since using some sort of guide is very helpful in making a straight cut, use the "rip fence" that came with your circular saw to guide your cut. You know... the T-shaped thing that slides into the base of your saw. If you don't have a rip fence or for some reason it won't work in your situation (usually when the cut is too far from the edge of the material), rig up a guide for your saw using a piece of straight wood or even a metal ruler such as a carpenter's square. Since you don't have a way to clamp it down on both ends, clamp one end of your guide to the overhanging edge of the countertop and tape the other end in place with duct tape. The duct tape should be near the wall... that way the circular saw blade will not hit it. You just have to be careful to follow the line and exert minimal force on the guide! If you do veer slightly off the line into the "waste" side of your cut, you will be able to clean it up later with a belt sander or sanding block.

Your circular saw should have a thin kerf carbide blade with at least 40 teeth... this will give a very clean cut. Set the saw blade depth so it just cuts through the thickest part of the countertop by about 1/8 of an inch. Cut slowly with steady movement. Since you are taking off more than an inch of countertop width, you might want to make a practice cut at around 1/2 inch to get the feel of the saw cutting the countertop... a little on-the-job training!

(The "kerf" is the width of the "slot" that a saw blade leaves when cutting through a material. Unlike the auto ads, thinner is better in saw blades because the saw is not working as hard. This produces a smoother cut because you also don't have to work as hard while pushing the saw through the material, producing a steadier and straighter cut... with or without a guide!)

Needless to say, the base of the circular saw will prevent you from cutting all the way to the wall. The cut can be finished with an electric jig saw using either a special laminate cutting blade or just a fine tooth metal cutting blade. The cut near the wall is always hard to get perfect. When I make the final cut, I cut just a little outside of the line so that there is a slight amount more to remove. Then I use a 3" belt sander with a fairly fine grit carbide belt... 120 or thereabouts is fine... to grind back the laminate to the line.

It is important to position the sander so that the belt is travelling downward (pressing the laminate against the substrate). I know this can be a problem if you are cutting the left side of the countertop... the body of the sander gets in the way as you approach the wall. I can only warn you... be very careful if you use the sander the other way. If the laminate is well-glued, you have a good chance of success. If not, it may chip. You could use even a finer sanding grit for the belt... up to 200... this will cause less lifting but also will slow down the sanding process.

Use a moderately rough metal file to do cleanup work, if necessary, right near the wall. Do all you filing in a downward direction... you don't want to lift the laminate. Then use a 220 grit sandpaper on a sanding block and run it along the cut edge of the laminate on a 45 degree angle, smoothing and slightly rounding it. This should visually eliminate any minor chipping that may have occurred and also eliminate the razor-sharp edge that laminates can sometimes have when cut.



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