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Handyman Letter - December, 1999


1) Y2K... It's about time! ... 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!




As I gobbled down the last bit of Thanksgiving turkey a few weekends ago, I tried to ignore my seasonally bulging waistline and turn my mind to the future. After all, there was this year's final newsletter to assemble, home repair projects to schedule and looming social events to plan around the demands of my "real" life.

And of course the holidays... the winter sport of tiptoeing through the arguably unholy melding of the secular and religious to the tune of a pounding economic dance... all the usual preparations and then... and then...

And then there is Y2K... the bugaboo of all bugaboo's... patiently waiting for me. Patiently? Oh, yes, ever so patiently. Being a person who likes to keep at least the illusion of control in my forebrain, the inexorable march towards Jan 1, 2000 has been... well... sobering. No matter what I do, no matter what anyone does, it will arrive precisely on 12:00 a.m. Jan 1, be it a snowball's growth-to-avalanche catastrophe or mosquito's bite on an elephant's ear.

After over a year of media immersion in the phenomenon, I frankly still don't know what to think. Recent polls show that folks are not nearly as concerned as they were back in early 1999, with fewer than half believing that any serious problems will occur. The doomsayers have already made their book profits, so they have been silent as the reality of Y2K (whatever THAT may be) approaches. Then again, there are rumblings of unease in the financial community as the fear of massive stock sell-offs and runs on banks increases with each passing day. Tick tock.

Has NH prepared, you may ask? No drastic action (yet), though I have purchased a small generator (always wanted one, anyway) and we have stockpiled canned food and bottled water. Not really much more than would be expected in the anticipation of a big-time winter storm here in New England. But I just can't get into the spirit of this Y2K thing! As a child, I always hoped for the deepest snowfalls and the wildest hurricanes imaginable, as if the disruption in the ordinary flow of life was a relief... a mini-vacation when school was closed and I could concentrate on important issues like more dog-play time or Erector-set building.

Silly as it may be, I still look at disasters as... well... a challenge! They don't raise fear in me (I suppose they should) probably because the worst disaster I have been through had me carried to a rowboat by my Uncle Joe as a very ill 5 year old during the infamous flood of '55. I remember how all the big people had to get shots before they could return to their flooded basements, abandoned autos and muddied living rooms. But for me it was just fun... staying at my cousin's house that was above the deluge while real people did the real work to get me home again.

But enough already! Home repair, fortunately, will survive Y2K. Power tools don't have date chips (yet). Hand tools could care less what day it is... "Bring on the work, weeee're ready!!" The power of human effort and perseverance will not be damaged either, as long as we keep our eyes on the prize and ignore the usual bunch of suspects both within and without the media trying to cash in on artificial paranoia and insecurity.

And time plods along... another year... where did it go? Seems to me like every year is a little more hectic and at the end of the day more things seem to be undone than done. Do you find that true, too? Still, I have a lot to be thankful for. Most importantly today I am thankful for all of you who have made NH both fun, useful and successful. By any standard, we have planted a seed in the fertile fields of the Web that a small yet now strongly rooted vine has begun to grow, even with the obvious frugality of our endeavor.

May you and yours vault ambitiously into the millennium with the strength of your convictions, the fearlessness that comes with moral courage, and to paraphrase the words of an old Irish blessing... with the road rising to meet your feet, the sun shining warm upon your faces and the wind always at your back.

Happy Holidays,




Dear NH,

We've been trying to paint over a laminated particleboard counter that we don't like and are having some trouble getting the results we want. We've been using a white latex enamel and painted several thin layers with good results. We then decided to put a protective coat of polyurethane, but it immediately yellowed. Now it's all starting to flake with minimal abrasion. Any advice--especially on what would make a good protective clear coat?



Please don't get upset, but the bad news is that you must strip the polyurethane from the countertop and start over. Applying paint remover is the easiest method, and it does not affect the laminate. You should be careful near the edges since it will affect the contact adhesive. Also follow all the warnings regarding ventilation and physical safety on the label of the product.

You cannot apply polyurethane over any finish except virgin polyurethane. That is, polyurethane that has not been treated, sealed or waxed. Other surfaces don't give the polyurethane enough grip for it to survive for very long. If you use quality paint you do not need to apply any protective finish over it.

Latex paint is not a great choice for any surface that suffers possible abrasion, such as a countertop. I also loathe using latex paint on bookshelves or other surfaces that are going to have objects placed on them. Instead, a better choice is oil based "alkyd" paint. Alkyd paints are the finest of the oil paints. They dry very hard, are washable and about as abrasion resistant as you can get in a paint. The only better paint you could apply in my opinion would be epoxy paint, which is a two-part paint that chemically sets instead of drying. However, they are not as easy to find and quite a bit more expensive. I have used polyurethane paints a few times, but I am not convinced they are really any better than alkyd paints in durability.

With care and gentle treatment, the painted surface should last years. The surface will never be as tough as the original. Should you get some dings or scratches, the thing that most differentiates latex paint from oil is that latex paints do not sand well, so it is virtually impossible to smooth out those scratches or marks. Oil paints, on the other hand, sand beautifully and you can restore a smooth surface (prior to repainting) without any filling or paint stripping... again


Dear NH,

Where can I purchase polyurethane caulk? It is to be used in a shower stall. I have been using silicon but I have been experiencing mold problems. I understand that does not occur when polyurethane is used.

PW from Schaumburg, IL


I don't believe that there is a polyurethane caulk available specifically for bathroom use. Even manufacturers who produce both acrylic latex caulk and polyurethane do not recommend using polyurethane caulk in bath enclosures. Part of the reason is that polyurethane is not as mildew resistant as the best so-called mildew-proof acrylic latex caulks, manufactured by companies such as MD (Macklanburg-Duncan) and Polyseamseal.

Polyurethane has much more adhesive ability and flexibility or "stretchiness" than either latex or silicone caulks. This is great in some applications, especially exterior joints where there is significant seasonal expansion and contraction. It is not so great in bath enclosures. The stress on the joints in bath applications is not that great, so the additional adhesive strength is essentially overkill! Since you will eventually have to replace any bathroom caulk, the extra adhesive strength may even work against you!

As far as mildew resistance goes, I would choose acrylic latex over silicone caulk any day, especially the "mildew proof" varieties mentioned earlier. This is from personal experience with miles of mildewed caulk!


Dear NH,

I recently took down some fake wood beams on my ceiling. Now I find that there is a "raised" area of paint around where the beams used to be. I guess the ceiling was painted a few times after the beams were installed. Do I need to fill this defect with joint compound or can I blend compound in with the new paint to give it more hiding ability?



Unfortunately, paint does not have enough thickness to mask the painted "outline" of the beams you removed. The line will stick out like a sore thumb. Adding joint compound to paint is an time proven and inexpensive way to add texture to a ceiling or wall but will not give the coverage you desire, either.

So it is essential to use wallboard compound to smooth out the paint level. First, try to remove any raised ridges or paint with a scraper, sandpaper or razor knife. This way you will use less compound and thus have less possibility of a visible rise in the wall at each of these repairs. Then, apply enough compound to completely cover the defect, "feathering" the edge of your repair out at least 6-10" outside the perimeter of the repair.

After the first coat dries, sand or scrape off any peaks or lines in the compound and apply a second coat, again feathering it out a few inches beyond the first patch. Sand the repair smooth. Sometimes a third coat is necessary, depending on the thickness of the fill and the amount of shrinkage in the compound. I prefer to use "light weight" joint compound for these repairs. It handles somewhat like standard joint compound but has less moisture and more body. It hardly sags at all in thick applications and shrinks very little, making many three-coat jobs two-coaters, and some two-coat jobs one-coaters! A real time saver in a can!

The enemy of all wall or ceiling patches is shadows. Low profile patching is the goal... so keep the compound as thin as possible while still masking the ceiling defects.



Dear NH,

I need suggestions on the topic of my natural stone fireplace. I want to know how can I effectively lighten the stones, possibly without painting them. The fireplace is very large, from floor to ceiling, and is the focal point of the living room. It is not dirt or soot, it is just that the stones are quite dark, and my living room is on the southwest side of the house, so during the daytime the room is dark. I have painted the walls, bought new furniture, curtains, etc., and I feel that lightening the stones would really bring the room to life. I was going to whitewash them, but my husband had a fit. He said that they are natural stones and that painting would ruin them. He may be right. But my living room is still so dark. Let me stress that the stones are not sooty or dirty, just naturally DARK. Would appreciate some feedback.

PM from Charlotte, NC


Your husband may be right depending on the type of stone. However, whitewashing is not intended to be a temporary fix... it is supposed to be a permanent change to the stones. Done correctly, it offers highlights and contrasts... not a head-snapping dose of white paint!

It may be possible to lighten the stones somewhat by treating them with a masonry cleaner containing either oxalic or phosphoric acid. These relatively mild acids will clean any unnatural discoloration from the stones, but I really can't guarantee you what the result will be. It could be a minor improvement or no improvement at all.

Any clear coatings you might want to apply will have either a neutral effect or cause a slight darkening. I am unaware of any coating that will brighten stone. Add a slight gloss, yes, but brighten... no. There are slate and stone sealers available at most paint, hardware and home stores.

So if you really need the wall to be brightened up more than a touch, a professional whitewashing might be the way to go. Since the results are permanent (unless you want to get involved in a very messy and/or dusty paint removal job), I would suggest having a few professional painters with experience (and references) in this type of work take a look and offer suggestions. Perhaps, through more knowledge, a middle ground can be found between your desire for more brightness and your husband's understandable concerns.


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

Hey Handyman,

I just found your site. I have over the years evolved from handyman to licensed general contractor to union carpenter. I have done a ton of remodeling. Your advice on removing the tub was kinda weird. Rent a saw? Nah! Two or three well place whacks in the middle of that old cast iron tub with a sledge will break it in half. Or better yet use a maul. To hell with removing the drain first, it will probably break free all by itself. Try it. Remove about 12-18 inches of wall material and out it comes. Shouldn't take more than half an hour.

Mike the Handyman



Thanks for your comments, and I absolutely agree that your method is more efficient and cheaper. My original comments (which were unpublished) included a good amount of whacking, but I suggested a method using a little less force because I was concerned about the collateral damage a do-it-yourselfer might cause using a sledge exclusively, not only to the plumbing but to him-or-herself.

It definitely makes sense to save time in a total bathroom renovation and, as a professional, you are doing your clients a favor. In retrospect, I should have offered your more professional outlook and method... with a few disclaimers... and will in the future.


Dear NH,

I recently noticed flat tires on my old dolly. After airing them up they went flat again in about 2 weeks. I diagnosed the problem as dried out.porous rubber (the dolly is 6 years old). At the same time the air bladders on my motorhome air suspension system went flat and wouldn't hold air. The solution? Aerosol "Fix-a-flat"! This product not only airs up the tire/bladder but also leaves a coating of latex rubber behind to seal the old dry rubber. Both the tires and bladders are holding air to this date.

I hope this suggestion can help others to avoid the expense of buying new rubber.



I have also had some good experiences with good old "spare-tire-in-a-can" myself! I don't know about you, but it seems like whenever I really NEED my wheelbarrow or lawn cart the tires are flat! And frankly (catering to my lazy self) it is just easier to whip out the tire spray than find the bicycle pump... especially amongst the wreckage that is my garage. Hmmm... just thought of another New Year's resolution!

Of course, keep an extra can handy, since the repairs it makes are not supposed to be permanent!


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