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Handyman Letter - March, 2000


1) Dogs are life's teachers... 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!




Dogs are my best friends. And I theirs. Not owning any dogs at the present time, I find myself a veritable wiggle factory when I am lucky enough to roll on the carpet with one. Of course, that opportunity comes up often for me, as so many of my client's own dogs.

Ever since I was a child I have been a dog lover. My first dog, Skippy, was my pal, confidant, protector and, in a wonderfully sly way, collaborator in boyhood fantasies of intrigue, suspense and heroism. We leapt snowdrifts, hid beneath our porch, chased enemy dogs into the next county and always looked ahead to our next adventure... all fueled by imagination and lots of playtime.

Skippy was a medium-sized mutt of unknown breeding. Behaviorally, he was the perfect dog for a young boy... a fiercely loyal, ever present companion who knew all the right moves. Skippy had a vicious side that only manifested itself around other dogs... male dogs that is. In those days, it was rare indeed to have a "fixed" male dog so there was an abundance of rancor in the doggy world. The meeting of two males was always a charged moment as we breathlessly waited to see who was going to be dinner in a true dog-eat-dog confrontation. And since the lady dogs always seemed ready for a little romance (with no conversation), there was the opportunity for educational experiences easily matching the sterilized health courses taught by our gym teachers.

What is it about a dog that makes them such fine companions? I think that the way a dog enjoys life is... well... contagious! They don't fuss over the events of the day or anticipate tomorrow's conundrums. They live in real time and are probably more aware of what is going on around them than most people ever are. We spend so much time thinking about tomorrow... planning and scheming about future events... that the simple joys of today are ignored. Talking on the phone or eating while driving diminishes the joys of both... and for what? A perceived saving of time? And what value has time that is not really lived? A frequent small-talk topic, next to the weather, is the notion that time is so fleeting. Where has February gone? Where did the week go? Lunch is over already? It seems like there is never enough time. On and on... all expressions of the frustration involved in not really living the moment... but instead rushing through it in crazy-making style.

Try this test... take a moment and list the five most pleasurable things you do or would like to do. A no-limits, unrated list of your secret passions... flash paper or disappearing ink optional. Though I have no idea what is on your secret list (well, we may share a "few" very human passions, such as home repair) I will bet that each of these five joys requires your full attention for its seductive magic to work!

One of the joys of home repair is that it forces you, kicking and screaming, to stop splitting your attention and concentrate on problem solving. Without focus there are no results... only arm flailing and backsliding. Results in any other endeavor also require this same "attention to detail" and to the moment or success will be forever elusive.

Many folks take their dogs to obedience classes to try to make them even better companions. I think that we too should take a lesson from the dog, the master teacher of joyous abandon. When I am captured by the contagious joy of a welcoming pooch, I go with it...flow with it. We can't be dogs... not that I haven't tried... but we can share moments, time-outs and breathers that bring us back to a more relaxed, primitive awareness of our world and ourselves. For a wondrous moment, at least.




Over the last three years, NH has personally answered thousands of home repair questions from our readers all over the world. Unfortunately, they have been gathering dust... languishing in electronic limbo. A selection of them have appeared in our monthly newsletters and a few select websites, but we've kept most off-line.

But no longer! This month we began the long but joyous process of making them available to you! We have moved over 100 Q&A's on a plethora of home repair issues... many not previously available... and they are waiting for you! TO ACCESS THEM YOU MUST USE OUR SEARCH ENGINE.



Dear NH,

Help!! I'm confused! We're having the acoustic ceiling spray removed from our new house and have been told by different sources that we DO and DO NOT need to put a primer coat on before retexturizing. One guy told me it's a waste of time and money to use a primer which is used only by "old school" workers, another told me it is critical for good adhesion of the texturizing material and adds to the ceiling's longevity.

With the amount of ceiling we need to paint, the difference could mean a few hundred dollars IF we could get away without a primer coat. What do you think?

J from one of the inner planets

Dear J,

Spray acoustic ceilings are often applied over raw wallboard with no primer whatsoever. If this is the case in your home... it should be pretty obvious since the "gray" color of the wallboard should show through any residue from the spray texture... priming is essential. Though some of the paint-type texture products (I assume that is what you are going to apply) say they don't need a primer, I think this is an unnecessary risk on your part.

If the ceiling has been primed... again it should be obvious... and as long as the painter damp-wipes the ceiling down to remove all dust there is no reason to prime again.

If the ceiling is going to be textured with wallboard compound for a "deeper" texture, priming is an option but not as important since wallboard compound is much more "adhesive" that paint-type textures. After all, it is designed to stick tenaciously to dry, dust-free wallboard, right?

Judging by the difference in quality of today's construction compared to forty or fifty years ago and the much lower skill level required by today's workers, so-called "old school" workers still have a lot to teach today's overly cost-conscious contractors AND consumers. Unfortunately, many contractors are forced to compromise the total quality of their work to satisfy a consumer that is too concerned with the bottom line and less with the final product. This downward spiral of low price/ low quality / dissatisfaction has taken root in the home repair industry will be around until people begin demanding better quality WITH an educated willingness to pay for it. I for one prefer to be referred to as "old school" than as "progressive" if progressive means lower work standards.


Dear NH,

Our house is 4 years old. Recently we have been having problems with our hot water heater. Sometimes the water is not hot. The pilot light is on, the temperature is set correctly. Is it possible we need to replace our hot water heater already? Someone told me there may be sediment in the bottom of it. How do you take care of this without getting into major expenses. Looking forward to your answer. Thank you



There is an article at the site on draining sediment out of water heaters at . Draining the tank in a gas water heater will improve the efficiency of the heater if you have a significant accumulation of sediment. The layer of sediment acts like insulation, slowing down regeneration... the speed at which your water heats up.

It should be noted that sediment does not have a significant effect on the efficiency of electric water heaters because the heating elements are located above the bottom of the tank.

If draining the sediment does not improve the function of your water heater, you should bring in a service person to examine it. I do not encourage do-it-yourselfers to experiment on gas appliances.


Dear NH,

I have a textured ceiling and parts of it are starting to fall. I had a leak in the roof and it made a big piece just fall off and the wallboard tape at the seam is sagging. Should I scrape the texture off and retexture it?



You shouldn't have to scrape down the entire ceiling... just repair the damaged area. There is an article on repairing textured at But before you can repair the texture you have to repair the loose wallboard tape.

Repairing the loose tape can be done in one of two ways. The first technique is to apply a small amount of wallboard joint compound on the ceiling where the tape is to be reset. Then press the tape firmly in place with a drywall knife, squeezing out most but not all of the compound. You will have to let this dry overnight and apply a second thin coat over the top of the tape. Once dry, sand smooth with 220 grit sandpaper, prime with an oil primer and perform the texture repair.

This method usually works but can cause a noticeable rise in the level of the seam or an uneven appearance that may even show through the texture. This is because it is difficult to press the excess wallboard compound out from around the tape, since it sits in the depression from the original taping. Rather than sand out the depression, try this trick... cut off the loose tape and install a new piece in its place. However, before installing the new tape, trim about 1/2 inch off the long edge of the tape. This gives you a little "wiggle room" in placing it in the wallboard compound. Apply a thin layer of compound and press the trimmed tape firmly into the center of the seam. Then apply a thin coat of compound over the tape. DO NOT OVERLAP THE OLD TAPE AT THE ENDS... it is unnecessary and may produce a noticeable lump! Let this mess dry overnight.

Knock off any lumps or high spots first with either sandpaper or a drywall knife. Apply a second coat of compound to level up the repair, extending or "feathering" the repair to at least 6 inches on either side of the seam. Sand the repair to a smooth finish after drying. Finish with a coat of primer followed by touching up the texture.


Dear NH,

Is it safe to use linseed oil on wood surfaces that will come in contact with food? Does it inhibit or encourage bacteria growth?



I do not recommend using linseed oil on food preparation surfaces. The reason is that it may contain a number of very nasty substances. To "quote a quote" from our article on linseed oil...

"Use of this product will expose you to arsenic, beryllium, chromium, cadmium and nickel, which are known to cause cancer; and lead which is known to cause birth defects and other reproductive harm."

I think you will agree that this warning is unambiguous. Don't use linseed oil on surfaces used for food!



Dear NH,

I have always lowered the temperature in my home at to save energy. However I heard that this can cause the pipes to freeze if it gets very cold outside. Any comments?

B from Boulder, CO


Since the energy crisis of the 70's, many folks have been turning down their thermostats in the evenings to save energy. Automatic thermostats typically offer a ten-degree or more temperature variation in their programming.

But if the temperature outside is very bitter... in the teens or lower... a 10-degree setback can be disasterous for some homes! The reason is simple. Lowering the thermostat puts your heating system into a long "dormant" cycle. Your furnace will not start again until the temperature in the house has dropped those ten degrees. In a well insulated home this could take many hours during which the temperature in the outside walls and in less-than-adequately insulated portions of your home can drop below freezing. This can cause drinking water and heating pipes in these areas to freeze.

If you really want to play it safe:

1) Never lower your thermostat more than 5 degrees in a four-hour period if the outside temperature drops below 20 degrees.

2) During these very bitter periods, keep the inside temperature above 60 degrees.

2) If your house has a history of frozen pipes you should not lower the temperature at all until you have protected the pipes in those problem areas with extra insulation or even automatic electric heating tapes.



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

Dear NH,

Thanks for your encouragement for others to follow their hearts and heads in "reinventing" themselves. I've done it 3 times now, and I'll do it again. I am presently a computer scientist and computer consultant, but repairing things has always been a true love. I can fix computers, pianos, old cars, wiring, plumbing; I can solder and weld; I can run most hand and power tools; and I've had some training as a machinist.

I can tell you that I love tools; and I have an eight-year old son who also loves tools and will inherit a lot of "good old" tools. I've got some that are over 100 years old and still work fine. I'm not a home improvement professional, but I love the "small" jobs around the home that you've described. Like, fixing garage doors; repairing old door locks, window sash cords, etc. I've learned how to do all these things without much training; I learn by doing. I do have a PhD in physics, but I'll always remember that it can stand for "piled higher and deeper" if you don't keep a sense of humor and a perspective on life.

Anyone can quit a job and find something to do that will keep them young, enthusiastic, and able to support themselves. You have to take that first step, though, which can be very difficult -- and scary. Good luck to anyone who is thinking about this: just do it.

CF from New York, NY


I really appreciate you taking the time to share your experiences. If you have inspired just one more person to take "that first step" towards financial and emotional independence you have done all of us a great service. (Note: The original text of NH's February message can be found online at . )


Dear NH,

Read your piece on repairing a faucet at the Dollar Stretcher and I have a helpful hint. If you have (or can borrow) a Polaroid or a digital camera, you can take pictures as you take something apart so you have a visual record of how to put it back together. A Polaroid is also helpful if you want to go to the hardware store for some advice. You can take a photo and "show and tell" rather than trying to describe it to the people at the store. That way you are all talking about the same thing and there is less chance of misunderstandings.



Thanks for a very useful suggestion! I have made good use of both a Polaroid and digital camera at various times over the years. One recent instance involved taking a digital photo of a rather fancy Schlage lockset to a locksmith to order a replacement. The dilemma was that the client insisted I not remove the lockset since it was the only lock on the door. Needless to say, we were very successful in locating a replacement!


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