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Handyman Letter - August, 2000


1) Simplicity... 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!



I went camping a while ago with my family. It was a dismal, overcast weekend and we were desperate to find something to do aside from eating, sleeping and playing games. Especially the eating! The rain had let up and, while taking a walk around the hundreds of unique camp sites, we passed the lake. We realized that the campground rented paddle boats. As we had never tried one before, all four of us eagerly took the challenge of the lake. After a half-hour wait for the next available boat, we disembarked with a hefty push from the dock. But after about two minutes of leg pumping and fruitless steering, we realized that there was a problem with the rudder. Regardless of our efforts, the best we could accomplish was a leftward circle.

Rather than complain... none of us were in the mood to rock someone else's boat... we realized that deft use of the ailing rudder and a little help from the prevailing breeze could set us on a wide leftward trek, allowing us to make the same broad circle as the other more functional boats. So onward we went, skimming the lily pads, narrowly avoiding the aerating fountain at the far end of the lake and, in the end, skillfully navigating our lame craft back to the waiting dock.

Living requires the same two things as that rickety old paddleboat... a driving force and a rudder. And, like that boat, life has no guarantees. No warranty. No return policy. Each life has different strengths. What really defines us is how we turn that rudder, even if it only leads us in a broad leftward sweep through the trials of experience.

Move forward and steer! In a sense, that's what we all do every day. Take the most complicated task, break it up into bite-sized pieces and dig in. Ask most anyone who has concluded a mammoth undertaking and they will invariably say that they would have never finished if they focused on the end result. Instead... to use a construction analogy... they started with the first board and the first nail. And, in time, a house grew from chaos through the skilled movements of the carpenter's nurturing hand!

The power... and the will... to move forward in spite of the wind and rain beating against the naked face... trying to keep steering true even though hands are slippery and muscles ache... this is real strength, and strength renewed by knowing... REALLY KNOWING... there is indeed a clearing up ahead. Whether other's recognize this self-fulfillment is unimportant in the ultimate sense. Such heroic individual struggles can, in living your life, be the essence of simplicity.




Dear NH,

The windows in my bedroom are sealed shut with a clear rubbery caulk-like substance. I think the mysterious substance may be a silicone based product but I am not sure. Is their any way to remove this substance so that I can open my window? I have been scraping at it with a screw driver and utility knife but it is very tedious and I don't think I can get it all out from between the cracks. I am also worried about damaging the wood along the
window and windowsill.



Sounds like the weather-stripper from hell visited your home! I address these issues somewhat in my caulking articles at the website though they refer primarily to bathrooms.

Use a single-edged razor blade at a very low angle in conjunction with heat from a heat gun or hair dryer to separate the caulk from the wood. Heat may help to soften and loosen the caulk making removal easier and with less damage to the underlying wood. Be careful not to overheat the surface... you don't want to strip the finish! Once you get a hunk of caulk started, you might be able to pull an entire strip off... depending on the thickness of the bead. Thicker beads tend to pull off more easily. Sometimes, a pair of pliers can be used to pull a strip of caulk free, though this trick seems to work best with silicone caulk.

Paint remover will also soften most caulks (except silicone), but it can be a messy and dangerous job... plus it is guaranteed to remove the finish on the trim! LIQUID NAILS, at , markets an adhesive and caulk remover that is somewhat less aggressive than paint remover, but you nevertheless must be cautious and test it on an inconspicuous area of the finish to see if it causes any damage.

If it is silicone caulk, though, you may have a more difficult problem because silicone caulk is not paintable or stainable. Every last bit will have to be removed before you can do any finishing. Even GE Silicone admits that there is no chemical means to remove their product... mechanical scraping is the only way. If you need to repaint, sand the surface first and then apply Kilz primer to get the best adhesion to the finish coat.

If you decide next year that the former owner was right about those windows and you need a better seal, there are a few products on the market that can be used to stop much of the leakage. The first is a flexible, putty-like caulk that is available in rolls. It sticks quite well and works both inside or outside. More importantly, it removes easily from most painted or stained surfaces and can be saved and reused over and over again!

There are also easy-release clear plastic tapes that perform the same function. The adhesive is designed to be removable. Sometimes, though, they don't remove as easily as advertised so I would use them only if aesthetics dictate.

Nail-on permanent weather-strip kits are another option. Designed to work with windows, they provide a year-round solution to window sealing. Though some folks try to use self-adhesive foam strips to perform the same function, they generally gives poor results compared with any of the other options mentioned. The biggest negative is that their permanent adhesive is a bear to get off when the foam inevitably fails!


Dear NH,

Is it possible to make milk paint from powdered milk? Could one simply use a bit of water based paint to add color?

JH from NH

This recipe was sent to me a while ago by a reader. I do not know the source and I must admit that I have not tried it. Let me know how it turns out!

1 Cup Powdered Nonfat Milk
1 Cup Water
Powdered Paint Pigment

Mix milk powder and water first. Use paint pigments to add color. They are available in any paint or crafts store. This paint will dry to a somewhat glossy finish. To add durability you might want to spray with an acrylic finish.

There are now commercial milk paints that have additives such as lime and clay for better durability, workability and coverage. Be forewarned... they are also somewhat expensive compared with regular latex paints. Visit  for a line of historic-grade milk paints that are also "green".

I wouldn't add commercial paint to milk paint. Chemically speaking, you might affect the final finish and setting of the paint. Biologically speaking, if your desire is to use a less chemically-offensive product, adding an "unnatural" product to your milk paint just doesn't make sense.



Dear NH,

How can I figure out my baseboard requirements for a 2nd floor addition I've added to my home? The three bedrooms are all different sizes, with different ceiling heights
(two bedrooms have cathedral ceilings) and different size windows. Since the master bedroom is a lot larger that the other two bedrooms, I thought I would put it on it's own zone.

The other two bedrooms are approximately the same square footage but one has a cathedral ceiling and more windows than the other. Since I want to put these bedrooms on it's own zone I want to make sure the heat even in these rooms. What's the best way to figure the right amount of baseboard required?



There are no standards for baseboard systems in general because each company's system has a somewhat different heat output per foot of baseboard. Therefore, this information is best obtained direct from the manufacturer. They should be able to supply a formula to determine how much baseboard is optimal for your rooms.

Optimal, however, does not mean you will have a tight temperature range in all the rooms. When rooms are all different sizes as you describe, I think it would be wise to put each room on a separate zone, especially if temperature consistency is very important to you.

This is a complicated issue. Let's say your two smaller bedrooms have different length baseboards. If the first room in the zone "loop" has a longer baseboard, by the time the heated water reached the second room it would no longer be as hot! But just how hot?? We can hypothesize on various scenarios but you can see how it really is a guessing game!

Remember that baseboard heating was developed based on rooms with similar ceiling heights... the most critical factor. Homes with high, vaulted or cathedral ceilings are consistently inconsistent in the temperature department (summer or winter) unless there are multiple zones. It's just a fact of life!


Dear NH,

I did a very foolish thing. I unwired my doorbell and did not label the wires! Now I can't figure out how to hook them up. I have a single door bell with no back door button. It is 40 years old and works on 10 volts. There are two black wires and two white wires coming out of the wall where the door chimes are mounted. The two white wires are twisted together. The two black wires are separate.

The door bell fixture has three screws that the wires are attached to. The center screw is labeled "trans". The left screw is labeled "front" and right screw is labeled "rear". The transformer is located in a closet some distance from the fixture I have just described. Where do I put the black wires and where do I put the two twisted together white wires? I sure hope I have made this clear.



Shame on you!  Go stand in the corner! Alright... back to work. I can't be too hard on you... I have walked that road myself (and will undoubtedly walk it again).

If your installation is "standard" for one doorbell, the wiring configuration is as follows:

One of the black wires comes directly from the transformer... the doorbell's source of electric power. The second black wire comes from the doorbell button. The twisted pair of white wires are from the (1) other terminal of the transformer and (2) from the second terminal of the doorbell button.

The two black wires are attached to the "trans" (transformer) terminal on the doorbell unit and to the "front" or front doorbell terminal. The "back" or backdoor terminal could be used instead of the "front". All two-button units will give you different rings for the front and rear buttons so you know which door your visitors (or travelling salesman) are at! "Front" is typically two rings and "rear" is typically one ring on many common, inexpensive mechanical doorbells. Then again, yours could play "Hold On, I'm Coming" by Sam and Dave for the front and "Back Door Man" by the Doors for the rear!

On a one-button doorbell system it doesn't make a difference which terminal you attach which black wire. I won't get technical here... the simple explanation is that doorbells operate on low voltage AC power, so there is no "positive" or "negative" terminal.

Of course, this would not work if you had 3 black wires for a front and rear doorbell installation. In that case you would have to determine which black wire was the transformer wire using a voltmeter set to the AC setting... too many possible wrong combinations to waste time guessing! Touch one voltmeter probe to the paired wires and the other probe to the black wires, one at a time. The black wire that gives you the appropriate reading (in your case around 10 volts) is the lead from the transformer and should be attached to the "trans" terminal of the doorbell unit.

No... I didn't forget the twisted pair of white wires. They don't need to be connected to anything other than each other (how romantic!). Make sure they are held together with a wire nut so they don't accidentally come loose.

Hope this is helpful... and not too confusing!



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

Dear NH,

I really enjoyed your last newsletter very much, and have to say that I felt much of it was aimed straight at me, in a sense -- particularly the link to the story you just revised on hiring the handyman. For your amusement, however, and maybe your "sad but true story file", please read on....

I hired a handyman who had wonderful word-of-mouth references (which I should have investigated) and said with great confidence that he could do all the jobs on our list, ranging from the two big jobs -- installing a fiberglass and replacing our concrete patio, plus some smaller jobs.

I drew pictures and diagrams, we discussed the work several times, and I kept a notebook of the work in progress. The shower stall was the biggest, hardest, and most important of the projects, so we had him start with that. Part way into the job, he announced that he was going to move the shower an inch and a half to the right because he thought it would be better. He spent about a day "rebuilding" the cavity to accommodate the shower.

Then, to my surprise, he announced that he was too busy with other work to finish the job of finishing the walls around the enclosure with greenboard and tile! In fact, the extra time was mostly taken up by rectifying his own error... he had mislocated the plumbing drain by four inches!

The rest of the project was equally dismal. His mosaic tile work... supposedly his forte... was atrocious. When he was done, I decided to just pay him, send him on his way. Needless to say, I have proceeded to complete the work myself.

I know that from your perspective you are probably a lot more sympathetic to Mike than you are to me, but I really think this one wasn't the homeowner's fault -- except for not calling it off at the first hint of trouble!

L from Palm Springs, CA


Concerning "M", based on your story there is no way I could ever support the actions he took. He was obviously very unprofessional and unqualified for the jobs he accepted from you. Too many handymen take on work they have no experience in. They think of it as "on-the-job training", and that's fine as long as the homeowner knows the truth and that the handyman is willing to take the responsibility for his mistakes... and make good on them at his own expense, not the homeowner's!

I can tell you from personal experience that it's too dang easy to get in over your head in home repair jobs! Sometimes what seems simple becomes quicksand, even for experienced people! That's why it is so difficult to hire a handyman. Even when you receive a referral there is no guarantee that the handyman can do YOUR job... only that he could do the jobs the other folks wanted him for.

Yes... sometimes, it IS the fault of the homeowner. In my own professional handyman business, I am constantly pressured to do work which I am not qualified to do or have little experience at. Some of my clients want me to do electrical work, which I am not licensed to do. They want me to do extensive painting or rot repair, which are not within the "small job" domain of my business. They want me to pour them concrete patios, build additions, install roofs... all of which are best left to not only pros but CREWS of pros! With the exception, of course, of the handful of "superhandymen" out there who can really do ANYTHING!!

However, perhaps the difference between handymen like me and handymen like "M" is that I know how to say that simple two letter word... "No!" Some folks find it difficult to say "no"... but as Clint Eastwood's famous "Dirty Harry" line from "Magnum Force so succinctly proclaims, "A man's got to know his limitations!"


Dear NH,

We bought an old Victorian home built in the late 1800's that had steam radiator heat. When we put in the AC we put the high velocity ducts in which may also be used for heating. We would like to get rid of the radiators. Since other old house buffs may find them useful, is there some way to sell them or donate them to someone who wants to come and get them? One radiator in the living room is unusual, it's 7 feet long. Some are very ornate.



There is not a great demand for old radiators in the new home market since so many new homes are built with forced-air/AC systems. However, that doesn't mean that there are no potential buyers. There has been an increased recognition of their inherent beauty. Even decorators have been known to suggest their use in dcor planning!

I would suggest calling around to local renovators... especially contractors that specialize in working on older homes. Maybe you can find someone who would buy them from you. You can also post them in a free or low cost classifieds newspaper... most areas have something along that line.

Online, you can also post them on or . Each of these sites offers you the ability to sell or give away your radiators... as well as many other types of old house goodies!



Dear NH,

You wrote an article about cleaning stainless steel, but you didn't mention my favorite product, Bar Keeper's Friend. It is a scouring powder like Comet or Ajax. It can be used on a variety of surfaces, really makes stainless steel sinks shine.



Great suggestion. Especially since Barkeeper's friend does not contain chlorine bleach. The active ingredient is oxalic acid. Another product with a similar chemical composition called ZUD that I have also used successfully. Both of these products are available at most hardware stores... sometimes side-by-side!

Just remember that stainless steel sinks can scratch and both these products are mild abrasives. Just don't overdo the scrubbing!!



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