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Handyman Letter - October 15, 2000


1) A need for energy freedom... 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!



Though I receive hundreds of cries for repair advice each month, I don't receive many questions concerning solar heating or cooling. Though many of you are understandably concerned about energy conservation and I am sure that most of you have grimaced over your wintertime natural gas or oil bills (or summer AC costs), I would bet that few of you have considered a foray into the thorny world of energy independence.

A little history (albeit simplified) for those of you riding in baby seats in the 1970's. Before America suffered its first oil crisis back in the 70's, we were blissfully unaware of a financial/political storm brewing over oil. The alliance of oil producing countries known as OPEC (The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) changed forever the dynamics of oil production and pricing, taking it out of the hands of the corporations and moving the power to the local rulers. OPEC was essentially ineffective at its inception in 1960 but by 1970 political turmoil in the Middle East and an expansion of OPEC membership to include nearly 50% of world production caused substantial increases in the cost of oil. A barrel of oil... 42 U.S. gallons... was selling for $1.30 in 1970. After the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, the price had risen to over $30.00! Fortunately, this price did not hold as good old free market pressure from non-OPEC countries (including the US via expanding Alaskan oil production) forced the prices down to between $15 and $20 a barrel for most of the 80's and 90's.

But this return to price stability was nevertheless costly. The newly oil-rich countries, eager to take advantage of their newfound wealth, borrowed bucket-loads of money from more than eager multinational banks. When oil prices dropped so did their ability to make their payments. Many countries, starting with Mexico, defaulted on their loans. The subsequent rapid rise in interest led to a world-wide financial slump that devastated markets. In some estimations American workers lost up to 40% of their real earnings from 1980 to 1988!

Every cloud has a silver lining, and one of the benefits of this energy "reality check" was increased conservation and research into alternative energy sources. In 1978 President Carter established an energy tax credit of 40% for energy-related home improvements such as insulation, solar heating, wood stoves, etc. This, unfortunately, expired in 1985. Though there are a few current proposals related to rooftop electricity generation and solar water heating, they are (in this handyman's opinion) not practical or large enough to entice many people to invest in these still expensive technologies.

During the 80's, I made a few personal forays into alternative energy. For almost 10 years I supplied about 80% of the heat in my home with firewood and met about 90% of my hot water needs with a home-made passive water heater. When I moved to a new home in 1988, the new floor plan made similar projects prohibitively expensive... especially without the tax incentive. Lower oil prices made the retreat back into oil dependency (oil heats both my home and my water) relatively painless and, unfortunately, guilt free.

Like it or not, I think most everyone knows that we are due for a rude awakening. The alarm may be buzzing right now as oil prices reach record levels. Worse, we are ill prepared to take advantage of the alternative energy groundwork laid-but-forgotten back in the 80's. But I remember. I hope those of you who don't will take the time to read and learn because we are on the brink of some very serious changes in the way we view energy and our dependence on uncontrollable and unreliable sources of fossil fuels.

To that end we hope to help provide you, our readers, over the coming months with more resources for alternative energy and conservation.




Dear NH,

I have five painted six-panel interior wood doors. During certain times of the year the doors expand and there is a gap appears between the panels and the frame that's not painted. What is the best way to paint 6-panel doors to prevent this from happening?

I've seen 6-panel MDF doors on some home shows on TV. I'm having a hard time finding these doors. Do you know what companies sell these types of doors? My understanding is that these doors will not expand like regular 6-panel doors.



Your problem is common but nevertheless frustrating. Because door panels expand and contract at a different rate than the rails and stiles... the horizontal and vertical components of the door... annoying paint "gaps" appear around the perimeter of the panels. This expansion and contraction is not really due to temperature changes but instead due to seasonal increases in the amount of moisture in the air... humidity... which causes unprotected or inadequately protected wood to swell.

There is no surefire way to solve this problem but it can be minimized in a NEW door by completely sealing the door prior to painting with a "paintable" wood sealer. A paintable sealer will give painting recommendations on the label. Be careful to read the label as sealers have special painting requirements, such as the use of an oil-based primer. Others have minimum waiting times between sealing and painting. Don't use a deck sealer because many are so rugged that they require actual weathering before painting should be attempted! Most wood door manufacturers seal their exterior doors before shipment to your local lumberyard, but this is rarely done for interior doors.

Since your doors are already painted, the most complete but also most laborious solution would be to totally strip them, seal them and then repaint. As you know from experience, repainting alone is not a solution since paint cannot creep into every crevasse that a liquid sealer can.

As a less expensive alternative, you could seal just the tops and bottoms of the door with a clear wood seal. These areas are often overlooked in door protection, especially with interior doors, but are important in stabilizing the amount of moisture in the door. In fact, most manufacturers void their warranties if you don't seal ALL edges of the door against moisture... interior and exterior! If you visualize how moisture moves through wood, you can see why the top and bottom edges of the stiles would absorb large amounts of moisture!

MDF is an acronym for "medium density fiberboard". It is a wood product made from wood fibers and bonding agents and can be pressed into boards, machined into decorative moldings or pressed into shapes such door "skins" (faces) that resemble real panel doors. MDF is currently used for moldings and cabinet doors, though it is being used more for interior doors. Its most endearing qualities are that it resists cracking, warping, shrinking and swelling.

However, MDF is not the only man-made material that is used for doors. HDF, or "high density fiberboard", is a sister product that is more commonly used for the "skins" or faces of a special type of interior door called a "moulded" door. Moulded doors are available with either flat or panel-like appearance in many styles. They are also available with hollow-cores or solid-cores, though you may have to special order the solid core ones. Solid doors are much heavier and thus more sound deadening and... well... solid! Hollow doors are much less expensive and lighter in weight, though this makes them more susceptible to damage by angry (pick one... men, women, teenagers, pit bulls).

Because the moulded skins are not a wood veneer, they are unsuitable for staining and are sold pre-primed in what we in the business call "paint quality". Expansion and contraction does not affect the paint film in moulded doors since the faces expand uniformly and minimally. And I think they look rather nice considering the low cost and low maintenance as compared to wood doors. I have seen them in both thrifty and palatial homes. In truth, once one gets past the snob appeal of a real wood door, the benefits of these manufactured doors can't be denied. Because they are made from wood and wood byproducts and not valuable and scarce hardwoods, they are also an environmentally wise choice.


Dear NH,

A bottle of muriatic acid has leaked onto our concrete floor in our basement. I did not realize it happened until I saw the area of concrete discolored, rough and porous. Is there anything I can do to restore the appearance and texture of the concrete without having to pour new concrete in the problem area. I have asked experts and they have told me to use a 10% ammonia solution to water ratio and a straight ammonia pour onto the concrete, but both ways didn't work. I would greatly appreciate your input as to what I can try as to no one knows the answer.

NC from Chicago, Illinois


It was correct to apply the ammonia solution, since it neutralizes the muriatic acid to prevent further damage. The ammonia was not a repair, though by the tone of your letter you seem to have thought it would restore the concrete. It won't.

The repair material you will need to use will depend on the extent of the degradation of the concrete. If the surface is pitted or flaking, all loose material should be wire-brushed, chiseled or scraped out. Then you can smooth the surface with a cement topping mix. Topping mixes are designed to be used in very thin applications and can be spread to a feather edge since they contain very fine aggregate particles.

If the deterioration is severe and there is an actual hole of more than 1/2" in depth, you should probably use a concrete patching compound, which is similar to the topping mix but has more strength in thick applications. Don't get a fast setting mix... it is unnecessary for your application and frankly more difficult for a novice to work with.

There are some very sophisticated epoxy patching and resurfacing compounds that will also do the job. They are not cement-based but do stick like crazy in difficult situations.

You will not be able to restore the concrete to the "exact" appearance, since repairs rarely look like the original work due to color variations, regardless of the skill of the mason. The best you can hope for is a patch that is smooth and blends somewhat with the existing work. Of course, if appearance is critical, you could have the entire floor resurfaced. If the patch is professionally done, it will disappear under the new surface coat. As an alternative to resurfacing the concrete to gain a more uniform appearance, you might want to consider using a quality concrete floor paint.


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

Dear NH,

I think your site is great, and very helpful. It would be a help to add to the pressure treated wood article some info on the levels of treatment available in pressure treated word you can purchase. Their is a significant difference.


Thanks for writing. Unfortunately most folks don't get a choice since few lumberyards stock multiple grades. Usually, they stock what is most popular or suited for local usage. Nevertheless your point is well taken and I will amend the page to include more info concerning PT wood rating.

Currently, there are four levels of pressure treatment, regardless of the chemical used as a preservative. The are based on the intended use of the product and the measurement is in pounds of preservative per cubic foot of wood product. The ratings and suggested uses are:

0.25 Above Ground
0.40 Ground Contact
0.60 Permanent Wood Foundation
2.50 Salt Water

This information is required to be posted on each board and is either marked with ink on the board or on a plastic tag that is stapled onto the end of each treated board.


Dear NH,

Here is some info that might help the person who had a question on, making window screens and storm windows, in the last newsletter. An easy way to make window screens is to use a special molding available at most lumber yards called "screen stock". The yard that I frequent stocks the molding in two sizes. The molding has a 1/2 round piece of molding attached to it.

The molding has to be cut to fit, with 45 degree angles secured together with corrugated, or "Skotch" fasteners. The 1/2 round piece, has to be cut out with a utility knife. The screening is stapled into position, then the 1/2 round molding is tacked back into place to cover and reinforce the staples.


Thanks, JM! I'll pass your comments on. Hopefully I'll also get a photo of the molding posting on the site soon!



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