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Handyman Letter - December 15, 2000


1) Tis the season to be civil ... 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 was once an avid motorcyclist. This handyman gave up riding a few years after his second child was born, amidst growing fears of what a catastrophic injury could do to my children and my life with them. It was the end of a phase of my life and the beginning of another. That was almost 20 years ago.

I always felt that motorcycle riders had a bond. Bikers realize and accept their mortality and the risks they take each time they take to the road. One of most obvious examples of this bond is "the wave". Most folks who have never ridden a motorcycle are unaware of this informal salutation between cyclists. Upon passing each other, you might see one cyclist waving to another, usually to be quickly acknowledged. No long conversation, no political discourse... just a polite wave of acknowledgement. "Hey, we're out here together and we may never pass again. Good health, long life, may your tires always be full of air and your head remain on your shoulders!"

But when a biker is waved to and the wave is not acknowledged, a sense of loss is almost immediate. Be it rudeness or ignorance of this simplest of gestures, this thin thread of camaraderie shared among bikers is thereby easily broken. Sometimes followed by a rude grunt or another more abrupt gesture!

One day last week, in the context of normal rush hour rudeness, I remembered "the wave". It happened as I was passing a construction worker along the side of a busy road. I held out my open hand from my van's open window, and he acknowledged with a smile and returned the gesture. Magically, I was back on my two-wheeler, overtaken by a strange sadness that I would have forgotten about how such a simple gesture... a gesture of recognition and civility... could mean so much to another. "I know it must be lousy to be standing in the damp and cold! Thanks for making my life better through your work!"

Civility. That's the word I was looking for. Perhaps it took a while to find it because it has been carefully hidden away like a black sheep. Manners, etiquette, cordiality and respect are all synonyms for the most basic social rules... so basic that even the earliest writings of mankind refer to them. Civility is a code of behavior that must be learned. It can be learned by example, or it can be taught as a social survival skill.

The pervasive lack of civility easily explains many of the needless conflicts people face every day. Just imagine if everyone actually followed the Golden Rule... do not unto others that you would not have them do unto you. Forget road rage... there would be no more discourteous, lunatic drivers! If you were in a traffic accident, no one involved would get angry... you would work together to help the physically and financially injured. At the workplace, there would be less of the "blame game" when things went awry, but instead a coming together to improve the workplace for everyone. Harmony can be its own reward!

NH... you're dreaming! Sure I am. Without dreams there can never be change.

There is an old fellow I pass every now and then who lives in a poorer section of my town. For as long as I can remember, he has sat every day on his front porch waving at everyone as they pass. Some folks wave back and some don't. Some people probably think he is a few cans short of a six-pack. I would like to think that he has an old 1948 Indian Chief in his collapsing garage.

Or maybe he knows something that many others don't... that something as simple as a wave can brighten a person's day.

Happy Holidays and a great New Year!




(Note: Our first question was part of the group used by PLANHOUSE magazine.)

Q. We have a beautifully stained oak front door. Lately, the door has begun to rub on the top edge of the door frame. This is starting to damage the finish. Is there anything that can be done to stop this from getting worse?

A: Oak, hmmm? My handyman intuition tells me that your problem may relate to the weight of the door. Oak doors and some solid-core flush doors can weigh up to a hundred pounds. This weight takes a terrible toll on hinges and on the frame itself, which might have been designed for doors half the weight. Consequently, the door will tend to sag from the top, causing the top of the latch-edge of the door and/or the bottom of the latch side to rub.

I am with you... no sense getting involved in refinishing if there is another method that can hopefully yield the same result! So, before we jump to any premature conclusions, why don't you make a visual inspection of the door when it is in the closed position. Now look at the hinge side of the door. Does there seem to be a greater gap between the door and the frame at the top than at the bottom? If so, the hinge, frame or both have begun to distort from the door's weight.

Replacing the hinges may be futile unless you have a much heavier-weight hinge installed. There is another repair I have used successfully on sagging doors. Look at the top-most hinge and you will see that it is attached to the door jamb with either three or four screws. Remove one of the screws closest to the center of the door jamb and replace it with the same size screw but long enough to extend through the door jamb and into the door frame. I always carry a number of #10 x 2 1/2" flat-head brass wood screws for this very repair. The door jamb should be pre-drilled so the oversized screw doesn't split it, but the frame need not be predrilled. Tighten the screw in until you can see the hinge being pulled slightly back towards the frame and STOP! Test the door, and you should find that it now clears the latch-side frame with no rubbing. If you overtightened the screw, you might cause the top of the door to rub, so don't overdo it!


Q. I have a blocked bathroom sink drain, but I have read that there are some dangers involved with chemical drain cleaners. What's your opinion of these products, and if I shouldn't use one, what else can I do? Do I need to call a plumber?

A. My opinion is simply that mechanical cleaning is always preferred, but when used cautiously and judiciously, chemical drain cleaners can be an effective substitute in SOME circumstances.

Note the keyword "some". Ask any plumber, and he (or she) will be able to cite numerous failures of drain cleaners. The reason has to do with the type of and extent of the blockage. Once a blockage becomes nested into your drain... especially if it is a clog related to hair... it is almost impossible for a chemical cleaner to free it. This is because the decomposed material causing the clog can actually protect itself from the action of the chemicals by its sheer size! In fact, a chemical cleaner can actually make a clog worse by turning the clog into a more solid, congealed mass. This can more effectively block the drain, hardly your goal!

Another circumstance where drain cleaners can cause more problems than they cure is when your pipes have become restricted due to long-term accumulations of goo. As in the above case, a drain cleaner can cause a partial loosening of the deposits which may cause a total blockage further down the line, especially if the flow through the pipes is slow!

The most dangerous aspect of drain cleaners is that they are powerful chemicals that can cause burns and even permanent eye damage! There are also possible chemical interactions if two different types are used, the worst being the release of suffocating and deadly chlorine gas! Using a caustic cleaner prior to mechanical cleaning can put you, your plumber or handyman at severe risk. THAT'S WHY it is UNWISE to use a drain cleaner in a totally stopped drain, EVEN THOUGH the pervasive ads for these products recommend it.

So my simple recommendations are as follows.

1) I do agree that monthly use of a drain cleaner is a good way to keep clogs from forming. Don't use a "professional" acid-based product for this purpose... they are meant for severe clogs only and are too dangerous for casual usage.

2) Once you notice the flow through the drain beginning to slow down, clean it right away. If you don't, the slowed flow of water through the drain will encourage a progressive build up of goo in drain pipes further down the line, since you have effectively decreased the movement of water through the whole system! This progressive buildup will eventually lead to an expensive and messy professional cleaning job!

If you are a handy do-it-yourselfer, you should be able to clear the blockage yourself. Most clogs form right in the pipes and trap directly beneath the sink. It is usually fairly easy to clear by one of two methods. First, remove the stopper so you can have a look down the drain. If the stopper does not come out, you will have to remove the stopper rod which is held in place by a large nut screwed onto the back of the drain below the sink and above the trap. (The rod, pipe and the activating mechanism are known as the "pop-up" assembly.) This rod extends horizontally into the drain and then through a hole in the bottom of the stopper, acting to move the stopper up and down. Be careful not to lose any plastic or rubber washers that might fall out when you remove this nut... they may be irreplaceable! Also, note the orientation of any "shaped" washers... if you install them backwards you may get water leakage around the rod when you reassemble the mechanism. Anyway, once the rod is pulled out, the stopper will be free.

Many times, there will be little else to do since the blockage may come right out with the stopper! Then again, if only a little stuff comes out or if the stopper just looks blackened and slimy, look into the drain with a flashlight. You may see more stuff in the drain a few inches down. If so, use a long screwdriver and carefully loosen the blockage. You can then flush out the goo by running a few sinkfuls of water through the drain. BE SURE TO COVER THE STOPPER ROD OPENING with your finger, sponge or rag... if you don't water will pour out of the hole and soak your cabinet! If the drain now runs clear, reassemble the stopper assembly and further flush the pipes by running a few sinkfuls of hot water down the drain.

If the blockage still exists, the second and more difficult cure is to disassemble the trap assembly under the sink. This will give you direct access to any blockage within the trap itself as well as access to the larger main pipes via a "snake". You might get lucky and find the blockage right within the trap or right where the sink drain pipes enter the wall. Worst case, you might need to use a plumbing snake... a flexible spring-like rod that is inserted into the pipe to break through and loosen blockages. A WARNING... if your pipes are old and corroded (sounds like an ad for Geritol!) they may break upon disassembly.

You might wonder why I didn't recommend using a plumbing snake in the trap. You could try it at your own risk. Sometimes it works but the force can break thin metal traps and some thin-walled plastic pipes. Sometimes the snake will not make the tight turn within the drain trap. So, as a rule, I prefer to disassemble the trap assembly and, if necessary, replace it and the associated connections with modern plastic pipes. They will not corrode and are easy to disassemble if, heaven forbid, the blockage recurs. This does not include any part of the popup assembly... just from the first "large" pipe nut under the popup assembly to the wall outlet.

Of course, if all these methods fail you may need the services of a professional to remove extensive blockages, especially if they extend beyond the confines of your home into underground drain pipes.



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

Chiminea's... a.k.a. outdoor pot-bellied stoves... seem to be a "hot" topic, judging by this month's questions...

Dear NH,

I read your page on chimineas. I'm buying one for my Dad for Christmas. I am a little confused about the tip on how to best lift the awkward thing. The text mentions:

"Because of the chiminea's two-piece construction, the attachment between the stack and base is the main structural weak point..."

Where is the attachment? The stack is the long chimney part, right? The base is the bulb-shaped part, I'm sure. Please help.



I guess it may be a little confusing. Though a ceramic chiminea is indeed made from two parts... the "smoke" stack (or chimney) and the roundish base... the "attachment" I between them that I referred to is not visible. Instead, the clay of the stack and the base are smoothed together prior to kiln firing to give the appearance of a one-piece unit (like the handle on a cup, for example). This gives a strong bond between the two parts but is nevertheless the "Achilles heel" of the chiminea!

The ideal way to move a chiminea is to use a hand truck or cart, but should lifting by hand become necessary, care should be taken not to put undue stress on that attachment between the chiminea from the stack. For example, it is unwise to have two people lift the chiminea with one holding the base and one holding the stack. Better to both hold the base.

A caveat... care should also be taken not to place undue stress on the lifter's back, since these honeys are very heavy and awkward to carry! Medium chiminea's can weigh 80 pounds, and larger chimineas can top out at over 150 pounds!

Eager for a professional opinion, I asked my chiropractor about the proper way for one person to carry a chiminea. He gave me "the look" and would not even suggest a back-safe way to carry one!



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