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Handyman Letter -  September 1, 2002



1) The roar of the greasepaint... a message from the Natural Handyman

2) Our appreciation to sites and publications that have recently linked to,
listed or featured NH!

3) Sweepstakes Central... win great home repair stuff!!

4) News from the Basement Annex!!

5) Q&A with our readers

6) LINKMEISTER's Corner...

7) "Pass the hammer, would ya?"... NH's readers speak out!



I had a most unique experience last month that has increased my appreciation of what commitment and hard work really are. Jim, a vocal bass, friend and fellow choir member (I am somewhat tenor when not driving my green van in and out of the driveways of needy homeowners) asked if I would be interested in helping a respected local theater group with some "background vocals"... his own words. In spite of my tight schedule, I acquiesced and met with the actors to begin work on our improvisations.

The play was "The Merry Wives of Windsor", a Shakespearean farce using much of the unintelligible old English dialog but set in Elvis' 1950's rather than Shakespeare's 1500's, with poodle skirts replacing regal robes. Forsooth, I thought it a rather strange twist until I found out the troop's ulterior motive... the cost of costuming a cast for a true rendition of any of Shakespeare's works is colossal at best! The theater group is non-profit, hence low overhead is critical to their charitable success.

Our director, an accomplished British actor and director, offered his creative genius to fine-tune the performance. He worked the troop as well as I could ever fix a toilet or hang a cabinet, with an enthusiasm borne of true love for the theater craft. It's so true that "professionals make it look easy". (At which point I should add... don't try this at home without a net!)

After a few days of musical banter, Jim and I discovered that we were to be more than just backup singers. It was typically Shakespearean to have servants, fools and others of "low class" interact with the elites via music. There were actual parts for us to play, two servants who were integral to the slapstick encounters between the womanizing Falstaff and the two wealthy wives he hoped to seduce. Despite anticipating only minor involvement in the production, we attended nearly 40 hours of rehearsals over two weeks.

When the reality of my investment came home, my first instinct was to bail. What to do... fight or flight? But I never forsake my duty once I make a solemn commitment and, at least from the reaction of the cast to our arrival, in their minds we had. Which is why I thoroughly "measure" my obligations... though that is another story (touched on slightly in an earlier essay on the value of saying "No!")

In retrospect, I am glad I did not waiver in my ideals. Embracing life's heady obligations drives us to adapt, grow and learn... avoiding them inevitably leads to stagnation. I have known the joys and travails of hard work and the satisfaction of volunteerism and selfless giving. But watching this group of amateurs attack their stagecraft with such enthusiasm left my knees shaking.

Perhaps what inspired me most was the sheer joy and camaraderie of this merry troop. For they too were working countless hours, not just before my eyes but also in solitude learning their lines, practicing their art and stretching their minds to new limits

In the last moments before our first performance the director gave us a simply inspiring pep talk, followed by much hugging, mugging and a few tears. It was as if they... no, we were going to battle; not a clash between good and evil but an inner war as fear of failure wrestles with inner confidence, training and preparation. Actors on the stage do play dangerously as audiences hold hours of work to opera-glass scrutiny. Not surprisingly, the actor's most merciless critic is himself. Most small-stage crowds are not only accepting of the humanity of the actors, but even cheer them through difficult moments as if they, too, are onstage with their shirt pulled out! Hurrah!

In his play "As You Like It", Shakespeare wrote, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." As a man of the stage, it must have pained him to use the adverb "merely" to refer to the actor's art, even though his intent was not to demean his contemporaries or their skills. Although his plays seem timeless, I must disagree with the Bard... the risks and uncertainties in life are too vast to be choreographed, and the opportunities to replay our mistakes too few. Acting is not like life, but the skills, training and dedication learned in its exercise have true value that walks off the stage and lives on.

The roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd... I am surer than ever that joy of work is indeed in proportion to the honesty of the effort in achieving it.





What to do? A significant portion of our subscribers have not been receiving our letter on a regular basis due to "spam filters", which they have installed themselves or automatic systems used by their Internet service providers, such as AOL, ATT or Earthlink.

We have written before about the spam issue from the preventive aspect. Anyone who uses e-mail is well aware of the problem. Despite our best efforts there is still no end in sight to this junk "tsunami", nor do we think there will be soon. Cheap advertising will always be attractive to new entrepreneurs, as it should be. Unfortunately, with low cost sometimes comes lack of judgment and a squandering of resources. Instead of low cost email being a benefit to legitimate business, it has become a giant fishing net... and you are the fish!

In their zealous quest to rid their client's mailboxes of junk e-mail, some ISP's over-filter their mail. Many popular newsletters (such as ours) are delivered into spam folders or, worse, left undelivered without notifying either the sender or recipient!

Frankly, it is discouraging to put the effort into a long-format newsletter such as this, only to find that many readers are not receiving it. Whether or not we continue to send this letter will depend largely on whether we can improve delivery rates.

Starting with this letter, we will publish just once a month... on or around the 1st. We also are starting to use a new delivery service, TOPICA. We hope that they will improve delivery rates over YahooGroups, our former service, who had the bad habit of dropping hundreds of subscribers without warning due to temporary glitches in the e-mail stream.

I'll keep you posted. Any helpful comments will be appreciated.




Always on the "outlook" for a new way to fight spam, we discovered SPAMNET by Cloudmark. SPAMNET is an absolutely free service... it doesn't even have a "premium" edition!

It is both simple and effective to use. When you check your mail, each e-mail is compared to a central database of known spam. Any letter known to be spam is immediately moved to a "spam folder" for later review or deletion.

You help the cause and build the database by reporting spam that does get through the filter by clicking on a "block" button, which appears on your menu bar after installation.

This program currently only works with Microsoft Outlook 2000 and XP, but hopefully this winning concept will soon extend to other email software.



Dear NH,

I am trying to get some extra "life" from a client's Formica countertops. I have already used a primer-bonder on ceramic tile, painted it and put a topcoat of "table top resin" on it and it was (and still is) great! Do you think it would do the same for the Formica?

JC from Phoenix, AZ


Yes... but with one addition. Since Formica is softer than tile, I would do a light sanding of the surface prior to priming for optimal adhesion.

Formica is not affected by most common solvents, so virtually any primer is suitable. Or you can use no primer at all! Remember, primers are not necessary under all circumstances. A clean, well-sanded Formica surface is a good base for most any paint!

"Table top resin" is a clear, poured-on epoxy product that provides a thick, high gloss finish. One coat is equivalent of many coats of varnish and it is highly resistant to chemical damage and moderate heat. It is by far the best coating for any wood that will be subjected to abuse... even marine use... but (the big but) this product is meant to be used over raw or stained woods... not painted surfaces.

That doesn't mean it won't work... but it does mean you should test the product first to be sure it gives you the result you want. First, it must not react chemically with the paint finish. Second, the paint surface itself should not be shiny... if you use a semi-gloss or gloss oil finish sand it thoroughly before applying the resin.


Dear NH,

My question is fairly simple. How do you add Freon to a
window air conditioner unit? The "FOR DUMMIES" versions would be greatly appreciated!

SA from New Iberia, LA


Ah... the simple questions are always the most vexing! Frankly, I don't think it's possible for a homeowner to perform this task. And, surprisingly, it may not be necessary!

First, by federal law all old Freon gas must be reclaimed during maintenance procedures... something that is virtually impossible outside of a professional shop. Compounding the problem is that Freon was outlawed for use on new air conditioners (home and auto) in 1995. Though existing stocks of Freon were allowed to be sold, the cost has risen dramatically as the supply has dropped.

Though a cottage industry developed for the conversion of pre-1995 automobiles to the newer refrigerant "R134a", the same cannot be said for portable home AC units. The reason is primarily money... it would cost more to convert an old window unit to R134a than it would be to replace the unit.

According to many AC experts, it would be unusual for your unit to need recharging anyway! Your room air conditioner is a "closed" system with no venting that would cause refrigerant to leak out. Indeed, if your unit was leaking, it would not just need recharging but leak repair... something that is beyond a homeowner's diagnostic ability without specialized tools.

If you are lucky, your problem may be an air-flow problem caused by dust around the condenser and evaporator coils, or a dirty filter. Any contaminants that impede the free movement of air across the coils will reduce your AC's efficiency. Forced air is the best way to clean out the dust, since there is usually little room for mechanical cleaning. The best time to blow it out is when the unit is dry, since dampness will make the dust stick more firmly. You can rent a small compressor for this purpose... just tell the rental place what you are going to use it for and they will equip you with the proper accessories. The cover on the unit will need to be removed. If it is a large through-wall unit it will have to be pulled out of it's sleeve.

If your unit is definitely clean, get on the phone and investigate local appliance repair outlets to see whether it is economical to attempt a repair. Furthermore, price out new units so you have a basis for a cost comparison.


Dear NH,

We have a basement that leaks really bad when it rains. I have been told this is because there is a crack somewhere in the foundation. Since this would cost a lot of money to fix, is there anything cheaper I could do to stop at least some of the water? Yesterday we got 6 inches in the basement. Please advise!

SR from Chicago, IL


First things first. Examine the outside of the house and look for leaky gutters or other possible sources for the water. Even if you do a repair, over time serious surface water problems may reemerge as a leak somewhere else! Read the following article for more info... 

There are plenty of products that will seal cracks and seepage in below-grade foundations. "Hydraulic cement" is a common crack repair product. It is most notable because it dries quickly to stop active leaks and it expands as it sets, making a water-tight seal in a properly prepared crack (provided the surrounding wall is solid).

There are also waterproofing paints that will do a good job on light water seepage through minor imperfections in the concrete... provided the walls are clean and paint-free.

Your first job is to find the crack! It could be a vertical crack in a wall, a crack in the floor or even leakage in the seam between the wall and floor.

No product will repair a hairline crack that has significant leakage. Simply, the cement will not set hard enough or hold adequately in applications less than about 1/4 inch thick. For any of the patching cements to work, the crack needs to be widened according to the manufacturer's specifications.

If there is water seepage though pores in the concrete wall, they can often be sealed with a cement paint. Actually, sealing is not the right word. Modern cement-based waterproofing products do not merely coat the concrete surface but actually become part of it, allowing them to withstand a low level of hydrostatic pressure... the force of water pushing against the outside of the foundation. The lessens not just water flow but also the flow of all moisture through the wall, leading to lesser humidity in the basement!

If you apply a cement patch, give a patched area at least a week or two before applying a cement paint. Again, read the manufacturer's specific instructions on application over new patches.

Of course, widespread leaking may require more severe methods, such as inside water diversion systems, outside foundation coatings or even foundation drains. However, I always suggest attempting the least expensive repair first... you might just get lucky!!

Good luck,




Dear NH,

Hi Jerry,

In a question a few newsletters back about preventing brush marks when painting doors, I wondered about why you didn't suggest thinning the paint a little or using the additives like Floetrol or Penetrol? Sometimes when paint has been hanging around the house or the weather is really hot and dry, thinning the paint allows it a little more time to level out.

Many of my painters use the roller like you suggest and then go and back brush it to get the smoothest finish without the "orange peel" look a roller leaves.



Great points! I'll add them to the letter when I post it on the website. Thanks.


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