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Handyman Letter - December 2003-January 2004


1) Christmas in Riverton ... a message from the Natural Handyman

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

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

4) News from the Basement Annex!!

5) Q&A with our readers

6) Linkmaster's Corner

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



Are you overwrought? Anxious? Fixated, compulsive or obsessive? Bah humbug! Welcome to the holidays, a most dangerous time to be out and about, especially if you get between a motivated buyer and his quest. Or a frustrated driver and “their” parking space!

A good way to stop being neurotic, at least for a little while, is to find something important to do... something unusual and extraordinary that places you outside your normal path. In other words, seek an epiphany!

You've surely had epiphanies. They are those sacred, introspective moments when an idea, a concept, or an intuition that had been blurry becomes crystal clear. One of my psychology professors called it the “Ah Ha” phenomenon, the cartoonish imagery of a light bulb turning on within one's head.

Epiphanies can occur anytime and anywhere, though I've found the selflessness of volunteer work to be a great inspiration. This year's effort took a different shape as I was drafted by a friend to be part of the vocal cast of “A Christmas Carol” in nearby Riverton, CT.

Riverton's 15-year running production of “A Christmas Carol” is a unique blend of music and acting, and this year's iteration was no exception. Based on the 1843 self-published book by Charles Dickens, they interspersed well-and-lesser-known Christmas carols with the inspiring story of Scrooge's salvation from his own difficult past and grasping, miserly present. The cast and crew were varied in age, skill and temperament, with young children and octogenarians, cute couples, actors, singers, carpenters and even a handyman... a rag-tag group that hoped to create a miracle.

With my well-documented propensity for stepping off the deep-end without a paddle, my experience was more than I'd bargained for. As the strongest tenor-baritone voice in the group, I was thrust into a prominent (though blessedly non-acting) singing role. Apparently, the production company had been looking to use more male voices and they took “sound” advantage of this opportunity to drive me to the brink of laryngitis!

All in all, after a month of rehearsals we performed six shows in a single weekend to surprisingly large crowds despite a vicious snowstorm that we thought would surely bring down the curtain. It didn't... and the production, from which all proceeds go to a local charity, the “Tiny Tim Fund”, was a rousing success.

For me, though, the best part of each show was afterwards, where the entire cast greets the audience in a double-rowed gauntlet outside as they leave the building, a two hundred year old church. Standing outside, with lightly blowing snow adorning us, we were truly a sight to behold in our costumes of old and spirits renewed!

There's nothing in this world like knowing, through the smiles and the gleam in the audience's eyes, that you have reached their souls and hopefully set a positive tone for the season... one of salvation and hope.

Happy holidays to all, and may you too find the spirit of Christmas in small acts and noble deeds.




So many chores... so little time. So NH has given his crew a month off to catch their breath and do a little fixing-up in their own homes! But never fear... we will come roaring back in the new year! Our next newsletter will be delivered on or about February 1, 2004.

Your readership during the past year is deeply appreciated, and we hope to continue to help you in your home repair quests in the coming year.

We wish you the best of holiday cheer with a safe and prosperous New Year.

NH and his silly elves in the Basement Annex!! .......................................................



Dear NH,

I recently had to replace the seal between a toilet tank and bowl. I placed the first rubber washer inside the tank between the bolt head and the inside of the tank, as instructed. I placed the second rubber washer directly underneath the tank, between the base of the tank and the first flat metal washer, secured by the first hex nut.

This was contrary to the instructions where it said to place the second rubber washer under the bottom of the toilet bowl hole, secured by the second flat washer and the second hex nut.

What I did made more sense to me since it seemed like it would better seal the tank bolt holes, both inside and out. Is there any reason why this was the wrong thing to do??

BK from Grand Blanc, MI


Having the second rubber washer against the bottom of the tank will give some backup to the rubber washer inside the tank, but it is really unnecessary. The washer underneath the slotted head of the tank-to-bowl bolt is more than sufficient to seal on its own.

The purpose of the second washer is to help prevent breakage of the tank or bowl by overaggressive tightening by the installer. By having the rubber washer underneath the lip of the bowl, the tank will feel firmly installed a few turns before the breaking point due to the flexibility of the rubber washer. Without using the washer, the inexperienced installer may tend to overtighten the retaining nut, causing the china to break.



Dear NH,

I have a stucco ceiling that has what appears to be brown rust stains on it. The stains appeared some time in the last month or two. In three areas, there are blotchy reddish-brown stains. Two bathrooms are directly above this room.

The strange thing is that the ceiling is completely dry. No indication of any wetness. Also, when I open the access panel for the tub there is no indication of wetness their either. I recaulked the bathroom about two weeks ago so that may be why everything is dry now but the original caulking was not extremely bad.

I also see faint specks of red brown stains throughout the ceiling beyond the three obvious spots, even far from the plumbing. The stains do not go beyond this room. I fear that it may be mold but I sprayed it with bleach and that had no effect. Also there is no fuzziness or tackiness to the stains. Is this just a water leak or do I have more to fear here?

DP from Annandale, VA


You definitely have a moisture problem. The heavy, localized stains give evidence to that, probably a slight leak underneath one of the toilets. If you can't decide which toilet is the culprit, remove them both and replace the seals to be sure.

Widespread staining as you describe can be caused by a high level of moisture in the hollow between the bathroom floor and the ceiling below, causing diffused stains beyond the immediate area of the slow leak. Though mildew stains will respond to chlorine bleach, mineral stains will not, so it isn't unusual that the stains didn't disappear when you treated them. If there is some iron content in the stucco material or a metal lathe underneath it (if the ceiling is plaster) that might explain the widespread stains.

However, there is another possible cause for the widespread staining... an artificially high level of moisture in the room itself. For example, if you are using a humidifier, staining can occur when the moisture condenses on the ceiling. Also, these little water droplets can cause dust and dirt on the ceiling to collect as dots, giving the ceiling a mottled appearance. I have seen this often in homes of the elderly and infirm who, for health reasons, keep their homes very humid.


Dear NH,

How can a stud location be found behind a tiled bathroom wall on top of a plaster/lath wall. I have tried stud finders, even the new Zircon that has a 1 1/2" depth capacity, with no luck.

MD from Southington, CT

It's almost impossible to find studs through tiled plaster except with dumb luck. Trial and error is out of the question with a tiled wall!

Occasionally, an old-fashioned "magnetic" stud finder will locate nails in the studs, though wall thickness definitely has an effect. Also, if the plaster uses a metal lathe the magnetic stud finder is useless.

One suggestion is to find the studs on the wall behind the tile in the adjacent room. From the outside you can sometimes locate the studs through the siding with a stud finder, or look at the location of the nails in the siding... some of the better siding carpenters will try to hit a stud with each nail.

You can also just forget finding the studs and instead use anchors. Toggles are preferred in plaster. Also, if the plaster has wood lathe, screws hold with remarkable strength if you are lucky enough to hit the lathe.




Dear NH,

Really appreciated your words about contractors who bite off more than they can chew, so to speak, and end up not finishing a job or dragging it out until you can no longer tolerate them, or go ahead and do the job so poorly you have to hire someone else to re-do it.

I think all of us out here in layman land have dealt with the likes of that. I appreciate your example in knowing when to admit you would have to recommend someone else for certain jobs-that takes honesty, modesty and courage. Modesty is an awareness of one's own limitations and living within those boundaries. How much time, effort, and frustration could be averted if all of us were modest.

So many people today take on more than they can handle in job situations, debts, and relationships with the end result hurting themselves and everyone they make empty promises to. Oh well.....that's life sometimes!

Thanks for your great newsletter- you are doing a good job.

W from Georgia


Thanks for your thoughts. Yes, home repair is like life; how we deal with our do-it-yourself dilemmas reflects how we deal with life's other problems. Carrying patience, humility, honesty and guts into everything we do makes all life's projects run better!


Dear NH,

I have designed a new kitty litter box, and I have a patent pending on my idea. I have three cats, and I know that cats can make a real mess around the litter box, kicking litter, urinating over the edge, etc. It surprised me that I was the first to patent this idea: make the sides of the box higher, at least 15 inches. Cut a circle in one side so that the cat can get in and out. The cat will naturally enter the box, turn around, and look out of the opening while he is doing his thing. Everything stays in the box.

I envision the box to be much like a plastic kitchen trash can for smaller cats, or it can be a large rectangular plastic tote for larger cats, only put a circular hole in one side. Put clumping kitty litter in it. Since it is one piece, there is no place to trap urine and feces. It is more sanitary than any litter box currently available. It is easy to clean.

I am hoping some plastic manufacturer will want to buy my idea and have a whole new product line. It should be very easy for a manufacturer to make a hole in a plastic tote or trash can. This item could cost pennies to make, and sell for several dollars.
I'm interested in your opinion. Thanks.

CR from Columbus, Ohio


It sounds like a great idea! It is similar in concept to the two-piece boxes with a top, but taking the lid on and off does lead to the possibility of spillage. I have used an over-sized litter box for years to keep the litter under control (I have two cats that share two litter boxes) and finally converted to the clumping style out of frustration.

I hope you are successful finding a manufacturer to produce your product. Perhaps you should approach companies who currently make or distribute litter boxes... maybe your invention will end up under some lucky cat's Christmas tree next year! Let me know when your product is available and I'll help you promote it with a contest on our site!

Note from NH: We've posted a picture of CR's litterbox at:

Happy Holidays to you... and all your cats!


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