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Handyman Letter - November 2004

In This Issue:

1) Your work reflects on you... a message from the Natural Handyman

2) Back at ya'... in appreciation for media citations or web links!

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!


1) Your work reflects on you... a message from the Natural Handyman

Back in May of 2003, in this very spot I discussed the notion of the “responsible contractor”... an honorable person who leaves his clients better off for having known him through his honesty, strong values and pride in his work. I pointed out that the handyman must strive to “do no harm” and to treat his clients' homes with as kind a hand as if they were his own.

I received this response from a reader the following month, but it was placed in my email “to do” file. I ran across it again last week while housekeeping my many inboxes. Remembered how much I enjoyed receiving it, I hope you also find some of your “better self” in this message...

Dear NH,

I appreciated your viewpoint on "doing no harm". You offered up the broad philosophical points. It's been nearly 40 years since my grandfather started teaching me how to "fix things" and how to run a business. One thing he put into my head is that no matter what happens in life the one possession I'll always have is my name. Maybe it's just old fashioned personal pride in doing a good job. I know that the vast majority of time my customers don't have a clue about the quality of work. What they do know is that they seldom have to call me back -- unless it's to talk about doing another job.

Yeah, it's always tempting to increase the hourly profit by taking shortcuts, doing little things that might never be seen. Still, it's my name on that job -- and that's even if the work is being done by an employee or sub.

My biggest peeve in this area? It's doing repairs or additions to someone else's work that was done poorly. If nothing else, I'm tired of having to explain why a job is going to be more expensive because I have to first correct what someone else has done.

My request of other contractors (and architects and designers for that matter) is, while doing any job, they realize that someone, sometime, is going to have to deal with their past work. Nothing lasts forever!

Maybe it's dumb, but I just like to think that someday when someone alters something I've done, they'll look at it and be somehow impressed with the quality. Better than having them curse the stupid “so-and-so” who made this mess!. Does it really eat up that much profit to add some shut-off valves here and there or to make some access panels where you know full well someone will need to get into someday? Or installing a water heater or built-in appliance in such a way that they can be accessed easily? How about just giving some thought to the arrangement of all that stuff under the kitchen sink so the inevitable repairs can be done easily?

Well, for what it's worth, my grandfather didn't die wealthy. Don't guess I will either, the way I do things. But it's a good enough living. And my name isn't tarnished.

DS in Portland, OR


You're as bad a businessman as I am, always putting the customer first! Just fantasize for a moment that everyone had the same work philosophy. Regardless of the task at hand, they would always work to the best of their ability. At the least, fewer jobs would have to be redone and people would get more value for their hard earned money. At best, this notion of quality-everywhere would spread like a virus to all our benefits!

But you have touched on a grander notion... being a winner or loser in life is determined in the end by how we view ourselves, not through our cars or homes but through our deeds, our internal harmony and satisfaction through our good works!

A big part of this quest for satisfaction is reconciling the ups and downs of our days into a single, positive life. That's why people who are truly successful in their work carry this success with them elsewhere. They may not be perfect people, but they try... and that's as much as anyone can ask.

Though it may seem impossible at times, trying to absorb one's “worklife” into one's “playlife” makes us whole and gives our lives continuity. Keeping work mentally separate is not a benefit, it's a hindrance. If it wasn't, then why is it said that truth stands on its own, while lies need constant support?

At least in this life, being untrue to yourself is really hard work!




The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends changing smoke alarm batteries once a year with the fall time change. If you would like more information about the value and correct installation of smoke alarms...

Ever wonder why a certain room in your home makes you feel great... and another room makes you want to claw your eyes out! Maybe it's not the dcor... maybe it's the color! Get a little insight from this article by Jeanette Joy Fisher on colors that can “psych” you up!

CHOOSING THE PERFECT BATHROOM EXHAUST FAN hits on all the important considerations to help you pick the best fan for your sanctuary!

DO YOU NEED A HOME ENERGY AUDIT? Learn about this sophisticated way to better understand the energy flow in your home! You might even save money!

COMPLETE HOME REHAB IN 10 DAYS! From the mouth of a pro realtor/appraiser, learn how to use your powers of observation and common sense to choose a rehab or rental property with as few “warts” as possible... and make the repairs most likely to increase it's value over time.

CREATE A BIRDHOUSE IN AN HOUR FROM WOOD SCRAPS! It might not be a 5000 sq.ft. “McMansion”, but it will be a home to our little feathered friends!

Energy can get lost from unlikely places... until you learn where to look! 



Dear NH,

I need to remove one layer of built-up 1/2" plywood and two layers of vinyl from my kitchen to allow for dishwasher removal clearance before I lay down some laminate flooring. A test area under the refrigerator reveals that the 1/2" plywood was nailed and not glued to the subfloor, so most of the removal should be easy. However, I would like to avoid removing the cabinets and try to cut the plywood flush to the toe kick board. Due to the overhang, what kind of tool can I use in this tight location? I tried a Dremel with a cut off disc, but it's tedious and the discs shatter easily. The dremel saw blade is too small a diameter to cut all the way through. Any ideas? Thanks!

HK from Fairbanks, AK


If you were cutting through the entire subfloor, you could use a reciprocating saw, held at a steep angle, to remove this extra wood around the floor cabinets. Of course, you'd have to be very careful to keep the cut as shallow as possible in case there are any pipes or electrical wires under the floor! A 6” or 8” nailcutting blade would be best. To start the cut and to avoid saw kickback and “skittering”, drill a sufficiently large hole where you would like to start. If the cut is perpendicular to the floor joists, be careful not to cut into them. Use a chisel to clean up!

For removal of a layer or two of built-up floor, the pros use a “toe-kick saw”. If you wanted to buy one, it costs around $250.00 and has one purpose... to cut close to walls and under the lip of floor cabinets. Depending on the blade used, you can cut wood or even ceramic tile. (This tool can also be used to remove ceramic floor tiles mid-floor.)

Rather than purchase, you may be able to rent one. I called our local rental store and they indeed have them. Of course, I don't think you'd want to drive to CT, so I checked online. I see that you have a number of rental stores in the Fairbanks area so you'll probably get lucky!

Good luck and I hope you can get your hands on one of these to make your job easier.


Dear NH,

I am trying to install a GFCI in an old two-wire bathroom. There was only a light switch before, and I wanted to add a plug also, so I bought a GFCI with both a switch and a plug.

I have not been able to get it to work correctly using the wiring directions with the existing two wires to the line-in connections, and wonder if there is another wiring solution for this scenario. I can get the light switch to work correctly but not the plug. The unit will not reset, and the strange thing is that even without the light switch wired, the light glows faintly when I try to reset the GFCI. Could the unit be faulty?

JC from Lakeland, FL


You can't replace a light switch with a GFCI outlet, at least not per the instructions. The reason is the manufacturer assumes you are wiring your GFCI according to modern codes.

In the "good old days" of two-wire circuits, it was common to find electrical outlets integrated into bathroom light fixtures. People were not making great demands on their bathroom wiring. With the advent of heating appliances such as curling irons or hair dryers, the strain on smaller power capacity lighting circuits was seen as a danger. Now, current electrical code requires bathroom outlets to have their own, dedicated circuit protected by a GFCI. This circuit can be shared by multiple bathrooms.

Back to your question, is it possible to wire an outlet into this circuit? Yes, but I can't recommend it because you may be placing yourself and your home at risk. GFCIs protect against electrocution due to accidental grounding. They provide NO protection against fires from overheating wiring, a genuine possibility if you install an outlet in the lighting circuit without professional inspection of your wiring.

Though I will always be a do-it-yourselfer, I consider this to be enough of a risk that you should consult with an electrician about the safe wiring options in your bathroom.


Dear NH,

Last summer, I had a full-sized mirror, light and four 3/8 inch glass shelves professionally installed into a niche' which sits beside my fireplace in my home's "great room" (living room / dining room). This area, as all my walls, is texturized and painted.

I'd love to have this area appear to be a display case, matching the red oak of my dining room, as there is no space for a hutch. Have tried "contact paper" which creates the right effect, but have not been able to get it to remain in place. Expert cutting of the shelves barely allows room for even this very thin covering, so applying an oak "skin" is out of the question.

Is there some adhesive / other application I can apply which will make the contact paper adhere more permanently?

SB from Lancaster, CA


Visit a local paint store and ask about your options for "faux" painting on those walls. There are a number of techniques that might give you the effect you want. At worst, you can repaint over the faux color with no harm done.

The other option would be to make thin plywood "inserts" to fit between the shelves and against the wall. If properly cut and if there are no significant obstructions, this might work. Then, you could apply the contact paper to the pieces of wood, solving your current problem, or paint them. A dab of construction adhesive or adhesive caulk (or a few well-placed finishing nails) would suffice to hold them in place, assuming you have no need to remove them regularly.


Dear NH,

We have had two incidents of a light bulb exploding in our bathroom light fixture. Both times, luckily, no one was in the room. I'm assuming that the light must have been on for some time, but I'm not sure.

Is this common? Is the problem the light fixture or the bulb? How can we prevent it from happening again?

CK from Northfield, MN


It's typically the bulb, not the fixture. Poor quality, off-brand bulbs are prone to failing in a spectacular fashion. It has something to do with the way they handle the surge of power that occurs at the moment of filament failure.

Though having overly high voltage in your home (you can find this out from your power company) can cause premature burnouts in bulbs, if the problem is localized to a specific type of bulb in a specific fixture it's even more likely to be the bulb. Bursting can also occur when a hot bulb is exposed to moisture, though from your description this doesn't seem to fit your situation.

You could try using a "long life" bulb, which typically is a bulb rated for 130 volts instead of the typical 110 volts your home should be receiving. That will compensate for voltage surges if they are a contributing factor.

In my experience, you are always better off using only "name brand" bulbs, especially in critical locations. See if the results improve.


Dear NH,

What's the best/safest way to replace a broken spring on a folding attic stairway?

JR from Little Rock, AR


You must replace the spring when it's under the least tension, which is when the door is up. So unless you have an alternate access to the attic you'll need a helper to (1) hold the door closed while you work on it and (2) if necessary, get you the tools you forgot!

You'll have to use a vicegrips or fabricate a bent piece of steel rod as a "puller" for the spring to give it that last bit of stretch. Wear eye protection and gloves in case you accidentally let the spring go.

Depending on the stairs an the amount of working space you have, it is sometimes helpful to partially disassemble the steps. However, if you do the door will no longer stay open when pulled down, since the weight of the stairs counterbalances the springs.

Since one broken spring usually means the other is not far behind, replacing both at the same time might be a good idea!



7) PASS THE HAMMER, WOULD YA? ... NH'S readers speak out!

Dear NH,

In last month's newsletter, your featured book was “WoodBURNERS Companion”, not “WoodWORKER'S Companion” as written in your description. I had to chuckle when the description of “Woodworker's Companion” started out with the benefits of burning wood. It sort of hit home since I've had a project or two end up as kindling.
You have a great website, Keep up the good work.



Right on the mark! You know me... always going for the cheap laughs!

Likewise, the best part of some of my less satisfying projects has been getting ample amounts of pine waste for kindling! It's amazing how nicely pine “1 by” boards split into thin, easily flammable spikes! Yep, as you noted in your message's header, we are indeed “kindling” spirits!


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