Monthly Archives: June 2013

Learn By Doing. No More Excuses!

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You just aren’t handy.  You are not good with tools.  You don’t know a hammer from screwdriver.   You would rather just pay someone to fix it.  You are too busy with life. Yawn yawn spit cuss.  One excuse is as good as another.  Are you truly all thumbs with no coordination?  Well, guess what, you can get over it.  Do you think certain people were just born with handyman skills?  They started walking one day and ripped a board on a table saw the next?  Learning to use tools is no different than learning to ride a bike or play an instrument.  It takes patience and practice!

Before you totally dismiss the premise of my post, let me concede that everyone has certain talents and strengths unique to them.  The world would be boring if we were all good at the same things.  People have different likes and desires as well.  I get that.  I’m talking to those of you who want to be handy and build things but are convinced you don’t have it in you.  Developing a talent is all about work and desire.  Do you really want it or has that become your excuse when you are in the presence of someone who acts instead of talks about acting?

Realize that the first thing you build or design is gonna suck,  Own it and get over it.  You will have this grandiose vision in your mind of what the final outcome will be and your finished product won’t even be recognizable.  You’ll be lucky if it is even useful.  But guess what?  You learned something and will do better next time.  You will identify your strengths and weaknesses.  Design to your strengths and incorporate your weaknesses.  So many cliches come to mind, but practice truly does make perfect.

I remember as a kid, we moved to a different state and somehow my baseball glove was lost.  We didn’t have the money to just go out and buy another glove, so while I saved and wrote letters to Santa, I decided I could make my own out of plastic bags and stuffing.  I planned it out in my mind for hours while laying in bed trying to fall asleep.  In theory it should work just fine as an interim replacement glove.  They really aren’t that complicated.  So I cut out the shape of a glove and taped everything together just so.  What a disaster!  It wouldn’t even stay on my hand let alone catch a fly ball.  I didn’t take into account the properties of leather and stitching.  Stupid kid you may say.  NO!!  Brilliant.  I had a need and tried to come up with a way to fix it.  I learned more by failing than I would have by not even trying.  I also built up a habit of learning by doing.

If there is a project you would like to build but haven’t had the cojones to take the plunge, do it!!  If it turns into an epic fail,so what!!  You’ll have a great time in the process and will build confidence for future projects.  Dive in and make mistakes.  Be willing to fail.  I’ve never met someone who regretted failing, but have met many who regret they never tried.

 

Disclaimer:  Read operating manuals to learn tool operation and safety guidelines before diving in.  You wouldn’t dive into a pool without knowing how deep it is would you??

The Magic Floating Book Shelf

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I love books. I love reading. I love bookstores and libraries and covet homes with big floor to ceiling book shelves with a rolling ladder. One of the first things I do when I move to a new place is to sign up for a library card. I especially love old books. I love the smell of books and the feel of books. But books are heavy and books take up a lot of space. Books are hard to move around from place to place, especially if they are not being read regularly.

Then came e-readers. E-readers like the Kindle and Nook are awesome. You can fit thousands of books on a single device and the battery lasts forever. You can use a tablet, but the e-ink on an e-reader is easy on the eyes and can be read in bright sunlight just like a real book. I used to have the problem when I traveled for work of loading down my suitcase with books. If I was going to be away for a week I would have to pack four or five books in my suitcase. I couldn't afford to just buy new books, especially when there is a library full of free books at home. Now I can pack one device, smaller than the average paperback, and carry more books than I'll ever read on one trip. You lose the feel, smell, and experience of holding and reading a real book, but I can live with the trade off in convenience and size. I can check out e-books from the library even easier than going and checking out real books.

I'm also a big fan of the audiobook. Download a book from the library on your phone or MP3 player via the Overdrive app and you can make your commute enjoyable and educational. I'll get to the end of a long road trip and want to keep going because the book isn't done yet!

So how do I incorporate books into my home design and decorations? There are a certain number of antique books that I will never get rid of. Some were passed down from my parents or grandparents. Others are just cool books I have found at garage sales or thrift stores. They need to be displayed for others to see and enjoy. I can't keep good books hidden away on a shelf or in a closet. I also had some books that I knew I would never read again in paper format. If I do decide to revisit them, I'll load them onto my e-reader. Instead of throwing them away or recycling them, I decided to use them to build shelves. This design uses a hard back book and an “L” bracket to create a floating shelf. When other books are stacked on top, it creates the illusion that the books are floating on the wall. It is a great effect and has been a huge talking point for friends and neighbors visiting the house. It is a simple project requiring only the purchase of the bracket, a book, some glue, and some screws and can be made for well under $5.

 

Renting and DIY

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Due to the nature of my employment, we don't stay around in one place too long. And with the current nature of the economy and our other investments, it does not make sense for us to buy a new house every time we move. Not to mention it would be a huge headache to buy, finance, and sell every three or four years. We could keep the house and rent it out, but that brings up a whole slew of other problems. Having a successful lucrative rental also requires certain market conditions to even make it worth it. We have another huge issue keeping us from buying: we don't know where in the world we will finally settle down. So the common practice among my peers of buying your retirement home early and renting it out won't work. We have some ideas and we know where we don't want, but we haven't decided where we do want. What do they say about proving a negative?

I'm a DIY guy. When something breaks, I don't call someone. I fix it myself unless it is beyond my skill set. I always have plans on what I want to do in a house and it really sucks to be in a rental where I can't do anything without permission first. It is the major drawback to renting. In a previous house, the dishwasher was in horrible condition. We got the impression from the property manager that the owner was not interested in spending money replacing something that still worked (even if barely). We were not going to live in a house with an unworkable dishwasher for multiple years, so I went out and bought a new one and installed it. When the property manager came in and saw it, she freaked out! “He didn't agree to pay for that!” she cried.

I calmly tried to explain that I didn't care if he paid us back. I didn't buy it expecting to be paid back. If he chose to, awesome, but I was going to do it anyway. It was quite amusing. She couldn't wrap her head around the fact that someone would put money into a house he didn't own and expect nothing in return. From my perspective, even though I'm only there for a few years, it is still my home where my kids were going to grow up and where I would escape to after work. What man wants an inoperable dishwasher in his castle?? Not this one. In the end, the landlord ended up paying us back for the unit and our property manager trusted us implicitly from there on out.

I firmly believe that when you rent a place, you should leave it in better shape than you found it. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it ensures that you get good referrals when you move on and can always stay in higher end places. It also motivates the landlord to not raise your rent, because he doesn't want to lose such great tenants. It is worth a couple of hundred a month for the piece of mind that things will be taken care of and will be kept in good condition. If the biggest fear for landlords are horrible tenants, then the best way to allay those fears and make fast friends is to be an awesome tenant.

So how do I get my DIY fix in a home I don't own? My first rule is to not do anything that wouldn't have wide appeal. Only do things that are easily reversible. If the landlord doesn't like it, you can take it down or switch it back no problem. There is a project I will detail later on for a bay window bench. It is made to fit in that room, but can be removed easily if required. I also tend to make pieces that accent a room, but aren't a permanent part of the room. Use furniture, colors, and design to decorate a room when you can't use paint or wallpaper. If done properly, no one will even notice the room is painted the generic egg shell every landlord seems to use. Pillows, window treatments, shelves, and rugs can all be used to great advantage. And if you do get permission to paint, don't use wild colors that you will have to paint over before you leave. Use earth tones and other mild colors. You may get away with leaving it when you go.

Renting doesn't mean you can't have a “home”, only that you have to invest a little more thought into how you decorate the house to make it a home. Earn your landlord's trust and make wise design decisions and any rental can feel just as personalized as a house you own.

And a note to landlords everywhere: no more carpet!!! And if you insist on carpet, be prepared to re-carpet every 5-7 years. The worst is a landlord too cheap to install good carpet or replace bad carpet damaged by previous tenants or just from normal wear and tear. Part of owning a rental is putting money into it for upkeep. If you want good tenants, show you care about your property, because most tenants will only treat it as well as you do. And if we come knocking, fight for us; you will be glad you did!!

Mason Jar Lamp Shade

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I have talked about my paternal grandparents, but haven't included anything about the maternal side. That shall change starting now. My maternal grandpa was a Naval Aviator towards the end of WWII and a flight instructor during Korea. My mom was born at the Pensacola Naval Hospital while he was stationed there. He was the epitome of a Western man. He loved everything Navy, aviation, or cowboy, and he could back it up. He had a ranch, owned a service station, and fished everyday of his retired life. Unfortunately, all of his memorabilia was kept in the basement of his mountain home in Utah. One particularly wet season, the river rose to historic heights and flooded the entire basement, ruining all of his military and historic stuff. I'm talking his original WWII era bomber jacket. Gone! Ai Ai Ai!!! I was too young at the time to really appreciate the loss, although I knew at some level it was bad.

He told lots of stories when I was a kid and one involved the bomber jacket. He claimed the Navy, after the war, had everyone turn in their issued gear. OK, that makes sense. It belongs to the government after all and should be returned when you no longer work for the government. But here's the kicker: he said the Navy had no use for all of those jackets. It was peacetime after all and they were used. The Navy's numbers went down tremendously. So what did they do with all of those surplus jackets? Tossed them overboard. That's what he said. They were just thrown to the sharks, forever lost to the deep. That makes the flood so much more tragic. He didn't turn it in when he was supposed to, but it was still ruined by water in the end.

My point in telling this story is that there wasn't much left of the stuff he saved from the good old days. After he died, my mom went through some of his stuff with grandma and found a small stamp collection. They were all of the same stamp in either red or green and were all used. It wasn't a serious collection of unused originals preserved behind acid free plastic, but a stack of stamps he thought were cool and decided to keep. They were aviation stamps, which showed his love for flying. As a side note, he rarely flew anywhere after he stopped flying. If he wasn't the pilot, he wasn't interested in sitting as a passenger. I just find that interesting. My mom sent the stamps to me and for a long time they sat in a baggy in a drawer. I thought about it and decided there was no point keeping them in a drawer. I needed to use them and put them somewhere I could appreciate them.

Then came the need and the solution. The mason jar wall sconce I described in a previous post, was extremely bright. The light was amplified going through the mason jar and was way too bright for the space. Why not use the stamps to refract and diffuse the light? Indeed, why not? So that it was what I did.

The wall sconce now serves as a reminder of grandparents on both sides of the family and still cost nothing! I had all of the materials at home. Here's the video explaining the process.

 

Barn Wood Mason Jar Wall Sconce

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It's time to post my first project. I talked a lot about woodworking and building amazing things in my introductory post, but that is not all this blog is about. It's about building complicated things and simple things. Sometimes a simple design element can change the look of a room or feel of a house. I'm not a professional designer and many people won't agree with my design choices, but that's the point isn't it? If it is supposed to be unique to me and my home, then who cares if it's not for everyone!

Currently, we are on a vintage folksy kick in one room. We have bookshelves made from old apple crates and an antique radio. So I needed to keep with the theme. I mentioned my grandpa's barn in my first post. After he died, my dad was put in charge of preparing his land to sell. The proceeds would go to the kids and grandkids as an inheritance. His house would ultimately be passed down to his oldest son when grandma moved to a home, and developers could turn the alfalfa fields, gardens, and barnyard to homes. My dad and brother were in charge or taking down the barn. OK, so really they were the only two in town who could be trusted to do the work, but this is not a post about family dynamics. They were smart enough to save a bunch of the old barnwood. Barnwood is very popular now, but this was 12 years or so ago before it was a fad. They had a few wise souls drive up and ask if they could take the wood, and luckily they said no. I got a share of the wood and have used it on different projects over the years. I never had enough to build anything big because I move around a lot and can't take a pallet of wood with me whenever I move.

I also had bunch of mason jars sitting around the house. One of my favorite things when I went over to grandma's house, was to go down into the fruit cellar (different than the root cellar) and get a bottle of canned raspberries. Canned raspberries in a bowl with milk is AMAZING, I mean life altering! So a mason jar is meaningful to me because of the memories. What can I do with barn wood and a mason jar? I looked around and saw some different uses, and liked the lamps I saw. The bay window in our family room has been designated as a reading area. I built a bench, which will be covered in a later post, but the lighting was horrible at night and during the winter. It hit me!

I had a large hose clamp and an old lamp laying around, so I put the materials together and created a barn wood mason jar wall sconce. This was at about the time I decided to start recording my projects and uploading them to YouTube at the recommendation of friends and family. This was my first “how-to” video, so the sound quality and editing is not great, but it is a very cool project. Here is the video:

It was a pain to reach up to turn the lamp on and off so I decided to install a switch on the cord:

I also built another one with the barn wood going side to side instead of up and down with two lamp shades. They turned out great and provided much needed light in the room. I'll show that one in a future post because it has additional details. And the best part about the first wall sconce? It was free! I already had all of the materials.

 

What’s Up With The Green Workbench Dude??

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Now that's a decent question. Why in the world would I have a green workbench? Why indeed. The easy answer is because they were free. Yep, that's right. There is more than one. There are three green work benches! My father-in-law had a strawberry farm, an honest to goodness he planted, grew, picked, and sold the berries farm. The farm included a roadside fruit stand where he sold his berries as well as other fruits he got from local farmers and the Los Angeles fruit wholesale market. The stand had workbenches for the people inside to cut, package, and prepare the fruit, and also to present the fruit to hungry shoppers.

Green is simply the color one uses when trying to sell fruit. Imagine walking into the grocery store and having all of your fresh produce presented on a brown, blue or red, table. It just wouldn't work would it? I declare green to be the official color of fresh produce, starting … forever. Also, the tops were made of a plywood that really needed to have some sort of finish or sealer, especially when they were going to get wet. Green paint was the answer.

Unfortunately for my fruit cravings, but fortunate for his back, he decided to sell the farm. It was too much work and effort when he could just go to the wholesale market and then resell the produce at trendy farmers markets. So the booth had to come down, and with it the tables. I, of course, couldn't let three good tables to go to waste, especially because I was just starting out in married life and essentially had nothing but some old hand me down furniture. I graciously accepted the benches and have been using them ever since.

The green paint isn't quite as useful for wood projects as it was to sell fruit. I learned quickly to lay down something under a project when I was sanding and prepping it for finish. If I don't, I end up with green paint transfer on my nice smooth virgin wood surface. Not good. Someday I'll replace the top, but for now, I have drill holes, spots for clamps, and most importantly, an intimate knowledge of the complete surface of the table top. They were free; they are solid; they've given me years of service; and they define my garage. If my mantra to is to save, reuse, repurpose, and reinvent, what better way to be inspired than to use repurposed fruit stand tables for my workbench??!!

The Floating Brain Bulb

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That lightbulb over your head: is it a CFL, an Edison, halogen? Nah, just another crazy idea. As you learned if you read my first post, you know I had a high school teacher who let us build whatever we wanted. I believe that was a great foundation for ideas. Whenever I walk into a room, I see ideas and potential. The only limits are the tools I have at hand, but those ideas can be put in the idea vault till the time comes and the proper tools are available. So where do the ideas come from?

My head. Really there is no other way to explain it. There have been many times where I started working with just an idea and it evolved as I worked, fully formed only when it was complete. I think I have built maybe four large projects using a plan. Material lists and cut lists are formulated in my head as I stand in the aisle at the hardware store, repeatedly turning down offers of assistance, staring blankly at the lumber.

I am a fairly regular visitor on Pinterest, Houzz, and Instagram, and I do get some good ideas there, but really it is more about what we need and the materials I have on hand. I always keep scraps, especially of hard wood, and I wait until there is a need and then figure out if I have the materials to build it. A good example is the entertainment media cabinet for lack of a better term. I was sick and tired of the kids pulling out all of our DVDs trying to find the one they wanted to watch. Mind you, this was when they were younger, but it was extremely annoying and every day. I also wanted to keep the DVD player and other components away from sticky little fingers. Graham crackers don't really play well in the DVD slot. So I designed a media cabinet that included heavy duty drawer slides, a large capacity lazy susan, magnetic lock and drawer. I'll leave the details to another post, but you get the idea.

Sometimes there isn't a need, just an idea or a material I want to use. I generally leave it sitting in the garage until an idea pops into mind. I have this grey matter filing cabinet that keeps track of the materials in my head. I don't think it is a special skill or talent, just an open mind and a belief that anything can be made, designed, and built.

Where do you get your ideas?

 

The Birth of a Home Workshop

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I'm just a guy who likes to putter around in my garage, and try to build the ideas that pop into my head at unplanned, unforeseen moments. I guess the two questions most asked is where I learned how to build things and where I get my ideas. So I am going to devote my first two posts to attempt to answer those questions.

My grandpa was a carpenter and gardener by hobby and necessity. He grew up in a time and place where everyone was a farmer, even if they had a “city” job. He was the manager at the local hardware store and was often mistaken for the owner he was such a fixture at the store. His garden was a big corner lot on a fairly busy street and everyone in town could give directions by referencing his garden or his old barn in back. He grew up in the depression and never threw anything out that could be used in the future, He was recycling, repurposing, and upcycling before it was hip.

We lived next door when I was young and he was already retired from the hardware store. We loved to run through the corn and alfalfa fields, gather eggs from the chicken coop, or feed the horse. I loved to pick (translate eat) the raspberries. In the backyard he had a shop with a root cellar underneath which made a great haunted house by the way. During the winter months when nothing was growing, he could invariably be found in the shop building or fixing something. During the month of December, we kids were not allowed in the shop because he was working on wooden christmas toys. I remember grabbing apples from the root cellar and bringing them into the shop where we roasted them in the wood stove for a winter treat. Yum! At one point I took some scraps, nailed and glued them together, and colored them as Santa Claus. That Santa hung from the rafters in his shop until the day he died. I wish I had grabbed it or at least took a photo.

My dad had learned from Grandpa and when something broke in the house, you fixed it. You didn't go out and buy a new one or hire someone. My dad, grandpa, and uncle even built the house we lived in. Fixing things and working with tools was a part of everyday life, so naturally, when I hit jr. high, I signed up for wood shop. We made the tic-tac-toe board, broom holder, key ring holder, and jewelry box one would expect and I was hooked! I got special permission and built a toy chest for my baby brother during lunchtime, and asked for tools for Christmas. I still have the drill and portable workbench from that Christmas.

Wood shop continued through high school and I had an extraordinary shop teacher who devoted all of his time to the shop. His mantra was that you could build anything you wanted as long as you finished it and entered it into the county fair. And he literally meant it. We had a full size stage coach, grand piano, full wall entertainment centers, roll-top desks, a british style phone booth, and my senior project, a violin. I originally submitted plans to build an electric violin from exotic hardwoods. There were colleges and apprenticeships to learn to build an acoustic, so I figured an electric violin would be the most I could do. No, no no! “Why aren't you building an acoustic? he asked, and asked seriously! He ended up driving me an hour away after school one day so I could go talk to a violin maker and get tips and tricks to help me, all on his own time and own dime. During the last month of the year, the shop was open 24/7 so procrastinating high schoolers would have no excuse to not finish their projects. I spent more than one night picking up the papers for the family paper route on the way home from the shop, then turning around and going back to school after delivering papers and taking a shower.

Finally, in college I worked as a student carpenter. We were responsible to take care of repair tickets submitted from all of the non-academic buildings on campus and when something wasn't repairable, we built a new one. The greatest part was that all scraps were saved and could be used for personal projects. If a project required 2/3 a sheet of plywood, the ordering department paid for an entire sheet, and the rest was extra. We could clock out and stay in the shop to work on our own stuff. For a poor college student, it was the ultimate goldmine! I built the kitchen table we still use 15 years later, a gliding rocker, curio cabinet, and more.

That was quite the introduction! Over the years I have purchased tools as I have needed them, although I still don't have everything a full shop would have. I was spoiled working in a university shop and a premier high school shop. I make due and plan around what I have even if projects take twice as long. That's life. There are limits to what I can do given my tools and time constraints. I still gotta work for a living after all! But if you have a need and can think of a way to solve it, go for it! But that's a discussion for the next post.