Tag Archives: Tools

Hammering with Habitat

On paper, Habitat for Humanity is a good fit for me: I’ve always fancied myself a bit of a DIYer, and pride myself on (at least) trying to take care of a lot of the maintenance demanded by my old house.

But I never realized how much I don’t know. And how much bigger the stakes are when it’s someone else’s home, not yours.

I first volunteered over the summer, during Habitat of the Northern Fox Valley’s Blitz Build project, where they gutted and rehabbed an entire house in just 20 days to celebrate their 20th anniversary. (Since the housing market currently has an abundance of vacant homes, Habitat is buying and rehabbing existing homes rather than building new – which I thoroughly support.)

Then serendipity intervened. As part of the federal government’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program, the city of Elgin received money to buy and rehab a dozen or so houses to reduce the glut of vacant homes. And they partnered with Habitat for some of the homes, one which was slated to be HHNFV’s very first WomenBuild Project.

It’s in my neighborhood.

I spent a couple wonderful autumn Saturdays doing demolition work, breaking up a cistern, pulling down drywall and cabinets and other projects. Demolition really is good for the soul.

But then school got in the way. It’s really hard to give up an entire Saturday – and wake up early – when facing hours of homework. So I hadn’t been out to the build site for a while until a January Saturday.

I assumed we would be working inside, as the temperature was in the low 20s, with a windchill barely a single digit. I knew the house isn’t yet insulated or really heated, for that matter, so I dressed warmly. When I arrived however, I discovered we would be outside all day, working on the new garage. Half the team was on the roof, shingling, while I and others framed the inside of the garage. I thought about running home to put on additional layers, but I was engrossed and didn’t want to walk away, so I stuck handwarmers in my gloves and boots and took periodic breaks inside. (I also worked “inside” the garage quite a bit.)

Habitat days are wonderful learning experiences, though they can be frustrating. I always realize how much I really don’t know as Tammy, our fantastic forewoman, gives instructions. Since I’m working on someone else’s house – a wonderful woman with two kids, a family – I don’t want to mess up. On my own house, sure, I want things done right, but the consequences only affect me.

The first day I volunteered, during the Blitz Build, was great because the house was being put back together. In the course of a day, I helped hang cabinets – after reading the diagrams and measuring multiple times –  and prepped the bathroom for tile.

Working on the WomenBuild house has been different, though. There have been moments of frustration, when I thought I knew how to do something that I really didn’t, like when I realized I can’t hammer a nail in straight to save my life. Moments when I heard my dad’s voice, saying, “We’ll make a carpenter out of you yet,” as I cut 2x4s. Moments where I sucked it up and climbed a ladder. Moments of exhilaration as I discovered the magic of the palm nailer.

It’s humbling to realize how little I actually know, and how much there is to learn. And yet, this homeowner-to-be has entrusted this organization with rehabbing a house for her and her family. The neighborhood has entrusted Habitat with revitalizing a house, originally built in the 1860s, that has sat vacant for years, and bringing life back to that corner. The city has entrusted Habitat with the money to do so, and indirectly, the feds have sent taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars to this corner.

I know I’ll go back again, because no matter how much I’m frustrated, I know the lessons will translate into my own home.

And sometimes, it’s good to step away from the schoolwork.


Mower Wars: The Finale

After months and months of frustration with my reel mower, I finally caved and bought a real mower. Mind you, I didn’t go the full-fledged gas guzzling route. Rather, I went with my alterna-yuppie tendencies and bought an electric mower. My yard is small enough that even the far edges are reachable with a 100 foot extension cord. Plus, an electric engine is far more environmentally friendly and doesn’t entail the sparkplugs, flooding threat and other hassles of a more traditional gas mower.

I started my research a couple weeks ago with a stop at Lowes. I had nearly made up my mind that I wanted to go the electric route, but I wanted to actually see an example. While there, I snagged a brochure, jotted my notes and weighed the relative merits of each. The kindly Lowes employee – an older gentleman – came by to offer his sage advice: “Women usually prefer the self-propelled. They’re less work.” Now, there would have been plenty of other ways to suggest that upsell without inserting the gender aspect. He could have mentioned a number of features that may merit the higher cost. Instead, when I explained that I was interested in an electric and asked for the difference between the two models on display, he tried again: “You know, electric means you have to mess with a cord. You should really consider a self-propelled.” I smiled, thanked him and walked out.

Later that week, I again mowed with my reel mower. Even after cross-cutting the lawn, it was still uneven and looked ragged. Over the next ten days, it grew and grew and grew as unrelenting rain prevented me from cutting. So Saturday morning, I set off to (a different) Lowes and its neighboring Home Depot, notepad in hand, and compared the scarce few models available at each. I came home and discovered that my leading front runner was $30 cheaper on Amazon, with no sales tax and free shipping! Nearly ready to Add to Cart, I stopped by Menards while I was out running other errands. Success! They had a very comparable model on sale for even less money. I snagged it and brought it home.

Sunday morning, I donned my grubby yard clothes, did the small amount of necessary assembly and sat down to unravel the extension cord. With it sufficiently untangled, I ran into the screened porch to plug it in. Suddenly, for the eleventh day in a row, the skies opened. Within the next two minutes, as I frantically pulled everything back to the garage, thunder rumbled and lightning brought torrents of hail. I sighed and went about my day. By the time I got home from a Cougars game, the sun had been out long enough to make things nice and steamy, while drying out the lawn. I mowed my lawn with the words of reviewers in my head. It did look like I was vacuuming my lawn! But in a relatively quick span, the lawn was nice and even and looked better than it has since I’ve lived in this house.

I’m sad to give up my defiant reel mower. But the resulting lush suburban grass makes it worth it.

And besides, I can keep using the reel mower on the slower-growing, shaded backyard – just to keep it real.


The great sharpening experiment has failed. Saturday, I excitedly mowed my lawn. Yep, the blades are sharper, but the cut is still horribly uneven. My lawn looks like (shorter) crap. I’m weighing my options for next steps.

In happier news, I planted a tomato plant in one of my big clay pots that line the driveway, as well as numerous herbs – basil, oregano, cilantro and dill. I plan to add a bell pepper plant in the next few days, once I find a worthy candidate.

It’s been another beautiful day that triggers my allergies, but that didn’t stop me from my inaugural 5 mile bike ride through the my and neighboring neighborhoods.

Who names these things? How do we stop them?

My lawnmower sharpening kit came with a great set of instructions that made the job pretty simple. Heck, each step was spelled out in three languages, and the diagrams actually made sense and mirrored my mower!

I also learned a couple new words. Anyone know what this sentence means?

“Carefully remove the pinion gear, being extremely careful not to allow the pawl to fall out of the slot in the reel shaft.”


Fortunately, the diagrams helped clarify the goal. But what is a pinion gear, and how does it relate to a pawl? Who named these parts? And where do the names come from?

Wiki comes to the rescue with a couple helpful definitions.

A pinion is usually the smallest gear in a gear drive train. In many cases, such as remote controlled toys, the pinion is also the drive gear.

A pawl is even less descriptive:

Pawl may refer to:

  • A common component of a ratchet
  • A part of the adjustable height locking mechanism of an extension ladder
  • Pawl (constructor), a former racing car constructor
  • A part of a table saw splitter, a safety mechanism designed to prevent kickback

But still – how to stop the madness of naming little bitty parts?

Sharpening My Skills – and Mower

My lawn looks like crap. There, I’ve said it. Spring is always tough, with frequent rain and ideal growing conditions that make the grass grow quickly, while keeping it too wet to actually mow with my old friend the reel mower.

This spring, it has been especially brutal. I nearly reached my limit with the reel mower and considered investing part of my “stimulus check” in what some (Don) call a “real” mower, complete with engine! But sanity prevailed as I realized that I had never sharpened the blades on my reel mower, and I’m now in my third grass-cutting season.

Last summer, I had idly realized that sharpening might be a good idea. I made a couple calls, and learned that there’s only one place locally that does it, and even Ace farms out the work to them. Hence, the wait would be about three weeks! If I had planned ahead and sharpened in winter, three weeks would be no problem. However, in the height of summer, the neighbors – and city – might complain if I didn’t mow my lawn for three weeks. I meant to send it off last winter, but alas – sloth prevailed.

Instead, I decided to investigate the sharpening kits that can be used spruce up the blades at home. Today, I stopped by my local Ace (I had checked Lowe’s and Home Depot for the kit while I was on my door sojourn) and picked one up for $20. I brought it home and eagerly set up living room space for my project, spreading out a grubby old towel. I followed the directions and the whole process was pretty simple. From start to finish, it took maybe 30 minutes, 45 if you count the time to run to the Citgo for WD-40. (I can’t believe I’ve been a homeowner for two years and didn’t have WD-40!)

Basically, you take apart the wheel assembly, which is remarkably simple, and then paint goo onto the blades. The goo spreads on a deep blue with flecks of sparkle, reminiscent of the bad blue-glitter nail polish high school girls wear. Then, you insert a crank into the wheel and turn it counter-clockwise at a relatively high rate of speed for ten minutes. In the process, there’s a horrific grinding noise, and the goo turns dark midnight blue. When you’re done, wipe off the blades, reassemble the wheels, and WD-40 the whole thing. I did a test drive on a small strip of front lawn and cut it in a single pass, rather than the three cross-cuts that still left maddening uneven spots throughout the yard. Dandelions are still somewhat resilient, but they’re the cockroaches of lawn care.

A huge sense of accomplishment and money saved – a very good project. Now I can keep my nice, quiet lawnmowing tradition and get some great exercise, too.

Home Depot Employees = Talent?


Home Depot employees Walk Like Electricians. Via Make the Logo Bigger, a marketing blog I frequent.

And for the record, Great Stuff really is great, especially for a drafty old house!

The Fallacy of Rope Caulk

Every year, I spend a lot of time trying to weatherproof my leaky windows. This stretches back to the apartment days, when my ancient bedroom windows would rattle back and forth with the slightest breeze.

When I can find it, I like removable caulk. It goes on like normal caulk, but dries to the consistency of rubber cement. Come spring, it’s pretty simple to just peel it off, as long as you have enough patience to take your time and not accidentally remove the varnish or paint around the windows. Even so, it’s relatively pricey – especially when you consider how many old, drafty windows I have! – and can be hard to find. I found some very early in the season at Wal-Mart, but despite hunting, I didn’t find another tube until nearly Christmas at an Ace.

For the best possible weatherproofing, I use removable caulk, let it set, and then shrink wrap the windows. This combination works really well, and I use it in areas that it makes a huge difference – namely the living room and my office. In the very few rooms with new windows, I either don’t bother (kitchen, since the time I spend in there is often over a hot stove), or I only shrink wrap (my bedroom).

However, one of the biggest energy losers in the house is my lovely porch, or three-season room. With eleven windows, all of them old and drafty (and one cracked – on my spring project list), it leaks like a sieve. And the giant window between the porch and the living room allows a ton of this frigid air through, despite sealing that window. But it’s not worth the immense time and effort it would take to shrink wrap the whole room. So this year, I tried rope caulk. I’d used it before to middling success in my old apartment, so I bought a roll and spent a November morning wrangling it into place. It presses into place pretty easily- I used my fingers and a putty knife. But I’ve found it doesn’t stay put. Every time I go onto the porch to get my mail, there seems to be another piece of rope caulk on the ground, having fallen from its home. At first, I’d diligently search for its origin and lovingly replace it. But now, I don’t bother – and it seems fully half of what I originally installed has fallen. The cat is delighted – she sees the pieces, usually at least 6-8 inches long, as toys for her stealthy forays onto the porch.

It may be user error on the part of the installer – was it too cold that morning? – or maybe it’s just an inferior product. Ideally, I’d replace all eleven windows, but my limited window funds will be spent on rooms I spend more time in – namely the living room. But either way, I doubt I’ll use rope caulk again.

Gardening Tools

My parents recently visited my Grandma Charlene in North Carolina. She sent them back with a very nice set of gardening tools for me, which I got today. I’ve very excited – it’s a full set of every tool I could need! They all match and can be stored in a nifty case. They’re far better than my current sorry excuse for a set that I cobbled together from Wal-Mart.

The snow is mostly melted, and I should see crocuses or tulips any day now…

New Toys

Over years of cultivating my tool collection, I’ve built a pretty respectable, useful toolbox. Inevitably, some projects require additional pieces that I add from time to time. Some are cheap enough to pick up as I need. Others, I borrow from Dad – though he has banned me from re-borrowing his sander, saying it’s useful and inexpensive enough that I should get my own.

But somehow, a few of the basics have slipped through the cracks. Hence, my (moot) rubber mallet purchase for the towel bar project added some nice heft to the toolbox.

Sunday, I rectified one of my long-standing (back to apartment days!) gaps. At Wal-Mart, looking for Liquid Nails, I passed through the small tool aisle and stopped dead in my tracks. I think I may have even uttered an, “Oh!” to the confusion of passers-by. Right in front of me, were the holy grail of my tool box: needle nose pliers. Surviving without them has required some ingenuity, usually involving tweezers or fingernails or trying to corrupt the regular pliers. Not having them has never delayed a project or necessitated an emergency run to Ace. I’ve made do. But now, $1.87 later, my toolbox is one toy closer to completion. I can’t wait to actually use them.

Anchors aweigh!

File this under lessons learned: those plastic wall anchors don’t have to be flush with the wall before you can insert the screws. Who knew?

I thought it was strange, moving into a three bedroom house, that the bathroom boasted a single towel bar. I did some initial looking at the (insanely expensive!) double bars, but after the boy moved out, it was really a moot point.

At Target last weekend, I was able to pick up a nice, double towel bar for a clearance steal of $17. Then I realized I needed a much smaller hex key to remove the old one. Thirty-five cents later and I was in business.

Saturday afternoon, hopped up on coffee, I removed the old bar and its brackets. Hoo, boy! There were a whopping seven holes behind one bracket and four behind the other. Apparently some previous owners mis-measured? I hoped that one of the old sets of holes would fit, but no luck.

I used a q-tip to gleefully spackle the gaping old holes, then spent a couple blissfully domestic hours killing time while they dried, baking applesauce cake and doing laundry. Then I dragged the power tools upstairs, measured and marked my new holes, and dug in.

Oops. Too soon. The new holes had to be right next to the old ones, and apparently I got too close and ended up with a drill bit full of spackle. Alas. I re-spackled the hole and decided to take a break to go to the movies.

Hours later, I set off to finish the job. The spackle was nice and solid, drill bit ready, and so was I. I leaned into the drill – I’ve learned that it’s a much more muscle-intensive activity than I had imagined – boring holes into my precarious old walls. I knew I was getting close when I heard bits of plaster falling into the void behind the walls. (I’ve always wondered how far down the void goes – all the way down to the ground floor? Just a couple feet? Might there be treasure in my walls? Regardless, that crumbling plaster sound always fills me with guilt that I’m hurting the house.)

Holes drilled, I pulled out the plastic anchors that came with the towel bar. I used my lighter weight hammer to tap them into the walls. Then a bit more force. Then the bigger hammer. They were stuck, mocking me with the futility of my swings. I didn’t want to hit harder and damage the wall, but they just wouldn’t go in, and each additional tap only crushed the anchor into itself further.

What was I missing? Strength? I’m not that weak. A rubber mallet that would distribute the force more evenly yet gently? A worthy thought. By this point, it was nearing midnight, and I decided to call it a night.

Sunday, while running errands, I picked up a rubber mallet. Even if it wasn’t essential for this project, I’m sure it will get some use in the future. I had plenty of other projects to occupy me (like my taxes) and had plans with Don. By the time we got back, it was late, but I showed him my sorry excuse for an installation. He shook his head, grabbed the bracket and screw, and showed me what I now know forever: anchors don’t need to be flush to the wall before they can do their job. (Though on the right bracket, despite perfectly lining up the holes, the bottom one hit the stud while the top one did not – quite the feat, if I do say so myself.)

I plan on using my new-found knowledge to finally hang the mirror in my bedroom that’s been precariously balanced on my dresser for the last 10 months.

And I’m also adding that little tidbit to the mental checklist of things to someday teach my daughters.