Thursday, April 9, 2009

Ice dams, roof rakes, and Spring money-saving tips

As I've mentioned in previous posts, ice dams have plagued the gutters and downspouts on the north side of my old home.

Alleviating this problem requires a couple of different strategies, and some less-than-desirable work. First, I purchased a roof rake last winter to keep as much snow off the north roof as possible. Essentially, my roof rack is a 24-foot aluminum pole (in four parts) with an aluminum rake on the end which lets you drag snow off your roof. If you haven't guessed yet, the less-than-desirable work includes standing on the ground as you're pulling snow toward yourself. As the saying goes, “what goes up, must come down,” and when it's an avalanche of snow coming your way, it can be a cold, unpleasant experience. Oh the things I'll do to protect this old Cape Cod! Fortunately, the north side of my house is also the back of my home, so no one can see me dressed in full ski gear to perform this task (yes, including ski goggles!). But don't fret; practice makes perfect and you eventually learn how to properly control cascading snow.

In addition to the roof rake, I had also purchased heated cables expressly designed to prevent ice dams in home gutters. Basically, the low-voltage cables produce just enough heat to melt snow. When they're strung properly just above your gutters (with special clips that attach to roof shingles), the snow melts and won't accumulate into ice with changes in temperature. By keeping the roof relatively clean with the roof rake and using the ice dam cables, you can prevent ice dams and hug icicles that can cause significant damage to a home.

So, why am I bringing this up in the Spring instead of before winter and what exactly are the money-saving tips I mentioned? Well, for starters, I was proud of myself for taking the time to install the ice dam heating cabs last Fall prior to the onset of snow. I was also proud of myself for remembering to unplug the ice dam cables once the threat of snow had passed. That's money saving tip number one.

My next money saving tip is to look for a roof rake and ice dam cables now – in the off season – when retailers are likely to be reducing inventory. You might save yourself some money, and better yet, you'll be prepared for next winter!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Shopping for hardwoods and finding Birdeye Maple

A couple of days ago I went shopping for some hardwoods to use in my woodworking shop. There’s not a pressing need for it immediately, but I do have a couple of projects in mind and thought I’d get the hardwoods in need well in advance of the projects starting so the wood has time to acclimate to our home’s environment.

My shopping list included two species of hardwoods: birdseye maple and cherry. I got motivated to go on a run for wood after learning that Allen from Milwaukee Woodworks had a new supply of birdseye maple in stock. While it’s not exactly around the corner for me, it’s worth the trip because Allen offers a great selection of popular hardwoods and great prices.

So what is “birdseye” maple? As the photo to the right shows, its maple wood with tiny “figure” that resembles small eyes... birds’ eyes. As you can see, it’s quite striking, although I’ll be the first to admit that a little bit of birdseye maple can go a long way. No worries for me, as I’m planning on using it in a relatively small project (keeping this project secrete from my wife keeps me from sharing too many specifics about this project right now).

It’s nice to kill the winter doldrums and offset my home improvement projects by bringing a stack of new hardwood into the basement. I’ve walked by the stack several times since getting it home, and each time I peer down and get excited about converting those simple boards into a thing of beauty.

You can see one of my recent woodworking projects in my post Woodworking beats home improvement - my new cherry nightstands.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Can a halogen light start a fire? Yes.

A few months back, I finished our upstairs bathroom remodel (see all bathroom remodel posts) by added a new light soffit with halogen lights above the sink. You can read all the custom light soffit posts as well.

Those tiny halogen lights sure do put out enough heat, but are they capable of starting a fire? Simply put, yes. Please read on as I explain how.

I built the housing of that soffit out of pine wood and plywood, but the threat of fire in my particular situation did not come from the housing of the light soffit itself. It came from the bathroom door that was swung open far enough to be directly under the light. It only took a few minutes for the top of the door to get hot enough for my wife to ask me if I smelled something burning. Before I go on, let me give you some background information...

My wife asks me about once a month if I smell something burning, and typically it’s a false alarm. So, please forgive me if I initially wrote this off as the little boy crying wolf. However, after running trudging up the stairs to explore the latest purported fire, I realized there was indeed the smell of smoke. Initially, I thought it was my wife’s hair dryer overheating. Then I noticed the door directly under one of the four halogen lights.

Since the clearance between the top of the door and the halogen lamp is only two or three inches, the heat from the halogen bulb was significant enough to cause the wood on the top of the door to smolder. This had never been an issue before, because a small trash can that typically sits on the floor directly behind the door usually stops the door from swinging that far open. On this particular day, however, the trash can had slide under the adjacent sink, allowing the door to swing as far as the perpendicular wall.

The photos above show the halogen light assembly with smoke stains, the smolder mark on the outside of the door, and the smoke mark and cracked paint on the inside of the door.

In hindsight, I guess it wasn’t a good idea to rely on the trash can to stop the door from swinging too far, but I never imagined this type of halogen light fire scenario.

To keep this from happening again in the future, I’ve added the trusty door stop that mounts neatly to the door’s hinge pin from Ace Hardware. Who knew a three dollar door door stop hinge pin could also be a fire preventer. Live and learn.

And just to clear the air (no pun intended), I’ll never take my wife’s concern over the possible smell of smoke lightly ever again. I promise.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Splinters and cuts no more - all purpose work gloves and the justification to buy a pair

Enough is enough. I’ve finally put my macho man status on the shelf and purchase a pair of all purpose work gloves. (Note: macho man status never really existed.) What made me finally break down? Read on...

When I returned to work after several days off around the holidays (days I spent working on our Cape Cod, naturally), one of my co-workers commented, “I can tell what you did over the holidays” as she pointed to my right hand. I retuned to my office and counted the number of cuts on my right hand alone: six. They weren’t big, just large enough to be noticeable to others (apparently). But that one comment wasn’t enough to push me into the all-purpose work glove camp.

The thing that really made me buckle was working with some bead-board plywood. You may recall that I used beadboard plywood for our upstairs bathroom ceiling last winter. That batch of beadboard plywood was good quality, free and surface splinters. However, the two sheets I bought recently were of lesser quality and had multiple surface splinters. In the course of 24 hours I planted at least eight splinters into my hands. It didn’t matter what I did, that plywood was out to break me. Transferring the material from the van to the garage for cutting... ouch!... one to the palm. Hanging the beadboard plywood... yikes!... another to the palm. Sanding the plywood prior to priming (this one was the worst)... inadvertently, yet forcefully, jamming a splinter into the side of my pinky as I try to sand the surface of the rough bead board plywood. Not just once, but at least four times.

Despite all these splinters, I still hadn’t reached my breaking point. Since I managed to remove all those splinters, I was willing to live and learn.

Then came the final straw... a splinter that could not be removed and will live with me for the next few weeks...

Have you ever had a splinter on the inside tip of one of your index fingers? For me, it was my left finger. Not a big deal, you say? Well, try typing sometime with a splinter in your index finger. Each time I’ve hit the letter F, T, G, Y, V, or B throughout this Old Home Blog post, I’ve felt that little splinter. Seriously, scan this post for the number of times those letters have been used. Each time I hit those letters I get a little reminder of my perceived toughness. (By the way, I type the right way... no hunting and pecking here, so putting pressure on this little nuisance is unavoidable.)

With this tinny little shard of wood buried within my index finger, I put my tail between my legs and set off for the Home Depot. At first I felt a little embarrassed to be browsing the end cap with the glove selection. Granted, I own leather gloves for heavy-duty projects, and clothe gloves for light duty jobs around the yard. However, the all-purpose glove is different. They look as much like gloves for playing baseball or football than working around the homestead. But I was resigned to my fait and had to be any pre-conceived notion about the silliness of these gloves behind me. I scurried to the self checkout lane, quickly made my purchase without witness, and headed home.

Seriously, am I buying work gloves or some “lady product” for my wife at Target? What’s my problem?

Then it hit me on the drive home: Me getting a pair of gloves like these is really no different than a wide receiver on an NFL football team wearing a pair of gloves throughout the season. I can understand wearing gloves in temperatures below freezing, but they wear them throughout their entire season. If they can wear gloves to do their job when it’s 80-degrees, yet somehow still appear to be though, then why can’t I?

Stand up with me, fellow home improvement not-so-tough guys and embrace the all-purpose work glove.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Woodworking beats home improvement - my new cherry nightstands

It’s been a while since I’ve shared any of my experiences repairing and maintaining my old Cape Cod home. It’s not that there haven’t been things to do around the homestead. Far from it. I’ve squeezed in a few tasks over the past couple of months, but my primary focus has been on my hobby of choice: woodworking.

Woodworking beats home improvement any day... one of my two new curly cherry nightstands.That’s right, I’ve finally hidden myself away in the dark recesses of our basement to spend time where I love to most: my woodworking shop. The project? Two new cherry nightstands for our master bedroom, made from curly cherry (shown to the right). Naturally, there’s a story behind why we need new nightstands and of coarse, our charming old home plays a large roll in this story.

You see, ever since we’ve moved into our Cape Cod over five years ago, the nightstand for my wife’s side of the bed has not been next to the bed, but rather tucked away in the dormer adjacent her side of the bed. Turns out, the two cherry nightstands that I had built roughly ten years ago for our then new, modern, and spacious ranch home were WAY too big for our current old house. Who would have guessed that nightstands with 24-inch-side tops would someday become too big? In hindsight, you could land a small aircraft on those nightstands (or accumulate a lot of books or magazines, in my case).

What made me finally tackle a new pair of nightstands? Like most anything else in life, all it took was a little inspiration. That inspiration came from an article in Fine Woodworking magazine. The May/June 2007 issue of Fine Woodworking featured a story on applying a wax finish to furniture. On the issue’s cover was all the inspiration I needed. A modestly-sized nightstand with two drawers for storage... perfect! (See the cover image at

Only one problem with the inspirational photo: the story was about applying a finish to the particular nightstand, not how to build it. That meant I had to draw plans based roughly off the photo in the magazine. While that can be a challenge and certainly adds time to the project, the process of drafting plans helps keep you sharp, makes sure you stay keenly aware of attention to detail, and gives you an enormous sense of pride when the project is complete and you can say you built the nightstands from rough sawn lumber with your own plans.

As you can see from the photo at, the author’s nightstand was made from highly figured curly maple. I chose curly cherry and a natural finish because the rest of the furniture in our bedroom is made from cherry.

So, with this project almost behind me (the second nightstand still needs its finish), I need to focus on the homestead again. Ice dams again.

As for the fate of the old cherry nightstands, they made a perfect Christmas gift for my in-laws.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Unclog a dryer vent clogged with laundry lint

Ever had your clothes dryer turn off well before your clothes are dry? Likewise, have you noticed lint built up on the wall behind your dryer? If either of these are occurring, it’s time to take a look at the lint within your dryer exhaust for possible clogs.

This project is a little different for Old Home Blog because it wasn’t performed on my 1939 Cape Cod. My friend Rob recently asked me what I knew about dryers. He had done some reading online about why his dryer would turn off shortly after starting. Essentially, he feared his dryer exhaust was clogged resulting in his dryer turning off prior to overheating. Lucky for him, his modern dryer has a thermostat which will cut its power if it gets too hot. Imagine if his dryer didn’t have an automatic shut off for overheating and he had thrown a load of laundry in the dryer and left the house for the day. I imagine 15 or 20 years ago his house would be a pile of ashes right now.

Prior to going to Rob’s house, he gave me the following prognosis of the dryer vent:
His laundry room is on the first floor of his ranch home.
The dryer exhaust vent goes into the wall, then up to a vent on his roof.
As if the vertical rise of the dryer vent isn’t bad enough, once the vent goes into the wall, it makes an immediate 90-degree turn to the left before going vertical. This turn to the left made it hard for Rob to maneuver any type of cleaning device into the exhaust duct. Rob had tried a dryer vent cleaning kit that he had purchased from the local Ace Hardware, but he couldn’t get the “brush on a wire rod” to work around the goofy 90-degree corner in his wall.

With all of this in mind, I set off for Rob’s house with only my electrician fish tape and a roll of duct tape. Since the design of the dryer exhaust duct made it difficult to get any traditional dryer duct cleaning device into the space, I figured I might be able to work the fish tape up into the space and see if I could loosen the clog.

To get started, I wrapped some duct tape around the end of the fish tape with the sticky side out in an attempt to loosen any big lint balls clogging the dry duct. The photo on the right shows me working the fish tape up into the dryer exhaust vent. Click on that image to see the larger version and you’ll notice that my plan resulted in some minor success. You’ll also notice the lint on the wall behind the dryer. I assume that since the vent was clogged, any small gap in the dryer exhaust hose (between the dryer and the exhaust hole in the wall) was blowing whatever lint could make it out of the hole into the room. I guess the lint on the all could have been Rob’s first sign of a problem, but in all fairness, when was the last time you looked behind your dryer for signs of a problem?

Since working from the dryer port in the laundry room wasn’t resulting in much success, I decided to take the project to the roof. The photo to the right shows me trying to loosen the dryer clog from the roof. In hindsight, I could ask the same question you might be asking yourself right now: why am I the one on Rob’s roof, and not Rob? Good question.

The fish tape really wasn’t doing anything notable, so Rob and I hatched another plan to loosen his dryer vent clog: forced air. Rob has an electric leaf blower, so we decided to see if using forced air through the dryer exhaust hole would move enough of the lint up and out of the vent on the roof. We worked from the exhaust hole in the laundry room. We put the end of the leaf blower into the dryer vent and I held it in place with an old towel. (The towel would keep the lint from flying back into my face!) I gave Rob a nod and he turned on the power.

Wow, it worked! The photo to the right shows the results up on Rob’s roof. You can see that using the leaf blower not only unclogged the vent, it was powerful enough to blow the lint a good six feet from the vent. The forced air was the best way to clean out the clog dryer vent in Rob’s house. Since the dryer exhaust vent took two turns (the 90-degree turn mentioned above, plus another jog once it got up into the attic) plus had to climb well over 12 feet to the vent on the roof, I have a feeling that cleaning the dryer vent of lint is a task that Rob will need to perform on a regular basis.

Checking your dryer vent for clogs is a task you should consider doing a couple of times a year. Remember how you see ad campaigns around Daylight Savings Time reminding you to change the batteries in your smoke detector? That bi-annual event would also be a good time to check your dryer exhaust for clogs. If you think about it, the two go hand in hand: Keeping your dyer vent clean will keep your smoke detector from going off.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Home improvement motivation... summer style

It’s been a long, hectic summer filled with distractions that have kept me away from many home improvement projects. Between weekend events to spend time with friends and family and full-fledged vacations, it’s been hard to tackle some of the outstanding projects in my Cape Code rejuvenation quest. (And by outstanding, I mean unresolved, not spectacular.)

One of the biggest feats of the summer has been tackling the roof leaf into the dinning room ceiling. A few weeks ago I went out onto the sunny porch off the bedroom directly above the dinning room and started exploring. To quickly catch you up, as previously mentioned in my Getting started post, I had already cut a hole in the dinning room ceiling in an attempt to pinpoint where the leak was coming from. (And also to keep the sagging plaster from giving way and dropping onto the dinning room table. You can see a photo of the sagging plaster in the link above.) This hole has been there for over a year as I tried to surmise the situation and calculate the best plan of attack. Essentially I unable calculate a great plan of attack, and with my wife’s patience wearing thin due to the hole in her dinning room ceiling, I set off to the sunny porch with hammer and crowbar in hand.

Let’s start by showing you the doorway where the leak is coming from. With the dinning room ceiling opened up, I could tell the leak was coming straight down and not running from another area. The spot right above the leak is the door. It must be pursued. The photo to the right was taken on June 11. (June 11?! See what I mean by summer getting away from me? It seemed like just a couple of weeks ago.) Note the garden hose in the picture. Prior to destruction I pinpointed one last test spray on the right side of the door and confirmed that it was dripping into the dinning room.

Initially I was only going to remove the screen door and the casing board on the right side of the doorway, but later I noticed that the siding was installed in a less-than-desirable manner. You see, the siding butted up against the door casing. After a little research, I discovered that the end of the side (in this case, up against the doorway) SHOULD be capped off with a vertical J channel. (Here’s a great Web site that shows the various siding installation pieces. Click on the house drawing to view their useful animation that shows which side components are used on a home.) With a J channel, any water that works its way along with siding towards the door will be hit the J channel and head down to the rubber roof.

While seeking out a solid filler to use at the base of the right side of the doorway, I discovered Bondo Home Solutions All-Purpose Putty. That’s right sports fans; the same people who brought you the great two-part body filler to bring your cherished rust bucket car back to life also make a similar two-part filler for applications around your home. In my case, I used it at the base of the door casing on either side of the door. On both sides of the door the wood had rotted away and had previously been patch with something that didn’t withstand the test of time. I’m hoping Bondo’s All-Purpose Putty will stand the test of time. However, I’m not just leaving it exposed to the elements. I added flashing at the base of the door casing that should bring rainwater away from the door threshold and out toward the rubber roof.

When I was finished with the right side of the door and ready to move on to green pastures, I started poking around the left side of the door. Frankly, the wood door casing was in even worse shape than the right side. I ultimately removed it, along with the adjacent board that’s alongside the right side of the window. I also removed the two short pieces of aluminum siding below the window.

In the photo to the right you can see that I installed two new boards and filled some of the larger gaps with the Bondo All-Purpose Putty. In this spot, the Bondo will be primed and painted to reduce exposed to Mother Nature.

Below the window, I replaced the old aluminum siding with HardiPlank cement fiber siding. It’s relatively cheap, comes pre-primed, and should withstand the test of time (something I’m certainly looking for in a product for this home improvement project!). The only downfall of using this product is cutting it. Understand how hard this stuff is before cutting it with your best blade on your circular saw or compound miter saw.

At this point the only thing I need to do is prime the boards on the left side of the door. Once I do that (hopefully later today), I can re-hang the screen door and put a lawn sprinkler up on the sum porch to see if my handiwork actually worked. If it the roof leak is fixed, there will be a domino effect around our house: the dining room ceiling will get fix and the hardwood floors throughout most of our first floor will get refinished. We’ve been putting off refinishing our floor because there’s currently a water mark on the hardwood floor in the dining room below the leak. The dinning room floors connect with the hardwood floors in the front foyer and the back hallway, which in turn leads to the first floor bedroom and den. Basically, once you start refinishing the floors there’s no place to stop.

Getting the heavily-worn floors refinished will give our entire first floor a new breath of fresh air. We’ve held off on refinishing the oak floors until the leak was fixed. Hopefully that time is finally upon us!