Welcome to Bob Vila


Keeping Your Workshop Clean

A handful of valuable tips on maintaining a sawdust- and debris-free workshop

keeping your workshop clean

Photo: Flickr

Safety and convenience are certainly served by keeping the shop clean. You may even find that a broom-cleaned space is a pleasure to come back to.

In any case, you’ll need a broom, a dustpan and brush, and a short-handled workbench brush. A shop broom with a wide brush works wonders in a large shop, though a traditional flat broom suffices nicely, especially in a smaller space. Don’t be tempted to add your sweepings to the pile under the table saw; it accumulates quite fast enough on its own. Bend down a moment, dustpan in hand, and get the dust up.

A whisk broom or other work-bench brush is invaluable when doing bench top work with the likes of planes, chisels, or routers. A flick of the broom now and again, on or around the workpiece, makes examining your progress much, much easier.

A shop vacuum is a useful investment for the workshop of some size. It will make cleaning up sawdust and miscellaneous debris easier, of course, but the good ones have the power to pick up glass and even shards of concrete. Some convert to blowers, too.

Unless your shop is very large, don’t buy a giant shop vac. A sixteen-gallon model is probably large enough. Be sure to buy a wet/dry machine. It will prove its worth for cleaning up spills and minor floods—in the house and workshop alike.


How To: Preserve Your Jack-o’-Lantern for Halloween

How to Preserve a Carved Pumpkin - Jack o' Lantern

Photo: allhalloweencrafts.com

No amount of candy corn can make up for the moment you realize that your carefully carved pumpkin’s smile has turned into a rotting grimace just as the trick-or-treaters start showing up at the door. The freshest pumpkin is carved October 31, so if you are tempted to start the festivities earlier, follow these tips to make sure there will still be a plump pumpkin to greet the neighborhood kids once the big day arrives.

With a keyhole saw, either take off the top of the pumpkin (best if you intend to put a candle inside), or make a hole in the back. Then dig out the pumpkin pulp with a scraping tool—a spoon can do, but it helps to have something with a sharp edge or teeth. Be sure to remove one hundred percent of the pumpkin guts. Carve the gourd by affixing a stencil and using an awl—or another thin, sharp tool—to outline the pattern with small holes before cutting. Then dig in carefully with a miniature saw or sharp knife to complete the Jack-o’-Lantern’s face. Even a drill can double as a carving tool—use a ½ inch or ¾ spade bit for making the eyes.

Related: 13 Easy DIY No-Carve Pumpkins

All Halloween Crafts Jack-o-Lantern Pumpkin Carving Tips

Photo: allhalloweencrafts.com

Once you’ve got the perfect ghoulish grin, the preserving process begins. Joyce Martin Demchak, a floral design instructor with the New York Botanical Garden Adult Education Program (and pumpkin expert) suggests drying the pumpkin interior using a paper towel. “Carving the pumpkin exposes it to the air, and to bacteria, which is what causes pumpkin rot,” says Joyce.

To delay the eventual decay, spray all open surfaces with bleach (an adult, not child-appropriate task), including the edges of its face and the bottom of the lid. If you don’t have a spray bottle, Joyce says that you can paint the bleach on with a craft brush. After bleach application, blot again with the paper towel to catch any residual moisture, then start smearing petroleum jelly—just a thin layer—on the interior, the cut-out spots, and the lid. The jelly provides a barrier to keep bacteria from reaching the flesh. Finally, set out Jack with a candle (which is safe to use despite the Vaseline) or use Christmas lights wrapped around a jar.

For tips on greeting trick or treaters with outdoor lights, check out Smart Choices for Outdoor Lighting.


General Colin L. Powell Apartments, South Bronx

Read about this new seven-story green building, built for the community.

The green roof on the Colin Powell Apartments has many green benefits: eliminates storm run-off, insulates the building to keep it warmer in winter and cooler in summer, and lowers the roof's temperature, thus, reducing the heat island effect. . Photo: From Bob Vila's Building Green

The South Bronx
The South Bronx’s reputation conjures up violent street life in the shadow of menacing apartment towers. Blue Sea Development Company, in cooperation with Habitat-NYC, is working to change that. Together they built a 7-story cooperative apartment building.  There are 50 apartments of which 8 are reserved for Habitat-NYC families. The building is named in honor of General Colin L. Powell, who grew up in the neighborhood.

Going Green and Saving Money
The building brings healthy living within reach of low-income families. It has energy efficient appliances and boilers and was built with non-toxic and sustainable materials. The building has a platinum LEED rating and is the greenest affordable housing unit in New York State.  Residents are estimated to be able to save at least 30% on their utility bills.

The building is healthy in other ways, too.  There are community rooms and rooftop recreation space. The apartments have big windows that look out onto a tree-planted street. 

Bringing the Bronx Back to its Green Roots
The Bronx was for many years a country getaway.  The area north of Manhattan was a patchwork of farms and estates.  Invalids were sent there for the salubrious air. While two large parks testify to its rural heritage, the Bronx was densely developed in the 20th century. The General Colin L. Powell Apartments reclaim some of the green space.


Get Jet: The 747 Wing House

David Hertz Wing House

Photo: David Hertz

There is a new residence in the Malibu hills constructed mostly from an old airplane. Consisting of a main house and six auxiliary buildings, the 747 Wing House is an innovative example of sustainable architecture created for a client who requested a unique home with great curves and a green bent.

Related: Aviation Aesthetics: Second Flights for Salvaged Aircraft

Santa Monica architect David Hertz, who helms the Studio of Environmental Architecture, designed a sleek and environmentally responsible dwelling by using post-consumer waste in the form of a retired Boeing 747-200. To minimize land disturbance, Hertz chose to reuse some of the 55-acre property’s existing foundations and situate the buildings so as to maximize natural light and air flow, and to achieve the finest possible sight lines.

David Hertz Wing House

Photo: David Hertz

Though delivering the plane’s parts required extraordinary and expensive measures—such as a Chinook helicopter—overall, the jumbo jet’s raw materials and prefabricated structures afforded Hertz a cost-effective and energy-saving opportunity in material and labor. He says, “The scale of a 747 aircraft is enormous—over 230 feet long, 195 feet wide, and 63 feet tall with over 17,000 cubic feet of cargo area alone—and represents a tremendous amount of material for a very economical price of less than $50,000 dollars.”

The wings, which seem to float, shape the roof of the main house, while the giant curved fuselage tops the guest house, art studio, and animal barn. Cockpit windows serve as skylights, and the engine’s cowling has been repurposed as ornament in the landscape. There are many more instances of reuse and adaptability on the property.

The 747 Wing House was featured on HGTV’s “Extreme Living”. View the clip here:

After discovering the 747 Wing House, I was inspired to find more examples of recycled aircraft. Here is a slide show of other homes and products fashioned from planes, helicopters, and various other salvaged parts.

For more on architectural salvage, consider:

Architectural Salvage
Governor’s Mansion Tour, Richmond, VA
10 Reasons to Love Architectural Salvage


How To: Use a Block Plane

These simple steps will help you operate the block plane to its best use.

Block Planes

Photo: Flickr

Follow these simple guidelines for working with a wood plane and you are sure to have superior results:

Assume the Position. One great virtue of the block plane is that it is used one-handed, so you can plane a piece almost anywhere. But before you try planing on a ladder or in a cramped space, get familiar with the tool on a workbench, fixing the piece firmly in place.  Whenever you use the block plane, assume a balanced stance, with the workpiece held firmly with one hand, the plane in the other (the workpiece-hand should be out of the intended path of the plane – or the trajectory it will take should your hand slip). You’ll also find that planing horizontally or even downhill is a great deal easier than trying to plane upward. 

Adjust the Plane Iron. On a piece of scrap that resembles the workpiece you’ll be planing, take the plane on a trial run. If the blade extends too far through the mouth, it will jam, choking on great chunks of stock. If it’s withdrawn into the frame, you’ll remove no shaving at all. Adjust the plane so that thin shavings are removed.

Let the Planing Begin. Hold the plane flat to the surface. Let your fingertips guide the plane. Be firm, but don’t force the tool.

Try Working Diagonally. The block plane is often most effective when held at an angle to the workpiece, especially when trimming end grain.  When planing end grain, plain from each edge to the middle – a full stroke across the end grain is likely to split the wood at the edge.

Like the kangaroo that carries her young around in a pouch, many a finish carpenter carries his best friend, the block plane, around in his back pocket. Before you know it, the block plane may be a valued collaborator of yours as well. Remember, there are those who say that what separates the skilled from the semi-skilled carpenter is the ability to use a plane well.


Make Room for Mud: The 12-Year Kitchen

Finished mud room
I’ve always pined for a mud room—they seem like such remarkably efficient spaces for collecting coats, boots, sneakers, backpacks… all the clutter that drives me nuts when I see it piled up inside the front door. Alas, even with our remodeling project, I didn’t see how we’d have space to build a whole room just for mud.

But thanks to great space planning by our architect, Norm Davis, we do have ourselves a “mud space” in our new kitchen. There’s not much more than a wall there—just a small area inside the new side door, which sits off to your right as you either pass it by to get into the dining room or turn left to enter the kitchen. But thanks to Norm and our contractor, Keith Mazzarello, that little stretch of wall is now a functional—and beautiful!—mud space.

Read the rest of this entry »


Beat Those Laundry Room Blues

Laundry Room IdeasIn between my rebellious college days and learning the difference between a Phillips- and flat-head screwdriver, I became my mother.

I’m a “Felix,” not an “Oscar.” I find myself spending more time cleaning than enjoying the great outdoors. But while I do consider myself a neat freak, there are some chores that get under my skin more so than others.

Related: Easy Laundry Room Storage Solutions

I don’t like doing laundry or dusting. I’ve learned the hard way that jeans and white sheets don’t go into the washing machine together. I don’t enjoy having to separate clothes for different cycles or waiting for a load to dry before folding the wash into neat little piles to be sorted later.

All of this came to a head recently while I was hunting for the missing mate to an athletic sock. I wondered how I could possibly re-imagine my laundry room so it wasn’t so, well, laundry room-like. Let’s face it, if you have to do laundry, why not make the best of it? Why can’t the laundry room have a few more bells and whistles than the standard washer-and-dryer duo?

Laundry Room Ideas - Brick

My personal vision would be to make the room fit my lifestyle. To become a place where I would want to spend time in rather than run away from.  I would definitely want to maximize the space with better storage and organization. (Maybe include those metal file lockers I found at a local flea market.) I would paint the walls in a bright shade of yellow, change cabinet hardware, and add some artwork. I would even dust the cobwebs off my stationary bike and move it into the space so I could spin while waiting for the drier to finish.

I’m convinced that even small changes could make my least favorite room one of my favorites.

Laundry Room Ideas - Pool Table

Other ways to update any laundry room:

Add a Sink. If you have space for a sink with running water, you might want to consider installing one. Call a plumber or do it yourself. A sink can be used for a number of household chores besides laundry, including washing floors, the dog, emptying items and more.

Install an Ironing Board. Besides the standard washer, dryer and sink, consider adding a pull-out ironing board. Many ironing boards can be installed inside cabinets, then folded up to save on space.

Install Easy-to-Care for Flooring. Vinyl or tile works well because either can be mopped up quickly after spills and easily cleaned.

For more on laundry room organization, check out our Easy Laundry Room Storage Solutions slideshow.


Organize Your Garage to Keep Your Sanity

Garage Storage Organization

Photo: Flickr

Those of us lucky enough to have a garage space in our home tend to take it for granted. This private and secure parking space can quickly become a ‘catch-all’ for myriad tools, products, and boxes of clothing—anything we just want out of sight. The problem is these items can also disappear from our mental inventory of possessions and, before you know it, become a garage full of stuff that you never use—or worse—forgot you ever had.

Related: 10 “Neat” Garage Storage Solutions

One of the problems with all this accumulated clutter is that the legit items that you need in your life, such as your tools or space for long-term storage, tend to get squeezed out or lost amid the mess. Here are some tips to help organize your garage to retain your sanity before you lose all hope.

1. Purge
Before you can even begin to organize the good stuff, you’ve got to remove the superfluous junk that you no longer need. That camping gear that you haven’t touched in 10 years, get rid of it. Those clothes that will never come back in style, donate. Consider having a yard sale to try and squeeze a little cash out of your better discards.

2. Plan
Once you’ve got to the good stuff, you’ll need to set a plan for organizing these items. First consider your layout and what items you’ll need easy access to and what items can go in a more “permanent” storage location. Tools, clothing and household items should probably be front and center so you don’t forget you have these items. Holiday decorations can be positioned further back as long as they are properly labeled and you know where to find them.

3. Organize
When you’ve decided where everything will go, you will need to determine how to physically organize the space. Open shelves are great for storing file boxes and power tools; getting them up off the floor and in an easy-to-reach position. Cabinets and drawers are good places for chemicals and cleaning fluids. Hooks are also great for getting things like bikes, brooms, and sporting equipment out of the way. Getting items off the floor is a huge factor in sorting out your space.

4. Label
As you begin to place your items on shelves or in storage bins, make sure you label them with BIG BOLD WORDS.  Use tape and a Sharpie instead of writing directly on a box so you don’t have to continue to cross out old contents. Be very clear on recording what items are in each box as this will save you time and headache later.

5. Keep it Clean
A clean and organized garage can quickly become messy. To prevent this, make a staging space on top of a box or counter in your garage where you can place items temporarily until they are stored in their proper place.  This will save you from just haphazardly throwing boxes or items on top of boxes and starting the vicious cycle all over again.

Garage Storage and Organization

Photo: Flickr

For more on storage and organization, consider:

Optimize Your Attic Space
Quick Tip: Garage Storage Solutions 
Basement Storage Ideas


Are You Smarter Than Your Refrigerator? The 12-Year Kitchen

Kenmore Elite control panel

The display panel on our new fridge speaks for itself.

We are so close to finished I can almost taste the ice. It’s been more than seven months since this project began, and although conventional wisdom is that it’s smart to do a kitchen in the summer, when you can barbecue, hot weather without a freezer handy can be a challenge. Even as we moved into autumn, I think what I missed the most was the tinkle of ice cubes in a glass.

But now… oh, now things are about to change. Twenty-eight cubic feet of sheer joy await us in our new fridge. It’s got variable temperature-controlled vegetable and meat compartments, adjustable shelves in both the main fridge and the doors, and an in-door ice and water dispenser that takes up almost no space inside.  It has a bottom freezer below the French door refrigerator, with tilting door, adjustable divider, and extra ice bucket for storage when I’m in the “ultra-ice” mode.

It also has a 60-plus-page owner’s manual, replete with the usual warnings of what could go wrong  (I promise I won’t stick my fingers up the ice crusher or let my children crawl into the freezer drawer) along with instructions on how to power down this majestic  piece of equipment when we’re on vacation. (Vacation? We’ve spent so much on this project there won’t be a vacation any time soon!)

Read the rest of this entry »


How To: Save Energy at Home

Follow these 8 simple ways to reduce your energy consumption and energy bills!

Photo: electronichouse.com

Let’s list some good bets for greening your routine:

  1. Switch to Fluorescent Lighting:  Energy-saving fluorescent lighting has come a long way. There’s a fluorescent bulb to fit almost any fixture inside and outside your home, and they’re a good bet for lights that are used a lot because they last 10 times longer. If we all switched out 5 standard light bulbs for fluorescents, it would be like taking a million cars off the road for a year.
  2. Lower Your Thermostat:  Put on a sweater, set your thermostat just two degrees lower in winter and cut your carbon emissions by 9 percent.
  3. Program Your Thermostat:  A programmable thermostat is a great energy saver, automatically lowering your heat when you’re at work or asleep.
  4. Insulate Your Water Heater:  Wrap your electric water heater in an insulation blanket and set it at 120 degrees.
  5. Replace Your Water Heater:  If it’s time to replace your water heater, install a tankless unit for an endless supply of hot water at 40 percent savings over conventional tanks.
  6. Use Full Machines Only:  Wash dishes and clothes only when the machines are full.
  7. Buy Energy-Efficient Appliances:  When you buy an appliance, make sure it’s Energy Star certified.
  8. Use Green Power: Run it all with green power: Ask your utility company about buying your electricity from renewable sources, or visit the U.S. Department of Energy’s green power Web site.