Author Archives: Jim Nash

How Many Tools Does a Good Multi-Tool Need?

A century ago, knife-maker Wenger (of Swiss Army Knife fame) started a debate that only got louder in 1983 when Tim Leatherman, the eponymous inventor of his multi-tool, started selling pocket toolboxes. The question is how many tools are too many in a multi-tool? Or conversely, how many are too few? Sages wiser than me haven’t divined the truth, so I won’t try.

How Many Tools Does a Good Multi-Tool Need?

Photo: CRKT

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Sky Factory

Sky Factory Luminous Sky Ceiling Installation

Luminous Sky Ceiling from Sky Factory

There are home settings where windows are impractical or even counterproductive. I’m thinking about an Antarctic dorm, a bomb shelter, or anywhere along the refinery rim of northeastern New Jersey.

But there are many more cases when housing density or architectural constraints leave rooms in gloom. Conventional lighting will brighten a space, but over time the room can give you cabin fever.

To save a dark room and bring in some natural—or at least natural-like, lighting—you can install tubular skylights, but they can’t be used in all situations and the light they shed is localized.

Here’s another option: artificial skylights from Sky Factory that play hours of Ultra HD nature video. Think of them as ‘cultured sky’ to go with your cultured marble.

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New Product: Kohler StereoStik

Kohler Stereostik

KOHLER StereoStik

While people of good faith will forever debate whether reading materials should occupy a bathroom, there can be no logical argument about the manifest virtues of listening to music or the spoken word while in the bathroom.

Short of installing a whole-house system with recessed speakers, there are few elegant ways of achieving this modest goal.

Kohler, of all companies, has an answer. It’s the StereoStik ($227), a digital-tuning FM/AM radio and clock/alarm that amplifies music from your MP3 player.

It probably should be StereoStiks, plural, as it’s a two-piece device that bolts onto either side of a 26″ x 36″ x 4 5/8-inch wall-mounted medicine cabinet.

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So, You Want to… Install Tubular Skylights

Tubular Skylights

VELUX SUN TUNNEL tubular skylight

It’s amazing that with the growing focus on solar power, tubular skylights are relatively unknown, especially among DIYers.

These dead-simple devices direct natural light through a reflective tube to provide a diffused natural glow in a room. In a development that lashes Thomas Edison’s vengeful ashes into a fury, people are enjoying free light in their homes and businesses. Also amazing is just how much light these skylights transmit. Cloudy days or even starry nights are much brighter than most people realize, until they stand in a room with a tubular skylight.

OK. To business: What are tubular skylights, how much do they cost, and perhaps most important, can you install them yourself?

Among the major manufacturers are:

• VELUX makes the Sun Tunnel

• Solatube markets its skylights as “high-performance daylighting systems”

• ODL sells a remote-controlled slide that mounts above the ceiling and dims the skylight

• Natural Light Energy Systems has its own remote-controlled dimmer—a rotating disc in the tube

ODL Tubular Skylight Diagram

ODL tubular skylight diagram.

The designs are essentially the same. There’s a clear acrylic dome, roof flashing, flexible or rigid tubing, a ceiling trim ring, and a diffusing lens. The latter commonly come in 10-, 14-, 18-, and 21-inch diameters and can be installed on most roof types.

Extras are few and include:
- Integrated vents
- Various manufacturers offer an in-tube bulb that turns the skylight into a conventional ceiling light
- The electric dimmers mentioned above plus a round plate from VELUX that you stick over the lens using a pole

You can buy them online from the manufacturers and resellers, as well as at bigger home-improvement chains. The least expensive residential model I saw online was $153 for a 10-inch asphalt-roof ODL skylight at Menards. The most expensive, a 14-inch model from a reseller, for $425. Bonus: You might be able to get a 30% federal tax credit for buying a tubular skylight.

Installation prices vary widely based on the contractor, the type of roof, and the complexity of the job. Bruce Mosher, a product manager with VELUX, says installation of the company’s 10- or 14-inch Sun Tunnels costs $250 to $350.

Even after you get past the fact that you are cutting a hole in your roof (something known to cause anxiety attacks in many homeowners), this is a DIY project you want to give a lot of thought to. Consider that:

• You’ll be up on your roof, which is a significant complication. Tread lightly, both figuratively and literally. (Note: Check your roof warranty before buying skylights. Some policies won’t cover shingles that are damaged during skylight installation, yours or a contractor’s.)

• You want to pick a path for the skylight that avoids wiring and trusses.

• Positioning the lens in the ceiling is critical. You do not want to be patching a 14-inch hole in your ceiling (or your roof).

• Putting it too close to a display screen of any kind will give you annoying glare, for instance.

That said, Mosher, who has a background in remodeling, recommends setting aside two hours for this project, assuming it’s straightforward. Between 10% and 15% of VELUX buyers do their own installation, he says.

For more, watch Bob Vila as he joins contractor Charlie Tomaszewski to install an ODL tubular skylight in a Victorian restoration.

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5 Top Tool Apps for Your iPhone

The growing number of tool apps on the market means that smartphone-equipped DIYers now have a diminishing number of excuses to use for putting off projects.

The number of tool apps on the market leaves smartphone-equipped DIYers with few excuses for putting off projects. Since the variety of digital tools may seem overwhelming, and of course not all tool apps are created equal, we’ve highlighted six selections for the iPhone that you should know about.


Bob Vila’s Toolbox is your ultimate guide to the essentials of remodeling and repair. Specially designed and built for the iPad, Toolbox teaches you the fine art of choosing and using the right tool for the job. As you gear up to tackle your next project, wouldn’t you feel more confident with Bob Vila at your side? DOWNLOAD



Tool Apps - Power Tools

Photo: Power Tools

After Angry Birds, no other app is so obviously named. Power Tools is a concise explanation of six popular power tools: circular saw, jigsaw, miter saw, reciprocating saw and router. You learn the most likely uses for each one, common designs, and innovative new features. Power Tools is a basic tip sheet for consumers deciding on purchases and rentals. Interestingly, it includes recordings of what each tool sounds like. Good for identifying what your neighbor’s using at 6 a.m.


2. sightLEVEL

Tool Apps - sightLEVEL

Photo: sightLEVEL

This tool app is billed as a virtual laser level, which might lead some to believe that it will actually produce a laser line on walls. That’s not the case, of course. Apple hasn’t put lasers in iPhones or iPads—yet. But sightLevel is perfectly serviceable and uses the phone’s camera and accelerometer to determine angles and slopes. Choose different grids and guides for images shown on the screen, or use two fingers to find the slope of something within the image.


3. SIZEd

Tool Apps - SIZEd

Photo: SIZEd

This is a dead-simple tool app that might seem superfluous at first. What it does is join the two most important factors at play in purchasing materials for your home: dimensions and context. Use SIZEd to take a picture of, say, your living room. Then use your fingers to draw lines signifying the window dimensions (for drapes) or the big empty spot where you would like a couch. Standing in a home furnishing store, you can more accurately anticipate how a piece of furniture will fit, and blend with, the room.



Tool Apps - Fence Builder

Photo: Fence Builder

Here’s another tool app. This one estimates the cost of building more than a dozen styles of fences. At its heart, Fence Builder is a robust materials calculator, telling you how much wood, concrete, and hardware you’ll need. Want to surround South Dakota with a dog-eared cedar fence with one gate? You’ll need 14 million planks, 780,000 posts, 1.6 million boards, 62 million nails, two hinges and one latch. Fence Builder estimates that it would cost $90 million to let South Dakotans have their privacy, but—and this is a big “but”—the app uses estimated average materials pricing. Your cost may vary, indeed.



This tool app seems custom-made for tablets. There are in-depth articles, vendor manuals, photos, schematics, animations and no-nonsense instructional videos. It’s easy to imagine using Construction Instruction—a combination textbook, cheat sheet, and clipboard—not only to plan and build your own home, but also to examine a contractor’s work on the fly. Overall, Construction Instruction is like walking through an in-progress building. You can see potential, but it’s not ready for a certificate of occupancy. Where there is content, it’s crunchy with useful, often technical info. But there are a lot of blank pages and obvious topical gaps. It’s also too easy to lose track of where you are within the app. And most of the textual content is displayed on PDF pages, which are difficult to navigate on small screens. Download this one and hope for frequent updates.


For more on tool apps, consider:

3 Top Apps to Help You Plan a Remodel
5 Home Improvement Apps for Your iPad
The 5 Apps You Won’t Want to Renovate Without

Chip It! Sherwin-Williams’ New Color Tool

Bunk Beds - Chip It!


Thanks to the Internet, there’s no shortage of inspiration when it comes to bringing color to your home. Ah, but the ability to pick complementary colors for the lovely image you’ve just found online; that’s usually hard to come by. But the new Sherwin-Williams color tool, Chip It!, could save the day. The free service loads through your Facebook or Twitter account and sits on your browser’s bookmark menu bar.

Sherwin-Williams Chip it! Colorado's Estes National Park

Colorado's Estes Park: Swimming, Dazzle, Undercool

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