August 2011 Archives - Bob Vila

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Marking Tools

There are several marking tool options, but a blade may be best.

Photo: Flickr

When using a marking tool, whether it is a pencil, an awl or something else, surgeon-like precision is the goal and usually a necessity. While you may prefer the pencil, when it comes to marking smooth surfaces where a fraction of an inch can be the difference between a successful project or an outright disaster, a sharp knife blade may be your best tool.

The reason for this is because pencil lines can be too broad across the surface unless the point is perfectly sharp and an awl can create lines that are fuzzy, especially when created across the grain. Using a sharp knife point can eliminate those problems and create clear lines that will help make cutting easier and more accurate.

The score line a blade puts in wood also cuts fibers and reduces the potential risk of the grain tearing out when sawing or chiseling along the line.

There are many types of knifes that have different specialties from wood to steel, but a standard utility knife should be able to serve admirably for a of projects around the house. When working with cabinets in the shop, a razor-sharp X-acto knife with a smaller blade may work best.

However, that is not to say that you should eliminate using pencils and awls entirely. The tools can be used in tandem to produce easier to see lines. For example, making the initial line using the shape knife blade, then running the tip of a 4H pencil through the blade line can make it easier to see, thus easier to cut.

It’s Electrifying: The 12-Year Kitchen

Roseann Henry 12 Year Kitchen Remodel lighting bob vila

When we bought our house in 1999 (right), one of the things we did before we even moved in was to upgrade the electrical wiring. Overhead fixtures that operated on pull-chains got wall switches (and many were replaced!); outlets fed by old cloth-covered wires were abandoned; every room got more outlets.

But it wasn’t enough, which we didn’t discover until we’d moved in and grown from being the two of us to the four of us. We probably should have added twice as many outlets as we did, since so many of our rooms now have not only lamps but also computers, phone chargers, CD players, pencil sharpeners, Light-Brites, and TVs (each of those with DVD players, DVRs and cable boxes, plus a game system or two). I knew when we redid the kitchen, we’d want to be careful to plan for enough outlets!

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Hand Squares

The hand square is admired as much for its beauty as its usefulness.

Hand Squares

Photo: Dieter Schmid Fine Tools

Traditionally the larger metal squares, like the rafter square, were thought of as carpenter’s tools. In contrast, smaller wooden or metal ones were more likely to be found in the joiner’s or cabinetmaker’s tool kit. However, that line was blurred many years ago and today the well-equipped woodworker of almost any stripe finds many uses for both large and small squares.

Hand squares have been used for most of recorded history. Many handmade squares survive from earlier eras and, in a sense, the handwork ethic is still honored; even today hand squares are more likely to be crafted of expensive woods and admired as much for their ornamental appeal as their practicality.

I’ve included several distinct varieties under the heading of hand squares, including the try square, the speed square, and the combination square.

Try Square. A fixed ninety-degree angle is formed by the thin steel blade and the thicket stock, which is often made of wood. The try square is used for checking (that is, “trying, thus the name), for establishing that a cut or joint is true or square. It’s also used to mark cutoff lines or as a straightedge to determine whether a board has warped or “cupped.”

Try squares come in a range of sizes, with blade lengths varying from two to twenty-four inches, depending upon the age of the tool and the purpose it was intended to serve. Machinist’s or engineer’s try squares are made entirely of metal and are smaller in scale.

The try square is typically put to use in this way. Lay the tongue flat upon the workpiece, then slide the stock flush to the edge of the wood. Thanks to its thinness, the tongue can then be used to scribe an accurate line on the piece to be cut or shaped. Try squares, both new and old, are often tools of great beauty, with blades of fine steel, iron, or brass, with stocks of rosewood, ebony, or other hardwoods. The blade and stock are sometimes fastened together with decorative rivets.

Speed Square

The speed square serves a variety of uses.

Photo: Stuff: How Do I...?

Sometimes called a “magic square,” angle square, or protractor square, this tool functions as a square but is shaped like a triangle. One leg of the triangle has dimensions marked on its face in inches; the other has a raised ridge on the top and bottom to allow it to be butted to the workpiece. The third and longest side of the right triangle, the hypotenuse, has degrees (zero to ninety) marked on it to help in measuring and marking miter cuts.

Made of cast aluminum, the speed square serves most of the same purposes as the try square: You can use it to check a cut or joint for square, to mark cutoff lines, or as a straightedge to identify warped or cupped boards. The magic square is also handy as a cutting guide when using a hand-held circular saw.

The speed square is available in two sizes. The smaller size is seven inches on a side (the hypotenuse is just under ten inches), while the larger version is twelve by twelve by seventeen inches (actually, for sticklers who know the Pythagorean Theorem, the precise measurement is 16.97 inches). The smaller magic square fits comfortably into a pocket of most tool belts.

The larger model is especially handy when working on large dimension lumber, two-by-eights and up. Its size makes it handy for laying out framing, when transferring measurements from one wide piece of lumber to another.

Another application for the larger square is in laying out rafters and stairways. An attachment called a layout bar is bolted to the underside of the square, and can be fixed at certain angles (or pitches) for speedy marking of plumb lines or bird’s-mouths on rafters or riser and tread cuts on stairs. This handy extra turns the speed square into a sort of bevel gauge, with one angle preset so that it can be quickly and accurately marked and replicated.

Like the rafter square, a speed square purchased new will come with an instruction booklet that contains rafter tables and explains a variety of techniques for which the tool can be used.

Quick Tip: On-Site Level Lengthener

A simple way to lengthen your two-foot level to conquer bigger jobs using scrap wood and electrical tape.


All right, let’s say you’re raising a stud wall of eight or nine feet and the longest level you have on hand is two feet. You know full well that the dimension lumber you’re using is full of bows and warps – it always is. And you also know that an error of less than a sixteenth of an inch within the two-foot span of your level can multiply to a quarter-inch headache over the full height of the wall.The problem, then, is establishing plumb (or level) over distances much greater than the length of your level.

The solution? The on-site level lengthener.

Sort through your woodpile and find a straight piece of stock (sight down its length, as you would the barrel of a gun). Cut it to the approximate length you’re trying to plumb or level. Then tape your two- foot level (electrical tape will do as it’s thin; duct tape probably won’t because it is thick enough to add to the board a margin of error you don’t need). And Voila! A longer level is born.

(Check it before you use it, though, in case the milling on the piece was less than perfect. To check it, find a level surface with your level, then turn the level end-for-end. Does it still read level? If not, you’ll need to shim the level where it’s mounted to the lengthener, perhaps with building paper or cardboard, until the bubble is dead center.)

You can get fancy, too, and fabricate a more permanent model. If you do, you should probably use a very stable wood that won’t warp, or a piece of three-quarter-inch plywood, perhaps with solid wood edges glued to it.

This is a simple solution to a problem that will help make raising that wall, or whatever you need a longer level for, easier.  

How To: Install a Dimmer Switch

How to Install a Dimmer Switch

Photo: Kit Stansley

I like mood lighting as much as anyone, particularly first thing in the morning when the full blast of light from a 100 watt bulb makes me scream like a vampire at high noon. Could be that I’m just not a morning person. Regardless, I like to be able to adjust the brightness in a room, and installing a dimmer switch is a pretty easy way to get control over your lighting.

Before you go around ripping switches out of the wall, there are a couple of things you should know about wiring and dimmer switches:

– Not all dimmer switches are compatible with Compact Fluorescent Lights.  If you have CFL bulbs you will need to go with one of the newer varieties, like those from Lutron.

– Check to see if the switch you want to replace is a single pole (one switch) or three-way (can be turned on/off from multiple locations) switch—that too will determine the type of dimmer you need.

– Some dimmer switches use resistors so you’re paying for the electricity even though you’re seeing less light. Newer dimmer switches will actually conserve energy when you’re not lighting the bulb at full capacity.

What You’ll Need
Your basic electrical tools will do for this job.
– Wire strippers
– Screwdriver
– Voltage detector (not strictly necessary but highly recommended)
– Dimmer switch (I prefer the kind that are the same size as a regular toggle switch
– Flashlight (if you’re working at night or in an area without natural light)

How to Install a Dimmer Switch - Tools and Materials

Photo: Kit Stansley

(Does that floor look familiar?)


Step 1: Power Down
Not at the switch—at the breaker. This is always at least a three-trip ordeal for me… down to the basement, flip the breaker, up to test the switch, over and over again. However, it beats sticking your hand into a live circuit any day. I always use a voltage detector before touching any wires.

How to Install a Dimmer Switch - Voltage Detector

Photo: Kit Stansley

Step 2: Out With The Old
Once everything is shut off, unscrew the old switch and pull everything out so you can get a good look at it. For a toggle switch like this, the wires are more than likely wrapped around the connector screws. Either loosen the screws or use the wire strippers to snip the ends off and remove the old switch.

Step 3: Install the Dimmer
To install the dimmer, read the instructions to make sure you’re clear on what wires go where and which is the top and which is the bottom. As always, green denotes the ground or copper wire. Unlike installing a light fixture, both wires going to the dimmer will be black and usually can be placed on either gold screw. There shouldn’t be any silver screws.

How to Install a Dimmer Switch - Out with Old

Photo: Kit Stansley

If the switch can be used for either a single-pole or three-way, there may be an extra screw so make sure to look at the wiring diagram. (In this case it was covered by tape so it was very clear which was the “extra” connection.)

Note: On this dimmer’s directions it said you could just insert the wire straight under the screw, rather than loop it around, and tighten the connection. But an electrician friend of mine says he always loops the wire if possible, as he’s seen too many cases where the wire pulls loose. So looping it is!

To connect the wires, strip 3/4″ of casing off the end, loop it into a U shape, hook it around the screw, and then pinch the ends together before tightening the screw down.

How to Install a Dimmer Switch - Putting It Together

Photo: Kit Stansley

Step 4: Putting It Back Together
Once the wires are attached, you will want to re-fasten the switch to the electrical box with two screws top and bottom, and then re-attach the switch plate.

How to Install a Dimmer Switch - Complete

Photo: Kit Stansley

Turn the breaker back on, and there you have it… ultimate control over the brightness in one small section of the universe!

For more on lighting and saving energy, consider:

Light Bulbs—The Shape of Things to Come
Quick Tip: Solar Hot Water Systems Save Money 
Creating a Zero Energy Home

Combination Square

Use the combination square for marking angles, square and level.

Combination Square


This tool is essentially an adjustable hand square, with a couple of clever advantages.

It consists of a rigid steel rule, usually twelve inches long (though sometimes combination squares have rules up to twenty-four inches in length), with a headpiece that slides along its length. A knurled nut and set screw are used to fix the headpiece to the rule at any point along its length, depending upon the purpose to be served.

The headpiece has both a ninety-degree edge and one that forms a 45-degree angle with respect to the rule. The 45-degree angled edge accounts for one of the tool’s alternate names, the 45-degree miter square. It’s ideal for marking (and checking) both ninety-degree crosscuts and miter cuts.

The purposes vary: The combination square can be used as a try square, to determine the squareness of a piece of joint; like the speed square, it can also be used as a saw guide. When the head is set at the end of the rule, the combination square can measure heights. It can also be adjusted to measure depths, and some people find it’s handiest for marking.

There is a spirit (bubble) level in its handle, so the combination square can be used for leveling. Some models even have a scribe in the handle.

Not all combination squares are created equal. They range in cost from about $15.00 to as much as ten times that price. The most expensive models come equipped with two additional parts: a protractor head, for marking and measuring angles, and a center head, for locating the center of a circular or cylindrical workpiece. But it isn’t the added elements that account for the higher price.

The explanation is that the best combination squares are precision tools, useful for accurate work requiring tolerances beyond those needed by most woodworkers. However, if your work involves pattern-making or machine make-readies, for example, a more sophisticated combination square may prove to be a wise (even lifelong) investment. A top-quality square will stand up to lots of abuse without losing accuracy.

Drywall 101

Read up on the tools and know-how you'll need to install drywall.

Installing Drywall

Photo: Flickr

What is drywall?
Although the two words are often used interchangeably, Sheetrock is actually a brand name for drywall, which is gypsum sandwiched between two sheets of paper or, more recently, between two sheets of fiberglass.

Work with a pro or DIY?
Any way you say it, drywall makes finishing walls very practical. For large jobs or those with very high ceilings, hire a pro. But most smaller jobs can be tackled by do-it-yourselfers.

Be prepared
The tools you’ll need are a straightedge and measuring tape for sizing your pieces, a utility knife for scoring and snapping, and a keyhole saw or rotary tool for cutting holes for outlets and windows.

While some pros still attach drywall with nails, most find it easier to use an electric drill and that wonderful multi-purpose fastener, the drywall screw. You’ll need about a pound of nails or screws for every 5 sheets of drywall.

Metal corner beads go on all outside corners; inside corners get taped along with the joints between panels.

Using pre-mixed joint compound is easier and less messy than mixing your own. You want a mix that’s not too quick-drying if you’re a beginner so you have a grace period to work in. Pros use about 5 gallons of compound for every 100 square feet, but you may need more depending on your level of experience.

Drywall installation
Before you get started, run the side of a hammer head along the framing to check for uneven surfaces or any protruding staples or nails.

Installing drywall involves a series of short steps over a 3- to 4-day period. Be sure to wear safety gear and a dust mask while sanding. If you’re doing a ceiling, get a helper or a drywall lift.

Bracing for Irene—Hurricane Preparedness

Hurricane Preparedness

Source: The Weather Channel

The ending days of summer mean our outdoor lives are still in full swing so a weather event like Irene—at the time of this post, a category 2 hurricane expected to make landfall in North Carolina sometime tomorrow and chug up the coastline to New England by Sunday, affecting more than 65 million people living in its path—is truly an unwelcome visitor.  It’s been a long time since we were hammered by hurricane Bob here in coastal Massachusetts, but I remember it well.  If you are anywhere in the path of this powerful storm, devote today to some basic, but important, hurricane preparedness measures.

We did our shopping early yesterday, stocking up on drinking water and non-perishable foods, readying flashlights, a first-aid kit, a battery-operated radio, and making sure we were stocked up on batteries, candles and lamp oil.  Growing up in Florida, one of the things I remember is that the bathtub was filled to the brim at the first signs of an impending storm.  Our house had well water, and if the power went out, you had to rig up a hand pump to supply the water needed to flush the toilet.

Today I plan to put away garden chairs and other lightweight stuff that could blow away or crash into something. My house has shutters on all the windows, so those will be closed at the last minute—no use living in a darkened house longer than you need to. There are so many little things to keep in mind, like making sure your cell phone battery is fully charged. Then there are the details like walking around the garden and pruning any small trees or shrubs that are overgrown (trimming now can help them survive high winds). If your cars or trucks have to stay out in the storm, make sure you have them in a sheltered spot, near a building if you can (but avoid proximity to trees).  And if you have a boat in the water, you know the drill—either haul it or get it on a mooring!

Be prepared and stay tuned to your local weather channel.  If officials are recommending evacuation in your area—heed their warnings and stay safe.

To learn more about preparedness, common house failures during hurricanes, and how to improve your home’s storm resistance, consider:

How To: Make a Home Storm Resistant
House Failures in Hurricanes
Installing a Hurricane-Resistant Door

Blinds: My “Green” Nursery Challenge

Green Nursery

Photo: Jessica Provenz

In week three of My “Green” Nursery Challenge, I saw the light… but wished I hadn’t!

My father-in-law pointed out that the crib would be showered by morning rays. I hadn’t noticed since the new nursery was our former storage room. Only the cat spent time there, and now I got it—Menelaus loves to bathe in sunlight. Our nursery wasn’t just bright, it was bright and bright early!  Giving the baby an east-facing room was a major oversight by this over-planner.

My solution: black-out blinds! Sure, they might mess with our baby’s circadian rhythm, but at least he’d err on the side of night. Everything else would wait—sleeping, eating, Kegels—until I made the nursery fit for an airline pilot.

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