September 2011 Archives - Bob Vila

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Infant Sleeper: The Final Challenge

Tay River Builders handmade wood cradle

Rafi and Malek: the first users of the cradle.

Fine woodworker Abel Smith, of Tay River Builders, crafted a cradle for his best friend’s baby. He spent months executing a safe, eco-friendly cradle with the dream that it would be passed among friends for generations. He got the idea from a cradle from his own childhood; each parent who used that cradle would sign their newborn’s name on the bottom before passing it on to the next newborn. Since his best friend is Algerian, Abel used African hardwood accents and to represent the American mother, he used locally forested maple, walnut, and cherry. The completed cradle, pictured above, was finished with a clear top-coat from BioShield.

If I was in Abel’s cradle circle, I would have counted myself lucky to share in this wonderful tradition—even luckier to have saved myself the hours of research I ended up doing to find a suitable alternative. Cost was a factor—since infant sleepers are swiftly outgrown—and mine also had to be eco-friendly, safe, and portable. I was game for waking in the wee hours, so long as the wee baby was within arm’s reach.

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“DIY True Value Stories”

True Value launches a Facebook web series chronicling the progress of its three DIY contest winners. 

True Value Facebook "DIY True Stories" screen shot

Thick black paint spattered over walls. A mysterious shrine. Overgrown hedges crawling with the unknown. Dingy wallpaper. Brown carpeting c. 1970. These are just a few of the design nightmares plaguing the homeowners starring in True Value Hardware’s new web-based series, “DIY True Value Stories”. Over the course of three months, three DIYers will chronicle their home renovations on the company’s Facebook page.

True Value, one of the leading home improvement and hardware retailers, solicited submissions of DIY projects last July. Judges then evaluated the winners based on a 25-point rating system that included such criteria as demonstration of need, adherence to assignment, and creativity in presentation. Three winners were selected from over 150 entries. The prize: $2,500 toward each DIY project plus advice from local True Value experts.

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Leaky Roof? Some Repair Tips

Roof Leaking Repair



Early detection of roof leaks is the key to avoiding serious roof damage, but finding the problem is sometimes the most difficult aspect of roof repair. Certainly, it's the first step and to prevent costly problems down the road, it's a task you've got to take seriously. At the very least, if you want the leak to go away, you must determine its underlying cause. Check for any missing, curled, or cracked shingles (leaks also occur where shingles butt together). Additionally, inspect for any failures in the roof flashing, caulking, or the end caps (those tent-shaped shingles that cover roof peaks).

Asphalt shingles are the most popular roofing material for homes today, accounting for nearly 70% of domestic roofing installations, according to Tom Bollnow, senior director of technical services at the National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA). And for good reason—asphalt shingles are lightweight, durable, attractive, and priced well compared to competitive roofing materials.

While most asphalt shingles are manufactured with the latest advancements in weather- and wind-resistance, fire safety, and long-lasting performance, even the best of them can develop problems over time. The good news is that an asphalt shingle roof is probably the easiest type to repair, since curled shingles can be flattened and re-secured, and old shingles can simply be replaced. Plus, asphalt shingles make the warning signs of a serious roofing problem readily perceptible.

Related: Should You Replace or Repair Your Roof?

If you discover that your roof is leaking—most likely evident by water stains on the ceiling—note the leak’s location.  Look to see if there are any curled, cracked, or missing shingles.  Leaks can occur at any point where shingles butt, or where caulking and flashing have been compromised.  End caps, the tent-shaped shingles that cover the angular peaks of the roof, can also be the source of leaks, so check those as well.

If you discover shingle problems (which you can do from the ground with a good pair of binoculars), repairs may be an easy fix.  Curled-back shingles, for example, can be re-secured by brushing on a coating of asphalt roofing cement or finding its equivalent compound in tubes for use with a caulk gun.  You’ll want to apply a generous amount of roofing cement to the underside of the shingle to make certain that the edge and corners are secured.  Then press firmly to set.  Note: Shingles will be more pliable in warm weather than when it’s cold, so consider that factor when resolving problems.

Roof Leaking Repair - Shingle Replacement

Photo: How Stuff Works

If shingles are cracked, missing or rotten, replacing them may be another simple fix (provided you have the replacement shingles). To remove a damaged shingle, lift the edges of the surrounding shingles and carefully remove nails with a pry bar. Once the nails are removed, the shingle should slide out.  Scrape away any of the residue cement from the roof and level or remove protruding nails.

Before you attempt to replace a new shingle, round the back corners with a utility knife. This will make it easier for you to slide the shingle under the one above and align it with those on either side. Once you have it in position, lift the corners of the overlapping shingles and fasten the top of the new replacement with 6d galvanized roofing nails. Be sure to secure with nails in each corner. Last, cover the nail heads with roof cement and smooth down the overlapping shingle edges.

To repair leaks caused by metal flashing around chimneys and dormers, simply reseal joints with a caulk gun of roofing cement. If you see damage to joints previously sealed with a line of roof cement, apply a fresh new coat with a putty knife.

If you are replacing a row of shingles, or if you find that shingles lift from the roof easily, it may be time to call in a professional roofer to inspect the situation. Spot repairs will not extend the life of a roof in need of replacement.

For more on roofing and home maintenance, consider:

Apshalt Shingles 101
Fall Home Maintenance Checklist
Quick Tip: Roof Repair or Replacement

Easy DIYs for Your Best-Ever Backyard

All of the Outdoor Design and DIY Tips from
With fair weather having arrived finally, it’s time to turn your home improvement efforts to the backyard and your deck, porch, or patio—the parts of the home built specifically to enjoy the extra hours of sunlight. Guided by these practical pointers and inspiring ideas, you can introduce beauty, comfort, and utility to your backyard and outdoor living areas, making them as inviting and enjoyable as your home interiors.

Cabinet Artistry: The 12-Year Kitchen

Custom Kitchen Cabinetry

Photo: Roseann Foley Henry

Anyone who embarks on a large-scale renovation like our kitchen project worries about it—it’s a huge expense and a major investment in time, with consequences you’re going to live with for many, many years. When you’re a worrier to begin with—well, that’s a lot of worrying.

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Power Drivers

Get facts on the faster—easier—way for you to drive screws.

Photo: Flickr

Power drivers are, for practical purposes, redesigned and re-engineered electric drills. Drills and drivers look much like one another, but instead of an adjustable chuck that can grip a wide range of drills, the power driver accepts only standardized screwdriver bits, usually Phillips-head, but slotted and other head types can also be used.

Not everyone needs a power driver. Originally, they were designed for use by installers of dry wall (hence, another name by which they are known, drywall screwdrivers). In the hands of an ex­perienced user, they drive drywall screws at a remarkable rate, saving time and, for a contractor, money.

Like electric drills, a power driver should be reversible and have a variable speed control. Drywall drivers are approximately the size of three-eighths-inch drills, and share their pistol-shaped design equipped with trigger control. Drivers also have a locking button that, when engaged, keeps the drill running continuously.

Power drills look slightly different because they have an adjustable cone that surrounds the tip of the bit. This nosepiece acts as a stop, causing the bit to cease driving the screw at a preset depth. To facilitate feeding screws onto the bit when the driver is running con­tinuously, a positive clutch mechanism at the base of the bit holder acts to engage or disengage the spinning motor. Only when the bit is pushed onto the workpiece does the clutch cause the bit to turn.

A standard electric drill will accept screwdriver bits and, for oc­casional use, will perform the same jobs quite adequately although it lacks the power driver’s stop and clutch mechanisms. However, if you are planning on hanging a quantity of dry wall, a drywall screwdriver is by no means an unnecessary extravagance. Off-the-shelf electric drills are not designed for the demands of driving screws and if they are used as drivers for extended periods, their life expectancies may be shortened significantly.

There is another class of driving tools on the market that can perform a range of light-duty driving chores. Known as in-line screwdrivers, these rechargeable cordless drivers are light (most models weigh less than two pounds) and handy for removing and driving screws around the house. They do not have the torque for heavy-duty tasks, but are easy to store and use.

A New Generation of Fabric Storm Shutters

Fabric Storm Shutters

Photo: Monica Michael Willis

Lightweight, strong, and easy-to-install, today’s fabric storm “shutters” are manufactured to withstand the force of a Category 5 hurricane.

A few weeks back, during a trip to New Orleans, I had the opportunity to tour Brad Pitt’s Make It Right building project in the Lower Ninth Ward. Cesar Rodriguez, the nonprofit’s Construction Service Manager, served as my very informative guide. It was exciting to finally get a firsthand look at the 75 colorful LEED-certified dwellings that make up the first phase of the rebuilding initiative. Of the houses’ many forward-thinking features, I was especially curious to learn more about the new generation of fabric hurricane “shutters” that come standard in all of the Foundation’s “green” homes.

Made of a super-strong ballistic nylon—similar to what automakers use to fashion airbags—the fabric panels are a far cry from the cumbersome metal shutters I grew up helping to install whenever bad weather threatened my South Florida home. Besides being easier to set up, the fabric guards get high marks for sustainability, especially when compared to the plywood many homeowners use to board up their windows, then send straight to the landfill once the storm clears.

“Given what happened to the Lower Ninth Ward in the wake of Katrina, it was really important to Make It Right to offer homeowners a safe approach to preventing future hurricane damage,” says Cesar Rodriguez. “All of our houses are elevated five to eight feet from the ground, and many of the residents are elderly,” notes Rodriquez, a combination that makes installing heavy metal shutters or nailing plywood planks to doors and windows a laborious, costly, and potentially dangerous endeavor.

AstroGuard, the company that manufactured the lightweight hurricane panels for Make It Right’s first 75 homes, numbers among a growing number of firms now offering this simple-to-install alternative to traditional storm shutters. Based in Florida, home to the country’s most stringent hurricane building codes, AstroGuard guarantees that their super-strong panels will protect against wind, water, and flying debris generated by a Category 5 hurricane (Katrina was a Category 3).

Although price estimates depend on the square footage of a home as well as who installs the panels—DIYers can now buy the hurricane fabric and anchoring system at Home Depot—Make It Right spent roughly $1,000 to $1,200 per house to have 15 to 16 door and window panels custom-made and installed, notes Rodriguez. Made to withstand decades of wear and tear, the fabric panels feature a convenient label where homeowners can indicate the dimensions and location of the unit’s corresponding window or door, a helpful tool when a storm’s coming and timeliness counts. And best of all, once the bad weather passes, you simply fold the panels, put them in a storage bag, and store in a closest—where they’ll be waiting, good as new, the next time Mother Nature comes calling.

Fabric Storm Shutters from AstroGuard

Photo: AstroGuard

To watch a video on how to install AstroGuard hurricane fabric, click here.

For more on storm preparedness, consider:

Hurricane Protection for Porches, Windows, and Doors
Quick Tip:  Selecting Storm Shutters
Hurricane Proof Your House

Furniture: My “Green” Nursery Challenge

JProvenz Chair Before Bob Vila Green Nursery

The Pennsylvania House chair before

When I was just 11 days from giving birth, I still had 11th hour projects to complete for my “Green” Nursery Challenge—like furnishing the room. With $228 left in my budget, the key word that week was “reuse.”

I scanned my extra furniture for anything useful. I say “extra” because my house is where my family discards useful—but no longer wanted—furniture. When the Provenz parents buy a new couch or table, I inherit the old one. Since my husband is an only child, he’s the rightful heir to his parents’ castoffs too. When we first met, he had an entire room of mismatched chairs placed in a circle, as if they were waiting for a self-help group to occupy them.

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It’s Bulb-Planting Time!

How to Plant Bulbs

Photo: Fall Bulb Planting at Longwood Gardens

For gardeners in areas where the weather has cooled, it’s time to plant bulbs for spring tulips and daffodils. Bulbs are nature’s perfect packages, having all they need to grow inside their compact, convenient forms. They just require a bright, sunny location and a little soil preparation. For tips on creating the showiest display, I spoke to Rodney Eason, the Display Division Leader at Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, PA.

The best blooms start with loose soil and a few inches of well-aged compost mixed in. The beds at Longwood Gardens are well maintained and don’t need fertilizer, but home gardeners might want to pH test their soil to make sure it doesn’t need amending. Your local botanical garden extension, nursery or garden center can help.

Break-up the soil and mix in compost with a till or a garden fork. Then take a trowel (try one with the measurements already marked on it) to lever the soil and slide the bulb into the ground, pointed tip up.

Tulips and daffodils should go in six inches deep and six inches apart. Eason suggests staggering rows of bulbs to give a fuller look to the bed (that means the second row’s bulbs are behind and in between those in the first row, but still six inches apart).

Remember to examine the bulbs before tucking them in—don’t bother using those that are dried out, or that feel squishy. You can plant through the last week of November, although some gardeners don’t stop until the ground is completely frozen.

If you fear squirrels and deer, which like to undo all your hard work, stick to daffodils, since they don’t incite the taste buds of critters the way tulips do. Or lay down a thin gauge of plastic ½” square mesh (held in with turf staples) to prevent your bulbs from becoming a snack. Just make sure to remove the mesh once the foliage reaches 2” tall in the spring.

Eason suggests these two bulbs to add some variation from the typical tulips and daffodils: Eremurus (Foxtail Lily) whose big spikes of yellow flowers make a splash in the spring, and Fritillaria imperialis (Crown Imperial) whose unusual hanging blooms appear in May.

For more on gardening, consider:

Quick Tip: Mulch
9 Daffodils to Cheer Up Your Garden
18 Ways to Color Your Garden This Fall

Revitalizing the Hemingway Home in Cuba

Hemingway House - Cuba


In 1939, after selling the film rights to his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway purchased Finca Vigía, a beautiful country property in Cuba. The rambling masonry home—which the author occupied on-and-off until 1960—sits perched on 12 acres of land in the hills outside Havana.

Several years ago, Finca Vigía was in danger of destruction—from heat, humidity, pests, and the sheer passage of time. At that point, an American non-profit that I co-chair, The Finca Vigía Foundation, joined the Cuban government in a successful effort to save the home from ruin. Today, the estate is an internationally recognized museum full of Hemingway’s belongings and his numerous, fascinating collections (guns, typewriters, fishing rods, paintings and, of course, books).

The next phase of the project has already begun: It involves giving care and attention to over 9,000 books and documents that Hemingway left behind. This material is also being digitized and will one day become available to Hemingway buffs around the world. I was last in Cuba in 2010—I very much look forward to returning.

For more on historic homes and restorations, consider:

When Remodeling Uncovers Hidden Treasures
Tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House
Restoration of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (VIDEO)

Winterize Your Home on a Budget

With these maintenance measures, you can winterize a house to maximize energy savings, incurring minimal cost in the process.

How to Winterize a House

Photo: From Bob Vila’s “Basement Finishing and Family Space”

Securing your home against winter is always a prime consideration for homeowners, no matter where you live. Regardless of what direction the cost of heating oil, propane, and other fuels is heading, it makes good sense to ensure that you and your family stay comfortable the entire season while protecting your investment.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be expensive. There are a surprising number of easy things you can do at minimal cost that can maximize energy savings this winter. Below are suggestions for budgets of $100, $250, and $500 (at current prices), as well as some ideas that cost nothing.


$100 or Less

• Basic caulk gun ($20) and four tubes of caulk ($7.50 each) to fill gaps in siding, windows, and doors. For drafty windows and doors, don’t just fill the gaps on the outside, says home renovation and remodeling consultant Dean Bennett of Dean Bennett Design and Construction in Castle Rock, CO. “Pull the molding off to fill the insulation gaps around the window jamb.” If you prefer, you can use a can of low-expansion window foam ($7 each) instead of caulk. Cost: $50

• Plastic film window insulating kit, enough for five to six windows. Cost: $20

• Weatherstripping for windows, four 17-foot rolls. Cost: $20 ($5 each)

• Replacement filter for central heat and air unit. Mike Kuhn, director of technical services at HouseMaster and author of The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Home Inspection, says it’s a must to change your furnace and air conditioning filter on a regular basis, at least every three months or more often. “Clogged filters reduce heating and cooling efficiency and can reduce the useful life of the appliance,” says Kuhn. Cost: $10

• Door threshold/sweep strip (three) to fill air leaks beneath doors. Cost: $75 ($25 each)

• Door gasket (three) to fill leaks around doors. Mark Furst of Grading Spaces, a home inspection and performance analysis company in Fort Atkinson, WI, recommends that homeowners check all exterior doors for tight-sealing gaskets. “I often see doors that only seal well when the door is slammed and then the deadbolt lock engages,” he says, blaming the condition on worn-out gaskets, though the doors themselves are still in good shape. “Adding a sweep strip to the bottom of the door helps to block drafts,” he adds. Cost: $75 ($25 each)


$250 or Less

Home energy audit from your utility company. Most utility companies offer home energy audits to their customers. An inspector will visit your house and check the furnace and central air conditioning unit for efficiency and safety and leaks, gaps in attic and wall insulation, and the condition of your water heater and pipes. Remember, many home improvements are tax-deductible, especially where energy is concerned. Cost: $150 on average

• Install a programmable thermostat. Although thermostats can be adjusted manually, Bennett says that a programmable thermostat will avoid any discomfort by returning temperatures to normal as you wake or return home. Cost: $35 to $100

• The chimney can be the number one source of heat loss in a house. Use a chimney balloon to prevent drafts from flowing through your chimney and prevent heat from escaping. Cost: $55 per fireplace

• Three rolls of fiberglass insulation to pack around basement doors, windows in unused rooms or around exterior windows, doors, and air conditioning units. Cost: $75 ($25/roll)


$500 or Less

For another $250, you can add:

• An annual checkup, cleaning, and maintenance for your central heating and air unit and all air ducts. Cost: $250

• A ceiling fan that also heats the room. The Hunter Fan Company introduced a decorative ceiling fan that contains a small unit to provide a supplemental source of heat. The fan blades direct the heat towards the floor and help spread it throughout the room. Cost: $250

• Mark Furst says that one frequently overlooked spot is the sill box in the basement, which is on top of the foundation and under the floor. “This is one of the least insulated areas in a house,” he says. He likes to fill the gaps and leaks with a two-part spray foam to seal and insulate the whole space. Cost: $250


Winterizing for Practically Nothing
You can get something for nothing. Here are some ways to winterize your house that are virtually free:

• Roll up a towel or throw rug to close gaps at the bottom of all exterior doors, but leave the gaps on interior doors free to allow heat to circulate between rooms.

• If you live in a snowy part of the country, bank the snow up against the house to provide a bit of insulation from the cold.

• Jason Raddenbach of Chimney Balloon suggests clearing the lint from the outside dryer vent. Make sure the flap closes completely when the dryer isn’t running. And while you’re at it, he says, vacuum out the muck from the HVAC return vent covers. If air cannot escape the dryer because of restrictions in the vent pipe, it will have to run longer, using more electricity.

• Mike Kuhn of HouseMaster recommends that homeowners flush the water heater through the drain valve to remove sediment, which “allows the gas or oil water heater to operate more efficiently and safely,” he says.

• Make sure that ceiling fans move in a clockwise direction, which will push hot air along the ceiling towards the floor. If they’re moving counterclockwise, their benefits are minimized.

• Clean out your gutters. In cold weather climates, this will prevent icicles from forming. Get the water to go down the gutters—where it’s supposed to go—versus on the sidewalks, where you end up with dangerous icy patches.

• The U.S. Department of Energy estimates you can save three percent on your energy bill for every degree you turn the thermostat down in the winter. In other words, for an annual heating and cooling bill of $1,000, if you move the thermostat down three degrees at night, you could save almost $100 each year.


Follow these suggestions or use them as a springboard to improvise your own ideas for winterizing your home on a budget.