October 2011 Archives - Bob Vila

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Top Tips for Choosing a Rain Shower Head

How to Choose a Rain Shower Head

Photo: fotosearch.com

I hate my shower! Well, actually, it’s my shower head that I don’t like. Granted, it’s better than the standard fixture that most bathrooms come with, and it does offer a few water pressure options, but really, does anybody ever use more than one setting?

Choosing a Rain Shower Head - Bath Remodel

Photo: DSklar

So I’ve been in the market to buy one of those oversized rain shower heads, but finding the right one can be time-consuming. I liken it to trying to search for a new lipstick shade at a Sephora cosmetics store. Ladies reading this will know very well what I mean.

Related: 10 Dream-Worthy Showers to Give You Bathroom Envy 

Rain shower heads can wash your entire body with a “rainfall effect” from above, as opposed to the more vertical water stream of older models (like the one I currently have). If you’ve ever been to a day spa for a treatment and were escorted to a shower afterward, that’s what a rain shower head looks and feels like. Simply glorious!

I’ve decided that I want something sophisticated and stylish but still within my price point, under $150. I’d like an oil-rubbed bronze unit similar to the one that my mom recently installed in her downstairs powder room. Yes, she still insists on referring to it as “the powder room,” something I’ve never understood since I’ve never seen any powder in there.

Anyway, Mom’s rain shower head was part of the complete bathroom remodel she did a few months back, which included tiling the bathroom walls with earth-toned tumbled Travertine and granite inside the shower. Adding the Travertine has given the bathroom a warm, Tuscan vibe. She also installed a wall-mounted, oil-rubbed bronze rain shower head. It’s the size of a dinner plate, designed by Grohe, and yes, it came with a hefty price tag. However, there are some similar choices that are more appropriate for my wallet.

For example, FaucetDepot.com, Moen, Delta and Price Pfister, all offer wall-mounted oil-rubbed bronze or brushed copper finished rain shower heads for around $130 and under, and they can be found at home improvement stores such as Lowe’s and The Home Depot.

How to Choose a Rain Shower Head - Tuscan Bronze

Photo: faucetdepot.com

By installing a new rain shower head, I can update my bathroom quickly and rather inexpensively. I not only get a new look (goodbye dangling handheld), but I don’t have to look up at that ugly silver shower head in my face—literally.

Further Considerations
Other simple ways to add some zip to an older bathroom’s appearance without spending a fortune may include installing a new towel rack, updating faucets, swapping out light fixtures, or adding a fresh coat of paint.

As soon as I have some free time, that old silver shower head and Waterpik handheld are going to be history. And no, I won’t save the handheld to hook up to my kitchen faucet to wash my dog. She thinks it’s ugly, too.

For more on bathroom remodeling, consider:

How To: Install a Shower Head
How To: Create a Spa Bath at Home
Quick Tip: Budget-Smart Bathroom Remodeling

The Georgian Revival House

Built with an eye for quality craftsmanship, the Georgian Revival House is a classic for all times.


Photo: TheRealGalveston

Some Georgian Revival Houses can, at least from afar, be confused with eighteenth-century precedents; others resemble later Federal Houses, but most are a mix of elements that allude to the past but are actually quite modern, comfortable homes.

The Georgian Revival often has the Classic Colonial shape. Typically two or three stories tall, these designs are symmetrical with hipped, gable, or gambrel roofs. Elaborate doorways are usual, with pilasters, sidelights, and even porticos. In a departure from true colonial houses, there are combination windows in some Georgian Revival Houses, with two or even three separate units installed as one. The sash may have multiple lights or a single pane of glass, as 12/1,6/6, or 1/1 configurations are all common.

Inside the typical Georgian Revival house, the symmetry is maintained with the entrance and stair hall at the center of the home. However, the rooms on either side rarely mirror one another. These are houses where the emphasis has changed from a stubborn insistence on balance to practical considerations like squeezing purpose-specific spaces such as the kitchen, dining room, and living room into an efficient floor plan.

REMODELER’S NOTES. The typical Georgian Revival House built before the Depression is thought by some architectural historians to be the best ever built in America. That isn’t to diminish the finest of houses from a range of other times and in many other styles, but taken as a group, Georgian Revival houses are well built with an eye to the quality materials and craftsmanship that later houses often lack. In addition, they are modern houses, with kitchen spaces, bathrooms, and floor plans that suit today’s needs without requiring wholesale gutting to reengineer the floor plan.

The Cape Cod House

Compact and simple, the Cape Cod house is the perfect starter home.


Photo: Planetware

The word snug comes to mind when I think of the Cape Cod House. These are efficient and economical houses, putting the one-story Basic House back in business. The main living spaces are on the first floor, laid out in most instances around a center entrance. Most Capes are symmetrical, with two windows on either side of the front door. Upstairs there may be dormers to add light to rooms built in what is essentially converted attic space.

REMODELER’S NOTES. The Cape is a perfect starter house. In fact, many Capes built immediately after World War II were sold initially with their upper stories left unfinished. That strategy meant the house was more affordable to a larger audience, and as the buyer’s family grew and more space was required, the rooms upstairs could be finished to suit specific needs.

It was an intelligent marketing strategy, but it also meant that in your Cape Cod House, you may find the level of finish upstairs is of a lesser quality than the work downstairs. Many homeowners did the work themselves and their inexperience may be apparent. As you consider making changes in your Cape Cod House, look for indications that the house was finished over time. You may wish to remove and remodel work that came later and was done less well. You may be able to rethink the upstairs spaces, too, since the partitions are probably not structural, giving you the freedom to remove or reposition them to enlarge one or more rooms or entirely reconfigure the floor plan.

There are a variety of Cape-style house plans available, like this one below from ePlans

E Plans Cape Cod House Style Bob Vila

The Dutch Revival House

Read up on the design scheme behind the perfect middle-class suburban home.


Photo: Flickr

You may be one of the many who believe Dutch houses have gambrel roofs (a variation on the gable roof in which the plane on each side of the ridge is broken roughly halfway down, and the lower half falls steeply to the eave). In fact, some Dutch houses in the colonies did have gambrel roofs, but so did some Basic Houses built by English builders. It was only in the early twentieth century that the gambrel came to be regarded as essential to the Dutch Revival house.

To many, the Dutch Revival house is the perfect middle-class suburban home. It’s an efficient design, with two stories of living space neatly packaged into a modified one-story house. It’s more modest than the Georgian Revival house, but the second floor is more spacious than that of the Bungalow or the Cape Cod house. These houses were popular across the country, especially in the years between the two world wars.

REMODELER’S NOTES. The roof line of the Dutch Revival house is its single most distinctive design element: If you’re adding on, take pains to respect and perhaps reflect its shape in complimentary fashion.

The Dutch Revival architectural rendering below is just one of the many designs available on house plan sites, like e-Plans.

E Plans Dutch Colonial Revival House Style Bob Vila

Modern House Styles

Experience the evolution of home design as city-dwellers made their homes among the suburbs.


Photo: Flickr

After World War II, other new house styles evolved that were adapted to the desires of people moving from the streets of the city who wanted to live in homes on lots of their own. The Ranch House quickly proved its popularity. The Split Level came next, offering its inhabitants more interior space on the same footprint as the Ranch. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, the A-Frame and Buckminster Fuller’s brainstorm, the Geodesic Dome, each saw bursts of popularity. In the last quarter century, French Chateau, Tudor, and even Mansard-roofed buildings reappeared in suburban developments. More recently, Victorian styling of the sort that helped inspire the reaction that became the Arts and Crafts Movement back at the beginning of the century has had a renaissance, with the brackets, spindles, and other machine-made surface decorations. 

There’s a classical revival occurring, too, and in the 1990s there has even been a trend to build new homes integrating house parts salvaged from antique homes. The mining of the past for styles and ideas has become a literal borrowing of doorways, windows, mantels, and other elements that date from the handmade age.

How To: Unclog a Clogged Drain

Follow this helpful advice on clearing up a slow-moving or clogged drain.

How to Unclog a Clogged Drain

Photo: bobvila.com

Some friends of mine moved into a new house and had a couple of issues with their bathroom. The sink drain was a little slow and had a funky smell. The tub also drained slowly, leaving them ankle deep in water by the end of a shower.

So they did what most of my friends do: they called me. Naturally, I was willing to dive into their problem (figuratively, not literally).

How To: Unclog a Sink Drain

Most of the time with a sink drain, there’s a problem with the p-trap, so that’s always the first thing I recommend that homeowners investigate. The p-trap is the thing in your sink cabinet that’s kind of shaped like a “p” or elbow. It’s what keeps sewer gases from coming up your pipe and making a stink.

Clearing it out is simple. FIRST, get a bucket. Normally, water won’t pour out when you take it off, but there will always be some water in the p-trap because that’s what stops the gasses. (Of course if your p-trap IS clogged and there’s water all up in your sink, a lot of water WILL come out.)

Since their trap was spotless the smell must be coming from the pipe itself, right? GUNK.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to remove that GUNK… in short, unclog the drain!

How To: Stack Firewood

How to Stack Firewood

Photo: worldforestindustries.com

Nothing celebrates the colder weather like the distinct scent and sound of a crackling log in the fireplace. A steady supply of firewood can help offset your heating costs and, unlike oil and coal, is a renewable resource that can be replanted for future fire-burning pleasure. It takes up to a year to properly season wood, but following these guidelines for proper stacking will help keep purchased logs dry and burnable.

Related: Firewood Primer: Which Wood Burns Best?

The purpose of seasoning freshly cut wood is to remove the moisture for ease of burning. Allocate a dry, sunny spot of your yard for stacking. A well-built pile provides proper ventilation and keeps the wood from being prone to molds or fungus. A haphazard heap, on the other hand, won’t dry, will soak up rainwater, and eventually it will turn into a smelly, rotting mess.

Buy or quarter your hardwoods, such as hickory, White Oak, and White Ash (softwoods ignite faster but burn too quickly), remembering that it’s good to get a range of log sizes: Smaller ones catch faster, while the larger, thick pieces burn longer. The most traditional pile has rows of logs held by a support tower at each end.

Stacking Firewood

Photo: woodheat.org

To construct the towers, take two similarly shaped logs and turn them parallel to each other. Build the next layer with two parallel logs that are perpendicular from the first set. Continue until you have about a dozen levels, or as high as you can without letting it get unwieldy. The second tower should be even with but several feet away from the first. In between, lay the logs next to each other so that the cut ends face the direction of the prevailing wind (in the US, weather systems tend to move from west to east, so facing west is a good bet).

Related: 12 “Different” Ways to Store Firewood

Keep layering until the pile is the same height as the towers. Place the pieces bark side up to keep them from shedding moisture into the pile. Although it’s tempting to stack all your wood in neat towers, they aren’t as effective for seasoning purposes, as they don’t allow for enough air ventilation. Finally, use long sticks to help bolster the pile, leaning them against the woodpile and stabilizing them in the dirt.

The Shaker woodpile, another popular shape, is a round formation in which the sticks touch at one end, but spiral out with bigger gaps. The first layer looks a little like spokes on a wheel, and it’s a good way to use up oddly shaped logs, adding a nice visual presence to the yard.

For more on fireplaces and heating, consider:

Gas Fireplaces 101
Installing a Zero-Clearance Fireplace
Green Homes—Heating and Air Quality

The Cellar Shop

Before outfitting your basement as a workshop, bear these considerations in mind.

Basement Workshops

Photo: woodgears.ca

For most of us, the answer isn’t a separate building, a closet, or even the garage. The single most popular alternative is right under your nose (and the rest of you, too, for that matter) in the cellar below.

Frequently, the space downstairs is unfinished. If the furnace is there, it’s heated. Count two advantages already.

The separation from the rest of the house is hardly total, but there’s at least some soundproofing and a certain amount of the dust and dirt will be contained.

If there’s a concrete floor, it’s a solid, practical base for even substantial stationary power tools. A well-equipped shop needs a structure able to support heavy workbenches, fixed saws, and the other stationary tools. The floor surface must also be durable and not so precious that every scratch and mark will make you wince. And it probably needs to be resistant to solvents and grease.

It’s true, cement floors are hard and cold, but otherwise they are just about perfect. You don’t like the grayish color? The dust is hard to control?

Apply a concrete paint to seal the surface of the concrete. It’ll cut down on dust and brighten the space, too, as paints are available in light shades and colors.

All of that is good news. On the other hand, dampness is a common problem in cellars. Make sure there is plenty of ventilation in yours if you plan to put your shop there, because moisture can ruin tools almost overnight. Condensation and minor dampness can often be addressed with a fan and a dehumidifier, but if the place frequently floods or has standing water in it, you will probably want to keep on looking for your workshop space.

What about access? Can you get a sheet of plywood down the stairs? You don’t want to set yourself up to make the mistake of building a captive project, like a boat or a bureau that can never escape the basement. It happens.

What about other users of the space? Is there already a play-room for kids in your cellar, or a utility space with a washer and dryer? Noise, safety, and dust can become important matters when the other inhabitants might be inconvenienced by the arrival of a workshop. One common (and relatively simple) solution is a partition, but it isn’t the magic answer in all cases.

The End-Wall Shop

Follow these steps to turn an end wall into a productive and space-efficient workshop.

Garage Workshop

Photo: bhg.com

This is the classic garage work area. The bench is fixed on the end wall and your car is still comfortably situated in its bay. Maybe there’s a little storage space on the side walls or in the rafters overhead. The arrangement is practical, compact, and interferes not at all with the business of the house.

Then comes the transformation: With the car removed (even temporarily), the real workshop can reveal itself. Some two hundred square feet of space is suddenly open and available. You can design a fold-up worktable from the bench; one or more stationary tools on casters can be rolled out from the side walls. The garage door up front makes loading and unloading tools and materials a simple matter, with no twisting and turning to squeeze through narrow doorways. There’s a reason why this is a popular option.

One handy space-saving trick useful in the garage workshop is a roller table. Its top can accommodate a benchtop table saw and other tools, too, while the tool (or tools) not in use on a shelf are stowed beneath. Prefabricated roller tables are available from mail-order catalogs, but some two-by stock, plywood, a set of inexpensive casters, and a few fasteners are really all you need to make one for yourself.

One caveat regarding garage workshops should be kept in mind: Not all activities that can be done there are truly compatible with one another. Woodworking is a dusty occupation, while most automotive mechanical work involves grease and oil. Fine woods can be ruined when brought in contact with petroleum products; many engine and motor parts just won’t function when contaminated with sawdust and other grit.

Keep your shop clean to minimize the risk of such problems. And try to avoid interrupting one kind of work with another: Do the tune-up first, then make those birdhouses.

Workshop Dresser

Learn how to turn an old dresser or chest into your very own workshop.

Workshop Dresser

Photo: foreverredwood.com

An old chest of drawers or desk can be transformed into a combination bench-and-tool cabinet. With the tools stowed away, it will take up no more space than it did in the days when it was used for clothing storage or as a home office. But when put to use, a compact workshop unfolds, like a pop-up scene in one of those clever children’s books.

Organize your tools into the drawers. Hammers, pliers, and screwdrivers in one, perhaps, chisels in a second, and planes and saws in a third. Do it logically: The tools you need frequently go in upper drawers, heavier ones below. Add dividers to protect the fragile cutting edges of planes and chisels.

A great flat-topped oak desk makes a perfect benchtop; it may even accommodate a woodworker’s vise on the front or side.

A benchtop table saw with separate stand (a Workmate will perform this and many other functions) can be stowed on top of the piece when not in use. If the surface is a comfortable height, you can even affix a radial-arm saw to its top. Saber-saw and router adapter tables can be fastened to the top of the piece as well, adding a built-in shaper and jig.