November 2011 Archives - Bob Vila

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Home Renovation: The Layout

A common philosophy behind the most appealing and practical interiors.

Home Layout


There’s a common philosophy behind most appealing and practical domestic interiors. Fundamental to that philosophy is an organizing principle: The home is to be divided into three main areas.

The first includes the private areas of the house, principally the bedrooms. The second is where work of the house gets done, including the kitchen and, in some cases, a utility room and a secondary entry area, where boots and raincoats are removed and stowed. Area three is for relaxation, and may include a living room, dining room, and a family room. In some houses there may be subdivisions within these three major divisions, as in instances when the relaxation areas consist of both public spaces where the family entertains visitors (such as a formal living room and dining room) and private relaxation areas that are generally reserved for family use, such as a teenage party space or a study.

In a well-laid out house, these areas are separated physically as well as philosophically. Bedrooms are often best located at the opposite extreme of the house from the entertainment areas in order that sleepers won’t routinely be disturbed by the laughter and energy of the night owls in the house. Work areas may also be discrete from public spaces so that guests don’t have to see piles of laundry on their way to the dinner table. In smaller houses, the sleeping, working, and relaxation areas of the home are more likely to overlap.

Consider your home in this context: Does its layout separate the life of the house into areas? As you contemplate changes you would like to make, will they respect this division of work, play, and sleeping areas? Do you have special criteria that should influence your thinking, such as a teen’s enthusiasm for head-banging rock or a dad’s love for string quartets?

Router Bits

Router bits come in about as many shapes and sizes as there are edges to be shaped, and here's how to understand the basics.

Router Bits


Router bits come in about as many shapes and sizes as there are edges to be shaped, quite apart from bits for cutting dadoes and rabbets, or for trimming laminate. Still others cut grooves, semicircular channels, mortises for hinges, dovetails, ogees, coves, chamfers, nosing, glue joints, and dozens of other profiles.

Router bits are made from high-grade steel, tungsten carbide, or a combination of both. The carbide bits, like carbide-tipped saws, are more expensive, but stay sharp much longer, especially when cutting materials more abrasive than wood, like plywood and particle board. Some carbide router bits have carbide tips that are brazed onto the steel, others are solid carbide.

Router bits are divided into two basic categories, simple fluted bits and guided bits.

Simple bits have one or two fluted cutting surfaces machined onto their length; the flutes extend to the tip of the bit. The double fluted bits cut more evenly, leaving a smoother finish than do the bits with one flute (which often leave a wavy cut line).

The guided bits have a ball-bearing guide at the tip that acts as a guide. Also called a pilot tip, it functions as a sort of mobile stop to ensure that the router’s cutting edge shapes the wood to a uniform depth.

Shanks are a quarter inch to a half inch in diameter.

Filing Techniques

It takes a little technique and some practice before the file fits naturally in your hand, and your stroke is smooth and regular.

How to Use a Wood File - Filing Tools


The first time I saw my father cut a piece of stock with a handsaw, he made it look easy. When I tried it, I discovered it wasn’t quite as simple as it appeared. Filing is the same way: It takes a little technique and some practice before the file fits naturally in your hand, and your stroke is smooth and regular.

Use a Handle. File handles are easily attached and detached (that way, you don’t need one for every file, but one will serve several files of similar sizes). Insert the tang end (the pointed tongue) into the handle, and tap it in, using your benchtop or a wooden mallet; don’t hammer the file into the handle. Using the handle is a good safety precaution: The tangs are surprisingly sharp.

Clamp the Workpiece First. Files are most efficient when wielded with two hands, one at the tip of the file, its handle in the other. Which means that the workpiece must be secured, perhaps in a vise or by bench dogs.

Find the Right File. Flat files are suited to smoothing flat surfaces and convex curves, curved ones for concave (inside) curves. Half-round files work best for large holes or curves, round files for arcs with smaller radii.

Filing Metal. For rough work, file in a straight line across the piece, keeping the file at roughly a thirty-degree angle to the length of the stock. File away from you, varying the direction of your stroke (though not the angle) in order to be sure that your filing surface remains flat and true.

As with a handsaw, lift the file off the workpiece slightly on the return stroke. To drag it back across after a cut stroke won’t file off any additional material and may dull the file.

More pressure should be applied for rough work, a light touch for less demanding filing.

For finishing the surface, draw a single-cut file along the length of the piece. This will remove the filing marks across the piece.

Filing Wood. For the rough shaping, use a rasp. It cuts rapidly, but leaves a coarse surface. Follow the rasp with a smoothing file.

Protective Gear

The right protective gear is like a small health insurance policy.


There’s nothing hard about wearing safety goggles or earplugs or a respirator when they are needed. The cost for such protective gear can be very small — for less than ten dollars, you can buy the most basic of safety glasses, earplugs, and a simple disposable mask. Consider such purchases as the equivalent of a small health insurance policy, money well spent.

If you are serious about the work you do in your workshop, and you have invested – or are about to invest – in an assortment of quality power tools and other shop equipment, it makes good sense to buy quality protective equipment as well.

Full-Face Shield. A full-face shield costs a bit more than safety goggles or glasses, but will give you maximum range of vision with essentially no blind spots. A shield is perfect for running a table saw or other stationary equipment where you work upright, feeding stock into a machine.

Hearing Protectors. If you use power tools, wear some sort of hearing protector. I understand the rationale that lots of people employ to avoid wearing one: “If the noise doesn’t hurt, it really couldn’t be very harmful, could it?” The answer is yes, it can and probably will cause hearing loss over time. Don’t take the chance.

If you have an especially loud tool (a direct-drive table saw or a shaper, for example), consider buying protectors that resemble earmuffs. For most home workshops, plugs or foam pads mounted on a headband will do.

Lung Protection. For only a few cents, you can purchase a disposable fabric mask with elastic straps that hold it in place over your nose and mouth. For an occasional need, such masks are quite adequate, but if you frequently sand, strip, scrape, or paint, a more sophisticated variation of the same device would be in order.

Called respirators, they filter fumes and dust. Most have twin cartridges built into the chin-piece of the mask. The filters in the respirator will need to be changed occasionally, both because they get dirty (accumulating particulate matter over time, for example) and because different filters serve different needs.

Paper filters are best for dusty applications or when spray painting. Charcoal cartridges are suitable for working with chemicals or other tasks that involve fumes. When the paper becomes clogged (and breathing more difficult) or when you begin to smell the vapors, change the filters.

Architectural Styles of Classical Columns

The column is a fundamental architectural element and one of the defining characteristics of Classical architecture.

Greek Columns, Ionic Columns, Architectural Columns

The Greeks borrowed the column from the Egyptians and synthesized it into an architectural style that was characteristically their own. The first fluted columns date back to Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (2040–1640 BC). The principle architectural ornamentation used by the Greeks was also derived from Eastern predecessors.

There were three orders of columns: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The Doric column is the oldest, dating back to around 600 BC. The Doric column has no base. It was placed directly on the stylobate (the top step of the temple floor). It has a fluted shaft which tapers toward the top and a capital consisting of a simple curved member upon which sits a square block called the abacus. The top section of the shaft and the capital were cut from one block of stone. The transition from the shaft to the capital was at first defined by a concave moulding. As the style evolved, this feature was replaced by three or four projecting bands.

The Ionic column developed in the late fifth century B.C. Its shaft is more slender than the shaft of the Doric column, and the capital is distinguished by a pair of volutes (which look like rams’ horns) back and front, beneath which the necking is generally embellished. While the flutings of the Doric columns meet in a sharp angle, the flutings of the Ionic column are separated from each other by a narrow flat band. The Ionic column has a clearly defined base, with carved mouldings that sit on the stylobate. On the whole the look of the Ionic column is more graceful than the Doric.

The Corinthian column is even more highly ornamented than the Ionic. Its capital is further embellished with a single or double row of stylized acanthus leaves. On some Corinthian columns, volutes appear to grow out of the leaves. The base is similar to the Ionic but more refined. The Corinthian column evolved in the second century B.C. and continued to be a popular element in Roman architecture.

Tuscan columns were a Roman development. In many ways they evoke a return to the simplicity of the Doric column. Their shafts are generally tapered but unfluted. The base and capital are virtually unembellished.

House Style: Garrison Colonial

Here are some ways to spot this simple colonial style house.

Garrison Colonial House Style

New England Garrison House in Norwell, MA. Photo: from Bob Vila's Building and Addition for an Elderly Parent

Origins and Early 20th Century Adaptations of the Garrison House
Colonial is one of the most adaptable styles. The garrison colonial house is representative.  It is rectangular with two stories. The distinguishing characteristic is the 2nd-story overhang in the front. According to legend, the original houses in this style were blockhouses that were built by the early colonists to defend against the Indians.  In truth, it probably evolved from the Elizabethan townhouse.

Historic garrison houses were rare, a fact that was emphasized in a magazine feature in 1913. One 17th-century model was described as “portraying a type of architecture not found anywhere else.” That was soon to change. 

Beginning in the 1920s, the garrison house was a type of architecture found in many towns.  It was also promoted for country houses. These early 20th-century Garrison Colonial Revivals were earnest and conscientious adaptations of original garrison houses.

Informal Mid-century Garrison Colonial Revivals
The Great Depression, World War II, and the demand for mass housing made it impracticable to continue building houses with the same historic precision. The mid-century garrison houses reflect the shift to a more approximate Colonial style. They are simplified and mass-produced. Just as Colonial design was functional and no-frills, explained the decorating magazines, so too was modern suburban design.

Walk through a mid-century suburb and you will see many garrison houses with multi-paned sash windows and white clapboard siding.  The interiors originally had brickwork and wood paneling (stained and painted), and sturdy rustic furnishings.  The wood box next to the chimney was recommended as the place to conceal the television.

Colonial + Modern Design
Mixing Colonial with Modern pieces was a popular practice following World War II.  Danish teak and bentwood chairs were considered compatible with the things you inherited from Grandma. And so, while Mid-century Modern is the hot trend in architectural preservation today, keep in mind that the Colonial Revival is part of the Mid-century repertoire.

SanFranVic’s John Clarke Mills: In the Workshop

"San Francisco Victorian" blogger, John Clarke Mills, opens up about his workshop and strategic approach to DIY.


Photo: Flickr courtesy of John Clarke Mills

Sanfranvic John Clark Mills Portrait Workshop Bob Vila RevAt 25, John Clarke Mills, a software entrepreneur with a background in engineering and woodworking, bought his first house. John’s “starter house,” an 1890 three-story, 8-room Victorian in San Francisco, looked like a home most people would aspire to owning somewhere down the road. For John, however, it was the perfect starter. Even before he moved in, he was able to begin plotting out, and blogging about, a slew of renovations that would restore and modernize his new old home.

“The amount of work we have taken on is due only to our own ambition,” says John, speaking about him and his housemate Brian Harris and the centenarian structure that was in perfectly fine condition. John and Brian, both handy and aesthetically minded, have a vision, and the last three years have been spent, when not at their full-time jobs, using wood, wires, siding, tile and a whole lot of tools to realize it. Crucial to this realization was a dedicated and organized work space—“the key,” John says, “to getting your projects done right.”

The shop that John built occupies the 1300-square-foot basement/garage where saws and drills share space with a 1973 BMW 2002 that John restored himself. Before John started filling the space, he called in a crew to reinforce the brick foundation. Though the house stood up to many earthquakes in its lifetime, John wanted some insurance moving forward. Once fortified, amenities, supplies, and the places to put things all followed, bit by bit.

Sanfranvic John Clarke Mills Workshop Tools Bob Vila

Central to the space is a workbench that John built using a slab of $75 maple butcher block, a $40 salvaged drawer set, 3 Rockler vises, and a couple of wood 4×4’s and 2×4’s. The periphery is dotted with iconic Craftsman storage pieces; “I feel good knowing that they are Craftsman and guaranteed for life,” he says. Hardware organizers, both hanging and standing, are labeled clearly. John believes spending time to organize saves time in the long run.

The space is well lit and overhead electric offers easy and safe power. A utility sink offers a place to clean brushes, while pegboard above offers a place to let the brushes hang and dry. A big shop vac takes care of the dust that’s generated by just about every wood maneuver. Some big ticket power tools include: a 1980s Hitachi Joiner/Planer, a Bosch 10” compound sliding radial arm saw, and a Mikita oil-lubricated compressor. He loves the ingenuity of ratcheting box wrenches and always buys extra needle nose pliers because they just seem to get lost. And there is a corner just devoted to clamps; a collection now totally more than 50.

Sanfranvic John Clarke Mills Workshop Bob VilaThe DIY gene has been cultivating since young John was a welcome presence in his father’s shop. Though not a career cabinetmaker, John’s dad is a highly skilled woodworker with more tools than anyone.  Growing up, John helped his father work on countless projects and as John got bigger, so did the projects. Most recently, Dad lent an expert hand to the install of his son’s Victorian library, a clubby red-oak-and-leather retreat John has always dreamed of.  One day, John’s collection of tools and machinery may grow to rival his father’s.

“Interesting projects have no end,” says John, who will continue to create them, execute them, and share them. John has learned a lot from the internet, and his blog— San Francisco Victorian—enables him to give back to that community. “When you truly aren’t afraid to fail, it’s amazing what you can teach yourself,” he says.

“Of course, being honest with yourself and knowing your limit is a big part of life and renovating a home is no different,” John adds. When confronted with any task, he admits to running through a complete list of questions—from actually visualizing himself doing the job to how many days it will require, will he need to learn new skills, what other projects could he get done if this one were outsourced, and, most importantly, can he do a professional job. “There is a whole order of operations that goes through my mind,” he says.

“It’s a cost benefit analysis that takes into account my own time and labor. At the end of the day I’m a realist and I have no problem admitting when something is over my head.”

You can see some of John’s San Francisco Victorian posts at Bob Vila Nation—a newly launched DIY community platform.

The Winter Garden: Hedge Your Bets

Winter Gardening

Photo: Flickr via MizGingerSnaps

“Don’t stop gardening just because it’s winter,” says Cindy Baker, Manager of Grounds at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Most plants, at least those hardy to your climate, can handle 90% of winters, but why not hedge your bets a little so that come spring, you have no sad discoveries (whether due to animals, frost, or dehydration)?

Once the ground freezes completely, there’s not much to be done for annuals, but you can extend the season a little longer until then. When you are aware that there will be an early cold snap or hard frost, lay down a bed sheet on the protected plants. “The sheet holds in enough heat to get them through the night,” says Cindy. Lift it off in the morning once the sun hits. You can also get creative and try protecting individual plants with items like dog food bags or milk jugs. Just don’t use plastic sheets—they don’t allow for enough air exchange. Glass or clay cloches make for perhaps the prettiest option, but also the priciest.

“Evergreens in particular are sensitive to wind damage, which dehydrates them,” says Cindy.  That’s when burlap comes in handy, breaking the wind and also providing a barrier against another winter nuisance: salt. Build a little fence with the burlap around evergreens like boxwood or hemlock, pinning, nailing or sewing the burlap to stakes. Just keep tightening the burlap throughout the winter as it will sag.

To keep hungry rodents like voles from nibbling the bark off of your young trees, you can try wrapping the base of the tree with ¼-inch mesh hardware cloth. Cut back any grasses around the base of the tree as well to discourage them. Deer will appear with the first sign of spring, ready to snack on the first green that pushes up, so have netting ready to lay down on your beds.

If you do no other gardening this winter, be sure to provide ample water. Even though your plants are hibernating, they still need hydration. Keep giving good drinks before the ground freezes and then continue every time there’s a thaw. Don’t forget about container plants you might be storing in your garage or basement for the winter—they will need to stay damp, so provide water every 1-2 weeks.

For more seasonal tips, check out Bob Vila’s Fall Home Maintenance Guide and Checklist.

Quick Tip: Sharpening a Spade Bit

Keep your spade bits sharp and effective.

Spade Bits

Spade bits, it seems, are always encountering nails, at least in the kinds of rough drilling chores that renovation work involves. But they are among the easiest of cutting tools to sharpen. Set the tool rest on your bench grinder eight degrees down from horizontal (that is to say, eight degrees past three o’clock, when looking at the end of the grinding wheel).

Position the bit with one of its shoulders flush to the wheel. Before starting the grinder, tighten a stop collar on the shaft of the drill about a sixty-fourth of an inch from the edge of the tool rest. Now, start the machine and grind the edge until the stop collar pre­vents further grinding; turn the bit over, line up the cutting lip on the opposite shoulder, and repeat. The stop collar will assure that the bit is ground symmetrically.

To sharpen the tip or “spur,” swing the bit diagonally to the wheel, and align the cutting edge parallel to the surface of the wheel. Go to the other diagonal to grind the other side.

Broken Roof Tiles: An Easy Fix?

Broken Roof Tiles


It’s a complete mystery to me how this could have happened to my roof in Florida. There are no palm trees around to drop a coconut, and nobody’s been up on the roof, but somehow two tiles are broken.

No use pondering the cause. The good news is that when we re-roofed the house, we kept about 50 leftover tiles for just this type of eventuality (something I highly recommend, whether you choose asphalt shingles, wood shakes, or tiles). By code, all of these flat cement tiles are “fastened mechanically”, which means they’re screwed down into the plywood roof sheathing. This is to prevent them from flying off in a hurricane.

The roof repair is simple enough but requires the type of ladder that few homeowners keep around. Sliding the new tile into place and securing with construction adhesive and a couple of screws is easy—the hard part is getting up there.

For more on roofing, consider:

Metal Roofs on the Rise
Building a Storm-Ready Roof
Asphalt Shingles: A Showcase of Roofing Styles, Colors and Options