January 2012 Archives - Bob Vila

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Why Every DIYer Needs a Thickness Planer

Thickness Planer

The thickness planer is not the most versatile tool in your arsenal. In fact, it really only does one thing: it planes things to a consistent thickness, as its name suggests. It’s definitely not a tool you wanna buy before a compound miter saw, or even a table saw. But once you’ve learned what it can do, or get one into your garage and basement, you’ll wonder, “How did I ever do without this?”

Read any fine woodworking handbook or magazine, and it’ll extol the virtues of the thickness planer as a way to thicken wood stock so that it possesses an even height throughout its length. They’ll note that it does not flatten stock nor remove the natural warping or twisting along its length—that’s the job of the jointer. This means two things: that the consistent thickness allows you to have perfectly matched, airtight joints across a project, and that you can save money by buying less expensive rough-cut lumber and planing off the surface at home (instead of paying the lumber mill to do that work for you).

And that’s all well and good for woodworkers building custom furniture or doing fine detail work, but what does it mean for the average weekend warrior interested in learning to do things themselves? Why, plenty, of course.

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Is Your Swimming Pool Pump Up to Speed?

Swimming Pool Pump Efficiency

Photo: plantnj.com

Living in the northeast and being a “pool-free” homeowner, I rarely think about the luxury enjoyed by countless homeowners who are pool-endowed, particularly in the South and West. But a recent trip to Arizona made me realize that even the swimming pool—a seemingly earth-friendly body of H2O in oval-, square-, rectangular-, and kidney bean-shaped designs—is still an energy user and, in some instances, abuser.

According to an article in The Arizona Republic, the state legislature recently passed new energy-efficient standards for residential swimming pool pumps and portable electric spas. (California and many other states have passed similar regulations.) While it doesn’t affect pumps currently in use, it does prohibit the installation of single-speed pumps in new pool construction, requiring instead dual-, multiple- and variable-speed pumps with motors 1 horsepower or better. And for very good reason.

Single-speed pumps operate, as the name implies, at one speed. Even though they perform efficiently enough to circulate the pool water, they are not as efficient when it comes to powering the extras: pool cleaners, water falls, spas, whirlpools, and other electrical add-ons.  So, when the pump is required to power more than just circulating water, it ends up working harder, working longer, and costing you as much as 90% more in energy use.

If you have an older swimming pool you might want to check to see if your filter is up to “speed.”  A replacement could set you back $1,200 to $1,400 for parts and installation, but homeowners who have already made the change are reaping the benefits, some saving $300 or more a year on their electric bills.  Your local utility may also offer rebates to help defray the cost.

For more energy savings, consider:

Easy Ways to Green Your Home
Tankless Hot Water Heaters: Should I or Shouldn’t I?
How To: Save Water at Home

Bob Vila’s Top 12 Painting Tips

If you want to paint like a pro, heed these little-known painting tips.

Painting Tips

Photo: ephesusremodeling.com

1. One trick to determine whether you have the right primer is to put a coat on and let it dry, then take a razor blade and very lightly mark an X in the paint. Put duct tape over the X and then pull back. If the paint sticks, you’ve made a good choice.

2. Add the top coat within 24 hours after the primer dries. That’s when the surface is stickiest.

3. Remove painter’s tape 2-3 hours after you’ve completed your final coat. If you leave tape on for too long, it can remove some fresh paint with it.

4. Always assume the job will require two coats; primer counts as one. A single coat won’t give the full sheen or be as washable.

5. Keep in mind that a flat finish won’t cover a high-gloss finish unless you sand the wall lightly or use a de-glosser first. Likewise, latex paint shouldn’t cover oil-base paint unless the surface has been primed correctly.  

6. Resist the temptation to go over an area that is drying as you’ll only create brush marks.

7. Don’t skimp on paint. A gallon should cover 350-400 square feet.

8. Be prepared to use an extra coat of paint to even out the effects of a dark-colored paint.

9. Tint your primer to the color of your top coat for better coverage.

10. Don’t oversaturate. If paint drips from a roller, you have too much. Likewise, only dip the first third of your brush’s bristles into paint and tap the brush lightly side-to-side inside the can to remove excess paint.

11. Avoid cleaning latex brushes in a sink that drains into a septic tank. The latex residue can cause issues.

12. Put brushes in a plastic zippered bag when you take a break so they won’t dry out. You can even freeze them for longer storage.

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Good luck in this week's Bob Vila $1,000 Do it Yourself Home Improvement Gift Cards Give-Away.


Return Home

Brad Pitt’s “Make It Right” Homes
The actor’s Make It Right Foundation continues to rebuild homes—and a sense of community—in New Orleans Lower 9th Ward.
by Monica Michael Willis

Home Sweet Container
A steel shipping container house makes for a strong, safe, eco-friendly home.
by Mark Fuller

Architectural Salvage
Architectural salvage is a timeless way to bring quality and character into your home.
by Luann Brandsen

Wood Siding Options
Style, location, and budget should drive your selection of wood siding.
by Bob Vila and Hugh Howard

Bob Vila’s 8 Tips for Hanging Holiday Lights

A few simple guidelines and precautions to bear in mind when hanging holiday lights.

How to Hang Christmas Lights

Photo: Flickr

Embellishing your yard with holiday lights is a cheery idea if you follow a few simple guidelines and precautions:

Create a master plan. Look at your house from the street or take a photograph to make an overall plan. First, consider adding lights along eaves, pillars, posts, windows, and doors to highlight architectural features. Next, look at bushes, trees, window boxes, planters, and paths. Finally, check out lighting for paths, as well as stand-alone figures.

Find balance. “Everyone gravitates toward the roofline and they forget to balance it with something below,” says Mike Marlow, of Holiday Bright Lights, a national chain that provides professional holiday lighting for homes and business. “It’s like interior design. You might have something on your room’s walls, but you need something on the shelves and the end tables too.”

Consider the backyard. Why should the front yard have all the fun? “We’re seeing people decorate behind the house,” Mike adds. “It makes sense because they see the backyard more than the front.”

Measure. Try to get a realistic measurement of how many lights you’ll use. One way to determine lighting for trees is to multiply the height times the width, then double that figure to get its square footage.

Assess. Check that lights and cords are in good repair and are rated for outdoor use. Read manufacturer recommendations to determine the number of lights you can safely string together. Never connect different types of lights on the same circuit or outlet.

Power up. Outdoor lights should be plugged into circuits protected by ground-fault-interrupters (GFCIs). To avoid running cords everywhere, try power stakes—portable devices that bring power where you need it.

Choose plastic. Trade hammer and nails for plastic clips that safely secure lighting to walls.

Stay safe. Work with a partner or hang a bucket with an S hook to the ladder to hold supplies. When possible, use an extension pole to keep your feet on the ground. Finally, don’t decorate trees that touch power lines.  In short, avoid the technique employed by Chevy Chase in this classic clip from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

Bob Vila’s Ultimate Holiday Gift Guide

Our personal picks of the best holiday gifts for DIY dads, moms and kids.

Bob Vila's Ultimate Holiday Gift Guide

If you are shopping for the DIYer in your life and still looking for gift inspiration (and we hope you are), you’ve come to the right place. We scoured the websites, catalogs and publications to put together this year’s Bob Vila Ultimate Shopping Guide. There’s something for every taste and every budget, from tools and toys to gadgets and guides. Let the shopping begin. Who knows? You might even find a gift to add to your own wish list for the holidays!

3 Easy DIY Wreaths from 1 Evergreen Form

With a standard evergreen wreath, some basic materials, tools, and know-how, you can create your very own distinctive holiday creations. Here are three variations with step-by-step tutorials to guide you along.

Ornament DIY Wreath

Photo: Nicole Polly

One of the easiest ways to decorate your home for the holidays is with a seasonal wreath. There are many options available, from pine-studded, ribbon-draped, natural pine variations to those bearing dried fruits, nuts, berries, bells, and more. And of course, there are artificial wreaths that not only offer seasonal cheer, but the benefit of long-term storage and reuse.

You don’t need to spend a lot of money to add some beautiful holiday cheer to your front door, mantel, window, or family room. Nicole Esposito Polly, a New York-based floral designer, decorator, and former style director at Country Living magazine, shows us just how easy it is to transform a standard evergreen wreath into three distinctive show-stoppers (with step-by-step tutorials for each one).


DIY Pinecone Wreath

Photo: Nicolle Polly



While it looks professional and store-bought, this Holiday Pinecone Wreath is actually a simple make-over of a standard evergreen wreath.  Don’t be intimated—or envious. Just gather some pine cones, spray paint, and floral wire and you can create one of your very own just in time for Christmas.

Follow this step-by-step Pinecone Holiday Wreath Tutorial.




Building Block DIY Wreath

Photo: Nicole Polly




Children will love this holiday wreath adorned with wooden blocks that spell out the season’s greeting—Merry Christmas. Best of all, it’s a project you can do yourself by purchasing a standard evergreen wreath and a couple of supplies, and following some easy-to-follow steps.

Here’s how to make this delightful Children’s Building Block Wreath.




Vintage Ornament Wreath

Photo: Nicole Polly



If you’ve now collected more ornaments than your tree can handle, consider putting them to good holiday use with an ornament-decerated wreath like this one.   While it looks difficult to construct, it is really the perfect do-it-yourself project.  With a plain evergreen wreath, ornaments, floral wire, glue and snips—and some know-how—you can make one in an hour or so.

Just follow these simple steps to make your own Vintage Ornament Wreath.


The Christmas Flower

A brief guide to selecting and caring for poinsettias, "the Christmas flower."

The Christmas Flower

Photo: Flickr

Unlike Christmas presents, gingerbread cookies, and wrapped gifts, poinsettias, with their red and green leaves that blend seem perfectly suited to the holidays, can last for long afterwards. Native to Mexico, Poinsettias were used by the Aztecs to make a colorful red dye. They were transported to the United States by the first US ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett. His interest in botany took him on long walks through the countryside looking for new plant species where he became enamored with the large red flowers of the poinsettia, and he brought them back to his greenhouse in South Carolina. It wasn’t until the early 1900s though, when the Ecke family started farming the poinsettia in California and marketing it as the Christmas flower that poinsettias became associated with the holiday. Now, poinsettias are the best-selling potted flower in the US, over sixty million plants sold each season.

Related: How To: Keep a Christmas Tree Fresh

To pick a lasting, healthy plant, choose one with dark green foliage and bracts (the tiny yellow parts on top of the flower) that are completely colored with no green around the edges. Stay away from the plants that are dropping leaves, or wilting. To determine whether the poinsettia will look fresh through the New Year, the flowers should be green or red-tipped and have a little yellow pollen on the leaves. Once you’ve brought the plant home, keep it away from the radiator, but also away from a drafty window. Water when the soil feels dry, but make sure to poke holes in the foil wrapping most of them come wrapped in.

While there’s no guarantee that your poinsettia will bloom next year (they can be a little persnickety), you can certainly try, and enjoy the foliage in the meantime. Around the first of the year, fertilize your poinsettia with an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer. Keep the plant in a sunny location that provides about six hours of indirect sunlight. As the year draws on, keep fertilizing once a month and repot if necessary. Come summer, put the plant outside to enjoy the fresh air. Finally, mid-September, give your poinsettia dark nights of about 8 hours in length. Any light during the night will prevent the plant from flowering—the decreased day length is what stimulates the plant to flower. During the day, put it back in the sun. Really want to test your green thumb? You could always try a poinsettia in a can, bought at local dollar stores.

For more on holiday decorating, consider:

Hanging Mistletoe at Christmas
Bob Vila Radio: Picking a Christmas Tree
10 Alternative Wreaths to Make You Forget About Evergreens

A Starbucks Christmas Carol

See how you can repurpose coffee cups into holiday tree ornaments.

Repurposing Coffee Cups

Photo: shutterstock.com

Every time I look in my wastebasket at work, there is a Starbucks coffee cup, sip lid, and thermal cup sleeve (or if it’s summer, a clear plastic cup, flat top lid, and green straw) looking up at me. I rescue them from my cup holder in the car after two-hour drives to and from the country on weekends. Sometimes they accidentally wind up as backseat passengers. Other times, I’ve discovered these cups buried in a backpack or gym bag, evidence that no appropriate trash receptacle was available when I had my last sip.

Repurposing Coffee Cups for the Holidays

I started to think about the assorted remains of my coffee drinking indulgences and realized that, if I drank two cups of coffee every day (which I clearly do) throughout the year, I would have consumed 1,065 beverages and contributed more than that amount in trash-destined paper goods and plastic waste. Now if the average shop sells 200-300 cups a day, as some reports indicate, and there are 15,756 Starbucks in 44 countries, that’s 4,726,800 containers of one sort or another to be trashed each and every day. Staggering, right?

So I pondered whether there was some way to extend the life of my Starbucks salvage, to re-imagine it somehow and give it renewed purpose. Voila! In the spirit of the season, I found at least one solution. Merry Christmas, Starbucks—from BobVila.com!

To see how you can repurpose coffee cups, don’t miss our slideshow RIGHT HERE

DIYers Best/Worst Remodeling Discoveries


That’s what I asked my Twitter followers a couple of weeks ago. It’s natural to expect that your renovation’s happiest surprise will arrive upon the project’s completion; at the moment when your lingering doubts disappear and your tired optimism suddenly transforms into a feeling of proud delight.  However, it’s during the process itself, not after it’s over, that many homeowners discover the biggest renovation surprises of all.

Upon floating my question, “What is the best or worst thing you have ever discovered while renovating?” to the Twitter universe, dozens of fantastic little mid-reno discovery tales came back to me, many with the polish of cocktail-party-perfected anecdotes. Amusing, amazing, or ‘Ack!’—these were some of my favorites:

@RHJenkins: My aunt found live knob and tube wires and the dead squirrel that tried to chew on them.

@PrairieRimBen: Best: oak floors, 1922 sports page detailing Babe Ruth’s performance last night. Worst: live wires exposed to outdoors.

@BodiceGoddess: I discovered, when my housemates installed an egress window in my bedroom, that my entire living space is not insulated. #freeze

@NiallFlanagan: Insulated Pipes. Not fun to have to halt everything and get an abatement crew in for clean up. Expensive, too.

@philringsmuth: Worst: That all walls on main floor were made solely of drywall, no studs. “Studs” were drywall sandwiches, with more drywall.

@DominicHouse: The best was red oak under red and orange 1960’s shag.

@CaroleOldroyd: Yep! We found cedar underneath compressed fiberboard AND tar paper on our 121 y/o home. Who would do that?

@JLo888: no money left!

@PaisleyPosey: Um, my husband’s temper!

@Casper_and_Co: I once found a 1/2 full bottle of whiskey in a ca.1850 home in Mass. We tried it. Awful.

Follow me on Twitter for the latest from BobVila.com, plus select links to the best home improvement stuff elsewhere on the net. Tweet me your own best/worst mid-reno discovery tale or leave it in the comment section below.