May 2012 Archives - Bob Vila

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Top Tips for Installing a Small Backyard Pond

Building a Pond - After

Photo: DBSchwartz

Nothing quite soothes the soul like the sound of burbling water. Even though we have a long and narrow backyard, we always wished we had room for a small water garden. The opportunity arose when we decided to remove some shrubbery that was past its prime.

We did some online and in-store homework on ponds and discovered there are numerous construction options. The first option is pouring a concrete shell similar to an in-ground swimming pool, but this can be very expensive. The second is buying a puncture-resistant, vinyl liner similar to an above-ground swimming pool. Available in widths ranging from 5 to 50 feet wide, these liners allow you to play the role of landscape designer and create a free-form pond, as deep and as wide as you like. We rejected this idea because it was a bit too complex and labor-intensive for the size of our area.

Building a Pond - Fiberglass Shell

Photo: DBSchwartz

A third option is pre-formed fiberglass shells, offered in a wide range of shapes and sizes, including such designs as waterfalls and cascading pools. These were perfectly suited to our needs, budget, and experience level! We purchased two: a large, kidney-shaped shell with a 300-gallon capacity and a three-section cascading pool shell. We also purchased a pump and filter combination (with a capacity of 500 gallons per hour), 20 feet of flexible tubing, and a fountain spray head. Even in a small pond, a pump and filter are essential to keep the water clear, filtered, and moving. Standing, stagnant water is ugly, smelly, and can be a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

Building a Pond - Excavation

Photo: DBSchwartz

We contracted with a local landscaper to dig up the old shrubs and “rough out” a hole for the pond, then shaped the edges and leveled the bottom. We lined the hole and the surrounding area with a mesh barrier fabric to prevent weeds. Next, we purchased five 50-pound bags of sand, which we then used to cushion the bottom of the pond shell. The edges of the shell were covered with large, irregular slabs of slate, while ferns and decorative grasses were planted to create a more naturalistic landscape.

Building a Pond - Pond Form

Photo: DBSchwartz

The next step was installing the cascading pools. We wanted to produce a waterfall effect, so we built a platform of stones and nestled the cascade shell into the stones on an angle. We placed more stones inside the shell to enhance the illusion of a natural waterfall. Best of all, the stones gave us the added benefit of hiding the flexible tubing, which runs from the pump up to the top of the waterfall.

Building a Pond - Water Lily

Photo: DBSchwartz

Finally, we planted a small hemlock tree, along with several rhododendrons, irises, and azaleas to flank the waterfall. We filled the pond, turned on the pump and spray fountain, and settled down to enjoy the effervescent flowing water, our own little oasis of calm in a hectic world.


Bob Vila Radio: Water Filtration

You want to know the water in your home is safe, but depending on what’s in it, you may not need a whole-house filtration system.

Water Filtration


Listen to BOB VILA ON WATER FILTRATION, or read text below:

If you’ve got hard water, scale can build up in the plumbing; your water pressure will seem to drop and your appliances will suffer. A water softener uses tiny resin beads to attract these minerals and remove them from the water as it enters your house.

If it’s just better drinking water you’re after, you don’t have to treat all the water that enters your home. Point-of-use filtration systems are generally pretty good at removing odors, bad tastes, bacteria and other things you’d rather not drink. They range in complexity from carbon filters in pitchers and icemakers to faucet-mount diverters. Or you might want a plumbed-in system that sends filtered water through an extra faucet next to the kitchen sink. Make sure the system you buy bears the mark of the national sanitation foundation, or NSF.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 60 stations around the country (and growing). You can get your daily dose here, by listening—or reading—to Bob’s 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day.

Top Tips for Adding a Garden Fountain

garden fountain

I don’t meditate and I don’t go for weekly massages to unwind. Years ago, I discovered something much more cost-effective to help me relax: fountains. Even as a condo dweller I enjoy a small two-tier rock fountain that I picked up a few years ago at a home improvement store. There is something soothing, almost magical, about the gentle trickle of water as it pushes out the noise of the world.

If you are considering adding a fountain to your backyard, patio, deck or balcony, consider the following:

Read the rest of this entry »

Bob Vila Radio: Paint and Resale

Ask any realtor how to maximize your home’s value; they’ll tell you to grab a paintbrush.

Paint and Resale


Listen to BOB VILA ON PAINT AND RESALE, or read text below: Read the rest of this entry »

Finca Vigia: Exploring the Hemingway House in Cuba

HBO "Hemingway & Gelhorn" Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman

Courtesy: HBO

Hemingway & Gelhorn, which previewed on HBO last night, offers an extraordinary look at the literary careers, passionate love affair, and tumultuous relationship between Ernest Hemingway (played by Clive Owen) and Martha Gelhorn (played by Nicole Kidman).

The film chronicles the pair from their meeting in Key West in 1936 to their travels to Spain during the Spanish American War, and it includes their subsequent romance and marriage (Hemingway’s third) in 1940.

A war correspondent, Gelhorn followed the action wherever she could reach it, and the couple’s frequent periods of separation only fueled the jealousy and rivalry that would ultimately end their marriage four years later.

The film does make reference to a Cuban retreat that Ernest and Martha occupied on and off during their years together. While it does not show the actual house, it is modeled on one that Hemingway himself purchased in 1939 after selling the film rights to his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. It was a house he retained until 1960.

Hemingway's Finca Vigia Exterior

Hemingway's Finca Vigia Exterior

Finca Vigia is a rambling masonry home that sits perched on a 12-acre hillside outside of Havana. When the property was in danger of destruction—from heat, humidity, pests and the sheer passage of time—an American non-profit, The Finca Vigia Foundaton (co-chaired by Bob Vila) was established to work with the Cuban government 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). Here’s a glimpse inside the house today:

Hemingway's Finca Vigia Living Room

Hemingway's Finca Vigia Living Room / Photo Courtesy: Flickr


Hemingway's Finca Vigia Dining Room / photo courtesy Flickr


Hemingway's Finca Vigia Desk / Photo courtesy: Flickr


Hemingway's Finca Vigia Patio / Photo courtesy: Flickr

Hemingway's Finca Vigia Bedroom

Hemingway's Finca Vigia Bedroom / Photo courtesy: Flickr

Hemingway's Finca Vigia Tabletop Trophy

Hemingway's Finca Vigia Tabletop Trophy

You can watch a trailer of the HBO movie—Hemingway & Gelhorn—below:

Kitchen Cabinets 101

Whether you select solid wood or laminate, the cabinets you choose will be an important factor in the look and function of your kitchen remodel.

Kitchen Cabinets

Wellborn Cabinets in Bristol Maple, Natural and Milan Oak Espresso. Photo: Wellborn Cabinet

New kitchen cabinets will likely be your biggest expenditure and will also determine the tone and functionality of your renovated space.

A professional can help you sort through the many different types. You’ll want to compare wood and laminate finishes and shop for smart storage and organization solutions, such as pull-out spice racks, hideaway bins, and pop-up shelves that mimic a jack-in-the-box to let you access or hide counter appliances.

Related: Kitchen Cabinet Door Styles: What’s Yours?

Kitchen Cabinets

As a whole, cabinetry trends lean toward simplicity and an uncluttered look. Bulky, ornate cabinets are being replaced by streamlined options. Slimming features include integrated handles, sliding doors, open low cabinets, floating islands, sleek materials, and simple Shaker or frameless styles.

To save money, buy stock cabinets in standard sizes or consider a trip to nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity ReStore (nationwide) or Green Demolitions (Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania) to purchase donated or salvaged cabinetry from demolition projects at a fraction of their original cost.

For super savings, update your existing cabinetry with a fresh coat of paint and new hardware. If you have recessed panel doors, consider covering the center with bead board or replacing it with reeded, textured, or etched glass. Or go a step further to replace one or more wall-hung cabinets with open shelving to create a light, airy feel.

For more on kitchen cabinets and remodeling, consider:

Cabinet Design Styles: What’s Yours?
Bob Vila’s Guide to Kitchen Cabinets
Countertops 101

Kitchen Layouts: 4 “Space Smart” Plans

The best kitchen remodels begin from the floor up. Here are four smart and efficient layouts to consider for your home.

Kitchen Layout


Kitchen remodeling requires careful planning to be truly successful.  Before you start selecting cabinets, countertops, flooring and appliances, you need to settle on a kitchen layout. Determine how you like to cook and entertain in your kitchen. Do you cook alone or with someone? Is your kitchen a multi-purpose room where kids do homework and friends love to gather? Keep track of what currently works well and what doesn’t.

We have provided four “smart” kitchen layouts, starting with the Galley-style below.  Click the subsequent pages to see examples of L-shaped, G-shaped, and Corridor-style floor plans.



Galley Kitchen

Reprinted with permission from “Right-Sizing Your Home: How To Make Your House Fit Your Lifestyle ” by Gale Steves (Northwest Arm Press: 2010).



I Shaped Kitchen

Reprinted with permission from “Right-Sizing Your Home: How To Make Your House Fit Your Lifestyle” by Gale Steves (Northwest Arm Press: 2010).



G Shaped Kitchen

Reprinted with permission from “Right-Sizing Your Home: How To Make Your House Fit Your Lifestyle ” by Gale Steves (Northwest Arm Press: 2010).

No Vacation: Tax Rules Tighten on Getaway Homes

Flying Point Residence by Stelle Architects (Long Island, NY)

Ah, a secluded, peaceful vacation home, far from the madding crowd…

But not far enough to be away from the IRS. Tax rules applying to rental income from a vacation home that you use for your own vacations just got more complicated.

Read the rest of this entry »

Bob Vila Radio: The New Fridge

After years of Thanksgiving dinners, superbowls and midnight snacks, it’s probably served you well, but that old fridge in your garage is adding more to your electric bill than it’s worth. Did you know that refrigerators hog more power than almost anything else in your house?

The New Fridge


Listen to BOB VILA ON THE NEW FRIDGE, or read text below: Read the rest of this entry »

Bob Vila Radio: Fixing a Slow Drain

Grace tweets, “The bathroom sink in my 1890s Victorian is draining really slowly. What’s the best way to get things flowing again?” Glad you asked, Grace.

How to Fix a Slow Drain



Listen to BOB VILA ON FIXING A SLOW DRAIN, or read text below:

If you’ve got really old plumbing, harsh drain chemicals can cause damage. Try a naturally biodegrading drain cleaner or this homemade remedy: Pour in a half cup of baking soda, then a whole cup of white vinegar. Cover the drain for five minutes and flush it with a gallon of boiling water.

Some clogs call for a plunger. The key here is to create a vacuum, not just a mess. Stop up any air vents or adjoining drains, and if you’re working on the kitchen sink, you need to clamp off the dishwasher hose and seal the drain openings in the other sink basins.  If it’s the bathroom sink or tub, plug the overflow opening with a wet rag. With at least a couple inches of some water in the basin, you want to plunge rapidly several times, pulling up sharply at the end to move the clog. You may need to do this several times.

Related: The Complete Illustrated Guide to Unclogging a Drain

If plunging doesn’t clear the clog, use an auger.  If your drain opening is obstructed, sometimes a coat hanger wire with a small hooked end will bring up the clog. You can also detach the trap under the sink with a plumber’s wrench in order to get at the clog or to rescue anything you’ve lost down there. Turn it through the clog, back off a little, then run it all the way through and pull the whole thing straight out of the drain.

If you don’t see an improvement in drainage after all that—and especially if more than one drain is slow in your house—you should consult a plumber since the problem could be caused by blocked or improper venting of the wastewater system.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 60 stations around the country (and growing). You can get your daily dose here, by listening—or reading—to Bob’s 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day.

For more on plumbing, consider:

How To: Unclog a Clogged Drain
How To: Unclog a Sink Drain
Quick Tip: Fixing a Clogged Drain