Tag Archives: DIY

You can do hard things

I’ve always been one to gladly accept a challenge.  And I don’t mind getting way in over my head, either.  Becoming submerged on a project forces one to learn because you get outside of your comfort zone.  In the end, you end up gaining knowledge, proficiency and confidence.  And of course, you’ll save some cash too, by fixing things yourself rather than calling a repairman.  I encourage this for everyone.

Here’s a few examples of things I fixed during the last year:

  • repaired oil leak and replaced the high pressure oil pump on my Ford truck’s 7.3 liter powerstroke diesel engine
  • replaced the axle in our Honda Odyssey minivan
  • rewired our Whirlpool electric clothes dryer
  • fixed the Kenmore freezer when it died
  • replaced the Frigidaire dishwasher heating element
  • replaced several old windows in the house

To people that have done this before, these things sound easy, because they’ve been there and done that.  However, I can recall my own apprehension before each of these projects.  I wondered if I was going to get in there and cause more damage than was already present.  I wondered if I could even fix it.  I knew it could more expensive for a repairman to finish a half done project than it was to do it from the beginning.

How do you do it?  First, start small. If you have no automotive aptitude, then start by doing the easy stuff like changing oil and rotating tires. You will slowly gain familiarity with how stuff works and where things are located.  Slowly amass your own tool collection.  Use resources like a Haynes manual or the internet.  For my truck, I use http://www.powerstroke.org a lot and for the van http://www.odyclub.com.  If we’re talking appliances, I use http://www.davesrepair.com.

It does help to talk through things with someone else.  I have a friend locally that I talk to about stuff.  I also call my uncle Dave.  He knows that if his phone is ringing, I’m knee deep in something bad and need some advice.  Feel free to reach out to me via the blog.  I definitely don’t have all the answers but I may be able to point you in the right direction.

And the other answer to “how do you do it?”  Jump!  You just have to try it.  I often learn more from my failures than from my successes.  Don’t be afraid to make a mistake.

axle pic

Here I am after replacing the van axle.  While that may sound like a great accomplishment, it took less than an hour.  Once disassembled, it pops into place with minimal effort. 

Thanks, Robert.

Installing your woodstove

Our Vermont Castings Vigilant was installed October 2012 and we put in a solid winter of heating with it.

Vermont Castings Vigilant

It occurred to me that the installation was rather difficult, not because of any construction or fabrication complexity, but rather because information on the topic was hard to find.  For that reason, I wanted to share with you how I went about our installation.

One of the better resources I used was the Hearth Forum.  On the message boards at that site, I was able to locate and download the original user manual and installation manual for the Vigilant.  The manual did not immediately address my unique situation, however.  My uncle probably had the best advice at this juncture, paraphrased “You’re an intelligent person.  Research it to the best of your ability and then just do it.  Try it out.  Don’t worry about explaining to a home owners insurance inspector.”

That was all I needed to hear, because I was suffering from analysis paralysis.  I’ve drawn a picture to show what my unique situation looked like:

Woodstove Installation Options

As you can see, we were starting with a chimney that contained a fireplace insert and had a 10″ stainless steel flue liner.  I removed the insert and wanted to install the wood stove.

Option A was what I considered the traditional setup, with the stovepipe exiting the stove vertically.  That is how my dad had ours set up.  This installation would have required drilling out some of the brick, installing a clay thimble (absolutely no one I talked to confirmed that these things even exist anymore) and then putting a damper below the spot in the existing chimney where the thimble connected.  I had no idea how I was going to connect the clay thimble (or even a stovepipe instead) to the liner in the chimney because it would have been near impossible to reach inside there.

Option B seemed easier and would also leave the attractive brick chimney intact.  A reducer was needed to connect the 8″ stovepipe from the stove to the 10″ chimney liner.  This also required that we shift the stove’s pipe exit to the horizontal position.  The main problem was this: the stove was too tall.  The exit pipe was taller than the fireplace opening.  I fixed this by purchasing some shorter legs for the stove and also by redesigning the hearth pad to minimum thickness.

The original plan for the hearth pad was to use the 3’x5′ Durock cement board set on some furring strips and then make a brick base to match the color of the existing chimney and also match the height of the lip in front of the chimney.  Instead, I started with the same cement board and furring strips, but laid some nice looking slate tiles down that were only 1/2″ thick.  Because I was using shorter legs on the stove I also constructed my own heat shield to sit under the stove using some 24 gauge sheet steel found at Lowes.  Now you can put your hand on the slate directly underneath the stove when you’ve got a rip roaring fire going.

Hearth Pad and Heat Shields

Starting at the bottom, you see the floor, followed by furring strips, Durock, slate, two layers of heat shields and then the bottom of the stove.

Even with this shorter hearth pad and shorter legs on the stove, the exit pipe still had a slight downward slope.  I was worried about that, because I’ve never seen smoke flow downhill.  Another chat with my uncle about this brought my confidence back.  Get those pipes hot, creating plenty of draft, and that exit pipe will never be a problem.  He was right.

That doesn’t mean we never experienced problems.  Ha!  Boy did we have problems!  Thanksgiving 2012 was very windy and we had a house full of family.  The wind came from a direction where it seemed to blow directly down our chimney, filling the house with smoke.  That made for a rather stressful day and would have been fine if it was a one time occurrence.  My quick remedy was to fill the stove with paper and small sticks to make an intense fire and get things really hot.  That definitely worked, but didn’t solve the problems at night when you shut the dampers.  Unfortunately this happened many times before I was able to fix the problem by treating the source rather than the symptoms. Dismayed at the prices of these fancy stainless steel wind proof chimney caps, I decided to make my own by tying some scrap sheet metal to my existing chimney cap with tie wire.  That, combined with filling any and all seams on the stovepipes with furnace cement meant that we didn’t have any more trouble with smoke in the house.

DIY Windproof Chimney Cap

In conclusion, I must say I’m very happy with this stove.  We only spent a couple hundred dollars on propane heating our home last winter, where our neighbors spent thousands.  Gathering firewood is a lot of work, but to me is enjoyable and part of what I call my country boy’s gym membership.  Most of the wood I have is found free by cleaning up neighboring properties.

Thanks, Robert.

Chilton vs Haynes

No, we’re not talking about underwear here.  A Chilton Manual and Haynes Manual are two brands of automotive manuals that show you how to do absolutely everything on your vehicle.  Complete tear down of all parts of the vehicle are clearly documented via photograph and text.  They are an excellent resource for anyone that intends to make repairs at home.

The main point is this: pick one and get on with it.  Doesn’t matter which manual you use, just make sure you’ve got one.  I chose Haynes simply because that is what they had at Autozone on the day I decided to buy one.  I had a friend that worked on trucks with me at age 16 that always used Chilton.  I really don’t think there is much difference.

These manuals will also provide you with a better maintenance schedule that what is found in your vehicle’s owner guide and also show you how to do it all.  I was glad to have it recently, because I just got done replacing transmission fluid and filter, coolant and hoses and also the serpentine belt on my 2000 F350 Powerstroke.  We also have a 2006 Honda Odyssey and I plan on replacing the timing belt this fall.  I’ve already read over the manual for that.  It sounds a bit more involved of a project that I would normally be comfortable with, but here is the perk: Honda also knows that I should probably be doing this soon and I received a coupon in the mail.  They offered to give me a deal and replace the timing belt for $485.  A quick check at Autozone’s website revealed that a timing belt costs $29.99!  Yes, I’ll be doing this one on my own and keeping that leftover $455 in my pocket, thank you very much!

Thanks, Robert.

The drip irrigation installation

Here’s more info on the drip irrigation.  I’m sharing this because of a comment (this is long overdue – sorry!) from the last drip irrigation post requesting more pictures.  That reminded me that I had a terrible time finding information myself on drip irrigation.  There is an excellent guide that a neighbor told me about at Toro.  It was way too detailed and technical for me, though.  I wasn’t going to be investing in tons of equipment, filters, pressure regulators, etc.  I just wanted to hook a few tapes to a barrel and call it a day.  Well, I just set out one afternoon and hooked it all up to see if it worked.  It did!

Here’s some more pictures and detailed descriptions on how I did it:

This is the 2″ threaded PVC nipple installed in the hole near the bottom of the barrel.  It is attached with JB Weld.  Then a brass shutoff valve in installed before finally connecting the hose.

I use garden hose as my supply lines.  Using a drill bit in my cordless drill, I placed holes where I want my drip tapes.  The above blue thingy has  a barb on one end that connects to the hose and a tape lock nut on the other end to grip the tape.  The brand is Netafim and I got them from Farmtek.  Each drip take has its own shutoff valve.

Another view.  I have noticed better performance where I set the barrel to be higher than the beds.  Gotta love gravity!  Using a few cement blocks or some scrap 2×4 shims will do the trick.

We are using uniform bed sizes everywhere, measuring 30″ wide and 20′ long.  Another benefit to that decision is that the feeder lines and drip tapes can be gathered up and reused next season as long as we make the beds the same size again.

After using it for several months, there are a few things I’d like to point out.  First, the epoxy breaks very easily.  At one point, I had a shovel or hoe leaning on the barrel and I bumped it.  The tool fell right on the pipe that is sticking out of the barrel, broke the seal, and the water began leaking.  Another time, I bumped the pipe with my foot and broke the weld.  Applying a second, heavier layer of epoxy does help strengthen, but I’d be interested in researching a new idea, such as putting a nut on the inside and outside with rubber washers sandwiched in between.  That would be much stronger.  That’ll go on the list of projects for the winter.

Another concern has to do with the potatoes.  When I hilled them up, I buried the driptapes.  Shouldn’t be a problem, I speculated, since this tape is designed to be buried up to eight inches in soil in commercial applications.  Those same commercial application, however use an irrigation pump to achieve the optimum amount of water pressure in the lines.  Using my gravity based system the pressure is much lower.  The lines in the potato beds are buried under several inches of our clayey soil and are pinched.  Some of the beds don’t have water going to the ends and the potato plants are drying out.  I’m resorting to hand watering for those spots and it’s getting old.

A follow up article was posted in June 2015.

Thanks, Robert

Experimentation in Compost Tea

In Steve Solomon’s book “Gardening When it Counts” he shows a very simple recipe for compost tea.  Take a shovel of compost, throw into a bucket and then fill with water.  Stir daily and then apply to the garden after one week.

We’re giving it a go here on our homestead.

Compost tea is a great, natural fertilizer.  Ben Franklin once said “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  That applies in this case because compost tea is a superfood for plants.  Healthy plants grow strong and provide more nutritious food for us humans to eat.  Healthy plants are also better resistant to drought, insects and other problems.

This reminds me of an interesting story my boss at work told me.  The 2011 growing season was a bad one for apricots at the farm where I work.  A lot of preventative work had been done using organically certified fertilizers, fungicides and pest controls.  About the time the crop should have been ready to harvest (the trees were almost bare) my boss looked across the fence.  A neighbor had a few acres of apricots and they had been badly neglected for years.  No pruning, fertilization, or even watering was done.  Those trees were absolutely loaded with fruit!  It was as if mother nature was saying “you can’t outsmart me!”  Needless to say, we made drastic changes for the 2012 growing season.  We’re not doing anything but applying compost tea (a much more technical recipe and process to brew that what I’ve described above, however) through the foliar sprayer.  Guess what?  Now our trees are loaded with fruit!

Here’s to a successful 2012 growing season!

Thanks, Robert.

More on compost

Here’s a picture of our pile.  We’re following the layering approach to incorporate all kitchen scraps between layers of straw, soil, garden waste and aged compost or soil.

The white bucket has a tight fitting lid and sits beneath our kitchen sink.  Each time I empty it on the pile I add a layer of straw on top in an attempt to trap some of the moisture.  The fencing panels are in place to keep out the neighborhood dogs that visit during the night for a snack.

Thanks, Robert.

Escape to River Cottage… Again

Courtney and I loved the DVD’s we watched last February so much that we wanted to watch them again.  We wrote about it a year ago.  The DVD’s were from Courtney’s uncle and a number of them were scratched so we missed several episodes and parts of episodes.  This week, we’ve discovered the entire collection on on YouTube!  Each evening after things calm down, we sit and watch an episode or two.

You can watch them too if you search for the person’s profile who posted them “zodiacza1”.   Zodiacza1 even put together a sequence for each season where it will automatically load the next episode in line when you finish the previous episode.  They are high quality too.  I know we’ve all seen those YouTube videos where someone obviously used their camcorder and taped their television and the posted it on YouTube.

These videos are inspiring and we encourage everyone to check them out.

Thanks, Robert.

Here’s an update from me, Courtney.  It’s helpful to know the order that the series was aired because each series has a different name.  The first series is Escape to River Cottage and you can find the complete list here on wikipedia.

Washing Machine Troubleshooting

Oh, the things I’ll do to save a buck.  Courtney and I bought a washer/dryer combo last April from a used appliance place in the nearby town.  The prices were great, but now it is not working. And it gets better, the guys who sold me the machine won’t return my phone calls.  I’d love to go down there and let them know what  a great job they are doing, but I’m not really the confrontational type.  Instead, I’m fixing this myself and telling the world, so that we can all be independent of those unhelpful, fly-by-night sales guys with their “warranties”.

I’ve had trouble locating resources on how to fix, so I’m writing this to help others.  We have a Whirlpool Ultimate Care II, which I think was a late 1990’s model.  The problem was that we had standing water in our washing machine.  It stopped working mid-way through a cycle.  The timer ran it’s course, though and was in the off position. Pulling out the start button yielded a bunch of clicking and buzzing, so I suspected that I needed a new timer mechanism.

A local appliance parts guy was very nice and helpful and talked me though the troubleshooting.  He wanted to save me a few bucks, because the timer was a $75 part.  That is nearly what I have in to this machine, by the way.  I think we only paid $260 for the washer-dryer pair.

Steps in troubleshooting the timer:

1. Verify that the pump isn’t jammed.  To do this, pull the drain hose out of the wall and lower it into a bucket.  If water flows freely into the bucket, then the pump is likely working and not jammed/frozen.

2. Inspect the wiring harnesses to be sure a mouse didn’t chew through wires, or that something wasn’t exposed to vibrations, wearing through a wire to cause an electrical short.

3. Verify proper operation of the lid latch button.  This is the button that the lid presses on to let the washing machine know that the lid is closed.  It should stop operating while the lid is open.  There is a pretty complex way of removing the outer sheet metal to inspect/replace this button.  I bypassed this step because we found our washer with the timer in the Off position.  That tells me that the timer kept going after the problem occurred.  If the lid latch was sending an open (meaning, stop) signal, the timer should have stopped in mid-cycle too.

In the end, I found a timer on eBay for $39 delivered.  It arrived in three days. I was so proud of myself.  I slapped that new timer in and … nothing!  I was wrong.  The timer did sound better than the old one, but the machine still didn’t work.

Frustrated, I turned the machine upside down again.  It was at this point that I decided to take the hoses off of the water pump and stick my fingers inside.  I wanted to verify that the impeller was spinning freely.  I imagined that water would still flow through the pump if it was frozen, so I could have gotten a false-positive on troubleshooting step one.  Much to my surprise, I felt something different, and pulled it out.  It was a tiny little pink sock to fit our four month old bundle of joy.  I put everything back together and the machine has worked just fine for several laundry loads now.

I should now add something to troubleshooting step one: water should come rushing out, rather than trickling out.  I was filling the bucket at a rate of one gallon per minute, and it should have been more like three gallons in thirty seconds.

Yes, I’m officially an appliance repair guy educated in the school of hard knocks.  Does anyone need washing machine timer P/N 3953553?  I’ll make you a deal!

Thanks, Robert.

Make your own furniture

That’s right.  Evenings and weekends lately have been spent in the garage building furniture.  No, I’m not making show-piece quality items, but rather a kids table and benches and also a step stool for kids to wash their hands.

It was back to my favorite pile of free used lumber. This is the spot advertised on Craigslist where I found the wood to build my Apple Grinder and Cider Press earlier this year.  I pulled out as many 2×4’s at least three feet long as I could find.  After spending two afternoons pulling nails out of these suckers, I thought for a moment.  Are these really free if I had to spend so much time prepping the wood and pulling nails?  After counting up the hours and assigning an arbitrary $20 per hour to my time, I found that each eight foot length of 2×4 would carry a value of $2.00.  I know that they cost more than that at Home Depot, so yes, this was worth while.  What a relief!

Our two year old loves to “help” me in the garage and that is half the fun.  He picks up the screws and nails and reallocates them to wherever he sees fit.  Sometimes he has a different plan, such as carrying the nails around in his tow truck. And then I get to play “go find them”.  Its great fun.

And here is the finished product.

Did you know that at most hardware stores with a paint section they sell gallons of paint at dramatically reduced prices?  Once in a while, the person mixing the paint pigments will make a mistake that can’t be reversed.  They have to discard the can and start over.  Those cans collect on a shelf somewhere and are relabeled.  A can that normally may sell for $26 will now be $8.  And if you’re lucky, the desk will be staffed with a young art student that would love to help you change the tint slightly to something you desire.  That is what Courtney did here, and ended up with the exact color she wanted.

Thanks, Robert.

Cider press update

I had quite a bit of time to work on my apple grinder and cider press this past week.  The press frame is all put together now.

That press frame required lots of sawing, for someone without an electric saw.  I do have a Black and Decker scroll saw, pictured here in my post about mechanical tools.  But that blade won’t cut the notches required to piece this frame together.  I guessed I put about three or more hours into cutting out the notches, as pictured below.

I used that hand saw to make 1/4″ deep cuts at 1/2″ intervals and then chiseled out the pieces.  Then I used a rasp to smooth everything out.  The 2×4 uprights had notches on both sides where the 2×6’s are mounted.  There are also notches in the center 2×6’s where the press shaft goes through.  And can you believe I passed on a Dewalt circular saw at a garage sale for $12 a few weeks ago?  I’m kicking myself for that one.  The bottom plate was slightly bent, but it would have been fine for a job like this.

Thanks, Robert.

Other Apple Grinder/Cider Press Posts:

Project Introduction

Cutting a Keyway

Completion

Being Bold: Apple Collecting

Inaugural Cider Batch

Apple Cider Vinegar (future post)

Hard Cider (future post)