Category Archives: House repair

Workshop Catch-22


Where did all of the home workshops go? It used to be that every home had a little woodworking shop for fixing a broken chair or building a cradle. Not anymore. I assumed the reason was modern technology and Walmart made them obsolete. After trying to set up a workshop myself, I now know the real reason: It is impossible!

It isn’t easy finding space for a workshop. The garage and the basement are the usual candidates but I don’t have either one. My ever-loving wife, “Woody” (not her real name), didn’t seem to catch the vision when I proposed using the guest room for my woodworking even though I assured her I would close the door to keep the dust out of the rest of the house. It’s not like we use that room on a daily basis but the idea went over like a lead balloon. She proposed using the storage room. So we compromised and I’m using the storage room. Continue reading Workshop Catch-22

Thermostat in the cloud


With my ever-loving wife, “Charlotte” (not her real name), on sabbatical, it has become an increasing challenge to maintain a comfortable, yet energy efficient temperature in the house amid her comings and goings and various sabbatications.

BAYweb has a convenient and powerful way to control the temperature using a web browser from anywhere in the world. You log on to their website ( to see the current temperature in the house and adjust it as needed. The service is free but you have to buy and install their control module and thermostat. In our case, the cost of the hardware was offset in less than a year with reduced energy costs by adjusting the temp when we weren’t home.

Of course you can manually set back your old-fashioned thermostat before you leave on vacation and reset it when you return but the BAYweb system has these advantages:

  1. If you forgot to set back the thermostat before you ran out the door for your vacation you can do it from your motel or even your smartphone at the rest area.
  2. A few hours before you return from vacation you can turn the temp back to normal and the house will be comfortable when you walk in the door.
  3. You can monitor the temperature while you are away. One guy was away during the winter and noticed that his house was getting too cold and got the heating repair company to fix his furnace before the pipes froze.
  4. You can view charts and reports of energy usage and temperatures.

Our house has separate systems for upstairs and downstairs so I bought two pairs of thermostats and control modules. The basic idea is to replace your current wall thermostat with the new one and splice the control module into the wire that runs between the thermostat and the air handler. (The air handler is the unit in your attic or basement that blows the heated or cooled air. See “The return should suck more.” The heat pump or air conditioner compressor is the noisy unit outside.)

A few years ago I had installed this system at another house and put the control modules in the attic next to the air handlers. Continue reading Thermostat in the cloud

Downsizing–a moving experience

SkillLevel2Nothing puts downsizing more squarely in your face than moving to new digs. The new place might not even be smaller but the thought of moving all of your stuff (which is a pretty apt word because that is often what you do with it) from here to there is overwhelming.  It is easy to identify the procrastinators because they are the ones who have a garage sale after they move.

My mother was moving from an 1100 sq. ft. condo to an 1100 sq. ft. apartment so you wouldn’t think she would need to downsize. But the condo had an 1100 sq. ft. basement while the apartment had only a 50 sq. ft. storage room and that is where the math broke down. (Other things broke down too but let’s not go there.)

I paid Mom (her real name) a visit to see if I could help her put the 10 lbs. of potatoes in the 5 lbs. bag. My ever-loving wife, “Amelia” (not her real name), was not available to help because she is on sabbatical and she was off doing whatever sabbaticants do on their sabbatications, which seems to include a lot of travelling to faraway places at times that always seemed to excuse her from less desirable obligations. Coincidence? I’m just saying.

Mom’s new apartment was on Waldo Street, which was just off a road that was under major construction and lined with orange cones and barriers of various kinds alongside huge drop-offs. If you got distracted while driving you were likely to be featured on You Tube  in one of those “fail” videos within an hour of burying your car nose down in a gravel pit with the taillights pointed toward Jupiter. The construction made it hard to find the turnoff for Waldo Street and the newcomers would be driving around asking, “Where’s Waldo?” The locals thought that was hilarious.

When you are downsizing for a move it helps to have a lot of relatives because you can designate pieces of furniture that won’t fit in the new place as “family heirlooms” and prevail upon the relatives to “keep them in the family,” which sounds a lot nicer than “Go lug that old dresser up from the basement and take it to your house so I don’t have to move it.”

Even after “heirlooming” a bunch of stuff, the furniture still didn’t fit in the new den. Mom wanted a 5′ desk in the middle of an 8′ room so people walking by would see the gold eagle on the front of it. Putting it in the middle didn’t leave much room to walk around the ends, especially with all of the non-“heirloomed” file cabinets, chests, tables, chairs, etc. My sister, my brother-in-law, and I tried to come up with solutions. The most promising idea was to pull the eagle off the desk, put the desk against the wall and stand the eagle on top of it but we wisely surmised that Mom would not be amused.

The Eagle has landed!
The Eagle has landed!

All those hours of playing Tetris helped us fit the corner of desk “A” into the gap between chest “B” and cabinet “C” and we proclaimed, “The eagle has landed!” Mom didn’t even have to crawl under the desk to get to the chair on the other side, which was a huge relief to all parties present and saved me from having to make the ethical decision whether to post a photo of her doing so (for its educational value, of course).

The shoe cabinet was too tall to fit under the clothes rod in the closet.
The shoe cabinet was too tall to fit under the clothes rod in the closet.

The shoe shelf cabinet thingy Mom built several years ago was about 6″ too tall to fit in the bedroom closet under the clothes rod so we needed to downsize it. The question was how to do it.

In this case it was easier to cut down the top section rather than cut off the bottom (losing one or two shelves) and make new legs.

I removed the little door on the top section and the cabinet top itself and pulled out my circular saw from my car trunk. (Surely, I’m not the only one who drives around with a circular saw for just such emergencies. And stop calling me Shirley.)

Cabinet on its side for cutting. Note the pink cloth to prevent scratches from the saw.
Cabinet on its side for cutting. Note the pink cloth to prevent scratches from the saw.

After removing the top portion of the Masonite on the back of the cabinet, I laid the cabinet down on one side so I could cut off about 6″ from the other side. To protect the cabinet side from getting scratched by the saw plate, I put a piece of pink cloth under the saw plate. Normally I’m not a pink kind of guy but that was what was available. I don’t know for sure if the cloth has to be pink to prevent the scratches but it worked and I would advise you to do likewise just in case.

When both sides were cut, I screwed the top on and then measured and cut the Masonite for the back and screwed it on.

The downsized shoe cabinet with the little cupboard converted to another shoe shelf.
The downsized shoe cabinet with the little cupboard converted to another shoe shelf.

The downsized cabinet fit snugly in the closet. More snugly than I had expected because I had taken an extra inch off. It turns out that I had forgotten to allow for the thickness of the top when I was measuring the sides. See how reading about my blunders let’s you avoid similar mistakes?

Moving might cause you to downsize the number of pieces of furniture you have. It might also cause you to downsize the furniture itself. It might also cause you to have that garage sale you’ve been putting off.

When Amelia gets back from all of her travels we might need to discuss whether her sabbatications require any downsizing to avoid conflicts with fun activities like moving the in-laws.


How to install a kitchen floor and stay married

[Editor’s note: The following is a guest post by my daughter, Grace Pardun Alworth (her real name). She and her husband, Jim (also his real name) have been faithful readers of Gary’s Fix since the beginning. Any good ideas you read in this post probably came from Gary’s Fix articles. The rest of it, not so much.]

The hubster and I looked at the ugly floor in our hip, new farmhouse-inspired kitchen and said, “Ew. We should rip this out!” fairly regularly for about a year.  Then we finally ripped it out. Then we said, “Ew. We should finish this floor!” fairly regularly for an additional year.

Finally, on our 8th anniversary, we went to Big Bob’s Flooring (yes, this is a real place), and talked to Ryan (I was disappointed it wasn’t Big Bob himself.  In fact, Ryan was quite petite.)  He advised us to hire a professional to install a sheet of fancy vinyl. He proceeded to tell us about the horrors of peel-and-stick tiles and the mishaps naïve and motivated new homeowners like ourselves combatted. Ryan (not Big Bob) suggested that not only would the warranty protect the flooring, it would even protect our marriage.

“That’s a fairly compelling sales pitch you have there, Not Big Bob,” I conceded.  “Let’s run the numbers.”  Not Big Bob ran the numbers, and, well, let’s just say the hubster and I decided to continue our search.

Our quest took us to a big box store, where we found peel-and-stick black and white vinyl tiles for 67 cents a square foot.  The warranty only covers the tiles, but the hubster and I agreed, “We’ll take our chances.”

We are not professionals, but we did read the instructions on the box, which basically qualifies us to be professionals.

Our previous kitchen flooring was actually a half an inch of 60 years-worth of flooring on top of a hardwood subfloor.  The top layer was a sheet of linoleum that, even against Not Big Bob’s advice, was probably installed by naïve and motivated young homeowners.  If the Continue reading How to install a kitchen floor and stay married

At your disposal

SkillLevel2When my ever-loving wife, “Contessa” (not her real name) yelled, “It’s all wet under the sink!”, my finely honed senses from many years of wedded bliss detected that the tone of her voice meant something other than, “Oh, I’ve been waiting such a long time and I’m so glad it finally got wet under the sink.”

We’ve had a variety of problems with disposals. Sometimes they won’t turn on. Sometimes they make that awful crunching-rock sound. Sometimes they plug up and the water won’t drain out of the sink. Sometimes they sound like a truck up against a brick wall with the gas pedal floored.

This time it was a wet sink cabinet floor, which as we all know is where you keep the dishwasher soap so it stays dry. Contessa was not amused.

Water was dripping out of the bottom of the disposal in a pretty steady stream. (Check the video below.)

I decided to check the selection of new disposals on line. Big mistake. There must have been hundreds of different brands and sizes. Apparently, the garbage disposal business is pretty lucrative and everybody and his brother make and sell them. Most houses have a disposal and the typical warranty is 1 – 2 years! You can do the math. (If you are looking for a new business opportunity, you heard it here first.)

So I went to the local Big Box store, which narrowed the field down to about eight choices and picked a medium quality disposal (with a whopping 3-year warranty!) that was fairly quiet. We don’t run a disposal often enough that noise is an issue but it is usually a good indicator of quality and durability. Many reviews ragged on disposals with plastic cases because they crack so I made sure this one had a metal case.

What’s nice about replacing a disposal as opposed to adding one for the first time is you don’t have to install the special collar in the sink drain that supports the disposal. You can just leave the old one there and hook on the new disposal. That saved me a lot of time.

The dishwasher drains into the disposal for two reasons. Dirty dishes can have chunks of food on them that get flushed out the dishwasher drain and you want to be able to grind them up so they don’t clog the sink drain. The other reason is that dishwasher water is hot and soapy and helps to clean the disposal and reduce odors. Wash your dishes; wash your disposal. It’s a two-fer.

Drain hose from dishwasher has a low spot instead of a high loop
Drain hose from dishwasher has a low spot instead of a high loop

After I cleaned out the soggy mess under the sink I saw problem #2. Continue reading At your disposal

A sailboat Lizzy can stand on


An article in Fine Homebuilding magazine showed hardwood floors with fancy wood inlays in contrasting colors. Some were borders or outlines. Some were geometric shapes, like a compass pointing in eight directions, which are fine as far as they go, but so traditional and easy-peasy. (Notice how I said that with a straight face even though we both know it isn’t remotely true?)

At the top of the newly-hardwood stairs at our beach house (see “Carpet out; stair retreads in“), the landing was pleading for a wood medallion and a plain-Jane geometric shape wasn’t going to cut it. Clearly it needed to be a sailboat. My ever-loving wife, “Lizzy” (not her real name) said I should go for it. Lizzy doesn’t seem to have the “Danger, Will Robinson!” gene–at least not if I’m the one taking the risk.

The basic technique for creating a wood inlay of irregular shape is to make the inlay itself and then cut a hole in the floor exactly the same size and shape as the inlay and then glue or nail it in the hole. The operative word being “exactly.”

I had already installed the new white oak stair treads and the floor of the landing was also going to be a light oak so the inlay needed to be dark wood. I sorted through all of the scraps of tigerwood leftover from the adjacent bedroom floor to find pieces that looked like waves against a sailboat hull and pieces that looked like a mast with sails and then glued them together in the general shape of a sailboat. Transforming pieces of wood into a picture of a sailboat put me squarely in artsy right-brain territory, which is terra incognita for a very left-brained math-major kind of guy like me.

Since I was going to use a router to cut the outline in the floor, I avoided making any sharp points or corners on the sailboat because the router bushing wouldn’t be able to follow anything pointy. After sketching a curvy sailboat on the tigerwood pieces, I cut it out with a jigsaw and then sanded the edges to get rid of any uneven spots.

If you were to plop the sailboat medallion on the floor and run the router around it you would have a hole in the floor that was the right shape but way too big because the bushing and router bit are outside the sailboat.

imagesSo before I nailed down the oak boards on the landing, I made a template out of a scrap piece of Masonite by tacking it to the back side of the sailboat and then flipping it over and running the router around the edge of the sailboat to cut out a sailboat-shaped hole in the Masonite. Even though the hole was bigger than the sailboat, I was going to fasten the template to the floor and run the router around the inside of the template with a larger bushing to compensate.

Here is a set of different size bushings that twist-lock into the router base.

For the mathematically curious, the radius of the second bushing has to be bigger by the size of the router bit. For example, if the diameter of the first bushing is 1/2″, which is a radius of 1/4″, and the router bit is 5/16″ then the second bushing needs to have a radius of 1/4″ + 5/16″ = 9/16″, which is a diameter of 1 1/8″. (My high school math teacher and summertime carpenter, Mr. Gunderson, would be so proud.)

By making the template before nailing the oak flooring on the landing, I saved my router from hitting any nails. Here’s how.

Spray paint template opening onto subfloor
Spray paint template opening on subfloor

I positioned the template on the subfloor of the landing and spray painted the subfloor through the template. This way when I was nailing down the oak flooring I would know where the sailboat was going to go and be sure not to put any nails in that area. I measured the distance from the template to the walls so that I could reposition it after the oak flooring was nailed down.

Template pinned to new oak flooring
Template pinned to new oak flooring

The pin nailer I had used on the stair treads came in handy to temporarily fasten the template to the oak flooring without leaving visible nail holes. The moment of truth had arrived. Breathe in. Breath out. I plunged the router into the middle of the template hole and headed for the edge and hoped the bushing would follow the template and, more importantly, that I had done the calculations correctly. (I could always blame Mr. Gunderson if they weren’t.)

Routing and vacuuming make a nice clean edge.
Routing and vacuuming make a nice clean edge.

When I did a test fit of the sailboat some of the sides fit in and some didn’t but they were off by less than 1/8″ so I breathed a sigh of relief that my numbers were right and it was just a matter of trimming. A second and third pass of the router around the template did the trick and the sailboat fit like a glove.

Strings placed across opening before a test fit make it easy to pull the medallion out.
Strings placed across opening before a test fit make it easy to pull the medallion out.

For my test fittings, I put strings across the opening in the flooring so that I would be able to get the medallion back out by pulling on the strings.

When I had a perfect fit I pulled the sailboat out of the hole with the strings one last time and then glued it in permanently with Liquid Nails.

Some people are prone to seasickness. Some people, like by ever-loving wife, are well past “prone.” Dizzy Lizzy got seasick at a boat show that was indoors in a big arena! Sometimes just stepping on a sailboat will make her a little queasy, but so far she hasn’t had that problem stepping on the sailboat medallion at the top of the stairs.

Fortunately the bathroom is close by if the worst should happen.


Carpet out; stair retreads in


Remember when wall-to-wall carpeting was all the rage? For my ever-loving wife, “Treddie” (not her real name), that sentence needs to be reversed. Treddie rages at any and all carpeting. “See that carpet in the bedroom? It’s gotta go.” She still hasn’t gotten over the time we lived in a house with a carpeted kitchen. It had two layers of carpet, by the way, which is to say upwards of ¾” of food/dirt/goo-trapping yarn. It takes a strong stomach to cook in a room like that. We replaced the layers of carpet with engineered hardwood.

Builders like carpet because it covers a multitude of sins. When you rip it up to replace it you will bring their sins to light: sloppy joints, wavy subfloors, and loose nails and screws. So before putting down the new flooring you need to rehabilitate that sinful subfloor to make it fit for society by hammering down the nails, screwing the loose screws, chiseling and planing the high spots, and filling big depressions.

The upstairs bedroom and sitting room in our beach house was carpeted (for the first year or so) but Treddie said it should go and it did. We put down ¾” tigerwood, which is very hard and heavy and interesting to look at with all of its swirls and color variations.

carpeted stairsThe only place that was still carpeted was the stairway and Treddie had an opinion or two about the desirability of carpeted steps. Let’s just say she made it clear that it was the last barrier to eradicating the house of its carpet infestation.

Replacing the carpet on steps with hardwood is not quite as straightforward as replacing the carpet of, say, a bedroom floor. Much of the challenge is dealing with the difference in thickness. Continue reading Carpet out; stair retreads in

How to keep pipes from freezing


If a cold snap made your water pipe snap you have a few options on how to prevent it in the future. (The only way to prevent it from happening in the past is to use time travel and that is beyond the scope of this article.)

Outdoor faucets are prone to freezing because they are full of water and exposed to the cold air. The pipe to which the faucet is connected is also at risk for bursting for the same reasons. One approach is to have a dedicated shutoff valve inside the house that will turn off the water to the whole pipe feeding the faucet. When winter approaches, turn off the water using the shutoff valve and then open the faucet to drain the water out of the pipe. Leave the faucet open so that any water that didn’t drain out will have room to expand if it freezes. If there is a lot of water left in the pipe because it has low spots or sections that run uphill on the way to the faucet the pipe could still burst.

If the pipe enters a warm part of the house within a couple of feet of the faucet you can replace the faucet and the last portion of the pipe with a “frost-proof” or “freeze-resistant” faucet. These devices have a long rod between the faucet handle and the valve that stops the water.

When you turn off the water using the faucet handle you are actually turning a valve about a foot or so inside the pipe, which is in the warm area of the house. The pipe should be sloped toward the outside of the house so that any remaining water drains out. With this type of faucet the potentially cold part of the pipe is always empty. Replacing a standard outdoor faucet with a freeze-resistant faucet requires about SkillLevel3


Insulating a water pipe with foam insulation

doesn’t do very much when it gets icy cold because it has an R-value of something like 2. Pipe insulation will slow down the freezing process but won’t stop it.

If more than a foot or so of the water pipe is exposed to the cold air your best bet is to wrap it with heat tape.

The heat tape is plugged into an electric outlet and has a thermostat that turns on the electricity to heat the pipe when the outside temperature drops to about 38 degrees  or lower. It uses very little power. The water pipe can be metal (copper or galvanized steel) or plastic (CPVC, PEX, etc.).

I wrapped heat tape in a spiral around some PEX pipe that was exposed to the outside air.

heat tape around pipe heat tape with insulation heat tape insulatedThen I sealed the pipe with foam insulation to keep the heat next to the pipe when the thermostat turns on the heating wires.

A short extension cord connects the heat tape to the nearest outlet. After it is plugged in you can forget about it because it is totally automatic and will come on only when needed to keep your pipe from freezing.

Living in coastal South Carolina you would think that I have no reason to know any of this information but thanks to the Polar Vortex our water pipe burst last winter. (See “Polar vortex burst my PEX.”) Now I’m ready for Polar Vortex II. Alternatively, I would welcome any suggestions for constructing the time machine.




Get half-corked (and why grandma would approve)


I’m really not a hoarder like the people you see on TV, but whenever you buy something that says “some assembly required” it often includes a variety of parts for various situations. I save all of the leftover pieces. My ever-loving wife, “Rosé” (not her real name), rolls her eyes when I do this but those oddball parts have come in handy bunches of times. The trick is to remember what I’ve got and where I put them.

My grandmother always said, “Use it up. Wear it out. Make it do. Or do without.” She wouldn’t throw anything away. She even kept empty Kleenex boxes. “They might be useful someday, you know.”

So, genetically, I can’t throw things away and therefore I can’t be held responsible the accumulation of mystery parts. For example, I have accumulated quite a collection of wine bottle corks that needs to be put to good use. Real corks can be recycled but most corks are synthetic these days. The concrete floor in the workshop is a little hard on the knees so I decided to turn the corks into a floor mat.

Whole corks are too thick for a mat so I cut them in half the long way so the flat side could face the floor and the curved side would face up. I first tried using a handsaw to cut them but they are too hard to hold still because they are small and curvy. Taking a cue from Tim “The Toolman” Taylor, I needed more power and I happened to have a miter saw sitting right there. Continue reading Get half-corked (and why grandma would approve)

The glass (tile) is half full


My ever-loving wife, “Crystal” (not her real name), likes glass for showers. What kind of doors should the shower have? Glass. What should we use for the walls. Glass tiles. And the floor? More glass tiles. What should we use for the shampoo bottles? Glass shelves.

Glass tiles come in a wide variety of colors and they are often made from the bottles you faithfully recycle.

Glass tile backsplash
Glass tile kitchen backsplash

Crystal and I had used glass tiles for a kitchen backsplash a few years ago and were pleased with how it looked. But those tiles came with paper sheets on the front of the tiles, which was a royal pain because we couldn’t see what the individual tiles were doing as we pressed the sheets to the wall. Then we had to soak the sheets with a sponge to peal them off the tiles after the mortar had set. Of course the glue and paper bits didn’t always come off easily. Did I mention it was a pain?

If we were going to use glass tiles in the shower they weren’t going to have paper on the front. That much was certain.

Little glass tiles don’t want to be cut

It doesn’t matter what size tiles you use, you will have to cut some of them. Whole tiles never fit perfectly in the space. The advantage of small tiles is that they will conform to curves better such as the floor of a shower.

Little glass tiles have two important characteristics. Continue reading The glass (tile) is half full