Category Archives: DIY

Do-it-yourself

Mending knee holes with sashiko

I love repairing things. For several years I’ve hoped to take up sewing to extend my fixing skills to clothing. Sheltering-in-place during COVID-19 has provided opportunities to try my hand at mending ripped knees in my family members’ pants. It feels good to sit in peace and make something whole again. Apparently I’m part of a trend, with mending and in particular visible mending gaining in popularity.

I asked my friend Cassie where to start in mending holes in knees and she pointed me to the book Mending Life, which had steps that were thorough, clear, and seemed doable – with handy illustrations (pp. 96-103). So I took a shot at it. So far I’m 3 of 3! None are perfect but all three exceeded my expectations. Below are photos.

Specifically, I have been trying to emulate sashiko, a Japanese decorative reinforcement stitching technique. I sewed the first patch with a piece of thick thread I found in my sewing box. The next two I did with proper sashiko needles and thread I ordered online. (As with most of my things, if you live near me and want to borrow them, just ask).

I chose contrasting thread and patches to emphasize the repair jobs. I’m proud of my work, it normalizes repair and reuse, and frankly I think the unique & visible mends leave the clothing looking better than it did new.

Sashiko patch #1: women’s jeans

The ripped fabric at the knee was exploding outwards. It was begging to be patched with the “exposed edge technique” (Mending Life), with an interesting pattern poking through.

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Compost bin with open lid

Building a compost bin out of pallets

The project: My mother-in-law had long expressed interest in composting her food scraps, but didn’t care for the plastic bins available for purchase. I’d been interested in building such a bin by reusing salvaged lumber, mostly discarded wood pallets. This presented a fun challenge: construct a compost bin that satisfied her aesthetic requirements and followed my principles of reuse.

It turned out well: it’s attractive (in a rustic way) and functional, though took longer to build than I expected. Breaking down pallets was a big chunk of that time overage: they were free in monetary cost but not in the time they took to process.

After weathering its first winter

Design: I built it probably a little too big, 32″ L x 30″ W x 29″ H. Compost bins have to solve for the problem of emptying the finished compost (after a year or so) while leaving in place any recently-discarded food. In bins like this, which will be emptied via a not-yet-installed door in the bottom of the side (see below), that separation is achieved by the depth of the pile. The bottom of the pile, with older finished compost, is no longer turned, while the fresher, unfinished material rests on top. In a narrower bin, the walls support layers of material such that the top layers can be left in place while the bottom is scraped out. This bin may be too big to neatly do that. Perhaps the over-sizing just means it can go a few years between emptying.

The slender buckthorn log on top was a last-second addition. It supports the lid in its open position so that the hinges don’t bear the door’s full weight. This bin is lovely and robust, but maybe overly complicated for task of turning food scraps into soil. The next bin I build may be much simpler, left unfinished and entirely open to the air with no lid to exclude animals.

The lid is resting on the buckthorn branch

Materials: In addition to many mismatching pallets, I used scrap 2x4s and plywood, plus fasteners and hinges I had lying around. To preserve the wood somewhat, while keeping it food-safe, I treated the wood with mineral oil and some stale cooking oils.

Breaking down the pallets into boards was a learning experience. I found that filleting them with a Sawzall was fastest. Expect to shed bits of nails wherever you work and choose a workspace accordingly. I also should have set a higher bar for the quality of pallets that I scavenged, as I wasted time freeing some boards that were unusable.

Breaking down pallets with a Sawzall

Build: the construction was straight-forward. I screwed together 2x4s to make the posts, cut and installed the pallet boards to make the sides, framed out the top and the lid, installed the lid. Remember to leave a gap at the back of the lid panel so that the edge can rotate up when the lid is opened.

The irregularly-cut 2x4s framing the top are cross-pieces from the pallets

Installation: I used a post-hole digger to install the bin, sinking the posts in place. After a few weeks of use, it appeared that an animal had accessed the bin by tunneling a small hole in the dirt under one wall. So I dug a 10″ trench around the perimeter and inserted sheets of metal hardware cloth in the trench, fastening it to the posts that were sunk in the ground. That was it for animals; the lid is too heavy for a raccoon and there are no bears here.

What’s next: Still left to do is installing a door in the bottom of one side. Then, in a year when the bottom layer of compost is ready to be emptied, I’ll scrape out the finished compost through that door. I plan to secure the bottom few boards to each other with wood strips, then unscrew their ends from the posts they’re attached to, and install hinges so that those boards can swing up together. (And add a latch to secure the door).

To spread out the time required by this project, I didn’t build the emptying door before putting the bin into use. Aside from having to work with compost-covered boards, we’ll see if I’ve failed to consider any mechanical problems introduced by postponing this feature.

I reserved some extra pallet slats, assuming that some wood will decay with time/ I should be able to swap in new pieces as needed to keep the project going. I’d be pleased with a lifespan of 20 years for this bin, after which it too can become compost. Planning the eventual obsolescence of a project is new for me; perhaps I’m thinking more timefully.

Drilling through a broken zipper slider and adding a paperclip pull

The slider on my zipper – in this case, on a waterproof bag for holding soiled cloth diapers – broke such that the top of the bridge separated from the slider body. I tried to glue it to no avail.

Two tailors told me they’d need to replace the entire 16″ run of zipper and quoted me $25 and $26. I could get a new bag for that much. So I took a shot at repairing it.

I drilled through the side of the slider bridge, using a 1/16″ bit. I first used a hammer & nail to make a tiny indentation so the bit wouldn’t walk. If the hole is even a little off-center, it will leave a thin border prone to breaking.

I drilled that hole. Like usual, I forgot to take a “before” picture. It looked like any zipper.

Then I stripped a spare piece of 22 AWG wire I had lying around, bending the copper into a loop. Kind of pretty, I think!

It took just a few minutes and seems to slide well. We’ll see how it holds up.

UPDATE May 2020: the twisted wire was impractical and failed quickly. It has been replaced by a paperclip, which is working much better. The clip falls off in the washing machine, which might pose a risk to the machine. I now remove it before tossing the bag into the wash and reattach afterward. Overall the bag now works as well as new!

An Excel grocery checklist template

Being in an unfamiliar setting can lead to epiphanies, big and small. Travel is great for this. For instance, I first learned about cargo bikes when I saw one in Brooklyn on a work trip.

In 2012 I stayed in an apartment that had a physical grocery list hung on the kitchen wall. It listed common items – apples, eggs, etc. – and had arrows you could flip to note that you needed something.

I liked the idea. It solves the tricky problem of trying to see in your fridge the things that aren’t there, providing a checklist instead. But you can’t take it with you to cross things off and it’s hard to modify the items as your needs change over time.

So I made an Excel version of this checklist, organized by section of the store and with space to write in custom items. I’ve tweaked it over the years and it’s worked great.

In the spirit of knowledge sharing, I’ve posted it for others to download and adapt. It’s not “open-source” because it’s a Microsoft Excel file. But I share it in that spirit. It should be accessible to regular people who want to make a customized grocery list. I hope someone else can benefit from the time I spent tweaking the formatting!

(don’t judge me for the list contents, everyone is different)

Watch repair: metal spring bar tore a channel in a Casio G-Shock end piece

For Hanukkah 2008, I received a new watch from my wife. (I don’t remember the watch before that). It was particularly magical in my job as a high school teacher. After the first bell of the day rang, it was 4 minutes to the start of school, then 46 minutes per period alternating with a 4-minute passing period. Like clockwork, so to speak.

The watch had a auto-repeating countdown timer that I set for 50 minutes and would almost always successfully synchronize with the day’s first bell. That would mean that at any point during the day I could look down and see precisely how many seconds were left in a class or passing period. I could walk the hallways and announce “27 seconds!” or count down “5-4-3-2-1” and then the bell would ring, with me the only person in the school who had that level of precision. There’s probably something there for another post but I digress.

After years of daily wear and companionship, I received a smartwatch as a gift and stopped wearing the digital watch. Then I went from a FitBit to a Basis and then a Garmin. At one point I realized I’d fallen into a consumerism trap and sought to go back. The notifications were disruptive and the data I was generating was useless to me but creepy in the hands of Big Tech. I tried to go back to the Casio, but it had a problem. (Remember the torn-out spring bar? This post is about the torn-out spring bar).

Each strap is attached to the end piece / bezel by a spring bar. In the course of replacing a broken band and with wear and tear over time, the spring bar on one strap carved a channel from the hole it sits in. With slight force, the strap would pull the pin out through the channel and detach from the bezel. (If this post wasn’t an afterthought I’d have a “before” picture). This person appears to have the same problem, though they too did not post a picture.

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Measuring CO2 accumulation during phone meetings

I am part of the remote co-working community Workantile, in downtown Ann Arbor.  We have small private rooms for taking conference calls and I often find them stuffy and notice I’m tired by the end of a meeting.  I’d read that excessive CO2 build-up in meetings can impair cognitive function.  Was that the case, or was I just bored from the meetings?

I borrowed an Indoor Air Quality Meter from my amazing local library (by Sper Scientific, normally $400, for me, $0) and went to find out.

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Installing a top of stairs baby gate without drilling into wood trim or banister post

The challenge: in an old house with nice woodwork, mount a baby gate at the top of the stairs such that it’s secure – without damaging the wood.

baby gate at top of stairs
The final product

This was a fun project.  Got some ideas from YouTube videos (a learning format I usually dislike) and improvised a little.  This is built from scrap parts I had on hand, plus a baby gate I had installed at our previous home.

The uneven surfaces presented by the trim on both sides pose the creative challenge.

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Configuring Enphase Envoy for wifi without ethernet cord

This is a how-to for connecting your Enphase Envoy (the oval one with the LCD screen) to connect to a home Wi-Fi network, without using an ethernet cable or the Enphase Installer Toolkit app.

Enphase’s how-to guides give you about 80% of the information you need to do this, below are notes on things I figured out to fill in the other 20%.  Their guidance is geared toward installers, while this post is for homeowners who want to connect their Envoy to the home Wi-Fi network and don’t have a WPS button on their router or need to use another option.

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DIY Hops Trellis

I started growing hops at my parents’ home in Chicago in 2008.  In the summer of 2011 we moved them to Michigan and I built this trellis:

hops trellis
Hops grow from the frames on the right up the lines to the tree on the left

Now that it’s time for the trellis to find a new home, I’m writing up my design for posterity.  Notable aspects include that it can be harvested without ascending a ladder and that the top is mounted on a tree.

Each of the three hop plants (Cascade, Mt. Hood, Centennial) has its own starting frame.  It runs up the yellow chain for 5 feet, then starts climbing a line up into the trees:

closeup of wood hops frame
Overgrown vegetation shows I’ve lost interest

The frames are a 5 foot tall 4″ x 4″ vertical post with a short 2″ x 4″ crossbar at the bottom and a longer one at the top.  The ends of the bottom and top crossbars are connected by chains, allowing the hops to spread laterally as they grow out and up to the top crossbar.  The chains are attached to metal eyelets at the top and hammered in with large galvanized staples at the bottom:

wood frame with chain for hops

From the eyelets on the top crossbar, six synthetic rope lines (two from each base frame) run up to a steel ring hoisted in a tree, where they clip on with carabiners:

rope clipped onto the ring

A pulley wheel is tied around a fork in the tree, and the ring is on a long synthetic line that runs through this pulley wheel.  At harvesting time, the ring can be lowered from the ground, using the pulley, and the carabiners unclipped for transporting the bines to a picking area.  Then the carabiners are reattached and the lines are raised again, all without use of a ladder.

The good and the bad

With 7 years of experience, I can comment on how the design worked.

The good:

  • Ease of raising and lowering: not having to climb a ladder is great.
  • Longevity: the entire system has held up well, including the synthetic lines, which I never took in for the winter.  I don’t think jute or a similar natural twine would have lasted.  One wood staple came out from a frame, which is an easy fix.

The bad:

  • Shallow climbing angle.  I should have mounted the ring higher in a tree, kept the lines tighter, or planted the hops closer to the tree.  As it was, the bottom of the climbing lines flattened out under the weight of the plant and the hops needed some help to grow in the right direction.  Manual training of hop plants is not uncommon, but I think a steeper climb would have avoided this.
  • Mowing around the trellises was tricky, both around the bases and under the lines.  This  meant grass and other unwanted vegetation encroached on the hops.
  • I was afraid I’d get tangled in the lines while sledding in my yard; this never happened, but could have.
Separate from my particular growing setup: I lost interest in growing hops.  I’ve stopped training or harvesting them.  A fresh hop beer is fun to make, but not worth (to me) the hassle of training and maintaining the bines.  And trying to preserve and package hops for use throughout the year is tedious.  They won’t stay good as long as professionally-packed hops from the store (I know: in one season before I had kids, I spent hours and hours  drying my hops and turning them into plugs).  Once the charm of growing them wore off, it made no sense to spend my time on growing instead of buying pounds in bulk.

Improvising an AC/DC wall wart adapter

Yesterday I had a nice maker win that felt like validation for time spent building confidence in the basics of electronics.

The problem

The situation was dire.  The Medela Pump-In-Style breast pump was needed immediately.  We found the old pump but couldn’t locate its battery pack or AC/DC adapter.  It was late and local stores were closed.

The hack

On Amazon.com I found the specs for a replacement Medela adapter: output 9V, 1000 mA.  Rummaging in my to-be-recycled electronics pile, I found a 9v 1000mA power adapter from an electric pencil sharpener I’d used as a high school teacher.  But its prong was too small for the Medela.

More rummaging turned up an adapter prong that did fit, this from the power adapter to an old Asus RT-N16 router (12V, 1.25 amps).  I cut each adapter’s cord in half, stripped the wires, attached them with crimp-on butt end splices – noting that the positive wire on each pair was marked with stripes –  and voila!  The pump worked and saved the day.