Category Archives: DIY

Do-it-yourself

a hugelkultur mound with a log border, full of vegetable plants

Building a hugelkultur mound in a city backyard

This was a leap-of-faith project during Michigan’s bleak COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” period. I’m documenting it here as a plan for building a hugelkultur bed on a small city lot as well as to preserve a pleasant COVID-19 memory. Behold the thriving hugelkultur mound:

It’s exploding with vegetables – see below for pictures of the hill itself

Hugelkultur is a permaculture concept where you pile up organic material (logs, leaves, compost, etc.) and then grow a garden on top of it. Here is a good explanation of hugelkultur and its benefits. It’s also a fun word to say. We refer to our mound as “the hugel” [German for hill].

This was the perfect COVID-19 project. Under lockdown in April, we had nowhere to go. I was spending lots of time with my kids at home during the day. And I wanted to be outside. Building a garden bed with the materials at hand was a small act of protest against the feeling of being dependent on a global supply chain whose fragility had suddenly been exposed. I couldn’t easily get soil or lumber delivered for a conventional raised bed. And crucially, the city’s compost and yard waste collection was about to resume for the spring, so my neighbors had their maximum amount of organic material awaiting disposal.

Starting with a hole

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Sand the bottom of a door that sticks without taking it off its hinges

Problem: a wood bathroom door rubs slightly on the tile of a bathroom floor at the midpoint in its swing, sticking in place. I wanted to sand off the tiniest bit so that it swings free.  But it wasn’t worth removing the door from its hinges.

Solution: get some rough sandpaper (I used 60 grit) and an old magazine. Open a dozen pages of the magazine and lay the sandpaper on top, grit up. (Without the magazine padding I’d be nervous that I’d mar the tile floor). Put this stack at a point in the door’s arc where it swings freely.

Before you start sanding: you want to avoid pulling off any strips from a veneer that may be covering the door’s surface.  To avoid that, first sand the trailing edge of the door (that is, the side that hits last when you’re slamming it into the sandpaper), so it isn’t caught and pulled while you slam.  Also consider using a finer grit of sandpaper, which would add a few minutes to the sanding, and opening-and-closing on the sandpaper with less force.  Keep an eye on the veneer throughout the process.

Now, slam the door into the paper stack so that it sticks. In the process, it sands exactly the lowest point on the bottom of the door. Keep swinging it back and forth, slamming it into the sandpaper. As you make progress in shaving the door, you may need to add pages to the stack or move it closer to the point where the door sticks.

Test periodically. In a few minutes you’ve removed a millimeter or two from the bottom of the door and it should swing freely, without altering the look of the door or needing to remove it.

Besides the convenience of this solution, I enjoy its elegance: by replicating the act of making contact with the floor it shaves the door in precisely the right place.

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 the 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 in the page title? 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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