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Make a safety gate for stairs without damaging the bannister

09 Aug

Stair gate overviewGates at the top of a flight of stairs are essential to save toddlers from a nasty fall, and they are fairly easy to install in most homes if there is a wall on each side of the stairs. However, the bottom of a flight of stairs (and sometimes the top, too) often has a bannister on one side. In my house, we installed a traditional gate at the top of the stairs for safety, but at the foot of the stairs, one side of the stairs has a handmade wooden bannister, and the other side has a wall of faux brick; holes in either side here would be tougher to repair than holes in wood paneling or drywall. If you don’t want to drill holes and damage your bannister and walls, you’ll need a more creative gate.

My gates consists of two layers of cloth stitched together with a layer of cotton batting in the middle. The right and left edges have large grommets that can be attached to a post or hook with cable ties, carabiners, or other fasteners. I wrapped black cloth around our newel post to protect it from scratches, and I attached one end of the gate to the post using black cable ties. The other side is the side that can be opened; it attaches to the wall with a carabiner through an eye hook and with two removable Command Cord Bundlers (www.amazon.com/dp/B0000CCQKV). They use a removable adhesive, so they will not leave a hole behind when they are removed. I used cable ties to create loops to connect the grommets to the cord bundlers.

Stair gate on newel postStair gate carabiner attachment

Please note that this gate is not a foolproof safety solution; it is a deterrent to keep children from entering the stairs unnoticed. Kids can learn to open the gate, and they can also peel the cord bundlers off the wall if they push the gate hard enough. My daughter did both of these things eventually…but by that point, she was confident on the stairs and didn’t need as much protection. The gate still functioned as a deterrent; it slowed her down enough that she couldn’t run upstairs without someone noticing.

Taking down the gate for good is easy: cut the cable ties from the newel post, peel the cord bundlers off the wall, unscrew the eye hook from the baseboard, and patch the single hole in the baseboard. This homemade gate leaves only one hole, which should be a lot easier and less conspicuous to repair than trying to patch multiple holes in the newel post and faux brick.

 
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Posted in Parents

 

Use colored paper to warn you when printer paper runs low

05 Sep

Paper stack with color coding

I put colorful paper at the bottom of the printer’s paper tray so I get a visible warning before the printer runs out of paper. As soon as my prints turn pink, I know to add more paper to the printer. If you have even one sheet of colorful paper to put in your printer, this trick will serve you well.

Staples with color coding

The same idea works well for staples, too (I’ve found colored staples at The Dollar Tree that cost $1 and include a color-coordinated stapler), as well as any other office supply available in multiple colors.

 
 

Why you should use the “9″ button on the microwave all the time

31 Aug

Microwave number pad graphic

I saw a funny XKCD post referencing the phrase “as neglected as the nine button on the microwave.” I was immediately confused because I use the “9″ button almost every day, and I gradually realized that I needed to share my microwave-programming secret with the world. Long ago, I decided on a critical microwave strategy: Use as few buttons as possible.

In my experience, 99 seconds is an excellent length for most microwave ovens to heat a single-serving container of leftovers to a piping-hot temperature. Yes, 99 seconds is the same as one minute and 39 seconds, but 99 seconds involves just one numerical button (the “9,” if you follow) instead of three.

Does this modest lifehack actually save you time? It does if you’re as crazy as me! Whenever I use the microwave to heat food, I use a number that minimizes the number of buttons I need to touch. At first, it’s a silly exercise. Over the long term, it is undoubtedly the most time-efficient way to heat food in a microwave oven. Why waste an extra second splitting hairs to heat your food for 1:00 when 0:55 or 0:66 is practically the same interval?

I don’t expect people to adopt my system universally (EVEN THOUGH THEY SHOULD). Under my system, though, the “9″ button is anything but neglected. My most common cooking time is 99 seconds.

 
 

The rattle inside a can of spray paint? It’s a marble.

01 Mar

Marble from spray paint canI retrieved this marble from an empty can of spray paint. Retrieving it by breaking open the can with the claw end of a dollar-store hammer was an entertaining challenge. Protip: do it outside.

The rattle inside some spray cans is caused by an object inside the can that helps mix the paint (or other payload) with the propellant inside the can. The propellant forces the paint out of the can, but the propellant and the paint tend to separate over time into two distinct layers inside the can. Bouncing a marble up and down inside the can breaks up the boundary between the two substances and mixes the propellant with the paint, making spray paint actually spray PAINT instead of just plain old propellant.

Is this a worthwhile effort? No. Plain glass marbles can be found at any dollar store (such as The Dollar Tree) in large quantities for much less than the cost of a can of spray paint. I think it’s still worthwhile to know what is inside the mechanical devices we use every day. If you enjoy busting open empty spray cans, you will get a marble for your trouble. Enjoy!

Spray paint can and marble

 

Make an airtight diaper pail for less than $5

23 Feb

Homemade, airtight diaper pailsFor me, the benefits of cloth diapers (saving money, avoiding blowouts, and reducing trash output) easily outweigh the inconveniences (washing, stuffing, and storing the diapers). However, storing three days worth of smelly diapers requires several effective diaper pails to keep the house from smelling like a litter box. Diaper pails can be surprisingly expensive, though, so you may want to make your own like I did. Why spend $30 on one bin when you can have a whole fleet of them for less than half that much?

For less than $5, you can make a diaper pail that will easily hold a day’s worth of diapers; I use three of these bins in different locations around the house so we never have to carry a dirty diaper very far. It is a simple matter of buying two identical trash cans and making minor modifications so one trashcan can serve as the lid for the other.

Tools and materials:

  • Two FNISS wastebaskets from IKEA ($1.99 each as of this moment)
  • Cabinet knob
  • Foam pipe insulation
  • Utility knife
  • Drill
  • Duct tape or gaffer’s tape

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Calendar Madness – Updated for December 2013

01 Dec

Every year at Christmas, I personalize a monthly calendar for my brother (witness the madness from my 2012 and 2011 calendars). For 2013, I decided to showcase each month’s artwork as it comes up. You’ll find the rest of the monthly pages after the jump below.

12 December Beanstalk

When I drew this, I did not realize that actual Hollywood professionals thought a Jack and the Beanstalk movie was a good idea.

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Posted in Art?

 

Furnace filter + box fan = cheap air filter for allergies

02 Sep

Allergy fan anteriorIf you are allergic to dust, pollen, cat dander, or other respiratory irritants, you may benefit from an air filter to remove these particles from the air you breathe. These can be expensive.

You also may be cheap and/or skeptical like me. Before buying an expensive piece of hardware, I often try out a cheaper version first, both to make sure the technology is worthwhile and to check if the cost of the fancy version is really justified. If the cheap option works, I say stick with it!

If you need an air filter temporarily (such as while visiting a house with a cat) or just like finding the cheapest solution to your problem, you may want to try the simple contraption you see here. In combination with regular doses of Claritin, this slapdash-looking filter has kept the wife happy on trips to dusty or cat-friendly places. My air-filtration system requires only three materials:

  • A common 20″ electric fan (often called a “box fan”): These are available for $20 or less at all kinds of stores.
  • A standard 20″ x 20″ pleated air filter (usually used for household HVAC systems): These can be $3 to $20 apiece depending on the size of the particles it removes. If you have severe allergies, you may want the expensive ones that remove the tiniest particles.
  • Duct tape: Any kind will do.

The construction is simple, but it is not quite as simple as just taping the filter to the fan. Follow these steps for best results:

  1. Place the filter in front of the fan and make sure they are are aligned properly. The filter will have an arrow printed on the edge pointing in the desired direction of airflow. Make sure the fan will blow air against the back of the filter in the direction of the arrow.
  2. Tape every edge of the filter to the fan. You want all of the air blown forward by the fan to go through the filter, so don’t leave any gaps. Multiple layers of tape may help.
  3. On the back of the fan, tape over all four corners of the rear grate to reduce blowback. The filter is square, while the fan’s blades trace a circular pattern. When the fan is running, some of the air pressure will leak out the back of the filter, especially at the corners farthest from the thrust of the fan blades.Covering these areas will increase the fan’s effectiveness by reducing the flow of air back out of the fan and increasing pressure against the filter.
  4. Set the fan to its highest speed to maximize the pressure against the filter. Lower speeds may not result in much airflow due to resistance from the filter. The medium and high speeds are best for providing an effective breeze through the filter.

Allergy fan posterior

If you want to clean the air in a closed bedroom to help you sleep, leave the fan running in the room with the door closed. If you want to avoid allergies in a larger space, aim the fan at yourself for a continuous stream of filtered air.

There are a few maintenance issues. Over time, the filter will become clogged with all the dust it has collected; cut or peel off the tape and install a new filter. Check the taped edges occasionally for tearing or peeling. You should also expect the fan to wear out faster because of the additional stress put on the motor from the pressures generated by blocking the air with a big filter. I suspect this would be seen by a decrease in fan speed, airflow, and electrical efficiency; I’ll have to study that part in the years to come.

 

T-shirts make perfect carboy covers

11 May

Carboys wearing t-shirtsCarboys are large bottles typically used for one or more stages of fermentation for homebrewing cider or beer. Some people prefer glass carboys, and other people prefer plastic ones.

The unavoidable issue is that both types of carboys are typically transparent. Ultraviolet radiation can pass right through the clear walls of a carboy and ruin the brew inside.

My solution: put a t-shirt on your carboys. An old undershirt or two can give your brew a more consistent flavor and a longer shelflife.

Here comes the science: ultraviolet radiation has a shorter wavelength than visible light, and its higher energy content allows it to break chemical bonds in all kinds of substances, from beverages to DNA (this is why it gives people sunburns and/or skin cancer). “Skunked” beer is caused by sunlight, and any other source of ultraviolet light will also affect the flavor of any brew, usually for the worse. This why brown bottles are the best for the long-term storage of homebrew: the dark color blocks most of the ultraviolet light from reaching the liquid inside. For this reason, I keep my more transparent glass containers (green, blue, and clear bottles) inside another opaque container, such as a cardboard box. Putting one or more t-shirts over a carboy will reduce the amount of light that reaches the brew inside. A white shirt will reflect the most light. However, a thick shirt of any color will still absorb the light and protect the contents of the carboy.

As for the choice between glass and plastic carboys, there is good reason for the debate between these two options. Glass does not absorb colors or odor and will last indefinitely with proper care, but the glass bottles are heavy and expensive, which increases the cost and risk of dropping one and breaking it. Plastic carboys are lightweight and convenient, not to mention cheaper. Of course, colors and odors may linger in a plastic container, and the plastic will weaken with age and may split easily after over a long period of time. Neither type is a perfect solution for everyone. I use both without preference and have not observed any differences in flavor or consistency between the two bottles.

 

Reuse cardboard boxes with style by inverting them

15 Feb

Box stepsIf you want to stay organized on the cheap, reuse the trash that comes through your home. Here’s a favorite trick of mine: take any cardboard box apart and refold it inside-out. The plain interior of most cardboard packaging makes a great exterior for a reusable box. After inverting the box, I usually apply packing tape to any tears in the cardboard and slap on a few labels to make it recognizable. A plain box with

Lots of people reuse shoe boxes, but I suggest you take it another step. Any box that enters my house may end up with some weird reuse, from storing holiday decorations to controlling messy projects to organizing small parts in my workshop.

My favorite reusable box is the kind with tabs that tuck in to keep it shut, known as the ”roll end tuck top box with dust flaps and cherry locks” (according to the fabulously-named boxmaster.com and others). They come with all kinds of products: I salvaged some recently from a baby carrier, a power saw, and a PC motherboard. The boxes are usually made of strong corrugated cardboard, and their folded design makes them great for reuse.

The tuck-top boxes are especially appropriate for refolding and reuse because they are held together by friction and clever geometry, which works just as well when they’re inverted. That’s a big advantage over cereal boxes and other everyday specimens where you’ll tear through some glued seams to invert the box, which then requires packing tape or other repairs to reuse it.

 

Cloth diapers: better, cheaper, and a bit more work

07 Feb

Diapers and dinosaur modelIf you have a baby in need of diapers, you might be surprised at how easy cloth diapering can be. I have been using cloth diapers on my daughter for five months and have only good things to report. In my experience, cloth diapers have been better than disposable diapers on nearly all levels. I’ll admit that disposable diapers are simpler and more convenient than their reusable counterparts, but they also seem to have more leaks and blow-outs, too, which is far from convenient. Just as important to me: I’m on track to save hundreds of dollars on diapers this year alone because washing diapers is cheaper than buying disposable ones.

There are lots of brands out there and a lot of choices to make. I’ll explain how I chose these diapers and how to use, wash, and maintain them.

What kind of diapers to get: The diapers shown here are the bumGenius “Cloth Diaper 4.0 One-Size” model. This style of diaper comes in two parts: a sturdy shell with elastic and fasteners to hold it on, and a removable microfiber pad that fits inside to absorb any liquid and keep the shell leak-free. Two-part reusable diapers are common these days, but there are also all-in-one diapers that let you skip the step of stuffing the pad into the shell before you use it. I prefer the two-part variety because I can dry the shell and the pad separately. Line-drying the shells makes their elastic and quick-drying capabilities last longer, while the pads will dry quickly in any dryer with no ill consequences. The pocket style also lets me stuff in an extra pad when desired, such as for overnight or traveling.

Diapers on drying rack Diapers and inserts Pile of diapers

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