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Archive for the ‘Functional objects’ Category

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

Read the rest of this entry »

 

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.

 

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.

 

Kill weeds for free with sunlight and trash bags

12 Aug

Untreated-vs-treated“Green.” “Biodegradable.” “Sustainable.” These terms sum up a lot about how I try to live my life, and yet they carry hidden baggage beneath their friendly exteriors:the ecologically-friendly, non-toxic, all-natural alternatives are more expensive and yet less effective than their more-toxic cousins.

Take oven cleaner, for example. Conventional oven cleaning spray is nasty stuff, but it works — it makes a tough job much easier. Cleaning an oven “organically” takes laborious scrubbing and a lot more time. I wish this weren’t the case, but it’s true. After all, if the non-toxic way was cheaper and easier, wouldn’t we all be doing it already?

Therefore, I feel I must celebrate any “green” option that actually saves both money and effort. Today’s example: Black plastic bags can kill grass and weeds on your patio at no cost to you. I have reclaimed an overgrown patio without pulling a single weed or spraying a single chemical by using a few trash bags and the power of the sun. The only cost to you is patience.

Method: Wait for sunny weather. Cover the area of vegetation that you wish to kill with any kind of black plastic. Put rocks or other weights on the plastic so it stays in place. Leave the plastic there for at least a week, if possible.

What will happen: Any vegetation underneath the plastic will wilt and die. Given enough time, the roots will die as well.

Patio setup for weed killing experimentScientific explanation: The color of an object is determined by what kind of visible light it reflects best. White materials look white because they reflect all colors of visible light, which look white when combined together. Black materials look black because they absorb most visible light rather than reflecting much of it, making them dark in appearance. The absorbed light energy then radiates out as heat (a.k.a. infrared light, which we cannot see). Sunlight absorption is what makes the black plastic effective against plants. First, the plastic prevents the plants underneath from receiving any sunlight, which stops their growth. Second, the absorbed sunlight also heats the plants far beyond their comfort zone. The plastic keeps fresh air from circulating across the ground surface, and the high temperatures beneath the plastic during a sunny day will roast the plants to death. Given enough time, this will kill the roots under the ground and discourage the plants from growing back. This is also why trash cans will create a patch of dead grass right under each can.

My evidence: I treated different patches of my brick patio with black plastic for at least a week at a time. During this time, I did not mow, weed, or poison anything on the patio. I left parts of it untreated to serve as the control group (vital for measuring the results of the experiment). I took photos to record how well the plastic killed the plants and how quickly the plants came back. The photos speak for themselves: the treated patches remain almost entirely clear of plants, while the untreated areas are so overgrown that the bricks are barely visible. The only plants to survive the treatment were located under the edge of the plastic where light, air, and moisture could pass more freely. Moisture trapped underneath the bags did lead to some temporary green mold growth on the bricks, but that faded away after a bit of direct sun exposure when the bags were removed.

Cost to me: under $1 (the bags can be reused repeatedly, which will make their initial cost even more negligible over time, or you can use them as trash bags when you’re done). Of course, this will cost more if you want to treat an entire patio in one shot and need lots of coverage.

Time spent: 5 minutes placing and removing the plastic.

Detailed 'after' shotAdvice: Use the thickest, largest, darkest material you have. A grid made of individually-weighted garbage bags will work (as I demonstrated here), but some weeds may survive at the edges of the bags where air and light leaks in. A dark tarp should work, but beware: some tarps include a reflective liner to reduce heat buildup, which defeats the entire exercise. Plants can still invade when you’re done, so you should expect to repeat the process at least once a year (or more frequently if the plants come back faster).

Overall value: High. You have to plan in advance (and accept the unsightly plastic for a week or so while it does its job), but you don’t have to pull weeds manually, spray toxic herbicides, or spend more than a dollar on the project.

 

Magnetic bottlecap rings are like wine charms for bottles

19 Apr

Labeled magnet, ring, and finished bottle cap holderI often pour one glass of cider and recork the larger bottle for later. This has one drawback: no longer do I know what type of cider inside the bottle. Without caps, my blank bottles are impossible to tell apart.

My solution? With a magnet and a steel ring, I can attach the cap to the neck of the bottle. These things are require no tools to make, and they are infinitely reusable. I keep several stuck to the fridge in case I have a bottle-labeling emergency of some kind.

How to make one: Stick the magnet on the ring, and drop the ring around the neck of the bottle. The magnet will hold the cap there as long as you like. Magnetic or ring-based charms could also help people identify their bottles at a party.

Magnetic cap holder on bottleMagnetic bottle cap holder

Where to get the parts: I used magnets from hard drives because they’re powerful and semi-elegant, but any magnet that keeps the cap from flying away under normal drinking conditions should be fine. As for the rings, large ones work best — they need an internal diameter of at least 1.1″ (28 cm) to fit past the flared mouths of most bottles. Split rings (a.k.a. key rings) are fine if they’re large enough. Hardware stores also have a number of cheap plumbing fittings that would work as long as they’re ferromagnetic (made of metals like iron or steel) and will attract to a magnet.

 

Dollhouse furniture you might actually want to own

19 Sep

Rings in dollhouse sink

I cannot find it in myself to appreciate the appeal of lifelike dolls. My niece (as of age 4, at least) apparently disagrees, to judge by her fascination with the American Girls dolls and all other doll-based collectibles. Make eye contact and the dull, taxidermied eyes of a doll stare right into your soul. Can anyone back me up on this?

However, I’ve found that some doll-related paraphernalia  can serve amusing practical (or purely decorative) purposes. Even if dolls revolt you, their furniture is available for anyone to use. They may also entertain you if you, like Chandler Bing, enjoy holding small objects and feeling like a giant.

Here are my top-three uses for dollhouse furniture in a full-size house:

  • Sink for jewelry storage in bathroom or kitchen: If you wear expensive or sentimental rings (such as wedding or engagement rings), you might want to take them off before do soapy jobs like washing the dishes. In our house, a miniature sink atop our kitchen sill makes a fine repository for jewelry. Having a designated location helps rein in the fear of losing a valuable ring. The Wife knows I think engagement rings are overpriced bullshit, but I BOUGHT the damn ring, and I don’t want it dropping down the drain. For what it cost, I’m all for keeping it clean and safe. It’s all the better that the little sink-atop-a-sink amuses me, too.

Dollhouse rug as coaster

  • Dollhouse rugs as coasters or doilies: Dollhouse rugs are remarkably intricate, and yet you can get tiny rugs shipped from Turkey for $3 apiece. I have purchased most of mine through eBay and have never been disappointed. They’re excellent for sliding beneath decorative bowls, flower pots, or any household decor that might scratch your furniture. The colors and fine details on the rugs add a little extra to your knickknacks. Miniature rugs make great coasters, too.

Dollhouse bathroom

  • Miniature fixtures for decoration: I have surreptitiously added a miniature bathroom next to the rafters in a family cabin. Like the eyeball pillows, this is my way of injecting some hidden whimsy into my surroundings. Something about miniature bathroom fixtures is hilarious to me. I have seen them used well in flower pots and other garden settings where tiny elves might sneak by once in a while. My primary goal is to convince small children that elves really do live in the house and come out when they are sleeping (a story which sounds funny or terrifying depending on how cruel I feel).

One warning: dollhouse furniture is often impressively overpriced. Don’t worry, fellow cheapskates. Once you know what you’re looking for, you can occasionally find decent deals on eBay. Almost any piece of dollhouse furniture can be found for under $10 if you’re patient, which keeps the cost below the knickknacks at Pier One and the like. Of course, if you know of a good (or cheap) place to get dollhouse furniture, please let me know.

 

Build a tabletop easel in two minutes for $2

23 Jul

Frames on easels With too much framed art for our walls, I wanted to be able to move any frame from the wall to a table and back again as desired. Unfortunately, frames designed to hang on the wall usually don’t come with a hinged stand because the weight of the stand makes the frame hang crooked on the wall. I looked around for small easels and found that even small, simple easels could be surprisingly expensive. I saw no point in spending $14 for an easel when my frames and art are already so cheap.

Enter my good friends at The Dollar Tree. I found laptop stands there that look like broken, two-legged easels. They’re meant to prop up your laptop from below to allow air circulation to keep things cool. The main legs on each stand are adjustable to a variety of lengths. I had a brainstorm and bought all of the black laptop stands I could find at $1 apiece.

With the addition of a few carefully-placed zip ties, a pair of laptop stands becomes an adjustable tabletop easel that can accommodate different sizes of frames and display a frame at any desired angle. That’s quite a bargain for $2 (or perhaps $3 for the first one if you need to buy zip ties). These are great if you have a lot of art and/or don’t want to put holes in your walls. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Eyeball pillows to make your life cushier and creepier

05 Jul

Eyeball pillows on chaiseI have been dying to do justice to the eyeball-pillow concept ever since my list of decorating tricks for Halloween. Judging by the Wife’s obvious discomfort in their presence, my eyeball pillows were having the intended effect, but they weren’t practical for actual use as pillows. I like to prop up my head with a few pillows at a time; the tiny eyeballs would only have worked after some severe head-shrinking on my part. Solution: I needed BIGGER eyeball pillows.

Pillows are easy to make, as you’ll see. I had plenty of white fabric from old t-shirts and gray fabric from hemming some Ikea curtains, so I decided to make reversible pillows: eyes on one side, plain fabric on the other. That way, I could appease the Wife occasionally by flipping them over and thereby keep them in the living room all year long rather than just during October. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Wire baskets make great drying and/or painting racks

28 Jun

Wire basketYou have probably seen lowly wire baskets hanging out at the laundromat (assuming that the laundromat is still where all the cool kids hang out). You may even have one lurking somewhere in your home. We did not buy our wire basket; it appeared in our basement several moves ago, and it has become an ever-present fact of life. We never use it for laundry, but still it remains.

Flip a wire basket upside-down and you will find a whole host of new uses. The square holes in “laundry-style” wire baskets are a perfect fit for the necks of most glass bottles, making an upside-down basket makes a great drying rack for home brewing.  You can get similar baskets at Ikea for $2.50, so these are good, economical solutions for anyone with a lot of bottles to wash or to paint. By comparison, brewing catalogs charge $40 and up for single-purpose drying racks.

If you need to paint your bottles (which you might do for decoration or to block unwanted light), the wire basket makes an excellent painting station. It’s easy to stand up a few dozen bottles at a time, with enough space between them that spray-painting is a breeze. The space between the bottles ensures quick drying times and minimizes wasted paint.

Wire basket and drying bottlesWire basket and painted bottles

The bottles will usually lean to one side rather than standing straight up, but they don’t fall over. That lean makes it hard to hit every surface of the bottle in one painting session, so I suggest turning each bottle 180 degrees after the first coat of paint has dried so you can cover any missed spots. Also, you may want to protect your basket with a sheet of newspaper to avoid painting the basket along with the bottles.

 

Save your corks and put them to use

07 Jun

Corks of various sizesI used to save corks for no particular reason. Wine corks and the occasional whiskey cork went straight into a big bowl. Now that the bowl is nearing its maximum capacity, I have finally found that a collection of different-sized corks can actually be useful.

I put my cider in the largest bottles I have in order to reduce the number of bottles to clean (and fill) at bottling time. When opening one of these bottles, I like to have a way to reseal it so I can keep the rest cold and carbonated in the fridge. Lo and behold, my collection of wine and whiskey corks fits allows me to reseal any bottle I want and keep the contents from going flat.

Even though I use the same metal caps on all of my cider bottles, some of my bottles demand stoppers of different sizes. Wine corks are typically a single standard size, so there’s no need to collect too many of them unless you have a bowl to fill. Instead, look for corks from high-end liquor (cheaper booze uses screw-caps; the use of a cork quietly implies that the bottle is handcrafted or antique or otherwise distinguished enough to justify the price). Different liquor brands use corks of different sizes, so having a variety ensures a snug fit for a wide range of bottles.

Is saving every cork that enters your home overkill? Of course, but it’s easy to save one of each size that you encounter so that you’re prepared for any bottle that strolls in the door. Corked bottles can make homemade gifts such as last winter’s homemade vanilla extract a touch classier.

Recorked bottlesBowl of corks