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Archive for the ‘Functional objects’ Category

Never to wonder if the dishes in the dishwasher are clean or dirty again

24 Mar

Clean dirty indicator combinedKnowing that the dishwasher is clean saves time. Here’s a double-sided clean/dirty indicator that you can make in less than a minute.

Dishwasher indicator magnetsFirst, use a magnet to find any ferrous surfaces on your dishwasher. Even if your dishwasher appears to be plastic, there may be metal bracing in some areas. If the magnet sticks, you are in business.

Put two magnets in an Altoids tin, with one on the lid and one on the bottom. This way, the tin will stick to your washer no matter which side is facing out.

Finally, put nametags (or other adhesive labels) reading “Clean” and “Dirty” on opposite sides. Flip the indicator as needed.

 

Must-Have: Industrial Sharpies and Metallic Sharpies

11 Mar

Sharpie selectionI have a long-held faith in the classic, black-capped Sharpie permanent marker. When I was a child, they were the darkest, heaviest, and more reliable pens in the house and were therefore much coveted for labeling toys and clothes as well as making semi-permanent tattoos when you’re bored. Sharpie has become synonymous with “”permanent marker” in my mind, making it a name brand I actually believe in for once. I make many compromises and buy many generic brands in pursuit of thriftiness, but I do not skimp on my Sharpies. Accept no substitute.

In my pursuit of Sharpie perfection, I have found two specialty Sharpies that are extremely worthwhile. Between these two markers, you can write on almost any object of any color and leave an unmistakable impression. These are unusual enough that you won’t always find them at all-purpose retailers like Target, but you can find them at Staples or any other major office supply store.

Sharpie comparison on white paper♦ Industrial Sharpies: Easily spotted by the beefy red letters on the barrel, the Industrial Sharpie boasts “super permanent ink” and the ability to withstand steam and chemical exposure. I don’t get to test all of those properties very often, but I will say that it is the blackest marker I have ever used. Compare the blackness and consistency of the lines from the Industrial Sharpie to those made by the standard model. Industrial Sharpie ink also remains darker for a longer period than normal Sharpie ink, which slowly bleaches to a a dark gray.

Sharpie comparison on navy blue paperMetallic Sharpies: In an off-putting start, the Metallic Sharpie includes the warning to “Store Tip Down” (presumably the lack of a clip on the cap is meant to remind us of this requirement). That makes it hard to find the marker if you store it in a mug or pencil cup. Regardless, this marker shows up bright and clear on all colors, making it invaluable for labeling dark or transparent surfaces like glass or the black plastic found on so many consumer electronic devices. The shiny silver ink is highly reflective, making it easy to locate with a flashlight or lamp. The ability to write over any color lets you turn any piece of scrap paper into an extremely visible note.

 

Use name tags to label just about anything

22 Feb

Name tag labelsLong ago, I bought some name tags for a Halloween costume. Of course, I only needed one, so I had dozens of them lying around, begging for a new use. Since then, I have used name tags to label everything imaginable around the house. When I ran out, I actually bought more name tags rather than some other kind of label because I liked them so much. You might have already noticed them on the bottles of vanilla extract I made for the holidays.

Labels make any long-term storage project more effective. My brewing equipment lives in specific boxes, and I store the ingredients inside in airtight containers. Without labels, I would have a lot more trouble taking inventory and selecting ingredients.

The more you use them, the more they help you, too. Using a standard style of label such as a name tag makes it easy for the eye to identify the labels. Using labels consistently means no more forgotten, anonymous leftovers in the fridge or freezer.

To state the obvious: you don’t have to use name tags. Any adhesive label will do, making folders, bins, boxes, and other storage compartments easier to find when you need them. However, name tags can be preferable to blank labels because they add a bit of personality to a practical function. They also have some specific side benefits:

  • Canister with two labelsRemovable, most of the time.
  • Easy to see, easy to read
  • At only two per sheet, these printable labels give you sharp-looking results without making additional wasted labels
  • Same size as Altoids tins (great for storing nails, screws, washers, and other miscellaneous hardware)
  • Absurd humor from personifying everything (“Hello, my name is Vanilla Extract” usually gets a chuckle)
 

Add removable shelving to your freezer

08 Feb

Crate with stackingEvery apartment I’ve rented has had a refrigerator with a freezer on top. Not one of those freezers has had enough shelves; often, they have no shelves at all. Shelves would have been incredibly helpful, but why should a landlord care about that?

If you’ve ever tried to stack meat in the freezer, you already know that frozen food is slippery and frustrating to organize. Even if you build a careful stack and can close your freezer door without knocking down your frigid Tower of Babel, you’re guaranteed to need the item on the bottom of the stack far too soon.

My solution? Find a plastic crate and add your own shelves to the freezer. Milk crates, file crates, or any kind of rigid plastic box can be used to make your freezer a bit more manageable.

My original plan was to saw the crate in half and stack the resulting trays to make multiple levels of shelving (see diagram). Instead, I have kept my crate intact and found that it’s plenty useful in its existing form. My ice-cube trays are up high, out of the way, and the sides of the crate help keep stacked food stable.

Empty crateFreezer shelves

Now, I’m not blind to the fact that this is just a plastic crate stuck sideways into the freezer. It isn’t a glamorous or particularly complicated idea. Still, it solves a real household problem neatly, and you can’t beat the price or the ease of installation. Like the magnetic towel bar, this is a solution that makes no permanent changes and does no damage (a bonus for apartment dwellers or anyone who rents). It’s utilitarian to look at, but it’s no uglier than the inside of the freezer to begin with.

 

Use a doorway curtain to curb heating and cooling costs

28 Dec

Tension rod for door curtainEveryone’s home has leaky parts. Exterior doors are usually the main culprits, which you can usually improve with foam tape or added weatherproofing. Leaky windows can be greatly improved with shrinkable plastic film, too. Even with my best efforts, though, I have always found one especially drafty room in any house or apartment I’ve lived in. That one room may be the main source of your heating and cooling costs by letting warm air escape in the winter and cold air escape in the summer.

When all else fails, you can save a bundle on heating costs by cutting that leaky room off from the rest of the house with a simple removable curtain. We have this curtain across the doorway into our kitchen. This cuts the drafty back door off from the rest of the house, reducing our air conditioner usage in the summer as well as our heating costs in the winter. This way, we don’t have to keep the kitchen heated all the time in the winter. The curtain also contains cooking smells, which can be helpful in some circumstances (“we’re cleaning the oven”) and disappointing in others (“I want the house to smell like bacon”). A simple tieback lets you leave the curtain open when desired.

Curtain - openCurtain - closedCurtain tieback

This is a great way for renters to improve their heating and cooling without making any permanent changes. Any doorway can become a curtainway with a simple tension rod that can be installed or removed in seconds. For the curtain, I used a heavyweight upholstery cloth bought at a liquidation sale, since heavier fabric will move less under a draft and will provide more insulation. Use something you don’t mind looking at since you’ll be seeing your curtain every day. After all, any fabric will be preferable to an open doorway.

 

Customized moving dolly for transporting wine

22 Dec

Wine dolly - assembledMy father uses the crawlspace beneath his house as a wine cellar. The problem with the crawlspace is the crawling part. Between the rough edges, the dust, and the low clearance, the crawlspace leaves every visitor filthy and sore from waddling around in a painful squat. To make delivering and retrieving wine a bit easier, my father kept a creeper (the sort of low, wheeled platform that mechanics use to roll themselves underneath cars) in the crawlspace. You could kneel on it and scoot around, and it made lugging cases of wine a lot simpler. It cracked in half years ago from heavy use, with the obvious demand for a replacement just ignored.

This year, I decided a new solution was in order. For Christmas, I put together this customized moving dolly to replace the broken creeper (I gave it to my father yesterday, so it’s safe to reveal now). The base with the wheels is a moving dolly, which you can find at a hardware store. This one is rated to 1,000 pounds and feels sturdy enough to last for decades. By itself, though, the dolly is not an effective transporter of wine. The opening in the middle is too wide for cases or bottles. The center of gravity is also a bit trickier, since the dolly has a higher ground clearance and can be flipped by leaning too heavily on the front or rear edge.

Wine dolly - two partsTo help with both issues, I built the rig inside the dolly out of familiar-looking scrap wood from Ikea. The slats are spaced close together to prevent wine bottles from slipping through and are bowed downward, preventing wine from rolling off. The additional weight in the middle of the dolly also reduces the chance of tipping it by accident. The rig itself is not nearly as strong as the dolly, of course, but it is completely removable. I made no changes to the original dolly, so you can lift the rig out and use the dolly to move furniture if desired.

You could borrow this concept for all kinds of mobile storage or transportation functions. The whole setup cost less than a creeper would have and yet is more versatile. A dolly can save your back a lot of agony when you’re moving heavy objects. Come to think of it, my cases of cider are just crying out for some wheels.

 

Make a wine aerator from plumbing fittings

22 Nov

Letting wine breathe involves exposing it to air for up to 20 minutes before drinking it. This will generally improve a wine that has not yet fully aged, particularly a high-tannin red wine like a Syrah or Cabernet. On the other hand, a wine expert might gasp in horror (losing his monocle in the process) at letting a well-aged Pinot Noir breathe. Those of us with less-refined palates or a taste for bargain-hunting may get more bang for our bucks by letting our cheap wines mingle with the air before drinking them. Wine cannot breathe well in the bottle because there’s so little surface area exposed to air. Common breathing methods involve pouring wine into a decanter, which has a broad cross-section for maximum air exposure, or just pouring a glass and letting it sit for a while.

Of course, impatient cheapskates everywhere want to make this process go faster. Enter the wine aerator: a device intended to expose wine to a lot of air in a short time so that it can go from bottle to glass to mouth almost immediately. Vinturi makes a well-known, well-regarded aerator; it looks handsome and makes a cheerful slurping sound as wine funnels through it into your glass. However, the Vinturi aerator costs anywhere from $24 to $40 (that’s actually cheaper than it used to be), which is just enough that I decided to build my own aerator. I’ll show you how to do it with $10 worth of plumbing parts. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Use register tape for shopping lists and other household notes

10 Nov

Register tape mountMy friend Carly gets all the credit for this one. She has a roll of register tape mounted on a handsome spindle to use for household notes like shopping lists. As soon as I saw it, I knew that I had to make my own. Classy, cheap, and functional? I’m sold even without the classy. It’s easy to slap one together from spare parts that any packrat will have around the house.

I’ve attached notepads to the refrigerator door for shopping lists, which is a great idea for anyone to use, but this is superior and more aesthetically pleasing to boot. I like the elegance of tearing off as much paper as you need for any given task. Register tape is cheap, too, since a 130-foot roll costs less than a dollar. With an Altoids tin, a pair of corner braces, and a few magnets, you can be taking notes on a roll like the rest of us. Read the rest of this entry »

 

How to make magnetic LEGO® blocks

26 Sep

Magnet and postcardLet’s just admit it: magnets are fun. There is something inherently entertaining about playing with invisible forces that satisfies the inner child that still longs for Jedi powers and hoverboards. Therefore, I pounce on any chance to buy cheap magnets, and I never throw a magnet away without trying to find a new use for it. I recommend you do the same.

I think Lego® blocks are just as irresistible as magnets, so combining the two is win-win situation. I insist on high-quality, entertaining magnets on my fridge, and these meet my standards (as usual, my rules for what is entertaining or high quality are exacting and bizarre). Read the rest of this entry »

 

Build a camping stove from empty cans

16 Aug

When I’m camping, I much rather build a fire than fuss with a camping stove. A campfire becomes a center for the evening, while a stove is efficient by nature and doesn’t provide much of a hearth. Still, there are places where wood is scarce (wood-gathering is illegal in many state and national parks), and a lightweight stove is essential for many backpacking trips.

All a camping stove really needs to do is burn some kind of inexpensive fuel to heat a grill, a pot of water, or a frying pan. Punching careful holes in an empty can makes a perfectly functional stove that can burn all kinds of cheap fuels like mineral spirits (available at every hardware store in the country). I made the stove pictured here from a pair of aluminum cans. It actually burns so hot that can melt cheap aluminum grills; it left permanent dips in my backpacking grid after I let it cook a little too long. How’s that for do-it-yourself value?

My stove mostly followed this model, which combines aspects of the models described here and here. I left it unsanded and unpainted, so you can really see the seams where the parts come together. The flattened can top acts as a simmer ring; when it is placed atop the stove, it cuts off most of the jets while letting a limited flame come through the hole. You can also just build a second stove with fewer holes to use only for simmering. The stoves are so lightweight and cheap to make that having two of them isn’t a big deal.

If I were to make a new one today, I think I would follow the Super Cat design, which is so simple that it cannot fail. There is also a variation known as the Simmer Cat that would suffice for slower-cooking recipes.