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Silhouettes to turn your windows into Halloween showcases

15 Oct

Bats and headless ladyBlack paper makes a striking impression on a backlit window at night. Here’s how I made the creepy silhouettes that are gracing the front windows of my house

Dark paper works best, such as black construction paper. Laminated paper will last for multiple years, and even newspaper will provide a funny effect for a night or two.

It isn’t hard to sketch out basic shapes on large paper, but feel free to search for easier ways. Searching for Halloween stencils yields many images that would work well on a window (I borrowed several from this article by Jeffrey Rudell on the Make: blog).

Printing a black stencil will use up expensive printer ink quickly, so don’t do it! It’s more efficient to cut a big, dark design out of big, dark paper. To save printer ink, I turned my dark silhouettes into simple outlines using the open-source graphics software GIMP (Edge Detection and Threshold are your friends).

To print on a large scale, you may want to use a program like PosteRazor to enlarge and print out your outline over multiple sheets of paper.

Once I had the outlines, I taped them to my roll of heavy paper and used a razor to slice both the stencil and paper at once. Pizza boxes make excellent backings for slicing paper with a razor blade or X-Acto knife.

Finally, tape the silhouettes onto the window and turn on the lights. The effect is dramatic from inside and outside the house.

Zombie silhouette in windowTools and head

 

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.

 

Cider Recipe – Pumpkinhead Cider

02 Aug

Pumpkinhead Cider capSeasonal brews can become great annual traditions: fruit-filled drinks for the summer, spiced drinks for the winter, and so forth. The catch is that you have to plan ahead. If you want a good Octoberfest brew, you need to start making it no later than August! If you start one now, it will be ready to drink well before Halloween.

With that in mind, I present a new seasonal cider for your enjoyment: Pumpkinhead Cider. I made a test batch last year and am starting a new batch now. This recipe combines standard cider ingredients with most of the ingredients for a pumpkin pie. Pumpkin pie filling is a great shortcut for a pumpkin-based brew because it includes the spices needed to make the pumpkin flavor stand out.

Remember, you can tweak my recipes to your own liking. I included a few options in the recipe below. For example, to keep the dark, rich flavor and color associated with most breweries’ Octoberfest varieties, I recommend using either brown sugar (medium darkness) or molasses (very dark) instead of white sugar. I have tried molasses in the standard Panda Beer with great success. I am also trying out different acid blends, which bring out different aspects of the apple flavor.

Ingredients:

  • 6 gallons apple juice
  • 1 cup brown sugar or molasses (your choice)
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 30-oz. canned pumpkin (one large can)
  • 60-oz. pumpkin pie filling (two large cans)
  • 2 Tbs. malic acid or an acid blend (try 2 tsp. each of malic, tartaric, and citric acid for a sharper flavor)
  • 2 Tbs. vanilla extract
  • 2 Camden tablets (150 ppm)
  • Champagne yeast (such as Lalvin EC-118 or Red Star Pasteur Champagne yeast)
  • Dissolved in two cups of warm water and added right before bottling:
    • 3/4 cup priming sugar
    • 3/4 cup lactose
    • 3/4 cup maltodextrin
  • Follow standard brewing procedureswith a slight variation:
    • When starting the batch, pour all of your pumpkin into a mesh bag (nylon or muslin), tie it shut, and simmer it for 20 minutes in apple juice. Put the bag of pumpkin in your brewing bucket for the first stage and then dispose of it when you rack the cider into a clean carboy.
    • If you don’t have an appropriate bag, you can add the pumpkin straight to the juice; the only drawback is that you will probably end up with more pumpkin sediment left in the cider.
 

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.

 

Spare change is about $10 per pound

04 Mar

One red centAll of our household change goes into a big glass. It takes years to fill this glass at our current rate of coin accumulation. When it finally fills, I usually empty it into a CoinStar machine in exchange for an equal-value Amazon gift certificate (this is a great alternative to rolling coins for the bank). I enjoy the suspense when I go to the store because I have no idea how much they are actually worth. Of course, the CoinStar machine could be cheating me and I’d never know it! As a naturally suspicious person, this won’t do. When the glass filled up this month, I was determined to estimate the value myself first. Plus, it would be a great problem-solving exercise!

Yes, this is how I entertain myself. Thank you for asking.

The simplest way to tackle the problem could be by weight. I weighed myself on my bathroom scale with the full glass in my hand and then weighed myself again with the empty glass in hand. It appears that I have 6.4 pounds of American coinage. How much could that be worth?

I assumed this would be a fairly simple exercise. The standard masses of U.S. coins are readily available. By these figures, quarters and dimes are each worth $20 per pound, while nickels are worth $4.54 per pound and pennies a mere $1.46-$1.81 per pound depending on the mint year (the standard mass of the penny changed in 1982 when the mint replaced most of the copper in new pennies with zinc). That gives us a top and bottom estimate: Change is worth between $1.46 and $20 per pound, depending on the mix of coins.

I needed extra assumptions to refine the estimate for my situation. Here are the scenarios I tried: Read the rest of this entry »

 
 

A new year and a new “improved” calendar

12 Jan

Gentleman bearJust like last year, I chose a $1 calendar to revamp for my brother’s Christmas present. This is a great personalized gift for anyone who shares your sense of humor.

All you need is a calendar, a few Sharpies, and enough free time to do justice to your concepts. As you’ll see, talent for drawing is truly optional.

For 2012, I chose a “Baby Animals” calendar, which will be hard to top in the future for sickly sappiness and satirical potential. I don’t know the precise target market for “Baby Animals,” but it’s somewhere between childless spinsters and tasteless grandmoms.

I still paid only $1, and yet this year’s calendar was thick enough that my Sharpie marks did not bleed through to the other side, saving me the trouble of resurfacing the monthly pages like last year. Perhaps the Dollar Tree’s $1 calendars are superior to Target’s $1 calendars. Should I do a side-by-side test next year?

Polar-bears-slainRaccoon Rampage

If your calendar does bleed through, double down on your $1 investment and paste over your calendar pages with the duplicates from the new, untouched copy. Read the rest of this entry »

 
 

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.

 

While you’re at it, try to space your hurricane weather more than a week apart when moving into a new house.

04 Sep
 
 

Don’t move into a new house during a hurricane.

27 Aug
 
 

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 »