Welcome to my Handyman Blog

Recent posts:

Tenant Changeovers

The Smoke Detector Always Chirps Twice 

 Drop Cloth Mania

Harder than Chinese Algebra  /  

And Still More Lint (Under My Frij and Yours)

                          Mapping a Panel       /     Lint Lint Lint 

                         Lockpicking  101    /   Fixing a Wet Drop Ceiling 

Hi there and thank you for visiting my handyman blog.  My name is Justin and I work in Metrowest Boston (MA)  (i.e., Newton, Waltham, Belmont, North Cambridge, and so on).  The best way to contact me is to send pictures of your issue(s) to me at handyauthor@gmail.com.

So let’s get right to it.  Here is a list of the most common jobs I do for folks.  Note  I am not a former construction guy; I do mostly smaller jobs:

deal with doors that don’t open or close or latch

troubleshoot kitchen drawers and cabinet doors

install shades
basic locksmithing, e.g., swap out knobs and deadbolts, fix latches, etc.

cosmetic work on drywall, e.g., patching holes therein

caulking of tubs and sinks

replace broken window glass

replace sash cords on old wooden windows, and address window function generally

replace screen mesh, build new screens from basic kits
fix / install downspouts, up to 9 feet
very basic electrical, e.g., rewire a lamp, replace a switch, etc., doorbells,
hang pictures
deal with screen door hardware, i.e., closers, wind chains, handles
      and latches
small patches to vinyl siding
dryer vents, I have never done a full install but I often repair them and tape them.  I don’t have the full kit needed to do major long distance vent lint cleaning, but short runs, I can usually do something.
furniture kit assembly
install mortite weatherstripping on old wooden windows
install toilet seats
smoke alarms (install battery operated, replace wired  models)
and, I just have a talent for figuring out and fixing odd little puzzlements.
There is of course a massive list of little things like plunging clogged drains, .  etc. etc. etc.    I am not a plumber but, little drain fixes, we can talk.
a large part of my work is devoted to correcting improper installations that someone else did.   I could tell you stories.
I DON’T do
pipes that contain pressurized water
anything structural, i.e., stuff that people put their weight upon,
   like flooring, bannisters, grab bars, stairs
landscaping or gardening
precise carpentry
much of anything on a roof
moving jobs

The best way to contact me is to EMAIL PICTURES of your issues to me at handyauthor@gmail.com.   You can also call me at 781 330 8143.  If I don’t answer it means I am up on a ladder somewhere, so please do leave a message and I will call back within 24 hours.   Tell me what’s going on, we can have a pleasant little chat.  And I will be very up front with you about whether your needs are within my skill set or no.  Thank you for visiting!    🙂  Best,  Justin

PS   The story:  years ago when I was a freelance musician, I had an apartment in Jamaica Plain that was absolutely fabulous.  It was huge, and it was cheap.  I mean insanely, borderline grand larceny cheap.  So I never wanted to kick my sleeping dog landlord and make him think hey, maybe I should raise Justin’s rent.  So, even though I knew very little to start, whenever anything broke in that house I just figured out how to fix things myself.  Then in the wake of the great recession, I found myself managing the office of an electrician.  There I learned a LOT about electrical work, but I was also introduced to the business of driving to someone’s house, fixing something, and getting paid.  So I mentioned to one of the electrician’s clients that I was thinking of becoming a handyman, and she hired me on the spot.  And the rest, along with watching 9,000+ how-to youtube videos, is history.

I am primarily a fix-it guy rather than an install a new thing guy.

Posts about past jobs:

Drawer Fixes
Replacing broken windows
Replacing Broken Window Sash Cords
Fixing Holes in Drywall
Bathroom Caulking
Rewiring Lamps

The magnificent Jordan Rich recently interviewed me on his Podcast.  Check it out!   — jl

Morning Bigots and Marketing 

Something unexpected flew across my radar recently.  Two of my best clients just happened to mention in passing that they really like the fact that I am not a morning person, and I rarely show up before 11 am.

I always thought my night owl / late riser  proclivities were a disadvantage in life but now I am rethinking things.

I have a phrase for people who are “morning people” . . .   I call them morning bigots.  I generally understand and accept that some people sleep at different hours, but morning bigots have a different attitude.  They think (and “think” is perhaps not the best word here) that if they are up at 7 a.m.,  everyone else should be up too.  Nevermind that you work the graveyard shift doing some essential service– they are up, and to them, that means everyone else should be up too, and the whole world needs to adjust to them.

Our world is becoming ever more uncivil, and sleep deprivation is a big contributor to the problem.

A harsh reality that I learn long ago, certain kinds of services are so hard to get done, that people will put up with just about anything to get them done.  If you have to lose half a night’s sleep to get your heat or your toilet to work, you will do it.

However I am starting to wonder, if you are a handyman or something similar, are we keeping any track of how much business is being lost, by making dealing with us unpleasant for all those later risers out there?


Semantics, and Working in Multimedia

I must confess I often have trouble with the word “handyman.”

I have two big issues.  One is, all too often the label is thought to refer to someone who is neither highly skilled nor very professional.  I often see electricians referring to a lousy job as a “handyman special.”  (The word is often used to mean “amateur”).  Another complaint I have is how there really are varying degrees of skill levels of “handymen.”  Sometimes you will see  a handyman with a truck who possesses a serious range of skills.  Then there are those who claim to have skills they don’t . . .  and then there’s me.  I call myself a “low level handyman” to avoid people asking me to build a deck for them.  Since there is such a dearth of people who can do much of anything I am constantly having to tell people what I don’t /can’t /won’t do.
That said, there is another issue that no one but me ever talks about.  While doctors have very well defined areas  of specialties, there is no such thing in the handyman realm.  I will give you an example.
It has recently occurred to me that this work diverges into two distinct realms.  One is what I call “mechanical fasteners”  (meaning screws and nails) and the other is “chemical bonding,” which is about substances like caulk, cement, glue, epoxy, grout, and so on.
I often talk about “working in multimedia” where I’m referring to a job that has one task involving screws, and then another task on same day that involves concrete or a caulking gun or a light switch.
A screw can have challenges of its own, but chemical bonds are so very very different.  A screw can usually be undone or redone, but cement, you get one shot and it had better be right the first time.  And there is such a science in the concept of “curing.”   My whole life I thought paint just dried, I had no idea that the paint actually cures, it reacts with the local oxygen, and temperature has a big effect.  I did a paint job in a somewhat cold basement this past year and I was very bothered by the super slow dry  (that is “cure” time of the paint, it made for all kinds of issues of dripping that I had never seen before.  And brother you had better read that label on the oil paint can, because if you are working outside and the temp ever goes below 50 degrees for the first 24 hours, your whole project is ruined.   And when you try to explain this to newer clients they suspect you of just being lazy.
And never mind spontaneous combustion.
And cement . . . It only takes 28 days to fully cure.  more or less.    what a concept.  and the instructions really leave you on your own, with vague concepts like “looks like peanut butter.”   In my experience, peanut butter has many different viscosities, so I find it worrisome to have such vague instructions.  And did I mention the use of bonding adhesive and acrylic fortifier??   and you have to mix it just so, so you don;t get air bubbles.  and never shake a can of polyurethane, that will also give you bubbles.  There are entire youtube videos devoted to the avoidance of bubbles.   And then there are the ultra vague instructions about how to add water to polymeric sand, printed in small font on the side of a 60 pound paper bag.   The reality is, working with “goop” and all its many working times and dry times and cure times requires years and years of experience to have any real mastery.  And just this past week I got a lesson in how pressure affects the sanding process of prepping wood you are about to stain.  Who knew.  It’s not on the can anywhere.  You just have to pick it up over time.
I had so many concrete media projects this past year I really had to up my game in that realm . . .  I actually had a lovely conversation (read: lesson) with the head guy at quikrete where I really had my eyes opened.
Possessing the needed skills, it’s a little like being a dermatologist and a proctologist.   Both are doctors, but it’s two very different skill sets.

Tenant Changeovers

One of the many social phenomena one runs into as a handyman is something I call “the tenant changeover.”

Typically, when someone rents an apartment, they stay there for a good long time, like a year or five.  Then one day they decide to move out.   Typically a tenant gives 30 days’ notice, so the landlord is often in a spot where they want to “spiff up” the place to get higher rent but they also don’t want to shut the place down for renovations and lose a months’ rental income.  So once the tenant moves out, assuming they moved before the end of the month, before the next tenant can come in,  there is a mad scramble to clean up and fix up and spiff up the 1-15 years of wear and tear in a very short space of time while the place is empty.  And this becomes “the tenant changeover.”

So, this being the end of the month, I had until the first of next month (i.e., one week) to do everything they wanted done.  Here we go.

Here we see the bedroom with a less than ideal light fixture:

I call this look “early Alcatraz.”

So with a little guidance from my electrician mentor I popped in a new fixture.

And, also whilst I was at it, I talked the guy into a new Lutron rocker dimmer . . .  They are kinda pricey but he’ll have it forever and it adds value.  I love dimmer switches.   Obviously, this one below is installed but not shoved into box yet.

Next, a bit of water damage was marring the living room ceiling bigtime
So on day one I sealed it all up with shellac, and on day 2 I painted it white and it turned out really well.

It would take way too long to post all the little cosmetic fixes I did in this unit.  Those are just the big highlights.

This entire building place is funky in spots but it provides pretty decent housing for folks who need a lower priced place to stay for a while, and I am happy to support those efforts.

Safety First

Something I guess I picked up from learning all about electrical code is, one must be mindful of safety issues when installing, well… just about anything.  You have to think about, not just what is likely, but what is possible.

One safety item you often see is a little bracket that comes with taller build-it-yourself furniture.  The idea is, a little kid might pull out the drawers and start climbing up, not realizing that the thing might tip over and land upon them.

Something similar came to my attention a few weeks ago, I was in a client’s attic and there was a tall (as in 8 feet) old bookcase up there, laden with big books.  The bookcase was less than a foot deep, and frankly not terribly stable, and it would not have taken much to tip the thing over onto someone.

So I thought about installing an Ikea type safety bracket but . . .  where to attach it?  Behind the bookshelf there was a chimney (brick wall) and a type of insulating wallboard on either side.

I didn’t really want to go drilling into 100-year-old brickwork, and the  insulation, well, who knew how thick or strong it was.

I ran this by my guy Jack at the Home Depot pro desk, and he suggested finding the studs under the insulation and nailing maybe a 2×4 to THAT and then attaching my safety bracket.  Sounded good to me.

Well when I got back on site I looked up (perhaps seeking divine handyman guidance) and there I saw–  some perfectly good roof joists just sitting up there with nothing to do.  So I gave up on the 2×4 idea and just drilled a few pilot holes in the existing joists and more in the bookcase itself, screwed in some eye screws, and secured it all with zip ties.

Not sure of the exact weight capacity of zip ties generally (note I doubled them up), but the goal was just to slow the tip-over of the shelf enough to give one time to get the hell out of the way.  That said, I tried to tip it a little and the ties held strong, so . . . close enough anyway.  Way better than what they had, which was a human sized mouse trap.  Sometimes I am so clever I just can’t stand myself 🙂

Drop Cloth Mania

This blog is rarely about “tips and tricks” but one came up today that I thought I would share.

The first time . . . and the 80th time . . . I had to do some painting, without thinking I went to the hardware store and bought the usual dropcloths.  They are usually plastic, 9×12, and about $3 each.  They work, more or less, but are not always the best thing to use

I have gradually expanded my approach to dropcloths.  Nowadays I actually tend to use the cardboard moving boxes they sell at Home Depot.  Reason is, they are nice and stiff and easily go right up against a straight edge of a wall without any extra effort and not much blue tape.  They are also very easy to move to the spot where I am working.  They are usually less than $2 each, and they are much better for smaller jobs generally.  And unlike plastic 9×12 dropcloths (which always end the day as a big wad of not-reusable stuff) once they dry out I can use them over and over again.  And they are easily stored behind a dresser or whatever.

Another tip and trick: garbage bags, which cost what, a quarter apiece?  work just as well if not better as dropcloths . . .  again, this is for smaller spaces.

Also the 9×12 plastic dropcloths are a serious pain (and time loss) to unfold when brand new.


The Smoke Detector Always Chirps Twice

Those of you who have read my book already know I harbor a certain amount of ill will towards smoke detectors.  But last week one of my regular clients had an issue with their smoke detectors going off, and I learned a few new things that I thought I would share with you.

If a smoke detector is chirping, that either means the battery is dying (and obviously needs to be replaced), or maybe the main circuit coming from the panel has died, or the detector itself is dying.  The point being, chirps are not the same as full blaring alarms.  Chirps indicate loss of power, either from the panel, or far more likely, the battery is dying.  If the thing is going off on a full blaring alarm, it’s usually something else.   It is not likely that that is being caused by a dying battery.

This client’s detectors were blaring for ten minutes at a time.  I replaced the batteries just because they were three years old and thus had to be replaced anyway, but the blaring, I went looking for another cause, and here is what I learned:

–Wired smoke detectors are usually installed with a communications wire running between them.  (This wire makes it so if the basement alarm smells smoke, it will make the 3rd floor alarm go off, etc.)   AND, the big point, there is a limit to how many detectors you can string together with that wire.  The limit varies depending on who you ask, but at least one local fire department puts the limit at 7.

–Note, and this is  not commonly known, it is NOT a good idea to mix and match different brands (e.g., Kidde vs First Alert) on the same communication wire/circuit.

—  When you change the batteries (once a year is my own recommendation) it is a good idea to clean the units out with compressed air AND a vacuum.  Smoke particles and spiders both look very much alike to a smoke detector.  Clean them more often if the place is dirty, and cover the units if you are doing sanding etc.

This client had 10 detectors and 2 different brands going, so I took down the 3 inconsistently branded units (they were overkill anyway), I changed all the 3 year old batts, and I cleaned out the units with compressed air and a hand vacuum.

It’s been a month now.  So far so good.

Note the makers all say the units are good for 10 years but I find that at year 7 at least one will go bad.  When that one goes, I say, replace them all.

PS it’s also a good idea to combine photo electric detectors with a few ionization detectors if you can.  Photo electric are better at detecting smoldering fires while ionization are better at detecting full on flames.


Constant Prep

Well I spent the morning organizing my tool kit backpack . . .

Top row, screwdrivers

Middle row, putty knives, razor tools,

Third row, brushes, pliers,

Not pictured: assorted sandpaper, spray cans of silicone and WD40, water bottles, assorted batteries, and various electrical tools.  And of course the drills are in their own bags.   And there are two shelved closets filled with painting tools, cement and plaster tools, specialty tools (zip tool, spline tool, etc.),  and so on.  But I can do 90% of the work I get called to do with a drill and this bag.

Ready to go to war!!  🙂

Adventures in Matching Stain

Well this is something that only a handyman would be thrilled by,

So I am assisting a client on a kitchen remodel.  The builders took out about half of the 100 year old woodwork and replaced it with new bare wood, and the juxtaposition was gruesome.  At this point I think most people would just give up and paint.
This is a perfect example of how handymanning is SO much different than regular building, because SO SO SO often you have to MATCH the color or look of something that has been out of stock or style for decades.
So I started my research, and first thing i learned is, the color of a given single can of wood stain VARIES ENORMOUSLY depending on the wood you are staining.   I did not know this of course, so I had to learn the hard way (Oh gosh, didnt we tell you??)
So after numerous not-matching at all failures ( here, they are sitting on a drawer from the original kitchen)
I finally got BOTH a sample of the existing woodwork ( a drawer) AND a piece of the wood the builders used.  wahoo.
So after a few more failures I tried one more stain and VIOLA  I got a nearly perfect match of the original color.
Of course the old woodwork is distressed with nicks and gouges and black smudges all over which is either oxidization or the oil of a thousand hands that once touched it or both . . .  but I can use the darker stain I bought to replicate that effect, so if you look DEAD CENTER on the test below you can see how that one section is a perfect match to the old finish.  Again, wahoo.   (on the right board, top right is the one color that closely matches original original, and bottom right is a previous test that was too brown and too dark.)
So I need to play with it and practice before diving in to the actual kitchen. . . .  and next, I need to test the satin poly I bought for a top coat and see if THAT matches adequately . . . .  And of course to get really nuts I will have to beat it up with nicks and scratches and gouges.
This is such a relief, for a while there nothing was working.  I am so clever I can’t stand myself 😉   — jl

Working with Cement

Well let me be the first to say that I am not a mason.  For a long time I have avoided working with concrete, mostly because it seemed very mysterious to me.  Also, unlike other realms of handymanning, there is precious little access to knowledgeable people to seek advice therefrom.

However, handyman work is all about customer need, and lately I have been running into multiple clients who have relatively small concrete oriented jobs, and as always, I get the lament that “I can’t find anyone to do it.”  So, in I dive.

Concrete work feels very much like baking.  You have the concrete with is very much like flour, you add water, and then you mix it up just so.  Grout, a form of concrete, has amazingly precise instructions for mixing for x minutes then let it sit for Y minutes.   Then you have quick setting concrete also known as instant in the food world . . .

The real trouble with concrete is, if you screw it up, you have a VERY heavy VERY stuck on glop of stuff that can be close to impossible to remove, so everything gets to be very high stress.

Anyway, last week a client asked me to deal with a brick wall, it was a low retaining wall for a front yard.  The guy who put this thing in decided for some reason to use construction adhesive instead of mortar, and most of it lost all structural integrity.  So now I have a bunch of loose bricks with glops and glops of goo under each brick.  And here is the massive irony du jour:  dry/old construction adhesive . . .  will not adhere to any kind of mortar, nor will it adhere to new adhesive.  Not even the super duper varieties,  You see, they all want to bond to a porous surface, and dried adhesive is anything but.  and believe me I researched . . . I called quikrete, I talked to every dept at Home Depot, I talked to Loctite, . . .  and . . .  nothing.

So, my only option is to somehow get all that dried goop off of each brick . . .

This wall had a few corner pieces made out of triangles, and those HAD to be fixed, so I wire-wheeled the old goop off the backs of each piece, PLUS the tops of the bricks below.  it took for gosh darned ever.

To make extra sure, I used a hammer drill to make holes in all the surfaces to makes sure to get a good bond.  So I succeeded there anyway, and it was necessary, as the triangles were falling off at the slightest provocation.

the  pic above is a rough in, below is the final.

I ALSO learned that cement  is way more dangerous than we are generally led to believe.  When I buy paint I am inundated with lead paint warnings, but I can walk to the cement warehouse at home depot and the cancer causing silica dust contained in leaky paper bags is just wafting in the breeze.  And while they mention that one should wear gloves, no one really explains just how nasty and dangerous wet cement can be on human skin.  It can burn you just like acid, only backwards.  I learned this the hard way last spring.

I have to say though, once I got over my initial fear of it, while it is stress inducing, cement is kinda fun . . .  sort of like making mud pies or icing a cake.  And the chemical properties, the way it gets so very hard for the rest of time, is pretty cool.  The danger of nasty consequences for making a mistake adds to the overall handyman excitement.


Weird Phone Fix

Well I have been having various problems with my phone lately.  Among other things, I have come to realize that we are all WAY too dependent on these things.  There are no payphones any more, so how do you communicate with the world if your phone is dead and you are stuck on a highway somewhere?

I also discovered there are many websites that assume you have a phone . . . to which they can text you various security codes, and they offer live phone help if the website does not work . . . but if you have no phone, you are screwed.

Anyway I called a client this morning and she could not hear me.  I called other folks, same issue.  I did a messaging/chat on my provider’s website and we went through hours of troubleshooting the SIM card.  no use.

Finally I figured out that there was an issue with the microphone.  So just for the hell of it I looked at the bottom of my phone and right where the microphone hole used to be I saw a little white dot.  I had been disposing of paint last week and sure enough, I got a little glop of paint in there and it solidified and created a perfect sonic barrier.  I scraped it out with a safety pin and now the phone works again.

Sadly, I already bought a new phone.  I spose I could return it but the glass on this one is cracked and there is an ice melt pellet stuck in the microphone jack, so . . . time to upgrade I think.

I remember the day in the 90’s when I realized, I am way way way too dependent upon my computer to only have one– I need a spare in case this one breaks.  That same day has repeated for me today, with my phone.  I will use the new one and keep the older one as a backup for days like this.

I am also thrilled to say, that I have a working phone right here right now.  And I fixed it.