Jack & Dad Summer: Day 18 — Cat-Littering Paint

When we moved into our house eight years ago, the previous owners left behind lots of old paint. The cans have started to rust through and I’ve got to get rid of this stuff. I mixed about 12 gallons of random paints into big plastic buckets and now we have a ton of this weird, Silly Putty-colored paint; I might add some color to make it gray and use it on the basement walls. But the rest of the paint is lousy, and no one seems to recycle the stuff around here.

To safely dispose of latex paint in the garbage, it’s got to be dried. You can pour it out on newspapers a bit at a time, but we went with the cat litter method. A few scoops of litter mixed into a quarter-gallon of paint clumps it all right up. It’ll be rock solid in a day or two. Jack and I got through quite a lot of cans this afternoon. It was strangely fun.


How to Hang a Hammock Seat from a High Branch

Our son got a hammock seat from his grandparents and we wanted to hang it from the backyard maple, so he could swing and read and max/relax in the yard now that it’s warm.

It didn’t come with rope so my wife and I went to the almighty Tractor Supply. We bought polypropylene rope with a load weight of 420 lbs., so our son would have to do something really crazy to break it.

First off, cool trick: with this kind of synthetic rope, you can melt the frayed ends together with a lighter so it doesn’t unravel:




The tricky part was getting the rope tied to a branch thirty feet in the air. I learned how to tie a double bowline knot, which leaves a secure loop at one end of the rope.


Then I had to get the knot over the branch and pull it back down. Even with a stick tied to the throwing end, this was hard to do. The stick wasn’t quite heavy enough to compensate for the weight of the slack rope, which kept slowing the stick and preventing me from getting it over the branch. I finally did, and then the stick just dangled there. The easy solution was to snap-ripple the end of the rope I still had. Each ripple let the stick fall a little farther down, until at last I had both ends on the ground with the rope looped over the branch.

I slipped the loose end into the earlier knot loop and pulled.


The knot rode up and tightened itself on the branch. It was incredibly satisfying, as good knots often are.


After that I tied another double bowline at the opposite end and clipped on the hammock seat. Our son spent hours in this thing. He had his iPod at one point, but for the most part he was content to hang there, watching the dog and daydreaming. He even went out this morning when it was cold enough to need a puffy vest. Total success.


Boy’s Room Makeover, with Octophant

Our son’s birthday is right after Christmas. This typically results in Too Many Gifts, especially because he’s the only grandchild in our section of the family. My wife had the great thought of giving his room an overhaul instead of simply buying him regular birthday presents, and he was excited about the idea.

He was turning nine and we hadn’t altered the decor of his room in years. It was babyish and messy, with random stuff all over the walls, a bad layout, and an uncomfortable color scheme. Here it is beforehand (but after the mess had been cleaned out and piled in the hall):



I built him the pteranodon before he was born. He wanted that to stay.

He asked for a room that felt more grownup, and we wanted to make changes we could easily adapt for future rearrangements or needs. We also wanted to do it on a modest budget. After measuring the room and drawing up half a dozen plans, we found one that worked.

The bed would go partially into that unused closet, and the dresser would stand alongside it, between the bed and the door, with a short bookcase on top. This would give him plenty of clothes and knickknack storage space, and would create a defensive wall between him and the outside world, which of course would be totally rad at any age. I’d build another bookcase for the back corner, where he could arrange his Hardy Boys collection and various necessary items. He’d have a reading chair with a side table. His electric guitar would be accessibly displayed. And to cozy everything up, we’d paint the room a rich chocolate brown, with a highlight of dark orange in the old closet.

First I built the bookcases:



My wife painted the room and we put it all together. Our son bought a cheap artificial ficus tree at the local craft store (we were gathering materials for a Leif Ericsson helmet; more on that another day) and thought it would lend the bed nook an excellent forested quality. We gave The Improbable Octophant prime placement on the wall. The arrangement and color scheme made the room remarkably warmer, and he’s been terribly happy with the result. Our dog Bones likes it, too, and is more inclined to visit at night.






How to Fix a Leaky Tree Stand

Mist, fog, foggy mist

“Hon, I think the tree is leaking,” said my wife.

“@#$%!&,” said my brain.

She was right. There was water on the floor, apparently dripping from the bottom of the stand, so down came the tree to see what I could do.

This year we used lights but not ornaments because of Bones, who’s under a year and might have tried to eat them, so all I had to do was unstring the lights instead of undecorating an entire tree.

1standI dragged the tree to the porch and took the stand downstairs to find the problem. It’s an older metal stand that had partially rusted through at the center of the bottom. I took the stand apart so all I had left was the dish, and then I scrubbed it clean with a wire brush and, having scraped away additional rust, was left with several tiny holes.

Tree stands are a little expensive, unless you want a poorly made plastic stand that’s liable to tip, and it seemed to crazy to throw away a perfectly good metal stand because of a few little rust holes. I went to the store and bought a can of Rustoleum’s LeakSeal. I’ve wanted to use this stuff ever since I saw the cheap generic version on TV, in that ad where the guy replaces the bottom of a rowboat with a spray-sealed screen door to show it doesn’t leak.

2standLeakSeal is like spray-on rubber. It dries tight but flexible in a couple of hours and is fully cured in 24. I stuck Gorilla Tape to the outside of the stand, covering the holes, so when I sprayed the LeakSeal from the inside, it wouldn’t spray right through. I gave it one coat, dried it in front of a box fan, and gave it a second coat two hours later. Then I waited a full twenty-four and tested the stand with water. It looked completely sealed and didn’t leak at all after leaving it full for several hours. So I reassembled the stand and put the tree back up.

It’s been a four days now and the stand hasn’t leaked. I’m eager to try this stuff on other leaks and cracks I encounter in the future.


Colonial-American Word of the Day
Apple Dumplin’ Shop: (n) a woman’s bosom

Go Forth!
The Infamous Ice Sculpture Collapse

The Revels, “I Saw Three Ships”

Grass and Bones

This year’s giant pumpkin plant fizzled — it had the same stunted side-vines that troubled me last year — and I decided it was time to move on and spend my springs and summers doing something practical, like beer-brewing or falconry.

The pumpkin patch is now a bare patch of dirt, however. Our dog Bones assisted in the planting of arborvitae, and fall is the best time of year for seeding the rest of the patch with grass. After some light weeding and leveling, there was no need to loosen or amend the soil with nutrients, since I’ve been adding loads of compost and organic fertilizer for the pumpkins and it’s easily the richest, fluffiest dirt you’re liable to find in a typical suburban backyard.

I borrowed my parents’ spreader and used Scott’s Sun and Shade variety of seed (aka, Idiot-Proof Seed) and lightly raked the scattered seed into the soil. The key is keeping it wet, which is easier to do now that the hot summer sun is on the wane, and I’ve got the sprinker rigged in the center of the yard and mean to use it a few times a day until the grass takes hold.

The downside of growing grass is that Bones lurvs digging in the patch, tearing up roots and burying bones (for real) and playing ostrich, and because I removed the cheap protective fence around the patch in early summer (and foolishly threw it away), Bones has to be leashed whenever he’s let outside.

Bones digging:



It seems unfair that he’s so restricted considering his help with the arborvitae. All that work, he must be thinking, and now I have to be chaperoned by a parent wearing pajama bottoms and untied sneakers.

After a single day, it’s already getting him down. This morning he saw a chipmunk lurking in the back corner, and although I did my best to run at his side and Chase It Into Its Hole Just Because, my pitiful man legs were no match for Bones’s usual speed, and the chipmunk, unalarmed by our approach, very gradually turned and escaped with no particular haste.

In other words, I let Bones down. I’m sure he’ll take a lot of heat for this, especially once the squirrels start mocking our efforts. But this is the way it has to be, and I can only hope that the yard animals will be awed by Bones’s unfettered speed once the grass is grown and he can resume his leashless sallies into the yard.

Weird Little Crooked Bookcase

Now that the galleys of Fellow Mortals have arrived and I’m holding real-live copies of a novel I wrote, I wanted to thank my editor, Emily Bell, who believed in me and my book and made this possible. A number of months ago, I came across a private-commission bookcase I thought was great (you can see the original here). It’s crooked and looks like a drawer sinking into the floor or tabletop, with the illusion that the bottom books are also sinking into the surface. I thought a small version of such would make a terrific, personal thank-you gift.

I had some pieces of old maple from my wife’s aunts, who’d been using the wood as storage shelves but didn’t need it anymore. Cutting angles is always tricky for me since I don’t plan ahead but rather wing it. This typically leads to stupid mistakes and wasted wood, but I get the job done eventually.

I began by measuring a standard hardcover book to determine the proper depth and width of the bookcase, and then I cut the bottom and top to size and started on the sides. I went with a 15-degree cut, a more conservative angle than what was used in the private commission, because I worried the case would tip if the angles were too severe. After some trial and error on the height of the bookcase’s sides, I liked what I had and used wood-glue and nails to put it together.

Next I cut a border around the base. This was slightly higher than the bottom piece of wood, and it adds to the illusion of the sinking books since you can no longer see the base directly; it just looks like a square hole surrounded by trim. I added a plywood back, and that’s where I made the most mistakes cutting because it was such an unusual shape, and I wasn’t paying attention when I measured, and it was a classic case of Dennis at Work. But then I got it right and proceeded to the final step: trick books.

I didn’t want to destroy actual books, because I like books, and my editor and her publishing house would view it as sacrilege, and using real books was needless anyway. I cut some scrap wood into the wedge shapes I needed and glued a pair of old dust jackets around them. Then I nailed the wedges together and secured them to the base of the bookcase.

In the final photo, the bottom two books are false and the others are real. My editor can use whatever books she likes and the whole thing is small enough to fit on a table or desk. I’m mailing it to her today.

Crooked Bookcase

Replacing a Rotten Section of Deck

A few weeks ago we tore down our dilapidating mudroom and were left with a mud-room shaped section of rotten flooring in the deck. Plus that section of the deck was an inch higher than the rest, so in order to fix the flooring, the underlying joists had to be replaced in the proper position. After the usual advice from my expert friend Kurt, who’s always happy to appear as my Free Handyman I Take Advantage Of and Try to Help in Return Even Though I Still Generally Feel Guilty for Calling the Guy So Often for Assistance, I decided to attempt the repair solo.

After buying the pressure-treated two-by-eights for the joists and one-by-sixes for the floorboards and driving the lumber home in a rented Home Depot truck that smelled of urine, I stacked it all in the yard and tore up the bad existing boards. Underneath I found a sizable groundhog hole, now abandoned, which was probably the home of the groundhog that’s harried my pumpkin patch in previous years. I also found a couple of peanut butter jars, too new to predate the deck, that were likely dragged there by the groundhog so he could make sandwiches when he wasn’t eating pumpkin.

Also found were a number of cruddy old balls of various colors and sizes, broken glass, rusty bottle caps, and a small drinking glass. You can picture the previous owners having a wild drunken catch as they were building that section of the deck many years ago. Or maybe it was all the fun-loving groundhog.

The next step was cutting and laying the four-side border of the new section of deck. It had to be perfectly level with the surrounding good part of the deck, so the original plan was to build a nice level structure elsewhere in the yard, carry it over, and nail it into place. That way I wouldn’t have to level things up on the fly, but long two-by-sixes are so heavy, especially when you’ve nailed a bunch of them together, that I’d have needed a few additional people to help me move and attach the structure and so I decided to wing it and attach the boards one at a time, keeping everything in line with a level and crossed fingers.

Which worked eerily well. Next I cut the individual joists and nailed them in using a borrowed construction-size nail gun (I have an air compressor of my own but only guns for little trim nails) and proceeded to the floorboards.

I had to replace a few random boards around the deck due to cracks or warps, and I needed to remove some additional boards and reposition them so they were better staggered, for stability and appearance, when I added the new boards. I cut them each to size and nailed them down. There was only one that ended up being a quarter-inch too wide for its allotted place, so I took it downstairs and shaved an edge on my table saw. Sometimes the boards were so tightly fit that I needed to jump on them to cram them into place, but by and large it was all surprisingly easy. I finished it up and here it is:


The next step is to add a piece of trim to cover that spot beneath the door where the now-lower section of deck has left some of the wall exposed. Then I need to lightly sand the entire deck and paint it. I also need to install a storm door and figure out an awning solution, but after that it’s done.

P.S. I continue to see the occasional carpenter ants, left homeless after the mudroom’s destruction, scurrying about in the hope that some part of the deck isn’t solid new pressure-treated lumber. I taunt them.

How to Make a Dog Throw Up

BonesIn a split-second this morning, our dog Bones smelled our son’s antihistamine on the dining room table and thought, “Hm, grapey treat.” He managed to lift the tiny plastic cup off the table without a spill. I strolled out and there he was, having knocked the medicine over and begun to lick the strange, sugary liquid off the carpet. After some frantic no-no-no! style hullabaloo he backed away, looking throughly embarrassed, and our son started crying because he thought Bones was poisoned. My wife calmed him (our son) down and I called the emergency vet.

Bones had consumed maybe a third of the 1-tablespoon dose. This is children’s medicine that is sometimes given to dogs his size for allergy-control, but we had to play it safe. The vet recommended hydrogen peroxide, which surprised me. It’s apparently a common recommendation, one I didn’t know because we’ve never had a dog before. We were instructed to pour three tablespoons of hydrogen peroxide into his mouth and walk him briskly on a leash. After getting most of the hydrogen peroxide into his stomach, we jogged around the yard. He looked, well… like someone who’d just been force-fed a big mouthful of hydrogen peroxide. And in less than sixty seconds, the treatment worked its magic.

He vomited. And vomited. And vomited and vomited. A threw up the first half of breakfast, then the second half of breakfast, then a little more, and a little more, and a little more, and then he decided to poop, and then he threw up a little more. Ten minutes later, he was 100% emptied out and trotting around in very high spirits, though still with an expression like, “What was that all about?”

We’re waiting an hour before we give him a replacement breakfast.

Moral of the story: small cups of medicine are not to be left for even the briefest amount of time, and hydrogen peroxide is one heck of an emetic.

Death of a Mudroom

We had this mudroom off the back of our house that caused a lot of problems. The room was approximately 5×8 and was useful as a place to store garden supplies and the like, but as is often the case with such a room, it frequently became the depository of every damn thing we couldn’t find a spot for.

The righthand wall blocked the view of our yard from the kitchen, and because of the way it was positioned, it made our deck seem smaller than it is.

It also served as a buffer between the yard and the actual house, so the elements hit the mudroom instead of the backdoor, and we could leave our dirty shoes there instead of tracking mud or snow into the kitchen. But then the elements started to win. The roof grew patches of moss and began to leak; a gust of wind blew a window out of its frame, which window almost struck a visiting 6-year-old before it shattered on the floor; the outer door broke and could only be replaced with a costly custom door; and the whole structure had a growing wobble, slight but unnerving, whenever we walked outside.

Last and most irksome, carpenter ants had moved into the walls and were eating the structure from the inside out. When I pried off the drywall, I revealed not only the sawdusty frass of previous colonies but a pair of active egg mounds. The eggs are sticky white, like over-boiled rice, and if I remember my research correctly, they’ll linger there over the winter and hatch the following year. Since the usual ant poisons don’t affect the eggs, carpenter ants are hard to eradicate; even if you kill the current year’s colony, there’s always another nest waiting in the wings.

Not this time! As soon as I opened the drywall, the living ants panicked and began to carry the eggs to safer ground. Before they could properly mobilize, I scooped the eggs with a dust pan and tied them into a plastic bag. Next I poured boiling water on the rest of the ants and eggs that were hiding out of reach, and then, just as a few weary survivors were having an emergency meeting under the floor, I went forward with my plan to destroy their precious mudroom forever.

I called on a friend who’s good at this kind of thing to help me avoid killing myself or destroying the back of the house during demolition. I ordered a 12-yard dumpster and we tore it down piece by piece two Saturdays ago. The decrepit state of the mudroom made it harder to wreck, as it happened, because we had to be careful that portions wouldn’t collapse at a dangerous moment, and we often needed leverage using boards that we too rickety or rotten to provide it.

Along the way, we discovered that the mudroom was really the enclosure of an earlier shingled awning with wooden supports. The original support posts were mostly intact inside a shell of cheap outer wood, and I’m keeping them now until I figure out some way to repurpose them.

Another discovery was the quality of old pine. Our house was built in the late 40s, when pine was nicer and stronger than the cheap-o stuff you generally find at Home Depot. There were places where water and ants had disintegrated the newer wood but left the original pine — which wasn’t pressure-treated back then — completely intact. And the old 2x4s were actual 2x4s, and not the smaller nominal size of 1 1/2″ by 3 1/2″. It was manly wood, from a manlier era.

The entire mudroom was barely connected to the house, which meant there was minimal damage to the outer wall when we removed it. A lot of the cedar shakes were missing where the roof met the house, but we replaced those with new shakes and I painted them all the following day. The paint I used was matched to the sunbleached color that surrounded the former mudroom, but sadly, color-matching isn’t an exact science, even with those fancy computer matchers at paint stores. So now we have a slightly darker Ghost of the Mudroom on the back wall. It’s less glaring in person; my camera exaggerates the contrast (see the final photo below).

The old mudroom floor is still there at the footprint. I’ll need to tear that up and replace the boards so it matches the rest of the deck. I’m installing a new storm door, now that the kitchen door leads directly to the yard. I also need an electrician to rewire the backyard light, and I’m going to put up a metal awning so we’ll have some cover when it rains or snows.

It’s incredible how much the view and even the yard itself has opened up since the mudroom’s removal. I owe my friend Kurt a full day of tiring labor on one of his future projects, along with a replacement set of Sawzall blades that he ruined cutting through the tarry old roof shingles.

Epilogue: today I saw a single lonesome carpenter ant scurrying aimlessly around the deck. I allowed it a moment of solemn remembrance, then squished it with my fingers.