Archive for the 'Salvage' Category

Blinded by the Utility of Trash

I hate to waste anything. Granted, this is the battle cry of a problem hoarder. But I am one of those problem people, or fortunate urbanites, who pulls trash from the dumpsters to give some small fraction of potential landfill addition useful life. With so many apartments on the block, there is always someone moving out, discarding perfectly good items that they just don’t want to bother moving or selling.

Today the case in point, the The Object at Hand, is discarded mini-blinds. It doesn’t matter much whether they are pure vinyl, or coated aluminum. Both have their uses. Although the aluminum properly should be recycled, eventually.

Vintage grass shears make mini blinds into labels

Vintage grass shears make mini blinds into labels

As a gardener I find a couple of different uses for these usually dirty, bent, and/or broken window appliances. The cords and support ladders are polyester string, a strong and very weather resistant material; longer lasting than the more popular nylon or polypropylene for exterior use. Thus I extract and roll up the strings to use as needed; like to tie things up tree limbs, loose fence boards, sagging gates, hanging plants, etc.

But the pure gold of the mini blinds is that they make excellent plant labels. Anyone who lives with perennials has two needs for these. First, to mark where things will pop up. It is too easy to forget by springtime where the summer plants will emerge, and end up planting something else on top of it. And secondly to label all the plants that we have to divide each year to give or sell to new homes.

But, you may protest, labels are so cheap! True. My argument is that this is both an act of consumerist defiance, to use discarded material in place of virgin plastic, and a zen gardening exercise. When one tires of digging, weeding, tying, and sweating, here is a project — and excuse — to meditatively sit in the shade and relax.

I start by stacking a few blinds, and cutting points across the string holes. This gives me nice, consistent, short labels from the end pieces.

Cross Cut

In order to have uniform longer labels, I balance the remainders on the edge of the shears, and then cut. This particular set of blinds was perfect for these. Sometimes the center sections are too long for a single pair. Then I make a cross cut at the balance point, and then the balanced across cut.

Balance Cut

The final task is to write the label text. You may note the permanent markers that live in the mug with our now ready to use labels. And some labels from earlier blinds.

Ready To Use LabelsOh, you noticed the black one? For longer lasting labels, use aluminum blinds, and embossed Dymo (or equivalent) labels. I got an excellent vintage labeller at an estate sale, with interchangeable font wheels and carrying case. But you can still get them online. With these bright labels, blinds of any color will do. And when the label color fades away after a few years of sun, you can still see the raised letters, and even somewhat revive them by rubbing with stain.

The pure vinyl labels are fine for a year or two. But then either the ink spalls off (or fades away) , or the label itself breaks. We use vinyl to indicate to or from where things need to be moved, or as labels for outgoing plants.

Here is a simple comparison, one in a to-sell tray, the other in a keeper plot.
Compare Labels

Gating My Neighbor

The title is a pun, for those who know English Country Dancing of the kinds we do in the three linked venues in this sentence. It is a move in which one person pulls another one gently around them by the hand, much like a swinging gate.

Old GateAnyway, I was finally motivated to fix an alley gate in the rear of the property next to the one in which I reside. Back when the tech bubble burst, I built a new gate for a neighbor when I was considering non-computer remunerable activities (“jobs”). But other less sweaty forms of enterprise soon came my way. So it has been a dozen years since I have built a gate from scratch.

This old gate had twice required repair already this very year. But the quarter century old treated and mistreated lumber was no longer holding screws reliably. Also, the gate had design flaws from the beginning: It was designed and built by the architect from whom I bought the building in 1986. As I have seen in many cases, architects are generally design artists, not students of engineering or livability.

So I decided to engineer a new gate. I used modern treated wood, allowed it to age and dry for a while in the garage. Then gave each piece a good soaking with oil based penetrating redwood stain (a mix of red and yellow pigments, both of which retard biological growth (ie: algae, lichen, other rots).

Gate skeletonFirst, I had to reinforce the hinge side of the fence with a new upper stringer and a new fence board to support the hinges. Then I measured several times and cut only once per piece, working in the relatively cool shade of the garage this July 4th holiday weekend. I lined up the stringer boards parallel across saw horses. Then measured some more and put in the end fence boards cantilevered out to cover the jamb just the right amount. More careful measuring, and cut the diagonal tension web board to support the gate and prevent it from sagging over the next couple of decades.

This web board is actually the missing board from the first picture. It was in good enough shape to be reused. Then I fit in the other fence boards by eye, and screwed everything up. Intentional cross-the-pond implied pun.

New GateThat is, I attached all the parts with deck screws. Unfortunately, my screws of different lengths had different head types. Back around Y2K, square drive heads replaced the old Phillips heads. Now, those have been supplanted by Torx star drive heads. So I had to change my driver bit way too often, as I refuse to discard perfectly good weatherized screws just because they have been on my shelf for a decade.

Anyway, the gate is now finished. My neighbors no longer have to wrestle with the gate to take out their recycling or trash. Sure, I used salvaged hinges probably from the early 1900’s, and the latch is one I bought at Central Hardware in the 1980’s. But those old parts can be expected to last out the life of this gate, and probably the next.

So the Object At Hand here is the gate I built. Or the idea of a gate. Or even the use of the English Country Dance term to sucker unlikely people into reading this post.

Here is a video that I put together of an English Country Dance performance for one of the three groups linked above. Yes, I appear briefly in it.

Bursting to Tell Me

I was in the middle of a run of not-too-intense web page code, when I hear a shout. “Dan!” floating down the hall from the far end of the house.

I replied, “WHAT?” without looking up, and returned my attention to the code. Yes, this script wants a semi-colon there.

After a pause my monosyllabic monicker again rang out. Nothing more. No indication for what my attention was needed.

Oh, well. I mentally book marked my code and pulled myself out of my office, and down the dark, twisting back stairs. I met Karen in the kitchen, and said, “Yes?”

“Water is pouring into the basement at the back door!”

As I dashed down the basement stairs I wondered why that little tidbit hadn’t been broadcast in the first place. Oh well. My first guess — that the 22 year old water heater had finally failed — was wrong. The water was coming in from outside.

Hose Extension Epiphany! The old hose segment that I’d been using to run the water from the outside tap through a water timer and to a convenient hose reel, must have failed. I ran back upstairs and opened the kitchen door to find the doorway and landing awash as the rent in the hose gushed right at the back door, and thus down the back stairs to the basement.

So I sloshed out and shut off the tap. The next day I replaced the hose on the hose reel, just because it was no longer as kink-resistant as it was when I first got it. And thus could cut a new section from the old hose to run across the back of the house.

Holed hose

So the Object at Hand is the now-demised hose segment.

As my regular readers know, I am a scavenger. I hate to see anything go to waste. Some decades ago a neighbor threw away a high quality hose, just because the dog had chewed up about ten feet of it about a third of the way along its length. I had to save the poor thing.

After chopping out the punctured and chawed part, I had a newish 70′ hose and a couple of good short segments. Hose ends are inexpensive and simple to replace. By now, this ten foot section had been under full pressure (and exposed to regular intense pressure pulses each time the timer clicks off) and lying in full sun for about 18 years. It had a good life since I Lazarused it in 1991.

I thank the daemons of probability that it failed less than an hour before we noticed it. We could have been away for hours, days, or weeks when it happened. Then it would have been a real mess.

A Dryer for Moister Air

One of the least “Green” appliances ever created is the clothes dryer. It does the same job as hanging clothes out on a line, but consumes a lot of energy. I’ll forgo the rant about zoning laws that even prohibit hanging out the wash, and tell you about a slightly greener way to live with one, at least during the cold months when you really don’t want to go outside to hang the wash.

Bag plugged dryer duct

In the winter, I pull the duct from the dryer to the wall vent and plug the outside vent with a grocery bag stuffed with rumpled grocery bags (seen at the top). The outer bag only lasts one season, but meanwhile has a more virtuous life as an energy saving insulator. Surely the whole stuffed bag saves more oil than was used to originally produce the bags that had already been used for their original purpose.

Dryer Setup But the real money is that the pipe rising from the dryer goes into a filter box. Shown here is my temporary prototype that I made from salvaged cardboard as a first try about fifteen years ago (and still in use today). I used a 20″ square filter because I had those sitting around from the use described in my post Fantastic Filter Idea.

You see, like any appliance, the dryer converts electricity into heat. It heats up already-warm house air to pull the moisture from the clothes, and then dumps it outside! It pumps warm air outside! And we pay to heat it even more in the process. So I figure that we may as well heat and humidify the air in the house during the months where that is desirable.

As to the filters: A dryer pummels your clothes to soften them as a substitute for letting them waft in a breeze. This abuse tears loose many small fibers; dust. Sure, the dryer has a lint trap. But anyone who has looked at their dryer exhaust duct knows that some fraction of the lint gets through.

Prototype filter boxSo my filter box holds a cheap, blue, loose-weave filter that slides in through a slot on the side. This filter can be taken out and beaten clean outside every month or so. After a couple of years, I realized how much of even smaller dust was still getting through. So I first set up the hanging fan shown in Fantastic Filter Idea , and then chose to add a pleated filter to the prototype. The inner filter gets most of the lint, and the outer one catches most of what is left. The separate one on the ceiling catches still more. My tools across the room no longer get so dusty. Nor do my lungs.

The whole house then benefits from the heat and humidity that wafts up the basement stairwell, because warm air rises, and the ceiling-mounted box fan pushes the air toward the stairs.

A New Coat for Santa

Many years ago, we received a seasonal cookie jar, a Chinese made porcelain Santa that (if memory serves) was full of something. Each year we would take it out and just use it as part of our holiday ambiance. But then his coat began to fade. Only the red did shed. At first, we ignored the few missing flakes. As years and flakes passed, he was delegated to a background role, and finally hidden away. By then he also had a bad crack halfway around, as well. Obviously a dollar store throwaway item finally ready to become landfill after a dozen years of use.

Yet, I had long thought of repainting his coat. But when I did, either the weather was not suitable for good ventilation, or the season was wrong to inspire me. So he continued to languish, kept but unloved.

But December first, 2012 was a very warm day. Warm enough to open up the house to warm it up a little. So I dug an old roll of masking tape out of the basement, and in dozens of niggling little segments, covered everything but the white-that-should-be-red. I scuffed the red-to-be zone with a 3-M nylon scrubber, and used some more tape to pull of the loose flakes.

Santa Stripped

I found some red spray paint that I got at a yard sale a couple of years back, and had at him. I gave Santa’s coat three coats on top of an old dishwasher box in the garage that had clearly been used as a paint station for ages.

Once the paint was dry, peel off the tape, and let the chubby guy have his cookie.


Running Out of Light

This morning I had an idea. But then I looked up at that cartoon light bulb hovering over my head, and decided to write about that object, instead.

This marvelous still-working antique makes for a better image than the collection of dead light bulbs that were actually my inspiration. You see, the world is running out of tungsten. So I am starting to salvage the filaments from my dead light bulbs.

May I assume that you don’t think about tungsten very often? This metal is rarer and harder to purify than gold. But it sells for only a few dozen dollars a pound. Every electrical light bulb, whether incandescent, fluorescent, or arc, contains tungsten. So do x-ray tubes, cat-scanners, and (believe it or not) commercial airplane wings.

What’s so special about it? It has a high melting point. It is the only element that would be a liquid on the surface of the sun. This is why it is so useful in light bulbs. It is also one of the heaviest elements: As heavy as gold, or eleven times as heavy as magnesium. This density is why it is in the wings of large airplanes, as dynamic turbulence compensators. You can see many examples and learn lots of cool stuff about tungsten here at I get lost in that site, either geeking out or admiring the photography and stories.

Anyway, this rare and useful material  is getting hard to find in the Earth’s crust. And every day, tons of it go to the landfill, mostly in burned-out lightbulbs. All the original tungsten is still in that sealed ampule, mostly as a strand of wire with a small gap. And we throw this rare stuff away.

Although we are generations away from needing to mine the landfills for valuable materials such as this, I have decided to start collecting tungsten from my dead lamps. At the rate they burn out, I may have a pound by the end of my life. But it feels vaguely satisfying to know that it will be easy to recycle, once they (we) realize its value.

Is Penny Wisdom Plain Foolish?

I spent an hour this evening fixing an appliance that I bought at a yard sale many years ago for a coin. Not only that, but I solely and regularly use this appliance for my daily work. You may wonder how I use a potpourri crock pot for my work? As the heater part of a small double boiler for an etchant that can eat through glass or titanium, of course.

And what can go wrong with a crock pot? Well, this one has been dropped a couple of times. But the crack was dealt with well enough some years ago by a liberal application of Acrylic monomer (Super Glue).

So what was wrong? The crack had weakened the heating element (Ni-chrome filament) and it finally burned through. So I took the thing apart and spliced in a bit of fine brass wire that I had lying around. That delicate job was the easy part, given strong magnifying goggles and tiny tools.

But these diabolical inexpensive units are designed to not-be reassembled. They had actually added an extra part to the design to make reassembly impossible. It took me over a half hour to outwit the designers and get the base re-attached in a manner that would let me take it apart again for future repairs.

For a dozen deductible dollars I can have a new one delivered to my house via eBay. Why do I regularly chose to spend so much time to repair disposable appliances?

My parents both went through economic times much worse than the U.S. Depression, losing nearly everything but their lives. They raised me with essential parsimony. Not actual deprivation, mind you. Just a frugal mindset that pervades my being. I hate to throw anything usable away.

But now I have predictable (if meager) income, and no debt. I have money in the bank, and could afford nice things. But it just feels wasteful to throw away something that I can fix. I mentioned this in “How Does a Microwave Work?

Things I no longer need may end up on eBay. I usually net less than minimum wage for my time on most of these sales. But the widget/parts/book gets a new life with someone who really wants it, and the post office makes some money.

So the object at hand today is the realization that I am an oddball tinker living in a throw-away society, illustrated by a stripped-down 4″ crock pot.

How Does a Microwave Work?

I was sitting with a neighbor one summer afternoon around 1989, when the neighbor asked, “Dan, do you know how a microwave works?”

I told him that I did, and asked him if he’d like me to explain it. He assented. So I considered how to explain how they work to someone with little math. And then launched into what probably was a dizzying description with hand gestures of quantum and molecular degrees of freedom, electromagnetic resonances, and a brief detour into the evolution of and differences between magnetron and Klystron tubes before finally mentioning the history of radar and the serendipitous development of the Radarange. (Now that we have the web, you can find a fit-for-non-geeks  explanation, for example, here.)

When I stopped for air, he said, “That’s all very interesting.  But I asked because I have a dead microwave that I’m throwing out, and wondered if you wanted it to take and fix it.”

Oops. My socially defective self forgets that what people ask is often only obliquely related to the question they mean to imply. When he asked if I knew how one worked, he meant, Did I know how the works fit together, how to fix one?

I told him that I’d give it a try. I had never owned a microwave, but a good rule of thumb on electric gadgets is that total failure implies simple repair. Usually an open circuit or bad switch.

So I went with him and carried it home. I was hopeful because it was a simple older model with no membrane buttons, digital display, nor processor control. Just a mechanical timer and button. I took it apart, and figured out that one of the three safety interlocks — that make sure it won’t run with an open door — was worn out. I bypassed it, leaving only two.

Occasionally one of the remaining safeties blows an internal fuse when someone tries to open the door while it is running. Then I just take it apart and replace the fuse.

This Object at Hand gets daily use, twenty-odd years since it was saved from the landfill. I may yet get another twenty years out of it.

Mostly Mixed Nuts

Every handy person has a jar/bin/drawer full of odd leftover or salvaged attachment hardware. I have a yogurt container full of screws and a marmalade jar full of bolts and nuts. Plus a mini-cabinet with drawers labeled by size and pitch from my electronics daze. Um, days.

Mixed Nuts

Click to unsmallify

On the other hand, the collection I hereby declare as today’s object was found lying on the street by my car. It did briefly flash across my surreal cerebrum that my car was leaking nuts. Lovely Assistant suggested that the license plate thief left them. I settled on the thought  that someone’s spare parts bin probably spilled from their tailgate. But it got me thinking about the value of such collections.

Is it just that some of us cannot bear to throw anything away? Do we really think that a single rusty square nut will find a home in some future project? Will we remember to search the bin when we actually find an unmatched mate? And “What About Naomi?

I raided my own collection recently: A rivet popped from our recliner mechanism, and I found some bolts and nuts that made an adequate repair. Yes, I wrapped the threads with foil to prevent the mechanism from binding.

The payoff is that I did not have to go to the hardware store. And there is a warm satisfaction in having reused items that otherwise are rarely even recycled. And a bit of relief that I did, in fact, find a use for a tiny part of the whole disorganized collection.

Rain Barrel? It’s Greek to Me

Our local waste-water (MSD) company has a special program, rain barrels sold at a discount. Order in March or April, and pick up starting in May. When we went to pick one up in 2009 , one peppy puppy of a rain barrel stood head and shoulders redly above the rest in a field of low, black barrels.Greek to Me

After we got our tall adoptee home, I noticed that it had a past. I’m just guessing that “Dia Trofima” is a company, but I know that “Ellas” is Greece in Greek. “Per Alimenti”  is Italian for “for eating”. The picture of olives is also a clue. An international olive oil barrel.

That’s part of how they keep rain barrel costs down: Used shipping barrels. But the main impetus for the sewer people to distribute rain barrels is to slightly reduce the peak storm flow through their system. Sure, a half inch of rain on a 50’x100′ lot is about 30 rain barrels full. But a 1/30 savings in a billion dollar system does help.

Anyway, this spring I finally mounted the thing up on the second floor sleeping porch, near a gutter that used to leak at a corner for weeks after each rain. The professionals who did the gutters specifically assured me that they knew how to pitch (slope) the gutters correctly. But they installed them to leave about 3″ of water sitting in them at this end of the house. So now I am draining that surplus. No more leak, and rain water for the plants.

Rain Barrel on Sleeping Porch

Why, you may well ask, on the second floor sleeping porch? Well, the water pressure at the outlet faucet runs from a droopy two psi down to zero, as it drains. Last year, the barrel on the patio took 10 minutes to fill a watering can. Now, the barrel is 18 feet above the patio, so the nozzle pressure can be almost up to ten psi. The water shoots from the hose. It’s still not city water pressure (80 psi), but it is quite adequate. Also, with the barrel reservoir above, we can walk the hose around, rather than filling a watering can.