Sunday, April 29, 2012


It has been pretty quiet here on the blog for a little while now, and that's because we moved into the house just 4 days ago! People have been asking for photos, and I haven't been providing them, because this place is a mess--we're up to the ears in boxes! But, in the interest of authenticity, here are a few photos of how some of our rooms look at the moment.

The office.

The guest room.

The living room / kitchen.

We'll be digging things out, and getting unpacked gradually over the next few days. More posts soon, I promise!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Attic Insulation

One of our priorities with respect to the house (and to life in general) is to do what we can to keep our recurring expenses as low as possible. When we had our house inspected before we bought it, the home inspector mentioned that there was almost no insulation in our attic. Since adding insulation now will cost about the same as adding it a few years from now, and adding it now will save us money on our energy bills in the meantime, we decided to tackle that job right away.

We got a couple of quotes from different companies, all of which had received good reviews on Homestars (a great website where clients can leave feedback for home-related service providers). I was shocked by the price difference among the quotes though--the highest was $1600 and the lowest was $400! Both were going to do the same stuff, but the higher bidder was admittedly going to do it in a fancier way.

Our attic is about 400 square feet, and we wanted R50 of cellulose insulation (R50 means it ends up about 2 feet deep, it seems). I learned along the way that it is possible to blow added cellulose insulation into your attic yourself (although we decided it wasn't worth the hassle, given the great price we got). Apparently buying the insulation for our job would cost about $300, and there's a machine that you can rent that blows it up into the attic. At least this way if you're not getting any reasonable quotes in your area, you know there's another option available.

If you don't already have one, you should build a "collar" around the opening for the hatch. This is a wall that prevents all of the insulation from tumbling out when you open the hatch. Our expensive quoter wanted to make the hatch hole bigger, install a fancy plastic collar and a proper, insulated hatch. Our cheap quoter built a collar for us out of cardboard, and insulated our existing hatch cover with batt insulation (the fluffy pink stuff).

When it's done, it should look something like this:

And you and your family will be warm and toasty all winter long, and stay nice and 
cool all summer long, saving money and energy and the earth all at once!

Happy insulating!

Spackling Tips

With all the painting that we've been doing, there's been a lot of preparation to do too, especially spackling, so I thought I'd share a few tips that will make things easier for you the next time you have a hole to fill.

When I spackle, I'm always eager to start painting, so I'm always checking back impatiently to see if the spackle is try yet. The problem is that it can be hard to tell, and I'm often tempted to try sanding it down before it's really dry. If you've ever tried this you will know that it makes a mess of both your sandpaper and your spackle job. My first tip is a great solution to this problem.

Tip #1 - Buy the spackle that starts out pink dries white, so that you can easily tell when it's dry!

I have spackled many times over the years, and my next tip is something that it took me a long time to learn. You see, I was taught that the appropriate tool for spackling is a putty knife, and that one with a wider blade is better. It is true that a putty knife with a wide blade (at least 4") is a great tool for smoothing out the spackle, but I know of a much better one for applying spackle in the first place. And best of all, it's free!

Tip #2 - Apply the spackle with your finger (especially for nail holes and other small patches).

Using your finger enables you to push the spackle right into the hole that you're trying to fill, without getting it all over the wall around the hole. You will have to rinse your finger off afterwards, but spackle is water-soluble, so it's easy to clean off. Apply your layer of spackle, and then run the putty knife over it once to clean off any excess.

See what a mess it makes if you use a putty knife to apply the spackle? Avoid getting all that excess  spackle on the wall in the first place by using your finger!

Wait until it's dry (no longer pink!), lather, rinse and repeat. Unless it's a very small hole, it will probably take 2-3 applications of spackle to fill it so it's flush with the wall, because spackle shrinks a bit when it dries. That brings us to our next tip.

Tip # 3 - Apply several layers of spackle if you need to fill a hole more than 1/4 inch (about 0.5cm) deep.

Spackle is cheap, and that's a good thing given my next tip. Spackle that has started to dry out, or that has bits of dry, crunchy stuff (like dried plaster or bits of paint) in it is terrible to work with. The same goes for a putty knife with bits of dried spackle or other crud on it. This tip will hopefully prevent this problem.

Tip # 4 - Never ever put spackle that you've scraped off of the wall back into the tub of spackle.

Wipe it off the blade of the putty knife with your finger or a cloth, and throw it out or wash it down the drain (water-soluble, remember?). Also, be sure to wipe off the blade of your putty knife whenever the spackle on it starts to dry, or when it gets crusty. Otherwise when you clean off the excess spackle with the knife, you won't end up with a smooth surface.

If you're patching a larger area, you may want to sand between layers of spackle to remove any imperfections in your previous layer (due, perhaps, to laziness in cleaning off the putty knife) before adding more spackle. However, following these tips will minimize the amount of sanding you will have to do, and the number of layers of spackle that you will have to use. It's still a good idea to give your spackle a quick sand before you paint it though. But, after the sanding and before the painting, there is an important step that you must not skip.

Tip # 5 - Always prime over spackle before you paint.

If you are not planning to prime a wall before you paint it, and there are just one or two little nail holes that you need to patch, you may be inclined (like me) to skip priming all together, and just get on with the painting already. You must resist this urge. You don't have to prime the whole wall, but you do have to prime anywhere you have spackled. Unless I'm painting over a dark colour, spot-priming is usually what I do for areas that have been spackled, and anywhere where there's a stain that might leach through to the next layer that I can't clean off.

If you don't follow this advice and paint without priming, when the paint dries you will be disappointed to discover that the sheen (how shiny it is or isn't) will be different where there is spackle underneath the paint. This sounds like it might not be that noticeable, but it really is, so save yourself the hassle of having to prime over the new paint and then paint again over the primer, and spot prime over any spackled areas before you paint.

Please share your spackling tips in the comments section! For tips on choosing paint colours while you wait for your spackle to dry, check out this post.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

James vs. The Stump

One of the first challenges that we discovered once we decided that we wanted to move the fence in the back yard to create two parking spaces off of the lane (besides, of course, how to remove the existing chain link fence) was that there was a medium-sized stump right where we wanted to put the new fence.

I suppose that we could have moved the fence a bit closer to the lane, or a bit closer to the house, but we wanted to line it up with the end of the neighbour's garage, since we felt that it would look nicer that way, while providing the right amount of space for parking. So, given that the stump was in the way, we had to figure out what to do about it.

One good solution for stump removal is to rent a stump grinder, and grind the stump down. I talked to the folks at our local hardware store (where they rent stump grinders) about this idea. It would have cost about $70 for the day, which we thought was a bit pricey, and the only grinder that they had would have been overkill for our (relatively) small 6-inch diameter stump.

We decided that for our purposes, it would be fine to leave the underground part of the stump intact, if we could just cut it down so that it was level with the ground, or a little lower. We would have to avoid it when it came time to dig the post holes, but other than that, the fence would go over it just fine, and it seemed like a lot less work than actually trying to dig up the whole stump (especially since we don't know how big the tree was, so it's very hard to know how big the below-ground part of the stump is).

We began this project by using our new shovel to dig down around the stump, so that we would have access to where we needed to cut for it to end up shorter than ground level. Here you can see another much smaller stump that is also in our yard. (This is as far as we've got with it at this point though.)

Once we had dug a nice moat around the stump, James got out the axe and our little hacksaw, and started experimenting with different techniques for demolishing the stump. The axe proved to be less effective than we had thought, since it was hard to get a good swing in and hit the stump parallel to the ground, which is what we really needed.

He was better, but still slow, progress with the saw when our friendly Italian neighbour (whose name I really must ask again) came out to help. He and his elderly wife have surely been living in the neighbourhood for on the order of 40 years, and she has managed to conduct her business entirely in Italian! (You can read more about them, and about our neighbourhood in my first post.) He offered us his axe, which was heavier than ours,  his wood saw, which worked much better than a hacksaw for this job. Our neighbour even climbed over the low fence separating our yards to bring the tools, and offer his support. Here is a picture of James in his ferocious battle with the stump.

The best technique for removing the stump was to use the saw to cut a 1 inch groove parallel with the ground along one side of the stump, and then use the axe to chip off that section of the stump. James worked his way around the stump this way in ever-decreasing circles (an age-old technique that can also be used to find your way to a destination when you're lost).

We did eventually emerge victorious from the Battle of the Stump, but it took a lot of patience, and having the right (or at least better) tools certainly helped. We hope that this advice will save you some time the next time you need to level a stump. 

If you have any tips or suggestions to add, we'd love to hear them, since we still have one more stump to go! Here is a picture of the ground after the stump was removed, and we had leveled the ground in preparation for putting up the fence.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Building a Fence - Part II

Today we set out to finish our fence project (for Building a Fence - Part I, click here). We left off last time having dug the post holes, leveled the 4x4 posts, and anchored them in concrete. After it had cured a bit, we filled in the holes with dirt, and left the concrete to harden overnight.

In the meantime, James prepared two fence sections to fit between the 4x4 posts. To make them, we used 2x4s for the horizontal pieces at the top and bottom, and pre-cut 48" 2x2 posts, spaced 3.5" apart. He started with a 2x4, pre-drilled each vertical post and the 2x4, and anchored each 4x4 post to the 2x4 with a black construction screw. We decided to use these screws because they will look good as the wood weathers, and provide an interesting design detail.
Once both horizontal pieces had all of their vertical pieces attached, it was time to measure the distance between the 4x4 posts carefully, and cut the 2x4s to fit. In retrospect, it probably would have been better to attach the top 2x4 to the 4x4 posts first, and then attach the vertical 2x2s. At the time it seemed easier to attach the verticals to the 2x4 with it lying flat on the Workmate, but that did make it more difficult to cut the 2x4s to the right size.
We then worked together to hold the fence segment to the right height, placed a long level on top of it to make sure it was level, pre-drilled and screwed the 2x4 to each 4x4 fence post. We attached one screw on each side, checking the level as we went, and then went back for a second screw on each side.
We then lined up the bottom 2x4 with the bottom of the vertical posts, and screwed it to the 4x4 posts using the level again to make sure it was straight.
And this is how it looked once it was done! We still have to screw each vertical piece into the bottom 2x4, but that and building the gate will have to wait for another day.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Finding a Mummified Squirrel

Today we dug holes for our new fence posts, and in the process (although not underground), I found a mummified squirrel. Well, it wasn't actually wrapped in cloth or anything, but it was a very well-preserved squirrel specimen.

It startled me when I first realized what it was, and then my scientific curiosity took over. It was actually very cool, although I did feel bad for the little guy, because he apparently did not get a proper burial. The most interesting part of it, I think, was that this was not just a squirrel skeleton (not that you see those every day...), but the skin and whiskers were preserved as well.

Here is a photo for those with a healthy scientific curiosity. You can't see it that well, but I wanted to include the trowel for scale.

Tomorrow (when I have my good camera with me) I will take another photo, and then we will give this poor little guy the proper burial that he deserves.

Have you ever found the remains of an animal, an interesting fossil, feather or something like this when you were digging in your yard? I'd love to hear your stories of interesting finds!

Update: Here are some better photos of the mummified squirrel:

The squirrel has now had a proper burial in our back garden.

Building a Fence - Part I

Today we started building the fence that will go along the back of our yard, and separate the garden area from the parking area. There was a chain link fence at the back of the lot before, but we had that removed last week, and we're keen to get the fence up and restore the separation of our space from the public space that is the lane.

To say that this is Part I of Building a Fence is a bit of a misnomer. Today was the first day that we actually started putting the fence in place, but it is actually the third or fourth day of the fence project. A few weeks ago I read a book called "Fences and Gates: Plan, Design, Build" that I got from the Toronto Public Library (yes, I will plug the library!). That book was very useful in deciding what type of fence to build, and what materials to get. Here it is:

Once we had decided on a style of fence, we spent a fair bit of time choosing materials (cedar or pressure treated?), hardware (construction screws) and accessories (a post level, sealant for below-ground parts of posts, etc). I will probably write another post about these tools and materials soon. The folks at our hardware store were a great resource. We also bought and transported the materials to the house a bit at a time, since we have a small car and they probably would't have fit all at once.

So here we are, on day 3 (or 4?) of the fence project, finally ready to start digging the holes for the fence. Yesterday we leveled the ground that will be below the fence, and prepped the below-ground end of the posts so that we would be all set to install the fence today. We rented a manual post-hole digger for 24 hours ($16), which made the job easier.

We decided to dig our holes 18" deep, since our fence will only be 18 feet long and 4' high, so the posts don't have too much to support. The post-hole digger was most useful for the last 6" or so of each hole, but James says it was "most definitely" worth having. Our main challenge with the digging was the number of tennis ball sized (and larger) rocks that slowed us down. It took us a little over 2 hours to dig four 18" deep holes, working side-by-side (aww) with a shovel and post-hole digger. Luckily the weather was fairly nice, and it didn't rain on us.

Some of the folks who we talked to about how to build a fence recommended putting gravel in the bottom of each post hole, to help water drain away and prevent the posts from rotting, so we did this next. We just gathered small-ish rocks from around our yard, and used those, since we have lots.

To prepare for pouring the concrete that would hold the posts in place, we put a post in each hole, used the handy dandy post level (which cost about $8) to make sure it was straight.

We used two 4' 1x2's to hold each post in place once it was level, while we poured the concrete and let it set. (I'll add a photo soon.) This is an idea that I got from the fence and gate book. We nailed one end of each 1x2 to one side of the post, and stuck the other end into the ground, 2 or 3 inches deep, and put a rock on top. That was enough to keep the post from tipping in one direction. We did the same for the other direction, and we were all set.

Today was the first time either of us had worked with concrete, so we were flying by the seats of our pants, so to speak. We got a 30kg bag of pre-mixed concrete (the standard size), which contains rocks, sand and cement already mixed together. We used a large bucket, and mixed about half the bag with water according to the directions, and it worked pretty well. In retrospect, it would have been better to mix 1/4 of the bag at a time, just because it was hard to stir it properly in a bucket that was taller than it was wide. (We were using another piece of 1x2 as a stir stick.) Putting about 6 inches of concrete around each of the four posts used up about 2/3 of the bag in total.

At that point, all we had to do was wait 2.5 hours for the cement to set, before we could fill in the holes. Fortunately, we had lots of other things to do, like try to figure out a way to anchor the new posts for the side gate in the holes that were left behind in the existing concrete by the chain link fence posts. But that's a story for another day.

By the time we came back to check on the posts and make sure the concrete had set, it was dark outside. We removed the supports, filled in the holes above the concrete with dirt, and called it a night. And that's the end of Part I of building a fence.

Have you ever built a fence? What resources did you use to help decide what kind of fence to build? Did you find that the planning and shopping took way longer than the actual building, like I did, or was it the other way around for you? Do you have any advice or tips for others who are planning a project like this? For us discovering the post level was key!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

There's nothing like a hot bath after a day of painting!

After two days of hard work at the house, and two long hot baths for me in the evenings, the painting is well underway. The living room is finished, with two coats on each wall and three(!) coats on the ceiling. We've also painted two coats on the (very bold) accent wall in the kitchen, which you can see me painting here. (Once it's dry it won't be shiny any more.)

And here's a photo of James, working on the top edge of the one of the green walls in the living room.

I'll post more photos of the completed rooms soon!

How to get rid of a chain link fence

When we first visited our new home, one of the things that we knew we wanted to update right away was the fence around the back yard. There was a practical reason for this, namely, that if we moved the fence we would be able to turn a small part of our yard into a parking space (a much sought-after commodity in Toronto, since street parking is neither easy nor cheap). In addition, the existing chain link fence was unattractive, and since we're planning to hang our in our yard a fair bit this summer, we wanted something nice to look at.

Challenge number one was that the gate between our back yard and the fence was chained and padlocked shut. Once we discovered this, we called our realtor to find out whether the previous owners had the keys, since that seemed like the easiest solution. Unfortunately, the previous owners said that it had been "years since anyone had the keys to those locks". So much for that plan.

Our next idea was to use our handy hacksaw and cut through the chain (since heavy chain is easier to cut through than even a cheap padlock). So, we got some new safety goggles--a necessity for a job like this if you want to be sure you won't get a metal splinter in your eye--and waited for a sunny day.

In the meantime, I decided to do some online research into the best way to remove a chain link fence. I came across a great tip I thought would be worth sharing here.

The first and most important step in removing a chain link fence is posting an ad on Freecycle, Craigslist, Kijiji, or a similar list or site offering your fence for free to someone who is willing to come and remove it. This is what we did, and is how we managed to get our fence removed without having to dig out the posts ourselves. Be aware, in preparing your ad, that when you post something for free people are quick to reply and say that they want it, without really thinking it through. I ended up refining my ad a few times, so that I would only get replies from people who were serious, and who had the tools necessary to complete the job.

Here is the final version of my ad:

Free Chain Link Fence & 2 Gates - 50ft long. 

Date: 2012-03-27, 10:24PM EDT
Reply to: your anonymous craigslist address will appear here

We have a chain link fence in our back yard that we will be replacing with a wooden fence. It is in fairly good condition, and the mesh does not have any holes. If you would like to come and take it away, you can have it for free.

The fence has not yet been dismantled, and the poles are still in the ground. I have not dug in the dirt around the poles, but I can only assume that the poles are held in place with concrete blocks, which I've heard can be removed from the poles with a chisel or a jackhammer. (They will be hard to transport without removing the concrete first.) The mesh is also still attached to the poles, so you will need to take the mesh off of the poles before digging them up.

This offer is only open to people who want to remove and re-use the whole fence, including the poles. The fence is approximately 70 feet long, and there are two gates included as well. I would like it removed within the next week or so.

**BEFORE YOU REPLY please carefully consider whether you have the tools, time and ability necessary to remove the fence and posts, and transport them to their new home.

Thanks for your interest.


Sure enough, once it was refined, our ad worked like a charm. Well, it did take two tries to schedule the removal, and require us being at the house for the afternoon while the fence was removed, but in the end some nice folks who needed a fence to keep their rottweilers out of their neighbour's yard came and did the heavy lifting, and took the fence home to re-use as their reward.

They were happy, we were happy, and now we're ready to start building our new fence!

Here is a photo of the nice folks who came to take away our fence, hard at work.

Have you ever participated in a win-win exchange like this one? Here in Toronto there is a web site for people who want to swap their skills called It's amazing how often we can get what we need from our friends and communities, in a way that benefits everyone. I would love to hear about you experiences finding that your trash is someone else's treasure (or vice-versa)!