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Best way to get an online degree? (Answer here)

How to buy a car? (Answer here)

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What is the best small business accounting software? (Answer here)

Best tutorial for mastering Google maps/earth? (Answer here)

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Advice for non-traditional pets? (Answer here)

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Good plastic canoe? (Answer here)

Best song-writing how-to book? (Answer here)


Adhesive Lined Shrink Tubing

Double-walled, or adhesive-lined, heat shrink tubing is how you make easy waterproof connections. As you heat the tube and it shrinks, it compresses a heat-sensitive adhesive inside the tube to melt into one waterproof seal. This sample set is a good place to start.

-- Alexander Rose  

Ancor Marine Grade Electrical Adhesive Lined Heat Shrink Tubing Kit
$12 for a pack of 8

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Ancor

The Science of Good Cooking

I’ve learned more about cooking from this hefty volume than from reading or watching anything else.

There are other fine books about the science of cooking, including Harold McGee’s previously reviewed classic On Food and Cooking, but this big book is by far the most practical and helpful. While McGee’s is authoritative and complete, this one is better organized for your average cook. The science is condensed into 50 principles, and each easy-to-remember principle is illustrated by half a dozen tested recipes. If you can master these 50 you’ll have the equivalent of a culinary degree.

An example of a principle would be: Salting vegetables removes liquid. You’ll hear the evidence why this is true, what difference it makes in dishes, and how to apply it to any recipe in the future. Every claim is tested by experiments run by the nerd chefs at Cook’s Illustrated, so that you have full command of the idea and its exceptions. Although this book is jam packed with “best recipes” this is not a traditional cookbook: it is more of a cooking course. The teaching is a model of clarity and insight.

-- KK  

The Science of Good Cooking
The Editors of America’s Test Kitchen and Guy Crosby
2012, 504 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

The way you cut an onion affects its flavor. To prove the point, we took eight onions and cut each two different ways: pole to pole (with the grain) and parallel to the equator (against the grain). We then smelled and tasted pieces from each onion cut each way. The onions sliced pole to pole were clearly less pungent in taste and odor than those cut along the equator.


Perhaps just as important as cookware material is the pan shape and size. Crowd four chicken breasts into a 10-inch pan and they will steam; space them out in a 12-inch pan and they will brown.


Salty Marinades Work Best

Marinating is often regarded as a cure-all for bland, chewy meat. Years of testing have taught us that while many marinades can bump up flavor, most will never turn a rough cut tender. Well, not without the right ingredient. What’s the secret to a marinade that can add complexity to steak, chicken and pork and enhance juiciness? You guessed it: salt.


Gentle Folding Stops Tough Quick Breads

As we learned in concept 39, yeast breads depend on a well-developed gluten structure to rise properly. Gluten also gives bread its resilient, chewy texture. In contrast, quick breads (such as banana bread), as well as muffins and pancakes, can be ruined by excess development of gluten. That’s because tenderness–not chewiness–is the goal.


Two Leaveners Are Often Better than One

The advent of chemical leaveners, such as baking soda and baking powder, in the 19th century made it easier for cooks to bake at home. No need to rely on fickle yeast in order to make a cake. Chemical leaveners are quick and reliable. But they are also confusing. Some recipes rely on baking powder, some on baking soda, and many on both. Why do you need two leaveners in something as simple as a cookie that doesn’t even rise all that much?



This is a book I wished I’d had when I started building, but it is also one that’s extraordinarily useful to more experienced builders. Mike Litchfield was the original editor of Fine Homebuilding; in 1982 he published the first version of Renovation, and it’s been updated periodically, this being the latest and 4th edition. Popular Science called it “The most comprehensive single volume on renovation ever” — which is totally true.

What differentiates this book from others of its ilk is that the author has gathered all this information in the field, interviewing carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and contractors, finding out what’s important, what works, what’s new. These guys love to talk about what they do well, and in this sense, the book is one of collective wisdom. It’s at the same time highly useful to professionals, but also one that’s invaluable for homeowners and people of the fixer-upper persuasion.

The chapter “Planning Your Renovation” is completely new, reflecting the current interest in smaller projects, spending wisely, and energy efficiency. The chapter on wiring covers code changes, and tells you things like how to fish wire, install wireless switches, or replace old incandescent ceiling lights with energy-efficient LEDs.

There’s a section on installing IKEA cabinets, tips and instructions on energy retrofits, working with paperless drywall (in wet areas), soundproofing, cutting into a concrete floor, working with PEX plumbing tubing, and installing engineered flooring. I found myself flipping through the book at random, and learning a lot.

-- Lloyd Kahn  

Renovation 4th Edition
Michael Litchfield
2012, 624 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Trim on older buildings is rarely level or parallel. Thus new trim maybe look better if it’s installed slightly out of level so that it aligns with what’s already there. For example, when stretching a chalkline to indicate the bottom of the water table, start level and then raise or lower the line until it looks right in relation to nearby windowsills and the like. Once the chalkline looks more or less parallel to existing trim, snap it on the building paper, and extend it to corner boards.


PEX Advantages

It installs quickly. Because lengths of flexible tubing easily turn corners and snake through walls, PEX systems require far fewer connections and fittings than do rigid materials. For that reason, it’s particularly well suited to renovation work.

Fewer leaks. PEX tubing runs to fixtures from hot- and cold-water manifolds with multiple takeoffs. Most of the fitting is simple, consisting of crimping steel or copper rings onto tubing ends. Because most leaks occur at joints, fewer fittings also mean fewer leaks.

It’s quiet. The tubind expands slightly, minimizing air hammer–the banging that takes place in rigid piping when taps are turned off suddenly and running water stops abruptly. That ability to expand also means less-pronounced pressure drops (fewer scalding or freezing showers), and PEX tubing is less likely to rupture if water freezes in it.

The beauty of working with PEX is that is required relatively few specialized tools. Here, an inexpensive PEX-cutting tool with a replaceable blade produces a clean, squared-off end.



A smoke pencil helps make air leaks visible.


Cracked plaster often means that it has pulled free from its lath. Use screws and plaster washers to reattach it, countersinking them so they’ll be easier to patch.


 Avoid the sun around the house as you paint so that you apply paint in the shade if possible. Paint applied in full sunlight is more likely to blister later.


To insert a replacement board into an existing tongue-and-groove floor, use a tablesaw to remove the bottom of the groove. Slightly back-cut the ends of the new board so it will slide in easier.

Hera Marker

The Hera marker is an ingenious little plastic marker that makes a shiny line on fabric, perfect for marking hand quilting lines that needs no removal. Technically this is called a “tracing spatula.” The shine on the line on the fabric is caused by the friction of the edge of the tool on the fabric fibers, and it makes a small crease in the fabric as well. The shine and crease will be covered by stitches or will be smoothed out when the item is washed, leaving no trace.

-- Lesley Creed  

Hera Marker

Available from Sewing Machines Plus

Manufactured by Clover


Folkwear is a sewing pattern company that was founded in the 1970’s by Alexandra Jacopeti. Over the years they have built up a selection of patterns based on traditional folk clothes of the Middle East, Asia and Europe. Their first patterns were based on garments that worked with the full width of the woven fabric, using rectangles and squares. The old adage was to “cut my coat according to my cloth,” that is, cut with as little waste as possible. These clothes were frequently used for work and had to have enough ease to move in. One of the Folkwear patterns I’ve made is the Cheese-Maker’s smock. This is a pattern based on a classic French work-shirt. It has several sizes that fit both men and women. The small square gusset set under the arm makes for a complete range of movement and comfort. Wearing it I am covered from neck to wrist — perfect for garden work. I have made several in cotton and linen and could also see it in a fine cotton or silk. It is now my favorite hot weather work shirt. Folkwear has also recently added Victorian and 1930s’ designs.

-- Lesley Creed  

Sample Excerpts:



Petzl NAO

The Petzl NAO is the best headlamp I’ve ever worn. In the past I’ve used various models from Black Diamond, Petzl, and Fenix while camping and caving. Each one had it’s own quirks, but they all, at the end of the day, provided ample light in dark places. What the Petzl NAO does differently is provide a tremendous amount of light in an intelligent and usable manner that makes it easier to do things in the dark.

The stand out feature of the Petzl NAO is the reactive lighting. On top of the headlamp is a light meter that measures the amount of reflected light in order to adjust light output. When you, for example, need to read a map, it senses an increase in reflected light and simultaneously dims light output while switching from a spot-light to a more diffuse beam. This is all automated, and happens instantaneously. After wearing it for an evening, it became indispensable. It’s especially a boon when working with other cavers or campers because it automatically dims when looking at someone, preventing any unintentional blinding. The only downside I’ve read about is for bikers as the beams of an oncoming car can trigger the light to turn off (so bikers will want to turn this feature off).

Previous headlamps I’ve owned, especially those with battery packs, have been really uncomfortable after extended wear. The NAO, with it’s slightly smaller battery pack, only weighs 180 g, and has a really comfortable set of straps. I’ve worn it running and hiking and have found it to far comfier than the competition.

It also doesn’t hurt that the NAO produces an incredible amount of usable light. It’s rated at  a respectable 355 lumens produced by two LEDs. Unlike other mono-LED lamps (like my Fenix), the two LEDs act in concert to create both diffuse light and a beam with a powerful throw. WIth that being said, there are many headlamps that can do this, and the feature that really sets the NAO apart is the auto-dimming.

The last feature worth noting is that the NAO features a USB-rechargeable Li-ion battery pack that is programmable with software provided by Petzl. The software allows you to tweak how the headlamp responds in different environments and activities. I designed a profile for camping which features an ultra-low power mode for reading in the tent, and a much brighter mode with greater throw for trail-running in the dark. While it is a bit gimmicky, the profiles work well in use. The 2300 maH battery pack can be switched out for two AAAs, but it can be a bit tricky and they don’t last very long. While I have not had any problem with the batteries, those going on longer expeditions may want to hold off until the Li-ion packs are a bit cheaper.

There’s no getting past the fact that the NAO is an expensive light at $175. But to me, and I expect to many others who spend a fair bit of time in the dark, the fact that it intelligently responds to my lighting needs makes it well worth the cost.

-- Oliver Hulland  

Petzl NAO Headlamp

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Petzl


Use this 3M material, called Tegaderm, for applying dressing over a bleeding injury. It’s much better than adhesive tape or a big band-aid. Tegaderm is an air-permeable plastic film, as thin as cling film, but stronger and with an adhesive. I’ve found it adheres perfectly and because it is so thin it’s unnoticeable, especially on joints. You don’t even remember it’s on. Because of its thinness Tegaderm works really great under clothing. It’s breathable, too, and won’t come off in water. And since it is transparent, the dressing is not as visible, and you can see what’s going on underneath. It comes in sterile packaging about the size of a playing card, so you can apply it right over the injury, with the option to include some gauze underneath at first. I’ve cut smaller pieces for finger cuts, but I’ve found that waterproof bandaids work better for this.

-- KK  

Nexcare Tegaderm Waterproof Dressing

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Nexcare

Sample Excerpts:

On the right a bicyclist has applied Tegaderm over his road-rash shown on left. The bandage is hardly visible.
Image via NY Velocity


I use unibits, or stepped drills, constantly because there’s nothing better for drilling sheet material. Let’s say you need to make some holes in 1/16th-inch thick acrylic. Your standard two flute drill bit will just tear it to pieces. But the unibit does it without any chaff or shattering or anything. This is because it’s not fluted; it doesn’t pull itself into the cut. It makes the cut with its leading edge, and it’s effectively a scraper. The stepped shape — giving different sized holes in one bit — is simply an added bonus.  I use them for all kinds of sheet materials, so I’ve got a ton of them.

-- Adam Savage  

[We first reviewed the Unibit back in 2008. Thanks, Adam, for the update!--OH]

Neiko Titanium Step Drill Bit

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Neiko

Tool Rental Know-How

The benefits of ownership are often overrated. Renting a tool can be a far smarter way to go than purchasing it. Renting can be far cheaper, and you’ll get the latest version of the tool. You can try out a new-to-you tool. Maintenance is not your headache. For instance you don’t have to store large tools, like a cement mixer. (You do have to return them!) Of course renting is particularly great for those tools you only need for a one-time job. How often do you need a wet saw, or a jackhammer?

But don’t stop there. Most people are unaware of the vast variety of expert tools available for rental from any decent rental store. The choices are mind-boggling and inspiring. Many of these tools will make a tough job easy and smooth. I did a tile fireplace once only because I was able to rent that wet saw to cut through marble like butter.

About 1

Every year or so I walk through a large rental place just looking to see what’s available. I come away with ideas like: why use a post hole digger for a fence line when you can rent an auger? Firewood time: rent log splitter, idle rest of the year. At a well-stocked rental store you can rent almost any tool you can think of: paper shredders, moisture meters, gas detectors, chimney brushes, sewer cameras, staple hammers, and so on. I’ll try new things because I know I can rent the right tool.

Here is a small selection of tools you can rent. Most great rental centers seem regional. (Can anyone suggest a great national rental store?) I’ve given approximate rates per day as a guideline, but most will also rent per hour, or half day too.

— KK

Mini Excavator – Aaaah, so cute! This 3-foot wide excavator will go where its big brothers can’t: through a gate, in between houses, onto landscaping, near foundations, into backyards. Its arm can reach out 13 feet and dig down 8 feet, and is strong enough to do minor earthwork. Some have a self-leveling cabin that really helps offset that paralyzing feeling on a slope that you are going to tip over. I recommend practicing before you get in close quarters. $275 per day.

2078Steam Wallpaper Remover – Removing wall paper is an ugly mess, and hopefully only a once-in-your-lifetime job, but this makes it possible. $40 per day.

Magnetic Sweeper Tool 1Magnetic Sweeper – Construction has a nasty habit of seeding driveways with tire-eating nails, screws, and shrapnel. You sweep this thing over the pavement (or lawn) and it sucks up the nasties. A pull on the handle releases the ferrous bits. Good to do at least once after the contractors leave. $25 per day.

200 big rednewPost Puller – When you need to pull up old posts, this jack does the trick. $40 per day.

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Stump Grinder – No other way to remove a stump. The grinder swings back and forth, throwing off a huge pile of chips. Despite its power, slowly nibbling across the stump down to its roots (don’t even think of using a chain saw) will take longer than you think. $125 per day.

Caulking Residential home on tall ladderTall Ladder – Wide-footed, tall ladders get you places you don’t want to get to other ways. But who wants to store these when they are not in use? $25 per day.

Wet sawWet Saw – An abrasive wheel lubricated by water hooked up to your garden house. Will easily and fairly accurately cut tile, pavers, concrete, stone, etc. Use outside if possible. $85 per day.

300HoleDigger400 66338 zoomHole Auger – Far superior when you have many post holes to dig. The two-person version is easiest to use – if you have a second person. It is heavy; the weight of the machine does the work. $80 per day.

2133 mElectric Conveyor Belt – For schlepping rock, dirt, debris out of a basement or over a fence. The 12-inch width fits through even a tiny window. What a time saver! Can be maneuvered with two people and hooks up to a standard tow hitch. $250 per day.

Bosch brute working
Electric Jack Hammer – This has one moving part: it. Will pulverize concrete, whether in a wall or on the floor. Not easy to handle, it will give you a workout. Even though it is electric, it still requires ear protection. $100 per day.

Carpet Dryer – When a flood soaks your wall-to-wall carpeting, you need to dry it out as fast as possible. Stick the “nose” of one of these under the yanked up edge and keep it running till everything dries out. You’ll probably need more than one, and you’ll need to have electric power on. $30 per day.

7 detail 2
Ditch Witch – These walk-behind ditch diggers come in all sizes. The small ones will dig narrow trenches for irrigation and cables 12 to 18 inches deep; larger ones for larger or deeper pipes. Call 811 to make sure you ain’t cutting through underground utilities. $280 per day.

HS3000IDHeat Cannon – This is a mega heat gun. Used to hurry the drying of paint or sheet rock spackle. It eats lots of propane and oxygen – ventilation is a must. $135 per day.

Boom LiftBoom Lift – For working on ceilings, signs, chimneys, roofs. May be cheaper than scaffolding if you have wheeled access. $280 per day.

2289Conduit Bender – Bends electrical conduit cleanly. Cheap to rent. Get the right sized diameter for your pipe. $6 per day.

Imgres 8Wood Chipper – After a storm, after tree pruning, this will turn a pile of branches into compostable mulch. Not hard to use; you’ll need a hitch to haul it. $225 per day.

1732Plumber’s Snake – The industrial version of the little one in hardware stores. Powered by an electric motor, this will clean out your sewer drains, chewing up gunk and even roots. It’s a do it yourself version of Roto-rooter. $90 per day.

IMG 0692Log Splitter –Tow it to your trees. In one day two energetic workers can make a huge pile of firewood assisted by one of these. There are a thousand models out there; the better ones flip from vertical to horizontal to suit your site. $100 per day.

Pipe tracing 1Pipe Locator – Will locate buried pipes, which is no small feat if you’ve tried to do it by other means. $55 per day.

Airless sprayerAirless Paint Sprayer – Will lay paint or stain as fast as you can walk. Sucks the paint from its own 5-gallon bucket. You’ll need long cords to feed its electric motor. $90 per day.

2726Fence Post Driver – Really the only way to bang metal fence posts into the ground. Lift up the weight with two hands, pull down hard over the post. It will employ muscles you have never used before. $13 per day.

1989Horizontal Drill – Drills under sidewalks, patios, even streets. You keep adding pipe sections to the front probe as you progress. How else are you going to get that wire under cement? Uses water pressure. $75 per day.

Gas guyWater Leak Detector – This electronic stethoscope listens for leaks in water pipes. Needs to be fairly close. $22 per day.

Carpet stretcher placing stretching headCarpet Stretchers – The secret tool for laying carpet, either new or after it has dried from being wet. Comes in either knee-powered, or lever operated. $30 per day.

BC2400 534x575Brush Hog – Every now weeds take over a lot, along driveways, and you need to cut them down to size. Some models like this one will handle saplings 2 inches thick. $100 per day.

Elkay piano fullPiano Dolly – These two trucks sandwich an upright piano so that it can be rolled around without damaging its legs. $22 per day.

1235Mini Mortar Mixer – You don’t need a full-sized cement mixer to do mortar jobs like laying brick or stone, or making stucco. $50 per day.

Rototiller 5hpRototiller – A mini horse and plow. Really useful when starting your garden area from sod. $85 per day.

Concrete Cutoff Saw – Cut cement or asphalt! Electric or gas. For bigger jobs you can get a walk-behind variety. Either way you’ll have to pay extra for blades since they wear out quickly. $100 per day.