Raising Chickens for Dummies


A few years ago we decided to join the growing backyard chicken movement. We knew zero about chicken raising. We were interested in keeping a handful of hens for eggs, so we didn’t want info on raising flocks of them (how many eggs can you eat a day?). I read every book for backyard beginners I could find, and after studying ten of them, the one that was most helpful to us was Raising Chickens for Dummies. It did the best job of anticipating our questions for a low-rent minimal approach. For instance, we had no desire to be cleaning chicken-shit every week, and we opted for deep bedding in the coop, a tip suggested by the book.
Our first egg!

We’ve had chickens for two years now, and the book is still answering questions. The author runs a website, Back Yard Chickens, that has very active forums where you can ask other backyarders questions not found in his book. The site’s albums of photos of homemade coops proudly posted by members is very helpful and inspirational.
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If you decide to graduate to larger flocks I would point you to the previously recommended book Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, which is extremely comprehensive, but often more than a beginner needs.
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Keeping our days-old chicks warm under a heat lamp.

BTW, I was initially skeptical I would be able to tell a difference with backyard eggs, but it’s true. Backyard eggs do taste better; they are more…well…eggy. However, they won’t be cheaper, even if you don’t count your time. We kept our initial costs down by constructing a coop from scraps from a building site in the neighborhood (after asking permission). We had to buy the screening, which is double layered at the bottom (another book tip) because we have pretty serious predators around. We installed the previously reviewed automatic watering dish from the mail-order hatchery McMurray, which means that overall, the five chickens are very low maintainance.

-- KK  

Raising Chickens for Dummies
Kimberly Willis and Rob Ludlow
2009, 408 pages

Available from Amazon

SureFlap Microchip Cat Flap


This is a battery operated cat door that unlocks (going inside) by reading the cat’s microchip. Our cat was chipped at our shelter for around $10, but commercial vets are also able to do it for a bit more. No need to worry about lost collar keys, or magnets. Keeps out unprogrammed animals. The door also has the standard four-setting mechanical overide locking feature of: in-out, in only, out only, locked. If your cat is not chipped, you can also use an RFID collar key (not included).

We previously had a magnetically keyed cat door, but you then have the choice of using a safety collar and losing the (not cheap) key every now and then, or using a non-safety collar and risking the cat strangling itself.

Raccoons eventually defeated our magnetically keyed door. They haven’t defeated this one (yet), although the mechanical parts of the latching action are similar.

-- Bruce Bowen  

SureFlap Microchip Cat Flap

Available from Amazon


Material Libraries

There are thousands of types of materials to make things from. The first impulse for most of us is to use known materials like wood, steel, concrete, and glass. But each of those have hundreds of varieties, each with their own properties. How about metallic ceramics? And every year brand new materials are invented. How can one find out what materials are available?

One way to become familiar with the vast possibilities of materials is to visit a materials library. That’s what professional designers and architectures do when embarking on a project. Maybe what they design can be made of some kind of glass? Or super strong plastic? Or bendable wood? Larger design firms have their own material collection, which they use for inspiration, research and for sharing with clients. Below is an unusually large material library at the New York City architecture firm 1100: Architect. Smaller ones can be found at most design firms.


Not everyone has the space or time to build their own. So Material Connexion is a commercial business operating in 8 major design-center cities of the world. For a subscription fee you can use their extensive material library. They add about a dozen new materials per month. A fair number of university art centers also use them to install and manage their collections.

MaterialsLibrary Home

Art, architecture and design centers in colleges and universities have begun creating material libraries that rival the depth and usefulness of book libraries. Notable collections include Harvard’s Materials Collection and RISD’s Material Resource Center in Providence, RI. At both you can check out a sample to study, just like a book:

To Borrow Items from the Material Resource Center
Select items from the shelves and bring them to the checkout desk.
Materials circulate for 7 days at a time. Please return materials promptly – an overdue fine of .20 per 5 items will be charged.

The Materials Lab at the University of Texas was the pioneer in creating material libraries several decades ago. Their own library contains 25,000 different types of materials. Even better, the catalog of the Material Lab is openly available online. It’s organized by domain and even though you can’t touch them, you can learn a lot by browsing and searching. You can quickly see, say, how many different types of concrete blocks are available, or how many types of metallic glass, or plywood laminates.

Chances are that if there is a art/design college near you, they have a material library that you could at least visit. The local art college in my neighborhood is the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. I visited their materials library, which is small, but stimulating. Here the librarian oversees the collection. I was free to browse it.


Even better, it is not hard to accumulate your own collection of materials, or even start a shared library with friends and colleagues. It is not just the pieces of stuff that is valuable, but the information about the stuff — its specs, what it can do, or not do, where it comes from, how to get more of it.

-- KK  

Material Connexion Materials Database
Individual online subscription

University of Texas, Austin Materials Lab
online catalog, free

California College of the Arts Materials Library
openly accessible, but non-circulating
online database, free


Flexible LED Strip Lights

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We installed flexible LED light strips in our kitchen for under cabinet and within cabinet lighting. These are very low energy consumption, cool to the touch, and rated to last for 50,000 hours.


The strips are about 1 cm wide and 2 mm thick. The strips come on a spool with a sticky tape side. You press the sticky side to the bottom of the cabinet (or the sides inside) and the strip gives a very diffuse effective and efficient light. They are so thin, you can’t really see the light strip itself, only the glow. The strip is a circuit of LEDs in a row. They have marked segments about every 2-3 inches where you can cut them to fit. They typically run off of 12 volts; the transformer can sit i a cabinet, attic, or basement. You can also specific different color temperatures (very warm to very cool). The lights are dimmable.



We used them under our cabinets and inside of one cabinet (picture above).

There are tons of manufacturers peddling flexible LED strips now. You can purchase them in meter strips or on 5 meter reels. Here is one supplier with many products and variations: Superbrightleds.com. I have no experience in using this outfit. It is a new market so quality varies.

We used a local California-based manufacturer, Aion. Their prices are higher than many of the imports (usually from China), but they had a deliverable guarantee of 5 years. Unfortunately they don’t deal retail, wholesale only through electricians, who can reliably install it.

If anyone has experience with installing DIY LED strips, please let us know.

And these nifty strips can be used for all kinds of other illumination where flexibility and thinness is desired.

— KK


Carpenter Pencil and Keson Sharpener

keson sharpener.jpeg

I have been a carpenter for thirty years or so. I started out as a framer on single family homes, where I used the flat carpenter’s pencil. Its sturdy lead stood up to marking rough lumber but was a little tricky to sharpen. You want a flat chisel point not a conical point. This is accomplished quickly and easily with an inexpensive Keson pencil sharpener.

My framing days are long gone, thankfully. I have worked in many aspects of the field, from general carpentry to boatbuilding to cabinetmaking and am currently installing interior doors and high-end trim. Through it all I have held on to that flat pencil. It never ceased to amaze me how many employers (and I’ve been through a few) have told me to lose the flat pencil and get with the program and use a round pencil. To my mind, the only thing a round pencil is good for is taking a lunch order or making out the bill. The point breaks easily when marking wood and is difficult to sharpen unless you have an electric sharpener under your chopbox, which many guys do.

-- Paul Francy  

Keson Carpenter Pencil Sharpener

Available from Lee Valley

Also available from Amazon

Manufactured by Keson

3M Scotch-Weld EPX Applicator

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I always used to buy epoxy locally in disposable dispensers that are supposed to dispense equal ratios of the components. The dispensers never work that well: one side always starts to move first and then to get a reasonably equal mix I have to mix up a lot more than I need.

The 3M duo-pack adhesives are sold separately from the dispenser. Because the dispenser is not disposable, it can be a decently built tool, like a caulk gun for epoxy.

The way it works is that you slip on the adhesive cartridge. The applicator has a plunger that pushes up the adhesive cartridge. Think caulk gun. The epoxy comes in double tubes like a doubled tube of caulk. When an adhesive has a different mixing ratio the tubes in the cartridge have different diameters. And there is a different plunger that fits in the tube. The supported mixing ratios are 1:1, 1:2 and 1:10 because those are the ratios of adhesives available. When you buy the system you get the first two plungers, but the 1:10 plunger is sold separately as it is used only for DP-8005 and DP-8010, I think. Just like a caulk gun you can, but you need not remove the adhesive cartridge between uses. The gun stays clean. There is no need to clean it. (Unlike a caulk gun, the adhesive doesn’t leak out the back and get on the gun.)

In fact, if you’re not so worried about waste there’s even a further convenience: static mixing nozzles. These nozzles attach to the end of the epoxy tube and do all the mixing for you so that it really works like a caulk gun: what comes out is ready to use, completely mixed epoxy.

But even if you don’t use the somewhat wasteful mixing nozzles you can still use the gun to extrude the correct ratio mix of 3M adhesive products and then hand mix. I have been able to mix up just the amount of epoxy I need when with the old system I would have mixed ten times what I needed. (No exaggeration here.)

I first got this system because I was trying to glue zinc-plated magnets to polyethylene. I tried regular epoxy. It doesn’t stick well to either one of these materials. There are two adhesives that I think are of particular note in the 3M lineup.

The DP-190 (which I have only used a tiny bit) is supposed to stick to everything except the “low surface energy” plastics. I saw that it is recommended for use with the zinc-plated rare earth magnets (by the magnet sellers). The DP-8005 is designed to stick to low surface energy plastics. I got it for my application.

I also got a small mat made out of teflon because nothing is supposed to stick to that. This was great for repairs using epoxy. I repaired something and laid it on the teflon and it peeled right off after it was cured.

According to 3M, epoxy shelf life is less than a couple years, so you don’t want to buy a lifetime supply at any given time. The shelf life of DP-8005 is only 6 months. The shelf life of the previously reviewed Scotch-Weld Two Part Urethane is 1 year.

— Adrian M.

McMaster-Carr sells a very similar product much cheaper, half the cost, for $23. It does not use 3M cartridges. I have had good experiences with Lord adhesives that this gun does use.

— KK


3M Scotch-Weld EPX Applicator

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by 3M

Duo-Pak Dispensing Gun
Available from McMaster Carr

Carpet Film


Ever wanted to have friends over for a party at your house? Ever wanted to have a LOT of friends over for a party? Worried about spilled drinks staining your carpet? One solution is to cover it before the party with carpet film.

What is it? Picture a roll of Saran Wrap. Now imagine it thicker and more durable. Now imagine one side sticky. Voila! Carpet film.

I don’t cover every carpet, just the most highly trafficked areas where people will be drinking and spilling: outside the bathroom where there’s usually a line, up the stairs, by the entrance, in the coat room, and in the people-watching areas.

When the party’s over, it pulls up easily. Best of all, all of the traffic on the carpet film will have pushed the adhesive side down into the carpet’s nooks and crannies. When you pull the film, dirt will come out too. Free carpet cleaning!

Several companies make carpet film. You can get it at Home Depot, Lowes and Amazon for $10-20 per 2’x50′ roll. Wider widths and longer length rolls are also available. Make sure to buy it reverse wound (with the sticky side on the outside of the roll) to make the application process easier.

-- Joshua Keroes  

Surface Shields Carpet Shield
24″ x 50′
Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Surface Shields

KleenKover Carpet Film
36″ x 200′ Reverse Wind
Available from AmazonKleenKover

Tiny Homes


This book will convince you to build your own house. The key is to make it small.  A really small house costs less, liberates time, and encourages you to spend that time making the details personal. Because everything is scaled down, the space is much more customized. The result is a home that grows out of your life.

Tiny houses are the norm for most people in the world, but have been out of fashion in the US for many decades. Recently some Americans are rediscovering the joys of very tiny homes for several reasons: hard economic times, a reaction against modern excess, and a realization that a digital world does not require a lot of space. There are now a handful of blogs and a whole shelfful of books about tiny homes. Mostly good stuff.

This new book is the best of those guides and eclipses the previously recommended The Tiny Book of Tiny Houses. Lloyd Kahn has built several of his own small homes, and has edited a number of great books celebrating owner-built shelters, including the previously reviewed Home Work. Here he focuses on tiny homes, which he defines as shelters 500 square feet or less. Some are on wheels, a few float, some are pre-fab, but most are handmade shelters placed in odd corners in cities, suburbs and the country. Their variety is stunning. This large book erupts with a cornucopia of 1,300 photos featuring 150 different tiny homes, showing you how they were built, giving resources and helpful tips of their construction, supplying design solutions and inspiration for others, but also conveying WHY they were built. Tiny though they are, they are much more than mere shelter.

What I love most about this book — as a tool  — is the way it explodes the possibilities of what a tiny house can be, and how every page conveys the important message that the challenge in building such a tiny structure is not the material, which is almost trivial by definition, but the immaterial. A tiny home is a matter of gumption, resourcefulness and imagination. This book, like all Lloyd Kahn’s work, cultivates those virtues.

You leave the book realizing, knowing for sure, that you, yes you, can build a tiny house. And should.

-- KK  

Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter
Lloyd Kahn
2012, 228 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Sample excerpts:

The theme of our eco-resort has always been Adirondack Style, which translates to “built with time and no money.” Each year we renew our contract with the state to harvest “dead and down trees.” It’s like building structures in the middle of Mother Nature’s lumberyard.


[This 97 sq. ft. house] was originally a pump house built over a well in 1900. At some point in the ’70s it was converted to a chicken coop. A couple of years ago I converted it to a stationary yacht. The design was inspired by living on a small sailboat in Alaska. It’s superior to a sailboat in that it needs less maintenance, is unlikely to sink, has lots of windows, and is surrounded by a garden so you don’t need to row ashore. It’s inferior to a sailboat in that it can’t sail anywhere.

I did a quick sketch of what I needed.

The key to designing my happy home was designing a happy life, and the key to that lay not so much in deciding what I needed but in recognizing all the things I could do without.

It is not a building. It’s MY building.


The pentagonal floor is made from lumber milled on site. At center is a pentagon. On Mike’s birthday, October 29, a beam of light shines through a hole in a 5-pointed star in the door, and falls on the central pentagon!

Dewalt Random Orbital Sander


It’s been several decades since I bought a wood sander, but I recently needed a new one for a large finishing job. I was pleasantly surprised by the technological advances now standardly available in inexpensive sanders.

There are three key innovations here: “random” sanding patterns, using sandpaper disks that attach via a velcro-like surface, and a vacuum that works through holes in the paper. Together these three features produce a much superior machine to the simple vibrating sander I had before. Random-orbital sanders spin as circles within circles, leaving little discernible pattern of abrasion on the work. The round hook-and-loop paper is magic. These disks securely attachment and detach in a second, and don’t slip. This quickness encourages you to instantly change to the appropriate grit size without hesitation. Lastly, sanding produces massive amounts of dust, and the mini vacuums really decrease the volume of stuff flying around. The debris is sucked into a small cloth bag that doesn’t interfere much with work.
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All these features and more are available in higher end machines, but also in cheaper ones as well. I’ve been using a Dewalt, D26451K which is an entry model at about $55 street price. With a coarse grit paper, its 3-amp motor will eat wood if you need to, but it is light enough to feather touch a fine grit. It takes the standard 8-hole hook-and-loop disk. Many companies make these disks in all possible grades, varieties and types. Although they seem expensive, I found these disks lasted longer than the pieces I used to cut from standard sheets for my old machine. The small dust bag is sufficient for most weekend projects, but may seem small if you are sanding whole walls; you just have to empty it more often.

None of these features may be new to most woodworkers, but I have not been paying attention; I wish I had got one of these years ago.

-- KK  

Dewalt Random Orbital Sander
Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Dewalt

Mirka 5″ 8-hole Assorted Grit Dustless Hook-and-Loop Sanding Disks
Pack of 50
Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Mirka

Power Bits

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For too long I relied on traditional insert bits for my power drill/driver. I liked the easy variety of “ends” that were available, but I was also frustrated by the magnetic holders that would drop the bits at the wrong moment.

Then I discovered power bits (bits that fit into Power Bit base, also known as a 1/4″ hex shank base). These are usually seen on the magnetic insert bit adapters for power drills, and are designed so that the machine-end of these bits lock in mechanically. Not only do they lock, but they offer 1/4″ shaft slimness for their entire length, while also offering varied lengths.

For instance, at work I frequently use a 12″ shafted #3 Phillips bit. I also use 2″ Torx bits, a variety of 6″ bits (tiny Phillips, security or plain Torx, and #2/#3 Square), and a larger set of Ryobi drill bits, all with the Power Bit base. I’ve also got a full set of nut drivers, 1/4″, 3/8″ & 1/2″ socket adapters (straight & wobble), extensions, and flex shafts. All these fit in drills (with a locking adapter in the chuck), and impact drivers. I still have some insert bits, but I’ve found that I’m seriously reluctant to use them. The design difference may seem minimal, but the impact is significant when you work with these tools all day.

Power Bits have been a major boon for me, and I thought it worthy of Cool Tools. In terms of brands, I’ve found Wiha Tools makes 90% of the Power Bits I need and use.

-- Wayne Ruffner  

Wiha 10-Piece Power Bit Set

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Wiha