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Fixing things (#971)

Topics/tags: Those wacky Rebelskys

One thing that particularly impresses me about my children is their willingness to attempt to fix things, even things they don’t know much about. I also fix things [1], but I’m not as willing to push myself as they are. For example, while I’m willing to replace a toilet valve, I don’t tend to do significant car repairs. In contrast, Youngest appeared to think nothing of replacing the car radio and was even willing to attempt replacing the handle on the driver’s door, even though it meant taking apart the door and pulling out the window. He also replaced his front bumper and related pieces.

How did they my sons these skills? In part, I think that they are channeling their grandfather Lloyd, who seemed willing to try to fix anything. In part, I think they are building upon the skills they learned doing technical theatre. In part, they seem to just be the types of kids who like to fiddle with things, or at least Youngest and Middle do. I do basic repairs, like gluing furniture or nailing things, or even building simple furniture, but, as I said, I don’t tend toward more complex repairs.

At times, they even inspire me. For example, they helped me realize that I could fix my minivan’s side-view mirror. Since the last time I had it replaced, the insurance company paid something like $600, it was clearly worth buying one for about $50 and doing it myself.

This past Turkey Break, when all three sons were home, Youngest decided that he could fix our broken pocket door. Now, this is an old pocket door, from the late 1800’s, when our house was built. We weren’t quite sure what was wrong with it, other than that it was no longer vertical. He read a bit about pocket doors, saw warnings that said Don’t do this; it will remove the door from the track, figured that he wanted to remove the door from the track, and tried. However, it turned out that he needed Eldest’s help. They managed to remove the door and then remove the hardware for hanging the door. It appears that the problem was that one of the two pieces had pulled its screws out from the wood, so they made plans to reattach the screws.

It turns out that there are some benefits to age. They bought wood putty to fill in the old holes and planned to reattach the hanging hardware in those puttied holes. I know that wood putty provides very little structural integrity. So I used the strategy that I learned from my father-in-law [2]: I glued toothpicks and chopsticks in the holes, using wood glue. Why? Because that narrows the hole and gives the screw something to grip, both the chopstick and the wood that the screw gets pushed toward. Once the glue had dried, we reattached the hardware and then went to hang the door.

Once again, it took a combination of expertise to do get the door correctly hung. The kids knew the general strategy and had the dexterity to get things in place. But it wouldn’t hang correctly. I looked at the hardware and realized that they needed to attach some pieces to each other before hanging. It took a few hours all told, but we now have a happily hanging pocket door.

This holiday season, we chose a somewhat simpler task. One of the hanging lamps in our house managed to blow its socket. I’ve never particularly liked that socket; it’s an old Thomson-Houston socket and needed an adapter to use a modern light bulb [3]. A few weeks ago, when I went to put the bulb and adapter in, I got a shocking flash, and it appears that we burned through the insulation on the adapter. So I guess it’s not strictly true that we blew the socket. Nonetheless, it seemed worthwhile to replace it. Of course, they no longer make anything remotely like the socket we had, so we had fun [5] disassembling a modern socket assembly and fitting its interior into the old assembly. It took a lot of futzing around, particularly as we tried to screw things together, but the result works!

Afterwards, I managed to find a similar assembly on eBay. But we’d still need an adapter, and it costs $150. I prefer the $5.50 solution we came up with [6]. And, in any case, I’m not sure that we could have removed the old assembly.

What are some other good stories? For the past few years, we’ve assumed that the heat lamp in the downstairs bathroom was broken. Then, right before Turkey break, the fan stopped working. So I decided to replace the light switch with Youngest’s help. I thought I’d turned off the power, but our house is wired strangely, and we got a few sparks. Eventually, I just turned off the master breaker [7]. Once we got the new switch installed, we discovered that not only did the exhaust fan work, the heat lamp did, too.

Fixing things always takes more time than I would expect. And it often induces unexpected challenges. But it feels rewarding when we succeed.

Of course, things don’t always work so well. When one son managed to partially dislodge his ceiling fan, I managed to make it much worse. Amazingly, the professional electrician we called in failed to balance it well, so we had to rely on our regular [8] handyman to fix it. And then there’s the time I destroyed our disposal while trying to install it. The latter experience reminded me of why I like to hire professionals. And, while the handle in the car sometimes works, it does not work consistently.

Oh well. You don’t learn what you and cannot do unless you try. At least no one’s gotten hurt and nothing has gotten (too) damaged.

Postscript: No, my sons do not normally do work for hire. Thanks for asking.

Postscript: Here’s a picture of a whole adapter, taken from eBay.

a metal object with a screw hold in the middle

The screw hole is how Thomson-Houston bulbs attach to the lamp. The other side fits a normal light bulb. I managed to evaporate the red part on ours.

Postscript: I miss my father-in-law, who was willing to try all sorts of projects and who often had the tools to do so. I recall working with him to install a shower and tile the bathroom when Michelle and I first moved into this house.

Postscript: Here’s my Facebook post about plumbing from 26 December 2011.

Why Sam should not do plumbing, phase N. Our kitchen faucet has been loose, so I decided to tighten it on Saturday. Unfortunately, getting to the bolt to tighten the faucet meant that I had to remove the disposal. I hate getting the disposal back into place. You’d think it would be easy, but you have to line it up perfectly while under a sink and then twist something that’s hard to twist.

This time, I was so frustrated that I managed to break it.

So, today we bought a new disposal. Put the new drain in the sink. Checked for leaks. No leaks. Wired the disposal. Fine. Tried to take the drain pipe from the old disposal, but the screws are rusted in place. Bought new pipe. Installed disposal (with some cursing). Discovered that the new pipe was 1/4 inch too short. Removed disposal. Bought another new pipe. Tried to install disposal again. Failed. Tried again. Failed. Had William try. Failed. Took a break. Finally got it in place. Got drain pipe in place. It fits! Yay! Try to tighten it. Turned wrong direction. Disposal falls off. Twenty minutes later, it’s back in place, drain pipe is in place and connected neatly, and … I discover that (a) I managed to disconnect the ground at some point and (b) the new drain is now leaking. So, back to square one. Took off the disposal. Re-wired it. Took off the sink drain. Ran to the hardware store for plumbers putty. Got the drain in place. Checked for leaks. No leaks. Got the disposal in place. Drain pipe connects. Power works. I don’t think we have leaks, but I’m not confident.

A few hours of my life are gone, and I’m frustrated. Next time I should just hire Jason.

And I need to learn to write shorter posts.

Isn’t that last sentence amusing [9]? These days, I’d call that a very short musing.

Oh, I forgot to mention: A weak or so later, it started leaking. When Jason went to re-attach it, he said that I’d managed to strip something or other and we needed another new disposal. That helped convince me that there are times that I should not attempt to fix things [10].

Postscript: In writing the first version of this musing, I had completely forgotten that I’d already mused about trying to fix the ceiling fan and succeeding in fixing my side-view mirror. However, as I wrote this musing, I realized that it made sense to have a new category for Those wacky Rebelskys and, in rearranging links, I discovered those two musings.

[1] More precisely, I attempt to fix things. I don’t always succeed.

[2] At least I think it was my father-in-law.

[3] Did you know that there used to be multiple kinds of bulb bases? While you may think of a traditional bulb/base combination as having an outie bulb and an innie socket [4], the Thomson-Houston has an innie bulb and an outie socket, but with about a half-inch diameter for the socket.

[4] Some people use gendered terms for these.

[5] No, not really.

[6] I so appreciate Paul’s Hardware. It was more convenient when it was less than a block away. But three blocks is still pretty convenient.

[7] Maybe we’ll map the circuit box this break.

[8] Or, given his custom, irregular.

[9] Rather than a musing.

[10] Yes, I realize that contradicts the last sentence of the primary musing. I’m working on learning appropriate limits.

Version 1.0 of 2019-12-30.