Renovation and Home Improvement Ideas

The Workbench Life offers readers how-to guide on home improvement projects. Articles include remodeling ideas for the kitchen, garage and other rooms in your home.

Safeguard Your Home Against Burglars

If you lock yourself out of your house -- and almost everyone has -- is it easy to get back in? If so, your home is a burglar’s dream.

One home is robbed every 15 seconds in the United States, according to the FBI. Most burglaries occur during the day when the owners are absent, and the break-ins require but one minute. 70 percent of robberies involve forced entry. The remaining 30 percent is made up of a combination of overly-trusting souls and those who simply forget to lock the door or latch the window.

Luckily, spoiling a robber’s day is simple, as your garden-variety thief moves on if breaching your defenses requires more than a couple of minutes.

Criminals Hate Landscaping

Experienced burglars seek to remain hidden. Remove that ability by following what police call the “3-7 Rule.” Prune shrubs so they’re no more than 3 feet high; prune trees so limbs are 7 feet above ground.

Short, thorny bushes planted alongside your home, especially under windows, are the bane of an intruder’s existence. Prowlers further detest small, crunchy gravel that makes enough noise to give them away.

Lights should illuminate doors and windows. Situate some lights so they shine through the upper limbs of trees.

What’s Behind Door No. 1?

Hollow-core doors are acceptable inside a home, but are worthless for external security. Exterior doors should be solid wood or metal clad, fit firmly in their frames, and be at least 1 3/4-inches thick. Investing in a metal doorframe frustrates burglars to no end.

Many people secure sliding glass doors by placing a broomstick in the bottom track. It’s a good idea, but sliders are easily lifted/pried off their tracks. Eliminate that risk by drilling three holes in the upper track and installing 1 1/4-inch, large-head, sheet metal screws. Twist the screws until the sliding door barely clears them.

Windows to the World

Dedicated burglars can always break glass, but most prefer to avoid such raucous noise. They know almost all windows are secured by flimsy latches, which is why you should install keyed locks. Don’t put keyed locks on the windows in rooms where children sleep (in case of fire). Instead, secure them in the same manner as a sliding glass door.

Don’t Let Burglars Clean Out Your Garage

A garage door is a weak point in home security, and automatic garage door openers tend to work on similar frequencies (making hacking easy). Latch your garage door manually. If the door lacks a manual latch, have one installed.

Lock Before You Leap

Standard doorknobs come with a simple spring-lock, easily jimmied or bypassed (with screwdriver or credit card) by even amateur crooks. Install a double-cylinder deadbolt lock if your exterior door features decorative or breakable glass located within 40 inches of the lock. A single-cylinder deadbolt suffices on doors lacking glass.

While you’re working on the door, install a heavy-duty strike plate in the doorframe. This is held by six 3-inch wood screws, in contrast to regular strike plates that feature only two 3/4-inch screws. For best results, the bolt must extend at least an inch into the doorframe, and be constructed of case-hardened steel.

Why You Should Buy a Jack Russell Terrier

Nothing bothers burglars more than the sound of a barking dog in the house. Oddly enough, based on police reports, homes with large dogs are robbed more often than those with small, yappy ones. Large dogs are frequently more trusting and relaxed than their smaller counterparts, and few canines are more noisy and protective than the venerable Jack Russell terrier. They will not shut up if a stranger is prying at a window, and have a volume that belies their diminutive size (plus, Jacks are just a whole lot of fun to have around).

Don’t Advertise Your Vacation

Social media may be a facet of your daily life, but don’t rush to post news of upcoming vacations and weekend getaways. You never know if online acquaintances or “friends of friends” moonlight as robbers. Further, don’t post pictures of yourself on a faraway beach until you return home. While away, send photos in private e-mails to family and trusted friends only.

Have neighbors pick up your mail/newspapers (or put a hold on service) if you’re on an extended trip. Also, set your lights on timers that will switch on and off at random times.

All Hands on Deck

While it’s not as easy as building a birdhouse, the thought of building your own deck need not lead to a panic attack. A simple, free-standing square deck for the backyard -- a place to grill and chill -- can be completed over a weekend.

A deck that’s not attached to a house doesn’t require deep footings, a warehouse of tools or any sort of spatial wizardry. All you need are building materials, hardware and basic tools found in most any home workshop. A flat piece of ground doesn’t hurt either, unless you enjoy moving and leveling mountains of dirt.

This particular model is based on the idea of constructing the deck first and, with the help of friends who may be paid in burgers and beer, moving it to its permanent foundation.

1. Frame It

Purchase four pieces of straight, pressure-treated, 2-by-6-by-12 lumber. A 12-by-12 deck is just large enough to offer comfort, though you can build to any dimension you wish. Measure all four pieces to make certain they are exactly the same length.

2. Nail It

Sit two boards perpendicular to each other on their 2-inch sides. Connect with 2-inch nails or wood screws. Repeat this process until you have a 12-by-12 square.

3. Measure Twice

Measure diagonally from corner to corner. If your lumber was correctly sized, the measurement will be exactly the same and your frame will be square. If the measurement is off, you can throw a fit, or adjust the framing by adding spacers. Or both.

4. Bring in Reinforcements

Screw reinforcing angle brackets into all four corners of the now-square frame. The brackets add considerable strength. Choose the galvanized versions (this goes for nails and screws as well) as they don’t rust. They cost a bit more, but it’s more than worth it.

5. Opposing Joists

Nail joist hangers onto the inside edges of two opposing sides of the frame. The hangers must be directly aligned with each other lengthwise, and should be no more than a foot apart. Variations aren’t acceptable, unless you want a deck with big gaps in it.

6. Hangers Meet Joists

Whip out your tape measure and determine the distance between the joist hangers (they will be 11 feet and change). Cut 2-by-6 joists to fit, slide them into the hangers, and secure with nails.

7. You Can Dig It

Pay a visit to the site where your deck will rest. Bring along a shovel, plenty of gravel, and at least 12 concrete blocks. Place a wooden stake in the ground at each corner of your 12-by-12 square.

Dig a square hole every 3 feet around the perimeter of the square, and layer with gravel. Place the concrete blocks atop the gravel. All 12 blocks must be level with one another. Add or remove gravel as needed until they are.

8. Strength in Friends

Contact your large friends and enlist them to move your deck frame to the concrete blocks/supports. You’ll need to jockey the frame around a bit to make sure it is centered. The weight of the deck and strength of your friends will dictate how many people you’ll need -- you’re on your own on this one. Safety first!

Once centered, attach the frame to the concrete blocks with 90-degree angle brackets.

9. Hit the Floor

Cut 1-by-6 lengths of lumber for your deck flooring, and lay them perpendicular to the joists. The easiest way to keep them straight is to install the two outermost pieces and install inward. Screwing the flooring to the joists with wood screws is one option, although a pocket-joinery tool designed for decks (with screws of the appropriate length) makes for a much more attractive deck. It all depends on your skill level.

Rather than cutting each piece of flooring to an exact length, and attempting to line it up perfectly with the edges, it’s best to cut them a few inches long. Go ahead with your installation, and then slice the protruding ends square with a circular saw.

10. Accessorize

At this point your deck is functionally complete. Let the lounging and grilling commence. You might also consider adding skirting boards over the pressure treated lumber, staining/painting the flooring or building planters or rails. All optional.

Energy-Efficient Roof Options for Your Home

Eco-friendly roofs were once concepts reserved only for the covers of design magazines or for well-to-do hippies making a statement. Not anymore. These days, many savvy homeowners incorporate energy-efficient technologies on their roofs to save energy and money. Here are several energy-efficent DIY options for residential roofs.

Solar Roof

The benefits of a solar roof couldn’t be more obvious: free, renewable energy to help power your home and reduce the strain on the power grid. Play your cards right and you might even generate enough energy to sell back to the utility company and make a tidy profit.

Until recently, there was a big drawback in solar roofing options: Those old, mammoth clunky panels would look like a giant metal Frankenstein on your roof, negatively impacting the appearance of your home -- and that’s if your roof could even support the monstrosities. Luckily, those days are over.

Solar shingles are the new fashion, and they fit on and blend into nearly any residential roof. Several companies make these solar shingles and, in the right sun visibility conditions, they can be popped right onto an existing roof. Solar roofs are a much more attractive option for the green homeowner now, and there are plenty of energy-efficient options out there for buyers to choose from.

Tile Roof

The very same Southwestern-style curved tile roofs that have been around forever are actually an excellent green roof option. This tile provides good ventilation, keeps the house cool, and is made of a recyclable material.

As with any roof material, brighter colors reflect more light away, keeping the house cooler and helping the environment. Tile comes in an array of bright colors, and it has the advantage of being a style that consumers are familiar with -- and that looks good on top of the house.


With so many material choices that work better than traditional shingles, the old asphalt roof shingle could be headed the way of the dinosaur. And since these alternatives are often made of recycled materials, they’re easy on the conscience -- and, in many cases, the wallet, when you consider their long roof-life. Additionally, recycled material shingles may save you some money on insurance because of their good fire rating.

Metal is one such option. It is highly durable against wind, rain and fire; reflects plenty of light; is recyclable; and is significantly less expensive than traditional shingles when you consider the fact that metal roofs last two to three times as long. Of course, metal is a broad term and can include zinc, steel and copper. For that reason, metal roofing is available in nearly any color or style.

Recycled rubber is another green choice, and it comes in styles which look quite similar to traditional shingles.

If you absolutely must stick with shingles, consider recycled wood fiber shingles. As an added green component, paint them white to reflect heat away from your house and lower your air conditioning bill.

Living Roof

Nothing is greener than a garden, and with enough effort and the right roof, you can have one on top of your home. A true roof garden is best-suited for urban-style flat roofs, but a living roof can be anything from a few potted plants to a full-on plant and flower conservatory atop your home.

It takes some hardy plants and a green thumb to make it happen, but you can hardly beat the “wow” factor of a living roof. Plus, a rooftop nursery can really insulate a building: A recent study found that on an 80 F day, a tar-painted roof reached 180 F, a white roof 120, and the plant-covered roof was just 85 F.

In the right conditions, a living roof is worth the work and makes for a beautiful addition. And nobody can argue with the beauty factor of this, the greenest of roof options.

Spring Composting 101

The sun is warmer, the ground is softer and green leaves are starting to poke out everywhere you look. It’s time to get healthy soil back into your yard and garden for spring planting, and compost will give your seeds and seedlings the nutrients they need.

What Is Composting?

Compost is decayed plant matter, and composting is the process that helps speed up the breakdown of organic matter. Composting has become a fairly popular practice in the last few years, with even urban gardeners starting mini compost bins in their apartments. Starting your own compost pile provides a two-fold benefit: You have a use for all those lawn clippings and fallen leaves, and your garden gets free, high-quality soil.

The Receptacle

Composting can be done in a large bin, or you can keep it in a pile. You’ll want to keep your pile around 3 feet wide by 3 feet high by 3 feet deep, as any larger will slow down the composting process. Find a location that is conveniently located near your garden, but keep it away from wood fences and walls, as your wood will decompose along with the rest of the pile!

You’ll want an area that has good drainage and gets sunlight (heat will speed the process). You can buy a container, or make your own. One simple solution is to buy a large heavy-duty plastic trash can and drill aeration holes throughout.

The Ingredients

The key to healthy compost is keeping a balance between carbon-rich material and nitrogen-rich material. A good rule is to use two-thirds carbon-based (or brown) materials and one-third nitrogen-based (or green) material.

  • Carbon-rich materials include: branches, stems, dried leaves, bits of wood, brown paper bags, egg shells, sawdust pellets and coffee filters

  • Nitrogen-rich materials include: manure, food scraps, green lawn clippings and green leaves

  • Non-compostable materials include: meat products, rice and bread products, ashes and lime

The Maintenance

Once you’ve picked a spot for your pile or bin and collected some ingredients, it’s time to start composting.

  • Layer: Start your pile with a layer of twigs and/or straw to allow good drainage at the bottom, and build your pile by alternately layering nitrogen-rich and carbon-rich materials. Adding a layer of manure will help jumpstart your pile.

  • Keep things small: Chop up compost material as small as possible; greater surface area for decomposers means quicker breakdown of matter.

  • Cover your pile: If you don’t have a bin with a lid, cover your pile with a tarp.

  • Keep it moist: Make sure your pile stays moist (but not soggy), by watering occasionally or by letting the rain do the work.

  • Aerate your pile: Turn your pile with a pitchfork or shovel every few weeks to ensure the compost gets the oxygen it needs to break down.

Putting Your Compost to Good Use

The time it takes for your compost to be ready to use depends on the size of the pile, the ingredients, the temperature, precipitation, etc. However, if you keep your pile small, finely chop the material and turn it often, you can have beautiful compost in as little as three months. It should look dark brown and crumbly, but not powdery, and you shouldn’t be able to recognize the original materials that went into it. Once it’s ready, incorporate your compost into the soil when preparing for each planting season.