Making a curtain rod on the cheap

The boss, er, fiancee, is redecorating. Among the casualties: the curtains that came with the house when I bought it. Along with them, the curtain rods are going, since the new curtains don’t fit on the old rods.

New curtain rods cost $25 or more. Here’s how I made one for her for around $10.First, I scored some 7/8-inch dowels at Hobby Lobby on sale for 50% off. I got four dowels. Three seem to do the trick but I didn’t want to go back. I also bought a single dowel the same measurement as my biggest drill bit. This is for making pegs to hold the dowels together. We also bought a couple of decorative wood turnings to put on the ends. We used the size of the opening on the turnings we liked to determine the size dowel to buy. The total damage was about $4.50.

Next we went to Lowe’s and bought a pair of hangers. Those were 6 bucks.

I measured the center of the large dowels and then punched a small hole. This is just to guide the drill bit. Then I found a small bit and drilled a pilot hole. Then I drilled a larger hole with my biggest drill bit. Then I inserted the small dowel and cut it off to make a peg.

I repeated for three dowels, since that was roughly the length I needed. Of course my measurements ended up drifting a bit. No problem, I just rotated the dowels until they lined up. Then I glued it all together, put it on my sawhorse, which has a grooved end, and set a couple of big pieces of oak plywood on the top to hold it straight and together. Then I set the heaviest thing I could find–in this case, my drill press–on top and let it sit.

After I repeat the process, I’ll have a 9-foot curtain rod. Just cut it to length, put the turnings on the end, stain the rod and the hangers (or you could paint them), put the hangers on the wall, and then put up the curtains. Cheap and easy, attractive and functional. Can’t beat that.

A cheap and lazy way to make insulated track sections

An old trick for automating a Lionel or Marx train layout is to power accessories off an insulated rail section. Run one wire to the center rail, then run the other wire to a rail that’s been insulated from the other rail and the two adjoining track sections. A passing train completes the circuit, causing the accessory to activate.

You can buy insulated O27 and O31 straight tubular sections. If you want a curved insulated section, or if you just want to save some money, you’re better off making your own.

The usual way is to take a piece of track, pry up the pair of tabs holding the rail on one side of each tie, and then insert some kind of nonconducting material–a piece of electrical tape or a piece of cardstock are popular options–and then mash the tabs back down onto the tie. Then you insert a Lionel o27 insulating pin or o31 insulating pin into each end of the rail you just insulated. I’ve also made my own O27 insulating pins out of bamboo skewers from the grocery store. (I don’t know about anyone else’s schedule, but most hobby shops aren’t open at 9 PM, which is usually when I get time to work on my layout.)

But there’s another way that you might like better. Pry up all of the tabs on the metal ties and set them aside. Cut similar-sized ties from a piece of wood. Popsicle sticks are close enough for O27 track ties, or you might want to buy a strip or two of basswood of appropriate size from a hobby shop. Nothing stops you from cutting extra ties, if you like your track to have more than the usual three. Stain or paint the ties the color you want, and then glue the ties right to the rails. Cyanoacrylate (superglue) or epoxy is best. Insert insulating pins (store bought or homemade) and you have an insulated track section.

What to do with the extra metal ties you just removed? If they’re in reasonably good shape, you can put them on other pieces of track to improve their appearance a bit. If you don’t like that idea, save them and once you get a decent quantity, sell them on Ebay so someone else can put them on other pieces of track to improve their appearance a bit.

Refinishing without refinishing

As I was walking through the paint section of my local hardware store, I spied a product on the shelves that claimed to work miracles. It was called Howard Restorafinish. The can shows a picture of someone wiping a door or tabletop that has scratches, water marks, and other nastiness and making it look brand new.

Too good to be true? Probably. But it was about five bucks. So I bought a can.I have a grandfather clock that belonged to my dad. A family friend built it for him in 1978. To most people it would be nothing special, but for whatever reason it meant a lot to my dad, and he lost it under some questionable circumstances and ended up going to a lot of trouble and expense to get it back.

Since then it’s endured four moves, and it’s spent the majority of the past 10 years sitting in basements. It sustained some damage in at least two of the moves, and in the last move it got some nasty scratches. Scratches is probably putting it nicely. I want it in my combination study/den, next to my wall-size bookcase, where I think it’d look gorgeous, but not with those huge gouges in it.

Since the clock needs to be sanded down and refinished anyway, I figured this stuff couldn’t do any harm, and I figured it was worth my five bucks to find out. So I took it home, grabbed an old sock, took the Howard Restorafinish and the sock down to the basement, and went to town.

The results were mixed. It really does seem to make minor scratches disappear. It also seems to help tired, faded color. I don’t really know how to describe it, other than spots that seem dry and lifeless. It also seems to do a good job of eliminating dirty buildup that turns the wood almost black.

The parts that were passable before now look bright and shiny–better than I ever remember it looking.

At first I was really impressed with what it did with the gouges. It recolored them. After 24 hours, I’m a bit less impressed. The cherry tint it put down is too dark. It seems where there’s no finish left to restore, its results aren’t as good. But I have to admit it still looks much better than before.

I found a few other light spots that it wasn’t able to do much of anything with. They’re minor. I can live with it.

The verdict? It didn’t exactly work miracles, but it made the clock look more than presentable again. I might need heavier-duty artillery for the spot that gave me trouble, but in all honesty I might be the only one who’ll notice it. I’m glad I spent the five bucks.

At some point I do need to sand it down and restain and refinish it. I’m sure I could sand it down, stain it and lacquer it and spend less than $100. But I really don’t have the time right now to do it. I can easily come up with five bucks and half an hour.

So I wouldn’t buy it expecting to make thrift-store furniture look like it came from Neimann Marcus, but for a scratch or a watermark on a kitchen cabinet, a piece of furniture, or a hardwood floor, it might save you a time-consuming refinishing job, or at least let you put that off until a more serious accident.

I’ll be buying the oak and walnut varieties to see what it can do for a couple of spots on my hardwood floors and my kitchen cabinets.

Building some cheap train shelves

Needing a place to store my trains, I decided to build some shelves so I could simultaneously store and display them when they’re not on the track. I used materials that I had on hand, exclusively. Other materials would have been better, but I didn’t have them.

I built the shelves on the front of my table. That space is otherwise unused, and four feet of shelf can hold five or six train cars.I used 1x1s to build the shelf supports. I cut them about six inches long, held them up to the table leg, drilled pilot holes, and then screwed them in. I placed them about 5 inches apart, so that the shelves would have enough clearance to comfortably pick up and replace cars.

The shelves themselves are made of 2x4s. Thinner wood would be much better–I could have had another shelf if I’d had anything thinner–but I wanted to use what I had. I have lots of 2x4s and could build the shelves with those in less time than it would take to go to the hardware store. I’ll buy thinner boards the next time I’m out someplace that sells lumber. I still have lots of table space to convert to shelves.

To hold the cars, one could lay a bunch of track on the shelves. Since most hobbyists have lots of track, and many of us had O27 and then upgraded to something else, this would be an economical and true-to-spirit choice.

I didn’t have enough straight O27 track for the job. So I cut 1-inch strips of cardboard, then screwed those to the top of the board. Yes, it’s cheap, but the cars hide the cardboard. One could also use 1-inch strips of balsa or basswood to give a better look.

Or, given the proper tools, one could simply cut two grooves an inch apart lengthwise into the wood.

One advantage of cardboard, wood, or grooves over track is that the cars roll very poorly on it, so cardboard or wood tends to hold the cars in place better.

With the strips secured onto the top of the boards, I then placed the boards on the supports, drilled pilot holes, and then drove one screw into each side to hold it in place.

At some point I will want to replace the wood with something thinner and nicer-looking than pine, and stain it to make it look good. But in the meantime, I have cheap storage for about 16 cars in about four feet of space that had otherwise been going to waste previously, and it only took me about an hour to do it. And it doesn’t look terrible either.

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