Coffee heat rising

DIY splendor!

One of Funny’s Ten Money Principles is “do it yourself.” Great piles of cash are to be saved (and spent) by following this principle. If you’re at all handy or crafty, improvements to your house, yard, and vehicles are waiting for you.

This weekend I visited the home of some friends who deserve the nomination for All-Time Great Do-It-Yourselfers. Fred is a firefighter, and Kathy works for the Great Desert University. A few years ago, not long before the real estate bubble began its final expansion, they built their dream house on an acre of land under the White Tank Mountains, a natural preserve on the far west side of the Valley. The basic structure of the house was built by the developer, a man they had met through their daughter’s sport, but Fred wired the place for sound, and working together Fred and Kathy installed a handsome stone façade in front. Then they started on the huge backyard.

Still a work in progress, it’s beginning to shape up as a lovely park-like retreat. Fred has made a hobby of metal-working; when they built the house, he specified a separate, fire-resistant workshop, which you can see in some of the photos here. At the outset, they laid two large patios, one of paving bricks and one of flagstone. The flagstone surface was the only landscaping project for which they needed professional help. Otherwise, Fred and Kathy designed and installed the entire hardscape, the structures, and the plantings.

dcp_2467This shade structure was built of scrap metal. The entire thing consists of recycled materials. It casts a cooling, airy shadow close to the house’s covered patio, where, Kathy says, the two of them like to sip wine in the evenings and dream up new projects. Beneath it, they built (themselves!) a complete outdoor kitchen with propane-powered gear and a stone countertop. Taken together with the house’s built-in overhang, the flagstone patio, and the great room that opens into the backyard, the whole arrangement makes an awesome entertainment area. 

(Click on the photos for larger views.)

But that’s just the beginning. In addition to the barbecue kitchen, they also designed and built a fantastic propane fireplace, complete with a Santa Fe-style wall and bancos. In this view, a protective covering is set in place over the firebox. The other evening, though, SDXB and I had the privilege of joining our hosts in front of this lovely hearth, where we watched the sun set over the mountains and the moon and stars come to vibrant life. That’s a young elm tree behind the structure. The flowering trees are Desert Museum hybrid paloverdes, an exceptionally beautiful xeric tree that, once established, provides great shade and hardly ever has to be watered.

dcp_2473Their latest development is an elaborate garden structure. Fred also built the framework in his workshop, although this time the metal was, I believe, not recycled. Here are Kathy and VickyC about to enter through the gated arch—the fencing discourages coyotes and can be equipped with a dog- and rabbit-repelling barrier. A couple of weeks ago, Kathy planted a pair of Lady Banks climbing roses, one on either side of the archway. It will take a year or two, but in due course these plants will cover the arch with flowering vines. The skeletal “roof” of the structure is designed to accommodate shade and frost fabric, which will protect tomatoes in the scorching Arizona summer and frost-sensitive plants during the chilly winter nights. 

They already have a healthy garden of tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplants, herbs, and the like:


The amount of work Fred and Kathy have done themselves represents savings in the tens of thousands of dollars. I can’t imagine what it would cost to have even one of those weather-resistant, termite-resistant metal structures built. An outdoor kitchen? I’ve never asked, because I can’t afford it. Outdoor fireplace? Doesn’t compute.

Kathy says that, except for the metalwork and the flagstone installation, most of the projects were not difficult to build. I think, though, that success with these projects requires meticulous care, knowledge of building codes, and understanding of how to design block and metal structures that will withstand the test of time. Clearly it’s not impossible to acquire these skills. The result is pretty amazing.

Cheap frames

In a comment at the post I published the other day about designing artwork to fit precut mats, photographer FF noted that acquiring frames is an expensive proposition. This is certainly true, even at an outfit such as Aaron Brothers, which has two-for-one sales every few months.

There are two very inexpensive source of frames, some of them quite nice: yard sales and estate sales. People are always trying to unload artwork they’ve tired of. Sometimes they’ll get the most ordinary prints and posters custom-framed. And of course, when they sell the print, they sell the frame and mat with it. You can usually buy these things very cheaply. Remove and throw out the cheesy artwork, and voila! a frame. Install your own mat (if you do this often, it soon becomes cost-effective to buy a mat cutter) and your preferred image or object, and you have a custom-framed work.

Here’s a pastel done by La Maya, whose hobby is painting in pastels and oils. The frame is an estate-sale find.


She cut the two mats herself and placed the entire arrangement in the frame, using her dining-room table as a workspace.

dcp_22431The frame itself is rather interesting, and it works very well with the mats to display the image handsomely. The cost was a fraction of what she would have paid at a frame shop. If you do a lot of photography or painting, it’s well worth stopping at yard or estate sales to check the offerings. Ignore the ugly, faded prints: just search for desirable frames.

One frugal move = 12 to-do’s done

So this morning I decided to wash the car in the driveway, my $13 having purchased a less-than-perfect job the last time I took the minivan to the car wash. Figured it was time, since I couldn’t see through the windshield.

In particular, I wanted to try to get the old, stale coffee stains out of the carpet, where over the months and years I’ve spilled my favorite potable while driving around town. Toyota’s carpet and upholstery are practically invulnerable. Hence, a rough-sounding strategy: spray plenty of window cleaner on the rug, scrub the stuff around with an old sponge, and then suck it out with the shop vac.

Amazingly, the scheme worked with no ill effect. It not only got out the coffee stains, it also pulled up a number of other spots scattered around the vehicle. Other than the Great Automotive Coffee Extraction Project, the rest of the job was pretty easy: I sprayed the van with a little Windex Outdoor, which doesn’t do much for windows but works great on paving, walls, and your car. This product comes in a container that attaches to the hose and has a spray attachment that turns the water flow off (saves water!) and also switches to “rinse,” making it simple to lather and rinse off the vehicle.

The Coffee Extraction Project got the eight-year-old carpeting almost as clean as new, and a little Murphy’s Oil Soap cleaned and polished up the vinyl interior trim. So, for the price of a quarter-bottle of Windex Outdoor I saved myself $13 on the wash-and-rinse and, if you believe Johnny’s Carousel Car Wash prices, another $80 on the detail job.

Better yet, because I chose to wash the car in the driveway, in the process I did a whole series of small chores I wouldn’t even have thought about had I schlepped to Johnny’s:

  • Filled a spray bottle with a handy solution of diluted Murphy’s Oil Soap
  • Cleaned the fingerprints off the garage cabinets
  • Refilled the window-cleaner spray bottle
  • Cleaned the garage door threshold
  • Cleaned the utility sink
  • Cleaned the clothes washer
  • Took out the garbage
  • Cleaned the garbage basket
  • Washed the grackle guano off the pavement under the ash tree
  • Picked wildflowers and put them in the kitchen
  • Cleaned the fireplace ashes out of the shop vac & washed the filter
    Memo: Don’t use the shop vac to clean out the fireplace!

Voilà! In the time it would have taken to drive across town to Johnny’s and wait around for a half-baked car wash, twelve household projects got done (counting the car wash). The cost was almost nothing, and no gasoline was consumed.
Frugality pays, in more ways than one.