Free Dirt = New Shocks

We are doing some landscaping that is going to require a significant amount of dirt to properly grade and drain. Earlier this week we jumped on an offer of free dirt posted online. This was the second time we had done this in as many weeks.

My 2004 Toyota Tundra’s box is 6′ long, 5′ wide, and 18″ deep. By my calculations that is 45 cubic feet (1.67 cubic yards). There are a lot of variables (soil type, moisture, loose vs. packed), but 1 cubic yard of soil weighs right around 2,000 pounds. The first load filled the box about half full which would be a bit less than 1,700 pounds. For the most recent load we filled the box about 3/4 full, 1.25 cubic yards weighing in somewhere around 2,500 pounds.

We made it home just fine, but that weight proved to be too much. The next morning I noticed fluid on the garage floor beneath the rear axle of my pickup. The shocks had failed.

My pickup has 190,000 miles on it. I have had it for the last 50,000 miles. I have no idea how many miles those shocks had. I had never replaced them. So it was probably about time anyway. I picked up these Monroe OESpectrums for $125 at a local auto parts store.

They did not look like they would be too difficult to replace. Just a couple of bolts, rights? I searched up a video to make sure I was not overlooking anything. While this video was very informative it was not encouraging that they had to use a cutting torch to get their old shocks off.

I was not able to turn the nuts off the top off either of the shocks. I have an angle grinder and a Dremel, but there was not enough room for either. A reciprocating saw would have been perfect.

Unfortunately, I do not have one of those. Or a cutting torch. The only tool I have that would work in this situation is a hacksaw. It did the job, but was quite difficult.

Once I had them out, installation was easy. I will try to keep payloads under a ton in the future.

Another Laptop Treadmill Desk

I had built a laptop treadmill desk a few years ago to be used in my office workout room. I made it height and tilt adjustable to accommodate various people. I switched jobs so I brought it home since it worked on the treadmill I had at the time. However, that treadmill died and we didn’t get another one for over a year. So I sold that platform because I had no use for it at the time.

Lately I have been trying to walk on my treadmill more. And I recently got a laptop as my primary computer for my job. I decided it was time for another laptop treadmill desk.

This time I went for a simpler design because it would be just me using it at home. As usual my goal was to build this with materials I already had. I took some measurements and headed out to the garage. I needed something at least 3′ long. I soon found a piece of 1″ x 8″ that was 6′ long which I had saved from our refreshing our fireplace. Perfect.

I ripped it down to 6″ wide and cut it in half lengthwise. I then used my biscuit joiner to cut some biscuit slots in the ripped edges and glued them together to yield a board 12″ wide and 3′ long. To increase the strength and stability I had some drawer rails from an old metal desk that I was planning to attach to the underside. I also needed to have some sort of stop on the bottom to keep the board from moving sideways too much. I wanted to try and use some odd triangular hardwood (picked up from a curb alert) with a groove the whole length, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to affix it to the board. Sure I could have used screws down through the top, but that wouldn’t look nice.

I noticed my drawer rail just might fit the groove. Like a glove. I screwed the rail to the bottom of the board the appropriate distance from the edge to fit between the treadmill arms. Then with some some persuasion (a hammer) I slid the hardwood onto the rail; no screws or glue required.

The top of the board was pre-finished since it was from our fireplace mantel. This project took me about 2 hours and cost me nothing. I am really happy with how it turned out.

New Set of Wheels

When I got my 2004 Toyota Tundra almost four years ago the alloy wheels were already in tough shape with the outer coating flaking off all of them. And over the years it got progressively worse.


I started researching what a replacement set of wheels would cost right away. I was able to find them on-line new or refurbished for anywhere from $100 to $150 per wheel. That was far more than I wanted to spend so I quit looking.

Every once in a while I would look on Craigslist thinking maybe I could get a better deal there. Just over a year ago I finally found a set that was within my price range, $200. The tires on them had hardly any tread left, but that was not a concern. I offered $160 and the seller accepted. The only problem was they were 300 miles away.

I called a friend whom I knew traveled to that area occasionally and asked him if he would be able to get them up for me. As it turned out, he was driving in that direction when I called. He got some cash, stopped at the seller’s house that afternoon, and picked them up. Did I mention he is an awesome friend? He stored them until we were able to meet up a few months later. I paid him $40 for his trouble.


I wasn’t quite ready to put new tires on my truck so I put the wheels up in the attic of my garage for almost a year. Last week I finally decided it was time. I went with the Firestone Destination LE 2 for the tires. I am very happy with the result with respect to how they look and the good deal they were.

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New Brake Pads

The rear brakes on my 2005 Honda Pilot were beginning to squeak occasionally when stopping. I checked my maintenance records and discovered it had been 5 years since I had replaced them. Time to do it again.

In my opinion, this is one of the easiest DIY car maintenance tasks you can do. A c-clamp to compress the brake pistons will make things a lot easier. Other than that, standard shop tools will suffice.

If the surface of the rotors (the part the pads squeeze to stop your vehicle) are not smooth you should get them turned by a brake repair shop; if they are in really bad condition or have been turned numerous times you should just get new rotors. If you have drum brakes with shoes instead of disc brakes with pads replacing the shoes is a little harder and is made easier with some specialty tools, but it can be done as I did on my pickup a couple years ago.

The cost of this maintenance was just under $95 for new brake pads for the entire vehicle. It took me about 2 hours to complete the job. If I had taken it to a shop the bill would have been between approximately $250. Definitely a worthwhile Saturday afternoon for me.

Tables Turned (Out Great)

Recently I purchased a couple of tables not really sure if I wanted refinish them and keep them or sell them. Well they are both done being refinished and are up for sale.

The first one is your basic round/oval oak kitchen table with a leaf. I sanded only the top with an orbital sander and refinished it with two coats of an oil based gel stain from General Finishes to match the base and two coats of polyurethane.

The second table is a little more interesting. It is a mid-century modern Lane Perception coffee table similar to this one. Here is mine as it was when I bought it.

It had a darker stain than I wanted and the thought of removing the stain from the lattice drawer front was daunting. Also, the drawer box itself was damaged. So I opted to completely remove the drawer. Again I took my orbital sander to it.

For this table I went with a three applications of WATCO Danish Oil in light walnut and two coats of polyurethane.

I am happy with how each of them turned out.

We Will Rock You

The weeds had started to grow through the landscape fabric in the rocks on the north side of our driveway. Dirt and debris had filled in over the years and was impeding water flow through the culvert. Of course, I neglected to take a photo before we started the reclamation project.

We separated out that dirt and debris with a homemade sifter (heavy gauge 0.25″ screen on and 2.5′ x 4′ wood frame) as we removed the small rocks and placed them on the driveway.

We did not want to just replace the landscape fabric and put back the same rock. Instead we wanted to put some bigger rocks in the channel for better flow and even bigger ones scattered about purely for aesthetics.

On a recent run I had seen some big rocks the size we were looking for in a nearby ditch. We picked those up along with a bunch of smaller ones from a farmer’s field which you can see in the photo above along the edges.

Since we brought in additional rocks we didn’t need all the rocks that were originally there. So I dispersed them in other areas of our landscaping. I think it turned out nicely.

My Cord Cutting Journey

I have had a love-hate relationship with cable TV for a long time, and  finally cut the cord about five years ago. We were at the end of a special two year deal with DVR and a whole bunch of channels we never watched. If we kept what we had it was going to cost an extra $50 a month and we decided it was time.

As an alternative we signed up for Netflix and got a Roku to be able to stream to our old TV. In order to pull in over-the-air (OTA) channels I built my own antenna.

I could have purchased an off-the-shelf HD TV antenna, but where is the fun in that? If you search on-line for “DIY TV antenna” you will find a lot of instructions. I built a pretty basic version based on this from Popular Mechanics for less than $20. It pulls in all the local channels with perfect clarity. Here is how mine turned out.


I put it in the attic above our garage and ran coaxial cable to our basement and plugged it in where the line from the cable TV company would go if we had their service. By doing that, we have the OTA signal available throughout the house.

The main drawback of this scenario was being able to watch less and less sports broadcasts. Early rounds of  March Madness and the NBA playoffs have moved to cable, as have almost all of the college football bowl games.

Then about a year ago I saw a news story on-line about a new service called Sling TV. For just $20 a month I could get my sports (ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, TBS) as well as a bunch of other channels. There are a number of add-ons you can have if you pay a little more, but we just stuck with the base package.

I waited until March Madness began to start my free seven day trial to test it out. It was awesome! It does freeze occasionally, but overall we think it is a great option for us.

You do need Wi-Fi and some sort of device (Amazon Fire TV, Roku or Chromecast) to stream the content to your TV. You can also download apps to watch on your Android or iOS phone or tablet or even your computer (PC or Mac). We use an Amazon Fire TV Stick which we got on sale for $20. Sling TV does offer deals on various devices. For instance, right now you can get a Roku 2 for free if you pay for three months of service up front. That is a pretty good deal since the Roku 2 is priced at $69.

When we signed up for Sling TV that brought us up to three video streaming services since we previously had Amazon Prime which includes video streaming. Since one of our goals was to save money we decided to discontinue Netflix.

By making a $40 investment in hardware we were able get rid of cable TV and limit our monthly TV expense to just $20. Sometimes I do wonder if we are missing out, but then I go on a business trip and cannot finding anything I want to watch on cable or end up watching 3 hours of a Swamp People marathon which I could have watched on Sling TV anyway.

Ball Joints Galore

About a month ago I had new tires put on our 2003 Audi A6 Quattro. It was definitely time. Much better.

The tire shop includes a free alignment with all tires they install. However, they said the ball joints and rubber bushings were so bad they could not do the alignment.

I could have had them do that for me, but I opted to tackle it. After some extensive research and on-line shopping I order a full front-end steering suspension kit minus the shocks and struts.

I started this job on a Saturday morning. I had also taken the following Monday off of work in case it needed some extra time to finish. Did I ever. And then some.

As you would expect there were some rusty nuts that were stubborn. I knew that getting the inner tie rods off would be a challenge so I purchased this special inner tie rod end removal tool.

I was able to get this one off, but I tweaked my shoulder in the process. For the passenger side I went with a different type of tool borrowed from a local auto parts store. Much easier and no additional shoulder pain. I wish I had thought of that at first.

There is a pinch bolt that holds the two upper control arms in place that proved nearly impossible to remove. They were not rusty, just seized up. I twisted the heads off. I used a Dremel, hacksaw, drill, and punch. On the passenger side I had to remove the entire steering knuckle in order to get that bolt out.

To complicate matters, the tie rod boots were the wrong part as were the forward lower control arms. Note the difference in the diameter of the stud just below the threads on the old (left) and new (right) parts.

I am not sure if I was sent the wrong parts or if I order the wrong kit. Everything else fit. I was able to find the forward lower control arms locally and I order the tie rod boots from RockAuto. I went back and forth with the seller about returning the parts, but with the return shipping and 20% restocking fee I did not think it was worth.

As you might have imagined I was not able to finish this job in one weekend. I did finally get things put back together. I took it back to the tire shop for the alignment. I also had them bleed the brakes since introduced air into the brake lines when I removed the steering knuckle.

This was an extremely difficult repair job. I spent 30 hours on this over the course of two weekends and one day off of work. Those stubborn pinch bolts each took 4 hours. My parts and new tool costs were about $400. I think the bill to have a shop do this would have been at least 3 times that. Was it worth it? I am not sure. I am glad it is done and it may be a while before I take on another car repair.

Wonky Wheels

The last few times I have mowed my lawn it seemed my right front tire was just too close to the mower deck. And it looked like the front tires were out of alignment. Sharp turns on grass were not normal, but doable. However, when I executed a sharp turn on asphalt I knew I needed to figure out the source of the issue.

I found plenty of YouTube videos about adjusting steering linkage, but my mower’s steering linkage does not have any adjustment to it. I did find a forum post suggesting that maybe the welded front axle was cracked which made sense given the symptoms I had. Upon further inspection I could see the right side was ever so slightly tipped forward which caused that wheel to run further back and tilted outward.

A few days later my new front axle from Amazon arrived. It was somewhat challenging to replace since I had to remove the muffler in order to back out the bolt holding the axle in place.

It was definitely cracked.

I am not sure if I had hit a hole or this is just wear and tear. This mower is eight years old and it has had some rough use. Or it could be my 14-year-old turning at full throttle. In any case both wheels are now heading in the same direction and no more rubbing on the mower deck when I turn.

Smoother Roads Ahead

The ride on our 2005 Honda Pilot had been getting progressively rougher. That is not surprising considering the 225,000 miles it has traveled. When we purchased it 5 years ago it had 129,750 miles. Perhaps the shocks and struts had been replaced before, but in any case it was time to do it again. I opted for the pre-assembled shock and strut for the front so I wouldn’t have to deal with compressing the spring.

Removing the old strut assembly was not too difficult. Just three bolts on the top through the access holes. I did need help installing the new one because it is heavy and I could not reach around the top to get the nuts started by myself.

I also replaced the front stabilizer links because I could not get one of them off the existing strut. The effort to replace the rear shocks was minimal since the are pretty easy to get to and only involve two bolts each.

As I was working on the front end, I noticed one of the ball joints moved more easily than I thought it should. So I ordered a set of front lower control arms with the integrated ball joint.

They were not too bad to remove, but getting all of the bolt holes lined up on the first one was very challenging. On the second one I put the bolt in the hole I had the toughest time with first and that went much better.

Unfortunately, this is not where this story ends. I took the vehicle out for a test drive after getting everything put back together. I made it about a mile from home when it just did not want to go anymore. Shifting into “Park” caused horrible grinding noises. I was able to go about another 1/4 mile before I could go no more. I pulled over as far to the side of the road I could get, turned the engine off before putting it “Park”, and put the hazard lights on.

I had left my cell phone in the garage because why would I need that. And of course I had finished this job at about 11:30 pm so I had a nice walk back home in the dark.

We considered towing it home, but instead my wife, two oldest sons, and I went back and got it pushed a little further off the road. Upon further inspection it looked like it had lost all the transmission fluid. As we went home we could see the trail all the way back to within 100 feet of our driveway.

I called a tow truck company right away in the morning and had it taken to our local car repair shop. Their diagnosis was as I worked on changing out the lower control arm I had dislodged the CV axle allowing a significant amount of transmission fluid (they put three quarts back in) to leak out.

One of the boots on that axle was broken so I had them replace that. In addition I had twisted off one wheel stud. Replacement of that also required replacement of the wheel bearing. Certainly I could have done those repairs myself as well, but I did not really have the time and frugality fatigue on this project had set in pretty hard.

I suppose if I had the shop do the shocks and struts I would not have had this problem and could have avoided the tow charge. However, that would have cost me more that the $450 I spent on the parts. As for the broken wheel stud; I am not sure what to think about that. I might need to get a torque wrench. Any recommendations?