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Interior paint: a brighter picture

This is a good time to buy paint. Manufacturers have survived a period of struggle with changing technologies to meet stricter environmental regulations. Now the paint companies seem to be back on track.

Paints are better than their predecessors in several important respects: They spatter less and have ample tolerance for scrubbing. They also keep stains and mildew at bay. Those are major improvements if you’re ready to paint parts of the house that get heavy use–a family room, kitchen, hallway, or bathroom.

exterior painting

Such improvements result from several reformulations by many leading brands over the past few years. Two brands in particular have made large strides. The current versions of Home Depot’s Behr Premium Plus and Lowe’s Valspar American Tradition paints perform extremely well across the board and are very moderately priced. We’ve judged both CR Best Buys.

Major national brands aren’t the only good choices, however. A number of regional brands perform well and offer reasonable values.

There are also more celebrity paints to choose from, now that the home-improvement guru Bob Vila has lent his name to a Sears brand. Bob Vila Signature Collection joins Martha Stewart’s Everyday Colors for Kmart and Ralph Lauren’s paint. Among the celebs, Lauren’s was the best by a very small margin; none was excellent overall.


Begin with the color. Computerized color matching can produce a paint that’s the shade you want when dry, to complement draperies, upholstery, or accessories in the room. If you’re not sure you’ve made a good choice, many paint departments have interactive computer programs that let you see how a specific color will look in a room.

You can also select a color the old-fashioned way, using the color-chip samples on display. Color chips usually show the shade in a flat finish. A glossier finish may look different. If an exact match is critical, buy a quart of the paint and test it on the wall.

color chips

The color you select will be custom-mixed using an appropriate base, the uncolored paint formulated to accept a range of tints. A pastel base is meant for light colors, white for the very lightest shades, and a medium or deep base for darker ones.

Many aspects of paint performance depend on the quality of the base, not the color. We test each brand’s pastel and medium base as well as white. So if you want, say, a medium or dark color, it won’t matter if it’s brilliant red or deep blue or anything in between. Its performance should track with our findings.

Match the paint’s performance to the room. These are characteristics that matter:

  • Scrubbing. Heavily used rooms need a paint that can stand up to scrubbing. That characteristic depends on the tint base; the Ratings show how the bases for each brand perform.
  • Fading. Sun-filled rooms need paint that won’t fade quickly. In very general terms, that means avoiding colors such as yellow, tan, and green, which include yellow pigment; yellow is more likely to fade than other pigments. The Ratings highlight brands with yellows that are more likely than others to fade, based on our testing.
  • Mildew. Mildew can happen in any warm, humid room, not just a bathroom or kitchen. A paint with high mildew resistance won’t kill mildew already on the walls (that requires cleaning with a bleach solution), but it will slow the buildup of new deposits.
  • Sticking. This affects glossier paints, which are used to paint woodwork and trim. Even when dry, a paint that suffers from sticking makes doors hard to open and books seem glued to shelves. Check the Ratings. Many good brands don’t have this problem.

Stay with the top of the line. Most paint companies offer grades of paint, often dubbed Good, Better, Best. We have found that lower grades do not perform well and often entail more expense and work. Where two coats of a top-line paint will cover all but the darkest colors, a lesser paint may need three or even four coats. But plan on two coats even with a top-rated paint.

Choose the right gloss level to prolong a room’s good looks.


flat paint

Looks completely matte, with no shine.

Best for formal living rooms, dining rooms, guest bedrooms, and other spaces that don’t see lots of heavy use.

On the downside Flat paint may not hold up to heavy scrubbing. Rubbing with cleanser can burnish the finish, leaving shiny spots.

Low Luster

satin paintAlso called eggshell or satin; has a slight shine.

Best for family rooms, kids’ rooms, high-traffic hallways, and the like. Resists staining and scuffing. Holds up well to cleaning.

On the downside Some may be too glossy or too close to a flat. Check our Ratings. Looks best on a smooth, well-prepared wall; the shine will bring out imperfections.


It’s easy to pick a high-quality paint. However, even fine paints differ in important qualities. That’s why the Ratings highlight paints that hold their original color well and that slow the growth of mildew. We also show which paints can be scrubbed without damaging the finish.

We tested most brands in three finishes: flat, low-luster, and semigloss. In a few cases, we couldn’t represent a brand in all finishes because of reformulations.

The Ratings list paints strictly by overall performance. The Quick Picks, below, highlight paints that are well suited to specific situations.


Fine choices for most rooms and CR Best Buys:

1, 25, 45 Behr $20 to $22

3, 26 Valspar $18 to $20

6, 29, 51 Dutch Boy $13 to $16

Behr and Valspar are excellent overall. Given its price, Wal-Mart’s Dutch Boy represents an outstanding value. Most of these paints are excellent at resisting mildew, making them good choices if you have to paint a bathroom or kitchen.

For a very sunny room:

2, 32 Benjamin Moore $19 to $35

4, 36 Pratt & Lambert $33 to $34

5 Ralph Lauren $23

46 Dunn-Edwards $35

These faded the least in our tests, The Benjamin Moore (32) and the Dunn-Edwards (46) are glossier than advertised and may be more suitable for trim.

For the kids’ rooms:

27 Sears $20

28 True Value $21

29, 51 Dutch Boy $15, $16

These low-luster and semigloss paints hold up well to scrubbing and stains. If you want a durable flat paint, the best values are Behr (1) and Valspar (3).

For bookshelves, sills, and trim:

31 MAB $25

32 Benjamin Moore $19

53 Kelly Moore $33

These hold up well to scrubbing and don’t let objects stick. MAB (31) is sold in the East. Kelly Moore (53) is sold in the West. Benjamin Moore (32) is available nationwide.

High End Picking Up Steam: Pressure Cooker Focus

pressure cooker salesWith pressure cooker sales still hot, manufacturers and retailers are hoping to fuel the consumer trend toward better models by increasing awareness of the category through demonstrations, advertising and point-of-purchase displays.

According to suppliers and cookware buyers, consumers seeking convenient, time-saving cooking vessels helped revitalize the pressure cooker business about two years ago. Improved technology and better features on the cookers have renewed consumer interest in a category that was a household fixture for previous generations.

Pressure Cooker Focus

presure cookersThe popularity to fast cooking speed, energy savings, health concerns and improved safety systems. The large percentage of double-income families has also affected the surge in pressure cookers. Margie Davis, owner of two Culinary Corner gourmet shops in Colorado Springs, Colo., explained that the speed of a pressure cooker enables families to cook a complete meal easily, Davis said. If you use a best pressure cooker, a meal that might take two hours on a stovetop can be cooked in 40 minutes.

Health concerns are also an important issue for many customers. “We have customers who buy pressure cookers because they have become aware that the products retain the food’s natural vitamins,” explained William Sonoma’s McKenzie.

“Pressure cookers are starting to be popular at retail,” said Carrie Lynn Becraft, president of Kitchen Kaboodle, a four-store specialty chain based in Portland, Ore. In the past, consumers were afraid of pressure cookers because of their noise and tendency to burst from the steam, she explained, adding that with the newer technology, the products are quieter and safer.

Sales of the Pressure Cooker Supplier

Pressure Cooker SupplierProducts such as T-Fal’s Sensor pressure cooker feature improved technology that locks the lid until the sensor determines that the pressure is safely released. Chantal’s Speed Cooker features stay-cool metal handles with a patented air pocket that diffuses the heat from the pot before it reaches the handle. Chantal’s other safety elements include a multiple independent valve system. Cuisinarts’ pressure cookers have permanently affixed pressure regulators that cannot fly off. They also have quick pressure-release knobs in the handles, making it safer and easier to stop the cooking process, according to the company.

Suppliers representing the high end of the market which retail for $100 to $200 are Chantal, Cuisinarts, Fissler, Prestige, T-Fal and Bay City International, the U.S. distributor for the Hawkins Futura pressure cooker produced by Hawkins Cookers Ltd. of Bombay, India. National Presto Industries and Mirro-Foley, who have owned the pressure cooker business, carry moderate-priced products carrying suggested retails ranging from $30 to $75.

Some retailers noted that moderate-priced products are not matching sales of their high-end competitors.

“Over the last three or four years, sales in the traditional pressure cooker category have been flat,” said John Gadish, buyer for U.S. Merchandise, a six-store catalog showroom based in Cleveland. He added that stainless steel pressure cookers have been selling better than the aluminum.

A buyer for a Midwest major department store said that although he currently carries a moderate-priced product, it is not selling well at retail. As a result, he is considering bringing back a higher-end product he carried years ago. However, some retailers are seeing increases with moderate-priced stainless steel and aluminum pressure cookers.

Stove top vs Electric Pressure CookerAn associate buyer for a Midwest catalog showroom said sales have increased for Presto’s stainless steel and aluminum products. “Both of Presto’s pressure cookers are selling about the same,” she said.

The buyer also carries Nordic’s Tender Cooker, which has been “selling very quickly.” When Nordic Ware brought in its own staff to demonstrate the product, the catalog showroom experienced a boost in sales, the associate buyer said. However, she said it has not been necessary to demonstrate Presto’s items. “I find that people who buy traditional pressure cookers know exactly what they want them for, such as canners,” he added.

Many buyers say the key to selling pressure cookers is demonstrations.

pressure cooker guides“Customer education is the key to pressure cookers,” said a manager of an eastern department store chain. He explained that many consumers were intimidated by pressure cookers based on past experience or knowledge of older items. “We schedule a lot of demonstrations to explain the benefits of the product,” he said. “When we demonstrate, consumers are drawn to the product.”

“Sales of pressure cookers represent a real education challenge for the retailer,” Kitchen Kaboodle’s Becraft said. The biggest obstacle, Becraft added, was training her staff, which did not have any prior experience with pressure cookers, on the use and merits of the products.

Heida Thurlow, president of Lentrade Inc., which markets Chantal cookware, explained that manufacturers are faced with two consumer challenges: experiencedconsumers who were disappointed with the performance of pressure cookers in the past and consumers who have never used a pressure cooker. Because of this, Thurlow said, many retailers may find it necessary to demonstrate the products.

Sales of the Brand Pressure Cooker

Many suppliers report increased pressure cooker sales within the past year.

“I think the upscale, better quality stainless steel products are what’s trending up,” said Henry Read, vice president of sales and marketing for T-Fal Corp. According to a recent consumer survey, Read explained, people who have discovered the speed of microwave oven cooking but who have been disappointed by the ovens’ cooking limitations are now purchasing better quality pressure cookers.

pressure cooker guidesSales for T-Fal’s pressure cookers, carrying suggested retails from $69 to $99, have increased about 80 to 90 percent over its 1987 figures, Read said. “Pressure cookers are a very good category for us,” he said. T-Fal has expanded the number of retail outlets its pressure cookers are placed in by about 70 to 80 percent over last year, according to Read.

According to Art Krull, national field sales manager for Presto, stainless-steel pressure cookers sell better than aluminum. Many consumers, Krull said, prefer stainless steel to aluminum since it is easier to care for.

In addition to national advertising and demonstrations, Presto has been providing film strips for high school and college economic classes for the past few years to inform the latest generation of consumers about the benefits of pressure cookers, Krull said. “The more we educate the consumer, the more pressure cooker sales increase,” he said.

While the Tender Cooker does not compete directly with traditional pressure cookers, Dalquist said, “We have enjoyed the same success other pressure cooker manufacturers have had.” Except for the fact that the Tender Cooker only has a 2.5-quart capacity, Dalquist said the product provides similar results to stovetop cookers.

Nordic has been advertising the product on national television and in consumer print. “The more advertising we do and the more the consumer becomes aware of the product, the more our sales increase,” Dalquist said, adding that this year’s sales are about 25 percent ahead of last year’s. “I think our product will still maintain sales through the next few years,” he added.

The Pressure Cookers Should be Merchandised By Category or By Vendor

pressure cooker categoey

Lentrade’s Thurlow suggests that creating a pressure cooker category on the retail shelf may create additional consumer interest in the products. “Retailers that show all of their pressure cookers together are much more successful than those who show the products with other cookware items,” she said.

However, Dayton Hudson’s cookware buyer Karen Dodge said that the store prefers to display its pressure cookers with each manufacturer’s other cookware products. “A separate category might spark additional consumer interest, but we believe more strongly in a vendor statement,” she explained.

How To Paint And Decorating Exterior Walls of A House

About painting exterior walls of the house, by doing it on your own, it will save you a lot of money. It is an advantage if you know how to paint the exterior of your house and also the decorations. Here you are going to be revealed with the steps to paint your exterior walls, the suggestions of tools and how to do the preparation before start painting. It is easy to do this on your own, and you will never need a tradesman to do this for you.

Step 1: Choosing the Right Paint

choose exterior wall paint colorYou need a fresh coat of paint to improve the exterior of your house and the decorations are also becoming even more interesting and better. It is also can brighten the decorations and looks much tidier and newer.

For the best result, choose specialist exterior masonry paint, and you can choose what kind of color you wish for. Do not forget to discuss the color with your neighbor if your property is attached to theirs. For the joined buildings, different colors can look a little strange if you choose the wrong combination of color.

Most common colors to paint with are white and cream, but for the exterior, the color is too bright and blinding, it is also easy to show a speck of dirt.

Step 2: Painting the exterior of a house

You need to buy enough paint to start your painting job. You have to check the square meter coverage that’s available in each container. This information can be asked directly to your salesman in the paint store. Before deciding on the painting, you have to ask for permission to alter the exterior if your property is in a Conservation Area.

Step 3: Preparation for Painting Outside the Walls

First and foremost, you need to prepare the painting site. Lack of preparation is only increasing the chance for you to repeat the job all over again before you meet the perfect result. You have to make sure that the wall is clean and no dirt attached to the surface. Make sure the surface is dry as well for the easy application and it will avoid clotted look.

Use a wire brush to remove any mold or dirt with bleach and water solution for a complete dust, dirt and cobweb removal. You need to remove any flaking paint if the walls have been painted previously.

If you see any cracks on the surface, you need to fill it first to create a smooth finish after paint.

Mask all windows and door frames, to avoid the unwanted area to get painted. A part of preparation is also about safety, if your house is facing directly onto the street, a bright safety cones are needed.

Step 4: Equipment for Painting Exterior Walls

painting tools

Here is the equipment that you need to start painting:
-Scaffold tower or ladder to paint higher spot

-Roller to coat larger areas or you can use a paint sprayer to cut down the painting time (You can find more information about paint sprayer

on this website:

-Wide brush to paint a rougher surface

-Long extension handles to reach any spot easier

-Small brush for painting in small and hard to reach areas as behind or under down-pipes.

-Paint canister if necessary

-Comfortable flat shoes while working

-Coverall to cover you from splashed with paint

-Eye goggles to prevent your eyes while painting something that on top of your head

Step 5: Get Painting Your House Walls

After you’re done with all required preparation, you can start with the painting part. To make everything effortless, you have to start at the top and work all the way down. With this way, you can ensure to finish your job early without excessive drips and runs.

Use a small brush first to cut-in around the edges while painting, and then continues with a bigger or larger brush to finish the part. If possible, try to follow the sun around the building, so the paint dries perfectly.

You need to have a good time management so you can finish your painting in one go, so you can avoid visible lines that occur when you stop the job and continue again the next day.

Cover all the surfaces well, use your roller and brush with enough paint to give a good thick coat of paint to the walls and decorations. The paint need to be not too thick, but not so much drips and runs while applying them to the wall.

Be careful when using the roller, and cover yourself well before getting splattered with paint.

Most exterior paints require two coats of paint at least. You can refer to the manufacturer’s instructions regarding drying time and second coating.

If you want to paint behind downpipes, you can wrap around the pipes using an old newspaper so that you can paint easily without getting the paint on the pipes.


Remember to use these steps to complete your painting job for exterior walls of your house:

Step 1: Choosing the Right Paint – Important step to have a tidy and new finish

Step 2: Painting the exterior of a house – Estimate how much of paint you will need

Step 3: Preparation for Painting Outside the Walls – Remove all the dirt and let the wall completely dry before start painting

Step 4: Equipment for Painting Exterior Walls – Get all your equipment ready for the job including your personal protective equipment

Step 5: Get Painting Your House Walls – Paint it thoroughly, covered the unwanted spot to paint, and give two coats of paint for exterior wall


Whether you’re throwing a fancy holiday party or having a casual celebration with family and friends, chances are your home could use a festive face-lift. Target spaces where visitors tend to congregate: the living room, kitchen, dining room and family room. Don’t forget the powder room — a common stop for most guests. Since shopping, baking and gift wrapping top most people’s “to do” lists, four metro Atlanta interior designers offer spruce-up-the-house tips that don’t require a lot of time or money.


living room decoration for holiday

Cynthia Florence, owner, Cynthia Florence Interiors (e-mail:

“The mantel and the living room are usually the first thing people see when they come in. They set the tone for the whole ambience in the house,” Florence says. “Stay with one scheme to create harmony. If there’s too much going on, your eyes go from one thing to another, and it’s too busy. It just causes chaos.”

Pick a theme and color scheme that complements furnishings. Don’t be afraid to incorporate nontraditional holiday colors, such as bronze and copper. Lime green, orange, purple and pink are also hot.

Choose a focal point, such as the mantel, and decorate around it. Framed art above a mantel doesn’t have to be removed; drape garland around the top of the frame.

The sight, smell and feel of the holidays can be created by using candles, fresh greenery and a cozy throw. Accent pillows also warm up a room and add to the decor. Adorn coffee and sofa tables with floral arrangements and potpourri.

Less is more. Use a few striking festive items, and pare down the knickknacks. “People are going toward more elegant decorations than the cutesy stuff,” Florence says.


dining room decoration holiday

Bob Brown, vice president, Pineapple House Interior Design (Web:

“Don’t be intimidated. Setting a table is so basic, anyone can do it. Everything can be pulled from your everyday china, your grandmother’s china or china from a tag sale,” Brown says. “I like to have a flower on the table for each guest; it makes them feel special. And don’t worry about place mats. I love to show my table.”

Chargers — oversize plates that sit under a dinner plate — decorate the table even after the meal is over. Chargers with silver, gold or metallic finishes add glitz this time of year.

Repetition is the key to smart design. Instead of dressing a table with one candle and one centerpiece, consider placing votive candles and flower buds at each place setting.

Don’t be afraid to mix and match plates, stemware and eating utensils as long as they complement, rather than compete with each other. Table linens don’t have to be traditional fare. Consider using a throw or quilt as a tablecloth; substitute a decorative washcloth, tea towel or hand towel for napkins. Chairs can be adorned with scarves or throws instead of slipcovers.


powder room decoratingVonda Dickerson, designer, Vonda Dickerson Interiors (e-mail:

“Powder rooms should be jewel boxes. They should be something that when your guests close the door, they feel like they’re in a special environment.”

The space should look like you, not sterile and new with items you just ran out and bought.

Be creative with bathroom accessories. Instead of holiday towels with Christmas emblems, use colored towels you already have. Embellish them with ribbons and jewelry such as beads, earrings or shoe clips, to give them a festive look.

If the powder room is large enough, add a chair or bench to provide another canvas to display decorative pillows or wrapped, empty boxes that look like presents.


kitchen decorating for christmasBeth Farwig, designer/retail manager at Insperience Studio (Web:

“Take things you already have and put a new twist on them. Most people don’t use their kitchen appliances every day, so why not have fun and put last year’s ornaments in them?” Farwig says.”Ornaments come in so many colors, it’s easy to find something that blends with the color scheme in your kitchen.”

Add seasonal flair to kitchen cabinets by arranging faux garland on top. Hang wreaths over windows or above the sink.

Decorate surfaces such as cake stands and dessert trays with holly, garland or ornaments. Put peppermint and other Christmas candy in cookie jars.

Use festive napkins, tea towels and area rugs to spread holiday cheer. If counter space permits, display a few holiday cookbooks.

Plugged in: with this new option, adding home automation to a home plan is as easy as flipping a switch

Installing structured wiring typically hasn’t been that easy when working with a pre-drawn home plan–until now. A new option for the plans in this magazine allows you to include home automation details for just $250.

These details provide direction for wiring every room and beyond–from the front porch to the backyard, and from the attic to the basement. This infrastructure will give your clients centralized control over the systems and electronics in their home.

Unlike robot maids and other gadgets of an imagined future, home automation improves upon the functionality and convenience of devices today’s families already depend on–televisions, smoke detectors, thermostats, speakers, security systems, and motion sensors.

home automation

For example, the door and window sensors of a typical home security system are triggered separately wherever monitored doors and windows open or close. Any motion sensors located on the property are also triggered wherever the hardware senses motion. The triggers are isolated, binary events in a typical system and are not interfaced to provide a more meaningful report of the home environment. By contrast, an integrated home-automation system creates relationships between hardware components.

An automated system can distinguish between “motion sensor triggered, window contact triggered” (homeowner walks across room, opens window) and “window contact triggered, motion sensor triggered” (someone opens window, enters home). The first event has bearing on the temperature system, which would compensate by lowering the thermostat in the affected area of the home. The second event concerns the security system, which would notify the monitoring center about a possible break-in.

Home automation providers can work with pre-drawn plans to provide a whole-house wiring map and components list in the same way modification designers provide customized blueprints. The components list also serves as a cost estimate and payment schedule that the subcontractor or “system integrator” will use to order the hardware used in the design. The integrator will, of course, also charge for labor and any additional design that becomes necessary on site.

Developed by Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA)-certified installers, the Home Automation Upgrade package equips your blueprints with everything you need to hire and work with an installer during construction. It provides a short explanation of the various subsystems, a wiring floor plan for each level of the home, a detailed materials list with estimated costs, and a list of CEDIA-certified installers in your area.

Flip a Switch

Among the systems Home Automation can manage:

home theather

  •  Shade control
  •  Video surveillance
  •  Entry access control
  •  Video gaming

Custom Blend

Home automation is just one of the ways the blueprints in this issue can be customized. If you want to add living space, change a roofline, adjust ceiling heights, or just about anything else, there’s no need to wrestle with redrawing blueprints or finding a local architect to make changes. Hanley Wood can help you customize a plan in five easy steps:

  1. Purchase the reproducible master for the chosen home plan;
  2. Pay the $50 consultation fee and you will be sent a customization Change form via e-mail or fax. Complete and return the form, outlining the changes and tensions you want the customization specialists to make. (Note: if you decide to use the customization service, the $50 consultation fee will be applied to the total cost of the modifications.)
  3. The customization specialists will review your changes and provide a detailed cost estimate within 48 hours or two business days.
  4. After you review and approve the estimate. return a signed copy and the customization specialists will complete the plan.
  5. The customized plan will be completed in two to three weeks following the approval of any preliminary designs. You’ll receive either five sets or a reproducible master of your modified design, plus a detailed materials list and any other options you select.


Choosing a mower: the world of walk-behinds offers many options (Final part)

High-powered high wheelers

The usual solution resorted to by home owners facing an acre or more, or even upwards of half an acre, is the riding mower or lawn tractor. With cutting widths ranging from 30 to 50 inches, these machines can lop a third to more than half off your mowing time. For people who want the faster cutting speed but still prefer to walk, there are two other types of machines to consider. Both will let you cut a wider swath while still enjoying the exercise afforded by a walk-behind mower.

powered high wheel mowerThe first of these are what I call the high-powered high wheelers. These machines are superior to, and should not be confused with, the less expensive highwheeled models mentioned earlier. These mowers also take advantage of the flotation and hole-hopping ability of large wheels, but because their engines and their balance points are located over their rear-wheel axles, they turn and pivot easily, a capability enhanced by swiveling, caster-type wheels in front of the deck. In addition, the large models of this type are powered with 8-, 8.5-, and 9-horsepower engines that are far more ruggedly constructed than consumer-grade mowers, so they can safely and efficiently handle extensive rough-cutting chores. This versatility makes them ideal for rural owners who have not only lawns but other areas that need a mowing once or twice a season to keep the place neat and the alders out.

One example of a high wheeler is the DR[R] Country Lawn Mower sold by Country Home Products. The model I favor is their largest, the 825, which has an 8-horsepower engine, cutting heights ranging from one and a quarter to three and a half inches, and a 25-inch cutting width. Because it is five inches wider than my present mower, this model would knock at least 20 minutes off my mowing time on my heavily obstructed lawn. Country Home Products estimates their machine can handle half an acre per hour at moderate speed, three-quarters of an acre per hour “at a fast pace.” List price for the 825 is $1,238. If you watch for special offers, you can buy it for around $1,000. That may seem expensive, but you get a lifetime warranty on the deck and frame, a five-year warranty on all other nonengine parts, and Briggs and Stratton’s standard warranty on the engine.

Another company with an even more extensive line of self-propelled, highwheeled mowers is Sarlo Power Mowers. Sarlo offers models with cutting widths from 22 to 30 inches. Again, for the combination of shortest cutting time, maneuverability, power for the rough stuff, and a rugged, professional quality machine, the 26- and 30-inch mowers are the best choice. Cutting heights are one and three-quarters inches to four inches. With an 8-horsepower Briggs and Stratton engine, the 30-inch mower lists for $1,299; with a 9-horsepower Kawasaki engine, the price is $1,499.

The ultimate pros

The last category of mower is one that most home owners probably never consider, thinking these professional, self-propelled, walk-behind machines will be too big, too heavy, too expensive, or too something or other. But you get a machine that cuts fast and smooth and has refined control features such as heavy-duty wheel brakes and up to seven forward speeds. Perhaps most important, you get a durable machine that will probably outlive you, and what may seem like a lot of money to spend up front will be a savings in the long run. If you have a large, well-kept lawn that you want to keep looking spectacular with the least investment in time, one of these professional mowers makes great sense.

Snapper professional walk mower

Unlike the high wheelers, these machines are not designed to do double duty as rough-cut machines. They are exclusively lawn and turf types of equipment. Some manufacturers–like John Deere and Snapper–may be familiar to you from the lawn and garden center, some others–like Bunton and Exmark–may be new to you. (In the world of riding mowers there are similiar commercial lines offered by well-known manufacturers such as John Deere and Kubota and by lesser-known companies such as Grasshopper and Dixon.)

The smallest of the professional self-propelled, rotary mowers cuts a 28-inch swath. Cutting widths typically available are 32, 36, 42, 48, 52, and 60 inches. A 36-inch mower of this kind can mow an acre in 40 or 45 minutes, which is ideal for a large home lawn, and combines cutting speed with excellent maneuverability for tight quarters. If you have narrow gates to go through, then a 32-inch model may be the better choice. Like the high wheelers, these mowers balance their weight over the rear axle and have caster-type front wheels that allow extremely tight, controlled turning. The wide tires provide the extra flotation needed by a heavier machine.

Bunton specializes in golf course equipment ranging from huge five-gang reel mowers for fairways down to exacting, precision-cut greens mowers. The list price on their 36-inch commercial rotary mower with a 14-horsepower engine is $3,200. This is a hefty price, granted, but not when compared with the prices of consumer-type riding mowers and lawn tractors. A Gravely 32-inch model with a 12.5-horsepower engine lists for $2,350.

If I owned a few acres of velvety greensward, I would select one of these professional walk-behind mowers. But with my half-acre of Maine bumpysward, I’ll stick to the push reel mower most of the time, haul out the little rotary if I forget to mow for two weeks in June, and once during the summer borrow my neighbor’s high-powered high wheeler to knock down all the knee-high stuff that will never be lawn but that I don’t want to become woods. Fitting the tool to the job is what it’s all about, and, happily, there are more tools available than just the ones in front of your neighborhood hardware store.

Choosing a mower: the world of walk-behinds offers many options (Part 2)

Small rotary mowers

Small rotary mowerWe’ve already touched on the main reasons why the little rotary mower has become Our National Lawn Mower–modest price, adjustable cutting heights, ability to handle rough patches and grass that has been allowed to grow too tall. If these are the virtues you want and if your lawn is small enough that a 22-inch swath (the largest on this class of mower) is sufficient to let you mow your lawn in what you consider a reasonable amount of time, then the small rotary mower remains a sensible choice.

Note that there are two types of rotary mowers–push and self-propelled. On push rotary mowers, the blade is mounted on an extension of the crankshaft. That’s it. Self-propulsion in mowers this small has always seemed to me a questionable proposition, adding weight, complexity, and expense to an admirably simple machine. The push mower has next to nothing to break or readjust. If the engine runs, the mower works. (In fact, a 1990 Consumer Reports survey showed that self-propelled mowers go into the shop for repairs 40 percent more often than push models.)

As far as effort is concerned, you have to walk around behind either type of mower. The lighter weight of most push mowers requires little additional energy in straight mowing, and it allows you to maneuver the machine easily around obstacles. If you disengage power to the wheels of a self-propelled mower to maneuver in tight corners, the machine becomes heavy and unwieldy. By and large, self-propelled mowers are heavier and bulkier than push mowers. Then, too, with a push mower, you can walk as fast or as slowly as you want without having to shift gears or adjust the throttle.

Because push mowers are so simple there are no significant differences in design from one make to another. Every company offers a mulching mower, often with bagging or side-discharge options. There are, however, differences in size and power that may seem small on paper but will matter to you in terms of how good a fit the mower is for you physically and how well it will do the work you want it to do.

Weights vary from around 50 to 90 pounds. If you want a mower you can whisk around easily, you’ll want to choose a lighter rather than a heavier model, realizing there will be a tradeoff in durability. The wider the cutting width, the shorter the cutting time. The difference in mowing times between a 20- and a 22-inch width, however, will not be immense.For dramatic reduction of mowing time, you need a dramatically wider mower, though cutting width is not the whole story. A 20-inch mower with a 5-horsepower engine, for instance, may have the power needed to slice through heavy stuff at a faster pace than a 3.5-horsepower mower with a 22-inch swath.

And then there are the subjective matters of fit”: Can you adjust the handle to a height suitable for you? Are the handle and controls manageable for the size and strength of your hands? Is this machine going to prove friendly to you the user, or become an enemy you hate to go out and face every week?

An option available on some rotary machines is oversize rear wheels. Instead of having the standard seven- or eight-inch wheels all around, these mowers have 14- to 16-inch rear wheels. Large wheels have better flotation on soft ground and easily roll over small holes and obstructions. Unfortunately, the wheels stick out in back, thus lengthening the wheel base of the mower. This, together with the location of the motor (and therefore of the machine’s weight) midway between the axles, makes the mower difficult to maneuver. (More on better high-wheelers later.)

Another point to consider when purchasing a rotary mower is what type of blade-stopping system you want. The lightweight, less expensive (about $200) push mowers use, logically enough, the cheaper of the two systems, called the “zone system”: When you release the deadman control, both the engine and the blade stop. If you rarely stop while you’re mowing, restarting the engine is no great inconvenience. If you are making fairly frequent stops to empty a grass catcher or move outdoor furniture, however, you might prefer the blade-brake-clutch system (BBC), which stops the blade but leaves the engine running. This safety system increases the price to the $500 to $600 range. For that money, you will generally get not only the BBC system but also a more powerful engine, a somewhat smoother cut, and a heavier machine.

Electric mowers

Electric mower

Electric mowers have never taken the gardening world by storm because they have to be plugged into an outlet, and the idea of dragging a cord around the lawn rightly strikes most people as ridiculous. In the past, electric mowers generally lacked power. All that may be changing now, however. Small, off-road engines are drawing EPA attention as sources of air pollution, and the incentives for building truly practical, effective, battery-powered electric mowers are growing. Ryobi already has its 18-inch “Mulchinator” on the market, a 7 5 -pound electric mulching mower that the company claims will mow half an acre on a single charge.

Self-propelled mower

Self-propelled mower

Now, despite all my blandishments on behalf of push mowers, both reel and rotary, you may decide you just plain don’t want to push any kind of mower anywhere, period. If you aren’t able to push a mower and have even moderate uphill grades, it’s probably wise to get a self-propelled mower. The most readily available makes are lined up beside the push models at your hardware store, and one of them may be just the ticket for you. But before you leap, analyze your particular needs. These mowers will save you effort on straight-out mowing, but if they have the same cutting widths as their push cousins, they will not necessarily save you time. A 20-inch mower propelled by a motor at three miles per hour is not going to cut grass any faster than a human-propelled 20-inch mower moving at the same speed.

If your lawn is small enough to be manageable with a self-propelled mower (probably not much more than half an acre), then the same considerations hold as for the push mowers, though there are a few others to keep in mind. The engine on a self-propelled mower not only has to cut grass but also move the machine along, so more power rather than less is called for. A 5- or 5.5-horsepower engine should get the nod over smaller ones. Front-wheel drive is also preferable, enabling you to tip the mower up on its rear wheels and pull it backwards without having to disengage the power.

Self-propulsion costs extra. Scanning a representative price list, I found 5-horsepower self-propelled mowers with zone safety systems ranging from $369 to $599 list. Add on a BBC safety system and the price range is $549 to $849.

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Choosing a mower: the world of walk-behinds offers many options

IF YOU ASKED a representative sampling of Americans to define lawn mower, I suspect their answer would be about the same as mine: “A lawn mower is one of those machines you see lined up in front of hardware and garden stores. It has a gas engine on top and a blade that spins around underneath.”

lawn mower

Not only has the walk-behind rotary mower, whether push or self-propelled, won a well-nigh inviolable place in the hearts and minds of the American people, but it is also ubiquitous. We buy more small rotary mowers with a 3.5- to 5.5-horsepower engine and a cutting width of 18 to 22 inches than any other grass-cutting machine. The Outdoor Power Equipment Institute reports 5,150,000 of these machines were sold in 1992. Riding mowers and lawn tractors came in second at 1,052,000.

But the dominance of the little walk-behind mower in the market does not mean that it is always the best choice, even for those five-million-plus customers in 1992. The world of walk-behind mowers is much larger than it may look. If you’re in the market for a new mower, a survey of some other possibilities and a reassessment of your own particular requirements may suggest a better option. Or you may find that the old standby remains your best choice after all.

Reel mowers

Remember what the definition of lawn mower was before the gasoline-powered rotary mower conquered the field in the fifties? It was the reel mower, and you pushed it. It’s been pretty much in hiding for nearly 30 years, but it is making a modest comeback. In addition to being Ecologically Correct it is kinder to grass than a rotary mower, especially one with a less-than-sharp blade. (A dull blade shreds and shatters the grass, providing access for disease and accelerating evaporation in hot weather.) The reel mower’s shearing action works like a pair of scissors, leaving a smaller, cleaner cut. A neat, surgical wound heals faster and is less prone to infection than a messy laceration.

I recently tested an American Lawn Mower Company Deluxe/Light mower on my bumpy, oddly shaped country lawn that is a bit more than half an acre and has a goodly share of trees, rocks, and outbuildings to maneuver around. It is not, in short, a straightforward or an easy lawn to mow. Using the 18-inch reel mower it took me one hour and 45 minutes to mow the lawn, no longer than the same job takes me with a 20-inch push rotary mower. And because this reel mower is light and extremely smooth-running, it requires no more effort than the rotary mower, if indeed as much.

Are there any negatives to using a reel mower? Yes, a few. The maximum height setting on reel mowers is two and a half inches, and not all models can be set that high. For the warm-season grasses favored in the southern United States, that maximum height is adequate. It is usually fine for cool-season grasses, too. But in a hot, dry summer in the North, you may want to keep some cool-season grasses at three to four inches. Reel mowers are also a disadvantage if there are tough, spiky weeds in your lawn because they will just roll over them. Finally, if for some reason you miss a mowing or two when the grass is growing fast, it is brutally hard, if not impossible, to bull your way through that overgrown grass.

Rotary mowers

Rotary mowerOn the other hand, were first developed as rough-cut machines, and they still excel at handling the less-than-manicured lawn. They can be set higher than reel mowers, they will do in those spiky weeds, and they can handle rougher, longer stuff. With a little juggling and two or three passes, even a small rotary mower not specifically designed for rough cutting can convert a patch of nearly knee-high weeds into something that looks like a lawn, and if you miss two weeks of mowing, you just set the deck up a notch or two and mow away.

Clearly, a reel mower won’t let you off as lightly for your sins of omission as will a rotary mower. You have to mow when it’s time to mow if you want to keep the job pleasant and leave only fine clippings that will decompose readily. All in all, however, it seems to me that anyone who has a small lawn and is prepared to be regular and vigilant in mowing it would do well to consider a push reel mower. Ideas on what constitutes “a small lawn” will differ, of course. The idea of mowing half an acre with a push reel mower may strike you as madness, but remember that the time required isn’t going to differ greatly whether you’re using an 18-inch push mower or a 20-inch power one. Power or the lack thereof doesn’t determine time savings; the width of the cutting swath does. Surely for thoroughly domesticated urban or suburban lawns the push reel mower is the most rational choice.

The option of a power reel mower exists, too, if you want the clean cutting action of a reel mower without the push. The prices on these mowers are in keeping with the complexity of their construction. The National Mower Company, for example, offers only one model with a 3-horsepower engine and a 25-inch cutting width. The price: about $1,200. Its maximum cutting height of two inches makes it very much a candidate for the smooth, well-kept lawn composed of grass varieties that tolerate lower cutting. Tru-Cut offers three home owner models with a 20-inch cutting width and engine options of 3 to 5 horsepower. The commercial models have 25- and 27-inch cutting widths and 5.5-horsepower engines. John Deere also sells a line of power reel mowers. In all cases, prices are steep and cutting heights low.

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