Over the past few months I’ve created a tv studio-like webcam setup at home. It took a bit of trial and error and lots of research, and I want to share what I’ve learned.
Moving to a real DSLR as my “webcam” was a huge increase in quality and though replicating the whole rig could cost over a grand total, if you have an existing camera/lens setup you can use, it can run just a couple hundred bucks.
Here’s how my webcam setup looks above my monitor on my desk:
It’s a Canon 5DmkIII with a 28mm 2.8 lens sitting in a hot shoe mount, inside a ring light on a tripod.
Here’s what I look like through the camera while at my desk, with low lighting in my room and the ring light set to a warm white at a high brightness level.
Note: Some or all of this may be hard to find at Amazon or Best Buy or other stores because virus lockdowns quickly drove demand for everything having to do with webcams and home office equipment. I bought much of this early in March and I’ve noticed some prices for things I bought two months ago have gone up to meet demand while some stuff is backordered.
A Digital SLR or point-and-shoot camera with a good lens
I’m using an old Canon 5D, and you could buy a used mark 2 or mark 3 (the mark 4 is the current model) or even use the lowest end Canon DSLR you’d get at a Costco for around $500. I use a 28mm fixed lens with a f/2.8 aperture that is $500 at Amazon new, probably cheaper on eBay or Craigslist. Any modern camera with HDMI out will work, and I’ve seen friends have great results with a Sony A6000 point and shoot on a tripod. For any DSLR, shoot for having a good lens with a low aperture—f/1.4 to f/2.8 are ideal, as a more standard f/4 will not blur as well.
Note: One thing to look for is a “clean HDMI output” free of cross-hairs or focus spots or any onscreen details from the camera that would appear in your webcam’s feed. For my Canon, I had to reset all settings to factory, and there was one clear menu option that gives me clean video with no onscreen graphics. Many cameras that do autofocus will show their focus points in your feed, which you want to avoid.
Note: if you already own a Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) light, you can use this for the same purpose, to light up your face in video meetings, and just use any old tripod to hold your camera.
Hot shoe tripod mounts
The tripod and ring light above are designed to work with a mobile phone, but a DSLR will fit inside the ring (just barely). It requires some cheap 1/2″ hot shoe mounts to screw to the bottom of my camera so I could slide the whole rig into the ring light.
CamLink 4K to connect a DSLR from HDMI to USB
A hardware device to convert HDMI to USB isn’t absolutely required, but having a dedicated capture device makes everything a lot easier. This a product in high demand and was sold out everywhere I looked, but I ordered direct from Elgato’s site and it showed up within a week for $129.
Note: If you want to skip this and go the cable-plus-software route, you’ll need a USB-micro to USB-c cable on modern Macbooks, the Canon EOS Utilities app, the free app Camera Live and then the app CamTwist. These instructions will work for that setup. I personally tried this out but found it kind of buggy and it look lots of tweaking to get working, and then not every app recognized the webcam as available, where with something hardware-based like CamLink shows up as a webcam in every app I’ve tested.
Dummy battery from Tether Tools hooked to USB wall charger
Having a camera always connected to a computer means you’ll need power and you’ll want to skip batteries and instead use a wall charger that fits into your battery slot. Amazon has them for a variety of cameras, but I went with a high end setup from Tether Tools, who makes kits especially for Canon and Nikon DSLRs, along with other companies.
Pay attention to the upload speed of your home connection. You’ll want at least 20-50Mbps on your upload speed, and more is better, to broadcast clear video in HD. I’m actually on a slow DSL line currently and my video going out is fairly compressed, but I’ve got a 200/200Mbps connection on order that should deploy soon and will improve how I look to others immediately.
Using this setup in practice
Set up your camera and tripod and lights in a place you won’t have to move them. All of it connects to a Macbook Pro with a single USB cable, so you can still use your laptop as a laptop anywhere on earth, but you’ll want to go to your home office or desk when you need to do video calls.
You’ll want to change your camera settings to never go to sleep or power off and even still, about once an hour my camera can stop the live video feed and I have to hit a button to re-enable it. I also take a photo of myself before I start a video chat to get the auto-focus right on my face.
Being on a tripod above my monitor means I get a good downward angle and I tend to lower my room’s Hue overhead lights to purple to make my face pop on the ring light.
This setup is basically what high end YouTube and Twitch streamers use, and there are lots more mods you can do to go beyond this setup. A great guide to more (and cheaper) options I highly recommend is Scott Hanselman’s Good Better Best guide to webcams.
People often ask me how I get the photos, because it looks like someone else was lying on the ground to take them, but I have shot them all by myself, so here’s how (follow these steps in order because the Camera app on the watch is a little buggy).
Unlock your phone, but keep it in your hand
Launch the Camera app on your watch, wait about 5 seconds for it to connect and hopefully you’ll see video on your watch of what your phone is seeing
With your phone, swipe the camera choices to Portrait mode
Put a water bottle on the ground, stand your phone up against it as vertically as possible (be sure to not block the camera lens)
Walk about 6-8ft away and frame your feet in the shot (it make take some shuffling forward/back to get right)
Tap the watch screen to focus your camera on the shoes
A couple days ago, I saw that friends were all trying out the New York Times’ no knead bread recipe and I’ve been meaning to for years, so I checked our cupboards and lo and behold we had a new bag of bread flour and some live yeast in the fridge (my spouse bakes regularly) so I finally gave it a try. Here’s a quick GIF recap of the whole process which took about 18hrs total, even though there is maybe ten minutes of actual work spread across two days.
There are only four steps in the recipe so I figured I’d use Instagram Stories to compress all the time waiting into a string of short videos. Some notes from baking my first ever loaf of bread:
I started around noon on Tuesday, mixed the ingredients, then let them rest until the next morning around 7AM.
I was eating bread by 11AM.
It feels like cheating, since there’s almost no work to it. The crust came out incredible and crunchy and it was no work, just a lot of waiting to produce it.
We happened to have a new bag of baking flour (I know a lot of stores are currently out and that’s a bummer) and already had live yeast in a jar in the fridge, which made it easy. Having good ingredients helps.
I will never use cotton dish towels as the recipe suggests because they were a horror show afterwards and I’ve been soaking them for a day to clean. I’m gonna use parchment paper next time.
The final lid-off baking to brown the top was maybe ended 5min too early. I stopped around 15min on the final step and I should have gone 20 or 25 to let the inside bake fully.
Getting the antidote is simple. First, look up your choice of local doctors on this website to see if they’re in-network, then cross-reference against the PDF we sent you weeks ago to make sure they’re in your PPO. By the way, have you created your login yet? I hope you still have your plan ID card handy with the 24 digit, 6 pixel-high number on it. Share your social security number and verify your last three home addresses before the poison sinks in.
Next, call the doctor’s office to see if your primary care provider is available but hear that it’ll be at least 3 weeks, and hear that it’s been quite a while since your last visit and you’ll say “you told me it would take 3 weeks the last two times I called so I went to an urgent care instead.” They’ll say they’ve got a new nurse practitioner who can see you possibly this week—as soon as Thursday afternoon if you can make it before 8am or after 5pm. They’ll remind you if you choose urgent care it comes with the automatic $100 co-pay and doctors that don’t know your allergies. If you do choose to go to the emergency room, there’s first the $1,200 ambulance ride to contend with, then the knowledge that it’ll be at least four to six hours of waiting for a doctor as they are currently busy with other patients and more urgent matters and they really hope your closest hospital is in-network.
Do you expect me to talk?
No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to continue to wait on hold because your call is very important to us and may be monitored for quality assurance purposes.
As you might have guessed from a previous post, I’m not a fan of carrying keys and or even having to use them. When I moved to a new place, I knew I’d use the front door as my main point of entry (instead of a garage attached to a house), so I wanted to get it as automated as possible, where the front door unlocks as I approach it, and locks when I leave. This is both because I’m lazy but also so I can waltz in with my hands full and not need to fish for my keys.
I replaced the back of my deadbolt front door lock with an August Smart Lock Pro with a Connect module to communicate with it over WiFi. I had one at my old house, so it wasn’t too hard to setup again. Once you’ve got it installed, you can use the August app to lock and unlock remotely, or grant new “keys” to anyone with the app. It also talks to Homekit, so you can ask Siri to lock and unlock the door.
Homekit also lets you use simple geo-fencing to lock the door when you leave your neighborhood or when you return, but with three different people in my house on three separate schedules, I could never get it to work reliably and I didn’t want to accidentally ever lock someone out if they were doing yard work without a phone in their pocket as I drove away.
So instead I tried another way to automate this. I’ve been tinkering around with the new Shortcuts app and I found the support for reading NFC chips in the newest iPhones intriguing. I saw this video of how to set it all up and got excited to try it out myself:
First, I bought a 10-pack of blank white NFC discs on amazon for just under $10. It’s kind of amazing that these powerful stickers don’t need batteries or wifi or anything and cost less than a buck each. You can tie any iOS Shortcut to a NFC tap, and I’ve heard a few good ones like Merlin Mann who uses it to “move whatever podcast I was playing on my phone to my Homepod” when he gets to his home or office.
I tapped one of the NFC discs on my desk, and set it up to run a custom “unlock front door” shortcut just for my phone (other people can’t tap it and get anything to run). Then I setup a second one to “lock the front door” as well. Then I stuck them outside on some posts, one leading towards the front door (to open) and another on the first post on the way out (to lock).
Here’s what they look like mounted on a post outside:
They’re white and metal, and you can paint them to match whatever you’ve mounted them to. They look best when they blend in mostly with your wall. They shouldn’t be completely camouflaged or you won’t be able to find them easily.
To make them blend in a bit more, I went to my local Lowe’s and bought a $5 roll of adhesive-backed shelf paper in a maple pattern that mostly matched my wood posts. I used a NFC tag as a template, traced it onto the paper, and cut out two holes, then pulled off the backing and stuck them over the tags. From a distance, you can barely tell they’re there since I put the NFC stickers over wood knots and they look like wood repair patches now.
Now, whenever I leave the house or come back to it, I just tap the top half of my phone over the NFC sticker and I hear the cheerful chime from the August deadbolt locking or unlocking.
A couple things to keep in mind:
You have to setup a custom shortcut for each person you want access to this, but it’s been surprisingly reliable for a bunch of somewhat buggy IoT products strung together. In the last three months it’s worked as expected about 100 times. I’ve only had it not run once or twice, and instead I had to go into the August lock app to make sure something locked or unlocked. For typical Homekit IoT devices, this is an amazing success rate, I feel like most things in my house over Homekit only work about 75% of the time.
You need a modern iPhone from the last couple years. NFC doesn’t work on a iPhone X or earlier, only XR, Xs, and 11 and up phones (and yes, this is where Android was years ahead in support and what you can do with NFC chips).
Remember all the rage around Facebook and Apple’s use of beacons? I’d actually love to have that instead of NFC at my own home, so whenever I enter my driveway or pass my mailbox, it could open the garage door automatically, turn on some pathway lights, and unlock my front door. I’m still searching for a way to do all that, but for now NFC tags are a cheap, reliable, and easy way to automate physical things.
A few months ago, I finally cut the cord and moved to watching everything on my Apple TV. Though I watch things on loads of streaming apps, I realized the one I come back to most often is YouTube. I easily watch 30-60min of YT videos whenever I jump on the couch and turn on the TV and I realized I might as well share my favorites. Everyone has their own private favorites on YouTube that the mighty algorithm gives you so you might not have heard of these. The best ones here are channels that friends or newsletters or blogs suggested to me, not YouTube.
Most everything mentioned here is in the sweet spot of 10-20min long videos. Often I’ll tell myself I can’t watch an hour long streaming show on Netflix because I don’t have the time, but I’ll watch a dozen ten minute YouTube clips in a row and not feel bad about where the time went.
My YouTube Favorites
I’ve got over 160 channel subscriptions that I cobbled together over the past ten years, and I follow a lot of odd personal interests. These are a few of my go-to favorites. If I see they uploaded something new, I’ll drop everything to watch them.
Cooking (these are better than the Food Network)
Alexis a “french guy cooking” that cooks obsessively good meals and he edits his videos with the sharpness of Casey Neistat with a lot more gags. He’s instantly infectious and if you’ve never watched, you’ll soon become a fan. I will follow him down any rabbit hole to make the best possible version of a dish, even those I don’t even enjoy eating myself.
Epicurious offers up a bunch of different video series but I personally love their “4 ways” series the most. They take a common thing most people can cook then show an amateur cook, a decently talented home chef, and then a real pro chef all tackling the same dish that is critiqued afterwards by a food scientist. It’s totally fantastic and I’ve found one of the best ways to learn quickly why some things work in the kitchen and why other things don’t.
Sous Vide Everything is a delightful guy named Guga who does exactly what he says on the tin, which is put anything and everything into a sous vide setup, sometimes to hilarious ends (like making cream pies). I keep coming back to this channel because he attacks basic dishes with the rigor of a Cooks Illustrated. He’ll show you what ten different steaks all cooked at 1ºF different temperatures end up looking and tasting like. Or what ten types of cheeses added to eggs does to a dish. Every recipe I’ve copied from Guga has turned out great.
Others worthmentioning: the Fung Brothers do asian food and interviews and Sam the cooking guy is pretty easy to follow and pick up a few tips from. Bon Appétit has loads of good videos but I mostly avoid their “let’s make a gourmet version of a twinkie” stuff.
Bikes and other Action Sports
Seth’s Bike Hacks started out as a bike shop mechanic doing quick reviews of bikes and parts and snowballed into him quitting his day job to do videos on mountain biking full time to then buying a house and adding a trail around it all the way to where he bought a new house with tons of acreage that he’s using to build his own personal bike park (that has its own separate youtube channel I also follow). Seth seems like a nice straight shooter kind of guy that is living my wildest dream, and I love all his stuff. I even subscribe to his Patreon to get early access to his videos.
The Global Cycling Network, or GCN, offers up loads of videos and in the past year has felt like it transitioned from a bunch of former cycling pros gabbing to a camera into a real life TV network about cycling (which in America there basically are none) that offers live event coverage and recaps and how-tos and more.
Our BMX is a fantastic channel that puts out videos taken at recent contests, profiles of famous riders, and great videos sent in by new riders ripping it up. Back in the old days when there’d be a bmx contest and I’d have to wait three months for the magazines to publish photos and results. These days? I can watch a best-of clip from the finals the night of an event here on this channel.
Sam Pilgrim is a mountain bike trick rider that films hilarious stuff on the fly, just hitting a jump or a set of stairs or jumping over a planter using a variety of bikes. He’s fun as heck to watch.
Jamie O’Brien is a pro surfer that makes short videos of him ripping up waves and his goofy exuberance is infectious.
Beefs.tv is just about skimboarding and I didn’t even know I liked skimboarding until I watched dozens of videos of these people shredding the hell out of beaches all over the world. It’s fucking amazing what people do on skimboards these days.
Magnus Midtbø is a rock climber and guy with possibly the strongest arms on earth for his size. Last year he dedicated himself to getting on the American Ninja Warrior TV show and it was fun to follow along as he learned how to tackle every obstacle one by one, in dozens of videos shot over many months.
Crosstalk Solutions is a narrow topic nerd channel focused mostly on wireless networking equipment. I’ve watched every single thing Chris has posted, bought and installed many of the items he reviews, and even hired him to help design my home network. Using things I’ve learned here I have deployed a bunch of servers, have a live video feed from my chicken coop, and can control almost any device in my home from my phone. I feel like I could honestly apply for a real job in IT after following him for the past year.
Linus Tech Tips is a highly produced channel about all sorts of tech, probably skewing to gaming stuff, but I find Linus in lots of searches for tech reviews and enjoy his videos about whatever it is I’m researching.
DrZzs is tech nerd that can DIY almost anything and explain it to the layperson not only why you’d want to build something, but also how anyone can copy him and do it themselves. I don’t watch his long livestreams, but I enjoy almost every video he does no matter how narrow or niche the subject matter may be. I’ve learned so much from this channel that I even back his Patreon.
The Hook Up is an amateur tech geek (and I think a school science teacher?) sharing tips and research and step-by-step tutorials on how to do all sorts of things around smart homes, electricity and wifi which are all sorts of things firmly in my wheelhouse these days. Very clear and easy to follow.
Others worth mentioning: The Verge does good, tight, professional videos. Snazzy Labs is fun too. I probably watch a dozen more channels often when doing searches around home automation or networking. YouTube is the second largest search engine on earth!
Donut Media are a bunch of car heads producing a range of videos that are equal parts informative and entertaining. Reminds me a lot of the Jalopnik blog, who also happen to put out great videos on a slower schedule.
The Straight Pipes is a channel with two canadians doing car reviews and I not only trust their opinions but I enjoy the banter. It’s a lot like Doug DeMuro car reviews but with added chemistry of two hosts instead of one.
MotorTrend used to put out tons of shows but they’ve moved most of them to their MotorTrend streaming app which I happily pay for, since it contains loads of shows I enjoy.
The Hoonigans used to put out daily videos of antics around their compound with a variety of characters but they’ve tailed off to I guess to do larger production videos like the Gymkhana series. Still, tons of fun stuff in the archives.
Fully Charged is entirely about electric car reviews and early looks at what’s to come and worth following as the tech seems to change daily around electric cars.
The Fast Lane Car guys have good content but something about the delivery or the hosts or something puts me off, but I keep going back since they seem to review pretty much every new car on earth the day they are released. Hoovies Garage is similar, though much funnier and more watchable, but there’s also something off-putting about watching a guy buy and sell hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cars that I can’t identify with.
I’m really into the design and thought process that goes into building Disney Parks so I follow a ton of YouTube channels around that, but I’ll just mention a few favorites. Provost Park Pass is hosted by a guy that will probably strike you at first as highly annoying but somehow I got over the hump and I now enjoy his regular updates from Disneyland and beyond. TPM Vids are highly produced and informative but I roll my eyes when they pitch sponsors or spend the first two minutes of every video begging you to subscribe. Offhand Disney is good for history and Yesterworld Entertainment is pure nostalgia. The Disney Food Blog is fun to watch and Theme Park Obsession is another good one to track.
Be warned there are A LOT of people in Southern California with annual passes and YouTube channels putting out videos about Disneyland and they’re kinda hit and miss quality-wise so I’ve stuck to the most professional ones I come back to often.
DIY stuff (honestly, these are better than HGTV)
Evan and Katelyn is a husband/wife team building things in their home and sometimes messing up, but sharing everything they learned along the way with tons of details on how to replicate what you see. I have watched loads of their videos and they’re fantastic and slickly produced to the point where I can’t believe they just aren’t on TV already doing this kind of stuff. This is top-notch production, filming, and editing, the kind of thing that YouTube was invented for.
Scott Brown Carpentry is a channel from a New Zealander doing high end custom wood work in high end homes and I’m sure he charges a bundle for his time, but thankfully, he shares pretty detailed tips on how to replicate a lot of his work. Even though his stuff is 90% beyond my capabilities, I love watching him solve issues and figure out fixes, and especially the tips on how he gets those results I’ve seen in hotels and restaurants and always wondered how something was done.
Home/DIY projects might be the spot where the YouTube recommendation algorithm does the least amount of damage to the world, since everything related to the videos above is good too. There are a hundred other channels like Modern Builds that will teach you how to do high end carpentry work on a budget with simple materials, and if you’re ever curious about a certain technique, use search in YouTube and you’ll instantly find 50 videos on the exact process you’re trying to learn.
First We Feast and their Hot Ones hot wing challenge is quite possibly the best interview show ever made. Watch every single one of them, then go back and watch them again.
KEXP, the indie radio station in Seattle has great live music guests in studio they put out as videos regularly. La Blogotheque has been doing great live music video for over a decade. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert basically puts up their entire shows on YouTube as clips, and I often enjoy watching half a dozen in a row. Adam Savage’s TESTED is always entertaining and informative. WIRED always has something worth watching. Heck, the Ellen Show is practically engineered in a lab so everyone loves their videos but if she interviews a guest you like, it’ll always be good.
There are a hundred other channels I find worth watching, and I come across them often as related videos after I’m done with one. But nothing beats a friend showing me something or someone on YouTube I’ve never heard of that turns me instantly into a fan.
I wish YouTube offered up a tool to more easily share the things I like. Can a Googler make it their 20% project to offer up ways to share your subscriptions or history or likes with your social circle? Also, if anyone reading this puts together their own list of favorites, please tweet a link to me @mathowie so I can check yours out too and see if I can find new channels to enjoy.
It all started with the story of a swiss company making a better Apple TV remote, and what a bummer when I learned you couldn’t get one in the US. A few weeks later I tweeted about a new set-top box being developed by TiVo, and how much I wanted one just to use that great peanut remote again, and how much I hated the Apple TV default remote when someone saidyou can just pair and program a TiVo remote to an Apple TV and get the best of both worlds. So that’s what I did.
Buy a TiVo remote
You don’t have to get the Lux top-of-the-line TiVo remote (any TiVo remote should work) since only about 8 buttons will work with your Apple TV, but I liked the default backlighting and size and picked one up on Amazon for $49.
Once the remote arrived I set it up a few times in different configurations until I arrived at a point that worked best for me. The following are steps to copy my best setup.
First, program the TiVo remote to control your TV’s basic controls
Before you do anything, get the power, volume and other basic TV functions working with the remote and your TV. Since there’s no TiVo screens to go through you’ll have to put it into a learning mode and cycle through codes built-in to the remote. The full instructions are here, but you hold down the TiVo button and the TV power button until the remote light goes solid, then enter 0999 to begin the remote code testing, with an option to cycle it until it successfully turns your TV off.
For my LG TV, the first test worked, and I saved it to the remote. Now, the TiVo remote could control my TV’s basic functions.
Next, go through Learn Remote settings on your Apple TV
Go to Remotes and Devices in your Apple TV settings, then select the Learn Remote option in the next menu.
You’ll go through a series of screens to set up basic navigation. I used the TiVo button as the Apple TV Menu button, and then the top directional menu to move in four directions with the middle OK button as the Select.
Go through the second set of options to map your play, pause, forward/back, skip ahead/skip behind, next track/last track. I mapped all those to the lower part of the remote, with the slow-mo TiVo button as stop, the arrow button with the vertical line as the skip ahead, the back 5 sec button for the skip back, and I used the thumbs up/down buttons for the next/last tracks.
Use your new TiVo remote
In just a couple minutes I had a familiar remote back in my hand, hit the TiVo button at the top and started moving through my Apple TV. It was fantastic immediately because like any well-designed remote, I was back to familiar controls to play and pause video and it was easy enough to move around the Apple TV UI in it.
Given the TiVo’s longer layout, you basically move around at the top of the remote (turn the TV on, adjust volume, move through menus) and then the middle of the remote to control playback. It is kind of a bummer you can only use about 10 buttons out of maybe 50-60 on the remote, but once you get used to jumping to the TiVo button to wake your Apple TV or back out of menus, it starts to feel natural.
The one feature of the old Apple TV remote that frustrated me constantly was the “skip ahead a few seconds” feature, which required a tap just on the edge of the glass surface of the default remote. For some reason (my fat fingers?) apps like YouTube would regularly register it as a pause and sometimes it would skip ahead to the next video. Other apps would behave differently and the tap area of the glass surface felt bigger or smaller to register a skip ahead.
With the TiVo remote, I have a dedicated button that always jumps ahead a few seconds in any app, every single time, and never pauses. It’s great.
There are a few things you’ll miss from using any non-Apple remote with your Apple TV:
There’s no “Screen” button mapped. If you got used to double-clicking it to “kill” Apple TV apps like a phone, or your programmed it to jump to the home screen, or you long-pressed to get the time (until last week I had no idea Apple TV had a clock anywhere in it) or swap users, you’ll be out of luck since Apple doesn’t map this button for any other remote. I could live without it, though I did miss it slightly.
There’s no glass surface to swipe across quickly for scanning through a long video. This wasn’t much of a deal-breaker for me since the fast forward and rewind buttons in the middle of the TiVo remote can move you through a video fairly quickly when you tap them a few times. I’ve gotten used to the lack of a glass swipe area really quickly.
Voice control is gone, which is a bummer since the TiVo remote has a voice control button, but you won’t get to use Siri for things like filling in a search box like the Apple TV can.
Keep in mind, even that Salt remote designed with Apple’s cooperation lacks these same three extra buttons. These may be deal-breakers for you, but I can get by without them.
It took some poking around to figure out how to display how much time was left in a video playing without the glass surface, and that’s hitting the Select button (that I mapped to OK on the TiVo remote at the top center). If you point up for channel info or to turn subtitles on or off, the top banner wouldn’t disappear until I hit the Menu button (my TiVo button at the very top). I do wish the “Screen” button was mapped or that I could use voice control to trigger Siri, but otherwise it’s functional.
After a week into using this, I really like it. I can use the remote without having to look at it, it fits well in my hand, and I no longer get frustrated by a bad fast forward press or an accidental pause.
A few months ago, I moved into a new house on a couple acres with a few outbuildings. I don’t know why the person who built the place did this, but they put both a deadbolt and a locking door handle on every building door (sheds, barn, coop), including multiple outside doors on the main house. The locks were from all kinds of different brands and there was a separate key for each lock.
I don’t know what’s weirder, the fact that someone put a deadbolt and a locking door handle on a chicken coop, or that we had a new pile of 12 different keys with at least one lock we couldn’t even find a working key for. Ideally, my dream was one key for the whole property, so that every lock on every door was keyed off a single key in my pocket (I hate carrying keys and change, one key is enough).
I researched getting a locksmith to come out, but it would run hundreds of dollars in their time plus you can only re-key locks to a key made by the same manufacturer, and by my count we had at least four different brands of locks spread among all the doors. I could save money by bringing the locks to a locksmith’s store, replacing off brands with a single brand and re-installing myself, and there are esoteric expensive kits on Amazon for locksmith-style rekeying, but each brand requires it’s own $80 box of materials plus many hours of practice to master.
While researching the options, I kept coming across the Kwikset line’s “Smart Key” feature that offered simple re-key abilities built-in for homeowners. About 2/3 of my locks were by Kwikset, and the main front door lock was Kwikset, so I decided to see if I could do this myself.
First, here’s a great demo at 1m 25s into this video of how easy it is to rekey your locks with the feature. It literally takes just a few seconds to do it:
Going into this, I’d never replaced a full doornob and deadbolt before so I watched a few videos about it. Here’s a basic one featuring a child replacing a lock that I followed to the letter. If a child can do it, surely I could too:
My first door took me about a half hour to replace but my second took maybe five minutes and my third and fourth doors took just a couple minutes. I can swap door hardware in my sleep now.
Bonus: If you have doors that don’t quite shut right, or locks that don’t quite align, or an IoT door lock that doesn’t run reliably, you can make a few very easy small tweaks to get your doors working better. I used the lessons in the following video and adjusted a couple door strike plates and hinge screws so they all close and lock buttery smooth now.
To convert all my doors to Smart Key, I bought 3 sets of these ~$36 combo kits, plus a couple designy deadbolts for doors where it matched some nicer hardware (like my front door). In all, I had to spend about $170 total to replace every lock on my property with a Smart Key variety.
After I swapped in each new door handle and lock, I took each new key, turned them 90º, then used the special tool to insert my existing front door key, and in a matter of minutes, I rekeyed every door in every building all to the same key. The best part was my original key wasn’t even a Smart Key, but the existing Kwikset key that came with the house.
I know there’s a security weakness in having multiple buildings all use the same key, but I can change every door on the property to a new key in a matter of minutes, plus the Smart Key tech claims to be more secure than a typical lock tumbler, and resistant to basic lock picking techniques.
I went into this knowing even with security drawbacks, the convenience of getting everything down to one key on my keychain instead of a pile of unlabeled keys was a big win, and I’d always have the option to update my entire property’s locks in a few minutes.
There aren’t a lot of products that live up to their claims. “Liquid Plumber” drain cleaner that has saved me from calling a plumber on multiple occasions, and totally lives up to its name. Kwikset’s Smart Key is just that like that: you actually can rekey your own locks and you may never need to pay a locksmith again once you’ve installed them.
I’ve got a long walkway with five stairs going down it leading to my door and everything is a dull grey Trex-style decking that makes it hard to discern where the steps end, especially at night. I could have put a line of black grip tape on the end of each of the steps but I thought it’d look kinda ugly. Instead I wanted to tuck some LED light strips below the edges to put down a pool of light for a more subtle effect.
Here’s the finished product from above a set of 2 long stairs and then 3 long stairs
It came out pretty well, exactly what I was looking for. You can’t see the lights from about ten feet away but as you get closer to them, the effect is more pronounced and gives you a hint of where to step down (before all the edges were lost in a sea of gray).
About the only problem is from below, they kinda look Las Vegas-y (especially when it rains and the deck gets wet from rain blowing sideways in a storm like we have now). I have some extra LED channel covers, I might take a scotch brite pad to them to rough them up and try to make them a bit more opaque so that the “dot effect” is diminished and they look more like soft bars of light. If all else fails I might try some diffusion films.
Here’s everything I learned by doing this myself
A workbench at a comfortable height makes repetitive projects night and day easier and faster My back was fucked up from doing the first step a couple nights ago, bent over on the ground while I was on my knees trying to cut materials and drill things and get it right and it took me about 3 hours to finish just the first step and I had four more to go.
The next night, I brought them all into the barn where there’s a gigantic workbench at standing-desk height, and I also went out and bought and installed a bench vise on it. Using the bench it only took me 45min to cut four LED channels, drill all the pilot holes, screw in 20 LED channel mounts, and cut the clear covers for them.
Everything at a proper height and having a workspace to batch operations made it super easy and my back isn’t killing me now that I’m done.
Doing this over multiple days was a godsend I’ve been thinking about this project for three months, and seriously working on it for a couple weeks, making small pilot test strips and buying supplies to make slow and steady progress on it. Even doing the installation over a few days helped because every night I would wake up with a solution to a problem that stymied me the day before. It kept happening throughout this project where I’d hit a wall and hang it up for the night and wake up with a better working solution. It’s really amazing what a good night’s sleep will do for your problem solving.
Simpler is always easier I had grand plans to do a bunch of custom soldering and programming and such to get cheap generic waterproof LED lights to work but in the end I went with off-the-shelf Philips Hue LED strips with long extension cords because they were A) super bright at 1600 lumens per strip and B) super easy to wire up and use the Hue app to program them to come on every night at sunset and go off around bedtime.
There’s a tool for everything Any time I wondered “how am I going to get this screw into a spot around that corner where I can’t fit my drill?” I’d wander into my local Lowes and talk to the people in the hardware section and find out oh wow, they have a tool for exactly what I need.
5 Philips Hue light strips (pricey but found a few on sale for $49 each. I had tried 30 LED/meter 5V waterproof lighting which wasn’t bright enough and I was worried 60 LED/meter 5V strips would be more difficult to wire and deliver enough power to)
I stumbled upon a bunch of videos of a guy named Brian Hull doing incredible voice impressions of disney characters at disney parks. Watch a few:
Aside from the bang-on impressions, the bit I love most in these videos is when the person playing a character at the park—let’s be honest, probably an aspiring actor in their early 20s—reacts to the situation and what’s happening. You can tell Brian just made their day and for a moment they forgot about their long shift sweating inside a suit.