Category Archives: Penny pinching tutorial

Building the letterbox

If you can remember, our landscaping quote from Wisdom Landscapes was, well, outrageous. We’ve decided to do as much of it as we can ourselves and use individual suppliers to get things like fencing done.

Wisdom Landscape quoted us $900 for a masonry letterbox to be installed and painted in the white moroka paint. Presumably this meant we had to paint it with an exterior colour paint ourselves.

Thinking there is a lot of other things we’d like to do with $900, we decided to give it a go ourselves. The fact that neither one of us has ever laid a brick in our lives before did not deter us. How hard can it be?

Well, as long as you don’t need it to be absolutely perfect, it’s worth giving it a try. It cost us about $300 and a day’s worth of work (not including paint drying time).

Here’s how we did it:

Please note, we are absolutely NOT brick laying experts! 

Materials we used:

  • Some bits of timber (straight bits, not wonky bits) for the formwork. We rummaged through our neighbour’s scrap heaps- no point buying new if you can help it.
  • Pegs to secure the formwork. You can use smaller bits of timber for this or even some scrap metal. We found some metal off-cuts in our neighbours scrap heap that worked perfectly.
  • Timber screws. You might need some of these to secure the corners of the formwork together. You might get away with it if you use lots of pegs.
  • About 2 bags of ready-mix concrete. The builder had left us some leftovers from the build.
  • About a bucket of gravel. Again, there was lots of blue metal gavel in our back yard from the build so we raked that up.
  • Steel reinforcement mesh. You probably don’t need this but we found some laying around.
  • About 110 bricks. We used leftovers from the build. Otherwise, drive around some new estates to see if there are any freebees on offer.
  • About 8 20 kg bags of sand and cement. Available from most hardware stores.
  • Letterbox face plate, extension sleeve and rear plate, or a kit.
  • Newspaper holder face plate (if you want one of those). Usually, you will need a 300 mm long piece of PVC pipe (ours was 100 mm diameter but it will depend on what sized face plate you have- check the back of the packet for instructions).
  • Silicone.
  • Moroka or render paint and a primer. We used Dulux Textures Primer and Medium Cover to go with our moroka look on the parapets. You could use the Full Cover to look more like render. Don’t forget to get it tinted in the colour you want. They can be tinted in a wide range of colours, including Colorbond colours. The 4 L bucket should be enough for a letterbox.


  • Wheelbarrow or something to mix the cement in
  • Shovel for mixing cement
  • Bricklaying trowel
  • Rubber mallet
  • Hammer
  • Measuring tape
  • Medium sized spirit level
  • Drill (if you’re using screws in your formwork)
  • Silicone gun
  • screwdriver for assembling your letterbox (unless yours comes pre-assembled! Lucky you…)
  • Paint brush and roller (we just used a brush- can get away with that for the primer).
  • Lambswool mitt. Note, if you choose the full cover you need to apply with a roller- see back of packet for instructions.

Seems like a lot of tools, but we had a lot of it from other DIY jobs. See what you can borrow from a friend.


Laying the slab

1. Clear the area and roughly level the ground. If you’ve got grass already you’ll need to dig that out and cut into the soil a bit so the letterbox doesn’t move around.

2. Set up your formwork. We had one straight side already (the front path) and so we just extended out from that. Make sure it’s the right size and use your spirit level to make sure it’s straight and level. You need to get this right or you’ll have a Leaning Tower Of Letterbox.

It’s worth noting that an alternative to formwork is actually digging a letterbox shaped hole in the ground and then filling that with the concrete (using the ground as your formwork). You may need to do this if your land is already landscaped (ie, the top of the path is level with the grass).

How to use a spirit level

James setting out the formwork.

James setting out the formwork.

James setting out the formwork.

James setting out the formwork.

Completed formwork.

Completed formwork.

3. Fill the base of the formwork with the gravel and level. Try and compact it by stamping it with a bit of timber.

Gravel base

Gravel base

4. If you did manage to find a bit of scrap reinforcement metal, here is where you would add it on top. Prop it up off the surface of the gravel with a couple of rocks. We used a bit of smashed brick (plenty of that lying around!). This is so that it adds strength to the concrete slab. The concrete needs to get under and around it.

Scrap rio

Scrap rienforcement metal

5. Time to add the concrete. Empty the bag in to the wheelbarrow and mix it according to it’s directions, or have a look here. Pour the concrete in and jiggle it around to remove air pockets and make sure it goes under the metal reinforcement and grabs hold of the gravel on the base. James just used a bit of steel to jiggle it (I’m sure there is a technical term but I’m sticking with jiggle.)


Removing air pockets.

6. Level and smooth the surface using a piece of timber with a straight edge. Slide backwards and forwards as you move along- this is called screeding.


Leveling and smoothing.

7. Wait for the concrete to set and dry. We waited a week (which is the convenient length of time between weekends) but a drier mix tends to set faster.

Brick laying

8. Get your bricks ready. You don’t want to be searching for bricks while the mortar is setting so pile them up close to where you’re working.

9. Mix your mortar. We only mixed one bag at a time because we’re bricklaying novices. It sets fast and if you’re slow at laying the bricks you’ll run out of time. Follow the directions on the bag to mix your mortar. It should stick to an upturned trowel when mixed properly.

10. Start laying the bricks. There are lots of videos online about how to do this. All of them make it look really easy. You’ll feel like a goof at the start but once you get going you’ll stop worrying about it so much. My advice is to check each course (layer) with the spirit level. If you get one layer wonky the rest will follow on! We didn’t check it nearly enough (too lazy!) and ours is a little wonky but we’re covering it with the texture paint anyway. We didn’t use a string guide but you might find that easier. The last brick in on the corners is much harder to squeeze in. Your rubber mallet will fix that! Make sure you clean off any lumps of mortar (scrape it off or a wet sponge works well) as you go.

The Art of Brick Laying

This picture makes it look solid but actually we just went around the edge of the slab and the inside is hollow. We just filled the hollow bit with broken bricks when were close to finishing.

Brick by brick.

Brick by brick.

11. When your brickwork gets high enough you’ll need to put your letterbox sleeve in. Unfortunately I forgot to take photos of this bit! You’ll need to assemble your letterbox according to it’s instructions and then set the sleeve bit in the brick. It should go in on a bed of mortar, just like the bricks. You can brick around it. Most of the letterbox sleeves we saw were “2 bricks wide” so we didn’t have to cut many bricks.

Letterbox bits

Letterbox bits: face and rear plate, universal sleeve, newspaper holder, PVC pipe. You’ll need to assemble according to the packet.

12. When you get to the top you’ll want to fill in the void with some more bricks and finish with a layer of mortar. Make sure you measure your brickwork to make sure it’s the right height! We didn’t – here it is “finished” but one course too short! We had to go back and add another layer.



13. Let the brickwork set and dry. Again we waited a week but it probably doesn’t need that long.

Applying the texture

14. Give the brickwork a hose and a scrub to remove any dirt and dust. If you have dropped some mortar where it shouldn’t be you can remove it, carefully!, with some vinegar and a brush. Just dab some vinegar on with a sponge and scrub. Make sure you wash it thoroughly with water to rinse any vinegar off.

15. Apply the textures primer according to the directions. We just used a brush and made sure to cover all the brickwork and mortar. It needs to be applied more thickly than paint and you’ll only need one coat so make it count! Tape around any bits you don’t want to paint. Let it dry for at least 4 hours before adding the textured paint.


Letterbox with white primer paint.

16. Using the lambswool mitt you can scoop the textured paint out of the bucket and apply it to the letterbox. Follow the directions for more information.  Lay it on thick! You’ll need two coats of this one.


Despite the look on my face, it’s actually really fun!

Finishing off

17. After everything is dry you can go ahead and fix on the letterbox face plates. All done!

This photo was taken a while after we finished it and, as you can see, is very dirty around the bottom from the clay.

Finished letterbox- only a little bit wonky! Note, this photo was taken a while after we finished it and, as you can see, it’s very dirty around the bottom from the clay.


DIY storage ottoman

Our “study”, as it’s labelled in the plans, is in full sight. There is no door, there are three windows the face the street and it’s visible from the main living areas. When you come in the front door there is a giant cut out in the wall which directs your attention TO THE STUDY.

I don’t know about you, but our computer area usually looks like home to 5 or 6 gremlins.

So we’ve had to be a bit more strategic with our mess-hiding this time around. Enter the storage ottoman.

Ottomans are just about everywhere you go these days and they’re certainly a versatile little invention. Need a foot rest that doubles as an extra seat for guests?

ishandchi ottomanGot too many books for the book case?

CrateOttoman1_MonMakesThingsDoes your pet bed take up too much valuable floor space?

pet bedWondering what to do with all your shoes?


Or, like me, just in need of stashing some paperwork?

How to make an ottoman filing systemI’ve looked around and I couldn’t find a storage ottoman that would comfortably double as a seat and fall into a price category I could justify. So I talked James into the idea that it would be wonderful to make our own 😉

There are many, many tutorials out there on how to make an ottoman. Just type it into google or pinterest and away you go. I loosely followed the tutorial from Better Homes and Gardens. It looked pretty simple and the dimensions were perfect for what I wanted. The only thing that didn’t work out easy for me was the concealed hinges. They were a nightmare! I would recommend following the directions on the packet of hinges you buy rather than the tutorial. I would also recommend going with regular old door hinges instead!

The tutorial has directions to paint the box but I decided to cover mine in fabric. All I did was glue on some batting, make a fabric sleeve to slip over the box and then stapled it all down nice and neat. I didn’t even bother with painting the inside, since you won’t see it when it’s full of junk anyway!

And here is our finished product.

ottoman closed

ottoman open

wpid-20141118_161432.jpgHow much did it cost?

From Spotlight:

Foam cushion, $19
Wadding, $12 (with plenty left over)
Fabric, $18 (I brought 2m but could have gotten away with 1.5)

From Bunnings:

Ply wood, $16 (at Bunnings they will cut all the pieces for you if you ask!)
Spray adhesive, $17
Hinges, $12
Upholstery nails, $3
Castors, $1
Screws, $6

All up: $104

The rest we had lying around. Not bad, I reckon.

Penny pinching: cushion cover tutorial

18 Finished

If you’re anything like us, affording to build a house is one thing and affording to furnish it will be quite another. So, wherever we can save a few $$ by making something ourselves we’re going to give it a go. Welcome to penny pinching tutorials!

There never seems to be enough cushions on our lounge. The lounge is getting a bit old now, purchased before I was born by my parents, and its stuffing is not as firm as it used to be. We will probably need a new one before long, but in the meantime we rely on cushions for a bit of extra padding.

But, cushions are expensive! I don’t know if I’m just looking in all the wrong places but I’ve had a hard time finding a non-ugly cushion for under $20, except maybe a limp one from IKEA. After crunching numbers I worked out I could definitely make them for under $20.

“Pinspired”, as they say, by Anja, I’ve made some tree cushions.

What you’ll need (per cushion, size 50 cm x 50 cm):

  • Cushion insert, 50 cm x 50 cm, $6
  • Dress zipper, 46 cm $1.65
  • Main fabric- 0.5 m of a 112 cm wide fabric (they usually cut you a little extra, if not you might want to grab a tiny bit more). I got really lucky and found the end of a bolt for $1.50 per metre!
  • Decorative fabric. Use up some scraps if you can. If not, you’ll need about 30 cm of fabric, more if you’re cutting around a print to pick out a particular shape like I did. $2
  • Thread

Total: works out about $10.50 per cushion, depending on the fabric you choose. Unless you’re desperate, hold out for a fabric sale. You can pick up fantastic bargains at the end of season sales when they need to clear the floor for new stock.

Here’s how:

  1. We need to know how to cut the main fabric to the right size to cover the cushion. Have a look on the packaging of the cushion insert to see what size your insert is. Mine is 50 cm x 50 cm.
    02 cushion insertYou’ll need to give yourself a bit extra for seam allowance. I’m using an overlocker to run the side seams so 1 cm all the way around should be plenty to work with. I need to cut a 52 cm x 52 cm square out of my main fabric. You could mark this square directly on your fabric. Alternatively you can make your own pattern.I took the cushion insert out of its plastic sleeve and then cut the plastic sleeve straight up one side so it opened out into a flat piece of plastic.

    03 cushion insert sleeve04 cushion insert sleeve cutUsing a ruler, I measured the width of the plastic – 52 cm. Perfect! Measuring in the other direction I drew a line at 52 cm and cut the excess plastic off. Now I have a plastic pattern that I can keep and reuse.

    05 cushion pattern

  2. You need to cut two pieces of the main fabric the same size. This will be the back and front of your cushion cover. Fold your main fabric so you’ve got double thickness, pin your pattern down and cut it out.
    06 cut main fabric
  3. Now we need to decide what we are going to put on the front of the cushion. One of the decorative fabrics I brought was printed with trees. It was quick and easy to cut around the trees. You could cut out any shape you like. Anja has a template of some bird silhouettes that work really well too.
    07 tree fabric
  4. Once you’ve cut out all your shapes, arrange them on one piece of your main fabric. This will be the front of the cushion; the other piece of main fabric is the back. You can pin the shapes down but I found gluing them down lightly with a craft spray adhesive worked best. Just lightly spray the back of the shape and stick it down.
    08 position trees
  5. Next you need to sew them down. I just zig zagged around each of the trees, stopping and starting where they overlapped.
    09 sew trees down10 tree sewn
  6. Once you’re finished sewing the shapes on, put the second piece of main fabric directly on top of the first piece so the right sides are facing each other. Pin the two pieces together along the side you would like the zipper to go. I’ve put mine at the top. Then, sew right along the seam line with a medium width straight stitch.
    11 sew top
  7. Remove the pins, open out the seam and press it flat.
    12 press seam flat
  8. Take the zipper and pin it right side down over the open seam. You need to try and line the zipper teeth up with the seam line as best you can.
    13 zipper14 zipper top
  9. Using a zipper foot, sew a rectangle around the zipper, stitching through all thicknesses of the fabric.
    15 zipper sewn in
  10. Flip the fabric over and carefully insert a seam ripper into the seam to reveal the enclosed zip. Rip the seam completely open.
    16 open seam
  11. Open the zip completely. Pin the two main pieces of fabric, right sides together, along the three remaining sides. Sew or overlock the pieces together.
    17 sew edgesOnce you’re finished you should be able to turn your cushion cover right side out through the open zip.
  12. Now you can put the cover on your cushion insert and you’re finished.
    18 Finished