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Trade Secrets for Easy, Low-Cost Upgrades

18 big-impact upgrades, low-budget fixes, and time-saving shortcuts that the pros use—and now you can too

Trade Secrets Revealed

Photo by Brian Henn/Time Inc. Digital Studio

Pros are well versed in the complexities of their fields, of course. But their on-the-job everyday experience has also given them insights into the little tricks that deliver the biggest results, from adding affordable storage in the kitchen to enhancing the efficiency of your radiators. These techniques may be largely subconscious; the contractor, electrician, or architect may not even realize how valuable such gems are to regular DIYers like us, but we did. So read on for some of This Old House's favorite been-there-learned-that bits of wisdom gleaned from some of the nation's top pros, including our own.

Arched Passageway

Photo by Casey Dunn

PRO: Stewart Davis, principal architect, CG&S, Austin, Tex.

SECRET: Convert a square or rectangular opening into an archway to call more attention to what lies behind. "An arch is a powerful design element because it has a pronounced center that turns whatever it frames into a focal point," says Davis. So whether it's a fireplace in the family room or the family room itself that you want to highlight, an arch is the ticket. Thanks to new kits, which include an elliptical template for creating a new header out of drywall, curved moldings for the top, and a pair of side jambs, adding an arch is relatively easy and affordable for DIYers.

Kitchen Storage on a Shoestring

Photo by Lisa Romerein. Illustration: Jason Lee

PRO: Joanne Hudson, kitchen designer and founder, Joanne Hudson Basics, Philadelphia

SECRET: Make open shelving for everyday dishes out of butcher-block countertop material. Sturdier than stock shelves sold at the home center, butcher block offers a chunky, high-end look for a fraction of the price, says Hudson. Use a circular saw to rip a 25-inch-deep slab in half lengthwise, creating two 12½-inch-deep shelves. For a free-floating appearance, support the butcher-block shelves on threaded steel rods anchored into your wall studs.

Pictured: Anchor threaded steel rods about 3½ inches into wall studs, and secure them with epoxy. Drill holes in the edge of the butcher block that match the diameter of the rods, and slide the shelves onto the rods.

Distinctive Doors

Photo by Getty Images

PRO: David Logan, owner, Period Woodworking Co., Winchester, Va.

SECRET: Add plinth blocks to the base of your door casings. These ornamental wood trim blocks, installed where side casings bite into baseboard moldings, are thrifty, yet provide architectural style and give weight to your door openings, says Logan. Regardless of the profile you choose, be sure that the plinth block is about ¼ inch wider than the casing and 1 inch taller than your baseboard. It should also stand proud of the baseboard and shoe molding that skirt it. For a simple DIY plinth made of poplar, use a plane to create a slight taper from the center of the block's face to the door.

Stock Tile, Restyled

Photo by Susan Seubert

PRO: Nicholas Yankanich, tile specialist and owner, Nicholas Tile Co., Conshohocken, Pa.

SECRET: Add inexpensive oomph to a tiled bathroom wall or kitchen backsplash by turning simple square tiles on a 45-degree angle to make a diamond design. For large areas of tile, such as in a shower enclosure, Yankanich likes to install a square grid halfway up the wall, cap it with chair-rail tile, then lay the same tile on an angle above the chair rail. It's a great way to get the most out of your materials; you get two tile looks for the price of one, he says.

Weighty Windows

Photo by Kolin Smith. Illustration: Jason Lee

PRO: Norm Abram, TOH master carpenter

SECRET: Give dimension to flat window casings by wrapping them with backband molding. "It's easy, and it really enhances the depth and design of your casings," says Norm. A hallmark of vintage millwork, L-shaped backband molding, which cups the outer edge of the casing, also lends historical authenticity to newer homes. Choose your style from the many offerings at online molding retailers, or pick up a simple stock profile at the home center or a local lumberyard to save on shipping costs.

TOH Tip: To install one-piece backband molding, miter the corners, secure with finishing nails, and paint or stain to match the casing.

A Tree for all Seasons

Photo by Alamy

PRO: Harry Meisenholder, landscape designer, Young's Nurseries, Wilton, Conn.

SECRET: To give your yard a colorful accent during the winter, and pretty much every other time of the year, plant a 'Winter King' hawthorn. In most regions of the country, the tree has clusters of white flowers in late spring, followed by glossy oval leaves in summer that turn to chartreuse, golden yellow, and burgundy as autumn unfolds. But it's the tree's silvery exfoliating bark and brilliant red berries that make it a standout in winter, when yards are dull. "It's one of the most versatile trees, so you get a lot of bang for your buck," says Meisenholder. At full maturity, expect the 'Winter King' to grow 20 to 35 feet high and about the same in width.

Trimmed-Out Newel

PRO: Tom Silva, TOH general contractor

SECRET: Embellish a plain, white-painted box-style newel post by trimming its square cap with molding in clear-finished cherry or oak. "A little detail, such as base-cap or panel molding with a tapered profile, softens the severity of the square edge, and the two-tone effect with the warm wood gives the whole newel a more decorative look," says Tom. Miter the corners, glue their flat backs against the sides of the cap, and tack in place with finishing nails. For even more detail, skirt the underside of the newel's 1× top with panel molding as well. Just flip the molding upside down so that the wider part of the tapered profile butts against the underside of the 1× top.

Refinished Locks and Lifts

Photo by Bruce Weller

PRO: Dixon Kerr, window restorer, Richmond, Va.

SECRET: Strip paint from old window sash locks, lifts, and pulleys, then buff the metal to a sheen. "People are always amazed when they see that they already have such nice hardware," says Kerr. Once you've removed all the parts, soak them for up to two days in equal parts of degreaser, such as Simple Green, and ammonia. The paint should slough right off with a little encouragement. Buff the surface using a grinder or drill/driver fitted with a soft-brass brush wheel for brass hardware or a hard-brass one for other metals, such as cast iron. Finish by spraying the hardware with clear lacquer to prevent tarnishing.

Shrub Saver

Photo by Getty Images

PRO: Roger Cook, TOH landscape contractor

SECRET: To fill out a top-heavy evergreen shrub, such as a yew or boxwood, stow away the hedge trimmer in favor of hand pruners, says Roger. The temptation is to shear off the top, but this just perpetuates the problem, creating denser foliage on the cut branches, which prevents sunlight from penetrating to the center of the plant. Instead, use a bypass pruner or loppers to surgically remove branches on the top and sides to let in light. Cut back either to the intersection of two branches, just above a green leaf, or to the base of the shrub. Start in late winter or early spring by making four to five softball-size holes. In the short term your shrub may look a bit like Swiss cheese, but by next spring it will leaf out more evenly from the base to the top.

Customized Cans

PRO: Stan Pomeranz, lighting designer, Raleigh, N.C.

SECRET: Make your room and everyone in it look better by retrofitting your existing recessed lights, says Pomeranz. Simply swap the white or black plastic baffle that lines the wall of each can for a metallic-finish reflector cone, and the drab floodlight for a 40-watt Philips Halogena bulb. Pomeranz favors this bulb for its energy efficiency and the warm glow it casts, especially when teamed with a reflector cone. The overall effect is soft, ambient light.

Front Door in Focus

Photo by David Papazian/Getty Images

PRO: John Crosby Freeman, color specialist, Norristown, Pa.

SECRET: To boost your home's curb appeal, repaint just the casing that surrounds your front door. Most people use the same color for all their trim, but you can create a gentler transition from the siding to the door by choosing a hue for the casing that's closer to your home's body color. This, in turn, helps draw the eye to the entry, one of your home's best assets. Find the perfect casing color on the paint strip from which you originally selected your home's body color. Simply pick a slightly darker or lighter shade.

Easy Finish Repair

Photo by William Wright

PRO: Michael Dresdner, wood-finishing expert, Puyallup, Wash.

SECRET: Head to the medicine cabinet, not the workshop, when a clear finish on a wood surface is chipped. As long as the underlying stain color is intact, you can usually fill the ding with a few drops of clear nail polish, says Dresdner. After the polish dries, sand the repair flush with 600-grit paper. To restore the sheen on satin finishes, rub with 0000 steel wool and paste wax; for gloss, use a soft cloth and car polish, such as Turtle Wax Polishing Compound and Scratch Remover.

Performance-Enhanced Radiator

Photo by Susan Seubert. Illustration: Jason Lee.

PRO: Richard Trethewey, TOH plumbing and heating expert

SECRET: Hook up a thermostatic valve on a steam or hot-water radiator to stop rooms from overheating and wasting energy, says Richard. The device, which allows you to divide a whole-house system into climate-controlled mini zones, consists of two parts: a valve that opens and closes to regulate the flow of steam to an individual radiator, and a thermostat with a built-in sensor that controls the valve based on the temperature you set for the room. Installing a thermostatic valve on a one-pipe radiator is an easy DIY job, but call a pro if you have a two-pipe version.

TOH Tip: To put a thermostatic valve on a one-pipe steam radiator, close the supply at the base of the radiator and unscrew the old air vent on the side. Wrap Teflon tape on the valve threads, and screw the valve onto the old vent hookup. The valve comes with an attached air vent.

Cleaner Windows

Photo by Kenneth Chen

PRO: Brent Weingard, owner, Expert Window Cleaners, New York City

SECRET: To remove grime on divided-light windows, cut a metal-frame squeegee so that it fits a pane, says Weingard. Take out the rubber blade, and use a hacksaw to trim the metal channel ¼ inch narrower than the pane. With a utility knife, cut the blade to the pane's full width; fit the blade into the channel so that it projects 1/8 inch at each end. As with any window, spritz, wipe with a sponge or a microfiber cloth, then use the squeegee. "Most people skip the sponge part, but that's the only way to really dislodge the dirt," says Weingard.

Plaster Look for Less

PRO: Jason Fell, former technical director, Northern California Drywall Contractors Assn.

SECRET: Skim-coat smooth drywall to give it the depth and appearance of plaster without the expense and labor of the real deal. For painted walls, Fell first preps the surface with a primer/sealer, such as Bulls Eye 1-2-3, then rolls on a coat of thinned all-purpose joint compound, just as he would if he were painting. To get the right consistency for the compound, stir in water until the slurry is the thickness of soupy pancake batter. While the rolled compound is still wet, Fell uses a wide taping knife to smooth and remove all but a thin layer on the wall. By the next morning, the walls will be ready for a light sanding, primer, and paint. And there won't be a trace of that porous papery look on the surface anymore.

Low-Mess Wiring

Photo by Jamie Salomon/Cornerhouse Stock. Illustration: Jason Lee.

PRO: William Hyman, electrical contractor and old-house wiring specialist, Silver Spring, Md.

SECRET: Reduce the amount of wall and ceiling repair that's typically required when adding overhead outlets for new light fixtures by installing crown molding at the same time. Choose your molding profile, preferably one made from hollow foam; this type doesn't require nails for installation and creates a channel in which to hide wiring. Cut any holes you need to fish wire to the new fixture outlet in the space that will be covered by the molding. For instance, if you were to choose a 5-inch or bigger profile, you would cut holes in the wall approximately 3½ inches from the ceiling, then obscure them and the wiring itself with molding, says Hyman.

TOH Tip: Use glue-up crown as a chase to hide wiring and holes in the wall when adding a new outlet for an overhead light. Secure wires to the wall with one-hole straps.

Firebox Face-Lift

Photo by Alex Hayden

PRO: Mark Schaub, fireplace expert and owner, Chimney Savers, Hillsborough, N.J.

SECRET: Don't scrub your soot-stained firebox—refinish it using matte-black heat-resistant spray paint. "For a few bucks and about five minutes of your time, you can change the look of a fireplace," says Schaub, who uses the method on fireboxes lined with light-colored refractory brick, the type you find with most prefab fireplace inserts. Be sure to use paint that's specifically formulated for high-heat applications, such as Krylon Contractor Firebox, which can also be used to revive a rusty or paint-chipped metal fireplace screen.

No-Sweat Paint Prep

PRO: Roger Simon, housepainter, Fort Washington, Pa.

SECRET: Don't use a chemical stripper to remove chipped, alligatored, or otherwise marred paint on porch posts, first-floor door and window casings, and other high-visibility exterior surfaces. Instead, simply skim it with a coat of wood filler, such as Elmer's Interior/Exterior Carpenter's Wood Filler, to obscure defects and create a smooth surface on which to apply glossy paint. Simon's sequence: Scrape loose paint (be sure to wear a respirator to guard against lead dust); prime; skim with filler; sand; prime again; top with your finish coat of paint.