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25 DIY Fundamentals

The experts at This Old House share their top tips and techniques for sprucing up and keeping up your home without having to call in the pros

Everyday Wisdom

Sailors call it "seamanship." Scouts call it "woods wisdom." For homeowners, "it" is simply the must-know everyday stuff that makes us the masters of our domains. Coming up, the experts at This Old House share their top tips and techniques for sprucing up and keeping up your home without having to call in the pros

1. Hang Heavy Stuff

Photo by Jim Gorman

Studs never seem to be where you want them when putting up an oversize mirror or installing a wall-mount cabinet. And your usual hangers, like nail-in picture hooks or large-thread drywall anchors, tend to rip out under loads greater than 25 pounds. No worries. If the wall hanging is wide enough to span two studs, you can support it with a French cleat, even if it's off-center. Here's how to make one:

1. Run a length of ¾-inch plywood through a table saw with the blade at 45 degrees, creating a beveled lip on one edge. Cut the strip in two.

2. Screw one strip, its lip facing up and away from the wall, to the studs. Check to assure level.

3. Secure the other strip to the wall hanging, with the lip facing down and away.

4. Lift the wall hanging into place so that its beveled strip interlocks with the opposing one on the wall. Paint the strips' exposed ends to match your wall color.

Shown:The beveled edges of two plywood strips fit together, forming a cleat to support hefty wall hangings.

2. Unclog a Sink: Try this First

Illustration by Steve Sanford

Skip the caustic chemical drain cleaners, and roll up your sleeves. Attack the clog in the following order:

Fill the sink with water and vigorously pump up and down with a plunger. Direct pressure at the clog by stuffing a wet rag into the overflow hole, says Joseph Wood, owner of Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating, in Massachusetts.

2. Unclog a Sink: Didn't Work?

Illustration by Steve Sanford

Pop out the drain stopper (3)—hair and soap scum tend to ball up at its base—by unscrewing the nut (1) at the back of the drain pipe and retracting the pivot rod (2). Extract the blob with a wire clothes hanger (4).

2. Unclog a Sink: Still No Luck?

Illustration by Steve Sanford

Remove the P-trap with tongue-and-groove pliers, twisting in the direction of the lower jaws. Have a bowl ready to capture the deluge. Inspect the trap. If the blockage isn't there, remove the trap arm and feed a pipe snake into the stub-out to release the clog.

3. Cut In, Crisply

Photo by Kolin Smith

Painting a straight line at the intersection of walls and ceiling is what separates the pros from the hacks. To do it, start with a top-quality 2½-inch angled synthetic sash brush of medium stiffness. "Dip the brush about halfway and tap it on the side of the bucket. Don't squeegee the brush or you'll end up with too little paint," says Rich O'Neil of Masterwork Painting and Restoration in Bedford, Massachusetts. Holding the brush parallel to where you need to cut in, make a preliminary "glide strip" about ½ inch from the intersection. Working in long steady strokes, fill in the area between the strip and the intersection. "The brush will move smoothly and you'll have better control," says O'Neil. Be sure to feather your strokes to prevent paint buildup that could show through the roll coat.

4. Free a Rusted Nut

Photo by iStockphoto.com/AlanGH

Many a Saturday project has ground to a halt because of a stuck nut. Get it moving with a socket wrench. (Pliers and adjustable wrenches are prone to stripping nuts.) Here's how Richard Trethewey, TOH's plumbing and heating expert, attacks the problem. If the first method fails, move on to the next:

Tighten. If you can get it moving, even in the wrong direction, you'll likely be able to reverse course.

Tap. A hammer blow can break a rusty bond. Use a nailset to focus the strike squarely on the nut.

Heat. Expand the metal by directing a hair dryer or a heat gun on it. Then give it a yank.

Lube. Clear away visible rust with a wire brush, then squirt Liquid Wrench on the threads. You may have to try several applications over 24 hours.

5. Drill Straight, Drill True

Photo by Laura Moss

Even with a steady hand, it's easy for the tool to waver. TOH master carpenter Norm Abram drills perfectly perpendicular holes using a wood block as a guide. Cut one end of the scrap square. Using a combination square, draw a line perpendicular to the cut end. Hold the block against the wall and let the penciled line direct the drill bit at the target. Remove the block after the hole is under way. Once the bit is partially set, it should drive straight.

6. Sharpen a Mower Blade

Photo by Bill Mazza

You could cart that mower clear across town to a service shop, wait a day, go back, and fork over $15 for getting its dull blade sharpened. Or you could do it yourself in less than 30 minutes for free. Safety first: Pull the spark plug to prevent an accidental start-up. Next, tilt the mower, following the manufacturer's instructions, and wedge a scrap of 2x4 against the blade so that it won't turn as you unbolt it. Mark the blade with an X to indicate its face for reinstallation. Clamp the blade in a vise, and make long passes along the beveled cutting edge with a 12-inch mill bastard file (yup, that's what it's called). The stroke begins with the top of the file near the center of the blade and ends when you feather the bottom of the file off the blade tip. Once the edge is shiny and ding-free, check the balance by centering the blade on a nail driven into a piece of wood. Make extra passes with the file if you need to level it. Bolt the blade back onto the mower and you're ready to sling grass again.

7. Unstick a Door

Photo by Laura Moss

A door that swings freely in arid winter conditions can jam in summer's humidity. Take note of the sticking points. If the door hinges are solidly anchored and properly mortised, it's likely the house has settled, there's too much paint on the door, the door is swollen, or all of the above. TOH general contractor Tom Silva likes a gap, or reveal, of about ⅛ to 3/16 inch—the thickness of a nickel—between door and jamb to accommodate seasonal changes. If the sticking is localized, shave the high spot down with the door in the open position. Tom uses a hefty bench plane and takes long, smooth strokes with the plane held at a slight angle. (If you suspect lead paint, first remove the finish with a liquid stripper.) Round over the sharpened edges left by the plane with 150-grit sandpaper.

8. Fix a Popped Floor Nail

Illustration by Narda Lebo

Killer of socks, mangler of flesh. A protruding nail in a hardwood floor is a hazard. Chances are it will rear its ugly head again and again. Fix the problem permanently by prying out the offending nail with vise-grip locking pliers; rock the pliers against a block of wood to keep from denting the floor. In the nail's place, sink a trim screw of similar length, and cover with a dab of wood filler.

9. Cut Crown Quickly: Step 1

Illustration by Steve Sanford

Installing crown is puzzling enough without having to align the molding's bevels with a miter saw's vertical fence on every cut. Simplify the process by installing a horizontal fence on your miter saw's deck for speedy, assembly-line cuts. Here's how:

Place molding at an angle upside down so that the back of the bevel meant to make contact with the ceiling rests on the saw deck. The part that's supposed to touch the wall should be up against the saw's vertical fence. Secure with clamps. Next, cut a strip of plywood 30 inches long to serve as the horizontal fence. Apply hot glue dots to the saw deck on either side of its rotating center, and press the fence tight to the crown.

9. Cut Crown Quickly: Step 2

Illustration by Steve Sanford

Remove the crown, and cut away the center section of the horizontal fence at 45 degrees in each direction.

9. Cut Crown Quickly: Step 3

Illustration by Steve Sanford

Nestle the crown between the saw's vertical fence and your horizontal one to securely hold it in place for mitering.

10.Find a Stud

Photo by Shaffer Smith Photography

Pinpointing a stud is part art, part science, especially on thick plaster walls. The science part comes in sweeping a wall with a battery-powered or magnetic finder to locate the approximate location of a support. Measure 16 or 24 inches to either side to find adjoining studs. Confirm their centers with the stud finder. The art part comes in verifying that you've hit the mark by tapping the wall with the handle of a screwdriver. A hollow sound means you're between studs; a thunk indicates solid purchase. With drywall, you can also wave a flashlight across the surface to scope screw holes or drywall tape, telltale signs of a stud.

11. Extract a Stripped Screw

Photo by David Carmack

Is it us or do screws strip a lot more frequently than they used to? To extricate one, the first thing to do is switch tools. If a drill/driver got you into the mess, it probably won't get you out. Instead, grab a screwdriver with a tip that matches the screw type, and a hammer. Gently tap the tip into the head to set it. Using as much downward force as you can muster, slowly back out the screw.

12. Safely Work Above Stairs

Illustration by Steve Sanford

Rather than rent a scaffold or buy an articulated ladder when making repairs where high, sloping ceilings elude easy reach, Tom Silva improvises a sturdy platform supported by ladders. Here's how: Open a step ladder and place it at the top of the stairs. Then position an extension ladder on the stairs, leaning it against the opposing wall (pad the arms to protect wall paint). Construct a platform to span the distance between the ladders by screwing 2x4s to a plywood deck. Nail stops to the ends of the 2x4s to prevent the assembly from sliding off the ladder rungs.

13. Make Square Crosscuts

Photo by Laura Moss

Norm Abram has a bagful of old carpenter's tricks, like this one for ensuring that he's holding his saw blade perpendicular to the wood he intends to cut. Simply rest the teeth of the saw on the edge of the cutline and look for the reflection of that same edge in the blade. Adjust the saw slightly until the reflection matches up with the actual edge of the wood. This will prevent you from straying off your cutline or angling your blade as you saw through the thickness of the wood.

14. Carry Plywood

Illustration by Narda Lebo

Chiropractors love plywood. It's good for business when someone attempts to tote a 4x8-foot sheet single-handedly. Save your back by using a carrier. Tie the ends of a 20-foot rope, creating a loop. Slip the loop around the two bottom corners, reach over and grab the center sections of the rope on either side of the plywood, and lift the board into your underarm. No sweat, no backache.

15. Stain Without Blemishing

Photo by Laura Moss

Uneven absorption can cause stained wood furniture or trim to look blotchy. To correct varied tone on hardwoods, such as maple or oak, restain lighter areas while still damp. Rub out dark spots with a rag dipped in mineral spirits. The trick with a soft-wood like pine, which has an open cell structure that can soak up too much stain, is to brush on a clear conditioner first, to partially block some of the wood pores. Once applied, you can often stain within 15 minutes.

16. Paint with "Sprayed-On" Results

Photo by John W. Taylor

You've seen it—trim painted so smooth and free of brushstrokes that it looks factory coated—but didn't know how to achieve it. After reading this, you will:

1. Prep the surface by sanding to knock down old blobs and brushstrokes. Vacuum and wipe with a tack cloth.

2. Brush on a high-build alkyd- or water-based primer. When dry, sand with 220-grit paper, and tack.

3. Filter 100 percent acrylic latex gloss paint through a disposable strainer bag to remove any impurities.

4. Mix in a few ounces per gallon of a latex paint conditioner such as Floetrol to slow dry time and improve flow. Slower drying allows paint to spread or level before it skins, minimizing brushstrokes.

5. Using a top-quality synthetic brush, apply the paint in long strokes. Come back with one final stroke using just the tips of the bristles to smooth the finish.

6. Let the paint dry. Sand lightly between coats with 220-grit paper, then tack and apply the final top coat.

17. Replace a Broken Tile

Photo by William A. Boyd

To swap a new tile for a cracked one, start by raking out the surrounding grout with a carbide-tipped scraper. Cover the edges of adjacent tiles with painter's tape to protect them. Then drill evenly spaced holes into the broken tile's pieces with a ¼-inch masonry bit to free them from the substrate. Working from the center out toward the edges, gently tap out the pieces with a hammer and a narrow tile chisel, and clear away any old thinset. Comb an even coating of thinset on the replacement tile's back and on the substrate, and push the tile into place. Let the thinset dry overnight before grouting.

18. Cure a Loose Hinge

A new definition of insanity: cranking a loose hinge screw back in its hole and expecting a different outcome. Get your screws tight by shrinking the hole. The method depends on the hinge and where it's installed.

On a Cabinet. Simply remove the small screw and plug the hole with a toothpick dipped in carpenter's glue. Let the glue dry, snap the toothpick flush with the surface, and reinsert the same screw.

On a Door. Wedge a block of wood under the door's bottom outside corner. Unscrew and swing the loose hinge leaf to the side. Bore out the stripped hole with a ⅜-inch-diameter bit. Spread carpenter's glue onto a matching ⅜-inch-diameter wood dowel and tap it into the hole until it's flush with the jamb. When the glue dries, drill a pilot hole into the dowel and drive a new, longer screw home.

19. Drill the Perfect Pilot Hole

Driving a nail near the end of a piece of wood, even a softwood like pine, can cause splitting. The harder and drier the wood, the more likely it will split. That's where pilot holes come in. By giving the nail an empty place to go, the fastener won't force the wood apart. For a quick and accurate pilot, chuck your drill around a finishing nail. But first, snip off the head of the nail.

20. Shoot Smooth Caulk

Photo by Laura Moss

For a neat bead when sealing around a sink or the gap where shower wall meets tub, pull out the painter's tape. Lay parallel strips, about 3/16 inch apart, on either side of the seam, and squeeze in the caulk. To smooth a silicone sealant, which is tacky and difficult to tool, dip a finger in dish soap before running it along the span of the bead; a finger moistened with plain water works for acrylic latex caulk. Remove the tape while the caulk is still wet. One more swipe with a damp finger eliminates tiny ridges and leaves a smooth, concave bead.

Cut the caulk tube's nozzle at a 45-degree angle to create an opening that's just big enough to fill the narrow gap between the tape strips.

21. Cinch Down a Load

Illustration by Steve Sanford

To cart lumber atop your vehicle, the trucker's hitch is the knot to know. Start by tying off one end of the rope to your roof rack's crossbar. Next, sling the loose lead over the load to be lashed down and make an overhand midline loop. Wrap the free end of the rope around the crossbar, then thread it through the eye of the loop. This will create an improvised pulley, allowing you to tighten down the load. Once you get it snug, wrap the end twice around the rack's side rail to maintain tension on the line, and secure using two half hitches with a quick release slipknot.

22. Drive a Nail

Photo by LWA/Getty Images

Hammers and nails have been colliding for thousands of years, so there really shouldn't be any mystery in how to strike the latter with the former. Yet, there is. Good hammering technique begins with properly starting the nail. Choke up on the handle of a 16-ounce hammer—a good, all-purpose size—and give it several light taps. Gripping the handle near the butt, deliver steady blows by swinging from the elbow, not the shoulder, and letting the weight of the hammer do the work. The forearm and wrist remain stiff throughout the swing until the very end, when you snap the wrist for extra oomph. Instead of hammering the nail flush, and risking mauling the surrounding wood, leave the head protruding and countersink it with a nailset.

23. Salvage Molding

Photo by Laura Moss

An old home's interior trim might well be one-of-a-kind—especially elaborate window and door casings—so spare it when doing demo. The less damage you do to molding during removal, the less restoration work you'll face during reassembly. Here's how:

1. Work a 3-inch wall scraper behind the trim, sliding it the length of the piece while exerting outward pressure.

2. Slip a pry bar into the widened crack with the scraper behind it to protect the wall as you rock the pry bar.

3. When the trim is free, pull nails through its unfinished backside by leveraging with end nippers or tongue-and-groove pliers. (Hammering nails back through the face can cause the wood to splinter and damage the painted surface.)

Shown: Slice the painted seam where wall and trim meet, to ease removal of the molding and prevent finish damage.

24. Limb a Tree

Illustration by Steve Sanford

Saw off a limb that's more than 1 inch in diameter with a single incision and you might do damage to the tree and yourself. As the limb gives way, it can rip out a stripe of bark and swing toward you. Do a three-cut method instead.

1. Using a pole saw, first cut halfway through the underside of the limb at a distance of 1 to 2 feet from the trunk.

2. Make the second cut 3 inches farther out on the top side. The limb will snap and drop.

3. Now saw off the stub at an angle just beyond the branch collar. Never cut flush with the face of the tree—it can impede healing.

25. Prune a Rosebush

For most modern rose varieties that bloom abundantly on new growth, including hybrid teas and floribundas, prune aggressively. Just be sure to wear long gloves so that you don't get stuck by thorns.

1. In late winter to early spring, cut out all dead and diseased canes at the base using a pruning saw. Further cut out old canes, which look woody rather than green.

2. Of the remaining shoots, cut back the strongest to about 6 inches above soil level with hand pruners.

3. Lop off less vigorous shoots at 2 to 4 inches. Cuts should be angled and ¼ inch above a bud.