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Norm Abram’s Best Tricks of the Trade VII

You asked, Norm answered! Now, learn from the best

Attic Stairway Insulation

Illustration by Harry Bates

From Jan/Feb 2018


The heat loss around our closed, pull-down attic stairs must be astronomical. Can the stairway opening be insulated?

Gil Shaw, Hampshire, IL


You’re right. An attic stairway can lose a great deal of heat, even when closed, as warm air escapes between the ceiling and the edge of the stairway’s panel. The fix? Fit a well-insulated, removable cap over the stairway opening.

You can buy such a cap, if you wish, but it’s easy to build one out of a 2-inch-thick foil-faced foam board. Measure the opening and how far the folded stair sticks up into the attic, then cut the foam into five pieces. Fasten them together with construction adhesive and nails, then cover the nailheads, joints, and exposed foam edges with foil tape, as shown. To make an airtight seal, apply closed-cell foam tape to the cap’s bottom edge, attach Velcro straps to the cap’s inside ends, and nail a big plastic cable staple to the framing below each strap. Now, when you leave the attic, loop the straps around the staples to hold the cap securely in place.

Painting Brace

Illustration by Harry Bates

From Mar/Apr 2018


Some wood trim needs to be replaced on my shed. Should I prime and paint the new pieces on all four sides, or just the exposed side, to let the back side “breathe”?

Jean Heaton, Burlington, NJ


You should definitely prime all six sides of wood trim used outside—including the ends. It’s an inexpensive way to add extra life to the wood. Even so, many people don’t bother priming the back side because of the time it takes to dry.

With these homemade paint stands, however, there’s no waiting. Just prime one face, then set that face down on the stands. Wet primer won’t stick to the tips of the 1-inch drywall screws that project through 3⁄4-inch-thick scraps; you have plenty of time to apply primer to the opposite face, as well as the sides and ends.

To avoid touching the primer before it dries, put a couple of screw hooks into each end of the board. They make good handles for moving the board or, if you want, hanging it up to dry.

These stands also come in handy when painting just one side. Because they elevate the board, you can brush the sides and ends without getting paint on your workbench.

The Correct Saw Angle

Illustration by Harry Bates

From May 2018


Every now and then, I’ll see a handsaw being used on a TOH TV show, and the cuts are always straight and square. When I saw by hand, however, my cuts are anything but. What’s the secret?

James Jolly, McCalla, AL


A sharp, well-made, Western-style handsaw, the kind I grew up with, is actually a pleasure to use. It will cut fast and straight if you keep the following in mind.

  • Put the workpiece at the right height. When crosscutting, the saw’s teeth should be at a 45-degree angle to the wood.
  • Line up your elbow and shoulder. That helps to keep the blade upright and the cut straight. Pointing at the cut with your index finger on the handle also improves accuracy.
  • Start cuts near the handle. Place the saw on the waste side of the cutline, and rest your thumb against the blade as you pull back once or twice. Once there’s a kerf, move your thumb away and begin pushing the saw.
  • Take long strokes. The more teeth you push through the wood, the faster the saw will cut.
  • Let the saw do the work. Bearing down on the blade is a good way to make the saw wander.
  • Practice. Cutting this way may feel awkward at first, but your saw cuts should quickly get better.

Siding Story Pole

Illustration by Harry Bates

From June 2017


When I’m installing clapboards, how do I adjust their reveal so they line up with the tops and bottoms of windows?

Jim Maple, Eagle Bridge, NY


I’m glad you’re paying attention to that detail; it’s one of the hallmarks of a well-sided house. To do that, I make a 1x3 story pole marked to show where the top edges of the clapboards will land. Here’s an easy way to determine where those marks go.

After you install the clapboard that fits under the sill, hang a tape measure from a nail driven 1½ inches—the minimum overlap for this siding—above the top corner of the head casing. Pull the tape down and swing it to one side until a multiple of 4 inches (32, 48, etc.) lines up with the top edge of the under-sill clapboard. (Four inches is the maximum exposure for nominal 6-inch clapboards like these.) On the same side of the tape, mark the wall at the tape’s other 4-inch multiples. Transfer those evenly divided marks to the story pole as it rests vertically on the sill clapboard. Now use the pole to mark the wall beside this window and the others.

This trick also comes in handy for figuring siding exposure above and below the windows.

Tidy Up a Mason Line

Illustration by Harry Bates

From July/Aug 2018


No matter how neatly I wrap up a string line when I’m done, it’s a tangled mess the next time I use it. Any suggestions?

Jason Woodford, Milford, CT


Those stretchy nylon string lines, also called mason lines, are notoriously difficult to keep tidy. And who has the time to untangle them?

My dad and I fixed that issue by repurposing chalk-line boxes as string-line reels. The box’s internal spool, turned by a crank handle, made it easy to deploy the line when needed and rewind it when we were done. Tangles were never a problem for us.

In most cases, you open a chalk-line box simply by backing out the screw that holds the two halves together. Tie the line to the spool the way you’d tie a string to a yo-yo, then lay the line in the guide hole at the box’s nose. Screw the box back together and wind up your line using the crank. When the spool is full, tie on the barbed hook that comes at the end of every chalk line. It will act like a stop to keep you from winding the loose end into the box.

A typical reel holds about 100 feet of line. If you need more than that, just set up another chalk-line box in the same way.

Make Wood Curve

Illustration by Harry Bates

From September 2018


I have arched doorways and would like to trim them in wood. How do you bend wood, and what’s the best wood to use?

Walter Trammell, Topeka, KS


Most woods can be bent into an arch by making a series of closely spaced kerfs—partial-depth saw cuts—in the board’s back face. Use a table saw or a circular saw guided by a rafter square to make the kerfs. And use only clear, straight-grained stock: Knots and other defects create weak points where the wood

is liable to break.

It may take some trial-and-error on a sample of the same wood to figure out exactly how far apart and how deep to make the kerfs. Start by spacing them inch apart and cutting them to a depth of two-thirds the board’s thickness. The tighter the spacing, and the deeper the kerfs, the more flexible (and fragile) a board will be.

The easiest way to hide the kerfs from view is to use a flexible polymer molding such as Flextrim, which can be painted or stained. Bending or shaping natural wood into smooth edgewise curves can be done, but is far more difficult than simply cutting kerfs.

Keep a Framed Wall Straight

Illustration by Harry Bates

From October 2018


When I lift a framed wall up into position, with the help of some buddies, how do I make sure it ends up plumb and straight?

Richard Volpe, Southbury, CT


Plumb and straight are the goals for almost every wall-framing project. That’s why I always make sure, after a wall is raised and the ends are braced plumb, that the top and bottom plates are straight.

Checking the wall’s bottom plate is easy; it should line up with the chalk line that I snapped on the floor or sheathing before the wall was raised. Checking the top plate is a bit more involved. I use a gauge block and a mason line pulled tight over two spacer blocks, as shown below. All the blocks are cut from scrap 2x4s.

Slide the gauge block along the plate, and look for any place where there’s a gap between the block and the line, or where the block pushes against the line. Use springboards to pull or push the plate into the right position—check it again with the gauge block to be sure—and to steady the plate until it can be secured.

Adjust the top plate with a springboard.

Cleats for Cabinets

Illustration by Harry Bates

From Nov/Dec 2018


I’m hanging new kitchen cabinets over old plastered concrete-block walls. How should I fasten them to the walls? My over-the-range microwave is heavy!

Bud Gordon, Sioux City, IA


I can’t think of a stronger or easier way to hang upper cabinets than with a French cleat: two pieces of 3⁄4 -inch stock with beveled edges. The upper piece is attached to the back of the cabinet with its bevel facing away from the wall. The lower piece is fastened to the wall so its bevel faces toward the wall. Make sure the upper piece is square to the cabinet, and that the lower piece is level. Then, when the cabinet is set in place and gravity locks the bevels together, the cabinet will be square and level too.

For block walls like yours, fasten the cleats with concrete screws such as Tapcons. Leave at least 4 inches between their pilot holes, and don’t space them farther than 16 inches apart. (When hanging cabinets on wood studs, I put construction adhesive on the cleats and drive two wood or deck screws at least 1 inch into each stud.)

French cleats work best with cabinets with a back panel that’s inset slightly. If your cabinet isn’t built that way, shim out the bottom and cover the gap with trim.