Top 10 Home Improvement Skills to Learn

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Written By JohnBarnes

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No-Splinter Sawing

A portable circular saw is the tool to use when you need to shorten a door to fit an existing opening or to accommodate a new layer of thick carpeting. But, even the newest, sharpest blade will tend to splinter the top surface, especially if it’s a veneered door.

To eliminate the splintering, first apply a strip of 2-inch-wide masking tape across the door. Clamp a framing square or other metal straightedge along the cut line. Then, slice through the tape and into the door using a utility knife. You should make several firm passes.

Remove the straightedge, but leave the tape in place. Then clamp a perfectly straight 1×4 or 1×6 to the door to act as a saw guide. Position the board so the blade will cut about 1/32 inch to the waste side of the scribed line. Slowly guide the saw along the board to trim down the door. Finally, pull up the tape and lightly ease over the edge with a sanding block.

This no-splinter sawing technique also works well when crosscutting sheets of plywood and wall paneling.

Using a Tourniquet Clamp

A web clamp is an ideal tool for repairing wobbly tables, chairs, and stools. Its long nylon strap conforms to any shape and can be wrapped around all four legs at the same time. If you don’t own a web clamp, just grab a length of rope.

After applying glue to the weak joints, wind the rope around the legs twice, then tie it off. Slip a long wooden dowel or stick between the rope strands and slowly rotate it around in circles. Keep twisting the rope tighter and tighter until the joints on the furniture are drawn together. To prevent the rope from unwinding, rest the stick against one of the stretchers or rungs.

Clean Caulking

A continuous, watertight seal along the top edge of a bathtub or shower base is crucial. If the caulk is cracked or missing in spots, water will seep in and ruin the wall.

Repairing a caulked joint is easy and takes less than 30 minutes. Start by scraping out all the old, dried-out caulk using an awl or narrow-bladed screwdriver. Then dip a cloth in rubbing alcohol and clean the surface of all soap scum and greasy grime. Allow the cleaned surface to dry a few minutes, and apply a thick bead of tub-and-tile caulk along the joint. Smooth the bead with a wet finger.

Clean Cuts in Glass

Cutting glass to replace a broken windowpane doesn’t necessarily require the services of a pro. All it takes is the proper tools and technique. The key is a glass cutter, a pencil-size piece of metal with a tiny, superhard tungsten-carbide wheel. The wheel scores the surface, allowing you to snap the glass cleanly. Wear goggles for eye protection and gloves to guard against cuts, then follow these steps suggested by Jim Anderson of Jim Anderson Stained Glass in Boston, who has 35 years of experience making and repairing stained-glass windows.

Grip the ends of the glass on each side of the score and twist your wrists to break the pieces apart. If a piece cannot be broken by hand, use glass-breaking pliers known as running pliers to get the job done. Line up the notch in the pliers’ upper jaw with the score line, then squeeze the handles gently until the glass breaks. When breaking curved cuts, place the pliers’ jaws on the score line, squeeze the handles to grip the glass, and then pull down to snap a section off. Repeat until the break runs to the halfway mark. Then move the pliers to the other end of the score line and repeat. The same half-and-half technique works when breaking curves by hand.

Fixing Loose Hinge Holes

The small screws used to secure kitchen cabinet door hinges to the face frames of cabinets often work their way loose over time. Unless they’re tightened immediately, the screws will enlarge and strip the holes until it’s impossible to tighten them. A quick, convenient cure can be found just inside one of the cabinets: toothpicks.

Remove one loose hinge screw. Dip four or five wooden toothpicks into woodworking glue and then stuff them into the hole. Break the toothpicks off at the surface and replace the screw. If the holes are larger than about ¼ inch, pack them with wooden matchsticks dipped in glue.

Smooth Brushwork on Wood

Even when the paint and brushes are top quality, applying a smooth coat of glossy paint to woodwork is one of the more challenging things any painter has to do. Here are some key steps and techniques to make your brush-painted woodwork look like it was done by a pro.

1. Smooth the surface. Sand pristine, unpainted wood with 120-grit paper. For previously painted woodwork, inspect the surface first with a bright light held at a low angle. Remove bumps, drips, and runs with a sharp pull scraper. Fill depressions and divots with a no-shrink spackle like Red Devil’s Onetime. Sand everything with 220-grit silicon-carbide sandpaper pushed in the same direction as the wood grain.

2. Dust. Vacuum the woodwork with a brush attachment, then wipe down the surface with a tack cloth. Open the cloth all the way to take full advantage of its dust-grabbing stickiness.

3. Check the weather. As temperature and humidity go up, paint set-up time goes down, making it harder to smooth. To help paint level out, mix in small amounts of Penetrol (for oil) or Floetrol (for latex).

4. Distribute the paint evenly. Brush in the same direction as the wood grain using long, parallel strokes. Don’t let paint build up in corners where it can run and drip. With latex, you have only two or three strokes before it starts to dry. Oil is more forgiving.

5. Tip off. As soon the paint is distributed, unload the brush by slapping it against the inside of the bucket. Then hold the brush at a low angle to the surface and gently drag the bristles’ soft ends over the surface of the wet paint, as shown at right. This step levels out brushmarks and sets the stage for even drying.

6. Leave it alone. Disturbing paint after a tip-off gets you the opposite of smooth.

Freeing Stuck Nuts

Any time you replace an old faucet, you have to take off the locking nut that holds the faucet tight to the countertop. But often that nut will be frozen due to corrosion or mineral buildup from years of water seepage. Here are some nut-freeing tricks from Richard Trethewey. This Old House’s plumbing and heating expert, listed in order from easiest to difficult.

1. Tighten the nut. Moving the nut in any direction is progress. Then try to loosen it using a correctly sized wrench.

2. Tap with a hammer. Jarring the nut can break its bond to the bolt. To make sure you hit the nut itself and not the surrounding threads, place a center punch on the nut and strike the punch with a hammer.

3. Apply heat. Metal expands slightly when hot, which may be enough to crack the nut free. You can do this with a hair dryer, heat gun, or propane torch. (If using an open flame within 12 inches of anything flammable, shield it with a flame-resistant fabric.) Try to turn the nut before it cools.

4. Soak the nut. If the bolt is covered with orange streaks or crumbly bits of rust, scrub them away with a wire brush and wipe the area dry. Then squirt a penetrating oil like Liquid Wrench on the threads as close to the problem as possible. Give it time to soak in. The longer you let the oil work, the better. If you have the time, try several applications over 24 hours. If the nut is encrusted with whitish lime deposits, remove what you can with a wire brush, then brush on white vinegar to dissolve what remains.

If a nut resists all these attempts to loosen it, it will have to be cut off with a hacksaw or reciprocating saw. Try making a vertical cut up through the threaded stem and nut, then crack the nut loose.

Fitting Tiles Around Corners

Once you’ve laid all the tile in the middle of the room, you’re up against the wall, literally. And so begins the slow work of cutting to fit. To save time and improve accuracy, take the approach favored by the pros: Use the tile itself as your marking guide. The technique works for tile of any kind, including wood parquet, linoleum, rubber, cork, even ceiling tiles. (Note: If you need to allow for an expansion gap, put a spacer between the tile and the wall before making your marks.)

Step 1. Place a full-size tile on the field tile nearest the wall. Butt it up against the wall; align the side edge with the side edge of the neighboring tile. Mark the tile where it touches the corner.

Step 2. Without rotating the tile, place its side against the adjacent wall. Align the tile’s back edge with the exposed edge of the field tile closest to the wall. Mark where the tile meets the corner.

Step 3. Use a square to draw perpendicular lines from the marks. The L-shaped cut line defines the waste to be cut away.

Drilling Pilot Holes

When nailing up moldings and other thin workpieces, boring a pilot hole first helps prevent the nails from splitting the wood, especially when nailing near the board’s end. What if you don’t have the right size drill bit? Simply chuck a finishing nail in the drill to bore perfect-size pilot holes. Apply light pressure on the drill to prevent the nail from bending.

Nail-Pulling Ploy

Yanking out old, rusted nails is no fun, but the task becomes even more difficult when a nail head pops off. Here’s an old carpentry trick that can be used to remove any headless nail, without damaging the board.

First, slip the hammer claw around the exposed nail shaft. Then take a pair of locking pliers and tightly clamp it onto the nail as close as possible to the hammer claw. Slowly pull back on the hammer handle until the nail starts to pull out. Stop, reposition the hammer claw and pliers farther down on the nail shaft and repeat.

To gain a little extra leverage when pulling out large galvanized or ring-shank nails, replace the hammer with a long pry bar.