Category Home Problem Solver

The lowdown on ladders

  •  Stuck on top

Few things are quite as irritating as dropping a needed screw or tool from the top of a ladder. One way to put an end to such mishaps is to glue a magnetic strip to the top rung of your ladder. It will safely hold onto all your fasteners and small tools until you need them. When it comes to larger tools, secure a canvas tool bag to the ladder to keep them in.

  •  Off on the right foot

A scrap of thick carpet wrapped around the bottom rung of a ladder makes a handy mat for wiping the soles of your shoes before you ascend. It will also let you know that you have reached the bottom when climbing down. Secure the carpet scrap with gaffer tape and replace with a fresh piece when needed.

  •  Don’t leave your mark

Cushion the tops of a ladder’s rails with an old pair of socks, gloves or a couple of bunched up old T-shirts to prevent it from leaving marks or scratches on interior walls while you are working.

  •  Boot up a ladder

Set the feet of a ladder in a pair of old gumboots (Wellington boots) to give it a skid-free footing on smooth surfaces.

Clamping and sanding

  •  Clamps from the car

If you have an old set of jump leads just lying around collecting dust, cut off the battery clips and use them in your workshop. They make excellent spring clamps and can accommodate objects up to 40mm thick.

You could also use a car hose clamp (Jubilee clip) to secure a cracked wooden leg or spindle while you re-glue it. Just be sure to put a piece of cloth between the clamp and the wood so that you don’t risk gouging the surface.

  •  Pour on the pressure

It’s almost impossible to clamp irregularly shaped items and fragile objects when gluing them back together, but there’s an easy way to provide adequate pressure. Fill a small plastic bag with sand to weigh down repairs on small, fragile items so it shapes itself to the item being glued, without undue pressure.

  •  True grit

To extend the life of sanding belts and get the most use out of each sheet of sandpaper, back them with strips of gaffer tape. The tape will prevent the paper from tearing and take some of the stress off the belts. Write down the grit size of the paper and the direction of the belt on the tape using a permanent marker.

  • Resizing sandpaper

Many sanding jobs require the use of sandpaper in odd shapes or sizes. Here are a few household items you can use to get the job done:

  1.  Pencils and pencil erasers
  2.  Section of garden hose
  3.  A wood block secured to a sponge mop holder (for walls and ceilings)

Sealants and adhesives

  •  Cold weather sealing

When you need to do some sealing on a crisp, cool day keep your sealant pliable and running smoothly by wrapping the tubes in a heating pad (like those sold for pain relief) for 30-45 minutes before using them. Trap the heat by wrapping each tube in plastic wrap before inserting it into the sealant gun.

  •  Clean fingers

 Don’t use your finger to shape a bead of silicone sealant around a bath or basin (unless you don’t mind wearing it for a while). Instead, use a lollipop stick or the back of an old plastic teaspoon; both have smooth, rounded edges and are easy to hold, so you can avoid getting silicone on your skin.

  •  Improve your aim

It can be hard to manoeuvre a sealant gun in a tight spot or to properly seal a crevice that’s out of reach, but an effective extension tool may be as near as the kitchen drawer: a plastic drinking straw. Push the straw (or any plastic tube of the right size) into the nozzle of the sealant tube. Keep your impromptu extender from slipping off by securing it with gaffer tape.

  •  Mix it up

Old jam jar lids are ideal for mixing two-part epoxy adhesive. The raised edge keeps the adhesive from spreading out as you’re mixing it, and the limited interior space prevents you from using too much.

  •  In the bag

If you are looking for an easy way to mix and apply two-part epoxy adhesive there’s a solution in the pantry. Take a plastic sandwich bag and squeeze as much adhesive as you need into a corner section. Tie off the rest of the bag and mix the epoxy by rolling it between your fingers (You’ll notice the adhesive gets warm as it is mixed.) Use a pin to put one or more small holes in the bag and gently squeeze the epoxy adhesive out.

  •  Unglue the glue

You shouldn’t have to fight to get adhesive out of a bottle or tube. Dab a little petroleum jelly on the inside of the lid or on the tip of the tube before replacing the cap. It will prevent the glue from sticking to the cover, and you will have one less frustration to face.

Top tips for tools

  •  Sharpen blades with a matchbox

You can restore the cutting edge to a dull blade on a small craft or utility knife by rubbing it a few times on the striking surface of a box of matches or, if one is handy, an emery board. Be sure to sharpen both sides of the cutting edge.

  •  Be carpet scrap happy

As handy as they are for repairing tears and burns in matching carpeting, carpet remnants may actually be even more useful around the workshop. You can do the following:

  1.  Glue them to the inside of your toolbox to cushion tools in transit.
  2.  Tack them to the tops of workbench surfaces to prevent scratching furniture finishes.
  3.  Staple several remnants inside a narrow cupboard to form cushioned cradles for drills and other power tools.
  4.  Staple remnants (one at a time) to a small block of wood to make a reusable contact-adhesive applicator, where a thin even coating is required.
  •  Hands-on handles

You’ll get a firmer (and more comfortable) grip on hammers, spanners, screwdrivers and other tools if you wrap the handles with adhesive tape or flat foam draught-proofing strip. Hard tools will become soft to the touch.

  •  Save your fingers

To avoid bruised fingers when hammering home really tiny nails, hold the nails upright in the teeth of a pocket comb rather than between your fingers.

  •  Save the wood

Claw hammers are great for pulling nails out of wood — but you can easily damage the wood’s surface as you lever the nail up. Slip a piece of thick cardboard under the hammer head to prevent this from happening.

  •  Shield wood from hammers

Protect wood from accidental hammer blows with a homemade hammer guard. Take the lid from a small plastic container and cut a small hole in the centre large enough to fit over the nail head. Place the lid over each nail before hammering it in. To stop wood from splitting, blunt the tips of your nails with a hammer before using them: simply hold the nail upright on a block of metal and tap its tip lightly.

  •  Pliers as torch holder

Trying to hold a torch and work at the same time is a juggling act that you don’t want to perform. But you can still get the illumination you need if you don’t have a helper to hold the light. Place the torch between the jaws of a pair of pliers and position it at the required angle. Slip a thick rubber band around the handles of the pliers to keep the torch from slipping.

  •  Fizz away corrosion

Loosen a rusty nut or bolt by covering it with a rag soaked in vinegar or a fizzy drink. Let it sit for an hour to give the liquid time to work into the corrosion. The carbonation in fizzy drinks has another workshop application as well: it will unfreeze a rusted padlock or cabinet lock.

Laundries and garages

  •  Touch up a scratched washer or drier

Metal buckles, zips and clasps can leave marks and scratches on both washing machines and clothes driers — marks that will undoubtedly rust when exposed to moisture and wet clothing. Don’t wait to repair the damage or you may regret it. First, clean the area with a cotton wool ball dipped in surgical spirit. When the surgical spirit has dried (a few seconds at most), cover the scratch with a thin coat of clear nail polish or like-coloured car body touch-up paint, available from car supply shops.

  •  Clean your washing machine

An easy way to periodically clean out soap scum and disinfect your washing machine is to pour in 2 cups of white vinegar, then run the machine through a full cycle without any clothes or detergent. If your machine is particularly dirty, fill it with very hot water, add 8 litres vinegar and let the agitator run for 8-10 minutes. Turn off the machine and let the solution stand overnight. Next day, empty the drum and run the machine through a full cycle.

  •  Catch the ripper

If your clothes come out of the wash with small rips or snags, it’s likely that something inside the washer is the guilty party. Rub a wad of old, clean pantihose over the agitator and tub to detect any coarse edges that snag. Then smooth over the rough spots with a piece of very fine-grade sandpaper.

  •  Cleaner floor

Concrete garage floors can get very dusty, which can make painting jobs a nightmare. It really is worth investing in some garage floor paint, which not only looks smart, but also holds the concrete surface together and makes sweeping the floor much easier.

  •  A great stand-up routine

Why go through a balancing act every time you need to stand up a mop, duster or broom? Cut off the finger sections from some old latex gloves and slip them over the ends of all those long wooden handles. The rubber provides enough traction to stop a pole from sliding whenever you lean it against a wall.

  •  Mould and mildew treatments

Garages and cellars generally suffer from a lack of ventilation so even the driest of these rooms can have mouldy walls or corners. Wearing rubber gloves and a disposable face mask, brush or scrape the worst of the mould from all surfaces, then scrub the affected areas with a brush dipped in a solution of water, disinfectant and soda crystals. Blot the damp walls with a cloth to minimize moisture, and keep a fan running to recirculate the air and to help dry the walls thoroughly.

  •  Air out a cellar or garage

You don’t have to live with a musty cellar or garage. Once you’ve taken care of the source of mildew, combat any lingering odours by mixing 2 parts cat litter with 1 part bicarbonate of soda in a large container. Then fill several clean, empty large tins to the brim and place them around your cellar or garage. Replace with fresh mixture as needed. If the moisture affects the upper corners of the cellar, fill cotton bags or old pillow cases with the mix and hang them close to the damp areas.

  •  Hang up insulation

If you have an attached garage with a flat roof and exposed rafters, warm it up by insulating the roof from below. Buy some rolls of batt insulation plus rolls of garden netting. Push the insulating material up between the exposed rafters and use a staple gun to secure the netting to the underside of the rafters to hold the insulation in place.

Bathroom basics

  •  Fix scratched surfaces

If your acrylic bath is scratched, you can fix it with metal polish. Apply the polish with a soft cloth using a circular motion. The light abrasive in the polish lifts out most fine scratches. To smooth out deeper nicks and scrapes, dampen them with a bit of water and then gently rub with a piece of very fine wet-and-dry abrasive paper before polishing.

Scratches on enamel baths and surfaces can be covered with a few thin coats of enamel touch-up paint (available from most hardware shops) or white correction fluid. Clean the damaged area with some methylated spirits on a cotton wool ball and then sand lightly with wet-and-dry abrasive paper. Let the methylated spirits fully evaporate before applying the paint.

  •  Fill tubs before sealing

Before you seal around a bath, fill the bath with water. The extra weight will widen the gap in the joint between the bath and the wall, which makes for a thicker seal that’s less likely to crack or tear later on.

  •  A smarter, simpler way to save water

Some people put bricks inside their toilet cisterns to reduce the amount of water per flush. It’s a good way to conserve water, but it can be bad for the toilet because bricks submerged in water often break up and the bits can get into the flushing mechanism. A better option is to use old plastic bottles filled with sand or water. Remove any labels and check that the bottle is tightly sealed before placing it in the cistern.

Plumbing secrets

  •  No plunger, no problem

Use a hollow rubber ball or tennis ball instead. Secure the ball in a vice and cut it in half with a hacksaw or a utility knife. To clear a blocked waste pipe, fit the concave side over the waste outlet and press down with your palms or the base of your thumbs to create pressure.

  •  Clamp down on loose plungers

A plunger with a loose handle makes every job more difficult and can even be dangerous if the handle slips out or breaks off. If your plunger handle is easily separated from the suction cup, tighten it by placing a hose clamp around the base of the cup so that it is firmly clamped to the handle.

  •  Saucer as sink shield

Before taking apart a tap in a sink without a plug, take a small plate or saucer and simply place it upside down over the drain to prevent any small pieces from getting lost.

  •  Loosen a stuck tap

If you’ve tried everything, but a tap handle won’t budge, try pouring fizzy drink such as cola or lemonade over the tap. Give the carbonation 5-10 minutes to loosen any rust or corrosion around the tap — followed by a few gentle strikes with a rubber mallet, and it’ll loosen with ease.

  •  Stop a sink or tub

If your drain plug has disappeared, but you need to stop the water in the sink or bathtub, here’s a stopgap solution. Place a plastic lid over the drain. The vacuum created keeps the water from slip-sliding away.

  •  Easy turn-off

It is frustrating when you want to turn the water off at the mains, only to find that the stop tap is jammed tight. It can usually be loosened by the judicious application of WD-40 and/or heat — but, to avoid it happening again, try to remember to operate it every month or so and always close it a quarter turn from fully open when you leave it. This way it will work freely when you need it.

  •  Hose off pipe leaks

When you need a quick patch for a leaking water pipe, cut off a section of old garden hose or rubber tubing that’s longer than the affected area of pipe. Slice it lengthways, and then fit the hose over the leak. Wrap it well with waterproof tape and secure it with three hose clamps: one on each end and one in the middle.

  •  Blow-dry a frozen pipe

If a water pipe freezes during winter, close the main valve on the water meter and open the nearest tap. Then, starting at the tap, use a hair dryer on a medium setting to thaw out the pipe. Be sure to keep the drier moving all the time so that the pipe doesn’t get too hot in one spot; a sudden shift in temperature can cause pipes to crack. After it thaws, cover the pipe in thick foam insulating material to keep it from freezing in the future.

Clever kitchen fixes

  •  Rub out scorch marks

If you spot a scorch mark on a laminated benchtop, don’t use abrasive powder; chances are you’ll only remove the finish. If the burn isn’t too deep, buff it out with car polish or a mixture of toothpaste and bicarbonate of soda.

  •  A fast fix for dents

If the colour hasn’t been altered, you can disguise dents and scratches on practically any kitchen surface — including wood, glass and even some kinds of tiles — with clear nail polish. Brush on the polish in thin coats, letting it dry between applications. When you’re finished, smooth the polish with a piece of very fine grit sandpaper, then buff the area with a soft cloth.

  •  Check the fridge door gasket

If your fridge or freezer is more than five years old, inspect its door gasket for leaks at least once a year. The easiest method is to place a piece of paper — or a bank note — halfway inside, shut the door, and then tug on the paper. Repeat the process in several spots around the seal. The paper should hold firmly; if it’s easy to pull out, the gasket needs to be repaired or replaced.

  •  Add ballast to your freezer

Freezers work at maximum efficiency only when they are at least two-thirds full. If you don’t have enough food to freeze, add some bulk by filling a few plastic drinks bottles with water and placing them in the freezer. You can easily remove the ice ballast when there’s food to replace it.

  •  No-stick kitchen drawers

Most kitchen drawers work on a guide-and-track system. That is, rounded guides on the drawer keep it moving back and forth on tracks mounted inside the cabinet. Accumulations of dust and other impediments can slow down drawers or cause them to stick. Keep them moving freely by spraying the tracks and guides with a little WD-40 once or twice a year.

  •  Stop cupboard doors from banging

If your wooden cupboard doors always close with a bit of a bang, soften the blow by sticking bumpers at each door’s top and bottom corners. Inexpensive door bumper pads are one solution, but perhaps a little too obvious for the creative do-it-yourselfer. Instead, try pressing small circular padded adhesive dressings into service, testing to see if you need a double layer to silence the bang.

  •  Repair instead of replacing

If you’ve ever bought a replacement part for a kitchen appliance, you are probably still in recovery from the shock of the high price. The truth is many non-moving parts can be easily repaired for very little cost. For instance, a broken handle on a microwave oven or a cracked dishwasher arm can often be easily reattached with some two-part epoxy adhesive. Likewise, a little silicone sealant can be used to patch a small crack in your refrigerator’s door gasket, while a few strips of gaffer tape can usually mend broken parts on a fridge door shelf. Remember that you only need to replace parts that really can’t be fixed.

Tips for working wood

  •  Make customized wood filler

When working with specific types of wood, save some of the finest sawdust produced by your sanders. Mix a handful of the sawdust with ordinary woodworking adhesive until it becomes a thick paste, and then overfills the crack. Let it dry, then lightly sand. Note: cracks filled with adhesive-based filler will not accept stain in the same way that solid wood does.

  •  Instant wood filler

If you need some wood filler in a hurry for an emergency repair on an inexpensive piece of furniture, mix a couple of tablespoons of ready-mixed all-purpose filler with instant coffee until you achieve the desired shade of brown. Fill in the crack and smooth with a damp rag.

  •  Pluck some filler

An old guitar plectrum makes a great tool for applying small amounts of filler to fill nail holes and small cracks in wood. An easy solution with no strings attached!

  •  Soften wood filler

Acetone-based cellulose wood fillers are designed to dry quickly. If you notice that your acetone filler has started to solidify in the can, you can soften it by adding a little acetone nail polish remover. Stir in just enough to bring the filler to the right consistency or it will become too runny to use. Note: it is not possible to save filler that has already hardened.

  •  Get rid of glue with vinegar

Don’t despair when you get a hardened glob of adhesive on your woodwork. Cover it with a rag soaked in warm white vinegar then leave it overnight. The adhesive will slide off with ease in the morning. Vinegar will also soften old glued joints — and even that last bit of wood-working adhesive that’s hardening in the bottom of the bottle. Just add a few drops of vinegar to the bottle and let it sit for an hour or two. Shake well, drain the vinegar and repeat the process as necessary.

  •  The last straw for glue spills

Keep some plastic drinking straws nearby when working with wood; they come in handy when working with adhesives and lubricants. If you use too much wood adhesive along a seam, for instance, simply fold a straw in half and use the folded edge to scoop up the excess.

  •  Flip a stripped finish

Stop off in the kitchen before stripping a piece of furniture. The flat, flexible blade on an old plastic spatula is exactly what you need to scrape off used stripper. Hold the spatula by the blade in a reverse position and push it in a straight, steady motion to remove the old finish.

  •  Better ways to stain

Put old pairs of pantihose to work when staining furniture. Rolled-up pantihose or stockings make a great alternative to a cotton cloth or a rag. Not only do they drip less, but they also won’t leave any lint behind.

A spare paint roller also makes a terrific stain applicator. Cut a 22-cm roller into three equal pieces. Whether fixed to an applicator or held in your hand, a roller holds more stain than a brush and applies it more evenly than a rag.

  •  Stop stripper drips

The next time you need to strip a table or a chair, place the legs inside cleaned, empty soup or baked bean cans. The cans will catch the drips, which, besides keeping your work space cleaner, will allow you to re-use the stripper for a second coat.

  •  Baby oil the end grain

If you’d like to save a couple of dollars, don’t spend them on a proprietary sealer when finishing your next woodworking project.

Instead, seal the end grain with unscented baby oil. It will work just as well as the stuff that you can buy from a hardware shop. It keeps the colour uniform by preventing the end from soaking up too much stain.

  •  The easy way to sand around curves

Wrap a tennis ball in sandpaper and use it to sand curves when refinishing furniture. A tennis ball is just the right shape and size to fit comfortably in your hand.

Scratch out scratches

  •  Instant fix for scratched woodwork

If you notice several fresh, light scratches on a dark-wood wall unit and need to find a quick fix, just go to the kitchen, get a small cup or container and mix 1 teaspoon instant coffee in 1 tablespoon vegetable oil or water. Apply the mixture with a cotton wool ball. (Don’t use this on valuable antiques or shellac finishes.)

  •  Cover scratches in leather

You can camouflage unsightly scratches in leather furniture using a permanent marker in a similar shade. Before you start, test the marker on an inconspicuous part of the chair or sofa to make sure that it’s a good match. Work slowly and carefully when tracing over the scratch. Medium or fine-point markers work best overall; extra-fine tips may deepen a scratch while thick markers often have a visible ‘edging’ around repairs.’

  •  Check out the market

These days — especially with the advent of the Internet — you can get a whole range of wood-care products, previously available only to professionals. And they’re all available in a range of wood shades. For repairing scratches (and filling small cracks and holes), try these:

  1.  Burnishing cream (superficial scratches)
  2.  Wax filler sticks (and shellac filler sticks)
  3.  Retouch crayons
  4.  Touch-up pens
  •  Homeopathic scratch care

Many light scratches on wood can be repaired without an expensive trip to a hardware shop. That’s because masking a scratch is simply a matter of covering it up or adequately lubricating the exposed wood fibres. What’s amazing is the number of items that you probably already have around your home that can get the job done. Regardless of which method you use, wax the surface when done.

  1.  Conceal scratches with closely matched shoe polish, a melted crayon or a permanent marker.
  2.  Use the meat of a Brazil nut, walnut or pecan. Rub the nut over the scratch several times, and then vigorously massage the oil into the scrape with your thumb.
  3.  Can’t find the nutcracker? Rub in a little peanut butter or mayonnaise instead. Wipe it off with a damp rag after 30 minutes or so.
  4.  If that’s too messy, try a little baby oil or mix 1 tablespoon olive oil or vegetable oil with 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Apply it with a soft cloth, and then buff it off after 30-45 minutes.
  5.  Cover scratches with a generous amount of petroleum jelly. Let it soak in for 24 hours, then remove the excess with a soft cloth.
  •  Wax away hairline scratches

High-gloss lacquer finishes are prone to developing hairline scratches when dishes or other items are slid across their surface. You can often get rid of these light scratches with car wax, which contains a light abrasive. Test the wax first on a bottom edge or some other inconspicuous area first, to make sure the wax doesn’t discolour or damage the finish. Once you’re ready, apply the wax to a soft cloth and polish using a steady circular motion.