Winter finally departed. This past year, it reminded me of that family relative who still is sitting on my couch at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving not knowing it was time to leave a while ago.
Now with higher temperatures and favorable weather, it’s time to get started on some spring projects. I surveyed my giant weekly newsletter list and discovered the top projects my readers want help with.
My guess is you have the exact same problems. Here’s some guidance to help you tackle them:
This was the top project nagging at my subscribers. Many suffer from wet basements and crawl spaces and soggy yards. If your yard has some slope to it, let’s say about three feet of fall from the highest spot to the lowest spot, you can often get great relief with not too much work.
My college degree was in geology, and I had a special interest in hydrogeology, which concentrates on groundwater. What I discovered is that in locations that have clay-rich soils, groundwater tends to flow sideways through the topsoil and on top of the dense clay subsoil.
This means you can install a linear French drain around your house that acts like an underground gutter. This trench only needs to be 6 inches wide and about 2 feet deep. You put about 2 inches of clean rounded gravel in the bottom of the trench. The gravel ranges in size from a marble to a walnut. It should be washed — meaning there’s no sand or fines in the gravel, just the different-size stones.
You then put a perforated 4-inch drain tile on top of the gravel and fill the trench with the rounded gravel to within about 3 inches of the grass. Water flowing through the soil toward your home falls through the gravel down to the drain pipe. The water would rather flow through this pipe, the path of least resistance, then force its way through the soil.
The bottom of the trench should be level, and it needs to extend to the lowest part of your lot where eventually the bottom of the trench will extend out to daylight. As the ground falls away, the trench becomes more shallow until the end of the pipe sticks out of the ground.
Water that flows down through the gravel pulls water out of the soil, and this same system can be used to drain soggy back or front yards.
Be sure that your roof water is piped to the lowest part of your lot, too. Don’t allow it to flow onto the ground next to your home. (Step-by-step directions of how to install a linear french drain can be found in a DVD I produced two years ago at shop.askthebuilder.com/linear-french-drain-video-series-dvd.)
Concrete is simply artificial rock. If it’s mixed, placed, finished and cured correctly, it can last 100 or more years. If your concrete steps, walkways, patios, etc., are crumbling, you may be able to repair them with traditional products and methods or you can choose from some modern materials.
Often concrete deterioration is just a surface blemish. The concrete just below the surface is still sound. If this is what’s wrong at your home, then you can patch the concrete and the patch will stay in place for many years if you just do a few simple things.
To add a thin patch of concrete that wouldn’t exceed
The secret trick to get this material to permanently bond to your existing concrete is to apply a coat of cement paint to the rough concrete just a moment before you apply the patching mixture.
You make cement paint by just adding clean water to pure Portland cement and stirring it until it’s the consistency of regular latex paint. Make sure the rough concrete is free of all dust and lightly spritz it with water before applying on the cement paint.
Once the patching mixture starts to stiffen up, you can use a wood trowel or magnesium or steel float to match the texture of the surrounding concrete.
Be sure to cover the patch with plastic for at least three days after you pour it. Try to keep the patch wet for the three days by spritzing it with water and covering it once again with the plastic so the concrete patch stays damp.
To repair deeper concrete defects or to replace chunks of missing concrete, just add small stones to your mix. The ratio should be three parts stone, two parts sand and 1.5 parts Portland cement for a strong mix. Always use the cement paint to bond your new concrete to your old.
Modern epoxies are available that also make great repairs. Simply purchase epoxies that are clearly labeled as concrete patching materials and follow the directions on the label for amazing results.
Interior hardwood floors can get damaged by salt pellets carried into the home by shoes and boots, animal claws and normal wear and tear. You can sometimes get professional repair results with minimal effort.
If a scratch is not deep and you have decent hand-eye coordination, you can use small, fine artist brushes to add a thin coat of your clear finish on just the scratch. I’ve done this for years with great success. It’s important that you match the gloss of your existing floor for this to work. If you’re not sure, test clear finishes in an out-of-the-way area of the room.
Widespread areas of finish scratches will probably require a simple refresher coat of clear urethane over the floor. While you may think this is a job for a pro, it’s within the realm of the DIYer who possesses attention to detail.
All you need to do is clean the hardwood floor, sand it lightly with medium sandpaper using a standard drywall pole sander, and then recoat the floor with clear urethane. You apply the urethane by pouring it onto the floor and spreading it evenly with a lambs-wool applicator.
After you sand and before you recoat the floor, you need to get up all the dust. I prefer to use rags soaked with mineral spirits for this. Burn the rags after you do this to avoid a spontaneous fire hazard.
If you have deep scratches that go through the finish to the floor, these will have to be fixed by a pro. You don’t have to refinish the entire floor and go through that hassle. Just call any fine furniture store in your area.
These stores have employees or independent contractors that carry a magical box that contains colored hard lacquers and an alcohol lamp. These magicians can fill the scratches and gouges and match the floor finish in no time. When you see what they can do, you’ll simply not believe it.
Your deck probably needs a good cleaning after this past winter. The trouble is, there are lots of myths about the proper way to do the job.
Your deck collects all sorts of mold, mildew, algae, diesel soot from interstate and urban traffic, and normal dirt. For decades, I’ve tried to quash the advice I see about using chlorine bleach to clean decks, patios or anything outdoors.
I can’t think of a worse product to use for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it’s toxic and will kill grass, expensive landscape and giant trees. My neighbor refused to listen to my advice each year as her giant shade maple tree over her deck got sicker and sicker. Each spring she’d pour five giant bottles of pure bleach to clean the deck and adjacent patio. A tree service came and eventually cut the tree down.
Chlorine bleach also will accelerate the corrosion of any nails, bolts, joist hangers, etc., that connect all the wood together. Newspapers like this one report each year on deck collapses traced to failed metal connectors.
Pressure washers seem to be the tool of choice for many, including professionals. If you want to clean wood or composite decks in a hurry, then use one. But be aware that if you get the spray wand too close to the wood surface, you’ll erode the softer, lighter grained spring wood in the deck. Soon, after a few cleanings, your deck will look more like a 50-year-old fishing pier out on Chesapeake Bay than that gorgeous deck you used to have.
Mild cleaners like traditional liquid dish soap work well to clean decks, but you need to put some elbow grease into the job using a scrub brush on a pole. It’s best to work in the cooler part of the day so evaporation is kept to a minimum.
Once your deck is clean, you can keep it looking great through the season by simple light washings with liquid soap and water. Do it just like you’d clean your car, but use a string mop or soft push broom.
Nearby trees are constantly broadcasting sugar aerosols that land on your deck. This is great food for the mold, mildew and algae you’re about to clean. If you just do a few quick cleanings before it gets too bad, you won’t have to work as hard like you’re about to do.
After the deck is clean, do a quick inspection to make sure all the nails, bolts and structural connectors are in great shape. Check the integrity of any railings and steps while you’re at it. You don’t want you, your family and guests tumbling down to the ground when you have your first spring or summer party!
Tim Carter writes the “Ask the Builder” column. The Washington Post commissioned him to write this article. For more repair tips, go to his Web site at AsktheBuilder.com .