10 tips to improve your home

Q. I put in a flagstone walk six years ago on 3 inches of concrete. Now the mortar along the edges and between the stones is breaking up. How can I repair it?

A. Buy mortar mix in a building supply store. Gouge out the crumbling mortar to the full width and depth of the joints. Mix the mortar dry in the bag; then add enough water to make the mix crumbly, not soupy. Press this into the joints very compactly and tightly; if it is done loosely, leaving air pockets in the mortar, the mortar will fail quickly. The edges are a another problem; if there is no border holding the edge mortar in place, it is likely to fail faster than that between the stones. Before filling the edges, install a border to hold the mortar in place. This border could be bricks on end, patio blocks sunk 8 inches into the ground or a 2-by-6 or 2-by-8-inch pressure-treated board. No matter what border material you use, their tops should be even with the top of the walk. A word about mortar; mix only enough to last about 15 minutes; after that, the mortar starts to set up and will be difficult if not impossible to work. You can add a little water to make stiff mortar workable, but the more water you add the weaker the mortar will be. And, to press the mortar compactly into place, invest in a pointing tool ($2). This is an S-shaped steel bar that eases the job of pressing in the mortar.

Q. How long will my roof last on my pergola?

A. There are several types of pergola roofing options. How long a roof lasts depends on the materials and the climate and the temperature conditions to which it is subjected. Although the life expectancy can be many years, in most cases constant general maintenance is necessary.

Q. I plan to put a Formica ceiling in my shower area; perhaps this will end peeling and mildew problems forever. A friend suggested I put up plywood and paint it, but I want to avoid painting it. Someone else put wallpaper on the ceiling. Would this work?

A. You’re right about the plywood; it would need painting and that could peel, and it certainly would not cure the mildew problem. The wallpaper might work but, if it is put up over a peeling ceiling, it could pull itself right off. The Formica is a good idea but, instead of trying to put it on a painted ceiling with contact cement (it won’t work on a painted surface), put up quarter-inch or half-inch plywood and put the Formica on that.

Q. I have planted a lot of daffodils in my lawn and other areas where they have “naturalized,” looking as if they were always there. I want to add to them, but I’m afraid that in the fall, when I plant the new bulbs, that I won’t know where the existing bulbs are because the foliage has gone. Is there an easy way to mark where the existing daffodils are?

A. Necessity is the mother of invention. Try this: Stick a white plastic golf tee into the ground beside each daffodil. When the foliage goes, the tee will remain. Keep it a quarter to an eighth of an inch above the ground; if you step on them, you will simply drive them flush with the ground. At this height, you can mow over them and, in the fall, you will know where to plant your new bulbs.

Q. My nylon-mesh deck umbrella always collects mildew, either while in use or when it is stored away. How can I clean it?

A. Wash with this trusty solution: 1 part bleach and 3 parts of water. When you store it in the fall, make sure it’s bone dry before folding it. If it is dirty as well as moldy, mix a strong solution of Spic and Span and water to which a cup of bleach has been added. Wear skin protection and eye protection when working with bleach; it is caustic and poisonous.

Q. We picked up a rug on a hardwood floor, but the pad underneath disintegrated, leaving all kinds of pits and pieces embedded in the wood. We were able to scrape some of the pieces.

A. Wet the fragments with paint thinner, let it soak for 30 seconds and scrape with a scraper made of wood or scrub lightly with fine steel wool. If that doesn’t work too well, wet the fragments with any kind of oil, let it sit for 5 to 15 minutes and scrub with steel wool. Wash the oil off with a mild solution of detergent and water and don’t use much water.

Q. What drinks are served at a cocktail party?

A. Drinks is obviously the most important aspect of the cocktail party, and your local package store can help you get things rolling. The following liquors are essential to a home tiki bar when throwing a cocktail party: vodka, gin, rum, scotch, bourbon and a Canadian whiskey, such as Seagrams V.O.

Q. I am putting up red cedar clapboards on my house. Is it OK to put the rough side out? I plan to stain them with a solid color stain. I also was told that stain is no good for the pine trim. What can I treat the pine with?

A. It’s OK to put the rough side out; it gives a slightly rustic look (and in some cases a modern look), but it will hold stain better than the smooth side. Any kind of stain will do, but most important when staining is to put thin coats on. You will need two coats when using solid stain; two thin ones is the secret to success. You can also use a solid stain for the pine trim; the only problem is that if the pine has knots, they will bleed through the stain. To prevent that, paint the pine with an exterior oil primer, then stain over that. As for the clapboards, if you can wait a few months before staining them, you might be able to avoid cedar bleed, which is the color of the cedar leaching through the stain. The longer you let the clapboards cure, or dry out, the less bleeding you’ll get.

Q. My driveway slopes toward the garage. Water collects there and seeps into the garage. I propose to build a small trench in front of the garage door 2 feet long, 1 foot wide and 18 inches deep and insert a pipe leading to one side of the driveway that will let the water dissipate harmlessly. It was suggested that the trench need only be 6 inches in diameter and 18 inches deep. And will a plastic pipe stand up under the driveway?

A. Either size trench will do, but the bigger one will work better. Fill the trench with crushed stone. The plastic pipe will definitely stand up under the driveway.

Q. Can I varnish the rush seats on my ladder-back chairs? My oak vanity was shimmed on one side to make it level, but there’s a 1/4- to 3/8-inch gap between the bottom of the vanity and the floor. How can I fill that gap and seal it against water seepage?

A. Rush is usually not finished, but two coats of satin polyurethane varnish will keep it from staining. Two thin coats, that is. It is not a matter of filling the gap under the vanity, but of covering it. Buy some oak trim (pine will do, but oak will match the vanity); you can get a piece an inch or more wide and 3/ 8-inch thick. Tack this to the sides and front of the vanity with finish nails. To seal it against water seepage, apply a bead of caulking compound to the bottom edge of the trim; when you place it on the floor and against the vanity, it will ooze out, making a good seal. Wipe or scrape off any of that oozing. Apply the same varnish you used for the rush seats to the trim. It might be necessary to stain it first to match the color of the vanity itself.

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