Floors, Walls, and Ceilings

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Squeaky Floors

(November 1992)

In my last column, we had gotten the walls up in our basement remodel. Next, we'd want to install a ceiling. Before the ceiling goes up, however, it's a good time to pause and fix a problem unfortunately all too common to Virginia Hills homes–squeaky floors!

Our homes were built solidly in the 1950s style. Thick beams (which we'll call joists) support the floor above them. If you look in a new house, the joists are much smaller than ours. While our houses may have been overbuilt, none of them have bouncy floors! Diagonally across these joists, the builder laid 1"x6" planking which was nailed to the joists. That planking is called the subfloor. The finish floor is strip hardwood flooring laid on roofing felt and "blind nailed" to the subfloor. Blind nailing is when a nail is driven through the "tongue" of the strip flooring and is then concealed when the groove of the next piece of strip is placed over it. Today, plywood replaces 1x6 as the subfloor, and a good builder will use construction adhesive as well as nails to secure the subfloor to the joists, but otherwise the construction is the same.

Floors can squeak for several reasons. The subfloor might be moving against the joists, the finish floor might be moving against the subfloor, and the strips of finish flooring might be moving against each other. Any of these movements could cause the floor to squeak, and stopping each of these kinds of squeaks requires a different technique.

How can you tell what kind of squeaks you have? Again, you have to play detective. Have someone walk on the floor above you while you observe the joists and subfloor from below. When the floor squeaks above you, look very closely above you. First, you may see some long nails coming through the subfloor on one or another side of the joist. The carpenter missed the joist when he nailed the subfloor, and the subfloor is free to move in that spot. Look closely as the floor squeaks. Do you see it move up and down over the joist? That's the most common problem causing floor squeaks in our homes.

How can we fix this squeak? First, look at the spot where the subfloor and joist meet. If there is a big gap, it is a wasted effort trying to pull the floor down to the joist. Take two large (6-8" wide) wood roofing shims and insert them into the gap, narrow edge first, one from each side of the joist. Tap their backs with a hammer until they are securely in place. Use a few small nails into the subfloor to hold them into place, then insert two wood screws, one from each side, diagonally through the joist into the subfloor. If this stopped the squeak, you're in business and can go on to the next spot.

If you don't see a gap between the subfloor and the joists, but you do see some movement, omit the shims and just use the screws diagonally through the joists. You may need several to stop a persistent squeak.

Perhaps because the most walking and standing occurs there, the kitchen often has the squeakiest floor. If you are remodeling your kitchen and will be installing a new floor, you can work from the top down. Find your joists and snap a chalk line marking the location of each on the kitchen floor. Unfortunately, our joists are not always regularly spaced, so you may have to do a lot of measuring. You can test by drilling a small hole about 2" deep. Use a piece of wire to poke through the floor. If you've missed the joist, the wire will just keep on going. Try again! Once you have the joist marked from above, use deck screws to go through the floor and into the joists at any place you find a squeak. Your new floor will be laid on a new underlayment of plywood or luan, so you don't need to worry about the appearance.

If you can't get at the floor from below, you can use this same method to work from above. Countersink the screw so that you can use a plug on the hole. This only works if you don't mind seeing some round plugs on your finish floor. It also will stop problems of a finish floor moving against a subfloor. In this case, however, it is also desirable to install screws from the bottom up if you can. Use no screw longer than 1 1/4" however, or you will go through the floor.

Finally, if you can see the finish flooring strips moving against each other, a little talcum powder sprinkled in the cracks between strips will work wonders to quiet the floor.

If you have a carpeted floor, the best solution is to work from below whenever possible. If you can't, the next best choice is to take up the carpet, fix the floor, and have it re laid. Sometimes you will see the suggestion to nail through the carpet with a long finish nail. This almost never works!

Copyright Doug Boulter, 1992

Quiet Ceilings and Walls

(February 1993)

In our project to finish our basement, I keep promising that we'll talk about ceilings. Before we finished the ceiling, however, we wanted to take care of any squeaky floors above it, and we did that in the last column. This time, we're going to consider soundproofing our ceiling. And since we're going to be on the topic of soundproofing, we'll talk about how to soundproof walls as well.

If we were building a professional recording studio in our basement, we would build a room within a room so it was completely isolated from the rest of the house. Since most of us aren't looking for that much soundproofing, we can use some of the concepts behind such a room, but on a lesser scale. In our ceiling, we must quiet two types of sound. The first is caused by impacts on the floor above us–people walking around. The second is the sound of voices carried through the air, and to a lesser degree, through the wood of the floor.

Impact noise can most easily be solved from above by using a thick carpet and pad upstairs. Any impact sounds that make it through the carpet and pad will be transmitted through the wood floor and through the wooden floor joists. If we were to use a drywall ceiling, the change in density when we went from wood to drywall would reduce the noise somewhat. Using 5/8" drywall rather than 1/2" would reduce the noise some more. Two better, but more expensive and difficult solutions might be considered. First, we could install a layer of sound deadening board (1/2" thick) under our drywall. Second, we could use something called a resilient channel. This is a long metal strip shaped like a Z. You attach the channels perpendicular to the joists 16" on center by screwing through the top of the Z. You then attach your drywall to the bottom of the Z as if it were a firing strip. The resilient channel is the best way to isolate the ceiling from the floor joists, but is a bit tricky for a beginner to install.

Any of those methods should help stop the noise of footsteps, but our main concern is often the sound of voices or music which travel better through air. The easy way to reduce this noise is to stuff the cavities between the joists with insulation. Since Virginia Hills houses have deep 10" joists, the R-25 attic blanket insulation you often see advertised will do the trick nicely. To finish the job, the thick drywall, the sound deadening board, and the resilient channels described above will do nicely.

Many of these same tricks work for interior partition walls that divide up our rooms. Filling these walls with insulation will work just as well to reduce noise, though since we don't have 10" thick walls, it will reduce the noise to a lesser degree. To make up for this, there are some tricks we can use and some problems we can watch out for.

First, any heating ducts going through the walls will be hollow, and as a result will channel noise from room to room. When heating ducts are planned, you should be careful not to run them down the wall and put outlets back to back in two rooms. While it's more expensive to run two ducts, you'll be better off in terms of quiet.

This principle also applies to electrical boxes for receptacles. It's a lot easier for your electrician to wire them back to back in the wall, but this provides a path for the sound to move between rooms. Better to have the receptacle for Room A in one stud cavity and Room B in another.

With insulation between the studs, the proper placement of ducts and electrical boxes, 5/8" drywall (or two layers of 1/2" drywall), and perhaps sound deadening board or resilient channels, we'll have a very quiet wall. The only path for the noise will be through the studs themselves. If we can afford a 2" wider wall, we can eliminate this problem as well. We can either build two 2x3 walls set 1/2" apart, or we can use one wall, but stagger the studs.

Two independent walls made out of 2x3s rather than 2x4s will provide a break between the studs and stop the transmission of sound. We would frame the walls normally, and set them 1/2" apart. Then we would insulate between them and finish them in the normal manner.

Offsetting the studs is slightly different. In this wall, we use 2x6s for the top and bottom plates. Then we use 2x4 studs, offset to each other. You insulate normally, but weave the insulation between the studs where they cross.

If you follow these procedures, you will be amazed at how quiet your new space is. The final trick is to use heavy, solid doors between rooms. Hollow core doors have the same problems with sound transmission as hollow stud walls.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 1993

Nail Pops

(June 1994)

Is there anyone in Virginia Hills who hasn't seen the bulge of a protruding drywall nail in their wall or ceiling? The idea for this article comes from Don Monin of Gentele Court who spent a half hour one Sunday kicking this subject around with me. Nail pops are surely a phenomenon that all Virginia Hills residents are familiar with. It just goes with the territory.

Why should drywall nails hammered into the walls over 30 years ago work loose now? The answer relates to the natural annual cycle of your house and the way it was built. As we've said before, a house gets dry in the winter when the humidity is low. As the air gets dry, the wooden studs in your walls dry out as well. As the wood contracts, the nails may be forced out slightly, making the nail pop that you see on the wall.

Nail pops are less frequent in quality new construction because of the use of vapor barriers inside and housewrap outside that will reduce the humidity fluctuations inside the walls. In the 1950s, drywall was held on with ring shank nails. If you pull out an old drywall nail, you'll see that it's very thin and has a number of rings on the shaft (called a shank, hence "ring shank") up near the head. This was a good fastening system for drywall at the time, but has been made obsolete by two advances–a drywall nail with an adhesive coating and the drywall screw.

As you drive a coated drywall nail into the wood stud, the friction heats the nail and melts the adhesive. When the nail cools and the adhesive dries, the adhesive greatly increases the friction between wood and metal nail. These are much less likely to pop. The better solution, of course, is the screw. Because of the way the screw's threads cut their own groves into the wood, it is very unlikely that it will move as the stud swells and shrinks. There will be no screw pops!

Repair of nail pops is an easy, if time consuming do-it-yourself project. First, remove the nail that has popped out. This must be done very carefully. Using a sharp knife, cut through the drywall paper around the head of the nail so the metal is exposed. Try to pull the nail out with a pair of vice grips or pliers. If you can do so, great! You're ready for the next step. What you are more likely to find, however, is that the nail is still holding tightly.

This will give you some idea of the force of the contracting wood that popped the nail in the first place. During the summer, when the studs again gain moisture, is a good time to start this project since the wood may swell and the nail may be a bit looser.

If the nail won't come out with a pliers, get a hammer, a small pinch bar, or a cat's paw to pull the nail. Remember any time you are working with drywall, however, that the drywall is very soft. Do not use the drywall itself as a base for leverage when you pull the nail If you do, the pressure will make a deep indentation and you will have a large area to fill, making the job more difficult. Instead, take a piece of 1" lumber (the wider the better) and place it under the head of the hammer or pinch bar. This will spread the force of the push against the wall over a much wider area and avoid damage.

Drywall screws or nails are dirt cheap, so here's where I don't mind a bit of overkill. Put a new screw on either side of the hole of the nail you just removed about an inch or two away. This should be more than adequate to hold the drywall firmly in place.

The last step is to fill the old hole and cover the heads of the screws with joint compound. Take a 2" drywall knife or a putty knife and put a smooth coat of compound over the holes. Let it dry for a day. It will shrink as it dries, so you will see a dimple instead of a level finish. Apply a second coat and let dry again. Depending on how fussy you are, you might want a third coat. Use a slightly damp sponge to sand as needed until flat, but remember that the joint compound is much softer than the drywall, so use a light touch or you'll make more dimples.

Instead of joint compound, you can use one of the vinyl spackling compounds on the market. If you are in a hurry, these won't shrink, so you can use one coat and sand flat. The sanding will leave lots of dust, of course, so you may prefer to use the joint compound which is easier to work.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 1994

Lead Paint

(October 1994)>

From time to time, every house needs painting. Often it's possible to simply paint over the existing paint if it is in good condition. If the existing paint is peeling, alligatored, or cracked, however, you may need to remove it before you can apply new paint. This can be a lot of hard work, but your problem becomes even more complicated if the paint your are removing contains lead. In this article, we will discuss how you should deal with lead paint.

Lead is not usually a hazard to adults except in high concentrations. Indeed, since lead was removed from gasoline in the 1970s, lead levels in Americans' tissues has steadily declined. Young children, however, are more sensitive to small amounts of lead and can suffer serious learning disorders if the lead level in their tissues is high. Most often this occurs when they ingest lead when they chew on surfaces coated with lead pain As you may know, paint containing lead was common until about 1970. It was especially used where durability and/or a high gloss was desired. The most common places you might find lead paint in Virginia Hills houses are the bathroom, door and window trim, and outside trim and eaves.

How can you determine if paint on your house contains lead? You can purchase a test kit in paint stores or in the paint department of most home centers. You peel off a chip of paint, exposing all the layers of paint under the top layer. You then rub the fluid from the test kit on the layers of paint and look for a color change. The chemical will react with the lead and turn color if it is present.

How should you deal with the lead? If your paint isn't peeling and you don't have small children, the best way to deal with lead paint is to leave it alone and paint over it. If you do have small children, you should remove the lead paint below any level they can reach. There are several ways to do this.

Door and window molding is very difficult to strip. The best way to deal with this problem is to remove the molding entirely and replace it with fresh wood. If the molding is old and architecturally significant, your best bet is to remove it and take it to a professional stripper who can deal with it out of your house.

I don't believe, based on my own house, that interior wall paint in Virginia Hills contains lead. If you do find some, however, your best bet is to cover it over with wallpaper, paneling, of some other wall treatment. If you must remove the lead paint, it is much easier to rip out the drywall and replace it with new drywall.

On the outside, you have a more complex problem. Trim boards and eaves that were painted with lead paint (as mine were) can be handled in two ways. You can either strip the paint or you can replace the wood. The time involved may work out to be about the same so you can choose the option that best suits your skills.

If you decide to remove the lead paint, you have a limited number of methods. Sanding is dangerous as the fine dust will contain lead and may get into your lungs. Burning may cause the lead paint to give off hazardous vapors. Therefore these two methods are out. Your choices are limited to using a heat gun to soften the paint and peel it off or using a chemical stripper. You may have heard that chemical strippers are dangerous, and that is certainly true of many. However, there are now strippers on the market that contain chemicals that do not produce hazardous vapors and should be your first choice for any stripping project.

The last matter to deal with is the disposal of the stripped paint or wood you've removed that was painted with lead. Fairfax County says you must bag this material separately and take it to one of the County's hazardous waste disposal sites. Shower and wash your hair as soon as you are done work. Wash your work clothes separately from the family's laundry.

Much of the information for this article was taken from the Environmental Protection Agency's pamphlet "Reducing Lead Hazards When Remodeling Your Home."

Copyright Doug Boulter, 1994


(November 1997/February 1998)

Part I

Virginia Hills houses were built within a five year period in the mid-1950s and, with minor variations, look pretty much alike. You can set your house apart from the others by doing major renovations, but these are projects which should be done for reasons which go beyond mere cosmetics. In this article, I'm going to talk about some of the things you can do inside with wood trim. Many of these projects are comparatively inexpensive, yet will give your house the appearance of houses custom built and costing hundreds of thousands more.

Trim carpentry is considered the most demanding of all carpentry projects because of the precise nature of the work required. Some of the projects I'll be talking about are not those I would recommend you undertake yourself if you don't have a considerable degree of skill. On the other hand, there are some techniques you can use to reduce the level of skill required and at the same time make the work look more upscale. Of course, this will require you to spend additional money for materials.

The first question you must ask yourself for any project involving wood trim is whether you are going to paint the trim as opposed to staining it or applying a clear finish. Painting your trim allows you to purchase trim called "paint grade." For this kind of trim, the manufacturer joins small pieces of wood of different colors to make long pieces, saving you money. Since you will be painting these a solid color, no one will notice. If, however, you desire to stain the wood, imperfections of color and grain would look terrible, and you must purchase "stain grade" materials which cost from 33% to 100% more. In addition to the cost, your trim work must be very accurate with stain grade trim, as you cannot caulk or otherwise fill large gaps. Of course, for your pains you get trim that can be breathtakingly beautiful.

Once you have made this decision, you must decide what kinds of trim you want or want to replace. There are three general categories that we will consider: baseboard and crown in this issue, door and window in the next.


Even expensive houses use a standard baseboard, but you can buy or create custom base. One choice is to use a 4 1/2" baseboard which is a bit less than an inch taller than standard baseboard. Add a piece of quarter-round to the bottom to cover up spots where the hardwood floors don't go quite to the wall and you have a custom baseboard. You can create even more customized bases by using standard plank lumber and adding custom tops with varying profiles. You can replicate the high colonial baseboards if you wish.

Here's a trick. When baseboards meet in a corner you would look into (an interior corner), you should not cut them at a 45 degree angle (as you would for an exterior corner) because they will pull apart and show a gap. Rather, you should cope the joints. This is not a simple procedure, but there is an even easier way, and that is to use corner blocks. These are pieces of wood about 1" x 1" and slightly taller than your baseboard which you nail into the corner. Then you butt your two pieces of baseboard into them. This gives you a custom, elegant appearance and frees you from having to make difficult coped joints. These blocks will cost you about $1-2 from millwork stores and home centers. When you cut your lengths of baseboard, measure carefully. Make the pieces a bit long and then trim a bit off so they spring into place. You can make these cuts with a mitre box and hand saw, but it's much easier if you own a "chop saw." This is like an electrical circular saw attached to a small table; the saw chops down on the work.

Crown Molding

Crown molding is so difficult to do correctly that I wouldn't recommend anyone but a professional tackle it in stain grade and perhaps in paint grade too. I've not seen corner blocks available for it (they would have to be huge) and it is very difficult to cut correctly. This is work I'd hire a professional trim carpenter to do.

Some considerations about crown molding are important. First, with 8' ceilings, large crown molding looks out of place. Be very cautious with the size you select. Second, it gives a very formal appearance to a room, so consider it with other formal features such as moldings and your furniture.

Next time we'll discuss the trim you can use around your doors and windows and provide a few more ideas for details that save you effort but look great too!

Part II

In the last issue, we discussed baseboard and crown molding. As promised, this time we'll turn to trimming out windows and doors to create custom effects. This is often called casing doors or windows, since the trim serves as a casing.

Trim serves a practical purpose in addition to a decorative one. The trim is designed to cover the areas where the door or window frame meets the drywall or plaster wall covering. It hides the imperfections of the transition between the two different materials. Once this purpose has been achieved, however, it doesn't matter what style of trim you use, and you may make that choice based on your individual taste and the look you are trying to achieve.

One of the most common styles of trim work is the picture frame. The window or door frame is extended out until it is flush with the wall covering. The finish carpenter then takes four pieces of molding and cuts them at 45 degree angles at the ends. They fit together like a picture frame around the window, but don't completely overlap the extended window frame, leaving a "reveal" of about 3/16" to 3/8". Of course, they may be either stain grade or paint grade, as will be true of all the styles we will describe.

Picture frame trim is perhaps the most common style of trim as it is one of the least complex to design. If you want something even simpler, but less often used, you can use a colonial form of trim that doesn't require you to use the two 45 degree mitre cuts. Here, you simply butt the pieces of wood together. Rather than use a molding, you simply use pieces of 1"x4" pine board, cutting pieces that are wide enough to fit across the top and bottom of the window frame plus the width of the two side pieces. Then you cut the side pieces to go between them. Of course you maintain the 3/16" to 3/8" reveal of the extended window frame. The final result is a window having a framed effect, but replicating the simple craftsmanship of the colonial builders for whom detailed molding was a great expense.

A variant of these two styles involves the use of rosettes or corner blocks. These allow you to case the window either in 1" x 4" or a molding, but without having to make mitre cuts. A corner block is a square of wood slightly bigger than your casing which contains a carved detail, often a rosette. You nail a corner block on each corner and then butt the molding or board into it. It produces a nice effect and makes the fitting process all the easier.

Often, these types of casing are combined with the addition of a window sill which sticks out from the wall. This is correctly called a stool. You design the top and sides of the window as in any of the three methods described, but the side pieces terminate at the stool that extends beyond the edges of the window frame. A piece of the molding or the board used to case the window then goes under the stool. If molding, it is mitre cut and small returns are attached to the ends to give this piece its uniform appearance.

Trim carpenters may often embellish these simple styles with other pieces of molding of different sizes and shapes, giving a much more decorative effect. For example, you might put rectangular blocks, called plinth blocks at the base of your side casings of your door. This varies the pattern and adds to the overall interest.

At this point, I'll bring up one of my pet peeves. Vinyl window installers in Virginia Hills often take the easy way out for replacing the steel casement windows your house originally came with. They leave the steel pan (the outside of the frame surrounding the glass) in place, simply removing the glass and cutting out the steel dividers. This saves you a great deal of money, as the pan is very difficult to get out, but it leaves you with two less desirable effects. First, the pan, being steel, is an excellent conductor of cold. In the winter, your new vinyl windows may be much better at keeping the cold out, but those pans will be as cold as ever. On very cold days, they may collect condensation if you maintain a high indoor humidity. More pertinent to our discussion of trim, however, is that with those pans in place, you cannot case the windows. You will be forever stuck with the very plain steel pan sticking slightly into the room with no possibility of ever installing beautiful wood trim.

This returns us to the point at which we started in the previous edition. You can beautify your house and set it apart from others by your use of wood trim. This will ultimately pay off in higher resale value and, more importantly, your satisfaction at what you have created.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 1998

Kitchen Floors

(September 2001)

I promised last time that I'd talk more about floor materials. What I'm about to say is a matter of taste and opinion, so take it with a grain of salt.

The current trend in kitchen flooring is natural wood. It looks beautiful. However, if you have pets and children or you often drop dishes or pots on the floor, the wood may require a lot of maintenance. Be prepared to seal the floor every few years with another coat of polyurethane. And understand that you can't just wet mop the floor when it gets dirty.

The second high end floor choice is tile. It also looks very good. The problem is that tile is hard to stand on, anything glass or ceramic dropped on it will break, large pans dropped on it may crack the tile, and the grout lines between the tiles will accumulate dirt and stains. Again, diligent maintenance will overcome many of these problems; you'll need to frequently use a grout sealer on all the grout lines.

Although it's considered less upscale, my choice for floors is still sheet vinyl. There are no cracks to collect dirt, it's easy to clean, and it's easier to stand on for long periods of time. If you choose wisely, it can even look very good.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2001

Wood Floors

(November 2001)

Floors in Virginia Hills houses are of two kinds. If your house is on a slab, you would usually have a wood parquet floor laid on top of the slab. If you have a basement, you have a tongue-in-groove floor laid on top of a 3/4" plank subfloor in which the planks are laid diagonally over the floor joists. In this article, we'll discuss repairing and refinishing our wood floors.

Most damage to wood floors is of two kinds. Water damage rots the wood (and often invites termites, who finish the job). Gouges mar the finish surface. Most of the first kind of damage and some of the second require that the damaged part of the floor be replaced.

Removing the damaged planks or parquets is not too difficult. Essentially, you cut out pieces, giving you leverage and room to remove the rest of the damaged section. Plank flooring was (at least in theory) nailed at the floor joists, so if you make cuts between the joists, you shouldn't hit nails with the saw blade.

Replacing the flooring is not too difficult either. The oak plank strips are easy to obtain. Matching the parquet squares may be difficult, as sizes have changed over the years. One place I understand can get matching parquet pieces for you is Cherokee Wholesalers at 6001 Farrington Avenue in Alexandria (703-751-2600).

Install your new strips/squares by sliding the grooves of the new pieces over the tongues of the old. Then you blind nail through the tongue into the subfloor and the joist below. When you come to the last piece against a wall, you cut the bottom of the groove off so that the piece lays down on top of the tongue of the previous piece. Then you nail through the top of the piece with finish nails, if possible in places where the baseboard will cover them.

I'm not trying to turn you into a floor mechanic here. If you've never done this work and want a really good job, you'll want to hire a floor refinisher to do it.

The real problem with spot floor replacement is matching the finish of the existing floor. This is often more art than science. However, since most repairs come at the time when the floor is being refinished, sanding off the existing finish and doing the whole floor at once usually minimizes the matching problem.

While new floor sanders that minimize the damage you can do to your floor will soon be available, I don't really recommend you refinish your own floor unless you've had some experience doing it. The potential for making a real mess is too great. Instead, let's talk about the choices you'll make if you hire a pro to do the work, and what you can expect for your money.

First, you'll need to decide what color you want the floor to be. Based on that choice, you and the pro will choose a stain that will give you that color. After the floor is sanded down to the bare wood, it gets stained. I strongly recommend that you be present while the staining is being done. The amount of stain used - and how much of it is wiped off - controls the final color. While a second coat can always be applied to get a darker finish, the only way to get it lighter is to sand it off and start over. If you're there while the work is being done, you'll be able to influence the appearance.

The final finish of the floor is usually polyurethane, a plastic finish. Here, you'll have two decisions to make. First, do you want an oil- or water-based poly, and second, how many coats do you want to pay for.

A water-based poly won't give off noxious odors, dries more quickly, is more friendly to the environment, and won't yellow. However, it doesn't hold up as well, and you'll need to apply more coats to get a similar strength. An oil-based poly does yellow (and lots of people like the golden effect, especially on unstained or light floors) and is more durable.

With an oil-based poly, you'll need a minimum of two coats, and a water-based poly will need three. A better result can be had by adding an additional coat for each. I'd recommend that. If you have wood floors in a kitchen, that extra coat is a must.

The refinisher will first get all the sanding dust off the floor and put down the first coat of poly. When dry, it gets lightly sanded, and the next coat is put down. Ask your refinisher when you can walk on the final coat. Often a wait of several days is recommended.

Flecto makes a no-sanding finishing system in its Varathane line of finishes. Visit the web site at http://woodfloorsonline.com/manufacturers/flecto.html for more information. I haven't tried this product, and would be interested in your experiences if you do try it.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2001

Odors from Pets, Cooking, and Smoking

(April 2011)

Do you have problems with pet odors? Has the last smoker in your family finally quit? Are there lingering cooking smells from the previous homeowner? We'll talk about how to get rid of them in this column.

Pet Odors

The trick to dealing with pet odors and stains is to get to them quickly. If your pet has left you a problem on a piece of upholstered furniture, you absolutely must deal with that quickly or you'll be replacing that piece of furniture. Urine on a carpet should be blotted up and then attacked quickly with a product to eliminate the stains and odors. As an owner of two cats, I can highly recommend (even though they won't pay me for doing so) Woolite's Pet Oxygen. It works wonders on pet urine, feces, and stomach acid.

Unfortunately, after urine has set for weeks or months, it's almost impossible to get out the stains and smell. You'll have to replace the carpet. Buying carpet with Scotchguard or scotchguard-like protectants will make dealing with pet problems much easier. And ask your carpet seller about carpet pad that won't let fluids through if you have wood floors.

The problem with pet urine getting through the carpet and the pad is that, being acidic, it will definitely stain the wood, and will stain it deeply. The odor will persist. If there has been a lot of urine, even a heavy sanding of the floor is not likely to fix the problem, and you'll be faced with replacing it, never an inexpensive solution.

Cooking Odors

Cooking odors are usually localized to the kitchen, but may extend to adjoining rooms. They are probably there in the first place because the range hood doesn't vent to the outside, it isn't working properly, or it was never used. First, start by thoroughly cleaning the hood and its filters with a strong grease-cutting cleaner. This is such a long and unpleasant job that if your range hood is old and inefficient you may want to consider replacing it. In addition to cleaning the hood and filters, you may need to clean (or replace) the vent pipe that leads to the outside. And of course check the outlet on the roof or exterior wall to make sure it isn't blocked.

Once the range hood is clean and working, it's time to tackle the rest of the kitchen. You'll need to scrub down the walls and cabinets with that strong degreaser. Since kitchen walls are usually painted with gloss or semi-gloss paint, and since cabinets usually have strong finishes, you probably won't do any damage&emdash;but try an out-of-the-way section first. Don't forget to clean on top of and below cabinets, ceiling lights, and anywhere else cooking odors many have reached.

If that won't get rid of the smell, you may have to repaint the walls and refinish or replace the cabinets. For the walls, begin with a paint deglosser, then seal with a primer/sealer like Kilz or Zinsser, and then apply your gloss or semi-gloss wall paint.

Smoke odors

Because it's everywhere, smoke odor is the hardest to deal with, particularly if the house has been smoked in for a number of years. For a start, you can try having every fabric in affected areas dry cleaned or steam cleaned - drapes, carpet, upholstery. Tell the cleaner that you want the smoke odor gone; they have chemicals that will help with that. Clean and scrub walls with a mixture of a gallon of warm water, 1/2 cup ammonia, 1/4 cup white vinegar, and 1/4 cup washing soda (found in the laundry aisle of the grocery store). Make sure you clean every inch, particularly places where dust has accumulated. Don't forget to wipe down light bulbs; they give off odors from the nicotine on them when they get warm.

The bad news is that, if you have a sensitive nose, cleaning may not be enough. You may have to replace carpet (and padding), drapes, upholstery, blinds (cloth tapes and cords), lamp shades, mattresses, throw and regular pillows, paintings not covered by glass, and even wallpaper. Scrubbing walls and ceilings may be hard on the existing paint, which is probably a flat paint, not a gloss. Be prepared to repaint the walls and ceiling as described above for the kitchen.

While I've written before that duct cleaning is of questionable value, getting rid of smoke odor may be a case in which it may be justified.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2011

Interior Painting

(April 2014)

I've recently discovered a major change in interior painting. Paint stores can now do much better color matches from samples you bring them. This means that, even if your original paint has faded over the years, the paint store's computer can match the faded color. This enables you to touch up spots and large sections of old walls. You can even add new walls that will blend perfectly into the old. The advantage here is that you can often do a series of patches instead of re-painting an entire room. This means much less work, much less expense, and a really good looking job if it's done right.

To get a sample of the color, cut away about a one inch square piece of the paper covering the drywall. That's what you'll take to the home center or paint store for them to match. If the walls aren't in terrible shape, a quart might get a lot of rooms done.

When you bring the paint home, try some on a place where there's good light. When it dries, you shouldn't be able to see a mismatch between the old and the new. If the match is good, make sure you have the formula for your paint. Many places will print you out a label that their computer can scan the next time for the match.

Now go around the room and find all the dings and dents, nail holes and nail pops, and stains on the wall. It's a good idea to make a list of the ones you find. Then go back and do it again, or have someone else do it (fresh eyes). If the places that need to be filled are small, get a small container of spackling compound. If they're larger, get some pre-mixed joint compound (drywall mud). If you're a purist, or really in a hurry, get the 30-90 minute drying joint compound that you mix with water yourself. If you're not skilled at mixing it, however, get the pre-mixed.

Go around and fill all the dents and holes using a putty knife for small ones and a drywall knife for large fixes. Let the joint or spackling compound dry. When it is dry, sand it lightly so the surface of your patch blends in with the existing surface. If you're not sure, it's better to over-sand than under-sand. Even after painting you can always add more joint compound. Once the wall has been painted, high spots are difficult to sand.

Now take your paint and a small brush and, working off your list, paint all of the places you've filled and all the dirty or stained spots. Let the paint dry and see how you've done.

If you have serious stains that would show through the paint (water stains, for example), do a coat or two of either Kilz or Zinsser. These two products are designed for this very purpose and are equally good in my experience. Then, after this prime coat dries, paint over the spots with your paint that matches the wall.

Be prepared to do a second round as you're likely to find more places you want to fix as you're filling, sanding, and painting.

What if you have a popcorn ceiling that has been cut into? You can get spray popcorn texture in home centers that you can spray on the ceiling to cover any cuts or new drywall patches. This is not easy to do the first time, however. In addition to reading the directions on the can carefully, I recommend also doing the following:

Cover the floor beneath the area you're repairing with a very large drop cloth. You'll get a large amount of the texture on the floor. Shake the can as much as the directions say, then shake it the same amount again. Finally, observe the recommended temperature for application. Don't apply texture if it's too cold or too hot.

Let it dry twice as long as the directions recommend. You can try painting with a roller, but I'd recommend using a brush, gently. A lot of the old popcorn texture may come down if rolled or brushed hard.

What if your walls or ceiling are textured? Again, you can buy the spray and the spreading knife (like a drywall knife, but with a rubber blade). This too takes a lot of practice. You have to match the existing texture, and it may take you a few tries before you get the technique down. If you don't like what you've done, scrape if off and try again. Experiment with the amount of pressure you put on the rubber blade of the knife.

While pros use texture to cover up a lot of problems—and often use it as a substitute for quality joint finishing, if you don't tape over joints in the drywall and finish them pretty well, the joints will show through a thin texture coat. Try to make the joints as flat and smooth as possible before you apply the texture.

Finally, if you're working along the edge where one color meets another, you'll want to make sure that you make a sharp edge. A good painter will use a sash brush to "cut in" the new paint against the old, and that's lots of fun to do if you have a steady hand. But painter's tape is really good these days. It sticks well, but not so well it pulls off the old paint when you take it off. I'd go with that if you're not skilled at cutting in. Just press a bit harder along the tape's edge to prevent paint from bleeding under the tape.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2014

Textured Walls and Ceilings

(September 2014)

In my last article I briefly mentioned textured walls and ceilings. One form of texture that you've probably seen a lot of is a "popcorn" ceiling. In this article, I'm going to go into more depth about popcorn, a different look called "knockdown," and texture in general.

One hundred years ago, walls were made with plaster spread on wood lathe. It was a high end finish because it took a craftsman with special skill to mix the plaster and apply the multiple coats properly. Plasterers needed a lot of training and experience to create a smooth wall that would last. You can still find plasterers who will do walls for you, but they're anything but inexpensive.

Drywall was a godsend to builders after World War II because it allowed them to finish walls more quickly and some parts of the process required less skill. One crew hung the drywall, one crew taped the seams and applied the joint compound (often called mud), and a final crew sanded the joint compound smooth. The work could go a lot faster because there was no lathe to hang.

The problem with drywall is that the taping crew needs to make three passes. On the first pass, the crew embeds the tape in mud on the seams between the panels and fills the nail or screw holes. On the second pass, once the first coat is dry, the crew puts a medium coat on over the tape in the mud, and on the third coat, once the second coat is dry, they apply a light coat of mud to fill in any depressions. The trick is not to put on too much mud so that only minimal sanding is needed. It takes a lot of skill to make the seams disappear and keep the walls flat.

As you can imagine, in the days when joint compound took a day to dry, this wasn't a fast process. This gave rise to texturing on a grand scale. Once the drywall is hung, the seams are taped and finished (to a lesser standard), and primer is sprayed on the wall. Popcorn texture is simply joint compound sprayed on the ceiling or wall and requires no working or virtually none. For knockdown texture, joint compound is sprayed on the entire wall and worked with a drywall knife (often with a rubber tipped blade like a squeegee) to get the texture before the mud has dried.

Knockdown texture can also be applied with a special roller, and this requires skill and experience as well, particularly in keeping the texture consistent over the entire wall or ceiling area.

As a result, a textured wall or ceiling takes only a day or two from the time the drywall is up until the paint top coat can go on.

Another advantage of texture is that it will have some acoustic effect and your room may have less of an echo, although this effect is likely to be small.

Because the surface is textured, paint is best applied with a sprayer. Popcorn is extremely difficult to roll, while knockdown can be rolled if the profile isn't too high. Spraying, however, is much faster for all types of texture. This is not really a do-it-yourself type of job unless you're doing it in a space such as a garage where the quality of the work isn't critical.

Popcorn ceilings have mostly gone out of fashion because of the problem when you, the homeowner, decided to re-paint a room. Popcorn can really only be re-painted with a brush unless you own a paint sprayer and are proficient with it. Painting with a brush overhead is difficult work and popcorn texture often causes drips. Especially if the texture is heavy, you have to be careful to paint from all directions to ensure that you don't miss spots, and you need a lot of light on the work. If you're too heavy handed, the old texture can fall off.

A worse problem comes if you (or a plumber or electrician) needs to get into a wall or the ceiling. Cutting out and replacing a piece of drywall means you'll have to tape and re-texture the new seams and drywall—or, depending on the texture, the whole wall to make the new match the old. While you could rent a compressor and a texture gun, it's really overkill for a small area.

Home centers sell aerosol cans of spray for popcorn and knockdown texture, and, if you've had some experience, you can do a reasonable job of making the cut lines disappear. I'd stress the need for experience, however. The first time I used these sprays, it took several re-do attempts to get the match between the new and the original that I wanted.

Textures have created a new problem similar to what happened when drywall replaced plaster. Because there was less demand, the number of skilled plasterers declined in a major way and plastering became more expensive. Where texture is now being used as the rule, skilled tapers and finishers have become rare, to the point where you will have trouble finding anyone who can produce a quality job if you want a flat wall.

If you aren't familiar with knockdown texture and the other kinds available, there are some very good photos at http://www.drywallschool.com/textures.htm.

Copyright Doug Boulter 2014

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