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DIY Problem Solvers and Household Tips

These 18 special products make home improvement easier and faster—from lightweight tile backer board to epoxy adhesives to handy wall anchors.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Tip 1: Featherweight tile backer

Dean Sorem, our tile guru, had this to say about one lightweight tile backer: “Custom Building Products’ EasyBoard is a dream. An average shower requires two to three hundred pounds of cement board, and six to eight trips from the truck to the shower—on the second floor, if you’re lucky! My eighty-year-old grandmother could carry 120 square feet of half-inch EasyBoard in one trip, assuming I held the doors for her. Installation is even easier. One steady pass with a sharp utility knife and the board is cut clean through. Fasten it with the same screws used for other backers. Another advantage: no cement dust.”

These new super-light backer boards have a hard foam core and water-resistant coating and can be used anywhere you would use other tile backer boards. Custom Building Products’ EasyBoard and Schluter’s Kerdi-Board are two common brands. EasyBoard costs about $16 for a 3 x 5-ft. piece. You probably won’t find foam-core backer board at home centers. Instead, search online for a local source or visit a professional tile shop.

Tip 2: Instant electrical connections

Traditional twist-on wire connectors can be a bother to install. The wire ends have to be held in perfect alignment while you twist on the connector. And then you have to fit all those wires and connectors neatly into the box.

Try push-in connectors instead. They’re simple to use and almost foolproof. Just strip the wires to the length recommended on the package and press each wire end into a separate hole in the connector. And since they’re smaller, they take up less room in the electrical box. They’re also the perfect solution for extending wires that are too short.

A few downsides: You’ll need to keep a greater variety of connectors on hand, since it wouldn’t be economical to use a connector designed for six wires to connect a single pair. Also, push-in connectors cost a little more than the twist-on type. You’ll find push-in connectors (about $25 for 200) at home centers and online.

Tip 3: Sticky sand for pavers

Tired of replacing the sand between the pavers on your walk or patio? Sick of pulling weeds from between the stones? Here’s a solution. Vacuum or blow out the old sand and replace it with polymeric sand. It’s just sand mixed with a glue-like polymer. When wetted, the polymer binds the sand, holding it in place and creating a weed-resistant barrier. It’s a little fussy to install because you have to be careful to clean it off the face of the pavers or stones before wetting it, but it’s worth the extra effort. Polymeric sand is available at landscape suppliers and some home centers for about $12 for a 50-lb. bag.

Tip 4: Flat-proof wheelbarrow tire

Is the tire flat every time you go to use your wheelbarrow? Do you use your wheelbarrow on construction sites where nails can be a problem? If so, then you need a “flat-free” wheelbarrow tire. Flat-free tires are filled with foam or made of urethane so they never need air and won’t go flat if you run over a nail. And they’re not just for wheelbarrows. You can also buy flat-free tires to fit lawn mowers and lawn tractors, handcarts and golf carts. Expect to spend about $30 for a wheelbarrow tire. Find flat-free tires at home centers and online.

Tip 5: Paint-job insurance

Let’s face it. Sometimes it’s too much work to remove old exterior paint down to bare wood. Zinsser’s Peel Stop and XIM’s Peel Bond ($22 and $32 a gallon, respectively) are two clear, binding primers that are formulated to seal the edges of paint and prevent peeling. It’s a good solution for painting over an area that you’ve scraped, but that has patches of sound paint you don’t want to peel later.

Tip 6: Faster toggle bolt

Old-fashioned “butterfly”-type toggle bolts are a pain to install. Toggler brand Snaptoggles is a vast improvement. Just drill a hole and slip the metal toggle in. Then slide the retainer along the plastic strips until it’s snug to the wall and snap off the strips. With the metal toggle mounted on the wall, it’s easy to attach whatever you want by simply screwing in the included bolt. And you can remove the bolt without losing the toggle in the wall. Look for Snaptoggles (about $1 each) near drywall anchors in home centers and hardware stores.

Tip 7: Waterproof wood glue, with no mixing

You old-timers out there may remember having to hunt down and mix resorcinol powder when your project called for waterproof glue. Now you can just reach for the glue bottle (about $4 for 8 oz.) to get a waterproof glue-up. It’s probably wise to stick with epoxy for boat building, but for everything else these waterproof glues are all you need. Elmer’s Wood Glue Max and Titebond’s Titebond III Ultimate Wood Glue are two brands.

Tip 8: Ever-straight wall studs

In most areas of a house, a little wave or bump in the wall caused by a crooked stud won’t matter a bit. But in kitchens and bathrooms where you’ll be installing cabinetry or tile on the walls, a wavy wall can raise havoc. That’s where engineered studs are worth the premium price. Because they’re made of laminated lumber or finger-jointed lumber, they’re perfectly straight and more stable than standard studs. Plus, they’re available in long lengths for extra-tall walls. They don’t come cheap, though. An 8-ft. laminated strand lumber (LSL) stud from LP Building Products costs about $8. Ask for engineered studs at your local lumberyard or home centers. You may have to special-order them.

Tip 9: Adjustable depth electrical box

An electrical box that can be adjusted until it’s flush with the wall is a perfect solution when you’re thinking about adding tile or paneling but aren’t sure how thick the finished wall will be. There are a few different versions of adjustable boxes. Turning a screw in the Carlon box shown here moves the box in and out and allows you to fine-tune the box position after you’ve completed the wall covering. Adjustable-depth boxes cost a little more than regular boxes ($2 to $2.50 each) but are worth every penny in areas where you think you’ll add tile, paneling or cabinetry and don’t want to guess at the depth.

Tip 10: Faster fastening with better screws

Premium construction screws have a few big advantages over the drywall screws we’ve all been using for years.

For starters, most have improved head designs: tight-fitting hex, Torx or Spider head driver bits. This eliminates the annoying tendency of Phillips head screws to strip out or slip off the bit. Premium construction screws are also less brittle than drywall screws, so they won’t break off as easily, and they’re coated to resist corrosion. Special self-drilling thread designs coupled with a thin shank means you rarely need to drill a pilot hole. Large structural screws can replace lag screws, and the smaller ones are better than drywall screws for woodworking and framing projects.

There are several brands. You’ll find GRK screws online and at contractor-oriented lumberyards. Spax and FastenMaster screws are readily available at home centers and hardware stores. Like any premium products, they cost more. Expect to pay about 5¢ each for 1-1/2-in. GRK screws.

Tip 11: Arrow-straight drywall joints

This extra-stiff, extra-wide drywall corner system is expensive, but there are a few situations where the additional money is well spent. First, if you’re a novice drywall taper, it absolutely ensures straight inside corners. The stiff material goes on straight, no matter how unskilled you are with a taping knife. For the experienced taper, this stuff makes it easier to handle situations like oddball corner angles or drywall over sloppy framing.

An added benefit is that you only need to apply an additional thin coat or two of joint compound over the outermost edge to finish the job. The remainder of the tape is paint-ready and doesn’t require more mud. This feature also makes it handy for all inside and outside corners. These products are available at drywall suppliers and online. A 100-ft. roll of No-Coat Ultraflex 450 costs about $60. Strait-Flex’s Wide-Flex 400 is a similar product (about $43).

Tip 12: Waterproof tile is now brush-on simple

A top-notch tiling job in wet areas like showers and around tubs requires a waterproof membrane under the tile. RedGard is a liquid waterproofing that you apply with a brush, trowel or roller. When dry, it forms a flexible membrane that’s perfect to tile over.

Here’s what our tile consultant, Dean Sorem, has to say: “RedGard saved my sanity! This handy waterproofing has made the installation of a watertight tile job as simple as a brush stroke. Once the tile substrate is securely installed and seams are taped, all you need to do is apply a coat of the pudding-like liquid to the surface, let it dry, and it’s waterproofed. This makes waterproofing shower curbs, benches, tub decks and steam showers a breeze.”

You’ll find RedGard and other brands of brush-on waterproofing at home centers, tile stores and online. A 1-gallon bucket costs about $40.

Tip 13: Moldable wood filler

Nothing beats two-part epoxy wood filler for rebuilding moldings or other architectural elements that have missing or damaged parts. The most common brand is Abatron’s WoodEpox. When mixed, WoodEpox has a consistency like Play-Doh that allows you to hand-mold it into the approximate shape of the damaged part. Unlike less expensive fillers, it’ll stay put without sagging or running. When the “dough” hardens to about the consistency of soap, you can shave and carve it into the final profile. When it’s completely cured, you can sand and plane it like wood. Epoxy wood filler costs about $40 for two pints. Find a local WoodEpox retailer or purchase online from abatron.com.

Tip 14: Ultimate water-base trim paint

A decade ago, if you asked any painters what type of paint they preferred for getting a smooth coat of finish on woodwork, most would have said oil-base paint. But now there are several modern paints that combine the best advantages of water-base and oil paints. These new water cleanup paints have a lower percentage of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than oil-base paints, so they’re better for the environment. And they brush on and flow out like oil, allowing you to get that smooth, brush-mark free finish that is the hallmark of a classic oil paint job. Two popular examples of this new type of paint are Sherwin-Williams ProClassic Interior Waterbased Acrylic-Alkyd and Benjamin Moore’s Advance Waterborne Interior Alkyd. Like any superior paint product, these aren’t cheap. Expect to pay about $45 a gallon. But if it’s a smooth, durable paint job you’re after, water-base alkyds are worth every penny.

Tip 15: Cheap, versatile, durable wood filler

Durham’s Water Putty is a powder that hardens after you mix it with water. It’s a great product to keep on hand for when you need economical, quick-setting wood filler for things like woodpecker holes in your siding or knotholes before painting. You can mix it thin and use it as a floor leveler, or mix it thick for making wood repairs. You’ll find Durham’s Water Putty at home centers and hardware stores (out $10 for a 4-lb. can).

Tip 16: Perfect crack filler

If you’ve ever tried to fill a crack in concrete with regular caulk, you know what a mess it can be. Self-leveling concrete crack filler solves this problem. Just fill the crack and a few minutes later the caulk settles to form a perfectly smooth joint. For wide cracks, insert lengths of foam caulk-backer first to create a better caulk joint and reduce the amount of caulk needed. Self-leveling caulk (about $6 a tube) is available at home centers and hardware stores. Look for the words “self-leveling” on the tube.

Tip 17: Better foam control

If you’ve ever used expanding foam with the plastic straw applicator, you know what a mess it can be—sticky foam all over everything and half-used cans that end up in the trash. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Applicator guns have an adjustment screw that allows you to fine-tune the flow rate. That, coupled with the long nozzle and trigger valve, gives you much more control over the foam so you don’t end up wasting it by overfilling. Plus you can leave the can of foam on the gun for about a month and still use it. You only clean the gun if you remove the can. Then you simply screw a can of foam gun cleaner (about $6) onto the gun and dispense it through the tip.

Foam application guns cost $30 to more than $100. The Great Stuff Pro 14 gun shown here is about $50.

Tip 18: Instant, permanent hole fix

Stephen Evans, one of our Field Editors, has a favorite wood filler for special jobs. QuickWood putty stick is a two-part epoxy filler that is the size and consistency of a large Tootsie Roll. Stephen uses it to fill screw holes and make repairs where high strength and a fast set are important.

To use it, just slice a chunk from the tube and knead it until the color is consistent. This activates the epoxy, allowing you about 15 to 25 minutes to fill holes or dings until it starts to harden. A 1-oz. tube costs about $5. Two brands are QuickWood and JB Weld KwikWood. You’ll find them online or at woodworking stores and home centers.

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