Saturday, 26 January 2013

Out with the with the new

Dear Joe,

I have a grungy old cast iron tub in my small bathroom.  It’s scratched and gross and I can’t get it clean.  I want to replace it but I don’t have the money to redo my whole bathroom.  Is it possible to replace it without going through the expense of redoing the whole room?  Any advice you have would be great, and could you give me an idea as to how much it might cost?  Thank you very much,




Thanks for the great question.  The short answer is yes, it is possible.  But you have multiple options when considering a bathtub retrofit and some of them may be possible, and some may not.  It depends on the layout of your bathroom and your budget. 

As far as pricing goes, the cost of a new tub will range from $150 for an enamel steel model to over $2000 for a high end 3 piece acrylic built in unit.  Labour rates are going to vary from contractor to contractor, as will the quality of the installation.  For average priced material (say $1500) look to spend about the same on labour.  Now the labour should be about the same across the board, unless you get into ceramic tile or something custom.  Make sure you use a contractor you have experience working with. This will make the renovation process painless and stress free.  If you don’t have a contractor you trust, get referrals from people you trust so you don’t venture blindly into a dirty, stressful, costly situation.

Depending on the size and layout of the bath, getting a new tub into position can be quite difficult as most old bathrooms where constructed only wide enough to accommodate a built in tub.  The tub was installed prior to the plasterwork being installed, thus, you now have a room that is 2 inches too narrow to remove the old and install the new tub.  Getting the old one out is the easy, if very noisy, part.  Cast iron as strong and flexible as it is, is as brittle as glass.  Pull out your sledge hammer and bust it up into manageable sized pieces, and haul it away.  Now you have a hole fit for a tub.  The trick will be slipping the new tub in without damaging the walls, floor or other fixtures in the bathroom.  With some strength, patience and a little bit o’lube, you should be able to maneuver the new unit into place.  If the bathroom is really small a new tub and an acrylic tub surround or ceramic tile surround may be your only option for replacement.  If you have a bit more wiggle room then consider a built in tub-shower.  They’re definitely more difficult to install but they are much easier to maintain.

Whenever it’s reasonable, I always advocate for a more cost effective, ecologically sensitive and simpler solutions to problems like yours.  There are a couple other options you may wish to explore.  Firstly, cast iron tubs are the most durable and comfortable bathing implements ever made.  When you can save one from the scrap yard you’re always doing yourself a service.  These great old fixtures are candidates for refinishing.  There are myriad companies out and about that do nothing but refinish old tubs and tiles.  Consider having one of these guys come in and apply a new finish to your old faithful.  Granted nothing will ever match the durability of the original enamel but you will have a tub that looks like new, performs better than anything that you’ll ever replace it with (except another cast iron tub) and at a fraction of the cost.  Look to spend under $1000 to have this done.  You can also find tub liner companies who will come to your home, install a custom fit acrylic liner and skirt to your existing tub complete with matching tub surround.  Speaking from experience, this is a great affordable option and gets you a nice clean finish, comparable to a replacement acrylic tub at a fraction of the cost.  Look to spend under $1000 for this service as well.

Take a load off

This has been an intensely snowy winter so far.  We haven’t really had any warm weather to speak of to keep the snow down to a manageable level.  I have been pondering the importance of removing some of the snow from my house in recent days, as I am sure the building is groaning under such a heavy load.  What are the pros and cons of doing this, and is it something I should consider hiring out?  Thanks so much, love reading your column,



Well thank you so much, Gilles,

And a happy new year to you and all you who read this every week.

Well you’re not the only one who’s been mulling this one over in recent days.  Many of my neighbours have braved the cold and gravity to relieve the stresses of their overburdened roofs.  If I’m being honest not everyone needs to worry about the accumulation of snow, but then some people need to worry a bit more than they probably do already.  We have to understand that homes in our area are engineered to withstand the hundred year storm; essentially the worst Mother Nature can throw at us once every hundred years.  So be that three feet of snow or 100mph winds or a foot of rain, our homes are built to withstand it.  Now that being said there are going to be a number of factors that will affect the worthiness of our structure to tough out the worst storms: age and condition of the house and its structural members, integrity of said structural members, any alteration, renovation, or repair that has been done to the structure or the building envelope as a whole.  These changes can include but are not limited to replacement of roofing material, additions, changes in size of doors or windows, addition of roof area (ie. porches, carports, lean-tos, etc.).  In the case of snow loading, any of these things can have a dramatic effect on when, where and how much snow accumulates in a given area on the roof.  If a simple roof is left unaltered and is in a good state of repair, it will collect snow evenly and the weight will be distributed evenly down through the load bearing walls that have not been in any way altered or compromised.  If we now build a large addition on this house attached perpendicular to the original structure, put in a patio door where there was just a small window, replace the roofing material and neglect to put an ice and water membrane on first, and maybe add a 16 foot car port for good measure we have the potential for some really significant issues with a snow like we’ve gotten recently.  First you now have two large valleys where the addition meets the house which weren’t there before.  This will affect the way the wind blows over the house and how the snow is distributed over it.  Snow will drift here and concentrate the weight in one location, directly above that nice new patio door you installed off the kitchen that was just a window before.  So did you frame that header correctly when you installed it…are you sure?  If you didn’t, your roof is now bearing down with about five tons of additional weight and something’s got to give if that weight is not being transferred properly.  Now when the melting starts you’re going to want to be really sure that you installed that ice and water membrane under the first six feet of shingle. Because that nice drift hanging off your eaves trough is also blocking your eaves trough so the gallons of melt water have nowhere to go.  So what happens to it?  Well, it runs down to the gutter and since it can’t drain away it freezes.  As more melt water runs downhill it hits the newly minted ‘ice dam’ and gets stopped.  With nowhere else to go it freezes too. And so on and so on, ad nauseum.   Since your shingles were only designed to protect your home from water as gravity would have it, when the water starts backing up hill due to this damming effect the shingles are useless to protect it.  This is where the added layer of protection from the ice and water membrane is invaluable. 

So I digress a bit here but I think it helpful to understand the forces that are working on your house.

To answer your question directly, should you, depends.  Should you hire it out, yeah, probably.  There’s a lot of risk involved and you really don’t want to fall even if it would be a soft landing.  What are the risks, well first of all, falling.  Damaging the shingles with shovels is also a concern.

My best advice is to stay in tune with your house.  When things are happening, stay on top of it.  If there’s a lot of snow, observe how it is collecting. As melting or raining is occurring, watch for signs of damming, leaking, etc.  Icicles are a telltale sign that your roof is not adequately draining.  Monitor these because if they get large enough they can rip the gutters right off the house.  Seen it! Consider one liter of water or ice weights a kilogram.  A forty foot gutter will hold about 150 kilograms of ice plus however many icicles grow along its course.  It’s not unusual to have the equivalent of two full grown men hanging off the eaves trough, not a load it was designed to carry.

Pop goes the screw hole.

Dear Joe,

I had a contractor remodel my basement a couple years ago. On the walls that he framed and drywalled there are several round holes where the screws have popped out.  It’s rather unsightly.  What causes this and is this something I can fix myself? Thanks for your advice; I enjoy reading your piece,

Regards, Terry

Hey Terry,

Thank you so much for your question.  This is a situation that anyone who has done any drywall at all has run into, happens to me all the time.  Its typically caused by a couple of simple missteps; either over sinking or under tightening the screws that hold the drywall on.  If the screws aren’t installed correctly, then if there is any movement in the panel then the screw head pushes out proud of the finished surface, likewise if you push against the panel while moving furniture or the like, you can rupture the paint finish and see these improperly installed screws.

Other causes of screw pops include undersized screws or nails (you want a minimum of 5/8” penetration of screws into framing lumber, and 7/8” penetration of nails), lumber shrinking and distorting causing screws to twist and either poke out or pull in causing a divot, or not properly filling the screw heads/not allowing drywall compound to dry out sufficiently before sanding (compound continues to lose moisture and shrink after sanding leaving a divot).

Is this something you can correct yourself, well, of course it is!!  It’s quite simple really.  First diagnose the problem: screw pop or divot?  Simply push in on the general vicinity of the offending fastener if it flexes and the damaged area appears to move, it’s a pop.  If nothing moves it’s a divot.  For a pop you will need to add at least one additional fastener within two inches of the damaged one.  Be sure it’s installed and countersunk properly and the drywall is pulled tight to the framing.  Remove or countersink the original fastener and fill the new depressions at least twice allowing the compound to dry thoroughly between applications, sand and paint.  For a divot its dead simple; apply one or two fillings of compound, then sand and paint.

If you are installing the drywall yourself you can prevent possible future screw pops by applying an inexpensive construction adhesive to the studs before you put the drywall up.  This allows you to use fewer fasteners whilst increasing the integrity of your drywall installation tenfold or more.  By bonding the drywall directly to the studs you prevent any possible movement thus eliminating the possibility of loosening fasteners, plus fewer fasteners means less work and fewer places to pop.

Down the drain.

Dear Joe,

I had a “contractor” (and I use the term loosely) into my home to install some porcelain tile around the bathtub and on the floor.  I did all the prep work: plywood, waterproofing etc, and did a pretty good job, a job any tile guy would find acceptable.   All this guy had to do was come in and tile.  I supplied all the material and would’ve supplied anything else he required to do a quality job.  I left for work on the day he came to tile.  Upon my return I was shocked to see the quality of work this man had done on my house.  It is an understatement to say that he misrepresented himself, and now I’m stuck with this bathroom tiling job that I am truly embarrassed to show my family and friends.  My wife is upset, I’m upset, is there any way to repair the damage done to my home and how or should I seek some sort of damages from this guy? 

Tiled Out


Well Tiled Out,

That is quite a fix that you find yourself in.  My deepest condolences go out to you because I know the frustration, anger and disappointment that go along with a job not so well done.  I have been on two ends of this unhappy  triad, I’ve been the guy who’s paid for work that I am completely unsatisfied with, and also been the contractor who’s been asked into someone’s home to repair the damage done by a careless, heartless contractor.

At a time like this it’s terrible of me to say I told you so, so I won’t. I’ll just take this opportunity to tell everyone reading this that this is why I preach:  never hire a contractor out of the blue.  Get referrals.  Talk to your dad, your boss, your bowling buddies, even your garbage collector.  Find out who’s doing the best work around, which contractors are making people happy.  A satisfied customer is all the advertising a good contractor needs but in order for that advertising to work, the consumer has to do his or her due diligence when hiring someone to work on their home.  That’s how trust is built.  You wouldn’t let a doctor you didn’t trust cut you open, so why would you let a contractor who hasn’t earned your trust to do the same thing to your second most valuable asset?  But I digress…

Back to your question: First, There’s not much you can do to fix it, if it’s that bad that you can’t live with it the only remedy for a bad tile job is rip it out and begin again.  Problem with that is in ripping it off you will also ruin all the careful prep work that you did before this all happened.  More mess, more money, more time…

As far as seeking reparations from this guy, all I can say to that is good luck.  What you see as a waste of time and money, this guy sees as a hard day’s work and a well-earned paycheck.   Giving you any money back is essentially taking food out of his kids’ mouths and clothes off his back; sorry to say I doubt it’s going to happen.  Yes he screwed up, yes he took your money but he like you has bills to pay and mouths to feed.  He probably shouldn’t be in this line of work, but the best thing you can do is warn him that you are not satisfied.  Take your complaints to a place that you can use them to protect other consumers: local retailers, the better business bureau, chamber of commerce.  If you really need to see some money back, your last recourse will be to take him to small claims court.  But be warned this is an arena that if you are not familiar with it, it will prove to be a frustrating fruitless exercise in law 101.  Yes, you’ll learn a lot, but you’ll probably not get much of your money back and spend more in the process.  The hours spent preparing, copies, days off work, and all that even if you don’t hire a lawyer.  If you hire a lawyer then it’s strictly about principal, but there’s a lot to be said for principal. Then again, principals never paid the bills…

If you prepare yourself and handle everything yourself you could hope to recoup about 50% of what you’ve  lost, the courts are fair and will probably penalize you to some extent for not exercising your due diligence.  Going forward let this be a valuable lesson to us all that a little bit of leg work before starting a project will pay dividends in the long run.

Door number 1 or door number 2

Hi Joe,

I have a question regarding a door on the outside of my house.  Leading into my porch I have a metal door with a window into it.  There are 4 steps up to the door and at the top of the steps this door opens outward onto the stairs.  This is fine as you are walking out the door, but nearly impossible to navigate walking up the stairs and into the house.  What is the best way to fix this issue?  Can I save this door?  Can I just flip it around?  Thank you so much for your help,



Hey Dan,

Thank you so much for the great question.  I see this often enough.  People have a door, or find a deal on a cheap one and just put it in with no consideration as to the functionality of that door.  A door like any device has a purpose and an intended mode of operation.  If you deviate from that, the door will either not work properly or you will hinder flow of traffic through the opening thus impacting the enjoyment and usability of your home, not to mention the safety concerns of doors opening into high traffic areas or onto stairs…ever had a door opened into your face?

First let’s understand the function of doors and why they operate the way they do.  You will notice that most commercial doors open outwards. This is to facilitate egress in times of panic, so large mobs of people no matter how distraught can find their way out.  On residential doors of late, you will see that most open inwards. This is for several reasons.  Firstly for safety, if the hinges are mounted on the outside a thief needs only pop out the hinge pins to remove your door and gain access to your house.   If there is a fire the firemen have a ram which will break in the door to allow access into your home, much easier to do if the door swings in.  And, lastly, most homes since the seventies at least have aluminum storm doors mounted on the outside to allow a breeze through in the summer and an extra measure of air tightness in the winter.  Can’t mount a screen door on a door that swings out…

So now we know the why we can go about selecting a suitable door for your porch.  When choosing a door, there are a couple things to keep in mind.  We need to consider the flow of traffic, any obstructions in the immediate area, any other doorways immediately adjacent to the door, weather patterns, and do we want a screen door.  Ideally you will want what is called an inswing: a door that opens in.   Whether it swings to the right or to the left will depend on the layout of the room inside the door.  So if there is a wall to the left of the door then the door should open to the left, against the wall, unless there is another doorway, or a light switch behind the door within its swing.  In that case you will want it to open right.  If it opens onto a landing with stairs below you will want to make sure you have at least 36 inches square for a landing at the top of the stairs.  If you don’t you will probably want to opt for an outswing, a door which opens outward, for safety’s sake.   Now be aware that an outswing door is not the same as in inswing door.  There are several differences which make the distinction necessary.  Firstly drainage;  all doors are designed to drain outward, so if you turn an inswing outward, the out is now in and any rain or snowmelt will drain into the house, not what we want.  Outswing doors have special hinges which even with the pins removed cannot be taken off without opening the door knob. 

So in general terms you will want a door that opens in, into the closest wall provided it works with the traffic flow, not against it.  It cannot block doorways, hallways or controls but can open into a closet as the closet only needs to be accessible whilst the door is closed. And if all else fails opt for an outswing as long as you have no desire to have a screen door on it in the future, and don’t have stairs to contend with. In your case Dan, I would choose a proper inswing as it will be safer than what you have now.

How Tack-y


I have a built in hall seat in the foyer of my home.  I would like to add a cushion to the seat covered with a fabric to go with the colour on the wall which I have already picked out.  I don’t know how to go about doing this.  Do you have any advice on upholstering?  Thank you so much for your time.




Thank you for your question, Kay,

I certainly don’t mind sharing my two cents on the subject.  A professional upholsterer I am not but I have recovered a chair or two in my day.

I have to assume that your bench has a basic flat seat because it sounds as though it wasn’t previously covered.  This may cause an issue with covering it traditionally as you would a chair or stool.  Normally you would wrap the fabric around the bottom of the seat to fasten it or have a vertical edge where to tack the hem of the fabric.  In your case I think you do not have either, so I see two possible solutions for your project.  First, the easy way: fashion yourself a plywood base the size and shape you would like your finished seat to be.  On the base you will add high density seat cushion foam of the softness and depth you would like your cushion to be.  Trial and error will determine when the cushion is just right…your butt will know.  Once you have determined the plushness of your seat you will want to wrap the entire seat with Dacron batting.  This will soften the corners of the cushion and give the seat a smooth all over shape.  Wrap the Dacron under and staple to the underside of the plywood.  Now you can follow this with the final covering.  Centering your pattern on the seat, wrap the fabric over the cushion.  Staple it straight along the front or back side then, pulling it as taught as the fabric will allow or as you desire, staple it straight across the opposite side, repeat this process for the other two sides leaving about two inches at the corners unfastened.  Now you have to fold the corners neatly and carefully, and whatever you do to one, be sure you fold all corners the same.  If you wish you can decorate around the base of the cushion with brass tacks or decorative edge banding.  Now center your new cushion on the bench seat and fasten it with four screws from underneath making sure the screws are only as long as the bench seat and cushion base are thick so no points protrude into the cushion.

The alternative would be to build the cushion right onto the seat.  This will require a bit more patience and a touch more skill.  Begin by building up the padding as you did in the first procedure.  Similarly, draw down the shape of the cushion with the batting by stapling it along the perimeter of the foam.  Once it is securely fastened, trim off the excess with a razor blade leaving only ½” or so.  Now here’s where your artistic side will show itself:  As you lay over the fabric, centering the design again, you will need to fold the fabric under leaving yourself only ¼” or so to staple around the perimeter.  Repeat X 4 remembering to leave yourself a couple inches at the corners for the fold.  For the corners you will have to be very patient and form a nice symmetrical pleat on each one, making them fast as you go.  After you have stapled the perimeter completely, you can now dress the edge with some decorative edge banding or piping finishing the entire perimeter with a tightly spaced row of upholstery tacks.  And that’s all there is to it.  Sounds simple but I think it will take some time to get the finished product you desire, but it you go at it patiently, I’m sure you can pull it off.

Its a blast.


The kitchen in my house is about twenty years old.  It has nice oak cabinets but they are rather dark and dated.  I would like to refinish them in a more contemporary colour but I don’t know how to go about stripping them.  I have contacted local cabinet refacers, they say they don’t that and then they sent me to you.  What is the easiest way to maintain my existing kitchen but modernize it with a more contemporary colour but make it look like new?  Thanks for your help,



Thanks for the question Jeff. This is a good one that has crossed the minds of many people.  I have be asked numerous times by customers and the answer is always the same:  It comes down to time or money.  If you don’t have one you best have a lot of the other.  Stripping wooden furnishings of any kind is a time consuming and delicate process and cabinetry is no different.  Any intricate millwork will invariably require hours and hours of painstaking solvent and scraper work.  One avenue that I might suggest you try and I haven’t actually tried this myself so I can’t vouch for the success of it but, I know it will work, is abrasive blasting.  Using a compressed air device sand or other natural abrasives are blown at an object at high speeds to blast of paint and finishes.  Now since most or all abrasives are harder than wood you will have to exercise a great deal of caution when attacking your cabinets with this method.  I recommend a few trial runs on the backs of the doors to get the feel for the stripping ability of your particular abrasive.  Besides sand which is the traditional and least expensive abrasive available, there are a variety to choose from ranging in coarseness and hardness.  Other available abrasives include soda, aluminum oxide, glass beads, walnut shells, and salt; basically anything that is fine enough to spray out a nozzle with air.  Oak is about as hard as domestic woods get so you will have a fairly good shot at stripping them down without damaging them.   You will still have to invest a fair bit of time sanding them smooth afterword and then staining and refinishing them but the blasting will save you a lot of time with the details.  So this is a happy medium between time and money.  I wish you the best in you endeavour.  If you stick to it, it will be complete before you know it and you’ll have the pride of a project you completed that you get to admire everyday.

Put a lid on things

Dear Joe,

I have an addition on my house that was built about fifty years ago.  Because of the location of the windows on the second floor of the house, it was built with a flat roof.  Every spring I go up there and have to fix a leak or two that has erupted over the winter.  I want to be finished with this constant maintenance headache. What options do I have in fixing this issue?  Thanks for your advice.  Love your writings.



Great question Denis,

This is an issue that I have dealt with a few times on behalf of my clients So I am pretty familiar with the possible solutions. 

Let’s start with some background, shall we?  Like you say flat roofs are built for a few different reasons.  Cost efficiency is not one of them so then what are they?  Well considerations that may have been made when it was built could have been aesthetics.  Maybe in order to maintain a lower profile they opted to keep the addition as low as possible.  Or perhaps, like you say, there may have been possible interference with windows on the adjoining wall of the house.  Or , if they did the work themselves, constructing a flat roof was probably less labour intensive at the time then building proper rafters.  At this time efficiency wasn’t an issue nor was future maintenance likely an issue.  So there you have it. Now, what to do about it…

Well, before you build you will have to take into account all the specific site considerations for your house.  What height do you have to the bottom of the windows?    Which side(s) will you be able to shed water from?  What shape will the roof be?  How much overhang will you be able to afford without compromising property lines?  How many penetrations will the new roof have for chimneys, vent stacks, exhaust fans, etc?

So constructing your new slope roof is pretty simple.  All of your trusses can be pre-engineered and are much more cost effective than building them yourself.  Figuring out your slope will be the most complicated part. If you have windows to contend with then they will dictate the slope you can achieve.  Try to get as much slope you can this will aid in shedding water and snow and leaves and prolong the life of the roofing material.  Your building permit will tell you that you must have a minimum of a 2/12 pitch in order to install traditional roof covering such as shingles or tin.  Less than that you will have to have a torched down roofing installed by a professional which will essentially defeat the purpose of doing this work in the first place since that’s what you have now presumably.  So long story short, if you cannot achieve at least 2/12 pitch on your new roof, it’s not going to be a cost effective venture. So unless you are engineering in a significant increase in attic insulation it may not be worth your while. 

So if you’re familiar with construction this isn’t a huge job.  But some guidance by a professional contractor would be a great idea to prevent any pitfalls or oversights as well as navigating the gauntlet of the building permit and inspection process.

Stairing contest.

Dear Joe,

I have stair problems.  I have two porches on my house, one on the front porch and one to the back deck.  The ones on the front porch are rotting and are quickly becoming dangerous and the ones on the back were replaced a couple years ago by my brother in law.  A handy man he is not, and I nearly break my neck every time I walk down them.  I need to have both of these issues fixed before someone, ie. Me, gets hurt.   My husband and I have very limited knowledge of carpentry and only basic tools.  Can you give me some pointers on how to properly build a set of stairs? 

Thank you, we love to read your column every week.



Thank you so much Cheryl for your question and for reading every week.

Honestly, you couldn’t have chosen a more advanced project for you first foray into the world of home renovations.  Stairs, though they do not require a whole truck load of tools to build, they do require a couple specialized hand tools and a strong understanding of geometry, math, and building codes which will give you the threshold of acceptable dimensions  for your finished project.

To build a set of stairs you will require a circular saw, jigsaw or handsaw, 48 inch level, tape measure,  a 24 inch framing square, stair gauges (optional, but very handy if you’re doing lots of stairs), and a hammer and nails, or screws and driver. 

First thing is to rip out the old.  Take out all your frustrations and let ‘em have it.  Get it out of your system because the rest of this project will require concentration, patience and attention to detail.  Once you have the old ones cleared out, cleaned up and the site levelled, you’ll want to sink some 18 inch patio stones into the ground level and flush with the grade of the soil.  Now, resting the level on the floor of the deck, hold it so its level and measure from the patio stone base to the bottom of the level which represents the top of the floor. This is the total rise of the stair case.  Now, here comes the math are you ready?  Take the total rise and divide it by seven.  Seven is the median rise allowed by the building code and is the most comfortable rise for the average human stride.  Now take that number and divide it into your total rise.  This will generally give you a number that is accompanied by a fraction.  If it is larger than a half round up, smaller, round down.  This is the total number of steps.  Now, take your new rounded number and divide it into your total rise.  This will give you a new number that is also accompanied by a fraction.  This is your stair rise.  Now for the run or tread, for exterior stairs I typically allow ten inches.  Two 2x6s work well for treads. This gives you 11 inches, ten inches of run plus one inch of stair nosing.  So when we set up our stair gauges on our framing square we set one at ten inches on the long leg of the square, and the other at the number avec fraction that we calculated earlier.  Lying flat a pressure treated 2x12, lay your square on the board with the gauges tight against the edge of the board, this will triangulate the cut-out of the stringer.  From the tip of one step, align your stair gauge with that point and mark your second step.  Repeat for the total number of steps as you calculated earlier.  Now cut out the marked stringer removing an additional amount from the bottom of the stringer equal to the thickness of the material you will use for the treads.  Once you have cut one, test fit it in the final location and if it checks out, trace it for as many stringers you need, no less than 32 inches apart, and cut them out as well.  Now all you have to do is cut the treads to the desired width and assemble your new staircase.

Now admittedly, this is an over simplified explanation of a fairly complex procedure, and if you’ve never done anything like it before, probably a tad hard to follow.  Don’t feel bad, there are a lot of “carpenters”, I mean people who make a living building things people, who don’t know how to properly layout a stair stringer.  If you have any doubts, look up a reputable carpenter or stair builder to give you a hand, a good guy won’t mind giving you some assistance even if you want to do most of the work yourself.  Give him a coffee, or better yet a beer on a hot day and you’ve got a friend forever. 

Is your deck feeling down?

Dear Joe,

I have a triplex in the east end of town.  The front porch has sagged to the point of being unsafe and the tenants are unable to use it.  I have told them that it will be repaired shortly but I am unsure as to how to go about repairing it and to what degree.  The actual wood of both the upper and lower decks looks ok so I don’t want to replace them if I don’t have to.  The roof is sturdy but I will need to reshingle it.  Can you tell me what to look for and how I should diagnose the problems that need to be fixed and how I should decide what to save but still keep it safe.

Thanks BMD


Thank you for the great question,
This is a very, very common problem with all of the tenements build as Cornwall boomed between 1900 and 1940.  Most were built in the same basic style with one unit above, one below each with a front porch facing the street.  As they age the points most susceptible to deterioration are the wood components directly exposed to the weather or the earth.  The first thing to go usually, are the wooden posts which rest on the footings, and the bottoms of the posts which support the upper two structures.  Changing these is fairly simple.  It requires some careful jacking and then simply cutting out the old posts and replacing them with new pressure treated lumber.  Now you’ll have to do a careful inspection of the structure of the two porch floors.  This will require getting dirty.  You’re going to have to crawl under the porch with a good light and a hammer and screwdriver.  Do a good visual inspection and with your hammer, give all the framing members a good hit to test their structural integrity.  If everything appears ok, take the screwdriver and poke the wood joists concentrating on the tops and ends of each one.  If no rot is discovered then it should be just a matter of replacing the posts and levelling everything out.  If the joists are rotted then you will be looking at a complete replacement.  Other than that, a good visual and tactile evaluation should be enough to evaluate the porch and make your decision as to what to replace and what to keep.  Now, keep in mind, buildings codes have not only changed since this house was built but, there were no building codes to speak of when it was built so the porch as it was originally constructed probably would not conform to today’s codes. You have to beware that if you’re reconstructing any part of it, it will now have to conform to the Ontario Building Code, so you will need a permit and a building inspector to come and make sure that all of your work is safe and conforming. 

The roofing cycle

I have had to have my roof done this summer, well part of it anyway.  This year it was the west side. side.  Two years ago I had the north and east sides done and my roofer told me when he finished that I should plan on having the south side done soon too.  If I can recall correctly it was only a little longer than ten years ago I had the south side done.  It seems like I am forever having to hire roofing contractors to work on my house.  I though these shingles were guaranteed for 25 years.  What gives?

Thank you for your time,



Well K, thank you for your question.  This is a question that a lot of people ask and struggle with the answer.  If a shingle is guaranteed for 25 years, then why doesn’t it last 25 years?  Well the answer is simple:  This shingle will last for 25 years+/- under IDEAL conditions.  Like in laboratory or on the east side of your house where it doesn’t get the intense afternoon sun or the driving rains or hail from the north.  Here you will find the shingles will fare the best and come close to meeting that 25 year lifespan, disproportionately so to the other three sides of the roof, provided the rest of the building is constructed appropriately.

This quandary leads many homeowners to get trapped in the cycle that you are in, which is perpetual roofing.   If you only do the side that is weathered the most and wait several years between sides, you will be always thinking about having some part of your roof done.  The alternative is to have the entire roof done when one side has out lived its service life.  What is the right answer?  Well I don’t think that there is one right answer. I am a proponent of doing it all at once.  This way you always know that your shingles are the same age, same colour, you can predict and budget for when they will need to be replaced again, and if some warranty claim should arise, you can claim it on any part of the roof with no hassle.  Not only that, it will be cheaper in the long run to pay a reputable roofer to come once  every 15 years to do the whole thing at once than to put him on the payroll and have him back for an annual visit.

That being said there are some distinct advantages for some to having parts done on an as needed basis.  Cost being the biggest factor.  Not a lot of people have the loose cash just lying around that it takes to pay for a project like this. Let’s face it, have your roof done is probably the single most costly bit of routine maintenance any homeowner will do over their lifetime.  Another advantage is short term planning; if you are not sure you will own a property in two years why spend a couple grand you don’t have to replace shingles that will be fine for another five.

After all is said and done, roofing is just a pain in the homeowners butt.  You don’t get any enjoyment out of it but, Lord have mercy on you if you don’t keep it up.  My best advice is to have it all done at once if you can afford it. But, better yet, invest in a metal roof.  It would be worth financing a metal roof over ten years knowing that once it’s paid for you’ll never have to do it again.  Otherwise, get back on the shingle roof treadmill and do it all again.

Broken fences make what kind of neighbours?


The last storm we had brought a tree down in my back yard.  It came down across my back fence and seems to have snapped two posts at or below ground level.  What would be the cheapest way to repair this without having to take the fence all apart and replace it?  Thank you for your help,



Thanks for the question Pete,

It sucks to lose a tree to a wind storm, but its sucks worse when the falling tree causes property damage of any kind.  I know, I had one come down on my garage several years ago.

Well, you have a couple of options:  the easiest is to go to the hardware store and purchase what is known as a post mender.  This is a steel u-shaped apparatus that, driven into the ground beside a broken post with a sledge hammer acts as a kind of splint for the fence post. This repair is permanent but may not hold up to a lot of future abuse.

A better repair, slightly more labour intensive though, would be to “sister” the broken post with a new post.  This will require you to dig down beside the broken one about three feet or so and have access to the bottom of it.  Once down there, clean off the post and get a new post the same size, drill ½ inch holes through it every foot or so, and drop it in the hole.  Using some 6 inch x 3/8”  lag screws, screw the new post to the old one every foot or so all the way up. Back fill your hole and you should be good now for the life of your fence.  Be sure you cap the new post to protect it from rot.

Now you need to keep in mind that if the posts are breaking off below ground level, this probably is an indication of the woods deterioration from age and moisture.  You’ll want to properly assess the condition of all the fences component parts and determine a reasonable lifespan for the entire assembly before it becomes a safety hazard.

It starts with a brush stroke...

Dear Joe,

I have   a 1930s two storey home in dire need of a paint job.  It still has all the original wood siding and trim though the windows have been replaced.  What is my best course of action in preparing to repaint my beloved home.  I must admit I have procrastinated a bit in taking care of this and now, into the fall, am I too late to prepare such an undertaking?   Any advice you have regarding products and such would be greatly appreciated as well,





Thank you so much for your wonderful letter, and what a great question. 

I am glad to hear you have preserved the original architectural integrity of your home by continuing to maintain the original exterior. 

You are not too late, but your window of favourable weather is definitely shrinking.  If you are taking care of the job yourself, two people can typically paint a large old home in about a week, a professional painting crew, probably a couple days, weather permitting. 

Your preparation should include, having all your materials ready and on site, this includes brushes (a nice wide brush will speed things up considerably), paint (have your colors chosen and mixed in sufficient quantities beforehand), rags, buckets, and ladders and/or scaffolding.

Now if you’ve procrastinated to the point where the paint is flaking off the siding, you will require a lot more prep work then if you had repainted in time.  You don’t want to wait to the point that the paint is falling off or else you have to scrape, wire brush, and spot prime all the bare wood spots prior to applying paint to the siding.  You’ll need a good quality acrylic or shellac based primer to prime the bare wood. 

So now you’re ready to apply paint.  There have been great advances in paint coatings in recent years to the point that you can repaint anything and achieve a quality finish in just one coat.  Like anything, I advocate spending enough money to get a high quality product.  When it comes to building materials you get what you pay for almost invariably.  Superior quality paint and the appropriate brush for that paint will make a world of difference.  Don’t be afraid to spend $30 on a brush it’s well worth the money.
So keep it up.  There’s nothing more elegant than a well painted old home.  Colors can change with the times so your home is always in fashion.  Not to mention the fact that there is no better way to maintain an intimate knowledge of your home than by going over every square inch of it with a brush. 

Epoxy on thee

Dear Joe,

I am tiling my shower area and bathroom floor.  I have chosen the tile and the grout colour but am confused as to what kind of grout I should be using for the job.  Is there much of a difference between the different kinds, I imagine there is since there is a great price difference.  Is it true with grout you get what you pay for, as they say?

Thank you for your assistance,



Thank you for the great question Rudy, 

Well it is true, to be perfectly honest.  But the quality of which you speak is a double edged sword.  Let me flesh that out a little bit for you.  I am assuming that the great disparity in price is between what we’ll call traditional grout, which is a cement based grout, mixed with water, and epoxy grout, which is a resin based grout consisting of two parts, the grout base and the hardener.  The former is a product that every DIYer is familiar with and most pros can install with their eyes closed, whereas the latter is a product that, I’m sure, was created to haunt the dreams of even the most savvy tile installers.  Epoxy grout is, to be fair, a far, far superior product.  Its chemical hardening results in a bond and durability that is impossible to match with cement based products.  It is a product that does not require sealing or any periodic maintenance of any kind, and offers durability, too, that is unmatched by any other product.  Now, the other edge to that sword is:  Since you are dealing with a high speed chemical reaction, this grout is very, very, very unforgiving.  It requires impeccable planning, two skilled installers, and a lot of elbow grease.  The open time for a pot of this grout is about 15 minutes or so, during which time the product must be applied, dressed, and wiped clean of all residue, and since it is not a water  based product, it creates a lot of smearing which must be carefully removed before it hardens and becomes completely irremovable.  At this point the only way it can be cleaned is with a chisel or grinder.

Suffice it to say, though epoxy grout is a superior solution to the old dirty grout problem, 99% or more of installations are quite sufficiently completed using traditional grout.  As a do it yourselfer, I would advise you give epoxy grout a wide berth.  If you chose to hire it out, then make sure the installer you chose has some experience with the product.  If they don’t, you don’t want your project to be their experiment.  There is a very steep learning curve here and the results can be disasterous if enough care isn’t taken.  Ask yourself if the risks and increased cost justify the results.  Whichever you chose, if you have never done either before, don’t let the finished project be your test area.  Do up a small test piece and play around with that until you have the timing right and now the steps involved in doing a great job.

Stick it to the tile

Dear Joe, I want to put ceramic tile all around the backsplash of my kitchen.   I have bought the tile but I don’t know what kind of glue to use.  Should I use the stuff that comes premixed in the bucket, or the powder that is in the bag.  I have different people telling me different things and I don’t know what’s right.  I appreciate your help.  Love your column,




Dear steve,

Thank you so much for your question and for reading.

I am glad you asked.  This is a great question for first time tilers. What you need to know about the two different types of adhesives is that one of them will work for every application and one will only work for certain applications.  Knowing the appropriate usage is very important.

First off we’ll address the powdered thin set cement.  This is a Portland cement based adhesive and comes either modified with latex additives or unmodified.  These additives aid in adhesion as well as making the cured product more flexible.  If you have a water proof substrate and a non-porous tile you must use an unmodified mortar.  These adhesives are ideal for any tile over 4 inches either wall, or floor, indoors or out, but difficult to use on tiles smaller than 2 inches.  Though, it will be necessary to use this if your tile will be exposed appreciable amounts of water.

For your kitchen backsplash on the other hand, which will not be exposed to a lot of water, which is on the wall, and I am assuming is a tile smaller than 4 x4, the premixed latex tile adhesive is ideal.  This adhesive benefits from the additional surface exposure that a small tile provides to allow it to dry.  A few days drying before grouting, is also helpful to allow it to cure sufficiently.  Just be sure you don’t use it on floor tiles, outside tiles, in showers, or for tiles larger than 4 inches.  It is a much simpler product to use if you have no experience, but it has limitations which you need to respect in order to do a quality job. 

So if you are not sure of what you’re doing, feel free to make a couple phone calls.  Ask for help at your local building supplier, or call a tiler and ask if you can watch for an hour and pick his/her brain for some pointers and advice.  If you’re still not confident, then you can always ask that same tiler to come and give you a quote on the tile job you need to have done.  They should be happy to offer you a complimentary estimate for your ceramic project.

Get the mud out

Dear Joe,

I have hung all the drywall in my basement and need to tape all the joints.  I have only done it once before at another home I owned and it didn`t end well.  How can I tackle this job myself and end up with a quality job that isn`t going to look like heck or break my back?  They make it look so easy on television.   Any tips you have would be greatly appreciated.




Dear Robert,

I am glad to hear you are taking it on yourself even if the last one wasn’t perfect.  That’s how we learn by doing, failing and soldiering on.

I certainly have a few tips for you that can help speed things along and make the finishing process much easier on your back and your ego.  Everyone needs to remember that the miracle of editing makes everything look easier on t.v.  Jobs that take a week are done in half an hour and we all want to be that efficient.   Newsflash: it doesn’t work that way!

So here are some tips and tricks that will you give you a better finish with less cursing. 

1.       Make sure all your joints are as close as possible with all tapered edges together where possible.  Any broken corners cut out and peeling paper pulled off.

2.       When applying the tape, lay the tape into a healthy layer of mud and allow it to sit there for a couple minutes before embedding it completely.  This will help hydrate the tape and give you a better bond.  When you come back to wipe it, squeeze as much mud out from beneath the tape as possible.  This will give you a smooth low profile joint and ease your sanding woes later.

3.       Don’t try to use a setting type compound.  I am a pretty skilled taper with many varied projects under my belt and I will not touch the stuff.  It is for experienced production drywallers only!  If you try to use it to speed things up you will end up with a job that you can’t sand and will be cursing yourself and the product.

4.       Apply very thin layers of compound.  Do not glob it on.  4 or 5 thin coats is better than 2 thick ones.  The less you put on the less ends up as dust on the floor later.  Don’t sand between layers:  use the ripples and trowel marks as a screed to dictate the thickness of the subsequent coat.  If you wipe down to them, you’ll end up with a nice even coat and never take too much off or leave too much on.

5.       When you embed the paper tape on a flat seam, make sure the embossed folding seam is facing into the wall.  This will prevent you from having it protrude from the wall after you’ve sanded if you accidentally sand too deep.

6.       When taping corners, do one side of each corner, and then when you do the next coat alternate and to the other side of the corner.  That way you’re not fighting to get a perfect corner with two wet sides, which you’ll never do.

7.       Follow each sanding stroke with a swipe of your free hand to brush away the dust and feel for imperfections.

8.       Use a halogen light held at an oblique angle to the wall to cast shadows on the imperfections that need to be sanded out.  This is extra important on ceilings where light from windows will reveal every little blemish once your project is done and painted.  Then you get to live with it.

9.       Use a trowel to knock down the high points between coats.  A quick pass with a taping knife will prepare you for subsequent coats.

10.   Once you’re sanded and primed, allow the primer to dry. Now inspect your work.  The primer will reveal any areas that need touching up.  Take the time to do touch ups, sand them and then reprime.

11.   Avoid gimmicks.  There are loads of new and fancy tools out there that are supposed to make the job of drywalling easier.  I’ve tried a few and they don’t.  All you need is a 4 inch knife, a 6 inch knife and a 10 inch trowel.  Some smaller knives if you have tight spaces but for the most part I use three tools.  Using a quality mud is important too.  The heavier mud you use the more durable your finish will be.

So hopefully this will help you along in your quest to become a better drywaller.  The only thing that will definitely do it is practice.  Best of luck in all your projects,