Jolie Kerr, author of "My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag . . . and Other Things You Can't Ask Martha," was a recent guest last week on staff writer Jura Koncius' Home Front online chat. Here is an edited excerpt:
Q: Do you know any good general organizing or decorating resources for creating a space that looks clean, peaceful, simple and functional? Especially books?
A: The two rules of thumb that every clean person will tell you are 1) a place for everything and 2) be constantly ridding yourself of things. The best way to have a tidier-looking home is just to have fewer things. Once you get into the habit of removing things that aren't needed it becomes so much easier and very liberating.
Q: My iron has burnt black marks. Do you have a suggestion for getting them out?
A: Give it a scrubbing with either white vinegar and a Dobie Pad (which won't cause scratching but will help to slough off that black stuff) or with a baking-soda paste.
Q: I have several white plastic cutting boards that have some stains. I scrub them and wash them in the dishwasher, but if the food that was prepared was particularly colorful, there remains a stain on the board. I've tried bleach to no avail. Thoughts?
A: I would try scrubbing the stains with a cut lemon that you've sprinkled with rock salt. That may do the trick. A baking-soda paste is also a good option.
Q: What is the best way to clean yellowing white tile on the walls of a bathroom? Also, what about yellowing white particleboard furniture? Is this a time for bleach?
A: I don't think bleach is what you want. For the tile, try ammonia. For the particleboard stain I would try a baking-soda paste, which is great because you can control the amount of water you're putting in and avoid saturating the particleboard.
Q: I feel like I spend about two-thirds of my life washing bath towels, yet I'm still concerned I don't change them frequently enough. How many times can I reuse a towel?
A: A good general guideline is get a new towel every three or so uses.
Q: My bathroom is in an old building, so there's no window or ventilation. I usually end up with what looks like mold growing on the caulk between the tub and tiles. What's the best way to get rid of it?
A: Either white vinegar or bleach is the trick with mold. There's also this super toxic stuff that works insanely well called X-14 that you might want to check out.
Q: Any tricks for removing dried nail polish from carpet?
A: Look for a product called Motsenbocker's Lift Off. That should do it for you.
Q: Any product recommendations for keeping a toilet clean? I want to put in something that keeps it clean when you flush it.
A: Try Scrubbing Bubbles in concert with a sponge or rag and a toilet brush. It takes virtually no time at all to get that latrine cleaned up.
Q: I moved into a five-year-old house that has engineered wood and no matter how much I clean, it looks dull after it dries. Any tips?
A: It sounds like at some point someone used the wrong product on those floors. You might need to wax them. Acrylic wax is what you want to use on engineered wood.
Q: I've been dealing with a really gross tub at my boyfriend's apartment for a couple of months now, but now we're moving in together. Can you recommend a good daily cleaner that we can use right after a shower?
A: If you start out with a clean tub and clean it weekly, you won't need a daily solution! I love Scrubbing Bubbles, but there are other products that also work.
Q: How do you clean shower tiles that have lots of nooks and crannies? If I use anything besides a liquid that will evaporate, some of the cleaning solution stays stuck in the nooks or crannies . . . and that can't be good (or clean).
A: Stick with a spray cleaner to make rinsing easier and use a toothbrush to scrub those little nooks as needed.
Q: I've had good luck using Magic Erasers for removing marks, stains, etc. What are they, exactly? Anything toxic?
A: They're made of melamine foam, and they are not toxic. There are a lot of internet rumors out there about them being toxic, but those have been debunked.
Q: The side panel of my weird orangey brown leather chair has gone green. It's just the one side panel, so I thought it might be sun damage, but it's pretty far away from the window. Help?
A: Well I haven't a clue as to why that happened but to fix it, just give the chair a good polishing with leather polish in a matching or neutral color.
Q: The plastic handles on my refrigerator have turned yellow and no amount of bleach will re-whiten them. Do you have any tips on making them look as clean as they actually are?
A: I think that's a job for a Magic Eraser. A baking-soda paste might work.
Q: Our toilet has stains that I can't seem to get out. They are way down at the bottom. I have used bowl cleaner to no avail.
A: Try a pumice stick, that's probably your best bet.
Q: My husband washed a quilt with pants that had an ink pen in the pocket. I have tried 20 things to draw it out over the months with no luck. How can I get rid of the ink?
A: First try rubbing alcohol on the ink stains. You might also want to check out a company called Engleside Products — they make a quilt wash that may also help remove the stains.
Q: My cat puked on my sisal rug several times and we blotted it off and brushed with some water but there are stains there. Ugh. Anything we can do? I know sisal is impossible.
A: I would try a toothbrush sprayed with a small amount of stain-removing spray to spot treat the residual staining.
Q: We have four pets. Yes, we're insane. What's also insane are our vain attempts to keep the house clean. When you account for fur, dirt, dog drool, etc., our house never seems truly clean. Any advice?
A: But you love them! So it's all worth it. Is it possible for you to hire a cleaning service, even just once a month? That may go a really long way in helping with the heavy-duty cleaning. If not, you might want to think about having more pet-friendly upholstery, fewer rugs and less stuff generally on which pet hair can collect.
Q: My husband prefers unscented cleaners, but they don't always get odors out. How do you keep things smelling fresh but not overpowered by perfumes?
A: Use half-to-1 cup of white vinegar in the rinse cycle when you're doing laundry — it serves as an odor eliminator and a natural fabric softener, but doesn't leave behind any lingering odor.
Q: We just installed laminate flooring in our basement. It has a faux hand-scraped dark wood look to it. What should we use to clean it? The laminate on our first floor never looks clean.
A: Laminate flooring shouldn't be wet-washed very often, but when you do you need to stick with either white vinegar or ammonia. Stay away from soap, abrasives and wax-based products.
Q: We pulled up a very old carpet in a garage and the backing is stuck on the cement. What comes loose looks like black baby powder. Any tricks for removing?
A: I would think that WD-40 would be the answer, but I would also suggest you wear a face mask and work gloves, since that black stuff sounds like it's mold, and you don't want to breathe that in or get it on your skin.
Q: My electric stove is in need of a deep clean, specifically the metal that encases the burner, which is covered in spots and spills. Any advice on an effective but gentle way to clean it?
A: Try Bon Ami and a Dobie Pad — it may take a little elbow grease, but both are gentle and excellent products.
Q: How should I clean my kitchen cabinets and how often?
A: A small amount of dish soap is the perfect thing for cleaning cherry wood. As to the frequency, it really depends on how much you cook and use your kitchen and how grimy they're getting. I would suggest cleaning them as needed, with a goal of maybe at least once a season.
Q: Any homemade recipes that work better than strong-smelling store-bought cleaners?
A: Use a dryer sheet. Get it wet, scrub the shower door. You will be amazed.