Warm up to those nagging inside jobs


Winter has settled into that blah period that traps us indoors and turns even the weekends into an ordeal -- it's too soon for gardening and the ground is frozen, so digging a hole for that new swimming pool seems premature. It may be a good time to turn the focus inward. We're not talking about reading a book, but about doing all those little repair projects you've been putting off.

Some home projects are more suited to summer, when you can open the windows. In the winter you need to be concerned about the quality of the air inside, so it's not a great time for projects that will fill the house with dust or fumes. If you want to refinish a chair, wait for a warm day to do it outside, or make sure you provide a lot of ventilation.

However, some projects are ideally suited to winter, including:

* Plaster repair. Instead of staring at those cracks in the wall, fix them. Use a fast-drying plaster, such as Durabond 90. Small cracks can simply be skimmed over, with a very light coat. A larger or more persistent crack may need to be taped with drywall joint tape (press the tape into a thin coat of plaster), then coated with two or more coats of plaster. Use a 4-inch drywall knife for taping, an 8-inch knife for blocking (the second coat) and a 12-inch knife for the finish coat. (Winter is also a great time for buying tools.) Always apply the plaster as sparingly as possible, so you don't have to sand. (Quick-drying plaster is hard to sand.)

* Stair repairs. Loose balusters (the upright part of the railing) may be fixed as simply as working wood glue into the top and bottom, where the baluster meets the handrail and the stair tread. Or you may need to use small wood shims (available at hardware stores and home improvement centers in packages of 100). If the baluster is still loose, drive in a nail or screw diagonally, to catch the baluster and the rail or tread. Countersink the head and use wood filler to cover the hole. Often fixing loose balusters will remedy a loose handrail.

Creaking stair treads are best repaired from underneath; also use glue or shims.

* If you have hot-water heat, now is the time to bleed the air out of the radiators. If you have a radiator that still doesn't get hot or doesn't get hot at one end, you may need to add water to the system. Some systems have automatic water-adding capability, but it can malfunction. Hot-water heating systems are fairly straight-forward, but you need to know what you're doing to work on them. If you live in a house with radiators and don't know how to bleed radiators or add water, call a plumber and have him show you how your system works. If you pay attention, you'll be able to do your own maintenance in the future.

* Floorboard repair. Loose or creaky floorboards are best repaired from underneath; a lot of floor noise is caused by the floorboards moving on a joist, and the best way to fix that is with shims and glue. If you can't get to the underside of the floor and you can't live with the creaks, you can drive in a screw or finishing nail from above and countersink it. If you have wall-to-wall carpeting, you can buy screws designed to be driven through the carpet and broken off below the surface of the wood. The catalog "Improvements" carries these screws; call (800) 642-2112 to order or for a catalog.

We're not fans of too much floor "fixing" from above, because it puts holes in the boards that make restoration difficult or not as attractive as it should be.

Of course, winter is a good time to read, and a good time to dream. If you want to spend a chilly, drippy day reading home-repair, house-plan or landscaping books, that's another way your house could benefit.

Mr. Johnson is a Baltimore construction manager. Ms. Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun. If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St. Baltimore, 21278.

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