PETER HOTTON | Handyman on Call

Flowing air cures a musty basement

Q My 1908 house has a fieldstone foundation. There is no water, but it is damp and musty. What can I do about that? I called a basement waterproofing man who suggested I buy a Humidex, an air exchange machine that costs $1,000. Would that work?

Julie Blake, Needham

A Sure, it will work. It is an air-to-air exchanger, designed to exhaust all that humid basement air and bring in dry air. But miracle of miracles, you can do the same thing by simple ventilation; open all the windows in the basement (there should be some in that old house) to produce cross-ventilation. And, to push more air, put an exhaust fan in one window, blowing outside. Another fan on the floor will help circulate more basement air out. Use this ventilation from May to October -- there is no need to ventilate in winter because cold air holds less moisture.

Actually, you may not need to use a fan, and if that is possible, the ventilation will not cost you a penny.

Q I would like to reshingle my house, using white cedar shingles. I noticed the kiln-dried R&R (resquared and rebutted) cost twice as much as the Extras that are not cured, but green (full of water). I figure on going with the Extras. But is there a difference between Eastern white cedar and Northern white cedar? Can I lace the corners? What should I put under the laced shingles in the corners? Anything else I should know?

Larry Hanson, Coventry, R.I.

A Eastern or Northern white cedar? Apparently there is no difference; the Latin name is Thuga occidentalis, also called arborvitae and swamp cedar. And it is not a cedar at all, but probably something akin to juniper. But it is a good wood for shingles, and they do not have to be finished in any way; they will weather nicely, thank you, and last for 40 years.

Go for the uncured Extras, the price is right. Install them five inches to the weather, and butt them tightly; they will shrink in service and there will be small gaps, but that is characteristic of such shingles. They are not square, so you will have to trim their sides so they butt properly against each other and horizontally as well. Put Tyvek on first, then the shingles. Lacing the corners (alternating the overlap as you turn each corner) is a good idea, particularly if you expose them five inches to the weather. More exposure will result in curling and warping.

In fact, most of the Handyman's white cedar shingles are more than 30 years old and exposed six inches to the weather. Those in mostly shade are still lying flat and are nicely weathered. But the ones on the sunny side are terrible; badly warped and curled, but still weatherproof. The fact they were exposed six inches to the weather is part of the problem, which the Handyman might address some day. That means more shingle will be needed, but that's OK with me.

Q What is the best way to put up grab bars on a fiberglass tub surround? The fiberglass is flat against plasterboard on wood studs.


A The best way is also somewhat difficult, but the safest when it comes to sturdy grab bars that will not loosen or pull out of the wall when your life, or a limb or two, depend on it. The difficulty is finding the studs. A stud finder might work; if it does, you're home free. If the grab bar is longer than the space between studs, you cannot hang it horizontally, but you could angle it. Or, hang it vertically.

Another way: Use molly bolts or wing nuts; the only problem with that is the fiberglass plus the plasterboard might not be sturdy enough to hold the bolt or nut.

But here is an idea that will solve all these problems. Many drug stores carry very sturdy grab bars with suction cups, the ones with a lever that you push down to make a tenacious hold. These grab bars are sold in the section for furniture and equipment for the handicapped. I happened to see one at Olden's Pharmacy in South Weymouth Square. It's my own personal pharmacy, and Paul and all the staffers were mighty helpful.

Q I have always wondered what is the best time to paint a house: spring, summer, or fall? What do you say?
Mary, Belmont

A All three seasons are acceptable, but each has its drawbacks. Spring and fall may bring more frequent showers. For example, it is best to reseed a lawn or seed anew in the fall because of frequent showers. Summer is not the best because of the heat, and the comfort of the painters. That does not mean one should feel for the painters, but rather uncomfortable (cold or hot, wet or parched) workers are careless workers, and may do an inferior job or put themselves at risk of hurting themselves or the building. Also, late summer is rather taboo because of the thousands of bugs that can get stuck in the paint.

My mother, slow to anger, was madder than a wet hen many years ago when the fresh paint job on her house one August ended up with a lacework of bugs. Of course, in those days the paint was oil-based, and took longer to dry than the current latex paints. So the bug taboo may not apply with fast-drying latex.

Which brings us to late summer and early fall, say up to mid-October. Ideal. Of course all of the above depends on what part of the country your house is in.

But there are three rules that apply anywhere and are unswerving. No compromises. 1. Never paint in the sun; follow the sun around the house as you progress. 2. Do not paint when the temp is 55 degrees or lower, and remains that way for two days after painting. 3. If the house gets wet at any time, wait two to three days of dry weather to make sure the siding is indeed dry.

Q My 1700s house in Newport, R.I., has an old butcher block counter with a lot of ding marks, charred burned areas, and knife marks. How can I restore it?

Barbara Madden, Walpole

A Presumably it is made of oak strips, like a hardwood floor, not a thick end-grain table that has taken a beating after years as a butcher block. First, sand it with a belt sander, using coarse grit to really buck those dings off. Repeat with medium and fine grit. Clean the top to remove all hints of sawdust. A tack cloth will work well; so will repeated wiping with a cloth dipped in paint thinner. Now you have two choices: varnish or oil.

To varnish, apply three thin coats of an oil-based polyurethane varnish. Use high gloss or semi-gloss; it really is a matter of taste. Use an expensive brush (a $2.50 wonder will not do). Flow the varnish on and brush it in lightly but thoroughly. To oil, apply boiled linseed oil liberally, wait 15 minutes, then rub, rub, rub with your hands. After rubbing a while, wipe off all excess oil. Wait a day and do this all over again, and rub and rub some more. And again on the third day, and rub-a-dub.

The secret to a good oil finish is to oil the wood and rub once a day for a week, once a week for a month, once a month for a year and once a year forever.

Q Help! I am inundated with red spider mites, tiny critters no bigger than a pin point, also called clover mites. They squish a distinct red color when pressed. They are all over my stone walkway. How can I get rid of them?


A They are very small arachnids, and often infest house plants. Hose down the walk once or twice a day. If they persist or proliferate, consider using a miticide on them. You can buy a miticide at a garden center.

Globe Handyman on Call Peter Hotton is available 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays to answer questions on house repair. Call 617-929-2930. Hotton also chats online about house matters 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Thursdays. To participate, go to Hotton's e-mail is