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Handyman on Call

You can hang a picture on a plaster wall

By Peter Hotton
Globe Correspondent / May 30, 2010

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Q. We recently purchased a 1926 colonial in Melrose with mostly horsehair plaster walls. This is my first experience with plaster walls, and I’m afraid they are going to crumble when I hang artwork, etc. Case in point, I thought I was doing the right thing by inserting wall anchors for my first hanging. I pre-drilled a hole and as I was tamping in the anchor, the plaster fell apart around the anchor and then “poof’’ — the anchor disappeared into the wall, leaving me with a useless hole in the wall. How can I minimize damage to plaster walls? Any special materials?

AARON WEINETH, Wakefield

A. You simply ran into a bit of bad luck. Horsehair plaster is usually on wood lath, narrow strips of wood applied horizontally on the studs, and when you put in the anchor, you hit an area between the lath. Try again up an inch or so, to see if you hit a bit of wood lath. Drill a small hole through the wood lath and insert the anchor, or drive in a round-head screw. Either will act as a hanger. Here’s a trick to keep the plaster from disintegrating. Tape a piece of duct tape on the wall where you work. After you finish, and it succeeds, you can leave the tape in place because the picture will cover it.

Incidentally, if you hit a vertical stud, you can nail on a picture hook. That will be secure. Then to go left or right to locate another hanging spot. For that useless hole, fill it with joint compound, smooth off, let dry and sand smooth. I mentioned two hangers because the art usually has a wire on the back that hangs most level on two hangers.

Q. How can I get rid of cigarette beetles in a natural, safe way? I have many of them coming in through one window at the bottom, and no matter how I try to seal the window, they keep coming in. They are a flying beetle.

BEA LECOLE, Boston

A. Google showed me that the cigarette beetle and the drug store beetle are pantry pests, so if your bug is one of those, you will have to check your pantry food and other food storage areas for contamination of packaged food. If you find any contamination, clean thoroughly and buy pantry pest traps, which have proven effective. Pantry pest traps are sold in the Gardens Alive! catalog, among others. But if it is an ordinary beetle seal the window with rope caulk, the kind you can take off and re-use when necessary. One brand name I as trying to think of is Mortite, which my mother used back in Michigan in the 1940s. It has been around at least that long, and is still effective. To handle the beetles in the house, sprinkle boric acid along the window sill and perhaps baseboard areas.

Q. The big old porcelain soap dish on my tiled tub surround is 5 by 7 inches and weighs 2 1/4 pounds (I weighed it). It is old, and I want to keep it. It has no metal bracket to hold it. Well, finally it fell off, but did not break. The back is very smooth, and the tub surround is cement board. I tried Liquid Nails to glue it on, and it worked nicely for two days, then dropped off. I even protect it from water during showers. What will hold it on? Someone mentioned plaster of Paris.

BOB GORDON, Winthrop

A. You are getting close to a solution using plaster of Paris, but that is not quite the material. The right stuff is thin-set mortar. I have used it to put up ceramic tiles, and while each tile is not very heavy, the thin-set holds like crazy. And, it comes in small doses, not 100-pound bags that you were worried about. You can try thin-set on that very smooth back, but I think it would be better to cut some small kerf marks, maybe 1/16 inch deep along the back of the dish to allow the thin-set to grab hold. A two-part epoxy cement also can work, but I personally would try the thin-set. If the dish has a handle, I hope you aren’t using it as a grab bar.

Q. When I went from septic system to sewer system, the contractor cut off about 2 feet of a 4 x 4 deck post in order to crush the septic tank, and left it like that. Wrong?

GUEST, in Hotton’s chat room

A. Wrong? It’s close to criminal, and the ding-a-ling should come back and fix it. Better yet, install a new 4 x 4 post yourself. Remove the remainder in the ground and under the deck. You may have to shore up the deck temporarily to do this. Then put the pressure-treated new post as deep in the ground as the original, and attach it to the under side of the deck. If the gap is relatively short, you can insert a short post to fill the gap, using steel patching plates to attach the new to the old. It might be a good idea to avoid that fellow; he might do something else stupid.

Globe Handyman on Call Peter Hotton is also in the g section on Thursdays. He is available 1-6 p.m. Tuesdays to answer questions on house repair. Call 617-929-2930. Hotton (photton@globe.com) also chats online about house matters 2-3 p.m. Thursdays. To participate, go to www.Boston.com.