Do-it-yourself repointing hard but simple work

Old-style flat roofs on triple deckers didn’t last very long, but a rubber roof properly installed should be good for 20 years. Old-style flat roofs on triple deckers didn’t last very long, but a rubber roof properly installed should be good for 20 years. (Istockphoto.Com)
By Peter Hotton
Globe Correspondent / April 3, 2011

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Q. I live in a condo-ized three-decker in Boston. The stone foundation needs maintenance. Inside, the mortar has turned to dust. I’m concerned about the cost of repointing inside and out. Does it make sense to repoint inside only? How much work is involved?

RYAN, in Hotton’s chat room

A. A lot of work. Repointing is hard physical work and very expensive. Try this: Hire yourself out to the condo association and do it yourself. It is simple work. Do both inside and out, but pace yourself.

Outside need only be done above grade. Here’s how: Dig and chip out old mortar as deep as practicable and as wide as the joint. Buy mortar mix, made by Sakrete and Quikrete and mix it with water, then press it into dampened joints.

Press and press some more; the mortar must be compacted heavily; otherwise it will fail. Use a pointing tool (sold in hardware stores) to do this.

Mix small batches of mortar; it sets up in 15 minutes and will harden quickly. Do a little at a time.

It is best to do it from now on, when it is not cold enough for the mortar to freeze.

Q. I have one of those houses with a furnace in the attic, with a possibility of ice dams and other leakage problems. Someone mentioned putting in ridge vents to try to prevent ice dams. Would that work?


A. Here we have another example of really bad design in new houses because it is impossible to ventilate an attic enough to prevent a furnace from causing ice dams.

Besides, most houses are not so big that two furnaces are required.

No matter who (architects, designers, contractors, designer-builders) dreamed up these bad designs, they are responsible and should stop them.

Anyway, a ridge vent going the full length of any roof is a good start for good ventilation. Soffit vents (a continuous 2-inch-wide screened strip in the underside of the roof overhang) is used in conjunction with the ridge vent.

Also, you could insulate the roof between the rafters to try to keep the roof cold. The ultimate solution is to take the thing out of the attic and put it in a spare room on the second floor. These monsters have power vents through a wall, so they can be located virtually anywhere.

Still another solution is to eliminate it and increase the size of the furnace in the basement, where it belongs.

Q. I live in a triple decker that was converted to condos that has a flat rubber roof. One owner told me he heard that a rubber roof should be replaced every 10 years. Is this true?

MEGAN WATTS, Cambridge

A. Goodness, I hope not. Old-style flat roofs didn’t last very long, but a rubber roof properly installed (glued to the wood boards) should be good for 20 years.

Q. What kind of rugs can be applied to a concrete floor that is not in the basement or below grade?


A. Any kind, but whatever you use, use a synthetic jute pad under it. I personally think wool is best.

Q. A contractor remodeling our kitchen offered to refinish our 26-year-old, semigloss ash kitchen table at no cost. Unfortunately, he gave it a matte finish which we find drab and lifeless. Any way we can perk up the table without starting over? The usual polishes have had no effect.


A. Ask the contractor what kind of varnish he used, water-based or oil-based.

Use the kind he used, except make it semigloss or high gloss. Two thin coats are best. Clean off the polish with paint thinner before finishing.

Q. I fear my question maybe too dull for print in the Globe. I used drain cleaner to clear out a tub, placed the bottle on the tub and now have a ring stain of pinkish/beige from drippings on the bottom of the bottle, no doubt) on the white tub. I’ve tried CLR and a phosphorus-based cleaner, along with Tilex, Comet, and Soft Scrub. The stain is still alive and well. The tub’s 20 years old, so I’m afraid to touch it up with paint, fearing a bad color match.


A. I have never heard of dull questions, only dull answers. Try rubbing with Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. One more resort: If the tub is cast iron with a porcelain enamel finish buy rotten stone, or powdered rock, at a paint store.

Wet the stain with any kind of oil, then sprinkle the rotten stone on the oil so that it becomes wet with the oil.

Then rub with your fingers or the palms of your hands.

If your tub is acrylic or fiberglass, try the same things as above only a little gentler, except the rotten stone.

Q. I have a nice beadboard ceiling, that looks like many narrow boards set together. I want to paint, and my wife wants to stain it a light color. What should I do?

JIM O’NEILL, Methuen

A. Now there’s a loaded question if I’ve ever heard one. To save a marriage, say, “Yes, dear,’’ and put up one coat of a light stain.

Minwax makes lots of colors, including one you both will agree on. Another good thing: Applying stain is a sight easier than priming and painting.

Because you will be working overhead, apply the stain with a squeezed out cloth. Do not varnish the finished beadboard.

Q. My combo aluminum storm door was warped and bent way out of whack by ice, snow and freezing. The adjuster said such a door can be straightened out. Should I try straightening it?

ANN O’CONNOR, Worcester

A. I am sure a door like that can be straightened out, but I would not even bother, because it is unlikely ever to be the same. Buy a new door. Better yet, buy a new wood storm door. It will last for decades and anything winter, spring, and autumn might throw at it.

Q. I have a 200-year-old house with the original wide floor boards. The floor looks dingy and damp washing helps but isn’t attractive. Sanding or waxing are not a good solution. How do I clean the floor while not damaging it?

DOREEN ATWOOD, by e-mail

A. Clean the floor with paint thinner. It will dull the finish, which you can then polish with a dry cloth. Or, do as above, then sand the floors very lightly, wipe off the sawdust and apply one or two coats of an oil-based polyurethane varnish.

Never, never wax a wood floor.

Q. Is this an urban myth or the truth? A man told my brother-in-law who lives in upstate New York that Federal Pacific Equipment circuit breakers are prone to break after 40 years. And breaking circuit breakers are a fire hazard. Is that so?

J.F., Boxborough

A. The Handyman did not know, so he contacted a professional electrician he has in his files, who said they are prone to fail, and that if your brother-in-law’s lasted 40 years, he should replace them immediately.

“I’ve heard them fail within two years,’’ he added.

The cost of a new circuit board, while high, is a sight less than a having a fire.

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 ( chats online about house matters 2-3 p.m. Thursdays. To participate, go to