Small Ways to Improve Your Home Remodeling Projects

Carpenter Peter Burke of Find Your Style shares house remodeling tips to make your carpentry look great for years to come.

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1. Practice. In sports, you can't just buy a basketball and become an excellent shooter. It takes practice and repetition. Same thing in construction: You can't buy news tools and expect to build perfect pieces. Tools don't make the designer or the carpenter, but experience and practice do. Don't get discouraged if at first it's not as easy as it looks when you're watching us on Find Your Style. Host Karen McAloon and I love it when we can help our homeowners learn something for life, and we spend a lot of time off camera with the wonderful people who let us into their lives and homes.

2. Protect the work area. Always protect the areas where you work. I use Thermaply and painter's tape a lot to protect hardwood floors. (Thermaply is cheap and sturdy, and painter's tape is a masking tape made specifically to protect finishes). Tents made of plastic and tape can cut down the dust in other parts of the house, and placing blankets on floors and counters is a good way to protect those surfaces. It takes one small accident to make a very unhappy homeowner.

3. Materials. People tend to think that things built out of wood are solid, unmoving objects. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Wood moves and expands/contracts with the seasons, whether it is one year dry or 100 years. Much of building consists of allowing for this movement — whether in framing, siding, flooring and definitely furniture. When Karen and I design projects for our homeowners, we always work with the wood, not against it. It takes a lot of learning to find this out, especially through mistakes. (If you're smart, you learn from others' mistakes — I can tell you that a lot of people have learned from mine.)

4. Waterproofing. I've fixed a lot of bad waterproofing over the years. If I can impart one idea concerning this it is to not rely on caulking as the primary method of waterproofing. In fact, some of the worst water damage I have come across happened where poorly placed caulking trapped the water inside. And believe me, water always gets into a house — doors and windows will all eventually leak. That means always give the water a place to go and get out. Work with the water, not against it. A correctly waterproofed house will act like overlapping feathers on a duck's back — water rolls right off. Caulking should be the secondary, not primary, means of waterproofing.

5. Electrical. Older homes were not wired for the amount of appliances and electronics we use. All the additional items (bigger stereo systems, dishwashers, computers, extra TVs) can draw more power than the old wires in the house were intended to carry, which could create unsafe conditions. Although rewiring or upgrading an existing house is very expensive, keep in mind that most house fires are caused by electrical problems. Before adding any lighting or electronics to a house, it is a good idea to take all this into consideration first.

6. Lighting. Karen is a master at envisioning light in a room. My experience also tells me that lighting tends to be overlooked on many projects and often seems like an afterthought. I can't stress how much lighting can make or break a room — and further, that we have an over dependence on canned lighting. Floor and table lamps can add warmth that overhead canned lighting often cannot.

7. Painting. Painting should really be called prepping. Painting involves much more work than using a paintbrush and/or roller. For a durable and long-lasting paint job, I would say that 75 percent of the work is in the prep. A common sign of a poorly prepared paint job is paint that easily chips off. I lost my shirt on a job when working on a house full of doors that had simply been painted over and over, never sanded or prepped before the paint was applied.

8. Fireplace. A well-designed mantel that complements the rest of your house can dramatically change a room. I never take on a fireplace remodel without carefully balancing design and safety. It is very important to follow the codes for clearance of combustible materials (i.e., wood) around an older, open firebox. These can be confusing, even to journeyman carpenters and contractors, so if you get inspired by what you see on TV, make sure to get expert advice if you need it.

9. TV cable. On Find Your Style, we hang a lot of flat-screen televisions. Some are quite heavy, and the mounting bracket has to be well-anchored directly into wall studs. I have found that locating studs with a stud finder is not always completely accurate, so I always test my marks by driving a small (8d) nail into the wall. This is a foolproof way to know that you have located a stud.

10. Wall anchors. Finishing touches are one of Karen's hallmarks. I like to leave a home knowing as much attention has been paid to the overall design as to the small details. So just because the curtain rods I'm installing come with wall anchors doesn't mean I use them. I generally do not, especially on fixtures such as curtain rods, towel bars and toilet paper holders that get a lot of use. The type of anchors often supplied will not hold up over time. Depending on the wall, molly bolts are a great option. Put it up strong the first time, and walk away.

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