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Tool Tips

Updated: Aug. 30, 2017

Solve tough problems in clever ways with our favorite tool tips.

FH12NOV_TOOLTP_01-2Family Handyman
Solve tough home improvement problems with twenty of the best tool tips we've ever published. These tool tips are nuggets of wisdom from seasoned pros, experts and clever readers. They'll save you time, effort and money.

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A fast way to cut brick

Score and break brick

Score and break brick accurately in seconds with diamond blade in an angle grinder.

Angle grinders are handy tools, especially if you’re working with tile or masonry. Here’s how to use one to cut bricks, if you don’t mind a bit of a rough edge. Equip your grinder with a diamond blade, then score the brick on the back about 1/2 in. deep where you want it to break. Put a brick chisel in the score, give it a whack, and the brick will break.

Tool Tips From the Past

I’ve worked at this magazine (and now Web site) for 20-odd years and have learned a passel of great tool tips and techniques during that time. For this issue, which is all about tools, I rummaged through the deep archives to retrieve some of my personal favorites. They cover home and shop, indoors and out. I hope you learn as much from them as I did.

Ken Collier, Editor

Run wires under a sidewalk

Running cable

Drive conduit under concrete with a sledge, uncap the ends and run the cable.

If you want to get power to a pond or just want an outlet in the back 40, you may have to run wires under a sidewalk. Here’s how to do it. The idea is to drive a length of 1/2-in. rigid electrical conduit under the walk. You’ll need to cap off both ends of the conduit: one end to keep the dirt out, the other so you can pound on it without damage. We recommend a 1/2-in. coupling and plug on both ends. Lift the conduit up off the bottom of your trench with some blocks, and bang away.

Video: Hand Tool Hacks and Modifications for Woodworking

Quick-and-dirty support for long boards

Ladder support

Use a ladder as a pair of extra hands when cutting long stuff.

OK, we admit that a proper miter saw stand is better, but if you’re just cutting a couple of long pieces, here’s a quick way to support them. Just clamp a piece of scrap on the back legs of a stepladder. You’ll have to snake boards through the ladder to support them, but the ladder is rock-solid and you can adjust the support piece so it’s perfectly level with your saw table.

Mark pipe before gluing

Pipe joint alignment

Mark your pipe joints so you can position them quickly when gluing.

When you’re working with PVC pipe, dry-fit the fittings and the pipe to make sure they’re in the correct position. Use a level where appropriate. Then mark the pipe and fitting so you can get them back in exactly the same position when you’re gluing the joint. PVC cement sets quickly!

Dry concrete for fence posts

Moisten dry concrete

Pour dry concrete mix around a post and moisten it after assembling the fence.

If you’re setting fence posts in concrete and you want to get the job done quickly, you can sometimes brace the posts and pour dry concrete mix around them. Keep it a couple of inches below the soil line. Continue with the carpentry, and when you’re all done, soak the top of the mix in each hole. You don’t need to stir. The top will set quickly, and the dry mix below will slowly absorb moisture from the soil.

Mark on masking tape

Mark on masking tape

Make cutting marks on masking tape. Then remove it after making the cut.

I use masking tape more for marking than for masking. It’s useful when the surface is dark and won’t show a pencil line (like the laminate countertop shown) or when you want the mark to be temporary, like when you’re marking stud positions on a wall. You can use it to mark a cutting line and just cut right through it. On wallpaper, you can use the white “delicate surface” tape.

Use epoxy for tough-to-clamp joints

Gluing a hand rail

Apply quick-setting epoxy and push the joint tightly together until the quick-setting epoxy hardens.

Sometimes you encounter wood joints that are very difficult to clamp—for example, the odd-angle miter shown, or very small pieces of trim. That’s when fast-setting epoxy comes to the rescue. Mix it up, apply to both surfaces, and hold the parts together in exactly the position you want until the glue sets. You can use 90-second epoxy, or if you want more strength (and you have more patience), use the five-minute variety.

Two tapes for large layout

Set a perpendicular line

Use two tapes to establish a perpendicular line quickly and easily.

To mark a perpendicular line on a large layout, use two tapes. Mark an approximate center point on the baseline, and then mark end points a few feet away on each side of the center point. Pull two tapes and adjust them so the ends are on the end points and the measurements are identical where the tapes cross. That’s where to mark the perpendicular line. Snap the line and you’re all set.

Locking pliers for pulling nails

Pull a headless nail

Lock the pliers tightly on the nail shank and pry it out with a pry bar.

Vise-Grips locking pliers are a great tool for pulling nails. I use them in three situations. The first, shown here, is to pull a stubborn nail that has lost its head. The second is to pull trim-gun nails, which have such a small head that a hammer can’t grab it. The third is to remove nails that stay in the trim you’re removing. In that case, it’s best to pull them from the back, using locking pliers. My favorite is the type shown; the curved ends of the jaws make it easy to lever out nails.

Burnish an outside miter to close it

Close a miter joint

Close a small gap in a miter joint by slightly rubbing over the sharp edge.

Sometimes just the act of nailing a miter joint causes it to open slightly. If the gap isn’t too big, you can close it by rubbing a smooth metal tool hard against the corner. This crushes the wood fibers inward. Just about any tool will work, like the utility knife shown, or the round shank of a screwdriver.

Glue baseboard to follow a hollow

Baseboard brace

Close small gaps along baseboard with adhesive and a temporary brace.

Walls sometimes have gentle hollows that are not apparent to the eye, making it hard to attach trim without leaving a gap. If the trim is at all flexible, you can apply construction adhesive to the top and bottom edges and then figure out a way to apply pressure to it. A 2×4 against the floor works for crown, and for baseboard you can cut a couple of scraps and nail them to the floor at an angle.

Perfect handrail position

Position a stair rail

Use a board and framing square to establish anchor points for a handrail.

Building codes usually require that a handrail be 34 to 38 in. above the nosing (front edge) of the stair treads. But how do you figure that out and also get the handrail brackets over a stud? You can draw all sorts of lines all over your wall, or use the method shown. Mark a vertical line where your studs are, lay a 1×2 on the stairs, and slide a framing square along the 1×2 until the end of the 2-ft. leg of the square hits the stud line. For a little more height, use a 1×3 or 1×4 instead.

“Shim” with a screw

Shim baseboard

Turn a screw in or out to support and flatten baseboard against drywall.

If there’s a gap, sometimes a drywall screw is the perfect adjustable shim. For example, when you’re applying baseboard, the drywall at floor level often tapers back, making it hard to get the baseboard corners to line up well. A couple of screws driven into the bottom of the wall will quickly solve the problem, and do it a lot faster than filling the area with joint compound.

Make a circle with a square

Lay out a circle

Mark a circle with two nails and a framing square.

Here’s a tip for laying out small circles or parts of circles. Tack two nails to set the diameter you want, then rotate a framing square against the nails while you hold a pencil in the corner of the square. You might need to rub a little wax or some other lubricant on the bottom of the square so it slides easily. Don’t ask us why this process works; all we know is that it does.

Hand screws for a quick vise

Hand screw vise

Tighten a pair of hand screws on your board. Then clamp them down.

Old-fashioned hand screws still have a place in the DIYer’s tool kit, for several reasons. Here’s one. You can make a quick vise for holding boards on edge with a few hand screws and small bar clamps. Set the hand screws to about the thickness of your workpiece, clamp them down, and you’re set to go. You can use the same trick for doors, but clamp the hand screw so it extends past the end of the sawhorse.

Use alignment cleats

Aligning edge tile

Use a temporary cleat to support and perfectly align tile.

Tacking on a cleat is one of the handiest tricks in the book. Use the cleat to align tile, as shown, or cabinets, cabinet doors or anything else that must be kept lined up or level. The cleat will often serve to hold things up, freeing your hands to attach them.

Nail, finish, fill, finish

Fill nail holes

Mix several shades of putty to exactly match the wood color around the nail hole.

For natural trim and woodwork, it’s best to wait until the first coats of stain and varnish are on the wood before you fill nail holes. That way the wood is close to its finish shade and color, and it’s sealed so putty stays only in the hole. Get several shades of putty and mix them until they match the wood.

Calibrate your lawn spreader

Calibrate your spreader

Measure the spread of your broadcast spreader to avoid over-fertilizing.

If you have a broadcast spreader, there’s a trick to getting the most uniform application of fertilizer with it. First clean your driveway. Then fill the spreader, dial in the appropriate setting and spread some fertilizer on your driveway at your normal walking pace. Measure approximately how far the fertilizer is spread on both sides (it’s common for one side to be wider than the other). Write the measurement on a piece of duct tape on the top of the spreader and use the information to guide your application. Sweep up the fertilizer on your driveway and discard or reuse.

Install a door with corner cleats

Cleat door stop

Use cleats to accurately hold the jamb in place while installing it.

To install an interior prehung door, a slick trick is to screw cleats across the two upper corners, and a 1×4 cleat across the opening a foot above the floor. Pushing the doorjamb against those cleats will ensure that it’s parallel to the wall. If you shim out the cleats with a few sheets of heavy paper, the jamb will stay slightly proud to the drywall, so that the door casing fits nice and snug.