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Job site tips I learned the hard way

Obscure but useful construction tips for your use
by Steve McKee on May 4, 2010

Every architect should have to personally build several houses from drawings that they’ve prepared. Really be the builder. Make every real decision about what to do next. Be there every day wearing tool bags and being involved “hands on” with everything. For me, it made for an education that I couldn’t obtain any other way. From bending and cutting rebar for the foundation, to placing beams just right in order to correctly meet sloping rafters, to aligning the deck framing in such a way so that the future handrail would line up just right with the window trim. Never a dull moment with these chores, and the thousands of other little conflicts that arise on a daily basis in the creation of a house. There’s nothing quite like being in the trenches with a set of plans to really teach you what’s what.

But there are also lessons learned of a smaller nature and that’s what today’s column is about. These are the little oddball but very nifty construction tips that I picked up along the way. I’ve never seen any of these written down anywhere. Here they are – a Benicia Herald exclusive.

Use vinegar on your skin at the end of concrete (or tile) day
There are alkalis in concrete (and also in tile mortar and grout) that will dry out your skin like crazy. Watertight gloves and protective clothing are best, but breaches can occur. Concrete can splash up on the leg of the guy wearing shorts because it was a hot day. Rubber gloves can “blow out” in the heat of battle. You can scrub with regular soap and water until the cows come home and your skin will still get very dry and damaged. Moisturizers are not enough to save the day. Here is what you do: Go ahead and wash up with soap and water, but then be sure to get a good application of vinegar on any skin that touched the concrete. The sooner the better. Apply that vinegar like it’s lotion. Rub it on and imagine your skin cells drinking it in like medicine. It’s neutralizing all those alkalis in the cement. Reapply some more a little bit later to be sure. Skin as soft as a baby’s behind – that’s what you’ll get.

Presoak the ground in holes that are hard to dig
Benicia soil is usually hard clay and pretty tough to dig, especially in narrow confines. If you’re adding a concrete footing under your house and there’s not enough space for swinging a pick, you can still make easy progress with your digging by using this tactic. Use the claw end of a hammer to get your hole started. Hack out a two or three inch deep hole and then fill it with water and leave it alone for an hour or more while you go away to either dig more holes or go above to do other work. Upon your return you can simply and easily spoon out the two or so inches of soft mud until you reach hard ground again. It’s like serving pudding. Repeat this action a few more times until the desired depth is reached.

Use duct tape (or packing tape) to clean the itchy insulation off your skin
When your skin comes in contact with fiberglass insulation (the yellow or pink stuff) the tiny fibers can be irritating and itchy on your skin. Here is the best trick ever for this problem: Use duct tape (or packing tape or any adhesive tape) and apply the sticky side to your wrists or forearm or whatever skin contacted the insulation and then pull off the tape. The fibers will stick to the tape and your skin will be itch free. Simple as that.

Painting chore interrupted
There could be a whole column written about true painting craftsmanship. Instead I will give you one obscure tip that I found useful. If you’re painting with a brush (or roller) and you need to leave to do something else for an hour or so, place the wet paint brush in a plastic bag (or saran wrap) and completely remove all air from the bag. In other words, gently squeeze the bag against the contour of the brush so there is no air in contact with the wet paint on the brush. This beats alternatives like completely cleaning the brush (only to use it again a measly hour later) or letting the paint start to dry on the brush. Use this trick with the plastic bag and then go ahead and enjoy that sushi lunch with your buddy or that power meeting with your realtor, knowing that you can return to find your brush completely moist and ready for more painting.

Shop-vac the dust right at the source
If you have no choice but make a cut with a power saw inside a finished house, get out your trusty shop-vac. (You do have one, don’t you? All the happening remodelers do.) Have a helper turn on the vac and hold the hose a few inches from where the saw is going to shoot its dust. About seventy percent or more of the dust will be sucked into the vac before it can float off and land on things like furniture and Ming vases. It’s not perfect, but it’s a damn sight better than not doing it.

There you have it, obscure little bits of advice, field-tested and determined to be both nifty and effective.

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