Sep 18, 2015

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The Ten Commandments of Furniture Repair

Advice for fixing broken wooden furniture includes fixing it as soon as it needs fixing and refraining from using metal replacement parts. Additional advice is provided that can help do-it-yourselfers transform junk store bargains into heirlooms.

UNLIKE THE ORIGINAL TEN, these commandments came to me through repeated frustration, not divine revelation. I learned them by breaking each one (sometimes repeatedly) and then finally repenting.

SO HERE’S YOUR CHANCE TO learn from my mistakes-and to pick up a few new tricks that will help you turn those garage-sale bargains into family heirlooms.

1. Fix It Now

One wobbly joint puts extra stress on the others and eventually they will all loosen, wear or break.

2. Don’t Rely On Metal Parts

Metal add-one (nails, screws, brackets) make for easy furniture fixes. But they just can’t match the strength of a well-glued joint. So unless a joint was originally held together with metal, don’t use nails, screws or brackets to mend it. Almost always, the right way to repair a joint is to take it apart and reglue it.

3. Disassemble First, Then Strip, Reglue And Refinish

If you plan to refinish, DISASSEMBLE FIRST, THEN STRIP, REGLUE AND REFINISH. There are lots of reasons to do a complete refinish-and-rebuild job in this order: Stripping is easier when furniture is in pieces. Many strippers that soften paint or varnish may also soften glue. And refinishing last lets you deal with all the little scrapes and dents caused by the previous steps.

Tip: If you plan to strip, label both parts of each joint with marker as you disassemble. But jot your labels on hidden spots like tenons or the undersides of parts. If you don’t plan to strip, you can write on pieces of masking tape.

4. Never Disassemble A Tight Joint

NEVER DISASSEMBLE A TIGHT JOINT, unless you have to. You may say to yourself, “I have to pull apart this loose joint anyway. I might as well tackle the others while I’m at it.” Don’t do it. Loose joints can be stubborn, but with tight joints disassembly often turns to destruction. If a joint is tight and you don’t have to dismantle it in order to get at a loose joint, leave it alone.

5. Be Gentle But Firm

When you disassemble, BE GENTLE BUT FIRM. Disassembly requires a lot of force. But that force must be carefully directed. To avoid breakage, always pull joints straight apart; don’t bend or twist. A few well-aimed blows with a rubber mallet usually does the trick.

6. Always Remove The Old Glue

It’s a tedious task: scraping old glue off tenons with a utility knife or picking it out of mortises with a narrow chisel. But it must be done. Wood glues work by penetrating wood fibers, and they can’t penetrate where old glue remains on the wood.

7. Use The Right Glue

All of the glues mentioned here form strong bonds between pieces of wood. But here are some important differences:

  • White and yellow wood glue are similar but not identical. Yellow glue is stronger and more moisture-resistant, but begins to set in about 10 minutes. White glue begins to set in about 15 minutes, giving you extra time to fit parts together.
  • Hide glue is great for furniture with lots of interlocking parts, especially chairs, because it gives you about 30 minutes to assemble all those tricky parts.
  • Two-part epoxies are messy, but for situations where the glue must “bridge” gaps between loose-fitting parts, they’re the only way to go. Epoxies set in between five and 30 minutes; check the package before you start.

8. Make Joints Fit Snugly

Usually, the joints you pull apart will fit tightly back together. But occasionally you’ll run into a tenon that’s worn down from years of wobbling, or you’ll enlarge a socket as you clean out the old glue. And in cases like’ these, you have to make the joints fit tightly again Remember: Wood glues only bond pieces of wood that fit snugly together. They don’t bridge gaps well. If you can’t get a joint to fit snugly, use epoxy.

9. Replace

REPLACE, rather than repair HIDDEN PARTS. We usually repair furniture parts only because replacing them would be too difficult; you’d have to match the wood species and finish, and sometimes, do some elaborate cutting and shaping. But most pieces of furniture also have hidden structural parts that are easier to replicate than to repair.

10. Hold Parts Under Pressure Until The Glue Sets

This means clamping in most cases. Hard-to-clamp furniture, like chairs, can be strapped together with a web of elastic tie-downs until glue sets. Note: Don’t “overclamp”! Clamp parts together snugly, but not so tightly that you force all the glue out of the joint.

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Sep 15, 2015

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Pouring Concrete Footings For Decks

Pouring concrete footings isn’t a complex job, but it can mean a day or two of hard work. Just how much hard work depends on how many footings you need and the winter frost depth in your region. In the southern or coastal United States, where frost reaches only a few inches into the soil, footings are shallow and you don’t need much concrete. But on the Canadian prairie, where frost reaches a depth of 5 ft. or more, you may need a full ton of concrete to fill those deep holes.

Tube Forms

Tube forms (known by the brand name “Sonotubes”) are sold at home centers, usually in 8-, 10- and 12-in. diameters and 4-ft. lengths. You’ll pay from $4 to $8 per tube.

You may be tempted to save a few bucks by skipping the forms and just filling your footing holes with concrete. Bad idea. Without a form, the sides of your footings will have a rough, uneven texture. And even though the base of the footing is below the frost line, frost can grab on to the rough sides of the footing and nudge it upward.

Tube forms are made of waxed cardboard, so you can cut them to length with a handsaw. No need to make clean, accurate cuts; just remember to put the tube in the hole with the site-cut end down, leaving the smooth, factory-cut end up. When set in the concrete base the top of the form should be at least 2 in. above the surrounding soil.

Buying Concrete

Having ready-mixed concrete delivered to your home is convenient. But unless you’re building a very big deck in a very cold climate, the convenience probably isn’t worth the cost. It’s not the concrete itself that’s expensive, but rather the delivery fee and “standing-around” fee (for the driver’s wait while you haul concrete in a wheelbarrow, level and backfill around forms). So whether you need 1/2 cu. yd. or a full cubic yard of concrete, expect to spend about $200 to have it delivered.

Some rental centers and ready-mixed concrete suppliers have trailers that can be filled with mixed concrete and pulled by a car (check the Yellow Pages under both “Concrete” and “Rental“). With this option you’ll get 1/2 cu. yd. for about $65. But once you get home, you’ll have to work fast to get the concrete into the holes before it begins to set.

Most deck footings–whether they’re built by pros or homeowners–get filled with just-add-water concrete mix sold in bags at home centers. Mixing up enough begged concrete to fill a few footings is a big, back-breaking job. But bagged concrete has its advantages: It’s inexpensive (1/2 cu. yd. costs less than $40) and it lets you determine your own schedule. No waiting for a delivery or rushing to get the concrete into the hole before it hardens.

Concrete mix is usually sold in 60-lb. bags, which cost about $1.50 each and give you about 1/2 cu. ft. of concrete. You probably can’t haul all you need in your car, so ask about delivery.

Anchoring Posts To Footings

Before pouring your footings, you have to decide how you’ll fasten down the wood posts that will stand on top of the footings.

One method is to leave an anchor bolt or piece of metal rod (called protruding about 1 in. from the top of the footing. Then you just drill a hole in the bottom of the post so it will slip over the rod.

You can also use post bases, metal connectors that securely tie the post to the footing. Post bases have a couple of advantages: They hold the post slightly off the footing, so the end of the post is less likely to soak up standing-water. Also, many bases let you adjust the position of the post to the left or right. Post bases are available at home centers in several styles, and cost $2 to $5 each. Some bases are set into wet concrete. Others require an anchor bolt . If you choose a base that requires a bolt, be sure to set the bolt so that it protrudes far enough to catch the nut that secures the base. If you get concrete the threads of the bolt, remember to wipe it off before it hardens.

Mixing Concrete

It’s easiest to mix bagged concrete in a wheelbarrow. If you don’t have a wheelbarrow, you can use a plastic cement tub (about $12 at home centers). Either way, you just dump in two to three bags of the dry mix, add about a gallon of water and blend with a hoe. Gradually add more until the mix is thoroughly wet but stiff enough to hold its shape when you cut a furrow in it with the hoe.

After The Pour

After the concrete has set overnight, pack the soil that you filled in around the footings. Pounding the soil with an 8-ft. 2×4 held upright works well.

If you don’t like the looks of the cardboard forms, you can cut away the exposed sections with a utility knife. This is more of a hassle than it sounds; make sure you have a supply of new blades on hand.

How Many Bags is That?

Here’s a rough guide for figuring how many 60-lb. bags you’ll need to fill your footings:

  • 8-in. dia. tubes: One bag for every 16 in. of length, plus 1-1/2 bags for the base of each footing.
  • 10-in. dia. tube: One bag for every 10 in., plus 2-1/2 bags per footing.
  • 12-in. dia. tube: One bag for every 7 in., plus four bags per footing.

Example: You have eight footings, each requiring a 40-in. long, 8-in. dia. tube. Begin by multiplying the number of tubes times the length (8 x 40 = 320 in.). Then divide by the depth of fill you get from one bag (320 / 16 = 20 bags). Add 1-1/2 bags per footing (1-1/2 x 8 = 12 bags) for a total of 32 bags. Buy three or four extra bags and return any you don’t use.

If you decide to use ready-mixed concrete, you have estimate how many cubic yards (27 cu. ft.) you need. Some ready-mix suppliers will do this for you; just tell them how many footings, what size and how deep. To come up with a figure yourself, determine how many 60-lb. bags you need and divide by 54 (since 54 bags make about 1 cu. yd.).

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Sep 11, 2015

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Running Wire Through Walls (Part 2)

The 1-1/4 in. rule

When you drill through studs, joists or plates to run electrical cable, the holes must be at least 1-1/4 in. from the outer edges of the framing. That way, you’re less likely to damage the cable if you drive nails or screws into walls or ceilings later. In places where you can’t locate holes 1-1/4 in. inside framing, you must shield the cable with metal protector plates.

Peek inside walls with a mirror

It’s not quite as good as having X-ray vision, but with a small mirror, a flashlight and a hole to peek through, you can see everything a mouse sees and the obstacles you’ll have to deal with.

Four tips for smoother cable pulling

  • When using a chain or fish tape to pull cable through a wall, you want a smooth, tapered connection that will slip right past nails and around corners. First, use wire cutters to cut through two of the wires at a sharp angle, leaving about 4-in. of the third wire exposed. Loop the exposed wire through the chain and tightly wrap the whole connection with electrical tape, beginning on the chain and ending on the cable.
  • Always lay out the cable straight and flat before you pull it through a wall or ceiling. Leave it coiled and you’ll get kinks that won’t fit through your drilled holes.
  • Whenever possible, divide the path of the cable’s route into segments. In the basement-to-attic situation on p. 75, for example, it’s easiest to pull the cable in two steps: First pull all the cable you’ll need up to the second floor through the access hole. Then pull the cable from the second floor into the attic.
  • When pulling cable through a long or winding path, have a helper feed the cable into the wall or ceiling at one end while you pull from the other.

Another route to the attic

The next best thing to running cable along a plumbing vent is to route it through walls that are stacked (one directly over another). To check to see whether two interior walls are stacked, measure the distance of each one from the same exterior wall. You can also use walls that are offset, but that requires more cutting.

Even with stacked walls, you’ll have to do some cutting if you have a two-story house (as shown here). With a one-story house, no cutting is required.

To create a path for the cable, you’ll need to drill holes that line up vertically from the attic to the basement. Position them by measuring from an exterior wall. First drill through the top plates of the second-floor wall. Then cut an access hole in the second-floor wall so you can drill down into the first floor. To keep the hole as small as possible, outfit your drill with a right-angle attachment (about $20 at home centers, plus $10 for a drill chuck). First drill through the bottom plate, then add a 12-in. extension shaft to reach the top plate of the first floor. Before drilling up from the basement, drill a small hole near the base of the wall and insert a wire to mark the wall’s location.

At the second-floor access hole, feed plumber’s chain into the first-floor wall. When it reaches the first-floor bottom plate, you’ll have to hook it with a coat hanger and pull it into the basement. Then connect the cable and pull it through the second-floor access hole. Finally, run the chain from the attic to the second floor and pull the cable into the attic.

Fishing Gear

A coat hanger or other stiff wire is perfect for snaring chain. When you make a hanger into a fishing tool, leave the big hook on the end intact; it will help you rotate and steer the small hook you make at the other end.

A fish tape ($20 at home centers), made of stiff, springy metal, can’t drop straight down inside a wall or make sharp turns the way a chain will. But because it’s stiff, you can push it through insulation, feed it upward through a wall or run it across a ceiling between the joists.

Plumber’s chain costs less than $1 per foot at home centers and is one of the handiest wire-fishing tools you can get.

Sometimes, the weight of a plumb bob (about $6 at home centers) is necessary to drag the chain pass snags or rough spots inside walls. Tie the plumb bob to the chain with wire and wrap the wire with electrical tape.

Modified Spade Bit

A modified spade bit ($3) costs only a little more than a standard bit, and it can be used with extensions and cuts faster with less strain. It’s almost impossible to sharpen, though, so avoid nails.

Self-Feeding Spade Bit

That threaded tip draws the bit into wood, making this bit fast and nearly strain-free to use. And you can sharpen it a few times. But it’s more expensive ($5) and it can’t be used with standard spade bit extensions.

Standard Spade Bit

It’s inexpensive ($2), easy to sharpen and can be used with extension shafts. But it cuts slowly and you have to push the drill hard.

Auger Bit

This is the bit favored by pros because it’s self-feeding and easy to sharpen. It’s available in various lengths (from 6 in. to 24 in.), but at $8 to $25 per bit, it’s the most expensive choice.

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Sep 7, 2015

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Running Wire Through Walls (Part 1)

Tools, techniques and tricks for fishing wire.

Adding an outlet or light fixture can be a tricky job, especially if you have to “fish” cable through finished walls or ceilings. “Fishing wire” is the art of running cable from one place to another with minimal cutting into walls and ceilings. The more you cut, the bigger the job gets and the more you’ll wish you’d hired a pro.

This article will give you pointers on planning and show you some of the common techniques electricians use to keep a small job from becoming a major project. The tools and tricks we cover will help you run electrical cable, as well as phone lines and any other type of wire.

First, plan the easiest route

Before you pick up a tool, take some time to find the path of least destruction.

Here are a few guidelines:

  • Your goal is to find the easiest route, not the most direct. A winding route that requires an extra 50 ft. of cable is better than a direct route that means more cutting into walls or ceilings.
  • Whenever possible, run cable through unfinished spaces. Crawlspaces, unfinished basements and attics let you run cable with the least hassle.
  • Avoid running cable through exterior walls. Insulation makes fishing wire difficult, messy or both.
  • Cut into walls or ceilings where any patching imperfections won’t be noticeable: in closets, near the floor or in spots hidden by furniture.
  • Avoid cutting textured walls or ceilings. Patching and matching a textured surface is tough.

Run wire to the attic

Bringing more power to the upper floor of a house–for outlets, lights or a bath fan–usually means first running cable into the attic. The main plumbing vent stack often provides the easiest path. Usually, there are gaps around the stack where it passes through ceilings and floors, so you can drop a plumb bob from the attic to the basement or crawlspace. To get past ceilings and floors, you may have to bounce the plumb bob until it finds the gap. When the plumb bob reaches the basement, tie cable to the chain and pull it up to the attic. Quick and simple. But this trick won’t work all the time: Unlike cast-iron stacks, which have to run straight up to support their own weight, lighter plastic stacks sometimes include short horizontal sections. And in recent years, builders have begun sealing the gaps around stacks to keep fire from spreading and to prevent heat loss.

Fish wire through offset walls

To create a path between offset walls, begin by cutting two small access holes and drilling holes at a steep angle through the 2×4 plates. At the lower wall, you’ll also have to cut a notch into the plate so the cable can pass down into the wall cavity. Feed a plumber’s chain into the joist cavity from above and then hook the chain from below using a coat hanger or fish tape. After you pull the cable, don’t forget to install protector plates.

Cut access holes with a hole saw

When you have to cut access holes through drywall to run cable across ceiling joists or studs, use a 4-in. hole saw ($20 at home centers). Locate joists with an electronic stud finder and center each hole on a joist. Chisel a shallow notch into each joist just deep enough for a plastic staple and be sure to cover the notches later with protector plates (see circled photo, below). When the time comes to patch the drywall, use the “plugs” you cut with the hole saw.

NOTE: This won’t work with manufactured joists like I-joists or truss joists because you shouldn’t cut notches into them.

Hide access holes behind baseboard

Running cable behind baseboard is a slick way to make a horizontal run without patching walls. It’s easiest with wide baseboard, but it’s usually possible with narrow baseboard as well.

Remove the baseboard and cut access holes at each stud, making sure you don’t cut any higher than the height of the baseboard. Using a chisel, cut a notch into the base of each stud just deep enough for a plastic staple. Feed the cable through the notches, staple the cable at each stud and cover the notch with a metal protector plate.

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Sep 3, 2015

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Cracking the Mysteries of Concrete (Part 2)

Mystery 4:

What’s with the plastic sheets?

After a slab was poured and troweled smooth, we would sometimes cover it with sheets of plastic. Sometimes, we would even come back the next day, pull off the sheets, spray the slab with water and then cover it again. This made no sense. The plastic would leave the surface of the concrete with a splotchy, uneven color. And wasn’t dry, hard concrete our goal anyway?

What I didn’t know was that concrete doesn’t harden because it’s drying; it hardens because it’s wet. Those intertwining crystals need water to grow. And the longer concrete stays wet, the harder and stronger it gets. The hardening or “curing” process can continue for weeks if the concrete is kept wet.

Mystery 5:

Why does good concrete crack?

One day I parked on a concrete slab we had poured a couple of weeks earlier. As I got out of my pickup, I noticed a tiny “hairline” crack running across the slab. I assumed that I had caused the crack and wondered what a broken nose feels like.

But as the foreman walked across the slab, he just muttered, “@#%* shrinkage crack!”

Concrete shrinks as it cures. And although the shrinkage is slight–only about 1/16 in. over a 10-ft. span–it’s enough to make this inflexible stuff crack. A long, wet cure minimizes cracking, but expect any large expanse of concrete to crack as it cures.

Pros have learned to deal with the inevitable cracking in a couple of ways. One trick is to use “control joints,” deep grooves plowed into the wet concrete at finishing time. The grooves, spaced every 10 to 15 ft. or so, create a weak spot in the concrete, so you get nice, straight cracks running along the grooves instead of an ugly, haphazard spider-web effect.

Another crack-control weapon is some type of reinforcement. For decades, contractors have put wire mesh or long metal rods called “rebar” in the concrete. More recently, concrete suppliers have begun adding tiny fibers to their mix to create fiber-reinforced concrete.

Reinforcement can’t prevent cracks, but it can keep them from widening. And the strongest reinforcement, rebar, will keep concrete on one side of a crack from sinking below or rising above its neighbor.

Mystery 6:

Is concrete hazardous to your health?

I can handle wet concrete with my bare hands all day and end up with nothing worse than very dry skin. But some of the guys I worked with were careful not to get it on their skin. I’ve even heard of people needing medical treatment after contact with wet concrete.

All cement-based products are corrosive until they cure, meaning they can leave minor burns on skin. Just how minor depends on the individual. It’s best not to find out how cement will affect your skin. Wear a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, boots and waterproof gloves when working with concrete. And be careful not to get concrete on windows or your eyeglasses–it can etch glass.

How to order concrete

Those 60-lb. bags of concrete mix sold at home centers are perfect for small jobs, but they don’t go very far on larger projects. A 4 x 16-ft. section of sidewalk 4 in. thick, for example, would require about 43 bags. Mixing all that concrete by hand would take hours, and when one end of your sidewalk was ready to trowel, you’d still be mixing.

So your best bet for larger jobs is to have “ready-mix” delivered (see the Yellow Pages under “Concrete–ready mixed”). It’s best to place your order a couple of days in advance. Here are some things to consider before you pick up the phone:

  • Amount: Concrete is sold by the cubic yard (27 cu. ft.). Most suppliers will figure the amount you need for you; just have the dimensions of your project ready. Many suppliers won’t deliver less than 1 yd., but others specialize in “short loads” as small as 1/4 yd.
  • Cost: In my area, a yard costs about $75. That’s cheaper than bags of concrete mix. But there’s a catch: If I order less than 5 or 6 yards, there’s a $100 delivery fee.
  • Accessibility: I’m allowed an unloading time of about 10 minutes per yard. If the truck can’t get near my project and has to wait while I wheelbarrow the concrete to the backyard, I’m charged $60 per hour. Some suppliers have small trucks that can go where the big ones can’t.
  • Cancellations: Ask the supplier about rainy day policies. Rain can turn an uncured slab into an ugly nightmare. If there’s rain in the forecast, cancel delivery rather than risk disaster.
  • Strength: The strength of cured concrete is measured in pounds per square inch. Typical mixes range from about 2,000 to 4,000 psi. I always go for the “4,000 mix” since it costs only a few bucks more per yard.
  • Slump: The wetness of a mix is measured by a “slump” number; the smaller the number, the drier and stiffer the mix. For a driveway, sidewalk or patio, request a slump of 4 or 5. For deck footings, 2 or 3 is fine.
  • Air entrainment: Unless you live in a warm climate, request an “air mix” for any outdoor concrete. A mix filled with zillions of tiny air bubbles resists the stresses of freeze-thaw cycles better.

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Aug 31, 2015

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Cracking the Mysteries of Concrete (Part 1)

A construction worker discusses the various aspects of working with concrete. The difference between cement and concrete is given as well as the ingredients which go into making the substance. Additional information is provided on the proces of mixing concrete and the amount of water to be used for getting the desired consistency.

I was a skinny 17-year-old when I got my first construction job. My coworkers were big, scary guys (imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger with a beer belly and a bad attitude) who didn’t seem to like anyone–including me. So I just did as I was told and didn’t ask any questions.

That’s too bad, because there were lots of questions I wanted to ask, especially about that mysterious substance, concrete:

Mystery 1:

What’s the difference between concrete and cement?

Cement, also known as “Portland cement” (named after the city in England where it was invented in 1824), is a fine powder made from ground-up limestone, clay and shale. Add water, and the mineral mix begins to crystallize. As the crystals grow, they intertwine and stick to one another to form a stone-like material.

Cement is one main ingredient in concrete. The others are sand and “aggregate.” You could say that aggregate is just a fancy name for gravel. But it’s actually a carefully measured mix of different-sized stones. The idea is to make a mix of stones that will pack tightly together: small stones filling the gaps between larger stones, sand filling the gaps between small stones. Cement is the “glue” that holds this sand-and-stone stew together. And the result is concrete.

Cement is the glue in other products too: It’s in the mortar that holds bricks together, the stucco that covers houses, and the thin-set and grout used to set ceramic tile.

Mystery 2:

Why not add more water?

My foreman would always perform this solemn ritual before we began pouring concrete: The cement-truck driver would dump a little concrete on the ground. The foreman would examine it for a few seconds and then declare “good” or “little more water.” Once, the foreman shouted “Soup!” and sent the truck away.

“Why not use a lot of water?” I wondered. More water made the concrete easier to spread around and level. Working with “soup” sounded like a good deal to me.

But it turns out that too much water makes concrete weak. Remember that cement hardens as it crystallizes. With the right amount of water, the crystals intertwine tightly as they grow, like bushes planted close together. But in a soupy mix, water separates crystals and they form a loose-knit structure that results in weaker, more porous concrete that cracks and chips easily.

Ideally, concrete would be mixed with just enough water to wet the cement. But that minimum-water mix would be too stiff to work with. So a good concrete mix is always a compromise between strength and workability. When mixing any cement-based product (such as concrete, mortar or grout), don’t add more water than the manufacturer recommends.

Mystery 3:

Why not trowel the concrete right away?

After we had poured a sidewalk or driveway, the most experienced guys on the crew, the “finishers,” would sit around waiting for the concrete to harden. On a warm day they might wait only 30 minutes or so. But on a cool day they’d loaf for hours. Every few minutes the foreman would press his thumb hard into the concrete. When he could make an impression only 1/4 in. deep, he’d grunt and the finishers would grab their steel trowels. Then they’d work like maniacs, hurrying to get the surface smooth before it became too hard.

It seemed to me they could avoid all the panic if they got an earlier start. But experience has taught me that troweling too soon leads to trouble.

As concrete sets, water rises to the surface. Left alone, this “bleed water” is reabsorbed into the concrete. But trowel the watery surface and you’ll “segregate” the mix. Aggregate and cement sink, leaving a watery mix of sand and too little cement on top. The results are similar to those caused by too much water: a weak, porous surface with air pockets below. Pores and pockets cause trouble later, as they fill with water, freeze and break up the concrete’s surface.

Wait for the bleed water to disappear before troweling, and you’ll avoid these problems.

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