The lowdown on ladders

  •  Stuck on top

Few things are quite as irritating as dropping a needed screw or tool from the top of a ladder. One way to put an end to such mishaps is to glue a magnetic strip to the top rung of your ladder. It will safely hold onto all your fasteners and small tools until you need them. When it comes to larger tools, secure a canvas tool bag to the ladder to keep them in.

  •  Off on the right foot

A scrap of thick carpet wrapped around the bottom rung of a ladder makes a handy mat for wiping the soles of your shoes before you ascend. It will also let you know that you have reached the bottom when climbing down. Secure the carpet scrap with gaffer tape and replace with a fresh piece when needed.

  •  Don't leave your mark

Cushion the tops of a ladder's rails with an old pair of socks, gloves or a couple of bunched up old T-shirts to prevent it from leaving marks or scratches on interior walls while you are working.

  •  Boot up a ladder

Set the feet of a ladder in a pair of old gumboots (Wellington boots) to give it a skid-free footing on smooth surfaces.

Clamping and sanding

  •  Clamps from the car

If you have an old set of jump leads just lying around collecting dust, cut off the battery clips and use them in your workshop. They make excellent spring clamps and can accommodate objects up to 40mm thick.

You could also use a car hose clamp (Jubilee clip) to secure a cracked wooden leg or spindle while you re-glue it. Just be sure to put a piece of cloth between the clamp and the wood so that you don't risk gouging the surface.

  •  Pour on the pressure

It’s almost impossible to clamp irregularly shaped items and fragile objects when gluing them back together, but there’s an easy way to provide adequate pressure. Fill a small plastic bag with sand to weigh down repairs on small, fragile items so it shapes itself to the item being glued, without undue pressure.

  •  True grit

To extend the life of sanding belts and get the most use out of each sheet of sandpaper, back them with strips of gaffer tape. The tape will prevent the paper from tearing and take some of the stress off the belts. Write down the grit size of the paper and the direction of the belt on the tape using a permanent marker.

  • Resizing sandpaper

Many sanding jobs require the use of sandpaper in odd shapes or sizes. Here are a few household items you can use to get the job done:

  1.  Pencils and pencil erasers

  2.  Section of garden hose

  3.  A wood block secured to a sponge mop holder (for walls and ceilings)

Sealants and adhesives

  •  Cold weather sealing

When you need to do some sealing on a crisp, cool day keep your sealant pliable and running smoothly by wrapping the tubes in a heating pad (like those sold for pain relief) for 30-45 minutes before using them. Trap the heat by wrapping each tube in plastic wrap before inserting it into the sealant gun.

  •  Clean fingers

 Don't use your finger to shape a bead of silicone sealant around a bath or basin (unless you don't mind wearing it for a while). Instead, use a lollipop stick or the back of an old plastic teaspoon; both have smooth, rounded edges and are easy to hold, so you can avoid getting silicone on your skin.

  •  Improve your aim

It can be hard to manoeuvre a sealant gun in a tight spot or to properly seal a crevice that’s out of reach, but an effective extension tool may be as near as the kitchen drawer: a plastic drinking straw. Push the straw (or any plastic tube of the right size) into the nozzle of the sealant tube. Keep your impromptu extender from slipping off by securing it with gaffer tape.

  •  Mix it up

Old jam jar lids are ideal for mixing two-part epoxy adhesive. The raised edge keeps the adhesive from spreading out as you're mixing it, and the limited interior space prevents you from using too much.

  •  In the bag

If you are looking for an easy way to mix and apply two-part epoxy adhesive there’s a solution in the pantry. Take a plastic sandwich bag and squeeze as much adhesive as you need into a corner section. Tie off the rest of the bag and mix the epoxy by rolling it between your fingers (You'll notice the adhesive gets warm as it is mixed.) Use a pin to put one or more small holes in the bag and gently squeeze the epoxy adhesive out.

  •  Unglue the glue

You shouldn’t have to fight to get adhesive out of a bottle or tube. Dab a little petroleum jelly on the inside of the lid or on the tip of the tube before replacing the cap. It will prevent the glue from sticking to the cover, and you will have one less frustration to face.

Top tips for tools

  •  Sharpen blades with a matchbox

You can restore the cutting edge to a dull blade on a small craft or utility knife by rubbing it a few times on the striking surface of a box of matches or, if one is handy, an emery board. Be sure to sharpen both sides of the cutting edge.

  •  Be carpet scrap happy

As handy as they are for repairing tears and burns in matching carpeting, carpet remnants may actually be even more useful around the workshop. You can do the following:

  1.  Glue them to the inside of your toolbox to cushion tools in transit.

  2.  Tack them to the tops of workbench surfaces to prevent scratching furniture finishes.

  3.  Staple several remnants inside a narrow cupboard to form cushioned cradles for drills and other power tools.

  4.  Staple remnants (one at a time) to a small block of wood to make a reusable contact-adhesive applicator, where a thin even coating is required.

  •  Hands-on handles

You'll get a firmer (and more comfortable) grip on hammers, spanners, screwdrivers and other tools if you wrap the handles with adhesive tape or flat foam draught-proofing strip. Hard tools will become soft to the touch.

  •  Save your fingers

To avoid bruised fingers when hammering home really tiny nails, hold the nails upright in the teeth of a pocket comb rather than between your fingers.

  •  Save the wood

Claw hammers are great for pulling nails out of wood — but you can easily damage the wood's surface as you lever the nail up. Slip a piece of thick cardboard under the hammer head to prevent this from happening.

  •  Shield wood from hammers

Protect wood from accidental hammer blows with a homemade hammer guard. Take the lid from a small plastic container and cut a small hole in the centre large enough to fit over the nail head. Place the lid over each nail before hammering it in. To stop wood from splitting, blunt the tips of your nails with a hammer before using them: simply hold the nail upright on a block of metal and tap its tip lightly.

  •  Pliers as torch holder

Trying to hold a torch and work at the same time is a juggling act that you don't want to perform. But you can still get the illumination you need if you don't have a helper to hold the light. Place the torch between the jaws of a pair of pliers and position it at the required angle. Slip a thick rubber band around the handles of the pliers to keep the torch from slipping.

  •  Fizz away corrosion

Loosen a rusty nut or bolt by covering it with a rag soaked in vinegar or a fizzy drink. Let it sit for an hour to give the liquid time to work into the corrosion. The carbonation in fizzy drinks has another workshop application as well: it will unfreeze a rusted padlock or cabinet lock.

Exterior repairs

  •  Get a better handle on glass and mirrors

If you need to move a large pane of glass or a mirror, and wish there were some way to get a better grip, cut off two short sections from a garden hose (four sections for a two-person job). Use a sharp knife to slit each piece down the middle, then slip them onto the top and bottom edges of the glass. Never attempt to move a large sheet of glass when it is windy.

  •  Bag a lock

Give external padlocks some necessary protection in winter by covering them with plastic sandwich bags. The plastic wards off rust and prevents damage when moisture seeps inside the lock.

  •  Juice out concrete patio rust stains

When unsightly orange rust stains are defacing your concrete or stone patio, you can remove them with the citric acid found in powdered lemonade, lemon-lime or orangeade drink mixes. Wet the surface with water, and then pour the powder over the stain. Cover it with a sheet of plastic to keep the moisture from evaporating and put a weight on top to hold it in place. After 30 minutes or so, remove the plastic, scrub with a stiff-bristled brush and rinse. Repeat if necessary.

  •  Replace slipped slates and tiles

 If a roof tile or slate has slipped out of place, it needs to be replaced as soon as possible — or water could get into the roof space and cause untold damage.

Tiles are easiest — you can normally prise up the surrounding tiles and re-hook the tile over its supporting batten. To re-fix a slate, you’ll have to make yourself a ‘tingle’ from a strip of thin lead, around 25mm wide and 230mm long with a small hole drilled in one end. This is nailed in place under the slate (exactly in the gap between the two slates below with the nail through the hole), the slate replaced and the end of the ‘tingle’ bent up and over to hold the bottom edge of the slate in place. Caution: don’t attempt roof repairs without proper access equipment — a proper extension ladder to reach up to the roof and a roof ladder (hooked over the ridge) to get up on to the roof.

  •  Make a gutter scoop

The next time you need to clean the leaves out of your gutters, don't worry if you haven't got a proper gutter scoop. You can make one out of an empty plastic bottle with a handle (for example a bottle that used to contain toilet cleaner or fabric conditioner). Turn the bottle so that the handle is on top and use a utility knife to cut the end of the bottle so that the handle side is shorter. Leave the cap on the bottle and you have a perfect scoop that should fit virtually every size gutter.

  •  Foil a leaking gutter

If your steel gutter has sprung a leak, patch the hole by applying a generous coating of silicone sealant to the hole or crack and then covering it with a piece of heavy-duty aluminium foil. Repeat the process and finish off the job with a top coat of sealant.

  •  A quick fix for a loose brick

You don't need to mix up a fresh batch of mortar just to replace a single loose brick in a retaining wall or porch step — but never a brick on the house. Simply get out the two-part epoxy adhesive and apply it to the sides of the brick where the mortar has come loose. Let it cure for 24 hours, then seal any remaining gaps with building silicone sealer.

  •  Instant ageing for new mortar

If you think that new mortar joints are going to stand out like a sore thumb against the old cement, you can try 'ageing' them to match by dabbing the wet mortar with a damp black tea bag. (You may need to experiment a bit to obtain the right shade.)

  •  Pour your own stepping-stones

If you want to put leftover cement to good use, why not make a few concrete stepping-stones? Use a couple of plastic garbage bin lids as your moulds. Coat the inside of the lids with a thin, even layer of motor oil so that the cured concrete will slide out. You can even add your own decorative touches by etching shapes in the wet cement using leaves or other objects.

  •  Cover fresh concrete with hay to prevent frost damage while it sets

Any builder who works outdoors has probably had the frustrating experience of working with concrete when the temperature falls. To minimize problems, keep the area covered with hay before the pour, then after the concrete is placed and smoothed; cover it with plastic sheeting followed by hay.