Q. The large wood post at the bottom of the stairs to my second floor is loose and wobbly. How can I fix it?
A. The repair depends on how the post was originally fastened and its proximity to other parts of the stairs — the stringer (the long notched part that supports the stairs on the post side, the treads and the risers. Some posts are also fastened to the floor, sometimes bolted to a plate underneath the floorboards. If your basement has no ceiling, check in the vicinity of the stairs for such a plate or other fastener — you might be able to tighten the post from underneath.
Often the only practical approach is to take a good look at the base of the post and try and figure out what can be done to tighten it. For example, if it rests against a stringer, you can probably tighten it by driving a couple of long screws through the post and into the stringer. If you do this, first drill a shallow hole for each screw so that the head of the screw will sink beneath the surface of the wood. Then drill a second smaller pilot hole for each screw to reduce chances of splitting the wood. You must use long screws with sizable heads that will grip the post tightly. Lag bolts, which have heads that are tightened with a wrench, are sometimes used in place of regular screws.
When the post is tight, you can fill the holes over the screw heads with matching wood putty, wood plugs, or cover the holes with molding. In some cases, you might have to insert screws at an angle through the sides of the post and into a stair tread, riser, or the floor. Driving screws at an angle is tricky. A pocket-hole drill guide, a tool that holds the drill bit at the correct angle, will help but usually costs at least $30. If you want to drill angled holes freehand, practice first on a two-by-four or other thick piece of wood. Use long screws with coarse threads such as deck screws. Try to drive the screws into the thickest, sturdiest stair parts. Again, sink the screw heads under the surface and fill the holes using one of the methods described above.
Q. I want to extend a copper water pipe in my basement and need to do some soldering to complete it. I used a propane torch and wire solder, but the solder won’t stick to the copper. It just melts and falls off. What am I doing wrong?
A. I suspect that you are either not using flux, a material that must be applied to the joints before soldering, or you are not cleaning the joints well. You must clean each of the mating surfaces before soldering – the end of the copper pipe and the inside of the fitting you are soldering to it. I have always used fine emery cloth, a black abrasive cloth that can be wrapped around a pipe or wadded up to clean inside a fitting. You can also get small wire brushes for cleaning inside fittings. The flux is best applied to the mating surfaces with a small brush. Use only a thin coat of flux. You should then join the mating surfaces and heat the fitting, not the joint itself. When the fitting is hot enough, touch the solder to the joint and the solder will flow into it. For neat joints, use a cloth to wipe off excess solder while it is still molten.
Q. I recently saw people in my neighborhood working with chainsaws and leaf blowers but not using any eye protection. Can you stress the importance of eye safety to your readers?
A. Every do-it-yourselfer or professional should have and use at least two personal-safety items – a pair of safety glasses and a pair of noise-filtering ear muffs or ear plugs. I know of a man who lost an eye in a tool accident and another who had to undergo extensive surgery to save an eye after a tool mishap. Safety glasses usually cost less than $5 and can be bought at any home center. Regular eyeglasses are not a good substitute. Everyone is familiar with the terrific noise made by chainsaws, leaf blowers, lawnmowers and some other tools. Hearing loss from excessive noise is usually less noticeable and slower than an eye accident, but almost as damaging. An effective pair of noise-filtering earmuffs is best; they cost $20 or more, but are a lot cheaper than a hearing aid. I wear them regularly, even on very hot days, and have little discomfort.