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New products for the do-it-yourselfer

Ben Allen practically gushes when the conversation turns to ultra-light spackling compound.

"You put it on your putty knife and it feels like the weight of whipped cream," he says. "It's almost not there. It dries faster and you can paint over it almost immediately. If you're in the middle of a painting project, you put it on, paint over it and go on."

Allen is a guy who knows about spackling and that sort of thing. He is, after all, executive editor of home improvement and gardening books for the Meredith Corp., the folks who bring you Better Homes and Gardens. He's constantly checking out the new products that make it easier, faster and cheaper to do home improvement projects.

If you haven't done a home improvement project in awhile, Allen says you're in for a treat as you shop for supplies. You'll especially want to spend some time in the glue aisle, he says.

"There has been an explosion in adhesives," he says. "There are all these different glues that truly are stronger and dry faster. They can virtually replace nails."

Another area that's taken off, he says, is cordless tools. If you've ever replaced all the knobs on kitchen cabinets, you know how hard a job that is with a standard screwdriver. Contractors figured out the value of these power tools a few years ago, he says. These days, that's all they use. They have keyless chucks to change drill or screwdriver bits easily, and variable speeds with clutch mechanisms for better control.

A master plumber and carpenter who writes the syndicated newspaper column, 'Ask the Builder,' Tim Carter is a huge fan of cordless tools. For the best results, get tools that are 18- or 24-volt, he says.

"The explosion of cordless tools is mind-boggling," he says. "They are excellent, with higher voltage and more power."

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Both Carter and Allen had good things to say about the recent advances in laminate flooring. They have gotten "better and better" at looking like real wood. They have excellent durability and snap together instead of having to be glued down, Allen says.

"Most people don't do renovation as a hobby," he notes. "They do it for a reason. They haven't dealt with flooring in the last 20 years. There's a tremendous savings in time and in the ability to do it yourself."

Even better, he predicts that the advances in flooring will spread to wall and ceiling surfaces.

Now, the same concept is being rolled out for residential carpet. Long a staple of commercial carpet, Milliken is rolling out the Legato Carpet System, a system of interlocking panels for DIY installation.

Available only at Home Depot, it runs $70 a box (which covers 35 square feet) for two in-stock colors and $84 a box for eight special-order colors. It's convenient, Carter says, but very expensive. You can get nice carpet installed for less. The advantage is that if the Legato carpet gets damaged, you only have to replace one square.

Allen's company has put out several books on paints in the past few years, and he says there are constant innovations in that field. The general rule of thumb is that you're paying for the amount of solids in the paint. The more solids, the truer the color and the less paint you'll need to cover the wall (and the more you'll pay for the paint).

"Buy the expensive stuff," he says. "It may cost $20 a gallon, but you only do one coat with the primer. You generally pay more for labor anyway than materials. So if you're doing it yourself, you're already saving. So go ahead, buy the more expensive stuff and get better results."

Watch out, he says, for textured paints. They're more expensive than they seem. They have grit in them and you have to mix them a lot while you're painting because the grit settles to the bottom. Otherwise, the further you get in your painting job, the less textured the wall finish is. When you get to the bottom of the can, it's full of grit and you wind up throwing out a good portion of the paint.

While you're in the paint aisle, check out a handy little piece of plastic called a paint can collar. Slide one of these babies into an open can of paint and you'll never have to deal with paint dripping down the sides again.

Allen says the innovation he sees is in the increasing variety of plumbing options that are available. If your project allows you to use PVC pipe, it's much lighter and easier to install than copper or cast iron, but that's a building code issue that will vary by county. Something that's on the way is flexible aluminum-coated pipe with hand-fit compression fittings. It's from Canada, and it's a lot cheaper than copper pipes, he says.

"With cast iron, you had to melt lead and pour it into the joints," Carter says. Today, no-hub rubber clamps are available for the joints, which makes it easier for a plumber to use than PVC.

Keep in mind that using PVC for drain lines will be noisier than iron. If you've ever heard water draining when someone flushes the toilet or drains the tub upstairs, it's because there's PVC pipes in the walls, Carter says.

One other cool item is the tub liner. If you don't want to replace your current tub, you can have a liner made to match. Along the same lines as a bed liner for a pick-up truck, it's a "grassroots business that's been growing very slowly," Allen says. The liners are very specific to the model and year of the tub. If you can get that information, you can get a liner made "that fits as good as you can possibly get it."

Exterior products
For the outside of the house, Allen has high praise for low-voltage exterior lighting. They add safety to stairways, they give homes great curb appeal, and because they're low-voltage, "you don't have to be an expert in electricity" to install them, he says. If you use solar-powered lights, you just stick them in the ground. The only drawback is that they're just as easy to pull out and thieves love them.

Doors and windows remain a big-ticket home improvement item, but they've improved from an insulation standpoint. While it's not new, consumers often overlook the potential savings available with windows with low-e glass. An ultra-thin metallic coating on the glass reflects heat, saving significant amounts of energy.

On a night when it's 0 degrees outside, the temperature inside a house with regular double-pane glass would be about 35 degrees. With soft coat low-e glass, it would be about 62 degrees, Carter says. If you put in windows for a second story or higher, make sure you get tilt-in windows. That way, you can clean them from the inside.

Neither Allen nor Carter is terribly impressed with the new engineered decking materials. They may last a long time, but they still don't look like wood, they say. There may be reasons to use them, though, especially if your deck will be subjected to a lot of sunlight or salt water spray.

Perennial favorites
Finally, while you're marveling over all the innovations, don't overlook the "oldies but goodies" that can make all the difference in the world. A simple plastic extender lets one person carry a 4X8 piece of drywall or tile board by himself.

Allen is particularly fond of the basin wrench, a tool designed for the times when you're lying on your back in a kitchen cabinet trying to get at the faucet. Designed to go behind sinks, it has a rotating head at 90 degrees to the handle.

"People say, 'Oh gosh, it's $15,'" Allen says. "It will save you banged up knuckles and years of hearing your son say the swear words you used. It's so much better to have the correct tool."

-- Posted: April 7, 2003


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