Project fixes very shaky situation

November 17, 2001|By ROB KASPER

KEEPING WITH my belief that if we ignore nature's next scheduled season (the one that rhymes with splinter), it might ignore us, I made what I call an "autumnal" home repair last week. I fixed a loose tile in the floor of the front vestibule. It was a square marble tile similar to many I have seen covering floors in homes throughout Maryland. In addition to creating a bad first impression - if the entrance to your home is shaky, what does this say about the steadfastness of your moral character? - the loose tile also presented other problems. It got my basement workbench wet.

In the geography of our home, my workbench sits one floor below the vestibule. That means when snow melts or when I hose off the vestibule floor - a "spiffing--up" maneuver I attempted only once - water cascades through the vestibule floor down onto my tools. Loose tiles rust screwdrivers.

Last Saturday, I took advantage of a fine fall afternoon to battle the tottering tile. First I walked over to the neighborhood hardware store, Belle Hardware on McMechen Street.

Any trip to a hardware store generates mixed emotions. Initially, you are weighed down with worry over your problem - a leaky faucet, a frozen nut, a rogue doorknob. Yet once you arrive at the store, you feel uplifted by the sense of shared pain. You are surrounded by other troubled souls who are spending their weekends battling the vicissitudes of plumbing, wiring and carpentry. You are not alone. Moreover you can, in the time-honored tradition of genuine hardware stores, seek advice from the guys who work there.

I believe you can tell a lot about the tone of a community by the quality of its hardware stores. Years ago, for instance, when I lived in Bethesda, I would go downtown to Community Hardware and ask for a clerk named Nick. I would tell Nick I lived on Conway Road and had a dripping bathtub faucet. Nick would ask me what side of the street I lived on, then disappear into the recesses of the store and return with the exact replacement part I needed. Now that hardware store is gone, replaced by high-rise hotels and sidewalk cafes. So much for Bethesda.

In the past 20 years that I have lived in Baltimore, I have regularly sought the counsel of Mickey and Maurice and Janice, the wise trio who preside over the hardware store in Bolton Hill. Last Saturday when I described my tottering tile problem to Mickey, he took me on a tour through the world of adhesives - don't say glue - until settling on a bag of Quikrete mortar mix. The mix, a combination of sand and cement, could level off the uneven subflooring underneath the tile, and stop it from tipping. In addition, when applied around the edges of the tile, it could help hold it in place. So said Mickey.

Sure enough, when I got home, added a little water to the mix and stirred it in a cheap aluminum pan, it turned into a gray goop. Before spreading the goop, I first had to remove the memories of Christmas past. Those would be the pine needles that had fallen to the floor and taken refuge under the loose tiles. The pine needles were remnants of the annual struggle to get a fat Christmas tree through a narrow front doorway.

When the pine needles were gone and the gray goop was spread, the tile had to be put in place. The square tile had four equal sides, yet there was only one position - with the slightly chipped side facing north - that would allow the tile to sit level with the rest of the floor. In my younger days on the home repair front, I would have regarded this as a challenge. I would have tried to make every side of this square tile fit in this square hole. But I have since learned to live with quirks, to let things find their comfort zone.

By the time the tile had settled in, the sun was heading down, and I was racing against fading daylight. Following the advice of my neighborhood hardware store guy, I then sprinkled dry mortar mix around the edges of the tile, then sprayed the mix with water from a bottle.

The tottering tile had been stabilized. The wobbly one was now ready to stand firm when confronted with rain, with the assault of the Christmas tree or when covered with that stuff called snow. It comes in the season that rhymes with splinter. The season we might miss this year.

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