Handyman draws a bead on woes of homeowners

February 09, 2002|By Rob Kasper

WHEN APPLYING caulk, always use a gun and think thin.

These words of home-maintenance wisdom emerged from the bottom of a shower stall the other day as Irv Stein applied a smooth, svelte seal to some tile.

Irv is a handyman, one of those guys who fixes things. He runs Irv's Handyman Service, a one-man operation based in his garage. He specializes in freeing the door that sticks, the window that won't open, the tile that needs replacing, the endless amount of small stuff that can seem like a mountain to a distressed homeowner who wants to make the house "look right," usually "right away."

Irv, who is 47 and grew up in Northwest Baltimore, recalled that he began fixing things in the seventh grade after taking woodworking class at what then was called Sudbrook Jr. High School. A few years after high school he took a job with Dennis Marketing Group, and worked there for almost 30 years. Three years ago he decided to become a handyman, mending broken homes in the metropolitan area at the rate of $50 an hour.

He likes working with his hands. Moreover, he said the flexibility of being his own boss allows him to spend time with the 10-year-old twins, Blake and Ivy, who he and his wife, Cari, executive producer of To the Contrary, a television show filmed in Washington, are raising in their Baltimore County home.

At Irv's suggestion, I followed him around for a day, watching him work in a house in a Baltimore County suburb. I didn't exactly sit at his feet and absorb wisdom, but I was nearby. When, for example, he knelt laboring in the troubled shower stall, I sat a few feet away, taking notes.

First Irv gave a diagnosis. What we had here, Irv said while looking at the lumpy edges of the shower, was a classic case of laying it on too thick. Over-caulking is an easy trap to fall into, he said, especially if you are using one of those toothpaste tubes of caulk. The caulk starts flowing like icing going on a cake, piling up higher and higher, and ends up looking, in Irv's words, "like the edge of a Baskin-Robbins birthday cake."

The preferred look, he said, is a thin white line of caulk, a discrete but effective barrier against water. To get that, Irv used a caulk gun, a metal device that squeezes a 3/8 -inch bead from a cylinder of GE Silicone II caulk. "The gun gives you more control," he said.

Before the gun went to work, the old caulk had to be removed. For that task, Irv employed a box-cutter and a fair amount of elbow grease. Working in cramped spaces, like the shower stall, did not bother him.

Irv is a skilled conversationalist. As he worked, he traded media gossip with me; told me about the recent trip to Cuba he took with his wife, who was filming there; and in time-honored tradition of Baltimore natives, set me straight on who was related to whom. The good talk seemed to make his task of cutting loose the old caulk go by a little faster.

A confessed neatnik - the tools in his garage workshop were, I noticed when I visited his house, arranged in orderly rows - Irv carefully cleaned the edge of the shower stall before applying the fresh caulk.

Next he discussed the two schools of thought on how to smooth the caulk bead, essentially the dry-finger approach and the wet-finger approach. Irv demonstrated both: First he ran a dry finger along a bead of freshly applied caulk. Next, to finish off a bead of caulk that had been exposed to the air for a minute or so, he sprinkled the caulk lightly with water and smoothed it with what was quickly a wet finger. Basically, Irv said, the difference is time. You smooth with the dry finger right away and the wet finger later.

In a little over an hour, Irv was finished. The edges of the shower stall looked pristine.

"Caulking," Irv said, "is one of those things that, the more you do it, the better you get at it."

After fixing the shower, Irv quickly turned his attention to his next duty at the house, patching a hole in a wall. When he'd finished up both tasks he billed the homeowner $103. His customers come from referrals, he said, and from people who call him at his home on Janellen Drive.

Irv told me there are certain things he doesn't do. He doesn't run electric wires. He does not install pipes. And he does not bash husbands. Sometimes, Irv said, when he is on a job, the woman of the house will complain to him that her husband does not fix things around the house. When this happens, Irv says he stands up for the guy.

"The guy is busy, out earning a living. And some guys just don't like to do certain stuff. Every man, as Clint Eastwood said, must know his limitations.

"For instance, I hate to cut grass," said Irv the Handyman. "So I hire a guy to mow my lawn."

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