Remodeling with five tools and a shoestring

I recently took a trip to Oklahoma where I was just planning on relaxing and hanging out with a good friend for a few days. As fate would have it, he just so happened to be planning on fixing up a rental house during the time I was visiting. I offered my carpentry skills to his project, but realized that I was 200 miles away from my extensive arsenal of tools. From footstools to scaffolding, I have everything necessary to complete a house from start to finish…but he didn’t. However, we were able to get the project done by making our tools multitask. This turned into the most fun I’ve had in a while working on a project. With limited tools you have to be really creative in utilizing whatever is at your disposal to get the job done.







Tip #1: Making long smooth cuts with a circular saw 

If you don’t have a table saw, you can still make smooth, straight cuts with a circular saw. This requires a simple guide/straight edge. Measure the distance from the blade to the edge guide of your circular saw. It should be 1½ inches. Take your desired width, then add or subtract it depending on how close to the edge your cut needs to be and which direction you’re cutting from. This additional distance will be reduced or added by the saw itself and bring the cut back to the originally desired width. Secure the guide firmly at both edges and the middle with screws or clamps. Why the middle? A 4×8 that is not supported in the middle will tend to bow and your circular saw could and probably will slip under the guide/straight edge messing up your perfect cut. By slowly running the saw along the side of your guide/straight edge, long perfect cuts, angled cuts, or even beveled ones can be accomplished with a circular saw every time.








Tip #2: Cutting unusual profiles, unusually

During construction we sometimes need to shape flooring or trim to smoothly go up against or next to another piece. This is especially important if you’re not taking the door trim off before doing a floor installation. Traditionally we often use a table saw or a jigsaw to do this. The simple and inexpensive grinder also makes for a great alternative when you are looking to get just that right profile necessary for a good fit. The neat thing is that it actually burnishes the material away instead of cutting it. This is a slower process but it enables you to get more detailed profiles and custom angles. Try using a 4” grinder with a metal cutting blade to slowly nibble away at the material. Before installing the piece, make sure the board has completely stopped smoking.







Tip #3: How to disguise an “ugly” trim joint

“A little caulk and paint will make you what you ain’t” is just about the best motto I’ve ever heard for the beginning carpenter. When installing base/wall trim, we always want to see a nice tight corner. Even though my circular saw would tilt at a 45 degree angle to make a miter corner joint, this would have been very difficult to get an accurate cut without a proper way to support the material in the first place. Even a corner cut with two 90 degree angles and just the right amount of caulking and cleanup with a wet rag will result in an acceptable corner from 5 feet away. Our trusty grinder was once again used to either remove the material in front to help with the 45º angle or the back to create an outside corner.

Anybody who has ever done trim extensively knows that you typically don’t only use 45 degree angles for installing base trim. Back cutting and a good sharp coping-saw makes them perfect every time.The major benefit of this technique it that it allows for lateral movement in both directions. Look for that tip in the future.


Tip #4: Safety and common sense comes first

Starting and ending a job with all 10 fingers is very important.  

This one comes from me making a rookie mistake, and thus creating an unsafe cutting situation. Ideally you usually have a chop saw or sliding miter saw available for safely cutting 2×4 board pieces into smaller or shorter pieces. I had both, but again, they were 200 miles away. If all you have is a circular saw, then it is crucial to cut the short lengths of whatever material you’re cutting first. For instance, when cutting a 12” 2×4 in half on the tailgate of a truck, don’t try to hold one half with one hand and cut with the other. Instead, start by figuring and cutting all the short pieces first from the ends of the long ones. Holding the longer end gives you a cleaner, safer and more accurate cut.

Bonus Tip:  Use what’s called a Wood T-Square; this triangle-shaped square is a guide for your circular saw to ride up against. You get a nice smooth cut, even on a simple 2×4. Did anybody else just realize that “T-Square” is a silly way to describe a triangle?









Tip #5: Think “under” the box when cutting any material requiring a smooth look

Caution!  Laminate flooring is tougher on saw blades than your knees. 

I’m not sure what kinds of rocks they put in laminate flooring as filler but be warned, it will probably dull your blade quickly so it’s best to use an old one if you have it. If you find yourself cutting laminate flooring with a circular saw you always want to cut it upside down. This will make for a smoother cut on the finished side due to the rotation of the blade. Granted, you’re probably going to put trim next to the wall, but for doorways it just looks better.

Note: Upside down material goes for any type of material being cut with a circular saw like a stock Formica counter top, etc.









Tip #6: How to drill a 4 inch hole with a 1/8 inch drill bit

E=mc²…eat your heart out!

Due to an excess of flooring material and my lack of enthusiasm about tiling with a shoestring, we decided on putting laminate flooring in the bathroom.* Simply take a pattern of the shape and transfer it to the material being cut. Drill a series of smaller holes completely around leaving at least a 1/16 of an inch between them. When you’re done, take the drill and use the side of the bit to grind away the left over material. You will get an instant big hole from a bunch of little ones, and you can pretty much use any size bit you want.

* Note: I would never put laminate flooring in a bathroom. In my experience, it is not water friendly. The plan for this particular home is for it to be demolished in several years and then have several of my Cozy Homes built on the existing three lots. This was an acceptable short-term solution for a better looking bathroom floor. We used a new double thick wax ring and did not caulk around the toilet. By not caulking, one is better able to spot potential problems quickly and address them because the water can come out and is not trapped under the toilet.








Tip #7: Making OSB (Oriented Strand Board) as smooth as a baby’s bottom

It was unfortunate, but OSB was used for the kitchen cabinets. If you have to put lipstick on that pig and make her “silky smooth”, start by placing very thin layers of very dry drywall mud in several coats. Allow it to dry between applications. An excess of moisture in the mud will cause the OSB to bubble. Use the same technique when the OSB is being painted. It’s best to use a roller that is just barely loaded with paint when painting the OSB. I’ll post pictures after the doors are painted. The doors and wooden knobs for both sides cost less than $6 and helped to transform the kitchen.