Saying shhh! to a squeaky house
The Pragmatist: Household squeaks and wobbles in doors, floors and furniture can be addressed with easy, low-cost repairs.
The New York Times
Japanese royalty once built homes with floors so squeaky that no intruder could evade detection.
Amazingly, the secrets of these nightingale floors, as they are known, somehow found their way into my builder's hands. Now, whenever a faint floorboard creak sends our dogs into a midnight barking riot, I think of our builder and I wonder how his karma is holding up.
From one perspective, my squeaky floor (and the creaky doors, tilted tables, loose stair posts and wobbly chairs that we have in abundance) are mere annoyances that could go way down on the to-do list. But then I remembered those people known as personal-injury lawyers, and all the guests we have arriving for the holidays. So to avoid litigation, I called on three people with deep experience in fixing squeaks and wobbles: A.J. Hamler, the author of "Box Builder's Handbook" and the founding editor of Woodcraft magazine; Jim Boorstein, a principal at Traditional Line, a renovation specialist in Manhattan; and Eyrich Stauffer, the owner of Stauffer Woodworking, in Montpelier, Vt.
These experts taught me a few tricks, but they also underscored the beautiful truth that sometimes the best way to fix something is to bang it really hard with a hammer.
Hamler pointed out one other easy cure: time. Warm weather, it turns out, softens the creakiness in most homes because wood expands when the temperature rises. So, Hamler said, with winter creaks, "You can just wait four months and it'll go away."
But rather than reschedule our holiday gatherings for April, I went to work on our chairs, starting with one specimen that looked as if it had been plucked from the set of "Swamp People."
When I approached this little charmer, it was in its usual state: rope around the legs, glue frozen in midstream at the joints, and a rung sitting on a nearby windowsill.
I set the wobbly chair on our wobbly table and recalled Boorstein's repair advice.
"Anything that has value, whatever you do, you want it to be reversible," he said. "Some people use gap-filling epoxies, but I'm not going there because they're not reversible."
My chair has value. Just not much. So out came the Gorilla epoxy ($5.50 for 0.85 ounce).
I scraped some of the glue from the 50 previous repair failures, mixed the epoxy and slathered it onto the tenons, which are the often-tapered ends of rungs (or legs or posts) that are inserted into the mortises, or holes. I added some epoxy to the mortises, too, and then held everything in place with a kayak strap.
A day later the chair was solid (and, arguably, charming). If I should ever discover it hailed from the court of Louis XIII, I won't tell Boorstein.
For another chair that was loose but not yet shedding pieces, I tried Chair Doctor Pro ($14 for 4 ounces), a thin glue squirted into chair joints with a syringe. The liquid soaks into tenons and swells them enough to tighten their hold in the joints.
It worked as advertised. A day later, the rungs no longer spun.
Now I was feeling it.
For the wobbly table, it occurred to me that I had never actually been underneath it to find the cause. After 10 minutes on my back with a headlamp, I saw that the three wedge-shaped blocks supporting the tabletop were supported by one thin nail apiece. All three were loose.
Nine hard whacks of a hammer and a check with a level (Johnson Torpedo, $3), and the deed was done.
Next came the upright newel post at the bottom of the staircase. At Boorstein's advice, I took some shims — thin wedges inserted to secure or level items — and drove a few into gaps at the bottom.
Shims are cheap ($4 for a bundle of wooden ones from J.D. Irving, $6 for 40 plastic ones from Lee Valley), and they worked. The post stabilized.
I then took a new look at a loose rail post, or baluster, midway up the staircase. It detaches so often that we sometimes leave it off for long stretches. I considered driving a screw into the tenon of the baluster, where it meets the underside of the railing, but the mortise was so big, I would have needed a huge, ugly screw.
Boorstein's advice? "Any time you find a hole that's too big for a screw, put a toothpick or wooden match into it and then try the screw," he said. "It'll tighten."
Two wooden matchsticks later, the baluster was conquered. I used a trim-head screw (Project Center, $7 a pound), which is thin and unobtrusive. Stauffer uses these screws in many visible spots, including on an old highchair that needed roughly 10 of them.
Since I was near my creaky front door, I squeezed a drop of 3-in-One oil ($3 for 4 ounces) into the top joint of each hinge and worked the hinges open and shut until they quieted. Simple. (Just bring a rag to catch any excess.)
Last came the squeaky floors.
If you're lucky, your floor squeaks arise from the wood planks rubbing against one another. For that problem, Stauffer recommended sprinkling talcum powder between the planks (Johnson & Johnson, 4 ounces, $3) because it sometimes coats the wood just enough to prevent squeaks.
"I can't imagine it lasts forever, so it may be a great quick fix for the holidays," he said, adding, "It seems like something you could bottle up and call it Magic Floor, and sell it."
Unfortunately, talcum powder did not do the trick, because floor squeaks can also arise from gaps between the flooring and the joists, and that seemed to be our problem. For those squeaks, you can head downstairs and either screw the joist to the flooring, or drive a shim between joist and flooring to stop everything from moving.
If you live in an apartment, or the room below the squeaky floor has a ceiling, that repair is complicated. But luckily, we had a squeak above a basement area with exposed joists. I had my son walk slowly above me on the squeaky section until I saw the problem, and I drove shims into the gaps.
It didn't eliminate the squeak, but it helped.
My builder applied most of his nightingale-floor mastery just outside my bedroom, where the squeak is so loud it echoes downstairs.
Hamler said he has had success with a product that sounds like infomercial fare, Squeeeeek No More. It's sold online in a kit ($20) that includes three-inch screws scored for easy breaking. The idea is to drill the screws through the flooring and into the joist to pull the two together. The screw is scored so the top half can be broken off below the floor surface — leaving nothing to shred your toes on.
Each kit also includes a long screw for finding joists, but to avoid perforating my floors I bought a stud finder instead (Zircon Studsensor E50, $20). Or, if you know the distance between your joists, grab a tape measure.
Unfortunately, I put a crack in a wood plank, which the Squeeeeek No More folks attributed to my failure to drill a pilot hole before inserting the scored screw. (I had watched the wrong instructional video and missed the pilot-hole part).
The squeaking diminished slightly, so it was worth the effort, but I was disappointed that the squeak wasn't gone.
Stauffer put things into perspective.
"Sometimes it's just easier to celebrate the squeak than it is to conquer it," he said.
Surely that's how my builder would have wanted it.
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