Handyman on Call

Dealing with peeling porch paint

By Peter Hotton
Globe Staff / December 9, 2010

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Q. My son’s house in Washington, D.C., is a bungalow and quite interesting looking. Someone painted over the 8-by-6-foot concrete porch and four or five concrete steps, and made a mess of them, with paint peeling like crazy. He was able to remove 96 percent of it, but what of the rest? Can he put bricks on top of the porch and steps?


A. If you or he got 96 percent of the paint off, the remaining 4 percent should be a cinch. Use paint remover if all else fails. OK, with bare concrete, use no paint. Instead, apply one coat of a semitransparent stain. Not semi-solid or solid or any other silly description. SEMITRANSPARENT! It will last at least five years and will not peel. You can get it in earth colors: Three grays, several brown and tans, green, dark red, and others.

Yes, you can put brick on both porch and steps, but you must keep all risers (the height of each step) the same. If you put on brick, nicely mortared in, you will end up with an extra high riser at the bottom. Different height risers can throw off your stride, resulting in a fall. You may be able to raise the sidewalk, or add a large platform on the sidewalk to even up the risers. One way or another, it is a must.

Another way: You can buy half-thick bricks, about 1-inch-thick. If a quarry or brick yard does not carry them, they can order them.

Q. I have almost no water pressure in an upstairs shower. My plumber says the water pressure in the house is OK, but the valve for the shower is almost always the problem and about $500 to replace. Sound right?

MAUR , in Hotton’s chat room

A. The plumber is right but his price seems a bit high. If it is a one-handle (anti-scald) valve, you might be able to get one for $200 plus, installed. I had one reinstalled and it was not that costly. But it was a while ago. Try another plumber to see what he has to say. The valves are sensitive and can break down easily.

Q. I have electric heat in my condo. You recently wrote that it saves money to turn the thermostat down while you sleep or are away. I am out of the house for several hours each day. Would I save?

NOT CHILLY, YET A. You sure will save. Many years ago, when heating oil was 10 or so cents a gallon, engineers were divided over the saving fuel argument. Half said it is cheaper to turn down the heat, then restart it, than to keep it at the same temp during the time involved. Half said it is not. Well, years later, when oil and gas prices rose and rose, the engineers were unanimous, saying the turn-down method does, indeed, save.

Q. Is working with fireplace brick and mortar as simple as it looks? I have mortar that is falling out. Just mix some up and fill it back in? I also have regular brick that is crumbling. Just chisel it out, hit it with some mortar, and replace it?

HEDLEY, in Hotton’s chat room A. You have two situations here: fireplace material and ordinary brick and mortar for walls, floors, and chimneys. No, it is not as easy at it looks, Let’s tackle the fireplace first. Modern fireplaces are made of firebrick, a hard ceramic type block made to resist high heat, and fireclay, a clay material-like mortar that also resists high heat. It takes a special skill to build the inside of a fireplace with this material. There is a new heat-resistant mortar you can buy.

The brick and mortar (walls, floors, etc.) are easier. All you need is a cold chisel, a mason’s mallet, mortar, and a hard brick. The mortar is critical, and in the old days you had to mix your own, with sand, cement, and slaked lime. Now, you can buy ready-mixed mortar in hardware and big box stores. It is good stuff, but using it is also tricky. You can replace bricks, but they must be mortared in, and mortar must be pressed in very compactly, or it will fail in months.

The hardest part of all this is chipping out intact mortar between bricks when you repoint; that is, chip out the old and put in new.

The procedure is simple, but it is mighty hard work. I still have aches and pains from my brick work, or at least I remember them.

Globe Handyman on Call also appears in the Sunday Real Estate section. He is available 1-6 p.m. Tuesdays to answer questions on house repair. Call 617-929-2930. Hotton ( also chats online about house matters 2-3 p.m. Thursdays. Go to