Handyman on call

To fix crumbling plaster ceiling, tear it down

Q. I’d appreciate your guidance with regard to the need to repair/replace a plaster ceiling in a bedroom in a 1910 house. A big chunk of the ceiling fell down and there are cracks in the rest of the ceiling as well. There had been a radiator leak from the room above, which weakened that area in particular, but the rest of the ceiling has lots of cracks from age.

 A plasterer told me that it is best to put a new ceiling over the old. If the work is done that way, he said that about 1/8 inch of the wood ceiling trim would be covered. He said that if he tried to remove the trim (to put it back up later) the wood would most likely break. Would you agree with the way he suggested doing the work? [Later, Jane said the man would charge $400 for a Blueboard and skimcoat on the old ceiling.]



A. The best thing to do is to tear down the plaster, but keep the wood lath and put up Blueboard with a skimcoat. It will be a bit thinner than the old one, perhaps exposing some wall above the molding, but this is OK. Doing this is better and probably less expensive than new plaster and lath, and will not cover any trim. And $400 is a very good buy.

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 Also, check with your insurance agent; there may be compensation available because of the leak.

Q. How long does concrete have to be on a red brick patio to make it impossible to remove? I am sure the red brick is no longer “red,” so that is the other reason I asked about the stain or paint to try to bring back the red color to the bricks on the patio (very faded looking now).


A. Never fear, Peter’s here, even if he called the aniline dye an alkaline dye. Dumb. Hundreds of masons have used this trick to take off mortar and concrete from brick. Buy muriatic acid at any hardware or big-box store, mix it half and half with water, and brush it on. When it stops fizzing, scrub with a steel brush. Repeat as necessary. When mixing, always pour the acid into water. And wear skin and eye protection, and be as careful as possible.


Q. We have a 20-plus-year-old Maytag dishwasher that runs OK. Recently, we noticed a strong mildew smell in the half of the sink nearest the dishwasher. Nothing is leaking under the sink and we can’t see any stains from leaks. There is no water remaining after the dishwasher runs. Could the smell be coming from the dishwasher and is it possible that the leak is under the floor?


MAUREEN, Danvers

A. Even if you don’t see water in the sump of the Maytag, there might be some remaining, and it can turn moldy and smelly quickly. I don’t think there is water under the unit; if there is, it is very likely to show up on the floor. You could pour bleach down the sink drain, but this is a temporary fix. Calling a repairman will cost you at least $130, so I would opt for a new washer. The Maytag is way beyond its life span.

Q. The spare leaf for my dining room table was stored in its original wrapping and glue from the packing tape is stuck on the leaf. I tried Murphy’s Oil Soap and let it stand for about a half-hour before wiping it off. It didn’t work and now I’m stuck. I don’t know what else to try.



A. Here is what you can try. None will hurt the finish, and one or more might work: paint thinner, rubbing alcohol, or denatured alcohol, WD-40 sprayed generously and left to soften the goo, and/or a citrus cleaner: Citrus Clean, Citrus Green, and others. If any of these softens the goo, you can push it off with a wooden spatula. If the goo is thin and hard, try using Mr. Clean Magic Eraser.

Q. Is it safe to buy used mattresses in a thrift shop? What if I find bedbugs? How about upholstered furniture? How about wood furniture; is there any concern over wood-eating or burrowing beetles?


A. I think one rule that should stand forever is: Never buy used mattresses or bedding from any store or anyone unless it is a trusted relative. Bedding can be fumigated, but it is not worth taking a chance. Upholstered goods are easier to treat, and can be dry cleaned. Wood furniture is not often a problem, although there can be a rare infestation of beetles, one of which is the powderpost beetle, whose presence is marked by a powdery sawdust from tiny holes. They are often treated by dousing the holes with bleach, paint thinner, or rubbing alcohol.

Peter Hotton is also in the g section on Thursdays. He is available 1-6 p.m. Tuesdays to answer questions. Call 617-929-2930. Hotton ( also chats online 2-3 p.m. Thursdays. To participate, go to