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posted: 7/6/2012 4:39 AM

Jazz up that plain old concrete with these ideas

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Plans "set in concrete" are considered pretty permanent. That's because concrete is pretty tough stuff.

Standard concrete is smooth and gray, but it doesn't have to be. If you are installing the concrete yourself, consider jazzing it up a little with some of these super ideas.

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Concrete is primarily used for surfaces like driveways, sidewalks and patios. It also can be used for smaller areas, like pads for small structures or even steppingstones.

You can test out your ideas on small steppingstones before doing a large area if you want. We're sure you'll find a good place for these in your landscape.

Once the concrete is poured and starting to set up, you have a little time to get creative. Keep in mind that you don't want materials to be pressed too far into the concrete, just on the surface. You may have to try a few test pieces before doing the whole area. Be careful not to step on the surface while working.

Sprinkle some gravel, crystal chips or tumbled glass chips over the top and smooth it into the surface. This will give you a more decorative look.

Use a broom to sweep a texture into the surface. Not only will this look good, but it will be less slippery when wet.

Use different tools to create a brick or rock design in the surface. Add some concrete stain to really give it an authentic look.

Press tree leaves, palm fronds or other plant material into the surface for a neat look. After the concrete has set up, these materials will disintegrate and will give you a really unique look.

You can stamp patterns into your concrete with different things like wire fencing, decorative iron pieces or store-bought concrete stamps.

Place material like carpet or burlap over the surface and smooth it out. This will create a textured surface that looks good and gives you better traction when wet.

Once you get the look you want, make sure to give it plenty of time to cure before walking on it. If the weather is super hot and dry, sprinkle the surface with a fine mist of water a couple of times a day to help it cure more slowly, which will result in a stronger surface in the long run.

Make the right connection

Electrical connections can be made in several ways. If you are trying to wrap a wire around a screw that must be turned in to secure it, bend the wire into a hook shape, with the end facing in a clockwise direction. By doing it this way, the wire will get tighter as you turn the screw into position. You'll get the most-secure electrical connection, and the screw will be doing most of the work for you!

Start your fire without fluid

What would summer be without a few family cookouts? Boring, that's what! There's just something great about a charcoal fire that brings out the flavor of whatever you're cooking on the grill. If you're a purist and don't like the taste of lighter fluid in the mix, then you probably have some secret ways to get those briquettes going. Here's ours: We use a coffee can. Use a pointed can opener to make some holes around the bottom edge of the can, and then fill it with briquettes. Set the can in the grill and light the briquettes. The holes in the bottom of the can let air through and get the briquettes hot faster and more evenly. Once they are ready, carefully pick up the can with tongs and dump the briquettes out into your grill and spread them out. Then call us, and we'll be right over!

Super hints

• Inexpensive metal broom clips can be used for lots of things other than brooms, and they are easy to install just about anywhere. Put them in the shed for garden tools, in the closet for vacuum-cleaner tools or in the bathroom for curling irons and toothbrushes.

• I love to save money whenever I can, but I've learned throughout the years that sometimes you need to buy the best -- usually the most expensive -- in order to get the best results from your work. Paintbrushes fall into this category. To get good results, you need to buy the best. If you take care of them, they will last a long time, though.

Q. I have some black marks on my kitchen countertop. I think they may have come from a trivet used for a recent party we hosted. I can't scrub it off the laminate surface, and I don't want to use anything that will scuff or damage the laminate. What can you suggest that might remove the marks?

A. WD-40 is actually a good solvent for things like this and usually will work without scrubbing very hard. Spray it on and use a sponge or soft cloth to remove the marks. Ammonia is another option to try.

Q. I'm starting to have a problem with my toilet. When I flush it, the waste doesn't seem to all go down the drain. This is a recent problem, and I'm not sure what to do. The water level actually goes down pretty low in the bowl, too, even when we're not using it. I'm just not sure where to start. Got any tips?

A. The first thing we thought about is a clogged vent stack. This is an open pipe, probably sticking out of the top of your roof, that allows air in when the tank is draining. Use a plumber's snake to clear it out, and see if this cures your problems. Also, check to make sure your water level is adjusted high enough inside the tank to allow for a good flush.

Q. I have some dark stains, presumably mold, on my wooden pool deck. They are under the plant pots, but I can't move the plants because I can't find anything to get rid of the stains. Can you help?

A. Use wooden deck cleaner to remove the mold. Bleach and water also can be used. Once the stains are gone, use a water seal on the deck to prevent more stains. In the future, make sure you use plastic drain trays under the pots. If you like the look of clay more, then use a plastic tray under the clay trays. They are porous and might be causing the problem.

Reader tips

• After pricing umbrella stands, I decided to make my own. I found a large, shallow flowerpot. I pushed a pole down into the pot and then filled it up with concrete. The mix set up overnight, and because I put the pole in, it's a perfect fit for my umbrella. It's very heavy and looks fine. It saved me some bucks, too.

• We always start off our camping trips with an ice chest full of food and ice. Several days before we leave, we wash out our plastic milk jugs and fill them with water and let them freeze. These take a long time to melt, so they keep our food cold longer. Plus, when they do melt, we have drinking water. We save money on ice and drinks this way. The milk jugs are free, and we can even recycle them at the end of our trip.

• I love to cook outside on the grill, but, like most of you, I hate to clean up. I get my wife to help. When I'm finished with the grill, I give the rack to her, and she sprays it with oven cleaner, sets it in her oven and heats it up. After the appropriate amount of time, I get it back, and then all I have to do is wipe it down. It's like new every time.

• Vacuuming behind appliances usually is pretty important, but it's not always easy to do. Use a small paint roller, sprayed with dust cleaner, on an extension pole to reach behind and under heavy appliances. It's super easy.

• I have a great way to recycle old toothbrushes. You can use them for all sorts of cleaning jobs around the house and garage. Most are strong enough to really scrub when you are trying to clean something. They are really good at detail work. When you are stripping paint from something and it needs some extra elbow grease in the crevices, grab an old toothbrush and use it. You even can use a powered toothbrush if you have one.

• I have a couple of different curling and flat irons for my hair. They are always in the way in my bathroom. I finally devised a great system for storing them on the wall right next to the plug. I glued a short PVC pipe right on the wall, vertically. Both ends are open, and I can set each iron into a pipe, where it sits ready to use. It was easy to do. The PVC pipe was easy to cut, and I used some scraps from a recent plumbing repair, so it was a free project.

Shoptalk

• Coloring concrete can be fun and, with Deco Gel, really creative. The solution is a gel, so it can be used on vertical surfaces as well as horizontal. It can be used on retaining walls and fountains, and just about anything else made of concrete. Because it's a gel, you can use it just like paint and do some neat detail work. The color is a penetrating stain, so there is some prep work involved, but this also means it will last longer than a typical painted surface. Check it out online at www.directcolors.com and see what you can do to improve your plain, gray concrete surfaces. Talk about an upgrade!

• When masking off areas before painting, some materials are more delicate than others. In cases like this, you need to use the right masking tape. Frog Tape masking tapes all have a special polymer on the backing that reacts with latex paint to seal the edges and prevent bleeding. And they make a masking tape just for delicate areas. It's easy to remove without damaging the surface, even after up to 60 days. To find out more, go to www.frogtape.com.

• Write to Al and Kelly Carrell in care of the Daily Herald, P.O. Box 280, Arlington Heights, IL 60006 or visit the Carrells' website at thesuperhandyman.com.

2012, Cowles Syndicate Inc.

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