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Home Fix-It Tasks for All Seasons

READING a book on home maintenance straight through is a bit like reading a "Hints From Heloise" encyclopedia: You're acutely aware of all you could be doing - and a little skeptical that all of it is really necessary. In small doses, though, both genres enlighten and even inspire.

Such is the case with John Warde's book, a compilation of the terse home-improvement columns he has written for the New York Times since 1987. The flavor of the book is urban, though not exclusively. Some "tips" in the margin are labeled for "apartment owners."

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He also includes strapped-for-space directions for cleaning venetian blinds (hang them from the shower-curtain rod) and hand-washing rugs (set them on thick layers of newspaper). Suburbanites have driveways (sealed with an emulsified coal-tar sealant) and lawns (perhaps with lawn furniture re-webbed with "ultraviolet-inhibited" webbing) on which to wash rugs and dry blinds.

The modified newspaper-column approach has advantages and disadvantages. The articles are concise, quickly read, and "newsy," in that they were written to be seasonal and have been collected in seasonal order here: what to do (or what you forgot to do) in spring, summer, fall, and winter. This is useful and convenient. An essay at the beginning lays out Warde's thoughtful reasons for doing what when.

Sometimes, though, the articles are too brief. While I am confident that I could cure a smoky fireplace following Warde's instructions, I would not attempt to replaster a room using only his nine-paragraph description.

To be fair, there is value in having complicated repairs briefly noted: It provides homeowners with an appreciation for what it's going to cost to bring in the folks who know a plaster hawk from a casing nail. For this novice house-repairer, the subtext sometimes is a valuable, "Kid, don't try this at home."

The illustrations - two-color diagrams - are on the stingy side. Their number and detail are certainly not up to the standard set by Time-Life Books's 36-volume series on home repair. (Then again, that series costs $497.34, if you buy all 36, postage and handling - but not local tax - included.) Warde, in fact, wrote some of that series. He also contributed to the Reader's Digest "New Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual," out last year.

I also missed having some of the terms defined. I'm still in the dark about such things as "parapet flashing," "clockspring balances," and "spud wrenches." How one copes a crown molding is still a mystery.

The tone of the book is matter-of-fact, authoritative, and safety-conscious nearly to a fault. Warde does not condescend to readers, neither is the writing totally bland. A spark of humor gleams at the beginning of some sections, before Warde becomes all business.

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The text has the ring of experience about it, as when Warde tells you what to do if you - oops! - gouge the floor with a sander when refinishing. He cautions readers to check shoes and clothing carefully before striding back inside after resealing an asphalt driveway - a tip from Warde's handyman father and the moral of a story I think I'd like to hear. Warde says that while he hasn't done every procedure in the book himself, he vouches for all of it.

Is this home-repair advice to live by? Up to a point.

Warde wisely tells homeowners to test their circuit tester before doing any electrical work. Fill the bathtub with water before recaulking the tub-tile joint (the weight of the water enlarges the crack), and you'll get a better seal, he says. I'm delighted to know - among other things - about silicone lubricant, slip shoes for rusted outdoor railings, masonry sealer, and that window putty also comes in tubes. If the need ever arises, I will delight to show how clever I am by using a hand mirror or food c oloring to diagnose various plumbing disorders.

But I draw the line at wrapping extension cords clockwise one day and counterclockwise the next to keep them from tangling. Nor will I peer at a hygrometer and keep houseplants "to a minimum" for fear their humidity will cause my insulation to clump and my siding to dampen. (Besides, two coats of oil-based paint on interior walls take care of that.) I'm not likely to pour a cup of baking soda, then a cup of vinegar, down the kitchen drain each week to keep it clear. I can't believe I really need a set of


This is stuff for the home-repair hobbyist, and I'm still looking for the home-fixing equivalent of "How to make great gourmet meals in minutes."

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