Ask the Carpenter: Ceiling cracks, stuck doors, and dusty worksites

Ask the Expert Home Improvement
Sometimes ceilings crack when a home is settling. Handout

Q. I wonder whether you can shed some light on why my cathedral ceiling keeps cracking at its joint. I have asked a couple of contractors, but they didn’t offer a solution. How can I stop the cracking? It looks so unsightly, and pieces drop occasionally — always at the wrong time.


A. I’m not a structural engineer, but it is my experience that cracks along the edges of walls are common and typically the result of settling. It’s the cracks that run across the entire length of the ceiling that can be problematic.

Other causes may include thermal expansion of the timbers, moisture, and even vibrations caused by a front-loading washing machine. Try caulking the seam or using drywall mud for the repair.


Q. The storm door from our kitchen to the backyard is stuck shut, apparently due to the frame swelling after heavy rains late last fall. We have been able to open it a few times after dry-weather stretches, but even then it required a bit of force. Is there anything we can do to improve this situation?


A. That’s odd, since most storm doors are in a metal frame. That would mean that your door trim has expanded. That’s possible, especially if the door was put into a tight opening.

Check to ensure that the door hinges are not loose or sagging. Check the condition of the threshold. Is it oak or some other type of wood? Maybe that is swollen. Also check that the door sweep is not sagging and sticking.

Lastly, see whether the door frame is square, that the door is not stuck in an uneven jamb. This could result from settling or improper installation.

If all of these are OK, call the rep of the manufacturer and see whether they can send someone out to inspect the door.


Q. We have to have some structural work done to a corner of our basement for which the structural engineer recommends helical piles due to the depth of the structural soil (5 feet). The process takes three weeks. We are moving out of our basement, where we have a home office, but we were planning to live on the two upper floors for the duration of the construction. The tag on our gas-fired furnace is concerning, however. It says: “Avoid operating this or any other boiler in an environment where . . . dust etc. are present; if boiler is operated under these conditions, the burner interior and ports must be cleaned and inspected daily to ensure proper operation.’’

This leads me to believe that we should not have this work done in the winter, when the boiler needs to run. In the summer, we could turn the furnace off. I am not sure if the hot water heater would be similarly affected. I am assuming that we would need to call a heating contractor to clean the ports.

PEGGY LYNCH, Cambridge

A. Readers: Helical piles and helical anchors are components in a steel screw-in piling and ground-anchoring system used for shoring up foundations.

Summer is the best time. I’d ask the contractor what the crew will be doing that will create dust. If they will be cutting concrete, they MUST (see Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations) use either a wet saw or collect the concrete dust with special shrouds and dust extractors. If they won’t be cutting concrete, you can build a simple 2-by-4 enclosure with 6-mil plastic as a dust-containment system around the furnace. Open a basement window a crack for fresh air.

Rob Robillard is a general contractor, carpenter, editor of, and principal of a carpentry and renovation business. Send your questions to [email protected] or tweet them to @robertrobillard. Subscribe to our free real estate newsletter at