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Paul, If your using regular bricks and plates there is really no sure way to tightly lock them together. The only way to add secure assembly is to use special or Technic pieces. If you use special bricks with "Knobs" separating each row or layer with two rows or layers of plates, you can then use plates across the knobs. A more secure assembly would be to ...
I agree that sometimes adding smaller plates can be tricky - the issue is usually caused by misalignment of the studs and holes. You could use one of the Brick Separators in reverse (i.e. add the brick to the separator and then attach it to the other part), or you could try adding a larger brick first temporarily to help you line up the piece. The other ...
I've separated several plates (and bricks too) with a simple spring-based hair clip.
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