At least one sister, and maybe both, asked me during this project, “How do you know how to do all this stuff? I didn’t recall that you were so handy….”
Top Ten Ways to Excel* at Large-Scale DIY
*(Not that I excel, necessarily. There’s a reason our motto here is “better is better,” otherwise stated as “perfection is the enemy of… well — it’s the enemy.”)
- Know when not to DIYIf you have the skills and the specialized tools, of course go for it. But for a lot of things, it’s a moving target, and the points below will govern. A LOT of the progress we’ve made has been performed by professionals: HVAC, plumbing, electrical, weatherproofing, roofing…. Even the first load-bearing beam, in the basement, was done by a team of us led by a professional. But I learned a dozen things that day that I’ve reused since.
I could perhaps have done the electrical, or some of it, but with little assurance that I was adhering to code, and taking much, much more time. But sometimes you have more time than money… that’s part of the calculation.
- A lifetime of learningWhen I was nine my dad taught me how to rewire a lamp — we had a lot of this to do after moving to the UK from the US.
When I was 15 and witless (redundant, I know) my paternal grandfather — a geologist and engineer who had been director of the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, and had presided in his day over a structural repair to the museum’s foundation which necessitated scores of huge jacks — christened my holiday with him my “Strength-of-Materials Summer.” In fairly quick succession I had broken a glass lamp globe and a piece of milled wood, left a pair of pliers outdoors to rust, and committed a couple of other offenses. Rather than berating me, he taught.
Every similar episode, for four decades, has built a store of tidbits rattling around in my head about hammers, screws, metals, forces, and dos-and-don’ts. A chorus of voices that accompanies me into the house each day: lift with your legs, power-off the saw, don’t force it, work smarter, take a break, whack it with a hammer… 🙂
- Collect tools and knowledge like a hoarderThe first house I rehabbed was my first house — a pre-Revolutionary cottage with a Victorian-era facade in Matawan, NJ. My then-wife’s dad (a mason) and his network of builder buddies patiently assisted us with the work we could tackle. We tore down a chimney, re-sided the back section, replaced dilapidated lath-and-plaster walls with sheetrock, stripped and refinished kitchen cabinets, relaid a brick patio, along with various other projects. In some of these we were assisted by Ike, the most energetic worker I have ever known. Built like a fireplug, with the strength of a New Jersey hurricane, he just needed to be pointed to a task. While I was still uttering “uh, I can lift this end,” he’d be halfway there with the whole thing.
I learned something from every one of these helpers. Most of all I learned that to get something done, sometimes all that’s needed is to fuckin’ do it.
- Do everything and anything at least onceA lot has been written in academia about what it takes to become “expert” — in anything. One estimate is 10,000 hours — about 4 years of 8-hour days.
But another powerful fact is that in my experience the first part of that curve is the steepest. That is, doing a thing once takes you a long way. The first time might be a total cock-up. The third time looks like the ashtray you made in ceramics in third grade. But the fifth time — while far from “expert” — has your sister asking “hey, how did you become so handy?”
Most importantly, you learn that the thing IS possible. Confidence is worth a lot.
- Use your nogginI’ve spent many sleepless nights running through a part of a project — how to raise the beam, the order of building out a wall, the dependencies between and among the hired contractors…. Pure logic does get you part of the way, and one of the beneficial side-effects of this project having become so prolonged is that I’ve had loads of time to think things through.
I am blessed with a strong spatial/visual sense, so I can lie in bed and turn the house in my head, looking at every corner, imagining the placement of walls, etc. But your talent may be the calendar, or the budget, or the decor. Whatever it is, use the space of the imagination to avoid making costly mistakes in real life.
- Your noggin can betray youOf course, logic cannot actually beat experience. I’ve thought through what I thought needed to be done on this house — multiple times — and the truth was never revealed until we were completely gutted. You cannot “imagine” (literally) what lies behind wallboard and insulation. So was all that effort imagineering wasted time? By no means — in many cases my thinking had included provisional/conditional cases (if this, then that) that allowed us to make quick decisions once the facts were known and we were presented with options.
But in general remember the signal words of Eddie Murphy’s Detroit police chief in Bevery Hills Cop: “You don’t know every damn thing.”
- Talking, listening, watchingI’ve talked to experts, watched experts. It’s not a substitute for doing, but it makes that first solo DIY effort significantly less likely to be a total cock-up.
I’m a closet introvert (surprised? yeah, hence the “closet” part) and I don’t naturally cultivate or maintain a network of friends. But I love learning and talking shop, and I’m never afraid to admit ignorance or ask stupid questions. We’ve been blessed here with a fine mini-network of sub-contractors, all of whom at different points have taken me under their wing and generously imparted tips, large and small, including things like “don’t pay me to do this, you can do it yourself….”
- The DIY ageThis is a new golden age of DIY. Between youtube and the mass appeal of the big-box home improvement stores, there’s a general recognition that there’s value in empowering individuals to discover their own creativity and ingenuity. Value, that is, in the sale of tools, gadgets, fasteners, widgets, and pretty much anything with a rechargeable Litium Ion battery (e.g., radio boom boxes for contractors).
Weave your way through the flim-flam and there’s a wealth of information out there. Even the installation manuals that come with appliances have improved. (But you have to read them — twice — before starting work.)
- Trust your toolsWhen I started out I had cheap tools, hand-me-down tools. I had “approximatitis.” Because I wasn’t sure where the saw kerf would land (or what a kerf was) I wasn’t as careful of my measurements. I knew my saw cut a bit fat (sometimes) so if the measure was 32-15/16″ I’d cheat it up to “about 33.” Or should that be cheated down?
That’s no way to live.
As my tools, technique, and knowledge improved, I realized something vitally important: the measurement is EVERYTHING. If you measure 32-15/16″ and cut to 32-15/16″ and the damn piece of wood (or pipe or wire or weatherstripping or whatever) comes out at 32-15/16″ you can be king of the world.
Learn how it works, do it right, trust the results.
- Fake itThat said, there is almost never one right way. This blog has deliberately obfuscated (but also revealed) a few compromises in execution. Why is that shelf going to be 23″ wide? Because I put that post there before I knew the plan and now I can’t move it. Why does the door swing inward? It’s the door we had. Why is there a soffit over the toilet? Because I put up the wall before I knew where the vent pipes had to go.
Such decisions are driven by cost, available materials (and a desire to “use what you have”), the state of your current knowledge, available assistance of experts, limits of space, and more. Navigating these constraints is part of it, for those of us who aren’t billionaires. It’s OK.
- PrivilegeDid I say Top Ten? Psych!
I don’t underestimate the role of privilege in our ability to tackle this project as we have done. I am white, male, hetero, physically healthy, in the prime of middle-age, well-educated, and reasonably fit. If any one of those things weren’t true, this could be quite a different list, perhaps focused on overcoming more fundamental barriers of access, voice, language, acceptance, or even survival.
Life dealt me an incredible hand — grandparents and parents who cared, nutrition and nurture that built my bones and brain, teachers who cared, a wealth of life experiences through travel, a safety net of family and friends, encouragement, gifts, and loans.
So how are we doing all this? Where did I learn to be so handy? It’s the accumulation of myriad factors, large and small. It’s the application of a principle in one domain to a new domain. It’s the willingness to abandon a mistaken notion when corrected by an expert. It’s luck. It’s just doing it. It’s failing. It’s partially failing and calling it good enough. It’s the kindness of others.
It reminds me of how newspaper offset printing was explained to me once, when I was in that business. In front of one of these enormous roaring machines — it filled a warehouse — with tissue-thin newsprint flying through rollers and coming out the other end as the evening edition — the printing foreman said, “It’s works by FM.”
“FM?” I asked.