Man-Skills 101
July 10, 2009 2:23 AM   Subscribe

Help me man-up! Inspired by these questions, I would like some pointers about how to become a more capable, handy man.

My Dad never taught me any real practical skills when it came to household maintenance so now I am a 26 year old married man that is always asking brothers-in-law for tools and small maintenance jobs to be done. I'd obviously like to man-up a bit and be able to get my own tools from my own tool box and fix my own damn door that won't close properly!

So my question is two-fold:

1) What tools will I be needing in my beginners toolbox and for what reason?

2) What basic maintenance skills should I know or pick up? Please provide links to online tutorials, YouTube clips, or just really thorough idiot proof instructions for for unblocking the toilet.

Thanks for the oncoming Father-Son chat, AskMeDad.
posted by man down under to Home & Garden (35 answers total) 106 users marked this as a favorite
Well, to unplug a toilet, use a closet snake. Available at any hardware store.

As for will tend to accumulate them over time, buying them as needed. There are basics, of course...screwdrivers (both flat and phillips), hammer, wrenches, vice-grips. Beyond that, I've found a reasonable size set of socket wrenches to be life-savers.

There are tons of other tools I've accumulated as specific jobs came-up. I guess it would be easier to give you a list if you had a vague idea of what sorts of jobs you might want to tackle.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:57 AM on July 10, 2009

the best and most effective trick i've found to unblocking a toilet is to squirt a few drops of dish soap into the water in the bowl and letting it sit for a minute or so.

using the plunger after applying the soap is usually effective when the plunger alone fails to do the job.
posted by cheemee at 3:12 AM on July 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

Good domestic toolbox
- Good quality Crosshead and Flathead screwdrivers. (for EVERYTHING)
- Set of glasses sized screwdrivers (for wee screws)
- Claw Hammer (for putting in and taking out nails) Claw can be used for leverage too
- small hammer for panel pins
- set of alan keys
- Adjustable wrench (for most domestic sized nuts and bolts
- Pack of screws(various sizes)
- Pack of rawl plugs for screws(approppriate to the types of walls in your house)
- Measuring tape (size it to the biggest room in your house)
- Spirit level (any size - but NOT combo with measuring tape)
- Hacksaw with decent blades (for cutting metal)

This should do you for most domestic jobs. I didn't mention power tools cause that's a whole other game.

Also there are a ton(literally) of other bits and pieces that you'll acccumulate once you start on this.

The one bit of advice that I can give is "measure twice, cut once"
posted by MarvinJ at 3:59 AM on July 10, 2009

The best tool in my toolbox is being self aware enough to know what my limitations are. These are (at the time of going to press)
1) Half ass-ing things
2) Rushing
3) An inability to measure accurately.
4) Being one stumbling block away from a complete nervous breakdown when it comes to DIY.

Whenever I'm called upon to do things around the house, I try to mentally run through those limitations and refer them back to the task in hand. Usually this involves having a fight with my brain:

Brain: Did you measure that piece of wood?
Me: Totally. 100mm
Brain: Did you measure it again?
Me: Yep
Brain: Is it the same length as it was before?
Me: Totally. Oh wait. No. It's 95mm now. What the...
Brain: OK, look, measure it again and write it down this time.
Me: That'll take ages...
Brain: Yes, but remember what happened last time? You'll end up crying and smashing things again.
Me: Sigh. Well. OK...
Brain: OK, Got your pencil? Great. Now, how about the gap? Is that the same size as you thought it was 10 minutes ago?
Me: Yep. 7 inches
Brain: Joe, for fuck's sake. You're doing it again.
Me: What?
Brain: Mixing metric and imperial.
Me: Feh! You worry too much. I'll fix it in the mix. Now then: What's 95mm take away 7 inches?
Brain: Seriously dude. Don't make me come down there.
Me; OK, OK, I'll remeasure. Now, let's get a move on here because the West Wing re-runs are starting in an hour...
Brain: Joe: Slow. The Fuck. Down.
etc. etc.

By being aware of where I usually fuck things up, I make sure that I'm approaching the job with my expectations constantly adjusted. I try to hold in my mind the memory of just exactly how satisfying it really is when you've done something - however trivial - yourself with your own hands. Trying to attain that feeling makes me slow down, take care, and over-rides all the other tendencies I have to "Good enough" the job.

Pro-tip: Door frames are particularly satisfying for this.

Tools-wise, there's no shame in not having the tools on hand to do a given job. But, similarly, there's no way that you're not going to need the following so you may as well get down the hardware shop and fill your boots:

1) A good, rubber handled screwdriver with removable heads
2) A medium-cheap priced drill - but spend a little extra on the bits as good ones do make a difference. (Cordless ones lack power, but cabled ones are a pain in the arse. That's the trade off.)
3) Have a pencil and paper handy for writing stuff down. Have a number of spares.
4) Tape measure.
5) I like having a set-square knocking around - but I'm doing a fair whack of woodwork at the mo. YMMV
6) Have a biscuit tin? Good, stick all the screws and nails you've got in it. Never throw screws or nails away. Ever.
7) You can never have enough small and medium sized rawl plugs.
8) You can get budget jigsaws and sanders etc for next to nothing. I'm a big fan of these as its not worth spanking cash on something you're not going to use often. But you will need a jigsaw eventually. Yes, you will.
9) Oh and you'll need a saw too.
10) The tool I keep coming back to is this - which I've used for scraping paint and wallpaper, applying grout, applying plaster and polyfilla, removing plaster, laying a cork-floor - man, everything I've done, I owe to that putty knife. I can't explain why its awesome, but it is. Its like an extension of my body. Totally inexplicable - but I can't recommend them enough. You can even jimmy the lids off paint cans with it. Astonishing.

Oh, and 11) Get a nice hammer. A man's not a man without a good quality hammer.
posted by Jofus at 4:10 AM on July 10, 2009 [20 favorites]

Can you ask your brothers-in-law to show you things as they do them? Be their bitch for a weekend while they work on their own house? The difference between handy guys and non-handy guys is that handy guys have fixed a lot of things in the past, non-handy guys haven't. So you need to start fixing broken things.

Also, consider taking a class. In something handy. It sort of doesn't matter what it is. Carpentry, furniture making, welding. A lot of hand skills are not so specific, meaning what you learn in welding class could be applied to carpentry. Particularly if you don't have basic skills like measuring and cutting things. Basically anything you are interested in is good. If you could find a class in making a kayak or a boat, that would be the best because boat people are the handiest of the handy.

Tools wise, just buy what you need, when you need it. The most annoying nube-trying-to-be-handy thing is to run out and buy $2000 worth of tools that the actual handy guy can't afford, and then the handy guy will hate you even though he can do more with a broken screwdriver than you can do with your complete ratchet set.

Oh and if someone is showing you something, don't talk too much. Just watch and if you have a question ask it. My least favorite thing about teaching people something they don't know is when they are constantly saying "oh of course" or "sure". I know it's just a nervous tick but I want to be like, "no, not of course because you don't know how to do this". Maybe this annoys me more than it should. But I think watching and listening and then asking pertinent questions is better than constantly talking through someone teaching you something.
posted by sully75 at 4:11 AM on July 10, 2009

As far as tools go, I think it makes the most sense to simply buy what you need, when you need it. If the tools are expensive and specialized, then maybe that's a job to hire a pro for.

But don't focus on the toolbox. Shiny new tools are fun and exciting, like school supplies in the fall, but what you really need is understanding. Start learning about how your house works, and you will begin to see that this big, intimidating conglomerate is made up of a bunch of really simple systems. When you have that sort of understanding, the house will seem much more malleable, and it will usually be fairly obvious what's gone wrong and what you need to do about it.

For starters, find your water meter (assuming you are on city water) and follow the pipes as far as you can see them. See the shutoff valve just past the meter. See the branch pipe that goes to the hose spigot. See where another branch feeds the water heater, and how the hot-water pipe coming back out of the heater then runs parallel to the cold water supply, and these two supply lines branch in various places to feed every sink, shower and toilet. Notice all the shutoff valves that allow you to stop water flow in small parts of the system so that you can fix something without turning everything off. Hang some labels if you feel like it, and draw some arrows on different pipes showing the direction of flow. Then, use a similar process to familiarize yourself with the waste pipes, the electrical system, etc.

Tools will eventually become necessary, and you'll inevitably make some mistakes while learning to use them. For now, don't focus on specific repair techniques. The range of things that can wrong is very broad. You can't learn it all ahead of time, and you don't need to because Google can give you the more specific information whenever you need it.
posted by jon1270 at 4:13 AM on July 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Go to Target, spend 25 or 30 bucks on the a toolbox they have there. Most of them are pretty similar - you only need the basic set.

That'll do for now. In my opinion, I would learn on a case-by-case basis. When a problem crops up, do internet research to figure out how to fix it. Then take it slow, and give it a shot. You'll only become good with practice and experience but you have to start somewhere, so don't fear being a beginner. Mentally approach it like you're a kid, exploring something new...failure and mistakes are the best teacher (just make sure they don't get too expensive ^^).
posted by Risiko at 5:07 AM on July 10, 2009

To determine which tools you will need, start by asking your wife what little maintenance problems bug her everyday, then check to find out how to fix it.

To get you started...

1) Tools I use (in order of frequency of use)
• screwdrivers, hammer, allen keys, socket wrench set, locking- slipjoint- and needlenose-pliers, rip- fret- and hack-saw, crow- pinch- or wrecking bar, plane, spirit level, adjustable- or set square, nail punch set, chisels, tin-snips, clamps, sharpening stone
• cordless drill, jig- drop- and saber-saw, stud-finder, detail sander, belt sander, dremel
• a good strong locking toolbox (!)

2) Low-hanging fruits of house repair
Fix leaking taps by replacing washers (or with a tap reseater)
realign all the cabinet doors in your kitchen, oil squeaky hinges, unstick doors that jam shut (with a hand plane)
• free up sticking drawers or sash-windows by rubbing candle wax on interacting surfaces
unsqueak floorboards with talcum powder*
sharpen all your knives

*I worked with a guy that made a fortune off this trick - he fixed all the squeaks in Buckingham Palace. He also pissed on the Queen's horses, because he is Scottish. True story.
posted by mhjb at 5:11 AM on July 10, 2009 [14 favorites]

Have a biscuit tin? Good, stick all the screws and nails you've got in it. Never throw screws or nails away. Ever.

While I agree with this completely, you're going to need something to keep your tools in anyway, so I suggest picking up a tool box with mini storage trays for your various screws and small bits.
posted by Fleebnork at 5:17 AM on July 10, 2009

what jon1270 said. tracing stuff is good. also, if you live in a multi-story house, take note of how things line up between floors, and see if you can extrapolate where the pipes run in between the floors -- bathrooms are generally on top of other bathrooms.

Do you have oil heat? Trace the path the small pipe takes between the oil tank and the furnace. Check the fill level indicator on the tank. Gas heat? Where does the gas line come into the house and how does it get to the gas heater?

another thing to do to get more familiar with your house would be to figure out where various circuit breakers go. chances are that there are 20A circuit breakers for kitchen stuff, and most of the rest are 15A. if you want to try discovering what breaker an outlet is on, use a loud radio that you can hear from near the circuit breaker panel and flip breakers off and on until you hear the radio go silent. Note that different outlets in the same room may be on different circuit breakers. and the lights in a room may be on a different breaker as well.

in your circuit breaker panel, there are probably a bunch of single width breakers, about an inch or so thick, and one or more breakers that are like two single breakers with their switches joined together. one of these is probably the main disconnect for your house. It may be marked "main", or separate from the other breakers in the panel. If you see numbers printed on the breaker switches (15, 20, 30, 60, 100, and 200 are common values), then the largest number is likely to be the main. these numbers refer to the load the breaker can handle. if something is a two-breaker (called "two pole") set that is 30A, it's probably an electric clothes dryer. a 60A two-pole breaker is probably an electric range. If you have electric heat, there's probably one or more 20A two-pole breakers.

Often times, when a circuit breaker trips, the tripped position is in between 'off' and 'on', but it may be difficult to tell by looking. Try wiggling the breakers a bit and the tripped one will feel different. You'll need to turn it off before turning it back on.

for tools and such:
i'm a sucker for estwing hammers. i love the feel of them.

get a boxcutter type razor knife and some spare blades. i much prefer the standard type of boxcutter compared to the fold-out type. i always feel like i'm about to slip and slice my hand open with the fold-out type.

screwdrivers with swappable tips are nice, but there's something to be said for a nice solid 4 or 6 inch flathead screwdriver to bash the hell out of. (it's a screwdriver! it's a chisel! it's a prybar!)

i used to be an electrician, so i have a great fondness for a solid pair of 9 inch lineman's pliers. besides being pliers, they make a great improvised hammer. the three most-used tools in my toolkit when i was working in the trades were my lineman's pliers, my 4 inch screwdriver, and a boxcutter.

there's a trade-off between tool price and performance. while there's an appeal to high end tools, there's something to be said for cheap tools that you can treat badly and misuse.

vice grips are almost never the right tool for a job, but they are the not-quite-right tool for many jobs.

a small can of wd40 and a small can of basic oil like 3-in-1 will help with squeaky things and stuck things.

and, yeah, learning by doing is good.
posted by rmd1023 at 5:20 AM on July 10, 2009

I'm self-taught at bicycle and car mechanics as well as carpentry, which I now make most of my money from (not to say that it's very much!). I assure you, there is nothing wrong with picking things up as you go along!

You are getting enough good tool lists that I'm not going to repeat any of that, but I would recommend a couple of other things:
1. a good handyman type book. Something broad in scope, but with specific tips. There are a couple of different versions of this, most of the DIY stores publish their own that are pretty good. I'd get a more specific reference (from the library) for anything that worried me, but I used one of these books last weekend to help me figure out how to pour a concrete pad. They never stop being handy...

2. a willingness to make mistakes. Particularly if you are trying to find man-skills, this is one of the biggest ones. You *will* make mistakes, and if you keep going at it long enough, you will eventually be surround by things that once satisfied you, but now make you cringe. That's life. Don't be afraid of them, don't revel in them, don't keep making the same ones and never shy away from examining them.

And to paraphrase a line from a book I read on fixing cars that I think of all the time "Cars, like babies, can sense when you are approaching without confidence and will immediately begin acting up. Move with assurance, and you will have less problems."
posted by schwap23 at 5:21 AM on July 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Also, I recommend picking up a ratcheting screwdriver set. This will fulfill all the basic functions of an entire set of screwdrivers and allen keys.

Proper dedicated screwdrivers are more sturdy, but will cost more, so the ratcheting set will be a good place to start.
posted by Fleebnork at 5:21 AM on July 10, 2009

Far as screwdrivers go, the end-all be-all in my mind is the Klein 10-in-1. Two phillips, two flathead, two allen, two square, and take the bits out, you have a nut driver. I keep one in each car, two lying around the house (I lose stuff), and one at the office.
posted by notsnot at 5:25 AM on July 10, 2009

Learn by experience. No matter what you do, you're going to do a shit job the first few times. So...

To learn a little carpentry, get yourself some plans for building dumb little things that don't have to be perfect, and make sure the plans are so basic that they specify exactly which tools you will need. Buy those tools. Probably a hand saw, maybe a drill, a screwdriver or two, a hammer, a measuring tape, maybe a mitre/miter box, maybe a clamp or two, sandpaper, and a tool box.

Then build yourself some bird houses, bird feeders, bee houses (yes!), dog houses, doll houses, garden seats or planters if you have a garden. The birds won't know if your fuck things up a little, as long as it's generally built according to plan, and you can put a bird house up somewhere no human will see. If you like doing this sort of thing, build lots of bird houses, but make sure you are building to spec for a local type of bird that could and would use the housing. Read up. They prefer a certain size box, certain size hole, and probably no paint or varnish or glue, and you need to put it up in the right spot. Ask the local scouts or birdwatchers how you can help. (And then you're going to need a long ladder and some balance to get those suckers up where they belong. Don't fall.)

If this turns into a long-term hobby and you have the room somewhere far away from clean and pretty things, build yourself a bigass workbench and add a big clamp to hold stuff. The bench doesn't have to be pretty, just be the right dimensions and smooth and sturdy. And make sure you have good light.

Now you're ready for some indoor stuff. Try adding a shelf somewhere that could use a shelf, but pick a place no one will notice but you. A shelf inside a cupboard no one really cares about? A space in the basement or garage that won't be ruined by a couple of wanky shelves? Probably you'll have to buy a piece of wood and some brackets to hold it up. You'll learn a little about sinking screws into walls (unless you're going straight into solid wood, there are thingamajigs that you might have to put in the holes first, and then you sink the screws into the thingamajigs -- read up), and you'll need a level to make sure the shelf is on straight. And maybe you'll need to varnish or paint this thing, so now you need a brush and stuff. And you'll need to clean the brush afterward, so be ready for that.

Slowly, you acquire a whole boxful of tools and learn how to use them with confidence. Then go back to your door that won't close properly, but with a new eye, not because you put the old eye out with a nail, I hope, but because you fucked up so many things so many times that you now know exactly what not to do. Like: don't start cutting and drilling stuff until you are absolutely sure.

But I would generally leave plumbing and electrical stuff alone. Just learn about fuses and circuit breakers (what they do and how to replace them if needed) and learn (as you mention) how to unplug toilets and drains. Get some DIY books if you want to learn about replacing leaky washers and stuff, but otherwise leave it to professionals unless you can't afford them.
posted by pracowity at 5:35 AM on July 10, 2009 [4 favorites]

I'm sorry if this answer is way off base or not what you're looking for, but I think part of the man-mystique of being handy, capable, and so forth is partially a matter of attitude. The idea here is to be practical, think things through, learn what you're doing if you're not sure, don't be squeamish about getting your hands dirty, and make yourself useful.

Like unblocking the toilet, say. Think about how a toilet works, in detail, and it'll be easier to figure out what you need to do to fix one that's broken.
posted by clockzero at 5:35 AM on July 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

For tools, this MSN article is quite good: The 15 tools every homeowner should own.

For skills and general learning, a good generalized homeowners book would be helpful (possibly the one mentioned in above article?). Also, the Handy Guys Podcasts can be pretty good.
posted by masher at 6:08 AM on July 10, 2009

I'm in agreement with schwap23 -- buy a book or three, and start making mistakes.

I'm a big fan of buying tools as you need them, rather than buying tools preventively or because someone else uses that tool all the time. (That said, I don't see how you can avoid owning a hammer, pliers, screwdrivers, and drill, regardless.) I strongly recommend buying good quality tools if they are going to be used again, and buying cheap tools (or renting) if it is a something you will use only once.

I don't think that those cheap tool collections at Target and similar stores are usually a good deal. The quality often isn't high, and you get someone else's idea of what tools you should own. At least buy a tool collection from a decent brand, like Craftsman (watch for sales), where you can return a tool if you break it.

All the big box DIY stores will have large book racks. I'd suggest buying one of the large "how to fix everything in your house" books, which will provide a basic overview of most tasks. Then, if you are facing a particular challenge, such as electrical, plumbing, or building something in the backyard, go back to the store and buy (or just stand there and read, if you have a simple question) a book that explains that problem in detail.

It's really important to remember that most competent people (diy skills are not man-only, obviously) did not sit down, study, and learn 25 skills at once. They learned one at a time, as they needed to. You learn by doing -- unless you start jumping in, screwing up, and fixing your mistakes, you won't learn.

At heart, it's important to know and respect your own limits. I see people doing unsafe work all the time, and doing bad quality work that will hurt the value of their house. Don't do that. Changing out an outlet is super, super easy, and if you take minimal precautions (breaker off? confirmed by voltage tester?) you are totally safe. But standing in a flooded basement while digging into a main breaker box? Probably time to call a professional.

And even when something is within your competency, sometimes it is still a good idea to hire a professional. Maybe you are busy, or you want a particular skill set involved, or the professional can get it done faster and cheaper than you can. Don't be such a slave to DIY that you get all stubborn and refuse to consider all the options.
posted by Forktine at 6:16 AM on July 10, 2009

The one power tool I have is a drill, because you can't really fake your way around that with hand tools. I like a corded one, because my cordless drill's battery was always dead when I wanted to use it, but YMMV.
posted by smackfu at 6:20 AM on July 10, 2009

p.s. AskMe loves you and is proud of you.
posted by clockzero at 6:25 AM on July 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

A workbench with a vise is a good thing. There are lots of plans for this sort of thing on the web. This gives you a place to keep your tools and to work on stuff.

Pracowity's advice about doing projects that aren't "real" (like bird feeders or the like) is solid. The time to develop a skill is when it doesn't really matter.

You know how they say knowlege is power? That is never more true than when you are trying to fix something that is broken. For example, someone I know was having problems with one of those setups where you have a light switch at either end of a hall. To them, it was pure magic. It was obvious to me what was wrong about four words into their description of the problem. So before you jump in to the deep end of anything, get a book on the subject and read it. Black and Decker has a bunch of surprisingly good home maintanence / improvement type books, but whether or not they're even available or applicable to Australia is beyond me.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:51 AM on July 10, 2009

Here is a little practice project for you. Get your power drill, set of drill bits, screw driver, wood, and wood screws, and follow me.

Today you will screw together two pieces of wood, with a countersunk head, and not split the wood. Grab your flat-head wood screw. Go to the drill bit assortment, and get the bit that matches the head's width, and set it down in your work area. Next, get a drill bit that matches the width of the screw, including threads, and set it down next to the first. Now get the drill bit that matches the center of the screw, so that when you hold it next to the screw you can see threads on both sides of the screw. Set it down with the other two bits.

On the top piece of wood, drill a very shallow hole with the widest bit, just deep enough to hold the screw head. Change out bits to the next size down. Drill though just the first piece of wood. Now, align the two pieces of wood, and drill down though the hole and into the bottom piece of wood, just deep enough to equal the length of the screw. Screw the wood screw in with authority. All the way in, until it stops, but not too deep. Style points if you orient the screw head (assuming it is a straight head) at 90 or 180 degrees.

Repeat as needed. Put away your tools and clean up your shavings.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 6:51 AM on July 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

1. Wood filler and caulk are the beginners friend. They fill gaps caused by poor measuring/cutting, and once painted, are invisible. Get a caulking gun and latex-based woodfiller (latex, because you can revive it with a little water when it dries out)

2. Subscribe to Family Handyman. I've shilled this before here, but it bears repeating - they spend A LOT of time making sure their illustrations are clear to the most rank beginner, and they have a sense of humor as well. Although lately they've been doing an irritating thing where they put part of a project plan in the magazine, and put the other part on the web.

3. HOWEVER: Don't get sucked into projects beyond your skill level. Even FH is guilty of making things look too easy. Based on a chipper and cheerful article aimed at beginners, I once spent a weekend trying to lay a sheet vinyl floor by myself and it turned out crap, and I was really resentful towards the entire home-improvement-advice industry for a long time after that.

4. Others note that starting on birdfeeders and the like is a good first stage. I'll expand that to "all outdoor projects." I've built some really cool adirondack chairs, benches, a treehouse, and other projects and they're more fun because you don't have to be good, at all.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 7:17 AM on July 10, 2009

Okay, there are already a few good answers here, I'll try not to repeat things.

I've been slowly renovating my house for the past year, and my absolute favourite tool is my impact driver. It's basically a drill, but intended only to be used as a power screwdriver. Once it feels resistance it ratchets the screws in progressively harder, but you can control this depending on how hard you squeeze the trigger. I've used my driver for screwing in THOUSANDS of flooring screws for subflooring throughout the house and to take off and replace switch plates, door handles, etc... I barely use my manual screwdrivers anymore. It's just way quicker.

I bought a relatively cheap one (RIGID, Home Depot's house brand) but I've been really impressed with the power and the charge retention on their cordless tools. Mine is pretty heavy though, which can be fatiguing when working on ceilings or in awkward places.

Basically the trade off with this tool is power versus weight. You can get light ones that aren't very powerful for cheap, and powerful ones that are very light for cheap, but you have to shell out for a good power to weight ratio.

The impact driver probably isn't a real necessity, especially if you have screwdrivers and good wrists, or a drill for the really tough screwing, but once I got mine it quickly became my most used tool. If you got some extra cash, I say buy it. It won't disappoint.

Okay, what else. Needle-nose pliers are great to have around the house. Two if need to get into a tiny space with both "hands".

If you plan on doing any plumbing, you'll need channel locks, a pipe cutter, and a blow torch, but you can get these when you need them.

Oh yeah, get a full set of metric and imperial allen keys. Tightening IKEA furniture when it starts to wobble is a really easy way to appear handy. I like the kind that fold into one tool so I don't lose individual ones.
posted by consummate dilettante at 7:41 AM on July 10, 2009

Take your time and use your head. Every project has a hundred things that can go wrong. Before you start, think about those things. Hell, make a detailed list. You'll still make some of those mistakes, but by thinking about them in advance you'll probably also come up with artful ways of minimizing their effects. For example, you know you're going to measure something incorrectly, so make sure you err on the side of leaving too much material and leave it in someplace where you can remove it later. You know you won't put those hinges on in the right location the first time, so don't put all three screws in each hinge. You know you'll trash at least some of your building material, so buy extra to prevent a second trip to the hardware store. And so on...

If something is going badly, STOP IMMEDIATELY. You're making it worse. Go get a beer. Get away from the problem for 20 minutes. It will be better when you come back. This is why beer and tools go together so well (though it doesn't mix with heights, power tools or electricity).

Don't buy crappy tools. Aside from a few single-use items, tools are precision instruments. Two good screwdrivers, a nice knife, and one set of good pliers is way more useful than a whole box of crappy tools from walmart. I can't emphasize this enough.

Find a good local hardware store and buy all your stuff from them. Build a relationship. Ask their opinions about projects. If they seem reluctant to answer, or just plain dumb, find another hardware store. Handy fix-it types are always happy to dispense advice.

Know your limitations, but ignore them unless the potential for damage is really high. You'll learn by pushing yourself outside your comfort zone.

Stockpile construction materials. Scrap wood, random old screws, etc are going to save your ass more than you know.

Start important projects on Friday night, not Sunday morning.

posted by paanta at 7:51 AM on July 10, 2009

Two pipe wrenches, snake, plunger.
Some projects can wait, others can't.
posted by Iron Rat at 7:52 AM on July 10, 2009

pay some schmuck on minimum wage to stick their hands down the toilet!

You haven't paid a licensed plumber recently, have you? Skilled tradespeople can, and often do, earn well into white-collar territory. I was talking recently with a guy who owns his own shop and does over $5 million in business every year, with a crew of less than 10. Even after rent, wages, and materials, there's a really nice profit margin there, and I know that he pays his workers very well, too.

And that's the real reason to become competent at DIY -- not so much the "manliness" of it, but the cost savings of repairing two outlets for under $5, compared to the electrician charging you $75/each. But that's also the reason to be smart about it, and cherrypick the fun projects and the ones that have the biggest cost/benefit ratios. When you can pay to have it done for only a little more than doing it yourself, or the risk of serious harm is high, DIYing is not the smart route.
posted by Forktine at 8:13 AM on July 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

The simplest way to make any job easier is to move it to a comfortable height to work at. Don't crouch on the floor or balance on a tiny stool unless you really really have to. Build a workbench if you don't have one - you can go very simple, and as long as it's sturdy, it doesn't matter how it looks.
posted by echo target at 9:50 AM on July 10, 2009

Being a homeowner has forced me to man up on this stuff and I, like you, have been fortunate enough to have a brother-in-law whose shown me a good number of things. I've mostly taken his tool-buying advice over the years, and he's a Craftsman guy, so I am too. Here are the things that I've found pretty useful:

1. Screwdrivers. Get a decent set of flat-head and phillips-head screwdrivers. Using too small a screwdriver leads to stripped-out screw heads, which escalates the problem. A powered one can be handy, but don't underestimate the value of a manual set.

2. Wrenches. These are a bit expensive, as you often need regular and metric and usually need the one size you don't already have. You can get by, for quite a lot of things, with a nice adjustable wrench. If you watch the sales, you can get a some sets with lots of common sizes and then just add to that when a project requires it.

3. Hammers. I have a carpenter's hammer and a rubber mallet. The mallet is particularly handy when putting together kids toys (wagons and the like, which use little plastic end-caps to secure axles) or any other situation where you fear a blow from a real hammer will break the thing you're hammering.

4. A rechargeable drill and a set of wood bits, mostly for drilling starter holes for screws, which is best practice that will save you a lot of trouble and wrist strain.

5. If you do any electrical work, you'll need wire strippers, pliers, and electrical tape. And you'll need to understand how your breaker box works.

They get pricey, but decent tools (and a decent box in which to keep them) are a sound investment. I've spent years with crappy tools and never understood how much more pleasant home fix-it projects can be when you have some decent tools at your disposal. I understand buying cheap things for one-off projects. But certain staples are worth paying a little more, as they'll last longer and eliminate themselves as a variable when you're trying to figure out what's going wrong.
posted by wheat at 10:14 AM on July 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I will add on one more tool to that isn't here yet, but which I have found to be indispensable: Vise Grips. Don't get a huge one. Something that doesn't take up much space is better in the long run, but you can do so much better than pliers with Vise Grips, including removing those nuts that you stripped with your pliers or adjustable wrench.
posted by plinth at 10:56 AM on July 10, 2009

All the above advice is great. There are 4 slightly unexpected tools I own which I use ALL the time and are crucial to keeping a 110 year old house going.

1. A great ladder and scaffold system. It's hard to justify an expensive ladder until you fall off a crappy one. This is really the best tool money I've spent. Being able to set up a scaffold makes high work much easier.

2. A Japanese pull saw. This thing works really well on small thin pieces, like shim.

3. This nail puller.

4. A work bench. I thought these were stupid until I started using one.

My rule: Buy any tool you need, but only when you need it.
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 11:00 AM on July 10, 2009

Something like the Readers Digest Fix it Yourself manual is good for reference as, at least the old one I had, showed you how the insides of things like toilets fit together and basic framing techniques. Even if you end up having someone else do the work, it's a good bs meter for anyone giving you a quote.

Nthing the advice wrt tools. Personal advice: buy what fits your hand and is comfortable to use. For example, hammers come not just for different jobs, but in different weights. And, never buy cheap tools or nails, wear your safety gear, and keep the floor of your workspace clean.
posted by x46 at 1:21 PM on July 10, 2009

Bit of advice from a woman who's had to man up in this area a little more than she would have liked: Don't trust the advice of employees at Home Depot. Some of them know what they're doing, but others don't, and it can be hard to tell them apart. Ask questions on Gardenweb or similar instead.
posted by lakeroon at 1:40 PM on July 10, 2009

Some pieces of advice from someone (me) who used to work in a hardware store:

1) Buy tools as you need them. This has already been mentioned by others, but it is important enough to mention again here. You don't need to go out and buy the massive $200 socket set with a fitting for everything.

Exception to (1): Power tools. Buy a cordless drill when you see one on sale. It doubles as a power screwdriver for most jobs. Buying on sale can save you a lot on power tools. Other kinds of tools cost the same amount almost all the time, so you can buy them when you need them.

2) The best way to learn is to do your own repairs. The guys at mom and pop hardware stores usually give good advice. Just don't mess with anything that can cause serious damage, such as plumbing or electrical work, without knowing what you are doing. If something could flood or burn down your house if you screw it up, it is a job for a pro.

3) Repair your own bicycle. Change your own oil. Install your own ceiling fans. Paint your house yourself.

4) The most important part: recognize that contrary to the stereotype, most men aren't very handy with repairs. So don't feel bad. Just learn as you go along. That is what everyone else does.
posted by twblalock at 5:59 PM on July 10, 2009

For handy-around-the-house, it's hard to beat a good multi-tool. I use my Leatherman Wave nearly every day, because (like vice grips) while it's not often the best tool for the job, it's often good enough that I don't have to go out to the shed and look for the exactly right tool. And carrying it on my belt means I always have a knife, screwdrivers, scissors, file, pliers, wire cutters, and saw readily available. It's really amazing how much you can get done with those.
posted by hades at 6:09 PM on July 10, 2009

I can hardly believe that you've got all this advice, and yet no one has stressed the importance of good work lights and flashlights! You can't fix what you can't see is wrong! And while eye protection was mentioned in the MSN tool list linked upthread, it deserves being called out, on its own. Good, clean safety glasses are a must. A decent magnifying glass has shown me the root of a problem, more than once.

I'm also going to suggest that you acquire an inexpensive digital camera with a mechanical zoom lens, and macro capability, and that you learn to use it. In home repair, some good pictures are often worth 10,000 words, several trips to hardware stores and lumber yards, and days of frustration. Many, many times, I've found that taking a picture of my problem, printing it up in zoomed form, adding some dimensional notes in handwriting, and taking the resulting annotated illustration along with me to the hardware store, is invaluable for explaining my issues to the personnel there, and/or finding and selecting replacement parts and products.

I'm also going to suggest that you consider several kinds of chemicals to be "tools," and that you acquire and keep an organized, fresh collection of such on hand. And you should also be aware of your community's methods and locations for the safe disposal of household chemical wastes, and do the right thing when disposing of outdated products. At a minimum you should have an appropriate assortment of adhesives (wood glue, rubber cement, contact glue, hot glue & hot glue gun, and Cyanoacrylate), lubricants (light water white machine oil, 30W motor oil, light lithium grease, heavy grease, WD40), penetrating agents (penetrating oil, ethyl alcohol, methyl alcohol), detergents & oxidizing agents (Dawn dish soap, Chlorine and oxygen bleach, laundry detergent, Ivory soap, hand cleaner), and finally, polishing and cleaning supplies (clean rags, paper towels, Barkeeper's Friend, steel wool in various grades from 4/0 to 0, sponges). To these disposables, you can also add a stock of abrasives, such as a sandpaper assortment (wet & dry, in various coarseness and types of abrasive) and common tapes (masking tape, duct tape, carpet tape, electrical tape, teflon pipe tape, and colored vinyl tapes in several colors for marking wires and pipes). You may also want to have an assortment of cable ties on hand, which are very handy in many electrical, plumbing and woodworking situations.

You need some general knowledge of how adhesives and lubricants work, as choosing and correctly applying these agents can be 95% of the secret to success in some DIY projects.
posted by paulsc at 6:46 AM on July 14, 2009

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