Let's Build a Car
August 20, 2009 7:40 AM   Subscribe

How do I learn to build stuff?

I grew up in a family that prized book learnin' over small motor skills. As a result, I don't know how to build stuff. In fact, I don't know that I've really built anything outside of computers my entire life. The last time I remember making anything was when I sewed a pillow in Home Ec in 6th grade. But I would LOVE to be able to make things! And do things!

I would just love to be able to install a window, or re-tile my floor, or make my girlfriend a spice rack. Whatever. I just want to learn how to cut along a straight line, and have the end result bear a passing resemblance to what it's supposed to be.

Does anyone have any recommendations about where I go about learning to do this? It's not that I want to become a master carpenter, but it would be really cool if I could build a soap box racer.
posted by orville sash to Education (30 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
Where I live, the local vocational high school had night classes for adults where you learn how to make stuff. They have welding, woodworking, stone work and a few others. They can not just show you how to cut a staight line but they can also show you what tools you need, how to do this sort of thing safely and where to do for more resources. The classes are cheap and usually set up so that you have actually built something by the end of them. I'd check out your local schools to see if they have night classes for adults.

You can also read websites like Instructables and Make which often have a lot of neat and neat-looking projects, some of which require advanced skills but many of which just require enthusiasm, some materials and and ability to follow directions. You might want to try some small projects. Here are some spice racks! (1, 2, 3). These sorts of projects vary in how much they are actually teaching you and how much is just inspired hackery, but walking away from a web page with a tangible thing you've built in hand is really gratifying. The comments sections on sites like that are great for learning about possible pitfalls ahead of time.

And lastly don't forget the library! This sort of DIY stuff is one of the things that's great about the library since you can check out a lot of books and see which ones might appeal to you before you go all in and spend a lot of money. There are basic books like Woodworking for Dummies and more advanced stuff like Popular Woodworking magazine (note: my cousin is the editor there). Go and flip some pages and see if anything grabs you. Generally speaking, doing basic stuff like this isn't rocket science and with some decent tools and instructions you should be fine. Once you see what really interests you, you can see if you want to make an investment into real tools and/or books and/or equipment. Have fun!
posted by jessamyn at 7:49 AM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

This may seem like the rather obvious answer.... but if you can decide upon something to build (usually the hardest part of the equation)... then wouldn't the next step be to research it on the internet?... I mean, for probably anything you can imagine, there is probably atleast 1 person out on the internet who's already done it. I know you're referring to the more general skill of "how do I become handy/resourceful at building/fixing whatever pops up?"... and that only comes with practice and experience. What I generally do is keep an eye out for little things that need fixing (the one that has my eye right now is a (broken) pull-string overhead light in my bathroom) and then attack the problem with ferocity. ("I'm going to figure out how to fix this, if it takes 3 months and multiple attempts) .
posted by jmnugent at 7:53 AM on August 20, 2009

My local community college has all sorts of interesting classes. Both non-credit and credit, and signing up for credit classes was as simple as filling out an application and providing $20. They have an associates in car repair, for instance, and those might be interesting classes.
posted by smackfu at 8:00 AM on August 20, 2009

Along the line of Jessamyn's answer, a lot of community colleges will also have classes on these sort of things. I looked into an auto mechanic class and I know it also had wood shop classes and other similar classes.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:00 AM on August 20, 2009

What smackfu said.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:01 AM on August 20, 2009

Hey! Our newest member in this, the Unhandy Man's Club. Welcome! ... Alright, same story here, grew up without instruction in the basics of carpentry, cars, etc. The bad news for us is, there's no way to download these things, Matrix-style. The good news is, most projects are, to some extent, learn-as-you-go. Really, just take on a (small) project, find a book or instruction pamphlet, and go to it. Don't start with rewiring the house; but what would be the drawbacks of hammering together a soap box racer? So the wheels might be misaligned or something. You see it wobbling around, you tear the wheels off, remeasure, and remount 'em.

Or, (just off the top of my head and bearing no resemblence to anything which has happened to anyone I know, including myself, nor did it take up so many extra hours that my grades dropped last spring term) say you let your daughter purchase 6 chicks, and have no place to put them. They need a coop and they're growing fast. So you look online, hit the library, pick out plans for an ambitious Taj Mahal of a coop, and go to it, despite never having carpentered anything except a work bench. Over the course of the next 3 weeks, you get a crash course in frame-building. You hit a few crooked nails; it costs more than you've budgeted; you use the wrong blade on a circular saw; you educate yourself about saw blades; you find you need a power screwdriver; you make about 58 trips to the hardware store; and, in the end, you have 3 new tools, a couple of sore fingers, and the handsomest chicken coop on the block. No one probably will notice the odd crooked nail or the gaps between one set of rafters. And, by the way, you are no longer afraid of how to build things.

No fear! Molon labe!
posted by slab_lizard at 8:03 AM on August 20, 2009 [5 favorites]

posted by fatllama at 8:05 AM on August 20, 2009

do you have neighbors? If there's an old guy near you with too many cars who always seems to be in his garage, stop by with a 6-pack of good beer (optional) and hang out. ask if he needs help with anything. tell him you want to learn how to do stuff. if you find the right guy he might go out of his way to teach you. i know i would.

the other way is to just start doing stuff. start simple, realize the first few projects might be destined for the trash pile. watch youtube and other how-to sites (mentioned elsewhere in this thread). get dirty.

where are you? city, country, suburb? the lowes near me has classes (some for kids) on making stuff.
posted by KenManiac at 8:06 AM on August 20, 2009

What little handyness I have was aquired one summer that I helped a friend build his house. Perhaps you could volunteer with habitat for humanity.
posted by canoehead at 8:21 AM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Build Your Own Telescope

That's right, build your own fucking telescope.

This book changed my life. All my woodworking projects seemed to end in tears until I read it and built a reflecting telescope with it. He walks you through the process. It requires a few pieces of mail order astro-hardware and the rest is tape measure, hammer, saw, glue and plywood. It gets you to think ahead about what you're trying to build and how it's supposed to function.

And always pre-drill holes for your screws.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:25 AM on August 20, 2009 [3 favorites]

First you should decide what you want to build and with what type of materials you want to work with. You don't need to limit yourself to a single material. Some of my most satisfying projects have been mixed materials.

Next, pick a project:

Think of something that would make your home a better place. Would shelves in the closet help? Would a skylight improve your bedroom? Could you use a rec room in the basement?

Do you want to learn a new skill that would help you around the house / improve your life / be fun? Take a class in small engine repair, bike repair, welding, woodworking, etc.

Is there a toy you think would be cool to have? A telescope? A guitar? A cigar box banjo? A MAME cabinet (for playing old school video games), a skee-ball lane, an outdoor pizza / bread oven? All of these projects can be researched on-line, including soap-box racers. If you're ok with learning from books / text / videos you can find enough free instruction to get started.

One way to learn to use tools is to buy something that needs some fixing and make it a goal to get it working. A house, an old bike, a broken lawnmower, etc. Interested in electro-mechanical stuff? Buy an old pinball machine and get it working.

As suggested above, Make Magazine is pretty valuable, although they seem to lean more toward "build this silly device that'll be awesome to take to Burning Man and useless everywhere else" and less towards practical stuff.
posted by bondcliff at 8:37 AM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've recently started Building Stuff with wood. I may have a leg up in that I inherited a bunch of tools (and genes) from my grandfather that makes things really easy. So far, I've made a DVD rack, a pot hanger shelf, and a side table.

Next up is probably an end or coffee table.

My approach is to look at how things are made. When I was making the side table, I looked at how other tables were made and tried to figure out how to copy it myself. The DVD rack is a copy of a DVD shelf I have kicking around. The materials needed were cheap, so it was not hard to scrap something and start again. I usually end up using my scraps in other projects anyways.

Tool-wise, I have some stuff that I thought would be great but don't like using much (table saw), stuff I love to use (router and miter saw), and stuff that I don't use at all (bench grinder).

The Essentials, I think, are as follows:

Good Cordless Drill with a wide selection of drill bits and screw driver heads. I use my drill for everything. When you're trying to figure out how pieces go together, there's nothing as solid as a screw. And yes, pre-drill all screws!

Circular Saw: I have a Sawsall, a table saw, and a bunch of other assorted inherited tools. The circular saw is the best. You'll want to take some time learning how to cut in a straight line (it's not hard, especially if you use a guide).

Clamps: Buy as many clamps as you think you'll need. Then buy more. Because you'll be going slow and maybe working by yourself, having enough clamps of various sizes on hand is a must.

Standard Toolbox Fare: Hammer, Screwdriver (I like the one with swappable heads), level, right angle guide, Pliers, Wrenches, etc.

Vice: It's just useful.

A Workbench: Even if this is just a board you clamp to a table, you need a surface you can work on that you don't have to worry about accidentally scratching up. A common first project is to build your first workbench.

While it may sound cheesy, like that dude from the Shop Short from MST3K, there is something wonderful about building a useful object with your own hands.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:00 AM on August 20, 2009

From your short list: The spice rack sounds like a good start to get creative with minimal cost.

1. Establish Requirements:
* What makes up an ideal spice rack for your girlfriend? Lazy suzan components? A tiered Shelf? Something that closes? Something that is permanently on the counter, etc?
* Awesome, you are under way. Now nothing starts a project right like the taste of a nice cold one: have a beer.
* How much space do I have to work with? This is where you measure the inside of the cabinet, length, width and height. You also look carefully at clearance factors, such as the space for existing stored items as well as space for cabinet doors to close. Lastly, you look at the size of spice bottles: it makes no sense to make a spice rack if you can't fit the spices on the rack.
* Have a beer.
* Now go shopping: What is the price of a spice rack that meets the all the size requirements and a majority of the functional requirements? This is the price that you have to beat for it to be cost effective for you to make one, ignoring the "I learned something" factor.
* Have a beer.
* Optional: swing by home depot and/or arts and craft stores to look at materials to get a sense of material choices.
*Congrats, thats the end of part 1, have two beers.

2. Design:
* Knowing what you know about the design requirements and what items might be available, start to think about size and shape: How thick should the base be? How thick should each shelf be? Should I apply some sort of non-stick base? How high would castors set this off the counter? Are there decent dowels, or something else I could use to offset the shelves from the base? If I cut something from a big sheet, can I use the majority of the big sheet for other components or do I need to also have storage for scrap for other future projects?
*Have a beer.
* For fasteners are you going to use glue, screws, nails, sheer force of courage, or some other method? If screws, make sure that you have sufficient material to not crack your materials, or not puncture through places that you wouldn't wantt to (i.e.1-1/4" screws don't do well with 3/4" plywood, nor do they do well with balsawood)
* Draw, make notes, otherwise provide a good descriptive base for building this. If it is small enough you might even want to make a template out of paper, that's ideal. Measure twice.
* Have a beer.
* Make a materials and tools list -this is where you may need to go through the store and price out stuff. The price of a hammer you need to buy is probaby not something you want to charge to the project, but a special drill bit (which you would unlikely ever use again) might be something you would. Likewise if you can only purchase a sheet of '5x8'x3/4" sheet of plywood and you only need 6"x6", unless you have a use for the remainder, you should be costing in the entire sheet as scrap (Otherwise, fractionalize the cost).

3. Shop:
We've covered this, and potentially you've been to the store 3 times now - don't worry about this, as you acrue more projects you'll be spreading out workloads on each (planning on one, shopping on another, and returning unused parts from completed projects)... pretty soon you'll know everybody in the store... I should note, stores generally have good ideas or methods or may have some insight into how to do something better - don't be afraid to ask, but remember, in general don't change the design at this stage.

4. Beer. Do this as a whole step.

5. Start building...
* Measure twice, cut once. If you've got a full template, overlay, outline and cut along the outline.
* Make all your cuts, label and test fit things (masking tape helps). Do not assemble.
* Once you have all your pieces ready, then start assembly (reason for waiting: Some appoxys and glues are time sensitive.
* Have ways to brace your assembly while glues dry.
* Careful what you drill over. Drilling a hole through quarter inch plywood, or using a circular saw is ideal for saw horses. Less than desired effects can be had by using your dining room table as a work surface.

6. Paint
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:06 AM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Make sure to stop drinking completely after step 4 of Nanukthedog's excellent list. Beer and power tools are a terrible combination.
posted by jessamyn at 9:10 AM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ha! Yes, I find my cutlists and my cutting to be far more accurate (and safe) without beer involved. Beer is for the end of the day.

I also grew up in a booklearnin' family and now I'm trying to build stuff and it's somewhat hard to get going. Take a class or two for sure -- this will really open up your eyes to what you can do and what the general methods are. Then make friends with someone who has a good shop. It's hard to know what to buy, what can be done by hand and what is better off having someone else do -- this friend can help answer those questions.

Take a hand tools class right off the bat. You'll be surprised what cool stuff you can make using no power tools whatsoever and you'll learn good measurement practice and planning.
posted by amanda at 9:25 AM on August 20, 2009

For the installations of things (windows, cabinets, tile), ask your friends and neighbors if they have any renovation projects coming up, and ask to help with that. Let them know you're a novice, and ask them to explain how they're doing something while you're holding the doorframe, laying the tile, or whatever.

It's not only free, you get to learn from someone who knows you, and you're a bit of a hero for offering to help out.
posted by xingcat at 9:38 AM on August 20, 2009

I also want to learn how to build things! I love this thread. I don't want to hijack it, but I was wondering if any of you reading it knew of good places to learn wood working, welding, making-stuff-with-your-hands --ing in NYC?

There was a place in SF that had the sort of classes I'm thinking of called The Crucible, but seeing that the OP also lives in New York, I thought answers to my question would help him out too!

Crucible calls itself an "industrial training center," so I googled that + NYC but found little in the way of useful links. One link to a school, but it's the "High School of Industrial Arts" and I'm too old for that :)
posted by jacquilinala at 10:04 AM on August 20, 2009

Response by poster: Jacquilinala, I happen to live in New York City as well, so anyone with any links would be much appreciated. Great suggestions so far. Thank you.
posted by orville sash at 10:09 AM on August 20, 2009

I'm by no means an expert woodworker, but I've done a few projects. The first project I did was to build a workbench. I found the plans in a book at my local library. The legs and supports were 2x4s which I cut myself (with a handsaw). The top and shelf were plywood (with hardboard on top of the top). I had home depot cut the plywood for me, but if you have a circular saw and a straightedge, it wouldn't be hard to do yourself.

My second project was building sawhorses. Again, fairly easy, although making the angled cuts with just a circular saw was a bit of a pain.

I learned a lot from these two projects, they were very useful (I would have bought a workbench and sawhorses anyway), and I could make them to my size (I'm taller and I hate bending way over for short sawhorses).
posted by chndrcks at 10:20 AM on August 20, 2009

Lots of good suggestions so far.

Make Magazine is a great place to get ideas and small projects for all skill levels.

robocop is bleeding had an excellent list of tools. Start with getting a decent toolbox & tool box fare. Hammer, screwdrivers (phillips & standard slot in a couple of sizes), metric & standard combination wrenches are the critical ingredients. Also buy a drill, drill bits & a screw driver bit adapter. Corded is fine; cordless (minimum 14 volt) is better, but more expensive.

House brands are your friends in this endeavor. Craftsman from Sears & Kobalt from Lowes are both excellent tools for the money. Avoid the cheapest level of screwdrivers, though. Use the Craftsman Pro screwdrivers or the equivalent from Kobalt. Crappy screwdrivers will make you think that you suck at what you are doing, when they are what is causing the problem.

Beyond that, buy tools as you need them.

One more thing... don't be afraid to ask questions. If you've got some handy friends hang out with them while they are building something or ask them to come over while you are attempting something. The guys at your local hardware store will have some good tips and tricks on the details of what you are trying to do.
posted by thekiltedwonder at 10:26 AM on August 20, 2009

Agreed Jessamyn about the beer - Its not good to be a handyman with only nine fingers and the nickname "Nubby". This is what some guys (and gals!) spend their time doing in order to relax. They've got a project that they have to do, and this is the only time they'll get to do it. Reward yourself (responsibly) while you are doing it. If you accomplish something that you've never done, there's a lot to celebrate. Also, don't rush through these things for a few reasons:
1. Take the time to do things right. A bit more time means a bit more time for thought.
2. Don't be in a rush unless there is water leaking, something on fire, or you are renting equipment. Even in those cases, still take your time and plan ahead. A few extra minutes of assessment can prevent you from having to scrap something you've done wrong.
3. Success means more projects, so for your own sanity: slow and steady wins the race.
4. Please don't rush, You'll make the rest of us look lazy. Part of this is the whole handy-person experience, seriously is to take the time to do it right. Do it wrong and you aren't handy. And, generally that means you are looking at spice racks in Target or Wal-Mart or Pier-1... and still out the cost of your materials...
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:40 AM on August 20, 2009

My backstory was a bit like yours, although I was lucky enough to have taken electronics and metal working classes in high school.

If NYC-area tech colleges are anything like ours, they'll let you take single classes in most "building things" skills.

I've read alot of beginner's building books, and my two favorites are Tools and their Uses and How to Build Almost Anything. The first is a book the navy used to teach people how to use hand tools, so it's pretty easy to read, and great basic information. The navy actually has a few other cool books on things like electronics, motors, machines, etc, and are worth checking out. The second book is a good guide to making things out of wood, even if you live in a tiny apartment. It avoids the "go out and buy these giant expensive tools" advice that infects many other how to books.
posted by drezdn at 10:57 AM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd like to also add that lots of specialty woodworking tools you buy at hardware stores are badly designed crap. I'm talking about dowelling sets that come with little center punches, corner clamps for framing, cheap planes, most hand mitre saws come with ridiculously fine blades that dull on the first use. They're cheap to make and usually the first choice, when you're not sure of what you should buy.
Keep in mind that you learn as you go.
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:06 AM on August 20, 2009

I think maybe the single most important discovery you might make is that pretty much 100% of everyone who is "handy" is pretty comfortable with completely screwing things up, fixing that or starting over. I think people believe that handy people have some secret gift for figuring things out, but like other things, it's more about sticking with the process.

I haven't thought about it much...well, I have, but anyway, I think the process is something like

1) recognize the problem/desire
2) make a plan
3) get tools/materials together, at least enough to start
4) start working
5) hopefully fix thing, if not, screw it up, reformulate plan, go back to 3.

A lot of non-handy people I know, they just sort of get to 1...maybe to 2. And then stop. You have to get in there and make a mess out of things. Then try to fix the mess. Eventually your projects become more ambitious, and your messes become smaller.

Books are good. Helping out handy people do their own projects is good. Getting paid to do stuff is awesome, you'd be surprised how easy this can be sometimes. Classes are good, but also asking a lot of questions is good. Showing a bit of respect to those who know more than you is good.

Mostly, it's just doing that's good.

Also, picking stuff that's appropriate is good. Don't go near your plumbing or electricity. Ever, ever. No matter how handy you are. But starting off with a spice rack, that's about right. Even a model boat or something would be great.

Kits can be really helpful. My dad has wanted to build a kayak for about a decade. You can get a really sweet kit, but he wants to do it from scratch. So...he's got a big piece of plywood that's rotting because he can't bear to cut into it. He could have built a kit a long time ago, but he can't bear to admit that he needs the crutch of a kit. Drives me crazy.

Good luck!

Oh yeah, if you can build a boat, you can build anything. You can build one of these amazing boats with limited tools, have fun, do it in your living room, and learn a ton:
posted by sully75 at 11:11 AM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised to see no one has mentioned Home Depot? Their MOTTO is "you can do it; we can help". They offer many free workshops in-store. And their website has lots of good stuff for beginners.
posted by yawper at 11:36 AM on August 20, 2009

It's frustrating for adults to start doing this thing because they have to make all of their mistakes and be aware of them when they see the finished product.

I'm from a "building stuff" family, and have been on my own with tools and materials since I was five years old. That gives me about 25 years worth of mistakes and improvements that I can apply to virtually any project.

In your case, you just have to dive in and get working. Pick something simple (shoe rack, shelf, whatever) and get started. Volunteer to help on any landscaping or building projects you can. Start to really look at things, and try to figure out how they work.

When you're randomly surfing the net, read "how-to" articles. How to build a shed. How to make a bookshelf. How to install a window. Some of it won't make sense, but some of it will, and you will begin to develop your "DIY vocabulary".

Good luck. Building and making can be extremely rewarding.
posted by davey_darling at 1:30 PM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think you have excellent advice above. One nag note: learn to keep your work site tidy. A lot of amateurs leave tools lying around where the unsuspecting can bumble into or fall over something and hurt themselves. Taking some kind of hands on class in a real workshop should fix this. OK, two nag notes: learn to look after your tools and treat them with respect. Alright, third and last: learn how to safely use, store and dispose of flamable and poisonous materials; don't skimp on safety masks.
posted by x46 at 7:13 PM on August 20, 2009

Having lived in apartments for way too many years, I yearn for a place with a workshop area so we can buy the Gingery Press books and build a metalworking shop from scrap.

You start by building a charcoal foundry from a 5 gallon pail, fire clay and a steel pipe. Then you use the foundry to cast parts from scrap aluminum for a lathe. Then a shaper, a drill press, a milling machine, and a metal brake for bending sheet metal. *wistful sigh* Every time I look at that page, I can hear my practical, Yankee, craftsmen ancestors urging me to buy the books.
posted by Lexica at 7:43 PM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

An archive of useful tips and opinions for home wood and metal shop enthusiasts.

An awesome collection of mill and lathe tips from a semi-professional (e.g. power tapping on a mill at 1500rpm!).

ToolMonger blog.

Hacked Gadgets blog.
posted by fatllama at 2:55 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Build yourself some time for your project - whatever you take on for the virgin effort. If you have roommates or family or anyone actually sharing your space, you may have to be ruthless to get the time you need to do your project. Work takes time. Do not believe what you see on TV.

And good luck!
posted by Lesser Shrew at 12:07 PM on August 22, 2009

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