Future Fix-It
February 10, 2005 12:11 PM   Subscribe

How do I learn to build... stuff? Carpentry, woodworking and construction-like activities are foreign to me (I get scared hanging pictures on a wall), and I can't seem to find anything that talks down to my pea-size brain. Can anyone recommend activities and/or reading materials that will help me become handy around the house? [MI]

Every issue of Ready Made has cool projects that I'm scared to try. And I'm not talking about big stuff like the prefab house ... the little projects frighten me too. I want to learn how people put two pieces of wood together, and how they keep doing that until it becomes something.
posted by monkeystronghold to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Family Handyman magazine. Assumes you know very little, and every photograph is painstakingly composed to convey the information as clearly as possible. I started getting it when I bought my first home and I'm still getting it 12 years later.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 12:16 PM on February 10, 2005

I would certainly recommend the Readers Digest Home DIY Manual. It's a large red book that covers pretty much everything that you might want to do around the home. It has many clear diagrams and pictures, explanations of tools and their purposes and much more handy DIY information.

Hardcover 512 pages (September 24, 2004)
Publisher: Reader's Digest
ISBN: 0276429338
posted by gaby at 12:21 PM on February 10, 2005

Volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. You can build an entire house.
posted by Frank Grimes at 12:25 PM on February 10, 2005

Local community colleges and art centers often have (cheap) courses in this sort of thing, often at night. I took several such furniture-making classes, learned a lot of things (chief among them that I have no future as a furniture-maker) and got terribly spoiled by having access to a full, professional shop.

While I am a great advocate of autodidacticism, I think this is one of the few cases where you really are better off getting someone to help you out. If you don't want to spring for classes, try to find a handy friend and ask if you can be a hanger-on the next time he's working on some handy sort of project.

On preview: Frank Grimes's idea is also an excellent one.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 12:31 PM on February 10, 2005

I get Fine Homebuidling and, although a lot of the stuff in there is beyond anything I am ever going to do (e.g., framing a house), there are plenty of things that I will do/have done (e.g., framing a window, tiling, light electrical, etc). I don't think there is anything I might do around my house that hasn't been covered in the last few years of FH.

Since I am done with most of the larger projects, I think I will be switching to Fine Woodworking soon (or maybe just get both).
posted by probablysteve at 12:33 PM on February 10, 2005

I second stupidsexyFlanders. I bought all the back issues of Family Handyman I could find on eBay, have an ongoing subscription. It's written in clear language, assuming you have little or no experience, yet also has interesting projects to tackle, should your ambition take foot.
posted by ValveAnnex at 12:39 PM on February 10, 2005

Awesome tips, I'm eternally looking for ways to learn how to do basic stuff, so I just subscribed to Family Handyman.

For me, all the books in the world just barely scratch the surface. What I really want is experience. I've taken to helping friends build stuff because I know deep down my first try at anything will likely have faults that I can learn from, and my hope is that by the time I get around to building my own bookcases, they will be my 3rd or 4th set.
posted by mathowie at 12:48 PM on February 10, 2005

Handy magazine from Handyman Club of America has step by step instructions with diagrams. Some of their projects are definitely advanced. Each issue of This Old House magazine has a pull out section designed to go into a three-ring binder of household projects with clear, easy to read instructions. Also, check for classes at your local hardware store. Sometimes they'll even have an easy class for parent/child projects like building a birdhouse.

A word of warning though: please have someone teach you how to safely handle the power tools you want to use. I'd hate for you to post a future question asking how to learn how to write with fewer fingers. (Do us a favor and never wear watches, rings, etc. when working with power tools.)
posted by onhazier at 12:49 PM on February 10, 2005

Home Depot has free classes on the weekends. Some of it is "build a birdhouse" level, but there are some hardcore projects. Otherwise, my dad's been looking for an apprentice since I moved out.
posted by yerfatma at 12:57 PM on February 10, 2005

I second the Habitat suggestion. There's no better way to get on-the-job handyman training, and you're doing good at the same time. You'll meet generous, skilled people who are happy to share what they know and happy to have you there learning (and building).

I've found that the most important thing you can learn in building & repairing things around the house is what's "good enough" -- where you can take shortcuts, which little bits of sloppiness and mistakes just aren't going to matter. Once you learn this, you can work a lot faster and a lot more confidently. Unfortunately, I've never seen a book that can teach this, only experience.

One other thing -- most high schools have adult education classes, including shop classes. I've taken these a few times and it's a great way to learn how to use some of the tools (they supply everything) alongside somebody who knows what they're doing. Once you do get experienced, you'll find yourself taking the classes again just to use the awesome table saws and planers.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 1:02 PM on February 10, 2005

Home Depot also offers classes you pay to take. Home Depot Clinics - you can learn lots of stuff. Check your local store for times, dates, prices.

Once you learn the basics the stuff you're reading in books and magazines will likely make much better sense.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 1:09 PM on February 10, 2005

Local woodworking stores will have classes. See if there is a Woodcraft store in your neighborhood.

Not that I'm knocking it, but when I volunteered for habitat for humanity, I did hard labor -- landscaping -- for months on end. Big groups of people would come and go (like a church group might come out for 2 weekends) but by and large the regular contributers were few once the glamour part was done. The exterior of the houses seems to be built very very quickly and then everyone disappears when there's grunt work to be done. I'm just sayin.

I learned what I know from watching all the shows about wood working and handyman stuff there are and gradually weaning it down to the ones that are useful. Love it or hate it, New Yankee workshop is a decent place to start. Check out Woodworking on DIY (OK not great), David Mark's show, Wood Works, is terrific. DIY is nice also in that they have synopses, diagrams, pictures, etc on their website for lots of their shows. So if you missed a bit, or need a reminder, there it is.

Hook up with someone who knows how to do stuff and get them to show you.

Start with hand tools as much as possible. I recommend a decent table saw only as far as power tools go, to start. Hand planes, hand drills, hand sanding, hand joinery, this is the way to go to learn how stuff fits together without hurting yourself. Old hand tools are cheaply available on ebay. Other tools you'll want if you get into furniture making are: jointer, planer, bandsaw, drill press, maybe approximately in that order.

Personally, I got a lathe recently and I love the hell out of it. It's a terrific place to start if you want to make stuff, because literally all you will need is:

1. a lathe: harbor freight has an excellent model for the price ($279, although often on sale for $225). Note that harbor freight is a company that mostly sells utter crap, with a few gems. This is basically a clone of the jet 1236, which retails for nearly double. it's a good starter lathe.

2. turning tools. You can buy a set but unless they're good ones it's probably a waste of money. A class or a book will help you select tools. Personally I think you could get started with: a good bowl gouge, a good square scraper, a good round bowl scraper, and a skew chisel. Maybe a good roughing gouge also. For these four tools expect to pay about $200. You can go in stages. I bought a cheap set for $50 that was crappy and had: 1 spindle gouge that was decent, 2 really crappy larger spindle gouges that I never used, 2 skew chisels that I still use, and a couple crappy scrapers that I never use.

3. something to do very basic cutting of wood down to size: For smaller items I use a hand saw, like, if I want to chop 2 inches off a blank. For larger items, like reducing a big log into a bowl blank, I use a chainsaw.

Why wood turning? Well, $500 gets you into it with a decent start. Cheaper if you find a used lathe or perhaps start with a mini lathe. Wood can be free once people know what you're after or you get good at looking for it (fallen trees mostly). It's easy to learn. I made a nice little bowl within 3 hours of my introduction to the lathe (via a turning class at a woodcraft). Since then I've made pens, little circular boxes of all sizes, bowls, vases, pencil containers, pepper mills/salt shakers, tops, all kinds of crazy crap. Good gifts. Another great thing is that you can go from chunk-o-wood to finished product in a few hours if you're new, or a few minutes if you're good. I've seen turners make, say, a wine stopper in 2 minutes or less from start to finish. I've seen a guy make a nice bowl in 30 minutes. Me, it takes me a couple hours to get a bowl or box I'm proud of.

Have fun. Jump in.
posted by RustyBrooks at 1:19 PM on February 10, 2005

ditto the Family Handyman and community college courses. after my husband and I bought our first home, we realized we had no idea how to "do stuff" either. the college courses educated us about safety and gave us the confidence to tackle projects which would have cost a small fortune had we contracted them out. good luck and have fun! (and don't forget the safety glasses)
posted by killy willy at 1:22 PM on February 10, 2005

The Reader's Digest book mentioned above is great. For big jobs like putting in a floor, hanging a door, or even not quite so complex jobs like painting and wall papering it sure pays to find a friend who has done it before to help out the first time. You may find someone at work willing to help, as long as you help them on a job (you will learn on that one too).
posted by caddis at 1:43 PM on February 10, 2005

I started by taking a night class at a local high school through an adult education program. In this program, I had access to a high school wood shop for a three hour block. I chose simple projects at first stepping up to bigger things. The instructor was an invaluable resource because he has pretty much seen and done it all. I asked lots of questions of people who knew much more than me. After 2 years of this class, it got to the point where I had planned my entire evening out from machine to machine. When I got frustrated with newbies (I was one once) for things like waiting to use the table saw and having to readjust every power tool before turning it on, I bought my own tools and shared a garage with someone in the same boat.
During this time, I used "101 Router Projects"-type plans (which are really simple), New Yankee Workshop plans, then Woodsmith plans. Now I either design on my own or use existing plans and modify them to suit.
For woodworking, it comes down to this (if you have a design): how do I shape a board the way I need it? At the most elementary level, you want to turn something raw into accurate dimensions and angles, or more simply, making a board. To make a board, you (1) plane to get two parallel sides of the thickness you want (2) joint to get a third side which is flat and 90 degrees to the first two (3a) rip saw to width (3b) cross cut to length (3a and 3b can be done in any order). At this point you have a board which is the size you want. Everything else is just a variation on that, or a few more steps added on.
Get into a class and make cutting board. No, really, I'm serious. You'll learn a lot in the process, including: making boards, gluing, routing, and finishing. Can do that? Great. Make a set of in/out boxes. They require finer detail and a few more challenging things. Next? Make a jewelry box or a pull-toy. Let me know when you need more suggestions.
Woodworking is truly rewarding. I've made about 1/4 of the pieces of furniture in my home and my first piece is rock solid and probably will be through my daughter's lifetime.

Oh - one down side-as you get better, it gets harder to buy furniture because the stuff that isn't garbage is way expensive.
posted by plinth at 2:08 PM on February 10, 2005

I'm interested in learning too, and bought this book: Getting Started in Woodworking: Skill-Building Projects that Teach the Basics by Aime Ontario Fraser. While I haven't started anything yet, it was great for explaining tools. It looks really good -- you start by making a box, and each project builds upon the last.

Now all I need is a book on motivation....
posted by evening at 4:28 PM on February 10, 2005

A book recommendation from an earlier thread.
posted by TimeFactor at 7:21 PM on February 10, 2005

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