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June 19, 2011 8:23 PM   Subscribe

How can I learn to be handy?

I'll be taking my first architecture class in the fall and I'm really looking forward to it. However, I'm incredibly nervous about studio classes I'll have to take in the future. The problem extends to any somewhat labor-intensive task. Everyone always seems amazed at how incompetent I am at using power tools. I even cut my finger the only time I tried to peel potatoes. I just missed the lesson on handiness and I'm worried it's too late. I come from a family of engineers, so this has been especially disconcerting. Please tell me there's hope without having to surround myself with disappointed paternal figures wiping sweat off their brows.
posted by Echobelly to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (20 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Practice and more practice, primarily via small self-directed projects and later working with more experienced people on more complex tasks and with more advanced tools. Take a good look at the hands of an experienced mechanic, carpenter, mason, etc. the next time you have a chance. I guarantee they look muscular, somewhat misshapen, and beat-up. That's not a coincidence.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 8:32 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do you have access to power tools? You might try messing around with the less dangerous ones a bit and building up your confidence levels. Y'know, get comfortable using an electric drill first and work your way up, because honestly being skittish when you're using something like a table saw could make it more dangerous (if you decide to jerk back something that's already in the blade for instance).

But mostly you probably just need practice. Being handy is at least 50% putting in the time and effort to learn how to be handy. People are not born carpenters.
posted by geegollygosh at 8:47 PM on June 19, 2011

Two things: Safety, Practice.

Learn how to safely use the tools.

Power tools are intimidating because they are scary and dangerous. If you don't learn how to handle them safely, you will hurt yourself. But if you do learn how to handle them, they will become friendly enablers of cool projects.

Once you know how to operate the tools: do lots of projects. Meet up with students that are handy, and ask for help. Collaborate on small projects. Do stuff. Find projects that excite you. Do them.

But always be safe.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:50 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

For me, the son of a man who still fixes everything with duct tape and zip ties, the way to handiness turned out to be going on church mission trips where we repaired the homes of the poor. I was always partnered with someone who knew more than me (for obvious reasons) who taught me many basic skills I would never have learned otherwise.

Also, there is an old book you can still buy on Amazon called How To Do Just About Anything, which is a pretty good help as well.
posted by 4ster at 8:51 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

My SO, who is a fabulous handyman/craftsman, was just talking about this last night. He said everyone has cut through their power cord, jammed a drill, have had wood shot back at you from a table saw, etc. It happens, but you learn and it doesn't happen again. Keep working at it.

My own response, especially because what is written above, is remember protective gear!

Also, stay calm and think things through. It's good to have someone show you the proper use of a tool, as there are safety precautions you haven't thought of.

All that being said, you can totally learn to become handy. You will love it!
posted by Vaike at 8:53 PM on June 19, 2011

Practice is great, but also talk to people who know what they're doing. Because practicing on your own, without anyone giving you hints or tips, doesn't necessarily mean you'll learn so much.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:57 PM on June 19, 2011

Following on 4ster's advice, perhaps Habitat for Humanity might be a place to both learn some skills and contribute to a local community.
posted by annsunny at 8:57 PM on June 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Do you have handy friends? I learned to fix motorcycles by hanging around friend's shops and offering to help. I've done a lot of sweeping and a lot of sandblasting, and a lot of parts cleaning. Grunt work, essentially. All the while, I've been watching and listening and asking questions.

How are you fixed for handy friends? What are their skillsets? Offer to lend a hand, and make it clear you want to learn.
posted by mollymayhem at 9:03 PM on June 19, 2011

A big part of my job is teaching college students how to do shop work.

Every school is different, but your school should offer basic instruction on the tools, which will cover safety procedures. If not, complain like hell and ask your instructor to modify the assignments so you don't have to use the shop. There should always be a staff person around to answer your questions. Or maybe not--some schools have unsupervised open shops at night. If so, work during the day. Your school may have handouts or videos for you. You can check out what other schools have online. The shop staff will probably have the manufacturers' manuals for the tools too, if you really want to read all the details. Libraries are great sources for handyperson books, like this. Unless you take a furniture class, you won't be getting too deep into woodworking techniques, but PBS shows like New Yankee Workshop are fun to watch. You can also watch a lot of stuff on youtube, but a lot of times it'll be people who don't bother with basic shop safety or are just plain wrong. Be aware that every shop is different, and you need to defer to the shop manager's way of doing things, which will probably be a lot more risk-adverse than guys in their garages.

Are you good at time management? Shop work can often take twice as long as you estimated, and you don't want to be rushing to finish a project when you haven't had any sleep for the last three nights.

Architecture students do a lot of cutting of matboard and foamcore, often with a straight edge and blace. Utilities and X-acto knifes are common sources of accidents in shops. If your school doesn't have them, buy yourself a straight edge with a finger guard.

Being nervous around the tools is fine. Being alert and aware is good. I'd rather work with someone who's a complete beginner than someone who says "I know what I'm doing." For many tools, strength and coordination aren't so important as long as you understand what the tool does and what's going to happen in your operation. Think through what you're doing, stop and ask if you're not sure, and take your time.
posted by hydrophonic at 9:56 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I like to think I have a natural affinity for working with most materials, but I suppose it helps I was exposed to it, and not discouraged from ruining scores of things when I was a kid. One of the things I've noticed about people who don't take to tools, and who hurt themselves a lot, is that they make tons of little gambits on how a material will react.

Imagine, for instance, you're cutting a tough squash in half with a chef's knife. Something as simple as that can end in an emergency room visit in the right hands. If you rewound the scene, you'd find that the person was probably pressing the blade down against the tough skin, hoping it wouldn't slip and wind up smack in the middle of the hand holding it steady. Someone with more experience might know better than this, chop off an end so it'll sit flat, take a starter whack to get the knife wedged in the center, and pound the back of the blade through (with the free hand that's not holding the squash anymore), never leaving their own flesh in danger. I know it's not what you're asking, but the principle is the same.

If you're using a saw, and it sticks, stop for a second, and check whether any part of your person is in danger before applying any more force to it.

If you're running an X-Acto knife through some hard cardboard, look at the path of the blade down the material; make sure you're not in it.

Just keep asking yourself: What would happen if I slipped?

If the answer involves pain, rethink your approach. Make every move deliberate, not a wrestling match. Watch people who are more assured, and absorb. You'll develop a rhythm.

Good luck!
posted by evil holiday magic at 10:43 PM on June 19, 2011 [9 favorites]

Wait- you've only ever tried to peel potatoes once (or was this amusing hyperbole to emphasise your predicament?) Peel potatoes! Learn how to do it safe. Start small.

My Dad once raged that "has no-one taught you how to safely hand someone a screw driver?" (handle to the person who wants it)

Ask someone for help. Don't be afraid of looking stupid- even when doing your course. Ask "just as a refresher- I hold the tool like this and do this blah blah" before you do something you're not 100% sure of.

I know most guys don't seem to think this way, but there is no shame in asking questions to prevent yourself from getting injured.

(and YES to the "check that nothing is in the way before proceeding" and the "what if I slip?" things.)
posted by titanium_geek at 12:15 AM on June 20, 2011

Get a few of your own clamps for gluing things together. Get different sizes, and be prepared to get more clamps as you see what sizes you really need.

Buy your own goggles, to minimize any chance that you'll ever consider using a (saw, sander, etc) without protecting your peepers. These reasons might be : gross factor, size, looks dorky. Trust me, you'd rather have your eyes.

As for building skills, habitat for humanity can be good. Also check out the free clinics and classes at home depot and/or lowe's They'll have deck staining, tile grouting, plant repotting, etc. A variety of stuff. Take each class. Twice. Start this week so you're not scrambling to fit them in before school starts. some of these skills are remarkably transferrable, but you also never know when you can earn some major friend points by being the person who's at least willing to help roll on a coat of paint (there's usually a home depot class for that, too).

Finally - look at how things are made. When things break, take them apart fearlessly and see what the components do. It's the combination of exploration and practice that will take you places. Remember 'what will happen if?' is not just a question about dangerous things, it's a critical part of discovery.

Oh. And get a 2x4 and practice hammering nails into it now so you can do that confidently and smoothly. Expect to really bash you thumb at some point, but try not to.
posted by bilabial at 1:38 AM on June 20, 2011

Find something to enjoy about working with tools and materials. Build something you need or think is neat. Fix something for someone you like. Fix something for yourself, and use the money you saved by not having to replace the thing to do something you enjoy.

So long as you are motivated primarily by the desire to avoid unpleasantness such as shame, embarrassment and injury, you will avoid the projects that have the potential to teach you what you want to know, and learning will be slow and miserable. If you get something positive out of the experience, you will do it over and over again, and that is how you'll get good.

Work in private for a while, to sidestep the performance anxiety.

When you encounter someone who's unsure of how to do something that you know how to do, teach them.
posted by jon1270 at 2:28 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

In a way you're better off than someone who blithely starts using whatever power tools are thrown at them without a care in the world, as you're already thinking about safety. In addition to safety glasses and steel-capped boots, get a pair of cut-resistant kevlar gloves.

Then think about anything that could use doing around the house - for example most houses can use a few more shelves. Buy or borrow a drill and a saw, buy some nice-looking wood and put up a few shelves - you can find instructions on putting up shelves online. This way you'll gain confidence.
posted by hazyjane at 4:12 AM on June 20, 2011

I'll be the odd one out here, and suggest most of the tools you are likely to use are pretty safe, and donning kevlar and full face guards is just going to make it hard to get anything done.
Sure, a circular saw can be pretty dangerous, so start with a cordless drill, a handsaw, a hammer and screwdrivers.
With my 5yro I let him bang nails into scrap wood, drill holes and screw screws, and saw with my hand on the handle. Picking up the dexterity to be confident with these isn't tricky, just requires a little (like 30mins) time. Buy a box of assorted nails and bang them into some wood until you are comfortable. Now draw some curving lines and bang in some nails following the curve, but sitting a quarter inch up (proud) from the surface. If you can do that nice and neat move to screws. Drill a little pilot hole, screw in a screw. Repeat. Try different size drill bits with different diameter screws, get a feel for what works.
Great - now you can do nails and screws - you're halfway there.
Buy a few lengths of 2x1 and cut it up into building block sizes. Use the hand saw lightly, sliding back and forth (always back toward you on the first stroke) never pushing down, just letting gravity and the back and forth motion do the cutting.
Good luck and get too it!
posted by bystander at 4:57 AM on June 20, 2011

I didn't go to architecture school, but I've known a lot of people who did, and walked through their building all the time in grad school as a shortcut. At least at that school, they assumed people came in knowing nothing about tools and that you would learn the necessary skills as you went through the program. I don't know if that is representative of all architecture programs or not, but at least in that one case (and a very highly ranked one at that) you would fit in fine. (And from having worked with architects a few times on projects, my sense is that it is easily possible go all the way through architecture school and into the profession with only the vaguest idea about how real-life buildings are actually constructed; if you can find a way to get some exposure to construction sites it might be a useful supplement to your education.)

In terms of increasing your confidence, I agree with the suggestions above about just giving it a try and being willing to fuck things up left right and center. I liked the suggestion of volunteering with Habitat for Humanity -- that's big-scale work (not the detailed model building you might be doing in studio class) but probably the more useful for that, and the HfH projects I've seen are good and supportive places to learn skills from scratch. And the more you can become familiar and comfortable with the properties of the most common materials (2x4s, OSB, cement, etc) the better you will be as an architect.

The most important thing I'd add is that except when you are working alone in your own garage, the biggest safety issue is always other people. Carrying lumber, using tools, etc, it's really easy to hurt someone else or be hurt by them, and that's much harder than just keeping yourself safe when you are alone. In a crowded studio with everyone sweating a big deadline and working on little sleep, you really want to stay aware of what the other people are doing around you and how what you are doing will affect them.

Bonus advice: taking a welding class at the local community college will make you hot property in school, because welding is cool and incredibly useful, but almost no one knows how to do it well.
posted by Forktine at 5:29 AM on June 20, 2011

This is slightly unrelated, but when I switched from architecture to jewelry, the existence of third hands was a revelation. I reccommend this type, because you can put different types of tweezers in it - meaning you can get tweezers with smooth jaws that won't mar your modeling materials (which will probably be paper products as noted above). Avoid the ones with alligator clips.

Using a third hand would have made my building models much less frustrating! It was difficult to find a glue that glued well but didn't need to be held in place forever.
posted by WowLookStars at 6:59 AM on June 20, 2011

Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast. Don't make yourself speed up. You will do it naturally when you're actually good at something instead of when you think you're good enough at it to speed up.
posted by Etrigan at 6:59 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Jeez, get a load of all those typos in my previous comment.

I was listening to the latest Mefi Podcast this morning and was reminded of Arvind Gupta, who has a ton of youtube instructionals on how to make toys from common household objects. I thought that this might just be the thing you need. I mean, if you're not handy, you probably won't get much use out of your own power tools at home beyond a power drill. Habitat for Humanity is a great suggestion, but the skills you'd pick up there are not the same you'd use in your studio classes. But for the small scale stuff, there's nothing keeping you from starting with small models at home right now. Do some origami and papercraft. Cut up some cereal boxes and build a strip mall, then build a paper Godzilla and destroy it.
posted by hydrophonic at 7:26 AM on June 20, 2011

It depends on the school, but our program did not have instruction on "how to use an x-acto to cut cardboard", etc. You weren't necessarily expected to already know how, but they left it up to you to learn. However, you will be surrounded by fantastic classmates who A) already know how to do these things and will give you pointers, or B) also don't know how to do these things and will learn with you. Practice, practice, practice in a directed and mindful fashion: learn that if you press too hard on the first cut through foamcore, you'll tear up the foam and get a crappy cut; learn that cutting through cardboard requires you to replace blades far more often than through chipboard or basswood; learn that cutting a straight line generally requires you to keep your eye and arm aligned along the cutting path; learn that increasing force against resistance increases the chances of making a mistake or causing injury. Work slowly and deliberately, learning the rules so that you can then start to work faster.

You probably know this already but it bears repeating: the early years of A-school are very competitive and sink-or-swim. You'll need to practice a LOT and learn a LOT while taking criticism that may seem harsh or unfair, and you'll never be the top kid in your class, and you'll rarely feel really good about your work and that's just the way it is. You're not there to have your ego coddled or have problems solved for you step by step. Be tough and be a self-starter and get it done for yourself, for the sheer satisfaction of learning and creating and growing.

Tips that might help you to get comfortable:
  • you'll get cuts. Everyone does. Try not to bleed on the work.
  • get an olfa knife or similar - way better than x-acto blades.
  • ditto the comment above about steel straight edges with finger guides.
  • before EVERY action, simulate it in your head, and make sure you're being smart. Seriously, every cut. Eventually it will become automatic, but at first, it has to be conscious.
  • Be a perfectionist. Better to start a new piece and cut it straight than to have to adjust all your other work to that crappy angle you cut wrong. Besides (for most A-schools) the first couple years are ALL ABOUT the rote practice of craft, of perfectionism, of willingness to do it again and again until you get it right. Even when you're a crotchety old master you'll still be "practicing" architecture - you're never done practicing.
  • Be extra careful when you're tired. It really is like being drunk.
  • you probably won't use power tools in the first year, so don't worry about it. If you do, your school probably has shop techs and a shop master who will teach you about shop safety, or there may even be a class you can take. Once you understand the basic safety precautions, again, it's just a matter of practice.
Have fun!
posted by Chris4d at 1:18 PM on June 21, 2011

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