learning more about home construction and maintence
July 7, 2012 5:15 AM   Subscribe

I own a house built in 1904 - how can I learn more about home construction and home maintenance? I do a lot of my basic repairs myself and always make a point to watch and ask questions (non-obnoxiously) when I have repair people over.

I'd like to have a better understanding of everything in my house that isn't just from repair experience.

That being said, everything I have learned is pretty ad hoc. Is there a book that many of you recommend for learning the basics of home construction and/or maintnence? Have you found taking a class to be helpful?
posted by waylaid to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Surprisingly, Family Handyman magazine is good for absorbing lots of tips and kind of helps backfill a lot of practical knowledge.

The only course I'd recommend is something about 110v electricity if it's offered by a school in your area. That's the big one that (literally) kills people. Understanding the theory of electricity helps a lot in avoiding mishaps.

A good welding course helps if you want to do your own plumbing (usually available at your local community college). Being able to weld copper pipes is useful in a house that old.

Woodworking isn't something I've seen many formal courses on. But all of the woodworking experts I knew were always happy to have someone interested in learning from them. This might be your best bet - most people love to teach. Find someone in your area who does the stuff you want to learn. Ask them if you can tag along and learn - most would be more than happy to teach you.

A good geometry course and some basic physics are also applicable.
posted by krisak at 5:31 AM on July 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Another thing that's worth doing, if you have the money available: buy some 2x4s and some plywood. Build a shed. It will collapse. But the act of building it and trying to figure out how to not make it collapse will be an incredible learning experience. Please make sure you're out of the zone of collapse, though - you don't want to get injured (although that in itself is a learning experience).
posted by krisak at 5:37 AM on July 7, 2012

And if you get a shed to stay upright, give it a tile interior. That'll be a whole new level of learning (tile work is one area where I just finally gave up and hired someone).

Keep in mind that you'll learn a lot of bad habits this way. So being able to call someone in to critique your work is essential. I learned a lot by trying to fix something, hiring a pro, and listening as they told me exactly why the previous contractor (me) was an idiot.
posted by krisak at 5:41 AM on July 7, 2012

There are all kinds of historical house websites and magazines(This Old House) that can give you some idea. There are things that were fundamental to an early 1900's house that aren't done today. For example my house was built in the 19-teens and it has plaster instead of dry wall, fireplaces in every room, horsehair and rock wool insulation, and oil heat that replaced a coal furnace. Your work may depend on how much remodeling has been done in the meantime. Some towns have historical home foundations which may have info.
Also if you can scare up an old Sears Catalog from that time they sold houses and you can see floor plans, etc.
posted by PJMoore at 6:01 AM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I lived in an old house, I took several community education classes that were useful. (basic home plumbing, tile installation, window repair - how to caulk, replace glass, fix the counterweights & ropes, etc.).
posted by belladonna at 6:16 AM on July 7, 2012

I love old instructional books from the early 1900's, for being handy.

They seem to give just enough information to get the job done, whilst casually suggesting being cautious.

I find lots in second hand book stores. A couple I've recently enjoyed are; The Handy Man and Home Mechanic, & Shopwork on the Farm.

They probably won't help with regards to current building standards, but they may provide insight to how your building is put together.
posted by Packed Lunch at 6:25 AM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

People don't "weld" copper plumbing pipes, they solder them. As an owner of a 1924 craftsman style colonial (?) I have learned a ton by watching the various This old House type of shows. Lately I am a fan of Holmes on Homes. Mike Homes is a Canadian contractor who goes in after a homeowner or contractor has "completed" home improvements, shows what's wrong, and makes it right. The only problem is he brings in professionals to do it all, so very little home-owner type projects, but a whole lot of valuable knowledge is passed along, especially in the area of dealing with contractors.
posted by Gungho at 6:36 AM on July 7, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, so far. These are al really good so far. Mine had a builder's quality renovation before I bought it but the bones are still there (and my basement is unfinished with a concrete slab, so simply seeing where all the piples and wiring go is helpful).

Where did you find community education classes? Community colleges? A lot of those look geared towards apprenticeships si thought it might be a bit overkill.
posted by waylaid at 6:51 AM on July 7, 2012

waylaid, make sure you take pictures while things like wires and pipes are exposed. That may be helpful down the line.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:55 AM on July 7, 2012

Some of these preservation briefs may be helpful. Be aware of the possibility/likelihood of lead paint.

You may also want to borrow a copy of This Old House : Restoring, Rehabilitating and Renovating.

Can you say what style your house is? That may help narrow down some of the repair advice.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:07 AM on July 7, 2012

Gungho is correct. I was using terms poorly. Welding copper and soldering copper and very different skills. (Welding copper is usually done by brazing. Soldering is usually done by skilled plumbers.)
posted by krisak at 7:57 AM on July 7, 2012

Welding copper is usually done by brazing.

You're still using terms incorrectly. Brazing is not a method of welding. Welding means the parts you're joining (i.e. the copper) actually get melted, with some extra similar metal (the welding rod) added in. Brazing is just adding a filler material that melts at a lower temperature than the parts being joined. It's actually more like soldering than welding.

Copper water pipes are soldered or "sweated," the two terms meaning the same thing. And it's really not that hard.

OP, don't dismiss what you've learned by fixing stuff. A lot of professionals learn their trades the same ad-hoc way, the biggest difference being that they are fixing things every day and the knowledge piles up faster.
posted by jon1270 at 9:15 AM on July 7, 2012

I have a 1922 bungalow with plaster walls, etc, and I've gotten a lot of use out of Home Depot's Home Improvement 1-2-3.
posted by Bourbonesque at 9:15 AM on July 7, 2012

Building codes and materials have changed, sometimes a lot, since 1904 so it's useful to find sources that cover older construction. I like The Old House Journal Guide to Restoration for good basic instructions on how to fix most things yourself, and how to know when to call in the professionals.

Older houses often have a history of DIY "upgrades" by previous owners that leave modern contractors scratching their heads, so you'll probably find stuff that makes no sense at all when you start ripping into your house. (Ask me about my electrical wiring.) So proceed with caution because things may not be as safe as they're supposed to!
posted by Quietgal at 9:22 AM on July 7, 2012

jon1270 - correct. (Apologies - it's been a while since my last metals class. clearly I need to reread from the ground up.)
posted by krisak at 9:29 AM on July 7, 2012

Where did you find community education classes? Community colleges? A lot of those look geared towards apprenticeships si thought it might be a bit overkill.

Community ed classes are usually run by your local school district (K-12, not college). The ones I attended were usually something like $30 for two 3-hour classes on a weekday evening. They were often taught by tradesmen or contractors. Here in MN, printed community ed catalogs show up at the local library & coffee shops in early fall & early spring, but you can usually find info online. Just google your community + community ed.

I found it really helpful, because even when I didn't want to tackle the projects myself, I was able to understand what the people I hired were talking about.
posted by belladonna at 11:53 AM on July 7, 2012

My husband (someone who has worked in the building trades most of his life, but is the first to admit when he's not sure how to do something) swears by the Readers Digest Repair Manual. I've recommended this to others as well, always with good reports.
posted by dbmcd at 2:11 PM on July 7, 2012

If you want the gold standard in DIY construction techniques, Taunton Press is the way to go; their signature magazine is Fine Homebuilding (which is now oriented mainly toward new construction and green building techniques, but is still inspirational). This Old House is solid, but seems to edge more toward a house decorating magazine every year. Family Handyman is good on techniques, but is only so-so on dealing with old buildings (say, pre-war). Whatever you do, avoid the Handyman Club; the magazine is OK, and they have decent books that repackage the magazine content, but it's on a negative option plan.

What you may want to do is hook up with any historic organizations with a preservation angle, such as any group doing a historic house tour or an official city historic commission. There are often state resources for historic homeowners, and there are a number of federal resources you can access if your home is in an historic district, including recommended remodeling techniques.
posted by dhartung at 2:20 PM on July 7, 2012

Volunteer for Habitats for Humanity. You'll get hands on experience, talk to retired carpenters to pick their brains and at the end of the day, you'll feel good about helping others.
posted by cliffster99 at 11:49 PM on July 7, 2012

Don't automatically trust generic home improvement advice, especially regarding insulation and sealing up the house tight for optimal energy efficiency. Modern homes are built with vapor barriers, etc. that older homes were not. You can make your home more insulated and less drafty, but the standard advice may be outright harmful. (On the plus side, if you take care of your house it will stand for another 200 years easily.)
posted by desuetude at 12:28 AM on July 8, 2012

« Older Help me put a ring on it.   |   Need a smallish office chair solution for limited... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.