How can I become one of those people who can build/fix anything?
July 19, 2013 11:14 PM   Subscribe

My grandfather was one of those people who could build anything he needed and fix everything else. My dad can do much of the same but I don't know if it was as instinctual to him or he just learned it all from his father. How can I become one of these people?

One of my most-treasured heirlooms is a table saw my grandfather, who I know didn't go to college and probably didn't graduate high school, designed and built from scratch sometime in the 1930s or 1940s out of angle iron, a bit of sheet metal, various parts of a lawnmower and a Montgomery Ward motor. Growing up, I watched my dad build barns, fences, various outbuildings, remodel an unfinished attic (which for some reason was full of dirt), repair cars, lamps, major appliances - just about everything.

On a sort-of related note, I was also at a festival recently and loved all the alternative energy devices and systems people had built themselves.

I would like to acquire a set of skills that would enable me to do the above type things and I'm thinking some sort of Engineering education is the way to go. I have a BS in Biology but it's from nearly 25 years ago. I never worked in that field so math, chemistry, physics, etc., isn't fresh and my GPA was pretty bad anyway so I'm fine with repeating classes to bring those aspects up to speed. (I've been planning to go back to school anyway so this isn't just for my own edification.)

So, is Engineering the way to go? And, if so, should I specialize in something like Mechanical Engineering?
posted by Beti to Education (34 answers total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
That sounds like my family. I acquired the skills to do the things you're looking for by being asked/required to help in those projects of my father/grandfathers/etc. so there was some direct transfer of knowledge and experience. But, what you're describing sounds to me like a path to a 3D art education, not something technical like engineering... That's certainly the route I've gone and its worked out well.
posted by blaneyphoto at 11:32 PM on July 19, 2013

I'm not there yet, but everything I've learned how to fix has been due to having to. I doubt you need to go back to school for this. Just decide to replace your back deck and to fix that broken garage door opener.
posted by slidell at 11:49 PM on July 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

I believe that one important part of this is a belief that you *can* do these things, so that when you're faced with a problem that needs a solution, you have enough faith to just sit, think, and figure out what information you must acquire to *find* a solution.

For the rest: I'll be watching this thread with interest, because there are several gear-type thingies that I think I want to build, but I don't know how. I'm wondering if I need to re-study calculus and take some mechanical engineering classes, but I know that (for example) your grandfather didn't study mechanical engineering.

Maybe there's some way to get some parts and start messing with them?

I guess you'd also need a shed to store the parts / old machines you'll take apart.
posted by amtho at 11:53 PM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Where are you? In many places there are locally-owned hardware stores that specialize in something like hand tools or woodworking or whatever it may be, that also offer classes or one-on-one project assistance. My suggestion is to find the place like that closest to you, and become a regular. Talk to them about refurbishing your grandfather's saw, and ask them your question. If they don't employ people who can help you, they'll have regular customers who can, and will put you in contact. You might be able to work out some private sessions with a handyman, for example, or have an electrician give you some basic instruction so you're more comfortable working on your own without hurting yourself.
posted by Mizu at 12:00 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

That table saw project sounds awesome!
I wonder if your father learned it from your grandfather? A lot of the handiest people I know were raised that way, or just grew up compulsively tinkering. Since it sounds like you're not one of those compulsive tinkerers, you might benefit from taking a class instead. I recommend checking out your local community college. Mine offers machine shop, welding, carpentry, basic circuits, auto repair, and more. I've taken a couple and it was a total blast (plus way cheaper than a university class).

What your describing does not sound like an engineering degree though. Engineering classes are more theoretical with loads of math. There are usually opportunities for hands-on stuff if you really make a point of it, but it's definitely the side dish to math and physics. (Polytechnic schools may be an exception?)

I know loads of extremely competent and handy people who couldn't handle a triple integral (and vice versa). In my experience, vo-tech style courses will be more helpful for this.
posted by Gravel at 12:18 AM on July 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Like amtho said

I believe that one important part of this is a belief that you *can* do these things, so that when you're faced with a problem that needs a solution, you have enough faith to just sit, think, and figure out what information you must acquire to *find* a solution.

You just have to roll up your sleeves and try, I would also like to add that recognizing the moment just before you really break something is also important.
posted by kanemano at 12:22 AM on July 20, 2013 [11 favorites]

I think a big part of it is, well, doing it. If you want to take classes, take shop classes at community college but there are other avenues too, like volunteering for habitat for humanity or see if a local theater has someone who is willing to take you on as a volunteer tech/carpentry trainee. Oh, and YouTube -- there is a video for almost everything.

Having instruction and mentors helps (particularly when it comes to safety), but at the root of it, you learn this stuff by trying and making mistakes.
posted by Good Brain at 12:33 AM on July 20, 2013

Oh, one more thing: I think the modern world can impose a sort of learned helplessness about this stuff. A partial antidote is remembering the tools are not just something you buy, they are something you make. Not necessarily table saws either, but guides, jigs, templates, lifts, jacks, supports, ramps, cheap harbor freight screw drivers with the tips bent and filed down to extract staples, a broken piece of razor blade melted into the barrel of a disposable ballpoint pen, etc.
posted by Good Brain at 12:41 AM on July 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Any sort of engineering degree would be both overkill and insufficient for this sort of stuff. In fact, I can't think of any formal education that could give you the sort of broad skill base you'd like.

Most of the projects you mentioned require a combination of physical skills, technical knowledge, and a willingness to feel your way through uncertainties that crop up along the way. The technical knowledge part -- intellectually knowing what to do -- is often the least of it, and also the part that's easiest to look up online or in a book. The skills you probably need to work on most are more physical than theoretical. You need to be able to pound nails without bending them over, drive screws without splitting the wood, loosen rusted bolts without rounding the heads, operate power tools without hurting yourself, solder wires and pipes, etc. You also need familiarity with the properties of common materials; just how strong is a pine 2x4, anyhow? How stiff is a piece of 12-3 romex cable? There are rules of thumb and tricks of the trade that you can read or that people will tell you about how to do something a little better and easier -- but a lot of it is just practice and muscle memory. Start taking on projects. Screw them up, fix them, make mental notes for next time.
posted by jon1270 at 12:47 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Might want to have a look through the answers here. There's more of an emphasis on building than repair, though.
posted by reprise the theme song and roll the credits at 1:00 AM on July 20, 2013

Trying things - simple ones at first - will get you there as fast as you feel like going. In the beginning, trying things where failure has very limited consequences is your back-stop because, for example, the house doesn't burn down. Building a stand-alone device, vessel, or tool (and if it incorporates one of the safety concerns you identify along the way, having someone else check it out) is a good start. Trying to fix an engine that's broken in a known way is another good start if you have the space and inclination. But start with modest goals and take risks in keeping with your budget, inclination and foreseeable consequences.

As for taking a degree in mechanical engineering, I have some and they are not geared in most cases for this kind of thing. There are exceptions but in my view you learn end-to-end Buildin' Stuff faster and more thoroughly by trying things and learning as you go than by means of text or procedures.
posted by jet_silver at 1:03 AM on July 20, 2013

I find that a stubborn denial of social expectations helps.

"You can't take that apart!" "Sure can."
"Now you've ruined it." "Big deal."
"Leave it to the repairman." "That's me."
"You can't possibly do that on your own." "Pish."
"So how exactly are you going to do it?" "Dunno, let's google!"
"I can't believe you actually did that!" "Now you can."
posted by fix at 1:24 AM on July 20, 2013 [15 favorites]

Engineers build nothing. Conscientious draftsmen, machinists, pipe fitters, welders, mechanics, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, fabricators, and other trades people won't let 'em, for fear of damage and woe to innocents and bystanders. The first two years of being an engineer is learning to keep your hands in your pockets, unless you're handling drawings or a calculator. That's not to say engineers don't have their place, just that their place isn't generally, except by invitation, where people are trying to make things.

If you really want to learn to make things, what you're looking for is trades education. You can find various places to get such education, including community colleges, trades schools in your area, and even, perhaps (depending on the particular skill set), informal "apprenticeships" from local tradesmen, sometimes retiring or scaling back, who may need occasional extra hands for a project, and are willing to teach skills to interested people. You really want to start with a year of drafting, including perhaps some AutoCad training, to learn to read drawings. Unfortunately, the best way to learn to read drawings correctly and well, is still to learn to make drawings that are accurate. You have to be able to take three isometric views of a complex object from a page, and correctly fit them together into an object in space, in your head, before you'll be able to work with drawings successfully. That takes, at a minimum, several hundred hours in my experience, and sometimes thousands. But if you can't at least read drawings correctly, you'll make few things of complexity or elegance, in the long run. You'll learn to recognize good design and engineering, and how to take over from a drawing, as a workman, to fabricate something workable, or to request redesign or engineering clarifications when drawings are obviously daft.

Take a couple years of woodworking, to learn about wood as a material, and the tools and methods commonly used to work it. Learn something about adhesives, preservatives and finishes. Wood is usually a favorite hobbyist material and technology, because it is cheap and readily available, and because woodworking tools are also comparatively cheap and easy to buy. Wood is fine for simple structures, furniture, fences, and toys, but it's not good for bearing large loads, or for making parts of any real precision, as wood itself is dimensionally unstable with changes in both temperature and humidity, often in non-linear ways. But if you just want to play around on the weekends, at minimal expense, with minimal upfront training, wood working might be your thing.

But if you want to go a bit farther in your skills, you probably next tackle masonry. Stone is not an ideal material for many things, but in compression loading it is incredibly strong, and it was the first material from which people learned to build for the long term. Today's masons also handle brick, tile, concrete, as well as composite material mixes including metal and fiber reinforcement. I don't know how many course of brick you'll need to lay, to lay your first straight and square one, but in my case, it was a lot more than I first thought.

Then, perhaps take a six month welding program, and you'll learn to grind and prepare metal joints for proper welding, how to identify metals, how to weld, braze, cut, anneal, and inspect welded joints. You may get to work with a plasma cutting torch, bead blasters, and ancillary prep equipment.

Spend a couple years in machinist school, learning how to measure precisely, some basic metallurgy, how to file, grind, and work metal by hand, and how the main machine tools operate, and have changed with technological progress. Maybe even get yourself a mini-lathe and mini-mill, for your home workshop, if you'll have one, but be aware that the investment in the measuring tools, bits, end mills, bores, etc. will eventually be much greater than the initial cost of the machines themselves. If a home shop is impractical for you, you may be able to find a hobbyist with his own shop, willing to share costs and teach you to operate the machines. But this is pretty rare, and you have to be willing to put a lot of work, and some money into such arrangements, as serious hobbyists or retirees with their own Bridgeport and good lathe setups don't entrust their machine tools to chumps. And, you'll have to work around the person who actually owns the shop, and their schedules and space needs.

If you get through a full machinist school curriculum, you'll probably have been exposed to some basic CNC machine tool programming, and a bit of setup and tool & die mechanics. Meaning, you'll be able to safely fasten parts in jigs, and jigs in machine tools, but you won't be much of a mechanic.

To learn mechanics, you'll need to spend some time studying and practicing the assembly, adjustment, and repair of complex machines. Throughout the 20th century, people traditionally learned this skill set through bicycle, and then auto mechanics. But in the last 20 years, as cars have become electronically controlled, the requirements for auto repairman have changed substantially, from the traditional mechanics skills of having superior eye/hand coordination, skill with tools, and what is called "mechanic's feel," to a skill set involving a lot more systems diagnosis, sometimes using fully automated digital diagnostic equipment, and OBD-II vehicle interfaces. So, I expect you could learn traditional mechanic's skills from devoting time to other classes of machinery, perhaps like sewing machines, small engine repair and lawn mowers, boat motors, etc. about as well as you could trying to do so by buying and fixing up old cars and trucks. But, at a minimum, you should tear down and successfully overhaul a 4 stroke engine, a mechanical type transmission (whether manual shift, or electrically controlled) and some hydraulic system like the brakes of a car, or a power steering system. You'll learn about bearings, lubricants, fasteners, timing of moving parts, and diagnostics.

What lay people call plumbing and electrical work are both fields where you have to recognize the potential for severe negative effects to human health and property, if you do things wrong. If you're going to get involved in projects that involve either or both, you may want to hire them done by licensed contractors, and be done with, as it's your surest route in many jurisdictions to building code compliance.

In the same way, building and running a small forge and learning to alloy, cast, and heat work and harden metals by open hearth methods like blacksmithing can be fun, if you got the space and savvy to handle dangerous amounts of heat and fuel. I've made 2 bars of steel in built up clay retorts, and while the process was interesting, and informative, the first was brittle, worthless slag, and the second, while serviceable low carbon steel, wasn't worth anything like the 3 months I devoted to learning about this, and how to build and fire clay retorts. Unless this is a primary interest of yours, I'd say buy your metal stock commercially, and be damn glad you can.

Finally, there's often more than one way to skin a cat. I spent a good many years selling textile and leather working machinery, and I still have a great respect for what skilled workers in these trades can do. In some cases, even with today's most modern materials and manufacturing methods, textile or leather working technologies remain the best way of getting common human problems solved. Nobody makes mosquito nets out of carbon fiber, or mills them out of aluminum billets. Likewise, you may think you'd never miss plastic if you never saw another blow molded plastic jug, but I bet your life would be much, much worse, faster than you can imagine, if plastics technology were magically sucked out of civilization.

So, if you're going to be some kind of Maker, you've got to commit, first, to being a life long student of trades and industrial arts. You measure your real progress in years, and mastery of technique. When a thing is good from your hand, no one need tell you, nor you need tell any other.
posted by paulsc at 1:42 AM on July 20, 2013 [47 favorites]

Best answer: Read books or watch videos, ask people who know what they're doing, or even take tech classes. It sounds like you want to learn woodworking and basic electronics to start with.

I've really enjoyed mechanical engineering, but a lot of the classes are solving equations to predict how an ideal (bridge/engine/toaster) will work, and much less time spent actually building things in labs. To actually design a good (bridge/engine/toaster) it's necessary to spend at least a few years working to learn that industry's special techniques, applicable regulations, etc. With mechanical engineering I can understand in general how most things were designed and built. But, I very rarely build practical things outside of work because it's very hard (expensive, time-consuming and risky) to make something better than a mass-produced product designed by a large engineering team. For example, I could probably build a table saw from non-table-saw parts, but it would cost more for parts alone than a commercially-made table saw, and would be less safe and less accurate. Paulsc is totally right. I hardly ever build anything at work either because the technicians have better shop skills than me and because I'm there to design, not to build.
posted by sninctown at 2:05 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ask your Dad.

No, really. Why didn't he show you how to do this stuff already? It's time he stepped up and did his duty as a parent.
posted by tel3path at 2:34 AM on July 20, 2013

I think my biggest challenges with the various things I've done is overcoming imposter syndrome.
posted by singingfish at 3:07 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Engineering? No. Maybe spend time hanging around the sort of people that today are identified as "Makers".

As others have said, part of it is attitude. Understanding that you can probably learn whatever is needed to do any given thing is very important, but so is knowing whether or not it'll be something worth doing. Do you want to do it (/worth-your-time)? Should you do it? Is it safe for you to do it? Do you have an aptitude for it (or conversely, does the hammer always strike your thumb, no matter how much you practice)? etc. are all good questions.

For example, we recently purchased a new dishwasher. Had the option to have it delivered for $79, or "professionally installed" for $175, with a $100 rebate.

The unit it was replacing was a late 1980's era unit that had been questionably "professionally" installed when the kitchen was last remodeled. Among the joyous things was that the front inlet had been piped from below ... directly up through the middle of the bay, along with holes for electrical and discharge. About a mile of extra hose had been coiled and left under the sink (eating up lots of space) for reasons unknown. None of that was going to work for a modern dishwasher, and it isn't clear how much would have been covered by a "professional" installer.

So, doing a job "right":

1) plugged the floor holes
2) rejiggered some dodgy (read: lazy) cabinetwork on one side
3) built a side panel for the other side, which had been open to underneath-the-sink, including staining and poly coat because dishwashers are wet things and flush mount units expose some of both sides of the cabinets,
4) primed all the unpainted drywall behind (just a pet peeve)
5) noticed some shoddy cabinetwork under the sink area, added supporting structure to prevent sag,
6) opened up the wall and extended the original dishwasher hot water supply line to a convenient location along with a new addition: a water hammer arrestor and pipe insulation,
7) reworked the discharge and air gap to match,
8) redid the facing woodwork (old dw was ~25", new recessed was an inch less) which involved cutting, finishing, and staining a piece "just right." And I screwed it up the first time, so I actually wasted $8 and a day of time on a second piece of wood.
9) Replaced the cabinet toe kick (damn 1" width difference!)

etc. Having watched "professional" installers in the past, I know that "professional" is generally a term that means "the quickest path to having a job done just well enough to pass the it-works test".

But. My choice to go this route, opening up what I knew was inevitably going to be a larger project than I really wanted, was based on both the knowledge that a pro install would half-arse or entirely omit each of the points above, and that I had the skills and tools to tackle any obstacles I was likely to encounter, such as the unanticipated cabinetwork. It turned into a complicated and time-consuming multidisciplinary project, ick. But it looks totally awesome. And I am totally happy that it is installed correctly, rather than professionally.

Best way to learn? Tackle small projects. Master them. Move on to projects that are just outside your comfort zone. Don't be afraid of failure, especially if failure only means having to buy some replacement material or whatever. Find resources. People who have done what you are considering. YouTube. etc.
posted by jgreco at 3:21 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

This sort of thing is not genetical, I think, and it's certainly not taught at schools. It's mostly something you learn from the people you spend a lot of time around; in this case your father would be the most logical person to teach you. The way he learned from your grandfather.

You already know these things. They're in your question.

If learning from your father is somehow not an option, find others in your area. Look for your local hacker- or makerspace, join, and hang out there.
Most importantly, start making things! We have it so much easier nowadays than your grandfather did: we can find instructions and inspiration on the internet. Join Instructables and start off by doing small projects that interest you.

Being one of those people who can build/fix anything is a combination of a certain state of mind and skills. Both can be learned.
Start today! It's fun, and fixing or making your own stuff is immensely rewarding and gives you a deeper level of ownership.
posted by Too-Ticky at 3:31 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Where are you located? Not that it matters all that much assuming you're in North America or Europe.

The thing is, it's a positive feedback loop. Make and fix things to get skills, use your skills to fix and make things. Acquire some tools along the way. The thing is, it's hard to jump in and be good at all the things all at once so you're going to have to pick and choose and decide how good is good enough.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:57 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Practice. Practice. Practice.
posted by larry_darrell at 5:14 AM on July 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I watched my dad build barns, fences, various outbuildings, remodel an unfinished attic (which for some reason was full of dirt), repair cars, lamps, major appliances - just about everything.

None of these is covered in an engineering curriculum.

One way to learn about fixing things is to buy an old house or car that needs a lot of work. Or you can go all in, buy some vacant land, and build everything yourself from scratch.

If you can't afford or don't have space for that sort of thing, see if you have friends who would like some help. It can be very helpful just to hand someone tools, and if you pay attention you will pick up a lot of skills and/or see an example of how not to do things. Hmmm... No location, but you probably aren't near me anyhow.

Want to learn how to make something? Decide what you'd like to make, and look online to find tutorials or order a book. Alternatively, look at projects and directions and choose something from that to make. Make Magazine is good source.
posted by yohko at 5:32 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Some excellent advice here already and I definitely want to add my support to the idea of trades' education either through local makers groups or through community college.

One of the ways I learned to think my way around complex 3D objects was by building models. Model ships, model cars, model airplanes. Mostly really cheap kits because my family didn't have a lot of $$ for these toys, but nonetheless I learned about the importance of order of assembly and how to visualize & connect parts that always looked different than the instructions. And how to take the time and care to sand off flash & sprue (the little leftover plastic bits that form around molded parts) so that the parts would fit together smoothly. This kind of attention to detail and an ability to "think in 3D" are probably the 2 most basic (and vital) skills for anyone who wants to be a tinkerer, builder or maker.

Today there are also way more exciting kits to learn more advanced skills as well - check out the Maker Shed's kit section to start!
posted by id girl at 5:49 AM on July 20, 2013

I think everyone has good ideas here. My suggestion would be to take a year to learn auto repair (either by taking classes somewhere or helping out a mechanic). I have found that doing woodworking is something you can pick up relatively easily on your own, but dealing with motors and mechanical stuff is a little harder to wrap your brain around. A car engine is a great thing to learn about, since a lot of that knowledge can be transferred. You can also work on remodeling part of your house, or build a deck, or something in that vein, which will give you a good handle on some of the structural stuff.

I'm a fairly handy person, and while a decade ago I owned a bunch of books on how to do things, nowadays I just look everything up on the internet. The only projects I won't take on are things that just take too much time (such as rebuilding the fireplace chimney), or things that are dangerous/expensive if not done right (replacing the furnace). I have rewired portions of our house, built new walls, installed flooring, fixed dishwashers/driers/plumbing, built furniture, and installed doors, and I didn't know how to do any of that before I just buckled down and did it. The easiest way to learn something like this is to just do it. You might make a mistake or two along the way, but as long as you take your time and try to understand exactly what you are doing and how it all fits together before you start, the worse thing that can happen is that you need to pay someone to come fix what you were trying to fix in the first place.
posted by markblasco at 7:10 AM on July 20, 2013

Best answer: The above replies more than adequately cover the "How do I learn to build/do/make things?" question. I just popped in to say I have a BS in Mechanical Engineering. My boyfriend has a BS in Biology and works as a surveyor. While I am generally handy, he builds is own furniture and has brought at least three non functioning ancient vehicles back to life. I have not electrocuted myself changing light fixtures.

Mechanical engineering doesn't teach you any useful hands-on skills. It teaches you theory, physics, and (if you're lucky) the mindset to troubleshoot the problems mechanical equipment can have. Someone else gets to do the fun part of actually building/fixing it, sadly.
posted by conradjones at 8:02 AM on July 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Start by taking things apart. Worry about putting them back together later.

Volunteer to help build scenery at your local community theater.

Play with Legos, build models.

Remember not to kill yourself with electricity.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 8:30 AM on July 20, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for everyone's input and encouragement. My husband and I have plenty of shop space, tons of tools of all varieties that I know how to use and I've done some home repairs/projects myself over the years (replaced a freezer thermostat, very minor plumbing, changed the oil/tires on my car, helped build a chicken coop) and I can even weld a little. My dad did teach me a fair amount, happily, so I have some basic knowledge under my belt.

I rewrote my question a bunch of times but didn't get the wording or emphasis right. This is really more about what should I study when I go back to school. I'm in healthcare and done with it. I originally thought something like history or anthropology but have discarded that in favor of something more left-brained. In my head, Engineering is something like "identify/analyze a need/product, design a system/process to produce it". And I was thinking as a by-product, I'd obtain some of the abilities I mentioned. Or if not the actual technical skills, then theoretical knowledge - like understanding how engines work, electricity, etc.

Even though I didn't really ask the question that was in my head, I did get a lot of good information with regards to the by-product/tinkerer aspect. Time for some meetings with guidance counselors I think. Cheers!
posted by Beti at 10:50 AM on July 20, 2013

I'm the son of an electrical contractor. Growing up, it seemed to me that my dad could fix anything. Also, whenever I was "helping" him with whatever project he'd repeatedly tell me that I should grow up to have a career where I use my head and not my hands.

As I grew older and moved away and had to make my own repairs I struggled mightily, stripping screws, breaking or losing pieces, and "successful" repairs often crooked, shaky, or temporary. I figured I just wasn't good with my hands, not strong enough, dexterous enough, etc.

Some years later I moved back closer. Some time after that I even bought my own house which needed (and still needs...I'm actually just taking a break) a bunch of small and large repairs.

Over the past three years of house ownership I've learned (at least) a couple of things. 1. Fixing things isn't working with your hands. Before i touch any tool, take anything apart, I stop and THINK. What am I trying to do, how will I do it, how likely is the way I'm trying to do it the right way to do it. What could go wrong or what have I not considered yet. Thinking has made all the difference in my home repairs. Not only do the things I fix work, but its also stopped me in time from embarrassing outcomes like the time I was ready to saw through an angled closet floor into the ceiling of the staircase underneath. 2. I've also learned my dad doesn't know how to fix everything, but in his years of experience he's seen other trades work, and some stuff he's learned and the stuff he hasn't he asks a colleague about, or else thinks or reads about what needs to be done. And if youre still not sure, sometimes it's best to call someone in.
posted by dismitree at 12:24 PM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: On "fixing things" - Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgement. 1+ on hanging around with people with experience.

I grew up tinkering with cars, working on hot rods with certified mechanics. Got my own car, got a rebuild manual and went through the engine and transmission. Still had to ask dumb questions sometimes.
Worked building airplanes for a while. They stuck me with two old men who had been there 40 years. I didn't know anything at first, but had two great teachers. I listened and became a "go-to" guy for problems.
Bought a burned out house. Had to hire some of it out, but I did alot of the plumbing - as the plumbers helper, read and watched on electric, I know enough now to have wired my own shop space where all my metal munching machines live.

My final point is - I work now as a project manager for an Architect. I deal with consulting engineers all the time. Without a doubt the very best ones are the ones that came out of the trades or worked close-up with the people doing the building.
My favorite engineer now - 75 years old - told me he had to take two semesters of metal shop to get his ME. I challenge you to find ANY engineering school in the country where machine shop is offered even as an elective today.
He later worked for NASA, out on the floor solving problems. If we run into an issue out in the field, he can almost always solve it at no cost to the owner.
And I guess in the end, that's why my boss sends me out in the field.
How in blazes anyone thinks it's a good idea to take high school kids, run them through a college, and think they can now direct how things are built I have no idea. Potential Architects and Engineers need to take a couple years and be out there in the trades, listening to and watching those old men. THEN go to school.
posted by mareli at 4:13 PM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Given you question and later clarification, I think going for an engineering degree could work out well, with a few caveats:
- Maintain focus on what you want. Many engineering colleges focus more on teaching theory and less on practice, but there are courses and extra curriculars that involve hands on work. Ask about multidisciplinary course tracks and school teams that involve design-build-test work like solar car, human powered sub, concrete canoe, etc.
- At your age (sorry) I don't think grades are going to be what future employers will be interested in. They'll want to see what projects you have worked on, see how knowledgeable you are about the process of designing and making something, and see how you applied what you learned in real applications.
- There are engineering colleges out there that are almost apprenticeships. They involve a combination of coursework and co-op programs with partnering companies. Kettering is one I've had some experience with and the students that come out of there have always impressed me.
posted by highway40 at 5:28 PM on July 20, 2013

Best answer: This is really more about what should I study when I go back to school.

Many schools offer an Intro to Engineering course, with an overview of different engineering fields.

Decide what engineering field you want to be working in, and get your degree in that one.

If you don't have a strong math background, see if you can pick up a few classes around your work schedule.

If you want to be building the things you mentioned in your question for a living, don't go back to school.

I challenge you to find ANY engineering school in the country where machine shop is offered even as an elective today.

mareli, does it count if the course is under the physics department?
posted by yohko at 8:56 PM on July 20, 2013

Start by taking things apart. Worry about putting them back together later.

This is good advice, but modern technology can help in the form of a digital camera. Take lots of photos of anything you take apart so you have images of each step along the way. That will help avoid that problem most of us have experienced at one time or another when we ralise we have no idea how to put it back together again.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 6:55 PM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Beti, have you explored studying any of the fields which co-work with engineers...human factors and ergonomics, industrial or product designers, and so on?
posted by jeanmari at 7:55 PM on July 21, 2013

Call the North Bennet Street School and ask what they might suggest. Try to look beyond their specific areas of interest, and keep in mind this point (from their web site; emphasis mine):
Pauline Agassiz Shaw, the school's founder, was a visionary educator and proponent of the Swedish system of manual training known as “sloyd” which means “craft” or “hand skills.” The sloyd method focused on the development of character and intellectual capacity as well as technical skills. The method encourages students to systematically develop hand skills along with an understanding of tools, materials, processes and a sense of care and commitment to excellence. Shaw saw the school’s mission as teaching the “whole person” both how to make a living and how to live a fuller life.

Today, the philosophy of sloyd remains at the heart of the school. Full-time programs provide intensive, hands-on training in a structured framework with a focus on practical projects. Each project builds on previous learning and requires students to solve increasingly complex problems.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:06 AM on July 22, 2013

I'm not there yet, but everything I've learned how to fix has been due to having to. I doubt you need to go back to school for this. Just decide to replace your back deck and to fix that broken garage door opener.

This is excellent advice. If something is broken, there is very little risk in trying to fix it yourself. It's already broken, what's the worst that can happen?

Also, take stuff apart. Go to the thrift store and buy broken or worn out things and take them apart and see how they work. Develop a second nature for when things ought to be forced, and then they ought to be finessed.

Watch the New Yankee Workshop, This Old House and Ask This Old House. And some of those shadetree mechanic kinds of shows (that used to be) on Spike TV. They make it look easier than it is, but understanding the reason for doing things is a huge step in the right direction.

Develop a critical eye for things. Learn how things are supposed to be. When you see something that looks good, dig in deeper and figure out why it looks complete and not crooked/shoddy/incomplete. I am acquainted with a family of do-it-yourselfers, and their projects always look superficially fine. But looking one step deeper reveals laziness and slap-dashery. "Floors need quarter-round trim between the floor and wall, right? So let's buy it two sizes too big and then not mitre the joints. Good enough!"

When something breaks, do a post mortem on it. See if you can figure out why it broke. Visualize the mechanical forces going on in the thing, and then see if you can improve on the design. If the gate on the fence sags, figure out what stops a properly working gate from sagging. Has the gate gone out of square? What stops that from happening? Are the hinges constantly bending or coming loose out of their moorings? Maybe someone used the wrong kind of hinge, or the wrong kind of screws.

Lastly, strive for the simplest solution. If something isn't working right, your job is to put it back the way it was when it was working. Don't add stuff to the system until you have a pretty good idea why you are doing it. Put it right, and then watch and see what makes it go wrong.

Also lastly, as you progress through building things, figure out ways to do things that are foolproof. Good carpenters measure twice and cut once. Great carpenters figure out a way to not have to measure at all. Measuring, drawing a line and cutting on that line introduces potential error. If you need 4 sticks that are the exact same length, use some kind of stopper to cut all 4 to the same length. Or take time to make a spacer that will give you the exact same distance between things.

(Small story: I was always struggling with getting paint to look good. No matter how well I went around and taped up the edges and corners, it never came out right. Then I watched some professional painters, and noticed that they almost never used masking tape. Why? Because they took the time they would have used to mash things off and learned how to aim the paintbrush accurately. If it takes an hour to mask and a half hour to paint, you can get better results in less time by just going slow and getting it right. If you screw it up, wipe it off with a rag and try again.)
posted by gjc at 7:28 AM on July 22, 2013

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