Jacquelyn of Many Trades
September 24, 2007 2:48 PM   Subscribe

What things should I learn how to fix?

I'd like to be a handy person.

Recently, I've had car troubles and I've been trying to learn more about cars so that I can make simple repairs myself in the future instead of paying for them.

What other things should I learn how to fix? I'd like suggestions of things that are simple to learn and useful to know. These could be things around the house, in the car, at the office, etc.

I have a bit of time and I'm really interested in learning how to do a variety of things so even random, weird suggestions are welcome.

Links to instructions would be helpful as well.

Thanks everyone!

Also, if you have stories of how you found knowing how to repair certain things to be useful in your life, I'd appreciate those too.
posted by PinkButterfly to Grab Bag (25 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Someone recommended this on AskMe awhile ago, and I bookmarked it. Great how-to's in there, though I haven't needed them yet.

Good on ya for wanting to learn to fix things yourself, it's not always very hard, and you can save a lot of money and get a lot of satisfaction out of it. I've been doing progressively more complex car repair projects over the last year (replaced my brake pads last weekend, radiator a couple of months ago) and I've really enjoyed it.
posted by autojack at 2:57 PM on September 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Useless sort of answer, I'm afraid, but I'd start with anything that interests you. Or anything you have around the place that needs work; most practical skills are best learnt by doing (and making mistakes the first few times...)

That said, if you can learn a little about plumbing you can save yourself a fortune when a pipe bursts at 2am on Christmas day (as happened to me; the fee for a callout would have been apocalyptic.)

Basic bicycle maintenance is also simple and satisfying. Sheldon Brown seems to be the gold standard for websites these days, but there are many books.
posted by Luddite at 2:58 PM on September 24, 2007

At the risk of saying something obvious, you should learn to fix the stuff you've got. I mean, I don't have any reason to learn how to fix motorcycles or guitars, because I don't own any. But fixing bicycles, or computer hardware, well, that's a different story.

Are you a homeowner? Basic plumbing skills will someday save you a lot of money and frustration. Do you have any expensive hobbies? Working on your own bicycles (or your motorcycles and guitars) is satisfying, and, again, can save you some money. Do you work with computers? Learning how to do some basic hardware stuff will, in a regular office setting, make you a god in the eyes of your coworkers. Do you do anything outdoors? Learning how to do basic repairs on your backpacking equipment might save your life. You see where I'm going with this.
posted by box at 3:04 PM on September 24, 2007

I guess I'd argue for learning to fix things as needed, rather than learning to fix furnaces in case your furnace needs fixing when maybe it will last for years to come. The way to make this happen is to decide ahead of time that when something breaks, you will have already budgeted to buy a repair manual or book and any special tools that are needed. After a few times, you will have a range of how-to-fix-things books and lots of tools, and you will be ready to handle most things in your house.

But if you do want to start learning, the things that seem to go wrong really often are faucets and toilet innards; electrical switches and plugs; door locks and hinges; and moving parts on windows -- in other words, the things that get moved and used every day, year after year. Furnaces, hot water heaters, and appliances like fridges and washing machines tend to break down less frequently, generally when they are some years old. The real trick with those is knowing when to repair them and when to replace with new and more efficient items.

Fixing things isn't often very hard, but it takes learning a specialized vocabulary (such as the difference between a carriage bolt and a lag screw); some specialized tools (like an electrical tester, wire stripper, and some wire nuts for doing basic electrical work); and a willingness to get things wrong a couple of times before figuring it out and getting it right. Oh, and asking for help when you find yourself in over your head. But if you can read basic step-by-step directions, and follow them, and have at least minimal hand-eye coordination, you are able to do 90% of the work needed around your house.

Home Depot and other similar stores have a decent assortment of how-to books -- I'd suggest starting with one of the thick "how to fix everything" books, and then buying specialized ones for electrical, plumbing, carpentry, or whatever, as needed. And always buy the exact tools needed -- don't go using the pliers as a hammer, or the hammer as a chisel. It really is usually cheaper and is always safer to just go and buy the right tool for the job.

Lastly, I'd suggest getting really good at preventative maintenance, which will keep you from having to get good at actually repairing broken things. Check every outlet in the house for correct grounding and polarity. Fix faucet leaks before you have a flood. Paint and caulk and so on before the wood gets rotten and has to be replaced. Find out what the manufacturer recommends for upkeep of your furnace, appliances, and other big-ticket items, and either do the work yourself or pay to have it done.
posted by Forktine at 3:06 PM on September 24, 2007

Well... what's your skill level now?
posted by jerseygirl at 3:07 PM on September 24, 2007

Anything you depend on. Cars? Computers? Air conditioner? Plumbing?

Here are some things I'm happy I know: how to dismantle a shower head, de-lime it, and put it back together; how to swap out most any component inside a desktop computer; how to check for a working aperture/shutter/wind mechanism in a junk-shop camera; how to fix earrings, bracelets, necklaces, etc (but never heirloom stuff, because I don't trust my repairs that much); how to daisychain the TV/VCR/DVD and/or the split-component stereo so that they work correctly; how to back up, reformat, and basically un-bugger a computer; and as with anything involving metal bits and your hands, how to disinfect and wrap up cuts and scrapes.

Things I want to know: basic car repair; how to dismantle and clean (old, manual, analog) cameras; how to avoid plumbing mishaps like Luddite mentions; how to clean my air conditioner with a shopvac so I don't have to pay out the nose twice a year; and although I know it's not at all mechanical, one of these days I would like to know how the hell to apply makeup without looking like a sixteen-year-old goth.
posted by cmyk at 3:12 PM on September 24, 2007

learn to weld.
posted by knowles at 3:17 PM on September 24, 2007

Learn to mend and alter your own clothing. I'm not talking about tailoring your own shirts, but I think everyone should know how to sew on a button, mend holes, and hem their own pants (minus things like pleats and lining and really expensive things you don't want to ruin).

There is absolutely no reason to take something to the cleaners or seamst(er/ess) to have a pair of pants hemmed for $10-20, and the number of times I've seen things thrown away in our apartment complex for having a tiny hole is shameful. Kids today.

(old lady filter off)
posted by fiercecupcake at 3:31 PM on September 24, 2007

This isn't really something you "fix", but you can save a lot of money on home renovations by doing your own demolition and disposal. Or at least your own demo.

I've never found that learning to hem your own pants is worth saving $8, though. But do learn how to sew a button.
posted by acoutu at 3:43 PM on September 24, 2007

I got my start in home improvement and woodworking by volunteering (Habitat for Humanity, Rebuilding Together) and hanging out with the pros. This gave me a basic vocabulary and then I picked up some of the beginner Handyman books (Handyman Magazine is awesome for this, Black & Decker How To series, etc.)

I experimented on my apartment and worked with friends who had condos and houses. Also worked with furniture that I scavenged from the alleys of Chicago.

From there, I got into Fine Homebuilding and all of Taunton's how to stuff (which is the gold standard in DIY and Home Improvement publishing).

I'm still a novice, still learning, but I'm renovating a really old house and just finished completely restoring 40 prairie-style windows.

And I'm a girl. And I love this stuff.
posted by jeanmari at 3:52 PM on September 24, 2007

Response by poster: jerseygirl: I'm no expert on anything, really, but I'm confident I can learn how to do most things.
posted by PinkButterfly at 4:00 PM on September 24, 2007

Best answer: There's hardly any better handyman's friend than the Reader's Digest Fix It Yourself Manual. When stuff breaks, you open the book and it shows you how to do diagnostics, and then you can decide if you have the skills to do the fix. A year or so of fixing minor things and you'll have a much better idea what you can and can't do.

They also have the Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual, which is more for homebuilding types of things -- major renovations and stuff even more advanced like re-roofing or adding a deck. The first book has a few basic electrician/plumber tasks outlined, though.
posted by dhartung at 4:08 PM on September 24, 2007 [2 favorites]

2nding dhartung's books. I own them both and they're fantastic.

Family Handyman (I've flogged it here before) has great instructional articles on fixing things around the house. They take a lot of care with the illustrations to be sure you get it.

Finally, learn how to change the brakes on your car. I recently learned how to do this and it blew me away how easy it was. Quick savings of $150 over having the mechanic do it.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 4:37 PM on September 24, 2007

Most of your large household appliances are amazingly self-repairable, up to a point and depending on your comfort envelope. Your washer, dryer, oven, dishwasher, etc. are all easily serviceable for most of the things that fail on them.

One of the reasons I prefer to purchase Kenmore appliances (as well as most other Sears products) is that they usually come with wonderfully detailed schematics and parts diagrams for the appliances. You can, quite literally, disassemble (and reassemble) a Kenmore appliance with the manuals.

Same for my Craftsman riding mower. I was having ignition problems and ended-up disassembling the engine and replacing a few parts on my own, thanks to the schematic that came with it. Been keeping it running for about 15 years that way.

And I second dhartungs recommendation of the RD book. It's a big book o' confidence.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:41 PM on September 24, 2007

Learn the basic workings of toilets and residential HVAC and you will be guaranteed to save yourself wallops of time, money, and frustration in the future. As far as toilets, there's nothing above the sewer line you can't fix yourself, and while there's lots of things you should probably leave to professionals in air conditioning and heating, knowing how they work goes a long way to having a reasonable conversation with those professionals. I would add drywall to that list, even though it's a pain in the ass and never comes out right without re-doing the whole wall.

Stanley makes a number of very readable DIY manuals with lots and lots of instructional photos, which are key in those kinds of books.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:43 PM on September 24, 2007

I came in here to recommend the same books dhartung (and stupidsexyFlanders) did.
posted by selfmedicating at 5:56 PM on September 24, 2007

If you want to become the most useful handy-man in your neighborhood, I suggest you read up on how to fix computer issues. I'm pretty learned and geek savvy so people always ask me about any computer issues they're having. Also, computer repairs cost a FORTUNE!!!! Geek Squad charges an arm and a leg for resolving the most trivial problems.

Start by getting familiar with computers and network issues. You'll become popular...not with the ladies though.
posted by deeman at 8:01 PM on September 24, 2007

What dhartung said.

Also, one way to lean how to fix things is to examine them when they are working. Many mechanical devices can be pulled apart and put back together with no bad effect - if you are interested in learning how to repair computer hardware, pull your computer to bits, clean all the dead cockroaches out and put it back together. Make sure you note where all the screws go etc, maybe take some photos as you take things apart so you can get them back if you forget which way around they were. Read up on the theory of it all first, then you will know what you are looking at when it comes away in your hand ;-)

Really, if you want to learn how to fix things, you need to get your hands dirty and do stuff - you cannot learn it from books, although the knowledge from the books will help you a great deal. Plus, pulling things apart to see hwo they work is fun.

Learn how to assemble a computer, replace a tap washer, unblock a sink, replace a door lock, change your car's oil, change a tyre, sew on buttons and make basic clothing repairs ... The list is endless, but you could start by making a list of items that you use regularly and depend on, then start maintaining them and finding ourt what you need as you need it. If you need tools, buy the proper tool for the job and buy decent ones - not the most expensive, but the middle range of tools are fine.

Don't fuck around with electricity, it's not the place for amateurs.
posted by dg at 8:36 PM on September 24, 2007

www.instructables.com !!!
posted by allthingsfixable at 11:34 PM on September 24, 2007

In the same vein as dg's answer, the real key is, you have to plan on screwing it up the first time (and forgive yourself).

It is constantly frustrating to me that I have to find out the hard way, again and again, but from a broader perspective, it is tremendously rewarding.

To take issue with dg though, I don't think there is anything that is 'not the place for amateurs'. You just have to ask yourself, "When I screw this up, what's the worst that can happen?" If the answer is something that is actually bad, do a class first (or at least a lot of reading). Otherwise, go for it!

Also, I saw an interesting craigslist post yesterday.. Somebody asking for a "bicycle maintenance mentor". I suppose she's hoping to get something for nothing, using her mid-20s femaleness as a bargaining chip, and she posted in the wrong forum, but.. The notion of a maintenance mentor is great.

Next time you need to fix something, do a thorough googling, and then put an add up on craigslist: "help me fix my ____, $30/hr". Make sure to explain that your goal is to generally learn about, diagnose, and then maybe repair the thing, rather than rather than absolutely 100% accomplish the repair, guaranteed. Check the respondents credentials carefully, of course, but don't be a pedant about it, you are going to get non-traditional replies, and some of them will be the most valuable in the end.

A pedantry example..
I responded to a craigslist posting several months ago. Somebody wanted help repairing a broken pin on a hard drive. Seemed a lot like an AskMe question, so I jumped right in, giving detailed instructions on how I would go about it. They replied by asking me if I had ever done it before, and how much I would charge. I admitted that I hadn't ever performed that particular task, pointed them at my resume (I'm very much over qualified for their silly repair, but I wasn't going to jump ship mid stream), and said $50 for success, no charge for failure. The result, no further communication.

You don't need to be a marketing expert to understand why.. No experience + possible failure = OMG! So, you know, don't be like that if you want to learn anything :)

As I say though, do check, because you will have to filter out the nut balls and bull shit artists too.
posted by Chuckles at 11:42 PM on September 24, 2007

I wouldn't jump on that dhartung bandwagon if I were you. I know him, and half the time he's completely wrong.

Two book sets I could add in here. The Handyman Club of America is a negative-option book club, basically, with a magazine and a lot of kitschy props like hats and tool aprons. We had to sever relations with them after a video (that we would have sent back!) went missing in the mail before it reached us, and they wouldn't accept our story. But the books we did receive (e.g. Home Wiring) are pretty helpful with good photo-illustrations, even if publishing/production is sometimes amateurish. You can get some of those on eBay too.

The other is a discontinued TIME-LIFE series. There's one for each major type of repair/renovation, such as Plumbing. (Oddly, that's the one I don't have, due to a faithless Amazon seller.) This relies mainly on schematic illustrations.

These are both more advanced than just being Ms. Fixit, but they're great resources for a homeowner/renovator. I couldn't do the property management I do without 'em. Just keep a magazine subscription like Family Handyman up so you know what's happening now. One of those books might refer to plywood, for example, when nowadays everybody uses OSB (more strength at half the price). And there are always new gadgets in the magazines that tempt you into thinking if you buy a new laser level you can add a poolhouse behind the garage.

As a general principle, I think one should quote Lazarus Long (Robert A. Heinlein, actually):

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
posted by dhartung at 11:58 PM on September 24, 2007

Heh, I was going to use the exact same quote, dhartung!

I don't think there is anything that is 'not the place for amateurs'.
Trust me on this, electricity is not a place for "learning things the hard way the first time". Even though your USian electricity supply is not as nasty as our 240v one, you really, really don't want to go sticking your fingers into anything that may be live unless you already know what you are doing. You can minimise the risk by switching off power at the main whenever you touch anything, but that is not an absolute guarantee that something is not live, unless you know for certain that the wiring was done right. 240v hurts like fuck, as I have found out the hard way three times now and have been very lucky every time not to be dead (and, obviously, I haven't learned anything from at least the first two experiences). Don't rely on "safety switches" to save you either, as it is entirely possible to have a dead short across + and - consisting of your body, without having the leakage to earth that these switches require in order to trip.

I can't believe it's even legal over there for just anyone to muck around with fixed wiring and that there are regulations that permit non-earthed power points to even exist. These are just more reasons to stay away from it until you learn some other skills that will generally make you more competent around tools.

If you insist of working on electrical equipment, always, always assume that any wire or other component is live at all times, even if you are certain that it isn't - you'll live longer that way.
posted by dg at 2:43 AM on September 25, 2007

I can't believe it's even legal over there for just anyone to muck around with fixed wiring and that there are regulations that permit non-earthed power points to even exist.

Nope, it's completely legal in many (if not most or all) US states for a homeowner to do their own electrical repairs. Old unearthed plugs, and much worse, are grandfathered in -- you would need to bring any new work up to code, but you generally don't need to do anything about the old stuff, even in rental units.

You are right, in that electrical work is the wrong place to "just give it the old college try" and half-ass something. And certainly if you keep shocking yourself, take the hint and stick to plumbing. But electrical work is actually a perfect example of something where if you can follow step-by-step instructions, do sequential problem solving, and work carefully and safely, a relatively unskilled person can do almost everything. For example, to replace plugs and switches, the only tools you would need to know how to use are a screwdriver, a circuit tester, and an ability to turn off the power at the breaker box... plus a willingness to be careful and check that the power really is off before sticking your fingers in there.
posted by Forktine at 7:01 AM on September 25, 2007

What deeman said- everyone should be able to troubleshoot a network, tweak or reinstall an OS, get peripherals and software to do your bidding. Most people get by with their computers, but I'd say knowing little fixes that make yours more efficient and useful is very worthwhile. This all assumes you're not already building your own PCs or writing your own programs.
posted by slow graffiti at 4:13 PM on September 25, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks everyone!
posted by PinkButterfly at 7:27 PM on September 25, 2007

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