Monday, January 7, 2019


How many European homeowners will you find wielding
one of these?
It’s just possible that Americans are the handiest people on earth. We think nothing of fixing our own cars, upgrading our own computers, or making our own clothes. Whole industries, not to speak of countless YouTube videos, have grown up around the mantra of Do-It-Yourself.

Most of all, we Americans love to fiddle with our own homes. While that may not seem like a big deal to you, believe me, it is: you’d be hard-pressed to find a Parisian with a Skilsaw in his hand. In Europe, Asia, and in most other places, it wouldn’t even occur to people to attempt an unfamiliar job when there was a specialist around to do it for them.   

Framing is relatively easy, and the results are
gratifyingly visible.
Americans, on the other hand, delight in being Jacks-of-All-Trades. Maybe this cultural trait is rooted in old Yankee attitudes of hard work and self-sufficiency. Then again, maybe we just love to tinker.  Whatever the reason, the roaring success of home-improvement emporia like Lowe's and The Home Depot, along with all that DIY media on the web, makes it plain that this national trait is going strong.

Still, as that sage Dirty Harry once observed:  “A man’s got to know his limitations.”  (I expect he meant women too).  Some projects may simply not be worth your while—not because they’re beyond your abilities, but because their learning curves are too steep to be mastered in one project. Having tried my hand at just about every trade except laying carpet, here’s my personal rundown on what’s worth your time and what isn’t:

Don't take DIY electrical work too lightly—
one wrong move, and ZAP!
(Image courtesy of Sparky Channel)
•  Concrete work that’ll be hidden, such as minor foundations, can usually be pulled off by a novice, but don’t expect to do on-the-job learning at large-scale work such as floor slabs and patios. Concrete is notoriously unforgiving, and you'll be reminded of any errors for a long, long time.

•  Framing basics can be picked up in a fairly short time, and the results are gratifyingly visible.  Unlike concrete work, framing is also manageably paced—you can take it as fast or as slowly as you like. However, make very sure you’re fluent with a spirit level, or you’ll be fighting crooked walls and floors for the balance of the project.   
Taping drywall is as much an art as it is a craft. Some folks
have what it takes, and some don't. Do a couple of
walls for practice so you can find out which side you're on.
•  Rough plumbing and electrical work are only so-so candidates for DIY. It’s not the physical work that’s difficult; it’s knowing what goes where. Plumbing and electrical codes are complicated, and  and mistakes can be costly—sometimes even deadly. Proceed with caution. 

•  Insulation work is easily accomplished by a handyperson, though it’s among the most unpleasant of all construction jobs: Those devilish little fibers find their way everywhere. Consider using one of the newer non-fiberglass "green" insulation materials, but in any case, don’t fail to wear the appropriate protective clothing and breathing apparatus. 

Unless you're a really good amateur painter, don't risk ruining
the most conspicuous part of your project. A beautiful
paint job can make all the difference.
(Image courtesy
•  Hanging drywall is not too difficult if you have a good strong back. However, plan to spend three to four times longer at this job than a pro would. After you've practically killed yourself at this job, you should also be prepared to have the taper complain about everything you did wrong.

•  Taping and texturing is equal parts of skill and art, and for practical purposes, a botched job is irreversible. Hang the drywall if you must, but be leery of on-the-job training in taping and texturing the walls and ceilings. If you’re really fired up about doing your own, do yourself a favor and practice on garage or closet walls and ceilings before you attack the really conspicuous stuff.   

•  Painting is a trade that many attempt but few master. And unfortunately, unlike many other phases of construction, a lousy paint job won't be hidden by succeeding work. I’ve seen lots of otherwise stellar DIY projects utterly ruined at the last minute by paint-splattering maniacs—so unless you’re truly handy with a brush, swallow your pride, open your wallet, and hire a pro. It’s a final touch that can make a big difference.

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