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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

10 Things You Should Be Able To Do If You’re a Handy Homeowner (But Still Can’t)

[Editor’s Note: First offered in 2007. Well, at least the masthead is new]
[Author’s Note: I’ve read 653 additional lists of this kind since. You guys really need to go outside more. There is no editor]

I’m not sure I can take much more of this.

I’m enthusiastic about people becoming interested in what I’ve always been interested in: making things with your hands. It’s not the people hungry for knowledge I’m disappointed with; it’s the people who are telling you what it means to be “handy.”

Part of this appeal is that people that work in the mines of intellect long for the touch of a lump of real handwork coal from time to time. In a world where division of labor has become so incrementally small that many never see any one thing through from start to completion, the appeal of making a thing out of raw materials as a balm for the soul is growing. But man, the people peddling this stuff have no idea what they’re talking about.

Remember Norm and Bob? They once stood on a scaffolding hanging off a decrepit Second Empire dump in the city of my birth and banged on the thing until it was livable. Fantastic. Norm is still banging away, but only at furniture, and still worth looking at. But his old, original haunt has degenerated into advice on how to interview consultants you can hire to hire designers to assist you in finding feng shui necromancers who will aid you in finding a personal shopper to help you pick out fourteen gold faucets for the powder room off your conservatory turret. Jaysus, make something, will you?

Our internet friend the Instapundit champions this cause, and good on him for it. But he linked yesterday to Popular Mechanics’ advice on how to “be handy,” [Editor’s Note: Amusingly, the link is dead now but it goes to a list of 10 other identical lists] and I didn’t know whether to laugh, or cry, or what. It reminded me of so many customers I’d seen in construction, desperately trying to convince their wives they were good with their hands, too, after their wives looked out the window at the addition being built on their house, and saw the sidewaller with his shirt off.

Popular Mechanics telling you you’ll be “handy” if you change the handle on your shovel, or learn to solder a circuit board. Priceless.

By the way; the “shovel” pictured by PM would never be called that by anybody that wielded one. It’s a pointed shovel, but everyone calls it a spade. A flat shovel is an entirely different animal. And if you worked for a living you’d buy another one because a new one is cheaper than a handle. The handy part is digging with it properly, and knowing how to sharpen the nose with a file, and what kind of linseed oil to put on it in the fall so it doesn’t rust.

OK, enough carping. Here’s what you need to be able to do to be handy.

Ten things you should be able to do if you’re a handy homeowner

10. Crosscut and rip a board
Think of the board as Anne Boleyn. If you want another, skinnier wife, that’s ripping. If you want the same wife, only shorter and suitable for replacement by Jane Seymour, that’s crosscutting. They are two different things in cutting wood, and it used to make a great deal of difference which of them you were doing. Old fashioned dudes had one hand saw for each. You likely need to know how to rip on a table saw, and crosscut on a sliding miter saw. You also need to figure out how to make enough money to purchase those tools.
9. Order a piece of lumber at a real lumberyard
Note to my new handy friends: Home Depot is not a lumberyard. It is where you pick out window treatments if you don’t mind a concrete floor. A lumberyard is that place where there’s a mysterious chainlink yard behind a steel building with a grumpy man behind a counter in it that says: What do you want? and then stares at you. You need to know the species, grade, nominal and actual sizes, and shortcut nomenclature for raw wood components. Hint: a 2×4 isn’t.
8.Paint a straight line
It’s the most important skill any person can have in your home, and you stink at it. If you’re using tape or any gadget, you’re doing it wrong. You need a good brush, the proper paint pot, and a lot of rooms with bad lighting to try it enough times to get the knack of it. Also, the reason the painter has paint all over him is that he’s worn the same clothes every day for fourteen years. He never gets paint on him, really. If you’re making any kind of mess, you’re doing it wrong. You can make a mess of the rolling later. Learn the “cutting in” first.
7.Wire a convenience outlet
Spare me the danger thing. You work with electrical outlets all day, every day. If you can’t learn how to wire a 15 amp branch circuit to a box and install an outlet in it, I don’t see what good it’ll do you to learn to solder things that you’ve got no place to plug in. Learn how the electrons flow, handy dude or dudette.
6.Plant a shrub
I don’t mean dig a hole with your… hee hee… “shovel,” and water the rhody ’til it’s dead. Watch a real landscaper prepare a hole for a shrub and plant something, and you’ll know how to go outside and be handy. If you can do that, you can grow pretty much anything.
5.Hammer time
There’s actual advice on nailing technique in that PM article. Trust me: Nobody nails nothing no more. At least not with a hammer. You break metal strapping off bundles with the claw end when you’re not mashing things flat, but you need to know how to safely use a pneumatic nailer and compressor to nail things now. They’re as cheap as dirt, and safer. I know people who have lost an eye hand-nailing spikes way back when. Hand nailing is fine. It just never comes up.
4.Fell a tree
It’s hard to do safely, and unwise to try on anything you can’t get your arms around easily, but you really should know how to cut a pie-shaped notch on the side where you want it to fall, and a slice slightly lower on the opposite side to get things moving. You need to know where to stand, which is generally: somewhere other than where you are. Chainsaws are a blast. They’re safer than imported Chinese food, too, so never fear. I cut down a tree every Earth Day, to keep in practice.
3.Plumb a sink and toilet
If you don’t know how to make the finless brown trout go away, you’ve got no business calling yourself handy. And if you can’t make water come out of a sink to wash your hands after, just call the plumbers and go back to flower arranging or crossword puzzles or whatever.
2.Lay some ceramic tile
It’s easy, really. It’s as close to a truly permanent installation as anything you’ll ever do in your house; which is why you’ll always pick out the worst tile to install. At least you’ll know you can replace it yourself. Rent a wet saw like a pro has. You can cadge backrubs from your significant others real easy off this one.
1.Build a piece of furniture
Look, a table is just four vertical poles, four little pieces of wood connecting them, and a cutting board on top. You need to make some sort of this thing. It will be hideous, misshapen, poorly proportioned, rickety, and you’re bound to paint it a color you’ll tire of in a year or stain it with the color and uniformity of the contents of a sick baby’s diaper. So what?

What are you waiting for? If you ask nice, I’ll send you a plan for a table if you need one. A handy man will answer any request, generally, unless you’re foolish enough to refer to them as ” a handyman.” That’s generally when you discover they’re good in a fight, too.

16 Responses

  1. I know how to fell a tree in such a way that it crashes through the roof of the house. But more importantly, I know how to use odds and ends laying around the the garage to cover the hole so that the rain doesn't get in. Going on five years now. I call it "freeform handywork."

  2. I remember reading this one when you put it out last. Since then I have watched "Design on a Dime" 138 times and built a cockamamie blog. I get my back rubs when the dog jumps on my bed in the morning.

  3. G. Bob- See, that's better than "handy." That's "performance art."

    We like Andy. Let's put him in our blogroll and see if it makes him write more.

    It'll bring in dozens of extra visitors per decade, so be sure to stock up on pixels.

  4. I just sent you an email with husband's homemade tree climbing spikes and limb cutting adventure. Sheeesh!

    But I am indeed blessed that he can do all of those things… self taught and a city boy at that.

    I hope he's equally happy that I can cook from scratch and garden and can things.


  5. Sharpen said chainsaw. Know how to rip a slab out of a log accurately so that the wood can be used to make furniture.

    Know how to turn bowls and furniture lets. Sharpen turning tools. Building your own lathe is advanced, but worth doing.

    Know how to write 4 axis code for your CNC machine. This allows the production of pieces too difficult to turn on a lathe.

    You should be able to design, frame, sheath, roof, wire, plumb and insulate an addition or a whole house.

    Masonry skills are good, too.

    Know how to build a staircase that is attractive, strong and pleasant to walk.

    Installing roofing is a good skill to have.

    Be able to repair all your own tools, from hand tools to power tools.

    Know how to design and fabricate microprocessors.

    Ok, that last one I just threw in there – I picked that skill up along the way.

    Know how to design and lay out any room in a house, enter it in a CAD system and understand plan and elevation views.

    Model 3D objects in Rhino and create toolpaths so they can be produced on your CNC system.

    Lastly, be able to market and sell all of your products, otherwise, things will pile up around your house and you will have to be adept at building storage systems. Which you better be, anyway – a clean house and tidy shop make everyone happy.

  6. Dozens per decade will triple my readership, sir. I'll have to quit workin' and raisin' chilluns in order to keep the new visitors fed.

  7. My comment is pretty much the same as last time, we are pretty much thied world here in england so most of the list is a given although the furniture making is perhaps best left to you.

  8. Husband is quite competent, but I don't let him paint. He used to paint for a pipeline company. He wore a heavy rubber glove, with a cheap cotton work glove pulled over it, then plunged his whole hand into the paint bucket and "painted." So you can see why I don't let him near a paint can now. But he will buy me anything I want, to do it right.

    I loathe ceramic tile, so that's never been a problem for us, and we are lonesome prairie kind of people, where no one in his right mind would "fell" a tree on purpose. In fact, we put up historical markers for our dead ones so folks in the future will know a tree had been there.

    You left out welding though.

  9. Good point – welding is important. As is heat treating metal and grinding tools.

    I live in a forest where trees are felled every day, sometimes by the thousands. How much longer it will be a forest, no one knows. The whole area has been completely logged at least twice in the last 250 years, and we still have trees.

    I plant a lot of trees, too – that is important. Know which kind to plant, where to plant them, and how to make sure they thrive.

    Trees are good things to have around.

  10. A friend who I frequently work with once wrote to Norm and told him his caulking technique was wrong. The audacity! My friend says you push, you don't pull. Norm agreed!

    I don't care what Norm or my wiseguy friend says, I ain't pushin no caulk!

  11. I hired a guy a couple of years ago to remove a large dead Douglas fir to big for my hobbyists chain saw that was threatening my horse shed. He looked the part and seemed to know what he was doing while notching and making the backcut. It was going well right up until it started to go, then it pirrouetted about twenty degrees, spit the chainsaw out like a watermelon seed and cleaved the shed perfectly in two. It had occured to me as I'm sure it had to him at that moment that his interview for qualifications had consited of the aforementioned looking the part, an exchange of first names and a hand shake. We sized each other up for a brief moment before he sprinted to his truck and bolted to whereabouts unknown. Maybe G. Bob knows someone who looks like a roofer who might be willing to patch up the shed?

  12. One must be careful when felling near a structure. I use cables, ropes, a come-along, and one big mother sharp chainsaw, and even with all that and 40 years experience, I will not do a job that is questionable. Trees are funny things sometimes, and I have seen some curious things happen in the woods.

    Now most of my sawing is on logs that have been dropped by professionals. Even that is dangerous, but so far, so good.

  13. "fourteen gold faucets"

    Are you missing a "karat" by any chance?

    I found one lying loose in the corner, behind some windblown newspapers.

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