Do-it-yourself and… Save? Be filled with a sense of pride? Achieve results that you want? It’s hard to say why people choose the D-I-Y route. I have used all of the above reasons as ways to justify taking on a project or at least buying a new tool. Looking back over 30 odd years of doing-it-myself (with the help, offered or conscripted, of my family members); I think ‘achieving the results I/we want’ tops the list. Sometimes you simply can’t buy something that fits a particular space and you can’t hire somebody to do something the way you want it done.
My current project is the installation of a ‘railing system’ on our front porch and ramp. The porch and ramp were the project about this time last year. Some contractors would tell us that the porch is too small. Some would say that it’s low enough that the Building Code doesn’t require a railing at all. Those that would do the work would want to anchor the railing to the house at two points. Most would want to do the 16’ ramp with two 8’ sections of railing. We think a railing will look better than the bare decking. We think that if we get to a point that we need the ramp, we will want a railing. I don’t want the railing anchored to the house – that requires opening the siding to potential water infiltration. We think three sections of railing will look better and feel stronger on the ramp. It’s our house; I don’t want to argue with a contractor to get it the way I want it to look.
Of course, I’ve never installed a railing system before. That fact brings me to the first drawback that Do-It-Yourselfers face: “I know how to do this, but I don’t know how to do this!” Measuring, cutting, drilling, fastening and making things level and square are all things I’ve been doing since I was a little kid helping my father do things himself. But I’ve never cut railing post covers, I’ve never fastened aluminum support posts to a deck and I’ve never assembled the various pieces parts of a railing system. I’ve never even seen the finished product up close, so I don’t really know what I am building. I will figure it out, but the first few sections will take me way more time than someone who has done this 10 or 20 times. That’s OK, I like figuring things out and I’m not in a huge hurry.
The second drawback is that I don’t have everything I need. I ordered all the necessary components, I have all the tools the supplier says are required but I don’t have everything. I don’t have that box of leftover parts from previous jobs that I can swap in for the things that are missing from those boxes I ordered. I don’t have those fasteners that are required to anchor the posts to the sections of decking that have no support under them. I don’t have a box of 100 lag screws in inventory. I have to start this day at the hardware store.
A friend of mine and I trade Tweets and Foursquare comments about the number of trips to the hardware store a D-I-Y project requires. It seems that three trips is the average but we’re not sure if that’s three per project or three per day.
One of my trips yesterday brought me to the third drawback of D-I-Y projects: “you can’t get there from here.” One thing that was missing from one of the boxes was the 16 stainless steel bolts that hold the railing brackets to the posts – off to the hardware store for trip #2. Unfortunately, they didn’t have stainless steel hex bolts; they only had stainless steel carriage bolts.
For those who might be unfamiliar, hex bolts are the kind you can put a wrench on, carriage bolts have a flat round head, they are square at the top of the threads and are made to fit into a square hole. The holes in the brackets are round.
No time to order the hex bolts, I had to improvise. Do-it-yourselfers have to be able to improvise. The brackets have round holes, but they are plastic. Plastic melts. As the KGB agent in Robert Ludlum’s fantastic thriller “The Matarese Circle” said: “fire, always fire.”
Well, not really fire. I like to draw a distinction between ‘fire’ and ‘flame’. Fire is a somewhat uncontrolled and dangerous thing. Fire is really only useful when it’s properly contained, like in a wood stove, fire place or charcoal grill. Flame on the other hand, is a tool. Flame can be controlled, directed and used with precision. My daughter understands this distinction – my wife thinks we’re both pyromaniacs.
In this case, the flame from a MAPP Gas torch enabled me to heat the tang of a large file which, when jammed into those round holes, made them square. Meeting the challenges, overcoming the obstacles and working around the drawbacks are what makes doing-it-yourself so rewarding. It feels good to accomplish something significant. It feels good to improve your home yourself. It feels good to melt a round hole into a square one (it really does, especially when the file is too hot and there’s a little bit of fire, but don’t tell my wife). Saving money is nice but once you total up all the material and tools, the savings isn’t always significant. The real benefit of doing home improvement projects yourself is getting the look you want, when you want it and the feeling you get when you look at the railing and say “I did that.”