Anna and I are finally living full time in our beautiful little Avocado House after going through an entire renovation process to take it from “storage hovel” to “functional house.” While we did call in pros for some of the jobs – electrical wiring, re-windowing, and some plumbing – we, with the help of my parents at certain junctures, did the majority of the work ourselves.
As someone who has never really considered herself handy (in fact I’m a bit of a klutz) this whole process was a very steep learning curve for me. If you went back in time and told myself one year ago that by this time I’d be a proficient user of nail guns, I would have laughed you right out the door. But here I am, telling the tale with all of my fingers and toes still in their proper places.
It would take ages to describe every little thing I learned, but the biggest lessons boil down to these seven things I learned:
When you’re doing any DIY project, especially ones in the home-remodeling category, it’s going to take longer than you expected. I would say it will normally take twice as long as you expected, and in some special cases like our poor bathroom (Don’t worry! In the end it came out great!) it might take even longer.
What I learned is that in these cases, you just have to be patient and follow the process. Sure, you really wanted to shower in your own shower ASAP, but you can’t just skip installing the concrete board to support your tiles and seal your walls from water. A little bit of patience goes a long way and allows you to realize that the project will get done eventually if you keep working, it just might not be today.
Patience is also important when you’re learning a new skill, which if you’re like me, was every single time we started a new project in the house. You need to be patient with yourself, and allow imperfection to be ok. When we were tiling the bathroom floor, it was the first time either of us had worked with tiles. We had a hell of time cutting the tiles to fit – it was near impossible to get straight lines using the score and snap method we were using.
We ended up installing slightly imperfectly-cut tiles and artfully grouting them to try to hide their slightly wonky edges. It worked like a charm, and now you seriously cannot tell that we had such a struggle to cut them. Patience with ourselves while we learned how to deal with tiles went a long way in the success of that project.
2. One Step At A Time
Even the simplest home improvement project like painting a room has multiple steps. You’ve got to tape off the areas you don’t want painted, put down a drop cloth to protect the floor, maybe patch some holes in the walls, wait for that to dry, sand the patches, prime the patches…and then you’re finally ready to start painting.
If you’re not a professional handyman or at least used to doing home improvement projects, it’s easy to forget about all those steps when you’re planning the timeline for your project. I made this mistake…pretty much every single weekend when we worked on the house.
I would create this ambitious list of things we should get done for the weekend, not taking into account all of the preparation steps and background details required to do those projects. In the end when it would become obvious that we would not get through our ambitious To-Do list, I would stress myself out about it and get upset.
With DIY projects, it’s important to take it one step at a time, and try not to worry yourself about all the other projects that still need to get done. If you keep working at it, you will make forward progress.
3. Tools Aren’t Scary
I know this sounds really silly, but before we did this project I was kind of afraid of tools. Power tools, mostly. I had just really never used them and I know that I’m a klutz and I just imagined myself sawing a finger off or nail-gunning my foot to the floor and all manner of other awful things.
None of those things happened. In fact, the worst injury we had on the job was when I cut my finger a little bit on the edge of a tile. There is a little bit of my blood in the mortar behind one of the tiles in the shower. Oops.
In any case, I learned that power tools aren’t scary as long as you learn to use them properly and wear the right safety gear. In fact, they’re awesome. Seriously, our ceiling project would have been all but impossible without the nail gun that my coworker lent me. That thing was amazing. In fact, Anna fell in love with it and I know it’s only a matter of time before I have to get her her own nail gun.
My personal favorite was the tile saw, which we rented twice from Home Depot. My first time using the tile saw was when we tiled the backsplash in the kitchen, and after the frustration of trying to score and snap tiles for the bathroom floor, using this power tool was an incredible feeling. We could make straight cuts! L-shaped cuts! Any cut you could imagine! The POWER!
So lesson learned: power tools are your friends.
4.Measure 100 Times, Cut Once
Alright maybe not a full hundred times, but seriously the old saying “Measure twice, cut once” is there for a reason. At one point during our beadboard ceiling project, I was about to cut the beadboard paneling for one wonky section of the ceiling when I decided to take a water break.
When I went back outside to cut it, I realized I had almost cut the exact wrong angle – the paneling needed to be facing the other direction because we were going to stick it to the ceiling, not the floor. I re-measured, redrew my guide lines, measured again, and then made the right cut. If I hadn’t taken a break and taken a second look at my work, I would have made the wrong cut and caused headache and wasted materials for us.
This is true of pretty much anytime you’re about to cut something. Always, always, always measure it again to make sure before you cut.
When you’re working on a big project, you can get really wrapped up inside your own head, trying to solve problems and calculate calculations and do everything yourself, in your brain. Or at least I can. This can lead me to be sure, sure sure that I know the solution to a problem or the proper course of action to take, when actually another solution or action would be better or more efficient.
Working for many a sweltering, sweaty weekend alongside Anna, solving problems big and small, I learned that I really need to just try harder to listen. Mine and Anna’s brains work very differently, and sometimes I would get frustrated trying to explain my thought process to her, and vice-versa. When we were able to slow down and really listen to each other (sometimes with diagrams to help), those were the times when we were able to solve our problems with the greatest success.
6.You Don’t Have To Be Super Strong
It helps, sure. But not being Mr. Muscle Man won’t stop you from successfully doing very tough stuff, like ripping out a ceiling and building a new one, tiling a shower, or refinishing a wood floor. You just need to get the right tools for the job. We learned this lesson over and over again throughout our remodeling process, but one instance stands out particularly clearly.
When we were tiling the bathroom floor, we were having a hell of a time cutting our tiles because we tried to be cheap and avoid renting a tool – we were using my dad’s old score and snap tile cutter instead. Our tiles were shattering and we were getting jagged, ugly cuts (we ended up kind of just making them work in the end…).
When my dad used it, he was able to get nice straight cuts. We bemoaned our inferior strength and finished up the job as best we could (it came out just fine, thankyouverymuch). But the next time tiling was on the schedule for the kitchen backsplash, we didn’t hesitate to rent a tile saw.
Oh, what a wonderful day that was. We had the right tool for the job, and it was great. Once again, lesson learned: just get the right tool!
7.Caulk And Paint Make A Carpenter What He Aint
I don’t think I really have to explain this one. Pretty much any small mistake or discrepancy can be smoothed over with the liberal judicious application of caulk and paint. Caulk is definitely a DIY-er’s best friend.