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5 Tips for Doing DIY Alone (Safely)

By The Ugly Duckling House on Aug 07, 2012
I'm five foot two, not particularly strong (in my defense, I'm still stronger than I look - which now that I'm writing this down, is still an insult), and do most of my DIY home improvement projects alone.  And as I mentioned last Friday, that's not likely to change anytime soon (unless I were to run into some kind of Adam Levine/Gerard Butler lookalike who doesn't mind His & Hers sides of the power tool stash).

Over the last few years, I've learned some handy tips and tools to aid me when I may not have a second pair of hands, eyes, or 9-1-1 dialing finger.  Even if you have a significant other, in all likelihood, you may still wind up doing one or two projects by yourself (you responsible parent, you!).  So for all of us, I thought it might be nice to have a go-to list of things that help get the solo DIY job done fast.  And don't forget - safety first!


Keep Your Eyes, Ears, and Digits Intact

There's something about being alone and using things with sharp pointy blades that makes me hunt down my favorite protective eye gear each and every time.  I can't be sure, but I think it might be the obvious danger.  It should go without saying, but I'm saying it anyway:  when working alone (let's even throw it out there that my advice isn't exclusive to working by yourself), safety should always be your number one priority.  Think about it; you're getting on a roof, working with power tools, or climbing under cabinets that leave throbbing lumps if you get up too fast.  Hell, I can even admit to having a Miranda Hobbes freakout once when I had a snack between projects.  Point is, you're by yourself.  It is worth the extra effort to ensure that you don't lose an eye, damage your hearing, or chop off a finger.  Because then you've only got nine left to dial 9-1-1, and you may not be able to hear the operator over all the screaming.  And unfortunately, I'm speaking from experience (though not about losing a finger).  I got a terrifying call when I was little from my Dad.  He was in the hospital after  falling off of a roof when he was at one of the rental properties he owned.  He shattered his wrist and had to walk down the street to a neighbor to call for help.  He eventually needed surgery and pins in his wrist to put himself back together, but he was damn lucky that all he lost was the ability to turn a doorknob with that arm.

Tools with safety in mind: My old compound miter saw didn't have much in the way of safety.  I remember back when I first learned to use it that the rule was "don't let go of the handle until the blade stops spinning."


While that is still wise, I like that my new saw has several safety enhancements included in the tool, such as a shield over the blade itself (and only moves up when you pull the saw blade down).  To me, blade cover = less finger slicey.  The saw is also rated for safety, which is not necessarily a key purchasing factor for me, but the less likely I am to hurt myself, the more projects I do because I'm still intact (sanity doesn't count).

Eye protection:  I already had a pair of protective eyewear, but there were several booths at the Haven conference and I scored another pair (or two) for free.  Multiple within arm's reach is currently trumping style, but when I'm trying to find a pair around the house, I still always try to find the one that I think makes me look cool.

Hearing protection: On the "as yet to buy" list is a set of sound-blocking headphones.  I've heard great things about the TEKK Worktunes from 3M - which are supposed to protect my ears while still pumping my favorite tunes.  The only downside here is if I forget to take them off and I'm still belting Adele after the saw is unplugged.

Respirator: I can admit to not having used the right ones in the past, but I love my heavy duty respirator for keeping fumes out of my lungs.  I already have asthma, so I really should be paying more attention to this (and luckily, the respirator does that for me).

Buy What the Pros Use

Here's a dilemma for you:  if you're a single DIYer, you're usually working on a single DIYer's budget.  So the Makita isn't always going to be in the cards for you.  But usually that extra price tag you see isn't just for the name (and I also happen to love teal).  The more expensive tools are meant to last, but perhaps more importantly for a do-it-just-by-yourself-er, these are also the tools that allow the pros to work by themselves.  Sure, they have a crew for big jobs, but the pro is also capable of rehabbing an entire bathroom by him(/her)self in a weekend.  I've seen it happen.  Some of that is not just skill (it's still very much skill, but there's more); it is because they buy the right (and most efficient) tools for the job.  I've found that reading online reviews is key for getting this info.  Amazon is one of the most reliable.

It's Elementary, My Dear

Levers, fulcrums, and pulleys:  remember that lesson about simple machines from science class in third grade?  How about the fact that a screw is really just an inclined plane wrapped into itself?  Blew my nerdy little mind.  And little did I know I would rely on these principles on every DIY project.  Crowbars give me extra leverage when I can't yank something outright or lift a door to put the hinge back in place.  Loading planks help me lift and move heavy lawn mowers without damaging my back.  Something too wide for my frame?  I grab it across my back to balance out the weight.

image from here

Use Temporary and One-Handed Helpers

Finishing nails: When I have to hang just about anything in this house, I could always use a helping hand to keep things level.  Since that isn't really possible, I sometimes instead use nails tacked into the wall to temporarily hold something up while I ready the level and drill.  A small hole is left once I pull the nail out, which I of course have to patch, but it beats dropping something and denting my floors.

Use what your mama gave you: I carried the first section of my new craft desk up the stairs before I realized it would be easier to just assemble it in place.  It's not particularly heavy, but it is cumbersome to maneuver up the stairs, and still a problem if I need to move it out of the way and back again.  I find that sometimes crawing under it and lifting it onto my back, turtle style, is the easiest way to use my legs to lift and move something heavy.

Adjustable height: Sometimes nails don't cut it when needing to hold something in the air; instead you need support that can adjust in height (for example, when holding up the sink basin in the powder room so I can get under and investigate a leak in the pedestal).  There is a new trend for adjustable height stools.  I'm thinking of getting two for an industrial look in the kitchen bar area, but I think it might also be helpful when I need that extra lift.

Folding sawhorses: Being able to flip a sawhorse into place and fold it for storage is beyond awesome.  'Nuff said.  I got two for Christmas from my sister, but you can find ones similar to mine here.

Another item on my wish list was inspired by this demo from The Lettered Cottage.  I can think of a number of ways a swift driver could come in handy.

Extra lift: I think the next time I'm at the hardware store, I'll also pick up a panel carry for no other reason other than I'm short.  I'm not regularly carrying drywall around the house, but I do sometimes need just a little more of an arm span for lifting and moving.  This will certainly help that.

Extend Yourself

Ladder: Last year, Extend-a-Step sent me a ladder that I still feel is perfect for my small stature.  It adjusts to the exact height I need and has a small storage footprint (though I'll warn - and so will the labels on the ladder -, you must be careful with retracting - the release on this thing causes the rungs to snap shut on each other, which can hurt like hell or break a finger if you get your hand caught).  See more about this ladder on my review here.

Paint brush extender: Did you know there were extension poles for paint rollers?  Most people do.  But did you know there is also an extending tool for a paint brush?  Some of the angles in my house are hard to reach, and I use this to get the few extra inches I need.

Painter's bench: I use my painter's bench all the time (for more than painting - stripping wallpaper, patching the ceiling, hanging curtain rods, etc.).  It's much easier for me to use a small platform like this that allows me more horizontal stretch than the traditional stepladder.  I've mentioned the one I use before on the blog, and some of you even went out and tried it yourself - and I'm happy to hear that you love it too!


Adjustable clamps: A second set of hands is desperately needed in many a  home improvement project - especially when you need to hold two things together and then do something to both parts/pieces/held-together-things.  Consider a set of adjustable clamps.  Clamps aren't expensive, but as I mentioned earlier in this post, there sometimes aren't substitutes for quality.  I prefer these, and have never regretted the extra dollars I've saved my aching hands - because unlike the cheapies, they don't slip.

Weights: Instead of holding things together, sometimes you need to hold something down.  Weights of just about any kind are useful in a variety of projects.  You don't need to get fancy here - a stack of old phone books, a full paint can, a cell phone from the 90s - just about anything is fine as long as it's heavy and doesn't roll away.

Have a Heart

Like Captain Planet's lame fifth member (though I'd argue that the same premise is much more badass in the movie The Fifth Element), a little something extra is needed to make it all work.  In my opinion, nothing comes together quite like having a passion for the end result.  Whether you think of it as a love of DIY, pure stubbornness, or everlasting patience, there is no substitute for sheer willpower to get something done.  Not every project goes smoothly.  It takes so much more to fail and try again.  And then scream, kick, swear, search the internet, have a beer, and try again.  Case in point:  I have accidentally found paint in my hair when I know it's been several weeks (and showers) since I did any painting.  Instead of being stopped by my embarrassment, it became my blog's tagline.

But perhaps that's part of it - having a community of folks like you to offer encouragement also keeps me going.  Because even though I'm sitting on the unfinished bathroom floor sealing grout alone - I'm really not.


PS: Some products mentioned contain affiliate links.  Make a game out of it and see if you can find them all ;)
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