A Conversation with Bob Tedeschi: “The Pragmatist”

Bob Tedeschi, The New York Times DIY columnist, chats with me about home, family and the infinite challenges of home improvement.

Bob Tedeschi

Photo: newyorktimes.com

[Editor’s Note: Bob Tedeschi has a deep, diverse and celebrated journalistic background, having covered everything from political issues to motorcycle rallies. He has taught journalism, writing and literature at the community college level as well as creative writing for children (at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, founded by Paul Newman). Bob contributes on a regular basis to The New York Times “Gadgetwise,” but you likely know him as the author of the “The Pragmatist” column—an honest, light-hearted, and truly informative body of writing about the DIY experience.]

Bob Vila: You certainly have a multi-directional career, but the whole area of do-it-yourself and home improvement seems like something you really love. Is that right?

Bob Tedeschi: I do. It’s a lot of fun actually. I generally approach projects with a sense of dread and excitement, which is an odd mix. But usually once I’m done with them, I’m thrilled.

Bob Vila: I always say it’s that personal satisfaction of knowing you did the job yourself that is the best payoff of any DIY endeavor. When did you start writing about home improvement for The New York Times?

Bob Tedeschi: It started a couple years ago. The editors had taken a look at the Home section and they wanted to run more stories that would be of service to readers. We had a lot of high-design elements and real estate-related pieces, but we were looking to help homeowners who were trying their best to tackle projects on a budget, particularly since the column launched during the recession. I had some experience with more service-oriented columns and they thought I fit the profile; someone who could squeeze a lot of practical guidance out of each project. And the column was born.

Bob Vila: “The Pragmatist” is such a terrific title. Was that your idea?

Bob Tedeschi: I cannot claim credit for that one. There were a few titles that were floated around, but as soon as I heard that one—like you—I thought, yeah, that’s it.

Bob Vila: Did you grow up in New York City?

Bob Tedeschi: I grew up in an old house in Connecticut. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up. My dad was always either under the car yelling out various things that were going wrong, or under the sink trying to figure out how to fix a leak. So I was always looking over my dad’s shoulder trying to figure out what he was doing in between curses.

Bob Vila: What was the period of the house?

Bob Tedeschi: It was probably turn of the century; there are markings on it that suggested it was the 1890s. It may have been a little newer than that, but not by much.

Bob Vila: I know that Connecticut has such an incredible wealth of 19th- and 18th-century homes. I also know that people can become slaves to their antique houses.

Bob Tedeschi: It felt a lot like that. Every project required us to peel through layers and layers and layers of history to get down to what was original. It was a big task.

Bob Vila: What is your own house like?

Bob Tedeschi: It’s about as average as you can get. It’s a circa-1970 Colonial, about 2,000 square feet on around an acre of land in the Connecticut suburbs. And we have four kids who put the house through the ringer. My wife and I do our best to keep up with everything that breaks. As you can imagine, we do a lot of improvising. I think I used a pair of vice grips as a shower handle for the better part of a year, because we had no time to replace it. Or, more accurately, I didn’t devote the time to figuring out how to do it (at least before the column came around).

Bob Vila: No, it’s true—even if you’re in the business. We spent probably a dozen years living in a huge Victorian in the Boston area. And one of my kids actually pointed out that he had used the bathroom at a friend’s house where they had this thing on the wall that held the roll of toilet paper. You didn’t have to pick it up off the floor. It really drove home the fact that I had never gotten around to putting toilet paper holders in all the different bathrooms in the house. And there were a lot of bathrooms.

Have you had any really horrible do-it-yourself experiences? Problems that you just couldn’t resolve by yourself?

Bob Tedeschi: It almost seems like there are too many to count.

Bob Vila: Well, where do you draw the line between what you’ll consider dealing with and what you’ll definitely call in a handyman, professional, or carpenter to handle?

Bob Tedeschi: I’m still wondering where that line is. Part of “The Pragmatist” is doing things on the cheap, so I will do everything I can not to call in a $100-an-hour guy. However, plumbing is something I usually avoid. I’ve taken a whack at a lot of different leak jobs. But plumbing, for me, is a real area of weakness, because I’ll try to find a leak and either make it worse or tear out a piece of wall in the process. And then I’ve got a bigger job on my hands.

I once tried a tiling job and mixed enough grout to cover my neighborhood with the stuff. But that’s the idea of the column, winging it on your own because that’s what everyone does. Then I’ll get a hold of somebody like you or someone else, who really knows what they’re doing who can get me out of trouble.

Bob Vila: Well, not everybody knows everything about everything. When I’m asked about projects that are suitable for DIY, I always advise people to steer clear of anything that could be life threatening—electricity, steam/radiators, plumbing, heating equipment, and climbing on the roof. What kind of projects do you have coming up?

Bob Tedeschi: We’ve got a few ideas we’re working out. I think the one that I’m most looking forward to is replacing the kitchen countertop and cabinet doors. It’s a project that is definitely overdue. I think these countertops are probably original to the house. And like a good many projects, it’s one that I’ve always seemed to have an excuse not to get to.

Bob Vila: What are they made out of?

Bob Tedeschi: I think the countertop is Formica and, while the cabinet doors seem to be particle board, the frames look to be solid wood. So I don’t know if we’re going to replace all the cabinets or just the doors, which sounds like a much easier way out.

Bob Vila: It’s an easier way out if you’ve got good frames. And by good, I mean solid wood as opposed to particleboard, chipboard, or MDO [medium density overlay plywood]. If your cabinets are 20 or 30 years old, they’re probably good solid wood-base frames. What are you planning to replace the countertop with?

Bob Tedeschi: We’re not sure yet. We’ve got to come down to a budget, but design-wise our kitchen could go in a lot of different directions. I know that the countertop material we choose will dictate how our kitchen evolves, so it does require some serious thought. I’m not sure we’ve thought through that piece yet, but it is an important piece.

Bob Vila: You also have to consider your budget in terms of how long you intend to stay in the house and what impact the kitchen remodel may have on resale value. It seems like everyone wants granite countertops, but it is so expensive.

I was just at the Builders’ Show and the newer laminate products from Formica are very attractive. When I was starting out in the ’70s, we would often combine Formica with butcher block (butcher block being the granite of its day because it added a deluxe appearance and was functional). But you’re right, just making the decisions can be challenging. And if you’re going to do any of the countertop replacement yourself—boy, that’s a big job if you’re working with stone. With Formica you may be able to reface without having to rip anything out.

Bob Tedeschi: That’s my first set of guidance right there. I’m going to quote you, Bob.


Be sure to check out Bob Tedeschi’s 5 Tips for DIY Beginners. For “The Pragmatist” columns, current and archived, visit The New York Times online.