How to Become Handy so You Can Make 2021 Your Year of DIY

published Jan 26, 2021
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image

Being “handy” can seem like something other people just naturally are. Whether they’re faced with a sticky window, a slamming door, or a million-piece IKEA project, those bestowed with handiness seem to be able to know exactly the right tool to grab and the right steps to take. Ever wish you could join them and see something that needs doing and just seemingly… know how to do it? Same here.

I had the mixed blessing of growing up with a dad who was a carpenter and a contractor. He can do pretty much anything, so I saw firsthand the benefit to being handy, but I never really had to learn to do things myself because if there were things to do, my dad did them.

When I got interested in renovating housesfirst my own, and then others as investments — I got a crash course in how important it is to be able to handle things on your own. Luckily I’ve always had my dad just a video chat away to walk me through everything from joist inspection to framing out a bathroom. But I still don’t consider myself to actually be handy; I’m awkward with power tools, slow to learn anything physical, and not nearly as knowledgeable as I would like to be on matters of home improvement. While I’ve gleaned a few pearls of wisdom from my dad over the years (measure twice, cut once is REAL, you guys) I’m determined to become more self sufficient, and just plain handy in 2021. 

To learn how to do that I turned to an expert all the way in Norway — builder, carpenter, handyman, and humanitarian Ian Anderson, author of “How to be Handy.” Here’s his approachable, fun, and inspiring advice.

Credit: Zoë Burnett

1. Becoming handy gives you more than just satisfaction.

Yes, it’s incredibly satisfying to work with your hands to create or repair something — I’ll never forget how happy I was when I fixed a washing machine myself! But beyond pride, there are some concrete reasons for acquiring some handiness. For one, you’ll be doing good by the planet. “As a handy person, you’ll save valuable resources by keeping your stuff in good repair,” Anderson says, and not having to throw things out and buy new.

If that doesn’t convince you, keep in mind that you’ll save plenty of cash by keeping things in good order and not having to pay for skilled labor. Not to mention, DIYing it lets you do things on your terms; no waiting around for someone else’s schedule.

2. To be a handy person, the right mindset is key.

“Being handy is not particularly hard,” Anderson says, “nor is learning how to use a few tools. The hardest part is developing the right attitude.”

Here’s where I’ve struggled: “It’s not enough to be a little bit interested,” he says. “You’ve got to want to learn how to do something. Half-hearted, ill-prepared efforts will destroy your confidence as well as your project.” Just like learning any other skill or hobby, he says “it requires inspiration, motivation and a time commitment.” 

In other words, the first step to becoming handy is deciding that you want to be handy. From there, you’ll need to find a project.

Credit: Zoë Burnett

3. Start small — like, really small.

Look, the DIY world seems overwhelming. A lot of guides out there assume a basic level of knowledge and ability. That can be intimidating, and enough to make you want to quit before you even start. (Speaking from experience here!)

Start with observing the physical world around you, Anderson says. When it comes to what you learn, 80 percent is visual — so observing even the simplest details “can teach you something about material or function,” he says. You do have to make an effort here, “because your brain is a supercomputer with filters; it cherry picks the things you’re interested in and pretty much ignores everything else.”

Get your bearings by using all of your senses to check in with the things in your home. “Listen to your stuff, notice how things sound when they are working okay. Touch things to notice how they feel. Sniff things; odd smells often mean something has changed, maybe a leak or something overheating,” Anderson says.

This might feel a little silly, but the point of this exercise is to zero in on what things should and shouldn’t look like in your home. This is a no-risk activity: You’ll be able to learn a lot without picking up any tools, so there’s no way to accidentally damage or destroy anything.

4. Choose your first project with care.

When you feel ready to pick up some tools and try a project, start with tiny things. “Never forget how important small successes are, because they will give you the confidence to try the next thing,” Anderson says.

Start smallest of the small here. Change a light bulb (“believe it or not, but I have clients who pay me to change light bulbs,” Anderson says), oil squeaky hinges, or tighten a loose screw in a cabinet door. “Even just keeping things clean will teach you something,” he says, “because it means you have to get up close and can spot something new early.”

As you move down your list, choose projects that increase the challenge but are still low-stakes. Hanging a picture, for instance, will give you experience in using a level and a hammer — but if you mess up, you’ll only need to fill the hole and try again. If you paint a room and you hate it, you’ll be able to go back and re-paint, no harm done. But if you skip from changing a lightbulb to installing a toilet or demo-ing a wall, it’ll be easy to get overwhelmed — and you’ll only increase the odds of injury or costly damage.

Credit: Zoë Burnett

5. To get better at handy skills, you’ll need to practice.

As with anything, to get better at being handy, you’ll need to practice! You don’t have to use your walls as a training ground. Use scrap materials and make mistakes that you can learn from.

Anderson suggests this exercise to start getting comfortable with tools: “Grab an 8-feet length of two by four and mark the first three feet up with some square lines and saw it into slices like a bread loaf. Three feet later you’ll be cutting as square as a pro. In what’s left, grab a box of nails, and drive them all in! Seriously, the whole box, why not? After a hundred nails you’ll be ten times better than when you started. Do the same with a box of screws, alternate with a regular screwdriver and a drill driver if you have one. This small investment in materials and time will pay you back enormously in gained practical experience.” 

Remember that learning DIY is a lifelong pursuit, Anderson says, like learning to play an instrument or a sport.

Credit: Zoë Burnett

6. Remember to always make a plan.

While you’re building experience, rely on making a plan. “A plan will help you think through each part of the project to discover what you need to learn and what you need to buy,” Anderson says. (“If you don’t like plans, just call it a list instead,” he says). With these three lists you can build anything. 

  • Overview: A list describing the project plus your notes, stores to use, prices, etc.
  • Preparation: A list of what you need, such as material lists, tools, skills to study online, practice, etc. 
  • Planning: A list of what to do, with each task in order.

7. It’s OK to call in backup.

As you’re learning, you will make mistakes. That’s normal! Give yourself permission to call in someone with more experience to help you if you need. That could be a friend or family member, but might also be a pro.

For projects that might impact immediate usability of your house — for instance, changing out hardware on your front door, or swapping a kitchen faucet — it’s essential to have a backup plan in place in case things go awry. For those types of projects, Anderson suggests contacting a recommended plumber, electrician, or a builder before you start.

“Since you never quite know what you might find or what might happen, especially with an older house, it’s essential to have a list of folks to call ‘in case of emergency,’” Anderson says.

Why? You never want to put yourself in a situation ”where you have to call random guys from the local phone book or classifieds, especially when you are vulnerable in an emergency,” he says. (Having had to call an electrician from the ER after a DIY went awry, I can vouch for this!) 

“Make contact to introduce yourself, tell them who sent you and say that you’ve heard nice things about their work,” Anderson says. “Then briefly tell them what you plan to do and ask if it’s okay for you to call them and hire them for a short while to help if you get stuck. Paying someone to come for an hour or three to avoid struggling with a problem is just smart; everyone needs a helping hand occasionally.”

Credit: Zoë Burnett

8. Take advantage of helpful resources.

We still have books for a reason. “Any of the long-selling, popular big DIY tomes will give you a place to start, as they often cover everything at a pretty basic level,” Anderson says. If you need to get more in depth, look for a book on that single topic. (Do be aware of where the book is published, he cautions, since systems and rules will vary from country to country). As an old home owner, I especially love “The Old House Journal Compendium.”

How about YouTube? Definitely, “but stick to the people who have a proper channel,” Anderson says. Look for people with at least 100,000 subscribers, because that means viewers find the content useful. Some of his favorites are See Jane Drill, Next Level Carpentry, and Anne of All Trades. I’ve personally found a lot of help on the This Old House channel. 

9. Use a hybrid approach.

Nobody says you have to jump in and do everything yourself out of the gate. “Another way to leverage other people’s skills is for you to do some of the less skilled, but more labor-intensive parts of the work,” Anderson says. “Connecting with tradespeople well in advance and explaining exactly what you want them to do is crucial.” 

Bonus: “Some tradespeople are happy to work alongside you on an ‘hourly rate’,” Anderson says, “saving their expensive time — and you get to learn from them.”

If you call in a pro to do a whole job themselves, stick close by so you can watch, ask questions, and take notes.

Credit: Zoë Burnett

10. Give yourself the right tools.

You’ll need a basic set of tools to get started on common household projects. Set yourself up for success with a basic toolkit that includes the following:

Hand Tools:

  • Work gloves
  • A selection of different screwdrivers, including flat head and Philips head
  • A claw hammer
  • A sharp utility knife
  • A handsaw
  • A level
  • A pair of pliers
  • A tape measure
  • Something sturdy to store them all in, like a big rubber bucket or a tool bag

Power Tools:

While you can accomplish plenty without power tools, Anderson says an electric drill will be useful for projects like hanging shelves.

His top pick is a cordless drill driver. “You’re likely to fall in love with your cordless drill driver, so make sure you buy a good one,” he says. “I’d recommend getting a professional quality one, or you’ll struggle for power and be charging the battery up every ten minutes, plus it’ll last you a lifetime.”

If you progress to bigger projects, such as refinishing a wood floor or installing a backsplash, “it makes sense to hire power tools for those one-off jobs,” he says, since “you’ll get pro quality tools and advice on how to use it.”

11. Remember: You can do this.

“Remember, you had to learn how to use a spoon once,” says Anderson. “Your DIY abilities will develop just as you learned all your other skills: slowly.” 

As for thinking it’s just not in your genes to be handy, he insists that’s a myth. “Being handy is not about your genes, or what your father did, or how clever you are,” he says. “Your current skill level doesn’t even determine what you can do eventually, it just gives you a starting point.”

Learn to persevere, he says, but don’t get too hung up. “DIY is work, even if you enjoy it, and it takes time.” You need a strategy that fits into your lifestyle. Also? “Don’t let your project take over every aspect of your life,” he says. “Create a sanctuary, somewhere that you can retreat to if necessary, to escape the mess and recharge your batteries.”

With small steps, the right planning, and plenty of Netflix breaks, you can make 2021 your handiest year yet.