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No DIY skills at the cottage? That’s okay

“Cottage repairs are expensive, and I am not handy. Is it possible to learn how to be one of those fix-it-yourself people?”

If I were a smart-ass, the answer would be: Of course, anything is possible! Like the way it’s possible that I could become an Olympic gymnast with a balance beam specialty or that the LCBO will one day have a massive 50%-off sale. Which is to say probably not. The problem is that handiness is not something you can just buy like a Pleasure Craft Operator Card. You need actual knowledge and experience, most of it gained from fixing and building stuff for decades. I consider myself to be pretty handy, as are most of my friends, and when I asked them how they developed handy skills, the unanimous answer is that they started when they were young. As a small child at the cottage, for me, pulling nails from old lumber and straightening them for reuse wasn’t a chore, it was fun stuff. When I was a little older, so was mixing concrete, mending torn window screens, and patching up broken wheelbarrows. This period on the path to handiness is crucial, because it establishes that manual work can be rich and rewarding. It’s also when curiosity about how things work (or why they don’t work) starts to develop. 

Maybe your parents were theoretical cosmologists who avoided fix-it stuff or maybe you just preferred video games to real world activities. Despair not, because there is still hope that you might have retained some latent abilities if you attended even a little bit of shop class in high school. Wood. Metal. Electrical. Auto. It doesn’t matter which one, because any shop class experience would have, at the very least, instilled the basics of how not to die or be violently maimed when using power tools, which are crucial in the pursuit of handy. I made furniture in my high school wood shop class and sold the pieces for spending money. My friend Pat sanded a board for three years. But each of us had to learn how the machines worked and the many ways they could kill or damage a human body before we were allowed to even pick up a dustpan. I recall almost nothing from my other high school subjects. But I still have two functioning eyes and 10 working fingers thanks to attending shop classes.

Maybe your school didn’t offer shop classes. Or maybe it once did, until they were gutted and repurposed for the instruction of more important subjects like Event Marketing. No matter, because if you didn’t learn handy at a young age and never took shops, there is pretty much a zero chance you will ever develop into a crackerjack fix-it-yourself person. It would be like a monkey staring at a pile of flour and willing it to transmogrify into delicious poundcake. Ain’t gonna happen. That said, if you have a cottage with things that need fixing, and you have a powerful desire to fix these things for yourself, and you are willing to screw up magnificently along the way, why not give it a shot?

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My friend Barb (not her real name) is a desperately keen student of do-it-yourself and an example for all beginners. Barb has limitless enthusiasm for cottage DIY projects. Unfortunately, she also stubbornly refuses to read guides and manuals, describing herself as “a visual learner.” This affliction led her to install an entire laundry room of click-lock flooring without performing the clicking or locking operations outlined in the easy-to-use instructions. Predictably, the flooring disassembled when walked upon, with planks flying willy-nilly. In her defence, Barb pointed out that she did watch a YouTube installation video, but for the wrong kind of floor, and also asked a nice man at the big-box hardware store for advice, effectively compounding the first two mistakes. For the record, I have a photograph of Barb limbing a tree at her cottage with an electric chainsaw while perched on a stepladder. It is raining, so she is wearing a bathing suit and Crocs.

So, the most important thing to remember when you’re learning to be handy is simple: don’t be like Barb. The next thing to remember is that while information and observation will be key to your success, you need to be discerning about your sources. If you are installing something you bought, read the manual, and follow instructions. Yes, ask friends and neighbours for advice, but be choosy. If neighbour Jerry has to rebuild his dock every year, maybe he’s not the right guy to ask how you should build a new one at your place. That nice man doling out advice at the store? Does he have a background as a licensed plumber, or is he a retired policeman? And yes, YouTube is great for handy advice, but you need to watch at least a dozen videos on the same subject, look for patterns, and go with the herd. That know-it-all guy? The guy who has invented a better way to insulate a bunkie, one that is cheaper, faster, and, above all, cheaper? Don’t listen to him.

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Preparedness is great, but at some point you have to jump into the deep end of handy and just go for it. Keep in mind that many cottages are imperfect. Window frames are out of square, walls aren’t plumb, and floors have humps in the middle. The geometry of a perfect world does not apply here, so take time to work around the deficiencies. Sometimes supplies are unavailable, you don’t have the right tool for the job, and things need fixing, pronto. There is no shame in having to decide, every now and again, that within the realm of cottage do-it-yourself, second best is sometimes just right. Use this time-honoured test: if the job looks good from the road and looks good from the lake, it’s probably good enough for you. Best of luck.

This article was originally published in the June/July 2020 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

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