DIY Discoveries

I’ve spent a good portion of the last week catching up on household tasks of various kinds. Whether it’s something I’m increasingly comfortable with, like gardening, or something where I’m still finding my way like working with power tools on various projects, this kind of work has become really satisfying for me.

I’ll probably pick up Shop Class as Soulcraft as a result, given that it’s getting good reviews. Though Francis Fukuyama’s review of the book this Sunday didn’t do the book any favors, given the aggressiveness of Fukuyama’s ideological packaging of its argument.

I’m completely persuaded that it’s a good thing in general for middle-class folks to learn as much as possible about the machines, objects and processes that surround them, and to learn through direct hands-on work with all of them. If that’s what the book argues, I’m with it. But Fukuyama argues that the shutting down of shop classes in high schools is a result of a campaign by experts to denigrate this kind of work in favor of “knowledge work” or “symbolic analysis” due to changes in the global economy. Fukuyama (and maybe Crawford, author of the book? I’ll wait and see on that one) is smarter than this: I think he knows very well that most of that argument about the future of skills and labor isn’t aimed at plumbers, carpenters, electricians and so on. It’s about the disappearance of unskilled factory labor from much of the United States.

I also think Fukuyama knows full well that European and American middle-classes, especially intellectuals, have long fretted about becoming too distant from manual labor, from practical knowledge, from direct experience. Complaints about the alienated, enfeebled culture of white-collar work go back a wee bit farther than “Dilbert”. I’m perfectly ok with the wheel turning once again: I’ve argued myself that a great liberal arts course would interweave studying the history of cars and traffic, the public policy of transportation, and a hands-on disassembly and reconstruction of an actual automobile. But let’s get a bit savvy here and ask why a sentiment that seemingly rejects middle-class “knowledge work” and white-collar labor is so recurrently popular with middle-class white-collar workers. And why most of the people who enthuse about the message don’t quit their jobs as symbolic analysts but just build stuff in their garage or tinker with farming and so on. Fukuyama is generous enough to acknowledge this point but I’m not sure he grasps it fully. Learning how to do it yourself is just another dimension of bourgeois culture, right alongside being a foodie or going to the theater. Which is fine by me: nothing shameful about middle-class life, as far as I’m concerned. Still, that takes down the rhetorical heat by about ten notches.


So miscellaneous things I’ve found or wondered about this week.

1) Precision is, as in all things, my bugbear. One reason I’ve always preferred cooking to baking is that you can usually fix a dish that’s gone wrong, but if you’re off by much with baking, you’re screwed. This turns out to be even more true when you’re making something like a bookshelf or hanging a screen door yourself. I missed by maybe an eighth of an inch on one of the spade-bit drill holes I had to make for the door lock installation on the screen door and was barely able to adapt the whole thing with some careful filing. If I had missed by much more, I think I would have had to just take the whole door down and call it a loss. That’s one key problem with DIY stuff in general: learning by doing can get expensive.

2) Everyone likes to complain about bad instructions. What I was struck with in the case of the screen door was that the instructions were difficult for me to understand, but they weren’t bad. First, I had the classic problem of a left-handed person: all the illustrations were of right-handed tool use. Sometimes I find I try to reverse what I’m seeing in my mind and then I end up ‘tricking’ myself back into a double reversal. A more complicated installation like this is also difficult to write instructions for both because the instructions have to be flexible (this door could hinged on either side, and had variable widths to accommodate for different doorframes) and because various parts have names that are non-intuitive. The instructions have to build a vocabulary for you, a temporary jargon, because they can’t just say “That thing” and “that other thing”.

3) I finally got a fairly cheap chipper/shredder (and it’s not a very good model: you get what you pay for, I guess) and found to my surprise that a huge pile of debris I’ve been building up for three years reduced to about three or four wheelbarrows of finely shredded mulch. That’s leaving aside the logs and sticks bigger than 2 inches, which I need to chainsaw down and then break into firewood. Makes me think again about the amount of material that must be needed to make really huge amounts of mulch. Not that there’s any shortage of woody waste in the mid-Atlantic area but still.

4) Has anyone come up with a cheap disposable mask that doesn’t fog up safety goggles? So far I’ve tried a couple of different brands, some of which promise that their foam seals prevent fogging, but I still end up close to blind after ten minutes of work when I’m wearing a mask and goggles.

5) My table saw scares the crap out of me, but it does seem to be the answer for making dado grooves on the bookshelves I’m making. I’m still not as precise as I want to be, but I’m getting there.

6) For the third time in my life, I’ve planted mint in a garden without thinking very carefully about how to control its spread. I think mint should come with a biohazard sticker on it.

7) I’ve really despaired about getting my lawn into shape through my own seeding, with no chemical use. But this spring I looked around and realized that it had really grown in after three years of seeding. I guess grass is just a long-term project if you’re not going to go with heavy treatments.

8 ) Before I started trying to do some household maintenance and repair myself, I always thought that the major cost of hiring people to do that work was labor. Same for making pine or ash bookshelves. But for furniture, it’s increasingly clear to me that materials are most of the cost of retail furniture unless it’s very high-end crafted work. Same I think for a goodly amount of household work: the cost is in the equipment you need to do it and the materials it requires.

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16 Responses to DIY Discoveries

  1. kit says:

    Regarding point 4: defogger for a scuba mask, or just saliva rubbed on the inside, might keep them from fogging. I don’t know how that might affect visibility out of water, but it could be worth a try.

  2. hunter says:

    1) as a new baker, I’ve found that one can actually fix horrid errors without too much effort. I work in a wholesale bakery and have forgot to put salt in something like a hundred and fifty pounds of bread dough. oh well, re mix, re proof, add some yeast to start the process over. not a total waste of effort. This can be said for certain DIY projects, re-paving a sidewalk, clearing a yard, correcting the slope which is essential for drainage, or burying and cementing fence posts that must be turned at just the proper angle to ensure side-posts can be aligned flush with the posts themselves. This knowledge is usually gained under the aegis of a more experienced master craftsman, handyman, or parent. I know some people who have jumped into carpentry and farming at a random life juncture without much life experience in the field, which tends to mean more mistakes, more frustration, but also more excitement because you don’t necessarily ‘know’ what the product will- or should- look like at the end of the day. I read Crawford’s piece in NYT a couple of weeks ago, it didn’t make me want to go out and buy his book, but he seems able to articulate the (usually) ineffable reasons we engage in such crafts. I find this very difficult to do, especially when parents or friends wonder why I would rather work on a farm than an(y) office with a Swarthmore degree.

    4) I use a mask ( $7 for a 2-pack at home depot, forgot the brand) with a ventilator when baking, it works well at keeping four out of my lungs, or so I think. Fogging from ovens is inevitable. In a workshop I find that keeping a fan blowing on me, or my stuff, usually helps reduce fogging. This will also clear out any dust that will inevitably get up in the business of your saw.

    8) I’ve been doing some maintenance on houses this summer, I think $15 an hour plus the occasional beer is an appropriate wage for semiskilled labor. Paying minimum wage to someone who knows what theyre doing will compel him or her to draw the job out for more money, or not care about the quality of the work. Hiring a job out to a company or established “crew” is more often than not a waste of money and time for the person with the house problems. The truck needs gas, the man or men need to be insured, they will know how to do the job as they see it and how they have done it over and over but this isn’t necessarily how the home owner sees it. Inevitably the craftsman will find more problems with the house than the owner sees, will fix what a’int broken, and insist that the problem requires a more penetrating and thorough solution than the owner sees fit. Having a personal relationship with a handyman is good for this reason. If the problem or procedure is recurring, it is also a great idea to hire someone to do a job who will teach you how to do it yourself. You pay for a learning experience and self-investment, not merely the wage labor of another.

    Returning to the meta level of work on the level of personhood, I admit that I do grapple with going in and out of the working world sometimes. Should I be concerned that I am taking a job away form someone with less education? This is a big question for me, as I have often had to lie about my education in order to get a temporary job. Another idea is ‘economic tourism’ and by extension ‘cultural tourism.’ With mobility, time off in the summer, and a free economy, we are able to ‘explore’ occupations with relative ease. Farming, commercial fishing, construction, and commercial transportation are frequently dominated by life-long employees and workers. Is the Harvard-educated twentysomething from the city offending anyone if he decides to ‘see what it is like to live off the land/sea/road’ for a few months before beginning law school? Orientalizing the activities of the working class is something I have noticed among my peers. If you find that Crawford addresses this idea I would be interested to read how he engages the issue.

  3. Neb Namwen says:

    If you’re not spraying anything noxious on it, one way to control the spread of mint is to eat a lot of it.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    We have that angle covered, Neb. Eating + mint juleps. Nevertheless, it grows pretty crazy fast.

    Those are some great, interesting thoughts, Hunter. I’m curious too about how Crawford deals with the exoticization of “real work” that the educated sometimes indulge in. That’s what I caught a whiff of around Fukuyama–it’s one thing to find doing stuff for yourself pleasurable when it is voluntary labor, another when you’re getting paid very good money for the skilled version of it, and still another when you’re in a community where that kind of work is the only thing that there is to do and it doesn’t pay particularly well or is threatened by changing global conditions/regulations.

    I love having a vegetable garden; I am quite sure from having a vegetable garden that I would not love being in a situation where I had little choice but to be a subsistence farmer. I have two sour cherry trees, for example, that have produced enough fruit for the last three years for me to make 4 or so sour cherry pies. That’s fun! But change things a bit where I depended on the sour cherries either for a bit of cash at this point in the productive year or really looked to them as a dietary contribution. Well, this year, the elder tree is dying and the younger tree’s yield is falling off sharply. I’m putting in a sapling but it will be a while before it yields, obviously. Being in a situation where my life and prospects depended every year on my own crops and where there were none of the affordances (financial or otherwise) of modern life doesn’t seem at all a propsect to dream of affectionately.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Re: fixing bread dough. If you remember that there’s no salt *before* the dough rises, that’s cool. I’m thinking afterwards, not so cool. And of course, if you remember once you’ve baked, especially not cool.

  6. jpool says:

    I was going to suggest fresh mint tea and ice cream, two of life’s deepest and richest pleasures. The type of mint matters too. Our orange mint was delicious but pretty demure the first two years, but then didn’t make it through last winter. The chocolate mint, on the other hand, will not be dug out and continues its plans for world domination.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    On hiring skilled house maintenance: I’m thinking also that $15+ an hour for someone who knows what they’re doing is very much the right pay level, but it’s hard to find someone who isn’t workign with a big crew who doesn’t see small jobs as an opportunity to squeeze out some value on the side while they contract out a big job, and treats those jobs with about that level of priority. I’d love to find someone to *help* me with some annoying small jobs who would also *teach* me how to do them well–replacing some rotted wood on one windowsill, a beam in a crawlspace above our garage, a small area of tiling, and re-caulking around our tub. The last is a bit sticky because I need an honest assessment of the seriously screwed-up installations of the previous owner and whether there is any woodrot from minor leakage. I honestly can’t tell when I get into the affected area. Asking those questions to a fullscale plumber/maintenance person is practically inviting them to tell me that I need thousands of dollars of total rehab.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    I’ve got two kinds of mint going, and both have gone in mint tea and ice cream, actually. Also just inside as an aromatic with the lemon balm. What I’m worried about now is one area of mint escaping into my neighbor’s grass…

  9. hunter says:

    craig’s list might be a decent place to start looking for a skilled know-how. postings at your local farmer’s market or food co-op is another idea (those who tend to shop organic and local tend to be into DIY ventures in my experience). I think the rubric for compensation should follow the logic that minimum wage is appropriate for high school knuckleheads to made extra money, unskilled manual labor should be minimum and a half, semi-skilled should be twice minimum, skilled somewhere above.

    Also investing in a pet rabbit might be a good idea to curb the mint. Or fight it with kudzu. Then fight the kudzu with kudzu-eating giraffes. Then the giraffes with a pack of lions. Then wait for winter to take care of the lions….

  10. dmerkow says:

    On a couple of the interviews Crawford has done, he has taken care to distinguish the sort of hands on work he is advocating for and the kind of assembly-line less skilled manufacturing. His vision seems to more Wendell Berry less Henry Ford.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    I guess I’m just curious about whether he takes Fukuyama’s line, which is that all this talk about reskilling and educating workers for the 21st Century is intentionally hostile to hands-on work, a kind of plot to turn everyone into white-collar workers. That really misses the mark: I think very few educators who promote that kind of rhetoric are directly hostile to plumbing, carpentry or other skilled trades. That conversation is really about the disappearance of unskilled or semi-skilled assembly manufacturing from the American economy, and about what might replace it.

    I wouldn’t disagree, on the other hand, with an argument that a liberal arts education should have way more hands-on and practical components than it typically does. But that too is an old argument: constructivist pedagogies have been knocking around for decades, looking for greater purchase in many curricula. And it’s pretty much gospel in liberal arts science majors that direct experience with laboratory work is a necessity for doing science of any kind.

  12. north says:

    In Crawford’s NYT article, he didn’t seem to argue that the middle-class knowledge-worker ethos was intentionally and directly hostile to skilled labor – he seemed more to be arguing that it ignores the virtues and intellectual engagement offered by the kind of skilled craft that he practices, and overvalues the intellectual engagement of most white-collar jobs. Having had a couple of office jobs, been a teacher, and done some fairly short stints of farm labor (3 months-ish), I also found that the office jobs were the most brain-deadening. I have one right now, and even though it’s not too much work and is astonishingly well-paid, I’m incredibly glad to be trading it this fall for much longer hours and less money doing something much more likely to be interesting. Also, while I was basically unskilled when I worked on the farm, the woman I worked for is extraordinarily good with plants and animals, and I learned a lot that summer.

    Orientalizing the activities of the working class is something I have noticed among my peers.
    Yes, totally, but I think this ends up depending much more on whether the individual becoming fascinated is obnoxious or not. Mostly when I’ve done farmwork (or whatever) the real question is whether I’m going to work, because a lot of people who don’t have the experience of doing hard physical work for a long time aren’t willing to do it. My partner works in local food, and even though she’s a queer urban person, the farmers she works with tend to love her because she works incredibly hard and is genuinely enthusiastic (and fairly knowledgeable) – it’s obvious that she’s not being a tourist. I’ve had a similar experience being a young teacher around a lot of older, more experienced teachers: as long as I worked hard and cared about what I was doing and wasn’t a jerk about it, they were really happy to have me around. People like showing other people what they’re doing, and passing on the hard-earned particular knowledge of their trades.

    I wouldn???? disagree, on the other hand, with an argument that a liberal arts education should have way more hands-on and practical components than it typically does. But that too is an old argument: constructivist pedagogies have been knocking around for decades, looking for greater purchase in many curricula.

    I don’t read Crawford as directly addressing this, so much as making a parallel argument for the intellectual seriousness of trades. But I do really agree with it. I think it’s great for people to experience more than one kind of intellectual work, partly because then when you make a job/career choice, you’re clearer about what you’re getting and what you’re giving up. I’m a little less worried about the lack of prestige of this than I might be, because I think it’s good for people to spend a couple years doing things for reasons other than prestige, and because I also think it’s good for people to have the experience of saying, “what the hell, I’m just going to try this,” even though they don’t see a clear path for it to be useful in their long-term career arc.

    As for practicalities:
    1) I think this becomes less true as you do more baking and learn more about how it all works. I’ve managed to fix some ridiculous mistakes, like adding twice as much baking soda to a gingerbread cake. I added a little extra acid and baked it anyway, and while the center fell, the cake was still tasty. You also eventually get more of a feel for what dough or batter is supposed to look like, whether you should keep adding flour, etc. Even after the bread rises, you can knead in the salt, let it rise again (maybe in the refrigerator?), and it’ll probably turn out fine. Second and third rises mostly don’t hurt bread. Of course, you are essentially stuck with whatever you’ve made once it goes in the oven (as, for example, the time my brother measured the dry ingredients for some muffins and forgot the leavener). But that’s part of the pay-off of baking, that you put something in the oven and it comes out completely transformed.

    2) I am really excited about the chance this fall to work with my partner’s dad on some DIY projects for exactly this reason (and similarly bummed that I didn’t take advantage of my parents’ fairly extensive knowledge of carpentry). It’s a lot easier to learn when you have someone to show you what an instruction means.

    6) One way to contain mint, should you decide to dig it up, is to sink a large pot in the ground with the mint inside it.

    7) There was a different NYT article at one point about a couple who tried to turn their lawn into a no-mow perennial native grasses situation. It took them something like 6 years, I think.

    8 ) One totally genius idea is the tool library, which both Berkeley and West Philly have. You buy a membership ($20 in West Philly, I think) and can check out any tools they have for a few days at a time. I don’t know why every community doesn’t have these.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    The tool library is a great idea. Home Depot’s rental rates shocked the hell out of me when I took a look at them.

    I agree that the more baking you do, the more you get an instinctive sense for what something’s supposed to be like, and a lot of dough is fixable if it’s off. I’ve actually done a goodly amount of baking (used to have to bake the bread when I worked as a cook, in fact)–but I do think it calls for a different kind of precision and has a different kidn of linearity than cooking.

  14. north says:

    Oh certainly – cooking and baking are pretty different. I was just saying that I think the precision and linearity of baking are a little over-stated (not necessarily by you, just in general), and that there’s more overlap than people often acknowledge. Think bread pudding: you have the transformation of soggy bread to something puffy and delicious, and it’s very hard to fix after it’s baked, but there’s plenty of room to add extra things and combine recipes and experiment, especially since you don’t have to worry about yeast or chemical leaveners.

  15. emschwar says:

    As for baking, I recommend you check out Michael Ruhlman’s _Ratios_ and/or Alton Brown’s I’m Just Here for More Food. Both endeavour (Ruhlman more explicitly, Brown more by illustration) to teach intuition about baking. Once you know how a baking recipe breaks down, it’s comparitively easy to, say, turn a chocolate chip cookie recipe into a chocolate-chocolate-chip cookie recipe, or improvise a bacon-and-onion popover. Ruhlman even has a handy poster for download on his site listing the basic ratios (and assembly notes) for the most common baking needs.

  16. SamChevre says:

    On bread: unsalted dough rises oddly–very fast and much less resiliently than salted dough. If you notice it when you go to punch it down the first time, taste the dough–you will be able to tell if it has salt already or not. (I learned that and almost everything else I know about bread from the Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book.) If it needs salt, add it–mix it with a tablespoon of blackstrap molasses if possible so you can see when it is evenly incorporated.

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