When it comes to the heavy handyman stuff — serious electrical work, deep plumbing, anything to do with a septic tank — we understand why you might want to leave it to the pros.
But a man should also know his way around a toolbox. Even if you live in an apartment or condo, it’s important to be able to take care of the basics yourself.
Plus, if you’ve been calling a plumber every time your sink gets clogged, then you’re throwing away your money.
But most importantly, knowing how to take care of things yourself will give you self-assurance and a greater sense of ownership over your home — which in turn will make you likelier to pick up more handyman skills as your confidence grows.
Men used to learn a lot of basic carpentry, plumbing, electricity and other maintenance skills from their fathers as a matter of course, but for those of you who didn’t get these lessons, here are 20 skills every man should have to be the master of his own castle.
1. Find a stud
Studfinders — the tool that spawned a thousand easy jokes — aren’t expensive, but why depend on a gadget when you can find the stud yourself? Studs are the vertical beams that support walls, and they provide support when mounting decorations, TV screens or to anchor heavy furniture. There should be a stud on either side of each window, as well as beside electrical boxes for switches and outlets. Another giveaway is to look where any nails have been hammered into the moulding, as they’re usually driven into the stud. Studs tend to be set every 16 or 24 inches around the room, so once you’ve found one you can measure the rest. To check, you can sound out where the studs are: when you tap the wall, it will mostly have a slightly hollow sound — but it will sound noticeably denser where there’s a stud.
2. Anchor a bookcase to a wall
Now that you can find a stud, it’s time to use it. Heavy standalone objects like bookshelves should be attached to the wall to ensure that a seismic event, household accident or super-athletic bout of sex doesn’t bring it down.
First, find the studs in the wall where you want to anchor your bookshelf. Depending on what kind of bookcase you’re anchoring and how much damage you’re willing to see it take, there are a few ways to approach this. If the bookshelf is backless, you’re golden: simply measure and space two L-brackets at least 24 inches apart, making sure one of them is on the stud. Use a pencil to mark the drill holes on both the wall and the shelf; hammer or drill a pilot hole in the marked spots; then screw the L-bracket to the side or underside of the shelf and to the wall.
For a bookcase with a back, first measure the case, minus its frame (so, the width of the case’s shelves), then cut a 1×6 piece of lumber to match. Drill two or three evenly-spaced pilot holes at the height of the case’s top shelf, making sure that at least one of these goes into a stud. Mark their locations on the piece of lumber you cut, then place the lumber and drill a second set of pilot holes so that the holes in the lumber line up with those in the walls. Then screw the board to the wall with screws long enough to pass through the board and drywall and into the wall stud. Finally, attach two L-brackets to the underside of the book case’s top shelf, then return the bookshelf to its place and screw the brackets to the mounted piece of lumber.
3. Spackle a hole or scuff
Nothing mars your man-cave more than the unsightly holes and bumps that result from relocating or removing your wall art. To keep your pad looking good, get in the habit of keeping spackle, a putty knife and paint around. First, clean up any loose bits or anything that sticks out from the hole you want to fix. Spread a bit of spackle over the hole using the putty knife, pressing hard to lay a thin, smooth layer — spackle shrinks, so it’s OK if there’s a little extra over the hole. Let it dry a few hours, and if needed, apply a second layer. Smooth the spackle with a fine-grade sandpaper until it’s flush with the rest of the wall, then paint over the damaged area.
4. Fix a loose tile
Loose or wobbly tiles are the precursors of broken tiles, making this a minor problem worth getting fixed before it gets major. First, run a preheated iron over the loose tile and surrounding area to loosen its adhesive, then gently lift the tile out. Clean the area underneath with alcohol, then scrape it clean with the putty knife to get all of the old adhesive off. Apply a new coating of tile adhesive to both the gap and to the back of the tile and carefully replace the tile. Use a rolling pin to press the tile into place and get rid of any air bubbles, then wipe clean any excess adhesive on or around the tile. If it’s a floor tile, weigh the tile down with a heavy object, like a stack of books, until the bond sets.
5. Caulk a shower, sink or tub
This one’s almost fun. If you notice that there’s a bit of leakage around your sink, shower or bathtub, it might be time to replace the caulking — that line of putty or gel at the seam where the basin meets the wall or floor. Caulking loses effectiveness over time, so you should reseal it once a year.
First, use a plastic putty knife to scrape off the old caulking, then clean the surface with rubbing alcohol. Apply a stripe of masking tape above and below where you’re applying your caulk — this will give you a clean, even-looking line. Take your tube of caulk — there are numerous kinds, but choosing one with silicone will give you better mildew protection — and load it into the caulking gun, following the directions on the package to cut open the application tip and making sure that you pierce through any secondary layer of packaging inside.
Smoothly move the caulking gun along the seam you want to patch while depressing the caulking gun’s trigger evenly. Once it’s applied, use your finger to smooth and flatten the line, removing any excess caulk, then peel off masking tape. Let the caulking dry for at least a day or two before exposing it to water or moisture.
6. Fix a leaky faucet
The details depend on the model, but the basics are the same: In the end, the solution is almost always to replace a worn-down or faulty washer, O-ring or stem. The following steps will guide you through identifying the problem, but make sure you match the size precisely when you replace any damaged parts.
First, turn off your water, both from the handles over the sink and the mainline, usually a small valve attached to the pipes under your sink. Next, very gently use your flat-head screwdriver to remove the knob handle(s); use a little penetrating oil for lubrication if it feels too tight to slip off easily. Loosen the packing nut with a wrench. This should let you spot the stem, which you can also remove, then check for damage. Do the same with the O-ring and washer, as one of these three elements is likely the culprit. Replace any damaged parts, then reassemble the faucet in the same order — washer and O-ring, stem, packing nut, screw, handle — turn the water back on, and test the water.
If it’s still leaky, then you’ve done what you can. The problem runs deeper and it’s time to call a plumber.
7. Unclog a drain
Depending on the extent of the clog, you’ve got a few options here. First, try to clear the drain with a mixture of vinegar, hot water and baking soda — a few good glugs should clear any soft blockages like grease or product. If that doesn’t do the trick, your next stop is the plunger — not the one you use for your toilet, dude; you deserve better than that. Fill the sink half-full of water, then plunge the sink drain like you would a toilet, pumping the rubber part to create suction.
Still clogged? Check the trap. Place a bucket under your pipes, then unscrew the trap — the curved piece of pipe that connects your sink to the vertical pipe — either by hand or using a pipe wrench. Empty the water and clear any clogs, then return the trap to its place, reattach to the other pipes, and test by running some water to see whether the drain is cleared. And if that doesn’t work…
8. Snake a drain
No, it’s not glamorous, but you’ve got to get that gunk out of there. To do this, you’ll need a drain auger, a coiled spiral tool that pushes or drills through a deep clog; if you don’t have your own, most building centres rent both manual and electric models.
First, try the drain: Push the end of the snake into the opening and turn its drum handle clockwise, sending the auger cable down the drain until you feel resistance. Keep rotating the snake until the resistance passes, then pull it out — whatever’s plugging up the sink will likely come out with it. Run water to ensure that the clog has passed.
If it’s still obstructed, then the problem likely runs deeper. Under your sink, remove the horizontal pipe that connects the trap to the stub pipe in the wall, either by hand or using a pipe wrench. Turn the snake handle clockwise, while pushing the auger further into the pipe, trying to catch and pull anything that provides resistance, as above. Once you’ve cleared the problem, retract the cable from the stub pipe and re-attach the trap and horizontal pipe.
9. Seal a pavement crack
If you don’t live in an apartment, your empire (and its maintenance) could well extend out into the driveway. Sadly, cracks in concrete and asphalt are a reality of life — ones that, left unaddressed, will develop into a full-blown potholes. Luckily, they’re easy to fix. Before you start, remove any plants or debris from the crack, first with a screwdriver or knife tip, then by giving it a once-over with the garden hose to blast out anything deeper. Let the crack dry.
When it’s dry, apply crack filler until it’s flush with the rest of the surface you’re repairing, then wait at least 24 hours until it’s fully dry. If the crack’s still visible, go for a second coat. Wait a good one to two days before walking or driving on the crack once you’ve repaired it, to ensure that it’s fully set.
10. Change a shower head
To remove the old shower head, turn a wrench counter-clockwise to loosen its notch, then screw off the old head with your hands. Use a rag soaked with vinegar or a little bit of alcohol to scrub off any scum or residue around the old shower head stem. Wrap the end of the stem pipe with a few layers of Teflon tape, then use your fingers to smooth the tape. Install the replacement head, tightening it onto the pipe clockwise by hand. Turn the shower on to check for leaks — if it’s still spouting, tighten the new shower head with a wrench, being careful to proceed gradually to prevent over-tightening.
11. Clean the gutters
Regardless of the climate you live in, cleaning out the gutters is part and parcel of living in a house, rather than an apartment or condo — and not doing it will give you a bigger headache in the long run. If your gutters are higher than one story, then it might be time to hire a pro. But if they’re on the first floor, you should be able to handle this yourself.
First, get up on a ladder, making sure it’s stable. You can use a stand-off, or ladder stabilizer, to avoid damaging the gutters or house siding. First, use a trowel to dig out dead leaves and other debris that’s collected in the gutters, collecting it in a bucket or garbage bag. Next, flush the pipes clean with a hose — the higher the pressure, the better. Finally, use the hose to flush out the downspouts, making sure to check that the water flows through without blockage.
12. Replace a toilet seat
This one’s a small chore that can make a world of difference. First, open the bolt caps, the plastic snap-shut lid at the back of the toilet seat. Reach around and under the toilet seat to the nut that secures the seat to the bowl, and grip this with an adjustable wrench. Holding the nut, unscrew the two seat bolts and lift off the old toilet seat. Place the new seat, aligning its anchor bolts with the two holes in the toilet base. Push the bolts through the holes, then screw on the nuts from the underside by hand. Make sure that the seat is centered, then finish tightening the two nuts with a wrench.
13. Tighten a loose door hinge
If you notice an interior door sticking or scraping, it’s probably time to tighten up its hinges. If you can jiggle the door up and down when you grab it by the lock side, then this is your culprit — but it’s almost criminally easy to fix. First, find and remove any loose screws in the hinges. For each removed screw, take a wooden matchstick, dip it in carpenter’s glue, and drive it into the screw hole, then break or cut off any part of the matchstick that sticks out. Drive each screw back into the patched hole, and the matchstick-glue combo should hold it secure.
14. Use anchor screws to hang heavy objects
Sometimes there just isn’t a stud where you need it, but there’s no need to let that mess with your feng shui. It just means that you’ll have to anchor your screws into the wallboard. Be warned, though: While anchored screws do give you a bit more leverage while you’re hanging things like artwork, a mirror or a small shelf, no amount of anchoring is going to let you hang heavy objects from plaster or drywall without support from a stud.
First, buy your anchors — you’ll need to use a metal anchor for plaster walls, while plastic anchors work better in drywall. The anchor also needs to match the size of the screws you’re using, and these should be at least 1.5 inches long to secure your hanging. Drill or hammer your pilot holes where you want to hang something — the heavier the object, the more anchors you’ll need to hold it up. Gently hammer in the anchor until it’s flush with the wall, then screw in the screw, leaving about a quarter-inch to hang your mounted object on.
15. Change a doorknob
Unscrew the two screws in the handle’s face plate (the piece that fixes the door to the door jamb), knob plate (the piece that fixes the knob to the door) and strike plate (the piece in the door jamb with a slot for the latch). Pull the handles off both sides of the door, slide out the face plate and pawl and remove the strike plate. If the new knob you’re installing is a different size than the one you’re replacing, use a hammer and chisel to adjust the openings in the door and door jamb.
To install the new knob, first push the new pawl mechanism and face plate into the side of the door, making sure that the latch faces the same direction that the door will close so that it connects correctly with the strike plate, then screw the face plate into place. Insert the handles into the door so that the pawl’s square peg fits into its slot in each knob, the screw holes align with threaded cylinders on each side, and any levers and locks face the right direction — then screw each knob plate into place. Finish it off by screwing on the strike plate.
16. Change a furnace filter
Furnace filters should be changed at least every three month — and more often if you smoke in your house or have pets that shed heavily. First, remove the vent cover — depending on the furnace model, this will either be a large ventilation grate in the wall, floor or ceiling or else in the furnace itself. Look to see if there are arrows on the screen — some models have to face a specific direction to function — and note which direction they point. Put the old filter directly in a garbage bag (or else it will spread dust everywhere), then slide in the new filter, making sure it faces the correct direction, and replace the vent cover.
17. Replace a screen window
Take down the window frame and lay it on a flat surface. Pry the old screen out of its frame. If the frame is wood, you can rip the old screen out of the staples or nails used to attach it; if the frame’s metal or vinyl, look for a black rubber seal, the spline, and use a screwdriver to pry the spline out. Roll the new screen over the top of the frame, then cut it so that there’s one inch of extra screen around the frame’s edges.
For a wood frame, use a hammer or staple gun to attach the stretched screen to the outside of the frame. For a metal or vinyl frame, use a spline tool or putty knife to force the spline and the screen into the window groove. Secure one corner of the screen and pull the rest of the screen tight as you work your way around the frame, then use a screwdriver to attach the spline and screen into the frame’s groove in each corner. Finish it up by cutting away any excess screen, then return the frame to the window.
18. Paint like a pro
While pretty much anyone can paint indoor walls, doing it right means taking steps for a neat, clean job. Before you start, repair any holes or scuffs in the wall with spackle. Prep the room for painting: Cover the floor and any furniture you can’t move with a canvas or plastic sheet, taping down its edges, and remove any light switch plates and electrical outlet covers and cover those with tape too.
Next, use a pole-sander and 120-grit sandpaper to sand the walls — this helps the wall take paint better and more evenly — then vacuum the sanding dust off the walls and run a wet cloth or sponge all over the walls. Apply lines of painter’s tape wherever there is an edge that isn’t being painted — the floor, around the ceiling and any wall you don’t want to be on the same colour. Take some care with this, as uneven or hastily applied tape will create a sloppy line to your paint.
You might need to apply a coat of primer, a lighter coat of paint that helps your final colour pop. You should definitely prime the wall if it’s never been painted, if you spackled any damaged spots, if the existing paint is glossy or if you’re painting over a darker colour. Let your primer coat fully dry before you start painting — an hour minimum for latex-based paints, and at least eight hours for other kinds.
For the main act, start by using an angled brush to paint a 2-inch line in each corner. For the walls themselves, you should use a roller. First wet the roller, then dip it into the paint colour and roll it in the paint try until it’s evenly coated. Apply the paint all over the walls in M and W-shaped motions, then let the paint dry.
19. Stop a toilet that runs
A toilet that “runs,” or where the tank is constantly refilling with water, is one of the easiest handyman fixes. The culprit is likely the flapper valve, a rubber flap in the toilet tank that controls the flow of water into the bowl.
Remove the toilet tank lid and set it aside. Inside the tank you’ll find a balloon-like ball called an overflow tube, which should lie flush with the tank’s waterline; the tube will be attached to flapper guides, arms secured to the rubber flapper at the tank’s base. A common problem is that the chain or rod that connects the flapper to the flapper guides breaks or snaps free; if this is the case, just replace or reattach the piece and the toilet should flush as normal. If the chain is still attached but is slack, then you need to adjust its length — simply disconnect the wire from the flapper guide and reconnect it to a different hole in the bar.
20. Change a light switch
First, shut off the power. Turn the power off at the breaker — and make sure to test that you’ve flipped the right breaker and the power’s definitely off before you start meddling with electricity, preferably with a voltage tester.
Use a screwdriver to remove the switch plate cover, then unscrew the switch’s mounting screws (usually found at the top and bottom) from the electrical box and pull the switch out if the wall with the wires still attached. There will be two or three wires attached to the switch: an incoming hot wire (black), a return wire (any colour except green) and maybe a grounding wire (either green or plain copper) — although exceptions abound. Use a Phillips screwdriver to unscrew the wires from the switch, then cut the wire connection or use needle-nose pliers to remove the wires from the terminals. Remove the insulation from each wire with wire strippers, and use needle-nose pliers to make a small loop at the end of each wire. Get ready to connect the new switch, but make sure it’s in the right position — the switch turned down with the word “off” showing.
Attach the wires to the new switch in the same positions where they were connected in the old switch, hooking the loops over the new switch’s terminals and then tightening them. Mount the new switch into the electrical box and reattach the switch’s face plate.
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