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The Family Handyman

Book Review of: The Family Handyman

Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual

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Review of The Family Handyman The Complete Do-it-Yourself Manual, by Reader's Digest (Hardcover, 2014)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)


This book is five stars, two-thumbs up, knock your socks off good. I've been in or around the skilled trades my entire life (I don't mean just my adult life; my dad gave me tools for every birthday and Christmas starting with my first one). And for several years, I was a licensed Master Electrician. There aren't many "handy man" jobs that I can't do. I expected to learn a few things from this book, but even with that background I came across one gem after another that I hadn't known.

As a further note on my background, I've been writing and editing for the nation's leading electrical trade magazine since 1996. So when I come across any book or article related to the skilled trades, I'm as concerned with the quality of the writing as with the accuracy of the information. Additionally, for nearly as many years I've been working with the nation's leading developer of electrical exam preparation products and other electrical training materials; so I have a keen appreciation of the need for setting the tone. I've also written several guides and standards for the National Electrical Contractors Association, which serves the nation's electrical unions; there, a huge concern is addressing all areas of knowledge that an electrician will need on the job. This "completeness" is another aspect beyond the ones I've mentioned.

In this books, all of these (and others) have been done with a great deal of care to get it right. It is an understatement to say I am impressed.

Even the arrangement of the book reflects correctly "setting the tone." When I've tried to teach someone how to do a skilled trade task, I've often found the person didn't really understand the tools for doing the job. When I learned various skilled trades, my mentors made sure I understood how to correctly use the right tool for a particular job. That's one reason why, for example, I don't use screwdrivers as prybars and why I avoid using adjustable wrenches (rather than exact wrench).

This book starts off with four "general" chapters: Your Home, Hand Tools, Power Tools, and Fasteners & Adhesives. While I found myself mostly nodding in approval while reading these, I also found myself thinking, "Wow, I didn't know that. How helpful!". The book doesn't have formal Part 1, Part 2, etc. But you can consider these four chapters to constitute Part 1.

In keeping with this theme, Part 2 consists of chapters devoted to particular trades or groups of trades. It's important to note that this book does not pretend to qualify you as, for example, a Master Electrician. For each trade, it explains the "how to" that a reasonably competent do-it-yourselfer can be reasonably expected to do. There are some things you don't do without extensive qualifications. For example, you might run a new branch circuit in your home but you need to leave an electrical service panel change-out to a licensed electrician.

Here are those chapters and the trades they represent. The skill level is, in my opinion, toward the high end of apprentice.

  • Plumbing. Obviously, plumber.
  • Electricity. Obviously, electrician.
  • Home climate. Insulator, HVAC tech, and system installer. This chapter shows you how to do relatively simple things like replace a water heater, insulate an attic, install a dehumidifier, and so forth. It also gives you a strong foundation in all concepts related to home climate equipment and systems. So while you aren't personally going to install a heat pump system you will understand what that entails and thus be able to select the right system for your home and competently oversee the installation.
  • Interior repairs & improvements. Building maintenance inspector, drywaller, finish carpenter, flooring installer, window installer, door installer, and others. This chapter alone justifies the cost of the book.
  • Painting and wallpapering. Painter, wall paper installer. I have seen hugely shoddy work by DIYs who don't have a clue. PLEASE, if you have not been trained in painting by a qualified person don't attempt a paint job. Here's a simple test. Real painters don't usually need masking tape. Do you know the technique for painting the top edge of a wall without getting paint onto the ceiling, using just the brush? If not, hire a painter. Wall paper jobs are notorious for degrading into nasty fights between spouses who didn't know what they were doing when they started. If you're married and want to avoid the cost of a divorce, don't attempt to save money by winging a wallpaper job. Hire it done, or take the time to understand how (this book explains it).

If the book were divided into parts, then Part 3 would cover not the tools (Part 1) or the skills/trades (Part 2), but the applications. What "application" means in construction parlance is where the work is done. The chapters:

  • Exteriors. This covers the gamut, including ladder safety (each year, falls from ladders are at or near the top of OSHA's "accident cause" list). This is thorough, covering every aspect of exterior maintenance and repair. It's also an excellent resource if you're considering an upgrade project of some sort for your home's exterior. Even if you ultimately don't do the project yourself, you will understand what makes a job a quality job and you can manage the project to get the best result for the dollars you spend.
  • Landscaping. This covers everything from various types of retaining walls to various types of fences, to decks, patios, and water gardens.
  • Windows & Doors. Most homes don't have good windows or good doors. I have replaced all of the ones in my home. I didn't have an education on these seemingly simple product categories, and it turns out they are far from simple. I wish I'd had this book when doing those projects. That would have saved me a great deal of time and probably some money. Fortunately, it turns out that I made the right choices. I just wasn't efficient in getting there, due to a big knowledge gap I had to fill.

Part 4, if this book were arranged in parts, would be about types of materials:

  • Concrete, Masonry, & Asphalt. Pretty self-explanatory. I've done some concrete work, and have built and poured footings. This books is spot-on, for that topic. My cousin worked as a mason for many years, but we didn't talk shop. So I can't comment on the accuracy of the masonry information but it sure sounds correct to me. Ditto for asphalt (except it was a childhood neighbor, not a cousin).
  • Woodworking & Furniture Repair. I've done many projects in this area, and this book does show the correct methods. However, for most of this kind of work you need a bit of the artisan to get a good outcome. Or, in many cases, you need special equipment to do the work. For example, I had my dining table professionally refinished. I didn't have the space, for one thing. But if you read this chapter you'll probably guess at my other reasons for having it done. I have refinished many smaller items, however. I've also repaired couches, chairs, and other items. But there is a line I draw based on knowing what it takes to do the job right.
  • Metals & Plastics. This is another area in which I have been extensively trained and have seen the most awful work done by the untrained DIY. Don't try to save money by "winging it." If you have a desire to this kind of work, you need the kind of "how to" that this chapter covers. And you'll need special tools.

The last two chapters are:

  • Healthy Home & Emergency Repair. I've put significant resources into making my home a healthy home. When this topic comes up in conversation, people are often surprised at what this means. And they find out they live in a toxic home. But they don't have to. Read this chapter!
  • Storage Projects. The first rule of storage is to get rid of things. There's a limit to that, especially if your home is a sort of base for projects, sports, hobbies, or even "make your living" work. I thought I had the storage thing nailed, but discovered some great tips in this chapter.

This book gets my highest recommendation. If you're a home owner, it's a "must read." If you're an apartment-dweller, in some ways it will be even more so (for reasons including those last two chapters, much of which you can apply even in an apartment setting).


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