Five Basic Handyman Skills to Build Your DIY IQ and save your budget right away

Five Basic Handyman Skills to Save Your Budget

The modern philosophy is consumption: buy new, throw out when it doesn’t work, and buy again. Companies have picked up on this, and now the products are being designed with this in mind. It’s a lonely world for a handyman.

But I’ve made it a point to change that philosophy in my own home. And through a couple key changes in my own philosophies, I’ve been able to better embody the handyman philosophy.

And it’s saved us THOUSANDS of dollars.

Be the Handyman - Staining, Painting, Woodworking, and Plumbing DIY tips to save your family money
Be the Handyman – Staining, Painting, Woodworking, and Plumbing DIY tips to save your family money.

What Does It Mean to be a Handyman?

To put it simply, a handyman knows enough of the basic skills to tackle almost any minor project, and even some major ones. When Jenn and I first got married, I was completely incapable of completing a DIY project without a disaster ensuing. I knew the basics of using a screwdriver, a wrench, and a hammer, but those skills weren’t refined or honed in any way. Case in point: it took me four hours to put together a very basic three-basket clothes hamper. And I nearly destroyed it. And came out with injuries.

So what was I missing? How did I become a handyman? What skills made the difference?

How I Became a HandyMan

Back in the first year of marriage, I couldn’t put anything together without much difficulty, damage, or profanity. Today, I welcome new challenges with power tools and appliances. How did this change?

1. I Got Pushed Into It.

If it weren’t for my in-laws, I doubt I would have gotten very far. My dad (an incredible man in many ways) was the guy who misread the directions to our wooden fort kit and ended up building it twice as big as it should have been. He discovered this when he had to make a second trip to the lumber yard in order to build the other half of the thing.

Coolest playfort in the neighborhood, but an absolute mess of a process.

But my in-laws are handy people, and they spent much of their time before I met them remodeling homes, installing carpet, and repairing appliances. This meant that my first introduction into the handyman lifestyle was more or less shoved onto me.

But what I learned was that a little bit of support goes a long way. After a little guidance with a compound miter saw (!!!), I was in charge of all the trim work in a remodeling project. ALL. OF. THE. TRIMWORK.

I couldn’t put a flat-pack clothes hamper together, but I was the guy that handled miter joints, angled cutting, and quarter-round trim perfection.

That boost of confidence was huge.

2. I Tried. Again and Again.

It’s easy to give up when you make mistakes. A handyman, though, learns from mistakes rather than making excuses for them. I screwed up some lumber projects, I messed up some repair jobs, and I definitely broke a few things worse than they were already broken.

But I didn’t stop. I went back to it, examined my mistakes, and improved my methods for the next time. So when I struggled getting a measurement correct for replacing our old wood deck boards with permanent decking, I didn’t give up and hand the job to a professional. I got another board, remeasured, and got back to business.

The result was that I saved our family more than 50 percent of the cost of having a professional do the project. And that is huge.

It’s easy to give up when you make mistakes. A handyman, though, learns from mistakes rather than making excuses for them.

3. I Found Handyman Experts and Got Advice.

If you have a plumber in your family, that is handyman gold. Any tradesperson that can give you years of advice on some of the more mysterious elements of your home’s inner workings will save you incredible amounts of money.

Three years ago our garbage disposal started leaking. Not a drip, mind you: a full-out gusher. It had busted after six years of use. I had a choice to make: call in a plumber or figure it out on my own.

But water is hard to mess with, and it’s easy to make a big mess out of a little problem if you don’t know what you’re doing.

So, knowing my wife’s uncle, Troy, was a plumber, I called him to get advice on the project. Simple questions, like: “Is this a DIY project, or should I ask someone to help?” “Can I get this done in a night without any assistance?” “What things should I get to make the job go well?”

Troy made it perfectly clear that I was more than capable of this job, as long as I had the right tools and a few simple supplies. It was a good thing I called him, though. I ended up being able to replace the sink baskets at the same time, giving the sink a fresh look while also replacing the disposal.

Good thing I learned that skill. Less than a year later, I got a piping cap from a frosting kit stuck in the disposal by accident and had to do the whole thing over again!

The second time was much easier, if you were wondering.

4. I Looked to Other Resources.

The Internet is the handyman’s best friend. Seriously. If you can fix it, there’s a tutorial on how to do it. Even my auto mechanic friends swear by it.

Take for example the day I needed to replace a headlamp bulb in our GMC Acadia. I could have gone to a shop, spent $200+ on parts and labor, and wasted three hours of my life (the process I took with our old car a few years prior). I decided that I would try to cut costs and look on YouTube instead.

What I found was one of the easiest repairs imaginable. Acadias, as I came to find out, had literally won awards for the convenience of their headlamp bulb replacement system. All I had to do was turn the wheel on the replacement side towards the engine, pop a couple screws, and find the old bulb. With a little light, the first side was done in about 45 minutes. The second side (since you might as well replace both bulbs at the same time for balance) took all of 15 minutes.

I spent $50 on new bulbs and a little over an hour getting everything done. And it all happened in my own garage. That’s the handyman dream.

5. I Got Brave.

Once your confidence starts building, nothing seems entirely impossible. I started researching our appliances, started replacing parts and components when possible, and rebuilding things when they broke. And it was beginning to feel natural.

I was no longer afraid of being a handyman.

If I couldn’t figure it out by simply looking at it and applying my knowledge, I went to the Internet to search out forums, known problems, find tutorials, and gain any tips necessary to complete the jobs.

When it was a job bigger than I should be handling (furnace issues, stove and oven problems, electrical issues), I knew right away when the tradespeople needed to be contacted.

But even then, I wasn’t giving up without at least a close look.

As a handyman, I have now managed to replace two kitchen faucets, repair a broken water dispenser on the fridge, replace a hang-mounted microwave (in my own and my parents’ home), install a new exterior light fixture on our garage, and replace and repair trim around our home. Honestly, I’m alright with trying about anything once, if not twice or more.

And if I started totalling up the savings we’ve made since honing my handyman skills, I couldn’t have imagined that I would have saved more than $10,000 in the nine years we’ve lived in our home. That’s $10,000 spent on little things, not on big renovations or repairs, just little things.

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What Skills Do I Need to be a Handyman?

1. Basic Electrical Knowledge

While I never encourage messing with the circuit box of your home without proper training, you can do a lot of work with the electrical if you follow some simple rules. First, always make sure you turn off the circuit you’re working on at the source. Once you do that, it’s easy to replace lighting, upgrade wall outlets, and even update other fixtures.

The three wires you’ll likely find in a new house are the hot (black), neutral (white), and ground (green or bare) wires. If you have a series connected to your switch (multiple lights on one switch), you’ll see multiples of each wire. Tying in a new fixture simply takes connecting all the wires in the junction.

2. Basic Miter Saw Skills

It’s easy to replace trim if you have a basic understanding of miter saws in your handyman toolkit. Your basic chop saw has a circular blade (usually between 8″ and 12″ in diameter) that chops through lumber at a 90 degree angle by pulling it down onto the table. This works great for basic cuts on dimensional lumber, but if you need to make angled cuts to fit corners or edges, you’ll need a miter saw, where the blade can be tilted and rotated to match whatever angle you need.

With a bit of learning, you can figure out how each angle cut needs to be made, and then things like crown molding and angled trim become a simple project. Falling back on your geometry lessons in high school will be a big part of this process, so brush up if you want to start a project like this.

3. Basic Plumbing Knowledge

Again, if it’s more than just some basic fixture replacements, I’d recommend getting a professional plumber, but upgrading your sink spigots, your toilets, or a sink disposal, you can put your handyman skills to work. The trick is isolating the flow of water and knowing how to seal your pipes properly. With a pipe wrench (or a good socket or adjustable wrench), some silicone tape, and the proper fittings, you’ll be able to tackle any of those projects with just a bit of time and elbow grease.

The biggest problems you’ll encounter as a handyman in your home is corrosion and leaks. Be ready for these moments with some WD40 and a hacksaw to bite through stubborn toilet bolts. The other recommendation I have is to have your tools ready before you start. If you’ve got them all laid out from the beginning, you will spend less time without your fixtures running.

4. Proper Painting Techniques

There’s tons of people that hire out painters because it seems like too big a project. But I suggest learning a few basic skills to put this job into your own hands. Again, have the right tools on hand to make the job easier. We keep a few drop cloths, some trimming cups, and 1.5″ angled brushes on hand at all times, as well as good roller covers.

Paint big walls with rollers, making sure you use plenty of paint. Painting thin results in missed spots, uneven coverage, and lots of touch up work. If you overdo the paint, you can brush or roll over it to sop up any drips. Anticipate at least two coats for unprimed walls. If you’re just freshening up a wall with the same color, you might get away with a single coat, but otherwise, two coast will be the minimum. For dark colors, three or four coats might be needed. Likewise, painting light over dark will need at least three coats. Make sure you set aside plenty of time for the wall to dry between the coats, and always have enough paint.

Even more important, a good handyman should learn how to trim without tape. Taping takes forever, and the paint typically seeps underneath, creating lines that’ll need touchups regardless. Instead, use a stiff angled brush (again, we prefer 1.5″ angled brushes here) and get plenty of paint on the tip. Chisel the edge down by brushing against your trimming cup, then start pressing the brush against the wall, pushing towards the edge, and pulling out and down from that edge. With a bit of practice, you’ll find that trimming isn’t tough at all. And by dropping the tape, you’ll cut your trim times in half. You’ll probably only need a couple coats, even with dark colors.

I also recommend learning how to work with caulk, since handyman painting projects sometimes run into caulking. This takes a lot of practice, but it means better energy efficiency, watertight seals, and better looking window casements. Again, lots of rags and lots of time are the key elements. Double check your caulk for the right type (bathroom, silicone, colored, paintable, waterproof, mold- and mildew-resistance, etc.). Paying someone for this could cost you a good amount of money, so it’s worth your effort to figure out this handyman skill.

5. Basic Woodworking Skills

Angles, joints, and miters are important in woodworking. But knowing how to sand and stain will get you even further with less outside cost. Course sanding should be used for harsh edges, and fine sanding should be used if you’re working on the final finishing steps. When you get sandpaper, anticipate twice as much as you initially think you need (trust me on this). The finer the sandpaper, the higher the gauge (course paper is usually in the low 100’s, while finishing paper is in the 1000’s).

Staining is a bit of an art form, but the trick is applying and then wiping off the stain quickly to get the color right. You can leave the stain on longer for darker colors, but I’d recommend doing short coats to start. Be in a well ventilated area, since most stains give off powerful fumes. Have lots of rags available, and be prepared to throw them away afterwards. The experienced handyman always prepares for worst case scenarios!

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Get Your Handyman Game On

So get out there and become a handyman! Ask your friends, ask professionals, and seek out knowledge. Gain that confidence. Once you start, you’ll never want to turn back. And your monthly budget will look way better. Trust me. Here are a few of the handyman projects I’ve completed on my own, with no outside assistance, that have saved me big bucks every time:

  • Replaced all our light fixtures
  • Roughed in, installed, and wired a new exterior garage light (in a series circuit)
  • Replaced bathroom trim
  • Caulked and painted all our windows for better winterizing
  • Replaced our kitchen sink fixture (twice)
  • Replaced our sink disposal (three times)
  • Replaced all our toilets
  • Cut and Installed trim on our lake cabin
  • Re-stained our woodwork
  • Installed a storm door on our front door to reduce heating and cooling costs


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