Basic DIY Guide: Intro to DIY and Tool Basics

DIY can be hugely rewarding and many exciting projects can be undertaken which, if done by a professional, would stretch your budget a little too far.

The best results, however, will always be obtained with a careful, organized approach to the jobs you plan to do. A little research, using books and the Internet, on the best tools to use for your project will pay dividends. Even something as simple as using a screwdriver that is too small for the screw can result in a slip and a scratch across an expensive surface.

Building materials can be expensive. Some time spent drawing up a detailed plan of the item you wish to produce will enable you to work out exactly what you need. This will reduce wastage and can save you another 30% of the cost!

Timber is the most common material used in DIY and also one of the most expensive. It comes in standard lengths so, if you are making a timber frame, for example, for a wall cupboard or rabbit hutch, you will need to cut several different lengths from the timber you have bought. Spending a little time working out which parts of your frame to cut from which lengths could drastically reduce the amount of wood you might otherwise waste. It’s no good trying to cut a standard 5.1 m length of timber into lengths of 2.3 m, because you will waste 0.5 m of timber each time. It would be much better to order lengths of timber that are 4.6 m (another standard length).

Similarly, consider whether you have the right size and type of drill bit for the holes you may need to drill. An entirely different type of drill bit is used for masonry from that used for timber and steel, and they cannot be interchanged.

Using the right tools and materials, together with a well-researched plan, can make DIY both great fun and very profitable. Getting it wrong by rushing in can cost a fortune and put you off for ever!


Why do we DIY?

The obvious answer to this question is to save money, but it goes far deeper than that for some people. The DIY Doctor website ( surveyed some 10,000 DIY enthusiasts: 38% wanted to save money, 22% just wanted to see if they could do it, 9% could not get a builder when they wanted one so went it alone, 6% said that they started doing it to protect themselves from the shoddy workmanship of ‘cowboy builders’, and 25% had reasons which could be described as a mixture of all the above.

Most of the answers were expected, but a surprising one was using DIY as protection against shoddy workmanship. Why does a completely inexperienced person believe they can take a giant leap into a construction minefield and produce results better than a ‘professional’? As many of the 1 million questions we have answered show -- the reality is that, in the main, they cannot. DIY can be difficult, with the degree of difficulty depending on the task to be tackled. However with the right tools and the right guidance and information it is within the reach of many would-be DIYers.

Why are builders so expensive?

• Builders a great many tools to complete all the tasks asked of them. Putting up a shelf requires a completely different set of tools from laying a patio Fitting a bathroom necessitates different tools from fitting a kitchen. Builders’ tools need to be robust and can be very expensive. They also have to be replaced pei1odical A general bulk:’ tool kit can cost over £3000.

• Due to the climate in the UK, builders can only work outside for approximately nine months out of the year. Builders have to take this into account, and the remaining three months have to be covered by the work they do In that time. Although it Is possible to book 9nside work’ for the (historically) most Inclement months, It very rarely works out like that. The weather can be unseasonably hot in December and pouring with rain In June.

• Builders also spend a lot of time quoting for work and working out prices from very complicated drawings. This, together with ordering and collecting materials, is all unseen and unpaid work that has to be built into the hourly rate.

Finally, most building work is very skillful and carries a lot of responsibility. People do not think twice about paying huge sums to solicitors and accountants, and good builders may have trained for twice as long as them.

Apart from the obvious dexterous skills involved in many of the trades, there are the less obvious problems of how to bend bricks round corners, or stop a retaining wall falling on your patio table because the foundations are not strong enough. To do a job safely and properly, especially in the building trade, it is important to know why you do it in a certain way: why bricks are laid at half bond, why plaster should be the same thickness as the whole area of the covering, and many more technical things that tradesmen — at least the good ones — study for years. It is for this reason that the first few sections in this guide focus on how your house works, and endeavors to give you a greater understanding of why a house is constructed in the way it is.

A good example of this is to be found in the Section 4, about foundations. It is essential for even the most amateur DIYer to know about the principle of a solid foundation: a strong base of t uniform thickness and consistency. This leads not only to rigidity, but also to flexibility. Houses move after they have been built, either because their component parts settle in, or the ground on which they are built moves, or both. If the foundations were not flexible enough to accommodate this movement, the settlement cracks we experience would soon be settlement passages! If the foundations were not rigid enough to support the building in an inert state, then the building would collapse. To see this working, take an ordinary pencil and hold both ends. Pull down gently on both ends (putting them in compression) and you will see a slight bow or flex in the top of the pencil (in tension). This bow is even and stable and, up to a point, bending will not ruin the integrity of the pencil. Now take a hobby knife and cut a small nick out of the underside of the pencil. This nick only needs to be a couple of millimeters deep. Now repeat the experiment and you will see that, because the thickness of the pencil is no longer uniform, it will break at this thinner, weak point. This will also occur if the nick is placed at the top of the bow in the pencil.

This principle applies to every area of the building trade and hence is an important one for the DIY enthusiast to be familiar with. If a foundation strip or floor slab thickness is inconsistent, if plaster on a wall is uneven, or the base under a patio, garden shed or barbecue is uneven, they will all dry out at different speeds or lose integrity and strength. This can easily cause damage to a job that looked perfectly all right to start with.

Another example might be found when fitting a new bathroom. Say you have decided to move the position of the hand basin but you need to cut just a little out of one of the floor joists to get the waste pipe back to its original position. If you do this incorrectly, you may weaken the joist and, consequently, the floor. Think about the pencil example. No wonder it creaks a bit now!

Using these examples you can easily see how the same construction principles apply from the lowest level of your property to the highest, so don’t just follow ‘How to...’ instructions — read this guide to find out why.

Using this guide

DIY is essentially building work (including decorating, plumbing and so on) done by non-professionals. The many DIY television and YouTube programs tend to make it all look much easier than it actually is when, in truth, some areas require specialist knowledge and skills. For example, plastering a wall is not simple and, since it takes a tradesman two years of training and practice to become skilled at the task, it is reasonable to suggest that you too will need to practice before tackling the lounge ceiling. This does not mean, however, that a DIY enthusiast cannot learn a great number of the techniques required to complete many DIY tasks successfully.

This guide is divided into two parts:

• Part 1 aims to provide a sound base of background knowledge that will stand you in good stead for embarking on your DIY journey. It provides lots of useful information and advice on what you should know about your home before you take on any significant DIY projects. The first few sections provide guidance on the tools you are likely to need, discuss the jobs most commonly tackled by DIYers, and suggest a logical and practical sequence of work, which will particularly apply to any larger jobs, such as building an extension. The following sections then go on to outline what is involved in the construction of the ‘shell’ of a building, from the foundations to the roof, including specific sections on electrics, plumbing and plastering.

• In Part 2 the focus moves from the general to the specific, providing step-by-step guidance on how to complete particular DIY projects. The scope of this guide cannot cover every type of building work that may need to be carried out on your home at any given point, but it does include many of the projects most commonly taken on by DIYers and those for w DIY Doctor has received the most queries over the years.

This guide is written not only to help you tackle jobs which you may not otherwise have undertaken, but to try and keep you, and your property, safe while you are doing the work. In time, anyone can be taught to lay bricks, plaster a wall or rewire a property, but in that teaching, not every problem can be foreseen and explained. It is the ability to deal with unforeseen problems (which will most certainly arise) safely, and to lasting and aesthetically pleasing conclusions, that differentiates a good tradesperson or DIYer from a bad one.

Tip: builders’ merchants

If you are an avid DIYer, it may pay to wander down to your local builders’ merchant, where you can chat with the manager about getting some reduced rates for materials. It is unlikely you will be able to open an account, because merchants are primarily for trade customers, but if you use the same merchants a lot, you can receive preferential rates. The personnel in builders’ merchants tend to know a little more about the construction industry than DIV store staff. Another huge bonus is that builders’ merchants are always full of builders. Builders generally are happy to pass on a little wisdom, and getting to know three or four builders, plumbers and electricians is always useful when there are projects at home that it is just not safe for you to complete on your own. The staff at builders’ merchants may even be able to help by recommending tradesmen they know to be reliable.


Part One: The Basics


In this section you will learn:

• what tools it is useful to own

• about hiring larger tools

• what to look for when choosing power tools.


Good tools are essential to DIY success. Even what is deemed to be a simple operation, like sawing a piece of timber square and straight, is impossible with a blunt, bowed saw and with no means of measuring a right angle. Many failed DIY projects are the result of trying to do a job with inappropriate or cheap tools. The main reason most people carry out DIY jobs is to save money, but this will prove to be a false economy if you try to assemble expensive products with the incorrect tools. This section offers some advice on the tools you are likely to need in order to carry out a range of DIY tasks.

There is a tool for just about every job in the building world. If you lever the lid from a paint tin using a wood chisel, then you must expect that the chisel may be damaged and may not be in good working order the next time you need to use it. Good tools are expensive, but looked after properly they will serve you well. Most tradesmen’s tools have a less expensive DIY version and generally these are perfectly adequate. Do ask yourself, however; why a set of chisels from the market costs only £3.99 when a set of chisels from a dedicated tool supplier, such as, costs £23.99. Tools are not an area where you should economize too much — good tools are expensive but, handled correctly, produce good work time and time again. Cheap tools, no matter whose hands they are in, produce a shoddy finish.

Tool requirements

If you want to DIY and be proud of what you produce, then buy the right tools for the job and make sure they are the best tools you can afford. You can ‘kit out’ a basic tool box for around £100, and the list below contains the essentials that you will use on just about every DIY job.

Essential tools:

• 5 m tape measure

• 20 oz claw hammer

• Stanley knife

• 600 mm spirit level

• medium-size adjustable spanner

• junior hacksaw

• set of crosshead (Phillips) screwdrivers

• insulated electrical screwdriver

• insulated pliers

• radiator bleed key

• set of masonry drill bits, from 3 mm to 7 mm set of HSS drill bits (3 mm to 7 mm) for drilling through wood, plastic and plasterboard

• wood chisels — 13 mm, 19 mm and 25 mm

• general-use 20-inch professional quality Jack saw (a timber saw which can be used to cut across the grain, down the grain and at any angle o the grain)

• electric drill, minimum 600 watt with hammer action.

Renting larger tools

You may occasionally need to use larger, more expensive tools. For example, cutting a hole through a wall for a new dishwasher waste pipe will be slow and laborious with a hammer and chisel, but will take only five minutes with the correct drill and a 50 mm diamond-tipped drill bit. The job is neater, quicker and much less frustrating! You can hire this sort of equipment from tool-hire shops, which are found in just about every town and where the staff are always willing to help you choose exactly the right tool for the job. In real terms it is the difference between a small project taking two hours or a whole weekend.

Choosing power tools

The three most commonly used power tools, in addition to the • electric drill mentioned above, are the jig saw, the power sander and the battery drill / driver.

Jig saw

The more powerful a jig saw is in terms of watts, the faster it will cut and the deeper the material it will get through. An average wattage for the DIY enthusiast is 650 watts. Look for a variable-speed jig saw as some materials (Perspex, for example) get very hot when cutting them at a high speed. A good selection of blades is essential and all DIY stores sell packs containing multipurpose blades for different materials. Jig saw blades are classified (as are hand saws) using the number of teeth they have per inch of length (TPI). The greater the number of teeth, the finer the cut.

Power sander

Power sanders are also measured in watts. The higher the number of watts, the greater the power. An average 250-watt sander is fine for most jobs, and variable speed is an advantage but not a necessity. A 1/2-sheet orbital sander is perfectly adequate for most DIY jobs. These use half a sheet of sandpaper clipped to the backing pad of the sander, and they sand in small orbits rather than rotations. Different grades of sandpaper can be interchanged to give a course, medium or fine finish to the work. Other types of sander include:

• rotary sanders, which can do a job more quickly but with which it can be harder; without experience, to get an even finish

• detail sanders, which are smaller, with a pointed end for getting into awkward corners

• belt sanders, which work by running a loop of sandpaper over rollers driven at high speed.

Look for a sander with a dust collection bag or, even better, the ability to connect the ‘exhaust’ to a vacuum cleaner. Usually a piece of work is sanded in order to paint it; if there is sawdust in the air for hours after sanding, the paint finish will be poor.

See our project on stripping paint.

Is there still lead paint around and is it dangerous? Paint an houses built in the 1960s or earlier is likely to contain lead and, in all honesty, extensions and alterations built as late as 1970 may also contain lead paint as unscrupulous builders and decorators used up their stock. Lead paint can be removed safely simply by taking a few precautions. Do not burn off with a blowlamp or heat gun as fumes are produced. Do not sand down, especially with an electrical sander as this produces dust. Use a (preferably) solvent-free paint stripper and scrape the paint into a plastic bag for safe disposal

Battery drill/driver

If you do a lot of DIY, a cordless drill/driver is one of the most useful tools you can buy. The power in a cordless drill comes from the battery. Generally speaking the larger the battery the more powerful the drill. A 12V drill is average for DIY work, although 14V will allow you to drill larger holes through more dense materials. If possible, pay a little extra for one with two batteries — it’s a real nuisance if your battery runs out half way through a job and you have to wait three hours for it to recharge.

Most cordless drills have keyless chucks, which means you can change drill bits quickly and easily. Look for a 14V drill/driver with two speeds and a keyless 10 mm chuck. This is the largest diameter drill bit the drill can accommodate. A drill with a variable clutch is an advantage as, should the drill bit get stuck or ‘bind’ in a material, the clutch will disengage and stop the drill motor from turning the drill bit. This saves the drill kicking in your hand and causing sprained wrists and broken thumbs!

Most cordless drills can also be used as electric screwdrivers but sire best used only to screw or unscrew crosshead screws. The screwdriver head or ‘bit’ will not easily slip out of a crosshead crew, whereas a slotted driver bit can slip very easily at speed and cause all sorts of expensive damage to the work surface.

Tip: skip hiring

Many DIY jobs produce a lot of waste, and travelling backwards and forwards to the council tip can take up valuable time (not to mention energy, fuel). Hiring a skip is an option.

Skip hire prices have increased in recent years because of the new emphasis and legislation on recycling.

Skip hire charges are usually for three weeks’ hire but always check with the hiring company.

Domestic skips range in size from a mini skip (2 cubic yards and about 2 ft 6 ins high, 4 ft long and 3 ft wide) to a builder’s skip at 8 cubic yards. This skip is about 4 ft high, 12 ft long and 5 ft 6 Ins wide.

Skip companies will not accept items which cannot be recycled or sent to landfill. These include car batteries, fridges/freezers, asbestos, tyres, paint, computer monitors and food.

Skips placed on public highways need permits. These are almost always organized by your skip hire company.

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