I think I hate DIY

When I was a kid, I liked nothing better to get outside with some tools and build something.

Damian Clarke
Apr 1 · 6 min read

Just a few of the things I remember are:

  • Digging holes for foundations and other assorted jobs with Dad
  • Planting veggies and rhubarb in the rhubarb patch — which looked suspiciously like a grave, in hindsight — with Dad
  • Building the treated pine retaining walls for the garden beds, with Dad
  • Painting — endless painting — with Mum, Dad and my brothers
  • Tiling the bathroom with Dad
  • Demolishing the old kitchen, and building the new one, with Dad
  • Painting the boat, with Dad at first, and then by myself, because he was too busy, and I was better at it
  • Fibreglassing over the leaks in the boat, with Dad
  • Concreting the side path, with a graceful arc, all the way out to the clothesline, with Dad, and Grandad
A hand saw, plane, hammer, nails, power drill, screws, tape measure, pencil, square and spirit level, neatly arranged.
A hand saw, plane, hammer, nails, power drill, screws, tape measure, pencil, square and spirit level, neatly arranged.
Essential DIY tools (Photo by Eugen Str on Unsplash)

As time went on, the house became more complete, Dad switched his attentions to work, drink (and later a separate life in Thailand, but that’s another story) and I switched my attentions to school, including the subject Industrial Technology, which I was quite good at. (Actually, I was exceptional. I topped the class every term for four years, except our major work where Matt Giddy’s superb jarrah and glass games table beat my 1:25 scale timber framed house with full-geometry HIP roof so strong that you could stand on it — supplemented by a quarter-size hopper window that I whipped up at 3am the day before the project was due, because I happened to find a window winder and some timber in our home workshop. He beat me by one mark!

Industrial Technology is more than just advanced woodwork, but advanced woodwork is probably the closest approximation to the truth. It is surprisingly difficult, requiring its students to excel in spatial awareness and geometry. It is no surprise that of the fifteen students who graduated in my class of 1988, I think that I am the only one who is not working as a builder, plumber, farmer family farm (or, in one case, running a portfolio of family farms and pubs, but he always throws the statistics out.) And by builder, I don’t mean the guy who installed your last kitchen. Most of them worked on the Sydney Olympic Stadium, and one had a huge company with, I think, 35 tradespeople working for him. And Kevin Barry was twice nominated for Young Australian of the Year for his work to continue his family’s domination of Australian plumbing innovation. These are the kind of builders who would drive Bentleys, if you could only prize them out of their Holden Utes and Hiluxes.

A few years after leaving school, Mum and Dad separated (see earlier mentions of drink and a separate life), and after that Mum remarried, and we all moved into a larger, and more substantially complete house. My 1:25 scale house was left behind, along with the train set, under the new part of the old house. My workshop, with its three inch thick oregon bench and dirt floor that had moulded itself to the shape of my feet, was left behind there too. I still did some DIY, but it was mainly confined to building a side garden in exchange for much needed funds from Mum. Since then, the chairs I made have disappeared, I know not where, and the table I built was given to charity when Dr Ben moved out of the flat in Queensland. The only piece left is the mantle clock, currently in my study.

And then, of course, I graduated from university and headed into the big world of rented accommodation, getting ahead in my career, and missing doing things with my hands. The thing I missed the most was making furniture. I love to make furniture.

You can imagine my delight when we bought Our Albion, and I could start amassing my tool collection once again. And while I still want to make furniture, I have slowly come to the realisation that DIY building projects, largely, suck. I still want to make furniture — small, beautiful, easy pieces which grow on the bench. But building — I would rather pay someone else to do it.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed some of the work we have done

  • Tearing up the floors with Mrs Albion, and driving home, exhausted, for a shower and a sleep.
  • Our first night at Our Albion, when we were too exhausted to drive home, and slept on the camp bed, surrounded by tools and sawdust, and had to finish the bathroom the next day before we could shower.
  • I enjoyed us painting together, and making the curtains.
  • I enjoyed putting the shelves up in the lounge room, but only on the day that Dr Ben came over to help me.
  • I delight in the door that I salvaged from inside the house, broke into its constituent parts and rebuilt into the door between the house and the back terrace. [And, 14-years later I still check the door on landlord visits and continue to delight in its continued service. It’s amazing what junk can become.]

I didn’t enjoy building the laundry at all — although having a laundry is a joy. I certainly didn’t enjoy this weekend when I had to re-arrange the laundry and its plumbing after we tunneled four feet of silt out of the drain at the front of the house to conclude that it is either blocked permanently, or not a drain at all.

I am starting to see a theme here. It wasn’t the DIY that I enjoyed — it was the people. And most importantly, I think, it was my Dad.

It wasn’t about digging a hole, it was about digging a hole with my Dad.

And it wasn’t about tiling a bathroom, it was about tiling a bathroom with my Dad, about planting veggies with Dad, and painting with Dad, and varnishing the boat with Dad (although we did argue a lot, particularly about the varnish).

And I suspect the day that Grandad was over, and we did the path out to the clothesline, it was about my Dad working with his Dad, as well as me, working with my Dad.

So here’s to Dads with tools.

Copyright © Damian Clarke 2020. First published on the Our Albion blog, March 27, 2007 under Making it nice.


Comment from drew
Time: March 29, 2007, 12:47 am

The DIY, I don’t mind (just put up some shelves in the pantry last weekend. Next project is organising the garage, then a pergola).

But gardening… the horror…

Comment from soubriquet
Time: April 11, 2007, 7:11 pm

I liked that.
Got me thinking, about my dad… and gardening together, and learning to plane wood with clean straight strokes, and all that stuff I learned from being around him.
The bigger stuff. about life.
About how to relate to people.
To listen.
To see the other person’s point of view.
To think it through before arguing.
In later years, my brothers and I made fun of my dad’s d.i.y. work, we referred to him as the phantom bodger. His technique involved using bits of junk wood, and keeping jars of bent nails for re-use.
But now I’m wiser.
I see it as the resourcefulness of a man who grew up on a farm, where money was scarce, and if you wanted something, you made it, and if something broke, you mended it yourself.
Skills honed to perfection as a prisoner of war of the japanese, in Changi Jail, Singapore.
He made a machine to make twine for repairing boots, out of fibres from rope they stole from the japs.
Only now, after he’s gone, am I realising how he taught me so much, without me being aware i was being taught.
So, thanks for the thought-provoking post, I’ll be back to read more.

Comment from Dining Room Tables
Time: May 12, 2007, 1:15 am

Great Post.
My father was much the same.
He did everything around the house with me in tow. During most of my childhood he worked for a sawmill and brought lumber home that he cut. It was always hard work, as he never picked small or easy projects. But I didn’t mind the dirt, dust and occasional nail in my foot. I was working with dad and he was proud of it.
When he moved away to another state to start a construction business I tried my hand at it for a couple of years but it just wasn’t the same without him.
Now I too realize that I’m much happier diong stuff around that house when my wife is helping.
The older I get the more I realize that life is about the people and not th things.
Again great post

Our Albion

he story of a guy with a hammer, some nails and an old…

Damian Clarke

Written by

I’m a writer and publisher working in Sydney, Australia and London, UK. I specialise in finance, technology, insurance, property, medicine and sustainability.

Our Albion

he story of a guy with a hammer, some nails and an old house to use them on.

Damian Clarke

Written by

I’m a writer and publisher working in Sydney, Australia and London, UK. I specialise in finance, technology, insurance, property, medicine and sustainability.

Our Albion

he story of a guy with a hammer, some nails and an old house to use them on.

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