DIY, If You Dare

They have a saying in the Dixie States — or maybe it’s the military: “When you’re up to your

ass in alligators, it’s hard to remember your mission was to drain the swamp.”

Unfortunately, I hadn’t heard this truism before launching my career as a DIY homereno star.

Winnipeg, 1971. The summer of peace and love had arrived, a mere four years behind its Californian debut. We were seven adults and three kids, living in less than communal bliss in a part of town single families could no longer afford.

Seven bedrooms, two living rooms, two massive fireplaces, mahogany baseboards, and banisters under six layers of paint; you get the picture — a three-storey Hippy Heaven with a gambrel roof and a slight tilt to the left.

It fell to my lot, as patriarch of the clan (by virtue of my name being on the mortgage), to undertake “the mission”. And a simple mission it was: replace the kitchen sink and cabinets. Easy-peasy, two weeks max.

Enter the alligators. They came first as books. Books on cabinetry. Books on plumbing. Books on how to laminate countertops and grout your backsplash tiles. They came next as tools. Trunk loads of tools. Next they came as thigh-high mounds of splintery lath and chunks of plaster impregnated with the hair of some poor milk-horse, dead 80 years or so.

Now, everyone knows removing kitchen cabinets inevitably exposes the sorry state of the wall behind. And only a shoddy craftsman would replace just one wall, yes? But pause. A baby squalls. A half-dozen adults squall louder. Once again, stove and table must be cleared of rubble for another meal.

A quick beer and a bite, and it’s time to run for more books, more tools, for wire and fixtures to replace the old knob-and-tube. For drywall, tape, and mud. For paint, should that happy day ever arrive. And hey, with those walls down to the studs, this flooring looks pretty grim. Does that subfloor feel a little punky to you? While I’m at it, I’ll rent a sander and re-do all the hardwood. And I can’t wait to see what shape those mahogany baseboards are in.

Hey, honey, how about I build an archway into the dining room? I think some oak wainscoting and rich wallpaper would look classy in there. What? Of course I’ll get it done. But there’s no point doing it piecemeal. It’s all connected. And I’ve already got all the tools and supplies.

Yes, I said I’d make a frame for the waterbed. I can do that next weekend. But this weather’s perfect for painting, and I want to get the outside done while I can. Needless to say, the alligators won that round.

The simple two-week mission outlived that particular marriage, and was still a work in progress when the house was sold two years later. In the following two decades, I undertook easy-peasy renovations on two other houses, both of which also welcomed new owners before the job was finished.

In the process, I acquired some useful skills, and at one time seemed to own more tools than Canadian Tire.

Mike Holmes I am not. But in my defence, the reno work I actually complete is pretty good. I go by the book, and then overbuild by a factor of about seven. Taps work. Electricity doesn’t short out. The walls are generally plumb. But I’ve also learned a few important life lessons.

Number One: spouses often fail to see the humour in being surrounded by utter chaos for indefinite periods.

Number Two: if you do bite off more than you can chew, a half-decent contractor and a month in a hotel may actually cost less than a divorce lawyer.

Number Three: there’s absolutely no shame in telling the landlord you’d happily fix the sink yourself, but you’re afraid of the alligators. 

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