The musings of Ronald the Renovator

    Ronald is sitting in the casualty department of his local hospital. He's on an orange plastic chair and has a lump of wood attached to his hand by means of a large nail. During the eleven hours he waited to see a 12-year-old wood / hand specialist, he used the time to pen a few thoughts (using his other hand).......

    Doing something well can bring us great joy.

    Unfortunately not many of us get to experience it.

    A man and a set of tools can be an explosive mixture. Even if his efforts don't result in actual detonation, there is certainly the potential for any number of unsatisfactory outcomes. Shelves at odd angles, non-closing doors, damp patches on ceilings (and floors below if it's serious enough), fizzing light switches....

    It's probably fair to say that men are the main culprits. Women either read the instructions of have the sense to employ somebody who actually knows what they're doing.

    Of course we can't blame the tools, it's the brains behind them that causes the trouble. The male of the species has an unwillingness to recognize his shortcomings. It's a perception thing. If he makes enough noise and gets dirty enough, he feels like he's contributing to the furtherment of family well-being.

    Certain times of year are worse than others. It's fine when he goes to work and hasn't got any spare time but when a holiday period approaches and the DIY stores tempt us with all sorts to improve our environment, that's when the personal liability insurance should be ramped up. There are two problems with festive-season over-enthusiasm. Firstly most blokes have no idea what they are doing and secondly the experts who can come and put things right after you've messed up are on holiday themselves. Thus it may be up to a week before the lavatory will be operational again.

    Men have a particular look when entering a DIY store. Pencil behind the ear, clothes splattered with paint, confident swagger, you know the type of thing. A look that says: 'Yep, here he comes, Ronald the Renovator, come to stock up on another bewildering assortment of ingredients for his next highly complex (failed) project'. Confidence soon ebbs away when he shorts out the electrical sub-station in the next road. Merely by changing a perfectly good light switch to a dimmer (which seems somehow appropriate). Through messing up this simple project he's deprived the whole street of that afternoon's Bargain Hunt.

    How many times have we gazed out over the rubble of our over-optimism after a period of endeavour? Just because a bloke with a beard on daytime TV can do it doesn't mean that we can.


    But don't they make it look easy? Hack this, chop that, saw, scrape, drill and hey presto – a rocking horse.

    No chance! Most of us end up with a pile of wood shavings. Another problem is that raw materials are expensive. A lump of wood to make a single shelf costs more than a perfectly drinkable bottle of wine – and the shelf-life of a home-made shelf is considerably shorter.

    How many times have we tried to drill a hole in a wall but dislodged a chunk of old plaster, probably re-enforced with horse-hair and urine, that had been happily stuck to the wall for three or four centuries. Perhaps we've drilled through an electric cable, or water pipe – or next doors water pipe? Or stuck dado rail round a room to find the ends don't meet up when we get round. Yes, opportunities for disaster are many.

    Depending on your point of view (and skill level) the advent of power tools has made the art of household maintenance either easier or more dangerous. Our antecedents managed perfectly well without electric tools. We've all found Dad's old stuff in a box in the garage, wood chisels, hand planes and folding measuring sticks but have we any idea how to actually use them? No. These days we have power tools – an endless variety of dangerous devices with the capability of sending us straight to hospital. Conkers have been banned but not electric planes. To much sugar is bad for us but it's OK for DIY Ronald to go out and buy something that can chop his leg off in the blink of an eye. Power stuff is supposed to make things easier. Well maybe, but its also a lot more dangerous, as the staff of casualty departments the length and breadth of the land will testify.

    My mate once gave me a mitre saw - one of those manual, fine-bladed things that sits on four steel prongs. 'It's bent,' he said, 'It'll be OK for you though. It's only a bit bent.' What he meant was that one of the prongs was a little misshapen so the angles wouldn't be 100% true.

    'It'll fit in with everything else you've done that isn't 100% accurate,' he reassured me. In other words, two 45 degree mitres would become two forty-four degree mitres with a little gap in between. Not discernible if you're dashing past on a skateboard but rather scruffy on close inspection. My friend is a professional joiner, time served, City and Guilds certified, with a wealth of experience, so can't put up with sub-standard equipment. Disconcertingly he's just done a load of work in our house with the bent saw and the money I paid him allowed him to buy a new one.

    'Thanks.' I said. Just in case he had anything else nearing the end if it's professional life.

    A craftsman has learned through training and experience. In fact it's a joy watching a skilled cabinet-maker at work. We amateurs discover through experience, in the vast majority of circumstances, things are not as easy as they look. In fact there are only so many cock-ups we can make before we run out of funds. For example, there is a knack to hanging a door and a lot can go wrong. To start with there's every chance you've misaligned the door casing so you're going to have to cut the new door to size. This involves saws, planes and sanders – and plenty of choice language and a lot of mess. When the door fits approximately you've got hinges, handles, keepers and lock to sort out. More tools – chisels, hammer, set square and a drill. After you've hung and removed it a few times, to make 'minor adjustments', you can finally sit back and marvel at your handy-work. 'Here. Look at this love, that's saved us a bob or two.' Then the carpet-fitters arrive and you have to remove the door yet again to hack some more off the bottom. In fact you have to hack so much off there’s no wood left and you’re into the honeycomb interior. You either leave it as it is, now pretty flimsy at the bottom, or fashion a piece of timber to insert into the bottom of the door. Many more wood shavings, more time, more ripe language. In the time you've taken to do hang the door your beloved has done a days work, been shopping, walked the dog and made supper. In the time you’ve taken over the job, a skilled joiner would have finished and been for a weekend break fishing in the Lake District.

    'Is this supposed to happen?' asks my wife, walking into the garden holding a door handle.

    She'd caught me at an awkward moment because I was sprawled on the grass after the collapse of a garden chair I had just repaired. 'They don't build things like they used to,' she offers in sympathy. 'I'd take it back if I were you.' The beechwood carver had probably been supporting various posteriors since the late 19th century but I'd managed to transform it into a pile of driftwood in the twinkling of an eye – all because I'd decided to try out my new 'multi-tool' on it.

    So as I lay on the lawn inelegantly trying to remove a splinter from my posterior my wife looks on in awe and admiration and sympathy and embarrassment while my neighbour hangs over his fence reconsidering his request to engage my services to repair his dog kennel. He's rather fond of his dog.

    A little boy in a white coat approaches............'now then Ronald, what have we been up to this time?'

    © Jo May 2016