DIY Lessons From Mom
Our readers' favorite do-it-yourself tricks—straight from their mothers
Forget all that "Father knows best" stuff. Some of our most resourceful readers' favorite do-it-yourself advice—to say nothing of home-improvement inspiration—came from their mothers.
"We had three boys in the family, and my mother would always say, 'One boy is half a man; two boys are no men at all.' That's because one boy could do half a man's work, but two of us would just aggravate each other and not get anything done. We did finish some projects, though. Once, Mom helped install new flooring at our church and brought all the old boards home. It was beautiful tongue-and-groove bird's-eye maple. She had us clean out each joint before nailing down the boards and refinishing them. Another time she and I found cabinets that were being discarded, and we rebuilt our entire kitchen. Back then, if we didn't do it ourselves, it didn't get done."
—Don Dallman, 75, Nokesville, Virginia
"My family moved 18 times, all in the same town, by the time I was 20 years old. The moves were all because Mom ran out of home improvements and became bored. She learned everything she knew from her dad. Since I was the youngest, I was always her assistant—the official holder of the other end of the board and the tape measure; sander and stainer of trim moldings; painter of inconspicuous areas. I never realized how much I'd learned until my husband and I redid our own house. Just from watching her, I know the right way to do things."
—Sherie Dunn, 28, Marine City, Michigan
Shown: After tearing out the old ceiling, Sherie Dunn's mom, Gail Garza, hangs fresh drywall.
"My dad worked long hours, so my mom took on many of the fix-it jobs around the house. Her favorite expression was 'Figure it out,' which took on new meaning when she decided to rejuvenate our staircases. After removing three floors' worth of spindles to give them a fresh coat of stain and polyurethane, we realized they had to be put back in a specific order. Whoops! It took us years to get them all back in their proper spots."
—Megan Judd, 30, Seymour, Indiana
"My mother didn't fix things, but she was an expert at repurposing finds for interior design projects. This was in the 1960s, well before the word upcycling was coined. She had the idea to panel our family room with old barn boards, so my grandpa, dad, and I salvaged dozens of them from an abandoned barn. Mom and I washed them, selected the best ones, cut them to size with a circular saw, and fastened them to the walls. She did hundreds of such projects; our house was by far the most interesting in our suburban Detroit neighborhood."
—Michael Ritenour, 59, Farmington, Michigan
"My mom was a single parent who worked full-time, so it wasn't uncommon for her to work on home-improvement projects in the evenings. I recall one time being woken up well after midnight by the bang from her nail gun, which she was using to frame out a raised floor for the bedroom she was building in the basement. I went down and yelled, 'Mom, what are you doing?' Her response: 'I gotta get it done!' She must have been up until 4 a.m. To this day, I can't stand to see a project half done. It makes me itch."
—Jodi Gould, 37, Portsmouth, Connecticut
"When I was a teenager, my mom decided she wanted to spruce up the kitchen and enlisted me to help. Initially, the plan was to just repaint the cabinets, but the next thing I knew, Mom was gutting the place. She learned to do everything through trial and error and by watching videos borrowed from the local library. Flash-forward 20 years to when my wife and I bought a fixer-upper. I immediately thought of Mom's kitchen project and said to myself, 'I can do this!' Along the way I sometimes wondered, 'What the hell am I doing?' But the belief in myself that my mom instilled in me always pushed me through."
—Scott Harrigan, 44, East Brunswick, New Jersey
Shown: Scott Harrigan's mom, Darleen, shows her DIY grit with a floor sander.
"One summer, when I was 12, my mother devised a foolproof project to keep my brother and me out of trouble: re-siding the family's two-car garage with cedar shingles. We protested, 'But Mom, we don't know how!' Her answer to that was to teach us everything we needed to know for the job: how to tear off the old shingles, lay out the new ones, and create a straightedge using a 1x2 mounted to furring strips. She had learned it all from her father. She kept us motivated with the promise of $50 each for a job well done and daily pep talks starting at 8 a.m. I recently drove past the old house, and the shingles still look good. Mom taught us well."
—Fred Moench, 57, Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey
"My mom was born in 1920 and raised on a farm. Her older brother knew electrical work and carpentry, and he passed some of that knowledge on to her. It came in handy when, as a teenager, I had to go under the house to work on a plumbing project. The soil was saturated, but I crawled under the house, dragging an old-style extension cord that had a receptacle box at the end. The cord was frayed and touched something wet, and I got quite a shock. I was scared to death! I crawled out, and my mom showed me how to take the box apart, cut the bad wires, create a brand-new connection, and wrap the ends with electrical tape. Years later, I became a licensed electrician."
—James Duncan, 67, Pea Ridge, Arkansas
"Standing 5 foot 4 with a head of shoulder-length blonde hair, my mom didn't look like your average carpenter, but indeed that was her profession. When I was young, she taught me the proper way to wield all sorts of tools. My favorite was her hammer, which she dubbed Clyde. If I showed hesitation in my swing, Mom would demonstrate with exaggerated gusto to prove to me there was nothing to be afraid of. 'Let the hammer do the work!' she'd say. Recently, when my husband was out of town, I got fed up with the sloppy DIY job my home's previous owner had done on some drywall. So I grabbed my sledgehammer and, just like Mom had taught me, took a few big swings. That wall didn't stand a chance."
—Melanie Shaffer, 40, Washington, D.C.
Shown: Melanie Shaffer's mom, Susan Gilbert, plans her next project. (That's Clyde on the concrete.)
"My mother handled all the repairs for the 12-unit apartment building I grew up in. The job was intended for my father, a cabinetmaker, in exchange for a break on the rent. But he had little time to be a superintendent, so Mom assumed the role. She fixed leaky faucets, faulty wiring, everything; she'd just ask Dad how to do it or figure it out herself. One day I looked inside the two jewelry-type boxes she kept on her dresser. One held small plumbing parts: gaskets, knobs, drain plugs, screws. The other was filled with electrical wire, fuses, and outlet adapters. I never did find out where she kept her jewelry."
—Dennis Prisant, 67, Deerfield Beach, Florida
"To remove worn vinyl or linoleum, run an old iron over the tiles. The heat melts the adhesive, so you can use a scraper to lift up the flooring."
"When painting molding, prop it up on soup cans turned sideways. That way you can roll the molding toward you rather than having to step down the line with each brushstroke."
"Stuff clumps of urine-soaked cat litter down mole burrows to clear your grassy areas of 'lawn acne.' "
"Make a list before you start any project. Write down everything, including the tiny details, and check off each item as you go. Then you always see that you are making progress and won't lose momentum."
—Candy Clawson Spence
"The best DIY tip I got from my mom was to tackle projects while your spouse is away. End of discussion!"
—Erika Schnabel Wertz
"To keep from gumming up a paint can, punch holes around the rim with a flathead screwdriver. Any paint that gets into the indentations drains back into the paint can."
"She taught me how to paint a room without having to tape everything off: First, paint the trim. Then, keep a wet edge when rolling the wall and use a small angled brush to get a clean line against the trim. It takes a bit of practice but saves a ton of time."
"Mom's best tip? However long you think a project will take, expect it to take twice as long."