Being a handyman can be a rewarding and lucrative job, but like any other field, there are always projects that manage to test your limits. Unfortunately, no handyman can survive just on the easy jobs alone, so you have to learn a few tricks to be able to get through the tough ones too.
This may involve mental exercises to help you stay alert and power through long tiresome projects, or it may just be a matter of pushing yourself that extra mile to get the job done. So, for any novice handymen out there looking to get a feel for the realities of the job, here are a few stories that should help you gain a little insight into the construction industry’s most versatile profession.
There’s no doubt, attics can be some of the worst environments imaginable for work for a few different reasons. The first one is that they can be cramped, with little or no room to move around in, which can make working nearly impossible. Whether there’s no room because of years of junk being thrown up there, or just from the way an old home was constructed, it’s never a picnic. This can often mean crawling around on your belly and snaking your way through what seems like 10 miles of insulation (but in reality is only 20 feet) just to get where you need to go.
Another reason they can be challenging is because of the temperature. In the summertime, afternoons spent crawling around in an attic can be grueling because of the morning sun heating the space to a fever pitch. That means when it’s 70 degrees outside, it’s 100 in the attic, and when it’s 100 degrees outside, that can mean more than 130 in the attic. The key in those situations is to move slowly, take frequent breaks for water and from the heat, and know your limitations.
I remember one time I was working in a 139-degree attic (between a new asphalt roof and an old one) just to get to a junction box to check the connections. Now, everything was working fine in the house, but I wasn’t going to leave without making sure everything was in order. It turned out that checking everything was a good idea since the previous person who wired the junction box didn’t twist the connections before putting the wire nut on.
Some people (usually ones who aren’t actually electricians) will tell you that it’s perfectly fine to do that, and it is for 14 gauge wire, but I’ve seen connections with 12 gauge wire fall apart time and time again because of this common mistake. So, in a few months or a few years those connections would have failed, and while I wouldn’t have gotten the blame, I would have to live with the fact that I didn’t do what I could to prevent it, and an attitude like that is what separates professionals from amateurs.
I don’t think I have to tell you that any masonry or brickwork can be tough on both the mind and the body. It’s long hours of what is essentially picking up rocks and organizing them in a certain order, but on top of that, it takes more mental capacity than the average person realizes.
You have to know what type of mortar to use, how to properly mix it, how to properly measure and cut the stones and bricks, how to set up a safe work space so no one gets hurt, and at least a dozen other things even before you can start working. Now, handymen don’t tend to do a lot of brick or masonry work, but there are always cases where a small amount of it can come up. Just make sure you do take the time to know what you’re doing (which includes a lot of research), and work as safely as possible.
I remember one time I had to reconstruct an old well that had to meet the standards of a historical preservation society. This meant I not only had to figure out how to work with those specific stones, but also how to rebuild it to the specs of the 1770s. That’s why I gave myself a few extra days when asked how long it would take, and researched exactly how they did it back then. Because I took the time to do it right, everything went exactly according to plan.
Roofs can be one of the most treacherous aspects of a home, especially ones with steep pitches or if they’re higher than just one story. The worst thing you can do on a roof is rush to try and get the job done quickly. It’s not only important to know what you’re doing as far as the work is concerned, but also to know how to do it safely. This means roof jacks, toe boards, and harnesses when necessary.
A perfect example of the importance of safety on roofs was about 10 years ago when a friend of mine had to helplessly watch his coworker fall three stories because he wasn’t properly harnessed. His death could have easily been avoided if proper safety protocols were followed, but they had just been focused on getting the job done quickly. So, if you ever find yourself in a situation where you’re going to work on any roofs, do yourself and your family a favor by taking it slow, using a harness (and other safety equipment), and not taking any risky steps when moving around.
One of the trickiest, most labor intensive jobs out there happens to be working with concrete. You have to know what concrete to use, how much water to use in the mix, how long it will take to dry, how to properly place rebar, and above all else, you have to be able to hustle. Concrete starts to dry pretty much immediately after it stops moving, which means all preparation has to be done ahead of time, and once the ball is rolling, you have to be able to get everything in place and leveled out before it starts to dry.
One time I was working on a new patio for the back of a house. We did all of the prep work, but overnight (the night before the pour) a tremor had caused the ground to shift by about two inches. If we had just assumed everything was still in the right place without double-checking, then the patio wouldn’t have been level. Luckily, a last minute check before we began mixing allowed us to make the proper corrections in time.
The last project I’ll talk about today is clearing land. It’s not the most common job out there for a handyman, but it is probably the most difficult on this list. At least, it’s some of the most difficult work that I’ve ever done. This job involves cutting down trees and removing root balls, moving large boulders that may be in the way, dealing with proper disposal of potentially invasive species, and laying thousands of pounds of soil (or other material) on top of what used to be impassable land.
There are plenty of reasons for doing this; clearing out land for a garden or crops, creating new trails to make land more accessible (sometimes for conservation efforts), or just to add some space to an existing yard. This work can mean 12 straight hours of moving rocks around under the summer sun or spending half an hour digging and chopping at the last root ball that needs to be removed. It’s a classic example of a job that requires the handyman hustle.
I remember one time I was clearing a field of an invasive species for about 3 days without making too much of a dent. The problem with this particular weed was that it was unbelievably resilient, which meant it came back in less time than it took to remove it. We ended up having to place pipes into the ground in order to inject steam into the soil since that was the only way to actually kill the roots. At the end of the day, with a little patience and a lot of research, we were able to get the job done.