Elaine H

Embracing my tool power

My nail polish is worn away. My hair is coated in fine white plaster dust. I’m sweaty, and there are pieces of drywall everywhere. I’m on a mission: to smooth down the kitchen backsplash that used to have ugly old tiles so that I can put up snazzy white subway tiles like in my “dream kitchen picture” torn from the pages of Better Homes & Gardens.

Despite the dust, the sweat, and the growing pile of old mortar on the floor, I’m pumped. It’s a DIY Sunday, and I’m locked and loaded with enough tools to build a strip mall.

Here’s a secret guys don’t want us to know and the reason they don’t want us mucking around in their man caves: tools are fun. Not only that, they’re an adrenaline rush. Think about it: with nothing more than a screwdriver you can put up new drapery rods or outfit a bare kitchen wall with shelves. The ultimate high is being able to say: I did it myself. That’s if the shelves are level and the drapery rods don’t pull out of the wall because you forgot to attach the screws with wall anchors. But that’s okay—when it comes to tools, you improve by doing it wrong.

Maybe it’s because I grew up with three brothers, but I’ve never been afraid of tools. My father kept a pretty well-stocked workbench in the basement that, to me, was a subterranean lair of mystery and magic. Girls weren’t privy to the secrets of tools and their power to make things. We were told they were heavy. Dirty. Dangerous. Girls had no business handling tools. Which, for the precocious among us, is just an invitation to touch forbidden fruit.

This didn’t happen right away. I went through my, “Ugh, grease!” period. But when I ended up divorced with a house full of projects, I had to get over my tool resistance, or accept defeat and ask my tool jockey brother to come to my rescue. I hated being helpless.

So I started with a beginner’s set—in cutesy pink that I guess was supposed to make tools more women-friendly. It contained all the basics: hammer, Phillips head screwdriver, regular screwdriver, a small adjustable wrench, and a pair of needle-nose pliers, all tucked into a pink carrying case. You know us ladies: we need things orderly. I got along pretty well with that first set. Pictures were hung; the toilet float was repaired (again and again), assemble-yourself furniture was put together, taken apart, and reassembled in new digs. Eventually, I added new toys to my arsenal: a wallpaper scraper and scorer, laser level, assorted scrapers and putty knives, a heavy duty staple gun, a hacksaw. Every time I decided to undertake a new project that needed some special gadget, my tool drawer expanded. Then it became two drawers. And a couple of shelves in the hall closet.

I knew when I asked for a Craftsmen drill for a Christmas present one year, that I had graduated to a whole new level of toolmanship. Power tools are the bomb. Plug ‘em in and let ‘er rip! Instead of causing calluses on my hands from trying to force screws into wall studs, my power drill could zip them in just by pulling the trigger. I soon discovered the reverse mode for taking screws out—a handy thing when you’ve put them in the wrong place.

Knowing your way around tools lets you into men’s inner sanctum of hardware. It can be daunting, at first. My initial visit to a Home Depot was as bone-chilling as walking into Afghanistan. I saw tools I had never seen before—giant, hulking things that belched smoke and could take down an entire wall. Who knew there were different adhesives for different surfaces; that nuts and bolts came in so many sizes (not, unfortunately, a large array of colors); that purchasing a simple thing like a utility knife could be as complex as shopping for a mortgage? (Why does it matter what I’m cutting? Can’t they make one that cuts everything?)

These days I can walk into a home improvement store with the confidence of a woman who knows her way around a tube of caulk. When I go to the paint counter, I remember to ask for my free stir stick and paint can key (the little metal thingy that pops off the lid). I keep my eye on HGTV for killer tricks, for instance: spraying down a wallpapered wall with a mix of fabric softener and hot water will break down the adhesive just as good as the pre-mixed stuff they sell in the store.

So here I am on a Sunday, prepping a wall for a task I’ve never undertaken before: tiling. There will be new tools to buy: a tile snapper, trowel, chalk line, thinset mortar, grout. Yesterday I spent half an hour paging through a how-to book that explained the right way to stick the little plastic spacers between the tiles.

For me, the journey of tools is a bit zen-like. You get in a zone, and nothing distracts you. It’s just you, the tool, and an impenetrable wall. Eventually, you and the tool become one. You slog away at what starts out to be a filthy job, but ends with satisfaction. If that’s not soul satisfying, I don’t what is.

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