Back in the day, when a drain backed up, a light fixture started sparking, a kid's bedroom needed bookshelves or some other repair or small home improvement need arose, the male (usually) of the household would try to remember what he learned from his father (usually), and head for the hardware store and the tool box. Some of those basic skills, particularly carpentry, were even taught in school.
Those aren't skills most young people now pick up at home or at school. But with plumbers charging $100 or more for the first hour of a house call, sometimes more on weekends and at night (the only time pipes back up or burst), being "handy," as it used to be called, can pay off for a homeowner. But how do you learn?
Today we have YouTube, which has dozens, often hundreds, of how-to videos on almost any repair or home improvement task imaginable. Of course, in typical Internet fashion, some of them are terrible, occasionally absolutely wrong, and others are wonderful.
• Video: The videos provided by Big Box home improvement stores, such as Lowe's and The Home Depot, and those by manufacturers of home improvement supplies are often more detailed and carefully produced, as well as more attractive, than many YouTube DIY (Do It Yourself) videos. The advice and production quality tends to be top notch. The downside is, especially with the manufacturers' videos, they often push just one product or method.
• Books: If a visual, but more traditional and slower-paced, approach works better for you, there's always the Complete Idiot's Guide series of how-to books. Despite the annoying, condescending titles, the books usually offer solid advice, and often more detail and options than you'll get from most videos.
• Watching a pro: If learning from watching an experienced handyman works better for you, Home Depot offers free weekend handyman seminars. The weekend workshop subject schedule is the same companywide for the first three weeks of the month, followed by a locally chosen topic the final weekend, said James R. Johnson, who manages The Home Depot at 3689 E. Broadway, at El Con Mall. Upcoming topics for June include bath safety, hardwood flooring and concrete repair.
The locally chosen topics tend to be more regional, such as swamp-cooler maintenance, something that is of great interest here, but not in Wisconsin or Alaska.
Johnson said some of the instructors are former professional tradesmen. Others have learned during their years with the company. Johnson said he's become a fairly knowledgeable about plumbing, but there is also an employee at his store who is both a master plumber and electrician. Some employees, he said, are hired specifically for their skill in the trades.
Local Ace Hardware stores don't offer regular workshops, but are locally owned and the experience level of employees varies widely. Many of the floor staff have professional experience in the building trades and can offer tips on specific projects and repairs and recommend the best products for a specific situation.
• Hands on: One of the most intense hands-on learning opportunities can be had by volunteering to work on a Habitat for Humanity project. The nonprofit builds homes for low-income people, who often provide "sweat equity" on the house they will later own and occupy.
But volunteers, working under the supervision of expert trades people, often do the bulk of the work.
"We welcome novice volunteers. Some of our volunteers have never touched a hammer before," said Amanda Thomas, a spokesperson for Habitat for Humanity of Tucson (habitattucson.org).
"Some of the general areas where volunteers work on our homes include, but are not limited to plumbing, electrical, finish woodwork like doors and hardware, painting, framing, drywall hanging and repair, foam insulation, and landscaping," she said. "Our volunteers really do build our homes from the ground up and are - and can be - part of the entire process."
Thomas said she has spent some time on Habitat work sites, and learned how to use a Skilsaw among other skills.
"I like my tool to be a camera, but I definitely learned how to saw and drill and hammer and a couple other things," she said. "I'm a homeowner. I've done some sealing of my house to make it more (energy efficient). I've done some plumbing repairs. Leaking faucet."
While Habitat contracts out to professionals for foundation work, and pouring concrete, underground plumbing, insulation, drywall tape and texture and heating and cooling, Thomas said volunteers interested in learning about those skills sometimes are partnered with professionals while that work is done.
Thomas said volunteers don't need any skills or tools, but must take a short introductory class, less than an hour in length, before going out to a work site.
Not all the skills learned at Habitat for Humanity necessarily directly translate into preparedness for a burst pipe. But seeing how plumbing - and for that matter electrical wiring and a home's frame - is put together goes a long way to explaining what's going on when you send a snake down a clogged drain, try to replace a bad switch or figure out where to put a nail so it hits a stud when hanging a heavy mirror.
Overall, this is a great time for do-it-yourselfers.
More than half the products in a 2013 hardware store didn't exist, at least not in their modern form, 25 years ago. And many products are aimed at DIYers, with detailed instructions - sometimes even DVDs - that pros wouldn't need.
Let pictures do the talking
Hardware and home improvement store pros usually like to help, but if you can't describe the situation and specifics in detail, it's hard to offer meaningful advice.
One way around that problem is to take a picture of the project or part that will help explain the situation you're confronting.
If it's something where size matters, put a tape measure or ruler in the photo to provide scale.
Take well-lit pictures from a couple of different angles. This can be helpful not only with finding the best solution, but in describing the components involved if you're not fluent in the sometimes arcane lingo of hardware.
It's a lot more helpful, and a lot less embarrassing, than referring to "thingies" and "whatchamacallits."
Dan Sorenson's parents grew up on farms, where people had to know a little bit of everything from basic veterinary skills and carpentry to engine repair and plumbing. He worked in a hardware store while in high school and did construction jobs before turning to typing for a living.