Posted May 4th, 2009 by Tyson and filed in Issue 4: Do-It-Yourself

img_0300I’d like to begin by drawing attention to a distinction between Do-It-Yourself and Do-It-By-Yourself projects, because I think that there is major difference between the two. So for the purpose of this article I will refer to both DIY and DIBY.

The DIY approach is, basically, do simple things by yourself, and when the job gets demanding or daunting, get some assistance.

DIBY means that, essentially, you’re on your own. (So far I’ve persuaded three of my friends to come out and help me with my project. Evidently “help” in this case means drink beer and throw the cans around the yard. I guess I did get Matt to drill a hole).

For reference purposes, I’ve participated in several DIY type projects in my own small house endeavor, including transporting the house to Aromas, moving the house up the hill, wrecking a collapsed barn for salvage wood, building a deck, installing a woodstove, and plumbing the house. The common denominator in all of these projects was my father, whom I call Ironhorse. In retrospect, I regret not asking him to write an article for this edition, as I can think of no one more involved in DIY than he. But barring that, I think it will still be useful to contrast he and I.


Ironhorse takes a one-man bulldozer approach. He gets serious results and he breaks a lot of things in the process, which he then has to fix. Using this approach he has built and broken (and repaired) more stuff than anyone else I know. And he gets the kind of results you would expect from a coordinated team effort. But this technique requires great motivation, fearlessness, energy, strength, a refusal to take no for an answer, a high tolerance for both pain and filth, a bunch of stuff (which will soon be broken), and most importantly the know-how and determination to fix the wreckage that you’ve left in your path (or at least the stuff that you think is important). When it comes to DIBY, frankly, his method works.


I am not Ironhorse. I share his physical strength, endurance, and willingness to dirty and bloody myself, but lack his motivation, technical knowledge, determination, and natural inclination towards practical mechanical problem solving. By contrast I am more cautious, contemplative, dreamy, bookish, and academic. To be blunt I’m not a self-starter and without direction I’m prone to laziness and indolence. In the DIY world this isn’t necessarily a problem; it’s been my experience that I’m the ideal assistant for virtually any physical task (I have this idiosyncratic competitive streak that compels me to outwork everyone else on a jobsite). But unfortunately none of this translates very well to DIBY.

If you’re a dipshit like me, (who couldn’t even get this post up without assistance from his girlfriend who isn’t even writing an article this week – thanks Manda!), without proper direction you might install a window by sandwiching the nailing strip between the framing and the siding, instead of just nailing the thing to the outside of the building. This isn’t necessarily a horrible way to do it, but if you’re working by yourself it’s way harder to simultaneously suspend a window and frame around it, and it will take you hours and you’ll wonder how the hell anybody does it in the first place. Then when you’re all done someone who knows a thing or two will come along and tell you that you haven’t left enough clearance around the edges of the window to allow for settling and expansion, at which point you’ll just shrug your shoulders, cross your fingers and hope for the best, cause you’ll be damned if your gonna take the whole thing apart again now.

img_0077You see, what does not come naturally to me is the PRACTICAL vision and direction. Any of the individual tasks of measuring and cutting and drilling and nailing is no real problem, but it is in the putting everything together that I am weak. I can cut and glue PVC, but if you ask me for a 3/4 street 90, who knows what you’ll get? And when it comes to electrical I really don’t even have a clue.

I can gleefully design a hundred gorgeous tiny houses. But those designs are just that, designs. They are like long articles that don’t convey any tangible knowledge or understanding. They are FUN, no doubt, but there’s no guarantee they will ever be anything more. In Lloyd Kahn’s Shelter, one of the contributing authors cautions against excessively detailed designs, because unless you’re independently wealthy, you’re going to have to work with what is available to you. Improvising with available materials is part of what makes owner-built homes unique and charming, and over-engineering can easily become an impediment to the improvisational necessities of the real world.

This is one of the reasons why I particularly admire Jay Shafer. Here is a man who obviously delights in design, who is not a bulldozer, and who executes his well thought-out designs into delightfully proportioned, comfortable, and functional extensions into reality. I’m more inclined to draw a floor plan and then take my shovel outside and move some dirt around.

For another thing, all my commitments are to ideas, values, and principles. I avoid commitment to practice. If I have a concept, I will implement it in a loose, rough form but I am reluctant to finish anything. I prefer to leave things partly finished for as long as possible until I am forced to make a decision on them. For instance, my deck wraps around an oak tree, and one of the salvaged 2 x 12 redwood planks runs wild about a foot, angled along the tree. My original intent had been to chop it off in a straight line with the rest of the planks, but when I look at it, the angle harmonizes with the tree and with the planks on the other side and I simply feel no compunction to cut it off. Maybe someday I will, but for now I see no reason to.

Or I’ll take a piece of material, say salvaged corrugated steel, and screw it up onto the ceiling in one spot, and just leave it there for a month or two, looking at it, until I decide whether I like it or not. If I like it, I’ll screw some more on there, and then discover that I’ve got to take it all down and put the siding up first.

I can accept these qualities in myself. From the beginning of this project Ironhorse and I had an agreement that this was to be MY project; he just didn’t have the time to help me. I can arrange for a few hours of assistance a month with things I just have no idea about, like plumbing or electrical, or maybe winching the house up a hill. But I knew that for anything to be accomplished I would have to station myself in the house, where ultimately the inconvenience of anything dysfunctional would force me to act on tasks. The downside of all this is that my 216 sq ft building has to serve as workshop, woodshed, and house, with mostly unsatisfactory consequences. And things get done, but they crawl along at a snail’s pace.


The purpose of this article is certainly not to discourage anyone from DIY or even DIBY, but rather to encourage readers to honestly assess themselves and their abilities, as well as their expectations for what they hope to accomplish and along what time-frame they require results. While I’m really not the ideal candidate for DIBY, I’m relying on necessity to be, if not the mother of my invention, then at least the driver of my production. Unfortunately, for the wannabe cynic philosopher, necessity is a rather lackadaisical driver.

One Response to “DIY vs DIBY”

  1. BetsyNo Gravatar says:

    WOW Tyson! This really hit home for me! You are certainly NOT alone here! I can particularly relate to you when it comes to finishing something. I have to struggle with that all the time. I have been putting off the simple task of just cleaning out my built-in bookshelves for weeks now! But the house is a lot cleaner and I got a bunch of other stuff done that I have had on my ‘to do’ list for months while I have been avoiding it!! I do a hell of a lot more stuff in my head and on paper than I do for real, I really get myself into trouble when I try the DIBY method rather look at my limitations and abilities (or in most cases DISablilities!) and I will be doing a whole lot more HONEST self-assessment in the future, so thanx for that tip :)