I'm standing on the deck of my aircraft carrier, decreeing that we have reached the end of major combat operations around the house.
After a year and a half, we're just about done on the DIY (a few small jobs left, but nothing too major or urgent). It's been both exhausting and satisfying to get here. The first couple of weeks were crazy - working 14 hour days doing all kinds of physical work we weren't used to. Still, we just about made all our deadlines, and didn't make any terribly expensive mistakes. I'll try to summarise what I've learned along the way...
- Almost no job will take the time you think it will. Just when you get used to doubling your time estimates to account for unforeseen problems, you'll attempt a sizeable job which will be complete in half the time you thought it would take.
Some other anecdotes are that one-coat paint usually needs two coats (unless you're a very good painter), but Ronseal Diamond Hard varnish really does go touch dry in 30 minutes. Most Polyfila variants really do need 24 hours to fully set, although grip adhesive (No More Nails, Gripfill, etc) are often 'good enough' within a few minutes.
Don't take on a job you're not sure you can complete. Personally, I think through the whole thing (as much as I can), so I've got a ready supply of solutions to the problems I'm expecting. Of course, an old house can throw all manner of unexpected problems your way, but at least they're the only things you'll need to solve on-the-fly.
Most DIY jobs require an element of physical work. I work in an office, so I'm not exactly prepared for such work, and I find it makes me ache in unexpected places if I've been doing something particularly physical. Don't underestimate the effect this has on your body - drink plenty of fluids, stretch (properly - like you do at the gym), take breaks, etc.
Don't trust a Victorian builder, or in fact any builder, DIYer or previous owner unless you saw the work actually being done (and were happy with it). Walls are never square, plaster is never solid and wallpaper covers over all manner of bodge jobs and ugliness. Further more, what looks like it may be nice solid brick wall that you can simply drill holes into and hang whatever you want on, may well be some crappy stud work which is full of dust and dirt and have very wobbly fixings. Likewise, even a good brick wall may have some unexpected concrete in it making any kind of cutting or drilling difficult. As I say, trust nothing unless you've actually seen it.
- Everyone's got an opinion of how to do things. There isn't One Perfect Way for any job, but there are better ways than others. It doesn't matter which way you do it, just as long as you arrive at the destination you want. Of course, using accumulated knowledge can get you there quicker, cheaper and prettier than other ways, but that doesn't mean you have to do it the way a supposedly more skilled workman told you to do it.
Personally, I'm something of a perfectionist. I like to get a job to 100% completion, rather than getting it to 'near enough'. Truthfully, not everything I do is as 'properly' done as it should be (so yeah, I have left the odd bodge job behind), but I generally try to do as good as job as I'm able, and try to leave things in a sensible state for whomever the poor sap is that has to peel back what I've done for whatever project they're taking on. I take the view that I'm going to have to look at whatever I've done for several years at least, so I might as well be happy with it. I'd prefer it if the next owners were happy with it too, whenever that might be.
- Expensive tools aren't necessarily the best, and cheap ones aren't necessarily the worst. The single most useful item in the last year and a half might well be half an Evian water bottle we cut up early on so we could use it as a paint pot. It was the first to arrive, and the last thing to leave. Likewise, a wood chisel I bought from the local pound shop has been incredibly useful for cutting neatly into plaster, and for removing sections of lath, and even... for chiselling out bits of wood. I wouldn't use it to do some nice carving or anything, but it's been great for a few things.
Sometimes, cheap is rubbish though. I had an old detail sander I bought for about £20. We used it for ages - it made loads of noise, didn't work particularly well or quickly and eventually I replaced it with a Black & Decker 'Mouse'. The Mouse cost about double, but is about ten times better - it's much quieter so doesn't annoy the neighbours as much, and works much quicker and produces better results.
We've actually been quite lucky and not bought things that were too expensive for what they do. For example, the Wikes power drill set has worked really well, although it's no where near as good as the Dewalt drills the tradesmen we've had use. I'm sure I'd be more than happy with a Dewalt, but it would have been more expensive than we'd really have needed.
(Incidentally, the same thing goes for 'consumable' materials, such as paint, filler, or whatever. For example, Farrow and Ball paint is great looking and lovely to use, but it's much more expensive than 'B&Q Colours', which is actually pretty decent paint to use if you can find the colour you want. Conversely, B&Q Value paint is crap, and whilst it looks cheap, it really isn't. It's good for diluting and painting onto fresh plaster, but that's about all).
- B&Q and Homebase (and the like) are your friends, and your enemies. I've bought hundreds of pounds of stuff from both stores, so they're definitely useful. But, your local builder's merchants can be much, much better for some stuff. For unfinished products like wood, cement, paint and some fixtures/fittings (mostly the basic sort) and things like wood dye, varnish and so on, the local builder's merchant is often by far the best place to go - you'll get bigger quantities, lower prices and very helpful service (service isn't something I've had much of in B&Q, by the way).
The likes of B&Q/Homebase are good for finished items, and "nice" things like decorative fittings, some paints, tools, insulation and household items. Do shop around though - things that look cheap often aren't. I've found the tools you need, but won't use all that much are good from these sorts of places too. For example, I bought a not-especially-good mitre saw from B&Q for about £40. It's made light work of some picture rails, skirting boards and stair spindles. I'm not sure I'd use it for anything especially demanding though (see number 6 above!). Also, beware these stores sell a lot of stuff you simply don't need - gadgets and supposedly labour saving tools that you'll never see a 'pro' use. If the professionals don't use it, then you probably don't need it either. At least both stores can do refunds if you do buy something you decide you don't need (not always so easy at the builder's merchant, by the way).
- It's perfectly okay to take a 'belts and braces' approach. If you're at all worried about a job you're taking on, then you should ask a professional to at least take a look and advise you first. If after all that you take it on anyway, then by all means take a longer, but 'safer' approach. If that means you 'brace' things you don't really need to, or put double the thickness of something than you strictly need, then fine. You're much better off doing this than taking a risk and it not working out for you.
Over-engineering things costs a bit more, takes a bit longer and leaves you with things that aren't strictly necessary. This can be a pain to deal with later on, so it's best avoided when possible. But as I say, I'd rather over-engineer something than under-engineer it. If you've put in a little more than you need, it's possible to take it out later when you understand what's really needed a little better.
- Don't be afraid to tell workmen what you want, and how you want it. If you want something doing a certain way, then feel free to tell them to do that for you. After all, for all they know, you're doing it like that because of some future requirement that they're not going to be around to see. You're also the customer, and so you can specify what ever you want. If it adds time to the job, then they can add some cost on to it if necessary (although negotiate with them!).
Likewise, feel free to help your workman out. My wife is particularly good at making sure they've got plenty of biscuits, chocolate and sweets, which seems to go down well. I'm just about up to a cup of tea or two, but I'll occasionally help them out with the work their doing (maybe even something as simple as carrying the rubbish out, or better still - taking it to the tip).
- The Internet is your friend. Aside from using it to buy materials and tools (which saves having to squeeze them into cars or taxis, or getting them on the bus), use it for advice and help. Two websites I can't do without are mybuilder.com for getting professionals to come and take a look and ultimatehandyman.co.uk (particularly their forums) for getting advice, and for learning about the pitfalls and how other people do things. Besides that, doing a few searches for whatever you're doing can help a lot too. I learned a lot about how to do some of the more specialist jobs this way - just reading random snippets from random websites can help you out a great deal.
So there you have it... I wish I'd known then what I know now - maybe this can help you out a little.