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How to Be Handy (Even for the Deskbound)

The Pleasures of DIY

In his conversion memoir Surprised By Joy, C.S. Lewis attributes his early vocation as a writer to his utter inability to do anything else with his hands: “It was this that forced me to write. I longed to make things, ships, houses, engines. Many sheets of cardboard and pairs of scissors I spoiled, only to turn from my hopeless failures in tears.”

His manual ineptitude also had a spiritual effect, instilling in him “a deep (and, of course, inarticulate) sense of resistance or opposition on the part of inanimate things…Whatever you wanted to remain straight, would bend; whatever you tried to bend would fly back to the straight; all knots which you wished to be firm would come untied; all knots you wanted to untie would remain firm.”

In the century or so since Lewis was a kid we’ve only become more alienated from the material world. The various digital enchantments at our disposal offer far more tempting escapes than old-fashioned books. Also, as the things we use grow increasingly (often pointlessly) complex, we’re more likely to outsource their maintenance and repair to specialists.

Cars are a great example. Even if one is inclined to take a peek under the hood, newer models can seem actively hostile to “unauthorized” tinkering. Still, as we see in this account in Return, it’s never been easier to get a free education in automative repair; and even the most modest effort to fix it on your own can provide immense satisfaction.


Perhaps young Clive Staples could have overcome his inborn clumsiness — and avoided his irritating teen atheist period — had he been gifted a set of Lux Blox. Developed by a Chicago-based husband and wife, these “next-level Legos” eschew brick-based static construction for the kind of flexible connections one finds in nature. Lux Blox are fun, while helping develop creativity, hone fine motor skills, and encourage STEM learning. Even better, all sets are 25% off this week with the code CYBERWEEK.


I was relatively late to tying my own shoes; I preferred to leave it to the help until I was about eight. And once I mastered it, I have to admit to resting on my laurels. It was a long time before I learned to tie any other knot.

But when it comes to securing a boat to a dock, or yourself to a rock-climbing harness, a simple bow knot won’t do. NetKnots.com is an excellent online resource for learning all the ways to tie one thing to another. With its exhaustive database of bends, hitches, loops, and binding knots, clearly illustrated with step-by-step diagrams and animations, NetKnots.com will show you the ropes in no time.


The other day I was re-listening to the six episodes of The Holy Agony podcast, hoping to find a clip that made me laugh with recognition the first time around. I haven’t found it yet (it’s somewhere in six hours of material) and so may get the details wrong, but in it a guy recounts helping his dad on some home repair project or another. The older man asks the narrator to get him a shim; after hemming and hawing a bit, the narrator has to confess he doesn’t know what a shim is. The dad looks at him and says something like, “Well, haven’t we led a sheltered life.” The Holy Agony takes stories like this (some funny, some angry, some sad, some spooky) by its two hosts Jess and John and a variety of guests and embeds them intricate and haunting sound collages. It’s like listening to an old AM radio station run by trad Catholics. While the original run has ended, the podcast lives on as the equally compelling Cathedral in the Pines Radio Hour.


The phrase “held together with Scotch tape” usually denotes a slipshod, half-assed repair job. But for a wide range of appropriate tasks the humble adhesive is indispensable. We enjoy this miracle product thanks to the efforts of one man, a banjo-strumming college dropout named Richard Drew. In 1921 at the age of 22, Drew scored an entry-level job with small company called 3M, then looking to diversify after a couple of unsuccessful years in the sandpaper business.

On a sales call to an auto body shop, Drew noticed a worker’s frustration at creating a two-tone paint job: the surgical tape he used for masking was so strong that it tended to strip off the bottom layer of paint. This convinced Drew of the need for a less sticky tape. Relentlessly working on this invention in his spare time, he eventually came up with the forerunner of what today keeps our presents wrapped and Donald Trump’s power ties from flapping in the wind.

Good ideas can come from anyone; innovative thinking doesn’t necessarily require experience or credentials. Having demonstrated this principal, Drew was quick to apply it as head of the special independent product development team he established at 3M. As one former colleague recalled, “Dick never turned anyone away from his office, even though they came in with the strangest ideas. He never discouraged people… When people can be themselves, they use their gifts and talents to the fullest.” Drew’s philosophy was so successful that it spread company-wide. He instituted a policy encouraging every worker to spend up to 15% of their day working on their own ideas, long before such initiatives were adopted by tech “disruptors” such as Google.