What the Unhandy Need This Summer

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Galles is an associate professor of economics at Pepperdine University. His wife claims he is unhandy, but he insists he would do just fine if he only had the right tools</i>

Summer is here. And with it comes stories of home and garden improvements for the handyman.

Unfortunately, almost all those stories start with the tools necessary to do the job. This eliminates most of us, who have neither the appropriate tools nor the appropriate skills, at the start. Most real men (as opposed to “real men”) are “unhandy,” shudder at the phrase “some assembly required,” and panic at any job so complex it requires instructions (as if we would read them). Our “Tooltime” behavior differs from those of handymen in ways that even “more power” cannot solve.

If you are unhandy, the most obvious characteristic of your toolbox is that you “never have the right tool for the job.” Since the cost of having a complete set of tools you never intend to use clearly exceeds the benefits, when an emergency forces you into the handyman role, you curse the fact that you don’t have what you need. Of course, having such tools before they are necessary is really a form of insurance against unforeseen household contingencies, and being without the right tool for the job is simply a consequence of choosing not to pay for toolbox “insurance.”

A further consequence of never having the right tool is that, to abuse Hamlet, “Always a borrower; never a lender be.” Since you don’t have the right tools and you don’t want to buy them, you prey on your neighbors’ toolboxes. Professionals (who quickly learn to leave their tools at work) and other handymen in the neighborhood (who learn not to be home when you knock) are particularly at risk.


Further, since you have no tools that others want to borrow to serve as collateral to force the return of their tools, there is typically little incentive to return them, as the same sort of emergency might arise again, especially since the odds that you fixed it “right” the first time are slim. Given that your borrowing victims also know this, with just the right “pity me” approach, you can sometimes even succeed in borrowing your neighbor along with his tools, since that is the only way he can be sure of getting the tools back when the job is done.

Failing the attempt to lay your hands on some neighbor’s tools, you try to use the tool closet in intended use to what you need (e.g., your heaviest wrench, in the absence of a hammer). When combined with the fact that you bought the cheapest tools you could find because you didn’t intend to use them much (which is also why you can’t ever justify to yourself the extra money for power tools instead of “grunt-powered” ones), your tools often get broken. Then, in desperation, you turn to the kitchen and sewing box, using kitchen knives as screwdrivers and even the “good” scissors as an X-acto knife (if you are really desperate and unhandy, you might even go for the pinking shears, though the results won’t look pretty).

Despite having fewer tools in general, “unhandymen” tend to have messier toolboxes. Those who use their tools intensively find it is worth the effort not only to use the right tool for the job, but also to put it back where it belongs; those who hope to never touch one of them again are much less careful. This negligence leads to a proliferation of incomplete tool sets, as those crucial sockets and drill bits soon go to tool heaven. It also eventually leads to having too many screwdrivers and other simple tools, since the ones already in the house were misplaced and forgotten the last time they were used, and a new one must be bought.

Further, since unhandymen have no organized place for various chore remains (like the instructions they didn’t read, but think they might if the emergency just past has a sequel, all the unused washers and miscellaneous “what did this go to?” plumbing pieces, and the stolen kitchen utensils they refused or forgot to return), they all end up thrown away (in which case they are soon needed) or dumped in the toolbox.


This is why the risk of getting impaled on leftover nails and other miscellaneous cutting edges is borne every time someone reaches in. Because toolboxes have limited storage space, this also soon leads to an overflowing toolbox that cannot be shut or easily moved, which in turn eventually leads to the inability to even find the toolbox under the avalanche of the other junk thrown in the garage to avoid putting it where it belongs.

It is wonderful to know that there is a virtual cornucopia of thrilling do-it-yourself projects for us to do this summer. But most of us have no intention of actually doing them. All that the majority of us unhandymen really want to know is what tools we need to simply appear to be handy. Beyond that, all we need is some guidance on where to find them, so that we don’t have to wander aimlessly around the nearest warehouse store looking for them.