Do-it-yourself videotapes: some of them are even helpful

I LOVE BUYING expensive power tools and using them to wreck various parts of my house. I used to be afraid of tackling ambitious home-improvement projects, but now there’s almost nothing I won’t try. Not long ago I used a tool called a reciprocating saw to cut a big hole in a wall between two rooms. What will I think of next? This is what my wife wants to know.

One problem with being an amateur is that the knowledge one gains in the course of doing something is usually the knowledge one ought to have had before trying it in the first place. I now have a pretty good idea of how to cut a big hole in a wall between two rooms. But when will I get a chance to use my experience? The hole is already in the wall. Filling it up just to cut it properly would be absurd. I could cut a big hole in another wall, but I can’t think of one that isn’t better off as it is.

Except for what I’ve learned by trial and error, most of what I know about doing things to my house I’ve picked up either by reading books or by watching people who know what they’re doing. Unfortunately, even the best books leave out crucial steps, such as the ones that prevent water from spraying all over the ceiling. And people who know what they’re doing usually have to be hired and rarely like to be pestered with idiotic questions. The best way to learn would probably be to become an indentured servant of some kind, but this is no longer feasible.

Recently I’ve discovered another source of home-improvement knowledge: videotapes. A well-made tape can supply nuances that are missing from books and convey a sense of how jobs are actually done by people who actually know how to do them. I never took full advantage of my table saw until I had studied a couple of videotapes and realized that the key to achieving professional results is to strip the tool of all its safety devices, which just get in the way.

THE PROBLEM WITH videotapes is that most of them are awful. Quite a few tapes use actors instead of professionals to demonstrate complicated chores. This raises questions. Should my hammer wobble too? Am I supposed to strip the threads on my screws? In the popular Ortho Video Series (produced by the same company that makes Ortho pesticides) most of the how-to material is “dramatized,” as in this scene from Upgrading Kitchens.”

Man: I suspect we’ll hear Mom’s car pulling up any time now.

Boy: I hope she likes it [her new kitchen window].

Man: Well, after all these years I know her pretty well, Son. I’m sure she will.

To make room for this exchange and others like it, useful information presumably was omitted. The other Ortho tapes have the same problem. Basic Plumbing is pretty good at showing what happens when two actors pretend to share a summer house but not very good at teaching plumbing. The tape makes no mention of copper tubing, which carries the water supply in most people’s houses. Instead, it discusses galvanized steel pipe, which, though seldom used, maybe easier for actors to manipulate. Anyone who tried to do to copper pipe what the actors do to steel pipe–unscrew it–would end up either nowhere or with a huge mess, because virtually all copper-pipe fittings are soldered. (Ortho videotapes are available from Ortho Information Series, 575 Market Street, San Francisco, Calif. 94105.)

Not all tapes that use actors are awful. The Hometime series, which is the basis of the PBS program of the same name, is quite good, even though the narrators are not professional builders. Their hammers wobble occasionally, but for the most part they do a competent job of demonstrating a broad range of home-improvement skills. And they don’t pretend to be married.

Almost any do-it-yourselfer could profit from watching the Hometime tapes. The camera angles are good, and the narrators don’t leave out many important steps. (This is less true of the television programs, which are shortened versions of the tapes.) The only peculiarity is that each tape contains a lengthy plug for Chevrolet, which underwrites the series and, in doing so, keeps down the price of the tapes. I happen to enjoy watching commercials for pickup trucks. If you don’t, you can fast-forward through them.

The Hometime tapes are reasonably thorough. All of them last at least forty minutes and contain very little chit-chat. At the end of the seventy-five-minute Decks I felt I had a good idea of how to add a huge, ugly platform to the back of my house. There are many thoughtful touches. In Common Home Repairs–a useful general reference that provides a good introduction to many of the other tapes–the toilet on which plumbing repairs are demonstrated has a see-through tank, making it easy for a viewer to follow what’s happening. (Is it possible to buy a toilet like that?) In Finish Carpentry, which is primarily concerned with the installation of interior trim, the narrators demonstrate 45-degree cuts on three different miter boxes, indirectly proving why you need to run out and spend several hundred dollars for a power miter saw. (Hometime is at 6213 Bury Drive, Eden Prairie, Minn. 55346.)

Another series of tapes with a television connection is the Hands-On Series, produced by DIY Video (1712 Euclid Avenue, Charlotte, N.C. 28203). This is the same outfit that produces the Do-It-Yourself Show, which appears on the Learning Channel. If you like the show, you’ll probably like the tapes. I don’t.

The Hands-On tapes don’t use actors, but there’s still too much dumb banter and not enough attention to important details. In the already skimpy Plumbing & Electrical tape (just forty-four minutes to cover two difficult subjects) too much footage is devoted to installing an exhaust vent for a clothes dryer, a chore that involves work neither plumbing nor electrical. In Interior Paint & Wallpaper the camera cuts away just when you wish it would zoom in for a close-up, such as during the demonstrations of how to paint straight lines and how to paint a window sash. Roller technique is demonstrated on a ceiling and shot from an angle at which it is difficult to see what’s going on.

Most of the material on most of the Hands-On tapes could have been explained more clearly in a book–a fatal flaw in a videotape. In fact, much of the material is explained more clearly in the booklets that accompany the cassettes.

THE BEST TAPES I’ve come across are the Taunton Press’s Video Workshops. Taunton Press is the publisher of Fine Woodworking and Fine Homebuilding, two excellent magazines aimed at professionals and extremely serious amateurs. Both these magazines make me feel incompetent, but they’re filled with good tips, such as how to make a pair of stilts for dry-wall work (by fastening a pair of old sneakers to the bottoms of two empty joint-compound buckets). They also contain near-pornographic ads for power tools.

Most of the Video Workshops are based on material that originally appeared in the magazines. Some (Carve a Ball-and-Claw Foot, for example) are a trifle exotic for the average do-it-yourselfer, but all are well produced and filled with information. Even if you have no interest in the ostensible subject of the tape, you can pick up a lot of good general information about using tools. And the sound track is Beethoven.

The narrators of the Video Workshops are real craftsmen. What they lack in stage presence they make up for in skill. Frank Klausz, a woodworker who narrates three of the tapes, speaks with a thick European accent (“I tink you pretty goodly get the idea by now”), but this guy really knows what he’s doing. When he dovetails a drawer in Dovetail a Drawer, he makes his cuts freehand.

My favorite Video Workshops are Repairing Furniture and Refinishing Furniture, by Bob Flexner, a professional restorer. Flexner is especially good at showing how misguided attempts to repair furniture can cause more problems than they solve. Using a nail instead of glue to tighten a loose leg on an old chair (as I myself have done) will often destroy the chair, by splitting the wood and ruining the joint (ditto). Flexner shows how to make durable repairs by carefully cleaning out the old joints and applying the proper glue. In many cases the proper glue is nothing more exotic than plain old white Elmer’s. When amateurs have trouble making glue stick, Flexner says, it’s not because they didn’t use strong enough glue but because they didn’t clean away all the old glue first.

Much of what Flexner does is far beyond the ambition of the average person, but even so, the tapes are filled with useful instructions. After watching him demonstrate how to remove a white water ring from a tabletop, I stopped the tape, went downstairs, and used his method (dabbing lightly at the ring with a cloth moistened with alcohol) on a white ring that had been bothering me for months and that I had assumed would be hellishly difficult to remove. The ring disappeared immediately. (You need to be somewhat careful doing this, because alcohol itself can cause white marks in furniture finishes and it dissolves shellac.)

Several of the Video Workshops are intended as accompaniments to full-length books, which are sold separately. These tapes contain on-screen page references. Assuming that you have the inclination and the tools, you can really follow along, step by step. It’s like receiving private lessons from a pro.

One of the book-and-tape sets is Making Kitchen Cabinets, by Paul Levine. Levine has developed a simplified method for making so-called European-style cabinetry, which is the kind of sleek, frameless cabinetry you see in a lot of expensive modern kitchens. I don’t happen to like this style, but watching the tape and reading the book are good ways to learn about cabinet-building in general, as well as about table saws, routers, and the other tools that Levine uses in his work. Many of his techniques can be applied to all sorts of woodworking projects. (The Taunton Press is at 63 South Main Street, Box 355, Newtown, Conn. 06470.)

The Video Workshops notwithstanding, videotapes aimed at a professional audience aren’t necessarily better than those intended for do-it-yourselfers. I was greatly disappointed by two tapes (one on dry-wall and one on painting) produced by the Craftsman Book Company, a publishing and mail-order company that caters to builders. The narrators of both tapes spend a great deal of time staring into the camera and very little time demonstrating technique. Even worse, some of the joint-finishing methods demonstrated in the dry-wall tape are production-line techniques often used by people who want to learn how to do a job fast, not well.

Even if you know what you want, identifying good tapes can be difficult. Ordering from a catalogue is risky, because many catalogues are vague about identification. The fine Hometime series (which lists for $9.95 per tape), for example, is sold through the Craftsman Book Company catalogue and the Leichtung Workshops catalogue, among many others, but is identified in neither. Craftsman inexplicably charges more than 50 percent above list price. The Knowledge Collection, a 400-plus-page listing of instructional videotapes that is sold in bookstores and elsewhere, lists roughly seventy-five home-improvement titles but names the sources of only a few, making it difficult for the buyer to beware. So beware.