Friday, October 9, 2009


A number of people on the apartment therapy website, where my living room is currently on view have been asking about the newspaper thingy in the living room. I thought about making a how-to post, (and that will come soon!), but planning that out got me to thinking more generally about my penchant for DIY projects. I've always loved to make things, and I've learned through a lot of trial and error about what makes a successful DIY project, and when you should just go ready-made, so I thought I'd share my insights.

As a general rule, I like my crafts functional and pragmatic. I'm not doing it to fill time: I want to make something cool! (or useful, or pretty, or whatever.) If the outcome of the project has any importance for you, there are three main factors you need to take into account: money, time, and awesomeness. There's no rule for how much each matters to making a project worthwhile: it will vary by person, type and size of project, how much time you have on your hands, etc. But if you don't consider each of these factors, you will most likely be frustrated or disappointed with your finished product, or you may not finish at all.

Allow me to explain. First, take money. A lovely myth about doing stuff yourself is that it will save you money. If you only buy hand-made goods, made in America, by people earning a middle-class income, this is definitely true. However, I can assure you that if money is your sole concern, 9 times out of 10, buying something from Target will be cheaper than jerry-rigging your own. Economies of scale are not working in favor of your little cottage industry. Most raw materials available in consumer-sized quantities are marked up as much, if not more than, the same items sold as part of a finished manufactured piece (hence the existence of ikea hacker). Also, you need to think about the cost of ALL your materials before you begin. If you're refinishing a $5 chair from Goodwill, you are not getting a $5 chair. The supplies you use to refinish it might run you another twenty to fifty bucks: would you have rather bought something else for that price?

Next is time. When you embark on a project, assume it will take anywhere from 2-5 times as long as you think it will. The larger your estimate, the larger your multiplier should be. And as with the money consideration, if you are doing it yourself because the ready-made version seems so easy that you'd be better off making your own, think about how much you will enjoy working on this project, if there are other things you'd rather spend your time on, and how much your time is worth. I am as guilty as anyone of not considering the value of my time (either in monetary terms or in opportunity cost of putting off other things): this may be the element people think about least when undertaking a DIY project. Time is the stuff life is made of. If you don't want to spend the next month in the company of an air compressor and a staple gun, then perhaps you should rethink your supposed week-long reupholstery project. (ahem.)

Lastly, and somewhat more positively, is awesomeness. I mean this very generally to mean any positive attributes of the project, as well as the projected outcome. Perhaps you cannot buy anything like this anywhere, or maybe it will be the prettiest, coolest thing ever: go for it! Maybe you so enjoy the zen-like activity of sanding wood that the 95 hours you spend sanding that dresser will be the happiest hours of your life, and the finished dresser will be just a bonus on top of that experience. Perhaps you want to learn the process of screenprinting, so the mistakes, time and money are part of the cost of this learning process. Or maybe it's a gift for someone special. Whatever your reasons, consider the positive aspects and benefits of your project. But also be realistic about the finished product. Know your skill and commitment level: I used to be terrible about buying vintage clothing that was the wrong size. I'd rationalize the purchase because of the low price and tell myself I'd alter it. But more often than not, it either didn't turn out as expected, or worse, I never got around to alteration. A $5 shirt is not a bargain if it just sits in a bin somewhere. And you'll feel guilty every time you look at it until you're finally honest with yourself and throw it out. So understand the benefits of your project, but know your limitations as well.

So, be realistic. About the cost, the time, and the likely outcome. The more honest you can be with yourself about these things, the more pleased you'll be with your handmade goods. Happy crafting!