How To

The Half-Assed Handyman

Are your screws loose? Is the house falling apart? Call the Half-Assed Handyman! KEVIN GUILFOILE walks us through proper fence gate repair and the best way to fix a lawnmower handle.

It’s going to happen. You and your wife, both young, urban professionals, will trade your North-side loft and on-the-town-Wednesday-through-Sunday-night lifestyle for the garage-and-a-yard, basement-rec-room, soulless womb of an exceptional school district. You will rationalize and apologize to your city-dwelling friends (and swallow some bitter regrets every time you see the chump in the Citrona ad leave the party early), but those suburban Siren twins named Comfort and Security will seduce you in time, and deductible interest on your home loan will soon chase away any doubts.

In the days following your house closing, however, you will probably discover that you know nothing at all about home improvement. Running toilets, broken doorknobs, peeling paint, and faulty water heaters have until now been the landlord’s responsibility.

Well, relax. Just because you’re a homeowner, it doesn’t mean you have to become a DIY expert. Most repairs around the house can be made without any expertise at all, using tools and materials that are already lying about the basement in unopened packages. If you’ve got a project you’ve been putting off for weeks, ‘The Half-Assed Handyman’ is your essential guide to just getting it over with already.

This Week’s Projects: The Busted Lawnmower and the #*@$%!& Leaning Gate

It’s a beautiful morning in the middle of a holiday weekend and we have two projects on our to-do list.

1. The problems with our back-fence gate began last summer when we had to remove it to carry an oversized couch into the house. A month later while mounting it back on its hinges we discovered that half of the original bolt-sized hexagonal screws had been lost in the grass. We searched briefly for them, weaving our hands through the lawn with the anal precision of the sexiest crime-scene investigator, then remembered the Buffy marathon on FX and hastily slapped the gate up without the damn screws. As gravity exerts constant pressure on the improperly mounted hinges, the wood has split and expanded, the screw-holes have doubled in size (causing the remaining bolts to slip), and now the door is two inches off square and won’t shut properly.

2. If we keep the same lawnmower through three or more Austin Powers premieres, the hollow aluminum handle—stressed from years of weekly yanking and pulling and not detouring for that round, metal thing in the causeway that belongs to the damn gas company—will eventually snap off at weak spots where a bolt and wing nut attach the crossbar to the shafts.

In order to get a few more summers from the lawnmower, we have previously tried to fix the breaks with duct tape, but the sharp metal edges cut through the gray tape like a broken beer bottle through a frat boy dancing with your best girl. For a more lasting repair we will construct a pair of makeshift splints to reconnect the handle.

To fix the fence gate, we’ll be filling in the holes with synthetic wood putty from a tube and re-inserting any screws we don’t lose this time around.

First, we’ll need to find the following items: four metal rods, duct tape, synthetic wood putty, a car jack, and a set of socket wrenches. We always have plenty of duct tape, and our in-laws probably gave us a set of socket wrenches for Christmas. (No, I’m pretty sure they did. Do me a favor and look in the garage.) The car jack came free with our car, but it’s unlikely that we have any metal rods just lying around, and we might not have synthetic wood putty, so this job will require a trip to the hardware store.

Before we go let’s write out a list of everything we think we’ll need. Even on the most complicated home improvement projects—ones that can take up to an hour to complete—an organized person shouldn’t have to run out to the hardware store more than three or four times.

At True Value we find the wood putty on a shelf near the caulk, but there is no section marked ‘thin metal rods,’ so we start at one end of the store and walk up and down every aisle. We do not ask for assistance. The clerk has never seen our fence, and with his sweet employee discount he probably buys lawnmowers more often than sandwich meat. What the hell would he know about fixing one?

When we at last find a selection of threaded metal rods it occurs to us that we didn’t measure the length of the lawnmower handle before we left home. No problem: Just purchase four of every size. Although we already have duct tape, we buy a case. We couldn’t find a set of socket wrenches at home, so we make do for now with adjustable pliers. We do not buy socket wrenches. Socket wrenches, like good china, can only be obtained as gifts.

One more thing: While at the hardware store we must resist the temptation to simply buy replacements for the gate’s missing screws. Many people, including our wife, will suggest that this is the proper way to repair the fence. That would mean admitting we made a mistake, however, which we are unwilling to do on principle. Once the Half-Assed Handyman decides on a course of repair he must remain committed to it by fixing the broken object the same way over and over, even though the method is clearly ineffective, or even nonsensical.

Back at home we begin work on the fence first. A good fence is critical to the completion of any half-assed project. Nothing complicates home repair faster than a neighbor who knows what he’s doing. Once in our yard, a handy neighbor can suggest time-consuming techniques that will make the finished product more durable, and he could even offer to lend us the proper tools, many of which require user manuals, electricity, or safety goggles. Yes, if it’s absolutely necessary to work outside, it is very important to have a functioning fence.

The upper hinge is not strong enough to hold the gate by itself, so we place the car jack under the fence to keep the gate at the proper height throughout the procedure. We remove the lower hinge and begin filling the swollen screw holes and split two-by-fours with wood putty. There’s probably a tool suited for this task, but we don’t know what it is so we just smear it in there as best we can with our fingers. We use a stick or a branch to push the goo deeper in the holes and then smear on half-a-tube more. The instructions say that after an hour the putty will dry and be stable enough to hold the screws. While we’re waiting, let’s start work on the lawnmower.

The bolts that once held the handle together might still be necessary, but balance them precariously on a sewer grate for now. We’re going to insert two metal rods into each hollow shaft of the handle with the top ends sticking out at least two inches past the point of the break. This will be the foundation of the splint that will stabilize the handle. Chances are the shorter rods we purchased will be too short, and the longer rods will be too long. We shouldn’t be surprised at this. God knows what these rods are supposed to be used for, but they sure as hell aren’t for fixing lawnmowers.

We could cut the longer rods down to the perfect size, but that would require a saw that cuts metal, which we almost certainly don’t own (our neighbor does, of course, but as we mentioned earlier, asking to borrow tools is can-of-wormsy and, like the vampires on Buffy, once you invite a handy neighbor into your yard, it’s very difficult to keep him out). Remember those bolts and wing nuts we left by the drain? Pick them up and drop them right down the shaft of the handle to fill up some space at the bottom. If the shorter rod still isn’t long enough, look for that box of leftover parts we keep in the basement. It has screws and other metal whatnots that remained in the box when we finished assembling our wine racks and futons and armoires from Ikea. Drop these bits down the handle shaft, one at a time, until the rods rest on top of them at the proper height. Then place the top half of the handle over the protruding rods. Repeat for the other side.

Now check the fence. The putty isn’t dry yet, but we’re getting kind of hot. Enduring another 45 minutes in the sun and soupy air is out of the question, and if we go inside where there’s air-conditioning and golf on TV, we know we’ll never drag our ass back out here to finish it. This is looking like a disaster. Our fence gate will remain forever broken, left open and permanently propped up with a car jack until late in the fall when we’ll hike all the way back from the Stevenson Expressway in the middle of the night and retrieve the jack to fix an actual spare tire.

Suddenly it occurs to us that it might be better to put the screws in while the putty is still soft. Then the putty will harden around the screw and create an even stronger bond. That makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? I mean can you think of a reason why that wouldn’t work? We don’t even need the pliers or whatever because we can just push the two screws into the goo-filled holes without turning them. Congratulations! Our gate is fixed!

All that’s left is to take the duct tape and wrap it around the lawnmower’s broken handle three or four or 50 times. Now throw everything else, including the car jack, into a giant pile on our basement workbench.

Remember where we put that wood putty, however. Our wife is skeptical that those screws will hold. Maybe next Saturday if we mixed some mulch in there with the putty it would give the screws something to bite into. That would work, wouldn’t it? Can you think of any reason why that wouldn’t work?