This article was initially published in the 2nd-quarter 2019 edition of Personal Finance magazine.
As the economy seesaws and budgets tighten, South Africans are exploring more affordable ways of doing things – and in some cases, this means taking on do-it-yourself projects that would previously have been left to the professionals, or repurposing discarded items. Alan Duggan talks to self-help gurus and neophytes who are making it work for them.
Kevin Thorpe is a self-employed IT professional with a mild disdain for corporate workspaces and a firm belief in the core tenets of DIY, one of which requires a willingness to tackle just about anything.
What he really cares about is using his brain and hands to build stuff, fix things and repurpose unwanted items of every conceivable description. Scavenging everywhere from online auction rooms to municipal dumps, from garage sales to the beach near his home, he pounces on unrecognised treasures with almost palpable satisfaction. His passion for DIY has saved him rather a lot of money and provided him with a comfortable home that bristles with his own projects.
He was an early adopter, recalls Thorpe. He said, "At the age of seven, I would cycle to the local municipal dump in Sandton to scavenge for interesting stuff and almost always find something". He cites a discarded petrol engine-driven lawn mower that he quickly repurposed to drive his brother’s go-kart: All it needed was a spark plug and petrol.
"I found it amazing that people would throw away things simply because they couldn’t be bothered to find out what was wrong with them. In many cases, the problem was nothing more than a blown fuse. Washing machines were a favourite. I used to strip old machines, extract their water pumps and use them elsewhere," said Thorpe.
He added, "In fact, I had a little business going while I was at school. I would fix neighbours’ broken toasters for R1 a time, and once I resuscitated a WW2-era shortwave valve radio. It had no valves in it, but I just happened to have a few valves that I had recovered earlier from the same dump and managed to get it working. I got R50 for it at an auction, at a time when my pocket money was only R5 a month".
He’s entirely self-taught, said Thorpe, having employed an occasionally risky strategy of trial-and-error in acquiring his woodwork, plumbing, construction, electrical and other skills. One of his projects was a "fire-starter" that used a heating element from an old toaster.
"There were a few explosions and lots of experiments that failed, and I had to survive quite a few shocks before I acquired a working knowledge of electricity," said Thorpe.
His passion for recycling and repurposing hasn’t waned over the years; if anything, it has intensified. Items that may have escaped his notice are occasionally identified by an informal network of “informers” who know what gets him excited.
Anyone who’s interested in recycling needs to be alert to opportunities, said Thorpe. He recalls the day he spotted a bakkie parked at the roadside with a load of tree branches in the back, as well as two Victorian ceramic washing troughs. "I bought them for R50 each and later sold them on Gumtree for R2 500 apiece," said Thorpe.
Serious savings, the DIY way
Thorpe's sprawling property in Milnerton, Cape Town, offers an excellent example of how much money can be saved by going the DIY route. For instance, the Thorpes were quoted R150 000 for the construction of a small indoor pool – necessitated by the windy conditions in his part of town, explains Thorpe. He said, "Instead, we did it ourselves, working over 19 weekends, for a total outlay of R45 000 – and that included two pumps, auto level control, a waterfall feature and solar panels for pool heating".
A smaller but no less satisfying home project involved a staircase – by all accounts, not an easy task for the uninitiated because one needs to carefully calculate the "rise", tread length, number of steps, required headroom and other variables.
Thorpe said: "We were quoted R25 000 to R30 000 to build a nasty pine staircase, so once again, we decided to tackle it ourselves. Five or six weekends later, we had a beautiful Oregon pine staircase, completed at a cost of no more than R3 000, including the cost of installing hidden LED strip lighting and cleaning the wood plus five coats of varnish".
His current project is a kitchen "refresh" at home, using recycled wood wherever possible and employing separate drainage systems to take advantage of his home’s complex but efficient underground storage and greywater systems.
The IT professional is also a realist. Thorpe said, "Some things are designed not to be fixed, and this applies to many small appliances. They come with tamper-proof screws that require special tools to remove, but then again, when you’ve spent only R150 on a kettle, is it really worth devoting an hour or more to fixing it?.
Careful money management is essential, said Thorpe, and here he gives credit to his wife, Coral. "She’s a shrewd accountant, and manages our finances in such a way that there are no nasty surprises. There are envelopes containing funds for all our expenses, including a holiday fund, weekend fund, general fund and even a housekeeper’s Christmas bonus fund, and each envelope has something put into it every month," said Thorpe.
Not all of Thorpe’s projects have a practical outcome. Back in 2010, for instance, when Soccer World Cup fever was intense and the ubiquitous vuvuzela dominated our every waking hour, he built his own "super-vuvuzela" using a ship’s foghorn powered by a Sodastream canister filled with compressed air.
The resulting blast of sound made conventional vuvuzelas sound almost apologetic and was reported to send minibus taxi drivers fleeing into other lanes. "That was very satisfying," recalls Thorpe.
It all started with dad
Felicity Collen is a home renovator, spending most of her working day sourcing materials, poring over measurements, working out costs … and getting dirty and paint-spattered with a team that appears to work like the proverbial well-oiled machine.
Her can-do approach dates from her childhood. She said, "I grew up with a father who had wanted a son. My dad was an electrical engineer who loved fixing cars, and I did everything with him. We made built-in cupboards, worked on cars, mowed the lawn, pruned trees and worked together on all kinds of other projects. At five years old, I was in the motor pit, handing him the right spanners at the right time for the job. In fact, I knew about spanners long before I knew what an egg-whisk was".
Self-sufficiency comes naturally to Felicity. Until recently, she regularly travelled from her home in Cape Town to her family’s farming community near Douglas in the Northern Cape, where she earned useful money by doing contract baling, driving a "monstrous" New Holland Bigpack tractor-trailer combination. It’s a complex job: an onboard computer monitors everything from the crop’s moisture content to the compaction pressure, the baling twine and other critical factors.
"We would bale through the night, get back to the farm at five in the morning, have a whisky at the kitchen door and watch the sunrise. It was awesome," said Collen.
Felicity’s family refers to her as "Frugal Filly", she said wryly. "If I’m visiting the farm and an animal has been shot, I’ll use every part of that animal. I’ll cut steaks, chunks for kebabs, goulash, mincemeat … for me, that’s ethical. Even the bones can be cooked for a stew or stock. I could never shoot an animal, but I will respect it," said Thorpe.
Felicity is married to Alex Holgate, a goldsmith by profession and relentless explorer of DIY projects during his free time. As a schoolboy, Alex worked on a construction site, where he pushed a wheelbarrow, picked up useful welding and plumbing skills, and generally built up an appetite for doing things himself. That inclination never went away: "Today, if I see something that’s broken, I want to see if I can fix it. For instance, when the heated grip on my BMW motorcycle stopped working, I went on to YouTube and learnt what to do," said Collen.
She added "Years ago, our bakkie’s alternator stopped working – the brushes needed replacing – and when we contacted the dealership, they said they didn’t do that sort of thing, instead quoting us R5 000-plus for a new alternator".
That wasn’t acceptable to the can-do couple, who promptly decided to do the job themselves. Felicity conducted a little research and managed to buy a replacement brushes kit for the magnificent sum of R25. The people at the shop were so amazed to see a woman taking this on that they gave me all the information I needed
"I took the brushes home, and Alex and I spend half a day in the dirt and grease doing the job. When the alternator was reinstalled and worked perfectly, the feeling of triumph was amazing," said Collen.
Collen observed: "We live in a culture where things are disposable. If something breaks, you just throw it away. People don’t try to fix or repurpose things any more, which doesn’t make sense. Often it takes no more than a little effort and a small sum of money. I’m not sure how much we’ve saved over the years by doing things for ourselves, but it must run into the hundreds of thousands".
Felicity recalls the time she renovated a kitchen for a client, and the client wanted to get rid of a dishwasher because it was malfunctioning. Armed with a go-for-it attitude and a little help from YouTube, the couple repaired a plastic mechanism that was stopping the dishwasher door from closing properly. Collen recalled: "For an outlay of R18, we ended up with a perfectly functional dishwasher. Instead of running 20 litres of water into the sink each day, we reduced our usage quite dramatically".
She renovated her entire kitchen herself, she says, using cast-off wood for shelving and casting concrete counter-tops in their driveway. "I did the job with the help of two staff members during a quiet time because we definitely could not afford to pay other people to do it for us," said Collen.
Felicity said she hasn’t stopped learning, and many of her projects equip her with new knowledge and skills that can be applied elsewhere. Aside from her work on kitchens, bathrooms and other home renovation projects, she’s become something of an expert on Victorian-styled braais, which require specialised knowledge of chimney proportions, lips, smoke collection chambers and similarly arcane matters.
"I love what I do, and I’ve lost any sense of vanity, so I’m quite happy to visit the mall in paint-spattered jeans. In fact, I would quite happily paint in Versace," said Collen.
Any advice for wannabe DIYers?
Never accept it when someone tells you something can’t be done or made. There is always a way, even if you need to compromise on some aspects. Take a calm, measured approach, research the requirements, plan everything carefully, and if at the end you admit that you are not comfortable doing certain jobs, bring in someone skilled to do the brutal work for you.
For the record, stingy is good
Etienne le Roux, a retired accountant and ardent DIY practitioner, said that he tackled his first "serious" project within days of leaving his job. Deciding that the front of his house needed extra security, he sought quotes for 10 metres of galvanised steel palisade fencing that could be attached to the existing low wall.
"The most reasonable quote I received was R600 a metre, not including labour, which added about R300 a metre to the cost. That was more than I could afford, so I turned to Gumtree and other online sources, and managed to find 12 metres of fencing for R3 000. I located a few surplus poles for the uprights, drilled a few holes, did a bit of welding, and completed the job myself, saving about R5 500," said le Roux.
His next project was the replacement of an entire wooden floor in a grandson’s bedroom; it had to go because it was infested with beetles. “I was quoted R8 600 for a new pine floor, including new joists, but because I’m stingy, I thought I should try to get it done more cheaply.
He said, "It took one visit to the local municipal drop-off, where someone had dumped a bakkie-load of tongue-and-groove pine floorboards. I bought the lot for R600, invested another R1 220 in new joists, skirting boards and accessories, and did the job myself at a cost of R1 880. Total saving: R6 720".
He concedes that his quoted savings on DIY jobs do not include what he spent on various hand tools and power tools needed to do the work, but points out that these are once-off costs that should be spread over many projects. His advice to newbie DIY types is to borrow or hire power tools whenever possible before deciding what’s needed for the home workshop: "You may find that you don’t actually need a cut-off saw or a router. However, I would say that you need a good drill – a hammer or percussion type is more expensive but very useful for tougher jobs – and a selection of quality drill bits at the very least, and I would highly recommend an angle grinder fitted with a cutting disc. Hacksaws are old-school, and hard work," said le Roux.
Learning the basics of arc welding would also be a good idea, said le Roux. "I’ve made so many useful items with my welder that I’ve lost count. Buy an auto-darkening helmet and don’t even think of starting before your eyes are protected. I’ve had ‘arc eyes’ on two occasions, and it feels like someone is dragging sandpaper across your eyeballs," he said.
He is flabbergasted by some people’s casual attitude towards electricity. "I recently visited a friend who fancies himself as a DIY guy and couldn’t believe what I saw. He had rigged up an extension lead from his kitchen to his garage, about seven or eight metres away, using ordinary flex of the kind you find on table lamps, and was planning to use it for heavy duty power tools! I read him the riot act," said le Roux.
In defence of YouTube
Port Elizabeth marketing manager (and occasional freelance writer) Gary van Rensburg is an ardent DIY practitioner who reckons he has saved "many thousands of rands" over the years by doing things himself. His conversion to the DIY mindset occurred when his wife dared him to install "floating" shelves in their kitchen.
Needing some practical advice, he called on an easily accessible resource: YouTube. Gary waxes eloquent on the wealth of material available on the video channel. "Some critics regard YouTube as a digital hellhole populated by people who don’t have a life, but it has much more to offer. If you ignore the stupid pranks, endless cat videos and weird people doing weird stuff, you’ll find a treasure house of instructional videos," said van Rensburg.
A case in point: the electric window-winding mechanism in the family’s ageing Renault stopped working. Rather than spend the quoted R3 000 to have it repaired by the dealership, Gary decided to do the job himself. He said, "Within a matter of minutes, I managed to locate a step-by-step video that allowed me to carry out the repair in less than an hour". Total cash outlay: zero.
He said, "When a relay on the same window packed up a few months later, I again resorted to YouTube in the hope of locating a wiring diagram for a DPDT (double pole double throw) switch. Once again, I found a video that explained it in such a way that anyone could understand, and this time it cost me just R32 for the components I needed. The fact that the switch stuck in the open position and burned out the motor soon afterwards didn’t dampen my enthusiasm".
Over the years, said van Rensburg, he has returned to the popular video channel many times in search of practical advice, and has rarely been disappointed.
Among his more successful projects, completed with the help of YouTube are an A-frame DIY clothing rail from wood scraps (acquired from the local dump for R20) and a multi-level braai stand for his annual seaside getaway (about R80 for a length of steel bar, against R160 for a similar item from an outdoor equipment store). Works in progress include a log-splitter and a firewood stand for his cast-iron fireplace.
He said, "I’m not claiming that my DIY projects are works of art, but they do the job. My message to anyone who’s cash-strapped and offended by rising prices: try to make it or fix it yourself. You have nothing to lose, and if it works, you’ll feel extremely proud of yourself".
DIY 101: think it through
Plan ahead. Spontaneity can be fun, but not when it comes to DIY. According to the experts, a degree of forward planning is essential to the success of your project, and this involves everything from taking careful measurements to ensuring you have the right tools and equipment at hand. Think about even a simple job such as hanging a picture on the wall: you may need a ladder, drill and masonry bit, extension lead, wall plug, a hammer to drive in the wall plug, and a hook or screw for hanging the picture.
Budget for the job before you start. One DIY enthusiast found out the hard way that going it alone could end up costing a bomb: "I wanted to make a simple but sturdy dress rail from pipes, using flanges and elbow joints. In the end, it cost me R450 for the materials alone, when I could have bought a perfectly good dress rail online for R350," said Thorpe.
Evidence suggests that all too many people ignore even the most basic safety procedures when tackling DIY projects – and the results are sometimes quite messy. One expert said, "If you buy a table saw, an angle grinder, a chainsaw or any other power tool, read the instructions before you use it. Gloves, safety goggles and face masks may be cumbersome, but they are cheap and readily available, so use them! You don’t want to lose an eye or finger, or choke on noxious fumes. And don’t wear loose clothing that might be caught by a saw blade".
If you are working with electricity, always assume a plug or cable could be live. Unless you are a qualified electrician, do not attempt to rewire a wall plug or mess with the distribution board. In fact, you’ll find that most electrical work is prohibited by regulations, and for good reason. This is one time you’ll have to call in the pros. The same applies to working with gas: there are strict rules that determine how and where gas cylinders should be stored, the type and location of piping, and so on.
When it comes to plumbing, make sure you know where to turn off the water main before unscrewing anything. Many plumbing projects are within the capability of amateurs, but there will come a time when you have to concede defeat, and this usually involves hot-water cylinders.
If you’re stickler for straight lines and symmetry, use a spirit level (or, if you can afford it, a laser level). Skew lines are known to upset spouses.
If you’re welding, make sure there are no children nearby who might stare at the arc and damage their eyes.
If you’re using a knife, chisel or any other sharp instrument, always cut away from you.
Before drilling into walls, make sure you don’t penetrate electrical conduits or hidden water pipes, and don’t mess with retaining walls.
Make sure you are working in a properly ventilated space. If it’s your garage, keep the doors and windows open, and if you’re using paint stripper or similarly nasty chemicals, be sure to wear a mask and ensure there is good ventilation, perhaps via an extractor fan.
Don’t rush the job. This is when many accidents happen, says one expert. “Here’s a common scenario: you decide to quickly drill another hole or hammer a nail without making sure you are safely positioned on the ladder, you lean too far, and down you go.”
Safety first: of ladders, life and limb
Ladders are extremely useful, even essential, additions to the DIY toolkit. They can also be extremely dangerous. Thousands of South Africans are injured every year, often very seriously, in falls from ladders; some of the victims die.
Many of these accidents occur because, in the candid assessment of one DIY enthusiast “people are stupid – I know of people who fell and hurt themselves when they leaned too far, apparently trying to defeat gravity, instead of moving the ladder half a metre.
"Then there are those who stand on the top of the ladder, where they have no business to be, and those who place the ladder on top of a box to gain extra height. I’ve even heard of people using ladders two at a time, and people who stand ladders almost vertically against walls, then get a shock when it topples backwards. It’s madness," said Thorpe.
Useful online resources
Instructables.com: a vast resource covering anything and everything from complex tech projects to useful (and potentially lucrative) crafts, woodwork, home improvement ideas … even cooking skills.
Makezine.com: another amazingly useful site that provides detailed instructions for making, fixing and repurposing just about anything.
iFixit.com: aimed primarily at electronics (think phones, computers and the like), this site delivers tons of practical tips for repairing your favourite gadgets.
Wikihow.com: this one has been around for a long time, which explains why you can access nearly 200 000 how-to articles that will steer you through the DIY quicksand (also available via Apple and Android apps).