Building Do-It-Yourself Construction and Maintenance Skills


What You Need to Know.. 1

Sources of Information. 1

Electrical Wiring References. 2

Gas Piping References. 2

Designing and Building Larger Structures. 2


What You Need to Know

There are 2 areas to cover when doing this - first getting the knowledge, and then getting the experience. Of course after getting some experience, you better understand what you don’t know. This starts a learning cycle that lasts until you quit.


For example, there are a lot of things like pouring concrete slabs that are pretty basic, but there is a knack to doing it well, and if you do it wrong, you end up with a big ugly unusable rock where you wanted to put something else. Also, there are little things you don’t want to overlook that have a big effect on the durability of the slab.


Besides pouring concrete, there are many skills needed for self-reliance that are too expensive to learn on a trial and error basis. Many intentional communities have programs where you come and help them, and you get to learn in the process. They aren’t likely to be experts, but you will be learning something, and any mistakes made will be their responsibility on their budget. Even if it seems to work, be careful about taking anything you see as the absolute truth. A lot of safety and reliability issues take quite a while to show up.


Even if they are doing something wrong, getting the chance to become more familiar with the processes and how it feels to handle the materials is a very valuable opportunity. Watching how expensive mistakes are made is in some ways even more useful that watching it done the right way. In the long run you need both, knowing what mistakes to avoid and knowing how to do it right.


These comments are based on a lifetime of being a do-it-yourselfer and having done construction work while going to college. I have hundreds of books and have learned lots from them, but there are some things a book can’t teach you like how hard you pull just before a bolt snaps or how heavy a shovel of concrete is and how fast it sets up when you thought you had lots of time.


Sources of Information

These organizations are great sources of books for building your self-reliance skills:

Home Power

Fellowship for Intentional Community http://fic.ic.orgc

Real Goods


If you are starting from scratch in this area, most of the retail “we supply everything” building supply stores have a rack of books up front to get do-it-yourselfers started on a successful path. Some of the books are really great for people with no previous knowledge in this area. They have pictures and descriptions of the tools, and then more pictures showing the tools in use and descriptions of how to use them.


The building supply stores will have books that include information on really basic electrical repair projects, but not how to correctly design wiring systems. They oversimplify some of their information, and aren’t clear as to where their information doesn’t apply. There is an implicit assumption that their instructions will be applied to a standard house. So this information isn’t adequate for homesteaders.


There are a couple areas of knowledge that are commonly needed that are difficult to find information on. They fall into the general category of technology which can cause extensive damage to people and buildings when small mistakes are made. This includes wiring buildings and farms and running piping for natural or propane gas.


Electrical Wiring References

I would totally rely on the electrical books on this web site

They are up to their 40th edition. It used to be carried in all of the hardware stores, but is now considered “too technical” to be salable. All it takes is work to learn and the discipline to always follow the rules and double-check your work. Resist the dumbing down of America - buy this book, and put it to use.


Gas Piping References

People writing home repair books really avoid supplying information on piping for gas, some won’t even tell you how to replace the gas hot water heater, and just say “call a professional”. This is because of how catastrophic accidents can be with gas, and the risk of court suits when people look around for somebody to blame.


Propane is more dangerous than natural gas because natural gas is lighter than air, so it rises and tends to dissipate (if there is open ventilation). Propane is heavier than air, so it flows into bilges, basements, or other depressions, and waits for a spark so it can explode. It can be done so it is very safe, but there is no room for mistakes.


The Canadian Copper & Brass Development Association wants you to use copper pipe, and so has some great Adobe Acrobat files on using copper pipe for natural gas and propane. Copper pipe has always been used for propane, so this isn’t a new idea. Natural gas got started on iron pipe before quality copper pipe was available, and so as usual for the construction industry; there is a huge delay in adopting newer technology.


The National Propane Gas Association has an operations manual and training materials for people who will be working with propane. There web site isn’t very user friendly, and they charge double for books for nonmembers, but I haven’t found any other source of comprehensive information in this area.


Designing and Building Larger Structures

While it is true that you need calculus to safely design skyscrapers or bridges that flow through the air like a ribbon, most work is far less complex than this. Even the experts use tables to save time.


The wiring and plumbing books have tables that tell you how much flow you get for a certain size over a certain distance.


Same thing for structural concrete, steel, and timber - if you want to build a 20 foot bridge across a stream, there are tables describing the load that different structural elements can carry for projects of that scale.


For any major technology, there is always an association supporting the professional use of that technology, and they supply reference books to support this effort. These reference books always have lots of formulas, and lots of tables to avoid the formulas except special cases.


The web is making it lots easier to locate these organizations and their reference books. The other route is to go to a major university library, find trade journals, and look through those for ads for related associations.


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