Are DIY skills becoming a thing of the past?
We lost our DIY skills in the boom when we we got notions and hired people to do things for us
DIY can either save you a packet or see you lose your shirt in a moment of ill-advised drilling. Done well it is both hugely satisfying and financially rewarding but done badly it can be incredibly frustrating and expensive to put right.
Done very, very badly, it can kill you.
With the arrival of spring many people will be looking at tired homes and wondering how they might be able to spruce them up without blowing a fortune or hiring a suddenly in-demand tradesperson to do the job for them. There will be trips to Woodies and Ikea and to paint shops as people seek low-cost ways to make their living spaces prettier by doing it themselves.
The DIY idea as we recognise it today is barely 50 years old
This DIY way is newer than you might think. Emma Muscat is a UK-based social historian with a keen interest in home improvement or at least its evolution and she says the DIY idea as we recognise it today is barely 50 years old.
In the first half of the last century, home transformations were, generally speaking, the preserve of the wealthy, she says. “Decorating your home was an expensive luxury, usually requiring the services of a professional decorator [and] great numbers of people rented their homes and private ownership was far less common.”
Not only that but in the aftermath of the second World War, building materials were in short supply and disposable household income was at an all-time low. “Until the early 1950s, British people still faced an almost daily uphill struggle to cope with austerity measures. Clothes rationing didn’t end until 1949; food in 1954.”
All these things combined meant that interest in home improvement was “virtually nil”, she says.
But then things changed dramatically in the UK with most of the changes mirrored here too. By the end of 1950s, average weekly wages had doubled and income tax rates had fallen. The average cost of a newly built home – which had fewer rooms and a more neutral interior – was about £2,000. People suddenly had cash to spend and – effectively – a blank canvas to spend it on.
The first DIY generation was born. Within a decade baby-boomers were coming of age and they decided their houses were more than just a home but a place to express their personality.
“Paint enabled more freedom to be creative than wallpaper ever could,” Muscat says. People started painting their homes in ridiculous colours and started buying luridly coloured Formica tables to “express their personalities”.
The first two DIY “shed outlets” in the UK opened in the 1960s. First there was WHSmith Do It All and then B&Q. Habitat opened in May, 1964 and promised a total lifestyle package made up of ready-made furnishings, beech furniture, spaghetti jars and back-to-basics rustic living at a hefty price.
Then the DIY dream died. Or at least was badly wounded. Muscat says the 1970s and 1980s were a tough time for DIY but as the 1990s dawned it was back in vogue, for the first time since the latter half of the 1950s. She says TV advertising helped to re-establish its popularity.
But its resurgence was brief.
“In the 1990s, DIY declined once again and as the decade came to a close, the interior of a typical family home was a sea of beige and white decor,” she says
But like a cockroach, DIY was hard to kill and it came back again thanks to the TV makeover shows “which offered members of the public copious ways in which to customise your home, turning it into the palace of your dreams. It didn’t matter how small your living space was, it could be transformed with a few sheets of MDF, a glue gun, some fabric and a pot or two of imaginatively named paints,” Muscat says.
While the Irish experience does not mirror the UK one exactly, there are similarities and, like it, the UK DIY has been on a real rollercoaster in recent decades.
In the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s men – and it was mostly men – stored tools, tools they knew how to use, in sheds and had paint-spattered ladders to hand should anything in their home need addressing with a splash of magnolia.
Then through the dark recession of the 1980s and the boom times of the late 1990s we got notions and we started hiring people to do things for us and DIY became GID – or Get it Done.
People couldn’t be arsed putting 200 screws into something
“There was a massive increase in GID during the boom years” says Ted Laverty from onlinetradesmen.com, a site which puts consumers in contact with those in the trades. “People were getting stuff done that they would have done themselves in the pre-Celtic Tiger era. But with the boom, they just couldn’t be bothered. It was a boom time for painters and decorators and even people who assemble flatpack furniture. People couldn’t be arsed putting 200 screws into something.”
Once the crash came things changed again. And people started doing things for themselves again. Or at least trying to. But, according to Laverty, the passage of time did not see the average person’s DIY skills improve.
“Our parents’ generation in general were really good at DIY but I think over the Celtic Tiger a lot of the skills people had were lost,” he says.
He points to the difficulties experienced by big UK DIY stores such as Homebase which has undergone a massive remodelling and the transformation of Woodies closer to home which has almost completely morphed into a homewares depot and garden centre, with some DIY essentials on the side as signs that the hardcore DIY skills have been lost to us.
Padraig Halligan has seen DIY trends come and go and then come and go again. He has been on the rollercoaster for more than 60 years, since he first started spending time in his dad’s hardware shop in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon in the 1950s. “My dad opened the shop in 1944 and one of my earliest memories is of him cutting sheets of leather to sell to people who used to repair their own shoes,” he says. “But that’s all gone for donkey’s years .”
Like Laverty, he says that many of the skills that people had in years past are gone now but painting is the one thing that people believe they can still do themselves. His shop on main street sells buckets of paint alongside pints of porter – it is one of a dwindling number of hardware shops across the State that still has a licence to sell alcohol.
Laverty says people will always try their hand with DIY but more people are relying on professionals as the economy starts to boom again. “But no matter what, there are a few areas I would urge people to avoid. I would avoid anything to do with the electrics – that’s not changing a plug socket , but we have seen people who have tried to rewire their homes without any idea what they’re doing. In the worst case, that leads to electrocution. We also see people trying to do attic conversions without paying any attention to the weight which can lead to ceilings collapsing and then, of course, there is plumbing. Plumbing should only ever be done by a plumber. If that goes wrong, it can be a nightmare.”