In vogue: women manning the toolbox

When Karen Dale Dustman says she gets a "little charge" every time she installs a new light switch, she's talking about exhilaration, not electrocution.

The author of "The Woman's Fix-It Book: Incredibly Simple Weekend Projects & Everyday Home Repair" (Chandler House Press), Ms. Dustman grew up in a home where the family tool kit consisted of a hammer and a couple of screwdrivers.

"For anyone to pick up one of those tools was kind of a major event," she relates.

Dustman shares this to explain a sea change she and other women are experiencing as they head to home-improvement stores, not simply in search of thumb tacks and shelf paper, but hammers, insulation, and lumber. Call it empowerment via power tools.

Or by pliers, since in Dustman's book - designed to appeal to women with a glossary, less technical drawings, and scattered tips and cautions - the emphasis is on imparting basic skills, such as replacing washers, not whole new faucets.

For the book's second and third printings, a starburst on the cover states, "Easy to use for men too." Targeting female readers, though, makes increasingly good sense.

The National Retail Hardware Association reports that nearly half of home-improvement purchases are made by women. In an Owens Corning company survey, almost 75 percent of the women said they are as good as men at home improvements.

Dustman says her own conversion to competent tool wielder was a matter of necessity. During the 1980s she owned run-down rental properties in Los Angeles.

A lawyer by day, she got a crash course in home repairs at night and on weekends by talking with trade professionals and watching over a friend's shoulder.

Despite obtuse technical drawings found in construction tomes, she discovered that household repairs aren't rocket science.

"You needn't have learned any of it at your father's - or mother's knee," she concluded. "You can acquire what you need to know project by project."

She furthered her education by helping to build a couple of homes, doing electrical work, laying tile, and tackling much of the finish carpentry with her husband. She doesn't claim to be an expert the way a full-time contractor is, but when something happens she says she doesn't wait for her husband to take care of it.

"Even if it's something as simple as going out and turning off the water to make sure there is no flood, that's a comfort," she says. To this end, she devotes a whole chapter to coping with household emergencies and hazards.

"It probably takes years before you can tackle anything and everything," she says, "but some of the more introductory projects, something like changing a dimmer switch, you can do it once or twice and feel comfortable."

Surveys show that women today are more willing to ask for help or direction than men, are more patient, more detail-oriented, better at researching projects, and more fiscally conservative.

"Sure, some women are only going to the wallpaper section," Dustman says, "but they're having a large input, even if it's only in the selection of materials for the project. They're more involved in the decisionmaking than they used to be."

A good way to increase one's fix-it abilities, Dustman says, is to find a friend who is tackling a major remodeling project. "Hang out and watch what they are doing," she suggests.

Another strategy is to ask questions when repair people or contractors visit your home. "If you don't intrude too badly, they usually don't mind."

Asked if she has any favorite tools, Dustman mentions two: a cordless, variable-speed driver-drill and a 4-inch hacksaw. The saw, she says, is handy for everything from cutting toilet bolts to vinyl blinds.

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