DIY by Your Lonesome: Tips for the Solo Do-It-Yourselfer

These tips aren’t for DIY house building – I don’t have any experience with that ;), but rather those tasks many of us women and beginner DIYer may tackle in the course of fixing up and decorating our homes.

Things like building furniture, installing cabinets, wainscoting and molding, painting, and hanging chandeliers or fans.


Have a cell phone on you (on your body!) in case you get hurt working alone.  Let someone know what you are doing and agree to call in periodically (every 2 hours or so).  Make sure you both understand what should be done if the call is overdue (such as having them check in on you).

You should always wear and use personal protective equipment (goggles, face mask, gloves, hair tied back), but this is especially true when you are alone – reduce your risk of getting hurt as much as possible.

Use safe work practices. Do not remove the blade guard from your saw.  Have an emergency safety off switch for your table saw.  Turn off your tools when making adjustments.   I will post more on power tool safety for beginners in a future post.

If you are using a particularly dangerous power tool (like a table saw or nail gun) it is not advisable to work alone. I also do not do electrical work, or work at heights alone ever.  I am often doing the work myself, but am not by myself… my husband and kids are usually within earshot.

Large, Ungainly and Heavy Items

When working with sheet goods (a 3/4” MDF panel can weight over 80 pounds), I am especially in need of that extra pair of hands – particularly if they are strong.

When I need to work with this heavy material alone, I try to break it down into more manageable pieces.  Get the sheet cut to the sizes you need or roughly a little bigger for finish cutting at home.  I get the guys at my hardware store to cut my MDF into 4 12” wide boards, 8’ long.  This works great for my bookcase – I take the boards home (now only 20 pounds each and easy to carry), and rip them to the 11” width and whatever height that I want.  

If you don’t want to have your large sheet of plywood or MDF cut in the store, there are special-purpose tools that you can buy to help you out.  These are great for moving some things, but not a piano, by yourself.  But be careful not to overextend yourself.  Getting help is better than getting hurt.


Use clamps on the edge of your plywood, MDF or particle board.  They are much easier to grasp than the edge of the board.  Together with a panel carry handle, I can move a medium weight sheet of plywood or beadboard by myself.

Use a handtruck or dolly to move your large item.  Below is a dolly specifically made for moving sheet goods.

For those who will frequently move heavy panels of plywood or install drywall by themselves, a good investment is a panel lift hoist.

Panel Dolly Panel Carry Handle Panel Lift Hoist


The end of the tape measure can be clamped into place when you don’t have a helper to hold it for you.

A folding ruler, or a metal or wooden measuring stick are better when clamping your measuring tape in place is not an option.  They are easier to use on walls, ceilings or open spaces, and make useful straightedges too.  You can even make your own. For other difficult applications or for making your own measuring tape, try adhesive measuring tape.

Finally, if you have the moolah for it, a laser measuring device is the coolest toy in the sandbox.

Measuring Stick My Vintage Folding Ruler Adhesive Measuring Tape Laser Measure


A roller stand in front of a table saw makes it easier to feed longer pieces of wood across the saw when working alone.  These vary in price from tens to hundreds of dollars.  An outfeed setup is important for those large sheet goods also.  These can also be bought.

I use a simple homemade table resting on adjustable height sawhorses to hold long boards or sheets of MDF prior and during cutting, and a store-bought folding table to catch the saw’s outfeed.  The only problem here is that the wood doesn’t easily roll on the infeed side, but I may build a simple attachment with rolling PVC pipe to solve that problem.

Roller Stand Outfeed Attachment My In- and Out-feed Tables

Assembly and Fastening

There are lots of different kids of clamps.  They can help hold a project together for you, giving you plenty of time to fasten it with nails or screws.  I love my quick-clamp bar clamps, they slide quickly to adjust, much faster than turning the bolt on a C-clamp, and are tightened with a squeeze.  

Even if you don’t work alone, it is in your best interest to become familiar with the variety of useful clamps available to the beginner DIYer.

Another must-have for the solo DIYer is a tool belt.  For example, when you are holding a French cleat board against the wall (in order to hang a headboard or cabinet), you just need to grab your drill from the tool belt holster, drill your pilot hole, put the drill back, grab a nail and your hammer (again from the tool belt) and fasten that board in place. 

If you are building with nails and don’t need or want to drill pilot holes, start your nail before you pick up the board. 

Nail Guns and Screw Guns
Or invest in a quality pneumatic nail gun (they can be operated with one hand) that will shoot multiple nail sizes.  The screw gun is the comparable device for auto-feeding screws from a clip to screw items together one-handed.

Quick Clamp Screw Gun Toolbelt

Holding in Place

Don’t underestimate the power of sawhorses (especially with the additional help of clamps and vises) for helping you hold your projects in place while you work.

Here’s a cool trick to use when installing crown molding by yourself.  Use a nail in the wall near the ceiling to help hold the far end of your molding in place while you attach the near end.  When you are done, just remove and fill the nail hole.

Of course, you can also buy and use some of the new products available to help with this (see below).
Crown Molding Clips slip easily on and off of a nail hidden behind the molding
Little Green Suckers suction to the wall to hold up your molding (requires air compressor) 3rd Hand adjustable jack and brace for molding, cabinets, plastic sheeting, ceiling materials, flooring…

Another tool that will support a cabinet or light fixture while you work, is a “3rd Hand”, basically an adjustable jack, brace, or clamp.  Make sure you get one that will be able to support the weight of your item, as they usually support up to 70 pounds.  These can also be used to hold down flooring while the glue dries, or holding up a makeshift plastic tent while spray painting.  One of these can help with crown molding, but a few 2x4s would work too.

Finally, if you want or need to do “major construction” work alone, the resource for you is Working Alone by John Carroll.

Anyone out there regularly do DIY by themselves?  Got any pointers?

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1 Response
  1. if you are using a power tool always wear safety gear. And only buy an authentic tool from a trusted store - like United Tools Clayton

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