Home & Garden

A Rude Survey of Local Hardware Resources

By Jane Powell
Thursday October 16, 2008 - 10:12:00 AM

Matt Cantor’s recent survey of local hardware resources, which I agree with entirely, got me thinking about how much I love hardware stores. I even have a copy of The Periodic Table of Hardware (and you can too, for a mere $11.95 at www.thisandthat.com/periodictable.htm—not only is it printed on an excellent pegboard background, but you’ll be supporting a local artist as well).  

I suspect my love of the hardware store goes back to accompanying my father to Vonnegut’s Hardware in Indianapolis, where we lived before moving to California. Yes, the very hardware store owned by Kurt Vonnegut’s parents. Usually we were going to Vonnegut’s to use the tube tester, a device which all hardware stores had in the days before circuit boards. Unlike modern electronics, which can’t be repaired by normal humans and are built to be thrown away when they break, it used to be that if your TV, radio, or stereo broke, you simply opened up the back, removed the vacuum tubes, and took them down to the tube tester at the hardware store. The tester told you which one was bad, you bought a new one, took it home and plugged it in, and presto!—your TV or whatever was functional again.  

Occasionally we bought other things too—nails, screws, doohickeys, thingamabobs, or whatchamacallits, bringing them home in small brown paper bags to my father’s workbench in the basement. I was lucky, because there were no boys in my family. My father had no one to teach his fixit skills to except us girls. So he did. By the time I was 8 I knew how to stop the toilet from running, how to fix flat tires on my bike, and other useful skills. When I was 10 I built a skateboard by nailing my old keyed roller skates to a piece of wood. I know I’m dating myself here—this was 1962, way before fancy skateboards or polyurethane wheels.  

So I started out way ahead of most women who were not taught these things. But even for women who have these skills, the playing field at the hardware store and the lumber yard in particular is still not as level as it might be, though it’s WAY better than it used to be. And for that, we may have to thank the dreaded home centers—H.D. and their ilk. Because their service is nearly non-existent regardless of your gender. There is a certain freedom in that, at least provided you are strong enough to lift a sheet of drywall onto the cart by yourself. But they did figure out on some level that their customers are not just men. 

Back before home centers, women often had the experience of being completely invisible at the lumber yard, and only partly visible at the hardware store. That is less the case these days, but construction is still a male-oriented world. So for women, or even men who aren’t contractors, here are a couple of tips for hardware store and lumber yard shopping. 

First, unless you’re buying everything you need to put a large addition on your house, don’t show up at the lumberyard early in the morning when all the contractors are there (builders don’t call Truitt and White “Try It and Wait” for nothing)—wait till later, when the staff may actually have time to help you. And pick out your own lumber if at all possible. Even back in the good old days all the boards weren’t perfect, and getting lumber that is twisted or warped will not make your life easier. This is particularly true of pressure-treated lumber—I think they pick the crappiest lumber for pressure-treating. And if you need something resembling real lumber, DO buy it at a lumber yard or a specialty place like The Lumber Baron—I would only buy a 2x4 at a home center if I was desperate and it was 8:45 in the evening, when lumberyards aren’t open. 

Which leads me to my #1 rule of fixing: Never Do Plumbing On Sundays. Even if you think you won’t need some specialty part, I guarantee that you will, and you don’t want to find yourself wandering around the Long’s at 51st and Broadway on Sunday evening hoping against hope that they have the thingamajig you need. (Though you would be amazed at the things you can get at that particular Long’s.)  

A corollary to this rule is that any plumbing repair will require at least TWO (if not more) trips to the hardware store. 

Third, if you’re replacing a part of something, take the part with you if possible. It’s so much easier to show the doohickey than try to describe it, plus it will help if the part has to be a certain size. Also, that way you won’t actually have to know what it’s called.  

If your house is old, you may find yourself needing things which are not available new, and you will end up at the salvage yard, where things are likely NOT to be neatly sorted and packaged. Instead, small items will be in crates or bins or drawers (sometimes outside) that you will have to paw through to find what you’re looking for. If you do find the item, it will likely be overpriced, given that is it worn or rusted or whatever. Face it, they have you by the short and curlies, so pay up. 

A particular problem for women is tools, since tools are generally designed for men, who have larger hands and more upper body strength. Most hand tools are not that much of a problem, although personally I have a lot of trouble with staple guns. (You can always get an electric one.) There are a couple of companies that make tools for women, including Barbara K Tools (www.barbarak.com) and Tomboy Tools (www.tomboytools. com), but the closest they get to a power tool is a cordless drill (except for Tomboy’s impact drill). Tomboy Tools are also pink, which I have mixed feelings about. It makes them stereotypically girly, but it might also keep the various men in your life from making off with them, which guys seem to have a tendency to do. (Unfortunately, Tomboy Tools are sold through home parties, like Tupperware, and that alone would probably keep me from buying them.) But if you need a reciprocating saw or a finish sander, you’ll be looking at tools that were designed for men.  

The best thing to do is to try them out—make sure they fit your hand, and that they’re not too heavy to use comfortably. I tend to favor Japanese brands (Ryobi, Makita, etc.) because they tend to be smaller. And let me rant here about the disappearance of chuck keys for drills—a fine item which allowed one to use leverage to tighten the chuck, now replaced by hand tightening, which works against those who don’t have a lot of hand strength. And frankly, I preferred my old reciprocating saw with an Allen wrench for blade tightening over the current one with spring-loading.  

Oh, and Rule #2 of fixing: If you’re doing ceramic tile, get a tile saw. You can get a cheap one for $60 or $70, and it will be worth it. Yes, you can rent them, but two days rental will be more than $60, and you won’t want the time constraints, especially if it’s your first attempt at tiling. 

I haven’t even mentioned a whole other category of hardware: builder’s hardware. That encompasses lock sets, cabinet hardware, window hardware, and all sorts of hardware you can see and touch.  

But that’s for another article. In the meantime, support your local hardware store—they are rapidly becoming an endangered species. 

Jane Powell is the author of Bungalow Kitchens and offers consulting on older homes. She can be reached at hsedressng@aol.com.