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Opinion I have become that which I most feared - a man who does DIY

Rory McNab says he doesn’t cover himself in glory with his DIY efforts, but it does feel good.

STARING AT IT, it was clear that it was wildly misshapen. It looked nothing like the online photographs of bee hotels that I’d based my design on.

Pieces of wood jutted off at wild, challenging angles; vast gaps appeared along seams that were supposed to be seamless. The whole thing appeared to be a satire of the very concept of geometry.

I’m not sure if cubist-era Picasso ever designed bee hotels; if he did, he’d have been proud of the travesty I’d created. “I’m sure it’ll look great when it’s finished,” my girlfriend chimed in optimistically. “It is finished,” I replied.


As society re-emerges from the cocoon of lockdown, everyone will have their own personal reckoning with whatever hobbies provided the valuable emotional crutch to see them through their isolation.

Some will be all too glad to move on, and countless sourdough starters will be consigned to the backs of fridges where they will rapidly putrefy and no doubt become the breeding grounds for new, far deadlier viruses from which we will soon all have to shelter again. Others, however, might end up sticking with theirs.

Well, thanks to this lockdown-induced surfeit of time on my hands, and a profoundly irritating drive for thriftiness, I’ve taken to building small wooden versions of cheaply available household items, and small garden objects – like the bee hotel – intended to offer nesting possibilities for local insects and wildlife. In short, I have become a DIY-ist.

DIY is a hobby that has a very particular set of connotations. ‘DIY’ conjures up images of rickety, nail-addled shelving units; of extravagant tool belts, clearly designed to make the wearer feel a little bit like Batman; of hordes of fathers spending bank holiday weekends aimlessly wandering around B&Q, browsing belt-sanders they will never buy. It has become indelibly tied up with a particularly tragic idea of masculinity.

The whole culture of DIY hobbyism seems to have evolved as a means for office workers to prove their vitality, their primal relevance. For people who sit at computers all day to think: “Sure, I may not be able to drag home the carcass of a mammoth to feed my family, but I can certainly provide them with – what I hope they’ll agree is – the next best thing: a small home-made bench that will dangerously collapse without warning at any moment over the next two to three years.”

‘I’ve started, so I’ll finish’

And it is not a victimless hobby. Given that one of the central tenets of DIY is to fix problems around the house, others are inevitably forced to engage with your handiwork. “Would you like to access some bread? Then dare ye navigate the perils of this poorly assembled bread-bin and risk getting a splinter as you reach for your Hovis!”

It is imbued with the doleful idea of well-meaning, but amateurish, attempts at assistance; of glum families tolerantly waiting while a kindly but woefully inept father ham-fistedly struggles to rehang a door, before eventually giving up and calling a qualified trades-person to do the job.

Yet, when I arrogantly declared to my girlfriend that she shouldn’t waste money buying an expensive bee hotel online, as I could ‘probably, easily’ build one, I found myself ensconced in the world of DIY. Through this combination of a largely hollow pledge that I was asked to deliver on and my own deep frugality – as good a reason as any to take up a new hobby – I ended up searching for materials in a local building supplier.

Things did not go smoothly. While wandering through a warehouse to look for some plywood, I stood on a nail. Too embarrassed to make a scene, I simply stifled a scream, lifted my foot off the shard of metal, and hobbled away while trying to recall when I’d last received a tetanus shot.

One of the bigger boys who worked there, evidently sensing my panic and confusion, came to ask if I needed any help. Too embarrassed to look a man wearing high-vis in the eye and say that I was building a small wooden shelter for solitary bees to lay their eggs in, I muttered something about wanting to build a shelf while my shoe slowly filled with blood.

If you build it…

However, the process of actually cutting and assembling the wood proved far more enjoyable. Initially wary of further wounding myself while wielding a saw, vestigial memories of a brief lecture on saw-safety given to me as a scout in the mid-2000s and my own natural cowardice ensured my safety.

As mentioned, the end product was a travesty. The vaguely box-shaped assemblage of wood and nails looked like something that had been dredged from a skip. Flatmates adopted the soothing tones of a parent encouragingly affixing yet another of their child’s catastrophically incoherent drawings to the fridge, saying that “the bees wouldn’t mind” and that it would still serve a purpose and be helpful for biodiversity. Well, let me say in no uncertain terms that the bees are not interested in what I’ve built.

Now, several months after construction, not a single bee has deemed it a fit place to lay their eggs. Frankly, I can’t blame them. They regard it with the same wary aversion that someone would a condemned building.

Shortly after completing the bee hotel, I also put together a free-standing bird feeding table that local wildlife has deemed to be of similarly poor quality. Bird-feed sits on it untouched until we begrudgingly sweep it away ourselves.

I had been warned that bird tables also attract rats, yet despite living adjacent to the Grand Canal – a veritable rodent ground zero – not one has ever deemed the feeding table worth scaling to claim the free food. It’s easy to imagine a rat, rapping a knuckle against the base and solemnly looking at the perilously wobbling table above, dismissing the thing as a ‘death-trap’.

Out of control

As the garden fills with ever more homemade bird-feeders, bird-houses and bee hotels – all comprehensively shunned by nature – I am beginning to feel like some post-crash Celtic Tiger property developer, staring out at a vast ghost estate of vacant properties redundantly taking up space.

While this is deeply infuriating, and increasingly makes me feel as if my life, and relationship with nature, is becoming a grand parody of the Field of Dreams ethos of ‘If you build it, they will come’ – at least on one level, I don’t mind.

I set out with the intention of building something so that I could acquire it more cheaply than by simply purchasing it. I imagined that any satisfaction would be derived from eventually holding the end product in my hands, rather than faffing about with a measuring tape, and saws, and hammers. Yet, it was the very process itself that proved most enjoyable.

Were I to ever spend money in a shop on anything that even vaguely resembled something I’d built I would be furious and would waste no time in phoning up the relevant ombudsman to complain about the shoddy craftsmanship and numerous health-and-safety contraventions on display.

However, when you build something, it becomes more than just the object itself; it constitutes the time invested in it; the story of the material purchased. Its use is almost secondary, and you can ignore some of the imperfections and rough edges. And, before you know it, you find yourself exhibiting a worryingly intense sentimental attachment toward a homemade shoe rack.

And this sentimental investment is important. It is what will steel you, and bolster your determination to persevere with your projects when you are awoken in the night by the sound of crashing, as yet another of your structurally compromised spice-racks suddenly gives way, shattering paprika jars across the floor. On one level you may even be excited – as you now have an excuse to build it all over again.

Rory McNab is a journalist, editor and writer living in Dublin whose work focuses on politics, pop culture and satire.    

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