Tips for When You're Working Alone

Many DIYers like to work alone. You head for your garage or shop on a Saturday morning long before the family is awake, and you have the whole day to yourself. For me, working alone is a way to unwind, collect my thoughts and quiet my mind after a stressful week.

I control the planning and flow of work, I decide how something is to be built, and I choose when to take a break. It’s very satisfying to know that the success of the day depends on me and no one else.

Of course, attempting projects without help has its downside – after all, the average person has only two hands. But you can overcome some physical limitations of working alone with a few tricks and tools. Here are nine handy helpers I have found invaluable during my years as a building contractor. Some of these tips might seem too obvious to bother writing about, but sometimes the simple solution is the most useful.

Extra hand
This is a little support rig you can make with scrap lumber. I call it the “extra hand” because it can be used to hold up one end of a long workpiece such as a skirt board, joist, siding or shelf while I attach the other end. Cut one 12-in. and one 4-in. long piece from a 2x4; then fasten the two pieces together to form an L-shape (inset photo). If I need to fasten a long board to a wall, I turn the support on its side, with the smaller leg protruding out from the wall.

Measuring stick
Have you ever tried to measure something longer or taller than 8 ft.? You try to extend your tape measure to catch the top and the tape folds in half. Even the new stiffer tapes will buckle when extended more than 10 ft. An easy way to conquer this problem is to create measuring sticks. All you need are straight 1-in.-wide strips of wood (3/4-in. plywood or clear pine work well). Cut one piece exactly 100-in. long and another piece 50-in. long. When you measure something above the ground or floor (such as a 12-ft. wall, for example), hold the 100-in. measuring stick against the wall and mark at the end of it. Then use your tape to measure from the opposite wall to the mark. That measurement plus 100 in. equals the total measurement. You can make measuring sticks any length you want; I use 50 and 100 in. because it’s easy math to add those numbers to my tape measurement.

Block and shims
If you’ve ever tried to install a door by yourself, you know how difficult it can be to hold the door in place when it is open. I use a block and shims to support the door during installation. The block is usually a 6-in.-long 1x6 laid flat. On top of the 1x6 I tape two rows of shims side by side to achieve the desired bottom height of the door (usually about 1 in. off of the floor).

Panel lift
If you ever decide to install drywall or paneling by yourself, I would highly recommend renting a panel lift. It costs about $30 a day and breaks down into five pieces for easy transport. The lift will hold drywall in place against the ceiling joists so you can fasten it with ease.

Extending pole
Although I try to use simple materials to build jigs and rigs for working alone, there are a few store-bought tools that I could never work without. One of my favorites is a pole with an extension for raising and holding cabinets or shelves in place while you install them. These poles are available in several sizes and are completely adjustable.

Window brace
You can install an average-size or smaller window yourself with the help of a homemade window brace. After preparing the rough opening, attach an 8-in. 2x4 along each side of the window opening with screws. Cut a 1x4 to span the distance between the 2x4s; then attach the 1x4 to one side of the window opening. Place the window in the opening, lay the 1x4 across the window and attach it to the opposite 2x4 with screws. This brace allows you to easily move the window up or down and side to side within the opening while you install the window.

Wall roll lifter
Here’s another neat little gadget that’s designed to help lift and hold a workpiece without using your hands and only costs about $10 at most hardware stores. It’s simply a small foot operated lever that lifts a sheet of drywall just enough to snug it against the sheet above it, keeping your hands free to attach it to the wall studs.

Weighted line holder
It’s easy snapping chalk lines by yourself on wood subfloors or sheathing – tack a nail, hook the chalk line and snap. It’s not so easy on concrete. When I need to snap a chalk line over concrete, I find a heavy object to place on the line — preferably a full paint can because it has a rim around the bottom that helps to hold the line in place. Whatever you use, make sure it is heavy enough that it won’t move when you pull the chalk line tight.

Belt clip
One of my biggest frustrations when working alone is when I’ve held up a workpiece to be fastened, only to realize that I left my screw gun on the floor just beyond arm’s reach. I avoid this by wearing a tool belt with a belt clip that holds my screw gun. There are many cool tool belt, vest and apron accessories designed to keep tools within easy reach. They’re not just for the pros. Get yourself a basic tool belt, vest or shop apron and use it for one project – it’ll be the first thing you grab when you start your next project.

These nine tips and devices have helped to save my back, my arms and my sanity when working by myself. I hope they’ll help you to stay safe, be productive and enjoy the peace and challenge of your solo endeavors.