30 Days to a Better Man Day 23: Learn a Manual Skill

by Brett & Kate McKay on June 22, 2009 · 27 comments

in 30 Days to a Better Man

I read an interesting article in Sunday’s New York Times where the editors asked 8 artists to draw a portrait of their fathers and name one thing that their dad can/could do, but they can’t. The answers were interesting and made me think of the things that my dad can do that I can’t. Like clean a gun. And skin a deer. While it’s not universally true, among people my age, it seems our dads are a lot handier than we are. Sometimes I imagine what would happen if there was a terrorist attack or natural disaster that wiped out our electricity and disrupted society. How many of us would be standing on our lawns, scratching our heads, absolutely clueless about what to do next?

Learning hands-on skills is about more than survival, however. Men are made to be productive, to create things with our hands, to enjoy the manly satisfaction of taking things apart, seeing how they work, and putting them back together. Manual skills have stopped being passed down from father to son. And in our digital age, much of what we do for both work and pleasure is often conducted in an intangible realm with intangible results.

You might think that the need for craftsmanship has become irrelevant in our high-tech times. But while working with your hands may no longer be necessary for your livelihood, it doesn’t mean it not necessary for you soul. The need for craftsmanship spring eternal. To put into words why this is, I turn to Mathew B. Crawford, whose new book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, makes the argument for craftsmanship far better than my humble writing skills ever could. This excerpt comes by way of The New Atlantis:

“Anyone in the market for a good used machine tool should talk to Noel Dempsey, a dealer in Richmond, Virginia. Noel’s bustling warehouse is full of metal lathes, milling machines, and table saws, and it turns out that most of it is from schools. EBay is awash in such equipment, also from schools. It appears shop class is becoming a thing of the past, as educators prepare students to become “knowledge workers.”

At the same time, an engineering culture has developed in recent years in which the object is to “hide the works,” rendering the artifacts we use unintelligible to direct inspection. Lift the hood on some cars now (especially German ones), and the engine appears a bit like the shimmering, featureless obelisk that so enthralled the cavemen in the opening scene of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Essentially, there is another hood under the hood. This creeping concealedness takes various forms. The fasteners holding small appliances together now often require esoteric screwdrivers not commonly available, apparently to prevent the curious or the angry from interrogating the innards. By way of contrast, older readers will recall that until recent decades, Sears catalogues included blown-up parts diagrams and conceptual schematics for all appliances and many other mechanical goods. It was simply taken for granted that such information would be demanded by the consumer.

A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our mode of inhabiting the world: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves installing a pre-made replacement part.

So perhaps the time is ripe for reconsideration of an ideal that has fallen out of favor: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world. Neither as workers nor as consumers are we much called upon to exercise such competence, most of us anyway, and merely to recommend its cultivation is to risk the scorn of those who take themselves to be the most hard-headed: the hard-headed economist will point out the opportunity costs of making what can be bought, and the hard-headed educator will say that it is irresponsible to educate the young for the trades, which are somehow identified as the jobs of the past. But we might pause to consider just how hard-headed these presumptions are, and whether they don’t, on the contrary, issue from a peculiar sort of idealism, one that insistently steers young people toward the most ghostly kinds of work……

The Psychic Appeal of Manual Work

I began working as an electrician’s helper at age fourteen, and started a small electrical contracting business after college, in Santa Barbara. In those years I never ceased to take pleasure in the moment, at the end of a job, when I would flip the switch. “And there was light.” It was an experience of agency and competence. The effects of my work were visible for all to see, so my competence was real for others as well; it had a social currency. The well-founded pride of the tradesman is far from the gratuitous “self-esteem” that educators would impart to students, as though by magic

. . . . craftsmanship might be defined simply as the desire to do something well, for its own sake. If the primary satisfaction is intrinsic and private in this way, there is nonetheless a sort of self-disclosing that takes place. As Alexandre Kojève writes:

‘The man who works recognizes his own product in the World that has actually been transformed by his work: he recognizes himself in it, he sees in it his own human reality, in it he discovers and reveals to others the objective reality of his humanity, of the originally abstract and purely subjective idea he has of himself.’

The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, who has no real effect in the world. But craftsmanship must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away.

Hobbyists will tell you that making one’s own furniture is hard to justify economically. And yet they persist. Shared memories attach to the material souvenirs of our lives, and producing them is a kind of communion, with others and with the future. Finding myself at loose ends one summer in Berkeley, I built a mahogany coffee table on which I spared no expense of effort. At that time I had no immediate prospect of becoming a father, yet I imagined a child who would form indelible impressions of this table and know that it was his father’s work. I imagined the table fading into the background of a future life, the defects in its execution as well as inevitable stains and scars becoming a surface textured enough that memory and sentiment might cling to it, in unnoticed accretions. More fundamentally, the durable objects of use produced by men “give rise to the familiarity of the world, its customs and habits of intercourse between men and things as well as between men and men,” as Hannah Arendt says. “The reality and reliability of the human world rest primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced, and potentially even more permanent than the lives of their authors.”

Because craftsmanship refers to objective standards that do not issue from the self and its desires, it poses a challenge to the ethic of consumerism, as the sociologist Richard Sennett has recently argued. The craftsman is proud of what he has made, and cherishes it, while the consumer discards things that are perfectly serviceable in his restless pursuit of the new. The craftsman is then more possessive, more tied to what is present, the dead incarnation of past labor; the consumer is more free, more imaginative, and so more valorous according to those who would sell us things. Being able to think materially about material goods, hence critically, gives one some independence from the manipulations of marketing, which typically divert attention from what a thing is to a back-story intimated through associations, the point of which is to exaggerate minor differences between brands. Knowing the production narrative, or at least being able to plausibly imagine it, renders the social narrative of the advertisement less potent. The tradesman has an impoverished fantasy life compared to the ideal consumer; he is more utilitarian and less given to soaring hopes. But he is also more autonomous….”

While Crawford’s convictions led him to quit his job working for a DC think tank to become a motorcycle mechanic, quitting your white collar job may not be possible or even desirable. It’s okay to like your white collar job. You can still obtain the manly satisfaction of working with your hands by learning skills in your off time. The stereotype of men 50 years ago was the image of the guy endlessly tinkering in the garage. While that image has been fading, let’s start today to bring it back.

Today’s Task: Learn a Manual Skill

Have you ever watched some guy fix your toilet or change your oil, and wished as he gave you the bill that  you were a  little handier? Well today’s the first day of the rest of your handy life. Today, you are going to pick a manual skill you’ve always wanted to learn, and take the first steps towards mastering it. Here are some skills you may wish to consider learning:

  • How to tune your bike
  • How to change your car’s oil
  • How to fell a tree
  • How to make a bookshelf
  • How to install of a ceiling fan
  • How to do electrical wiring
  • How to fix a leaky faucet
  • How to make furniture
  • How to build a tree house
  • How to build a deck
  • How to lay tile
  • How to replace your car’s brakes
  • How to use a soldering iron
  • How to split wood
  • How to build a campfire
  • How to clean a gun
  • How to garden and landscape

You should ideally pick a skill that you can get some real hands-on practice with right away. So for ideas about what to learn, take a look around the house at what’s broken.

Obviously, you can’t learn these skills in a single day. This task simply requires that you take a least one step towards learning a new manual skill. These step may include, but are not limited to:

  • Checking out from the library or buying a book about the skill
  • Watching an online video or reading an online source about how to do the skill
  • Having a friend or family member who knows how to do the skill walk you through it or give you advice
  • Signing up for a course on how to do the skill at a local technical college
  • If you’re in the New England area, you might want to check out a place called Yestermorrow in Vermont. It’s a design/build school that holds week and weekend long courses on everything from basic carpentry and masonry to building a skin-on-frame canoe.

What skill do you want to learn? How are you going to go about it? Share with us in the Community.

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Andrew Barbour June 22, 2009 at 7:41 pm

I’m a big city office drone, so my exposure to more practical manual skills is somewhat limited. However, there are some things I can do, and the following is a great resource that I plan to use for developing the manual skill of knot tying.


Remember, you can’t spell “manual” without MAN. I’m surprised you didn’t work that in the post somewhere, Brett!

2 Brett June 22, 2009 at 7:46 pm

Ah, you are really going to like Wednesday’s post, Andrew. It’s all about, you guessed it: knots.

(It’s a regular post, not a 30 Days task, so feel free to tackle knots for your manual skill)

3 Eric Pendergrass June 22, 2009 at 8:00 pm

It is ironic that I just finished “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” this morning, and that this post would present itself on the same day. “Zen” had a lot of the same ideas this post presents in regards to the peace of mind and “confidence boost” that can come from possessing a manuel skill such as motorcycle maintenance.
Great post. I think I will learn how to fix that commuter rack on my bike…

4 Finnian June 22, 2009 at 8:31 pm

I freely admit that I follow this website looking for clues on how to be a Man in the 21st century. I admit to feeling lost at times and uncertain what is my role, my place, my responsibility in the world today. Despite all that, however, I can say that I am handy with tools. I’ve remodeled our kitchen, our bathroom, worked with electricity and plumbing, landscaped our yard, build fences, and crafted furniture. I can say that there are few things in life that give more satisfaction than looking at a job that you completed with your own hands.
You want to feel like a man? Learn to work with your hands.

5 Greg M June 22, 2009 at 11:18 pm

“…apparently to prevent the curious or the angry from interrogating the innards”
This sentence made me laugh just a bit too much.

Great article. I’m lucky to have been raised by a handy Dad, and while I enjoy my white-collar job, my evenings and weekends are filled with a variety of around the house projects. I always involve my 3y/o son to help with whatever he can (things like turning screws and applying glue) so hopefully he’ll grow up to be handy and have a few memories with his old man. Sure it takes longer, but I have all the time in the world to teach a valuable life skill.

6 Alan June 23, 2009 at 12:43 am

What an excellent article! I work in a ‘knowledge job’ but I’ve always valued the practical skills handed down to me by my Father. He could fix anything, and was always ready to tell how he repaired the gearbox of a tank in the desert using just a few basic tools and without a manual. I have some of those tools today, and consider it a deep honour to his memory that I now wear the same reputation

7 Dad of Divas June 23, 2009 at 2:41 am

To be honest here this one is going to be a bit harder for me than other tasks. I have never been a very skilled individual who works with my hands, besides in gardening and landscaping. This being said, I am always willing to try something new.

I think for me, I would like to learn more about working on my car, or at least knowing what is happening more with my car and how I can mitigate some of these issues with home maintenance.

So for today, I think I will work to try and find some online and library based resources on this topic and see where it leads.

8 Tim June 23, 2009 at 4:02 am

The first task to master is changing the oil and other filters in your vehicle. Yes, it can be a hassle to acquire the pan and tools and then to find a place to properly dispose of the oil, but it is a good first step in learning about your car or truck. Yes it is cheaper and more time-efficient to have jiffy-lube do it for you. But that’s not the point.

9 Thad June 23, 2009 at 4:50 am

Being a doctoral student, I don’t have a lot of use for manual skills in my ‘job’ (aka writing and editing) but my subject area – museums – does require some level of manual skills. I was also lucky because my father was very handy (he also had a doctorate) and he passed many of his skills on to me … while I was young, I learned most of the basics for the building trades and was never afraid to get my hands dirty.

Now, I do basic home improvements, upgrade/maintain my bicycle, and garden.

On a slightly different note, I think that women need the same type of connection to manual labor … my wife made her first cake (we are both 28) last week and its success made her very happy … in addition, she put together our new grill, which also made her proud.

Humans are manual creatures and we need to stimulate those parts of our brain that challenge our manual abilities.

10 Andrew D June 23, 2009 at 6:04 am

Great post and great site! I am 34 years old and was the unhandiest guy you ever met until I moved from NY to NC a year and a half ago. Something about being here, in a less urban setting, living in a house I plan to raise my children in, has made me more inclined to do manual things. In the last 18 months I have:

- Learned how to use a lawn tractor / mow nearly an acre
- Learned how to maintain a lawn tractor
- Built raised vegetable garden beds / grown vegetables
- Built a sandbox (just finished this one!)
- Learned how to use many new tools
- Learned how to perform many minor home repairs

I feel like I am just getting started, and late in life at that. Still, this article is a great encapsulation of my recent efforts. Thanks for writing it!


11 Ben June 23, 2009 at 6:19 am

Good post. I highly recommend this recent article from the New York Times as well. Along the same lines as this piece. Also written by Crawford. Read it when you get a few minutes. Cheers.


12 Michael June 23, 2009 at 6:23 am

Point well taken. Luckily, I can already do the majority of those items (thanks PBS and This Old House when I was growing up). This article does remind me of a conversation I had with my father-in-law on Father’s Day a year ago. He’s a foreman for a construction company. Concrete is what he works with and builds concrete high-rises, mainly hotels and office buldings. The industry is now allowing workers to “retire”, meaning draw on their pensions and continue to work. Why, you might ask? Because, young people today do not have the skills necessary to build. Simple. Nor, do they seem to have the drive to learn to do so. He then went on to give me several examples of friends and family he had gotten their Union card, only to have them never show up to find work. Plasterers, finish carpenters, electricians, plumbers, anything that requires a skill are becoming shorter in supply. I tell everyone thinking college isn’t for them to learn a trade. The world will always need plumbers.

13 Phil Goossen June 23, 2009 at 6:38 am

This is a great post! I was blessed to have a father that could do anything requiring the use of his hands. One thing that he taught me was how to stick weld. I don’t have to do it very often but it really is nice to be able to “glue” (dad’s word) a couple of pieces of metal together.

14 JT June 23, 2009 at 6:57 am

My dad is 64 and grew up on an east Texas cotton farm with no electricity. They smoked their meat, hunted, provided for their own milk, churned their own butter, etc. My dad actually plowed the fields with a mule. No tractor. Grandpa had to break down and actually buy a tractor when Dad went and fought in Vietnam. It’s going to be sad when all these old timers are gone. We’re going to lose a wealth of info. What will our sons tell our grandchildren about us? “Your grandpa actually was around in the early days of the internet…when they still used keyboards”.

15 Brian June 23, 2009 at 7:08 am

When my wife and I was first starting out our lives together I could tell she had some doubts about my handiness (and rightfully so). But as an engineer I cannot help put pull something apart and tinker with it.

Fixing and tinkering is definitely an acquired skill, when we first were married I definitely had problems with the fixing of objects around the house, now I feel complete confidence in tearing into pretty much anything I own. After all, you are not going to fix it if it isn’t already broken so it is a pretty good chance you are not going to screw it up any worse than it already is.

I believe I have reached my acme of handiness now though, we built a house 2 years ago and I did my own tile work, hardwoods, wood trim, painting, door hanging, and even built my stairs going to the 2nd floor. Of course I had a great teacher, my own dad built the kitchen cabinets that people ooh and aah over when they come over to the house.

16 Jack June 23, 2009 at 8:01 am

Two things that were major obstacles (obstcales I wasn’t aware of until semi-recently) that kept me from becoming a hand man: Money and discouragement from manufacturers.

The money thing should be obvious. I wasn’t allowed to take things apart to see how they worked unless I was going to be able to put them back together. Breaking something was just too wasteful and would result in beatings.

The more annoying thing was the manufacturers like this article mentions. Whenever I was apply to take something that wasn’t going to be missed or I had my own toys to take apart I often found that they required specialty tools that my mom’s garage simply didn’t have.

That was then though. Today there are no excuses. Recently, I bought a used road bike in the name of manliness for two reasons. Exercise and the opportunity for manual labor.

I am glad to say that parts of the bike have been breaking and though I don’t like spending them money on tools and parts I’m getting to know my bike and myself more and more.

17 CoffeeZombie June 23, 2009 at 10:34 am

I’ve been recently learning to do more work “around the house” so to speak. My latest foray has been into my cars; so far, I’ve changed the oil on both cars, replaced the front (disc) brakes, replaced the cooling fan radiator switch (which also involved draining and refilling the radiator), and my next task is going to be replacing the wheel hubs on my car.

Not only am I theoretically saving money by avoiding labor costs, I’m getting a better handle on how the car works, and how to figure out what’s wrong when it doesn’t. My goal is to do as much as the manufacturer has left open to me to do (which is, surprisingly, a lot) at home, and only take it into the shop when necessary. Even if I don’t meet that goal, I think I’ll at least learn enough about the car that I can have a good idea of what’s wrong before taking it in and being charged to replace a part my car doesn’t have (not that this has happened to me, but I’ve heard stories).

The only thing I can say about this is that I really wish I’d started doing this a long time ago. My grandfather made a living out of working on machines, starting with his bicycle as a kid, graduation to cars (still as a kid) and moving on from there. I enjoy talking to him about the cars, but I think both of us wish I’d been interested in this back when he was still in good enough health to get out there under a car with me and show me the ropes.

Of course, there’s also learning to roast your own coffee. The only thing better than freshly (as in, roasted in the past few days, and stored properly) roasted coffee is freshly roasted coffee that you roasted.

18 Brian June 23, 2009 at 10:41 am

I, like many of the other men who’ve posted, have acquired many of the manual skills of our fathers during my adult life. When I got married I couldn’t do much of anything, but over the years I’ve acquired these skills with the help of my father, my father-in-law, my older brothers, and friends. I can proudly say that I’ve done almost everything on the list except for the bookcase; I’m not a good enough finish carpenter yet to tackle that one, but I did build my son a train table.

I think a great way to build your skills is to buy a house that is a “fixer-upper”, whether it’s to rent out, work on and flip, or live in – my wife and I have owned two of them, and I learned a lot by working on them myself, including kitchen remodeling, roofing, plumbing, framing, and drywall. Like Brian, we built a new house a couple of years ago, and I did almost all the finish work, including hardwood floors, vinyl siding, the deck, hanging doors and trim, all the light fixtures, electrical outlets (3-ways switches are such a pain!) etc. This summer I’m tackling our unfinished basement and starting to restore a 1966 Mustang that will eventually be my 11-year old son’s first car. I hope it will make many memories for him of his “handy dad”.

There are few things more satisfying than being able to look at something tangible and think “I built that”. Also, manual labor just helps us get away from all the other stuff that clutters our lives and helps us learn to think differently, since you have to visualize how to make or fix something. I’m a 37-year old university professor, and many people I talk with are amazed that I have other skills than just my profession. Another great article, Brent!

19 Brian June 23, 2009 at 10:54 am

Oops, I meant Brett, not Brent – sorry!

20 Darrell June 23, 2009 at 1:44 pm

Wow. I’ve got some work to do.

21 Geoff June 23, 2009 at 3:36 pm

As food for thought, here is a link to PM’s “100 Skills Every Man Should Know”


22 Kitchen & Bathroom Remodeling June 26, 2009 at 10:49 am

Nice heading 30 days to a Better Man its cool , i love reading this blog looking for more.

23 Christopher Hutto July 14, 2009 at 1:30 am

Im new around here so starters hello, I wanted to add an idea for crafting that seems to becoming more and more popular and also accessible than one would think Blacksmithing not a farrier(someone who shoes horses) but blacksmithing artisan work or tools even. There are lots of resources online and in books for beginners, there are even some schools. Besides what could manlier than working with fire hot enough to melt steel, not much, tell that to your girl on your first date ;) Speaking of farriers though if you know one or know a farm with horses nearby ask them for old shoes that they don’t need good starting material to work with and its generally free. also check out the John Campbell’s folk school in North Carolina http://www.folkschool.org/
another side note some farriers are also artisan blacksmith also check out A.B.A.N.A http://www.abana.org/

24 Valerio July 30, 2009 at 8:26 pm

Hi Brett,
I’m Valerio from Rome (the one in Italy ;) ).
Theese days i’ve painted my mother’s room, and i loved it.
I loved it so much that now i want to paint the other rooms, and my dad home too, since he is so busy at work.

Next things i want to practice are leatherwork, and blacksmithing, but i think it would be a little bit complicated here in italy, there are not so many artisan’s school.


25 Derek August 5, 2009 at 4:35 pm

I find this an interesting subject for the first comment I make here. I do each and every thing on this list. I have built cars by combining wrecks, I weld, solder, and braze. I build furniture, often without the aid of a single tool that has a plug. I repair, rather than replace electronics, appliances, corded tools, well, anything that breaks actually. When I found I hadn’t the skills to craft my own Masonic ring in silver ( after a number of hilarious failed attempts) I created one of hardwood. I had a grandfather who used to say; “If you don’t know how to fix it, you don’t deserve to have it” I thought him a hard man, but can now see the wisdom in the ethic he passed down.
I find that in our consumer driven world, if it isn’t new, it is of no use or value. That is, the very last thing I believe.
I have taught woodworking to people who have never been near a shop, and can see a common thread to their apprehensions, that is the fear of the first cut, or the first mistake. One of the first things I teach is the art of throwing. It is a wonderful relief to pitch whatever you have just buggered across the room, and realize that if that was the worst, it it time to jump back in and give it another go. The confidence to make a mistake, to take something apart to see how it works, to experiment. We can all use that spark of curiosity rekindled within by getting up to our elbows in something that, on the first attempt, we are in over our heads on. From there it is all downhill… and fun.

26 heatmiser October 31, 2012 at 7:48 am

Great article. I know that it mainly targets men, but as a woman, I must say women are not that different. May be men changed more because of the societal roles etc..But I think everyone live more dependent these days. Even the act of cooking becomes abstract in a way, as we are more and more disconnected the food supply chain. For myself, I can say I love tools, wood, screwdrivers, putting holes in the walls etc…I sometimes feel I am terrible with my hands, and that really saddens me a lot. I totally agree that humans are wired to use their hands to do stuff, and all these bull shit about ‘intellectual’ work as if two were different, is totally driving us to unhappiness.

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