When the petrol cap on his Volvo jammed, our writer found salvation in a step-by-step video. He’s not alone — DIY clips are a modern phenomenon
My father-in-law died last year. There are many things about him that I miss, but none more so than his inexhaustible DIY knowledge. An engineer by trade, he used to travel to see his daughter, grandchildren and feckless son-in-law always accompanied by a bulging toolbox, making it his mission to combine any visit with fixing a wonky bathroom shelf or replacing the broken dimmer switch in our kitchen.
I felt his absence most keenly a few months ago when I was unable to open the cap on the petrol tank of my car. Marooned on the garage forecourt and without my phone-a-friend option, I started to panic. I turned to my generation’s AA man: Google. “How to open stuck Volvo XC90 petrol tank cap,” I wrote. The first result was not the Volvo manual I was expecting, but some chap in Little Rock, Arkansas, called Robert DIY. Robert had posted a video demonstrating exactly how I had to clamber into the boot, remove a panel, and find the magic latch on the inside of the cap. It wasn’t very slick, but the video did the trick.
The internet has finally come of age. Every task under the sun — from how to build a rocket to how to french kiss — now has a step-by-step video guide. Or in the case of french kissing, thousands of them.
Siobhan Freegard, 49, set up the online video platform Channel Mum, aimed at young mothers. She explains why: “It suddenly struck me when I was in a café chatting to a young mother who was in her twenties. We were discussing a recipe, and we — as you do now — both got out our phones. I went to the BBC food website to get the recipe and she called up YouTube. And I said: ‘Whoa, why did you do that?’ And she said: ‘I don’t want to read all those words.’ ”
A generation brought up on a diet of emojis and Zoella do not like pesky words. They can just about stomach a three-minute clip on YouTube, but a 15-second Gif is their ideal format. And with 4G on their phones they never need to worry about the screen freezing halfway through.
Some of the online videos are spectacularly rubbish, even if they make for fun viewing. There is a hugely successful Instagram account called 5.minute_crafts and a rival called 5minutecrafts. Between them they have three quarters of a million followers. Some of the “life hacks” (a tedious Americanism that seems to have replaced the perfectly decent English phrase “top tip”) require less skill than creating Blue Peter’s Tracy Island out of yoghurt cartons. A lot involve paper clips, an empty plastic drinks bottle and gaffer tape.
However, once you get past the “how to twerk” videos and those showing how to create an iPhone charger out of a sock, you can find some seriously useful stuff. Since my revelation with the petrol cap, I have gorged myself on online tutorials in an attempt to rectify a lifetime of “get someone else to do it”. A cupboard door that has fallen off its hinges, some re-grouting and a blocked sink are my modest successes. It’s a start.
I am not alone. A survey this year by Allianz, the insurance company, found that for DIY advice half of us go on to YouTube first.
I make my videos idiot-proof. You can’t just say, ‘Knock a nail in’
Lisa Carney, who is in her fifties, has recently moved back to the UK after spending the past 30 years in Switzerland with her husband, Nick. In Bath they discovered they did not have a network of reliable handymen when it came to doing up their new home. She says that a few years ago she would have always called in an expert, but instead she went online, “because I like to know what they are doing before they start to do it. I like to be informed so I know what to say when the builder sucks in his teeth and goes, ‘Ooh, I don’t know about that.’ ”
In looking for information, she stumbled across a plethora of videos published by a site called DIY Doctor. Before long she and her husband were laying patios and installing guttering. “For me, it’s the confidence factor of being able to see what they are doing before I do it myself. I find it encouraging to see them do it and for me to realise I don’t need to hire a specialist.”
She reckons they have had only one disaster, involving some plastering. “I did a little area inside a cupboard to try it out. It was not successful. I did look at a video first, but I think it’s one of those things that a specialist does so much better.”
Some of the online tutorials have achieved astonishing viewing figures. Chez Rossi, 45, from Darwen, Lancashire, runs a site and a YouTube channel called Ultimate Handyman, nearly all of which is filmed in his garage. A number of his videos have been watched more than a million times. “It’s just unbelievable,” he says.
It’s fair to say that none of the videos has Hollywood production values and Rossi, who stands slightly awkwardly in front of the camera, is hardly Mr Charisma. He hasn’t got a problem with that: “I can’t think of anything worse than being on TV.” He once tried to spice up a video on how to mend a flight of squeaky stairs by hiring an attractive model in a pair of tight leather shorts, but when it comes to DIY, sex doesn’t sell. His biggest hits are how to install a shower tray and how to use a diamond core drill.
“I do try to make my videos idiot-proof. When I started out, I said, ‘Knock a nail in’, and somebody said: ‘You can’t just tell people to knock a nail in.’ I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. So I do try to make a video easy to understand.”
Some professionals are nervous about the craze for how-to videos, with insurance companies warning consumers that any jobs involving gas, electrical, plumbing or structural work need to meet safety and building regulations, otherwise the policy might become invalid. Electrical Safety First, a campaign group, published a spoof video featuring a YouTube handyman electrocuting himself in a bid to stop consumers relying on how-to demonstrations. And some tradesmen are concerned that the videos are hitting their income. “I do get comments from certain plumbers and electricians saying I am putting them out of a job,” says Rossi. “But that’s nonsense. They just like having a whinge.”
His view is backed up by William Hall, 60, another voracious user of online how-to videos. He often turns to the internet because workmen are not available. “Can I get someone to come out to fix a windowsill when they’ve got a £5,000 job on down the road? Can I heck.”
He recently took early retirement and moved to Fylde, Lancashire. “When we moved in, the foul drains became blocked through lack of use. It was quite a large foul drain, running 60 feet from the house.” The foul drain is the underground pipe that takes the waste from your bathroom to the main sewer under your road. “I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m going to be able to get someone out on New Year’s Eve.’ ”
So Hall turned to Mike Edwards of DIY Doctor, who had posted a video explaining exactly what you have to do: turn your drainage rods in a clockwise rotation. “I spent three solid days clearing it up. Three solid days. My gosh, it was hard,” says Hall. He makes it sound like Andy Dufresne’s epic escape from Shawshank prison. “But it was so satisfying when after three days of trying I finally cleared it.”
I find it encouraging to see them do it and to realise I don’t need to hire a specialist
These drain-clearing exploits have given some DIY presenters on YouTube a curious celebrity, if not quite at the Kardashian level. Shane Conlan is an Australian carpenter who broadcasts on DIY For Knuckleheads (his most-watched video: how to use washing-up liquid to unblock a toilet). He says: “We were over in Samoa a couple of months back on a football tour that my son was playing in when a guy from Fiji came over one night when we were out having dinner at a restaurant and asked for a photo.”
Rossi says he makes “a couple of thousand” pounds a month from the adverts that run on his YouTube videos, but he also gets recognised quite a bit in the street now that he has achieved 68 million views. “I got invited to the Bafta building in London by YouTube when I got 100,000 subscribers.”
How was it? “It was OK.” He sounds utterly underwhelmed. “I won’t be going to it again. To be honest the event was full of kids and the free bar served orange juice and water. I didn’t hang around long.”
Rossi may scoff at the fame that has come with teaching people DIY, but I am grateful. His advice to use a Fugi silicone tool when applying sealant around the shower has changed my life. If you don’t know what a Fugi silicone tool is, look it up. There’ll be a video that explains it all.
Australian carpenter Shane Conlan presents DIY For Knuckleheads
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