How to Work Alone

Use levers, sawhorses and other at-hand items to safely get work around your home done by yourself. We even have a good technique for hauling heavy plywood.

If you have to work on DIY projects by yourself, you can increase productivity and limit aggravation with a crew of clamps, jigs, ropes and duct tape! There's a lot you can do solo if you use these tips and tricks.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Overview

Working alone isn’t much fun, especially when you’re trying to do the work of two. No one’s around to hold the other end of the tape, support the other end of the board, or hand tools or materials up to the roof. And to top it all off, there’s no one to visit with either.

We can’t help you with the loneliness (get a dog), but we can offer some commonsense tips to make solo work as painless and productive as possible. The idea is to creatively use clamps, blocks, nails, sawhorses and scrap building materials in new, different ways. Once you start thinking like this, you’ll be surprised at how much you can accomplish by yourself.

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Levers

Lever posts out of the ground by wrapping a chain around the base of the post and slipping a long plank through the chain. Pry against a block resting on the ground to keep the lever from digging into the soil. Sometimes you’ll have to excavate around the tops of stubborn concrete-embedded posts to remove some of the dirt trapping the top of the concrete.

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Bring everything with you

When you have a job to do in an attic, in a crawlspace or on a roof, concentrate on assembling all the tools and materials you need to save trips back and forth to the truck or garage. For a roof repair, I’ll pull up a 5-gal. bucket with the caulking gun, flashing, flat bar, roofing nails or whatever else I think the job requires. Undoubtedly I’ll forget or need more of something, but at least I’ve saved a couple of trips down the ladder.

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Listen for the music!

Find circuit breakers by plugging a loud radio into the outlet you’re working on. You’ll know you have the right circuit breaker when the music dies. But don’t assume the electricity is off in all the other outlets or lights in the room. Before doing any wiring, plug the radio into other outlets you plan to work on. Some duplex outlets can have different circuits running to adjacent outlets. To be safe, test both the top and bottom with the radio. For lights, turn the light switch on and off to be sure.

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Handle long, awkward pieces

The toughest solo jobs are holding up a full sheet of plywood, supporting the top row of drywall, and securing strips of siding or long boards in exactly the right position while you fasten them. Sometimes you can stick a clamp somewhere to support long boards, nail in a block directly below the work or even pound in a couple of nails to rest the two bottom corners of plywood sheathing while you fine-tune the placement and do the fastening.

Occasionally you’ll need to place fasteners through finished surfaces, but don’t sweat it. Nails leave relatively small, fixable holes and drywall screw holes are nearly invisible. These little insults are pretty tame compared with the mess you can have with a falling cabinet that you’re trying to hold up while fastening!

Big, cumbersome cabinets are easy to hang alone if you first screw a level 1x4 through the wall into the studs at the right height. Then you can rest the cabinet while you fasten it to the wall. Holding 10-ft. gutter sections for fastening is a hassle. But support the far end with a clamp attached to the bottom of the fascia and it’s painless.

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Use pivot points and balance with long ladders

I bet more broken windows and injuries happen from raising, lowering and moving ladders around than actually using them. The longer the ladder, the harder it is to control. Here’s how to handle the longest ladders alone.

Anchor the feet of extension ladders against the base of the building and “walk” the ladder up to raise it. The solid wall keeps the feet from kicking out as the ladder’s raised. To lower ladders, move the feet back against the building and reverse the process.

Caution: Stay away from overhead power lines!

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Snap chalk lines

Everyone knows how to pound in a nail to hold the end of a chalk line when they’re alone, but what do you do on a basement floor? You use a brick to anchor it down, that’s what. That’s simple, but here’s another trick that’s a little tougher to master. When you have less-than- 4-ft. snaps and you don’t want to fool with or damage the surface with a nail, learn how to snap lines by holding the handle on the chalk box with the line extended past the mark. Hold the line tight and tip the box down so you can pluck the line with your thumb and index finger.

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Use balance and grip to haul heavy plywood

Lift sheet goods by placing one hand under the sheet, slightly in front of center, and your other hand at the top, slightly behind the center. Hoist it so that the middle of the sheet rests on the ball of your shoulder. Your shoulder and back handle the bulk of the weight while your hands only need to balance it. Bonus: You’ll be able to see where you’re going, thread through doorways and even navigate up and down stairs.

Wear a Well-Stocked Tool Apron to Double Your Work Speed

Since I gave up my career as a carpenter for this wimpy office job, I’ve gotten lazy about strapping on the tool belt. It’s usually on the ground with tools, squares and pencils strewn all over the place. So I spend half my time looking for lost tools. Invariably I’ll get a board just where I want it and find my hammer out of reach. (I think I’ll start wearing my apron again this weekend.)

Tuck all your basic, most-used tools in just the right pouch, and always return them to the same resting place. Pretty soon, you won’t even have to look before grabbing the tool you need. (Get used to this and you won’t even open a can of chili without strapping it on.)

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Use sturdy sawhorses

Working alone on ladders can be inefficient and dangerous, especially because you’ll be tempted to overextend your reach and carry too many tools, paint cans, shingles or lumber when no one is on hand to pass you things. Nothing speeds up high, solo work like the spacious elevated work platform scaffolding provides. You’ll be able to keep materials and tools at arm’s length and safely reach a wide area without constantly moving ladders.

The scaffolding doesn’t have to be anything fancy. When you have a job less than 10 ft. from the ground, set a couple of solid, crack-free, 2x12 boards (avoid large knots) over a pair of sturdy sawhorses for a platform you can move around on. Just make sure your setup is on even ground to keep the horses from collapsing, and avoid “walking the plank” by remembering that there are no safety rails. Keep plank ends close to sawhorses or they’ll flip up when you step on the ends, like they do in slapstick movies (only it won’t be nearly as funny in real life).

For higher jobs, like painting second- floor eaves or replacing windows or siding, go to the rental store and examine your scaffolding options. You can rent long, lightweight aluminum planks with various styles of jacks to support them and the same platform “section style” scaffolding you see the pros use on big construction sites. Tell the scaffolding supplier about the job you’re planning to do and how high you’ll be working to get help choosing the best scaffold. Most scaffolding can be carried in a pickup, but rental stores will deliver too. You’ll forgive the cost when you see how your productivity increases.

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Extend your saw table

It’s not always easy to find a willing helper to hold up long boards when you’re ripping on the table saw. Here’s a setup that you can rig in just a few minutes.

Lay 2x4s perpendicular to sawhorses to support the lips of the saw table. Screw the 2x4s to the tops of the sawhorses. Lay a sheet of plywood directly behind the saw and lock it in place with 1-5/8-in. drywall screws.

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Prestart nails and screws

How many times have you tried to hold a board or sheet of material in place and start a nail or screw? When hanging drywall, plywood or even a rim joist (the board that ties a whole bunch of joist ends together), mark the framing locations and tack a few fasteners in the material before hoisting it. Then you can hold it with one hand while driving in the fasteners.

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Use a lever and fulcrum

Hang doors back onto hinges by levering the door into position with a 1x4 fulcrumed on a 3/4- in. block of wood. Line up the top hinge leaves, slip in the top hinge pin and then line up the other two leaves and drop in the other pins.

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Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • Clamps
  • Sawhorses
  • Roof harness
  • Extension ladder
  • Chalk line
  • Hammer

You won't need all of these tools for each tip. A radio and flat bar may also be needed.

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.

  • Chain
  • Nails
  • 5-gal. bucket
  • rope