Christmas Specials | Women and DIY

Why more women are picking up power tools

Sisters are doing it for themselves

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“It’s very creepy down here,” says Hannah Lee Duggan as she leads the way into her basement. It looks like the staging area for a “Saw” trap. There are drills and nail guns neatly arranged on a shelf. The walls are made of metre-deep stone. There are no windows. We are in the middle of the woods.

Hannah is not a serial killer. Far from it. She is known for something impeccably wholesome. She fixes up her home and posts about it. She is one of a growing number of female do-it-yourself influencers.

All over America, women are upping tools. In Virginia Cass Smith, who posts videos of her projects on Instagram under the handle “cassmakeshome”, is building herself an office in her basement, from two ikea dressers. In Utah Elise Hunter, known as “huntersofhappiness” on TikTok, is hand-painting flowers to make wallpaper for the playhouse that she has built for her two young daughters. It is not just homeowners who are at it. On the Upper West Side of Manhattan Shelby Vanhoy has wallpapered the dining-room ceiling in the rented flat she shares with her husband, her son and an enormous dog.

How big is this trend? The Bureau of Labour Statistics conducts an annual “time use” survey in which it asks thousands of Americans what they do with their days. Taking “interior maintenance, repair and decoration” as a proxy for DIY, it finds that Americans in general are doing less of it now than two decades ago. But drill down into the data and another trend becomes clear. Men still do more diy than women, but over the past five years the time that men spend on it has remained flat while women have put in 60% more. This is partly because the number of women reporting that they do diy has risen by nearly 20%, but also because they are devoting more time to it. In 2017 female diyers reported spending nearly four hours per weekend on projects. In 2022 it was almost five.

Much has been made of the post-pandemic boom in diy. James Loree, the then boss of Stanley Black & Decker, a maker of tools that old-fashioned folks might deem manly, reported that, after a dearth of activity in April 2020, sales had leapt 30-40% year on year in early summer as people, stuck at home, discovered or rediscovered diy. “We enjoyed [an unprecedented] surge in North American retail,” he said in January 2021. Far less has been made of the fact that it was women driving this surge.

During the pandemic, women who do diy on the internet started to get famous. Elise found “viral” success with her videos after she joined TikTok in late 2020. An early post showed her recreating a ceramic lamp with knobs on it, which retailed for $695, from an old light, some wooden beads and superglue. It ended up looking uncannily like the spike protein structure of the coronavirus. Shelby recalls how she and her husband moved to New York just before the virus started spreading. “It was when I started making over that apartment that things really took off,” she says.

Something similar happened with Hannah. In September 2020, when everyone was obsessing about avoiding contact with other people, she posted a video with the title “I’m moving into the woods alone”. That, she says, was when she “blew up”. She now has 1m subscribers on YouTube.

There is much about these women-doing-diy that varies. Their aesthetics, for one. Shelby’s style is old and European-inspired. Elise’s home is a kaleidoscope of pastel girly-hued paints and wallpapers. Hannah, whose house looks increasingly like a fairy-tale cottage and who adopted a litter of orphaned mice, is often compared to a Disney princess by her followers. Like Cinderella, if only her fairy godmother had conjured her up a Dewalt drill instead of a ball gown.

They seem to fall into three broad buckets. Most, from an anecdotal scroll, seem to be mothers of young children making over their family homes, like Elise and Cass. Think of them as literal homemakers, who build custom wardrobes in addition to caring for their families. They are typically making over the single-family suburban homes they own.

Then there are those, like Shelby, who specialise in “renter-friendly” upgrades. Their tools are mostly things that resemble giant stickers: “peel-and-stick” wallpaper, which can be slapped up and peeled off with relative ease; faux-marble “contact paper” which can convert a drab laminate countertop into something that looks (from a distance) like a $3,000 marble slab. Shelby, who rents her two-bedroom flat, is queen of the command strip–a sticky velcro-type contraption that can stick things to walls without marking them.

“There are hundreds in here,” she says, as she gestures to the ceiling medallions, the tile behind the fireplace and the panelling she has affixed to the walls (all of which, she assures me, could be velcroed on and off at will). Still, in a city apartment, without much space to store power tools, most of the manipulation she does of her home is manual. “Every dowel you see in here? I sawed them all by hand.”

The most radical diyers seem to have taken the diy approach to their entire lives. Hannah started doing projects to kit out a van to live in as she travelled around America. She has since bought two cabins, a house and lots of tools to do them up. Rachel Metz (aka “Living to DIY”) quit her job when she found she had cancer and now renovates full-time.

Nearly all DIY sisters seem to have three things in common. First, their original rationale was partly economic. Cass has written that her “visions started becoming bigger” but her “budget was still small”. Second, they are impatient. Elise has written that she “seized the power tools” when she no longer wanted to wait for her husband to be free to help her. “When I have an idea I just want to get going,” says Shelby. Third, they learned a tonne about diy from YouTube.

Various changes over the past 70 years have made it easier for women to diy. Gender roles are less rigidly defined than in the 1950s and 1960s, when boys learned woodwork and girls were taught to bake cookies. Power tools, which became popular in the 1980s, made it simpler to drill and saw without male muscles. And diy-themed media have provided inspiration.

Before the rise of renovation reality shows, like HGTV (Home & Garden television) in the 1990s, people would see inside the homes only of friends or fictional tv characters. Reality real-estate shows let them peek into thousands more. Instagram now allows them into the home of anyone who cares to share.

YouTube videos, which took off in the 2010s, made it easier to learn essential skills. Rather than reading a DIY manual full of jargon, you can look up a task and watch someone do it. Clips of women doing diy appear popular. Most projects are a neat story of challenge and aesthetically pleasing triumph. “People love a transformation video,” says Hannah. “They also love to watch a woman struggle.”

Many female diy influencers lean into the juxtaposition of girliness and power tools. “JUST GO FOR IT GIRL!” shouts Elise’s Instagram bio. “Baby girls in one arm; Power tools in the other!” Others are subtler about it. “I don’t mean to get on my soapbox or anything,” says Hannah, “but it is empowering.”

To test this notion, your correspondent picked up a nail gun for the first time. She pressed it against a plank, felt the vibration and heard the whirring. As she grabbed the trigger, she understood how addictive a hobby this could become. Nothing is quite like the thrill of shooting a nail at high velocity into a slab of wood. Your correspondent is hooked: she adds a brad nailer to her Christmas wishlist.

Laurie Santos, a professor at Yale, argues that people often think they will be happier with a better job or a bigger house but enduring happiness comes from more trivial-seeming things, like interacting with loved ones, or taking the time to feel thankful for doing a job well. Other research also suggests that completing little projects is a source of joy. And Diy is filled with small to-dos: buying materials, cutting them to length, nailing them together.

Making one’s home prettier may seem like a superficial pursuit. But as night falls on a Midwestern wood, your correspondent wonders. Hannah is building a fire in a firepit she dug herself. We are tired from the simple toil of cutting, staining and putting up boards. Soon we will sleep on beds that she built from scratch. Women like Hannah, in making their environment more beautiful or functional, have achieved something greater. They have built beautiful lives.

Illustration: Joanne Joo

This article appeared in the Christmas Specials section of the print edition under the headline "Sisters are doing it for themselves"

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