Saturday, January 9, 2010

Do I get a Home Improvement merit badge now?

I didn't grow up tinkering or making things or using tools, and this has always sort of bothered me -- especially since coming to MIT, which is full of tinkerers and makers, even in the more theoretical majors. And, the DIYbio movement notwithstanding, mainstream biological research is not exactly hands-on or building-intensive. I've learned to program a little and taken an excellent hands-on circuits class, but that's about it. So you can imagine my trepidation going into Help Week, in which the pledges of my fraternity kick the initiates out and devote lots of time to home-improvement projects.

My pet project was to install a towel bar in the women's bathroom so that people have someplace to put their washcloths that dirty water won't get all over the shelves. At the beginning, I knew absolutely nothing about how this was done. I spent some time deciphering the pictorial instructions that came with the towel bar, then went to the Internet and learned about using plastic anchors to put screws in drywall.

The trouble started when I realized I didn't know what size hole to drill in the wall. The internet said to use a bit "a little smaller than the diameter of the anchor", but it didn't say how much smaller, and the towel bar package didn't specify a bit size appropriate to the anchors that were included. So I just guessed too small to start with. After enlarging the holes once or twice, I attempted to hammer the anchors into the wall. The first one went in fine, but the other three didn't go in straight. It was here that I discovered I was using craptastic cheap anchors -- when I hammered on the last one, it bent and broke rather than going into the wall.

So now I had to figure out how to get them out. I had an idea, but I wasn't sure it would work, so I went back to the internet. It suggested (a) pulling them out with pliers, (b) pushing them all the way into the wall with a screwdriver, or (c) cutting them away with a drill in the process of enlarging the original hole. I was able to pull out three with no trouble, but the fourth wouldn't come out. So I pushed on it -- no progress. So I drilled on it -- also no progress. (Why? Was my drill bit dull or something?) So I went back to the original idea I had before consulting the internet: screw a screw halfway in, then pull it out using a regular hammer. Thankfully, that worked.

However, I was now without anchors. A quick search of the hardware closet found no extra anchors, and I was just about to start getting upset when I realized they must have been taken upstairs by the person who was working on fixing the banister. Sure enough, there they were -- actual quality plastic anchors with actual mechanical strength, able to withstand hammering, plus matching screws. And get this, the package even specified the appropriate drill bit size! I attacked the wall for the third time...

...and luckily, before I hammered the new anchors in, I thought to test the depth of the screws. Turns out they were too long for the wall. What to do now? I went back to the package and looked at all the mysterious numbers written all over it, and eventually decided that "#10" must refer to the size of the screw shaft. Then I looked through our Big Box O' Screws and found some more #10 screws that were shorter.

It was amazing how much better the new anchors worked. They went smoothly into the wall with no trouble, and I had the towel bar on the wall inside five minutes. Hey! I did a thing with tools and screws and stuff! I performed an act of home improvement by myself! Why isn't there a Science Scouts badge for biologists who step outside their academic bubble like this?

Figure 1: Hells yeah. That towel bar ain't going nowhere.

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