What I Learned From Doing a DIY With My Dad

After working at Real Simple for nearly six years, I've been involved in—and learned from—my fair share of home makeovers. But my most recent DIY endeavor proved to be the biggest learning experience yet.

My parents have lived in their Florida home for 22 years, and in that time, they've updated the decor and optimized the space for the needs of our family. The kitchen, however, remained relatively the same along the way. I would listen to my mom and dad discuss the possibilities for that central spot, but no real headway was ever made. So on a recent visit back home, I decided to get them going—starting with the wallpaper. Here, three lessons I learned along the way.

Kitchen before wallpaper removal

Lesson #1: Use a Wallpaper Steamer (Your Fingernails Will Thank You).  Unaware of my redecorating plan, my dad came home from work to find me painstakingly peeling sliver after sliver of the fruit-and-leaf border circa 1993. He just stared at me for a second and said, "You didn’t want to use a wallpaper steamer to do that?" The minute that miracle machine was put to use, I learned my first lesson. Rather than jumping right into a task, sometimes it helps to get fully prepared first with all the right tools and even (gasp!) ask for help or advice. It will make the job go that much faster and be even more effective.

Lesson #2: Take Care of Your Tools. Living in an apartment in New York City, where storage space is at a premium, I’ve been inclined to purchase new brushes, rollers, and gear for each of my decorating tasks. However, my practical, home owning father takes pains to properly clean, store, and label all of his tools, knowing that another project will inevitably come up. So by the time the wallpaper was successfully peeled, it was the weekend and Dad was home to help with the next step. He introduced me to the world’s best paintbrush for trim (Blue Hawk’s angled brush, if you’re interested) and taught me how to store it to save the brush for use the next morning: rinse out as much paint as possible then stow the still-damp brush in a zippered sandwich bag overnight. The next morning, the bristles were perfectly pliable and, after a quick dry-off with a paper towel, ready for another coat. In the future, I may be spending a bit more money on the tools I select, but I will also care for them appropriately to get the most bang for my buck.

Kitchen during wallpaper removal

Lesson #3: Sometimes You Have to Learn Your Own Lessons. During the next two days of removing cabinets, priming, painting, and re-hanging them, my father’s frustration grew to the boiling point, until he told my brother and me that our speedy, get-it-done-now approach was driving him crazy. In that moment, I realized that his frustration was manifesting during the project, but it represented so much more. Dad wanted to spare us from making mistakes by learning from his (“Live with a roommate rather than foot the bill alone.” “Stock up on groceries rather than order in from Seamless every night.”). But sometimes, we learn more from the experience of messing up than from someone telling us the “right” way to do it.

I know that Dad simply wanted to impart the knowledge and wisdom he’s gained over the years in order to spare me from experiencing the same growing pains. Sometimes I’ll take his advice and other times I’ll have to learn for myself. Our parents want to protect us, but occasionally, the only way to learn is by facing it on our own. Take it from me, though: Let the paint dry more than 45 minutes before putting on that second coat.

After wallpaper removal