Gifts for the Unhandy

GARY M. GALLES

December 24, 1992|By GARY M. GALLES

Malibu, California. -- "Home Improvement'' tools have becom a respectable answer, once the ugly ties are taken, to the vexing question of what to get Dad. Newspapers and magazines publish articles about the toolbox contents necessary for the home handyman.

Those articles fail to deal with the actual toolboxes of those of us who are ''unhandy,'' who shudder at the phrase ''some assembly required'' and panic at any job so complex it requires instructions (as if we would read them). Our ''tooltime'' behavior differs from those of handymen in ways that even ''more power'' cannot solve.

If you are unhandy, the most obvious characteristic of your toolbox is that you never have the right tool for the job. Since the cost of having a complete set of tools you never intend to use clearly exceeds the benefits, when an emergency forces you into the handyman role, you curse the fact that you (rationally) don't have what you need.

A further consequence is that, to abuse Hamlet, ''always a borrower; never a lender be.'' Since you don't have the right tools and you don't want to buy them, you prey on your neighbors' toolboxes. Professionals (who quickly learn to leave their tools at work) and other neighborhood handymen (who learn not to be home when you knock) are particularly at risk.

Further, since you have no tools which others want to borrow to serve as collateral to force the return of their tools, you typically have little incentive to return them, as the same sort of emergency might arise again (especially since the odds that you actually fixed it the first time are slim). Your borrowing victims also know this, so with just the right ''pity me'' approach, you can sometimes succeed in borrowing your neighbor along with his tools, since that is the only way he can be sure of getting the tools back.

Failing to lay your hands on some neighbor's tools, you try to select the available tool that seems closest in intended use to what you need: your heaviest wrench, in the absence of a hammer. Combine this misuse with the fact that you bought the cheapest tools you could find because you didn't intend to use them much, and you often get broken tools. In desperation, you turn to the kitchen and sewing box, using kitchen knives as screwdrivers and even the ''good'' scissors as an exacto knife. (If you are really desperate and unhandy, you might even go for the pinking shears, though the results won't look pretty).

Despite having fewer tools, unhandymen tend to have messier toolboxes. Those who use their tools intensively find it is worth the effort not only to use the right tool for the job, but also to put it back where it belongs. Most appalling to the unhandy are those who trace outlines of where their tools go.

Those who hope to never touch their tools again are much less careful. Negligence leads to a proliferation of incomplete tool sets, as those crucial sockets and drill bits soon go to tool heaven. It also eventually leads to having too many screwdrivers and other simple tools, since the ones already in the house were misplaced and forgotten the last time they were used, and each time a new one must be bought.

Since unhandymen have no organized place for various chore remains (like the instructions they didn't read, the unused washers and miscellaneous ''what did this go to?'' plumbing pieces, and the stolen kitchen utensils they forgot to return), they all end up thrown away (in which case they are soon needed) or dumped in the toolbox, which is why the risk of getting impaled on leftover nails and other miscellaneous cutting edges is borne every time someone reaches in.

Because toolboxes have limited storage space, this also soon leads to an overflowing toolbox that cannot be shut or easily moved, which in turn eventually leads to the inability to find the toolbox under the avalanche of other junk thrown in the garage to avoid putting it where it belongs.

I sometimes think gift counselors misunderstand the unhandy. I hope this article has helped. When you think about it, ugly neckties have their charms. And as the unhandyman will be first to tell you, it's the thought that counts.

Gary M. Galles is associate professor of economics at Pepper- dine University.

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