CAMBRIDGE — Picture a pair of workbenches in the basement: One is a dad-sized, mount-the-vice-here setup with tools neatly hanging on pegboard. The other, a junior edition just right for a child.
If that rings a bell, you can appreciate Dan Klein’s upbringing.
“Among my earliest memories, I remember my father and just our routine working around the house,” Klein, 41, recalled. “My father had the big workbench in the basement, and I had the little workbench . . . And on Saturdays we would go to the hardware store and get whatever was needed for the project that weekend.”
But the handyman dad has become as rare today as things that can be repaired. Try fixing the kids’ Nintendo 3DS. And that beach chair with the torn webbing? Why bother? You can just buy a new one, right? And don’t the kids have a soccer tournament this weekend anyway?
“Most dads don’t even tinker,” said Miguel Gomez-Ibanez, president of the prestigious North Bennet Street School, which trains master craftsmen as well as workshop first-timers in Boston’s North End. “I’m in my 60s and I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, when most people had basements with tools in them. But the families I know now, parents in their 30s with 10-year-olds? The basement workshop” is a rare thing.
“What’s the point to dad’s fix-it shop when you can’t fix anything?” he said.
That’s not the case with the Kleins. When Dan Klein and his wife, Leah, bought a two-family in Cambridge, the entire family volunteered their handyman skills. Dan’s stepfather, John Bria, helped rip out the old kitchen and put in floors. His father-in-law, Andy Conn, painted. His dad, John, helped finish off the backyard and put in a patio. (See a before and after of their kitchen below.)
Since then, Dan and Leah have included their children, 10-year-old Isabelle and 8-year-old Henry, in most household chores. The children love to help mom out in the kitchen to the point they do their own baking on occasion, and when something needs fixing, the kids sometimes help dad.
“Isabelle is more inclined to help. She likes to roll up her sleeves and get her hands dirty,” Klein said. “At 4 or 5 years old, she helped me install the tile backsplash in our kitchen. She had the trowel, slapping the grout in between the tiles. There she was, right on the counter.
“She is keen to learn how to do it. Her attention span doesn’t always last the duration of the project, but that is all right,” he said. “Henry is a bit more of a watcher. I would use the word ‘observer.’ ”
Most of the middle schoolers who attend the North Bennet Street School come with almost no understanding of even the most basic tools, but Gomez-Ibanez prides himself on introducing students to the often liberating effects of hands-on know-how.
“Kids come in and don’t even know how to use a tape measure,” Gomez-Ibanez said. “Experience with hand tools is more and more uncommon with middle school kids.”
It’s not for lack of opportunity.
On the first Saturday of every month, Bobi Bullard leads parents and their children through free woodworking workshops at The Home Depot in Waltham. They build picture frames, flowerpots, and lawn-mower-like push trucks, and earn pins celebrating their accomplishments.
‘It fell apart. It was tiny. Now it’s full of bees.’ - Michael Umina, 8, on chair he built
Bullard said the workshops help close a gap that used to be filled by fathers and grandfathers who puttered around the house. Some of the parents join right in with the teaching.
“It’s a great part of my job, seeing these dads come in and work with their children, teaching them a way of life and having fun with them and laughing with them,” Bullard said.
On a recent Saturday in Waltham, John Umina selected a few ceiling tiles at Bullard’s Home Depot while his 8-year-old son, Michael, grabbed a handful of paint samples and threw them into a box of assorted hardware.
“They are for a project I’m going to do,” Michael said, “but probably just for my collection of stuff.”
“That’s more like it,” his dad said.
Umina grew up in the trades — his Italian grandfather was a mason and worked construction when he came to the United States. John’s father followed him. One uncle was a plumber. His friends are electricians, and Umina became an engineer.
“Now I get to use the common sense I grew up learning through all these skills and get to apply it to anything I do. That is what I am trying to teach him,” Umina said, putting a hand on Michael’s shoulder, “and his two sisters.”
The Uminas are now helping John’s brother Chris finish off the house he built next door in Waltham. Most of the interior is finished, and the brothers are working on a retaining wall and landscaping.
“Whenever we have something going on at my brother’s house, we show the kids. They mostly play, but they help, too. You know how it is,” Umina said.
“I helped build a little bit of the wall,” Michael said before describing a chair he constructed out of wood scraps. “It fell apart. It was tiny. Now it’s full of bees.”
Meanwhile, Evan Slater and his 10-year-old son, Lanz Perez-Kudzma, were returning a remote control that didn’t quite sync with their garage door opener back in Weston. The pair — well, mostly dad — had been doing spring cleaning that led to handiwork in the garage.
“We did a shelf thing,” said Lanz, a budding musician wearing plaid shorts just like his father.
“We just finished building a shelf in the garage,” Slater corrected.
Slater grew up working on cars and following around his own father, Kent, as he launched into rewiring the house in Calgary, Alberta, repairing the plumbing, even putting a new engine in the family Jeep.
“My dad always said, ‘Don’t pay somebody to do something you can do yourself,’ ” Slater said. “He was a very handy guy. I learned a lot — everything — from him, really. I was always, ‘Hey, Dad. What are you doing?’ Lanz, not so much.”
Time doesn’t allow Slater to do much tinkering these days. He used to pride himself on changing the oil in his car, but he said he doesn’t have time anymore. He and Lanz get in plenty of father-son time through Cub Scouts, camping, and on that sunny Saturday, washing the car.
In some families, like mine, the how-not-tos often outnumber the how-tos. I grew up on the second floor of my grandparent’s three-decker in Providence, where every few years my grandfather would horrify the owners of the hardware store across the street by putting up makeshift scaffolding — ladders, stacks of bricks, cast-off boards, and even an ironing board — to begin the monthslong task of painting the house himself. Miraculously, my Popi survived and the old Victorian looked great in white with black trim.
I still have his stubby hammer, complete with a busted handle nailed back in place.
Popi’s knack for cobbling together whatever he needed from whatever was at hand didn’t transfer so well to my father. He once built a bookcase for my mother that sat forever in the corner of the living room — the only place it could stand, given the unevenness of its sides. Measure twice, cut once? Sure, Dad.
Then there is Michael Katin’s old deck in West Newton. The trouble is, the man who built it — and who guided Katin through the construction of its steps and the nearby fence and gate – died about 18 years ago.
“This was his handiwork — my father-in-law, Bernard ‘Bobby’ Handelman,” Katin said. “My father didn’t teach me” how to be handy.
Katin grew up in Eastchester, N.Y., the son of a hosiery company executive. Typical of the time and the job, his father got home sometime after dinner and spent few weekends with the kids and fewer still tinkering around the house.
“We had all these tools in the basement he had inherited from his father-in-law, but I don’t think he knew how to use any of them properly. He spent a lot of time arranging them on the shelf,” Katin said. “My father-in-law, though, he was amazing.”
When Katin married Eileen Handelman, they moved to Newton, and her father soon arrived, tools in hand. They put up the back deck and moved indoors, where Handelman showed Katin how to build and install cabinets. The medicine cabinet Katin built remains in place. Handelman also passed on his knack for DIY to his granddaughters, one of whom helped lay the patterned-brick patio.
The Katin girls are grown now, and he could use their help. “The deck is dying now,” Katin lamented. “It’s all pressure-treated wood. I know people are using fancy artificial woods and cedar now, but I’m 66; I don’t want to do this myself.”
Klein, however, has his father’s know-how.
“I have a lot of his tools in the basement,” Klein said. “I have his acetylene torch. He bought it when he decided to put a hot-water tap outside, which I actually recommend. It’s nice to have warm water to clean the patio furniture when it’s a bit crisp out still.
“My father instilled in me a sense that you can do anything,” Klein said, “as long as you buy the right tool.”