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Books are boons to do-it-yourselfers

The outstanding volumes in the current crop of how-to books offer clearly explained and illustrated advice for the weekend warrior, interspersed with practical and whimsical tips.

Do-it-yourselfers are made, not born.

Those who begin life with hammers in their hands are likely to become professionals when they grow up. Such is not the case with the so-called weekend warriors, who possess rudimentary skills at best and may not even know which end of the hammer comes in contact with the nail.

The successful do-it-yourselfer is the one who can read and follow directions. The successful how-to book is the one that provides information clearly and succinctly, with plenty of clear illustrations, on projects that fit the skill levels of both the experienced and the neophyte.

The books being published today benefit greatly from 25 years of do-it-yourself television. The books before This Old House were mostly words. The ones today are primarily pictures and longish captions.

The best of the lot, for my money, is Home Book (Creative Homeowner Press, $40).

A lot of do-it-yourself books assume that the reader either has experience or will get better over time. Home Book does neither. It merely assumes that you can read and look at pictures, then arms you with enough information to decide whether you should attempt the project, and, if so, to pursue it to a successful conclusion.

It doesn't shy away from complicated projects, such as installing a window or building a deck.

However, it also knows what is most important to a typical homeowner, placing several pages on dealing with household emergencies _ what to do in a power outage, for example _ at the front of the book.

It provides basics on hand and power tools, as most how-to books do, but focuses on what you need to know rather than what is interesting to the writer.

Homeownership tends to involve more maintenance and small repairs than big projects, so you'll probably find information on fixing a tear in a vinyl floor or replacing a floorboard most useful.

For the big stuff, the book has a remodeling guide that focuses on hiring professionals and _ if necessary _ resolving disputes with them.

For the trivia lover, there are brief takeouts on, for example, the first escalator, built by Otis Elevator in 1900 for the Paris Exposition.

Ron Hazelton, TV's "House Doctor," once complained that while he could explain a project on his TV show, he had trouble doing it in writing.

If House Calls (Time-Life, $29.95), his new book, is any indication of his prowess with a pen, he was worrying for nothing.

Hazelton picked 60 of the projects most requested by his viewers and came up with the directions for both the simple (a window box) and the complicated (installing a laminate floor).

Each project begins with a list of tools and materials, how to prepare to do the job, and potential cost.

If the book has a flaw, it is in suggesting that the instructions apply in every situation. From my own experience, walls are rarely plumb, for example, nor are studs where they are supposed to be, so Hazelton's directions on installing wainscoting don't mesh very well with my experience putting it in my third-floor bathroom.

Reader's Digest's New Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual ($29.95) goes a bit deeper in tools, including use and maintenance, and has some more complicated projects for the high-end do-it-yourself people.

Reader's Digest's New Fix-It-Yourself Manual ($35) is a rehab of the 1977 model, dropping the section on auto maintenance and bookbinding in favor of VCR and teddy-bear repair. It's simple, well-illustrated and, at 448 pages, thorough.

Outdoor Projects 1-2-3 from Home Depot and Meredith Books ($24.95) is a book of few words and lots of illustrations. Its chief selling point is its "Skill Scale," which gauges how long the job will take based on your level of expertise.

Example: Building a patio roof requires carpentry skills. It will take 40 hours for the experienced person, 60 for those with intermediate skills and 80 for the beginner.

If you are starting out, try something smaller first.