You don’t even have a chance to ask Cohen & Co. hardware store owner Mitch Cohen what customers want during a quarantine before a man enters the store and answers the question with a shout.

Where’s the paint thinner?

“People are doing a lot of painting,” said Cohen, whose family has been in business more than century (currently at 615 E. Passyunk Ave.), though he’s never seen anything like the surge in business brought about by the lockdown. Although it’s hectic, he loves being busy, and helping folks who need help.

“Now is the time for small hardware stores to shine, all across the country. We’re one of the few business allowed to stay open, and we’re here for people,” Cohen said.

Folks are looking for COVID-19 basics like cleaning supplies, gloves, mops, dust (not surgical) masks, and hand sanitizer, and he’s been able to keep most of it in stock.

But some customers, he added, are looking to take on bigger projects. And home-improvement experts say coronavirus shut-ins looking to make the best of a bad situation can use the time to tackle home-improvement projects, taking advantage of the fact that hardware stores are open, and the fact that expertise exists for free online.

» FAQ: Your coronavirus questions, answered

Here are some projects to consider taking on:

Fix the hole in the wall, and other little projects

Cohen says he’s selling a lot of spackle. “That hole in the wall that people have been looking at for three months? They’re fixing it.” He’s selling paint, brushes, rollers, pans, and drop clothes. Some folks are even going after old furniture, taking on refinishing jobs. “We’re selling a lot of sandpaper.”

People are doing the little things, down to changing the light bulbs. Shelly Nolley at Mapes Hardware in Ardmore said customers want light bulbs and batteries, simple electrical equipment, and plenty of nails and nuts and bolts for loose hinges and loose boards. They’re buying things to assist with minor lawn and garden projects.

Rent equipment for bigger jobs

PBS This Old House consultant and contractor Jeff Sweenor said that he and his wife recently decided to tackle their son’s bedroom when he moved back in after college and was too old for wallpaper that “still had a Little League baseball theme.”

"This Old House' builder Jeff Sweenor says that now's the time for empty nesters to get the wallpaper with the Little League theme off the spare bedroom.
Anthony Tieuli/Courtesy This Old House
"This Old House' builder Jeff Sweenor says that now's the time for empty nesters to get the wallpaper with the Little League theme off the spare bedroom.

They rented a wallpaper steamer, and repainted. It turned into a sweaty four-day job, even for an experienced pro, but Sweenor said that mostly what it requires is elbow grease and planning. Treat it like a job, he advised.

“My suggestion is take inventory of each room, including the garage and basement, and prioritize what needs to be done. Then make an agenda and a schedule. Say you’re going to start at 8:30, and stick to it,” said Sweenor.

If quarantine rules in your state mean that contractors can’t do the work, he said, equipment can be rented through hardware stores — power washers for your deck and siding.

And you don’t have to be an expert.

“You can learn how to do almost anything on YouTube,” he said.

Learn new skills online

PBS, for instance, has been featuring free contractor-led tutorials since March 26 via This Old House: Live, a feature (free with the This Old House app) that will continue through April.

Landscape contractor Jenn Nawada fielded questions by live stream, and offered tips and techniques on several projects — including how to easily build a 6-by-6 raised wooden flower bed from a kit that can be ordered online and delivered safely to your door.

“All you really need is a drill and the ability to read instructions. Anyone in the house who can put together baby furniture can do something like this.” she said.

You can get DIY tutorials from 'This Old House' pros like landscaper Jenn Nawada for free online.
Colleen McQuaid/Courtesy This Old House
You can get DIY tutorials from 'This Old House' pros like landscaper Jenn Nawada for free online.

This week kicked off with live tutorials and Q&As with This Old House painting contractor Mauro Henrique, and next week will feature This Old House carpenter Nathan Gilbert.

You can also check out free tutorials on a wide variety of DIY projects on YouTube channels offered through hardware chains like Home Depot, deemed essential businesses during the shutdown, and both offering curbside pick-up and, in some cases, delivery.

Lowe’s is offering online projects for kids — how to build a “robot” from easy-to-find materials you have around the house.

Start planning projects you can’t take on yourself

Jay Cipriani, owner of Cipriani Remodeling Solutions of Woodbury, N.J., which specializes in kitchens, bathroom and additions, said he’s closed his offices but can still help customers who are contemplating a major remodeling job. They can email photos of their prospective space to the firm’s draftsmen and designers, who can turn those images into a 3D model that can customers can customize as they wish. Folks can also be directed to supplier websites where materials can be browsed and selected.

What not to take on

Now is not a great time to do traditional spring cleaning — taking unused junk from around the house and piling it on the curb. Many municipalities say they are overburdened with trash and garbage pickup as stay-at-homers generate more refuse than normal. Check with your city or township — most say you can help out a little by crushing your cans before dropping them in the recycling bin. It helps the trucks save space.

The screening process

One more thing. Back at Cohen’s, Mitch said he’s doing a lot of screen repair. The hole in the wall, the hole in the screen — those are being taken care of during quarantine. Oh, and glue — on a basic level people simply want to make sure things hold together.

Which is what hardware stores are doing, after a fashion.

“We’re blessed that we’re allowed to be open every day. Every day, I say my prayers.”