Do-it-yourselfers are made, not born - the successful ones read and follow directions. And the successful how-to book is the one that provides information succinctly, with plenty of clear illustrations, on projects that fit the skill levels of both the experienced and the neophyte.
Need to know: Not all how-to books are the same. Some dwell on the writer's experience; others are limited to a particular topic, such as electricity or plumbing; many are just design books with pretty pictures. Greatest value for the money comes in books that provide insight into a variety of topics, are useful when you're making minor alterations and repairs, or give background knowledge for when you deal with contractors or salespeople, so you don't sound stupid.
Buyer beware: More than three decades of home-improvement TV has transformed the how-to book from unillustrated, wordy tome into picture book with expanded captions. But another result is celebrities lending their names to works actually penned by kids just out of college who wouldn't recognize a reciprocating saw if they saw one. Don't be fooled by a familiar face on the cover. It's what's inside that counts.
Web extras: How-to books have a short shelf life, primarily because products and tools change almost daily, and thus techniques do too. Many publishers now use Internet sites to provide continuing updates to their books, including animated step-by-step instructions and how-to videos, as well as links to products and services. Books with those add-ons are good buys.
The classics: These should be on every bookshelf:
Home Book (Creative Homeowner Press, $40). A lot of do-it-yourself books assume the reader either has experience or will get better over time. This one does neither. It doesn't shy away from complicated projects, such as installing a window or building a deck. But it also knows what's most important to a typical homeowner, devoting several pages at the beginning to dealing with household emergencies - what to do in a power outage, for example. It provides basics on hand and power tools, but focuses on what you need to know rather than what is interesting to the writer. For the big stuff, there's a remodeling guide that focuses on hiring professionals and, if necessary, resolving disputes with them.
Reader's Digest's New Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual ($29.95) goes a bit deeper into tools, including use and maintenance, and has more complicated projects for the high-end DIY type.
Reader's Digest's New Fix-It-Yourself Manual ($35) is a rehab of the 1977 edition, dropping sections 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 volume of few words and many illustrations. Its chief selling point is its "Skill Scale," which gauges how long a job will take based on your level of expertise. For 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."
Reviving Your House: 500 Inexpensive and Simple Solutions to Basic Home Maintenance Issues by Alan Dan Orme (Storey Books, $14.95). This is a must-buy. It will help you develop a checklist for keeping your house whole.