Rags, Clothespins, and Beer Mats: How to Improvise Home Repair Without the Hardware Store

Photo by lost places / Flickr

Usually, household fix-up projects go something like this: 

  • Check the internet for a guide
  • Head to the hardware store to trawl the aisles for far too long, trying to work out what you need
  • Go home and try to make sense of it all
  • Return to the hardware store after something doesn’t fit or makes no sense
  • Start over at “Check the internet.”

There is another way: Make do with what you have around you. 

Assuming that you have basic tools, and at least a couple of junk drawers or boxes full of standard household extras—wood offcuts, mismatched screws, weird plastic widgets strangely left over from  an IKEA bed—then you have enough to tackle many common household repair jobs.

You can also misuse your tools to mimic other tools. This is usually regarded as a terrible practice—you should treat your tools as well as you treat the objects they repair. But in a pinch, and when you’re really trying to avoid a trip to the hardware store , a power drill can become a half-decent “saw,” for certain jobs.

This post will cover two things: specific repairs that can be done without the “proper” tools and materials, and tips on how to use common household items to mimic specialist tools.

Unblock a Toilet with Rags, a Bag, and a Stick

True story: Years ago, I called the plumber to unblock a toilet I’d been trying to clear for days. He turned up in his own car, with no tools except a roll of gaffer tape. “My cousin is borrowing my van,” he said. He took a look at the blockage, then asked for a broomstick, a trash bag, and some “old t-shirts or towels.”

He transformed them into a plunger—stuff the rags into the bag, insert the stick as a handle, tape it closed. This bag of rags on a stick cleared the blockage with two shoves. It can do the same for you, too, if your plunger is missing, broken, or bad at its job.

You can refine this method. You don’t need the tape if you don’t have it—you can twist and hold the bag tight instead. A mop with its head in the bag will also do, as will a toilet brush with a bag and some rags. Keep a second trash bag to hand, so you can put the dirty bag straight in, and not drip your way back to the trash can.

The plumber’s call-out fee was the equivalent of $190 today. Since then, I’ve realized it was money very well spent. This trick has never, ever failed to clear a blockage.

Clothes Pegs, Matchsticks, Chopsticks, and Cable Ties

Photo by Logan Ingalls / Flickr

Hardware stores sell specialized solutions for everything. But you don’t always need them. The store-bought method for fixing a loose shelf, for example, involves filling the holes, re-drilling them, and using the proper wall fixings. 

But you can also remove the existing wall fixings, then shim the hole with the non-lighting-end of matchsticks . You can then either re-use the plastic wall plugs, or just use the matchsticks. Any slivers of scrap wood will work. Just drill the hole as usual (or clear and debris out of the existing hole), and slip a few matchsticks or wood scraps into the hole. The goal is to line the hole with this wood, so that it takes the place of a wooden wall plug. The screw will have something to bite into, and the wood will compress as the screw goes in, hopefully resulting in a tight joint. To fill a hole in wood, toothpicks and wood glue can also do the job, in a pinch.

A chopstick portion bolsters an unreliable toilet flush mechanism. Photo by Charlie Sorrel – “Two or three years old, and still going strong.”

Chopsticks are another great DIY emergency standby. They’re thin, strong, and easy to pare down or cut. A chopstick (combined with cable ties) can make a good splint, or a replacement handle. Like with matchsticks, you can repair a stripped hole in a piece of furniture or wall by gluing in a section of chopstick. It even makes a good tool, any time you need to poke, stir, or smooth something, like shoving spackle into a hole, or removing a stuck slice of toast from the toaster.  

Clothespins / clothes pegs are another amazing DIY resource. Take one apart, and you have two small wedges. They can act as tiny doorstops to stop windows banging shut. Half a pin/peg is the best wobbly-table cure around. I’ve even glued a few pegs in a row to replace a drawer runner inside a broken chest of drawers.

Self-adhesive Velcro is also a surprisingly good construction material. It gets tighter the more it is jostled, unlike most other fixings. The downside is that it has very little rigidity, but in the right situation, it works as well as more customary methods. For instance, if you use Velcro as the “glue” to fix together the panels of a wooden box, the structure of the box is rigid enough that the whole unit is solid and sturdy.

Paper, Cardstock, and Beer Mats

Plumbing might be the worst kind of home emergency. It’s messy, and often leaves you without essentials like fresh water, or hot water, or a freely-flushing toilet. Gaffer tape can provide a temporary fix, but it won’t last.

One surprise is that paper and cardstock can make great replacement seals. Ever since discovering that the head gasket of my first car was thick paper, I’ve cut replacement washers and grommets from beermats, and used card and paper shims. Try it. You might be surprised how well paper holds up, at least until you can get around to .

Misuse Your Tools

What if you don’t have the right tool for a job? If you can’t borrow it, the next best option is to order one, especially if it will be useful forevermore—saws, drills and drill bits, and good screwdrivers, for example. Open up enough devices and you’ll know why an iFixit toolkit pays off over time. But getting the job done is sometimes more important than investing in the right gear.

Lacking a jigsaw, a few closely spaced drill holes creates a make-do wood cut.

If you need to make a small cut in a plank of wood, you can just drill a row of small, closely-spaced holes. The in-between wood should just snap off. If it won’t snap off? A large, flat-bladed screwdriver can make a decent chisel to get that done. Messy but effective.

Not a master craftsman’s work, but at most angles, only you will know.

How about clamps? Gluing wood and other hard materials is much easier, and more reliable, when you have some clamps, but you can make your own. Often, a few heavy books on top of the repair will do (just make sure to place a sheet of paper or another barrier between the first book and the glued items).

My favorite makeshift clamp is a string. Tie a loop of string around the items you’re glueing, then use a pencil or chopstick to twist the loop until it’s taut. Then slip the chopstick through the loop a little, so it catches on something as it tries to untwist itself. Depending on the hardness of the materials you’re gluing, you may need to use extra wood to protect the edges and corners from tight string. Clothes pegs are good (compound craftiness!), as are offcuts of wood from previous projects.

Prepare for the Future

In regular life, there’s a fine line between keeping things that may be useful in the future and messy hoarding. But in the DIY repair realm, it’s always a good idea to keep a few things handy. On the think-before-tossing list: spare screws from IKEA projects, sturdy foam packaging, offcuts of wood and metal, magnets ripped from the fancy box your phone case came in, wires, washers, clips, and clamps.

Keep a box in the garage, or the basement, or even under the bed, with all these useful make-do items. It’s rare that one of them won’t come in handy the next time you need to repair something at an off-hour (or in weird times).

Half of repair work is improvisation. You can often get by with a little ingenuity, and a good box of leftover junk.

Charlie Sorrel writes about technology, science, ethics, DIY, and music.  His writing can be found at, Cult of Mac, and Fast Company.