Man vs Tech: Top tech to help you avoid a DIY disaster

Home improvement just got easier. All you need is a phone, a few gadgets and a tiny can of beans

The Mission: armed with a collection of gadgets, our man must transform himself from a serial bodger into a home-improvement wizard. This might be harder than we think.

The Man: how many Dan Reads does it take to change a lightbulb? The answer, of course, is that it’s safer to get an electrician in. The same goes for any other job around the house.

Dan Read

The tools (RYOBI):

Ryobi Infrared Thermometer £70


If you often find yourself saying, “Stick the fire on, Barbara,” chances are you have a draught in your house. This little chappie will check your windows, vents and doors for unwanted chills, as well as detecting dodgy seals. Arf.

Moisture Meter £50


No, it’s not a breathalyser. This detects the humidity in various materials, including wood. So if you spot a lovely little cottage for sale and it’s only 35 grand, you might want to take one of these in with you before you hand over your dosh.

Stud Finder £TBC


Sorry, ladies, but one of these will not point you in the direction of Burt Reynolds or, indeed, David Hasselhoff. But what it will do is locate the wooden struts behind plasterboard, for hooks etc. Which is also quite useful.

Inspection Scope £120


If you’ve got a nook or cranny that you’re itching to explore (no, not that kind), this little device will help you. It’s a waterproof camera attached to a cable that beams a picture to your smartphone. Also useful for DIY endoscopies.

Laser Level £50


If you absolutely have to put up that crappy fake Monet – the one that’s stained with lager from last year’s Christmas party – you may as well make it straight. This beams a line onto your wall as a guide. As long as you’re sober, the rest should be easy.

Laser Distance Measurer £110


Horsey people and cheapskates use hands to measure stuff, but that’s not going to cut the mustard when you’re looking for some precision. This measures straight lines to the nearest millimetre – perfect if you like measuring straight lines.

Other kit (BOSCH):

PWB 600 Workbench £125

PSB 10.8 drill £100

PSB 10.8 multisaw £70

PMF 10.8 multi-function tool £70

If you need a shelf putting up, I’m definitely not your man. I’d drill a nice, clean hole – probably through a gas pipe – and the results would make the local news. If you ask me, a plumb line is a row of fruit, and power tools are like firearms – something other people use; people with proper qualifications and pencils behind their ears. Actually, I do sometimes carry a pencil behind my ear, but only because I’m a writer; a writer who'd happily open a tin of beans with a miniature angle grinder.

I think I’m actually beyond help. So when the T3 editor asked me to try a few home-improvement gadgets, I warned him it might result in collapsed foundations and an insurance claim. Surely, nothing could turn this hapless home improver into a competent putter-upper without intensive training and a primal re-wiring? But I hadn’t reckoned with Ryobi Phone Works, a suite of apps and add-ons that turn your phone into a toolkit and – in theory – make a serial bodger look like Handy Andy in minutes.

It just works

Essentially, Phone Works takes the place of traditional measuring and detection equipment. It’s unlikely that a tape measure would ever feature in T3, but what if it were replaced by lasers controlled by your phone? That sounds a bit more like it, so that’s where we’ll start – with the Laser Distance Measurer.

Put simply, it’s a small box that projects a beam wherever you point it. The beam is marked by a small, red dot on the target surface, as if it were in a sniper’s sights. It connects to your phone via the headphone jack, and the distance is displayed on the app. As well as measuring straight lines to the nearest millimeter, it can calculate area and volume.


Of course, you could do this with a tape measure and algebra, but that would take time, you’d get your sums wrong and your carpet would come up short. The app does all this in seconds, and you won’t need anyone to hold the other end while you mark the floor with chalk.

The Laser Level device is similar. Effectively, it’s a high-tech spirit level that uses your phone’s gyro instead of bubbles in glass tubes. You clip your phone into the cradle, attach the cradle to a tripod (there’s a thread on the underside) and use on-screen graphics to find a level. It then throws a beam onto the wall, giving you a straight line to line up picture frames, or a diagonal one if you’re building a banister up the staircase.


Sometimes, though, a wonky shelf is the least of your worries. It’s the things you can’t see that you should really worry about – inside pipes, behind walls, down drains. That’s when you’ll need the Inspection Scope, which looks like something you’d use for investigative surgery but is actually a waterproof camera mounted on the end of a bendy cable.


Mysterious cavity

It connects to your phone via a wireless network, and displays whatever it sees on the screen. Whether or not you actually want to know what’s there is another matter, especially if you’ve poked it up an especially dark and mysterious cavity.

The Infrared Thermometer has a similarly medical vibe. And while you could probably use it to determine human body heat, it’s really designed to measure the temperature around windows and vents. Like the other pieces of kit, it transfers data through the headphone jack and clips to your phone, which you then point at the problem area.

Your screen overlays the view with various graphics and real-time readouts, keeping track of second-by-second changes in Fahrenheit or Celsius. It’s useful for finding the source of a draft, or for making sure your vents are venting.

Now, let’s imagine you’re about to bang a nail into a wall. Not a solid wall of bricks and mortar, but a flimsy interior one that couldn’t hold the weight

of a commemorative plate. What you need to locate are the wooden support struts to which the plasterboard is nailed, and to which you can hammer your nail, picture hook or whatever. For this, you’ll need the Stud Finder, which sounds like a dating app but is actually a scanner that sees through walls, finds the hard points and tells you precisely where they run. It even gives you the dead centre, so you can be confident you’ve found the strongest spot.

Moistening the stud

Once you’ve found your stud, it’s important to know how moist it is (stop sniggering at the back). This is where the Moisture Meter comes in. It has two metal prongs on the top, which detect the dampness – or hopefully dryness – of wood, drywall, cement, insulation and other building materials. It looks like some medieval torture device, but in the right hands it’s relatively harmless. It even charts data over time, so you can plot the readings from one specific spot and catch rising damp before it, er, rises.

Traditionalists could probably diagnose all of these things by simply looking around, or tapping the walls and sucking through their teeth before producing a horrendous quote. But for the rest of us, the Ryobi kit is quite empowering, and compensates for our complete lack of tradesmanship. Well, almost. Because no matter how smart your phone, and no matter how many gadgets you use, you’ll still need proper tools for the hard labour. But even those are becoming increasingly idiot-proof.

Take the Bosch equipment I used in this feature, which I managed to operate without reading the instructions. The workbench looked really manly and gave me somewhere to clamp my beans, and there was also a multifunction tool for opening them. (Or you could fit many other attachments and use it for something more, er, useful, such as sanding, routing or removing fluff from your belly button.)

I also used a sturdy drill, and a power saw with an onboard torch, which directly illuminates your work area and therefore reduces the chances of you removing a minor body part. After all, you might never find a stud if that happens.