How to learn language of French 'bricolage'

Nick Inman charts the ups and downs of doing it himself in our regular column... here, he discusses how to find the right advice

29 May 2019
By Nick Inman

There are infuriating people who talk as if they were born knowing all about building and restoration, but most of us have to learn by taking advice and resorting to trial and error.

If you do need instruction on a topic, where can you find it?

Some of the skills needed to work on a house in France are universal and there is plenty of information about them online in English.

YouTube is overflowing with videos explaining almost any problem you care to name.

If you are doing up an old house in France, however, there may not be so much that someone doing the same in upstate New York can tell you. 

Many aspects of DIY are particular to each country – such as materials, methods and regulations.

Of course, it helps to understand spoken and written French. Conveniently, DIY can be a good way to learn to do just that. When I am desperate for hard facts, my comprehension mysteriously improves.

I often forget I am listening to a shop assistant or friend speaking in a language foreign to me. I might miss the odd point but I can always ask for it to be repeated.

One enduring problem, however, is that I know many far more relevant technical terms in English and I am constantly in search of the equivalent French word.

With Wikipedia you can translate a French page into English in an instant – but I have a preferred method.

My favourite self-help book when I lived in London was the Complete Collins DIY Manual because of its elegant design, can-do certainty and illustrations that make every technique look a piece of cake.

This book exists in a French version called Le Grand Guide Marabout du Bricolage, which is very nearly a page-by-page recreation of the original, making it easy to look up the same subject in the two languages.

 The French book is now out of print, unfortunately, and hence missing a few recent innovations, but it is still a valuable source of vocabulary.

It can be picked up cheaply online.

There are surprisingly few books about French DIY in English. One is How to Renovate a House in France.

Richard Wiles has published a couple of English-French DIY dictionaries based on his experiences doing up a farmhouse in the Limousin.

When you are ready to make the leap into French, you will find more information available, with DIY magazines and TV shows to inspire you.

The big bricolage shops publish explanatory leaflets on a range of projects and their websites are full of information. There are also excellent books on respecting regional architectural styles and using the ancient methods of building correctly.

Restaurez et rénovez votre maison ancienne is splendid for its pictures. La Maison de Pays is full of helpful pen and ink diagrams.

Various government agencies and other organisations can also be good sources of advice.

The regions and departments of France often publish information about the vernacular architecture – and some of it is available for free.

An association that may be worth contacting is Vieilles Maisons Françaises (vmfpatrimoine.org) which has 18,000 members dedicated to understanding and preserving the old houses of France.

It gives advice on the upkeep and renovation of older properties, as well as on grants, and holds networking events.

Brico lingo

Some useful DIY terms:

l’échafaudage – scaffolding

délabré – ramshackle

le bricolage – DIY

aménager – to install

le plancher – floor

le plafond – ceiling

refaire – renovate

restaurer – restore

artisans – craftspeople

la douille – light socket

la faïence – wall tiling

l’aggloméré – chipboard

le placoplâtre – plasterboard

la maçonnerie – masonry

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