On their first anniversary, LeShaun Williams' husband gave her a cordless drill. For Christmas, he bought her a circular saw. For her birthday in June, she got a Roto Zip, a power tool designed to spin through tile, laminate, wood and drywall.
He knows what makes her happy: tearing into the house.
Williams is one of a growing number of dedicated do-it-herselfers. Over the last four years, she has single-handedly transformed her family's four-bedroom Colonial house in Germantown, Md. She has demolished walls; reconfigured the kitchen and living room; installed shelves, cabinets, ceramic tiles, wood flooring and wallpaper; built a deck; remodeled the basement and two bathrooms; added wood detailing in the halls; designed an addition; and made the furniture for the bedrooms.
And did we mention that this mother of two also works full time for Home Depot and is a songwriter and rap artist? Just back from a tour in Germany with hip-hop star LL Cool J, Williams has been performing since age 5 and recording since junior high school. She's probably best known as the racy rapper who adds the heat to the double platinum "Doin' It" on LL's "Mr. Smith" album and "Imagine That" on his mega-hit "G.O.A.T." disc.
"It's very, very busy," she says. "I work. I'm a wife, a mother, a daughter, a friend. I perform with LL, coach competition cheerleading and work on the house whenever I can."
Perhaps not many of us have that much energy, but Williams has plenty of company when it comes to a determination to take on her own home-improvement projects. According to the Tampa-based Home Improvement Research Institute, women now account for more than a third of all do-it-yourself purchases. Both Lowe's and Home Depot say half their shoppers are female; and according to a Home Depot/Yankelovich Partners survey released in June 2000, more women prefer to spend their weekend leisure time working on a home improvement project than shopping or cooking.
What's more, the number of women attending free do-it-yourself workshops held in the chain's stores nationwide has tripled since classes began five years ago. In the past, according to Home Depot spokeswoman Deborah Kleiner, women tended to show up for decor-related sessions. These days, they're picking more of the heavy-duty classes such as how to build a deck or tile a kitchen floor.
"Female participants tell us that they are tired of waiting for someone else to do the project and are planning to do it themselves," she said.
"Getting my reciprocating saw was one of the most exciting things that ever happened to me," says Williams. "I bought it myself, and when I opened the box and took it out, it was, like, wow--almost like hearing music."
Williams wasn't such an intrepid do-it-yourselfer when she and her husband bought their three-story house in 1997. She had tackled a few small projects in a rental apartment in Brooklyn, where she grew up. But when she and her husband moved to their own home, her ambitions took off.
The galley kitchen was the first thing to go. Out came the walls, appliances and dark oak cabinets, replaced by stainless-steel fixtures, IKEA cabinets, silvery wall tiles and a center island with a floating, frosted-glass top of her own design.
She built in a banquette in the breakfast area, a low-slung storage cabinet that doubles as a serving console in the dining area, a bed on oversize casters, and open-backed side tables that rotate on a turntable to hide books and papers in the master bedroom.
By the time she'd remodeled the kitchen and surfaced the floors with Pergo blond maple, she had become such a regular at her local Home Depot the store offered her a job. "They said I'd peppered them with so many questions that I might as well come work for them," she says.
Today she is a kitchen and bath designer for a mammoth Home Depot. For two years, she also has been what the chain calls a "homer," one of the home improvement pros authorized to provide nuts-and-bolts advice to do-it-yourself customers.
Williams' renovating skills came as a big surprise to her husband, Sudon, a corrections officer. "I thought all she did was sing," he says, gazing with pride at the newly opened-up living area of the home they share with their son, Isaiah, 12; daughter, BriAnna, 6; and two yappy Yorkies.
The house is spare and tidy, coordinated throughout in shades of silver, blue and white, punctuated by Picasso and Matisse prints and loaded with high-tech lighting, speakers and TV sets in almost every room. "We listen to a lot of music, and I have to be able to watch Christopher Lowell," she says.
Lowell, the Discovery Channel's irrepressible home-decorating guru, inspired the sleek, mirrored living-room wall and the pair of slipper chairs she updated with charcoal wool upholstery. You might have guessed, but Williams can sew too.
Down the road? Through the sawdust, she can picture herself hosting a home improvement program of her own.