Delightful do-it-yourselfer Carmen De La Paz shows how you can do it, too!
By Rachael Liska
She welds, sings, builds, cooks, makes art, decorates and plays nine—yes, nine—musical instruments. One look at Carmen De La Paz’s can-do life, and it’s tough to find something this dynamo has yet to master.
That takes vision, resolve and energy, all of which she has in spades. But Carmen herself, best known for her carpentry and design skills in six seasons of HGTV’s makeover series Hammer Heads, says her success is a gift.
“I’m convinced that the universe conspires with you when you put out a good message and help people,” she says. “Plus, I’m not a creature of habit—I’m always looking for the next opportunity. It’s about layering. I’ve never given up one thing for another. I do it all and do it joyfully.”
Passing It Along
Sharing her know-how is wholly Carmen, whether it’s through shows like Design Star, All-American Handyman and, most recently, Be Handy con Carmen, which airs in 17 countries. Or in work for her clients at her interior and exterior design studio, De La Paz Designs. Or in the pages of her new online magazine, You Can Do It!
“I’m always asking, How can I take this amazing platform that I’ve been given to inspire others?” she notes. “How do I tell the busy mom that for $25 or less she can get a gallon of paint and transform a room? I want to share that you don’t need a lot of money to live well.”
While skills are easy to teach, confidence can be slower to come by. “I like to tell folks that nothing we humans do is brain surgery—well, besides brain surgery! There’s nothing you can’t redo or undo—some of my biggest design mistakes have turned out to be my most beautiful finishes. And you don’t have to be ‘creative’ to do it. Success comes when you break projects down into manageable portions.”
To understand Carmen, you have to know where she’s been. Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and raised in Waukesha, Wisconsin, she’s always felt she had something to prove.
“For me, it’s about breaking stereotypes. I always knew I was going to do something great, but for a very long time I felt I had to prove that to someone else. Now, though, it’s about proving it to me, and inspiring other women along the way. So many women, especially in South America, are blown away by a woman who uses power tools. I say to them, ‘Who says you can’t use power tools? Who says?’ ”
After graduating from upstate New York’s Syracuse University with a degree in musical theater, Carmen set her sights on New York City. The search for decent, affordable housing there was the unlikely first step in becoming handy with tools.
“The apartments were horrible and expensive,” she recalls. “Finally, I convinced one landlord to lower the price in exchange for me fixing it up. I’d never done anything like that before.”
Fast-forward to the 1,700-square-foot home in North Hollywood, California, where Carmen now lives. In her seven years here, she’s renovated almost every square inch of the space, from bringing gorgeous hardwood floors back to life to fixing up exposed pipes behind a bathroom shower, all from her garage-turned-workshop. “I get a lot of on-the-job training,” she says with a laugh.
With such a modest space, Carmen spends a lot of time thinking about organization. “My brother teases me about how I know where every single thing is in my house,” she says. “He’ll ask me for something, and I’ll say, ‘It’s down the hall, in the cabinet, second drawer down on the right.’
“That’s because you waste time when you spend it searching for something and waste money when you buy something you already own.”
Here are more organizing tips con Carmen:
Begin by organizing common spaces, like the kitchen. “If there’s order there, everyone who uses the space can help maintain that order,” she says. “Make sure everything has a place and that everyone knows where things go.” Otherwise, she says, it’s easy to forget things.
“If you’re well organized, you can stay on top of things. In my office, I touch things only once.”
Group common items together. Carmen’s a big collector, fueled in part by her travel. “The secret is to display collections in bunches,” she says.
“I organize my collection of antique men’s hats around the perimeter of my guest room, and my mortars and pestles above my kitchen cabinets. It keeps them all accounted for, plus it makes a big design statement.”
Work every square inch. Check out Carmen’s workshop (in photos above), where saws and hand tools hang from the walls. Lots of custom wood shelving holds levels, drills and wood-turning materials and projects. (Yes, Carmen’s handy with a lathe, too.) Wood tool holders and carousels corral smaller carving tools, pliers and small paintbrushes.
Make it pretty. Carmen admits to sorting clothing in the closet by color just because she likes the way it looks. “That applies to organization, too, especially in smaller spaces,” she says. She advises choosing furniture and shelving that are attractive and functional.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Get your child organized by painting and personalizing a toy box—a craft project designed by Carmen De La Paz.
Photography by Jim Wieland; styling by Pam Stasney