Updated on 05.22.09

How to Organize a “Working Party”

Trent Hamm

Carpentry Workshop on Awaji Island.  Photo by Ellie Van Houtte.Eventually, every homeowner finds a sizable home improvement project that they’d like to tackle. Perhaps the project is rebuilding a deck. Maybe it involves putting new concrete in the driveway.

Whatever it is, it’s big. You could tackle it yourself, but you’d be working on it after work for weeks, losing many, many hours that could be spent on other activities. So you either dig into the drudgery yourself, put it off, or, worst of all, hire someone to do it.

I suggest a different route.

A few years ago, a close friend of mine decided that something needed to be done about his cracked driveway. One Saturday, instead of putting it off yet again, he pulled a big grill around to his front yard, iced up some coolers with a bunch of tasty beverages, and invited a bunch of friends over to help. They all worked together getting the old, busted cement out of the driveway and adding a fresh new batch. One friend was a carpenter who took charge of the operation, but more than a dozen guys offered up their labor, knocking out chunks of concrete, carrying things out of the way, putting forms in place, and smoothing freshly-laid pavement. Along the way, they enjoyed freshly grilled brats for lunch and some excellent thick steakburgers for dinner.

In one day, my friend got his driveway refinished with no labor costs – his only expense was a lot of beverages and a fair amount of food. Everyone else there got two free meals, a lot of free beverages, and an afternoon spent outside with a bunch of fun people.

How can such projects work? In order to make it happen, you need to plan ahead in several different ways – but the extra planning and effort will really pay off later. Here’s what you need to do.

Always volunteer to help with projects that others are doing. If a friend of yours needs a hand with a project, don’t hesitate to burn an afternoon helping to put up a deck, assemble a shed, re-shingle a roof, or install a driveway. Even if you don’t believe you have any skills to offer, there are always things you can be doing, even if you’re merely a gofer or you wind up being the food preparer. Every task that you can help with helps the entire project move forward.

Give some advance notice. Don’t just call people on the morning you plan to get started on the project. Instead, give them a couple weeks’ notice at least, and keep track of the ones who seem at least interested. Let them know that there will be plenty of people, food, and beverages – don’t just focus on the work.

Plan out your work. Know exactly what your project is going to entail. Have all the supplies you’re going to need on hand well in advance of the working party. Have a plan in place that details what needs to be done and in what order the tasks need to be accomplished.

Be organized. On the day of the working party, get all of the supplies you’ll need out and organized before anyone else arrives, so that they can easily be found when work begins. Do some of the early steps yourself – measuring, marking, and so forth. This way, when people begin to arrive, the real work can begin.

Don’t be afraid to ask for extra help from experts. If you have a friend who is skilled at carpentry, don’t be afraid to ask for a bit of extra assistance and advice from this person. Invite them to come over earlier – and don’t hesitate to give them some gift of appreciation if they go beyond what you might reasonably expect from them.

Have a wide array of beverages available – and plenty of them. Water and sodas are good choices for earlier in the day – beers are usually good choices for the end of the day. If you’re unsure what you should get, ask people when you call them. Make sure you have more than enough.

Keep the beverages cold. Take empty milk jugs, fill them 2/3rds full with water, and fill your freezer with these jugs in the week before the party. The day before, ask around for coolers to borrow – try to get two or three of them. That morning, take out the jugs, smash them, and fill the coolers with beverages and ice. Make sure you don’t run low on cold beverages – on a warm day where people are outside working, it’s vital that you keep plenty of cold beverages available for them.

Thank everyone that shows up, both when they arrive and when they leave. This is simply good manners and goes a long way towards ensuring that people don’t leave with a bad taste in their mouth. Thank people for coming as soon as they arrive, let them know where the beverages are and when/where the food will be, and brief them on what’s going on.

Work hard. Never stand around while others are working on your project. Be involved at all times – and if you’re not directly involved, be doing something else clearly productive or purposeful. There’s no better way to sour the mood of a working party than to have the host standing around while other people are building his or her deck.

Have someone focus on food preparation. Although you’re the host, your role should be out there working as hard as anyone else on the work project. This means that, for food preparation, someone needs to give a hand. One great tactic is to simply ask someone appropriate – your spouse is a good choice, as is someone who might have a physical handicap that makes it possible for them to prepare the food, but difficult to engage in the work. Arrange this ahead of time so that it’s not a concern.

Make it fun. Have a radio available, and tune it to something that many of the people will find interesting. Growing up, when my father would have events like this, he would make sure that the radio was tuned to a baseball game of one of the local teams – this is actually a pretty good suggestion. At the same time, keep conversation going – and keep people talking. Introduce people to each other if they don’t know each other well.

If you’re called later by someone who helped you, help them. These types of exchanges are often the beginning of a long-term relationship that will be beneficial for both of you.

A working party can be a great way to build friendships, have fun, and get a major task accomplished at a very inexpensive rate – but it does require a lot of work and preparation. Good luck!

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  1. Esty says:

    I’m a member of a sort of theatrical group, and we very often have ‘work parties’, where everyone who’s free comes to the house of the guy in charge and works. Right now I think the project is painting a rusty trailer and putting new boards on the bottom.

    Sometimes we have food and sometimes we order pizza, and we rarely have beverages other than water available, because we have no money and because we’re sometimes out there every day for a week in the summer (and because, for the most part, our members either don’t drink or are too young). But the bonds we’ve already built up mean that usually everyone contributes, regardless of how much food there is or isn’t.

    If you’re a member of a group that has a lot of things that need doing but that you just never get around to, and if the members are pretty close, try having regular work parties. It just might work (pun unavoidable).

  2. Deborah says:

    It’s not quite the same scale, but I have a group of 3 other friends that do this kind of thing once or twice a year. Just last weekend, we emptied out my living and dining rooms and painted (the tray ceilings and bay window alone would have taken me as long as the whole project did with all of us working. Two years ago when one bought a house, we all pitched in and spent a Saturday pulling up bushes, bagging up leaves and preparing/planting flowerbeds.

    Even though we’re always exhausted – and ready to swear off any more “HGTV Projects” for a few months – we have a GREAT time. And the fact that we’re spread out between 2 cities that are 190 miles apart has never been a hindrance – it’s a great reason to go visiting for the weekend. I usually make a big pan of lasagna a week ahead of time and freeze it. We’re always ready for a nice glass of wine at the end of the day!

  3. almost there says:

    I did this with a self move without hiring a moving company. Rented a truck, got the guys from the office to pitch in one Saturday and moved into my new condo. All it cost was beer and pizza with a few swear words thrown in when the hide-a-bed opened up on a couple guys while going up the stairs to the second floor.

  4. Evangeline says:

    Reminiscent of the old barn raising parties, it’s simply good friends and neighbors helping each other. Sometimes the old ways are the best ways.

  5. Kevin WIlson says:

    I did this a couple of summers ago as a deck demolition party with about 12 people. It was supposed to be only removing the top surface (2 layers of rotten plywood) but the underlying structure turned out to be rotten too, so we took the whole thing down. My daughter cooked pizza in relays and there was lots of cold drinks. Everyone had fun ripping things apart.

  6. Sheila says:

    I approve of this idea in theory. But honestly, unless it was fun work (painting?), I would have no interest in doing this whatsoever. I once got invited to a paint-stripping party and I just laughed. No way do I consider paint stripping a party activity. Maybe it was the fact that this is the kind of thing that a certain rather selfish relative would like other people to do for her but she wouldn’t do for them, and it would be inconvenient to get there. I must also say that in addition to not wanting to fix a cracked driveway at all, if I had to listen to the radio blaring a baseball game I would be even more pissed off. It would keep people from talking to each other, which is my idea of the point of a party. And I freaking hate baseball. I wish I could get my mind wrapped around what a good idea this is, because I can understand how community-building and kind it would be. But in reality, I’d rather not!

  7. Amy B. says:

    I had a similar party when I had several small projects to complete before my house was ready to go on the market.

  8. Anne KD says:

    We had a big painting party the day after settlement on our house. We couldn’t stand the previous colors. It was a great way to get our family over to see our new house, we got three rooms and a hallway primed, one room painted. Us womenfolk broke off for a bit to get sandwiches made. My husband and I really like doing DIY parties- mainly because we get to be with friends/family, and we get to learn some stuff along the way.

  9. Seattle says:

    I miss Iowa so much!!!!! This doesn’t happen out here in Seattle – I have lived in my home three years and have only met one couple across the street – my attempts at friendship have met with cold stares.

    Appreciate what you have there in the Midwest!!!

  10. indymoney says:

    I didn’t try this idea. But I’d like to try in the near future. First, I need to follow the ideas you’ve given to overcome the hesitation I have.

  11. it’s always interesting to read about DIY projects, especially since we just don’t have that culture here in urban India. You’ll be hard-pressed to find any home that has more than a hammer and a screwdriver around here. I guess that’s because labour is available in plenty and at nominal rates – most people in cities don’t venture beyond changing light bulbs here. So something like a working party would be extremely odd here.

  12. Devon T. says:

    I just did this idea a couple weeks ago. Only two friends showed up, and not much work was accomplished at all because they were joking around all the time. I did everything on your list too. At the end of the day, I felt like I had more work to do instead of less.

  13. evd says:

    If you don’t have lots of friends who can do this kind of work (like me), maybe advertising for volunteers and creating a “pool” of helpers could work. As long as everyone fully participated in some kind of way, I think it would benefit everyone.

  14. clayton says:

    Cool post!

    As another commenter mentioned, moving can work like this. Myself and my friends graduated recently and we rent on year-long leases around Chicago. So when anyone moves we just send a group e-mail and its an instant crew! It only took us 40 minutes to get all my stuff into the truck.

    Then the best part is the person moving takes everyone out to lunch, picks up a case of beer and we just chill the rest of the day. It’s a great feeling too — We all feel helpful and like we accomplished something. Beer always tastes best when you’ve earned it!

  15. Ana says:

    Good timing, we’re having a garage sale next weekend and all sorts of family friends volunteered to come help out (one even volunteered to make a big spaghetti dinner for everybody at the end of the day!). It’s always good to be reminded on ways to make sure they know their help is very appreciated.

  16. Becky@FamilyandFinances says:

    My husband and I do this all of the time with our families, though he’s does better at offering his help than asking for it!

    These “parties” usually work out REALLY well, but I do want to emphasize one point that Trent brought up. Make sure you have a plan in place and that you are ready to give everyone a job. My most frustrating experiences have been when I’ve shown up and either nothing is ready (for example, a moving party and nothing is packed up yet) or there are too many people to do the job. Proper planning is key!!!!

  17. Jon says:

    Our online resource-sharing software, has a project/events feature that was designed to help people organize working parties like this. One of my friends used it this weekend to invite me and a bunch of other guys to help clear brush at the home of a family we all know. You can check out the software at http://www.sharonimo.com.

    Thanks for another great post, Trent!

  18. Robert says:

    Instead of working parties you could call them ‘Tom Sawyer parties’. : )

  19. Nice idea!

    Reminds me of an Amish Barnraising . . .

  20. Sam says:

    You absolutely read my mind on this one!
    I recently moved into a house near my university with a pretty run down lawn: overrun by crab grass & dandelions and very little actual grass growing.
    As anyone who’s tried to fix up a lawn knows, keeping weeds at bay (especially dandelions) is a tough job.
    I suggested to some of my friends recently that they come spend a day helping me rip up weeds and laying down some grass seed if I keep burgers and drinks going for them. A lot of people were actually willing to help out!
    Great post and I’m glad I wasn’t the first person to think of something like this!

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