Be careful how you hold the board when you first begin sawing, or you might cut your thumb, warns Albert Cheng Hung-cheung. It might seem an obvious point, even for the basic carpentry lesson he's giving, but some of the participants scribble a note. Hongkongers typically employ contractors for home improvement projects. But that might be changing as more people show an inclination to do it themselves and a number of retail outlets have sprung up to satisfy the demand for DIY. B&Q, Britain's biggest home improvement retailer, recently opened in Kowloon Bay, as has Spotlight, an Australian chain that offers fabrics and home interiors products. A report by global market research firm Euromonitor International, published last year, anticipated the arrival of such stores. Despite social factors, 'such as congested living space and the lack of a DIY culture', the fact that the property market was doing well indicated that more people would be taking on home improvement projects to save money and capitalise on their investment. Cheng, a former carpenter who gives free DIY lessons twice a week at B&Q, says his students want the skills to be able to do exactly that, and more. 'I've seen tremendous interest in learning how to do all kinds of home improvement projects,' he says. 'There are many who seem to be taking this up as a hobby.' Today's lesson is teaching how to hang shelves, while introducing participants to the basic tools of the trade. In addition to using a cross-cut saw, Cheng demonstrates proper hammering techniques, explains when to use a screw rather than a nail, and shows how using a spirit level keeps you straight when measuring. An hour later, he's hung two types of shelves and built a simple wooden box. Brian Lau has taken detailed notes. He left work early to attend the lesson and has designs for a wardrobe he'd like to build as well as a bed that incorporates storage. 'It's not that I'm hoping to save a lot of money making them myself,' says the 24-year-old retail salesman. 'It's more to do with the fact that I have something specific in mind.' Lau touches on one point of DIY home improvement that prevents many people from taking it up: the saw, hammer, drill, level and other tools Cheng works with add up to nearly HK$2,000 to buy, which doesn't include the cost of materials. Lau says he's kept his costs down through comparison shopping, visiting the many small hardware stores in Mong Kok and on Apliu Street in Sham Shui Po. The owners of many of these stores say the opening of the large DIY retailers has been a boon for their own businesses. 'I've been getting more customers in the past month,' says Eva Lau, who sells tools on Apliu Street. 'They're new customers. You can tell from what they're buying that they haven't done many home improvement projects before.' Cheng says he's had two types of people in his classes: those who come in with designs for a project they want to build from scratch and those who want to finish something a contractor started for them. 'We get lots of people who come in the week after the contractor has left, saying they want to add or change something.' He says that large 'one-stop' DIY stores tend to encourage people to try a project themselves because they sell all the tools and materials needed to complete the job, have knowledgeable staff offering help, and hands-on demonstrations. Peter and Christine Bancroft needed very little help to refit the Sai Kung flat they moved to two years ago; she's an interior designer and he a civil engineer. The couple hired a contractor to help with the heavy work, but they did their own electrical wiring, built a wardrobe in their bedroom, refitted parts of the wooded floor in their living room and added a deck to their rooftop. They also did all their own wall coverings and finishing. The couple say they saved a substantial amount. Contractors charge about HK$700 per worker per day. Specialist contractors usually quote prices per square foot, with wallpaper hangers, for instance, charging about HK$8 per sq ft and flooring specialists as much as HK$38 per sq ft. Hiring an English-speaking handyman can cost up to HK$550 an hour. Though now settled into their renovated home, the Bancrofts say it was difficult to live in the house during the six months of evenings and weekends it took to complete their DIY projects. 'It's painful to live in such a mess,' says Christine Bancroft. 'You just want for it all to be finished so you can enjoy it. If we had it to do over, I'd want to live elsewhere while the work was going on.' The dust and dirt of an ongoing renovation project wouldn't bother Chan Chak-nam. He's done small DIY projects in the past, but the 36-year-old IT specialist says he's not sure if his wife would stand for it. 'If it were going to take only a couple of weeks, it wouldn't be a problem,' he says. 'But we're talking about moving a wall to make our bathroom bigger and retiling it.' He expects the project will take at least a month and jokes that his wife would have to bathe at the kitchen sink during that time. Besides the number of weeks it will take to finish their bathroom, Chan also worries about making time to do it. He works during the day and would only have evenings and weekends to work on his bathroom. 'We have neighbours above us, below us and on both sides,' he says. 'Apartment life in Hong Kong makes doing DIY projects very difficult.' Still, he's determined to get the job done before taking on a few other comparatively easier DIY projects. Their plan, he says, is to make improvements to the flat, then put it on the market in the hopes of turning a profit. Chan happened to be in the store during Cheng's recent carpentry class and stayed for the duration, making note of the date and time of the next lesson - how to lay bathroom tiles. But becoming too handy around the house could have its downside, he says. 'If my wife sees I can do these things, she'll have me refitting our next flat, too.'