04/13/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
ONE MINUTE IT LIES IN THE BOX all bright and shiny, an innocent child's plaything. Then, on the side of the carton, you spy the phrase that heralds a descent into Stephen King-style horror: Some Assembly Required. "They're just three words," observes Ted Stewart, 47. "But they strike fear into the hearts of men and women everywhere."
Stewart should know. Since 1991, he and his brother Michael, 40, have been helping the handiness-impaired in the Washington area. For a price—generally $30 an hour—their firm Some Assembly Required will put together all those seemingly unrelated parts that are supposed to turn into a swing set, basketball backboard or home gym. "The first gas grill I put together," says Ted, "I realized, 'Nobody's going to want to do these.' "
Ted, of Fredericksburg, Va., and Michael, whose base is St. Leonard, Md., put in 12-hour days using the nuts and bolts know-how they learned from their engineer dad back in Richmond, Va. "We do a lot of stuff for single moms," says Ted. And they undo a lot of stuff that guys have done. "I did a whole home gym the other week," says Michael. "It was almost complete, but everything was wrong." Adds Ted: "Guys hate to admit they don't know what they're doing."
The brothers, who take opposite approaches—Ted hates to read directions, while Michael goes by the book—find work through referrals from such area stores as Sears and the Sports Authority. They also get a lot through word of mouth. "Every Christmas," says Ted, "I have people begging me, right up to the end." If time permits, they always try to lend a hand. "Basically," says Ted Stewart, "we just do what dads used to do."