Document 28: Walt Durbahn -- "Our House is Different! Yours Can Be Too! 1954

(A slightly adapted version of an article in the January, 1954, issue of American Magazine. For background and other webpages with images and information on Durbahn click here .)



From attic to cellar and all around the house there are fascinating ways to dress up your home with your owns hands—even for a rank beginner. A "Do-It-Yourself" authority tells how easily your family can start on this adventure of fun and profit


Boxed information at the end of Durbahn's article tells readers that American Magazine plans to publish more articles of this nature:



In this new service feature, the purpose of THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE is to meet your basic "Do-it-Yourself" needs. If you have any Ideas or suggestions which you think would en. hance its value to you and other renders, write and tell us about it.

NEXT MONTH: How to Make Simple Electrical Repairs in Your Home.


Beginning of article:



LOOK at your hands. Do you have blisters, a callus or two, a blue spot on a nail where your hammer hit the wrong one? Good for you! Yours aren't idle hands then.

What is it I read somewhere about that? . . .

"Give me a man with a hobby of working with his hands and I'll show you one who enjoys life, has a clear mind for business problems, who will live longer." ... Those aren't my words but they sure are my sentiments.

God meant us to use our hands to help ourselves and to serve mankind. Busy hands are both the cause and the effect of a happy mind. All my experience p roves it.


The home we own and in which we have lived for 23 years in Highland Park, near Chicago, was built by students of our high school under the supervision of skilled craftsmen. Each of those youngsters felt he built it himself. In later years, as some of them came back to visit us, I could see that they wanted to check up on their house.

[Need more details about this project]

My wife, Ruth, and I, with our three daughters—Phyllis, Mary, and Mirth—took over where those boys left off, and made our house into a home. I can remember the naked 75 x 100-foot lot on which our new house stood. Nary a tree or a shrub. Not even a blade of grass.

Fortunately, Ruth is one of those green–thumbed persons who seems able to make at least two plants sprout where only one ordinarily would. Now the yard is our own little bit of heaven, with over 50 varieties of trees and shrubs, two pools, a garden shelter and barbecue, countless flowers, and a carpet-soft lawn.

Time, patience, and the urge to create did it. And the willingness to learn by reading, listening, asking, looking.

Our house has changed some over the years. Gradually we made improvements to meet our needs and fancies—just as you may do, however uncertain your skill or your unfamiliarity with tools. At first a cupboard, additional shelving here and there, extra closet space; then more elaborate projects, like the log-cabin recreation room in our basement, and the pine-paneled porch. And any number of other additions and revisions.

ALL of this took time, you understand. We made each improvement a family project, talked it over together, sketched it out on paper before we cut a board or drove a nail. All of them are reflections of our particular family life, and the source of mutual pride and joy. Now that the girls are all grown up, Ruth and I regard each achievement of our hands as a memory point in our family's progress. Thus it is that a home takes on personality.



"Well, if I had a workshop, and if I knew as much about carpentry as you do, I'd make things tool"


say many who have not bothered to find out how possible it is for the average man (and woman, lest I forget).

Actually, only a few basic hand tools are necessary for many of the projects one might attempt. As for the know-how, there is no end of books and pamphlets the beginner might learn from. A liberal education is to be had just for the kibitzing. Cultivate the habit of watching carpenters as well as friends and neighbors who have acquired skills in their home workshops. Then, when you finally do make a start, begin with the simpler things. Ease yourself into the more complicated jobs gradually. You know, first things first.

There is a great movement abroad in the land, called "Do-It-Yourself." It is a modern Renaissance. I'm glad to see it, because, for a while, America appeared to be losing interest in doing things with its hands. This do-it-yourself trend is healthy for the individual and the nation. It is a tremendous influence for good, both spiritual and economic.

I can recall only too well the time, back in 1933, when I left a high-school principalship to don overalls and go out and build houses with our students. I did that for years. Some people actually looked askance at me for "stepping down" in a social scale. I was a queer.
[The current meaning "queer" -- that a person is gay or a homosexual -- was not in everyday use -- according to my dated but still useful Dictionary of American slang -- until 1956.]
Let me tell you, though, I never was happier than when working with my hands, and if I had it to do all over again you can just bet I would repeat the performance.

America's swelling surge toward do-it-yourself is no overnight development. Nor is it a passing fancy. It is a national habit which is here to stay. With it has come, naturally enough, the problem of where to get qualified information, suggestions, help in the use of tools and machinery.

The sources include the magazine you are now reading, literally thousands of books on simple home craftsmanship, pamphlets and instructional leaflets from manufacturers of paints and varnishes, hand and power tools, plywoods and wallboards, brick and tile, and of all of the many other industries which supply "Do It Yourselfers."
[For confirming evidence on Durbahn's claim about the increasing plethora of publications, check the table near the bottom of this page.]

In addition, you can get valuable advice and instruction from your friends and neighbors, from the industrial-education department of your local high school, and from radio and television workshop programs.

If you are anxious to acquire sound training in workshop methods and in the use of tools, I'd urge you to consider especially the adult evening classes in your local high school. You will find good companionship there as well as excellent facilities and instruction. But, for the average man, the trial-and-error technique of the home workshop will suffice.

One of our adult evening shop classes several years ago was made up largely of mature, substantial businessmen.
[Getting data on adults in evening woodworking classes has, to date, been difficult. It is though vital to completing a history of amateur woodworking, thus I will continue to look for the information. Any helpful advice is welcome.]

In most cases they attended the classes for one of two reasons—in pursuit of a hobby or to learn how to perform simple repairs and improvements about their homes. (This was during the postwar period when materials were hard to get, and labor even harder.)

[OK! Here Durbahn has given us important information: it is Chicago, after 1945. I now have a source for digitized newspapers, the Newspaper Archive.]

Few, if any, of those men had ever handled more than a golf club or a cocktail glass in their leisure time. Yet when they had completed their evening courses, most of them wound up with fairly sizable basement and garage workshops of their own. I hear from some of them now and then. They are still as enthusiastic as when they were "students."

One man, I particularly remember, attended the evening classes so he could be better equipped to share his high-school son's interests and leisure. He wanted to make sure he would be capable of stimulating his boy's interest in a joint hobby. Smart man.

I have witnessed time and again the relaxing effect of woodworking on high-strung businessmen who are perfect peptic-ulcer cases. What does Doc Boyd call it? "Occupational disease."

Like my friend Gordy. Gordy was one of those captains of industry who carried the cares of the world on his shoulders (he believed). I never knew anyone who looked so everlastingly tired. To this day I do not know what prompted it, but he almost bowled me over one evening when he walked into my workshop and announced he was going to make himself a Chippendale hanging shelf the very next evening!

Gordy did make the shelf. Only not the very next evening. He spent weeks on it. In fact, like everything he does, he got really wrapped up in his project and turned out a remarkably good piece of work for a rank amateur. This sudden interest in a Chippendale hanging shelf actually was a turning point in Gordy's life. He manages to spend one or two evenings a week in his basement shop now, and he has lost that perpetually tired look. A cheerful expression has replaced his frown, and I'll swear he looks ten years younger.

Let me mention one other acquaintance, Ed Fucik, a retired civil engineer. Ed practically devotes his life to urging young folks and old to get them-selves a workshop. He was recallingnot long ago how, in the early thirties, like countless other businessmen, he would go to his office and sit there all day twiddling his thumbs, things were so slow. He would spin his wheels thinking about all his bright construction plans—and then practically go out of his mind, because virtually no one was doing any building during that time.

Ed contends that his workshop did more to help him through those difficult times than anything else did. He would go down in his basement in the evening and work out ideas at his workbench which he was able to utilize in his business. He especially enjoyed the evenings he spent with his two boys making ships' models, loco-motives to scale, models of the Constitution, Catty Sark, and others. Both his boys are successful engineers in their own right now, and Ed will tell you that their early workshop experience was an important part of their practical training.

As I said in the beginning, every manalmost without exception—and many a woman—can belong to the do-it-yourself crowd. There's no trick to it except to begin with simple projects and work into the more complex as you acquire skill and equipment. From my own observations, the most satisfaction will be derived from projects for and in the home.

Perhaps it will help you to plan your own start if I take you for a verbal walk through my own home and mention a few of the things we made and the improvements we effected.

As you approach our front walk you will see nestled in a clump of evergreen trees a post lamp that is both utilitarian and decorative. In fact, it trademarks the Durbahn household. Take a look at the sign in the photograph on page 73. That's Ruth on the left in her characteristic summer pose—on her knees, with a flowerpot in one hand and a trowel in the other. Yours truly is on the sawhorse, hammer and saw in hand.
We made this personalized sign quite simply. First, Phil, our son-in-law, photographed us in several different poses. When the photos were printed we selected the pose we liked best, had the photograph enlarged to size, transferred the outlines to a piece of aluminum, cut it out with a jigsaw, and painted it black. You can do it just as easily, trade-marking your own hobby, business, or avocation.

The lamp itself is made out of 24-gauge galvanized iron soldered and riveted together. The part that fits over the top of the post is just a tomato can.

Off to one side of the walk, like an invitation to the garden beyond, is a rustic pergola. A pergola is at its best —at least a rustic pergola is—when set against informal planting. Project-wise, it is a job that calls for several cedar posts, a saw, hammer, and a fistful of aluminum nails (the aluminum nails will not rust outdoors). If you like it and if you have a pathway or garden spot for one, 1. think you will enjoy making a pergola. Certainly it is simple enough.

In the backyard near our kitchen door we have what we call our out-door living room. It consists of a patio with a fish pool in a setting of weathered rocks, low-growing Japanese yews, and a variety of wild flowers and moss.

Opposite the pool, 20 feet or so to the south, is a garden shelter and barbecue. What a place to grill steaks and hamburger in the summertime and in the late spring and early fall! When I built this shelter I indulged a yen that carried over from a vacation in Colorado some years ago: a Chinese oven. If you've never partaken of meat roasted and hickory-smoked in a Chinese oven—well, you just haven't lived. It is a great asset for outdoor entertaining, I might add. As you can see, I don't go in for gimmicks; my projects are useful.

Aside from the brick work, the shelter is a hammer-and-saw job. It does involve a bit of curved sawing, where . the poles fit together. This is done with-out difficulty, using a coping saw or old-fashioned turning saw. The concrete slab was laid over 6 inches of crushed rock to, give it good drainage.

An almost obscure but highly practical project is a grating foot scraper set in concrete at the entrance to the back door. Is this ever a housewife'sfriend! Keeps mud outside where it belongs. The grating is removable, so that the accumulated dirt can be cleaned out about once a year.

The grating is made of 1/4 x 3/4-inch bars with holes drilled near each end. Long bolts through these holes tie the bars together. The spacers between the bars are 3/4-inch-long pieces of H-inch pipe. Many visitors have re-marked on this foot scraper and have needled me into making a quick pencil sketch of it for them to take away with them.

Spring will be back before we know it. If you are like me you will start itching soon to get going on something new for the yard. How about a fence, even a short section, as screening or background? Like the one our daughter has. That portion of her terrace which is on the high side of a slope was rather public. So Bob, her husband, built a short fence with two flower boxes suspended from it. He fastened one end of the fence to the house and the other end to a post. It is just what the terrace needed for privacy.
A picket fence also can serve to keep little tots out of trouble while they play in the sun. Four-inch cedar posts 5 feet long, set 2 feet into the ground and spaced 8 feet apart, will provide adequate support. The pickets are nailed to the 2. x 4 cross pieces. This is another good beginner's project.

Let's go indoors now. Best thing we ever did in our kitchen was to build acanopy over the stove, with an exhaust to remove the cooking odors. The canopy is of 28-gauge galvanized iron, with a scalloped edge of I/4-inch plywood topped by a 134 -inch crown molding.

A 36-inch fluorescent tube concealed beneath the canopy brings cheerfulness to an otherwise dark corner. A little condiment shelf just above the stove holds the usual seasonings a good cook wants within easy reach.

Most of the furniture in our home are pieces I made myself, as an outlet for my intense interest in woodworking and because all my family has a preference for early-American and fine period pieces. I will admit it is quite an assist to have all five members of a family in accord on furniture style,

Toes among our reproductions is a period piece known as the English Library Step, which I consider my own best work. It consists simply of three plain steps veneered with fiddleback and swirl mahogany. The steps are in-laid with red leather.

This Library Step adheres strictly to the traditional as far as outward de-sign is concerned. But as I said before, the Durbahns have a veritable mania for functionalism. So presto! The top riser drops to reveal a radio; the middle riser conceals a speaker; and the bottom riser rides forward like a drawer and contains a record player.

Now, I'd hardly recommend this particular piece as a project for any be-ginner like the delightful but over-enthusiastic lady in one of my evening classes a few years back, who wanted to make a Windsor chair the first night she attended class. It took a bit of per-suasion and explanation to talk her out of that as an initial effort.

She gave me to understand that she was a college graduate with two degrees and that she knew all about tools. Well, she finally condescended to start by making the simple stool which we recommended to our beginning students. It was rather startling, when she was asked to make a rough pencil sketch showing the several parts and their sizes, to find she hadn't the slightest idea of how to go about that. How-ever, the real piece de something or other came when she was given a board and was instructed to cut out the pieces. She actually asked me how one used the handsaw!

No, you had better leave articles like the English Library Step for later. Much later.

A year or so ago we remodeled our powder room, installing plastic tile on the lower walls. We selected wallpaper with an early-American design for above the tile. It produced a lovely Colonial effect, except that the con-temporary mirror we had been using there appeared, of a sudden, incongruously out of keeping.
Ruth insisted we replace it with an early-American hanging shelf and mirror. After agreeing on one of half a dozen design sketches we roughed up, I made the mirror-shelf shown in one of the accompanying photos. Knotty pine is the wood used, which I distressed ("antiqued") a bit, glazed, and then waxed.

This project I do recommend to beginners. Just take your time about the layout, and do the cutting as carefully as you can. It. does not require a great deal of tool knowledge or experience. Your local lumberyard probably can supply the 1/2 -inch pine stock.

Let me tell you about another project which made a hit around our house. This one was for the girls when they were young. Children, you know, like privacy just as adults do. They need a certain amount of it. They need a place of their own where they can store their secrets, and a spot where they can study their lessons undisturbed.

I remember how delighted our daughters were when I built each of them a writing desk for her room. They used them constantly all through their school years and long beyond, right up to the time they married and moved into their own homes. In fact, I built another for Phyllis a couple of years ago in her new home. My granddaughter Karen will be asking for one next.

In our home, as well as in Phyllis', I built these desks under the eaves in the second-story bedrooms. Such a location is ideal for them, but you need not necessarily have a Cape Cod ceiling line; a built-in writing desk may be in-stalled in almost any room.

Maybe you have a nice finished attic in your home, enclosed stairway and all. I envy you if you do, and so do mil-lions of other homeowners. Our place is like so many others; one may stand up in the attic only directly beneath the ridge pole. Its entry was via a stepladder through a two-foot square hole in the hall ceiling.

We needed storage space badly, so I bought one of those inexpensive disappearing stairways, enlarged the ceiling opening for its installation, and now Ruth can store away to her heart's content.

You might like the dead-storage closet for clothes which I built after the attic was made conveniently accessible. The illustration does not show it off as well as it might but you can tell from its position under the sloping roof how it is arranged. Made of wide ply-wood panels with reinforced and glued corners into which were nailed quarter-round molding, and with sponge-rubber strips as door sealers, this closet is as tight as a drum. No moths or larvae can possibly survive the sealed-in gas of the paradichloride crystals we used for protecting our stored woolens.

Although the closet measures only 4 x 5 feet, it accommodates every bit of our out-of-season clothing, blankets, drapes, and the miscellany of house-hold items which require mothproof and dustproof storage.
Now step downstairs for a moment into our basement recreation room, most pretentious of our modernization jobs. Our basement was typical of its era: four concrete walls, an octopus of a warm-air furnace smack-dab in the middle of the floor and with massive round pipes reaching out in all directions. There also was a coalbin in one corner, and the usual laundry tubs in another.

The transition you see in the accompanying photograph was a whole winter's work. I did not do it alone, either. Incidentally, that is another thing about do-it-yourself. The homeowner must use enough good judgment to know when to call in the help of skilled mechanics. After all, there are some kinds of work which can't be done well, safely, or in time by the average amateur. Without help, an extensive alteration job like this will drag out and become a chore to the worker and a source of irritation to the housewife.
As I say, I started this during the winter and, with help, had it completed by spring. First thing we did was tuck the furnace off to one side with the other utilities. We created another little room for the fireplace wood, one for storing fruits and preserves—and then the recreation room with its tiny kitchen in one corner.

Recreation room, in this case, is a misnomer. We use it as a living room a good part of the time. and I find myself gravitating there automatically when I have desk work to do or when I want to get off where it is quiet and do some planning. The fireplace, built-in writing desk and book shelves, the log-cabin atmosphere make it a mighty comfortable place to work in—and what's wrong with working in comfort'? Especially when a fellow likes to stretch out on the sofa to "rest his eyes" between jobs.

We used log siding on the long walls, pine paneling on the two short walls and the ceiling; and asphalt tile over the concrete floor. One must think twice to realize he actually is in a basement.

OUR most recent major undertaking was the porch conversion. Originally. ours was an open porch which was usable only in the summertime. (Golly, how it used to burn me to wake up m the wee hours of the morning, to hear Ruth calling: "Walt! It's raining like mischief. You'd better move the porch furniture before it gets ruined.")

Now it is a pine-paneled room, with convenient entrances from the kitchen and living room, and a door to the yard. This project also required help but, once again, we were able to complete it in a season without a drawn-out condition of upset. This porch conversion has added a heap of year-round living and several thousand dollars' value to 1900 Beverly Road.

If you never have attempted to make something for around the house or yard, I would like to feel that reading this piece has influenced you to try your hand at it. You'll not regret it. Let me repeat, though, start with something simple and work into it gradually.

I'll tell you what let's do. I suggest we start out by assuming you don't know one end of the hammer from the other, the approach I had to take in our elementary woodworking classes.
I have worked with thousands of beginners during my 35 years as a teacher, and out of that experience I'd suggest you get your feet wet in this fascinating pastime something like this:

First establish a place to work. Your workshop can be almost anywhere, de-pending on the house or apartment you live in. To some, a small cabinet in the kitchen is adequate for the few tools and supplies you will need. Others will have a bench in the basement or garage, or in the attic.

Regardless of which is the case with you, it is a good idea to start in a small way, and as your interest, skill and needs increase, add to your collection of tools and equipment. There are far too many well-equipped workshops standing idle because their owners be-came overenthusiastic at the outset, and failed to realize that their tools required a certain amount of skill and knowledge. So they became discouraged and dropped the whole thing. It is surprising, on the other hand, how quickly tool skills can be developed by the rank amateur with a little patience and application.

You will want as a start a hammer, crosscut saw, try square, screwdriver, hand drill, pliers, and adjustable wrench. You will need, as you go along, a jack plane, a few chisels, a coping saw, and so on. I will outline these basic tools in a separate article in the February issue, telling their uses and how to buy them.

OF COURSE, a work surface also is needed. If you already have a work-bench or a sawhorse, fine. If not, get yourself a sturdy chair (an old one), a packing case, or what have you, to kneel on and to hold the wood firmly when sawing. Before you start on your first project, perhaps I ought to say a few words about the two or three tools you will use in making it.

The saw, for instance. Not everyone can pick up a saw for the first time and use it correctly, simple though that be. Remember the college gal I mentioned earlier who knew all about tools, but who had to ask how she went about sawing a board? You grasp the handle firmly in your right hand (unless you are a southpaw) with the thumb and index finger touching the side of the handle. Draw the saw up once or twice, with the thumb of your other hand lightly guiding the blade on the wood where the cut is to be made. It should be drawn up slowly and carefully at exactly the point the cut is, to start. Never start a saw cut with a down movement and never start it with a quick swipe. Hold the saw with the blade vertical, or at right angles to the wood, brining the handle down so that the saw will be at about 45 degrees to the surface. Long, slow, easy strokes are best, with the pressure only on the down stroke. Of course, always keep a firm grip on the piece being sawed.

Now the hammer: Grasp it firmly near the end of the handle. Rest the face of the hammer on the nail, draw the hammer back and give a light tap to start the nail, and also to get a good
aim. Be sure to have a free wrist movement. Strike the nail squarely to avoid marring the wood and bending the nail. Always strike with the face of the hammer, and with the handle at the point of impact at a right angle to the nail. I mean by that, your hand should not be above the level of the nailhead, or below it, when the hammer comes in contact with the nail.

Here's a trick I learned the painful way, which may save you some cussing: Hold the nail between your thumb and forefinger, closer to the nailhead than the wood. How come? Well, if you should miss it, your fingers will have at least a little distance to travel as a cushion, rather than to be hard against the wood at the time you strike. Which is a good place to remind you that, as a golfer keeps his eye on the ball, you should keep your eye on the nail and not on the hammer.

Learn to use your try-square before you do any cutting, so that you can square a line across a board properly. It will save you wasted wood and time, and will help you to turn out neater work. When you have measured and marked the wood stock, place your try square at the mark, holding the tongue of the square on the board surface ofthe stock, and the head firmly against the edge. Mark carefully along the top with a long pencil. To mark across the edge of the board, use the head of the try square on the face of the stock and the tongue across the edge.

May I suggest a good project to be-gin on? Elsewhere with this article you will find instructions and working drawings for a simple stool. The photo-graph shows my granddaughter Karen carrying it. Notice the simple outlines and assembly. You will find many uses for it. Make it 14 inches high as a bench for a youngster; or 7 inches high for some small fry to stand on when he brushes his teeth; or 20 inches high as a portable workbench for sawing wood and other work about the house. That's it. Easy enough.

THERE is no limit to the number of useful things you might begin on. Get that word useful? Nothing will discourage you faster than to work up a lot of interest and enthusiasm over a project you and no one else have any use for after you have finished it. So think about any project for a while be-fore you decide to make it.

For example, if your family enjoys gardening they probably will be de-lighted to have you make a hot bed or cold frame for getting an early start with the spring planting. Or you might consider a trellis or two if you have a bare, uninteresting outside wall in your yard. The back of our garage was like that until we put up our rose trellis against it. Most lumberyards stock the inexpensive 3/8 x 11/4 -inch lattice stock that needs only to be cut to length.

If you have a dog, look no farther for something to make. Man's best friend deserves better than an inverted packing case without proper flooring and good ventilation, for his abode.
The several projects I have mentioned here are simple hammer-and-saw affairs calling for stock lumber available at your local lumberyard. Each is foolproof and easily within the scope of the novice.
Breathes there a man, with soul so dead, who never to himself hath said—I made this myself!


In this new service feature, the purpose of THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE is to meet your basic "Do-It-Yourself" needs. If you have any Ideas or suggestions which you think would enhance its value to you and other readers, write and tell us about It. NEXT MONTH: How to Make Simple Electrical Repairs in Your Home.