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
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
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
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
[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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.