Grit Blogs > The Daily Commute

How To Build Anything: 19th Century Advice for the 21st Century

By Hank Will, Editor-in-Chief


Tags: DIY, tools, farms, barns, fences, books,

GRIT Editor Hank Will at the wheel of his 1964 IH pickup.By now you've figured out that I love books, especially books that empower you with all the information needed to build just about anything. My favorites among those works offer a glimpse of hope for folks without all of the modern tools or the shiny new methods mastered. I recently picked up three such how to build anything titles that were originally published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and recently brought back to life by Skyhorse Publishing. The prose in the books is positively delightful and offers a glimpse into period phraseolgy as well as lovely illustrations of entirely buildable projects that you might actually still attempt with hand tools -- although no demerits are given for judiciously employing power tools or modern versions of vintage tools and machines.

Shelters Shacks and Shanties and Fences Gates and Bridges are two excellent books.  

The first couple of titles are devoted to building specific things that are useful around the homestead, at your hunting camp, for your back 40 escape or just for fun. Shelters, Shacks and Shanties and How to Make Them by Boy Scouts of America founder D.C. Beard and Fences, Gates and Bridges and How to Make Them by George A. Martin offer excellent ideas with sufficient instruction to build bark teepees, log cabins, log and clay chimneys, dog-proof fences, stock-proof hedges, rustic gates, wooden bridges, stone culverts and so much more. While you might want to substitute readily available modern materials for some of the recommended supplies, these books should inspire you to make use of the bounty that your land offers to create really useful and potentially fun items to make your homestead a happy place, while saving plenty of money in the process. Although I fancied myself an experienced fence builder before reading these books, I learned of several styles of fencing that were formerly unknown to me. I also learned why those pioneer cabins with log chimneys didn't catch on fire and how to build sufficient woodland shelters that I'm tempted to leave the tent behind the next time I go camping -- don't worry, I won't deface any public or private property in the process.The Handyman's Guide 

The third title, The Handyman's Guide: Essential Woodworking Skills and Techniques by Paul N. Hasluck takes a turn of the last century approach to educating the average Joe and Jane on professional approaches to virtually all aspects of woodworking. This book is beautifully illustrated with drawings, plans, photos, you name it, and it begins with an excellent tool history and listing of the tools of the day with instruction on how to use them. Once you know a brace from a bit, you can move on to learn the nuances of joinery and discover which joints to use in virtually every situation. And then you are presented with several hundred pages of woodworking lessons disguised as projects -- birdhouses, balustrades, sideboards, workbenches, tool boxes, small buildings -- they're all in this book. This tome of woodworking titles also includes valuable reference materials on everything from wood species identification to nail and screw types to sawing logs to -- you get the idea. Whether you are a seasoned professional or a rank amateur, The Handyman's Guide will encourage you to try something new or a different technique, and inspire you with hundreds of projects.

I place all three of these new-old titles in the "must have" category for all do-it-yourselfers out there, and they most definitely deserve a prominent place in on your homestead bookshelf. Look for them at a bookseller near you or online.


Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on .