You see, I’ve written a new book about making doors, available here, and, of course, that process got me thinking.
On the shelf in my shop have a copy of Henley’s Twentieth Century Book of Recipes, Formulas and Processes: Containing Nearly Ten Thousand Selected Scientific, Chemical, Technical and Household Recipes, Formulas and Processes for Use in the Laboratory, the Office, the Workshop and in the Home, published in New York in 1907.
Intended for the general public, Henley’s tells you how to make everything from your own acid-proof wood finishes to food preservatives, foot powders, even zinc contact silver plating. But in close to eight hundred densely-packed pages, there is not a single image or illustration, and there are few how-to instructions. To make the acid-proof wood finish, for example, the book simply tells you to boil copper sulfate and potassium chlorate salts until dissolved.
To many modern Americans, the directions in this book are dangerously incomplete, perhaps criminally. Will boiling these crystals give off noxious fumes? Do you add water? How much? Can they be boiled safely in a steel or aluminum pot? Where can you even buy these crystals? Henley’s is mute. While I’m sure that some readers in 1907 did not know the answers to all these questions, many more did. Henley’s was a popular book and went on to revised editions.
In 2016, we no longer have the same foundation of practical knowledge or hand skills (or understanding of risk) that our ancestors did. The efficiencies of mass manufacturing have allowed each of us to focus on specialized professions— many of us simply don’t need to build or repair our own houses or furniture anymore; there’s someone else or some company who specializes in that and we make enough money to pay them to do it. And yet many of us lament this loss, nostalgic for earlier generations of DIY enthusiasts, amazed by their ability to do so much on their own, and forgetting that they did not have the internet, heated toilet seats or inexpensive Asian manufacturing integrated with global markets and high volume low-cost shipping capacities. With these things, we are far more productive, far less burdened by the work necessary to simply survive, and have far greater freedom to pursue other opportunities. We are now far less independent and far more interdependent. We are not worse—we are just different.
Well, most of us. Some of us still make our own things. I make my own doors. Now, don’t get me wrong -- I don't believe we should all make our own doors. We should make them if we want to and for the right reasons. I have made my own front door, bedroom doors and bathroom doors. And I make them for customers too. I’m not so much a Luddite as have a different economy of value. I don’t really know what motivated people to buy Henley’s and make things from it. But I made those doors because it was satisfying work to integrate something of beauty and usefulness into my life, and for others.
Why would you make your own door (or anything else?) You can’t save any money: a manufactured, pre-hung hollow-core at Lowe’s costs about $67, while the raw materials to build a similar door would cost about $300. You can’t advance your career in selling widgets: doormaking is not much of a resume builder. And you can’t make influential friends: try introducing yourself as being "way into doors" "You mean The Doors?" "No, just doors." You will, however, create beautiful, unique and useful objects -- thereby acquiring the traditional skills of craftsmanship that have shaped our humanity: a main advantage, and consequence, of the opposable thumb.
If we share anything with our handier ancestors from 1907, it’s the need for understanding and mastery of our daily environment, or at least a part of it, and shaping it to our liking. We may live in a world where merely opening the back of a phone voids the warranty, but we still can find deep satisfactions in creating and thereby understanding some of the things we use.
So this is indeed why I’ve written a book on making doors. Published by the Linden Press, it is available now on Amazon now for preorder (to be delivered in the early months of 2017). It’s for every skill level. Maybe you'll read it. Maybe you'll make a door from it.