Where the Wild Books Are – Public Domain DIY Classics

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In the digital age, we have access to an immense amount of information on virtually every topic imaginable. Some might argue that we have way TOO MUCH information available. Nonetheless, if you are a do-it-yourselfer, the Internet is a huge step forward when it comes to learning HOW to do what it is you WANT to do. Sites like Home Fixated offer great project ideas, and online forums give us the chance to share our experiences with others and in return, learn from them.

There was a time, though– many, many years ago – in an era before the birth of digital technology, when analog cavemen wandered the earth, building shelters with stone axes and getting their information from… believe it or not…BOOKS. They were the ANALOG DINOSAURS. They went to the library and scoured the dog-eared back issues of Popular Mechanics and Fine Woodworking. They clipped ads out of the back and sent off for plans, yes PAPER plans, on how to build a Morris chair, or instructions on how to rebuild a Volkswagen carburetor. Those were dark days, indeed.

Yes friends, I confess! I am an Analog Dinosaur! But gosh darnnit… hunting down those old books was fun! I once found a musty old 1919 volume of The Boy Mechanic while cleaning out a garage when I was a teenager. That book is still one of my favorite possessions. I have shelves loaded with old “how-to” books, all containing lost treasures. How to build an ice boat. How to sharpen a scythe. How to build your own drill press. How to do calligraphy, draw cartoons, build a birchbark canoe or a pinhole camera.

Now, with the advent of the Maker Movement, a lot of these lost arts are being rediscovered, and thanks to digital technology, some of these classic “do it yourselfer” manifestos are being unearthed, digitized and made available for free online.


Because many of these old volumes have fallen out of copyright after many years, they enter the legal realm known as the “Public Domain.” That means anyone can use them, print them, distribute them or share them online without having to pay royalties. Two giant web-based repositories of free books are the non-profit projects Archive.org and The Gutenberg Project. You can go to either of these sites and browse a TON of great free books, read them online or download them to your device of choice. My personal favorite is the Kindle Paperwhite for reading e-books, because, after all, I’m an old geezer.

At Archive.org, you will find the Boy Mechanic books, which are endless fun. You will also find 230 issues of Fine Woodworking, dating back to  volume 1 number 1 from 1975. Another old Popular Mechanics offering from 1943 is The Concrete Handbook: everything you need to know to make use of this universal building material.

Over at Gutenberg.org you will find some real gems as well. Boat Building and Boating  is a 1931 classic on how to build and sail your own boats, ranging from a “Logomaran” (log catamaran) to home-built houseboats. Modern Machine-Shop Practice may not exactly be “modern” anymore (published in 1887) but the explanation of the basics of machining is still totally relevant and the illustrations are AMAZING.


After you have spent countless hours browsing Archive.org and The Gutenberg Project, jump over and take a look a The Woodworks Library. If you are into traditional woodworking, this site has over 175 full woodworking volumes available as pdf files. Mostly from the late 1800s and early 1900s, they cover topics from reading blueprints, to how to season wood, to upholstery. It also features a section on blacksmithing, welding and metalwork.

machine shop

The final stop on my tour of favorite public domain DIY book resources is tubebooks.org. It is a website about vintage electronics. Although the website itself doesn’t look to have been updated since the Bush presidency, the links to copious numbers of books are still live, and there are TONS of pdfs for great resources if you want to learn about basic electronics, or if you like to tinker with old stereo gear, guitar amps, etc.

The plethora of public domain books available on the web is one of my favorite aspects of the “information age.” After all, once I’m done looking at hilarious videos of my friends’ cats, it’s good to know that I can use the same technology to do something productive. Like build a tesla coil! Or repair a treadle sewing machine! Or carve a boomerang! Or…..


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About Rich

Rich Dana loves to build things, to tinker on things, and to grow things. After more than a decade as a historic building remodeler in Brooklyn, New York, he and his wife Ericka moved to their back-to-the-land dream home (and fixer-uper nightmare), an 1870s farmhouse on 15 acres in eastern Iowa that they call “Catnip Farm.” For the last 18 years, Rich has specialized in super-efficient historical renovations and solar PV installation. He is working to convert much of the farm into perennial food crops like nut trees and berries, and he helps Ericka out with her heirloom seed project. His latest passion is learning to sew.

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