Scanning Around With Gene: Clever Things to Make at Home

I used to make a lot of gifts for Christmas, but I now suffer from a shortage of talent, time, and temperament. Plus, I have little family left, and my circle of friends no longer exchanges presents. So while I once made clocks, planters, wind chimes, and other items, I now pick up a couple of gift cards for my nephews and call it a day.

But I couldn’t help myself recently when, at a garage sale, I came across a 14-volume set of books from Popular Mechanics Press called “What to Make.” Of course I took them home, despite an utter lack of shelf space. But the drawings and typesetting were just too good to pass up, and there are many practical projects that I might actually get to someday. The books were issued yearly and I have volumes running from 1939 through 1954. Click on any image for a larger version.

I guess people, particularly men, had a lot more spare time in those days, and home woodworking shops were fairly common. Making things was also an affordable way to acquire items you might not otherwise be able to buy.

These days, when you consider the value of time and supplies, it may actually cost more to make something at home than it would to buy it retail. There weren’t so many cheap items from abroad back then.

In addition to the great drawings for which Popular Mechanics is well known, I particularly like the type choices in these volumes, which make the best of a limited font selection.

Many of the items were meant for children, especially during the war years when it would be mostly grandparents in the shop, and when shortages of metal, rubber, and other items made it harder to find commercial products.

My dad was a wood shop nut who made many things for us kids, including a see saw, riding carts, clocks, a boat, and even guitars. But little of his cleverness was passed on to me.

I have just enough talent to follow directions and do decent work, but I lack the patience to get through the homemade process. I either lose interest or give up at a particularly difficult point.

And let’s face it. Who has the time these days to make a merry-go-round or midget house trailer for their kids? We barely have the time to fight the crowds at Toys”R”Us to grab the latest fad item.

But I do see more people making crafts, and computer-assisted items like picture books, calendars, and coffee mugs have become somewhat popular. So the spirit of gift making is not completely dead.

After looking through all 14 volumes of “What to Make,” I have a lot of great ideas. I could really use a porch on wheels, and a tire-tube catamaran sounds like fun even though I don’t live next to a body of water. Now if only I had a basement or garage I could turn into a wood-working shop. Then all I would need are friends or kids who would welcome the gifts. After all, there are only so many things you can make for your dog.

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Posted on: December 9, 2011

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on

7 Comments on Scanning Around With Gene: Clever Things to Make at Home

  1. I love these! I remember many such projects from my youth, including our customized soap box derby cars.

    When I was growing up in the 50’s and early 60’s, my dad spent a lot of time in his garage woodshop / metalshop, making things for the family. Of course he was home from work by 5:30pm during the week, never worked weekends or holidays, and my mom was a “housewife” of the era who managed all the cooking, cleaning and raising of four boys, so he had spare time available. That changed, and by the time I was in my teens my mom had earned another degree and was working full time herself.

    When I was younger (and single) I spent many hours building computers and other technological doodads, cabling my homes for computer networks, using software to design cards, wrapping papers, even short stories I did the illustrations for and bound myself for gifts, etc.

    That world no longer exists. Nowadays I work 60-70 hours/week just to earn a living. and I no longer have that elusive commodity formerly known as “spare time”.

    I’m a tech geek and have been since the USAF decided I had a talent for “Electronic Data Processing”, as computers were termed in the early 70’s. I always believed that technology held nearly limitless potential for making our lives easier and more productive. I was half right.

    By almost every measurement Americans are not only the most productive workers in the world today, but we are more productive than any human beings in history – much of it fueled by the growth of computer (and other) technology. Only one problem: The definition of “productivity” has changed dramatically. It used to be that a productive person balanced work, family and societal responsibilities to be considered successful. Now we are measured only by the amount of goods and service we produce. Now we work longer and harder, and the fruits of our labor are astonishing… but only when measured economically, since many of us no longer have any leisure time to speak of. We’re too busy just trying to keep up.

    I would love to have a DIY shop where I could putter and play and teach my children how things work, but I’m afraid that’s no more than wishful thinking; a meditation based on dreams past, from a world gone by.

    That ice boat does look pretty darn cool, though…
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    Sanity is a relative concept.
    If you don’t believe me,
    let me introduce my relatives.
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

  2. These projects are immensely charming, but really–how many of them actually got made? Yet, the books surely served a noble purpose of getting many a reader through a winter evening, dreaming of fabricating them.

  3. What an amazing garage sale find!!

  4. Times really have changed, haven’t they….

  5. You would be fun to go garage sale-ing with 🙂

  6. I prefer hand-made gift because it contains more feelings and bonds. And it is interesting to make things by myself.

  7. I always enjoy reading about these diy projects from long time ago! I liked doing these kind of projects when I was younger! Thanks for sharing this!
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