When it comes to home repairs, there’s a lot that’s the same today as it was 100 (or more) years ago. Hammers still look — and work — basically as they did when they were first invented. Handheld saws might be more comfortable and more efficient these days, but their mechanics are unchanged. And paintbrushes? Well, they might be made with different materials now, but the vintage ones are just as recognizable as their modern-day counterparts.
The same can be said of home repair advice. While there might be a few big changes — ahem, electricity and modern plumbing — there are also plenty of instances in which the old instructions hold up to present-day scrutiny. That’s why when I found a 97-year-old home repair manual (“The Practical Book of Home Repairs,” by Chelsea Fraser) available for free online, I knew I had to check it out. Inside, there are plenty of explainers, tutorials, and illustrations by the author that remain equally useful today as they were when this handbook was published in 1925.
Of course, among all the gems there were a few grimace-worthy pieces of advice, too. Here, read some of my favorite takeaways — and some tips that didn’t stand the test of time.
If you’ve bought wood furniture recently, especially in antique shops or other vintage stores, you might have noticed the phrase “quarter-sawn wood.” I will admit here that while I knew that meant the piece was prettier, I didn’t actually know what quarter-sawn meant. Behold: a super handy graphic that shows how logs are cut for standard wood boards versus quarter-sawn wood. Essentially, it’s all in the name. While regular boards are cut straight through the whole of the log, quarter-sawn boards are cut by first sawing the log into, well, quarters. From there, pieces are cut that show off the natural grain of the wood.
Fraser’s advice for cleaning up old paint brushes: To clean a paint brush, place it on an old newspaper or in a shallow dish. Pour on turpentine or kerosene and then gently pummel the bristles up and down or squeeze them with a blunt stick. Wipe off the brush with waste or a rag, then give it another soaking in the cleaning liquid, repeating the wiping and drying.
Listen, kerosene is a solvent that is technically useful for cleaning up oil paints (as were used back then) — but the idea of just throwing around a flammable fuel willy nilly is a little terrifying. Thankfully, paints today are most commonly water-based and can be cleaned up with soap and water.
Using a hammer is relatively straightforward, but this is a great illustration for anyone who hasn’t picked one up before. Rather than holding it closer to the head — as Fraser says beginners tend to do — you should grip the end of the handle. Striking straight on will put all of the force into the nail, making the job quicker and easier, and will also prevent marks on your wood or wall from the hammer.
Oh, how times have changed. Fraser advises his readers that if they smell gas, they should open windows and extinguish any flames. Smart! But then he goes on to tell them to look for leaks themselves after dark using an electric lamp. Not so smart!
Today, if you smell a gas leak, the best thing to do is evacuate immediately and call your gas provider’s emergency line. In other words: Let the pros handle it.
Fraser notes that a too-small or too-big screwdriver won’t do the job right, since both will slip out of the screw while you’re trying to drive it in. That goes for both flat-head screwdrivers and Philips head screwdrivers, which were actually invented after this book was published.
Another great tip? Tap your screw before you start to drive it, so it can stay in the right spot while you screw.
Fraser suggests that if you can’t reach high spots on your home’s siding, you might have luck placing the ladder on the roof of your home’s porch or a nearby shed. Modern safety experts would definitely disagree. As the American Ladder Institute notes, a ladder’s feet should always be on firm, level ground.
For shallow dents in furniture, Fraser says to use an iron and a damp rag, which will help the indented wood rise back to the surface. This is great advice that still holds true today — and can even be used for wood floor dents, too.
The ideal paint, according to Fraser, should contain pure white lead or red lead. Eek! Lead from paint, we now know, can damage the brain and nervous system if ingested (especially by children). Today, paint is manufactured without lead; if you have a vintage home, you can buy lead-testing kits to determine if your existing paint job needs to be covered.
Fraser calls this tool a “plumber’s friend” with nary a mention of the word “plunger” in sight. This is one thing from the 1920s I say we bring back!