The Boy Craftsman by A. Neely Hall

May 14, 2013

I want to make a doll’s house. And a miniature theatre. And fireworks. And a desk and shelves. And … and….

I’ve been reading a book published over a hundred years ago that would never see the light of day in today’s risk-averse society. Back then, it seems, the best present you could get for your twelve year old boy was a small axe and a selection of sharp blades—together with dangerous chemicals and other toxic substances. It was a time when boys and girls had different pastimes and every boy carried a small folding knife with him.

The Boy Craftsman, subtitled Practical and Profitable Ideas for a Boy’s Leisure Hours, was one of a series of similar books, and it starts with things a boy can make to earn money. These range from household items such as a display rack for plates for the dining room, to snow ploughs and newspapers. It’s lavishly illustrated with diagrams, photographs and templates for some of the parts. The instructions for all the projects are very detailed and the whole thing is inspirational. The author was enthusiastic about his subject and he wrote in a clear style, because the book was aimed at children. Judging by the illustrations, the boys in question were in the 11-16 age range, so well able to undertake the projects in the book.

After money-making ideas, Mr Hall moves on to discuss outdoor activities, the list of chapters suggesting building up to leaving the poor boy stranded in the great outdoors. It seems he’s being taught to make a shelter, transport and then how to catch his own food.

How to build a log-cabin
How to build a canvas canoe
Home-made traps
Toy guns, targets, and bows and arrows

Log Cabin

Even though I know things were different then, it’s impossible to shake off my 21st century sensibilities. Every time the book mentions yet another sharp implement, or painting things with white lead (enamel paint is suggested as an alternative), I suffer a moment of shock that children were given these things. The basic tools for a workshop are listed as “A hatchet, hammer, saw, plane, chisel, jack-knife, bit and bit-stock, screw-driver, and square”.

And here’s a chapter you’d never find in a book for teenagers these days,

Work to do with a knife

There are instructions for maintaining and sharpening your tools, for developing photographs, for making a bow and arrow (including metal arrowheads), setting up your own printing press, for making animal traps of various kinds, for creating “safe” fireworks.

A toy pistol, that will fire a piece of cardboard has a piece of advice that I think would have been good to repeat later when making arrows. “It is advisable to keep this pistol out of range of your companions’ faces.

Really? You think?

Physical activity isn’t forgotten, an outdoor gymnasium is constructed with everything you could need in 1905—including a punching bag platform and a vaulting pole. Pole vaulting for children? Where are my smelling salts, I think the shock’s getting too much for me.

The final section is given over to indoor pastimes, the first of which is creating a miniature theatre complete with scenery, props and mechanical effects. If that doesn’t appeal, you could always make a toy railway or clockwork cars. I noted with amusement the advice to boys about to dismantle an old clockwork mechanism for cleaning.

Before taking a set of works apart, it is well to examine it carefully and note the positions of the various springs and wheels, so it will be possible to put them together again properly should you wish to do so. Without taking notice of this, you are likely to have a handful of wheels as a result, with which you can do nothing except perhaps convert them into tops.

Have you ever sat and watched as an impatient person takes a mechanism apart without looking and then sits scratching their head at the piece left over when they’ve reassembled it? Seems it’s not a new phenomenon.

I think one of the most amazing things about so many of the books I read, is that they still have relevance now. The basic techniques and tools here still hold good and I can think of worse things than undertaking some of these projects with older children. Just imagine the quality time spent together—because there’s no way we’d leave them unsupervised with these things nowadays. Some of the projects might need a little thought (the doll’s houses use a lot of cigar boxes, for which an alternative would need to be identified) and some are no longer possible (creating a dark room for developing photographs from glass plates).

On the whole though, here’s a wide range of creative and constructive projects of varying sizes that I think kids (and their parents) would still enjoy doing. Why not download this book and try one or two? Perhaps not the log cabin, though.

See you later—I’m off to see what my own workshop contains.

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