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Back to Basics: A Complete Guide to Traditional Skills, Third Edition by Abigail R. Gehring (editor)
I discovered this book through Amazon's recommendation system after looking at survival books, and I'm glad I found it. I think it's a great addition to the bookshelf. The book is a broad survey of many "traditional skills" that early American settlers and pioneers had. This includes things like building a log cabin, making your own timber, raising livestock, preserving foods, traditional crafts and so on. You can find the index of the book on the Amazon page.
(Disclosure: I haven't finished reading the book - it's slow going and I wanted to get this review up quickly. If any of my opinions change once I'm done, I'll be sure to update this review.)
The book itself is standard sized for a large hardcover textbook, but it's bound landscape style instead of portrait, so it's long and will probably stick out of your actual bookshelf if it's not very deep. Textbook is a good comparison and the construction reminds me very much of textbooks I've used in the past - a stiff, strong cover with thin glossy pages. The binding seems strong and of better quality than I usually see in hardcover books. One pleasant surprise was that the longer landscape form helps to keep the book open to whatever page you're on without needing to hold it open, which is a great feature if you need to reference it while you're working. Overall I feel like this is book is of high quality construction and I wish I had more like it.
The book is divided into six sections, each focusing on a different aspect of traditional skills. Within each section are a number of subsections concerning specific tasks. For instance, Part One is all about picking out a piece of property and building on it. It includes topics like Preparing the site, Converting Trees into Lumber, Raising a Barn, Sanitation and so on. The book uses a 3 column per page layout for most entries, but makes heavy use of diagrams, illustrations and sidebars so you never get a page with just three columns of text.
The illustrations are designed to be as clear as possible and have explanatory text. Usually the illustrations have information that is not included in the general text. Sometimes the text has a brief high-level overview of a particular task and the illustrations have much more specific steps. I get the impression that they wanted each entry to be as complete as possible, so they were careful to not have redundant information.
The book is printed in full color and has many photographs. Because "traditional skills" are old and becoming more rare, a lot of the source images are quite old and still in black and white. Fortunately there are still a good number of color photos. Rarely is a photo in place simply for decoration - most have some important bit of detail to impart. Illustrations are mostly two color for simplicity, but a few (like plant identification) have full color illustrations.
I feel like the layout of this book was very carefully planned, and it shows. The layout can be complex at times, but it remains very easy to read and see how sections are separated. There is also a fairly complete index at the end, which is always nice to see.
This book is packed with information. I was surprised by the breadth of information in it, and even more surprised that it wasn't dry and boring like a textbook. Most of the content is very clear and easy to understand, and can hold your attention if you have at least a little interest in it. Step by step instructions make complex operations relatively simple.
It should have been obvious to me when I ordered the book, but I was actually hoping for a bit more depth. In hindsight, that's fairly ridiculous - this book is just a survey. For any one of the subsections of this book you can probably write another whole 464 page book. I've got a pretty good idea of how I might go about building a log cabin now, but I'm sure there are things that I would prefer to know that the book didn't cover in any significant detail. Still, I know a heck of a lot more than I did before. Many sections also have a block of references at the bottom, so if you want to explore a topic more fully you've got a list of source material right there.
Another thing I didn't really expect was the extremely practical spin the book takes on "traditional skills." For instance, in the log cabin section they give instructions on how to use an axe to cut notches in logs, but also give an example of how to use a chainsaw to do it. In fact, most of the building section either explicitly recommends using power tools for ease of use but also gives examples of how you might do it with only traditional tools. They also recommend plastic or tar paper as moisture barriers in homes, and that's something folks didn't have 200 years ago but is a very important improvement over traditional methods. The section on juicing apples for cider has three examples of cider presses - one traditional screw press, one improvised lever based press, and one that uses a car jack. Cool!
The book is targeted at back-to-nature folks and people who want to live a more green lifestyle. I think I will find this book at least a little bit useful even if the world doesn't end any time soon. My wife saw the composting section and she wants to try that out in our garden this year. We're also intending on preserving food that we grow in our garden, and this book has some good info on that. I think it's most useful for people who live in the country and have some room to do the outdoor projects. An apartment dweller will be limited in the projects they can take on but could still find quite a bit to do, especially in the crafts section.
The first year or two after the apocalypse this book isn't going to be all that useful. At that point you'll either still be able to find preserved food and sturdy shelter or you'll be so fixated on basic survival that you won't be able to do anything else. The likelihood of you needing to move around a bit is also very high, so you won't be able to build a permanent home bring a lot of stuff with you. However, from year 2 through year 50 this book will be invaluable. It covers critical skills like growing and preserving food, building shelter, making clothing and so on. It gives enough info that you should be able to get by and learn by doing. Admittedly some things like building a log cabin aren't going to be very likely with plenty of abandoned housing around, but having a basic understanding of the concepts involved would be a big help when you do need to construct a new building.
The book does make assumptions about supplies that are available that might be hard (or impossible) to find in a PA world. Cement is a good example. Cement is difficult to make and is beyond the scope of the book, but it's really a requirement for the section on building with stone. Cement is such an amazing building material that I'm going to have to try and find a separate resource for that.
Well written, sturdy and packed with information. I paid about $17 for it, so it's also relatively cheap. Other books might have more info on specific topics, but the breadth of this one is hard to beat. Once you're past running for your life on a daily basis and start to settle in one place, you'll want this book.
Back to Basics: A Complete Guide to Traditional Skills, Third Edition