Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 169, September 2019
Book Review: A Carpenter's Life As Told By Houses
by Larry Haun
Review by J. Norman Reid

This charming book, A Carpenter's Life As Told By Houses, is not your ordinary woodworking book. It addresses not cabinetmaking, but carpentry and the home construction trades. And rather than serving as a "how to" guide, it is instead a biographical account of the life of a carpenter and sometimes writer whose life experiences encompassed a wide variety of housing types, ten of which are featured here. At the same time, the book serves as the author's manifesto on the preciousness of Mother Earth and the possibility of living in closer harmony with it. Throughout, Haun makes observations about the way of life he and his family experienced during the Depression and post-War period on the plains of western Nebraska.

The book progresses chronologically through the sequence of houses he lived in and built during his long career. For each house, he makes observations about construction methods that are sufficient to comprehend but generally not enough to replicate them. At the same time, he observes what life was like while living in each of the houses, then paints a portrait of life on the prairie and in other places where he resided.

The first house, and one he never lived in, was the iconic structure of the prairie, the soddy. His mother was born and raised in a soddy and Haun worked on one as a young man. He describes in general terms how they were built and relates observations on the place of the soddy in prairie social and cultural life in the 1800s and early 1900s. Not only were soddies built of the only materials readily obtainable on the treeless plains, but they also afforded warmth against the cold northern winds and sub-freezing winter temperatures in that unforgiving clime. While he does not wish to return to those "good old days," he nevertheless yearns for the communion with nature the soddy represented.

Next is the straw bale house, which, he notes, is making a revival in some places. A straw bale house has several advantages: low cost, insulating capacity, freedom from noxious fumes, and the opportunity for artistic creativity in design. His mother taught school in a straw bale house and Haun himself helped to build one and later slept in it for a time. Straw bale houses were a better solution in Nebraska's Sand Hills, where there are no trees and soddies often failed because the sand won't hold the roots of grasses needed to form sod. When horse-powered hay presses were introduced in the late 1800s, straw bale houses became feasible and began to replace soddies. They were not built to last, however, and few survive today.

Haun was born in what he calls an "old frame house." It had, he recalls, a shake cedar roof and walls with no insulation. Nor were there electric power or plumbing. Times were hard during the Depression. He describes how drifts of snow would blow through the keyhole overnight and the preventive steps needed to ward off penetrating dust during the dust storms that blew in that decade. These frame houses were built in the traditional way using hand tools and wood hauled in from a long distance away. There was little waste in building these houses, which leads him to decry the massive waste generated by modern American society.

Another prototypical prairie house was the dugout, and he often visited one until he was in his late teens. Because of the constant wind on the prairie, the dugout, sheltered as it was, suited better than the soddies. Nevertheless, people who lived in them were looked down upon. Haun's childhood friends lived in a dugout and he reflects nostalgically about the days before they moved away.

Precut houses were a more recent innovation. He discusses helping to build one, with a hand-dug cellar. It was sheathed in tarpaper and covered with asbestos shingles. Living as he did just south of the Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation, he was affected by the plight of the Sioux and laments their treatment.

For a time after leaving Nebraska, he lived in his brother's adobe house in Albuquerque and later helped to build one. Their organic structure is composed of a sustainable material. Because adobe buildings don't need to conform to rectangular shapes, they can reflect innovative designs. They can be made inexpensively by hand or by using a machine that can turn out thousands of bricks daily. The adobe's thick walls cool by absorbing heat during the day, then radiate warmth during the cool nights.

Cob houses are like adobes, except that they employ wet mud instead of dried bricks. Their outsides are usually plastered with lime, which offers protection while allowing the walls to breathe. The roofs of cob houses are often rounded and made by using the natural curve of branches, a more beautiful look, but one that's more difficult to build than by 2X construction.

In 1950, Haun moved to Los Angeles and at first lived in a teardrop trailer. He worked for $1 a day building houses with hand tools, saving his money to go to college. He began working on housing by building a modular home for his parents, a military surplus home shipped in sections, assembled on site, and featuring a hand-dug cellar.

The Quonset hut was a World War II staple that was prefabricated and easy to erect. During the Korean War, Haun served with the Seabees and lived for a time in a Quonset hut, then served in Greenland where he helped assemble an experimental hut on the ice cap.

Tract houses started in the post-War period, when large numbers of houses were needed for returning War veterans. To meet the heavy demand, the construction industry had to change. Power tools began to replace hand tools, plywood became more common, precut construction materials came into use, and specialization and modular construction replaced general carpentry.

Later in life, Haun became involved with the Habitat for Humanity. Habitat houses are superior in some ways, by being built carefully and sustainably and by eliminating toxic materials. His joy in participating in Habitat builds came not as much from helping others, he says, as in helping himself to be whole.

He next describes his "small house," where he has lived for years. He never lived in a house with more than 1200 square feet of space. He finds the small house to be less expensive, easier to clean, and cheaper to heat and cool. His home was built "green," which he argues is more than just checking boxes on a list of criteria, but that requires attention to design.

The final structure is the greenhouse he built using salvaged materials costing less than $100. A gardener for much of his life, he was successful in supplementing his income by selling vegetables at the local farmer's market.

This delightful book is filled with many nostalgic observations and interesting stories about both home construction and memories of his life in connection with each of them. You won't find cabinetmaking here or even a thorough introduction to carpentry. But you will find an enticing read. The hardback, slip covered book contains many black and white photos that add greatly to its interest. Woodworkers will enjoy a trip down memory lane, but the book will interest a wider audience including anyone with an interest in the range of housing in America. I liked this book as a diversion from the usual woodworking fare and a pleasant walk through the history of housing during the last century.

Find out more and purchase A Carpenter's Life As Told By Houses by Larry Haun

J. Norman Reid is a woodworker, writer, and woodworking instructor living in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, a woodshop full of power and hand tools and four cats who think they are cabinetmaker's assistants. He is the author of Choosing and Using Handplanes. He can be reached by email at nreid@fcc.net.

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