Introduction: Great Projects From Old How-to Magazines

Picture of Great Projects From Old How-to Magazines

Magazines like Popular Mechanics and Popular Science once published articles on how to build very capable shop tools like tilt arbor table saws, arc welders, and drill presses.  Those articles are still available on-line through Google Books.  

The photo shows plans for building a 10 inch tilt arbor table saw.  It originally appeared as a two part article in the November (p. 218) and December (p. 217) 1947 issues of Popular Mechanics Magazine.  (The link for the second part of the article takes you to the front cover of the December issue, not to p. 217 and the second part of the article.  See the second graphic.  Enter "217" and press "Enter" on your keyboard to get to p. 217.)

To the right of the box with "217" typed into it are two blue forward and back arrows.  The index for Popular Mechanics magazines is usually on about page 3.  You can also pull down the "Contents" tool in the menu bar and see hot links to most articles.  Oddly, the second part of the article on building a tilt arbor table saw did not appear in the contents menu, but I had to find it by advancing to page 3 and reading the index for the magazine.  

While this table saw is very well-built and full-featured, building it requires some work on a metal lathe to make the trunions and other things.  There is also some welding.  It would be possible to have these things done at a machine shop, or by a friend with the needed skills and tools.  It is also possible to buy a set of trunions for a commercial table saw on eBay.  (The trunions allow the blade to tilt so that its exact axis is where the blade comes through the table.)

Step 1: Need an Arc Welder? Build One!

Picture of Need an Arc Welder? Build One!

The September and October 1948 Popular Mechanics Magazine issues carried a two-part article on building your own 220 volt arc welder.  The link for September will take you directly to the first article.  The link for October takes you only to the front cover of the magazine.  Find the remainder of the article by going to page 213 of the October issue. 

This is one of a couple of arc welders from Popular Mechanics which you can build.  The other is from the November 1955 issue (p. 207).  It is a one-part article--no continuation into the next issue.  

One problem with these arc welders is that they are built from step down transformers used on power transmission lines.  Once old transformers no longer useful were fairly easy to obtain from local utilities.  That was before environmentally hazardous PCBs.  Still, if you scour your local scrap yards, you can sometimes find electrical devices with large laminated steel cores that could be adapted for use in a welder.  These articles also show how you can use parallel strands of common copper wire used in household wiring to gain the current carrying capacity needed for the transformer windings.  Before committing yourself to building one of these welders, you may want to figure the actual costs and compare a used welder in local want ads or on Craigslist.    

Step 2: Another Arc Welder

Picture of Another Arc Welder

The November 1965Popular Science Magazine carried an article for a portable arc welder built from a gasoline engine and a military surplus aircraft generator.  It is a DC welder with an arc stabilizer.  Its output is about 75 amps., which is adequate for 3/32 inch welding rod.  

Step 3: Drill Press

Picture of Drill Press

The January 1948 issue of Popular Mechanics carried an article on building your own drill press largely from pipe fittings (p. 216).  Another set of plans for a drill press made with a differential from a Ford Model A automobile can be found in the November, 1953 issue of Popular Mechanics on page 215.

Step 4: Do You Want to Browse?

Picture of Do You Want to Browse?

When I was in my early teen years our local barber stocked his shop with Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines.  It was the late 1950s and the early 1960s.  When he retired, he remembered how often I read those magazines while waiting for my haircut.  Even though I was away at college, he phoned my mother and asked her if I would like to have those magazines.  From them I learned how to use power tools and make furniture.  Thanks to the Internet and Google Books, I can read those magazines again and browse issues I never saw.  This link will take you to Popular Mechanics issues for about 1960.  Click on the numbers of different pages at the bottom to navigate to other years. This link will take you to Popular Science issues from about the same time.  Click on the hot link for the year to browse the year of your choice.  For me, these magazines were before there was an Internet.  Happy browsing and happy building!

A postscript: These magazines were published in other languages.  My friend Rimar2000 found a web page for Popular Mechanics in Spanish.  If English is not your preferred language, do a little digging and you can probably find these magazines in the language of your choice.   


tonyromo1988 (author)2016-09-24

I love this. Interestingly enough I have been looking for a way to build
a paper or book press that can be made to fit the size of paper I make
(16 x 12) and up. Unfortunately the professional ones cost thousands. I
remember my grandfather had a magazine that showed how to make one out
of pipe (for albums ). Unfortunately all I could find was a guy selling
copies of a plan on e-bay. I also love reading all the old
advertisements. stuff was so much more interesting in years past.

Phil B (author)tonyromo19882016-09-24

Thanks. Other than the photo of a press you included in your comment, I do not know what might be available in the old DIY magazines. I believe the is a way to search them, but navigating Popular Science is a little different from navigating Popular Mechanics, if I remember correctly.

mrmetallica (author)2015-11-28

i remember when i was about 8 nobody me and my brothers knew could afford a drill when making carts ,so we used to put the poker in the fire for the hot water and burnt holes in the wood like time have changed

Phil B (author)mrmetallica2015-11-30

That is a clever way to make holes.

nasser1 (author)2015-01-29

underground carpenter (author)2012-12-22

One of the greatest things that came out of those sorts of magazines was the mind set of being able to create your own "stuff." As a boy, I must have logged 1000's of hours messing around in the workshop figuring our how things worked and how to create tools that I wanted but couldn't afford. Plus shopping at "real" flea markets provided many of the raw materials in the form of used arbors, pulleys, motors, gears and all the rest. Today I'm a professional cabinet and furniture maker, and I still design and build my own custom jigs to make fabricating my work easier and more accurate.

But I sometimes I wondered where the next generation of inventors will come from since the inspirations for this type of creativity had disappeared. Then I found Instructables and people like you and there is hope in the world again. Thanks, Phil.

Thank you for sharing your story. I also have wondered where the next generation will learn to be creative and practice self-reliance. I have taken some comfort in the interest many have for robotics. Although often a team effort guided by advisors, a lot of DIY skills in several areas are needed to build a machine that can fend off other robots.

DIY-Guy (author)Phil B2014-04-27

I pre-screen articles (such as this one!) on the Internet, then share them with my son. We buy "dumb" metal tools at Harbor Freight, and ALWAYS buy high quality equipment if it's electric or might break. But with that said, we've beaten a few hammers and wrenches against anvils to make some basics for ourselves. We're looking for the plans to make a treadle powered (or pedals for that matter) boy's wood lathe. Still hunting for the one that used pillow block bearings.

Thank you for documenting the way for us to look at the old magazines!

Phil B (author)DIY-Guy2014-06-14

Somehow, I missed your comment. Your search for a treadle powered lathe suitable for a boy could be resolved with copying a medieval foot powered lathe. Actually, the Romans were using these 2,000 years ago. I think someone at Instructables even published plans for one. We saw two of them in Germany. Both were recent replicas. One was in a museum to the Romans in Augsburg. The other was at a medieval knight's festival in Ostfriesland (Dornum, specifically), and it was set up to be used in demonstrations.

I am sure you are thinking of something with a continuous forward rotation, rather than something that alternates its direction every time the treadle resets to its top position. Still, a young boy would be even less likely to be injured on one of these, and he could learn about the lathe throughout history. The drive mechanism is really simple because you simply loop a spring loaded rope around the stock a couple of times and connect it to a foot pedal. Neither center would need to turn, only to center the work and hold it in place.

Flyer356J (author)2013-05-08

Does anyone remember a Popular Mechanics project of a ered little car powered by twisted rubber bands just like model airplanes of the time The bands were cut from truck inner tubes. Six of them. I think published in the late 30's. I can't figure how they got power from six bands to one drive shaft, or maybe rear wheels. My granson in college engineering tried to make a little car using the energy iln the spring of large rat-traps. Did not work well. The rubber band car would sure put him at the head of the class. Any help will be much appreciated. _ John Mahon, Albertville, AL

Phil B (author)Flyer356J2013-05-08

Would this be the article you have in mind? It is from the July 1931 Popular Science.

wood doctor (author)2013-04-21

there invaluable for information and projects i'm a faithful subscriber to them, i do have a library dating back a few years.

Phil B (author)wood doctor2013-04-22

I may have mentioned my barber gave my mother his collection when he retired in the late 1960s. I probably should have saved them, but I clipped articles on using power tools and on workshop techniques. A few years later I was married and making furniture we still use more than 40 years later. Thank you for looking and for commenting.

Semtex (author)2012-12-16

Really nice links!! Thank U!! Greets from Austria ;)

Phil B (author)Semtex2012-12-16

Sie sind willkommen. Recht herzlichen Dank, dass Sie meine Veroeffentlichen angeschaut haben.

Semtex (author)Phil B2012-12-17

Ja Danke! Here i found a Method to download some sites from the magazines and to print out -> and than here

l8nite (author)2011-11-10

I have over 100 of the old popular mechanic mags from the 50's and 60's, it's always fun to rereread them

Phil B (author)l8nite2011-11-11

A local college library has all of the copies back to day one. Several times I have gone there to find some article I remember. It is also great that they are archived at Google Books. It would be fun just to browse the old issue wherever, but life keeps calling me for other things.

weldor (author)2011-11-10

Try looking for some of the old Audels books. They had tons of info in them. Some is no longer economically feasible, but the basic principles still apply.

Audels is still in business and continues to print great stuff. Problem is they,as well as others, now must be more "careful" about what is in their material (less some irresponsable fool hurt themselves).

I am the proud owner of a complete set of Popopular Mechanics "How to Encyclopedias" (that is their name as it appears on the cover).

Phil B (author)weldor2011-11-10

I had a set of the PM encyclopedias. My impression is that the encyclopedias were assembled from old articles in the magazine. I remember the Audels advertisements in the PM magazines back in the '50s and '60s. I actually ordered the book on mechanical drawing, but have no idea what has happened to it since.

I did an Instructable on turning a common electric circular saw into a precise table saw and built furniture with mine. In the years prior to the one I did, there had been at least three such conversions in how-to magazines. Now you never see them. I suppose that is partially due to possible liability problems. I guess it all started with that woman who spilled hot McDonald's coffee on herself.

Thanks for commenting.

karlpinturr (author)2011-04-17

Thanks for this Phil,

One of the earliest things I looked for on Instructables was 'how to build a drill press' - but couldn't find anything for a full-size drill (to say nothing of a cordless).  Now, with this to reference, maybe I can actually get something figured out...

Phil B (author)karlpinturr2011-04-17

Thanks, Karl. Popular Mechanics did actually run a couple of other plans for a drill press. One was based on a truck differential set vertically. I was having difficulty finding it again to list it, but here it is:Popular Mechanics, November 1953, page 216. It is definitely "heavy duty."  The other was from the 1920s and looked a little flimsy.

I did not read the drill press article I listed completely.  It appeared to use a sleeve bearing.  I would probably try to fit it with ball bearings, if I could.  

Dr.Bill (author)Phil B2011-10-15

When I was in Montana out in the Big Hole I saw a drill press built out of a differential. It was used to drill holes for Jack Leg Fences and took 3 people to operate it. The 9 foot logs were very heavy.

Phil B (author)karlpinturr2011-04-17

Karl, I see the other drill press is made from a Model A Ford differential, not a truck differential. And, the drill press plans from pipe parts use Babbitt bearings. I am not sure where a person goes to get Babbitt metal these days, but here is a description of Babbitt bearings.  There are some videos at YouTube on pouring Babbitt bearings.  Or, you could mount bronze sleeve set in collars and a material like epoxy.

jaxdadd (author)Phil B2011-10-15

Babbitt metal ingots can be found at McMaster-Carr. Great DIY source.

karlpinturr (author)Phil B2011-04-17

Thanks again, Phil.

I had to nip out, so hadn't got around to 'googling' Babbitt.

If there are vids on YouTube, I'd suspect they made their own Babbitt - "a soft alloy of tin, antimony ("the chemical element of element 51, a brittle silvery-white semimetal. (Symbol Sb)"), copper, and usually lead", apparently - depending how easy it is/isn't to get hold of antimony.

personally, I'd probably use a shortened pushbike headstock, and bearings, as I don't have the safety equipment for melting lead, or access to antimony, as far as I know.

notingkool (author)2011-08-27

i found this:

it's usefull to you?

lyonpridej (author)2011-06-12

Thank you for telling us how to find these links, I had no idea they were available online! I remember sitting & looking at my dad's Popular Mechanics magazines & being totally fascinated back when 'girls didn't do things like that'! Then a few years ago when my mom was cleaning out her bookcase,I brought home his enclyclopedia of Pop.Mech. books. I also have an old welding book of my grandpa's that I think shows how to make things. I like to collect old books like that with how-to instructions. So many people turn their noses up at the old-style look and the black & white photos, but if you really look at these projects, many of them are fantastic!
I've seen a bunch of books like that at the thrift stores like Goodwill, they are really cheap because nobody wants them. So you migh look there if you are wanting more stuff like that.

Phil B (author)lyonpridej2011-06-13

Thank you very much for your comment. I am glad to know women enjoy the old Popular Mechanics and Popular Science "how-to" magazines. I was reading them in the early- and mid-1960s. At the time I also enjoyed Mechanix Illustrated and Science & Mechanics. I do not yet know if those are on-line, too. I remember feeling a little frustrated reading those articles because the projects that excited me requred a table saw, or a metal lathe, or a welder and I had none of those. There are a lot of things now on Instructables that fill the void left by the projects in good "how-to" magazine articles from days of old to a great degree. I have tried to post some Instructables along the line of some of those articles, too. Check my page at Instructables.

Also, several decades ago I found a book in a used bookstore titled "Woodwork for Secondary Schools." That title is available now as a free download from Google books. Go to: (Sorry, but the Rich Editor does not seem to be working today.

jtobako (author)2011-06-03

Try for some pdfs of the same and more.

Phil B (author)jtobako2011-06-03

I have seen those. The table saw plan linked here has far more features and capabilities than the table saw at the vintage projects link. The welder made from a surplus aircraft generator would likely be easier built from a heavy-duty alternator today. Of course, the same is true of the gasoline powered welder I linked here. If you saw my recent Instructable on Learning to Weld, you saw some links to gasoline-powered alternator welders there (final step).

notingkool (author)2011-05-04

do you see: (in spanish)
or (in spanish)

curbowman (author)notingkool2011-06-02

¡Gracias por el vínculo!

Phil B (author)notingkool2011-05-04

I do not read Spanish, but rimar2000 does.

notingkool (author)Phil B2011-05-04

well, you can always use googletranslate.
i think that rimar2000 is from La Plata too, where i live.

Phil B (author)notingkool2011-05-26

rimar2000 (actual name: Osvaldo) mentioned going into La Plata when he needs something special. It appears he lives near La Plata.

notingkool (author)Phil B2011-05-26

well, La Plata, is a square of 4x4km and have "districts", rimar2000 lives in one of these districs, at the north of La Plata. Still be part of the city. Rimar live in "tolosa" i guess.
If you want to see the map, search "mapa de La Plata" in google and look "tolosa" in the google map.

Nice info Phil. I have all these magazines in electronic format and even though they are old there is such good information and ideas to be inspired from.
Thanks for the post


Thank you for your comment. Because you have identified yourself as a reader of these magazines, I believe I understand you better.

porcupinemamma (author)2011-04-17

Hey Phil,
Great info! Excellent links!
I love to look at old boyscout handbooks. There are instructions on how to build so many excellent things. The requirements for badges and the step-by-step -pictures and directions are motivating and not too scarry to try (for a novice like myself.)

Phil B (author)porcupinemamma2011-04-17

Thanks, Lyn. I once had some old army field manuals from 1918. They were fun to browse, probably in the same ways your old boy scout manuals are fun for you. Good to hear from you.

tocsik (author)2011-04-16

Wow! Thank you.

Phil B (author)tocsik2011-04-16

I am glad you enjoy it. I wish articles like these were still available to find in newly published magazines. Thank you for looking and for commenting.

pfred2 (author)Phil B2011-04-17

In my travels I have managed to pick up 3 different encyclopedia compendiums of these old DIY articles complied by Popular Mechanics etc. You can see them in my garage library here:

All of the books up there are about tooling, or woodworking or that sort of thing.

Phil B (author)pfred22011-04-17

I had such a DIY encyclopedia set from Popular Mechanics once. Someone who needed more space gave it to me. After a few years, I needed more space and did the same. One of the arc welder articles linked above was included in it. I have seen other sets, probably some of those you have, in a public library.  They are generally reprints of materials from the magazines.  Still, they are a lot of fun to peruse.

blkhawk (author)Phil B2011-04-16

I agree! One reason why so many young people complain that they are bored is that they do not have resources like these nowadays. We need more literature and TV shows that inspire generations to become the Edisons, the Bells, the Teslas, of the future. Instead of plans for building useful things many magazines are more devoted to advertising that anything else.

pfred2 (author)blkhawk2011-04-17

We live in different times with different common resources. Today one can write software on the hardware right in front of them and become the next Mark Zuckerberg. Me, I complain I don't have enough time to relax. Or as I like to put it, a dull moment, I'm living for the day!

Phil B (author)blkhawk2011-04-16

I often say, "Things do not get interesting until the lawyers get involved." I expect magazines are very cautious about what they publish, lest somebody totally misuses something, injures himself, and then sues the magazine. I do not think people worried about lawsuits as much in the 1940s and 1950s. But, yes, I have said to young people that they ought be given a piece of string, some tape, some paper, and a pencil. Then they would be confined to a room until their imagination kicked in and they produced something with those basic things.

lemonie (author)2011-04-17

This should really be a Forum topic, it's not really a make.


Phil B (author)lemonie2011-04-17

Sorry. That thought never occurred to me. I, personally, never look at the Forum topics. This Instructable does show how to access and navigate back issues of Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. While that may be self-explanatory to some, I had to figure it out and wanted to share it. I think this Instructable instructs as much as many other Instructables I have seen, maybe more. So, I respectfully disagree.

About This Instructable




Bio: I miss the days when magazines like Popular Mechanics had all sorts of DIY projects for making and repairing just about everything. I am enjoying ... More »
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