Ken Kern, author of THE OWNER-BUILT HOME and THE OWNER-BUILT HOMESTEAD, is
an amazing fellow and everyone interested in decentralist, back-to-the-land,
rational living should know of his work. Back in 1948 he began collecting
information on low-cost, simple and natural construction materials and
techniques. He combed the world for ideas, tried them and started writing about
Eventually, Mildred Loomis started publishing Kern’s articles in THE
INTERPRETER, WAY OUT and GREEN REVOLUTION. Ken has also issued a three-year
series of pieces (called TECHNIC) on his own and a greenhouse-sun pit design of
his has been featured in ORGANIC GARDENING.
This series of Ken Kern’s work is being taken both from OWNER-BUILT HOME and
If nothing else is learned from
studying the series of chapters in this volume, it is hoped that the amateur
home builder will at least be in position to ridicule the main slogan of the
organized trades: “Relax-let an expert do it.” We should not think of
an expert builder as a special kind of man. We should rather think of every man
as a special kind of builder, planning and working, perhaps with his
wife, to meet the unique needs of the growing family. A certain romance
surrounds the home building efforts of a congenial and loving husband-wife
It must be confessed that, from
correspondence here, it appears that many amateur building attempts met with
dismal failure; the owner-builder suffered a major disability owing to careless
accident; or he was sidetracked by divorce arising from strained family
relations; or he grew weary of well-doing, and relinquished his builder role to
the ever-ready vulture-like subcontractor.
Such owner-builder experiences
appear tragic to outsiders and humorous to those inside the building field. Yet
any amateur building experience is the growing edge of the fundamental
relationship among builder, tools, materials, and home that makes a man a man,
homus faber. The successful amateur builders do not send woeful letters
here; they build. Those of us who have had experience within the fold of the
“expert” building industry realize that the only expertise offered is
what stems from the grasping of as much monetary return as the traffic will
bear. The commercial builder is not, of course, a bad man at heart; but, in
addition to the profit motive, he is encumbered with tedious distractions and
involvements; unfair competition, unions, estimates, insurance, loans, taxes,
contracts, licenses, permits, office overhead, memberships, and dues. But these
are only the surface requirements that have to be met before the contractor can
start a project: The really vicious aspects of conventional building
construction are far more subtle-especially as the building specialists
themselves are seldom aware of the corruptions within their own field. This
general observation can best be illustrated, perhaps, by a brief historical
account of the painting art in reference to building.
History of Painting
Credit for being the first painter
known to the West will have to be shared by Noah of Biblical fame and the
Cro-Magnon Reindeer Man. After his well-known ark was completed, Noah
“pitched it within and without.” Pitch (asphaltum) is still used by
varnish manufacturers to produce protective coatings. Prehistoric cave man, it
seems, was more interested in the decorative aspects of paint. He mixed simple
earth colors with animal fats and painted the walls of his cave-houses.
Decorative painting assumed an
important role in the lives of Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman ruling
classes. White lead was extracted and used as early as 430 B.C. by the Romans.
In medieval times the people used paint to decorate and protect the
spokes of their carts and the handles of their various agricultural implements.
With the advent of the Renaissance
came the guild organization of master, journeyman and apprentice. The formation
of the Old English “Payntour-Steynor” guild in the 13th century laid
the groundwork for our equally hidebound unions and trade organizations. In the
early history of painting guilds are items that might have come from a
contemporary grievance committee:
In 1488 the Mayor was petitioned to
halt the ingress of “foreyns” (outsiders) from working in the city
limits, there by taking work from members of the guild . . . In 1502 the
Companies of Painters and Stainers were united into one company . . . In 1575
the Payntours-Steynors petitioned the Queen against Plasterers who were
infringing on their painting work.
In 1581 the Payntours-Steynors
received a new charter, seal and license from Queen Elizabeth. This new
ordinance required seven years’ apprenticeship, except from the genteel class
who were permitted to paint for their own private pleasure. No person was
allowed to instruct another in the art, unless that person be an apprentice
bound for seven years. All work had to be approved by the Masters and Wardens.
Masters and Wardens had rights to enter any building for inspection and
approval. They had the power to impose fines or destroy the work if it fell
below standards. The oaths of all members required them to keep “the
secrets of the mistery, and not reveal these same except to apprentices and report
all evils to the Company.”
In 1606 it was determined that the
price for laying color or oil paint upon any flat surface must be sixteen pense
per day. Later the cost was figured by the square yard of surface covered. The
work day was stipulated to be from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. As the Company grew in size
and political strength, it started labor exchanges for the employment of
painters. These became meeting places and finally evolved into our current
labor unions. Masters and Wardens founded The Institute of British Decorators
which in this country is called the Painting and Decorating Contractors of
Nothing much has really changed
today in the painting industry from the formation of the first medieval closed
shop. Modern house painters have their own particular brand of price-fixing
exclusiveness; and their union, too, is careful to enforce maximum-size brush
widths and to outlaw fast-working renegade spray or roller equipment. Thank
God, a man may still work on his own home. And thanks to a tremendous chemical
advance in recent years with unbiased reports from countless agencies, the
“secrets of the mistery” are no longer the private property of an
The chemical advance has been very
rapid. It has not been long since a painter himself mixed and ground his
paints. His pigment was first zinc, then the improved titanium dioxide–first
used in 1920. From earliest days he had used linseed oil as binder or vehicle.
Then in 1930 we had what is known in
the industry as the alkyd revolution. Alkyd resin has all but replaced
linseed oil in commercially prepared paints. More recently the synthetic paint
industry has developed other remarkable vehicles such as phenolics, vinyls,
urethanes, silicones, epoxies, acrylics and latex.
Exterior wood siding should not have
to be painted less than six years after the first application. Planed lumber
requires more frequent treatment than rough-sawn or rough-planed wood. As a
matter of fact, rough-sawn redwood and cedar weather beautifully without any
preservation whatever. Experimentally-minded home builders have found that any
number of natural finishes can be concocted from readily available inexpensive
materials. To create an aged-appearing flat finish, a mixture of discarded
crankcase oil and gasoline has been used with success on rough-sawn siding. A
mixture of creosote and pigment-stain is another often-used natural finish.
After several years a second coat of clear creosote and oil mixture is applied
to restore protective qualities.
Conventional exterior paint uses
titanium dioxide as the white paint-solid, and linseed oil and mineral spirits
as the nonvolatile and volatile ingredients of the vehicle. But alkyds are more
stain-and-blister-and-mildew-resistant than linseed oil paints. The finish coat
should have zinc oxide pigments in it to control the rate of chalking. As a
paint ages it collects dirt, changes color, and chalks. If the paint is
correctly controlled, rain will wash off the dirt along with the chalking. The
chalking effect is thus utilized to keep the paint cleaner and brighter, and so
to prolong its usefulness. Applying a prime coat of shellac or aluminum paint
over knotholes and flat-grained siding is an especially good practice.
Lacquer and varnish films break down
sooner on outside exposure than do regular paints having protective pigments.
The use of three coats of a high grade spar varnish is a minimum requirement
for an outside transparent finish. Butyl phenol resin-based varnishes are
definitely superior to the old type in hardness, durability and water
Polyurethane-based, phenolic gum and
phenolic tung oil are the best commercially available natural finishes, though
they last only two years at the longest. An eight-year natural finish was
developed some years ago by the Forest Products Laboratory, which publishes
this formula for a 5-gallon batch, cedar color:
Pour the gallon of mineral spirits
into a 5-gal., open-top can. Put paraffin and zinc stearate in another pan and
heat over flame, stirring until uniform mixture results. Pour this into the
mineral spirits, stirring vigorously. Keep flame away from mineral spirits.
When solution has cooled to room temperature, add pentachlorophenol
concentrate, then linseed. Stir in colors until mixture is uniform, and it’s
ready for use. For redwood color, use 1/2 pt. burnt sienna and 1/2 pt. raw
umber, plus 1 pt. pure red oxide color-in-oil.
Shingle stains can be used also on
rough-sawn siding. Linseed or oil-modified alkyd coatings are the best here, as
a porous paint film is necessary to allow moisture to escape and thereby
prevent blistering. Regular shingle stain is composed of a color dissolved in
oil-containing solvents and a wood preservative such as creosote. Preservation
of the shingle depends upon adequate penetration of the stain rather than the
formation of a protective outside film, while with regular paint, on the
contrary, adhesion of the film to the surface is more important than
It has been found that 90% of all
paint failures are due to the poor lumber used as the base–mainly the high
moisture content of the wood, or moisture entering the back side of the wood
after it has been painted–through condensation due to faulty gutter and
flashing. Blistering is a common result of moisture destroying the paint bond.
Paint will adhere best to slow-grown spring wood and will tend to peel from
fast-grown summer wood. Paint will also last longer upon narrow-band,
edge-grain boards than upon wide-band, flat-grain boards.
Alligatoring, the final stage of
checking, is one common paint-mixture deficiency. It results from having too
much oil in the prime coat. The prime coat should always be harder than the
final coat. For this reason it is important to allow plenty of time between
coats, as exposure to the air causes a hardening action (oxidation) to take
place. The final coat should be elastic enough to respond to the expansion and
contraction of weather change.
Lacquer, shellac, spar varnish,
linseed, or alkyd can all be used on interior wood paneling and plywood. Alkyd
is an excellent sealer for plywood. Alkyd gloss or semi-gloss paint will last
as long and retain color as well as any paint now sold. If a colored surface is
desired, one of the styrene-butadiene, polyvinyl acetate, or acrylic latex
paints is an excellent choice. Already, the greatest volume of water-emulsion
paint sold in the United States is of the latex type. Such paints dry rapidly,
are easily applied, have no odor, have good scrub resistance (after hardening),
excellent penetration, and good color-uniformity.
Latex paints have proven to be the
foremost choice for interior as well as exterior masonry surfaces.
Styrene-butadiene (rubber latex) pioneered among latex paints in this country.
It out-performs by far the best oil-based paints on the market. It is the least
expensive of all latex paints and is best used on inside masonry basement
walls, owing to its water-repellent and alkali-resistant qualities.
Cement-water paint has been the
traditionally accepted waterproofing material for masonry surfaces, especially
porous concrete block walls. The portland cement content should be not less
than 65% by weight of the total paint. Fine, sharp silica sand and/or hydrated
lime make up the balance. The paint must be applied to damp walls for proper
Whitewash is an inexpensive, even
older, and still used masonry coating. The National Lime Association suggests a
formula having 5 lbs. of casein dissolved in 2 gals. of hot water, 3 lbs. of
trisodium phosphate dissolved in 3 gals. of water, 3 pints of formaldehyde mixed
in 3 gals. of water, all added to 8 gals. of lime paste (50 lbs. of hydrated
lime mixed with 6 gals. of water). The lime coating is applied to damp walls,
and dries to an opaque, hard, dust-free finish.
Polyvinyl acetate and acrylic have
excellent color-retention and water-resistant qualities on outside masonry
surfaces, asbestos cement, and asphalt shingles. Resin-based urethane is a new
concrete floor varnish that is claimed to outlast other floor varnishes three
to five times. Chlorinated rubber and phenolic are used where the floor is
exposed to acids, alkalis, salt and other corrosive elements.
There are a number of factors that
influence the proper choice of masonry paints. Cement-swater paints, for
instance, are more suitable for new, and therefore damp, walls containing
water-soluble alkaline salts and open-textured surfaces. Resin-emulsion paints
are better for dry, close-textured surfaces such as cast concrete,
asbestos-cement siding, tile, etc. Oil paints are best used on masonry surfaces
that are dry at the time of painting and remain dry afterward.
Corrosion (rust) is a common problem
when using exposed metal in building construction. Zinc-dust paint is about the
only primer that will adhere satisfactorily to galvanized metal surfaces. In
priming steel, “red lead,” iron oxide, or zinc chromate in linseed,
alkyd, or phenolic vehicles is satisfactory. A linseed or alkyd finish coat is
then applied. The best preservant for tarpaper roofs is a commercial asphalt
varnish mixed with aluminum powder. Upon application the aluminum flakes float
to the surface and give a metallic finish. These paints combine excellent
durability with reflective roof-coating features.
These recommendations on paint
materials deal with only one small segment of the total painting problem.
Equally important, a painter must understand the “paintable”
characteristics of different surfaces. He must choose and use correctly the
various tools of the trade. Finally, his method of procedure must be correctly
established–such as painting the house exterior before the interior, and
painting the ceiling before the walls before the woodwork before the floor
before the baseboard.
A good-quality paint brush will have
more long-length bristles than short-length bristles–to insure proper paint
absorption. Stiff and soft bristles are correctly proportioned to allow for
proper paint retention. Some of the newer quality nylon brushes are as good as
the traditionally superior Chinese hog bristle ones.
In many cases the paint roller
will do a faster and better-appearing job than the brush. It can be used for
applying any kind of paint; but the surface to be painted will determine the
cover nap (roller cover) size; the smoother the surface, the shorter the nap
In view of the multitude of
technical details covered in these chapters, the would-be owner-builder may
throw up his hands and sigh that the stuff is all too much to take in. But
consider. The details set down here are meant to meet the various needs and
interests of almost all possible owner-builders. They are not all meant for
you. You will select from this material just what will help you. Perhaps
you need note but one-tenth or one-twentieth of the observations these chapters
offer. A student in a university architectural school must become familiar with
all use-and-beauty building ideas in every country from the year one until the
present. But that is not you. You are going to build, most likely, just one
home for one family.
Building a home should not be the
formidable project that it happens to be for some would-be owner-builders
today. Land should be assigned without charge by the local community for house
building and other improvements. Money should be loaned by the community bank
without charge. There should be counsel and help from friendly neighbors who
have already built their homes.
Lacking this home-owner’s heaven at
present, you may have to scout for desirable land at a moderate price, have
some capital somehow to begin operations, and then perhaps work on and off for
several years before you can move into your home. But that will be your
family’s haven in perpetuity and, if enlarged and adapted, perhaps for
children’s families. Building can be fun, especially if you are building
together with someone. A house is not a home. Land is the home on which you
erect a dwelling and several smaller buildings for work and appreciation. Your
home should grow through your lifetime–and after.
There is nothing more desirable in
this world than love; and nothing is better suited to cultivate love than a
nature-based home of your own. Building your own home today, furthermore, is
not a merely private affair. It belongs to the movement of freedom from
America’s religious, political and economic straitjacket comparable to the
movement of our freedom-loving forefathers from Britain and Europe to these
shores. We have grown accustomed to finding some sort of lodging wherever we
can, if lucky, find employment, and to re-moving (on the average) every three
years. This sort of thing cannot fitly be called human living. Today’s
revolution will occur when employment, including political, economic and
technical operations, shall become a means to the tender love, personal growth,
and spontaneous artistry of settled home life.