Woodworker Manual Author #6: Walt Durbahn -- From Master Carpenter to School Prinicipal to Lexicographer to TV Star

In large part, I think, my motive for dedicating this amount of attention to Walt Durbahn comes from a conviction that, for all his contributions -- especially the era in which he worked -- the guy deserves greater recognition. My investigations on the Internet show no website that celebrates Walt Durbahn's contributions to woodworking in America.

True, Highland Park Historical Society mentions the "Walt Durbahn Tool Museum" on its webpage, but evidently has not done had an opportunity of creating anything on Durbahn on the Web, so that anyone interested -- outside the Chicago area -- might learn about him.


Question: Who is Walt Durbahn? Answer: "Dean of workshop craftsmen"

image of Durbahn on TV scheduleHis television show—"Walt's Workshop" —(WNBQ-NBC, Chicago), is a two-time winner of TV's top award for "the best educational and how-to-do-it" show; also cited in 1949 by the Chicago Federation of Advertisers for "the best instructional show on TV" that year.

You also know him for his "Walt's Workshop" column which has been appearing regularly in Popular Homecraft since the spring of 1951. As an editor also, Walt is a top performer.

As a craftsman and an author, Walt Durbahn "Paid His Dues"

newspaper ad for durbahn appearance He was chairman of a vocational education program, a Building Trades Instructor of Highland Park's (Illinois) High School and Supervisor of the Lake County Carpenters' Apprentice Training Program.

Walt Durbahn authored several widely used text books on carpentry and construction, as well as numerous how-to articles for American Magazine, Better Homes & Gardens, Popular Science, among others. For five years in the early '50s, 1951 to 1956, he was a Senior Editor for Popular Homecraft magazine.

Walt's Beginnings and Education

Born in New Ulm, MN in 1894, Walter E. Durbahn graduated from Stout (Wisconsin) Institute in 1916.

He later received a Master of Education degree at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL.

Marriage and Family

On June 22, 1916, Walt married Ruth Lydia Rassbach, a marriage that produced three daughters: Phyllyis, Mary, and Mirth.

(Currently Mirth Kennedy is the only surviving daughter, and I want to acknowledge her kindness in supplying much of the biographical information missing from my account of Walt Durbahn.)

Early Career: -- High School Manual Training instructor

Between 1916 and 1925, Durbahn was a High School Manual Training instructor in Bemidigi, MN, and later taught in Menominee, WI.

Gets More Education in 1925: -- Studies for Masters Degree at Northwestern University

Boy-Built-House Program

In 1925 -- at Highland Park High School, near Chicago, Illinois, in the the Vocational Education Department -- Durbahn introduced the Boy-Built-House program.

Under Durbahn's direction, the students in these courses constructed the the following:

their own school building,

the field house at the athletic field, and at least 9 homes,

One house that Durbahn designed and the students constructed was awarded the first prize for a home design in an national architectural magazine. (Note: this is information supplied by Mirth Kennedy. She knows about this as part of the memories of her father -- and I do not doubt its truthfulness -- but so far I am unable to find the confirming evidence.)

Invitation in 1931 From President Hoover

walts_WH_conference_invitation_1931 In 1931, in recognition for starting this program, President Hoover invited him to the White House.

(This news of Walt's 1931 invitation from President Hoover to attend the 1931 White House conference on Home Building and Home Ownership comes from two of Walt's relatives: Mirth Kennedy, one of Walt's daughters, and Mark Kennedy, Walt's grandson.

Finding out about Walt's connection with the Conference set my research juices immediately began to activate. My reseach on the WH Conference is incomplete, but you can read here what I have written.)

Two Websites on the 1931 White House Conference

President's Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership (1931 : Washington, D.C.) Records, 1931-1932


Active in Organizations

He was active in many organizations including

the 4-H club of Mn.,

Illinois Metrpotlitan Industrial Education Round Table,

Popular Mechanic Magazine,

American Vocational Educatonal Assoc.

Awards and Citations

Illinois Industrial Education Association.

In his 80's, he received a Distiguished Service award from University of Wisconsin at Stout.

Walt's Workshop on NBC Television

In 1949 he started Walt's Workshop on NBC Television in Chicago. The show ran for nine years, and received many awards as the best education workshop program. In 1951, Walt's Workshop was published, a manual of over 140 pages of text, photos, diagrams, etc., designed to walk wannabe amateur woodworkers through the steps of creating 42 projects: furniture for the workshop, for the home and garden and even some home repair instructions. No index, but the table of contents is very detailed. Just the recipe for a bustling Do-It-Yourself American population, still recovering from World War II. link to website with clips from Walt's TV programs

Author of Books and Articles

He wrote two book on Carpentry and wrote numerous articles of magazines such as American Magzine and Popular Mechanics. Much more on Durbahn as author below.

Furniture Maker

The examples below are posted with appreciation of Mirth Kennedy, Walt's daughter, and other members of the family. I admit that my initial attempts toward categorizing Walt's "style" have not been that successful. The living room table and sideboard are work done after his move to the Chicago area in 1925, when he was studying for an advanced degree in industrial arts at Northwestern University. The period was a time of transition -- in both the public's furniture taste and in the Industrial Arts movement. Gustav Stickley's efforts of popularizing "Arts and Crafts" more or less crashed when he was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1916. Grand Rapids furniture manufacturing was declining[?] The modernism of the Bauhaus didn't break out until the mid-1920s, as is the same for the popularity of Art Deco.

More likely, Walt is following the "neo-classicist" theme -- Hepplewhite and Sheraton -- that colleagues such as Herman Hjorth's 1924 Reproduction of Antique Furniture and William Klenke's 1930 Selected Furniture.

(Chicago itself was a center of new ideas, because it was the workplace of the architects Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, [more needed on furniture designers of the time] but really -- according to Mirth Kennedy, Walt's daughter, Walt and his wife got inspiration for furniture on the top floor of Marshall Fields Department store in downtown Chicago.)

Drawings depict in their repective woodworker's manuals are store-houses of colonial revival design for students in high school woodworking Industrial Arts courses (Before, in 1922, Hjorth's manual was a series of articles in Industrial Arts Magazine.):


    A general refinement of the public taste in matters pertaining to art and interior decoration is making itself felt more and more clearly. One of the phases of this feeling and desire for better things is undoubtedly the realization of the charm, beauty of line, and individuality of antique furniture.

    Unfortunately the available supply of genuine antiques is so far below the demand that only the favored few can enjoy the possession of artistic old pieces. For the great majority reproductions will have to do. If well made and of true proportions, they will be found to be just as pleasing as the originals, besides being munch stronger. The higher class of furniture factories -- [see images below] -- are meeting the demand of the times by turning out many excellent reproductions, which are not merely common adaptations but follow the original in every detail. But reproduction of antique furniture need not necessarily be confined to professional cabinet-makers. It may well be undertaken by high school boys, and many pieces may even be made by students of the eighth grade. Work of this kind may at first appear too difficult; but, when the processes are carefully analyzed, these difficulties will disappear, and the result will be ever sou much more pleasing and satisfying than the usual "Mission" type of furniture.

    With this idea in mind, the following material has been compiled. The pieces of furniture illustrated have been selected for their general simplicity and adaptability to the average home. They have been photographed, measured, and translated into working drawings, thus making them available for reproduction. A few suggestions and a short description of the principal technical difficulties involved in the construction of each piece have been added, as well as a chapter giving a brief outline of the art periods and how to distinguish the most important of them.

    While the book is intended chiefly for school use, it is hoped that it may also prove of interest to cabinet-makers, amateur woodworkers, and people in general who are interested in good furniture.


    San Juan, Porto Rico

    Source: Herman Hjorth, Reproduction of Antique Furniture Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co, 1924


He made exceptional furniture. (The piece on the left is 17" high.)

Just after his marriage, he made a bedroom set and a dining room set, which, as well as a dining room table, included six cane-back chairs and a buffet.walts_dining_room_1

Most of his furniture was made out of walnut or mahogony.


hepplewhite_sideboard_chicago Curious about Walt's "style", I started looking through several of my numerous personal collection of books on furniture and landed on this Hepplewhite serpentine sideboard as a theme-setting influence. This example is from the Chicago-based manufacturer, W K Cowan Furniture. (A Source for Cowan is Chapter 12, "Hand-Carved Furniture and Period Reproductions, 1880-1917", Sharon Darling, Chicago Furniture: Art, Craft and Industry, 1833-1983 New York: W W Norton, 1984, especially pages 209-210. Wallace Nutting's 1928 Furniture Treasury, but Nutting himself had been active as a popularizer of Colonial Revival for nearly a decade.


Klenke's example on the left is from 1930, but a glance through issues of Industrial Arts and Vocational Education and Industrial Arts Magazine shows that these styles are being pushed as alternives to the ubiquitious Arts and Crafts "straight-lined styles" of the post-1900 era, that were an anathema to IA teachers. This section needs more background info, but so far conclusive evidence is not available.)

Retirement and Death

Walt retires in 1953. He died Feb.1, 1981.

Prolific Author of Books and Articles on Woodworking Subjects

In the box below are selected entries from the retrospective Readers Guide to Periodical Literature

1932: Durbahn, W. E. Portable workbench. Industrial Arts and Vocational Education v. 21 (September 1932) p. 276

1941: DURBAHN, W. E. Relation of industrial arts to vocational education. Industrial Arts and Vocational Education v. 30 (September 1941) p. 270-1

1953: Durbahn, W. How to plan a workshop. House & Garden v. 103 (January 1953) p. 88

1954: DURBAHN, W. E. Our house is different! yours can be too! American Magazine v. 157 (January 1954) p. 72-80

1954: DURBAHN, W. E. Few basic tools will start a workshop. American Magazine v. 157 (February 1954) p. 80
1954: DURBAHN, W. E. How to put it together. American Magazine v. 157 (March 1954) p. 66-7
1954: DURBAHN, W. E. What you should know about lumber -- varieties for do-it-yourself projects. American Magazine v. 157 (April 1954) p. 66-7
1954: DURBAHN, W. E. What you should know about plywood. American Magazine v. 157 (May 1954) p. 68-9 

1954: DURBAHN, W. E. What you should know about wallboard. American Magazine v. 157 (June 1954) p. 62-3

1954: DURBAHN, W. E. How to stick 'em up. American Magazine v. 158 (July 1954) p. 65-6 

1954: DURBAHN, W. E. Sand it again. American Magazine v. 158 (October 1954) p. 67-8

1954: DURBAHN, W. E. Make a hit with your handyman. American Magazine v. 158 (December 1954) p. 28-9+ 


1947: Walter  E. Durbahn and J. Ralph Dalzell, Dictionary of Carpentry Terms   CHICAGO: AMERICAN TECHNICAL SOCIETY, 1947

Please note the details about this dictionary in the gray-shaded box below. Deceptively slight in appearance -- including with its wire binding -- this small work packs a lot of information useful to the woodworker as well as the carpenter. Durbahn's bona fides as a promoter of the amateur woodworking movement deserves much greater acknowledgment than he has been given to date.  In impact, he compares with Norm Abram. 

Below is the publisher's information on the authority of Durbahn and his co-author, J Ralph Dalzell

Then, tucked inside the gray-shaded area, is the text of Durbahn and Dalzell's preface to the Dictionary:

WALTER E. DURBAHN  B.S., M.A., was in 1947, Chairman of Vocational Department, Highland Park High School, Highland Park, Illinois, a Member of American Vocational Association, and Author of Fundamentals of Carpentry

J. RALPH DALZELL, B.S., Managing Editor, American Technical Society, is author of How to Plan a House, How to Remodel a House, How to Estimate for the Building Trades, Building Trades Blueprint Reading, and Painting and Decorating.


    THE objective of this book is to provide clearly and simply the exact definitions of words used in the building trade. Words are the means by which men communicate with one another. A traveler in a strange country must learn the language spoken in that country or communicate with the residents by means of an interpreter. Every trade or profession has a vocabulary peculiar to itself. The legal terms used in a courtroom must be learned by all who desire to become practicing lawyers. Likewise, the man who wishes to become a skilled mechanic or craftsman of any kind must learn the terms peculiar to his chosen field of activity.

    Since words are tools by which men convey their ideas and thoughts to others, it is especially important that these tools be used correctly if they are to give effective service. A foreman must be able to convey his ideas to the men who are performing the labor, and the workman must be able to understand the terms used by the foreman. A term used incorrectly may create confusion and result in costly errors.

    In order to acquire such a vocabulary as quickly as possible, it is advisable not only for the carpenter, but for everyone engaged in the building trades to have on hand for ready reference a dictionary of terms. To supply the need for such a book this Dictionary of Carpentry Terms has been prepared. In this dictionary the carpentry terminology in common use today has been brought together in one convenient volume.

    The wide experience of the compilers has especially fitted them for this task. The terms included in this book have been carefully selected from reliable and authoritative sources. The aim has been to include as many carpentry and woodworking terms as will be necessary to give the building tradesman a working knowledge of the nomenclature of his trade. However, the book should also prove to be of value to draftsmen, contractors, and workmen in related trades. [By my count, over half -- about 800 -- of the estimated 1,500 terms defined are terms used by woodworkers.]

    Acknowledgment is due Miss Pearl Jenison for thorough research work during the process of collecting material and for careful editing of the manuscript.

The box below has a sample of entries from the "B" section of the Durbahn and Dalzell Carpenter's Dictionary

bench hook: A hook-shaped device used to prevent a piece of work from slip-ping on the bench during certain operations; a flat timber or board with cleats nailed on each side and one on each end to hold a piece of work in position and to prevent slipping which might cause injury to the top of the workbench.

bench marks: A basis for computing elevations by means of identification marks or symbols on stone, metal, or other durable matter, permanently fixed in the ground, and from which differences of elevations are measured.

bench plane: Any plane used constantly and kept handy on the bench; a plane used on the bench as a jack plane, a truing plane, or a smoothing plane.

bench stop: An adjustable metal device, usually notched, attached near one end of a workbench, to hold a piece of work while it is being planed.

bevel: One side of a solid body which is inclined in respect to another side, with the angle between the two sides being either greater, or less, than a right angle; a sloping edge. See T bevel.


1947: Walter Edward Durbahn; Elmer W Sundberg. Fundamentals of carpentry.  2 v. illus. 24 cm. Chicago: American Technical Society, 1st ed., 1947 1950; 1956; 2nd ed.; 1963, 3rd ed;  1967-1969 4th ed. 1982; 5th ed.(Rev. by E. W. Sundberg). Contents: v. 1. Tools, materials, and practices.-- v. 2. Practical construction.

Included in the first volume is a 96-page "dictionary" -- examples of entries above -- which includes both definitions and illustrations.

For comparison, on the used book market I bought several editions of Durbahn's carpentry textbook, and after examining them, conclude that Durbahn himself had full editorial control of it, because the first edition betrays a loving, careful mind at work, very concerned about the learning and welfare of the students using the set to learn a skill profession and launch a sucessful career in building construction.

I do not get that same impression for subsequent editions. Deleted from the dictionary are the "woodworking" terms, such as "African Mahogany" "abrasive paper",  "adze", "block plane",  "colonial", "guage", "groove", "hutch", "miter square", "mechanic", "molding plane", 'mortising machine",   "rebate", "reeding",  "rule joint", "sandpaper", "scutcheon" or "escutcheon", "spokeshave". Do these editorial changes reduce this textbook for its primary audience, wannabe carpenters? Probably not. What it shows for me, however, is that Durbahn's original vision, or worldview, i.e., a broader scale of mentoring, that included "woodworkers", fell to the constraints imposed by the publisher, American Technical Society, because of what it believed were the information needs of the textbook's primary audience, carpenters.

  1951: Walter E. Durbahn. Walt's Workshop Chicago(?): General Publishing Co., Hobby Books Division, 1951.

(Given my four decades of experience in conducting research, teaching research strategy, and writing six books on research topics, I am puzzled about why my discovery of Walt Durbahn as a major contributor to amateur woodworking occurred only recently.

Durbahn -- I discover -- was not only a bona fide woodworking teacher since the early 1930s, but -- most significant -- was the Norm Abram, of New Yankee Workshop fame -- of TV in the late 1940s and early 1950s in the Chicago area. For very brief information on Durbahn's TV history, read down in this link: http://www.richsamuels.com/nbcmm/1968/closeup.html.

I will be adding more info soon, but in the meantime, check out this piece by Phil Creden, an executive of the Chicago firm sponsoring the program.

cover of walt durbahn's woodworker's manual 1951

Not only a local luminary in promoting woodworking, it's obvious that he had a national presence as well. Durbahn's impact in the amateur woodworking movement -- especially in the critical period of the post-WW II era -- is immeasurable.

The image directly below reprints an ad for this woodworker's manual in an Oakland, CA, newspaper:


Below is the full text, with some adaptation, and several images -- two from the original American Magazine article, the others from Walt's Workshop, 1951, illustrated directly above.

    "Our House is Different! Yours Can Be Too!" American Magazine 157 January 1954 pages 72-80

    LOOK at your hands. Do you have blisters, a callus or two, a blue spot on a nail where your hammer hit the wrong one? Good for you! Yours aren't idle hands then.

    What is it I read somewhere about that? . . .

      "Give me a man with a hobby of working with his hands and I'll show you one who enjoys life, has a clear mind for business problems, who will live longer."

    Those aren't my words but they sure are my sentiments.

    God meant us to use our hands to help ourselves and to serve mankind. Busy hands are both the cause and the effect of a happy mind. All my experience p roves it.

    walt durbahn's home The home we own and in which we have lived for twenty-three years in Highland Park, near Chicago, was built by students of our high school under the supervision of skilled craftsmen. Each of those youngsters felt he built it himself. In later years, as some of them came back to visit us, I could see that they wanted to check up on their house.

    [Need more details about this project -- photos show before and after the addition of shutters.]

    My wife, Ruth, and I, with our three daughters—Phyllis, Mary, and Mirth—took over where those boys left off, and made our house into a home. I can remember the naked 75 x 100-foot lot on which our new house stood. Nary a tree or a shrub. Not even a blade of grass.

    Fortunately, Ruth is one of those green–thumbed persons who seems able to make at least two plants sprout where only one ordinarily would. Now the yard is our own little bit of heaven, with over fifty varieties of trees and shrubs, two pools, a garden shelter and barbecue, countless flowers, and a carpet-soft lawn.

    Time, patience, and the urge to create did it. And the willingness to learn by reading, listening, asking, looking.

    Our house has changed some over the years. Gradually we made improvements to meet our needs and fancies—just as you may do, however uncertain your skill or your unfamiliarity with tools. At first a cupboard, additional shelving here and there, extra closet space; then more elaborate projects, like the log-cabin recreation room in our basement, and the pine-paneled porch. And any number of other additions and revisions.

    ALL of this took time, you understand. We made each improvement a family project, talked it over together, sketched it out on paper before we cut a board or drove a nail. All of them are reflections of our particular family life, and the source of mutual pride and joy. Now that the girls are all grown up, Ruth and I regard each achievement of our hands as a memory point in our family's progress. Thus it is that a home takes on personality.

    "Well, if I had a workshop, and if I knew as much about carpentry as you do, I'd make things too!"
    say many who have not bothered to find out how possible it is for the average man (and woman, lest I forget).

    walt durbahn's shop

    Actually, only a few basic hand tools are necessary for many of the projects one might attempt. As for the know-how, there is no end of books and pamphlets the beginner might learn from. A liberal education is to be had just for the kibitzing. Cultivate the habit of watching carpenters as well as friends and neighbors who have acquired skills in their home workshops. Then, when you finally do make a start, begin with the simpler things. Ease yourself into the more complicated jobs gradually. You know, first things first.

    There is a great movement abroad in the land, called "Do-It-Yourself." It is a modern Renaissance. I'm glad to see it, because, for a while, America appeared to be losing interest in doing things with its hands. This do-it-yourself trend is healthy for the individual and the nation. It is a tremendous influence for good, both spiritual and economic.

    walt durbahn's shop layout

    I can recall only too well the time, back in 1933, when I left a high-school principalship to don overalls and go out and build houses with our students. I did that for years. Some people actually looked askance at me for "stepping down" in a social scale. I was a queer.

    [The current meaning "queer" -- that a person is gay or a homosexual -- was not in everyday use -- according to my dated but still useful Dictionary of American slang -- until 1956.]

    Let me tell you, though, I never was happier than when working with my hands, and if I had it to do all over again you can just bet I would repeat the performance.

    America's swelling surge toward do-it-yourself is no overnight development. Nor is it a passing fancy. It is a national habit which is here to stay. With it has come, naturally enough, the problem of where to get qualified information, suggestions, help in the use of tools and machinery.

    The sources include the magazine you are now reading, literally thousands of books on simple home craftsmanship, pamphlets and instructional leaflets from manufacturers of paints and varnishes, hand and power tools, plywoods and wallboards, brick and tile, and of all of the many other industries which supply "Do It Your-selfers."

Again, the above article is one of several articles by Durbahn in American Magazine in 1954 



Excerpt from Harold Spears, The High School for Today. New York: American Book Co., 1950, pages 93-97.  Read More Truly inspirational, Durbahn's example -- evidently -- was not duplicated. A thorough reading the the "Model of Work Experience" demonstrates what one (talented) person can accomplish, is he/she is persuaded the outcomes are worthwhile. Too bad we can't retrace our steps today and find men who actually particpated in the Durbahn Work Experience Projects. My intent in focusing on the program stems from a conviction that many of the students emerged from Durbahn's influence with lifelong commitments to woodworking as both profession and hobby.

For evidence, below, I have highlighted  key phrases in Spears' text:


Now and then, in the American high school — operating at the rural cross-roads, tucked away in the big-business enterprise of a large city educational system, or sheltered in the restfulness of a big city's suburban bedroom — is found a fragment of the blueprint for the school of tomorrow, is found a program that reflects the educational foresight and cunning of some individual who has dared to crack the traditional mold of the school and step over the debris to serve the youth before him. Such a man is Walter Durbahn.

The setting of this building-trades teacher's service to American youth is the community of Highland Park, Illinois. [3 The author served this school as superintendent-principal during the World War II years.]

Relationships with Groups.

His place is well marked in the hearts of the hundreds of young men who have gone through both study and practice in the six related areas of his school and community program — millwork, sheet metal work, electric house wiring, plumbing, concrete and brickwork, and painting and decorating; and the place of his program in the ongoing life of the community is well marked on the streets of the town —


    845 Centerfield Court
    168 Beverly Place
    648 Yale Lane
    120 Clifton Avenue
    158 Beverly Place
    335 N. St. John's Avenue
    1748 Broadview Avenue


To these seven fine brick, stucco, and wood residences that have been planned and built by Durbahn's high-school boys can be added these buildings belonging to the school — a trades and industrial education building of 12,000 square feet, a garage for the school buses, and an athletic field house complete with a second-floor apartment for the caretaker.

Walter Durbahn is one of God's ordinary fellows, who belongs to his union and gives it his best, and hobnobs pleasantly and understandingly with his fellowmen and trades associates. Besides his high-school program, he helps carpentry apprentices and journeymen, opens his shop at night to adults, and in the summer serves those college-bound boys who because of college domination of their high-school time schedules are deprived of his teaching during the regular school year.  The carpentry apprentices for the area are given training one day a week to supplement their practical work with the contractors. Their day is spent in related drawing, mathematics, estimating, English, and social sciences, besides such shop experiences as benchwork, saw filing, roof framing, and stair building. Many journeymen in the construction industry have availed themselves of the opportunity of attending evening classes. His night classes are also popular with the patrons of the school who further their hobbies there.

A master craftsman himself, he sets an example in fine cabinet making that gives his boys something to look forward to in their later development. His own publications in his field are a contribution to the teaching profession.


The Work Experience Program Read More


Sources: Industrial Arts and Vocational Education v. 42 (November 1953) page 23A; Bachmeyer, S., et. al., NEWMAST educational workshop--1990: science, math, and technology teachers learning together. The Technology Teacher v. 50 (November 1990) p. 25-9