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updated 04/19/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/19/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Prefabricated everything

Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile...That's the tune for the thousands of men, women and kids—gluing, soldering, hammering, carefully following directions—who each year become cabinetmakers, gunsmiths and nearly every other kind of part-time craftsmen. They are the kit builders and putterers who savor nothing more than putting tab A into slot A and then inserting retaining clip B and folding. By doing it themselves, these follow-the-dots artisans fabricate utilitarian items that not only work but also have about them the personal feel of objets d'art. In times when replacement parts cost plenty and hired labor even more, these folks obviously save money too.

With patience and the right instructions you can make just about anything with a kit. For example, your wardrobe: knickers of mountain cloth ($19.95) and reversible orange/camouflage vest ($35.95 in down, $19.95 in Hollofil II, from Frostline Kits, Frostline Circle, Denver, Colo. 80241), plus moccasins ($8.29-$12.95 from Tandy, 950 W. Cordova Rd., Santa Fe, N.Mex. 87501). Wake to the tone of a digital alarm ($29.95 from Heathkit, Benton Harbor, Mich. 49022) or check the barometer on your computerized weather station ($399.95, Heathkit). Heat a bit of breakfast on your cast-iron wood stove (about $300 from Waterford Ironfounders, Inc., 2801 N.W Nela St., Portland, Oreg. 97210) and buzz off to your weekend retreat, a replica of Henry David Thoreau's $28 Walden cabin ($2,495 for plans, frame, two 24-pane windows and a handcrafted door, $1,023 extra for loft, cathedral ceiling, flooring and pine-board siding for the exterior, from House of Tho-reau, P.O. Box 91, Concord, Mass. 01742). Once there, shoot the outdoors with a large-format view camera ($129.95 from Calumet Photographic, 890 Supreme Dr., Bensenville, Ill. 60106), or strum your dulcimer ($37.95 for the simplest, in birch and black walnut, $53.95 for a more expensive model, from Cripple Creek Dulcimers, 740 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs, Colo. 80829). Do a little target shooting with your black-powder rifle (about $225 from Allen Firearms Manufacturing Company, 1107 Pen Rd., Santa Fe, N.Mex. 87501), but make sure local laws permit ownership. Black powder may be obsolete, but it is still as deadly as it was at Bull Run. After that, have a beer, your choice of light or dark ($29.95 for the beer-making kit from Semplex, U.S.A., 4805 Lyn-dale Ave., North Minneapolis, Minn. 55430).

How good are the things made from kits? "They range from the very awful to the superb," says Jeffrey Feinman, 38, who inspected some 5,000 kits and assembled many of them for his 1975 book The Catalog of Kits (now, alas, out of print). "Only a dozen or so companies have really inferior products," he says. "Our experience indicates mail-order operators to be very ethical and more than fair." Feinman cautions, however, that many kits are complex, "not for a rainy afternoon," and emphasizes "buying any kit more elaborate than a balsa glider should be done with care." Check the specs carefully, write the manufacturer for more details, shop around in the ads before sending off for that harpsichord you've always wanted. Feinman says do-it-yourselfers fail for two reasons: (1) lack of patience and (2) lack of proper tools and working conditions. "Have the self-control to stop and wait until you have the tool to finish the job," says Feinman, "and you will be rewarded by the quality of the product." Not to mention the proud glow of owning something different. As Mrs. Margaret Northway of San Ramon, Calif. puts it of a personal project that became the prototype for a kit she and her husband, Don, distribute: "When we were done, we couldn't believe the reaction of people when they saw it and viewed it as a piece of beautiful art." Mrs. Northway's art: full-size replicas of King Tut's 76-by-22-inch sarcophagus. (The kits, which can be customized with an individual's face in relief, start at $2,500 and can be ordered from the Northways, 3356 Estero Dr., San Ramon, Calif. 94583.) "I would never want to be buried in something as impersonal as a conventional casket," says Mrs. Northway.

Another reward, many kit builders believe, is quality often unobtainable otherwise. Said Sister Carolyn, a Livonia, Mich. Catholic nun who helped build the equivalent of a $12,000 computer system for her school for half that amount: "We feel that we can do a better job than some of the assembly lines, and it's been fun." Twice blessed are they who make things from kits.

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