Let them DIY, whatever their age

Discovering DIY skills at the kitchen table – Nell has a go restoring two Victorian irons.

This blog post is by Nicola Baird sharing ideas about thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raise children. This post goes big on DIY skills for you and the kids. For more info about my book Homemade Kids, with lots of ideas about parenting click here.

Glue guns, tool boxes and old toothbrushes may not seem the most interesting items for under 15s but if you give kids the opportunity they often adore creating or restoring real things that have practical uses. That doesn’t mean you have to pack away the Lego or anything else they like playing with, it’s just an acknowledgment that it is sometimes less interesting spending time on something if it has to be cleared away at the end of the day (though you can always take pix of the great creations).

Dashing away with the smoothing iron
Nell, 11, was exploring our cellar last week and found two rusty Victorian irons left there by the previous owner. She wanted to know what they were – so we had to look that up. Turns out Victorians who wanted pressed clothes would heat up the iron (on a range or Aga), which takes quite a while, and then use one at a time so one iron was always piping hot. When your iron cools down then you switch to the other – irons were always used in pairs, a sweet little love story.

I suggested Nell cleaned the irons up, to either give as a Christmas present or keep for herself. It was a lovely weekend project – which started with research on YouTube and ended up with Nell donning goggles (the same ones she last used to dress up as Toad of Toad Hall at the school book day 2010) so she could safely rub the rust off the irons.

Big sister Lola, 14, was curious at our YouTube finds. “Why is it that all videos are done by slightly strange American men?” was her insightful comment. And it’s true, there seem to be far less British people posting how to videos. Anyway YouTube is a life saver when it comes to DIY, restoration and craft projects.

How to restore any old iron
We discovered that you can remove rust from iron with a scrubby daubed with a mix of linseed oil and turpentine (sounded unpleasant and it spoils the patina), or use electrolysis (which looked hard – you need a tub of water laced with baking soda and then to stick a current into it for around 12 hours). You can also scrub it with an old toothbrush and a bit of water – then put the iron into the oven at approx 200C to dry. Once the iron is obviously dry you then “season” it with a coating of vegetable oil. Nell applied this with paper kitchen towels, though we could have used washable cloths. And then we put the irons back into the oven for an hour. Because this process needs to be repeated a couple of times in order to get a decent seasoning (ie, a shiny surface that is a little bit rust proof), we ended up also cooking baked potatoes and flapjacks so the oven wasn’t just powered up for DIY.

The result is a far bigger interest in the BBC’s Antiques Road Show… plus two restored irons that make perfect bookends. Oh yes, and obviously Nell feels cock-a-hoop about her ability to mend something.

A really good book about the need for all of us to develop practical skills (even if we’re not that brilliant at first) is The Case for Working with Your Hands: or why office work is bad for us and fixing things feels good by Matthew Crawford. If you have a secret hankering for motorbikes then you’ll especially love it…

Over to you
Any suggestions for DIY projects you can do with kids? I gave Lola a den-building kit when she was about five and frankly it was a bad choice of present (lots of safety pins tacks and material in a tupperware box) as she was a bit too young. But just letting children see tools around and know their names (however unskilled you are at DIY) may give your youngsters a head start when it comes to trying out practical tasks.

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5 Comments on “Let them DIY, whatever their age”


  1. What a great project! And all the better for the fact that the irons were stumbled upon by chance. A practical activity and a history lesson all rolled into one. Maybe Nell could make a YouTube video explaining how she did it!

    Not quite the same thing because it started out as a kit, but my son built a robot arm a few months ago and turned it into a cat stroker, we videod it and put it on YouTube if you’d like to see. It’s quite funny that our cat seems to quite like it! – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQn3Q6O6sP8&feature=plcp

  2. Kate Says:

    I love this project – well done Nell! Can we see the end result? Dead impressed either way. And the resourcefulness of multitasking with the oven made me smile; I bet there’s not many people in London that day that can say they baked flapjacks and a couple of irons.. Will definitely check out your book suggestion, thank you.,

  3. mphansalker Says:

    Thanks for the great idea!


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