The field of home improvement is influenced so strongly by history, by personal preference and by available technology that no one ever has the last word.
Virtually every month brings a new crop of home how-to books and manuals. What follows are brief reviews of some we've seen lately that we like. Each of them is sure to please someone and some of them should please just about everybody who has an interest in how houses work.
The prime entry in the latter category is an update of an old friend, "The Reader's Digest New Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual." First published in 1973, the book has now been "totally rewritten, redesigned and newly illustrated," according to the publisher. Additions, Reader's Digest says, include information on new tools, techniques and materials, new chapters on dealing with emergencies, on planning and financing improvements and on dealing with contractors, and a "new emphasis" on energy and environmental concerns.
Illustrations have always been one of the strongest points of this volume, and the new version has clear, carefully-captioned and easy-to-follow charts and schematics, along with good color photographs of processes and procedures. It costs $30, but all 528 pages are loaded with information no home improver should be without. (Distributed by Random House.)
Another update is the Audel "Carpenters and Builders Library," which first appeared in 1923. The four volumes, newly edited by John Leeke and published by Macmillan at $16.95 each, are: "Tools, Steel Square, Joinery;" "Builders Math, Plans and Specifications;" "Layout, Foundation, Framing;" and "Millwork, Power Tools, Painting."
The books are more technical than the "Reader's Digest" guide, though the writing and illustrations are straightforward and serviceable. It's a standard reference set for all serious builders.
Another revision that would be especially helpful to first-time home improvers are two volumes of from R. S. Means, "Home Improvement Costs for Interior Projects," and "Home Improvement Costs for Exterior Projects." Means is a longtime compiler and publisher of cost data for all kinds of construction. The old guide was one volume; the new versions include glossaries of construction terms, safety tips, and more projects including laundry centers, recycling facilities and home security, plus an updated city cost index organized by ZIP code. Judicious use of the guides will give a ballpark figure for most home improvement projects. The books cost $29.95 each; for more information call (800) 334-3509.
Perhaps the most readily available home-improvement books around are those by West Coast publisher Sunset Books. Two new volumes are "Ideas for Great Bathrooms," which incorporates all the latest fixtures and styles, and "Decorating with Paint and Wallcoverings," which may be the best single work ever produced on those topics. It's clear, simple and extensively illustrated; even novices should be able to use the book to produce dramatic results. Each volume costs $8.95 and no better bargains exist.
Winter is a great time to plan an outdoor project. A book that takes some of the mystery out of the arcane art of landscape design is "The Complete Home Landscape Designer," by Joel M. Lerner, who is president of a Chevy Chase landscape design firm. The first part deals with principles; then there's a section on plants. But the fun part is the last section, which includes graph paper and punch-out illustrations of garden features, from trees and shrubs to structures to paving. An armchair gardener can face spring with everything accomplished but the digging. The paperback, due from St. Martin's Press Jan. 30, costs $19.95.
Cold, short, dark days aren't so great for major construction projects either. For people who aren't in the middle of replacing a roof and who can afford to lay off the heavy building for a few weeks, a new book from Rodale Press provides an excuse to fire up the power tools. It's "Cabinetry," edited by Robert A. Yoder ($26.95). Projects include a corner china cabinet, a Stickley-style bookcase, a pewter cupboard, kitchen cabinets and bathroom cabinets. Each project comes from a different craftperson. This is not a book for someone whose most sophisticated tool is a saber saw, but for dedicated woodworkers, it's a treasure trove of beautiful designs.