A Handmade Life: Book Review

Off grid living isn’t just for the survivalist in a tin foil hat (although as for that, we might all be knocking on the survivalist’s door when disaster strikes, and tin foil hats are the very latest in high fashion this election season.) William Coperthwaite’s A Handmade Life book is a poetic, highly intelligent manifesto of the kind of philosophy that might lead any thoughtful person to choose an off grid lifestyle.

A Handmade Life: Book Review

I first became aware of Coperthwaite while researching yurts for our family. We are still teetering on the edge of that decision; will we, won’t we? William Coperthwaite did choose a fantastic interpretation of the yurt, a round four-level structure that also faintly echoes a pagoda. He went on to help over three hundred families build yurts of their own. When I learned that he was a fellow Mainer, I had to review his book.

A Handmade Life: Book Review

This short book, 117 pages, has taken me weeks to read, not because it isn’t good, but because it is. I have to mull over every sentence. It will require several readings to wring every drop of goodness out of it and to connect every idea in it to a cohesive whole. If I were to quote the things I love about it, this review would be 117 pages long. Since I think Chelsea Green Publishers would prefer you to buy yourself a copy, here’s just a skimming from the ideas in the book that I treasured and found useful.

Introduction to A Handmade Life

 A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity

Don’t skip the introductory essay, “The Craft of Living” by John Saltmarsh. It contains a lot of background information about Coperthwaite’s life and highlights some of the main ideas in the book. I especially valued Saltmarsh’s discussion of the educational ideas of Coperthwaite and his mentor, Morris Mitchell, who “modeled how a teacher may be both educator and learner. Not an authority of specialized knowledge, an expert who has all the answers…the teacher is…a choreographer of discovery.” As a homeschooling mom, I am constantly developing my educational ideals, and saw my own beliefs expressed and clarified in this section. I’m not sure how much of it I read aloud to my husband; I’m going to guess, um…every word.

Intentional Design

A motorboat is not always better than an oar. A chainsaw is not always better than a bow saw. A mansion is not always better than a yurt. A formal education is not always better than the lessons taught by and for life. Coperthwaite talks about designing and especially choosing your tools and your lifestyle thoughtfully. I find it refreshing that he doesn’t take the all too common route of condemning choices different from the ones he has made; indeed, he affirms that a commercial lobster boat needs an engine, whereas he neither needs nor wants to exchange his oar for one. He tells us that he liked school, but that it isn’t right to design a school system that only works for a few, even if he was one of them. He choose a yurt in the wilderness to live in, but he says you should only choose a yurt if you like “circumlinear” design. He doesn’t want you to think the way he thinks, he just wants you to think, period. It’s all too common to just float along with the status quo.

Part of the World at Large

I have seen again and again that when thinkers and philosophers choose an off-grid lifestyle, they often do it to decrease their burden on the world and to exploit others less. Coperthwaite holds that redistributing wealth will not do as much good as setting an example of a more sustainable lifestyle, and doing so with joy rather than asceticism. “We must learn to see the beauty in our neighbors living well.”


Minimalism often goes hand in hand with an off-grid lifestyle, and Coperthwaite is no exception. “Why not have as few things as possible, and these of the finest quality we can afford, dispensing with the non-essentials?” Anyone else thinking about having a giant yard sale and then starting over?


A Handmade Life is a book of ideas, not how-to’s, but it does contain several projects, all off grid compatible. I love projects accomapanied by a story because, let’s face it, reading it may be as close as I ever get to doing it! Also, it goes along with the intentional design that Coperthwaite advocates—you should know the why as well as the how.
The projects include an axe (I love how he describes his axe design process as an “adventure”), bread, tarahumara ball, handmade toys, puzzle adventure, and chair.

Do I agree with everything in A Handmade Life? Sadly, no. I find Coperthwaite wildly optimistic about human nature. He reminds me of my beloved husband, who has great theories about how the world should be run, or rather, how it should run itself without needing much oversight. Personally, although I love the ideas of both men and think they are valuable and useful, I suspect their own goodness blinds them to the fact that many or most people are pretty lazy and selfish. I know I am lazy and selfish, anyway! Coperthwaite thinks “…we may create a self-sustaining flame of human happiness.” I don’t think that will ever happen on this earth; that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. And if you’re interested in trying, I highly recommend this book.

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