Old-Time Skills in a Post-Disaster World

By Doug Williams
Publish Date:
Smoked mackerels

I’ve been hearing for years about the various threats to our power grid. Whether talking about the potential of an EMP attack, terrorism, or cyberwarfare, everyone seems to be in agreement that our nation’s electric grid is at risk of going down. Should that happen, many say that we would be thrown back into the 1800s – technologically speaking.

I don’t agree with this opinion, mostly because I don’t see it as being realistic. This is because none of us are ready to live in a world where we are stuck with 1800s technology. Not only do we not have the skills to live in that kind of world, but we also don’t even have the tools to work with.

Yet the potential for that happening to us is quite real. It’s a known fact that enemy nations are hard at work finding ways of penetrating our defenses so that they can take us down.

This war isn’t going to be force-on-force, but rather through the use of cyberattacks, terrorist cells, and possibly even a high-altitude nuclear explosion intending to destroy our electronics and our grid through an EMP.

If we want to rebuild our lives after such an event, we will need to have the right skills and the tools to use them. Some of those skills will be used just for our families, but others will need to be used for our communities. At some point in time, we’re going to have to come out of our survival retreats and help to rebuild society – or our children and grandchildren won’t have anyone to get married to.

Here are some key skills that were common in the 1800s but are largely unknown today:


Blacksmithing is a very old skill.

I think one of the most important old-time skills for rebuilding society will be blacksmithing. Before the proliferation of hardware stores, blacksmiths made pretty much everything – from nails to andirons with hinges somewhere in between.

If you needed a tool, you’d go and visit the blacksmith, just as you would to replace the (steel) tires on your wagon or to fix a handle that broke off a frying pan.

A well-trained blacksmith can make pretty much anything out of metal – specifically iron or steel. I’ve seen fancy ornamental ironwork that is truly a work of art. I’ve also seen a blacksmith (in Mexico) make new leaf springs for a car and tension them properly. Unless we are going to live in a world without metal, we will need a rebirth of this vital trade.


Tinsmith is used to create many useful objects – Author: Alphanum3r1c – CC BY-SA 2.5

Another form of metalworking that was common in the 1800s was tinsmithing. The tinsmith made lanterns, boxes, cups, and a variety of other useful things mostly by forming sheet metal and soldering it. How many people do you know today who have any idea how to solder sheet metal together?

While we will probably be able to get by for a while without the services of a tinsmith, if things go too long this skill will become highly valuable.

Horseback Riding

Horseback riding could be essential to survival in the wild.

Few people know how to ride a horse anymore – unless you’re talking about a totally docile horse on a trail ride. Even then, they’ll probably need someone to help them get their feet in the stirrups. But you really don’t know how to ride until you can ride a horse that doesn’t want to be ridden.

Sadly, there aren’t enough horses in the country today to take care of the needs that will exist in a world without the grid – and that’s with the United States having the world’s largest horse population. I’m sure the people who own those horses will be breeding them as fast as possible, but it will take years to have enough horses to meet needs.

With so few people knowing how to ride and even fewer knowing how to ride highly-spirited horses, riding is a once-common skill that will have to be learned once again.

Hitching and Driving a Team

Harnessing a team is no easy task for the novice and making the harness is even harder.

Even fewer people know how to drive a team of horses than how to ride them. Harnessing a team is no easy task for the novice, and making the harness is even harder. Yet the farming and trucking industries, along with others, will have to switch back to horse power until electricity is available and the petroleum industry comes back online.


In the past, most people canned at least some of their own food.

Preserving food by canning is a skill that many preppers and survivalists are learning. In the past, it was a skill that everyone knew as most people canned at least some of their own food. People living on homesteads canned extensively as the produce they grew was most of the food they ate.

Smoking Meats

A homemade smokehouse allows you to preserve meat.

Smoking used to be much more common than today as it is one of the easiest means of preserving meat. I still remember visiting a home in one of the living history museums that we visited when I was younger.

The kitchen fireplace was huge: big enough to walk inside even while the fire was burning. But the truly amazing part was that the chimney had been built to serve as a smokehouse, with hooks to hang the meat.

One of the problems with smoking meat as a means of preserving it is that once you cut the meat, the fresh surface doesn’t have the protection of being smoked. Being able to hang that meat in the chimney and smoke it again ensured that people could keep their smoked meats from spoiling.

Curing Meats

Curing meat is a good way of making cuts that are too tough or stringy into tasty delicacies.

Most of what we know of as “deli meat” today actually has a different name: “cured meats.” Salami and other cured meats were made as a way of tenderizing and making cuts of meat that were either too tough or too stringy useable in other ways. Curing these meats turned them into delicacies that were worth far more than the meat would otherwise be. It also effectively preserved them as cured meats don’t go bad.


Butchering would be crucial if you were hunting in the wild.

How many people know how to butcher an animal today? Most hunters don’t even have an idea. Oh, they can kill the animal and field dress it but that’s about as far as it goes. From there, most take it to a butcher’s shop to be turned into usable meat products.

Granted, rough butchering doesn’t require much skill, but it can waste a lot of meat. You also end up with a varied product as knowing how to butcher also means knowing what cuts of meat should be used in what way. The cured meats mentioned above are a perfect example of this.


Animal hides are valuable, but only after turned into leather.

The hides of all those animals we will kill for food are valuable, but only after turned into leather. Long used as a sturdy, flexible material, leather has found its way into clothing, armor, door hinges, harnesses, saddles, handbags, shoes, and a myriad of other necessary items. We won’t be able to afford to let those skins go to waste, but we will need to have the capability to tan them and turn them into leather.


This old stone grist mill is a good example of a technology which has existed for a long time.

Milling actually covers a wide variety of skills as there were many different types of mills. The most common, and the ones that we will probably need the most, are the grain mill (or grist mill) and the sawmill. Most of us are used to seeing these powered by water wheels, but they could also be powered by animal power (usually oxen).

Mills are a mechanical marvel. Made with wood gears, they require high precision but use materials that don’t necessarily lend themselves to that precision. Making a gear by driving branches into a cut-off tree trunk doesn’t exactly sound like precision, but that’s exactly what they did.

The business end of any mill – either the stones for grinding or the saw blades for cutting – had to be made and sharpened by hand. Cutting and smoothing a several-ton stone and then cutting grooves in it so that it can grind grain are not tasks for the weak at heart or the weak of muscle either.

Carpentry with Hand Tools

This collection of vintage woodworking tools shows an old way of doing things.

Carpentry today is all about using power tools. Few professional carpenters, let alone do-it-yourself-ers, know how to use many essential carpentry tools.

When was the last time you found someone who even knew what winding sticks were, let along how to make a set and use them? How good are you at smoothing a board with a plane? Have you ever used a scraper rather than sandpaper? How about a bit and brace?

Without power tools, many of us would be lost. Yet if there is anything we’re going to need more than the blacksmith, it’s the ability to build everything from an outhouse to a smokehouse out of wood. We’re going to need to be able to do all that without the benefit of electric tools.

Making Shoes

Making shoes is a skill which would be very valuable.

The village cobbler was always very busy as they made and repaired the shoes of everyone in the village. These weren’t shoes made for style but shoes made to last.

They were much more rugged than the shoes we wear today, most of which wouldn’t last long in a post-disaster world.

As today’s shoes, which are largely soled with synthetic materials, won’t be able to be repaired once the soles and heels go bad, we’re either going to have to limit ourselves to wearing moccasins or going barefoot, or someone is going to have to learn how to make shoes.

Rope Making

While a fairly simple skill, making rope is one which requires several people working together. The synthetic ropes we have available to us today will last a while but will eventually wear out. When that happens, we’ll need to know how to replace them by making rope out of natural materials. That could, at least, give all those who are growing pot something useful to do.

Making Boats & Nets

A fully equipped small-scale boat-building workshop is a rare sight these days.

These are actually two separate skills that were practiced by two different groups of people. Shipwrights built boats and, in most cases, fishermen made their own nets.

But because fishing is one of the easiest ways of finding animal protein, these skills will once again become critical skills as our modern gasoline-powered boats won’t be useful for anything more than taking up dock space.

I know a few men in Mexico who make their own fishing nets. It’s an extremely tedious process, but it’s amazing how evenly they can tie those nets, making them look almost as if they were machine made. Typically, this is a task for the evening, while sitting and talking after dinner, as part of getting ready for the next day’s work.

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