Pro tips for the privy with an outhouse authority

outhouse-in-the-woods Photo by Marc Bruxelle/Shutterstock

When asked how he became the only OBPA in the world — that’s an Outhouse, Backhouse and Privy Authority — Georg Papp says, “‘Daddy’ made me do it.”

“My daughter bought a hundred-year-old house, and wanted an outhouse on her property,” explains Papp, who builds and restores authentic American privies at his Bull Hill Workshop in Colchester, Connecticut. “I was getting ready to retire, built a workshop, took some lessons in furniture building, which I loved and then I built her this outhouse, and the rest is history.”

Papp, who originally built garden sheds that only looked like outhouses, says more and more people started requesting actual privies and now that’s all he builds. Some folks are practical partiers who need an extra spot for guests to “go,” some are farmers or gardeners with large properties, and still others are simply nostalgic for a simpler place and time. Some, like his daughter, are eager for a feeling of authenticity to complement an older house.

Whatever the reason for wanting an outhouse, Papp points out that their function tends to go beyond just “number one” and “number two.”

“Judging from the number of liquor bottles archaeologists find in privy pits, we can safely call drinking ‘number three,’” laughs Papp, who has restored outhouses dating back to the mid-1700s. “Of course, there’s also ‘number four,’ which is playing woo-woo, holding the empty toilet paper tube up to your lips and yelling, ‘Woo-woo!’”

Whatever you prefer to do in your outhouse, Papp has some pointers for privy enthusiasts who might be considering installing their own.

Find the right site

If you’re building a pit outhouse, check local laws about how far away it needs to be from water sources, and how high it needs to be above the water table. Papp says it’s important to think about prevailing winds (you don’t want your house downwind on a hot day) and accessibility. Do you want to be slipping and sliding to the outhouse every time it rains? If you have a large property and do work on the grounds, consider siting an outhouse at the furthest point from the house, saving you a trip back inside if the call of nature comes unexpectedly.

Decide whether you want to have a pit or a bucket

All Papp’s privies are convertible, meaning he builds them with a pail fitted under each seat so they can be easily emptied (most people line them with plastic bags). If an outhouse is situated over a pit, Papp says the bottom of the pail can be removed, creating a chute down to the bottom of the pit and reducing the chance of — ahem — splashback. If you do have a pit, Papp recommends lining the wooden walls under the sitting box with protective material.

Use the right materials for building

Papp uses a variety of woods in his privies, and recommends pressure-treated for the base and anything that comes in contact with the ground. Cedar is a good, durable wood (that happens to smell lovely), but other woods are possible. Shiplap or tongue-and-groove boards for siding are nice touches.

Think about the interior comforts

Perhaps the most important element of an outhouse’s interior is the seat. Papp recommends hardwood for seats, as it will last longer, is easier to clean and is less likely to crack than a softer wood like pine. Of course, you can use a standard toilet seat, but Papp says the spacers on the underside of a regular toilet seat can allow too much air to escape, leading to a stinky fug. The solution? Take the spacers off and bolt the seat directly to the box.

Along with a comfortable seat, Papp points out that hooks for coats and hats are a good idea, as are shelves — both to hold the necessities, like toilet paper and reading material, but also to display knick-knacks. After all, privies don’t have to be dark and dank — they should be decorated with the same care you’d use with a standard bathroom.

As well, one important element to consider is a lock, a good one. And while a window is a nice touch, make sure it’s high up enough that folks don’t feel like they’re going to be peeped at. “It’s important for people to feel secure in there,” says Papp. “The lock should work well, and the window should feel private.”   

Keep the smell at bay

First things first: an outhouse has to be vented to prevent methane, which is both explosive and smelly, from building up. After all, “What stinks can explode,” Papp points out. Run a pipe from the pit (or collection area) up the wall and out the roof. In most places, this is required by the building code. Extra ventilation around the roofline isn’t a bad idea either.

Along with ventilation, post-use smell control is a good idea as well. Sprinkling wood ash or lime into the hole will help keep odours down. You can create a toilet spray with essential oils that can also help disguise some of the funkier smells.

While Papp says most paper, including toilet paper, catalogue pages, corn cobs and newspaper, tends to rot fairly well in a pit, organic waste material may break down faster without it. Consider having a garbage can to put TP in, but it’s not strictly necessary.

Think about the outside

Going to the privy should be pleasant, so think about how it looks from the outside as well as the inside. Potted flowers, a nice path and curtains can all enhance an outhouse’s appearance. If you want to go the traditional route, carve the traditional crescent moon shape into the door, no, it’s not a symbol of Luna, the moon goddess. Papp says early settlers were more practical than that. In a time when hardware was expensive, the crescent moon shape was simply an easy shape to open the door with.

Thinking of building your own privy? Check out Papp’s website — or, if you’d like to chat, give him a call. “Anyone who wants to contact me and ask questions, I’ll help them,” he says. “It’s important to continue the tradition of the good old fashioned outhouse, and people take more pride in something they do themselves. This is a passion for me; one of those things that you want to see done and done correctly.”

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