Dream Camp for Handy Adults: Craftsman MAKEcation 2.0

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Villain in Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of Craftsman.

Working in historic preservation and salvage/reuse means having a good grasp of material science and an eye for craftsmanship. One of the biggest hurdles of working in these fields is assuring people who own vintage buildings or who do a lot of building that they can easily repair, restore, and reuse older materials. In fact, these materials usually have several lives left in them. But as much as I hammer home this point (cymbal crash!), even I don’t get nearly enough time to play around with many of the tools out there that can help make restoration and reuse projects even easier, not to mention the time to stoke the coals of my creative side.

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This became a room full of excited adults, lathes, and rather a lot of wood shavings a couple of hours after this was taken. Photo courtesy of Craftsman.

Enter MAKEcation. This is essentially two days of nonstop building, learning and playing, and when you’re invited as a special guest, it’s rude to say no, right? I was asked to come and teach a workshop last year at the inaugural MAKEcation, and I remember thinking, “Is this a real thing? We just get to build stuff all weekend and in the evenings, we learn about whiskey and grilling and take a boat ride after a private concert?” It’s a thing. When I was asked back, rest assured I immediately rearranged my five jobs to make it work. MAKEcation is like camp for curious and creative adults with some of the best makers in the country. At a really nice hotel.

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Making coat hooks with master craftsman Rob North. Photo Courtesy of Craftsman.

The purpose of the event, which lasts 2-1/2 days, is to reward loyal Craftsman Club members for their support and to show active DIY bloggers what Craftsman tools can do. An added bonus of coming two years in a row was seeing many of the ideas that came out of last year manifest through new tool designs and adjustments. Participants were shown all of the upgrades and allowed to try them out. Honestly, I fell in love with several tools I didn’t even know I wanted. My kingdom for more workspace in Chicago because…lathe. Sigh.

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LATHE!!! I cannot express how satisfying it is to use the 12″ x 16″ midi lathe. I’d never used this tool before and it was super smooth. It was essentially like meditation that left you with a piece of functional art. Photo courtesy of Craftsman.

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I only had time to make two handles, but this bottle and pizza cutter are going to be buried with me.

Day 1.

Arrive in Brooklyn early to explore solo for a few hours.

  • Walk Williamsburg
  • Buy a Rocky Balboa onesie for my niece
  • Have incredible pizza and a lager in the courtyard of Fornino’s
  • Return to hotel for cocktails by the saltwater pool (as one does)
  • Head to Brooklyn Brewery for a private tour and more New York style pizza and beer (Chicagoans have no threshold for pizza consumption)
  • Get the only decent night’s sleep on this trip
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Master craftsmen, loyal Craftsman Club members, handy people who write about makers and tools for a living, and a few folks from the Craftsman marketing team who schemed this whole wonderful thing up and worked their tails off for the greater good. Thanks, thanks, thanks. Photo courtesy of Craftsman.

Day 2

  • 7am breakfast in the hotel
  • Head over to Villain, a maker space in Brooklyn that includes all the tools and stations we need, as well as a gigantic bar (for AFTER we used the nail guns and miter saws)
  • Make our own belts and leather cuffs under the expert tutelage of Will Lisak from ETWAS
  • Make a coat rack by repurposing hammers with DIY Guru Rob North 
  • Take apart and rebuild carburetors with Max Herman and Sean Brayton from the Oilers Club
  • Get an incredibly detailed mixology lesson from the lovely Lacy Hawkins, an award winning bartender from the Clover Club
  • Return to the hotel for dinner on the rooftop, delicious drinks, and a private concert by country star Eric Paslay, who did my favorite cover of Wicked Game, ever
  • Eventually…five minutes of sleep
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Justin DiPego doing some stellar leatherwork. I got to know Justin at last year’s MAKEcation and highly recommend checking out his DIY videos.

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Mixologist Lacy Hawkins and her assistant teach us everything we ever wanted to know about making the perfect Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Craftsman.

Day 3

  • Up early for breakfast in the hotel (ow, but yum, but ow)
  • Head over to World Maker Faire for the morning with blurry eyes that soon widen from creative overdrive
  • Take the shuttle on back to Villain to make pizza cutter and bottle opener handles using a lathe taught by Rob Johnstone and Dan Cary from Woodworker’s Journal (I want one, I want one, I want one. Please. Please. Please.)
  • Make a toolbox with a drawer and a bottle opener with the incredibly talented and kind Karl Champley to lug around some of our spoils when we get home.
  • Oh, then we went to go see a private motorcycle stunt show by ILLConduct. Just for us. Because, why not?
  • Then another dinner by the pool and Coney Island Magician and Performer Adam Realman, who swallows swords and cigarettes and shoves spikes into his face and resembles Tom Waits.
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The C3 19.2V Brad Nailer was my other favorite tool on this trip. After messing around with a manual staple gun at home earlier this month, this tool made me realize all those kicked up staples and curse words were completely unnecessary. Peace shall now reign in the Bruni studio. Thanks to the venerable Karl Champley, host on the DIY Network, HGTV, and recent winner of Ellen’s Design Challenge for this toolbox workshop. Photo courtesy of Craftsman.

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We expected to be taken back to the hotel to clean ourselves up before dinner, but instead were taken down a side street for a private show by the motorcycle stunt riders at ILLConduct. This is a great capture, but I highly recommend looking at the videos on the media page of their website to understand how incredible these guys are. Photo courtesy of Craftsman.

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This is Adam Realman. He eats cigarette, bends wrenches, swallows swords, and he let me pull a giant nail out of his nose and called me lovely. No regrets. Photo courtesy of Craftsman.

Day 4

  • Thank the Gods that your flight is late enough that you don’t need to leave the hotel until 11:30am, intend to explore in the morning but instead sleep until 10am, watch HBO in a fog for another hour, pack frantically, and unceremoniously run out the door to meet your driver.
  • Smile as you collapse into your window seat, sleep until drooling.

So, this was a dream trip. Assuming this happens a third year, sign up to be a member of the Craftsman Club if you haven’t already (it’s free), and enter to win as many times as you’re able. Remember: camp for adults with great food and liquor and a nice hotel and bizarre and ridiculously entertaining side trips and performances. Oh, and they ship everything you make back to you and every single thing on the trip is paid for. Yes. I’ll see you next year.

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Nerd sidebar: Hanging out with Vincent Lai of the Brooklyn-based Fixers Collective, a group that helped me and a friend launch Community Glue Workshop several years ago (which we’re proud to note is the first repair clinic in the state of Illinois). I read that his crew had a booth at the World Maker Faire and we finally got to hug in earnest (and then he gave me a free iFixit tool kit!).

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I can’t wait to give this to my niece. Thanks, Brooklyn street vendor.

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Keepin’ it Clean in Detroit: The Americorps Urban Safety Project’s Global Youth Service Day

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Many hands make lighter work while boarding up 10 open and vacant houses and cleaning the surrounding properties in this Southwest Detroit school zone.

In case you didn’t catch the first story about the masterfully collaborative and successful AmeriCorps Urban Safety Project (AMUS), this organization recruits and activates neighborhood volunteers to tackle blight and safety issues on their block. Volunteers organize themselves into neighborhood groups that become watchdogs for their neighborhood, working with a number of different partners and sponsors, and these volunteers also work to put on large-scale neighborhood clean-ups. In April, AMUS had their Global Youth Safety Day, so before the event I connected them with Craftsman, who donated hedge clippers (action bypass loppers), mechanics tools, a wheelbarrow, a weed wacker (volt line trimmers), a hand vac, drill and impact drivers and a few other helpful things to have on site.

This “Safe Pathways” board up event targeted the Southwest Detroit neighborhood surrounding Neinas Elementary School. Citizen volunteers of all ages joined Neinas students in boarding up 10 open and vacant houses and cleaning the surrounding properties of blight and debris to make their neighborhood safer. The Detroit Police Force, dozens of pizzas, and a boatload of tools were there to help this crew get through a long day of (the best kind of) dirty work.

For more about this organization and the staggering amount of work they do to keep their city safe and engaged, visit www.amusdetroit.org. All photos courtesy of AMUS Detroit.

How the philosophy behind the Chicago Industrial Arts and Design Center could solve the world’s problems

A bold headline perhaps, but hey, it’s true. In June, I visited the CIADC to learn more about the new nonprofit arts center in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, and was blown away by the facilities and philosophy behind the Center. What resonated most was the founder’s focus on not having prescriptive end products in the classes. It seems there is considerably less room and encouragement than there was in past decades, even in realms that are supposedly promoting these efforts, to make original work via trial and error and creative problem solving.

Last year, there was some criticism (that I very much agree with) of Legos (gasp!), drawing attention to the fact that these building blocks are not quite the creativity-inspired units they once were. Instead, we purchase pre-made kits that direct us to follow instructions with every brick having a predetermined location. This does not exactly build skills that lead to brilliant discoveries. Beyond this, the kits even tell you what girls can build vs. what boys can build, which should drive any self-respecting human insane. I don’t understand how innovation has a gender, do you? How exactly are these projects contributing to our/our kids learning process?

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Beautiful, non-gendered, monstrous creation that will never be made twice (left) vs. a prescribed, cutesy end product with only the exact pieces needed to make the same prepackaged item every time (right).

Of course, this isn’t only a Lego phenomenon, not by a longshot. I took a painting class with my nieces a while back and everyone had to paint the exact same image–every kid was looking around to make sure they were doing it “right.” The paintings were still adorable, sure, but I found the process to be anxiety producing because we had to focus on recreating an expected end goal (the teacher’s example painting), instead of focusing on playing with color and space and creating something out of our imaginations, which can never be “wrong.” This isn’t about being touchy feely, it’s about not correcting a Picasso when he paints something a different way. As a society, we mass manufacture, buy wholesale, feel pressured to keep up with norms, and are called out on all of our choices on social media to keep us in check. If we all do everything the same way, how on earth will we ever progress, solve the problems of the world, push the boundaries of the arts, etc.? How will we ever do anything great?

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CIADC Member, Natalie, forging steel belt buckles by heating the steel round stock and hammering into shape with the 24oz Craftsman ball-pein hammer.

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The hammer and anvil are a classic combination for metal makers.

But I digress…the point is simply to remember the spirit of creativity and the benefits it reaps.  I believe this spirit is captured at the CIADC. None of the projects shown were for classes that specifically taught belt making or frame fabricating or, lord knows, bike trailer manufacturing. They simply evolved as the process unfolded. Methods changed, mediums changed. This is encouraged, not frowned upon.

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When you want ultimate control of the fastening torque, nothing beats a good old manual phillips head screwdriver. Laura, the CIADC Woodworking Department Manager, is assembling a plywood cross-cut box for the table saw.

Basically, classes at the Center teach you about a specific medium and you decide the trajectory. If you decide that you want to work with metal and wood simultaneously to complete a project you dream up, all the better. The idea is not to limit but to expand options and methods. As someone who works in various architectural fields, I can’t tell you how useful it would be if architects, engineers, and contractors would cross-collaborate!

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CIADCs founder and Metalworking Department Manager, Matt, shows students the Craftsman aviator sheet metal snips while cutting 18ga steel to be bent into an open-faced box. Snips are great for cutting both geometric and organic forms from sheet metal.

The man behind the initiative, Matt Runfola, was kind enough to send some pictures of the CIADC students and members in action. You don’t have to be a member to take classes, by the way, but members do have additional privileges such as discounted classes.

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Long-time CIADC student, Jeremy, demonstrates an outside-the-box use of the Craftsman 24” Carpenter Square. Here, he uses it to set a parallel fence to cut perfect sizes on our metal cutting band saw. Jeremy is working on a bicycle cargo trailer at CIADC.

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Having the right tools on hand make the tasks safer and easier. New CIADC student, Shelly, adjusts the miter gauge for the table saw with combination wrenches. Shelly was cutting beautiful mitered wood frames for her 2D art.

The best part about tools is that they can be used in many different ways for many different things–this is but a tiny sampling of how the CIADC will use the tools we shipped from Craftsman. For more information on the wide range of class options and the philosophy that guides the Center, please check out their website. Tools help us to make our world more functional, interesting, and beautiful, but of course the most versatile tool of all is our noggin. Use it. Explore. Have fun out there!

The Chicago Artists Coalition: Building Community and Spaces for Artists. Literally.

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Exhibition view of “A Challenge to the Summer Group Show: BOLT Alumni Exhibition & Dialogue.” Photo credit: Joseph Belknap.


The Chicago art scene has never been New York’s in terms of the number of overall galleries, artists, critics, and patrons. But, as a biased Chicagoan, I’d argue that this has been a benefit to many of our artists and by extension, the world at large. While we’ve won renown for our collections and art institutions, the local artists found their own paths to supporting themselves and their peers. One could argue that this has helped artists dig deeper and develop their personal styles to a greater degree and to even be irreverent(!) towards prevailing movements, which, of course, is where the really interesting stuff comes in.

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“The Entry of Christ into Chicago,” 1976. Artist: Roger Brown. Brown was an important part of Chicago’s art scene in the 1970s (and in the following couple of decades) as part of the Chicago Imagists movement. The Roger Brown Study Collection, a house museum, gallery space, and archive is still open to the public. His collection is incredible. If you haven’t been to the Roger Brown House

Getting into the history of art in Chicago is more a novel than a blog post, but it’s worth digging into the history of groups and smaller museums such as the Hyde Park Art Center, the DuSable Museum, the Chicago Imagists, the Public Art Workshop, Movimiento Artistico Chicago, and Artemesia, which played especially important roles for artists in the 1960s and 70s. These entities fostered creative environments, outlets for social activism and overall support in a city that is and was incredibly diverse but not investing much in its local artists. We’ve exported many of our best and most innovative artists through the years, but their roots in Chicago were undeniably crucial to their development.

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Public Art Workshop mural project created with Chicago Community Youth in 1970. “Protect the People’s Homes.” Photo credit: Mark Rogovin. There is an excellent archive of Rogovin’s photographs documenting public art murals during this time here.

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Recent group discussion of a Chicago Artists Coalition HATCH Projects exhibition “Extraordinary Effort, Spectacular Failure.” Photo credit: Lori Felker.

This is why we were so excited to connect with the Chicago Artists Coalition (CAC), another group that grew out of the 1970s movement to create a better environment and future for Chicago’s artistic community. As the identity and needs of local artists have evolved, the Coalition’s approaches and advocacy have adapted to keep artists working and supported. A number of workshops are hosted in a wide variety of mediums, including providing opportunities for emerging artists to hone their ability to mount professional exhibitions in the CAC’s gallery space. You know what building and installing an exhibit requires? Incredible amounts of creativity and lead preparators who can teach best practices and innovative, experimental methods for installation and exhibition? Yes. But it also requires, well, tools.

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Install THAT. Gallery view of installation by HATCH Artists, Mara Baker and Nina Barnett. Photo credit: Eva Deitch.

We’ll show off some installation building (something I’ve certainly never gotten to see in action) in the near future with the help of some Craftsman tools and fantastic teachers and Chicago artists. In the meantime, check out current workshops and exhibitions happening at the CAC!

The Chicago Industrial Arts & Design Center: Forging Creativity. Literally.

photo 4 copyI’ve been playing around with metal arts since I was 15, so when I heard that a multidisciplinary arts center with welding and forging facilities was moving into a giant warehouse near my home, some blood vessels burst in my eye. There are not many of these spaces in Chicago, so I immediately contacted Chicago Industrial Arts & Design Center (CIADC) founder Matt Runfola to see how to get involved and how Craftsman might be able to help.

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The Chicago Radio Laboratory signage still remains in the building, and Matt is proud of the history of the space, which gave birth to Zenith Electronics via the work of makers a century ago.

Matt ran the Evanston Arts Center’s metalworking program for the last 13 years, but when the organization made plans to move to a new building this year, the new space was unable to accommodate metalworking facilities. So Matt decided to go off on his own and go bigger and better by taking over a poured concrete and masonry building that would be mighty hard to burn down. This woodless construction allowed for welding, forging, and even casting to take place in the building and with a full three stories to play with, there was ample space to fabricate objects using any methods he could dream up.

Forging and metalworking equipment!

Forging and metalworking equipment!

So, beyond the firey arts that make my heart swell, there are numerous other workstations in the CIADC building, allowing for glass blowing, wood working (which Craftsman will now be providing numerous tools for, since the greatest need was in this department), and even 3-D printing and electronics. This is all very intentional–the purpose is not to teach people how to fabricate a prescribed end product, but to make them work out a project using a broader creative process.

Woodworking space.

Woodworking space.

Basically, you could learn to make a wood table top, then learn how to weld a table base, then cast a vase to sit on top of the thing. Then you could buy some flowers for the vase, model a necklace on a computer, and fabricate it at a jewelry station and have a damned dinner party. It’s not about production, it’s about process and creating something that is truly unique and from your own wonderful brain.

3-D printing studio space.

3-D printing studio and electronics space.

This way of thinking reminded me of my time spent with the Austin Tinkering School and their philosophy of learning and fostering true creativity and problem solving skills, which we are sorely lacking these days. If you can’t make this one way, figure out another way, or take the project in a new direction. There are a million ways to accomplish a goal and nothing is right or wrong. That’s the fun of it and what expands our brains. That’s art, science, alchemy, and what’s going to get us through any number of sticky situations in the future, in and out of the studio.

For more on the CIADC and to sign up for classes (this session is starting soon!), click here.

Where the magic happens. (Photo courtesy of the CIADC)

Where the magic happens in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. (Photo courtesy of the CIADC)

Grave Matters in Indiana: Restoring a Civil War-era Cemetery and Activating Public Green Space

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The iconic gates.

Some people think cemeteries are creepy. I happen to think of them as stunningly attractive research repositories and peaceful oases in the midst of our densely populated cities and noisy highways. But then, I also happen to like things that are a little creepy. Historically, cemeteries were not only burial grounds, but green spaces where children would play, families would picnic, and smitten teenagers would hold hands, etc. – all that good stuff we do in parks.

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A portion of the cemetery as it stands today. Lovely, right? (Photo by JSG Design)

In fact, the 21 acres of City Cemetery was the first planned open space in South Bend when it was designed in 1832, and this land is now seen as an opportunity to celebrate the artistry of the wrought iron gates and elaborate monuments, but also as a great opportunity to bring beautiful, recreational space in an area of the city that is in dire need of green space.

But, alas, over time and with the help of privatization and rising burials costs, the function of these beautiful open spaces as public gathering places has really gone by the wayside and is even discouraged. The good news is that we found a group working hard to restore a Civil War era cemetery in South Bend, Indiana, and in an effort to curb future vandalism of the stones and landscapes, they hope to go yet another step to bring back the recreational aspects of cemeteries. The more people and foot traffic, the more the space is activated and made less attractive to troublemakers. We connected the South Bend Parks Foundation, The Historic Preservation Commission of South Bend (HPC), and the History Museum with Craftsman, who went a long way to help their summer restoration efforts with a generous tool donation. The more tools, the more volunteer hands to buff out the stone and clean up the land.

Re-enactors portray local historical figures at a May event. (Photo by the South Bend Tribune)

Re-enactors portray local historical figures at a May event. The media has been picking up on this story quite a bit in May–apparently a lot of people in South Bend weren’t even aware that the cemetery existed because it’s tucked away between neighborhoods. That said, the cemetery plan was developed with over a year of public input and meetings. (Photo from the South Bend Tribune)

To date, efforts to celebrate the legacy of the historic City Cemetery include writing a National Register nomination for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, managing a project to digitize cemetery records, and reaching out to local media to discuss the restoration and vandalism issues. On May 9th, there were guided tours with dozens of historical re-enactors and local history experts telling tales of some of those entombed at the cemetery, which was also in partnership with a local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

We will have updates on the restoration work, but if you want to get involved there will be a presentation on June 20th discussing cemetery symbolism, tombstone facts, and proper methods of cleaning headstones, immediately followed by a hands-on workshop on how to clean the headstones with some brand spankin’ new Craftsman tools. You can bet I’ll be at some of these events. The HPC and South Bend Parks Foundation will host volunteer days on July 18th and August 15th for more restoration work.

For more information on City Cemetery, check this out.

For more information on how to get involved, click here.

It’s Spring, Y’all: Get Busy like the Bees

Last year, my ecologist friend and I made some mason bee houses because, well, there are fewer and fewer places for them to take up residence and fewer and fewer pollinators out there. Basically, we’d like to keep eating food that comes out of the ground, so we picked up some wood scraps, grabbed some circular saws and drills and went to town one Sunday afternoon.

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It turns out, these little houses (some people call them “bee hotels”) were so fruitful and good-looking that they allowed me to spread my wings as well, though to slightly fancier quarters to a resort in the hills of California. I was asked to teach a workshop on how to make these little abodes with a bunch of other handy people at the Craftsman MAKEcation event, and since it’s the perfect time of year to build them, I figured I’d post how to do them here as well. So, here are the deets:

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Making some homes for nonthreatening little pollinators at last year’s MAKEcation.

WHY YOU MUST LOVE MASON BEES

  • They are gentle beings, with stings no stronger than a mosquito bite. In fact, they are generally promoted as not stinging at all. So stop judging them!
  • They are very efficient pollinators; only a few hundred are needed per acre. The dramatic decline of the honey bee population has led to small or misshapen fruit (or no fruit at all). These little mason bees have helped bring back trees that hadn’t produced fruit for years.
  • They are remarkably easy to keep, having few pest or disease problems and minimal management needs.
  • They are industrious little buggers and fun to observe in action.

TOOLS YOU’LL NEED

  • Cordless drill (or, if you’re drilling into old growth wood, you may want a drill press)
  • Extra-long drill bit (need to be able to drill 3-5″ deep)
  • Sand paper (100 grit)
  • Miter saw (any kind of saw will work–these are quicker and easier if you’re cutting angles for a roof)
  • Brad nailer and nails (also optional, you could screw these boards together if you prefer)
  • Tape measure
  • (Optional) Paint brushes and paint – the bees seems to especially like blue and yellow

TIPS ON MAKING THEIR HOMES 

  • Avoid pressure treated wood.
  • Avoid aromatic woods like cedar.
  • Make sure wood is at least 4” thick (I would recommend it be 6-7” thick).
  • Lay out a series of holes approximately 1” apart.
  • Drill holes to between 3-5” deep (do not drill all the way through wood).
  • Keep hole diameter close to 5/16”.
  • Keep dry by creating an overhanging roof.

SETTING OUT YOUR NESTING BLOCKS 

  • Put out in early spring. They are only around for 6-8 weeks, then the rest of the year the new generation will be in the holes developing until winter and then hibernating until spring.
  • Mason bees begin to emerge at around the same time that crocuses and forsythias bloom.
  • Place under eaves, decks, or other protected spots (if there is an overhanging roof on the house you build, this isn’t really necessary).
  • Their houses should always face south or east, receiving some morning or early afternoon sun, and be placed so that the holes are horizontal.
  • Mason bees also require a source of clay or mud to build their nests.  Dig a small pit around a foot deep and make sure it’s open and accessible throughout the active season.

Super easy and pretty crucial for our ecosystem, so just set a few hours aside and feel really good about this project.

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One of the bee homes from the event. They come in all shapes and sizes. As long as you drill the holes properly and set them out as described, they will work!

Also, if you’re looking for actual hands-on workshops—er, workshops that are free and involve good eating, drinking and entertainment in between the hands-on stuff, the next MAKEcation is coming up this summer. TIP: From now through July 31, Craftsman Club members can enter for a chance to win a trip to the Craftsman MAKEcation event by visiting www.craftsman.com/makecation. In 2014, I learned everything from blacksmithing techniques to how to properly grill a fish, and also became friends with a chainsaw artist named Curtis (include photo). I don’t know where you all live, but these are things that just don’t happen in Chicago. This year, Craftsman is kicking the action up a notch by bringing some of the nation’s top tool experts, artists and mechanics to sharpen your existing skills and to teach you new ones. They also happen to be partnering up with the World Maker Faire and providing a free ticket to attend the event, which will be held in Brooklyn at the same time. Huge perk.

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Curtis! He carved these out so quickly it was astonishing. But here’s a tip: don’t sneak up behind a chainsaw artist when he or she is working.

So, go get your hands dirty and do something good for our environment and our food supply. Then sign up for discounts and a possible free making vacation to learn even more ways to get your hands dirty.

THEN, Check back at ToolMade to hear follow-up about the incredible group in Detroit that we’re working with next month. Yes, all this sunshine and non-arctic weather has me energized and bossy. But it’s all for the greater good.

Happy Spring!

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