If the shoe fits, wear it. Or better yet, make your own.

A year and a half ago, I found myself talking to a guy on the beach during the 4th of July who pointed to his shoes and said “I made these.” All I could say was “whoa” and “where.” I couldn’t remember what this guy’s name was if you paid me, but you can bet I never forgot there was a shoemaking school nearby. There are possibly as many trades fading into obscurity as there are languages, and bringing attention to them and demystifying them even just a little is a big part of what gets this girl out of bed in the morning. Come back!!!

Shoes! Custom -fit and handmade in the workshop.

Shoes! Custom-fit and handmade in the workshop.

Enter: Sara McIntosh, a cobbler for 39 years, and the wonderful human who started the Chicago School of Shoemaking in 2011. After turning 60, she decided that she wanted to go beyond creating custom made shoes through her shoe shop, and that it was time to empower others by teaching them the trade. Sara is a self-taught cobbler who embraced the self-sufficiency lifestyle in the 1970s, which focused on sustainable living in the truest sense–by living with only what she could produce and not consuming outside goods. So basically, she needed a pair of shoes so she made herself a pair of shoes. I know, I want to be her, too.

Sarah McIntosh, founder of the Chicago School of Shoemaking and Master Cobbler. She even made the mallet!

Sara McIntosh, founder of the Chicago School of Shoemaking and Master Cobbler. She even made the mallet!


See? Sara’s Craftsman bandsaw is used to cut down a dowel that become the handle for a mallet and then rough cuts the mallet head as well. She also uses the bandsaw to shape the souls of the shoes.

Beyond the empowerment that comes from knowing that you can just make whatever you need (she has also built her own log homes, grown her own food, etc.) the freedom that comes with such a useful skillset has allowed Sara to live all over the U.S. and support herself and family wherever she has gone. Everyone needs shoes, and she is one of only a few people left in the country who custom makes them by hand from scratch.

The workshop.

The workshop.

There are a couple of different methods of fabricating shoes, and Sara developed her own based on the out-stitch technique, which lends itself to people who make shoes out of their home or in a small shop. There is a band saw in the back of the shop that is used for a variety of things, including rough trimming the souls of shoes and cutting down dowels that are made into mallet handles. Awls are used for marking lines in leather, metal squares help with patterns, pliers replace rivets and add studs, nippers can cut a chain or destroy a bad rivet…most tools are hand tools and it didn’t seem difficult to set up one’s own workshop once you knew what you were doing.

Sarah uses a square as an edge to pattern the leather.

Sara uses a square as an edge to pattern the leather. Keisha looks for guidance as she works on a leather tote.

There are a variety of leatherwork and shoemaking classes at the school for both beginner and advanced students, and over 500 people have come from around the country to learn. I visited the workshop on a leatherworking day and made some ornaments by stamping, dying, and burnishing leather pieces. I can say with great sincerity that burnishing is now one of my favorite things in the world to do–I’d be arthritic within a year as my compulsive nature shined up every piece of leather on this here earth. Others in the workshop that day were making leather bags, a belt, a Kindle case (that would bring you to your knees, seriously), and a wallet, and folks also often make leashes, wine holders, purses, and anything else they can think of.


Pliers are used to replace rivets or add studs to leather.

Alas, ordering shoes from Sara will land you on a long waiting list, but embracing a sustainable/self-sufficient lifestyle will land you in some classes and enable you to teach yourself and never be wanting or lacking a creative outlet. Basically, it’s contagious and once you know you can make one beautiful, custom thing you have the confidence to make more. Check out the Chicago School of Shoemaking philosophy and classes here and glide around town in the best fitting custom kicks you’ll ever own.

My very, very, very well burnished ornaments. Happy holidays! Go build something.

My very, very, very well burnished ornaments. Happy holidays! Go build something.

Rudolph Resurrected! Metal Machining and Stop Motion Animation

Stu, making cuts into the meticulously machined skeleton "bones" with a bandsaw.

Stu, making cuts into the meticulously machined “skeleton bones” with a bandsaw.

Remember when animation required a pen and paper and three dimensional objects had to actually be built? Remember when art required the use of entire arms flailing around and the work took place on crammed tabletops or in warehouse spaces that looked like the kind of place a serial killer would take his victims? Yeah, well those good old days are largely over. Artists and animators use computers more than most hands-on processes to create their work, which if you think about it, is a complete 180 for those who work in creative fields.

Skeletons. Each piece of metal, hole and pin was created by Stu and crew.

Skeletons! Each metal bar, hole and pin was created by Stu and crew.

Some people, however, reject the notion that they have to sit at a computer all day and are embracing the more traditional ways of creating animation. Stu Marsh is a good example of an artist rebelling against repetitive keyboard motion, florescence-induced headaches, and cubicles of despair.

A hand-crafted head!

A hand-crafted head I’m particularly fond of.

Growing up, Stu’s parents did painting and carpentry and were all around handy folks and as a result, he’s been building things his entire life. In 2003, he went to school for animation and can work 3D software like a champ, but has been slowly working towards a career in stop motion precisely because it allows for animation work without having to sit at a desk for 10 hours a day.


Molly McCandless uses a tap wrench to cut out threading so she can screw bolts down into it through a hole slightly smaller than the threading. Then the tap handle holds a tap, which is basically a really sharp bolt that cuts the grooves in the inside of the hole.

Molly McCandless uses a 1/4 – 1/2 inch Craftsman tap wrench to cut out threading so she can screw bolts down into it through a hole slightly smaller than the threading. Then the tap handle holds a tap, which is basically a really sharp bolt that cuts the grooves in the inside of the hole.

The kind of stop motion animation that most people think of first is likely claymation–the kind used on the 1964 Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer movie. In a nutshell, stop motion animation is a technique to make a physically manipulated object appear to move on its own. The object is moved in small increments between individually photographed frames, creating the illusion of movement when the series of frames is played as a continuous sequence.

Possibly my favorite character from the Land of Misfit Toys. Jelly gun!!!

Stop motion can be done with found objects, through photographing people, or really, with anything that can be moved in tiny increments. The kind of animation that Stu creates involves characters and sets that are fabricated completely from scratch to create 3D cartoons. He and his partners in crime do metal machining to create a movable form within the character that acts as a skeleton. When you’re moving characters a fraction of an inch, metal machining allows the maker to create very precise joints for each skeleton with adjustable tension.


Nicholas sands down little skeleton bits with a 1/4 sheet pad sander to make a few adjustments.

Using a metal mill and lathe to bore out very specific holes and paths in aluminum allows for constant, minuscule adjustments in the armature, and a bandsaw is used for cutting metal stock and making notches in pieces for specific character joints. He then sands down and shapes each piece to fit within a character once it is finished and functional. It is unbelievably precise work. I know, I had no idea.

Honestly, after watching Stu, his brother Nicholas (a faux painter by day and also an all around handy person), and Molly McCandless, (an animator by trade who also wants a more physical work environment) work tirelessly on each and every tiny part of the character skeletons, I had a whole new appreciation for this kind of animation. Check out the fruits of their labor in the first installment of their cartoon series “How I Became a Villain of Dirt,” and stay tuned for their next episode, which should go up sometime later this month. Even after seeing all the nitty gritty of how these characters are made, it’s still complete magic to watch the end result.

On the set!

On the set! Every piece was made my hand to create a world for the Villain of Dirt.

The Austin Tinkering School: You know what kids like to play with? Band saws!

Today's crew at the school. L to R: Jack, Kami, XXX, Oren, XXX

Open workshop day at the school’s new, second location. L to R: Jack (10), Kami, Luke (9), Oren, and Andre (6).

According to Kami Wilt, founder of the Austin Tinkering School (and apparently the most awesome parent in the world), “failure is a really good thing.”

Now I’ll be honest, I’m super Type A and don’t work with kids often, so I required further explanation. According to Kami and a number of people researching this stuff, schools today make kids so failure-adverse that they are afraid to try anything new or unchartered, thereby turning them into less creative and more fearful little beings who are not only going to have less to offer the workforce when they are a older, but who also don’t get to have nearly as much fun as we did. Yes, this would qualify as depressing. But, of course, there is hope and a movement is afloat, or I’d have written a different article.

The Austin school isn’t the first or last of its kind–in fact, there is even one in my own city that I had no idea existed until this week. The original Tinkering School was started in California by a software engineer named Gever Tulley. About six years ago, Kami, who has three kids of her own, saw his TED Talk called 5 Dangerous Things (you should let your children do) and she just couldn’t let the idea of tinkering go. She obsessed about how Austin needed this and tried in vain to get anyone she could think of to start up an branch until she accepted that was going to have to do it herself. She had a history running a preschool as well as teaching art, science, nature, and carpentry classes, but felt in no way qualified to teach kids about these things…until she did. She got help from people with open minds and experience working in skilled trades and just launched the initiative in her back yard, where most of the classes still take place. The school has slowly evolved and grown into camps and classes for kids and even adults, and a second location at a shared space was just recently opened.

XXX learns more basic but rewarding ways of sawing. He was at it for a good half hour and could not have been a happier person if he were cutting into blocks of milk chocolate for consumption.

Andre learns more basic but rewarding ways of sawing. He was at it for a good half hour and could not have been a happier person if he were cutting into blocks of milk chocolate for consumption.

So I wrote to Kami once Sears offered me the chance to give away a bunch of tools and asked what the school needed. Her answer was a resounding “BAND SAW.” Apparently, at one point, Gever Tulley mentioned that a band saw is what he would take with him on a deserted island–amazingly trumping things like “pizza” and “electronic solitaire,” which are obviously my go-tos. So a local friend picked me up in the family car and we bought a Craftsman 10 inch band saw, a replacement blade, and some rather handsome (size small) work gloves and drove it all down to the school.

My time in Austin was limited so we arranged the visit during an open shop they had with kids ranging from 6- to 10-years-old. Yes, they were adorable and yes, I was providing them with something that could take all of their cute little fingers off in about four seconds. But then I remembered how friends of mine growing up had jobs like “dangle down the laundry shoot and grab dad’s snagged t-shirt” and “clear out that clogged lawnmower blade with your small, nimble hands,” and with considerably less instruction. I relaxed.

10-year-old Jake assembles a band saw without pause the minute it's pulled out of the box. You know, like he's making a sandwich or something.

Jack assembles a band saw without pause the minute it’s pulled out of the box. You know, like he’s making a sandwich or something. No great shakes, right?

Kami’s son Jack (age 10) started assembling the band saw the minute I pulled it out of the box and we were up and running in no time, no blades flying or kid digits lost. There was also no instruction on what should be created with this tool, the kids just did whatever they felt like. Apparently this is also key. There was a recurring theme that the teachers were not actually teachers but collaborators and they stayed out of the way of the kids’ projects.

That said, yes, yes, there is always plenty of safety training and explanation before the kids use the tools. One of the biggest issues with teaching kids to do things is keeping the parents out of the process. Generally, if they are young enough and not yet afraid of failing, they will just keep trying something until it works how they want it to. That ability to change gears when necessary and try new things when an experiment doesn’t work is incredibly valuable and becoming increasingly rare. There are some other places that offer classes to kids, but they typically use kit projects (I may have heard the word “lame” used in conjunction with them) that have pre-made pieces and a uniform, expected end result. Bottom line: this is not especially useful and certainly not as fun.

After a brief safety lesson from Kami, Jake goes to town.

After a brief safety lesson from Kami, Jack goes to town.

If kids never learn how to deal with things that can hurt them, they’ll get hurt when they finally encounter them. The world is full of potentially dangerous objects and people and the best way to protect yourself and your kids is to learn how to manipulate, respect, or navigate these things. Sooner or later that child is going to happen upon non-rounded objects(!), fire(!), or an inconvenience of some kind that must be dealt with(!). Better to prepare them because you won’t always be glued to them, and let’s be honest, a lot of adults could stand to take some classes as well. I seem to remember my father wiring all of the dimmer switched in our house backwards.

Jake and Kami teach XXX how to use the saw. He jumped right on it with a huge grin and cut away about a minute after this was shot. Easy peasy.

Jack and Kami teach Luke how to use the saw. He jumped right on it with a huge grin and cut away about a minute after this was shot. Easy peasy.

I was amazed watching Jack go from assembling the band saw to using the band saw to then explaining to another student how to use it. Seriously, I could not pull him away from that thing if I had a rope and a skid steer. I asked him what projects he enjoyed the most during his four-year career as a tinkerer and he listed things like a compressed-air rocket and a lofted bed frame, both of which he did without adult help. His 8-year old brother, Bruno, recently built a rabbit hutch. Then I asked Jack what his favorite tool was and without hesitation he enthusiastically said “the band saw(!!!),” to which I could only reply, “Wow, you really will do quite well in life. Quite well.” This kid may steal this gig out from under me.

For more on the original Tinkering School: http://www.tinkeringschool.com/