Community Glue Workshop and the very real need to shift our focus to the 4th “R”: Repair.

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Over the past decade, the environmental movement has had a resurgence focused on the production of more “eco-friendly” products than you can shake a recycled bottle cap “stick” at. Here’s the thing: for the most part, it’s complete rubbish. (Applause for the pun.) Recycling takes a tremendous amount of carbon intensive energy and often involves shipping goods overseas to be broken down, mixed with additional materials, and shipped back to be sold in a form that is a downcycled piece of cheap nonsense as compared with its original form. I know this is hard for folks to hear, but recycling, while often a better alternative to throwing something into a trash can, is not a really a sustainable practice. Period.

Often if something isn't working, the entire thing doesn't need to be scrapped! Don't be afraid to "look under the hood" and tinker. It's already not working, so you may as well give repair a shot!

Usually, if something isn’t working, the entire thing doesn’t need to be scrapped! Don’t be afraid to “look under the hood” and tinker. It’s already not working, so you may as well give repairing it a shot.

We also have “repurposing,” which has become incredibly popular in recent years because it’s fun, creative, and keeps materials out of the landfill. It’s something we all should certainly do, but often times it also results in downcycling. Someone will repurpose an existing item that has a broken part—say a toaster with a broken spring—and turn it into a flower pot. Your standard toaster is comprised of hundreds of parts and complicated methods of metal extraction and other processes that are labor intensive and often manufactured in other countries under questionable employment practices. You know what else can be a flowerpot? A leaf. A cupped hand. A single piece of fired clay. Your brother’s gaping mouth if you shove a plant into it. Any simple thing, really.

Toaster_Project4-PhotoCredit-Daniel_Alexanderx630

Image from The Toaster Project. That there’s the insides of a very basic toaster. Those parts took a lot of energy to create and came a real long way to make it to your local Target.

My point is: let’s just fix that toaster and not waste the kabrillion pieces that do work inside of that sophisticated little heat trap, people. In 2012, my friend Ally and I started Community Glue Workshop in Chicago because, quite frankly, we were pissed off at the fact that the environmental movement had in no way embraced one of the most obvious and abandoned part of sustainable living: REPAIR. It even starts with an “R,” so why it was never promoted is beyond me (P.S. “Reduce” is totally legit). Producing and consuming more materials is the opposite of the solution—“green” or no—and not fixing what we already have only leads to more consumption. Maybe you have a flowerpot now, but you’re still in need of a toaster and will go out and buy a new one anyway, and waste all the embodied energy in that original toaster, which is a big old shame and not doing the planet any favors.

That's a mighty pretty toaster that we fixed. Definitely a more sophisticated piece of machinery than any old thing that can hold dirt.

That’s a mighty pretty toaster that we fixed. Definitely a more sophisticated piece of machinery than any old thing that can hold dirt.

Not able to order replacement parts? That’s absolutely a problem, yes. Manufacturers intentionally don’t sell those parts like they used to in an effort to force you to buy new items. To get around this hiccup, Community Glue has used an inexpensive 3D printer to make simple little new parts when needed. Don’t have access to a 3D printer? Honestly, most of the time we can find another fix that doesn’t require the production of a new part. There are many ways to skin a cat, and that’s why fixing is indeed a creative and innovative process.

Fixing, fixing, fixing. Most of these humans have never met before, by the way. Much more interesting than going to a big box store, wouldn't you say? Also, I know that you can buy a new lamp or headphones or skirt for a reasonable amount of money, but most of the time, fixing is FREE. Beat that, Walmart.

Fixing, fixing, fixing. Most of these humans have never met before, by the way. Much more interesting than going to a big box store, wouldn’t you say? Also, I know that you can buy a new lamp or headphones or skirt for a reasonable amount of money, but most of the time, fixing is FREE. Beat that, Walmart.

Community Glue is comprised of about 10 regular, dedicated volunteers who come together once a month to fix anything folks can fit through the door, from broken table legs to vacuums to bra straps. It doesn’t matter if we have never seen anything like it (in fact, those are the most fun projects), repairing is also a collaborative process and we can almost always figure out a fix or at least diagnose the problem. There are exceptions: perhaps your exploding microwave from 1984 is accidentally cooking your brain through a cracked something-or-other and needs to be disposed of. We get that. But more often than not, the materials we consume are repairable.

Folks meet, mentorships happen, stuff gets done.

Folks meet, mentorships happen, people without resources get some help.

Next month I’ll be posting more on Community Glue Workshop and featuring our October repair clinic. I’m not gonna lie, I’m very excited to finally give some props to our amazing volunteers, curious, smart, generous buggers that they are.

If you're in the Chicago area, check out one of our fall repair clinics. Can it fit through a standard door? Let's have at it!

If you’re in the Chicago area, check out one of our fall repair clinics. Can it fit through a standard door? Let’s have at it!

The organizers. We got mad about the misinformation regarding "green" goods and practices and decided to do something that is actually useful for our community. Folks don't look that happy taking a pile of stuff to the recycle bin. Nope.

The organizers. We got mad about the misinformation regarding “green” goods and practices and decided to do something that is actually useful for our community. You can, too. People are into it.

Saving South Bend

One of around 1700  vacant homes in South Bend whose fate is yet to be determined. (South Bend Times photo by Greg Swiercz)

One of around 1700 vacant homes in South Bend whose fate is yet to be determined. Sure would be a shame to see you go, good lookin’. (South Bend Times photo by Greg Swiercz)

South Bend, Indiana is, like many Rust Belt cities in the Midwest, marked by de-industrialization and population decline. The economic shocks of past decades—attributed to factors like the transfer of manufacturing to the Southeast, the decline in steal and coal industries, and good old globalization—have left a lot of these cities without jobs and well, without as many people. So, South Bend found itself with more homes than could be filled, currently around 1700 vacant properties, which apparently must either be smashed to bits or rehabilitated. Well, guess which is usually cheaper?

A home is demolised in a Near Northwest neighborhood. The demo is part of the city's push to address 1,000 vacant homes in 1,000 days. (South Bend Times photo by James Brosher)

A home is demolished in a Near Northwest neighborhood. The demo is part of the city’s push to address 1,000 vacant homes in 1,000 days. It might be worth arguing that if we addressed all of our issues by turning them into tiny obliterated hunks of waste, we might not quite be addressing the root cause. (South Bend Times photo by James Brosher)

Here’s the thing—it’s not the building stock’s fault that there was an exodus. In fact, the buildings in many of these cities, which once boomed with jobs and industry, are generally pretty extraordinary, laid out in well designed planning grids with accessible and centralized main streets. They are walkable and human-scaled and downright handsome. These historic structures are also unequivically the greatest assets these cities have to offer. They hold their resale value better (think long-term), are made with incredible old growth wood and other materials that are no longer available, and will, quite frankly, easily last another century if they are just shown a little TLC. This is simply not the case for new construction which tends to be out of scale, made with inferior materials, and ages about as well as acid-washed jeans.

Local residents learn the basics of power tools through a Restore Michiana workshop. Empowering people to fix up their homes and neighborhoods is a slick and useful way to help save your city.

Local residents learn the basics of power tools through a Restore Michiana workshop. Empowering people to fix up their homes and neighborhoods is a slick and useful way to help save your city. (Photo by Restore Michiana)

So, it was a no-brainer for ToolMade to support a group in Indiana that is working to empower homeowners by offering workshops that help them repair and restore their buildings. South Bend’s aggressive demolition program is already in the works and is set to span the next three years, so if the local government doesn’t see the value of preserving more of its built environment, it’s time to educate and put tools in the hands of residents who want to fight for their history and quality homes and neighborhoods.

Pad sanding like a boss.

Using a pad sander like a boss. (Photo by Restore Michiana)

To help fill the knowledge gap and teach homeowners and contractors how to work on these buildings, people like Elicia Feasel and Steve Szaday create and run workshops through Restore Michiana. This group is the result of a partnership between Indiana Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission of South Bend and St. Joseph County. Why the partnership? As Steve puts it, “every house has a story, even if it was no more than Billy’s Grandma’s house…and if we can teach someone enough to give them the courage and skills to save that house by doing some of the repairs themselves, we have successfully made a difference.”

Hardware 101.

Hardware 101. (Photo by Restore Michiana)

The workshops are lead by experts in specific fields and are refreshingly cheap—usually around $25-30 for a whole day, sometimes with pizza included! In the past two years alone, hundreds or locals and contractors have taken classes through Restore Michiana. Lectures have been given on a topics like how to research your home’s history, historic paint colors, and historic masonry care. Hands-on workshops have focused on plaster repair, wood floor repairs and refinishing, and the upkeep and repair of historic wood windows.

"Life leaps like a geyser for those who drill through the rock of inertia." -Alexis Carrel

“Life leaps like a geyser for those who drill through the rock of inertia.” -Alexis Carrel (Photo by Restore Michiana)

The program is self funded and all of the fees are used up to print flyers, buy supplies, and help reimburse equipment rentals and or logistical costs. Some local hardware stores have helped by providing basics like glazing, chemicals, wood fillers, etc., and all of the tools that were used on these workshops were either brought in by guest experts or are a part of the Restore Michiana’s personal home stash of tools. This unfortunately meant that all the tools had to be shared, even with 15-20 people in a class. That’s limiting and frustrating if you’re itching to get some hands-on know-how.

If you want to save your homes, resources, neighborhoods and possibly even souls, you must provide pizza. It is the #1 rule of organizing.

If you want to save your homes, resources, neighborhoods and possibly even souls, you must provide pizza. It is the #1 rule of organizing. (Photo by Restore Michiana)

The May class was a day-long Intro to Power Tools workshop for people having little to no experience using tools. The focus was on learning the basics of sawing, routing, sanding, and drilling, and took place at one of the most enduring and unique properties in St. Joseph County, the Birdsell mansion. The building is a Local Historic Landmark built in 1898, and currently available for lease (yes, sure, this is a plug. Preservationists ain’t nothing if not resourceful).

Thanks to the support of several concerned groups, more of these classes are going to happen going forward. If we want our neighborhoods to improve, we have to get out there and get our hands dirty.

Thanks to the support of several concerned groups, more of these classes are going to happen going forward. If we want our neighborhoods to improve, we have to get out there and get our hands dirty. (Photo by Restore Michiana)

Several sponsors, ranging from hardware stores to Habitat for Humanity to real-estate groups to the local pizza spot underwrote/sponsored the event. ToolMade donated several items including a much-needed Craftsman Lithium-Ion 3-Piece Combo Kit (a drill, circular saw, work light, extra lithium battery, circular saw blade and a multi-chemistry charger), a Compact Lithium-Ion Battery Pack, and an ever-useful pad sander. The best news? Because the Power Tools was so well attended and now has more of the needed tools, there will be more of these classes going forward. Not bad for a crew working on a shoestring budget that is also conducting a number of other classes, often dragging in tools from their own garages. And so, I am left with no choice but to bust out the old Margaret Meade quote to wrap this one up: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” I know, but come on, it’s just so damned true.

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.

Amen.

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.

sander

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/