Reclaiming Rural America

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A glimpse of the 8,000 sf warehouse that is now Sangamon Reclaimed.

My friend, Meegan, recently started her own business sourcing lumber. Her sledgehammers are literally duct-taped together, and I mentioned wanting to connect her with some free tools. Of the dozens of times I’ve offered this opportunity, people have always pounced on it, but Meegan shut me down with, “No, listen, you need to talk to this guy Brian I’ve been working with who’s doing amazing things. Call him. I’m fine. I just need a forklift.” And so, when a stubborn Detroit woman who uses duct-taped sledgehammers tells you to do something, honestly, you just do it.

The next day, I reached out to the owner of Sangamon Reclaimed, Brian Frieze, a firefighter and veteran who started taking down barns and salvaging the wood. Now listen, I’m a member of the National Barn Alliance and lord knows I’ve been chased by dogs across several states while going in for a closer look, but unfortunately, we can’t save them all. The barns taken down by Sangamon Reclaimed will be burned to the ground if they aren’t carefully dismantled. Yes, burned to the ground.

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The massive building holds a retail store, a warehouse space, an office and a side yard.

Now part of what makes this story different from other deconstruction stories is that Brian understands rural America and he understands that these structures have been symbols of livelihood for the families around him for generations. He cares about that symbolism, the cultural heritage, and the materials. He not only painstakingly dismantles these structures, he actually researches their history and documents it. I work in salvage. This is not typical. This is lovely and important.

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This stroke sander has a 10′ bed and was brought in from New York. It’s a beast. A lovely, super handy beast. And great for large slabs.

Opening  your wallet yet? Brian also decided that Sangamon Reclaimed would hire as many veterans and firefighters as possible. There are now five employees doing deconstruction and using the saved materials to build furniture and custom installations. But the mission continues. In addition to rapidly growing as a retail source for lumber, barn wood, and handcrafted goods, the company is determined to help those suffering from issues like PTSD and survivor’s guilt, which can lead to some intense struggles with employment and housing. Sangamon Reclaimed has partnered with numerous groups that help vets with these hurdles, and lately, Brian has been looking into starting a job training program for veterans who currently reside at a local homeless shelter.

So, a big thank you to Meegan for the tip and introduction. Please send her your sledgehammers. The ToolMade Project was thrilled to partner with Craftsman and help Brian and his growing crew expand their tools and storage collection – we’ll post pics of them with their Craftsman loot soon. As an aside, despite their reasonable prices, I spent far too much money in their rapidly growing retail section. If you ever find yourself in Springfield, Illinois, brace yourself for their small but mighty store. I could reconstruct a Midwest 3-portal barn with everything I lugged back to Chicago.

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I snagged that black, white, and red flag and wiped out their entire stock of barn wood chevrons, thank you very much. Brian started a “Flags for Heroes” program, where a portion of each flag purchased goes directly to helping veterans and firefighters. They sell out like crazy.

 

unCommon People: Bringing shop class and a new kind of workforce to New Orleans

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Aaron Frumin and the unCommon Construction crew. All of the incredible photographs featured in this post were taken by high school students. For more information on these talented photographers, visit http://gigsy.co.

In 2005, Aaron Frumin threw his hands up, dropped out of college and joined the Red Cross to respond to Hurricane Katrina. Once his extended term was up, he still wasn’t ready to return to a desk so he worked as a day laborer. He then went on to lead volunteers with AmeriCorps, finished school, and joined Teach for America. After basically joining every hands-on do-gooder organization in the country, it became clear that while he loved teaching, he hated the walls of a classroom.

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For the Spring 2016 session, 10 of the 25 applicants were female. YES.

So, as Aaron puts it, he decided to start a program that lets students build their own classroom walls. He recognized that there was a desperate need for skilled workers in Louisiana, and while the Department of Education has been trying to address this issue, those programs didn’t seem to be dealing with some of the core issues that are preventing people from stable employment. There are plenty of workforce training programs out there, but very few tackle the soft skills needed to really get and keep a job.

 

This is where Aaron’s unique combination of hands-on construction work and his understanding of systematic failures in education is invaluable and unique. He’s not throwing money at the problem–and he’ll surely corroborate the fact that he doesn’t have any money to throw–but instead, he digs in deeper to get to the root issues and starts from there. And speaking of money, his hardworking apprentices are paid for their time. As they should be. There are far too many exploitative training programs out there that benefit from the time and labor of those who need the money most.

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“These students can go into whatever specialized trades they want with this foundation, but I think it’s essential to start them with construction so they can have an immediate sense of accomplishment. Seeing what you’ve created is powerful.”

Aaron started unCommon Construction (uCC) just a year ago and is addressing this labor and education crisis in three ways:

  • Apprenticeships: Through after school and weekend sessions, high school students from diverse neighborhoods and schools build a house from start to finish over the course of four months. In this selective program, youth earn weekly pay and high school credit while developing transferrable job skills, and gaining valuable experience and leadership skills.
  • Pop-up Shop Class: To spark further interest in construction and involve more youth in our programs, unCommon Construction provides services to schools in the form of a “pop up” Shop Class. During these sessions, uCC staff facilitates hands-on, engaging construction experiences and classes for students on the school’s campus. Examples from previous sessions include birdhouses, sawhorses, benches, and flower boxes.
  • Post-Secondary Placement & Recruitment: uCC excels at providing the youth with high quality training and exposure to the construction industry and beyond. Through partnerships with local construction companies, training facilities and colleges, we provide youth with the opportunity to more successfully transition from school to the workforce and/or post-secondary education.

 

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This Spring, uCC is expanding to partner with four high schools. They’ve received 25 applications, including 10 girls and 15 boys ages 16-20. Five uCC alumni are returning for another semester. As you can see from the pictures, the students are into the work and are thoughtful about their time with the program. As Aaron explained, “You have to invest in your community. The students are the product, not the house. The house is just the curriculum.”

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The ToolMade Project can’t help but be partial to this student and his sentiments. For more on this crew, and for more photography from the incredible photography students that helped with this post, check back next month.

The Democratization of Tools: How Buffalo Helps Communities Help Themselves

tl1*Note: Darren did such an amazing job summarizing the importance of these resources that many of the words in this post are his own. Thanks for making life so easy for both the people of Buffalo and also a gal in Chicago, Darren. All pics are of projects completed using the Tool Library’s resources.

Sometimes people take lemons and make Tool-Aid. Darren Cotton and his roommate were living off campus in the University Heights neighborhood of Buffalo and renting from an absentee landlord who didn’t exactly do much to keep the place up. So, instead of defaulting to complaining or complacency, they began doing a lot of the work around the house themselves, making incremental improvements and deducting material expenses from their rent.

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Check out the TedX Talk to learn more about where this initiative began here. 

Throughout this process, Darren and his roommates found themselves raiding their parents’ garages for things like hedge trimmers, power drills, paint rollers, etc. It quickly became clear that in order for people to create positive change through repairing their homes and improving their communities, they would require centralized access to tools and resources (without spending a fortune). A year later, the tool library was born thanks to Darren’s tenacity and a startup grant from the City of Buffalo.

 

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Photo courtesy of the University Heights Tool Library.

The mission of the University Heights Tool Library is to facilitate self-reliance, civic engagement, and grassroots reinvestment in neighborhoods by empowering residents to affect the positive change they want to see. The first tool library was created in Berkley, California in the 1970’s and there are nearly 40 of these around the country today. These low cost, high impact community resources have helped breathe life back into long neglected neighborhoods through the creation of numerous community gardens, the rehabilitation of a long neglected housing stock, and most importantly, through the empowerment of residents. Shared resources and collective action are a hallmark of tool libraries as is the importance of access over ownership in the new economy (e.g. I don’t need a drill, I need a hole in the wall.) In fact, the average drill is only used for 12 minutes during its lifetime (CRAZY).

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Photo courtesy of the University Heights Tool Library.

The University Heights Tool Library operates as an all-volunteer nonprofit organization. Membership is $10 a year and allows members to borrow up to five tools at any one time for up to one week, with an option to renew for an additional week. All membership dues are reinvested back into the tool inventory and are either used to repair current tools or to purchase additional tools based on the demand and number of requests from members.

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Photo courtesy of the University Heights Tool Library. 

From a small membership of a dozen or so neighbors and an initial inventory of about 100 tools, today the Tool Library has grown to nearly 550 members and over 1,600 tools, all of which can viewed online using their new inventory management system. When researching the possibility of starting one of these up in Chicago, I can tell you that overwhelmingly, we were told by other successful tool libraries that a solid inventory system and regular tool maintenance were the lynchpins to success.

2013-2014 Tool Library Stats

I’m not even sure what to add here. I mean, LOOK AT THESE STATS.

In addition to loaning out tools to individuals, the Tool Library draws much of its strength from partnering with block clubs and neighborhood organizations on projects that put their tools to work in the community – just a few of these are highlighted in the images above and you can see how they target the kinds of projects that really make a visible difference in a neighborhood. More on that in our follow-up blog when we show off the brand spankin’ new Craftsman tools that will be joining the inventory.

 

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.

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.

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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 Giveaway: Want Free Tools? Submit!

hmp5583bWhile innovation and creative problem solving is a wonderful thing, there comes a time when sawing pipes with an old steak knife has caused enough repetitive motion damage to your hands that your fingers resemble challah bread. Of course, sometimes one must make a choice whether to buy groceries or to buy a [insert semi-expensive tool of choice here].

And then there are other times when you get to eat and have tools! How can this be, you ask?

Three people/groups/organizations doing work that requires tools (and some heart—it matters), will each receive $200 worth of whatever tools or tool accessories you can find via Sears. Honestly, it’s kind of surprising how much bang you can get for your buck with that amount of money, especially during the holiday season. So here’s the deal:

The Giveaway

This is a write-in contest where 3 groups or individuals will be featured on the blog talking about what they do and how the tool(s) will help them with their work. Anything goes—hand tools, power tools, work gloves, whatever, but it has to be Craftsman brand.

Let’s keep this pretty flexible, but here’s some basic info you’ll want to include:

1. What do you do?

2. Why do you do it?

3. A couple of pictures of whatever you think best features who you are and/or the work you do.

4. What tool(s) you need and how it would help you/your organization out.

Submission deadline is December 15th, 2013. Email me at carlabruni@gmail.com and please put “Sears Tool Giveaway” in the subject line so it doesn’t get lost in the tide.

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OTHER STUFF

Where you live/Who is eligible: I don’t have a travel budget, so unless you live relatively near to the Chicago area or happen to be somewhere I’m already headed (New Orleans for New Years and Springfield, IL in February is all that is on the agenda for now), I’m not sure I can make it out to you for this project. BUT, if you have a really, truly extraordinary project, please write in anyway. If we can’t figure anything out now, maybe we will be able to later, and I can at least feature you on the blog and get you some publicity through Sears and other online outlets.

Who is judging this? Well, the idea of having to choose between some people I may know and so many great submissions by myself is mildly torturous. So there will be three judges, who, granted, I will take the liberty of selecting, helping with this process. If you aren’t selected, you can take out your wrath on them.

When do you get the tools? This project will span over the next 6 or so months, so I may not be able to visit some of you until Spring. If it is especially urgent for someone selected to receive tools sooner rather than later for a specific project, I’ll definitely try my best to accommodate that.

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An example of someone who will not be receiving free tools.

So, that’s it. Submit! Submit!

Tool Porn: You Know What’s Hot? Fixing What’s Broken.

Ladder Maker, Salento, Italy (Photographer: Ron Nicolaysen)

Ladder Maker (Photographer: Ron Nicolaysen)

For the past 7 years, the majority of my work has revolved around saving historic buildings. At the same time, one of the most popular photographic subjects has been ruin porn—taking pictures of buildings that are dying and have basically no hope of survival. When you are trying to save buildings, you find yourself inside a lot of abandoned places, but you’re researching these buildings and loving them and hoping to save them. To be honest, I find a lot of ruin porn a little skeezy and lazy. Sure, the bruised blue colors and filthy, peeling layers get our imaginations running with romantic apocalyptic daydreams, but to me, it also feels unsavory in an “I’m taking a picture of your dead grandma’s body at a wake, even though I never really even knew her” kind of way. And then I’m posting it on the internet. I’m also not super keen on the snuff angle.

And seriously, if it’s broken, pick up a hammer and fix it. What the hell.

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Cobbler (Photographer: Ron Nicolaysen)

So why feature images of “dying” trades? Well hey, there’s another reason to share photos of things that are dying—to celebrate them and potentially bring awareness to them by pulling back the curtain and exposing their process and functional beauty. I came upon these photos and sighed and smiled and immediately wrote the photographer to see if he minded my posting these. He did not. In fact, he wrote me back within 24 hours from across the world (currently photographing the Philippines/Thailand/Bali) telling me to post away, by all means. He had been photographing these trades for a while now.

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Blacksmith (Photographer: Ron Nicolaysen)

These photos are all overseas, but jobs in traditional trades are plummeting all over the world and especially in the U.S. More and more jobs are shipped away or simply disappearing and replaced with cheap, sub-par substitutions made with machines and inferior materials.

These images do the opposite of glorify the end of something. The idea of going to these work spaces with one’s own tools and schedule and ability to make whatever is in your head manifest in whatever manner you please seems like a relief and a joy and something to shoot for. Would you rather go to your cubical all frazzled from train delays only to answer fifty emails that serve as fodder for your worsening TMJ, or would you rather go to these places? I mean, that’s not even a serious question in my mind. The work in these photos seems like the most normal, human way to spend one’s time and makes you question how we have gotten so far from where we were and so far from doing work that is Real. Look at their faces. These are people who have pride in what they do and do not mind going to work. The best advertisements for hope I’ve seen in a long while.

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Figurine Makers (Photographer: Ron Nicolaysen)

For more of Ron’s work: http://rnicolaysen.com/

For some straight up tool porn: http://www.pinterest.com/citizenobjects/tool-porn/