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.

 

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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.

 

Deconstruction Pioneers: Rebuilding Homes and Hope at the Evanston ReBuilding Warehouse

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Some of the workforce training crew in a victory pose post-Craftsman donation. From left to right: Red, Doug, Lou, Eugene, and Brett. Lou opened the warehouse just three years ago and is incredibly dedicated to the trainees and expanding the program.

The Evanston ReBuilding Warehouse is a non-profit organization founded in 2011 by Lou Dickson, a retired general contractor who was fed up with all of the construction debris clogging up the landfills. Working in Chicago and in the North Shore suburbs, there was a neverending supply of perfectly good (often very high end) building materials being trashed due to a lack of alternatives and education for both contractors and homeowners. She began trying to change legislation and stockpiling materials from her jobs until she happened to notice some available warehouse space near her home and pulled the trigger. She has essentially created a mini empire since that first lease was signed, and has already expanded the space twice. Believe me, she could fill up the state of Texas with amazing architectural saves if given the chance. Lou, though petite and ever-smiling and polite with a British accent, is an absolute force to be reckoned with.

You want cabinets? We got cabinets! You want lighting fixtures! You can't find a place to rest your eyes without seeing a dozen of them.

You want cabinets? We got cabinets! You want lighting fixtures! You can’t find a place to rest your eyes without seeing a dozen of them. Mind you, this is only one aisle in this ever-expanding 13,000 sf warehouse.

There are nonprofits with a noble mission and then there are NONPROFITS WITH A NOBLE MISSION. I mean, there are so many missions at this place that you pretty much go straight to heaven if you buy a used bucket sink. Here’s what this now 13,000 SF warehouse space has accomplished since it began just 3 years ago:

  • Over 13,000 volunteer hours logged
  • Over 700 memberships
  • Hundreds of tons of building materials diverted from landfills
  • 7 paid staff members and 4 paid workforce trainers
  • 5 workforce training programs with 27 trainees, 5 currently in the program and 3 more joining next month (yes, all trainees are also paid, and paid above minimum wage)
  • 25 educational programming workshops for professionals and homeowners
  • Deconstruction projects throughout the county
  • First workforce training for Deconstruction certification in the county and a new training model in the U.S. that incorporates life skills such as tutoring in English, math, computer literacy, fiscal literacy, and nutrition, in addition to teaching the hard skills needed for certification
The warehouse and workforce training programs would never have happened without an incredible group of volunteers. Volunteers consist of contractors who Lou has ensnared to help out, local do-gooders, architects, a retired chemist, groups of high school students, university students, a pilot...people of all skill levels and backgrounds.

The warehouse and workforce training programs would never have happened without an incredible group of volunteers. Volunteers consist of contractors Lou has ensnared to help out, local do-gooders, architects, a retired chemist, groups of high school students, university students, a pilot…people of all skill levels and backgrounds.

The workforce training classes have focused on adults who are formerly or presently homeless, low-income, or ex-offenders having a difficult time reintegrating into the workforce. By addressing their behavioral, educational, and physical health challenges, those who complete the 7-month program have a very high success rate finding jobs and a level of economic and social stability. Other trainees have just been disappointed with the low-paying jobs and lack of meaningful work available after high school or college, and wanted to do some hard work that would eventually pay off both financially and ethically. All are welcome, and the retention rate has been exceptional.

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Dave, who started as a trainee and is not an Assistant Trainer, pulling nails on some historic wood flooring. The reclaimed flooring sells so quickly it sometimes doesn’t even make it to the warehouse floor before being claimed by a customer.

The warehouse sells an insane amount of architectural artifacts, tubs, sinks, toilets, flooring, plumbing fixtures, and whatever else was able to be diverted from the waste stream and all staff and overhead is paid for by the sale of these items. The workforce training, on the other hand, relies heavily on grant funding. Things like tools are obviously top priority, so ToolMade put together a list of items they use most often on the site and Craftsman delivered big time. Deconstruction is one of those wonderful jobs where someone can literally start a business with just a good tool bag of what they need. This is the tool bag we put together for each of the workforce trainees, based on what they need most to take apart homes:

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Most of the loot. With these tools, each workforce trainee can show up on a job site after completing their certification with the Evanston ReBuilding Warehouse and be taken seriously.

Any contractor will tell you that you never want to show up on a job site without tools. Even if you’re hired for a quick job and are more than competent, it unfortunately lessens your credibility with others on the job, and other times can prevent you from getting work in the first place. The 2014-15 graduates will literally leave the program like deconstruction superstars, saving incredible building materials with a full arsenal of both incredible and appropriate skills and tools. Lemme tell you, that makes a difference.

It costs almost $17,000 for each trainee to go through the program. Well worth it, certainly, but please consider a donation to the Evanston ReBuilding Warehouse. Every cent will go towards workforce training because staff and overhead is covered by sales at the warehouse, but there is not a surplus. See how you can help here: http://evanstonrebuildingwarehouse.org/donate/

WF Eugene Dan

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.

The American Hobbyist

Boy building a model airplane at a Farm Security Administration (FSA) camp. Initially created as the Resettlement Administration (RA) in 1935 as part of the New Deal in the United States, the FSA was an effort during the Depression to combat American rural poverty. The kids stayed busy as well.

Boy building a model airplane at a Farm Security Administration (FSA) camp. Initially created as the Resettlement Administration (RA) in 1935 as part of the New Deal in the United States, the FSA was an effort during the Depression to combat American rural poverty. The kids stayed busy as well.

During the Great Depression, there was death, famine, and extreme poverty. There was also a hell of a lot of quilting going on. The un- or under-employment in the 1930s brought with it a nationwide hobbies movement, promoted by everyone from Hollywood child stars to POTUS. Hobbies are generally defined as “specific activities pursued voluntarily in non-work hours for pleasure,” though many hobbies actually did have some tie to the economy, even if the pay wasn’t immediate or monetary (think: build your own or grow you own).

Having spare time was a new concept for many, and the U.S. government actively promoted and encouraged things like stamp collecting (FDR was a huge fan so it boomed), sewing, metalworking, model building, leatherworking and other useful or educational busy work as socially acceptable ways to spend one’s time. Guardians of public morality, such as government officials, ministers, and educators fretted about “morally dangerous activities” when the public was idle. So, you know, things like building model trains emerged as “approved” areas of leisure over activities like, say, gambling or counterfeiting. Hobbies also preserved a pro-work attitude and ethic, and developed job skills at a time when work was scant.

1933 map quilt Birds Eye View of the Chicago World's Fair

1933 map quilt titled “Birds Eye View of the Chicago World’s Fair.” The Sears National Quilt Contest, created in connection with the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, offered $7500 in prizes—including a grand prize of $1000. More than 24,000 quilts were entered making it the largest quilt contest in history. People who had never quilted before decided to try. Husbands and boyfriends helped make the quilts. Adept quilters did their very best work. Local Sears stores not only sold fabric, supplies, and patterns, they displayed the finished quilts. All of this is simply to say that hobbies are damned awesome.

Hobbies also served to relieve the guilt of not having enough paid work—idle hands are the devil’s work, after all. This still rings true, of course. Feeling anxious about a slowdown in work and not sure how to relieve that stress? Do what I did in January and turn your apartment into a damned elf workshop, with newspapers and wire and string and glue and piers everywhere, culminating in wool-wrapped vases, elaborately framed stamps, and paper mache miniature models of my friends doing things they enjoy. Guilt and nerves are ingredients for great gifts. This kind of creative, hands-on stuff blurs the lines of work and play. It’s certainly no wonder that so many folks with unwanted leisure time turned to hobbies in the 1930s—while they likely didn’t learn to paper mache a piñata in 7th grade Spanish class like this rockstar, they certainly had a great facility with tools from working on farms and in factories.

 (From the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)

FDR, the consummate philatelist. And for the record, that’s an accomplished stamp collector. You’re a terrible person. Terrible. (From the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)

Of course, farmers were especially hit hard during this era. They were notoriously independent people, however, often building their own homes, barns and furniture. All these tinkerers and self-taught builders needed tools, making some companies winners during the Depression. The newly created Craftsman Tool Company was able to gain momentum by offering different quality tools based on a tiered system (“Craftsman Vanadium” tools were made with alloyed steel, which was highly prized at the time, but there were three lines that varied in price, so tools were more affordable for folks without much to spare). Craftsman also was early to create tools for automobile owners when the automotive boom was in its infancy, and lord knows there was a whole lot of car tinkering happening at the time. I think every movie I’ve seen that takes place during this era involves a smoking engine and men with grayed t-shirts, wrenches and cigarettes clammering away.

Even monks needed tools for tinkering. Check out this guy mending a tractor at St. Joseph's Monastery, Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, 1930. (Flickr Commons)

Even monks needed tools for tinkering. Check out this guy mending a tractor at St. Joseph’s Monastery, Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, 1930. (Flickr Commons)

While not necessarily considered as useful and productive as hobbies, board games also gained popularity as a way to pass the time, and Scrabble, Anagrams, and Sorry!, among others, were released or invented in the 1930s. While they didn’t necessarily teach overtly applicable job skills, some games did have an educational and economic component to them. I dug a little into the history Monopoly because it just seemed like it would be attached to some smarmy controversy, and boy, it delivered.

It turns out Monopoly was originally called “The Landlords Game,” and was created by Elizabeth Magie and patented in 1904 as a “practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences.” Magie based the game on the economic principles of Georgism, a system proposed by Henry George based on the idea that people should own what they create, but that everything found in nature, most importantly the value of land,  belongs equally to all humanity. Magie designed the game with the purpose of demonstrating how rents enrich property owners and impoverish tenants.

The Landlord's Game, a game promoting social and economic justice that was ripped of by Parker Brothers in the 1930s and turned into a game of (fun) greedy land grabs. Monopoly has remained popular ever since.

Gaming also was especially popular during the economic downturn, though some argued that it wasn’t as industrious. The Landlord’s Game, a game promoting social and economic justice that was ripped of by Parker Brothers in the 1930s and turned into a game of (fun) greedy land grabs. Monopoly has remained popular ever since.

The game board was incredibly popular in Ivy League universities in the 20s and 30s and used as a learning tool. Students would create their own boards and name them according to their own cities. There was supposedly pride in the fact that the game was largely replicated in this homemade way as it did not promote the wealth of any big, bad company. Yes, you see where this is all going. It is unclear how Charles Darrow was able to obtain a patent for this game, as its history was easily traceable back to The Landlord’s Game, but nevertheless, he secured one in 1933, called it Monopoly, and effectively made Parker Brothers a major company from the profits. Things were a bit…altered, however. For example in the place of Monopoly’s “Go!” was original a box marked “Labor Upon Mother Earth Produces Wages.”

1930s Sears Roebuck ad for hobby equipment. Dreamy.

1930s Sears Roebuck ad for hobby equipment. Holy crap I want that microscope set.

The mid-1930s was also brimming with model building, especially model airplanes. Likely as an opportunity to actually have some positive stories to spin, media outlets were all over stories of model building due to the enthusiasm surrounding aviation at the time, and even started on-air model clubs, broadcasting to rural areas that didn’t have any groups nearby. A radio show called “The Jimmie Allen Club” featured actors like Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple (R.I.P.) having aviation adventures. Municipalities and department stores offered classes in model building techniques as well.

Skelly Oil sponsored the Jimmie Allen Flying Club membership offer, circa 1933. Building models was huge during this period--tiny future airplane assemblers were being created everywhere!

Skelly Oil sponsored the Jimmie Allen Flying Club membership offer, circa 1933. Building models was huge during this period–tiny future airplane assemblers were being created everywhere!

Over the past decade, sites like Etsy.com have created a more concentrated marketplace for a growing number of hobbyists who want to make some cash on the side and for some, these hobbies turn into full time careers. The site does almost a billion dollars a year in annual transactions, and just the other day, WBEZ had a story about how Rockford, Illinois is trying to revive itself using an “Etsy economy.” Of course, a year previously there was controversy that Etsy was allowing sellers to outsource the work because they couldn’t keep up with the demand, which many argue changed the flavor of those homegrown greens (if you will). This blurring of the line between hobbies and work has recently been manifesting in a major way through craft brewing-gone-professional, and as self-taught woodworkers making furniture sell it at high prices in local retail stores. Lots of folks are quitting their day jobs, and I think it’s safe to say that with a few exceptions, most folks really want to leave their cubical to grow some vegetables or forge a knife, even if it’s just on the weekends, and even if they don’t get paid to do so. Maybe it’s just a matter of learning to trust in our creativity again as adults.

Amateur astronomer hobbyists made some unbelievably ambitious telescopes. This shows the construction of the Porter Turret telescope prior to the 1930 Stellafane convention, which attracted just under one hundred registered guests.

Amateur astronomer hobbyists made some unbelievably ambitious telescopes. This shows the construction of the Porter Turret telescope prior to the 1930 Stellafane convention, which attracted just under one hundred registered guests.

So, hobby on. You may just be able pay off those grad school loans and go to exotic places on a whim when your uniquely crafted Day of the Dead paper mache sculptures really take off. You know, for example. It’s gonna happen, damnit.

My friend Catherine riding her bike. Paper mache hobby experiment #3. Nailed it.

My friend Catherine riding her bike. January paper mache hobby experiment #3. Nailed it.

For more information on how folks stayed busy during the 1930s, check out “The Great Depression in America: A Cultural Encyclopedia, Volume 1,” by William H. Young and Nancy K. Young (you can find it on Google Books)

Some background on The Landlord’s Game:

http://lvtfan.typepad.com/lvtfans_blog/monopoly-and-the-landlords-game/

The WBEZ “The Etsy Economy” story:

http://storify.com/WBEZ/morning-shift-rockford-getting-a-boost-from-an-est

The plight of the farmer in the 1930s:

http://www.farmcollector.com/farm-life/u-s-farmers-during-great-depression.aspx

For more on the Amateur Astronomers’ Association of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and their journey to the 1930 Stellafane convention:

https://sites.tetratech.com/projects/103-RCPTResources/default.aspx

More than a leg to stand on: Hands-on fields that combine art, science, and even a little fiction

A leg up.

A leg up! Plaster molds are created from patient casts. The positive is then used as the model to mold and fit an orthotic device.

I recently completed a 10-day road trip around the South that included Illinois, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. This little adventure, which has become an annual event that restores my sanity, generally involves many cemetery stops, crumbling shacks worth pulling off the road to gaze at, amazing little restaurants and bars (oh, cheesy grits and Sazeracs, you have obliterated me with your love), some kayaking in the bayou, and lord knows a million other delightful events. I’m excited to report that for the first time ever, this particular trip also included an interview with some orthotics and prosthetics makers in New Orleans who just happened to be one of the winners of ToolMade’s Sears-Craftsman Tool Giveaway.

Clare shows a custom solid ankle-foot orthoses she fabricated using a vacuum form technique at the clinic.

Clare shows a custom solid ankle-foot orthoses she fabricated at the clinic.

After a plaster cast is made for a client, a plastic sheet is vacuum formed for an exact fit. Because plastics are now used, a heat gun can make tiny adjustments when needed. Yes, that's a bag. No, that's not what Clare usually uses.

After a plaster cast is specially made for a client, a plastic sheet is vacuum formed for an exact fit. Because plastics are now used, a heat gun can make tiny adjustments when needed as well. Yes, that’s a bag. No, that’s not what Clare usually uses.

Prostheses are damned fascinating to me and I’m telling you, they should be to you as well. In my early 20s, I had some unexpected health issues that almost made me lose one of my precious gams, so when things were scary, I made a point of researching some heroes with prosthetic limbs to try and keep a positive attitude–it’s crazy what people can do despite their perceived handicaps. I get that this is a specific experience that initially lead to my interest, but you don’t have to dig far to find something that will blow your mind–I mean, some of the earliest and also most recent innovations read like science fiction. Designers from a wide range of backgrounds are getting better and better at creating limb stabilization and replacement devices due to new technologies, tools, and materials, and that’s excellent news considering that there are nearly 2 million people with artificial limbs in the U.S. (about 185,000 amputations in the U.S. alone each year, and that number is climbing).

I'm not sure how well this picture illustrates this, but if you look closely, you can even see the grooves of the skin on the foot. The accuracy matters not only to the fit but to how realistic a device can be made to look for the client.

I’m not sure how well this picture illustrates this, but if you look closely, you can even see the grooves of the skin on the foot.

Prostheses! It is imparitive that these fit exactly, and sometimes multiple devices will have to be created just for the fitting process. The plastic is thermoset plastic, which starts as a liquid and is impregnated with fabric. The inside is made of carbon fiber for added strength.

Prostheses! Different heights and body types sometimes require multiple devices to be created just for the fitting process. The plastic is thermoset plastic, which starts as a liquid and is impregnated with fabric. The inside is made of carbon fiber for added strength.

When I had an opportunity to interview Clare Wiegand and Paul Beaudette at the Bayou Orthotics and Prosthetics Center in Metarie, Louisiana, I jumped at the chance. Yeah sure, you can run with that pun. First, some definitions to distinguish these devices/fields:

Orthosis (orthotic device): “An externally applied device used to modify the structural and functional characteristics of the neuromuscular and skeletal system,” or basically, something bracing what is already there.

Prosthesis (prosthetic device): “An artificial device that replaces a missing body part lost through trauma, disease, or congenital conditions.”

An orthotist fabricates and fits custom-designed external orthopedic braces, and a prosthetist creates, designs, and custom-fits artificial limbs. Both require a lot of time evaluating and following-up with patients as well.

A brief history of legs past.

A brief history of legs past.

As one might guess, splints and braces were the first orthotic devices (also called orthoses). With the Civil War came a desperate need for massive quantities of prosthetic limbs (prostheses) and those experimenting with the creation and attachment of limb replacements became recognized as legitimate health professionals at that time–before this period, people had to fashion them from pieces of wood by themselves. These fields have grown and become increasingly sophisticated with every major war, and more recently have boomed due to lifestyle and health changes, including an ever-increasing aging population and a dramatic increase in diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

J.E. Hangar Company, artificial leg production workshop, post Civil War. The company survives today! (National Photo Company Collection)

J.E. Hangar Company, artificial leg production workshop, post Civil War. This was serious technology at the time. Prostheses were made of whittled barrel staves and metal. The company survives today! (National Photo Company Collection)

Paul, who has been making prostheses for decades, shows off a wooden leg that he keeps in the office as a reminder of days past.

Paul, who has been making prostheses for decades, shows off a wooden leg that he keeps in the office as a reminder of days past.

Clare, who has been making both orthoses and prostheses since 2007, was my contact at the clinic, so I asked her what tools would be useful. They use lots of drills, drill bits, heat guns, belt sanders, pliers and torque and allen wrenches. I picked her up a variety of Craftsman tools within the contest budget, consisting of:

  • (2) 4 piece Pliers Sets (diagonal, slip joint, arc joint, long reach long nose, wide jaw, duckbill, linesman, and regular long nose)
  • 21 Piece Titanium Coated Drill Bit Set
  • 17 Piece Screwdriver Set
  • 19.2-Volt C# Cordless Drill/Driver
Drills are used often and need bits that can drill through carbon fiber. Step bits are often used to create wider openings.

Drills are used often and need a wide range of bits, including step bits for wider sockets.

Adjustments are crucial. There are wrenches and pliers galore around this place.

Adjustments are crucial. There are wrenches and pliers galore around this place.

I was toured through the different stations for an overview of how knee, ankle and foot devices were created, and given a look at what some of the older models looked like. The tool stock used for making these devices has changed quite a bit in recent decades—Paul, who has been making prostheses for over 40 years, explained how wooden prostheses used to be made entirely out of hand tools—sharp chisels which would be pulled upward to shape a leg are now replaced by routers, for example. The materials are also very different and consist of things like carbon fiber and plastics, making them much easier to adjust for a precise fit for each patient. Of course, the patients have also changed over time due to both an increase in illnesses as described above, but also due to fewer industrial accidents—at least some people seem to be paying attention to OSHA?

USA's paralympic swimmer Jessica Long. (Press Association via AP)

USA’s paralympic swimmer Jessica Long. (Press Association via AP)

If you’re not sure what to do with your time on this planet and this topic is at all interesting to you, seriously consider looking into these fields, which are described good career options for those who want to be an artist/bio-mechanist/engineer/medical practitioner. Why limit yourself, right? I would also add that folks who care about others and are interested in hands-on work and tools could certainly find a niche here. There is a projected 25% increase in the number of people needing orthopedic braces due to paralysis, deformity or orthopedic impairments by 2020. And if you’re more interested in creating prostheses than orthoses, that need is expected to grow 47% in the same timeframe. Wow. Yeah, I’m really selling it. Because it’s so damned important.

What my prosthetic limb would look like (painted by Tim Beck).

What my prosthetic limb would look like (painted by Tim Beck).

For more info on innovations in the field and ways people are advancing mobility, check out some great links here:

Targeted muscle reinnervation (TMR):  Your brain controls the muscles in your limbs by sending electrical commands down the spinal cord and then through peripheral nerves to the muscles. http://science.howstuffworks.com/prosthetic-limb5.htm

Photos of the latest in prosthetic limb technology: http://www.smartplanet.com/photos/the-latest-in-prosthetic-limb-technology-photos/

Stand-up Mobilization Device (this is a bit of an offshoot, but a mind opener): http://www.wimp.com/newdevice/

More about careers in these fields (includes a list of programs throughout the country towards the end of the brochure): http://www.opcareers.org/assets/pdf/Turnkey_Brochure.pdf

Make it art: http://www.thealternativelimbproject.com

In case there was any doubt about whether prostheses could be sexy. Jo-Jo Cranfield wearing the snake arm created by Sophie de Oliveira. Please check out the Alternative Limb Project when you have a few minutes.

…and just in case there was any doubt about whether prostheses could be sexy. Jo-Jo Cranfield wearing the snake arm created by Sophie de Oliveira. Please check out the Alternative Limb Project when you have a few minutes. http://www.thealternativelimbproject.com

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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.