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 and please put “Sears Tool Giveaway” in the subject line so it doesn’t get lost in the tide.



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.


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

So, that’s it. Submit! Submit!

Deconstruction Part 1: Why Barn Burnin’s a Bust

“I have dangerous bones in my body.” – Vin Diesel

In case you didn’t already know this, barns are pretty much the best things. I have a big red bumper sticker that reads “I Brake for Barns!”, am a member of the National Barn Alliance, and have been chased down by numerous dogs in rural towns while photographing these beautiful, cobbled together old beasts after illegal U-turns at dusk.

Screen Shot 2013-11-20 at 7.55.07 AM

There she is. It would be great if she could stay there forever, but I’m grateful she’s not being torched.

So, last weekend I spent my time gutting one and began the process of ending its life. An existential crisis? Nope. Usually people unceremoniously knock these old wooden brontosauruses (brontosauri?) down and just set them on fire. To which I say oh heyll no.

My friend Paul Miller grew up in an Ohio farm town and has had the foresight to salvage as much as he can from the barns that all of his neighbors are now knocking down and replacing with metal pole barns. Of course, metal pole barns are easier and cheaper to maintain, but they have about 2% of the charm and are responsible taking down so many of these structures, which continue to enrich their surroundings even when they are crumbling. I think it’s fair to say that nation-wide, these old wooden barns are now officially endangered and nobody is going to build new ones any time soon. And by “any time soon” I mean ever. The least we can do is honor them by reusing the bones that have kept these beautiful behemoths standing for 80 and more years.

Screen Shot 2013-11-20 at 7.55.43 AM

Floor joists so sturdy you could have built a totem pole of elephants on top of them.

Fortuntately Paul, who has a successful furniture business that hinges on reuse of materials, agrees. And why wouldn’t he? Here are the reasons he (very enthusiastically) gave for spending his weekends getting shredded up and bruised while carefully dismantling these structures:

  • These materials are already incredibly beautiful. They don’t require staining and painting. They’ve done all the work themselves and are already as beautiful as they are going to get. Let the materials speak for themselves.
  • It’s an art form to deconstruct a building in the same way as it is to put it up. You can understand the construction and techniques and build a relationship with the materials that makes the work and end result more satisfying.
  • The unique notching and other methods of construction can give some great ideas on how to join furniture together. Instead of screwing and bolting things together, they can be doweled or connected in other ways using just the wood itself.
  • Live edges on wood, spalting, and other features that naturally show up in the wood tell the history of the tree like a map. New wood that is grown so quickly nowadays for building doesn’t have any of these lines or any character at all, really.
Screen Shot 2013-11-20 at 7.54.39 AM

The patina on this siding is the stuff of dreams.

Yeah, that’s all pretty compelling stuff. And not only does this kind of deconstruction keep from wasting incredible materials, it also produces products that will be admired and cared for, which will keep those items out of the landfills as well. People like to own things with a history. And who cares if places like Ikea produce products using “sustainable” practices. Let’s be clear, folks, consumption is what got us into this environmental mess. If the products fall apart and are too crappy to be reused,  they become trash, and then more furniture or merchandise must be manufactured to replace it that is also crap.

Screen Shot 2013-11-20 at 7.53.46 AM

Behold the Craftsman 12″ Single Bevel Sliding Compound Miter Saw and its makeshift table. Transporting some of this wood would be impossible if we couldn’t cut it down on site.

Before the trip, we picked up a sliding miter saw to cut down some of these massive slabs and beams on site so they could be transported and given another life as a dining room table or bench or shelving or whatever the next project will be for 7m Woodworking. The ability to slide the blade back and forth allows for longer and cleaner cuts, which was helpful as some of the lumber was way too long to fit in a truck. The joists we took down (the miter saw is sitting on them) were simply enormous. I used every bit of muscle in my legs, back, and possibly teeth moving some of them to the ground from a lofted area. Er, the struggle was slightly less for Paul but he has like 8 inches on me, so whatever. The rest of the work was primarily done with pry bars and hammers—simple and hands-on and slightly perilous work=the best work, right? Afterwards, Paul’s mom made us a feast that could feed a village and we threw our shoes in the washing machine, sat under blankets on recliners and dozed to football. I mean, what else do you want? So much better than picking up pressboard at the local big box.


Stupidly pretty coffee table from reclaimed wood by 7m Woodworking.

For more on Paul’s work, check out the 7m Woodworking website HERE.

I’ll be posting more on the merits of deconstruction soon, so stay tuned. This blog post was originally about 3 billion words long. Restraint ain’t easy.

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:

Get your hands dirty.

Get your hands dirty.

Changing brake pads.

Tools are what separate us. They allow us to create beyond the limitations of our bodies in terms of scope, detail, and pace. Whatever you are lounging on, writing on, drinking out of or toasting your Pop-Tarts in right now was not born after a romantic evening between two objects at the local Target, but made with the help of shaped iron or alloy steel, plastics, woods, or other durable material created for a particular function that couldn’t be done by hand alone. These things may seem obvious, but we are so removed from the process of manufacturing nowadays it’s hard to have any sense of how things are made and where on earth they came from.

But, this is not really a blog about tools. The ToolMade project is focused on exploring the relationship between people and tools—hands-on projects and trades that involve expression and skill and time and brains and creative problem solving. Tools allow us to manifest our ideas and understand the world we live in.

This project is the result of several things: hands-on restoration work via a career in historic preservation, a local repair clinic a friend and I co-founded last year, and Sears, which has afforded the opportunity to buy a heck of a lot of tools and write about them. Most of those tools will be given away to people already doing interesting and important things with them, or to people who want to teach others to use them. In a nutshell, here are the goals of ToolMade:

1. Shine a light on people and organizations doing hands-on projects that are education and/or community focused.

2. Help revive dying trades that deserve a renaissance and dig into their history and why they are so damned awesome.

3. Demystify tools so that people who might accidentally create a Texas Chainsaw Massacre scene with a power saw can become more comfortable with tools in general, understand how they work and how they can make their lives a whole lot easier (and more fun).

4.  Encourage everyone to step away from the virtual and spend some time in the physical. There are a crazy number of physical, psychological, sociological, and environmental benefits to getting your hands dirty.

Over the next year, I’ll be visiting the homes and workspaces of folks to hear about what they are doing, why they like hands-on work, and to ultimately explore the broader context of how the American style of work has impacted us as a society. And yes, I’ll be giving free tools to these crews whenever possible. So this is a call to mechanics, electricians, masons, pre-post-apocalyptic survivalist movement enthusiasts, and all you folks in the Preservation, Building, Maker, Hacker, and Fixer movements—I’d really like to feature what you do. This is also a blog for those who don’t know what a Phillip’s screwdriver is and would really, really like to build a coffee table or make that extra bedroom not look like an extension of Buffalo Bill’s basement. Basically, screw automated machinery and flimsy $20 replacement fixes from big box stores—let’s get our hands dirty.