Keepin’ it Clean in Detroit: The Americorps Urban Safety Project’s Global Youth Service Day

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Many hands make lighter work while boarding up 10 open and vacant houses and cleaning the surrounding properties in this Southwest Detroit school zone.

In case you didn’t catch the first story about the masterfully collaborative and successful AmeriCorps Urban Safety Project (AMUS), this organization recruits and activates neighborhood volunteers to tackle blight and safety issues on their block. Volunteers organize themselves into neighborhood groups that become watchdogs for their neighborhood, working with a number of different partners and sponsors, and these volunteers also work to put on large-scale neighborhood clean-ups. In April, AMUS had their Global Youth Safety Day, so before the event I connected them with Craftsman, who donated hedge clippers (action bypass loppers), mechanics tools, a wheelbarrow, a weed wacker (volt line trimmers), a hand vac, drill and impact drivers and a few other helpful things to have on site.

This “Safe Pathways” board up event targeted the Southwest Detroit neighborhood surrounding Neinas Elementary School. Citizen volunteers of all ages joined Neinas students in boarding up 10 open and vacant houses and cleaning the surrounding properties of blight and debris to make their neighborhood safer. The Detroit Police Force, dozens of pizzas, and a boatload of tools were there to help this crew get through a long day of (the best kind of) dirty work.

For more about this organization and the staggering amount of work they do to keep their city safe and engaged, visit www.amusdetroit.org. All photos courtesy of AMUS Detroit.

How the philosophy behind the Chicago Industrial Arts and Design Center could solve the world’s problems

A bold headline perhaps, but hey, it’s true. In June, I visited the CIADC to learn more about the new nonprofit arts center in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, and was blown away by the facilities and philosophy behind the Center. What resonated most was the founder’s focus on not having prescriptive end products in the classes. It seems there is considerably less room and encouragement than there was in past decades, even in realms that are supposedly promoting these efforts, to make original work via trial and error and creative problem solving.

Last year, there was some criticism (that I very much agree with) of Legos (gasp!), drawing attention to the fact that these building blocks are not quite the creativity-inspired units they once were. Instead, we purchase pre-made kits that direct us to follow instructions with every brick having a predetermined location. This does not exactly build skills that lead to brilliant discoveries. Beyond this, the kits even tell you what girls can build vs. what boys can build, which should drive any self-respecting human insane. I don’t understand how innovation has a gender, do you? How exactly are these projects contributing to our/our kids learning process?

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Beautiful, non-gendered, monstrous creation that will never be made twice (left) vs. a prescribed, cutesy end product with only the exact pieces needed to make the same prepackaged item every time (right).

Of course, this isn’t only a Lego phenomenon, not by a longshot. I took a painting class with my nieces a while back and everyone had to paint the exact same image–every kid was looking around to make sure they were doing it “right.” The paintings were still adorable, sure, but I found the process to be anxiety producing because we had to focus on recreating an expected end goal (the teacher’s example painting), instead of focusing on playing with color and space and creating something out of our imaginations, which can never be “wrong.” This isn’t about being touchy feely, it’s about not correcting a Picasso when he paints something a different way. As a society, we mass manufacture, buy wholesale, feel pressured to keep up with norms, and are called out on all of our choices on social media to keep us in check. If we all do everything the same way, how on earth will we ever progress, solve the problems of the world, push the boundaries of the arts, etc.? How will we ever do anything great?

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CIADC Member, Natalie, forging steel belt buckles by heating the steel round stock and hammering into shape with the 24oz Craftsman ball-pein hammer.

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The hammer and anvil are a classic combination for metal makers.

But I digress…the point is simply to remember the spirit of creativity and the benefits it reaps.  I believe this spirit is captured at the CIADC. None of the projects shown were for classes that specifically taught belt making or frame fabricating or, lord knows, bike trailer manufacturing. They simply evolved as the process unfolded. Methods changed, mediums changed. This is encouraged, not frowned upon.

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When you want ultimate control of the fastening torque, nothing beats a good old manual phillips head screwdriver. Laura, the CIADC Woodworking Department Manager, is assembling a plywood cross-cut box for the table saw.

Basically, classes at the Center teach you about a specific medium and you decide the trajectory. If you decide that you want to work with metal and wood simultaneously to complete a project you dream up, all the better. The idea is not to limit but to expand options and methods. As someone who works in various architectural fields, I can’t tell you how useful it would be if architects, engineers, and contractors would cross-collaborate!

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CIADCs founder and Metalworking Department Manager, Matt, shows students the Craftsman aviator sheet metal snips while cutting 18ga steel to be bent into an open-faced box. Snips are great for cutting both geometric and organic forms from sheet metal.

The man behind the initiative, Matt Runfola, was kind enough to send some pictures of the CIADC students and members in action. You don’t have to be a member to take classes, by the way, but members do have additional privileges such as discounted classes.

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Long-time CIADC student, Jeremy, demonstrates an outside-the-box use of the Craftsman 24” Carpenter Square. Here, he uses it to set a parallel fence to cut perfect sizes on our metal cutting band saw. Jeremy is working on a bicycle cargo trailer at CIADC.

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Having the right tools on hand make the tasks safer and easier. New CIADC student, Shelly, adjusts the miter gauge for the table saw with combination wrenches. Shelly was cutting beautiful mitered wood frames for her 2D art.

The best part about tools is that they can be used in many different ways for many different things–this is but a tiny sampling of how the CIADC will use the tools we shipped from Craftsman. For more information on the wide range of class options and the philosophy that guides the Center, please check out their website. Tools help us to make our world more functional, interesting, and beautiful, but of course the most versatile tool of all is our noggin. Use it. Explore. Have fun out there!

It’s Spring, Y’all: Get Busy like the Bees

Last year, my ecologist friend and I made some mason bee houses because, well, there are fewer and fewer places for them to take up residence and fewer and fewer pollinators out there. Basically, we’d like to keep eating food that comes out of the ground, so we picked up some wood scraps, grabbed some circular saws and drills and went to town one Sunday afternoon.

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It turns out, these little houses (some people call them “bee hotels”) were so fruitful and good-looking that they allowed me to spread my wings as well, though to slightly fancier quarters to a resort in the hills of California. I was asked to teach a workshop on how to make these little abodes with a bunch of other handy people at the Craftsman MAKEcation event, and since it’s the perfect time of year to build them, I figured I’d post how to do them here as well. So, here are the deets:

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Making some homes for nonthreatening little pollinators at last year’s MAKEcation.

WHY YOU MUST LOVE MASON BEES

  • They are gentle beings, with stings no stronger than a mosquito bite. In fact, they are generally promoted as not stinging at all. So stop judging them!
  • They are very efficient pollinators; only a few hundred are needed per acre. The dramatic decline of the honey bee population has led to small or misshapen fruit (or no fruit at all). These little mason bees have helped bring back trees that hadn’t produced fruit for years.
  • They are remarkably easy to keep, having few pest or disease problems and minimal management needs.
  • They are industrious little buggers and fun to observe in action.

TOOLS YOU’LL NEED

  • Cordless drill (or, if you’re drilling into old growth wood, you may want a drill press)
  • Extra-long drill bit (need to be able to drill 3-5″ deep)
  • Sand paper (100 grit)
  • Miter saw (any kind of saw will work–these are quicker and easier if you’re cutting angles for a roof)
  • Brad nailer and nails (also optional, you could screw these boards together if you prefer)
  • Tape measure
  • (Optional) Paint brushes and paint – the bees seems to especially like blue and yellow

TIPS ON MAKING THEIR HOMES 

  • Avoid pressure treated wood.
  • Avoid aromatic woods like cedar.
  • Make sure wood is at least 4” thick (I would recommend it be 6-7” thick).
  • Lay out a series of holes approximately 1” apart.
  • Drill holes to between 3-5” deep (do not drill all the way through wood).
  • Keep hole diameter close to 5/16”.
  • Keep dry by creating an overhanging roof.

SETTING OUT YOUR NESTING BLOCKS 

  • Put out in early spring. They are only around for 6-8 weeks, then the rest of the year the new generation will be in the holes developing until winter and then hibernating until spring.
  • Mason bees begin to emerge at around the same time that crocuses and forsythias bloom.
  • Place under eaves, decks, or other protected spots (if there is an overhanging roof on the house you build, this isn’t really necessary).
  • Their houses should always face south or east, receiving some morning or early afternoon sun, and be placed so that the holes are horizontal.
  • Mason bees also require a source of clay or mud to build their nests.  Dig a small pit around a foot deep and make sure it’s open and accessible throughout the active season.

Super easy and pretty crucial for our ecosystem, so just set a few hours aside and feel really good about this project.

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One of the bee homes from the event. They come in all shapes and sizes. As long as you drill the holes properly and set them out as described, they will work!

Also, if you’re looking for actual hands-on workshops—er, workshops that are free and involve good eating, drinking and entertainment in between the hands-on stuff, the next MAKEcation is coming up this summer. TIP: From now through July 31, Craftsman Club members can enter for a chance to win a trip to the Craftsman MAKEcation event by visiting www.craftsman.com/makecation. In 2014, I learned everything from blacksmithing techniques to how to properly grill a fish, and also became friends with a chainsaw artist named Curtis (include photo). I don’t know where you all live, but these are things that just don’t happen in Chicago. This year, Craftsman is kicking the action up a notch by bringing some of the nation’s top tool experts, artists and mechanics to sharpen your existing skills and to teach you new ones. They also happen to be partnering up with the World Maker Faire and providing a free ticket to attend the event, which will be held in Brooklyn at the same time. Huge perk.

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Curtis! He carved these out so quickly it was astonishing. But here’s a tip: don’t sneak up behind a chainsaw artist when he or she is working.

So, go get your hands dirty and do something good for our environment and our food supply. Then sign up for discounts and a possible free making vacation to learn even more ways to get your hands dirty.

THEN, Check back at ToolMade to hear follow-up about the incredible group in Detroit that we’re working with next month. Yes, all this sunshine and non-arctic weather has me energized and bossy. But it’s all for the greater good.

Happy Spring!

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Restoring an 1872 Courthouse and Revitalizing a Downtown

This beauty was slated to become a parking lot 5 years ago. This post is about the group that saved it and their plans for the future. They are basically an entire group of George Baileys.

This beauty was slated to become a parking lot 5 years ago. This post is about the group that saved it and their plans for the future. They are basically a collection of George Baileys, all living in a single town.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Effingham County Courthouse (now the Effingham County Museum), a town centerpiece that was almost torn down in 2009 due to deferred maintenance and a tight county budget. It was, if you can believe it, slated to become a parking lot. After visiting courthouses in 17 counties all over Illinois, I learned that this was a relatively common story.

Ever see the top of an historic courthouse dome? Neither had I until recently. NEAT.

Ever see the top of an historic courthouse dome? Neither had I until recently. NEAT. They have plans for this puppy as well.

Effingham is one of those counties fortunate to have a group of visionaries who saw the value in keeping the building that set their town and business district apart. There were dissenters in the beginning, but with some grant funding to help restore and enhance the grand entryways to the building, loads of paint and furniture donations, and over 35,000 volunteer hours, the newly formed Effingham County Cultural Center and Museum Association was able to sway most of the nay sayers. A ton of work has already been done and the impacts have been felt with the opening of 4 or 5 new businesses on the town square, which surrounds the courthouse, and this highly visible restoration work and can-do attitude is also having a ripple effect around the business district.

This is the 2nd floor before the building was taken over by a group of concerned citizens who couldn't bear to see the building demolished. This was obviously a remodeled version of the courtroom, but the residents who wanted to turn their town's centerpiece into a museum and community center had a dream of opening the space back up to its former glory.

This is the 2nd floor before the building was taken over by a group of concerned citizens who couldn’t bear to see the building demolished. This was obviously a remodeled version of the 1870s courtroom (ohhhh, those ceilings are painful), but the residents who wanted to turn their town’s centerpiece into a museum and community center had a dream of opening the space back up to its former glory. (Photo courtesy of the Effingham County Cultural Center and Museum Association)

The story was so moving and the work that had already been done was so impressive, that there was no way they weren’t getting some tools to help continue this gargantuan task of continuing to fix up this place and make it a sustainable entity, able to attract tourism dollars and events. The first floor of the courthouse focuses on the role of transportation in Effingham County history and as a cultural center focused on the visual arts with gallery and educational space. There is an incredible collection of historic artifacts and even a display of the town in miniature, painstakingly crafted by a local artist.

Ta-da!!!!! Look at that ceiling! The tin ceiling was found above that abysmal drop ceiling...but because the building is so old, there was actually an even older layer under the tin. That's how you know something is really, really old, folks.

Ta-da!!!!! Look at that ceiling! The tin ceiling was found above that abysmal drop ceiling…but because the building is so old, there was actually an even older layer under the tin. That’s how you know something is really, really old, folks.

The original second floor opens into a single, large courtroom space with a domed ceiling with decorative metal panels. This room is incredibly dramatic and is in the process of being remodeled (and in some areas, brought back to the original layouts) to be used by local community organizations. The main courtroom space will be multi-functional and hold house museum exhibits, art exhibits, community meetings and small concerts. A large stage is in the process of being built and is absolutely killer.

In case you were curious, the oldest ceiling layer is actually made of some kind of canvas-like fabric. Yes, fascinating. They aren't going to be able to restore it to that layer, but are keeping some of it as an artifact. We got up onto the scaffolding and geeked out on this one.

In case you were curious, the oldest ceiling layer is actually made of some kind of canvas-like fabric. Yes, fascinating. They aren’t going to be able to restore it to that layer, but are keeping some of it as an artifact. We got up onto the scaffolding and geeked out on this one.

Some much needed Craftsman tools will be shipping out to the courthouse in the coming weeks and put into the hands of these incredible volunteers. Stay tuned for updates on the progress of the restoration and buildout!

 

Checking Back with Historic Green in New Orleans

A very happy crew, just after receiving their shipment of donated tools in their Kansas City office.

A very happy crew, just after receiving their shipment of donated tools in their Kansas City office.

Last month, we were able to donate a kickin’ little arsenal of tools to Historic Green, including:

These tools were based on the needs of this nonprofit, which is dedicated to helping under-resourced communities rebuild existing homes, community buildings, and outdoor spaces in a way that preserves cultural heritage and focuses on sustainability in both Kansas City and New Orleans. For more on Historic Green, check out last month’s post here.

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

I caught up with the crew after their most recent New Orleans trip, which, appropriately, overlapped with GreenBuild this year. According to Jeremy Knoll, the architect who pioneered the Historic Green nonprofit, they have done an astonishing amount of work in New Orleans, especially on the “Center” project. For this project, they have helped the CSED (Center for Sustainable Engagement & Development of New Orleans) with a wide variety of initiatives over the years, including:

  • 50+ home renovations/weatherizations
  • Playground construction/restoration
  • Community centers
  • Rain gardens
  • Community gardens
  • Supporting garden education spaces
  • Bayou access and restoration projects, and
  • Several design-build projects. Wow.
Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

The affordable retrofit demonstration house — the house they are working on in these pictures — represents the culmination of a lot of their efforts over the past several years. It will act as a new center for their operations where they can stage project materials, train and manage volunteers, and demonstrate affordable home renovation and green living strategies to area families through ongoing programs.

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

For this house, Historic Green helped them to clear the lot of overgrowth, build a new roof (deck to shingle), deconstructed the bathroom, re-built the garage/shed, installed a rain-garden, re-structured and decked the front porch, re-built portions of the floor, removed the non-historic car-port, provided LEED Certification advisors, helped to develop an insulation strategy, and did research about the history of this (originally) 1880’s cottage in the Lower 9th Ward to help with permitting and decision-making about what elements to restore or ignore. One of their Board Members also helped them to put together and launch this a kickstarter campaign, which (if successful) will complete the construction budget for the project.

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

Obviously, this is, er, not a lazy crew. So, if you’re up for supporting these efforts and undoubtedly more, please consider donating to Historic Green’s efforts. These nonprofits are what stabilize neighborhoods and foster stewardship in the most meaningful and immediate ways, truly.

If you've ever done volunteer work on a site in New Orleans, you understand how important this picture is. (Photo by Historic Green)

If you’ve ever done volunteer work on a site in New Orleans, you understand how important and happy-making this picture is. (Photo by Historic Green)

 

The only thing more fun than fixing things is fixing them with free tools.

Hallelujah!

The Craftsman loot!

The Craftsman loot! Beer was on me, in celebration of the aforementioned loot!

Thanks to a very generous Craftsman tool donation, the last Community Glue Workshop repair clinic involved some pretty sweet tool bags filled with the kinds of tools we use most when repairing:

Digital multimeters (batter testers)

Precision screwdriver sets

Heavy duty screwdriver sets

12″ bar clamps

(Very attractive!) utility knives

Soldering irons

Pliers/needle nose pliers

Tool bags

Beyond these tools, we generally use a lot of glue (all glues are not created equally, btw, and Super Glue truly is a miracle), screws and nuts, sewing needles and machines, and some bike repair tools. We also get creative and bust out a few other random items because lord knows we can’t predict 90% of the things that come through the door. Of course, that’s half the fun.

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Happy Brian checking out the spoils.

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Rachel, even more excited. This made me wish we could have given her a car.

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Ally doing lamp repair with a precision screwdriver, pliers, and a tremendous amount of patience.

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Stu testing some batteries.

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Fred fixes a flat, pretty much ever clinic this happens. He’s fixed two of mine and it’s not even winter.

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Record player diagnosis. Not a belt issue, not an electronic issue, looking like a new needle is needed (bowing for alliteration).

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Becky’s first electronic toothbrush battery removal. The end had to be twisted and pried with small screw driver and the new battery will require soldering. Yeah, who knew?

Non-Craftsman muffin donation. Yessssssss.

Non-Craftsman muffin donation. Yessssssss.

If you’re in the Chicago area, come check out the next clinic!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Folks meet, mentorships happen, stuff gets done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historic Green: Sustainable skill-building from New Orleans to Missouri

Historic Green volunteers working in the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans. They currently do most of their work through partnerships in New Orleans and Kansas City, Missouri.

Historic Green volunteers working in the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans. They currently do most of their work through partnerships in New Orleans and Kansas City, Missouri. (Picture taken by Historic Green)

I have a major soft spot for historic buildings and community outreach initiatives. These two things go together like peanut butter and jelly. Yin and yang. Captain & Tennille. Yep. A colleague recently pointed me to a group in Kansas City, Missouri that understands this perfect union all too well and has taken it to a level that very much deserves to be recognized, celebrated, and supported.

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Yes, there was much work to be done. Some challenges are larger than others, but hey, somebody’s gotta just pick up the tools and get to it. In this case, people are doing it for free, which should, assuming you’re not a cyborg, make your heart explode.

Historic Green is a nonprofit dedicated to helping under-resourced communities rebuild existing homes, community buildings, and outdoor spaces in a way that preserves cultural heritage and focuses on sustainability. They started up in 2007 as a response to Hurricane Katrina. More than 85% of New Orleans’ existing homes were listed on the National Register of Historic Places, homes with rich histories and deep cultural significance, and the need for help and environmentally responsible action was too great to ignore. They started “Spring Greening,” an annual greening event in the Lower 9th Ward’s Holy Cross neighborhood, a neighborhood I’ve been lucky to work in quite a few times myself with the same goal of making the neighborhood viable and sustainable. Here is a draft video recently completed as the first part of a series of videos they are producing around the New Orleans project.

Fixing brick piers, 2012 (Picture taken by Historic Green)

Repointing brick piers. (Picture taken by Historic Green)

Now, to be clear, “sustainability” has become such a buzzword that it has become woefully detached from its intended meaning. The term can be downright cringe-worthy because people now use it interchangeably with unsustainable practices and materials in an effort to market these things as being environmentally-friendly for one reason or another. In the case of Historic Green, the term really does have chops. Historic Green is focused on making utility costs affordable, making buildings healthier, and teaching those who are living in these places how to maintain their buildings and act as stewards to the community at large. Sustainability is about how to realistically keep people in buildings so they don’t end up abandoned and it’s also about educating a population on how to care for these buildings so they will last. Sustainability is about people — it has little to do with recycled content and green gizmos that don’t even function properly without an education component.

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Restoring original wood sashes. (Picture taken by Historic Green)

Obviously, it was a no-brainer to reach out and ask if they needed some tools — naturally, they did. The crews are currently working in both New Orleans and in their home city of Kansas City, in its Green Impact Zone. Both projects involve an historic home being fully renovated using affordable and replicable methods, and will feature restoration of historic detailing and carefully measured energy efficiency improvements. Swoon.

So…the tools have been shipped! Stay tuned for updates on what tools are most useful and how they are used in a project focused on restoration, efficiency, and community. I’m very much hoping to carve out time to drive down there and get my hands dirty with this crew. Yep, it’s gonna happen. 

The gorgeous historic home that will be brought back to life using big hearts, lots of sweat, and some shiny new Craftsman tools. (Picture taken by Historic Green)

The gorgeous historic home that will be brought back to life using big hearts, lots of sweat, and some shiny new Craftsman tools. Look at those piers!!! (Picture taken by Historic Green)

Revisiting the Austin Tinkering School

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

Some of the crew from the Austin Tinkering School in October 2013. (L-R: Jack, Kami, Luke, Oren, and Andre)

In the summer of 2013, I signed a contract to work with Sears and Craftsman to look for groups that needed tools and to write about them. Yeah, dream gig. I was headed down to Texas, so the very first place I contacted was the Austin Tinkering School, a group I learned about through the fixer movement that I’d been involved with for a while. They happily accepted, asked for a bandsaw, proceeded to slay me with their enthusiasm and creativity and fearlessness, and then taught me more than I ever expected to learn about child development. To read more about this wonderful school, its origins, and the tinkering movement, check out this post. Through the magic of the Facebooks, I’ve been able to easily follow the school–they just wrapped up their summer session–and Kami Wilt, the school’s founder, said she’d be happy to send over an update.

I got this email from her earlier today and I swear on my mother’s eyes, there is no secret marketing robot who made this up:

I don’t know how we ever got by before without the bandsaw!  It has been in near-constant use. Before, when we had to make curved and precise cuts, we had to get out the jigsaw, clear off a table, clamp down the wood… it’s a little bit of a production.  And then when we needed to make really finicky small cuts, like when kids want to cut out a really detailed shape, it was pretty harrowing, because the jigsaw is so big and jouncy and it’s hard to give kids free rein with it.
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Having the bandsaw made it possible for us to make much more detailed and precise cuts, and having it there, set up and ready to go at a moment’s notice was really liberating.  The kids loved it!  There was a line to use the bandsaw all summer long.  Kids were able to cut cool little swords with curvy handles, wheels, doors for dollhouses, the letters for their name… the list is pretty much endless.  The fact that they could cut out pretty much any shape they could draw really opened up limitless possibilities.  And apart from the detailed cuts, it became our go-to tool for just making a quick straight cut.  The bandsaw really completed our shop space and made it a lot more functional and effective.  We’re super, super thankful to Craftsman for donating it to the Austin Tinkering School!
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Students are trained first in safety and then supervised, but free to do whatever they wish. Basically, there is no right or wrong, they try something and if it doesn’t work out, they try it a different way. Kids aren’t allowed to fail today and as a result, they aren’t allowed to learn how to solve problems and, god forbid, have fun.

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“If kids never learn how to deal with things that can hurt them, they’ll get hurt when they finally encounter them.” -Kami Wilt

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For more information on the original school that inspired Kami to start up a branch in Austin, check this out, and then get out there and start one in your own town: http://www.tinkeringschool.com/

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Trailer Blazers: A weekend up north with vintage trailer restoration gurus

Christie Webber and Shawn Fairchild are collecting and restoring vintage trailers in their spare time.

Shawn Fairchild and Christie Webber are collecting and restoring vintage trailers in their spare time. Their addiction is our gain.

Smaller Living

So you like the tiny house movement, right? Want to fit everything you own into a 100-square-foot house with a lofted bed and a toilet that converts into a dining room table? Better yet, do you want the ability to tug this incredibly adorable house on a flatbed behind your Prius and park it wherever you like on trips across the country?

Great, that will only cost you a kabrillion dollars. Of course, if you don’t have that much disposable income, you can just build it yourself. No big whoop.

Christie's beloved Shasta, mid-restoration. Shastas were built between 1941 and 2004 and were originally constructed as housing for United States Armed Forces. One of their most charming features are a set of wings on the rear sides of the trailers. These are often difficult to find as they've been stolen off of most of the older models. They are mostly cut off in this pic, but you can see them in the picture above and on the Vin Tin Tin Facebook page.

Christie’s beloved Shasta, mid-restoration. Shastas were built between 1941 and 2004 and were originally constructed as housing for United States Armed Forces. One of their most charming features is the set of wings on the rear sides of the trailers. These are often difficult to find as they’ve been stolen off of most of the older models.

Don’t get me wrong, I love DIY, but building such a thing without experience would require a whole lot of patience and whole lot of time and still would cost some serious moolah. Want an efficient, mobile structure that has everything you need to live, actually was built to be transported, and does not require existing infrastructure to land somewhere for a while? Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to rekindle our love for the good old American trailer. Ta-da!

I recently drove up to Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin to meet with Christie Webber and Shawn Fairchild to learn about their passion for restoring vintage trailers. Airstreams have been embraced by hipsters from Austin to Seattle, but there are so many more options that for some inexplicable reason, we never hear about.

Rolite made the first hardwall pop-up trailers. This guy (with a trunk!!) was build in the 1960s and opened in less than two minutes by pushing a button. The inside sprouts a furnace, stove, sink, closet, dining area, beds and a couch, which fold up or down when the walls and roof are raised. (What?) This particular find has had only one owner--a family that went camping all over the place, sleeping 7. Yes, 7. The other great part is that this trailer was created in Wisconsin, home of Vin Tin Tin. These are super rare.

Rolite made the first hard-wall aluminum pop-up trailers. This good looking guy (with a trunk!!) was build in the 1960s and opened in less than two minutes by pushing a button. The inside sprouts a furnace, stove, sink, closet, dining area, beds and a couch, which fold up or down when the walls and roof are raised. (What?!) This particular find has had only one owner–a family that went camping all over the place, sleeping 7. Yes, 7. The other great part is that this trailer was created in Wisconsin, home of Vin Tin Tin. These are super rare.

About 2-1/2 years ago, Christie and Shawn got together to start Vin Tin Tin, a business restoring mid-century trailers. There are many components to the business, but perhaps my favorite is their plan to acquire land to rent out a collection of their favorite restored trailers in the same way you would rent out cabins on a plot of land. They would be pretty much permanent in their locations with period-appropriate awnings and regular maintenance to keep them looking as amazing as they do in their temporary warehouse home.

Kristie and Shawn don't mess around when it comes to keeping everything strictly to period. They even plan to have these original mattresses specially cleaned and disinfected to keep them in their original home. Want.

Every detail of these restorations is kept strictly to period. They even plan to have these original mattresses specially cleaned and disinfected to keep them in their original home. Want.

Shawn works on mega yacht interiors during the day and therefore has a wealth of experience working with the same materials found in these trailers, as well as furniture set at a smaller scale. Christie is passionate about research and scouting for new trailers—in fact, they both do all of the work and love all of the components of this business. They are happily hoarding any and all vintage items to fill up these trailers in their huge warehouse—from canopies to ashtrays—all completely to period and in excellent condition.

Nothing can compare with authenticity. And heck, the 50s and 60s were already campy and the vibrant colors and boomerang patterns and metal and curved corners elevate the heartbeat and can’t help but make one feel cheery.

ToolMade drove a Craftsman C3 impact driver kit all the way up to Door County, Wisconsin as an excuse to come meet these folks and see their work. They need these drivers to deal with the insane number of bolts during the restoration process--they once counted 400 on just the BACK of one of a these trailers.

ToolMade drove a Craftsman C3 impact driver kit all the way up to Door County, Wisconsin as an excuse to come meet these folks and see their work. They need these drivers to deal with an insane number of bolts during the restoration process–they once counted 400 on just the BACK of one of a these trailers.

Mobile Home History

In the beginning, the mobile home was an innovation for the wealthy. They came up around the start of the automobile era and allowed for long, leisurely trips before highways sprawled and cut across the landscape and emptied into avenues lined with motels. During WWII, the federal government, focusing more on portability and convenience than luxury, purchased tens of thousands of trailers to house workers producing goods for the war. After the war, trailer parks started popping up on college campuses to house former soldiers under the G.I. Bill.

Stripped down to the "studs."

Stripped down to the  studs.

Things shifted further in the 1950s and the mobile home became a low-cost residence, often parked permanently in a rapidly growing number of trailer parks around the country. Today, there are 8.6 million of these homes, housing around 12 million people. A stigma still surrounds the trailer park, though that may be shifting again as retirees are buying them up like crazy.

This luxury camper is similar to the model that Lucy and Desi made famous in the 1950s. All of the trailers that Christie and Shawn buy are rare or coveted for one reason or another. There is no lack of personality.

This luxury camper is similar to the model that Lucy and Desi made famous in the 1950s. All of the trailers that Christie and Shawn buy are rare or coveted for one reason or another. There is no lack of personality.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of regulation surrounding trailers—often in an effort to combat this stigma. Christy and Shawn explained that the smaller trailers that they work on are generally not welcome to park in otherwise trailer-friendly areas. There are rules in place that restrict trailers over a certain age—rules like this are basically intended to keep out people like Cousin Eddie and his rusted 1972 Ford Condor. Of course, trailers made now are made with increasingly lousy materials in an effort to keep them enormous but also meet fuel efficiency regulations. They’re downright flimsy compared with vintage trailers, and utterly forgettable. But, as we’ve seen with architecture, we are told to value bigger, crappy living quarters verses smaller, quality spaces that work. Don’t get me started.

Fortunately, to combat this nonsense, Christy and Shawn also plan to make land available for smaller trailers to come and hang out and live their handsome little lives. Check out the pics and links below for more information, and especially follow Vin Tin Tin’s Facebook page for more pictures and information on their future endeavors. I’ll wave to you from the Shasta I’m renting on their land.

For more on the restoration work of Vin Tin Tin, check out their picture-laden Facebook page.

For more on the history of pop-up campers.

A rather fascinating New York Times article on today’s trailer parks.

My god, even the curtains are original in this puppy. Swoon.

My god, even the curtains are original in this puppy. Swoon.

Some bigger projects outside of the warehouse space.

Some bigger projects outside of the warehouse space.

I can't stop posting pictures! These are some other immaculate vintage finds that will eventually accompany their appropriate trailer at the rental park. None of this stuff is reproduced. Original or nada.

I can’t stop posting pictures! These are some other immaculate vintage finds that will eventually accompany their appropriate trailer at the rental park. None of this stuff is reproduced. Original or nada.

 

Details. Sigh. These things will be cleaned up, but man, they even look good in this state.

Details. Sigh. These things will be cleaned up (sorry, Christy, I know you don’t like the rust pictures), but man, they even look good in this state.

Eat your heart out.

I mean, eat your heart out.