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.

Digging in the dirt: The absolutely essential need for kids to know what they’re eating

1506395_10152864513989119_133232486_n-1Joseph Dummitt has been teaching after school programming through a charitable arm of the Chicago Public Library for the past 5 years. Monday through Thursday, from 3pm-6pm, he helps kids with their homework until their parents are able to pick them up. And sometimes, when they finish early enough, he teaches them how to garden and about where their food comes from.

There is zero budget for the food education component of this program, so tools were desperately needed to build raised beds and cultivate the gardens. Joseph reached out with a “dream list of tools” and I drove out to the McKinley Park library with all of the Craftsman gardening items I could get a hold of, including a trowel, a couple of cultivators, a bow rake, a curved claw hammer, a garden hoe, a digging fork, and a round point shovel. Joseph and a 2nd grader named Daron came out to the car to help bring all of the tools into the library. I’m not sure how to describe them except to say that they were outright gleeful when they saw the goods. I was in a lousy mood earlier that day. That mood was utterly obliterated.

Joseph working with a student at the McKinley Branch Library.

Joseph working with a student at the McKinley Branch Library. (Original photo source: Streetwise)

When we got inside, I asked Joseph why he decided to put the extra effort in with the gardening program. He looked at me, then turned to Daron and said, “hey, what did they give you to eat at school today,” to which Daron replied “Ummm, chicken nuggets. Oh, and bread. Bread, too.” Then he looked back at me with the same expression of “seriously, how can I not.” Basically, kids just eat fillers and garbage that doesn’t look like food and in some ways really isn’t even food. Joseph grew up around farms and gardening with his family in Champaign, Illinois and couldn’t believe how detached these kids were from their food supply. So basically, he just took up the cause. He has been working with the library to carve out a little space and grow things with the kids, things that are hard to kill like green onions, tomatoes, leafy greens, and wild flowers. He said that when he picks something that they’ve grown and hands it to them to take a bite, they are completely mystified. Maybe even terrified.

Boooo.

Boooo. (Original photo source: Chicago Now)

As the population of the United States has transitioned from a predominantly agrarian society to an increasingly more urban one, our youth have become detached from a fundamental understanding of agriculture. Food just appears and lives in supermarkets. Chicago is around 85% paved, and many areas with patches of green space find out that those patches are contaminated from years of  surrounding industry pollution, so it’s no wonder there is a disconnect in most urban environments. And don’t get me going on what food we subsidize in this country. It’s criminal.

The following pics are screenshots from Jamie Oliver's t.v. show. He asked a bunch of grade schoolers what the following vegetables were. Apparently, these are potatoes.

The following pics are screenshots from Jamie Oliver’s t.v. show. He asked a bunch of grade schoolers what the following vegetables were. Apparently, these are potatoes.

This detachment from food and farming has gone on long enough that in some cases, multiple generations of families just have absolutely no idea how to cook real food. Microwaves or bust. And if you aren’t teaching these things at home, perhaps you assume that schools will surely pick up the slack, eh? Yeah, nope. School is supposed to arm kids with tools to navigate the world, but it hasn’t evolved to address our current crises and usually doesn’t address health and nutrition in any meaningful way, if at all. In fact, classes like home economics have been cut in most schools because they aren’t seen as being vital. Ha. Also, schools serve crap for lunch. 31 million kids pick up highly processed fast food from the lunch lady each day and wash it down with chocolate milk. It’s literally killing them.

"Broccoli?"

“Broccoli?”

According to the American Heart Association, about one in three American kids and teens is overweight or obese, nearly triple the rate in 1963. Instead of having to deal with skinned knees at recess, they are sedentary in their classrooms and dealing with issues that only adults experienced before like high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and elevated blood cholesterol levels. I can’t even imagine these things being discussed when I was a rambunctious little troublemaker in the early 80s. To top things off, obese kids are, of course, more prone to low self-esteem, negative body image and depression. Good thing we live in a world where kids are getting positive feedback from media and movies that people of all shapes and sizes are beautiful! Oh, wait.

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“Celery?” “Onion!”

So listen, support people like Joseph who are trying to combat this issue through education. Put some shovels into the hands of kids, dig some holes with them, and show them what real food is. Let them have that joy of picking something off of a vine and biting into it. If schools and families aren’t equipped to teach these kinds of skills, help out anyone who is able and willing. Or volunteer to do it yourself because most of us adults would surely benefit from more time in a garden as well. Stay tuned—I’ll be doing a follow-up post once those beds are built and the planting begins.

"Pear?" And after a big hint from Jamie: "Egg salad!"

“Pear?” And after a hint from Jamie: “Egg salad!”

 

How to beat nature deficit disorder if you’re a city-dwelling ecologist with power tools

Jenny escaping the city to regain her sanity at the cabin she built in Wisconsin. (photo: Tona Williams)

Jenny escaping the city–and humans–to regain her sanity at the cabin she built in Wisconsin. (Photo: Tona Williams)

This month, Jenny Carney is building a Scandinavian cabin in her Chicago West Loop office. Why? Because nobody could tell her not to and because she wanted to feel closer to nature in a city of almost 3 million people. This does not surprise me as I’ve only known Jenny for a couple of years and she’s already convinced me to:

  • dig up a garden for her amid the swarming of some terrible, horrible bugs
  • go on a weekend-long fly fishing trip
  • buy a timeshare for a yet-to-be-constructed yurt
  • build hotels for bees
  • round up about 1,000 used bricks to use as an outdoor patio floor for her property in Wisconsin (thank you to all who contributed–I will likely pester you for more)
  • take a bird watching class
  • hike through a state park after convincing me to also buy purple hiking boots
  • bike 35 miles up and down hills all day long in unrelenting rain to look at barns
  • pick her up a 10” Craftsman miter saw to help build this office cabin
  • …and then hand sand down all the walls of this office cabin
  • (as you might guess, this list is hardly exhaustive)
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The Scandinavian cabin in progress. It’s tricky to get a good photo because of the giant mushroom column used to support this converted warehouse space, but you get the idea. The casement window is a reclaimed window she purchased at the Rebuilding Exchange.

Jenny built the desks and other storage items in the office and brought in a lot of her own furnishings for the space.

Jenny built the desks and other storage items in the office and brought in a lot of her own furnishings for the space.























She also introduced me to a phenomenon called “nature deficit disorder” when she lent me a book called Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv last year, which I’ve managed to not return because it completely floored me and because I’m lousy that way. Nature deficit disorder is not an official medical condition, but it takes about five seconds to realize that it should be. In a nut shell, the book discusses the alarming rate of sickness, stress, aggressiveness, and obesity with kids in the U.S. and attributes this, in large part, to the fact that they are spending almost zero time running around outside. This was later confirmed when I worked on a project interviewing folks who work in and with our local forest preserves and who talked at length about how astonishingly disconnected kids are from nature. For example, some high schoolers believe there are lions and tigers living in the trees, and the majority were completely terrified of our woods in general, which don’t exactly emulate the enchanted forest of Brothers Grimm fairytales. Adults may be slightly less intimidated by nature (and I stress might, as I know some who would crumple if they didn’t have heated leather seats to lounge on while resting), but you can add heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, certain kinds of cancer, and no doubt depression to that list of health concerns related to a lack of exercise and frolicking about.

Cutting down wood on the weekend to create furniture for the inside of the office cabin.

Cutting down wood on the weekend to create furniture for the inside of the office cabin.

Anyway, Jenny figured all this out much earlier than I did. She grew up in rural Wisconsin and was/is an ecologist. She’s in love with systems, processes, data analysis, hypothesizing, and being outside away from people. Working as a field ecologist, she says, required more ingenuity, physicality, wits, and schooling than any other job she’s had.

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Seating for the office cabin, which has built in storage underneath and which was precisely calculated to ensure that it was long enough to allow for daytime work naps for its designer, naturally.

A "standing desk" she designed and built according to the varied heights of herself and her employees.

A “standing desk” she designed and built according to the varied heights of herself and her employees.






















She eventually stumbled into green building, which provided an intriguing opportunity that put her at an intersection between environmental science, business, development, society, urban planning, and a number of other related fields. Dealing with the built environment was inviting because it is more tangible in a certain sense, than working as an ecologist documenting the natural world in decline. This career shift ultimately lead her to Chicago in 2007, where she opened up a Midwestern branch for an environmental consulting business.

Some essentials on the land.

Some essentials on the land: Thomas Jefferson study materials and a cordless power drill (no ma’am, no electricity).

The Carney maple syrup factory. Jenny's dad is a retired construction foreman and helped with the construction of Xanadu.

The Carney maple syrup factory. Jenny’s dad, a retired construction foreman, passed on his intense love of chores and also helped with the construction of Xanadu.




































But, alas, the hustle and bustle of the city isn’t always ideal for someone who likes to think about the mating habits of bugs and who can explain how and why the breeze is blowing, so pretty much on a whim, she purchased several acres in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin in 2009 and named the land “Xanadu.” This was obviously cheaper than buying land in the city, and it was beautiful, geologically unique, and a reasonable enough distance from Chicago that weekend visits were feasible. She needed some shelter, however, so over a long weekend she constructed a 150 SF shed and an outhouse with a composting toilet with her dad, who is a retired construction foreman. Jenny was the designer, financier, and unskilled labor. He was the skilled labor with engineering prowess. She also described him as “exceedingly crafty,” which I believe, as he has constructed some kind of steampunk manifestation of a maple syrup factory according to pictures I’ve seen, along with an entire house that he continually builds more and more outbuildings around to stay busy since retiring. Jenny felt this project would be a welcome diversion for him.

Xanadu, post-paint job, furniture and rain barrel installation. It's ever a work in progress.

Xanadu, post-paint job, furniture and rain barrel installation. It’s ever a work in progress. (Photo: Tona Williams)

To build the shed at Xanadu, Jenny used a chop saw, skill saw, power drills, a pneumatic nail gun, an assortment of hammers, and that healthy love of chores that hearty Wisconsinites are prone to have. I’ve also been put to work with shovels and a chain saw, which I apparently became too aggressive with. Sorry, trees. Somewhere along the line she lost her miter saw, which is why I was happy to be able to hook her up with a Craftsman miter saw, as well as an attractive, shiny hatchet for good measure to chop branches at Xanadu for the cast iron stove that heats us. And heats us remarkably well, I might add.

Photo by Tona Williams.

Photo by Tona Williams.

Basically, if you’re ever lucky enough to visit, expect to earn your stay there—Jenny doesn’t screw around and there is always work that can be done. Until it’s time for whiskey and/or poetry, anyway. There are also added perks of mooing cows off in the distance at night, Carney family homemade maple syrup, and (new!) black walnuts meticulously cracked and jarred for consumption, and the fact that you will get to hear stories about how trees are incredibly smart and why fireflies blink. Believe me, if I could rent Jenny and her cabin out to my fellow nature-deprived city-dwelling friends, I would. Until then, I would recommend looking up some plans online and adding “build a cabin” to your 2014 To Do List. It’ll feel like entering Dr. Who’s magical phone booth.

Coffee heating on the cast iron stove, reading on the porch. (Photo by Tona Williams)

Coffee heating on the cast iron stove, reading on the porch. (Photo by Tona Williams)

Xanadu (inside). The cabin is tiny, but once again, Jenny designed multi-purpose furniture. The opposite side of the space has two stacked wooden boxes store bedding and come apart to form beds, and a frame drops down from a wall to create a third, full-sized bed. We've slept 4 in here and been a-ok. I know. Swoon! (Photo by Tona Williams)

Xanadu (inside). The cabin is tiny, but once again, Jenny designed multi-purpose furniture. The opposite side of the space has two stacked wooden boxes store bedding and come apart to form beds, and a frame drops down from a wall to create a third, full-sized bed. We’ve slept 4 in here and been a-ok. I know. Swoon! (Photo by Tona Williams)

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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If the shoe fits, wear it. Or better yet, make your own.

A year and a half ago, I found myself talking to a guy on the beach during the 4th of July who pointed to his shoes and said “I made these.” All I could say was “whoa” and “where.” I couldn’t remember what this guy’s name was if you paid me, but you can bet I never forgot there was a shoemaking school nearby. There are possibly as many trades fading into obscurity as there are languages, and bringing attention to them and demystifying them even just a little is a big part of what gets this girl out of bed in the morning. Come back!!!

Shoes! Custom -fit and handmade in the workshop.

Shoes! Custom-fit and handmade in the workshop.

Enter: Sara McIntosh, a cobbler for 39 years, and the wonderful human who started the Chicago School of Shoemaking in 2011. After turning 60, she decided that she wanted to go beyond creating custom made shoes through her shoe shop, and that it was time to empower others by teaching them the trade. Sara is a self-taught cobbler who embraced the self-sufficiency lifestyle in the 1970s, which focused on sustainable living in the truest sense–by living with only what she could produce and not consuming outside goods. So basically, she needed a pair of shoes so she made herself a pair of shoes. I know, I want to be her, too.

Sarah McIntosh, founder of the Chicago School of Shoemaking and Master Cobbler. She even made the mallet!

Sara McIntosh, founder of the Chicago School of Shoemaking and Master Cobbler. She even made the mallet!

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See? Sara’s Craftsman bandsaw is used to cut down a dowel that become the handle for a mallet and then rough cuts the mallet head as well. She also uses the bandsaw to shape the souls of the shoes.

Beyond the empowerment that comes from knowing that you can just make whatever you need (she has also built her own log homes, grown her own food, etc.) the freedom that comes with such a useful skillset has allowed Sara to live all over the U.S. and support herself and family wherever she has gone. Everyone needs shoes, and she is one of only a few people left in the country who custom makes them by hand from scratch.

The workshop.

The workshop.

There are a couple of different methods of fabricating shoes, and Sara developed her own based on the out-stitch technique, which lends itself to people who make shoes out of their home or in a small shop. There is a band saw in the back of the shop that is used for a variety of things, including rough trimming the souls of shoes and cutting down dowels that are made into mallet handles. Awls are used for marking lines in leather, metal squares help with patterns, pliers replace rivets and add studs, nippers can cut a chain or destroy a bad rivet…most tools are hand tools and it didn’t seem difficult to set up one’s own workshop once you knew what you were doing.

Sarah uses a square as an edge to pattern the leather.

Sara uses a square as an edge to pattern the leather. Keisha looks for guidance as she works on a leather tote.

There are a variety of leatherwork and shoemaking classes at the school for both beginner and advanced students, and over 500 people have come from around the country to learn. I visited the workshop on a leatherworking day and made some ornaments by stamping, dying, and burnishing leather pieces. I can say with great sincerity that burnishing is now one of my favorite things in the world to do–I’d be arthritic within a year as my compulsive nature shined up every piece of leather on this here earth. Others in the workshop that day were making leather bags, a belt, a Kindle case (that would bring you to your knees, seriously), and a wallet, and folks also often make leashes, wine holders, purses, and anything else they can think of.

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Pliers are used to replace rivets or add studs to leather.

Alas, ordering shoes from Sara will land you on a long waiting list, but embracing a sustainable/self-sufficient lifestyle will land you in some classes and enable you to teach yourself and never be wanting or lacking a creative outlet. Basically, it’s contagious and once you know you can make one beautiful, custom thing you have the confidence to make more. Check out the Chicago School of Shoemaking philosophy and classes here and glide around town in the best fitting custom kicks you’ll ever own.

My very, very, very well burnished ornaments. Happy holidays! Go build something.

My very, very, very well burnished ornaments. Happy holidays! Go build something.

Rudolph Resurrected! Metal Machining and Stop Motion Animation

Stu, making cuts into the meticulously machined skeleton "bones" with a bandsaw.

Stu, making cuts into the meticulously machined “skeleton bones” with a bandsaw.

Remember when animation required a pen and paper and three dimensional objects had to actually be built? Remember when art required the use of entire arms flailing around and the work took place on crammed tabletops or in warehouse spaces that looked like the kind of place a serial killer would take his victims? Yeah, well those good old days are largely over. Artists and animators use computers more than most hands-on processes to create their work, which if you think about it, is a complete 180 for those who work in creative fields.

Skeletons. Each piece of metal, hole and pin was created by Stu and crew.

Skeletons! Each metal bar, hole and pin was created by Stu and crew.

Some people, however, reject the notion that they have to sit at a computer all day and are embracing the more traditional ways of creating animation. Stu Marsh is a good example of an artist rebelling against repetitive keyboard motion, florescence-induced headaches, and cubicles of despair.

A hand-crafted head!

A hand-crafted head I’m particularly fond of.

Growing up, Stu’s parents did painting and carpentry and were all around handy folks and as a result, he’s been building things his entire life. In 2003, he went to school for animation and can work 3D software like a champ, but has been slowly working towards a career in stop motion precisely because it allows for animation work without having to sit at a desk for 10 hours a day.

Amen.

Molly McCandless uses a tap wrench to cut out threading so she can screw bolts down into it through a hole slightly smaller than the threading. Then the tap handle holds a tap, which is basically a really sharp bolt that cuts the grooves in the inside of the hole.

Molly McCandless uses a 1/4 – 1/2 inch Craftsman tap wrench to cut out threading so she can screw bolts down into it through a hole slightly smaller than the threading. Then the tap handle holds a tap, which is basically a really sharp bolt that cuts the grooves in the inside of the hole.

The kind of stop motion animation that most people think of first is likely claymation–the kind used on the 1964 Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer movie. In a nutshell, stop motion animation is a technique to make a physically manipulated object appear to move on its own. The object is moved in small increments between individually photographed frames, creating the illusion of movement when the series of frames is played as a continuous sequence.

Possibly my favorite character from the Land of Misfit Toys. Jelly gun!!!

Stop motion can be done with found objects, through photographing people, or really, with anything that can be moved in tiny increments. The kind of animation that Stu creates involves characters and sets that are fabricated completely from scratch to create 3D cartoons. He and his partners in crime do metal machining to create a movable form within the character that acts as a skeleton. When you’re moving characters a fraction of an inch, metal machining allows the maker to create very precise joints for each skeleton with adjustable tension.

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Nicholas sands down little skeleton bits with a 1/4 sheet pad sander to make a few adjustments.

Using a metal mill and lathe to bore out very specific holes and paths in aluminum allows for constant, minuscule adjustments in the armature, and a bandsaw is used for cutting metal stock and making notches in pieces for specific character joints. He then sands down and shapes each piece to fit within a character once it is finished and functional. It is unbelievably precise work. I know, I had no idea.

Honestly, after watching Stu, his brother Nicholas (a faux painter by day and also an all around handy person), and Molly McCandless, (an animator by trade who also wants a more physical work environment) work tirelessly on each and every tiny part of the character skeletons, I had a whole new appreciation for this kind of animation. Check out the fruits of their labor in the first installment of their cartoon series “How I Became a Villain of Dirt,” and stay tuned for their next episode, which should go up sometime later this month. Even after seeing all the nitty gritty of how these characters are made, it’s still complete magic to watch the end result.

On the set!

On the set! Every piece was made my hand to create a world for the Villain of Dirt.

The Giveaway: Want Free Tools? Submit!

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

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

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

The Giveaway

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

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

1. What do you do?

2. Why do you do it?

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

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

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

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OTHER STUFF

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

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

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

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

So, that’s it. Submit! Submit!

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

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

Ladder Maker (Photographer: Ron Nicolaysen)

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

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

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Cobbler (Photographer: Ron Nicolaysen)

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

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Blacksmith (Photographer: Ron Nicolaysen)

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

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

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Figurine Makers (Photographer: Ron Nicolaysen)

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

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

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.