Friday, March 14, 2014

Refinishing kitchen cabinets with time, effort and savings
How I stayed busy, got a new kitchen and read 5 books over 26 weekends
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel March 21, 2014

A recent article in Popular Mechanics says that the national average cost for a minor kitchen remodel is about $18,500, while a major overhaul comes in at almost $54,000. Better Homes and Gardens reports that the average price of an upscale kitchen is a staggering $107,973. These numbers might encourage us to do something we shouldn’t with our 401(k) or kid’s college fund. But when I told my contractor that I wanted to spend less than $10,000 (including new appliances), he told me it was possible if I kept my 1980s cabinets and refinished them myself.

Cabinets typically make up one-third to one-half of the average total kitchen-remodeling budget, according to the National Kitchen and Bath Association. But there are ways to trim cabinet costs such as:
  • Using standard-sized stock or RTA (ready-to-assemble) cabinetry. RTA cabinets are finished, pre-drilled and delivered in a flat pack along with all the hardware needed for assembly.
  • Replacing cabinet doors, drawer fronts and cabinet moldings, but keeping and refacing the existing cabinet boxes and framework with veneers.
  • Opting for doorless upper cabinets.
  • Adding new hardware, a few glass inserts, and paint or stain to update the existing cabinets.
Throughout this months-long process, I “read” several
books, so earbuds are an essential component of cabinet
 refinishing. Of course you’ve got to crank up the volume
 when sanding the cabinet doors after stripping.
Another option is illustrated on the cover of the hipster guidebook, “It’s Lonely in the Modern World”: forgoing upper kitchen cabinets altogether, and just stacking your dishes on simple shelves.

I decided to strip and re-stain rather than prime and paint because I preferred the look and warmth of wood. I refinished some cabinets long ago, and hoped there was new technology to make the process safer, easier and faster. Like any home-improvement project, there are multiple ways to go about it, so it took some time to research and compare methods and materials. Basically, refinishing involves these seven steps:

1)      Remove hardware and wood trim:  Use a drill or screwdriver to remove all the hinges and pulls, and a taping knife and pry bar to remove the wood trim. I decided to replace the hardware, but if you are going to reuse it, store pieces in labeled Ziploc bags until you have time to soak and scrub them clean. Also label the location and orientation of each drawer and front with painter’s tape. Mask the surfaces around the cabinet boxes with painter’s tape and cover the floors and counters where you are working with plastic garbage bags.

Liquid strippers work best, but for vertical surfaces use
gel, which won’t drip as much. I used Citrustrip,
 a bright orange gel that smells decent enough,
worked pretty well, and claims to be non-corrosive,
 non-toxic and biodegradable. Paint on with a cheap brush,
 allow it to work awhile, then remove with a plastic scraper.
WORK WISELY: Stripping is a nasty business. Whether you are stripping oil-based paint or varnish and stain, spare no expense on protecting your health. Buy thick rubber gloves, a big box or two of disposable nitrile gloves, eye protection, a sanding respirator, and a vapor respirator (the serious, $50 kind). Work outside or with windows and doors wide-open (drought years are optimal in this case), read all labels and use the appropriate protection whenever you are using chemicals or sanding, even when working outdoors or with so-called safe products. Also be conscientious about how you are disposing of all work materials—many of which don’t belong in your garbage can. For every step of this process there are products that claim to be safer to use than traditional solvent-based products, so I suggest reading some online MSDSs (material safety data sheet) to know all the risks before you choose.

2)      Clean:  Remove grease and dirt from the cabinet and drawer front surfaces with a trisodium phosphate solution (TSP), and wipe off with a wrung-out sponge. Allow the surfaces to dry completely. If you’re going to install new hardware that won’t use the same screw holes, fill in the old holes with wood putty. (If you are going to paint your cabinets, you don’t need to strip them—a HUGE time-saver. Roll on primer tinted to match your top coat, allow to dry, then roll on the paint.)

3)      Strip: I used Citrustrip, a bright orange gel that smells decent enough, worked pretty well, and claims to be non-corrosive, non-toxic and biodegradable (but still use gloves and a vapor respirator). Paint on with a cheap brush, allow it to work awhile, then remove with a plastic scraper. Apply a second time if necessary. Remove any remaining residue with fine steel wool (.00001) and odorless mineral spirits or pre-stain.

4)      Sand: Using an orbital or finish sander and 150 to 180 grit sandpaper, sand all surfaces until the bare wood looks uniformly clean and feels smooth. You may need a stiff brush or detail sander to get into corners or groves. (I used bamboo skewers.) After sanding, wipe the surfaces with a dry cloth to ensure all dust is removed.

TAKE A BREAK: Breathe a big sigh of relief (away from any dust and fumes) because the hardest, most tedious part is over.

I spent about $500 on everything I used to refinish my kitchen cabinets—including replacement hinges, pulls and knobs. Most of the tools can be used again for other home improvement projects.
5)      Stain: Find a paint store like South Bay Paints in San Jose, where a clerk spent about an hour with me, opening cans of stain and dabbing various shades onto the back of my stripped and sanded cabinet door until I was satisfied with the color. Gel stain is rubbed on and the excess removed with cut-up tee-shirt strips. Follow the directions on the can, and don’t let the stain sit for too long or it will start to gum-up and the excess with not wipe off. Let the stain dry for 72 hours before applying the finish coat.

One of my favorite aspects of Holly Scrimsher’s
 remodeled kitchen is her magnetic knife and scissor
 strips, hung above the sink on her wood laminate walls.
6)      Apply finish: I chose to brush on a polyurethane top-coat on with a 2-1/2 inch, white china bristle brush, but polyurethane can also be sprayed on. Following the grain, make about two passes with the brush, and then one very light final pass, before moving on to the next piece. If you apply too heavy a coat, you must continue to brush it out to avoid runs and drips, so strive for light coats. After a few hours you can sand very, very lightly with 220-grit sandpaper and apply a second light coat. No matter how careful you are, there will most likely be a few drips, but only you will notice them.

7)      Replace hardware: If you’re using existing holes and hardware that fits those holes, this will go fairly quickly. If you are making changes, use a plastic template to mark the screw holes, so that they are consistent from cabinet to cabinet. Use a tape measure to find the center of drawer faces and center the template on that mark. After reattaching the fronts to the drawers, drill pilot holes before screwing new drawer pulls into place.

REALITY CHECK: Lowe’s website has a helpful refinishing guide with a chart for determining the type of the existing finish on your cabinets (wax, shellac, lacquer, water-based, varnish, polyurethane, oil, or paint) in order to use the proper stripper. At the very end of the guide, in tiny print, they say, “Before undertaking refinishing, remind yourself that it takes a lot of time and effort.” In retrospect, I don’t think I read this warning in any of my other sources, and if I had, it was probably much too subtle to have discouraged me. Working 2-4 hours a weekend, it took me about 6 MONTHS to complete the cabinets (with hardware help from my family). But it was worth it, because I saved thousands of dollars by doing it myself, and my whole kitchen remodeling project would have been beyond our budget without it.

Tina Baine
For an archive of my columns go to

Lisa Jensen and James Aschbacher’s kitchen is all about those Bermuda Teal cabinets. “We didn’t want to spend a fortune on either fancy veneers or (ulp) entirely new cabinets,” says Lisa, so they decided to keep their 1960s plywood cabinets and power up the color. “We wanted something more fun,” she says. They scrubbed all the surfaces with a vinegar solution to remove the grime, and James (a professional artist) then painted all the cabinets “very meticulously” by hand. “Our friends and other visitors loved the new color instantly,” remembers Lisa. “During Open Studios, it’s hard to steer people out of the kitchen & back to the art! I was the only one who had reservations after James finished painting the first cabinet. An hour later I loved it!” (photo by Lisa Jensen)

With wood (or wood laminate) on every surface, Holly Scrimsher’s kitchen feels like a cozy mountain retreat. Holly, and her grown children Wendy and Jess, spent last summer remodeling the space from floor to ceiling, doing all the work themselves. She says she spent about $3,400 (not including appliances) for the entire project. Her maple-finish cabinets were purchased assembled at Home Depot, replacing old cabinets with about six coats of paint. A seasoned woodworker and all-around handy person, Holly was able to create, customize and improvise whenever necessary, like when she and Wendy used a car jack to hold the upper cabinets up while they fastened them to the wall. After trying vinyl floor tiles as a backsplash/wall covering, she finally decided to use laminate flooring instead for a much more practical and economical version of wood paneling.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Yoga for the brain
Zen Doodling
Originally published February 7, 2014 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel
Jann Griffith has drawn several beautiful underwater
 scenes using her vast collection of Zentangle designs.

The author of "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers," Stanford professor Robert M. Sapolsky, has focused much of his neurological research on the effects of stress on animals, and by extension, humans. Sapolsky believes it is vital to understand the difference between survival stress, and the everyday human kind brought on by memories, emotions and thoughts.

"For 99% of the species on this planet, stress is three minutes of screaming terror in the savannah, after which either it's over with or you're over with," he writes. "if you're running from a lion, your blood pressure is 180 over 120. But you're not suffering from high blood pressure--you're saving your life. Having this same thing happen when you're stuck in traffic, and you're not saving your life. Instead you are suffering from stress-induced hypertension."

"When you look at the diseases that do us in (heart disease, cancer, adult-onset diabetes, Alzheimer's), they are predominately diseases that can be caused, or made worse, by stress," Sapolsky writes. "As a result, most of us . . . will have the profound Westernized luxury of dropping dead someday of a stress-related disease. That's why it's so urgent that we understand stress-and how to better manage it."
A classic Zentangle—by Jennifer Miller—is drawn
 on a 3 ½ x 3 ½ paper tile, using a black archival pen
 to draw patterns in each random section.  Jen calls
 drawing mistakes “a beautiful oops,” since you can
 easily incorporate an unplanned line into a new design.

While studying laboratory rats that received random electric shocks, Sapolsky observed several ways rats are able to cope with stress. The first way is to take their stress out on another rat by “biting the crap out of it,” writes Sapolsky. The second is to anticipate stress with predictive information—for example a warning bell ten seconds prior to the shock. The third stress reducer is having the perception of control—even if it’s only a placebo—such as having a lever to press. The fourth is to have a friend—social affiliation helps control stress.

But for me, the most intriguing stress-reducing strategy for a lab rat was the fifth way: gnawing on a piece of wood. “The guy’s not going to get an ulcer, because he has an outlet for his frustrations. He has a hobby,” writes Sapolsky. If this is true—if hobbies help us cope with anxiety and live longer healthier lives (and not resort to “biting the crap” out of our family and friends), then having an artistic outlet—especially one that is therapeutic by design—may be worth exploring.

The Joy of Zentangle

Zentangle is an art form that promotes drawing as meditation. The theory behind Zentangle is that, by making simple, repetitive strokes, you become totally focused on what you’re doing. As you become absorbed in the process, you find yourself getting calmer, less stressed, less judgmental, and feel happier and more content—like yoga for the brain.

Matthew Fitch, 7, proudly shows the
 valentine he’s just created to the January
 meeting of the Morgan Hill Zen Doodler Club.
Maybe you already doodle on a notepad when you’re bored or daydreaming, or just want to escape. It’s relaxing and transporting. Like doodling, Zentangle (also known as Zen Doodling) is easy and requires no artistic skill. says, “You cannot fail to create a Zentangle. Since it is not a picture of something, you have no worries about whether you can draw a hand or a duck. You always succeed.”

I recently took one of Nancy Domnauer’s monthly Zentangle classes at BookSmart in Morgan Hill. I’ve never practiced any form of yoga or meditation, but I definitely experienced a calming, focused state while creating my first Zentangle. A classic Zentangle is drawn on a 3 ½ x 3 ½ paper tile. Using a pencil, we drew a dot in each corner of the tile about ¼-inch from the edge and connected the dots with straight or wavy lines to create a border. We then drew a loopy “string” inside the border creating four or five random sections. Using a black archival drawing pen, we drew patterns she taught in each of the sections.

Jennifer Miller draws Zentangle
 designs on shrink plastic squares
 and then hinges them together
 with jump rings to make bracelets.

The creators of Zentangle—Rick Roberts, a former monk, and Maria Thomas, a lettering artist—developed Zentangle ten years ago as a method for anyone to achieve a peaceful, meditative state through simple drawing. Today there are more than 400 CZTs (Certified Zentangle Teachers) worldwide, thousands of Zentangle enthusiasts, and many books and websites devoted to the practice.

Nancy has also organized monthly meet-ups—the Morgan Hill Zen Doodlers Club—where her student can gather, exchange new patterns and resources, and draw together. Karen Fitch, who brought her 7-year-old son, Matthew, to the January meeting, says Zentangle is great for her son because “he can do it and be successful. We try to draw something together at least once a week, after he’s done his homework,” she says. “You’re really engaging both sides of your brain.” That evening they each worked on making valentines—filling in the letters L-O-V-E with Zen Doodle patterns.

Pam Drayton is quite enthusiastic about her latest hobby. “I’m addicted. I have to get every book there is. I’ve given this to all my nieces and nephews, and now they are Zen Doodling all over the Midwest,” she says. “I work in high-tech and it’s a very stressful job.” She says that within minutes of drawing her first Zentangle, she felt calmer. “It’s just the most relaxing thing in the whole wide world,” she says more than once. “You don’t expect it to be pretty, but this is so cool. I’m a 70s girl. I used to get detention for drawing stuff like this in class.”

Zentangle can be done anywhere with only a black pen, white paper and a pencil. No eraser is needed because there are no mistakes. An errant mark can be easily incorporated into the design, and may even “take you in unexpected and exciting new directions,” says Nancy. Its portability also allows you to improvise wherever you are—on a business card or a napkin—anytime you feel the need to relax and focus.

Jolene Hall and her daughter Nikki work on designs during
 the January Zen Doodler Club at BookSmart in Morgan Hill.
 Jolene says, “This helps me to concentrate better.
 I’ve always doodled, but now I feel I have purpose to my doodles.”
The official Zentangle website ( offers instructional videos demonstrating the basic technique, products, a newsletter, CZT training dates, and a blog with project ideas and links. There are quite a few books available on Zentangle and hundreds of pattern ideas and applications online. Zentangle patterns can also be used to decorate fabric, note pads, shoes, jewelry, cards, mugs, journals, scrapbooks, furniture, gourds, tiles—any surface that will accept ink.

Nancy Domnauer writes that, “A completed Zen Doodle project looks complicated, yet if you slow down, focus and take your time, you will create an attractive work of art!” She views the Zentangle process not only as a stress-reducing, art-producing hobby, but as a metaphor for life. “You can transfer the insight and experience of success and accomplishment to any life experience,” writes Nancy. “Something may look complicated, but you now know that you can do it, one simple stroke at a time.”

Side Note: Nancy Domnauer’s next Zen Doodling for Adults class meets Monday, February 17, from 6:30 to 8:00 pm at BookSmart at 80 E. 2nd Street in Morgan Hill.  Call BookSmart at (408) 778-6467 to register for the class, or email Nancy for more information at  Also check-out her collection of Zen Doodle designs and applications on her Pinterest page: 

Sandra Dunie of Morgan Hill made her Christmas cards
from Zentangle designs. She says, “Sometimes you
 wake up in the middle of the night and think, what can
 I do next. I never felt like I had the talent to do art.
With this, I just feel comfortable.”

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Embracing Paper

Paper offers a seductive challenge

Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel January 24, 2014

Paper blooms: I’ve made paper flowers before (usually from a kit), but never had so much fun as when I spent an entire afternoon jumping from one flower project to the next in “Paper Blooms.” I dipped paper yarn in liquid starch and wrapped it around various bottles to create vases for the flowers.

Paper is typically a one-use, disposable kind of product—the stuff that typically fills up most of your recycling can: shopping bags, wrapping paper, food packaging and junk mail. But perhaps its ordinariness and impermanence is what makes it such a seductive challenge as an artistic medium. Artists seem to love seeing how far they can go with paper. For example, just Google “paper dress” and you’ll discover an endless number of images, including Lady Gaga in a red hot Post-It Note dress, a prom dress made from coffee filters, bridal gowns made from toilet paper, and up-cycled dresses made from newspapers and phone books—most of them pretty remarkable.

Closer to home, you can witness the transformation of paper (and other challenging materials) at either of the annual runway shows: FashionTEENS in the spring or FashionART in the fall. Or visit Open Studios artists like Anita Landon, who makes pulsating collages from magazine pages featuring familiar local imagery, including Capitola Beach, the yacht harbor, Pigeon Point Lighthouse, and Wilder Ranch. (

"Paper Yarn” shows how versatile the
  material can be, with step-by-step instructions
 for making cushions, bowls, floor
 mats, boxes, bags, lamp shades and more.
Despite our dependence on digital media, paper is still a big part of our daily lives as books, mail, catalogs, shopping bags, wrapping paper, food packaging, etc.—just waiting to be reused. Three recent books about paper crafting introduced me not only to some new uses for all this paper in our lives, but also to some new kinds of paper.

1.       “Paper Yarn: 24 Creative Projects to Make Using a Variety of Techniques” by Uta Donath, Eva Hauck, Petra Hoffman and Claudia Huboi. Paper yarn was new to me. It’s also known as paper raffia or raffia ribbon, but it’s softer and stronger than natural raffia, and comes in a variety of thicknesses and bright, water- and fade-resistant colors. You can knit, crochet, braid and weave with paper yarn, or unroll the strands and use the flat strips like paper mâche or sew then together into paper fabric. “Paper Yarn” explores the versatility of this medium, with instructions for making handbags, hats, lamp-shades, placemats, baskets and much more. To buy fine paper yarn for making jewelry try on Etsy, which also sells kits for knitting colorful bangles and delicate necklaces.
These colorful spools of paper raffia were purchased at, which sells 27 different colors.

2.       “Paper Blooms: 25 Extraordinary Flowers to Make for Weddings, Celebrations & More” by Jeffery Rudell. I’ve made paper flowers before (usually from a kit), but never had so much fun. I spent an entire morning trying to make all the different flowers featured in “Paper Blooms.” With just a few supplies—paper, scissors, a hot glue gun, floral wire and floral tape—I filled my wintry home with colorful bouquets of my favorite spring and summer flowers—including daisies, poppies, roses, orchids, marigolds, cosmos and zinnias. The author also has some repurposing suggestions—using paint chips to make dahlias and coffee filters for carnations—but paper is everywhere, so don’t stop there.

A greeting card by Yoder Do got me interested in the possibilities of
 quilling. Their handmade cards use rolled paper, glued and placed
 upright on its cut edge, allowing the designs to have a
 3-dimensional look. (See for many more examples
 of intricately quilled designs.)
3.       “All Things Paper: 20 Unique Projects from Leading Paper Crafters, Artists and Designers” by Ann Martin. This book is full of ideas for paper projects in the realms of home décor, jewelry (including a delicate crocheted choker made from fine white paper yarn), fashion accessories and note cards. But one technique that really caught my attention was quilling—an art form that originated in the 16th century, used by French and Italian nuns and monks to decorate reliquaries, holy pictures and frames. Narrow strips of paper were coiled by wrapping them around a feather quill, hence the name “quilling.” It later became a pastime—like needlework—of well-to-do English women, who quilled on tea caddies, jewelry boxes, screens, handbags and furniture. Quilling eventually spread to America, but virtually disappeared in the 1880s.

You can buy quilling paper in 1/8 to ¼ inch widths, or use an adjustable
 pasta maker to cut your own strips. The slotted needle tool holds the
 end of a paper strip tight while you coil and the template helps achieve
 uniform-sized coils. Straight pins pushed into a cork board help
 hold the tiny coils in place while you glue one coil to another.
Beverly Crafts has a selection of inexpensive quilling supplies, including paper strips, kits, craft glue, slotted and needle tools, and template guides. The only other tools you might need for quilling are tweezers, straight pins and a ruler. (You can also make the narrow paper strips be feeding sheets or found papers through a pasta maker.) “All Things Paper” demonstrates the basic technique of rolling narrow strips of paper into coils and then fashioning them into basic shapes like the teardrop, ring coil and marquise ring coil.

With a little patience, dexterity and the willingness to work on a very small scale, you can master the basic techniques and then begin your own creative pieces. There are also lots of online tutorials for making flowers, animals, plants, bows and other designs, many of which can be incorporated into other hobbies, like scrapbooking, making shadowboxes, jewelry  and cards. Also see to expand your repertoire.

 “All Things Paper” showed me how to make two
 pendants. I attached a black clock hand
 to the white coils in the second project.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

DIY Superbooks
Books that are DIY projects themselves
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel December 13, 2013

Photo provided by Storey Publishing
DIY books are battling for your attention. They lost out for a time to low-budget DIY YouTube videos, when they became the studio-photographed, cookie-cutter products of crafts publishers. But it now looks like the slick-paper aesthetic is becoming side-lined in favor of books that appear to be the cover-to-cover brain-child of brilliant artists. These new DIY Superbooks still slide off your shelf like the traditional, mild-mannered how-to book, but once in your hands can ramp-up your creative maker-powers exponentially.

The pages of these DIY Superbooks are profusely illustrated with quirky-cool drawings. If there are any photos, they are altered and enhanced with more distinctive drawings. Embellished hand-lettering is also the norm. A new type of superhuman DIY author/creator seems to have emerged—one with the x-ray vision to dream up and complete incredible projects plus the creative brilliance to share those projects in the most riveting way.

So, if you want the power of DIY, search out these crazy-talented authors and their amazing DIY Superbooks:

FILM AND VIDEO MAKING: “Action! Professor Know-it-all’s illustrated guide to film & video making” by Bill Brown.
At first I thought this clever little book was meant for kids, but apparently, it has become assigned reading in some college-level beginning film-making classes. A fellow reviewer calls it, “simultaneously erudite and approachable, leavened with wit and charm aplenty." Illustrated with simple line drawings, “Action!” makes reading about white balance and hyperfocal distances actually fun, and will inspire film and video makers of all ages and experience levels to stride confidently into multimedia projects of any size.

            COZY SHELTERS: “Humble Homes, Simple Shacks, Cozy Cottages, Ramshackle Retreats, Funky Forts” by Derek “Deek” Diedricksen.
The adjectives in the title are apt for describing the book itself—essentially a brainstorm of wildly imaginative ideas in the format of a black-and-white graphic novel—although it also has a small section of color photos featuring the author and others enjoying their outrageous, gotta-have-it shelters. The structures range in size from a disaster-relief shelter-for-one, to a junk-car cabin, to a “Tee-Pee for Three or so…,” i.e., they’re all pretty diminutive in size but big on wow factor. As one reviewer describes it, “the book reads like a demented Boy Scout’s fantasy notebook.” (Diedericksen also gives 3-day Tiny House Workshops. Go to

·         CLUBHOUSES: “Keep Out! Build your own backyard clubhouse” by Lee Mothes.
Not quite in the category of superbook, I’m recommending “Keep Out!” nevertheless, as the perfect complement to “Humble Homes.” Once Diedricksen has inspired you to leap tall buildings in a single bound, this one will provide the practical, step-by-step guidance to make it happen. The author includes photos of a clubhouse he and his friends built and rebuilt in the early 1960s from lumber, nails, old wallpaper and other things “found mostly by rummaging through the neighbors’ trash.” To recapture the romance of that early experience, Mothes provides plans and building instructions, as wells as wisdom on tools, techniques and using found materials, to create a retreat that’s a little less slap-dash than the one he built 50+ years ago, but probably more reliable. (See photos of Mothes’ childhood clubhouses and more at

      BRILLIANT STORYTELLING: “Abstract City” by Christoph Niemann.  
Niemann’s stories revolve around the stuff of his everyday daily life (home, kids, coffee shops, cables, dust bunnies), told using the most commonplace of materials. But there’s nothing mundane about Niemann’s storytelling. He uses napkins and coffee stains to demonstrate his love affair with coffee; crudely hand-sewn dolls to write about his superpowers; cookie dough and sprinkles to illustrate an alternate creation-of-the-world story; woven paper to explore the fall of the Berlin Wall. My favorite chapter is “Bathroom Art,” in which Niemann designs shower walls using “pixel drawings” made up of classic 4-by-4 inch colored tiles, including pixilated “Venus of Urbino” and Warhol’s “Brillo Box.” It’s storytelling reinvented—squeezing lumps of coal into glittering diamonds. (You won’t want this book to end, so go to or download his app, “Petting Zoo” for more.)


PARENT PROJECTS: “Made by Dad: 67 Blueprints for Making Cool Stuff” by Scott Bedford.
Who needs a phone booth when you’ve got a book with 67 ways to transform yourself into a super-parent? This book is the only thing you’ll ever need on a cooped-up, rainy Saturday afternoon—a project book which combines hyper-inventive drawings, photos and text, created by a guy who must be the super-est (and tireless) of dads. In the introduction he says, “If you have kids, some time to kill, and an empty toilet paper roll, this book is for you.” The projects are all kid-tested on his two young sons, and use supplies you’ve already got like cardboard, soup cans, rubber bands and plastic bags. What kid wouldn’t love to make a Slingshot Car Launcher, a Spaghetti and Marshmallow Eiffel Tower, or a Remote Release Zip Line? (Also see his award-winning blog,

Photo provided by Storey Publishing
GARDENING MADE FUN: “Kiss My Aster: A Graphic Guide to Creating a Fantastic Yard Totally Tailored to You” by Amanda Thomsen.
Although the author, Amanda Thomsen, didn’t create the drawings for her book “Kiss My Aster,” the collaboration between her sassy writing and the fresh, amusing illustrations is seamless. It’s all just one big, piquant bunch of fun that manages to also include helpful information for the beginning gardener. Thomsen is obviously a knowledgeable horticulturist, but may love sewing words just as much:
Thomsen on growing vegetables: “Pick a site near the house, so harvesting doesn’t become a schlepfest, okay?”
On growing hedges: “I bet you want a hedge. Way to start out easy, chief.”
On tearing out plants: “Tearing out is so much fun that I almost want to come over and help you. Almost.”

You get the idea. “Kiss My Aster” wears a cape and flies high above other gardening books in the DIY Superbook stratosphere.

Photo provided by Storey Publishing

Promise and peril
3D Printing and the world of repercussions
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel November 1, 2013

3D-printed scissors*
When you hear author Rebecca Solnit read in public, her writing sounds disjointed and lacking structure. She herself seems easily distracted: more than once, she invites everyone standing, to please sit on the floor since the chairs are all taken. Her cell phone goes off and she is embarrassed. She fusses with the microphone. Her unrestrained wavy mop of hair keeps falling in her face.

Rebecca Solnit
(Publicity photo by Jim Herrington)
But to actually read one of her books is a distinct pleasure, and the arc of her storytelling falls effortlessly into place, as she weaves seemingly disparate observations and occurrences into one lovely, connected whole. Solnit says that storytelling is a writer’s effort to find the patterns inherent in the chaos of life. And in her latest book, “The Faraway Nearby,” she does just that. She writes, “the sudden appearance of the patterns of the world brings a sense of coherence and above all connection.” To emphasize the point, she reminds us that Virginia Woolf once wrote, “Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what . . . “

These connections can happen in unexpected ways. In her latest book, “The Faraway Nearby,” as she connects the sudden appearance of a pile of apricots on her bedroom floor, with the conjunction of mothers and mirrors, with the emblems of ice and cold. “That vast pile of apricots included underripe, ripening, and rotting fruit. The range of stories I can tell about my mother include some of each too,” she writes. “This abundance of unstable apricots seemed to be not only a task set for me, but my birthright, my fairy-tale inheritance from my mother who had given me almost nothing since my childhood.”

Rebecca Solnit read from her just latest book, “The Faraway Nearby, at Bookshop Santa Cruz last June to a s
tanding-room-only crowd. (photo provided by Bookshop Santa Cruz) 
Solnit further explores parenting themes, and ice and cold, through the early life of Mary Shelley (who lost her own mother at birth, and lost 3 of her 4 children in infancy) and her classic book, “Frankenstein,” first published in 1818 when she was a mere 20 years old. In the famous story, medical student Victor Frankenstein—the parent in a sense—has made an incredible discovery and created a living, breathing creature. But once he beholds his brilliant creation come-to-life, he is frightened and repulsed, and runs away.

“Frankenstein imagines himself as a savior,” writes Solnit. “But when he brings his creature to life and then frees it, he is both a parent abandoning a child and a citizen walking away from a calamity in the making. The coldness of this novel that begins and ends in the arctic and climaxes in the great glacial landscape of the high Alps is the coldness of his heart.”

“Frankenstein” is certainly one of, if not the earliest works of science fiction, and has become the template for a thousand imitations. “The cinematic version has become so familiar,” writes Solnit, “that ‘Frankenstein’ has become the oft-invoked byword for reckless, irresponsible science....” For me, these themes of science fiction and the unintended consequences of technology were echoed in a new book I’ve been reading, “Fabricated—the new world of 3D Printing; the promise and peril of a machine that can make (almost) anything,” by Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman. The very first chapter describes a futuristic world with 3D printers as commonplace in our daily lives as today’s 2D printers, generating everything from fresh blueberry muffins for breakfast to customized toothbrushes before bed.

Lipson and Kurman give a whole new meaning to the word “print” when they envision new homes constructed with organically-shaped foam walls printed from a gigantic nozzle, complete with built-in weather sensors and solar panels. Or shoes that are comfortable, durable and require no glue, printed into modular components that are interchangeable to allow a variety of different looks. Or replacement hearts, kidneys and other body parts, printed from cell mixture and biomaterials, ala Frankenstein’s monster.

It sounds like a world that’s light years away, but the authors says it’s more like decades. Much of the book explores where we are right now in the development of these 3D technologies. For instance, we can print (i.e. fabricate and bake) a 3D high-res shortbread cookie with a small, portable 3D printer, but printing a fresh, hot hamburger with everything on it is difficult to envision. Ideally, the products we print (even if they steer us away from fresh ingredients) will make us healthier and save lives. Food printers, for example, would allow the user to control the nutritional content of every meal, making it easy for someone diabetic or lactose intolerant to avoid sugar or milk.

Some predict that “bioprinting”—having a replacement body part made out of your own cell tissue—is only a generation away. “Printed on-demand body parts will help people who need an organ transplant, or have failing joints,” write the authors. “People with disposable income will order custom printed body parts optimized for a beloved recreational activity.” The ethical concerns, however, may be just as thorny and problematic as stem cell, abortion and cloning debates are today. One example: “The Olympic Committee in the year 2072 will struggle to decide whether athletes with bioprinted organs, should be banned from the Games.”

Just as Victor Frankenstein’s life-giving experiment goes chillingly wrong, the authors admit that bioprinting and other 3D technologies—in irresponsible hands—could lead to disastrous results. Once bioprinting becomes relatively cheap and easy, blackmarketeers will snap up cast-off medical bioprinters and sell discount organs made from outdated, faulty design files—or produce sloppy organs in a non-sterile printing environment, resulting in unnecessary deaths.

3D printed artificial heart valve.  Currently available valves—both mechanical ones and valves taken from animals—suffer from serious drawbacks. Someday surgeons will save lives by taking an entirely new approach: 3D printing a new heart valve with stem cells harvested from a patient’s own body. Bioprinted heart valves made from a child’s own stem cells will more likely be accepted by the immune system and be able to grow with the body and repair themselves. (Photo credit: Jonathan Butcher, Cornell University)
“The downstream impact of emerging, game-changing technologies is difficult to predict,” say the authors. “Criminals will quickly learn to apply 3D printing technology to improve their illegal wares and services. 3D printed weapons and new chemicals could be devastating if they fall into malevolent hands.” And so, just as the coldness of Victor Frankenstein’s heart corrupts his creation and causes his monster to go on a murderous rampage, so may the coldest of future human hearts use this 3D technology to bring about death and destruction on a much grander scale.

On a more personal note, I’m feeling conflicted about embracing one more piece of technology that will invite me to sit for longer periods of time staring at a screen (like I am now). I’m reminded of that cautionary scene in the movie “Wall-e” in which the obese inhabitants of a futuristic world float around in cushy lounge chairs watching virtual 3D images and sipping liquid meals grabbed from drive-by 3D printers.

Maybe 3D printers will help us create complex shapes and products that could not be produced otherwise, but at what cost? Will the bioprinted heart used to save a life, be necessary because humans have become inert and sedentary? Will the printed food we prepare at the push of a button save us time (much as processed, packaged food does now), giving us the opportunity to sit and watch more cooking shows? (Or will cooking become something our grandmothers did?) If there is nothing we can’t fabricate with a computer and printer, will we, the consumers of all these new products, forget what it feels like to be self-reliant, a little more omnicompetent? Will we lose the motivation to create?

Rebecca Solnit writes beautiful books to find ways of making connections, to discover “what belongs to what.” Connecting apricots with her mother, and her mother with ice and cold—and perhaps even the neglect of Victor Frankenstein—must have taken a measure of courage on her part. But perhaps making connections—in art as well as life—is the most important and consequential task we have as humans.

 “The self is also a creation, the principal work of your life, the crafting of which makes everyone an artist,” writes Solnit. “This unfinished work of becoming ends only when you do, if then, and the consequences live on. We make ourselves and in so doing are the gods of the small universe of self and the large world of repercussions.”

*Printing functional objects. These 3D-printed scissors work “out of the box” – no assembly or sharpening required. By making objects in layers, a 3D printer could print a door and attach interlocking hinges at the same time. No assembly required. Less assembly will shorten supply chains, saving money on labor and transportation; shorter supply chains will be less polluting. (photo provided by the publisher, Wiley Publishing) 
Grand Vision
Pintrest, the ultimate DIY-motivator
Originally published October 18, 2013 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel

Their finished piano bookcase graces the entryway to the Pointer’s Aromas home
—making a stunning first impression as you enter their home.
When I first looked at Pintrest—a popular pin-board style, photo-sharing website—I was unimpressed. Sure, I can type in just about any word or phrase in my head and see an often amazing collection of photos. If I type in the word “piano,” for example, I see a turquoise upright, a pink baby grand, steps and fences painted to look like black and white piano keys, piano nail art, a piano wine bar, and an amazing player piano converted into a gushing garden fountain. My reactions range from “way too cute” to “is that Photoshopped or for real?!” But if I search Pintrest for a project, such as “how to make a piano bookcase,” I get, “We couldn’t find any results, but you might try Holidays, Corgis, Sneakers, or Pasta!”

Pintrest does have a “DIY and Crafts” section where you’ll see instructions for making simple home goods such as terrariums, tote bags, gift tags, Christmas ornaments and cat scratching posts. But if you want to know how to make something larger or more complex, you’re better off searching DIY websites like Instructables. Pintrest describes itself as “a tool for collecting and organizing things you love” and tries to stick to that directive.

Fred and AR carefully move the awkward and still-heavy piano case
 from saw horses to two rolling dollies, to transport it back into the
garage after working on it in the driveway.
But it turns out that Pintrest is a powerful DIY-motivator, even without the step-by-step instructions. All some people really need is a little inspiration. My friends, AR and Fred Pointer, made a piano bookcase with no guidance at all, other than a photo she found on Pintrest. “I don’t have a lot of original thoughts,” says AR. “But, if I can see it, I can usually figure out how to do it.”

AR is passionate about repurposing things she finds in online and literal secondhand stores. Her living room walls have unusual, black and white pieces she’s collected, including an antique-looking eye chart, a Santos doll, a human target and a huge 35 MPH speed limit sign. She and Fred—both retired—also attend auctions and go on garage sale vacations. “We’re not really looking for anything,” says AR. “We just enjoy going.” A lot of what they find they refashion into something wonderful for their home, which you’d think might be cluttered with their finds, but isn’t.

AR holds some of the more interesting pieces gathered from the
 old baby grand, which was also, at one time, a player piano.
They found the baby grand they needed for the bookcase at AA Auctions in Santa Cruz, where anyone can bid online or in person at their by-monthly Thursday evening auctions. “It had a player piano attached and a lot of rust, so I didn’t feel too bad about disassembling it. There was no way to restore it,” AR says. (But she had to reassure her musical family by sending them rusted hardware from inside the piano, just to show them it couldn’t have been saved.)

To be successful at an auction, AR says, “When the professionals stop bidding, that’s when you bid one more time. I’m willing to pay a little more.” In the case of the piano, however, she wasn’t bidding against anyone else, so she kept her bid constant over several weeks until the reserve was finally lowered and they had their baby grand.

Fred Pointer sands the wood at the end of the
 keyboard that he will later paint black.

Next they had to hire a mover to haul the bulky 700 pound piano to their home in Aromas. “The piano was cheap,” says Fred with a smile. “It was getting it home that cost a lot.” They took off the legs to make the transportation easier. Once in their garage, they let it sit for awhile, contemplating their next move. They tied a rope to the rafters and looped it around the piano so it couldn’t fall over while they were working on it. “We had to take the bottom off in little pieces,” says Fred, “just to see what was inside.”

Once inside the piano, they learned that cutting the 220 taut wire strings could be dangerous, since they would fly like metal whips. “I didn’t have a tool to loosen them up, and I wasn’t gonna buy one when I’ve got a pair of tin snips,” says Fred. “So I put a towel over them for when they flew. Even with the towel some of them got away.” Removing the cast iron harp was also difficult. “It was too heavy, so my son had to help,” says AR.

As they continued removing the guts of the piano—making space for the shelves—they saved and sorted all the nuts and screws, hinges and gears. “With a 700 pound piano, there’s a lot of metal,” says AR, holding some of the pieces in her hand. “I’m gonna keep these, and make something with the interesting ones.” Their labor of love led to some surprises. “We found a lot of people’s signatures on the inside—the people who put it together,” says AR. “And every one of the keys were numbered.”

It took them about six months to complete the project, working when they had time, and making design decisions along the way. They removed the action, but kept the keyboard intact. Fred sanded and refinished the beautiful wood on the outside of the case, but painted the inside black. They oriented the bookcase with the keys on the right, and used French cleats to secure it to the wall of their entry hall, resting a few inches off the floor on rounded feet—a stunning first impression as you walk through the front door. AR used many of the small patinated metal and wood pieces she had saved to make a lovely shadowbox collage, which she hung above the curved portion of the bookcase. “We felt almost a reverence for this piano. You really wanted to honor the craftsmanship,” says AR.

If you join Pintrest, you can create theme-based image collections around your interests and hobbies. My sister-in-law, for example, used Pintrest to help choose a color palette and design her new kitchen, saving photos of kitchens done in shades of gray and honey oak. At a baby shower I attended last summer, where the cake, decorations and tableware were done in hot pink and zebra print, the hostess asked me to take photos so they could be posted on Pintrest.
AR Pointer saved some of her favorite pieces from the dismantling of the piano
and assembled them into a beautiful shadow box display, which she
 hung on the wall above to the piano bookcase. (photo by AR Pointer)

I haven’t joined Pintrest yet (and neither has AR), and I’m still cutting out idea photos and recipes from magazines and newspapers and literally pinning them to a corkboard on the wall behind my computer. But it’s probably only a matter of time and space before I succumb to the wisdom of storing all my inspiration in one convenient, virtual location.

Before they were even done with their bookcase piano project, AR excitedly showed me a photo from Pintrest of her next project: a wine bar made from an upright piano. “This next one will be easier,” predicts AR. She and Fred don’t drink, so they will probably give it away.  “It will hone our carpentry skills,” AR says with a smile. “It’s really just for fun.”

A beautiful fall wreath, made by AR
graces the front of the Pointer's home.