Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Place of His Own

Learning to build with no prior experience

Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, December 19, 2009

“We make our buildings and afterwards they make us. They regulate the course of our lives.”—Winston Churchill

All around my home are small and large scraps of paper with lists of words like “gutter spikes,” “shims,” and “Z-bar flashing”—terms I might not have even recognized four months ago. These were my weekly shopping lists, accumulated over the last three months as I built my husband a writing studio for Christmas.

Actually the “I” in that last sentence is a bit of a stretch—I actually had lots of help, but I did select the design, order and purchase the plans and materials, and do about half the cutting, carrying, lifting, hammering, etc. The other half of the construction (and all the heavy lifting) was done by my strong husband. And because neither of us is very handy or has the least bit of building experience, there were a myriad of others who came through when we had a question, a problem, or a disaster (remember that huge storm we had in October?)

So, for my fellow wannabe builders, I’d like to share what I’ve learned from this experience. Apparently anyone can put together a sound structure—the studio in our front yard is proof of that—but it’s going to take a lot of patience, friends, and bent nails before you really begin to know what you’re doing.

Another company, San Francisco-based Modern Cabana, offers pre-assembled panels to speed up the installation of their small, stylish buildings that they say can be built by two adults with construction experience (and fatter wallets) in a few days. By comparison, our Summerwood studio, which was basically built from scratch, took us three months of weekends.

The first order of business was settling on a design that included building instructions. There are books on building everything from a storage shed to a three-bedroom home with plumbing and electricity. The two that I found most helpful were, “Sheds—The Do-It-Yourself Guide for Backyard Builders” by David and Jeanie Stiles, and “Habitat for Humanity--How to Build a House” by Larry Haun. What we were striving to build was something the size of a shed, but more permanent and inviting, like house, so these books helped us meld the two concepts.

Although “Sheds” and a few websites provided plans for various sizes and styles of small buildings, I liked Summerwood, a Canadian company with an interactive website, from which you can order plans and instructions, with or without materials. From their selection of outdoor structures I chose “Urban Studio” and used their custom design feature to help visualize placement of windows, doors, and other add-ons.

Most of the big items (lumber, windows and a door) we purchased from Big Creek Lumber in Watsonville. The rubber roofingcame from Flat Roof Solutions in Tennessee; the redwood bevel siding came from McKinnon Lumber in Hollister; and the regular doses of inspiration were gathered from Michael Pollan’s book “A Place of My Own—the Architecture of Daydreams” about his own experience of building a writing house in the woods of Vermont. (You can view his beautiful studio at

Pollan was especially helpful in bolstering my belief that my building was going to be more than just a shelter. I could have gone out and bought one of those inexpensive, easy-to-assemble shed kits if all I wanted was a roof and four walls. But this was going to be my husband’s oasis, a place where his imagination could flourish and his writing would take flight. It had to be more than just practical, and I was willing to spend a little more to make it so.

Pollan admits his 14x8 ½ foot cabin took 2 ½ years to build and cost “somewhere on the far side of $125 a square foot.” Since we’ve only finished the exterior, this is not an apples-to-apples comparison, but so far we’ve spent $54.26 per square foot on our building. I know it could have been done more cheaply, but we’re happy with the results (although, I’ll admit, my husband hasn’t actually seen the VISA bills lately).

So, three months after sawing the first piece of lumber, here’s what I’ve learned in a nutshell:

  1. There are five ways to do just about everything—watch all the YouTube videos on installing windows if you don’t believe me.
  2. You’ll need about 10 times as many nails as you think.
  3. Lumber is not always straight.
  4. Two people can have very different ideas about what’s good enough. One person’s “anal” is another person’s “sloppy.”
  5. A 2x4 piece of lumber is actually 1-1/2” x 3-1/2”.
  6. Building supplies/techniques used in Canada do not always make sense in California.
  7. Buy or borrow at least two 8-foot ladders.
  8. Invest in a good framing hammer, a tool belt, a longer level, a strong crowbar, numerous small drill bits (you’ll lose ‘em), a plumb bob, and a new blade for your saw(s).
  9. Keep a steady supply of Band-Aids on hand.
  10. Find/hire an experienced carpenter willing to serve as your construction hotline—as you build, you’ll have questions that need quick answers before you can go on.

As essential as it is to have one expert willing to act as advisor, there will be many others who help make your building a reality. To give you an idea of the depth and breadth of those we enlisted every step of the way, we’d sincerely like to thank:

  • All those at Ace, Orchard Supply, Home Depot and Lowes who shared their know-how and pointed the way to the right box of nails
  • Francisco at Big Creek Lumber, who patiently helped me order and reorder the right materials for the job
  • Grant, for going over the initial plans and designing a solid foundation from pier blocks and pressure-treated wood
  • Dan and Chris, who rushed over to help us lift our way-too-heavy first wall
  • Seal, for lending us his ladder and showing us how to tie his tarp over our roofless walls in the midst of a drenching gale
  • John, for installing the door and windows, and providing lots of ideas and encouragement
  • Mike, for being on call day and night, whenever we needed him.

Thank you one and all and especially to my husband. We did it together.


Could a lost craft be the next big thing?

Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel November 14, 2009

Without a doubt, the most popular crafts in the U.S. are knitting, quilting and scrapbooking. The number of books publish

ed and space devoted in craft stores to these pursuits far exceeds the other contenders. So, with all the creative possibilities in the world, what makes these three so appealing?

To begin with, the materials and tools are very available and inexpensive. Knitting, for example, can be done with just three things: knitting needles, yarn and scissors. What could be simpler?

Secondly, the materials and tools are portable and don’t demand a dedicated workspace. They aren’t bulky like woodshop machinery or messy like paints. They can be done in your home—at the kitchen table or in a comfortable chair.

Finally, knitting, quilting and scrapbooking have socializing appeal—all three can be done communally in regular gatherings and workshops (actual and virtual) with other devotees.

The cycle of crafts

Age-old crafts like knitting, quilting and scrapbooking have enjoyed swells in popu

larity at certain periods in history for a variety of reasons. For example, knitting—a necessary skill prior to the industrial

revolution—declined with the invention of machine knitting, increased during the “Knitting for Victory” campaign during WWII, had a huge boost as greater colors and styles of yarn were introduced after the war years (think twinsets), and then declined again in the 1980s as knitting was no longer

taught in schools and considered old-fashioned.

The 21st century resurgence is due in large part to the availability of natural and exotic fibers, and novelty yarns, which produce

dramatic results without years of experience. In addition, social networking websites connect knitting enthusiasts around the world, and may contribute to keeping the enthusiasm for knitting alive.

The next big thing: A Retro-Craft?

So, as we close out the first decade of the 21st century, it’s time to speculate what will be the next big craft? Several books have been published recently about lost crafts, featuring skills like candle- and soap-making, that were necessary for survival for most of history, but have become nothing more than boutique hobbies for the last century or more.

Three books, “ManCrafts” from Popular Mechanics, “The Prairie Girl’s Guide to Life” by Jennifer Worick, and “Lost Crafts” by Una McGovern, challenged me to try my hand at some lost crafts. I had many intriguing choices, such as coping saw carpentry, axe whittling, and fly tying. But others needed to be defined before I could even consider them, such as:

· pargeting (a decorative plasterwork on buildings, sometimes featuring extravagant sculptural reliefs)

· cob walling (wall building with a mixture of subsoil, water and straw)

· rushlights (a cheap candle made from rush pith dipped in melted animal fat)

· Sussex trugs (a shallow, oblong basket made from willow strips)

· tussie-mussies (a small posy of flowers and herbs)

Finding instructions and materials

Of course who’s to say when tatting, thatching, and wheelwrighting might come back into vogue? But I looked for crafts that might have some potential of resurgence—or, at the very least, ones that I could find instructions for on the internet. Since not only the crafts, but the materials needed to produce them are also “lost,” it would take quite a revolution to create a broom-making, wheat-weaving or pomander-making craze. But luckily a small number of vendors in the virtual world still carry broomcorn, long-stemmed wheat and orris root.

Wheat for wheat weaving:



Broomcorn for broom-making:



Orris root for orange pomander:



Pomanders, like potpourri, are used for perfuming the air and masking odors. From medieval times through the 17th century, aromatic substances were made into a ball, and carried or worn in a small perforated globe or box as a protection from diseases thought to be carried in foul-smelling air. Modern pomanders generally involve studding a citrus fruit with whole cloves. To make an orange pomander for your home you need:

Navel orange

Whole cloves

Wide rubber bands


1 T. Orris root powder

1 T. each Cinnamon, nutmeg and ground cloves

Paper bag


Put two rubber bands around the orange from top to bottom, dividing its surface into quarters. The rubber bands will help you make the clove pattern uniform and leave a path for the ribbons. Use the toothpick to poke holes into the orange in a pattern, and then place a clove in each hole, being careful to not break off the heads. When the entire orange is covered in cloves, cut off the rubberbands. Measure the spices and orris root into the paper bag, and then roll the orange around in the spices until evenly coated. Leave the orange in the bag and store in a cool, dry place until dried, about 3 to 6 weeks. Check the orange frequently, and discard if it shows any sign of mold. A finished pomander will feel light and sound hollow. Add ribbons to hang or display in a bowl.

A lesson in values

Blue is the color I love in a quilt
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel October 3, 2009

Main Entry: val·ue

Pronunciation: \ˈval-(ˌ)yü\

Function: noun

6 a : relative lightness or darkness of a color : luminosity b : the relation of one part in a picture to another with respect to lightness and darkness

7 : something (as a principle or quality) intrinsically valuable or desirable

From Merriam-Webster online

In a bookstore in Seattle this summer, I fell in love with a shade of blue. It’s not a turquoise blue, but it has a hint of green in it. It’s not a gray-blue, but it is pale and lovely. It’s the color of the sky on a clear autumn morning.

It was featured prominently in a book called “Patchwork Style” by Suzuko Koseki, with all kinds of quilting projects—mini bags for special occasions, potholders and aprons too nice to risk staining with spaghetti sauce, and of course, quilts. It was the blue in the quilts that made me buy the book and then search out fabrics on my way home from Seattle. I carried the book into fabric stores in Ashland and Arcata and held it up to bolts of fabric. When the right fabric was $9.95 a yard, I bought some anyway—I had to have that blue in my life.

Let me say from the outset that I am not a quilter. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about color and color combinations the way a serious quilter would. But, of course, this sudden obsession with sky blue and how to make it a part of my everyday life, made me think more about the magic that real quilters perform on a daily basis.

I went to the Santa Cruz County Fair two weekends ago and spent an hour talking with several quilters who were demonstrating their talents. I asked them how they make decisions about colors in their quilts. Jenny Hibberd, who teaches quilting techniques, says a successful quilter thinks about values (the relative lightness or darkness of a color) when designing a quilt. “It doesn’t matter what the colors or the prints are, for the most part you’re looking at the values. You can have a fabulous quilt even with random fabrics.”

So, I learned, a quilt made with only sky blue fabrics wouldn’t sing at all. It would look flat and the pieced patterns would be lost without adding fabrics of contrasting value. It wasn’t just the blue I fell in love with—it was the blue in relation to other color values.

I noticed that a lot of the quilts I was attacted to in “Patchwork Style” combined sky blue with lots of white (a lighter value than sky blue), fire engine red (a darker value), and midnight blue (a much darker value). I was beginning to see how it was all coming together.

For some more thoughts on color, and since Open Studios ArtTour 2009 begins this weekend, I talked with a few artists who stand out for their use of color.

Mike Bailey, a watercolorist who paints ocean bluffs that look like radiant stained glass, says that, “Reds seem to draw me in more and more and more over time.” Like Jenny Hibberd, he admits that color may seem like the star of the show, but it’s the combination of colors and contrasting values that makes a painting work. “Value and composition do the work, but color gets the credit,” says Bailey, quoting a well-known painting maxim. He also allow his moods to dictate his palette. “I have spurts of brazon, crazy color, followed by six months of painting in more muted tones,” he says.

Photographer John Gavrilis captures the colors of the natural world with his large format camera and transparency film. The colors in his landscapes are not digitally enhanced, but so captivating and vibrant that viewers often question their veracity. “If you use digital photography and push colors beyond what’s real, you can’t call yourself a nature photographer,” he says. For Gavrilis, the test of his color combinations lies in their truth—they must mirror reality. His photographs demonstrate his love of low light and earthtones--the red-oranges of late afternoon sunlight bathing mountaintops or catching the crest of an ocean wave.

Beth Shields links her use of colors with her changing emotions. “Kind of like a lot of moods in life—sometimes you’re very centered and calm,” she says. At those time, she might paint with a neutral like buff. “Then there are times of more intense emotions,” more appropriate for painting with black and red. Although she was trained in the formal rules of traditional, representational art, when she creates her expressive, abstract works in oil, wax and graphite on canvas, she says her process is intuitive. “Because I work on instinct and emotion, I’m basically trying to bypass the logic portions of the brain. I have days when I’m so at peace with the world and I have days when I’m just the opposite. All these feelings are essential to my authentic self.” The truth of her colors lies in their ability to reflect that authentic self, in all its nuanced and disparate tones.

You can tell by Maggie Renner Hellmann’s exuberantly colored landscapes in oil, that she doesn’t have a favorite color. “I love them all, like a kid when you get the big box of 64 crayons. It give me so much joy just to see all the colors on my palette when I go to paint.” She associates her impressionistic, rainbow approach to painting with her innate sense of optimism. “I tend to be kind of a happy person.”

Making thoughtful color choices and combinations is probably second nature for these seasoned artists. But for the beginning quilter like me, I’m still carrying my sample book into the fabric store and wrestling with what works and why. If when I’m done I can say, “It gives me so much joy just to see all the colors in my quilt,” I’ll know I’ve succeeded.