Sunday, December 11, 2011

Finding inspiration where you least expect it

Seeking inspiration: Take the “Work of Art” challenge
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, December 3, 2011

“La Fille aux Yeux Verts” by Henri Matisse
There are things about Bravo’s “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist” that really annoy me—like mentor Simon de Pury’s forced enthusiasm (Be bold! Be amazing! Go for it!), host China Chow’s icy goodbye send-offs (“It’s time for you to go.”), and petty clashes between the contestants. But, on the whole, I’m fascinated by the weekly challenge to create museum-quality pieces in a relatively limited amount of time and space.

Typically the hosts take the remaining group of young artists somewhere in New York City, to a location or experience that will generate inspiration for their work of art. This season, their inspiration has come from some pretty diverse sources: kitsch, creative movement called Parkour, children’s art, pop art, newspaper headlines, a brick wall in Brooklyn, and a disassembled Fiat 500.

Although the source of artistic inspiration can be just about anything, I’m intrigued by the notion of an imposed source of inspiration. A group of artists are actually playing along each week with “Work of Art,” taking the same challenges and posting their results at (What will these metal artists do with a brick wall in Brooklyn?)

In the same spirit, I decided to seek my own artistic inspiration from some unlikely sources. I chose three new books as my point of departure, and created three crafty projects. Here are the books—all of which I highly recommend—and the results:

Book #1: PARIS PORTRAITS by Harriet Lane Levy
When she died in 1950, Levy left the San Francisco Museum
 of Modern Art a trove of art, including La Fille aux Yeux
 Verts (The Girl with Green Eyes) which she bought from
 Matisse in 1908. I used Web images of this painting and several
 others to create Matisse-inspired pendants on Scrabble tiles
or in small frames.
My favorite movie of 2011 is Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” in which Owen Wilson’s character is magically transported back 100 years to a romanticized Paris where he meets and hangs out with the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Degas, Dali and many other artistic giants of the era. San Francisco native Harriet Lane Levy had her own real-life close encounters with Matisse, Picasso and other legendary artists when she and Alice B. Toklas, joined their friend Sarah Stein in Paris in the summer of 1908. Levy recalls her 2-year Paris adventure in, “Paris Portraits: Stories of Picasso, Matisse, Gertrude Stein, and Their Circle,” a beautiful little memoir that has not been published in its entirety until now. In it, she recalls the eccentricities of her Paris friends, her regret at not buying a $50 Picasso from Sarah Stein, and learning to love modern art—Henri Matisse’s paintings in particular. Like Woody Allen’s movie, “Paris Portraits” is an enchanted portal to a time of unequaled charm and luminosity

Project #1: An audacious pendant
When Harriet Lane Levy died in 1950, she left the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art a trove of art, including “La Fille aux Yeux Verts” (The Girl with Green Eyes) which, when her friends declined it, she bought from Matisse in 1908 while in Paris. Like Harriet Levy, I didn’t initially take to Matisse’s modernist style; but the joyous, audacious color in his portraits of women gradually won me over. So, I made pendants using printed images from Matisse and Matisse-inspired paintings, reduced to a size tiny enough to fit on the back of a Scrabble tile. There are several websites and YouTube tutorials that show you how. Just Google “Scrabble tile pendant” or “resin jewelry” for instructions.

Book #2: JUST MY TYPE: A BOOK ABOUT FONTS by Simon Garfield

Simon Garfield likes to tackle topics that make people wrinkle up their nose and ask, “How could that be a good book?” Among other historical topics, he’s written about postage stamp collecting and the color mauve. Reading his latest book “Just My Type: A Book About Fonts,” I found myself unexpectedly absorbed in the history and evolution of the ampersand, the controversial switch by Ikea from Futura to Verdana, and a typeface called Gotham, that has been embraced by both President Obama and Sarah Palin. Fonts carry a wide range of subliminal messages that go way beyond mere words, and Garfield has wisely included lots of visual examples to demonstrate the subtle powers of type.

“Retrofonts” by Gregory Stawinski is a good follow-up that allows you to simply bask in the lovely inventiveness of over 400 classic 19th and 20th century fonts. It includes a CD with 222 featured fonts, although many of these can be downloaded for free from the internet.

I used “Retrofonts” to find the distinctive font “Renold Art Deco”
 which had great Fs, Is, Es and Ss, and downloaded it onto my
 computer using I then created stencils so I could
 spray-paint the letters for my address along the driveway fence.
Project #2: A distinctive address
To make your address more distinctive, spell out your numbers with letters in a distinctive font. Flip through “Retrofonts” to find fonts with good capitalized letters occurring in your address. Use to downloaded your font, then enlarge and print to the desired size, taping pieces of paper together if necessary.

Create a stencil by taping each large letter to poster board and cutting through paper and board using a craft knife. (If you have an “O” or “R” or any other letter with an island in the middle, leave narrow connecting bridges to hold the center of the “O” or “R” in place.) Tape or tack the letters to your fence or wall and add newsprint extensions to catch any overspray. Apply three layers of spray paint for good coverage.

After an afternoon of cutting and folding two
 2011 calendars, I had created three sets of
 origami earrings and several origami gift boxes. 

Origami can be complex and intimidating at times, but the projects in this book are refreshingly simple and practical. The authors show you how to make useful objects such as boxes, checkers sets, photo cubes, bowls and envelopes out of found papers. At a time of year when calendars, catalogs, gift wrap and greeting cards are quickly filling up your recycling bin, Trash Origami offers these paper products—and just about any other kind of waste paper—a great second life.

Project #3: The gift is origami
Use the instructions in “Trash Origami” or search to make gift boxes with lids from 2011 calendars, used gift wrap, or other colorful, not-too-thick source of paper. Take “Trash Origami” one step further by also folding a gift to go inside the box. Search the Web for instructions on making an origami pendant or earrings. Use shredded paper as fluff inside the box and fold an origami decoration for the top and you’ll have a completely upcycled, handmade gift.

4 Ways to Feel Good About Sewing Again
Originally published November 5, 2011 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel

My completed duct tape dress form.
This column is for those of you who, like me, used to sew clothes. But somewhere along the way you became disenchanted with the process due to one or more of the following:
1) lack of style in commercial patterns
2) low quality of readily available fabrics
3) bad fit of clothes you made, which always looked like you had made them
4) high cost of patterns and fabrics.

Mrs. Woods taught me to sew in her home economics class in junior high and I made lots of my own clothes throughout my teens and 20s. In college, I distinctly remember the dank basement sewing room in the girls’ dorm, where I spent Saturday nights sewing and listening to Elton John sing about a much crazier kind of Saturday Night. When I graduated from college, my parents bought me a really nice, indestructible Necchi sewing machine—which I still use to hem pants and occasionally make quilts.

My husband applies the 3 layers of duct tape.
But gradually my enthusiasm faded as I realized that I could buy clothes for less than I could make them, in fabrics and styles that were trendy. And I didn’t have to buy anything that didn’t fit right—or at least could be easily altered when I got home. So, this summer when I got a fabric store coupon for five patterns for $5, and I needed a cocktail dress for a wedding reception, and I didn’t want to spend a lot for a potential one-use dress, I decided to flip through the pattern books and roam through the fabric aisles, like I used to.

I did end up buying five Simplicity patterns for $1 each (I saved $80?!), but no fabric. When I got home, I put the patterns away for another day, and borrowed an appropriate dress from a friend for the wedding. Sewing still seemed like it had too much potential for disappointment.

But I am reminded of how much I used to love sewing every time I watch Project Runway. As a devoted fan and fantasy-league fashion designer, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a bulging envelope of money to spend at a high-rise New York City fabric emporium? (How challenging it must be to spend $500 just to make one dress!) Wouldn’t it be dreamy to drape fabric on a dress form, to lay-out and cut fabric on a huge table in a spacious workroom, and sew on a powerful machine like an 8-spool serger? The spin-off show I would love to see--“Project Sewing Secrets”—would, unfortunately, lack the interpersonal drama demanded for prime time.

Perhaps due to the popularity of Project Runway, there has been a renewed interest in sewing and clothing design. In September, the annual runway event, Santa Cruz FashionArt, thrilled a sold-out crowd at the Civic Auditorium, debuting avant-garde fashions for both men and women. Nationally, applications for fashion design colleges have increased steadily over the last ten years. And, as further proof, a burst of books on repurposing, fitting, and sewing techniques have displaced some of the abundant knitting and quilting books on the shelves of libraries and bookshops.

This renewed interest in clothing design has prompted remarkable improvements in the home sewing realm as well. For example, commercial patterns have become more customizable, each one including four or more sizes. And even if Butterick or McCalls don’t have the style you’d like, many patterns now include tips on fitting which make it much easier to modify a pattern and make improvements. In addition, books on sewing techniques are now available on very specific topics, such as fit, adapting patterns, and couture design. And the internet—which didn’t exist when I first learned to sew—is full of free sewing tips and products, including printable patterns and YouTube sewing tutorials. The Web also provides unlimited sources for finding the fabric you want at a price that’s affordable. (You can even bid on fabric on eBay.)

Here are a few more reasons to feel good about sewing again:

  1. A new line of dress patterns created by Simplicity called “Amazing Fit,” actually walks you through the process of altering a pattern to make it fit your own unique body, step by step. The process involves taking accurate measurements of your body and using those to select individual pattern pieces before cutting fabric. Seam allowances are larger and machine basted until there is enough dress to try on and check for fit. Once adjustments are made, seams are permanently sewn and trimmed to 5/8-inch. It’s a longer process, but by the end you will know your body dimensions and exactly how future patterns need to be adjusted before cutting and sewing.
  1. There are lots of books about making clothes that fit and flatter. One that I found easy to follow is, “How to Use, Adapt, and Design Sewing Patterns” by Lee Hollahan, which walks you through altering commercial patterns and designing your own patterns. I learned useful techniques such as how to line up the grain correctly, how to download patterns and print them on 8 ½ x 11 inch paper, and how to measure a body accurately. This book also names and discusses body shapes and what styles complement a “top-heavy triangle, a circle, an oval, a narrow rectangle, an hourglass, or a bottom-heavy triangle” body type.
  1. Websites can also offer sewing tips and free patterns. Check out: – for free printable patterns for classic styles – for instructions on making a duct tape dress-form (also papier-mâché or paper tape)  - for styling practice by dragging and dropping a variety of separates and fabrics to a model to see how they look together. The monthly blog also contains fashion design tools for making or selecting clothes that flatter different body types.

  1. “Little Green Dresses” by Tina Sparkles, offers a new take on fashion repurposing. Instead of being another book on how to turn jeans into skirts or tee-shirts into shrugs, this one is about actually drafting new patterns and creating very polished finished pieces of clothing. It encourages the use of thrift store and garage sale clothes and linens that will have the yardage necessary to completely remake them into something very wearable. After roaming the aisles of Jo-Ann Fabrics and seeing lots of Prop 65 signs warning about the formaldehyde content in an unspecified number of their fabrics, I’m more sold than ever on reusing thrift shop apparel that may have already been washed a number of times. (You’ll be relieved to know that I haven’t seen these warnings signs at any of the fabric stores in Santa Cruz County.) There’s also a good chance you’ll find higher quality fabrics at a very reasonable price at the thrift shop. I recently purchased nine long dresses with enough fabric to sew nine tops, for about $30 at Salvation Army.
 So dust off the ol’ Singer and give sewing another try.  Dank basement and Elton John are optional.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Concrete as the main attraction

Concrete: It's not just for sidewalks any more
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, October 1, 2011

SKYBALLS: Concrete balls come in many sizes. “Skyballs” at Anna Jean Cummings Park on Old San Jose Road in
 Soquel, features four HUGE sky-blue balls which appear to be rolling down a hill, about to crush cars in the
 parking lot. “Skyballs” was designed in 2001 by Oakland artists Steve Gillman and Katherine Keefer.

Up against all the Smithsonians, monuments and memorials, the United States Botanic Garden is one of the lesser draws on the National Mall, tucked away on Independence Avenue, just a stone’s throw from the Capitol. Like most of the DC attractions, it’s free, informative and fascinating. But—unlike the rest of Washington—it’s a surprisingly crowd-free oasis.

US BOTANIC GARDEN: Here’s the ball in the United
 States Botanic Garden that got me rolling.
Strolling along its pathways this summer, I was inspired by the decorative elements: upright plastic tubing that held gravel paths in place; colorful pyramidal plant supports; and multi-level arbors covered in plants from top to bottom. But what stirred me the most was a ball of concrete. Nesting at the base of a plant, this bowling ball-sized, cobalt blue sphere was a distinctive feature among the greens, pinks and reds of the surrounding regional plant-life.

ROCK ON BRAH: Terri Ryan recently took
 first place at the Santa Cruz County Fair
 for one of her signature concrete bras.
Concrete typically plays a utility role in most gardens—to invisibly anchor fences and decks, or just as subtly, provide low-cost but highly functional patios, sidewalks, curbs and retaining walls. Concrete is not there to be noticed, much less admired. It’s the stemware holding the fine wine: the clearer the glass the more its contents can be appreciated.
When concrete is used in a decorative way, it’s often encrusted with grouted mosaic pieces or textured plaster. But the blue sphere showed me that relatively unadorned concrete can also be attractive.
To find out more about concrete, I contacted Terri Ryan, who recently took first place in the Capitola Soroptimists’ annual “Bras for a Cause” competition which benefits two local women’s support groups. Her imaginative entry, “Rock on Brah,” was constructed of molded concrete and rocks—a wonderful tribute to the possibilities of concrete.

COURTYARD ART: Terri Ryan’s courtyard is a concrete art showplace
 featuring planters, pots, wall hangings, XXs and OOs, and pedestals,
 all made from concrete.
A hair stylist with a degree in design, Terri said she started working with concrete about 6 or 7 years ago. “I needed to be around the house for my teenagers. These art projects are a great way of being home and being there for them,” she said. She learned much of her technique from Coleen Sands, whose mosaic work she had admired on her house numbers when passing by her home. The two have since become good friends and have regular “concrete play days” to get together and make things from concrete. (To see Colleen’s amazing mosaic work go to

Terri’s Live Oak home and especially her yard is a showplace for her stepping stones, planters, pedestals, wall hangings and more—all made from concrete. Her courtyard workspace has shelves, bins and buckets full of objects and materials perfect for forming and shaping concrete. Inside her home she even has a bathroom backsplash make from concrete and river rocks.

SLURRY: One of the pleasures of working with concrete
 is the lovely texture and feel of slurry—a melted-chocolate-
like mixture of cement, polymer admix and water.
 Hollow concrete spheres can be made by covering a
 ball with self-adhesive fiberglass mesh tape, slurry,
 and then a thin layer of concrete. To work safely with concrete,
 always wear a face mask and gloves, especially when mixing.
On a recent Friday, she showed me how to make two concrete spheres and two stepping stones, while she continued work on a gigantic round planter formed around an inflated exercise ball. My much smaller spheres were shaped around a soccer ball and a school-yard rubber ball. We made stepping stones without a mold by adding a thin layer of concrete to the top of purchased concrete stepping stones, and stamping a circle into the concrete while still wet.

From working with Terri and from Sherri Warner Hunter’s book “Making Concrete Garden Ornaments” I got a better understanding of concrete’s properties.

  • Concrete is a mixture of cement, water and aggregate.
  • Aggregate is used to inexpensively bulk up the mixture. Common aggregates are sand and gravel, but lightweight material such as vermiculite, or more colorful material such as crushed shells or glass, can also be used. Rough, flat aggregates create a stronger bond than round, smooth ones, and smaller aggregates create a smoother textured concrete than larger ones.
  • Water added to cement creates a paste that coats each piece of aggregate and hardens the mixture into a solid mass
  • Chemical admixtures such as acrylic fortifier can also be added to the mix to increase moisture resistance, workability and durability.
  • Curing is the process necessary for concrete to gain maximum strength. Concrete cures gradually in a moist, controlled environment. So, at the end of each work session, the concrete must be covered in plastic and kept moist for a minimum of three to five days, and out of direct sunlight and strong wind.  Most of the strength is achieved in the first week, though strengthening may continue for decades.

STEPPING STONES: Terri Ryan’s colorful stepping
 stones, along with her dog Daisy, brighten a corner
 of her yard. Terri creates a circle in her stepping stones
 by pressing the rim of a bowl or pot into the wet concrete.
 She paints the dry stones bright colors using
 Smith’s Color Floor stain, available at Central Home
 Supply in Santa Cruz.
What amazes me most about concrete is its versatility. Concrete is often shaped by being poured into a mold (casting). But it can also be pressed into or on top of a mold; or sculpted with the help of armature, which acts like a skeleton to support the form; or carved while wet or dry. By controlling the amount of water added, concrete can even be mixed to a consistency similar to clay for relief modeling. Surface treatments for concrete include incising, stamping, polishing, painting, staining, embedding and mosaicing.

Here are some suggestions for get started with concrete:

1.  Seek out Sherri Warner Hunter’s books at the library—she will help you see concrete in a whole new way. Her 2005 book “Creative Concrete Ornaments for the Garden” will be available in paperback in March 2012.
2.  Consider these new books: “Concrete Crafts” by author Alan Wycheck will show you how to make tiles, tabletops, stepping stones, bowls and planters cast from molds with lots of great step-by-step photos. “The Revolutionary Yardscape” by Matthew Levesque will give you radically new ideas for repurposing materials, such as garden walls made from wine bottle corks and pathways made with tumbled dishes. Levesque makes concrete bowls incorporating decorative materials such as tumbled glass, marbles, and even old keys.
3.  Learn several different techniques for making concrete spheres by Googling “How to make a concrete sphere.”

Fall, a great time for outdoor projects

This beautiful rose arbor at Sierra Azul Nursery in Watsonville, is actually
 a pergola because it shades a long walkway. Note the pointed roof shape.
7 Secrets to the 2 hottest, dreamiest backyard projects yet
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, September 10, 2011

Throughout the spring and summer,
Sunset uses fashion/beauty lingo to sell

March: Makeovers for small backyards
April: 7 secrets to beautiful backyards
May: Get your backyard ready for summer
June: Create a dreamy backyard retreat
August: Hottest backyard looks

Obviously, Sunset has to compete in supermarket check-out lines with the glamorous covers of Marie Claire, Seventeen and In Style.  The difference is, as the weather starts to cool in September, so does the intensity of Sunset’s backyard teases.

September: Easy-grow gourmet lettuce

But September and October are actually perfect months to start new backyard projects. The warm days start with sunshine instead of fog and still last well into the evening. The two “hot” projects I propose also make practical sense as fall projects. The first, an arbor, will add a beautiful focal point to a yard that may not be as verdant and colorful as it was in the spring and summer. And the second, a compost bin filled with spent annuals, fall leaves and kitchen scraps, will save you money and time because you won’t need to shop for garden soil and amendments in the spring.

All About Arbors

Painted red, black and turquoise, this arbor serves as a
gateway to the Japanese Garden at the Sesnon House at
Cabrillo College in Aptos
Although arbors generally play supporting roles (for plants and vines), they can also be the mood-setting stars of the show. An arbor—especially a colorful one—can provide a splendid vertical highlight in an otherwise placid garden. Or, when fitted with a bench or swing, can draw you in to a relaxing getaway. A gated arbor can offer a warm friendly welcome in front of a home, or add a sense of wonder as you enter a private garden retreat.

Although arbors are typically made from pressure-treated lumber, eye-catching arbors can also be made from a variety of unexpected or cast-off materials such as curving willow branches, rough hewn logs, or even iron rebar.

The graceful arc of this arbor complements
the round shape in the gate to this
apartment complex entrance in Gilroy
Larger than a trellis but smaller than a pergola, an arbor usually consists of two or four upright posts connected overhead by a horizontal lattice which offers shade below and a climbing structure for plants. The overhead connection is typically flat, but can also be rounded like an arch or peaked like a roof.

Arbors are often designed to complement the style of the surrounding home and garden. A traditional design will feature crisp, symmetrical lines. A cottage design will typically have curving lines and liberal embellishment. A simple, contemporary design will make use of sleek industrial materials like metal and concrete.  A rustic design will be more freewheeling and one-of-a kind, sometimes making use of found, rusted or improvised materials.
The Garden Company Nursery on Mission Avenue in Santa
Cruz is a great place to see lots of different arbor designs.
This one supports hanging plants and provides shade
 to seedlings below.
You can find lots of free plans and instructions for arbor-building online or at your local library. The ideal money-saving arbor would be made from recycled materials. But a simple, yet sturdy arbor can be made from new lumber for about $100. Start your Website search with “how to build an arbor” or flip through the pages of “Making Arbors & Trellises” by Marcianne Miller and Olivier Rollin for lots of ideas, plans and instructions.

Surf City Coffee Co. in Aptos has a thick, asymmetrical arbor
to support a beautiful, mature wisteria.
Compost Bins

My favorite DIY Website, Instructables, has plans for several compost bins made from recycled products like garbage cans and pallets. I've used a black plastic orb for composting for years, but it gets too heavy to roll around as it fills up with moist material. I wanted to make a sturdy bin that was easier to use, would not compost itself, and could accommodate more waste, without spending too much on materials.

Wooden compost bin plans often call for pressure-treated lumber, but I don't like the idea of pesticides in the lumber leaching into my compost and soil. So I decided to use recycled redwood, which I had in abundance from a play structure we built for our kids when they were young. Redwood or cedar are the best choices since they are rot-resistant, and will keep the garden organic and safe.

Although the triple bin I built uses lumber, the sides are made from wire hardware cloth, so this cuts down on the expense of using all wood. You'll need a 3x9 foot space in your yard to accommodate this bin. The large size will allow you to compost everything you've got—from garden trimmings to kitchen waste. Ours is place in the vegetable garden but not too many paces from the kitchen door, to make composting as convenient as possible.

The triple bin will also allow you to compost in stages, moving the contents from one bin to the next as the material breaks-down. With removable wooden slats in the front, the compost is very accessible and easy to turn, stir or shovel to the next bin or the garden.

For my step-by-step instructions with photographs, see There is also a lively discussion in the comments section on the best methods for effective composting. Incorporating recycled lumber will cut down on the cost, but with purchased hardware and Con-Common grade redwood the total cost would be about $220. If you don’t have space for such a large bin, you can cut down on the materials (and cost) by building just one or two bins with the same basic principles of construction. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Turning Consumers into Creators

The Maker Revolution revs up in Santa Cruz
as new MakersFactory plans to open in October 2011

Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, July 30, 2011

Let’s say you have an idea for a product, maybe even one that will enhance or improve people’s lives: a remote-controlled lawnmower for the elderly; or a combo lightshow/breathalyzer your party guests can enjoy/consult before driving home; or a stylish laser-cut table that breaks down quickly and packs flat for storage or easy transportation.

What if you could design your idea using free software? What if you could produce parts for your product using machinery you build from free blueprints or a kit, and could actually manufacture that product on your own desktop or in your office, without a factory? What if you could easily customize your product—making each one slightly different—at almost no extra cost?

The founders of MakersFactory want to show you how to do all this and more.

MakersFactory founders Dave Britton (left) and Chris Yonge, plan to introduce Santa Cruz to the affordability and accessibility of open
 source hardware like the MakerBot 3D printer.  Yonge built this desktop 3D printer at home from a kit.  (jpg provided by Chris Yonge)
Chris Yonge and Dave Britton will be leading the way to the maker revolution in Santa Cruz. They hope to open the doors to the first phase of their MakersFactory—an 800 square foot space in the Cruzio building in downtown Santa Cruz—in October of this year. The emphasis will be on learning the basics of DIY fabrication, by providing classes, software, hardware and workspace for members and the community.

“We’ll concentrate on classes immediately,” said Yonge, who teaches 3D computer modeling and animation at UCSC, “and hardware will gradually build up as we get it.” Dual monitor workstations and computer-controlled machines like a 3D laser scanner, 3D printers, a vinyl cutter and a laser cutter and engraver will be available from the start. MakersFactory will offer several levels of monthly membership, plus community classes, for users at all levels.

By creating MakersFactory, Yonge and Britton have embraced the new maker movement catch-phrase, “If you think it, you can make it.” Yes, people have always made things. The difference is, with today’s simpler more accessible technology, we can all become makers. “The maker movement has exploded,” said Yonge. “Several waves have crested at the same moment pretty much.”

The typical commercial manufacturing model has been to make products that are sleek on the outside with invisible components inside. There was no way to tinker—no way to see or understand or repair the inner workings of a product—and if you tried, you inevitably broke the product altogether. But the new “open source” maker model is to share not only your product, but your process in a collaborative environment.

The sharing of process will be championed at MakersFactory. Instead of commercial programs such as PhotoShop and 3D Studio Max, they will teach from open source and/or free software such as Gimp, Blender, SketchUp and OpenOffice—which Yonge says are just as good as their commercial counterparts. “In the past, open source software has had rather a bad reputation. It’s been difficult to use, it’s been buggy.  That’s not the case anymore,” Yonge said. “If you use Gimp, which is a photo editing program, it’s very much like Photoshop was maybe three, four years ago, with the added advantage obviously that it’s free and also that it keeps getting better.” Open source software allows users to access the code so they can actually change or customize the program.

MakersFactory will also embrace the open source hardware movement, which Wired Magazine recently predicted, “may soon join open source software as a world-changing phenomenon that reinvents everything from business models to invention itself.” “People don’t realize it, but blueprints for open source hardware are available on the Web,” Yonge said.

The MakerBot Cupcake can make small plastic
 items such as whistles and logos from a
 thermoplastic filament. An early 3D desktop
 printer, the Cupcake has now been replaced
 by the  Thing-O-Matic, available from MakerBot
 Industries in two sizes starting at $1,299.
Yonge built a desktop 3D printer from a $600 kit to demonstrate the availability of open source hardware to his New Tech Meetup group, of which Yonge and Britton are organizers. The MakerBot Cupcake, shipped as what Yonge calls “a box of bits,” took him a few weekends to build, but will turn a virtual 3D concept into real world reality. Once the object is designed using 3D software, you press “print,” and the Cupcake builds up the object gradually, in layers, by depositing plastic from a nozzle. So “print” has a whole new connotation. “It’s not [about] a piece of paper any more, it’s [about] a real substantive object,” said Yonge’s partner Dave Britton, a former Silicon Valley CEO.

Britton and Yonge believe that no-waste additive production machines like the MakerBot Cupcake and learning centers like MakersFactory will help bring high-tech manufacturing back to the U.S. from China. “What we’re doing is teaching people how to use these machines and we’re also enabling them to produce working prototypes of physical products,” said Yonge. “If you go to NextSpace or Cruzio you’ll see people working independently, making a living as consultants, writing software, doing all kinds of things, but they’re not producing anything physical. Everything has to be virtual, everything has to be emailed. We’re now giving people the capability of starting a business as a designer and a manufacturer and making the articles locally—making articles which can be sold over the web, which can be sold locally and they don’t need to go to China for supplies.”

The second phase of MakersFactory, which, according to Yonge, “may be happening sooner than we thought,” will include a larger building with noisier machines in a more industrial location. “We don’t want to be a clone of TechShop [in San Jose] because that wouldn’t be suitable for Santa Cruz,” said Yonge. The smaller Santa Cruz demographic won’t support the equipment-rich TechShop model. However “Santa Cruz has got an unusually high proportion of creative professionals,” said Yonge. “[So] MakersFactory is going to be more geared towards a) education and b) creative professionals.”

Yonge says that phase two will feature larger computer controlled machines, such as a computer controlled router. “That would be a machine that can take an 8x4 sheet of plywood and cut it up into parts which can be used for a boat, or a piece of furniture, or a sculpture or whatever you want,” Yonge said. “There would also probably be metal working equipment, welding equipment, metal cutting equipment, everything you’d need really to go to the next level with an interactive product that includes electronics or a product for the home.”

MakersFactory will initially concentrate on learning in the Cedar Street
location. Their shop design includes two windows with interactive
displays so that pedestrians walking by get a taste of what goes on inside. 
(jpg provided by Chris Yonge)

Yonge and Britton envision a diverse group of users: inventors, designers, artists, parents, students, hobbyists, innovators, and career changers. “[It won’t just be about making] physical items either, because much of MakersFactory is also going to be a robotics and electronics teaching space,” said Yonge. “If you know how something works, then you can understand when you buy your next one, ‘oh, this one is better because,’ or you can think, ‘oh, there’s no product that does exactly what I want. Maybe I can change the code of this, or maybe I can find somebody to help me modify it.’ And then, who knows, suddenly you’ve got a new product on your hands, and somebody offers you a million dollars for the idea. You just never know” said Yonge

They also want to collaborate with local groups, such as UCSC, Cabrillo College, Tannery Arts Center, Santa Cruz Geeks, and the Museum of Art and History, to help fill the tech gap in Santa Cruz and make their classes relevant and useful. They hope to recruit a younger demographic by demonstrating the MakerBot Cupcake—along with robotics—at local elementary schools. “This is not geeky stuff,” Yonge said. “It’s not that complicated and the basic principals aren’t that difficult.”

Is this new way of making revolutionary? “I think people will see it as revolutionary, but, if you’ve been following the technology as we have, it’s evolutionary,” said Yonge. “This has been coming for a long time. People want to be in control of what they use and what they’re surrounded by. I would like MakersFactory to be a factory of makers…turning consumers into creators.”

Saturday, July 2, 2011

High Tech for the Masses

TechShop opens San Jose space, giving do-it-yourselfers access to cutting edge tools and machines
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, July 2, 2011

Ella Vallejo of San Jose checks her soldering of a circuit board in the Solder and Basic Electronics class at TechShop Menlo Park.
Just to see one of Moto Ohtake’s shimmering stainless steel kinetic mobiles spinning in the wind is worth the drive to Sierra Azul in Watsonville. Or to see Kathleen Crocetti’s radiant multi-panel hanging mosaics made from thousands of tiny pieces of stained glass. Or the fascinating eroded sphere made by David Mudgett, made from what looks like rebar for giants. “Sculpture Is,” the 6th-annual June-October sculpture show at Sierra Azul Nursery and Gardens, once again has an amazing array of incredible large-scale pieces.

As a maker who leans towards materials I can safely work with on my kitchen table, I can certainly appreciate these sculptors’ facility with materials as daunting as steel, concrete, bronze, and glass, and techniques as demanding as soldering, welding, grinding and sandblasting.

Your creative endeavors are always limited by know-how and access to tools and machinery. And even with training and tools, you might not have an appropriate workspace or the high tech machinery to work as efficiently as possible.

“Build your dreams here” prominently greets open house
 visitors at the entrance to TechShop San Jose.
But now there is TechShop. The equipment-rich DIY Bay Area workshop has just opened a new location in downtown San Jose, near the San Jose State. Seven days a week from 9 am to midnight, members have access to tools and machinery to create just about anything they can think of. TechShop classes are also open to non-members to learn techniques, master the safe operation of high tech equipment, and get a taste of the possibilities.

Classes offered by TechShop such as sewing, wood shop, embroidery and silk screen printing, might sound conventional. However, TechShop teaches these crafts using expensive, state-of-the-art machinery, which is (in the case of the San Jose shop) brand-spanking new.

TechShop’s pride and joy is a state-of-the-art
 3D printer, which can make three-dimensional
 items out of sturdy ABS plastic from any
 3D CAD file, layer by layer.
For example, in “Industrial Sewing SBU” (SBU stands for Safety and Basic Use) you’ll learn how to safely sew thick fabrics like canvas, leather, sails, tents, and nylon straps on an industrial sewing machine. In “Wood Shop SBU,” you’ll build a bench using all the standard woodworking tools and equipment, and be introduced to the CNC ShopBot—an amazing computerized router that carves in every direction for making 3D projects like signs, instruments and furniture.

Take “CNC Embroider SBU,” and you’ll learn to use a computerized machine that creates digitized stitches based on monogramming and logo art as well as clip art style designs. Or take “CNC Vinyl Cutter SBU,” where you’ll make use of software like Adobe Illustrator, Corel Draw, FlexiStarter 8, and machinery like the CNC Vinyl Cutter—a great tool for making screens for silk screen printing, signs, banners and decorating t-shirts.

I took “Soldering and Electronic Basics” at the Menlo Park TechShop location last week and learned how to solder electronic components for electronic printed circuit board
assembly by making an LED Blinkatron 2000. (!) With a six-student limit, the instructor was able to give individual attention to absolute beginners like me. This is also one of the classes which allow young adults aged 12-17 to participate without a parent. Upon request, I was also given a tour of building by one of TechShop’s Dream Coaches who are always on site to help members with their projects and answer questions.

TechShop Menlo Park describes their bin wall as the world’s
 largest shared junk drawer. Members bring in their surplus
 items and materials and add them to the appropriate
 bin for other members’ use.
TechShop was founded by Jim Newton—formerly a science advisor to Discovery Channel’s MythBusters—who rounded-up lenders and opened the first TechShop in Menlo Park, California in October 2006. Today there is also a TechShop franchise in Raleigh, North Carolina, and TechShop San Francisco opened in January of this year. TechShops Detroit and New York are in the planning stages.

One of TechShop’s success stories is Patrick Buckley, who used the Menlo Park shop to develop a prototype for a handmade iPad case. Today, his San Francisco-based company DODOcase, has sold $1 million in product, or about 10,000 to 15,000 cases. Joe Menard, TechShop’s chief operating officer, said that another member developed a bamboo knitting needle gauge, and today has a $300,000 business. A third is building a lunar lander for an annual NASA-funded amateur contest.

Menard said TechShop’s membership ranges widely, “from kids, to whimsical adults, to serious adults to people with business ideas.” He himself used TechShop equipment to make an audiophile-quality stereo amplifier for his home.

Members work on the vertical knee mill and the metal turning lathe
 in the machine shop at TechShop Menlo Park.
San Jose Dream Coach Kasey Kvamme led tours at Saturday’s open house with obvious enthusiasm. “Our instructors will get you using machines in a matter of hours,” she said to the crowd. “It’s easy and it’s so much fun,” she said about welding. After the tour, she described  Menlo Park as TechShop’s “Millennium Falcon,” in that, San Jose incorporated the features that worked at Menlo Park, and improved upon the one’s that didn’t work as well. “We’ve learned a lot from Menlo,” she said.

Before becoming an employee, Kvamme first came to TechShop Menlo Park for a laser cutting class. In the future she hopes to use the longarm computerized quilting machine (which hadn’t arrived for the grand opening) to make a new bedspread. And, as a dedicated Arkham Horror player, she’d like to build a glass-topped game board.

Memberships are priced at $125 per month or $1499 for an annual membership, and include free Autodesk Inventor classes. TechShop Menlo Park has about 800 members and San Francisco, about 675. Non-members can take most classes, which range in price from $45 to $90, plus materials fees.
TechShop Menlo Park’s main workshop area accommodates classes and provides workspace for members.
At the far end of the workshop is a kitchen always stocked with free popcorn and coffee.

Botany and desire in my own backyard

Humans vs. plants: Who's calling the shots?
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, June 4, 2011

   Our completed arbor is simple and relatively inexpensive, constructed of
brown-stained pressure-treated lumber, deck screws and 8 lag screws.
Are humans in charge of plants? I was recently reminded of the power of plants in my life by “The Botany of Desire,” the PBS documentary inspired by Michael Pollan’s book of the same name. In both the book and the film, Pollan makes the case that, although we’ve always thought that we are in charge of plants, in fact, they have been shaping us. In the film he says “We don’t give plants nearly enough credit. They’ve been working on us. They’ve been using us.” He points to four common plants—apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes—and shows how these plants, by satisfying our desire for sweetness, beauty, intoxication and control, respectively, have gotten us to go to great lengths to ensure their survival and abundance.

Desire, of course, is a powerful force—sometimes leading us to seek gratification at all costs. In our quest for sweetness, for example, Pollan says that we have grafted only the sweetest apple varieties over and over until they have lost their genetic diversity and ability to naturally resist pests and diseases, thereby increasing the need for pesticides and even genetic engineering.

And so I now realize that this complex relationship between plants and humans has played itself out in my own backyard. The needs of plants have been shaping the content of my weekends for months, maybe years. The following series of events shows how my own desires for sweetness, beauty, and control (we’ll leave intoxication out for now) have caused me and my husband to go to back-breaking lengths for plants—sometimes with unexpected results.


Hammering the boards in place goes quickly after figuring out how to dig
post holes in root-infiltrated soil with a "tamper head digging bar," which
we dubbed "the root-buster."

September 2010: The seven native cottonwoods growing around the perimeter of our front yard are ruining everything. My garden is losing light as the huge, leafy trees grow dramatically each year. In the spring, they drop their sticky seeds all over our deck, lawn furniture, and cars, leaving a glued-on black residue. And their invasive roots are sending up shoots, crowding out plants, and pushing up stepping stones all over the yard.

Saturday, September 11: We hire my cousin’s daughter’s boyfriend—an on-call CDF fire-fighter—to come cut the trees down. After traveling from Sacramento, he realizes he doesn’t have the expertise or the equipment to drop the largest trees without hitting structures and wires, so $500 later, we are only rid of two small trees.

Wednesday, September 29: We hire a local arborist, whose crew reduces the five remaining cottonwoods to stumps.

Sunday, April 3: With the cottonwoods gone, we lose some privacy in our front yard. My husband and I decide to build a 13-foot stretch of fence along the road. It’s our first fence and we are immediately hindered by enormous, unyielding roots (from the cottonwoods, of course) which make digging three post holes impossible.

Saturday, April 9: At Lowe’s I am directed to a root-severing device: a simple cast-iron pole, blade-like at one end, and so heavy I can barely lift it into the cart.

Later that day: By hurling our new “root-buster” downwards, over and over, the offending roots are severed one by one by my husband, the holes are finally dug, and the posts are Quikreted in place.

Saturday, April 17: We finish the fence and pose for a proud “We did it!” photo moment—which is somewhat bittersweet, because unstoppable cottonwood shoots are still erupting from shallow roots all over the garden.


Backed by our new concrete block retaining wall,
 the new tomato plants have plenty of virgin soil
  and room to grow.
Week of May 6-13: In an attempt to grow tomatoes more successfully in my backyard (see Love Apply Farms’ recommendations at, among other things, I need to:
1)      Create a new planting area in soil that is not exhausted.
2)      Dig several 2-foot holes in root-infested soil.

I choose a space at the base of a hill, not too distant from a large oak tree. I trim back ice plant, lug it away, and extend an existing retaining wall using concrete wall blocks—97 of them to be exact. It takes four trips to Home Depot to transport the heavy loads in my small trunk. I beg/bribe/bully available family members each trip to help carry the blocks from the car to the backyard.

Sunday, May 15: The wall is finally done, and my husband hurls the root-buster once again to dig the holes for the tomatoes—which are finally planted in nutrient fortified, gopher-wired holes. If the gophers don’t infiltrate the wire, we’ll know by August whether or not all that effort was worth the sweet taste of a ripe heirloom tomato.


Friday, May 20: Not far from the tomatoes, an innocently planted piece of wisteria root has grown into a thriving vine that, in the spring, sprouts a lovely profusion of hanging white flower clusters. However, now that it’s May, the wisteria has morphed into a green leafy alien-monster, sending  its wavy tendrils out into space, looking for something—anything—to grab a hold of.

Weary of hole-digging, I wonder if an arbor can be built without sinking the posts. Online I learn that it is possible to attach posts to concrete piers, but it doesn’t sound very attractive or very stable.

Our completed arbor, from plans in
"Making Arbors & Trellises" by
Marcianne Miller & Olivier Rollin
Saturday, May 28: I purchase lumber and hardware at Monument Lumber in Freedom. My husband digs the holes (more root-busting, of course) and I begin cutting the lumber.

Sunday, May 29: We attach the posts to the cross beams, then lift the two heavy structures up into the holes. We adjust the relative height of the four posts with rocks until they all match, then attach the side beams and roof pieces. Finally, towards the end of the day, we secure the posts and I stand back to admire our handiwork. Aching all over and dead tired, I’m trying to envision one of my daughters underneath a lovely flower-draped arbor on her wedding day, when my husband asks, “What if the wisteria doesn’t use the arbor?”


So what exactly have we learned about our relationship with plants? Perhaps it is recognizing that we do have a relationship with plants, and, in fact, we are rather dependent upon each other. Or as Michael Pollan puts it, “to the extent that you can put yourself in the place of these other species and look at the world from their point of view…we become members of the biotic community, one among many species, all of them together creating this wonderful web that we call life.”