Wood: captive ball

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Stage two unlocked!

One of the basic exercises for woodcarvers is the creation of the Captive Ball, or Ball in a Cage.  Usually carved of a relatively soft wood like this basswood at first, then moving up to more complicated materials, the idea is to improve both knife and safety skills.

I only managed to get one small cut on the tip of my index finger while making this.  No bleeding — just a nip of the blade and a small pain.  When woodcarving, it’s difficult to aim the blade away from oneself the whole time; therefore the blade needs to be extra sharp so that you avoid trying to force it.  Chip Barton, the master woodcarver, explains in his book that you should sharpen your woodcarving tools at a fairly steep angle, first of all; and second that you should use a coarse stone, a fine stone, and then sandpaper mounted to paint stirrer-sticks at 800 grit, 1500 grit, 2000 grit, and 2500 grit if you can find it.  I made a set of sticks like that, and it was awe-inspiring how sharp I could get my blades; with practice, I’m sure I can get them even sharper.

Sharp tools are scary to some people, and I suppose with good reason. The assumption is that you’re at greater risk from a sharp tool, because it will cut deeper into the person holding it during an accident. But dull tools put one in the mindset that more force needs to be applied… and so there’s this Catch-22 (as in the novel by Joseph Heller) — a dull tool inspires its user to apply more force, which increases the likelihood that the tool will break or slip, and cause an injury; a sharp tool cuts more cleanly and carefully, and so less force needs to be applied… BUT, of course, the act of using a very sharp tool gradually dulls it. Which means that as the user gets tired, the tool is also getting ‘tired’, and the chances of an accident rises with the length of time one works with hand tools.

Quilt Squares

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One of the things that came up recently was how to use Making to teach traditional subjects like, for example, history. I’m of the opinion that teaching Making for the sake of making things is valuable, but not everyone finds that argument convincing. So I figured, its time to learn some more advanced quilting techniques. A lot of the techniques, though, involve cut and reassemble: that is, assemble nine squares into a 3×3 block (or assemble 3 strips into a square);  use a rotary cutter or scissors to slice and dice the 3×3 in a variety of ways — mostly diagonals, and side-midpoints; and then sew and re-assemble. The first step, therefore, was the assembly process. I had to make up a number of 3×3 squares out of experimental fabric squares of various sorts. This has led to the creation of the various squares of fabric that illustrate this post. These are mostly 5″x5″ squares of fabric that I cut up from the remnants of my scrap bin — none of these squares would exist, were it not for other projects. But I find that I’m not entirely ready to slice and dice the 3×3 grids to make new things….Except that finally, I got over my fears. I did a four by four grid, to make an approximation of the form called the “Card Trick.”. I learned quite a bit about quilting from this one— the card trick is usually produced on a diagonal, and out of triangles.
 Finally, I got out the rotary cutter. And I sliced up one uninspiring 3×3 grid both directions: both diagonals, and both side-midpoints. Then I sewed these triangles together to form this crazy form of a cross. You can see that I need more practice at accurate cutting — but you can also see that complexity emerges from the Solve Et Coagula: the dissolution and recombination of parts. 
That is to say, when we take the raw material and subject it to both geometry and the knife, to both the straight edge and the rotation, new properties emerge from the old ones.

This isn’t to say that all of these patterns are beautiful — some of the cutting and sewing results in asymmetry or dullness or plainness. Some patterns won out for being more interesting or vibrant — some lost for being less interesting or uninspiring.  But it’s clear to me that quilt patterns emerged from certain standard practices to preserve fabric waste, and the discovery that the principles of geometry (not necessarily formal geometry, but more practical elements of it — straight edges, diagonals, rotation, and other practices) could be applied to fabric. 

Remarkable realities lurk inside any raw material — wood, glass, paper, metal, plastic, and yes even textiles — but it’s the mind and hands of the artisan that bring these materials to the surface. 



I had a couple of video interviews this past week for jobs. It’s hard to tell sometimes if you’re being invited to express a free opinion as a consultant, or if you’re being considered for an actually-open position. No matter. You have to dress the part. That means putting on a tie, and something serious.img_3108

Like a pinstriped business apron.  My mother had the idea several months ago, when she pointed out that in the 1800s, before the factory floor did away with them, that serious-minded artisans and master makers often wore ties to show their professionalism (and their membership in various trade organizations, too), and aprons over their work apparel. Part of it was that the economic and political revolutions of the 1800s had made work clothes and business clothes more or less synonymous.  Everyone wore more or less the same designs of shirts, jackets, coats — the industrialization of the printing of patterns affected all of the classes together (chances are, most armchair historians have never thought about the way that women on the frontier had to make their own patterns, and not just their own dresses; or that they were stuck with the styles of clothes they’d brought with them. Have you ever made a pattern from an existing piece of clothing? I have — it’s relatively easy; and some of it boils down to taking a worn garment apart quite carefully, tracing the shapes of the pieces onto paper or even directly onto new fabric, and then cutting and assembling carefully. Before the advent of photography, think about the level of commitment and care and memory this required!

img_3110No matter… I have the Internet.  I must have looked at dozens of apron designs before selecting mine.  I made a pattern, figured out the fabric I wanted to use —  bright jewel-tone blue for the backing, and some serious gray pinstripes for the front.  I figured this was a good way to show off my interest in color theory, and to demonstrate a commitment to good artisanry.

Any good business costume should have a pocket close to the heart.  I put my businesslike apron’s fabric to work by cutting a square of fabric out, and applying it counter to the pattern, with horizontal stripes contrasting against the vertical stripes of the pinstripes.  This pocket was the hardest to make, and taught me a great deal about making dedicated pockets for pens, pencils and bone folders (a bookbinding tool), which always seem to go missing at the worst possible moment during a project.

The waist pockets were less specifically dedicated to particular tools.  I wanted them large enough to let my hands go in them easily, and I wound up setting up eight pockets in the waist of various sizes. Some are large enough, and deep enough, for a pair of full-size fabric scissors; others will only hold a bobbin, if I’m changing thread colors often.  Here you can see the jewel tones of the back side of the apron.img_3118

Once the pockets are attached, it’s time to zipper-stitch lickety-split the back and front together, neck strap and waist ties inside, right sides together. The result, an apron — a sort-of three-dimensional garment assembled out of essentially flat materials like fabric.  Turn the work, poke out the corners, press… voila. An apron.

It’s funny. I think about the number of times that former students complained about getting sawdust on their nice clothes, or having oil or grease from a tool or from a project on their hands.  How nice it would have been to have a place to wash it, to smear it, to remove it; or to remove the sweat from your hands when you’re sawing a board or planing a chair leg, or carving a stamp for leather or paper.  I should have had the students make aprons. They could have personalized and kept them, or made them in general purpose ways for the use of the students that came after them.  They’re an important part of a workshop’s culture, and they have a place and purpose in them — not a noble and glorious purpose, so to speak, but a proper place in the world, nonetheless.

Because there is something important about dressing the part you intend to play in the world — and not simply looking the part, but playing the part, and being the part.  If you’re going to be a Maker, or more than that, an artisan, it’s beneficial to know your tools well enough that you can use them to make yourself look good… you know, like a professional in pinstripes.


Happy Equinox

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I admit to some help. There might be a divot or something in the countertop. 

Happy Equinox to all my readers. 

New eBook: Festae

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I’m pleased to report that Festae, a book of poetry with hymns to deities from the Greco-Roman pagan calendar, is now available on Amazon.com.Festae Cover.jpg

Festae includes four odes called the “Seasonal Greetings”, dedicated to Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. It also contains forty-three additional odes in a traditional three-stanza form, dedicated to:

  • Poseidon, god of the wild sea
  • Neptune and Salacia in their roles as providers of salt for food preservation
  • Hecate as a goddess of magic and artistry
  • Hephaestus and the Nymphs, the teachers of technology and craft
  • Pallas Athena
  • Artemis of the Moon, and of Music
  • Apollo
  • The Nine Muses
  • Vesta three festivals of June
  • All the Heras
  • The year-end celebrations of the Roman sacred year in February
  • and numerous others…

This collection joins four other of my poetry on Amazon, including The Sun’s Paces: hymns for the Decans of the Zodiacand the Poems for the Behenian Starsand Hymns for the Mansions of the Moon.  You can also find The Tai Chi PoemIn all, these five collections now present one very long poem about tai chi, and nearly 130 other poems on subjects related to astronomy, ancient history, the better angels of our nature, and our relationship to the sky and each other.

It’s been my great pleasure to write and share these poems with you, and I hope you enjoy them.  These materials are also listed on my publications page.

Maker Mindset, then MakerSpaces

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Gary Stager and Will Richardson both have similar ideas about MakerSpaces. They’re worried they’ll add to inequality, and that they’ll continue to be used as hangars for equipment and technology, relegated to a few narrow functions, and ultimately not really put to use.

Gary says in one source (not quoted in Will’s article):

The greatest threat to realizing the potential of the maker movement in the schools is the coupling of the words “maker” and “space:’ It turns out that
it is comparatively easier to hang a sign on a room full of stuff than it is to change classroom practice.

The makerspace threatens to repeat the historical accident of the computer lab :The enthusiasm of an early adopter and presence of new technology created a specialized bunker that kids would
visit each fortnight for the next two generations — like a field trip to colonial Williamsburg . We need to avoid any chance that making, like computer integration , will remain a novelty and be left to a “specialist ” while other teachers remain disengaged .

Gary’s article

And then, Will says this…

Much in the way that schools have spent tons of money on iPads and Chromebooks that have changed little in terms of the culture of learning or in the agency and autonomy kids in classrooms have to learn in classrooms, the same danger exists for Makerspaces. As Gary says, making is a “stance.” It’s a way of thinking about learning and schooling, not something that suddenly happens because of new technologies.

Why it’s so difficult for schools to put vision and philosophy ahead of tools and tech escapes me.

Will Richardson’s Blog

Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 10.09.33 PMToday I listened to a new podcast on Thursday, Meaningful Making.  It’s good.  I like it.  They had a lot of good insights, including the recognition that the Maker community tends to skew white and geeky, and that we need to do more to promote greater diversity in the Maker community — shout out here to @Mr_Hutchinson_ who does remarkable things with very little… (but boy, do these podcast guys need Toastmasters… lots of uhs, and ummms. repeated words, filler statements… I recognize that a podcast is a different format than a radio show, but if you’re going to be a professional or semi-professional speaker, you owe it to your audience not to repeat yourself too much if you expect your audience to give you an hour of their time.)

Yet something one of the participants said gave me pause.  He said that there was a regular problem on the standardized tests that involved folding a net mentally, to see if it made a shape.  Could the students fold a given 2D net of triangles and squares into a 3D shape, and would the resulting net be complete? The teacher used a 3D printer to make a number of ‘manipulables’ — an ugly, not-really-elegant word — for  students to play with in order to see whether or not the given ‘flat nets’ folded into regular shapes.

Oh… you mean….

The people at Mathisfun.com have been producing these raw nets for at least a decade. They were one of the first things I turned to in the MakerSpace at my school in 2010 — because there were few things cheaper than paper for teaching Maker skills and Maker mindset to children, and when we started we had virtually no money for tools or materials other than what I could beg, borrow, or recycle.

It’s also a ready-made computer activity: “Use graphic design to make a net — a flat design — that when cut out and folded turns into a three-dimensional shape that can be measured.” It’s then less interesting to produce flat ‘manipulables’ that don’t fold into 3D shapes — and the kids who cut out and fold the real thing will find their skill improved when it comes to imagining the folding of 2d images, because their hands will have done it already. — Principle #4, what the Hands Do, the Mind Knows.

I produced one in five minutes in a word processing application and posted it as a screenshot here, but even a rough cut-out of the weird cross do-hickey on this page will produce a 3D cube.  This cube can be assembled inside out, too, creating six surfaces for decoration, or to make dice, or to assemble into structures, or to talk about crystalline structures… After all, that’s what ancient people noticed about crystals a long time ago: that they came in distinct shapes that appeared to be related to standard geometric forms like hexagonal prisms and cubes and octahedrons.

I’ve said elsewhere that Maker teachers need to be focused on the past (Principle #10, Past vs. Future Orientation) so that the students can be future-focused. The Maker teacher thus becomes a library of solutions, if you will, and can give a student guidance about how to put materials or technologies or techniques to use.

But it’s not always helpful if we turn to the flash and the heat and whiz-bang of the 3D printer when one of the key experiences we want students to gain is the knowledge of how to turn a 2D material (like paper) into a 3D object (like a cube or an icosahedron). I recognize that a) every person has their own entry point to Making; and b) people need to learn how the tech works before they can adopt the right mindset around teaching it to others.  That’s fine.

But we should be conscious of not over-investing in the technology for technology’s sake. Paper has the advantage of being scaleable in a way that 3D printing isn’t, yet, for schools.  Paper is a wonderfully diverse material: ephemeral in a way that 3D printer plastic isn’t, mark-able in a way that plastic isn’t, recyclable in ways that 3D printer plastic isn’t, and as dependent on how we mark it, as how we choose to shape it or design it to function.  It also folds, and it can be sewn, and it can serve as template for other projects; and it can teach complex concepts in short order which can then be programmed!

I do believe that this approach takes some of the “discovery” component out of student learning. After all, you’re using an adult’s graphic design skills and an adult’s mental library of past technologies to present students with ideas.  But you’re also putting ideas in student’s minds at the same time that you’re giving them tools and materials practice.  Just in this blog post, I’ve linked to the idea of using paper to:

  • build scientific instruments
  • teach core concepts of solid geometry
  • train the mind to recognize geometric 2D nets as 3D or not-3D objects
  • building books (which a 3D printer can’t really do)
  • fold origami patterns
  • build templates for sewing projects (including clothing)
  • building and coloring planetary globes
  • building cultural objects
  • teaching algorithms for cryptography (and introducing students to the ideas of secret-keeping).

So, guys — great podcast so far, really.  But you’ve spent two weeks talking about how awesome computers and 3D printing are.  Maybe you can remind people that cardboard and paper have important roles to play, too?



I have a much better appreciation for the volvelles, or circular computers, that survived from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment to the present day.  Fragile, finicky and prone to moving right went you don’t want it to, the volvelle is the brainchild of Raymond Llull, a Catalan Catholic theologian of the mid-1300s AD. 

I want to make a volvelle to go on the inside front cover of a hand bound book I’m designing. As you can probably tell, this volvelle is astronomical in nature, but Llull’s was intended to be logical and grammatical, designed to explore theological concepts and train missionaries to work in Islamic regions (he failed to win many converts).  

The volvelle remains. This one has pointers for the seven visible planets of medieval astronomy (less the Moon, because I lost the paper cutout between cutting it out and assembling the volvelle). It also has a horizon line, and a “sphere of fixed stars” that includes both the Decans of the Zodiac and the Mansions of the Moon; as well as the fixed ground of the twelve houses of astrology. 

And it doesn’t work as smoothly as I’d like. I need to replace the brass brad with a paper system, as is used in medieval and renaissance volvelles. The brass brad is too thick, and doesn’t allow for smooth or independent rotation of the parts. Back to the drawing board. 

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