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.

Apron

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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.

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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?

#edcampswct follow-up

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During the last session of yesteday’s #Edcampswct (see edcamp.org about what an Edcamp is), I led a discussion on MakerSpaces and Maker Programs.  I want to summarize what points I made there, and provide links to deeper insights on those subjects; and make a few further points that I don’t think I made in the time allowed, but were on my mind.

Here are the key points, which are further summarized below (@MrPerraultGES took a photo of my notes):

  1. Visual Thinking
  2. 2D makes 3D
  3. Tools Make Tools Make Things
  4. What Hands Make, Mind Knows
  5. Recycle and D.I.Y.
  6. Space Requirements
    1. Tool Storage
    2. Materials Storage
    3. Project Storage
    4. Workspace
    5. Input/Receiving
    6. Archive Process
    7. How-To Library
    8. Repair (and Sharpening)
    9. First Aid
  7. Best Practice vs. Liability
  8. (And to these 7 steps  I’m adding—
    1. Games and Game Playing
    2. Past vs. Future Orientation )

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Practice Effect

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Doing anything over and over again usually results in improvement, at least to a point. Back when I was new to sewing, I had a project I was working on — making a stole or sash for one of the fraternal societies of which I’m a member.   I used cheap cloth, and used white thread to sew right-sides together, and didn’t properly adjust the tension on my sewing machine.  The result was the sash on the right, which has been an embarrassment to me almost every time I put it on.

While my sewing machine was out for repairs, though, I purchased new fabric that was more jewel-toned.  I sewed some trim onto the ends before sewing the back and front together, as well, which you can see in the second photograph.  And I sewed much more carefully and much more slowly as I worked my way through the project overall.

The result is a much higher quality sash (which in truth is almost the same as a deacon’s stole in an apostolic-orders Western church like the Episcopalians, Catholics and so on, though not the same as an Orthodox deacon’s stole, which wraps around the body quite differently).

My seams are much better.  The jewel tones of the fabric are much nicer, and the golden thread in the trim is a nice touch against the variant blues in the trim.  The project still needs some final touches of pressing and seam matching and so on.  But I know how to do those things now, and I didn’t when I first began learning to sew.

And that’s the relevant point, here, I think.  Schools do a great job of teaching about subjects: Here’s what you need to know about English. Here’s what you need to know about history.  Here’s what you need to know about biology or chemistry or physics.

But the Maker movement does things differently.  It doesn’t rely on about.  You don’t start off reading about sewing in a sewing class, or reading about table saws in a woodworking class.  You start off learning how to sew, how to saw wood to the correct dimensions.  A good teacher starts with some very simple projects, like an eye pillow, or a glasses case or a pencil case or a komebukuro, that are designed to build confidence and know-how.  Later on, you might move up to quilting, or making clothes. Later still, you move to English Paper Piecing or more elaborate constructions in garments.  At each step, the skills you already have, help inform the skills you’re trying to acquire.  You make mistakes, but the mistakes are often a frustrating combination of the old, basic errors and completely new ones.

Most of us hit natural barriers to improvement from time to time.  That’s normal. Often, it’s because there’s a mismatch between  your standard-issue solution that worked in all the other examples of projects you’ve ever done, and the brand-new-to-you! solution that’s been best-practice in your craft or Maker art form for decades (if not centuries).  That’s when you have to seek out a teacher, or a YouTube video, or an essay or a book. That’s when you learn about your craft — somewhere in the middling range of your skills, not at the beginning.  Some of these small things learned along the way, as a result of seeking to learn about my craft?

  • Thread your sewing machine with thread the same color as the fabric
  • — unless you want the contrast between thread and fabric as part of the design.
  • Use the right weight of interfacing that’s appropriate to your project.
  • Regularly change the needle on your sewing machine, approximately every four hours that the machine is in use.
  • Sew right-sides-apart after fold-press-pin
  • Iron more frequently than you want to.
  • Use your fabric scissors only for fabric; pink the extra fabric as needed.
  • Service your machine at least annually; save the old parts.
  • Improve your hand-sewing skills alongside your machine sewing skills
  • Learn to cut fabric accurately.
  • Modify patterns with a ruler and with French curves, not by eye.
  • Pinning is important — but pin in proportion to the desired finish-quality.

It’s nice to return to a project I did some years ago, and discover that I can do it better and more effectively and faster now, while also taking my time.  There’s an efficiency of process and movement that comes from knowing what you’re doing the second or seventh time around, that’s simply unbeatable.  But it takes time to acquire that level of skill.  No amount of knowing about will replace doing, when it comes to Making things.

Quilting

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My sewing machine is back up and running. After a full service, and the repair of a pulley, it’s working again like a brand-new machine — under $100 in parts and repair costs.

The first thing to do was finish this little ‘doily’ that I had made using English Paper Piecing techniques.  I did a ‘right-sides together’ bag technique to finish the edges with another piece of fabric (a nice blue-tile motif).  I then did some decorative top-stitching as the quilt motif.  I should have done the work with a quilting ruler and a free-rotation foot. But I don’t have a small quilting ruler or a free-rotation foot.  More things to add to the list of tools/gear that I want, I guess.

Mistakes: The doily quilting pattern wound up borrowing freely from the pattern of hexagons. The ‘right sides together’ bag-making technique did not work well — I would have done better with a ‘cut, fold under and stitch’ technique with right sides apart. Applique, in other words, was the way I should have gone, rather than sewing right sides together.  The result was an outer edge that doesn’t have the precise hexagons of the original paper-piecing.  Oh, well. This is how we learn, right?

The back side is reasonably nice.  The white stitching resulted in a repetition or reiteration of the hexagon pattern on the front side, without slavishly duplicating it.   The tiles of the front are replicated in the tiling motif of the fabric on the back.

All in all, it was a successful project to learn a new set of skills: English Paper Piecing.

The first article in the series on EPP is here.

Chinese sewing book

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I’ve been fascinated by the Chinese Thread Book, or (zhen xian bao) since I first found out about it several years ago.  It always seemed too complicated. Today, I followed the tutorial here on how to construct it.  There are other tutorials, but this is the one I chose to follow.

The results are not ideal.  The paper I used is really cardstock, and too heavy for this purpose.  It does make it less likely that you’ll rip the twist boxes in the course of opening and closing them, but all in all the book turned out nicely despite being made of paper scraps from my collection of leftovers from other paper projects.

By and large, the most difficult piece of the work is folding the pieces that become the twist boxes.  This involves cutting an A4 piece of paper to the correct size, measuring it, folding it into fifths and halves, and then folding it in a series of diagonals to produce the twist.  All in all, though, an elegant design.
This book contains seven compartments, but I missed an opportunity to add at least two more, if not six more. No matter. I was following a tutorial, not designing my own box from scratch. I do see, from museum examples, that there are some ways of adding more complex compartments to the book — one large one the size of the whole cover, another two on each side, and another pair opening underneath the two compartments on the right-hand side.  Plus there’s maybe space for a couple of ‘envelope’-like pockets under the left and right side compartments.

Here’s the second thing I like about it, despite the heavy paper (or perhaps because of it).  It’s clear that this is a thing with a specific purpose — thread. You’re not going to be storing cauldrons and alembics and elaborate machinery inside of this.  It’s for thread.  Maybe some needles.  I saw a museum-quality example once, really from southwest China, that was large enough to store pattern pieces for sewing shoes in it.  This one is not that big, as you can tell by my hands.  But it’s still a thing rooted in geometry (even if I used a ruler and was measuring in centimeters to make this particular example.  The people who built the originals did so using geometry for the most part, not measurement with measurement-units like inches or centimeters.  They made these things according to geometric rules, which I started to get a handle on as they made these beautiful objects.

Third — as some of you might guess from the paper choices for the twist boxes — there are potential uses for this book of boxes in magic.  I can see Gordon populating this with some of his sigils, for example, or maybe treating the paper as sigil-surface.  It can certainly be decorated, far beyond what I’ve done here.  Or sigils could be secreted inside the various compartments.

This one, I’m going to use in my bimonthly roleplaying game as a prop.  It’s a little too rough and weird and heavy to use as a regular-use object, and I don’t really have a use for it (yet).  But if I make some counters or things to put in the compartments, then maybe this is a wizard’s spell book, or a special-purpose version of something like a deck of many things, or a similarly special-purpose bag of holding. (Just because the compartments can’t hold cauldrons in our world, doesn’t mean they can’t in another world…)

So, that’s the basics of it. Not complicated, really, though it looks intimidating.

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