Introduction: Meta Making Tips (& Some Quite Unusual Shelves)
This Instructable is a little different than others I've shared. In the main text, the bit you are reading now, I won't be giving you technical details of how these unusual, adjustable, upcycled shelves are made. Instead I am going to discuss some practical 'meta' lessons that improve my practice of making more broadly and enrich its experience many-fold.
These are lessons that require constant re-work and PRACTICE. They improve the things I make as I attempt to practice them in every project. Like ingots added to the melting crucible, these 14 principles both become and influence the character of practice. If you practice them they can SUPERCHARGE your making!
Employing the right wisdom at the right time isn't always straightforward - and that's the safety warning for this instructable. These meta tips are tools with a sharp edge, use with care.
I also share some little technical tricks with you, and that kind of detail is in the picture notes.
Step 1: Perception Shift
Smash hidden false certainties. Those ones that just sit there, the embodied and well ingrained habits of thought that mean when you look at an object you don't see it because it's buried deep in some category. You pass over it without a second (or even a first) thought - it's a chair, it's a truck, a stone, a tree, a soil pipe... Is that what we really think these things are? What else could they be? What possibilities are waiting for us? Opening up our perceptions to things that remain hidden isn't a one off event, but a by-product of a relaxed playful attitude. Learn something new, or delve into a new field of endeavour and it will just happen... As William James puts it:
A man's[sic] Empirical Thought depends on the objects and events he has experienced, but what these shall be is to a large extent determined by his habits of attention. An object may be present to him a thousand times, but if he persistently fails to notice it, it cannot be said to enter into his experience. We are all seeing flies, moths, and beetles by the thousand, but to whom, save an entomologist, do they say anything distinct? (James 1879: Are We Automata? page 11-12).
When our minds get fat with false certainties our perceptions get lazy. Our eyes are less likely to explore and hunt out the unknown, and new information will tend to get unnoticed as irrelevant.
Instead cultivate an attitude of open vulnerability and it becomes easier to engage with the everyday beauty and enchantment of the 'simple' objects around us.
In this way bringing upcycling into your making can be a radical and political act. Try it on a project. Set yourself a challenge:- "this time I will make x and I will only allow myself to buy y & z from the store, the rest will have to come from the rich world or objects we inhabit but often don't really notice." See how quickly perceptions shift and the label 'rubbish' gets trashed.
Step 2: Projects That Make You
There is no quicker way to change habitual perceptions than choose projects that are too hard!
There are two connected benefits:
1. It will force a creative approach engaging your body and mind. If you know exactly in advance how a project will pan out, what will you discover along the way? How will you grow? Instead jump on projects that will push you to experiment and learn new techniques.
2. If you muck it up and don't achieve your goal, you will have learned new skills and acquired a better understanding - which means that really, in the long run, you have succeeded. With the right mindset a 'fail' can be a success even in the short run - think of the good scientist, happy to falsify their pet theory to get closer to truth. This is a process remember - the end is not the goal, like life, it's all about the journey!
When I was planning these shelves, I knew, I wanted to up my scrap aluminium casting game... Hence the shenanigans in the video. By the time I was casting the sixth 'soil pipe clamp' I had learned a ton of things - about pour temperature, sprue and runner design, pattern making, heat treating at home, and part finishing. These lessons were learned from a plethora of mini fails.
The trick to this meta tip is in riding the edge: some things you can't afford to get wrong, (like injuring yourself by sloshing aluminium in your face) so preparatory reading/ learning is essential... Sometimes what you hoped to do for your project turns out to be completely unrealistic, once you investigate. In general consider carefully anything that involves danger to your body - you only have one. But...
Be wary of experts telling you it can't be done', or 'leave it to the professionals'. These people are often blindsided by innovators and artists blasting through their well established boundaries.
Step 3: The Fail Rail & Having Confidence
"Secondhand experience breaks down a block from the car lot. I hope you'll take and make your own soul; that you'll feel your life for yourself pain by pain and joy by joy; that you'll feed your life, eat, "eat as you go" - you who nourish, be nourished!" Ursula K. Le Guin, Bryn Mawr Commencement Address (1986)
Being creative can only happen given enough confidence. What is confidence? For now lets call it the positive spirit in which you turn firsthand experiences that could be considered negative into positive opportunity.
Without confidence we all want to follow a recipe, purchase the full pdf plans, use a map, stick to the cutting list, and run through prescriptive step-by-step instruction. These guides can be super useful, but are best taken for inspiration rather than formula.
Sure if you have never cooked before, follow a recipe closely. After that, get out and make some of your own mistakes! That's where the magic happens. You can bet the person who wrote your plan is making mistakes...
99 percent of the ideas I had on this project were junk. If I was fretting about that, my anxiety wouldn't let me entertain any of them... Encourage yourself! Mental pat's on the back even for ideas that, upon reflection, are ridiculous, will yield an increase to your total number of ideas and thus also grow the 1% goers.
If you don't have the confidence, or a project seems overwhelmingly difficult - go back to the previous step. Ask yourself dispassionately, can I afford for this to fail or go in an unexpected direction'? Set the question against the timescale of your life, not right now where every little blunder can seem catastrophic. Write down the realistic consequences if it helps. Then embody the knowledge that certain 'fails' can actually be successes. This little process can be a super confidence booster, and help you get over shadowy and diffuse fears about the future.
Practice! Practice being confident. Yes I certainly felt like everyone was going to laugh at me and call me stupid when I was busy screwing up parts of this project. I definitely thought that, when I showed exactly my blunders in the video... It matters, but no where near as much as we often think. Take anyone who has achieved anything of significance and you will find a string of false starts, mistakes and accompanying naysayers. The grander these people's impact on the world the bigger their gaggle of detractors. Listen to the critique, for it may be valid, but don't be ruled by it. Don't shrink down before it, take it on board if it makes sense, and use it for further action.
The most brutal critique, though, is likely to come from you yourself. You who likely knows better than anyone all your transgressions, failings and weaknesses. My favourite way to practice beating back anxiety inducing, creativity crushing self-critique is to remember the benefits of laughing at myself. Yes what I have just done may be stupid 'haha' - In 20 years time I will either not remember it or it will make a funny story to laugh about with friends. Yes, laugh at yourself, but in a kind way.
Again and again it has been shown that being confident and having faith will actually boost your performance across almost all domains of endeavour. Physical feats of strength, building trust and relationships, exam performance, and creative endeavours - especially creative endeavours - will all benefit if you can cultivate confidence. Confidence lets you step one foot out from ordered certainty into creative chaos...
Step 4: Define Your Playground - Limitations Can Make You STRONG
I have something of an addiction to tools. It's sometimes a weakness. In my mind more tools equals greater possibilities but it doesn't always pan out that way. Without a set of limitations, your playground is undefined. When you can do everything it's much harder to decide anything! Don't get me wrong I am still totally working on a beastly CNC machine to add to the tool set I have, but... To make progress with these shelves, I had to make a conscious effort to block out thoughts of the CNC project, and how I would or wouldn't use it. I had, after all, already taken a large detour to make the Multi-Purpose Rotary Machine (which was very useful for all the green sand conditioning I had to do).
Define your playground, and you will cut back a HUGE cognitive burden. My particular playground happens to be 'junk'.
The brilliant educator, maker, entertainer, and woodworker David Picciuto has repeatedly pointed out that limitations can actually be a source of creativity. Maybe they are the ultimate source. Without limits we would have whatever we desire instantly and invention would be somewhat obsolete. Unlimited projects are like a train without tracks, they work best with boundaries.
We all occasionally think that winning the lottery and having tons of resources, tools or whatever will make us happy and solve all our problems. But humans are odd creatures, we positively NEED problems to overcome. It's in the struggle, in the process of solving difficult problems that we feel fulfilled in life. The trick is to be choosing the right problems. It's not easy. Really juicy problems usually involve a load of sub problems, as well as helping other people or fulfilling some social purpose. You may not even directly see a tangible output of your work, so what you feel about these problems is really important (this is often the case when I write Instructables, for example. I don't actually see people finding them useful, and maybe they don't, but as I slowly build it, I feel that it will be, that's reality for me, and it counts).
It may sound cheesy, but wise people have been espousing the virtues of finding contentment in PROCESS rather than outcome for well over 2500 years. Yes, good fortune and sudden solutions can give us a temporary 'happy boost', but contentment is found in the way you live, not external conditions. Stoic thought, which is enjoying a deserved revival lately, makes the simple yet profound practical point: It's not what actually happened that pleases or upsets us, but our thoughts about those worldly events. Hence, step one in this Instructable- "change your perceptions"!
If you want more on this, Donald Robertson's book "How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius' 2019", Is one of the best I have read on stoic thought. It's beautifully practical. Reading it is like doing yoga, meditation and learning philosophy at once. I'm on my 3rd reading...
Setting boundaries then is one way to begin to find nice problems. Problems are the 'ground' of your playground. Here's some possibilities to get you started. What resonates with your values?
- I will only use scrap materials
- Hand tools only
- Make the absolute finest x no matter the cost
- Be carbon neutral
- Be the cheapest
- Make it so anyone can replicate
- Use no external power
- Most efficient
- Must involve learning five new techniques
- Make the Smallest
- Make the Biggest
Step 5: Be an Artisan of Risk
The term 'artisan of risk' is inspired by my metal casting (miss)adventures and David Pye, Professor of Furniture at the Royal College of Arts from 1948-1974, who used the phrase "the workmanship of risk" to unify and describe ideas about 'craft'. For him, 'craft' is:
‘ … simply any kind of technique or apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on judgement, dexterity and care which the maker exercises as he works. The essential idea is that the quality of the result is continually at risk during the process of making; and so I shall call this kind of workmanship “The workmanship of risk”: an uncouth phrase, but at least descriptive.’ (David Pye 1968The Nature and Art of Workmanship, page 20)
This is set against 'work of certainty', which is generally what we understand as 'mass production'. Whether you are a writer, coder, artist or maker, If you are not an artisan of risk you are in 'a race to the bottom' as Seth Godin puts it. Meaning your output will be valued in a utilitarian way - people will pay as little as humanly possible for it and discard it as soon as it is no longer needed. Because other people value your work this way it will be very hard for you yourself to not think of your output thus. Personally I want to make things that people (including myself) might cherish for generations, and that means making stuff that's difficult. It means working on tasks that I can only pull off with thought and care, and sometimes not even then...
Complete a few projects like this and a positive feedback loop kicks in. Completing a difficult project, or even part of a project, buoys your confidence, making you stand a little taller both physically and metaphorically. Sure, you have learned skills along the way that will help, but more importantly it lets you dream bigger.
Systems & Structures Are NEVER Stable
Accept this truth. It's as true for a five minute woodworking project as for a whole civilisation. All things, however immutable seeming, are open to change, and so far as history teaches, will return to dust. The same is true of your plans and projects. Being an artisan of risk means you WILL fail some projects... Thinking about those fails as successes, or 'turning the obstacle upside down' as stoic philosophers would say is the key to staying in that positive feedback loop. For a small example see this instructable about when a windowsill got cut too short: https://www.instructables.com/id/Turn-a-fail-into-a-feature/
Despite its illusory nature, we rely on 'stability' all the time. Pick up a tool or place something on the bench and we hope it won't disintegrate into chaos before us. Indeed in the short run, security and stability are absolutely essential to be creative and flirt with the more unknown, experimental aspects of our making. Paradoxically then, in a well ordered shop with good reliable tools, we are well placed to be creative. So long as things aren't too ordered that is - if you want to upcycle, for example, don't expect that to happen unless you have some junk lying round, ready to inspire you when the time is right!
Step 6: Mix What You Know With Excitement (the "What Will Happen If...?" Question)
All projects start with a rough idea. Common wisdom suggests clarifying that idea, distilling it to some precise plans or design before we either begin the making phase, or in some cases pass it on to the manufacturer. There are cases where that's appropriate, but there are a whole load of problems with that approach.
Similar to Jimmy DiResta's approach, I have found that after you have a rough idea, it is useful to just START! Tackle the first problem in front of you, even if you don't have a clear idea how the project as a whole is going to come together.
Get the project rolling with something you feel familiar with. In my case this was doing a doodle on the whiteboard (see above) and then the first rough cut of the the oak, bringing it into the shop to do any last drying out and moving. This first step can give you a foundation to work from. A footing in certainty, that you can use to propel you off into the less known realms of the project.
Really every little step will be a bit like this, mixing what you know (or think you know) well, with some unfamiliar more creative element. In that way your skill base (knowledge of materials and tools and judgements about how they interact etc) is what allows your creativity. And fortuitously, that brave creativity will increase your skill base - because you will be making mistakes, testing theories, and engaged and excited by the process. Yet another virtuous positive feedback loop!
Further to this, don't be afraid to cross what appear to be ever narrowing disciplinary boundaries. Even Adam Smith, the poster boy for the benefits of the division of labour, had concerns that with more and more specialisation the worker
'has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention, in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur... and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become". (Adam Smith 1776 "An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations" book 5 chapter 1, part 3) I discovered this colourful quote in a wonderful book by David Gauntlett called Making is Connecting - here's a short review of it I wrote some years ago.
Step 7: Smell the Roses on a Micro Scale
"Like going for a walk, sawing a plank has the character of a journey." (Tim Ingold 2011, Being Alive, page 53)
If you get the balance right between known and unknown, routine and novelty, your journey will be pleasantly entwined with discovery. But even if the balance isn't spot on there's plenty to be thankful for. Thus don't be afraid to celebrate, even the little successes. It's not self indulgent to thank previous versions of you for their effort, unless you start deluding yourself that you alone are the author of all your good fortune. Every micro success is likely based upon, if not entirely formed from a whole host of things which, upon reflection one could be rather grateful for.
As I write this for example, I get a little mental 'well done!' for every step I complete, even if I end up going back to re-write the codswallop later. In that "well done" micro celebration is the full knowledge that it's not 'me' per-say that can take any credit for that. There is a whole world which I am dependent on, and is upholding what I call 'me'.
Revel in 'your' successes! Do it in this expansive way and it starts to look a lot like gratitude.
It can't be overstated how important this is. Not just for projects, but for living a meaningful life. Too many people get good at berating themselves for their failings and gazing anxiously to future tasks without stopping to smell the roses, as it were.
Smell the roses on a micro scale. If you ignore all the rest of this instructable do this: Upon entering your workshop or making space next, stop, stand tall, throw your shoulders back, smile, even if you don't feel like it, take a deep breath looking about you and say 'thank you'! It doesn't really matter who or what you are thanking, just fill yourself up with gratitude.
I started doing this little ritual every time I enter the shop, and it's amazing the difference it makes. It literally takes negative effort: it actually gives me more energy and enthusiasm for whatever it is I am about. Of course, on darker days sometimes the last thing you'll feel like doing is smiling - that's when you need to spend a little LONGER smiling, breathing deeply, hunting for things to be grateful for - there are always some, if not loads!
Rituals like this aren't frivolous. They constitute a life. Choose your rituals and habits well. Examine and question them - how does what you are doing or thinking on a regular basis help you lead a good life?
"Whistling to keep up courage is no mere figure of speech. On the other hand, sit all day in a moping posture, sigh, and reply to everything with a dismal voice, and your melancholy lingers. There is no more valuable precept in moral education than this, as all who have experience know: if we wish to conquer undesirable emotional tendencies in ourselves, we must assiduously, and in the first instance cold-bloodedly, go through the outward motions of those contrary dispositions we prefer to cultivate. The reward of persistency will infallibly come, in the fading out of the sullenness or depression, and the advent of real cheerfulness and kindliness in their stead. Smooth the brow, brighten the eye, contract the dorsal rather than the ventral aspect of the frame, and speak in a major key, pass the genial compliment, and your heart must be frigid indeed if it do not gradually thaw!" (William James 1884, What is an Emotion? in Mind, page 198)
Step 8: Attention Beyond "I"
"The best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile." Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 1990 Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, page 3
In his seminal book on flow state Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi outlines how people get in the zone. The takeaway for our purposes, is that when making is going well, we are completely focused, time warps (speeds up or slows down), and we are un-self-consciously with the materials at hand. In this way we forget the 'I' that likes to take credit for things, worries about the future, or frets about what people will think of us.
This is it friends: the holy grail of making. While I have been working towards this for this for a long time, this notion was solidified during a year-long yoga course run by Dan Peppiatt of Yoga Like Water. Practice your making (or yoga, or anything really) this way and it accumulates - it forms positive habits, that solidify into a personality that can and does live a life of flow.
When I was discussing these topics on the Flowering Elbow facebook page, this is what my friend and fine instrument maker Tim had to say about his time in the shop:
"Now I find that I can slip into a “flow state” almost instantaneously in the workshop, which is invariably “contented” (maybe a better word than “happy” ...). Any “struggle” is subsumed into this contented state, and there is a certain happiness in being able to “pull off” something that will always remain difficult. It seems to be a kind of happiness that is formed from a curious mixture of humility and bravura..." Tim Soar
This step comes with a practical tip as well. If you actually need to be somewhere/ do something at a certain time, best set yourself an alarm to avoid awkward "time slipped away from me" type excuses for not showing up!
Step 9: Collaborate
Things made by us are better than things made by me!
On the surface it may seem I often, maybe mostly, work alone when I make things. I sometimes like that feeling of autonomy in the shop. Don't let that fool you: no good project is ever not a collaborative sharing of ideas and materials.
Any project made for someone else is always a collaboration from the start.
In this case Serena and Dan (my sister-in-law and fiance) were the prime movers, who were willing to trust me to make them something that would live in their hallway. I had a really open remit, which is a tremendous gift (that can be a challenge - see limitations step), but still guided the project. I was to make shelves for their house, for example, not a giant hooter or laser actuated steam cleaner. By communicating with them, 'shelves' was narrowed down with physical space constraints and a few features they liked the idea of (e.g. adjustable height would be good).
A load of other people were kind enough to be in on this project. Some gave me materials. Make friends with people, be kind to them, tell them about your making, and you will soon have a stream of precious junk coming your way! Here's just a few collaborators in this regard - Sam, the foundation of basically everything I do, Dave, gave me pipes (including prized stainless ones), Paul helped me carry a VERY heavy steel rail across the beach, Barry kept me supplied with scrap alloy wheels for the melting, Robin (a subscriber on the FE YouTube channel) came and helped me chainsaw mill wood for a whole week...
Go on to the people I learned techniques and got ideas from, including friends, authors, bloggers, video makers, and you lot reading this, in this community, and this project really was made by us.
So yeah, don't forget to collaborate! Even here - leave a comment, share your wisdom and connect, you never know where it may lead.
Step 10: Give Us THIS Day Our DAILY Bread - Don't Worry About Tomorrow's Bread
At points in this project I was genuinely worried about how my sister-in-law and her partner would like these shelves. "What if they hate them", I thought. "All this time and material would be wasted" I thought. It stopped me acting as effectively, playfully or with as much artistry. In short it clouded my focus, and pulled me out of flow state.
As Dale Carnegie says in his fabulous book "How to stop Worrying and Start Living" (1948), focus on the tasks at hand, not the ones tomorrow, nor the failures or sorrows of the past. It's great advice.
When I was worrying, it was because I was thinking on the future. For THIS day I need to cut some wood into some nice shapes - easy! I can do that. I even have the months and years of consideration, since chainsaw milling the tree, to help me along... In that way making things messes beautifully with time. As my friend Tim Soar puts it:
"I can look at a board for weeks wondering how to cut it, and then the moment arrives to be decisive... [we] need to be both meditative (slow) thinkers and decisive (fast) thinkers. There’s never any rush, but axe-splitting a log of particularly precious wood requires decision, accuracy and speed."
There is amazing power in focusing on one thing at once. Any social media employee will tell you: attention is the true currency of our time. It's too easy to let our focus be scattered between a hundred different times and spaces. Stay present, inject what you do with enthusiasm and enjoyment and the future will take care of itself.
Step 11: It Is So. It Cannot Be Otherwise.
I'll admit it, I dislike sanding. It's one of my least favourite jobs - it's dusty, loud, takes a long time, doesn't involve interesting feats of dexterity or cunning - In short my feeling towards sanding is, 'yawn!'
But I like the results it brings, and on this job I didn't have time to entertain my long standing desire to make a big drum sanding machine. In other words, "It is so. It cannot be otherwise".
When a situation isn't good, change it or your feeling towards it. To do otherwise is unhelpful. Unless you're pretty exceptional, and not at all like me, on any significant project you will run into jobs that are hard and unpleasant, things that just need doing.
Acceptance is key to these jobs. When we accept and ACT, (yes occasionally we need to work harder, not smarter!) it often isn't so bad... For now it is a grind, but know that later it will be satisfying and romantic.
If you can't accept it, leave. Quit the whole job if you have to. But as the stoics would teach, if you stick with it, treat it as a choice. Don't grumble to your friends, yourself or anyone who will listen, it will only worsen the situation. This doesn't mean you can't state the facts, and describe the problem - that's the first step in addressing it. Stick to the facts though:
"Sanding is predictable and it's loud" - Ok so some radio ear defenders would sort that, and offer some amusement to liven things up. Lets do that... And it really does look beautiful after a good smooth sand...
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference. (Serenity Prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr 1892–1971)
Step 12: Being a Perpetual Beginner & Playing!
"Play is an invitation to unlearn, to be a beginner. The greatest obstacle to my play is thinking that I already know how." (Donaldson 1985, Playing by Heart: Vision and Practice of Belonging, page 140)
You want to enjoy the feeling of learning a new skill, or getting better at one you are already great at, right? Then try forgetting it...
It is really hard to transform yourself if you are wedded to being a master. Life can easily becomes a will to power and playing upsets that. Unfortunately play can't be shown, taught or given from words on a screen. It's a practice, just like the others tips here. It's demanding - it requires you be vulnerable (which can be scary), because play is truly ‘play’, when one is empty of pre-conceptions and approaches situations as a beginner. It's a mode of existence where everything becomes an experiment, life grabs you and every answer leads to a thousand questions.
All human beings enter the world in a state of wonder - don't loose it.
Fostering intense feelings of wonderment can really untether your identity, let you see new paths and take different steps with objects.
Injecting play into your work will make it more creative, it will exercise and up-level your perceptual shifting, and it will help you sail through those moments I was talking about when enthusiasm wanes. It's worth repeating: work is not a means to an end! Forget that and you are deferring life. Instead be in it. Be upapologetically amid your work, it doesn't have to be separate from play.
Paradoxically, being fierce in your play and playing in your work can really bring discipline into your life, for projects and problems will have the potential to 'grip you'. Play can carry you through times when all you seem to have is acceptance.
Step 13: Finishing
Questing after perfection isn't a bad thing - it means you have a vision. It's what you will naturally be doing in a flow state. Recognise it's unattainable though. At some point you have to SHIP - to put it out there and let the chips fall where they may.
Give it the final wax-oil and get the project out the door, test the machine you have been making, accept you can't put this or that finishing touch on the project - SHIP IT! Clear the shop for the next audacious adventure.
Letting go of projects is sometimes hard. As someone to whom writing doesn't come easy, I feel this as I approach the end of this instructable and consider pressing that orange 'Publish' button. I have to sneak up on it with humility, knowing that I cannot know how it will be received, but with the excitement of someone that hopes and believes it just might make a small positive dent in the world.
There's always already an endless list of reasons your project's not ready: it's risky, it's rough in places, it's not risky enough, the shape's not quite right, people will laugh, it's not original enough, it's not like anything - people won't get it... Endless...
It can help a lot to sketch out what perfect looks like for this project. Write down a bunch of things and as much detail as you can manage. After that, list what 'good enough' looks like.
Good enough is the key to getting things 'finished'. No ones projects are perfect. Be willing to fail (step 3). Some projects won't be what you hoped for, some will take way longer than you thought to get 'good enough', but only in finishing do we ever get good, or even great projects.
Step 14: Don't Saw Sawdust
Don't try sawing sawdust. However it's received, let it go. You did what you did, it's past. You're already a different person, and the next project is already here.
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