Mark Frauenfelder is the Editor in Chief of Make Magazine, the founder of the blog, Boing Boing and the author of a new book about his trials, triumphs and lessons learned with DIY projects, Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World.
A copy of Mark’s new book was sent our way – and we were instantly engulfed in both the creativity of his projects and his attitude towards DIY (mistakes are OK!). His DIY journey started when he, his wife and two young daughters moved the remote Island of Raratonga, part of the Cook Islands, to literally get away from it all and enjoy a simpler, more direct lifestyle where they could forge a deeper connection and more rewarding sense of involvement with the world around them.
Mark and his family did return to the comforts of California about a year later, but not without lessons learned. In the family’s time in Raratonga, Mark was inspired by the world and environment around him to adapt a DIY lifestyle. In the past few years he’s tackled gardening, keeping bees, building working guitars from cigar boxes, making yogurt and other food, and tutoring his daughter, amongst other projects. And, for those of you who have heard about my latest obsession with keeping chickens, Made by Hand is where I first got that idea.
Mark was kind enough to let us ask him a few questions about his new book and some of his recent DIY projects:
1. What inspired you to write Made By Hand?
When we moved to the Island of Raratonga my family and I got interested in making our own food on a level that we weren’t used to before. Because the selection of food was limited on the island, we started making our own food – tortillas, pasta, scrapping our own coconuts. We wanted to do more of this when we moved back to the United States.
I found that becoming active and engaged in the processes that keep us alive and well could be really interesting – that’s why I first focused on food-related projects. These kinds of projects force you to slow down and become more observant of the world around you. It changed our family’s life for the better. Not only are we more appreciative of the things we make, but we’re more appreciative of the things we buy. You become more observant, it’s a really eye opening way to live.
2. Were you always a DIY-er, or was this a lifestyle that you developed recently?
I found my DIY niche when I was older. I was always interested in DIY media projects, such as magazines and web design, but being a DIYer in the real world was something I was hesitant to do, because I made mistakes when I was younger. So I retreated to the online world where mistakes can be easily corrected.
When I became the Editor in Chief of Make, and I was coming in contact with DIYers, they all assured me that making mistakes was OK. And that, in fact, mistakes often led to desirable results. Making mistakes challenges your creativity, and you often end up with something better than what you set out to make in the beginning. I decided that I needed to adopt that attitude, even if I didn’t believe it. As I progressed in my DIY projects, I came to understand what they meant. You shouldn’t look at mistakes as a failure, you should look at them as an important part of the process.
3. Do you remember what your first DIY project was?
It was probably a vending machine my sister and I made. We were in elementary school. It was a cardboard refrigerator box. One of us would hide inside and pour drinks or dispense food when the neighborhood kids dropped money into the slot. The other one of us would stand guard next to the machine to make sure the other kids didn’t tip the box over or vandalize it.
4.You discuss a bunch of DIY projects in the book, from making your own cigar box guitar, to improving your espresso machine, to keeping chickens to gardening. What has been your favorite DIY project to date?
My favorite has probably been keeping chickens because there was a lot of interesting challenges: from building the coop, to helping to raise the chicks. [Mark and his family kept six chickens in their back yard, both as pets and to enjoy their eggs. The book discusses how Mark built the coop, and the challenges and benefits of raising chickens in a suburban setting.] They became really fun and entertaining pets that we had a relationship with. We raised them from when they were 2 days old, and my daughters really loved them. Unfortunately, the chickens were eventually picked off by predators, which is why I don’t consider them to be the success, but they were the most rewarding.
5. What projects have you had the biggest success with?
Building cigar box guitars – I finished my ninth one last week, and I gave it to my friend’s son. [Mark creates working guitars from cigar boxes] They are sounding pretty good! I would have never thought I would have been able to make a working stringed instrument from scratch, but they have a good, old fashioned sound, sort of blue-sy. This project makes me feel like I actually accomplished something.
6. On page 103 you wrote a passage that really spoke to why we love DIY project so much. It reads: “I wonder if one of the main reasons people garden, or knit, or retire to their garages and basements to tinker, is because they enjoy this unusual state of consciousness. Some people might be able to achieve it by meditating, but using your hands seems to do the trick, too.” Can you expand on what this meant to you a bit here?
I first started feeling that when I was working on the first chicken coop – it was a big project, and it took me all summer to complete. There were many days that I spent in complete silence and isolation. It was very calming. There is an author that talks about certain mental states, it provides a concentration and focus, it puts you in a state of focused relaxation, being present in the moment and letting your mind just soar – it was an interesting state to be in. I found the same thing would happen when I wittled wooden spoons. It’s an interesting tightrope – doing something mindless and mindful at the same time. One thing it does is keeps you from worrying about the day-to-day hassles of everyday life, there’s no need to be constantly worrying about that stuff.
7. In the book you talk about engaging your children in projects and what tactics worked for you, so that they would find the projects enjoyable. What advice do you have for other parents who want to engage their children in their DIY projects?
Expose your children to DIY in a way that’s like Tom Sawyer with the fence – he had to get the kids to WANT to white wash it, instead of asking them to do so. When you expose kids in that way, they are naturally curious, rather than sitting them down, and saying “let’s work on a project.” When I started harvesting honey, for instance, I would walk inside with the honeycomb, and waited for them to ask what it was.
8. What projects would you like to accomplish in the next year?
I’d like to plant more fruit trees, to create an orchard on our property. I also want to learn more about electronics. I started to make amplifiers, and have begun to put them into the cigar box guitars. I’d also like to make a treadmill desk, so I can stand up and walk while I work. At one mile an hour you can still easily talk on the phone, use the mouse and keyboard, yet people who use them say it keeps them from feeling sluggish.
9. Do you try to strike a separation between your work at and for Make Magazine and your DIY hobbies, or do you let them blend together?
I do let it all become one – I feel lucky that my work matches my interests. If I make a cigar box guitar, I will often write about it on Boing Boing or for Make.
10. What words of advice do you have for other DIYers?
Start simple. Do things that not only have a fun process, but that also have an end result that has benefits, too. Food-based DIY is a great way to get started, and you can save money. That’s why I make things like my own yogurt and sauerkraut. And then when you’re done you have this delicious fresh food, and you’re part of the process, so you’re really interested in how it tastes. I often give it away when I’m finished.
11. When building something like an amplifier, or improving a coffee machine, as you discuss in the book, what level of electrical knowledge do you need to have to tackle such a project? Did you have any before, or are their basic how-to manuals that are easy enough to follow?
You really don’t need to know much. Searching online for instructional videos or websites is a great way to learn.
How to read a schematic: http://artsites.ucsc.edu/EMS/music/tech_background/schematics/ReadSchem.html
How to solder: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BLfXXRfRIzY
You can find Made By Hand in your local bookstore or on Amazon.com here.