Category Archives: Making

Making things

Mending knee holes with sashiko

I love repairing things. For several years I’ve hoped to take up sewing to extend my fixing skills to clothing. Sheltering-in-place during COVID-19 has provided opportunities to try my hand at mending ripped knees in my family members’ pants. It feels good to sit in peace and make something whole again. Apparently I’m part of a trend, with mending and in particular visible mending gaining in popularity.

I asked my friend Cassie where to start in mending holes in knees and she pointed me to the book Mending Life, which had steps that were thorough, clear, and seemed doable – with handy illustrations (pp. 96-103). So I took a shot at it. So far I’m 3 of 3! None are perfect but all three exceeded my expectations. Below are photos.

Specifically, I have been trying to emulate sashiko, a Japanese decorative reinforcement stitching technique. I sewed the first patch with a piece of thick thread I found in my sewing box. The next two I did with proper sashiko needles and thread I ordered online. (As with most of my things, if you live near me and want to borrow them, just ask).

I chose contrasting thread and patches to emphasize the repair jobs. I’m proud of my work, it normalizes repair and reuse, and frankly I think the unique & visible mends leave the clothing looking better than it did new.

Sashiko patch #1: women’s jeans

The ripped fabric at the knee was exploding outwards. It was begging to be patched with the “exposed edge technique” (Mending Life), with an interesting pattern poking through.

Continue reading Mending knee holes with sashiko
Compost bin with open lid

Building a compost bin out of pallets

The project: My mother-in-law had long expressed interest in composting her food scraps, but didn’t care for the plastic bins available for purchase. I’d been interested in building such a bin by reusing salvaged lumber, mostly discarded wood pallets. This presented a fun challenge: construct a compost bin that satisfied her aesthetic requirements and followed my principles of reuse.

It turned out well: it’s attractive (in a rustic way) and functional, though took longer to build than I expected. Breaking down pallets was a big chunk of that time overage: they were free in monetary cost but not in the time they took to process.

After weathering its first winter

Design: I built it probably a little too big, 32″ L x 30″ W x 29″ H. Compost bins have to solve for the problem of emptying the finished compost (after a year or so) while leaving in place any recently-discarded food. In bins like this, which will be emptied via a not-yet-installed door in the bottom of the side (see below), that separation is achieved by the depth of the pile. The bottom of the pile, with older finished compost, is no longer turned, while the fresher, unfinished material rests on top. In a narrower bin, the walls support layers of material such that the top layers can be left in place while the bottom is scraped out. This bin may be too big to neatly do that. Perhaps the over-sizing just means it can go a few years between emptying.

The slender buckthorn log on top was a last-second addition. It supports the lid in its open position so that the hinges don’t bear the door’s full weight. This bin is lovely and robust, but maybe overly complicated for task of turning food scraps into soil. The next bin I build may be much simpler, left unfinished and entirely open to the air with no lid to exclude animals.

The lid is resting on the buckthorn branch

Materials: In addition to many mismatching pallets, I used scrap 2x4s and plywood, plus fasteners and hinges I had lying around. To preserve the wood somewhat, while keeping it food-safe, I treated the wood with mineral oil and some stale cooking oils.

Breaking down the pallets into boards was a learning experience. I found that filleting them with a Sawzall was fastest. Expect to shed bits of nails wherever you work and choose a workspace accordingly. I also should have set a higher bar for the quality of pallets that I scavenged, as I wasted time freeing some boards that were unusable.

Breaking down pallets with a Sawzall

Build: the construction was straight-forward. I screwed together 2x4s to make the posts, cut and installed the pallet boards to make the sides, framed out the top and the lid, installed the lid. Remember to leave a gap at the back of the lid panel so that the edge can rotate up when the lid is opened.

The irregularly-cut 2x4s framing the top are cross-pieces from the pallets

Installation: I used a post-hole digger to install the bin, sinking the posts in place. After a few weeks of use, it appeared that an animal had accessed the bin by tunneling a small hole in the dirt under one wall. So I dug a 10″ trench around the perimeter and inserted sheets of metal hardware cloth in the trench, fastening it to the posts that were sunk in the ground. That was it for animals; the lid is too heavy for a raccoon and there are no bears here.

What’s next: Still left to do is installing a door in the bottom of one side. Then, in a year when the bottom layer of compost is ready to be emptied, I’ll scrape out the finished compost through that door. I plan to secure the bottom few boards to each other with wood strips, then unscrew their ends from the posts they’re attached to, and install hinges so that those boards can swing up together. (And add a latch to secure the door).

To spread out the time required by this project, I didn’t build the emptying door before putting the bin into use. Aside from having to work with compost-covered boards, we’ll see if I’ve failed to consider any mechanical problems introduced by postponing this feature.

I reserved some extra pallet slats, assuming that some wood will decay with time/ I should be able to swap in new pieces as needed to keep the project going. I’d be pleased with a lifespan of 20 years for this bin, after which it too can become compost. Planning the eventual obsolescence of a project is new for me; perhaps I’m thinking more timefully.

An Excel grocery checklist template

Being in an unfamiliar setting can lead to epiphanies, big and small. Travel is great for this. For instance, I first learned about cargo bikes when I saw one in Brooklyn on a work trip.

In 2012 I stayed in an apartment that had a physical grocery list hung on the kitchen wall. It listed common items – apples, eggs, etc. – and had arrows you could flip to note that you needed something.

I liked the idea. It solves the tricky problem of trying to see in your fridge the things that aren’t there, providing a checklist instead. But you can’t take it with you to cross things off and it’s hard to modify the items as your needs change over time.

So I made an Excel version of this checklist, organized by section of the store and with space to write in custom items. I’ve tweaked it over the years and it’s worked great.

In the spirit of knowledge sharing, I’ve posted it for others to download and adapt. It’s not “open-source” because it’s a Microsoft Excel file. But I share it in that spirit. It should be accessible to regular people who want to make a customized grocery list. I hope someone else can benefit from the time I spent tweaking the formatting!

(don’t judge me for the list contents, everyone is different)

SD card not recognized in Ubuntu after formatting with GParted? Label it

I formatted an SD card for use in a Raspberry Pi, in fat32 format using the GParted and following the steps in this post.

But then Ubuntu didn’t recognize it, so I couldn’t put the NOOBS files on it. I went around in circles before giving the SD card a label, a step described as “if you wish” in that post. Voila! My SD card was immediately recognized.

That’s all. Label the volume. Maybe this brief post helps someone searching the internet, but if nothing else I hope writing this makes me less likely to fall in this same trap again.

That feeling when your first user opens an issue

You know how new businesses frame the first dollar they earn?

I wrote an R package that interfaces with the SurveyMonkey API. I worked hard on it, on and off the clock, and it has a few subtle features of which I’m quite proud. It’s paying off, as my colleagues at TNTP have been using it to fetch and analyze their survey results.

The company and I open-sourced the project, deciding that if we have already invested the work, others might as well benefit. And maybe some indirect benefits will accrue to the company as a result. I made the package repository public, advertised it in a few places, then waited. Like a new store opening its doors and waiting for that first customer.

They showed up on Friday! With the project’s first GitHub star and a bug report that was good enough for me to quickly patch the problem. Others may have already been quietly using the package, but this was the first confirmed proof of use. It’s a great feeling as an open-source developer wondering, “I built it: will they come?”

Consider this blog post to be me framing that dollar.

Installing a top of stairs baby gate without drilling into wood trim or banister post

The challenge: in an old house with nice woodwork, mount a baby gate at the top of the stairs such that it’s secure – without damaging the wood.

baby gate at top of stairs
The final product

This was a fun project.  Got some ideas from YouTube videos (a learning format I usually dislike) and improvised a little.  This is built from scrap parts I had on hand, plus a baby gate I had installed at our previous home.

The uneven surfaces presented by the trim on both sides pose the creative challenge.

Continue reading Installing a top of stairs baby gate without drilling into wood trim or banister post

Upcycling yard sign frames into a papasan chair?

Filed under “ideas I’d pursue if I had infinite time:” could I weld the metal wickets from old political yard signs into the bowl of a papasan chair?  There are tons of signs rendered useless each election when a candidate loses or a proposal is decided.  These are free or nearly-free, and indeed many are left by the side of the road to rust.

The thin metal rods bend well.  I imagine giving them the proper curve, then welding a grid of them into a bowl shape.  Welding is on my long-term to-learn list, perhaps in 2019.  Would this be an easy trial project or a foolishly hard one?  It would at least be low stakes.

I’m not sure what material the rods are.  Galvanized steel?  I’ve seen some of them rust.  If galvanized, I gather additional safety precautions may be in order from zinc fumes that off-gas during welding.

Someday, perhaps.  I wonder if it’s been tried, or what else people have made from this source of free metal rods.

DIY Hops Trellis

I started growing hops at my parents’ home in Chicago in 2008.  In the summer of 2011 we moved them to Michigan and I built this trellis:

hops trellis
Hops grow from the frames on the right up the lines to the tree on the left

Now that it’s time for the trellis to find a new home, I’m writing up my design for posterity.  Notable aspects include that it can be harvested without ascending a ladder and that the top is mounted on a tree.

Each of the three hop plants (Cascade, Mt. Hood, Centennial) has its own starting frame.  It runs up the yellow chain for 5 feet, then starts climbing a line up into the trees:

closeup of wood hops frame
Overgrown vegetation shows I’ve lost interest

The frames are a 5 foot tall 4″ x 4″ vertical post with a short 2″ x 4″ crossbar at the bottom and a longer one at the top.  The ends of the bottom and top crossbars are connected by chains, allowing the hops to spread laterally as they grow out and up to the top crossbar.  The chains are attached to metal eyelets at the top and hammered in with large galvanized staples at the bottom:

wood frame with chain for hops

From the eyelets on the top crossbar, six synthetic rope lines (two from each base frame) run up to a steel ring hoisted in a tree, where they clip on with carabiners:

rope clipped onto the ring

A pulley wheel is tied around a fork in the tree, and the ring is on a long synthetic line that runs through this pulley wheel.  At harvesting time, the ring can be lowered from the ground, using the pulley, and the carabiners unclipped for transporting the bines to a picking area.  Then the carabiners are reattached and the lines are raised again, all without use of a ladder.

The good and the bad

With 7 years of experience, I can comment on how the design worked.

The good:

  • Ease of raising and lowering: not having to climb a ladder is great.
  • Longevity: the entire system has held up well, including the synthetic lines, which I never took in for the winter.  I don’t think jute or a similar natural twine would have lasted.  One wood staple came out from a frame, which is an easy fix.

The bad:

  • Shallow climbing angle.  I should have mounted the ring higher in a tree, kept the lines tighter, or planted the hops closer to the tree.  As it was, the bottom of the climbing lines flattened out under the weight of the plant and the hops needed some help to grow in the right direction.  Manual training of hop plants is not uncommon, but I think a steeper climb would have avoided this.
  • Mowing around the trellises was tricky, both around the bases and under the lines.  This  meant grass and other unwanted vegetation encroached on the hops.
  • I was afraid I’d get tangled in the lines while sledding in my yard; this never happened, but could have.
Separate from my particular growing setup: I lost interest in growing hops.  I’ve stopped training or harvesting them.  A fresh hop beer is fun to make, but not worth (to me) the hassle of training and maintaining the bines.  And trying to preserve and package hops for use throughout the year is tedious.  They won’t stay good as long as professionally-packed hops from the store (I know: in one season before I had kids, I spent hours and hours  drying my hops and turning them into plugs).  Once the charm of growing them wore off, it made no sense to spend my time on growing instead of buying pounds in bulk.

Improvising an AC/DC wall wart adapter

Yesterday I had a nice maker win that felt like validation for time spent building confidence in the basics of electronics.

The problem

The situation was dire.  The Medela Pump-In-Style breast pump was needed immediately.  We found the old pump but couldn’t locate its battery pack or AC/DC adapter.  It was late and local stores were closed.

The hack

On Amazon.com I found the specs for a replacement Medela adapter: output 9V, 1000 mA.  Rummaging in my to-be-recycled electronics pile, I found a 9v 1000mA power adapter from an electric pencil sharpener I’d used as a high school teacher.  But its prong was too small for the Medela.

More rummaging turned up an adapter prong that did fit, this from the power adapter to an old Asus RT-N16 router (12V, 1.25 amps).  I cut each adapter’s cord in half, stripped the wires, attached them with crimp-on butt end splices – noting that the positive wire on each pair was marked with stripes –  and voila!  The pump worked and saved the day.