Once upon a time New York City was home to a lot of people who enjoyed watching the construction of high-rise buildings. Fences around sites even had portholes to facilitate the practice. Today the pastime is less popular, perhaps due to the fact that, according to the New York City Department of Buildings, there are currently about 600 stalled construction projects in town.
No matter. A somewhat similar, watch-'em-work experience can be had while reading Made By Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World (Portfolio, $25.95) by Mark Frauenfelder, co-founder of the wonder-eyed website BoingBoing and editor-in-chief of Make magazine, the do-it-yourself Bible.
Here is Frauenfelder describing his efforts to convert a backyard shack into a chicken coop: "I used a clamping miter box to cut the 45-degree angles for the frame and used the brackets to join the pieces. Things were going surprisingly well until I tried to attach the fourth piece and discovered that the furring strips I had bought were so twisted that I couldn't complete the frame without seriously warping it. The wood was against me. Fortunately, I had that extra piece of furring strip, and it seemed straight, so I cut it to size... I didn't want to make another trip to Home Depot unless I absolutely had to, so I forged ahead with the less-than-perfect materials at hand forcing the pieces into position."
And on and on: Frauenfelder's blow-by-blow account of how he built the chicken coop continues for eight pages. Then the family moves and he has to build another chicken coop, only this time there's a problem with coyotes breaking in and killing chickens, so further construction is necessary. This involves "eleven metal fence posts, fifty feet of wire screen, and one hundred cable ties." And forget about the work of caring for the actual chickens and their, um, byproducts.
Does Making Things Make Life More Meaningful?
Despite such indulgent tales of sweated labor, the author makes a persuasive case that a DIY approach can help its practitioners achieve "a richer and more meaningful life, a life of engagement with the world." Moreover, we should probably pay attention, as the "real simple" movement seems to be attracting enthusiastic followers. Make magazine has over 100,000 subscribers, at least some of whom must actually build the compressed-air rockets, solar tracking platforms, and cat toys described in its pages. Over 75,000 people attended that publication's 2009 Maker Faire, a DIY expo held in San Mateo, California.
But if, like me, your primary exposure to miter boxes comes by way of This Old House reruns, your feet firmly up on the coffee table, Made By Hand will be less than totally gripping. I applaud those who can install solar panels and drain their backyard cesspools while cultivating Amish Deer Tongue lettuce and home-schooling their kids. Soldier on, comrades! Me, I'll be sitting in the shade with a cold drink.
That said, I found Frauenfelder's later chapters more engaging. In one, he tells how to construct a "dronestick" -- a simple, three-string musical instrument -- out of scrap lumber and matchsticks. Then he makes a wooden kitchen spoon from a broken-off tree branch. Then he figures out how to make a simple fermented tea ... fermented? As in bathtub gin? Suddenly Made By Hand had my attention. It wasn't long, however, before the author moved on to beekeeping and my interest waned again.
Why not simply buy a cheap, secondhand guitar rather than construct your own musical instrument? Well, that would be giving in to the "mainstream music industry, which works to drive the lust to buy things." The DIYers of today have succeeded "in deprogramming themselves of the lifelong consumer brainwashing they've received" and have stopped "depending so much on faceless corporations to provide them with what they need." At a simpler level, Frauenfelder says working on DIY projects teaches us that "mistakes are not only inevitable – they're a necessary part of learning and skill building." And who can't relate to that?
Frauenfelder is hardly one of those black-clad anarchists now seen in the streets of Athens or even a Gen-Y Abbie Hoffman. But readers can discover in his book a provocative anti-capitalist ideology for the 21st Century: Tune in, turn on, make stuff.