Mark Frauenfelder’s Made by Hand.

I’ve been interested in DIY culture for most of my life and love Make magazine as well as the O’Reilly “Hacks” series. Like the author, I think I inherited these tendencies from my father, while growing up in California. I have a brother whose own experience has closely paralleled that of the author.

Mark Frauenfelder’s “Made by Hand” gives his readers permission to make mistakes while exploring the world of DIY (Do It Yourself, as opposed to HAP, or Hire a Pro) culture. A resident of Tarzana then Studio City, both suburbs of Los Angeles, he would seem like an unlikely choice for urban hillbilly. Frauenfelder’s claims to fame include starting the popular blog “Boing Boing.” and appearing in the first Errol Morris Apple commercial.

This is one of those recently popularized “experience” books, in which the author sets out to try something different, like living strictly according to the Old Testament or eating nothing but cheese for a year. Frauenfelder begins the book by describing a desire to escape urban malaise by moving to Raratonga, and quickly discovers the difference between being a tourist and a resident of a community. From that experience he discovered that his favorite part of the journey was “coconut day,” when he would extract coconut meat with his daughters and cook it into scones or other goodies.

Upon his return to what passes for “civilization,” Frauenfelder embarks on a 1.5 year program to emulate coconut day by slowing his life down through a series of DIY projects, including killing his front lawn, growing his own food, modding his high-end espresso machine, raising chickens, fermenting Kombucha, yogurt and sauerkraut, making musical instruments, raising bees and ultimately learning how to learn. Oh, and carving wooden spoons. I didn’t think I could ever care about carving hardwood spoons, but by the end of the chapter I was ready to give it a shot.

The book is an extended invitation to become a physical hacker in the best sense (it saddens me that this term has been coopted by the press to mean “malicious computer intruder.”) The preferred term is now “maker,” which has more positive connotations but reminds me a little of Orson Scott Card’s magical realism set in the nineteenth century. Accomplished tinkerers and hackers may not find anything new in here, as his descriptions of each adventure are more like extended blog entries that point to additional resources and provide profiles of some fascinating Makers, including William Gurstelle, author of “Backyard Ballistics” and other invitations to enjoyable danger, Forrest Mims, the author of the popular Radio Shack eletronics manuals, and the secretive Mr. Jalopy, car hacker extraordinaire. Each DIY luminary provides insights that slowly accrete, leaving us with a useful philosophy of Making stuff by the time we are done.

Frauenfelder ruminates on how consumer culture has infantilized us in order to sell us toilet paper and diapers. As an antidote, he provides examples of how to carve out time to engage in these projects (by abandoning television and working in small bursts, sometimes 20 minutes a day. I was disappointed to read that he had temporarily forsaken painting and drawing).

The best parts of the book for me were Frauenfelder’s accounts of his own frequent mistakes. Often DIY texts are written by intimidating mechanical geniuses. Frauenfelder, on the other hand, messes up all the time while his wife, Carla, looks on disapprovingly. Sometimes the mistakes just don’t matter, and sometimes they serve as a precursor to something serendipitously better, like a black widow-free yard (thanks to the chickens), amplified cigar box guitars or a PID-enhanced espresso machine.

The message of the book is that mistakes are part of learning, and that if you’re not making mistakes then you’ve payed someone else to make them for you, and deprived yourself of something important in the process. Made by Hand is a good introduction to the DIY scene and will probably inspire you to try something yourself. If you are looking for detailed instructions for various projects, you’re probably better off with back issues of Make magazine or contacting some of the fascinating people he profiles in this book, but if you’re looking for inspiration, this is a good first stop on the road to Maker enlightenment.

An earlier reviewer complains that many of Mark’s adventures are enabled by a healthy disposable income. Although at times I cringed at his willingness to buy solutions online (a $24.95 wood gouge, etc.) more often than not the author points out how he could have saved money by using an alternative, and provides plenty of examples of scrounging through wood piles and parts bins for cheap solutions. I also enjoyed the pop philosophy in the book, and didn’t think that Mark was trying to elevate hobbies to the level of religion. It’s unfortunate that, in our highly fragmented and specialized post-fordist world we even have to justify a foray into experimentation and eclecticism, but I found the theorizing enjoyable and useful, especially the sections on the origins of advertising, learning and unschooling.

This book is not so much about the specifics of each project as it is about giving you the permission and attitudes to be a Maker, especially if you’re new to hacking your world.

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