Stuck at my Desk
I have recently been feeling unsure in which direction to go from here with my project. It feels like I’ve done a huge amount of research and had some very interesting ideas but don’t know how to begin developing these into tangible concepts.
I explained this to my mentor Polly and one of the workshop technicians, Malcolm, on Thursday and they both gave me the same suggestion: start making.
Inquisitive student: “What are you building?”
Malcolm’s answer: “She’s building character.”
I began the day by planing a piece of oak. It was really wonderful to learn how to use the tool to its optimum and to really get a feel for the movement with my entire body. It was much harder than I expected it to be. There is something magically mysterious about this tool which has been used for centuries and does its job so efficiently.
It was interesting how you could tell from the qualities of the wood shavings how well you were planing. It is not often that the waste of a process is seen as a valuable communicator.
After an hour of planing, I spent the next hour learning how to use a Japanese saw. I have used this tool before on numerous occasions but always with the purpose of cutting a piece of material. This time it was interesting to be using the tool just for the experience of using the tool.
It took me three attempts to cut off a section of oak at a perfect right angle and required a lot of careful adjusting with each stroke. You couldn’t stop concentrating for a minute otherwise it would become squint. This reminded me of Richard Sennett’s book The Craftsman in which he explains that our minds are not as separate from our hands as we think. We think that the “doing” is a separate to the decision to make something, but in reality every individual action is so carefully considered whilst “doing” that the mind and the hand are actually intertwined.
I feel that I’ve begun to realise the importance of what Malcolm called “process” in design. The process of making with your hands but also mental process, the stance you take on design and how you develop and apply this to the physical world. For the rest of this week it will be my job to develop my thinking in my project through making – two things which I did not feel were related before this stage but I’m now realising have a lot of opportunity to become interdependent.
The Value of the Handmade
When you make by hand you are using your whole body to do a task which could have been done by a machine. It is of your own choosing that you use your body to perform the action and I am beginning to understand why people would make this choice.
Today was the second day of my week of making because the workshop was shut yesterday. I spent the day doing two joints: a Scarf Joint and a Mortise and Tenon Joint.
The Scarf joint was in theory quite simple, with two pieces fitting into each other to create (in theory) a seamless transition between the two pieces of wood. I enjoyed working on this because it was my first time using a chisel in such an accurate situation and it was quite intricate to cut and shape.
The final joint was quite messy looking but this was due to the softness of the pine used to do it. However I did manage to make the wood fit together quite neatly along most sides because it was carefully marked out.
Mortise and Tenon Joint
The Mortise and Tenon joint is comprised of a part sticking through a hole in the other piece of wood and being fastened at the other side. For this joint I used some Beech wood because the warped pine had previously caused problems. Using the beech meant that I had another shot at planing to get the edges as right angled as possible. It was nice planing a different wood this time and learning how it reacted differently. It was interesting to see the difference in the wood shavings from the oak – with much less gaps in the grain.
It was interesting to hear Malcolm, the technician who was teaching me, talk about these joins as the first ‘flat packing method’. He explained that the give flexibility to the join and allow it to be tightened but also they allow the piece of furniture to be dissembled giving more flexibility to its use.
To save on time, I cut out the form of the tenon on the band saw. However it was quite messy in the end due to the crudeness of the band saw in comparison with the Japanese saws that I had been using that morning.
After cutting the joint, I had to chisel part of the tenon because the bandsaw had not cut totally straight. I was also surprised at how many burn marks were left by the saw blade.
Some Thoughts on how Making Applies to my Project
I identified last semester that the aim for my project is to get consumers to ask the same questions that I’ve been asking about consumerism and product design. I want to create critical consumers.
Could I create tools to start conversations? What will these have in common with the woodworking tools that I’ve been using this week?
One example of a tool to get people thinking was the de/reconstruct workshop that I ran at MAKLab. The hands-on approach of taking things apart gave the participants the opportunity to deeply engage with the issues surrounding the products.
Finishing my Mortise and Tenon Join
The join required constant adjusting and small amounts of chiseling to fit it through the Mortise. It was quite a nice process to be constantly testing and improving the piece, yet always taking care never to remove too much material. After some time chiseling the inside and also making small adjustments to the tenon (which had been cut squint because the bandsaw was blunt), the two finally fit snugly together.
The hole overlaps into the join meaning that the peg will keep everything under tension, and allow for it to loosen over time.
The next stage, which I’m still working on this evening, is to make a peg to sit within the tenon. The peg will be tapered in order to allow the user to push it in deeper as the wood loosens.
Opportunities for Making
Today I’ve been thinking about perhaps including the value of the experience of making itself in my project with the question: how can making create critical consumers? There is the possibility that I could design an experience such as a workshop as my final product in which making serves this role. I asked my mentor Polly about this suggestion and she explained that I could still package it in a nice way and really design the experience. Additionally, when I present my project, I could simultaneously present a series of objects making my idea tangible (these objects could even be those made by my participants?).
The task of getting people to ask questions was already addressed in my Cultural Probes. Because of the hand crafted tone of the kits, the participants responded in a certain way, adding value to their possessions.
Initially it is interesting to see making as creating value to a product and that value is not simply monetary but experiential. The maker did not have to spend the effort crafting something by hand, they chose to do so.
I need to spend the last two days of the week letting these thoughts develop further, perhaps I can consider prototyping my workshop idea next week as well?
Today I only spent the afternoon in the workshop, choosing to spend most of the day sorting out my sketchbook and developing a concept idea: creating critical consumers through making. This idea has been building in my mind throughout the week yet it was originally fostered a long time ago through my work with charity Skill Share Dundee. Today the act of sorting out my sketchbook meant that I could compare the concept against my insights from last semester and, through this, develop it into something more in depth and a build stronger argument.
Finishing my Mortise and Tenon
Alongside this, I also finished my mortise and tenon join. I whittled a small peg with a clean taper to go through the hole in the tenon, spending some time trying to carve it to fit perfectly. In the end, I am very happy with how the join looks. It is quite clean and flush yet also surprisingly strong. I can imagine building a table with these joins, ready to be simply knocked apart and reassembled somewhere new as it moves through my life with me. Interestingly, a friend of mine was telling me that mortise and tenon joints were also used to build barns. They would be made with green wood which tightens when it matures, creating an extremely strong structure.
I’ve also been thinking again about tools. Firstly it was the knife that I was using to whittle the peg, and the independence created in owning a knife. A knife serves as a means for the owner to alter their surroundings to suit their own needs, often allowing for their survival. Today it represents a means in which the user can create or make with their own hands and nothing more.
I spent the end of the afternoon replicating a beautiful bamboo tool that I found in the ceramics room. I began with a strip of bamboo and simply whittled it until I was happy with the shape. The process of whittling bamboo was once again completely different – the properties of the material meant that it came off in long strips rather than small dents. I therefore had to think differently about the impact that every stroke would have – in bamboo it could mean that it would mess up a part which I had already done.
Ephemerality of Tools
There is something really nice about crafting a tool for a specific purpose. The original tool that I copied wasn’t made for anything aesthetic or to make a point, it was just made to be used in a particular way. If a tool is handmade by the user, it is the ultimate of “form follows function”. What is nice is that the user feels the freedom to constantly adjust the tool, sharpening it and perhaps reshaping it, as its use changes. The tool’s existence is morphed to its use.
This reminds me of a section in Daniel Everett’s Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes in which he describes the lives of the indigenous Piraha peoples living on the banks of the Amazon River. When they need a basket, they will weave one then and there from the bushes. This basked will be totally tailored to its use. It will break apart after three days or so when its use has finished, fading back into the natural environment from whence it came.
After finishing my bamboo ceramic tool yesterday, I immediately felt the urge to make another one as I’d enjoyed the process so much. I decided that I would make one with a flat top as this would have been useful last year when I worked slip casting ceramics.
I also found a piece of wood that I’d been keeping around and decided that I would try to make a spoon as inspired by the beautiful work of Object Company who I met at a market once.
There is something so satisfying about whittling. Although you use quite a lot of force, it is a very gentle movement and progress happens slowly enough for you to enjoy and carefully consider the process but fast enough for you to feel proud of what you’ve achieved in half an hour.
So throughout this week I’ve been developing the concept of creating conscientious consumers through making. On Wednesday I discussed this idea with my mentor who suggested perhaps running workshops with a certain tone to get participants to ask the questions that I have been asking of consumerism.
What I’m doing is trying to get people to stop and consider how they buy and keep their possessions.
I began developing this idea, on my last day of making, with some of my classmates in a group tutorial. They suggested that I need to choose a user group – suggesting teenagers as the age at which consumer habits are formed. We discussed how I would get across my point in a clever way, without being too forceful with my opinions or using scare tactics but leading individuals to come to their own conclusions.
Tutorial with Callum Brown
On Monday we had a tutorial with Callum Brown a Product Design graduate from Dundee who now works for Random International. I presented my idea to him and two of my class members: Rebecca who is working on integrating technology in schools, and Claire who is working on empowering people to repair their own phones.
Callum liked my idea of woodworking kits, suggesting immediately that different children or different schools might complete different parts of the kit to build up a whole together. He thought the creativity element of the kits to be very interesting, making me open my mind a bit to the idea that my kits could be less prescribed and more open in their use. When I worried that I might lose the message he said not to worry and that he was sure it would stay prominent.
We then discussed how I can make the issues I’m trying to raise awareness of concrete in reality, perhaps through statistics at the end. Callum mentioned perhaps making the outcomes participants create “live” or connected to “the internet of things”. Such live objects could bring new meaning to value in things through a connected network of awareness of resources that go into objects.
To conclude this week of making, I’m feeling happy about my project for the first time in a long time. I’m feeling optimistic and that I can actually have some fun from now on. For me, making allowed me to take this step forwards and I hope to continue making and thinking through making for the rest of the project.