I like making stuff from scratch. A lot of the time we think of stuff as coming from the store, and the store is as much as we need to know. But I like to think about how the stuff is made, and then make it myself. So here are three things:
#1: A hat. When Grandma & Grandpa went to Russia, they brought me back one of those Russian hats with the ear flaps. I used to think it was called a shapka, but I think that’s actually just the Russian word for “hat”, and the word Russians use for it is ushanka. (The ush part means “ear”.) At some point, I lost it at college. I couldn’t find it anywhere, and I missed it, especially when winter started looming and I was expecting to go on a cross-country bike trip in January. I could’ve asked for one for Christmas, but I decided I’d rather make one on my own. I didn’t have any fur, but luckily, when I was contemplating making this hat, I was around Aunt Tami (this was Thanksgiving), and she happened to have a bunch of extra fur scraps lying around. As far as I’ve gathered, the story is that she went to Alaska and she found someplace that makes fur garments, and convinced them to give her a bag full of little bits and pieces. After Thanksgiving, she mailed them to me, and I got to work.
First I looked at Micah’s hat and determined how it had been put together, and then I drew up patterns for each of the pieces I would need to put my own together. They were surprisingly big. And the fur I’d been sent was in surprisingly small pieces. So I spent a long time—several evenings’ worth of work—just putting the little pieces together into the shape of the big pieces. I stitched it all by hand, figuring that a sewing machine would probably wreck all these little fur pieces. Then I had the big pieces done, and I stitched those together, and finally I had a hat.
More or less. It’s still way too big, so I’m going to need to take it apart a little and sew some parallel stitches in a little ways from the original ones. Then maybe I’ll be able to wear it and see at the same time. That will make the hat a little more practical. And once I’ve got it smaller, it might not look like I killed an entire forest’s worth of cute woodland creatures to get the fur.
But damn me if it’s not the warmest hat on the face of the planet.
#2: A stamp. A couple weeks ago it struck me that it’d be pretty cool to have an ex libris (Latin for “from the books [of]”) stamp with my name on it, so I could stamp my many books that I have. Ex libris stamps (or woodblocks or glue-in inserts) have a long but not widely known history. People have been marking their books with them for hundreds of years.
I couldn’t have bought this particular rubber stamp at a store, but I expect there’s some company out there that you can send designs to and then they’ll machine it into a stamp for you and send it to you. That sounded like rather a hassle to me, but I wanted to make this stamp, so I got the supplies and got to work. All I really needed was a slab of rubber (from the craft store), an X-Acto knife, and some tissue paper to draw the design on. First I drew out the design. It was nothing all that elaborate, because I hadn’t really thought of any elaborate drawing. Just a couple trees and a big flourish and the words. Maybe I’ll make another one sometime and have a bigger image full of lots of symbolism and fancy artwork. But for now this one is more than good enough for me.
I glued the design upside-down to my piece of rubber, and then set about carving it out. I hadn’t read anything about how to do it, but it seemed pretty straightforward, and I’d done one simple practice stamp to get the hang of it. It took a long time of carving—I’d say at least three hours, though I didn’t really time it—but I came out in the end with this:
Here’s what my practice stamp looks like when it’s stamped on paper. Wait a moment and there’ll be a picture of the ex libris. The stamping job is a bit untidy because I didn’t have an inkpad, so I had to use Chinese calligraphy ink on a few thicknesses of paper towel.
#3: A journal. I’m almost out of room in my current journal. When I got it a year ago, I was looking for a change of pace from the ones I’d been using since 2003. They were made by Miquel Rius, 600 pages long, bound in leatherish foam rubber. All pretty much perfect, except for one thing: they only come with one kind of pages—gridded. I wanted a journal with blank pages, so I could do everything freeform, write at whatever size I wanted to. But just about every company that makes journals expects you’re just too incompetent to write in a straight line on your own, so it’s really hard to find journals that have no lines. There are unlined blank books, but they’re mostly geared toward artists, so they tend to have thicker paper, which means a lot fewer sheets per book. And a lot of them are hardcover. Or spiral-bound—I can’t use a spiral-bound journal; it’s not permanent enough for me when you can easily rip out a page and no one can tell. I looked through all sorts of stores last year when I was on this quest, but I couldn’t find any blank books with more than 300 pages, and most of them were more like 200 (or 192, which is a multiple of 32, convenient for bookbinders). I ended up buying the only 300-page one I found, a crappy little green one bound in cardstock paper (instead of foam rubber) and bearing an unattractive little “Flexi-Sketch” logo on the spine. I’ve dealt with it, but when I noticed I was down to 30 pages left, I started going on a search for a better one. What I really wanted was a Miquel Rius with no grid. But such a thing doesn’t exist; I couldn’t find any evidence of it anywhere on the internet. There was nothing else good that I could find, either, from any company. I was going to disheartenedly buy a gridded Miquel Rius, or maybe an expensive-as-hell Moleskine with just 192 pages, but then I realized with a jolt that I could bind my own journal.
As soon as I had the idea, there was no stopping it. I found some instructions online by a guy named Michael Shannon, here, and they showed what I would need. I went out and found the right kind of paper, cream-colored, legal size. I got some foam rubber from the Sunshine Foam Rubber Company. I had biked by this place in October and been tremendously amused by its name, but I never imagined I would actually patronize it. (Actually, I still kind of didn’t. They had some unsellable scrap and the woman at the counter told me to just take it.) For the endpapers, I was going to find a couple sheets of fancy thicker paper, but at the paper store, they didn’t have anything of the right size available by the sheet, only by the ream. So I was looking around for ideas in the store, and I saw some paper that was packaged inside some industrial-type brown paper, and it suddenly occurred to me that I could use a grocery bag! I had thread and needle already, and I got some glue at the craft store. I even made a little book press out of some wood Dad had lying around and some carriage bolts from the hardware store.
Regrettably, I didn’t take any pictures while I was making it, but you can read through the instructions on the link I posted, and imagine me doing them. I did the endpapers a little differently. Michael Shannon says to put glue all over the face of your topmost and bottommost normal pages, and then glue the endpaper completely to their surfaces. I looked at a bunch of books I had, and none of them did that. Instead, the binders had put a little line of glue along the spine edge of the top and bottom pages, and then just glued the endpaper along the edge, and that way the beginning and ending pages of the book stayed viable. I didn’t have a guillotine or anything for making the edges neat, so I used Dad’s table saw. I could have found a printer somewhere and asked to use their edge trimmer, and it would’ve looked a lot nicer, but the table saw was right there in the garage.
Here’s what it looks like.
I love this, because I can completely customize the journals to my journal-writing wants and needs. For example, this one has a nice cream-colored paper that the Miquel Rius ones don’t, and it’s beautiful. Also, it has the right number of pages, which, in this case, is 500. I got this number by looking ahead and noting that my life will probably have a good dividing point in sixteen or seventeen months, assuming I go to Korea, which is still the plan. (There’ll be an even bigger dividing point in about four months, but that’s too soon.) And that’s about 500 days. By the way, on the topic of Korea, I haven’t gotten in touch with the Teach ESL Korea people yet, because I decided I’m first going to talk to a Korean about whether they think it’s a good idea to go there, and what are the chances of war, and whether they think it’ll be a rewarding experience. If the answer comes out no, I’ll have to figure out a new plan. It might involve teaching English in some other country. I think I’ve read that there are lots of countries that like to bring in English-speakers to help them teach English, especially in Asia, so hopefully I’ll find something in that regard if Korea’s not a good option.
All this about making stuff also serves as a rebuttal to those (ekhhmDANugh-ugh-ugh) who think I’ll get nothing done if I try doing a year of traveling and adventure. I’m just sayin‘: I get stuff done. Even if I’m currently tied down to this house and the weather around here doesn’t really lend itself to long bike trips and there are TVs on all the time trying to distract me, I still put my time to good use doing cool stuff that’s fun and rewarding. If I take a year to go out and experience the country after college, I humbly believe that I’m the kind of person who won’t end up sitting in front of the TV and complaining about how I can’t do anything. If I want to do something, and it’s possible for me to do it, I go and do it. It’s just that my Semester of Adventure turned out to be impossible as I had imagined it. You’re right, I should’ve reimagined sooner, but I was in denial of its impossibility for a long time. I’ll keep that lesson in 2012, but hopefully I won’t have to use it, because there won’t be much stopping me from doing anything that year. No looming school projects, nowhere I need to be in a few months that will keep me in one place waiting for that time. I may take the step of moving my belongings into a self-storage place, in whatever place I think I might end up after the year of exploration is over. Time will tell.
File under: making stuff