Shop Talk and Tips with Gareth Branwyn
By Dale Dougherty
May 10, 2022
0:00 / 34:17
Gareth00:06

Rust is such a beautiful thing. It represents the death of whatever the object or tool or whatever but it's so beautiful. And it's also an invitation to repair it. I've been doing tool restorations recently, and I just absolutely love finding a really beat up old tool and making it look amazing again.

Dale00:28

Welcome to Make: cast. I'm Dale Dougherty. Gareth Branwyn joins me on this episode of Make:cast, a production of Make Community at make.co.

In his new book, Tips and Tales of the Workshop. Volume Two, Gareth writes: "Tips like slang and jokes, funny memes, yearn to be shared. Tips want to be free. They are shared from maker to maker. They are seen in online project documentation and in videos. And they're added to the arsenal of shop techniques by those exposed to them. They end up in tips articles and books. Tips he says are promiscuous. And that's a good thing."

I'd like to you to get to know Garreth. He's one of my favorite people that I've ever worked with. Gareth, tell us a bit about yourself.

Gareth01:25

I've been involved in all forms of DIY for my whole life.

That's something that I recently realized is that I moved to commune when I was 17 years old, Twin Oaks in central Virginia. So that's DIY culture and did all of that for six and a half years and learned how to be a printer and learned farming and all kinds of homesteading skills.

And then I moved to the DC area and moved in with Patch Adams to help him start his organization, which is community-based health and very much sort of DIY health. And then I got involved in the zine publishing movement in the eighties and nineties, DIY publishing. And then I got involved in the maker movement, which is DIY tools and technology.

And so yeah, that's a realization that I just recently had. It's not something that I intended to do, but I guess I just am attracted to hands-on do it yourself, self-reliance and that's been a thread throughout my life.

Dale02:32

Part of it is just an interest in what the future holds, right?

Just like that, but not in some ethereal sense. But almost more less science fiction and more science fact. What can you actually do?

Gareth02:46

Yeah. And the other thing that I find is I back into the latest thing. It's not like I intentionally, like at the end of interviews, people always ask me, what's the next thing?

And I'm always at at a loss. Like I just pick the things that are like internet of things or whatever the new flavor is, but I find myself just being attracted to what interests me, and then I wake up one day and realize, oh, this is now a trending thing.

My recent passion has been tabletop gaming. It's been a passion throughout my whole life. But recently I got back into it. I don't know, like five or six years ago and then discovered, oh, it's now a big booming area of culture and DIY and all kinds of other things. And again, I didn't go into it because of that. My interest just came back around to that.

Dale03:42

Let's focus on your book here. There is a quality to this book. I'll certainly what I like most about it is just seeing all the different names of people in it. And something we used to enjoy about Maker Faire, particularly it's just to get to talk to lots of people that you normally don't get to.

There's a quality to this book. It's like shop talk. Sometimes, you're talking to someone and then an idea pops out of that conversation and you go, I'm going to remember that, like they learned something and I got to remember that.

Gareth04:13

Yeah.

Dale04:13

It seems like your book is full of those things.

Gareth04:16

Yes. Yes. And, but it's interesting that you say that because when I start off the first volume of Tips and Tales from the Workshop, I started going around to people like at Maker Faires and say, Hey, I'm doing this book, share a tip. And they would just completely draw a blank, but then when you would just start chatting with them, they would drop a tip in the middle of-- so when they're on the spot.

Dale04:39

It's funny that in some ways they don't have a filing system for their tips.

Gareth04:43

If you're

Dale04:43

It comes out through just talking.

Gareth04:46

Yeah. And you have to train yourself to think that way. Like I've always, another sort of self-revelation that I've had recently is that I really like short forms of communication, of writing.

I did the Street Cred column in Wired. I did the Jargon Watch column in Wired. I've always liked short form things. And I found in each of those, like with Jargon Watch, I got to the point where I could look through a newspaper and a new word would jump out at me cause I'd see it often in quote marks or italics or whatever.

So I got to the point where I could easily scan through television and newspaper. Then magazines and those words would pop out. And now it's the same thing with tips. I watch a video and as soon as somebody starts doing something I know is tip worthy, those sort of lights go off and I write it down, as you say.

And so a lot of it was me going or for both of these books was me going around and collecting tips rather than interviewing people because when I would ask them for tips so frequently I get no response or kind of an anemic one.

Dale05:53

That's such an interesting point. You and I are talking recently about the idea of know-how. If you were to ask someone, show me what you know how to do, I want to learn from you, that they would freeze because they don't...

Gareth06:04

They absolutely do.

Dale06:05

And there's a real difference between knowing how to do something and be able to show someone else how to do it.

Yes.

Because it's almost like implicit knowledge.

Gareth06:16

Yeah. When you're really good at something you background 75% of why you're doing.

Dale06:22

And you might be inclined to almost say things like, oh, I always knew how to weld, through, it's feels like to you that you don't remember the learning of that thing.

Gareth06:31

Exactly.

Yeah. And it's like when I used to be the co overlord of Dorkbot DC. And when nerds would give presentations. So much of it, they would just assume that you knew so much. And I just thought that was really a fascinating thing because yeah, all of that's been, so backgrounded that they don't know to unpack what they're talking about in a way that can bring people along at different levels of understanding of the subject.

Dale07:01

And they do not realize that they're dropping people off.

Gareth07:04

Yeah, exactly. But going back to that idea of community, that's something I really wanted to foreground. I got into the idea of doing both of these books because I had a couple of instances where the first one was I have this pine box that I made in 10th grade industrial arts class. Just a box, a simple box. And I've had it with me my whole life. I've used it for storing different tools and things in it. And I love that box so much. It has so much. I dunno, remember Mr. Jalopy had a concept called the inspired object and it became a real inspired object for me, even though it was ugly and poorly made.

And so I thought about that, how the stories and this sort of legacy or whatever carries through with tools. And then I had a couple of instances where people would start talking about their tools or tips if I could get them there. And they would say, oh yeah, I got this from my dad or whatever.

And I realized, wow, tools really do come with stories. They always have stuff attached to them. And in that thread of the whole DIY explorations of my life, I've always been interested in the people side of the equation, more than the tools and technology. I'm interested in how people use or misuse tools and technology.

Dale08:28

What's the story of people doing things. People and what they're doing is not just the thing itself.

Gareth08:34

Exactly.

When I lived at the Twin Oaks, this commune in central Virginia, and I'd go to Southern States, which was like the farm supply store. They'd be these old timers, these old farmers sitting around a pot belly stove in the warehouse, trading stories, trading these tall tales about their farming careers.

And I just love that idea of getting people together, who are makers and them sharing tales. So that's why I have shop tales as part of the title which is even harder to get people to tell stories like that than it is for the tips.

Dale09:11

I've always been attracted to because I don't think of myself as a very organized person, at least, looking at my desk and things, but I love to see the different organizing systems people have for the parts, the components, the things that they work with.

And, it's even going to a school maker-space where lots of kids are coming in to access stuff. Being able to keep that straight and organized is pleasing. So tips in there about how to do that.

Gareth09:39

Yeah. And that touches on something that we were recently talking about this. The aspirational quality of tips.

Like I'm also a tremendously disorganized person. So a little bit of that, the more that I expose myself to those ideas, some of it, a little leaks into my daily work practice. So by exposing myself to that, I'm better than I would be, but I always have that sense that, wow, we've got a long way to go.

Dale10:07

But yeah, people have really good ideas for how they keep things. What are some of the tips that you might like to share with us?

Gareth10:13

And again, thinking through the books, both of the books, I realized that the tips that I really, that stick with me the most and that resonate with me the most are what I would call meta tips.

Like how to think about how you work. And one of the ones that I liked so much, I actually put it in both books. Is, Do you remember PerryKaye, an inventor guy? He had that brilliant idea of what he called Frankenstein prototyping where rather than trying to design something from the ground up, you just think of it as the subsystems that you might be able to find in other things. And you bodge them together to quickly get a working prototype. And there was something very smart about that, which he said that what happens is when you're doing something from the ground up, especially if you're hiring some sort of prototyping house to, to render your prototype, you get invested in it literally and figuratively, you're invested in going down that avenue. So if you get the prototype back and it's not really right, you've invested so much time and energy, you just want to keep going with that rather than if you spend an afternoon at a toy store and a hardware store and stuff, and you bodge it together. It's okay, that's not right.

You haven't really invested much time and money, but he rolled all those ideas into something that which is basically the idea to think of the universe as a collection of parts. And that has absolutely changed my thinking. I think that's a really amazing way for makers to look at their world is that if you can recombine stuff. So that tip has always stuck with me.

One that I have in this book, which has that a similar sort of lasting resonant effect is from. I think his name is Scott Waddington from Essential Craftsmen, a YouTube channel. And the idea is details layer. Which is the idea that when you're doing something and you're at one level of it, if you make a mistake, that mistake is going to carry over, it's going to compound the next level and the next level.

And so you want to make sure to be as precise and certainly in certain kinds of making what that need precision, you need to be that mindful of that precision on every level, because it's going to compound throughout the project.

Dale12:38

Yeah. I like it. Like you don't measure something properly...

Gareth12:41

Exactly where something's a little off. But then the inverse of that is another tip that I like from Andy Berkey, a friend of mine who I met through the maker community. He restores Gothic cathedrals. And he said, it's really amazing. Cause when you look up into the rafters of a Gothic cathedral, it looks gorgeous and everything looks in its place and perfect.

When you actually get up there, you see all kinds of mistakes, but they didn't care because no one is going to be in the rafters. It makes sense at the level that you're experiencing it, which is on the floor of the church. And so that, that's a key from that he derived-- just make it as perfect as you can, you don't get hung up on perfection. Make it as perfect as it needs to be. And I think that's also a really amazing tip.

Dale13:34

And that, to some degree, the imperfections are just part of it, oh yeah. You have another thing in there talking about patina and the wear of things, which is nice. I've always like the term "Wabi Sabi."

And I was just going to say that too. Yeah. Just things acquire meaning through use.

Gareth13:55

I remember on the blog, I put up a couple of projects where people had restored like old machinists tool cases, and people said no, you shouldn't do that. You should leave it the way it was. Fix what's broken, but don't, redo the whole thing. People do what they are inspired to do and both of them have merit.

A couple of other tips that I like from Adam Savage is casters on everything. Which in the first volume of the book, I had a thing what she calls a first order retrievability, which is the idea that everything in your shop, as you're working on a project, everything is mobile so that you can reorient it to pull the things closer to you that you need for that particular project.

And then everything else is in the background. So in this b ook I quote, from a video where he's talking about, he just buys casters to buy them. He always makes sure he has a big box of casters. In anything that can possibly roll, he makes it roll. And that again, I've been inspired by that. And now when I buy things, I always make sure they have casters on them.

Dale15:08

I remember visiting a Stanford D school once. They had just recently designed it and opened it and they had their whiteboards. They were on wheels -- move them around from one room to another. Also just stack them in the corner if they didn't need to be used.

And it's also just a general thing about makerspaces that to be able to reconfigure the equipment in the space. Yeah. To be able to move something out of the way, cause you're having a social event or to, move things closer to you because you're working on something and you need that.

I think that's a really good idea.

Gareth15:42

Yeah. And when did you look at Adam's shop? It's really tight in there. There's not a lot of space and you can see many things pushed into the background because he's not using those right. Another one that he has talked about organization is "be kind to future you," which is when you're working on something that you really make sure that you clean up at the end of the last project.

So when you get inspired to do the next one, you don't walk into your workspace and then have to spend hours cleaning up, and then you lose that burst of inspiration or enthusiasm or whatever. I think that's also a really great idea. And recently, in a video, he had another idea, which is that if you start within a project, if you start to get a little stuck or a little frustrated or whatever, just take a break and clean up where you are and then go back to it.

So it's a palate cleanser. I think that's also a really good idea.

Dale16:39

That's very nice. I liked the David Lynch idea that you had in the book about ideas are like fish.

Gareth16:47

Idea fishing. Yeah.

Dale16:49

A lot of people stumble at that part of how do you get new ideas?

Gareth16:53

And yes. Yeah, it's absolutely

Dale16:54

I guess just to express that idea. When you have a new idea just to focus on it and that idea tends to attract other ideas.

Gareth17:02

Yeah, exactly.

Dale17:03

A variation of that is things that you naturally put a lot of energy into somehow connect to you. And it's a sign. That generating something for you. It's not just exhausting you. It's like your creative energies are being amplified.

Gareth17:18

It's renovating.. And David Lynch is a fascinating guy cause he's so loose brained. He's so in touch with all aspects of his mental process. And he's not afraid to foreground things that other people might think--- this is silly. Like he's now he's got the weather channel where he does the weather every day on YouTube. And he just gives a little tiny weather report and it's hugely popular. And who would have thought, just giving a daily weather report, frequently there's no embellishment to it whatsoever. But you watch it every day. It's very plain and short, but then one day he goes off on a thing, like he shows you something he's been making or so. It's so fascinating that it's repetitive and there's very little change. It's so cool when all of a sudden he does do something that you don't expect.

Dale18:15

A lot of your tips do come from YouTube these days. You're watching things on there, JimmyDiresta, for instance and others. I remarked on this before, but it's amazing the DIY knowledge that's on YouTube that really didn't exist before in this accessible form.

Gareth18:34

Yes, absolutely.

Dale18:35

You also see a lot of stuff that, people aren't that much better than you are. I guess what I was trying to get at is there's a quality to a good tip, that's an insight that seems original or unique.

Gareth18:47

Yeah.

Dale18:48

And some YouTube videos are just trading in the obvious things that, I don't know, a basic book would cover, are the obvious things you would do from a common sense perspective, but what you love about a good tip. It's oh, I would've never thought of that.

Gareth19:03

Yeah. Oh God. And yeah, I would love to see like a brain map, like what happens to your brain? I just for my newsletter, I put out a weekly tips, newsletter called Tips, Tools and Shop Tales and I'm doing a giveaway of this book, volume two of this book on that and with Donald Bell from Maker Update.

And so people have been putting tips up on the video that, where he announced the giveaway and we've gotten, I don't know, like 70 or 80 tips, and one of them is so simple, but it's so cool, which is if you're on Thingiverse and at the end of a thing, for people that don't know Thingaverse is a file repository for 3D design files and uh, you know, each object has a page and there'll be a bunch of the STL files you need to download and images and a read me file.

And if you'd at the end of the URL, if you do slash zip, it downloads everything in a zip file. So it downloads all the STL files, all the images from that page, the read me files, anything that's attached to that page gets automatically downloaded. That's such a cool thing rather than having to download each individual thing.

So just something like that is just such an eye opening idea. Like years ago on Make: we published the thing where you can on McMaster-Carr, there are a lot of the objects on McMaster-Carr, you can get CAD files of those objects and then transfer them to STL files and make a 3D printed, plastic version of whatever that component is.

That's an amazing power that most people don't know about. And so that was a real aha. I love tips like that. That are really instant game changer.

Dale20:57

We have the traditional shop of physical tools, but increasingly the internet itself is it, like a Thingiverse, it's knowing how to use those tools as well.

Gareth21:08

When you're talking about YouTube and a lot of times they don't know a lot more than you do, that's an interesting thought that I had recently, and I don't really know what I think about it yet, but just that idea that there's so many people on YouTube doing, showing other people how to do things and often they have just learned it.

And they don't necessarily-- their wisdom or knowledge of that thing doesn't run very deep.

Dale21:33

I don't mind if they're humble about it, but it's when they say, I have the perfect way for you to plant seeds, there's nothing new and in that, there's just nothing. It's just maybe they tried two or three ways. I don't know if they did that. But they position it as something like a breakthrough.

Gareth21:49

Yes, exactly. Which gets into the whole category on YouTube of these tips collection videos, tips and life hacks, where many of them are very dodgy.

They're either literally faked.. Or it's something that could be dangerous or it's just, if you do it, it's not actually that interesting, but it looks interesting when you watch it. You go, oh, that's cool. You can remove a broken light bulb with a potato. I saw one a couple of days ago that's a perfect example of this.

It's if you're have like a threaded rod that shears off. It's to the point where you get no purchase on the leftover remaining threaded part, you can put two bolts in the hole and then use a bar across those as twist from the inside, twist the piece off. And I thought, oh my God, that's so brilliant.

I never thought of anything like that. And then you read the comments and people say, they start critiquing the circumstances under which that would happen. And most of the circumstances, it will never happen that way, which is the same thing with the cut potato to remove a light bulb. The light bulb has to be broken in exactly the right way to be able to accept the potato. So it looks cool, but in most daily circumstances. It's not really practical.

Dale23:15

Buyer beware in terms of some tips, right?

Gareth23:17

Yeah. I started my newsletter. I've started a new section called tips busters, where I'm trying to deputize the readers to pick a tip that looks too good to be true, or that they think would be amazing and try it out and then just report back to us as to whether it works or not.

Dale23:36

It's interesting that sometimes it reflects a certain degree of ignorance on the person publishing it. They came up with something clever, but it's not really a universal solution to something that they're claiming, but sometimes there's a little bit of mischievousness in claiming something is useful when it's not.

Gareth23:55

Yeah, again. There's another fascinating area of YouTube where it's restoration videos and legitimate restoration videos have become really popular. So now there's people that will show you going out into an abandoned house and finding like an old stereo system and it's all rusty and covered with muck and stuff and they take it back to their shops. But then you read the comments and people will start pointing out how it's faked. And basically they just took a working receiver and just covered it with crap.

Dale24:30

Yeah,

Gareth24:31

So it's basically just straight up fraud for money for YouTube views.

Dale24:36

Gosh. That's what social media shows people will do almost anything.

Gareth24:40

There is a dark side.

Dale24:43

Speaking of a bright side. I wanted to say your book looks great. This is not just a bunch of text tips.

The illustrations are great. The layout is great. Who is your illustrator? He did a great job as well.

Gareth24:56

Richard Shepherd. Yeah, he's done the illustrations for both. And yeah, just a charm to work with.

And it's really fun. I love the stuff that he does. Theresa Davis is the woman who actually did the layout for the book. She and Juliann did a fantastic job and yeah, I'm so thrilled with it. Like my wife just read the whole thing, cover to cover, and she said, she's a painter. So she certainly a maker, but she doesn't identify herself that way, but she said she just enjoyed reading it as a text.

Dale25:28

That's what I'm getting it. It's visually stimulating actually, and you have photographs in there as well, but I always, I have a fondness for illustration and there's just some nice ones in there.

Gareth25:38

Yeah. And one of the things that I love that we did with the two books is at the end of the first book we wanted something that would be a visual through line. And we were thinking what should that be? And I started thinking what's a visual representation of stories in making. And I immediately thought of work benches.

The surface of a work bench tells the story of all the projects that have ever been on it. And so I asked Jimmy diResta, if he would take some photos of his work benches, and we use one of those throughout that book. So for this book, we want to do something different and we started thinking what would be something that represents a similar kind of time and stories and so forth. And we came up with the idea of rust. That rust is such a beautiful thing. it it represents the death of whatever the object or tool or whatever but it's so beautiful. And it's also an invitation to repair it. I've been doing tool restorations recently, and I just absolutely love finding a really beat up old tool and making it look amazing again.

And so that led to this rust theme that goes through the book. And they did such a great job of finding really beautiful rust images that actually relate to each section. So the section on fastening has rusty bolts. And so I loved how they actually tied in the images to the different chapters.

Dale27:11

What fascinates me is it's just really how you learn from different people. There really couldn't be a book that just had everything in it that you needed to know to do stuff. As you do stuff, you acquire the, I don't know, receptivity to learning new things that made sense to you, or, if someone told you as a beginner and this information accumulates and is sometimes not collected in a community. It just sits there or moves away.

But I think your role in going out and grabbing and putting together is something that an individual maker doesn't have the time or inclination to do, but I think this is really valuable.

Gareth27:51

That gets into something that you and I were talking about recently too, is that idea of curating the content. It's a meta function of looking at all the making activity and try to pull out what's important. This is one small aspect of that. What are people doing that are clever solutions to problems that are in the context of a longer video, but you pull those out, collect those together and that becomes a very important part of the maker's story.

Dale28:20

You group these in useful ways because they're not just, I don't know what the number is, 500 tips and just some random order. One tip is next to a related tip.

Gareth28:31

The first book was exclusively just divided up into cutting, fastening, gluing, finishing, organize it by the activity rather than the type of making. Cause I thought it would have a wider appeal that way. For this book I did cheat and I did do a chapter on hobby tips and a chapter on maker video production. I did kitchen hacks in this one, so I did add a few additional things, but I thought that's a really good way to divide up these things by the activity.

But then the other thing that I did, which has gotten some criticism in the first book, which is that it's not organized within those sections. Which it's absolutely not. I didn't have any sense of oh, this is a beginner tip, I'll put this at the front of this list. I just basically put them in the order that I got them.

There was something else behind that, which is I wanted this to be a browser book. I like books that, you can sit on the toilet, and browse through.

Dale29:33

open them anywhere and find something useful.

Gareth29:37

And yeah, it's not, it's this isn't a a course in something that has a beginning, middle and end. It's not every tip. Beginner tips, intermediate tips, advanced tips. It's just all in there with the idea that it will inspire. At the very least it will inspire people and hopefully people will go through and pick up 4, 5, 10 tips that will really change the way that they work.

Dale30:03

They are inspiring. They used that word earlier. It just us, that's a clever idea. You may not even do that thing, but, it's sometimes taking a tool that's used for, I'm looking at silicone makeup brushes here in your book, that being applied for using it to apply glue for 3D printing.

Gareth30:19

All of the beauty supplies, there are so many amazing things like that. I had an example myself, where I bought this CNC-cut stand for hobby paints. And I don't know, it was like maybe $30 and it came as flat packed. I had to sit there and glue the whole thing together, took at least an hour and a half to glue the thing together.

And then somebody mentioned something about beauty supplies and that they have these racks on Amazon in the beauty section. So I went and I found these acrylic racks for like $12. They hold more paints, they take four screws. And yeah, so I just thought that is such a cool thing where this is an area I would never think to look, but then when you start looking in the beauty supply, you find all kinds of like chemicals you could use in the shop and stands and racks and brushes. Makeup brushes are amazing for all kinds of applications for dry brushing. So look in the beauty aisle here,

Dale31:25

It's related to as jewelry making.

Gareth31:27

Same, another great example.

I was going to say a jewelry making thing that I think every maker should have, although I don't have, which is a bench pin. It's just a little piece of wood that comes out that has a V-shape for doing small things.

Cause I do hobby modeling. A lot of times I deal in very small scale and a bench pin is just such a useful thing. Dave Hrynkiw from Solarbotics turned me on to that. He uses it in electronics work all the time. And again, that's something that people think, oh, that's a jewelry thing, but it's actually a very useful little jig that everyone could have on their work bench.

Dale32:07

It might be good for those who frequent makerspaces to visit some of the other areas of the Makerspace apart from the one that they typically use.

Gareth32:15

Exactly.

Dale32:16

All right. I'm going to end with one thing though. One idea for a future book that we talked about 10 or 15 years ago and still be to be realized, but we call it the Maker Way. Do you remember that?

Gareth32:27

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

Dale32:29

And it goes back to what you were saying and something that isn't always obvious, but it's how you think about what you're doing, that's really interesting here. Not exactly or not just what you're doing. And I think that's developing that capacity to think about what you're doing is kind of what I would say is the Maker Way.

Gareth32:51

Gregory Bateson used to call it learning how to learn.

Dale32:54

I remember us having a wonderful conversation about it.

Gareth32:57

Yeah, let's talk about it more. Let's make that happen,

Dale33:01

Strikes me with your book here is that it's not that it isn't a way, there's lot of different ways. I think what they used to sayabout the PERL language there's more than one way to do it. And that was a a good quality. There are lots of different ways to do it, but it is Your unique way, our own way reflects not just accident, but your intention.

Yup, exactly.

Gareth, thank you so much for Tips and Tales from the Workshop Volume Two. And just to be clear, you can buy this book any place where you buy books. You can also get it on the Maker Shed as a PDF or print and

Gareth33:37

Here's a copy right here. You can see the beautiful illustrations on the cover

Dale33:42

and make sure you get volume two

Gareth33:45

and volume one. I've seen the sales starting to climbing on volume one. So I think people are buying both of them, which is fabulous.

Dale33:53

That's great. Put it in your bathroom.

Gareth33:57

On your toilet tank?

Dale34:00

Okay. Thank you, Gareth.

Gareth34:01

Oh, it was a pleasure, dale. Take it easy.