I’ve not written many book reviews, but I felt it appropriate to write a book review for Adam Savage’s recent work, Every Tool’s A Hammer: Life Is What You Make It. Savage is a prop maker, special effects tech, co-host of Mythbusters, and general advocate for science education and making. I could go on, but his curriculum vitae is long. I felt it appropriate to write this review in the form of a project how-to.
A year ago, I took my daughter to ConnectiCon to cosplay. We went as Captain America and Peggy Carter. This was our second time going to a convention in cosplay.
Being short on time, I opted not to make the costumes, but instead was happy to make the shield. It started from a plastic sled. We had a great deal of fun and when we were there, we saw this Captain America Cosplay:
I loved how he set Captain America in another time period and this stuck with me and I thought it would be cool to set Captain America in the Colonial era. I have a number of challenges in my life, not the least is that I’m super busy and play time/making time is a precious rarity compared with other things. Adam addresses this in a chapter about how he uses a particular list technique for doing this. Super useful. Not as much for me though, as I’m fairly good at compartmentalizing projects and remembering the compartment contents on demand. It does, however, serve another goal: to show you visually that you are making progress. This is something I really love for huge projects that seem intractable. For example, in the early 90’s I made an implementation of Java interop for VRML: Virtual Reality Markup Language. It was a huge spec. I filled a huge whiteboard with the names of each Java class with check boxes and checked them off as I completed them. My manager also used my white board instead of interrupting me for status updates.
Back to the project. My next step was to get patterns. I saw some patterns on a vacation to Colonial Williamsburg and picked up a few that were in the right sizes and used the power of the internet to find the vendors of the patterns in order to buy the appropriate size. At this point in the project, Adam would have you draw pictures of what you wanted and how it should look. I agree with that in that it is easier to communicate it to others, which is vital if you’re working on a team. It’s also good if you can’t picture it on your own and need to get a visual. It’s also important for projects that take a long time to have your plans done on their own so that you can come back up to speed after a few weeks of being away. I didn’t draw pictures. Instead, for the waist coat, I needed to modify the pattern, so I needed to see how it would really look. Since time is a premium, I photographed the pattern. Made it square and page-sized in PhotoShop, then printed it out. I now have a scaled version of the pattern. It is far quicker to cut out something small in paper than it is full size. I taped the pieces together and sketched out how I wanted the waistcoat to look in 3D on the scale model. I took apart the model and measured my markings, then scaled everything up for pieces. This was exciting and I wanted to do more and more, but time doesn’t allow that. Adam talks about his inclination to do things as fast as he can. Part of it is because he’s enjoying it so much and part of it is because he gets a kick from completing stuff. It’s a great motivator, but it also is a kick in the teeth when things go awry because of going to fast. More on that later.
I took the pattern’s estimates for fabric and worked in estimates for the unique pieces. I wrote all of this down in a notebook to keep with me for fabric shopping. This is where I love lists. I make a list of each fabric with color/pattern, weight, material and quantity for different bolt sizes. I went to my favorite fabric store, Osgoods, which has wonderful staff and really nice quality fabrics. Although it was not period, I bought a fairly heavy weight cotton duck for all the outer facing fabric. For linings, I chose linen. While I could’ve used cheaper fabrics not even close to the period, I wanted some level of detail and accuracy. For this, I’m not as detail-oriented as Adam is, but I get it. He likes to immerse himself in the project and the details matter, because even if nobody notices, you know. I draw a line as to how much I want to sweat the small stuff and a cleave to that fairly closely. I noted that each of the patterns included sections for contemporary construction as well as period construction. For example, for the shirt, the pattern described how to do period construction, you pull a thread out of the weave across the fabric to make the cutting line and included all the hand stitches. I did very little hand stitching, although linings needed to be stitched in by hand, something I could do while streaming a show on TV. In picking out cotton and linen, I had a lucky benefit. At the convention, there was a photo shoot for Marvel cosplayers, so Alice and I went. The temperature outside was in the upper 80’s and I was wearing a heavy 3 piece suit, as was my daughter. Oddly enough, I was not getting overheated. In fact, I was hardly sweating! All the fabric breathed very well. I’ve worn suits with synthetic fibers under similar condition and sweated buckets. This was a welcome surprise benefit.
After buying the fabric, I ordered up some buttons online. I did this because buttons bought from a craft store or other chain fabric stores are brutally expensive and Osgood’s doesn’t carry much in the way of notions (but boy do they have fabric). I was going to need a lot of buttons. I think it came out to a couple dozen of each. I’m super happy with the buttons that I got.
Doesn’t that just scream ‘Captain America’? They’re noticeable only if you look closely. It was a detail I wanted to offer to people who were taking the time to scrutinize the costume in order to delight the delightful.
I made the breeches first. They were the nearly the least complicated of the patterns. There were some tricky bits – these are fall-front breeches and the instructions weren’t the best. They came out pretty well and I find the cut particularly charming. Unlike modern cuts, when you’re standing up, there is a lot of room in the seat. It’s pretty baggy, but all of this goes away when you bend over. This is because the colonial people didn’t have stretchy fabric and because when you bend over with this cut, it doesn’t yank down on the waistband, so that means that your pants don’t drop from repeated bending and standing. These were breeches for a working person.
Then I made a linen shirt. This was the easiest pattern since all the pieces were either rectangular or triangular. It came out really well, but it has some problems, which I will talk about later.
For the waistcoat, I made split the pattern for a top portion in blue and a bottom portion in white. I cut red stripes and top stitched them down to the white, then stitched the blue on top. I trimmed the red to match the white bottom and then stitched in the lining. Throughout all of this, I did a lot of ironing. I really wanted the seams to be straight. Then I worked on the star. This is a point that I had been dreading because (1) this is new and hard (2) I have no quilting experience. I made the star out of 5 kites. I used Illustrator to draw them out in various sizes then picked the one that looked best to use as a pattern. I was worried about fraying, but I bought plenty of white, so I planned to fail. Failure for these projects doesn’t have to be abject failure. Setbacks should be expected. Adam understands that screwing something up is an awful bugbear for him and after the swearing subsides, he tries to learn from his mistakes and do it better next time. This is also where inevitable setbacks meets his desire to go fast. I liked how honest he was about the emotionality of setbacks. I made 5 stars in total and used 2. I tried backing the pieces with interfacing, but that made them hard to work with and much harder to get flat and even. I screwed up another one and threw it out. The last two worked. I sewed one on the upper half and trimmed it to the edge. I estimated out the waistcoat would button and sewed the other onto the lower side. I ended up using zig zag stitches as the points to contain/hide the fraying. That worked pretty well. I was very happy with this level of setback planned in. I then did the lining in linen and finished it up.
The jacket was next and it was extremely straight forward after doing the rest. I did most of the jacket in blue, but used white for the cuffs and collar. When I modeled it, my wife commented on what a good cut the jacket was. I say I have to agree.
Why do I sew? It started in first grade. We had an art project where the art teacher taught us to do simple embroidery using heavy burlap squares, yarn and blunt needles. We learned chain stitch and filler stitch. I taught myself to sew on patches by hand. All of it was making and I enjoyed it so much as a kid. For example, I was looking at the geometry of a softball and wondering how the shapes fit together, so I best guessed them and cut them out of some olive felt and stitched them together with red thread. When I was done, I had a ball and it worked. I think I was in 2nd grade when I did this. Three years later, in 5th grade, the math book had a section in the back about geometry. Our math class was largely self-paced and some students finished the math book. Some didn’t get to the geometry. When I got to the section on geometry, there were projects to make various platonic solids out of construction paper. I learned out to make tetrahedrons, cubes, and dodecahedrons from a single flat sheet of paper. It involved drawing out the pattern (using a protractor and ruler), cutting and gluing them together. I can’t tell you how much I loved this. It was like putting together a Revell or Monogram plastic model when I was a kid. This is where Adam’s tendency to rush and mine are very different. I usually start slowly and then speed up. For building models as a kid, when I sped up, it usually meant that I was going to botch the paint job at the end because I was going so fast. For me when the reality of the project and image I have in my head start to coincide, it’s an accelerant. It like a jigsaw puzzle with fewer and fewer pieces to put in.
Regarding model making, I would take the piece of cardboard from the bottom of a writing pad and use that to make my own models. I made a tank, space ships, etc all out of cardboard that I cut out with scissors. I learned to put tabs onto pieces for glue and learned how to see a 3D shape and turn it into 2D paper parts. When I was in my first job out of college, I was working at Adobe on PostScript printers. I wrote a PostScript program that printed out a kit to make an icosahedron. It included tabs and slots for assembling it without glue. Adam talks a lot about building things in cardboard to visualize. I agree whole-heartedly.
Back to sewing – in 6th grade, my art teacher had us make soft sculpture gnomes with hand-embroidered faces. While the faces were hand-embroidered, the rest of it was machine sewn. I remembered that and as an adult, I bought a sewing machine and made some shirts and vests. I also tried to make a hot air balloon, but that ended up not flying. I did make several kites that worked quite well. At the time that I started sewing as an adult, I had been doing woodworking for several years. I found something out in the process of doing both: the people who claim there is a difference in male and female thinking are full of shit. Both woodworking and sewing clothing use exactly the same part of my brain. They are equivalent. If your daughter wants to do woodworking, teach her woodworking. If your son wants to sew, teach him to sew. They’re both making. They both have visualization challenges. They both have their own particular vocabulary. And this touches on one of the central reasons behind Adam’s book: to encourage people to create and to find ways to remove barriers from people making things.
Back to the shirt. I had made the shirt and tried it on. It is cut like an Ebenezer Scrooge night shirt. I get that – again practical – it serves as a shirt and sleep wear if you want. I just figured it would work out. The problem happened in getting dressed for the con. The cut of the shirt really wasn’t working with everything else. It was too baggy and really wasn’t working. I think it needs to be shorter and trimmer to work. Also, while putting it on, I popped a button off a cuff. And this is another aspect of setbacks that’s worthy of considering: what do you do when things go wrong? Using 20/20 hindsight, I could have spent more time fitting the costume and making adjustments. In the moment I didn’t just have the shirt problem. I had lost a fair amount of weight and had gone from a 36 waist to a 34. The breeches no longer fit me. They have laces to tighten or loosen them in the back, but that wasn’t enough. I ended up removing all the buttons on the center line and moving them to snug up the waist. This used all my last minute time and I decided to opt for a dress shirt instead of the period shirt since it works and is not especially noticeable in the finished outfit. As it turned out, I still needed a visit from the Cosplay Fairy (this was a guy walking around with all kinds of sewing tools to help people out) for some safety pins to tighten up the waist on the breeches some more. The point here is that if/when things go wrong, use the same creativity that got you here to figure out if/how you can work with what you have. The first several times something like this happens, it’s maddening, but as you make more things, you learn how to avoid the more egregious setbacks and how to handle the others in the moment. Adam also talks about that when he discusses a set project that he didn’t plan well enough that he did early in his career.
Another example for me is a project I’ve been working on for close to 16 years now. I had an idea for a digital clock that used a single LED for each second/minute/hour and would be able to mechanically strike chimes on the hour. I kept getting stuck and put the project away. Four years ago, a number of things happened to make this project easier, including components from SparkFun and Adafruit, so I was able to pick it back up and I had a working prototype on breadboards running on an SparkFun Red Board (an Arduino, essentially). Still not done, I wanted the finished clock to be on proper circuit boards since breadboards get flaky over time. I made up a schematic and sent that off to get fabbed. I made all kinds of mistakes in the process that I didn’t see in the design. When the boards came in, I did some checks and found a few. There are sets of majors functionality on the board: power, neopixel interfacing, real time clock interfacing, and solenoid drivers. I was able to bring the board on line section by section. The errors affected everything except power. I fixed the neopixels and the RTC using an X-Acto knife and bodge wires. I put off fixing the solenoid drivers because the traces that were affected were closer together and my circuit bodge skills aren’t good enough. I realized that I was afraid of screwing it up. I have years invested in this project. When I realized that, I just sat down and did it. Sure enough, I screwed it up. This time, I had some clarity: I have been tinkering with this on and off for years. Getting new circuit boards made is a little money hit and a little time hit, but both of those are a drop in the bucket compared to the length of this project already. And this is the same with the cosplay project. Yes, there are little errors here and there which I see when I scrutinize the project, but in the greater context it’s fantastic. and I’m happy about that.
This is me and my daughter at ConnectiCon in our finished costumes (yes, I made hers too).
The goal of Adam’s book is this: think of the major barriers to doing a project:
- I don’t know how
- I don’t manage time
- I don’t organize
- I don’t visualize
- I make mistakes
He shows how these don’t have to be barriers and that there are ways to adjust your process to get knock down these barriers. This is a big lesson.
The next big lesson is managing emotional conflicts. He doesn’t draw this together like this, but the pieces are there. Making things is an emotional process. There are a number of aspects that are in play: excitement, perfectionism, perseveration. In proper balance, all of these are good things. Out of balance they get in your way. Excitement leads to going too fast. Perfectionism leads to magnifying mistakes to the point of hatred. Perseveration leads to not letting things go. When you have all of these running together, you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Again, Adam shows how to work well with these things instead of being dominated by them. And when they cause setbacks, you can look at the problems and figure out how to recover and improve. This may include redoing a project entirely and that’s OK.
If you are an aspiring maker looking for inspiration or if you are a consummate maker looking for ways to get better, this is a fine book. It is peppered with anecdotes are relateable, awe-inspiring, and/or hilarious. The writing is engaging and has some real gems in terms of word choice that sparkle rather than detract from the overall. If you’ve heard Adam speak, you will also hear it reading the book: his voice comes through.