Handmade Conversations: David Erik Nelson, Geek Craft Extraordinaire

Posted by on Feb 21, 2012

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David Erik Nelson and his awesome book.

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A young David Erik Nelson & a tame raccoon.
What was the first craft item you made?
Well, as a kid I feel like you're sort of constantly crafting, filling in the blanks in your world with construction paper, scrap wood and paints. This really struck home for me last "Non-Denominational Gift Giving" holiday season. One of my nephews received an AT-AT Walker toy, which my 5-year-old son desperately coveted but, of course, wasn't even allowed to touch. When we got home, my other son and I built him his own AT-AT from a cardboard box (which had originally held an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi distortion pedal), some foam core, Dixie cups and a small paper plate. In the end, it was basically just suggestive of an AT-AT Walker, but he was happy as a clam. 

That said, the first things I remember making as craft projects were for elementary school. We had a unit on Colonial America, and I hand-sewed a black and red patchwork pillow and a black felt tricorne hat. That hat went on to serve many years in the dress-up bag as a vital pirate-costume element.

What is your craft medium of choice, and why do you like it so much? 

This shifts around. When I was little, I loved LEGO, Capsela and cardboard boxes. In high school, I loved weaving and ceramics, then briefly delved into figure drawing. In college I was really into ironic, swear-leaden cross-stitch, which I'd actually learned from my mom in elementary school (not the swearing, just cross-stitch itself). After that I went through a sock-animal phase and a more general sewing phase. An abortive attempt at crochet came next, followed, almost a decade later, by a successful crochet phase. I also learned to knit once, despite having no interest, because my wife wanted to learn and couldn't decode the damn instructions in any of the books (which, I agree, are bizarrely algorithmic and technical; it's like trying to figure out integral calculus using a textbook written in Middle English. Any time I hear some blowhard characterizing women as being "naturally" poor at math and physics, I think of how damn complicated those knitting books are, and how few male engineers I know can figure them out). 

As for my actual preference, I really dig electronics, especially projects that are entirely hardware-based and use strictly off-the-shelf components. Mucking around with little electronics projects was where I first really understood that craft is mostly about stripping things down to their bare functional bones. Weaving is a great example. When push comes to shove, you just have your weft zigzagging through the warp. Show any elementary schooler how a loom works and he or she can fake one up in a few minutes from a piece of cardboard, or a pair of sticks and some string. But varying how the warp is grouped or colored opens up this really computationally complex universe and, again, these possibilities are totally accessible, totally graspable, once you've seen how the loom fits together, how basic it is. In other words, for me, hobby electronics made it clear how accessible complexity is. Simple parts arranged in a limited number of combinations yield deliciously complex results.

An image from Fritz Swanson's Flickr.
One of Fritz's letterpress tools.
Who or what inspires your creativity? 
I have this pal, Fritz Swanson; he's a lecturer at the University of Michigan and owns a letterpress. Fritz and I have collaborated on projects since college, mostly writing or web-based publishing stuff, although, now that I think about it, Fritz is the guy who taught me the method for sewing bag straps that I still use today. His wife taught me how to make pants. For 15 years or so, basically ever since we met, I've teased Fritz about his tendency to fall in love with solutions in search of a problem. He'd get really into some wiki software, an online content management system or a blog platform, and we'd end up monkeying around with it, basically looking for the problem that could be fixed with the thing he'd gotten geeked out about. One time, he, his brother-in-law and I drove 1,000 miles over the course of a weekend, taking a shortcut through Canada, so he could buy a thousand-pound 1920s letterpress. The damn thing almost killed us, trying to get it down into his cellar. It wasn't that he particularly needed a letterpress, or had a solid business plan of any sort. It was just that a letterpress is a neat solution, and he wanted to be able to explore what problems could be solved with it. 

Implicit in my teasing was this assumption that I was a rational person (I saw a problem, composed a solution in response, and then executed), and Fritz was sort of being irrational or flighty, always chasing solutions to problems he doesn't have. Over the course of years, I've come to realize how fundamentally stupid I am. As it turns out, no human, regardless of what he or she says, really solves problems in that rational way I was crediting to myself. In reality, humans love coming up with novel solutions for problems that don't exist. 

When we solve a problem, we don't custom-craft a solution on the spot. In reality, we sort through all of the solutions we've already imagined and pick the one that fits at that moment. Over the last several years, knowing Fritz has really liberated me from feeling like every project has to have utility and purpose at its heart. Now I'm much more comfortable saying "Hey, that's a neat circuit. I wonder if I can make a noise I like using that circuit?" or "Hey, I could make this whole project by just chaining stitches, instead of doing real full crochets. I wonder how that would look?" Fritz has helped me appreciate how chasing down and exploring solutions in need of problems is the Fundamental Human Craft Project.

Which of your craft projects took the longest to finish?

In terms of the projects in my book, definitely the Marshmallow Muzzleloader, not that it's an especially complex project but because I was never satisfied with my design. I started the book with a totally functional design worked out, but it had a lot of little things I didn't like about it. By the time I finished writing the book, I had entirely re-designed it at least twice. The end result, functionally speaking, is totally unchanged but by the same token the project as it exists now has almost nothing in common with the shooter I had when I sold the book.

David's craft space, a.k.a. "The Dave Cave."
Tell us about your crafting experience. 
I write and edit for a living, which is a really idiosyncratic kind of labor. On the one hand, it's really intellectually and emotionally draining. You basically spend all day making hard decisions. On the other, you also spend all day hardly moving a muscle. So by nightfall, I'm both agitated from sitting still all day and wiped out from being in a daylong argument with myself. I like crafting at night to relax. The activity itself is soothing: sorting through parts, walking a few steps to fetch this and that, sawing a dowel, soldering a switch, measuring and cutting, etc., and the decision-making is all really concrete. Either a piece fits or it doesn't; no worrying about how someone might interpret that. A couple of hours working on a project is more relaxing than a couple of hours soaking in a warm bath. 

But I also write DIY, which involves both writing the how-to text, and working through the project, taking multiple pictures at every step. There've been days that I've done that for 18 hours without a break longer than the 10 minutes it takes to use the bathroom, drink a quart of water and scarf down some leftovers while standing over the kitchen sink.

Besides crafting, what other talents do you have?

Heck, I think the only talent I've ever had is in talking folks into things; everything else has just been twisting situations into those where I'm talking someone into something. An essay is talking someone into seeing your point of view; a craft book is talking someone into seeing what they're already capable of; teaching is talking some kids into seeing what they're looking at. Everything else is learned skill, and those, I'm afraid, are painfully rudimentary: I play uke and piano, I cook and bake, I fix things that are broken—Regular Joe stuff. 

What advice would you give to aspiring craft authors?
First off, take good notes (including supply costs!) while you're prototyping. Everything is clear and obvious while you're doing it, but let it sit on the shelf for a week or two, and you'll find yourself wondering why you made the decisions you did and how the hell you pulled them off. Second, I think it's best to work through a project while writing it up. This makes it much easier to see the places where folks might go off track or get confused. And don't get bound up in how insiders usually talk about their given craft. There are plenty of folks who never get into knitting, for example, because they can't get their heads around the jargon and codes that are normally used to talk about knitting. Feel free to be the person who describes it differently, and thus opens that craft up to the folks who were previously locked out. Finally: Learn to take decent photos. Publishers (and readers) will want them, and want them to be as clear as possible (non-distracting solid-colored background, lots of bright light, soft shadows, no glare, etc.). 

If you were only allowed to send one tweet or Facebook post for the rest of this year, what would you say?
Man ... I've got no idea. I spent all morning trying to come up with a witty reply, but that's like spending all morning trying to fall in love. Most of my tweets are about my kid, clockwork sexbots, awkward interactions I've inadvertently caused and getting excited about stuff I see online. If that's your sort of thing you can follow me on Twitter. If that's not your thing, I totally respect where you're coming from. I also maintain a Facebook page for my book. That page is sporadically updated with craft and DIY-oriented things that catch my magpie eye. 

*Learn more about David Erik Nelson via his website.



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