David Lang, something of a reluctant maker, is on a journey, intensively immersing himself in maker culture and learning as many DIY skills as he can, through a generous arrangement with our pals at TechShop. He’s regularly chronicling his efforts in this column — what he’s learning, who he’s meeting, and what hurdles he’s clearing (um… or not). –Gareth

Making is as much about exploring as it is about building. Exploring new ways of problem-solving, understanding how things are made, how machine components fit together. And this week, for me, about exploring new tools.

I wanted to keep the ball rolling on my side project, which had evolved into trying to create a series of wall planters. I’d experimented with a number of strategies and materials, but the current barrier to success was the fact that I didn’t have a mold. I was verbally describing my idea and making rough sketches of my imagined design to folks at TechShop, both staff and other members. Every strategy or material that someone suggested hinged on the fact that I didn’t have a working model to build from.

Thanks to the outpouring of suggestions at TechShop, there were a number of ways I could have gone about creating the mold: using a CNC milling machine to make it out of wood, using molding or modeling clay to make it by hand, making it out of aluminum, etc. All good ideas, but each of them would either a) take a significant amount of time or b) take a significant amount of money for materials. Because I had no idea if this would even work, I didn’t want to make such investments. I needed something cheaper, easier, and quicker.

Then I remembered something I had seen recently on Makezine: a post on the release Autodesk’s 123D Make program. I thought back to a conversation with Jesse Harrington, Autodesk’s Maker Advocate, about the stacked-cardboard models I saw around TechShop, and how they were made. It seemed easy enough, and if it didn’t work, at least I could play around with the cool new software!

In order to use 123D Make for my project, I needed to create a CAD (computer-aided design) file of my design. Although I had taken a few introductory classes in Autodesk Inventor, I was still a little hesitant to actually use it. Knowing that new makers, like me, often underestimate the design process, I was sure this would end up taking a long time, but that wasn’t the case. I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to get exactly the design I envisioned. So easy, in fact, that I felt compelled to try another product – TinkerCad, a browser-based CAD program – to see if I could reproduce it there. And I did. Again, in little to no time.

The next step was to import the file into 123D Make. I selected the file, chose the stacked formatting option, entered the dimensions of material I was cutting it on (24″ x 18″, 1/4″ thick) then, well… then I was done. Seriously. The program figured out the optimal slices and exported it as a PDF, which could then be sent right to the laser cutter. The biggest decision I had to make was whether to use acrylic plastic or cardboard for my model. Sticking with my low-cost theme, I chose cardboard. After I laser-cut the parts, I glued the pieces together using the directions from the program. Again, very easy.

After I had the cardboard together, I applied a thin layer of paper clay, a room-temperature setting material for molds and sculptures, around the outside of the stacked cardboard. Although I initially thought this would be just a model, I rather liked the look of it. Because it was so easy to develop (and replicate), I’m now experimenting with trying to grow the plants directly from the clay-covered, cardboard model! Based on some internet research, I’m hoping that adding potting soil will cause the cardboard to decompose into nutrient-rich compost within the clay mold. We’ll see what happens.

Regardless of whether it works or not, it’s been a pretty amazing process. In just the two weeks I’d been working on this project, new technology became available that allowed me, a relatively new maker, to easily and cheaply prototype my idea. If I’d tried to do this even a month ago, I never would have gotten this far. To me, this personal experience is symbolic of the larger maker movement – the tools (and their accessibility) are evolving so fast that the barriers to active creation (vs. passive consumption) are being eliminated faster than they can be discovered. All signs point to just one final barrier to making: getting started. The distance from zero to maker seems to literally get shorter by the day.

Follow David’s Zero to Maker journey