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A library of "books" containing tree specimens, each made from the wood of the tree it describes.

We’re continuing our materials-themed 2012 Skill Builder coverage this month by highlighting materials that come more or less directly from the natural world. Most of us live surrounded by stuff that is separated from its raw ingredients by quite a bit of heavy industrial processing, and we may forget how rich a variety of ready-to-use materials nature really does present to us. In fact, when we were brainstorming materials themes for 2012, the initial reaction to “natural materials month” tended to be along the lines of, “well, we already do a lot of woodworking coverage.”

But when you really think about it, that reaction starts to seem kind of, well, sad, really: There are lots of natural materials besides wood: stone, leather, animal and plant fiber, horn, bone, shell, mother-of-pearl, vegetable ivory, ambergris, gemstone, chitin, various plant resins and latexes, and those metals that do not require refining. Just to name a few. And we rarely talk about any of them. This month we plan to correct that oversight.

So, enjoy!  And, as always, if you have suggestions for unusual natural materials or other particular topics you’d like to see covered under this theme, please let us know, below.

Sean Michael Ragan

Sean Michael Ragan

I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and makezine.com. My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c’t – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.


  • http://gravatar.com/textmex textmex

    “mother nature”….gave us nothing….God gave us a world to discover…i am reminded of a college professor of mine who taught us about “form follows function” which is basic to all architects/designers/engineers/makers etc….and…in order for the form to be born….a function MUST be determined….then the form can be made to provide the desired function….. ergo GOD….no form on earth could have come without it’s function being determined by the designer/maker….

  • steligius

    gahh.. sermons everywhere you go these days.

    • http://picturebandit.wordpress.com Picture-Bandit

      I am glad already commented to the sermon… I can only give you pat on the back and a thank you… ;)

  • http://gravatar.com/looziskey looziskey

    Not God – Gourd!

    Gourds are a weird and incredible material. Light, but stronger than you would think. Easy to grow, dry, saw and shape. The exterior is water resistant, the while interior is is a strange silky foam-like material that has hygroscopic properties (great for storing stuff you’d like to keep dry.) Remarkably, It will easily catch a spark from flint and steel for fire-making.

    They are not just for bird houses – I’m planning on making a set of computer speakers from a pair. I made my kid a gourd cap last weekend, and if I can grow one big enough I’ll be making one for myself.

    I’d be interested to see what else can be done with them, by gourd.

    • ChrisW

      If you could find a really big one you could make a House of Dog.

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  • ChrisW

    Another natural material we use frequently is mica. It is used as an insulator for semiconductors and heaters. I always liked the fact that I was installing the latest high tech power transistor with something that had been chipped from a rock.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Betsy-Hinze-artist/134638656572399 Betsy Hinze

    I do a lot of art based on natural materials/our relationships to nature. For example, I patina’d brooches of small animals and rodents with their own urine-ammonia makes a beautiful patina on copper, and since ammonia is found in urine, it made for an interesting piece. (and a great pun: peetina. har har) You should be able to view them here: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=335691409800455&set=a.335690983133831.69189.134638656572399&type=3&theater It’s interesting how each brooch turned a different color! I’ve used other natural materials in my art too-snake vertebrae have natural holes in them, which make for very delicate earrings.

    I’m looking forward to this month!

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