Tips and Tales from Gareth Branwyn

Maker News
Tips and Tales from Gareth Branwyn

In honor of the new DIY Humble collection launching today, we checked in with Make: author, columnist, and one-time editorial director Gareth Branwyn, whose most recent book, Tips and Tales from the Workshop, is the featured title in this bundle.

Gareth is an accomplished author and journalist who has significantly shaped geek culture and led maker culture. His books include Borg Like Me, The Happy Mutant Handbook, and The Best of Make:. As a journalist, he has covered technology, media, DIY, and cyber-culture for Wired, Esquire, The Baltimore Sun, Details, and other publications. He’s a former editor at Mondo 2000 and Boing Boing, as well as here at Make:. Today, his “Tips of the Week” column is one of our most popular features.

Learn more from and about Gareth in our newest Make: books podcast. We’re so proud to be able to cast a shining light on this marvelous writer. Here are the top-of-mind questions that arose after spending some good absorbing time with Tips and Tales from the Workshop. Get it and some $300 worth of our best do-it-yourself writing in this new Humble deal for just $20!

Make: In Tips and Tales, you recommend pre-making mistakes? Would you please explain this!

Gareth Branwyn: Ha! That’s a good one, shared with me by the amazing maker, Andy Birkey. Andy works a lot with religious artifacts and church restorations, sacred and irreplaceable objects, where he can’t make mistakes. So, before he starts doing anything on a restoration job, he thinks through everything that could possibly go wrong and tries to work around any such potential mistakes. I think this is a good idea for any type of making, and especially as a safety practice, e.g. anticipating the actions and potential failures of a tool and what you need to do to avoid them.

This is as much a philosophical text as a how-to book. I assume it’s intentional; what was your thinking?

I wanted to do a maker book, a tips and tools book, with some heart and some real depth to it. I wanted it to be an amazing collection of shop tips, but I also wanted it to tell stories, offer context, and to be as eye-opening and readable as possible. Balancing all of that was a fun challenge. The writer Sean Ragan called my book “a course on how to think.” I love that people are taking that away from the book.

This book is written “bird by bird” in parts. How did you approach compiling and writing it?

Most of it was grown, week by week, via my Tips column that runs every Friday on I took the best tips from there and from other articles on the website and in the magazine. I’ve sort of trained my eye at this point so that a unique or useful tip or technique I spot in a how-to article or YouTube video really pops out at me. It’s funny you mention Anne Lamott’s concept of bird by bird (tasking yourself with at least doing a tiny bit on a project each day). I include that as an organizing tip in the book. Being a classic procrastinator, that idea has changed my work life.

How do you expect folks to read this book: In one sitting, in small sections, or?

I really designed this to be a browsing book, a great toilet tank book. One task I set for myself was to have at least one true “ah-ha!” idea per page. The fact that so many people have come up to me at Maker Faires and other maker events and said that very thing, that there is at least one eye-opening, must-use tip per page, has been very gratifying.

What in-plain-sight tip was most surprising to you? (I think of this one: “Use the case of the tape measure to measure.”)

 Yes, all of the tape measure tips, like the fact that the serrated edge on the end hook of a measuring tape is for marking and that the little slot on the end hook is for hooking onto a nail for one-person measuring. Those are all great. I also love, “Why didn’t I think of that?” tips that seem so head-slappingly obvious, like combining wood glue and hot glue to get both instant and long-term holding. Or using rubber bands for clamps. There are lots of these in the book.

What is your “favorite” tip, either because it was surprising or because it’s delightful or because it’s bizarre, etc.?

One I love, because I never would have thought of such a thing, is setting up a search alert on Craigslist (or similar sites) for “grandfather’s” (and “granddad’s”). This way, you scoop up any announcements of people clearing out a grandfather’s shop, garage, wood collection, etc. One woodworker did this and acquired a barn’s worth of beautiful, dried white oak for next to nothing.

Why didn’t you confine the tips to the workshop? There are lots of home, studio, and art tips here, too.

I intentionally wanted the book to be applicable to anyone, not just hardcore makers. The book is divided up by activity not by type of making. So, chapters are things like Measuring, Cutting, Fastening, Gluing, Sewing, Soldering, etc. I tried to include tips that would be useful regardless of whether you were a crafter, 3D printer, robot builder, hobby modeler, woodworker, or you just maintain a house and a yard. There is useful material in here for everyone.

What have you slapped your forehead and gone, “Aha!” about since the book has been published?

When we were planning the book, and my editor suggested that we use hand-drawn watercolor illustrations for it, I thought this might be a big mistake. It’s a technical book. I thought it should have very precise, technical drawings. But we decided to go with the watercolors of artist Richard Sheppard. It was challenging to work in this medium. Making changes to a hand-drawn image is difficult. But Richard did a magnificent job. And his art really makes the book special. It adds a warmth and workbook quality that perfectly suits the content and the feel I was going for. Nearly everyone who’s given me feedback on the book raves about how beautiful and inviting it is. I am so glad that I didn’t try and overrule the watercolors.

The Make: DIY Humble collection features Gareth Branwyn’s Tips and Tales from the Workshop as well as a boatload of our best do-it-yourself books. Get nearly $300 worth of learning for just $20! Ends on Monday, Nov. 26, at 10:59amPT.

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