Zero to Maker: Attack of the Side Project

Education Energy & Sustainability
Zero to Maker: Attack of the Side Project

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, partially through a generous arrangement with our pals at TechShop. He’s regularly chronicling his efforts in this weekly column — what he’s learning, who he’s meeting, and what hurdles he’s clearing (um… or not). –Gareth

Makers amaze me. I’m always in awe of how many different projects they seemed to be juggling at once. As soon as you dig into a conversation, you can usually uncover about five more that they’re mentally planning. Show them a new tool and you’ll get a list of new applications and experiments they can use it for. Surely this uniquely maker trait – a never-ending conveyor belt of project ideas – is a natural born characteristic. I had to rack my brain to think of even one thing to make, so balancing different project ideas would never be a problem for me, right? Wrong!

I get it now. As a maker who stopped by the OpenROV booth at the East Bay Mini Maker Faire commented: “Pretty soon, it stops being about what you can make, and starts being about what you have time to make.”

I nodded in agreement, however, it didn’t truly resonate until late Sunday afternoon when I realized my “little” side project had consumed my entire weekend, and was threatening to take up the next one as well. It all started on Thursday of the previous week when I had a conversation about vertical gardens and became enamored with the idea of making plants growing on walls. Prior to my Zero to Maker experience, I probably would have gone to the store or cruised the web to figure out the cheapest option or just read a lot about the process. Not anymore! I was going to make it!

I should also provide the context that I’m terribly bad with plants. If there’s a word or phrase that means the exact opposite of a green thumb, that’s me! So logically, I think the main issue is getting dirt on the wall. I googled to find some examples of wall growth and how to do it – finding one example of artists growing grass on ceramic. I thought that might be the right path. After spending half an hour on the phone with the maker of Liquid Ceramic, explaining my idea of mixing Liquid Ceramic with potting soil and adding grass seed, I was politely talked out of that strategy. But the idea didn’t go away.

In an unrelated discussion with my girlfriend, I learned about a material called hypertufa – a mixture of Portland cement, peat moss and perlite – that, when covered with buttermilk, would grow a layer of moss. Although this didn’t fit my exact vision of plants growing on the wall, I figured maybe I could make a series of wall-hanging planters that would suffice. And, honestly, I was just eager to try out the material. I penciled out a list of what I’d need, which included the hypertufa ingredients, as well as a sturdy mold to hold my concrete-like mixture. On Saturday afternoon, I stopped by TechShop to see if I could pick up any mold ideas, and quite impulsively, jumped into a class on Angular Sheet Metal to try and pick up some skills for building it. The class was fantastic. I spent the entire afternoon learning about and experimenting with the metal shop tools and imagining all the things I could make with them. However, I left the class with no mold to speak of. But that still didn’t stop me.

Sunday morning I woke up on a mission. I told my girlfriend about the singular goal of creating a hypertufa planter. Despite the general lack of context, coupled with my strange behavior all weekend, she agreed to join in the “fun.” The main reason she agreed to help (I think) was to see what I was making such a fuss about, not because she was exceptionally excited about the idea. The quick trip to pick up materials turned into a complete hardware store tour of San Francisco. By the time we had everything we needed, it was mid-afternoon and we were exhausted. Our fun “little” side project had turned into a straight-faced, nerve-tested focus on just getting something done. During our adventure, we purchased some plastic buckets which, after some slight modifications, we turned into acceptable molds for the hypertufa. They weren’t the wall planter molds I’d envisioned, but they would have to do at this point. The next thing I remember is being covered in dirt, peat moss and cement mix – all over my clothes, rubber gloves and the work area we’d sectioned off in my girlfriend’s backyard (and, believe me, I DEEPLY regret not getting a picture of this stage of the process).

By the time the dust (and concrete) had settled, we had two molds filled with our hypertufa. After we got everything cleaned up, I looked at the setting molds and reflected on the process – how far and wide I’d strayed from what I originally set out to do. A silly idea of getting plants to grow on a wall took me through a semi-embarrassing exploration of liquid ceramic-infused soil, through a class on angular sheet metal, and knee-deep in an experiment in faux concrete. I was a mile away from my goal, but I learned a lot in the process, and actually had quite a bit of fun. Also, there’s always next weekend.

Update: Last I heard (via text message from my girlfriend) on the status of our experiment: “I dunno, it doesn’t feel right, feels like compacted dirt. I think we should chalk this one up as a learning experiment.” Of course!

Follow David’s Zero to Maker journey

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

Co-Founder of OpenROV, a community of DIY ocean explorers and makers of low-cost underwater robots. Author of Zero to Maker. And on Twitter!

View more articles by David Lang


Ready to dive into the realm of hands-on innovation? This collection serves as your passport to an exhilarating journey of cutting-edge tinkering and technological marvels, encompassing 15 indispensable books tailored for budding creators.