Tips and Tales from the Workshop with Gareth Branwyn

Tips and Tales from the Workshop with Gareth Branwyn

[For the release of my new book, Make: Tips and Tales from the Workshop, Make:’s Editorial Director, Roger Stewart, conducted this brief interview with me. -Gareth]


Gareth Branwyn has written, edited, or contributed to over a dozen books, including Borg Like Me, The Happy Mutant Handbook, Jamming the Media, and The Best of Make:. As a journalist, he has covered technology, media, DIY, and cyberculture for Wired, Esquire, The Baltimore Sun, Details, and other publications. He’s a former editor at Mondo 2000, Boing Boing, and Make:, where he served for a time as Editorial Director. Today, his “Tips of the Week” column on the Make: website is consistently one of the site’s most popular features. With the publication of his latest book, Make: Tips and Tales from the Workshop, we decided to touch base with Gareth and ask him a few questions.

Your new book is a compendium of tips and tricks for makers. What got you interested in this topic?

Use double-sided tape to hold small parts in place while you disassemble or reassemble something. Affix the tape to a piece of paper and write where the part goes.

I have always been fascinated by technology, by tools; but my focus is always on the human side of that equation. I am interested in how humans use tools, especially how they use them in ways they weren’t intended to be used. I have also always been interested in the sort of utopian overtones of tips, the way a time-saving technique, a hack, or a shortcut gives you a little glimpse into an easier, smarter, more efficient way of doing things. Tips are useful in improving one’s workflow, but there’s also an aspirational quality to them. When you’re exposed to a really cool tip you get a little tickle in your brain of how you might apply that tip and how it could improve your life. You get that whether you ever apply the tip or not.

You can build a simple cutting jig for breaking down plastic bottles into plastic string using six washers, two screws, a piece of wood, and the blade from a plastic, school box pencil sharpener. Make two columns of three washers spaced far enough apart to hold the blade. Screw the columns into a piece of a wood with the blade sandwiched in between the first and second washer in the stacks— make sure to tighten the blade in place. Now, to break down a bottle, cut the bottom off with a utility knife and begin twisting the bottle through the blade to cut strips of the plastic. The resulting plastic string is surprisingly strong and can be used in all sorts of lashing and tying applications.

The book seems to cover a very wide range of topics: planning, organizing. measuring, cutting. drilling, molding and casting, sanding and finishing, digital fabrication, electronics… the list goes on! Does that reflect your own range of interests?

I try to live my life as a generalist, a whole-systems thinker. I love the concept (which I cover in the book) that the “universe is a collection of parts.” Our world is a collection of components, materials, and processes—-configured one way, but that can be deconstructed and reconstructed in other ways. With this mindset, you start thinking of the materials, tools, and techniques that are “encoded” in something and how they can be “re-encoded” somewhere else. In the realm of techniques, you start thinking about general categories of materials processing, like cutting, fastening, joining, gluing, soldering, etc. I decided to arrange the book like that. I also wanted this to be a book that would be useful to all kinds of making, from traditional shop craft to crafting to robots and desktop fabricating. Much of this is reflected in the wide net cast over each chapter. Everyone should be able to find useful tips regardless of what kind of making they do.

In a quick technique tutorial called “Super Clean Cable Splicing” on Becky Stern’s YouTube channel, she shows off the best way of stripping, soldering, and shrink-tubing a cable splice. The trick is to offset the wire joins so that, when you add heat-shrink tubing to the individual wires and then a tube over the entire splice, you don’t get a big lump in the cable.

You’ve included a number of personal anecdotes from your own life and from other makers, as well as making a point of stating that most of these tips aren’t your own. Are the best tips just bits of wisdom that are handed down from one person to the next?As part of my interest in human use of tools, I wanted to include personal anecdotes, from my own life, and from friends and fellow makers I encounter in my work covering DIY technology. As I talk about in the book, tools and tips are often handed down with a story attached to them. I wanted to retain some of these stories. This turned out to be harder than I anticipated. When you ask people outright to share such stories, most people draw a blank. But then, even moments later in casual conversation, they will share anecdotes which are exactly the kinds of stories I wanted the book to tell. Often, I had to trick people into telling me these stories by not asking them outright. I just got them to talk about their shop, their tools, some technique, and the stories would often flow from there. If nothing else, I hope the book gets people to think about this rich history of their tech and how tools and techniques almost always have stories to tell.

There are many techniques for, and much debate over, how to deal with squeeze-out, the excess glue that squishes out from two bonded workpieces. Trying to remove squeeze-out from an inside corner can be especially challenging. This tip from WoodSmithTips shows a clever way of using a plastic drinking straw to scoop up squeeze-out from inside corners.

One of my favorite “stories” in the book is a visual one. I love old workbenches. They are literally inscribed with tales of the projects they have hosted. There, in the saw marks, the drill holes, the paint and varnish oversprays, the burn marks, is inscribed a sort of unintentional map of the bench owner’s work life. We decided to use close-up images of a workbench to run as a design element throughout the book. Maker extraordinaire Jimmy DiResta was kind enough to take some pictures of his workbenches which now grace the chapter openers and the footers of each page.

Do you have any favorite tips or tales from the book that you would like to share with interested readers?

Oh gosh, there are so many great ones. There are obviously many tips that fall into the “Now, why didn’t I think of that?” category. But I especially like the tips that never would have occurred to me. One of those in the book is the “grandfather’s” search term. I heard this mentioned on a video from a woodworker named James Wright. He has a saved search string on Craigslist that looks for anything listed under “grandfather’s.” This way, he gets alerted to estate sales when granddads pass on by statements like: “I’m cleaning out my grandfather’s workshop.” He’s gotten some amazing stuff via this search.


You can pick up a copy of Tips and Tales from the Workshop now. This book would make a great Father’s Day gift!

[Tips and Tales is illustrated throughout with hand-done watercolor illustration from Richard Sheppard. Some examples of his work can be seen above.]

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

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