Breaking Blocks

This is a “Rerun” post from the original blog – I’ll be putting these up here and there alongside the new posts but with their original date of publishing.

‘m back, bebe. To be honest, since last week’s post I still haven’t really made anything, but I’m getting back to feeling motivated and kicking some ideas around for what to make next.

I’m still sad about potentially having to move in the near future, but I really am excited about the possibilities of Workshop 2.0. It’s always been my plan to move in the next couple of years to somewhere with a workspace that’s more durable (something like a garage or cellar) where I can grind metal, spraypaint, use fire and generally bash around without being afraid of losing my security deposit.

Plus, with more space I can start to look at some of the bulkier tools that will let me move on to the next level of projects, like a proper lathe (they often come up surprisingly cheap secondhand if you can arrange transport), a drill press and eventually a small mill.

In the meantime, let’s talk about breaking blocks in your crafting projects.

Almost everything I make tends to follow a common pattern. First the idea surfaces, usually in some random moment when two ideas bash together unexpectedly, or when I try to find something I really want and realise it doesn’t exist.

Then it’s a matter of figuring out the steps to get from where I am to where the thing I’m making is (acceptably) complete. Or to put it another way, a series of problems to solve.

For example, once I’d decided to make a black leather santa hat to go with my jacket, the problems were:

  • Find a source of suitable leather – solved by using the sleeve of my old leather jacket.
  • Figure out shape to cut out of it – solved by applying my previous experience of making santa hats for the basic cone, then trying it on, cutting and adjusting until good.
  • Figure out shape and size to cut the fur trim – again, experience, plus quick experimentation.
  • Oh god I cut it too small – figure out how the shape needed to change to fit, then from that what material needed to be added, then from that devised and made a dart to fill the shape.
  • Etc.

Almost all of these problems or challenges are one of the following:

  1. I don’t know how to do this.
  2. I’m missing some thing but I don’t know what it is.

A good chunk of the time, the answer to either is pretty obvious, or easily acquired. If you don’t know how to do something, somebody out there has probably solved a similar problem in the past – time to start Googling, watching Youtube videos or asking more experienced crafters. Similarly, if you’re making something reasonably common or of a common category of things (like clothing), there is probably a tool or material out there already which does the job you need it to do, and the same sources should tell you what it is.

But a significant portion of crafting problems are chunky, awkward, obscure or just far enough outside your experience that you may not even know the questions to ask. These are the things I do that I have found most effective when I run into those type of problems. (To an extent, many of them can be used to solve all kinds of life challenges)

  • First and foremost, clarify and define the problem – ideally write it out. I often find that being stuck on a step *feels* like the whole project being stalled; it turns into a vague sense of “oh that’s just not working” and I just push the project into a corner and try to ignore it. Defining the problem, ie “I need something that holds part 1 to part 2” gets it out in front of me as a concrete situation and makes it feel much more solvable.
  • Really get the parameters of what’s needed clear. The above is fine, but much better is “I need something to hold part 1 to part 2. It needs to be strong enough to hold the weight of part 2 if I pick it up, but flexible enough that part 2 can rotate 90 degrees in relation to part 1. It needs to be fireproof and smell appealing to dogs.” Often just doing this will suggest the solution.
  • Create an image in your mind of the thing/solution you need and the properties it needs to have, then let your mind wander over things that have those characteristics. Your mind is a brilliant pattern matcher when allowed to ramble and ponder like this – let it do the work for you.
  • Widen the search. Dig through bits boxes, previous projects, notes. Browse shops that have things resembling the thing you need (or the thing you’re making).
  • Let Google’s fuzzy searching help you. Type in vague descriptions of what you need and see what comes up: “long narrow spring clip”, “4 inch metal disc with two inch hole in”. If appropriate, use image search and skim the results, letting your visual pattern matching pick out things that are close to what you need. Searching “60ml airtight metal canister” made me realise stash tins would be perfect for me to transport small quantities of coffee beans in 🙂
  • Build up your mental catalogue of shapes, properties and mechanics – always be exploring how things fit together, really try to understand the shapes and forces that are interacting to make that thing work. Be like a kid and explore, pry, poke things with a stick, weigh them, wiggle them, turn them upside down. If you’re into sewing, pull (gently) on seams, feel for layers, turn things inside out to see what shapes were cut. If you want to solve electronic problems, go over old gadgets and boards and try to figure out how the circuits have been put together. You’ll have those patterns ready in your head when you want to solve the same problem yourself.
  • Always be open to weird solutions. Even if something looks unlikely, try it out in a prototype if you can. Even if it doesn’t work, you may learn the solution to a different problem.
  • Explain it to someone. If there’s no-one there, imagine someone and explain it to them. Or explain it to yourself as though you were a different person. You are not mental. It is fine.
  • WALK AWAY. Particularly when you are deeply immersed and invested in the problem, getting tired and burned out will not help you solve it. Often what your brain needs is a break, a walk, a shower and a chance to let your subconscious chew on the problem. Maybe switch to a different project for a bit. In all likelihood the solution will come to you an hour later while you’re brushing the gerbil.

When you do solve a problem, document it. Snap a few photos, create a text file, write it down (maybe you could use one of these snazzy Creative Ideas Notebooks, available to order with affordable shipping right now!) Next time you have a similar problem, you be able to remind yourself what you did and build on your experience.

If you’re enjoying these articles and would like to say thankyou, the best way is to get yourself something nice from my webshop Uncommon Works, or you can Like my Facebook page or subscribe to my newsletter to get more articles, news and special offers! I make beeswax candles, laser cut stamps, leatherwork and much more to come.

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