Make a Chair from a Tree

When a tree is felled, its green wood is wet and easy to work with simple hand tools. As the wood dries it becomes hard and difficult. Old timers would shape chair parts from green wood cut from a small tree nearby, assemble them without nails, and as the wood dried it would shrink into a tight, strong, beautiful chair. This lost art was rediscovered by the author of this book, John Alexander. But now the book itself is long out of print, and used copies go for $350.

In the 35 years since the first edition of the book, the author has kept refining his process (while undergoing a gender change; John is now Jennie) and has produced a video of her highly refined process. In many ways the video is even better than the book. Sample excerpts of the video can be seen here. Alexander promises a third edition of the book.

If the idea of making a chair from a tree interest you, the Greenwoodworking website is worth checking out.

-- KK  

Make a Chair from a Tree DVD
Available from Greenwoodworking

Sample Excerpts:





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Making Handmade Books

While traditional paper-book publishing declines, personal paper-book making ascends. Books have gone from industrial commodity to precious hand-made artifact. There’s a renaissance of handcrafted book-making by enthusiasts and Alisa Golden has played a key role in documenting and teaching this makers’ art. I have a number of book-making books, and this one by her is by far the most complete and thorough. Her diagrams and instructions are very clear. This hefty how-to manual gives directions for creating over 100 different types of books, book bindings and book-ish things. It incorporates her previous two how-to manual, adds new material and will guide anyone through the process of making a paper book by hand. Even better, it will prompt you to experiment with your own book-making designs.

-- KK  

Making Handmade Books
Alisa Golden
2011, 256 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:


Watercolor pencils

Second row:
Colored waxed linen, natural linen thread and bookbinding needle, beeswax, binder clip, Japanese screw punch

Third row:
Bone folder, archival superfine black pen, pencil, stencil brush, assorted papers, craft knife, awl, scissors

Metal ruler; cutting mat under all






Magic Sculpt

I have used Magic Sculpt to put a zombie face onto a mannequin, to make a model of Dracula’s castle for the movie Van Helsing, and to make small sculptures and other props for Star Wars. Magic Sculpt is a two-part epoxy putty with the consistency of clay. You have about an hour to work with it and then it hardens like a rock. Carves beautifully and smooths with some water. It is better than Fimo, Super Sculpey, and other polymer clays that need to be kept small so the pieces are heated evenly when you cure them in an oven. This stuff cures chemically (not with heat or air) which means you can make pieces as large as you want — as big as a life-sized statue. It does not crack or shrink. You can also add more Magic Sculpt to a already hard piece, which you can not do with polymer clay, building a complicated sculpture in pieces. After it cures you can drill it, sand it, and paint it.


-- Tory Belleci  

[I've found Magic Sculp and Magic Sculpt online. They appear to be the same thing. If you know the difference, please tell us about it in the comments. -- Mark Frauenfelder]

Magic Sculpt
$26 per lb.

Available from Amazon

New Complete Guide to Sewing

When a struggling new fashion-designer needs to hone their sewing skills, Project Runway guru Tim Gunn steers them to this Reader’s Digest Guide to Sewing. It’s got the best, clearest, and most complete introduction to 95% of the sewing skills you’ll ever need. It’s practical and methodical in its instructions. Not as good as grandma, but anyone will be able to pick up stitches, cutting and machine use from it.

-- KK  

The New Complete Guide to Sewing
Reader’s Digest
2010, 384 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Hemming stitches, blind
These stitches are taken inside, between the hem and garment. In the finished hem, no stitches are visible. The edge of the hem does not press into the garment.

Blind-hemming stitch is a quick and easy stitch that can be used on any blind hem.


Blind-hemming stitch: Work from right to left with needle pointing left. Fold back the hem edge; fasten thread inside it. Take a very small stitch approximately 1/4 in. (6 mm) to the left in the garment; take the next stitch 1/4 in. (6mm) to the left in the hem. Continue to alternate stitches from garment to hem, spacing them approximately 1/4 in. (6mm) apart. Take care to keep stitches small, especially those taken on garment.



Woodworker’s Hand Tools

This guide by Rick Peters is an exceptionally fantastic review of great hand tools, particularly those for working with wood. Here I discovered cool hand tools I didn’t know about (after all these years!), and I learned a lot of useful tricks for tools I did know about.  Peter’s aims his advice at just the right level of intelligence and detail, telling you exactly what is most useful, and nothing more.

This is smartly illustrated book is really a bunch of cool reviews of woodworking hand tools.

Sample excerpts:


A flexible curve is basically a lead rod that’s covered with a vinyl sheath. This clever lay-out tool can be bent into small, graceful curves and is especially useful for reproducing a curve from an existing part, such as pressing it around a cabriole leg that you want to reproduce. Flexible curves can be found in most woodworking catalogs and at most any art store.



For large saws (like a crosscut or rip saw), the easiest way to protect the teeth is to cover them with a short length of garden hose. You can buy this by the foot at most home centers. Make a slit the full length of the hose with a utility knife, and slip it over the teeth. You may need to temporarily attach the hose to the saw blade with duct tape until the hose straightens out.



Originally designed to shape spokes for wagon wheels, spokeshaves still find a home in many shops today. I use mine when I shape cabriole legs, add a chamfer to a curved edge, or need a round-over on a curved part. In use, a firm grip is essential, and the tool may be either pushed or pulled. I generally prefer to pull because this gives better control.



Sandvik files (and other abrasive tools, like their sanding block), are all faced with a special steel plate that has a series of holes punched in the surface to replicate a variety of abrasive grits. What makes this work is that the holes are punched in the metal with great accuracy. And unlike sandpaper, which wears quickly, the sanding plates last considerably longer. When they do wear out, you can purchase a replacement plate.



-- KK  

Woodworker’s Hand Tool
Rick Peters
2001, 192 pages
Technically out of print, but used copies available from Amazon

Available from Amazon

Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing

3D printing allows you to make a small complex object from a digitally composed file using a 3D printer. However 3D printing technology is changing so fast that Cool Tools can’t recommend a specific printer. The best we can do is to point you to people who are seriously tracking this corner of the technium.

By far the best guide to the rapidly emerging world of 3D printing is this special issue of Make magazine. This timely guide will spell out the differences in 15 home printers now available, and steer to you the best stock materials to use, the design software options you have, and even how to use 3D print services instead of buying your own (soon to be outdated) machine. Included is a whole chapter on the brand new art of how to scan existing objects so they can be replicated. Their comprehensively researched and test 3D printer buyer’s guide is worth thousands of dollars in savings. The 114-page guide is impressively well done, brilliantly illustrated with diagrams and instructive photos, tons of tips and inspiring projects, and will answer 99% of the first questions any beginner will have, while constantly pointing you to the websites and experts generating even more recent information. I hope they keep this excellent tool updated. (Mark Frauenfelder, now editor of Cool Tools, was editor-in-chief of Make).

– KK



A Strandbeest mechanism by Theo Jansen, printed in nylon on an EOS selective laser sintering (SLS) machine at Shapeways headquarters in New York. Dust it off and it’s ready to walk.


A word of warning: when buying a turnkey printer, be wary of “razor vs. blades” business models. 3D printers exist that are seemingly cheap, but which require proprietary filament cartridges, where the consumable filament costs two to three times the going market rates.


Generating STL files – STL files are the lingua franca of the 3D printing world. If an application can export a 3D model as an STL file, then that STL file can be sliced and printed. STL files can be generated using a CAD program. SketchUp is quite popular, as are a number of open source 3D modelers. On Mac OS X, Autodesk has released Inventor Fusion, which combines significant power with a relatively easy-to-use package. Both are free.


Ponoko offers 3D printing in a wide range of materials, from plastics and ceramics to stainless steel, gold plate, and Z Corp plasters. They also offer laser cutting and CNC routing in a huge variety of materials, so you can supplement your 3D-printed project with other custom parts. Prints from Ponoko are generally very good quality and reasonably priced, but their pricing structure and system for uploading models are confusing. They do have a very good support staff who will go above and beyond to help you with any questions. Ponoko operates several regional production facilities, so printing and shipping times vary.


PLA (polylactic acid or polylactide) is a biodegradable plastic typically made from corn or potatoes. PLA filament is extruded at a lower temperature of 160°C–220°C and does not require a heated bed (painter’s tape is just fine). When heated, PLA smells a bit like sweet, toasted corn. PLA tends to be stiffer than ABS. While PLA does not require a heated bed, it can warp a bit during cooling, something that a heated bed can greatly improve. Note that there is a “flexible PLA” variant that, while trickier to use, will result in objects that are squishy.

Slicing/CAM Software — Once you have a manifold, error-free 3D model, it must be converted into specific toolpath instructions that tell the printer where to move the hot end, when to move it, and whether or not to extrude plastic along the way. This process is sometimes referred to as skeining or slicing. The standard format for these instructions is a simple programming language called G-code. Historically, most printers have relied on the open source Skeinforge engine for preparing G-code from model files. Recently, however, alternative slicing programs have started appearing, most notably Slic3r, which has been slowly overtaking Skeinforge as the tool of choice.




-- KK  

Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing

Published by Maker Media

Easy Cutter

Most people might not know about this lovely tool unless you’re a model maker. It is for precisely cutting things on a bias. The Easy Cutter has guides that make sure you get your angles correct and consistent. It can handle styrene, wood, foam core and plastic stuff. For model making, when you’re making little parts, this is a terrific way to make sure you’re cutting precise little pieces.

-- Adam Savage  

[Note: We first reviewed the Easy Cutter Ultimate back in 2007. It remains a cool tool for makers of all types!--OH]

Easy Cutter Ultimate

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Midwest Products

Construction Adhesive

Construction adhesive has a major role in building construction, but I have been using it as a household adhesive. It has a number of unique characteristics that make it possibly more useful than most of the alternatives.

It fills gaps with strength, unlike cyanoacrylates like Superglue or polyurethanes like Gorilla Glue. It is somewhat flexible, which often makes a more durable repair for things like shoes, clothing, tents, etc. It is much stronger than Shoe Goo or urethane sealers, which the clear versions resemble superficially. It has tremendous initial tack. Often you can spread it, stick the two pieces together, and you are done. The glue is sticky enough that often you don’t need clamping (which is a virtual necessity for Gorilla Glue and its relatives).

It is easy to apply. Unlike contact cements like Barge Cement, you don’t have to apply it to both sides, let them dry, then carefully stick them together (and get an instant that you cannot realign if you didn’t bring the pieces together perfectly.) You just spread it on one piece, jam the two pieces together and adjust, and you are done.

It also cleans up with soap and water, unlike epoxy, polyurethane glue, cyanoacrylate glue, contact cement, etc. It is waterproof in non-immersion settings, unlike white or yellow glues. It comes in a variety of formulations with a variety of characteristics, so you can choose high-strength, UV-resistance, clear or a kind of beige, ability to stick to foam insulation, even low VOC, etc. as needed. It is also sold in small tubes, though only in a few varieties.

As for cons, I can’t think of any real disadvantages. If you want to bond two rigid things that mate perfectly, use Super Glue. If you want to bond two rigid things that don’t mate perfectly, use epoxy. For wood, use carpenter’s glue. For pretty much every other material, porous or non-porous, flexible or not, construction cement works great, at least so far.

I guess it isn’t completely clear whether the stuff in the little tubes is the same stuff sold in the large tubes that require a caulking gun. But the large tubes are cheap, so some experimentation isn’t out of the question.

The clear version from Liquid Nails let me make the only successful shoe repair I have ever made of a peeling sole. I stuffed the shoe full of newspaper, masked off the uppers, applied the glue, then applied blue masking tape on the outside to pull the sole close to the shoe. When it dried, it looked perfect, and for the last few years the glue has held strong while flexing with the shoe. I never had such luck with Shoe Goo, Super Glue, urethane sealants, Barge cement, etc.

I have used construction glues from both Loctite and Liquid Nails, and both brands seem to work well. You have to be careful to get construction cement, and not silicone sealant.

-- Karl Chwe  

Liquid Nails Heavy Duty Construction Adhesive

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Liquid Nails

Coppicing & Coppice Crafts

Coppicing is an old art of the repeated harvesting of small-diameter wood from the same bush or tree. Once cut, the branches grow back, often pretty fast. Coppicing is common tradition around the world, particularly where big lumber is scarce. This book teaches the traditions and skills of coppicing as practiced in England. Coppicing is a useful art for homesteaders because you can sustainably extract wood products from a small lot or even fence row. Coppiced wood can be woven, used for carving, making chairs, charcoal, and for firewood. This English book is the best guide to the craft, instructing you in how to grow, manage, and use coppice bounty. One note, emphasized by the book: the biggest challenge in coppicing today is controlling deer, which were not a problem in old days (everyone ate them), but their huge populations now devour coppice shoots indiscriminately.

-- KK  

Coppicing & Coppice Crafts
Rebecca Oaks, Edward Mills
2012, 192 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Coppicing makes use of a mysterious property that most trees have: when cut down they do not die but grow again from the stump or roots. People have used this behavior for at least 6,000 years to generate renewable supple of wood for fuel or to use for many crafts, simple or specialized.


Seven-year-old hazel ready to be cut again.


New growth on hazel — only a few days old.


Tips on dealing with brash
If there is a lot of waste, burn brash on fires raised off the ground, or on areas of little value such as rhododendron stumps.
If there is not much waste, scatter it around and it will rot away very quickly.
Make brash piles but keep them small and dense.
Consider chipping but remove the chips and compost elsewhere.
Making dead-hedging keeps brash relatively tidy and in one place, and helps to deter deer if tall enough (a dead hedge is really just a tidy wind-row).


Splitting post and chopping block all to hand.


Finished hurdle with arch and gate.


A Northern style hay rake with a bent hazel bool.

Wild Colors * The Art & Craft of Natural Dyeing

In our experiments with using natural dyes, Wild Colors has been the best introductory resource. A remarkable variety of plants can be used to dye fibers and cloths, and this book covers most of them, all in great color photos. I found the preparation instructions clear, and the color possibilities outlined inspiring. The guide is helpful for experimenting and making small batches.

But achieving deep colors consistently requires a lot more attention and knowledge. The finest steadfast colors may require 10 steps or more to process the natural ingredients. You’ll need J.N. Liles’ heavily researched tome on traditional methods, The Art & Craft of Natural Dyeing. It’s not well organized, but it is chock full of historical knowledge. An ease with chemistry will also help get the most from this exhaustive treatment of ancient dyeing skills.

-- KK  

Wild Color
Jenny Dean
2010, 144 pages

Available from Amazon

The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing
J.N. Liles
2006, 22 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

From Wild Colors:

Note: Bear in mind that it is not the amount of water used in the dye bath that affects the strength of the dye bath. The amount of water does not “dilute” the dye color: The strength of the dye bath is only affected by the amount of fibers added in relation to the amount of dye color present, as it is the color particles in the solution that have to be shared among the fibers being dyed.


Iron modifiers improve the fastness of most dyes and tend to make colors darker and more somber in tone. This iron modification process is called “saddening.” It can turn yellows into olive-green and, if used with dyes rich in tannin, it can make colors dark gray and almost black. Add it to the dye bath or pot of water and stir it well. Put in the wetted fibers and simmer them for about five minutes. Iron usually take effect very quickly. It can also be applied without heat to many plant dyes. Rinse and wash fibers.



To test whether colored fabrics will stain or run, make two samples of each color. Sew one between two layers of undyed woolen fabric and another between two layers of undyed cotton fabric. Wash the samples, following the most likely procedure for the finishing item to see the degree of staining in the washing process.


In Himalayan regions, species of rhubarb are particularly valued for their contribution to the dye pot. In parts of Tibet and Ladakh, and among Tibetan refugees in Nepal, rhubarb root is the most common source of yellow dye, and species of rhubarb have long been sought after locally. The roots are dried, chopped up, and ground into powder before use, and give strong, fast shades of yellow, gold, and orange.


Madder is one of the most ancient dyes and its existence can be traced as far back as the Indus civilization of around 3,000 BCE. Madder was cultivated throughout Europe and the Middle East, and the finest quality dyestuff came from Turkey, Holland, and France.

Madder root can also be simmered gently to extract the dye color but once the fibers have been added, the temperature should be kept well below a simmer to achieve clear reds. Simmering or boiling the dye bath will turn red colors browner and duller.

The best color results are often achieved if the pieces of madder root are left in the dye pot during the dyeing process.


Most of the colors produced from elder berries fade on exposure to light, but even the faded shades of pale lavender can be pleasing to the eye. Because of this characteristic, however, using fibers dyed with elder berries for tapestries or wall hanging is not recommended.


Sample excerpts, From The Art & Craft of Natural Dyeing:

About 1775, Dr. Edward Bancroft discovered a highly concentrated yellow dye in the inner bark of the American black oak tree (Quercus velutina). This was an extremely significant discovery since this dye, which he named “quercitron,” was as fast or faster than weld, and it was much cheaper because the dye in weld is present in lower concentration. Thus, quercitron was to become the best natural yellow dye for the next century and was used commercially until about 1920.


Again, according to Pellew, in about 1908 a German dye chemist, Dr. Friedlander, spent the summer in Naples and collected approximately 12,000 Murex snails for dye extraction. From this quantity of snails he was able to extract about three-fourths of a gram of pure dye. Upon analysis, the dye proved to be 6, 6′ dibromoindigo. Part of Friedlander’s interest was in determining whether Tyrian purple was identical to thio-indigo red B, a synthetic indigo derivative that he had recently produced. The dye was not the same, and Tyrian purple was synthesized and used only for a short while.


A good black may be obtained by over dyeing a deep indigo blue with strong walnut. In this case sumac leaves or berries or a little tannin, and a little copperas, are added to the walnut. This works well on cotton, wool, or silk.