Materials, Structures, Standards


This book, also known as MSS, is an outstanding work of architecture reference. It is 264 pages of impeccably drafted architectural and design elements with a wonderfully accessible style. It is full of annotated scale drawings designed to convey as much information as possible using few words.

MSS has a depth of visual information broken up into six chapters: The “Measuring and Drawing” section includes information about drafting standards and techniques. “Proportion and Form” includes information on human scale, basic design and residential spaces. “Codes and Guidelines” is basically a code/accessibility primer. The “Systems and Components” chapter covers a wide range of component interactions (the sections on doors, windows and stairs have been very useful to me). “Characteristics of Materials” discusses the characteristics of wood, masonry, metals and more with lots of pictures and tables. Lastly, “Compendium” is an interesting guide to historical architecture and architectural elements.

I’ve used this book for the past two years in my side job designing theatrical scenery. Whenever I need to know how high a hand rail should be, or how deep a chair should be, this book is my first stop. If I need to know how long an average adult male’s torso is, or how high the surface of a counter should be, MSS sits right on my desk.

MSS puts an enormous amount of useful information in a small, easy to read reference book. Information is easy to find because the drawings are large and are easily spotted while skimming through its pages. I recommend it as a desktop companion for anyone who occasionally dabbles in architecture or interfaces with architects.

-- Dave Seltzer  

Materials, Standards, Structures: All the Details Architects Need to Know But Can Never Find
Julia McMorrough
2006, 264 p.

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Seated dimensions




Ramps: The minimum clear width of a ramp should be 36″, inside handrails, if a ramp has a rise greater than 6″ or a horizontal projection greater than 72″, then it should have handrails on both sides. Maximum slope is 1:12

Typography for Lawyers


I’m not a lawyer. Typography for Lawyers isn’t just for lawyers. It’s for anyone who cares about how text looks in print or on the Web.

The author, Matthew Butterick, is a lawyer, and also a professional typographer who has created several original commercial fonts.

Butterick’s main point is that appearance matters for anyone making or reading a written argument. Most any written communication is an argument of some sort. Most legal communication is unnecessarily ugly. So, I would add, is most everyday business communication.

In a clear, coherent, and personable way, Butterick guides the reader through seemingly mundane matters like font, font size, paragraph format, line spacing, em dashes, en dashes, and the rest. He makes a case for what looks good, what doesn’t, and why it matters. He supplies plenty of visual examples.

While some material will interest only attorneys, those parts don’t break the flow for the general reader. Anyone who uses a computer is also a user of typography, even if few people take that fact seriously.

Other top-notch typography books are available. One is the previously reviewed classic Elements of Typographic Style. But like most, Elements is aimed mainly at serious students of typography and typography pros. Butterick’s book assumes no knowledge of the subject and focuses on the what to do, and how to do it.

-- Russ Mitchell  

Typography for Lawyers
Matthew Butterick
2010, 220 p.

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Typography matters because it helps conserve the most valuable resource you have as a writer — reader attention. … Writing as if you have unlimited reader attention is presumptuous because readers are not doing you a personal favor. Reading your writing is not their hobby. It’s their job.

Even though the en dash is used for joint authors (Sarbanes–Oxley Act), use a hyphen for compound names. If the children of Sarbanes and Oxley married, they’d be known as Mr. & Mrs. Sarbanes-Oxley (with a hyphen), not Mr. & Mrs. Sarbanes–Oxley (with an en dash).

All-caps paragraphs are an example of self-defeating typography. If you need readers to pay attention to an important part of your document, the last thing you want is for them to skim over it. But that’s what inevitably happens with all-caps paragraphs, because they’re so difficult to read.





MakerBot Cupcake CNC


I highly recommend the MakerBot Cupcake CNC, a very cool tool! I’m an engineering student and worked as an intern for MakerBot last summer, which gave me the opportunity to play around with their bots a lot. I got one for myself, and am very happy with it. For those unfamiliar with the MakerBot Cupcake CNC, it’s a desktop 3D printer that takes digital design files and builds objects up to approximately the size of a large cupcake by laying down many minute layers of ABS plastic.

The MakerBot comes as a kit requiring assembly. All you need to put one together are some basic tool skills, and a few days of work. It took me a weekend of on-and-off work to get mine from boxed-up to printing. The most complex, and definitely the process requiring the most adjustments, and a little bit of basic soldering, is the construction of the extruder. Once your bot is built, it shouldn’t take you more than an hour to get it printing.

Since building a MakerBot is a large DIY project, some things will not be perfect and will require some tinkering on the builder’s part. You might come across some problems such as loud, shaky X- and Y-stages, an angled Z-stage, or an extruder that clogs, but MakerBot has lots of solutions to the most common problems on their wiki.

There’s nothing else similar that’s readily available for purchase. The RepRap is in many ways the antecedent of the MakerBot, but it’s not for sale as a kit, as is the MakerBot. Since the RepRap project and all of MakerBot Industries are completely open-source, they have worked together. All the boards used to run MakerBots are actually used to run RepRaps, and many of the parts sold in the MakerBot store, such as motors and electronics, can be used to build a RepRap.


I’ve used my MakerBot to build a 7-piece block puzzle and Owl Headphone Wraps (pictured), and in the future I plan to build a refrigerator clip and a small puzzle box with my MakerBot, among other things.


I would also highly recommend looking at all the cool stuff on It has a lot of free design files of things you can print with your MakerBot. The website was created by Bre Pettis and Zach Hoeken, two of the three MakerBot co-founders.

-- Eric Weinhoffer  

CupCake CNC Basic Kit

Available from Makerbot

Printing the Statue of Liberty on a MakerBot 3D Printer!

How to Build With Grid Beam

Think of it as a giant Erector Set. Grid Beam is a great way to make working prototypes of furniture, experimental vehicles and even small buildings. If your idea doesn’t work, you can change it until it does. If you don’t need it anymore, Grid Beams are easily demountable and ready to use for the next project. I find the ability to try ideas quickly in analog form to be a huge advantage. With nothing simulated, you know for sure it works, not merely that it should work. A drawing can lie to your client or worse, to you. Grid Beams never lie. The book illustrates a remarkable array of projects, all real, and many actually at work. Inspiring!

-- J. Baldwin  

How to Build with Grid Beam
Phil Jergenson, Richard Jergenson and Wilma Keppel
2008, 288 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:



Figure 1.5: Four types of commercial grid beam. From bottom: 1-inch (25mm) steel, 1 1/2-inch (40mm) wood, 1 1/2-inch aluminum, 2-inch (50mm) steel double-hole with a 1 3/4-inch (45mm) insert. You can also drill your own.



Figure C.17: The wood-framed workbench that Phil assembled in chapter 1.



Figure C.1: Ken Issac’s Superchair, the first commercial grid beam product, has built-in shelves and a book holder, snack tray and overhead reading light. The seat back lowers to make a bed.

Alvin Architect’s Scale

Most of my analog design tools now sit longingly in a cabinet, but one I still use daily is my architect’s scale. Aside from a pencil, my scale is the most versatile tool on my desk.

I use a three-sided Alvin brand imperial unit model with inches and ten different fractional scales. It’s a handy basic ruler and straight edge for drawing or cutting, as well as for measuring and creating scale drawings. The aluminum model also makes a fairly intimidating weapon during heated meetings (the corners do tend to bend if it’s dropped).

Though so much of my process is digital now, I still use this tool for drafting and measuring drawings almost daily. It’s far quicker and less cumbersome to pull out a scale and create an accurate drawing on the back of a document right in a meeting than going back to a workstation and building a digital model. Sometimes I’ll need to explain why something will or will not work because of scale without breaking the flow of a conversation.

Our analog tools were once so precious. Designers built collections over the course of their careers. The most prized ones were cherished and passed down from mentors and older family members in the field. Who cherishes his copy of AutoCAD — much less carries an old floppy disk around in a velvet-lined box?

I still cherish my aluminum Alvin ruler. And it rules.

-- Michael Doyle  

Aluminum Architects Scale 2200 Series
6, 12, 18 and 24 inches
Available from Drafting Steals

Manufactured by Alvin


With YourFonts you can make a TrueType font from your own handwriting for free. The process is simple, quick and basically idiot-proof. Print out a template from the site, write in your letters, scan, upload and — voila — there you have it. If you’re a real fonthead, you might want more detail and control over the fonts you create. I remember even years ago seeing an ad in MacWorld for a “make your own handwriting font.” The template that software had was a lot more sophisticated, since it asked for examples of different letter combination as well as individual letters. The YourFonts template basically replicates the characters on a standard keyboard, with an optional extension to characters with accents/umlauts etc.

By far, this is the best, quickest, easiest and cheapest option I’ve found thus far. YourFonts offers proper font creation software that can be purchased at what seems to be fairly reasonable prices. But the free font creation tool is heaps of fun and available for use without any form of obligation. I’ve already gone back and improved my first efforts, opting to fiddle with character heights and positioning in GIMP a lot (see below). I’m now keen to create a couple more fonts for my fledgling web site. This is quite possibly the start of an addiction.

-- Craig Shaw  

Sample Excerpts:

Here’s my somewhat egotistically-titled font “Shaw Hand” in various iterations. Being a bit anally retentive, I wanted to improve the uniformity a bit and improve the look of some characters. Because there’s no direct control over kerning, etc. the width of the character is important — nothing “tucks in” under/over adjacent characters. Note my somewhat idiosyncratic “g”, and how my initial “e,” “w” and “h” were a bit wide. I also found matching the template guides for height was important. Since it can be hard to achieve this on paper (despite practice!) I did the best I could and then — since the template is scanned as a .jpg, — I actually ended up using GIMP to do some editing, such as stretching individual characters vertically or horizontally, or making minor improvements to their shape. Below are just improvements on the one style. I haven’t even started to create a new style yet. :-)


How To Wrap Five Eggs

Presentation is everything in Japan. Go to any department store and buy even a small sack of tea, and the time and effort put into packing up your purchase is enough to astound any n00b Westerner. This tradition goes way back, of course. First published in 1967 and long out of print, this picture-heavy book of classic Japanese packaging has finally been reprinted in paperback. The title is misleading. There are no step-by-step directions, only black and white images up front with annotations in the back, detailing the materials used, region, specific use/occasion/tradition surrounding each item. For example, in Aizu Wakamatsu, miso is sold in tiny, exquisitely-woven bamboo baskets. Why? Soup made with miso gets lumpy if it isn’t strained properly. The packaging doubles as a sieve. This book brims with the perfect, little offspring of form and function.

How to Wrap Five Eggs
Hideyuki Oka
2008, 224 pages
Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Ordinary rice straw is used imaginatively to create a most functional and beautiful container. Since a set of items in Japan is five rather than half a dozen (five teacups, five cake plates, and the like), this carrier contains just five eggs. Devised by farmers in Yamagata Prefecture in northern Japan, it is an example of packaging born of rural necessity. Interestingly enough, it seems to emphasize the freshness of the eggs. (book cover image)



The Osaka restaurant Sushiman invented this rather fantastic looking container for one of its specialties: suzume-zushi, or pressed boiled rice and kodai (small sea bream). The lid is firmly lashed down with lengths of vine wound around sections of split bamboo. The buff tone of the wood, the bright green of the bamboo, and the greenish brown of the vine lashings combine to give the package and inviting look and a decided air of freshness.



Homeishu, Japan’s oldest medicinal tonic, is a kind of liqueur made from a number of different Japanese and Chinese herb essences. The famous homeishu produced in Fukuyama, Hiroshima Prefecture, is sold in bottles of Bizen ware wrapped in straw matting. Two styles of wrapping are shown here… In the more complicated style (pictured) the bottle is placed in a box, and three pieces of matting are tied around it to create a package of considerable rustic charm.



This delightful product of the Mamemasa confectionery in Kyoto features sugarcoated beans arranged in tiers in a diagonally cut cardboard box pasted over with decorative printed paper. The ingenuity of the design speaks for itself, and one could hardly ask for sweets to be more temptingly packaged. The woodblock-printed label (not seen here) pictures a beautiful woman of Kyoto.


Benjamin Moore Aura Paint


When my husband and I moved into our new apartment recently, we knew a coat of fresh paint would spiff up the place, but with a new baby we wanted to pay special attention to the kind of paint we used. Unlike a lot of VOC-free paints (VOC = volatile organic compounds), Benjamin Moore’s Aura line of low-VOC acrylic paints isn’t thin or runny, dries really fast (literally an hour or less) and it’s available in a satisfying array of colors in eggshell, matte, satin, and semi-gloss. It’s VOC rating is less than 50 grams per liter (a standard paint might have 250 grams; VOC-free paints can still have up to 5 grams per liter). The Aura paint isn’t cheap — I think we spent $10-15 more per gallon than we normally do — but I have always been partial to more expensive paints because the colors appear truer and, in many cases, they require just one coat. With Aura, we found even the deepest of wall colors only required two coats to cover, and we didn’t use primer. The best part is there was no stinky paint smell residue, only beautifully-painted walls to gaze at with our little one.

-- Amanda Hughes-Watkins  

Benjamin Moore Aura Paint
(1 gallon)
Available from Moores Hardware

Or search for a retailer via zip code (top right)

Manufactured by Benjamin Moore

Subhead Grip Stickers


Why sacrifice style for safety? Subhead grip stickers are an attractive, very effective, functional alternative to regular, boring, anti-slip tape. For the last year, I’ve been using the star-shaped stickers on some wooden steps outside my home. Just recently, I affixed the skull stickers to some rattan sticks I use for martial arts. And in the near future, I’m planning to add some fleur de lis stickers to some other steps. High foot traffic areas also experience a lot of visual traffic — walkways, pool decks, boat decks, ship ladders, etc. Most anti-slip tape is that boring rectangular stuff, long black or yellow grip strips that, to me, sometimes look too industrial or institutional for a home, garden and even some businesses. Instead, these come in fun, eye-catching designs that will also draw people’s visual attention, potentially making it even more effective than standard rectangular anti-slip tape. I imagine some people would prefer to make homemade stickers/designs, but quite honestly, I lack the dexterity, patience, & hand strength to be able to create detailed, attractive & consistently-sized/shaped stickers (ironic given that I practice martial arts, I know). Still, I am certain if I tried to make the stars, my versions would look like an injured sea star or Dali-inspired Rorschach blots. It’s much easier to just click and buy these.

-- Linda Matsumi  

Subhead Grip Stickers
Available from Subhead Grip


HP OfficeJet Pro K5400 Printer


As everyone knows, manufactures give away printers almost free in exchange for the steady revenue of expensive, tiny ink cartridges. That’s the “give the razor, sell the blades” strategy for the new economy, and it works. I use my printer less and less, but I still print enough pages in a year to go through an alarming number of high-priced disposable ink cartridges. The pain is not just overpriced cartridges; the machines rarely allow cartridges to fully empty, vastly decreasing their actual efficiency. (See this PC World article which says as much as 60% of the ink is wasted.)

I’m sick of surrendering to this economically and environmentally costly habit, so I set out to find the most cost-effective inkjet printer I could find.

Printer models are on a fast cycle of obsolescence, so there is little across-the-board comprehensive testing for ink cartridge efficiency. Based on manufacturer’s specs and the comparative testing by PC World magazine, my research points to the HP Officejet K5400 as having the most cost-efficient ink supply right now. The estimated cost per page of black ink for the K5400 is 1.4 cents, and color is 5.9 cents per page. My previous printer ran 10 times that. I have not been able to find a lower page rate for any other desktop machine.

The bulkier the ink container the more likely the cost per page will be lower. In my studio I have a workhorse of a printer, the Epson 3000, now 15 years old, that uses big fat bulk ink cartridges. I use this industrial printer for printing large scale photographs, but I can print a decade’s worth of office printing on a single cartridge — and have. You can buy one of these venerable machines used, and still get cartridges, but the beast is the size of one-yard steamer trunk. It’s overkill for most folks. Alternatively, there are kits which you can purchase to modify your desktop printer using fine capillary tubes connected to exterior ink bottles to drastically lower ink costs. Yeah, it works, but it’s a messy hack, and you’d need to be printing a real lot to warrant it.

The Officejet K5400 is a decent compromise. It costs $130 (as I write). I’ve been using it for three months now and am delighted with its performance. It prints extremely fast, faster than any desktop printer I’ve seen. It runs reliably, and prints with near laser-quality for office stuff. It’s not the ideal photo printer, but does okay. Most importantly, judging from the ink status box, after 3 months I still have 80% of the ink in the first set of cartridges left. But this unit is not small. It’s about the size of a roller carry-on luggage. I expect to get 10 years out of it.

A true evaluation of printing costs should include the cost of the printer, amortized over the number of pages printed in its lifetime. For some people with very minimal printing needs, the price of expensive ink cartridges is canceled by the zero cost of a free printer. Go for it! For those who need to print more, such as contracts, manuscripts, maps and other currently unavoidable paper copies, the HP Officejet 5400 is the most cost-efficient way to deal with ink.

-- KK  

HP OfficeJet Pro K5400 Printer

Available from Amazon

Or $150+ via Google Shopping Manufactured by HP