Will Holman's 'Guerilla Furniture Design' is full of practical DIY projects

City Paper

For my first 10 years of independence I made a point of saying that I could strap everything I owned to the top of my ’67 Nova and haul down the road. It was almost true.

When I went off to college I borrowed an old Sears jigsaw from my uncle and a roof rack from my neighbor. With a set of Craftsman hand tools I got for Christmas at age 14, a corded drill, and a claw hammer I’d somehow filched from another uncle, I built everything I needed to live with roommates in communal houses and apartments. From dorm lofts in 1982 to a wardrobe in 1992, when I inherited the family room and screen porch as my living quarters in a Hartford duplex full of anarchists, it was me and that borrowed saw. Heavier moves—now towing the Nova behind a UHaul—to Columbus, Ohio, Orlando, Florida, and then back to Hartford in 1999—changed little in my own design-build aesthetic. When I bought my first house I still used that same borrowed jigsaw to cut everything from melamine sheet to 4-by-4 treated lumber.

Will Holman lived a similar life shortly after his graduation from Virginia Tech. But instead of the general and ongoing financial depredations I endured as a journalist for alt-weeklies, Holman faced the surprise of a lifetime when the crash of 2008 rendered his architecture degree temporarily no more valuable than my journalism B.A. After a residency at Arcosanti, an “experimental community” in Arizona, where he made his own furniture from junkyard scraps, he loaded his old Toyota and lit out for Baltimore, where he worked at a cabinetry shop. A couple years later, Holman vagabonded it out to Hale County, Alabama. Well, not exactly “vagabonded.” He worked at an architecture design-build laboratory called the Rural Studio, building houses for the poor. Then some near-vagabonding, a little construction work, a stint with an nonprofit called YouthBuild, then a move to Chicago where he “patched together a freelance career—building furniture, writing articles about woodworking, teaching design to teenagers, and working for an artist renovating a group of derelict buildings on the South Side” before heading home to Baltimore in 2013.

“My design sense was shaped by nomadism, recessionary economics, and the great abundance of America’s waste stream,” Holman writes. In that he is a man after my own heart. For the anarcho-trash-puller-carpenter-mason-mechanic there is nothing so thrilling as finding the perfect set of springs to make a catapult for human heads, or the just-right piece of eighth-inch steel plate to make that life-size guillotine for the upcoming French Revolution-themed party (actual things I made).

Being a design professional, Holman concentrates on more practical DIY projects. In “Guerilla Furniture Design,” he walks you through the basics of design, the forces in play (compression, tension, shear), and their effects on materials from paper to steel. He helps assemble a reasonable basic tool kit, offers tips on foraging materials, and, most of all, considers the portability of each item and its entire life cycle. Just about everything in the book can be recycled or even composted—even though you’ll likely want to keep it forever. His cardboard cantilever chair—assembled with wheat paste!—is a stunning piece we would have built already had we had on hand just a little more cardboard and a little more spare time.

The book is beautifully designed and printed—facts Holman takes no credit for—with big clear pictures and useful diagrams. Holman lays out the materials and tools needed and sets up step-by-step instructions which are pretty good, though not perfect, as we shall see.

Other stand-out designs include his homemade roof rack, collapsible saw horses, and inner-tube camp stool—which I also plan to make a couple of before July 4.

The little stools are a perfect example of good DIY: They tuck under your arm and they’re both comfortable and weather resistant. I’ve not seen anything like them in a catalog. But a lot of the other projects are aiming for something else: instruction, maybe; a nice proof of concept or just the kind of thing a tinkerer does: projects that—though inspirational for the veteran shop monkey—aren’t really a more efficient use of time and materials than what a commercially available product would be, and so offer little advantage to the actually-poor person.

The license-plate bowl illustrates perfectly this contradiction. License plates, once returned to the state that issued them, actually are recycled. Full stop. Having a few around for decorative or utilitarian purposes is no sin, of course, but the idea of making a bowl out of them—a bowl that at any rate cannot hold liquid or be used to cook things—is the height of folly, when seen from an earth-friendly or microeconomic perspective. To make the bowl you need the license plates and about $10 worth of hardware. A more useful bowl could be found on freecycle, bought for $1 at any tag sale, or ordered for $19.99 from Target.

Because I had on hand all the materials, it took me just under two hours to construct the license-plate bowl (not counting cleaning and clear-coat, which I have not done). So even at $10 an hour I’m losing by making it. The tools needed include a power drill, tin snips, good pliers, vice grips (locking pliers), rivet gun, wrenches, a vice, hacksaw, tape measure, rubber mallet, and either a good metal file or a grinding wheel. It so happens I have all that stuff, plus a capacious shop to work in, having married relatively well. You probably have this stuff too, now—or can borrow it from a nearby tool library. But not everyone has access to these tools. If I had to make this bowl 20 years ago, in my jigsaw-and-hammer-only days, it would have taken half a day.

And I would have enjoyed it, absolutely. Working with my hands calms me and makes me feel useful, manly, and competent. It beats the hell out of Prozac, and I end up with cool stuff as a bonus. It is highly recreational, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to have a good day. But that’s me.

And it is many people who frequent the Instructables website and other similar places, on the internet and in cities, where “makers” now do their crafty best.

It is Holman, too, apparently. “If your only end is sheer practicality you can spend your life on tipped-over five-gallon buckets and stuff salvaged straight from the garbage,” Holman says in an interview. “But everyone deserves a little aesthetic uplift in their life, and also things that function better. It’s not about the most expedient solution to the problem.”

The instructions for the license plate bowl were good, generally, but not perfect. The bending part was much trickier than the book suggested. He says to bend the corners first, then turn the bowl over and bend at the lines. The problem? After you bend the corners, the only thing you could lay it flat on upside down is a small anvil. You have to unbend the corners before proceeding—or bend the edges first.

This glitch will not defeat anyone who has folded metal before—or most anyone who hasn’t—but it illustrates the difficulty with any technical writing. Like the old saw about telling someone how to tie a shoelace, you’re bound to skip steps or get things out of order. The more you know about how to do something, the harder it is to write a clear instruction manual.

That is why the plate bowl is a good project for beginners. It is easily one of the simplest projects in the book—even though it’s way in the back, where the hard stuff is.

Holman says he arranged the projects in order of increasing difficulty, with the paper stuff at the beginning, then on to wood, plastic, and finally metal, “so if you go front to back and build every project it would slowly build your skills,” he says.

This would be a great thing for someone with time and resources to do. The book itself could serve as a guide for a mentor to a young man or woman. It is, in any case, an excellent addition to anyone’s home-improvement library, deserving display next to Lloyd Kahn’s “Shelter,” Johan van Lengen’s “The Barefoot Architect,” and Robert Pirsig’s classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

This is true because, whether any given project is perfectly practical and efficient or not, time spent making things like this develops in anyone a sense of confidence that is not really comparable to what you get writing poetry, building your body up, or even learning to play a musical instrument. Even the impractical stuff has practical applications.

“You can reclaim some competency in your life,” Holman says. “You can just slightly drop out of that system that just wants to sell you cheap plastic stuff.”

And that’s just about everybody, isn’t it? 

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