How do I fabricate stuff?
December 29, 2013 3:45 PM   Subscribe

What books will show me how to fabricate stuff? The FabLab curriculum is oriented more towards digital fabrication techniques, but I'm interested more in (seemingly) simple things such as all the different types of fasteners for hanging things on walls, or how to make objects that serve a function (e.g., a lamp, or a steel-and-wood bench) look less, well, home-made. I guess what I'm asking, and have a hard time translating into a search query, is: how do I learn to make the things I want to make look more designed and less like they were a Saturday-afternoon hobby project? (which, in all fairness, they are)

I took a few TIG welding and woodworking classes for fun, and am starting to get good at it. I have all sorts of project I'd like to do but I'm struggling with the finer details of fabricating things and I don't know where to look for answers. I suppose (guess?) this is what design school teaches you, but aren't there books out there that will catalog, or at least introduce one into the different ways of constructing things so they're not just merely functional but also aesthetically pleasing?

A specific example of what I don't know how to solve, or where to look for answers is: I'd like build a very large steel frame for a mirror to hang on a wall, but I don't know how to keep the mirror in place in the frame, with the type of design I have in mind, nor how to invisibly attach the (heavy) mirror to the wall. Another example is a lamp I'd like to make, but don't know what types of fittings are out there, or how construct the thing.
posted by ar0n to Grab Bag (7 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I build furniture -- I went to one of the best-known schools for fine furniture work and I can build some very nice stuff. I've also done a little prototype modeling for aesthetically pleasing consumer products. From my experience, I think you may not need an instructional book so much as you need to give yourself permission to spend the time it takes to develop a pleasing design and to execute it well. The stuff I've built, and the commercial products I've helped to develop, have all resulted from iterative, experimental processes; someone sketches an idea, mocks it up roughly, establishes the broad outlines and general proportions, subjects it to the critical eyes of trusted advisers, makes changes, refines details... it's very rare for even simple items to spring fully formed from someone's mind. Fairing the curves and resolving the awkward bits into something both graceful and functional takes time that your average weekend warrior isn't willing to give it. Once you've got a fairly clear idea of where you're headed, you can start building -- again, carefully. If you aren't an expert craftsman then you simply can't do things both fast and well. If you insist on getting the project done quickly then it will be sloppy, until you're so good at the processes involved that you don't have to think about them... which probably won't be real soon.

You can learn a great deal by noting the details of things that already exist. If you see a nice thing, get a look underneath or inside and see how parts were made and how they fit together. Try and guess why particular details are the way they are, because they're all intentional choices.
posted by jon1270 at 4:22 PM on December 29, 2013 [6 favorites]

I always learned a lot from reading the catalogs of component distributors. For example, McMaster online is great, and just from browsing it you can get a sense of what building blocks are available for different purposes. For hanging the mirror on the wall, there is a lot of information in their Anchors section. Grand Brass may serve the same purpose for the lamp.

Whatever you want to make, it helps a lot if you can work in a machine shop with a lathe and a mill as well as a variety of hand tools. That gives you the freedom to make almost any part from scratch in metal and plastic, and to modify the pieces you buy which are almost but not quite what you need.
posted by Herr Zebrurka at 4:33 PM on December 29, 2013

Yeah, see if by hook or by crook if you can get a paper copy of the Mcmaster-carr catalog, and then read it cover to cover (I consider it perfect bathroom reading).
As to aesthetic, a lot of it is combining parts, fasteners, finishes and techniques that go together. A tig weld looks nice on stainless steel fabrication, but not on wrought iron. This sort of thing you can look up, what's harder is technique. If you want to make a lot of your own stuff, you will be an eternal novice (that is, you only one or a most a few of any one thing). To keep things from looking crude, you will have to be prepared to make several bad ones before getting something you like.
posted by 445supermag at 5:16 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

One thing you might want to do is see if there is a hackerspace in your area. They vary as to what's available, but I just discovered the one here yesterday, and they've got a wood shop, metal shop, computer cutting tools, 3D printers and more, and most importantly people who can show you how to use them. Once you really start getting your hands dirty with stuff, you'll be able to figure things out a lot easier.
posted by azpenguin at 5:36 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

You might find it useful to look back at older construction techniques. A good book is The Essential Woodworker. It shows some methods of framing a mirror.

Krenov writes a lot about what you seem to be asking about and my big takeaway from his books was that well built jigs are the pathway to clean results.

Another side of the design aspect is discussed in the book By Hand and Eye.
posted by bonobothegreat at 5:42 PM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

As for aesthetically pleasing I'd start with the golden ratio
and maybe try sketchup to draw your stuff up a bit before you cut your first piece.
I too recommend the McMaster Carr Catalog for bathroom reading but will also add Grainger's catalog and Uline if you like industrial design.
As for actually learning how to make stuff, I would highly recommend theater crafts and construction. Volunteer at a high school or college or local theater. There are many good books on theater crafts, but getting ones hands dirty, especially next to someone who knows what they are doing is priceless. Oh and hanging things, I learned all about cleats and keyholes in theater shop and still use them all the time.
Also imitation is a pretty good way to start. Find something you think is beautiful and make one of those. Then make it again, maybe modify it slightly if you feel up to it. The lessons you'll learn building someone else's design will benefit you when you design your own.
Lastly if you haven't seen this ask me from 2010.......spend some time with's a wealth of info that I keep bookmarked and revisit often.
posted by HappyHippo at 9:54 PM on December 29, 2013

It sounds like we're in similar places with our fabricating. I asked a similar question recently and got some good feedback, but I'll definitely be watching answers to your question, too!

As for the frame, I hung a very large frame (17" x 24") by welding eyehooks and looping picture wire through them. D-rings would also work.
posted by inkytea at 7:42 AM on December 30, 2013

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