DIY coffin builders hard at work on final resting places
In October 2010, a woman named Marilyn Bader drove from Grand Marais in northern Minnesota to her home in downtown St. Paul. She was actually hoping that a cop would pull her over during the five hour drive. And who could blame her? It was Halloween and Ms. Bader had a freshly made coffin in her car.
“I was laughing and thinking I should go really fast so a cop will stop me,” says Bader, a very youthful sixty-something.
She had to put both the backseat and the front passenger seat down to get the casket into the car. Still, Bader could barely close the car’s doors. Her right shoulder was right up against the pine box, which extended to the dashboard.
But rest assured. There was no corpse in the coffin because it is one day going to be used by Bader herself, who has no plans to kick the bucket anytime soon. Ever since reading a Twin Cities newspaper account of a course titled “Bury Yourself In Your Work: Build Your Own Casket,” she wanted to go the DIY route for her casket. After her grown kids offered to spring for the tuition, she spent three full days at the North House Folk School, which is in Grand Marais 40 minutes from the Canadian border, and built herself a coffin.
As it turned out, when I finally reached the course’s instructor on the phone last month, it was Halloween. Forty-five year-old Randy Schnobrich, a professional woodworker in Grand Marais, told me that he’s noticed people are paying more attention to green burial options in recent years and are thinking outside of the box. “Pun not intended,” he was quick to add.
Coffin-building teacher Randy Schnobrich and one of his students, Carla
Schnobrich’s course costs $700 ($470 materials + $225 tuition) and participants spend three days constructing a coffin out of inch-thick cabinet grade pine. The caskets are made mainly with hand tools (planes and saws).
“You could obviously just use machinery and blast right through [the project] but that’s kind of not the essence of the school,” Schnobrich explains. The North House Folk School was inspired by Scandinavian “folkeshoskoles” begun in Denmark during the mid-1800s. At North House, people from all over the Midwest, and indeed, all over the U.S. and other countries, receive instruction in basketry, boatbuilding, fiber arts, toolmaking, woodworking, and other “traditional crafts of the northern hemisphere.” In addition to the casket course, Schnobrich has taught or will soon teach courses on how to build a Thoreau cabin, a Scandinavian-style kicksled, doors, cabinets, and a doghouse. Another instructor at North House teaches students how to build their own wooden skis.
“A lot of people cringe at the idea of building their own casket,” Schnobrich says. “They see it as morbid. They think, ‘Boy, that must be kind of weird.’ But for some folks, they want to have a hand in, an intimate connection with the end of their life. Instead of just being a bystander, you can be involved in at least this aspect of your death.”
Marilyn Bader’s friends have seen her casket in her bedroom and said, “Isn’t that a little weird, having your casket in your bedroom?” But Bader, a widow who makes her living as a health care researcher, shrugs off such talk. “It’s something I made,” she says. “I’m proud of it.”
Three full days may seem like a long time to build a coffin, but Schnobrich spends a lot of time going over safety. Another reason for the lengthy build time is that dovetailed joints are used in the casket’s assembly.
Although the course fee includes all materials, one woman who took the course provided her own lumber. Planks from a pecan tree milled on her parents property were used.
“Her parents were kind of set on her using the tree in this manner,” Schnobrich says.
Handles, which are a little more stressed than other parts of the coffin, are usually made from birch 1 X 2′s but one of the casket-makers wanted log handles for her casket. A retired teacher in her mid-60s named Carla made her coffin shortly before she died of cancer. Carla was undergoing chemotherapy before the coffin-making class. Schnobrich said she was so fatigued that he set up a futon in the workshop so Carla could nap when she needed to. At times, she had so little strength that Schnobrich had to help her push screws into the casket with a cordless drill.
“She was extremely motivated and wanted to do as much as she could,” Schnobrich recalls.
And so, on the day that Carla told him that she wanted log handles on her coffin, Schnobrich spontaneously drove to a friend’s house nearby to cut down a couple of young spruce trees that were two inches in diameter. Carla peeled the bark off the branches and used them as handles.
“She was pretty pleased,” says the woodworker, “because a round form would be comfortable for someone’s hand to grip.”
Marilyn Bader did something similar. Last summer, she went to an ash grove near Clear Lake, South Dakota where she grew up and cut a branch off a fallen tree. She will carve it into a cross that she will glue onto the lid of her casket. Bader also plans to create a branch and leaf design on the edge of the coffin’s lid by applying color stain and using a wood-burning tool.
The coffins can be used as furniture before they are used for burial. Most people use them as a bookshelf or coffee table. Bader plans to do the former but hasn’t gotten around to adding shelves yet. She still has to put in wood filler in some portions of the dovetailed joints.
“My casket isn’t perfect, but neither is life,” she says.
Schnobrich cautions his students that there is a small window of time after a person dies that you can bury them without embalming. And he says that people who build their own caskets need to be aware that in some states and localities transportation of a dead body must be done by a funeral home. Survivors of the recently deceased are required in some places to file a form with local authorities that pinpoints just where on private property a loved one is being buried.
Schnobrich the woodworker is well aware of the political implications of DIY casket construction.
“If this became a big movement and people start mail-ordering pine boxes and saying ‘The hell with the $8,000 casket, give me the $250 box from eBay,’ it might affect someone’s bottom line a little bit,” he says.
Schnobrich says he expects to teach the coffin-building class next in February 2012.
Casketplans.com, a Canadian company, sells coffin-making plans for between $40 and $45, as well as kits that range from $700 to $1,700. Their plans allow DIYers to build caskets that double as a billiards table, an entertainment center, and even a sofa.
I live and work about two blocks from Wall Street in NYC, so it’s been an interesting and charged few months — even more than the usual New York City amplifier. Besides my role at MAKE, I help run an open source electronics factory, Adafruit Industries. During the 2008 financial crash, we were able to get a fairly large space when the financial folks were leaving in droves, and since then we’ve witnessed many changes in the area. Some have been good and some I’ll call challenges. Over the years, a common question I get asked is “Why New York City?” And then there’s “Why run a business there? It’s so hard/expensive/crazy/weird/intense.” Also, “Just move to Vegas — no taxes!” And that’s what this week’s Soapbox is all about: “If you can make it in NYC, you can make it anywhere.” I’m going to talk about why I think this is the best city for me, for now, to run a business. My goal is for the maker businesses out there, from one person to many, to post up in the comments on why their city is the best city to run a maker business. Let’s get started.
I ended up back in New York City about five years ago, a cross-country move that was the end of one journey and the start of another. The first time I was working in NYC was the last dot-com. The pace was frantic, the competition was tough, and every friend I had was a coworker because we all worked so much. I realized then what is still true now: you’re in New York because you love what you do. It’s so hard, it’s so brutal doing almost anything — you’re not here to rest, you’re here to explode.
If you want to get busy, there’s no better place than NYC — everyone is in constant motion. The city is an organism with a hyper-fast metabolism. If that’s not for you, you might get churned out. So my first reason for saying NYC is my best place for a maker business is the energy you get by just being part of this gigantic entity. The stream carries you around — sometimes faster than you can handle — but sometimes you need it to get things done.
With competition being part of everything here, from the coffee cart on the corner to artists trying to get shows, you either thrive on it or you leave. I’m sure other people don’t need competition as part of their daily experience to keep going, but I think I do. In a city of millions, you can still be perfectly alone, as odd as that sounds.
It’s hard to find great multi-talented people who love to work, love to create, and love what they do. New York has an abundance of these people. Hiring hasn’t been a problem. We’re able to find dynamic artists, designers, musicians, and writers. Everyone is working on multiple things, so the head of our shipping department might have a play opening that he wrote. Having people who are passionate about something besides your core business isn’t a weakness — I’ve found it’s a strength.
Besides that, there are people who need a good, stable job to fund their passions, and that’s great too. It’s expensive here — I always say you lose $20 per hour every time you walk outside in NYC. We have students, artists, writers, just about anyone who likes to work hard can with us, and can keep a foothold here.
You hear rapid prototyping of “things” in the maker world, but sometimes I need rapid sanity checks on my ideas before I make them. There’s no better place to quickly exposure what you’re working on to the widest possible group of people than NYC. I’m not that shy, so I’ll start up conversations with anyone. What are jobs they’re trying to get done? What are the problems they’re trying to solve? What things are they trying to learn, or what things would they like to see their kids learn? This helps shapes my thinking — some companies have focus groups, I have New York.
When MAKE had a small office in New York, it was when Etsy was first getting started. I watched them grow and grow as the maker movement grew along with them. There are so many people not only making and sharing things, but people who help people make and share things. It’s not just about skill sharing, it’s about making a culture and making businesses that can support these makers.
I left out VC (venture capital funding) but it’s worth mentioning. We’re profitable and grew the business without taking on funding (we certainly could have and had offers) but NY has tons of VCs and there are already 3 VC open hardware businesses in NYC.
The VC folks in NYC are mostly web tech-focused, although I’m starting to see more and more investments in “maker” businesses. MakerBot just received $10M (see my previous article) and there are 4–5 more “Manufacturing 2.0″ businesses either getting funding or have received it. So while I don’t need the funding, I’m really glad I know where to get it, from whom and how.
The New York Times in on a roll with a series of NYC-is-where-it’s-at articles. Here are just a few of the recent ones:
I can’t quote anyone I know who works for the city directly because it always needs to be approved, but I can say there is a large effort to get the city to diversify income to more types of businesses besides finance. It’s boom and bust that’s sometimes destructive. If you look close, you can see the start of something really big happening now.
Check out this map from the NYCEDC (New York City Economic Development Corporation): “Rapid Prototyping and Fabrication in NYC” (click for the PDF).
Hackerspaces, 3D printing, galleries, schools — we’re on our way to being a hub of making as the next industrial revolution happens.
Everyone comes to New York City, and I mean everyone. Over the last year, I tried not to travel at all to focus on the business, and it didn’t really matter. Everyone who’s doing anything I’m involved with comes through NYC. From Maker Faire NYC to conferences like the Open Hardware Summit and other events, New York is (in my opinion) the capital of the world.
When I didn’t live here, I would try my best to visit here.
It matters to me that I can work 20 hours a day for weeks at a time, but still take some time off and catch something like a Phillip Glass performance live. Door to door in about 30 minutes or less I can catch any show, a museum opening, any speaking in town. I’m not sure how other people get ideas and stay inspired, but I try to keep myself exposed to everything I can that will help me look at the world with a goal of making it better and sharing. The center of a worldwide movement is two blocks from here in Zuccotti Park.
When my partner, Limor “Ladyada” Fried, really started to get the attention of the media world because of her skills and her cause, there were months at a time where reporters were in the shop filming, photographing, or interviewing her. They were either already in NYC or would fly here — there’s always a reason to do a story in NYC and there is just about every media outlet here.
Part of the success of the maker business I’m part of is because it was easy for anyone to talk to Limor in time for deadlines, as part of a big story like Kinect hacking or just because it’s pretty cool to have a thriving electronics factory a few blocks from ground zero.
Would as many media folks venture out to see us if we were somewhere else? Maybe, but I don’t think it would be as much or as often.
MakerBot was on the cover of a popular NY magazine, Timeout NYC, and was on the Colbert Report. Bre Pettis, the founder of MakerBot (who I met in Seattle and later hired at MAKE to do videos and who moved to NYC basically with me at the time), has told me that one of the reasons MakerBot has taken off has been because of the constant flow of media. And the list goes on and on. If you’re here doing something, someone wants to tell the world about it.
Related to MAKE – Maker Faire NY reaches a whole new level of media access that we don’t get in the Bay Area and has become a key reason MAKE wants to always be in NYC. It’s led to things like an entire episode of Martha Stewart last year devoted to the Faire.
There was a time I just hated things like running out of space, or freaking out about yet another new tax the city is putting on the business. But perhaps I’m zen about these things now. The space and money constraints make us work smarter and more efficiently. This means writing code to manage inventory better so everything is in stock, but a warehouse isn’t needed with all that overhead and money sunk waiting. Being nimble, fast, and adaptable is required in a big city, and this transfers to the business. We might have 3,500 square feet now and will grow to 10,000 square feet soon. We maximize every inch — we make systems to tightly monitor where things are, when they’re arriving, and when they’re going. We optimize and optimize because we must. Even our staff is this way — our CTO codes and he also builds new shelves when we need them — we’re all willing and able to do what it takes to keep things moving. Because we spend more than others on rent and the “fee” for just being in the city, we need to work extra hard, to do a better job and make things that are a good value and good business for us. Everything we do has purpose and we think carefully about what we spend money on, but most importantly, on what we don’t.
I’ll close this out with a quote from Jay-Z, and one last thought. I’m not sure I will like New York forever to run a business, but I know right now, she likes me here. She can be cold, harsh, and unforgiving, but when she wants you to be here, how can you say no?
Now, it’s your turn, post up why your city is the best place to run a business and why!
I strive to go to as many arts and craft fairs as I can during the holidays, to scout emerging makers and crafters whose wares I’ve never seen before, and of course to buy handmade gifts for friends and family! Which means I’m especially looking forward to the 7th Annual BUST Magazine Craftacular next month in NYC. Taking place in the landmark SoHo neighborhood, this year’s event will run for two days for the first time ever. Over 200 craft and food vendors will be present each day, along with additional activities like snowglobe making, how-to tiny terrariums, and a book signing by BUST Magazine co-founders Laurie Henzel and Debbie Stoller. The first 300 people at the door each day will also get a goodie bag full of free schwag! Oh yeah, there will also be a Craft Beer Garden on site – see you there!
Location: 82 Mercer Street, NYC [Google Maps link]
Longtime MAKE pal Raphaël Assénat wanted to recycle his stash of anti-static bags for component shipping, and built an improvised heat-sealer to do it. It’s just a step-down transformer, some current-limiting resistors, a momentary switch, and a resistance wire made by uncoiling a compression spring. [Thanks, Raphaël!]
You may know how to make a ship in a bottle, but how would you make this octahedron in a balloon? The twelve edges of the octahedron are made of strips of blue balloon rubber, glued to the inside of the clear balloon at the six vertices. Think of how you might make this before reading my solution below.
I did it by first making a spherical octahedron on the outside of the balloon. It is glued with rubber cement at the six cardinal points: top, bottom, left, right, front, back.
Then I untied the slip knot to let the air out of the balloon, carefully turned it inside out, and reinflated it.
If you master this technique, the next step is to try to make a nice cube. And be sure to send me a photo if you can make the compound of five tetrahedra in five different colors.
By Super Awesome Sylvia and her dad, James
I bet you didn’t know that there’s a soft side to the hard edged fiberglass boarded electronics you know and love, and it’s called soft circuitry! The copper clad board in through-the-hole electronics can actually be replaced by cloth, and the traces replaced with conductive thread, allowing your projects to light up, and still be huggable and wear friendly. Today we’ll show you how to make your very own glowey-eyed cuddle monster you can sew together with the threadbare essentials. Lets go!
Subscribe to Sylvia’s Mini Maker Show Podcast in iTunes, download the m4v video directly, or watch it on YouTube and Vimeo.
For this sewtastic build, we’ll need:
With your finished, cut and pinned material, make sure the inside is on the outside, and the outside is on the inside, then take your needle and thread, and start sewing the two pieces together around the edge with a secure backstitch (or just use your sewing machine). Start at one side of the head, and work all the way around till you’re almost at the other side of the head. Making sure to leave the hole big enough to put your hand through.
Next, pinch and cut a single tiny slit through each eye for the LEDs (they should fit snugly). Place the LEDs into your monster, then glue them in. Now take a new length of conductive thread and sew it in, ensuring it makes good contact with the square positive thread underneath. From there, sew your way to the back of the monster, where we’ll place the battery pack. Stitch it in at least three times to make sure the battery stays put. Wire in another thread to the round negative side and make your way back again, but instead of attaching straight to the battery, we sew on one side of the button from the kit on a piece of felt, and the other side to the battery. This becomes a fabric friendly switch for your cuddle monster’s eyes! Once it’s all sewn up, snap the button together, aaand… it lives!! The eyes should light up and you’re ready for the next step.
You probably have a a bit more thread left, what else can you do with it?
Try designing something on your own, or check out what other people have done online. Either way, inspiration is everywhere.
Check out more episodes of Sylvia’s Mini Maker Show.
In the Maker Shed:
At the extreme opposite end of the spectrum from “hobby” machine tools are those used to build ships and power plants. I have no technical details about the lathe shown above, but the photograph was taken in 1957 or 1958 at the Doxford Engine Works in Pallion, England. If you like it, don’t miss the gallery over at Ships Nostalgia about English shipwrights William Doxford and Sons. It’s chockablock with absolutely gorgeous, amazing photographs of giant men building giant machines with giant tools.
Check out the machine torch:
I bet that guy hoisted that slab of steel into place all by himself. [Thanks, Lee!]
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