“…I’m inspired by the maker community, especially when I see someone that is obviously so talented but no one else has heard of them. It’s not about ‘look how clever I am’. That’s one of the best pieces of advice I was given early on…”
What is a maker?
That’s a really broad question. It’s really difficult because when you break it down, who isn’t a maker? Everyone’s a maker. If you’re baking a cake, you’re making. If you’re building something in your shed, you’re making. If you’re putting up a shelf, you’re making. Everyone’s really a maker. But it’s just that class of geeks like myself that really embrace it and just want to learn everything about anything. So I’m quite happy to go and learn about cooking, I’m quite happy to go and learn about fabrics or anything like that. Anything that has an outcome, has a product at the end of it, be that physical or something that you’ve learned from it. Yes it’s a bit geeky, but really it’s no different from the old garden shed tinkerer that would go and hide off with his thermos flask in the shed and carve a boat out of a piece of wood.
So is that the appeal of it to you? Is that what you find interesting, the ability to go where that interest takes you?
I think the appeal for me is that I’ve always wanted to be artistic and I’m not. I feel I’ve no artistic talent whatsoever. Give me a pencil and a piece of paper and I will give you a pencil and a piece of paper with a few scribbles on it. But, I can use a mouse, I can create things on a computer and I can put shapes together and make other shapes. Finding that enabled me to produce things and to make things that people might turn around and say “Oh I quite like it”. That was my route into the maker world.
You wanted a creative outlet, but you felt that you couldn’t do art in the traditional sense?
I was in IT for 19 years. It was very uncreative. Making outside of that was a release and something completely different from work. That’s what really got me into it, the fact that I could switch off. Setting design challenges for myself and learning something new, or a new creative process enabled me to switch off from work and actually concentrate on something else for a change. It was polar opposite to a job where the next phone call could be ‘we’ve got 6,000 computers that have got viruses on them, what are you going to do about it?’ or ‘The email system is down sort it’. I was trained to do those sorts of things but when factories have stopped and money is being lost, the pressure is unbelievable.
Are you a full-time maker now?
Has it been a gradual transition or has there been a sudden change?
I had the opportunity to take voluntary redundancy and jumped at the chance. I was making props for magicians in my spare time, designing magic tricks, stage props, writing scripts, writing tricks and script editing. That was all encompassed within ‘making’. I had to learn electronics for it, I had to learn to use a laser cutter. That was great, I really enjoyed it. When the chance came to take it up more seriously as a living, it was an obvious choice. The Silk Mill has really been a major part of that journey. In the beginning I built everything from home in the garage. To be able to come to the Silk Mill workshop and really take advantage of their ‘give and get’ system has been really helpful. I started volunteering my time and any skill I had in wood working and the 3D design. Then I got to use a laser cutter and I got to meet Steve Smith who I’ve learned more from than probably anyone else that I’ve ever met. I’ve worked with Steve, the workshop supervisor for probably a couple of years now and still I’ll go to him and check what I’m doing just to make sure. He’s a resource and he knows more than most of us will ever know.
In terms of you being able to do what you need to do it’s important that there’s some facility available to you. Could you make it on your own?
Volunteering for the Silk Mill enabled me to first of all get access to the tools, which meant that I could take in a lot more work because I was able to get things done a lot faster. I made a lot of contacts through doing that but also it helped me discover that I actually quite enjoyed the teaching side as well. Since then I’ve been running laser lab. I’ll teach other people to how to use the laser cutter. Making is very much a sharing process. You’ll find very few makers that won’t turn around and say “I’ll show you how to use this”. It’s very much an open community. People ask why you are teaching other people how to do this. When you see what they’ve created from it, and when you see people going through the same process I did when they can’t draw but they’re taking this thing off the laser bed and it looks amazing, people around them like it. That’s what really drives me, passing on that knowledge; because I’m always wanting to learn myself. If I teach people what I know, they’ll teach me what they know. We’ve got an amazing community in the Silk Mill of people who are pretty well up on all aspects of making, not just a laser cutter which is my pet project. Furniture making, electronics, raspberry pi’s and going into programming.
So you need quite a lot of technical knowledge to actually do what you do? If we have a look at one of your objects for instance. Can you describe what that is.
So I’m holding the Lord Millow which is a rocket ship that was flown by a guy called Durian. It’s from a podcast called the Minister of Chance which was an award winning podcast that had some amazing actors in it and they really wanted to turn it into a film. I met up with the guys at the Leicester Space Center when I was doing some work for the Thunderbirds people. I said that I would quite like to turn this design they had into a physical model. This was a design challenge and I also had to learn a lot more about 3D design because I wanted to be able to visualise it the end product which I did using Sketchup. I then had to make all of the layers as it all comes to pieces. There’s a laser cutting technique called the ‘living hinge’ and I’ve always wanted to use it in something else that isn’t a hinge so I used it here for the cowl on the front. Basically it’s gives a the bend in the wood. That was nice because I was able to work with the writer and the director of podcast and film, their art department and the original artist that designed and created the actual idea. It’s very much a rocket ship rather than some sort of spacecraft. It took about 6 months, but it’s a learning process. Anything you make, you learn something new from it. It doesn’t matter what it is, whether it’s just a coaster or some sort of Christmas tree hanger, you’re learning something about it and I always try and add something new.
So presumably something like the Lord Millow ship is going to push you quite far if it took you several months to do. Do you find that stressful or do you think at some point in the process that you’re not going to be able to do it?
What’s really nice is that there are a few people that can go to work and do their hobby. When I was working in IT, I would go to work and then come back and my hobby was my way of relaxing. I was quite happy to work until the early hours on a design because that’s what I enjoyed doing. So to be able to do that day to day, it’s not stressful because that’s what I would be using to wind down. Obviously when deadlines start to rear their ugly head, then that can be a little bit stressful. It’s not a 9 to 5 job and I feel very lucky. I’m in no doubt that there are a lot of people that aren’t as lucky as I am. Even those that are lucky enough to be in employment , don’t necessarily have the job that they enjoy doing…there’s me and footballers and that’s about it!
So you are feeling pretty privileged then.
Absolutely. I love my job, love the people.
You mentioned earlier some involvement with Thunderbirds. What happened there?
The National Space Center in Leicester had a science fiction weekend. They decided that they would build, with the children that visited, a big model of Tracy Island. There was a guy from Nottinghack that was going to do it. I said that I was quite interested in going along and getting involved. A week before we found out that actually there wouldn’t be the nice paper craft spaceships that we thought there might be available online. So I had four days to design foldable cut out paper craft versions of Thunderbirds 1, 2, 3 and 4. There’s a lot of pressure there, but that was really fun. On the day I got to meet Gerry Anderson’s son as well as some of the voice actors from the show. That was good fun and we had the Red Dwarf guys come along and have a look as well. It was actually there at the Space Center that I met the Minister of Chance team and got talking to them so it was kind of a lucky coincidence that they were there.
So that was probably a pivotal moment for you?
Yeah it certainly was. The real turning point I’d say would be the first Mini Maker Faire that they had at the Silk Mill, which I think was 2012….I was buying electrical components in the local tinkering shop and I saw a leaflet for the Maker Faire. I suddenly realised that other people do this, this isn’t just me. So I came along, bought my son and it was great. There were all these people and a group of makers from Derby, the Derby Makers Forum. They are a group that meet weekly, so I came along to that and built a little gadget in my first week. It’s a fun little gadget that you learn soldering to solder with. A few weeks later I came along and I taught a session on a little circuit that I built up and designed. I got really involved in Derby Makers and became a regular member, and then Re:make happened. We wanted to reopen the Silk Mill to the public. It was closed at the time. That really was a case of sitting around old tables, on crates and deciding what a public want from a museum. Rather than the museum saying “This is what we are going to give you, if you like it great, if you don’t like it well sorry about that”. So the public was involved from the start and I got heavily involved. That was really when the opportunity to start using the workshop properly occurred as we got a laser cutter and CNC machine.
Are they relatively recent things for you to get involved with.
Yes. Using laser cutting I built a prop for a magician and I needed some large cogs. It was a case of looking around for someone to do it, or learning the process. So I got in touch with someone I knew from Nottinghack who I knew had a laser. I learned how to use the software by watching Youtube videos for a weekend. Using the software is the easy part, but knowing how to use it for the laser is the hard part. I decided I wouldn’t buy the cog, I would go and learn how to make it. That basically showed me how useful it was to have that sort of skill, and I’ve used it time and time again. Almost every prop that I have made after that, even if it didn’t need it, has had some sort of laser cutting in it.
So is it central to what you do now?
The actual laser cutting, that’s kind of secondary. For me it’s the design side and working on the PC. It’s being able to have someone say to me “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have an old fashioned looking toy?” and for me to be able to go away and run something up, cut it out on the laser and then that same afternoon have something that they can have a look at, a prototype.
In terms of the magic props what sort of scale are we talking?
I did a lot of mentalism props.
What is a mentalism prop?
I was the person that made it appear that someone could read minds when perhaps they couldn’t. I would have a performer come to me and say “I want it to look as if I’m doing this, how can I do it?” I was fortunate that the people I was working with were really good at the stage craft side of it. I would be the first to admit that I don’t have knowledge of it but they would also work really closely with me on the creation of the prop and the script.
You must have knowledge of the whole showmanship as well?
I’ve got a knowledge of magic theory. No where near the level of someone who would go on stage and do it, but I’ve researched magic theory over years and years. I was a hobbyist magician but I never really wanted to stand up and perform. That wasn’t my thing. People were quite surprised by that. Why would I be interested in magic and not want to show the tricks? But that wasn’t me at all.
Do you still do it?
I do yes. There’s a local magician that actually came along to Pickfords House. He’s young, very talented and really into the craft. You can see that he’s very much a born performer so we are going to have a go at doing a few tricks. But I was taken on as a maker in residence at the Silk Mill last year. They’d seen in the past that a lot of my time was taken up developing props. So I thought it was very important that my time, while I was a maker in residence here, was dedicated at the Silk Mill and that’s what I’ve done.
Some of these things you make as a personal challenge, to see if you can do it?
Yes. I was a huge fan of Star Wars as a kid, and I guess if I’m honest, I still am. My relatives and friends are big Star Wars fans. The little ATST, the little chicken walker that first appeared in the second Star Wars film has always intrigued me. It was just so wrong in a way. It was beaten up by teddy bears in the third film. But it’s really simple, and everyone wants one. So over Christmas I decided that the best way to switch off from mince pies and family gatherings was to set a design challenge. So for this one I got an old set of blueprints online that were basically front, side and back images of the original. I gave myself 3 prototypes. I allowed myself to laser cut it 3 times along the process to end up with a finished product. It was completely arbitrary to choose 3, but it was really useful because it made me look at the design far more closely. As I was going along I was working on the PC a lot more than I was working on the laser. When there is a laser handy, sometimes it’s far too easy to just go and see what it looks like. Because the original design is property of Lucas and Disney now, it’s not something I would ever go and sell, but I was able to pass on those hints and tips and plans for making this onto the wider maker community. There are websites out there where you can put your own projects so other people can give it a go.
“…every project is a challenge and there’s nothing that you think of, put down on paper, put into the design program and then print that will be right first time. That’s just not going to happen.”
You have to work out things that aren’t necessarily blueprinted such as how it’s going to fit together to start with, and joints and if anything is hinged and moves. That must be quite a complicated part of the process.
But it’s Star Wars so it’s fun! Yes, it’s all part of the challenge. I changed it as I went along. So the for the first prototype, the head was stuck in position but now it can be put into whatever position you want. I like it and it’s gone down really well – it’s also nice to see that people have downloaded it and actually made one and taken photos of it.
That’s got to be gratifying that people are responding positively.
Absolutely because I’ve been at the other side of it and still am. Often you go and see whether anyone has made anything similar, because you can always learn from other people’s designs if it’s an open design and is available to the community. Sometimes you’ll ignore it because actually the fun is in the challenge of making it. I sometimes need to know that I could make that in the first place.
If you could make anything, what do you think it would be? I suppose you’re almost doing that anyway aren’t you?
That’s it. I’m fortunate. There are two things that will again be vanity projects that I will slowly put my time to. One will be to update the chicken walker and the other one is the power loader from Aliens. The big sort of exoskeleton thing that Sigourney Weaver was walking around in. That seems like quite a popular one. It’s quite difficult to find plans of that.
Technically that’s going to be quite difficult?
That’s going to be a toughie. I might have to work straight from photographs for that one. But it’s doable. I did a lot of work for the museum and art gallery, working on their nature gallery project. The spider model was created from photographs of a spider. It was made as a kit so people could basically press out the parts and make them themselves. So I had to do various different animals. There’s a spider, a wasp, a dragonfly, a butterfly and things like that. A frog, beatles, actually more than I thought! I guess once you’ve made a few, you start to realise how things fit together. But every project is a challenge and there’s nothing that you think of, put down on paper, put into the design program and then print that will be right first time. That’s just not going to happen. But that’s fine. When we do school groups and young makers and older makers as well, that’s really important to get across. If it doesn’t work, as long as you learn something from the process that’s fine. It’s really hard to look at something and say it’s finished because I’m not sure I could say that with anything that I make. I would always think if I add a line here or if I put this there, it would be better.
You said you’re not an artist, but this is same process that you might go through as an artist.
Or that I just really enjoy what I do. I will go home in the evening and the way that I will wind down is that I get my PC out and work on another design. I’ve got other aspects to my life as well! Obviously I’m really into football and rugby and…what other sports are there?
“…who isn’t a maker? Everyone’s a maker. If you’re baking a cake, you’re making. If you’re building something in your shed, you’re making. If you’re putting up a shelf, you’re making. Everyone’s really a maker.”
Are you inspired by anyone? Is there anyone out there who is doing something really interesting or important?
I don’t think that it would be a person. I’m inspired by the maker community, especially when I see someone that is obviously so talented but no one else has heard of them. It’s not about ‘look how clever I am’. That’s one of the best pieces of advice I was given early on when writing magic. I met a magician who was quite famous at the time and he told me “You don’t go on the stage to demonstrate how clever you are. If you do that you turn the audience against you straight away and that’s not how a professional magician works. It’s the same with makers. The people that inspire me are the ones that people probably haven’t had heard of, but that maker community has downloaded something that they’ve made. Take the living hinge! It’s a great idea, and lots of people use it, but trying to trace that back to the original carpenter that put it together and made that possible… I run a laser lab at the Silk Mill. We spend about 3 hours and we teach the basics of Inkscape. It’s all about removing the mystique and that actually this is just putting shapes together cutting them out. What’s great for me is that you’ll see families coming back. That’s what it’s all about for me. I find it inspiring that this whole ‘making’ thing is actually bringing people together. So yes, it’s the community that inspires me, not really an individual person.