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Made by Hand: My Adventures in the World of Do-It-Yourself by Mark Frauenfelder

Cover to Made by Hand by Mark Frauenfelder

In the course of dealing with an older house and raising a family on a budget, I’ve read quite a few do-it-yourself books, but never one like Made by Hand, by Mark Frauenfelder.  For example, they’ve never started with a mad dash to a tropical island. That’s where the author, his wife, and young children headed after the dot-com crash left them looking for a simpler, presumably cheaper life. After all, they were writers and theoretically writers can telecommute from anywhere, even the second most gorgeous island in the world.

Three months, several hundred coconuts, and a healthy dose of disillusionment later, Mr. Frauenfelder and family were back in the States, comfortably ensconced in the California sunshine once more. They had not found paradise in their thatched hut, but somewhere in the coconut pounding for their daily cooking, they discovered they liked the hands-on thing. They liked it well enough to try their hands at all sorts of things, from “Raising Baby Dinosaurs” (aka chickens) to honeybees to crafting spoons, growing exotic vegetables (after “Killing the Lawn”) and making musical instruments with toothpicks and cigar boxes.

The author describes these things in rather startling detail, taking particular note of what did not work out so well and how he was eventually able to get a better outcome, either by doing more research, getting better materials, or tracking down often eccentric experts (“Alpha Makers”) in particular do-it-yourself fields. There was the couple determined to get their gardening done as self-sufficiently as possible not so much because of the costs but rather because of their concern that civilization is going to go belly up in a few decades and this experimentation was really for the betterment of all.  He learned quite a lot from them. From other dedicated folk, he discovered how to soothe thousands of bees, increase the efficiency of his espresso machine, and culturing his own kombucha tea.

The library has lots of very practical do-it-yourself books on particular topics, but Mr. Frauenfelder’s book is unique for its sometimes dark humor. However, the big takeaway is the author’s enthusiasm and willingness to try … and fail … and share his failures so that readers in this increasingly hands-off world might be willing to pick up a screwdriver or a shovel or a beekeeper’s hood to get closer to their environments and perhaps even each other.