Last modified: Saturday, January 6, 2001 6:20 PM


"Jeezus Gretchen, You broke him! What the hell am I supposed to tell his family?
Where are we gonna hide his parts?"



I've been involved in the suburbanite home improvement thing for weeks & weeks, which is why there hasn't been much activity at the website. I must be enjoying it (or else I wouldn't be doing it) and surprisingly, it draws from the same place as the desire to customize. The scale and subject matter are different, that's all.

There's actually a customizing tie-in. The expensive part of this home-improvement binge has involved the installation of a 10x20 backyard storage shed, a portion of which I might use as a workshop to solve some problems. I've whined about this many times before: Dust and space. Dust goes with the territory, the second you turn on your Dremel Mototool. If you've got a combined work/display area, you eventually give up on the futile task of thoroughly cleaning the hundreds of individual display pieces. The more you make, the more you store. And customizers tend to be collectors, too. It all takes up space. Even relegating display items to boxed storage doesn't solve the problem for long. Eventually the closets get filled and stuff starts invading rooms in the form of boxes stacked 8 feet high. You're probably laughing, thinking "well just sell the junk, dude!" Hey, you never know when you're going to want to set up your zillions of feet of slot car track! Or haul out the raft. Or build a model. If you sell the stuff, someday down the road you're gonna wish you hadn't. Like the Fender Deluxe Reverb amp that would now cost me about $800 to replace. Boo hoo. (This must be some form of sick childhood scarring from my early life as a DOD-brat.)

Customizing, by virtue of being a many-faceted hobby, can take up an incredible amount of space. I'd gradually become a victim of this as the amount of stuff in my primary work area became oppressive and eventually choked off my ability to work on anything (Demon Lord left me with 6" x 12" of working space directly in front of my keyboard). Scrounging for materials routinely involved moving and stacking boxes and boxes of stuff. If I couldn't find something I was sure I had, it was often easier just to buy it again (thus adding to the problem).

The storage shed has been revitalizing. As a receptacle for stuff, it's made my original work area tolerable again. But I'm also toying with the idea of moving some or all of the work area out there. It would be better to have everything housed in one area subdivided by function, in an environment where dust really didn't matter. But that may be more than I'm willing to give up: The house has many more amenities and is a lot more hospitable. So I've had to think about this, breaking the stuff of customizing down into these general categories (and there could be more):

Obviously, few customizers do all these things (I don't either), and some of these processes don't require dedicated space. For me, dyeing and vacuforming are rare, temporary setups which gets done in the kitchen. Sewing is an infrequent task but is relegated to a more-or-less permanent setup on the dining room table (since we never ate there anyway). Where and how these processes get set up depends on how often you do them and how much trouble it is to set them up, take them down and store them.

Ideally, you'd want to do everything in one place because it's so efficient and convenient... I like the immediacy of being able to switch modes quickly while I'm making stuff. Having to shuttle your work over to another area to make a quick adjustment breaks the flow of work. If your work areas are spread too far apart, you either have to buy duplicate sets of common tools, or lug them around. Therefore, your primary work area should be designed for access to as many complimentary processes and frequently used materials and tools as possible, within the limited amount of space that you can quickly access. Less frequently used materials should be stored nearby.

Some processes are really best done in isolation. Grinding and spray painting create a huge amount of dust which goes everywhere. In addition to the appearance problem, there are safety and health issues involved. (Respiratory failure, cancer and heart disease are such déclassé ways of checking out-- Starving in the wilderness and being eaten by wolves is much better). Realistically though, immediacy is a huge part of the creative process, so even though you should do these things in isolation, they should be relatively near the primary work area.

Storage is king. Almost all the processes require access to stored raw materials, scraps, in-process materials, references, and completed materials. It makes sense to store the raw and scrap materials fairly near to where they're used, since you don't want to spend hours moving boxes looking for inspiration. It also makes sense to have enough working surface to accommodate the temporary in-process materials and reference/inspirational materials. Finally, whatever you're working on eventually gets retired to completed storage (aka "display") to accumulate dust. It's not essential that display stuff be near where you work, but if you're working on thematically related stuff, it's useful to have them nearby for reference.

This crude little diagram illustrates how my ideal setup might look: Lots of shelves for storing things and work surfaces that surround you on three sides. The idea being that in a swivel chair you could quickly grab the most commonly used supplies and tools quickly and switch between tasks. There should be adequate space for you to lay out reference materials; a computer and video setup would also be useful for that purpose. The dust booth/room is nearby so that if you needed to do a quick grinding job it wouldn't be a major production. Active exterior venting lets you share your hobby with the world. In addition to these workareas, a similar molding/casting station would be useful. It's a fairly separate activity, so it doesn't need to be integrated with anything else, just located in nearby proximity for convenience. The storage area behind the workarea is for less commonly used tools, raw materials and reference materials. The bigger the better. A storage/workcart would be helpful to extend your working area and bring supplies or materials which might be needed for a particular project.

I've left out a few important things like access to water and trash service. These are things that aren't typically ongoing-- you can bring water in containers and bring brushes to sinks for washing. Trash gets emptied when the cans get full (or on trash day). Naturally this would be well-lit, climate controlled, and sound proofed so you could run an electric sander at 4 am.

Unfortunately, my storage shed probably won't live up to this vision. Even though it's quite spacious, I do have to share it with the storage of household junk. A lot of household junk. Damn. But making the space minimally habitable has been a challenging project. Research on the web leads you to believe that it's not something that many people do. The most obvious problem has been the climate control thing-- It's damned hot! In its unaltered state, a storage shed is just a big box with poor ventilation. Heat and cold radiate freely through thin walls, without the benefit of wind flow to dissipate it. Airconditioning cools a small area directly in front of its output. Proper insulation in Central Texas requires R-30 fiberglass insulation under the roof decking, ideally with a space for air to flow from soffit vents up to a roof ridge ventilator. I've got 11-feet's worth of headspace, but 2x4 rafters weren't meant to hold 10+" batts. So ya go with 3.5" batts with no venting system and hope it makes some difference. Who knows what you do about the thin plywood floor?

There is some pleasure in starting with a bare unfinished interior though. Laying out the electrical wiring without worrying about unseen studs has been sweet. Power to the shed comes from an outdoors GFCI which can function like a circuit breaker. Inside, it's just electrical outlets, without a single hardwired switch or fixture. This lets me move lighting around at will. Switching is done through X-10 modules (Radio Shack sells additional, compatible products under their "Plug and Power" name.). Wonderful toys. You plug your lighting fixtures into these addressable cubes, which plug into outlets. Then, from a controller box you can turn on/off/dim any lights assigned to an address. The great thing is that you can have multiple controllers in the room and located remotely. If you've left the shed lights on, you can can switch them off from inside the house. You can even have a remote light assigned to the same address, acting as a pilot light. These can be set up for timed control or programmed for computer control... (and you can interface a security system, video and sound, send snapshots to your e-mail address... but that's another tangent. Kewl, huh?)

Spring cleaning doesn't happen around here on a regular schedule, so eventually you do have to pay the price in a big way. At least I'm sane enough to realize that 15-year old cable and gas bills can probably be safely thrown away... Anyone wanna buy a Fender Twin Reverb amp? ;^)

Workroom: 05/23/00- After the weekend's insulation-installing and shelf-building spree, I think I've got things worked out. It makes more sense to stay with the indoor room because it's near the beer & the john, plus I can work there at 4 am without waking every dog in the neighborhood. So the messy grinding stuff got moved into the closet. The crude drawing doesn't give you the true feel of the room since the display stuff isn't labeled, and it's everywhere. But it does give you the general ideal of the workflow. Most of the work is done in the central workspace, which has the most commonly used tools (pliers, tweezers, hemostats, picks, burnishers, screwdrivers, razors, pin vise, hand drills, hammer, anvil, clamps, scissors, handsaws, heatgun, brushes, pens) and materials (small parts, scrap cloth, plastic, beads, elastic, screws, rivets, wire, clay, putty, adhesives, solvents, lubricants) within arm's reach. Pegboard technology was adapted to organize small tool storage. There's plenty of surrounding surface area to temporarily stash stuff I'm working on. Current reference materials are splayed on the small surface to the right, and available through the TV and computer. To store this much stuff in such a small footprint, you have to think vertical space: Shelves utilize 3D space efficiently by increasing the surface area, and you need lots of it. Lighting isn't labeled, but there are plenty of swing-arm, clip-on and gooseneck lamps everywhere.

Unfortunately, you can't have everything within arm's reach, so supplies and bulkier raw materials for common modal tasks (painting, hot glueing, soldering, materials for costume design) are located nearby and brought to the central workspace as needed. Supplies for less common modal tasks (casting, vacuforming, dyes) aren't as accessible, but are stored nearby.

The grunge closet is a separate workarea to contain the damage, and is kind of hellish. Our old upright vacuum cleaner is suspended from the ceiling and a dryer vent hose is connect to its guts. It's positioned right at the work platform, which has a transparent plastic shield (actually, packaging from a Dragon figure) clipped to the front. The flexi-shaft Dremel is suspended from the ceiling and grinding is done right on the platform in front of the vent hose. Fine dust particles get sucked up and the shield contains the bigger flying chunks. As you can imagine, it's hellishly noisy which is why the Sonic II earplugs are kept nearby. (I still need to work out a vacuum extension hose so I can use it to clean other areas in the room-- It's cool to have a vacuum cleaner always plugged & ready to go.)

The spray paint/airbrush setup isn't very well thought out at this point. Ideally, the closet needs to be vented, but I'm not too keen on cutting a hole to the building exterior. Currently, the "spray booth" is just a box to catch the overspray.

The photo staging area is a large general purpose surface (with the remnants of an N-gauge town at the right end). Temporary diorama-ish sets can be constructed there for photos, but it's usually a catch-all mess (it probably sees most action as a tobacco rolling surface). The camera is tucked away under where the "adhesives" label is, and is always connected to the VCR and through to the computer. Actually though, most of shots for the website were taken on the narrow strip of real estate to the left of the main workarea (that's why I've used so many video feedback backgrounds).

06/01/00- Having actually used the grunge closet now, I can now say that it works... sort of. Well, it does what it's supposed to do, which is to solve the problem of dust when grinding stuff. The dust and most of the small debris makes a beeline for the vacuum cleaner's intake hose. The stuff which escapes bounces off the plastic shield and is easy to vacuum up. However, it's a lot more confining than working without worrying about where everything blows. Immediately, you notice how confining it is to have to work within a shielded enviroment and position your work not where it's convenient, but where it creates the least mess. You can't manipulate your target piece as easily when you're constrained within a fixed clean zone. In addition, having to wear earplugs while working is a little disconcerting. You probably don't realize how you incidentally rely on your other senses: The sound the Dremel makes tells me its rotation speed and whether it's too heavily loaded.

Still, for the time being it's a worthwhile tradeoff in my eyes. The really sweet thing is suddenly having empty shelves to store supplies, plus the display real estate to make at least a few more figures! Hot damn!