Custom frabrication and the 90% rule

I am a prototyper. I finally came up with this self-description when trolling the aisles of a plumbing-supply store, browsing the fittings to see what might be useful. [Consider the hose-clamp and its many uses: better than duct tape]. The owner asked what I was looking for. At that moment I was getting parts to fix our kitchen sink; but to explain my wider survey of the hardware in the store, I had to explain that I make peculiar things or customize everyday objects in peculiar ways. It is a method of meditative relaxation for me; something like knitting or crossword-puzzles for others.

Time permitting, I will post some of my peculiar “mods:” the plywood bike trailer; the carabiners-as-bike-trailer-hitch; the bike shack built into a parking space; the futon covers that strap to the frame; the clip-on climbing treads for randonee skiing; the plywood carry-boxes. My current project, which I will certainly write about in the coming weeks, is a “Guppy Trailer” for our car, to enable us to take some serious road trips.

Increasingly, as I get older, I try to avoid rediscovering the wheel whenever possible; editing existing designs and materials is so much more efficient! Which is where I came up with the 90% rule. The delightful thing about living in a mass-production society is that many necessary things are really inexpensive. Cloth, stainless-steel kitchenware, plywood, screws. Each of these four items is fantastically useful, and I appreciate them especially from an historical perspective. For example: metal fasteners used to be so difficult to produce that Europeans would burn ruined houses and sift through the ashes to recover the nails and hinges! Then came wire-cut nails in the 1830s, and a revolution in construction. As for stainless-steel knives and forks? Medieval smiths would have regarded them as near-miraculous products.

Factory-made cloth is the better-known modern material. During the Industrial Revolution, spinning-jennys and power-looms reduced the cost of cloth by about two orders of magnitude. I believe it was Dolores Hayden who noted that this led to a rise in literacy among women, because they did not have to spend so much of their time carding, spinning, and weaving. They still had to hand-sew clothes; but toward the end of the 19th century, sewing machines sped that up that process as well.

So I enjoy the marvels of the industrial world, even as I draw attention to inequalities and exploitations in the production process. We can have the efficiencies and marvels of modernity without screwing over the workers. Furthermore, we can fine-tune much of what we buy because it is made in a generic way; for instance, off-the-rack clothing can be adjusted for far less cost than clothing custom-sewn from a pattern. What mass-production provides is stuff that we can consider at least 90% satisfactory. Tweaking it that last 10% is satisfying in itself, but it also takes far less time.

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