Improving the studio with reclaimed materials (= how not to spend any money)


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Someone recently gave me some floorboards they ripped out of their house and it prompted me to make some new shelves for my studio. It’s quite tricky to reuse tongue and groove floorboards, because they split like mad when you wrench them up, so I wasn’t sure enough of it would be usable. But it was. I spent a very happy Sunday afternoon pulling nails out of them, then used the best bits to make my shelves. I’ve been watching Adam Savage’s Tested Youtube channel, which has lots of ideas for workshop storage. He has this concept of ‘first order retrievability’ which means that any tool should be retrievable easily without having to move something else. Drawers are places where things go to die. This inspired my paintbrush/pencil/tool rack. I also made an organiser cabinet using a Proplex floor protection sheet I had and offcuts of ply and MDF. The Proplex attracts dust by static electricity, which is annoying, and wasn’t as rigid as I’d hoped, meaning I had to reinforce the drawers with cardboard. The cabinet was marginal from this point of view: all the materials were free, but it took a long time to make – probably longer than I should have spent on it. The ply and MDF scraps I used had multiple lives: they came from a previous projects of mine as well as their original uses. I like it when materials can be reused multiple times. All this work inspired my son: he made a battleship out of the wood scraps and burnt himself with the glue gun while doing it, thus initiating himself into the ranks of makers

Spider spotting

Pholcus phalangioides, woodcut by Matthew Herring © 2016

I’ve got interested in identifying spiders. I got myself a copy of a great book called Britain’s Spiders by Lawrence Bee, Geoff Oxford and Helen Smith with some birthday money and I’ve rarely been away from it for long. There’s something very fascinating about learning all the different types of something (plants, birds, spiders etc) and it opens up a door to noticing and appreciating a whole world which is right under your nose. My son Conrad (5) is also getting hooked and I’m pleased about that. He used to ask me to show him the spiders in the shed long before I bought the book. My daughter, on the other hand, has decided (and decided is the word) she’s scared of bugs in general. I was somewhat phobic about spiders as a child and I think this has fed my current fascination (I have the sense that that’s not an uncommon route into arachnology). My beginner efforts at spider identification are faltering, but here are some of the types Conrad and I have been appreciating. 


Zygiella x-notata (missing sector orb weaver) 

These small silvery grey coloured spiders commonly weave their webs on the frames of windows and there are dozens of them all round the outside of my house. They are sometimes known as missing sector orb weavers, because they leave a section of their webs without any of the spiral threads (the webs look like garden spider webs with, literally, a missing sector). A single thread leads up from the centre of the web outwards to where the spider is hiding. At night they come out and sit in the centres of their webs – I’ve been checking on them with a torch when I go out just after dark to put the ducks to bed. 


Steatoda bipunctata (false widow spider) 

I’ve found one of these under the overhang of the roof of the coal shed, the odd one out in a row of zygiellas. It also only comes out at night. The web it weaves is a random muddle of sticky threads and nothing like the neat zygiella webs – it’s like the house in the otherwise neatly kept street with the overgrown front garden and the guttering falling off. The spider is a small thing with a round, brownish waxy abdomen with four tiny indented dots on it.  


Clubiona comta (sac spider) 

Ioana found one of these in the washing basket. It is small, sandy brown and furry, like a tiny mouse. The spinnerets form a prominent cone on the tip of the abdomen (not visibly divided in two). We put it in an empty icecream tub and it started to make a little silk tent in the corner. I’m assuming the species is comta on the basis that it’s the most common (and it was small). 


Amaurobius sp (laceweb spider) 

I found one of these under the lid of my compost bin (along with a number of other spiders I couldn’t identify and a large house spider I managed to sit on and which I fed to the ducks). I think they’re very attractive: mostly dark brown but with yellowish/creamy markings on the abdomen. I’d probably have assumed they were immature house spiders without the book. They make an untidy lacy sort of web, as the name implies 


Pholcus phalangioides (daddy longlegs spider) 

I’ve appreciated these spindly little blighters for years and they are all over our house, but I recently learned they eat house spiders, which is hard to believe. They are so spindly that they are almost invisible. They live up in the corners of the room near the ceiling. I noticed some time ago that they jiggle rapidly if you disturb them, presumably to make themselves harder to catch. They’re like little oscillating atoms. I like the fact that they are usually upside down with their abdomens pointing upwards, like tiny jam jars. 


The image at the top of this post is a woodcut of a Pholcus I made during my residency at Top Shed, Norfolk, in 2016.

Rhubarb etc.

I have discovered a new passion. Gardening. Bye bye painting. Today (a gorgeous day), I spent more time gardening than I did painting. Planted some rhubarb; dug compost out from the bottom of the compost-bin; went to the garden centre for some ericaceous compost (just listen to me!) to pot the blueberry bushes my mum gave me and ended up buying six little pots of alpine plants to go in the rockery – which then needed planting – which entailed rearranging the rockery and tearing out a big spikey thing and lots of creepery stuff… and so on. Later, I planted a clematis. Then everything needs watering. I’m getting a bit obsessive and it needs to stop! (I still have a climbing rose to plant…). I did do a bit of painting in between. It isn’t the first time recently that this has happened. Now, I’m indoors again and I’ve had to put some of Ioana’s posh handcream on to stop my hands turning into painful sandpaper, so I smell of roses.

Soon, however, my Romanian mother-in-law will come to stay for the summer and I can get her to water everything. Last year, she got bored and I had to confiscate the secateurs. This year I can just point at everything and say ‘apa’ – water! The Romanian word for mother-in-law is ‘soacra’ – pronounced ‘swacra’. Go on, say it: swacra, swacra, swacra. My swacra is coming. Oh, no, the swacra.

Random things: I saw a frog the size of my thumbnail and Ioana saw two toads at the allotment. Ioana made nettle beer and it actually tasted quite nice.

How annoying banks are (or something like that)

I was planning to write a new blog post this evening, but I needed to ring the bank up about something first, so now this has become a bit of a random rant about banks. I think I was just on the phone to the bank for an hour and a half and now it’s too late to be bothered writing anything. Grrr! The chap from the bank said it would “only take about two minutes”. I had a rose bush, that I was about to plant in my front garden. I had the roots soaking in water prior to planting and I ended up planting the thing in the dark, because the ‘two minute’ phone call took so long. The neighbours must have thought I was mad: “That crazy guy is gardening in the dark!” Couldn’t even see if I was digging up any cat tods.
The unctuous greetings that the poor robotic souls in the bank call centres are programmed to repeat don’t help, either. That cheery robot greeting was probably written by some call centre greetings consultancy at the cost of several times my annual salary. “Please get on with it, this is on my phone bill!” Not only do you get bounced from pillar to post, but every new robotnik you speak to tries to sell you some stupid account you have to pay to have and which I have told them a million times before I don’t want! The more they try to sell it to me, the more obnoxious they become in my eyes. Let’s face it: I wouldn’t trust my bank as far as I could throw their entire world-wide staff, so I’m not going to believe you when you tell me this would benefit me (actually, I’ve done the sums and it doesn’t benefit me: what they don’t tell you is that to get that fantastic rate of interest you not only have to pay, but you are limited in how much you put in in one go – so the amount you can earn in interest is strictly limited anyway. You are better off with a lower rate and no shit attached).
There. There’s my rant about banks this evening.

Hanging model aeroplanes from the ceiling

Places to hang model aeroplanes: Heinkel 111 above the bookcase, in characteristic tail-down flight attitude. A literary bomber and angel of death; black cloud. Subtle placing: as if about to fly out of the room: just caught in passing.
Junkers 87 ‘Stuka’: I tried to hang this above the bog, as if it was depositing a bomb in the john, but the staples wouldn’t stay in the polystyrene ceiling tiles. So I hung it at a 45-degree angle in the hall, just above the bottom of the stairs, so that you can see its underside when reaching the bottom of the stairs.
The Heinkel casts a satisfying shadow on the wall, but it looks somewhat like a bee when you see it from the doorway.

‘Six Thinking Hats’ training

On 29th October I went on a day-long training course on the ‘Six Thinking Hats’ method for parallel, or lateral, thinking. This is a tool devised by Edward de Bono to help groups and individuals to improve their thinking by breaking thinking down into a series of separate ‘tasks’, each of which can be performed separately (on the principle that we are best at doing one thing at a time – which is certainly true of me!) These tasks are symbolised by six coloured hats, which can be metaphorically taken on and off and used in sequence. The hats are:

  • Blue hat: manages the thinking
  • White hat: deals with hard facts, including O.P.V. (Other People’s Views)
  • Red hat: deals with feelings and intuition, without the need to justify
  • Yellow hat: deals with the benefits and advantages of the topic being discussed
  • Black hat: deals with the negatives and downsides of the topic
  • Green hat: is the creative, ‘brainstorming’ hat, which seeks alternatives and possibilities

The training day, run by POD (tutor Caryn Swartz), consisted of an introduction to the hats and the ways in which they can be used and combined and a series of exercises to try them out. While it seems at first like a bit of a game (and a bit artificial), we did find that we were able to cover a surprising amount of ground in a short space of time when we used the techniques: they are very good for keeping the focus of a discussion. Because it is a bit like a game, with rules, the group becomes self-correcting, like when you play a game and someone breaks the rules and everyone else immediately objects. If someone says something a bit emotional, like ‘I don’t like this!’ in the black hat part of the discussion (which is meant to deal with logical negatives, not feelings), someone will immediately say, ‘That’s a red hat statement – you’re out of hat!’ The value is of separating out different kinds of thinking, recognising the value of each and giving each its place.

In conclusion, I don’t think this is a tool which you can use in every situation (they do say that you can’t run your life by it!), but, where there is a specific issue which needs discussion and creative thought, it might be a valuable technique. Personally, I found that one of the most valuable things about it was that it fosters reflection on what you are actually doing when you think (thinking about thinking). The most surprising (and, to my mind, disturbing or questionable) insight to emerge from the training was that decision making is ultimately a matter of feeling/intuition (it is placed under the red hat).

Matthew Herring
30 Oct. 2009