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A very handy Christmas

Homemade gifts for the craft-impaired

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It might not be clear to the casual reader, but a holiday gift guide issue is no easy thing to put together. And 14 years into this annual project, the theme-well (“alternative giving,” “the recession-proof gift guide,” “it’s the thought that counts,” etc.) threatens to dry up entirely, which is hardly a festive proposition. But as the Indy staff discussed ideas for this year’s installment it became clear, much to our surprise, that we’d never done a handmade gift guide before.

Well that seemed an oversight, given how handy we all (think we) are.

So this year we loosed our inner kindergartners on a baker’s dozen of crafty little projects suitable for holiday giving to friends, family, co-workers and anyone else in your life who might appreciate a gift with a little (oftentimes very little) elbow grease keeping the thought that counts company. The following gifts—complete with instructions—range from the almost infantile-simple to the ever so slightly complex; many can be made with nothing more than common household items, and others require simple tools or supplies that are either imminently borrowable or well on the cheap side. And when you’re done there’s even a recipe for homemade wrapping paper to seal the deal.

So get cracking. There are only 23 crafting days left until C-day, and once you realize how much you want to keep some of these gifts for yourself, you’re going to need to make duplicates for those people on your list who have been good enough to deserve a gift you made with your very own hands.

Say it with mosaic
One rule of thumb for crafty projects is that the less you have to buy, the more fun they tend to be. It’s kind of like what Thoreau said about enterprises requiring new clothes. To put it another way, the more materials you can scare up around the house and garage, the less money you spend, and the craftier you feel.

Once you get the knack for making mosaics, you start seeing free stuff and cool applications everywhere. That cheapo fifth-hand end table with all the dings and coffee-cup rings all over it—wouldn’t it look great covered with little squares of colored glass? Or how about that big picture frame you found in an alley but don’t have anything to put in? Wouldn’t it look smashing filled with a mosaic in an abstract pattern of your own design?

All you need to get started is a glasscutter ($5 to $15), a bag/tube of dry or ready-mixed grout ($3 and up, depending on the size of the project), a source of glass or tile and something to glue glass and tile to. Craft shops are happy to sell you bags of little tiles and precut glass squares. You can also buy panes of colored glass to cut yourself, but the hot tip for beginners is to track down an artisan glass outlet that sells its broken pieces and leftovers for a few dollars a pound and cut them to size yourself.

Flat horizontal surfaces are best for beginners because you have gravity on your side. Avoid overly intricate patterns and strict representation until you get handier with the grout and glasscutter. The basic method is to glue the pieces in the desired pattern to the surface with craft glue and smooth the grout into the cracks between them once the glue has dried, wiping away the excess grout with a damp cloth before it dries. The votive candle thingies pictured left were made from pickle and tomato sauce jars; each one took about an hour, not counting the time it took for the glue to dry. (AS)

Silhouettes
Once upon a time (think family parlor-game night with wax 78s spinning on the Victrola), silhouette cutting was as popular as family photography is now, and fulfilled roughly the same function: portraiture for posterity. It’s kind of a long story how I got addicted to it, but I’m here to tell you that I can’t draw for sour apples and I’m a surgeon with the silhouettes. The magic of silhouettes, I think, is that they’re barely even two-dimensional. You can’t really remove more of an image without losing it completely than with a silhouette—except maybe with an outline, which does away with everything except, well, the outline.

The illustration to the right is from a work-in-progress with jointed silhouettes that can be moved around (like I say, it’s a long story). With some tissue paper and a little practice, you could do something similar to display in a window, on a translucent lampshade or wrapped around a pickle jar with a candle inside. Or you could get all retro and pose the whole family for silhouettes the way we did in kindergarten: Have your subject sit in a chair with a desk lamp or bare bulb silhouetting their profile against a large piece of black construction paper taped to the wall. Trace the profile with a pencil while your subject remains absolutely still; cut it out with scissors and glue it to a separate piece of colored construction paper. Bonus points awarded if you can get the family pets to sit still long enough to trace their silhouettes.

A set of family portraits makes a great gift for parents, grandparents and everybody else who ever told you they’d rather have a gift you made yourself. Here’s what I’ve been thinking: Instead of a guest book for your home, wouldn’t it be neat to start compiling a book filled with silhouettes of everyone who comes to visit? (AS)

Potted Plant Hanger
What you’ll need:
a board, 1x or 2x, one to three feet long
borrowed jigsaw if you want to do it fast, small hand saw if you’re good at that sort of thing
power or hand drill
heavy string or cord

Who couldn’t use a decorative, efficient storage system for outdoor potted plants that need to come inside an already cramped space for the winter?

What you’re basically doing here is cutting notches in the edges of a board, into which the upper wall of the pot will be fitted and, upon release, lock into place via gravity and angle. A nearly horizontal ledge at the bottom of the notch will catch the lip of the pot, and the peninsula created by the deep upper notch will hold the upper wall. You can use an empty pot, overlaid about two inches with the edge of the board, to trace a rough outline of your cut. The tolerances for strict accuracy are quite forgiving. You’ll want to cut an equal number of notches on each side of the board so the finished product will hang in balance. Drill a hole in one end of the board for a hangin’ string. You can go as crazy as you want with shaping and sanding and painting and tying fancy knots in your hanging cord, but hopefully healthy plants are going to overshadow whatever woodwork you pour into this anyway, so why bother? (BT)

Family/Friend Calendar
This one is a bit of a project, but it’ll give you a reason to talk to friends or family members even before the holidays. Have each branch of your extended family, or each friend, submit one or two pictures of themselves—or of something they’d like to be remembered by—from their past year. The key is that you need at least one responsible person in your family or group of friends to compile all the photos. That person can be known as the “calendar organizer.” Draw straws for it if you want. Once the calendar organizer has all the photos, all he or she needs is a ruler and some paper to put a photo along with each month of the coming year in a calendar. Copies are easily made at your local photocopying shop. Extra special addition: Have everyone include important dates (birthdays, anniversaries, etc.) with their picture so that the calendar can also serve as your monthly calls-to-make/cards-to-send reminder. It’s inexpensive, and it will bring you closer to friends and family for 12 whole months. (MKF)

SHRINKY DINK® key chain
This is really a test of your cultural literacy. Especially for any of you who were a child or parent in 1973, when SHRINKY DINKS® first appeared, just saying “SHRINKY DINK” should make your scalp prickle with nostalgia. For those scratching their heads, we offer condolences as well as the good news that for $4.99 you can still pick up a package of this “fantastic plastic” at Jo-Ann’s Fabrics & Crafts on Brooks Street. Each package contains 12 5-inch by 8-inch sheets of SHRINKY DINKS® (you provide scissors, colored pencils, hole punch, baking sheet and piece of brown paper bag). The SHRINKY DINKS® possibilities are endless, but sticking to the key chain: Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cut sheet of SHRINKY DINK® into desired key chain shape. Use hole-punch to punch a hole in the material (make hole twice the size of one hole punch). On the rough side of material, decorate the shape with colored pencils. Line a baking sheet with brown paper bag and place SHRINKY DINK® on brown paper. Bake for 1 to 3 minutes in oven and watch the design curl and then flatten as it shrinks into a hard plastic. SHRINKY DINK®! (RT)

Paper picture frame
If you’ve ever made a paper airplane, this will be cake. In fact, gift making does not get easier, or cheaper, than this. What you need: one piece of 8 1/2-inch by 11-inch paper, colored markers, a photo you care to give. Place the paper on a flat surface with the 11-inch side parallel to you. Fold the paper in half to create an 11-inch crease in the middle of the paper, then unfold and flatten it. Using the crease as a midpoint, fold the bottom of the paper up to meet that midpoint, and the top of the paper down to meet the midpoint. Then fold back each of the four corners to create four triangular shapes that will be the edges of the frame. Using colored markers, decorate the paper. Then wrap the paper around so that one pair of triangles tucks into the other two triangles. Cut and insert a photo to fit. (RT)

Scented porcupine
The large-bodied, slow-moving rodents we call porcupines aren’t necessarily known for their pleasing aroma—or at least they weren’t until now. The scented porcupine will make a terrific gift for the offbeat potpourri lover in your life. Here’s how it works: Get yourself an apple (if you’re going for longevity, try an orange), some honey, a whole bunch of cloves and a few cinnamon sticks. Once you’ve gathered your materials, dip your apple in the honey and let it air-dry. As it starts to gel, stick cloves into the apple all over in order to simulate the quills which act as this little creature’s defense mechanism. Cinnamon-stick arms and legs are optional, but if you want your scented porcupine to stand, they’re a must. Simply leave some room and allow the honey to act as your cinnamon-stick-leg glue. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a test apple or two to get it right. You can always eat the mistakes, so nothing goes to waste. Once your scented porcupine is completed and dried, it should smell like sugar and spice and all things nice. (MKF)

Clay magnets
This one takes more time than money—but once you get the hang of molding the clay, it doesn’t have to take much more than an hour. Best of all, this project is one in which your non-artistic self can actually produce a gift that looks comparable to the professional examples displayed on the clay’s packaging. Using Fimo clay ($2.29 per block) or Sculpey ($1.99 per block), available at Michaels Arts & Crafts on North Reserve Street, mold the clay into desired shape. Bake according to instructions on the packaging. Let cool, then glaze with Sculpey glaze gloss ($3.49 for a 1.2 ounce jar), let dry, and stick to adhesive magnet ($1.29 for a sheet of flat magnets, also available at Michaels). A tip: toothpicks, cut into pieces and inserted into the soft clay before baking, can help attach a head or leg, say, to a little clay body. (RT)

Peanut butter popcorn balls
Peanut butter popcorn balls can be used as snacks or decorations, depending on whether you are a skilled connoisseur or a novice popcorn-ball-maker with high screw-up potential. A good popcorn ball can be eaten; others—lumpy or burnt—can be used as Christmas tree decorations or given to small neighborhood children who excel at t-ball. First, pop a bag of plain popcorn. Spread the popcorn evenly over a cookie sheet. In a separate pan, melt one stick of sweet cream butter and dissolve one cup of white sugar over medium heat. Stir frequently. When the sugar is completely dissolved, whisk in four tablespoons of peanut butter. (If you’re a peanut butter fan, go wild: Use six tablespoons). When the peanut butter is melted, slowly pour the mixture over the popcorn. When the mixture has cooled off for 5 to 10 minutes, roll the popcorn into fist-sized balls. Cut squares of Saran Wrap, place the popcorn ball in the center, fold up the corners and tie with a ribbon. Makes six or so gifts. (KS)

Wine glass ID tags
Ever misplace your wineglass at a party and pick up someone else’s by mistake? Here’s a tip—go for the fuller glass. However, if you’d rather have friends, acquaintances and their various communicable diseases properly segregated by goblet, use wine ID tags, easily made at a bead shop near you.

Pick a theme. I chose the animal kingdom—a green glass cat bead from the Czech Republic, and a pink glass monkey head, green bull and turquoise fish beads from China. At a bead shop worktable, push a head pin—a long wire with a flat end—through the bead. With a pair of round-nosed pliers, bend the wire just above the bead and wrap excess around the portion above the bead. It’s helpful to have an experienced employee around. The woman who helped me said, of two out of four tags, “I think we can save it.” She did. Next, string the ID bead through the wire tag, and bend the pointed end of the wire tag 90 degrees so the tag opens and closes around the stem of a wineglass. This particular set of four cost $8.90 to make. Beads and wiring are available at Bathing Beauties and Crystal Limit. (KS)

Foil candle holder
This candle holder is best given to those who prefer the shabby over the chic, and best given in dim light. Take a strip of tin foil long enough to wrap around a small aluminum can, and twice as wide. Fold the strip of foil in half lengthwise (doubling simply reinforces the candle holder). Place the foil on an old and preferably soon-to-be-discarded cutting board and trace a pattern on one side of the foil using a Phillips screwdriver. Figure-eight clown-collar patterns work well. Using a hammer and the screwdriver, pound holes along the pre-traced pattern. Fold a narrow seam along one edge of the foil. Fold another small piece (3 by 3 inches or so) of foil around the bottom of the aluminum can. Then, roll the patterned foil around the can with traced side in, and scotch tape up along the seam. Pull the can out of the aluminum and recycle it. Place a tea light inside the tin foil candle holder with the seam side facing the wall. Shines brightly but travels poorly. Your cutting board will be imbedded with small flecks of foil. Go get a new one already. Merry Christmas. (KS)

Wrapping paper
When you’ve got your gifts ready to go, you can add that Martha Stewart touch by making your own wrapping paper. First, gather up some old copies of the Independent (or any other newspaper, if you’re lame). You’ll also need sponges, scissors and various colors of paint. Cut the sponges into cookie-cutter-like holiday shapes; try stars, Christmas trees or candles (NOTE: Don’t get over-ambitious and go for a reindeer. They’re wicked hard to cut accurately). Next, squeeze your paint into small dishes and use the sponges to stamp your newspaper. Then just let it dry and viola! Impress friends and family when your gift comes in its own homemade wrapping paper (yes, the post office will mail newsprint-wrapped packages). This is a particularly fun activity to do with young kids, who will have so much fun making the wrapping paper that they won’t even catch on to the fact that you’ve created a miniature sweatshop in your own home. (MKF)

Medallionated dog collar
What you’ll need:
1 hammer
1 aul
1 metal punch with conical point
needlenose pliers
piece of scrap lumber
flat stone or brick
leather dog collar (or leash, or belt)
10-20 old-fashioned copper or aluminum hammer rivets (not pop rivets)
assorted bottlecaps

Pick out some good-looking bottlecaps. Use the neeedlenose pliers to grasp one edge of a cap and use the hammer—a small hammer would help here—to lay out the bent edges. Tap it open like a flower until the cap is flat. This takes a bit of getting used to.

There’s your medallion, whichever side of the cap you like. Repeat until you have enough caps.

(If you want to get elaborate you can cut small circular pictures out of magazines or whatever and equally small circles of clear protective plastic and carefully fold the edges of the bottlecap back over in a rim, holding the plastic-covered images in place. I found a spade flush to the ace on the undersides of PBR bottlecaps, and that works just fine for Ladybird, my giant dachshund, for whom this project is a gift.)

Once you have your caps the way you want them, arrange them loosely on the collar. Mark placement lightly on leather if need be. Set caps aside. On piece of scrap lumber, lay collar out, face up. Hold first cap in place and use hammer and aul to punch two holes through side edges of cap and through leather collar lightly into scrap lumber (used to avoid punching holes in your work table or floor). Use aul by hand to widen holes in cap/leather to fit diameter—3/16 in this case—of rivets (also make sure that you buy rivets with a “grip range” appropriate to the width of your leather—I used 5/16). Insert rivets through holes in cap and seat rivets in holes in leather. Turn the collar face-side down on brick (you could cover the brick with cloth first to protect the show-face of the cap). Insert point of metal punch into open end of rivet and give the punch a good tap with the hammer, which should “mushroom” the circumference of the rivet. Remove punch. Whack the splayed rivet hard with a hammer; that should flatten it and secure the rivet. Repeat with additional caps as desired. It wouldn’t hurt to practice this process on a piece of scrap leather before you tear into something nice.

Good for anyone with pets, belts, unprotected tack or other interesting fetishes, and infinitely personalizable. They’re bound to like it and, on the giving end, it feels good to whack stuff with hammers. (BT)

The hot glue files
Reading suggestions for the nervous crafter

by Andy Smetanka

The best way to find a craft book that suits your tastes, skills and attention span is to do some browsing. You might just find that your craft leanings are closer to your grandmother’s than you ever would have guessed.

On the other hand, you might not be so easily beguiled by pictures of seashell soap-dishes (craft books are usually illustrated, somewhat deceptively, with the work of people who have seemingly never made a false move with a hot glue gun). Or maybe you don’t even want specific project ideas—maybe you’re just looking for inspiration in someone else’s embarrassment of craftsiness.

One neat book to check out is Pad: The Guide to Ultra-Living (Chronicle Books, $25). Part craft book and part Better Homes and Gardens for urban hipsters with tiny apartments and a shared preference for fetishistic retro pastiche, Pad is lavishly illustrated with pictures of modest (in size, anyway) living spaces decked out way hipper and weirder than yours will ever be. It also includes recipes for mixed drinks that are served aflame, hangover cures, a guide to buying houseplants, suggestions for theme parties like indoor weenie roasts, and instructions for making carpeted lampshades, balcony planters and swag lights for your next luau.

Nava Lubelski’s just-published The Starving Artist’s Way (Three Rivers Press, $14), similarly, is one part craft book, one part cookbook, one part bluffer’s guide to cultural literacy and one part lifestyle handbook. I usually dislike these Bohemia for Dummies-style books, but Lubelski’s has got some cool recycling ideas. The shopping bag woven out of plastic shopping bags, to name just one easy project, is an idea whose time has come.

Crafters with an outdoorsy (or simply not-quite-in-touch-with-their-inner-seashell-soapdish-maker) bent should look into The American Boy’s Handy Book (now in its centennial edition from David R. Godine Publishing, $14), Outdoor Sports the Year ’Round (Algrove, $13), or any number of similar reprints dating from a less litigious time of homemade hang-gliders, propeller-driven go-carts and sail-powered ice yachts. Many of the projects are bewilderingly complicated, scantily explained and completely unforgiving of intermediate carpentry skills; then again, a good putterer is always up for a challenge. If nothing else, the pictures are fun to look at.

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