Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry And Bright

Yesterday was my idea of a perfect Christmas Eve: John and I stayed home all day and played with our cameras. Since I usually only take pictures at night, it was fun to get some shots with actual daylight - and to try out a few new Photoshop filters.

So before they're out of season, a few pretties from our house to yours:

This angel and that owl stay in my office year-round. They're just too pretty to pack away!

This, too.

I played lots of Crosby, Sinatra, and Glenn Miller/big band jazz on our rebuilt vintage radio all day - stuff we usually never listen to, but that just sounds so *right* coming out of that cabinet.

I know very little about photography, but I love it so much I'm trying to learn. The technical aspects make my head spin, but fortunately that's John's strong point. (He gave me a ten minute lesson on F stops the other day. Ask me how much I remember.)

I took all of these photos on a Canon Rebel XT, in case you're curious, and I highly recommend it. John has now purchased two newer and higher grade cameras for me, but I keep coming back to my old XT for its ease of use and picture quality. We also buy all of our cameras and equipment used on Craig's List, and have had nothing but good luck with it.

Today we're spending another quiet day at home with John's mom (dinner at Golden Corral - awww yeeeeahh), and then it's off to Williamsburg to visit my family. That drive used to fill me with dread, but after six weeks in a car for the book tour somehow 13 hours doesn't sound quite so bad.

Merry Christmas and happy Hanukkah, everyone!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Good On Paper

Maybe it's the crafty immediate gratification of it all, but lately I've been obsessed with papercraft.

And this obsession MUST BE SHARED.

Remember the Star Wars snowflakes that have been everywhere lately? Well, Tesh of Tish Tosh Tesh made a steampunk version:

Great grinding gears! Seriously cool, right?

Plus, in another post she provides handy illustrations and instructions for folding a "snowflake seed", ie the "proper flat hexagonal structure for snowflake cutting." I'm so trying this.

If you don't feel like folding, how about this fun and funky geometric paper wreath?

Love the sparkly retro colors! Watch Meg's quick video tutorial here.

Jessica of How About Orange (which is such a cool blog, btw) made this fabulous woven paper ball garland:

She got the instructions from The Cheese Thief, who has a video tutorial here.

Also, if you check the left sidebar of How About Orange, you'll find links to several amazing paper ornament tutorials. I want to try them all - and not just because she uses my favorite color so much. Honest.

If you're the type who'd rather sit back and just *watch* people make amazing papercraft, then you might check out Between the Folds, an origami documentary John and I watched on Netflix streaming last night. Here's the trailer:

The French artist at the :29 mark has the most *amazing* paper seahorse on his desk - I wish you could see it better here - and the guy folding the white spirals at the :13 and :36 mark was my favorite. Really gorgeous, intricate stuff.

And finally, when it comes to free downloadable projects, Matt Hawkins of Custom Paper Toys is probably my all-time favorite. His gargoyle "Gnarley" has been on my monitor for at least two years now:

I just made a new one, in fact, since the paper was getting old.

Completely unrelated, but I have a cute little bat toy (a gift from John of SuperPunch) on the other side:


And before you ask: they're all stuck down with BlueStik, the removable adhesive putty. When your monitor's only an inch thick, that stuff really comes in handy.

Getting back to the paper, check the right-hand sidebar of Custom Paper Toys for a list of all Matt's free downloads. There are plenty of great ones, but I especially like AstroGnome, Chuckles, and Mr. Robot, which I'm making now and is definitely too complicated for beginners and tired bloggers who are trying to watch Mythbusters at the same time. Just so you know.

TIP: If you're new to papercraft, remember to use cardstock or matte photo paper for the toys, and the special paper glue they sell at craft stores will save you a lot of aggravation.

Ok, guys, your turn: If you've stumbled across any great paper crafts lately, please, share with the class in the comments!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Mini Hot Air Balloon Tutorial

As I mentioned in my steampunk tree post, these hot air balloon ornaments have been our most time-consuming Christmas project. Lots of trial and error, figuring things out as we went along, and, in the case of getting the baskets to hang straight, plenty of "colorful metaphors."

The good news is this isn't a holiday-specific craft: wouldn't they make an awesome mobile? Or hang one in the corner of your office for a little whimsy.

To start, you'll need a plastic ornament. The most realistic shape is a tear drop, but since I couldn't find one in plastic we went with round ones and this funky dealio:

At first I didn't think this shape would work, but after sticking a flag on top (which is actually the bottom) it's now my favorite. The flag is a scrap of raw silk folded over, glued, and decorated with a little gem and some glitter glue.

After your ornament, your next essential element is the basket. After hunting around online, I decided these tiny egg baskets made for dollhouses were just right:

Plus, I found them on ebay for only $7.50 for 10 baskets, with free shipping from Thailand. Not bad! (Here's a link if you want to buy from the same seller I did.)

Next, a little aging with watered down brown craft paint:

And then a heavier coat brushed on and wiped off a bit:

Keep the basket handles on for painting, but then clip them off when you're done.

Odds are your ornament will already be pretty as-is, but for a little extra bling you can swag some chain like so:

To do this, get out your trusty Dremel with snake attachment, insert your teensiest drill bit, and drill little pilot holes. Then tap in tiny nails, swag your chain over the nails, and add a drop of superglue to keep it all in place. (If your chain is larger, you can insert the nails through the links.)

Don't have a Dremel? No worries: many ornaments are thin enough that you can push a simple thumb tack through:

See that cord John's holding? That's a poor girl's flexible ruler: just tie a string around the ornament neck, mark your spot, and slide the string around to keep your distances consistent. Nifty, huh?

It's a great way to keep your circumference lines straight:

For plain ornaments like this one you'll want to paint on some designs, glue on some blingy stuff, dip it in glitter, etc. This was our first attempt, so mine's pretty simple:

I'm also happy to report this was the first project I've ever used glitter glue on, and man, is that stuff awesome. (The gold lines are liquid leaf paint.)

From the beginning I knew I wanted a balloon with a net over it, but drawing a net on a round ball is one of those things that sounds easy until you try it. Everything's going fine, and then, BAM! What do I do with the corners?!

To save you the same aggravation, here's the solution I came up with:

As you can see, I drew my grid work with chalk. Then, when I reached the corners, I carefully erased the two final intersecting grid lines and combined them into one. I added a few more lines on either side off that central branch, curving them slightly, so I ended up with four "stretched" corners.

I realize that sounds confusing, so I advise you to just check my pictures if/when you try this, and try to match them:

When I was happy with my lines, I painted over them with liquid leaf paint:

You could almost skip this step, though, because it turns out a nice thick line of glitter glue covers pretty well:

Plus, look how 3D it looks - like an actual net!

(Full disclosure: the glue deflates as it dries, so it's not nearly so puffy now.)

For the finishing touch I bent a little filigree piece to match the ball's curve, and glued red crystals scrounged from my broken jewelry stash into the middle. (Click any of these photos to enbiggen.)

Oh, and the eyelet on top is just a regular ol' eyelet screwed in and painted gold.

Now for the hard part: hanging your basket.

We discovered the hard way that nothing - but NOTHING - will stick to the sides of these lousy baskets. All our super glues were defeated, and hot glue is hard to jam in there. Eventually I cut a tiny circle of cardstock, glued/taped the strings to the underside of the circle, and then jammed it into the basket with a heavy dollop of white glue on the bottom.

Because the basket weighs nothing, your strings will want to bend and curl and kink. Not to worry: grab a heavy nut or two from your tool box, plop 'em in the basket, cover them with a scrap of black tissue paper, and it should weigh it down sufficiently.

To attach the other ends of the strings to your ornament, you can either glue them (and then cover the ends with a ribbon) or, as we did, tie the strings around your little nails.

Of course, you might be wondering how to tie all your strings perfectly level, so the basket hangs straight.


(Remember those colorful metaphors?)

My only advice is a wing and a prayer and maybe a little booze.

Of course, if you use *chain* you can count links and not worry about weighing the basket down - but then you have to figure out how to attach the chain to your basket. O rings are a bit big for such a tiny basket, but I decided to use them anyway on my latest prototype:

Overall this method is faster and easier, but you'll note I STILL can't get the rotten basket to hang straight. I counted links and everything! Honest! (True story: John's in the other room right now with a pair of pliers trying to "fix" whatever I did wrong here. Harrumph.)

This one started as a plain purple ornament, so I jazzed it up with some copper foil tape (the kind you use in stained glass) and bronze glitter glue:

While I was waiting for the glue to dry, my friend Missy remarked that she was surprised I hadn't used pennies in any of my ornaments yet. A-ha! PENNIES!

The one I used is from some friends who recently went to NYC, and eventually I'd like to fill all eight panels with national landmark pennies. They remind me of the decorative panels painted on carousels, and add a lot of detail. Trouble is, I don't have any more - all my smashed pennies are Disney ones. Heh. So, if you have an area landmark penny with a vertical design you wouldn't mind giving up, feel free to send it to me. You know, for the cause.

And now, my dear crafters, I will wrap up this monster post and wish you the very best of balloon luck. I hope you enjoyed, and as always, feel free to share suggestions for improvement or ask questions in the comments!

[Edit: Several people have asked where I found our plastic ornaments. The green I believe came from K-mart, and the others are from places like Hobby Lobby, dollar stores, and Big Lots. Cheaper stores are always better, since nicer places tend to only carry glass.]


Come see ALL of my craft projects on one page, right here!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

My Steampunk Christmas Tree!

We've had our tree up for a few weeks now, adding new ornaments and finishing touches day by day - but I think we've finally reached a point where I can do the grand reveal:

So, without further ado:

Ta-da! (click to enbiggen)
Ain't it grand?


Of course, I realize that's just a jumble of lights and colors from a distance, so here are some details:

First, the tree skirt I've been drooling over for three years and finally decided to buy. It's from Disney (note the Mickey heads) and was crazy expensive (thank goodness for friends with cast member discounts), but it goes perfectly with our tree's color palette:

I started with a foundation of shiny glass ornaments in shades of orange, gold, bronze, purple and fuchsia.

Can you tell that's Lily's favorite spot? Still, better on the tree skirt than under it.

Next I added things like those keys, owls, peacock feathers, and gems, which were found on the cheap at stores like Hobby Lobby and Marshalls.

Originally I thought we might use a plasma ball for the topper, but it didn't go very well with our tree lights. So just ignore the one in this picture:

Next we began adding the ornaments we made ourselves, like those copper swirl/springs.

That's also our first hot air balloon prototype back there. It looks a bit nicer now. (More balloon pics coming soon, along with a tutorial.)

The copper springs are some of my favorites; they catch and reflect the light beautifully:

To make them, we stripped thick copper wiring and wrapped it around a broom handle.

I also gave them a quick wipe-down with Tarn-x to bring out the shine:

See the difference?

To keep the shine you can clear-coat your springs with lacquer, but I didn't bother. I'll just polish them again next year.

Oh, and I should mention the tree lights: they're all amber, which I initially thought would look grungy somehow. Not so! The amber glow is warm and simply magical:

I also used a lot of them: 900 lights for our 6.5 foot tree. And because I was trying to hide the wires as much as possible - *and* keep it from obscuring my "snow" - it took me two whole nights to do. Yeah. There's no WAY I'm taking these lights off in January. I told John he'll just have to build me a "Christmas shed" in the backyard, so I can store the tree upright. :D

More of our handmade steampunk touches:

The gears are made of clay, and were punched out with a custom gear cookie cutter John made from roof flashing:

That's rolled out Fimo Soft. By using different sized circles to cut out the centers, we were able to get two or three different styles of gears. The Fimo is flexible, too, like rubber - so there's no risk of it shattering if we drop one.

The clay isn't perfectly smooth, though, and the metallic paint really shows every imperfection. That's great if you age them, because then they look like pitted metal, but for the tree I was hoping to have a porcelain smooth finish. Any advice, crafters? Is there a better clay I should be using?

I also experimented with some tiny vintage glass test tubes I picked up at a junk mart while on tour. I thought I'd try some kind of oil and colored water combination, but then I realized the only oil I had on hand was bright yellow vegetable oil. Um. NO.

So instead, I used corn syrup.

(Yes, it's technically light yellow, but in the tubes it looks clear.)

I transferred the stickiness to the tubes with an eye dropper, and then stirred in large glitter flakes with a metal wire. The syrup is so sticky that the glitter stays suspended; it doesn't sink. (And as a bonus, the air bubbles from stirring the syrup stay, too, which looks pretty nifty.)

Like so:

At this point I got all excited thinking I could mix in tiny watch gears and springs. So I did. And it looked AMAZING. And then they all slooooowly sank to the bottom of the tube. Curses!

The glitter, however, has stayed put. You could use lots more than I did, of course, and mix colors and whatnot. I was just trying to make something that looked like sample metal flakes for a lab experiment. (Yes, I make up back stories for my crafts. Don't you?)

When I was done I used epoxy to seal the cork in place, wrapped some thin brass wire around the top to form a loop, and then adhered that with another dollop of epoxy.

The gold rope garland is cheap tinsel rope from a dollar store, but I like that it's simple and doesn't compete with all the ornaments:

And finally, let's talk about the tree top!

The hot air balloons have been our longest and most difficult on-going project - we still have a few models in the works - so those will get their own post later. They're hung with fishing line from the ceiling by tiny clear thumb tacks, so they really look like they're floating in mid air - and I love them.

The topper itself is a reproduction Edison bulb from Lowe's. John wired it through a short threaded metal rod, which he inserted down the back of the tree. Because the new bulbs are really bright, he also installed a dimmer switch on it.

We had a lot of ideas for things to add to the bulb: big gold wings, a gear halo, a mirrored starburst mounted behind it - but as time was running short we settled for something simple. For now. [wicked grin]

The silver platter cost a whopping $1 at the Dollar Tree, and is attached to the bulb base with an L bracket screwed in place. It looks like an old fashioned picture frame around the bulb, which I kind of like.

The first time John got the bulb in place on the tree, I immediately remarked, "It's like our tree just had an idea." This made John laugh so hard that I've now dubbed it our "idea tree."

Well, I hope that was worth the wait, guys. Thanks for all the encouragement and ideas, and please, keep the ideas coming! I don't think I'll stop tweaking and brainstorming until well *after* Christmas. Especially for the topper; there are just sooo many more possibilities.

Leonard Nimoy is Awesome

Epbot reader "Goldie" sent this message out to Leonard Nimoy (and also Zachary Quinto) on Twitter yesterday:

Now, celebs get a lot of messages on Twitter. A LOT a lot. So imagine my shock when she got this reply less than ten minutes later:

I rest my case: Leonard Nimoy is spectacularly awesome.

(And yes, I might have had a minor geek-splosion seeing my Twitter handle in a tweet from the original Mr. Spock. Or a major geek-splosion. One of the two, anyway. 0.0)

I've already forwarded this on to Rachel, Bryden's mom, and I can't wait to hear both of their reactions. Seriously, this whole situation is one big warm-fuzzy-fest. I love it.

Thank you so much to Goldie and the few others of you who called this to Nimoy's attention; in all honestly, I was just too shy to do it myself. *blushing*

And thank you to everyone who's left a message for Bryden so far. Your comments are encouraging so many of us out here, so please, keep 'em coming!

(In case you missed it, you can read Bryden's story here.)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Three Cheers for Little Girl Spock

When I first shared the story of Katie, the girl who was teased for her Star Wars water bottle, you Epbot readers blew me away with your immediate and resounding tidal wave of support. It remains one of the most inspiring things to have ever happened on this blog.

Well, today is "Wear Star Wars, Share Star Wars" Day - a day Katie and her mom Carrie created for geeks everywhere to wear their scifi or geek t-shirts proudly, and also to donate a geek toy to charity (making it clear that the toy is for either a boy OR a girl). Because this isn't a day just for Star Wars fans; it's for fans of all types.

Which is why today is also the perfect day for me to introduce you to 6-year-old Bryden:

A cupcake shirt and a phaser? I already love this girl.

Actually, I'll let her mom Rachel do it:

"I am a life-long trekkie and just introduced my daughter to the original Star Trek series this summer. She absolutely fell in love with the show, and Mr. Spock in particular. When I asked her what she wanted to be for Halloween, she said Mr. Spock. I responded that we could easily make her a Vulcan costume. She quickly corrected me and said not just any Vulcan...but Mr. Spock.

"So I went to work fashioning a Mr. Spock costume for my 6-year old daughter. Who cares if it's a male character? Who cares if none of the other kids at school will have any clue about who Spock is? She wants to be Mr. Spock and I was super proud.

Cutest Spock ever? I think so-ooo!

"Of course, being Mr. Spock was a bit of a learning experience for my daughter. After a full day at school in her costume, she told me that it was hard to keep explaining who Spock was. Only the teachers had any clue what Star Trek was, and several kids made fun of her for being a character that was a boy. I even overheard one of the teachers saying she looked 'weird' in her costume. That comment nearly brought out the protective lioness in me, but I settled for a sharp glare.

"After the day was done, my daughter seemed to regret her costume choice. I reminded her that she picked the costume because it was a character she liked and that is all that mattered. I also told her that I thought she was super cool and I know there were thousands of people out there that would think she was a super cool kid for picking Mr. Spock as her Halloween costume.

("You can tell it was a rough away mission since her wig has shifted a bit - lol.)

"I just wanted to share my pics with someone who would appreciate them. It's tough being a girly geek when your regular friends don't appreciate things the same way you do. Thanks for writing Epbot, it makes me feel not so alone in my interests."


It's e-mails like this that make me so stinkin' proud to know all of you. I hear pretty often that I help make being a geek girl seem perfectly "normal," as if it's nothing to think twice about or have to defend - and that's because it is. However, sadly, there are people out there who still haven't gotten the memo.

Look, I'm an optimist. I prefer to dwell on the positive rather than the negative. Stories like Katie's and Bryden's inspire me, because the next generation [smirk] is expressing themselves in ways I never did at their age. They know what they love, and they want to share those things. That, my friends, is AWESOME.

Now, could we gripe about the judgmental teacher and insensitive classmates? Sure. We could write long articles about bullying, and decry the cruelty of childhood, etc., etc - and certainly those things have their place.

Or...We could drown out the negative with a rushing tidal wave of positive. We could make Bryden our Hero of the Week. We could share her picture with all the other little girls we know. We could tell our friends about her, and remember her example any time we're tempted to feel embarrassed about the things we love.

And most importantly? We can tell Bryden that her costume wasn't "weird," it was amazing. We can show her that she just earned herself her own personal fan club. We can share our own stories of costumes and passions and reassure her that she's not alone, because we geeks - girls and guys alike - we stick together.

Here, I'll start:

Bryden, you rock. Your costume rocks. And, speaking as a life-long Trekker, I would be proud to call you my friend. I hope to bump into you at a convention someday, but 'til then: live long and prosper! (And please tell your mom she's awesome, too.)

Ok, guys: your turn.