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Marni Jameson offers tips for avoiding do-it-yourself disasters

mjameson@tribune.comOctober 17, 2013 

“I can do that!” Who hasn’t lived to regret those words?

Those four little turbo-charged words have led many well-intentioned do-it-yourself home improvers right off catastrophe cliff.

We start off emboldened by a deceivingly simple tease on Pinterest or in Martha Stewart Living magazine. “It’s easy,” the copy alongside the craft project promises! We forge ahead and wind up creating an eyesore not fit for a back-alley Dumpster.

If this sounds familiar, CraftFail.com will make you feel a lot better.

It did me, although I’m still not over the time I tried to make an upholstered headboard and wound up with a lumpy, lopsided slab covered in striped fabric whose lines came out as crooked as a dog’s hind legs.

The headboard was just the kind of fail that is celebrated by Heather Mann, who launched CraftFail.

Mann, of Portland, Ore., actually knows what she’s doing. Her crafts have appeared in Martha Stewart’s magazine and the New York Times, and she posts her craft successes on her other website, dollarstorecrafts.com. But she fails, too. And blogs about it.

“Why?” I asked her.

“I wanted to create a website about how much failure really means to me.”

This was one of those moments in a journalism when I knew I was about to learn something.

“I love to make things,” she continued, “but I don’t always have a perfect result.” As proof, she emailed me a picture of a Batman hat she had sewn for her then 5-year-old son. The eye holes hit perfectly across the center of his forehead. (Whoops!)

“My failed projects used to go in the trash and that was the end,” she said. Then two years ago a thought struck her like a knitting needle: “Wouldn’t it be funny and helpful if I started posting projects that didn’t go so well?”

Hence … CraftFail, a blog about good ideas gone bad that makes DIYers feel not so stupid or alone.

“I needed your site last year when I used a precision exacto knife to cut cardboard for a project and sliced right into the good dining room table!”

A recent post from Michelle Lichter, of Los Angeles, captures the woman’s attempt to paint an antique white paisley stencil pattern on a burgundy patio umbrella. The umbrella turned out looking as if it were a roost to a dozen pigeons with diarrhea. Worse, the paint seeped through the drop cloths and stained her porous patio pavers.

I love this woman.

Another post features a DIYer’s effort to paint clear glass ornaments. The inspiration picture looks lovely, of course, but the crafter’s rendition is a drippy green mess of non-adherent paint.

“One of the greatest tools we have is failure,” said Mann, a self-proclaimed failure enthusiast. “When we succeed on our first try we don’t really give much thought to why we succeeded. But when we fail, we get all this valuable information about why things don’t work. If you’re innovating, you can’t get every step right.”

Indeed. Occasionally something even better comes of the mishap. Failure, for instance, brought us Slinky toys, penicillin, potato chips, the microwave, and Post-it notes, all products that emerged when the inventors’ original intentions went awry.

“The expectation is the picture on Pinterest,” said Mann. “The reality is you need more practice. Remember, Martha Stewart has a team of 20 stylists designing products and perfecting them. We’re not seeing the first drafts. You can’t measure your first try against a team working at the height of talent and capability.”

“It’s like so much in life,” I said, “the lower your expectations, the happier you are.”

Nonetheless, here are some ways Mann says we can dodge DIY disasters:

Do a trial run. When trying something new, rehearse before you go live. Do a test run on a small area or make a sample before the final run.

Don’t wing it. Sketch out the whole project before you start so you can visually see where you’re going and avoid heartache. If the craft requires a new skill, like using a saw, have someone who has experience using the tool show you how.

Stock up. While the project is in planning, carefully calculate (don’t guess) how much material – fabric, tile, paint, wood, whatever – you will need, then get a little more.

Learn to be a pessimist. Instead of approaching a project like an optimist, behave as if things will go wrong, says Mann. “Imagine the worst case scenario and trouble-shoot before you start.”

Do a gone-wrong Google. In addition to looking online at gorgeous examples of DIY drapes or outdoor decks, Google drape (or deck) projects gone wrong. “Look for the ugly underbelly, so you know what could happen and what to avoid,” she says. “Especially if you tend to have a romantic view.”

And if you still mess up, well, celebrate the fail.

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