Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Backyard mechanics

In a mechanic shop full of workbenches and hoists, Leonardo Moratti is working on his car. He pulls out a series of four iron pipes, joined at one end by a block of metal; it’s an intake manifold of a Toyota engine.

“Even as a child I had an interest in cars, and as I got older this interest grew,” he said.

Moratti is a student of the Motive Power Technician program at Centennial College’s Ashtonbee campus in Toronto. The program offers theoretical and practical training in car repairs.

He said this program helped expand his knowledge of car repairs. If there is a malfunction he can fix, he doesn’t hesitate.

“For example with this intake manifold, I know there are a few gaskets leaking. That’s something I know I can fix on my own,” he said. “If I took it to the mechanic it would probably cost $400 for the labour alone.”

He added that everyone should have some basic knowledge of car repairs.

“A lot of people get a basic kit, like a tire jack, but when there is a breakdown they don’t know what to do,” Moratti explained. “One time a friend of mine was replacing his tire, but didn’t know to place the jack under the frame. Why get the tool if you’re not going to learn how to use it?”

Dave Samalea is the co-ordinator for the Automotive and Motorcycle program at Centennial College and has been a licensed automotive technician for 31 years.

Samalea said technological advances are make it difficult even for experienced technicians who want to work on their own cars.

“You can’t do repairs anymore without the specialized equipment,” he said. “I can’t do repairs on my own car at home because I don’t have the electronic gadgets I need for diagnostics.”

Don Given is removing a tire from a car sitting atop a hoist lifted about 4 feet from the ground. Given enrolled in the Motive Power Technician program to save money on car repairs. He said before taking this program he made a few costly mistakes while fixing his car.

“It’s really important to have the right tools. It’s difficult to do this without the right tools,” Given said. “I found that out the hard way, I blew out a couple of spark plugs and started having problems with the engine.”

He said when there is a problem with his car he always wants to poke at it.

“When my brake pads wear out, I replace it myself. That’s something mechanical I can see it and feel it on my own,” he explained.

Given said a lot of DIY mechanics are so keen to save money, they’ll dive into the maintenance without any thought.

“Like with the spark plugs I blew, I tightened them with a tool that was a fraction of an inch too big,” he said. “I was looking to save a few bucks, but I ended up paying a
lot more. Having the right size tool and a little patience is crucial when you’re fixing a car.”

Like Given, Moratti works on his car to save money, but he said the most satisfying feeling for him is a job well done.

“For me there is a sense of accomplishment when you diagnose a problem and fix it,” Moratti said. “You say to yourself, ‘I did this and I did it on my own.’”

Monday, December 13, 2010

DIY Filmmakers making their mark

A bunch of people crowd into a suburban, two-car garage. A circle forms around two shirtless combatants as they begin to trade blows.
The crowd urges them on, as the fitter of the fighters comically pounds on the the other one, who is only looking to make some money – by any means he can.
This is not a scene from an underground fight club. It’s a film sequence created by do-it-yourself filmmaker Aaron Manczyk.


Truth be known, Manczyk’s love for filmmaking was nearly stifled. In 2007, while attending the Ontario College of Art & Design in Toronto, Manczyk, now 24, clashed with his teachers in film class. He says that his teacher would reject his ideas.
Frustrated by the lack of creative freedom that school afforded, he decided to strike out on his own. Manczyk began shooting his first feature length film, My Awesome Movie, on a rather limited budget.
“It cost me $30,” he said. “Anybody who says you need money to make a film is a liar and is lazy.”
Working with Zak Tatham and Efehan Elbi in a troupe known as “Family Contact,” Manczyk acknowledges his partner’s creative help, and the fact they provided equipment. “It did cost more money, but that’s stuff that would have been bought anyways,” he said. “If someone wants to make a movie, I think in this day and age, if they don’t have a camera, they know somebody who has a camera.”
The cost of filmmaking technology has plummeted in the past decade. Cameras are relatively cheap. Computers are everywhere and editing software is priced for consumers.
Norman Wilner, a film critic for Toronto’s NOW Magazine, notes that increased access has benefits and drawbacks.
“All you really need now is a decent camcorder and a laptop and you can make a movie,” Wilner said. “And because of the way digital cinema has proliferated in the last couple of ears, you can get that movie screened at a film festival.”
While Wilner generally sees this as a good thing, he’s seen his share of DIY productions that go awfully wrong. Still, he enjoys the simplicity of the DIY film world.
“There are days I’ve come away really energized from something like, two people just walking around Brooklyn (Aaron Katz’ Quiet City).”


Bert McKinley embraces that simplicity.
Even at age 22, he has long been interested in documentary films, so that’s what he submitted as a final project at Ryerson University. His proposal was one of 17 chosen by faculty out of around 170 submissions.
McKinley’s series, The Human Project, stands out for tackling non-traditional subject matter, most notably jarring tales of people who have discovered dead bodies.
“I’ve always kind of been interested in mundane things… or I guess relatable stories,” McKinley said. “In the documentary world at least, I’m not crazy for seeing social justice kind of things, or environmental, which overall tends to be most what’s released.”
McKinley’s film project came in with a higher price tag than Manczyk’s, about $2200, but that included the purchase of new equipment. And like Wilner, McKinley says that there is, in fact, an audience for these films.
“We made it a web series to put up for free on the Internet, and we’ve gotten so much response from people.”
It’s proof that DIY filmmakers don’t need major financial backing to be seen, though it can be tempting.
Manczyk recalls a story where an acquaintance offered Family Contact a five-figure sum to turn one of their shorts into a feature.
“Within a couple times of talking to him, he already had ideas that he wanted – which is fine, but as soon as you start getting... Other people’s money involved, you end up having to sacrifice a lot,” Manczyk said.
While dreaming of making it big, however, creative freedom will suffice.
“Anybody who does it part-time, you kind of want it to evolve somewhere farther, so it can become your predominant thing,” he said. “At the same time, that shouldn’t be the only reason you’re doing it.”

Web Extra: DIY Filmmaking

Here are some clips from the filmmakers featured in the DIY Film story.

Aaron Manczyk of Family Contact's
My Awesome Movie (trailer):

Trailer for Bert McKinley's The Human Project:

Backyard takeover

Tucked among lawns in Toronto's west end, the gardens grow.

Rows of flowers bring colour, scent and nature to Roncesvalles and High Park areas – And
Sarah Nixon is responsible.

Nixon is a 'do-it-yourselfer' in the truest sense of the word: she 'does it herself' so that
others don't have to. Nixon uses front and backyards in her neighbourhood to grow flowers, which she sells to customers.

“When I started doing this 9 years ago, I'd never heard of anyone doing the same thing. It
struck me as an obvious use of space... All these lawns, and empty gardens,” she said.

Obvious or not, she's spun her passion for plants and gardening into a full-time business,
called My Luscious Backyard. The deal works out well for both parties:The homeowners get a
beautiful yard, and Nixon gets to use their space.


Over the past decade, many others have had similar ideas as Nixon, sparking a growing
movement dubbed urban agriculture.

“Suddenly people are really getting on board with... trying to use all the available land in
the city,” Nixon said. “Especially with food; There's a couple of other people doing flowers now,
but mostly a lot of it's going on with food.”

Nixon's idea fits well with a growing public interest in making resourceful use of urban
land, according to Marjorie Harris, an author of numerous gardening books.

“There's so much space in this city where there are no gardens. They are lawns and a tree
stuck in the middle,” Harris said. “I think that really gets to people when they see this land as
essentially not being habitat.”

“It's one of those movements that is quietly trendy... There are all sorts of places throughout
Toronto where people are taking little empty spaces and doing things with them.”


While the success of Nixon's business mirrors the trend, she came about the idea on her
own. After moving to Toronto in the early part of the decade, Nixon found herself with her first

“I started growing lots and lots of flowers,” she said. Soon, she had more flowers than she
knew what to do with. She began giving them away to friends, and decided to try and recoup some of her investment at local farmer's markets.

“I started asking friends in the neighbourhood if I could use their backyards that they
weren't really using – if I could use their space and plant a flower garden there which they could

Nixon found that the farmer's markets weren't very lucrative, but still wanted to explore the
idea of selling her flowers as a means of income. She opened a website, and soon her passion
progressed into a full-time living.

Ruth Schneider used Nixon's services for the first time this year after hearing about her
from a neighbour, and a local newspaper article.

“I just thought the concept was really an interesting one, and very sort of ethical and useful
one,” she said. “And the fact that I didn't want to garden my front yard anymore – I wanted
somebody else to do it, and this was really a great solution.”

Nixon said she's mostly self-taught, though she's had help along the way.

“I grew up in a house of very enthusiastic gardeners,” she said. She gained further
experience on organic farms for a couple of summers during her university years, and worked
various jobs until her business started to take off.

And in do-it-yourself fashion, Nixon is the only full-time employee.

“My partner helps me sometimes, and his sister also lives with us, so I hire her to help with
weddings and larger events like that," she said.

It's all worked out pretty well for Nixon.

“It grew out of what I love to do. If I wasn't doing this business, I'd still be all over it,” she
said. “It's just kind of a bonus that it's what I get paid for now.”

Keeping the zine spirit alive

On a chilly October night, three people huddle around a table in Toronto.
As they casually discuss page layout, it seems as if they could be assembling a newspaper, or a glossy magazine, maybe even a plain-text newsletter.
Except that there are no computers in the room. Instead, resting upon the centre table are the tools of their trade: Scissors, glue, and various types of paper.
It only makes sense that Patrick Mooney is at the table – he's just the kind of guy who does things himself. A lifelong Toronto native, Mooney is a co-founder of the Toronto Zine Library (TZL), one of the largest collection of zines in the city.
“I always thought they were cool,” he said. “I thought libraries should have zines, but they don't really take them seriously. So it was like, I guess we'll have to do it ourselves.”
Housed in the second story of the TRANZAC building near Bloor and Brunswick, the staff at the Zine Library on this night is working its own, self-titled zine, which provides information and upcoming events at the library.
For the uninitiated, zines are independent publications, usually the work of a single author. Self-publishing may not be the easy way, but for 'zinesters,' it's their way.
The personal nature of zines reflects the specific mindset of their authors, according to Harley Paegot, who has published about a dozen zines in the past 2 years.
“If you go to a zine fair, you'll find lots of zines about being queer, being vegan, being indie or whatever,” Paegot said. “The idea is, 'Because I'm not being represented in the mainstream magazines, newspapers or on TV... I want to find like-minded people.'”
Paegot says that the creative freedom inherent in zines helps to balance some of the work involved in putting them together independently.
“There's just the freedom of not having an editor breathing down your neck,” he said. “So even if you're just writing a poetry zine... you can put out what you want to put out, without having to worry about criticism or somebody saying, no, you should tweak that or you should change that.”
The DIY mindset of zine-makers is not lost on TZL volunteer staffer, Chris Landry.
“Zines have a kind of ethics to them,” Landry said. “They have a sort of rebellious spirit.”
Landry believes zine culture exists as a bastion for the marginalized, pointing to the way that many authors use them to work through their personal issues.
“It seems like people use zines for really specific, topical things,” he said. “People who can't really share these things in public life... It gives people a chance to sort of reach out without having to deal with social stigma.”
Zines provide an outlet, if not a living. In fact, there's little, if any money to be made, according to Mooney.
“Basically all of the funding for this (library) comes from either our own pockets, or people buying memberships. We'll do some fundraising from time to time,” he said. “It's the kind of thing where it's not commercially viable.”
Paegot, whose zine Yard Sale contains personal reflections, writing, music reviews and interviews, points to the cost of production as one of the biggest challenges for zinesters trying to make it on their own.
“It's very rare that you make any money from zines,” he said. “My goal was just to break even, which was a struggle in itself.”
For someone desperate to share their thoughts with the world, a more financially sensible option might be to open a website or a blog. But for Paegot, a former blogger, the shift to zines provided a personal, tangible connection that the online environment couldn’t match.
“If I'm going to invest all this time into putting something out there about myself, I like when I'm done to have something physical in my hand,” he said.
“I have a stack of these little booklets that I can show people and hand to people, and that people can put on a bookshelf and have for years.”
For that reason, Paegot believes zine culture is likely to live on in some form or another.
“There will always be a certain target audience who wants something tangible, something physical in their hands, and there's always going to be a niche for that,” he said.
Mooney echoes that notion, saying that zinesters will continue to do-it-themselves, regardless of how niche it may become.
“We did a (workshop) at a high school once, and I don't think anybody knew what a zine was. But there's always going to be the five kids in the high school who know what zines are,” Mooney said with a laugh.
“They just weren't in that class.”

Bottle your own wine

In a small kitchen at the back of her shop, Esther Ciciarelli is preparing a customer’s order. She opens up a small cardboard box and takes out a clear plastic bag containing a dense red liquid of grape concentrate and pours it into a white pail.

“This is Chilean Merlot,” she said. Knowledgeable of wine making, Ciciarelli and her brothers bought into a Wine Kitz franchise seven years ago. They have been running and operating the business at their 429 Wilson Ave. location since.

They spent their childhood watching their father make the wine.

“It’s been a part of our culture ever since we were kids. My dad would make wine straight from the grapes,” Ciciarelli said.

Each batch she makes is about 23 litres. For the Merlot she adds about 90 grams of oak chips.

“The majority of red wine has oak chips which really complements the aroma and flavour of the wine,” she said.

Oak chips can be added anytime before bottling the wine, but Ciciarelli recommends adding them during fermentation.

“The longer the chips are integrated, the more character it will give your drink,” she added.

For 17 years Charles Fajgenbaum helped wine lovers enjoy the winemaking experience.

Fajgenbaum, 52, owns and operates Fermentations, which sells winemaking products. That’s not where his DIY career in spirit began, however. He recalls the first drink he made was beer.

“I was 16-years old when I made my first batch at home and it drove my parents crazy. My mother wondered what the heck I (was) doing.” he said.

The process of making the wine provide the initial motivation for making the beverage.

“I’ve always been a bit of a science geek and...I looked at it as a science process not an art process,” he added.

Fajgenbaum worked in the sales and marketing department for a pharmaceutical company, and prior to opening Fermentations winemaking was only a hobby. Enjoying a great glass of wine was Fajgenbaum’s inspiration for starting his own business.

“Everybody (the winemaking industry) was trying to make things as cheap as possible not as good as possible,” he explained.

One technique he uses is adding fresh grape juice rather than concentrate. “By the time you transform the heck out of something it’s been so transformed from what it’s supposed to be,” he explained.

Although the majority of their customers place an order, Ciciarelli said they still have a few customers who buy a batch of wine to make at home, and do so for economic reasons.

“When you buy a bottle of wine from the LCBO, 59 per cent tax is incorporated in the bottle you’re buying,” she said.

Keith Nickleson, a teacher, has been making homemade wine for 15 years, and credits this to the savings he gets.

“When I make my own bottle at home the whole thing only costs about $4,” Nickleson said.

For some people winemaking is not only a passion, but also a family tradition.

Al Toste watched his parents make wine. He said that his favourite part of the experience is the fermentation.

“The fermentation releases the smell of the wine and the aroma of it, and to me that’s a good experience,” Toste said. “That’s when you know you’ve made a good wine.”

Like Toste, Fajgenbaum enjoys the process, but said the most rewarding part for him is when he actually tastes the finished product.

“I know people who are cabinet makers, and after all the nailing and sawing is done, you know the piece of furniture is complete,” Fajgenbaum said.

“It’s the same thing with wine you have to enjoy the process, but it’s nice to know you also have a great end result.”

Retailers Cashing in on the Growing DIY Culture

Pat Higgins sees a trend in the retail market. Consumers tackling home and garden improvement projects on their own seek help from do-it-yourself-friendly stores.

“We’ve seen big increases in the garden business. People are decorating and doing their own landscaping,” Higgins said. “That’s the biggest shift in DIY I’ve seen.”

Doing home renovations oneself goes further than saving a buck or two. What used to be a hobby has become a way of living. Retailers have DIYers on their radar. They’re looking to cash in on the movement, supporting its growth by passing knowledge and advice to keep eager customers.

For 35 years Higgins has worked in retail. The last 13 years he’s owned and operated a Canadian Tire store in Uxbridge, Ont. He’s noticed a major shift in the DIY culture since the market crash in 2007.

“When it comes to home repair, there’s no doubt that as times get tough, people want to tackle these projects because it’s more affordable,” he said.

Adding to the DIY motivation, Higgins said tool manufacturers are shifting their production lines. They’re pushing for more ergonomic, user-friendly rakes, shovels and cordless power tools.

“We’re seeing a lot of expanded lines, which apply to DIY. It’s a move towards ergonomic,” Higgins said. “It’s all designed for the person doing it themselves.”

With the right tools in hand, consumers are tossing out the phonebook and heading into building materials suppliers themselves.

For 33 years, Doug Plourde, owner of Danforth Lumber Company has seen more DIYers coming to his lumber yard save a money.

“In 2007 we’d get about 70 per cent contractors and 30 per cent DIYers,” Plourde said. “Now we see it at about 60/40. People are handier and have more time to do things themselves.”

Plourde said the Internet is a massive teaching tool. He knows when people have a question and are curious they’ll consult the web.

President of Sheridan Nurseries Karl Stensson said “keeping things simple” is key to get customers crashing the shop’s doors and pursuing the next DIY project.

Stensson said his store offers DIYers three levels of interaction: free in-store advice, appointments for smaller project designs, or a home visit design for complex jobs. He said Sheridan takes pride delivering the know-how and confidence to the DIYer so they know exactly what to do and what to expect.

“The first and biggest mistake is not following a design,” Stensson said. “Once you make that mistake, you’re perpetuating (problems) all the way down the line.”

A major retailer for 97 years, Stensson said his company’s philosophy focuses putting power in the hands of the consumer. Like Plourde, Stensson believes technology and the Internet are a perfect landscape to teach handy work.

“We’re doing YouTube videos on how to treat your lawn. Our garden guide has now expanded to 160 pages and the first 30 pages are all questions and answers about home gardening,” Stensson said.

Building material and home improvement retailers appear to be adapting to changing consumer trends. Retailers have a vested interest in the success of their customers. Customer feedback will continue to drive the home improvement industry.

“We’re a DIY store that in itself solidifies the transfer to a DIY consumer and the DIY environment,” Higgins said.