Busting Open an iPod Touch

Cracked screen next to new screen. Yes, this iPod is loaded with Art Bell episodes because I’m crazy.

I now know what the inside of an Apple iPod Touch 5th Generation looks like and I can’t get it out of my mind. Consider the feeling a mixture of demystification and empowerment, the sense that it’s within our power to take control of these tools that too often control us.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon repairing Kelly’s iPod Touch that’s been banging about a junk drawer for years since she broke the screen. I’ve found old Apple iPods and iPhones useful as mp3 players. In my shop there’s a iPhone 3 a neighbor gave me that, while it no longer functions as a phone, still works perfectly well as a jukebox and clock. While I have plans to use the iPod Touch as another mp3 player I was, frankly, more interested in just seeing how it works, what the inside looks like and gauging how practical it is to repair these devices.

I went to the iFixit website, reviewed the lengthy instructions, and bought their and tool kit and iPod screen replacement. While I like iFixit and have used the site in the past, I found their instructions for this particular device inadequate. The instructions showed how to take the iPod apart but not how to install the new screen. The instructions said to simply “reverse the steps” but it’s not as simple as that. In addition they suggested the unnecessary step of removing the battery. Thankfully, I found a detailed YouTube video from iCracked, a phone repair company which, as far as I can tell, doesn’t exist anymore.

I lost track of time doing the repair. It took hours of intense concentration and was one of the most tedious things I’ve ever done. While I had plans to document the repair, there was no way I could break my concentration to stop and take pictures. A lighted magnifier I found in the street was a necessarily tool as some of the parts bordered on microscopic. As usual with modern electronics, the hardest part is opening and closing the case. These devices just aren’t made for easy repair. Lately, Apple even made DIY or third party iPhone 12 repair impossible. Try to replace the logic board or battery on an iPhone 12 yourself and it won’t work unless you take it in to Apple.

To test the iPod I took a selfie. The look of worry and exasperation is real.

Apple’s minimalist design aesthetic, while making devices that are visually appealing, gets in the way of their use and function. This iPod is so sleek and slim that it just wants to slide out of your hand and break, which is how I came to this repair, of course. The funny thing is that in order to keep the thing from getting broken you have to buy a third party case. From a design perspective (not a capitalist one, of course) it would make more sense if this device had it’s own protective case incorporated into the design, which would also allow for a more repairable and spacious interior. The slim design, presumably so you don’t have an unsightly bulge in your Prada, means that the inside of these things are a tight packed tangle of tiny connectors and microscopic screws (in four different sizes, by the way).

While my iPod repair was difficult, at least now I know what’s involved and have a better feeling for how to open and close the case. Like any other skill, electronics repair takes practice. I’m thinking that the next time I have to throw out an unrepairable electronic device, that I should take it apart first to see how it works. I have a broken iPad mini and iPhone battery replacement up next on the repair bench.

It must be a special kind of hell to work on an electronics assembly line. Snapping in the tiny connectors, tightening those microscopic screws, and inhaling adhesive fumes is no way to live or work. An NYU student, Dejian Zeng, went undercover on an iPhone assembly line a few years ago and documented his life. His task was to screw in one of those infernal microscopic screws 1,800 times during a 12 hour shift. He was not allowed to listen to music or even talk with fellow workers while his bosses constantly asked him to go faster. The rest of the day he spent in a dorm room with seven other workers. I find myself thinking more and more about William Morris’ linking of the well being of workers with the environment and aesthetics. All are interconnected, and I’m thankful I don’t have to spend my days doing nothing but tapping in tiny screws while Apple executives get rich.

But back to my iPod repair–the bottom line is that, in the case of these small Apple devices, you can fix them yourself. My suggestion is thoroughly reading directions and watching multiple YouTube device breakdown videos. There’s also not one right way to do it. The best DIY repair sources go into detail on how to open and close the devices, which is, in my opinion the hardest part. If you get stuck I’d suggest stopping and sleeping on the problem. This is how I finally got the iPod closed.

Cracking open and understanding these objects could help us all demystify their control over our lives. One of the side effects of the pandemic will be, I believe, even more addictive and invasive technology. What if we were, collectively, to figure out a way to gain control over these things? To make them tools rather than becoming tools of the tools? In the coming years we must crack, hack, split open and reprogram our tools so that they serve us.

Special thanks to friend of the blog Michael W. who offered to help me with Linux and got me thinking about spending more time making these electronic tools work for me rather than me working for them. Micheal also tipped me off to a great post from Low Tech Magazine “How and why I stopped buying new laptops.”

100 Years

This year marks the 100th birthday of our house, or at least the centenary of when the first resident moved in as I think the house was under construction in 1919. I suspect it was a kit house produced by the Pacific Ready Cut Company. There’s a nearly identical house a block down the street.

The construction of our house took place at the tail end of the last bad pandemic. Apparently, LA city officials did a much better job 100 years ago dealing with the Spanish Flu. Our house’s birthday is overshadowed by the Fyre Festival that was 2020.

To commemorate our 100 year old bungalow I thought I’d post a few pictures I took this morning without tidying up for the photos. The one above shows the room I do most of my reading and pontificating in. There’s usually an unsightly pile of books next to my throne.

We’ve populated the house with a mix of furniture I built and a few antiques in the arts and crafts style. The original inhabitants of this house would have, more likely, had furniture that looks like this:

Our old house requires constant, daily maintenance. Something is always busted, wonky or dusty. As I run about fixing stuff I think of the ancient Greek philosophical conundrum of the ship of Theseus. The story goes that a ship leaves port and, in the course of the journey, the ship’s carpenter replaces every single board. The ontological question posed: is the ship the same ship that left port?

In the case of our house it’s mostly the same ship since the previous residents, thankfully, never did any misguided remodeling (nor did they do any needed maintenance). Nevertheless, our bathroom is a Disneyesque fiction. We gutted, retiled and switched out the cheap 80s fixtures. Essentially we put the room back to the way it was in 1920. Out went the cheap and shoddy shower and in went a clawfoot tub and shower curtain. The salespeople at the plumbing supply store thought we were crazy to do this. They were wrong. It’s fine.

Egyptian Court Apartments, San Diego.

Kelly and I have been living in 1920s buildings since we met in San Diego in the early 1990s. Our first apartment was in a spectacular, if rough around the edges, bungalow court with an Egyptian theme. While the outside was styled like something out of a Boris Karloff mummy movie, the inside looked exactly like what our house looks like now.

There’s a few things I’ve learned living in 20s buildings over the past 30 years:

  • People had less junk.
  • The 20s was cottagecore before #cottagecore
  • Other than the still working phone ringer box in our hallway there were no consumer electronics. Radios stations start popping up around 1921.
  • People in the 20s, because of previous public health issues including the aforementioned flu pandemic, liked clean tiled, somewhat hospital-like kitchens and bathrooms.
  • Double hung windows with weights and cloth cords are easy to maintain and can last for a hundred years. You can make them less drafty but that’s a project I haven’t gotten around to yet.
  • Electricity, a telephone, indoor plumbing and a two car garage must have seemed futuristic in 1920.
  • There’s a distinctive, musty-dusty 1920s building smell. I want it as a cologne.

Between our church, Sunset Boulevard’s commercial buildings, the Central Library and our local movie theater (another King Tut themed building), in the before-pandemic times it was possible for me to spend a whole day in pre-WWII buildings. I have to be honest and say that I prefer pre-WII vernacular buildings to more recent architecture. And I’d say that it’s well past time to bring back the King Tut architecture thing.

Kelly and I are very lucky to own a house in this very expensive city. Many people are facing eviction and homelessness due to the pandemic that has only worsened the housing crisis in LA. This holiday seasons let’s use this crisis to do something for those who don’t have a roof over their heads.

Enzo Mari’s Autoprogettazione

Thanks to friend of the blog Mosscarpet for a tip on another modernist DIY manual, by the Italian artist and furniture designer Enzo Mari. Following in the footsteps of William Morris, Mari’s Marxist design philosophy is both liberatory and egalitarian. Unlike Morris, Mari embraces the materials of industrial culture, 2x4s and nails, to offer designs that anyone can make without specialized training. Comrades can download Mari’s 1974 manual Autoprogettazione (roughly translatable as “self design”).

The goal of Autoprogettazione is not to just offer measured drawings, rather it’s a manual to teach a vocabulary you can use to design and build your own furniture. Mari says,

Therefore the way should be to involve the user of a consumer item in the design and realization of the item designed. Only by actually touching the diverse contradictions of the job is it possible to start to be free from . . . deeply rooted conditioning.

It’s no easy feat to make attractive furniture from 2x4s and nails but, especially with his tables, Mari succeeds, in my opinion. Some clever folks have even, in a subversive judo move, made Enzo Mari pieces with Ikea furniture parts.

The 1918 flu epidemic claimed the lives of many creative people including Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt. I’m sorry to report that we lost Mari to Covid-19 in October.

Thanks again to Mosscarpet–I’ve already used some of Mari’s ideas to design a roof for our adobe oven.

I Built a Set of Gerritt Rietveld Crate Chairs and So Can You

Dutch avant-garde architect Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964) was a hands-on furniture designer and builder. He invented Ikea before Ikea did.

His proto-Ikea crate wood set (1934) was sold finished, as a kit and as plans—truly democratic furniture that even a kid could build with a modest amount of tools and dimensional lumber from the big box store.

I made a set of Rietveld’s crate chairs and a crate table for our backyard. The crate chair is a nod to the Morris chair. It’s low slung, kind of like a beach chair (there’s also a taller version). While simple, the chair’s design shows an architect’s appreciation of how planes intersect and how to make those connections visually interesting. I’ve built reproductions of furniture designed both by architects and furniture makers. While I was building the chair I could tell that it was the product of someone who appreciated both good design and the practical details of furniture construction. It’s also more comfortable than it looks and the original had cushions which I might also make.

Associated with the DeStil movement, Rietveld’s furniture work ranges from the practical to the sculptural. He’s probably best known for the red/black chair.

Some of Rietveld’s furniture work is meant to be seen more than used. This chair was originally part of a Jeweler’s shop in The Hague but might also make an eye catching hallway chair.

If you’d like to make your own crate chairs or any of Rietveld’s other furniture, there’s a terrific bilingual Dutch/English how to book, How to Construct Rietveld Furniture/Rietveld Meubels om zelf te maken with complete plans for most of his furniture designs. The crate furniture, consisting of chairs, tables, desks and a bookshelf, can be made with a few hand tools. The rest of the projects in this book would require a table saw and varying levels of skill. The book contains measured drawings for all the projects and tips on how Rietveld did the joinery as well as colors and finishes. If I had a modernist house or office I’d go crazy and make everything in this book.

Pro tip: learn even a modest amount of carpentry skills and you can have furniture by famous designers in your house for the price of the materials.

A Grand Rapids End Table

Every woodworking project I tackle seems to come along with a lesson learned through making a mistake. A previous project taught me that I should take more time deciding what to make. As a woodworker, since you can make whatever you want, you might as well make something interesting and custom sized for a particular spot in your house.

With this end table I took my time looking for the perfect piece to reproduce. While the Arts and Crafts thing is way out of style, I don’t care. For whatever reason I just happen to like this period.

In the early analysis paralysis phase of the project, I made up an end table Pinterest board and set about searching for end tables made between the years 1900 and 1910. I picked this one because of that unusual door. Auction catalogs are handy since they often include measurements and multiple views.

This small table was made by a large factory operation, the Grand Rapids Furniture Company in 1910. I was unable to find any information about it. A lot of furniture designers and makers at that time were German immigrants living in the Upper Midwest. The region had a lot of German language newspapers that featured art and design trends from the Continent. To my eyes this table looks like a mishmash of a Continental European Art Nouveau and an American Mission style. But this is just a guess.

To turn a photo off the internet into plans I use the free version of Sketchup. Sketchup has a handy photo tracing feature that adjusts for perspective. I used this tool to get a rough idea of the dimensions of all the parts of the project. From this tracing, I took some guesses and came up with a full set of plans.

I used those plans to make full sized template pieces to cut and shape the curved parts. These templates, cut from scrap pieces of plywood, are stuck to the white oak I used for the nightstand with double sided tape and run against a pattern bit in a router table to shape the final pieces. I’m holding on to the templates in case I want to make another one of these tables.

While I’m not great at drawing (I’ve worked on and off on this skill) being able to compare proportions between a photo and a drawing helped immensely. Tiny adjustments to a curve, in particular, make a big difference as to whether something looks right or looks bad. Those adjustments are made to the templates rather than the (expensive) hardwood.

If there was one lesson from this project it’s that if you have a choice between doing a particular task with a hand tool or a power tool you should probably choose the hand tool. Hand tools are safer, more accurate and, in the case of this project less likely to cause a mistake that’s hard to correct. I won’t bore you with the details but from now on I’m going to use a plane instead of a router when I can. Though, in a funny paradox, one of the tasks that I wanted to do with a hand tool had to be done with a router because of the order in which I glued the project together. While I made a mistake with a router (my least favorite power tool), in the end, a router saved the day. The original was probably made mostly with power tools, incidentally.

And I’m not entirely happy with the clear finish. The piece will darken with age, but I think it might look better in a tinted and darker finish. Finishing is an art unto itself and you could devote a lifetime to it.