Origin of a Brand - Back7 and Learning from Jimmy Diresta
Learning in the YouTube and Instagram age
Origin stories are funny things. When you find yourself at the origin point of an idea, it’s not something you’ve usually anticipated. I remember two years ago finding out about Jimmy Diresta’s axe making class, and I jumped on the opportunity before I really knew many details. That class was taught by Tracey Cheuvront and focused on the woodworking aspects of an axe handle. His expertise was amazing, but I was swimming the whole week. I’m comfortable around shop tools, but had never done any metalworking. Jimmy handled that part of the class, with Taylor leading up the leather working side. It was an amazing experience for sure.
Last year I went to my second class at Jimmy Diresta’s farmhouse with no preset expectations, eager to see what I’d uncover. By the time I left a few days later, I took away key lessons beyond the class subject.
The class format for my second class was much like my first back in 2017. Jimmy deftly blends his skill and pragmatism with a course instructor, creating truly unique experience. He does a great job of bringing in a team and then finding the perfect balance of involvement. In 2018 it was Rory May as the instructor, teaching a blacksmith course. As someone who works in corporate IT, my day job coworkers often looked amused or puzzled when I told them that I’d be taking a blacksmith class. They more expected a class in robotics or programming, but blacksmith was exactly what I wanted- something well outside my comfort zone.
After driving from the airport with Tyler Bell, the class started on a Friday afternoon, and once most everyone was there we just jumped right in- no showboating or grandstanding, and as you can see- Cory was front and center demonstrating what he was asking us to do. Jimmy was never far away, keeping things going, and often helping people get “unstuck”.
Jimmy has a great sense for getting involved just enough - some Makers are more experienced and he challenges them to take on harder tasks, while the students who need a little more help get it without steering them away from their goals and intentions. For both classes I attended, there was a mix of totally green people like me, as well as more experienced people in various crafts or the trades.
While the classes bring out many small and medium YouTube creators and bloggers, the groups often feel far more intimate once everyone gets settled into working on their projects. This means you have a class full of creative and inspired people… usually. Saturday afternoon, I found myself at a loss and really unsure what to make. At one point I was looking at an empty anvil had no idea what I direction I wanted to go. I didn’t want to ask someone for suggestions, and I didn’t feel like I was in the flow of creativity. I was quickly asked to yield the anvil to someone with their glowing hot steel project, so I started floating between projects.
It was as I went from classmate to classmate that I realized that they all seemed to have found their idea.
Many Makers had already paired up informally, riffing off of one another and pushing each other. It was really cool to watch, but I hadn’t found my spark yet. What was particularly inspiring was that the pairs of Makers were often pushing and inspiring each other, asking “what do you think if I did this or that?” on their projects.
After doing the first project, my coat hook, it was clear that something was off for me. I had some gear I needed to drop off back into the farmhouse, so I headed back inside quick.
It was there that something happened- I started to get it. I came across a project I can only assume was from Taylor Forrest or Jimmy Diresta- this bench in a white hallway. With the class outside, the house was completely quiet- only me with the house gently creaking underfoot.
I paused, and saw something I hadn’t seen before- not just a bench, but a deliberate design. The walls, floor, curtains, and trim were all white- and it reminded me of an art exhibit. I saw how deliberate the design of the bench was, the structure, the colors, the shape.
I went up to the top floor and saw more deliberate layout, so I knew it wasn’t an accident. Writing this now it’s a bit hard to describe, but the spark was there. I didn’t worry about the others, but I knew I needed to be both deliberate in my design and open to new ideas. I dropped my stuff off, and headed back out, energized.
I headed out and got to work- I knew I wanted to take a more modern and slightly more technical approach to what I made- I didn’t care for the hammered leaves made from steel- I wanted something else. I grabbed some steel and worked to create a series of 90 degree angles. I thought, let’s add a nice curve. It was then that I found myself in the flow. I had others come over and ask questions, give ideas, and provide suggestions. I talked to Al, one of the class assistants, and we talked about making the project functional by making it a bottle opener.
It was then that I saw Al twisting steel with a custom tool- a pipe wrench with a large second handle (YouTube timecode link of Jimmy using the tool, and this one with Brett). I saw him measure the twist and brush off the flakes of steel. I knew I wanted to add it, so I did. That’s when the idea of rotating and states came to me. I ended up with the “bottle opener”, but it really drove me and inspired me with the backwards “7”. I spent much of the plane ride home thinking about why a backwards 7 still stuck out to me. I realized I needed to build my story around the logo, which represents a curve in one of four different positions. I try to explain to others some of my states of creativity or creation, and at a basic level they are:
Utility and precision - when we’re doing work and want a reliable outcome
A curve of learning - when we’re taking on a new skill and as we get better, the work gets more difficult
The other side of the learning curve - when we’re learning, our skill grows
The descending slope - often what I call “going down the rabbit hole” pursuing a new skill or technology
The backwards 7 can be different symbols depending on its orientation, and the twist at the base of the handle represented the fun- the whimsical flair.
On the last day I had gone down to the flea market with the group and found beeswax to seal my projects- I did not want to paint them.
While I was finishing up, Taylor Forrest suggested a leather handle for my projects- I immediately knew this was an awesome idea, seeing her portfolio of work. Check it out here.
A handful of us went off and did a quick leather working session, some of it building from the 2017 axe making class, where we made leather covers for our axes. There’s a theme of deliberation and thoughtfulness again, this time in Taylor’s work. Far from being mass produced, Taylor’s work is handmade and her skill shows in her instruction- no fluff, but precise instruction. Similar to Jimmy’s style- she didn’t give me a speech and leave me to struggle through, she talked about stitching options and styles, explained appropriate scenarios for different kinds, then showed me and got me started.
Every single student was a Maker, some of them with hundreds of thousands of followers like Jimmy, some with thousands, some with hundreds, you get it- all were passionate about making and sharing. There was a constant vibe of encouragement and sharing the whole weekend. After a long day of blacksmithing, woodworking, or leatherworking, sitting around the fire with the others can’t be beat.
You can hear the laughter from a distance, everyone telling stories or sharing what they had done that day. Friends for life are made here.
Even as the campfire burned that night, a few folks went back to the anvils and forges, and started work some more.
The classes are small, and that’s part of the reason the price is what it is. It’s also a real chance to learn from experts and support them all in their craft. What Jimmy has going here is really something special. It’s the perfect mix of hands-on learning and craft, of creativity and design, of sharing and multimedia, and of camaraderie. Lifetime friends are made in these classes.
The gallery below is a mix of the Axe Making class of 2017 and the Blacksmithing class from 2018. The group really was all smiles- and a truly great chance to learn from and with Jimmy from different instructors like Tracey and Rory, but also from one another. There’s such a great cast of folks involved, and it’s always changing- but be sure to look for Brett or Al if you can.
If you have a chance to step into Jimmy and Taylor’s world, I recommend it- but please go in with an empty glass and be ready to be filled. Be ready to find your own voice and hopefully learn something new.
Although I don’t own a forge and don’t have plans to blacksmith in the months to come, both classes really helped me find my creative voice. On my site you’ll find a focus on digital fabrication and electronics, with a focus on 3D printing, digital fabrication, Raspberry Pi and CircuitPython hardware.
Check out some of the creators featured in this article. If I’ve missed someone, let me know on Twitter at @back7co or on Instagram at @back7.co and I’ll add your info. I also post on YouTube, but less often.
Jimmy Diresta’s Class Info
Rory May (the Dirty Smith)