There’s extra satisfaction in giving something you’ve made yourself. For someone like me who is entirely without talent at drawing, carpentry, and with at best average manual dexterity, this limits the options. (A few years ago, I gave a nephew a couple of highly-developed Diablo II characters.) This year, I managed framed photos, mix-tapes, and a calendar. This is to recommend the practice, and includes a couple of tips.

Mix Tapes · Assuming that you have lots of music online, and you think you have good taste, what could be better than the gift of music? There are a bunch of different ways to do this. I see that the smallest iPod shuffles are sub-$30 at the Boxing Day sales; give one of those loaded with tasty music, and if they don’t like your taste, at least they have an iPod.

Alternatively, there are shiny silver disks; you can either create a standard audio CD or load ’em up with MP3’s. The audio CD has the advantage that a friend with a commute can just slap it into his or her dashboard and sample your tunes on the way to work. Aside from in-car, though, increasingly few people use CDs as a primary music source these days. So an MP3 disk might be a good choice.

On the other hand, if you’re an audiophile with iTunes, you’ve probably been ripping data using lossless encoding, so it’s a pain in the butt to morph them into a form that people outside of the Apple ecosystem can use.

I ended up doing audio CDs. It’s pretty straightforward, except for make sure you don’t use iTunes’ “Sound Check” option, which in my experience shreds the sound quality.

A couple of Tim’s 2008 mix-tapes with home-made labels

A couple of my Christmas-2008 mixes.

Another nice thing about silver disks is that you can dress ’em up. Avery (and I suppose their competitors) sell labels with cleverly-designed backing such that you can drop ’em onto a CD with perfect positioning every time. You can also download Avery’s own software to help design the labels, and I did, but I found it klunky and crashy and don’t recommend it; I hear there are open-source alternatives.

Pictures · There are lots of people who like pictures. And if you have both children and living parents, it is never wrong to give the latter pictures of the former. Even fairly ordinary point-and-shoot cameras produce photos that can be made to look good at surprisingly large sizes. We’re starting out ahead, since we have both a photo-printer (Canon i9900, a few years old but still very good) in the basement and decent Photoshop/Lightroom skillz.

But there are a ton of storefronts that will help you beautify and print your shots for a surprisingly moderate amount of money. In particular, a photoprinter like we have is perhaps becoming a bad investment, since some of these joints will let you operate the software yourself and use their high-end printers. Which also means you don’t have to worry about running out of magenta ink at exactly the wrong time.

Once you’ve got something printed, you’ll want to frame it. This turns out to be easy; any decent art-supply shop will have a large selection of idiot-proof pre-made frames. If you’ve shot at a standard size like 5x7 or 8x10 the selection is excellent. If you’re non-standard, you can always go to a custom-framing store, but that gets expensive fast, and you lose some of the satisfaction of having made it yourself. On the other hand, the kind of multi-level matting effects that the pros use can really make your picture look excellent.

I shoot a lot of nonstandard sizes, which apparently and inexplicably includes square. For those like me, there’s another interesting option: frames which press the paper between two glass plates, thus giving you a lot of flexibility. These come advertised with a range of photo sizes you can insert.

This Christmas, I made and framed an 8x10 print of our two children sitting side-by-side in a big chair in my Mom’s back yard. When she unwrapped the package she said “Oh, I feel like I might cry”.

Calendars · If you’re a photographer, a calendar is another pretty good option. I found some quietly-elegant calendar templates at So I made Lauren a 2009 calendar, each month on a sheet of 8½x11 with a big family picture from the corresponding month the year before. I took it to the copy/ship shop down on the corner and they bound it neatly for a couple of bucks.

It was kind of time-consuming but hey, it’s a Christmas present.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Scott Johnson (Dec 26 2008, at 18:49)

In my opinion, it's better for a present to be time consuming that expensive. I made similar presents this year and last year, and they've been among the best I've given.


From: len (Dec 26 2008, at 22:23)

I record something and leave it up at the blog for friends far and near. This year, it was Gounod's Ave Maria. Second rate but all heart. :-)

Closer to home, I bought my brother and sister-in-law matched nerf rifles. Retirees. Big house. Lots of polished wood floors. All you need is old socks and a teen age daughter to track you with the camera. Kodachrome!!


From: Elaine Nelson (Dec 26 2008, at 23:12)

I've had good experiences with calendars from CafePress -- I'm cheap, so I put together a collage of my flower photos and used the single-sheet wall calendar. That, along with cookies, was a big hit and not that expensive. (Envelopes & postage were probably more than the actual gifts.)


From: Emanuel (Dec 28 2008, at 15:50)

I really like this post.

Just before Christmas, I remembered one older post of yours with the same iPod-filled idea and I followed it for a birthday present. Was really welcomed!

As for CD-labels and encasing, have you tried ? It's awesome!

For prints I've started printing my photos as well, and with squared sized you may also decide to go for a frame containing more than one shot (like 6:2 ratio with three squares within)

The only bad aftertaste of your post is it reminds me lately you haven't posted anything 5★♫ related :P


From: Martin (Jan 05 2009, at 05:51)

I give calendars for Christmas too, but you may like the way it is generated:

* Pictures are stored/edited/cropped in a per-month directory,

* GNU cal is used for the calendar,

* Python is used to generate an XML file personalized with year events (birthdays, holidays),

* The XML is processed using an XSLT transform into XML:FO,

* The FO is converted to PDF, which goes to Staples to be printed.

The longest step is to choose the pictures.

I'll keep the geek crown this year.


From: Claire Giordano (Jan 11 2009, at 00:58)

I really like this post, Tim. I find that the handmade gifts are so much more appreciated, and wish I made more of them. Thx for sharing what you've done.


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