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DIY Weekend: Extreme toothpick artist a patient man

Steven J. Backman makes sculptures out of toothpicks, a long, painstaking process. If you're assembling something out of 30,000 little pieces, you need oceans of patience.

Imagine being able to spend 10 hours working on something and having zero distractions--no phone calls, no e-mail, and no music.

That's the kind of concentration Steven J. Backman exhibits when he creates art out of the humblest of materials--the toothpick.

The San Francisco native has been building replicas, sculptures, and portraits out of toothpicks for decades.

At Maker Faire 2011 last month in San Mateo, Calif., he showed off some dazzling creations including a 28-inch-tall replica of the Empire State Building, fashioned from 7,470 toothpicks.

"Using my fingers to glue each toothpick individually is inspirational to me," Backman says. "It gives me a chance to convey my passion in a tangible way and stirs up my imagination process to its utmost test."

For his creations, Backman uses Elmer's Glue and his stock of old white birch toothpicks, which are no longer being manufactured. There's no supporting wire, wood, or cardboard.

That's one reason some of his pieces take so long to complete. He describes his art as "the essence of patience."

Backman poses with a replica of the Empire State Building and an abstract sculpture, both constructed of toothpicks. Tim Hornyak/CNET

"I spend an average of 10 hours a day on my artwork," he says. "I do not listen to music or answer any phone calls during my art process.

"I can literally hear myself think while in the creative process. It's mesmerizing to me. Many years ago, I worked 24 hours straight on occasions without taking any breaks."

That kind of Zen-like detachment from worldly distractions has yielded marvels such as a 4.5-foot-long, 10,000-toothpick radio-controlled yacht.

Backman's largest piece is a 13-foot-long replica of the Golden Gate Bridge, complete with 100 LEDs and built from 30,000 toothpicks (check it out in the photo gallery).

He has also made a miniature Golden Gate, Transamerica Pyramid, and Eiffel Tower using single toothpicks cut into slivers. Another of his genres is 2D toothpick landscapes and portraits, including a recent work to celebrate the marriage of Britain's Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Backman first made a sculpture of a DNA molecule out of toothpicks and beans in elementary school. He got serious about toothpick art in college, when he recreated a San Francisco cable car out of toothpicks and glue. He then started a business centered on his passion and hasn't looked back.

Having been featured in museums and the media many times, Backman now hopes to convince an automaker to sponsor him to make a one-passenger car out of toothpicks. It may or may not happen (I'd hate to crash it into a wall), but one fringe benefit of his artistic dedication is that Backman has lots of patience--though it does have limits.

"When I was a child, I got extremely frustrated and impatient and hit my sculpture as hard as I could and got a toothpick stuck in the palm of my hand," he says. "The irony is that I have become very patient with toothpicks over the years. However, I'm the most impatient person in the world when it comes down to waiting in lines and being placed on hold during a phone call."

To share your DIY project, simply e-mail a description of 350 words or less, including all the geeky ins and outs of your invention, plus relevant links and photos, to crave at cnet dot com. Please put DIY Weekend in the subject line.