Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Coffee table day 3, serious head scratching.

So, the top of the table got glued up on Friday, and while it still needs to be sanded, it looks good, and I'm pretty happy about that.

Later Friday and most of yesterday, I spent my time trying to figure out what sort of base to put under the table, so it would look good, and proportionally... nice. And once I figured that out, I had to figure out how to put it together... which was today's task.

The base itself is relatively simple in appearance, but there's a lot of joinery issues, since I don't want to just screw everything together. So, today I spent my time trying to do an accurate drawing in an isometric view... which is a fancy way of saying "quasi-3-D." It's what draftspersons used before we had computer rendering.

I still need to get around to learning how to render things on a computer, but I can say that I think that drawing everything out on paper is inordinately helpful, especially on things like this. It's helpful because it forces me to basically build the object on paper, and deconstruct it... and it highlights the areas where I don't entirely understand what's going on immediately. And it's much better to have that happen on paper than once I start cutting wood.

So, here's the photo summarizing the past day or two. Sketches on yellow paper, followed by more drawing on a large piece of 'real' paper. The isometric drawings are the dark lines. There's more on the rest of the page, but it doesn't show up as clearly, it's not as dark, or as dense.

And, there's a seagull feather. We've been finding a few of them in the shop lately... I guess Harvey's been busy. :)

Friday, June 26, 2009

Coffee table, day one.

So, I'm still waiting to hear back from a client about choosing a final design for a project, so I took this afternoon to work on a coffee table for my house.

The slab is a piece of English brown oak I bought a couple of years ago in Pennsylvania, shortly after I left school. It's gorgeous, and perfectly quarter-sawn, but the problem is that it's the exact center of the tree, dead center.

For those that don't know much about wood, I'll explain a few things.

Quarter-sawn means the board is cut radially from the center of the tree, so that the growth rings are running perpendicular to the board. This minimizes wood movement, so warping isn't as much of an issue. It also reveals the medullary rays of the tree, which are cells running radially out from the center of the tree. In the picture at left, they appear on the sides of the photo. For the tree, they transport water and other things between rings, moving minerals and other things into the inner layers. For furniture, well, they look pretty cool. Oak in particular has some spectacular medullary rays, which is one of the reasons that quarter-sawn oak figured so prominently in furniture from the arts and crafts period. Stickley furniture in particular used a lot of quarter-sawn oak.

The pith of the tree is the exact center of the trunk. Typically, it's very unstable, and prone to splitting. And, sure enough, as you can see in the picture, it did. When I bought the board, this had already happened, but the rest of the board promised to be really, really gorgeous, so I bought it anyway. And sure enough, when I splashed it with some water, the real colors came out. But so did some of the issues.

The rest of the pictures show me going thorough the process of figuring out where I wanted to put in wooden dovetailed "butterfly" joints to hold the slab together as a table top, cutting mortises, and inserting the butterfies. At that point, it was time to go home. But this is just the start of what will clearly be a pretty cool looking table, so I'm sure there will be more to come about this in the future.

Apologies about all the text squished into the sides. Next time I'll do a better job of organizing this.

Luckily for me, the split down the middle was pretty straight- forward. It was more or less continuous for the length of the board, and it was pretty clear that the two halves would come apart pretty easily.

The wood is still wet in this photo, but this is a good approximation of what the final color will look like... this table is going to look really good.

There were a few parts I had to saw through to separate the two halves, but they came apart pretty cleanly.

I used a jigsaw to make the cuts. But I had to loosen the base to let the saw tilt back and forth, because the orientation of the crack changed along the length of the board.

Inside the crack, things were a little gross. Some of the wood had either rotted, or gotten some kind of fungus. I'm not sure which.

I was able to scrape out the gunk and softer spots with a small drawknife and a couple of card scrapers.

Once everything had been cleaned up, the resulting gap is a little wider, anda little uneven, but very organic looking. Honestly, I wasn't sure how it would look, but it looks pretty cool.

It's funny... sometimes working with the wood, and allowing it to dictate some of the form makes the work easier, and helps make the final product look a little more interesting.

I used colored paper (actually, pink post-its) to cut different sized and shaped butterflies. these are the ones I settled on.

The butterflies have to be pretty thick, since they're going to provide some rigidity across the gap. The top will also be supported from underneath, but this ensures that the top itself still acts as a solid piece.

Originally, I tried cutting them out of the scraps left over from trimming the board down, but those scraps were full of cracks, and they didn't look like they'd hold up very well. So these ones are cut from quarter-sawn white oak.

Butterflies mortised into place. I haven't glued anything up yet, because I want to fine tune one of the butterflies. It's easy to lay things out and get them to fit in tightly as individuals. But one of them doesn't fit quite right when everything is together, so I may have to cut a new one to make it fit.

One more shot. This one gives a better idea of what the gap looks like.


So, the solution to the contact cement thing was much easier than I'd thought.

Turns out, I needed two things.

-Someone else to help lift the vinyl sheet.
-A series of sticks to place underneath between the sheet and the board, once the cement was dry enough to work with.

After that, remove a few sticks, flatten out a section. Remove a few more, and so on...

And Voila, brand new drafting board. The parallel rule came from the board I had on the desk, and all I had to do was add a longer cable.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Sticky situations

As part of the original design for my big storage cabinet, I envisioned a big door with a drafting board mounted to it. The door has fallen by the wayside, for now, but I did get the woodwork part of the drafting board done today.

It's 6 feet long, and four feet wide, and built basically like a hollow core door...

Well, maybe a little better than that. This is a picture of a hollow core door that was taken apart by a guy I knew in my old building. He had sawn it apart to make a train table for his son, and this is the piece that got cut off. It's just corrugated cardboard, hot glued into place, in a hurry. Probably by some poor 8 year old in China. God Bless Home Depot. It's a random picture I've been waiting months to have an excuse to show.

Anyway, So, I built the board today, it's ribbed inside with plywood, with the gaps filled in with polystrene foam board. (otherwise known as styrofoam, you can buy 4x8 sheets of it to use as insulation, believe it or not. Again, God bless Home Despot.)

So, the last step that remained was for me to glue down the self-healing vinyl board cover that I'd purchased form Charrette for the purpose. To do this, I used contact cement, which is vaguely like rubber cement on steroids, and at the same time, not really.

The essence of the process is, you coat the mating faces of the two items to be joined. Wait 20 minutes or so, until it's dried to the point of being tacky, and then touch the two things together. What I wasn't really thinking about was that I'd just turned my 4 foot by 6 foot piece of vinyl into a 4 foot by 6 foot piece of tape with the adhesive strength of duct tape. Ever have a piece of duct tape fold into itself while you were trying to tape something? Well, imagine that, but worse.

About 30 minutes later I managed to untangle the mess that I got after the vinyl folded into itself a few times, and half of the adhesive came off and stuck to the board, leaving a rougher surface than before. 10 mintues later, knee deep in the process of removing the remaining contact cement from the vinyl, so I could give this all a second shot, I called my girlfriend to let her know I'd be another half hour or so. (Oddly enough, this was the most accurate estimate I've given her to date on how much longer I'd be stuck at work. )

The contact cement stuck, but it was willing to come off, much like rubber cement... and rolling it around resulted in small balls that grew into a larger ball that I could roll around to pick up more. So, the sheet of vinyl is clean, but I'm now confronted with the realization that I may have to fabricate something interesting to make this process more predictable for that second go around. There won't be a third go around... I was exhausted after my bout of duct tape wrestling tonight, and I'm not gonna do it again. So the 'something interesting' better be good. Because I want this drafting board to be Very Good.

First things first, though. I need to get the gunk off of the board, so I have a clean, fresh surface to glue down to...

Monday, June 15, 2009

Baby's first steps...

So, the baby falcons are learning to fly. First steps, leaping tall buildings...

And massively overshooting old chimneys, only to land on slanted tiles.

I know that Peregrines are supposed to be this fearsome predator, fastest animal, etc, etc. But watching the kids learn to fly is a really poignant reminder that even the fastest, fiercest hunters are awkward when they're first starting out.

On a separate note, the word is out, apparently... we regularly have a small gaggle of bird watchers in the parking lot. But I still feel better than they are. You know, because I'm 6 stories up, and I get to watch these critters all year long.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A good day

First thing this morning, I got my clamp racks installed. I wasnt' able to get all of the clamps under the bench, but I moved enough of them that the ones remaining on the old table don't bother me as much... a few days ago they were wrapped all the way around 3 of the 4 sides of the table. Now most of them are at either end of my workbench, with some of the larger ones at the ends of the table. That's good enough for me.

For another hour or two I put away small things, and swept, and cleaned. And just as I was running out of things to do, Don yelled over to me that we should work on the doors that we built a month and more ago to separate the machine room from the bench room. Really, we'd planned to have the doors from the beginning, but here, 9 months later, we still hadn't gotten them into place. They've been leaning against the door jambs since we made them, and that's been pretty much it. So, Don had the right idea.

Being slow on the uptake, I resisted at first, since I knew that it meant taking them apart to work on the hinges, but once that was done, we proceeded to trim them down and mount them.. .and the difference was amazing. The space looks done, in a way that it hadn't before. We've been most of the way for a long time... but this felt really good. It looks like it was supposed to, way back when.

Last but not least, there is good news... there are new falcons. I don't know how old they are, but when I looked over at the building where they normally perch, I counted three. I don't know if it's two new ones and the male, or three new ones... but since we only had two before, and the female wasn't there, we have at least two new peregrine falcons in the world. I looked through my binoculars for a minute or two, and saw one of them walking around with his wings in the air, looking intently at something through a cloud of what must have been flies over a not so recent meal... so I'm guessing he was hungry, but not that hungry. Or maybe he's just the goofy one of the clutch, I don't know.

I wound down the afternoon by looking through a book on Nakashima furniture with Don, while we had a beer and tried to come up with a few ideas for new projects.

All in all, a good day... and my work space is officially cleaned out and organized, and ready to get back to work.

New clamp holders

One of the things I planned to get rid of in this reorganization is a small table that my grandfather made way back when.

Well, let me rephrase... I don't want to get rid of it, I just don't want to use it to hold a pile of crap anymore. Until this past weekend it was used to hold the big parts bin, a tool chest for sockets and wrenches, all of my smaller clamps, and carrying cases for hand held power tools.

Well, the cases are in the shelves of the cabinet now, the parts bin is in the bottom section, and while the tool chest is still looking for a home, the clamps are the last thing to get moved.

Since I took my big wooden tool chest out of the bench, it's become a bit lighter, which isn't really something that's desirable in a workbench, so yesterday I dovetailed a couple of cross-pieces into the frame underneath, and today I'll attach my small clamp racks to those. It'll put the clamps closer to where I need them, so I won't have to walk around things to get to the cart/table that's been holding them. And, it'll add weight to the bench, which is a good thing, too.

More reorganization

So, now that the big cabinet is together and in place, and the shelves are up, I've been going through the process of sorting through things and deciding where they're going to go. And I decided that part of that process would involve going through the metal parts bin that used to belong to my maternal grandfather.

The parts bin is basically a big metal chest of 24 small drawers, to organize small parts. And like too many parts bins that I've seen that belonged to grandfathers, or anyone who had a shop for a long time, there was almost no way to know what was in it. At first, it wasn't really very approachable, since none of the drawers were labeled, and almost every one of them contained a mix of bizarre things, from screw and nails to wheel bearings for a truck, a pair of small, hand carved bronze roosters, screen door parts, or electrical supplies. It was an adventure every time.

After a while, it became something like my own personal oracle. Many traditional oracles, like tarot cards, or the I Ching, involve some activity on the part of the person seeking answers, like shuffling a deck of cards, or flipping a series of coins. It always seems to involve an element of chance, tempered by the belief that somehow, some metaphysical part of...whatever... is guiding hte actions of that person, and helping them to shuffle or flip correctly, to give the proper result. The result is then translated into a given answer. Sometimes the answer makes sense, and sometimes not, but the process of trying to understand it will usually help the seeker understand more about their thoughts, hopes, and feelings. And after some thought and introspection, the seeker is supposedly better able to handle whatever it is that they were concerned about.

Grand-dad's box of old parts was like that once in a while. I'd pull open a drawer, filled with mixed parts, in the hopes of finding something to help me fix whatever I was working on. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't, and sometimes I had to scratch my head for a while to figure out how to make something work with whatever was in there. And sometimes the brass roosters would pop up. I'm sure he knew what was in there, more or less, where it came from, and which drawer held what, but I had no freakin' clue. And finding usable parts in the bin has been like that for just over a year now.

Well, no more. I finally got around to pulling out all the drawers, sorting through the stuff that's in there, and organizing it into something that made sense. And after that, I labeled all the drawers. Nails, screws, random fasteners, and so forth. It's not quite as fanciful as the system that I had before, and it's probably not as interesting to write about. But it certainly makes it easier to find what I was looking for.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Measure once...

There's an old saying, "measure twice, cut once." (Or, measure three times, depending...)

But as I was taking measurements for the built in job (which is now fully completed... finally!) I used a sliding bar gauge. Basically, it's a kit that I bought with two collars to hold two wooden bars next to each other, and they slide past each other. Then draw a pen line where one bar overlaps the other. It's a quick way of taking a physical measurement without numbers, and it's surprisingly accurate, and incredibly simple: Loosen the thumb bolt that clamps the bars together, and slide them past each other until the alignment marks line up. It can be a little too simple, sometimes, as there aren't any numbers involved, and once in a while, shop work does require math. But the measure twice rule makes sense because sometimes people read the numbers wrong, for whatever reason. No numbers to screw up with this method... until you measure it at the shop, anyway.

But, the point of the post, I've read various methods for taking notes on site. But in this case I simply made a couple of dedicated bars to go with the gauge setup, and I have to say, I'm impressed at how well it worked out, and how much I was able to scribble on it in the way of notes as I went along... (you'll need to click on the picture to see that I actually wrote on the thing) so it ended up as sort of a combination measuring device/ notebook.

It still amazes me sometimes, how well the simple methods work.


So, one of the things I noticed recently was that I had filled all the spaces around my bench and on the shelves with stuff I rarely used... so my work space was filled with dead weight, rather than usable space or usable objects. So, I've been working to address that, starting with building a huge cabinet to hold all the drawer boxes and other things that are basically storage for once in a while things. Then I pulled the wall shelves down and put up newer, bigger ones. I did notice tonight that my first instinct was to fill them right back up again, but it's mostly the top shelf, which is out of the normal "active" work area, so I guess that's ok. I'm still moving things around, and working on making it a usable space, but it's moving right along.

The real progress isn't visible yet, because there's still a lot of junk in the picture. Once everything is actually cleaned up, there should be more available space to store parts and bits of things, so they won't be directly in the way when I'm working.

I'm also debating the virtues of getting rid of the table that's against the wall, since it's primary role in life is to act as a crap catcher, in the hopes that my workbench doesn't get hopelessly overrun with crap. That's usually a futile mission anyway. But one of the things I like about that table is that it started life in the mobile robotics lab at MIT, where genius kids did amazing things... and using it now to hold piles of junk just seems like a misuse of something with such a cool history. Or, maybe it's just a tool, and I'm over-romanticizing its significance in the grand scheme of things. I'd like to put it to better use. But I can't think of a really good use for it just yet... other than to use it as a bench, but I already have two or three of those kicking around.

The real problem may simply be that I have an affinity for collecting things that are cool, or at least cool in my own mind, to work with and it's reached the point where I simply have too much stuff for one guy to be able to use productively. So, either the table will continue life as a crap catcher, or I'll move it into the finishing room... or do something else with it.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Getting up to date...

I'm now getting the finishing touches done on the parts that will modify the built in project to get it up to speed, and hopefully bring it to a conclusion. I'm also going over everything in my mind so I can learn everything possible from the experience, but in general, it's just about done.

For the rest of the week, I'm putting a shop project together to help me better organize and make use of my space.

One of the things I noticed, looking at my bench, and the desk, and the shelves... It's all filled with stuff. Patterns, and hardware, and a chest of old library catalog drawers filled with hardware, and battery chargers, and miscellaneous stuff. There's a cart that's topped with a metal chest of drawers, containing bits and pieces and nails and screws. Tool cases for cordless tools, larger tools I don't pull out so often, parts, pieces, and so on. It took a while for me to figure out what the problem with all of this was.

All of the hardware, and the parts, old patterns, and so forth, are all things that I do or will need at some point, but a lot of what's there isn't stuff that's being actively used. Many of the small projects are back burner, if not in the freezer for storage at this point. Basically I've clogged up my active work space with stuff that should be tucked away somewhere. Even my large tool chest from school is filled mainly with tools I don't use as often as the stuff I keep on the shelf behind me. So, I decided a while back to work out a design for a storage cabinet for the corner to store most of this stuff. And I'm taking this week to do that, and reorganize the space to hold things I'll use more often, or to store parts of current projects, so they don't spill out into the space. I'm also using the opportunity to build a larger drafting board, which will hang off of the new cabinet, so I can clear out the huge desk in the corner.

I got the desk for $10 at a yard sale, and thought I was really getting away with something. It's a huge industrial steel desk, probably made in the 50s or 60s, with a huge drafting table attached to the back. There are vertical and angle adjustments, for the drafting table, there are drawers for storing drawings, files, and office supplies... it's a really awesome desk. I just don't use it. And it takes up valuable real estate space while collecting dust and forgotten junk, so I'm moving it for now, and possibly getting rid of it later.


In general, I'm still in a good place. I'm also recovering from the built-in project. I enjoyed it, it was a fun project. But it was also a lot of long hours for not enough pay. (I should have bid higher on that job... live and learn.) I learned a lot about my capacity for working long hours, and still feel good about life. And I discovered the dangers of getting too deep into a project, and letting other responsibilities slide. I think if I can get the money end of things under control, I can be happy with having too much work to do. I just need to make sure I have the rest of my world tied down before I start spinning up like that again.

Astounding Chisels

I have to start including prologues, I think, to let some people know when a blog post is going to be an intolerable geek-out. Apparently I'm a bit too geeky and detailed for some people, and I'll accept that. This is going to be one of those geeky posts.

Just thought some of you would want to know.


In 2005 I took a class in Maine, to learn about Japanese hand tools. I got a lot of practice sharpening, and learning the basics, and a little bit of tradition, and a lot about sharpening, and so on. I also learned a lot about hand planes, too, but that's another post for another time.

Among the tools I bought for this class were 4 chisels, from a Japanese chisel maker named Chutaro Imai. I bought the nicer ones, made from Imai-San's "sword steel." They're incredibly beautiful. And the steel is fantastic. I got them sharpened up, used them a little bit, and brought them home. At the time, I also had some chisels made by a maker named Iyoroi, under his Ice Bear/ Kumagoro brand.

This was my first summer break from North Bennet, and I did bring the Japanese chisels into school. I used some of the Ice bear chisels to cut some dovetails in white oak, and I really butchered them. I let one of them get very dull, to the point where it started to chip. After it chipped, I figured I'd give it a rest, becuase I didn't feel like going through the whole process of restoring the edge. So, I rolled them up, and the Imai chisels, and brought them home. I also acquired a set of Lie-Nielsen chisels sometime that year, and I ended up using them more than anything else. I oiled up the Imai chisels, and put them away in the basement for a while, intending to get around to using them eventually. I used the Lie-Nielsen chisels for the rest of my time at North Bennet, and up until recently.

A few months ago I was going through a sharpening binge, and I brought out the Japanese chisels to give them all a good going over, and to decide once and for all if I was going to use them or sell them. At the time I still had my Marples chisels, that I learned to cut dovetails with, my Swiss chisels (made by Pfeil, a swiss company known for their carving tools), as well as my Japanese chisels and Lie-Nielsen chisels. In short, I had way too much steel for one man with only two hands.

As I got the Japanese chisels cleaned up and tuned up, I noticed that they were really, really sharp. I've gotten tools to be really sharp before, but they seemed a little different, so I took them in to do some hand tool exercises, and see what the deal was. And I was really impressed.

There's a lot about metallurgy I don't begin to understand, but I did notice right away that the Japanese chisels took a finer edge than I'd gotten on the fancy Lie-Nielsens, even after sharpening them regularly for a year or more. And I also noticed that the steel in the Japanese chisels was hard enough that the edge didn't start breaking down right away. Many people will argue that it's not worth sharpening chisels too much, because steel is generally soft enough that the finest edge, while incredibly sharp, will start to bend, and start to break down, as soon as it's put to something tougher than paper. And generally, this is true. But the Japanese chisels defied this logic... they're really hard. And really tough, too, as it turned out. I have a brass mallet that took a pounding a few months ago, when one of my shop mates used it to beat on some steel or cast iron. Out of curiosity, I tried using one of the Iyoroi chisels to see if I could pare some of the worst of the burrs away, and sure enough, I was able to shave a little bit of brass away. Hmmm... ok.

So I put the Lie-Nielsens up for sale on eBay. I still have a few I need to relist, but basically, I've made the switch.

Since then, I decided to really test one of the Imai chisels. So I took the 3/4" out and used it to chop the dovetails on all 4 drawers for the built-in project. (Sizes are approximate... the Japanese use metric measurements, and besides that, these chisels are hand made, so they're really close to the right measurement, but probably not exact.) Typically, I do my chopping with something smaller, to get better penetration, but these chisels are pretty sharp, and I figured, why not.

I chopped all these sockets, on both ends of the drawers, and I still haven't had to sharpen the chisel. Typically, I need to at least touch up my chisels once or twice during this much work. But the chisel I used is still very sharp... so I'm very impressed.

Another thing I'm starting to appreciate about the Japanese is the range of chisels they use, and the different shapes. There are some very nicely made fishtail-shaped chisels, to chop into corners. And there are chisels that are made with sharply beveled edges, also to get into corners, from a different direction. They do take some getting used to, since the sides of the bit are also very sharp, but they're very useful. Getting the crumbs out of the corners of a dovetail joint is a hassle, and it's a lot easier to do with these chisels. The sharp, but blunter edges of the sides are also great for scraping, too.

In the long run, I think the progression through different kinds of chisels was worth it for me... I learned a LOT about how to properly sharpen things. (I'm still learning, but that's another topic) If I'd picked up these chisels without knowing enough about sharpening, the difference would have been lost on me. But knowing what I know now... I want to start doing projects that will let me use these tools a lot more. I want to see what they're really capable of doing... and what I'm capable of doing with better tools.