Monday, March 28, 2011

Expanding Content

Over a year ago, I allowed my web page to lapse. There were various reasons that I won't get into.

Since then, I've had various people ask me for a website, or to see some of my work, and on a regular basis I have to offer the increasingly lame response that I haven't gotten around to rebuilding it yet. I still haven't. But that doesn't mean I can't show off what I've done.

At the top of the page, there's now a link to my portfolio. This is a page that I'm going to continue working on, until I feel I have a decent representation of the range of my abilities and some of the work I'm proudest of. At some point I may add more pages including things like
-a comprehensive article or two on installing over-wrought vises
-'About me,'
-and last but not least 'Why I still haven't gotten off my ass to rebuild the website.'

Keep checking back... more stuff will be added to the portfolio every few days.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Virtues of Imperfection... or, Another great book

I've taken to reading during my lunch break when I'm at the shop. Lately, I've been reading Unto This Last by John Ruskin. It's a Penguin reprint, and it also contains passages from Stones of Venice and a few other things that he wrote. Anybody who's read even the slightest bit about Arts and Crafts furniture has almost certainly heard Ruskin mentioned once or twice.

Ruskin's sentences are long, and the content can be dense. But it's a treasure trove of wonderful philosophy that's surprisingly approachable. He details his points very well, has a clear love of craft, and faith in the ability of mankind to improve and evolve. There's a lot of inspiration to be found in his writing.

Ruskin sees great virtue in the effort to grow and improve, though the road to better craftsmanship is paved with work that is inherently imperfect. He writes that an emphasis on perfection must naturally lead to an emphasis on work that is performed at a low enough skill level that it can be done without flaws. And he goes further, saying that that sort of enforced dumbing down is, in essence, a form of mental slavery. Perfectionism taken in the other direction leads to examples like Leonardo da Vinci, whose obsession with perfection kept him from finishing many paintings, even though he worked on some of them for almost 10 years. Famous though he was, it seems that it was this tendency that kept Leonardo from being a more prolific painter.

The lesson to take away from all this: Don't be afraid to learn. Don't be afraid to grow. And certainly don't be afraid to make a few mistakes in your efforts to become a better woodworker. We're only human.

Monday, March 21, 2011

It's snowing. Again.

Last week it was in the 60's.Tomorrow is the first day of spring.

But today it's snowing.

Who thought this was a good idea?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Words of Wisdom

Anyone who's been reading my 'life in general' posts will know that the past year or more has been characterized by a lot of growth and introspection on my part.

Many of the woodworkers I know have gone through a wood collecting phase. And I've heard a lot of stories about 'that one special piece of wood.' Maybe it's a huge slab of something really beautiful, or maybe it's a square foot of walnut crotch, containing the cross section of an actual walnut that was absorbed into the tree. And the typical reactions run along a similar strain... 'That one piece of wood is really, really awesome. But I don't want to ruin it, so I'm going to put it away until I figure out that one perfect project that will really show it off to perfection.'

I think what I started to realize last fall, and wasn't able to put into words, is that I was feeling the same way about my life. I had training, tools, wood, shop space, a small but growing portfolio, an honest to god Emmert vise under the bench, (but not mounted, don't wanna mess that up, either) people that believe in me... I really don't want to mess any of it up, so I'd better just shelve the whole thing until I figure out just how I'm going to make something out of it.

I finally managed to find a word that adequately describes the sensation:


I tend to believe that all growth happens against resistance. But it's a delicate balance to strike: massive resistance can lead to massive growth... or massive failure. And that's a scary thing to sidle up to. 

I posted a list recently of books that have really helped me learn things that have helped me to become a better woodworker. I left one out, and it's one that I consult almost every day that I'm in the shop: The Little Zen Companion. I can open that little book to any random page, and read something worth thinking about. One page stood out. It describes the three things that are required for learning, or growing... or for working on those special pieces of wood.

Out with the old

The bookcases are out of the shop, and in place in their new home. They look great. I'll probably take more pictures when they're actually full, but for now, that's 'the end.'

Bringing a big project to a close is always hard. There are so many small details to wrap up for everything to be 'just so.' Whoever coined the phrase that projects don't get finished, they escape, nailed the feeling perfectly.

But, it's back to the beginning. I have another project that is about to start, so I've been spending time straightening up and getting ready to begin all over again. All of the remnants of the bookcase project have been basically swept away, and it's a great feeling.

The end of this last project felt like an all-consuming final sprint that just wouldn't end, so it's been nice to have the time to regroup and reboot, and get ready for the next race.  I think I must have spent half an hour yesterday, just watching the Merrimac river flowing by.

The snow is melting, the river's getting higher, and the past few days hit the 60 degree mark. I have a new job in front of me, and I'm feeling a little bit better about life in general. It's going to be a great spring.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

In Memoriam: Tom Monahan

Tom Monahan's bench was right next to mine for my last semester at North Bennet. Tom was a character, a self-described Mischievist, and an intellect to be reckoned with. He was in his early 50's, had a wit that was sharper than his tools, and a litany of stories that typically began with "I was at this bluegrass festival one time, and...[insert hijinks here]" He had a love of bluegrass music, and a well-developed ability to have a good time.

Tom was also known among a few of us as the fussy design guy... he had a really good eye for design. His website showcases some of his pre- North Bennet work, as well as his wit.

Tom graduated North Bennet in 2007, and shortly thereafter was diagnosed with a slow-moving case of ALS... otherwise known as Lou Gherig's disease. To say that life can be molevolently unfair is an understatement. I've been thinking about dropping him a line for months now. I found out yesterday that he died.

If I can say anything with certainty, it's that Tom went out of his way to live his life, and it was always clear that he enjoyed every minute of it.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Practice, Theory, and an Angry Inch.

"In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is." You gotta love Yogi Berra.

The project I'm currently wrapping up has been an exercise in learning real world differences. The project is a stacking bookcase that's designed to wrap around a French doorway. Two lower cases sit on base frames. Two middle cases sit on top of the lower cases. Across the middle cases is a long shelf, and on top of that shelf is another pair of bookcases. It's somewhere around 8 feet tall, and 12 feet wide.

Originally, I thought it would take me a month, maybe a month and a half. But, the problem is that the job was for a friend, and I got carried away on the details. (Frame and panel sides, instead of furniture grade plywood, etc.) Two and a half months later, the thing is finished, and I'm in the process of trying to install it.

Because the tolerances around the thing are fairly snug, there's room to work, but barely, and so I'm having to shim the thing up and down to get everything aligned so it will come together. I took initial measurements, as I mentioned. But what I learned today is that the differences between practice and theory go above and beyond tape measure/ story stick issues. I made the mistaken assumption that I was measuring from a level floor. Silly me. I previously wrote that the door frame had a 7/16" difference in height across its width. But I didn't check to see if it was level. (It is... I checked today.) Across the 12 foot span between the side walls, the floor drops an inch. I figured there would be some variance in the floor contours, but I really wasn't counting on such a drop in altitude. Even if I'd installed leveling legs, (Which I'm totally doing next time) there would still be that missing inch.

The plot thickens.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Ode to the story stick

There are days when I'm just about ready to throw my tape measure as far into the weeds as I can. Monday was one of those days.

I'm wrapping up a huge set of bookcases that wrap around a french door. When I took my original measurements, I used a tape measure. It's easier, right? Sunday night, I went in to double-check everything to make sure that the finished piece wasn't going to have any glitches before bringing it in to install. But this time I brought in a bar gauge story stick to take actual measurements, in addition to the tape measure I used last time.

A story stick is just a stick with tick marks drawn on it, to indicate the dimension involved. No numbers are required. The dimension is there. 

Tape measures are convenient for their size, which is the selling point. The measured dimension is defined as compared to inches and feet, or to metric or other units. But the inches are only serving as a middle-man. The inches make the dimension easier to transport, and reproduce in the shop. It's like data compression. But the point is not the number of inches: the actual length of the dimension being measured is what's important in the shop. As long as the measurement was accurately transcribed, and the tape measure is accurate, there shouldn't be any problems. But it's not the same thing as an actual measurement, and it's easy to make mistakes. Not to mention that the pages of notes are harder to read than a good story pole.

I define an actual measurement as taking a story stick and marking a tick mark on it, to indicate the actual distance, without numbers. Since I use a bar gauge for my story pole, if the measurement is longer than the stick, I slide the gauge out and mark across the pair to indicate just how long the measurement is, from one end of the pole to the other. There is no data of any kind that could be misconstrued or written down wrong; no numbers, no fractions. No units. There are also no 'smidges,' 'hairs,' 'scootches,' or any other bizarrely ambiguous terms that are used in an attempt to take a more accurate measurement. The distance is laid out plainly.

Using a story pole has an immediate practical advantage over a tape measure: the stick is much more rigid and easier to hold up accurately than a floppy tape measure. It makes the process a lot faster and easier.

Another advantage of the story stick method is that it's very easy to make sure that dimensions are consistent. I took my story pole last night and, just as a goof, checked the rest of the door frame to make sure that the top was either level, or at least the same height off of the floor. It wasn't. There's a 7/16" difference in height between the left side and the right side. As errors go, this one could have been a real pain, since the bookcase extends over the top of the door frame. Luckily enough, I have room to shim things out and compensate. Had I gone for a really snug fit, I'd have been in real trouble. There were other errors as well. I can correct for them, but it would have been a hell of a lot easier if I'd taken my measurements this way the first time.

Another big advantage: I can take notes directly on the stick:
'This is the length from the wall to the door frame.'
'Make sure to measure ________ when you get there.'
'This section of wall is not flat.'
'Don't forget to compensate for baseboard.'
If I have multiple jobs going, I can just use another stick.

It's a pretty ideal system, provided your project isn't so big that the gauge is too long to be practical. But an 8' sliding bar gauge will fit into the bed of my truck with the cover on, and it will measure a space that's up to 16' long. My day to day tape measure only handles 12'.

To be fair, knowing the desired measurements in terms of units of measurement is very helpful when I'm using shop jigs that are calibrated that way. But having the actual measurement on hand to measure from still makes me feel a whole lot better about the process.