Friday, December 30, 2011

Old Bricks

Earlier this year my wife and I spent a day walking around a steampunk festival in Waltham, MA. Some of the festival was a little weird; a large contingent of sci-fi fetishists were wandering around in clothing that was covered in broken watch parts, and other elaborately contrived devices.  But some of the festival was interesting. And the Charles River Museum of Industry was showing off a number of cool things. It sparked a number of conversations about art, and technology, and so on.

One of the things that I finally noticed is that all of the fantastic contraptions, contrived as they are, are designed to augment humanity, and not to replace it. I saw a costume with an oversized mechanical hand. There was a painting of a huge mechanical creature with four arms, controlled by a brain in a jar, that was even more outlandish. (Outlandish, but still being controlled by a human brain.) And in the realm of the real, there was an old watch case engraving device on display in the museum; it took normal human movements within a 2 foot circle, and scaled them down in speed and scope to fit those designs onto watch cases. This would enable a normal person to engrave the finest of details in silver, without needing such fine motor skills and perfect eyesight. It was really cool. Real or imagined, the machines still imply and require the presence of a human mind to make everything work. But my biggest concern with steampunk (fetishist costumes aside) is that the notion of humans accomplishing incredible things, even with mechanical embellishment, is starting to be regarded as fantasy.

The Everett Mill
I have a hard time with this, because I work in Lawrence, MA. Lawrence has a dark history regarding treatment of labor. But the town itself was designed to operate as a manufacturing machine on a monumental scale. And it was built that way from the foundations up. A dam in the Merrimac river feeds canals that run alongside the building foundations. These canals connected to huge underground water tunnels, feeding the turbines that powered the mill buildings and all of their machinery. The factories were designed to breathe in raw materials via railway, and exhale finished products on those same trains. The Dam, the canals, the foundations and the buildings, and the train bridges... Lawrence as an enterprise was the reality of capable men building functional systems on a very large scale. But there’s more to it than that, because the earliest precision machines weren’t made by other machines. Lawrence is an amazing example of hand craftsmanship. The buildings and bridges and the infrastructure from 100 years ago are still there. And it conveys just how capable human hands really are.

My building superintendent told me a few things that he learned about the neighboring building that he learned while they were preparing to turn it into condos. The walls taper in thickness going up, but it’s so gracefully done that it’s not obvious without using a plumb line. They surveyed it before turning it into condos. The diagonals of each floor were measured to see how square the building was, and the diagonals differed by three quarters of an inch. This kind of detail is impressive on its own, but more so when you consider that it’s a 7 story building hundreds of feet long, made of hand laid brick.

The Wood Mill
And this kind of craftsmanship is all over town. The Wood Mill, end to end, is longer than the height of the Empire State Building... and it's a nice, clean, straight building. (Currently being converted into loft spaces) The Ayer Mill building (now occupied by New Balance) has the second-largest 4 sided clock tower in the world, with clock dials that are only 6” smaller in diameter than those of Big Ben. After over 100 years, the original hand-made clock movement is still running, and keeping good time. (Some ASTOUNDING photos can be found here.) The city itself was designed to be (and still feels like) a huge production machine, built with a know-how that feels all but lost sometimes... but the bricks that haven’t been knocked down are all still solidly in place. The canals and bridges are still there. Many of the connections between buildings are still there, and it’s still easy to see where the trains came and went, bringing raw materials in, and finished products out, in an efficient fashion. And the more I learn about how the city was made, the more impressed I am by the feeling of walking around inside of something really cool. It’s old, it’s diminished, and parts of it are long gone. I still marvel that the humble human hand can build such things.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

More cool books

Here are a couple more to add to the growing list of Cool Books.   (New Tag on the right hand side of the blog.)

-I just finished re-reading Tage Frid teaches woodworking. There are three volumes. The first two are available together in a single softcover volume, which is what I just plowed through. Tage Frid went through a traditional apprenticeship in Denmark, and made a career out of woodwork, and teaching woodworking, and he has a clear no-nonsense approach to the work. He also makes a point to explain how to fix up less than perfect work, which is unusual in most of the WW books that I've read on the topic of furniture construction.

It's a dated volume in that it was put together in the 70's, and the photos are in black and white. But it's such a clean and clear rundown on so many basic and intermediate skills, that it's a no brainer for a beginner, and (obviously) I still go back to re-read it once in a while.

 -Woodworker by Sam Maloof. One of the great things about Sam Maloof is that like Tage Frid, he was a no-nonsense craftsman. Sapwood? Fine. Wood screws? Absolutely. Wood worship? Sorry, not right now, need to make a living. In a world filled with hand tool purists and nonsense, it's still fun to see someone getting down with a surform rasp and a power sander. I recently read an interview with Maloof in FWW #25. He said that he got visits all the time from people who asked him if they could make it as a woodworker. He observed that a lot of them were more in love with the idea than the reality... and that schools pump out students who produce objects that are very precious, because there's enough time at school to obsess over detail. Getting work finished and out the door in time to get the bills paid is a much different experience.

-Given that I just referenced FWW #25, and that I'm working my way through my magazine archives to see what's there, I have to recommend any of the older issues of Fine Wood Working. The old issues were a lot denser, and the articles and tips were a lot more in-depth. It's not as approachable for rank beginners, but I appreciate reading articles that are a little more demanding of the reader. I want to grow as a woodworker, and I feel like recent and current crop of WW rags are trying really hard to engage beginners, not experienced or active woodworkers.

-365 Tao: Daily Meditations, by Ming-Dao Deng. I'm not always able to read this one every day, so it's going to take me much longer than 365 to get through it. I'm not a new-age hippy type, but Tao and Zen books have justified their place on my book shelf. And this one has managed to regularly offer insights that help me run and grow my shop and mind a little more smoothly.

Happy (post) Holidays...

This is going to be a good year, once I finish plowing through the holiday leftovers that have invaded my fridge. Gotta love a Scandinavian family, but holy cow do they love their holiday cheeses...

Once all of that has been dealt with, here are a few of the things I want to get done in the coming year:

-I've been talking for years about writing a book about my experiences as a beginning woodworker. Between working for Rockler and Woodcraft, going to the North Bennet Street School, and moving out of the basement and into a 'real' shop space, there's a lot to talk about, and the book has been simmering for years. I started taking the train in November to get some writing time in, and that was when I began to understand that the battery in my laptop is 4 years old. You can't write much in 25 minutes. But my loving sister gave me a new battery for Christmas, so I'll be able to put more time in on that project. Much like all of that holiday cheese, it really is time to get it out of my system, so I can think about something new.

-Related to the book, I'm going to start setting blogging deadlines, in part so that I can work out some of the things I plan on detailing in the book. The entries on shop organization were the first of many topics to come. Going forward, I plan on putting something up every Wednesday and Sunday.

-The shop should be getting some interesting projects pretty soon... among other things, there will be more clocks. And the process of organizing my thoughts on shop organization and workflow has forced me to call BS on some of my current methods, because I really could do better. There are some much needed improvements that need to be made.

-Other than the laptop battery, I got some really cool books this Christmas, one of which is a book on Wharton Esherick. He was (from what little I know) one of the direct fore-runners to studio furniture guys like Sam Maloof and George Nakashima. I enjoy tracing back the roots of the things that I'm excited about. Where did they come from, how did they evolve, that sort of thing. And just flipping through the Esherick book, I can tell it's going to be a blast. He made a lot of very visceral stuff, that reminds me alternately of American craft furniture, and Arts and Crafts furniture from guys like Sidney Barnsley. (Though Esherick's work seems a little more rough around the edges.) One of the things I want to write more about in the future is the art of woodworking, and pieces that actually inspire me. Shop methods and so on are useful when it comes to moving things forward a little faster, but inspiration is the fuel in the tank that keeps me going. I feel like the magazines do a methodical job of beating dovetails and beginner stuff to death, while ignoring a lot of the other really inspiring stuff that's out there. American craft furniture is a good place to start, but there's a lot more that I want to look into, from all over the world. Even if I don't plan to make most of it, it's usually enlightening to try to understand how things were made, and to wrap my mind around why various designs are so exciting.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Blog update: Round Tuits

Looking at the stats for the page, my entries on the Emmert Vise and the Veritas Twin Screw have been pretty solidly popular. But, looking back, those narratives weren't as cohesive as I wanted them to be. I've wanted to put better articles together. I'm finally getting around to it.

Looking up to the top of the Home page you'll find a link to a detailed narrative on installing the Emmert. Eventually I'll turn that into an Emmert page, that has links both to an installation page, and an ongoing section about what I use the thing for, and practical day to day work tips. The more I use the Emmert vise, the more I like it, because it's more flexible than I gave it credit for. And even if the closest you can get to an Emmert is a Chinese knock-off, I've seen those in person, and helped install one, too. They're much better than I thought they'd be.

I'm also going to have a section up there on the Veritas Twin-screw vise. Their installation instructions are top-notch, but I've learned a lot working with that vise, too, and there's more to that vise than I gave it credit for.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Organizing space and mind, Part II: Guidelines for storage

 My apologies for the length of this entry. Since it went up, I've edited it considerably, but there's still a lot left.
I’ve seen two approaches for shop storage: Store anything that might conceivably be useful, or store as little as possible.

I knew a guy who built custom cabinets in a very small shop. Every job was planned out meticulously, and he ordered only what he needed for the job at hand, with a little extra. He didn’t keep scraps, and he returned full sheets. Throwing out scraps didn’t bother him: It had all been paid for with the materials deposit, so he wasn’t throwing any of his own money away. He ran a very profitable  business, and his shop ran VERY smoothly. It's not for everyone, but if you're trying to work in a tiny space, this strategy may be worth considering. 

I prefer to keep scraps and other things around. It’s a delicate balance sometimes, trying to figure out if it’s useful stuff, or borderline hoarding. But I make a point to shrink my collection of wood, and get rid of projects that I’ll never finish.

I’ve seen shops and art studios, and bicycle mechanic's basements, that have similar piles of special parts or materials, so I know I’m not alone. Some are much messier than mine. But in many cases, it's because the proprietors simply haven’t figured out efficient storage, or paid attention to organization. The end result is often a messy shop that’s less productive... and a bench that’s covered in crap.

I didn’t have an organized way to store things when I started. Things got dumped on the bench, and later got moved to another surface, and again if they were in the way. I ended up with a chronic case of the bumble-bees, buzzing around the shop looking for things, and my ability to work suffered horribly. My goal then became to keep an uncluttered workspace, but that wasn’t really enough either.

When I moved, I found a lot that I’d stored and forgotten, or didn’t properly put away, because I was more worried about storing everything, than I was about doing it well. I’ve since worked out some basic guidelines for good storage space in the shop. These are suggestions, not rules. Read them with the understanding that most workable systems will evolve over time, and with use.

1.) Everything must go in easily.

Think about bringing home groceries. Milk goes in the fridge, TP in the bathroom...  everything gets put right away. It’s all established routine, and it cuts down on clutter.

A shop should be no different, and there should be enough storage that there is a place for everything. If you have to move a project out of the way before you can get to the lumber rack, odds are good that the lumber will end up on the bench, or the floor.

I've also found it helpful to have a place to group supplies for a specific project, so I know exactly where those knobs or hinges are when I need them. If they end up kicking around, chances are pretty good they’ll get lost, and then the project will languish, and the shop will get clogged.

2.) Everything must come out easily.

It felt like I  had to unpack my lateral lumber racks whenever I wanted a particular board. That sucks when the other boards are 8/4 or bigger. Big and Tall lumber now gets leaned up in the corner, on end, because it's easier to sort through. I store short pieces (less than 4-5’) on deep shelves, ends out, so I can locate and pull out specific boards.

I've had similar misadventures with bins, milk crates, and other large, open storage. If something gets buried so deep that you don't feel like digging, it might as well not be there.

3.) Everything should be in evidence, and accessible.

Half of practicing good storage is to keep the working area free of clutter. The other half is setting up so that you can find what you need, get it out, and get back to work, without undue effort.

I want to be able to see what I have, and get to it, so that all of it remains useful. In some cases, it’s as simple as being able to see what’s on the shelves. In other cases, it may be labeling drawers, so that I know what’s in them, or at least bins for certain categories. 

4) Things should be stored in places that helps the shop flow.

When I was set up in my basement, my chop saw was on one wall, the lumber rack was on the opposite wall, and my bench was in between the two. Whenever I pulled a board off of the rack, I had to ‘helicopter’ it overhead, so I could put it on the bench, and then move it to the chop station. Not the greatest solution, and sometimes it was downright awkward. Now I put short-term rough lumber racks in line with or above the chop saw, to help things flow. Similar issues exist with sheet goods and table saw placement.

I’ll get into shop flow in part 3, but it’s worth mentioning here, because smart storage helps. If you trace out your workflow and your storage, and find yourself criss-crossing the shop a lot, you’re setting yourself up for trouble. This is doubly true for small shops: One unfinished project taking up the walkway can make parts of the shop inaccessible... even though they're right there. Three feet or three hundred, if you can't get to it, you're in trouble.

5.) Be safe.

Nothing heavy should be stored overhead, particularly lumber. If you’re on a ladder, heaving 12’ long, 8/4 oak over your head to get it out of the lumber rack, you’re asking for trouble.

Don’t store heavy ‘benchtop’ tools under the bench if you can help it. They’re light enough to be portable... but only barely. A strong and stable shelf at bench height will provide storage without risking injury. Moving them with a cart that’s also at that height is even better. Small, rolling workstations that match bench height are probably best, but that takes time, effort, and money, so it's something to pencil in as a long-term project.

6.) The storage area should be larger than you need.

Again, I think of the bike shop that I mentioned in the last entry. The building was huge, the work area was small. But everything had its place, and productive work flowed merrily along. And that’s the whole point.

If you’re setting up a new space in your basement or garage, and space is limited, dedicate 1/2 of the space for storage. There's a lot of normal stuff that goes into a shop, that shouldn't end up on your bench. But you also need space to put the things that aren’t planned for. If a broken chair arrives for you to fix, or a windfall of tools or lumber comes in from an unexpected event, it needs somewhere to go, so it doesn't clog up the work space.

To be Continued:

Space and Mind Part I
Space and Mind Part II
Space and Mind Part III
Space and Mind Part IV

Quick tip: improvised honing jig, Derek Cohen style.

I needed to adjust the bevel on my Japanese chamfer plane yesterday, and I was in a hurry to get it done so I could catch the train. So, I threw together this simple scrap wood honing jig. The wood wears down on the bearing edge, so the sharpening angle changes a little bit, but it was a quick and dirty way to get the job done, and it worked well. It's also a simple way to sharpen some of these hand-hammered irons that aren't perfectly flat or square, or small irons, because you can make these jigs as big or small as you need.

The source material for the idea is on Derek Cohen's website. He's big on making shop jigs and tools and so forth, and this is just a good idea. It works better for the scary sharp (sandpaper on glass or MDF) folks, because the wood block won't wear down quite so much if it's riding on the glass or MDF, next to the sandpaper. For woodworkers on a budget... this is a fast and easy way to get things done.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Organizing space and mind, Part 1

I used to work as a mechanic in a bicycle shop. I enjoyed the simple pleasure of making something functional with my own two hands. Since then I've met a lot of other bicycle mechanics and cyclists (there's a lot of overlap) who have huge collections of bicycles, parts and frames. The common theme seems to be that when people learn how to build and fix things, they realize that it doesn't matter how old some of this stuff is, it all works well if it's properly maintained, and a lot of it can be reused. So, they don't throw most of it away.

I've seen similar behavior in woodworkers (including myself): I'll take the hardware off before throwing this out. This table is trashed but the material is good for repairs. These old tools can be cleaned up and used... and this old laminated iron is going to sharpen up really well. Don't throw that out, it's almost fixed! (Rough translation: after 6 months, I still haven’t put in the “5 minute” half of a day that it would take to do the repair.) I like the chisels that I have, but these are going to be really, really cool once I clean and sharpen them. Would you believe someone left this perfectly good tree trunk out for the trash? Can you help me load it up?

I'm not going to mention that tuning up all of the old tools that I've collected would probably be a concentrated month's worth of work and sharpening. I'm also not going to mention the scraps that just never find a home. And I'm not going to balance the virtues of recycling versus the hazards of potentially hoarding. Not today, anyway.

But I do want to help out those poor souls who haven't been able to do anything because their workbench is covered in crap.


My very first shop was in the basement. I built a plywood cabinet to hold things, and a bench to work on. I put up a shelf or two, and hung hooks from the floor joists overhead. Whenever I re-organized the shop, the end goal was to find a better way to fit 30 pounds of crap into a 5 pound bag that I still hadn’t gotten around to fixing up. Fitting things into the space had a higher priority some days than getting finished work out.

I piled stuff under the bench and against the walls. I put new machines in where I had space... and eventually, this choked off productivity. After a few years I was forced to admit that the basement was too crowded to be anything more than tool storage. I paid more attention to building a bench and buying tools than how it was all going to function as a shop. And I really hadn’t considered storage. 

I can say from experience that when you’re short on space, a bigger shop sounds like a good solution to the problem. I can also say that it’s not the whole solution.

Years later, I realized that I was still having problems. I had moved from a  basement shop that was overcrowded, to a 2500 square foot shared space, with lots of light and high ceilings. I had towering shelves, an 8’ tall cabinet, plus an 8 foot long auxiliary table...  Lots of storage, lots of space. But  I was still having a hard time working effectively. So, I thought about other places, where the work moved more easily.

At school, we had just enough storage space around our bench for our tools, and one, or potentially two small projects that were in motion. That was it. Long term storage for lumber was up in the rafters. Space around the bench was reserved for tools and projects that were in motion. There was no room for anything else, let alone a collection of unattended projects and crap. Any storage in and around the work area was used for storing tools, or parts for current projects.

At the bike shop, I had a bench, a work stand, and a small box of tools that lived on the bench. Bikes were stored in boxes up against the wall, or hanging from hooks in the basement. The work area was for work, the storage area was for storage. Bicycles came out of storage to be worked on, and they went back into storage when they were done. The store had a significant amount of real estate, spanning a couple of buildings, and including basement space in all buildings. The vast majority of it is used for storage; the shop area is much smaller. Normal repair parts like tubes and shifters and cables and things were in a storage area that was directly adjacent to the shop area, but were not stored in the shop area. In fact, there was vary little in the shop area, if anything, that didn’t contribute to maintaining work flow.

The lesson was pretty clear: keep storage and work flow separate. I was still thinking like I was in my basement, and trying to fit as much in as possible. What I needed to do was to get the inactive stuff out of the active area, and keep it out. 

I moved the towering storage cabinet into an unused corner of the machine room, and I cleared (almost) everything out of the bench space, aside from my tool chest. Now I can park an auxiliary table there to hold parts, if I need. Or a pair of trestles to hold boards. I can roll an assembly table into place. I can pull a paper back drop down into that area for taking photos. Ultimately, I plan to clear out the shelves on the wall and use them for this purpose instead. The space is still evolving, but it’s a much more functional space now.

To do work, I typically need the following things in my work area: A bench, a place to keep my tools and supplies, and some auxiliary storage that will keep project parts safe and out of harm's way. This may include an assembly table, while the project is being assembled, or sawhorses.

I would never have been able to build this bookcase in my old cluttered space:

I’m going to go into strategies for dealing with and organizing storage in part 2, but if you find yourself staring at your work area this weekend, and you feel the need to rework the space, I’d start by dividing the room into ‘work’ and ‘storage’ areas. I don’t care if the storage area is all milk crates for now, as long as it’s off of your bench, and you can work, I call that progress.

To be continued...

Space and Mind Part I
Space and Mind Part II
Space and Mind Part III
Space and Mind Part IV

Simple Projects: 3-legged stool

So, as the year winds down, I'm in the middle of a few small projects. This stool is one of them, and it's made of a scrap of cherry that I've been sitting on since Fall of 2005. (edit: someone reading this pointed out to me that it was hilarious that I'd make a stool out after I'd already been sitting on it for 6 years.) The cherry was an off-cut from an 18" wide board that was being made into a 6-board blanket chest that I was building in school.

Well, after 6 years, and as I was going through the scrap bin and looking for ideas, I figured it was time to put this particular chunk to work. It's still being tweaked, because getting a carved wooden seat to feel comfortable can be a job in itself. But the job of carving out the seat was a joy. Why? Because the process of hogging it all out was really rough, and pretty ugly for a while. And it was the perfect way to remember that the only cut that really counts is the last one. The rest is only scrap. So, I roughed out the seat with big gouges and a big mallet, and textured the surface with a small gouge once the heavy lifting was done.

Shooting the holes for the stretchers was downright fun. After drilling the board and turning some loose-fitting tenons on the legs, I flipped the thing over and got the legs up in the air. I clamped some scraps across the legs, and drilled the holes through the legs to be parallel to these visual guides, (from each end) which was even easier than it sounds. I marked the scraps to determine the stretcher lengths, and cut the real stretchers accordingly. No precision required, and cutting a little over-length is a good thing, as they will be trimmed after gluing up.

This is my second attempt at a simple stool, and I learned my lessons well from the last one: If you're going to glue the whole thing up at once, and you're planning on wedging the tenons, it's better to make the tenons to fit a little loosely; tight-fitting joints become rub joints very quickly. Last time I did this, (given, it was a more involved stool, with 4 legs, 8 stretchers, and a more involved seat) I got most of the way through the glue up before some of the joints seized, and then it was Game Over. That stool ended up in the dumpster. A 22 oz. framing hammer couldn't drive those joints home, no matter how hard I tried, and eventually things just started to break. That was NOT a good experience. Gluing up 9 joints at once on a simple stool like this is harrowing enough without some of them seizing up on you. Loose tenons are key, as they give you the wiggle room to handle a glue up like this. Wedges make up the difference, and no gaps are left behind.

Having a lathe or some drill-powered tenon cutters are definitely easier than making round tenons by hand. And for under-sized tenons, the adjustability of the Veritas cutters is great.  Other than that, you'll want a spokeshave and/or a good sharp drawknife to make the legs and stretchers, and shape the edges of the seat, and a gouge or two to shape the seat itself.

This project was a lot more fun than I expected it to be... it's pure form, and easy joinery.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Inspiring words from the Media Lab

I pulled this from a PopSci interview with Joi Ito, who is the new director of MIT's media lab. I thought they were pretty inspiring words, and in line with a mentality that I'm learning more and more to embrace. 

MJ: How do you find people who can embrace this “just do it” mentality?

JI: You have to pick people who are inclined to think big and to be risk-takers but also tend to be very collaborative and open. And they really have to be self-learners, self-motivated, and people who question authority and think for themselves. Because a lot of people want to be told what to do and like to feel like they’re being productive by doing repetitive tasks.

MJ: Your investment fund is named Neoteny. What does that mean?

JI: “Neoteny” is the retention of childlike attributes in adulthood. As a child you learn, you have wonder, you’re curious, and every day’s a new day. But at some point you become an adult. And as an adult you focus on producing, reproducing, protecting. In the old days, the world didn’t change very much, so once you became a plumber, you didn’t really need to learn that much more about plumbing. Today you have to keep learning, and learning is somewhat of a childlike behavior. We want the Media Lab to be more like kindergarten and less like a lumber mill.

MJ: This acceleration of change in which we have to be lifelong learners to survive is presumably going to continue. This doesn’t slow down, does it?

JI: I don’t know for sure that it’s not going to get crazy or worse or that we’re not all go- ing to go insane. But I think the speed and chaos is only scary when you are trying to be in control. You need to give up the idea of control and be confident in your ability to pull things together as you go. There’s so much information now that you can’t get any more information overload. Drowning in 10 feet of water isn’t any different than drowning in a million feet. And if you can swim, it doesn’t matter how deep the ocean is. At some level, once you realize you’re in water that’s too deep to stand, you have to have a very different approach, which is basically: Plans don’t work, mapping doesn’t work. You need a compass and a trajectory and some values to figure it out as you go along.