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A Little Project

A few months ago I made a batch of table salt from Puget Sound seawater (just like my hero Ruth Goodman). It was surprisingly easy; the only finicky part was siphoning off the clear water after letting all the gunk settle to the bottom. From there it was just a slow not-quite-boil until all that was left was the final product. It tastes great and is perfect for cooking or finishing, but the grains were just a little too big for a shaker. Easily fixed with a mortar and pestle, but we didn’t have one in the house. Ah well.

Fast forward to last week. All of my inside projects were on hold drying or missing parts, and it was too rainy to work outside. The perfect time for a “little project” — something self-contained that can go from start to finish in a few hours. Maybe, say, a mortar and pestle?

I’m a big believer in these bite-sized little enterprises. Changing scope from broad to narrow (and back) has always felt like good exercise for my brain. The problems in a little project are more constrained, and the stakes are usually lower because sunk cost can only grow so big in a day or two. This was particularly true at work, where each week I’d try to take at least a half day to close my email and dive deep into some knotty but tractable nugget of code.

The Mortar

I found a chunk of alder in my stash to yield a 5” or so shallow bowl. It seemed smart to turn it with vertical grain, so that grinding pressure would be against the stronger ends. And the bowl itself needed to have a shallow slope to avoid nooks and crannies where stuff could hide from the pestle.

Simple enough, and the coloring that emerged was super-nice. I did find a couple of weird soft spots while shaping the inside, but not bad enough to make a big difference — a little homemade sawdust-and-wood-glue filler did the trick. After sanding, I cut the bottom with my awesome new ryoba saw (happy birthday to me) and….

…Well crap. It turns out that the chunk of wood I picked was leftover from a past project. Those little soft spots on the inside were the ends of two of four screw holes that I totally missed when mounting the block, now gaping out at me from the bottom of this beautiful little bowl. Ugh. I filled them with more of the sawdust putty and it’s “fine” but definitely a bummer. Pay attention, Nolan!

On the upside, the coloration got even better after finishing the piece with (food safe) mineral oil. I’ve made a few pieces out of this alder (it fell on the beach last Fall) and used epoxy, paste wax and a couple of other finishes … this one is definitely my fav.

The Pestle

Using the same theory of end-grain strength I found a smallish branch piece (more leftovers, this time from a set of building blocks for my nephew and niece) that was largely straight and about six inches long. This should be the easy part, right?

Well, the shape of a pestle is interesting. Obviously the business end needs to be rounded into a shape to fit the bowl, maximizing surface area for the grind. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I rough-shaped this with my bench grinder. Kind of like using an ICBM to kill a bug, but sure was quick!

At first I thought I’d just leave the rest of the pestle with it’s natural cylindrical branch shape. This was a very bad idea. Suffice to say that the end result looked more like something sold by “Adam & Eve” than by Williams Sonoma. Researching a little online, I learned that the classic tapered-towards-the-top shape not only looks better, but is more functional as well — it doesn’t slip upwards in your grip as you press down on the mortar. I am definitely not a “the old ways are always the best” kind of guy, but it is striking how often seemingly-arbitrary everyday design elements have evolved that way for good reason. Anyways, I whittled the pestle into shape and then smoothed it down for finishing.


The final product looks nice in our kitchen and does the job it was made for. A few fun problems, beautiful natural materials and time well spent. Now, back to the more complicated projects! I am probably halfway through a working SMART on FHIR implementation and look forward to writing that one up soon. Always, always fun things to make and learn.

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