Every Mistake

I’ve been working on myself for fifty-four years; software for about forty; kids for almost thirty; and (as Jim says) sawdust for six or so. Whatever the domain, sometimes projects go great and sometimes they, well, don’t. But it’s hard for me to think of anything I’ve tried — even the worst of them — that didn’t have some useful lesson hiding in there. That’s pretty cool.

Case in point, this little pine bowl. It actually looks ok with a little distance and soft focus:

But if you zoom in, it’s a freaking disaster in pretty much every way. First of all, there’s a ton of “tearout,” which happens when the tool catches and rips the wood fibers instead of cutting cleanly. I still have pretty lousy sharpening skills, and between that and a preference for carbide scraping tools it’s something I’m always having to watch for. I ended up with a few really rough spots, especially on the inside of the piece — it’s so tempting to think you can sand these out, but that really only goes so far. Ah well.

Next, I didn’t dry the wood well enough for the orientation and shape I wanted to create. I thought I did, but clearly not. You can see in the picture that I included the pith, and that it runs horizontally through the piece. Which looks cool, but with those straight, thin walls it cracked less than an hour after bringing it in from the garage. The big one shown in the picture and then a hairline exactly on the opposite side. Whooooops!

When I first got my lathe I had no concept of how much wood moves as it dries, and how much time it can take to stabilize. Of course this isn’t the case when you buy kiln-dried stuff at the store, but most of my material comes off of the beach and it’s hard to know how long it’s been cut and/or in the water. The most reliable method is sealing the ends with a wax or glue and waiting a year or two for it to dry naturally (the wax helps the moisture evaporate more evenly), but the oven works “ok” in a pinch.

Anyways, I often reinforce blanks before turning them, using epoxy or CA glue or a wood glue / sawdust paste. And generally that’s actually a positive for the work — like the beautiful clear epoxy voids in this bowl, one of my favorites. But once something has been turned to final shape it’s a lot harder. My next mistake was doing that repair poorly. The plan was to block off the crack using metal tape and hot glue, pour in just enough epoxy to fill the crack, and then sand it flat. Which sort of worked, except (1) the tape leaked, so there’s staining around the repair, and (2) rather than being either clear or opaque, I put in just enough black pigment to make it kind of a muddy grey. Mmmmm.

The hits keep coming! I almost exclusively use oils and waxes to finish, because the whole point of what I make is to show off the great wood that floats up on the beach (if I want a hard coat I will use epoxy coats sometimes). But for this one I wanted to experiment with traditional shellac just to broaden my arsenal a bit. Sanding sealer is a pretty typical undercoat for shellac, and I was still hoping I could hide some of those tears, so I put on a couple of coats. All good, except that when I actually sanded the sealer I left a ton of marks that I didn’t notice before locking them in with the shellac coats. Awesome.

At least that was about it. Oh, except for the drips I left in the shellac, but at least I was able to buff those out with a little work.

Not my finest hour. And yet, I’ll still put this little guy up on the shelf and in the gallery. And be happy when I see it. And even post it here for everyone to see! Next time I’ll sharpen things up better, dry the wood a little more and be more patient with the sanding. All good things.

Milling (boards) and drilling (pockets)

Have I mentioned how much I love our place on Whidbey Island? The ocean and animals are always present, and the house is built perfectly to take advantage of all that natural beauty. But the kitchen? Eh. I mean, it works fine, it’s just, well, ugly. The folks we bought from never found a clearance sale they didn’t love, from the dirt-brown counters to the yellowy oak cabinets to the weird pink sink. All “fine” materials on their own, but as a whole pretty nuts.

So just as most of America seems to be, we’re getting around to a renovation. Lara is a huge fan of quartz countertops from Cambria, and while I like them too what really sold me is that the company financed a whole freaking movie because, I guess, it was cool? I swear I’m not making this up; watch the trailer!

Legend of Cambria tells the story of the legendary lands that inspired our beautiful countertop designs. Each Cambria® surface is masterfully crafted by American craftsmen and women with an uncompromising commitment to quality, performance, and durability. Discover them for yourself and make your dream kitchen or bath a reality.

We also got a new sink, added a cool tile backsplash and next month those oak cabinets are getting filled and painted along with most of that side of the house. My primary job is swapping out every – single – outlet and switch so they’re all white. Someday I’ll get the circuit breakers properly labelled, but if I’m totally honest, probably not.

Anyways, with all of this fancy new stuff, our go-to approach for storing cutting boards (i.e., “jamming them in the corner”) isn’t going to “cut” it — too hard on the new paint. And sure you can buy something perfectly nice and ready-made for like $10, but I figured it’d be fun to try some new wood adventures. So that’s the leadup to my latest project — a cutting-board rack made from (of course) a random log off the beach.

The loose concept was a U-shaped piece with a high right side that would stand up against the newly-painted wall, about a 5” space for boards to slide in, and a short lip on the left side to stop them from slipping out. The tallest cutting board we have is about 12” high, and the full counter depth is 25” — about 22” long fits well. I wanted to have the tops be opposite live edges from the same log, so it kind of looked like I just folded up a single plank. Some people do really really neat waterfall pieces matching grain and everything — nothing so elaborate from me, just a little touch.

First step was to source the material. Other than being big, the log I picked wasn’t particularly notable — enough time out in the water to acquire some character and staining, but not so long that it had too much damage. Most importantly, there was an end poking out of the pick-up-sticks pile that I could cut safely.

Milling is complicated

There are a number of different ways to mill logs into boards — and it’s one of those topics where the web can confuse as much as educate. Dunn Lumber created a great video describing the different cuts and grains. In short, if you look at the end of a board you’ll generally see one of three patterns in the grain:

  1. “Plain Sawn” boards have shallow angles (typically < 30 degrees) that curve and look like smiles or frowns.
  2. “Quarter Sawn” boards have straighter-looking grain at 30-60 degree angles.
  3. “Rift Sawn” boards have near-vertical grain (60-90 degree).

These different patterns impact the “stability” of the wood (whether it tends to warp while drying) and the look of the faces of the board (this depends a lot on species, but plain sawn boards tend to have broad wavy “cathedral” markings on the faces while quarter and rift sawn boards tend to have regular, straighter bands). The complicated part is that terms used to describe the method of cutting overlap and conflict with those used to describe the end-product. There are some great pictures of cutting methods on this site; but in short:

  1. “Plain sawing” creates all plain sawn boards, with lower stability but the least waste. Most building material is created this way. Sometimes people confuse this term for “flat sawing” which is effectively live sawing but with trimmed edges.
  2. “Rift sawing” (sometimes called “radial”) extracts only rift sawn boards, maximizing stability but wasting the most material. It’s used for things like high-end flooring.
  3. “Quarter sawing” is a compromise that results in a mixture of quarter sawn and rift sawn boards. Most higher-quality boards are cut this way.
  4. “Live sawing” results in boards of all three types and leaves the natural edges on the boards. Live sawing is a more recent trend and super-popular in the artsy world.

Anyways — for my project, I wanted something that would look nice, but also had to consider stability because I was going to dry the wood quickly in the oven — significant warping would be a big hassle. I wasn’t worried about wasting material (this is just a log that washed up on my beach after all), so I cut two boards as shown in the diagram to the right; one full-width that was mostly quarter sawn (while still giving me my matching live edges) and one shorter one (for the bottom) that was rift sawn.

I made the cuts all by hand with the chainsaw, which was a fun challenge. I jammed the blade a few times on the lengthwise (rip) cuts, because the damp wood shredded more in that direction, throwing long fibers into the drive wheel that eventually gummed things up (you can see some of that at the base of the blade in the picture). Apparently you can buy dedicated ripping chains (e.g., this one) and I definitely should get one, but I muscled through it with only a little bit of foul language.

Drying and refining

This particular log has seen some float time — so getting it dry was key. It turns out that three hours in the oven at 200 degrees does a great job (hat tip to https://splitwoodclub.com/how-to-dry-wood-in-an-oven-a-practical-diy-guide, although the quick synopsis is “put it in the oven for a while”). Evaporating old seawater does have a bit of a distinctive smell, but hey beauty is pain. I’m going to be using this technique a lot for smaller pieces going forward.

The wide board just barely fit through my benchtop planer, but eventually I got it down to a nice looking ¾” thickness. I planed the second piece to ½” and then sanded them both up to 120 grit. I was actually pretty impressed with the quality of the wood — just one soft spot I had to stabilize with a little bit of CA glue, and some really nice grain and color. I totally can understand why people like to work with unblemished high-quality wood, but I’ll take the quirky and unique stuff from my backyard every time. A few passes through the table saw and all was ready for assembly.

Joinery, also complicated

OK, time to put this thing together. The rack has two joints, both against the base plate — one for the tall piece that stands up against the wall, and one for the short side that stops boards from sliding off. Just as with milling, wood joinery is way more complicated than it seems on the surface. There are dozens of different ways to connect two pieces of wood, and countless online debates about their relative merits. I am never going to be a finish carpenter, but picking the wrong joint can be pretty catastrophic, so I’ve tried to at least learn the basics.

Most important is to understand what stressors are going to act on the joint. That is — what forces will be trying to make it fail and where are they coming from. The first joint any kid in their garage learns is the “butt joint” (heh)— just putting two pieces of wood next to each other and fastening them with glue. Super-easy, but by far the weakest of all approaches because the holding force is exclusively along one plane — in this example picture, downward force (in green) is no problem (the glue is barely doing any of the work anyways) but any significant force from the side (in red) will quickly break the joint. The taller the vertical piece (and thus the longer the lever), the easier it will snap.

Because of this, most butt joints are reinforced with some secondary fastener that increases holding force and, ideally, does so across multiple planes. In home construction, butt-joined studs are often “toed-in” with nails hammered in at an angle. Doesn’t look great, but studs are hidden anyways. In some cases screws parallel to the joint can work, although they have to be pretty long to do much good. For finish carpentry (furniture, etc.) where the joint will be visible, hidden biscuits or dowels can be used.

The joinery arms race really starts accelerating from there. Laps, dadoes, rabbets, mortice and tenons, dovetails and boxes — many of which are not just stronger than butt joints but actually add to the aesthetics of a piece. Joinery really is an impressive craft and a solid lifetime’s work and I am in awe of the folks that even begin to master it.

Our little stubby joint is easy-peasy. Because it is so short, there won’t be much torque against it, and we have the luxury of a hidden surface on the bottom of the piece, so a simple glued butt joint reinforced with screws from the bottom does the job perfectly well. Countersinking the screws ensures that nothing will scratch the surface the rack sits on. I didn’t even bother to plug the holes, although maybe I should have.

Pocket-hole screws

The tall piece was another matter entirely — it will be subject to a bunch of lateral force, all dependent on a single narrow ¾” joint. Yikes! After considering a bunch of options, I chose to take my first swing at a reinforced technique called a “pocket-hole screw.” These have been around forever, but became really popular with the DIY set in the 1990s when Kreg introduced a jig system that made them braindead easy to create. There are a bunch of options; I chose the middle-of-the-road “K4” version.

A bit like that toed-in nail in a stud, the pocket-hole technique joins two pieces with a fastener inserted at a shallow angle (typically 15 degrees). The fastener is a special self-tapping screw that provides a ton of holding force, embedded into a “pocket” that can be easily hidden beneath a wooden plug. The hole is drilled using a special bit that leaves a flat lip for the screw head to sit on and drives the pilot hole just to the edge of, but not through, the first piece — avoiding splinters that could create gaps between the pieces. Despite all of this detailed engineering, the jig is really easy to use:

  1. Start with the Kreg online Screw Selector to verify jig settings; for simple joints this isn’t really necessary but nice to have a double-check. Remember to use true dimensions for the calculator, not “as-sold” nominal ones.
  2. Set the drill guide depth in the jig and lock in the set screw.
  3. Position and tighten the stop collar on the drill bit using the measuring guide on the jig body.
  4. Clamp the piece to be drilled into the jig.
  5. Drill until the stop collar hits the top of the jig. If you’re not using a vacuum attachment, move the drill in and out so that dust doesn’t jam up the hole.
  6. Position and clamp the joint, then use the long square-drive bit to drive the screw until it is fully seated. Keep the clutch low so you don’t over-tighten and break through the bottom of the second piece.
  7. Put a bit of glue onto a plug and insert it into the pocket. When the glue dries, use a flush-cut saw to trim the plug and sand it even with the surface of the piece.
  8. Tah dah!

There are a lot of “proprietary” pieces in the Kreg jig, and typically I shy away from that kind of thing — but this is one really well-designed. Worth it and highly recommended. The joint in the rack is rock solid and should stand up to a lot of everyday hard use. Love it!

Finishing it up

Since cutting boards are going to slide in and out of this piece every day, it needs something more than my typical oil finish. Lara wanted to keep the natural color of the wood, so I picked a fast-drying semi-gloss spray polyurethane. Four coats seem to be a good thickness, but I may have to insert a bit of acrylic or something on the bottom anyways, we’ll see how it holds up.

I don’t use this kind of surface-coating finish very often — it turned out to be really important to do a final sanding and buff to get a nice feel and shine to the wood. The amount of dust that settles on a drying finish is kind of crazy; maybe I need a clean room!

A few little sticky rubber feet to keep it solid on the counter, and that’s a wrap — a fun project and I learned a lot. Which is good, because when you spend like ten hours building something you can buy online for less than a Jackson, you’d better at least be having fun. W00t!

PS. Completely unrelated bonus image of the beach swings I just finished setting up this afternoon. Who doesn’t love a good swing?

Three Logs, a Chainsaw, and the Scary Wheel of Death

A few weeks ago upon hauling another awesome log up off of the beach, I realized that there was in fact nowhere to put it. Every mostly-out-of-the-rain nook and cranny on our property was full up with logs and branches and stumps waiting to be made into, well, something cool. Time to use up some inventory.

I was in the mood to practice some large motor skills — rough-hewn, useful projects that embrace their loggy-ness. Of course that meant the chainsaw, but also a first go-around with the Scary Wheel of Death (SWOD). Advertised as “extremely sharp” and sold together with (I kid you not) a chainsaw attachment for an angle grinder, this thing means business. Amazingly cool but seriously dangerous. I would not get anywhere near it without my Kevlar gloves and leather apron and a bunch of face-related PPE. That said, it does its job and does it well.

Three projects — a footstool for the sun nook, a shallow washbasin for cleaning up sandy dog paws, and a “sidecar” add-on to the towel stand for holding sunscreen and such:

The biggest hassle about working with logs is the checks / cracks that show up as they dry out. I have varying degrees of patience waiting for this — the “gold standard” is to coat the endgrain with wax emulsion (to even out escaping moisture) and wait a year or more. There are quicker methods too (e.g., denatured alcohol or an oven), but at the end of the day logs are just perfectly constructed to split as they shrink. I usually just roll with it.

The Footstool

OK, so let’s look at the stool first. It was inspired by a bunch of Pinterest-pushed videos of barefoot old men smoking cigarettes while carving furniture with their chainsaws. Surely I can do that! So I sharpened up the Greenworks (such a great tool) and set to. The piece came from a nice long tree on the beach; of course I misjudged the angles and got the blade all bound up making the cut. Nothing like working to free a saw as the tide marches steadily towards your spot! Also I was really bad about drying this one. I thought I could get away with it because I was going to remove a bunch of material which should have reduced the internal stress (spoiler alert, it did not).

Step one was to cut a tic-tac-toe shape from the bottom up. I then could push the end of the blade directly in from the sides, freeing all but the corner pieces to make the legs. A bit of shaping and sanding and it was good to go — except for a big crack that developed next to one leg. Because the stool was going to have a cushion on top, this wasn’t a comfort issue; I just needed to keep it from continuing to grow. A perfect opportunity for my first attempt at a “bowtie” inset.

Bowties are really neat — a decorative way to add strength across checks. It’s one of those approaches that is elegant in both form and function — the shape looks nice, the angles are perfectly suited to hold strong tension without ripping through the wood, and it’s pretty straightforward to create. I particularly like it when folks use a series of them to make a “zipper” like they’ve done here. The basic process is:

  • Cut an appropriately-sized bowtie (I used the bandsaw). Be sure the sides are vertical, the piece is tall enough, and that the grain runs lengthwise!
  • Trace it onto the log and use a plunge router to rough out the inlay. You might have to do this in a few passes to get the right depth.
  • Clean up the edges with a sharp chisel.
  • Inset the bowtie with wood glue on all sides. Tap it in with something like a rubber mallet.
  • Use a hand planer and/or sander to even out the surface.
  • Cool tip: if you end up with small gaps around the inlay, spread a bit of wood glue along the edges and then sand with 120 grit paper while it’s wet. Dust from the sanding mixes with the glue and gets pushed into the gap — ends up color-matching perfectly!

A little citrus paste wax, and an 11” chair pad affixed with Velcro tape and this one was in the bag. Woot!

The Washbasin

Next up the washbasin, and the first go-around with the SWOD. This big guy washed up in front of the house almost ready to go — just needed to cut it in half to get the right height (the other half is still waiting for a project). I wanted stubby legs this time, so instead of plunge-cutting with the saw I just used the router to remove about an inch all around. LOTS of sawdust in this step!

For the basin, I basically wanted to hollow it out to about a 3” depth and then curve the bottom towards a drain in the middle. Hollowing out wood from the end-grain is a HUGE pain — I am still on the hunt for a technique that I really like. What ended up working the best in this case was:

  • Use the router to get down about an inch or so.
  • Put a 1-3/8” Forstner bit onto the impact drill and just drill a million holes to about three inches. Hello my old friend repetitive stress.
  • Chisel out the leftovers between the holes.
  • Use the SWOD to clean it up and carve in the bowl shape at the bottom.
  • Use the same bit to drill through the bottom center to make the drain.

This was all pretty messy, especially at the edges. But it worked! To make the bowl waterproof, I coated the inside with a few rounds of tabletop epoxy. This not only will keep moisture out of the wood, but closed up two huge and one smaller cracks that had developed. I added a few braces underneath the bowl to reinforce this, because believe it or not I’ve had ongoing shrinkage rip solid epoxy apart like it was nothing. Crazy.

Spar varnish on the rest of the piece should keep it pretty weatherproof. Added a rubber stopper, and that’s another project done and dusted.

The Sidecar

Last up, a piece to sit next to the back door holding sunscreen and other important goo. Proving once again that good behavior is overrated, I actually waxed this log and let it dry for seven months and it still cracked on me. But I’m not bitter, really.

First job on this one was to carve out the side so that it would snuggle up to the larger towel holder already in place by the door. Connor got me this super cool set of contour gauges that was perfect for the task (similar to this one). They work kind of like those old “pin art” toys — little plastic fingers contour to an irregular shape so it’s easy to cut a piece that will mate perfectly. Once again I roughed out the cut with the chainsaw, and then used the SWOD for the finer shaping and smoothing. No lie, that thing is just wicked fun to work with.

Then back to the grind hollowing out the storage area. Much too small for most of my tools, this one was again a bunch of Forstner bit drilling and chisel work. I was able to get the oscillating tool in there for some of it, but mostly it was just elbow grease and time. Luckily I could leave the bottom ugly and uneven because I poured in an opaque, self-leveling epoxy layer to make a solid bottom anyways (beautiful mahogany-colored mica pigment, the same as the top of the towel stand).

The epoxy also covered up bracing I added to keep the crack from widening. I inset two additional braces on the inside curve; we’ll see how that works. Don’t love the treatment there but it is hidden most of the time, so I guess that’s ok. A few coats of tung oil and a felt pad on the bottom — three for three!

A bunch of useful stuff for the beach house, and even better, freed up a little space to store new treasures. Time to get back on the hunt!

Rummikub on the Glowforge, a Journey

This summer our neighbors introduced Lara and me to Rummikub, which despite the weird name turns out to be a super-fun game played with a set of 106 tiles numbered 1-13 in four colors/suits plus two jokers. Tile games like this should be as nice to look at as they are to play — but our friends’ set is this awful 1990s sickly off-white plastic pile of junk, with jokers that looked like evil scary clowns. Ew. I set out to design something better on the Glowforge, sure I’d have it done in a few hours.

A few months later and I finally have something I’m mostly happy with. It’s not an incredible heirloom treasure — but it is nice and we’ll have a good time playing it. I learned a bunch of new techniques, and I suppose it’s healthy for the universe to put me in my place every once in awhile. Hopefully you’ll learn from my tribulations and make a set for your family, or at least enjoy a few laughs at my expense as you read along.

The Design

I chose to stick with the original tile size: 38mm high by 26.5mm wide. I could easily fit 6 rows of 13 tiles onto the bed of the Glowforge (about 280mm x 457mm working area), overflowing two rows of 13 and the two jokers onto a second piece, leaving a reasonable amount left over to recut any goofs. Measurements in hand, I set about creating the files in Inkscape. I eyeballed the radius for rounded corners and after looking at dozens and dozens of fonts went with … Arial Bold. Don’t judge.

The tiles are grouped into four colors, but in the original set each one just has the same circle under the number. I decided to represent each group with a symbol as well: circle, square, triangle and starburst (I can play endlessly with the corner count and spoke ratio of Inkscape’s “star and polygon” tool). Because I’m not a monster, I replaced the scary clown joker with a happy face (Wingdings character code 0x4A). Lastly, I added a Script MT Bold “N” for the back of the tiles. The “N” is for Nolan — I considered adding some form of our family crest but couldn’t find one I liked for the space. (New project: figure out how to draw a simple vector crest!)

For material, I used quarter-inch thick MDF board clad with cherry veneer on both sides. On my Glowforge Basic, I used 800 / 80 for engraving and 120 / Full for cutting. Feel free to use and alter these SVG files however you like:

Double-Sided Engraving

Engraving tiles on both sides presents an interesting challenge on the Glowforge; it’s tough to align designs precisely on a physical piece. Within a design, alignment is no problem — I can easily cut the tiles and center the numbers and shapes inside them. But getting the “N” engraved on the reverse side of already-cut pieces is a different story. The smaller the target piece, the harder it is to get exactly right; 106 individual tiles would be a nightmare!

This approach is the simplest and most effective I’ve found for the general alignment problem. But lucky for us, there is a super-cool trick that works for aligning front and back engravings for any shape that is symmetrical along its North-South axis — like our tiles! Details are in the link, but in brief it works like this:

  1. Create your design with the elements for both sides aligned as desired. In the rummikub SVGs, every tile has an “N” stacked right on top of the number and shape. Choose different colors for the front and back elements so that Glowforge groups them into distinct engraving steps.
  2. Fix the material to the Glowforge bed with tape or clips or whatever. This doesn’t have to be super-strong, but it should keep you from accidentally bumping the material once you’ve started. It’s really important that the material not move between steps!
  3. Upload the design and configure settings for the cuts and front-side engravings. Set the back-side elements to “Ignore” and run the print.
  4.  Open the lid, flip each cut piece to expose the back side, then place it back into its hole in the base material. It can be a bit tricky to pull the pieces out; I use a large hat pin to get a grip inside the cut.
  5. Now configure the settings to engrave the elements on the back and ignore the others (including the cuts), and run the print again. Note that when you close the lid and the Glowforge rescans the bed, it may show the elements out of alignment. This is a lie! As long as you don’t move the physical material, your second print run will cut aligned with the first.
  6. Tada! Perfect alignment on every tile.

Adding Color

Each tile “shape” has its own color. I chose red for the star, blue for the triangle, yellow for the square and green for the circle — plus black for the two jokers. I used this super-cool technique to apply color to the tiles neatly and absolutely love the result.

Pretty much everyone uses some kind of masking tape to cover their material and protect it from scorch marks that the laser can otherwise leave behind. When you buy “proofgrade” material direct from Glowforge it comes with a mask already in place; something like this item at Amazon does the trick for other stuff. It turns out that you can take advantage of this mask to fill in engravings with color as well.

With the masks still in place, I first cleaned ash and residue from each tile using baby wipes. This is a messy job and requires some care so that you don’t get the masks too wet; they need to stay adhered to the tiles for the next step. Then I just painted over the front side of each tile using acrylic paint from this set. Because the engraving is dark, it took a few coats to cover — four for most colors and five for the yellow. I let it dry for about ten minutes between coats, and then an hour before peeling off the masks. This was incredibly satisfying — the edges came away clean and crisp, and the color is bright and bold.

The last step was to cover the tiles on all sides with a few coats of clear enamel spray. The final result is a durable, nice looking set. Woo hoo!

Wait, this all seems fine?

“Seems” is the operative word here. The above is a textbook example of social media whitewashing — it’s all true, but skips over all of the not-so-pretty goofs and gotchas along the way. To wit:

Ghosts in the design

106 tiles, each with one cut and three engravings, is a lot of Glowforging and takes quite a bit of time (about two hours). The first hiccup came about two thirds of the way into this session as, seemingly at random, some of the engrave elements were just skipped. I couldn’t figure out a pattern to this so just wrote it off as “some bug,” maybe because of the large number of elements, and built new files to remake the ones that had been messed up.

Unfortunately, the “bug” kept showing up on some (not all) tiles every print, which was increasingly annoying as I quickly burned through my extra material trying to complete the set. Finally, as I was moving tiles around in the Glowforge interface for yet another run, I happened to notice that some of the engraving elements were showing up just a little darker than the others. WTF?

It turns out that, at some point during the dozens of copy/pastes involved in this design, I double-pasted some of the engraving elements — the elements that were showing up darker were actually two identical copies, one atop the other. And when a design has overlapping filled vector shapes, Glowforge just ignores the overlap area. I can’t find this documented anywhere, but it does show up in the community support forums with some regularity. Anyways, when I finally got the files fixed up, everything started working as intended.

Burn marks

A few of the tiles ended up with a weird pattern of burn marks along the edges on the back. I think there must have been something about the position of the tiles on the honeycomb tray that the material sits on in the Glowforge bed — some kind of reflection during the cutting process. It’s possible that I could have dialed down the power and still cut through the material without that side-effect. Anyways, while the aesthetics weren’t that horrible, part of the game is selecting tiles from a face-down draw pile. Unique patterns on the backs would be the equivalent of using a marked deck of cards … whoops! So I remade them.

Paint bleed under the mask

I actually expected this to be much more of a problem than it was. On a few of the pieces, the mask detached just a bit from the tile, causing the paint to bleed outside of the engraved area. I initially thought I might be able to scrape or sand off the extra, but that didn’t work very well — bits of the paint sort of smeared across the tile and it just looked bad. This only happened on a handful of tiles, so I just remade them instead of continuing to fight it.

Light and dark

The material I used has cherry veneer on both sides, but if you look closely one side is notably darker than the other (this was consistent across all the sheets of this stuff). I used light for the fronts, dark for the backs. Once I applied the masking tape, though, it was no longer clear which side was which. And after I got all the way through and was setting up to apply the enamel, I realized that I had flipped the sheet for a whole group of the tiles. And of course, the same thing about marked cards applies here — if you know that half of the green tiles appear lighter in the draw pile, it doesn’t make for a very fair game. I was just able to squeeze enough space out of my extra material to remake these too … whew.

Not the enamel too!

After this seemingly endless process of remaking and repainting problem tiles, I finally had a complete set. Home stretch! All that was left to do was to apply a few coats of clear enamel spray to protect the tiles during play. I’ve had trouble in the past with the enamel sticking the pieces to whatever they were sitting on (in this case a big piece of pressboard). My wife suggested that I put a penny under each tile to hold it just off the surface. A great idea, but because it was only 40° outside where I was painting, I was going to have to move the tiles inside to dry in a warmer environment — the pennies were just too slippery to stay in place during this move. Instead, I put little one-inch pieces of non-stick drawer liner under each one. Two coats on the fronts, wait for them to dry, flip them over, two coats on the backs, shuttling back and forth inside and outside, Bob’s your uncle.

Or not. Apparently tripling the dry time for the enamel (and touch-testing the tiles of course) was not sufficient. When I picked them up (thinking the project was completely finished, mind you) I discovered that the drawer liner was sticking to the tile fronts, leaving grey bits embedded in the enamel as they pulled away. Nooooooooooo! Through my tears of frustration, I used the flat side of a sharp knife to scrape off as much as I could — carefully touched up the paint where it had been damaged — and resprayed the fronts with two more coats of the enamel. The end result actually was fine — the scraping left notable marks at first, but the enamel coats fused together and left the final products looking ok.

Twist the knife

This last is just funny. As I was writing all of this up, I realized that the game wants tiles numbered 1-13 and I had created 1-14. Certainly better too many than too few, but come on.

I don’t remember any project where everything went exactly to plan. But this one takes the cake for sheer number of own-goals. Ah well … they will be fun to play with, and I will use both of those new techniques again for sure, and I can’t help but think of the old saw that a bad day fishing beats a good day working. Amen to that.

A Chain from a Branch

By far the best part of our place in Bellevue is the trees. Along with the ubiquitous firs and alders, we’ve got beautiful cottonwoods, (self-seeding) cedars and absolutely enormous maples.  This time of year, the wind and rain bury the yard in huge drifts of leaves, and inevitably a few big branches come down. I don’t have all of my woodshop toys here, but I do have this awesome carving set — so I went out foraging for a nice piece of maple branch for a whittling project. Our mission: carve a wooden chain.

This is a pretty classic whittling project, and there are tons of “how to” videos and blogs out there to start from. Most of them start strong and finish weak:

  1. Cut the blank into a cross shape. OK!
  2. Mark and cut the outsides of the links. Got it!
  3. Finish the chain. Wait, is this a British Baking Show technical challenge?

Let’s go through the process with a little more focus on color commentary, shall we?

First and foremost — you’re almost certainly going to cut yourself at some point. BE REALLY CAREFUL — fingers and hands have a lot of important internals. Keep your knives sharp — I use a fine stone at the beginning of a project, and a strop at least every half hour while I work. A sharp knife requires less force to cut, is much less likely to slip, and will at least cut clean when things go wrong. It’s also just way more satisfying to carve with. The set I mentioned above (here’s the link again) comes with a pair of cut-resistant gloves; I always use one on my left hand at least (I’m a righty). They won’t stop a serious cut (I poked the knife point right into the fleshy part of my palm during this project, ouch) … but they do provide glancing protection and that’s well worth it.

Next, it’s easier to carve wood that is green rather than dry; moisture in the wood makes for cleaner cuts with less “tear out” along the grain. That said, green wood will shrink and thicker parts can be vulnerable to cracking as it dries. If you are working a piece over multiple days, it can help to store it in a plastic bag between sessions to help hold the moisture content stable. Rubbing a finished piece with mineral (or tung or whatever) oil will protect it as it dries.

OK, let’s get started. A branch about 2” in diameter is good, and 6” in length will make three nice-sized links. Most tutorials on the web start with a square milled blank — this is fine, but I prefer using something off of the ground and a branch works perfectly as long as it’s straight. The only trick is to pay attention to the pith at the very center of the branch — it can be super-soft, more like packed brown sugar than wood. Since the center of the branch will make up structural parts of each link, this can be problematic. I keep a bottle of thin CA glue (regular Krazy glue works fine too, it’s just a bit thicker) on hand and whenever I expose a new bit of pith I soak it with the glue and let it dry before digging in. This will fix the material in place but still carve pretty easily.

Each of the steps below has one or more corresponding images in the gallery at the bottom — usually the picture is a better description that my text, so be sure to look at them carefully before making cuts!

(1) Draw a tic-tac-toe style cross on the end of the branch, with the middle square being about a half inch or a bit more per side. Use a ruler to extend the ends down the length of the branch, and then draw a matching cross on the other end. The two crosses should be oriented together as closely as possible.

(2) Cut away the lengths of branch along the corners of the crosses, leaving you with a long X-shaped piece. You can do this with your knife, but I recommend you save a boatload of time and just use a saw for this part. Unfortunately all I had at hand was a crosscut saw which had to work pretty hard making these long rip cuts in the green wood. I had to stop and clean the teeth constantly, but eventually made it through.

(3) Now the actual whittling starts. These first cuts are pretty easy since they’re all on the outside, but are hard to explain with words — be sure to refer to the gallery images! Measure the length in four equal parts. (a) At the halfway mark, cut a notch on one arm of the X and then in the same place on the opposite arm. (b) At each of the quarter marks, cut opposing notches on the other arms of the X. (c) Remove the material from the notch to the end of the blank on the arms notched in step b. (c) Make four half-notches at the ends of the arms in step a. When you’re done, you’ll be able to see the outlines of the three links in your chain.

(4) Hollow out the fully-exposed center parts of the two end links. These internal cuts start to get more difficult. Make stop cuts all along the outside of the shape you’re trying to remove, and keep reinforcing them as you go deeper — they will prevent cuts from tearing out material beyond the center. Take your time and don’t try to remove too much material at once. I tend to make the stop cuts, and then use long “V” cuts along the grain to pull out little toothpick-sized bits, alternating each side of the piece until I’m able to break through.

(5) Finish hollowing out the less-exposed centers of the two end links. Use the same technique as in the previous step, being sure to keep strong stop cuts all along the outside. At this point the piece will start becoming pretty fragile, so be very aware of where you are applying force with your gripping hand and as you press in with the knife point. When you’ve finished this step, the end links are clearly visible and almost complete.

(6) Hollow out the exposed center parts of the inside link. These are about the same narrow width as the hollows in step 5, but they are longer and feel more awkward. Don’t get impatient — keep strong stop cuts in place and take out small bits of material at a time, working on either side until the cuts meet. I found it easier to make deeper cuts towards the center of the piece, so concentrated there until the cuts met, at which point there was more room to work the blade and clear the rest of the material.

(7) This is the most exciting part! In this step you free the links from each other; in the gallery you’ll see green arrows pointing to the three areas to cut (and red X’s to avoid!). At this point the piece is very delicate, so you’ll want to just make tiny “nibbling” cuts with the tip of the knife, being very careful to not put too much force on the piece with your gripping hand especially. Each of the three areas you need to clear will have four sides; work around each side in turn cutting out more and more until you break through. Resist the temptation to try to “snap” the remaining material when it gets thin, it takes very little torque to accidentally break the link itself.

(8) This is just cleanup and finishing. Where you’ve separated the links, there will extra material to remove, and you’ll want to profile the links into a more regular / rounded form. This is far less awkward and risky than step 7, because you can move the links around to create access to any part you need to work on. Sand the links if you like, and apply a bit of mineral oil to protect the wood.

Woo hoo! We made it, and the finished product is pretty awesome. Nothing super-complex, but it requires basic competency with all of the core whittling cuts (push, pull, stop and V). Most importantly, the work requires patience and focus, both of which I can always use more of. And I do love working with materials that come from where we live. Fun stuff!

Weather, Wood, and Wifi

Who doesn’t love the weather? It’s universally relevant, physically amazing, frequently dramatic, and overflows with data that almost — but never quite — lets us predict its behavior. Weather inspires a never-ending array of super-awesome gadgets and gizmos — beautiful antique barometers, science projects that turn DC motors into anemometers, classic home weather stations from La Crosse and Oregon Scientific, NOAA-driven emergency alert radios… the variety is endless, and apparently I own them all.

Most recently I purchased a WeatherFlow Tempest for our place on Whidbey Island. This thing is absolutely amazing. With zero moving parts, it detects temperature, humidity, precipitation (amount and type), wind, pressure, solar radiation and nearby lightning strikes. It computes a ton of derived metrics from these base data. It customizes the forecast for the local microclimate. And of course it’s fully connected to the cloud and has a published, robust API that anyone can use. It’s basically weather cocaine.

The only thing missing is a great at-a-glance, always-on tabletop display. There’s a solid phone app, and the web site is perfectly serviceable. But I wanted something that looks good in a room and can quickly show if you’ll want a raincoat on your walk, or which day will be better for the family cookout. Something more attractive than an iPad propped up in the corner.

You’ll have to judge for yourself how well I did on the “attractive” part, but I did manage to put together a piece that I am pretty happy with. The base is cut from a really nice chunk of spalted birch driftwood I found a few months ago, and the display was my first serious work with the Raspberry Pi platform, which is freaking awesome by the way. I even managed to squeeze a little Glowforge action into the mix. Lots to talk about!

Hardware and Platform

The core of the display unit is a Raspberry Pi Zero WH with a 5” HDMI display that attaches directly to the header block. The Zero is a remarkable little unit — a complete Linux computer with built-in wifi, HDMI, USB and 512mb of RAM for … wait for it … $14. Yes that is actually the price. You need to add an SD card for a few bucks, and the display unit I picked was a splurge at $47 — but all-in the cost of hardware was about $70. Stunning.

The nice thing about this combo is that adding software is about as far from “embedded” development as you can get. Again, and I can’t say this enough — it’s just Linux. I used Java to build the server and rendered the display using plain old HTML in Chromium running in full screen “kiosk” mode. An alternative would have been to buy a cheap Android tablet, and that probably would have worked fine too, but I just don’t love building mobile clients and it’s harder to set them up as a true kiosk. The web is my comfy happy place; I’ll choose it every time.

There are a ton of good walkthroughs on setting up a Pi so I won’t belabor that. In short:

  1. Set up an SD card with the Raspberry Pi OS. The setup app is idiot-proof; even I got it going ok.
  2. Connect the Pi to the real world with a 5V power supply (USB-C for the Zero), a monitor through the mini-HDMI, and a keyboard/mouse via USB-C.
  3. Boot it up, connect it to your wifi, and set up sshd so you don’t have to keep the monitor and keyboard connected (ifconfig | grep netmask is an easy way to find your assigned IP).

Yay, you now have a functional Pi! Just a few more steps to set it up for our kiosk use case:

  1. Attach the display to the header block and connect it to the mini HDMI port. I used a little right-angle cable together with the 180° connector that came with the display. The connection is a bit cleaner if you use the larger Pi form factor, but I stuck with the Zero because it made for a more compact power supply connection. Optionally you can enable the touchscreen, but I didn’t need it for this project.
  2. Set a bunch of options using raspi-config:
    1. Boot into X logged in as the “pi” user (System Options -> Boot / Auto-Login -> Desktop Autologin).
    1. Ensure the network is running before Chromium starts (System Options -> Network at Boot -> Yes).
    1. Disable screen blanking (Display Options -> Screen Blanking -> No).
  3. Hide the mouse pointer when it’s idle.
    1. sudo apt-get install unclutter
    1. Add the line @unclutter -idle 0.25 to the end of the file /etc/xdg/lxsession/LXDE-pi/autostart
  4. And finally, tell the pi to open up a web page on startup by adding the line /usr/bin/chromium-browser --kiosk --disable-restore-session-state http://localhost:7071/ to the end of the same autostart file as in #3 above.

A lot of fiddly little settings there, but the end product is a 800×480 display that boots to a web page in full screen mode and just stays there — just like we need. Whew!

Software, Data and Layout

The Tempest really is nerdvana. You can interact with its API in three ways:

  1. The unit broadcasts real time observation packets over the local network via UDP port 50222 (I haven’t implemented this as yet).
  2. The WebSocket API enables subscriptions to similar push messages from the cloud (my client is TempestSocket.java).
  3. Observations and rich forecast data can be pulled from the cloud with the REST API (my client is Tempest.java).

For this project I’m authenticating to the cloud APIs using “personal use tokens” — simple strings allocated on the Tempest website by the station owner. There’s a rich OAuth story as well, but I wasn’t psyched about implementing the grant user experience flow on my little embedded display, and tokens work fine.

My weather station is really just a forecasting box, so it only needs the REST piece. Server.java implements a simple web server (using my trusty WebServer.java and Template.java utilities) that serves up two endpoints:

main.html is a simple container that targets the actual weather dashboard in a full-page iframe. A javascript timer refreshes the contents of the frame every four minutes, which seemed reasonable for forecast data that doesn’t move very quickly. I chose this approach to maintain resilience across network outages — so long as this page stays loaded, it should continue to happily reload the iframe on every cycle regardless of whether that page actually loads or not. I also realized that it sets up a cool vNext option — this main page could manage a dynamic list of pages to rotate through the kiosk, which would be fun on holidays or to add news or other information sources. Saved to the idea list!

dashboard.html.tmpl is the real workhorse of all this. Its server-side code is in registerDashboardHandler, which makes the REST calls to fetch Tempest data, preprocesses it all so it’s ready to merge into the template, and then calls render to fill in the blanks. I talked a little bit about the templating utility in a post a few weeks ago — it’s more than String.replace but much less than Apache Velocity … works for me.

At the end of the day, we get a nice display that shows current conditions and the forecast for the next five hours and five days — perfect for planning your day and week. The background color reflects current temperature (talked about that a few weeks ago as well!), and I’m grateful that the good folks at Tempest don’t restrict use of their iconography because it’s way better than anything I would have come up with myself!

The server process itself is just a Java app that also runs on the Pi. I considered hosting this part in the cloud somewhere, but keeping it local was another way to reduce the number of moving parts in the solution, and to add some resilience during network outages.

Cloning and building requires Maven and at least version 11 of the JDK to be installed. The Pi’s ARMv6 processor did present a wrinkle here; I needed to install a pre-built JDK from Azul. This post by Frank Delporte was a lifesaver; thanks Frank! Once all that is sorted; these commands should do the trick:

git clone https://github.com/seanno/shutdownhook.git
cd shutdownhook
git checkout jdk11
cd toolbox && mvn clean package install
cd ../weather && mvn clean package

Configuration is a simple JSON file that at a minimum provides the port to listen on and access credentials for the Tempest:

  "Server": { "Port": 7071 },
  "Tempest": { "Stations": [ {
    "StationId": "YOURTEMPEST",
    } ] }

And while there are fancier ways to get background processes running on startup, it’s hard to beat my old friend /etc/rc.local for simplicity. The following (long) line in that file gets the job done:

su -c 'nohup java -Dloglevel=INFO -cp /home/pi/weather/weather-1.0-SNAPSHOT-jar-with-dependencies.jar com.shutdownhook.weather.Server /home/pi/weather/server-config.json > /home/pi/weather/log.txt' pi &

Cutting and Shaping the Base

With the digital piece of this project taken care of, the last major subproject was the base itself. I knew I wanted to use this beautiful spalted birch log I picked off of the beach, but spun for a while trying to figure out an approach I liked. I didn’t want to do a wall mount because of the power supply; batteries wouldn’t last and a cord hanging down the wall is just too tacky. If it was going to sit on a desk or side table, the display needed to be presented at an angle for visibility. Eventually I settled on a wedge-shaped cut that presents about a 30° face and highlights some of the coolest patterns in the wood. My humble WEN band saw needs some maintenance, but it’s still my go-to for so many projects — a great tool.

To embed the display unit into the base, I had to create a rectangular cavity about 1.5” deep (well, mostly rectangular with a stupid extra cutout for the HDMI adapter). I’m not really skilled enough with my router to feel confident plunge-cutting something like this, so instead I just used the drill press and a Forstner bit to hog out most the material, then cleaned it up with a hand chisel. I drilled a grid of holes through the back of the piece to keep the electronics cool and pull through the power cord, sanded it to 120 grit and had something pretty ok!

I ended up finishing the piece with a few coats of penetrating epoxy resin. I had planned to use Tung oil and beeswax, but the wood turned out to be super-dry and much softer than I’d thought, so it benefited from the stabilizing properties of the epoxy. The final result is pretty durable and I do like the way the glossy finish brings out the darker marks in the wood.

Putting it all Together

So close now! I just needed a way to secure the display in the base and cover up the edge of the cavity and electronics. I used the Glowforge to cut out a framing piece from 1/8” black acrylic, complete with pre-cut holes for some nice round-head brass screws at the corners. A little serendipity here because the epoxy finish really matched up well with the shiny black and brass. A little adhesive cork on the bottom of the unit made it sit nicely on the table, and finally that was a wrap!

What an amazing experience combining so many different materials and technologies into a final project. I have become somewhat obsessed with the Raspberry Pi — it just opens up so many options for cool tech-enabled projects. Just last night I ordered a daughter card that teaches a Pi to speak Z-Wave, the protocol sitting dormant in a bunch of light fixtures in my house. Disco Suburbs here we come!

Oh wait, one last technical note: as assembled, the USB connectors are inaccessible unless you unscrew the frame and pull the unit out. That’s not a huge deal, but if you’re going to run the station in a location other than where you started (i.e., on a different wifi network), it makes on-site setup a hassle. You can preempt this by pre-configuring the unit to pick up additional wifi networks. In the file /etc/wpa_supplicant/wpa_supplicant.conf, just clone the format you see already there to add additional “network” entries as required.

All of the code described in this article can be found at https://github.com/seanno/shutdownhook/tree/jdk11/weather.

I Got a Rock

The title here isn’t particularly relevant, I just never miss an opportunity to quote It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

A few months ago, a friend sent me some pictures of cool stone-lidded ring boxes and asked if I thought I could make one for her daughter’s wedding. I was 100% not convinced I could, so gave myself a ton of outs but agreed to give it a shot. After a lot of stops and starts, I think the final result came out ok — fortunately she likes the “rustic” look! Loads of new materials and techniques which is always super fun.

The Rock

By far the most intimidating part of this build was the rock lid. The size and shape of the rock defines the piece — I wanted something with a nice texture and an uneven, rounded shape. It needed to be short vertically, kind of like a tall pancake, so that the fall of the edge blended seamlessly into the wooden box. I trolled around on the beach for awhile and found a few good candidates of various types and brought them into the garage.

OK, how to cut this thing on the horizontal? I’ve used my Dremel to bore rock but that was a non-starter here — the cut was too wide and along the thinnest part of the rock. I found a couple of well-reviewed diamond-edged blades for my trusty angle grinder, and set to work on a jig. It basically ended up as a mini-version of my chainsaw-slabbing jig, holding the blade horizontally above a supporting surface. The hardest part of these is safely moving the material through the blade while retaining all ten fingers. Push sticks and Kevlar gloves for the win!

Next lesson — some rocks are really hard. This should not have been a surprise, but especially with the awkward angle, crystalline pieces like quartz or granite were basically impossible to cut cleanly. The one I ended up with was (I think) well-weathered scoria … related to pumice but much denser and more solid. In the picture with the jig, you can see the little rectangular piece in the center left over after cutting the rock outside-in around each edge; I was able to remove that with a bunch of elbow grease and a diamond sanding pad which cleaned up the bottom nicely.

The Box

The red alder tree that fell on the beach a couple of winters ago has been my go-to for a ton of projects requiring clear wood — went back to that here too. I traced the rock top on a blank and rough cut the shape on the bandsaw, then basically carved and sanded until I had something that meshed into the top. Ideally I would have tapered the bottom edges more, giving the whole piece more of an egg shape, but I needed to preserve height so there was enough space inside the box for a ring.

Did I mention a lot of sanding to get this right?

The space for the ring was pretty straightforward — just a 1-3/8″ hole with the drill press — but I was sweating it out convinced my box was either going to fly across the garage OR I was going to drill through the bottom by mistake. Happily neither of these things happened, and after a few applications of tung oil to bring out the alder color it was time for the really hard part.

Hinge and Closure

I now had a box and lid which fit together nicely. The plan was to attach the lid using a brass pin which was tight enough to hold things together but loose enough so that the lid could rotate open, exposing the ring nook. I also wanted to put a pair of small magnets on the opposite side so that it would “snap” closed to the right position. Seriously, I don’t know how people did this stuff before Amazon and the Internet.

The Dremel was the right tool this time; I have a bunch of diamond-tipped bits that go through rock and bored the pin hole and magnet divot nicely. Holding the piece under water reduced dust, and more importantly kept the bit cool so it lasts.

I always stress out about getting the opposite side of matching holes right. It was extra important here, since being off at all would offset the lid from the box — and the clean line between the two was the whole point of this exercise. I put black Sharpie on the bottom of a long pin, held the lid and box together, and pressed the pin through the lid onto the wood, making just enough of a mark to drill out its mate accurately. The same technique worked on the magnet pair too. Whew.

I glued the magnets into place, then cut the pin to length and glued it into the box. Lara had the great idea to coat the top of the pin with wax before sliding on the lid, which made it fit snugly and turn smoothly. I couldn’t believe my luck … it actually opened and closed and everything. WOOOOT!

Finishing Touches

I sure do love the Glowforge. Cut out a little circle of adhesive cork to fit into the ring nook, engraved with a script “A” for good measure, and things were looking pretty snappy. The last bit was a decorative elastic (loop closure sewed by Lara, thank you!) to hold it all more securely in a pocket or whatever.

This was definitely the most “mixed material” project I’ve done … it was a fun challenge to figure out how to shape and join everything. If I were to do another one, I think I’d use a slightly bigger rock for the lid … that would make it easier to create an egg shape without giving up vertical space for the nook. I’d also love to find a stronger magnet, but that is definitely a tradeoff of size vs. holding strength. The little guys do a surprisingly good job.

Once again I find myself enjoying the juxtaposition of larger-scale and smaller-scale work. I am pretty sure I’ll never get tired of this stuff. Until next time!

Lincoln Logs FTW

A few weeks back I shared some pictures of the driftwood gate at the corner of our Whidbey place. Since then, I managed to actually finish the fence that runs from that corner along the bulkhead (only took three years). The last step of that was setting the pro-manila rope; turns out there are few things more satisfying than cutting that stuff with an electric hot knife. The brass hardware looks great too (sourced by Lara of course) and I even got the swags pretty even. Woo hoo!

Because I need space to move boats and such up and down from the beach, I left about fifteen feet unfenced at the far end of the bulkhead. Very functional, but it did look a bit weird to have the fence just end like that. Hmm, a perfect spot for the log bench I’ve been thinking about….

I’ve been keeping an eye out for the perfect driftwood bench log since last winter — something the right size, with a nice weathered vibe, and (most importantly) in front of my house so I didn’t break my back moving it down the shore. Fortune (or maybe Gummarus, the patron saint of woodcutters) finally favored me a couple of weeks ago, so I wasted no time cutting two short lengths for feet and a long one for the seat and backrest.

Splitting the long piece in half was a ton of fun. I cut wedges from a 2×4 and worked them down the log lengthwise, starting from a natural check at one end. The force generated by these simple machines is outrageous. The only bummer was a secondary mid-sized crack that opened up along the length, but it didn’t impact the integrity of the piece. I reinforced it with a few long screws anyways, and after the wood dries a bit more I’ll fill it with Check Mate to keep rot from setting in over the wet season.

I needed an assist from the boat winch to haul the long pieces up over the bulkhead … lots of seawater still in those fibers! I let them sit for a couple of weeks which was enough to dry a few inches at the surface. It’ll take a lot of summer “heat dome” action to clear out the moisture completely. Hopefully by mid-September it’ll be dry enough for a couple of coats of water seal. We’ll see.

A LOT of sawdust later, the seat was planed down to an even surface that I finished with rough sanding and filleted edges. No thigh-splinters here, ladies and gents.

Next up, notching the feet to hold the seat. This was harder than I expected — people that build full-on log homes this way have my undying respect. I made some cardboard templates to help gauge my progress, roughed the notches out with the chainsaw and then just chipped away with a hatchet until I got a reasonable fit.

Rough-trimmed the feet to make them look a little nicer and be less of a tripping hazard, dug them into the bulkhead rocks a bit, laid on the seat and woah it is rock-freaking-solid! I am really impressed with how stable it is even without any additional pegging.

All that’s left to do is the backrest — which I will leave to another day, probably after the 4th. I say “all that’s left” but this is actually the biggest engineering challenge. Since I want to easily move boats over the top, the backrest should be removable. My current thinking is:

  1. Use the chainsaw to slab out a thinner piece from the leftover long log.
  2. Plane that down so the person-side is smooth and comfortable.
  3. Fabricate three large L-shaped brackets and bolt them to the backrest.
  4. Cut slots in the seat to fit in the other ends of the brackets.

Theoretically this should easily slide in and out but still provide stable support, with just a little flex in the metal brackets. I have some pieces left over from an old project that should work well for that. There will definitely be some tension between stability and ease of removal; will try a few options on scrap wood first.

I really enjoy mixing it up between large- and small-scale projects. The techniques and materials are similar in many ways, but the challenges and rewards are very different. I love that I can jump up and down on my bench without it budging an inch — and that I can see my reflection in the (ok, almost) flawless polish on the little bud vase I made earlier in the year.

Always new stuff to try and to learn! But perhaps just a little later, after I finish this beer and contemplate the world from my new bench, watching the tide roll and the sun set over the Salish Sea. What a cool world we get to live in.

I made a spoon.

A couple of months ago I bought a copy of Country Woodcraft: Then & Now by Drew Langsner. It’s a beautiful book that dives deep into everything from felling and hewing logs, to building and sharpening tools, to creating everyday items like rakes, stools, buckets and bowls. It even covers handmade farm implements like plows and harrows — super-fun to learn about, but probably not high on my personal list of essentials. The original book was published in the 70s and was updated last year. Highly recommended.

After reading the chapter on spoon carving earlier this month, I happened to be clearing out some winterfall maple branches from the back of our yard in Bellevue, so I cut a few chunks and tucked them away for a rainy day experiment. Yesterday turned out to be that day!

Here’s the thing though — turns out that spoon carving is kind of the macrame of woodworking. YouTube is downright brimming with videos on YouTube talking about finding the spoon in the wood and connecting with the spirit of our ancestors through cutlery. Look, there’s more than a little hippie in me too, but seriously people.

I guess that’s why I’ve enjoyed Country Woodcraft so much. It’s incredibly detailed and richly illustrated and isn’t shy about natural and constructed beauty — it’s just that they emerge primarily from function. Consolidating this particular endeavor down to the essentials:

  1. Get a spoon-sized piece of wood. Grain should be parallel to the length. Avoid the pith.
  2. Whittle it into a spoon shape. Don’t cut yourself.
  3. Sand and finish it.
  4. You now have a spoon.

Don’t get me wrong, there is clearly bigtime craft here that takes work and practice. You need sharp knives and hollowing out the bowl requires time, care and patience (I used a hook knife, but a lot of folks use gouge chisels). Deep ladles and such require steam or other bending techniques. My amateur attempt is painfully clumsy compared to real carvers, but it makes me happy nonetheless.

I doubt that fine carving is in my future — years of repetitive workplace stress on the fingers and wrists have taken a toll on my dexterity. Thankful for the big bottle of Advil in the medicine cabinet! But I always value the opportunity to appreciate the work that goes into creating even the simplest objects and tools. Fun stuff!

And next time there is pasta sauce to be stirred at the Nolans — we are golden.

Driftwood Chic

My personal architectural aesthetic was pretty much locked into place by the 1960 Disney movie Swiss Family Robinson. I mean sure, they had materials from the wrecked ship to work with, but running water, a piano and a skylight in the master bedroom of a jungle treehouse? That is living my friend. I will never forgive Disney for retheming their home with some stupid Tarzan noise.

Anyways. There is a little corner of our property here on Whidbey that bumps up against a shared road-end lot. We need a fence there to keep our dog in (and others out), but it’s also the only direct access to the ocean-side yard, so we need a gate that can open. Time for some driftwood construction, Swiss Family Robinson style!

Turns out that getting random driftwood constructs square enough to hang evenly, swing freely and latch securely is a little harder than it looks. But eventually we got there, with beautiful finishing decoration courtesy of my daughter Alex, who at 27 still can rock the deserted island vibe.

The rule was that (excepting hardware) the structure could use only driftwood pulled off of the beach. I cheated in two places — first, I didn’t pour concrete footings, but did bury short treated posts in the ground under each leg, secured with lengths of rebar between. I also cut a circle out of marine-grade plywood for Alex to mount the sunburst pieces on. Good to have those off my conscience.

The framing rails of the gate came from branches about 5″ diameter that I cut in half lengthwise using multiple wedges. Branches of this diameter almost always naturally split while they dry, and unfortunately the lines they choose are rarely square (knots don’t help!) so this took a few tries to get right. My super-awesome (and cheap) new electric planer evened out the flat sides pretty well and little 90-degree chucks at the corners kept things stable.

I routed channels on the top and bottom rails, and then went hunting for the vertical pieces to lock into them. My favorite part of this was using the router table to create little round tenons that fit into the slot. Final assembly was a bit of a challenge — bungee cords did a great job of holding it all together while leaving enough flexibility to pop the slats into place.

Honestly, the thing that worried me the most was the hanging hardware. This ain’t construction-grade wood here folks, and even a small gate hung on one side creates a bunch of downward torque. But as always, staring vacantly at hardware shelves (thanks Sebo!) for a half hour did the trick — A couple of big screw hooks and galvanized eyebolts were easy to adjust and make it easy to just lift the gate off if needed. Reshaped a standard latching bolt with my beloved angle grinder (and a hammer) and holy crap it actually all came together.

Alex’s contribution really makes the look. She spent a ton of time picking little pieces and getting them arranged into the sunburst — turns out little super-thin drywall screws do the best job at securing fragile wood bits without splitting them.

Next up, a log bench on the waterside with a nice backrest for enjoying summer evenings with a short pour of classy whiskey (Fireball). On it!