Archive for the 'Craftsmanship' Category

Quality Depends on Good Communication

Well, I had to hire a contractor to do a job that was a bit too big for me, even when I am well. When that was done, he asked if there was anything else he could do. The exterior basement door was sticking because of some settling and the hinge screws getting loose in the wood after 125 years. I showed him the door and figured he would understand what was needed. Clearly, fill the holes with structural filler and adjust the shims. After all, he was a professional.


I had to take a call from work and do a quick fix for them. Less than an hour later, I returned to find he’d smashed off (not unscrewed) the antique cast iron steam-age hinges and put some modern, thinner, plated, light weight hinges in the original mortises! He was about to shave off some of the wrong side of the door when I intercepted him. He left for lunch.

Aarghh! Had he checked with me, I would have explained that the hinges themselves were not the problem. And clearly he has no idea what the market is for genuine steam-age hardware in usable condition to restorers, collectors, and steam punk folks. So rather than just cry about split milk, I thought I’d fume about it here, and share a snapshot of the piece that I was able to pull out of the trash.

The Object at Hand is therefore the remains of this hinge from 1890.

Socket To Me

Or: All Your Base Are Belong to Edison

As I was putting up lights for the Solstice/Yule/Christmas season this year, I found that my porch light would not work right. I had unscrewed the bulb to screw in an outlet to power the porch-hung wreath, and could not make it work. I had replaced a (CFL) bulb a month earlier, and suspected that the fixture rather than the bulb was at fault. Now, I was sure of it. So I used an alternate source for the season.

P1060115But then we had a warm day in January, so I set up a ladder and took down the light. Yes, I first identified the right breaker (that took a few tries) and shut off the power.

The fixture seems to be from the 1940’s or 50’s.

IMG_0649I had put a dusk-to-dawn sensor on it in 1990. Birds had nested upon it, and insects apparently made themselves at home behind it.

So down it came, and I worked out how to disassemble it. The screws were rusty, but functional. It needed a good cleaning.

But as I took it apart, it became apparent that the problem was not the wobbly nature of the light socket, but rather that a tubular rivet in the interior of the socket had fatigued away, failed. This was the critical problem. Here you can see the two rivet positions for the Edison base shell, one without a rivet. The missing side is the one to which the neutral power line connects. So the light worked if I pushed it in to touch the rivet, and only then.


So what to do? I hate to replace something that can be fixed. Fortunately, I am a bit of a hoarder. I had saved the light fixtures from a burned out, water damaged ceiling fan a decade ago. I found this remnant and pulled out its socket. See what the rivets are supposed to look like:


The iffy news is that the wires on the “new” 1980’s socket are a bit corroded. But my experience as a tinker and my degree in electrical engineering led me to think this was not a real issue. With CFL’s and LED’s it will never be carrying as much power as it was designed to.

The good news is that the holes, indents, and threads of the 1980’s socket matched the mid-century light fixture. A perfect fit.


So the true Object at Hand is the late 1800’s designed electrical screw-socket to mount light bulbs (generically known as an Edison Base) that are still made from ceramic and brass.

As Ice Balls Age

Last winter I had a whim and a handful of cheap balloons, so I made a set of colorful ice balls. This post does show how to make them, and what mistakes I’d made. But unlike other posts you’ll find on making ice balls, I show the odd thing that happens as they age. So read to the bottom.

First, wear gloves if you don’t want colorful hands for a week or so.

Then make sure that you have a place to put them to freeze. I chose to do them naturally outdoors, and will explain what I did wrong there below.

MVI_7642bSo, take a balloon and put a few drops of food coloring in it. Then fill it with water, somehow. Caution, if the balloon pops, you may get sprayed with permanent dye. Wear an apron, or clothes that you don’t care about.


Gently place the jiggly ball of dye in a cold place. Below 25ºF is best. If you use a freezer, put them in a bowl or something that will catch the liquid if the balloon fails. I put them on a stoop in the snow. Unfortunately, the warm balls melted the snow and they rested on the warmer concrete. IMG_7645So they froze unevenly, and I tried to move some of them too soon. Next time, I will place them on a chair or bench or anything allowing an air gap between their resting surface and the ground.

But most were solid enough for me to pop and remove the balloons. The blue one up close ruptured and leaked, but the other blue one bounced to the bottom of the stairs without losing its cool.


But I did get a nice set of balls to stack as a decorative accent. They got snowed in, and the snow faded and stuck to them over the course of a few weeks.


But note this weird thing! When the temperature got up close to freezing and then cooled at night for a few days, the dye settled within the solid ice!IMG_7752You can see the distilled, purer water ice at the top, and the more concentrated color collecting lower down.


So The Object at Hand today is either the literal ice balls, or the lesson in physics showing how simple natural processes can cause dye to un-mix from frozen water; an apparent reversal of entropy.

This process is similar to Zone Melting, by which silicon is ulta-purified to make semiconducting wafers to make the chips that make it possible for you to read this.

Fuzzy mice

I recall an article in Byte magazine (I think) by Jerry Pournelle (perhaps) back in the mid 1980’s about his adventure when his son lost the IBM mouse ball at the mall. Back then, there was no internet, few electronics stores, and even Computer Shopper was a thin monthly magazine with few aftermarket parts. So he finally got a replacement mouse from IBM, because no one could be found to provide a simple rubber ball of just the right size and weight.

Anyway, I thought of it when my current mouse, a 13 year old Logitech Mx510 optical mouse, lost the ability to wheel down. Back in the ball-mouse days, one had to clean the rollers regularly. But the optical mouse is nearly sealed, and has few moving parts. But Google agreed that the likely problem was dirt.  In over a decade, enough dust (crumbs, skin) did filter in through the wheel-side slots to block the sensor.

So here is today’s Object at Hand, the fuzzy internal workings of the scroll wheel.


Light passes through the spokes (when clean) and tells the processor which way and how far it turns. There are several loose parts in this assembly, and it took me a little while to get them back in the right order after I pulled the tiny carpets of fuzz from many tight internal surfaces.

But back together it went.


And back to work.


Old Tube, New Life

As the final chapter in my starting-a-grill triptych, I will address the starter tube itself. So today’s Object at Hand is a starter tube brought back from the dead.

Grill Starting Supplies

It doesn’t look like much, sitting here with the subjects of my previous two posts. But this starter chimney has had a good life so far, and recently was falling apart. Sure, the tube is rusting badly. But it is not yet rusted through. The failure was that the rivets holding the handle had worked loose, and the ones holding the charcoal tray up had rotted clean off.

So I had to choose between spending a sawbuck or so on a new replacement, making a forever-lasting one out of titanium that MrTitanium happens to have on hand, or resurrecting this old and faithful servant.

Fortunately, I had some heavy duty pop-rivets on hand from recently repairing an aluminum ladder. So I spent an hour of delicate surgery aligning, clamping, re-drilling, and pop-riveting, and tightening other rivets with a hammer and punch. This rusty old wreck now performs as good as new!

One of my peeves is that they don’t only make these from stainless steel. They do exist in stainless, but are harder to find and cost at least triple. I grant that stainless at red hot does in fact stain. But the much slower corrosion of the tube, and the use of stainless rivets, mean these end up in estate sales rather than landfill.

Loose Screen? You Got Some Splinin’ to Do!

Splining ToolMy apologies to those who may note that this is the second pun title in a week. Also, my apologies to those who, on reading this title in puzzlement, simply missed the 1950’s cultural reference.

Anyway, I found myself holding today’s Object in hand, and the phrase crossed my mind. But I got busy with the project, and then other projects. So now here it is 13 months later and I stumbled across the snapshots I took when I first had the thought.

I had a 26 year old storm door in which cats and weather and the vicissitudes of normal use had demolished the original aluminum screen. It was in tatters. So I finally bought a roll of nylon screen, and it came with the necessary rubber spline cord material and this literally groovy insertion tool.

Splining the screenOne of the wheels has a groove to better grip the rubber spline. The other is convex, to let you push it “home.” Anyway, I just had to pull out the old spline and screen, line up the screen material and hold it up in place with some tape. Then press the new spline in over the screen and groove so that friction holds and stretches the screen into place. As you go around the opening, the screen is pulled tight. Easy peasy.

The final step is to cut away the excess. I used a box cutter, of which I have accumulated several styles over the decades of handiwork.

It is fun being relatively handy, and easy to amuse.

Gating My Neighbor

The title is a pun, for those who know English Country Dancing of the kinds we do in the three linked venues in this sentence. It is a move in which one person pulls another one gently around them by the hand, much like a swinging gate.

Old GateAnyway, I was finally motivated to fix an alley gate in the rear of the property next to the one in which I reside. Back when the tech bubble burst, I built a new gate for a neighbor when I was considering non-computer remunerable activities (“jobs”). But other less sweaty forms of enterprise soon came my way. So it has been a dozen years since I have built a gate from scratch.

This old gate had twice required repair already this very year. But the quarter century old treated and mistreated lumber was no longer holding screws reliably. Also, the gate had design flaws from the beginning: It was designed and built by the architect from whom I bought the building in 1986. As I have seen in many cases, architects are generally design artists, not students of engineering or livability.

So I decided to engineer a new gate. I used modern treated wood, allowed it to age and dry for a while in the garage. Then gave each piece a good soaking with oil based penetrating redwood stain (a mix of red and yellow pigments, both of which retard biological growth (ie: algae, lichen, other rots).

Gate skeletonFirst, I had to reinforce the hinge side of the fence with a new upper stringer and a new fence board to support the hinges. Then I measured several times and cut only once per piece, working in the relatively cool shade of the garage this July 4th holiday weekend. I lined up the stringer boards parallel across saw horses. Then measured some more and put in the end fence boards cantilevered out to cover the jamb just the right amount. More careful measuring, and cut the diagonal tension web board to support the gate and prevent it from sagging over the next couple of decades.

This web board is actually the missing board from the first picture. It was in good enough shape to be reused. Then I fit in the other fence boards by eye, and screwed everything up. Intentional cross-the-pond implied pun.

New GateThat is, I attached all the parts with deck screws. Unfortunately, my screws of different lengths had different head types. Back around Y2K, square drive heads replaced the old Phillips heads. Now, those have been supplanted by Torx star drive heads. So I had to change my driver bit way too often, as I refuse to discard perfectly good weatherized screws just because they have been on my shelf for a decade.

Anyway, the gate is now finished. My neighbors no longer have to wrestle with the gate to take out their recycling or trash. Sure, I used salvaged hinges probably from the early 1900’s, and the latch is one I bought at Central Hardware in the 1980’s. But those old parts can be expected to last out the life of this gate, and probably the next.

So the Object At Hand here is the gate I built. Or the idea of a gate. Or even the use of the English Country Dance term to sucker unlikely people into reading this post.

Here is a video that I put together of an English Country Dance performance for one of the three groups linked above. Yes, I appear briefly in it.