Archive for the 'Craftsmanship' Category

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.

Object of Improbable Geometric Ancestry

One item we regularly enjoy at our favorite buffet in the City of Saint Louis is the dessert Crème brûlée. Until recently, it was served in tiny ceramic bowls. They were not exactly regulation ramekins, but clearly more durable and stackable. But the last time we visited the River City Casino Great Food Exposition, the still-credible delectable was served in disposable (ideally recyclable) aluminum cups.

Crème brûlée
After I finished the contents, I stared into the empty cup and a memory surfaced from decades ago: Back in my college daze, I would meet a friend in one of the student lounges a couple of times a week. Back then smoking was still common, so they had disposable aluminum ash trays on every table. When I got a clean one, I exercised my nervous fingers by reproducing a shape that I’d learned to make in silversmithing classes.

I’d studied directly under Heikki Seppa and under some of his students.HPX One of his masters level exercises was to make what he called an “HPX” or Hyperbolic Paraboloid Extension. One that the master himself made is in the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, shown to the right. It is an object of pure anti-clastic curves, where perpendicular lines on the surface curve away from each other, like a saddle or the McDonnell Planetarium. The opposite kind of surface is called synclastic, like a ball or bowl.

Working with a disc of silver or copper, one hammers and folds it to gradually compress the metal in the center in the hardest possible direction, so that the center thickens and the edges curve over. You end up with a fairly unusual shape of no practical utility at all, but fun to fiddle with.

So I wiped off most of the remaining custard and began to play, encouraging edges around and surfaces to collapse. I was surprised how quickly I got the shape to form, given the 30 years since my last attempt. Anyway, this is how I made today’s Object at Hand, seen below. Feel free to try it yourself, the next time you find yourself with a foil dish, bowl, or cup.
HPX 2013

I incorporated a copper HPX as part of a sculpture that won First Prize in a Science Fiction convention art show way back when. My title is probably what they truly were awarding, “Creature of Improbable Genetic Ancestry Examining Object of Improbable Geometric Ancestry.” Thus the title of this post.

A New Coat for Santa

Many years ago, we received a seasonal cookie jar, a Chinese made porcelain Santa that (if memory serves) was full of something. Each year we would take it out and just use it as part of our holiday ambiance. But then his coat began to fade. Only the red did shed. At first, we ignored the few missing flakes. As years and flakes passed, he was delegated to a background role, and finally hidden away. By then he also had a bad crack halfway around, as well. Obviously a dollar store throwaway item finally ready to become landfill after a dozen years of use.

Yet, I had long thought of repainting his coat. But when I did, either the weather was not suitable for good ventilation, or the season was wrong to inspire me. So he continued to languish, kept but unloved.

But December first, 2012 was a very warm day. Warm enough to open up the house to warm it up a little. So I dug an old roll of masking tape out of the basement, and in dozens of niggling little segments, covered everything but the white-that-should-be-red. I scuffed the red-to-be zone with a 3-M nylon scrubber, and used some more tape to pull of the loose flakes.

Santa Stripped

I found some red spray paint that I got at a yard sale a couple of years back, and had at him. I gave Santa’s coat three coats on top of an old dishwasher box in the garage that had clearly been used as a paint station for ages.

Once the paint was dry, peel off the tape, and let the chubby guy have his cookie.


Is Penny Wisdom Plain Foolish?

I spent an hour this evening fixing an appliance that I bought at a yard sale many years ago for a coin. Not only that, but I solely and regularly use this appliance for my daily work. You may wonder how I use a potpourri crock pot for my work? As the heater part of a small double boiler for an etchant that can eat through glass or titanium, of course.

And what can go wrong with a crock pot? Well, this one has been dropped a couple of times. But the crack was dealt with well enough some years ago by a liberal application of Acrylic monomer (Super Glue).

So what was wrong? The crack had weakened the heating element (Ni-chrome filament) and it finally burned through. So I took the thing apart and spliced in a bit of fine brass wire that I had lying around. That delicate job was the easy part, given strong magnifying goggles and tiny tools.

But these diabolical inexpensive units are designed to not-be reassembled. They had actually added an extra part to the design to make reassembly impossible. It took me over a half hour to outwit the designers and get the base re-attached in a manner that would let me take it apart again for future repairs.

For a dozen deductible dollars I can have a new one delivered to my house via eBay. Why do I regularly chose to spend so much time to repair disposable appliances?

My parents both went through economic times much worse than the U.S. Depression, losing nearly everything but their lives. They raised me with essential parsimony. Not actual deprivation, mind you. Just a frugal mindset that pervades my being. I hate to throw anything usable away.

But now I have predictable (if meager) income, and no debt. I have money in the bank, and could afford nice things. But it just feels wasteful to throw away something that I can fix. I mentioned this in “How Does a Microwave Work?

Things I no longer need may end up on eBay. I usually net less than minimum wage for my time on most of these sales. But the widget/parts/book gets a new life with someone who really wants it, and the post office makes some money.

So the object at hand today is the realization that I am an oddball tinker living in a throw-away society, illustrated by a stripped-down 4″ crock pot.

Mostly Mixed Nuts

Every handy person has a jar/bin/drawer full of odd leftover or salvaged attachment hardware. I have a yogurt container full of screws and a marmalade jar full of bolts and nuts. Plus a mini-cabinet with drawers labeled by size and pitch from my electronics daze. Um, days.

Mixed Nuts

Click to unsmallify

On the other hand, the collection I hereby declare as today’s object was found lying on the street by my car. It did briefly flash across my surreal cerebrum that my car was leaking nuts. Lovely Assistant suggested that the license plate thief left them. I settled on the thought  that someone’s spare parts bin probably spilled from their tailgate. But it got me thinking about the value of such collections.

Is it just that some of us cannot bear to throw anything away? Do we really think that a single rusty square nut will find a home in some future project? Will we remember to search the bin when we actually find an unmatched mate? And “What About Naomi?

I raided my own collection recently: A rivet popped from our recliner mechanism, and I found some bolts and nuts that made an adequate repair. Yes, I wrapped the threads with foil to prevent the mechanism from binding.

The payoff is that I did not have to go to the hardware store. And there is a warm satisfaction in having reused items that otherwise are rarely even recycled. And a bit of relief that I did, in fact, find a use for a tiny part of the whole disorganized collection.

To Tell the Tooth

I am aging. Well, all of us lucky enough to be reading this are. But every once in a while, some object appears to remind us of the process. Here sits an example on the tray beside me in the dentist’s office.

Shells of goldThese two thin shells intricately crafted from a long lasting and organically inert alloy are now installed in the right rear of my bite. “Crowns” they royally proclaim these mundane objects to be.

I am finally old enough that the four sections of some of my molars no longer cohere well enough.  My dentist showed me the evidence on the x-rays and in the mirror. I needed an engineering solution to prevent catastrophic failure of original equipment that was built to last somewhat less then my current number of orbits around the sun.

So I submitted to having some perfectly good (or apparently adequate) tooth ground away to make room for these thin shells. These are expected to keep the rest of those two teeth intact for the next few decades.

But it’s like replacing a tire on the car: You know others will need it soon. At least I am putting my money where my mouth is.