beeswax

Another Batch of Mel’s Wax

After not making any Mel’s Wax for nearly a year I finally ran out and needed to make another batch.  It is an enjoyable process for me, requiring careful lab protocol weighing, heating, melting, mixing and decanting.  The laser thermometer is a godsend.

It’s been an interesting phenomenon watching the product go nowhere.  I had thought that making and distributing Mel’s Wax would be a major component of my retirement activity but that has not materialized, and at this point I am not sure what to do (if anything) about it.  Apparently I do not know how to market a cutting edge product to the people who need it.  Last year en toto I sold 14 units, so even if sales double this year this latest batch should get me through 2021.  Oddly enough I have had half as many orders for Mel’s Wax in the past fortnight than in all of 2020.

Perhaps this year will be the one where I can answer Mrs. Barn’s question, “So when are you going to act like you are retired?”  I will soon be 66 and perhaps ease off the gas just a little bit.

2020: “Top that!”

2021:  “Oh yeah? Hold my beer.”

On the other hand my mom was almost 104 and fully lucid when she died, so I expect a lot more good years of woodworking, writing, metalworking, fuming about the collapse of Western Civilization, chopping firewood…

 

Dwindling Inventory

On my most recent visit to the Post Office to mail some family packages I was informed that they are no longer projecting packages to arrive before Christmas due to bottlenecks throughout the system.  That’s good to know, so if you were planning on sending any of my wax or polissoirs for Christmas I can mail them immediately but do not expect to receive them before Dec 25th.  Early December  is the only time of the year where I regularly go to the post office more than once a week to mail packages.

Much to my surprise I made it to this date with a bit of my dwindling inventory remaining, I had my doubts.  It’s been a few months since I received any new polissoirs since my broom maker has been dealing with some serious health issues and has not had the strength to sit and make brooms or polissoirs.  At this point I am down to about a dozen of each model in stock (way fewer than in this picture).  I’ve got plenty of wax blocks and can always process more, ditto Mel’s Wax.

I spoke to the broom maker last week and he is determined to get back into his shop this week.  I hope it is true because that means his healing will be nearly complete.  That will be great as we can start building excess inventory to prepare for Handworks 2021 on Labor Day weekend.

A New Wax Product?

Recently I have been working with planemaker and friend Steve Voigt to help him create a wax polish for his exquisite new historic-style wooden planes.  Well, Steve has been doing all the work, I am just supplying the materials and a few formulations based on the results I’ve had in recent years.  His desire was for a beautiful appearance and a non-slick surface so that his planes could be handled with the tiniest bit of tack against the bare hand.

Based on some correspondence and a recent Instagram post, he has apparently arrived at the finish line.  He is strongly recommending I make this product for others with similar interests and asked if I had ever made this formulation before, because it was in his words, “Da Bomb.”  You can tell he has been a college professor, what with all that hipster lingo.  (He is actually a pretty hip guy, especially compared to me being just a lovable curmudgeon shouting at the clouds)

My reply was, “Yes I had, and yes it was.”

It just might be time for a new product in the Don’s Barn Store.  I’ve actually been playing with quite a few ideas…

Stay tuned.

Not A Novel Virus, But A Novel Tool

Part of my process of refining the raw “slum gum” unfiltered beeswax from the honey factory delivered in a case of roughly 6-inch thick slabs from the bottom of a five gallon bucket, involves a step wherein the coarsely filtered molten beeswax/hot water slurry (removing the bee bodies and gross debris) is poured through fine pasta strainer into a cake pan and allowed to cool undisturbed.

After cooling and decanting the water with any remaining water soluble adulterant, I am left with a big block of beeswax with a fairly uniform layer of sediment on the bottom face of the block.  This needs to be removed before moving on to the next step of filtering.

Normally I try to time the scraping off step for when the block of wax has cooled enough to be fairly solid, but still warm enough to be scraped easily with a large knife.  There are times, however, when I do not get to this step soon enough and the block of wax with its accretions hardens fully.  And with enough cold, it can get pretty hard.  Scraping this is not impossible but it is some hard work when I am doing several of them at once.

Recently I had a great idea while rummaging through my “Giant Files” drawer and pulled out this little curved Surform tool.  I found that for a fully hardened block, even one that is chilled and rock hard, it removes the precipitant easily and quickly.

That smack is the sound of my pam striking my forehead.  Usually in  just a minute or less the block is ready to be put aside for the next melt during which time it will be getting its final filtering from me before moving into Mrs. Barn’s domain and one final filtering before casting into blocks.

I love it when caprice like this happens.

Prepping For Amana

Handworks is now six months away and we are busily preparing for stocking the booth for the onslaught of the thousands of friends old and new bound by the love of traditional hand woodworking tools.

My broom maker has a standing order for dozens of polissoirs to make sure I have plenty of these magical tools for show and sale.  Unfortunately(?) I still get orders almost daily so building up the inventory is going slower than I would like.  I go to the post office every week with a bag of packages to send.

The broom maker and his wife have finally moved into their dream house he has been building for the past several years, and is having trouble finding the time to set up his own workshop just the way he wants it.  I spoke to him this morning (I had actually run out of the Model 296 polissoirs) and just yesterday he was able to begin using the workshop in the new house.  I will be providing a complete set of polissoirs as a door prize for Handworks.

Here on the homestead I have been refining the raw beeswax, known in the apiary/honey/beeswax world as “slum gum”, to provide the purified raw material for Mrs. Barn to make into beeswax bars.  There is nothing quite like the beautiful appearance of the amber nectar after the final filtering  as I cast it out as molten material in cookie pans.

This is a favorite winter activity as it both heats the kitchen a little with her dedicated crockpot going almost 24/7 and imparts the lovely scent of clean molten beeswax throughout the cabin.

Over the days the pile of finished bars grows and grows, eventually becoming wrapped and placed in their storage boxes.

Meanwhile up in the Waxerie I’ve added casting more shellac wax and Blend 31 bars to my mix of activities.  This is a nice punctuation to my other ongoing projects in the shop as it does not need my immediate attention all the time.

I plan to have a full inventory of polissoirs and waxes and stuff and will schedule hourly demonstrations at my booth at Handworks, and will expound on these as things come together.

Prices and Postage

This is not a “happy” bog post.  It might be a little too much “inside baseball” but I thought you should know what is going on and what is coming down the pike.  It’s probably bad form to discuss openly the costs of running a business, even a hobby one, and I will give that concern all the consideration I think it deserves.  Okay, I’m done with that consideration.

It has been almost a decade since rediscovering the amazing surface prep and finishing tool called the polissoir, or polisher, and connecting up with a local craft broom maker to supply me with them.  In that period I have sold and shipped thousands(!) of polissoirs and blocks of beeswax etc., and I hope to continue that success and match it with that of Mel’s Wax in the coming months and years.  I delight in sharing the polissoir-and-beeswax’s almost magical qualities with the enthusiasts who have joined me in this trek taking a giant leap backwards in wood finishing.  To encourage these tools’ adoption by the woodworking world I have kept the pricing stable almost since the beginning, folding the postage into the purchase price and keeping that unchanged since we went “official” with the Shop function on the website.

Unfortunately the postage increases implemented by the USPO over the past two years have affected me to the degree that, all by itself, postage now consumes over 15% of my gross sales revenue (and nearly 25% of the net), a nearly 100% increase in just the past year.  This is so far out of whack I can hardly wrap my head around it, but the unavoidable result is that some of the heavier items in the Store will necessarily increase in price to reflect this grim reality as soon as we can edit the page.

(I am not griping about the post office, they provide excellent service to me and are convenient; I do not realistically have any other parcel carrier option out here in the hinterlands.  I usually make the five-minute drive to our one-window post office in town once a week with a canvas tool bag full of parcels to mail.  Making a three-hour round trip over the mountains to a parcel depot is not in the cards for me.)

To respond to this new cost reality, after long thought I’ve decided to raise the price of hand refined beeswax by $1 to $14, raising the Blend 31 to $17, and the shellac wax to $21.

All three models of the one-inch polissoirs will remain at their current price since they are so light weight and have apparently — thus far — remained below some postage threshold, but you never know with the USPS.

The large polissoirs, the two-inch woven-sheath and the Model 296 wrapped polissoirs, will be going from $47 to $49, and the two-pound bag of shellac flour will now be $75.  Postage for Mel’s Wax is also 50% higher per unit than expected but I will leave that price alone for now as a strategic move.

I’m not apologizing for the increases: even though this is a labor of love for me I simply can’t keep selling and shipping products at the previous prices given the rising costs of postage.  That is just a plain and simple fact whether I like it or not.  I will be sad if these price increases diminish interest in polissoirs and waxes and such, but as the pundit says, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.”

And, given the recent disruptions in the bee hive health I am doubly glad I bought a lot of raw beeswax for us to hand-process into blocks and polishes just before the colony collapse crisis.  I’m hoping that the raw material comes back down in price before I need to buy more at the end of this year, but at the moment the prices for beeswax are about double from when I bought some last.

Stay tuned and wish me luck.

donsbarn.com Store Inventory Re-filled

For the past several months just as I have been working feverishly on re-siding my daughter’s house my polissoirs maker has been concentrating on wrapping up his several years’ project building their dream house.  They have been moving in recent days, but the broom-making studio is not yet fully installed in the new house,  As a result the stream of new polissoirs dried up, and for the past couple of months at least I have been out of some inventory.  I am happy to report that as of yesterday I am now fully stocked with all the varieties of polissoirs, with the routine of making new ones back on track.  For the next several months we will be building the inventory for next year’s Handworks.

In addition I got the guy who makes the blocks of specialty waxes (that would be me) to get on the stick and re-stock them and Mel’s Wax as well.

I will be spending the next couple of days filling and shipping all the orders I have outstanding, and should be caught up by Thursday.  I’ve got a couple trips over the mountains in the meantime or I would get them done tomorrow.

Mel’s Wax on Instagram

My friend LenR posted this in his Instagram page, featuring his use of Mel’s Wax.  It is much appreciated, and prompts me to think seriously about how to market this remarkable product.  At this point I am selling about one unit per month, when in reality I should be moving it by the case load.  I’ll be turning my attention in this direction imminently.   I’m definitely interested in ramping up production, but refuse to sub it out and am not really interested in wholesaling it.  Those might be two intractable problems with my plan.

Any thoughts?

Rethinking, or, “State of the Barn Address”

 

It’s been almost thirteen years since the skeleton of the barn was erected, nine years since it was outfitted with the first of more than a dozen workbenches, and over six years since the first blog post.  Now safely ensconced in my 65th year, lately I’ve been contemplating the entire enterprise, reflecting on how blessed I have been and continue to be.  Whether it is good news or bad news, after serious consideration I have no plans to change the fundamental structure of activity on the homestead for several more years, but at some point life in the mountains will simply become too physically taxing and the barn and cabin will be in my rear-view mirror.  Until then, however, it is still full(?) speed ahead with a big smile on my face, albeit not necessarily in the exact same direction nor the exact same speed.  I’m working just as hard as I did when I was 30, but the output is demonstrably less.   My Mom is 102 and lucid so I’ve got to think about another forty years of engagement and productivity.

Here is a sketch of what future activities might look like.  No telling if it is accurate.

Conservation Projects

Early on I maintained a fairly vibrant furniture and decorative arts conservation practice but have no plans to continue much of that except for specific projects and clients.  Yes, I will continue to work with the private collection of tortoiseshell boxes that I’ve been working on for more than a decade.  Recently I was approached to collaborate on a couple high profile on-site projects and if those move forward, fine. I love it but at this point I’ve got other things I want to do on the priority list.  And I want to truly perfect my artificial tortoisehell.  And I want to explore new uses of materials in furniture preservation.  And invent new materials, or novel uses of existing materials.   And, and, and…

Making Furniture

I make no claim as a furniture maker of any note, but I hope to concentrate on making more in the future.  I would love to maintain a small output of Gragg chairs every year, and even modify them and take them in directions Samuel Gragg never went.  I also have enough vintage mahogany for eight more Daniel Webster Desks, so perhaps there are some clients who might want one.  Only time will tell.  I’ve always had a hankering to make some furniture in the milieu of Charles Rennie Mackintosh or Alar Aalto, so maybe that becomes part of the equation.  And I have these sketches for pieces representing a collision of Roubo and Krenov while they are sitting on the porch of a Japanese temple.  And Mrs. Barn has a list of things she would like for the cabin.  And exploring parquetry more intensely.   And finally get pretty good at woodworking in general.  And, and, and…

Metal Work

I’ve always had a interest in metalworking since my boyhood when I would spend time with my Dad in his shed, melting lead weights and doing a little brazing and welding.  Many of those skills have grown fallow but I am trying to get them back and take them to new places.  My love of tool making has been rearing its lovely head in recent times and I have every intention of bringing that focus closer to the bullseye.  And part of that has to include getting my foundry back on-line.  And tuning up all my machine tools like my machinists’ lathes and mill.  And getting really good at brazing and silver soldering, maybe even welding.  And, and, and…

Finishing Adventures

I remain committed to looking both backwards and forwards into the realm of finishing materials, ancient and super modern.  I truly believe Mel’s Wax to be a transformative furniture care and preservation product for which I have not yet discovered the key to marketing.  But I will keep at it because of my knowledge of its performance and my commitment to Mel’s vision for it.  And as for beeswax and shellac wax? Finishing with them may be among the oldest and simplest methods, but they can be extremely difficult and I cannot pretend to have mastered them.  And what about my fascination with urushi and its non-allergenic analogs and the beautiful things I want to make from them?  And what about the fifty bazillion things I do not know about shellac?And, and and…

Writing

My plate of writing projects is full to overflowing, building on a strong foundation of completed works.  Notwithstanding my current struggles with the manuscript for A Period Finisher’s Manual, due entirely to my having too much esoteric material to include in a reasonably consumable book (really, how much solvent thermodynamics does the typical woodworker need to know?), I enjoy every minute I am writing even when it is driving me crazy.  I’d better because my collaborator Michele Pagan is one full book ahead of me in the Roubo Series.  And there are two or three more volumes after that one.  And some day I need to finish the almost-completed manuscript for A Furniture Conservation Primer created with a colleague while at the SI and thus will be necessarily distributed for free via the web site.  And what about my treatise on the technology and preservation of ivory and tortoiseshell?  And the dozen mystery/thriller novels I have already plotted out?  And who knows how many short stories about the life of First Century craftsman Joshua BarJoseph?  And, and, and…

Web

My first of almost 1,200 web posts went up six-and-a-half years ago, which I understand in the world of hobbyist blogging, where blogs come and go like the tides, puts me as some sort of  Methuselah.  But certainly not in the same class as The Accidental Woodworker, who has been blogging daily for even longer IIRC.  Ralph, I tip my hat to you, sir.

I once thought the web site/blog would be a useful portal for soliloquies about my projects and things I’ve learned over a long and rewarding career, but now I am not so sure.  A while back I decided to make a concerted effort to blog at least five times a week for a year, and I think I came pretty close.  Surely this would increase my web traffic!  Well, not so much.  At the end of this effort my web traffic was 2% lower than when it began.  Despite fairly consistent blogging my visitorship has dropped by almost half over the past four-plus years.    So I just scratch my head.  I’m not whining, but instead recognizing that the flock who is interested in my musings is shrinking, not growing.  Oh well.  This is not a good or bad thing, it is just a thing, helpful in me making decisions about priorities.  I have no plans to really change anything about the blog, we’ll just wait and see where it goes.  When I am not somewhere else, with someone else, or doing something else, I will blog.

Recently I was chatting with someone who informed me that web sites and blogs are now passe and the currency du jour is the unholy trio of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.  Given that and my antipathy towards the latter two it is likely that I will undertake the former at some near date (yes, I know the relationship between Instagram and Stalkerbook) .  Something inside me rebels at the notion of validating the post-literate world, however.  Still, the economic treatise presented by Larry the Liquidator is not only dramatic but accurate.  Even the Professional Refinisher’s Group is moving forward, transitioning from a moderated email forum to a private Facebook Group, which will leave me behind.  But they will survive without me and I intend to maintain contact with that circle of fellowship regardless.

Trouble is, I am by temperament a bizarre mélange of buggy whip maker and hardline “emergent order” Hayekian.  Hmmm.  Not really sure how that works out.

Workshops

Integral to my vision for the barn was to have it be a place of learning.  As the facility was coming together, whenever I spoke to any kind of woodworking gathering the verbal response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic.  The reality that unfolded was anything but.  I now realize that my vision was a faulty one and the enthusiasm was superficial.  Quite bluntly, almost no one wants to come to such an isolated location where local amenities are practically nonexistent, to spend a few days engaging in subjects I want to teach.  Fair enough, the barn is too remote and my topics are too arcane.  Like I said before, this is not a good thing or a bad thing, but just an instructive  thing to add to the equation.

As a result and in recognition of reality I plan to deemphasize workshops at the barn, perhaps even eliminating them altogether, notwithstanding that I created dedicated spaces for the undertaking.  Should a small group of enthusiasts approach me with the request to teach them, I will do so.  That is precisely what a quartet of guys have done for next June.  And, I might do an occasional blockbuster-type workshop (a Gragg chair class would be such an example, if that ever occurs; I had thought a ripple molding machine class might be such an event, but with zero response…), or I might travel a bit to teach but otherwise that part of the portfolio is likely to close.  Not definitely, but likely.

Videos

Hence my transition to teaching via video.  If I cannot get folks to come here perhaps my best strategy is to go to them.  I have a multitude of ideas (more than twenty full-length [>30 mins.]video concepts on the list) and a brilliant local collaborator to work with.  I am committed to this path to the degree that I have the time, energy, and resources.

Further I have decided that making shorter, self-produced and thus less polished “shop technique videos” might be a useful undertaking to post on donsbarn.com, youtube or Vimeo.  I will explore this avenue in the coming weeks and months.

The Homestead

With several buildings, several gardens, and a power system to maintain and improve there is never a shortage of things to do here on the homestead.  I want to build/expand more garden capacity for Mrs. Barn to spend time doing the thing she loves best.  And fruit and nut orchards.  And I want to finish creating a rifle scope for shooters like me who have lost most of the vision in their dominant eye.  And another hydro turbine downstream from the current one.

And, and, and that’s all I’ve got to say on the subject.

That is The State of the Barn Address, 2019.  To quote one of Mel’s favorite songs, “The future’s so bright I gotta wear shades.”  Yes it is.  I am living the dream.

Historic Finishing Day 3

In one sense the learning velocity for Day 3 is the same as Day 1 and Day 2, but the psychological impact of everything coming together in a beautiful outcome is almost incalculable.  One thing I am mindful of is that most Day 3s of workshops are structured to make sure any meaningful instruction occurs by mid-day, as the typical impetus is for folks to start heading back home sometime in the afternoon.  Sometimes students will stay  until evening, but in this case all three had lengthy drives home (two to central NC and one to CT) and headed out mid-afternoon to get home before dark.


If I had to summarize the events of the third day it would be encapsulated in the word “rubbing.”  The central focus of that action was the very large panels that had been varnished with brushed shellac the previous days.  These panels were divided into four sections to be finished off with different rubbing protocols, including making and using abrasive pads for pumice and Tripoli/rottenstone, both with and without paste wax.   Another section was burnished/abraded with Liberon 0000 steel wool and paste wax.

Though I knew the results in advance the students did not, and their excitement at seeing the results of their own hand work was most gratifying.

One student even brought a sample panel from his previous finish work and compared it to the panels we completed during the workshop.  Needless to say the smile could not be wiped from his face.  I didn’t quite get the camera angle perfect but you get the point between the almist gritty, brassy smaller panel and his new lustrous, almost glowing surface.

Our final chapter of the workshop was shellac spirit varnish pad polishing, a/k/a “French polishing.”  As with the other pad-based processes, rubbing out with tripoli or pumice, they each made their own spirit varnishing pad.   All these pads were made with vintage linen outer cloths and new cotton wadding inner cores, and all these were theirs to take home in a small sealed glass jar.  These pads should serve them well for many years to come.

Spirit varnish pad polishing is very definitely a technique requiring an informed “feel” about how it is supposed to progress.  Even though this was an introductory effort for all three students, they really took to it with enthusiasm and excellent outcomes being the result.  It was delightful to see the smiles and satisfaction of accomplishment.

Though I failed to get a final photo of us all, along with their sample boards going home with them, I believe it was a woodworking-life-changing experience for them.  As I told them at the outset, my primary goal was to give them confidence at the finishing bench and dispel any intimidation they might have in that regard.  If their notes to me afterward were any indication, it was a success.

I want to thank for your “Historic Finishing Course” at the Barn last week.  It was over the top in how it exceeded my expectations; by the end of the workshop I was seeing the process you taught working to a superb result under my own hand.  A really cool result–and well worth three days of my time to learn it. 

And,

I want to thank you for an awesome class!  The fellowship was really great and I came away much more confident applying a lovely shellac finish.