Combating Ignorance (My Own)

A couple months ago I had a “crisis”(?) with the power system for the barn.  I made it through most of the winter just fine, invariably shutting down the system on my way down for supper and turning it back on in the morning to save the power that would have kept the system up overnight.  Suddenly the power accrual fell off the cliff and I really got concerned.  A day that should have been inputting 300-400 watts into the system was instead producing 70, or 50, or even 20.  Since I had a generator wired into the system last year I was not at risk of being without power while working but the dysfunction was not insignificant despite the fact that I seemingly had enough power to work in the shop all day.

I trouble shot every aspect of the system I knew, even getting so desperate as to READ THE INSTRUCTION MANUAL (even my pal BillR who is an EE and MS Robotics guy says the system product information is almost impenetrable).  In desperation I corresponded with Rich, the EE who sold me the system, and BillR, who installed the solar components.  They too were scratching their heads about the situation.

Then at about the same time they both had a suggestion: make sure the Dump Load switch is turned on.   The Dump Load is a resistance coil to “dump” any excess electrons once the batteries were charged to full capacity to prevent them from being damaged by over-charging.

Yup, that was the ticket.  Apparently during one of the evening shut-downs I absent-mindedly (or at least inadvertently) threw the Dump Load switch to “off” and left it there.  The Dump Load switch is right next to the switches for the inverters.  With the Dump Load off the system would literally only accept the trickle necessary to keep the batteries topped off.  So, when I saw the system first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening, where no meaningful consumption was ongoing, the system had told itself to choke off any wattage input from the solar panels to protect the batteries.  During the day when I was using electricity the system would have shown an input equal to my usage but I would not have seen that.

In the moments following my turning the Dump Load back on I literally let out a whoop as the input went from 20 watts to almost a kilowatt because throwing that switch told the system to go full bore.

So I didn’t really have any kind of crisis, other than the one in my own mind due to the fact that I did not understand fully the intricacies of the power system, even after all these years.

Good thing ignorance is curable.

A Superb SAPFM Chapter Meeting

Last month I had the delightful experience of attending a superb Blue Ridge Chapter meeting for the Society of American Period Furniture Makers held in Fredericksburg, Virginia, organized by my friend Steve Dietrich and his wife Barb (if you are not yet a member of SAPFM, why not?).

The topic was the newly reconstructed childhood home of GeoWashington, Ferry Farm, just outside of Fredericksburg, under the auspices of The George Washington Foundation.  Or, to put it more precisely, the topic was and the presentations were about the inspired program of replicating the furniture for the house.  Since the written inventories were all that documented the house furnishings the Foundation commissioned dozens of pieces “of a type” that would have been probable to the household, pieces from Williamsburg, Fredericksburg, Richmond, etc.  Several of the woodworkers who created the replicas were on-hand to describe and demonstrate their processes of making, then were later in attendance as we toured the home.  Literally every piece of furniture in the house was made in the style and manner of what would have been found there in 1750.  I will post about the house and furnishes themselves soon.

I apologize for the pictures, I was just taking them from my seat in the hall.

Among the presenters and presentations were Calvin and Ben Hobbs discussing the dozen dining chairs they made, a project with the logistical complications of being fabricated in North Carolina but carved in Kansas.

Kaare Loftheim presented on behalf of Brian Weldy about the diminutive tea table made at the Williamsburg Anthony Hay cabinet shop.

Richmond furniture maker Reid Beverly discussed the trials of fabricating a complex upright secretaire with boodles of compartments made from ultra thin SYP stock, and the frustrations of carving southern yellow pine.  He passed around a model in tulip poplar of the feet that were carved for the cabinet.

Another Williamsburg piece was this built-in corner cabinet from the joiner’s shop.

It was great to see some younger makers there as well.  One of them made this desk,

and another this drop leaf table.  Their work was superb.

Jeff Hedley and Steve Hamilton assembled their chest of drawers right in front of our eyes.

Wrapping up the morning(!) session Steve Dietrich covered the seven pieces he built, including several rope beds brightly painted.

Congratulations to The George Washington Foundation for such an inspired strategy (and the resources to pull it off), to the makers of the faithful representations of furniture making in the era, and Steve and Barb for a terrific weekend.

Workbench Wednesday – #18 (2018), Bob’s Tricked Out Nicholson

It’s not my own bench but demonstrates a developmental step in the making of Nicholson benches at the Barn.

My friend Bob has many and varied skills that I draw on frequently.  At least once a year he comes over to fell trees for firewood, having been a timberman virtually all of his life.  I am happy to cut up the trees once they are down but am not fully confident of bringing them down where they should be (i.e. not on top of me).

Bob is also a gunsmith and firearms instructor (I will be getting some advanced training from him next month) and I’ve visited his workshop several times.  In my visits I noticed a decided lack of workbench assets there so last spring I built him a tricked out Nicholson for use on guns stocks and such.  He had some space limitations so it was a custom built 6-foot unit.

The basic bench was little different than what I’ve built before.  To this base I added a twin-screw face vise on the front apron, then added a bench top Moxon vise to be moved wherever he needed it on the top.  In fact, building this bench was the practice that let me work out all the kinks for the class I taught in Arkansas last summer.

At the end of the first day working on the bench I had it up in its feet and was ready to turn my attentions to working on the vise screws with my new Bealle threader.

But for the first day I just built it the way I do them all with the apron projecting slightly above the top battens so I could hand-plane everything nice and even.

Next week I will focus on incorporating wooden screws vises into the bench.  It will be the final installment of “looking backwards” in the bench making adventures at the barn, but never fear, there are a half-dozen new iterations coming down the pike.

In A World Before Sawmills

I  was utterly captivated by this short documentary of Norse woodsmen fashioning eight forty-foot rafters from a single tree trunk, using only axes and wedges fashioned after nearly-millennium-old archaeological discoveries.

I’m guessing these guys could hold their own in a wrist wrestling competition.

It sure makes my splitting and riving for making Gragg chairs pretty insignificant.

And It Only Took A Year

It was a year ago that I snapped off a drill bit and embedded its raggedy shaft into my thumb below the base of the fingernail (“X” marks the spot).  Aside from the pain and embarrassment, and yes you can be embarrassed even when you are alone, I had to deal with the whole “coming apart” of the nail and its subcutaneous tissue.

But with careful attention and tending the damaged nail slowly sloughed off and new tissue grew out.  As it grew it was sorta rumpled, but eventually the regeneration was complete and just a couple days ago the final damage was trimmed away leaving a healthy and morphologically sound nail behind with no permanent damage.

I never cease to marvel at the amazing structures The Creator devised for us to live inside.

Ilex Revisited

In my recent post about harvesting some holly that our friends had cut down next to their house I mentioned the size of ilex trees in the mid-Atlantic region.  Here are a couple pictures from the yard of our daughter’s house near Mordor.  The first one is fairly typical of holly trees in the yard, of which there are a couple dozen on the property (you can see another in the background).

The larger tree is about our biggest one although we have another that is at least close in size if not greater.  I cannot even get my long arms around it.

Whenever we sell the house, I’m thinking one of these trees will suffer a fatal wound.  There’s a lot of banded inlay in this trunk.

Indiana Williams and the Temple of Lost Shellac Research


Many years ago I contacted the archivist of the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institution to glean their holdings of a renowned body of research conducted there before and during WW II under the auspices of the famed coatings chemist William Howlett Gardner.  In the precedent to that war much of the shellac research internationally was moved to Brooklyn to continue in safety.  (Imagine a time when shellac was considered such a vital strategic material that research into it needed to be protected!)

The archivist, a gracious and knowledgeable woman nearing the end of her long and distinguished career of shepherding the scholarship records of the university, told me a fascinating and heartbreaking story.

At some point in the not-too-distant past a new university official of some sort had determined that the study of natural materials was a waste of time and that 100% of the future research would be about synthetic materials.  As a result, there would be no need to keep records from past research into naturally derived materials by the chemists and chemical engineers.  So, he ordered the library and archives to purge their holdings of all the records pertaining to some of the most insightful historic shellac research.

Thus my phone conversations with the archivist were bittersweet as it turned out I possessed more of their original research than they did.  At her request I sent her a box of photocopies of the university’s own research.  And with that, our interactions were completed.

Or so I thought.

A year or so later I got a phone call from the excited archivist with a great discovery.  In reconstructing the events of the past, she had this tale to tell.

When the order was given to purge the library/archives holdings of the shellac research, the task was probably given to some of the university’s students working during the summer or some such arrangement.  Apparently, at least one of that cohort figured that hand-carrying all that material up the basement stairs and navigating the warren of the archives was too much bother, so he/she simply moved them from one place in the basement to another place where it would not be noticed.  Completely by caprice while searching for something unrelated, the archivist stumbled across a small pile of the original research from three generations ago.

Immediately I scheduled a trip to Gotham to peruse the findings, after first arranging for a friend’s sister (coincidentally also an archivist) to escort me through the terrifying (to me) jungle of humanity and subways that is New York City.

Sure enough, the archivist presented me with a small stack of original theses and research reports by the students of the sainted Professor Gardner.  Part of the exercise was disorienting in a way as I could hardly imagine an institution of higher learning actually having dozens of students engaged in original or confirmational research on shellac.  The archivist arranged for me to browse and photograph all the documents she had, and I have re-discovered these digital images in my own compewder as a result of migrating them from the old laptop to the new one.

Once I get these files edited and formatted they will become part of the Shellac Archive, whose presence should begin growing again now that I have the older, actually working template for WordPress on this laptop.

Stay tuned.

Veneer Repair Video Episode 6

Our adventure continues, notwithstanding some technical glitches on my end (a self-flattering version of “I forgot how to do this!”) Actually the new WordPress template is a pain in the kiester, but fortunately Webmeister Tim managed to restore the previous version.  That is the best explanation I have for why it took months to get the next one posted.  I was simply too stoopid/ignorant/technophobic/compewderily iliterate to figure out how to do it in the “new and improved” platform template, and also why my blogging had declined.  It was just too miserable trying to figure it out.  At this point I have almost negative interest in learning new skills, I’m just trying to keep my existing skills intact.

Crossing my fingers hard.  It worked for me in the “preview” and I am hoping it works for you.

In this episode I cover the process of matching the veneer being used for the repair to the veneer that remains adjacent to the loss.


PS – Spring has sprung so video production resumes next week!


If your conscience is pricked feel free to click on the “Donate” button, any proceeds from which will go toward enhancing the rapidity of new video production. Future videos will also be available for purchase one section at a time (perhaps $0.99 – $1.99 per segment depending on the video) or $15(?) for the complete product. I am still noodling that and working out the logistics with Webmaster Tim. If this interests a large enough audience I hope to produce three or four 2-hour-ish videos per year. If not, maybe one or two at the most, one being more likely. In which case it will take me almost twenty years to get through the list I have already.



The Metaphysics of Lost Socks, Revisited

A comment on the original post reminded me of a humorous story.

In fact I have followed Sylvain’s strategy for many years and restricted my everyday sock inventory to a couple dozen pairs of gray insulated socks of the lumberjack variety. While they are not all identical in every way they are definitely close enough to pass muster most of the time.

Which brings me to the story.

Late in my tenure at the Smithsonian I was charged with the task of installing and de-installing an exhibit of a solid red sandalwood 1/5 scale model of one of the pavilions from the Forbidden City in Beijing. This project continued even after my departure so I was on board as a contractor for three or four more venues before the tour ended (the logistics and assembly were such that I was the only one who knew fully how it went together and came apart). At one point the pavilion was being installed in Flushing, Queens NY. In order to complete the project I recruited a number of friends to work with me as we assembled the almost-thousand pieces of the one-ton 3D jigsaw puzzle.

The specs for the exhibit required the hosts to construct a raised carpeted platform for the model. At the commencement of the installation I reminded my compatriots that we were in a museum space, and that there was a code of etiquette to follow in the situation. Part of that protocol was that we would not be wearing our shoes up on the platform. So, when the time came we all doffed our shoes and flitted around in our stocking feet.

As the assembly of the 10-foot x 10-foot x 10-foot model was nearing its conclusion the host institution had arranged for press visits for me to be interviewed for a story in the coming weekend art section. When the reporter arrived we were all deep in the work with a couple of us, me included, pretty much inside the bowels of the model so she stood observing us work while I extricated myself from the inside.

And her first question? “What’s with all the gray socks?”

It turned out that every one of us had the same sartorial strategy of wearing insulated gray socks, and she was bewildered by it. All she could see was a group of middle aged men writhing around the platform, each wearing nearly identical thermal gray socks. We assured her with straightest possible faces that these were the uniforms of our rank as master artifact caretakers. I’m not sure if she bought it, but we all had a great time as the ice was broken.

All because of identical gray socks.

The Metaphysics of Lost Socks

One of the undeniable truths of the cosmos is that if you own  pair of socks for long enough, one of them will disappear into some alternate universe that is accessed only through a worm hole masquerading as a dryer vent hose.  (A second undeniable truth, below, is the follow-up to the first truth.)  When this missing-sock episode happens to you, like me you will probably wait some seemingly interminable period awaiting for the return of the sock.  Then comes the day you mournfully dispose of the remaining sock.  It is only at that point that the original missing sock suddenly navigates its way back through the worm hole and suddenly you once again have an un-mated sock.

Admit it, you know this is the truth.

Given the unified synthesis of metaphysics there is an inexorably linked correlated truth.  And that is the metaphysical certitude I am banking on right now.

My workhorse camera in the shop is a Canon G16.  Sometime in the last few weeks I misplaced the battery charger; it is simply not in any of the usual places I might keep it.  At the moment the camera hangs forlornly in its usual place.

In keeping with the modified Law of Lost Socks I ordered a replacement battery charger from ebay, knowing that the day after the new one arrives the “lost” one will navigate its way back from the Place of Upside Down Things.  The arrival of the new charger will be Tuesday, I expect to find the old one on Wednesday.  Then I’ll have two, so one will live in the barn and one will live in the cabin.