11:11, 11/11

A rare purely soapbox moment for this blog.

I am not one to take note of “mandatory” cultural celebrations, this one included.  My only exceptions to this are Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas/Easter.

It is no doubt the curmudgeon in me but I fear that in general public celebratory conformity diminishes the heartfelt expressions, reducing them to mere cloying sentimentality, pushing us to compartmentalize integral appreciation into momentary self-congratulatory sanctimony, but I am thus redundant.

For veterans, the reason I do not ostentatiously note November 11 is that I strive to express my appreciation to them every day: thanking soldiers for their service and willingness to write me a check and sign it with their life-blood; anonymously paying for the dinner of a soldier and their family sitting in the opposite side of the restaurant; quietly giving money through my pastor for an airman to fly home for a much-needed but un-affordable visit to his far-absent family.  Either such gestures are part of your life or they are not, the calendar does not dictate them.

I was never in the Service, even though my draft lottery number was #1.   I could not pass the physical exam due to my eyesight, which was very much compromised then as now.  Nevertheless I went through the advance process during my senior year of high school, taking aptitude tests and expressing my specialty preference.  I was provisionally green-lit for nuclear engineering school in the US Navy, I had taken a preliminary psych test for submarine service.  I was expecting to enlist right after high school but the vision thing  booted me out.  So be it.

Lest you think I am uncharitable in my (lack of) public celebrations, consider my attitude toward the Fourth of July.  Though it is one of four public holidays I note here, any fair-minded reading of The Declaration of Independence, which to me was the very pinnacle of civic human culture, could lead to a fair conclusion that its majestic premises were abandoned generations ago.  I revere the Declaration and consider myself a Declarationist first and a Constitutionalist second, but the public hoopla around July 4 rings hollow in a culture that ardently opposes its ideals across the partisan spectrum.

Even the two days most noted in faith, Christmas and Easter, do not resonate with me though I am a devout Follower of The Way.  If I genuinely believe in the Incarnation and Resurrection, it affects me in every way and on every day.  If not, not.  No “ceremonial days” can change that.

Just one of my many quirks.

Stepping down off the box.  Back to woodworking.


This is a blog generally about woodworking and artistic implications of materials science, and life in the hinterlands. It is almost never about my personal tastes of food, entertainment or politics, my faith, or non-artisanal things that merely amuse me.  I make no great effort to hide them either, they just are not the main point.

That said, as I sit working quietly at the compewder on this almost-wintry afternoon, waylaid by a virulent and first-ever bout of vertigo for almost a week now,  I am utterly enchanted by this sometimes-whimsical Bill Frisell Group concert at Lincoln Center(?)  It is majesty on display, purveyed with astonishing restraint by understated masters of the art form (as opposed the the smash-mouth brashness of another of my regular musical companions, SRV).  Seriously, when was the last time you saw a non-symphonic percussionist reading a score?

Frisell is featured prominently on one of my “desert island” albums, Fluid Rustle by Eberhard Weber.  I first heard Fluid Rustle in the early 80s and it is a rare week that I do not listen to it a time or two.  As they might say, “I could listen to Frisell play the phone book.”  Proof of that is in the hands of these maestros, even themes from James Bond movies somehow transcend the dreck that they are.

When it comes to non-destructive, non-transcendent choices you make I can be pretty sanguine, but if you cannot appreciate this, then, my friend, you are a barbarian.

Sometimes I break even my own rules.


Now back to our regularly scheduled blogging.

Gelatin Molds For Plaster Casts II – Ye Olde (and new) Apothacary-ness

Developing, or more precisely re-developing, technology that was once common practice requires lots of mental noodling sprouting from the question, “Really, how did they do that?”  In the end it all comes down the the world we artisans inhabit, the world of Applied Materials Science.  Fortunately for me the base material, hide glue, was plentiful in the shop so I had plenty of raw material to work with.  In the pursuit of gelatin molds for cast ornamental plaster my proof-of-concept work revolved around the observations of how molten hot hide glue (the “gelatin”) actually cures into a rigid adhesive layer and the changes in physical properties while en route.

As cooked glue goes from hot liquid to hardened mass the first step is the one of greatest importance for this undertaking.  At a particular point in the process — exactly where and when depends on a number of factors including the concentration of glue solids dissolved in the water, the grade of glue, the ambient temperature, relative humidity, barometric pressure, and probably phase of the moon — the molten glue mass forms a semi-solid gelatin, which is the stage I am interested in both exploiting and maintaining in stasis.  As long as the mass stays flexible it can be used and re-used as a molding material.

A  major concern for this practice is that the gelled/flexible mass be water resistant.  Though that seems, and is, obvious the accomplishment of that feature requires a bit of forethought.  If casting plaster is the end goal, and for me and the ancients it was, the mold for holding the plaster as it was poured and cured had better be able to withstand the incursion of the copious quantities of water involved.

A second consideration is that the gelled mass, once transformed from an amorphous blob into a detailed mold, be tough enough to impart said details and allow for the set plaster casting to be de-molded without destroying the mold itself.

And finally, in order to be used repeatedly the gelatin mold must be preserved over some indefinite period of time.

Reflecting back on protein chemistry and historical craft/art practice I conclude that the ancients accomplished all three of the previous items more-or-less in one step: they added the most potent protein crosslinker/preservative they could find, formaldehyde.  It has long been understood that exposing or incorporating formaldehyde into collagen matrices renders them water-resistant, or “hardened.”  Think embalming.  Think taxidermy.  Think of the ancient practice of exposing bowstrings and wrapping to the smoke of a wood fire, from which formaldehyde is a by-product.

Since formaldehyde is so noxious I do not have it in my chemical inventory and instead relied on another chemical from the world of film-based photography that performs an analogous function of crosslinking or “hardening” gelatin films.  In practice I found this to be an admirable option for a couple reasons, and not so good in another,  Not problematic per se, but requiring another consideration.

To be sure the photographic gelatin hardener performs admirably in imparting water-resistance and integral toughness to a gelled mass.  I observed it also extends the timeline for the gelled state considerably, apparently retarding the water egress that turns gelled collagen into a hard, glass-like film.   This was perhaps my (and their) first ace in the hole.  A second observation beneficial to the process was that the plaster itself, being integrated into and reacted by water, served to moisten and thus keep the mold flexible   Every time plaster was cast into the mold, it re-plasticized the mold mass.

However, the current safer chemistry of the gelatin hardener does not impart the same biocide/preservative effect that was accomplished previously by formaldehyde.  Thus my initial mold attempt turned into a rotting mass of oozing slime in a few days.  Not an un-solvable problem, but a stinky, sticky mess.

Back to the drawing board.  Sorta.

Next time – Ye Whole Sheebang.  This time with lots of pctures.

A Portfolio of Tordonshell

I recently went through my inventory of tordonshell to see about matching some for a friend’s project.

I can make it pretty much any way I want, matching almost any pattern or dimension required.

At this point I am always working out the finer details, such as toughness, longevity and so on, and experimenting with different chemicals to perform the same functions as those I use already.  One of these days I hope to derive the perfect method for re-creating traditional tortoiseshell guitar picks.

If I get all the compewder stuff right I will post my 2003 article on the subject early next week.  I have scanned it and am now formatting it and trying to get the transfer to the host server right.  Wish me luck.

Veneer Repair Video Segment 2

You can find the background on this initial offering by Barn Attic Productions/Seed and Fruit Media here along with the first episode.

In this episode of my recitation and demonstration of the techniques I use to undertake sensitive veneer repairs — sensitive to the artifacts, not your feelings —  such that the compensation (that’s museum-ese for “repair”) is visual harmonious while leaving the maximum of the artifact fabric intact, I demonstrate and discuss the importance of three things: grain, grain, and grain.

If your conscience is pricked by viewing this for no cost feel free to click on the “Donate” button, any proceeds from which will go toward enhancing the rapidity of producing new videos.  For those of you who have already shown that generous spirit, I am deeply appreciative.



Building Gragg’s “Elastic” Chairs — Harvesting the Wood 3

In concert with both ongoing firewood harvesting and shooting a video Building A Gragg Chair I replicated some of the work undertaken at my neighbor Bob’s house five years earlier, this time with oaks felled up the mountain from the barn.  There were three large trunks that had nice lower sections and and one smaller but straighter one about fifty yards away, set-aside for the harvesting efforts.  Interestingly the larger trees, grown in a dense forest setting, were quite problematic with lots of wind and interlocked grain.  My yield from them was about a quarter of what I got from Bob’s “urban” trees.  I have no explanation for this phenomenon.

The largest of these trunks was also the largest disappointment.  While seemingly sound and straight, the first split caused me to go, “Hmmm.”

As the splitting proceeded the disaster was readily apparent as the entire trunk segmented into an interlocked mass of uselessness, and ate all of my wedges and guts to just get torn apart.  The pieces were cut into short bolts for the firewood splitter.

The two smaller of these three trunk sections were better, but still not great.  The wood was straighter and more sound, but with more interlocked grain than I expected.

The smaller, straighter trunk was, I hoped, a somewhat different story.  It had grown in very tight setting, much, much more crowded than the larger trees and the grain showed it.  I was hoping it was more promising than the first trunks, which mostly wound up as firewood.  More about that later.

Workbench Wednesday (a day late) — Bench #11 (2014), Portable Bench 2.0, Part 1

I guess it says something about the nature of life in the hinterlands, I literally did not remember that yesterday was Wednesday and posted the wrong thing. — DCW


At GroopShop 2014, which I hosted, the program included BillR and me building him a high performance portable workbench similar to my Workbench #2.  The portable bench is strictly a power tool project, for the most part I used my cordless power tools, a pneumatic crown stapler and white glue.

This bench has several improvements over the original, and on Workbench #21(?) I take the concept even further in several respects.

One of the primary modifications for this bench was to extend the length to a full five feet rather than the earlier four foot length, we kept the two-foot width.  This not only provided a larger work station BillR needed for his project but also made the alignment of the legs much simpler.  They simply abutted each other at their feet when folded as opposed to being off-set so they could be folded side-by-side in the initial effort.  We used Tom’s bench as the platform for building this one, it was perfectly flat and the same size as what we wanted.

Another change was moving to 1/4″ thick ribs rather than 3/8.”  The 1/3 reduction in rib thickness had no effect on the strength, that was all the result of the web height for the rib.  So now the whole thing could be made from a sheet of 1/4″ baltic birch and a few pieces of 1/2″.  I ripped the faces using my cordless saw and a straightedge, then ripped all the ribstock from the remainders.

The perimeter was still made from 1/2″ b.b., with the ends doubled since I wanted to make this retrofit-able with twin screws vises.  I pre-drilled the holes for the eventual tapping before I began assembly.The half inch edge stock made it simple to use a crown stapler to assemble the outer edges and make whole thing simple to build.

I also pre-drilled the holes for the vise screws to pass through the ribs.

We dry-fit all the ribs and were ready for assembling the top.  The last step before that was to mark the location of all the ribs on the underside of the face.

More next week.

(Thanks to JoshuaK for all the preceding pictures.)

Gelatin Molds For Plaster Casts

A couple months ago I was sent a question about using gelatin molds for casting architectural plaster.  I had seen references to the technology in several of my old books but did not possess any that provided a decent description of the material or the process, so I noodled it a bit.  I’m not an architectural historian per se, so there might be plenty of old books with the exact information.

For the past almost forty years I have relied on silicone RTV molding rubber and never saw the need to broaden that horizon, but this question prompted me to undertake some exploring.  I am awfully glad I did as I now have another potent arrow in the quiver.

Of course at issue were several considerations.

  1.  The gelatin (hide glue) would need to be used in the semi-cured state, in other words after it had gelled and had not yet lost enough water to enter the more solid phase of a dried, cured mass.
  2. The gelatin mold had to be firm/flexible enough to actually cast plaster into it, then have the casting de-molded ex poste.
  3. The mold needed to be robust enough for repeated using.  The literature references using the molds dozens or even hundreds of times.
  4. Finally, the mold needed to remain viable while not becoming a giant fur-ball of mold.

Thanks to a timely failure of a tordonshell batch I gleaned the path to success, when combining that experience with some noumena from my wanderings into materials science.  The ultimate result was a high performance molding material that was also cheap.

The trek included a number of face palm moments in discovering new ways of working.

Stay tuned.

New Product II – Wax Blend 31

Starting some time next month I will make available a splendid block of 3 parts beeswax to 1 part shellac wax.  I find this to be a terrific blend for widespread uses, I employ this for waxing plane soles, fretsaw blades, and even grain filling and surface burnishing with a polissoir especially on turnings.  This blend can be turned directly into paste wax,  process I will describe once the product is available.

The price for the beeswax/shellac wax blend will be $16 per quarter pound packaged block, domestic shipping included.  For international orders please contact me for further shipping cost estimates.

I’ve Heard The First 1,000 Blog Posts Are The Hardest

Somehow I got myself into the world of the interwebz five and a half years ago and now I have reached the milestone of this being my one thousandth blog post (WordPress keeps count, I do not).  Much has changed in the intervening years as the web site/blog grow ever closer into conformity with my original vision for the vehicle.

A rough estimate for my total blogging output is around 400,000 words and 7,000 images posted, about half the word length of The Bible but with way more pictures.

The followers of the blog are a stubbornly loyal lot, with almost 400 faithful readers; my current level of readership was reached in October 2013 and has remained unchanged in the aggregate ever since.  They/you are a fine source of encouragement and validation, and on several occasions provided topics to explore on the blog.  For example, I will post this week on a topic of re-inventing an ancient technology based on an inquiry I received via a query submitted to the Contact function on the site a couple months ago.

I’ve established a routine for blogging, posting almost every weekday morning and Saturday night unless I am occupied with someone, something, or some place else.  I tend to keep several thread arcs running simultaneously since I get distracted easily.  Revisions to the site shell or the Store are left in the capable hands of webmeister Tim.  I am of an age and experience that I still think flames might shoot out of the screen if I do something wrong.

Over the past year the entire web site has been migrated from a far-obsolete software platform and crotchety server to new ones capable of fulfilling my expansive vision for using not only as a blogging platform but also a venue for both vending and a more intense didactic resource, including  full-length professional broadcast-quality and “shop tip/techniques” type videos.  To that end I am learning some simple video editing skills to make the latter possible.  Still, even baby steps into new technologies are not always smooth.

I’ve even started posting the Calendar of events at The Barn.

One of my delights is that the Comments feature is back on-line, and that the trash filter on that section is becoming more efficient over time.  I really do not need to review several daily “comments” referencing the need to wear my seat belt in order to avoid being drenched in my own urine.  Huh?  Really.  No, I do not know why, nor do I understand how novel length “comments” in Russian, Polish, Arabic, or Chinese are expected to provoke me to respond meaningfully.  Or buy fake watches, sneakers, or anything else.  One of the genres of Comment I find amusing are the daily fulsome praises for the site and my blogging prowess, presumably the messages or their links open me up to some sort of hacking or other fraud.  I literally chuckle when I get the frequent notes offering to create article$ on my behalf since I “do not update the blog content very often.”  I find that I must still take a few seconds every few days to breeze through the trash pile just in case something useful got there by mistake, which does happen.

On the vending front The Store is now operational with new products in the pipeline for the near future, and others a little further down the line.

Other imminent improvements include reviving The Shellac Archive, with several hundred offerings being readied for posting on (I hope) a near-weekly basis, and revitalizing my article archive with another few dozen of them.  I’m even thinking about serializing some of my mystery fiction if the spirit moves me.  I also know I need to update and expand some of the foundational documents and maybe add a Gallery of my projects.  At this point the only limits to the web site are my time and interest.  Well, that and money in the case of broadcast-quality videos.

For those of you who follow and are amused or informed by my recitations on the journey of life at The Barn on White Run, thanks for tagging along.  If you like what you see, tell your friends.  If you dislike what you see, tell your enemies.

I’ll emote some more tomorrow.  Gotta get going on the second thousand blog posts.

Stay tuned.