Musings

Coping with a Cold Shop – Isolation and Insulation

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The scene outside on Monday gave me a moment to reflect on the fact that we have made it to the halfway point of our first winter on the homestead. No, the Virginia Highlands are not the arctic climes challenging woodworkers Joshua Klein in Maine, Derek Olsen in Wisconsin, much less Dan or Jonathan in Alaska, but it does get cold here. Certainly, much colder than our past three decades living just south of DC. Here the temperatures, snowfall, and blustery winds are much more in tune with upstate New York, and my pal Mike and I frequently compare notes on the subject; we get pretty much the exact same weather, just three days apart.  Near and sub-zero temperatures and wind chills are common.  I don’t care where you are from, -7 degrees with 40 mph winds like we had three weeks ago is cold.

In part I have learned about the coping with cold, but more realistically I have been reminded of dealing with it. Sure, I grew up in Minnesota, but 1) it was southern Minnesota, the tropical part, and 2) I left there 48 years ago. This short series of blogs will recount those things I’ve learned or remembered about working in the shop in winter, and making it less wintery than it would be otherwise.

The three things that are definitely true for my barn in the mountains, and presumably your shop in whatever cold place you are, is that you need to 1) Isolate, 2) Insulate, and 3) Generate (heat, that is).

1) Isolation

One of the first decisions I reached when configuring the barn over the past many years is that there was no way I would, or could, heat all of it or even much of it. Instead I isolated my own primary studio space, the continuous row of windows on the north end of the barn, was the only space to be fully heated.  Even though the outer skin of the barn is 1×12 vertical siding with battens, that was applied over a continuous inner wind barrier.

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The windows are all fixed panel thermal units I bought from a building salvage outfit in Toledo, and I spent considerable time tightening all the corners of the room and around the windows. It took a lot of time and several tubes of caulk and cans of foam insulation, but it was definitely worth it.

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One of the great (?) things about living in the Allegheny Highlands is that the winds howl with regularity, so any leaks are pretty readily located. On windy days I checked around all the likely locations for air loss, and closed them up.

Another thing I’m thinking about adding to the isolation scheme is to hang extra-long transparent shower curtains about ¾ down the length of the studio, reducing the overall volume that needs to be heated. Once I do that and finish making the fitted thermal doors to the studio it should be plenty cozy.

Insulation

The basement of the barn is insulated from the ground by some R-30 polyisocyanurate foam panels on the outside of the concrete block walls, and several years ago I had the good fortune to come along a construction site where they were throwing out a mountain of R-43 XPS panels from an industrial scale renovation. Naturally, I made several trips with my truck and trailer to scarf up all I could. Now all the walls of my studio are fully insulated with this material (coincidentally perfectly sized to fit into the space left by 4×4 framing), so they are in good shape.

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In preparation for winter, I take another stash of the same insulation panels and lay them snugly on the floor of the balcony immediately above my studio, so in effect the walls and ceiling are all insulated with R-43 panels. I’ll probably think about leaving it in place and simply laying ½” plywood on top as the new floor.

The other insulation well worth mentioning is that sheath of insulation I wear. Come wintertime, I routinely wear finely woven inexpensive thermal underwear bottoms from the Vermont Country Store, or flannel lined khakis I got from Cabelas. On top I wear a long sleeved t-shirt, a heavyweight flannel shirt, and sometimes an insulated vest, along with a warm cap. One good thing about losing 100 pounds is that your long-johns are not crowding.

That’s it for Isolation and Insulation. Up next: Generation 1 (Kerosene heaters).

Teasers

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There was a beautiful sunny vista of the mountains outside my shop window late this afternoon, just after I finished taking the photographs for the PopWood article on wire inlay.  The article was a lot of fun to write, for a technique I have been toying with for some time, with ever widening applications.  I think it is in the upcoming April or May issue, so check it out when it arrives on the shelves.

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Decorative Wire Inlay

Last week I finished writing my latest article for Popular Woodworking, titled, I think, “Decorative Wire Inlay.”  Tomorrow morning I will finish the photography for it, then move on to the next projects in the shop, the list of which is formidable.

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I demonstrated the techniques of decorative wire inlay in my presentation to the Washington Woodworker’s Guild last autumn.

Magnificent

Last Friday on my way to the annual banquet of the Society of American Period Furniture Makers at Colonial Williamsburg I took the opportunity of my foray into “civilization” (or is it “out of civilization?”) to make a number of stops purchasing materials and supplies for ongoing and upcoming projects.

Perhaps the most important of these stops was at Virginia Frame and Builders Supply in Fishersville, just a hundred yards or so from I-64. Virginia Frame is renowned for having large, long, and lovely lumber in stock. I bought some 24-foot long southern yellow pine 2x12s, mostly clear and some even select. Since my pickup has a 6-foot bed, the folks at Virginia Frame cut the 24-footers into 8-foot sections and we stacked and strapped them into the bed for the long ride to Williamsburg then back to the mountains.

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This September I will be hosting ten members of the on-line forum Professional Refinishers Group, a treasured mostly-virtual community to which I have belonged for many years, for a week of workbench building. The lumber from Virginia Frame will serve as the raw stock from which I will make a Roubo prototype and a Nicholson prototype, to work out all the bugs in the fabrication process. Once I do I will order the same lumber as necessary for all the workbenches being built in September.

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There was rain on my trip, so when I got back Saturday afternoon I spread out the boards to let them dry, then yesterday morning I stacked them to allow them to sit properly before I build the benches in February and March. I love working with southern yellow pine, and these boards are magnificent.

But first I have to make a replica of the Henry O. Studley workbench top for the upcoming exhibit.

A Corner Transformed

For the past couple of years as I have been struggling to move into and assemble the new workshop in the barn, I have been plagued by one corner, right inside the entrance to my studio. I am not by nature a neatnik, and the corner wound up being the repository for odds and ends that I didn’t know what to do with. It wasn’t situated well, nor was it large enough for a “real” workbench as the total space was about five feet square. About the only good feature of the corner is that it was a natural home for a large trash can.

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Thanks in part to the inspiration of Jonas Jensen, whose blog is one of my favorites and often features immensely ingenious and impressive projects he makes from scrap materials in his spare time in the mechanical workroom of the ships on which he works in the North Sea, I realized there was no excuse for this state of affairs. Combining Jonas’ creativity with both a very limited improvised space and salvaged materials, along the impetus resulting from a recent visit to my friend Bob’s cozy gunsmithing shop, I was spurred on to action so that this very valuable real estate was reclaimed from being consigned to be nothing more than a junk-catching corner.

This new initiative, combined with a little salvaged Sjobergs workbench, resulted in a work space that is destined to become a favorite. I had originally deposited the tiny workbench in the barn’s classroom because even though it was wholly inadequate for full-scale furniture making, I had worked it over enough that it was now a pretty good little bench (after my rescuing it from the trash many years ago). Guess what? I measured it and it fit into the corner as if it had been made for it.

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After finding new homes for the stuff in the corner, and acquiring a new rectangular trash can to fit in with the newly positioned workbench, I now have a delightful work station for doing my “fussy” work that is so frequently part of my projects, including carving, jewelry-type fabrication, filing, sawing and the like. My two bowling-ball-and-toilet-flange vises used for carving, engraving, and checkering are now there, along with my stereomicroscope, myriad dental tools, die maker’s files and rifflers, checkering tools and carving chisels. There was even space for a few books overhead, and a permanent (read: rememberable) location for the First Aid kit.

Restoring A Pair of Cool Mid-Mod Chairs – Reassembly (Dealing With Wallowed-out Screw Holes)

The final steps to the conservation of the chairs was the reassembly, which first required me to replace most of the screws that were in the chair when it arrived on my door step.

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I’ve got a can of miscellaneous screws that accumulate over the years.  You’ve probably got one too.  I know the guy who worked on these chairs before had one too, because it looks like he just poured it out on the bench and used the first few dozen screws that were within reach with no effort to match screws to each other or to the tasks involved.

I tried to carefully match the screws to the tasks they were executing, and within that function, matched the screws to each other.  It was not much of a problem really, as I am the kind of guy who, when he needs a screw or two, goes to the hardware store and buys a box of the size he needs.  Because of that I have a pretty good hardware store shelf under the shop stairs.

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One of the problems I found in a handful of locations, and which I encounter with some regularity since I spend so much time working on old furniture, is the wallowed out screw hole, where the damage is such that any reasonable sized screw will be ineffectual.  To solve that problem I use the following strategy.

First, I establish the depth of the screw hole, usually with a bamboo skewer, then cut a strip of 100% linen rag stationary paper so that the width of the strip of paper is equal to the depth of the existing hole.  The I roll up the strip into a curl, so that it fits snugly into the wallowed out hole.  I press the rolled fill into the hole, then wick dilute hide glue onto the rolled up paper fill so that it becomes pretty well saturated, then I set the piece aside overnight to let the glue penetrate and harden.  When I return to the task the next day, I find that the proper sized screw fits and bites perfectly.  If anything goes wrong, I just dampen the fill and gently remove it all with the pointed end of the skewer or a dental pick and start it all over again.  It’s a high strength, high utility archival repair.  What’s not to like about it?

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I returned the chairs to the client’s home where they were placed alongside her exquisite Breuer leather and chrome chairs, where they complete the living room ensemble with real class.

 

Restoring A Pair of Cool Mid-Mod Chairs – Executing the Plan

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Before I did anything else, I had to consider carefully what the chair itself needed, in order to fulfill the user’s needs. Since I could not disassemble the chair without inflicting even more severe damage, this meant that I had to impose into the original fabric of the chair in situ and remove a substantial quantity of the original material, then augment that original element with new material unrelated to the original construction of the chair. Through consultation and discussion, both the client and I affirmed that route, so I dove in.  (Both chairs were treated in essentially the same manner, which was a good move strategically.  When disassembling the second chair  I discovered that it too had broken in the exact same place, but the damage had not yet become manifest at a gross level.)

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The first thing was to get the broken and displaced cross-member into the correct configuration, in short, put it back to the exact shape it was before the damage. So, I disassembled the buckboard spring assembly by detaching it from both the seat underside and the cross member and setting it aside until final reassembly. I introduced hot hide glue into the fracture and clamped the cross member so that it was straight, and allowed it to sit overnight. No, this was not a structural repair, it was rather a reclamation of the proper shape so that a structural compensation could take place.

I learned an important fact during this step, namely that the grain of the wood was really squirrely, much too figured for the stresses placed on it, and the wood was very brittle. This confirmed my proposal for the treatment process.

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Since the cross member was not square in cross section, and since the wood was so brittle, I could not use a power router to excavate the opening for the new enhancement. Instead I placed the new aluminum barstock spine on the underside of the cross member and scribed a mark, which I made quite deep with a knife.

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With my diminutive slotting plane I cut as deep and long of a ¼” wide furrow as possible, then switched to a ¼” pigsticker mortise chisel (it was just the best tool for the job) to finish the excavation.

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I made sure to fit the excavation and the new spline to each other. Just before inserting the spline, I drilled several holes through it so that the bedding epoxy would go not only around it but through it, locking everything in place.

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Using West System Epoxy with the slowest setting catalyst, I used a disposable paper cup to apply the epoxy on the spline and allowed it to flow down and around the new element, repeating as necessary until it was clearly full. Then I set up four clamps to hold everything in place and went down the hill to supper.

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The next morning I saw that the results were exactly as I had hoped, and filed off the excess epoxy and smoothed out the underside, making no effort to disguise the presence of the new addition. Being on the underside it was not visible to the user unless she flipped it over to look at it, and knowing her as I do, she probably will show it off to her many friends in the artifacts world.

With that, the chairs were ready for reassembly, wherein I ran into some fairly typical problems — mismatched screws, and wallowed out screw holes.

Stay tuned.

Restoring A Pair of Cool Mid-Mod Chairs – Devising the Plan

The approach to solving the problem afflicting these two chairs highlights a method for decision-making about artifact care that I derived more than twenty years ago, a model that has served me without fail ever since I established its framework.  It is a method by which I self-consciously attempt to balance the all the stakeholders in the drama: the chair itself, historical integrity, the user and their needs, and the possibilities and limitations of reality.

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I use this graphical representation to help remind me in steering my thinking.  (You can download a printable version of this here).

In this case I was faced with a well-artistically-designed piece of furniture that could no longer function properly, primarily I believe due to ill-advised fabrication.  If it was merely a prototype to demonstrate a form that never made it to production, or some other reason (as near as I can tell it never did make it into production), the fact is that it has become a treasured albeit utilitarian object whose dual purposes are to 1) look beautiful, and 2) keep the occupant off the floor, comfortably.

As I said earlier there was simply no way to disassemble the chair to get to the offending element without inflicting catastrophic damage on the chair, so that was out of the question.

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In the end I decided on a path analogous to a treatment I had devised and executed two decades ago for a cane bottomed painted chair from around 1800.  The side seat rail had been broken and repaired numerous times, and since the structure was both visible and hopelessly compromised, AND it could not be disassembled to enact the compensation needed, my fundamental commitment to the historical integrity of the piece — i.e. keeping the original fabric entirely intact and leaving it as unchanged as possible — had to be considered and reconsidered a great length.

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For the c.1800 painted chair I settled on excavating the underside of the seat rail and inserting and unobtrusive spine into the broken element in order to make it function properly (the chair was one of a set that was still used on a daily basis).  It worked perfectly.

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With the confidence of that successful project, for this pair of chairs I decided to do much the same thing.  The underside of the primary cross-member that had suffered complete failure and collapse from the stresses exceeding its functionality, and need to be reinforced with a stout and robust new element.  In this case I determined that the element needed to be a piece of metal bar stock, and the embedding material was to be epoxy.

Next time I will walk you through the execution of the treatment.

 

Restoring a Pair of Cool Mid-Mod Chairs — The Problem

Often when telling folks, woodworkers who replicate historic styles especially, that I have been a furniture and wooden artifacts conservator and restorer for more than four decades, they usually get dewey-eyed and exclaim something like, “Oh, it must be so great to work on furniture from the old days, when it was still good stuff.”  True enough, I have worked on some old artifacts, the oldest wooden object was at least five or six centuries, but I often find the most challenging and inspiring projects and objects are more or less contemporary.  Further, I recognize that my liking or disliking an artifact’s design does not make it good or bad.  Still, I find some of the most fascinating furniture emerged from the minds of creative designers pushing the boundaries of design and fabrication.  (Truth be told, a lot of the “great” furniture of centuries past was unimaginative replication, as social standing was much more involved with “keeping up with the [English or French] Jones'” than it was with good artistry or craftsmanship).

The 20th Century hosted the creative design genius of a multitude of awe-inspiring designers whose work I find much more engaging than their much older predecessors.  Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Greene brothers, Eileen Grey, Alvar Aalto, Peter Behrens, Charles Eames, Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Josef Hoffman, and Louis Marjorelle are but a few of the multitude of artists who made wood and surfaces express exuberant beauty.

It is noteworthy that many of the great modern designers were not artisans, and in fact some did not have a firm grasp on the details of how things were made. Thus, many times when the sketches were brought to reality the pieces of furniture they directed to be created had, um, shortcomings.

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Such is the case with a pair of mid-century modern chairs I was asked to conserve recently. The client, a scholar of the arts, thought that these might have been prototypes from the mind of Milo Baughmann. It makes sense to me; they are reminiscent of some of Baughmann’s other work, and the construction details for the chairs were not the best resolution to the structural requirements for their use. Alternately, the chairs could be the product of the imagination for an acolyte of Charles Eames. Whatever the source, neither I nor the client have ever seen another example of this specific chair form (I like it so much I am trying to devise the making of some myself.).

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The main problem with these two rocking chairs, well, one in particular, was that the cross member that bears virtually the entire weight of the sitter was 1) too weak to resist the forces of sitting adequately (especially since it was both undersized and much more figured that is appropriate for the location and requirements of the element), and 2) integral to the structure of the chair which simply could not be dismantled for the offending piece to be replaced without inflicting catastrophic destruction on the chair.

Over the next three postings I will describe my decision-making for resolving the problem and returning the chairs to full service, the execution of that plan, and finally note about the reassembly and a solution to dealing with the problem of wallowed out screw holes.

Timing

As they say about many things in life, timing is everything.

With winter setting in here in the Allegheny Highlands, I’ve been trying to time the winter shutdown of the hydroelectric system in order to avoid the carnage of last winter, as lengthy sections of the pipeline to the turbine froze and shattered.  I planned for the shutdown to occur at dusk today.  The system has been performing brilliantly, even with several consecutive nights with lows about 10F.

Today we took a trip across the mountains to get some lumber and groceries, returning just before dusk so that I could walk the line and shut the system down.  The day was cold but sunny, between 15 and 20F as we headed out, and the turbine could be heard doing its little turbine work.  As we pulled up on our return five hours later, parked, and got out, a sickening silence cut through the air.  The gentle whine of the turbine was missing.

After quickly unloading the groceries (the lumber can stay in the back of the truck) I headed up the hill to see what the situation was.  The situation?  I waited one day too long.  The water in the pipeline has frozen in place, and all I can do now is wait for the pipeline to thaw to determine the level of damage and make the repairs.  Surely some will have to be replaced, but that might have to wait until spring.  Had I closed the system down yesterday, I could have resumed it on the warmer days here.  Now?  Probably not until late March at the earliest.  Good thing we added the extra solar panels last September.  In the morning I will brush off the snow and get back to work on the various projects around here.

I also need to re-examine every part of the pipeline system, to get it perfect.  Clearly, it is not so now.

It is now just past dusk here, and even though they are predicting a low of 2F tonight, it was already 1F a half hour ago.  I suspect the air temperature will get to minus-5F or maybe even minus-8, and with winds gusting to almost forty miles an hour, that will yield a wind chill of around -40F.

If you come across any anthropogenic global warming crackpots (but I am being redundant) whack them with a snow shovel.