Archive: » 2020 » December

‘Tis The Season…

… when I have The Messiah on loop playing on my compewder, and I exhort you to join me in listening to the most compelling version of the magnificent musical devotional I know.  This one is presented by Collegium 1704, the Prague ensemble committed to playing Baroque music on Baroque instruments interpreted as closely as possible to the way that music was played at the time of its creation.  This performance and setting are to my eye and ear flawless.

I have loved The Messiah since I was but a little boy, playing it over and over on our portable record player and eventually owning perhaps a dozen versions to play on my grown-up stereo.   This version is by far my favorite, its tempo and expressiveness are lively and overwhelmingly joyous.  How could it not be, it is the grandest story of all wherein Creation is reconciled to the Creator through sacrificial Redemption?  The sprightly pace in some passages might be a bit startling to those of you who have had to endure the multitude of turgid Messiah performances over your life.  All to often it is performed as a dirge rather than a joyous celebration.

But this performance is spectacular in every way.  The setting is Divine, the musicianship is virtuosity itself, the choral ensemble is angelic, and the soloists are all captivating, especially alto Delphine Galou who is radiantly sublime.  I could listen to her singing the Federal Budget.

In watching the performance I am always impressed with the Colloquim’s commitment to period musical instruments, I find myself looking for details of the ancient tools they are using.  While those in the viol family appear to have not changed in 300 years, the same is not true for the brass and woodwind clan.  Some of them look downright odd.

An instrument I wonder about is the one directly in front of the conductor, it looks vaguely like a roll-top desk.  I find myself wondering if it is one of the console pipe organs from Taylor and Booty, just down the road from me.  We have toured their facility two or three times as a family, it is an amazing facility producing other-worldly instruments.

I forget whether this is Mr. Taylor or Mr. Booty who was giving us this tour in 2007, showing off one of their console pipe organs.  The guts are packed tighter than a 1972 Boss 428 Mustang engine compartment, the one where you have to loosen the brake master cylinder to get to the spark plug on cylinder #8.  Elder dottir is a pipe organist and really wanted one of these babies.  All it took wa$ lot$ of moolah.  Lot$.  Hence, she no has.

Much like a wooden boat, which has to look a particular way but whose most important feature is being water tight, so to are musical instruments; they have to fit the human body (or in some ases an architectural surrounding)  but still sound lovely.

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.

Truing The New 30-60-90 Triangle Square, Part Deux

To judge and tune the angles of the square I first establish the right angle to be as perfect as possible with my Vesper square, which is the reference I use for anything 90-degrees in the shop.

With with my brass triangle laid out as closely as possible to the geometric model of the base being exactly 1/2 of the hypotenuse, I begin to mark the 30-degree angles cumulatively to form a half circle or even an entire 360-degree construct.  I have found that simply marking the angle with a pencil and building the angle construct from that is not accurate enough to get it exactly 30-degrees.

When I am creating the sawing and shooting jigs for parquetry I have to keep in mind that in order for the assembly to be perfect the pieces have to fit tightly together by incorporating twelve lines — six starburst pieces with two sides each.  For every fraction of a degree of angle the triangle square is off, that error will be magnified twelve times in the final assembly.

Once that is accomplished I set the square down against a line, then lay a popsicle stick along  the angled line.

Removing the square and placing a second stick as the mating surface I now have the reference line to establish the second 30-degree angle. I continue this process until I get to the stage where, if perfect, the first line and the last line are perfectly in accord.

This never happens, the aggregate is always off by a tiny bit and the hypotenuse needs a bit of adjusting, in this case less than 1/64th”.

I do this on my granite block with a roll of 60-grit sanding medium, gently pressing the toe or the heel of the hypotenuse to kiss the angle a teensy bit one way or the other.

It usually takes me a few brief sessions at the granite-and-sandpaper before I am satisfied with the six-angle exercise.

Once I get to that point I can solder the shoe on the short leg of the square and finish it off, calling it “done.”  This example is the bigger sibling of the current one, made during the workshop two summers ago.  I trued this square the exact same way, and it is a joy to hold and use.

Truing a 30-60-90 Triangle


In many instances, cutting dovetailed open mortises through a Roubo bench top for example, a 30-60-90 layout gauge only has to be “close enough,” however you define that term.  All one layout line has to do is match another layout line, and as long the two lines are struck with the same tool off the same reference plane all is well.

During last year’s workshop we all made one or two of these triangles, and like I said above, they work just fine.  Laying out the hypotenuse with dividers was all that really needed to accomplish (the hypotenuse of a 30-60-90 triangle is exactly twice the length of the short leg), using my Chris Vesper sublime refence square for the 90-degree corner.

But what happens when you have to create a series of lines coming from different places, and they establish the perimeters of pieces that must match each other precisely?  That is exactly the case of laying out a basic “starburst” or “dice” pattern parquetry composition.  I used to be content with simply laying out a sawing jig using a small plastic triangle from a middle school geometry class set, but since I have moved to shooting the edges of all the lozenges to minimize the joints even more, I needed to make myself a truly precise triangle square to set the fence for the shooting board.

Starting with one of the brass triangles left over from the workshop two summer ago I determined to make a 30-60-90 square that fit the bill.  Once I had the angles perfect I could then solder on the shoe to the short leg of the triangle.

Tomorrow I will show how I did just that with a bench top geometry version of a Covid/PCR test, using a piece of paper and two popsicle sticks.

Siding Progress

When I projected 90 minutes to completion of the living room siding I was off by just a tad.  Yes, the removal of the older siding did take 90 minutes, but installing the new siding took a full day since almost every shingle had to to be fitted and cut individually.  But soon enough and once I finished the corner trim, the wall looked brand new, and it was glorious.  I have not yet decided whether or not to apply a cedar-tone translucent stain to the new siding to preserve the appearance.  Stay tuned.

The only thing left on this wall is to finish re-installing the trim on the upper window and I can call it quits.  This was on the calendar for the Friday after Thanksgiving, but I was instead occupied with more important and transcendent things sitting with my mom in her final hours.

The next step is to address the final section on the upper floor siding above the living room.  That comes in a couple weeks, I hope.

For A Much-needed Laugh

This might be an oldie but I just saw this for the first time and it made me laugh.  Thank you cousin C for sending me the link.  If you enjoyed The Turbo Encabulator you will love The Board Stretcher!

And for  gentler laugh, try this (although to be truthful downsizing is always on my mind).

An Upcoming Distraction – Fauxrushi

During his recent visit to help set up for next August’s Gragg Chair Workshop my pal John presented me with these three little vessels for me to experiment with as I build an inventory of fauxrushi experience.  I can hardly wait to get to them.  John has a Rose Engine Lathe and is always looking for new avenues of artistic expression with it.  I made sure to send him home equipped with several wood chunks with which he can play, including a bolt from a holly tree, some tulipwood, and others.  I await the results of  explorations from his end.

Indispensable Gragg Chair Tool #1

Over the coming weeks I will be posting periodically about the tools I use to make a Gragg chair in order to help next August’s class attendees begin to assemble their tool kits.  I will emphasize the peculiar tools and perhaps describe how they are used in the process.  The tools will be presented in no particular order, merely in the sequence they pop into my head.

I will say that tool #1, the spokeshave, or more particularly brass mini-spokeshave(s) is integral to establishing the lines of the curved contours and thus spends a lot of time in my hand.  I use about a dozen different small spokeshaves, but that is because that’s what my inventory of spokeshaves consists of.  Petite wooden spokeshaves are also fine, but I only have one of these and have not been able to find many more.  Certainly my favorite (upper right) is one we made when I was working as a patternmaker in a foundry and cast our own tools.  As I recall the iron for the tool was made from an old saw blade.  Its sole is shallow enough that it can work on concave, convex, flat, and chamfered surfaces.

The spokeshave on the upper left might be the one most familiar to you as it was sold in a three piece set, one flat, one convex, and one rounded, from a number of tool purveyors back in the day.  I am pretty sure I bought four sets of them at the time and there are still large numbers of these floating around the interwebz and tool swap meets.  The two spokeshaves on the bottom were picked up along the journey over the past 40 years, the one on the left very similar to the one I had from the pattern shop and the one on the right is from a pair of “lamb’s ear” spokeshaves from some auction somewhere.

Given that the ultimate elegance of the Gragg chair is only partly due to the sinuous bent  elements, much of the remaining contribution is through the further shaping of those elements via spokeshaving.  Once the chair is assembled from the steam bent pieces, almost each of those pieces gets sculpted in place with the spokeshaves to present the unified whole.  I have tried to shape all these elements prior to assembly but found that even then I had to go back and harmonize them all, so now I just do almost all of the shaping of those cross sections after the chair is all together.  This requires very small spokeshaves to get the job done.

2020, Enough Already! (*not* woodworking)

Yesterday saw another great loss in the World of Williams, when only four days after the passing of my own dear mother and the same day her remains were interred, our long-time friend Prof. Walter E. Williams died, apparently in his sleep overnight after teaching class the previous day.  Ironically I met him first on my mom’s birthday in January 1985, when I wrangled myself an invitation to a faculty seminar he was presenting at the University of Delaware (where I was a student commuting one day a week back from Mordor) and then to the Provost’s dinner afterwards where I sat opposite him.  We talked a long time before his public lecture later that evening, I think the topic was transaction theory revolving around the sale/purchase of an apple, and he accepted my invitation to dinner since he was teaching on the west side of DC and we were living on the east side.  It was the first of many dinners in our home, complimented by many times when he took us to his favorite Mexican or French restaurants on his side of town.

Dinner at our house c.2012.

Having spent time with him dozens of times over the past 35 years I can attest to his good humor and graciousness, his breadth of curiosity and knowledge, and his ability to teach in any situation.  Dinners with him sitting at our table were wildly entertaining and profound learning opportunities, I remember once have a two-hour discussion of the economist’s perspectives on the “optimal depth of top soil for farms.”

Admittedly Walter was from another branch of the family, but he was a dear family friend nonetheless.

For many years he served on the governing Board of Grove City College and strongly encouraged our daughters to attend.  When applying there one of them said, “It sure doesn’t hurt list Dr. Walter Williams as a reference when submitting the Application.”  I recall a moment four years later at graduation, when the festivities corresponded with The Board’s Annual Meeting.  Coming outside after Baccalaureate I spotted him surrounded by a throng of people some distance away (he always attracted a crowd!).  I caught his eye and he immediately excused himself from the crowd and walked over to give warm congratulations to our daughter and to us.  I think he might have hugged her, which would have been a sight since he was a giant and she was not very large.

When I tried to kill myself with the lawn tractor a few months ago he wrote me a warm but scolding note to avoid such an incidents in the future.  I had written him a similar note a few years earlier when he slipped on the ice and broke his ankle.

We had been corresponding about arranging a time for dinner together early next year, an always challenging task since neither of us lived in the DC area (he commuted into town for 2-1/2 days a week and we are 200+ miles away).  I thought we had it nailed down to the last week of January or the first week of February, but now he, too, is gone.  To be sure we will miss his gentle friendship, but the nation will fare far worse without his insights challenging the prevailing “wisdom.”

I will leave you with one of my favorite “Walter Stories,” (his takedown of Teddy Kennedy will have to wait).  During the transition from Presidents Carter to Reagan, Walter was offered numerous posts in the Reagan Administration.  Board of Governors for the Federal Reserve Bank.  Secretary of Labor.  Secretary of Education.  Presidential Advisor.  Etc., etc., etc.  He declined them all.  When asked if he would accept any appointment, he replied, “Supreme Court.”

“As only an economist what qualifications do you have to sit on the Supreme Court?” he was asked.

“As only an actor, what qualifications do you have to be President?” he replied.  Though a supporter of Reagan, he was making a point.

He was always making a point, usually while laughing.

Farewell Walter, and 2020 please be done and gone.  (It gives me pause to realize that IIRC the movie Mad Max was set in the year 2021.  Heaven help us, and I mean that literally.)


Geriatric Trees

One of the things about owning a home for almost 40 years is that you get to see new trees sprout, young trees mature, and mature trees live long past their prime and thus become a hazard.  Such is the case for our Maryland house where our daughter now lives.

The situation was brought to the front of the line recently when a silver maple sprout in the deck literally rotted and fell over (it sprouted from the stump of a giant maple that had been cut down 25 years ago; the deck was built around it) .  Of course we did not know about the extent of the rot until the “falling over” part.  This incident provoked me to arrange for a crew to come and do some serious whacking.

One fortunate happenstance is that the section of railing damaged in the fall was actually just displaced, none of the components were damaged but rather knocked apart.  So all I have to do is complete the dismantling and reassemble the elements.

Perhaps the most worrisome tree was this decrepit box elder, a junk tree even when in the best of shape.  Twenty years ago this provided wonderful shade for the Japanese tea house playhouse I built for the girls, a structure that still provides function to this day when dottir has friends with small children over.  The old box elder was leaning so much I was instructing dottir to avoid the area when mowing.  With the maple falling over it was time to act, and I did.  Well, all the acting I did was pick up the phone and sign the check, but you get the idea.

Three other worrisome trees were gigantic silver maples whose branched trunks were beginning to list a fair bit.

We had two trees removed en toto and another half dozen major limbs or trunks removed from others.  The yard and house are now much safer.  Plus, I got to give dottir a new chainsaw and a lesson on how to use it.  After finishing the task of cutting up the original fallen maple, she said she now understands the attraction of chain saws.

My only “complaint” after the fact is that almost all of the maple trunks were curly, with spalting, and the tree crew hauled everything away.  Drat.