Tuesday, September 30, 2008

(Stay) Out Of My Way

Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so. Douglas Adams

[Editor's Note: First offered two years ago.]
{Author's Note: This is the Intertunnel. An Intertunnel Year is seven dog years. So this item is ninety-eight years old. We can re-run it. No one remembers nuffin' anyway. And there is no editor.}

I found out something fascinating yesterday. You can be educated, by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for free.

No, I don't mean the rheotorical you; I mean you. And me. Anybody.

Well not anybody, of course, because not everybody is educable. But there are no entrance requirements, no interview, nothing; they just put the curriculum up on the Internet and let you use it. As Lawrence of Arabia says to Ali, pointing across the trackless waste of the Nefu desert towards Aqaba: "It's just a matter of going." Simple, really.

Indeed. Now, you're not going to get to ask anybody any questions, get help from your peers, go to any keg parties, or clap any erasers for brownie points or anything. The stuff is just laying around there. You've got to do something with it, no one's going to show you the way.

Experience is a dear teacher, but fools will learn at no other. Ben Franklin

Now, if you know the vernacular of the 1700s, you'd know that "dear" means "expensive" or "difficult" in that aphorism. And Ben knew what he was talking about, because he was talking about himself, really. He's one of a long list of people that taught themselves what they wanted or needed to know. Like most autodidacts, he knew amazing and voluminous amounts of things, but there were large gaps in his learning. This is the danger in not having a curriculum set out for you.

I've never been able to learn things properly. I always just wanted to be left alone in the library with the information that interested me. But you'll notice that Ben Franklin didn't espouse his method of learning, and neither will I. It's a self-selecting cadre I inhabit, and if you join because you think it's sexy, you'll likely make a mess of your life. Try going into IBM and telling them you know the things an MIT education encompasses, but you have no credentials to prove it. The tests you didn't take online aren't in the Human Resources person's desk, either. Grab a broom.

The only real way to learn anything in this world is to do it alongside someone that knows what they are talking about. But the person that knows what he's talking about is a rare thing, and rarer still is that person that will help you. They're busy. But sometimes they write it down. And you can learn it from them, even if they're halfway across the planet, or dead as a Pharoah.

People drop out of college now, and say: "Bill Gates dropped out of college, and he's rich. No problem." Believe me, you're not Bill Gates. If you were, you wouldn't be looking around to see what other people were doing, and mimicking their approach. Being an autodidact is a force-play. You run to second base on a ground ball or you're out. There's no deciding in it. You are or you ain't. Bill Gates and his ilk stole second and third and home, and you're still trying to bunt.

A sympathetic Scot summed it all up very neatly in the remark, "You should make a point of trying every experience once, excepting incest and folk dancing." Sir Arnold Bax

Regular people make the world go round. By definition, most people are regular people. But if it's enough for you to have the stuff in your head, because you can use it, and know how to pan through the whole placer to find the glittering dust that's there in the ore, it's there now.

It's just a matter of going.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Are You Popular?

I watched the entire video, and I've only come up with one observation about the late forties: It's just like now, of course; but altogether more poorly wallpapered.

Friday, September 26, 2008

They Didn't Vote For Summer

My older boy is in Junior High School.

He is sophisticated enough now to occasionally be inscrutable to his father. He can't keep it up for very long, and under hard questioning you can always figure out what's up. I think. But he really does keep his own counsel from time to time. It's interesting to see a person develop out of the unthrown pot of childhood.

He goes to regular school. He participates in most everything, but he has no monomania. You can already see the kids who won't do anything but play sports until they're adults and will then spend the rest of their lives telling everybody that they used to play sports. The busybody girls already exist. Geeks, joiners, loners, emo kids, jocks, princesses and so forth are already are forming in the little larvae.

My boy isn't any of those things. He drifts among them all, it seems to me, and is friend to all, or at least all the kids that aren't entirely meatheads.

You make people, and then you raise them, and you're still in a sort of wonder at how they turn out. In general, whenever the kids are charming I see my wife in there somewhere, and when they blot their copybook it's all me. I'm not sure if that's human nature or the opposite of human nature on my part but it's the truth.

If I put on my human nature cap, and use it to figure out what happened yesterday based on sketchy information, here's what happened to my boy:

The teacher was looking for someone cooperative enough to lose the Class President election to whatever monomaniac girl was running unopposed in it.

My boy don't care and he won anyway.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

I (Still) Wanna Be Nefarious

Someday I'm going to be really rich... an OVERLORD! Yeah, that's the ticket. An EVIL overlord at that. Plottin' and schemin' and living in a fortress of solitude or sostenudo or whatever the hell you call that cave with all the computers that evil dudes keep in the Arctic Circle or wherever they are where's it's all ice outside but nice and comfy in the cave. And I'm going to have a heliport so I can flit all over the globe at a moment's notice, doin' evil and whatnot.

And I'll have a phalanx of leggy supermodels with guns with elaborate pointing devices involved, yeah... both the guns AND the women will have elaborate pointing devices! And lasers. Gotta have lasers. And nunchucks. Like Ghaddafi, but I don't wanna write right to left. What am I, Da Vinci?

And with all the money I get from all that evil --evil pays good doesn't it? I don't really know... I guess it does; but they all seem to be evil for the love of it anyway, but maybe they invest wisely and just do the evil as a sort of hobby -- I dunno--anyway, with all the evil money I get from all my evil...

Strike that! -- I wanna be nefarious. Nefarious sounds so much cooler than just evil. Can you imagine calling a good restaurant and tellin' them you're coming on down and you're freaking nefarious? Huh? Oh man, they'd tell the lame evil people they'd have to move them to another table even though they're halfway through an arugula salad with balsamic and shaved cheese and they'd put me right down front and the evil guy's dates would nudge their elbow and say: "How come you don't lay a beatdown or a fatwa or whatever on that guy if you're so evil?" And they'd just fidget in their chair and look shifty and mutter:" No way... that guy's nefarious!" And then his chick would slip me her number when they slink out after the fish course and she'd be all wanting to join my cadre or army or gang or whatever, as long as it's nefarious and not just evil. And if she's hot and looks like Emma Peel in one of those good Avengers episodes with not so much of the fruity dude with the brolly and a whole lot of Emma Peel in a leather jumpsuit it's welcome aboard, baby!

Anyway, with all my nefarious evil ill-gotten gains I'm gonna hire this guy to walk around behind me playin' this all the live-long day while I'm nefariating all evil-like:

I'm warning you: If you try to tip him or call him over to your table and ask for Besame Mucho or something I'm going to have to get medieval on you.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Tell-Tale Lie

I need to be a little bit tedious here for a moment.

No, really; more than usual. It's because you have to grasp the enormity of this foolishness first. So here goes:

I've worked every kind of construction there is. Commercial construction, residential construction. I've painted the inside of a doghouse, and I've built football stadiums. Rough arts? Check. I've painted murals and wallpapered, too, so it's not just the barbarian arts I'm talking about. I've worked alongside many a homeowner, and at their direction in their occupied homes, as well as out in the field where no end user comes.

I've worked on single family homes a lot. Duplexes? Sure. Multi-family? Check. Condos? Absolutely. Big ol' apartment buildings? Of course. Call them what you like --whip out your PUD. I've already seen it.

I've cleared the land. Dug the hole. Stacked the blocks. Poured the chowder. I've stuck a spud into the steel. Welded? Name your metal. Hell, I've paved the street. Put in the sewer and the drainage.

Office buildings? Yeah. Hotels? Yeah. Getaway cabins? Sure. Mansions? Absolutely. McMansions? I guess.

Exurb, suburb, city, village, town, township, outpost. Atlantic? Pacific? Great Lakes? Pah. Done.

I've screamed into the phone and the ear and the air alike. Worked alone. Directed hundreds.

I've drawn the plans. Applied for the permits. Put in Environmental Remediation. Sat in interminable meeting for the privilege of being yelled at before being denied and approved alike.

I've worked on houses where the owners showed me where their ancestors hid during King Phillip's War. I've worked on houses that had graywater recovery and passive solar.

Railroad, Colonial, Adam, Georgian, Second Empire, Stick, Eastlake, Colonial Revival, Tudor, Queen Anne, Ranch, Prairie... this is getting tedious. If I can think of a kind of house I've had nothing to do with I'll mention it. Ummm......

People? Black, white, brown -- all the hues of the rainbow and the UN combined. Disfigured or whole, ancient or young, from every continent. Well, maybe not Antarctica. I've worked with every race, color, and creed. Gay, straight, and just plain strange. Men, women, boys, girls. Disabled people I couldn't keep up with, and able-bodied lazy people. Everybody.

I've worked for customers so imperious that they wouldn't allow us to drink from their garden hose while we were working. Outside. In August. In Massachusetts. Some people, conversely, would set a place for us at their table if we were in their house at dinnertime.

In short, I've done every single thing I can think of in construction at one time or another, by and for every sort of person-- short of scouring other galaxies for odditities -- in every sort of setting you could conjure up, and for every sort of customer you can imagine.

I've seen most all the Do It Yourself kinds of shows now. And I can tell you, without fear of contradiction, that in the hundreds of thousands of hours I've worked, and during the gazillion man-hours of other people's work I have observed, not one, single, solitary human being in the real construction world has every given any other person a "high-five" before, during, or after the job. It has literally never happened in my presence.

I don't know what you people are watching, but it ain't work.

Friday, September 19, 2008

I'll Take The End In The Middle

It weighs 439 pounds.

To recap, I have a 350 Pound Doorstop In My Basement, and I'm damn near out of business until I replace it. Do you know how to move heavy things? I see all sorts of educated people that can't fathom how people built the pyramids. They'll believe aliens did it, but not regular people. When you become far removed from everyday things, you'll believe anything but the truth. Construction workers don't watch Mythbusters.

If I told you you had to move that 439 pound box down a flight of stairs, could you do it? Here's what's at your disposal: A thirteen year old boy, his mom, and whatever you have laying around. Easy. By the way; you're in a hurry, because the item is made from cast iron, and it's going to rain. And you can't drop it -- it's precision machinery.

At the risk of sounding like Steve Martin or Charlie Rangel telling you the way to be a millionaire and not pay taxes is to "get a million dollars and then don't pay your taxes," I'm going to just wave my hand and tell you you've got to accept the shipment five miles away because your driveway is too long and skinny for the truck. Then you get the box into the back of your van using only a ramp.

Look, you're going to have to understand the simple machines and be able to predict how much of a boost each can give your available manpower. For the benefit of people with advanced degrees that train you to be able to type into a little phone with your thumbs and not much else, the simple machines are:
  1. Pulley
  2. Lever
  3. Wedge
  4. Wheel and Axle
  5. Ramp (Inclined Plane)
  6. Screw
Some machines are instantly recognizable as what they are. Others need a little contemplation to recognize. A saw is basically a wedge, for instance. So is a nail.

We don't need all those for this. We're going to need the lever and the ramp. We're going to be wallowing in friction, though. And gravity.

The very first thing, and most important, is making up your mind to do it. I'm serious. You need to determine if it's possible, and then commit yourself to doing it. Otherwise you're going to succumb to the spectre of one idea after another to quit and get more help and more equipment forevermore.

Everyone wants a wheel, right away. It's the last thing you want, in many cases. The wheel and axle part of our story was the semi truck that delivered it. Gravity and weight will get someone hurt, especially if it's skating all over the place on wheels. We walked the box up the ramp. On wheels, we could never have pushed it up.

I'm going to have to pick it up myself. I'm strong enough to beat you up, but I can't lift 439 pounds -- so I'm going to have to be smarter than you, too. You can pick up anything with a lever, if the fulcrum is placed correctly and the lever arm is long enough. Let's make a sled, and combine the ramp and the lever.

We're going to keep the item from sliding down the sled with a strongback. Putting structural members perpedicular to one another increases their resultant capabilities.

Speaking of strong backs, a thirteen year old's is strong enough:

We'll capture the sled on an inclined plane, and use friction to keep it from ending up in China, and me, flat, in geostationary orbit above China. Remember, wheels are bad.

We're going to need a platform at the top to sit the box on. Let's make it from... heh... IKEA furniture.
Somebody gave me a knock-down shelf 25 years ago. This is all it's good for in the long run. Buy real furniture, people! I use pneumatic nails to nail it to the frame.

So we walked it down the ramp from the truck and put it right on the sled. We needed to avoid it tipping over and crushing me, standing at the bottom of the ramp, so I nailed the pallet to the sled with as many three inch framing nails as I could fit. The strap was gravy.

I could easily lift the box by pulling down on the bottom of the lever arm we'd made. There was less than three feet under the box, and I had over nine feet of lever. But there would be a moment when the sled would be tipped downhill, but not fully in contact with the whole ramp. It might start moving pretty quick -- too fast. Fast is always bad. So we put self-adhesive abrasive tape on the ramp to increase the friction.

There's a lot of figuring and checking. My helpers can't be hurt, as they're at the top of this rollercoaster looking down, but I imagine that watching the thing crush me and being sent to the workhouse for the rest of their miserable lives would be less fun than shoe-shopping and playing X-Box, so I was determined not to let the thing land on me. I'm considerate like that.

But it started to rain, less than thirty seconds after I was dumb enough to say: "Thank God it hasn't rained." Time to act.

I tipped that thing down, and the sled hung up perfectly on the ramp. The boy ran around to the bottom with me, and we inched it down by wiggling it a bit. The angle of the sled gets less acute as the lever end slides across the floor, and so the force trying to make it a runaway train abates pretty quick. Et voila!; it has arrived:

And then the setup faeries came while we ate cupcakes and then slumbered, and they put the thing together from the jumble of gun-greased cast iron and bolts that was in the crate. Or I put it together. It was one or the other; I can't recall now.

And now, we're back in business.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Thanks For The Inquiries

Lots of people seemed to like the TopTen List of Tools.

[Update: I forgot to mention the Intertube mensch that liked my little push stick first: Gerard of American Digest. Mi dispiace. Speaking of inside baseball, he has given me many glimpses into the nuts and bolts of magazine editing, about whichI knew nothing.]

I never know what I'm supposed to be writing about, so I generally write about not knowing what I'm supposed to write about. Perhaps I can add writing about being surprised I was supposed to be writing about what I just wrote about to my list of topics, making in all, two.

The vast majority of opinion offered on the Intertunnel is written as if it was expert. I rarely consider the author of an article an expert, so you can imagine how I feel about the comments section.

But comments appended to information can have an enormous weight and significance, even if they rarely do. I find it immensely interesting to see what other people know. But everybody is just the fourteenth chair on the right on the McLaughlin Group now, yelling about anything as if they were the final arbiter of everything.

Why do people overlook the one area where they are the final arbiter of everything? You are the foremost authority on your own opinion. I'm always interested in what other people think, especially about their own affairs. I'm not all that interested in hearing about what I'm supposed to be thinking because you read a whole lot of magazine articles and remember some of it.

If you're a scribe, your area of expertise is supposed to be writing things down. That's morphed into: I've got a barrel of ink so my opinion trumps yours. Not hardly. Even photographers abdicate their responsibilities to depict, not to foist an opinion.

I have expressed a certain amount of contempt for professional politicians here because they believe that they understand all the affairs of all other men enough to run their lives. The newspapers and TV seem to think the same thing. I can't help noticing that not one of them seems suitable to perform the most menial task in the real world. A scribe that thinks they are the subject of every sentence they write is of no use to me.

Each and every one of the comments on my last, crummy little essay was interesting and/or useful to me. I'll tell you why:
Thud said...
a great list and no doubt a surprise to some...where is all the power etc?

Thud is probably a much more skilled artisan than I am, though I do not know him. He's pointing out that power tools and machinery are a given. I get to talk about the humdrum little things because the big things are taken care of.

Ron said...

I dunno...I'm pretty cow dumb around wood related things...I'd probably need a 6" square to cut the cheese...

Ron comments here often. If you don't particularly know something about a topic, normal, decent people try to participate by saying something that might at least be amusing to others. Ron is like that. But he's the only one that picked up on the William Jennings Bryan vibe to my logo, so his "cow dumb" self assessment doesn't apply much of anywhere else, I imagine. Mark Twain used to call himself that a lot. He might have been... exaggerating.

David St Lawrence said...

Excellent recommendations!

Although I designed custom furniture for a few years, I never graduated to the distressing of surfaces.

The brick is perfect.

Thanks for sharing this. I will forward your post to the neighbor I lent all of my woodworking tools to when I changed careers.

I didn't realize David made furniture. I put him in my blogroll because he seemed like a decent sort of fellow. I had no idea he subscribed to my very own black art.

Excellent advice as usual, but tell us about the lovely wood used in the table top. What grain! And the perfect finish used to enhance the grain.
-Deb in Madison

Deb is a regular, and points out a hole in my thinking. I just took the handiest thing in the shop to display the items, a Kipling Table, and never gave it another thought. It's made from Tiger Maple. I use "Soft Maple," which isn't all that soft, really, being only about 25% softer than Hard Maple, which is very hard indeed. Soft Maple is more dimensionally stable and takes finish and fasteners better. Plain maple had a very light and bland grain, but has a number of iterations of wild grains like birdseye and tiger. The grain in Tiger Maple undulates up and down, and as you saw through it it exposes end grains which appear darker and look like tiger stripes. It's very American. It was a favorite of Shakers, for instance.

The pictures were taken in my shop which give the table a greenish/yellow cast from the fluorescent lights. It's a very handsome color in real light, which I call Cinnamon. By the way, the table was ordered by another blogger, Bird Dog at Maggies Farm. He's growing old and gray waiting for me to figure out how to make a humidor to go along with it. I am always interested in what Bird Dog has to say.

Harry said...

Thanks. I'll save this for my Christmas list.

Harry is a fellow Massachusetti, but I've never met him. Sterling fellow. I don't know why he wants a stick and a brick in his Christmas stocking. He must have enough coal for the furnace already. Everyone should wish Harry's wife a get well soon!

Eric said...

I think I just learned more about tools in the 5 minutes of reading that post than I have in 20 years of casual watching of Norm and those this-old-house guys.

That's nice to say. I tried to tell the truth about what I know. Everyone likes inside baseball.

Stuart wrote an opera in three parts about his stairs. I found it interesting and compelling. I have an enormous respect for people who make things for themselves despite how hard it is. I learned everything the hard way, myself. You can see that when Stuart gets his compound miter saw he'll really use it, because he's trying to do it now even though it's hard. Imagine what he'd accomplish if it was easier.

I built my own house. Not alone of course --all praise and gratitude to my good friend Steve at Central Cape Construction -- but if you can see it, I did it. We had no money. Half of the house parts I salvaged from a dumpster. I was trying to figure out my stairs on my own. A friend of mine was helping. (Hi Fischer!) My wife and I had moved into our house with only two rooms finished: our bedroom and a bathroom. The entire upstairs and the stairs themselves were left rough.

I was trying to bolt the upstairs newel post to the framing. A staircase and railing is the most complicated woodwork in your house. My wife was sick. Sore throat. She had gone to the doctor while we fumbled around with the lag bolts. When she returned, we had basically gotten nowhere from when she left.

My wife is quieter than Calvin Coolidge, and better looking. She walked past me and Mark, took a mordant look at our progress, and said:

"You've got eight months to finish that."

It was, and I'm sure will remain forever, the greatest moment of my life.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Ten Of The Eleven Of My Top Ten Tools

People ask me occasionally about the tools I use, and the place I use them in. They always ask about the wrong tools. Tablesaws and jointers and bandsaws are important, don't get me wrong, but they are machinery. Tools are things you can pick up.

I never buy wood at Home Depot, or the Blue Home Depot, either. I buy wood at a real lumber yard and machinery by mail order. "Mail Order" is now the Internet.

The average tool show is selling what I consider toys. The average Norm show is using tools that require three phase power now. If you need the electrical utility company to perform $25,000 worth of service upgrade to your pole so you can make a spice rack, you might want to rethink your strategy.

At any rate, here's the Top Ten Tools I Use most every day. I'm just trying to get things done, so I thought it might surprise and interest you. People who care very deeply that all their tools have to be (Fill in the blank -- Oh the hell with it. Delta. The cranky woodworker always says Delta. They're like Apple fanatics.) I need machinery now, not just tools, but I don't give them a lot of thought. These little tools matter. It's not that I can't get along without them. It more like I'd lay down on the floor and die if they were taken away from me.

1. A Stick
No really, a stick. That one's Poplar, I think. I've been using it for four years. I push all the wood through the table saw with it. It has a hook cut in it to hold the wood down as well as push it. It has common blade heights marked on it so I can raise and lower the blade without measuring over and over. On the Norm shows, they always lie and say that they've removed the blade guard temporarily so you can see the cut. Lies. All lies. All woodworkers throw them away. If you can shove a piece of wood in the saw, you can shove your hand in there, too, so the guard won't save you unless you fall on the blade. Here's better advice: Never, ever, ever put your hand between the blade and the fence. Never. Use a push stick for everything and you'll never be known as lefty. If you need to be told not to put your hand between the wood and the blade, you can't read this so there's no point in me warning you.
2. A Tiny Plane
I know John Denver got in trouble in a tiny plane, but don't be scared. It's a plane iron I'm talking about. That one is 1" wide, and I use it on every piece of wood I handle, more or less. Never sand if you can cut. Take the sharp machined edge off the corner edge of everything with a perfect bevel made with this tool. You have to learn the knack of holding it exactly at a 45 degree angle to make a chamfer, while learning how to swing your arm in a curve while describing a straight line, but it's fun to see the little angel hair shavings come curling out of the thing.

3. The Stop Block
I've explained accumulated error here before. It always shows up; don't make the mistake of inviting it over, too. Stop measuring with a rule over and over. I clamp that little elegant block to fences and jigs with a big clamp and cut multiple pieces all the same. They might all be wrong, by by gad, they're the same sort of wrong.

4. The 6" Square
You're not a framing carpenter. If you're wearing a huge belt in your shop, you're confused. You need little things that you can put in a pocket that serve many purposes. Marking perpendicular lines gets done all day. This is all you need. You can slide the blade all the way up and set fences on the saws and jointers too. You'll need the bubble level a lot if you're not a dope, too. You're not a dope; I know you.

5. Square Drive Screws
I'm old enough to remember the dark ages before phillips head screws. I still use flat head screws, as they are still common in boatbuilding and furniture hardware. But phillips heads rule all else. Forget them. Those bad boys there in the picture have a square hole in them, hold like the devil, the heads never slip, and the ingenious bulbous shape of the threads make them self- tapping, so they don't drive components apart when you drive them through. Google McFeeley's. You're welcome.
6. Pocket Hole Jig
Here's the first thing you can use your square drive screws for. That's a Kreg pocket hole jig and stepped drill bit. You clamp the jig to the piece of wood you wish to join to another, and it will drill an angled, stepped pocket hole. You then clamp the two pieces of wood to be joined, using the same Vise-Grip clamp you see there, and drive square drive screws into the stepped, angled holes you made, and voila! Instant joinery with no mortise, tenon, biscuit, dowel, or domino. No glue either, if you want to take it apart later. Cabinet makers put face frames together like that, with the holes hidden on the back of the face frames. I assemble every cabinet, workstation, and jig in the shop using it.

7.Bungee Cords
Bungee cords are next to worthless for their suggested purpose, which is holding down cargo. Cargo straps shouldn't stretch. But in a place where work is done, everything must be kept from getting underfoot or interfering with tools on the bench. You will never get any kind of meaningful dust extraction on hand tools unless you learn to suspend the snaky vacuum hoses from underfoot, or worse, from dragging all over the work. Instant and adjustable and stretchy work setups.

8. Moisture Meter
The least understood part of woodworking. Humidity is how much water is in the air. It affects the wood. But the moisture content of wood is really important, and only related, not the same. Wood is full of water, and they dry it by either putting it out in the air, or more usually, by putting it in a kiln (oven) to remove the water in the cells. But the water will want to get back in there, and if there's water available in the atmosphere, the wood will absorb it and swell. And shrink later. Furniture, designed well, will allow for seasonal movements in wide pieces of wood, and good finishing techniques will slow the change in moisture content in the wood. But you've got to start with dry wood. All home improvement shows tell you to take kiln dried flooring and put it in a half-built house to "acclimate" for a few days. Said house generally being built in the summer, with thousands of gallons of outgassing water from the concrete, plaster, tilesetting, and every other darn thing during construction. Then your strip flooring shrinks during heating season and you wonder what happened. In general, shrinking is bad and expansion isn't good, but can be managed. Never deliberately introduce water into any wood product, ever.

9. A Brick
Small, heavy things are always useful in a shop. But the brick is not mentioned here for its exciting doorstop possibilities. It's the weapon of choice for distressing things. It's the perfect thing to mimic the gentle loss of fiber that the bottom of table legs gets from many shoekicks, chairleg dings, and miles of being dragged across the floor. It rubs edges raw. The soft, abrasive face of a brick is perfect to wear away things believably, and when the face becomes too smooth with paint and other finish, you can restore it by rubbing it on... you guessed it, another brick.

10.Cotton Gloves
If you work in the barbarian arts, you learn early to wear gloves as often as you can stand it. Manual work will use up a sacrificial layer of something. You can choose it to be your hand, or the glove. Most finish carpenters come from the land of framing, and you can never "let them up on the furniture." Workers who learn to work dirty never get over it. I can't afford to smear finish-repelling oils from my hands on freshly sanded work. Productivity goes down if your hand is throbbing with splinters all the time. There's plenty of delicate work to be done with most woodworking, and if your hand is like a catcher's mitt you're useless half the time. All fancy gloves are a waste of time. Get big rubber coated versions of these to handle solvents and so forth, and wear these the rest of the time you're material handling, painting, and so forth. It'll save you carrying a rag all the time, too. Oh; you'll have to be tough enough to be called a sissy at the jobsite if you wear them.

What are you looking at, tough guy?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What A Three Hundred And Fifty Pound Doorstop Looks Like

I don't do ToolTime often here. There's a reason for that.

As a general rule, everybody has a backwards process for purchasing tools, especially gadgety-type tools. It goes like this:

-If it was easy, I'd do it.

No, you really wouldn't.

It's the same idea that gets you into trouble in house design. If you had a big fancy tub, you'd bathe luxuriously every day. If you had a pool table, you'd play all the time. If you had an elaborate kitchen, you'd become a world -- or at least, neighborhood --renowned chef.

But you stand in your shower every morning and look at your jetted tub over there, you start storing boxes on top of your billiard table, and you make mac and cheese in your stainless steel microwave and put it on your granite countertop.

To predict what others would benefit from, you have to watch what they try to do even though it is difficult, and make it easier for them. I used to often be consulted for strategies to remake existing rooms in large houses to entice the occupants to even enter them, never mind use them. I used to refer to them as "furniture mausoleums" --rooms inhabited only by chairs, the specter of Martha Stewart, and the ghosts of paychecks past. You don't go in there because all the living never happens in a living room anymore. You're not going to sit in a hoop dress and read The Mayor of Casterbridge while fanning yourself and waiting for Jeffery Devonshire Fairfax the XXIV to call.

And so it is with the tools. If you're struggling mightily with next to nothing trying to make things, then you'll probably get the benefit out of tooling up. Otherwise, forget it. You'll become what Kliban called the Satisfied Hammer Owner, a guy with forty five different hammers displayed inside a series of hammer-shaped outlines on your pegboard. Every so often you'll dust them and rearrange them.

I have to cut a lot of wood, as you could imagine. It is a calamity for the central machine in a wood shop to be disabled. And because I intimately know what I'm trying to do, I know exactly how to proceed. Here's how my little rat mind works, and how yours should, too, in any situation like this:

  1. Is it broken? (Well, it sounded like a coffee can filled with bees and washers being thrown at a plate glass window, so, yeah, that's a definite possibility)
  2. Do you need it, really? (Well, not really. I only use it twelve hours a day six days a week, so it is kinda handy)
  3. Can you fix it? ( Give me two weeks, and the run of a machine shop, and I'll come up with something. I'll be bankrupt in two days, so maybe that's a bad idea)
  4. Can you jerry-rig it? (Sure. I did once already. That's why it's a total wreck now. And the words "jerry-rigged blade spinning at 3500 RPM" don't make me feel like Christmas.)
  5. Can you get someone else to fix it? (Sure. I'll carry it up the stairs, and bring it to Taiwan. It'll be good for me, cardiovascularly, I'm sure.)
  6. Can you get another one? (Absolutely. It's on a truck from Pennsylvania right now.)
  7. Can you afford it? (No. But it costs more not to buy one than to buy one. That's the logic that escapes everyone. Which leads me to...)
  8. Can I keep going?
Absolutely. I can go out to the shed and find an old, crummy one and hook it up. I love the gentle massage of table legs being hurled at me by the blade because the motor can't cut hardwood in a tapering jig. I like the popping circuit breaker, too. Just like old times. You see, I first bought a real cabinet saw years ago, when I noticed I'd been trying to make furniture, over and over, with nothing but a few useless and broken tools and my wits.

I've lost my wits. But I'll have decent tools, by god.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

I Have To Do The Work Of Ten Men Today

I'm thinking of playing Badfinger on a loop tape in the background so I'll be done by noon anyway.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Deus ex Machina

It's Latin. It means God From the Machine. It's usually reserved for bad plots in plays, books and movies. It refers to the crane that used to lower actors playing gods from the heavens onto the stage, where they inexplicably sort out all the affairs of everybody, mostly in contravention of everything that's already happened.

Don't do it, Horace said. It's lame. I agree. But even the best writers do it. Did you ever read A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court? If you haven't, you should, because Twain explains economics better than ten think tanks could nowadays, by pointing out your wage means nothing, and the only way to measure wealth is by figuring out what that wage buys. At the end, Twain is late for supper, or perhaps gets bored with stitching together his vignettes, and kills everybody and then turns Merlin into the greatest wizard ever, after demonstrating he's a humbug for the last 250 pages.

It is common to the point of unanimity in everyday life for people to pray for deus ex machina to solve all their problems, and I don't like it. The sentiment is two mutually exclusive sentiments conjoined. I want peace through violence. I want fairness by rigging the rules. I want to get rich by gambling. I want safe danger. I want to level the playing field by fertilizing the grass on my side of the field with the bodies of my assassinated enemies.

Tom Brady is an excellent, if trivial, example of the misplaced sentiment. Many persons have fervently prayed that he be injured, as his success was surely a sign of perfidy, as most success is characterized now. Now they are exultant, and mistakenly mention hubris, or karma, as the reason for his injury. But they wished for a lightning bolt to strike him because they knew in their hearts that they had little chance to best him in a fair fight. You think it will be your turn to be great if greatness is destroyed. Greatness doesn't work that way.

All politics is the prayer for deus ex machina now. People confuse my ambivalence about common academic credentials with a disdain for learning. That's how poorly educated they are.

If you pray for a god to sort out your affairs in an instant, you'd better beware. Lightning bolts are capricious things, and deuced difficult to aim. And the god is just some dissipated Greek actor on a wire, and you're letting him hurl them.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Unleash The Tiger

If you gave the average music exec a gold brick, they'd have it bronzed and sell it with an infomercial. The music business is the ultimate manifestation of throw it at the wall and see if it sticks. In a way, there is no explaining what catches people's fancy about one song or movie or another. The greedy, grasping, grabby people that infest the business have learned how to make the wall they're throwing things at slightly more sticky by applying a thick coat of cocaine and bagman money to it before they throw things at it, but it's far from a science, even with all the experience they have now.

If it worked once, they try it again in the same way. They think it was the process that worked. I have my doubts. Here's an example. They were presented with Aretha Franklin once. They said to themselves: I know, let's make her a Shirelle -- or whatever the hell you call the sleeveless tunic dress bouffant haired gogo dancers with the black Betty Boop voices. Boop, Shoop Shoop; whatever...

Why not have her paint your house? It would make about as much use of her talent. Eventually you've got to unleash the tiger. If you're smart enough to know you have one in the first place.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Microsoft = Lame

Microsoft is lame.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing I dread more than clicking on anything and seeing the little apple icon, or god forbid, accidentally launching a pdf. If you read anything on the Internet, Ron Paul is going to be president, Linux is the default operating system, and "Microsoft anything" is the devil. Out in the real world where stuff gets done, you never see anything but the devil.

But Microsoft's lameness is legendary, and it's very real. It's a showbiz venue, the tech biz is, and they're Shecky Green to the other tech company's Lenny Bruce. I don't know why they don't embrace it. I don't care whether you like the Apple commercials or not, but if you're the interviewer for any job in the real world you'd hire the guy on the left every time.

Now Microsoft is tired of being lame. They announce that they're making a push to be hip. But once a Bodine, always a Bodine. Lame people are lame because they are lame. Hip is superficial, but lame goes right to the bone. If you're a dork, you unerringly pick out the worst thing in any array. You're in an Armani store, and your mom (snicker)tells you to pick out anything you want, and you find a Members Only jacket. You can't help yourself.

I can just see the meeting where the nerds at Microsoft say: We've got to get hip! That Seinfeld show is just the bees knees!

To paraphrase George Costanza, Seinfeld is just an old man sending soup back at a deli at this point.

A million years ago, in Internet years, anyway, Microsoft had the best commercial on television. Beautiful, a little strange, engaging. Remember Bill Plympton?

Kliban's dead. Hire Plympton again, you dorks. Seinfeld will be too busy playing shows at the Melody Tent for retirees to make your commercials much longer, anyway.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Something Something Else Happens

I cannot find out much of anything by looking at traditional media.

At least not by looking at it straight on. You can put it through a sieve and reconstitute it into information, but it's a lot of work and it generally yields results I'm not looking for. Not one person in the traditional media is in the slightest way interested in what I am, except to denigrate it.

I've explained here that Something Else Happens. I am not immortal, and I get real bored real fast, so I have no use for listening to people who have never been outside during the daytime, holding a microphone and speculating about how such-and-such a thing is going to affect the future. I can't imagine tuning into the same programming you'd see in an empty nursing home rec room to watch men with pedicures and women with poison shot into their faces that don't have the slightest inkling how the world is right now. How could they possibly tell me how it's going to be later?

The world moves forward in fits and starts, pausing here and there to be overrun by Panzers and commissars, but human beings are clever and keep pushing. The only incurious people in the world work for the newspaper and the TV and the government. Everybody else is always looking around for ways to improve their lot.

Much of this tinkering with the quotidian details of daily life goes unremarked. The average person adopts it, the ivory tower crowd ignores it or execrates it. But whatever it is, it's a fact. It's real. Academics, entertainers, politicians and writers do not live in the world of reality, and show a studied disdain for the trappings of the average person's life.

If you are not in a position to be harmed by the actions you champion, you should be very circumspect about suggesting them, never mind agitating actively for their implementation. I don't give a fig if Warren Buffet thinks taxes are too low. All he's saying is that he's so rich and so old that he can afford to purchase a tax increase on me with the influence his money can bring.

The big ideas are all worthless, because they trample the little ideas. Make something better, right now, offer it to the public, and have it accepted without coercion. Then you've done something.

Billions of people you never heard of are making the world better for everyone right now, most without knowing it, and they stand on the shoulders of billions of others dead and gone. Even with the ebb and flow of reactionary politics and out-and-out barbarism, we go forward, but hardly notice. Let me give you an example.

I used to paint buildings for a living. I worked for people that were decidedly old school, even for then, which is now pretty old school itself. We still used wooden extension ladders with round rungs and fiber ropes. The credential that such painters have, or had, mostly, was shown on the trucks as a license number. People mistook it as a license to apply coatings. It was a "Rigger's License."

The test for a Rigger's License looked like FDR typed it himself. You had to know all sorts of mathematics about how much strain various ropes could handle, know about block and tackle and various other things that would have the guy behind the counter at the Rent-a-Center laughing and going: Dude, the scissor lift is over there for $200 per day.

So there were knots. Lots of knots. I did some boating later, and there were more knots. There is nothing more contrary than a knot. They were always slipping and dumping stuff on the road. People fumbled and argued over them. A lot of time and trouble goes into something as mundane and invisible to the general public as a knot to fasten down cargo.

Someone clever stamped two pieces of steel into a shape.

That tools is a rudimentary and elegant as a wheel or a lever. A talking head on the network news wouldn't know if it was any different from an infomercial for Hits from the Seventies eight tracks. It cost 7 or 8 bucks. I feel as though I'm a Cro-Magnon man and a feller walked up to me and said: This stuff from the lightning strike is hot; maybe we can use it for something.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

New Logo

Here's Sippican Cottage Furniture's new logo:

I have a larger one, too:

That is to say: if you don't hate it.

Update: Gerard's handy to have around:

Monday, September 01, 2008

(I Continue To) Disregard The Man Behind The Curtain

First, my bona fides:

Unions are not an abstraction to me. I was a member of the second largest union in the United States. My brother is a Teamster. My next door neighbor, who is not a bad sort of guy, is a retired union delegate for the Teamsters. I guess I should mention my brother is not a bad sort of guy, too.

When I was a manager, part of the company I worked for was unionized. Part was not. I hired many companies as construction subcontractors over a large part of the United States that were unionized. I hired many more that were not.

I am not wealthy. I was not born wealthy, and will likely not die wealthy. I have worked at hard, physical labor for a great portion of my life. My parents and grandparents almost all worked at least for a portion of their lives in those mills you see in grainy photos, where an untimely lapse in concentration could cost you a finger, or worse. Before them, it was all Europe and lord only knows how bad it was to send us all here.

While it's true that I've been treated pretty badly by many employers -- and imagined I was being treated badly by some employers who weren't treating me very badly at all -- I have also been threatened with the destruction of the only valuable thing I owned at the time -- my car--and serious bodily harm if that didn't convince me never again to exceed the quota of work deemed appropriate by my "brothers" in the union. In a parking lot at midnight. I know what I did, but I'm not sayin'. Tell me; what would you do?

When I worked for others, I've negotiated such things as trash hauling contracts in New York supplied by perfect gentlemen who are very much in a union. Conversely, I've been shown a chrome plated .45 as a means of collecting Accounts Payable by a decidedly non-union fellow. Life is not as simple as they portray it in the movies. In the movies, any evil fellow in a suit always has a picture of a Republican president prominently displayed in their office, usually where any normal person has a picture of their family. In my life, the only really crooked executives I ever met all had pictures of JFK in their offices. I don't know what any of that represents, really.

I have always had a predilection for reading, especially history, so I know all about the Ludlow Massacre and I know what a Wobbly is. I've read Ida Tarbell articles from McClure's. I've got a picture of Mother Jones with Calvin Coolidge around here somewhere. I know what a Pinkerton man was for. I've read Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States and John D. Rockefeller's biography alike. When I read Studs Terkel's Working, I didn't run around yelling "Something must be done!" ; I played a sort of game to compare how many of my own jobs had been worse. I'm old enough to recall a rather thrilling union tableau in a shipyard in Gdansk. And I know all about Sacco and Vanzetti.

That's a long list of things to explain one thing: People enter into all sorts of organized things-- corporations and unions; rock bands and time-share condo deals; bowling leagues and the Cosa Nostra. I wish you all well. But me? I never wanted to be equivalent of the child in that picture, who doesn't even know what the sign says; and as long as there's breath in my body I'll never again put myself in the thrall of that hand you see, if you look closely, reaching in from the top right corner of the picture.

Happy Labor Day everybody.