Z is for Zip-ties

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Z is for Zip-tie

For this final post in the A to Z Blogging Challenge, I've chosen something that the readers of this series might wonder at. Both of you are probably asking yourselves what kind of woodworking project is held together with zip-ties. After all, I've talked extensively about Allen head bolts, biscuit joints, quick-set epoxy, and various other means by which different items are secured. But zip-ties? How do they figure in?

In a high-level, conceptual sense, zip-ties are a new and easy-to-use replacement for string. Back in the day, every craftsman knew how to tie a couple of dozen different knots, each perfectly suited for the individual purpose at hand. Different kinds of string were well-known, too, with the merits and shortcomings of each taken into consideration when deciding how to secure this or that.

Today, such knowledge is a dying art. I like to think that I keep the flame alive with the different types of string I have in my shop and the different knots I know. So much of that knowledge, though, is extinct. Even I will admit that it is often easier and simpler to put a double-wide zip-tie on than it is to get a length of braided polypropylene twine and tie a constrictor knot. Easier and simpler, yes, but better? I'll let posterity be the judge.

I use zip-ties to hold the dust collector hoses onto my table saw. I also use zip-ties to bundle up spare lengths of garden hose, baling wire, electrical cable and other loose raw material and tools I don't have call to use very often. Sometimes, I use zip-ties to temporarily secure pieces I'm glueing up.

There was a time when I had some old tools that were held together with a carefully positioned zip-tie. Fortunately, I've been upgrading my tools long enough that all of those old pieces of junk have been relegated to the trash or to the spare parts bin. I still have some file and rasp handles that are held together with bound and wrapped wire, but that's completely different, for a lot of reasons which I can't seem to think of right now.

Zip-ties are good, but they shouldn't be relied on for anything too stressful or important. If you over-tighten them, the securing wedge snaps off, or the plastic strap itself will break. For something that's going to be held in place for a while, it's better to use five or six zip-ties set at different angles, each secured snug, than to use one big one ratcheted down tight.

Also, zip-ties deteriorate over time, particularly in applications where they are exposed to hot water. (Don't ask me how I know about THAT one. Jeez, what a mess.) Sunlight chews them up like ants on a sugar cube, since the plastic is UV sensitive. After a while they just shatter.

I have zip-ties, natural fiber strings, man-made fiber twines (twisted and braided), bare and plastic-coated wire, straps, ropes and cables, all of them in different gauges and materials. The decision to use one vs. another depends on the workpiece, the intended usage, expected conditions under which it has to function, how long it's intended to stay tied together and a bunch of other factors.

Oh dear... this final A to Z Blogging Challenge post wasn't really about zip-ties at all, was it? It ended up being all about the entire class of tool that zip-ties represent, and the subtleties that go into judiciously using this or that member of this class of tool so as to do a job right. Ultimately, this post was about the knowledge and skill that go into being an artisan. It was a bit of nuts-and-bolts technical information couched in a geeky celebration of the diversity of tools and techniques available for any given job.

That's quite a fitting way to end this series, don't you think?

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Y is for Yankee drill

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Y is for Yankee drill

I'm going to go out on a very short limb and guess that of all the tools I've covered this month, the Yankee drill is the least familiar. Useful, compact, wonderfully functional and durable, the Yankee drill is a ratcheted drill designed for one-hand operation. It comes with a variety of specially sharpened bits which, unlike most drill bits, are made to cut in both rotational directions.

You place the bit where you want the hole and just push. As it compresses, the internal ratchets change the forward motion of your hand into a rotary motion of the bit. When the heavy spring returns the handle, the bit reverses, giving you a double-cut. Just a couple of pushes and your work is done. The knife-edge design of the bit means that it not only cleans out the sawdust from the hole as it cuts, the bit itself won't get fouled, either.

With a sharp bit, the Yankee drill will make pilot holes in a twinkling, slicing cleanly through heavy oak or light pine. The tool itself is light and no bigger than a screwdriver, fitting easily in a back pocket or in a pouch of a tool belt. There is no tool on the planet that is so wonderfully expert at making a series of small holes. After installing 1.75 quintillion board-feet of trim, floor moldings, window moldings, crown moldings, chair rails, etc., I know exactly which tool to bring along to a job for making my pilot holes.

Larger Yankee drills were as much as two feet long and took screwdriver bits. They were collapsible for portability and storage. Reversible, these made short work of any screw, going in or out. In this clip from "The Blues Brothers", Elwood uses a Yankee drill to zip out the screw holding in the elevator access panel. Fast forward to 2:55 to see it in action.



In these sad, diminished days, however, the Yankee drill has been relegated to flea markets and the Smithsonian.

It's been three generations since handheld power drills have replaced the venerable brace-and-bit for heavy drilling work, and at least one full generation since cordless drills have taken over for lighter drilling duties, like setting pilot holes. The Yankee drill still had a place up to the 1980s, when "cordless screwdrivers" were worthless little toys. Today, modern lithium ion batteries coupled with modern high-density motors (based on modern high-strength neodymium magnets) have led to cordless drills which have enough power to do plenty of real work.

I myself own a Milwaukee 18V cordless drill and it is wonderful for big jobs. This is my third cordless drill; they are getting lighter and more powerful with each passiing decade. Still, the Milwaukee is way overpowered for small jobs. For those, I prefer the Yankee. It's just more convenient to match the tool with the workpiece.

Ah, the Yankee drill. Such a pinnacle of technological excellence, now supplanted by technology that moved in a completely different direction.

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X is for X-ACTO knife

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X is for X-ACTO knife 

You have no idea how excited I was when I remembered about the X-ACTO knife. Any time you write one of the alphabetized lists, some letters are a real pain in the ass. X, Q, J... basically any letter that gets 8 or more points in Scrabble will be a struggle to work with as a prompt.

What can I say about the X-ACTO knife that could engage you as a reader? First of all, it's not a knife... it's better described as a knife system (1).

A knife has a blade (the sharp and/or pointy part), a tang (the dull, sticking-out (2) metal part that connects the blade to the handle), and a handle (the part you hold on to). The tang might run the entire length of the handle - a "full-metal" or "full-length" tang - or it might run only a short distance into the handle. At the lower end of the knife market, the longer and stronger the tang, the better the knife. Really crappy knives will hide their flimsy half-tangs by embedding them in the handle. The best knives all have full tangs.

So why is the X-ACTO knife actually a knife system and not a true knife? Because it has a handle that accepts removable, interchangeable blades (3). The blades are super-sharp, dangerously so. Anybody who says he or she has never sliced open a fingertip working with an X-ACTO knife has never used an X-ACTO knife all that much. To change a blade, you unscrew the knurl at the working end of the handle. This releases some internal cams that unpinch the base of the blade. Pop out the old, pop in the new, retighten and you're good to go.

The pointy blade is use for cutting paper and thin woodstock. The curved blade is used for cutting plastics, leather and thicker woodstock. I'm not sure what the other blades are for. They're probably just traps for the unwary, bloodthirsty little bits of vampiric steel eager to bathe in the blood of foolish woodworkers who experiment too much.

Why does a woodworker need to cut leather? Some of the small boxes and children's toys I've made need to open and close or otherwise flex, but the piece is so small that there's no room to attach a regular hinge. A standard trick is to shape several small pieces of leather so they bridge the gap, glue them in place, then trim off the excess. During trimming, you can cut the leather into fancy shapes, or do cutwork to remove center bits. The X-ACTO knife is great for this.

Confession: for 97% of the cutting I do, I use a utility knife (see footnote 3), not an X-ACTO knife. The downside to X-ACTO blades is how thin they are. It doesn't take much lateral force to make them snap and shatter. Doing very fine wisp trimming is fine; easing off the corner of a rough cut is not.

In contrast, I've used a utility knife to score concreteboard. Since the utility knife blade can be swapped out when it gets dull, it stays sharp. The X-ACTO knife is great, but it is definitely a specialty-use item.

1. You could also call this a cutting system, a cutting device, a cutting tool, etc. Is the technical distinction between a knife and a "knife system" all that important? Probably not. However, it does give me the opportunity to write extensive footnotes. I love footnotes. They make me look so smart.

2. I could have said "protuberant" instead of "sticking-out", but I'll reserve such polysyllabisms for when I return to writing about writing.

3. The humble and ubiquitous utility knife? Totally NOT a true knife, for the exact same reason.

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W is for Whetstone

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W is for Whetstone

Thousands of years ago, in the first centuries of the Copper Age, humanity learned to melt metals out of certain kinds of rock. Adding other kinds of metal to the melt changed the alloy composition and made the resulting tools harder and more durable, ushering in the Bronze Age. When societies advanced and gathered together the knowledge, skill, and centrally coordinated labor force necessary to identify other ores and dig it up in quantity, the Iron Age rose.

Blacksmithing and nascent metallurgy advanced hand in hand, producing better kinds of steel: alloys of iron with carbon, tin, copper, manganese, molybdenum, chromium. Today, there are dozens, hundreds of grades of common steel with various properties. Specialty steels number in the thousands. In this, the first years of the Golden Age of Materials Science, blades and other tools can be made of steel, ceramics, glass, carbon nanotubes and a host of other materials.

And throughout all of that history, in a thousand tongues, in a thousand places, in a thousand occupations, men and women have uttered the exact same sentiment, probably in the exact same sentence:

"Why is this damned tool so dull? I JUST sharpened it!"

I feel that pain, and I've said that very sentence. There's an old saying for this: the only way to keep your tools from getting dull is to never use them. Another fact is that while it's fun to use your tools, setting aside time to sharpen them is just work. There's some irony in that metal comes from stone, extracted from the ore by heat and pressure. However, to keep the metal useful (i.e. sharp), you have to bring it back in contact with stone.

There are various grades of whetstone, based on their level of abrasiveness. Some take off lots of metal, others are finer-grained and take off less. You need to match the stone to the degree of sharpening required, but also to the grade of steel, the angle (or compound cutting angles) you want to achieve, and to the type of cutting you are going to do.

Some blades are lubricated with water, some with light oil, some with heavy oil. The liquid serves to suspend the grains of stone in an abrasive slurry. That slurry does a lot of the work in removing microscopically thin flakes of metal from the tool's edge. The process of sharpening involves moving from one stone to another, then finishing with a honing strap.

Sharpening means removing metal and making a new cutting edge. Honing means unfolding the fine, fine lip of an existing cutting edge. On a micro level, the very thin lip (maybe a hundredth of a millimeter thick) can get bent over. Honing straightens it out. Frequent honing makes actual sharpening unnecessary, since the cutting edge never gets blunted and broken off.

A dull tool is a dangerous tool. Sharp tools bite exactly where you want them to go, while dull tools skip around on the workpiece, possibly marring the piece, possibly harming the woodworker.

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#FridayFlash: Living Stones, Living Wood

This story is continued from last week's story, "Quickly, Staunch the Wound", and is based on today's A to Z Challenge post, "W is for Whetstone"
~~~*~~~*~~~*~~~

The stub of thumb was enough to let Potemkin cup the whetstone in his left hand, but not enough to let him grip it properly. It was one of his favorite old stones, an oblong slab of fine-grained soft marble. The blood and pus that oozed from what remained of his left thumb lubricated the stone. Instead of the bright shhhhick, shhhhick sound of sharpening with water on the stone, he heard a wet, sucking shhllllock! shhhllllock! with every pass of the blade.

It didn't matter, not really. The black blade was full of moonlight and blood and sorrow; it needed no further honing. The action was only to pass the time until the Bishop of the Grove woke up. Then...

Then, Potemkin knew, his long journey would come to an end.

Atop his own altar in the middle of the sacred grove, the Bishop was bound with copper wire and packing tape that Potemkin had purchased at a hardware store near his hotel. Despite the unconscious old man lying before him, incongruous in the quilted robe he'd been in when the trees had torn him from his house, Potemkin wasn't thinking about the Bishop or what the next hour would bring.

He thought about all the hardware stores, lumber yards, wood brokers and tool shops he'd first worked at, then patronized, then owned. So many years since he was first dumped in Chicago without a word of English, claimed by a "relative" who wanted only cheap labor. That was sixty years and a hundred million dollars ago. Now, at long last, after all the decades of aching without understanding, and then hearing the wood speaking clearly to him, urging him on...

The Bishop woke, blinked, and tried to move his arms. He looked around and realized where he was, exactly what he was tied to. As though he'd been set afire, he struggled against his bonds. Bellowing with commanding rage, he called on his followers to come to his aid, to free him, to strike down whoever had dared such a thing.

Potemkin let him go on for almost twenty minutes. When the Bishop's cries fell off to a heavy, panting silence and the noise of the woods covered all, Potemkin stepped forward into his line of sight and lifted his knife.

With renewed fury (and a perceptible trace of fear), the Bishop of the Grove cried out again for assistance. Potemkin waited.

After a time, when the Bishop was again reduced to quietude, Potemkin said, "All of this ends tonight. Here and now. For the sake of the murdered innocents, it ends."

"Who are you? Release me at once! I know nothing of murdered children!"

Around them both, the trees hissed and moaned. The Bishop looked from side to side, fear widening his eyes.

"Will you meet your final moment with a lie on your lips?" Potemkin asked. "Can you not admit and accept the enormity of what you and all your kind have done?"

"We followed the sacred rule! We did nothing wrong!"

Kill him...
whispered the trees... kill him... kill him...

Potemkin held his mutilated hand high; the trees fell back to vengeful murmurs.

"Even if your bloody rites had a place in the Old World," Potemkin said, "they have had no proper place in the new, not for centuries. But even if the Old Ways lived on, you and your followers wanted nothing but wealth. The wood that sings and cries let you live a life of luxury and debauchery. For this, you murdered by the score, by the hundreds. You led a blackened cult of empty greed, founded on pain and death. Your inner circle of followers are all dead. Soon, you will join them and it will all end."

On the altar, the Bishop drew back his head and spit at Potemkin. Then he began to laugh, a sneering, foul sound that filled the air between them like the stink of a bog fire.

"You think killing me will end this? That wood is worth more than gold, more than platinum, even more than the enriched uranium from the old Soviet missile warheads. It's the most precious substance on earth. What makes you think a hundred, a thousand men won't rise up after I'm dead, eh? Any one of them would happily renew the Old Ways to get that river of money flowing into his pocket!"

"Corruption and greed, right to the end. Have you no shame? The Old Ways called for giving up the blinded orphans of murdered parents in spirit of kindness and mercy. They were to be offerings to the trees so that they could have long lives of peace within the Living Grove, not be a ghoulish feed for your bottomless pockets."

"These trees belong to us! It is our sacred rites that imbue them with their power! We are free to do with them as we see fit!"

"And were you free to expand the grove into a stand of timber? To create the hundreds of Sacred Children by first murdering their parents and then blinding them? You are a perversion."

KILL HIM... KILL HIM...


The Bishop shouted to be heard over the trees. "Yes, kill me! Kill me and see how much good it does you! You have no standing here, no place from which to act! An American outsider, flying in like Superman to put a stop to evil? BAH! Your knife is sharp, old man, but nothing you do here will change ANYTHING!"

Again, Potemkin held his hand up. The trees hushed, knowing what was to come.

"You are wrong. I am from America, but I am no American. I was born in the village of Niechevogorsk."

The Bishop's eyes grew wide. "No. No, that's not true. It's not possible."

"I was away in Moscow when your acolytes fell upon the village. Six years old, alone in a strange hospital in a strange city, and half-dead from tuberculosis. It took me many years to understand how lucky that made me. You killed my parents and blinded my twin sister and my brothers along with all of my cousins and every other child in the village. Then, you sick, blasphemous bastard, you sliced each of them open on this very altar so that their souls would be enslaved forever to serve your greed."

"You... you can't stop us! You're not... even if you are one of the orphans, you're not blind!"

Potemkin held up his right hand, the one with the razor-sharp knife. In one slashing motion, he drew it across both eyes, slicing through the bridge of his nose in the process. Pus and blood and vitreous humor spilled down onto his face.

He felt nothing but joy and power. With that stroke, Potemkin had become one with the Grove, one with all the thousands upon thousands of slain children whose blood soaked the roots beneath him. The Bishop screamed and screamed beneath him, but Potemkin hardly heard him amid the rushing leafsong of the trees.

"Guide my hand," he whispered, "guide my hand. From here and from wherever you are kept around the world, you will be free. I offer myself as the last of the Sacred Children. I promise you, it all ends with me. Let me be the Guardian of the Grove for the rest of all time. Guide my hand and free yourselves."

From the canopy above, slender branches reached down and wrapped themselves lightly around Potemkin's wrists. They led him forward and guided his hands upward. The Bishop's screams were scarcely audible to him.

His dead eyes filled with moonlight and love, Potemkin brought his strong arms down, driving the blade through the Bishop's heart and into the wood beneath. Shrieks of rage and pain spewed and burbled, the unearthly agony of it mixed with a joyous chorus, an explosion of sound and light that drove Potemkin backward.

Alexi... Alexi... thank you... thank you...


Potemkin fell to his knees amid the chorus. Blackness closed in as his life and soul poured out from the ruin of his eyes. He felt the soil well up to receive him, felt the thirsty roots drink him up.

Peace settled over him. His heart jerked, slowed, jerked again. The rush of wind buffeted him all the children flew up and away, freed from the soil, the stones, the trees... and as he settled down to take their place, to become one with the woods.


The End
~~~*~~~*~~~*~~~

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V is for Vise

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V is for Vise

Ah, the humble bench vise. When I was looking around my shop for a tool that started with "V", my eyes initially fell on some vise grip pliers. Like the old saying goes, "If God had meant for there to be such a thing as an immovable object, He would not have created vise grips." However, the longer I thought about it, the more I realized that I while I use the vise grips every now and then, I use the bench vise all the time.

For the sake of completeness, let me offer what is surely an unnecessary explanation of what a vise does: it holds things in place.

All those overheated metaphors and similes about someone being held in a vise-like grip, or being crushed as though they were in a vise? Behold the headwaters of that concept.

When I first set up this shop, I didn't have a bench vise. I'd been making do with C-clamps, improvised bench dogs, compression slabs and knock-wedges. Why didn't I just go out and buy a vise? That's an excellent question, and it's one I've thought of off and on for a while. I think it's because, conceptually, a vise isn't supposed to be something you BUY... it's something you just HAVE. They are ubiquitous, foundational devices, one of the fundamental building blocks of the universe.

You don't go out and buy a nose, do you? Or take a trip to Mothers-R-Us and buy a mother? These are things you're just born with. If for some reason you DON'T have a nose or a mother, that's tragic and it sucks to be you, but you suck it up and make do.

I know, this is stupid crazytalk, since there's nothing mystical about a bench vise. It's just a tool, like a hammer or a radial arm saw. Anybody can slap down the plastic at any Home Depot or an online retailer and get any of a hundred different vises, from small to battleship-size. A bench vise is NOT something that defines you as a person or as a woodworker. It's NOT an extension of your body or your soul. I'm just letting you know how my mind works, OK?

Anyway, back to this vise. I got it for $5 at a garage sale. I felt more than a little weird buying another man's nose, but I got over it. With a few holes drilled through the workbench and some bolts to hold it in place, it's been a fixture ever since. More than a few holes, actually, since this isn't the first location I tried. Once I got settled in and knew my own workflow, though, I knew where I needed the vise to be.

This vise, like all vises, has a long bar on the tightening screw. This slides 8" left or right and gives you lots of leverage to get the vise super-tight. There's a bit of a trick to getting something clamped tightly enough that it won't move when you're working on it, but not so tight that you crack, gouge, crush or otherwise deform it. It also is mounted on a 180-degree swivel, so I can swing the jaws through any orientation from perpendicular to the bench (left-facing), parallel to the bench, or perpendicular right-facing. VERY handy for oddly shaped or exceptionally large pieces.

Little vises are all solid metal. Larger vises, like this one, have jaws with interchangeable faceplates. I say "like this one" only in a very loose sense, since the threads are stripped on the securing screws and I can't remove the faceplates. What do you expect for a $5 garage sale special? If I could remove them, I would be able to swap out the checked steel for faceplates of soft brass, hard rubber, plastic or even wood. Matching the hardness of the faceplate to the hardness of the workpiece would go a long way toward avoiding scars.

My vise also has a set of removable curved jaws that ride the main screw. Those are used for holding round stock, like pipes, rods and dowels. Flat jaws suck at holding round workpieces, but curved jaws rock. It's easy to overtighten, though, so you have to be easy with them.

That flat section at the back is directly over the mounting plate. It's sort-of useful as an anvil, but it's too small to really serve that function for anything but the smallest peening and metal shaping jobs.

I sometimes think about upgrading this vise. A newer one would have an enclosed main screw, so sawdust and metal filings wouldn't get down into the screw threads. One of the securing rods is bent. Being able to swap out the faceplates would come in pretty handy, as would a larger anvil surface for peening metal parts. A spiffy new vise would be about $60, maybe $100 if I splurged and got the Cadillac.

But come on... get rid of this one and get something better? Flaws and all, this is my nose we're talking about!

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U is for Ultraspeed rotatry tool

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U is for Ultraspeed rotary tool

There are other brands of rotary tools out there, but "Dremel" has more or less come to be the signifying term for the entire class of object, like Kleenex or Dumpster.

Rotary tools have their adherents and their detractors. For example, I've heard the Car Talk guys diss them on air as useless toys, capable of doing little more than make noise and sparks. I suspect that was as much a bit to stir some controversy as to stake out an actual position, but I have no way to independently verify that.

I have two Dremels, a corded and a cordless that uses a lithium ion battery. The former I bought a long time ago. The latter was a Christmas present of several years ago and came with lots of bits and attachments. Grinding wheels, polishing bits, grinding bits, rasps, buffers, etc. I haven't used most of them, since the Dremel is very good at some jobs, unsuited for others.

One place where it's great is in cutting thin metal, like inserts, spacers, sacrificial friction glide washers, drawer slides, drop ceiling rails, etc. For that, the Dremel has replaced my tin snips (left-cutting, right-cutting AND center-cutting) and my hack saw. I also use it a lot for sharpening big tools like axes, trowels and spades. Often, it's more convenient to bring the cordless Dremel out to the tool than it is to bring the tool in to the bench grinder.

Having said all that, I recognized that there's a case to be made for Dremels being underpowered for automotive work. They are pretty weak for that kind of thing. Drilling through any piece of metal calls for a drill, not a Dremel. Cutting through large pieces of metal calls for a cutoff saw, hacksaw, angle grinder or (in extreme cases) a torch.

However, the small size of the Dremel is useful in tight spaces in and around an engine block. For example, I once used my Dremel as part of a job replacing the head gasket on my 1986 Corolla. One of the bolts got stripped (1) and the configuration of the brake booster right near the exhaust manifold meant I couldn't get a bite on that head bolt, even with penetrating oil and a pair of vice grips.

In a surge of creativity (2), I used the Dremel and a high-strength cutoff wheel to slice a slot in the top of the bolt. The slot was enough to let me wedge in a big screwdriver with a handle long enough to clear the brake booster. Using the vice grips on the screwdriver gave me enough leverage to work the bolt free.

I relate that story, not because it has a single damn thing to do with woodworking, but because it has a Dremel in it and it makes me look good: clever, resourceful and persistent, i.e. sexy. Also, although it's been at least 15 years, my heart still warms at the memory of my victory over that damned bolt. Thanks, Dremel!

1. Notice the careful use of the passive voice: "One of the bolts got stripped". Let us not inquire too closely as to who stripped that bolt, or how.
2. And, it must be noted, with a tremendous amount of profanity and two extra cups of coffee.

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Themes as Creative Writing Prompts

Over on Today's Author, I'm discussing how a writing theme can be used to kickstart creativity:
Does this mean that I’ve abrogated the responsibility for creativity in selection of subjects for my blog posts? Not at all. I view this as akin to using a writing prompt as the basis for a short story. Thus far, I think I’ve written more (and better) blog posts than I have in a long time.
Pop over to Today's Author to read the whole post. Feel free to leave a comment there or here to tell me what you think. Do you use writing prompts? Have you pursued them through a larger theme? How applicable do you think this approach is to larger works?

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T is for Trim saw

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T is for Trim saw


Here's another a specialty item: a reversible trim saw, also called a flush-cut saw (1). This one is used for primarily for inducing backaches, hunched shoulders and stiff necks.

I'm kidding!

Actually, the trim saw is used to make difficult little cuts in fixed objects so that other objects can be fitted into them precisely. A typical example is in the laying of solid flooring, either wood, laminates, or tile. Rather than have this flooring butt up against edge trim around doorways, newel posts, ducts, etc., you want it to fit flush with no gaps.

To use a trim saw, you lay the blade on top of a piece of the flooring you're going to be installing. This will match the cut-off height with your floor. With the very thin, very fine-toothed saw held flush, flat and square up against the piece of trim to be cut, you carefully remove a piece from the bottom of the trim. The push-button blade lock lets you swing the handle around, reversing the blade to get the right directionality of your cuts.

If you've done it properly, there will be a gap at the bottom of the trim that is exactly the same thickness as your new floor. During installation, you slide a piece of flooring into the gap and bask in the glory of a perfectly fitted, beautifully gap-free floor, every single time.

BWAHAHA! HA HA HA!!!!

Of course it's not that easy! Who do you think you are, a cabinetmaker?

Seriously, though, there's an art to getting these close-fit trim cuts to look right. I've done a bunch of these flooring and staircase installations. I have a steady hand, a cool eye, and good quality tools that are kept sharp. Even with all that, my trim cuts still don't look perfect. Everyone around me can't seem to see the gaps, nicks and ragged edges, and they all claim that the fit is perfect. I know better, though. The flaws glare out at me like zits on the Mona Lisa.

To that end, I've been drooling over a new kind of power tool. It uses much thinner blades, oscillated at something like 25,000 rpm. Those vibrating cutter blades look fantastic in the demo videos, but I've never used one. They look like they'd make short work of trim cutting. With a tool like that, perfection in trim cutting just might be within my grasp.

Or I might cut off one of my fingers. Those vibro-blades look like they'd go right to the bone in a tenth of a second. Still, you never know until you try!

1. As you might imagine, I have lots of other hand saws, everything from rip saws and crosscut saws to keyhole saws and narrow gauge scroll saws. In the power tool line, I have a circular saw (naturally), jig saw, band saw (scary), table saw, and miter saw. I should note that I also have all ten fingers. My goal is to STILL have all ten fingers when I'm old and ready to lay my tools aside.

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S is for Stud sensor

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S is for Stud sensor

This is a stud sensor (1). It is used to detect studs, the vertical pieces of wood that support the weight of the wall. Why do I have a stud sensor?

Well...

Did you ever see that episode of the old "Dick Van Dyke Show" when Rob Petrie pounds a nail into the wall and a gush of water sprays out? This is, of course, after he's had a tiff with his wife, Laura, over whether he has the handyman skills necessary to do something as simple as hang a picture. In the process of driving the nail, Rob missed the stud and punctured a pipe he didn't know was there. Rob's efforts to contain the damage (before Laura came home from shopping) spiraled out of control, growing more and more frantic and slapstick with each passing minute. The wall erupted with water, the floors and wall were badly damaged and all the furniture in the room was ruined (2). Hilarity ensued.

No? You never saw that hysterical episode? How about when the exact same joke was done in just about every "dad is just a dope" sitcom since 1961?

Doesn't ring a bell? Seriously?

OK, how about the episode of "All in the Family" where Archie Bunker was trying to hang a picture, but instead of puncturing a pipe in the wall, he hit a live electrical conduit. The shock burned off the fingertips of the hand he was using to hold the nail, frying his flesh right to the bone. Also, the electrical fire that started inside the wall (which Archie, tending to the 3rd degree burns on his fingers, didn't notice until it was too late) spread vertically until it burned down the entire building (3). Archie, his wife Edith Bunker, his daughter Gloria Stivic and his son-in-law Michael "Meathead" Stivic are left bankrupt and homeless, since insurance doesn't pay much for homeowner-caused damage. Hilarity ensured.

No? Didn't see that one either? Doesn't sound very funny, does it?

The fact is, we need to do stuff to our walls. Hang pictures or mirrors, attach moldings, install lighting fixtures, etc. All of this involves breaching the integrity of the wall surface, whether it's old plaster and lath or modern drywall. If only we could be sure that there was nothing BEHIND where we were about to drive that nail, screw or wall anchor, life would be much easier. Ideally, nails and screws should be driven into the studs. If you drive them into the space between the studs, the only thing that's holding it in place is the drywall. For light items, that might be OK, but a heavy item will just tear itself out of the wall.

You can often find the studs by rapping with your knuckles and listening for the change in sound. The spaces between studs go TOCK TOCK TOCK, while the spaces right over the studs go TICK TICK TICK. Usually. But sometimes it's hard to tell a TOCK from a TICK. Also, there's no way to know for sure where the pipes and wires are in relation to the stud. If you have one running vertically alongside a stud and you miss the edge of the wood by a quarter-inch, you suddenly find yourself in the role of Rob Petrie. Or worse, Archie Bunker.

The stud sensor pictured here was something like $15. I assume it uses ultrasound to penetrate the walls during detection mode, but I'm not really sure. It might use oscillating magnetic fields, or maybe vaporized unicorn saliva. Anyway, it will sense the change in density behind the wall and light up the LED array to tell you exactly where the edge of the stud is. It also projects a handy red line upward for marking. Since old plaster and lath is much thicker and denser than modern drywall (thanks to the heavy cement lath treatment under the base coat and skim coats of plaster), this stud sensor has a "Deep Scan" mode to penetrate that extra-heavy wall.

For added security, this stud sensor also has a sensor that detects live electrical current. This element HAS to be oscillating magnetic fields that will induce a bounce-back signal in copper wires. It's a nice feature, not only for avoiding the wires when hanging a picture, but for tracing the wires through the walls when installing new light fixtures.

As much as I love homeowner hilarity, I have no desire to puncture a pipe or clip a wire. A stud sensor is an easy to use tool that lets me put my nails exactly where I intend for them to go.

1. It makes a loud beeping sound every time I pick it up (4).

2. I've had basement floods due to a ruptured water heater, a shorted-out sump pump that failed during a hurricane and a bad electrical installation. They were always expensive and never funny.

3. This didn't really air. Houses destroyed by electrical fires aren't as funny as houses destroyed by water damage.

4. And I make this joke every time I pick it up. Never gets old.

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R is for Router

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R is for Router

Router, router, blah, blah, blah. Let me tell you about the time this router almost killed me. Or rather, how I almost killed MYSELF by combining extinction-level-event stupidity with this router.

Ready? Here goes.

This router is a DIY home handyman version. It has a 3/8" chuck, which means that the maximum diameter of the shaft it will accept it, you guessed it, 3/8". Years ago, on some project (I forget what), I needed a special kind of bit. The terror of that day has so screwed up my memories of it that I don't even remember what kind of bit it was.

Was it something to make a fancy edge on something? Was I trying to make a sliding, open dovetail joint? I can't imagine that I needed a special bit to make a simple rabbet, which is just a wide slot cut into the wood. What the heck was I doing?

Anyway, I couldn't find this special, special bit with a 3/8" shaft. However, after much searching, I did find one with a 1/2" shaft. (This was before I paid much attention to things like chuck sizing and maximum shaft sizes). I took it home and, naturally, it was too big. It would have fit a heavy-duty contractor's router or a stationary router table, since those have bigger 1/2" chucks.

Now we come to the This-Is-How-Stupid-People-Die part of the story. Did I curse and take the bit back to the store? Did I learn an important lesson about chuck sizes and grades of power tool? Did I rethink my entire project to work out a construction method I could accomplish safely with the tools at hand?

No, no, and no.

Instead, I did one of the most breathtakingly ignorant, stupid, and dangerous things imaginable.

"Golly, gosh, darn it," I say to myself, "it almost fits. I'll just pop over to my bench grinder and shave that 1/2" shaft down to 3/8"."

Any of you woodworkers reading this have probably sat bolt upright in your chair and are screaming OH MY GOD NO NO TELL ME YOU DIDN'T TELL ME WEREN'T THAT STUPID and I'm sorry to say that, yes, I was that stupid and yes, that's exactly what I did.

To all you non-woodworkers: you must understand, routers - even my home handyman one - are designed to make complicated cuts in wood. They do that by using a very powerful motor to spin a very sharp piece of heavy steel very, very, very fast. I think mine goes at 7000 rpm. Dremels and other ultraspeed tools go at 10,000 or 15,000 rpm, but they are spinning bits that are tiny. Router bits can be BIG. The forces placed on a router bit are directly proportional to the size of the bit. For this reason, router bits and shafts are made of a special kind of tempered tool steel that can handle these kinds of stresses (all of this I know now, but didn't know then).

Since my bit had a honking big 1/2" shaft, you can imagine just how big the bit was. Actually, never mind. I'll tell you how big the bit was: too big for my router to run safely.

And grinding down the shaft was catastrophic.
  • It thinned the shaft, giving less support to the spinning chunk of metal.
  • The grind was uneven, placing more stress on one side of the shaft than the other. And did I use a micrometer to confirm that my grind was even? No. I eyeballed it. What a moron.
  • The process of grinding made the shaft super-hot, which ruined the temper of the steel and weakened it badly.

It took a long time to grind that bit down, but I got it done. So proud of my own ingenuity, I popped the modified bit into the router and set it up over a test piece which I'd secured to a set of sawhorses. I turned it on and got about two seconds of operation before the router detonated in my hands.

As soon as the bit got up to speed, the weakened shaft snapped. The walnut-sized bit shot through the far side of the router housing, smashed through some pegboard and tore a huge chunk out of the concrete basement wall, shattering into an explosion of shrapnel.

If the shaft had held on for just 1/20,000th of a second longer, it would have completed another half-rotation. Instead of flying AWAY from me, that bit would have come TOWARD me. That big, spinning chunk of sharpened tool steel would have gone right through my sternum, right through my lungs and right out through my spine. The hole would have been in the concrete wall BEHIND me instead of IN FRONT of me... and I would have been dead.

My heart rate is up and my hands are shaking slightly just to think back on the visceral terror of the moment I realized what had happened. At the time, I remember that I set the router down, turned off the shop lights and called it quits for the day. After that, I have no clue. I don't remember if I went for a walk or turned on a golf tournament on TV or went out to mow the grass. Whatever it was had to have been mindless. I was in shock, pale and trembling and loose-boweled at what had just happened.

Another 1/20,000th of a second and my kids would have been without a father, my wife without a husband. But none of that happened. I didn't die. I wasn't even hurt. In the most literal sense, I dodged a bullet. In the years since, I have wondered often about the meaning of my escape from the just consequences of my own stupidity.


I've used the router since then. It was gut-wrenching to fit a bit in and fire it up the first time after my near-death experience, but I did it. It works fine - a great tool, so long as you use the right bits, follow the safety instructions and don't act like an idiot.

To be honest, though... the router isn't my favorite tool. Not anymore.

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Q is for Quick-set epoxy

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Q is for Quick-set epoxy

As you can see from the label, this kind of epoxy is usually used in plumbing applications. It's a tube of thick, gray epoxy resin with a core of gel hardener. To use it, you slice off how much you think you'll need and knead it (no pun intended). In moments, the hardener starts to react chemically with the epoxy, making a sticky putty.

This stuff is GREAT for emergency repairs to pipes. It's an epoxy, not a glue. That means it hardens due to the chemical reaction, not as a result of drying. You can spread this stuff on a cracked and leaking pipe, wrap it tight with duct tape and in an hour or so, the pipe will (mostly) stop leaking. That buys you enough time to get out of emergency repair mode and into normal repair mode.

So why is this here in a series of posts about woodworking? Because I find that it's great for use in old screw holes that have been stripped. When the screw no longer stays in the hole, you can sometimes effect an emergency repair by putting in some toothpicks or slips of paper to give the screw threads something to bite into. For a proper fix, though, the kind of long-term repair that won't leave you worried, you need to refill the hole.

I still like Plastic Wood for many space-filling operations, but Plastic Wood has to dry in order to set hard. Not a problem for thin applications, but when you fill in a hole, the big mass takes a long time to dry. Also, for any load-bearing application, Plastic Wood has a tendency to fracture. With this quick-set plumber's epoxy, it sets hard from the inside out. Sure, it looks like hell, being gunmetal-gray and all, but who cares? This is reserved for applications that no one will ever see.

You slice off a chunk of the quick-set, work it to an even consistency and thumb it into the hole. Then, before it sets hard, you use a nail to give yourself a narrow pilot hole. When this stuff sets, it's almost as hard as cast iron. You just need to drill out a new set hole for the screw and voilĂ , you're good for another 30 years.

Another advantage of this quick-set epoxy putty is that, unlike liquid epoxys, you can use it overhead and upside down. It's good stuff - cheap, easy to work with, durable. Granted it's a rock-solid pain in the ass to wash off your fingers, but that's a small price to pay.
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#FridayFlash: Quickly, Staunch the Wound

This story is continued from last week's story, "On Bended Knee", and is based on today's A to Z Challenge post, "Q is for Quick-set epoxy"
~~~*~~~*~~~*~~~


"Stop what you're doing, old man, and put your hands up. Now! Or I'll kill you right where you're kneeling!"

Potemkin froze just as the angry young man had instructed. With a jerk, he sat back on his heels, his entire body and demeanor conveying the shocked surprise and fear he knew they wanted to see. In a moment, he would let his shoulders slump and bow his head. He would be the picture of a defeated, scared old man.

Then they would all die.

"Get up!"

With slow, pained movements, Potemkin braced himself to rise. One hand on the tree, one on his knee, he levered himself to stand. In the moonlight, he could see the guns all the men carried. Assault weapons over their shoulders, pistols on their hips. They all had knives, too, long bush knives strapped to their thighs. The eight young men looked angry and hard; their leader mixed speculation and suspicion with his anger.

The trees had warned Potemkin of their approach, warned him that they were armed. They hadn't simply killed him from a distance, so the only dangerous moment was now passed.

He looked from face to face. So young... they were all so young. Or was it that he was so old?

Two of the men grabbed him from behind and bent his frail arms back. He cried out in real pain. No, there was nothing to fear... except the pain he had to endure before his task was complete.

"What were you doing there? Tell me!" The leader raised his weapon and put the muzzle under the old man's chin. "Tell me, you old bastard or I blow your head off!"

"I was looking for truffles." Potemkin's Polish was fluent, but his American accent made all the men raise their weapons and scowl.

The barrel of the leader's gun pushed upward, digging it into the soft, flabby flesh of the old man's neck.

"You think I'm a fool? An American, digging for mushrooms, here? In the middle of the night? You insult me again and I will kick your teeth in again before I kill you. There are a hundred places I could dump your body and no one, I mean NO ONE would find you. Now, answer me! What are you up to?"

"I'm a tourist, on a cheese tasting tour. The light of the moon makes the flavor of the truffles stronger. Please," Potemkin said, "I meant no offense. I'll go."

"Sasha! Dig in there, see what he was doing."

Another man in the group nodded, slung his rifle up behind his back and bent to scrabble in the dirt Potemkin had loosened at the base of the tree. After a moment, he pulled up an irregular, brown lump the size of a walnut. He smelled it.

"It's a truffle, Taddeusz. Do you think he was telling the truth?"

"Keep digging."

Sasha returned to the hole, widening his search. After a moment, he shouted a curse and yanked his hand away. Then he reached back and pulled out a short knife, barely two inches long at the blade. He held it in his bleeding fist, waving it at the old man.

"It cut me! That wrinkled old son of whore buried this knife in the dirt and it cut me!"

"Give me that knife." Taddeusz held out his hand and Sasha handed him the blade. The blade seemed to absorb the moonlight and give it back in a silver swirl. It was a long time before the leader took his eyes from it. When he did, Potemkin could see that he knew. With a gesture, the younger man motioned Potemkin's captors to turn toward the path.

"Let's get moving. We're taking him back to the chapel. The Bishop will want to see him."

"Tad? Are you sure that's a good idea? Don't you think we should -"

"Be quiet, Sasha!" Taddeusz looked at Potemkin. "I know what you're here for, old man. You want the magic wood. You're a greedy American who knows nothing about the underpinnings of the world. The wailing wood is valuable and that's why you're here, right?"

Potemkin raised his eyes to meet those of his captor. Their gaze locked, but only for a moment. They were interrupted by a CRACK as loud as a cannonshot. A heavy branch, as thick as a man's thigh, dropped directly on top of Sasha and the four man standing with him. They screamed as branches stabbed downward into their upturned faces, impaling eyes, cheeks and throats.

Like reactive machines, Taddeusz and the men holding Potemkin stepped back, readying their assault rifles. As they did, each of them tripped, their heels caught on looping roots. Gunfire erupted upward, spraying into the leaves as the men fell.

Unlike the men crushed by the fallen limb, these three men died almost instantly, stabbed in the back of the neck by a thick root, newly risen up in the exact spot where their heads hit the ground. All the roots were covering in clinging, fresh dirt.

Potemkin waited until the screaming stopped. His heart pounded and his head swam. Four years he'd been searching for this grove. Four years from completing the floor, and now his final task was well and truly begun. He could afford to wait to catch his breath.

From a pocket he took a mass of gray putty, wrapped in plastic. From the dead Taddeusz's jacket he retrieved his knife. Then, Potemkin went to the tree that had given its limb to save him. He leaned against it, his hand on the rough bark.

"Now, Alexi... their lives have opened the door... wedge it open, just as we taught you... you must act quickly, Alexi... set us free..."


Potemkin unwrapped the plumber's epoxy putty and kneaded it until it was sticky-smooth. He wrapped the mass around his left thumb and pressed it against the tree bark. He counted a thousand heartbeats, trying to keep his breathing slow. With a tug, he tested the epoxy and found it already beginning to set.

"Alexi... hurry..."

With a deep breath, he held the knife at the base of the thumb, just at the joint. In a smooth motion, he swiped it upward, severing tendons and cartilage as though he were slicing through cardboard. He yanked his hand away, leaving the thumb stuck in place.

"AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH..."

Blood sprayed in pulsing jets as he pressed the flat of the blade to the ragged, bleeding joint. Burning moonlight flowed into the wound, an agonizing, icy cauterization.

"Almost there, Alexi... almost there..."

Tears flowed down the old man's face.

"Courage, Alexi... almost there... almost there... you must be ready to go to him, Alexi... be ready... you are almost finished... we are almost free..."

~~~*~~~*~~~*~~~ 

This story concludes with "Living Stones, Living Wood", a piece based on next Friday's A to Z Challenge post, "W is for Whetstone"

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P is for Pencils

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P is for Pencils

Notice that I said "pencils", plural. I suppose you could do woodworking with just one pencil, in the same way you could work with only one hammer or one kind of clamp. But... why?

My pencils are always within arm's reach. I keep one in my toolbelt, at least one or two in each toolbox, a cup of pencils on my workbench, etc. Pencils are cheap enough that you should never have to go hunting for one. Buy a gross and scatter them everywhere.

Like a lot of things in the workshop, pencils straddle the line between a tool and a consumable item. Carpenter's pencils are distinctive because they are flat, with a rectangular lead in the core. The shape derives from the function. Quite simply, flat pencils don't roll away when you set them down on uneven surfaces like rafters, beams or items held at odd angles during fitting & assembly.

If I could offer a criticism about the Home Depot pencils pictured here, it would be that the orange paint coating makes them a bit slick, sometimes defeating the "stay where I put you" functionality. However, that bulk pack was cheap and the color makes them easier to spot amid the crap of a messy workbench. At some point, I'll probably rough them all up with my pad sander.

This pack of pencils came with a special sharpener, a rotating kind for flat pencils, which is something I'd never used before. After sharpening all these pencils, though, I've decided I don't like it. It puts a long point on the flat pencils, much as you'd see with a round or hexagonal pencil. The lead in the flat pencil is the wrong kind for that kind of point and they keep breaking off.

I'll go back to sharpening them with a utility knife. That gives a square lead tip, much better for marking measurements, cut lines and drill holes. Also, a big, fat lead is much better for writing those all-important directions to yourself, such as CUT OTHER SIDE or THIS END UP or GLUE FACE GOES HERE.

You might think I'm kidding about those little notes, but you've never seen me work in my shop.

The regular pencils are for drawing up plans, making lists for the store, doing design work on graph paper, etc. Woodworking is as much about mapping things out on paper as it is marking and cutting wood. I've got a bunch of odds and ends pencils for that. I also have a mechanical pencil for when I'm feeling especially fussy.

HISTORICAL SIDE NOTE: Ever wondered why yellow is a such a popular color for pencils? Back in the 1800's, when the graphite in pencils was sliced from naturally occurring blocks found in coal deposits (1), some of the very best quality came from China. It had very little grit or crud embedded and therefore gave a smooth, perfect line. Therefore, to give a mental association with China, pencil makers painted their pencils yellow, a color associated with China and chinoiserie, the Chinese art style which was so popular in Europe at the time. Yellow = China = quality lead.

It's true! You can read all about it and many other interesting facts (2) on the subject of pencils in "The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance" by Henry Petroski. If you have any interest in how form and function come together to become design, this book is for you.

1. ... and when pencil leads were often square as a result of the cutting process...
2. For example, Henry David Thoreau was able to go live in a cabin for two years on Walden Pond because he came from a wealthy family. The money came in large part from the family's pencil factory and associated rolling mills used to process graphite to make pencil leads.

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O is for Opener

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O is for Opener


I know, I know... who needs a specialized tool for opening paint cans when a screwdriver works just fine?

Take a look at the gouged lip of your paint cans, genius. See those little dings and points? They keep your can from sealing properly when you tap the lid back in place. Your screwdriver levered the lip curl both UP and OUT. The opener you see above you only levers the lip curl UP. Small difference, but it preserves the integrity of the lid.

An opener like that is only three bucks. Go buy one and stop using a screwdriver to open your cans.

BONUS TIP: When putting the lid back on a can of paint, drape a cloth over the top of the can. That way, when you tap the lid with a hammer, the paint splatters are contained by the cloth and you walk away spot-free.
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N is for Nippers

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N is for Nippers

I'm not feeling the love today. After the bombing in Boston yesterday, I'm feeling like me writing a blog post about a woodworking tool that starts with "N" is as stupidly self-absorbed as things get. The only reason I went ahead with this is that it was pointed out to me that the flow of good which most people pour into the world must never be choked off by the evil that some people force into existence. Keep calm and carry on. Therefore: nippers.

The proper use for these curved-edge cutters is to nibble away at material. I've done that, nipping off ends of dowels and wires, trimming various bits. Really, though, I use them mostly for pulling nails. As these are sometimes referred to as "nail pullers", they still work for "N". The curved edge lets you bite into a protruding eighth of a nail head; the long handles let you rock the nail out backwards. Working the bite forward a bit each time, you can persuade even a rusty and bent nail to come out backwards without a lot of awkward and indelicate pounding on the point.

If you never want to recycle wood, you can leave old nails in place. Discard the wood, burn it, trash it, whatever... a few old nails don't matter. However, if you prefer to reclaim wood so it can be reused in new projects, that means pulling the nails. On a DIY construction site, it's a matter of safety, too.

I once stepped on a nail-studded board that some jerk had just cast aside after a minor demolition. The nail went through the bottom of my shoe and into the bottom of my left foor, in the soft spot along the center line just forward of the arch. In the process of hopping backwards trying to pull the nail free from my foot, I was terrified that I'd step on another board and sustain another injury.

Confronting the jerk in question, I expressed my dissatisfaction with all the eloquence at my command. As I recall, my remonstrations grew so vigorous that some of the other guys had to intervene before the verbal became the violent.

But enough Marcel Prousting. Suffice to say that although it was a long time ago, I am still vigilant about nail-studded boards left lying around the workshop.

Also, nippers are ideal tools to give to young people so they can help with woodworking projects. There's a saying that has a deceptive amount of truth: "every good carpenter started out as a kid pulling nails from old wood." Pulling nails helps to teach you how wood behaves, what it will stand and what will destroy it. It's a good place to start.

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Boston

My condolences to all of the innocent victims of the bombing today at the Boston Marathon. By its nature, a marathon is the culmination of months, years, even a lifetime of striving.

When the bombs went off, the leaders had long since passed the finish line. The explosions didn't hit professional racers. They hit the second- and third-tier runners, the ones who weren't there to make world-record times, only a personal best... or just the personal triumph of making it up Heartbreak Hill and over the finish still upright.

To have the moment of fulfillment turn into a bloody wave of horror... to be a spectator waiting for a chance to cheer on your wife, your husband, your grandma, your friend or some other loved one, only to have your legs torn off in a deafening roar... to be an eight year old child, perhaps understanding why the Boston Marathon is such a big deal, perhaps not, but excited and happy anyway, only to have a moment of fear and pain be your last moment on this earth...

... these are things I cannot forgive.

My heart goes out to you, Boston, and to all those who were, just for a day, your adopted sons and daughters.

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M is for Micrometer

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M is for Micrometer
For most jobs, I use a tape measure. For some specialty measuring jobs I use an interior folding rule. For other specialty jobs, I sometimes use a micrometer.

Micrometers aren't just for establishing very small distances with great accuracy. Like any shop micrometer, mine (pictured to the left) can measure in thousandths of an inch or in fractions of a millimeter. Since mine is a purely mechanical micrometer, it does this by means of a finely machined ruled scale (two, actually: imperial on top, metric on the bottom) and another finely machined slider. In taking a reading, the zero marker for the slider will probably fall between one of the markings on the rule. You simply count up the slider until you find the slider marking which is precisely aligned with a scale marking and, presto, that's your fractional measurement.

In practice, you can discriminate proportional half-shadings between "a big bit off" vs. "a tiny bit off" vs. "zeroed" (1). A "tiny bit off" corresponds to 0.025 millimeters, i.e. 25 microns, the smallest gradation that can be measured by a trained eye in any practical sense. To be honest, I wouldn't try to put a spacecraft on Mars using measurements THAT fine, but it's useful for measuring wear on certain kinds of contact parts.

I don't generally do woodworking that requires thousandths of an inch. Since wood expands and contracts with the weather, the time of year, how sunny the room is, what kind of finish you've applied, how the piece is used, etc., there's not a lot of point in measuring beyond a sixteenth of an inch (2). Finer distances than that are done by feel.

No, where I use this micrometer most is in determining the sizings for round parts. See, putting a tape across the end of a dowel will sometimes give you a bad reading if you're not cutting directly across the center. A micrometer does a three-point alignment with the perimeter, so it always gives you a true diameter.

The lower jaws are for measuring exterior diameters, the upper prongs are for measuring interior diameters. You stick the prongs in the hole, open the mic until it stops. If you're a clumsy sort of person, you can tighten the set screw so that the reading won't be changed by a hand bump or dropped mic, but who among us has ever done anything so dumb? (3)

When the mic opens, the centerline probe extends from the end. This isn't just part of the mic's sliding mechanism. It's used to measure depths, especially of blind holes were a normal tape measure can't reach. Again, since I work mostly with wood, not metal, I rarely need to know the depth of a hole to a thousandth of an inch. While I used this a lot back when I did a lot of engine repair work, for woodworking I often use less precise methods.

Micrometers nowadays are digital and much easier to read than mine, with onboard memory that records multiple readings. However, since I don't have much call for such precision, this one is fine for me.

1. The machinists who taught me how to use this micrometer referred to these as, respectively, "off by a CH", "off by an RCH" (4), and "dead nuts". Machinists are a foul-mouthed bunch.

2. Imperial measurements go in binary fractions down to thirty-seconds and sixty-fourths of an inch. Below that, it switches to decimal fractions as thousandths of an inch. If you want a bunch of foul-mouthed machinists to laugh at you and call you a "dumb-ass college boy", suggest that this is a more cumbersome system than metric. Go ahead - it's a formative experience.

3. Me. Of course, once you drop a precision measuring device like a micrometer, it's no longer a precision measuring device. It has become what machinists call "a worthless, lying piece of shit, you dumb-ass college boy".

4. According to the link cited above (5), a real RCH was actually measured with great precision and found to be 30 microns. Those machinists knew what they were talking about! 

5. Only here at Landless will you find footnotes that are themselves footnoted. Tell your friends!
  
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L is for Laser level

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L is for Laser level

I've been drooling over this tool for years, but finally was able to justify buying one a few months ago. It is an beautiful piece of technology.

But first, some background about levels - probably unnecessary, but you never know. A level is a tool that tells you the orientation of something. From as far back as people cared to build things that were truly flat, people have used levels. From the Romans back to the Etruscans, Egyptians, Phoenicians and before, carpenters would fill a marked pan with water and set it on top of a wall. When the level of water was the same all around, the wall was flat. If you put two holes in the pan at opposite ends, right on the level line, you could use the pan level as a sighting tool for building level roads, piers, aqueducts, cathedrals, etc.

An open pan of water is a bit awkward, though, so as soon as it was practical, instead of looking at the level of water in a pan, they put the water in a little bottle with a flat bottom, then (because bottles break) they embedded the glass into a flat piece of wood. Convenient, that, since it's easier to make wood flat than it is to make glass flat (1). Eventually, somebody had the idea of using a glass tube mostly filled, instead of a little bottle insert only partly filled. Instead of looking for the surface of the water to go flat, you looked for the bubble to go in the middle of the tube (2).

Really old levels have only one bubble glass, level with the block of wood. Modern levels typically have three bubble glasses: one flat (3), one vertical (4) and one at a 45 degree angle (5). I have four big levels, ranging from 2 feet to 4 feet, in wood, steel, plastic, and fiberglass. I also have all the silly little levels built into my drills, saws, adjustable squares, etc.

A big advantage of the laser level pictured here is... well, there are several. Instead of laying a long level against the wall and marking spots across the wall that a true level (for laying tile, installing light fixtures, hanging pictures, etc.), you turn on the little vacuum pump built into the base of the laser level and hold it against an adjacent or opposite wall. It holds itself in place, shooting a flat laser beam across the entire wall you're working on (6).

The laser electronics swing free inside the case, so even if the thing you attached it to isn't level, your laser line is. With a tweak of a knob, you can adjust the line up or down to be exactly where you want it. It stays on as you work across 10, 20, 30 or more feet of wall (7). Also, the beam can be set to a flat line, a vertical line or both. This cross hairs feature lets you align the picture your hanging with respect to the vase below (8).

I know this is a specialty tool. Believe me, I've gotten by with long levels and plumb bobs, hose levels and taught pieces of string. I've installed drop ceilings, dug French drains, built stud walls, brick walls, fieldstone walks and lots of other things that absolutely HAD to be level and/or pitched at an exact angle.

But this laser level turns an hour's work into ten minutes. It's a thing of marvelous beauty.

1. A downside is that Incidentally, since the little bottles were sealed, they couldn't change the water. Since water gets scummy and cloudy after a while, they pretty soon switched to using alcohol or mineral spirits in the glass. Hence the old name, "spirit level".

2. This led to the colloquial term for someone who was a little off as being "half a bubble off plumb".

3. For floors.

4. For walls.

5. For no earthly purpose. Who in the world measures an angle with a level? Crog the Caveman? That's like trimming your fingernails with an axe. To get an angle properly, you measure rise and run, then calculate it.

6. So damn cool, I'm about to cry remembering the first time I used it.

7. *sniff sniff*

8. Or, more importantly, align the light fixture wiring with the outlet and/or sink underneath it, so you not only have the fixture level, it's wired properly between the studs, missing interfering pipes other wires.

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K is for Kneepads

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K is for Kneepads

Much like I didn't used to wear gloves, I didn't used to wear kneepads. Unlike with gloves, the "no kneepads" thing was pure testosterone.

I couldn't be bothered, didn't need them, didn't want them. Wusses and rookies wore kneepads. Callused knees were a sign of virtue and work ethic.

Kneepads got too sweaty. Kneepads were too binding. Kneepads were too awkward. Kneepads never fit right. Kneepads always slipped. Kneepads looked dorky as hell.

The cheap foam kneepads didn't last and didn't do any good anyway. The slightly less cheap kind with the hard plastic pads were unstable and uncomfortable, worse than no kneepads at all. And the high-end kneepads? Who in his right mind would pay $30 for a pair of kneepads? Silicon gel comfort wide elastic strap velcro adjustable blah blah blah... forget it!

Above all else, kneepads were for old men, the kind of guys who made those old man grunting noises when they got up off the floor where they'd been laying tile or setting floor joists. Kneepads were a mark of weakness and decline.

All of this I believed, and not just believed but lived out to the fullest extent. That makes this bit of self-examination somewhat awkward.

I'm not quite sure when I came to my senses. Was it when I laid the Pergo in my kitchen? Laying the flooring in my bedroom closet? When I laid fiberglass insulation in the attic joists and then installed flooring on top of it to get more storage space? When I did the oak flooring in my bedroom?

I know I wore kneepads to lay the drystone walk in the backyard, and I was wearing them for any hands-and-knees job by the time I did the tiling by the front door.

These kneepads you see in that picture up there... when did I buy them? These are the third or fourth set, and they're a serious cut above the previous ones, which are still in use by Mrs. Noland for her gardening and DIY projects. When did I buy these Cadillac kneepads? It was certainly long before I did all the restoration of the downstairs shower, which was many months before I did all the tiling and plumbing for the master bath.

When did I start wearing kneepads? Probably when I got tired of bruised knees, numb thighs and being stiff-legged for two days after every big job.

I guess these kneepads make me an old man who has to pace himself on a big job, working through the hours with measured pace rather than the simple furious energy of a young buck.

Funny how I don't much give a shit about such categorizations anymore. Must be the kneepads.

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