August 2011


Lots of small unimportant things.  But I’m trying valiantly to avoid doing absolutely nothing now that the kids are off to college.  I’m working on accomplishing that wish list I’ve been keeping all these years.  Most of that is just tinkering but it’s fun stuff.

We drove up to Woolaroc on Saturday which is the museum up on the Frank Phillips ranch.  I don’t think I’ve been there since Erin was in a stroller.  I couldn’t even remember where it was but Google knows.  Some of it came back to me after we got there though; for example, I remember the little diorama of Indians dancing around a fire that Evan was so fascinated with when he was little.  Still there and still dancing.  We also walked around the place and saw Frank Phillips’ rich-guy retreat. It’s made to look like a rustic cabin but he was an oil baron; it’s not truly rustic. For example there was a grand piano covered with pine bark. We also ate at the little snack shack – I had the buffalo sandwich.  It is advertised to be real bison meat but I couldn’t tell because of all the barbecue sauce.

I think my favorite part was the buffalo herd.  The road into the museum goes through a preserve where the bison (and other animals) roam freely and that includes taking naps on the road itself.  They seem not to realize that we puny humans and our cars are no match for their mass (and horns).  Whenever they become aware of your car, they hop up and trot away as if in fear of us.  If they ever catch on, we’re in trouble. 

I started putting together a little circuit board that I bought from adafruit that reads the info on SIM cards.  I look forward to finding out if there’s anything interesting on my SIM.  If there’s not I guess I’m out $15 which is not bad for useful knowledge.

I also tried to do a bit of hand tool woodworking but again the heat drove me back inside.  That and some dull tools.  I brought all my sharpening gear inside and started to work away on an old router plane (or the cutter thereof) but it has apparently never been sharpened at all.  I got it from my brother who said he bought it at a BX in Germany back in the early ‘60s when he was in the army.  I ground away at it for quite awhile on a stone because it is “L” shaped and will not easily fit on my bench grinder.  I don’t fancy trying to free-hand like that but I may have to; after lots and lots of work on a coarse stone, it still didn’t come to a sharp point.  I was able to sort-of make it work but raising the cutter a bit to steepen the angle on the cutting edge.  That’s a bit unreliable but I got it sharper than it was.  Then I took it out to clean up some tenon cheeks.  Worked quite well once the cutter was sharp(er).

I then started on a chisel.  The last time I sharpened it, I had taken it over to my friend’s house who owns a Tormek.  I had thought to put a basic shape on it then; later I would have an easy time with honing the hollow-ground edge.  But he never seemed to take the guides or angle gauge seriously and didn’t know where they were.  As a result the edge I got was a bit out of square as well as being a different angle than I wanted.  So when I started to touch it up on my new diamond plate, it seems it was only grinding on the rearmost parts of the edge and part of one side of the edge.  So more work is required.  I tried just grinding it on my bench stones but that will take a long time since the one I bought is a fine/extra fine.

I learned something in the process: diamond plates are often advertised as requiring no lubricant.  They say you can use then dry but I seemed to get better results when I put a few drops of water on them.  The instructions say that you should clean them with water after each dry use anyway.  This may be my imagination – I should try it both ways now that they are broken in.  I learned that a new diamond plate is coarser than advertised until you use it for a day or so.  So all those metal filings that were clogging things up in the beginning may just be a thing you experience when it’s new.  So again, more experience with it will tell the tale.

This all just highlights the need for me to actually build an angle jig for my bench grinder and use that to establish a proper edge on everything I have.  Then honing will go more smoothly.  I hope.  I could just buy a Tormek myself but holy cow!  $500?  Get real. The biggest trouble with those is that you can’t get by with the basic tool holding jig.  You have to buy a different jig for every different tool type you have and each one is $100 at least.  By the time you have everything you need, it’s closer to $800.  I agree that it’s a wonderful thing and sharpening is a breeze with it but the price is just ridiculous.  Grizzly makes a cheap knockoff but I don’t know how well it works; some of their stuff is really nice – other stuff is crap.  I’m not sure how to tell in advance.  My table saw is wonderful – my bench vise makes me want to cry every time I use it so I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum.

I also set up my webcam-getter program to download a weather map of the hurricane every 15 minutes.  I will stack up all these images and make a movie of hurricane Irene moving up the coast of the US.  That should be interesting. 

So we kept busy this weekend.  Not bad for somebody with no particular place to be.

The air conditioning in our hangar office space has been playing up lately.  Since we’ve been suffering through record heat, this has been a bit rough but not nearly as rough as what the air conditioner repair guy has to go through.  I can’t imagine climbing up 40 feet and walking around on a metal roof when it’s 104 degrees.  That’s one tough guy.

But there is no shortage of whining inside.  Everybody but the ex-military guys whine and claim they can’t work under these conditions.  I’m guessing that if you’ve been in the military then you’ve probably been somewhere that’s extremely hot and had to eat combat rations out of your helmet at least once (all the while wearing battle gear, body armor, and lugging a full pack of heavy gear).  Furthermore, you’ve probably also had to eat the same aforementioned rations that have been heated by burning C4 explosive that you dug out of the back of a disassembled mine in subzero temperatures.  So they don’t complain – they know how good they’ve got it.

Those of us permanent civilians should probably be sent to the tropics once in awhile to tend our airplanes.  When they’re parked on a ramp in the tropical sun for hours and have to wait there for some unknown delay, and then suddenly have to start the engines and take off, it can get a bit hard to stay fresh and clean.  That will teach you to keep working when conditions are sub-optimal.  Or, as they say in this business: “off nominal”.

I try not to whine when the air conditioning goes out.  But if my house A/C goes out and I have to sleep in the heat – all bets are off.

When Evan was last home we tested out the woodgas camp stove I built.  He was thrilled that it worked so well.  Apart from the soot (which is a problem with any wood burning campfire), we had no complaints.  He cooked a genuine camp meal on it during the testing.  He packed it up and took it home with him.

His only comment was that he has been on several trips where there wasn’t any wood.  For example, he’s been above the tree line in Colorado as well as in the snow.  For that, he would prefer some kind of liquid fueled thing since the energy density is higher.  Even though he’d have to pack in the fuel, it shouldn’t weight that much as long as he doesn’t carry a week’s worth.

So I set about building an alcohol burner.  Instructables is chock full of these – I just picked one with the most detailed instructions and went at it.  They are all the same: take two soda cans, cut the bottoms off, stick the bottoms together, and punch holes in the top to make the burner.  This turns out to be a bit tricky since these are very primitive things.  There is no dispenser of fuel and no regulator of pressure so these walk a fine line between exploding and having puny flames.  As always happens with this sort of project, you have to read about it and then use what you have and improvise.  Nothing ever goes the same way twice when you’re building something from scratch whether it be woodworking, metalworking, or electronics. 

But simplicity goes hand in hand with low weight which is what backpackers relish.  I used trash as usual – that’s how most of these DIY builds go.  Waste metal is a treasure trove of building material for projects like these.  I used two soda cans, a couple of food cans, and the speaker grill from a broken iPod dock.  Recycling is a wonderful thing but most people never realize that they can build new stuff from old material.

I tested it last night and it works fine.  It burns denatured alcohol which is actually mostly ethanol – the drinking kind.  It has some methanol added to poison it.  I suppose that is either to avoid the taxation that goes with the adult beverage industry or to prevent little boys from buying it at the hardware store and claiming it’s for their Dad to refinish a table with and then going boozing.  Perhaps both.  At any rate, it doesn’t smell like booze for some reason; when it burns it smells like nothing at all.  (Although heating up repurposed metal at first yields some interesting smells – at least until the paint burns off.)

The thing that caused me the most trouble and which I’m still not happy with is the transportability issue.  I wanted to make the whole thing so the parts would nest inside each other which I mostly did.  But a pot stand is required and I couldn’t figure out how to fashion one out of thick wire so that it would hold up a pot of water and yet fold up into almost nothing.  My pot stand (speaker grills) will fit flat more or less and that will have to do.  The thing does not sit level for some reason but if you’re camping and cooking on the ground I can’t see this ever being an issue.

This works amazingly well.  One has to keep some safety in mind though but I guess that’s always the way with fire.

At long last, Erin called us to report on her first week of college which was really just the first week of dorm life since classes haven’t started yet. She reported that she had had a wonderful time but the real interesting part will start on Monday.  Evan also called to inform me that he car would not start so when the week begins we’ll be doing some long distance car repair advising.  His classes start on Monday as well so I imagine he’ll just leave the car alone until he can get the first day or two out of the way.

There’s a place called “Persimmon Hollow” up near one of the major shopping areas.  It has been there since long before the shopping centers and it shows.  But it’s kind of cool that you take what appears to be a driveway behind a large restaurant and end up at a dead end filled with a number of little shops that were built in a sort-of 1880’s style.  They vary from boutiques to antiques stores but I’ve been meaning to go there for years and just never have.  On Saturday, we went.  It’s kind of a dump actually but I suppose that will keep the prices down.  Quaint though.

I’m conscious of the fact that work expands to fill the time allotted and so with an empty nest, I have been afraid that we’d just sit down in front of the TV and never move from it. That’s what happened to Dad when he retired and I went off to college.  I don’t want that to happen so I’ve gotten out my “Big List of Things To Do” and started on it with gusto.  Persimmon Hollow was not at the top of it but it was on it and my brother-in-law had said I might be able to find some old tools there.

I have a fantasy of being able to find some old hand tools that are still usable but apparently that only happens on the east coast.  Everywhere around here about the best you can do is find rust-covered wrenches and the occasional dried up, cracked wooden jack plane with a broken handle.  I envy the folks that scrounge flea markets back east.

One of the proprietors mentioned that every male that walked into her shop asked for old tools and anything that showed up from the various auctions were snapped up as soon as she put them out.  Apparently there are a lot of collectors out there.  She also mentioned that junk shops over in Arkansas were plentiful sources of tools.  I wish she hadn’t said that; now I want to go over there to see for myself.

I did find a small bench grinder at one of the Ye Olde Junque Shoppe places for $25.  I had been planning on heading to Lowes to buy a new one at $78 so this was a big win.  It has smaller wheels than normal so I can’t replace them with full-sized ones.  I tried grinding a lathe tool with it when I got home and it worked well;  apparently all that stuff about the stock gray wheels being crap is overblown.  I put an edge on my bowl gouge for the first time ever and it worked well.  I need to build a tool rest for it; I was working almost free handed and with a proper rest, I’m sure it will be even better.  According to the Almighty Interwebs, you just have to go slowly with the gray wheels.  Well I can do that.  I also found a hand-cranked grinder which I thought was cool but the tool-rest was totally missing so I passed it up.  I’ll bet I can find another one someday with all its parts.

I did buy a normal sized wheel later that day but discovered that the shaft of my grinder is not long enough to go through and have space for the arbor nut but at $5, it wasn’t worth taking it back to the store.

I also took the opportunity to go up to Woodcraft and buy a two-sided diamond impregnated bench stone.  I’d wanted to do this for a long time – I’m tired of sticking sandpaper to a floor tile to put an edge on my tools.  I tried it out on a couple of things and I think I’ll end up with good results after some practice.  I used to go crazy with the sandpaper and all my chisels have a mirror like surface but this doesn’t contribute to the sharpness, it’s just cool looking.  The bench stone will get things sharp enough to cut after I’ve done the edge with my grinder.

It was beastly hot in the garage but I still went out there for a bit of woodworking.  I wanted to try to cut some tenons by hand and so got out my pull saw for this purpose.  I also cut one set of cheeks with my bandsaw which is certainly easier but somehow not as fun.  The surface left behind is not as pretty either but again, the look of a surface inside a joint is not relevant to anything as long as the glue has something to stick to.  Still, sawing is good practice.  What really needs to happen is for me to get out there and tune up that bandsaw (also clean it thoroughly) and sharpen every tool with an edge.  Then I can start doing something.

After getting completely drenched in sweat I gave it up and came inside.

I decided that with it so hot, the best use of time would be to redo the file cabinet.  I moved all the files from the big cabinet to the two smaller ones and dragged the large file cabinet out of the master closet.  Now Mel has much more space for some of her stuff.  Unfortunately the new drawers are not as deep as the old ones and they don’t extend fully outward so I actually have less space for files than I did.  This is not an issue since two drawers were just full of random crap anyway.  So that project went well until I ran out of file folders and then I aborted the project in favor of watching TV.

After years of sharpening stuff on sandpaper stuck to a floor tile, I decided to move up in the world.

At Ye Olde Junque Shoppe I found a small bench grinder for $20. The wheels are 1/2 X 5″ so I can’t find any that fit it but the gray ones that are on it still work.

I then stopped at the woodcraft store and bought a two-sided DMT diamond plate for fine/extra fine work.

Total investment: around $150 which includes a nice wheel dressing tool.

That should make things a bit easier. Now I can take on the sharpening of that drawknife. Need to build a jig for the grinder though.

So. Lab Report:

I’ve never sharpened a lathe tool on a bench grinder before. I tried it using the postage-stamp-sized tool rest and actually got an edge on it. It was so much better than the dullness before that I laughed out loud. How much better will it be when I make a real tool rest? Feelin’ good!

Moving on. The drawknife. This one will be tricky – I can’t seem to get all the knife past the wheel without moving it around to avoid the handles hitting the motor. Probably a technique thing. I gave up and moved on.

Started cutting the ends of my desk leg pieces. Rather than using the table saw, I got out a Japanese type saw that has been laying around. I used it to cut off dowels and small jobs. This time I tried to cut a straight and square edge. SUCCESS! Took my time and watched carefully. I just worked by eye – nothing held up next to it to monitor my angle with. Of the four, three look darn near perfect – one has a little bit of a step – apparently I changed the angle of the saw early on or something. That was the last one and I was feeling cocky. I can smooth it off with a plane. After I sharpen the iron that is.

But now it’s bedtime and I’m drenched in sweat. Fall cannot come soon enough.

I’ve taken the first step on the road to quiet, non-lethal woodworking.

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