This weekend was a busy one.

In addition to completing the redo of Evan’s bedroom (now our guest bedroom), Erin paid us a quick visit to pick up her car (after having had the transmission replaced – ouch!), Evan called us to tell us that he and Cassie have set a date and a place, Paige had her baby, and then the Super bowl to top it all off.

It was an event-filled weekend.  I’d kind of like to spread these things out if I can but this time, everything happened at once.  Still fun though.


Well this holiday was quite a time – we have a new fiancé’ in the family after all. We only got to see Cassie when they came over after Christmas to get her ring sized at the jewelry store but that was enough. We had bought tickets to see Mannheim Steamroller and we all went although we were all a bit underwhelmed. Still, we got out of the house and that was worth something – we had not really done much of that up until that point. Too many college bowl games perhaps.

I had good intentions for doing something productive during the break but apart from taking down the Christmas decorations, I can’t point to much of anything. I did go out into the garage and run some wood through the surface planer but I have much more to do. I decided that our Christmas tree is ridiculously old (I can remember buying it when the kids were still preschoolers) and that I would put it out on the curb (after the mountain of other trash that has accumulated because they only come once a week during the largest trash-generating week of the year. Not that I’m bitter. )

But at least, that’s one thing I will not have to drag back up into the attic. I think I’ll start replacing all my lights with LEDs as well so that should be fun. One day I’d like to figure out a way to make it easy to put up the lights outside but I haven’t come up with anything yet.

This is a tale of a father-daughter project. Like most projects that you design from scratch, it took longer than originally anticipated but it was worth doing in many ways. You’d think that as a scientist and engineer who has done nothing but research and development for my entire career, I’d be used to this by now and I guess I am; I don’t get upset when projects run on and on. But I never have learned to estimate the timeline of one either.

Anyway… As soon as I joined the Tulsa FabLab, Erin immediately envisioned making her own set of custom game pieces for Catan. She wanted to cut them out of wood and maybe make a box to put them in. I started immediately; she would have also if she hadn’t been taking 18 hours this semester in engineering so she can be excused for not doing most of the work herself.

I found the basic shapes on and made some modifications. She took that file and made some refinements of her own and I then took it back and made sure the line widths were what they should be to make the laser cut or engrave.

I designed a gift box for them all to be stored in and she came up with some initials to be engraved on the top. Then, the day before Thanksgiving, we went to the FabLab where I had reserved two hours and cut it all out.

I really enjoy these collaborations; there are a fairly limited number of things that dads and daughters can both really enjoy doing together and this is one that works for us since we’re both engineers.

As to the woodworking aspects of the project, there is much to say. The game pieces are flat which makes this the perfect project for a scroll-saw or laser cutter. In fact, one day when laser cutters become the same price as scroll saws, they will take over that market because they not only do the same job but do it perfectly as well as offering the option of engraving (by burning only the surface).

The gift box is another matter. Because the laser cutter is basically a high-tech scroll saw, the project either has to be made out of only flat pieces or require some work with other tools after the pieces are cut. The latter is nothing new to woodworkers, in fact all real projects are like that. For the propeller-head crowd that flock to laser cutters, that is a bit of alien thought. I was on a timeline and really didn’t want to bother with creating a groove that the box bottom could slide into so I just cut the bottom to the real outside dimension of the box and glued it on. It’s plywood so that should be OK.

But first, a word on plywood. I bought a sheet of stuff at Lowe’s and it is the crappiest piece of material I have ever encountered. The 4×8 sheet was flat when I bought it (and, after all, isn’t that what plywood is engineered to be?) but as soon as I cut it into laser-cutter-sized pieces, they warped a bit. HOW CAN PLYWOOD WARP? That’s the one thing it is NOT supposed to do!

Anyway, I put the piece on the cutter and forged ahead. The first pass is usually the engraving pass where the laser head goes back and forth over the wood in a raster pattern and burns the top surface at low power. Some wood is vaporized and so there is definitely a change in thickness that you can feel but mostly the burning turns the wood black and makes an image. In my particular piece of crappy plywood, the veneer was so thin that it just burned through to the next layer. Strangely, the thickness was just enough to burn off the veneer but not char the next layer (which the guys up at the FabLab had never seen happen) and as such, it looked a bit weird. The second layer had some sort of light-dark pattern in it (like spalting) which showed through in the images and made them look completely strange. I did not have enough time to run it again since somebody was waiting to use the machine after me so I just took them home and decided to stain them.

So we took them home and applied some stain. I used whatever I had laying around from my last project and we brushed it on pretty thick and immediately tried to sort-of squeegee it off the top surface and leave it in the engraved parts to make them really dark and enhance the contrast. This mostly worked.

As to the joints, finger joints are a natural for the laser cutter and I very much like not having to have my fingers so near the cutter like you do when making these on a table saw. And, since the thing is so precise, they fit perfectly. At least in the finger-width dimension. The design assumed a full ¼” of plywood and of course it was less than that so the fingers were too deep, leaving some of the finger sticking out beyond the box. This is easily remedied by a disk sander but my daughter decided that it was fine the way it was. She does not have the typical woodworker’s aversion to this sort of thing and so I agreed to leave it.

This is where a ‘parametric’ design tool would be handy (the high-end CAD systems are like this). You would tie that dimension to a user input and, after measuring the material with a caliper, you would enter this and the design would adapt accordingly. But I didn’t have that software.
Another interesting phenomenon that I did not expect was the smoke marks on the “exit” side of the laser beam. The material sits on a metal honeycomb and air is pulled downwards through the machine to pull the smoke out as well as hold the material firmly in place. In my case, since the plywood was warped, as soon as one piece was cut out, there was no more partial vacuum to hold the piece flat and it warped upwards which let the smoke swirl around a bit underneath the material. This left smoke marks on the underside. Again, this is easily sanded out which we did.

This plywood took stain very strangely. One side blotched worse than anything I had ever seen. The “good” side would blotch in long lines that must have corresponded to something underneath the veneer but was most annoying. But it was not annoying to my daughter; she was totally happy with the result and therefore so was I. My alternative was to start over. We had put a sealer coat of shellac on the game pieces before the stain but for some reason I forgot to do the box pieces.

Again, my daughter was satisfied. Together we bought some brass hinges and a latch and installed these. I let her do most of this and one of the hinges ended up really crooked. We thought about it and decided to let this stay as it was and not try to fix it – mostly because she was returning to the university and wanted to check the project off her list. This is a gift so she needs to have it done and wrapped very soon.

After a number of coats of blond shellac, it looks pretty darned good – even in spite of the lousy plywood. And a good time was had by all. So, shop time, daughter time, and something completed. Check, check, and check. That’s something to be thankful for – and on the Thanksgiving holiday too!


Recently, Erin got found out that she was awarded Top 10 Freshman Women status which was an upgrade from the Top-20 status from before.  Needless to say, as a parent this is a proud moment.  We the parents were invited to a reception Saturday morning.

She had earlier been invited to the president’s house for a reception; I wish I could have gone to that but we weren’t invited.  Luckily there was a photographer there and we got a photo.

They were also recognized on the field during halftime of Saturday’s game with TCU.  This was an ironic situation since my Ph.D. is from TCU although I never really could get into their team when I was there.  When you’re raised as a Razorback, it might seem feasible that you could also become a Horned Frog, (one ridiculous animal to another)  but it was not to be.  I never learned to care.  Even less so now that Erin is at OSU.

Sadly, tickets to the game were not provided so we had to hastily procure some from StubHub.  Yay StubHub!  They never let me down.

The reception was early in the morning in one of their fancy reception rooms and she got a plaque.  Then we frittered away a few hours hanging out in her apartment and having lunch.

We had brought along Mel’s sister and husband and so we had someone to share the experience with.  Erin’s new boyfriend came along too.

Getting to see your child’s picture on the Jumbotron at a Big-12 game is one of those things that leaves an impression on you.  I keep trying to tell myself that it’s just a superficial thing and that the real value lies in the things that led up to this and the things that this implies about her ability to secure a good future for herself.  But it was still really cool and even though the accomplishment is hers, I feel proud too.  To her credit, she doesn’t let this stuff go to her head; she left right after that to go change and get ready to sort recycling after the game.

I want to say that we did a lot of things right to make this happen but I must say that she has been smart and ambitious (as well as social) ever since she could talk.  We can only take so much credit.

I keep thinking I should get her a job where I work and then the two of us can take over.  Just kidding.  Maybe.


Recently, Erin was chosen as one of the top 20 freshman women at OSU.  Just yesterday, she got upgraded to the Top 10 which is as good as it gets.  Mel and I are super proud.  She has already had her photo made with the president of the university as part of the Top 20 thing so I don’t know what other things she will do.  Last year, they were recognized at one of the games so perhaps this is coming up.

They announce this to the recipients during classes where they walk into class and announce it publicly.  Erin had seen the others get chosen during her engineering classes and presumed that she didn’t make the top 10 cut.  But I guess they were just going alphabetically and so during her last class – a 1 hour credit activity class in welding – someone showed up.  So she didn’t get announced in engineering classes when she looked good; she got announced in front of a bunch of ag majors in her welding helmet, gigantic leather gloves, and plaid shirt.  Talk about helmet hair.

Oh well.  She’ll have time to clean up for the photo ops.

There’s an imaginative title.  This past weekend, we kept pretty busy.  On Saturday, we picked up the PJs and headed to Guthrie which is a town I’ve wanted to visit for quite awhile.  It seemed a bit off its game – perhaps because it was a holiday weekend but I figured a tourist town might have all the stores open on the Saturday of a holiday weekend but not so.  We passed several that were closed.  Still, the little town is picturesque and the tour trolleys were operating so we got the driving tour with narration to tell us what we were looking at.  I like that the town is a mix of restored buildings with museums in them and normal businesses.

The most interesting business is the Double Stop Fiddle Shop which does indeed sell fiddles but you’d be hard pressed to get anyone to help you buy one because of the bluegrass jam circle going on most of the time on the shop floor.  It’s a fun free concert though – and if you really like it you can go upstairs to the music hall in the evening and pay $10 for a more formal concert.  But these guys were pretty good; apparently the shop owner and three others.

It ended up unfortunately hot but we’re pretty much used to that by now so we had fun.  We stopped at the Territorial Museum which is pretty much a museum for the Oklahoma land run.  I chatted for some time with the single employee who was there that day; a recent history graduate who was working her dream job of sifting through old documents for clues to the past. She had to man the front door, the cash register, and the gift shop but since we were the only ones in the building, she managed just fine. In fact when I found her on the way out, she was back in the office area restoring an old spinning wheel.

We drove home and made it in time to watch the OSU game on TV until it got boring during the first quarter and then switched to watching the Arkansas game online.  A coworker texted me that she had spotted Erin at the OSU game.  

The next day (Sunday), Erin drove home and we then all drove on to Ft. Smith to spend the day with Evan.  Cassie had driven down from Fayetteville and we all piled into the truck and drove down to Magazine Mountain State Park.  The lodge there is beautiful and we had lunch in their restaurant and then walked outside along the ridge for awhile.  We also went to the visitor’s center whose best feature is the large room full of bay windows and rocking chairs that look out onto a large number of bird feeders and wildflowers.  It was a good day.

Monday (Labor Day) found us finishing up Erin’s laundry and prepping her to go back to school.  That always involves a trip to Wal-Mart to stock up.  She left early (as always) and we slowly got back to our lives.  I guess it’s time to start scraping another sector of ceiling popcorn.

Both kids had more time off than Mel and I did; which is not surprising.  Erin finally left last Sunday and classes started today (Monday).

Evan on the other hand has another whole week.  But this week was marked by the visitation of The Girlfriend.

Evan hasn’t bothered much with steady girlfriends in recent years.  He preferred to have many friends of both sexes and not be bothered with a relationship.  But I guess this one changed his mind.  He has always played his cards very close to the vest and so I never felt I knew much about her until she came.  It was a mild surprise when he announced that he would go visit her before Christmas and she would visit us after but I was glad of the opportunity to see her for myself.

I’m happy to report that the visit went well.  I don’t think Mel and I are guilty of any huge faux pas; time will tell I guess.  She seems to fit in with us pretty well.  All her family is really into sports so there’s a bit of a disconnect.  I like to watch college football on TV (and occasionally live and in person) but don’t like to actually do any of it.  But I can’t see that being a show stopper.