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!



Mel is mentally gearing up to start a new job and wanted to take one more little short getaway before she goes into a situation where she has no time off for the foreseeable future.  So we went to Branson.
If you can’t think of anything to do, you can always go to Branson or (if you’re addicted to losing your money) Las Vegas.  I wasn’t terribly enthused about it but that’s because I have no vision.  We actually had a very good time.
Mel found a nice place called “Still Waters” resort where we could have spent all our time without ever leaving the property.  But the package came with tickets to both Dixie Stampede and Silver Dollar City so we actually spent very little time at the resort.
I have been to Silver Dollar City many times; mostly as a kid.  My enthusiasm for it was at a low ebb since all my memories were of running from one scary ride to another (both when I was a kid and with my own kids).  I’m done with rides – I just don’t care any more.  They don’t interest me at all.  But a coworker mentioned that there is a lot to do there that doesn’t involved riding anything.  I had forgotten about all the craftsmen.  And, as it turned out, it was the “Harvest Festival” during which they bring in even more craftspeople for you to watch.
I thoroughly enjoyed the day. I got to watch and talk to three blacksmiths, three woodcarvers, and a guy who took trees and made them into square beams for building houses.  Not sure what that guy’s description is.  There was also a guy there with a strange little sugar-cane-squeezing mill turned by a mule walking in a circle which was good for a few minutes of entertainment.  The day passed very quickly.
We also went to the Titanic Museum which was pretty fun as well.
When it came time to return home we decided to go home another way.  I had read a couple of years ago about the Ozark Medieval Fortress, a castle under construction using medieval-period techniques but I should have done my homework: they are closed – probably forever due to lack of funds.  We drove up to the entrance but two trees were barricading the road.
I quickly reset the GPS to take me to Eureka Springs.  We made it there in time for lunch and then strolled around a bit until our parking meter ran out of time.  Then I called the number for Old Street Tool; two guys who make wooden handplanes for use in making moldings the old fashioned way.  They don’t really have a storefront; just a shop in the basement of Larry’s home.  They apparently feel that if anybody is interested enough to seek them out, then they probably will enjoy talking to them so he invited me over.  He even volunteered to come downtown and lead me over to his house.  I managed to find it by myself but not without calling him a second time to make sure I was headed down the right track.
It was really fun chatting with a master on the subject of his mastery and I would have paid money for the time I spent with them but they gave me their time freely.  I even got a bit of tutoring on proper technique.
So after littering their floor with shavings, we then headed out – back towards highway 412 which leads homeward.  We got back at 6:30 and Erin arrived soon afterwards for her fall break.  It was a pleasant way to spend a few days.

The garage air conditioner has been very nice.  I turn it on when I get home and it cools the cars down which makes it much more pleasant to go into the garage for all those things you usually go into a garage for but it has made all the difference to me since I can now go out there and spend time at my workbench.
I’ve been able to work on my long-term transition to more hand-tool work.  I haven’t accomplished a whole lot yet other than practicing with various hand planes and saws.  I have sharpened everything I have including some saws which is a rather tedious skill to try and develop.  It’s similar to plastering the ceiling in that sense.  But I have managed to make a couple of them cut better than they did so that’s encouraging.
I’ve started a simple project to actually produce something: the English Layout Square that I saw in Popular Woodworking.  I’ve seen that one done on the Woodwright’s Shop on PBS also.  So that one is about half done and it going well.
Air conditioning is definitely a good thing.
I also have a guy at work who is building a shop and who wants to buy my table saw and dust collector so I’m pumped about that.  That should free up some space.

Some frustrations, some successes.  That’s the way things go I guess.

I need to get some projects moving and completed; particularly the old guitar tremolo circuit.  That one has been hanging over my head for a year and has sort of taken on the character of a job.  Not good.  So Saturday, I figured I’d knock out some stuff after Evan left to return to his last semester at the university.

I went to tackle the tremolo.  Aaaannnddd… it didn’t work.  After some tinkering, I got frustrated and walked away.

Then I figured I’d work on my wooden handplane project.  That is going well but I reached a point at which I need to use the blade and its associated hardware to size the opening in the middle.  But I don’t have a blade.  Doh!  I went and ordered a nice iron and cap iron from the guy who wrote the book.

So I figured I’d take my airsoft pistol outside and plink at some cans.  It began to misfire.  Doh! Again!  I went and watched TV with Melissa for the rest of the day.  You can’t fail when watching TV unless you consider watching TV itself to be a failure.

Sunday, I looked at the gun.  It’s pretty cold outside and the act of letting off pressure from the propellant gas lowers the temperature of the magazine even more which seems to be making the seals start to leak.  Perhaps due to stiffening of the O-rings due to low temperature.  Also, the magazine has a teeny little piece of plastic that seems to lock the slide back after the last BB is fired which broke off and was jamming the follower.  According to the almighty interwebs, I’m the only one to ever experience this which is pretty unusual.  I disassembled the magazine to get the fragments out and now it feeds pretty reliably until it gets cold again.  Apparently, cold weather is not that great for airsoft.  Now the slide does not lock when the last round is fired but that is not a big deal.  I think I need to start loading the BBs from the top rather than using the speed loader since the speed loader occasionally lets go of the follower and it snaps to the top with a bit too much force for my liking.  That may what broke it to begin with.

On a side note, I bought this pistol because it is at least 10 times cheaper than a real gun and you can fire it in the back yard without scaring the neighbors or accidentally killing anyone.  Plus, no gun range fees.  But apparently I’m the only person over the age of 14 to have ever bought one since all the video tutorials on youtube are voiced by teenaged boys who can’t drive yet and, in many cases, whose voices have not changed yet.  Oh well.  I’m enjoying plinking in the back yard so no big deal.

Then I went to look at the tremolo.  I looked for parts that may have been in backwards (like the transistor) and then pulled all the alligator clips off the bypass switch and soldered on actual wires throughout to make sure I had a good ground connection.  The presence of lots of hum was making me believe that was a problem.  As soon as I hooked it back up to the battery I knew it was working.  I tinkered with it awhile and was quite happy.  I felt like the king of the world actually.  So I fired off some self congratulatory emails and tweets and decided to call it a day.

Also, Mel and I tried out the Main Street Tavern (which is new) and were pleasantly surprised with it.  It’s always good to find a good new restaurant in town.  I’m always a bit bummed when the kids head back to college and the house gets quiet.  These little successes made the day a bit more pleasant.

I just started building a wooden bodied plane out of David Finck’s book “Making and Mastering Wood Planes.”  An acquaintance of mine let me try his out one day and it worked really well.  I was shocked at how easily it moved across the wood and took off a curly shaving – certainly none of my iron planes will do that. But to build a wood plane, you need a block plane that works well to begin with.  Mine is a Record low-angle that I bought new and which works poorly. I’ve tried doing end grain with it and gotten nowhere.

I had to conclude that it’s just time to tune it up.  I know that should be obvious – it’s everywhere on the net that you have to tune up planes even when they’re new (unless you pay a lot of money for the best ones) but I guess I’m just lazy.   My first task was to flatten the sole.  I drew some marks on the sole with a Sharpie and then started scooting it on a piece of 120 grit sandpaper stuck to a marble floor tile.  I was surprised to find that it was quite out of flat.  There was a hollow right behind the mouth.  Deep down inside, I had sort of thought that flatness was over rated but Mr. Finck says otherwise.  I kept going with finer grits of sandpaper and now the sole is flat and almost shiny. I waxed it up (Boeshield T-9 actually) and called that part done.  I’m actually surprised at the amount of metal dust generated.

I had recently sharpened the iron but figured it was a good time to touch that up so I did.

I then had a go at the wooden plane blank.  THUNK!  Nothing.  I tried this and that, up to and including, gripping differently, tinkering with the depth, pushing harder, pushing harder still until I heard something in my elbow go *POP*, angling the plane, holding my arm against my body and using only my legs, and I don’t know what all.  It never got any easier until I became exhausted.  I finally relaxed my death grip, focused on holding it steady and putting a little weight on the proper end depending on where I was on the work, and just pushing. I was thinking “just one more shaving and then I’ll go to bed.” Then it just started working; not necessarily easy but doable.  I started peeling little shavings off – not end grain but 45 degree grain.  I kept checking for flatness and squareness like Finck suggests and eventually got it right. 

I’m still not sure what happened; I was too tired to do any more and so went inside.  And of course, the plane blank was as it should be so no need to mess with it further but I need to go cut off another angled piece or get a piece with some end grain and try that again.  I need to capture that moment again and commit that to muscle memory.  My arm aches today but I may have stumbled onto “The Technique” at long last.  I didn’t think there was anything more to it than pushing hard.  It would seem that I am wrong.

What surprised me most in all of my hand-tool explorations is how much the little things matter.  I had assumed in the beginning that one simply sharpened an edge and then bashed away with a mallet until done.  Watching Roy Underhill with a drawknife or a morticing chisel would lead you to that conclusion.

Maybe I’ve crossed the threshold.

I finally completed the two sets of legs that hold up my workbench/desk that i put in Evan’s old room to do my electronics projects on. My goal was to design them myself and use only hand tools. Mission accomplished although I do not like my design. (looks kinda clunky).

I had to try several things to get and keep my tools sharp. I invested in a bench grinder and a diamond plate and when those proved insufficient, I bought a set of Arkansas stones and now I think I have a sharpening routine that will work for me.

The legs hold up the table which is pretty much all that matters so I will now move on. I have a long list of things; the hard thing will be to pick one.

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.