Big Yard Snake Finale

The last step in finishing the snake is to paint him. I decided on a good bright green for the main color, with a yellow underside, but before getting to the color, I wanted to prime him first, and I wanted to make sure I got well into the deep recesses. So, I untied the cord and removed all the pieces, 64 in all, including the head, and laid them out on my bench on top of some newsprint. ready for primer

It was a bit stunning to see all the individual pieces all spread out like that. Up until now, I’d always kept them ordered by stringing them on the rope, and now I was going to lose my numbers as well, so I was quite careful to line them up in sequence. Once they were all in place, I grabbed a can of spray primer, and the painting was underway!

primed and ready

After the primer had dried, it was time for the colors. I knew I wouldn’t get enough coverage if I tried to get deep into the recess with the green, and I really wasn’t worried about it since those areas would be mostly invisible in use anyway. That meant the next step was to put all the pieces back on the rope once again, minus the head, lay them out on the bench and start spraying. As it became clear that I was going through the paint faster than I had planned, I worried much more about the top side.

first coat I gave the green a full day to dry, then rolled the snake onto his back, and started applying some masking tape.

masking The low tack blue tape really didn’t want to stick to the surface very well, and kept coming loose.

loose tape I had to go back over the tape line repeatedly, pressing the tape down hard with my fingers at each segment, and adding extra layers of tape until at last I had the top part pretty well protected, with the tape coming down to the newsprint I used to lay him on.

masking finished Several coats of canary yellow later, the underside was done too, and the head, looking like a mummy, had a yellow chin as well.

body and head

I left him like that for a day or two while I pondered what else, if anything, I wanted to do to him. I didn’t want to buy any more paint so looking through my collection of old paint cans, I decided that a line of red and black dots running the length of the body might add a little bit of interest without getting too gaudy. I cut a few small lengths of dowel, and glued small 1/2” diameter leather pads, suede side out (I have lots of these, leftover from punching holes in leather for our bellows, and keep them to use as feet for small boxes, bumpers for doors, etc.) to the ends. I made up another stick using smaller felt buttons, and using them like a stamp, I did a row of alternating red and black dots along the top, using the larger pads, and two more rows along the sides using the smaller pads.
stamp paddots completed

I was very tempted to leave the snake there and call him done, but I finally decided to do a little more with the head, adding some sense of scales, and putting slit pupils on the eyes. (though I was surprised to find how many snakes have round pupils). I’m not exactly Rembrandt with a paintbrush, and the little brushes I had to work with weren’t exactly artist quality, but I used them to draw in some lines suggesting the appearance of scales on the head. I just painted them in freehand after looking at a drawing of a non-venomous snake head I saw on Google Images. The lines are a bit thicker than I wanted, and the drawing pretty crude, but I thought of it as stage makeup, a little exaggerated close up, but meant to be viewed from a distance.

painted headWith this last bit of paint, the snake is now complete! I took him out to the yard and staged a little photo shoot, posing him in various spots.

snake and treesnake and log

snake in the woodpilesnake on truck

It was a good learning experience. I think the wedge joints work pretty well, but they also point out a problem I’m going to have with future projects, namely, support. The snake drapes over things nicely, but can’t be positioned with any part of him vertical and stay that way. He has no musculature, and if I’m going to eventually make critters with spines that can stand and be posed, I’ll need to figure a way to provide the support that muscles would supply in real life.

I’m not sure what I’ll take on for the next project, but I think this problem of support needs to be addressed as part of it. For now though, I’m quite happy with my snake. I didn’t keep real careful account along the way, but I’d guess he has something between 15 and 20 hours of work in him, spread out over more than a month. My total out-of-pocket cost was around $15 for the primer and the green paint; the other paints were leftovers I had laying around. It was a fun project, and I plan to have him laying about the yard in various poses for some time to come.

I hope you have enjoyed seeing him take shape, and will check in and see whatever I end up making next. So take care, and thanks for reading.

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Big Yard Snake part 3

Not too long after I wrote the last piece in this series, I was working my way  through the steps described and hit upon a simple way to speed the process up a bit. I cut and drilled all of the wedges in the project, and then cannibalized the “V” block used for drilling into a small stand I could use to hold the pieces as I cut them on the bandsaw. That allowed me to use the inner walls of the wedge shapes as a reference surface to cut the outside faces at the angles needed to get that extra taper at the edge.

Cutting the extra taperI still sanded them on the disc a bit after cutting them, but overall it took much less time, gave me more consistent results (though I still judged all the angles by eye), and created much less fine dust. A win, any way you want to look at it, and it also took a lot of the tedium out of the work. It gave me such good results, I went back and fine tuned a few of the older ones I’d done the old way, and working on it an hour here, an hour there, when I had the time, I got the body of the snake strung together in about a week.

Coiled snakeDraped snake

It’s not perfect, but I must say I’m pretty pleased with it. I can coil it two full turns, and for the most part it curves fairly smoothly in both directions along its length. I wouldn’t mind if it had a wee bit more range of motion, but truly, as a proof-of-concept project, I think it succeeds very well. That means it’s time to turn my attention to the head.

For the body of the snake, I was able to get away with just hiding the large crack that runs the length of the log, by making it the snake’s belly. That’s not going to be possible with the head.Log showing splitI plan to have the head with an open mouth, and no matter how I orient the crack, it either looks lousy, or will be much too weak, or both. So, I just gave up dealing with it and split the head segment the rest of the way with a maul.Split log and maul It was a nice clean split, right through the middle, leaving me with almost identical halves. A couple of passes through the joiner, and I had two nice, flat surfaces to work with.

Flat surfacesAfter some time spent looking at snake heads on Google images, I roughed out the general shape I wanted on both halves and cut them out on the bandsaw.

Two head blanks Roughed out head

Then I glued the two pieces back together at the back end.

Glued-up head

I smoothed and rounded the head a bit on the disc sander, and then used two 1/2” button plugs for eyes.

Finished head

All that was left was to drill through the back of the head, thread the rope through, and attach the head to the body. I tied it off inside the mouth and cut the rope off as close to the knot as I could. At this point my snake is mechanically done! So I took him (I don’t know why I think of the snake as a “him” instead of a “her,” but I do) out into the front yard for a short photo shoot.

Unpainted snakeUnpainted snake

I have to say I am quite happy with the overall effect. He doesn’t have the flexibility of a real snake, but he is realistic enough for my satisfaction. I think I got the tapers about right, so he looks fairly snake-like in his proportions. I do need to taper the end of the last vertebrae just a bit so it matches with the head better, but other than that I think all he really needs is a bit of paint. That will be the subject of the next, and last, blog on the snake, coming up next. Hopefully very soon.

Thanks for following along this far. Take care.

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Big Yard Snake part 2

The next step in the construction of my snake is to round out the tapers I rather wildly cut on my bandsaw. Manipulating an 8-foot log while trying to take slices off the ends that weren’t clearly marked to begin with left me with some ugly and rather uneven cuts, but I’m not looking for perfection in this thing, and the ends aren’t that bad. So, I began by using a large bench chisel and a wooden mallet to round them out.chiseling wood

I worked my way “downhill,”chipping away until I finally had the ends mostly rounded and the tapers looking acceptable.end of logThis took a few hours and left me with a nice pile of chips which got collected for the woodstove. They are great fire starters.

 This still left the surface rougher than I wanted, even for a prototype, so I grabbed a small block plane and worked on smoothing the ends a bit more  until I had something a bit smoother and a surface that could be marked up more easily. block plane on endI had originally intended to use a sander to smooth it even further, but I was pleased well enough with how it looked after just planing.

 Remember the big crack that runs the length of the log? I decided that as long as I oriented my joints so that the split came on a “meaty” part of each segment, it would likely not be a big structural problem, and since, by nature of the joint, that means either the top or the bottom, if I make the split the belly of the snake it will be mostly out of sight.

 The individual segments are simple wedge shapes that will be produced by cutting down and towards the front from the top, and up and towards the front from the bottom, meeting at the center. So I need to mark a center-line along the length of this tapered log, apx 90 degrees from the crack. I did this with a crude scratch marker I made from some scraps with a nail as the marker.

marking gauge

 It did a rough but sufficient job, so I followed along with a red Sharpie to make the marks easier to see, and then stepped off 1 1/2” segments from the head to within about 6 inches of the tail. tic marks To mark the wedges, I used a drafting triangle to mark a series of 90 degree lines at each tic mark. marking the wedges

After numbering the segments so I could keep them in order, I cut along the lines to divide the log into more manageable pieces.log segments It was a pain in the butt trying to guide that 8 foot log through my bandsaw, trying to make two angled cuts intersect when I was often several feet from the blade, but I did manage to do it without breaking my blade, hurting myself, or doing any irreparable damage to the log. Still, I’d have to say this pretty much marks the size limit for that sort of approach.

 After dividing the log into smaller sections, it was not too tough to start cutting individual segments, though it could get tricky with the log segment wanting to roll on the flat bandsaw table. individual wedgesA 4” diameter is about as big around as I’d want to try without making some sort of sled or other device to keep it from rolling.

Keeping the segments lined up on my bench in order, the next step was to drill 5/16” holes for the 1/4” rope spinal cord that’s going to hold this all together. I don’t want the rope to have too much play, but I want it to be able to move a bit, and I also want to be able to string it easily. I made a quick and dirty “V” block to hold the segments while I drill the holes from back to front.drilling the hole Most of the time, the hole comes out pretty close to the center of the point, but since each wedge and the “V” block itself are all a little sloppy, and don’t always fit closely, I occasionally have to widen the hole a bit to make sure I can get the hole to exit through the point.

 After the segments are cut and drilled, they also need some additional shaping. If left as cut, they have a small amount of motion up and down because of the material removed by the saw blade, but virtually none side to side unless the joint pivots on the outside edge, and since my joint will be fixed at the center by a rope, that cannot happen. For the joint to pivot side to side about the center, I need to grind back the pointed edge, sloping it away from the center point (the rope hole), but keeping the tapered wedge shape. I do this on a 12” sanding disc with 120 grit paper on it. I judge the angles by eye, not bothering to mark them, but checking each segment against its counterpart to see if they can move some.checking the fit So the progression becomes: grab a log section, make all the angled cuts on one side, holding the log with the center-line facing straight up; cutting the wedgesflip it ’round, and one by one cut off the wedges by making the angled cuts on the other side, keeping the center-line up. When the wedges are all cut, drill all the holes, one segment at a time, taking care to see that the exit hole on the point of one segment matches with the entrance hole in its mate. Next, shape each segment slightly so that the edge tapers away from the center hole and also away from the top and bottom center-lines. Stack each section next to the previous one, keeping everything in order, and move on to the next section of log.

segments in order

After doing a couple dozen segments with many more to go, I figured I should string it together and see if the basic concept actually worked before I wasted any more hours on this. test sectiontest segmentSo far so good! I could probably stand to go back and tweak some of the segments, perhaps grind the edges back a smidge more to give me more range of motion, but for now it’ll do.

So that’s where I leave you today. Still much work to do, but I’m feeling better about the joints now that I’ve made a few of them and done at least a preliminary test of how they work. I also have a clear if somewhat tedious path ahead, that I think is going to get me pretty close to what I want. Time will tell.

See you next time.

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The Big Yard Snake

If you notice the dates on my previous posts, you can see that this blog business does not come naturally to me. After finishing the last one on the snowflake bellows (more on that in a future post), I just couldn’t seem to drag myself back to the keyboard to keep writing them. It’s hard to tell you why, I’m still not sure myself, but every time I tried to sit and write one, the words just wouldn’t come.

What has brought me back to try again is a project, or rather, a series of projects that are designed to eventually lead me to the main one. My wife wants a tyrannosaur. When we first moved here, I, only half joking, offhandedly remarked about how it might be fun to build a giant tyrannosaur skeleton as a yard ornament, maybe a triceratops too. She never forgot that and still mentions it now. So, while out cutting firewood this spring and seeing how many downed trees I had laying around, I figured that I might as well start thinking about this more seriously. I was originally thinking in life-sized terms, but as I grew to appreciate just how big that really was, and just how much would be involved, I scaled down my ambitions. I am keeping it at the “as big as practicable” stage for now.

So, what about the snake in the title? Well, in a word, practice. I want my eventual big critters to look passably plausible, nothing that would fool a paleontologist or a ten-year-old, but close enough most folks would recognize the beasts. I want them impressively large (keeping that as ambiguous as possible for now), inexpensive to build (free would be ideal), safe, durable, and if possible, posable in several different positions. Those are a lot of design elements to consider for a big project, especially if you have no real training or experience in that sort of design and construction.

One of the most intriguing of those design elements is the spine. If I’m going to make posable skeletons, then I need to make a posable spine, so why not start with a critter that is essentially all spine? In the case of the snake, I’m not interested in doing a passable skeleton; I’m not ready to make all those ribs just yet, but I do want a believable snake, that can be moved and shaped much like the real thing. I want to be able to coil it around a tree or have it draped over a rock.

The first step was in simply learning something about snakes. They have hundreds of vertebrae, and I’m not going to try and duplicate that. But it does mean that the more I can manage, the better the overall effect will be. The individual vertebrae are connected to each other by a restricted ball and socket joint which allows more motion in the horizontal plane, about 15 degrees or so, than in the vertical plane, only a few degrees. So I want to devise a simple joint that has similar qualities. What I decided upon for my first try was a wedge joint with a strong cord or cable running lengthwise through the center.

My initial effort will be to make the snake about 8 feet long, with a diameter at the thickest point of about 4 inches. This would be a respectably sized snake in real life, and hopefully will be large enough that whatever lessons I learn from making this one will scale up nicely to a larger one. I plan to have at least 50 individual pieces, all strung together on a nylon rope. Since I still won’t have nearly as many individual joints as the real thing, I’ll need to compromise a bit by increasing the range of motion on each joint, and also limiting the overall motion of the snake.

downed maple in the woodsThe wood for this will come from a small maple tree that fell last year. As you can see in the photo above, it was not touching the ground except at the ends. This kept it from rotting, so the first step was to cut a section out and haul it back to the house to work on it. I ended up bringing back two sections, just in case I ruin one of them right out of the gate. I’ll also have extra material for other possible projects.

logs in the yard w/chainsawThe segment I picked is a bit longer than I need, but I’ll trim it after I’ve removed the bark and gotten a better look at it. 10foot long maple logSince I don’t own a draw-knife, I used a hatchet to strip the bark, and most of it was loosely attached, coming off pretty cleanly.

log with stripped-away barkThere was a strip remaining that was still very tightly attached, and despite my hope that leaving it out in the sun for a few more days might help loosen it, I finally brought it inside to my worktable and removed the rest of it using the hatchet and a surform file.

log moved into the shopAfter removing the bark, I cut off a chunk of wood at the fat end for the head, and also trimmed off about a foot and a half of the smaller end which was showing some traces of rot. The next step was to use my bandsaw to slice off a couple of wedges at each end to taper them. The head end will taper down to about 2 inches while I plan to taper the tail down to about 1 inch.

log with wedges bandsawed awayAt this point I need to think a bit about how I’m going to deal with a large crack that runs most of the length of the log. This indicates that the log is fairly dry, but also presents a large defect that I have to deal with. As you can see in the photo below, the split is a deep one, penetrating all the way to the center for a large portion of its length. This is typical of a log when it dries, and shows the effects of wood movement I described in my second post. I think I can work my way around this problem, but if not, I may have to start over with another log.

log with large crackSo for now, that’s where the project stands. Once I’ve completed a few more steps along the way, I’ll write some more, and I invite you to follow along with me.

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Carving Snowflakes

I’d been looking for a simple theme for a group of chip carvings that I planned for use on bellows and possibly other items. Though I have always liked the rosette pattern on my current chip carved bellows, I wanted some fresh designs to work on, and snowflakes seemed like an ideal subject. Part of the appeal for me is the combination of tremendous variability within a very structured setting; also that the angular cuts made by the carving knife seem to naturally compliment a crystalline structure like a snowflake.

What I’m looking for, in part, in this exercise, is release from the need to come up with a subject. I find it is all too easy for me to get tangled up in a variety of ideas and end up in the “paralysis of analysis” trap. I’ve never tried to make a series of items based on the same theme before; I’m hoping that imposing the framework of the snowflakes on my design will be in some sense liberating, by freeing me from the trap of forever debating the merits of different subjects.

I don’t have a set number of these I plan to make or a set schedule for making them. I want to do at least a dozen and don’t want to spend much more than a year getting them done, but I’m not holding myself to a strict one-per-month schedule, and I’m not setting the final number in stone either. Most of that will be determined by how this experiment goes. My main aims are to sharpen my design and chip carving skills, and in the best of worlds, sell a few of them.

Like snowflakes themselves, each of these bellows will be unique. The process by which I make them assures that. Instead of drafting them in advance and using a master pattern, I compose each one on the bellows blank with a compass and straightedge. I actually do the rosettes this way, too, but with them, I at least look at a picture when I’m doing it and try to make a good copy. With the snowflakes I’m starting from scratch each time, knowing only that I am sticking with a six-sided, symmetrical figure.

Still, if there was ever an iconic symbol of the infinite possibilities that reside within a rigid framework, then the snowflake is it, so I can’t complain that the form is too restrictive to allow any imagination. My first two snowflake designs are somewhat timid in the sense that they are pretty “realistic” snowflakes (not that I have any idea if snow crystals such as these could ever really form) in that they are six sided, with six identical arms each made up mostly of six-sided segments. All the lines are straight, etc. I think I may stick with that style for a bit before possibly branching off into a more abstract style, but I’ll take that as it goes. I’m trying to cultivate a certain attitude of being an observer as much as the director of this undertaking.

Thankfully six-sided figures are easily laid out. If you draw a circle and (without changing the setting) walk the compass around the perimeter, it will neatly divide the circle into six segments for you. Drawing diameter lines through these points gives me a pie-shaped framework to start with, after which it is mostly a matter of laying out a single arm of the flake and then repeating it around the pattern. I tend to build them up one element at a time, adding a feature to all six arms, and seeing if I like the overall effect. Eventually, when I feel I’ve got a full design that looks pleasing to my eye, I stop and start carving next. I also tend to carve one part of the pattern all the way around, to see what it looks like in 3D, before finishing the rest of the design. I always do the large single flake on the front first, usually carving quite a bit of it before even starting to lay out the side with the air hole.

Chip carving is a pretty quiet and peaceful activity. In essence you keep doing the same thing over and over again, making cuts along the layout lines at the same consistent angle, and popping out nice neat triangular chips along the way. At least, that’s how it goes in the instruction books, and occasionally even in real life. Of course sometimes, when I’m cutting a little tiny chip out, it doesn’t take much of a slip to cut too far and take out part of the chip next to the one I wanted. This requires keeping track of the tiny chip I just cut out by accident and immediately gluing it back in where it belongs, assuming I didn’t lose it among all the many other tiny chips of wood all around, or send it flying with an ill-directed breath. Sometimes the wood tears or breaks, and sometimes the knife slips. I work carefully, try to keep the mistakes to a minimum, fix the ones I make the best I can, and eventually finish the pattern.

After that, I sand off all of the pencil lines used to lay the pattern out, and when both paddles of the bellows are sanded smooth and clean, they get several coats of orange shellac applied with a brush and a rag. Then the leather is added, and they’re done.

I don’t really know exactly what to expect from this. Certainly one tangible result would be working faster while making fewer mistakes, but I think I’ll be disappointed if that’s all that comes from it. Hopefully I can clear open some clogged creative arteries with this regimen as well. Time will tell, I guess.

I currently have the two bellows you see in this article, but I will continue to add the photos of new ones as they come along. Thanks for reading this far and let me know your thoughts.
Take care.

snowflake fireplace bellowsSnowflake fireplace bellows
snowflake fireplace bellowssnowflake fireplace bellows

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Pondering the Concept Of Handmade, Part 2

cradle joinery

In my last post I explored the question of just what people meant when they used the term “Handmade.” I tentatively reached the conclusion that there is a somewhat fuzzy line to be drawn from the perspective of the sophistication of the tools used.

I still cannot draw a firm line in any general way, but I want to be honest about my own habits, so that those of you who are interested in my work can have a basis for making your own judgment. I recently built a box, (two of them actually, but that’s another subject) that was constructed using dovetail joints. Dovetails are an old method of joining two pieces of wood, time-tested and reliable, and can be made by many different methods, making them a perfect place to search for that fuzzy line.

Doubtless, it’s a tough case to make that dovetails cut in seconds by computer controlled machine tools count as handmade. Conversely, there is little argument that when you lay out the joint with a pencil and straight edge, cut it with a handsaw and fit it with a chisel, it qualifies as handmade. So, I think we can agree that the line lies between these two.

What about using a handheld router, with a dovetail bit, and one of the many commercially available dovetail jigs? These are not exactly sophisticated tools. They do require careful set up, and in the less expensive ones, like mine, a lot of time-consuming trial and error adjustments as well. As a result, my dovetail jig collects a lot of dust. It just takes so long to set up and fine tune properly, that unless I have to crank out a ton of them, it’s less hassle to just make them “by hand.” As you can see by that last statement, I do not consider router-and-jig made dovetails to be handmade. (Not that they are inferior joints, mind you. Router-made dovetails are still a strong effective joint, but that’s not the subject.)

Now we’ve gotten a little closer to that line and it’s looking less like a laser beam now and more like a flashlight in the fog. So, let’s walk right up to it.

For the box(es) that started this post (as well as for many other small projects) I made the dovetails this way:

I began by using an angle gauge, ruler, pencil, and scribe to lay out the joint and then cut the tails themselves with a bandsaw. I use the bandsaw because it is faster, and I can cut as accurately with it as I can with a handsaw. The pins, that is the mating section of the joint, require cuts at an angle on the edge of the board, and, therefore, the quickest way to cut these are to clamp the board in a vice and use a handsaw. I have two saws to do this sort of work. One is a western-style dovetail saw made to cut on the push stroke, which is the one I used for years, and a newer, Japanese-style saw, that I have been using recently, that cuts on the pull stroke and makes a much thinner kerf.

I remove waste between tails and pins mostly by bandsaw, cleaning up with a chisel which is also used to trim and fit the joint. I think of these joints as handmade and present them as such, even though a bandsaw is hardly considered a hand tool. In my thinking, the bandsaw leaves just as much room for error as a handsaw and requires practice and a steady hand to make a clean cut. However, it is without doubt a power tool and definitely is faster than a handsaw.

I still have trouble with trying to define exactly where I draw that line between handmade and not handmade, at least in any general sense, so perhaps, at least for now, this piecemeal approach is best.

Thanks for reading, I’d love to read what you have to think on this or any of my posts.

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Pondering the Concept of Handmade, Part 1

What does handmade mean? At first sight it seems simple enough, Someone made it with their hands. Their hands and what else? The material, of course. Clay, for example, can be molded with just your hands, but in addition to the material itself you often have to include tools. Wood, the material I work most with, is pretty stubborn stuff to try and wrestle into submission with just your bare hands, though some builders of willow chairs and such come pretty close, so like most of my fellow travelers I have a variety of tools that I use to reshape wood and join it together in different ways.

Okay, I think most people will grant that “handmade” doesn’t require the complete absence of tools. In fact, many would contend it is, at least in part, our admiration of the skillful use of tools that many of us admire in handmade items. I can’t tell you how many times anyone who does any sort of craft demonstration will be told “I could never do that” by someone watching. I’ve said it myself while admiring someone’s deft handling of clay, or cloth, or glass. One of the things I enjoy about watching other folks who make things is seeing the specialized equipment they use and their mastery of it. I think we can agree the use of tools per se does not disqualify something from being handmade, but the type of tool matters very much to some.

In the woodworking world there are some who have sworn off the use of power tools. They plane the rough sawn wood flat with hand planes, they cut all the joinery with handsaws and chisels, use a brace and bit to drill, and turn parts on treadle-powered lathes. All surfaces are hand sanded or scraped, and the finish is applied by rag or brush.

There is some logic to this argument in that it is at least consistent and easy to follow. If you, the maker, provide all the power to the tool then it qualifies as handmade, simple, easy, straight forward. It’s also pretty exclusionary and more arbitrary then it might first appear. How far back in the process do you need to go? If it’s impermissible for someone to buy already milled stock and avoid the hand planing, then why not insist that every step along the way be done without power, all the way back to felling the tree with an axe and milling it on site with a broad axe and handsaw? If, on the other hand, buying milled wood is okay, then what’s the big deal with me buying rough sawn wood and using power tools to mill it myself ?

Another approach to the question is to break the process down to an individual. With very few exceptions, the things I sell on my site are made, beginning to end, by me and me alone. Patti does chip in with some occasional finishing chores and cutting leather and some other things, but basically it’s I who takes it from rough sawn wood at the lumberyard to whatever the final product is. That is unless I count the thousands of folks who work at the factory that makes the clock movements or the finish I use. But the most glaring issue is that it also disqualifies any collaboration from creating something “handmade.” I doubt many of us think that makes any sense.

Still, I think most of us see some sort of fundamental difference between a small group of artisans working in a “shop” making handmade items, and a factory churning out massive quantities, but again the line is harder to draw then it first seems. Is it the number of people? Does 10 make a shop and 100 make a factory? Is it the production methods? If it’s okay to use individual power tools, then are 500 people using identical tools to make thousands of identical parts that are assembled by still hundreds of others, still producing handmade goods? Why not? I don’t think factory and handmade are mutually exclusive by definition, but perhaps by method? We may be getting closer here. There does seem to be a difference between an assembly line operation, and having an equal number of workers who each take a product from beginning to end.

I think the answer may also have something to do with the level of sophistication of the tools you use. In this day and age most people have no problem with a woodworker representing his/her work as handmade despite using power tools such as a table saw, bandsaw, jointer, etc., all of which started out as industrial tools. On the other hand, I think very few people would agree with calling something handmade if all the parts were cut on a computer controlled milling machine. Does that then suggest that handmade implies the possibility of imperfection and error? Well, there may be something to that, but again the paradox of experience.

We have all seen handmade items that are poorly made sell because their obvious imperfections prove they were made by hand as well as knowing people who pay thousands of dollars extra for special handmade items because they claim the quality is much higher. In either case what I think is implied by “handmade” is some sort of personal connection between the maker and the piece. When power tools first hit the market big after WW2, a lot of serious woodworkers looked upon them all with some disdain, but they have become widely accepted with time, because the perception for many is that a person can use such tools and still preserve that connection. Will that happen to more sophisticated tools as well in time?

With the cost of computer controlled machines coming down every day, smaller versions of machines once seen only in large factories are now available for not much more than the cost of many other large shop machines, well within the reach of even some small one-person shops. Computer controlled carving machines are showing up in stores at prices serious hobbyists can afford, so we’re no longer talking industrial in the sense that it requires the financial resources of a major industry to buy the machine, and small businesses can now do work that was never within their reach before.

Are the items made by these folks handmade? Is it really clear? What if they use the machine to carve a panel, which they then build into a jewelry box that is otherwise made with traditional methods? Would you consider that box handmade if they had bought the carved panel from a factory but done the rest of it themselves? Do you think the idea of what is handmade will be the same in 50 years?

The line is harder to define the longer I look at it.  I plan to explore this topic again in future posts. I welcome your ideas on this or any other subject, and hope the holiday season was good to you.

Take care.

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Season’s Greetings from Roy and Patti

However you celebrate the winter holidays, we wish you the very best. If you’ve bought something from us, thank you for your business. If you’ve read our blog before, thank you for reading. If this is the first time you’ve visited our website, thank you for stopping by. Happy Holidays and high hopes for an excellent 2011!

And just for grins, here’s how it looks outside our back door today.

Green Mountains - Vermont

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And still it moves

Hello again, my topic today is wood movement.

I can practically see the puzzled looks through the screen. “What the heck are you talking about? The wooden things in my house don’t move unless I move them.” From a woodworker’s perspective, however, all the wood in your house is moving nearly all the time. When a woodworker like me refers to wood movement, what we’re actually talking about is the fact that wood is not dimensionally stable; that is, its dimensions change with humidity. This is all related to the cell structure of wood, and it can be a genuine pain to deal with in some instances.

A board will shrink and expand across its width, but its length will remain unchanged. This simple fact is the reason behind decisions about what sort of joint to use to attach things together, as well as for design elements like raised panels and breadboard ends on tables. As I mentioned above this change is a response to the humidity of the surrounding air; I’ve even seen a homebrew hygrometer made by using a stack of cross grained pieces of wood attached to a pointer with a scale. Since this effect is rarely perfectly uniform throughout a board, it is also responsible for most warping and twisting. The effect is strong as well. Attempting to keep the wood locked in place by attaching it to something that is rock solid will end up with the board splitting or destroying the glue joint that’s trying to hold it.

One of the first ways woodworkers deal with this sometimes annoying trait of wood is by the initial design. Let’s consider a door. The simplest way to make a solid wood door would be to either find a slab of wood wide enough to be cut into a door, or to glue up a few narrower boards to get the desired width. If you did this and hung the door to fit well during the dry winter months, chances are that by the middle of August the door would be so swollen it might not even close. Depending on the type of wood (because as with all natural products the species used makes a difference), a typical solid door could expand or contract by a ¼ inch, or even more, as the humidity changes during the year.

One time honored way of solving this problem, often used on large pieces of furniture as well, is the panel and frame, which uses a structure made up of relatively narrow frame pieces surrounding large panels. The trick is that instead of being glued into grooves in the frame members, the panels are actually just set in place. The only glue is used where the frame members attach to each other. When the humidity goes up and the panel tries to expand, then the edges of the panel simply drive a little deeper into the grooves in the frames and when it gets drier, the edges slide back out a bit. This prevents the door from twisting and warping, and also greatly reduces the overall change of the door’s size to something that can be lived with.

The most common way of dealing with this movement problem in doors these days is to make the door out of plywood. Plywood is composed of thin layers of wood, or veneers, which are oriented with their grain running in perpendicular directions to each other and then glued together under great pressure. The two outside layers or “face” veneers will have their grain running along the length of the plywood sheet, then ones just under them will have their grain running across the width. In a  typical 5 layer ply, the center layer would match the two face veneers.  Each veneer layer is too thin to generate the force needed to destroy the glue joints between the layers so the opposite grain construction results in a large flat panel which is dimensionally stable. Apart from the ones I have made, every wooden door in our house, and I suspect for most of my readers as well, is a plywood panel door.

Another way of taming the beast is with the final finish. Since the problem is caused by the wood absorbing and releasing moisture depending on the humidity, then it follows that by restricting the ability of the wood to do this, the expansion and contraction will be decreased. Water-impermeable finishes such as polyurethane and lacquers, in addition to protecting wood from spills, are also used in part to at least slow down the transfer of moisture between the wood and air. Though few finishes seem to completely eliminate the problem, as some moisture always seems to get through eventually, such finishes can at least mitigate the effect, but generally not enough to compensate for a poor design.

The way a board is cut from the log can also affect its potential for movement. Quarter-sawn wood is inherently more resistant to motion than flat-sawn wood for example, and as I pointed out earlier, different species of wood have different amounts of motion, but it is an aspect of wood that has to be taken into account on any sizeable project.

So, when you hear someone talk about wood “breathing”, they are not entirely off base, and as it breathes, so also does it move.

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Blog #1

Welcome to my brand new blog. I’m Roy Gibson, the owner and principle labor force for Laughing Coyote Woodworks, the site where I sell my work.

Though this blog is part and parcel of our business and its purpose is in part, to help generate interest in our site, I do not intend to write a series of thinly veiled sales pitches. I may often use one of our items as a starting point, but I hope to cover a wide range of topics that all fall under the very large heading of woodworking and hopefully pass along some of the fascination and interest I feel.

I have been working wood in some way or other for as long as I can remember. My father had a basement shop that he used to build many of the things in our house, from my sisters’ bunk bed and desks to the grandfather clock in our dining room. I was down there watching and helping with simple tasks from my childhood and as I grew I learned more. I’m now in my mid fifties and still own some of the tools I inherited from my father, tools I literally grew up with.

I’ll attempt with future posts to share with you some of the things I’ve learned about the technical aspects of woodworking like joinery and finishing, about the wood itself in its many varieties and how trees become lumber, and on the infinite variety of things we use it for. I don’t have much of a plan yet, a few ideas, some topics I’m interested in exploring, but I expect the blog will develop a “personality” of its own in time. I’ll do my best not to bore you to tears.

Since I’ve spent so much space on the introduction, I‘ll make my first topic a short one and go over some wood terminology that can be confusing.

Perhaps the biggest confusion regards the difference between hardwoods and softwoods. The confusion results from the fact that a wood’s actual hardness has nothing to do with its classification. Though it is generally true that woods classified as hardwoods are harder than those called softwoods, the distinction is made based on the type of tree, with softwoods coming from conifers, and the hardwoods coming from angiosperms, which here in the mainland US are usually deciduous trees. Balsawood, the ubiquitous craft material that you can cut with a box knife is a hardwood, as is the similar sounding basswood, which you have probably encountered in the form of wooden matches, while Yew, being an evergreen, is classified as a softwood, though it is hard enough and strong enough to be a favored wood for making the famous English long bow.

Another area of confusion is in the way wood is sold. Dimensional lumber, such as you can buy at home building centers in the US, is particularly notorious for this since a “2 by 4” is actually a 1 ½ by 3 ½, and a “1 by 12” is actually ¾ by 11 ¼. The nominal or named dimension originally came from the rough sawn dimensions, not the finished dimension that you see stacked up at the building supply store. Even worse, the standard dimensions have changed over time. A “2 by 4” used to be 1 5/8 by 3 5/8 and a sheet of ¾ inch plywood did in fact used to be exactly ¾’ thick, but has now been downsized to 23/32.

With hardwoods it is even more confusing. Hardwood thickness is listed in “quarters” or ¼ inch increments starting with “4 quarter” for a nominal 1 inch thickness, “8 quarter” for 2 inch and so on. Hardwoods that have been surfaced and sold as “4 quarter” are actually 13/16” thick. So, not only is a dimensioned piece of wood sold as being 1” thick not a full inch, its actual thickness will depend on whether you are buying a hardwood or softwood construction lumber. In addition, since most hardwoods are sold in random widths and lengths, the price will be for a “board foot” of wood which is, in essence, a measure of volume. A board foot is a piece of wood exactly one foot on each side and one inch thick, a board 2 inches thick, 6 inches wide and 1 foot long also contains exactly 1 board foot of wood.

Now that I’ve completely confused you, I hope you will join me for my further musings on my trade, and of course I hope you’ll visit our website, maintained by my wife Patti, and take a look at our offerings.

Good day to you. Happy Thanksgiving.


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