I had an early morning appointment at the dealership as the front passenger window in Nancy’s van was misbehaving. Settling in with passable coffee, I had written my morning pages and was working on the design of a miter saw station for my new shop when the service tech approached with the news. Nancy’s window had “lost its memory.”
“It happens to us all sooner or later,” I replied, getting a slightly less business-like smile in return.
My mind reeled off in several directions: How does one test a window for memory loss? (“What year is this?” “Who is president?” “What is the date of your birth?”) My diagnostic skills are still stuck in the era when I could set the timing on my 1969 Fiat Spyder with a screwdriver and a continuity tester. And How does the computing power of a 2016 Odyssey compare with that of Alan Shepard’s Mercury capsule?
In stark contrast with my own memory, that of Nancy’s window can be “refreshed.” In less than an hour, we (the car and me) were off, happily under warranty.
Last week, we finally got all our possessions out of Old House, after managing to stretch the process out for four months. As the deadline approached, and I grew increasingly concerned that it would never end, I was tempted to run up the street and warn all the neighbors, “Run! Run from all your possessions while you still can!” Just when we would think we were making headway, we would open another closet and find half a pickup load of sleeping bags, tents, and other camping stuff that our son assures us he wants and will use. Or we’d pull out of the attic several boxes of bank statements and other detritus of a business we closed almost two decades ago.
We have had several luxuries with this move. We moved just two miles. We had time to be deliberate. And we were not forced by downsizing into unloading a lot of things we were not yet ready to part with. An uncle had the opposite experience. They had decided to give up their mini-farm and move into a condo, in another state. The farm sold instantly and they had just 30 days to vacate, without a place to move to. He still wishes he’d held onto more of his tools.
Installing the handles and knobs on our new cabinet doors and drawers was an adventure. If you go into your local hardware or big box store, you will find handles whose screw spacing is a standard 3 or 4 inches. Somehow, we ended up with “none of the above.” I was struggling to measure the spacing in preparation for making a template, and finding nothing that made sense in either inches or millimeters. Fortunately, I married a practical artist. Nancy’s solution was to forego the tape measure and directly copy the hole pattern. She transferred the pattern to a piece of removable tape, rubbing the back of the handle with a graphite stick, then pressing the tape onto the back. When pulled away, the tape held the graphite, clearly showing a full scale image of the back of the handle. Then the tape was placed onto the wooden template form, and the holes drilled with the drill press.
That’s not the first time I have had to abandon my “measure and math” approach for Nancy’s “copy the pattern.” Nor the first time removable tape has come to the rescue. My father used to say, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” It’s a colloquialism whose origins I do not care to know, but I understand the point.
I was in my shop the other day, sorting through screwdrivers and drill bits, when Canadian singer-songwriter, Fred Eaglesmith, came to mind. In one of his opening monologs, he describes a bored man, home alone while the rest of the family is out, who resorts to visiting his shop to do a “finishing nail inventory [and] check out the three-quarter inch screws, …”
I am not abandoned or bored. Rather, a combination of desperation, motivation, and inspiration drove me to an afternoon sorting drill bits.
For a long while, I must confess, I have been in a state of paralysis about the overcrowded and disorganized state of my shop, not knowing where to begin, and thus, doing nothing. Two breakthroughs have enabled me to start tackling the problem. First, Nancy helped me realize that clustering some powered tools in the center, in and around a multi-use table I will build, rather than spreading them around the perimeter, would make better use of my space. That gave me a new direction for imagining a workable layout.
Second, I sold my radial arm saw and have not yet brought its replacement miter saw into the shop. Remember those puzzles with eight sliding tiles arranged in a 3 by 3 pattern with one empty space? To arrange the tiles in order requires many successive moves; an adjacent tile is slid into the empty space, opening another empty space and another opportunity to move a tile.Now imagine that puzzle with all spaces filled. Gridlock. The empty space means opportunity. My shop with the radial arm saw was like a faulty puzzle with no empty spaces; without that saw, I have opportunity.
Having begun to address the overcrowding, I face the bigger problem of disorganization. Why do I have four #2 Phillips screwdrivers within arms’ reach of my workbench (not to mention a couple of #1s and three identical #00s), but frequently have to walk across the shop and behind my table saw to get a chisel or a hammer? Why do I have two nearly complete and rarely used sets of drill bits for a quarter-inch-hex-drive cluttering a toolbox in addition to the two sets I use—one at my workbench and the other in my traveling drill-driver bag? As I rearrange the large pieces, I have the chance to correct some of my sloppy placement of the smaller items.
As if to reinforce my newfound resolve to be deliberate about where I store my tools, a few days ago, I happened onto The Toolbox Book: A Craftsmans’ Guide to Tool Chests, Cabinets and Storage Systems, by Jim Tolpin. Filled with photos of beautifully-crafted wooden cases that woodworkers designed built to protect and organize the tools of their livelihoods, it inspires me to do more than bang a few nails into the wall when I re-organize my shop. My tools, too, deserve better. A place for everything and everything in its place.
Hence, the screwdriver and drill bit inventory. I am assessing just which tools I reach for most often and then designing a layout which places them in arms’ reach of my new workbench location. Redundant screwdrivers, drill bits, wrenches, and odd parts long separated from their original purpose are being sent to what Nancy calls “purgatory.” (Think both soft “g” and hard “g”—“purge” and “not-quite-hell.”) Some will go immediately to my sons who are building their own tool collections. Others will remain in “purgatory” for a while until I can assess whether I miss them, then be consigned to alternative second lives or trash/recycling.
I took a side trip on the way home from visiting my mother. My mission—deliver some vintage Macintosh computers to a collector who is buying them from my father-in-law. While I was enroute, Nancy called me with the news that The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was playing tonight at the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts in Franklin, NC, very near my destination. I’m stunned—a beautiful 1500-seat venue in Franklin, NC! Stunned—the Dirt Band in Franklin, NC! Stunned—the Band is 50 years old this year and still together!
The Performing Arts Center turns out to be a one-stop-shop for me. I park in the lot two hours before showtime, buy my ticket, eat at an adjacent restaurant, book a room at an adjacent hotel, and still have an hour to kill. I pass up the $25 “50 Years of Dirt” t-shirt.
It’s a full house. Almost all of us looking … well, looking 50 years older. We are treated to two non-stop hours of excellent showmanship.
My mother is in a nursing home, and we sold her house early last year. Later in the year, my in-laws decided to give up their large house and move to an apartment. So I have witnessed serious downsizing up close. Beside those experiences, purging my shop is nothing. I am letting go of a few extra tools and wood scraps; our parents are letting go, not only of stuff collected over a lifetime, but also activities that once, in part, defined them.
Nancy took on the task of bringing order to her parents’ new apartment. If my shop was a gridlocked 3 by 3 puzzle, that apartment, once the movers had done their work, was a gridlocked 33 by 33. To create the one empty space and begin to make progress, Nancy filled her mini-van and our spare room. Then she and her friend, Cathy, worked magic. Slowly, slowly. Yet another source of inspiration.
I have just begun my shop makeover, and I expect it to take a while. For one thing, I am still visualizing and will take it in stages. Also, I continue to use it during the makeover. I am in the middle of the first of two major projects I had confidently promised “before Christmas.” (Well, I did not specify a year!) This one involves curves, lots of curves. (See my earlier post, Not Afraid of Curves.) Six identical Trinity knots or triquetrae. (The singular is triquetra.) The project has included my first experience with a scroll saw, more use of a router than I have done in the previous decade, and painful re-learning of many pitfalls along the way. It has been two weeks of false starts, self-doubt, re-grouping and starting over.
The second of the promised-before-Christmas projects is the re-build of the frame for Nancy’s xylophone. She continues to haul it to practices and concerts, and the existing frame is shaky. I cannot put this off much longer. And then there is the new fixture I have to build that will make the re-configured shop work—a combination outfeed table and miter saw base and (maybe) router table with built-in power wiring and dust control ducting. Both projects need much conceptual work and detailed planning before I begin to cut wood.
Finally, there are the “honey-do’s.” Would you cut this shelf? Drill a hole here? Fix this lamp? It could be a long time before I get to that finishing nail inventory. But I’ll not be bored.
I mentioned that there were no personal injuries resulting from The Big Dig (see Fellowship). But there was one casualty—my reciprocating saw. The shaft that drives the blade snapped. I have had this saw for ten years or so, and while I haven’t put a large number of hours on it, those hours were hard, root cutting ones. For a near-bottom-of-the-line homeowner special, it has served me well.
Repair or replace? I find a parts list and diagram online, set out to tear it down, and hit a conundrum. All the screws I need to access are underneath the rubber boot that encloses the lower end of the saw, and to remove the boot requires getting to those same screws. In other words, to remove the boot, I first need to remove the boot.
I have been a critic of much industrial design. All too often, I pick up a consumer product, try to use it, and conclude that the designers did not take the obvious step of trying to use their own product. How else could we end up with garden carts that tip while being loaded, and whose undercarriages bang ankles unless the user limits his/her movement to all but the most mincing steps? Or vacuum cleaners whose accessories will not stay on their designated mounts? Children’s toys that do not work? What is the excuse for dishwashers that claim to hold a service for twelve, but have no place for cereal bowls, serving dishes, or leftovers containers? No one I know serves dinners for twelve; everyone I know has leftovers. Who are these dishwashers designed for?
Consequently, when I find a well-designed product, I want to sing its praises. In a drawer of my writing desk are three such products: one of the early click-wheel iPods (Apple); a remote control for a laptop computer (Apple); and a 1972-vintage HP-35, “the world’s first scientific pocket calculator” (Hewlett-Packard). My HP-35 still works off the charger, though the battery pack is long defunct. I don’t have much need for trig functions or exponentials these days, and if I did, would likely turn to my computer before digging the HP out of the drawer. But because I am still a fan of Reverse Polish Notation, and because this calculator brings back fond memories of my first professional job, I keep it. How many devices do you have from 1972 that still work?
My iPod no longer works—hard drive failure. I keep it in part for nostalgia but mostly because it is still a beautiful instrument. The click-wheel was a clever interface whose misfortune was to have been quickly overtaken by an even better technology, the touch-screen. And the case, with its curved corners and edges, begs to be held.
I am frankly baffled by the concept of a remote control for a laptop. I never used mine. But the device is a visual delight and an engineering masterpiece. The case is a single bar of aluminum. No screws, no seams. “How did they put it together?” I wondered. The answer is that all the internals are inserted through the battery door. The same could be asked of the iPod: “How did they put it together?” In that instance, a flawlessly executed friction fit.
Which brings me back to my broken saw. How did they put it together? Amazingly, I have been unable to find a YouTube video or other answer to that question. Our best guess is that it involves heating and stretching the rubber boot, which is what Nancy and I did to get inside. She had to start with a palette knife, to make a place to insert a screwdriver blade and begin pulling the rubber back. Then gripping with pliers and turning the boot inside out as I held onto the saw body, we pulled. Hard tugging and pulling, the kind of effort that prompts you to check behind you for a soft place to fall if it gives suddenly. Tugging and pulling punctuated by our laughter at the absurdity. Uncovering the first pair of screws, we recheck the diagram. Two more pairs of screws to go! By the time we are through, the boot is a tangled mess, but has not torn.
The three visibly damaged parts would cost half of the price of a replacement saw. Is something else on the verge of failure? Would we be able to re-stretch the boot back into place? I have decided to replace, not repair. But the whole exercise of dismantling that tool has given me a respect for its designers. In its clean lines, its performance, its ergonomic feel, and its mysteriously hidden methods of assembly, it reminds me of the aforementioned Apple products. Even on the inside, where few would ever see, the components are cleanly designed and executed. No rough edges. The rotor and the frame for the stator windings are minor works of art. Well done, Ryobi!
Post Script—Friends Mike and Roni recently introduced me to the writings of humorist Michael Perry, and I was reading his book, Truck, during the above events. In a nice bit of synchronicity, while I was thinking about design, good and bad, Perry’s book introduced me to industrial designer Raymond Loewy. Check him out. Check out Perry too. Celebrate good design and good writing.
When we married and bought the home we still live in, we acquired a “master bath” the size of a closet. Nancy was a self-employed graphic designer and avocational artist, with limited office and no studio. I was a sometime woodworker in need of a shop. In short, we immediately began planning an addition to the house. The studio and shop were relatively easy. But the master suite was a design headache. We wanted to take advantage of the second story view into our woods. But moving the sleeping area into the new space left bath, closet, and dressing areas in the old space. And we could not find a configuration that worked. Proportions were wrong; traffic patterns were unwieldy.
The house had plenty of lesser needs, so we tackled those while continuing to chew on the design problem. We mentally “let it simmer.” (Or stew. Or soak.) It took a year to work through the smaller needs—and for the solution to our design dilemma to emerge. From our second story, privacy is not an issue, so the solution was to leave the sleeping area in the interior, put the bath/closet/dressing area in the exterior (new) space, and let the view in through large windows. A master bath with a picture window.
Our house also had a side porch off the living/dining area, with a large deck behind the porch. Again, the configuration did not work for us. We tried and tried to think of a way to sit outside in comfort and convenience, but the back drops off quickly and getting to any outdoor space involved excessive movement in both horizontal and vertical directions. We could not come up with a design that worked. So again, we put action on hold and let the need simmer.
Years later, as Nancy’s ornamental garden was taking shape, the solution to our outdoor room dilemma came clear. Our outdoor room should be in the front, not the back. The front yard is level and on practically the same elevation as our main interior living space. Our street is a quiet cul-de-sac so traffic noise is not an issue. The large black cherry overhead and the berm we had built halfway to the street provide a sense of enclosure and just the right amount of privacy. We both grew up in a back yard era and ours is not a front porch neighborhood. But the front is definitely the direction that works for our house. Our front yard patio is convenient, frequently-used, and a visual delight from inside or out.
This “strategy” of letting a problem simmer seems to involve more than just the element of time. Time is certainly a factor: If we have the luxury of time, we can search more widely, think more deeply, explore more options. But I think “letting it simmer” is more importantly an act of faith in which we do not accept second best. Instead we wait patiently for the right solution to emerge. In large ways and small, when I have had the luxury of time, and the patience and faith to wait, I have been richly blessed.