Tag Archives: tools

The Long and Winding Lint Road

Our dryer failed. The one my parents gave us as a wedding present. Almost 27 years ago. They just don’t make ‘em like they used to!

I had opened the dryer to check on a load of towels, and found them stone cold and as wet as when removed from the washer. Tried different heat settings. Nope. No heat. Oh well, I didn’t really want a drill press. Deep in my heart of hearts, I was really wanting a new dryer.

Our dryer had been getting less and less effective, even when it had a working heating element. Two-and-a-half hours to dry a load of towels. I kept wondering whether the exhaust duct was filled with lint, but when I held my hand at the end, the flow seemed strong. Shows how little I know.

When we added on to our house a quarter-century ago, dryer efficiency was not high on our priority list, and we ended up with a long and twisting mess of a duct run. Half was flexible tubing draped around the backs of some cabinets; the other half, rigid metal zig-zagging inaccessibly through the HVAC chase. So actually checking on the extent of our dryer lint buildup seemed a can of worms I’d rather not open. But, with a dead dryer,  we’d be opening one end anyway. I did some research. Did you know that dryer lint is a major cause of house fires? Did you know they have these handy kits at your local hardware store for cleaning out the insides of your dryer ducts?

So we took the plunge. Actually, Nancy did the hard part. While I was napping (what are Sunday afternoons for?), she pulled the washer and dryer away from the wall, stripped out all the accessible flexible ducting, and cleaned the floor under the machines. And the walls. And the pipes and hoses and other nooks and crannies. Amazing how much dust and lint and unmentionable mess can accumulate behind and under an appliance.

I then did the cool stuff, chucking the brush from our new duct cleaning kit into my drill and spinning it through the inaccessible part of the run.

Worked like a charm, even going through two right angle bends. We reamed out an embarrassing quantity of dryer lint, gave thanks that our house still stands, and then faced how to replace the flexible stuff (and associated dips and turns) with smooth rigid metal ducting.

The latter took an additional half day: sawing out the backs of a couple of cabinets and connecting the shiny new duct sections. That oscillating saw I bought a year ago earned its keep.

The real stress, however, was buying the replacement appliances. Yes, appliances, plural. The washer was nearly as old as the dryer and had been requiring more and more vinegar to keep the musty odor in check. Fortunately, the dryer died during the Memorial Day sales. (Or are appliances like some other markets in which there is always a sale going on?)

How should we choose among the many brands and models and features? Do glass lids and sculpted sheet metal really add value? How many sensors and settings do we need? What is really useful and what is hype? Wifi capability? You’re kidding, right?

No wifi. I don’t want a close and personal relationship with my dryer. And I don’t want to give the cyber-sleaze additional portals into my life.

We ended up with an unmatched pair—a relatively unadorned dryer that looks like appliances used to look, and a glass-lidded, sculpted metal washer whose irresistible siren call was its huge tub size and its deeply-discounted closeout pricing. No more jamming oversized comforters into the washer; this baby could wash a car cover. We can barely reach the bottom.  A short person would need a step stool to empty it.

An expensive experience for sure! But some good came of it. We resolved a safety hazard. And we have this nifty duct cleaning kit. I’ll let you use it in exchange for, say, a half-hour of garden weeding? A cup of coffee and a Donut Palace apple fritter? The use of your drill press? Or just a few minutes of good conversation.

P.S. In the under-dryer detritus, Nancy found her wedding ring—the spare one, bought during her pregnancy. Our son had borrowed and lost it back in his middle school years. No wonder we couldn’t find it when we ran a metal detector over neighborhood yards!

 

 

Adventures in Shop-ing

Part I—Inspiration

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.

Part II—Interlude

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.

Part III—Perspiration

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.

Triquetrae

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.

Nancy’s xylophone

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.

Of Chaos and Spring

Was it Luther? Somewhere I read something to the effect that he prayed for an hour each day, except on days he was especially busy—then he prayed for two hours. In that vein, perhaps I can justify taking some time to write.

My life is chaos. It is largely my own fault, and nothing that deserves your great sympathy. My desk is chaos, because of my own habits of procrastination and sloth. My shop is chaos, because (in addition to the aforementioned procrastination and sloth) in the midst of my latest project, my table saw’s blade raising and lowering mechanism failed, and I now have saw parts and tools layered over that project on the workbench and underfoot all over the floor. Our house is chaos because in selling the houses of my mother and Nancy’s parents, we have ended up with more stuff than anyone could possibly use. My “To Do” list is chaos because I have made commitments that I should have not made.

On second thought, as I look at the list, I do not regret any of the voluntary commitments. It is, for the most part, an exciting and life-affirming list. The To-Do’s I dread are involuntary, chief among them being the annual income tax flagellation.

The table saw has been a major setback. After scanning the on-line forums and evaluating my choices, I opted for an epoxy called J-B Weld. I knew that if I screwed up, there’d be hell to pay, but I was careful and as thorough as I knew to be. After applying the epoxy, I tested that the parts that needed to slide against each other would still slide, then laid everything aside for the epoxy to cure overnight. Alas! This morning when I tried to re-assemble, I couldn’t even jam the parts together, much less expect them to slide freely. Does J-B Weld expand on curing? Everything looks just as I had left it last evening, but I have lost a critical few thousandths of an inch in clearance. I will have to remove that from the polished aluminum casting with an abrasive. More delay in getting back to my projects. More tasks I have never done before and must learn on the fly. More opportunity to screw up and ruin what was a pretty good saw.

I need an attitude adjustment. Writing helps. Sitting here helps—sitting in a comfortable chair, watching my dog watching the life just outside our dining room window. Earlier this morning, that life included a flock of goldfinches splashing in the pond. Two days ago, the pond hosted a frenzied flock of robins (and a lone mourning dove) taking a post-winter bath. Bluebirds are nesting in the bluebird house. The upland chorus frogs are looking for love again—they’ve been sounding off for the past two nights. Spring is coming.

In Praise of Good Design

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?

HP-35, Remote, and iPod
HP-35, Remote, and iPod

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.

Back of Remote with Battery Door
Back of Remote with Battery Door

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.

Saw Rotor and Stator
Saw Rotor and Stator

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.

Tools

Once upon a time, I was picking up a washing machine for the local agency that passes used furniture on to those in need. For some reason, my partner and I drove separately—two guys in two trucks, but not a tool between us. The apartment-dwelling donor was also tool-less. We could not get the water hoses off barehanded and spent much of an hour chasing down a pair of pliers to do the job. I am determined that will not happen again. All our vehicles have at least a rudimentary tool kit.

I tend to do odd jobs wherever I go: parents, church, work (before I retired). As time goes on, my in-truck tool bag gets heavier and more eclectic. Besides the usual screwdrivers and pliers and wrenches, I have work gloves and disposable latex gloves. Electrical tape. Teflon plumbing tape. A circuit tester. A torpedo level. A line level and masons’ nylon string. A 50’ measuring tape. Heavy duty scissors. Eyeglass screwdrivers. Ear plugs. Disposable dust masks. Garden shears. Stakes for marking and laying out. These days there is barely room for the groceries behind the seats of my little extended cab pickup.

When I began woodworking, I had never used a power tool except a drill. A circular saw was a frightening thing to me. So, being scared, cheap, and contrarian, I decided that my new hobby would be hand tools only.

During this hand-tools-only phase, I ripped two-inch rock maple with a panel saw, smoothed a glued-up table top with plane and cabinet scraper, cut blind mitered finger joints with back saw and chisel. I no longer have the patience for such tasks, and long ago overcame my queasiness about power tools. But those formative experiences leave me awed when I consider the stamina and skill of the lumberjacks and pit sawyers and cabinet makers of our pre-industrial past. Power tools make it all too easy to forget.

Using hand tools is one way to learn humility. In an earlier post, I mentioned that the seemingly healthy pines in my woods tend to fall over. But we had one that died standing. It had always had a significant lean and, a number of years after its death-by-pine-bark-beetle, was looking half-rotted and hazardous. For safety, I decided to drop it. Being one of the few people in Tennessee who does not own a chain saw, and at the same time being the proud possessor of my grandfather’s two-man crosscut, I gathered my number two son and the old crosscut, and we laid into that “rotted” trunk.  Inside, we found a hard, seasoned core. It nearly defeated us.

In addition to my grandfather’s saw, I have acquired a few other antique hand tools. Most are still usable, and my hardware-loving wife allows them to be displayed in the house. Three wooden-bodied planes I found at a flea market are in pretty rough shape, yet I have been able to make shavings with two of them. The left-handed half-hatchet my brother found for me feels custom made for my hand. The balance scale my other grandfather used for weighing cotton bales would be usable, if I had a beam to hang it from and something heavy to weigh. My draw knife reminds me of the one my father taught me to use as we stripped the bark off some pine poles to make a ladder.

Don’t get me wrong. I have grown to love power tools. My table saw and cordless drill/driver seem nearly indispensable now, and there is a Tim-the-Toolman moment each time I get a chance to use the hammer drill or reciprocating saw. I’d like a drill press, and Nancy dreams of a band saw, although we’d have to acquire a larger shop first.

However, I have discovered that more and bigger tools are not always the answer. Over the winter, we had to have some trenches cut through my in-laws’ yard. I scattered some annual rye grass seed and some straw, waiting for the backfill to settle. Now it is time to re-level the yard and get some permanent grass growing. So earlier this week, I rented a small tracked machine, the kind that you stand on the back of and pretend to be a heavy equipment operator. I imagined using it like a dozer, remembering how loose the soil was when the trencher got through with it. Silly me. It turns out my in-laws’ yard is made of brick-in-training, which did more than “settle.” “Set up” is, I think, a closer description. Fortunately, we haven’t yet been through the kiln of August.

The solution? A tiller. What the one-ton machine couldn’t do, the 50-pound tiller could. Set the spike and let it chew. Reset and repeat.

Even my beloved drill/driver is sometimes more than enough. After too many trips to retrieve it from the shop, just to make a hole for a cup hook, I have been lusting for a set of gimlets to keep in the house. Just what I need—more tools.

Advent, So Far

We are a third of the way through December and halfway through Advent, and the fall leaf show keeps on coming. On this morning’s walk with Mona, I saw two different Japanese maples, only half denuded; their fallen drapery carpeting the ground underneath with the same scarlet as that remaining on their limbs. Farther down the street, bright yellow adorned a tree I cannot identify. Nor could the lady of the house, out retrieving her morning paper.

Apparently, we are not very social; the holiday busyness others brag/complain of has never afflicted us in past years. This year, however, is an exception, due mostly to music groups that Nancy has joined. Her community band is busy giving concerts in nursing homes, and another group performed two sing-along presentations of “The Messiah” this past weekend. Our Sunday morning ensemble also has new music to learn.

Nancy’s now the proud owner of full-sized concert bells, a beautiful instrument weighing nearly 40 pounds, which is lugged back and forth between home and church or home and band three or more times a week. Adding in the bass drum she also uses in the band, inventing schemes for transporting musical instruments has become a major part of our lives.

As to Christmas decoration, we traditionally tend toward the church calendar more than the secular one. That is, the decorations do not go up on Thanksgiving to be taken down on the 26th. Rather, we wait until closer to Christmas, and leave them up until Epiphany. The big star is the exception. We like to get it up early in Advent. This year, like our holiday busyness, our decorating schedule is topsy-turvy. Nancy was in the attic shortly after Thanksgiving, and dragged out the Christmas stuff while she was at the other task. So the tree, the lighted wreath adorning our dining room picture window (two-sided, so attractive from indoors or out), and the twinkle lights above the door went up early. But rainy weather prevented hanging the star, which still sits on the porch. I willingly procrastinate on that task; I hate ladders.

That star is a convex sheet metal construction, 36 inches point-to-point, mounted several inches in front of a larger plywood background. A light bulb is fixed in the concavity, so what is seen from the street is the white outline of the metal star. It is a fairly large device, hanging in the peak above the second story. Three years ago, a gust of wind lifted it off its hook. I found it the next morning, quivering above the point embedded in our son’s window ledge. Lethal when flying! So I added a safety screw, driven into the siding. Hanging it now requires two trips up the ladder; one with the star, the next with the drill-driver. Did I mention that I hate ladders?

I am writing this while sitting in the waiting room of Nancy’s doctor. Little more than a year ago, I accompanied her on these trips because she was nearly immobilized. Then came bi-lateral hip joint replacement, enabling her to return to gardening and hardscaping and other physical activity. Today, I am here in my role as sherpa for the musical instruments; her band is playing for hospital staff at lunchtime. In Nancy’s return to music, to painting, to health, we have much for which to be grateful.