Tag Archives: tools

Retail Therapy

I did a bit of retail therapy last week. I had fancied myself immune to that particular vice. Not so! It was merely cruising in the blind spot of my consciousness. Any close observer would have known.

When a fluorescent light at my church starts giving trouble, I convert it to LED tubes. This conceptually simple process, though, generates all sorts of real world delights. Here is an example. The fixtures have a lip at the bottom to hold the diffuser. But that lip prevents pushing the tubes straight up into their sockets; instead, the installer must angle the tube along the diagonal until above the lip, then swing the tube back parallel to the long axis. The designers of these systems apparently thought it would be fun to make the tubes just a little bit longer than the space they are being maneuvered through, so the tube pins would scrape into the fixture’s enamel finish while being wedged into place. Remember that the installer (me) is trying to align two sets of pins, four feet apart, working from a ladder. Now, envision a metal-on-metal scraping that makes fingernails on chalk boards seem like a caress. What fun!

My retail therapy adventure started with some fluorescent-to-LED conversions on my To Do List. Right away, I hit the first of several wrinkles. Each manufacturer of these fixtures has its own ways of doing things. One of the variables is in the style of socket the tubes’ electrical pins snap into. I had encountered at least three styles, and I stock some of each, as the conversion process requires replacing those at one end. Most involve inserting upward with the pins at six and twelve o’clock, then rotating the tube a quarter turn to lock them into place. These were different: just push up with the pins already at three and nine. They snap tight, of course, so the tubes don’t fall out. Apparently, over time, they get even harder to snap out. I pulled until afraid to put any more force on that thin glass tube, finally achieving breakout force by levering a tool between the top of the fixture and the metal caps on the ends of the tubes.

Wrinkle two: The bracket holding the sockets is supposed to snap out, so I can replace them for the conversion. In this case, I had to add a little more persuasion in the form of hammer and punch. (I confess: didn’t have a punch on me, so abused a screwdriver.)

In that happy state of mind, I hit wrinkle three when trying to remove the ballasts. Ballasts slide into slots at one end and are locked into place by a “nut” on a screw at the other. These “nuts” are invariably a stamped steel excuse-for-a-nut, with slick sloping shoulders. Can’t get a wrench into those tight quarters; can’t keep the nose of pliers on the sloping shoulders. The job requires a nut driver. So far, I have needed the 11/32″ size. But this time, I needed a 3/8″, the one size I didn’t have. 

If it had been a one-off need, I would have suffered through a needle-nose plier extraction. But there were eight to be removed in this room alone, and I was in a part of the building almost certain to have this same fixture in other rooms. So I took a break and headed for the big box store. On my way to the tool aisle, I picked up two rolls of painter’s tape. (A couple of days ago, noticing that our tape rolls were almost empty, I had asked Nancy the difference between the green tape and the blue. She replied, “Green is mine, blue is yours.”  Oo-Kaay. Two rolls: one green, one blue.)

At the tool aisle, I found that nut drivers only come in sets. I didn’t need a set: I had five perfectly good nut drivers in my electrical tool box. I only needed a 3/8. Reluctantly, I picked up the set. Then I saw a set of thin pry bars. I need a thin pry bar for removing trim, so I picked up that set, too. 

After checking out, it hit me that I should have tried our locally-owned hardware store first. So I drove there. Yes! They had a single 3/8 nut driver. And a single thin pry bar, not a set! And the perfect size diagonal cutting pliers that I have been looking for, to flesh out my electrical tool box. 

On my way back to the church, I reflected that I had just spent $72. The nut driver that triggered this shopping excursion cost $5. I would later return the pry bar and nut driver sets to the big box, for a refund of $28. Still …

When I first met Nancy, she had three sets of car keys—to enhance her chances of being able to find a set when needed. She had multiple nail clippers, dropping them in random places when done. In defense, I ran a string through the hole in “mine” and screwed the other end of the string to my bathroom vanity drawer so she would not wander off with it.

After her Lasik surgery, Nancy needed the simple magnifying glasses called readers—in multiple magnification powers, for different distances, and many of each power, so she could find them when needed. She bought in quantity at the dollar store. I vividly recall our first meeting with the high school assistant principal. He sat down at the head of the table and began pulling several pairs of readers out of his coat pockets. Nancy at her end of the table was extracting her readers from her purse. They looked at each other and laughed, and I knew we’d get along just fine.

Nancy has gotten much better over the years. And I have gotten worse. I misplace tape measures. And my phone.  One phone will have to do me (thank goodness for FIND MY iPHONE!), but I recently bought a couple more tape measures, so I’d have a better chance of finding one when I need it.

Basic hand tools, such as screwdrivers, pliers, and hammers, get used a lot. We don’t want to run to the basement shop every time we need a #2 Phillips. Most tools are there, of course. But for frequently-used ones, we have duplicated subsets: upstairs, in each car, and in the detached garage. My electrical tool kit is self-contained, so has its own set of screwdrivers and pliers. Nancy has some basic tools in her studio. Recently, she mentioned that my shop screwdrivers were hard for her to reach. We have been doing a lot of work downstairs, so she goes for them frequently. I am perfectly happy with the placement of my screwdrivers above my workbench, so I bought another set for her and made a rack for them just inside the shop door. I don’t know how it goes at your house, but we use screwdrivers as often as forks, and probably own more.

For Nancy

The bottom line is that I like tools, and am adept at excusing my purchases. The tool aisle is the drool aisle. The right tool for the job makes it go faster and safer, right?

On a recent run to the big box store, I needed duct tape. Did you know that duct tape comes in colors? Bright, can’t miss ‘em, colors. Mouth-watering colors. It seemed most were turned so that the Spanish names faced me. Rojo. Amarillo. Verde. Azul. Naranja. I wanted them all! I was frozen with indecision. I must have lingered in front of that display for five minutes, trying to make up my mind. They did have the traditional silver color, but only in the giant size roll. Black would have been an easy choice, but was not on offer. Camo? No! I finally settled for Blanco.

Too Many Choices

I had thought I was done with tool purchases for a while. But I kept seeing ads for block planes. I have wanted a block plane for ages. What woodworker is without a block plane? Our anniversary is coming up, so I bought myself a block plane as an anniversary present. I was restrained. You can get a cheap knockoff at the big box store for about $20. You can get the quality high-end woodworker’s dream for nearly ten times that price. I chose one the middle of the range, a traditional Stanley. Now I am looking for a chance to try it out. A time when the gardening settles down and the church light fixtures quit failing and I can finally get back into my shop full of projects interruptus. That glorious day when I will take on a project and finish it. If I have the right tool.

John Henry (21st Century Version)

One recent morning, our new neighbor discovered a fallen tree across her driveway. Blocked in; husband out of town; couldn’t get their chainsaw started; did we know any tree guys? Well, yeah, but not cheap, and not likely to be quick about it. 

I went out to take a look. The sweet smell of red oak, freshly broken open; about 16 inches in diameter where it crossed the driveway. Hmm. I bet we can handle this. 

I have three large log-cutting saws mounted on the wall of our living room. Two are ancient—six-foot two-person cross cut saws, one from each of my grandfathers. The paternal one is covered with enough rust scale to render it useless as a tool, but the maternal one is in good shape except for the dry-rotted handles. It has been used in this century; that’s when one weakened handle broke. Someday, I will make new ones. 

The third saw I bought new, 40-some years ago. It’s about three feet long, variously called a one-person cross-cut or a bucking saw. Straight from the factory, it was a disaster—teeth filed to random lengths and with no “set.” I had to re-file all the teeth and, lacking a saw set for such large teeth, set them with a small hammer. It took me years of off-and-on effort to get it working reasonably well. That’s the tool I took off the wall. 

The saw did me proud. In fact, I cannot remember a time that it cut better. We moved the secondary handle into two-person mode, and with the neighbor on one end and me on the other, we made short work of that oak.

The Saw and the Tree

Later that same morning, Nancy and I were removing leaves from our cul de sac. Nancy, with “her” leaf blower, would push them up into a dense pile. Then I would use a leaf rake to move the pile to the curb. Nancy was amused that I preferred the leaf rake, and mentioned Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel (old vs. new technology). I countered with John Henry against the steam drill (man vs. machine). 

It’s not nearly the same, of course. Mike Mulligan and John Henry, and the Luddites before them, were concerned about job security. While I have sometimes jumped onto a self-righteous soapbox, in truth my issues are merely personal preference. 

I don’t object to modern power tools. I have written before about our electrically-powered “Goat.” Additionally, we own two leaf blowers, a string trimmer, and a lawn mower—all cordless electrics with 21st-century battery and control technology. But there are times when a simpler tool works better for me. Take the task of moving leaves. 

I like my blower. (We have “his” and “hers;” hers is a later purchase, more powerful and quieter than mine.) They are great for moving a light density of leaves into piles or windrows. But when the pile gets large, a stream of air seems an inefficient way to make progress. That’s when I prefer a leaf rake and a tarp.

Nancy keeps reminding me how her physiology is different than mine—the mechanics of using the leaf rake don’t come easily to her. (This from the woman who can sit or crouch for hours at a time pounding paver bricks level with a rubber mallet. For me, ten minutes of that would have my back in torment. Different physiology.) If I had been elsewhere that morning, she would have finished the job just fine with her blower. She might have needed to draw on her backup battery, but that’s what it’s for.

What I most object to in fall leaf cleanup is the second hand noise of others doing the job with an ear-splitting gasoline-powered blower. I recently saw a cartoon in which a group of lab-coated types were staring at a whiteboard covered with formulas and diagrams. At the top of the board was the project goal: Design a quiet leaf blower. And one scientist was saying to the rest that they should give up and move on to something feasible, such as putting man on Mars. As I said earlier, we own two quiet blowers, so I know it is possible to move air with force and little noise—IF you are not wedded to gasoline engines. 

We have discussed getting a chain saw. Maybe one is in our future, but so far, I have resisted. Partly, I am not convinced that our need is great enough to justify the expense because most of what I cut can be easily done with a pruning saw. Then there is the safely angle.  A chainsaw is a dangerous tool at best. On our steep terrain, with me at an age when balance begins to decline, is it worth the risk? If I ever succumb to the lure of a chainsaw, it will almost certainly be a cordless electric. Noise is only part of my aversion to gasoline engines; their care and feeding is at least as big a drawback. My electric tools always start and never leave oily smells on my skin and clothing.

I recently encountered a website devoted to use of the scythe for haying and maintaining farm pastures. I once owned a scythe, sold it, regretted that decision, bought another. For some uses, I have not found a better tool. The website reinforced for me how little I know about using and, most especially, sharpening a scythe. I had never heard of peening one. I am not even sure that my cheap blade, stamped, not forged, is capable of being peened. I have had my scythe out a few times since we moved here, unsuccessfully tackling the mess in my meadow. Now I am inspired to keep trying. One thing’s for certain—I am not buying a gasoline-powered mowing monster for that meadow. We will find another way.

I have three antique wooden bodied woodworking planes, also displayed in our living room with the saws. One is missing its handle; one is structurally compromised; all are fussy to use, lacking the adjusting screws and levers of your basic metal-bodied Stanley from 150 years ago. I am not masochist enough to try to use them for real work, yet proud to say I have been able to coax a few good shavings from each. And, yes, there are web pages devoted to using wood-bodied planes, or even making your own. Maybe, someday.

Two closing thoughts: First, the author of the scything website mentioned that, for him, swinging a scythe across his meadow was a form of meditation. I get that. I have come as close to a meditative state while using hand tools as I ever did while practicing centering prayer. (Aside: This week’s Economist has an obituary on Fr. Thomas Keating, the father of centering prayer.) 

Second, to repeat, I maintain and use hand tools because I enjoy them. There is a special pleasure in felling a dead tree with my grandfather’s crosscut saw, or filing and setting the teeth on my bucking saw. Some fish. Some travel. Some read or knit or train bonsai. A former work colleague studied string theory for fun. No John Henry am I, no Paul Bunyan. Just a dilettante having fun.

First Spring at New House

“I haven’t seen many trillium so far,” Nancy commented. It’s our first Spring at New House, and what will come popping out of the ground is still a mystery. At Old House, we had a couple of sections of woods that were almost carpeted in trillium. 

I replied that I had seen a few, all in our paths, being trampled by our feet and The Goat. (More on The Goat later.) “Maybe we have a rare subspecies, path trillium.” That was many weeks ago, and we are indeed blessed with trillium, in woods and meadow and, yes, even in the paths. Trillium and so much more! 

First came the crocus. Spring begins for me then, when the crocus push their thin green leaves up through the winter brown, six weeks or so ahead of calendar spring. I am not one of those gardeners who keeps records of the what and when of emergence and bloom. Not even in my head do I remember the order, and there are so many plants, even ones Nancy has long cultivated, whose identities I can’t recall. Regardless, Spring is always one “Wow!” after another, from crocus emergence until well into summer. Our first spring at New House has been a delight. 

We have had an abundance of Spring’s showy flowers. Daffodil and redbud and dogwood and azalea and rhododendron. Even the carpet of violets in The Meadow was stunning. I could never make up my mind about the violets in the yard at Old House: Were we aiming for suburban lawn or wild meadow? Here at New House, the choice for wild meadow is clear. 

As exciting, however, are the more subtle plants. The aforementioned trillium. The unfurling umbrellas of the mayapple. Wood hyacinth. Bloodroot. 

Nancy first noticed the white blossoms of bloodroot peeking from the edge of a leaf pile. We are still trying to figure out what to do with the bounty of leaves our trees drop in the fall. Some of my choices in the rush of last fall were … well, it won’t happen again. I had to move that pile of leaves to unburden the bloodroot. 

Have I mentioned that our new place is steep? Take an already steep hillside—it falls seventy feet in three hundred. Cut a bench for driveway, house, and garage. What do you get? Escarpments above and below the bench. We live at the top of the lot and much of our gardening will take place below. We have not found a way to get from bottom to top without some forty-five degree climbing. (Nancy’s father will testify to how steep it is. He experienced a pacemaker event after climbing back to the house.) Lugging tools and materials is a challenge. So we bought The Goat. It’s a four-wheel-drive electrically-powered walk-behind cart. Not a toy, it has a ten cubic foot bed and a flat land capacity of 750 pounds. On our 1-to-1 slopes, it has no problem controlling heavy loads going downhill and hauling tools and trash and rock up. So, The Goat and I moved that huge pile of leaves from beside the driveway to the bottom of The Meadow.

(“The Goat,” by the way, is our nickname for our more prosaically-named Overland Cart. We wanted to convey the idea of a sure-footed beast of burden. Kawasaki had co-opted Mule; Yak and Llama are too exotic. I’m not being prudish, but The Ass does not roll off the tongue, although The Donkey almost does, despite the extra syllable. The Jack? The Jenny? Nah! So we are back to the gender-neutral Goat.)

What’s missing from our normal spring sensory feast is the mating calls of the frogs. Nancy hasn’t yet replaced the frog pond we left behind at Old House. While the new occupants of Old House occasionally send a photo, and we can sometimes hear frogs in the distance, it’s not like having that cacophony just beyond your picture window. 

In other wildlife news, we have a pair of crazed bluebirds who have been flying against our windows for the past two months. As happened last year at Old House, this jealous pair is more interested in attacking their reflections in the windows than in settling down to raise a brood. So far, they have inspected and rejected the woodpecker hole in our house siding and the bluebird boxes that I put up for their convenience. Nancy had tacked a long fluttery piece of plastic sheet to the side of the house to drive off the woodpecker. It worked on the woodpecker, but is no deterrent for the bluebirds.

If there is a downside to spring, it is poison ivy. Would Tennessee still be “the greenest state in the land of the free” without poison ivy? We are “blessed” with the stuff, and with English ivy as well. We have declared war on both, a statement that will draw laughs from all who hear it. We will keep you posted. 

Nancy has been finding four-leaf clovers. She has a facility for seeing that pattern in seemingly casual glances at the ground. I have always found it a remarkable skill, having never found one myself without her first pointing out a general location. But it occurred to me just a few days ago that I have a similar facility for finding poison ivy. A nearly subconscious part of my brain will register the distinctive pattern of leaves (or patterns, plural, as the plant has lots of variety), then I stop and consciously search it out so I can spray or pull or step over. In a recent episode of “On Being,” Krista Tippett’s guest talked of the 500,000 generations of mankind as wild animal before civilization (the invention of agriculture) a mere 500 generations ago. Is it that wild animal part of our brains—the sub-conscious, pre-conscious part—that recognizes the pattern of the four-leaf clover or the three-leaved poison ivy? Occasionally, as I am walking, it will come to me that, for instance, the ball of my right foot will land on a particular sidewalk crack five steps from now. It is not a trick I can consciously replicate, nor is that insight always present. But when it comes, it is invariably correct. Useless in the current context, but not hard to imagine the survival value of sensing where your foot is about to land, or distinguishing a copperhead’s pattern in the leaf litter. 

Speaking of snakes, one day, as Nancy was going up the hill from The Meadow while I was still below, she called back a question: Do blacksnakes try to “rattle?” She’d seen it and was confident it was not a rattler. It turns out that they do try to emulate that hair-raising sound. We have not seen it again. We are glad it is nearby, though would prefer to only see it at a distance. All the more reason to roll that rodent-friendly ivy farther from the house.

It is nearly Summer now. Spring’s yellow and white and magenta and red and purple have mostly morphed into the deep green of a Southern summer. The early morning tapping of bluebirds on the window has waned. We have some vegetables in the ground, and some wildflower seeds sprinkled in The Meadow.

There is “a ton” of work still to be done, in our house and on our grounds and at church. But we wake every morning thankful that we find the work is mostly play as well, and that we have the capacity to do it and the opportunity to choose that day’s agenda.

It was a wild and wonderful spring. Anne Lamott says there are only three prayers: Help! Thank you! and Wow! So, “Thank you!” and “Wow!” Amen.

Lost Memory and Removable Tape

“It lost its memory.”

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.

The Things We Moved

The world’s greatest grandkids came to visit during the eclipse. Ages 1 and 3 and 5. Oh, yes, their parents came too. We all had a grand time, before, during, and after the celestial event.

The oldest’s interests are largely mechanical. He goes into long monologs about “long-reach excavators” and “pipe layers” and “ductile iron pipe” and “storage silos.” The middle one is a budding ballerina, thrilled with the tutus that Grandnan made for her. The youngest watches his siblings with adoration and charms adults with his smiles.

We have just closed on our new house and are in the middle of getting our old one ready to show. Everything must be just so in order to look attractive to potential buyers. So the brick and gravel roads our oldest grandson constructed during the eclipse weekend have to go.

We do sympathize with his interests. Nancy mourns having to leave the pond and its frogs behind. But, we can take some of the rocks and seashells that accent her gardens. There are rocks she has named: the sail, the Easter Islanders (more than one). There is her New England rock, a smooth beautifully-banded soft-ball-sized stone she picked up as a child. There are stepping stones from East Tennessee strata, displaying crinoids and other fossils, seashells from the tip of Pass-a-Grille, Florida, and exquisite corals from a beach in Taiwan.

Collecting rocks and shells is an interest we share. Together we have gathered multi-colored pebbles from a particular spot on Watts Bar Lake, grain-of-rice sized shells from a beach on Kawaii, massive eroded and fossil-encrusted stones uncovered by the grading for a new development (with permission), and endlessly variable chunks from our own woods.

Frog on Milky Quartz

My mother had outlined one of her flower beds with stones from a mica mine that had been operated on her family farm during WWII. Mostly milky quartz (at least that’s what I think it is), but there was one coconut-sized piece of quartz so clear that it had bright green moss growing underneath. Years ago, I told Nancy there was not much I coveted from my parents’ house, but I wanted that piece of clear quartz when the time came. I have it now, plus a smaller one, and some large examples of the milky variety. They will travel with us to the new house. And the red mystery rock I picked up near an Idaho ghost town.

Pond Flanked by Large Milky Quartz with Pagodas in Background

We debated about the pagodas. Weathered and moss-covered features of our landscaping, both had been rescued from oblivion years ago. The small one had been Mother’s. The large one was being covered by poison ivy in an unused corner of a lot down the street, whose new owner had been unaware of its existence. We had installed low-voltage lights in both pagodas and made them focal points. Should we leave them to a possibly-unappreciative new owner, or take them with us? We had almost decided to leave them behind, with a request that we be given first chance if the future buyer ever wanted to get rid of them. It was our son’s chagrin at leaving them that tipped the decision. If he was willing to help move the heavy stuff, we were happy to take it.

Mona with Small Pagoda

We have not taken all, by a long shot. The gardens here still look complete, to anyone but us. And we are moving to a place that also has been lovingly care for, whose former owners also had to decide what to take and what to leave, who also left a landscape that is, to an outsider, complete. The transition from grounds that were theirs to grounds that become ours will be gradual.

Large Pagoda Behind Iris

What to keep, what to throw away? Recurring dilemmas that we have debated, joked about, occasionally had fights about. For Nancy and me, reluctance to part with an object is usually less about emotional attachment and more about the likelihood of finding a future use. We are both do-it-yourselfers, so have an innate desire to hang on to odds and ends. It is a balance between usefulness and clutter. Can I even find it when that future use arises? Can I function in the meantime without tripping over it?

Some of what we moved to the new house, you might consider trash. I hauled one pickup truck load of paver bricks and blocks, tag ends of past hardscaping projects. Yes, we frequently find a use for two or three. I saved a small garbage can of two-by-four scraps, for blocking and chocking and propping. Nancy has drawer after drawer of feedstock for collages and craft projects.

A decade or so ago, a couple we know was downsizing. They offered, and we accepted, a box of wood scraps. Small stuff, mostly hardwoods, mostly non-standard sizes. Some had acquired a mildew smell, so the entire lot ended up in the attic to bake out. And stayed there for years. For a constellation of reasons, that wood scrap collection has become the go to source for a number of recent projects.

A band that Nancy plays in recently did a piece called “Instant Concert.” At one point, the score calls for hammering on an anvil, which in this case was a length of I-beam suspended from a cymbal stand. (Percussionists have more fun!) So, when I was moving tools from the old shop to the new one and picked up the section of railroad rail that I use when I have occasional need for an anvil, Nancy said, “You look at that and see a tool; I see a musical instrument.”

Organizing guru, Andrew Mellen, says don’t save things that don’t have a good story. A lot of good stories are traveling to our new house.

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.