Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Review: A Splintered History of Wood

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010


I received Spike Carlsen’s book A Splintered History of Wood as a gift this past Christmas, and have read it a few times since then.  It is one of my favorite sorts of books; each chapter is an overview of a related topic.  In this case, of course, the central theme is “wood and its uses”.  I like this format because, if the author is any good at all, each chapter will be full of interesting “hooks” that can capture one’s interest.  Since the author will likely not know the specifics about a wide range of fields, the effect is usually sort of a travelogue, reading interviews of specialists and getting secondhand tours of relevant places.  Of course, each of these experts wants the author, and reader, to be interested, and so the result is that each topic has some of its most interesting points picked out and presented.  And like a book of short stories, if you find the current topic uninteresting, just wait for a few pages.

I am at a loss to think of a person for whom belt sander racing could be considered uninteresting, particularly when one is told of the fabled “open modified” class.  However, belt sander racing is headlined as a topic on the cover of the book.  Does the rest of the book hold up to this promise?

Basically, yes.  I noted above that the formula works if the author is any good at all, and Mr. Carlsen has evidently done much writing for various craft and woodworking publications.  Writing for a broad audience, his writing is solid (workmanlike?), and enthusiastic while maintaining restraint.  There were a few points at which I would have wished for a slightly less heavy tone, but this may be unavoidable when required to teach, in text only, how to turn a pile of lumber into a baseball bat or somesuch.  More illustrations might have helped with this, but some of this is innate to the material.  I get the sense that Mr. Carlsen excels at getting along with the varied people met in the book, and their enthusiasms are what really carries much of the book.

Because of these enthusiasms, my favorite parts of the book discuss the use of wood in sports and music.  While other sections of the book cover things that I know a little about already, such as the Swedish Vasa and the Loretto Chapel staircase, or are discussions of woods that are interesting but that I am unlikely to come across (45000 year old kauri wood), some topics make me want to take up (another) hobby, if only as entertaining research.  I know a little about baseball and music, but not enough to have heard even relatively basic lore.  Everyone knows somebody who is enthusiastic about these topics, and the book, if nothing else, contains good conversation material.  What is a baseball bat made of?  I hadn’t really thought about it, but there’s a company betting their jobs on a different theory from the established one.  Everyone has wondered what makes a Stradivarius a, well, a Stradivarius, with a name (Hammer, Il Cremonese, The Fleming) and pedigree, but probably hasn’t had a few of the theories presented.  After the best chapters of the book, one wants to go to the library and pick up a few of the threads that are dangled those interviewed.  While I’m unlikely to follow Wild Mountain Man Ray Murphy into chainsaw carving belt buckles while they are being worn, I can see wanting to learn more about the Forest Products Laboratory’s forensic history, or to spend time considering George de la Tour’s St. Joseph in the Carpenter Shop.  And I would very much like to spend time at the National Music Museum in South Dakota, with its 13000 instruments.

All in all, an interesting book, and a fun read.

We Were the Ramchargers

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Let’s have a book review.

I was recently given a copy of We Were the Ramchargers , a history of, well, the Ramchargers, the usually factory-backed Dodge drag racing team during perhaps the most exciting years (thus far) of the sport.  The book has recently come out, and garnered some attention; I’ve seen at least two articles in magazines giving an overview of the book.  We may take this as an indication of the influence of the team on the world of motorsports (he said, burnishing his ficticious pipe and adjusting his equally ficticious tweed cap).

Beginning in 1959, a group of young Chrysler employees pooled their money to build a drag car as the embodiment of their ideas on performance, and incidentally to beat up on the recently ascendant small-block Chevrolets that were ruling much of drag racing.  By 1969, they had won innumerable races, helped reestablish Chrysler performance as a very credible street threat, and worked on gas, nitro, hydrazine, alcohol, supercharging, fuel injection, suspension development, tuned ram and exhaust development, and raced super stock, dragsters, and funny cars.  Interestingly, most of these technologies were coming of age at the time, often pioneered by the Ramchargers and their competition.

The book is a broken up by year, with paragraphs of narration interspersed with frequent paragraphs of  explanation, anecdote, and reflection, taken from numerous interviews with the surviving group members.  This format keeps things moving along, and the author has happily chosen to allow the interview segments to cover a bit of the technical side of things.  Numerous pictures are provided.

Historically, Ramchargers is inspirational.  These fellows started a team with no factory backing, and won.  They got some factory backing, and won a lot more.  There is little personal conflict mentioned in the book, and one gets the sense that this is because there was little, rather than that the story has been airbrushed.  It is a testament to what skilled, organized individuals can do when they work together and decide to produce a whole lot of awesome.

The technical side of the book is interesting because much of the team’s success was due to engineering prowess in an era during which simulation was used much less than it is now, and the theoretical knowledge available was advancing rapidly.  Adjusting the engine in a particular way might have resulted in more speed, and it might have simply burnt a piston or tossed a rod.  More hydrazine might have helped smooth out power delivery, or it might have blown the engine.  In a field that is advancing rapidly, you need to field test new ideas commensurately rapidly.  More spark lead on the Hemi?  More dynamic weight transfer on the High and Mighty car?  Try it out.  While the Ramchargers were largely very skilled engineers and technicians, they were not at all recalcitrant about “going for it” with a new idea, putting it onto the track as soon as possible.  After all, the competition might have figured the same thing out yesterday.  Reading about the rapid evolution of the technology and its deployment in anger is the heart of the book, and it is fortunately presented in a way that allows the reader to understand (much) of what is being discussed.

I have a few quibbles with the book; it sort of tapers off as the group members went their different ways, which is understandable, but lacks punch.  There are also a few repeated spelling errors that grated – most notably, “bonsai” rather than “banzai”.  (You can see the problem with this one.)

When a book has a chapter entitled “dropping the atom bomb” about the arrival of the 426 Hemi, though, I’m willing to forgive the minor editorial quibbles in deference to the larger successful choices.

What Wood is That?

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

As happens, I was nattering on to one of my co-workers about some woodworking enthusiasm or another.  This is itself not unusual (some might say it is “too usual”), but led to her, several days later, lending me a book.

What Wood is That?, by Herbert L. Edlin, is, as the name implies, a guide to identifying wood types.  It dates to 1969, and its most notable feature is that it contains a fold-out section containing small samples of most of the woods mentioned within.  Partially due to the age of the book, the wood samples now have a nice patina to them.

Some of WWiT is dedicated to a flowchart-like classification system, which is not of much immediate use to me since I am not at this time surrounded by padauk, mahogany, and teak furniture that needs classification preparatory to going on the block at Sotheby’s.  The rest of the book describes the general life cycle of a tree, and contains a brief history of the lumbering industry, noting which areas were most heavily worked at what time.  Further chapters give considerable detail about the 40 or so woods discussed; their preferred environs, leaf structure, size, and uses.

While these 40 woods are discussed in detail, the usefulness of this detail to me is more academic than practical, given how esoteric some of the materials are.  The author was a forester around the world, and knows his stuff firsthand, but one upshot of this is that the woods discussed are from all over, and some information is probably dated.  While I can believe that some teak is still lumbered with the help of trained elephants, some of the woods discussed aren’t even mentioned in more recent books that I have.

All in all, an interesting (if brief) read, and would be quite useful as a “first try” reference if I worked with antique pieces.  It was also quite nice to see examples of exotic woods such as zebrawood and purpleheart (which is, yes, purple).

Do It Oneself (1963 edition)

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

It appears that I have no excuse whatsoever to fail to fix anything, ever again.

dozens of encyclopediae


The used book sale just finished, and the above 30lbs or so of books were almost left forlorn upon their shelves.  I felt it was incumbent upon me to further test the load limit of my apartment floor by purchasing them.

The black books are the 1970 edition of The Family Handyman DO-IT-YOURSELF Encyclopedia, and the red books are the 1963 edition of The Practical Handyman’s Encyclopedia.

As noted above, the information contained within is extensive, and surprisingly catholic in scope.  I hope they will prove a useful reference for a broad variety of projects, crackpot or otherwise.

There are a few caveats, however:

1) While I may now be able to make my own tambour door (FHDITE, p. 1082) or Economy Directional Microphone (PHE, 11, 2032), I currently lack the facilities necessary for the construction of a 26′ racing sloop (PHE, vol 15, pp. 2710-2721).

2) As I do not own a home at present, many of the otherwise sound construction projects and techniques mentioned are not useful to me.  In addition, the books come from an era where 100lb. bags of asbestos cement were readily available to the homeowner (FHDITE, p. 101).  While it is easy to laugh at the practices of another era, it is regrettable that code compliance officers have a nigh proverbial lack of humor.

3) As hinted at above, some materials are now harder to come by than previously.  Fortunately, I plan on placing a large bulk order for these materials via the middle book in the picture above, the (reprinted) 1902 Sears, Roebuck catalog.  Those who think that so-called “big box” hardware stores have a large inventory would do well to investigate the pages of this book.  The 1902 catalog contains guns, tools, clothing, corsetry, furniture, electric “vigor” belts, carriages, telegraphs, bicycles and furnaces.   Picture, if you will, stopping by the hardware store and purchasing a a crinoline dress and a new Buick.  This catalog comes from (just before) a time when Sears would sell you a house.  I hasten to add that this house would not be constructed; rather, you would place an order, negotiate financing, and then 30,000 pieces of house would be delivered to the railroad siding nearest you.  Good luck!

4) Regrettably, I did not find a full copy of the Popular Mechanics handyman guide.  The one book of it that I did find included instructions discussing how to build one’s own arc welder.

Now, if you’ll excuse me…