Archive for May, 2009

The Romance of Small Containers

Friday, May 29th, 2009

unstained box front view

(ed: Written in January 2009)
This may be another aspect of my unfortunate materialism, but I think that people (me) like small containers and packages out of proportion to their value.  Improbably small water bottles?  A few chocolates sold for much money in a small tin?  Tiny permanent marker?

Perhaps it is because small packages are cute, or that well-made small items attract consideration simply because they are stronger than their cheaper, less well-designed cousins.  Having an item (or experience) that is better than you first thought it would be is always pleasant, one of the minor happinesses of life.

Packaging matters, it seems.  However, I don’t own a manufacturing plant, and cannot hire a designer for my stationery box, or the bin I throw my pocket items into.

One of the quickest, cheapest projects I have done still makes me smile a bit.  Most big craft stores carry a line of small wooden boxes, ranging from the uselessly small up into the humidor sizes, though a cigar aficionado would likely advise you against using the latter to store cigars in.  They are called “trinket boxes” or the like.  They are made of cheap wood, machine cut, and are usually joined decently, though the hinges and latch are often indifferently fitted and of iffy quality.  They run between $4 and $12.  I’ve purchased a few of the plain (cheaper) ones, which look, well, like this:

unstained box ortho view

I should have put a ruler in the picture; it’s about 6″ long, and rather plain looking, no?
A paper towel, rubber glove, and $.40 worth of stain later:

small box stained ortho view

You want to know what is inside.  A gentleman’s pocketwatch?  A lady’s favorite day-to-day necklace?  A lucky Krugerrand?  A Brasher Dubloon?  (paging P. Marlowe…).
The cherry color here is Zar Cherry 116.  I removed the hinges and latch, and then I just rubbed on the stain with the paper towel, with no surface prep and no subsequent finishing.  The unsealed wood soaks up the stain, and the grain hides minor imperfections in the surface and gives an impression of patina.

As a note, I think I favor the results I got with Minwax Red Mahagony stain:


Wooden boxes benefit from looking at least a few years old.

Bronze powder ersatz

Friday, May 29th, 2009

(ed: written Jan 2009)

As I mentioned previously, I read George Grotz’s book The Furniture Doctor a while ago.  It is well-written and informative on many subjects having to do with furniture restoration, particularly the myriad of finishing options available.  Should you get a copy, I would suggest the updated edition published in the 1980s, and particularly commend your attention to the chapter about forging furniture, which provides an amusing glimpse into a world that I had not previously encountered.  (Step one: build armoire.  Step two: put armoire on windswept hill for one year.  Turn monthly to ensure even exposure.)

One of the types of finish that he discusses is the use of bronze powder over (usually) some sort of black paint.  You see this used to make images of fruit, vines, or as a sort of pinstriping.  I was once fascinated by a rocking chair at my grandmother’s house that had this treatment, but had forgotten entirely about it until reading about how it was done.  As one would suspect, you use stencils.  What I didn’t suspect was that you can, with delicacy of touch, “fade” the bronze color to the background black; you apply the powder with a little felt thimble worn over the finger, which naturally applies more powder at the beginning of a stroke than at the end.  You can then manipulate this technique to provide a three-dimensional effect to the pears you are stencilling onto your chair.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that I like the look of bronze striping on black, but am not terribly willing to spend lots of time laundering felt thimbles and mucking about with vials of bronze powder to get it.  While rummaging around in my “misc. supplies” drawer last week, I turned up a jar of gold Stencil Magic (R) Paint Creme that I purchased at a craft store some months ago, perhaps due to a half-remembered impulse to draw metallic fruit on my stationery box.

This Creme (?) is a viscous material that applies more like a soft wax than paint.  In addition to noting that “Labeling conforms to ASTM D-4236”, the top of the jar informs me that it is NONTOXIC, a claim I am reluctant to test, given the uncanny resemblance the material has to ground metal in a somewhat fragrant suspension.  (While I know that small amounts of some metals aren’t toxic, I am not reassured by the perhaps overly emphatic all-caps nature of the claim.)

Not having an appropriately expendable smooth black surface handy, I figured I would just try it out on an index card to get an idea of how it looks.  I am also unwilling to trust to my stencilling ability, an ability I last practiced in the second grade or thenabouts.


I drew a letter “R” in stylized script on an index card, and then cut it out with an X-Acto type knife.  (For those wondering, that is a Gerber Artifact, a curious pocket tool I received as a gift recently.)  To my suprise, I remembered to leave material connecting the outer stencil to the inner stencil covering the hole in the “R”.

pre bronze application

I taped the stencil card to a blank index card.  I then selected a piece of the finest paper towel I had lying around, for use as a brush.

When the Stencil Magic people inform you that a “skin” will form on the surface of the Creme, they aren’t kidding.  I gouged a hole in it, and then began wiping the creme onto the card through the hole in the stencil.  It has a pleasing consistency, though you need to use more of it than I expected to get a solid coat.  Once done, I removed the stencil from the final card.

post bronze application

Results: more experimentation needed.
1)  As is obvious from the picture above, I need to immobilize the small pieces of the stencil better.  The feathering of lines surrounding the hole in the “R” show that this part of the stencil moved despite my efforts to hold it steady.
2)  A brush might work better to get an even application, and is in fact what you are supposed to use for this.  I’ll probably try a cheap flux brush next.
3)  This stuff doesn’t fade well, since it seems to dry patchily if you don’t use enough of it.  It does look good in the places where I put enough on, though, with crisp edges.  It would probably be good for pinstriping or other solid designs.  I would want to clearcoat it to protect it, though, as one would do with real bronze powder.

Shop Chair

Friday, May 29th, 2009

Michael Perry, in his humbly humorous Truck: A Love Story, includes a discussion of the “shop chair”, or, perhaps “the shop chair”.  As he points out, every shop has a chair, likely a refugee from an unfortunate styling era (harvest gold!) or a now-attenuated dining room set, that acts as a welcome respite from standing on a hard floor.

I have no shop, but I now have a shop chair, appropriately salvaged from below a “free table” at work.

front view of ALCOA chair
An ALCOA secretary’s chair, solid aluminum and steel, as befits a product of the Aluminum Company of America.  It probably dates to the original furnishing of the building I work in – 1928 or so.  I have unfortunately found no way to accurately guage the date.  Please note that the sum total of the padding is a 1/4″ thick piece of leather across the back, though there may have been some upholstery on the seat at some point.


Further indication that this chair is from a different era.  Few office managers now would be equipped to follow the upholstery care instructions: “Clean leather with castile soap and warm water.  Clean fabric with gasoline.”  Such a simple phrase, “clean fabric with gasoline” is.  Redolent of different sensibilities, and of course hydrocarbon fumes.  Note:  No warnings.

As a testament to its durability, the only real work it needed was the replacement of 3 casters, which are still made in the same size with the same diameter (though slightly differently profiled) axle.  I also wiped off most surfaces to avoid contact with whatever chemicals it had attracted over the years in the lab it sat in.

old caster

The casters were made by The Colson Company, Elyria, Ohio, U.S.A.  Still in business, I’m pleased to note.
This only narrows down the date of the chair’s manufacture to post-1910.  Not much help there.

Manifestly, I now need a shop to put the chair in.  Bare metal doesn’t precisely say “hospitality” to visitors to my apartment.  The most likely reaction is “what’s that chemical stain on the seat?”

A note on design

Friday, May 29th, 2009

(ed: written in the dead of dry winter, 2008)

A minor note on design, addressed to the folks at Sunbeam.

Your Health At Home humidifier, in addition to being suprisingly alliterative, does aid me during the very dry winters here.  However, I usually run it while sleeping, and this leads me to quibble with your testing methodology.  I suggest that you test your products in the dark, in addition to whatever other processes you now use.

Here is what I see when I look over to determine why my room is not as dark as usual:

view of humidifier with lights off
Despite the resemblance to a butane mini torch, this is merely the vapor plume being illuminated by the “on” led, and not my apartment being set afire by a pyromaniac gnome.  The LED is sufficiently bright that I cannot photograph the humidifier in the light without troubles:

view of humidifier with lights on

The plume looks neat in the light (though, alas, not via digicam CCD), but tends to keep one awake.  Fortunately, this is a minor problem, easily corrected by the strategic application of a piece of electrical tape.  The humidifier has earned some trust, after all, by surviving in a storage bin for two years after having been put away damp.

Surface Prep

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

(ed: written March 2009)

I had weekend access to a good home woodshop recently, and started to make a small desk.  I will freely admit that I’m entirely inexperienced in any sort of cabinetry or fine furniture making.  Certainly I can knock 2x4s together and screw some plywood to them, but that is the boundary of my experience.  The reading I have done about more elaborate (and expensive!) techniques gives me numerous options to try, but with every choice being unexplored territory, I thought it was best to merely pick one and plow ahead.

Without further ado, the top of the desk, lit from above.

tabletop looks good
It doesn’t look too bad.  The grain looks decent, even though the tabletop is made of three boards butted together along their sides.  (As an aside, you can spend way too much time looking at every possible combination of say, 7 boards, trying to match the grain).  I knocked down the glue lines and did a little detail sanding.

I presume any competent woodworker knows what is coming.

Let’s look at that tabletop with different lighting (light is now at the top of the picture):

tabletop looks bad

“Plow ahead” indeed.

As a public service, I state that it is a good idea to practice with a belt sander before using it in earnest for the first time, perhaps on the back of your workpiece if possible.  The (now highly visible) lands and valleys are from uneven application of the belt sander, and in fact you can see where I laid the sander down wrongly at top right.

Since wood stain emphasizes uneven surfaces, much detail sanding is now needed.  That said, I’m not unhappy with the results.  The tabletop is not very thick, and is stronger than I thought for only being glued along the edges.  I read George Grotz’s The Furniture Doctor a while ago, and he is most emphatic about the strength of glue when used properly.  Thus far, he seems to be vindicated.