Archive for March, 2010

Harp desk

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010
Does this look familiar?

Does this look familiar?

Does the surface in the above picture look familiar?  What happened to that desk, anyway?

harp-desk-frontIt’s basically done.  It needs sealing, but that’s all I’m going to do.  Well, and a little stain touch-up here and there.  But that’s all, really.   Really.

I realized that I would never finish if I wanted it perfect, so I decided to treat it as a prototype.  As everyone knows, one expects problems with prototypes.  This mindset helped me to finally put it together instead of fiddling indefinitely with dowels, sandpaper, and a ruler.

Fit and finish is mediocre, and I really need to learn to round off edges more than I did here.  However, the basic structure is stronger than I had thought it might be, and it looks pretty good from 4 feet away.


Pay no attention to the light socket.

There is a little illusion in the shape; the feet are actually 3/4 as long as the desk is deep.  The shape makes them look as if they are shorter.


Aviating furniture: it's the future!

I believe that this is the first piece of furniture that I’ve made from scratch (and actually completed).  I certainly learned a lot.   Were I to make another, I would change some things in the design to make it more durable, as well as changing some geometry to hide imperfections better.  Notably, I would change the front edge of the “wings” so that they differ more from the front profile of the legs. With the available tools, it was difficult to get them to match.  I would also use straight border pieces for the top, rather than the bevels.  The corners do not repay close inspection.

One oddity that came to light:

harp-desk-brassThat piece of brass rod is the only metal in the desk.  I put it there to bridge the gap between the strip veneer that covers the bottom edge of the modesty panel. (Really.  That’s what it is called).  Unfortunately, under some light, the shiny end of the brass is surprisingly visible, and draws attention away from the top of the desk.  I’ve since filed it at an angle to reflect light downward.

One last lesson, evidently.  I need to learn to take better photographs.

Corner chair

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

This chair hails from one of my favorite salvage grounds: the storage complex.  People move out and throw away furniture that fails to pass the “effort required to load it on the truck” test.  Regrettably, the storage complex I used has stopped allowing people to discard their furniture, and so this particular well has gone dry.

Before it did, however, I pulled an odd chair and small table from the heap.  I’m not sure how old the chair is, though the black and white color scheme narrows things down a bit.  Black frame, white vinyl upholstery.  Sounds early 80s to me, although I was not well-sited to notice prevailing trends at the time.  The oddity comes from the frame design, which has a very narrow (10″) back and a light framework supporting the front of the chair.  It looks as if it was part of a dining room set.

Of course, being discarded, it had problems beyond any unfashionability, which I am not qualified to diagnose.  The vinyl was torn, and the lighter part of the frame was broken at several welds.  Oh, and it had been left in the rain.  Fortunately, the upholstery foam was synthetic and hence not immediately subject to rot, and the frame is steel.  Where there is metal, there is hope.

<several years pass>

I had a larger chair rehabilitation planned, and figured that this could prove to be useful practice, my last sewing project being a ball sewed in 8th grade “home economics” class.  I decided that my goal for the reupholstering of the chair was to avoid stabbing myself with a needle.  This is, I find, often a good goal.  Joann Fabrics yielded some good fake leather vinyl in the popular “banker’s green”.

When looking for new accommodations, I met a fellow who was trying to start a metalworking business.  I paid him to re-weld the frame, which fortunately was steel rather than aluminum (requiring TIG welding, which he could not do at the time).  This job was almost trivial for him, evidently.  It took him longer to find some bolts to hold it in place than it did to weld it and grind the slag off.  (As a note, it has been my experience that metalworking and fabrication businesses are generally not averse toward picking up half an hour’s labor time or so doing projects like this.)

Seat frame having finished the Tour de my car’s trunk, I needed to replace the upholstery.  The vinyl on the chair was cheap, torn, and dirty.  The foam, however, was fine, as were the wood backings for both the seat and back.  After 10 minutes with a flathead screwdriver and a set of pliers, the staples were removed.  I get the sense that this chair was not a high-buck item:

Yes, it is not quite symmetrical

Yes, it is not quite symmetrical

The minor water damage is evident.

The seatback:


One benefit to repairing things, rather than building them from scratch, is that disassembly yields information about how things should be put back together.  In this case, I was happy to realize that I could use the brain surgeon’s friend:



For the seatback, I could exclusively use what I think of as kinetic fasteners (staples and tacks).  Looming large in my mind, however,  was the knowledge that I would need to sew the corners together for the seat.  As previously noted, this is not something I am well-practiced at.  Trying to resist my usual impetuous modus operandi, I carefully thought about how to cut and sew the corners of the seat cushion.  Readers may be astonished to know that I even sewed together a few practice corners.  Measuring for the seat cushion took some time as I kept second-guessing myself.


After thinking about it, I used the seat’s wood backing as a template, and cut enough vinyl to wrap the top and sides of it.



I then realized that I had failed to take into account the depth of the foam; fortunately, I had presciently purchased more vinyl than I thought I needed.  Correctly sized piece of vinyl in hand, I tried to remember my 8th grade lessons.  All I could remember from that class was that you sew things inside out so as to keep the seams inside, and that peanut butter and chocolate taste good together.


The actual sewing proved anticlimactic, and, as a bonus, I did not stab myself.  At least not enough to draw blood.  I put the seat foam on top of the fabric, the seat board on top of that, and my knee on top of the board, to compress the foam enough to staple the fabric to the underside of the seat.  While difficult to photographically document, this worked well, especially when I started to cut notches in between the staples to stop the fabric from bunching up.


By comparison, the seatback was an exercise in patience rather than in mental work.  The structure of the frame hid the sides and ends of the board, so I could be less careful and still get away with it.


I eventually cut notches (“darts” in textile parlance) between the staples to avoid the wavy behaviour you see above.  The back of the seatback is visible through the frame, so I ended up using upholstery tacks to fit a panel of vinyl down the back.tacked-back

I replaced the black screws with brass for that classy look.  (It seems to me that the word “classy” does not itself sound classy.  Perhaps I should reconsider my use of it.)

As is evident in the above picture, the frame needs paint.  This is waiting on better weather.  Even without the paint, the chair looks pretty good, and is surprisingly comfortable, as the pad on the back fits neatly between one’s shoulder blades.


(Yes, the table on the right is the one salvaged alongside the chair.  Their proximity may be partially the result of  further anthropomorphization, I fear.)


Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

This showed up at work a while ago, probably a refugee from the back of somebody’s desk.  We thought it was an old piece of lab equipment.


We weren’t sure what it was, beyond some sort of nibbler.  It looks like the business end of the nibbler has been hardened somehow.  Obviously the “jowl” under the jaw opens (it springs closed).  What you can’t see in the impression it gives, when held in the hand, that it has been used a lot.  The handles are very smooth.  One of my coworkers thought it might have been used to take samples for microscopy or other analysis.  The only clue is on the inside of the handles, which have stamped into them: “McBee Made in U.S.A” and “5227 626” (the last “2” being struck over a “1”).

It turns out that the tool is less immediately useful than one might hope:


It’s designed for marking paper cards as part of the McBee filing card system.  The decks must be long gone.  It’s interesting to me that the technology dates to 1896; people have been thinking about how to order data for a long time.

I wonder how much work went into the collection this tool helped organize.  Perhaps the last user kept it as a memento of long hours sorting information that today would represent another 256kb in a database somewhere.  Information science marches on.


Sunday, March 14th, 2010

I found this:


Not very useful by itself.  I think it used to have a glass top, probably with a plant sitting on top.  It has a little surface rust from sitting outside.

I also had this:


Both the table’s top and the marble tile have the same dimensions.



The corner is rounded on the wire frame to the point that it will not accept the tile.

I thought about using a jigsaw with a tile-cutting blade to nip the marble corners at 45 degrees.  The oft-used expedient of “standing for a long time in front of the tools at the hardware store” resulted in a  helpful clerk informing me that this was probably not a good idea due to the relative softness of the marble when compared with tile.  I have no idea if he is right, but the effectiveness of his suggestion of sanding the marble backs up his aversion to the tile blade.  I hadn’t realized that marble is relatively soft, but recalling my “earth science” classes, it makes sense that the metamorphic marble would be less tough than, say, igneous granite.

Sanding works:


Rough on the sandpaper, though.


(To be fair, I used a file to knock down some high points on the table frame.)

Come better weather, I’ll repaint the frame, but for now I have the little table by my front door, waiting for my keys.  Perhaps I need a small silver plate for calling cards.


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.