Friday, September 1, 2017

Four Essential Shop Tools (+1)

Having lived this way for nearly five years (!) I took some time to take stock, walking around the shop and just thinking "which of these things has proven most useful to me?"

Here are a few answers.

The Vise

The Columbian vise pictured above was in my grandfather's basement for decades, then my dad's garage for twenty years. As far as I know, neither of them ever used it. My grandfather was a junk-man and tinkerer. He probably bought the vise for its potential value as scrap steel. His basement was full of such things, and it's rather hard to imagine one making a living peddling junk these days, when our thrift stores are chock-full of ancestors' possessions no Millennial apparently wants to have.

But I digress. When I saw the vise the first time, I knew I wanted it. The solidity of the thing! It radiates the sort of sleeves-rolled-up, baseball-on-the-AM-radio DIY of a different era. And the metal is as formidable as the Battleship Wisconsin, another relic of that time.

My pipe-cleaner arms of my early teens could barley budge it. My dad knew its worth as a good tool, so after his father passed, dad stuck it in a corner of his garage. My dad's idea of DIY consisted of "call some guy" after his two tools--a claw hammer and 16d nail--would not solve the problem. All right, I'm exaggerating. Dad had a set of pliers too, if he could find them in the kitchen drawer.

When Dad passed, I grabbed the vise and asked my father-in-law to media-blast it. He then primed it, and I painted it with a heavy-duty monument paint that should last down the decades.  But the vise is not bit of hipster decor. I have used it many times for many projects. The jaws grip firmly enough for hammering metal into curves or bending bar-stock metal, though it occasionally serves the prosaic purpose of holding a #2 pencil that holds a spool of fishing line, when I restring my reels. The top of it can be used for cold-hammering metal flat, rather like an anvil.

So this tool is my #1 go-to in the shop. I could not live as I do without it.

The Drill Press

I've never owned one of these before, but my father-in-law left one on the property and it works wonderfully. The trick to a good press is that is spins slowly but has enormous torque. I've bored through sheet steel a quarter of an inch thick, with no problems. I use a cutting oil to make things go smoothly and the motor does not suffer undue wear.

I don't know much about modern drill-presses, but this one has real staying power. There are so many uses for it that I'd need a chapter of a book to list them all. But the press gives precision when precision is needed, or when very large bores for bolts need drilling. I used the press to make seat bracket adapters for a car I'm restoring and our 1950 John Deere M tractor.

Note the safety glasses nearby. Though the bit spins slowly, slivers of metal are no joke when flying through the air!

The Bench Grinder

These are salted around our property like Dandelions. I must have found six in various states of disrepair, including one very new and very cheaply made Chinese one in the box. It has no torque; if you press down on the wheel, you can slow it down! It is, however, perfect for light materials.

The best of the lot is shown, a vintage Craftsman from when Sears not only was the King of Retail, not a dying memory, the innovator purveyor of just about everything America's then burgeoning middle class needed for the good life.

The best grinders offer a work light, sturdy tempered-glass shields to protect one's face from sparks, and two grits of wheel or a wheel and wire brush (my favorite combo). As with the drill press, the torque on a good grinder can be immense. I usually have to hold work by hand to grind it, so I wear thick gloves to keep my hands from burning, and I never get distracted. Imagine having a finger pulled into the metal guard by the grinding wheel!

Grinders work for wood too; my first experience was as a 10 year old, making a Pinewood Derby car when I was a Scout.

The Miter-Box Saw

I own two, one of them a professional model Bosch with a 12" blade that is heavy and rides around on a folding stand. It  does great work, but the handiest saw of the lot I own is a little Hitachi, one that cost me less and $100. It is light enough to tote to the job site in one hand, and the 10" blade big enough to do all sorts of chores. It angles in both directions
and can accommodate lots of different sorts of blades.

I have used this little saw for wood (of course) but with a masonry blade, I've cut HardiePlank paneling for a siding job. An installer told me that his firm saves old saw blades and mounts them backward to cut such cement-board planking, as clever an adaptive reuse as I've encountered.

Safety with such a saw involves reading the manual and slowing down when making cuts. I wear googles and make sure I know where every finger is, so one day I don't come up, um, short.

That's four essential tools, but then I remembered my own example of adaptive reuse

The Floor Safe

I could not figure out what to do with a floor safe that had no working dial. Someone drilled all that
out years ago, but there it sat in my shop.

Recently I purchased a few fireworks for a 4th of July Party we didn't have. Where could I store them, safely? Then the old safe came to mind. I put them  and my jug of gunpowder for reloading in the old safe. There's a plastic jug of Alliant Bullseye pistol powder in there now.

The door shuts well and only needs to be pulled open. The thing weighs a few hundred pounds, incidentally.

So if you find a broken safe for sale, cheap, get some helpers to bring it to your shop.

Pro tip: If  you do reload, keep your primers elsewhere. Those can explode. Gunpowder only burns until it's confined in a cartridge or firework.

Get a second broken safe! Or even one that works for free. I see a 1966 post-office safe on Craig's List locally, an 1100 pound beauty. The catch?

It is "on wheels but is located in a small room in a basement that does have a walk out...however the walk out is into the yard not a driveway, so this is going to be a challenge. But if you want a cool big old safe and like a challenge, contact us."

Have at it! You can never have enough safes.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Why I Like "Fiddly" Hobbies

My last post about canning discussed my desire for hobbies that focus the mind completely. They also produce something I can use or enjoy in some way. One reason you will not find me staring at the smart phone all that much or watching TV comes from my belief that when I'm done, I can, in the words of my late father-in-law, "have something I can put my hands on." A friend called such hobbies "fierce" but I prefer "fiddly" because they involve a lot of geeky knowledge combined with special tools and learned craft.

I suppose writing has all that going for it. For many of us, hobbies enrich our knowledge while keeping at bay what writer Joseph Conrad called "that obscure feeling that life is but a waste of days."  Hobbies can immerse us in social circles online and in person.

There's also something more at work with fiddly hobbies. Consider the urge refinish furniture, make one's own clothing or knitwear, spin wool, restore old cars, fly fish, and renovate historic houses. All these tasks immerse ourselves not only (when needed) in the virtual but in what I call, with a twist on Baudrillard's term, "The Garden of the Real." Gardening, too, can be a fiddly hobby, when practiced a certain way.

Yet fiddly hobbies are different from other pastimes I enjoy, such as travel done well and off the tourist track.  My travels change me and leave me with memories and some mementos. Fiddly hobbies are like a good holiday from the day-to-day that never ends.

Since the 1960s, I've built scale models. In fact, my earliest modeling memory is of spray-painting my eyeball in 1968, during the Richmond riots following the death of Martin Luther King Jr. As glass broke from looters a block from our house, my mom, without a car, had to phone the hospital to get advice on how to rinse out my eye.  Yet I most recall how good the Jaguar E-Type looked to me in a decidedly non-stock shade of metallic Lilac.

I still build a kit or two every year. My current project honors a deceased friend, Gary Braswell, an avid collector of realistic action figures. He had in his stash a nice American Volunteer Group "Flying Tiger" pilot standing about 12 inches tall as well as, in the same scale, a Zero-Fighter pilot from Pearl Harbor. I decided to pose each pilot with a scale model of his sort of plane.

Getting the kits together involves a lot more detail than my long-lost Jaguar and, for that matter, a lot more safety. Today I use airbrushes, different types of glues, specialized tools, and I take months on a kit. I do a lot of research on aspects of correct paints and the weathering on particular subjects, going so far to mix my own shades of paint for certain projects.

Reloading is my newest fiddly hobby, and I bring to it the same level of research that I employ with models, but even more care. I picture a few reloading tools here, for .38 Special and .45 ACP rounds I shoot for target practice. I have a case trimmer, different measures and a "trickler" for gunpowder, a Swiss-made caliper good to thousandths of an inch. There's a fat Lyman manual with precise information, because a mistake, such as overcharging a bullet with powder, could mean a trip to the hospital or the Great Beyond.

Reloading led me to an epiphany about American gun culture that has almost nothing to do with firearms.

Long ago, most of us could work on our cars, if we wanted. Today, even an oil change is difficult without a lift or special tools. To a large degree, our cars have become a collection of computers on four wheels. Meanwhile, what seemed a safe refuge for tinkerers has vanished. Just a short decade and a half ago, I built both PC and Mac desktops from old parts, and I donated them to needy families and local charities. Now, in the age of SSD drives, flat-screen displays, and wafer-thin laptop cases, there's not a lot inside a CPU that a user can service.

I cannot even imagine working on a smart phone.

Modern gun owners, compared to the old guys who went out to hunt with a bolt-action rifle and kept a simple revolver in the night stand, trick out their firearms with optics, special triggers, new grips, and all sorts of internal and external upgrades. It amazes me how geeky the gun forums become with tales of amateur gun-smithing, barrel swaps, and changes to recoil springs.

Whatever the political and moral questions that swirl around America's fetish for guns, there's this fiddly-hobby, hot-rodder aspect that most critics and enthusiasts of firearms tend to ignore.  Of course, for some of the gun hobbyists I meet, I'd feel safer if they decided to build a few model planes.

Whatever  the hobby, the need to tinker exists on both sides of the Atlantic; in the UK I've been shown many DIY projects and the products of fiddly hobbies. There is something delightful about the hours slipping by, slow enough to savor their passing, as one engages in a fiddly hobby.  I might, if I can find one still on radio, have a baseball game in the background.

You just won't catch me in front of a TV watching hours of baseball or other sports. Now playing baseball, that most fiddly of sports? Perhaps in my next life.

Meanwhile, I have my 2017 fishing license and that involves infinite fiddling with lures, leaders, sinkers, respooling old reels, and stocking the cooler. I'm a fierce fisherman, too. I don't tend to go fishing to drink beer. It's about catching fish, finding the deep spots where they linger, scouting a bank for just the right overhanging tree to cast under (but sometimes into). Soon I'll have a lifetime fishing and hunting license from the State of Virginia, so I can continue my fiddly hobbies until I'm too old to clamber into a boat or get up a tree into a deer stand.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Overwhelmed By Tomatoes? Get Crackin' Now!

Time for my annual exhortation to can your own vegetables.

I'm abnormal when it comes to modern American life; I cannot identify most TV shows or celebrities, but I can tell you more than you'd want to know about what a friend calls "fierce hobbies," such a model making, reloading my own ammunition, or, yep, canning. All of them require a lot of attention to detail and tend to focus the mind and body completely.

Yet of them all, canning is perhaps the most gentle and productive. A few generations back, many folks, urban or rural, did it every summer. And to be honest, the longest part of making good tomato sauce for canning is slow-cooking it. The canning can be done in two hours. So please do not tell me you lack time to can your own sauce. There are few more rewarding things in one's kitchen, in the dead of winter, than opening a jar and evoking summer again.

As to how to do it? I've long favored a U Georgia site for the scientific principles espoused in the recipes.   Now that tomatoes are cheap, why not save some money and put up a few gallons?

Some advice if  you are ready to get cracking with this wonderful way to save the harvest. Modern tomatoes lack the acidity of older varieties, and even when I can heirlooms, I add a teaspoon of lemon juice to every pint jar.  I also tend to pressure-can tomatoes these days; granny never did, but the science of food preservation has come a long way. Cherish her recipes but use modern techniques in the canning kitchen. I employ both my first canner, a Presto, and my heavy duty All American Canner for summer chores. Great advice on canning marinara sauce, as well as a decent recipe, can be found here.

I have little time for folks who tell me "I don't have time to do [insert DIY activity]."  If one were to count the hours and hours wasted on the "smart" phone or watching videos of people injuring themselves, there would be enough time to restore a Model T or build a lake cottage.

Get Cracking. Summer is swiftly passing us by and the boxes of canning tomatoes will soon be gone from the farmer's market.  If  you grow your own, I find that a bushel of tomatoes yields about 3 gallons of finished sauce, depending on the variety of tomato and how much you cook it down.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Putting the Farmer Back in The Market

I cannot grow everything I eat, and since I do a lot of canning, I have to buy extra tomatoes, green peppers, and, some years, cucumbers. We usually get our own produce at a farmer's market. It can be  great bargain; I've snagged 25 lb. boxes of locally grown canning tomatoes for as little as $10, as the markets wind down.

Though you'd not think it from the crowded Saturdays around here, there's been some discussion at major newspapers that these are in decline nationally, and that bothers me for many reasons.

First, eating well should be more than a "lifestyle choice," as the author of the piece to which I've linked noted, when talking about the younger customers visiting the DuPont Circle market in DC. I don't want the less affluent to have to settle for less than the pouty fusspots who insist on nary a single worm-hole in their arugula.

Second, the "lifestyle" may not have a lot to do with cooking food.

The DuPont Market is a bustling place, but according to some of the vendors, the younger visitors seem more interested in the scene than in supporting local agriculture. They tend to buy prepared foods more than farmer-grown produce. That would be fine if the farmers could make a living; many are saying it's getting tougher. gives many reasons for the decline.

Granted, I do see Millennials eating out, a lot, and I don't know too many of my students who cook, though I'm sure they are out there. I only really began to learn to cook in my last year of college, and my Middle-Eastern sauces in the 1980s were nowhere near as good as what I cooked all day long today, using my own tomatoes plus some farmers' market peppers.

It's more critical than ever for all of us to support local food, and I'm not sure the best venue is that artisanal and hip restaurant that buys up all the locality's micro-greens.  If you want to really know about your food, find the growers and then prepare the results yourself.

At the farmer's market you should chat with producers. Make sure, too, that they grew what they sell; resellers are getting more and more common, and it's something I don't like one bit. It dilutes the entire premise of a grower's market.  I'd argue that if a farmer cannot fill the table with fresh produce, then add prepared foods, dried herbs, jams and jellies. But make it all yourself.

It's now a question I ask at the market.  If I want to patronize a reseller, there's a nice old guy who runs a fruit stand near my university. The food is well selected and quite fresh. I've been buying melons from him for years.

Finally, the best way to appreciate a farmers' market is to learn how to cook.

Cooking is one of those essential skills we all need at some point. I'm no professional chef, but I'm a good cook. I can look into the refrigerator and canning shelves and produce dinner from leftovers. I can follow a recipe as I learn, too. If you claim you cannot cook, go out to the piles of used books at the thrift stores and pull down a copy of something basic, like The Joy of Cooking. Start with something basic, like meatloaf. I'm not kidding; when well prepared and paired with potatoes and a green salad, it's a time-machine to a simpler era.

Learn to can and preserve, too. Our grocery stores stock only three days worth of food. It would not take an Apocalypse to  make a lot of folks very, very hungry fast.  Wouldn't it be nice to have a few weeks' worth of produce in the cupboard, socked away against that next big hurricane or snowstorm?

After reading these articles about farmers' markets, I'm more determined than ever to buy more this year at market. Please join me.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Old School Tools: The Perfect Book for DIY Farmers

Every sharpened a knife with a whetstone? Want to learn how? I've just the book for you.

What a surprise that after 90 minutes of being overwhelmed in Powells Books in Portland, OR, I found Professor Mack Jones' 1945 guide Shopwork on the Farm, just as I was leaving the store. It was like finding The Rosetta Stone. Suddenly, all of these mysterious objects in our shop or barn began to make sense. Professor Jones, at the University of Missouri, would have encountered many landowners and tenant farmers doing things much the way their grandparents had done.

There was a time when most small farms operated nearly as a closed system; the farm was also an amateur mechanic, blacksmith, plumber, and carpenter. At the end of WWII, many rural areas still lacked electricity, so hand tools were the rule and remained that way for a long time. Power tools were expensive, and farmers on small holdings tend to be a thrifty lot. Sadly, with the passing of generations, the coming of cheap big-box-store tools, and the movement off the small farms to large industrial operations, many old-timey skills have faded.  That's why this book is such a treasure to me. I own so many of the tools described, yet for some I had no idea how they might be used.

To any Millennials who want to try rural life, I'd recommend doing a lot of research first. This book would prove an excellent starting place. Nearly everything I have done with a circular saw, a table saw, a power drill, or an electric planer can be done by hand. And simple tools we rely upon, such as an electric bench grinder, can be put safely to many uses I'd not considered before. Jones' advice is well presented and easy to follow. I realized that all these years I've been using a whetstone incorrectly!

He has advice on everything from using an anvil properly to heating and bending metal in a hand-pumped forge; these are skills I will be putting to the test in the next year when I next shape metal.

While you may not wish to make your own lead-based paints, there is a recipe if you can find enough white lead for the job.  Forgotten those lessons on tying knots in Scouts? Mack Jones has you all set.
Before you ask: I don't loan books or any form of media, even to the closest friends. You'll have to snag your own copy cheaply, at ABE or at Amazon. If  you live in the country and want to do so as off the grid as possible, or if circumstances force your hand, this book will be worth its weight in gold.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Farewell Robert Pirsig

This post began as a comment at Hemmings Motor News, which announced the passing of the author.  At this distance, I can say with certainty that Robert Pirsig's book had a long-lasting impact on who I am now, though at the time I did not recognize it.

Just the other day, I noticed my lilac-colored copy of Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance the other day: when I was the worst aerospace-engineering student ever to attend UVA, the book was required reading for all engineers. It’s the only book I saved from that part of my education, and I reread it once while living abroad.

Funny how Socrates’ dialog with Phaedrus means a lot more to me now than anything Pirsig wrote then, but the name did stick and I got curious about why Phaedrus was so important to Pirsig. In a nutshell, Phaedrus was a punk kid who thought the new technology called “writing” was spiffy, while Socrates derided it as a block to really remembering things. It was an early warning against the cheapened, the simulated, the virtual.

What did Pirsig teach me that I most recall? The story of climbing a mountain with his son. The boy only wanted to summit, while the author was content with enjoying the journey and knowing when to turn back. I’ve lived by that philosophy ever since, as well as the need–a nearly glandular one–to avoid Interstates and mass culture when I travel. Blue Highways, by Least-Heat Moon, did me in for all that, permanently. I read it not long after Pirsig’s book.

As for motorcycles? They still terrify me and I’ll never ride one. As for books? I am a colleague of Matthew Crawford’s wife, which is NOT why I recommend Shop Class as Soulcraft for a better take on this topic for gearheads or beatnik-farmers like me.

So farewell Robert Pirsig, and thank you for helping me along my crooked and continuing journey away from the boring and banal.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Shaving Bench & Hand Tools

I did not know who L.P. Hartley was until I searched for the famous dictum "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." Hartley wrote a number of books, some very well received; his obscurity now makes a writer pause and think "why bother?"

But why bother at anything? In 100 years, anyone old enough to read this post will, at best, be a half-recalled series of stories told by descendants and an inscription on a stone, somewhere.

Now that I have depressed you thoroughly, let's hop into a time machine and cheer ourselves up a bit. It's one way I find solace as I face, as we all do, the final erasure of ourselves and our accomplishments. I'll use Rod Taylor's gizmo from the George Pal film; I think it best captures the intentions of H.G. Wells. I look forward to teaching the novel in my course on Science Fiction and Fantasy, this Fall. It puts human vanity into perspective.

So did William Faulkner, when he claimed that "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I feel that way whenever I visit Colonial Williamsburg. It always gives me a strange hope that whatever our species does in the near future, short of nuclear catastrophe an interesting and more sustainable life for our descendants will be possible.  I am beginning to regard the Past as a foreign country, but one we can visit.

Beyond Williamsburg's occasional theme-park dissonance, as bored or dumb tourists meet very savvy historical reenactors, I find something precious for the future of our civilization going on: the conservation of old-time skills. I've become increasingly obsessive to learn a few, myself, from scything and baling hay by hand to acquiring more skill with hand-tools. These were skills that most rural residents possessed in living memory. As a Williamburg employee, working on a hand-built sawpit and barn, reminded me, you don't have to go back 200+ years to find the skills he used. In 1950, my late father-in-law built structures using most of the same techniques and many of the same tools.

After a recent visit I decided upon a hot-weather project: building a "shaving bench" or "shaving horse." That's not for shaving oneself or anything equine, but it holds wood for smoothing out with either a hand planer or a "spoke shave." This site shows how one can be made easily in a home shop. It should last a lifetime, unlike many modern power tools.

No, it is not as cool-looking than George Pal's rendition of Wells' time machine, but it serves a similar purpose: adventuring into another era. Whereas The Time Traveler went into the dim and grim future of the human race, then, heartbroken, beyond to the end of the Sun, my Shaving Bench will take me back no more than a century, so I can begin using hand tools for more woodworking. I'm learning to be good with our hand-auger and have long been decent at hand-sawing, but it's a journey to unlearn muscle-memory honed with table or chop saws, drill-presses, and jigsaws. I will use some of these power-tools to fashion the shaving bench, in both the interest of time and in order to conserve materials.

There is a focus all tools engender, simply because you can too easily nip off a finger or worse by not paying attention. Hand tools add something to that focus, because the experience is quiet enough to eliminate hearing protection and, depending on the tool, bulky safety glasses.

At times like that, I realize that as hard as our ancestors worked, the experience was less mediated. The world was a wooden one, as ours largely is, but the experiential distance from tree to board to finished good was much shorter. 

I plan to travel back to that foreign country, increasingly.