Saturday, February 28, 2009

Would you believe Zen?

I love the 1970's cult classic "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". Bet you never read it, but it applies to woodworking and bowl turning and as the author, Robert Pirsig, famously declares, it is not about Zen nor is it about motorcycles. I came to it later in life since my education was technical and we had no time for all that philosophy nonsense. The book is an essay on quality and how it applies to work and about getting work done. One of my favorite parts is where the writer divides the world into two sections. See which group you fit into.

The first is those people who love to get ready to work. They set up shop in detail and they paint those outlines of all their tools on a piece of pegboard on the wall so they can tell when a tool is missing or put out of place. Drawers have felt linings (red) in the bottom so no tools get scratched when carefully placed in their prescribed location. All the tools are there in all the sizes and carefully lined from smallest to largest. The floor is tiled and waxed and has not a bit of sawdust or shavings. Everything is set up and ready to go and the owner of this shop has all the tools he needs to build anything out of wood. Probably has a neon sign on the wall that flashes "Ken's Place" or some such. Except he never makes anything because it would mess up the shop. What he really loves is getting ready to make something.

The other type is the guy who has all the tools but they are scattered all over the shop. Some are dull and they certainly don't fit in a drawer or on a pegboard. There is no red felt anywhere. The floor is covered with dust and chips. The only thing pristine in the shop is the current project sitting on the bench in some ethereal glow not explained by the overhead flourescent lighting. No signs, no tile, no pegboard, no felt -- just beautiful work in a messy shop.

Two groups of people -- one likes getting ready to work and the other likes working. Which one are you? Go read Pirsig to find out more about yourself. You will need to read it about four times but eventually you may get it, (or maybe not). I'm in the second group by the way.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Doo Rag

I'm gonna get a doo rag. I think I will be a better turner if I wear a doo rag, particularly while I am trying to get the outside shape of a bowl as nice as I can make it. I can take it off while I am roughing out a bowl and while I turn the inside, but for the real shaping and the stuff that separates the men from the boys in bowl turning so to speak, it takes a doo rag. The reason I say this is because I was watching some TV show the other day and some craftsman was repairing a door or some trim work or some such, and he was wearing a doo rag. I knew instantly from the rag that he was a craftsman and knew exactly what he was doing. The host knew it too, and we all sat around in awe while he did his thing. He did do a really good job and I think it was because of the rag. Only thing it could have been. I'm getting one now.

Did you ever think about the difference between homemade and handmade? When I was growing up we didn't have a lot of money and I can remember Mama making shirts for me and my brother out of flour sacks. If you bought 25 pounds of flour to make biscuits (Mama made biscuits every day twice a day) it came in a fabric sack of cloth suitable for making clothes. Since you had to make biscuits anyway, the shirts were free if you could make one. Mom could make one. Course we didn't like them very much because our classmates knew what the deal was and homemade shirts did not cut it even in that time and place. Remember Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors". Same thing. Those shirts were handmade, but they were homemade, and that did not gain much respect.

I make these bowls at my home, so I suppose you could say they are homemade. But homemade carries a connotation that is definitely negative and I don't sell homemade bowls. Handmade carries a connotation that is distinctly positive, so all my bowls are handmade. Don't tell anybody I make them at home. I can sell them for more money.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Dust Collector

Do you have a dust collector? I worked for years in a dank basement with little light and a damp floor. As I have said before, I used to walk over a pile of chips and shavings to get to the lathe and I only cleaned it up about every three months because I hated so much to empty the shop vac. Net result is lung and nasal congestion, musty odor in the house and corrosion on the tools. Plus when you have limited time to turn, you don't want to spend it on cleaning, you just want to turn.

When I was able to start a new shop building, one high priority item on the list was a dust collector. I checked into several different brands and went with the Oneida brand. I sent them a shop layout with the tools located and with a spot picked out for the collector and they did a detailed design of the system with proper sizing of the blower and all of the pipes sized to ensure the proper flow of air from all machines. Once I approved the system, they did a detailed parts takeoff and then shipped the whole package to me in about a week. It went together pretty easily since my shop is on a crawl space and I was able to run all the pipes under the floor. It is one of the best features of the shop. It has a three horse blower (sucker?) and is connected to each machine with a valve at each one so you can direct the air flow. My favorite is the floor sweep which is an open vent with a kick open flap door. It is below the lathe and when you turn on the blower (with the pocket remote switch) and kick open the door, all that is required is to sweep dust towards the vent and it is gone. I sweep the floor these days just for the fun of it.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Shop Dignity

When I was on the mountaintop watching Mike Mahoney turn a couple of weeks ago, he said the most amazing thing. He had two sanders. I don't mean he has two electric sanders. Everybody has that. He meant he has two hired hands (people I mean) that do nothing but sand the bowls. Now you have to understand that no one likes to sand. It is boring, messy, dusty (duh), and hazardous to your health. Nobody wants to sand anything. When I heard him say it, it took me a minute to comprehend what he was telling us. He actually has two people who do nothing but sand his bowls after he makes them. Can you imagine? You just mount a piece of wood on the lathe, turn it off to a shape you like and you know will sell, and as soon as you get done with it, you take it off and hand it to the sanding person and you don't even have to apologize for that ridge in the corner of the bottom which you were too lazy to try to clean up cause you didn't want to sharpen the tool one more time. And if they want to complain about your technique, you just hire someone else.

Then I got to wondering who these sanding people must be. Is it some elderly grandmotherly type who will spend hours on every tiny pore and would sacrifice herself on a burning pyre of cracked bowl blanks if she found a scratch left in the bottom of an otherwise perfect specimen? Maybe it is a retired hippie (when have you heard that word?) who does it because it gives him just enough money to buy his weed and he can take long lunch hours and zone out with a joint and it numbs the afternoon up enough to make a little more cash to repeat the cycle. Probably has to pay him an hourly wage -- not by the hour, but on the hour, just so he will keep working, plus run another dust pipe to his work station to keep down the fumes. Or maybe it is a young couple who bring their children to work with them so they don't have to pay child care (do they make baby dust masks?) and they are saving their money to go on a world cruise. I saw a guy in the last issue of "Fine Homebuilding" who worked about two months of the year and then cruised the world in his boat with his family the rest of the year. I wonder.

You are probably asking yourself by now what all this has to do with "Shop Dignity". Well, it's like this. When I first started woodworking about 40 years ago, I worked in the basement of our first house and started with a work bench I made out of two by pine. We built a new house and I had a one car garage to fill up and soon did so. I used to pride myself on walking over the top of the pile of shavings at the lathe because it was a sign of how much work I was getting done and I really could reach the lathe better. But the big problem was I had to share all that joy with the riding lawnmower. There was no other place to put it and I was not going to leave it out in the rain. So there it sat watching me. And me nursing a growing disdain and festering hatred for its intrusion into my personal space. No woodworker should have to suffer the indignity of having to share space with the stupid lawnmower, especially one whose battery runs down every winter out of pure spite and animosity. The height of my woodworking ambition was to have a shop where the lawnmower did not live. Well, joy of joys, I inherited some money and found myself in a position to build a shop in the back yard. It is a separate building and the lawn mower is allowed to sniff around the outside, but it will never set its solid rubber front tires in my shop. At last, I have made it -- I am a real woodworker with a real shop with no lawnmower in it.

And then Mahoney comes along and has two sanders.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Walnut Bowl

There comes a time in the making of every bowl when it is fish or cut bait. You start off with a piece of rough wood and generally cut away the bad part and see what is left over. That idea is usually expressed rather pompously as "I let the wood tell me what to do". It boils down to you work with what you have left over because that is what you have. (Sounds like life to me, don't you think?) Then comes decision time. You have to pick a shape and go with it. I suppose there are some basic rules, but when you have already spent a fair amount of time or money on a chunk of wood up to this point, you want to make the best of it. So you pick a shape and start cutting. The other half of the process is the wood only comes off -- you can't put it back on. Once it's gone, you are stuck with it (life again?), and the difference between good and pretty darn nice is less than an eighth of an inch. So you put a shape on it, hang your ego on it, go to work and hope for the best. That ego part is the hard part.

The walnut bowl shown here had a hitch. One way of attaching the wood to the lathe chuck is by cutting a recess in the bottom of the blank and then expanding the jaws of the chuck into it. When I cut the recess, I made it too big and my chuck would not expand enough to hold the bowl while I hollowed it out. Several different solutions would work, none easy. I finally decided to buy new jaws for the chuck and swap them out. After a trip to Highland Woodworking, burning up a Christmas gift card on a set of new jaws, and the rest of it went like clockwork. I sanded it up good and put one coat of Mahoney's walnut oil on it so far and I think it is beautiful. I still debate the shape and guess I will wonder a long time if it could have been better. But it is done now and I will add a few more coats of finish and then put it up for sale on the site.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Angsty Bowl

I created this bowl as a commentary on the continuing degradation of the moral situation in our country today. I have a passion for work with social relevance and this piece just captured me. As it emerged from the rough block, it spoke to my soul of the chaos and vapidity so evident in cities today. The holes that appeared as I dug deeper into the block speak of the loss of moral authority and social mores within society. I love the way the black and gray streaks juxtaposed on the white background of the wood reflect on what I perceive as the lack of leadership exhibited by rising generations and are a symbol of the moral relativism invading society. The absence of a finish material which lets the wood soak up anything put into it speaks to the propensity of society to simply absorb current trends and fail to question authority and the decisions of our governments at all levels, even to the very top of the bowl. This piece lets me indulge my passion for angsty work as well as the occasional pretty bowl.

On the other hand, it could be just a bowl. You can buy it at