Monday, March 30, 2009

Fruits of Labor

All these pretty little curly-twirly things are actually quite useful for something beyond fire tinder. Realizing that it is hardly fun for a 3 year old to stand around while Dad does grown-up things in the shop, last weekend I came up with an idea for Sylvia. It was successful and this weekend she commenced with Phase 3 in the development of her towering sculpture of wood by-products. It started with my buckets full of scrap and a cast-off partial sheet of OSB from a packing crate:

I think they're beautiful, but it turns out to Sylvia the shavings are pretty cool, too. They're not unlike snowflakes -- each one unique -- except they don't melt. This allows her to incorporate their individual shapes into her project. She was giddy sorting through the pile, remarking that certain ones looked like springy-sproings, others like ice cream cones and some like ribbons, bows and flower petals. When we ran out of 2X4 blocks I ripped some more with a handsaw. Sylvia roared with laughter as the chunks exited the bigger hunk, pinging off the garage door behind me.

I was a bit proud of myself since I'd found a creative way to make Mom and daughter happy while simultaneously getting some of my stuff done. Stuff, ya know, like making sure all the clamps are arranged just so. Here's a quick shot Sylvia snapped of me:

Sylvia knows we'll be building her a real bench this spring, so she's started showing more of an interest in acquiring real tools. We got her a small hammer a couple of weeks ago. Since Dad's been toying with planes she wanted to give it a try. I just happened to have a Sylvia-sized hobby plane about 2.5" long that fits her hand quite nicely. She made a few squiggly shavings of her own which promptly stuck to her Hello Kitty gloves.

I was happy to distract her from the sculpture for a bit. Every one of her sessions might be an hour or so of self-contained fun, but it also drains 6-8 ounces of wood glue. That stuff's starting to add up. Good thing I have the gallon jug for refills.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Happy Spring

I know, I'm a few days late. I was busy soaking in the warm sun. We not only crossed the seasonal line on the calendar, we got the weather to match. It has been amazing. Something I learned quickly after moving here is that Minnesotans love to talk about the weather. I think that is in part because we get some damn fine weather along with the dramatic stuff. Honest, in-your-face weather. "You can't hide anything from your Mom" kinda weather. It can be brutal and it can also be brutally kind. I love it.

My love of weather is a primary reason I like riding my bike so much. You can't hide from the weather on a bike. I realize this is a huge obstacle for some people. It's hard not to exude some level of smug superiority for willingly subjecting my body to the wide range of outdoor elements. I remind myself often that many consider it foolish. Besides, I have a confession. This past winter I drove to work at least one day a week for the latter part of the season. I wanted a break and for the most part it was rewarding. You want to know a weird thing though? I'd predetermine the day I would drive since April doesn't need the car on Wednesdays and Fridays. As if the weather itself were taunting me we'd often get some break in the cold or precip. I estimate I drove on some of the nicest riding days of winter. Go figure.

So all this bragging about weather and I have to admit this morning was vexing -- mid 40s and wind-driven rain. The wind had some sort of sixth sense -- it shifted every time my route changed direction just so it could remain in my face. A co-worker who also pedaled this morning confirmed it. The wind has a bee in its bonnet for bikers.

In other more important news: Willa Fleck turned 1 year old today! We hosted a wee shindigger yesterday in her honor. April made a wonderful cake. The kids played and fell and played some more. Willa made out like a bandit and scored some nice stuff including a rocking moose from IKEA. I got to do what I love to do at parties -- hang out back by the grill, roasting tasty bits and drinking beer. I actually had a couple of friends wielding planes in the shop by the end of it all. It was a fun time. Livin' the dream, as a friend of mine is prone to say.

Maybe it is livin' the dream.

Snow's on its way tomorrow. Happy spring!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Socialist Pot Smoking Atheist Does Not Believe Obama is the Messiah

Sometimes I want to ask, because I wonder, how much is too much? I realized lately that I ponder this question a lot: How often do we all take ourselves too seriously?

How much is too much? Whether we drink more than others think we ought to. Whether some athlete chooses to smoke a little pot. Whether we place stickers on bikes that scare law enforcement in an age of post-protectionism and terror. Whether humor is bawdy or off-color and just happens to offend someone because they don't like a certain word or phrase. Whether we think republicans are evil or hippies are lazy. Whether some confused woman wants, through artificial means, to exponentially increase the US population and the burden on taxpayers.

I ask another basic question (and I'm not trying to be flippantly libertarian or quasi-anarchist): People, when did we have to start taking everything and ourselves so seriously? I think this phenomenon is a manifestation of the ultimate kind of ego -- an ego of national, societal and cultural proportions.

I will admit there's one thing that needs to be taken very seriously -- as a culture we need to seriously lighten up and learn how to laugh at this preposterous construction we regard as absolute and worthy of any and all sacrifice to preserve. Lighten up. It (your/our reality) is not worth all that. Perception is fickle. Perception is subjective. Your view is yours and no one else knows what the hell you're looking at.

Rest assured of a few things: The Communists are at bay. Obama is not a fascist. Socialism is not bad and chances are you ought to learn more about it before current headlines or comments by overstuffed talk show Republicans cause you to shit your pants. You are not the only one who "gets it," but you are the weirdo you worried you'd become. So what?

Questioning is not insulting. Criticism is not hatred. Do you know the difference? Perhaps you need to educate yourself. And perhaps you ought to adjust your tone. Blame never got any soul off a sinking ship.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Twisted Friend

I'm going to the doctor
To ask and see
Whether removing my
Memory's a possibility
If the answer is yes
I'll beg him please
To cut mine out and wrap it tight
Then ship it in a box
Labelled "Atlantic City"
Oh yeah, I'll ask him to help me forget
All about a band called
The Hold Steady

Monday, March 9, 2009

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I was a cute, if accident prone, kid. The year was 1974 and I was 13 months old. This photo was taken shortly following what was perhaps the most formative injury of my life -- the knife accident that caused blindness in my right eye. I was fortunate. The hunting knife that fell from the shelf of my father's gun rack was over a foot long. It could have killed me; at the least it could have sliced surrounding skin on my face and caused further scarring. But in characteristic fashion of large life events there is some sliver of bizarre luck lining the overall gruesomeness, tempering the stultifying reality of gross misfortune. This large knife fell from a couple of feet above me. The blade cut into my eyeball only, severing the cornea across my pupil and part of the iris. Somehow that was it. The hundreds of tiny stitches put things back together and although I could still sense light and some movement I would never again see with my right eye.

My tone is not meant to sound dramatic. The accident was simply something I lived with. It happened so early in life that I adapted. Some people don't see how when they perform a quick test -- cover one eye and try to walk a straight line or drive down the road. You can't accurately draw a comparison to losing an eye as an adult. I never fully developed stereoptic vision. I learned to compensate for a lack of peripheral vision on my right side. While 3-D movies do nothing for me, I can think of little else that I have been held back from doing. It never seemed like such a big deal, consciously anyway.

In the grand scheme that's true since it speaks to my reality. However, it does not take into account the impact on my family, specifically my Dad. He was there when it happened. Fresh from a hunting trip, he bumped the rack while hanging his rifle. He looked on in horror as the knife lay on the floor and I screamed and cried in shock. He drove us to the hospital and stood by as the medical personnel strapped me down in order to evaluate my injury and treat me. He was questioned by social services, asked to explain why I got into so many accidents requiring medical attention, the implication being that he was not a good father. I'm sure he questioned himself. He was not a bad father and he was certainly not abusive toward me. I just had some karma to burn and that was no fault of his.

My Dad and I did not part on the best of terms. He migrated from this life three years ago. The year prior we'd made up from a past quarrel that lasted several years of stubborn silence. We never resolved the dispute but agreed to put the separation behind us. It was awkwardly sincere and empty all at once. Despite the lack of resolution I'm thankful I had the chance to see him in the hospital. I read Psalms as well as Buddhist scripture to him. I squeezed his hand and told him I loved him because I did. I had a profound respect for the fact he was facing his own karma, encountering a pivotal moment of existence. I left Tennessee to return to work in Minnesota. He died a few weeks later at home, peacefully I'm told, while he slept.

After years of introspection and working with questions/issues I like to summarize my relationship with my father by saying we had a number of irreconcilable differences in ideology. It's a long story and I don't even understand all the parts of it. I have my accounts, my side of it. It's sad because he thought we were the best of friends, yet we weren't. He thought I should respect him simply because he was my father, but I wouldn't blindly pledge my allegiance based on blood. Perhaps he expected me to proudly pass on the Woodruff name, but I haven't. I wanted things he seemed unwilling to grant me -- honesty and openness; admission of guilt and hypocrisy; and concerted attempts at change.

One thing I never expected from my father was to bear the responsibility for my eye accident, but I fear he carried that weight every day. It's quite possible that was a larger obstacle in our relationship than I could have known at the time. In short, I believe I am being granted some inkling of wisdom into one of the most profound mysteries of life -- another side/sides of what we personally interpret as reality.

When I sustained my injury I was not much older than Willa:

I think about both our girls and the amount of concern I carry for their health and well being. As parents April and I are relatively laid back about the falls and crashes along with the resulting bruises and blood. But there have been those times when it's impossible not to imagine the worst (e.g. Willa shattering a full length closet mirror by pulling it away from the wall onto herself). Adrenaline races and the heart pumps in those moments.

I've felt that rush of fear enough times to have played the possible outcomes over in my mind. One of those is that we'd have to run to the hospital or call an ambulance. I hope we never have to do so and I'm not obsessed by the thought. But I feel I have personal history that compells me to remain aware of the possibility, to ask the question "How would it affect me?" The short answer is I believe I'd be devastated and I would feel responsible, or at least inadequate because I wasn't able to protect Sylvia or Willa from harm. Is that natural? Yes. Is it good? Not necessarily. It's complex though. If you are a parent and you're reading this you'll most likely understand.

I'm trying not to grasp too tightly. Discovering that old photo in a neglected file folder just made me begin to think. While I do not regret the stance I took with my father and I do not believe my views to have been unreasonable, I am remiss when I imagine his pain. If I could have had context, could even have known a fraction of the guilt he carried for my accident, I would have told him openly and honestly: It was not your fault; I don't hold you responsible.

You were a good father, Dad. I love you.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

I'd Have Gotten Away With It, Too, If It Weren't for You Fettling Kids

"Fettle?" you ask. Yes, fettle. Fettle the metal. A fetish for fettling. Fettle -- what is this you mean? As best I can tell it is a slightly more pretentious and arcane way of saying "tune;" tune in the sense of making something work better, optimizing its performance. "It" is of course a plane, a hand plane. Yes, I'm still stuck on that and this might very well grow into one of those annoying posts. And fettle is a real word, if you're British. Or a woodworking geek. Or both.

This is Part II of my plane post. You might remember the first back in early November. Well, I wrapped it up in December around Xmas. Indulge me, for this is the rest of the story, so to speak.

Now tuning planes isn't all about cloistering myself in the garage (but at times that's not an entirely bad benefit). Even though it was 5-10 degrees I was able, courtesy of a propane heater, to warm up the spot at my bench enough to spend a few hours at a time in the garage. Add a properly layered system of dress and a stock of canned goods (no ice needed) and you have a recipe for some seriously contemplative decompression and down time.

I'd saved the largest of my planes for last -- a Stanley #5 jack plane that's about 10 years old. Not a huge plane, but the sole is 14" long and about 2.5" wide. From the factory it looked as if it had been ground with a 50-grit wheel wielded by a preschooler. I had no idea what I'd find, I just knew I was in for a lot of work if one thing wasn't readily apparent after initial sanding -- at the least the front of the sole (toe), front edge of the mouth (blade opening) and rear of the sole (heel) ought to be coplanar. The rest, my research had told me, was negligable and mainly cosmetic depending upon how ugly I didn't mind the plane looking. I'd spent 8-10 hours sanding planes up to this point and I was perfectly happy to take the minimalist approach to getting this big beast tuned just well enough to do passable work.

A piece of long, heavy gray metal can look relatively flat until you start sanding it on a sheet of sandpaper backed by flat glass. With polished high spots revealed you can really see incongruities in the surface. After 30 minutes on 80 grit paper, I had the majority of the rough grooves sanded away and could see clearly, to my dismay, that there were three pronounced low spots -- front and back of the mouth and midway back in the sole. The middle of the sole doesn't really matter, but the area in front of the mouth is where the wood meets the iron (blade) and a flat contact patch is essential for smooth strokes and clean results.

Is this making sense yet? Are you still awake out there?

I really couldn't believe it -- I'd have to sand the entire sole until I removed enough material to get the mouth in line with the heel and toe of the plane. The only way this could have happened at the factory is if the machine, or person guiding the grinder, had paused at the mouth of the plane and allowed the curved wheel to dig a furrow around the slot. Only three possible things to do: 1) Ditch the plane; 2) Relegate it to occasional use for less critical tasks; 3) Keep sanding. Options 1 and 2 meant I'd be in for a replacement plane. Option 3 represented the noble path. I had plenty of time and a pardon from April for not being indoors with the rest of the family, so I picked option 3. (No, I won't get into the particulars of why I had a pardon and did not want to be indoors with the rest of the family.)

I sanded. I wore out all my 80 grit paper. Fresh from Home Depot and armed with the contractor's pack of 80 grit, I sanded some more. I envisioned myself transformed into the Sisyphus of sanding. Those grooves sometimes looked like they were getting shallower. Then sometimes I could swear they weren't changing at all. Keep in mind the goal is to keep the entire sole flat, so it's not like I could hand sand the spots with a piece of paper, or grab the belt sander for quick material removal. I simply had to patiently hold the massive hunk of metal perfectly flat while removing microscopic amounts of iron at a time, all the while trying to work down to a point that looked like a millimeter or more, but in reality was no more than a hundredth of an inch or so. But 1/100th spread over approximately 35 sq inches is a lot of material -- especially if it's cast iron.

I eventually completed my sanding odyssey, but not in one sitting or even two. I had to let it go. Beer, patience and time eventually run out. Sometimes they ran out at the same time. The sole of that plane is not perfectly polished, but it is better than "good enough." I went ahead and completely disassembled it to sand and fit the frog. I have a bit more to do, but I am pleased to say I am almost completely finished with the project of fettling my planes. That's okay, you can say tune. But don't dare drop your pinky when you sip your tea.

Are you finished yet? Why does this matter, Fleck? Well, other than satisfying my anal-retentive desire for order and sating a certain yearning for solitary rote tedium, it means a lot. First, I'm prepared. When the weather does warm up enough to begin the growing list of projects I want to tackle I'll be able to launch into work with tools that have been tuned. My Dad was not always the best in practice, but he taught me well the theorem. And it goes something like this -- if you own a tool you should: A) Know how to use it and B) Know how to maintain it, i.e. make sure it is properly prepared to engage in the task(s) it was designed to do. To accomplish that you really have to get to know a tool.

During this process I learned tons of new information that I can use to truly bore party guests. (It's working already.) When I started this project last fall I didn't know much about planes and I didn't like that. I don't like knowing that I don't know. I knew that many folks rave about what can be done with planes, but I hadn't a clue how to make a plane perform at that level. If I own something I want to know how it works, as well as be able to maintain it and keep it in top form. (Okay, maybe that doesn't apply to DVD players or electronics, but you get the picture.) Perhaps that's one key reason I dig bikes so much -- they're easy to get, simple to work on and build with a little practice.

Another important thing I learned -- buying new hand planes is a crap shoot. These are remnants of a bygone era when hand building things was the only way. Even though power tools do lots of cool stuff, there is still much to be said for owning and being able to use planes and other manual edge tools. They're faster in some cases since they don't require set-up and they remove deliberate, gradual amounts of material -- meaning one slip up rarely means you wrecked your whole project. But companies like Stanley, whose planes were king for decades, only make the most popular sizes of the myriad they used to produce. They've also progressively skimped on production standards -- eschewed tight tolerances, replaced wood with plastic, cheapened the whole product -- until now you're left with an assembly that requires hours of adjustment to work properly.

Perhaps I also confronted a lesson in economics. The #5 plane I just finished tuning cost me about $60. I have put at least 6 hours of work into it. Granted, it is work that I enjoy in some bizarrely twisted way, but what is my time worth? It makes the seemingly exorbitant $250-$300 price tag of a precision-built, modern American or Canadian made version of that plane seem much less outrageous. You can drop your jaw at that price. I once dated a hairdresser who bought a $300 pair of scissors. I didn't get it but it made so much sense to her.

Another option exists -- antique planes. I found and purchased a couple on Ebay this winter. They were cheaper than their modern versions but despite their age the machining and fittings are much tighter. The #3 bench plane I bought was probably produced shortly after our house was built (in the early part of the last century); the #7 perhaps around WWII. How cool is that -- tools that would have been antiques when my Dad started his career as a carpenter still fully functional and capable of producing quality results?

Due to some user-induced errors involving my waterstones and sharpening I was unable to try out these two old planes until last night. Yep, it was freezing in the garage. No matter, I clamped my test board to the bench -- a 1" thick plank of slightly figured cherry -- and set out to true and square the rough edge. With some dialing of the cut depth I zeroed in on the payoff -- thin, web-like shavings billowing out of the sole.

I don't know what else to say. Perhaps some will get it when I say the feeling was like that of driving my Bug after I'd just rebuilt the engine, or landing my first trout on a fly I'd tied, or noticing I just rolled 4K miles on a bike I assembled and maintain myself. I guess I get a little hung up on connections and I lament how technology has erased the perceived need for direct connection with many parts of our lives.

Make something yourself. Perhaps something useful. Craft it well. Don't worry, honesty provides its own embellishment. Be well.