Saturday, January 31, 2009

In the new-fallen snow...

I awoke this morning to find a light coating of fluffy snow on the ground. There wasn't very much - perhaps only about an inch at the most. As I looked out the side-lights of the front door, I was watching the birds in the tree in the front yard stuffing their beaks and admiring the smooth and undisturbed blanket of snow, making everything look clean and new.

I like that about snow.

However, upon closer inspection, I noticed that the snow wasn't as undisturbed as I thought it was.

There were small grooves that looked to have been plowed through the snow. Surprisingly, they went for very, very long distances. They want from our side yard along a path that I cleared for our oil delivery. They went up and over snowbanks. They want across the driveway to my car and back. They went to the end of the driveway and apparently across the street.

What could they be?

Mouse tracks, perhaps?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009



They're very beautiful, aren't they?

I just hate it when they gang up on me.

Wordless Wednesday

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Tech Tip Tuesday

I just want some Mahogany!

Very often, the first time a novice woodworker goes to an actual lumber dealer they are absolutely staggered by the variety they find. What seems to be a very simple trip to buy wood soon becomes both a botany, engineering and economics lesson - usually in a big hurry. Take, for example, one of my students. He went to purchase some Mahogany at a good reputable local dealer. The owner, who is very knowledgeable about her product asked which Mahogany he wanted. She took him on a tour of his choices - Honduran, Khaya, Sapele, Swietenia, etc. All are considered "mahogany" but not all are Mahogany. Their grain, color, appearance, hardness, density, rot resistance, brittleness, and cost all are a bit different. The trick is to find the material that is the best balance of what you want functionally and that (hopefully) falls within your budget.

Then, just to confuse things, there are other woods like "Philippine Mahogany" which is actually Luan or a similar product, not necessarily suitable for a boat-building application, mind you, but very attractive from a cost perspective.

What's a person to do?

Well, you can do several things:
  • Ask the advice of others who are doing what you do, ask what materials they use (and why) and to go find the materials at their source.
  • Tell your local wood supplier what you're doing with the wood and ask their opinion.
  • Go do some research.
For this student's question, I went to what I consider the source. I consulted the Center for Wood Anatomy Research. This is a branch of the US Forest Service (No pun intended. Really.), which falls under the US Department of Agriculture's Forest Products Laboratory. The amount of information about wood species, their physical properties, growing conditions and uses is staggering. This information is all available to you for free. It's been paid for by the US Taxpayer and is available to anyone, anywhere. It includes information about wood that can be found worldwide.

On this website, are some other links. One is to their Common Name Database Search. A query on the common name "Mahogany" will get you about 465 hits. (The picture at the top of the page is a small selection of Mahogany samples) That's a LOT of information and can be overwhelming. However, with a little looking, you can see that very often there are common bits of information that can help you narrow your search. Once you've narrowed down the selection, there are individual datasheets to tell you about the wood. These are where the useful information lives to let you compare the types of wood.

Like with anything else, a little research and some experience will go a long way.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

But it's for my health!

DW is a wine drinker.

No doubt about it. She does like the occasional glass of white, but for the most part it tends to be a firm fan of red. A glass a night seems to be about typical. She doesn't over-do it, but tends to have one on a regular basis. While I enjoy a glass from time-to-time - maybe twice a week - I usually prefer an ale over a glass of wine. I'm not a slave to any particular brand, and like to have some variety. I do tend towards the darker ales which tend to be higher in anti-oxidants.

Favorites tend to be Merlot, Shiraz, and Cabernet/Merlot and Cabernet Shiraz blends. A little Burgandy is occasionally enjoyed as is a little Cabernet straight-up and the odd bottle of Pinot Noir. To be honest, we don't tend to be wine "snobs". We usually drink wine that is less than $10/bottle and enjoy it a great deal. Still, we do find a few bottles or brands that we don't like and tend to weed them out.

For sheer drinkability she goes for an organic red from a New York winery called "Love My Goat Red". Okayyy....

Along with a regular dose of very dark chocolate (60% is considered "light"), the use of olive oil for most of our cooking, the addition of garlic, and other green veggies, and a trend away from red meat, the wine is part of a regimen for better heart health around here. For the most part, it seems to be working for her. Her doctor tells her it has a positive effect, so I can't complain in the least.

There tends to be a lot of wine related humor around here. It comes as little comments (Can I refill your vat for you?) and things that seem to be family legend (i.e. my M-I-L seems to never be photographed without a glass of wine in hand...) For her birthday last year, we had a wine theme. We were planning some camping trips around DW's birthday, so I got a set of unbreakable Lexan wine glasses. On one of the camping trips (which was very close to her birthday) we went to the tasting room for a local winery for a tasting and found some nice, but slow-flowing stoppers and a few nice bottles of wine. When were recently visiting family and went to Annapolis with DS and DD for a walk around town. The place is full of shi-shi little shops with interesting things. When I found the dishtowel and the napkins, I couldn't resist!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Spare Forms

As you know from some of my previous posts, I took Jerry Stelmok's cedar and canvas canoe building class at the WoodenBoat School this past summer. One of the reasons that I took the class is that while I've done a fair amount of restoration and re-canvasing work on canoes, I've never done this type of boat from "scratch". I've worked on two B.N. Morris Canoes, one Chestnut, a Grand Laker, and two Old Town boats and found it to be quite absorbing.

To be honest, I enjoyed it very much. First, we worked mostly with Eastern White Cedar which works a bit like Styrofoam compared with Western Red Cedar. Western Red Cedar is the wood we commonly use for strip building and is a very brittle wood. The Eastern White Cedar isn't brittle and machines very easily. The other thing about this type of construction is that there are no adhesives to speak of used in the process. Very often during the build of a Cedar strip canoe, my students find themselves feeling like an ant in a syrup jar as they seem to wind up coated with glue and epoxy during both the stripping the fiberglassing processes.

One of the major impediments to building this style of canoe is the construction and storage of a form over which you build the canoe. They are large and heavy. The build of a complete form for a cedar and canvas canoe takes as much or more time as building the boat itself. Once constructed, you need a place to store the canoe form.

During Jerry's class, we discussed a method used by another builder and WoodenBoat instructor, Alex Comb. Alex is the proprieter of the Stewart River Boatworks. Alex has developed a method for building a cedar and canvas canoe over what can best be described as a "spare" form. It has a strongback and plywood cross-sections of the hull similar to those used for Cedar-strip construction. The difference is that the forms are small to allow for the thickness of some longitudinal stringers (attached to the cross-sectional patterns with zip ties), the mounting of the inwale and stems. Jerry had concerns about the ribs being faceted as they were bent over the stringers. He seemed to have missed one small detail. Alex uses either a piece of plastic or metal to support each rib as he bends them over the stringers and then attaches them to the inwale using a bronze ring-shank nail. Once all the ribs are installed and faired, the stringers are removed and the hull is planked. The only difference between Alex's method and traditional construction is that there are no metal bands to clench the tacks - this must be done with a clenching iron.

Another relatively non-traditional method that Alex uses is Dacron as a hull covering. I still have some questions and misgivings about this, but it looks interesting as well.

There are two articles that Alex published in the WCHA's magazine, Wooden Canoe about both subjects on his "classes" page. Here are the links to "One-Off Wood and Canvas Canoe Construction" and "Dacron for Wood and Canvas Canoes" from his website.

I find this a particularly interesting set of methods as it would allow me to teach a class in wood and canvas canoe construction at the school where I work. My students cannot store their canoes in the shop during the week as the shop is used for other woodworking classes and we have to move the canoes back and forth between the shop and a barn that is on the site. A "spare" form would be light enough to move back and forth in this manner and would allow for me to teach other classes at this school. The other interesting point is that the construction method uses slightly thinner ribs and the Dacron to produce a lighter weight canoe.

I think a little research is warranted!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Builder's Resources

I am often asked by people where they can find information on the World Wide Web about canoe building. Well, one place is here, but obviously there are many others. Here are some of my favorites:

First is the WCHA forum. The WCHA (Wooden Canoe Heritage Association) would be my first stop. While they cover all styles of canoe (cedar/canvas, cedar strip, lapstrake, etc) Their focus tends to be on cedar/canvas construction. You'll probably get your best information there.

Second would be the WoodenBoat Forum hosted by the publishers of WoodenBoat Magazine. The focus over there is more about traditional large and small craft in sail and motor, but there are still some people who will be available with information about small paddling and rowing craft, including strip construction.

There are some other resources as that are quite good as they are at professional builder's sites.

Newfound Woodworks has an excellent on-line tutorial file here.

There are some other forums hosted by strip builders. Bear Mountain Boats; owned by Ted Moores has a builder's forum that is quite good. Also, Nick Schade of Guillemot Kayaks has a forum that is intended for kayak and small craft builders mostly working in cedar strip. The Yahoo! Groups site also has a group that is targeted at cedar strip canoe builders.

I would hasten to add that with online forums and groups, you may be writing back and forth with a relative novice with strong (and sometimes incorrect...) opinions or with a professional builder with years of experience. You may have no way of knowing the difference, so be forewarned. Still, it is an excellent way to learn new tricks and to avoid some of the pitfalls posted by other beginning builders. Don't let the resource go to waste!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Monday, January 19, 2009

A tragic weekend.

One of my students in my canoe building class is a semi-retired professional woodworker. He is working on a nice Osprey kayak built to plans he purchased from Newfound Woodworks.

At any rate, he called me early on Saturday morning to let me know that he would not be at class as there was a fire at his shop. At the time, he didn't let on as to the seriousness of the fire. The business had been there for 40 years and he lost a significant investment in tools and lumber. Ironically, he was letting a friend of his who was also taking my class store his nearly stripped Wee Lassie canoe in the shop while his kayak strongback happened to be stored at the school's barn. The kayak form was safe while the other gentleman's canoe is a total loss.

The pictures say it all.

This is a sad ending to a life's work. I don't think he's going to re-build. He wasn't carrying insurance after the change in ownership of the property. There is some thought that the stationary tools might not be in bad shape. I spoke with him later and he was waiting for the state fire marshal to get back to him before he'd be allowed to salvage anything. A buddy of mine who is his step-son said that other than ice coating most of the stationary tools, they looked pretty good. I'll help them move thaw and dry the stuff out and we'll evaluate them later. Most of his stock, hand tools and hand-held power tools are a complete loss.
This an excellent reminder for the rest of us. While the cause of the fire isn't nailed down yet, there are lessons we should take away. Be careful with the storage of your solvent-based materials, and the disposal of oil-soaked rags. Clean up your dust and chips and scrap materials as a clean shop is a safe shop. Have good dust collection because airborne dust and an ignition source can cause an explosion and fire.

In the cold weather, let's be careful out there with our heat sources...

Friday, January 16, 2009

You are what you eat.

I always figure that if you are what you eat (consume) you must also be what you read. When I was in high school we had a man who was the head of the English department who proudly wore a pin that read "I read banned books". He also ensured that the students had some of those books in the curriculum including such books as Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird. Another teacher taught world literature including works by Chinua Achebe and Graham Greene and utopian literature including Animal Farm. They really worked to expand what you thought about what you read as well - to think more critically.

Today, my DW, who is a teacher and I both find that we have an extensive library. When we first met, I didn't exactly realize the extent. She had three large bookshelves in her apartment and more books in her classroom. When we moved into our first home, I made 4 medium-sized bookcases that were full immediately upon installation, but with more boxes of books in our basement. We ultimately sold the three large bookshelves. (I never hear the end of this from her...)

At the moment, I'm in the process of building a large bookshelf assembly for the living room. It's about 9' wide and 7' tall. I'm sure that when this is done, it will be full as well. The pictures above show some of the bookshelves in our house and a bit about what I am. There are cookbooks, how-to gardening books, travel books, home design and home improvement books, woodworking, boatbuilding and boat handling books. Still, we do have a "balanced diet" with some "junk food" - DW is fond of picking up paperback novels in a book exchange at our local transfer station. (Ok, "dump")

I suppose that there are exceptions to the "you are what you read" part. While I have books about various methods of canoe and kayak building, I'm also expanding my selection into sailing books and historical books about sailing canoes. I'm not a sailor yet, but perhaps I will eventually become one, someday.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Wordless Wednesday

Rushton 'Princess' model Aurora

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Tech-Tip Tuesday : Pattern Stock

When building a strip canoe, it's necessary to make patterns which are the cross-sectional shape of the canoe. Over time, I've seen a wide variety of materials used for this task. I've seen rigid foam (don't ask me how they did it...), Plywood (of various ilks...), MDF, glued up pine, and chip-board. They all have their ups and downs.

Usually, you are looking for a consistent material with no voids that is flat and thick enough for your purposes - 1/2" to 5/8" thick is usually fine. You want something inexpensive and easy to bevel. It should also resist warp and hold staples well. In the case of my students, I'm usually looking for an additional feature - light weight. (We move our forms in and out of the shop at every class!) While the pine isn't bad if you alternate the grain direction to avoid warping, I tend to prefere sheet goods for cost and ease of use.

Personally, I prefer plywood underlayment with patched voids. It's inexpensive and does the job well. If I wasn't lifting the boat and forms, I'd go for MDF as it's cheaper and very stable, although heavy. Chip-board is about the worst material I've used. It doesn't machine well, has random voids and it doesn't hold a staple well for some reason. One fellow I know prefers MDO for the nice paper face it has so that he can lay out patterns with ease. Unfortunately, it's a bit on the pricey side.

When choosing materials, I think it's very important to talk to the people at your local lumberyard. There are a wide variety of sheet goods out there - some are very similar in function, but can vary widely in price. Very often, they can point you in the direction of a less-expensive substitute if you tell them what you're doing with it.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Snow Canoeing, Anyone?


About 4 years ago, we moved from a rather small house (~1200 sq ft) to one that is nearly double the size. There were several reasons. One was the arrival of DS in addition to DD which made the two bedroom home we were in a bit tight. Another reason was that the location of the house was right on a busy road where we were truly nervous to have the children play in the yard. We also had a difficult driveway, electric heat, and not a stellar lot. I think you get the idea. One of the OTHER reasons that we wanted to upgrade was to be able to have friends and family be able to come and visit without DW and I having to give up our bedroom and sleep on the couch in the living room.

Overall, the change has been pretty nice. We now have a flat yard that is off the beaten path with a flat paved driveway that is easy to clear of snow. The neighborhood is very nice and has lots of children, although we miss our next-door neighbors from our previous house. The house is big enough for us to entertain comfortably and for people to park without shuffling cars like you were managing a Rubik's cube or playing one of those "15" puzzles. The house was in very good condition, and the maintenance requirements are very low. There were also some nice perks including the oil heat (no more schlepping wood to feed the woodstove that we were using to keep the cost of the electric heat down to a dull roar...) the whole-house airconditioner, the extra bathrooms (whew!) and a first-floor laundry. The house also has an unfinished basement with high ceilings and large potential for my new work/boat shop.

We even had my in-laws come and visit for an extended stay and I think they quite enjoyed their stay at the Chateau D'Zaster - particularly that they had The West Wing (a rather large and comfortable master bedroom suite with private bath) to themselves.

There are a few downsides. First would be that a smaller mortgage/tax/utility bills would have been nice. Strangely, it seems that we really seem to have had fewer overnight visitors since we moved into this house. Also, even though we are very thrifty with our usage and concerned about the environment, the utility bills, although small for a house this size, are still rather large - particularly the heating and water bills (the house has a sprinkler system which is really required to grow any grass...) Still, we do our best to reduce, re-use and recycle. One really strange side-effect to the house that DW found out was that sometimes you'd get visitors who didn't come back after seeing the large house - like they couldn't associate with us once they found out what house we lived in!

In the whole scheme of things we probably could have gone with a smaller house and paid to put friends and family up in a really REALLY nice local hotel when they came to visit. One driving factor was that the price was fair and that the loan rate at the time was one of the cheapest I'll probably ever see in my lifetime.

Still, would we have bought this house again? Yes, I think so.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Wordless Wednesday

A Paul Fisher rework of George Holmes' Ethel from 1888 for Campion Sail and Design

Monday, January 5, 2009

Squirrels Redux

I had been thinking of writing another post about our resident wildlife, and my friend Russ pushed me over the edge with the picture above. We have 6 relatively large and one small feeder outside for the birds and other wildlife. (read:squirrels).

  • Thistle feeder (5 pounds of seed)
  • Small window-mounted feeder (maybe a pound of seed)
  • 2 small feeders in the front yard (2-1/2 pounds of seed)
  • 2 larger feeders in the back yard (5 pounds of seed)
  • Large "Squirrel Proof" feeder (8 pounds of seed)
This is a LOT of seed. I filled the feeders last Tuesday evening before an anticipated snow storm. On Wednesday morning, we had quite a large number of birds at the feeders - chiefly goldfinches in their winter coats at the thistle feeder. Very often all 6 perches on the feeder were full and other birds were fighting to get to the perches. On Thursday morning, we left on a trip to visit family for a long weekend. On Sunday afternoon, we returned about 3 PM.

The feeders were all empty on our return.

That was 29 pounds of thistle and sunflower seeds.


Our birds and squirrels must have gotten into the espresso.

I figured I'd fill the feeders on my return home from work on Monday.

Monday, we awoke to an ice storm and I went out to spread some ice melter on the sidewalks and driveway. The tree in the front yard that holds the feeders was full of complaining birds - there were birds on the tree like Christmas ornaments on a Christmas tree. I filled the two feeders and was backing out of the driveway when the grey pigs came along and scared the birds away from the feeders. I filled the remainder of the feeders Monday after work. I'll be interested to see how long it lasts.