Thinking like a machinist

I know it's been a while, a long while, but I'd like to get back to writing and blogging.

To start in, I thought I'd talk about something a bit new for me.  That was getting to spend a few nights learning how to use a Southbend Mill and doing some machining.  Mills are very different beasts compared to most regular woodworking tools.  Metalworking is quite different too (there's no grain direction?)

What I learned is this isn't a totally different world in which there is no overlap with woodworking.  In fact, we in woodworking shops could learn a lot from machine shops.  The biggest initial take away is that machinists are really good at measuring.  Like crazy good.  In many cases, it's because the tools are designed to do that.  Dial and digital calipers are very reliable and remove the parallax and positioning problems of rules.  Setup blocks are great for very accurate but simple positioning.  Dial indicators are amazing at seeing small differences (really small!) and making movements of stops and sleds repeatable.

There has been a feeling in woodworking that the extreme accuracy of machining just isn't necessary.  I've found that even if it's isn't truly necessary, why not do it anyway.  If it's actually faster and easier, the added accuracy is simply a bonus.  Dial calipers and indicators are getting more common at woodworking stores too.  Something nice you can do with even the cheapest pair of calipers - check the sizes of drill bits without trying to read that tiny engraving (I'm not getting younger and that text is getting smaller).

Another concept I learned is more a change in thinking.  In woodworking, we're not always jig or setup minded.  Sure, there are a bunch of standard jigs out there, but machinists are in the habit of figuring out how to make a jig or setup for just about any operation.  How we make and use jigs on something like a table saw is different from on a mill, but the concept is the same.  Need to know how to hold a piece and rotate it by an accurate 15 degrees, I'll bet with some thinking there's a way.  There's a lot of machinist videos with tips and techniques.  We don't have to be content with machines as the come.  

Finally, why can't our drill presses be more like mills?  One item I especially liked on the mill was the table which had a height adjustment in the front (how many of us loathe reaching around the back to adjust height).  Plus, it keeps it's position with the bit and it has lots of places to clamp stuff too.  Keeping that X-Y position to the bit is super helpful if you need to lower the table to change a bit and then want to raise it back up, but keep your center.  I'm actually thinking of trying to after market something onto my drill press to do this.  I will say, don't use your drill press for milling, they aren't made for it, it's rough on the machine and can lead to accidents.

What do you think?  Can we merge machining into some of our woodworking practices?  The machinists I talked with enjoyed having a woodworker around for a different perspective too (wait, you take the part to tool?)  I see a lot of fun and interesting possibilities.  

Posted on April 8, 2018 .

What To Do When You're Hurt?

So, a couple of weeks ago I was out mountain biking and apparently I forgot that I'm getting a bit older and I don't bounce as well as I used to.  I tried to take on a tougher obstacle, went over the bars and badly sprained my right thumb in the process.  Iced it for a week (often using cold beers as the ice), then saw my doctor, got an x-ray and was told no break but I should wear a splint for a few weeks.

Here I am then, a right handed person without being able to use most of my right hand for several weeks.  What do I do?  How am I supposed to work in the shop.  Should I even be trying.

Luckily, there are other things that I can do so stay productive even if I'm not making dust.

  1. I can work on designs.  I can't write too well, but I can work with a ruler and pencil well enough.  I have ideas for several more puzzles and this is a perfect time to start working up some drawings and figuring out what will and will not work.
  2. Create technical  drawings in Sketchup.  This is a free 3D drawing tool that is fairly easy to use but there is a learning curve.  Lots of how-to's online and many paid courses are available.  It's a good way to model a project for real and you can print out drawings.
  3. New tool research!  Yes, we all want new tools but some require more background research than others.  I'm looking into CNC so this is a great time to hunt down reviews, watch videos, head to stores that carry them, etc.
  4. Talk to or visit other woodworkers.  I am certainly guilty of not getting out and socializing enough.  Maybe I can't go cross country to visit someone, but perhaps this is a perfect time to send a note to an old friend and finally e-mail that one person who's work you've admired about how much you like what they do.
  5. Reading.  I have several books to get into.  Like Puzzle Craft and Wooden Boxes which are two books currently sitting next to me.  Puzzle Craft helps me come up with new puzzle ideas while Wooden Boxes covers the creation of some amazing boxes.
  6. Nap.  I mean, really, who doesn't like a nap.

I'm sure there are many more ideas, but these are just a few to keep you busy in the event you ever find yourself nursing an injury that prevents you from woodworking.  Do you have any other ideas?

Posted on August 7, 2016 .

Buzzing around the shop

Well, it has been far too long since I've written on this blog.  I have been busy keeping up Facebook and Instagram and building things, plus handling a day job.  There's been a lot happening, even if my woodworking has been a bit slower than I'd like.

For starters, I needed to take care of a quick job for the house - building some carpenter bee traps.  If you don't have these in your area, they are a fairly large bee, that while not aggressive, will chew through all kinds of wooden structures, like our pergola and barn.  You can kill them, but more will come back.  So, I grabbed a bit of red oak, made 4 sides per box (and mitered them, because, why not!) then drilled holes in each side that will let the bees in.  Then you put a bottom on, drill a hole in and put a soda bottle in that hole.  Pop on a top, hang it near bee activity, wait and hope.  It was fun to do something simple for a change.

Also happening in the shop is a run of 13 tea/keepsake boxes with a hidden spring loaded drawer.  I've wanted to try out doing a larger run of boxes.  I started these back around February/March thinking I'd be done in about 2 months.  Well, my estimate was a tad off.  I'm closing in on completing all  the construction, maybe a few more weeks, then I can start finishing.

This has been a big learning experience for me.  I've done up to 5 of an item, but never 13.  While it's taken a lot longer than I liked, it hasn't been without any triumphs.  You get better at doing multiples and jigs become your friend.  My puzzle makers sled has gotten quite a workout and has performed very well.  Areas where my skills or shop setup are deficient are very noticeable now.  Even through I tried to make everything the same, small errors show up and then that means hand fitting parts.  Hand fitting slows things down a lot.

I'm also seeing just how tough it is to try and do this scale of woodworking with only a few hours of week to put in.  Many errors happen just because I get part way done, then have to let things sit for days, then when I come back I hope I'm doing the right things.  It's amazing how piece meal projects like this can have errors show up.  Perhaps my sweet spot might be 6 of an item, I'll have to keep considering what volume is right for me.

So, I'm going to try to do more blogging and videos in addition to my regular Facebook and Instragram updates.  I have more puzzle ideas and I'd love to write about those and how I'm making them.  I'm also on a new laptop that doesn't have my full photo library, so i need to fix that and get pictures posted again.

Keep building!

Posted on May 29, 2016 .

Setup Blocks, Where have you been all my life?

As a puzzle box maker, I'm finding myself more and more working to engineering tolerances.  I spend more time with calipers in my hand than a rule.  Recently, I added a set of setup blocks.  What are setup blocks, you ask?  They are very accurately sized steel blocks of common sizes, such as 1/6", 1/8", 1/4", 1/2", 3/4".  As you can see here ...

Each of the black blocks is accurately sized - I checked them against my calipers and they are good to within .0001.  The block that they are sitting on is called a 1-2-3 block.  In each dimension, it is either 1", 2", or 3" and it is also just as accurately size.  With all these blocks, you can make a wide variety of different measurements.

How would you use them.  Actually, very easily and probably much easier than most other methods.  Lets say you want to set a stop block on your table saw exactly 2 1/4" inches from the blade.  You could make a mark on a test piece, but it, measure, then adjust the fence this way or that until it's just right.  Or, you could grab your 1-2-3 block and the 1/4" spacer, put them by the blade, slide up your stop block and clamp it down.  I like option 2.  And, when I worked, I found the accuracy of the cut piece outstanding.  Just remember to remove the blocks before turning on the saw!

Here's another common task - you want to set the depth of a plunge router cut, say for making a recess.  You could set the router so the bit is plunged flush with the surface of the workpiece, then with a square try to set the plunge distance of the bit or you could scrounge around for a scrap piece the thickness you need to set the plunge stop.  An easier way, set the router on a flat surface, plunge it till it touches the surface, then loosen the plunge stop, grab a spacer of the thickness you need, put it in your plunge adjuster and lock it down.  Once again, another very accurate job.

 What else?  Lot of things (for which I didn't grab pictures).  Set the height of a router bit at the table - just stock the blocks and adjust to bit to the same height (it's easy to feel when they are the same).  Set your router fence, select the right blocks and position them between the bit and the fence.  Lock in a dial caliper width - measure the right setup block and lock down the calipers.  

Where to find these blocks?  I got these from Lee Valley.  You can probably find others via web searches or Amazon as well.  The set I received was well machined and I know Lee Valley stands behind their work.  Most places that sell metal working equipment will likely have these as well.  Sizes of sets can vary.

Want to adjust to even smaller distances?  Get a set of feeler gauges (automotive stores have these) and you make changes down to .0001 inches.  Yes, you can accurate and easily set of a cut at the table saw to 2.0001 inches.

What am I doing when not setting things to tight tolerances?  I am wrapping up the latest set of puzzle boxes - which I have now decided to call "The Button".  The amount of work needed is greater than I imagined, but they are moving along nicely and I hope to have at least 2 out of 5 done in the next 1-2 weeks. I have plans for a set of simpler puzzle boxes in my head and I'd like to get moving on those as well.  Plus there's a crazy new customizable cipher machine in the back of my mind that needs some time at the drawing board.  We're in the peak holiday season, so it seems I'm losing  part of every weekend to a party as well.

Posted on November 29, 2015 .

Bits and Bobs and Musings

So I realize that I have not posted in quite some time.  I've had quite a lot going on, plus I've managed to put a few new videos up on my Youtube site.  There is a new set of puzzle boxes in the works - the getting done of which has taken up a great deal of my time.  I did want to video some of this work, which, trust me, does not make the build process go any faster.  However, i feel good when I can give something back, even if I'm not much a pro at video work.

Video is interesting for me.  I like doing it, but I recognize how much of an amateur I am.  Video is truly a learned art and process.  There is so much more than just "point and record".  Good framing is critical (in a few of my videos I get out of frame!) as it's hard to demonstrate something that's off camera.  Having a good speaking cadence helps with clarity.  Also, some practice on what to say and in what order makes the videos go more smoothly.  Lighting - yeah, mine isn't so good, I need to get something better.  Once you done all that, then you get to edit it (I use iMovie on my Mac, cuz, well, it was free).  Then you can upload.  Then (getting the feeling you are never done!) you inform all your social media outlets of the video.  Finally, you can sit back and let the views roll in.

Back in the shop, the new set of puzzle boxes is coming along nicely.  This is a build of 5 boxes (one of which I hope to keep with me).  This is where the spring open drawers, slider lock puzzles and other items are all going.  I've enjoyed this series of boxes.  It pushed me into some new territory, like doing a lot of small parts work.  I've also spent quite a bit of time with pencil and paper working out the puzzles, how they would function, estimating difficulty and the general look.  It's truly been an interesting journey, one that I hope to conclude soon.  I had so many plans I had to start cutting some thing or I'd either never finish the boxes or have to make them ridiculously expensive (as a maker, I've tried to keep things reasonable-ish).

Coming out of this set of boxes I also had the idea for a run of smaller boxes using some of the same concepts.  Since I've built several jigs to construct these boxes, I would hope to move faster on another set.  And, making them a bit smaller and simpler allows me to have a range of prices and features.  Plus, I'm considering building the parts to several projects, but leaving them unfinished so that I can customize the puzzles for customers.

Finally, one of my favorite game series released a new game.  That's Fireproof Games The Room 3  I've been a gamer since the early days of PCs.  Lately, I haven't upgraded my desktop or my console enough to play current games (I have nothing that can run Fallout 4).  But along come The Room series, that runs on my iPad.  If you've never heard of this series of games, it's essentially a giant puzzle box meets escape the room.  The game is exquisitely crafted and uses the touch interface masterfully.  Plus, the sounds are amazing as you interact with the puzzles.  There is a supernatural aspect to the games and a slight horror bent (very slight).  Overall, I've loved the series and it helps me come up with new idea.  Some things only work in the digital world, though!

Now, back to the shop (um, wait, after I mow off the leaves) so I can work on puzzle boxes, listen to podcasts and If I'm lucky and Eagles win today.

Posted on November 15, 2015 .