The Return of the Portière?

We live in a house with a glass front door that looks straight into the bathroom. Add to this problem two cats who love to bang open the bathroom door and you’ve got a recipe for an embarrassing encounter with the UPS man. Could a portière be in our future?

A portière is a curtain that hangs in a doorway. It has a dual function: privacy and heat conservation. It stands in where a door would be clunky and inconvenient. Unfortunately, other than the beaded curtain fad of the 1960s, the portière seems to have disappeared. Was it because those beaded curtains messed up your big hair?

Screen Shot 2017-08-11 at 8.48.22 AM

Though, it should be noted, the beaded curtain predates Ann-Margaret:


But I digress.

Image: Amagase.

Image: Amagase.

The Japanese have a version of the the portière called Noren (暖簾) that can be found both inside and outside homes and businesses. According to Wikipedia,

Exterior noren are traditionally used by shops and restaurants as a means of protection from sun, wind, and dust, and for displaying a shop’s name or logo. Names are often Japanese characters, especially kanji, but may be mon emblems, Japanese rebus monograms, or abstract designs. Noren designs are generally traditional to complement their association with traditional establishments, but modern designs also exist. Interior noren are often used to separate dining areas from kitchens or other preparation areas, which also prevents smoke or smells from escaping.

Screen Shot 2017-08-11 at 8.40.47 AMThe August 1903 issue of Gustav Stickley’s The Craftsman has a few pages devoted to portières. At over $200 each in today’s dollars, these were luxury items. [1]

IMG_3126The very same portal that allows our UPS driver a full view of our bathroom has the telltale evidence of a past portière. In the doorway you can see the holder for a curtain rod that once held a portière.

In the name of modesty, I’ve added the portière to my long house restoration bucket list.


107 Urban Beekeeping with Terry Oxford

Terry Oxford is a rooftop beekeeper in San Francisco. On this episode of the podcast we discuss her natural beekeeping methods and her efforts to stop the use of systemic neonicotinoid pesticides such as Imidacloprid. Terry’s website is Urban Bee San Francisco. We get into a lot of topics including:

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.


On Sharpening Tools


4,000/800 grit Japanese whetstone

It seems to me that there are two foundational skills that inform everything else that we humans do: the study of philosophy and the knowledge of how to sharpen our tools. I studied neither philosophy nor sharpening in school but I’m determined to fix these two gaping holes in my education. I won’t bore you with an account of my philosophy self study but I would like to share what I learned about sharpening this past weekend.

While one can pick up a lot about philosophy from reading books, sharpening is a skill best learned hands-on. For this reason I’m not going to give detailed sharpening instructions in this post but I will note the basic principles. It’s simple: you move from course abrasives to finer ones and finish with polishing. If you’re working on a damaged tool, say a chisel that hit a nail or a knife that was used improperly, you will need to start with a grinding wheel or a really coarse abrasive.


Nagura stone (used for maintaining whetstones).

Economical Sharpening
In terms of price and versatility, it’s hard to beat a Japanese whetstone. With a set of whetstones you can polish everything from kitchen knives to chisels and planes. After the sharpening class I picked up a double sided 800/4,000 grit whetstone and few additional accessories: a sharpening stone holder, a honing guide, a nagura stone and a knife strop. The holder keeps the stone from slipping on your work surface, the honing guide helps you hold the right angle when sharpening chisels and planes, the nagura stone is a hard stone used to flatten and maintain the whetstone and the strop (just a piece of leather mounted to a board) is the last step for polishing your tools.


Strop and abrasive.

The strop comes with a stick of abrasive that you rub on the leather.

61QVeylBzPL._SL1000_Uneconomical Sharpening
At the sharpening workshop we also had a hands on session with the Saab of sharpening tools, the Swedish-made Tormek T-7. The Tormek will set you back $800 plus at least $200 more for a set of guides. At that hefty price tag it’s a tool for zealots or future sharpening entrepreneurs. We also looked at but did not use a more economical Work Sharp tool sharpener that both grinds and polishes.

Sharpening is one of those topics that inspires spirited debate and lengthy conversations involving bevel angles and the finer points of metallurgy. But one need not get lost in the details. Just take a class (the one I took was at a Rockler store) and practice. That’s what I did and now our knives cut tomatoes, our garage is full of sharp chisels and all I can think about is the ontology of bevel angles and the teleology of chisel metallurgy.


Saturday Tweets: Old Farms and Old Books

Epic Rants and Raves


I’ve made good use of my late mom’s iPad to explore the world of free online 19th and early 20th century literature. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been slowly making my way through all of Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman Magazine (I’m reading the 1905 issues this week) as well as Moby Dick (never read it in school), May Morris’ Decorative Needlework and the writings of John Ruskin and William Morris.

From these tomes I’ve bookmarked a few epic rants that I suspect Root Simple readers will appreciate. First, as quoted in The Craftsman, the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson,

We are students of words: we are shut up in schools, and colleges, and recitation-rooms, for ten or fifteen years, and come out at last with a bag of wind, a memory of words, and do not know a thing. We cannot use our hands, or our legs, or our eyes, or our arms. We do not know an edible root in the woods, we can not tell our course by the stars, nor the hour of the day by the sun. It is well if we can swim and skate. We are afraid of a horse, of a cow, of a dog, of a snake, of a spider. The Roman rule was to teach a boy nothing that he could not learn standing. The old English rule was, ‘All summer in the field, and all winter in the study.’ And it seems as if a man should learn to plant, or to fish, or to hunt, that he might secure his subsistence at all events. and not be painful to his friends and fellow-men. The lessons of science should be experimental also. The sight of a planet through a telescope is worth all the course on astronomy; the shock of the electric spark in the elbow, outvalues all the theories; the taste of the nitrous oxide, the firing of an artificial volcano. are better than volumes of chemistry.

Enjoy the “taste of the nitrous oxide” kids!

A quote to hang over your workbench

Gustav Stickley, in addition to manufacturing furniture, freely gave away plans to his readers in the pages of The Craftsman. These plans were preceded by long, meandering meditations on the DIY ethos that, sadly, have been omitted from the Dover Edition of Stickley’s furniture plans due to the overrated 21st century obsession with “getting to the point.” Here’s an excerpt from one of those introductions,

It must also be distinctly understood that the proper preparation for this freedom, both of the mind and in design and work, can only come to full fruition by compelling your hands to obey you in doing whatever you have undertaken. Do not think for one moment that you can do good individualistic work, until you have demonstrated that you can copy so that the sternest critic must commend what you have done. Bliss Carman never wrote a truer thing than when he said: “I have an idea that evil came on earth when the first man or woman said, ‘That isn’t the best I can do, but it is well enough.’ In that sentence the primitive curse was pronounced, and until we banish it from the world again we shall be doomed to inefficiency, sickness and unhappiness. Thoroughness is an elemental virtue. In nature nothing is slighted, but the least and the greatest of tasks are performed with equal care, and diligence, and patience, and love, and intelligence. We are ineffectual because we are slovenly and lazy and content to have things half done; we are willing to sit down and give up before the thing is finished. Whereas we should never stop short of an utmost effort toward perfection, so long as there is a breath in our body.”

Now that is something worth writing out and hanging over one’s work-bench. It is on a line with St. Paul’s: “I have fought a good fight,” or Robert Browning’s emphatic words, where in the preface to his poems he says: “Having hitherto done my utmost in the art to which my life is a devotion, I cannot undertake to increase the effort.”

Further reading
Looking for some 19th century summer reading? How about Abe Lincoln’s favorite non-fiction book, An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce, which tells the story of a crew shipwrecked and enslaved by a Saharan tribe (thank you Futility Closet for the tip on that one). And if you’re looking for more seafaring tales there’s always Two Years Before the Mast. Lastly, if you haven’t read Moby Dick, well, what can one say about a book that spends an entire, breathtaking chapter on the color white or pulls both Plato and Thomas Cranmer into a description of sitting atop the masthead?