On the History and Uses of the Router

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Of all the many tools we humans use towards the maintenance of civilization, which one should we give the most credit: the wheel, the steam engine, gunpowder, the fondue pot or . . . the router?

Those few people who know the obscure history of the router attribute its genesis to the pyramid bewitched ancient Egyptians. In fact the router was developed by the Greeks during the Ptolemaic Kingdom. It was the pharaohs that gave us the plunge router. The Ancient Romans, copy cats that they were, merely developed variable speed control and flush-trim bits.

Missing in many recently published editions, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick contains an entire chapter devoted to the tool,

But it is a ponderous task; no ordinary letter-sorter in the Post Office is equal to it. To grope down into the bottom of the garage after them; to have one’s hands among the unspeakable foundations, moldings, and very dado of the world; this is a fearful thing. What am I that I should grasp the handles of this fearsome machine! The awful tauntings in Job might well appal me. ‘Will it (the router) make a covenant with thee? Behold the hope of it is vain!’ But I have swam through libraries and sailed through oceans; I have had to do with routers with these visible hands; I am in earnest; and I will try.

And even those who know the router’s history may not be aware of its usefulness. The router is a complete woodshop in one tool: it can shape, cut and sculpt. It’s a table saw, chisel and plane in one powerful device. In addition to its use in woodworking, the router plays an important role in fields as varied as amateur dentistry and modal logic. With a router you can literally save the world, cure disease and halt the spread of the watered down rock Nashville dares to call “country.”

You’re probably guessing that I made up most of that intro. But I’ll stick by the part about a router being an entire woodshop in one tool. I’ve used mine mostly for making baseboard molding for our old house. What I did not appreciate, until recently, is that you can do some impressive joinery with a router. Federico Tobon’s discussion of jigs on the Opposable Thumbs Podcast inspired me to increase my familiarity with my router. Of all the power tools in my small shop, the router is probably the one that most needs a jig. It’s also, perhaps, one of the more difficult tools to learn how to use. There are subtleties of feed direction, handling and bit choice that aren’t covered in the short manuals they come with.

Around our humble bungalow, I’ve launched a home remodeling holy war on malfunctioning drawers and bad Ikea furniture. Since it’s impossible to find skilled people to work on a house this small, this means a lot of the jobs I’ve got to do myself. That’s where the router comes in. If it won’t save the world, it might just save our house.

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Here’s a few things I’ve learned about routers by way of doing everything wrong:

  • Get a good router. Many years ago I got a cheap one at Sears and had to replace it almost immediately. I’ve been very happy with much higher quality Porter Cable router.
  • Make or buy jigs. I picked up a Porter Cable edge guide that I can’t believe I managed to live without for ten years. The edge guide makes the tool much easier to use.
  • Get educated. I took a router dovetail jig class at the Pasadena Rockler this past weekend. Nobody else showed up so the class turned into a really informative four hour private lesson on the use of the Porter Cable Dovetail Jig. The instructor, David, guided me through the creation of the through and half-blind dovetail joints you can see above.
  • Don’t forget safety. The thing spins at 27,500 rpm and it takes quite a while for it to come to a stop. And don’t forget to turn the power off when making adjustments. The one minor flaw in my old Porter Cable is the power switch. It’s simultaneously difficult to switch off and easy to accidentally switch on. I’ve heard that the new model’s switch is easier to use.

Now, on to a summer of drawer and furniture making!

Take a Summer Viking Break

It’s July in Los Angeles: sunny and smoggy. I don’t feel like gardening or canning. This means it’s the perfect time for a Viking break.

Back in 2010 Norweigian oil tycoon Sigurd Aase funded the construction of a brand new badass Viking longship, the Draken Harald Hårfagre. It’s the first Viking longship with its own website and gift store. The ship made it to the U.S., a reminder that Columbus wasn’t the first European to make that particular journey.

Please kick back this weekend and take your own Viking break. I recommend the ship build video above which proves the carpentry prowess of the Vikings and serves as a reminder that the Middle Ages should not be called the “Dark Ages.”

Please also enjoy viewing the Draken Harald Hårfagre take on some rough seas:

And visit New York:

Read Bungalow Magazine and The Craftsman Online

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I’m spending the long holiday weekend here in the States both working on our house and hoping it won’t burn down during LA’s long illegal fireworks show that began a month ago and reaches its zenith, though not its conclusion, on the 4th. In the evenings I’ve taken to reading bungalow related literature on my iPad and hoping the animals don’t freak out from the explosions.

The interwebs have opened a whole world of old, out of print publications from the pre-Idocracy era. Two bungalow related magazines you can read for free are Gustav Stickley’s highbrow Craftsman and bungalow entrepreneur Jud Yoho’s more humble Bungalow Magazine.

Screen Shot 2017-07-03 at 10.11.13 AMStickley published The Craftsman between 1901 and 1917. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has all issues online in their Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture. Craftsman articles are eclectic, ranging from art history lessons to progressive era moralizing, to practical furniture construction plans.

Bungalow Magazine was published between the years 1912 and 1918, first in Los Angeles and then in Seattle. The Seattle Public Library has digitized almost the whole run minus a few issues. Bungalow Magazine’s ulterior motive was to sell house plans. Its tone is more pragmatic and less Apollonian than The Craftsman.

What both publications have in common is an expectation that the reader is not just a consumer but potentially someone capable of taking up a chisel or sewing needle and making something. This DIY ethos was, of course, part of the anti-industrial agenda of the Arts and Crafts movement. One can hope that this spirit will catch on again in our disposable age.

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Federico Tobon’s Handcrafted Password Generator

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Federico Tobon is one of my favorite artist-makers. He was a guest on episode 8 of the Opposable Thumbs podcast, a show which issues a creative challenge for their guests to complete. Federico had to tackle the topic of “crafting security.” His response was to make this beautiful wooden object that, when manipulated, generates strong, multilingual passwords.

Federico’s inspiration was an xlcd comic that has some excellent password security advice:

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On the podcast and his blog, Federico describes how he made a clever jig to cut the pieces on a table saw (without loosing any fingers!). He turned an old dysfunctional 3d printer into a laser etching device to engrave the words.

You can see Federico’s art and projects on his website Wolf Cat Workshop.

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Is Stickley is the New Ikea?

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You’ll have to pardon the breakout of bungalow fever on the blog this week, but I’ve vowed to spend the summer patching, painting and fixing up things around our almost 100 year old house. One of my projects is an all out war on ugly furniture. Sorry, Ikea, but you’re out. Stickley is in.

Thanks to the folks at Archive.org you can download a copy of Gustav Stickley’s 1909 furniture catalog as well as Gustav’s brothers Leopold and John George’s 1910 catalog. Gustav and his brothers enjoyed their fifteen minutes of fame between the years 1900 and 1915. Furniture trends changed during and after WWI and Gustav’s company went bankrupt. It wasn’t until the 1970s when interest in the Arts and Crafts movement returned.

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We were lucky to have picked up an L. & J.G. Stickley rocker #811 this week that now graces our living room. At nearly 110 years old, the rocker looks a whole lot better than the disposable Ikea couch it faces. If one were to amortize the cost of a well made piece of furniture versus something cheap and disposable I think it’s obvious what’s the better choice.

Screen Shot 2017-06-23 at 8.42.24 AMCraftsman furniture seems to have fallen out of favor again with the ascendancy of mid-century modern mania. I’m hoping for a Stickley revival. To that end, please note that L. & J.G. Stickley seem to have manufactured the world’s first futon couch and it’s a lot more handsome than the ones I see discarded on every other block in Los Angeles.

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Lastly, I’m trying to think of the lifestyle adjustments that would justify a weekend in the garage making a copy of the L. & J.G. Stickley dinner gong. How exactly would a dinner gong work out in our 1,000 square foot house occupied by just two people? Would its existence prompt more inspired daily meal prep? Would reheating a frozen Trader Joe’s meal (what a friend calls the Ikea of food) in the microwave justify a bang on the gong? Would it cause the cats and dog to scatter? Should I develop a gong app instead?

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P.S.
My attempt to craft a longer blog post with a clickbait headline, “Is the Dinner Gong the New Killer App?” failed due to lack of source material, but I’d like to share this bittersweet object: a French dinner gong crafted from a WWI artillery shell.