Behold the Sector

Over the past year I’ve fallen down a traditional furniture design rabbit hole. In the course of this study I discovered a measuring and calculation tool that went out of use until a recent revival: the sector.

Before the 19th century cabinetmakers worked with proportions rather than measurements. When laying out dovetails for a drawer, for instance, rather than using a ruler a traditional cabinetmaker would use a sector and dividers to come up with the spacing. You can figure out this spacing by trial and error but a sector speeds along the process.

To use a sector to divide a line you open the sector up to the length of the line. Then you hold up a divider to the scale etched on the side of the sector to the number you want to divide your original line into. Then you step out the divider on the workplace.

In addition to carpentry the sector was used in navigation, surveying and gunnery. With your handy sector you can also solve multiplication and trigonometry problems. The sector’s invention is attributed to either Galileo Galilei and/or Thomas Hood sometime in the 16th century.

If you’re a teacher or a parent looking for a geometry lesson to do in quarantine Jim Toplin has a free paper sector plan you can download and assemble. I use this paper sector for laying out dovetails. You can also turn a folding ruler into a sector.

With the rising tyranny of inches and feet the sector went out of use in the 19th century. But recently, freaks like me have revived its use and you can buy one for the first time in over a hundred years.

I’ve found thinking in terms of proportions rather than inches revelatory and liberating. And geometry lessons based in practice stick with you much better than those distantly remembered hours of junior high math.

For more information on sectors see The Sector: it’s History, Scales and Uses

Making the Shed Great Yet Again

Here’s a picture from May of 1999 showing our late doberman Spike guarding me while I worked on our then 90 now 100 year old shed.

Guess what I’m doing over 20 years later? Working on the same shed.

Me in 1999. In 2020 I need glasses.

The shed has gone through two previous improvement battles starting with shoving a foundation under it, electrification and strengthening the floor followed by a somewhat misguided attempt at insulation and ceiling covering.

Over the past few years the shed went from being Kelly’s work space to a place to shove junk we didn’t want to deal with. With this latest improvement effort we’re turning it back into a pleasant space for Kelly to work in. I’m undoing some of my previous shoddy work and installing an oak floor and a nicer ceiling.

I have a hard time sitting at a computer when lured by the demands of carpentry which explains the sparse posting over the past two weeks. At least I’m thinking about writing while I work. I’ve been meditating on something Corey Pein said in the Twitters: “The more I learned to have confidence in myself and write from my own honest perspective, the more of an audience I have found, and the better I feel about my work.” The writing work I plan to do later this year would benefit from more honesty, from not shying away from controversy and a humor based more on experience than snark. Or the siren song of carpentry and woodworking might just lure me for the rest of my days. We shall see.

Bonfire of the Billys

Root Simple’s proposal for a Ikea Billy Stonehenge

We spent this weekend ridding our house of the last vestiges of Ikea, a set of Billy bookshelves in Kelly’s she-shed. As I dragged them to the street I remembered what author and woodworker Christopher Schwartz’s said in The Anarchist’s Design Book that, “it annoys me when I see an IKEA Billy bookshelf in a woodworker’s house.”

Schwartz goes on to explain why,

Yes, you get about 15 linear feet of shelving, plus a carcase that is ridiculously unstable. Only two shelves are fixed. So unless you secure the Billy to the wall (or other Billys), it will rack in short order . . . I say this with experience. When my wife and I bought our first house, we actually drove to Virginia to visit the nearest IKEA and bought two Billy bookcases. I put them together and immediately felt wronged. After a few months I let them do what they do best: fall apart. Then I started building shelves for our home.

I came to the same conclusion he reaches in the intro to his book that, in order to have decent furniture that doesn’t cost an obscene amount of money you have to learn to make it yourself.

Schwartz runs a small publishing company, Lost Art Press, that produces books as beautiful as they are useful. He has pioneered a elegant and non-fussy style, based on the furniture of working people, that is accessible to beginning woodworkers without looking like a clunky junior high woodshop project. He says,

Beautiful, durable and useful furniture is within the grasp of anyone willing to pick up a few tools and learn to use them. It does not require expensive materials or a lifetime of training – just an everyday normal dose of guts.

Millions of people before you – and just like you – built all the furniture in their homes. They might not have left pattern books behind, but they left clues sprinkled through paintings, sketches and the furniture record.

I put our Billys on NextDoor, Freecycle and Craigslist and someone, with less worries of shelf racking, grabbed them. Now when they fall over it won’t be my problem.

Unflipping the Gentrifence

There should be a word for when you’re doing something you know you shouldn’t be doing but you keep going anyways. How about we call that feeling “contemperroneous?” I was all up in the contemperroneous when, back in 2015, I put up a horizontal fence of the sort that’s popular in our overpriced LA neighborhood. Fences of this sort are known as “flipper” fences or gentrifences (as in gentrification). In the midst of building my own gentrifence I knew it was wrong even if it correctly signaled that we live in a pricey 100 year old shack. Kelly even wrote about it in a blog post entitled “Our Hypocricy revealed.”

Here’s a shot of me putting up that abomination:

Those shoes and the smug grin are equally horrid.

This December I finally got around to sending the gentrifence to the Gulag. While I was at it I rebuilt the entrance arbor at the bottom of our stairs. I cribbed both designs, with a few modifications, from the Southern Pine Association’s 1926 sales brochure “Beautifying the home grounds.” This pamphlet is part of the Internet Archive’s Building Technology Heritage Library, an essential resource for anyone interested in historical preservation.

I recycled all of the old gentrifence, but had to buy some more lumber to complete the project. To make the oddly shaped pickets, I used a combo of table saw cuts along with a jig for my jigsaw. Making jigs increases speed and safety.

I’m not entirely happy with the metal handrail but, since I had it already, I didn’t want to let it go to waste. It’s functional and I don’t have to paint it. I got a contemperroneous vibe while reattaching it but you if you don’t make any mistakes you ain’t human.

Fixing a Door Strike Plate With Repair Realism

I’ve been struggling to find a word or phrase for those many times, especially in an old house, when you just resign yourself to a repair solution that just kinda works without fixing the underlying problem. I’m thinking of calling it “repair realism” as a nod to Mark Fisher’s idea of capitalist realism (the sense that we can’t imagine a way out of our current mess and we’ll just have to accept it).

We’ve got this door that moves up and down with the seasons. Sure it would be great to repair the foundation and beef up the floor joists. But since the hasty builders who slapped together this bungalow a hundred years ago didn’t bother to give us a basement or even enough of a crawl space to access the foundation, those structural repairs ain’t gonna happen.

So to make less tedious the yearly task of adjusting the strike plate of the door so that the latch bolt will go into it, I came up with a “repair realist” solution: just notch the damn strike plate so that you can move it up and down. Then all you have to do is loosen the screws rather than have to drill new holes or worse, have to repair the holes before you can drill them again.

Strike plates are a kind of security theater anyways. They don’t really do anything. One meek kick to the door and the strike plate will break away. Why even bother with them? I suppose they keep the wood from getting rubbed away by the latch bolt but they don’t do much else.

While we’re at it we need to find a clever solution for doors that swell and contract. One of the signs of spring here is neighbors hiring people to cut down their doors. We should have doors with tops and bottoms that extend and contract. Much of the knowledge of furniture making relates to how to allow for seasonal wood movement so that your table or cabinet doesn’t pull apart between the cold of winter and the heat and humidity of summer. Consider the repair realist notion of adjustable doors as a downmarket idea related to cabinetry’s more lofty methods. To paraphrase über-realist ghoul Margaret Thatcher, “There is no alternative.”