Two Views

Window Swap is a poetic quarantine art project. Click a button and you get a ten minute prerecorded video of someone else’s window view complete with sound. I took a window tour of the Bavarian countryside, a street in India and a cat watching birds in Qatar. You can also record your own view and submit it. Thanks to the Recomendo newsletter for the tip.

If you’re looking for a movie to watch tonight check out The Story of G.I. Joe, a 1945 movie centering on the war correspondent Ernie Pyle. It was directed by William Wellman and stars Burgess Meredith and Robert Mitchum. This movie has a big heart. You’ll leave it with a greater empathy for what war veterans go through and it’s free in the YouTubes. Thanks to the Jacobin for the tip.

There she goes, my beautiful world

Root Simple reader Mary H left a nice comment on my Monday post about the muses,

A long time ago I heard “When times are good, make art. When times are bad, make more art.” Also, Neil Gaiman said, ” When things get tough, this is what you should do. Make good art… Make it on the good days, too.”

In that spirit, in the midst of the quarantine/curfew I spent some time organizing my garage workshop so that I can continue to make furniture for the house. I took on the much delayed and deadly dull tasks of organizing the disorganized hardware storage bins and improving dust collection. Life is easier when the workshop is clean and the tools are sharp and in their place. Speaking of sharp, I also spent time setting up a dedicated sharpening station so that I won’t be tempted to put off this essential task when in the midst of working.

It’s important to have a pleasant space to work in. So amidst the tools are a few tchotchkes, images of cats and Bernie Sanders signs to remind me of happy before-times. Spending time in this space does not completely allay a foreboding sense of anxiety about the world but it’s certainly better than sitting in the house doom scrolling Twitter.

One of those Sanders signs says, “Fight the Power” a kind of pun in that I’ve, unintentionally, managed to assemble a work practice that blends power tools and hand tools. While I enjoy the convenience of a table saw and band saw I much prefer “fighting the power” with an over 100 year old hand plane that works as well as the day it was made. I’ve slowly begun to shift to using hand tools more often. They are safer, produce less dust and, while taking some practice to get used to, are just as precise if not more so and lead to fewer catastrophic mistakes. Lastly, I can’t minimize how important it is to have a proper workbench. Other crafts such as sewing, metal work, electronics etc. are greatly facilitated by a proper and dedicated work surface as well.

While expensive to set up, the workshop has paid for itself many times over. I’ve used it to make reproductions of furniture that would cost tens of thousand of dollars as well as make molding for the house and install wood floors.

I often think of the Nick Cave anthem “There She Goes, My Beautiful World” when I find myself slipping into a pity party. The song reminds us that creative types of the past managed to work under much more horrible conditions.

John Willmot penned his poetry
riddled with the pox
Nabakov wrote on index cards,
at a lectern, in his socks
St. John of the Cross did his best stuff
imprisoned in a box
And Johnny Thunders was half alive
when he wrote Chinese Rocks . . .

So if you got a trumpet, get on your feet,
brother, and blow it
If you’ve got a field, that don’t yield,
well get up and hoe it

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.