Sunday, January 25, 2009

Woodworking classes in Las Vegas?

I'm about to jump off a cliff here.

I've been searching for some sort of a woodworking community here in Las Vegas for almost five years. Sure, there are some great woodworkers I've met, like John and Larry. But they're few and far between, and frustrated by the lack of interest shown in their work.

I'm not talking about the current economic climate, where many artisans have noticed declining sales. Or gone out of business. I'm saying that even when the building boom was happening here, well.... people just sometimes think that buying a bedroom set at Costco is a great deal. Or getting that free cabinet with the stereo you buy is infinitely better than a hand built unit.


I've approached a few galleries here in town, about placing some of my pieces on display, only to be told that "furniture isn't art!" I'm telling you, it makes me want to beat my head against a wall.

But I have a belief that educating people about the benefits of custom built furniture is the best way to reverse that "Costco" or "Walmart" mentality. And educating, to me, means teaching people how to tell if furniture is well made, or if it's crap. And frankly, unless you're looking at pieces at some of the better known furniture showrooms, you're mostly seeing crap out there.

I've often blogged about the fact that I used to teach woodworking for the University of Akron.

When I moved to Las Vegas, I discovered a vacuum in the woodworking community here. When I explored the territory, I either found cabinet shops making high end pieces for a ka-jillion dollars, or hobbyists making clocks, with poker chips as numbers. Or better yet - dice clocks.

I know that over the years, there have been some woodworking groups here in town, but they've basically fallen apart. I don't think it's due to lack of interest, but rather, the fact that the person running the group had a their own agenda, and wasn't really about supporting amateur woodworking.

Many artists here are hungry for a sense of community; consider me part of that group.

So about my cliff jumping - I'm actively exploring my vision of a woodworking community here in Las Vegas. It's not going to be easy, nothing worthwhile ever is. In fact, a friend of mine just said to me - unless you feel like throwing up, you aren't pushing yourself hard enough.

I've set up an organizational meeting at a local library, and am inviting anyone interested in woodworking to attend. The library has been kind enough to add me to their schedule here.

What are my goals? How much time do you have?

A woodworking co-op has often fascinated me. I'd love to have a place for people to learn to work together,

to share techniques and plans,

to give suggestions about where to buy materials locally,

and to exhibit our work.

Is this too ambitious? I don't think so.

I've been getting many e-mails, asking if I'll give private one-on-one and small group lessons here, so I know there is an interest.

I think it's a combination of a couple of things - people are tired of hiring workers to do small repairs around the house, when they know they can do a better job, if they just had access to tools and a little training. Custom work can be really expensive!

But more importantly, most people don't simply want to buy a tablesaw and try to learn how to use it without proper supervision. Tools are not only dangerous, but they're expensive!

I don't know if starting a woodworking community will work, I have no idea, but I'm willing to give it a shot. If anyone is interested in taking up woodworking, please join me at the Centennial Hills Library, at 6711 N. Buffalo Dr., up in the Northwest on February 12 at 7 PM for an introductory meeting.

If there is enough interest shown, I will willingly get this party started.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Getting organized in the studio

Another one of my new year resolutions was to organize my glaze mixing area. It's bad enough that most of these dry chemicals are toxic; I am more concerned about cross contamination. So I've been searching for an efficient way to store the 50-something chemicals I keep in my studio.

First, I decided to make a form on which all my chemicals are listed. Every time I start to get low on one of them, I'll mark it on the sheet. In fact, I keep this list right by my glaze mixing table, so that I can tell at a a glance when I'm running low. A few years ago, I was in the middle of mixing up five gallons of a glaze, only to discover I didn't have enough silica to finish the batch. This inventory sheet lets me know immediately if something is getting low, so I won't make that mistake again.

(Double click on the image below to see a close-up of my list.)

A friend of mine here is Las Vegas worked at a manufacturing plant on the north side of the city. Although the bad news is that the plant closed up, and all of the employees lost their jobs, one of the perks was that many of the products that the plant manufactured were given away to the employees. I was lucky enough to score a case of plastic containers, perfect for storing glaze materials.

Of course, I made labels for the containers, marking everything clearly. I also tore the label off each chemical bag, and stuck it into the container, so that I will always know what's inside.

My label making program imported the list of chemical and spit out the labels for me, alphabetized and ready to slap on the containers. This is about as organized as you'll ever see my studio.

Finally, if any potter out there wants some of these, I probably can spare some. I think I've used about 60, and the case held 250, so if anyone wants some of them, please contact me and we'll work something out. Who knows, getting organized might make you a better potter!

Monday, January 19, 2009

My new toy

Don't you just love new toys?

Because of my affiliation with All-Experts, a site where I volunteer, I tend to frequently get asked about tool recommendations. And I know this will be hard to believe, but I'm pretty opinionated about the tools that I purchase.

Owning tools is sort of like owning a car; if you've ever owned a bad one, why would you consider buying another one made by that same manufacturer? So you can bet that you won't even find me driving a Chevy, after owning one on which every single thing fell apart after the warranty expired. I'm not joking - my damn car needed brakes, shocks, a muffler, a transmission, cables, belts, even a new door, as the passenger door simply fell off. The rust holes were so big after just three years, you could break off large sections of the body with your bare hands. Never again!

So for the last few weeks, I've been limping along with my old random orbit sanders. I own a couple of them, and they, too, were falling apart.

First, it started with irritating things, like the knobs breaking off, then the pads quit holding paper. Then the speed controllers started acting jiggy. The dust bags fell off and had to be duct taped in place. Dust control? Ha! Turning on one of these just for a minute or so would send a plume of fine sawdust all over my studio.

You get the picture. Time to start thinking about moving on.

But I have codependency issue with my tools, I hate to admit when they're @#$%ed up. So I'll keep using them, ignoring the hassles until I'm ready to throw them against the wall in hopes that they'll suddenly work properly.

I finally broke down and decided to end the madness. My research started with Wood Magazine's article on choosing a 5" RO sander in their October, 2008 issue. Although I don't generally love this magazine, it's a little too cutesy for my taste, and their plans look like high school projects. But their tool tests are a good starting point when shopping for new tools. They have the luxury of testing a dozen models at once, side by side, and their results allow me to weed out the worst of the batch. I usually narrow my search down to their top two or three choices, and then start my own research.

But this time, their top two choices were a no brainer for me. See, their beef against one of the top sanders was that it was a large unit, and the general complaint was that small hands (like mine) would have difficulty holding it for long periods.

And I hate sanding already, without having to suffer with another poorly designed tool. And better yet - their other choice for the best sander was almost half the cost of their top one. Score! I'm all about saving some cash when buying tools.

That brings up a whole other topic - about saving money when buying tools, but I'll save that for another blog post some day.

I'm a big fan of, in fact, here's my disclaimer - I've owned this stock for years. (I'm supposed to say that, right?) In Peter Lynch's investing books, he recommends buying what you know. And in this case, I've been buying from Amazon for so long, I feel like we're old friends. They store the addresses of everyone I send things to, as well as all my old purchases, my wish lists, and more. So when I need something, after doing my research, the first place I turn to is Amazon; you can't beat their free shipping, nor their prices.

But another reason I turn to Amazon is when I need opinions from other woodworkers about an upcoming purchase. So I spent a little time reading up on the sander I was considering purchasing, and after just a few comments, I bought it.

What's even better, it arrived at my studio door 1.5 days later. That might break the all time record for quick delivery!

For the record, I have to say that if I didn't have a ton of 5" sanding discs already in my studio, I might have considered buying a 6" model. But I buy my sanding supplies in bulk (I have drawers full of more discs) and I didn't feel like it was wise to make the switch. Here's a simple shelf for storing all the various discs I use, each shelf holds a different grit.

I'll close for now, as I have a ton of sanding to do. At least today, it won't be such a hassle. My recipe for sanding? Crank up some Linkin Park or Blink 182 and get started!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Studio thoughts in mid January

The kiln produced some lovely dinnerware sets this week, and I've been working on photographing them and putting them up on my Etsy page. It's rather boring work - shooting pictures, cropping them to size, and then trying to get everything listed. There's text to write, shipping to estimate, boxes to acquire... stuff that no one thinks about when they just "click and buy" something online.

So my mind was wandering around while I was taking care of all this busywork. A friend of mine called the other day, and as we were talking, she asked how work was going in the studio. "Slow" was my answer, as I've been working on some new dinnerware designs and glaze tests, and my progress just seems sluggish. It's not as if I've been sitting around, eating bon-bons, with my feet up, doing my nails.

Do I look like that sort of person?

But the fact is - switching mediums and working in clay forces me to take a deep breath and slow things down a bit. Everything about clay is different - the various steps one has to take, the drying schedule, but (to me) the biggest adjustment is the planning and scheduling of clay.

Once you've made a pot or a dish, the clay has to dry before you can do anything to it. Rushing it at this stage is pot suicide, as pieces like to explode in the kiln when moisture is present. It's a completely different thing in the summer, where a pot can dry in just a day, with the heat and low humidity we experience her in Las Vegas. But the colder winter temps add a new twist to the situation.

Granted, we're having a very nice winter here, it's been in the mid 60's for the last couple of weeks, nothing like people in the right half of the country, but still, that is cold for here. I know, you want to slap me.

The other day, I was just getting ready to glaze some dinnerware sets and realized I was nearly out of the glaze I had planned on using. It's called Floating Blue, and it's sort of become my "go-to" glaze of choice. It's very stable for my clay, looks great, and is quite forgiving. Unfortunately, mixing up a large batch of it takes a little time, and that's the exact thing that tends to put me behind schedule.

See, I plan out most days in the studio. I know pretty much what I'm going to be doing any given day, and usually try to do things in a sequence that makes sense. If I know I'm going to be cutting and sanding a lot of wood, I'll try to do that at the end of the day, so that I can escape the sawdust.

I tend to try and do my glaze making at the end of a day. Plus - someone told me once that you should always let your glaze sit for 24 hours before using it. I'm not sure why, I should write to the ClayArt board and ask about that. So running out of the Floating Blue glaze puts me behind schedule at least a day, if not longer.

Still - life is good. I'm working on a few nice pieces right now, sales are consistent, and my glaze testing is headed in the right direction. And I'm working in a tee shirt in the studio. What else could someone want in mid-January?

To my friends and family back east - please stay safe and warm!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Lee Valley does it again!

Leave it up to Lee Valley to come up with this set of forstner drill bits, perfectly sized for inlaying a coin into a piece of wood.

I date a lot of the pieces I build by inlaying a coin that's been minted the same year as the piece was built. It's easier than carving the date into the bottom of the piece, and adds a little surprise when the owner discovers it. But standard sized drill bits are just a hair too big or too small to fit a penny, nickle or dime.

These bits are da' bomb!

I love inlaying a newly minted penny in a piece of walnut, the contrast and combination of colors is fabulous.

Speaking of unique and useful products, someone suggested that when I photograph the sushi dinnerware sets that I make, that I use some sushi food props on the plates. Not a bad idea... so I did a search and found some pretty amazing photography props.

Like this fake Tuna roll.

And this fake wasabi.

and faux pickled ginger.

And this California Roll, which is my least favorite, but still gets the point across.

I was all set to purchase one of these, but here's the rub. One of these sets is about ten bucks, and the seller wanted $12.50 to ship it.

No thanks.... I'd be better off making real sushi and putting that on the plates.

Now I'm going to do some research on making my own food props. Any suggestions?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Custom picnic tables

So I get an e-mail from someone who lives in my town, asking for a custom picnic table. It's been years since I built one, and I decided to do a little research on them.

Here's a interesting site I happened to stumble upon. I'm thinking this isn't the best way to test the weight limits of a table, but that's just my opinion.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Random winter thoughts...

Krystal (a local Etsy artist) from SolSisters Studio was kind enough to include me in her blog. Here's a link.

Fate has been good to me lately. I've gotten a little bit of press in a few different publications, which has led to some nice connections and better yet - a few sales. As much as I would like to stay in my studio, working away, a good deal of my time is spent returning e-mails that people send me about my work, designing pieces for people, coming up with prices for my work, shooting pictures... you get the idea. It's called the "business" of being an artist. And it bogs me down sometimes.

I'll let you in on a secret - I tend to be a bit of a hermit, especially in the winter. I could be very content to work in the studio, with NPR blaring overhead, and not really have much interaction with other people. Not sure why, but I've never been that much of a "people" person. Oh, don't get me wrong, I love my friends and nothing makes me happier than hanging out with them. But I think I just need my "alone time" in order to be creative and stay sane.

When I was in college, I first heard the phrase - those who can, do. Those who can't - teach. I've actually heard several different versions of this phrase, but this is the one that sticks with me.

Well, I'm here to tell you that's total bullshit.

At one point in my career, I was building 3-4 pieces of furniture a month for clients, as well as starting a woodworking program at my local college. If anything, people who teach are the best managers of all. They juggle their students, their own personal work, their lives and their families all at once. And, according to my friends who are teachers, for not much (financially) in return. I'm amazed to hear how most teachers dip into their own pocket to pay for supplies for their classrooms.

Don't get me started!

I plan on spending the whole day in the studio, glazing pots and doing a little maintenance on some tools. For a hermit like me, it'll be a great day of juggling. Hope your Saturday will be as lovely as mine.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Why I don't go skiing or snowboarding

See, this is why I don't go skiing or snowboarding.

God knows that woodworking is hard enough on my body. I'm fairly certain that the moment I got on a ski lift, I'd wind up in the same predicament as this poor guy.

As if hanging in the middle of the air (in freezing temps) isn't bad enough, this guy lost his pants and went sailing along, ass to the wind.

With his kid in the lift chair, right above him, to witness it all.

Not to mention the rescue workers, who probably got a migraine from trying to keep a straight face.

Wonder if he knows a good attorney.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Oh - those Boston woodworkers...

This is one of those cabinetmaking jobs I'm glad I didn't work on... I'm sure someone is going to be getting a call soon.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

A new and interesting tool to consider...

Call me a tool whore. I'll freely admit it.

When the latest issue of Woodshop News came out, I noticed an article in it about Freud's new doweling joiner. Be still, my heart...

It looks similar to a biscuit joiner, and although I have two of those, I feel like they're mostly useless. The only time I pull them out is when I 'm gluing boards together for making things like tabletops or dresser sides. Biscuits help keep the wood aligned while gluing. But a biscuit joint is basically weak, and will fail. Trust me on this.

But the new Freud doweler caught my eye. See, I used to do a lot of doweling, mostly before I purchased a Powermatic Mortiser. (Now that is a kick ass tool!) But the nice thing about tools like this doweler is their simplicity. Set-up is quick, and in this instance, being able to drill two equally spaced holes, perfectly aligned with another set of holes, is a dream come true for woodworkers.

When I think of all the older style face-frame kitchen cabinets I've built, and how many holes I've drilled, I could cry.

Not to mention how many shelf pin holes I've drilled. Thinking about that makes me want to start drinking, and it's only noon-ish.

For anyone that repairs furniture, this tool is a dream come true. When I used to repair furniture, one of the most common tasks was repairing failed joinery. So a tool like this, that can consistently drill equidistant holes, is going to make a lot of antique restorers very happy.

Now if I could only get someone to send me one of these to "test" out and write a review, I'd be really happy, too.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

And my 2009 new year resolution is...

Call this "The Year of Living Green" for me.

Having slept in, after hosting a small party last night, I promptly made a mimosa and sat down to think about my 2009 resolution. I know, some people don't like resolutions, with the feeling that any time is a good time to adopt new things in life. OK, I agree with that. But for whatever reason, it always seems like a good time to start things on January 1st, just like it a good time to start dieting on Monday, or a good time to start walking the dog on the weekends. Who knows why our (meaning - my) brains work this way?

Going paperless.

That's my 2009 resolution.

As I start to write about this resolution, something funny just hit me. See, I bought a new printer/scanner, with a specific intention of scanning the scads of papers and pictures I save throughout the year. I keep them in a file, and every now and then, that file gets so big that I can't even close it, nor put it into one of my filing cabinet benches. So I weed through the pile, often throwing some things out that I usually regret later.

Scanning seemed like the natural thing to do; hence - the purchase of a scanner/printer. The only dilemma? There was nothing wrong with the old printer, so it seems a little "anti-green" to retire a perfectly good printer.

And what's worse, I have another perfectly good printer on a shelf in my closet, that I don't use, either. Damn that Apple Computer and their "buy a new computer and get a free printer" giveaway!

I've just talked myself into a second resolution: give some stuff away on Craigslist. Oh, I used to be a member of FreeCycle, but honestly, those people are a little too crazy for me. Some of the stuff I've seen listed on there is bizarre, not to mention that when you post something, you'll receive 73 responses in the first four minutes. It's like a tsunami of "takers" there, but every time I've posted something that I needed..... NADA, ZILCH, BUPKES... so I've divorced myself from FreeCycle.

Craiglist rocks, as long as you don't have someone come to your home.

Anyway, there you have it. I am going to spend much of the day scanning things that I've saved, and then putting everything in the recycling bin. I may fill up my computer with useless images and minutia, but at least my filing cabinet will have more room in it.

Happy New Year, everyone. Hope 2009 is everything you want it to be, and more.