Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Fabulous Thunderbirds Helmet Project

This may be one of the coolest projects I've built in a long time. Oh wait, there was this, and this, and this. Or this... which is hanging in a Saudi palace!

OK, but this has to be in the top one or two.

One of the Thunderbird pilots stopped by my shop last month, asking if I could build a display case for his flight helmet. Hell yes!

This is one bad-ass helmet, the back has their patch on it, which I didn't notice at first. I was too busy looking at the air hose hanging from it, and all the details, like the visor or the memory foam padding inside.

Each one of the pilots has a nickname and a number; his is Aktion.

I came up with a few simple sketches, and we agreed on everything, so I started working. The only real pressure was that he was transferring overseas, so this case had to be built pretty quickly. I started by laminating the top and bottoms. My first idea had a solid top and bottom, which was changed about midway through the construction.

I kept envisioning a "cage" of glass around the helmet, so I started machining the rails that would hold the glass

and the corner posts, into which the rails would be attached.

When assembled, it started to take form.

Right around then, I spoke with my new pilot buddy and he asked if I was going to use a mirror on the back panel, to show off the artwork. Umm... yup! Believe it or not, this town doesn't have very many convenient glass shops. So finding mirror cut to size was my next challenge. Luckily, a friend gave me the name of a mom and pop business that was near my shop, and I had the mirror the next day.

Here the corner posts are attached to the base, and you can see the back area, where the mirror will be held.

I love the angular details of everything, crisp and contemporary. But the base seemed a little heavy to me,

so I made some feet to elevate it a bit.

At first I was tempted to have them positioned slightly on the outside of the base, but after
I played around with their location, I decided I really liked them tucked back, out of sight.

They're just barely noticeable, but elevate the piece perfectly.

Next was the top, and right around here, I said to myself - what the hell are you thinking? You need glass in the top!

Remember, I originally planned on a solid wooden lid. So I cut a few pieces of wood and experimented with dimensions, overhangs, and joinery. By now, I had put so much work into this piece, I was earning about $8 an hour. But at least it was fun!

On a side note, a lot of my woodworking buddies and I lament the bidding process. Sometimes you really blow it and underestimate how long it will take you to make something. But sometimes you overestimate your time. My feeling is that it all works out in the end.

Or if it doesn't, at least you'll know next time what to charge, if you have to build something similar. I keep pretty good records of everything (thanks, mom!), so I can look in my files and know how look it took me to build a sideboard in 1995, or a bed in 2001. Accurate record keeping is really your friend when you're in this line of work.

I knew right away that I wouldn't use a mitered corner/ Even with a spline, it's too weak. But these pieces helped determine the sizes of the parts.

In the end, I chose one of my old favorites - a half lap joint, which is strong and visually attractive.

Here the parts are cut, and double-checked to make sure they're the proper size.

The key to a good half lap is four clamps that match. These ensure that the piece is glued perfectly flat, and with enough clamping pressure to eliminate any gaps around the joint.

Once it was dry, I rabbeted the back for a piece of glass. Of course, the rabbet bit gives you rounded corners,

so I had to chisel them square. I'm down to working for $6 an hour by now.

Then I grabbed my favorite bit (a chamfer bit)

and added some detail around the top and bottom edges of the frame. Once again, the bearing on the bit leaves you with rounded corners, so I had to do some hand work to make the corners look proper. Woodworkers will know what I'm talking about, but most people would never notice this detail. It's the little things like this that raise your work to a higher level of professionalism.

Finally, I marked the screw holes for the corner posts, and drilled them.

And roughly assembled everything.

By now, all my buddies were stopping by asking if I was done with that damn box yet! Tom just laughed and shook his head with understanding; he's gotten himself into a few jobs like this, so he gets it!

And finally, the finished case.

This has been a labor of love, like so many other pieces I've been building for members of the military.

Sure, I could have cut some corners, could have put it together much more simply, and with cheaper materials. That wouldn't be my style. What's that proverb about any job worth doing, is worth doing well?

would be my style

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas! (or Mele Kalikimaka)

This holiday season seemed to kick my behind a little more than usual! It might have been the half dozen different orders I was working on, or the fact that I was working a little handicapped, but regardless, I managed to complete almost everything I started.

One piece I didn't expect to complete was this sushi board; I'd started it months ago, and couldn't decide on a few of the last details about it - specifically - the feet and the grout. But someone wandered into the shop, saw it, and purchased it on the spot. That's good enough motivation for me to make some decisions and finish it.

Every time I tried to work on this, I'd end up getting distracted, so I would finish each session with a coat of oil. I'd venture a guess that this board has fifteen coats on it, the surface is amazing. Better yet, the color you see is it's absolute natural color - there were no dyes or stains used whatsoever.

I'd would love to tell you more about this wood, but I can't. This board was purchased at an auction, as were many others. Most were unmarked, but identifiable. This one? At first I thought it might be Sapele, and later, I decided it could be Bubinga. Truth be told? Those are only guesses, and the one small scrap I had is long gone. Unless the owner will let me slice a small piece from the bottom of this board, I don't think I'll ever know.

Anyone who is familiar with my tiles knows that I love recesses in them, perfect for holding things - in this case, pickled ginger or wasabi. This tile was slumped in a mold, textured, thrown on the wheel, and managed to fire perfectly round and flat.

Working with clay is nothing like working with wood. With wood, you pretty much know what you're going to get at the end. With clay, you can envision your results, but unless you can control every single factor along the way (which I can't!), you don't know what you're going to get until the very moment you open the door to the kiln. Most potters equate a kiln opening to Christmas, and I completely understand that!

This stoneware tile was fired to ^6 in an electric kiln, and was glazed with multiple layers of Waterfall Brown and Waterfall Green glaze.

It is a magical glaze on textured work.

Speaking of magic, have yourself a wonderful Christmas!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Mystery wood solved (again!)

There have been a lot of great books on my nightstand lately, but one of particular interest was The Big Burn by Tim Egan.

It is about the worst fire in our county's history.
It is also a painful look at our country's debate on starting the National Forest Service, under Theodore Roosevelt. I had never heard of Gifford Pinchot before, but if you're a fan of our nation's public parks and forests, you can thank him.

So when I received this envelope in the mail, it's return address wasn't lost on me, as it was the first time. Gifford Pinchot was a pretty interesting fellow, way ahead of his time in terms of his vision for the forests that covered much of our nation. It's very cool to see that he's been remembered over the years.

Do you remember a while back,
when I sent a sample of wood to be identified?

I finally received the answer, and - once again, I'm a little surprised. The wood was identified by professionals, who slice a thin slab of wood and identify it on a cellular level, in a microscope.

They can't make mistakes, right?

All those boards I have in the loft are
Eucalyptus diversicolor, commonly known as Karri. It primarily grows in Australia, in the wetter south west regions. With all that moisture, this tree grows to be quite large.

You can read more about it here.

Or here, just click on the image below.

The bigger question is.. how the hell did those boards end up in Las Vegas?

Since I only have a few boards, maybe 50 board feet total, it will be a challenge to design and build something that will suitably honor this wood. That might sound silly, but boards like this are once-in-a-lifetime finds. Sort of like this wood I worked with last year.

Anyone have an interesting piece in mind?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A little holiday goat cheer

It's OK to be cute once a year, right?

Saturday, December 18, 2010


People ask me all the time if I watch any of the woodworking shows on TV - and truth be told, I really don't. It must be because I'm on woodworking overload by the time I get home. It's the last thing I want to see at the end of the day.

You're more likely to find the Food Channel on my TV, I'm a sucker for a Bobby Flay throwdown, the Ace of Cakes, or an episode of Chopped. And Guy Fierri? Be still, my heart.

So here is a little collection of Food Network foodgasms for your Saturday viewing pleasure.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Antique table repair - part one

A few weeks ago, I blogged about repairing an older piece from a dining room set. After that repair was completed, the next step was to tackle the table, which was in very poor shape.

The top was split and bowed, the aprons were falling apart,

not to mention that the table runners

were in terrible shape. Talk about a make-over!

First step - take the sucker apart!

Once everything was removed, it was a little easier to see what had to be remade, and what could be salvaged.

I felt like the old apron and corner pieces had to be saved, even though there was some damage to them. Those are the main parts that tie the piece together with the rest of the pieces, so even if I just used them ornamentally, it was important.

The new table top was to include two halves, plus three new leaves.

Here they are, planed and cut to size. You can see the three leaves in the background.

Duplicating the rounded corner wasn't too difficult. I traced it on the actual corners, to ensure that I didn't round off the wrong edge! Now that would be a pisser!

And then I made a pattern for the radius out of a scrap piece of MDF.

A straight bit in the router, with a collar around it will allow me to cut that curve on the corners quite nicely.

The difference between the bit and the collar is 1/8", I tested it with my set-up blocks.

And once that dimension was determined, I could clamp the pattern to the table top in the precise location.

As the Pioneer Woman would say - easy peasy. Cutting all four corners was simple.

Next step, routing the table top with an appropriate profile. Say that three times fast.

My buddy Danny brought over some ogee bits, since I didn't have one that I thought would work. But none of his were what I was looking for, either.

Still, I routed a few samples, to make sure.

And then... the "god-of-all-things-wood" stepped in and... well.... let's just say I took a few days off. No, it wasn't a router accident; my belt sander and I had a mis-understanding.

Coming up next - finding the perfect profile.