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


Sister Creek Potter said...

Great story, great job! Thanks for sharing in all its detail! Happy New Year!

Julie @ followyourheartwoodworking said...

Eric and I think this is great and we both wish you a very happy 2011.

Adrienne'n'Chuck said...

Top drawer cabinetry for a top drawer pilot!!! Beautiful work, Jamie! No wonder we haven't seen you during the holidays!!

Stacey said...

Effing amazing work Jamie!! Beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Jamie. I am having my Thunderbird helmet built as I write this. Can you tell me what it would cost me to have you build one of these display cases for me?

Wood It Is! said...

Contact me at with more information about the case you want: type of wood? hinged lid or fixed lid? etc. and I will be able to quote a price for you.