Saturday, December 31, 2011

A tisket, a tasket, a birchbark basket

It is New Year's eve. Out here in the bush it has no real meaning; it is an arbitrary date switch and I, for one, am glad 2011 is over. So my post has nothing to do with auguries, although I wish my readers a very happy new year.

So still on my four-year old project (4YO) kick, I had suggested, in the Bodger's forum, a bark basket, or box, following the directions given by Louise Langsner in Country Crafts, a book out of print but available from secondhand dealers. Louise's article suggests poplar bark. This is what the Cherokee indians used for berry baskets. Not much luck with poplar in Alaska, although aspen might do, it is a relative. So I used birch bark. It was very dry. It had a will of its own. It did not want to bend. It hated me! But on with the tale. First you trim your bark into a rectangle. Mine happened to measure 14 x 28 cm. Find the middle of the long side. Draw a line across it.
For this you need but a ruler and a felt-tip pen. And three hands, because the bark keeps curling up on you. Now, measure out something like 25mm from each side of the line, in the middle of the line. Sketch an oval. It is a really good idea to make it symmetrical.
This is the bottom of the basket, or box. If I had gone and read the Langsner book before I did this I would have found that the lines should actually cross, say 5mm before the edge. Bad on me. However, I got away with my oval. Next step is to score the oval. Louise suggests a knife. On this old dry stuff, a V-gouge worked much better.
The reason for the scoring is that you will bend the sides up to form the basket. If you don't score it, the bark will refuse to bend where you want it to bend. After bending you will lace it up. So now is the time to make the holes for lacing. You do not want to do this once the basket is bent. I marked off 1cm intervals for the holes and drilled them about 5mm in. Do not skimp on this allowance. It is very easy to tear the bark.
I used a cordless drill for this. With my recalcitrant bark and just me alone, I could hold the thing down and drill one-handed. A leather punch would work also. But do drill or punch before lacing.

Now you bend the sides up and lace them together. But what do we use for lacing? The Cherokee used the inner bark of the hickory tree (bast) or indigenous vines. In winter Alaska, this is infeasible. So I used some rather nice yarn that I bought at a thrift store for my weaving projects. It is probably synthetic and it is very strong (I can't break it). So we broke out our blunt needle and laced it up.
I found it very useful to clamp the edge while lacing up. For this I used a surgeon's hemostat. Maybe your doctor will save them for you, but it is probably illegal for him or her to do so, so we resort to Wal-Mart where they sell these things cheap. Only they call them fly-tying clamps. I use them them for fly-tying, indeed. They are made in Pakistan, of all places.

If you are going to do this kind of stuff (or weave on a loom) a set of really heavy-duty needles is mandatory. You should have some sharps and at least one blunt. I buy mine at the grocery store in Big Lake, Alaska, so they can't be too hard to find. Mine are trilingually labeled, in accordance with NAFTA: English, Spanish, French. Regardless of label, you need them. I used a simple over-under lacing. You could use two needles and do a crossover.

At the end of about one hour, we have a basket, or box depending on your preference.

So I did it. I have a basket/box. Now we come to the burning question: is this a 4YO project? I would say that if you have fresh green bark, definitely. Yes, it is. If you have dry bark, no. Don't even try it. Too frustrating. The dry bark has a will of its own, and it took a lot of coaxing before it cooperated. Could you steam or boil the bark? I have tried this. It makes it worse, in my opinion. With birch it seems to curl up tighter than ever. So it is a definite springtime 4YO project. Of course if you have poplar at your disposal, it may be a completely different story. All I have is birch. Remind me to try aspen sometime.

After all this was done, I thought the box needed a neck-strap. I went to my inkle loom and finished a strap I had on it. As soon as I figure out how to attach it I will post again. I will also post on inkle looms. Although the set-up is not for 4YO, once you get it set up even a chimpanzee can weave on an inkle loom, with parental supervision of course.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A miniature totem pole

Well, Christmas is over; I can reveal all but one present. But at the moment what I will do is tell you about my totem pole. As I'm sure you know, totem poles are carved in the Northwestern USA (although similar things exist elsewhere, q.g.) They appear to have originated with the Haida tribe (Juneau area) and spread southward, although the anthropologists are really not sure. It is certain that they were being carved, with metal tools, before the Europeans arrived. Where did they get the tools? Again, no one is sure. But carve them they did.

Some totem poles tell a story, e.g. and westernized, "we are the Smith family. here is our totem (for example, the wolf) and here are our accomplishments." Other totem poles are perhaps more abstract, e.g. relating a legend in the native culture. Again westernized, "this is the story of Peter and the Wolf."

So I found a stick in the woodpile. Said I, "hey, thin stick. Might make a totem pole, though. Wonder if I can carve a raven there?" A couple of days later:
I decided, as I went along, to make it a "true" totem pole. That is, the most common totems in Alaska have a place. Top to bottom, Raven, Bear, Wolf, and Salmon. The whole thing is about 15 cm long. Tools used appear SW of the pole. A 3mm gouge, a 2mm gouge, a very small knife, a somewhat larger knife. All home-forged. And if anyone asks me what my totem is, why I will reply "all of the above, of course!"

The Wolf was once a horrible knot in the stick. I decided to live with it. I made knot into wolf. No Haida carver would do this, of course. But it is an example of making the best of what you have.

When I was in Juneau, I observed several native carvers who did totem poles in their front yards. I regret to inform modernity that the tool of choice is a chainsaw, presumably with a "dime" or "quarter" bar (the size of the nose in US coin) -- these bars are highly desirable when you try chainsaw carving, because they reduce the chance of kickback. Do not try chainsaw carving until you have a couple of hundred hours of ordinary-use chainsaw time in your logbook. It is not a children's game, indeed it is very dangerous. You have been warned, and I have thus complied with innumerable OSHA, EPA, and for all I know FCC and USDA regulations.

Monday, December 19, 2011


Power outages are a frequent ocurrence in rural Alaska. Usually they are caused by a tree falling across a line somewhere. They are cleared up in two to four hours. So being without power for that time is merely inconvenient. But this last Sunday the power went off from 0530 to 2108, military (24-hour) time; on which I run. If this sounds difficult it is 5:30AM to 9:08PM same day. Almost 16 hours. This is unprecedented in my experience. Chatting with the outage dispatchers I found out that "there were a whole lot of things going wrong" and all of them had to be fixed. Furthermore, the temperature was up to +2C and the winds were howling. Anchorage had 90KPH winds in the Turnagain arm. A miserable day to repair power lines.

Now this is not a prepper blog. Preppers, in case you might not know, are people who prepare for Armageddon. A contraction of "be prepared," the old Boy Scout motto. They stock up on all kinds of stuff for when the big one hits. Not always sure what the big one may be. Might be a hurricane, or an economic disaster (coming soon to your local theater) or riots. Well, having lived in Caracas for a long time, where Armageddon is a frequent ocurrence, I do not need to be sold on preparedness. But this post is much more limited. It is merely concerned with what you have to do to get by in a long power outage. Up to 16 hours, in fact.

Your first requirement is instant light. This is Alaska, remember. The sun comes up at 0930 and is gone by about 1500 this time of year. Flashlights fill the bill. I have lots of flashlights.
All my new flashlights are LED (Light-Emitting Diode) lights. These are far more efficient than their incandescent brothers. They save battery power. At left, a 3-cell Maglite. This is a searchlight. Ultimate. But next to it is something far more useful. It is a 3-LED light with a headstrap. It leaves your hands free. For cooking, for instance. Or for reading. Both of these require batteries. When the power goes, it is very convenient to have some spares! However, the light at right requires no batteries. You crank it. It shines. Beautiful. This is my favorite flashlight, except for the headstrap one. I have more flashlights. My motto is that you can't have too many. Same thing goes for spare batteries.

However, for the long haul flashlights are not the job. You need something more enduring. Long-term light, in fact. I have a collection of kerosene lamps for this task.
Kerosene lamps are cheap and very useful. But they do not put out huge amounts of light. For that you need a Coleman latern. You also need fuel for it. Some Colemans will run on unleaded gasoline. Good idea. In Europe there is the Petromax lantern. More expensive than a Coleman, which is so ubiquitous in the USA that I do not show a picture of it. But not only will you need fuel for it, you will need mantles as well. Dirt cheap at Wal-Mart, but you do have to remember to buy then while you are there. You will also need some funnels to fill your lampage.
If, like me, you use both kero and Coleman fuel, I would recommend separate funnels for each fuel.

OK, we have disposed of light. We can see where we are. But this is winter, remember? It's cold outside. Soon it will be cold inside too, unless you do something about it. Now here is where I have a big edge, power-outage-wise. I rely on Grumbles, my fuel-oil heater. Grumbles does not require so much as a nanowatt of electricity. (I call him Grumbles because, you see, he grumbles as he runs.)
Grumbles was probably hauled across the Atlantic by Leif Ericson. He relies on gravity for feed. Much better than a politician's promises. The "carburetor" (really a flow regulator) is Scandinavian. (Hence my comment on Leif.) But if you don't own a Grumbles brother or cousin, what do you do? For this we have the faithful wood stove. We use it to supplement Grumbles anyway.
No fire in it. At +2C Grumbles can easily carry the heating load. Turned on low, yet. But, as I said, if you don't have a Grumbles cousin you had better think of a backup.

Next subject is food. Got to eat. Unless you are a fan of MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat, officially; I won't give you the unofficial rendering lest I be accused of political incorrectness) you will have to cook some stuff. Short run, any camping stove will do the job. Really doesen't matter what kind, but remember it, too, runs out of fuel eventually. Get spares. If you don't have a campstove, perhaps you should consider a trip to the nearest sporting goods store. Besides, MREs are fearfully expensive. Even the backpacker's freeze-dried dinners are cheaper, and I consider them outrageous. Fortunately I have a propane stove with pilot lights. No electricity required.

Now we come to a significant subject. Simple, too. Water! If you live in an urban area you may think that water comes out of taps. But this is not so. Water is pumped to your tap. If electricity fails, so will the pumps. In my case it is even worse. My water comes out of well. It is pumped into a pressure tank by an electric pump. And as soon as the power failure occurs, I rely on whatever pressure is built up in the tank. You may think you can overcome pump failure by storing drinking water. You are only partially right. You will certainly want to store oh, 20 liters or so of drinking water. Good idea. But you have to flush the toilets! One flush is five gallons or 20 liters of water down the proverbial drain. When I lived in Caracas water shut-offs were so frequent as to go without mention. So one learned to store water for the purposes of sanitation. It is an awful lot of water. 20 liters three times a day! The Scandinavians, clever people that they are, make toilets that flush with a liter or two. Maybe you should buy one. During your power outage, you should certainly overcome the reflex flushing of toilets. I am sorry to bring up this, er, unsanitary subject but it has to be done. A good old Caracas standby is a plastic garbage can, which will hold about 50 gallons -- 100 liters -- of water. Fill it while the filling is good. But you must store it where it won't freeze. A problem. Not in Caracas, but certainly in Alaska.

In my case, I am investigating putting a hand pump on the well one way or another. I might even be able to put a hand pump in tandem with the electric pump. Menwhile, I store enough water for one (1) flush. And I overcome the flushing reflex, mostly, during power outages. And I keep camper's "sanitary hand rinse" stuff to substitute for handwashing.

These are the trials and tribulations of living without electricity. If you want to rehearse, go to your breaker box or fusebox. Pull the main breaker. Then try to live for the next 16 hours. And remember, you are bypassing the real difficulty: your taps still work. City water flows into your house. It will not, if the power really goes.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Button, button, who has a button?

If you have been reading this blog long enough you will know I am a devotee of the Bodger's forum in the UK. In a recent post, someone wanted suggestions for projects for a 4-year old daughter. Now, since the village kids descend on me en masse in the summer, this is a very interesting question to me. I threw out a few suggestions. The last one I threw out was making novelty buttons out of branchwood. So today I picked up a stick from the floor and said "can we make some buttons out of this?" The stick was birch. I took (for once) pictures of every step. Some of the pictures are a bit blurry because the autofocus did not auto. Focus.

There are some rules to this game. One is no power tools. I cheated once, but I did not want to go out to the shop (-15C) and unearth a hand drill. No matter, 4-year olds (4YO) can use a cordless drill. Second is to keep asking yourself if a 4YO can do this step. Here I use experience as a guide. Third is to remember that while 4YO are very enthusiastic, their patience is limited. So instant results are desirable. Almost indispensable.

First job is to put the stick in the workmate and shave it down. I used a spoke shave; it is too small for a drawknife.
When I got through the stick was about 9mm diameter. Good enough, I am not trying to fit some particular buttonhole. Next job, cut off a reasonable length of stick. Again eyeballed. What you want for all sawing operations in this project is a very fine-tooth, narrow-kerf saw. My japanese miniature dozuki is ideal.
Almost any fine-tooth saw will work, however. It wants to be fine-tooth because the buttons will look awful if the teeth are too coarse. So quite by accident I now have a 90mm by 9mm rough cylinder. At this point it pays to stop and think. You could, of course, cut off slices and then drill them. But it is much easier to reverse the process. Drill first and cut later. This will save a lot of time later (rule three). Furthermore the holes will be all at the same spacing. But before you drill, take a moment to find the center of the piece, figure out the hole spacing (in my case 5mm) and center-punch the holes. I used my carbide-tipped scriber as a center punch, because it was there.
Explain to your 4YO that this keeps the drill bit from wandering all over the landscape. Let her try it on a piece of scrap. Now you can drill. Select a very small drill bit. About 2-3mm is right. I always have a set of Black & Decker cheapos on hand, in RGU of course; the one I picked was the second-smallest, 5/64" whatever that may be; about 3mm. The exact size does not matter. But keeping the bit exactly parallel to the long axis of the cylinder sure does matter. Here is where parental help is needed. Have 4YO hold drill. Check angles while she does. Coach until drill really plumb. Some drills have bull's-eye levels built in. Fine, use them but remember the stick has to be plumbed first. Get out the old square. If you hog up this step you will have to start from zero. Drill away:
Now the eyes are in. It is now a matter of sawing off slices; each slice is a proto-button. But is nice, indeed desirable, that the buttons be the same width, or close to it. What I did is to use a marking gauge. In this case, my miniature Japanese-style marking gauge. I made it out of a bamboo chopstick and a piece of scrap wood with a blade made out of scrap steel. But commerical marking gauges are widely available.
I set the marking gauge to 3mm for the first button. I thought that was a bit thick, so I reduced it by one skosh (= 0.5mm). Now you do not have to use a marking gauge. There are many other ways -- ruler and pencil in the worst case. But the marking gauge is nice because it cuts a groove for the saw. Because what we do next is saw off buttons. It looks exactly like the second picture in this post. Run the dozuki. Every mark/cut gets you a button.
For your 4YO, the marking gauge leaves a razor-sharp outline she can follow with the saw. This minimizes the uneven cuts that will produce lopsy buttons. I made a half-dozen buttons this way. With a good dozuki it takes 30 sec to saw out the button.

Now, from a certain viewpoint, we are done. But if we want to do the job well, we must explain to 4YO that we need to chamfer the buttons. That is, we have to put an edge on them, so they will go through buttonholes easily. At first I thought, well, a knife. But 4YO might not be all that enthusiastic about knives. Might get cut. For that matter, parent might not be so hot about knives in 4YO hands, either. So after some experimentation I came up with the idea of filing the edges. I'll spare you the varous things I tried. But the bomb, as my younger friends say, is to make a holding jig (or fixture) for the buttons. So you have the stick you started with -- still in the workmate. With any luck the holes are still there. Push some stiff wire into the holes and cut wire off at button height.
Beacuse you drilled the holes first, these will fit any button you have just made. Put the button on the wires. Get a coarse file and file away. Sharpen them edges. Poor photo coming up.
The little wire prongs hold the button down, and you can file your way around the button. Very difficult for your 4YO to hurt herself with a file. Coarse file works fast. Rule three again. You could do all sorts of other things, like sanding. But at the end of the day we have some buttons.
Now one could do a lot of this stuff much more easily on a lathe. Make the buttons with a form tool. Part them off with a really thin parting tool. But my objective, in this excruciatingly detailed tutorial, is not really making buttons. It is suggesting to some parent how to teach his 4YO to make buttons; a completely different problem.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Cementing an alliance

Last year (that's 2010) I wrote about constructing a stick stool. This is made, of course, of branches. At this time I was on a modern art kick and the stool was deliberately bendy-legged and bent. It's in the blog archives for July 24, 2010.
I repeat the picture here for context.

OK, Houston, we have a frame. But we need a seat. There are kinds of materials available. For instance there is hickory bast. None available for 4,000 Km, however. There is Shaker tape, advocated by Jennie Alexander, who I have mentioned before. But it occurred to me that I could use the humble blue jean material. If there is a country that does not covet blue jeans, I haven't heard of it. "Ubiquitous" is the word. So I went to the thrift store, found a pair of jeans, deconstructed them, and cut 5 cm wide strips. Then I hemmed them on the sewing machine, an ordeal, and thus the title of this post.
Here, a couple of completed strips. I am sewing the strip to the frame, looping underneath the frame. Tedious but doable. Sewing by hand. I see no way to put the whole stool under a sewing machine. And I have a little hand-held jobby picked up cheap. It won't fit.

So when we do the analysis, in our best managerial style, of this highly labor-intensive project, the bind -- the critical path, in managerspeak -- is making the strips. It is easy to cut them. Hemming them is the real bind. I am far from an experienced sewer. I had to bend the hem over, press it with a hot iron, and pin it with what seemed like a Kilo of pins. And then I had to sew it on the machine and take out all those pins. Half of them went on the floor. Then I had to pick them up... and now I have set the stage for the title of this post.

In the interval between 2010 and now, I had become acquainted with some marvellous gunk called fabric cement. This is super-glue for cloth (it also works on leather). It will glue fabric together wihout the benefit of stiching. So I had a plan. Do the hem with fabric cement, then sew it up. That will save the pinning, the ironing, the fingers, the trips to the floor to pick up pins, and frustration in general. Much to my surprise the plan worked.
But all was not perfect. The hem, which is much too narrow (I was obsessed with saving material at the time) tends to undo itself. Aha! Lady's Curler Clips (see post entitled Hold it! ) to the rescue. The world owes an enormous debt to curler clamps. I just have to get more. Observe the bottle of fabric cement. Another great modern invention. It is quite possible, if you believe the manufacturer's claim, that you could do the seat on a stool or chair without sewing a stich. But from long experience I am a bit doubtful about manufacturer's claims in general. And here's the current State of the Seat speech, er, picture.
Next job is to go to our trusty Singer Spartan sewing machine, made in Canada in 1954 (I was able to track it down on the 'net.). It sews a straight lockstich. That is all it will do. This is exactly what I do 99.99% of the time. It is indestructible and mostly it puts up with me. And I with it. A working relationship, indeed.
It is very difficult for me to operate this machine. For one thing, the foot switch tends to go immediately to full throttle and the machine runs away from me. This may be just the age of the machine. But I fixed it by putting a thick wad of cloth under the accelerator pedal. But also the strips are very narrow -- less than 5 cm in fact. So if you look at the feed dogs on the machine, the little toothed thingies that feed the fabric into the machine, you will see that they are something like 5 cm apart. So one of the dogs can't grip. Hence the strip tends to skew itself and you have to apply manual feedback. My seams are erratic. But I did it. The whole sewing operation took about 20 minutes on the cemented-down seams. No pins, no iron. And for posterity, here's the last seam.

Sewing machines are marvellous contraptions. This post is already much too long; but I refer you to the Wikipedia article on sewing machine history, well worth the reading, with some fascinating animations. Used sewing machines are very cheap. Mine cost $30 and it is an "antique," hence more expensive. Usually all that used machines need is oiling and putting the needle in the right way. For this you need the instructions. I think that Singer has the instructions for every model it ever made online. You will need instructions to thread it correctly and wind the bobbin. It is interesting to me that the instructions for their 1899 model and my machine are identical!

If you buy a used machine, be sure that you can find instructions for it online, or elsewhere. Without instructions the machine is of no use at all, unless you are a mechanical genius.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Hold it!

As you know by now, 'tis the season where I can't tell you what I'm doing. So I will post on the fine art of holding things down. In particular, when you are soldering (or gluing) things together, you must hold the work firmly, or the solder won't "take" (or the glue joint will be bad). So this post deals with devices to hold your work. Of course this is miniature stuff, so we deal in small devices.

Your first requirement is a small vise. I have a 80mm or so vise clamped to my kitchen worktable, and another slightly smaller one on my indoor workbench.
These vises are indispensable. Both my vises double as anvils for microforging. But for really small stuff, you need another whole set of gadgets.
In the center of the still life is my third hand. As you can see, it has a cast-iron base and a long cross-arm, suspended on a ball-jointed gizmo that allows you to tilt the arm any way you want. The cross-arm has smaller ball-jointed arms which end in alligator clips. It is the 'gators that do the holding. These clips are serrated, which is occasionally exasperating because your piece rotates in the teeth, but is sometimes useful. This thing, as I recall, cost me less than two bucks at the "Chinese Tool tent," a summer institution near Anchorage. I could not make anything without it.

Upper right are my miniature toolmaker's clamps, sold by Lee Valley. These are just like regular toolmaker's clamps but much smaller. I have two sizes, and use them frequently. They are slow to adjust but once you get them on they are bulldogs. Very useful.

At the bottom, or 6 o'clock position (we are going clockwise) is one of the most useful holding devices I have discovered. I call it lettuce wire. It is free. You get about 60cm of lettuce wire with every head of lettuce (buy red leaf or romaine or butter, not with that awful iceberg stuff) that you buy at the supermarket. It comes wrapped in paper, as the blue stuff below. You remove the paper, and you have some very thin, soft wire you can use to lash things together. It has the great virtue of being usolderable; solder will not adhere to it. So when you are through soldering, just cut the lashing and you're done.

At about 9 o'clock we have yet another marvel holding device. It is a lady's hair curler clip. These are available almost everywhere. They are made to hold hair-curling rollers on to hair. They are aluminum, so once again solder will not stick to them. They are really, really, cheap. I have some I cut down and I think the cut-down ones work better, but more experience is necessary. I thank Mr David Wingrove MBE for this suggestion. If you are going to build models, you must have Wingrove's books. Curler clips are also made out of steel (exemplar to the right of the aluminum ones). Unfortunately solder will stick to these, so I un-recommend them. Nothing more frustrating than soldering the clamp to the work!

As a finale, the third hand in action. And it has nothing to do with miniatures.
What I am doing here is repairing a pair of glasses. These things have tiny screws to hold the earpieces onto the glasses. Putting in those screws is a two-handed job. The third hand holds the glasses fixed while I do the deed.

So maybe next time I'll do a post on tools for miniatures. Who knows? And it snowed today and yesterday, so I have a long bit of blowing to do.