Saturday, April 25, 2009

5 minute expanding clamp

This week I was looking for a simple solution to keep a garage roller door track
aligned. The brackets which keep the track aligned are adjustable and held in place by the tension of a coach screw. Unfortunately some of these had come loose and whilst a quick tighten seemed to correct the problem, I want to stop it from recurring. I suspect that over-tightening would only make make the problem worse.

Parallel to the frame however is a brick wall, and really all I needed was something to maintain a bit of pressure on the frame. Distance between frame and wall is 70mm.

My solution - a very simple expansion clamp made using 5/16 threaded rod, 2 mudguard washers, 2 split washers and 2 nuts. The nuts are tightened in opposite directions to push the clamp outwards. Pressure is applied to the mudguard washers so the threaded rod is not digging into the pine blocks.

A very simple solution that can be built in 5 minutes. Easily adjusted and easily removed.

Ebonizing Different Timbers

There is a huge variation in the way different timbers react to ebonizing fluids - which to my mind is a product of how deeply the fluid is absorbed and the different chemical makeup of the wood cells. The ebonizing fluid reacts with tannin and turns dark, so timbers with higher levels of tannin react better.

I do not consider identifying different timbers as a skill I possess so apologies for being vague about timber types. Here are a few photos of different scraps I tested.

1) Hardwood garden peg
Looking left to right on the photograph: Test 1 (written in permanent marker) is a single brushing of the ebonizing fluid. Test 2 shows a brushing of fluid which was allowed to dry, then a single brushing of strong black tea was added (to provide tannin for a darker reaction). Test 3 was only ebonizing fluid, showing 5 coats - each pass was allowed to dry before the next was added.

2) Radiata pine
A few chips from an offcut of construction pine. Showing end-grain and side-grain.
Test 1 was dipped into ebonizing fluid for a few seconds and allowed to dry. Test 2 was dipped in fluid, allowed to dry, then dipped in tea. Test 3 was left immersed in ebonizing fluid for one hour.

The pine samples reacted quite slowly and at first it appeared that no-reaction was taking place at all.

3) Eucalyptus
This sample shows a piece of turned eculyptus which has been fully immersed in unfiltered ebonizing fluid overnight.

You can see how the rust left in the unfiltered solution has stained the wood. This is not totally unappealing in its own way, and could be explored further by someone looking for an artistic and non-uniform stain. Other than that I was surprised at how well this blacke

4) Unknown Hardwood

Another end scrap from the lathe showing side by side the effected of the ebonizing. This timber reacted very quickly - only a single light brushing was applied before this photo was taken.

Steps for Making Ebonizing Fluid

For anyone interested in ebonizing timber I found this little kitchen experiment to be highly satisfying. Rather than telling half the story, here are the steps I followed.

1) The Rusty Brew
The crust on top of the fluid is just foam that has been frothed by the gases given off as the reaction takes place. This rather horrible looking concoction in the first photograph is simply a variety of rusty items (steel wool and small nails) to which I have added about a litre of plain white vinegar.

To check if its working, you can use the fluid as is after a few days, however your timber will get stained by the rust that is in suspension. Probably you don`t what to achieve a psychedelic swirly pattern on your work so some sort
of filtering is required.

2) First filtering attempt
The coffee filter I tried did not work well, the fluid ran through it too quickly and the remaining solution was still cloudy. Photograph indicates the rust sludge it did manage to extract.

A funnel with a peice of ordinary white facial tissue twisted up inside the funel tube worked much better. Adjust how tightly you stuff the tube to get more or less filtration. Mine took about 1 hour per 100ml but as you can see in the photo the filtered product is clear and close to being colourless.

2) Second Filtering and Storage
I find that the first time I filter it this way I get a clear but still coloured solution. When I store this solution for a few days sometimes more sludge precipitates out of solution which will require a second filtration. Another thing to bear in mind is the sludge is very fine and will settle on the bottom of the container, so storing the solution in tall jars or bottles can make for a lot less filtering effort if you handle it carefully.

3) Handling Hazards
The finished product - clean and clear and ready for use. Be careful with handling as it will stain some materials and some woods react very quickly. You might not be too popular around the home if you drip the fluid on the kitchen chopping board for example. Store the fluid safely and out of reach of the kids, the same as any other chemical.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Beef up your tool box with some low cost consumables

Every self-styled weekend warrior dreams of their next tool purchase - when in reality many expensive tools are really only needed for highly specialised work, or to achieve something faster than hand tools allow. For those just starting to get their tool kit together, before you go and buy a drop saw or belt sander, make sure you have the consumables that will help you get jobs done quickly and professionally without spending every weekend running back and forth to the hardware store. Compared to buying another power tool you will find these items are relatively cheap and useful in a wide variety of situations.

1. An all purpose lubricant, protectant, preserver and squeak stopper. ($5-$15)
Currently I am hooked on a product called Ballistol but there are many similar aerosol products in this category. Endlessly useful, including for applications such as cleaning up sticky, messy and grime covered items (the window washer pump of my 1976 Diesel sedan springs to mind).

2. Some decent hacksaw blades ($5-10)
If I am only doing a little bit of cutting, I don`t really mind whether I am using a cheap basic hacksaw frame or a solidly built professional one. What does drive me crazy is trying to cut with low quality blades which blunt quickly and just as often shatter on difficult cuts. While you can buy junk hacksaw blades at your local discount shop for $2 a dozen, at a hardware store you will probably find $5 will get you a really nice quality, super-flexible high-speed bi-metal blade. Keep a sharp blade and a spare and they`ll be ready when you need it.

3. Graphite ($5-$10)
When you need graphite there is no substitute. Specifically useful for lubricating many types of locks especially when the keyway seems to be jamming up. And for anyone except a professional locksmith, chances are a small puff bottle will last you 20 years.

4. Rags ($0-$10)
If you have any interest in car maintenance or timber finishing, hopefully you have trained your relatives to keep all their old towels and t-shirts for you. You can buy them by the bag as well, if you really must. A good clean rag is essential in countless jobs and you can bin it right away to save trying to wash grease, paint dust etc down the sink.

5. Razor blades ($2-$10)
This includes both box-cutter blades (standard or snap-off) and scraper blades. Cheap and indispensable for a multitude of jobs.

6. Some really good glue ($10-$20)
I can`t even begin to count how many repair jobs I got out of one medium sized bottle of multi-purpose cross-linked PVA glue. Some folks tell me that you should only keep glue like this for a year but personally I`ve broken this rule blatantly and never had a problem. At $10-$20 though if I was making a prized piece of furniture I would opt for a fresh bottle. My preferred brand markets itself as a multi-purpose product for bonding, sealing and hardening - and it seems to stick just about anything. You can even plasticise wood with a solution of it should you wish to do some experimenting. The only glue I ever use in addition to this is the very occasional tube of superglue which you might keep a few spares of in your toolkit. (They go off quickly once opened).

7. Nut Screws Washer and Bolts ($0.10 and upwards)
Possibly some nails as well. These seem to accumulate in VAST quantities in other peoples garages and yet the first thing most people do on the weekend is drive to the hardware store to buy more of them. Often its just a case of getting some sort of system to sort out what you already have and then buy to complement your existing selection. For things like plain old wood screws you are likely to use a lot of, a bulk bag will save you a fortune compared to buying them 10 at a time in blister packs.

8. Gloves, goggles and ear-protection ($10-$200)
Choose your own price-point here, but I would rather work with a $5 pair of gloves, a $2 set of plastic safety glasses and some disposable ear plugs than go unprotected because I can`t find my expensive safety gear. Even little injuries cost time and a trip to hospital will (at the very least) make your weekend a write off.

If you kept to the cheap seats you may just have enough change out of $50 to buy a carpenter`s pencil. You will certainly have added some capacity to your toolkit and be ready to tackle a range of different jobs.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Old tools are good tools

The side cutters and pliers pictured were made long before I was born, and by the time I was old enough to start getting interested in tools they had been packed up, moved around, and separated from one another as newer, cheaper and shinier (but not better) tools were purchased to replace them. They sat in crates in the back of the family garage waiting for me to return them to their former glory.

The thing about these tools which you notice when you compare them to newer but inferior substitutes is the quality of the steel they are made from. They have a firm closing action and tightly fitting jaws. The side-cutters snip hard stock cleanly and easily. Bought new, they would be quite expensive, and thus most mainstream hardware stores wouldn`t bother stocking them (not when they can import cheap sets offering 10 different pliers for $30).

Some ideas about finding quality tools at outrageously low prices:

1) Some people may be happy for their tools simply to go to a good home
Talking to people about tools and gently lamenting the fact that they don`t make them like they used to may encourage others to bestow their now unneeded tools on you. If you can provide them with the care and respect they deserve, tools will start to find their way to you.

2) Don`t be put off by a bit of rust
A bit of rust or surface staining is par for the course on old tools, and generally will in no way affect useability. Products like "ballistol" in my experience do a good job of cleaning up steel tools quickly and easily and will often make the manufacturer markings on the tool readable again (as well as lubricating the tool and preventing further corrosion). I also like this product as it claims to also protect and preserve wood, leather and rubber, and I have yet to see evidence to the contrary. Garage sales, fleamarkets and council cleanups are a good source of items that have a bit of rust but are otherwise in great condition.

3) Quality is worth paying for
You may be lucky enough to have tools your grandparents used. Will your grand-children be able to say the same? We have become conditioned towards buying cheaper and inferior quality products when in fact the "last a lifetime" tools can still be purchased either new or secondhand (albeit at a "remember for a lifetime" price). Sometimes its nice to save up for something that you really will be able to pass on to the next generation.

Finding peace in the hardware store

One of the shops I am quite happy to not get any service in is a hardware store. I find simply wandering the aisles looking at different products is a good source of inspiration and ideas, and I never leave without feeling like I have learned something. Whilst some shop assistants are truly fonts of knowledge, I find too many of them want to solve my problem and get me out the door as quickly as possible, when in fact I simply seek solitude and quiet reflection, browsing the tools I love.

This is easy to do in the suburban super-stores you can wander for days without ever sighting a staff member. The smaller city stores (there are 3 within 5 minutes stroll of Martin Place in Sydney) are more of a challenge. If like me you are simply seeking a mental break from your day job here are some sure fire ways to get that helpful shop assistant off your back.

1) Go obscure
Ask for something you know they don`t have, the more ridiculous the better so they don`t waste your time actually looking for it. Yes, I`d like a horseshoe please. Stockholm tar? Shark Repellent? Should they be able to produce any of these items stare intently at the labelling for a few seconds then tell them you`ll think about it.

2) Always good for the basics
Until they start selling food at hardware shops your choice of daily essentials is somewhat limited, but don`t look past cleaning products, fly spray and batteries as perfectly valid reasons to browse the power tool section for half an hour.

3) Body Language
Shop assistants at hardware stores are trained professionals, taught to observe buyer behaviour in order to maximise sales. If you walk straight into the store like you`ve been there a thousand times and head purposefully for the back display where they keep the wall anchors, chances are they will ignore you in favour of a customer more deserving of their attention. Use this lapse in their concentration to disappear into the building materials section and you can browse in peace for hours.

In time, the staff will realise that, like me, you are not a shoplifter but a diehard hardware tragic and they will give you all the space you need. Happy shopping!

Too Big to Tackle

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting a hobbyist cabinetmaker who manages to turn out an amazing quantity of high quality work, outside of his professional 9-5 career. He shared a few of his secrets:

1) Keep a list of "Whats next"
There are always small jobs that need to be done as part of larger steps. Knowing what comes next allows you to use spare minutes on a weekday eveing and thus avoid wasting precious hours on Saturday and Sunday. In 15 minutes you can sharpen a chisel, apply a coat of finish to a small item, or set up a power tool.

2) Dont rush
Some stages simply take time. Not allowing enough time for paint to dry isnt going to save time, it wastes time through rework and an inferior final product. Find other things you can do while you are waiting to proceed to the next stage.

3) All set up, make the most of it
It takes time to set up tools. Once you have gone to the trouble of setting up a table saw, adjusting the jig and so forth, it doesn`t take much longer to cut 10 pieces as it does to only cut 1. Think about how you can maximise your use of each session to save time in the future.

Ebonizing Fluid

I mentioned ebonizing fluid in my last (or rather first) post. This is a solution used to turn wood black. The item pictured in the photograph, a replica tonfa style baton for martial arts training is a example of something that looks kind of cool with a shiny black finish.

1) Making rust
If you don`t have some rusty nails etc handy, throw a packet of the cheapest steel wool you can find into an icecream container and add a centimetre of water. Slosh it around to wet the wool. You want the wool to be damp but not immersed as too much water will actually keep the oxygen out, and you need the oxygen to get into the steel to produce the iron oxide. In days the wool will be brittle and rusty, if you stir it a bit with a stick you will find it makes a lovely mess. If you do have some rusty items handy, use that and skip this step. There is nothing special about steel wool other than the huge surface area allows it to rust quickly.

2) Add the vinegar
The vinegar dissolves the rust and forms iron salts in solution which is what you want. I poured in a litre of vinegar. No real need to measure this carefully it doesn`t matter as vingar is a very weak acid and you should have more rust than you need anyway. Leave it for a couple of days to react away. This is a good mid-week activity.

3) Filter
You end up with a cloudy murky and nasty looking soup. However, this can be filtered to a nice clear liquid. My first filtering attempt used 2 coffee filters, this seemed to trap about half of the sediment but the finer particles made it through. A much more effective (but slow) approach was to stuff them stem of a funnel with an ordinary facial tissue and let the fluid filter through slowly (about 5 drips per minute), topping it up whenever you go past. Its really slow but it works great. I put the now ready to use fluid in the (now empty) vinegar bottle.

4) Apply the finished product

I have tried brushing it onto timber and also soaking small items in the fluid. Some woods react quickly and go quite dark, others seem to have almost no reaction. Apparently this is to do with the amount of tannin in the timber. I have read that you can artificially add tannin to timber (to some extent) by dabbing on strong black tea.