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Upcoming projects:
Building a Frame Saw
Forging a Copper Kettle
Making a pair of leather work boots
Forging and Fletching a Bodkin
Flocking a drawer interior

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Long Night

For some six months or more, I have been unable to answer the call of the mountains which, as a sort of spiritual entity, I found a home for the soul. When I lived near the Adirondack range, I undertook the journey to summit each of the 46 high peaks, but have since been displaced to the southern Appalachians. Last I was able, I ventured to the highest peak east of the Mississippi River, Mount Mitchell, which lies in the crook of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. As a prelude to that ascent, I first visited Pinnacle Mountain, which is the tallest free standing mountain in South Carolina, although not the highest elevation. Due to a prior injury, I was unable to complete the 28 mile round trip hike to Sassafras Mountain, but it was not pushed entirely from thought.

Just before the peak fall foliage bloomed on the trees, we set out to conquer Sassafras. By all accounts, the road opened into a beautiful array of reds and yellows and greens and oranges, and once we were on the trial, it was as though we had stumbled into another world. Laden with the colourful mixture of autumn's harvest it wound through the slopes of the mountains as though beckoning us into a kingdom imagined by Tolkien himself.

At times, it was difficult to believe that just four hours south lay the world we left behind, one of social unrest, severe flooding and political upheaval. Here, none of that mattered.

Through the long hours of waning daylight into the short hours of night, we hiked towards a trailside camp. Two other groups of hikers had already settled down for the evening, and another party of hunters were making their way back through the forest with their claim- a five hundred pound black bear. Between four men, they were just barely able to bring it back with them across the sloped and reluctant terrain. And perhaps most of all, watched by the ever vigilant eye of nature itself, curious to our passing and not yet ready for us to leave.

When finally we set camp and settled in for a late meal, night began to fall. There in the crook of the mountains, it came quickly and sank into a heavy darkness that the fire did not easily penetrate. All about us, squirrels scampered through the treetops, dropping acorns for the imminent frost, and with it, the trees let loose their frail leaves and branches as reparations for Old Man Winter.

Food tied high in the trees well away from the camp, we let the fire die out and retired for a night's welcome rest. Crickets chirped and frogs croaked in a symphony articulated by the falling refuse, but its finale was a long way off yet.

By around midnight, I heard a sound undeniable in its source and alarming in its proximity. At first, I attributed it to the weary veil of sleep that had only just begun to fall, a mere hour and a half of drifting sleep before it was so suddenly revoked. With a light shone out from the comfort of where I slept, I scanned the perimeter of the camp for that ill fated flash returned by piercing eyes. Nothing. Determined to find sleep once again, I turned off the light and tried to convince myself that the sound was nothing more than the squirrels yet enthusiastic about their preparations.

And then I heard the breathing. The sort that can only be made as air passes through a snout, and the sort that is too deep for fledgling wildlife. Down some two hundred paces from the trail lay a small creek, and it was down there that I heard footsteps retreat. Large, lumbering steps that do not come from the falling of leaves.

At this point I began to make a bit of unnatural noise- shifting around, zipping and unzipping things, coughing- the sort that would make us known without causing undue alarm. A few minutes of this and I called out quietly to one of my companions who I thought, by their own noises, had heard too what I had. Together, we agreed that it would be best to rekindle the fire for a bit of light and security.

Before embarking on the adventure, I did my best to research regulations and permits for the area, but I found nothing relating to firearms in overnight, trailside camping. Indeed, there were virtually no listings of any sort about trailside camps at all, much less of that nature. Had I been the wiser, I would have brought with a rifle or a shotgun or perhaps both, but all we were left with were small knives against one or more bears. And so fire would become our ally and the watchful eye to the night blindness.

Half an hour after waking, the fire was once again crackling merrily as though heedless of its important task in aiding our survival. That fire was, however large and bright, nowhere near large enough to light the forest around us. Everywhere I looked, there were trees casting long shadows and turns in the landscape that masked what lay beyond. It was a darkness of a clouded night that,in any other circumstance, would have been not only inviting but welcomed to a long day's rest.

Somewhere around one in the morning, my friend went back to sleep. It was better that one of us find rest, and since he had driven, I would rather it be him than me. Besides which, I knew that no matter how many people were standing watch, I would not sleep knowing that we were being stalked by a bear and precious little means of defending ourselves.

Now and again, the fire would die down and so I made the journey farther and farther from the camp in search of wood  to burn. At first it was easy, the deadfall readily available. If not perfectly dry, it was at least something to fuel the flames until it caught fire and added to the blaze. Slowly, as time wore on, I had to venture farther, look places that I would rather not have looked, taken longer to return to the pool of firelight. All the while, I walked my knife in hand. At least it was something. Near four in the morning, around three hundred yards from the trail, I found what confirmed my delusions as reality. Droppings and prints, both as fresh as any I have seen. Somewhere out there, the bear was watching, waiting, and each crack of branches or creak of the wind made me think that it was not one but dozens.

Back home, sunrise is at about seven, the ambient light rising half an hour before, and so I expected it to be somewhat the same here, as we were camped on the eastern slope of the ridge. It was not the case. Four became five, five became six, and soon the anticipation for sunrise was palpable. I had neither slept nor eaten since waking, catching only a short rest sitting with my back to my companions.

At some time, I do not recall when, I was forced to burn the makeshift log bench to keep the fire alive. First the long piece, then the two cross members, but it did not last long enough. Logs that I would have thought capable of smouldering until well into the next day if not put out burned in a heartbeat to the oppressive darkness. Twigs, leaves, anything for light. If it was not growing and I was able to carry it back, I burned it, and still there was not enough. Never before have I imagined that an autumn forest could be so unyielding.

Six turned to seven, and it was still dark as pitch. By now, it was near time the others would be waking; we set alarms for an early start and the remainder of our journey. And out there, the bear was watching.

By nearly eight, the sun finally broke and darkness dissolved into a pale grey blue that ate at the shadowed canopy overhead. As water dries from stone, night gave way to day. Eight hours of hauling and splitting wood, and not a drop of tiredness remained from what had been tainted by restless anticipation. Through the night, seconds turned hours, every small noise and shift of the wind turned my head, and with each motion I prepared myself to do whatever must be done.

Yet now morning had at last come and the long night was over. As breakfast cooked and the camp was stricken, I could not help but feel as though there had been another force beyond our reckoning that warded us through the night, one that is both undeniable and imperceptible.

Once more on the trail, we travelled through that hidden world that was, so short a time unimagined, as it had been the day before. Splendid colour welcomed us with a beauty that apologised for its vice. And at long last, we stood atop Sassafras Mountain where we could see South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee from a single spot.

This marks the fifth state whose highest point I have ascended, and will certainly not be the last. Despite the night's hardships, the view from the summit made it all the more rewarding. For it is the journey that makes the trip worth taking.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Luthier: Part III- Steam Bending

Steam bending. Something that I am glad I have been able to do, but not something I ever want to do again. This process, nearly 9 weeks now since I did the first test bend, was immensely frustrating, stressful, and unsuccessful from the beginning to the end. While the sides to the mandola are not perfect, I am calling it done here before I do something irreparable to the wood. Beyond the damage that has already been done, that is...

Preparing the sides for this project is the first order of business and the first real glimpse of progress after so much planning and redesigning. I have a pair of book matched Bolivian Rosewood sides that are about 4mm thick and wider than I need. Since I expected to have some levelling and plane adjustments to make after getting the sides put together, I left them a little wide.  Because of the shape, each side cannot be one continuous piece of wood, but at the corners I want to preserve the grain alignment as closely as possible.

Out of wherever these were milled and resawn into the pair, the ends are not even close to square. For now, I left that alone but ripped them down to about 9cm. Since I expected to have some levelling and plane adjustments to make after getting the sides put together, I left them a little wide. In the end, they will be about 8cm tall.

And now we begin the steam bending. Here the first piece (longer part of the left side in the plan above) is in the steam box I built a while back. A rule of thumb is steam for an hour for every inch of thickness. This is very thin, so I put it in for a bit longer at 15min. Before entering the box, I wetted the surface slightly to help saturate the wood and encourage good bending.

Taking it out as quickly as possible, I set it in the press and clamped down as tightly as I could manage, using a length of pipe for extra torque on the screw.

A day later, I undid the press, and you can see that only about 80% of the bend took set in the wood. You can also see that the grain started lifting on the tight bend on the edges where it was not quite supported by the frame. This is, although annoying, not that bad as I will be trimming these down anyway. It did, however, serve as a warning to the limits of the wood which I push later on.

To get the last bit of bend out of the wood, I pulled the pipe from the box and turned my rusty old kettle into a steam gun. At this point, I had been bending this piece of wood for a few weeks and was ready to do literally anything to get the wood to stay bent.

Scratching my head and beating it against the wall, I let the project sit for a few days when I was out of town. On the trip, I talked with a friend who is a professional luthier and he suggested I try a hot pipe to bend the wood around. Having never heard of that, I was absolutely willing to give it a try. Apparently, this is a common method used in undeveloped countries who do not have access to a purpose made heated mandrel. All I had to do was heat the pipe (but not so hot that it burns the wood) and bend the wet wood around it. The pipe will boil the water and force steam into the wood, helping it both bend without breaking and take the set that is forced into it without it later relaxing.

For this, the pipe I had on hand was a bit tight of a diameter, but I later found a larger pipe that worked perfectly. Had I known about this from the beginning, I would not have ever bothered making the second press frame.

The pipe got the wood very close. One thing, however, was the ends were extremely difficult to bend without something to either clamp against the pipe or push onto it with sufficient pressure to bend the free ends. At the expense of burning myself a few times, I eventually stopped trying that and looked for another improvised solution. Had the wood been longer, it would not have been a problem as I would have cut the non bent length off, but that was not an option.

Instead, I pulled out my post vice from under my bed and clamped the
end in that, using weights and braces to force the wood into submission.

Craftsmanship is, as I see it, nothing more than persistence overcoming failure and the ability to creatively solve problems while starting with an educated guess at the solution.

Just as I finished the first bend, I realized I had to do something differently. There was no way I was willing to take five weeks to bend each of the six pieces. At that rate, I would never finish.

When I solicited help, I was told how thick sides of acoustic guitars are ordinarily. Having never made one or even played one before, I had virtually no idea and assumed that the wood (which came from a luthier's supply) would be close enough that I did not absolutely need to take it any thinner. That was wildly wrong.

I suppose that my initial reluctance to thin the wood was my lack of workspace. I did surface the sides before bending, but they were still about twice as thick as they needed to be. So, with a bit of annoyance at myself for not doing it earlier and at trying to do this without a workbench, I set to work. Between the joiner plane, files, and a card scraper, I managed to take the sides from 4mm to just over 2mm. This would not only make the wood easier to bend on its own, but would also allow the steam to do its magic more easily and leave a smaller discrepancy between the tension and compression surfaces of the bend for grain to lift.

Half way to the needed thickness. The top one is the thinned, bottom the original.

Final thickness. Making it consistently thick across the 9cm width by hand was difficult, especially the thinner it became. In the end, it was an average of ,05mm variation across the entire width and length, which was close enough for me.

Eventually, after what felt like an eternity battling this thing, I moved onto the second piece of the side. This one is for the top left that has the recurve. I figured it would be easier to bend it half way and then move to the other shape of the press instead of forcing the opposing curves straight off.

The new piece is on the bottom of the above picture, and took almost no set. For retrospectively obvious reasons, the first curve unbent in the steam as I bent the second, leaving one curve instead of two. At this point, the extreme radius of the curve started splintering the outside grain, so I stopped there to reconsider the overall design. In the end I decided that I would use the neck brace block as the outer wood for the top rather than trying to force the rosewood into place and likely breaking it beyond use and repair.

By now, I more or less totally abandoned the press as it was originally designed. Trying to wrestle opposing curves in one pressing operation was not working, so I used the one corner of the press from the original piece to bend virtually everything. Here, I also added two pieces of leather between the press halves and the side. These both helped distribute clamping pressure, retained heat, and kept the moisture from dissipating too quickly. That combination was enough to prevent most of the damage I had experienced up to this point.

Now that the first half of the sides is done, time to move to the second. This one is more complicated and has two more pieces and one additional corner to deal with.

For the first of four pieces, I measured and marked square. This one, as with the others, leaves about an inch of extra material to accommodate the bend and potential splintering.

Back to my trusty saw horse. Cutting wood only 2mm thick was difficult in this configuration to say the least. After this first cut, I did the rest with a knife and straight edge, which was faster and cleaner.

Due to using only part of the curve of the frame for this piece, I had to reconfigure the clamps to have even pressure both into and across the frame. For whatever reason, all the positions of clamps which I had not initially thought I would need (like the one on the top side of the frame above) were only about 2cm too far apart for the clamps to reach. So I had to cut some channels to accept the screw...

Next up is the small piece that serves as the double corner. I was worried that the piece, being so short, would break along the grain while bending. Fortunately, the leather served its purpose and it bent without incident.

Third is the three curve piece. This one was particularly tricky. Had the wood been inherently more flexible, I would have been able to use the press as shown above, but it was not so I could not. S it was back to that one corner to set the outer bends.

Again, as with the pipe, it was troublesome to have the bend carry all the way through the end of the side, so I had to start improvising again. It's a wonder how many configurations you can manage out of a few simple clamps and vices.

Adding the recurve...

Every bit of extra weight and spacing makes a significant difference in the end result.

If you take it slow and use all the steam at your disposal, the wood will eventually bend however far you need it to go. Outside the press, it takes a bit more overbending to keep the set you need because there is no pressure to help submit the grain.

I thought I had learned my lesson with the two top pieces, but with the success of the pipe and the other stuff, I found my confidence again. Or rather, over confidence. This bend did not work and nearly ruined me a second time.

So it was back to the pipes. This time I had the larger pipe to serve as the primary bending curve, and the smaller one for tightening up the fine radii.

Using a scrap bit of chrome tanned leather (nasty! Glad I held onto it though...) as a buffer from the hot pipe and steam, I slowly worked the wood to shape. These are the top pieces that meet the neck, and I stuck with the decision to not have the recurve this time for good.

Unlike the press and steam box approach, the wood takes its set and remains there almost immediately. There is no need to keep it clamped or tied. It is what it is, once it is dry.


And finally, here are the six pieces of the sides. There is a slight amount of bending that will be tightened up in assembly, but not more than a few millimetres. Next up, trimming the final lengths and fixing them together.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Luthier: Part II- Framing II

When I built the first frame for this project, it was intended to be used as the one stop forming solution, but that of course never works. Trying to clamp down with the needed pressure in that configuration was not working, so I needed to think of another solution. And that happened to be building another frame, this time in the form of a press rather than whatever that other one is. The first will still be invaluable during the building process, so it was not entirely wasted time.

First off, I wanted to solve the problem of height. The original frame was about an inch too short for the height of the sides, which is good for laying the supports and back onto the sides, but not so much for the actual bending. To solve this, I went with stacked plywood. Four layers thick brings me to within a few millimetres of the side height, which is close enough for me (famous last words...)

The problem was breaking it down by hand. Without a workbench.

Eventually I got it cut to size, four rectangles that I strategically sized so I was able to use it in three different positions relating to the three shapes I need to bend with it.

The layout for the shape was a challenge in design, having to think about the reverse cuts without being able to align them first. The double line in the centre is for the main curve of the body and the first corner, which will also be used for the other side that does not have it but is shorter in length. The other side is broken down into two parts. First (bottom left) is for the other half of the second side, which takes two compound curves. Second (bottom right) is for the part that meets the neck. That will be two pieces, mirrored. All together, I will be getting five different shapes out of the two piece frame. (the fifth being a small bit for one of the corners only an inch or so long)

Instead of trying to draw the lines four times, I just cut the first and used it as the master for the other three. Unfortunately, I had to make all the cuts with a coping saw that is just a bit too short to reach the full depth of the curves.

Also, without a work bench, I am forced to use my computer desk with a block of steel to weigh it down. Far from a good solution.

To reach the inner curve, I needed to take off the outsides first, that small distance being critical to reaching all the way across.

It was tedious and difficult with the space constraints, but eventually I had the first sheet cut. Three more to go.

In the end, it was finally done. Several painstaking hours with the coping saw and they were close enough in shape that I was satisfied to glue them together.

After a considerable amount of shaping and sanding, the sides were flush and square.

Next up I had to drill some holes to accept the clamps, as I do not have any deep enough to span the entire press.

With a hand brace, it was slow going. Despite only having to drill three holes, it took nearly two hours. It did not help that the teeth on the hole saw were worn out and chipped from drilling through sheet metal a while back.

As expected, the saw was too shallow to drill all the way through the form in one pass, so I had to extend the pilot hole to the other side and start again.

Periodically, I would chisel the pieces out to help relieve the trapped sawdust, which was not expended by the saw.

At long last, the holes are drilled and the form is ready to press.

For the first configuration, here are the clamps. Now finally, I can get to work on the actual project.