Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Carbonizing Wood: The Picnic Table

Several years ago I became aware of the origin of the blackness inside those half wood barrels you see for sale in garden centers.  The wood is charred to guard against decay.  Charcoal, it turns out, has very little to offer mold and fungus in the way of nutrition and so is very resistant to it.  What led to this understanding, for me, was seeing that a house and barn had been clad in charred wood, and that several wood product manufacturers now offer carbonized wood in various degrees of "cooked".  Being the curious guy I am, once I had a propane torch, I wanted to see how easy or difficult it was to master this technique.

First a word about the table.  It was built from salvaged wood using a pattern I found on the internet.  It's really quite simple and any search will turn up a number of patterns to chose from.  I chose one that fit the materials I had on hand, all scrap and salvage.  Only the lag bolts and screws needed to be purchased.

As you'll see in the video below, it's trivially easy to char wood.  With clean, stripped wood, just wave the flame of the torch back and forth over the surface until the desired level of char is achieved.


After the wood is charred I find that with the pine decking the loose soot is easily wiped off on your hands and clothes, so I removed this with a fine brass wire wheel attachment for my electric drill.  Just lightly running over the surface to remove the powdery char was all that was needed.  The remaining browned wood is still amazingly rich in color.

In Process - freshly washed after stripping

The final step involved using an old jug of "wet look sealer" from Baer.  I had thought to use it in the basement long ago but decided against it for some reason I can't recall.  It's water based and was still in good condition and the results on the charred wood are amazing.  I applied the first coat with a brush, the second with a sponge brush, and the third coat I just poured it into the cracks and crevices and smoothed it over with the foam brush to fill in as much of the irregularities in the surface as possible.  

Ready for Dinner - Blue hue reflecting the sky

The end result is quite impressive.  It came out much better than I had anticipated and I have to give the credit to the materials as the work was far too easy for me to consider this high craft-work.  See for yourself. If you decide to try the method on your own, make sure you use your torch in a well ventilated area and try not to set your wood on fire.  Small gouts of flame are going to be normal with resinous woods, but self-sustaining flames should be extinguished quickly.

Deep Grain

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Failing: Learn From Your Mistakes

Usually I talk about what has gone right.  Seldom do we like to dwell on what has gone wrong.  But in this case, I fought a good fight and so don't feel too badly about acknowledging when it was time to call it quits with a repair job that just didn't want to be.

It all started when I reassembled a mower deck after obliterating the spindle housings after hitting a fist size rock.  In that case, I was fortunate enough to find ereplacementparts.com, and was able to get replacement spindle housings for less than the cost of a new deck.  A week later, I had my mower back in operation but I failed to consult a parts diagram, and as I now know, omitted an important spacer.  With the spacer between the top of the spindle housing and the bearing missing, the pulley rode directly on top of the spindle housing, creating a lot of friction and heat.  Eventually the, the somewhat toothed hole in the center of the pulley wore smooth, and then as it loosened, oblong until it was so worn it had no more ability to hold the mower belt in tension and it failed with much noise.

I was able to purchase a replacement pulley for $13, and was back in business.  That is, until late last week when yet again, I discovered the same pulley wearing out. Fortunately, I caught it before it was bad, but it was definitely spinning free.  Exasperated, I pulled things apart and discovered that the spindle itself had worn to the point where there were no more ridged teeth to engage the pulley.  So, I got back on the parts site and ordered a new spindle.  While doing so, referencing the part diagram for the part number, I noticed the spacer.  It all clicked in a moment of realization - the spacer was the problem.  Without it, the spindle and pulley could not hope to function properly for long.

This is where the fail really starts rolling though.  So, first lesson learned: consult a parts diagram and make sure you have everything when you reassemble something.  Not being one to give up easily, and wanting to mow my lawn while waiting on new parts, I devised a way to get the spindle and the pulley to lock up and work as intended.  All I needed was a little machine work and a suitable washer to turn down as a temporary replacement spacer.

As you can see below, with a little drilling and filing, I created an index slot in the pulley, and a hole in the spindle to receive a set screw which I imagined would engage with the slot.

Notion courtesy of: "507 Mechanical Movements"
In theory, this was a sound mechanical principle.  I made a couple of miscalculations, however.  First, my set screw was just a happy find in the parts bin.  I had no idea what the strength of the material was in terms of hardness or even composition.  It might have been mild steel from the ease with which it failed.  Second, I drilled and tapped the hole in the spindle, but the spindle was hollow, and the wall thin, and getting my hand held tapper to cut threads correctly was a challenge and it didn't go so well.  As a result, the screw jammed in the threads and turned itself in half with the torque of the vice-grip pliers I was using to insert it.

SO close, but not working out.  I reasoned at this point that if I had spacers, I could make it work, so I drove all the way to the hardware store hoping to get a replacement pulley and maybe find a lucky washer that would match the spacer dimensions.  I found one with the right ID (inside diameter), but not the right OD.  So I thought - no problem, I have a metal lathe, I'll just put the washer on the outside of the chuck, turn it down and have a spacer.

Unfortunately, my bench lathe is a 7" made for larger, heavy duty work.  I haven't a chuck small enough.  My machinist mentor later asked me: "Did you try putting the washer on a bolt and..."  "DOH!"  Yes, I could have mounted it to a bolt with a couple of nuts and put the bolt in the chuck.  Duh.  But, by the time I learned that, it was 24 hours past the time I humbled myself, gave up on trying to repair my mower with make-do parts, and wandered down the street to borrow my neighbors riding mower.  The grass looks great.  His new John Deere all-wheel steering mower was a beast and got the job done with nary a complaint. I might have to upgrade... some day.

I strive to learn from my mistakes so that I might not repeat them, and that I might learn to be more thorough, and careful, in the future.  I hope this little story helps someone else avoid similar pitfalls!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Creating Additional Parking

America is a funny place.  Even some of the poorest people have a small herd of cars grazing in their front yard.  There are .797 vehicles in the US per every 1 citizen.  Considering that many of those people are only legally passengers, and that many who are of legal driving age don't even own a car, it's actually a lot of cars.  Like most families with more than one driver, we have more than one car.  Part of this is strategy, and part if it is just God's grace.  Long story short, I couldn't sell the old Dodge mini van when we upgraded to a used Honda Odyssey, but it has worked out very well having a paid-for backup vehicle.

This blessing, however, presents a problem.  My driveway is only 20 feet wide and 78 feet long.  Crammed end to end, I could fit about 6 cars in it. Our garage (crammed with other stuff) is attached and faces the street, so while urban neighborhoods often have a detached garage in the back and a back yard to stuff an extra vehicle into, our driveway, so far, has been the only parking available for us.  This has made shuffling the vehicles a bit awkward at times.  The solution dawned on me last fall - I need (just like a couple of my neighbors have) an extra parking spot. Thus began a seemingly simple project: kill the grass, spread some gravel around, call it good.  Alas, "simple" quickly led to "expensive" as my over-developed sense of perfection took over.

Here's the final bill of materials.  The initial grading was "free" since I already own the 1973/4 International Harvester 284 which I used to scrape the area bare.

Fuel for Tractor and Hauling
Pressure Treated Landscaping Ties
12 Tons of 305 unscreened gravel,  delivered
Bobcat S150 Rental, w/ Trailer
Dr's Visit
Total   :-/$741

The lumber yard got me for $36 each on the 6, 6" x 6" x 12 ft landscaping ties.  Once upon a time you could get them a lot cheaper.  My dad and I built a lot of stairs and retaining walls when I was a kid and I remember they were closer to $8 a piece back then.  But, they make in my case what is essentially a weed barrier and retaining "wall", albeit only about 2" tall.  I buried them 4" in the ground to keep them from sliding out of place, and to keep grass rhizomes from creeping under them.

Why 12 tons of gravel?  Because I wanted the gravel bed to be deep enough that my vans wont sink into the wet clay beneath after a heavy rain.  And I needed some extra gravel for an upcoming project.

The Dr's visit was for a hernia.  Yes - long heavy beams should not be lifted up by one person.  Turned out to be minor enough that with care it went away,  for the most part, in a few months time.  It did slow me down quite a bit last fall, however, when I began this project.

While the project started with grading the grass off last fall, followed by digging long square trenches by hand with a spade, the gravel was dropped in the street last night and I had it scraped up, spread around and packed down with the Bobcat by this afternoon.  The results are probably not all that impressive, but the suddenly open driveway feels spacious.

Bus Parking Only

A somewhat separate project was the disposal of the dirt that I scraped up to make a level spot in the yard to begin the project.  I had thought about using it to level a part of the hill in the back yard, but there wasn't enough to make much of a difference.  Instead, I decided to cover it with a truck bed load of mulch ($40) and plop a Sand Cherry tree in it ($37).  The rock border was a happy find that I discovered on my property when I was trying to dig a flat spot into a hill to park a future gazebo.  In my way was a vein of sand stone. It yielded up several stones of varying sizes and makes an attractive border for my dirt pile.

Dirt pile?  What dirt pile?

So, if you're considering this project for your parking needs, you can save yourself some money by doing some things yourself.  While the Bobcat rental and gravel was expensive, having a parking spot made for me could have run into the low thousands depending on the contractor you have chosen.  

Having a truck to tow the Bobcat on its trailer 10 miles too and from the rental place saved me $115 on delivery.  But it also ate up a lot of gas in the F250's V10, did a number on my brake pads (I could smell them on the way back into town) and gave me a chiropractic exam as the combined mass of the trailer and Bobcat S150 fought with the truck all the way to and from the store.  That was probably the most unnerving part of the whole experience.  Driving the Bobcat was a piece of cake and saved me a lot of time and effort.  If you have a big job to do, make it smaller by renting or borrowing some big tools.  :-)

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Building a Worktable: Part III - Final Installment

Well, after a valuable lesson in reading the directions and selecting the correct adhesive, my worktable (See part 1 and part 2) is now ready to enter service.  The first adhesive for the sheet metal top I chose was whatever was in reach at the hardware store that said "Liquid Nails" on it because when I was a young man, there was only ONE kind... the kind that you never, ever, undid.  It just worked.  Now with the different chemicals that are known to the state of California to be bad for you, most adhesives are specialized, for some purpose, silicon rubber of one kind or another.  Near as I can tell, they are mostly all varying grades of caulk.

Taking some time to read the instructions proved valuable as I found this amazing stuff:

For when Duck Tape just won't cut it.

Loctite™ PL Premium Construction Adhesive. Made for metal and non-porous surfaces. Forgetting to wear my respirator may be why I had a sore throat this morning (or I caught the bug the kids are passing around) but this stuff really did stink going on and had I read the instructions a bit more, I would have discovered that, yes, a respirator is recommended.  Ah well.  I as yet live.   More importantly, the sheet metal table top is FIRMLY secured and flat as a 'possum that's been laying in the road for a good week or two.

In preparation for using the correct adhesive, I did scrape and sand away the wrong adhesive before applying.  Hopefully this will hold the table top down for the life of the table.  If not, I am prepared to drill, counter-sink and screw it down but for aesthetic reasons (eye roll) I didn't want to do that if I don't have to.  I also didn't like the idea of screw heads, recessed or not, gathering gunk and looking dirty.  I'm not a clean freak, but some things I do get OCD about.

Here's a few more shots of the table.  I will probably stain it but don't plan to post any more pictures except as incidental when discussing future projects that will probably be built upon this table.  It has certainly been a worth-while and fun project.  It's very motivating, too, as I now know I have a place to work on things where previously it always meant clearing off the garage floor or setting up a rickety saw-horse table.

Reclaimed Materials - Evidence of Age and Use = Beauty

Showcase Shot at Sunset
Center of the Table

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Building a Worktable, Part II

I've been building a worktable this week from salvaged wood and sheet metal.  Today, I assembled the top.  While I was prepping the metal, I decided to get a little creative and experiment with applying a patina to the sheet metal.  After studying several different approaches and taking a quick inventory of what I had on hand, I decided to try both a black and a blue patina.  Both require different processes and equipment and I ran into a little unexpected problem, but it was a good learning experience.

First thing I decided to do was set a pattern of colors rather than just random shades of blue, black and rust. Using simple painters masking tape, I taped off my pattern.  This was to provide a mask for the black patina,which I was going to be applying via a spray on rust treatment.  It turns metal black by chemically neutralizing rust.

Taped and ready for spraying

Once I sprayed a light coat on, I peeled off the tape and moved on to the bluing.  I decided to heat-treat to apply the patina, which worked well, but this is where my problem started.  Since heating metal causes it to expand, and I was only heating areas that I wanted blued, I wound up with a wavy sheet of metal.  This would be fine for artwork, but for a supposedly flat table top, not so good.

At any rate, I used a MAP torch to heat the metal until the blue patina began to appear.  The metal heaved all along this area and then receeded as it cooled but the warping remained.  The effect however was very interesting and fun to play with.  I want to try other patinas in the future now that I've had a play with it. One thing that I think looks like absolute crap is the way the rust treatment came out.  It apparently needs to be rolled on or wiped on in an even layer.  I plan to go back over the table top, re-taping it and then wiping on a few more coats to get a uniform black.  You can see below the graffiti effect from just spraying back and forth.  Live and learn.

Did I say spraying?  Should have rolled or wiped it on evenly.

I did find some interesting effects with the torch and the rust treatment where they interacted.  It gave the coating a nice brown effect that I actually much prefer to the black.  Lemon juice left to etch steel for several hours will brown metal.  In the future, I want to try that out as the brown, leathery look is very appealing to me.

While the metal sheet cooled on flat concrete, I used a scrap piece of 3/4" plywood to create the reinforced base for the table top.  This got glued and screwed to the table base which was now fully assembled.  Once I had that done, I put the salvaged and de-formicaed table top upside down on the garage floor and traced the outline of the base on the underside of the table top.  Then I squirted half a tube of liquid nails all over within the outline and used a piece of plastic to spread it out somewhat evenly.

After laying the table base down on the table top, I screwed it together with more cabinet screws.  At this stage, the table was really feeling solid.  I could have left the metal top off and had a very strong and sturdy table and called it a day.  But, I wanted my metal table top, so now I had to deal with the warping.

Turning the worktable back over, I put the sheet metal on top to see if the warping could be overcome just by weighing it down and gluing it.  Not a chance - too much deformation had been created by the heat treating.  So out came the trusty 3lbs. hammer and using the same scrap of plastic I used to spread the glue as a sacrificial barrier, I hammered out the high spots until the sheet was relatively flat, or flat enough that weights and clamps would get it down on another layer of liquid nails.  IMPORTANT: Make sure the adhesive you use is for METAL.

Hammering it out was a noisy affair, but the work table felt very solid underneath it and it was easy to tell when I had a section flattened out by the lack of deflection caused by each blow of the hammer.  The hammering added an interesting dimpled effect that I hadn't planned on, but like most accidents that add interest to things I build, I don't mind leaving it.  It sort of looks like it's supposed to be that way and I don't mind it.  Call it a "distressed" look if you like.

One thing I also experimented with today was blackening wood to see if I wanted to do that as a treatment for the wood base of the table.  As it turns out, pine doesn't blacken as well as hard woods and the effect is too inconsistent.  It's neat, but not what I wanted to see.  So, I'll use some left over wood stain instead (I have no shortage of that) and just put a good dark walnut stain on it after I soften up the wood with some soft-wood primer.  Eventually, I'll be building a lower shelf to sit upon the bottom stretchers and might work a cabinet into the base of the table, but for now, there are projects besides this table that must be completed as soon as possible, so it will be going directly into service this week.

Once I have it stained and the top patina finished to my liking, I'll post up two more pictures of the final product.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Building a Worktable

One thing every home shop needs is a sturdy work table.  A work bench is usually the place you mount your bench top tools or store endless capsules of scavenged screws and spindles.  A work table is a critical support in any shop endeavor.  It's an extra pair of hands, a light-duty anvil, a paint stand, a drafting table, a seat, a pedestal and a place to store things that just don't have a home yet.

My garage is my shop.  I have long wanted to build a shop but materials and finances are not aligning to that end, so the garage has been claimed, the vehicle evicted, and the materials stock-piled.  The mice have been quite happy.  But my garage is a cluttered mess.  I would post a picture but I fear the shock would drive my readers away forever -- all two of them.  So the first major task I am undertaking is making a work table.

To get us started, I did what any modern man would do and googled for plans or videos.  I found the following video very helpful and it is the pattern upon which I am building my table, minus the wheels, and I'm adding a steel top.  I don't like the wobbly feel wheels gave the work bench I created for the kids.  It just doesn't feel solid, though it serves their purposes well.  I want a work surface that is one with the planet and moves nowhere unless intended, so my table will be heavy and solidly built.

To get started, I'm using salvaged materials happily gleaned from a nearby dumpster (with permission).  I pulled some 4 x 4 pine beams (untreated) from heap and also three friends from work gave up scraps from their garages to supply the 2x4's and the table top.  I bought some 1/8 inch steel plate from another co-worker which will be cut to cover the top to provide a rock hard work surface that will take a lot of abuse.

Here are some starter pictures and more will follow.  The dimensions I have chosen are to fit the table top that I inherited.  The table top, by the way, came with some really beautiful pink and gold fleck Formica veneer... and what a joy it was to peel that off and toss it.  The top itself that remained consisted of oak and 1/4" high density fiber board.  I give this detailed description as it is not yet pictured.

Here are the sides after assembly.

Legs, glued and screwed.

And here they are a few days later mid way through final assembly.  The stretchers on the floor are already glued and screwed in.  The one's on top had to wait for a trip to the hardware store.  I have fallen in love with the green-coated decking screws for most heavy duty assembly jobs and had to buy some.  Salvaged drywall screws are great for most things, I built out most of my basement with them, but now that I have experienced the joy of the low friction corrosion resistant screws, of which screwing into wood is amazingly easy (especially with a pilot hole), I can't do without them.

Table base nearing completion
Last picture for today is the sheet metal I bought for a reasonable price.  It came from a guy who once owned a motorcycle dealership.  He has an amazing collection of Honda Goldwings and Valkyries.  Part of the sheet was cut out with a plasma torch and used for some long ago project.  The rest is big enough to cover my table and I have a couple of ideas of how I might cut it down.  I'm still toying with the idea of folding it over the edges of the wood top which will be reinforced with a layer of plywood, glued and screwed, or just cutting it to fit the edges.  One complication is that the salvaged table top has rounded corners, so it might work better just to cut the sheet metal to fit the top surface and adhere it with some liquid nails.


It almost looks like someone drew a picture of a road bike on that metal.  I didn't notice it till the camera flash picked it up.  Anyway, I hope to have the table completed within the week.  Soon enough I have other projects that need to get started and the table will be a big, and necessary, part of those projects.

Also see Part 2 and Part 3.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Fix what's Broken Instead of Going Broke

I'm the long term happy owner of a Husquavarna riding mower with a Briggs and Stratton V-Tec Twin 24 HP motor.  It's a great lawn tractor about one step up from a 48" rider with a 54" 3 blade deck.  At an initial cost of $2300 and several acres of grass to mow, this mower has paid for itself over the last 6 years.

Last year, the frame cracked in two identical places on the left and right side at a weak spot in the stamped frame.  It looks sort of suspiciously like planned obsolescence, but my neighbor can weld, so we're good to go there.  Replacing the frame, aside from the time and expense to tear down the whole machine, would have been cost prohibitive.  Thankfully I had access to someone with a MIG welder, though a stick welder may have gotten the job done.  At present, I'm happy to not need to incur that cost.

Unfortunately, that's not the only problem I have encountered.  With about 280 hours on the engine, the heads suffered some temperature related failure last year where by the brass valve guides slid out of place while the engine was over temp (no temperature gauge is available on this model but I might try to install one), and seized up in the incorrect position while cold causing mechanical failure of the push rods in one cylinder on the next startup.

Bent Rods - Despite what the TV tells you, there is no pill for this.

Brass and Aluminium have different deformation temperatures

This happened on the number 2 cylinder last year in the spring.  After ordering a replacement head assembly and push rods and installing, it ran great until my neighbor tried putting the wrong fuel in it when he borrowed it.  It was an honest fatigue based mistake, but it resulted in an identical failure to manifest itself in cylinder 1.

Through some misfortune, I did not order the push rods with the No. 1 replacement head this year.  I thought the parts were included with the assembly but last time the issue was diagnosed by a technician so perhaps he added the parts to my order for me.  As it stands at present, the new head is installed with new gaskets all around and as soon as the new rods arrive, I'll be able to install and adjust them.

The new head with push rods and shipping comes out to about $100.  A new engine runs about $900.  Repairing rather than replacing in this case is definitely keeping me from breaking the bank, and learning to do this repair didn't take too long reviewing some online videos of similar repairs being conducted.

In a way, perhaps the way it's supposed to be, a tiny bit of adversity has provided the opportunity for me to increase my skills and confidence repairing what is broken.  I'm encouraged to look more carefully in the future at broken gear before deciding to replace it with a new item.