Saturday, August 31, 2013

Way down south to Mexico way! Alright!

Today's post title is referencing, however obliquely, Jimi Hendrix and one of his bigger hits. Might be before your time, might not. The lyric from "Hey Joe" comes to mind, you see, as I just took a trip myself down to Mexico way:


Just to allay any concerns that might be forming among readers familiar with "Hey Joe", no, I didn't shoot my old lady down - she came along with me quite happily in fact. We went to Mexico not to flee the law, not to lay on a beach, but to look at some wood. Hah! 'Some' wood, well, that's an understatement.

When I got to Mexico, I saw a whole bunch of rosewood, or cocobolo. More cocobolo than I had ever seen in my life. Kinda what you'd expect, perhaps, had I actually gotten on a plane and flew that far south. In this case though, my journey was by car, heading way east, to Mexico, Maine, the home of Rare Woods. Four and a half hours of driving and a journey most definitely into that part of Maine where the economy was nearly comatose, and rural poverty was fairly apparent everywhere you looked. A lot of rural New England is like that actually. And it's a beautiful part of the world too, that cannot be emphasized enough, once one learns to look past the ever-multiplying dollar stores and boarded up businesses.

Rare Woods is a business run by South African expat Rory Wood and his wife. He relocated from South Africa around 2008, about the same time as I moved to the US, just ahead of the biggest financial crash since the great depression. Well, timing can't be everything, as they say. Here's a picture of Rory Wood by the entrance to the main warehouse:


Most of his business now is exporting North American species, like Cherry, Basswood, Walnut, Oak, etc., to South Africa, where the economy seems a little better than here, and where such woods are considered 'exotic'.

Rare Woods occupies a former sawmill site in the boondocks, a site which sprawls over a few acres, plus the proprietor has several other facilities and storage buildings. There is a fair amount of wood -tonnage I mean- squirreled away here and there on at his facility. It's a place where you are climbing mountains and decending valleys of lumber of all shapes and sizes.

Rory has traveled the globe and has been dealing in rare and exotic woods for more than 30 years. He mentioned to me that he has a library of more than a thousand books on wood species of the world, and is extremely knowledgeable, not only about the species, down to their botanic names, but about the conditions of wood production in the countries where he sources material.

I arrived on a Thursday afternoon, thinking that the 90 minutes I had until close of business would be enough time to look around and make some decisions about what to buy. I had set out with a vague plan to obtain some rift sawn bubinga for the Japanese-inspired hutch that I spent some time designing last year (and intend to start making in the next while), and perhaps pick up "a stick or two" of other interesting woods. As Rory showed me around Rare Woods, it quickly became apparent that 90 minutes was not going to be enough, not by far.

The term 'kid in a candy store' applied immediately to the situation I experienced. I was so dumbfounded by the vast selection that I fell into a curious state, alternating between bouts of excited discoveries, gasps of wonderment and disbelief, and even periods of slack jawed near-catatonia, staggering around unable to think. It was that overwhelming. My wife would come around every now and again and snap her fingers in front of my face, hey, earth to Chris! Well, she's denying that ever happened, but I thought the embellishment to the story would make my point.


We decided it would be best to retreat for the moment, sleep on it and come back the next morning, so we headed to the nearby town of Bethel, ME where we had booked a room at a Bed and Breakfast. The B and B turned out to be an average sort of place to stay, but the Victorian house itself did have one of the nicer forms of roofed towers I have seen in a while:



Refreshed and refocused, or so I thought, we headed back to Rare Woods the next morning and spent another couple of hours wandering about. My hopes for clear-headed decision making were dashed as I returned to that catatonic reverie in short order. I was most thankful to my wife for her help in keeping things on track for me. I could have been lost in there for days.

The weird thing about Rare Woods was the situation of seeing types of wood which I had only ever seen previously in limited quantities, if at all, now in somewhat vast quantities. For example, I used to have a piece of Brazilian Tulipwood, a type of rosewood (Dalbergia decipularis), in my collection, however it was an orphan of sorts, and with that rosewood no longer available anywhere it seemed, I ended up selling that piece to a luthier a year or two back.  In most cases, if you want to make a piece of furniture bigger than a humidor, having a single small board of a material is not of much use.

Rare Woods somehow, at some point in time, acquired a fair amount of Brazilian Tulipwood, and now I was staggered to see lifts of the material:


It was this kind of thing that was hard to get my mind around. I felt like I was in some sort of parallel universe, and it was located in backwoods Maine of all places. I will add that some of the woods carried by Rory are usually only available as veneers, not as lumber. Rare Woods deals exclusively in solid wood products - my kind of place in other words.

The volume went on like this for species after species. To draw a contrast, many hardwood suppliers I have visited will have stock in bubinga, a beautiful hardwood from west central Africa. By 'stock', I mean they will have anything from a few boards to a lift of the wood. Rory, on the other hand, has something like 15,000 board feet of bubinga. We're talking about lift after lift. A lift of 4/4, a lift of 6/4, a lift of 8/4, and so forth.

Another example: the 'rarest' wood in the world is supposed to be Pink Ivory (Berchemia zeyheri). I've no experience working it, but I'd seen a single piece of it years ago in a hardwood yard on Vancouver Island, but none since. By contrast, Rory has 92 tons of it. You read that correctly - tons. Pink Ivory is a very heavy, hard and dense wood, and polishes up extremely well - I can see why some people might like it, especially if they were looking for a pink wood.

To see vast quantities of woods which I had only come across previously as a single scrappy board here and there, the sort of thing perhaps displayed as a 'trophy' in a hardwood yard's collection, was a bit surreal for me. It was akin to some sort of optical foreshortening effect - or was it a house of mirrors? I dunno.

Now that I could see rare materials in abundance they no longer seemed quite so rare or special. Oh yeah, a bin of African Blackwood, yawn....oh, what's this? - a lift of Macassar Ebony? ho hum.... I needed to remind myself that I was not viewing anything remotely 'normal', kind of like when I was in Boulder, CO last month and saw so many super fit cyclists and joggers everywhere I went. Wandering around Rare Woods is like going to a shopping center and finding the parking lot full of Italian Supercars - it just doesn't quite compute somehow. Even now as I type this and think back to my recent time in those warehouses in Mexico ME, I fall into a mild sort of catatonia, my mind tracing back over the sights and smells. I catch myself drooling and snap out of it, thank god!

With my wife's help that morning, I was eventually able to draw some sort of focus that morning and made a decision to buy a four pieces of 12/4 bubinga, along with a couple of small bits and pieces of African Blackwood for peg stock. It was a miracle we made it out alive, bank balance dented but not decimated.

Rare Wood's prices are reasonable for the materials he sells. The bubinga was $17 per board foot, which is a typical sort of price these days for 'narrower' (which, in bubinga, means under 16") S4S boards in that species. He has loads of wenge and ebony, while most hardwood supplies have no stock in those materials. I could list many other similar examples. He had many hardwoods which I had never even heard of before, and I consider myself somewhat of a wood geek.

There were many, many boards which formed dangling carrots of great temptation, however I am trying hard to avoid the 'orphan board problem', so I steeled myself and passed on buying. Rare Woods is too far away to make casual visiting a proposition for me, however I am sure I will be doing business with them in the future now that I know what lurks in Mexico, ME. It was also a pleasure to meet a business owner so passionate and knowledgeable about their trade.

I you are a luthier or furniture maker who uses imported species, I would imagine you would have to consider Rare woods first and foremost as a supplier.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Three Months On: Garden Trellises and Beds

Earlier in the Spring I wrote a short blog series about constructing three garden beds and two trellises for our plot in a community garden. I fabricated all of these pieces of garden 'furniture' using only joinery. I realize that while many of those folks with a 'practical' bent might choose to nail and screw such things together, it makes more sense to me to build stuff to last as long as possible. I feel this is manifesting respect for materials, and I believe solid wood joined together makes for the most durable form of construction, so from that perspective, it is 'practical'. Metal fasteners always condense moisture more readily, and hence rot always propagates from those locations. Sure, it takes more time to build with joinery than with metal fasteners , but if it lasts 2-,3-, or 4-times longer, then taking the time at the beginning seems to me to be the most time-effective. I'd rather not be building a new set of bed and trellises in 10 years time. Kinda hope they last the rest of my life in fact.

Here were are several months on now, and the garden pieces have endured baking heat in the upper 90's ˚F (mid -30's ˚C), direct sun, and have been repeatedly soaked by rain. How are they standing up so far? I intend to revisit this matter annually here on the blog, assuming the blogging continues into the future like that, and show how the joinery is holding up. Obviously, 3 months is not a long time, but as you will see, the vagaries of the weather have had a potent effect so far on the wood. These pieces of garden architecture are, for me, a laboratory of sorts where I can see how traditional construction stands the test of time in a fairly harsh environment, at least compared to the indoors.

The wood for the beds, Black Locust - one of the most rot-resistant species in North America - was fairly green when I started, so I fully expected some cracking, checking and similar degradation. The Jatoba I used for the low square trellis was KD material, and in my experience a fairly stable species, so I didn't expect it to move much or degrade so much. The tall trellis was made from Spanish cedar and Honduran mahogany scraps, and my experience with those woods is that they don't move much and are very durable.

Let's see what happened then. The last photo I took was at the end of May:


From a similar vantage point, the view today:


We've had a very good growing season so far, unlike last year when there was hardly any rainfall.


The Jatoba is looking a bit sun-bleached, and there has been some cracking here and there on the ends of sticks:


Through tenons look just fine so far:



Another view of the upper frame corner connection:


The tall pyramidal trellis is slightly sun-bleached but otherwise unchanged:


On this piece I made an exception to my practice to avoid the use of metal fasteners and attached the battens to the battered frame with stainless screws. Sure, they could have gone together with tenons, but the time taken for fabrication wouldn't have made sense (would have added several days), and the assembly of a pyramidal structure with dozens of tenons needing to go together at the same time would have been a major PITA. So, stainless screws it is - the 'guts' of the structure are mortise and tenoned together.

Another view:


Now a look at some of those multiple through mortise and tenon joints on the planting beds. There has certainly been some cracking and checking, but the joints remain pretty darn tight:


Inside corner of the same joint - looks tight:


The crickets around here will take your leg right off, clean above the knee, if you give them half a chance:


Same joint:


Another corner:



A couple more shots of the square trellis joins:



As mentioned, the yield from the garden so far has been prolific and my wife and I are psyched.
We were having to force-feed ourselves huge piles of salad greens for about 2 months! That salad greens bed has since been cleared and re-seeded - we are starting amaranth (3 types) and Japanese carrots (3 types). Those plants should mature in about 60 days, and if need be I will plastic over the planting bed to ensure their survival once the frost comes.

Now the tomatoes and eggplants are threatening to take over - I've never eaten so much tomato salad, salsa, and ratatouille in my life:


We're growing both Japanese eggplants - our favorite as far as flavor - and a few globe white and purple streaked Italian eggplants, or aubergine if you're from the dark side of the pond:


We have more than a dozen of these - looks like no shortage of Mediterranean lasagna this fall:


Unusually, the cantaloupes are going big too, with 5 set on one plant - I keep them off the soil with some plant pots:


These will probably be ripe in another week or two - my wife knows how to tell when they are ripe, something to do with the pattern on the skin:


Cucumbers were only modestly productive, with about a dozen harvested. I think i will research them a bit more before next growing season to see if there is something I could do better.

We've had a bumper crop of basil - this is less than half of it:


The taller and greener variety is Nufar, a mold-resistant form of the Genovese type, and the smaller one with the lighter leaves is Perpetuo, a type I obtained from Oregon which never flowers. We are making a massive amount of pesto with all this basil- at least a year's worth of supply - and have had to buy a chest freezer to accommodate the haulage. Still to come is the Shiso, a Japanese herb of which we have some 20 plants (you can see it vaguely in the background of the above picture), which we will also use to make a bunch of pesto.

So far, I'm pleased with the garden and with the wooden furniture I have built for it. Next year, with an earlier start for the peas, I am looking forward to making fuller use of the tall trellis. I am also planning to grow the tomatoes in a different way next year - this, stemming from both observation of how the plants developed  and seeing a technique on a YouTube video from Holland - and I will be constructing a special growing bed for that purpose sometime next spring.

All for now, thanks for your visit!

Friday, August 9, 2013

First Light (Installation) V

Expecting rain the next day, I decided to push ahead with getting the lantern head installed. I still had not found the box of assorted wedges and pins that I had made, so I went to the shop and fabricated some new ones, using some Ipé and Jatoba scraps I had kicking around. I keep skinny little offcuts for pins and wedges in a box on a shelf.

I brought along a Lie Nielsen skew rebate plane, which, with a fence fitted, works like a little jointer.


This is how I trimmed and adjusted the various wedging pins:


First up were the two wedges which lock the floor pan assembly and the bracket complexes below down tight to the post:


The two vertical pieces you see sticking up are lignum vitae hammer-head locking pins which are buried 8" down into the post.

I trimmed the ramps until the wedges went in and then I tapped them solidly home:


A step back for a look-see:


There are empty slots in the middle of each sill you can see above. These were fitted with wedging pins which drop down into the pocket and then slide sideways to tighten. I forgot to take pictures of this step.

Next, I fitted the four posts, which are on a compound splay and which have cross-sections which are slightly diamond-shaped in cross section so as to produce a flat surface in every direction:


In the above photo you can also see the two wires for the light being snaked up through one of the posts.

I then discovered that some more bits were missing, pieces involved in framing the sole removable window panel. I could proceed no further with assembly until these were in place. So, back I drove to my shop (half an hour away), intent on fabricating some new ones. These pieces were rebated and had compound angle cuts on their ends, so it was looking like an hour or two of work lay ahead. As I got to the shop I realized the first order of business would be to root through that box of skinny pin stock to hopefully find some more mahogany for these pieces. I also had a slight hunch that maybe I should empty the box out...and that is when I found all the missing wedging pins and window framing bits. Whew! That saved me a bunch of work. I did plane some more pin stock, and after a 15 minute stopover in the shop, I headed back home.

With the four posts sitting in place, and the window frame elements in place, the upper roof assembly could be fitted - here you can see the wires making their way up and through:


The upper roof assembly, minus a few bits, now in place:


The electrical connections were secured with silicone-filled wire nuts, making them fairly watertight:


Now the roof panels and bargeboards, hafu, were fitted - and three of the window panels:


The mahogany is so stable that even after this lantern has sat for several years, everything still fit without requiring adjustment. There were a few new pins required here and there, but then again keep in mind I used to demonstrate Japanese carpentry during library talks and this lantern has been apart and together again 15~20 times. That's not a normal condition for joined woodwork. So, grain does inevitably compress and take a set through so many assembly/dis-assembly cycles, which necessitates slightly fatter pins be fitted here and there to take up the grain compression sloppiness, which is on the order of 1/100" or less.

Another view - the gegyo, a decorative pendant covering the ends of the structural ridge pole, is visible in the middle:


Then the capping ridge pole goes on, which engages simultaneously with two locking rods, six sliding dovetails, and two bridle joints:


A closer look:


The ridgepole fully down, the draw bars which hold the lower ends of the hafu in place were cross-pinned:


And the half-sliding dovetail pins which drive the roof board firmly up under the hafu are then tapped home:


The corner pins which hold the posts to the sill and wall plate are fitted next:


Finally, the two lock tabs which keep the removable window in place are snapped home:


Installation complete:


Another view:


There is one corner pin visible when has not been tapped all the way in yet - I'll have to go and check to see if I have done that or not.

The lantern was fully wired and plugged in, however until dusk arrived I was left wondering  if the electrical was fully functional or not. Sure enough, when it got dark enough, the photoelectric switch on the wall powered up the lantern:


That was a moment of some satisfaction! Cue in the drum beat soundtrack from Kubrick's 2001 A Space Odyssey....

I need to work a bit on the landscaping yet, but all those things will be done in good time. The lantern install has now increased my desire to bring the landscaping along a bit further. I have a plan to put a weeping Mulberry in the vicinity of the lantern, probably next spring. In the next day or two I will plant some ground cover at the base.

This morning I awoke to a heavy rain, the first we've had in a few weeks:


The lantern roof was doing it's job fairly well - you can see the white moth which has taken shelter there on the lower part of the window:


Mahogany is very durable outdoors, so we'll see how well it does over the years ahead. If things start deteriorating too fast for my liking, then one option would be to remove the roof assembly and sheathe it with copper.  For now though, I'll just enjoy it, and I'm okay knowing that the weathering has now commenced and will march onward, inexorably:


Better the lantern be used and enjoyed, though in an environment which degrades it, than to have it sitting in my shop under a blanket, as it has done for the past 3 years or so.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way.