Saturday, December 27, 2008


I fasted today. One day isn't much but after a week of gluttony I thought it would be good to glimpse the other end of the scale. I drank juice and tea. Just a day is not hard, it's not painful, but there is this nagging little voice that tries to talk you out of it. Some of it is habitual, we are used to feeding ourselves through the day, 3 meals, a snack here and there, let's see what's in the fridge. It is a pleasurable thing to do. It is not needed but it tastes good.

It is surprising how much time we spend eating. No food, no prep, no dishes to do. Saves money too. I worked pretty steadily in my shop through the day but noticed a drop in energy come late afternoon. Too much food might make one sluggish but not enough food leaves one tired, no fuel to burn.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

This is my box.....

"This is my box, this is my box, I never travel without my box"
-lyrics from the opera Ahmal and the Night Visitors by Gian Carlo Menotti

When I was a kid this opera was part of the family Christmas tradition. My folks had purchased the LP and I would play it repeatedly in the season. I had much of it memorized. The story is of a poor crippled boy and his mother on Christmas Eve, a brilliant star is shining that the boy has been gazing at. Who should come visiting but the three kings on their way to Bethlehem, following the star. They come in to the humble abode to rest. In one scene the nearly deaf king sings about his box and what's in it - magic stones and licorice. Not to kill the excitement for some of you eager to run out and buy your copy but the king's magic stone cures the boy so he can dance and skip and go with the kings on their journey to Bethlehem.

I tried to bring this piece of music into my house for the season but the groans and eye-rolling put an end to that. I understand.

Anyway this childhood memory has left an appeal for a personal box and I have made several. I call them "memory boxes". It's a place to keep your life mementos, your personal journal or diary, the special photographs, love letters, sea shells, hawk feather, childhood pocket knife, Mom's necklace that you just can't bear to wear, the small things you treasure.

This box started with wanting to make one with curved sides like a bombay chest, or the way you puff out your cheeks. All but the bottom were milled from a 2" x 11" x 72" plank of walnut I milled from a tree long ago. The curved sides are done as a large molding, cutting large coves on the table saw and then cut to length on a sliding miter saw.

Mitered joints seem simple, and they don't take long to do, but I find them difficult because the slightest error in the 45 degree angle or the 90 degree cut creates problems. Hard to get it perfect. And since it is not a strong joint it must be re-enforced in some way. Here was a place that method influenced design. Curved sides meant I couldn't use splines in the joint as is often done. Dowels might have been possible but difficult to locate. So I decided on trim head screws which lead to the inlaid dots of mother of pearl at the corners. I used 3 screws at each corner which also solved the problem of pulling the joint together on glue up.

The top is done in similar fashion as frame and panel construction. The curved top panel is carved/shaped from 2" stock just as you might make a shallow bowl.

Finishing used a staining technique called "ebonizing". It's one I read about long ago and have been waiting for the right time to use. Even so I waffled back and forth for a week because walnut is beautiful without any treatment and I was a little afraid I'd regret it. And there is no turning back once you start. In the end I decided to go with it to accentuate the inside/outside experience of the box. Dark and light, shown and hidden, public and private. The bottom panel of the box is blonde sycamore to further enhance that feeling.

It is definitely an "old school" technique. You put rusted steel in vinegar and let it sit for a week. This solution will darken most woods but works particularly well with walnut, turning it an ebony black. I put on two coats 24 hours apart. In the end I was happy with the result. I think it gives a feeling of antiquity to the piece, like an old sea chest, a pirate's box full of pieces of eight.

I bought fancy hardware. I ordered hinges, the lock and mother of pearl dots from 3 different places all online and had them on my doorstep in 3 days. No wonder the local hardware store has disappeared. Guitar building suppliers are a good source for shell inlay.

Robin's Box

Dylan's box

I made these boxes for Dylan and Robin in consecutive years as Christmas gifts several years ago. They are identical but for the top panels. Dylan's is nicely figured quarter sawn sycamore and Robin's a plain maple with ebony inlay.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals at the State Theater

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
Monday, December 8th
The State Theater, State College, PA.

Margy and I have missed some good shows at the State but couldn't pass on this one. Bryan Dondero, who once worked at Friends School and was a favorite of all the kids including Robin, is the bass player for this up and coming band from Burlington, Vt.

For some reason I was expecting a bluegrass flavored sound but this is a kick-ass serious rock and roll band with a powerful lead vocalist and virtuoso lead guitar player playing mostly original tunes. Besides playing solid bass Bryan made like a wizard conjuring ethereal sounds from a theremin, an electronic instrument I'd never seen before. I also loved their cover of the Stones Paint It Black.
It was a really fun evening and great to see Bryan after the show.

All the best to you, Bryan.

Though I liked the loud stuff this old guy liked the soulful gospel-like ballads the best. Check it out....

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Penn State Crows

Walking across campus on the way to work an ominous sign, a bad omen, a dead crow hanging high up in a tree. A little further I see another and then another and realize it is part of the solution to Penn State's crow problem. They are crow effigies intentionally hung to scare the birds away. Trained professionals have been firing off canon like devices to scare them off and then hang effigies to discourage their return.

For several years now about this time of year migrating crows have roosted by the thousands in the trees near Old Main. They flap, and squawk and create a "sanitation" problem spattering the sidewalks with Rorschach tests.

And I must say it is a problem for now as I watch my step along the walkways I am hounded by incessant questions: What is that? What does that mean? What is that supposed to be? What's that one doing to that one? Oh God mother always told me not to think those thoughts .....

Crows Lookout for Sunrise

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Lucy's in the Doghouse

Well she is a sweet dog. Everyone who has met her seems to agree. Maybe she was trying to get even sweeter.

Margy went to town for the morning and left her inside as we have done before. She is definitely not a cold weather dog, as Bonnie was, so we don't want to put her outside in her pen. We know she sleeps on our bed when we're gone but otherwise it's been OK.

But this time was different. Margy returned to find shredded cardboard and bits of foil, the remnants of two dark chocolate "oranges" purchased for Robin and Dylan's Christmas stockings, about 13 ounces of the good stuff, left in a bag with other gifts.

This is not good. Chocolate is toxic to dogs (check the web for how much is bad for your size dog) and Lucy was in the danger zone. So off to the vet she goes where they make her vomit for a few hours and then give her charcoal to absorb the toxin. Her body temp was rising and her heart was racing. Four hours and $180 later I pick her up after work to bring her home.

Now she is really hungry and hyper but we're just supposed to give her a little rice and water so she doesn't get sick again.

Next day Margy leaves home just a little before I get home. I find debris on the living room rug - all that's left of a whole loaf of bread lifted from the kitchen counter. So much for limiting her intake.

Sigh. They say this is common with Labs - they will eat anything and with no limit on quantity. So now it looks like we will have to crate her when we leave the house - at least when it's cold.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Please Sit Down

"Please Sit Down"

Another vessel. Where do these come from? I'm not sure which might be why I keep making them. Most of the ideas arrive fairly complete and simple drawings and templates are all I do to use as guides. The size is sometimes determined by the wood I have. I'm not sure what wood this is though I think it's hickory. Years ago it was sitting in a pile of other rounds of a tree by the side of the road with a sign that said FREE.

Not always, but often stories about the piece come as the work nears completion just as they might for someone else. This one seems to me to be a combination of elegance and organic funkiness. Maybe it's the filagree or lace-like webbing of the handle and the squat stance. An upper class lady with a lower class past. High tea at the country manor but something sinister is going down.