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Easy Sign, Difficult Customer

At the end of May, my daughter and pickiest customer Mira, turned eight and planned to have a mermaid swimming party at Grandma’s house. Grandma has a swimming pool and we knew that she would be willing to heat it for an early-season swim, so it was an easy choice. The difficult part was finding mermaid themed items that met with Mira’s approval and weren’t for little girls (Ariel, A.K.A. The Little Mermaid, is not cool when you are eight).

While searching for party decorations, my wife, Chris, came across a little sign that she thought was cute and asked if I could make one for the party. It said, “Mermaid Lagoon” and it was pretty simple, and since it was right up my alley, being made of wood and all, I said “Yes”.

I dug out some cypress that had lots of knots and a good rustic look and started cutting. I wanted the sign to be bigger (who wouldn’t) than the one in the photo, so I cut the boards about two feet long to make the height. I trimmed the ends at random lengths, some at a slight angle, until I had enough to make the sign about three feet wide. It went quick, especially since I had no formal plan. If a board didn’t look right, I just trimmed it more or flipped it around or just grabbed another board. I love that kind of woodworking; no tape measure, no pencil, no worries.

After I nailed the boards together, I painted them with a wash of blue/green paint. I already had some bright blue paint in the shop and added green Transtint to get the color right. I thinned the paint down with water and brushed it on as quick as possible. While it was still wet, I wiped it off like it was a stain to show the wood below.

Once the paint was dry, I did the lettering, which I laid out and printed from the computer. I cut out the words with an X-acto knife and used a light coat of Super 77 spray adhesive to hold it in place while I painted it. A light mist of white spray paint did the trick, making the words legible but not too pronounced.

After the sign panel was assembled and painted, I needed to come up with a post. My first attempt was a weathered piece of oak 2″x4″. It had the right look and feel since it was old and gray, but I thought that Mira might not approve since it just looked like an old board, so I continued to search for a better way to display it.

A quick walk to the other end of the shop revealed a piece of driftwood that was perfect. It was the right size and height, and with just a little block added to the bottom, it sat up beautifully crooked. Plus, I wouldn’t have to pound it in the concrete-like ground since it would stand up on its own. That piece of white oak driftwood couldn’t have worked out better.

All that was left to do was screw the sign to the post, which took a grand total of 30 seconds. If it was going to be for long-term use I would have been more serious about it, but two 3″ deck screws worked just fine and quickly put this job to bed.

The perfect piece of white oak driftwood and cypress lumber teamed up to make this sign for my daughter Mira's swimming party.

The perfect piece of white oak driftwood and cypress lumber teamed up to make this sign for my daughter Mira’s swimming party.

I was pleased as punch. I showed it to everyone within shouting distance of the shop and couldn’t wait to bring it home and show the girls. They were pleasantly surprised at how it turned out and I was pleasantly surprised that Mira quickly approved it (I was still a bit worried that my unauthorized driftwood addition might have been a bit aggressive in her mind (even though it was perfect)). We capped the whole thing off with hot glue, a few seashells and then perfect weather for a “Mermaid Lagoon” swimming party.

The sign now resides in my shop, where it generates many inquiries, but as of today, no more official orders for driftwood mermaid signs.


Pecan Bent Branch Bench (say that five times)

Not too long ago, I got on a kick milling wide slabs on the Lucas Mill. I was milling some pecan branches from a giant tree and the slabs were coming out great. The crazier the section was, the better the slabs were. Then I got to this last branch. It was the smallest in diameter, but I thought it still had potential. My plan was to clean it up and make it more “log like” without the extra branch and then mill the slabs. The problem was that every time I tried to move it with the forklift it kept rolling off of the forks. The forks of the branch made it want to spin, and every time it landed in the same position. It was almost yelling at me to leave it alone, so I did. For awhile, I just kept moving it out of the way so I could work on better logs, and it kept flopping off of my forks.

It took me awhile to clue in, but then I realized that the final piece was going to be a bench cut from the branch and not slabs cut from the branch, and the way it kept landing was the way the bench was going to sit. So, I stopped fighting it and made a few cuts. I ended up with this excellent outdoor bench (and one bonus slab). I milled both the top and bottom to make it sit level at 18″ tall. The widest flat area is 24″ wide, while the entire bench is about 10′ long. I don’t know how much it weighs, but it is very heavy and will require a Bobcat for loading and delivery. The top has been sanded and then finished with Sikkens Cetol, which I have found to be the longest lasting outdoor finish. I expect that the bark will fall off, but so far it is staying on pretty good.

I have never made a bench like this before, and I am quite proud of this one. It looks nice, functions well and is hard to steal. And, the best part is that now, for some reason, it doesn’t roll off of the forks. I guess it is just the way it was meant to be.

My Bow Is Made Of Catalpa (bean)

Through my sawmilling days, I have cut a lot of Osage Orange for guys that build bows. I would supply some guys with pieces to make self bows, which are bows made from a single piece of wood and others with strips of wood that they laminated together to make the bow. I gravitated to the wood for the laminated bows because it didn’t have to be as perfect as the wood for self bows and Osage doesn’t yield much perfect wood. I was often surprised by the pieces that were still deemed acceptable despite their flaws. Apparently, the laminated bows are much more forgiving.

Knowing this, and being part idiot, I decided my first bow should be a self bow. I wasn’t going to make anything special, just something we could call a bow and shoot like in the movie “Brave”. Mira, my six-year-old daughter was excited to make a bow just like Merida’s, and I was glad to have an excuse to make one. I have fond memories of shooting my dad’s bow from when he was a kid. Hopefully, Mira would share my joy.

The experience started out with a trip to the library, where we picked up a few books about archery. It didn’t take Mira long to gravitate to a Native American (the book from the 1980’s said Indian) book about bow making. She quickly found the style she wanted, along with the appropriates decorations. She had a vision. I read the book and learned how a self bow should be cut from the tree and realized that a good bow stave could be cut out of slabs from the sawmill. I thought, “I have a sawmill…  and slabs.” Wahla!

The following Saturday we headed up to the sawmill. It is never as fun for Mira as I think it should be, so I quickly picked out some slabs (two cherry and one ash) and headed home. The book that I read said that the wood for the bow wasn’t critical and Indians made bows out of many different kinds of woods, not only Osage and Hickory. Mira and I decided on cherry as the main wood, and I grabbed the ash as a backup. I didn’t expect much from the ash because it is the first to get borers that would make it worthless for a bow, but I didn’t see any outward signs of problems on any of the slabs.

On Sunday we set up in the garage and I started marking wood, cutting staves and trying to hustle so Mira wouldn’t lose interest. The saw was loud and dusty and lacked much enjoyment for Mira, who spent most of the time covering her ears with my radio earmuffs (love those things, by the way). While I got in to it, Mira pulled out a long Catalpa bean that she had grabbed off of tree in grandma’s neighborhood. It was shaped a little like a bow, so she informed me that it was going to be her bow. I wasn’t happy that I had already lost her, but helped her on the Catalpa bow while mine took shape.

Mira taking a test shot.

Mira got out the ribbon and made a handle and added tassles on the end, just like the book. Meanwhile, I tried to string mine up – Snap! It broke on the end, exposing a rotten area that had no business being in a bow. After that, I strung up Mira’s catalpa bean with some fishing line and she got to work looking for an arrow. I stopped working on mine and helped her with a stick that needed to be whittled and have a nock carved in the end. We set up some cans for target practice, and from more than 1/2 yard away Mira started knocking them off – her bow worked!

Now, I was excited. I checked over my next stave carefully and started to cut. Everything went great. I cut it out with a jigsaw to rough the shape and went to string it up – Snap again! By then Mira was ready for a real arrow, and I was ready to move on. We took Mira’s arrow with no feathers and started working on the flecthings. Lucky for us, Mira collects feathers, and I had read the chapter on arrow making. I never expected to make our own arrow, but that ended up being the easy part. Just rip a feather down the middle, cut it to size leaving tabs on the ends and stick them on. We didn’t even bother gluing them and just used tape. It worked great.

After the original bow finally broke (thanks grandpa!), we grabbed some more beans and made enough bows for the kids in the neighborhood. The bows don’t shoot very far, but they shoot further than mine ever did.

Joia Tubes Rock The Night

For a few years now, I have been working with Rick Kramer on his Joia tubes. It is a percussion instrument that I compare to something you would see played by the Blue Man Group. I make the (one and only) wood stick that stretches between the legs and Rick does the rest. Well, Rick has outdone himself. Always pushing the creative envelope, he now has a set that lights up when you hit the tubes. And, I thought they were fun to play before. I have a feeling that Rick is going to need more sticks.

Check out the short video. I think it is Rick (he is also in a percussion group called Joia) playing the Joia tubes.


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