If you have driven down Highway 40 in St. Louis recently, you may have noticed a new structure being erected next to the St. Louis Science Center where the “temporary” Exploradome once stood. After 16 years in service, the inflated building was past its prime and too expensive to operate, so it was replaced with a new, permanent agriculture exhibit called Grow.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is the new building that features massive bent laminated beams which create a beautiful swoosh of a roof. Just outside the entrance of the new building is a vermiculture display that I built for the exhibit. While it pales in comparison to the woodwork that went into making the building, I like to think it makes a nice little earth-friendly welcome mat for visitors.
The vermiculture unit, designed by Mark Cooley, uses worms to make compost. Built out of locally salvaged Eastern Red Cedar, the two-compartment structure is set up to have green waste loaded in the top and compost extracted from the bottom after the worms have done their job eating the contents. The two compartments, which are side by side, are divided by a wire mesh that allows the worms to move between compartments. This particular unit has glass panels to allow for viewing of the interior from the front of the display, though the glass is not required for use.
This project was a bit out of the norm for me since it was more carpentry than fine woodworking, but it was a fun change to build something that wasn’t so fussy. I had the most fun when I was able to find some logs in my shop already standing against the wall for the project. They were left over from another project, and I was able to just carry them to the sawmill and cut the parts I needed. I chuckled to myself while I was doing it because I have never just hand carried logs to the sawmill that were standing in the shop like sticks of lumber. It was only possible because cedar is lightweight and the logs were small, but I still had more than enough to make this project.
Cedar mills like butter on the sawmill, even when dry, and since it was going outside I didn’t need to do any extra drying. I was able to mill it, plane it and assemble it right away, which made it feel more like I was building a fort or a treehouse, especially since I never get to knock something out like that. It reminded me a lot of the Mermaid Lagoon sign I made for Mira a few years ago, since both went together expeditiously. There were a few critical measurements to maintain, like the size of the footprint, but everything else was somewhat negotiable as long as it looked and worked like Mark Cooley’s design.
The vermiculture unit is nestled in the Grow exhibit along a mulch path surrounded by plantings that are arranged like a garden or small farm field. Nearby are live chickens, two new tractors, a greenhouse and a dairy demonstration area. Inside the building are electronic, hands-on displays that focus more on the places that generate food, from the species of plants to different farm settings. Outside, on the North side of the building, are a couple of displays that focus on water, with a chance for the kids to interact with displays that are both hands-on and hands-wet.
The St. Louis Science Center and the new Grow exhibit are free to all visitors. It opens Monday-Saturday at 9:30 a.m. and Sunday at 11:00 a.m. The Science Center closes at 5:30 p.m. during peak summer hours (May 28-Sep. 5, 2016) and at 4:30 p.m. during off-peak hours.
Believe it or not, until recently I had never done any turnings. I have been messing with wood for a solid twenty years and never once have I even turned on a lathe. I’ve seen Norm do it a bazillion times on “The New Yankee Workshop” and listened to plenty of other woodworkers tell me about their turning escapades, but I never felt inclined to do it myself. I guess it’s because I am not attracted to work that has turnings in it, so they rarely end up in pieces that I am building and if they do, I pay someone else to do them.
It wasn’t by my choosing, but I did agree to build a bench with multiple turnings after my customer changed her mind on what she wanted. She showed me a picture from Sawkille.com of their “Tall Rabbit” bench and asked if I could make one like it for her with a variation on the length. Since I already had her deposit on the previous project, I didn’t want to say no and send back the money, so I said yes. I looked at it this way, if I consider myself a real woodworker and I am interested in spreading real-world useable woodworking knowledge, then it can’t hurt for me to have more knowledge myself. After all, was it possible that I would consider myself a real woodworker and die one day never having done a single turning? Sounded pretty hypocritical to me.
First off, let me say that the work from the kids at Sawkille is very nice, and though I don’t know them from Adam, I do appreciate the attention to design details that show in their work. I spent a lot of time messing with small details and proportions, and there is no doubt in my mind that they have spent exponentially more time on those same details and slight variations than I did.
The picture above is in black, but my customer saw some other variations and decided to go with bleached maple, and though it didn’t seem necessary on maple, bleaching gave the wood a very different look. The maple went from a light yellow-white to bone white with a couple of applications of two-part wood bleach. That part was as simple as could be – the actual turning was not.
Actually, I take that back. The short turnings weren’t too bad. After I turned the first couple and started to get a feel for it, the next 17 went pretty fast and came out nice. I got my time down to about 15 minutes each, which didn’t set any speed records, but it was a pace I could live with. If I did them all at that rate, I could turn all of the pieces in about 6 or 7 hours, which sounded like a fine day of work.
As you might have imagined, I wouldn’t have much to talk about if it all went down like that.
My troubles started when I stepped up to the legs and long stretchers. All of those are in the 24″ range, and about three times as long as the easy-peasy pieces. Out near the ends, where everything is solid, the work went according to plan, but in the middle, I would simply say that it did NOT. No matter how I attacked the middle, whether it be with a light touch or a hard push or maybe a quick jab or a different angle or a different speed or perhaps standing on a different foot or even just squinting a bit more, nothing improved. The piece of maple just jumped and kicked like a bucking bull, and I couldn’t stop it.
Even though I knew my problems were the result of the longer pieces, I imagined that a better turner (or at least someone who had turned at least once before in their life) could overcome the bounciness with better technique. I kept trying different lathe tools and worked slowly to get the pieces as good as possible, and while the overall shape was acceptable, the surface was not. It was nubby, like off-road truck tires, and there were plenty of spots were the wood was just ripped instead of cut. To finish up, I finally dumped the lathe tools and grabbed the sandpaper. I decided to take full advantage of the easy sanding on the lathe and let the paper do the work. Of course, it took awhile, but it was the only way I could come up with to overcome the bouncing spindle syndrome.
After I had a few of the long turnings done, I talked/complained to random shop patrons about my lathe fun and one of them mentioned using a rasp. Apparently, he had more turning knowledge than me (I think everyone does), and he had used the rasp a lot. It made good sense – a rasp is really just super-aggressive sandpaper. Plus, by holding the rasp more parallel to the piece than perpendicular, the rigid flat shape worked great to form the gradual curves with no humps. It wouldn’t have worked so well on intricate turnings, but it worked great in this case.
After finishing this project, I have a new respect for wood turners and turning. After all, my turnings were simple and still provided quite the challenge. When I think about some of the turnings I have seen, especially in other works, like large hollow vessels, and I consider all of the issues that the turner might face in a project like that, it really makes me appreciate the craft of it. And, though I may never do another turned project in my life, I am glad I gave this one a go.
I have been on a sycamore kick lately, and this sycamore slice keeps my streak going. There are three stacks of these rough sawn slices for sale in my shop, and though I have sold a few, this is the first one to officially get finished and installed.
The slice is 3″ thick and is a cross cut of a 48″ diameter hollow sycamore log that had the added benefit of having a long open wound that didn’t quite seal up. In the tree’s attempt to close the wound the new wood took on a curl shape on both ends that make the slice look more like an artistic expression than just a hollow log.
Since the tree was standing dead all of the sapwood is consistently spalted and marbled in appearance. There is some solid heartwood in the piece which isn’t spalted, but has a beautiful rust color.
I was planning on ditching this tree since it was hollow and didn’t seem to have any millable lumber in it, but when I saw the curl shape on the inside of the log I did a u-turn on my way to the dump. Solid logs with complete centers that are sliced like this tend to crack and fall apart because of the drying stresses in the log, but in this case all of the drying stresses were relieved since the center was gone. When the outside wood wanted to shrink it wasn’t restricted by wood on the inside and could freely reduce in diameter without any problems.
I installed the slice on the wall with two lag screws, just like a mantel. I drilled matching holes on the back of the wood and just slid it on the wall (with the help of my customer). This system works great since it allows the piece to get flush to the wall and enables it to be removed without tools should the need arise.
Overall, I am ecstatic to have one of these completed and out the door. Next up is to finish at least one extra to keep in the shop to show off. You wouldn’t believe how much faster they sell with a finished sample around to seal the deal.
Recently a customer called to talk to me about a woodworking project and asked if I have ever built a bell frame. I told him, “No, but I am pretty sure that no one else you are going to find around here has either.” That may not have instilled much confidence, but I got the job anyway (it may have also helped that he was a friend of a friend).
My customer gave the bell to his wife for their anniversary. It was made in 1908 and weighs about 450 lbs. The bell and the new headstock and wheel all came from Whitechapel bell foundry in England, makers of Big Ben and the Liberty Bell.
The frame is made of walnut, which is very durable outside, and is mounted on a slab of granite from New Hampshire. I was able to get all of the major parts from one log that was perfectly suited for the job. It was straight-grained on one end, which I used for the feet and top rails, and it was curved on the other end, which I used for the four legs. I loved using the sawmill to cut the thick lumber and chainsaw to do the rough work.
One of the most enjoyable parts of this job was being able to start with a log, and in a short time end up with a finished piece.
I have been through a lot of factory carts in the past couple of years, all of which have been repurposed into coffee tables. Things changed a bit when we built our first factory cart bench. It came about when a customer that wanted to have a bench made sent me some pinterest photos and one happened to have industrial cart wheels on it. That was a gimme for me because I happen to have in my possession about 50 carts that are already bench height.
We started by trimming the whole thing down from 28″ to 19″ in depth and cleaning all of the hardware. That was followed up by building the back and armrests out of wood we saved from other disassembled carts. After a little distressing around the new cuts and a light sanding overall, we stained all of the hard maple with a medium-dark brown stain before spraying a lacquer finish on the entire cart, including the hardware (I prefer the look of the hardware with a clear coat as opposed to black paint).
When the bench was almost finished, I told Chris (my wife) that I think we might need a factory cart bench in our house. She asked how much I charged for it and she then advised me that it would look much better in someone else’s home. I guess that is how it goes at the cobbler’s house too.
It started out as a simple wine closet, a small room to be built-in the corner of an unfinished basement. My customer has simple tastes and he really just wanted an improvement on his simplified (non) design that had left his wine collection in a closet under the stairs. In it he had a wine room cooler on the floor that was running with the exhaust pointed out the semi-shut door. I don’t think it really helped the quality of the air, but it could still qualify as a wine cellar, at least in very loose terms. No matter what you call it, it needed some sort of upgrade to take its rightful place in this custom Ladue home.
As I mentioned, he has simple tastes, but apparently his wife does not. On my second meeting with him, he pulled out a photo book with a lavish French theater that his wife had found and said that since we were going to build something downstairs and he had the extra room, he would like to add a theater to the mix. It was a giant jump from where we started, but I did not argue.
The theater room quickly took shape with our new directive, and the wine cellar followed, becoming equally involved and in a French country style, which called for the racks to have more of a furniture feel. The nine pieces, the arched entry door, and the two beams in the wine cellar where made from a batch of hickory logs that I recovered from a tree service a year earlier. It turns out that about twelve months is the perfect amount of time for hickory to get very wormy and nicely spalted.
Much of the racking in the wine cellar is traditional, with ladder racks holding the bulk of the collection, but each piece of furniture displays the wine in different ways, from individual bottles to entire cases. One of my favorite little details that I commonly use now in other wine cellars is adjustable shelving. I know it doesn’t sound earth shattering, but in a wine cellar the shelves can be used flat for case storage or offset with a tilt for displaying individual bottles. The shelves have a strip across the front which is flush on top and forms a lip on the bottom, which when flipped over keeps the bottles from sliding off and crashing to the floor. The tilted shelves are especially helpful for holding and displaying odd-shaped and larger bottles that don’t fit in the other racks.
Between the theater and the wine cellar is a spot for a poker table and a back bar made from rift sawn white oak cabinets and walnut countertops with art glass windows above. All of the woodwork around the windows is made from poplar that was stained dark brown and glazed with black for an antique appearance. The walnut countertop was built up to 1.5″ thick by laminating two layers of 3/4″ thick stock together. I have done this many times and it works great (click here to see how it’s done).
The theater itself involved a lot of trim details. The ceiling is broken into three sections with painted beams and large crown molding, while the walls feature a hand-crafted plaster finish and picture-frame moldings – all of which add to the French feel of the room.
From humble beginnings to this showcase of a job, things really changed. I would have never guessed that this is how it would turn out when we started.
I am terrible at remembering to take photos of my projects. I usually tell myself that I will take the pictures next time since the job isn’t officially done yet, or the background doesn’t look great, or my shop looks like it houses six families of hobos, but when the job is unceremoniously complete, I set off for my next one without even a snapshot.
In an effort to prove that I actually do work every now and then, I have pulled together a quick photographic rundown of 2014. Some of them you may have already seen, some are new, and yes, some are still missing (just imagine all of the other swell things that I did that aren’t included).
Here’s to a new year of great projects and remembering to take more photos! Happy New Year!