Have a Seat

This weekend I made another set of Adirondack furniture — two chairs, an ottoman (I should have made two) — and a table. These are fun to make, but time-consuming, as I’ll describe below. By the way, folks have inquired about buying them and I’m happy to say that yes, I will make them to order for purchase. With current lumber prices, the cost for pressure-treated versions of the chair is $275 and for the ottoman and table, $125 each. (Cedar versions are $425 and $250, respectively, due to the cost of materials.) All screws are high-quality outdoor stainless steel. Delivery is included for local drop-off; small fee if I have to go outside my neighborhood. If you’re interested, you can reach me at hatchmade@icloud.com. I make them upon order, so turn-around time varies depending on the calendar, but you can expect them to take 3 to 4 weeks.

So, what goes into making these things? It starts, of course, with a trip to the lumber yard or home center. To save on the number of rip cuts I need to make and to eliminate planing, I select a variety of widths and thicknesses, getting a selection of 1x2s, 1x4s, 2x4s, 2x6s and 2x8s.

I’ll take a couple of trees, thanks.

It used to be that the boards would need to be cut down to fit into my car, but I recently bought a 21-year-old pickup truck with an 8-foot bed, and now it’s easy to just toss them in the back and drive home. It’s amazing what a difference little things like that make.

Why would anyone buy a pick up with a bed shorter than eight feet?

After getting the boards home, the next step is to cut them down. I don’t have a chop/miter saw yet, mostly due to a lack of space in my shop and not wanting to spend the money on the overly expensive saw I keep dreaming about. So for now, I just use a speed square and a circular saw off the back of the truck bed. It works well enough.

You could say it’s “mobile workstation.”

Once I get the lumber rough cut to size, I organize them according to the various pieces that are needed for the chairs, ottoman and tables. There are something like 35 differently sized pieces to make the chair, ottoman and table, with more than 80 individual pieces across those three objects. Finding room in my shop to lay them out and group them together is tricky.

Post-It notes don’t stick to pressure-treated lumber very well, further dampening my attempts to organize pieces.

Once I have the pieces rough cut and organized, it’s time to cross- and rip cut them to exact size, which I do with a combination of a table saw and a track saw.

Cut wood, not fingers.

The next step is to trim the shaped pieces according to templates I had previously made. After transferring a line from the template to the workpiece, I take the workpiece to the bandsaw and cut as close to the line as possible. The more carefully (and slower) you take the step, the easier future steps are. It’s tedious, though, especially with so many pieces to cut.

The more patience and care you show here, the easier the next step is. Does that mean I’m always patient and carful? No, I’m not that mature.

Once the pieces are all cut, it’s time to trim them on the router. To do this, I first have to attach the templates to the workpieces and outfit the router with a trim bit. A trim bit has straight knives that run up the bit and are topped with a bearing that is even with the knives. That way, when you run the workpiece and attached template along the bit, the bearing runs along the template and the knives cut waste away from the workpiece, leaving it exactly in line with the template.

This works great, but if you try to cut away too much wood, you can bog down the router and/or cause the wood to tear out or splinter and ruin the edge. That’s why the closer you can cut the piece to the template to start, the better.

Trim, baby, trim.

Some of the pieces, like the one above, using 1-½-thick stock. When I then trimmed ¾-inch stock, I forgot to lower the bit and managed to gouge my template. Damn it. Lesson learned.

After trimming, the next step is to round over the edges of various pieces. So, I swapped out the bit for a ¼-inch round over bit and proceeded.

Change of bits and work continues. The router lift I got makes it so easy and fast to change bits and set the height properly. Love it!

Before I can start screwing pieces together, I want to give them all a good sanding. Every. Piece. Every. Side. Oof.

It’s outdoor furniture, and pressure-treated at that, so I’m not going to sand to a super fine grit. I just want to clean them up and smooth them out.

Finally, all of the pieces are ready. Now I just have to remember which pieces are which and then I can turn to the actual construction process.

A great deal of work goes into making all of these pieces be ready to build. I have a fantasy of having large bins for each piece type and just filling them up and then reaching in to grab what I need as I build the furniture. I guess my fantasy is building a warehouse/factory? Hmm.

Finally it’s time to build. Careful measurements (though I make more mistakes than I care to admit), pilot holes and driving screws is all that stands between a pile of lumber and a place to sit.

Adirondacks assemble!

I really like the square-drive screws I use for these chairs. They are made from high-quality outdoor stainless steel, but I especially like the square drives, which aside from not stripping very easily, also look pretty cool.

Driving it home.

Once the final screws are in, the furniture is done. Being made from pressure-treated lumber means they have to dry for several months before applying any kind of stain or water sealant. (They can also be painted, but you have to use a special primer for pressure-treated lumber.) Personally, I think a tinted water sealant looks best.

Finished, but not yet finished. That can be done after a couple of months of drying.

All in all, it’s a good bit of work. It probably takes about 20-25 hours from heading to the lumber yard to sitting in a finished chair and putting my feet up. It’s definitely not going to replace my full-time job, but it’s an enjoyable hobby. As mentioned before, if you’re interested in ordering some for your porch or deck, email me at hatchmade@icloud.com.

Branching Out

This site has been dormant for quite some time, but like Brood X cicadas and humans re-emerging post-pandemic, this seems like a good time for a revival.

In part, this re-emergence is due to my diving into a new hobby since the pandemic began — woodworking. At the start of the pandemic, we had a little-used basement with a couch and a TV. By the end, that basement had turned into a full-scale shop with a bandsaw, table saw, router table, workbench, dozens of clamps, shelves and more.

It all started with a present for my wife — some small wooden tables to place in our Florida room out back where she could put her orchids. I figured I could custom-make the tables to fit our space just right. I didn’t figure that it would launch me into an entirely new hobby.

Orchid table

I started with one table, which I made with a friend’s table saw and miter saw and that was that.

Oh, but it wasn’t.

My wife decided she needed more, so I bought a track saw and made two more. That was really the first step into the deep.

Then the pandemic began and I needed a place to work from home. The Florida room would do nicely, but the card table I was using was far from ideal. So, I built a simple desk.

Again, nothing special. I borrowed a router to ease the corners, but I did buy a palm sander and dust collector to clean it up.

The desk and orchid tables were nice and the Florida room was turning into a pleasant place from which to work. But it needed something more. It needed a place to rest. It needed a couch.

The couch was relatively easy… just some cleaned-up two-by-fours with joined together with pocket screws. I bought some cushions online, gave the wood a paint job and voila! I had a nice home office — when the cat let me, anyway.

Shortly thereafter, I took a trip to visit my brother and dad in Ohio (We took proper covid precautions) where we happened in on an Amish woodworking store. Big mistake.

I wanted it all. But, don’t think the Amish don’t know the value of a hand tool. You won’t find deals here. Just good tools at robust prices. Nevertheless, I bought a couple of things and also picked up some great old wood from my brother’s farm — mostly old hickory and oak.

Then, just my luck. An old friend had some tools he wanted to get rid of and asked if I wanted to take them. They’d be free… I just had to come get them. It was an extremely generous offer, especially since he was handing off an excellent band saw and table saw, plus a variety of smaller tools including a router, router table, dust collector, scroll saw and more.

Once I got them back to my house, I spent some time restoring the tools, as they had rusted from being in an unheated garage.

After acquiring these great power tools, I found myself also collecting old hand tools, like this array of hand planes.

Did I need so many hand planes? No, of course not! But, are they kind of awesome? Yes, they are! I cleaned them up, knocking down the rust, restoring the knobs and totes, flattening the soles and resharpening the blades. By the time I was done, they were glorious again.

Several became presents, while others I sold on eBay. It made me happy to bring these 100-year-old planes back to life and out of landfills.

By now, I was fully invested in this enterprise and needed a workbench. A friend suggested I make this Nicholson Knock-Down Bench, as it would make it easy for me to take it apart and move it when the time comes. I liked the idea and got started on it right away.

I was so happy with the results, I later made one with my dad for his own basement workshop. Later, I added flip-up caster wheels to make it easy to roll the bench around as needed.

My wife had been fully behind this transformation, but she also demanded results. What was this workshop going to do for her? I noticed the stacks of books in her home office and decided I could quickly put together a bookshelf for her, using a method described on an episode of Ask This Old House that relied on stair treads. It’s a smart idea and pretty simple.

Meanwhile, a friend of my sister’s was moving to a retirement home and needed to empty out his workshop. He had a drill press, clamps galore, a trim router and much more. I bought as much as I could and was thrilled with my haul. But it also meant I needed to do some serious organizational work.

First up was a stand for the drill press. I based mine on one from Fix This, Build That, and was happy with the results. Then I made a “clamp cart” to hold all of the clamps I bought.

With my shop coming together so nicely, I wanted to get into some more projects. With the wood my brother gave me, I decided to make some end-grain cutting boards, again deriving inspiration from a project on Ask This Old House.

The boards I started with were replete with worm holes, cracks and other fissures. I filled as much as I could with food-safe epoxy and then made strategic cuts around the rest. I ended up making something like 16 cutting boards, many of which ended up as presents. I was pretty happy with the results. I did deviate from Tommy’s process, though, and flattened the cutting boards using a router and a jig rather than sending them through a planer, which seemed like a bad idea based on everything I read online.

Around this time, my sister and sister-in-law were moving to a new place and I thought a house-warming present would be appropriate. As book lovers with too many books, I decided on a Little Free Library.

I built the shell out of plywood, putting vents in the bottom for air circulation, and creating spaces for both large and small books. After priming the library, I build a mortise-and-tenoned door out of extra hickory, and roofed the top with tin and cedar shingles. I was really happy with how it came out.

Then it was time for more shop organization. I decided rolling shelves I could slip into closets would work well. This was a quick build and gives me the flexibility I need to roll tools and stuff around in order to make space to work — a real problem, since the basement is also home to a china hutch and a piano, plus it has to store my bike and provide access to a basement bedroom and the laundry room. It’s not ideal, but I shouldn’t complain.

With some space recovered, thanks to my rolling shelves, I turned my attention to building another present — this one a jewelry box for my daughter’s 18th birthday. I decided to try my hand at inlay and hand-cut dovetails — both easier said than done!

For the outer box, I used oak and I did a fun thing with it — a runaround grain pattern where the grain connects on each corner. This is done by re-sawing pieces — kind of like slicing a boneless chicken breast in half — and looping the pieces back to each other. The effect is that the grain runs around each corner with no start or end. The inlays are cherry and purple heart.

For the inner tray, I used hickory and hand-sawn dovetails. All in all, it came out pretty well, I think, and she seemed pleased.

With the scrap wood I was building up, I made a few bird feeders and bird houses, and then my daughter had the bright idea of making a cat house, which she upholstered. I also made a cute little butter dish out of a block of teak using a machining machine in a friend’s shop.

In a sense, the cat house was my first “commission,” and now more were coming. A friend who teaches yoga asked for wooden wedges he said were “paschimottanasana wedges.” That seemed like an easy thing to do, but it turned out to be trickier than it first appeared. The wedges are 15 inches wide, four inches tall, with the flat portion under the wedge measuring 10-½ inches deep. Making a 15×10.5×4 block is no problem, but cutting it at an angle — not so easy! I managed to make a jig and do it with the bandsaw and then clean it up with hand planes, but it wasn’t as simple as I assumed it would be.

As spring began to make an appearance, I wanted to bring some gardening back into my life. Nothing like sweet cherry tomatoes or fresh lettuce to bring the taste of spring to the dining table. I found some plans for raised garden beds and made two.

I also decided to make some outdoor furniture, again inspired by a segment of Ask This Old House.

My next “commission” came from my sister and sister in law who decided that while the Little Free Library was great for books they wanted to give away, they had lots more they needed to shelve inside — with no place to put them. So, I drew up plans for a Shaker-style bookshelf sized perfectly for the spot they had in mind.

Is it perfect? No. But, I was pretty happy with the results. My poor sisters, though… the price of lumber made this bookshelf almost twice as much as it would have been a year ago. Oof.

After the bookshelves, I turned to another shop project: a new router table. I wanted one that had storage and that was a little more stable than before. I also really wanted to add a router lift. So, cribbing from some plans I found on a few different sites, I made this sweet table with built-in bit holders and dust collection port.

My most recent project is another box. My daughter liked the jewelry box so much, she decided she wanted another box for other stuff. So, I made a larger, simpler one out of oak and hickory, this time using box (or finger) joints to give it a pretty face.

If I had been thinking from the start, I would have taken more in-process photos and made a post about each item, but I didn’t. So, here’s a year-plus of pandemic hobbying in a single post.

What’s next? Well, for starters, I’m offering to build Adirondack chairs for folks for a price. I’ve posted in a few places and will likely add a post here with more details. Then, I’m not sure. Maybe more boxes as presents. And I need to start thinking about the holidays, too!

Tools for Reporting and Writing

After the end of my KSJ Fellowship at MIT, but before the resumption of my job at The Chronicle of Higher Education, I found myself in a position to do some professional writing for the first time in a while. I’ve missed writing, so I was happy to get back to it. But, I was also a bit nervous; For the most part, it had been a few years since I last wrote something for publication. I didn’t want to embarrass myself to peers, editors or readers.

On the other hand, I was excited to put those muscles back into action, to learn about the topics I’d be writing about, and to try out some new reporting and writing tools.

Continue reading “Tools for Reporting and Writing”

Goodbye, Mom

Today we held a memorial service for my mom, at which I delivered the eulogy below. Special thanks to Alex Newman, Amy Eisman, and Rose Engelland for the feedback they provided as I worked through putting this together.

It’s been 78 days since my mom died… one more day than the years she lived. On each of those days, I’ve made a conscious effort to conjure different memories of her.

Continue reading “Goodbye, Mom”

Fellowship Leftovers

I’m a list maker. I make lists in notebooks, as text files, on the Notes app, on the backs of envelopes. Most of the lists are tasks. Trash, laundry, ironing, thank you notes, buy present for niece.

Some are for the store. Yeast, milk, juice, apples, oranges, curly pasta. I have lists of movies to see (Pirates of Somalia, Novine, Coco), books (The Welt, How the Hippies Saved Physics, Tribalism, Don Quixote), places to go (Walden Pond, Mt. Washington, Alaska), and names of cats, should I ever get another cat (Pitney Bowes, The Honorable Fluffy McFluffyface, Doug).

Another list I’ve been keeping is “fellowship stuff to blog about,” which still has a few outstanding items. (Incidentally, blogging about the fellowship has also been item on my task list. It’s like list Inception.)

So without further ado, here is a list-eliminating roundup of some of the outings I’ve had and have been meaning to write about, but haven’t done until now.

Continue reading “Fellowship Leftovers”

Great Blue Hill Observatory

One of the classes I occasionally sat in on this spring was the D-Lab course on Weather, Climate Change and Health. In the class, students worked on projects that could contribute to solving problems at the nexus of, well, weather, climate change and health. Throughout the semester, students took field trips, including building solar trailers to help Puerto Ricans still without power following Hurricane Maria. One of the field trips was an early March sojourn to the Great Blue Hill Observatory.

Located in Milton, about 10 miles south of Boston and not far from Quincy and Braintree, home to former president John Adams, Great Blue Hill is known as “Massachusett” by native Americans. It gained its English name when settlers saw the 635-foot-high granite hill’s blue cast as they approached by ship. Continue reading “Great Blue Hill Observatory”

Surfing Through the Seafood Expo

When I was at USA Today, a colleague and I had an idea for a series of multimedia stories: “Tales from the Trade Show.” The idea was that there is a conference or expo or trade show for just about everything. Turns out Vice did it — or at least, two episodes. There’s PackExpo for those who are looking for the latest in packaging equipment. There’s the Adult Entertainment Expo. Do not expect that link to be safe for work. And, of course, Vent Haven, the world’s largest convention for ventriloquists. I’m guessing they don’t have a high demand for guest passes.

In Boston, one of the biggest conventions of the year come in March with the Seafood Expo of North America. This I had to see. Continue reading “Surfing Through the Seafood Expo”