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Friday, December 31, 2010

Fibonacci gauge

I admit to recognizing the name Fibonacci, but was unfamiliar with his eponymous gauge, which is funny, because if you do crosswords long enough you learn fun words like eponymous, yet somehow let Fibonacci gauge slip through the cracks.

Ian W. made one. It's beautiful and here it is:


No doubt a quick trip over to Wikipedia would clear this all up. Dear God, it's math:



But wait, suddenly it all became clear. I remember learning about this from the greatest math video every made: Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land, which taught me more about math than any math teacher. It is a must-see video that thoroughly explains the deal with Fibonacci and the Golden Ratio. The Golden Ratio is an ancient formula used to determine and describe aesthetically pleasing proportions in everything from nature to art. Art? Oh yeah, like woodworking!



It's a completely mind-blowing and fascinating subject. So much so, that I am thinking about making a Fibonacci Gauge this weekend. It has all sorts of uses in the real world. Say you want to make a jewelry box. You can use the gauge to lay out the dimensions in a manner that will be the most pleasing to our sensibilities. Something about the Golden Ratio is hard-wired in our brains.

Be sure and check out Ian's blog, and Ian: thanks for sending this over.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Wood project for the absolute, total, non-woodworker

A bit of irony. When I shot my year-end video and mentioned that I have yet to make my chess pieces, it was before Christmas. What did I receive on Christmas morning? A set of hand-made chess pieces!

My son and I play a game of chess nearly every morning and have been using a glass set with a few broken pieces for quite some time now. About a month ago, my wife decided to buy us a new set but after a bit of sticker-shock, decided to make a set.

It's pretty cool. She went to a craft store, picked up a variety of wooden spools and balls, and glued them into various configurations for the pieces.

Even without any tools, anyone can make creative projects with wood.



Monday, December 27, 2010

A great drill press table

If you have a drill press and still haven't built a proper table for it, what are you waiting for? Duane made this video showing how his works.

What a nice, simple design. When I built mine, I approached the fence as it it were a fence for a saw. I was needlessly concerned about keeping it parallel with the table. Well, gee...when you are drilling holes, the fence doesn't need to be aligned with anything really. So Duane's design features a single pivot point. Brilliant.


Sunday, December 26, 2010

2010 Mere Mortals recap

Hi everyone!

Just wanted to take some time to thank you all for watching my videos and following this blog over the past year. This is my final video for the year: number 49. Wow. I really had no idea I shot that many.

From Laney Shaughnessy
I started all this nonsense back in 2008 when I decided to shoot a video as I was making a chess board. It took a while for me to figure out that there was a large disconnect between guys making woodworking videos and the average guy who has no intention of reproducing authentic 18th century cabinets. I have no doubt that many of my viewers are perfectly capable of that level of woodworking; you guys are great and I learn a lot from you, but there are a large number of us who have regular jobs and view woodworking as a relaxing way to spend our weekends. We don't want to devote lots of time and money to the hobby, yet want to produce cool projects and have fun.

That has kept me — for the most part — focused this past year, and I intend to continue as best as I can in the year to come.

Some things I would like to see happen in 2011:


  1. I want to make a concerted effort to try to respond to all my email. I really feel awful when you guys send me a note and I let it drop down deep into my inbox. It's bad form, and I am going to try hard to improve.
  2. I want to try to Tweet and Facebook more. I am still trying to get a grasp on social networking and want to, well, get more connected to you all.
  3. I'd like to get more of you involved in Mere Mortals. I think it's pretty cool when people send me pictures of their projects. If you have completed something you are proud of, send it to me. If you can include a description, or tell us about it, that would be great.
  4. If you have something cool to say, I am totally open to guest bloggers. Maybe an interesting technique you've discovered? Have a strong opinion on something woodworking related? Send me a well-written article and I'll probably post it. 
  5. Let me know what you would like to see on this web site or projects you would like to see me attempt. Remember: keep it simple. We are all just mere mortals in my workshop.

So thanks for supporting this site, guys. And let's make 2011 a great year!


Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas visit

'Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the shop,
Not a tool was heard running,
Not even a saw.


The drill press was silent
Its bits put away.
I'd wrapped all the gifts
For tomorrow's big day.


Then what should appear
Among the stacks of scrap wood
But a fellow in flannel,
All decked out in safety gear.


I seem to have startled
The plaid-wearing man.
He jumped when I asked him
If he needed a hand.


He chortled and chuckled
And told me, "No fear!"
"I'm just a woodworking elf
Who has brought you some beer."


Then he quickly turned tail
As his booming voice bellowed,
"Merry Christmas to all!
Enjoy the lager and ale!"

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

And some more reader projects

Check this out. Alan Duke is 14 and just completed his Eagle Scout project. He helped build a whole bunch of picnic tables for a church. Whoa. I'm trying to recall what I was doing when I was 14. Well, building just one of these would have been a task!





Now to a much younger woodworker-to-be. Josh Pitts sent me this ultra cute picture of 4 year old River using her "table saw". Yep, the first "aww" moment on Mere Mortals. Thanks guys, and Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Reader projects

I've been meaning to post some pictures of projects people have sent me recently. I am always inspired by the creativity of you Mere Mortals.

Krzysztof Kleszcz made a number of clocks. I really like this Arts & Crafts design with the unadorned lap joints. Simple and classy.


In contrast, here's one that looks almost Deco. Cool stuff.


Josh is learning woodworking and spent several months making this watch display with his dad. Ambitious! This is the kind of thing that will become a family heirloom:


Nice work guys. More tomorrow.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Make a really loud noisemaker

A New Year's Eve project

I'm not really sure why we make a lot of noise to ring in the new year. Somewhere I seem to recall it has something do do with scaring away evil spirits. At any rate, here is a simple project you can easily put together in a couple of hours and I guarantee: it's noisy!


You've probably seen these before. It's a simple gear that ratchets against a thin strip of wood to make a loud noise as you spin it. It is known as a gragger, used in the Jewish festival of Purim, as well as a watchman's rattle, to be used as an alarm.



It's only a rattle

In Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, Alice encounters Tweedledum who is angry because Tweedledee has broken his rattle. After examining the object, Alice remarks, "It's only a rattle...not a rattlesnake, you know." Alice was always quick with a quip.

In both of his Alice books Carroll employed John Tenniel, a brilliant, if somewhat temperamental artist to provide illustrations. Tenniel was a master at carefully reading Carroll's text and provided amazingly detailed drawings. In this scene we can see Tweedledum's rattle on the ground. He's angry, Alice is attempting to console him over his loss, and Tweedledee is hiding under an umbrella.


The White Knight

Interestingly, the White Knight (who is forever falling off his horse) can also be seen with a watchman's rattle in Tenniel's illustration in the frontispiece of the book. (Look carefully on the front of his horse. Click through for a larger image.) Both the red and the white knights move quite erratically throughout the story: naturally, they are chess pieces and well, the knights do move in an odd manner in the game. I suspect the White Knight would often need to signal for help using his rattle, considering how often he fell from his mount!


John Tenniel also drew cartoons for Punch Magazine. Here's a great picture of a rattle from the Jan. 19, 1856 issue. I like that the body of the rattle appears to be one piece, so this is the style I wanted to copy in my design. It's yours to guess what's going on in the illustration. I tend to think the fellow is frightening a flock of birds to take air before firing upon them. Or perhaps he's acting as a scarecrow to protect a crop.


Well, that was a long way to go to get to my rattle. I made it out of a piece of oak and three thicknesses of dowels. Enjoy the video and the project!


Monday, December 13, 2010

A guy who can actually play a thumb piano

Laney sent me over this video he found on YouTube. Wow...it's hard to believe someone can make such a simple instrument sound so beautiful.




Saturday, December 11, 2010

Make a thumb piano

A few weeks ago I picked up a book from the library all about folk instruments from around the world. That's what gave me the idea to make this little thumb piano. There are all different types and styles of these instruments, but they are all native to Africa. Here's a Zimbabwean mbira dza vadzimu. (Wikipedia)


I would absolutely love to hear what it sounds like. Better yet, hear someone who can play it well. 

In absence of that, here is my simpler version made out of red cedar, dowels, and coping saw blades. It is tunable and actually produces a pretty good sound. 



It's really easy to make. You could make it in any shape or size imaginable. Here's the video:



Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tips for making last-minute Christmas gifts

Don't stress over making wood presents. There's plenty of time!

This is a very busy time of year for woodworkers as we scramble to make Christmas presents for friends and family. A wise craftsman would have begun right after Halloween, but most of us tend to procrastinate well into December.

Everyone loves your hand-made gifts: some have probably even come to expect them. It makes sense because each gift is one-of-a-kind and people love to have things no one else has.

Stress not. Here are a few tips to relieve a little of the gift-building anxiety you may be feeling as we near December 25th.

1. Make simple projects that you can complete in a day or two. Keep assemblies small and manageable. You can't go wrong with picture frames, for instance. They are easy to make and you can make multiples at the same time. You can let your imagination soar with unique profiles and include a special photo in the frame.

2. Make projects that people will actually use. Ask yourself, "If I didn't make this, would the recipient still like it?" Here's another thought: a step stool. Most can be cranked out with a few boards in a couple hours. Everyone needs a step stool.

3. Skip the toys. There are exceptions, but in general young children  do not care for handmade toys. At least not since 1950. People who like and appreciate handmade wood toys are adults. I actually have a book on making super nice toys. Beautiful, intricate toys that probably end up on a "look but don't touch" display shelf in the child's room. Face it, we can't compete with electronics.

4. Don't waste time trying to impress people with your woodworking prowess. Unfortunately, the only people who really care about your hand-cut dovetails are other woodworkers. Use basic techniques that you are comfortable with and let the overall project speak for itself. You might consider an exotic wood though. Most people do marvel at unusual wood.

These are just a few ideas off the top of my head. There are certainly times when we enjoy working on something truly special for someone truly special and will put days or weeks into it. But if you enjoy woodworking — duh, you are reading this blog — don't let Christmas gift-making become a chore and ruin the joy of woodworking. Keep things simple and think about the recipient while you are building in the shop. Not a lot of people take the time to make gifts anymore. Watching someone's face light up when you give him or her something truly unique is priceless.

Here are a few simple projects that can be made very quickly and will be well received:

Bandsaw boxes are terribly easy to make. People just love them and wonder how you did it.





If you know someone who loves to cook, a tortilla press is a very useful gadget.





The heart-in-a-heart photo frame. 





If you have a lathe, you can make a bunch of  bracelets at one time.





Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Scroll sawn Christmas ornament. Updated for 2010.

Many of you may have seen this bit of nonsense last year, but I thought I would repost it since we are getting close to Christmas.

A number of years ago I restored an antique cherry dresser that has been in my family for over 250 years. It's not the fanciest thing — it is Quaker, and typically plain in construction — but it has a lot of personal history. One of the things I needed to do was replace a few boards that were shot beyond repair, but I saved those pieces for a rainy day. Thus the ornament, which I gave to my dad for Christmas last year. I thought it was a fitting gift, especially since I was able to use his antique scroll saw to cut it.

Mostly what I discovered in making this video is that it is not so much about the ornament as it is about the joy of building stuff by hand.

If you would like to make a scroll sawn ornament like this one, I have updated my design for this year. Feel free to download the PDF and give it a shot. I think it looks trickier than the '09 version, but 1 and 0 were a bit more difficult to work into a scroll saw pattern.

I dare you to not tap your toe to the song though! (FYI: It's Say Hey, by Michael Franti and Spearhead.)


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Gifts for woodworkers

Affordable gifts for woodworkers that won't get returned!




This time of year, there are a lot of woodworking web sites and magazines featuring gift buying guides. What many of them overlook is that as woodworkers, we want to choose our own tools. While I would love to have a new table saw, I'd prefer to research it myself and select the perfect one for me. I don't recommend buying tools as gifts.

It is with that in mind that I came up with my list of gifts I am certain any woodworker would love to receive and would actually use. So guys, feel free to casually leave this post open on your monitor for your wife to accidentally see while you are in another room.

1. Wood. You simply can't go wrong here. Head over to Woodcraft or another store that sells exotic or specialty lumber. Pick out an unusual board that you've never heard of and buy a short length. Your woodworker will find something cool to make with it: most likely something for you.

2. Saw Blades. We always need sharp new blades for our saws and, if your woodworking spouse is like me, he uses dull blades far longer than he should. If you are unsure what type of blade to get, just go out to the shop and measure the diameter of a table saw blade or a miter saw blade. Most likely, it will be 10" or 12" in diameter.

3. Clamps. It's an old saying that a woodworker can never have enough clamps, and it is true. Buy some clamps: any size or type. They are all useful.

4. Drill bits. We use drill bits all the time and they break and get dull. A few years ago my wife bought me a 114 piece drill and driver kit. I am still using it.

5. Forstner bits. These are large drill bits used for boring large, clean holes. I bought a set at Costco a while ago for about $50.

6. Router bits. Again, these get dull and we tend to keep using them longer than we should. You can buy individual ones, or various sized sets containing all sorts of profiles.

7. Yellow wood glue. Yep, we use it all the time and can always use more. You might also consider getting a couple of empty squeeze bottles for it.

8. Sandpaper. We spend most of our time sanding. An assorted package of sandpaper is always great to have handy. Better yet, buy some sandpaper for his random orbit or finishing sander.

And there you have it. I mean really, what could be more romantic than a four foot Brazilian Cherry board? And don't forget to visit the Mere Mortal gift shop, too!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Ear update

I really don't intend to belabor my medical issues on this site, but I have had so many thoughtful people ask about my cancer, I thought I would give you a quick update.

I had surgery on my ear today. Essentially, the doctor removed the lower half. Then he was able to do some sort of skin graft magic and build something that is supposed to resemble an ear. I suggested he try a little wood filler:  I've salvaged lots of wonky projects with the stuff. Alas, he ignored my medical opinion and went with his own.

When you go through something like this, you learn a lot of things you never intended to learn. The creepiest thing is that a 1mm spot of melanoma can be fatal. Mine was only .35mm. Catching it early is the key. I was lucky that my wife noticed it and insisted I see a doctor. I mean, a guy doesn't look at the back of his ear very often. In fact, melanoma is frequently caught by barbers. Who knew.

Also, skin cancer on the ear is nearly always on the left one. Yep, from the sun beating on it while we drive. I suppose you Brits will be the opposite since you drive on the wrong side of the road. Ha!

Thank you everyone who has been concerned. I think I'm through the biggest part now. Melanoma has a nasty tendency to spread elsewhere, but I have exams scheduled every three months to check me out with the hope of catch anything early. Right now, I am expecting my ear to hurt like hell really soon. I've turned on the beer fridge and plan on shooting a Mere Mortals gift buying guide. Oh, did I mention? I just got a new camera. Yep, a real video camera! Going Hollywood, baby!

Wear that sunscreen man.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Wine bottle balancer and Natasha Bedingfield

I was reminded by Laney of these gravity-defying wine bottle holders. If you are looking for a quick gift for Christmas, grab a chunk of lumber and make one. There are lots of examples of these around if you just do a quick search. Basically, just cut a 45 degree bevel on the end and a hole near the top. VoilĂ ! Here's the one Laney made:

It would be a fun gift to send to someone without any explanation and see if they could figure it out. A long time ago someone sent our family a similar sized board with a number of holes bored in it. We puzzled over it for quite a while until we learned that it was a spaghetti measurer. Each hole is a different diameter. You fit a bundle of uncooked spaghetti into a hole of your choosing  to determine how many it will feed. So I thought it might be a fun gift to combine the spaghetti measurer and the wine balancer. Just an idea.

On an unrelated note, we went to a San Francisco tree lighting ceremony last night and saw Natasha Bedingfield perform. She was really awesome. We were about five feet from the stage and I shot video of her set with the intention of posting some of it here. Unfortunately, with my cheapie camera and the volume of the music, the sound is just a crackling noise. Anyone know of a program that will allow me to possibly clean up audio?

On the plus side, I was close enough to get some great snapshots. Here's Natasha in SF last night. I'm certain she was staring right into my camera on the first one. And that's a pocketful of sunshine.





Our tree is bigger than the one in NYC. Booyah!