Monday, November 25, 2013

At long last, I think I've found my calling!

I have been happily turning wood since my last post a month ago.  A couple of weeks ago, I had a table in my friend Gail's booth at WEFF to sell my sock blanks.  I took some of my wood items almost as an afterthought.  And sold enough of them to make it worth having gone, but not enough to make me quit my day job.  It was pretty thrilling to have the things I have so enjoyed making be appreciated.

Took the  pen class at Rockler, learned some new techniques, and had a ball.  Same students and teacher that were in the first class and it's a very congenial group.  Came home with a handful of beautiful pens.

Rather than writing more about this last month, I will let photos tell the story.

Shawl Pins:

Black Locust
Osage Orange

Black Locust

Black Locust



Monday, October 21, 2013

Still Turning

It's been a very busy couple of months since I last blogged.  I've become totally obsessed with woodturning.  To the point that my dad's shop is becoming a full-fledged woodshop.

Katie and I took a pen class at Rockler and came home with two more (I think) gorgeous pens each.  I also took a class on grinding gouges so I can sharpen my own tools - came home from that with a new slow-speed grinder and Wolverine jigs.

And it hasn't been enough to just turn ready-made blanks into pens.  No...  I have to learn to laminate my own blanks and make other things.  I loaded up on pen and accessory kits from PSI and a box-'o-blanks and was on my way.  Turns out that the b-o-b was a really good choice - it came with photos of the woods so I could identify each piece once it was turned and the woods included are all beautiful so far.

Resurrected my scroll saw that has been sitting unused for a couple of decades, and put it to work.  A sheet of veneer, big bottle of wood glue, and I'm making all kinds of laminated blanks.  This is a perfect craft for the packrat in me that can't throw anything away.  Scrap of wood too small to make anything?  No problem - just glue it to another scrap and presto!  And reading some of the forums, I see that people are even saving sawdust and shavings to include in casting resin.   My casting molds are in the mail as we speak.

I love, love, love what I've been doing.  I'm a little bit frustrated by the ever-growing need to have the right equipment for the right job and my own lack of knowledge about tools in general.  And had one major meltdown over drilling issues that resulted in me raising my voice (yes, I did!) and actually throwing a problem blank on the ground.  It was already cracked so at least I'm not living with that guilt.  And my rage lasted long enough for a trip to the hardware store to get a real drill press.

So here are a few of the things I've been making:

This is the idea that started me in this new direction.  I wanted to make some tools for my fiber arts - nostepinnes, shawl pins, a dealie for controlling yarn at the spinning wheel orifice, latch hooks - I have loads of ideas I want to try.  This one is a latch hook made with mystery wood.  A very simple profile and originally somewhat visually boring, so I added three lines with burning wires.

This tool is a bracelet helper.  If you were a teen in the sixties or seventies you probably think this is something else, but you would be wrong!   The clip on this gadget holds one end of your bracelet so you can use your free hand to clasp the other end.  This is made with Honduran Rosewood.

This next gadget is made from a piece of spalted curly maple.  The first photo shows the whole thing assembled.  The gold bit pulls out of the wood and, surprise!  it's a seam ripper.  The handle is designed to fit back in the wood, so you have a tiny point on the ripper to fit in tight places, but a substantial handle to hold.

Next is a perfume pen.  Another blank from the b-o-b, this is Yucatan rosewood.  A built-in container holds a piece of very porous material.  You fill it with perfume by dipping the wick that protrudes from the barrel into the perfume of your choice.  For those whose spinning wheels have easily accessed oiling spots, this might be a fun way to carry their machine oil.

 A twist pen (uses Cross pen style refills) in black palm.  I've noticed I tend to make the lower parts of my pens especially bulbous because I'm more comfortable with a substantial pen.  Everyone who has picked up this one has remarked on how good the size feels.

This is another twist pen made of bocote.  I chose to make this one without a pocket clip.

And this is a work in progress.  Made from a 2x12 piece of cherry, this is a nostepinne.  Look it up!  It's a little on the heavy side, so it should be used by someone who needs a really substantial tool.  Or wants something lovely that can double as a self-defense device.  I need to cut off the waste wood at the bottom and finish the ends, but couldn't resist including it in today's post.  I have a whole line of nostepinnes in different sizes and weights in production right now.

Now, on to my favorites to make and to look at so far - the laminated woods.  I had an aha moment last week...  Years ago, when I was living with my beloved dad (who could do ANYTHING), I often went out to his shop and found a piece of my good kitchenware being used to soak old oily Model A parts.  Well,  I found myself needing to soak a piece of veneer in water and automatically made a beeline for the kitchen, where I grabbed a loaf pan.  Later realized that I had just done what used to drive me crazy.  Except that I can and did return the pan to the kitchen afterward.  Don't think I could have done the same when my big stockpot was used to soak transmission parts.   Anyway, I guess I am now channeling Dad when I work in his shop (now my shop, but in my heart it will always be Dad's).  Maybe I'll get lucky and channel some of his talent and ingenuity.


This pen was made from my first laminated blank, using bocote, maple veneer, and bloodwood.  The veneer was pretty brittle, but a good soaking in warm water softened it enough to fit the curves in the two wood pieces.  I loved how the curves in the bocote nearly followed the curves I cut on this side of the pen.

For my next laminating project, I wanted much more contrast in colors, so I chose some blanks in bloodwood and yellowheart. Again, using maple veneer between each piece of wood.

First, I made a piece with more curves than the bocote/bloodwood pen.

Another surprise... this is a secret compartment keyring.  Just the perfect size to hold some toothpicks, a couple of aspirin, or maybe some mad money.  As a fiber arts person, though, my immediate thought when I saw this was "needle holder!"

My favorite pen to date.  I cut random blocks of each wood and simply glued them together in alternating colors.  I intended for the stripes to be a little more off-kilter, but held back when cutting because I thought I was getting carried away and would have problems clamping the pieces together.  Will trust my instincts next time.  But I still love how this turned out.

I was actually planning to keep this pen for myself, but it's too big to be comfortable in my hand.  Darn it!  It will have to wait for the right person to claim it.

Finally, here's a little stylus for a smartphone or tablet.  The little black thingy fits into a headphone jack when you're not using it so it won't get lost.  This is made from the same blank as the pen, but I cut it in half lengthwise and offset the pieces to make it far less uniform. 

So what's next?  Well, the nostepinnes are waiting to be finished.  Lined up in my shop, I have about a dozen pen kits glued up and waiting to be turned.  And a few surprises in the wings.  Not to mention the UPS truck.  Plus an advanced penmaking class at Rockler next month. And a bandsaw class at Woodcraft in December.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Turning in a Slightly Different Direction

During a hiatus in my TriCommunity weaving classes, I was perusing my mental bucket list for something fun to do.  Because I don't already have enough stuff to keep myself busy.

Still resentful that back in my school days girls were channeled into home economics while boys got to take woodshop and metalshop (apparently I can hold a grudge an awfully long time), my thoughts turned to woodworking.  I have always wanted to learn to do woodwork, and lately I have been noticing spinning and weaving tools with lovely wooden handles.  Eureka!  Time to learn to use a lathe.

When you think about it, woodworking is not all that far from fiber arts.  A tree, after all, is composed of fiber.  The cellulose that makes up 40-50% of a tree's bulk can be used to make fabric such as rayon or viscose. So what if it takes gallons of chemicals and reducing that tree down to its cellular level to get there.  It's still a fiber. So using a lathe to turn wood would simply be an extension of my fascination with all types of fiber arts.  Right? 

Anyway, over the course of a few hours, that thought turned into one of my typical obsessions.  The internal dialogue goes, "I MUST learn to do <<enter name of craft>>.  I will just take one class, and get it out of my system.  I don't need to buy any equipment, tools, or materials.  Or books.  Or magazines."  Then I go off and start searching the web for classes, which leads me to forums on the craft, which lead to conversations about all the cool equipment needed, which lead to books, and before I know it, I've ordered a couple of books from and started a list of things I MUST have do learn the craft properly.

At least this time I actually made it through the first class before I was over at Harbor Freight looking at the lathes.

There are several places in Southern California that offer woodturning classes, and I was lucky enough to find Rockler Woodworking in Pasadena.  They were offering a 3-week class on woodturning beginning in just a couple of weeks... perfect to fill in a big chunk of the TriCommunity hiatus.  And the teacher was Pete Carta, whose name and photo popped up on so many websites that I recognized him immediately when I walked into the store.  He does some fabulous pieces, and turned out to be an excellent teacher.

The one thing I was a little shy about was entering a brand new arena all by myself.  So I sought among my family and friends for victims people to go with me.  Then one lovely evening, my sister Katie, friend Mary, and I marched into Rockler's and started our first class.

I LOVED it.  There were only four in the class (our fourth was a very nice college student named Michael), so we each got plenty of help from Pete. 

The first night we were introduced to the lathe, talked about safety, and started learning some basic techniques. First, we took a rough-cut chunk of liquid amber wood and used a roughing gouge to trim it down to a cylinder. This part was really easy and fun. 

Then we used a smaller spindle gouge to start learning to make beads and coves.  This was not so easy.  I think I was so excited to be playing with all the cool tools that I didn't take my time to make each cut thoughtfully.  I did get some shapes I really liked, but they did not much resemble the shapes we were supposed to be making.  And I had this unfortunate tendency to tilt the tool the wrong way and create fuzzy edges.

Here's Mary Concentrating on her Spindle-to-Be

Our first class was over before we knew it and each of us proudly took home our very first spindle.   Unfinished and slightly fuzzy, but still  an object that warms my heart.  I've had it sitting on my desk at work ever since and it just makes me happy to look at it and think of all the possibilities it holds.

Our second class was on turning bowls.  I wasn't all that interested in bowls at the start.  What I really wanted to do was learn to turn fiber arts tools.   My attitude changed completely when we got started.  I'm not going to describe the techniques in any detail because I'm sure to get things wrong.

We started with already roughly shaped blanks. I could kick myself for not having taken a "before" photo or more "between" shots for that matter.  We started with what was to be the top of the bowl attached to the headstock.  Then we shaped the outside of the bowl. 

Everyone's bowl had a different shape.  I was fixated on getting control of my tools, so I made a very straight line from top to bottom.  The others made their bowls more curved.  Truth be told, I think theirs are more pleasing to the eye than mine, but I was really happy to have actually been able to do what I set out to do. 

Here, you can see the guidelines we had for the bottom of the bowl.  The outside circle was used as a guide for the outside edge.  We used the inner circle as a guide to cut a channel for the chuck that held the bowl as we hollowed out the inside.

Here you can see the bowl with the bottom now mounted on a chuck that has jaws that fit in the channel we carved.  We're ready to hollow out the top of the bowl!
This is Pete demonstrating the technique on Katie's bowl.   He makes it look so easy!

 Here's Katie's bowl after she finished hollowing it to her taste.   After this step, we sanded the bowls with five increasingly fine grits of sandpaper.  Then we applied butcher block wax liberally and buffed it. 

The final step was turning the bowl around and trimming out the base.  Here's Katie's bowl remounted and ready to be trimmed.  I love the curves she put in her bowl.

This is my bowl after sanding and waxing -- ready to be remounted and have the bottom finished. 

 Here is my finished bowl from three different angles.  I was thrilled that the shape turned out exactly as I had envisioned it, and at how the grain and color really popped after polishing.

And these are the four finished bowls.  Michael's on the left -- he was the bravest and made his bowl very thin.  Mine next then Katie's, then Mary's.  I think they're all beautiful!  And now I want to make more bowls...

Our third class was on pens.  Once again I went in thinking I would like learning more techniques but I was not all that interested in pens.  Wrong!  I think this was my favorite of the three sessions. 

Before we started on the actual pens, we practiced by using the rough gouge to trim a piece of wood down to a cylinder, then we used the spindle gouge to shape it.   Before we started, the piece was square and looked like the dark bits on the ends.

I had fun practicing tapering and shaping with the spindle gouge.  It seemed much easier this time and I didn't end up with all the fuzzy edges I made the first week. 

What surprised me was that we used the same large gouges we used the first two weeks.  I had assumed that on a more delicate piece we would need smaller tools.  Wrong!

Pete had pen blanks already pre-drilled with tubes inserted and we got to choose from several different woods.  Mary and Michael chose bloodwood, Katie chose tulipwood, and I chose walnut.  It turns out that bloodwood is also known as logwood, a common natural dyeing material.  I happened to have a ziplock bag in my purse (girl scout training, dontcha know) and Mary went home with a nice bag of logwood sawdust for the next dying session.  See - I knew I could turn this into a fiber art topic.

Each blank was mounted on a #1 Morse taper mandrel (I think).  Here's mine in various states of completion:

Blank mounted and ready to turn

Cut to a cylinder

Ends tapered roughly to fit the bushings

Shaping completed

Polished and ready to assemble
 After shaping, we once again sanded with five increasingly fine grits of sandpaper.  This time we used a sealer on the wood, then polished.  Then it was time to assemble the pens.  Pete showed us how to use a pen assembly press to insert the end cap, point, and "transmission" - the part that twists to extend or retract the refill tube.

And voila!
Katie's pen - tulipwood

My pen - walnut

Mary's pen - bloodwood

Some of Pete's pens - to show us some possibilities

During the course of the class, I managed to acquire a lathe and basic set of gouges.  I know people either love or hate Harbor Freight -- I happen to be on the love side because I haven't yet had a bad experience with their tools.  The only down side to the one I purchased, a five speed benchtop model, is that I failed to notice how the speed is controlled.  On this one, you have to remove a couple of lids from the body of the lathe and physically adjust the drive belt.  This is not going to be as easy or convenient as a variable speed drill with a simple dial on the front.  Darn it!  And the gouges are nowhere near sharp enough to cut wood cleanly, so I am also the proud owner of a bench grinder.  Already signed up for next month's class on sharpening the tools and there's another class on turning pens in my future.

All in all, I think the whole experience was a resounding success.  I loved just about every bit of what we did, and have all kinds of ideas for things to make bouncing around in my head.  And everyone came home with the same number of eyeballs and fingers as they started with. 

Now if I can just figure out how to stop thinking about the cnc router I saw at the Rockler store...

Monday, August 12, 2013

Socked In

I have yet another new obsession.


But first...

This is my great-great-grandfather, Elias Cabot Balcom.  I love that name.  From the little I know about him, he had a hard life.  Born in New York in 1827, by 1850 he was married and living in Iowa with a young wife and one year-old daughter.  He was listed in various documents as a wagon maker, a physician, a photographer, a postmaster, and a miller.

His oldest son, my great-grandfather Ira G. Balcom, said about him:  "Father was a very brilliant man. He knew more of chemistry, geometry and algebra than most of us do today (1935). He was a community doctor much of the time while in Ohio."

At some point he left his wife with four children, married another woman (perhaps without benefit of a divorce from my g-g-grandmother), and had two more children.  When his second wife was pregnant with their second daughter, the story goes, he took her to look at a mill he was building in West Virginia.  She fell in the mill pond, and he jumped in to rescue her.  She was fine, but he developed pneumonia and died before the child was born.  Another version of the story has him dying "cause unknown" two weeks before the child's birth. 

What does this have to do with socks?  Not much, except for this brief story in a letter written by my great-grandfather, Ira G. Balcom to his half-sister, Sarada (the unborn child) decades later:

The picture I wished you to send was one of myself, when about thirteen or fourteen years old.  I think it is likely to the one taken when your mother and I went to Syracuse to sell socks (father had bought a knitting machine). We stopped just outside the town and had some pictures taken, both of your mother and myself. [27 Jan 1933]    

This would have been in 1869 or 1870.  According to the 1870 census, the village of Syracuse in Meigs County, Ohio, had a population of about 1200 people, many of whom worked in the coal and salt works.  Ira never did say how well the socks sold.

I've been intrigued by knitting machines since I was a kid.  My mother had one of the Japanese flatbed machines.  Even the manual was in Japanese, and we never could figure out how to make it work.  It resided in our basement for about thirty years before someone decided to get rid of it.  If you're read some of my previous posts, you know that I've been really into these machines this past year.

I saw my first circular sock machine (CSM) at a Newton's Seminar a few years ago. It's been in the back of my mind ever since.   CSMs have been a niche hobby for quite some time.  The first machines for home use were sold in the 1860s.  Their heyday was apparently during WW1, when socks were needed for the armed forces.  And production of the machines pretty much ended in the 1930s.   For many years, the only way to have a CSM was to invest in a vintage or antique machine.  Since I wasn't allowed to take shop classes in high school (back in the dark ages), I'm not prepared to repair or maintain one of these machines.  In the 1980s, the Harmony Auto-Knitter was sold, but unfortunately the company went out of business.  More recently, a New Zealand company has been making the autoknitter (NZAK), which has been very popular.  They have an excellent reputation for quality and I've learned that loads of CSM knitters swear by them.

But they're awfully far away.  I worry about things like how long it will take to get replacement parts or get something repaired if (ok, when) I drop it.  If they were in the U.S., I might have invested in one of their machines by now. 

That hasn't stopped me from being fascinated by these machines.  Then a few weeks ago, convergence happened.  I had a modest windfall that I was told to spend on something "fun" for myself.  And just that morning I had seen a comment about a new CSM in one of my Ravelry groups.  AND I came across Ira's letter talking about his father's knitting machine.    One week later, I was the proud owner of "Elias Cabot" (we CSM owners like to name our machines), a brand-new Erlbacher Gearhart machine.

Meet Elias Cabot!

I don't knit socks.  Heck, I don't even wear socks.  My feet get too hot.  But I'm told that a good pair of wool socks will not cause digital overheating, so this may have to change.  Or a lot of family and friends are going to be getting socks for Christmas.  They may just get them anyway, when I get the hang of this machine.  So far I've learned to cast on using net, a webbing of waste yarn, and a cast-on sack. I can knit a tube, hang a hem, make a picot edge, and change yarns.  But I'm stumped by shaping a heel.  No matter how careful I am, I'm dropping stitches and curse words all over the place.  I know it can be done -- I've seen actual videos of actual people doing it. 

I have been knitting sock blanks for friends to dye and re-knit.  After a recent cone-winding disaster, when one of the drive chains fell off my cone winder and as I was rushing to turn it off, I knocked the skeined yarn off my swift, I had a pile of tangled undyed sock yarn, and spent a few mindless evenings untangling it.  Several times I had to cut it and start over, and the friction caused by untangling made the yarn pill and fray in spots, so it was not sock-worthy.  Wanting to try out some different ways of making self-patterning yarn, I knit them into blanks anyway, and went to town on the dyes.

Note to self:  NEVER EVER AGAIN try to dye yarn in the kitchen.  And ALWAYS put the lid back on the little container of powdered dye completely.  And NEVER pick up said little container by the lid.  Fortunately my kitchen is all tile and stainless steel, so there was no permanent damage except for one shirt that bore the brunt of the flying powder when the little jar slipped out of the lid and hit the counter.   The only other comment I will make on this unfortunate incident is thank goodness for Reduran.  A good scrubbing got everything off my skin except the spots I didn't notice.  Having turquoise cleavage is not a fashion statement I care to repeat.

Anyway, I dyed up several blanks and look forward to seeing how they knit up.  I knitted the first blank fairly wide, then painted half of it black.  On the other half, I alternated turquoise and yellow stripes.  I painted this one with dye on both sides because I didn't want any white flecks.

This should give me narrow bands of colored stripes alternating with black.  The yellowish bands on the top and bottom and in the center of the blank are waste yarn and were pulled out when I wound the cones.

Next I decided to try some different colors in bands to see how nicely they played together.  They actually stayed in their own places pretty well, but the result was boring and the red stripe was too wide.  So I got into the black dye left over from the previous blank and decided to make some polka dots.  When knitted up later, these dots won't line up this way -- they should appear as random bits of black here and there among the colored stripes. I did not paint the back of this blank, hoping to get a  heathery effect with white specks and less saturated colors throughout.

This is the resulting yarn. Only the green, turquoise, and black colors from one end of the blank are showing, although if you look at the bottom of the left-hand cone, you can see a little of the purple, red, and yellow peeking out.

Then I got a little crazy with the red, turquoise, and blue dyes on the blank below.  This time I didn't want any striping - just random colors. I deliberately tried to make this bizarre and unappealing. I even added a little black here and there to make it even uglier. And I succeeded, didn't I?  Once again, I left the back alone so there would be some white speckling.  The gold color on the ends is waste yarn.

I do like the looks of the coned yarn.  I have no clue how this will knit up.  Will there be stripes?  Bizarre pools of color?  Appealing to the eye or downright disturbing? 

Then one of those serendipitous things happened.  Some friends had found a textured yarn at Tuesday Morning that they thought would make interesting ropes.  I happened to be near my local store and had a few free minutes, so I dropped in to see what they had.  I did find a few skeins to add to the ropemaking stash, but then I found sock yarn.  And not just sock yarn, but SOCK YARN ON MAJOR CLEARANCE!  Not having experienced sock yarn prices except for the bulk undyed yarn I bought for blanks, I bought a few balls of yarn and went my merry way.
When I got home, I started to add the yarns to my stash on Ravelry, which sent me in search of reviews and info on these yarns in online stores.  When I saw the regular retail prices of so many different types of sock yarns, I realized what a bargain I had found.  That sent me off on a quest to all the T.M. stores within driving distance.  Six of them.  And another two stores that happened to be on my route to other destinations.  Plus my good friend Holly, who is also on a mission to find yarn for ropemaking visited two other T.M. stores.  At last count, there are now some 60 or so balls of sock yarn in my newly established stash.  Now all I have to do is actually learn to knit socks.

A Portion of the New Sock Stash