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So, on Monday, May 1, this is what it looked like outside my front door at 5 AM.
Yes, that’s snow. Nice weather we get here. This is why I haven’t been talking about gardening and bicycling and drone flying and putting up photos of pretty flowers and all that stuff. We had two or three days of summer like weather in March with temperatures in the 80s, and ever since then it’s been like this… cold, wet, cloudly, and now snow. Welcome to Wisconsin. Sigh… The weather has since gotten a bit better. It’s still been so cloudy with occasional rain that we’ve been making pretty much zero solar power. Again, sigh… Of course I shouldn’t complain. I have a friend who lives about 100 miles north of here in the upper peninsula of Michigan and over last week or so he got 52 inches of snow.
What I wanted to talk about is that someone asked why I need two inverters bolted to the wall and not just one. Just one of those inverters can supply 6.5 KW of power, as much as my big Generac gasoline generator, and enough to run almost the entire house as long as we’re careful. So why do I need two of them?
Partly it’s a question of capacity. 6.5 KW is a bit close to the edge for us, so to speak, at least as far as normal daily life is concerned. We may complain about our electric bill but we do like appliances like our coffee makers, our convection oven, etc. With just one inverter there would be times we would be pushing over that 6.5 KW limit. Two inverters give us a comfortable cushion.
The biggest reason though is that we also need 240V power to run some of the appliances in the house. For that we need both inverters. Initially I’m not going to be hooking any 240 appliances into this system because I don’t have eno0ugh batteries and solar panels to handle it, but eventually that’s going to change so I wanted a system that could be switched over easily in the future.
WTF is 240V split phase?
The average person doesn’t know, and doesn’t need to know, what actually goes on in the electrical system of the house. As long as your toaster or computer or TV works when it’s plugged into the wall and the lights turn on when the switch is flipped, that’s all they care about. And for most people that’s fine. But if you want to switch your home to an alternative energy system you need to know what’s going on behind the scenes.
While most of the systems in your house run on 120 VAC, in all likelihood there are some that require more power than a normal 120V line can supply. Things like electric water heaters, clothes dryers, electric stoves, well pumps, etc. will often run on 240V, not 120. The amount of power these appliances require would overload the normal 120V wiring systems in the house. So let me explain what’s going on without this getting complicated.
Well it’s going to get complicated anyway but let’s see what I can do.
What you have coming into your house is two, 120V AC power lines, not one. The two lines can be combined inside your circuit breaker panel to give you 240V to power more power hungry appliances like HVAC systems and clothes dryers.
If you took the front panel off of the main circuit breaker panel in your house it would looks something like the one in the photo below.
Now you’ll notice a couple of things right away if you look at that photo up there carefully. Note that there are two rows of circuit breakers, not one. There is a reason for that and I’ll come to that in a minute.
The next thing I want you to look at is right at the top center of that picture. You’ll see three thick wires coming in from the top. One is black, the 2nd is marked with red tape, and the third runs off to the right of center and is marked with white. Those three lines are what comes in from the service panel attached to the outside of your house and which, in turn, is fed from the utility company. The black wire and the red are the two 120V lines coming into the house and the white is the neutral line.
In your panel are two metal strips called busbars that the two hot wires (sometimes called legs because why not) connect to. Each busbar runs the length of the panel. The circuit breakers in the panel connect to those busbars to get the power that they then send out to the wires that lead to the outlets, lights, etc. in your house.
The circuit breakers on the left side of the panel get their power from L1, and the ones on the right get their power from L2.. Each busbar provides 120V.
So how do you get the 240V? Look at the top of the right row of breakers and you’ll see what looks like two breakers that are joined into one by a bar that connects the two switches together. That’s a 240V breaker.
Well, sort of. It doesn’t actually give you 240V. What it does is tap into both of the busbars at the same times, and lets you run two, 120V hot wires to whatever device that breaker breaker powers. The appliance that circuit energizes can combine both to provide 240V or use the individual 120V lines to power individual circuits in the appliance.
So if you want to design an alternative power system to run your whole house through your existing electrical system, you need a system that provides 120V to both L1 and L2, a 240 split phase system as they call it. And no, I can’t just feed 120V from a single source into both busbars at the same time because L1 and L2 are 180 degrees out of phase with one another and that is important. Or so they tell me.
Okay, so what’s with this phase stuff? Well it gets even more complicated and there is a hell of a lot of misinformation out there about what’s generally called “240V split phase”. There are people out there who will try to tell you that you need 240V split phase to power two phase motors, only there really aren’t any two phase motors out there and there haven’t been in many, many years. Or they’ll tell you you need split phase for electronics which is total BS because almost all modern electronics run off DC not AC…
Okay, look, the reason you have split phase coming into your home… Oh, hell, let’s look at what they’re talking about first of all.
AC stands for alternating current, and it’s called that because it, well, alternates. It doesn’t provide a steady positive voltage the way DC does. It alternates from plus to minus at 60 cycles per second. If you were to hook an oscilloscope up to an AC power line what you’d see on the screen is something like what you see in the picture over there on the left.
If you could look at both L1 and L2 at the same time on an oscilloscope it would look something like the picture over there on the right. The two are 180 degrees out of phase.
Why do we even use this system? It would take me pages and pages to explain all of that so I’ll leave it to you to go scurry over to Wikipedia or somewhere and find out for yourself.
So you have two, 120V lines coming in your house and they are 180 degrees out of phase with one another. Sort of. Kinda. And that’s important for, well, reasons, all right? And the two lines can be combined to give you 240V to power bigger appliances. Or not.
Are you confused yet? I am.
But let’s get back to my setup here. Each of the inverters will supply 1 of the two hot lines needed to get 240. And the two inverters “talk” to each other over a communications line so their sine waves are 180 degrees out of phase when in the split phase mode. Which is important for, well, for reasons. Or so they tell me. That’s what we’re stuck with.
But at the moment I don’t want to run any of my 240V appliances off this system. First of all that equipment sucks up huge amounts of power which would drain my batteries fast. The second issue is that my central air conditioning system quite possibly would require more amperage than my batteries can supply. EG4 recommends having at least 5 batteries in order to supply enough amperage to start up a big HVAC system like mine and I only have 3 at the moment.
To make a long story a bit shorter, I have two inverters because I’ll probably almost certainly need a system that can provide more load capacity than a single inverter would give me, and I eventually may want to expand the system to get 240V if I ever get enough batteries and solar panels up to support it.
But I’ve bored you long enough with this. let’s get on with it…
One of the things I ordered for this system was a battery cabinet to hold the batteries that has its own built in busbar system for connecting the batteries, and which is also lockable to keep people from fiddling with things they shouldn’t. That was on backorder and I got an email from Signature Solar telling me I could either wait, or they could ship me a slightly different model cabinet. Like everyone else they’re still having supply chain issues. I told them I’d take the different model and that should be here Monday. I jury rigged things together so I could test the inverters and charge the batteries but it can’t stay that way. Once the cabinet arrives I can get the batteries properly configured and start putting everything together.
I have more solar panels on order because my 800 watts of solar is woefully inadequate to keep 15 KWh of batteries charged. Those are supposed to be coming May 15 so I’ll need to build frames to hold all of those.
The weather hasn’t been very good but we’ve managed to get some work done out in the gardens. Once things warm up and the skies clear up we’re going to be really busy. We’re taking out a crumbling stone wall and replacing that, moving two of the raised beds to a new location and a bunch of other stuff going out there. MrsGF has had her indoor greenhouse going down in the basement for weeks already starting plants that will get transplanted outdoors as soon as the weather permits.
The brewery called me the other day, asking if I’d make more drinks coasters for them. A couple of good friends opened a brewpub, something they’d dreamed of doing for years. So they bought a building with an existing tavern that had enough room for them to put in their brewery and then… Then Covid hit. And somehow they still managed to pull it off and even managed to pay the bills during that whole mess. And now they’re doing pretty well.
Anyway a while back I found some super cheap plain drinks coasters made from wood and some from paperboard and for the heck of it I fired up Photoshop and made some graphics, putting their logo on one side and an allegedly humorous illustration on the other and then used the laser engraver to burn it into the coasters. i thought they looked a bit on the unprofessional side but they were fun to do so I did a few. I never thought they’d actually use them in the bar. But they did, and apparently the customers loved them. And stole them. Which was okay because it’s good PR for the brewery. So I’ve done dozens, maybe a couple of hundred of these things over the last couple of years and I just got a request for more so I got that going on. People are easily amused, I guess.
But enough of this. I need to get going here. I’ve probably put you to sleep already with all of this. I know I’ve nodded off a couple of times myself…
This is sort of a catchup post because I haven’t really had enough material to justify doing an update to the blog until now, so let’s get started.
It’s spring cleanup time. Or at least that’s what the calendar tell me. Outside, though, well, it’s been bloody cold and nasty. We had about only three days here where the temperature got above fifty. Mostly it’s been in the 40s, even dipping as low as the mid twenties at night. Not exactly my idea of April weather.
It’s a mess back there in the yard, alas. MrsGF and I have been working on cleaning up the debris left from the winter and it’s starting to shape up now finally. The old ash tree in my yard and the dying maple in my neighbor’s both have been shedding branches and bark all over. The smoke you see in the photo up there is because we lit the fireplace back there both to warm up and to deal with the twigs and sticks and bark that had come off the trees during the winter.
We’re probably going to do a major expansion of the corner garden in the photo up there. That’s prime growing area there in that corner. It faces the south west so it gets full sun almost all day long, with light being reflected off the white siding, and in that sheltered area it’s the first ground to thaw in the spring and the last to freeze in the fall, and it’s very well drained. We’re going to expand that area in a semicircle out past that post with the birdfeeder, and it’s going to extend along the right side of the house past the downspouts. That will more than double the amount of square footage we have there.
Back here hopefully within a couple of weeks that big tree will be gone. It looks relatively healthy but it really isn’t. It sheds branches like rain drops whenever there is a stiff breeze and up near the top of the tree it’s starting to rot where to large branches come together off the main trunk. It’s also an ash tree so I’m surprised the emerald ash borer hasn’t attacked it yet. If we don’t take it down soon a good wind storm will take it down for us. We already had a tree service come in to look at it, and as soon as it dries out enough for them to get their equipment in there without sinking into the ground it’s coming down, along with the neighbor’s dying maple.
Getting that tree out of there will also open up a large part of the yard to full sun so we can grow a lot more stuff. We aren’t quite sure what we’ll do with the area but we’ve been sketching out some preliminary plans for a large decorative feature. Maybe. Depends on how ambitious we get.
Antenna stuff: I finally got the new off center fed dipole up when we had a rare warm, sunny day. So I was up on the roof of the garage, then about 20 feet up a couple of different trees and, well, let’s just say it was an interesting experience.
Those of you who are amateur radio operators will undoubtedly note that it is not exactly the ideal configuration for an OCFD. It’s way too low to the ground, the two legs are running in a rather tight ‘V’ configuration instead of running out straight, etc. It’s only about 12 feet off the ground and it really should be something like 30 – 40 feet up. But you work with what you have. I don’t have a tower, don’t have tall trees, and I don’t have the space to string up a 140 foot long antenna in what is supposed to be the “ideal” configuration.
And guess what? Despite all of that, the antenna works just fine and dandy, thank you very much. According to the good ole boys I sometimes listen to down on 75 meters pontificating about antennas and other things, this antenna shouldn’t work very well in this configuration. Only it does. Since I put it up I’ve had contacts in California, the Carolinas, well, all over the continental United States and Canada, and according to PSK Reporter I’ve been heard in Europe and Australia as well.
Would it work better if it were in the “ideal” configuration, up above 30 feet with the legs extended properly? Probably. Don’t care. You work with you got.
Looks like I got this one up in time because my vertical antenna is now doing weird things. The thing got whacked by a fairly good sized branch from one of the trees and I think it knocked something loose so I’m going to have to pull that thing down one of these days and check that out.
Laser engraver: The nice delivery driver who brings me goodies from time to time just dropped off the Laserpecker 2 the other day. I’ve been looking forward to getting my hands on this one after playing with the Laserpecker 1 for a few months. I have the LP2 up and running and it is very, very, very nice. It is much more powerful than the original, much, much faster, offers much higher resolution. The version I have here comes with the roller system in the box on the right. That allows it to engrave cylindrical objects like water bottles and the like. And most interestingly of all, the roller mechanism can be reversed and turned into a drive mechanism for the LP2 allowing it to travel along a board or tabletop or other smooth surface to make continuous long engravings. I haven’t set up the roller system yet and I’m looking forward to trying it.
And best of all, for me anyway, it is no longer tied to a stupid phone app to run it. You can still use a phone app, but there is actual real PC software that will control this thing. It looks like the PC software gives much better control over the engraver than the phone app did. Best of all I don’t have to fiddle around trying to get artwork I make in Photoshop imported into the stupid phone app. I can do everything right on the computer now.
Unfortunately the PC software has some serious problems with it. It’s riddled with bugs, odd quirks, difficulties in connecting the PC to the LP2 and other issues. Most of those can be worked around but frankly the PC software looks like it was never properly tested before being released.
The LP2 is most definitely not cheap. I can see a hobbyist spending $250 on the Laserpecker 1 to do the occasional engraving on an art project. It’s a fun little gadget that works pretty well and at that price you don’t need to use it a lot to justify the expense. The Laserpecker 2 package that you see here with the roller system will set you back $1,200. IMO this pushes it well outside of the hobbyist level product. In order to justify that kind of expense you need to have a serious application for something like this.
Anyway, look for a full review of the LP2 in the near future.
And that’s about it for this time. Now if only the weather would start to warm up…
Well the problem with the LP’s autofocusing stand has been solved and it is now working properly. It turned out that the problem was the power cable going from the power pack to the stand. I’d tried several different power supplies thinking that the one that came with the LP couldn’t handle the increased load from trying to run both the LP and the stand at the same time. And as a last resort I put in a different cable and, well, bang, away it went.
So the autofocusing stand is now working just fine and has actually become rather handy. But to be perfectly honest I still don’t recommend you get it. I just don’t think it’s worth the $200 they’re asking for it. The standard version with the tripod will do the same job as the “pro” version that comes with the autofocus stand. All you need to do is adjust the tripod so the LP is about 200mm away from the object being engraved. Easy and takes almost no time at all.
I’ve been working the LP hard for the last couple of weeks, and I mean seriously hard, probably far harder than most users would. It’s been going almost nonstop (alongside my Gangou) doing a production run of customized artwork for a brewpub down near Milwaukee. All told the Laserpecker has had well over 100 hours of use now and it’s still going strong. It’s performed flawlessly.
The LP was supposed to replace the Gangou which had some problems, but I got the Gangou fixed, which was a good thing because laser engravers in this price range are slow. I had both of them up on the bench working side by side for this project.
Comparing the two of them side by side was interesting. The LP is just so much more sophisticated and easy to use, and does such a good job that the Gangou is probably going to get sold or given away.
The biggest drawback to the LP remains the software. I won’t get into that because nothing has changed since I did the review.
So, if you’re a craftsperson working with wood, paper, fabric, leather and the like, and you think a laser engraver would be useful, should you consider the Laserpecker 1? Yeah, I think you should. You’re restricted to engravings about 100mm by 100mm (about 4 inches square) but it’s rare that you’ll ever need to make engravings larger than that. It’s well made, it’s fairly simple to use, despite the wonky software, and it has been a real workhorse for me so far. It’s been doing back to back engravings for me for a couple of weeks now. And even at $300 the price isn’t too bad. Yes, there are cheaper ones out there. The Gangou in the picture up there is about $250, but it is clunky, awkward, noisy, takes up a large amount of workspace, and is at least 30% or more slower than the LP1. Oh, and the Gangou’s software utterly and totally sucks. If you can get it to work at all.
The late summer is always a busy time for us because it seems that all of the vegetables we’ve been nursing along since early spring all come ripe at the same time and all have to be dealt with right now. We probably have enough wax beans and green beans to last us two years, and enough various tomato sauces to last us almost that long. On one Saturday alone MrsGF and I processed more than 40 pounds of tomatoes to turn them into tomato soup. Plus we did salsa, chili sauce and spaghetti sauce. And that was from just three plants.
But the beans have been done for weeks now. We probably could have gotten another couple of weeks of production out of them but we were so sick of beans we just pulled them out. Tomatoes are pretty much at an end now as well. But the peppers are still going strong and will probably keep going until we get frost. We put in a variety of sweet bell and banana type peppers. We thought we’d have enough to make pickled peppers, but almost all of them have been going into various sauces.
We were only going to put in 3 cucumber plants because I’m the only one who likes to eat them fresh. But somehow we ended up with 6 plants and they went a bit goofy on us and took over the whole garden behind the garage. MrsGF made four different kinds of pickles plus some relish, enough to last us more than a year, and now we’re giving the things away. They’ve started to slow down but they’re still blossoming. I hate to pull out and compost plants that are still healthy and producing but I’m thinking of just pulling them out this week and being done with them.
It’s hard to see in the photo but there are also a half dozen tomato and pepper “volunteer” plants hidden in that mess of cukes somewhere and now those are bearing fruit.
MrsGF and I both love squash but our attempts to grow the stuff haven’t been all that successful. Last year we had powdery mildew that pretty much wiped them out. This year, though, wow… We planted in a more sunny location, worked in hundreds of pounds of compost before we planted, made sure they were well watered during the drought, and it paid off beautifully. The plants are starting to come to the end of their lifetime now, and we’re seeing dozens of massive butternut squash under the leaves. And I mean massive squash. Some of these things are a foot and a half long, and they all look absolutely beautiful.
We picked one yesterday and we’re going to make that one this week and see what it tastes like. Hopefully they’ll taste as good as they look. We’ll probably end up cutting them up into cubes, roasting them and freezing them for use later.
All the sunflowers got knocked down when we had a storm roll through here, but the other flowers and decorative plants made it through the summer fairly well. We’ve had no shortage of flowers out in the gardens this year.
It was a struggle to keep some of this stuff alive during the drought. We were careful to keep the vegetable gardens well watered but we occasionally neglected the ornamental plants. Still most managed to survive and even grow reasonably well until the rains finally came in August.
We have three roses out there in the gardens now and all of them came through the drought and even looked pretty good. We had something, we aren’t sure what, trying to eat the climbing rose, and MrsGF finally resorted to dusting it with something and that seemed to take of that problem. She only had to treat it once.
The hot, dry weather was not kind to the hostas out front, though. Some of those poor guys are looking pretty rough.
The giant large leafed varieties did a lot better than the more traditional looking narrow leafed types. The variegated varieties seem to have fared worse than the solid colored ones. This time of year the hostas start to look pretty rough anyway. They’ve all flowered now and are going to seed so there is no need for them to keep putting energy into the foliage, I suppose. They’re getting ready to go dormant for winter anyway.
With all of the gardening and harvest stuff going on I haven’t had a lot of time to putter in the woodshop. I haven’t done any wood turning since I produced these two bowls down below…
I do have some projects in mind, though. I picked up this piece of wood down below at a shop a few weeks ago. Paid way too much for it but I loved the grain and color. I still don’t know what I’m going to do with it.
I’m also trying to adjust to a new computer. I have three main computers, an iMac, a very old Macbook that I use mostly for email and reading the news, and my primary computer, a “gaming” computer my son built for me which I use for just about everything else, including amateur radio, photo and video editing and video streaming and other stuff. The gaming computer was taken out during a severe thunderstorm a few days ago. I think the power supply got fried. I’d been having problems with it for some time and knew it was going to have to be replaced, so I already had a replacement ready to go for a couple of months. Still, it’s a hell of a lot of work to have to try to redo that whole system.
The new one is a fairly high end MSI 17″ gaming laptop which works great for things like video and photo editing and pretty much everything. But I still need to install all my amateur radio software, hook up all the radio gear to it, etc.
But it also gives me a chance to tear everything down and rearrange everything to make things more convenient and less chaotic.
Let’s start out with frogs with this little 30 second video. I put up a video a few weeks ago of some frogs singing when I was out on the bike, but this is in my own backyard this time. As soon as it starts to get dark here, this is what it sounds like here at the house. Turn up your volume and wait a bit. It takes about 10 seconds for the sound to kick in. You aren’t going to see much, it’s dark. It’s the sound that I want you to hear.
Frogs. Dozens and dozens of frogs singing their little hearts out. It one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard. As soon as the weather got warmer and we got a bit of rain this frog chorus started in and I find myself going out into the backyard a couple of times a night just to listen to these guys.
So, let’s move on to lasers, specifically the laser engraver over there on the left. This is the “Laser Engraver laser engraving machine 3000mw laser class 4 Off-line Upgrade Version CNC Pro DIY Logo engraver” from a company called GanGou.
Now I’ve been interested in laser engravers for some time now. You all know by now I fiddle around with wood, and I thought it would be interesting to be able to burn artwork onto some of the things I crank out here from time to time. Especially now that I’ve been getting into this lathe stuff. If I am going to sell this stuff I’d like to put a logo, name, maybe a date, on the bottom of the bowls. A lot of people use custom made branding irons, but those are expensive and can’t be changed without buying a new one. A custom made branding iron with your own logo can set you back well over $100 or more, and then that is all it can do. This laser here costs about $250 and can engrave just about anything you can stuff into a .BMP file.
I never bought one before because they were way, way out of my budget. The good ones anyway. There were always really cheap ones on the market but every one of those I saw was utterly horrible in every single way. ES (Eldest Son) bought one of those a few years ago and it took him days just to get it running and it was utterly useless if he tried to engrave anything bigger than about 1 square inch.
That’s changed, though. Some of the cheap models are now very, very good, and this is one of them. It goes for around $250 on Amazon and it is a lot better than I expected it to be. The build quality on this thing is excellent. It is very, very well made. The hardware is all beautifully finished, the tolerances are excellent, the stepper motors are high quality. It is just very, very good.
It does have its quirks, though. The manual is terrible. But then I expected that. Utterly horrible manuals, instructions, assembly notes, etc. are pretty much par for the course with a lot of equipment these days, and this is no exception. The instructions were in both English and Chinese, and interestingly enough the Chinese instructions were just as bad as those in English. (Google Translate makes life for us dabblers in oddball equipment much easier.) The instructions for putting it together are pretty clear, but the rest of the manual deals with the included software, not the engraver itself. And, well…
The software that comes with it, well, you might as well not even bother installing it. In my case I installed it on my test computer, a more or less bullet proof generic, business class Lenovo laptop that I picked up refurbed for $200, running Win 10. This computer will run anything because there is no speciality hardware, no oddball drivers, nothing. It is your basic, simple, 100% compatible Windows 10 computer.
It won’t run the Gangou software, though. The drivers installed. Well, I think they did but it was hard to tell because all of the prompts were in Chinese. The software installed. It ran, and then immediately locked up tight as soon as I tried to click on any of the buttons. As far as I can tell, clicking anywhere in the program, on any control, makes it lock up tight. Sigh… I’ll fiddle with it a while longer to see if I can figure out what’s going on, but I don’t have a lot of hope. I don’t know yet if the hardware will work with the other open source or commercial laser engraver programs out there. I only just got the thing and I haven’t had time to really look into it further.
Fortunately you don’t need the software at all to run this thing. You can do everything from that little touch screen. Plug a flash drive with your .BMP file into it, turn it on, select the file you want to use, set the laser strength, do the positioning test to make sure the object is in the right place, and hit start. Using it from the touch screen is about as simple as it gets. And as you can see from the results of a test run on a tap handle I cranked out the other day, it does a pretty darn nice job.
So far I’ve only done about a dozen engravings with it, including test runs, so I have no idea how long it will hold up under continued use, but considering how well made it seems I’m not too worried about that. And at around $250 the price is right. The reviews on Amazon are all over the place. But you have to be really cautious about reviews these days. And a lot of the really negative reviews seem to have been from, well, idiots, to be blunt, people who couldn’t figure out how to put it together, didn’t know anything about laser engravers in the first place and that kind of thing. One of these days I should really do an article about product reviews and how to try to sort the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.
So I’ve been making handles for beer taps of late. A couple of very good friends of ours bought a tavern in a Milwaukee suburb and are converting it into a brewpub, and we might have invested a few bucks in it. The handles on their taps were left over from the previous owner, and all of those handles are left over from the usual big monopoly beer brands which sell stuff that tastes like their breweries are directly connected to the Clydesdale stables drainage ditch. So those handles have to be replaced with something that reflects what’s actually in the kegs they’re connected to. Hence the need for the laser engraver I’ve been talking about. I’ve done a couple of experimental efforts already. They’re dirt simple to turn out in just about any shape I want. The chrome ferrule down at the bottom consists of a threaded rod; a wood screw on one end to go into the tap, machine threads on the other end to fit into a chrome plated brass fitting that then screws onto the tap itself. Those are cheap. I got these for about $1.50 each from a company in India and they’re good quality.
So now that I’ve done some experimenting I am going to crank out about 8 of these for them, and use the laser to engrave their own company logo on them and even specific beer names if they want. And I can make ’em out of scrap wood I have left over from other projects, even glue up blanks with different types of wood like the experiment over there on the left.
Someone asked if I was still bike riding and I am indeed. As soon as the weather started getting warm enough to get out I was out on the bike every chance I had. I’ve had some issues with breaking spokes. I’ve had to have spokes replaced three times already this year and I only have a couple of hundred miles on the bike. I think it’s being caused by shock from going over the railroad tracks around here. The rail crossings have gotten really, really bad over the past year.
Anyway I am out and about, but I haven’t said much here because I figured you all were getting bored with it.
Holy cow it’s dry out there. Thats the river down by the old stone bridge which is on my regular route. This time of year that river up there should be about 3 feet deeper and flowing along at a pretty good speed. Instead it looks more like it normally would at the end of August – completely stagnant, only about a foot or so deep.
We’ve been under fire warnings almost since the snow melted here, and we’ve already had several wild fires. They’re small when compared to those out west, but yes, we have them here too. We got a good shower last night but it doesn’t come close to making up for it. We’ve had to water the gardens here on a regular basis already, something we generally don’t have to do until mid to late summer.
But it still looks amazingly beautiful out there. The road and trailside flowers are in full bloom and I really look forward to getting out of town and into the countryside.
Let’s see, what else… The vegetable gardens are all in. We have the raised beds planted with onions, beans, a variety of peppers, etc. We have one that’s all beets this year because, well, we like beets so why not? We put in a couple of squash, a few cukes. I have two jalapeno peppers growing in pots out front. Only two because I’m the only one who likes jalapenos around here. We only put in 3 tomato plants this year because we still have a lot of canned tomatoes from last year.
The big ash tree in the backyard is going to have to come down. I noticed a large hole near the top of the trunk right where two of the main branches come together and it looks like it’s rotting from the top down. So that has to go before it comes down and damages something. We already talked to a service about doing that and they’ll be coming at the end of summer to take it down. I’m going to keep the wood, at least all of the big stuff, and we’re going to keep the stump and turn it into a decorative feature. That means we get a significantly lower cost for the removal of the tree, all they have to haul out is the brushy stuff.
And that, my friends, is about it for this time.
What’s coming up…
I’ll put up photos of the “official” tap handles once I get those done.
I’m doing some experimenting with the boxelder wood I got from MrsGf’s sister and that stuff looks really nice. If that turns out I’ll put up some pictures of that.
I suppose I should talk about the DeWalt battery chainsaw I picked up a few months ago. That has turned out to work a lot better than I ever thought it would and it deserves a look. I have a Poulan gas chain saw but it is very, very old, very noisy, very messy, leaks oil and is just nasty. So far the DeWalt has been working well. I use it for cutting up large blocks of wood that won’t fit on my band saw or table saw so they’ll fit on my lathe.
Well it was a wild ride on the commodities market this past week as corn hit $7.40 and soybeans hit $15.71. We haven’t seen prices like this in something like ten years or more, and a lot of people are puzzled by why the commodities prices have spiked up this high, this fast. There are no natural disasters or reports of extreme shortages that would cause this, so what’s going on?
It’s a combination of things that have made the markets a wee bit nervous. China is trying to rebuild its pig herds after they were decimated because of culling from African Swine Fever, so there is increased demand there. There are weather problems in parts of South America that are interfering with some corn production down there. USDA announced that US farmers are going to plant less corn this growing season. The reduction isn’t much, but enough to make people think it might make supplies tight. They think people are going to be driving a lot more this summer which is going to mean increased demand for gasoline which, in turn, means more demand for ethanol to meet the blending requirements.
So here we are with corn at 7.49 at the moment. Extended out into the future commodities prices get more reasonable, but not by much. July corn is sitting at 6.73 which is still high but not utterly horrible, and September corn is at 5.92
So, why should you be interested in corn prices? Because volatility in corn prices ripples through the whole economy. High corn prices mean it costs a lot more for the dairy, beef, chicken and pork producers to feed their cattle. That’s going to put pressure on consumer food prices across the board, not just dairy products and meat. High corn prices can force producers to look at other grains like wheat to substitute. That can push wheat prices up, increasing costs for flour, which increases the cost of baked goods. Well, you get the idea.
It also puts pressure on fuel prices. The government mandates that refiners blend a certain amount of ethanol into their fuels, and in the US the majority of that ethanol is made from corn.
Now the markets can absorb some of these increased costs, but not a lot and not for long, and sooner rather than later it’s going to result in increased prices on consumer products. So if corn prices stay this high for much longer, you’re going to see that rippling out into increased prices on food, fuel and other products that you buy yourself. Some companies like General Mills and a few others have already already announced that they’re going to have no choice but to start raising consumer prices. Wholesale beef prices have gone up about 33% already this past month.
And it isn’t just food. Just look at the craziness going on with lumber. And speaking of lumber…
What The Hell Is Going On With Lumber?
That’s a question a lot of people are asking because lumber prices have gone nuts. Prices on lumber have spiked up around 360% in just the past year. That is not a typo. 360% in one year. I was paying under $2 for 2×4 studs last year, now that’s up to around $7 each. MrsGF and I have pushed back plans to do a few remodeling projects here at the house because not only have prices skyrocketed, it’s hard to get materials even at those prices. I talked to one contractor who builds houses. he bid on building one house late last year at $350K and now the same house would be closer to $450K.
Why this abrupt spike in prices? It isn’t because there’s a shortage of trees or something like that. Nor are the people growing trees getting the money. They’ve seen only a 2% increase in the price they’re getting for the logs. It’s all the haulers, sawmills and processors in between that are the cause.
The claim is that it’s being caused by a labor shortage. They can’t find truck drivers, workers at sawmills, tree cutters, etc.
Herbicide and Plastic Shortages
As if corn and lumber prices weren’t enough to worry about, we’re also seeing shortages of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and, believe it or not, plastics. Farmers are having trouble finding things like field drainage tile and the plastic wrap used to protect bales. There are reported shortages of glyphosate and some other herbicides, some fungicides and insecticides that are used to prevent weeds and protect crops.
What this all adds up to is considerable pressure to increase prices. Someone has to pay for all of these increased costs and in the long run that’s going to be us, the consumers. How bad those increases will be, well, I have no idea. It is going to depend on how long commodities prices remain high and how much of the cost increases the industry is willing to absorb before they have to raise prices. As I said earlier in this, a lot of companies have already announced price increases.
Dairy Pride Act
So, let’s talk about plant based “milk”. I didn’t really want to talk about things like almond milk and all that, but it’s in the news again thanks to the Dairy Pride Act being pushed by Sen. Baldwin from Wisconsin and a few other politicians.
The whole problem revolves around that one word, milk, and how it is defined. There are two real definitions of the word, one biological, and one legal. Biologically speaking milk is the scrections of the mammary glands from mammalian animals and which are used to feed their young. The legal definition is, well, here’s a direct quote from federal government regulations:
“Milk means the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows, which may be clarified and may be adjusted by separating part of the fat therefrom; concentrated milk, reconstituted milk, and dry whole milk. Water, in a sufficient quantity to reconstitute concentrated and dry forms, may be added.”
You will undoubtedly note a lot of problems with the above. The most glaring problem is that it claims milk only comes from cows, ignoring the fact that goats, sheep, horses, oxen, even beavers, give milk. (Mmmm, beaver milk. Yum. Wasn’t there an old Monty Python joke about Peruvian beaver cheese?) (Sorry, my mind just flashed up an image of a farmer trying to milk a beaver. That’s just the way my brain works. It scares me sometimes. My brain, not beavers.)
So, here’s the problem. For years now certain companies have been selling nut, grain or bean based liquids as substitutes for dairy milk and calling the stuff milk. This is, technically, illegal. The US has very strict labeling requirements when it comes to food, and the government has gleefully gone after a host of companies and individuals who mislabel their products. But not when it comes to this stuff. For whatever reason the agencies responsible for food labeling accuracy have blithely ignored the mislabeling of these products, despite a considerable amount of pressure from the dairy industry to do something about it.
Now you might think this whole thing is silly, and you do have a point. But on the other hand the anger of the dairy industry is understandable as well. The dairy industry has spent many, many decades and hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising, propaganda, health claims, puffed up PR campaigns and other efforts to try to make its products appear to be healthy, good for you, pure and wholesome, and even essential. And then along come these upstarts trying to cash in on all of the work the dairy industry put into making milk look good, and claiming that their products are “milk” as well, and, well, they’re pissed.
Legally speaking, the dairy industry has a valid point. This stuff does not meet the legal definition of “milk”. US food labeling laws, if strictly interpreted, should make the labeling of this stuff as “milk” to be illegal. But the court system doesn’t seem to see it that way and has let this continue, so, well, here we are then.
Politicians from large dairy states like Wisconsin are upset about this as well because, well, let’s be blunt here. The only reason they’re upset is because the dairy industry is paying them to be upset. The dairy industry pumps huge amounts of money into the coffers of these politicians and their PACs. The result is this Dairy Pride thingie which basically says that you can only label actual milk as milk.
Will this actually go anywhere? I have no idea. If it passes, will it help the dairy industry? No. Won’t do a thing to help the dairy industry. Will it hurt the fake milk industry? Probably not. They’ll just come up with something else to call their stuff, pump a few more bucks into their advertising budgets, and that will be it.
Now, let’s see, what else did I want to babble about? There was some more stuff… Oh, amateur radio! Gads, almost forgot about that.
My OCFD (that’s an “off center fed dipole” for you non-radio people out there, a kind of antenna) came down again. That is a long wire antenna, about 130 feet long in total. It had snapped before and I’d repaired it and put it back up, but it snapped again now, so I figure that years of hanging in the air and flapping about in the wind has caused metal fatigue or something in the wires, so I didn’t bother fixing it again. It’s going to come down and I already have another one on order. Why not build my own? I could, but I did mention about the lazy thing, right? Why build one when I can buy one that’s probably going to be better than I could make myself.
Meanwhile I’m using a GAP Titan DX vertical antenna which has turned out to be way, way better than I’d hoped. I’ve had that one up for some time now and it works amazingly well. I had contacts with 3 Japanese stations in the space of about 10 minutes yesterday afternoon using less than 100 watts output, plus one or two in Europe and in other exotic places like Texas, New York, etc.
My woodworking and wood turning has come to a screeching halt recently because I’ve been spending a lot of time out in the gardens hauling compost, tilling up stuff, etc. We got the onions and garlic in but it’s still too early to put anything else out. The weather hasn’t exactly been warm here except for two days when it was in the mid 80s. Generally it hasn’t gotten much above 50 here, with night time temps pushing down into the mid 30s or even a bit lower. That hasn’t kept the tulips from blooming though as you can see from that photo up there.
But back to wood working to wrap this up. I really enjoyed making decorative lamps with resin and wood and want to do some more of those, so I’ve got more resin on order and that should be coming this week yet. The few “jumble” pieces I did as experiments with odd bits of wood cast into resin, well much to my surprise people really seem to like those for some reason so I’ll probably do a few more of those. But what I really want to make are more decorative lamps. Anyway, more about that when I get into that.
(Someone told me I should mention the email address here for people who have questions or comments and don’t want to leave them in the public comment section. It is old.grouchyfarmer.@gmail.com, or, of course you can use the comments section. I only check that account once a week or two so it may be a while before you get a response that way.)
I’ve been getting some questions about wood and woodturning, specifically about what types or species of wood work best, give the best results, what different species are like to work with, how to get wood, how to deal with wet or green wood and other things, so I thought it might be helpful to talk about wood itself. I’m going to write a couple of pieces about wood, starting with what it’s like to work with different species of wood. I’m going to stick with commercially available wood bowl blanks for this bit because if you’re new to this, that is probably what you’ll be working with, bowl blanks you pick up off Amazon or directly from a wood vendor.
Now I come from a furniture making background. When making a piece of furniture I am making an object that not only needs to look good, it needs to have considerable structural integrity. The wood needs to be strong enough to be able to deal with the stresses of being a functional chair or table or bookcase or whatever item I’m making. This limits the kind of woods I am able to use in a project.
But structural integrity isn’t an issue with wood turning. I’m concerned almost entirely with appearance on that situation. The projects I crank out don’t require structural strength. Even a plain, utilitarian bowl doesn’t need a lot of strength, it just needs to hold together and look good. So when selecting wood for a bowl, especially one that is intended to be primarily decorative, the things I’d worry about when selecting wood for furniture don’t really matter to me. All I really care about is appearance. And with turned objects, things that would be considered defects in furniture grade wood can actually make interesting decorative features in a turned object. A lot of woods that would be horrible for furniture work very well for wood turning and can result in some beautiful artistic pieces.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to work with a wide variety of different woods ranging from the common to the exotic, so here, in no particular order here are the woods I typically work with and why I like or dislike them, along with some samples of a finished projects with that wood to show you what it looks like. If you’re new to this you’re probably going to be buying pre-made bowl blanks online from Amazon or some other retailer, so I’ll include info on what this stuff can cost if you buy it commercially. Some of these photos have appeared before, some are new.
Black Walnut – I’m going to start with my absolute favorite wood to work with, walnut. I love working with walnut. Generally it cuts easily on the lathe with either traditional steel or carbide tools. It is easy to shape, easy to sand. I think the color and grain is beautiful. It can range from a deep, rich chocolate brown to a beautiful, almost iridescent brownish gold depending on how it is cut and finished. It will handle just about any kind of finish you want to use on it, from a low gloss satin to an ultra high polish. Either will work well with this wood. I’ve used waxes, spray lacquers, OB shine juice, bees wax and even just plain shellac and have had good results with all of them. If it gets dull looking all it takes is a quick buffing or polish to bring back the luster.
It is commonly available either kiln dried or green. Cost isn’t too bad either. Prices on wood vary all the time depending on market conditions, of course. A decent sized bowl blank about 6″ square and 2″ thick is going for about $7 – $12 each right now if you shop around. Thicker pieces… Well, prices go uprather quickly as the wood gets thicker. All things considered walnut a darn nice wood to work with and prices are generally reasonable.
Side note: A lot of places are selling green wood, not dried. I’ll talk about that later in more detail. But here’s a hint – if you’re new at this, avoid green/wet wood. Stick with kiln dried at first. Learn the basic skills first, then worry about how to deal with green wood. Some people like to work with green wood, I don’t. It requires lengthy drying times, is subject to warping and cracking and has other problems. I’ll deal with green/wet wood in a later post.
Padauk – Since that piece up there includes padauk, let’s go with that one next. It’s imported from Africa. It is a very striking wood, especially when freshly cut. Color ranges from red to brilliant orange, with the grain showing up as darker, brownish and in some cases almost black stripes. The first time I saw a piece of this I couldn’t believe it was real. As it ages the brilliant color begins to fade. It will eventually fade into a somewhat duller, reddish brown, even chocolate hue, sometimes even fading into gray. It will still be a beautiful piece of wood, it’s just that the colors change over time. How quickly do they fade? It depends. A good finish seems to help slow down the color changes, but nothing will really stop it.
As for working with it, it’s great stuff to work with. It machines about the same as walnut. It cuts easily, although you may need to sharpen your tools a bit more often than with some woods. It sands easily, but use a dust extraction system. The dust will get everywhere if you don’t, leaving a fine, red film over everything. For finishes, all I’ve used with it so far is a thin seal coat of shellac followed by buffing carnauba wax onto it to get a high gloss. It’s imported from Africa and is available kiln dried only. (Generally speaking wood imported into this country must be kiln dried to prevent pests and diseases from getting into the U.S.)
It isn’t cheap though, typically going for 2 – 3 times the cost of walnut. A 6″ square by 2″ thick piece of padauk is currently going for around $30.
White Oak – You wouldn’t normally think of white oak as being all that suitable for wood turning. But in a lot of cases you use what you got, and I have a lot of white oak cut offs from larger boards that were used in furniture projects. The stuff was too nice to just throw out or burn, but what can you do with 1″ thick boards of random short lengths and widths?
Glue it up into bowl blanks, of course. So I glued a few 1″ thick board scraps together into a 4 inch thick bowl blank and gave it a try and, well, damn… The results weren’t utterly horrible? I stained it to bring out the grain, finished it with a sealer and top coat of wax and it turned out as a decent little bowl. I made an even bigger one, almost 11 inches across and about 4 inches tall which was an absolute beast to work with on my midi sized lathe, but that worked out reasonably well too and I ended up with a pretty nice fruit bowl with rather striking grain patterns brought out by the stain.
It was not easy to work with, though. White oak is very hard, dulls tools quickly, and can be prone to chipping, especially if it is really, really dry, as this stuff is. White oak is one of the few woods where I used carbide tools almost exclusively because my steel gouges were dulled within just a couple of minutes and I was getting tired of running over to the grinder every little while. Once I switched to carbide it went better, but it was still a relatively slow process. Sanding wasn’t a lot of fun either.
(Which is possibly why it seems nearly impossible to find white oak bowl blanks on the commercial market? At least I haven’t seen any. )
Ash – Go read the comments about oak again but replace “oak” with “ash” and that pretty much describes it. Ash seems to be just a wee bit more forgiving than oak. I can generally work it without having to resort to using carbide tools. Certainly it has a nicer color, or at least I think so. But like oak it can be pretty bland looking, so you might want to experiment with stains. And wood suppliers who carry bowl blanks seem to frequently have it in stock at fairly reasonable prices. Mostly I’ve seen blanks offered as green wood, but I do see kiln dried stuff available from time to time. Alas, while I’ve made some projects with ash I don’t have photos of any.
(Sidenote: In some areas there is a glut of ash on the market because of infestations of the emerald ash borer, which is decimating the ash tree population all over the country. In a lot of places it is illegal to transport ash wood into or out of certain areas to try to restrict the spread of the beetle and the disease it carries. These restrictions generally don’t apply to kiln dried ash because the kiln generates enough heat to kill the borers. I’ve seen a few vendors offering “green” ash wood. This is possibly illegal in some jurisdictions.)
Red Cedar – I really, really like working with cedar. It’s a soft wood, cuts beautifully on the lathe, and wow, does it smell amazing! It sands easily to a smooth surface, is easy to finish to a brilliant shine. I used OB shine juice on this one. Personally I think the grain and colors are absolutely beautiful but some people don’t like it for some reason. Colors can vary wildly, even in the same piece of wood, as you can see, ranging from a deep chocolate brown, to rich purplish reds, to golden yellows. It’s widely available, and if you live in the right part of the country you might be able to source it locally and save yourself a considerable amount of money.
Cedar does have some issues. It can often have “defects”, knots, inclusions, wild grain, but personally I think that adds to the beauty, like that unexpected knot I discovered in this piece as I was hollowing it out. To me that knot and the wild grain surrounding it makes the piece far more interesting than if had been just plain wood. But because it’s a soft wood, it’s easy to damage a finished piece.
Prices on cedar are pretty reasonable if you can find it. Not every wood seller seems to carry it. My main source for pre cut cedar bowl blanks is Green Valley Wood Products in Indiana and they’re running 6″ square 3″ thick cedar blanks at about 4 for $39.95, or about $10 each. They are green, not dried, but when it comes to cedar I’ve never really had problems with working with green cedar.
Mahogany – Mahogany is, well, complicated. Some mahogany is mahogany, some mahogany isn’t… Heck, I don’t know. I do like the stuff, though. Maybe. Sort of. Kinda. Certainly it can be a very pretty wood that can take on a brilliant iridescence when the light hits it just right. It can glimmer and shimmer. But in order to get that shimmer and iridescence you have to have exactly the right piece of wood and have to do exactly the right things to it.
I honestly have sort of a love/hate relationship with mahogany. I’ve built furniture out of the stuff and frankly I didn’t like it that much. I didn’t think it looked all that good and it can be surprisingly soft and easy to damage when used in furniture. It isn’t difficult to work with, but it seems to produce a very fine dust that clings to anything and everything. It seems to dull my tools quickly. For whatever reason carbide tools don’t seem to work very well at all with this stuff. When I try using carbide I get lots of catches, gouges and tearout. So I stick with traditional bowl gouges, scrapers and skews when I’m working with it. And I sharpen them a lot. And while they claim it’s a hardwood, it sure doesn’t behave like one. It’s relatively soft, it is easy to get dings and dents in finished pieces. I ended up somehow with a 15″ square, 5″ thick hunk of the stuff that I into a fruit bowl that looked nice for, oh, about 10 minutes. Oh, it’s a perfectly good utility bowl, and that’s what we use it for, but it sure didn’t stay looking good for very long. But every once in a while a piece like this below comes off the lathe, and and I start to want to work with it again.
This is a mahogany and walnut canister or box or jar or whatever you want to call it. About 5″ wide and 10″ or so tall, and it turned out way better than it had any right to. (The crappy camera in my iPhone doesn’t do this justice. I don’t care what the reviewers claim about the iPhone camera, it’s garbage, especially when it comes to rendering color.)
Back to mahogany, though. It’s decent wood, it can be very pretty. It isn’t all that difficult to work with, but it does have some issues. Prices for dried, pre-cut bowl blanks are generally a bit higher than walnut, depending on where it is sourced from. Right now it’s going for about $11 – $13 for a typically sized 6″ square 2″ thick precut bowl blank. It should be provided kiln dried, not green, because all of it is imported.
Hickory/Chestnut – Okay, I’m going to make a confession here. I’m not sure if that bowl over there on the right is hickory, or the one on the bottom is hickory. I’m not even sure if that is what they actually were, to be honest because I’d never worked with either before I got my hands on these two pieces of wood. That’s what they were labeled when I pulled them off the shelf, though, so we’ll go with that. My experience with these two is extremely limited. Still the results for both were good and I wouldn’t hesitate to use it again if I could get my hands on the stuff. Both were hard, about the same working characteristics as ash, but with a much more striking grain. And the one above had some beautiful coloring and inclusions. Once I saw how nice the grain was, I kept the shapes simple and tried to cut them to show off the wood.
I wish I could remember where I got these two pieces of wood and what they cost so I could give you more info because the wood was really nice.
Rosewood – Rosewood is amazingly beautiful. It has a rich, lush, chocolate color with a lighter colored, reddish brown streaks, and can include wider bands of lighter reds.
I see the stuff for sale all the time, but only in small pieces suitable for ornaments and pens. I’d never seen the stuff in larger pieces suitable for making bowls or larger decorative objects like I’m interested in making until I ran across these three pieces. One was about 4″ square by 3″ thick and the other two were about 6″ or 7″ square by 3″ thick. I’d never seen it in pieces that large before. The reason why is simple. Holy cow the stuff is expensive! I probably shouldn’t have blown that much money on these three pieces of wood because as it turned out I had serious problems with all three, but I’ll come to that in a minute.
The stuff works pretty nicely. It cuts well, sands well, looks especially good with a high gloss finish. I think the coloration and grain is absolutely beautiful. It doesn’t show up well in the photo but that larger piece has a beautiful band of a lighter, red tint running through it horizontally that really adds interest to the piece. I can see why penmakers like it so much, the stuff is beautiful.
Drawbacks? You bet. Some serious.
First, it stinks. It literally stinks. To me it smells like sewage. Seriously. The aroma isn’t overpowering but it is definitely there and it is unpleasant. Once it has a finish on it it’s barely perceptible. MrsGF can’t smell it at all, thankfully. I’ve worked with three pieces of this stuff and all three smelled really bad. It is also oily. It left an oily, dark brown residue on my tools and lathe while I was working with it. Nothing serious, but I couldn’t just vacuum it up, I had to wipe everything down when I was done.
The real deal killer, though, is that all three of the pieces I made have developed what I call micro-cracks, very thin, hairline cracks that aren’t noticeable at first and may have developed days or even weeks after I’d finished the bowls. If you look closely at the bowl in the top photo you’ll see what look like scratches. They aren’t, they’re micro-cracks that developed after they’d been finished. The wood should have been stable, they were kiln dried and the moisture content was low, the bowls haven’t warped or distorted to indicate there is some issue with stress going on. But it’s obvious that something is going on with that wood.
So, to sum up rosewood: The wood may be absolutely beautiful. It may cut and finish nicely. But based on my experience with these three pieces I can’t recommend it. It’s expensive. Really expensive. Those three little blocks of wood I used were well over $50 each. I’m going to do some experimenting to see if I can make the cracks less visible, but I’m still disappointed. If I were doing this commercially I would consider all three of the rosewood projects to be unsellable because of the cracking.
There are a whole cluster of woods that can be classified as ‘maple’, ranging from very hard versions suitable for flooring, other types suitable for furniture, and even very soft types that aren’t useful for much of anything except maybe firewood. I’m going to stick with the one that most woodturners are probably interested in, so-called ambrosia maple. Ambrosia maple isn’t a separate type of maple, it’s standard maple that has been infected with a fungus carried by the ambrosia beetle. The beetles bore into the wood, carrying the fungus into the wood. The fungus causes spectacular staining and discoloration similar to spalted maple. The discoloration is generally centered around the path the beetle bores through the wood. You’ll almost always find holes in ambrosia maple that were made by the beetles.
(Spalted maple and other spalted woods also exhibit similar colorations which is also caused by a fungus, but in the case of spalted woods the fungus is part of the decaying process and you can also find parts of wood that are literally rotting away inside of a piece of spalted lumber.)
Ambrosia maple is generally very easy to work with. It is usually relatively soft, cuts easily, and the end result can be spectacular. Prices are a bit steep, about the same as padauk. If you shop around you can sometimes find some real deals on the stuff if you’re willing to deal with green wood. A single 6″ square by 3″ thick bowl blank will set you back about $20 – $25, green. Larger size blanks get expensive real fast. If you remember the cake platter I made for MrsGF that top piece which started out at about 13″ square and 2″ thick cost me about $75.
Potential problems? It’s generally soft and easy to damage. You can sometimes find “punky” (i.e. rotting) areas buried in pieces. And you have to remember that the discoloration is caused by a fungus, so chances are good there are fungal spores lurking in that wood. Now I’ve never heard of anyone getting actually ill or getting a fungal infection from working with this stuff, but I would always wear a respirator when cutting or sanding it, along with a dust extraction system and air filtration system.
Sapele – I’ve only worked with this stuff once and it was such a disaster that I gave up and chucked it into the burn pile.
Catches, gouges, tear outs, chipping, kick backs… It was horrible to work with. It didn’t matter what tools I used, what techniques I used, how sharp the tools were, whether I used carbide or steel – nothing worked right with this stuff. I don’t know what the heck was going on with that piece of wood but it became obvious real fast that it wasn’t just bad, it was downright dangerous. It is entirely possible that it was just some quirk with that piece of wood I had. Don’t care. My experience with it was so bad that I’m never going to work with it again. There are more than enough other species of wood that are actually pleasant to work with, so I’m not going to risk it again.
If you want to try it, fine. Maybe you’ll have better luck than I did. The stuff is going for about $15 for a kiln dried 6″ square, 2″ thick blank.
Cotton wood – I’ve only worked with this stuff once, and the piece I had was really large and very, very wet. I mean seriously wet. Since I didn’t want to wait for, oh, three or four years for it to dry out, I went ahead and roughed out a bowl shape and stuck it on the shelf for a few weeks to dry. Frankly I fully expected it to crack and warp horribly, but surprisingly it didn’t and the end result was pretty darn nice. Fairly nice grain and the color isn’t bad either.
But stink? Holy cow this thing smelled bad when I was working with it. It was worse than the rosewood. It had a sort of pungent vinegary, swampy, rotten kind of smell to it that even came through the respirator. Fortunately once it dried the smell went away but wow, it almost made my eyes water while I was working on it.
I rather liked working with it. Surprisingly it didn’t warp or crack while the roughed out bowl dried down, and when I finished it up after it had dried down to a reasonable point I ended up with a fairly nice bowl. It cut well, sanded well. I finished it off with a seal coat of shellac topped off with homemade “ob shine juice” and it turned out a pretty decent looking utility bowl.
Cotton wood is fairly cheap. I see Green Valley is selling it for under $10 for a 6″ square, 3″ thick bowl blank, green. It can often be found at reasonable prices for much larger pieces suitable for larger bowls like salad or fruit bowls. The drawback is that it is almost always sold green, so you’re going to have to deal with trying to dry it down yourself.
Pear – The only pear wood I’ve worked with comes from the wood I saved when we took down the pear tree here. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it for sale commercially. But if you know someone who is taking down a pear tree it’s worth looking into getting your hands on some of it.
It cuts well, sands well, and was very easy to work with all the way around. The little bud vase over there on the right was sanded up to about 320 grit, then sealed with shellac, buffed out with OOOO steel wool, then finished with carnauba wax.
Personally I think it’s a bit on the bland side and I’m not sure if I really like the color. MrsGF likes it a lot though. Anyway, if you can get your hands on some, give it a try. It’s worth looking at, especially if you can get it for free from a neighbor taking down a tree.
Cherry – You’ll find a lot of cherry bowl blanks for sale commercially. It seems popular with woodturners and I’m not sure why. I’ve worked with it and I don’t like it all that much. Oh, there’s nothing wrong with it. It is easy to work with. It cuts and sands well, easy to shape into just about anything you like, and it isn’t all that expensive, about the same as walnut.
So why don’t I like it? Dear lord, it’s boring! If I’m going to go to the trouble of making something on the lathe I want the end result to be eye catching. I want prominent grain patterns and interesting colors. And cherry is, well, it’s just dull to my eye. The color is blah, the grain is blah. Insipid, that’s the term I’m looking for. Perhaps it’s just the pieces I had. Every piece of wood is different, after all. Maybe I’ll try it again. I have a half dozen blanks sitting on the shelf still, but I’m going to have to be awfully bored before I resort to using it again.
Cost is about the same as walnut, around $10 – $13 for a standard 6″ square 2″ thick blank. It’s not a bad wood. It’s not real expensive. As I said it is very nice to work with. It’s just, well, dull.
Elm – I’m going to be completely honest and admit I have no idea what elm wood looks like so I can’t be sure if this is elm or not. It came with a shipment of “miscellaneous bowl blanks”, a sort of grab bag kind of deal. It was labeled elm so I’m going to go with that. Elm was almost completely wiped out in North America because of dutch elm disease, but there are still some out there and occasionally it shows up.
I worked this blank while it was wet, which is normally something I don’t do, and there was some issues while drying the bowl down but nothing too serious. It was easy to work with. It seemed a bit on the abrasive side and I had to sharpen my gouge more often than normal, but nothing serious. It has a very striking grain, with dark brown and black streaks running along with the normal grain making me think this tree had some kind of fungal infection. Personally I don’t like how it looks, but MrsGF likes it. As for cost, I don’t really know. It was in a grab bag deal with a bunch of other chunks of wood.
Holy cow, this got long, so let’s wrap up this part up. There are more types of wood I could have looked at but I wanted to stick with the types that are generally available commercially.
Eventually I’m going to get around to talking about the difference between kiln dried, air dried and wet/green wood, and how to deal with it, why some woodturners really like wet wood (I suspect they’ve been inhaling lacquer fumes), how to dry wood, including the “great microwave experiment”. Well, if I don’t start something on fire or blow something up. I’m stocking up on fire extinguishers for that one. Also how one man’s defect is another man’s “decorative feature”, working with epoxy as a decorative element, playing with india ink and whatever else I can come up with.
… wait a minute, how did a blog about gardening, farming, photographing flowers, travel and ham radio turn into a tutorial on wood turning?
On the pandemic front, MrsGF got her first vaccination last week and I’m getting my first one this week! Wow, maybe we’ll actually be able to hug our kids by summer?
I forgot one item when I looked at the tools I’d picked up during 2020, and that’s the Oneida “Dust Deputy” in the photo over there on the left. It helps to deal with an ever present problem for anyone who works with wood, the dust and debris generated by woodworking.
In an ideal world we’d all have professional quality dust collection systems. But those things are big, expensive, etc. Not all of us have the space or the money to set one of these up, so a lot of us end up using a good old fashioned shop vac as our primary dust/debris collection system. Modern, good quality shop vacs can be almost as efficient at removing dust and debris as a traditional dust collection system, although they don’t have the capacity to keep up with some tools like planers and jointers. It all depends on the power of the motor, the CFM (cubic feet per minute air movement) and the filtration system the vac uses. The biggest drawbacks are that the vacs are (usually) very loud, have to be moved around the shop to be hooked up to individual pieces of equipment, and have to be emptied very frequently. Lugging my big 16 gallon sized shop vac up and down a flight of stairs to get it in and out of the house in order to empty it is not fun.
This Dirt Deputy gadget and similar devices have been around for a long time, but I’ve never been that interested in them before because A) I wasn’t making that much dust and debris before now, and B) I figured that like a lot of things that sounded too good to be true, it was, well, too good to be true. But wood turning generates massive amounts of dust and wood shavings, far more than making furniture did. So not only was I lugging that big vac up and down the stairs all the time, I was going through filters like crazy. No matter how good of a job you may do blowing out or cleaning that filter, you can’t get it completely clean and eventually it will get plugged up to the point it won’t pass enough air to permit the vac to work. So I decided to try this thing.
The basic idea behind these things has been around for a long time. You hook the shop vac up to the outlet on top, hook your hose to the lower outlet, slap it on top of a standard 5 gallon bucket, and that’s it. As the air (and dirt) whirls around inside of the funnel shaped thing, the dust and shavings and other debris end up falling down into the bucket instead of getting sucked into your vac.
As I said I was skeptical of this thing, but the darned thing actually works, and works pretty well. Even fine dust seems to settle into the bucket instead of ending up in the vacuum. Instead of having to lug the whole vac up the stairs and out to the garage I can just carry the bucket. But the biggest hope I had was that this would save me money. Those big cartridge filters on my shop vac are expensive. About three of those filters would pay for this whole Dust Deputy thing, so it could potentially save me a lot of $$. And it does. This thing has already paid for itself in the two months or so I’ve had it. I’m really quite pleased with it.
Are there drawbacks to it? Sure. There always are with things like this. The biggest drawback in this case is a reduction in suction power, which makes sense. You’re adding several feet of air hose, the Deputy itself, possible air leaks, etc, into the system. So that all restricts air flow and reduces the amount of vacuum power. In my case, my big vac, which could keep up with my thickness planer without the Deputy installed, can no longer handle my DeWalt planer with the Deputy. That’s not a big deal, though. I don’t use the planer all that often these days and when I do need it I simply hook the vac up to it direct and bypass the Deputy.
So, what’s this thing cost? Oneida will gleefully sell you a whole “kit” for about $100+ which includes the Deputy wind tunnel swirly thingie, the bucket lid it attaches to, a short hose to hook to your vac, some hose clamps, a 2nd bucket that the first bucket nests into, and little wheels to bolt to the outer bucket to make it easier to lug around and the instructions tell you to drill holes through the side of your vacuum and bolt the 2nd bucket to your vac for some reason and, well, don’t. You don’t need the 2nd bucket, you don’t need the wheels, you don’t need the hose clamps (if your existing hoses don’t fit perfectly, you can always resort to duct tape, that’s what I did), you don’t need any of that stuff. Basically they’re charging you $50 for a couple of buckets you can probably get free and $10 of hardware. If you want to try one of these, get the “basic” kit.
The basic kit goes for about $50 without the wheels, the buckets and all the other guff, and that’s all you need. It comes with the cyclone thing, some bolts and a gasket. That’s it. You get your own 5 gallon bucket with a lid (probably free). Cut a hole in the lid, screw the cyclone thing to it, and use your own hoses and clamps. If you need more hose or clamps you can get everything you need at the local home improvement store.
The way things look right now, this thing is going to save me easily going to save me money on filters.
I found a vendor on Amazon that was selling large blocks of Indian rosewood. It was actually not all that expensive and I’d never worked with it before so i got a couple of blocks just to see what it was like. I picked up two pieces, about 6 inches square and 3 inches thick. I think I paid about $30 each for the two pieces. That may seem like a lot but that’s actually pretty reasonable for this stuff on the commercial market. If you want good quality imported woods, you’re going to pay for it. Rosewood is really popular with the pen turning people. I see a lot of places selling rosewood blanks sized for pen makers, but almost never see large pieces big enough to make bowls.
As you can (hopefully) see in that photo over there the wood is absolutely beautiful once it’s sanded and finished. And it just feels nice to the touch. Whenever I walk past that bowl I find myself running my fingers over it. I can see why pen turners like this stuff. It is a bit messy, though. I don’t know if it was just the pieces I got or if it is normal, but the stuff seemed really oily, with the dust clinging to my tools (and me). It machined beautifully, though. No problems with catches or snags or weird tear outs or anything like that, and it even sanded down beautifully. And it polishes up to a beautiful luster.
But the smell… Now I’m one of those weird people who are classified as a “super smeller”. I have a ridiculously sensitive sense of smell (and taste, for that matter). To me this stuff has a very distinctive aroma that vaguely resembles, well, poo, to be blunt. MrsGF can’t smell it at all. After putting a finish on the bowl the smell diminished greatly, but I can still smell it when I get within a couple of feet of it. I wondered if maybe it was just that one block of wood, but the second one smelled just like the first.
I like this rosewood stuff, but… There are problems. I’m seeing what I suppose you could call micro-cracks in the wood, very fine, almost invisible cracks that I can’t see unless I get within a foot or two of the bowls. I’m rather concerned about that because I have no idea why they are there. I need to take a closer look at this and figure out what happened. Wood is, well, wood. It moves, absorbs and gives off moisture, swells, contracts. It’s all part of the challenges of working with the stuff. I generally know what happened when a piece of wood cracks or warps, but I’m not sure what’s going on here. MrsGF is encouraging me to start trying to sell some of this stuff, but I don’t want to end up with people complaining about something like this so I want to figure out what went wrong before I turn out more stuff in rosewood.
Let’s see, what else…
Oh, the pear tree – I saved a lot of the wood from the pear tree when we took it down last year after it collapsed with the intention of possibly using it for various projects. I got curious about how it would look and work so I grabbed a bit that seemed reasonably dry and ended up with this small vase.
The stuff machines nicely, sands well and looks fairly good once it’s finished. It seems to be prone to cracking. You can’t see it in this photo but on the backside of that thing there is a vertical crack running almost the entire length of the vase that’s sealed up with epoxy. Still the results are encouraging and I’m going to keep fiddling with this stuff as I get time.
As I said, MrsGF and a few other people are telling me I need to try selling some of the stuff I’ve been cranking out so they’re pushing me to set up a shop on Etsy. Sigh… I don’t really want to get involved in all of that guff, but I do see their point. If I keep this up much longer I’ll have to rent a storage unit somewhere just to store the projects I’ve been cranking out.
A long time ago I said I was going to continue the tool series by talking about thickness planers and jointers. Of course I forgot all about that until just now. But I did remember. Eventually. So here goes.
Both of these tools can be really useful for anyone who fiddles around with wood, but both of these tools are expensive. A decent thickness planer is going to run you about $400 – $700, depending on the brand, features, etc. A decent jointer is going to be even more pricey. Prices on decent jointers (not the bench top models, I wouldn’t recommend those to most woodworkers) are a lot more than that. Jointers with the same features and capacity as mine look like they’re going for well over $1,000. The cheapest Jet brand (which is what I own) with the same features as mine is going for around $1,400.
That’s a heck of a lot of money, so the first question you have to ask is do you really need either of these tools to begin with? There’s no hard answer, really. It’s going to depend on your needs, of course. I know a lot of people who dabble in woodworking who get along quite well with buying the wood they need pre-cut and surfaced off the shelf at the local home improvement store. But if you’re building fine furniture, gluing up boards to make panels or table tops, doing renovations to old houses or need lumber that isn’t standard dimensions, you generally are going to need these tools.
Let’s take a look at the tools themselves.
A jointer and a thickness planer look very different, but when you look at them closely they seem to do pretty much the same kind of thing. They both have wide, rotating cutter heads that are designed to shave very thin amounts of wood off the entire width of a board. But the two machines actually perform different jobs.
The planer is used for two things. First it’s used to put a nice, smooth surface on rough surfaced, unfinished lumber you might buy direct from a sawmill. The second use is to mill lumber down to a specific thickness you need. You may, for example, only have 1/2″ thick boards laying around, but you need a board that is 3/8″ thick for a specific project. They come in really handy if you’re renovating an old house where the existing lumber used in the house doesn’t match current standards.
A jointer also does two jobs. First it’s used to prepare boards to be edge glued together to make panels by putting a smooth, perfectly square surface on the edges of a board. That’s where the name comes from, the fine art of joinery where pieces of wood are prepared to be joined together.
Second it is intended to take a board and make its surface perfectly flat by removing warps, twists and cupping. (I will warn you that I have issues with some of the things people claim about jointers. But I’ll come to that later.)
You can do all of these tasks by hand using hand planes, and for centuries that is exactly what woodworkers did. And it is a royal pain in the neck. I’ve used hand planes and sanders to smooth and flatten large hardwood table tops and panels and I can tell you from personal experience that is it is very tedious, time consuming, annoying, tiring, and requires a considerable amount of practice and skill to do it right.
But let’s get on with this and look at thickness planers first.
As was the case with table saws, I’m not going to cover the big, floor mounted machines that are more suited to a professional manufacturing facility and stick with the smaller ones intended for use by the hobbyist or small furniture maker. These planers usually can handle boards up to 12 – 13 inches wide. How thick of a board they can handle varies widely. Generally you want a planer that can handle at least 4″ thick stock. You may think you’ll never need to run 4 or 5 inch thick slabs of wood through a planer, but you’d be surprised. When building furniture I’ve had to run things like table legs up to almost 4 inches thick through mine.
Planers all work pretty much the same way. Here’s a really bad drawing of the ‘guts’ of a typical planer.
There is an enclosure in which is mounted a set of feed rollers to push/pull the board through the machine. The cutter head itself is a long roller which rotates at high speed in which there are mounted two or three razor sharp steel knives that run the length of the cutter head. As the cutter head rotates, the feed rollers push the board into the machine, and the cutter head spins along at thousands of RPM, slicing off a very thin amount of wood along the entire length of the board. There is some kind of mechanism which allows the height of the cutter and rollers to be raised or lowered as needed.
Sidenote: Helical cutters. For some years now helical cutter heads like the one over there on the right have been all the rage. Instead of straight knives running the width of the cutting head, you have the setup seen in the photo over there, rows of small, individual square carbide knives set into a helical pattern around the cutter head itself. The claim is that they do a better job than traditional straight knives, are quieter, take less power, and when they get dull, you just loosen the screw holding it down and rotate it 90 degrees to get a new edge. If you get one chipped, just rotate it or replace only that one cutter. In theory they look interesting. But my personal experience is that they don’t come anywhere close to living up to the hype. I’ll talk about these later. If I remember. I probably won’t.
When you’re looking at a thickness planer there are a few things you should be looking at.
First, how robust is the mechanism which raises and lowers the cutter the rollers that feed the wood through the machine? A considerable amount of force is needed to hold that wood down, push it through the planer, hold the cutter head absolutely straight and parallel, etc. How good is the drive system that actually moves all of that stuff up and down? On the cheaper planers what holds that cutter in place and moves it up and down are nothing more than a couple of cheap, threaded steel rods driven by plastic gears, with a lot of play in the threads, and rods that flex as soon as you start pushing wood into them.
How sturdy and well built is it in general? Thickness planers have to endure a lot of stress and need to be made well enough to deal with that. They also are subjected to significant pressures and forces that can cause it to flex and bend as wood is fed through it. It has to be sturdy enough so that the cutting head is maintained absolutely parallel to the bed of the planer when a board is being pushed through.
Next thing is those knives. Those knives in there take a real pounding. They’re spinning at thousands of RPM and are being hammered down into wood that can be extremely hard and even abrasive. They get a lot of abuse. Thanks to modern metallurgy most blades are able to handle it, but eventually they’re going to get dull or even chipped. That means they’re going to need to be removed and resharpened or replaced. So take into consideration how hard it is to get at those knives, remove them, get them sharpened (if necessary) and then reinstall them properly into that planer.
The first planer I had was a major pain in the neck. It was the cheapest one I could find at the time. And it was awful in just about every way you can imagine. Just getting at the blades was a horrible job that required dismantling half the machine. And then trying to get them reinstalled after I’d had them sharpened was a nightmare. It was a hair pullingly frustrating and fiddly job to get them aligned that required the use of a couple of special jigs and considerable foul language. And even then I didn’t get them exactly right. Same with my 2nd planer. My third, well, I’d learned my lesson and got one that required no adjustments or alignments.
With mine there are no adjustments. When the blades are put into place and screwed down, they are aligned. The blades are easy to get at, too. Remove 4 screws to take off the top cover of the machine, 3 screws with “T” handles on them to get off the dust shroud, and there they are. 8 screws hold down each blade. There’s even a tool stored in the planer itself that fits all of the bolts I need to remove, and has magnets built in to handle the blades so I don’t have to risk slicing a finger off on the razor sharp blades. (You do not want to handle those blades with your bare hands. Seriously. There are still blood spots inside of my planer because I got a bit careless the last time I replaced the blades.)
There are other brands that have similar systems to make blade changing as easy as possible. I’d highly recommend a planer that has some kind of system to make getting those blades aligned as easy as possible because eventually they are going to need to be replaced or sharpened.
Sidenote: Replacing the blades is more expensive than just getting them resharpened of course, but it isn’t all that much more expensive. A set of 3 for my machine costs about $80, which sounds a bit steep but those are double sided. So you’re essentially getting two sets for that price. And to give you an idea of how long they last, I bought 3 sets of blades for mine in 2012 and I still have one set unused. A set of single sided off-brand blades is going for under $30.
The next thing you need to consider is how you are going to deal with mountains of chips, shavings and dust these things put out. Thickness planers put out huge amounts of the stuff. If you live in a climate that allows you to work outside and just sweep everything up and toss it into the compost pile later, good for you. But I live in Wisconsin and it gets bloody cold up here, and trying to surface a dozen or so boards out in the driveway when it’s -30 and snowing is no fun. So you need to be able to deal with waste material before it gets all over your house and into your HVAC system.
The better ones will have all of the guts of the planer enclosed in shrouds with a blower that will blow everything out of a port that you can connect to a dust collection system. Most of the better ones will have some kind of provision for hooking it up to a dust collector of some sort. But a lot, especially the cheap ones, are completely open and will be spitting shavings and dust everywhere. A real dust collection system is ideal, but you can make due with a high capacity shop vac. But be prepared to empty that thing a lot.
Capacity: Most of the planers in this class claim they can handle boards up to 12 – 13 inches wide, but I’ll let you in on a little secret, a lot of them, especially the cheaper ones, can’t. You try to chuck a 12″ wide white oak board through the average $350 thickness planer, the motor is going to bog down almost immediately and possibly even stall out completely. Or blow a circuit breaker. Or overheat the motor and burn it out if you do it too often. Oh, they’ll work fine for an 8 inch wide piece of spruce or softwood. They might be able to handle a 4 – 6 inch wide hardwood board, but that’s going to be about it.
Which one should you buy? How much will it cost? It’s hard for me to make a specific recommendation because a lot is going to depend on what your budget is and what you’re going to be using it for. If you’re just going to be surfacing a few 6 inch wide boards a few times a week one of the cheaper planers will do a decent job for you. Just be aware that it is going to have “issues”, as they say. It might be difficult to get adjusted properly. For example, one side of the board might be 1/32 or more thinner than the other side. You might see a sort of washboard looking effect like in that photo up there. As long as you are aware that the planer isn’t going to be perfect and is going to have some problems that you will have to deal with, you might be able to get away with one of the ‘bargain’ machines.
But if you’re buying wood straight from a lumberyard like I do and everything going through the shop needs to be surfaced and milled to the right thickness, which is the case here, then you need to be looking at the more powerful and capable planers, not the inexpensive hobbyist models.
If you’re a pro or semi-pro woodworker, as I recommended with table saws avoid the ones with prices that seem too good to be true. I did some research before I wrote this and it seems that the “sweet spot” is in the $450 – $650 price range for thickness planers. Planers less expensive than that all seem to have various issues. The really cheap ones aren’t much good at all.
But at the other end of the spectrum I really don’t see any advantage to spending $700+ on a planer when a $600 or even $500 one will do just as good a job.
As I said, research, research, research before you pull out the credit card and buy one of these.
My personal recommendation? That DeWalt 735 up there is mine, and if mine ever blew up, I’d buy another one immediately. It’s selling for around $575 or so. I’ve had it for years, it’s handled white oak and ash boards up to 13 inches wide and everything else I’ve thrown at it. It produces a nice surface, especially at the slower feed rate, the blades are easy to change and it has a decent dust collection system.
Does the DeWalt have drawbacks? You bet. It’s loud for one thing. You’re probably going to want to wear hearing protection when you run it just to be on the safe side. Infeed and outfeed tables are an extra cost option. I don’t have them on mine, and they claim you don’t really need them, but I wish I did and keep telling myself I should get them. They’d come in handy when feeding long boards through it. It will occasionally spit wood chips back into the machine onto the table, and if I don’t clear it out before feeding another board through it can embed the chips into the underside of the board or scratch it. And the dust collection system built into it blows out so much air that it can overwhelm a wimpy, inefficient dust collection system.
Now let’s move on to jointers. A lot of experts will tell you that a jointer is an absolutely essential tool for any wood shop. I don’t agree. I think the average hobbyist woodworker can get along without a jointer just fine. Can they be useful? Yes. But I think their usefulness is overrated. The only thing I use mine for is edging boards before I glue them up into panels. But let’s look at what one of these things actually does.
At first glance a jointer looks like it works like a thickness planer. There is a rotating cutter head on which there are mounted two or more very sharp blades which slice off thin amounts of wood as a board is pushed through it. But that’s where the resemblance ends. A jointer is open topped and has no feed rollers. You push the wood through it yourself. It has separate infeed and outfeed tables made of heavy cast iron, each of which can be adjusted independently. And it has a very beefy fence hopefully made of solid cast iron which has a rather elaborate adjustment system which lets you not only adjust the width of the cut, but also the angle of the fence.
I’m not going to waste your time and mine describing how a jointer works. A lot of people who are far better at this than I am have dealt with this. Here’s a link to an article at woodcraft.com that will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about jointers. So scoot on over there and read that, then come back. I’ll wait…
Ah, back already? So, now you know everything about jointers. Excellent. And now you probably want one. You might even actually need one. Maybe. But before you max out your credit card on one of these, read on.
They are big, heavy and expensive. Good ones are going to have infeed and outfeed tables made of heavy cast iron that is machined to extremely close tolerances, mounted on more carefully machined cast iron that has been milled into very accurate sliding dovetail mounting systems. All that carefully machined cast iron is necessary because those tables and their mounting hardware have to be absolutely accurate, absolutely flat, and cannot flex or bend. Cast iron isn’t that expensive. What you’re paying for is the machining of those parts. That’s where the costs begin to mount.
Jointers are classified according to the maximum width of the board they can accommodate. A 6 inch jointer like mine can handle boards up to 6 inches wide. An 8 inch can handle 8 inch wide boards, and so on. And as the capacity goes up, so does the size and weight of the jointer, and the price. Even a 6 inch jointer is going to be at least 4 feet long and weigh over 200 lbs or more. Mine weighs in at around 250 lbs.
There is a classification of jointers that are much smaller and cheaper, the benchtop jointer. But there are problems with these. Yes, they can handle boards up to 6 or more inches wide, but what about length? How long a board you can shove through one of these is dependant on the length of the infeed and outfeed tables. You aren’t going to push a 6 foot board through a benchtop jointer. Or a 4 foot board. Or even a 3 foot board probably. Unless you’re only going to ever work with lumber that isn’t much more than two feet long, a benchtop jointer just isn’t going to work.
As is generally the case with most of this stuff, all of the name brand models are pretty much equivalent to one another and are generally of good quality and will do a good job for you. They get expensive pretty fast. I did a quick look around and the cheapest 6 inch jointer I saw that had decent reviews and good specifications was around $800, with prices going up from there. Jet doesn’t seem to make an open base model like mine any more, but it does have one that seems to be pretty much a clone of mine but with an enclosed base going for a whopping $1,500.
So the good ones are big and very heavy. That’s something you need to keep in mind if you buy one. How are you going to get it into your shop? Will it even fit into your shop? Do you have someone who can help you put it together? You aren’t going to be able to do it yourself.
Like I said at the start of this, I have some ‘issues’ with some of the things the experts claim about jointers. Oh, they work just fine and dandy and will do the things the experts claim. Sort of. But here is my primary problem with them. Yes they will ‘fix’ problems like cupped boards, but Wood moves. It is made up of fibers that swell, shrink, lengthen, shorten, all depending on ambient temperature, moisture content and other factors. Wood is always under internal stresses and tensions. Always. When those forces are not balanced, wood warps, cups, twists and bends. And that is what a jointer is supposed to cure. But does it really? In my experience what a jointer often does is similar to someone with the flu taking NyQuil. It makes you feel better by alleviating some of the symptoms, but you still have the flu. It doesn’t cure anything.
You can run a cupped board like the one in that drawing over there through a jointer and you’ll end up with a nice, flat surface. But did it actually fix the problem, which was an imbalance of the stresses and other forces in the wood that made it bend like that in the first place? My personal experiences tell me that sometimes it will, but often it doesn’t, and after I’ve flattened that board out and put it on the shelf, I’ll come back a couple of weeks later and find that it will once again be warped, sometimes even worse than it had been before. Not all the time, not even half the time. But often enough that I am not going to risk using a board like that one in that drawing in a piece of furniture. So keep that in mind.
Let’s see, I was going to rant about something else, wasn’t I? Ah, I remember. Helical cutters.
These things are something of a fad in woodworking, and have been for some years now. All kinds of miraculous claims are made for these things. I almost bought into the hype and seriously considered retrofitting both my jointer and planer with these things. I’ve had some experience with equipment equipped with these things since then and I’m glad I didn’t give in to that temptation.
First of all, holy cow are these things expensive! If you opt for a helical cutter in a planer or jointer, expect it to add $250 – $400 or even more to the cost of the machine. There are kits available that will retrofit one of these into the more popular planers and jointers, and even those are enough to make your credit card weep. There are kits to retrofit my DeWalt 735, but I could literally buy a brand new 735 for the cost of a helical cutter head replacement. $500 to replace the cutter head on a planer that sells for $575? Seriously? When the stock cutter head system works just fine and dandy to begin with? No thanks.
I’ve worked with a few planers equipped with these things and they just didn’t live up to the hype. It’s entirely possible that the ones I worked with weren’t set up properly or something, but none of them produced a surface on the wood that was as good as what comes off my stock 735. I tried out a 735 that was equipped with a helical cutter head retrofit kit and the surface of the wood wasn’t any better than that coming out of my stock planer. And it seemed noiser and started bogging down on wide boards. I just don’t think they’re worth the money for the average hobbyist.
So to sum up:
Thickness planers – they’re nice to have, you probably need one, and unless you’re running large amounts of hardwood through it you can probably get along with one of the under $400 models if you can deal with the potential drawbacks. If you need a really good one with better capacity and need to use it a lot, look at the DeWalt 735.
Jointers – I still don’t think the average woodworker needs one. Certainly it isn’t an “absolute must have” as the experts claim it is. The cheap (sometimes not cheap because I’ve seen some of these things going for well over $600) benchtop sized ones are just about worthless if you’re working with lumber more than three feet long. The full sized ones are heavy, large, and massively expensive. They are a ‘must have’ if you are doing a lot of edge gluing to make panels. As for surfacing a warped or cupped board, yes, they will do that but I noted my issues with that earlier.
Well, okay, not according to the calendar. But as far as I’m concerned the seasons change not by the actual date but according to the weather conditions. We got hit with a hard frost the other day and that pretty much brings the growing season to an end for a lot of our plants. So that means it’s autumn no matter what the calendar may say.
And while it may be chilly outside, we’re still getting a new central air system put in tomorrow morning. Our old air conditioning system is probably pushing 25+ years, if not a bit more than that. It’s actually a bit amazing that it lasted this long. But it has a freon leak now, and while they could probably repair it, we’d still have a 25 year old AC system that could fail at any time just when we need it most. This is as good a time as any to get it done. Probably the ideal time, really. The air conditioning season is over, the heating season hasn’t started yet, so the company has the time to do it. So we might as well get it over with now so we’re ready when the heat comes next summer.
Gads, it’s going to be an expensive fall, though. The AC is going to run us $3,200 (this is a big house). The contractor just called and said our new windows and doors are now ordered so he’s going to be rolling in sometime in a couple of weeks to do that, that’s going to be over $7,000. Ouch. Still, it all needs to get done. Especially the windows. One window on the north side of the house is literally rotting away and won’t survive a winter and the exterior door is nearly as bad. So once that’s done we’ll be ready for cold weather. And we got a taste of that already as you can see from the frost covered grass below.
It got cold. The remote sensor for the thermometer is out on the front porch which is pretty sheltered, and that said it got down to 32 F so that means out in the yard and gardens it got well below 30. The grass out in the yard was white with frost before the sun came up and the roof was covered with frost, so it was pretty cold out there for a fairly extended period of time overnight.
This is the time of year when we’d normally have so many pears we didn’t know what to do with them, so it seems odd not having the tree any more. While I do miss having fresh pears, I don’t miss having the tree, to be honest. It collapsing and having to be removed wasn’t really a bad thing. If it were still there the whole area would be covered with a thick carpet of fallen pears, and those would be covered with bees, wasps and, well, it could get nasty out there. MrsGF and I would no sooner pick up 5 gallon buckets full of the things, and the tree would drop a few hundred more.
We’re already talking about what we’re going to do with that area. Now that it isn’t shaded out by the tree we can grow just about anything out there and we don’t have to worry about finding plants that can handle shade. We’re thinking about putting a raised bed out there or expanding the existing garden that was being shaded out by the tree that we had in flowers.
The frost brought an end to the tomatoes, of course. But that’s not a big loss because they were already well on the way to winding up anyway. The peppers are still doing fine, though. They aren’t as fragile as tomatoes are and are in a sheltered area that didn’t get hit with the frost.
The raised beds did very, very well again this year. Building those was the best thing we’ve done in the garden over the years. We cut back on the number of tomato plants drastically this year and still had more than we really needed. We planted onions around the outside edges of the raised bed and that worked out beautifully as well. The onions did really well. We didn’t have to buy a single onion all season. Just walk out to the garden and grab one. I am really going to miss that. I’m going to miss the flavor even more. Like just about everything else we grow the flavors are much more intense than the produce we get from the store.
We took a break and drove all the way to the lakeshore between Manitowoc and Two Rivers to have a picnic. Cold down there along the lakeshore, but wow, it was a beautiful day. Had a very pleasant afternoon down there. With Wisconsin’s infection rate now totally out of control and the county we live in having one of the highest infection rates in the state, opportunities to do anything are a bit restricted so just getting out and about was nice.
I haven’t talked about the virus and how it is effecting our lives because, well, you get enough of that everywhere else, don’t you? Still it’s very frustrating. This was supposed to be more or less under control by this time. Instead the number of new infections is hitting new records almost every day here in the state. It’s completely out of control here. ICUs around here are at full capacity and they’re trying to find beds in other hospitals in the state and, well, it’s scary. MrsGF and I are both in one or more high risk groups so… Well, you know. To top it off I pretty much have virus like symptoms all the time. I have upper respiratory allergies so I always have congestion, watery eyes, stuffed up sinuses, a slight cough, etc. Basically I have almost all of the early symptoms of the virus all the time except the fever. Sigh…
But enough of that. How about a rose instead?
Yes, we still have flowers despite the frost. Some of the flowers are pretty resistant to cold weather and are still doing fine, and we have a potted rose up on the front deck that’s still in full flower.
Let’s see, what else…
I’m going to take a stab at resin casting, which ought to be interesting. I’ve gotten reasonably good at wood turning and am now looking for a way to expand on that a bit by doing stuff like, well, this-
I doubt I’ll ever get as good as this guy, but what the heck, why not give it a try and see what happens? I’m rather impatient to give this a try. I have just about everything I need except for the resin and that should be here this week. I hope. More about that when it actually happens. A lot of the videos you see make it resin casting look easy. It isn’t. I expect my share of utter disasters as I get started with this.
And once again the importance of proper safety gear was proven to me rather dramatically when this happened:
Ouch, that could have been nasty. I was turning a bit of white oak when the tool got caught, hard, on an imperfection in the wood. Not only did the force snap the tool in half, it hit so hard it actually bent the tool rest on the lathe and I have to get a new tool rest. The metal part of the tool snapped clean out of the handle, splitting the handle in half, and flew up and hit me square in the face. If I hadn’t had the face shield on, well, it would have been nasty as I said.
MrsGF and some family members have once again been suggesting I try selling some of the stuff I’ve been cranking out. And I suppose that some of it is good enough that it might be marketable. But there are so many issues with trying to sell stuff and, well, is it worth the effort? I used to run my own business so I know a bit about all of the permits, red tape and tax issues that go along with operating a business legally. Emphasis on that word, legally. A lot of people try to slip under the radar, thinking that they’re too small and insignificant for the government to bother going after them if they try to ignore all of that. But do you really want to take that risk? Heck, even zoning can be a problem. You may be turning out some really neat stuff down there in your work room in the basement or that spare bedroom, and no one is going to bother you because it’s a hobby. But if you start selling it, well, now you are a business, a manufacturer, and a lot of communities have very strict zoning ordinances concerning manufacturing. Zoning boards are often very unforgiving. They don’t give a fig if all you’re making a few pens and selling ’em on Etsy. You’re making and selling stuff commercially so you are a manufacturer. Period. Things can be even more strict if you’re in a home owners association.
And then there’s pricing your stuff. I did a scrounge around Etsy the other day looking at the various vendors selling bowls and, well, either they’re losing their shirts on every sale or something funny is going on. I found one person selling 6 inch wide, two inch deep “hand crafted solid black walnut” bowls for $20. Seriously? You add up the cost of the wood, sand paper, the finishing materials, add in a bit to cover the cost of the tools, the lathe, etc., and you’re already losing money at that price. And that isn’t even beginning to add in the cost of Etsy’s fees, bookkeeping, filing taxes, or the maker’s time to produce the bowl. So yeah, either the maker is losing his shirt on every sale, or there’s something unethical going on. I did some quick estimates and I’d figure that just to break even I’d have to sell a bowl like that for about $35, and that would be essentially doing all the labor for free. And he’s running them out for $20?
So the thing is, even if I’m only turning out a bowl a week or so, it’s just not worth the hassle to try to go commercial and sell this stuff.
That’s all for now. I’m working on the next part in the tool series. That’s going to be covering the big stuff like table saws, jointers, planers and other big ticket items. I’m having to do some serious research because I’m not really up on what’s going on in the market right now. I’ve owned all of my big power tools for at least 10 – 15 years. One of the good things about big ticket items like this is that while they’re expensive, generally speaking they’ll last you a lifetime, so you only need to buy them once. Hopefully.
Sidenote: I rarely look at the viewer statistics but I did notice an interesting thing the other day. It seems a lot of my readers are from India. On a lot of days the number of visitors from India outnumber even those from the US. India is one of the most amazing places on the planet, so I’m delighted by that. I don’t understand how they found this goofy blog, but I’m thrilled they come and read this.