I’m making progress on the Rodback chair.

The turnings other than the stretchers are done. This maple is wonderful to turn, and it seems very stable when it’s drying. Now that I have the legs tapered, I can measure the stretcher lengths and turn them as well.

The spindles and rod are roughed out, but they’re still oversize. The drying rack worked very well, after I put a rack on it to keep the pieces from falling down whenever I bumped it.

I’ve also drilled and cut the seat. After tapering the leg and post holes, I set this picture up so I could see what the chair will look like when it’s done. I think the shape of the post turnings will be fine.

I’ve started carving the seat, but I need to sharpen one of my spokeshaves and it’s giving me trouble. Once that’s taken care of, I’ll finish the seat and “leg up:” finish the stool half of the chair.

After that, I’ll finish the rod and assemble the two posts and the rod to each other. Then I’ll finish the spindles, drill the rod, and put the rest of the back together.

Dress for Cycling: the 40’s

If you’re male and you wear clothes designed for bicycling, you’re pretty much going to look like a freak to the non-cyclist population. Exactly what kind of freak is up to you.

Here’s an example of how I might dress for a ride to work when it’s in the 40’s. That’s degrees farenheit, not the decade.

It was about 48-50F in the morning when I left dressed as you see here. On bottom, I have wool knickers and long socks that cover my knees. I wear the knickers all summer, but generally not when it’s below the 40F. On top, I wear a cotton T-shirt and wool jersey. I use a helmet with a visor, long fingered gloves, and goggles to keep the wind off my eyes in cold weather.

Women have it easy: capri pants, leggings, and tight fitting shirts are all well within the range of accepted “normal” clothing. Not so much, for boys.

As is usual, layering is the order of the day. The temperature dropped down to around 39F by the time I left work, and I was prepared with an ear warmer head band thing, and a wind proof shell for my top. Everything else was the same. I wear the same windproof shell and wool jersey down to about 20F without problems, but I need more extensive head covering at lower temperatures.

Wool is an excellent fabric for use when bicycling, anywhere from cool and dry weather, to light drizzly rain. It’s warm even when wet, it breathes well, and there’s almost nothing you can do which will make it stop smelling like a sheep. Although all my wool clothes claim they require dry cleaning, we just wash them in the normal washer using Kookaburra Wool Wash, and let them dry in the air instead of the drier. They require washing only very infrequently, even with constant use in sweaty conditions.

It’s best for everyone to discover for themselves what they need to wear at various temperatures on the routes they usually take. Factors such as how windy it is, and how much effort you make when cycling also make a big difference. For example, when it’s colder out than I expect on my way home from work, I’ll often take the “mostly uphill” route home, where I require more effort (and heat myself up more) to go more slowly (with less wind to cool me off).

Hop, hop, hop…

…hop, hop, hop, etc.

My hops bines sprouted. The first signs of hops this year came before I even planted the rhizome last year. At last count, 11 buds had sprouted, compared with a total of 2 for all of last year.

Luckily hops are resistant to frost. April Showers aren’t supposed to be frozen!

Commuting by Bicycle

A play in 3 acts

A year or so ago, Kent Petersen asked a question on his blog: Why do you commute by bike? I thought about this, but realized that it wasn’t that simple. Why I commute now is not the same as how I started commuting, or why I didn’t stop.

It’s getting to be bike commuting season for non-crazy cyclists. Maybe this will be inspiring to someone?

Act One: The Beginning

I think it was in the summer of 2005, when I decided I’d take Martine out for a bike ride in her trailer. I wasn’t cycling very much then, but I felt like I should get in better shape so I could be more active with Martine.

In those days we still had a garage. I opened the door, but my bike was gone: it was stolen. Bummer! We had another bike, but the only trailer attachment I had was on the stolen bike. That ruined the afternoon’s plans, and I had to file an insurance claim. (For future reference: before you file an insurance claim, find out what your deductable is, or you may do a lot of work for nothing.)

I really didn’t like the other bike I had. I wanted a new one. But I didn’t ride enough to justify buying a new one. So I decided that to prove I would use a bike enough to make it worth buying one, I’d start riding my bike to work.

So, one weekend shortly after that I rode a test route to work and back. It was horrible in almost every way possible. I rode both ways at once without a break; it was about 14 hilly miles. I chose a bad route, basically the opposite direction from how I go now. Riding across the Swinburne bridge and up the hill, I ended up dry heaving in the Sestili Nursery parking lot from too much effort. I then went onto Boulevard of the Allies, and rode up the hill where the cars speed by very quickly, in 2 lanes with no shoulders.

But, I did it. I learned that I needed to choose a better route, but more importantly, I learned that I could do it.

Riding to and from work was a easier than riding both ways at once, especially when I found better routes, but it was still very challenging. It seemed like every time I rode, it was easier than the last time. This part of the practice/performance curve is the perfect environment for a Jack of All Trades: small investments in time reap large improvements in performance. It’s really fun to get better quickly, but you eventually hit a ceiling, where improvement becomes increasingly difficult.

In the mean time, I researched the kind of bike I wanted to buy. I settled on a touring bike as being the right match for my needs: cargo capacity, sturdy enough to ride on potholes, but optimized for riding on the road and for comfort. I researched the new models I might be interested in, as well as some well-regarded older touring bikes.

Eventually, a 1985 Trek 620 came up on craigslist for $50, and I drove to Ohio in the Insight to snatch it up. It had some original parts, but was also a bit frankensteined for commuting use. I butchered it up a bit more, and started riding it instead of my other bike.

I loved it! I liked riding it, and I liked working on it. I didn’t really want a new bike anymore, after that… but more old ones might not be so bad. The good thing about getting old bikes was that it allowed me to try a lot of things, before deciding what I liked best.

It turns out this wasn’t the best bike for me. It wasn’t really the right fit or geometry, and it was overall quite ugly. I traded the frame and fork for another Trek which I still ride; and some of the other components are still in use on my various bikes. Considering the use I’ve gotten out of its parts, that original Trek was probably one of the most effective $50 I’ve ever spent on bikes.

Act Two: Making Lemonade

I kept on biking to work, but not every day. I didn’t ride in the rain. Or really, I didn’t ride when I thought it was going to rain, which turned out to be a lot more often than when it was actually raining. I stopped riding when the forecast was “too cold,” which might have meant in the 40’s.

At one point, I ran into Daniel on the way home from work. He also works in South Side and lives in the east end. I didn’t know he rode to work. I had a lot of questions, since he seemed a lot more experienced with this whole “bike to work” thing. “Do you ride when it’s cold? Do you ride when it’s wet?” Those things seemed reserved for crazy people. He rode more in the cold than the wet. He was also a lot faster than I was. He was trying to have a conversation with me, while I could only huff and puff in response, if I wanted to keep up. It was quite inspiring.

Around 2006, some pivotal events started shaping my bicycle commuting. They shut down some lanes on the Birmingham Bridge to refurbish it. Then, they started work on the bike/pedestrian span of the Hot Metal Bridge, which required obstructing traffic on the car span. pair Networks, where I work, is situated directly between these two links from South Side to the north side of the river. When one of them was closed, traffic was really screwed up. When both closed, it was pure hell.

By this point, riding to work took a bit of effort, it was harder than driving; but it was really not a challenge anymore. The construction made it so painful to drive that I drove less and less, and rode more and more. Riding became easier and easier, and driving became harder and harder.

I also started to get crazy. I started riding even though it might rain, because usually it didn’t. I bought rain clothes so I wouldn’t get wet even if it did rain. It turns out that if you’re prepared for the weather, it’s really not that difficult or uncomfortable to ride in. I got a headlight to ride after daylight savings time, and fenders to keep myself dry. Little by little, I replaced all those parts we all tore off our bikes when we were kids because they weren’t cool.

Act Three: Deciding Not To Decide

In February of 2007, Marla got in a car accident, and the Honda Insight was totalled. She broke her back, and we didn’t have or need two cars for a while. When it came time to figure out the “car” situation, we weighed our options. At that point, just living with 1 car didn’t seem like a viable option.

We bought another Honda, a used Civic. I enjoyed it even more than the Hyundai we still have. But the traffic was still horrible. I rarely drove to work at this point. I realized I didn’t need to drive to work anymore, and then I decided I wasn’t going to drive to work anymore.

Deciding not to drive gets its own act, because it made a big impact on my riding, and on my frame of mind. By deciding not to drive, I made one decision to ride, instead of making a new decision every morning. Those small decisions waste time and energy thinking about things that are unimportant.

After I decided not to decide, riding became easier. It’s easy to drive to work, if that’s “just what you do.” You don’t think about the alternatives, you just do it and get to work. It’s routine. No problem. The transition between two different routines causes strife: which way do you want to do it today? Once I decided on a new routine and settled into it, things became easy again.

Then, Marla and I started paying attention to how often we used both cars at the same time, and how often we “needed” both cars at the same time. It turned out that even without making an effort to change our behavior, we almost never used two cars. When we did use two cars, it was almost always an unnecessary impulse trip. When we sold the Honda in February 2008, we had put less than a thousand miles on it. We became a single car family, instead of just a single driver family.

We’ve had one car for a bit over a year now, and I have no regrets other than “we should’ve done it sooner,” or “we never should’ve bought the Civic.” I don’t enjoy driving, Marla does almost all the driving even when I’m there.

The cost savings of having only one car is huge. Just the price of auto insurance for a year would buy me a more expensive bike than I’ve ever bought all in one piece (but don’t ask me to add up the price of all those parts). We’ve had other benefits, like not being tempted to go on impulse shopping trips. I suppose it could be considered inconvenient sometimes, but at this point I’m back to being used to having only one car, so it’s just “normal.”


I don’t expect everyone, or really anyone, to do what I’ve done. It’s not my intent to scare people away from commuting by bicycle because they don’t want to do it all the time. The most important point I should make is that I’m sure I never would have commuted by bike if it wasn’t fun.

Don’t feel the need to take every opportunity to ride instead of driving. Instead, remember that any time you can ride a bike instead of driving is a chance to have fun, improve your health, do less damage to the environment, and spend less money.

“Deciding not to decide” doesn’t mean “deciding not to drive.” It means setting clear, measurable criteria, and sticking to them. My rule was “I don’t drive to work.” Someone else might decide “I’ll ride instead of driving if I’m going less than 2 miles and it’s not raining.” Even this small commitment can provide the benefits of “deciding not to decide,” if you stick with it and allow it to become routine.

Have a good ride!

Drying Parts

Dad suggested I could use my forced-air heat (as limited as it is these days) to dry my chair parts faster. I did this a bit already with some stool legs, but I had figured these parts would be sitting around long enough to be dry by the time I’m done with the stool portion of the chair.

Tonight I turned a preliminary set of back posts (I’ll see if I like the shape or not). Now I have all the turnings and spindles done for one chair, but the spindles are still much wetter than I expected. When I brought the parts upstairs to put them by a heating vent, I remembered another reason I didn’t do this yet: there’s no place upstairs the parts would be safe from kids using them as play swords, and probably hurting each other.

So, I set up a hanging support in front of the vent in the basement (and opened it, for the first time in years). It isn’t enclosed, so it probably won’t overheat things, but it’ll be a lot more dry there. I also found a use for a few of those old botched leg turnings I had lying around…

Blingtastic Fenders

I put two pairs of the Velo-Orange fenders in my shopping cart, and realized that they are probably too wide to fit properly in the brakes on my green bike. Unfortunately the VO fenders don’t come narrower than 45mm, and I know my brakes hit the 45mm SKS fenders.

So I looked into new brakes. Maybe some nice centerpulls would work? Velo-Orange has some. Or I could look for a pair of Mafac Racers on ebay.

Luckily, I realized I was being silly. Instead of buying new fenders and new brakes, I ordered the more expensive Honjo fenders in the proper size, instead. These have a polished and hammered finish, which produces an effect similar to a disco ball. They’re very pretty, and fit well with the overall look I’m going for with this bike. They’re also very long, especially in the front. No mudflap will be required, but I’ll have to be careful hopping curbs.

Bending Sticks

I had some free time today, so I decided to bend the rods for the rodback chair.

I built the steam box a week or so ago. The bottom board is a 11″ wide pine board, and the upper portions are made from dimensional 2″x6″ lumber. It’s heavy, but it works. There are 3 dowels set into the box, to raise the parts to be bent above the bottom of the box.

I closed the box as Brian Cunfer did: using open-celled foam (like chair seat foam). Where the box sits over the pot, there’s a 4-5″ hole. I used 3/4″ or 1″ foam at the seam with the pot to make sure it’s sealed fairly well. In each end of the box I used a chunk of 1 1/2″ thick foam to seal the ends, while still letting steam pressure out. The wood joints are sealed either with gorilla glue or silicone.

I made two bending forms from 2″x6″ lumber screwed onto plywood. One side has the shape of the rod, and there are blocks to wedge the rod against and hold it into place. The parts should dry on the form, so in order to have a spare “just in case,” I made two forms so I could bend two parts at once.

The rodback sticks are about 20″ long. I shaved one from ash a week or so ago. The other I made today, out of the odd greenish/yellowish open grained wood I haven’t managed to identify well yet.

I steamed them for 45 minutes in the steam box. The pan started about half full of water, and didn’t come close to running out. After that, you have to work quickly: bring the stick to the bending form, bend it into place, and pound wedges in to hold it onto the form.

The ash felt quite stiff when I bent it; basically what you’d expect a green stick from a tree to feel like when you bend it. It didn’t crack, so the initial bend was a success. But, I wouldn’t be surprised if it sprung back at least a bit after it has dried.

When I bent the other stick, it felt the way I remember from the previous times I bent parts. The stick resists bending pressure, but then releases. I want to describe it as a “chalky” feeling, though I’m not sure why. I’m more confident this stick will stay bent.

Neither of the bends were immediate failures, but we’ll see if they stay bent in a week when I take them out. I think it’s likely they will both work.

While I’m waiting for the spindles and rods for the chair to dry, I’ll build the lower half of the chair: basically, everything I’ve already done for stools, but with a place to install the top. I’ll drill the holes for the top before I carve it, but the upper portion isn’t assembled until after the entire stool is complete.

It Comes in Pints?

Dee got my “It Comes in Pints?” reference, so I thought I’d post a picture of my “It Comes in Pints?” mugs.

For those of you not familiar with this quote, it’s one of my favorite lines from The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. After entering a human Inn for the first time ever, Merry, Pippin, and Frodo sit down for a few beers.

Pippin: “What’s that!?”
Merry: “This, my friend, is a pint.”
Pippin: “It comes in pints? I’m getting one!”

My sister Sarah is a potter, so a few years back I asked for an “It comes in pints” mug, inspired by the ones they used in the movie. The mugs above are what she came up with (the pint mug is shown for size comparison). They fit a pint with room for head (which is generally hefty on my home brews).

Thanks, Sarah!

Defendered 2: Electric Boogaloo

“Yep… That went well.”

Same deal, different wheel.

I got another stick stuck while riding home from work through the park, this time in my front wheel. Now I have a pair of broken fenders. I’m going to go order another pair or maybe two, after I’m finished here.

The quick release worked well. The fender stay bent and the fender broke in one place (instead of two), but the quick release released, and it didn’t even really stop me, let alone send me over the handlebars. Apparently I forgot to knock on wood after saying I didn’t want to test the quick release fender stays.

After breaking the rear fender, I realized I need a rear fender, because I need something to keep my leather saddle dry. I transplanted the wider rear fender from my blue bike, cringing the whole time at the mismatched pair, I’m sorry to say. It fit well enough, but it’s completely unsatisfying.

I’m going to get a pair of the Velo-Orange aluminum fenders. Solid aluminum fenders are longer, lighter, and stronger than the “alumiplast” laminated fenders I have. They won’t crumple the way these do, when a stick gets stuck. As an added benefit, the VO fenders are long enough in the front that I can do without a mudflap, and I might even be able to learn Yehuda’s trick.

In the mean time, I hope it doesn’t rain. Wait, isn’t it supposed to rain tomorrow? sigh…

A Slight Change of Plans

In the last few days, I figured out how my angle calculation tool was incorrect, and fixed it. Now it’s correct, just not very convenient to use. The reference axes are a bit “here and there” so you really need a sense of what makes sense, in order to extract the right answer.

I then went over all of my previous calculations, and made corrections to the seat plan.

Luckily, the amount of error in an angle calculation was directly related to how far away from perpendicular the hole is. Because of this, the errors on my spindle angles were so small that they almost all rounded off in the same direction as before. The exception was with the outside posts, which had to shift their sight angle by half a degree.

Today, I used my new plan to drill test holes for the back spindles in a scrap of dimensional lumber, to see if the back matched my expectations. It was basically a complete success: I have nothing to change with these angles. The tops of the spindles form a good curve (when viewed from above), and they’re evenly spaced. As shown here, I built up the test back with some spindles I’ve already shaved, along with some sections of 1/2″ pipe. The pipe is a lot straighter, and allows better measurements. (I picked this tip up on Peter Galbert’s blog as well, unsurprisingly.)

This gave me better information than I had about the shape of the seat back. The top of the end posts here are close to where the horizontal rod will end up. It’s wider in relation to its height than I expected. Obviously, my spindles are too long; I’ll need to trim them down on both ends and/or make some new ones. I think it’ll look fine when it’s finished, but it will be a significantly smaller chair than the bow back I made previously. This is good, since that’s what I was aiming for.

Back to the plans: My original leg lines were a complete mess. I couldn’t even figure out the values I used to I calculate them, let alone the error introduced by the tool. Always show your work! They were reasonable angles, and would have made an adequate chair, but they wouldn’t have matched my original intent. From a design perspective, I don’t know whether my plans or the old angles would result in a better chair, but I’m going to try my original plans and work from there.

I’ve already shaved some spindles, and they need to dry a lot before I can use them. I’m not using a kiln right now, so I really need let them sit around for a while: hurry up and wait. Next I need to make the top rod, bend it, and let it dry as well.

This requires a steam box, so I started building one. It is small, 30″ long, becuase I plan to use it in the kitchen. We’ll see how well it ends up working in the next week or so. I also need to accurately measure the location for the rod, so I can figure out how long to make it and build a bending form.