Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Saga Of The Jewelry Case Comes To An End

I have finally completed the repairs on the Jewelry Display Case of Extreme Time-Wasting and Expense.

I said I'd have a go at making this thing after a friend who sells pewter statues, chess sets and jewelry, broke his rotating triangular case o' jewelry displayage by bashing and smashing it for a few years. Since it was made of Perspex, it just about disintegrated. He asked me as I passed his booth at I-Con one year if I could fix it, and I said no1, but that I might be able to make him a new one.

I dithered for about two years and came up with a hexagonal design (the issue was not the shape2, that was 5 minutes worth of overheating brains, smoking hair and so on) but how to realize that shape in the footprint required to house a reasonable number of the little display cards the jewelry comes fastened to.

These cards hang from a metal hook-shaped clip fashioned into the top of each card, which engaged in a slot in the original display case. I thought that six columns of two cards, six high would work. I had one of the cards (I had though far enough into the process while I spoke with my friend to realize the need for one) and so it was a matter of simple arithmetic to figure out the dimensions of the hexagonal prism required to do the job. The problem was that no-one makes hardwood in such dimensions that the hexagonal base and top could be simply made from two planks, and if they did I could never afford to buy it given the rarity of hardwood in general - I had decided to go with maple for the construction as I could work it easier than I could oak and it would be hard enough when finished to withstand a fair degree of bashing and smashing without getting dinged-up.

I finally had the required brainwave and figured out that if I made the core prism out of MDF (a sort of hardboard) and used small lengths of aluminum channel bolted to these panels as hooks for the cards to hang on, I didn't need the base to be solid. It could be annular (ring-shaped). The top could also be made annular, and the hole could be covered up by a second, smaller hexagon of wood. So that's what I did. The whole thing was held together by a threaded truss rod joining the top to the base.

The finished object was, if I say so myself, a thing of beauty and I presented it to him at I-Con four years ago.

The next year he gave it back. He had stored it for a year in an unheated garage lockup and the top had cracked through due to thermal creep and, I suspected, an over-tightened truss rod. I told him I'd repair it and return it, but the top ended up needing to be completely re-fabricated and during that process my drill press died and my router self-destructed, so it wasn't ready. The next year Mrs Stevie was ill and I had no thought for woodworking. So this year, four years after I originally made the thing, I finally am able to re-present it with the proviso that if he stores it in a garage and it cracks I want nothing more to do with the wretched thing.

It was quite a struggle to get the damned thing built too.

The original was clearly not properly assembled, so I resolved to make the joints more accurately this time. The best accuracy I could get in tests on the Miter Saw was about 1/3 a degree per cut, which translated into an accumulated error of about three degrees over the entire ring, meaning it was a spiral with either an overlap at the final joint or a gap. Experiments with my new table sanding machine could not improve on the error in the time I had, so I went cheap 'n' cheerful and decided to make two half-hexagon rings, then machine each half-hex to match the other. This would result in a slightly irregular hexagon, but I was getting fed up with the whole thing by then and didn't care.

The crowning hexagon was machined as six triangles, and was glued down to the hexagonal ring, centering it as best I could.

I took some precautions to avoid Splitting Top Syndrome while I was at it. The lack of biscuit joints, dovetails, tenons or whatever meant that the joints could easily fail as they had before (I had used biscuits3 in the previous design, but they let go). I considered using metal plates screwed over each joint, but that would only hold one side of the joint and allow expansion stresses to build up and twist the top apart again.

Then I had what I hope was a better idea. I machined an extra slot in the ring and the crown, sank some screws in the slot, leaving the heads proud, and poured quick-setting Alumilite liquid plastic resin5 into the slot. Now each hexagonal piece has an integral O-ring holding the joints together.

The goodies on display are kept safe from the light-fingered by six Lucite windows that engage in a slot in the base and have a top piece made of wood that has a pin which engages in a hole in the top of the case. The original design was a bit too fiddly when it came to hooking up the windows after a sale, so I added knobs to the bottom of each window fabricated out of the flat-top screw bolts used to hold Swedish furniture together.

It all looks quite good now after a minor paint touch up to the core (which is matte black to emphasize the goods on display)

but there are two minor gotchas that have me grinding my teeth.

First, I forgot that in transit the windows need securing and managed to construct the top with no regard for the clip-on hardboard "transit disc" that held everything together on the original. Fixing that requires dismantling the whole thing, a non-trivial operation at this stage in the game, so that has to be worked around with rubber bands.

Second, sometime between me giving my friend the case and my finishing it yesterday, the windows gat marked up. I was very careful to store them in wrappings, but I can't say for sure they got scratched in a damp garage as opposed to my basement. Most of the marks could be polished out with a polishing compound and some elbow grease, but I haven't the time or the inclination. I can replace the windows for about 20 bux and a weekend's work (and about two weeks recovery from the wrist strain cutting Lucite with a special scoring knife will cause) but I'm unwilling to invest more cash in this project. It has already cost north of 100 bux and enough is enough.

I am almost as glad to be rid of this albatross as I was to get shot of Bil the Elder's G4.

  1. After I'd done laughing
  2. The original case was triangular but my friend had asked for a square one to increase capacity. The problem with a square prism that revolves is that you have to allow a footprint that accommodates the sweep of the corners but hat is otherwise empty. I knew from observation that space tended to disappear on his table as the day went on, so a hexagon seemed a good compromise. Smaller sides meant smaller storage space per side, but the difference in diameter measured from point-to-point as opposed to that measured from flat-to-flat would be small making for no illusory free table space to be swallowed by tidal crap
  3. Biscuits are small, oval pieces of wood that sit an a slot machined4 each face of a joint so that the joint is bridged by the biscuit which is secured by a water-based glue. The water in the glue causes the biscuit to expand and lock the joint firmly together. Unless some gimp stores the joined pieces of wood in a cold-then-damp-then-hot-and-damp garage for a year of course, in which case all bets are off
  4. Using a biscuit-joiner
  5. A truly marvelous product that can be used to make all sorts of things very, very quickly

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Who Knows Where The Time Goes?

I'd never been to Carnegie Hall before.

Last Thursday The Stevieling was part of her school choir, which was joining five others in an evening of music in the Isaac Stern auditorium, Carnegie Hall, and the family decamped there-wards for some culture.

Seated all around were other proud parents, some of whom I knew, some from many years of meeting at similar, if less upscale, events. Behind me, with her family, was an enchanting five-year old girl who - like most of her kind - reminded me of the days when The Stevieling was that age.

Since our choir was on next-to-last I got to see a cross section of Long Island school choirs sing. There isn't much to say. The youngest kids had material that was too repetitive and went on too long for non-parents to appreciate, while one of the older kids' choir presented a "World Premier" of a piece that could have had a subjective month lopped off it without ruining the experience in my opinion.

But everyone had practiced until they'd turned blue and was giving it their all in Carnegie Hall for crying out loud! I gave each kid in each choir a heartfelt round of applause when each choir's program ended, and I meant every handclap as a salute to their hard work and professionalism under stress.

Then I watched my all-but seventeen year-old daughter mount the rostrum with her peers, and a peculiar double image formed in which a choir of five year old children mingled with the evening dress-clad young women and dress suited young men on the stage. I couldn't figure out who these young women and young men were. It wasn't that long ago that I was building her tree house, surely

The music swelled and folded us in simply wonderful for about twenty minutes, and all too soon it was over and I was on the sidewalk wearing a stupid expression while trying to find everyone in the crowds.

I still can't figure out when my little girl grew up.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Out Of The Furnace, Into The Fridge

When we moved in to Chateau Stevie it had a boiler made as one of a batch, the rest of which were installed on RMS Titanic.

It had, I think, been converted from oil to gas in the far distant past, and had probably run flawlessly for thirty plus years before we saw it. The outside was rusty, and the coil1 would give only about one minute of hot shower water even with a lo-flo shower head, but it worked, sorta.

Admittedly we had to heat the top floor with electric heaters on account of the bloody plumber doing the plumbing "Genaro Fashion2" and relying on some sort of goodwill to move water out of the furnace-pipes-downstairs baseboard radiator-pipes-furnace circuit via a T-fitting and into the upstairs pipework.

What actually happened was that the vertical pipe would get hot, but no water would flow because there was no reason for it to do so.

One day the furnace gas valve required a tap with a Brummy Screwdriver3 to get it to open and provide us with life-sustaining heat and I finally had to admit we were in trouble. A quick check showed that we had hit the usual watershed: four grand in the savings account. Whenever we manage to scrape that amount up (which takes years BTW: no power earner me) something will come along to wipe out some part of the domestic infrastructure worth exactly that amount. It's sort of the universe's way of telling me exactly what my worth in the scheme of things is. One time it was a driveway that broke up and a hundred feet of fencing that fell over for example. This time it was a decent hot water system to replace the hope-anna-prayer job that was then sitting in the basement.

We had the Stevieling in the house by then, so I knew that keeping a furnace that might one day malfunction catastrophically was Not On. Accordingly we had fitted a "state of the art" Slant Fin furnace and a fifty gallon separate water heater, and had the installers create two pump-driven zones with proper valving for the upstairs and downstairs heating circuits. I still remember walking upstairs into warm air for the first time since we closed on the house, and the first post-water-heater-installation shower I took, five minutes after the last plumber left the house, which featured the luxury of being able to dawdle for more than one minute in the stream of hot damp.

The next day, which happened to be Thanksgiving Day, the brand new, state of the art furnace wouldn't fire up and the house was ice-cold.

I poked and pried and discovered that I could, by tapping hard on the flue vent, persuade the thing to open and the furnace to start. I spoke to the installer and said that since I could get the thing started manually, and since we were going out for Thanksgiving Day dinner that day, I could spare him sending out a team on Thanksgiving Day if he would set us up for a fix at start of business on the day after, Friday. He was very happy and promised that would be done.

Naturally, Friday rolled on and at 10 o' clock I called the installation company to find out what the hell was going on. The woman who answered the phone began her side of the conversation by asking "Do you have a service contract?" to which I answered "No". She then told me she couldn't send anyone out unless I had a contract with them. I then explained in increasingly harsh tones that I had a warranty, that the unit was less than 48 hours old and that if someone didn't come round and fix it at once I was calling the better business bureau and my lawyer, in that order. Someone came around noon and replaced the automated flue vent required by NY state law, the servo motor of which had malfunctioned, closing off the flue and thus triggering the fail-safe on the igniter.

The bloody thing malfunctioned every single year with the same fault for the first three years (the warranty period) and the same process of arguing with Ms. Service Contract or Nothing followed by threats followed by a late night visit by a "specialist" who would replace the same motorised flue vent was gone through each time. After the third replacement, the "specialist" said that legally the unit had to be fitted, but it didn't have to be used. The flue could be left open. The reason it is closed is to prevent backdrafts filling the basement with carbon monoxide, but the furnace also has a sensor to shut it down if it detects that happening (and it has on a couple of occasions when I've had a high-velocity fan blowing out of a basement window). So I had the unit deactivated.

The next failure, a couple of months later, was a carbon monoxide sensor shut-down caused by a freak windstorm, and the "specialist" showed me the secret restart button not included in the instruction sheet the installers left for me.

Then the warranty went out and the price quoted for a service contract by the installers would have put a man on the moon so we parted company. The furnace got clever and started chewing through thermocouples every year.

The thermocouple is a little copper tube that pokes into the pilot flame and tells the electronic gas valve that the pilot is lit so it can turn on the main gas jets when it wants to. When the thermocouple breaks, it breaks in "do not start" mode and the furnace does what it's told. The first I know of it is usually when I get home and enter a freezing house. "Why is it so cold in here?" I will ask, and get blank looks from the shivering women lying in wait.

This time I got up on Sunday morning, wandered about the house crashing into things and generally trying to get the old body started properly, and was ambushed by The Stevieling who said "The thermostat is set for 70 degrees but it is only like 60 in here. Is this normal?"

Now, in all the years she has lived there, she has been through several "cold house" moments and she knows darn well it is never "normal". This was just her trying out her mother's circumlocutory powers.

I went down into the basement, covered in sawdust and bits of wood from a frenzied attempt to dominate wood with power tools in a World Gone Mad the day before. I reasoned that it was possible that all the activity, including a high-throughput shop-vac doing duty as a dust collector, could have tricked the sensor into sniffing the dreaded carbon monoxide so I pressed the secret button in full expectation of hearing the boiler fire into life.

It didn't.

I wasted a few minutes taking the cover off the furnace and poking things in the hope Magic Poke Cooties would fix things, then stood up and did the Rage Dance while improvising a rap composed of my very best third order Words of Power.

Mrs Stevie said "Call the guy who always fixes it for us", so I did. This was a self-employed heating engineer who did a bang up job of restarting the damned furnace two or three times in the past and didn't charge a limb of any kind for the privilege.

He denied ever visiting us.

Since he wouldn't actually discuss things until we had resolved that, Mrs Stevie was forced to join the conversation (she was the only person who'd ever met him). He finally allowed as how he might have worked on our furnace, but said he was in semi-retirement now and couldn't help until Monday at the earliest.

Mrs Stevie then went and found another firm who agreed to come over4 and left for organised religion with The Stevieling in tow. I had to go and dismantle my production line so the furnace guy could actually get into the basement (which is filled floor to ceiling with crap everywhere there are no tools, workmates supporting tools, router tables on workmates or floor-standing tools). Since I was frantically trying to build a replacement top for the Jewelry Display Case of Annoyance, it was all very tiresome and I explained how tiresome it was at length, to the air in a monologue consisting largely of my very best fourth order Words of Power, as I moved, folded and dismantled various tool set-ups.

John the Furnace Guy came in, took the furnace apart, installed a new thermocouple, reassembled the parts5 and lit the thing, then presented his bill, all in a trice6.

I apologised as I paid him, but he said his bank had no problem cashing tear-stained checks, and since he always took the precaution of putting in ear plugs before presenting his invoice his hearing hadn't been damaged by my shrieks of dismay.

  1. American domestic furnaces often feature an internal coil that is used to heat a separate water circuit, typically used to provide the domestic hot water supply
  2. There're four ways of doing things: The right way, the wrong way, the hideously dangerously and/or uselessly wrong way and The Genaro Way. This is an ordered list
  3. A pipe wrench
  4. Mrs Stevie has a knack for finding reliable people on the strength of the briefest conversations, though I'm not certain threats are involved in every case
  5. And had none left over afterwards
  6. Defined in this case as just under an hour