Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Anarchist's Tool Chest

This is the story of my Anarchist's Tool Chest.  I owe an obvious debt to Christopher Schwarz for his excellent book by that name and for a practical philosophy about making things that seems to have been sleeping since the publication of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance".

Rejoining our story already in progress

Two years ago now my mother passed away and quite unexpectedly left her children what was to us anyway a sizable legacy.  That gift is what made much of what follows possible.  Specifically it made it possible to consider moving back to Japan.  The chain of events that brought me to Japan in the first place is detailed in another blog post.  This is the story of my toolbox.

I won't go through all the details here but at the end of February Kiyoko and I bought her uncle's house in Japan.  This house was built in the late 1960's in a traditional style.  It is fairly large for a Japanese house and is traditionally built with tatami mat rooms and post and beam construction.  One thing that it does not have however is a garage or basement or any other place that would be conducive to establishing a home workshop.   Right after that I was laid off from yet another failed startup - my last!  So our move to Japan, which we were thinking might take place in a couple of years when the kids were graduated from college was moved up. 

Life in a new country requires sacrifices

One thing that was obvious was that I was going to have to give up my home workshop.  No more drillpress or bandsaw or planer.  No more power tools at all unless they were bought in Japan because the power in Japan is different (50Hz 100V).  So I knew it was time to consolidate and reduce my tools to the bare necessities.  At that time I found Chris Schwarz's book, "The Anarchist's Tool Chest" which is a long dissertation on hand tools and hand tool woodworking.  Since I needed to prepare to move to Japan I decided that I needed to build the tool chest.  Henceforth I would be a handtool woodworker at least until I found a place and the money to go electric again. 

Disobey Me!

In the book Chris Schwarz admonishes us to disobey him so that's what I did.  The general dimensions of the box that I built follow pretty closely those described in the book but the differences are perhaps significant.  Here are the main points on which my box differs:

I built it from Douglass Fir rather than Pine.  In California large clear pine boards are not easy to come by; what we have in abundance is Douglass Fir.  As construction timber Doug Fir is great.  When green it is easy to work with but when it dries out it is very hard and dense.  Old dry D.F. is so dense that its very hard to nail.  Also when chopping dovetails the bottoms of the pins and tails tend to crush rather than cut so its hard to get nice smooth joining faces.  We'll see how that works over time.  Probably not a problem since most of the glue strength in a dovetail joint is in the interesecting planes between the pins and tails.  The baseline plane is endgrain and therefore does not have much glue strength anyway.  The boards that I used were very old rough 1x10s from Economy Lumber in Oakland.  Economy Lumber is a great place with really high quality products which you might not assume from their name but their 2x10 and 2x12 DF planks are as clear and tight grained as you could ever hope for and for a very fair price.  Head and shoulders above the crap they sell at Home Depot.  So I found these boards hiding back in a dusty corner of the rack of kiln dried finish lumber.  They were rough and very dry and rather not the standard stuff sold at that store.  They had a hard time deciding what they were and what they were worth.  In the end he sold them as scrap since they didn't really fit into any category and they were happy to see them go.  I was pleased because they were dry and stable.  I thought at first that they were clear but they turned out to have quite a few knots.  From this I learn that defects might go unnoticed in rough cut lumber. The knots significantly reduced the amount of useable material.  The fact that they are DF and not pine had other implications later in the process.

Second, I didn't nail the bottom boards, I used brass screws.  The reason for this is not that I didn't try nails but cut nails in that old dry DF just split the wood.  Even with pilot holes I could not drive a nail without cracking the boards.  Luckily I had a box of 1.5" #12 brass flathead wood screws from an Estate Sale a few years ago and they proved to be just the thing for the bottom boards.  Drilled and driven they are probably stronger than nails and easier to remove should the need arise.

Third I didn't use milk paint.  I don't quite understand the love that many woodworkers express for milk paint.  If milk painted tool boxes have a tendency to rot as Mr. Schwarz claims one might think that perhaps the problem might be the paint.  I used what I had and what I had was Interlux marine enamel left over from painting my boat.  The color doesn't seem to please many people and its too glossy but for a bullet proof, tough  water tight finish that will stand up to the elements I don't think it can be beat.  This paint is hard to love, it's very difficult to get a nice smooth even coat but with three coats you have one of the toughest finishes I have ever seen.  The paint is designed to hold up under seawater immersion and it resists abrasion like tungsten.  When you try sanding it you will discover that it just laughs at sandpaper.

Four: I tried Chris Schwarz's design for a saw till but hated the fact that it blocks the lowest till drawer's motion and wastes space underneath.  So I cut down the saw till wall to the height of the first drawer till's runners and extended those runners across the box.  Then I re-cut the slotted saw holder boards shorter so that all the saw handles are below the height of the bottom drawer.  This allows the bottom drawer to move all the way across the chest without bumping into any saw handles.  [Upon re-reading I realize that this paragraph will make absolutely no sense to anyone who has not read the book.  I'll try to add some pictures of the insides of the tool chest to clarify.]

Finally I was planning on shipping this thing across an ocean in a container so I didn't want the tills sliding around as it was moved and I didn't want to waste that interior space so I built a small chest of drawers precisely sized to fill the void inside the tool chest.  Now this presents a problem.   How do you get a box to fit down into another box with essentially zero clearance all around.  And even more problematical, once you get the box into the box how do you get it out?  The inner chest is such a close fit that I needed to remove the drawer handles to get it to fit into the tool chest.  Also this is going to be a tool box too which means that it is going to be full of heavy stuff.  Iron and stone mostly so it's going to be heavy.

The solution was again found in my stash of Estate Sale booty.  I had some heavy duty flat nylon straps that are ideal for a sling.  Strong but flat so they won't be in the way and they can stay on the whole trip.  Second I found two triple sheve blocks at the local chandlery in the clearance bin for $15 each.  These things are boat hardware and really high quality stainless steel and ball bearings, strong and smooth action.  The ball bearing action is so smooth that if you reve them together and hang one from the ceiling the other will slide to the floor under just its own weight pulling about 20 yards of cord along without a hitch.  The clerk at the chandlery was surprised by the price, they usually sell for about $90.  I think someone may have made a mistake but I was happy to get them at that price.

So now I have the inner box the outer box and a rig that allows me to lower one into the other.  That works great in my Garage in the US with its open rafters to hang the block from but in Japan all I have is a rather flimsy aluminum carport roof.  The solution was an improvised derrick from 2x4 sheer legs  and some plywood sheets to stabilize the structure.  The neighbors didn't know what to think of this strange foreigner building strange structures in his car port.  In the end it all worked like a charm though.

We even made a movie of the process.

When it arrived my apparatus was waiting to take it apart. 

Here is the inside box sitting on another utility box I made.  Once you get going on those dovetailed boxes you just can't stop until all the material is used up.

Unfortunately later that same day I misplaced my cellphone camera with the movie on it.  It was missing for about six weeks.  I looked everywhere including in the entire toolbox, or so I thought.  My wife always insisted that the phone was in the toolbox but I was in and out of there countless times and never found it.  Today I was showing off my toolbox to the carpenter who has been working on our house and lo and behold what should I find at the bottom of the saw till down between two backsaws but my cellphone!  I had to go right in and tell my wife that she had been right all along.  She was naturally pleased but unsurprised to hear it.

And on the cellphone there was the movie so today I can blog about the event.

Here are some more pictures of the tool chest in its new home.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Blog begins but the story is already underway

The Blog begins but the story is already underway.

This is the first post to my new blog "Returning to Japan".  Although this is the first post the process is already well underway.  I'll start off with some background for those of you who haven't been following the whole story.  It is interesting to me to see how all of the threads of a life tie together.  The patterns are not always obvious.  I've been thinking of writing this stuff down for some years now so finally here's my chance.

History or a trip back up river

"Begin at the beginning and when you come to the end stop."

Thano Johnson
I don't suppose that there is ever really a beginning but my interest in Japan  seems to have started when I was in High School studying pottery.  I studied ceramics with Hugh Aanonsen at Lincoln High in San Francisco.  My interest in ceramics took be to the Brundage Collection then at the De Young Museum and now in a museum of it's own at the Civic Center.  The Brundage Collection introduced me to the great works of Japanese, Chinese and Korean ceramics.  Mr. A. also introduced me to Thanos Johnson of the College of Marin.  I have just discovered that Thano Johnson passed away in 2004.  His obituaries mention him as an expert in Korean pottery but it was as a Japanese potter that I knew him.  He was a student of Shoji Hamada of Mashiko Japan.  Thano Johnson introduced us to Japanese tools and techniques.  In particular the Japanese hand wheel (shown in the picture) and Raku firing.  Raku is a dramatic technique where you pull red hot pieces out of the kiln and plunge them into sawdust or straw for a radical reduction glaze.  Thano Johnson used to have raku parties out on the beach at Point Reyes with wood fired single pot kilns, great fun!  In 1970 there must not have been any smoke alarms at Lincoln High because we would surely have set them off with our raku firings.  We didn't use wood fired kilns but the smoke from dousing red hot pottery in sawdust filled the basement studio.  Often to the point of forcing a temporary evacuation to breathe.

I never became a potter but through an interesting chain of circumstance pottery gave me an interest in fire which led me into welding.  That too was pretty much a dead end but there are still some threads of connection.  In 1971 I graduated from High School and went off to spend the summer in Colorado.  My brother Mark was working on a construction project so I followed him out there.  Mark left Colorado to go to Mallorca with Maharishi to become a teacher of Transcendental Meditation and I got his job as a laborer on a construction project 10,000 feet up in the Rocky Mountains. I could only do the job for a month before getting fired for weakness.  The altitude and my lack of athleticism didn't cut me out for a high mountain construction worker.  Nonetheless I made enough money in that month to spend the rest of the summer in Colorado and buy a decent Yamaha guitar on my return.  While in Colorado that summer I twice walked from Snomass at Aspen over the mountains to Marble where Thano Johnson's studio was located.  Those walks were peak experiences in more than one way.

Norrie Colorado

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So the trip to Colorado got me a guitar but no case to carry it in so I went to Bay High an alternative school in Berkeley to make a case.  That was my introduction to woodworking.  The case was never finished but I had started acquiring some useful skills.  Woodworking at Bay High led me to auto mechanics again at Bay High. This was in the days when Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman were advocating being a non-student and that's what I was.  Bay High became the Bay High Collective and kicked out the school.  I stayed there for about a year and then fled the crazyness of Berkeley for an expidition to New Hampshire, upstate New York and finally back to San Francisco working as an auto mechanic.    This is also about the time I started doing TM.  My brother had returned from his teacher training and instructed my mother in the TM technique.  Soon after that I saw a significant change in her, she became a much more tolerable person.  I figured if it worked for her it might work for me so I started too and have never stopped.

After about two years of working on cars I realized that I really wanted to go to College.  As a mechanic I could see that there were lots of design problems with the cars that I was working on.  I would see characteristic failures in specific cars.  For example all small frame ford products including Mustangs and Fairlanes, had problems with their upper ball joints.  Also VW engines all had the risk of sucking a valve in cylinder #3 because the oil cooler blocked air flow to that cylinder leading to excess head and early failure of the exhaust valve.  It was obvious to me that I could never change these things as a mechanic so I decided to become a mechanical engineer and for that I needed the University.  Thanks to TM I was now getting along much better with my Mother and she supported me to go to College first at City College of SF and then at UC Berkeley.  (Thanks Mom, Jai Guru Dev!)

Well I didn't become a potter and I didn't become a welder and I didn't become a cabinet maker and I didn't become an auto mechanic although I did turn a wrench for a living for a couple years.  And I didn't become a Mechanical Engineer either.  The program in Mechanical Engineering at CCSF required me to take a year of mechanical drawing before I could take any University level engineering courses.  At that time I was also introduced to computers and took my first programming class.  It seemed to me then that Mechanical Engineering at CCSF was preparing me for work as a draftsman at a time when drafting was converting to CAD but the skills I was learning did not seem to have a future.  Computing, on the other hand, was a fast track to a huge opportunity.  Computing was important in all sorts of areas including mechanical engineering but lots more as well.  I switched my major and computing has been my profession ever since.  Until now but more about that later.
USS Shasta

So bring it back to Japan.  While I was a student at UC I got a job working on steamship engine room automation equipment through a friend from Bay High.  That job went from working on a US navy ship 
 to servicing American President Lines container ships in Oakland to working on those APL ships as they went through drydock first in San Francisco at Triple A Machine in Hunters Point and at the Bethlehem Steel yard in SF and then at the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries shipyard in Kobe Japan.  That was my first visit to Japan, in 1979 I spent a month in Kobe.  While on that trip I visited a friend of my mother's who was working as an English teacher in Tokyo.  That brief visit gave me a vision of the possibilities.  In retrospect I guess that was when I was really hooked.

A few years later I returned to Japan to attend my friend Masayoshi Kojima's wedding in Himeji.  Again a few years later while working for Masscomp in Washington D.C. I had the chance to go to Japan to work with a customer on a workstation project in Tokyo for three months.  By then I was well and truly hooked.  When I returned from Japan that time in 1988 my company, Masscomp, was merged with Concurrent Computer Corp.  There are a couple of images that this merger brings to mind.  The nicer image is of two ships that collide.  When ships collide one always goes up and the other down.  It was clear to us from Masscomp that it was our ship that went down.  (The other image is of sodomy without lubrication but 'nuff said.)  So faced with an unpleasant working situation I decided that I could take another job across the street in DC, return to California or go to Japan.  Being single and seeking a challenge I decided to go to Japan. So I wrote to the President of Masscomp Japan Mr. Kumpei Fukuda, to ask if he had a job for me.  When he got the letter he called on the phone to ask when I could get there and that was it I was off.  Three months later I was on a plane for Tokyo.

Just a brief aside.  While driving back from Washington D.C. to California on my way to Japan I passed through Carbondale Colorado and visited with the old friend who had first introduced me to the wonders of computing.  In a world where people are often called visionary for very little reason Jerry Barenholtz was a true visionary.  It was Jerry who was telling me back in 1976, a time when most computers didn't have a modem and the entire connectivity of the Arpanet could be listed in an RFC, that computer communications was going to revolutionize society.  Bill Gates hadn't even written his BASIC interpreter yet.