Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Step one in a long journey


     I realized while writing that this plan of mine, to share my knowledge, is going to be a long and winding road.  I hope there is something here for everyone and that you will travel this road with me.  One of my beliefs is that creating anything is always a long and winding road.  Even if you know exactly where you want to end up, there is seldom a direct path to getting there.  Maybe that's just me... also I recently read that people my age use too many ellipses.

     Let's see where this road takes us.

     I can't remember why I decided to go into business for myself, or why I chose to set up my own shop.  I was probably just done dealing with the people I was working for.  I didn't see the irony at that time.  Looking back from this vantage point, I can see that I was unprepared in every possible way.  It might have been a lucky thing that I didn't bother to look at any blacksmithing or welding or machinist text books, because they would have just messed with my head and I would have given up before I started.  Metalworking texts often start with a chapter on shop layout which is a great place to start if you are independently wealthy and have all the tools you could possible need.  I know exactly zero people who start out like that.  When you are starting out you have three tools and fourteen dollars.  Not really enough for any sort of layout.  In deference to reality, I am going to ignore layout for now.  Instead, I'm going to drone on endlessly about how to get your hands on tools, what tools to chose and how to figure out what tool to get next.  Also with some luck, how to cheat being broke.

     I do remember the first metalworking tool I bought.  My first tool, the tool I picked as the most necessary tool to open my business, was a Makita angle grinder.  I think I paid around $120 for it.  That tool is still about $120 or maybe it's not.  I don't know.  Time passes, tool prices stand still.  Not all of them though.  Anyway, an angle grinder can be used for several tasks even if the results are sometimes a bit crude.  It can be used for cutting, grinding, sanding and wire brushing.  Basically the beginning and end of a project are covered by this one tool.  I think if I were starting out today it would still be one of the first tools I would buy.  I wouldn't, however, spend $120 on a Makita.  I would go to Harbor Freight and get a Chicago Electric angle grinder for $20 leaving me $100 for other things. There isn't a significant difference between and expensive grinder and a cheap grinder in terms of function or longevity and the cheap ones come with an extra set of brushes so they actually last longer.  You could get three so you don't have to spend time changing the discs but one is good enough.  A word of caution, don't get the even cheaper Drill Master grinder.  That thing is a waste of money.  Also don't bother using the grinding disc that comes with the grinder.  That thing is crap.  Pick up some cut off discs, some flap sanders in different grits and a wire brush.  You've probably spent your hundred bucks now but you can do a lot of work. 

I have a couple of grinders.  This one has a flap sander on it. There are different grits and different types of sanding discs.  There are different shape and different functions in wire wheels.  You can also get cutoff discs for these grinders.  This is the Chicago Electric grinder. I've removed some of the safety equipment because it was in the way.  I don't recommend doing this. 
                        

     You will probably abandon the cut off discs as soon as you have the money to get a better way to cut your metal, but when you first start out a cutoff disc is faster than a hacksaw.  Also, you will spend more for a hacksaw than you spend on a grinder because NEVER BUY A CHEAP HACKSAW.  You will end up using a hacksaw surprisingly often so get a good one and it will last for 40 years and then you won't be able to find one like it again.  That means it's time to retire even though you know you will never be able to retire. 

                  This is my hacksaw.  I've had it many years.  They don't make this any more so I will have to stop using a hacksaw if it ever breaks.  Lennox makes a version but it looks pretty plasticy so I don't know.  They don't cost as much as they used to cost.  I guess that's good.  The ones online are about half the price I paid for this one.  Blades are important too, but I will admit that I like the cheap blades from Harbor Freight better than the more expensive ones.  A couple of things about hacksaws.  They work on a push stroke.  That means the teeth cut when you are pushing.  Don't put the blade in backwards.  I worked in a scene shop years ago and one of the carpenters put his blades in backwards and then tried to defend it.  Nope.  You push to cut.  Teeth per inch depend on what you are cutting.  Generally the fewer teeth per inch for the blade the thicker the material.  If you are cutting 1" solid bar, you should use a blade with 14 tpi.  If you are cutting thin wall tubing, try 32 tpi.  Heavier wall tubing or smaller solid bar, I would use 24 tpi.  As you cut, your hand should push over the top of the material.  That way when you get all the way through you won't ram your knuckles into the sharp edge of the recently cut metal.  This saw has a bar to help prevent this but if you are using the hacksaw properly it won't be a problem.   

This is the new version.  Get the high tension version.  50,000 psi.  Ignore the stupid things it's supposed to be able to do like hold a blade in it's nose.  I don't know why they add crap like that.  A hacksaw is a perfectly useful tool without bells and whistles. 

     My second tool was a borrowed buzz box.  Any time you can borrow a tool, you should do that.  Tools are expensive.  Also, I forgot to mention, now that you have your first tool, start advertising ( you know, telling everyone you meet ) that you are open for business.  Just don't invite anyone to see your shop because it's an empty space which is the name of a book about the creative process in the theater.  I think.  Anyway, a buzz box is a stick welder.  I just looked and I am surprised to find that you can still buy one new.  I don't know why you would, but you can.  I wouldn't buy one mostly because you don't want to stick weld for the rest of your life.  Unless, of course, you do.  I'm a little too fond of my clothes, skin and lungs to want to do much stick welding, but if you love smoke and molten blobs of flying flux all over the place, definitely go with stick.  That is actually where the phrase I don't give a flying flux came from.  If you don't have some basic welding skills and this is all technogloop to you, I suggest you take a intro welding course or workshop.  Almost every community college and adult ed program in the world offers a beginning welding course or workshop.  It is one of the easiest metalworking skills to pick up.  Also, you will be exposed to a shop with a layout.  Welding is a handy skill even if you want to be a blacksmith.  I don't know any who don't weld. A buzz box is a perfect temporary first welder because it's versatile and you don't need to deal with gas.  If you can't find one to borrow, I would try to buy one used rather than one of the 110v wire feed welders that you can get everywhere.  The buzz box runs on 220v power so you can weld thicker material which you will need to do to make a work table and some racks and assorted other shop fixtures.  You should pay around $100 for a used buzz box.  I wouldn't pay much more.  New they are only $250 or so.  If you do decide to go with a 110v wire feed welder, you have made a poor choice and you are now relegated to working on sheet metal only.  I get that they are cheap.  Harbor Freight has one for less than $100 which is exactly what they are worth.  Believe me when I tell you that you will throw that 110v welder into a ditch one day soon in a fit of maniacal frustration.  Plus you can actually use the 220v buzz box as a power supply for a tig setup, and you won't end up breaking your foot trying to drop kick it off a bridge. 

This is an ac/dc 220v stick welder aka buzz box.  Don't forget you will need a hood and gloves.  Figure that into your budget.  Plus the electrodes.  You can get those at the welding supply store by the pound.  You will need to know the type and the diameter of the sticks you need.  There is a bunch of science to this so here's a link to give you and idea.  How to pick a stick electrode.   I use Kevlar gloves.  A lot of welders use leather.  The problem with leather is that it shrinks in the heat.  Kevlar doesn't shrink although you will burn through them in time.  There are also a lot of hoods.  I use a basic Huntsman.  It's lightweight and not very expensive.  No electronics to break.  I've never use one of the electronic ones.  Mine has the big window.  I like to be able to see. 

     With these two tools you can cut and assemble some metal.  It's time to agree to make that little fence for the couple down the street who desperately need it to keep their neighbors dog from going in their vegetable garden.  That's what you get for telling everyone you were opening your business.  Pull the cars out of the garage and panic, or if you live in a  4th floor walk-up like I did, ask your woodworker buddy for a corner of his shop and panic.  Sadly, you are going to have to lay out this first job on the floor because you have not had time to make work tables.  Once you have finished panicking and whatnot, you need to figure out a what to charge.  I can't actually help you there because I don't make fences, but let's say that the local fab shop charges $20 a running foot.  Charge that.  I would say charge more because your neighbor seems difficult, but you should probably stick with the going rate.  Next get 50% up front.  With luck that will cover materials, supplies and beginner mistakes.  My one piece of advice if you really are making a fence, make sure you know how it installs before you start to build it.  It stinks when you have to scab a bunch of tabs on a project during installation to make it work. 



     Ok then, I meandered way off topic there.  The road does wind.  You now have two tools and you can build a work table.  If you know what you want to make, that should give you a pretty good idea of what your work table needs to be.  I don't do very many really big projects any more so my work tables are pretty small.  When I first started I made myself a really big work table.  Doesn't really matter what size they are, I always put them on wheels.  I never have enough space.  I put everything I can on wheels.  Generally, I like my work table to be counter height, so 36" high.  Less bending over that way.  Recently I designed a new work table for myself that I haven't made yet.  I'm including a sketch.  If you like the design, I suggest you have the steel yard cut the angle to size for you.  You don't have the tools to do that really well yet.  Final detour...I hope.  Steel yards.  I get that steel yards seem intimidating but that's only because Home Depot hasn't figured out a way to make them awful yet.  The guys (it's mostly guys) who work there are not ogres. They are just dirty.  They lift and move steel all day.  It comes with the territory.  Steel yards will sell to anyone and usually in any quantity.  You can pick up the steel or have it delivered.  There will be charges either way.  In the beginning I took my hacksaw to the steel yard and cut the sticks in half there to fit them in my truck.  They will cut them for you for a fee.  It's worth it.  There is a fee to deliver too, but you get full length sticks.  Some yards have scrap piles you can go through for smaller bits of steel. Generally I buy in full lengths or sheets.  That's why I have all this scrap.  I'm putting a chart here to give you an idea of how steel comes.  Call for prices.  They vary and depend on market fluctuations. Look up sizes so you know what you are asking for.  And then go for it.  

This is a pretty rough drawing of the work table I will probably make one day.  A customer had me order two sticks of 6"x 6" x 3/8" angle iron.  That's 40 feet.  This table uses all 40 feet.  I can't make this table because the customer had me cut the full lengths and the math doesn't work out now.  I will just modify the drawing to use what I have.  This is a substantial table.  It will weigh a little over 600 lb. with the wheels.  Make sure the wheels you spec can carry the weight.  The final cut length of your legs depends on the size of the wheels you use.  A couple of things if you want to make a table in this style.  You can use smaller angle.  I have the angle back to back with a gap between the horizontal legs and no gap between the vertical legs.  This gives you space to use clamps.  Angle usually isn't square so don't clamp the vertical legs together.  Line the horizontal legs up on a flat surface.  You will need a foot to mount the wheels.  The angle is flange out on the outer edges.  This is a solid table and doesn't need bracing.  


An even cruder side view of a stock rack.  This is one sided.  You can make them two sided if you want.  I made mine from 3" x 1" rectangular tubing.  Pretty thick wall.  Make 3 or 4 of these and attach them with at least two braces on the upright.  Mine holds a lot of weight.  If you want you can have the lowest level double as a feed and cutoff table for your saw.  If you want to do that, you probably need to know what saw you will be getting.  


These are the huge all metal casters I have on one of my work tables. 


     Use the work table and rack sketches as guidelines.  Make your shop work for what you want to do.  Good luck. Enjoy the process and don't let the things you don't know and the little setbacks stop you.

Tubing page from a steel catalog.  You can see that rectangular tubing comes in 3 stock lengths. It comes in various wall thicknesses.  How thickness is specified depends on the type and shape of the steel and the supplier. I think this is probably a post all on it's own.
This is the page for structural angle.  If you can see it, you can see that the weight of the 20' length of  6" x 6" x 3/8" angle is 298 lbs.  If you decided to make the table from 3" x 3" x 1/2" angle, the weight for a 20' length would  be 188 lb.  You would need more though.  The weight is another reason that it is probably better to have the yard cut the angle to size if you are making my table. 

    This has turned out to be much longer than I thought it would be, but before I end this I want to make sure I've made my overall point really clear.  That point is that it's not necessary to have every tool and every technique to start making things.  Every time you go into your shop and do some work, you will learn.  Nobody starts out a master, but you will never become a master if you don't start.  This doesn't just apply to what I do, it applies to every creative process.  Start.  That is all.  I'm going to stop here and continue next month.

Back to work
j

As I was about to post this, I realized that I hadn't even mentioned safety equipment with the exception of gloves.  I've talked about this before.  Don't even strike your first arc or make your first cut without thinking about the effect of your work on your short and long term health.  Wear a respirator to protect your lungs.  Not a dust mask.  A respirator.  Wear ear protection so you don't become one of those annoying old people who is always asking what they said.  Wear eye protection.  I would also suggest an apron and good work boots.  Don't ever give me that crap about how uncomfortable it all is.  Carrying an oxygen tank around while wearing an eye patch and asking what they said is way more uncomfortable.  

Monday, May 7, 2018

And so it begins

       
I needed a picture so this is it
    I've been considering documenting the way I work. I want to share the methods and skills I use to make the things I make.  I know there are a lot of books that show how to smith or weld or chase or engrave or whatever.  They are pretty dry, but also absolute.  I don't do absolute very well.  These books contain good information, but they also leave a lot out,  and sometimes they make the whole process so stinking hard.  I have a book on blacksmithing published in the early 20th century.  The first thing it instructs the new smith to do is make a set of tongs  You will need tongs.  I guess the problem for me at the beginning of the 21st century is that I don't know how you will make them without all the other things you will also need.  We no longer live at a time when there is going to be a forge and anvil at your disposal just down the street.  That makes me unsure how you can even begin to make tongs.  That's problem one. Problem two is that this book instructs you to make the tongs from 3/4" square bar.  I think that's insane even if you do have a forge, an anvil and a power hammer.  I don't know why anyone would make tongs from 3/4" square bar unless they really wanted to spend days making them.  My advice is that when you are starting out just go buy a pair for $40 and call it a day.  Later on when you need specialty tongs and you have experience, you can make them  from 3/8" x 3/4" flat bar or even 1/4" x 3/4" flat bar.  Why anyone would ever make a pair of tongs from 3/4" square bar is a mystery to me.  Better yet, if you really want to learn the lessons that you can  learn from making tongs, make a pair of tongs every day for a month.  After about 20 pair you will feel pretty confident about your ability to make tongs.  Make at least ten more pair.  Then you will have the knowledge that making tongs can give you and you will have a bunch of tongs.

     Anyway, there are also classes and conferences and YouTube videos where people show their skills, and you can learn an amazing amount from them.  I would never discourage anybody from taking a class.  Classes give the opportunity to work in a shop that has all the equipment you need to do the things that are being shown with an expert right there to get you past obstacles.  This is amazing and is a great way to start.  It will also be just like every other class you have ever taken.  As you can tell from my advice on making tongs, I don't think you will have learned anything if you just do it once.  If you did those calculus problems from high school every day until you really understood them, one at a time, and then did them a few more times, you would know calculus.  Maybe that's just me.  Still, you need to spend time practicing each skill until you feel comfortable with it.

     Conferences and videos are also valuable ways to learn.  I do think in order to learn from them you need a bit of background.  The demonstrators have practiced whatever they are showing until they are sure they won't make mistakes, but by the time they get to demonstrating they skip a lot of valuable information in order to do a better show and if they don't you walk away because it's so so so boring.

     Please don't misunderstand.  I'm not saying that my way is the best way, nor is it always the conventional way.  It's just my way.  Working with metal and making things is how I make a living.  I'm not a purist.  I think I have some practical information that might be valuable even if you never intend to make anything from metal.  I hope that looking closely at how I do my work will help you do yours.  Problem solving is problem solving.

     I want this to be the first chapter of an ongoing series. I intend to go deep, to share my successes and failures, my processes and my thinking.  We all struggle.  I will try to make my struggles entertaining.  Feel free to laugh even if I'm crying.

     There are a lot of skills that are guarded because we all fear competition to some degree.  My animal brain has lots of fear, but my rational brain knows that sharing my skills won't really create competition.  My work has me in it.  Your work doesn't.  Because of that, I will share my knowledge without fear. Besides, at the rate I write these posts, it will take a decade for me to get to the end.

    There are a finite number of skills and an infinite number of ways to manipulate them.  Maybe not infinite, but there are a bunch.  I will include sketches, even though I really can't draw with a pencil.  I will have videos and photos to help with understanding.  I will explain how I do things and why.  Along the way, if you have questions, I hope you will ask them.  There are a lot of ways to reach me.  Pick the one that works best for you.

      Each of us has a finite amount of time.  I want to leave some of my knowledge behind.  Some of it is useful and I'd rather pass it along this way than by having my brain kept in a jar.  I don't think that would be a good look for me.

     That's my plan.  Over the next ten to twelve appallingly slow years I will make a metal artisan of you all.  If you use it as a reference because you want to try working with metal, that's great.  If you just use it to know that you are not alone in the struggle to master your skills, that's good too.  After all,  it's always nice to know you are not alone.

So...until next month when we meet again
j

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

From bedspreads to traffic interchanges ... or something


     I've had the same bedspread for the last few years.  It has stitched stripes.  At the risk of revealing too much about myself, I will tell you that I always make my bed in the morning.  For me, that makes evening like my birthday where I get to open a present to get into bed.  Since getting this spread, I have very carefully lined up the stripes of the spread running the long way down the bed.  Over winter break my daughter was home from school and slept in my bed.  In the morning I walked in and she had very considerately made it.  Only she had the stripes running the other way, across the bed.  It turns out I had been making the bed the wrong way the whole time.  The spread fit correctly her way.  I now make the bed this way, with the stripes running cross-ways,  but it doesn't look right to me.  The spread fits right but the stripes go the wrong way.  I feel like it makes the bed look stubby. 

     This is a design thing.  Line is a fundamental element of design.  The most basic element.  Line leads the eye.  I don't want to look back and forth across my bed as if I were reading a book.  I want to take in the length of the bed.  I want to enjoy the idea that I will be long and horizontal on the bed.  I don't want myself all chopped up.  The professional designer who designed my spread obviously disagrees.  Eh.

     There are a few elements of design.  There are also principles for the use of the elements.  Ideas about the effect of the use of design elements.  People study this stuff for years, but I think all of us know the difference intuitively.  My drawing professor made merciless fun of people who said I don't know anything about art but I know what I like.  What you like is what speaks to you.  It's okay to educate yourself about art but it's also okay to like what you like.  Design is the same in some ways.  We all know when something is visually a bit off.  We also know when we feel comfortable in a space or with an object.  All of us intuitively understand balance and harmony in design and we understand emphasis. 

This is the first thing designed by Philippe Starck that I loved the design of.  It's just a juicer but it's so elegant.

        This doesn't mean that design needs to be predictable.  One of my favorite designers is Philippe Starck.  I still feel bad about correcting a snooty sales clerk in a furniture store who mispronounced his name.  Ok I feel a little bad.  The clerk was one of those people who ... I don't know, I'm sure the Germans have a word for it.  Anyway, I love the work of Philippe Starck because he redesigned common objects and made us look at them.  He made us see.  There's really nothing more magical than that. 

Which is not to say that he didn't fail.  This is a tea pot and a function failure, but it's interesting to look at.

      We are so used to sitting in chairs and sleeping in beds, eating with forks and cooking in pots, that we forget all the design work that goes into all of these things.  Making things that look good and work is not easy.  Making people really see those things is even more difficult.  All of us design.  We decorate our homes.  We set our tables.  We pick sheets for our beds.  Some of us are probably better at it than others which is fine if it's your home or your sheets.  If it's public, or if you make your living doing it, you should understand what your choices say.  Design choices like statements in art need to be deliberate and conscious.  I'm not saying there can't be serendipity.  I'm just saying if you are being paid to do something you should think about and understand what you are doing. 

    There's an interchange in Las Vegas where four lanes of traffic are forced to squeeze into a single lane to access a highway.  There is no time, day or night, where this bottleneck isn't moving at a crawl.  The funny thing is, there is room for another lane.  Maybe I don't see the future plans for this traffic spot, but it seems like bad design to me.  I think most people would agree.  


It's probably not possible to see the giant mess that the design of this interchange creates.
You can get a sense from the map and satellite view though.

      I don't think there is any real difference between designing a traffic interchange and designing a chair or a living room.  Function is the primary focus of designing something functional, but even that can be overdone.  Often design isn't good because the single object is forced to have too many functions.  Witness the sofa bed.  They are usually terrible places to sit and worse places to try to sleep.  The metaphorical jack of all trades master of none.  

 
     If you pay attention you can get a huge amount of information from design.  You can learn what the designer wants to emphasize, what the designer values, and how the designer wants you to feel.  Design can direct your eye and your heart.  You can be told without a word that something has value or that it is cheap.  Look at the Tiffany's window vs. the Woolworth window (another thing learned in school).  Clutter in design, too much information, usually says cheap.  Clutter is not the same as detail.  Detail creates value.  That single piece of jewelry in the Tiffany's window has exquisite detail.  

It was a little bit hard for me to find a window display from Tiffany, but this is one.  It tells one story.

I don't know if there are any Woolworth stores left.  The windows have a lot of stuff.

     I'm thinking about design a lot lately as I try to navigate how to present my work to the public.  I don't really want to work in a vacuum.  I do, but it's not really my goal.  As I move forward, I will need to apply good design to remaking my website, creating my work, and creating a public presence.  Even if my work is art, and as I've said before I'm confused on that front,  I will still need to use deliberate and good design to present my work.  And I will have to own it.  I will have to take control.  Trickier than you might think for someone who is temperamentally a Luddite like hermit. 

     Scale being one of the elements of design, I think I will start there.  Micro.  That's the scale I am starting with.  I'll let you know how it goes.  Look for a new website from me in the next couple of months.  This will be a huge challenge for me because I need to figure out the primary function of my website and not try to make it have too many functions.  I don't want the Swiss army knife of websites, but I don't want to have multiple sites either.   Once it's up I hope you will comment on the design.  Let me know what you think.  Also look around and be a critic of all the design you encounter.  Also, soon I will have a new bedspread. Those stripes are making me nuts.

Back to work.  I have much to do
j