Beautiful Objects

A while ago my dad gave my brother and I pocket watches that had belonged to various now deceased relatives. The one I received is from my grandfather - father's father.

He was a PT boat commander in WWII and supposedly used this to time patrols.

I did a bit of research googling and found some info on it:

Turn up the volume.

This video elegantly breaks down the complex workings of a mechanical watch to show how the mechanisms work together to measure time.

Walnut Light Boxes for Medium Format Film

My friend Dan had an idea for some light boxes for 120 film (medium format), so we got together and figured out how to actually make it. After a trip to the lumber store and a whole day in the wood shop this is the tentative result. I'll post more pictures and details when they're fully completed.

Dan got this featured on a blog called Shooting Film.

The slide film is roughly 2-1/4" square (70mm, 120 film) shot with a Mamiya C330.

Dieter Rams 10 Principles of Good Design

Dieter Rams was an industrial designer for Braun and a bunch of other product manufacturers. I find myself continually quoting this so I figured it was time to post it. Along with "less, but better", these are his ten principles of good design:

Good design...

Is innovative - The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.

Makes a product useful - A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.

Is aesthetic - The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products are used every day and have an effect on people and their well-being. Only well-executed objects can be beautiful.

Makes a product understandable - It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product clearly express its function by making use of the user's intuition. At best, it is self-explanatory.

Is unobtrusive - Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user's self-expression.

Is honest - It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.

Is long-lasting - It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today's throwaway society.

Is thorough down to the last detail - Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer.

Is environmentally friendly - Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the life-cycle of the product.

Is as little design as possible - Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.

Jatoba and Aluminum Coffee Table

My machinist friend Brian and I collaborated on a coffee table for his new place. I ended up reusing the table top from a previous project - the

Lathe Table


The as built dimensions are roughly 24" wide by 48" long and 18" tall. The table top is 1-1/2" thick (8/4 repurposed wood planed to 1.540" thick) and the total weight is about 80 pounds; jatoba is ridiculously heavy. These are the process and final photos.

Initial drawings for the aluminum legs. The idea is for the pins to expand by driving  wooden wedges into the slots similar to how an axe or hammer handle is attached.

Orthographic drawings done in Rhino and Illustrator.

This is the shop drawing. The pins are drafted slightly at the top so they exert enough pressure to hold the leg in place. I need to acquire a photo of his notepad - Brian turned this drawing into what I assume is essentially a G-code equation for the EDM machine.

These next few images are the mock-up leg that Brian produced.

The wedge that gets pounded in is made of jatoba. It's about twice as hard as oak and 1/3 more dense.

Testing the ability of the wedge to expand the aluminum pins.

It worked but in the end the pins got longer, thinner, and drafted (thicker at the top) to provide more ability to expand outwards.

Repurposing the old table top.

Bye bye bad craft.

End grain doesn't glue up well so I added some simple splines. It also lines up the wood better so that you don't waste as much material in the planer.

I added a domino joint (mortise and tenon) just because.

The symbols on there indicate which way the wood bows towards. There wasn't much at all, but if you put opposing pieces next to one another they straighten each other out. The planar I use is 18" wide so I had to glue it up in portions...

... then join the whole thing. I messed up and made the domino joints prior to planing so the sides were off by 1/32" or so. That would require a lot of sanding so later I cut the whole thing in half and did it again.

Cutting the ends flush. The table saw blade has gunk on it from architecture students making models with odd material, lots of not entirely dry glue, and pushing material too quickly/slowly through the saw. More finishing work...

Dual end grain spline joint.

The router fitted with a follow bit; it's essentially a bearing at the tip of the bit that follows a template.

Cutting the ends flush. The shop is used by students so all the blades have gunk on them which leads to burns on harder woods, so - more finishing work.

This one turned out well. The first one was difficult though. 1-1/2" of extremely hard wood is a lot to take off at once.

The material I used for the template was too thin and poor quality so my router bit crushed it a bit and my mortises came out about 15-18 thousands too large - which actually turned out to be okay.

This is a Domino machine made by Festool. They're about $1,000 new... really want one. You can build anything with one of these.

These are the beechwood (similar to oak) tenons that along with glue join two pieces of wood.

This is the result of me cutting the table in half to line up the two halves more closely; it worked out really well.


Almost perfectly flush this time.

The corners had to be hand chiseled out to be made square.

I had to flip it over so that the final cuts wouldn't cause tear out on the bottom. This led to cutting 32 (4x4x2) corners square.

This is the EDM (electrical discharge machining) my friend Brian used to cut the tops of the legs... to within "roughly" 100,000th of an inch. (The next seven photos are Brian's).

End milling a taper to the legs. They start out as 2" by 1-1/8" by 18" tall and at the base they're 1-1/8" square.

Just under 0.251", not bad.

The pins are about 1-1/2" long and vary in thickness from 3/32" to 1/8".

I used epoxy on the tops of the legs just to make sure nothing would move then pounded the wedges in. I was very surprised by how well it all worked. They went in easily, flush, and when you grab the legs it's obvious that they're very sturdily attached.

Flush cutting the wedges. I did a first finish coat for some dumb reason... the saw and general mess screwed up the finish so I had to strip and start again.

After stripping and sanding I use a scraper as the final finishing tool. At this angle you can see what it does to the grain. It sort of compresses the grain and leaves it smoother than any sandpaper can.

Since the table will see daily use I opted for a polyurethane finish. Not my favorite but it does protect well. The first three coats were glossy (to bring out the depth of the grain) and the final coat was semi-gloss so that it doesn't look like plastic. I rub it on with a rag, wait 24 hours between coats, lightly sand with 320 grit between coats, and the final finish gets a #0000 steel wooling.

Detail shot of the top of the leg.

Finishing the legs took forever.

Glue and grim...

I ended up putting a coat of poly on the legs so they wouldn't soak in oil from peoples hands.

All the final shots were taken in Crown Hall.

This is a rendering to show how the legs work.

Custom USB Flash Drive

I'm waiting for Autodesk Navisworks to download so I can complete an assignment... so I thought I'd kill some time by documenting what I did on my "day off."

I have all these really small pieces of scrap from all my wood working projects so I took a roughly 3" x 3" piece of 4/4 black walnut (that's roughly 3/4" thick) and made a USB flash drive enclosure out of it. I milled it out on the Bridgeport, band sawed the block in half (in retrospect I should have done this first so the grain fit together, next time), sanded for a tight fit, glued and clamped the wood pieces together, sanded, applied tung oil, wait, sand, repeat, steel wooled, and done.

This is the initial fit on the Bridgeport milling machine. This is one of my favorite machines in the shop. You could make a rocket almost exclusively with this machine if you were skilled enough.
Completed drive made of scrap black walnut, and just so this looks dumb in 2 years, the flash drive is USB 3.0 with 16 GB of memory.

DIY Christmas

My wife came home with a Christmas tree, somewhat unannounced, about two weeks ago. After she set it down she said she was off to go get a stand... hmm. The ubiquitous Christmas tree stand in the US is stamped sheet metal painted red and green; I'm not a huge fan, so I offered to make one. She expressed her skepticism, but a few days after finals I built it.

It's made from leftover 1 1/4" angle iron (about 5' of it) from my previous coffee table project. I chose a triangular base because it would never wobble and would most easily hold the tree. The three pieces are identical which made fabrication quick and simple. More so in this project, because of its utilitarian nature, I let the material and fabrication process guide the design. For example, aesthetically, the angle iron should be rotated to show the flat side on the outside, but this would require some fairly difficult cutting and welding to make the connection between the three pieces. Instead I chose to keep the top flange hanging to the outside so that the angle iron could be simply butt-welded to one another.

The three pieces just prior to butt-welding them together then bending the legs up and welding them in place.
I tapped the angle iron to receive 5/16"-18 screws.
The finish is the same boiled linseed oil  that I usually use. I use steel wool beforehand to remove most of the mill slag.
Next I had a problem with the Christmas tree ornaments... so I designed some a laser cut them. Bonus: I found all the plywood in the garbage bins around the M&M building.This was a quick job from start to finish. For next year I'm going to come up with some more interesting designs and use  the 1/8" Baltic birch ply (it cut much faster and was burned less).

This photo was taken before I sanded them to remove the burn marks.
The cut-outs left on the laser bed.

 Here's a video of the laser cutter cutting the ornaments out. It's kind of like watching a waterfall or fire; even though it's not that exciting it's oddly mesmerizing and hard to avert your eyes.

I made some frames from Peruvian (tropical really) walnut for a few in-laws and myself. I also grabbed some panga lumber for the first time; beautiful wood but it explodes when you machine work it. I kind of liked it.
The finished stand. Still need to get some black bolts... Home Depot lacks aesthetic options.
The finished product.
The staves (soon to be molding) of Peruvian walnut being routed to form a rabbet.
This was my Christmas gift to my sister-in law. The frame is 11" x 14" (inside) and made of Peruvian walnut with maple splines.
The photos is a silver gelatin print I enlarged from a B&W negative I took of her in Napa. It's mounted on museum board .

Small is Beautiful

Tata Nano, the world's least expensive car.

This article about the Tata has me a bit worried. For those of you who don't keep up with Indian automotive companies, the Tata is the world's least expensive car. It's spartan as hell and costs $2,400. The problem lies in the fact that Indians aren't into the idea of owning the worlds cheapest car. It's just not selling (contrary to this Wired article from 2008 which predicted that it would be a huge eco-problem because it would put so many people on the road, I agreed then, oops). And that's a problem for me. Let me explain.

Green technology is incremental. The gains it provides are percentage points, and as percentage points go they tend to be low. Not that I'm against them, I think it's a great effort, and I'll try to employ them probably even more than most architects. But I have a different approach too. If I only learn a few lessons in architecture school, one of them will be that every square inch costs money.

Oh? Don't want to pull that flat wall in to fit the contour of the rooms? Only 10 square feet you say. Well let's see, that's $140 a square foot in hard costs, plus your borrowing costs and other fees - times 10. Yup, that just cost you $2,000. Want to put a kink in that wall?

If your home is half the size it costs half a much. Half as much to heat. Half as much to cool. Half as much to repair. Half as time much to clean. No new technology - just smaller. It doesn't just work for buildings, it works for cars and other things too. This Formula 1 designer made an electric car that gets 350 MPG just by making it super light weight (more info).

I've brought up this idea to my professors and I usually get lukewarm feedback. Most buildings are formulaic. So many square feet per occupant, so much height, so many watts per square foot for lighting, etc. I'm told reinventing the wheel shouldn't be done, but in NYC or London people live in much smaller spaces because of the cost. I'm convinced that a good percentage of my generation would be willing to live in somewhat smaller places (say 10-25% smaller) in order to save money/work less/have more disposable income. Isn't that what our generation is all about? Less shit, more experiences.

But the Tata is proving otherwise. People do want more stuff. Bigger stuff. Nicer stuff. But this is also a country of poor people on the come up. Like most of our grandparents and great grandparents they didn't have anything growing up and now they want the Cadillac, their double quarter-pounder, and the swimming pool behind the mcmansion. Maybe we're different? Maybe not, if my brief stint on this planet has taught me anything it's that people are more similar than they are dissimilar.

As I always tell my friends who want me to build something. If we make it half the size we can make it twice as nice. Most have never thought of this. A big table from plywood can be cool but how about a coffee table made of black walnut instead? Consuming more doesn't mean consuming more. It means consuming quality, and that's what I want to build.

Walnut and Steel Coffee Table

I just finished making this walnut and steel coffee table for a friend. It cost $250 in material and measures 45" square and 18" high. This is my first attempt at building something with high-end materials that's more affordable and light weight. 

I didn't document the production process as well as I usually do, and many of these photos are from my camera phone. It's really hard to stop what you're doing and pick up a camera at every step but as a learning tool it's almost always worth it.

These are some quick sections trying to figure out the edge detail.
This is how the details were actually made using 4/4 walnut and 1 1/4" x 1/8" thick angle iron.
The boards are joined on the short edge with dominos with beech and glue then they're clamped. Those strips on top are the end grain glue-ups/solid strips that make up the underside edge.
Prior to oil.
After the first coat of oil.
Marking the bent corners with a scribe prior to cutting them on the bandsaw. I left thickness on the backside for the opposite flange.
The legs are bent, then welded on the backside of the miter.
This was my first time using a MIG - I learned on a stick / arc welder.
The frame uses 36' of 1 1/4" angle iron (it comes in lengths slightly longer than 20'). The legs and frame are four of the exact same pieces butt welded to one another near the corner. The cross member is needed as the walnut would be too thin to support a substantial load.
More walnut furniture in Crown Hall. Teak oil finish - about 6 coats taken to 320 grit and buffed out with #0000 steel wool. The top is 4/4 (3/4" walnut) with strips of 1 3/8" wide walnut on the underside with grain set perpendicular to the top boards to give the appearance that the table is actually made of boards going opposite directions. Not sure how I feel about that - it's kind of dishonest (in the Dieter Rams sense).
The typical rule for coffee tables is to make them 2/3's the length of the largest couch and the same height as the top of the seat cushion. In this case that makes the table 45" square and 18" high.
Corner detail.
I took some steel wool to the metal frame before rubbing some boiled linseed oil onto it. After about 15 minutes you wipe off the excess. This both protects the steel and makes it darker and leaves a sort of waxy feel to it. This is what farmers used to use to protect their tools from rust.
Here's a short video I made about how I made the one-piece leg-table top supports. It's sped up a bit in the middle of the clip to make it less boring. The 90 degree triangle is removed from the angle iron, then it is bent to 90 degrees, and welded on the backside. I've used the same process to make hundreds of pipe brackets in factories.