Learning to Weld

Something I had wanted to learn for many years is basic welding. I’m not planning on switching careers or anythingThough you can make an excellent living as a welder and I would encourage any young person interested to learn about that trade.; I just wanted to try it myself. As a structural engineer, I’ve spec’d countless welds on paper. I’ve only ever done very limited metal work (mostly just cutting, drilling, & bolting), and I wanted to get a feel for what it’s like to join metal with welds. I’ve learned from some of my engineering friends, as well as watching Grady at Practical Engineering, that I’m not alone in this interest.

But it’s not necessarily easy to find a teacher for a curious person rather as opposed to a student who is seeking a career. I don’t have a lot of friends that weld, either. But, maker spaces often have introductory courses. So, I found a great “Intro to Metals” course at Fort Houston here in Nashville.

For better or worse, I was the only person who signed up that Saturday, so I got a three hour, one-on-one course from Courtney Daily, who is a local artist who happens to work & teach at Fort Houston. I really recommend checking out Fort Houston for all sorts of classes. Courtney, especially is a great teacher (and, from what I saw of her work, a talented artist and damn fine welder).

Welder (noun): a person who fixes or makes shit you can’t 😋❤️🔥

A post shared by Courtney Daily (@courtdaily) on

Fort Houston Metal Shop

I first made a bunch of really ugly test welds to practice on some scrap. We also practiced cutting & drilling, which though not new to me was (is) still something I had a lot to learn about.

Ugly welds

My little beginner project was to make a frame. I made a rectangle out of 1″ angles. Since we had the extra time, I also got to spend some time grinding it down (which probably took longer than actually welding did, given my work). It ended up looking better than I would have expected for the my first project. I’ll probably find a way to mount some art in it (or maybe use it for a guitar pedal board, though it weighs a lot for that).

Ready to grind
Finished frame
Ground to the core

So, as I was finishing up grinding I made the comment that it looked shiny now, but it’d probably rust over by the next day. Courtney corrected me that the steel would stay fairly polished where I ground it for a long time. Well, it’s over three months later and it hasn’t rusted a bit.

  • Smart welder lady: 1
  • Know-it-all dude: 0

Reminds me I always need to listen & learn.

The End of RadioShack

RadioShack announced today that they have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. They will close about 2,400 of their stores with many of the remaining locations being purchased by Sprint. This is more-or-less fitting, given that the brand has basically gone from the go-to supply store for electronics parts to a cell phone reseller. I honestly can’t say that they no longer carried any electronics parts, but I seriously doubt it’s something most of their locations carried at all.

Ball's TV

Ball’s TV by Mathew Warner on Flickr. These guys look like they could legitimately fix your old tube television, though.

It’s disappointing news for some. Wired has as a story on how influential RadioShack was in building Silicon Valley1. Steve Wozniak (Apple co-founder) recounts how some original telephony hacking got he and Steve Jobs to go on to build computers:

He used [a Touch Tone dialer purchased at RadioShack] for the now-infamous Blue Box, which he and Steve Jobs used to make their own free calls without interference from Ma Bell. Without RadioShack, there’s no Blue Box. And as Woz tells it, without the Blue Box there’s no Apple.

While it’s good to understand RadioShack’s importance in the hacker / maker / DIY culture that helped to spur innovators like Woz, it’s important to note that the RadioShack we all knew and loved died many years ago. They either didn’t see the rise of makers or simply ignored it, in lieu of chasing mobile phone buyers. Admittedly, that was chasing the money at the time. Of course, it’s not served them well in the long run. And they company that brought IBM Compatible PCs to many homes across the country (including my friend, TJ’s, when we were kids) got out of the computer manufacturing business early on.

Jason Soldering

The time my older brother & I fixed my washing machine with a kit I ordered off the internet.

Even so, I think there’s never been a better time to be a maker or a tinkerer. With a nearly endless supply of free how-to videos on YouTube, countless DIY and repair sites catering to anyone with a screwdriver and some time, and amazing online shops like Adafruit, someone today has far more access to get started building whatever they can dream up. So, for that, I can be ok saying good bye to RadioShack. Frankly, I wrote them off a long time ago.

  1. Also, they get it wrong about fixing modern tech & gadgets. I’ve repaired iPods and iPhones myself, with parts I ordered off the internet and by watching YouTube videos.

    iPod Battery Replacement

    Replacing the battery in an iPod Classic.


It’s About Time

One thing that has really amazed me about working at Bentley is just how spread out my company is. Not just in terms of branch offices, but even the various staff members that make up a single team are spread in different cities, even countries and continents. Shortly after my first conference call between myself, the West Coast of the U.S. and the East Coast of India; I realized that being able to quickly know the time in different time zones was going to be a good idea.

Of course, the first thing I think of is those wall clocks over a 60’s news anchor’s shoulder labeled: New York, Los Angeles, London, etc. I thought: I wonder if there’s a desk-sized version of such a thing? Well, there is and to make a long story short: they’re all very expensive. So I figured I’d get crafty and make my own time zone wall clock array.

World Clock Wall Board

My wall clock board – made for about $35 (batteries not included).

There’s absolutely nothing fancy about this. I found some 8″, white plastic wall clocks at Office Depot for about $4 each. I’m pretty sure the clerk thought I was crazy when I bought the entire stock of six of them. Anyway, I found a fairly nice corkboard at Hobby Lobby to put them all on. The cork is too thin on the board, but it’s otherwise a nice one that can easily be used for – well, anything else a corkboard can be used for – should the time come when I don’t want the clocks anymore.

Wall Clocks Detail

Close up detail of the tags. Time Zone highlight maps are taken from the Time & Date preference pane from Mac OS X 10.5.

I mention not wanting the clocks anymore for a good reason. You see, there’s one thing with cheap clocks. It’s not that they don’t keep decent time (they do okay). It’s that they’re noisy. Our office now has a constant “ka-chung-da-da-chunk, ka-chunk-da-da-chunk.” that is getting more than a little annoying.

I knew that was going to be an issue all along, so we’ll see how long it takes to make me go mad. In the meantime, at least I know that I can call Kolkata, India right now without waking anyone up.

Structured Cabling in This Old House

One of my latest projects for our nearly 70 year-old home is to rewire all the low-voltage cabling into a modern, structured system for our convenience and for home improvement value. It’s going well, albeit very slowly.

As a lot of you know, what was once our home office is now a nursery for our soon-to-be daughter. It’s a very worthy sacrifice, although it’s taken a heck of a lot more work than we’d ever expected. Both in moving all (and it is a lot) of our office stuff elsewhere as well as creating a proper room for the baby.

Our Home OfficeThe Nursery

Before and after pictures of the closet sized room that has received so much attention over the past few years in our home. Who would ever think we’d get so much use out of a 9′ x 12′ room?

Well, after we got our bookshelves, filing, and computer desk moved to an adjacent guest room, we still had all our computer and phone networking gear still sitting on the floor of the nursery. Well, I don’t prescribe to the half-baked idea that WiFi can harm humans (and even if I did, I’d say it’s worth it) but a baby’s room just isn’t the place for hot, noisy networking equipment. I have had grand dreams of rewiring all the low-voltage stuff in our house in a neat, modern wiring system of structured cabling but in case you were not aware, old homes weren’t built with that sort of thing in mind. Our house was lucky to have been built with electricity in mind. Telephony and coax cabling were an afterthought, much like the air-conditioning and storage (we still don’t have latter).

I decided I’d move all the network gear down to the basement1. This first meant adding another outlet as networking gear has an affinity for electricity. My friend Chris helped me with the wiring of that during his family’s recent visit. The next step was to place a panel on the wall for mounting the structured cabling equipment to. I also added a shelf for the networking gear, as it needed a high (and dry), out-of-the way spot to live in.

Network Hub

Next comes the actual structured wiring part. My project includes telephony, coax cable for television, and ethernet. The plan is to place a wall jack with one of each in most rooms. Initially, this will only be three rooms on the first floor: living room, sun room, and side room. Eventually, I plan to include the kitchen and three second floor bedrooms, as well as a second jack set for the living room. The first phase is roughly 100′ of cable for each type and the second phase will consist several hundred feet more, with likely some sort of conduit system to the attic.

I’m attempting to do this as cheaply as possible. Mainly because I’m cheap and also because I need purchase some specialty tools in addition to all the hardware. Even the cheap wiring tools are fairly pricey. Here’s roughly what the major materials cost (note: pretty much everything came from various big-box hardware stores unless otherwise indicated):

  • Electrical Outlet in basement (wired off of junction box I installed last year): $5 for new wall boxes and covers. I had some extra Romex cable and the outlet itself already lying around.
  • Wall panel and shelf: $4.50 for a 24″ square piece of 1/2″ plywood. I already had the scrap 2″x4″ to mount to the walls, brick screws for mounting, exterior deck screws for attaching the plywood, two cold-formed shelf brackets, and 1″x12″ for the shelf from various older projects.
  • Network gear: Linksys cable modem, Linksys/Vonage phone router, Linksys WRT45G router w/ 3rd party Sveasoft software, Linksys NAS controller, salvaged 250GB SATA hard drive in a budget USB external controller, a cheap 10-min. UPS, and a older surge protector. All of this was old office stuff we just moved, but probably worth mentioning for completeness.
  • Block 66 panel for telephone: $3.50, stand-off for cable control: $3, 100′ of Cat 3 cable for phones: $16
  • Nine-way Coax splitter: $18, 100′ of Coax w/ F-type connectors ea. end: $20
  • Cat. 5e Patch Panel at Amazon: $28, hinged 2U wall rack-mount: $36 (ridiculous, but the cheapest one I found), 100′ of Cat 5e cable: $28
  • Punch tool for 66 and 110 blocks: $25 (and absolutely worth it as it makes the tedious process very quick).
  • Three wall plates with three modular holes: $1.50 ea., RJ-45 modular plug: $5.50 ea., RJ-11 modular plug: $4 ea., F-type connector modular plug; $4 ea.
  • Wall panel jack boxes for existing structures and low-voltage wiring (i.e. – open back box with clips that attach to drywall/plaster in place): $8 for pack of six.

My calculations put the cost of each wall jack, adding up wall panel, modular plugs, and cable to reach it, at around $25. The cost of the central cabling point is around $85. All things considered, not a terribly expensive project. It is however, labor and planning intensive. Each wall jack is a different animal. Given our homes plaster and lathe walls, none of them are particularly easy to tame.

The first step of the wiring was to install the central distribution panels on the wall panel. The older-style 66 block used for the the phone panel is the most tedious to do, in my opinion. Particularly in my project as the method of distribution I am using requires many short jumpers across punch-down points. Having a multi-tool for punching down wires (mine switches between 66 and 110 blades) is critical in my opinion for doing any signifigant amount of this style of work. The 66 block is simply more cumbersome than the more modern 110 block used on the Cat. 5 ethernet punch panel.

The co-axial cable is about as simple as it gets given I used a specialized cable stripping and crimping tool for placing the f-type ends on the cable. Generally the only method of cable television distribution is single-point hub, there are no jumpers or anything to worry about. There are some signal-boost splitters available for home structure wiring but I found it was easier (and cheaper) to simply use the power signal boost wall block provided by my cable company. The hardest part about working with co-ax is the thickness and stiffness of the cable itself, particularly when trying to pull it through some tight spots in walls.

The ethernet punch-down block, as I’ve said, seems to be a much easier and faster method of tying together a wiring system (of course, the equipment is nearly ten times the cost). I don’t yet have a method of ensuring I’m meeting the Cat. 5 standard, and such, transfer speed. However, currently for our household, it’s competing against older powerline and 802.11g speeds, so even if I can reach half of a 100MB transfer speed, it’s as good or better than before.

Phone Voice & Data Wiring in the Wall

Cutaway view of wall jack wiring.

So far, for the actual home wiring, I’ve only gotten one jack installed. Everything went very easily, although not particularly fast. If you’re going to attempt to cut any holes in a plaster and lathe wall, though; use a high-speed rotary cutting tool (i.e. a RotoZip). You’ll have a much better time of it.

  1. We have a wet basement; that is, one which simply allows groundwater to seep through the walls and then out through a big drain in the middle of a slopped floor. It’s not as bad as it might sound, just not what most people (including us) are used to today. It remains to be seen if this is going to affect the electrical equipment. However, it’s yet seem affect the alarm system or less sensitive electrical items. []

I Am In Need Of A Nap

I’ll spare you all the "sorry I’ve not blogged in a while…" stuff and skip straight to the explanation of why I’ve been occupied with other things. As some of you have seen on Flickr, we’ve been in the process of working on our kitchen. It’s something that we (and by that, I mean 90% Angela) have been wanting to do for the past few years now. However, going without a kitchen and working desperately to get it back over the past few weeks has essentially sucked the life out of me. I mean, left me competely devoid of emotions other than rage and self-pity.

In short: kitchen renovations really suck, especially when you are trying to do a lot of it yourself.

I’m extremely happy with how everything has come together. We still need to paint, but of course, we need to paint over half the rooms in the house. However, the new counters, floors, and appliances look great and Angela seems very pleased with them.

New Appliances

Not entirely done, but you get an idea of what the new kitchen looks like.

This is good, because I have begged her to not speak of or even hint at moving for at least the rest of the year. Were the room larger, I would sleep in our "new" kitchen. After getting cut, burned, and shocked1 all in the process of working on it, I feel a certain sense of ownership that doesn’t come from just paying people to do things for you (although we did pay an electrician and a plumber to do some of the work way out of my league). It’s not so much as pride in my work (as it’s not the greatest, by far) but more like the pride of fatherhood.

Yes, that will seem like a stupid statement in about five more months but for right now, I dare anyone to come between my new kitchen and me; let alone threaten to harm it. I’ll bite you.

  1. I stabbed my left thumb attaching a romex lock on the new garbage disposal, I burned my left middle finger with a Roto-zip blade, and I got shocked when I pushed a fish tape into a wire. All my fault and none were particularly life threatening. I did curse a fair amount, though. []

DIY Weekend: Hardwood Flooring

Not too long after we moved into our house, Angela and I tore out the old carpet in the sunroom and laid carpet tiles. We were actually very pleased with them; they’re good quality carpet and didn’t wear out. However, after getting a second puppy who had a large yet weak bladder (Maggie…), Angela quickly got tired of having to try and clean out the stains. She had wanted hardwood flooring in that room for sometime and last Saturday, my friend Johnny stopped by. We got to talking and decided that the next weekend (the past two days, that is) would be a good time for both of us to do just that. In order to maximize our time, we went to the big-box hardware store to find some materials.

We happened to find some bamboo hardwood flooring. It was at a really cheap price – roughly one third of typical 5/8″ hardwood – so we got five 24 ft2 packets. Another great thing about bamboo is that it’s fast growth material, which is great for the environment (and also the wallet).

Beginning New Floor

The bamboo flooring over a 30lbs. roofing paper as a moisture barrier.

We got started yesterday morning after helping Johnny bring over some of his tools: a miter saw, table saw (which we didn’t need), air compressor, and nail gun (which we couldn’t have done without). We laid down some building paper which probably wasn’t necessary but i supposed to help with preventing squeaks. We snapped out beginning line and then spent the next two hours getting the first two boards around the radiator laid. The rest of the room went much faster, though. We tried to spend some time getting the edges right and we cut off some of the older molding such that it would set on top of the wood flooring, which looks much cleaner. We finished up last night with all but three boards laid.

This afternoon, we went to the big-box hardware store once again to get some additional floor edge molding to go around the room. We used a 5″ edge molding with a piece of quarter-round at the toe, similar to what occurs throughout our house. It’s an edge finish detail that is very forgiving for un-even walls, which also occur in spades throughout this house. It also looks quite fancy and we ended up with really nice finish. That took about four more hours this afternoon and the finished product is something that we’re all really pleased with.

Finished Product

The finished product, except for now the room looks like it needs a fresh coat of paint even more than it did before.

Basement Stairs

The basement stairs project was this past weekend and it ended up being a complete success. Angela and I are both really happy in how they turned out. I don’t really want to write a play by play, but I thought I would at least write some about what we did and what all I learned.

Basement Stair - Circa 1938The New Stairs

Johnny and I had purchased all the lumber and planned out what we’d do the previous weekend, which helped save some time and energy for really getting down to the business of building. My biggest worry and the main reason I had put off doing this for so long (I’ve been talking about these stairs since the first day we moved in) was that I knew it would be very important to replace them in a single weekend. If I couldn’t finish before Monday morning, I’d end up going several days with no stairs (inside) down to the basement: where the laundry is. That would mess up the flow of things around the house and be otherwise pretty dangerous. So, doing all the planning and materials purchasing in advance made a big difference and I’m going to try and spread out my projects similarly in the future.

The Old Staircase (RIP)

Demo didn’t really take very long. I probably took longer to haul all this up at the end of day one.

We got started about 9:00 am on Saturday and surprisingly, demolition of the old staircase took less than 30 minutes. The entire thing was connected to the structure of the house by no more than four 10d nails. Two of which were nailed upwards into the framing from below such that weight on the stairs tends to just pull them right back out, which is exactly what had happened. So, in reality, for the past 68 years, two toe-nails have been keeping this whole assembly up. As an engineer, I can tell you that there’s really no mathematical reason for that to actually work. Dumb luck and some sort of wedging friction combined to prevent anyone from being seriously hurt for far longer than is really sensible.

Even though it stretches what the building code allows for, we used one of the existing stringers as a template to cut the three new ones by. This saved us loads of time and headaches. Those stringers weren’t perfect (and at 42.8°, really steep), but they were fairly regular and square. I drilled the corner at each tread-to-riser intersection to help cut down on over-cut. We just used a circular saw and a jig saw to cut the entire set of stringers and paid close attention to getting everything right. We ended up with all the framing members cut and ready to hang by around lunch-time.

Base Connection Detail

Base connection detail

The next step was the bottom support assembly. I decided to use a fence-post base that had a threaded rod for height adjustment. This would provide a really solid base connection, something substantial to frame everything into, and most importantly, would allow us to raise the whole base up off the wet basement floor. Of course, this required drilling holes in the concrete floor slab to accept the anchor bolts. I bought a 3/4″ ∅ bit for just this purpose but we quickly discovered (actually about 15 arm-numbing minutes and 1/2″ later) that my hammer drill simply wasn’t powerful enough to drill that size hole 3″ into concrete. We went over to the hardware center to rent a real drill: a Hilti commercial hammer drill. The least amount of time they’ll rent one is four hours. We drilled the two holes in about three minutes. It actually took longer at the rental counter than it did to do the work. Money well spent, in my opinion. The "epoxy" I used was actually a Simpson acrylic adhesive specifically for this application. It is fast setting (less than 25 minutes at room temperature) and will likely survive a direct nuclear strike on the house.

Awaiting Treads and Risers

Framing complete

After getting all the framing work assembled, we called it a day. We spent a lot of time fitting everything up before final assembly and although that (along with two trips to pick-up and return the drill) burned up our afternoon, it paid off in having everything fit together well once we did start hammering nails.

Stair Tread

Rounded stair tread detail.

The next morning, we started to work on the treads and risers. Johnny had brought over his router and was able to add a nice rounded edge to all the tread nosing. That is the sort of stuff you’ll actually notice when you look at the stair and even though it probably added an hour or so total, it was time well spent. The final result is a really great looking set of stairs that we were able to walk up for a late lunch around two o’clock.

Handrail Attachment Detail

Handrail connection detail.

We visited our friend David’s house to borrow his miter saw to cut the ends of the handrail plumb. Again, just detailing for aesthetics, but the end result looks much nicer. We spent the remaining time put the handrail up. The first part of that was to build an assembly onto the steel column at the base of the stairs. We used a step bit to drill into the steel flanges to accept three lag-screws. This took a lot less time than I had figured on and the end result looks nice and is incredibly solid (oh yeah, be sure and use cutting oil or you’ll probably just end up welding the bit into the steel). The rest of the handrail surprised us by just how difficult it was to mount. Finding wall studs in a heavily plastered wall is nearly impossible, but we managed to only drill a couple of extra pilot holes. It was the oak handrail itself that was the biggest trouble. After two days of working with relatively soft Southern yellow pine, that oak was like trying to drive a screw into steel or concrete. Actually, worse since both of those went much faster! We did manage to get everything together just in time for when Angela arrived back home.

I finished up the light I installed in the stairwell and now I just need to do some final cleaning up. All in all, a great weekend project. I owe Johnny O. a great deal, as I couldn’t have done it without him. Here’s my idea for a credit card commercial, by the way:

  • Lumber and materials: $230
  • Hardware and tools: $65
  • Equipment rental: $42
  • Having a friend who actually wants to help build a staircase: priceless.