It’s the very end of the month (a leap month, no less! I had an extra day!) and I’ve got a couple of projects I want to post about, but they’re still in progress. So, instead of some personal creative or DIY stuff, I wanted to post about something more work-related for me. From the very beginning of my work as a technical writer, I described my approach to how I see my documentation work being used as follows:
Immediate: tool tip, pop-ups, hover info in your IDE.
Quick answer: F1 on what a dialog field values are or a function/method
Long answer: search the docs and poke around until I find my answer
Learning: Intentional reading, in the order presented, if the documentation
Levels 0 & 1 both start in software or code and end there. This has the least and next-to-least interruption to your work. The answer is immediately when you need it or just a click & scroll away.
Level 2 is often back and forth between docs and software. This inherently can feel tedious. Often, this results in not even finding what you need (unless you were looking for frustration). Unfortunately, this is also where a lot of product help leaves you.
Level 3 is solely in the docs. You’re no longer performing your primary goal or job function. This was not so common for new employees or employees who just got a new tool in the workplace at one time. It feels like a rare luxury today, though. Too many workplaces prioritize keeping productive day-to-day over making their employees productive in the longer term.
So, what’s the point? Level 0 & 1 should be the goals, but they require significant more planning and coordination with product developers and UX designers. And, if we’re being honest, making Level 2 work effectively is going to require some of the same. And if you’re writing manuals like anyone has the time for Level 3, you’re shooting yourself in the foot for all of the other cases.
So, if you happened to read my post last month on injuring myself, you’ll recall I did so because I was hoping to make a box joint jig. A box joint, or as it also known: a finger joint, is a series of overlapping “fingers” along a joint. This style of joinery gives lots of glue surface area as well as shear strength to a corner joint. It’s commonly used for the corners of a box, thus the name.
Well, I did manage to make a first attempt at a jig and made a single joint test. I was hoping to use my standard table saw blade with my sled in lieu of purchasing a dado stack1. The jig is a bit too loose in the cuts and it’s possible my table saw sled is a bit too loose in the miter slots, as well. This combined with some cheaper birch plywood (there are lots of voids and a very thin veneer) resulted in the fingers looking more like a boxer who’d just fought Mike Tyson.
Also, the depth of the cuts were a bit too deep (which is easy to adjust, at least). But gluing up the loose joints was a mess.
I had sort of given up on the experiment as a failure, but I did recently go back and sand the fingers down; this time on purpose (yeah, I get the humor after last month’s incident). The joint still doesn’t look great but it wasn’t as “gap‑y” as it seemed before cleanup. What’s more, I can attest that even as poor as this one looks, it is incredibly strong. It’s not especially pretty, but for some utility boxes, it would definitely serve it’s purpose.
So, this wasn’t a total failure and I did learn a lot from the exercise, including the injury. Which, my fingers have completely healed back, nails and all. As a result of “babying” the left index finger, I did develop tendonitis in my left elbow (which is really the forearm muscles and tendon connection). So, that little incident continues to remind me to be safe!
A dado stack is a pair of blades, often with intermediate spacer/chippers in between which cut out a wider section of material in each pass on a table saw. [↩]
A few years ago when I was considering getting into more “fine” woodworking, there was one project that came to mind: recreating the footstools my grandfather, Cicero, used to make. He was a handy woodworker and built a lot of useful projects1 I know we had two or three of these footstools around the house growing up. I assume my aunts and cousins may have had some, as well. They’re perhaps not a master craftsman project, but let’s not over-estimate my abilities. As my mom put it, though, after about a half century, they’re still in use!
So in 2016 I sat down to carefully draw out the pieces. His were all made from 1″ thick solid pine, but I figured I’d use 3/4″ plywood instead. The legs and sides have a roughly 10° slant such that the base tapers up to give a slight lip all around the top footrest. I also decided to add a handhold to the top of mine (some others of his may have this, but the one that sits in our kitchen does not). On my notes and sketches, I also doodled out a logo that read “Cicero Hand Made Crafts. Est. 2016”. I figured he was the “maker” in my family so I’d honor that by labeling made items with his name.
It took me about a year-and-a-half until I actually got around to making my first footstool. I batched out the pieces on the table saw for two footstools from a 2’x4’ project board of 3/4″ maple plywood. Some of the angle cuts using my cut pattern resulted in a color mis-match in the wood, but this could probably be resolved by buying higher quality plywood in the future. The bandsaw was used for all curves, including cutting the arches in the legs at 10° (so they’re actually level when assembled). I used the drill press and a 1 5/8″ forstner bit to hog out material for the handle (which I then cleaned up with a series of rasps, files, and sandpaper). The disc and belt sander were used to clean up all the edges (with care not to remove any more finger nails). My super-simple router table was used to add a 1/4″ round-over to edges. I then used the random orbital sander to clean everything up.
I used made an assembly jig for the first piece and used pocket holes to attach the legs to the top (something my grandfather didn’t have but he seemed like a practical enough person, he’d have used them if he could have). I attached the side runners to the legs with some counter-sunk wood screws (black). I used a light color wood filler for any ply gaps (or other blemishes). Finally, a generous coat of wipe-on polyurethane was applied for a finish.
I assembled the first footstool as a Christmas gift for my older brother last year and then completed the second footstool as a Christmas gift for my mom this year. The process for building both pieces was a learning curve, so I didn’t really take great photos of either build. These are a mix of both projects (which is why the tops look different). I already have planned out making some additional templates to use with a trim router to help improve the process for future builds. This project is so great because it ends up using almost every power tool I have. But just like every project I try, there is always something new to learn even when I’ve already built the same thing before!
One of which was a long shelf for my dad’s hi-fi system; a gift to his new son-in-law. This later became the platform which our G.I.Joe USS Flag aircraft carrier play set lived! [↩]
I got a hard lesson delivered today while starting a project in the garage this afternoon. I’ll lead in with saying that I’m ok (and will heal up fine in a week or so); only a bit rattled. Let me start with where my head was (and shouldn’t have been) that got me here.
I’ve had on my “To Do” list for 2019 to learn how to make box joints. Well, here we are into December and I’ve not even tried it. I had wanted to spend last Saturday working on it, but I let the weekend get away with me with Thanksgiving and Christmas decorations (which are fine and I was glad to get the time I had with all my family). This evening, I had a Cub Scout event with my son in which I was responsible for bring some audio and video equipment (i.e., our home AV receiver, speakers, and disc player). That ended up taking a lot longer than I had anticipated. But I had an hour to spare so I figured I’d at least get a jump start on my box joint jig, knowing all day Sunday (tomorrow) is going to be busy with other things.
And it’s entirely worth underscoring here: this is all arbitrary pressure I’ve put on myself. Absolutely no one else cares if I figure out how to make box joints ever, let alone today or even this year. But I had convinced myself that I needed to rush through the hour to get the table saw jig set up.
I picked out my backing board and was looking for a piece of scrap that approximately the same thickness as my table saw blade kerf (simply put, that’s the width of the cut that the table saw makes and is fractionally wider than the blade itself). My initial plastic piece for the jig ended up a big loose the backing board, so I wanted to quickly try a different approach. Mind you, the piece I’m trying to cut is less than a 1/4″ thick. So I figured, why not start with a thin off cut and just sand it down to the necessary thickness?
My power sander is a combination of a belt sander and 6″ disc sander. The disc of course will put a twist on any object pushed into it, so a firm grip and just being mindful of one side lifting and the other pushing down is important. I grabbed a long thing piece of scrap and tried sanding it on the disc, not thinking about where my hands would go if (when) it slipped out of my grip. I also failed to put on gloves. You certainly do not wear gloves with some power tools (anything with a circular spinning blade), but they are a good idea with a sander.
Within less than a second of me pushing the wood into the disc, it knocked it right out of my hand and left me pushing my fingers into the sanding disc. Now, in all the power tools I have, if I had to pick one that I was going to injure myself on, it would probably be the power sander. Blades, as you can imagine, can quickly cut into flesh and cause serious injury or death. I cannot imagine sustaining a life-threating injury on a small power sander like mine (though I’m not saying it’s impossible). But at 3600 rpm, 120 grit sandpaper can remove skin and nails quite rapidly. Certainly faster than my reaction time. Before I knew it, my unnecessary rush and lack of thinking about what I was doing caused me to injure my index and middle fingers on my left hand. My middle finger got the skin scraped badly but my index nail is about 1/4″ too short now. And boy howdy is that sensitive skin under there!
Again, it’s nothing serious. I was able to turn off the machine and immediately go treat it myself. My fingers are sore but the nail should grow back. Honestly, it’s the lesson I needed to learn. Power tools are not anything to be in a rush around. Every action with one requires complete focus and attention. I need to always think about how the tool could injure me based on the action the tool makes. Given that I was also using my band saw and table saw today (which, I do take less for granted, to be fair to myself), I’m fortunate that this is the injury I ended up with.
As my kids join me in the shop more, I’ve had to teach them lessons about safety. I’ve even had to warn my son about touching that very sanding disc until it comes to a complete stop (he thought he should stop it spinning one day after I’d killed the power). I even recently watched James Hamilton’s (aka, Stumpy Nubs) video on injuring himself with an angle grinder and remarked on the need to pay attention when I’m working. I firmly believe that the number one most important piece of safety equipment is your brain. Too bad I failed to put that and my gloves on this afternoon. I’ll do my best to take that lesson to heart from now on.
The Pro Co Rat is a, if not the, classic distortion guitar effect1. It’s still around though “vintage” effects can go for hundreds of dollars. There are many variants and, like any classic guitar effect, there are many clones. It’s also one of those pedals that many of the mods and clones have improved upon the original.
I got a complete pedal kit from Aion effects — the Helios Vintage Distortion. I have built one of their effects using just a PCB before, and the instructions are top-notch. The kit was equally well done, with quality components. The Helios is basically a Rat clone that uses an OP07 chip (instead of the hard to find LM308N and most folks who seem to know say they sound the same, anyway). The Helios also includes a couple of very common modifications to the Rat: an additional “sweep” control and a clipping diode selection. The former adds an additional EQ control to the pedal where as the latter adds the ability to select different clipping diodes that decide the characteristics of the distortion.
I’m not sure if I’ve really mentioned this in any posts of effects building, but I prefer to tape down all of the components for each build onto paper along each of their descriptions. This is sort of analogous to “knolling” a LEGO kit, I suppose (though taping them down makes the components easier to identify later!).
As I mentioned, the Aion kit comes with what all seem to be high quality components. I have to admit, the all red resistors had me confused. They were clearly labeled with text as to each value (which is much better than trying to read color bands!). They appear to be 1/4W 1% metal film resistors with a coating and printed value is all.
The kit comes with literally everything you need, including pot isolation covers. The fit-up of the top-mount audio and power jacks is very precise, so I did have to re-work the solder joints on one of the jacks. But the resulting finish of the enclosure is that much nicer.
The wiring in the pedal is done using headers and small ribbon cables. If you really hate off-board wiring (I don’t mind it so much), this is really nice. Here you can see the custom dressing nut used over the stomp switch (there’s a similar custom nut for the clipping switch!), which gives the pedal a very high-end made feel.
I do have a few complaints about the kit, though. First is that the PCB just refused to lay flat on the selector switch and pots. I could have fiddled with it more, but it seemed like things just didn’t want to line up. Even though Aion states the 3PDT footswitch is a premium switch, with longer life, I’m not a fan of the feel of it (I guess I’m just so used to either a relay or the Taiwan blue switch!). Lastly, and this is something I absolutely plan to change on this pedal: the LED is insanely bright! I mean, it hurts to look at and is actually distracting, even when you’re not looking directly at the pedal! I’m going to swap out the LED resistor to dim it down. A lot!
But these are great kits and this is an amazing pedal for less than $75 (on sale, regularly $82). The assembly took me about 2 hours or so (that includes taking a few minutes to put my son to bed). Of course, your mileage may vary. Some of their pedals are sold fully assembled on Reverb or you can also reach out to a builder to see about pricing an assembled pedal. Even at that price, it’s a good deal! With the clipping options, it can cover ground from almost a transparent boost all the way to a medium gain distortion pedal (I mean, it’s no Boss Metal Zone…). It’s honestly cheaper than you could purchase a used Rat pedal and mod it, and already modded Rat pedals go for much more.
Now, none of this matters if it doesn’t sound good, of course. Once again, I’ve managed to build a pedal and write a blog post without bothering to record any audio. Part of that is because I don’t yet have a mic and I’m not pleased with the cabinet simulator on my amp head. But mostly, it’s because I’m lazy and not really a great guitar player! I’ll try to get some audio posted soon, though.
Now, when I say “distortion effect”, I’m not referring to fuzz pedals or distorted amplifiers, I really do just mean distortion effects pedals. Hendrix never played one of these! [↩]
My wife, Angela, studied music for the first couple of years at college. She plays the flute and still performs a few times a year (mostly at our church). However, in all the years we’ve been together, we’ve never actually played any music together. In fact, we haven’t really created many projects together (aside from two kids and numerous DIY house projects, of course).
Well, a couple of weeks ago Angela was asked to play a short piece of her choosing at a Wednesday night church event. She decided it would be fun to have out daughter and another young person from church, both of whom also play flute, to play a woodwind trio. Angela picked one of her favorite hymns and asked me to transcribe it using MuseScore. Other than helping the kids search that site for some piano sheet music, I didn’t have much experience with it or the desktop application.
After a few minutes, I had the piano treble clef transcribed in a file. I duplicate that part into two copies. Then came the fun part. Using the arrow keys to start re-arranging the piece. When I told it what instrument would be used for each part (in this case, a flute trio), it handily would color code notes that were getting outside the range of that instrument. Now, I don’t actually play the flute and aside from that note range and the knowledge that a flute can’t really play one than more note at a time, I considered this a first pass. Angela then went through the piece and indicated what notes need adjusting (a lot of them). She also borrowed from the bass clef and added in some flourishes of her own liking. The playback isn’t perfect (you’d never think you were listing to anything other than synthesized instruments) but it’s very helpful in arranging. What’s more, Angela and I got to work on something creative together!
The three of them played the piece last night at the candlelight service. I though it sounded great but as I ended up as the liturgist, I didn’t get to record them performing. But, you can at least see and hear the piece here: