Hard Shop Lesson

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.

The same pow­er sander I have. The disc spins counter-clock­wise. I don’t even have any pho­tos of my own of this pow­er tool!

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.

Ah, Rats (Pedals)!

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.

Aion Helios Vin­tage Dis­tor­tion Kit

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.

Com­po­nents for the Rat ped­al laid out

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!).

Aion footswitch board and red resistors
Aion footswitch board and red resis­tors

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.

Rat pots and switch­es

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.

Rat ped­al ready to assem­ble

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.

Rat ped­al guts and signed bot­tom cov­er
Rat ped­al guts shot after final assem­bly

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!

Helios Vin­tage Dis­tor­tion Kit Com­plete

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.

  1. 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! []

Guitar Pedal Board

I real­ly make a point to try to learn some­thing new with each mak­er project I do. Whether it’s a wood­work­ing project, a gui­tar effect, or some oth­er hob­by project, I want to add in at least some­thing new to each one. First, it just keeps things from feel­ing redun­dant. But also it helps to expand my skills.

Steel and ply­wood ped­al board

I’ve need­ed to make a gui­tar ped­al board for a cou­ple of years now. Most­ly just to clean up the cor­ner of my office where my amp and effects sit. It’s not like I’m ever going on tour or any­thing. I fig­ured the met­al frame I made in my intro to met­al­work­ing class would be fun to use as a basis for a ped­al board. Up until now, it’s just been sit­ting in our garage; lean­ing against a wall. Of course, the more I start­ed plan­ning, I quick­ly real­ized it was real­ly just a dec­o­ra­tion around an oth­er­wise wood­en stool (albeit a short and slant­ed stool; that’s real­ly all this is). I had want­ed to put a shal­low rab­bet around the edge of the board so the top of the steel frame would be flush with the wood. I tried using both a router bit and my table saw and both were pret­ty much com­plete fail­ures. Odd­ly enough, the sam­ple board I tried on the router worked fine, but that was with the veneer grain run­ning along the direc­tion of the rab­bet. When I tried using par­al­lel grain on the “real” board, it just shred­ded the veneer. The table saw gave a clean­er cut but was just far less accu­rate (and was­n’t much clean­er than the router).1

Cheap router bit and slop­py wood­work­ing don’t result in clean rab­bets, I guess

So, I basi­cal­ly just build my ped­al board out of 3/4″ ply­wood to dimen­sions that I could slide the met­al frame over it. The ped­als don’t sit entire­ly flat, but they work fine for my needs still. I still need to get some more Vel­cro tape to attach them (which would just main­ly help allow me to up the pow­er cords under­neath). It’s prob­a­bly a bit too tall to be very prac­ti­cal and I’ll almost cer­tain­ly replace it at some point. Whether or not I try to include the met­al frame is anoth­er mat­ter…

So it does­n’t real­ly begin to hold all my gui­tar ped­als (note those sit­ting on top of the speak­er cab­i­net)
  1. I ful­ly attribute both of these fail­ures to my own inex­pe­ri­ence. It does­n’t help that I have some very basic setups and things like feath­er­boards, zero clear­ance inserts, etc. would also help actu­al­ly accom­plish what I had in mind. []

Drill Press Cart

I almost made through August with­out post­ing about a project. Then again, I almost made it through­out August with­out actu­al­ly com­plet­ing a project, as well.

Drill press cart com­plet­ed

I decid­ed to get around to a project I’d been want­i­ng to do for a few years now: a cart for my drill press. This is part of the big­ger project to revamp my garage shop and, even­tu­al­ly, clean up the garage as a whole. I start­ed by tear­ing our an old work­bench and putting my band­saw and pow­er sander on a cart. That bench was also where my drill press resided since I first got it and it had been moved to my main bench (along with all the oth­er junk in my garage it seems). So the idea would be to make a rel­a­tive­ly small cart with some draw­ers and stor­age for “drill” relat­ed items. I’m pret­ty pleased with how every­thing turned out, espe­cial­ly since there were a few new skills on this one.

First, I decid­ed I’d mod­el the project in CAD so I could make sure every­thing fit. I would be mak­ing draw­ers on slides for the first time, so I fig­ured it was impor­tant to get the mea­sure­ments right. I end­ed up using SketchUp since they have a free ver­sion for mak­ers (that runs on the Mac). It’s a pret­ty nice pro­gram and I fig­ured out to mod­el my project as well as gen­er­ate a cut sheet.

The full cart mod­eled in SketchUp Make 2017 — col­or-cod­ed by mate­r­i­al thick­ness

This morn­ing I got to actu­al­ly cut­ting and assem­bling. The cab­i­net for the cart isn’t espe­cial­ly large, but almost every­thing was larg­er than I could actu­al­ly cut on my table saw. So I had to break down most of the pieces using my cir­cu­lar saw and my home­made track. It’s a more tedious set­up and it has the draw­back of not being able to make repeat cuts. I man­aged to make a pass­ably square cab­i­net car­cass. My assem­bly jigs came in handy get­ting the car­cass togeth­er, too. I used pock­et holes and glue.

Break­ing down 3/4″ maple ply­wood
Cof­fee and pock­et holes

I also fol­lowed April Wilk­er­son­’s advice and glued up a dou­ble-thick top (1.5″ total of ply­wood as the entire cab­i­net is 3/4″ maple ply­wood) as the drill press is heavy and will cause long-term sag­ging if not well sup­port­ed. I dif­fered from her cart as a inten­tion­al­ly had the sides butt onto the top and bot­tom such that the pock­et hole / glue joint isn’t in direct shear from the load. It exposed the pock­et holes in the low­er cab­i­net open­ing, but no one in the garage is going to com­plain. This also allowed me to place the cas­tor at the very cor­ners of the bot­tom shelf with­out con­cern of the lag screws split­ting the sides.

Assem­bly of the cab­i­net car­cass

I had an exist­ing piece of 1/4″ birch ply­wood that I used for the back pan­el. Before attach­ing it, I added in the divider which is hid­den by the bot­tom draw­er. This goes to add a bit of sta­bil­i­ty to the cart and also helped in installed the draw­ers. I used a trim router bit to clean up the 1/4″ back as it was just slight­ly wider than my 16″ width. The car­cass was just a bit off square, but I was able to nudge it just a bit when screw­ing on the back such that it trued up. That’s where tak­ing some time with the main butt / pock­et hole joints paid off.

Using my cross-cut sled to batch out the draw­er sides

While the wipe-on poly was cur­ing on the main cab­i­net, I got to work on the draw­ers. I used Brad Rodriguez’ gen­er­al design for the draw­ers. Once I broke down the 1/2″ birch ply­wood into two pieces, I could final­ly batch out the draw­er pieces on the table saw. I set up the fence to rip the false fronts and the moved the fence again to rip the 4″ draw­er sides. I made sure to place the draw­er slides and sides into the cab­i­net open­ing to mea­sure for the width. I could then use my cross-cut sled to get my final pieces. Of course for the 1/4″ ply­wood draw­er bot­toms, I still need­ed to use the cir­cu­lar saw. I assem­bled the draw­ers with pock­et holes (laid out such that they’ll be hid­den once in place. You may notice that I did­n’t use draw­er pulls but went with just notched han­dles (again, some­what inspired by April Wilk­er­son here along with some of our IKEA draw­ers). This coin­ci­den­tal­ly allowed me to eas­i­ly clamp on the false fronts while get­ting them attached. I used the band saw to cut out the notch­es and then the pow­er sander just to clean things up and get right up to my lines (and I should add that hav­ing those on a cart is also great!).

Draw­er pieces ready for assem­bly

Get­ting the draw­er slides installed was pret­ty straight for­ward, although I man­aged to get the spac­ing off some. Noth­ing crit­i­cal, just that the slides are at dif­fer­ent depths on the top ver­sus bot­tom draw­er. As of right now, the draw­ers are only held togeth­er with the pock­et holes and 5/8″ screws for the bot­toms. I did this to “dry fit” them as I was­n’t 100% sure they’d fit in the slides (it’s tight to be for sure). If they don’t bind up as I use them, I’ll prob­a­bly take them back apart and glue them togeth­er. I prob­a­bly would have done so today, but this “small” project end­ed up tak­ing me over 8 hours so I just swept up the garage and called it a day. The good news is that I had some addi­tion­al stor­age to put things away when clean­ing up that I did­n’t have this morn­ing!

Cart draw­ers in action

Here are the Sketchup files for the 3D assem­bly (shown above) as well as my cut sheets. Bear in mind the cut sheet was done for the spe­cif­ic pieces of ply­wood I had on hand, and won’t nec­es­sar­i­ly be the most effi­cient if you have full sheets (or sheets of any oth­er size).

Last­ly, these are the soft-close draw­er slides I used (Ama­zon affil­i­ate link). If you use any dif­fer­ent slides, you’ll need to take into account the width of those when cut­ting the draw­er pieces. These are exact­ly 1/2″ on each side, which makes for easy math. I used 18″ length, which allows me to ful­ly extend the draw­ers.

Honda Pilot Tow Hitch

We down­sized from a Hon­da Odyssey mini­van last year to a Hon­da Pilot. It’s been a great vehi­cle (despite the lack of a vol­ume knob). How­ev­er, one of the biggest dis­ap­point­ments last sum­mer was that we could no longer toss four bicy­cles in the back of our vehi­cle and go to a park for a fam­i­ly bike ride. Our neigh­bor­hood is ok for very short rides, but we enjoy park­ing at one of the area green­ways and going for a car-free ride, often on a shady path.

So I’ve been plan­ning on get­ting a trail­er hitch-mount­ed bike rack to solve the issue but of course, that meant hav­ing to get a trail­er hitch first as our vehi­cle does­n’t come with one. I did­n’t want a third-par­ty hitch because 1) they hang below the bumper, which is an eye­sore and 2) I had real­ly bad luck with the wiring on a U‑Haul tow hitch on our old Ford (the dam­age it caused to the sys­tem wiring cost me more than the hitch). My son has been real­ly want­i­ng to or more bike rides, so I fig­ured the time had come to order some parts.

Tow hitch, torque wrench, and bike mount

I did some research and found a cou­ple of videos on how to install the oem Hon­da tow hitch for a 2017 Hon­da Pilot. It’s about as sim­ple as it could pos­si­ble be, with only six bolts to mount it. The part comes with the replace­ment bumper inserts and bolts. I ordered the part from Ama­zon, but you can get it cheap­er (though not with free ship­ping) from https://www.hondapartsguys.com. It does not, how­ev­er, come with any instruc­tions per se; just a note on the box that you have to down­load them. The first thing the instruc­tions state is that this is not a job for do-it-your­selfers. Oth­er than the fact that you need a torque wrench, I hon­est­ly can­not image why not. Well, except that they want to fun­nel some busi­ness to deal­er­ship ser­vice depts. But no way am I pay­ing some­one hun­dreds of dol­lars to tight­en down a half dozen bolts for me. I can’t deep-link to the PDF on Hon­da’s site, but it’s easy to search for the year and mod­el and then find the trail­er hitch instruc­tions.

The first steps, and in my opin­ion, the most dif­fi­cult (or at least time con­sum­ing) is to remove the old bumper insert. It’s just a bent piece of plas­tic but it’s held in by mul­ti­ple screws, bolts, and clips. The only real trick is to under­stand how the pair of cen­ter-push clips work. This video does a great job of explain­ing how to eas­i­ly pop the cen­ter down to slide them out. You save a cou­ple of met­al clip-on-nuts to reuse on your replace­ment insert that has the open­ings for the hitch. Get­ting the new insert back in placed required some per­sua­sion, but once it was aligned onto all the clips and holes, it was very easy to reverse the process.

Mount­ing the hitch itself was­n’t hard to do by myself, either. I lit­er­al­ly just sat it in my lap and the slid myself under the bumper. I was able to rest the hitch in the insert’s hitch open­ing and get two of the bolts start­ed to then sup­port the rest of the weight. I used my small pow­er dri­ver to get the bolts snug tight (I set it to 20, which I assume is Nm). The bolt heads are 19mm, but you can safe­ly use a 3/4″ if you only have SAE sizes (19 mm = 0.748 inch­es; which is with­in the tol­er­ance of most sock­ets any­way). I did­n’t use an exten­der, but rather just a 1/2″ to 3/8″ adapter on the 3/4″ sock­et and was able to get all six bolts tight­ened to spec. The instruc­tions men­tion a 22mm sock­et, which I did­n’t have but pur­chased at Lowes for 99¢. How­ev­er, I nev­er need­ed it and hon­est­ly don’t even know what it was sup­posed to be used for!

Torque wrench dialed to 95 N‑m (70 ft-lbs) and the use­less 22mm sock­et

I saw at least one video where the installer only low­ered the spare tire but I’d rec­om­mend get­ting it entire­ly out of the way. The spare wench sys­tem on Pilot allowed me to just drop it onto a fur­ni­ture dol­ly. I also saw where one per­son detached the muf­fler to get bet­ter access to one of the mount bolts. As I had got­ten that one very tight using a small ratch­et, I did­n’t need a lot of room to get it to the full 70 ft-lbs of torque with the large torque wrench. I had nev­er used a torque wrench before, but it’s pret­ty straight for­ward. The rel­a­tive­ly cheap ($25) one I pur­chased from Ama­zon seemed to work fine and was easy to set to the desired torque (loosen a small nut, turn the han­dle to the mea­sure­ment, tight­en the nut back down). Just tight­en until it “clicks” (which sounds a bit like a ratch­et going back­wards). This video demon­strates it nice­ly; though they appar­ent­ly were using some after-mar­ket part and men­tion “140 pounds” (sic: foot-pounds) but the oem part was far low­er torque.

Just for esti­mates, the dif­fer­ence between 30 ft-lbs and 60 ft-lbs was less than a full turn of the bolt, I think. The dif­fer­ence between 60 ft-lbs and 70 ft-lbs was maybe only 1/8th of a turn! But that last 1/8th of a turn required me to get into posi­tion for each bolt and brace my knees to the frame to pull. You’re not like­ly to acci­den­tal­ly over tight­en these bolts to the full ten­sion using a dri­ver (unless it’s an air-pow­ered ham­mer tool) or a small­er ratch­et. I’d strong­ly sug­gest buy­ing or bor­row­ing a torque wrench and get­ting these tight­ened up right, though. They are so much more unwieldy than a dri­ver or small ratch­et, I would only rec­om­mend them for going from snug (or tighter) to full torque, though. Sure, $25 is a bit much for a tool you use so briefly but it’s good know­ing the hitch is on to stay.

Torquing down one of the hitch mount­ing bolts to the frame. The frame itself has three thread­ed holes along each side on the Pilot.

The nicest thing about the oem Hon­da kit is that it’s hard­ly notice­able once installed. It does­n’t stick out past the bumper (it’s actu­al­ly recessed a bit), so no one is going to lose a knee cap or shin bone to this thing. It came with a lit­tle rub­ber Hon­da insert to stick in the receiv­er when it’s not in use, too.

The fin­ished trail­er hitch is bare­ly notice­able

I also ordered a Yaki­ma Long­haul bike rack. It appears this mod­el is intend­ed for RVs or sim­i­lar vehi­cles, where you would like­ly leave it in place. It does­n’t move out of the way or fold down. Fur­ther, it attach­es with a large thru-nut. How­ev­er, it was the cheap­est Yaki­ma-brand rack for four bikes sup­port­ed on a trail­er hitch. I’ve had very good expe­ri­ences with their equip­ment so I decid­ed to go with this one. It’s fair­ly mas­sive but does the job. The bikes were easy to mount onto it using their zip-tie style straps and did­n’t budge at all to-and-from the bike trail.

Wyatt and I ready to go on our bike ride

One down­side we not­ed to the bikes mount­ed is that the back­up sen­sors con­stant­ly think col­li­sion is immi­nent. So any time you’re in reverse (such as back­ing out of the garage), there is a con­stant beep that must be ignored.

Check Your Sur­round­ings! We’re all gonna die!

As I was installing this for the pur­pose of a bike rack, I did­n’t spring for the addi­tion­al $175 wiring har­ness. I think I’ll like­ly have to take the trail­er hitch back off to place it in the mount, which is not going to be fun (though at least I’ll get some more val­ue out of that torque wrench invest­ment!). That’s some­thing to con­sid­er if you’re look­ing at doing some­thing like this your­self as well. I’m not sure a deal­er will be will­ing to install only the trail­er hitch with­out the wiring har­ness (they’d prob­a­bly still charge you just as much even if they did).

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).

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. []