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:
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.
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
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…
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. [↩]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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!
We try to have a weekly family game night. Usually, this is a board game or similar. The kids know that I have a bunch of old D&D books and are generally familiar with the game. A couple of weeks ago, a new D&D Essentials box set was released. This incorporates a new mechanism so that it’s easier for just 2 or 3 people to play (the game is typically best for 4–6 people and I don’t have that many kids). So I just off-handedly checked that our Target had the box set and asked if the kids wanted to go with me to get it. I was surprised that my daughter and my son were excited to go out after 8pm to pick it up.
They asked to play when we got home, so we stayed up until about 11pm rolling up some characters and starting out on a first adventure (the one included in this boxed set). They didn’t get a chance to fight any monsters but still seemed to have a good time. They’ve already asked to play again this weekend!
I’m taking my old iMac in tomorrow for one last time. That is, I’m dropping it off at FedEx to have shipped off to the recycling center. That was my first Mac and it served me well. I had it upgraded a couple of times (remember when you could do that to a Mac?) and even had to use AppleCare once to replace the video board. That combined with a couple of family moves, and I’ve kept the original box around all these years so I could box it up and take it some place. See, as much as I love the design of the Intel iMacs, they’re pretty awkward to lug around (at least the 24″ model I have — I know, sad story). I even put the original foam cover back over it from the first unboxing.
I had the original drive replaced with the first 1TB drives on the market: the Hitachi Deskstar. Between that and the 8GB of RAM and giant screen, this thing felt luxurious… for about three years or so. After the last OS upgrade or so, it got really slow to use. Then finally, that Hitachi drive gave out. I had an external clone of the drive I could boot from and run, but that seemed even slower. So I ultimately decided to get a laptop (by then Angela was on her third Mac laptop).
So it ended up sitting on the floor of my office for several years. I had meant to swap out the drive and restore it, but honestly it wouldn’t even really run the games my kids want to play (Minecraft recommends OS 10.12, which this machine couldn’t come close to running). So, the computer I got before my daughter was even born is now headed out the door. I’ve recycled many, many computers over the years. In fact, Angela doesn’t have any of those three Mac laptops anymore, even (she’s gone full iPad). But this machine is the one I’ve had the hardest time getting rid of.
As Marie Kondo would have me do, it’s time to thank it for its service and send it on its way. So I finally got around to cracking open the case. Since I can’t boot off the drive, it’s not very easy to format it (and removing it is easier than running DBAN for hours and hours). If you work on Macs, then you have to have a Torx driver set. I’d augment that to say you should have a magnetic Torx driver set, as I had to pull and replace the eight screws around the monitor with tweezers. It ended up not being such a terrible task as I’d feared all this time, but I couldn’t guarantee that the screen still works, either.