Polymathematica

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A crib for peanut

Our multitude of projects notwithstanding, the real reason for having a “woodshop” rather than simply a “workspace” is that, every once in awhile, I get a wild-hair to learn a lot of new skills and woodworking techniques for the sake of a single, ambitious project.  This year’s model began the design process within an hour of Liz telling me she was pregnant.  (Incidentally, I was playing the Adagio cantabile movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata at the time – one of only a few moments I can look back on as truly perfect).

My last proper wood project was a pair of bedside tables, a wedding gift for Chris and Danie.  Liz and I designed them to be of simple proportion, with no particular era or style in mind.  They ended up lovely, and I was happy with my first project which started from raw lumber, and ended with lifelong furniture.  I honed my skills with dowel joinery, building shaker-style panels, finding and highlighting the most interesting parts of the wood by thinking about what will be visible even during the milling process, and choosing contrasting woods to good effect.  Here’s the end result.

Top – Maple
Drawer fronts – maple root ball
Legs – Ulmo, a Chilean hardwood
Sides – NW fir
Shelf – Alder edges, spalted maple center

The crib project started out much like the tables above, with a trip to Joe’s.  He lives down the street from where I grew up, and owns a very large shop full of wood from all over the world.  It also houses a large wood mill, and all manner of big saws that make me drool.  Joe is an excellent woodworker and has consistently provided me with key advice as I begin new projects, as well as being the wood-whisperer and nailing it every time.  The ulmo legs on the tables above?  Stroke of genius.

The moderately-figured maple we chose for the posts and rails for sweet pea’s crib, sourced from within a few miles of where I grew up, are perfection yet again.  I was unable to get all my stock from him, given the baggage limitations on airlines these days (fun fact: I milled everything to specifications that would work precisely for checked luggage.  I didn’t know how to anticipate the weight, so I gambled and came out on top).  I’ll tell the rest of the story in pictures below.

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The raw maple, air dried for about a decade in Joe’s shop. The Wood-Mizer is pretty much an industrial band saw sitting horizontally, and running on a track about 30 feet long.

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Re-sawing to create the two long, bottom rails.

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The maple stock in all it’s glory, each piece has at least an extra 1.5 inches of girth, to be dealt with using a planer and table saw

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Planing the posts to be 2″ square

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The top and bottom rails, yet to be planed to a thickness of about 1.5 inches

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I think we’re going to need a bigger bucket…

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After a tightly protected trip in the cargo bay of a 737, I cut the rails and posts to length in my own shop in New Orleans.

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The short piece in the foreground was my tester, to see how my planned finishing technique would end up.

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I marked the posts and the ends of each rail by hand, very carefully and slowly. I drilled the dowel holes on the posts with a drill press, but used a Stanley dowel jig for the rail-ends

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Wood likes to move around a bit when you change its conditions. Going from the Northwest to the Gulf South made even my thick posts warp slightly, so I had to select each corner for its best sides by both appearance and shape.

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My dad’s old Stanely dowel jig, its parts stored in HIS dad’s old Sucret’s tins. I love this jig, and use it all the time. He shipped it to New Orleans to let me borrow it.

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It’s not self-centering like the fancy new ones, but it’s very consistent once you get it set. It has guides of different circumference so you can use whichever dowels you can find.

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I needed to be able to take it apart in the future, so unfortunately I couldn’t use all wood joinery for construction. I decided to build each end using only dowels and glue, and use hardware to attach the two long sides to the two ends.

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Dowel joinery of the top rail and post

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Dry fit of one end

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I used a 1/8th inch round over bit on all exposed maple edges

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This is the channel on the underside of a top rail. There is a corresponding channel on the top of the bottom rail, which allows me to build the vertical slats using baluster style.

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The maple stock, all drilled and shaped. I created the channels using a table saw, then cleaned them out with a chisel.

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Each piece is labeled individually. You can see how some of the pieces moved a little due to New Orleans’ humidity

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One end glued up. I glued one end, leaving the other end dry fit with dowels so I can install the verticals cleanly all the way to the end.

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Square enough

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All the maple pre-treated with Bennite, a penetrant that prepares the wood for oil.

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Laying out the slats for proportion, and figure out the size of the little walnut spacers

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Dry fit, and beautiful

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Detail on the top rail

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Detail on the bottom rail

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Prepping the walnut with Bennite – an extremely satisfying task

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One complete, treated end

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Baluster style vertical slats

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Each long-rail-end has a threaded insert for the hardware

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The bolts are hidden within the posts

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A small strip of maple on the inside, to hold the plywood bottom

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Assembling the long sides. I glued in place about 17 out of the 20 verticals, then removed the end so I could get the last 3

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The complete structure, including the plywood base

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To hide the hardware, I used walnut plugs

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I didn’t take pictures of the oiling and finishing process, because the change is small and incremental. Here’s the end result – a satin sheen

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Before I even assembled any of the crib, I used a power sander with grits 100, 120, 150, then 220.

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My final technique was 5 coats of Daly’s Teak Oil. In between each coat, I sanded with sandpapers at 400 and 600 grit. I used 1000 grit for the top horizontal surfaces of the crib, since it will be the most worn over time.

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As big as it is – 52″ long, 31″ deep, and 40″ tall, the interior dimensions fit a standard crib mattress.

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So far, peanut naps very calmly in it. Should take her awhile to grow out of it.


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The Workshop

Australia was a beautiful place to live, we miss a lot about our lives there.  The big element we lacked in Brisbane, however, was a shop with tools and space to make things.  Elizabeth managed to complete some great paintings, and I had a guitar and piano for my creative outlet.  But I didn’t even have my Milwaukee cordless drill and impact driver.  I had to hang pictures with nails and a hammer I bought at a grocery store.  Like an animal.

Here in New Orleans we’ve set ourselves up differently.  Gone is the warehouse loft with high ceilings and modern finishing touches.  Now we occupy a cute little house, accompanied by a garage which we turned into a wood shop!  For my birthday, Liz got me a table saw and a budget to create a workbench.  The requirements were: house a table saw at one end, using its length for a runoff table, store all my hand tools, have a built in chop-saw deck, and be mobile.  After a few weeks, in my spare time during a rotation in obstetrics and gynecology, a wood shop started to take usable form in our garage.

Having a working shop created a lot of opportunities to fix and build things, and we have taken full advantage over the past few months.  A lot of the work we do on a daily basis at work and school lacks clear endpoints.  That’s not to say our days are without reward, but creating tangible things imparts an entirely different satisfaction for us.  Having spent most of our lives to this point designing, creating, fixing, screwing up, and occasionally giving up on projects and art, we have yet to tire of the process.  Here’s some of what we’ve been up to.

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Giving thanks

In the last three years, we have celebrated approximately 1/2 Thanksgivings.  Our first year in Australia, an attempt was made that involved a rotisserie chicken from Coles, and homemade mashed potatoes and cookies.  It was… sufficient, but lacking.

Last year we were busy packing to move back to the states, and I was preparing to take the medical boards.

This year, turkey and stuffing et. al. are passing us by once again, though we find ourselves with more to be thankful for than ever before.  In fairness, Liz did make a wonderful soup and we still have homemade bread from her mother’s recent visit (during which time she made almost one full loaf of bread for each day – all 14 of them!).  And this coming Saturday, my own mother has something a little more traditional planned.

Why the mothers?  It seems that the arrival of a new and first granddaughter has drawn our mothers south.  Pea was born last Tuesday, November 19th, overlooking the mighty Mississippi River in New Orleans.  She’s perfect.  And we are grateful to tears.


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A quilt for Peter

Last Christmas, our dear friends JP and Ashley told us they were expecting!  In January, I started a quilt.  The quilt itself was actually fairly simple to make, but I decided to hand sew the quilting, which took several months to complete.  My own pregnancy slowed me down a bit, as did the fact that I managed to produce an ENORMOUS quilt (5′ x 5′).  No matter – the quilt is now complete and Peter is happily enjoying it.

My design criteria: a traditional pattern with a modern twist, colors that would go well together but are unexpected, and something primarily based on sewing straight lines (I don’t do quilts with circles yet).  I finally settled on the following:

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Plan in hand, I headed to the fabric store.

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Then lots and lots of cutting squares, until I could lay out the pattern on the floor.  This is when I realized the size of the quilt.  Several folks reminded me that “babies are actually very small people.”  I reminded them that even tiny people grow.

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With the pattern sewn together, I put the quilt on my quilting frame.  This is an extremely clever device that allows you to join the layers of the quilt as you sew.  On the back bar, you place the top and batting.  In the middle you place the backing.  You then roll them together onto the front bar.  This gives you a place to sew and move the completed project out of your way as you go.  It also has a nice angle, so you don’t have to bend over awkwardly.  Finally, as long as you keep the middle of each piece in the middle of the bar as you roll them on, you don’t have to baste the entire thing prior to sewing; a big time saver.

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After many months of hand quilting – voila!

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Tim’s Birthday Game 2013

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This year, Tim’s birthday fell right smack in the middle of his finals.  Blech.  Luckily, nothing takes your mind off of final exams quite like a fun game!  This year’s game was inspired by Mouse Trap.  He had to build a contraption that moved ping pong balls into one of two cups, which were suspended mid air.  Each ping pong ball captured earned $5, and one cup earned money toward dinner, the other toward dessert.  If you’re thinking, “that sounds easy” think again.

The goals and the birthday boy

The goals and the birthday boy

Unwrapping the construction supplies

Unwrapping the construction supplies

Tower construction

Tower construction

The first idea: catapulting the ping pong balls into the cup.

The first idea: catapulting the ping pong balls into the cup.

Construction of a ramp

Construction of a ramp

Carefully placing a ping pong ball

Carefully placing a ping pong ball

Zoom! It flies down the ramp.

Zoom! It flies down the ramp.

The final contraption for the dinner cup

The final contraption for the dinner cup

This gallery contains 9 photos

Summer, Turning to Winter

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Sydney Harbour Bridge

Alright, so we’re about to leave Australia, and I have taken a break from packing / cleaning to go through photos… I’m getting a tad nostalgic.

This is from our trip to Sydney in November.  We never got around to doing a full entry, primarily because I never got around to actually editing the photos.  Here’s a quick synopsis:

The trip centered around the Opera House.  Saturday morning we took a tour of the building, and because it was an early bird tour, we received a discount, saw all the theaters, and were two of four people on the tour.  It was a win all around.

After the tour we headed to Manly, had lunch, quickly decided it was too cold, and then headed back to the CBD.

Saturday night we saw “Pixar in Concert”.  The symphony surpassed all our expectations.  Not surprisingly, I cried through most of it.

Sunday we had lunch with some good Sydney friends and then returned home to Brisbane.

And now we’re leaving.  I’ve re-packed 3 times and have finally achieved a kind of packing nirvana – all our worldly possessions currently sit in 5 bags, all weighing 48-50 lbs.

It’s amazing to find how much of the clutter in my house is simply clutter.

What’s more amazing, is that once the clutter is removed, we’re left with some wonderful things.  It’s incredible to recount the memories we’ve formed here.  It’s incredible to think about the friends we’ve made.  And above all, it’s incredible to see what a gift we’ve been given.

We have truly loved our life here.


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Brisbane Bingo

DESCRY – an English major’s word for “to sight”

The game revolves around a bingo-esque card.  The items are found, like a scavenger hunt.  The rules are thus: you see it, you take the photo featuring the item and your partner.

Elizabeth wanted to do something different for a weekend date yesterday, so she created a “Brisbane Bingo” card, and we set out for a blackout.  We took a bus to the city, and walked a route from Queen Street, through the botanical gardens, and across the river to Southbank.  It’s not unlike a route we might simply take on a long walk.  And, if we are honest about our judging ways, not dissimilar to the kinds of discussion we normally have about the strange things that exist in large cities.  But everything is better as a game.

Any other day, a pair of thong sandals without an accompanying pair of feet, lying on the sidewalk, would capture perhaps a glance.  But yesterday, they fulfilled the “Forgotten” box, in the “Random” row.

Most days, seeing a man doing pushups at the bottom of a set of stairs might have made me think about how poor his form was, and how he’s going to hurt his neck if he doesn’t learn how to do them properly.  Yesterday, we snapped a picture of him to fulfill the “You’re in my way” box, in the “Dudes and Dudettes” row.

On its face, [Your city]-Bingo may seem a simple excuse to walk around and judge people and things.  Inevitably, in the interpretation of some boxes, things will be judged.  But it doesn’t have to be mean spirited, and most of our game board wasn’t even person-centric.  And people are odd anyway; if laughing at people is inherently mean, then I’m not very nice to myself.

I highly suggest trying it out.  It’s best to make a board that reflects the goings on of your humble hamlet, but most large cities are playable with our board.  It’s great fun with a partner, it’s probably a riot if you have precocious little kids.  And unless your wife gets cold and has to buy a sweatshirt, or you decide to end up at a Chocolaterie for a rich dessert, it’s pretty much free.


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Creative Itch

I awoke this morning with a strong desire to make something, and today it was channeled into our small kitchen.  Specifically, I wanted to use up a few of the items that’ve been sitting around in our pantry for too long – like the huge bag of potatoes.

The result: for dinner, potato gnocchi with a tomato, basil, and feta sauce.  And for dessert, layered chocolate mousse and peanut butter pudding.

I made the gnocchi early in the day.  You basically mash potatoes, add flour, egg and salt to form a dough and then form the little gnocchi shapes.  I kind of faked the shaping part and the gnocchi are pretty deformed: by the time I got to it, I didn’t have the energy to form perfect little shapes.  To cook, drop them in boiling water until they float and then transfer them to a cold water bath.  Honestly, it looks totally unimpressive (partially because they are misshapen) and my kitchen was a complete disaster afterwards – there was flour and potato starch water EVERYWHERE.  However, the end result was pretty delicious.  More detailed instructions here.

For the sauce, I started by sautéing three large garlic cloves in a few tablespoons of olive oil.  I added quartered tomatos, several cups of uncooked spinach, 3 tablespoons of feta, and a cup of fresh basil.  I let this simmer until the tomato skins cracked and the spinach fully wilted.  There was plenty of sauce from the tomato juices for me, but if you wanted more, you could add a can of tomato puree or diced tomatos.  I tossed in the gnocchi and shredded chicken until it was heated through.

The result, truly delectable.  Tim even ate the chunks of tomatoes (well, most of them).  I’m not sure if it’s worth it to make the actual gnocchi from scratch – you can get it freshly made from the grocery store – but I will definitely make the sauce again.

Dessert was brought about by three separate recipes which I’ve been tossing around lately.  The crust came from a no-bake cheese cake that I’ve been dying to try but haven’t yet because I’m not willing to give that many calories to dessert.  The peanut butter pudding layer was inspired by Tim’s birthday crepe cake, which we discussed here.  The chocolate mousse is directly from a paleo diet recipe book that Tim and I discovered last year.  This hodge-podge of ideas came together finally, to perfection.

First I made the crust.  I used almond meal, sugar, unsweetened cocoa powder, and a very small amount of butter.  I stirred the dry ingredients in a sauce pan, just enough to slightly brown the almond meal.  I added butter and stirred some more until the butter melted.  I packed the crumbly mixture down into the bottom of the glasses.

Once the crust was complete I started on the peanut butter pudding.  I warmed about 2 tablespoons of peanut butter and 2 tablespoons of sugar in a saucepan on medium heat.  I slowly added 1 cup of 2% milk and stir constantly to make sure it didn’t form a skin.  While it was heating, I separated two eggs, saving the yolks in one bowl and the whites in another.  Once the peanut butter mixture boiled, I added the mixture, very slowly to the egg yolks, which tempered the eggs so they wouldn’t scramble from the heat.  Then I poured the egg / peanut mixture back into the saucepan until it again boiled.  Once it boiled for the second time it was a thick custard.  I spooned it onto the crust.

For the final layer, I melted 50 g of dark chocolate in a double boiler with about 1/2 cup of water.  While the chocolate was melting, I whisked the egg whites until soft peaks formed, then I folded the egg whites into the melted chocolate.  Once well combined, it was layered on top of the peanut butter custard.

The entire creation was refrigerated – it needs at least 90 min, but it’s better if you can wait longer.

The end result – awesomeness.


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On birthdays and national holidays

The thing about having a birthday on or near big holidays is – it sucks.  When you’re a kid, and birthdays are all about gifts (ages 2-26), having a near-holiday birthdate is terrible.  I have friends whose birthday links up with Christmas, and I weep for them every December.  July 5 isn’t nearly so bad, but it’s still “the day after,” a fact which is perhaps even accentuated as you get older.  By the time you are focusing on good friends and good drinks for Independence Day, the party does not tend to continue afterwards.  Medical fact: headaches do not a happy party make (source: reality).

Enough histrionics, and on to the point.  I was never big on my own birthday.  It’s not that it never felt special, it’s just that it was always overshadowed.  And if I’m honest, even I enjoyed the 4th more than the 5th.

Enter Elizabeth.  The Birthday Booster.

We’ve been together for 5 Tim-birthdays now, and she consistently outperforms analysts best predictions.  You got a taste of this year’s glory in our post about my game.  In the past, it’s been board, card, and even “gameshow” games.  My birthday games tend to be structured like any of our myriad favorites, it’s only logical.

Oddly enough, it’s so obviously a Polymathematica project; lending credence to our developing theory about how we live our lives and tinker with the world.  I love that it connects.

My birthday game is the answer to the question “what do I get Tim for his birthday?”  I’m particular about the things in my life, so the question is not very simple.  What I need, actual necessities, I already have.  And I have a quirky sort of patience about the things I might otherwise simply want.  Example: I would really like an electric guitar.  But I’m completely unwilling to get a mediocre one, I would go for nothing less than an American Strat, in the arena of 1000 bucks.  As I do not have money for that sort of thing, I will not get an electric guitar.  Plain and simple.  Without kinking my neck from heartily patting my own back, I’m completely content when such situations arise.

And so, my birthday game avoids my idiosyncracies entirely.  The things I can win or achieve from my games are often gifts – but never limited to any particular item.  One year, she arranged a game of ‘Cash Cab’, co-hosted by our great friends Chris and Danielle, on our way across town to a lovely dinner together.  Red Light Challenge and all.  A night out with my favorite people, and a handful of cash to top it off.  She just gets me.

The entire structure of my birthday weekend this year was determined by my computer game.  The things left in my inventory upon its conclusion became our activities Friday through Sunday.  We went on simple dinner-and-a-movie date on Friday, burgers and Spiderman.  Saturday we went for a late breakfast on Mount Coot-Tha, and then hosted a few friends for a dinner of chili, fresh bread, and banana-cream crepes for dessert.  On Sunday, my family’s gift (which I found in my game) was a one hour session in a 737 flight simulator.  My ‘copilot’ called me captain, and gave me a hat and everything: it was awesome.  I flew in and out of SeaTac, and the old Hong Kong International in a thunderstorm.  It was 3 days chock full of things I like to do, and it was wonderful.

Perhaps, in the past 2 years, not having “The Fourth of July” here in Australia has led to a lack of an overshadowing event.  Or maybe, after 5 years, Elizabeth has helped me understand how to actually enjoy my birthday.  Gifts are nice, but here are the true keys: admit that you’d like to feel celebrated, surrounded by a friend or two, and allow just a little extra to be lavished upon you.

One last tip: if you come to enjoy the extravagance on your own birthday, you should try your hand at lavishing that sort of attention on someone you love.  Trite platitudes, now backed by science, tell us it’s an even more rewarding experience.