Monday, November 29, 2010


I replaced a too-wide set of shelves between the doorways to the kitchen and the attic, then added an over-door shelf: Dinner dishes hadn't made it to the dishwasher yet, oh dear.
I had to leave room for the light switch, which made room for some other items:Cordless phone on a quickly-built angled stand, notepad, CO detector, the spot where I routed a shelf support, thinking the switch was a foot higher on the wall.... Oops! That gray thing is not a firearm; it's a solid-plastic training aid. But it couldn't stay there, as even it was too much temptation during junk phone calls. The other gadget is a tiny, French-made telegraph key. Quite a nice little key, in fact. Here, perhaps it will be handy if we receive any telegrams.

I put the short shelf, the vertical that supports it and the two shelves it is connected to together as a unit before proceeding with the rest of the assembly. This simplified the process considerably, though I am starting to think I need two more 4' long pipe clamps. (You can never own too many clamps).

There are two more doorways to bridge and I will have encircled the room. (And two boxes of books to be shelved). However, the shelves on the opposite wall are only temporary; it has an archway into the living room and my plan is to build new shelves on each side and at least one shelf along the wall above the archway. At least one of the temporary shelves will be moved to the living room: with the science fiction all shelved, there will still be science, technology, biography and history books in boxes, plus some mysteries (Sherlock Holmes, Travis McGee, Amelia Peabody) and a few others.

I'm considering a frieze of toy soldiers along the molding over the kitchen door; or is that too quirky?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


I'm slowly working on covering every wall of the dining room here at Roseholme* Cottage with bookshelves. The corner between the recently-built window seat and the doorway to the kitchen was next up. Here's what I started with: A sad old set of butt-jointed Luan shelves, slapped together from stock lengths in an excess of enthusiasm and lack of funds over 15 years ago. They don't even have stabilizing pieces (we'll get to that); side stress could fold them up. All that wasted space! (And those newspapers have gotta go). Step One: Measurements and a worksheet. This one's fancied up with colored ink but the basic notion is to set down the essential dimensions. I already know 8' lumber will clear the ceiling, so a plan view (top left) and a simple reminder of the shelf spacing (bottom left) plus a detail of the routed joints and some scratch calculations are all it takes. (I left woodscrews off the bill of materials. 1- ¼" flathead wood or drywall screws, #8 or #6 will do. They mostly hold it together while the glue dries).

The shelves are easy to run off with a power saw. Stabilizing pieces are just additional shelves, one mounted vertically at the top back, the other at the bottom, set in 1-½" from the front edge as a kind of kick plate (a refinement is possible here, which I'll get to later). They help the shelves resist side stress. It works pretty well -- here they are, assembled and stacked on their sides in the garage:The verticals are another story. The actual measurement is 95-¾" to allow cutting the bottom square and it's not uncommon to end up with an eighth of an inch or so left over at the top. Leave it be 'til the shelves are all together; it's easy enough to trim away with a sharp saw. Establish a consistent measurement point for the spacing (my worksheet reminds "bot. to bot.") and lay with out with a tape and square. Mark it right on the wood. The router will cut the marks away.

Next step is to cheat: take a scrap of wood with one good edge and clamp another scrap to it as a guide, square with the edge. Make a mark along it, then take your router (you'll want a ¾" cutter for nominal 1" lumber) and plow a groove, bearing the router base against the guide. Once you're done, measure from the guide to the nearest and farthest edges of the groove and make two spacers from scraps of the shelf material, one each of those widths. You use those with your marked locations to set up a guide for the router! Rout a notch for each shelf -- don't forget to do them for the stabilizing pieces, too. The one at top, back will have to be longer than the lumber is wide by half the diameter of the router bit, unless you are willing to do some chisel work to make a nice square corner. (I had to do so by accident, with a pocket knife: I didn't catch that I'd done one of them too short until I was assembling the shelves and glue was setting! White pine is soft enough it wasn't difficult to make a few quick slices and get everything to fit). I do rough sanding as I rout, a quick scrub to round the corners next to the groove and another to slightly chamfer the edges of the groove itself.

When you've got all the pieces cut and routed, it's assembly time. A flat and level floor is a great help in this, as is a wooden mallet and some wood blocks to buffer the shelves from the mallet. A couple of pipe clamps longer than the shelves are wide are a great help; you can do without if you must. Or if you've several, the assembly can be glued, clamped and pinned together with finishing nails or even dowels. I usually start with one side, with the shelves laying on their back, tapping the shelves in place from the top to the bottom and securing them with screws as I go, then move to the other side. One or two screws per shelf per side hold it together. The routed grooves will tend to pull everything square. I use ordinary, inexpensive dimensional lumber, and sort out the worst warped ones, but they're never perfect. Check to make sure it is square as you go!

Once it's done, if there's any need to clear baseboards, those cuts will have to be made. If it won't show, a simple rectangle (7" by 1-½" for the old-fashioned ones at Roseholme) will do. I used a semi-coped one for the quarter-round and baseboard on the side next to the kitchen door: (A little blurry, sorry). All the trim cuts were done with a Japanese backsaw, which cuts fast and leaves a smooth edge. The shelves are only 5-½" wide, so I end up with a 1-½" gap at the bottom; I could have used a wider board, or I can cover that with another piece. At present, it's handy for retrieving cat toys.

A quick sanding/scraping to remove any rough spots and slightly round the edges, and it's ready for the finish (if any; I leave them raw and let the pine pick up some color. Plus I don't have to worry about the finish affecting the books).These are very tall, narrow shelves. I secure them to the walls when possible. The photo has arrows pointing to the (ugly) angle brackets presently holding the shelves to the door and window frame, and to the screws that hold the shelves to hidden blocks at the corner where they meet. A wedge under one upright takes care of a slight irregularity in the floor; careful pocketknife work makes it less obvious.

And there you are: bookshelves! The design started with one from Nomadic Furniture, meant to be cut from a single 4' x 8' sheet of plywood; I've always built them from dimensional lumber instead. The routed joints for the shelves are a later refinement that really helps stability and speeds assembly. The book is a very handy source for homemade furniture ideas; it's a bit hippieish but the stuff works, so who cares? It's got a lot of basic measurements for furniture design, too. My "copy" is just that, handwritten notes and a few photocopied drawings. I was happy to discover it and its sequel have been reprinted in one volume! (Buy it via the Amazon link at Tam's and do a blogger a favor).
* The name is actually a reference to a grant of arms to the family name, a "naturally-colored" rose on a silver background. Does that mean the rose is white, or red? I don't know.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Somehow, I stumbled across Jet Pens -- then Strikethu reviewed a pair of their pens, which put them squarely in the "probably good" category.

I'd set a bit of funding aside and last weekend, ordered a few nifty items. They arrived yesterday (free shipping, at my door in three business days, from California), well packed, and all at least as nice as promised. Jet Pens is good!
[click for larger image]
Left to right, top to bottom to bottom:
Kaweco (warning: music) "Classic Sport," a full-size (when posted) fountain pen that, thanks to clever design, is about half-size when capped. Designed as a pocket pen, even the clip is an (inexpensive) accessory. It feels good in my hand and the nib is very smooth. It is a classic-looking pen, even with the unusual oversize cap (not only does that make the short length work, it offers a little more protection than the usual size). Ink for it at right. Despite the name sounding a bit Japanese to American ears (due to syllabic structure, I think), it's made in Germany. Love those graphics! At $15.00, this is an inexpensive pen, excellent value for the money.
Next, the brown pen is a Noodler's aerometric fill, handmade made of genuine ebonite. I said the Kaweco had a smooth nib? This is a step or two more smooth. A very plain-looking pen at first sight, but don't be fooled! Those timeless, 1920-or-this-year looks are no illusion: this pen is as good as any golden age Parker Duofold or Conklin at a third the price (or less).
To the right, three tiny Pilot "Petit1" pens in jewel-bright colors. The ink is well-behaved, doesn't run at color crossings and the nibs are outstanding, especially for a $4.50 pen. They're so small that you just about have to post the cap in order to write with them. I'll be saving up for the full set of 12. One drawback, the ink cartridge appears to be proprietary; they're available at the source, though, and inexpensive.
Back on the left, another Pilot, a "Plumix" with a music nib. I had thought it might be good for handwriting, as they can be run backwards, unlike most "Italic" calligraphy nibs. Yes and no -- my sloppy Spencerian cursive doesn't work well with the nib angle, but it is very good for printing and genuine Italic writing. (I'm trying to remember the style of printing, rapid and fairly legible, I adopted some years ago, can't bring it to mind. Aargh!) (29 October: Got it! Chancery cursive, which is not all that cursive as we know the term. For very pretty examples, look here.
Finally, underneath it all, a Maruman Mnemosyne "Inspiration" note pad, grid-ruled and about 8.5" by 6". I'm evaluating it to possibly replace my current Moleskines field-type notebook (same size, staple bound) once it is filled with notes. (At a page per day, they last three or four months.) The paper is wonderful! It takes ink well, with no bleed-through or running and feels smooth and neutral. I'm not sure how well the ring-binding will hold up in my purse -- I may need to keep a pencil in there to protect the rings from being crushed. (Gotta like the neckless-people cartoons showing the note pad in use, too).

Monday, October 18, 2010


I think it was an improvement:I've added a shelf over the window seat. It helps define the space and it will serve as a place to store some of my typewriter collection. (Tools used are on the seat, along with a pile of books. Still working on the bookshelves).Brackets are a Victorian repro from Lee Valley, sprayed with black lacquer and a quick swipe of cream enamel (I had to paint them: they are re-used and had rusted a little). Edge detail on the wood (a bit difficult to see in the photos) was done using a very simple tool: a flathead, slotted woodscrew in a bit of scrap 1-by-2. You screw it in to the desired width of the edge bead, then file the head of the screw flatter, creating a sharp edge at the slot. Worked along the edge of the wood, it cuts a groove while smoothing and slightly rounding the corner. I picked the most interesting side of the glued-up board for the bottom. It's just pine, planed flat and smoothed with a scraper. I think this shows the depth of the grain better than sanding.
The finish is just boiled linseed oil and wax. I like the scent, once it's crosslinked enough to not be overpowering.

Will it hold typewriters? It should. The upper screws found a good, solid bite into the window frame. I'll find out gradually.

Saturday, October 9, 2010


I don't know how I missed it! A friend posted photos several weeks back of a 1917 IHC "Titan," in as-new condition, and I've just now found them. Have a look. And if you're into the numbers, try these on for size: two cylinders, 9 3/4" bores, 14" strokes. Now that's big iron indeed.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


I've been wanting to add some seating and storage to the dining room/library at my house (Roseholme Cottage) and when an extra sheet of oak-veneer plywood turned up, the chance seemed too good to miss. After only a month or six weeks of as-you-find-it spare time, it was ready to put in place yesterday:Here it is as installed. The sides are "coped" to fit the window; available materials worked out to slightly less than full width of the window frame; this is actually a good thing, as you'll see. (That's a Device on it, a partially-restored 5-meter radiotelephone transceiver, a sort of 1930s cellphone). The tall bookshelves are what the room will eventually be lined with. The shorter ones are temporary and about twenty years old.The reverse angle shows the stenciling (all hand-cut by yours truly. Yes, it does say "Airship Parts, and why not?) and "decal," which is an iron-on inkjet printer transfer for cloth, a trick that worked better than I expected. If it seems a little familiar, that's because it's the old Railway Express (the FedEx and UPS of their day) logo.

In that photo and the next, you can see how it just fits in the inside width of the window frame.

With the cushion in place -- a folded comforter -- it has enormous cat-magnetism. The width works out just right for a Full size comforter.Construction detals: It's pretty much a box sitting on another box; the base is just (nominal) 2" x 8" pine from the scrap-wood pile, butt-jointed; glue and big deck screws hold it together. It clears the baseboard at the back.

More scrap, 2" x 6", extends the base horizontally at front and back, trimmed flush with the base on the inside after assembly. This provides a toe-kick overhang at the front and baseboard clearance at the back.

The upper part is a three-sided box, open at the back, held to the 2" x 6"s with more deck screws (hidden behind the oak trim) and held to the sides by shallow "Kreg" screws. The open back is framed with 2" x 4" wood for strength, with vertical posts and a front-to-back 2" x 4" at the center and another 2" x 4" centered under the hinges to support the seat (you don't rely on the hinges!).

It is heavy, but not as heavy as you'd think. The hinged seat feels solid when you sit or relax on it. Worked out pretty well for something I mostly made up as I went along. I had dimensions in mind but that was about all.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


Boing Boing has the details. Eberhard Faber's quirky Blackwing 602 went the way of the Ford Model T back in 1998, leaving a fan base nearly as devoted -- and now it has come back, the design licensed to another pencil maker (no word on the balky machinery that got it dropped in the first place).

What's so special? High-quality lead, for one thing; but the feature I suspect won it the most fans is the eraser, a nice, wide slab with a tiny slider to lift up more when it gets worn down. Maybe it's just the way I write, but I run out of eraser long before the pencil's too short to use (without a holder, that is).

It even gets passing mention in Henry Petroski's marvelous The Pencil: "...the steel-black hexagonal Faber Blackwing, a dignified-looking fifty-cent pencil with distinctive flat ferrule (The Blackwing's extra soft lead makes it so smooth and easy to write with that the pencil has been imprinted with the slogan, 'half the pressure, twice the speed.')" [page 354]

There's a particular pleasure in using a really good pencil; if you liked the old Blackwing, be on the lookout for the new ones.

(For The Pencil and other Petroski books, try the link at Tam's)

Monday, August 16, 2010


Scanned in and available online thanks to a kindly ham (N4TRB), a nice collection of "RCA Ham Tips" from the 1930s onwards. These were little flyers featuring a single project using RCA tubes (or later, transistors), nicely built and written up by genuine RCA engineers, usually amateur radio operators themselves. Most are as buildable now as they were when new, and every bit as much fun.

Friday, August 13, 2010


I was browsing the Field Notes site (very nice classic pocket notebooks, and none of this famous-authors guff, either, they're like the ones you used to get down at the Farm Bureau Co-Op), and in their map of local dealers, I see there's a dot on Indianapolis.

So I scrolled down, and it's a...barber shop?

Yes, that it is, and not just any barbershop, either: Red's Barber Shop, as classic a place for you gents to get your hair cut as could be imagined. Reminds me of the ones I used to have to wait in, mornings Dad was looking after the kids and he and my baby brother were due to get the hair trimmed off the back of their neck and tops of their ears. (Dad was a Vitalis guy, thick black hair combed up and back just like a movie hero).

If you're local, or passin' through town on The Cardinal train or down from Chicago on The Hoosier State run, you might want to check Red's out.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010



It is said -- and rightly so -- that a poor workman blames his tools. Elsewhere, the hobby woodworker with a collection of expensive tools but no skill is a familiar stereotype and we've all heard the story of a fellow who, with nothing more than a rock, a pocketknife and scrap lumber, produces wonders.

You can find real-life examples of all of this; they're all points on a graph. Most of us are well inside those limits.

Me, for years I owned one hammer. It was my Dad's, then it was his second-best hammer, then it migrated into my toolbox and when I moved out, well, it came along. It's a fine, smooth-face, medium-sized general-purpose claw hammer, probably made some time in the first half of the last century, and it did all the little craft-type projects I wanted or needed to do. When my library reached the point of either learning how to build bookcases or start selling books (the horror!), it did that, too.

Then I got a little better at it and a wooden mallet to tap things together looked like a good idea; learned leatherwork and needed a different mallet for that. Started paying a little more attention to fit & finish of my bookshelves and... H'mm, no tack hammer.

As a child, I didn't so much get along with the classic tack hammer Mom used when reupholstering; somehow the long skinny head always found my tender fingers. And there were these other hammers....
What you see there is my Old Dependable hammer at the bottom (you don't get wood and metal those hues without using them for a long, long time) and above it, a couple of cross pein* or Warrington-pattern hammers. Handiest small hammers I own. I've been using the larger of the two when fastening trim pieces to the window seat I'm working on; the smaller one (especially good for wire brads) is known to British woodworkers as a "telephone hammer" to this very day, supposedly because they were used to nail together the old wooden-type wall telephones, which were usually sent out as a kind of a kit, in order to take up less space on the installers wagon or bicycle.

Could I use different hammer (I use glue, too. Perhaps that's overkill but it seems to work) to tack oak trim to oak plywood? Sure. But this one fits the job. And that's the real secret: knowing which tool to pick up for a particular task. The right one can make your work a pleasure.
* Or "peen" or even "pane." One story even claims the name comes from nailing together frames for multi-pane windows, in which the narrow "pane" end is used to minimize the risk of breaking glass. --In which case, was the ball-peen hammer for breaking the glass?

Sunday, July 4, 2010


There are some features not often found in a full-sized drill press that'd be nice to have -- continuously-variable speed, for instance, and maybe a torque-limited drive. And don't you just hate the ones where the heavy table is just clamped to the column, ready to take out a toe if you slip while adjusting the height?

It turns out those concerns were already addressed -- in the 19th Century. Meet the W.B. & J. Barnes No. 0 Drill, a smallish, elegant camelback drill that uses an unusual ninety-degree friction drive:Yes, it's an eBay listing; the photos and first link should take you right to the page for as long as it lasts. I don't think the seller or auction site will mind and if they do -- editing's easy.True, it's set up for line-shaft drive; not too big a challenge for anyone with the skills to restore it and the desire to do so. The simplest item to fix would be the missing lever(s) from the quill control; it may also have a broken quill spring or counterweight, it appears the friction disc and wheel are going to need new leather and all the bearings are condition unknown; expect babbitt, not ball- or roller-bearings.

Despite all those things, the price is good; camelback drill presses generally command excellent prices on the used market and offer a number of advantages. High on the list is one of my pet peeves: most modern drill presses are set up way too fast; every time I have to use one at work, I find myself resetting it to the slowest set of pulleys (or, rarely, one step up). "Faster" is not "better;" it's how you overheat and/or break your drills (sigh, drill "bits," for the language-impaired). Camelbacks were set up for a slower range of speeds. The present example is a little different; instead of the usual three or four-step belt-drive pulley, the setting of the friction-drive wheel determines the speed -- there's a rod behind the main shaft that carries its bearing and a handscrew, barely visible at the upper right in the photo above, that secures it at the selected height along the radius of the friction disc.

Table-height adjustment is not visible in my screencaps. It's an Acme-thread leadscrew with a crank at about the same height as the quill knob, plus the usual clamping arrangement to secure the table at the selected height.

Looks like the press was set up for Morse (or similar....) taper arbors; there's a characteristic slot in the spindle where one would tap in a wedge to remove the chuck. You might not much want to -- it already has a modern-looking three-jaw chuck installed.

The whole thing looks as if it stayed in service well into the 20th Century. Not a lot of rust and no signs of overt abuse past the usual line of spots where the table's been drilled into.

Patent dates, per the seller, are all 1880s - 1890s.

There are some hints of various bits and bobs from the original drive -- a fitting on the column and a cast-in saddle at the base. If I was in Columbus, Ohio, I'd be tempted to have a look; if I knew how to rebabbitt bearings, I might do more than look.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


To check or test old-fashioned magnetic headphones use a very small battery, a 1.5V AAA cell is fine -- or just use an adaptor and plug them into your iPod. Important Note, if it says "Brush" or "Clevite" on your headphones, they are crystal headphones and will be ruined by any DC-type test. Check the label. Most Brush headphones have octagonal instead of cylindrical backs and a cast-in label.

Really old ones with tip plugs on the ends of the leads will often "click" just from touching the tips together in a damp palm. (The tip plating was porous -- so, brass, nickel, a little salt water, you get a current flow).

The adapter/iPod trick may be okay for even Brush-Clevite crystal headphones, I don't know and would not advise it. If you're an electronics type, a series condenser, say .01 or .05 mF, would make it safer. A 1:1 transformer might be even better -- 600:600 ohms, like a coupling transformer from an old modem, would do. (I've ruined a Brush earpiece plugging into the headphone jack on a reel-to-reel, so trust me and be careful).

Someone, malicious or ill-informed, is going around on eBay, asking headphone sellers to use a nine volt battery to "test" them. Please don't do this. It can do damage to some types. The wire used for the windings is tiny and can be melted by excessive current. Use a 1.5 Volt cell at most. Or use an ohmmeter; the current will be limited. Anything other than open or dead short indicates some degree of function.

Another thing -- if you're selling headphones on an auction site, why oh why would you unscrew the caps and take the diaphragms out? There's a permanent magnet in there, one with some oomph, and it will grab any little ferrous particles around. They'll get between the pole pieces and the diaphragm and make for trouble. The diaphragms themselves are a bit fragile; bend 'em and they are ruined. Last of all, the caps -- and often but not always the backs or "cups" -- are brittle Bakelite or hard rubber. They can chip, jam and break when unscrewed or dropped.

Be nice to old-style headphones. They will never make balanced-armature, mica-diaphraghm Baldwins (very complex inside) ever again. You will not find new Brush-Clevite cans (with their high-fidelity sound -- hams even used them as microphones) and the last stocks of Trimm "Commercial,*" "Professional*" and even the ubiquitous "Dependable" model ran out decades ago. What we have is all we'll have. Every set you break is gone. (But save the parts! Sometimes three broken sets add up to one working pair).

Related, Modern Radio Labs sells the definitive handbook on maintenance and repair of old headphones. It's worth owning.
* Highly recommended. My fave set of radio "cans" for years have been Commercials. Trimm's little "Featherweights" are nice, too.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


I was taken with it at first sight; then I wondered if it was sacrilige. The USB Typewriter, though it is mildly invasive, doesn't ruin the function of the typewriter and should be reversible -- though I do wish he'd pad the platen:

I would not do this to a rare machine but as typewriter mods go, it is among the better. There are ways to slick it up (Pogo[tm] pins for the keybar contacts, for instance) but it's not bad.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Someone hit this blog, looking for "Gerstner toolbox restoration." Interestingly, Gerstner is your best source for this; sure, their professional toolboxes are expensive, but they are selling quality and durability for that money -- and they stand behind their products. They offer an extensive array of replacement parts including felt lining, pulls, hinges, handles, locks, replacement keys and labels. This level of support is unusual for any product other than an automobile, industrial machinery or a major appliance and I think it's plain wonderful.

So, if you're out to restore your Gerstner toolchest, go the source!

Saturday, June 12, 2010


The author (?) calls it "The Pennsylvania Dutch Handbook" but you find examples anywhere you find old tools for sale.


There must be something about Thief River Falls, Minnesota.

I've known for years that modern-as-tomorrow RF switching manufacturer Dow-Key started U.S. operations there, building interesting and unusual semi-automatic telegraph keys, then branched out into coaxial relays, which eventually became the entire business. In 1966, they left Minnesota for California -- but that wasn't the end of the telegraphy connection for Thief River Falls.

In the early 1970s, then college student and amateur radio operator Ron Stordahl began selling an electronic speed-key kit, which he called a "Digi-Keyer." In the process, he found that a lot of hams and others were looking for a source of modern electronic components; in 1972, his home-town smaller-than-garage kit company became a fledgling parts house called Digi-Key and today, Dr. Ronald A. Stordahl is CEO of the fifth-largest electronic distributor in North America, the biggest employer in Thief River Falls.

In my career, I've seen their print catalog grow from a skinny magazine into something the size and heft of a big-city telephone book, small print, thin paper. No tubes but Digi-Key is Retrotechnologist-approved: like the famous mail-order outfits of yore, they carry a huge variety of items and are happy to sell to anyone. Orders go out the door the same day, too.

Both companies have sold parts in use from Kansas City to geosynchronous orbit. And it all started with telegraph keys. Twice!

Monday, May 31, 2010


One of the more interesting parts of a 1920s Arts & Crafts cottage like Roseholme is that you find unusual angles -- for instance, my ham shack as seen from the stairs:The white glare is not dust but the camera flash, bouncing back from the white stairway walls. Desk's getting a little crowded; I'm working on some ideas.

At the front edge of the desk near my chair, an early, nickel-plated Les Logan (of Speed-X fame) bug. On the far side of it and the pencil-sharpener is my very first and homebrew bug, a kind of Vibroplex "Lightning Bug"-inspired gadget built from whatever I could lay hands on. There's another Speed-X bug on the next-to top shelf, above the National speaker; called a "T-Bar" because the yoke has a nifty T-shape, which makes a nice carrying handle. It is in serious need of replating, though it may be zinc-alloy "white metal" and therefore not exactly long-lasting. My present plan is to hand the yoke over to a local machine shop and have them clone it in brass, which won't be cheap but gets me a working bug and lets me save the fragile part. Both of them have a Logan-unique feature, the yoke supports the lower pivot point as well as the upper one! (I should take photos, shouldn't I?) Also on the desktop, my Begali bug and Vibroplex Blue Racer and Zephyr.

The blue wires at the left are feeder from my G5RV (a sort of double Zepp) antenna; normally, they hang on the overhead part of the ground wire, but I was preparing to get on the air. I managed to work Florida and Quebec on 40 meters -- the band was active, though plenty noisy. Some real speed demons out there, though my Canadian contact had a very clean, 10 or 12 wpm fist. I slid the weights back on the Begali bug but ended up switching to a straight key to match him as much as possible. (This, for the high-speed fellows out there, some of whom either forgot it or were never told, is the polite thing to do: QRS, OM!) OTOH, there's a good chance he's a French speaker, so he may have been sending slowly so I didn't get lost! No harm in that.

(The initial parts of a CW contact are in a kind of Radio Latin -- or "QST English:" "R R R TNX FER CALL ES GE -- UR RST 599 ? 5NN -- QTH INDIANAPOLIS, IN ? INDIANPOLIS, IN -- NAME RJ ? RJ -- HW CPY? VE4XXX DE K9YYY KN" is a greeting, introduction and signal report that most hams understand no matter what language they use. ("Received you okay, thanks for responding & good evening. Your signals are very readable and strong at my location in Indianapolis. Call me RJ. How'd you receive that? [callsigns, him from me] Go ahead, just you and nobody else." [That's the "KN;" plain "K" is kind of a general-whoever go ahead prosign]) To a CW-minded person, the short-long-short pattern of an R says "I got it" and the long-short-long of a K says "go a-head," clear as any spoken word. N -- dah-dit -- becomes "onnn-ly" and there you go. In another context, it's given a long dash and used as shorthand for "9." Use of "?" to signal a repeated word is not universal; some hams just send twice and others, especially if they got a good signal report, don't bother. Hey, if it's "armchair copy," they got it first time).

(Update: My use of "yoke" may be misleading, as it is variously used to describe different parts of a bug! I meant the pivot frame, often a more or less inverted-U shape that holds the upper pivot bearing and usually adjustment screws).

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Filled it this morning, after cleaning even more cruft from inside the barrel. Section is in place in the barrel and holding without glue, which is preferred.Fairly bold nib, somewhat flexible. So far, so good. But I am storing it vertically, nib up, just in case.

(Still working to get my Palmer Method cursive up to spec -- and then it's on to Spencerian! BTW, the radiogram form is a reproduction).


What you see is evidence of an experiment in progress; come the morrow, I'll be finding out. First: the instrument, as found, after cleaning, soaking, disassembly and removal of nasty-crunchy bits of old internals, shown along with some parts and supplies. Yes, the ink reservoir -- the sac, as 'tis known to the trade - had perished. Thanks to a pair of dedicated and loopy-in-a-good-way enthusiasts, this isn't a total disaster. You can still get the parts.

Section and sac assembled, waiting for the Secret Mystery Glue (clear shellac or nail polish) to dry: This was an inexpensive pen when it was new; I picked it up with another pen (an Eversharp "Zenith" with a mixmaster cap, in fair working shape) at $14 and change for the pair. For having even an inkling of how to go about fixing the non-working one, all thanks to Da Book!

This is one of those rare, hands-on, essential texts, like W. R. Smith's How To Restore Telegraph Keys, Horowitz and Hill's The Art Of Electronics or anything by Frank C. Jones or Patrick S. Finnegan. If you're going to do much with fountain pens -- or stylographic pens* -- you need a copy.

Of course, it helps to have a backup, in this case a shiny-new pen. I don't know why I'd never purchased a Lamy. They make a full line and their inexpensive pens are an especially good value; this one has a nice feel in the hand and on the paper. The clip's distinctive and should hold up. (I'm running a converter filled with Noodler's black ink, the latter having been highly recommended by Marko and received good mention elsewhere).It's a clear "demonstrator." I have a real fondness for them.
* Don't know what they are? See, that's why you need Da Book.

Saturday, May 1, 2010


I got radio parts too; but this kind of thing happens to me a lot -- it helps to be eclectic.

That book is pretty fascinating stuff (updated, it remains in print!) and Babcock and Wilcox is not just another rustbelt industry vanished in the mists of a previous time; they are very much still around and about as modern as next week. At the time this book was published, their little Boiler Division plant in Mt. Vernon, IN had not yet been completed; now it's rather vast and in another division altogether.

Nevertheless, a pressure vessel is a pressure vessel and steam power is the same, no matter how it's generated and they've been good at both for a very long time -- which is probably why they got tapped for this project:Yes, it says "World's first nuclear-powered merchant ship" and no, it's not some artist's-conception dream, either. It sailed, er, steamed. Intended more as proof-of-concept and designed to look good in the doing, it never turned the profit a conventionally-driven freighter of like size would have. Withal, the power plant ran without trouble, unless you count the time it shut down, automatically and safely, in heavy seas -- exactly as it was designed to.

There have been four reactor-driven freighters, only one of which remains in service; in addition to the U.S., Japan, Germany and the former Soviet Union built them. The biggest issue appears to be the need for additional crew training and a few more specialists, along with some dedicated service vessels. Reactor waste was a particular challenge early on. NS Savannah -- named after the first steamship to cross the Atlantic -- came to the end of her working days in 1972 and spent a few years as a floating museum exhibit. Presently in the process of having her reactor decommissioned, with a bit of luck she will emerge from the process as a museum ship again.

You may wonder, "is this retrotechnology?" I believe it is. To a very great extent, modern civilization continues to run on steam. Much of it is still produced by burning coal in boilers that, other than scale, would not be terribly unfamiliar to men who designed and built the SS Savannah's boilers around 1818. Even NS Savannah's reactor has become, at the age of 50, "retro."

Will we see her like again soon? Possibly not. Between real fears of proliferation or piracy and irrational ones about the power plant itself, probably not. On the other hand, the Russians are still running a handful of atomic icebreakers; so don't write it off just yet.

Friday, April 30, 2010


It looks like a cross between a castle and a mechanical spider; if I had been shown an uncaptioned picture, I would have been convinced it was a movie prop.

But it's real: Cruquius, the largest single-cylinder steam engine ever built, a Cornish Engine far from Cornwall. And it's big: the primary piston is 144" in diameter. On the official site, there's a page with a video that follows a reporter inside the main cylinder.

Restored but not under steam (the boilers are long gone), nowadays, the engine is moved by hydraulics; but move it does and it's an image you're not likely to forget.

What did it do for a living? Why, it helped drain the Netherlands!

Friday, April 23, 2010


It's next weekend! The IHRS Spring Meet: April 30 - May 1, 2010 at the Kokomo Event Center, located at 1500 North Reed Road (US 31) in (where else) Kokomo, IN. Friday April 30 - 4:00 pm to 8:00 pm; Saturday May 1 - 7:00 am to 2:00 pm. Plenty of indoor Radio Swap and Sell space. Vintage radio contests. Radio operation and repair seminars.

Fees -- General admission is free. One Swap N Sell space for the sale and trade of vintage radio equipment is $15.00 for IHRS members, $20.00 for non-members, good for both days (the space includes one eight foot table.)

I have missed the last couple of IHRS meetings. The Winter one was cancelled by a snowstorm! So I'm really hoping to get to this one.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


It's not a baseball report. It's something that staggers the imagination. Let's say you needed a prime mover for a waterworks -- a really large waterworks, 19 million gallons a day -- and let's say it's 1926 and you live in a country with a lot of coal and a strong engineering tradition. And let's say you wanted it utterly reliable.

Of course you'd build a matched pair of 62-foot tall, 1000-bhp, triple-expansion steam engines atop directly-driven piston pumps, wouldn't you? The Brits did -- and at the time, the mammoth installation really was the best choice.*

But it is stunning. Staggering. All the more when you consider the pair of engines remained in service until 1980! And why not; they worked.

Best of all, after the engines were honorably retired, steam enthusiasts adopted them! It took a new boiler and an enormous effort, but one of the engines runs again, under steam -- and yes, they have public demonstrations.

I have been a big admirer of steam enthusiasts ever since I met the crew who rescued the old locomotive from Broad Ripple Park; but this effort is on a truly heroic scale.

...And in a few days, I'll link to another engine, earlier but just as ambitious and built, in its unique way, in a similar scale.
*This was to change, soon after -- and they followed the technology, as you'll see.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


No, it's not the title of a fanciful novel; it's a real thing, a sort of 3-D Wankel engine and if the site describing it didn't have a cutaway animation, I would still be puzzling over the drawings. How about 2.5 bhp at 500 RPM from a four-inch sphere? Inside, two quarter-spheres and a disc, assembled in a sort of universal joint and driven by steam -- we should not be surprised that the same man who conceived it was the first to puzzle out hydrodynamic lubrication (and not the hard way like most of us did, on bad tires in the rain).

Long ago, these little engines were used (per my sources, especially on British merchant ships) to spin dynamos, since they didn't need gearing. Turbines eventually took over that job, leaving Beauchamp Tower's fascinating engine an historical footnote. But what a footnote!

Another link, good in August, 2010: External view and description.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


One of the frustrating parts of repairing older appliances is finding the right wire, especially power cord. Old ones very rarely survive in safe shape; most new ones look plain wrong.

For power cords, Sundial Wire has the answer. You've seen their work and haven't noticed it, in films and TV shows. They have very old-fashioned twisted-pair power cord...that just happens to be hiding modern insulation under the cloth.

Wiring up a classic radio or a telephone? Building retrotech from scratch? Check out the "Wire" listings under "Components" at Radio Daze; they have solid and stranded cloth-covered hookup wire in several sizes and many colors, including "pushback" solid, plus multiconductor cable and tinsel cord for telephone handsets, headphones and old-fashioned speakers. They have their own line of parallel-wire cloth-covered power cord and matching plugs, too.

Antique Electronics Supply has cloth-covered magnet wire in #24 and #26 size, plus Litz wire and cloth-covered hookup wire assortments, some power cord, cloth-type "spaghetti" insulating sleeving and #12 square tinned busbar.

Not Esoteric enough? Try the all-cotton-insulated wire at Jupiter Condenser Co. --And if you just have to have waxed-paper condensers, why, Jupiter's your only source of new ones, as far as I know. (The latter are not inexpensive but feature manufacturing techniques far superior to the old type; they've a line of modern Mylar fixed condensers as well). I have not done business with this company -- but they look interesting.

(Also stumbled over general-line/audiophile supplier Parts Connection, worth adding to your do-they-have-it? resources).

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Sometimes, if you're looking in the right place, there are wondrous things to be found; some are very large, like the 1920s-designed city park in a quarry in Huntington, Indiana. Others are much smaller. My eagle-eyed friend Og found this and thought of me:It's the smallest "professional" sized Yankee screwdriver, the smaller ones generally being sold as "handyman" versions and marketed more to homeowners and casual users. It's in very nice shape, with the original box and bit envelope, though no bits. --I make a habit of picking up Yankee bits when I find them (and the hex-bit adapters), so this is no hardship. This one does not have a return spring; it is intended for work where control matters more than speed. A splendid gift indeed, and one that I'll use.


My favorite pair of glasses -- and the only ones with a current prescription -- broke awhile ago and I have been tacking them back together with Tix, a low-melting hard solder. Alas, the break was in a high-stress point, where the temple begins to curve around one's ear, and it wasn't holding.

There's a fix for that:It helps to have the toys to do the job but the real key is that stick of what looks like brass rod at the center of the image. It's hollow tubing from world-famous Hedlund's Hardware (Motto: "We have it. Somewhere." It's true, too) A little flux, a little Tix heated by the big iron and taa-daa:It's not beautiful but it doesn't show that much, either. And I'll be seeing the optometrist next week.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


In the 1930s, engineers at the Radio Corporation of America[1] introduced what they called "six-wire transmission line," a neat dodge that used U-shaped supports and a handful of insulators to turn ordinary wire into a good approximation of high-power coaxial cable (scroll down for drawings and photos) without all the trouble and expense of using large-diameter copper tubing: in cross-section, four wires apart occupied the corners of a square about twelve inches on a side while two more, very close together, were set in the center. The outer wires were all grounded (just like the outer shield of coax) and the center two, connected together, made up the center conductor. (Here's an example of genuine American six-wire line at WGY).

It got a little attention; the technology of the day used what's known as a "balanced two-wire line" between transmitter and antenna, both wires "live" and rather sensitive to weather and temperature, or even dodgier methods. But about then, a little war broke out and the engineers suddenly had different priorities.

The WW II development of fancy plastics, smaller concentric line and the boom economy of the 1950s left that Depression-era trick in the dust -- real coax made out of big copper tubing was just the ticket for the 250W to 5kW stations that made up the bulk of broadcasting in the U.S. and they could afford it.

...Other places don't do things the same way; in the rest of the world, fewer stations and higher power were more usually the case and in cases where one country sought to, ahem, get to know the neighbors better, very high power was the norm. Nobody makes coax for that and even if they did, most outfits -- many governments! -- couldn't afford it. But some wire, insulators and few custom castings? That's well within the budget and it leads to images like these.

The young gentlemen in the lower photograph are standing in (or nearly in) a ring that supports the outer wires of a scaled-up version of RCA's penny-pinching 1930s six-wire line. Call it five and a half feet in diameter, at least. Once completed, it carried a 1.2 million Watt signal from the transmitter to the antenna. Not bad for something an RCA guy dreamed up to avoid the cost and trouble of turning two sizes of water pipe[2] into coax, hey?

This is why it pays to remember old tricks.
1. At the time, not the "RCA Corporation," a name-change that was the knee of a long curve down for the former technology giant.

2. Honest. Early on, the commonest size of "rigid line" with copper-pipe inner and outer had a non-standard impedance (determined by the ratio of the diameters of the inner and outer conductors, times a fudge factor) because that's what you got with the off-the shelf pipe sizes. To this day, the outer conductors connect using standard large size high-pressure water-pipe flanges. But the inner conductor's now a size that, oh, gosh, a size that works out to a more slide-rule friendly number.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


A long time ago, back when I was shopping (the used market) for my Gerstner machinist's toolbox, I stumbled across an interesting no-name one that had a few...problems. Like somebody had carved big squarish openings in one of the drawers, and the outer case -- metal -- was in terrible shape, covered with flaking paint in a livid shade of green.

But it had this: I couldn't resist it. After all -- Hammarlund!

As you can see, the paint was fixable. The openings in the drawer front took a little more finagling:The small holes, I just drilled out to a consistent diameter (1/8") and filled with dowels. To fix the big ones, the drawer fronts were oak and I found some similar red oak, cut it oversize and did a lot of scraping and sanding. ...A whole lot of scraping and sanding. To hold the patches in place, I drilled from the top and bottom of the drawer front and glued in more 1/8" doweling.
At some time in the past, black ink or paint has spilled down drawer fronts, too; the only fix for that was sanding and refinishing, though I didn't want it piano-glossy like a new one. What's on it is mostly dark boiled linseed oil and multiple coats of wax. You can still see where the stain was but it's not too bad.

Trivia: The edge detail at the top of the drawers is a bead -- that's the rounded bit -- and a quirk, which is the little square-bottomed groove between the bead and the rest of the drawer front. This example's only a little quirky. Traditionally made with a custom plane, a scratch stock or (cheater!) router bit of the proper profile. The look can be faked with nothing more than a large flathead woodscrew, a bit of scrap wood and some sanding, but that's a story for another time.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


At long last, I have cleared my workbench! Taa-daa:Some interesting stuff on it, too. Across the top, my fancy extending light on a custom (see below) support hides a pair of hand drills, while the far end is occupied by a bench supply (450 VDC/100 mA plus lower B+ and heater supplies) and breadboarded tube utility amplifier ('76 triode driving '42s in push-pull!), both based on Modern Radio Labs plans. Lookie:Power Supply -- that's a real type '80! The shiny front panel is what happens if you have a buffing wheel and a lot of time; it's aluminum, which can be...interesting to buff: you have to do it all in one go, especially the final stages.Amplifier, with salvaged knobs (from an old Thordarson product) found all alone at a hamfest or surplus dealer. The finish on the plywood cabinet is brown shoe polish(!!) followed up with a little wax.

Next shelf has a commercial bench supply for tubes -- regulated 0-400 VDC (with current limiting!), ditto 0-100 negative for bias, and heater voltage. Simpson 260 next to it, the Meter You Should Own -- the Triplett 630 has its adherents, too -- one or the other, if you fiddle much with electronics, you'll want a real VOM and they're the definitive ones this side of the water. Both show up used at reasonable prices. Next to the Simpson, an RF signal generator, a hamfest find a couple of years old.

Various toys on the bench top -- an anvil, a Hakko high/low soldering iron at the far left, small hand drill, some drivers, a 4" square, an awl and my nice, big American Beauty 100W iron, plus a recently-modified small-tools holder.

Recently-modified? Glad you asked!
Here's the mod in progress; I was cheating by planing off the pencil marks, using a beat-up miter box as a vise-replacement (you clamp it to the bench and clamp the workpiece to the miter box). The wooden "Gent's Plane" was bought on sale, I think from Lee Valley, and is outstandingly good. (They don't seem to have that brand right now). It's true what they say about wooden planes. I cheated on drilling the holes vertically, too. I'm very fond of this tiny Plexiglas square for that purpose. But you're wondering what the thing does? Why, this: It's the driver-holder across the back, holding a couple of awls, a ratcheting multi-driver and two sizes of tweakers -- yes, that's the genuine tech-identifying Green Tweaker at the right.

The bracket for the accordion light? Built of scraps, old wood found here and there, but it's got wedged tenons at each end and all manner of done-by-hand chamfering. Did it several years ago, just to see if I could. I can.
It's not a thing of exceeding great beauty but it works. You can just see a bit of the chunky triangular block that's supporting it off the left side of the shelves.

Still to come: some diagonal bracing for the legs and perhaps installing my smaller carpenter's vise. (The bigger one, I'm saving for a sturdy woodwork-specific bench, probably out in the garage). And perhaps a project or two!
* Need tube data? Frank's the guy! Duncan's TDSL is nice, too.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


A possible project in the works: It needs another coat of lacquer and some very careful sanding. Plus the Other Stuff, about which maybe more later.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


I found my grinder! It's not much, but it's been missing since I moved. Opened an unlikely box in the basement workshop this evening, and there it was:It needs to be disassembled (again) and repainted. When I bought it, it was Winter and I needed a grinder; so I took it apart, cleaned it up, oiled the bearings, gave the gears a dab of grease and put it back together. There's the "business end" view above. Not a fancy toolrest but good enough to touch up a screwdriver tip. With a hand crank, you can keep it slow and not have to fret so much about taking the metal's temper.I'd like to find a new wheel for it; that one's glazed, a little out of round and mildly concave. But hey, it works. --Maybe I should look for a small buffing wheel for it, too. That'd be kind of fun and perhaps a little better -- and safer -- than my old trick of chucking the buffing wheel in its arbor in a (borrowed) drill press.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


Readers may have noticed that I am fond of "Yankee"-type semiautomatic screwdrivers (which turn a push into rotation) and ratchet drivers. Here is most of my collection of the former and a couple of the latter:Click on any image for the large version. (Looking for history links, I found a nifty Instructable on detail-stripping and cleaning a classic Stanley/North Brothers driver). The black-handled one at the bottom is a Shroeder, a spare for the one I keep in my toolbox at work -- the knurled ring that retains the (hex!) bits was "borrowed" to replace one lost from the work driver some years ago. A lot of the paint is missing from the daily-use driver and it's getting a little wobbly; but it still works after a decade of hard use. Far right is the larger model from the same maker. By the way, if you ever succumb to the urge to detail-strip a Schroeder, please note the tubular cover over the ratchet control is retained by a spring-loaded pin, which will fly away, spring and all, if you remove the cover and don't have it under control. There is, barely, enough room to tap the cavity 10-32 and use a short grubscrew to retain the cover once you have lost the pin and spring, but it looks kludgey. Um, don't ask me how I know this, please. There are three bought-new Stanley Yankees with the classic purple handles near the top, some of the very last production, as they're not made any more. The two largest must be stored "open," with the telescoping spiral section extended: the return spring is quite powerful and if opened while pointed toward yourself or others, results can be...gory. Conversely, the pair at the very top are "cabinetmaker" versions, which do not have a return spring: the fellow doing fine woodwork would be vexed if his driver were to slip from the screw with the spiral fully telescoped. The third from the bottom, with a "knobby" handle is the same. The boxed set at the left is a North Brothers set, in not-quite-new condition, with a Yankee driver, a nice set of bits including a drill adaptor and drills, and two ratchet drivers. A little gummy when I bought them, they cleaned up well. The decal on the lid of the box is intact, too.A closer look at the accessories, including straight drills and a countersink:But why list them when I can let the original label speak for itself?Yankee screwdrivers have a learning curve; careless use can make a mess. But the batteries are never flat and they're hardly ever too loud. And they're another one of the good old tools that is starting to slip away. Shroeder still makes them, as do the Japanese screwdriver wizards at Vessel. There are some plastic versions as well; Schroeder appears to make the ones Sears stores sell but as for the rest, caveat emptor. (Links are to known retail sources). Many modern versions use hex bits (and hex-shank drills!) instead of the classic D-and-notch of the original. This is a handy thing; there was little standardization between brands and models with the older system. If you happen to have an older Yankee driver, several retailers offer hex adaptors for them. Match the diameter to the bits for your driver; you may have to file another notch to get it to lock in but the results are worth it.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


On eBay, a very rare Mac "bug," (original listing is, naturally, gone) an inexpensive (at the time) semiautomatic key for the beginning -- or impoverished -- amateur.

Discontinued soon after it was introduced, the key was made mostly of stamped sheet metal, like a heavy toy. Though it was built to sell at a low price (thank you, Ted McElroy!), scarcity means they're now sought-after collector's items. The present example? "Reserve not met," at over US$500.00 bid. Have a look, it's an interesting artifact.