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?