Sometimes You Have to Improvise

I despise plumbing.

That is, unless I really need to use it, and then like most people I generally don’t think about it.  This past week life once again intruded into The Wood Shepherd, even as I was stroking and tweaking a new podcast that was (is) surely going to titillate the masses.  Life has a way of intruding on life, doesn’t it?

When was the last time you tried living without water for four days?  For my part, I remember it well… I was in my mid-teens, and our Boy Scout troop was taking it’s annual canoe trip up into some of the higher reaches of the Adirondack Mountains.  Stillwater Reservoir, actually — a man-made lake.  But even then, in that adventurous time of my life, we had the lake; we took our shampoo and soap and jumped in the lake.  Bob’s your uncle!

Wednesday evening we noticed that the water pressure in the house was unusually low.  Summer in South Texas, especially in the worst drought anyone can remember, low pressure isn’t that unusual; just

The well head, with new electronics (after re-plumbing.)

The well head, with new electronics (after re-plumbing.)

keep everything turned off and eventually the well will recharge and the pressure will be normal.  Except Thursday morning it wasn’t normal.  It was low again, low enough that I new something was happening.  After dashing out to the wash house, which houses the pressure tank and the breaker for the pump, I determined that the pump was running constantly and the pressure was still dropping.  I flipped the breakers off and put in a call.

Soon we had Kerr Country Pump here, and they were pulling the pump (we had gone through this in 2006 when the last of the galvanized well pipe opened up with a 4″ hole in it.)  When the pump was up and the well sounded, we knew we had a 305′ hole, 200′ of casing (from the top of the ground down) and 100-125′ of water (from the bottom of the hole up.)  The pump showed evidence of being burned; possibly a lightening strike.  We’ve had a few around here, I have no problems with that one.  So we replaced the pump with one that could handle the additional depth, hung it 5′ above the bottom of the hole, and turned it on.  It worked — for a minute.  It looked as though stuff was getting into the pump (we pulled up a 4″ piece of metal well casing earlier.)  We wound up hanging the pump at 280, and still having all kinds of issues.  Quitting time for the well guys, try again tomorrow.

Mid-afternoon the well guys show up again — they had been slammed with all kinds of emergencies.  (Have you ever noticed that nobody seems to take your emergencies as seriously as you do?)  This is a different crew — they do things differently, try some other things, and about 5:30 pm

This area looked like the opener of the Beverly Hillbillies... except I'm not rich now.

This area looked like the opener of the Beverly Hillbillies... except I'm not rich now.

leave, but without much confidence.  They had installed a pump saver and a new pressure switch, re-hung the pump at 280′, tweaked and fiddled, and figured we might be able to limp along for a while until we get more rain.  Should only be a week or two, right?  That night the pressure in the pressure tank plummeted.  Actually, the pressure bottomed out — no water at all.  A quick trouble shooting on my part revealed the why: we had water bubbling up through the ground right along the feed pipe from the well head to the pressure tank.  Aha!  The photo on the right shows where the ground was literally burping a geyser of water.  I dug a hole hunting the pipe.  12″ bury.

The following morning (that would be day 3 without water, Saturday morning) I woke up fulling intending to dig up the old galvanized feed line and replace it with PVC.  Lacking access to a backhoe (and skills to operate it) I had a startling thought… why not lay PVC on the ground until the landlord decides what he wants to do about all of this?  And, with the very real possibility of the well going dry before we get enough rain to raise the water table, why not add plumbing now to insert a poly tank in later?  Brilliant!

Between my trip to Lowes and a few other obligations, work didn’t start until about 6:30 pm, with my brother-in-law’s assistance.  Some people cringe at the thought of a know-it-all BIL messing with what you have to do.  In this whole

The Offending Connection.  I tricked them though -- I made it work.

The Offending Connection. I tricked them though -- I made it work.

sordid story, that’s the one bright spot — my BIL one of those guys who can fix anything.  What’s more, he wholeheartedly approved of my design.  So got into the demolition phase — cutting old galvanized out where we can tie in with the PVC.  Work progressed smoothly until we discovered that the 1-1/4″ galv. pipe on one end had been reduced from 1-1/2″ downstream.  Go figure — the problem was that we had a 1-1/4″ connector, and Lowes closed in 1/2 hour.  Liz’s mom made it in time (it’s a half-hour trip,) and we talked her through what we needed.  The Lowes guy assumed that  since she was a woman, she didn’t know what she was talking about and therefore everything needed to be filtered through what he thought we needed.  He was wrong.  End of the workday for us..

Sunday morning dawned without the prospect of church — the Scripture says, “Be not of this world,” and that’s exactly

50 Lbs!  Yee-haw!  Time for a shower...

50 Lbs! Yee-haw! Time for a shower...

how I smelled.  This was day 4 of no water, and sponge baths just weren’t cutting it.  Lowes opened at 8:00, we were there after a couple of excellent breakfast tacos at 8:15.  After very carefully double-testing the pieces I thought we needed, and having BIL triple check, we were back on the ranch assembling the last of the redneck water main.  We plugged the last length of pipe in, double checked for rigidity, and flipped the breaker on.  The pressure gauge shot up like a rocket to 50 lbs, and finally topped off at 60.  Life is good.

By noon I was sitting down to lunch freshly cleaned and shaven, 4 days after the water “ran out” and the well guys (actually, the first of the well guys) looked at me with long faces and shook their heads.  I doubt we have many more weeks on the well, but this week we are going to try to add a poly tank (after removing the old, rusty cistern) and be prepared.  I did say I had been a Boy Scout…

Galoot woodworking content: None, except I can get back to it now.  Hand tools used: pipe wrenches, cheater pipes to turn pipe wrenches.  Lessons learned: 1. If you’re going to live on a ranch that was plumbed in the late ’50’s or early ’60’s, be prepared for things to break.  2. If you know what you need, don’t let the guy at Lowes talk you out of it.  3. Two heads can be better than one.  Two people breaking apart old galvanized pipe is definitely better than one.  4. Your well is no good unless you can get your water to where you can use it.  5. I hate plumbing.  (Okay, I already knew that.)

How I got water to the house without a bucket.

How I got water to the house without a bucket.


Episode 15 – An Open and Shut Case

Think back to the times that you’ve been visiting a very cool historical old Fort, or a re-enactment village such as Old Sturbridge Village or Colonial Willamsburg, or something along that ilk. As your cup is coming near to running over with information overload and an imagination that’s lagging behind you 300 years or so (and perhaps the kids are getting antsy,) the next threshold brings you into a space where woodworking took place. In the midst of dust settling from generations-old rough-hewn rafters to the burnished floorboards there sits a tool chest, carefully arranged by loving curators to depict the Galoot’s dream. Suddenly your fatigue is gone and your attention is riveted.


Reproduction of Benjamin Seaton's tool chest. He didn't use it much, and that's why it's well preserved.

The tool chest was more than mere organization to the old ones. It was a sales brochure and an industry efficiency expert rolled into one. On the right, of course, is a reproduction of the tool chest of Benjamin Seaton, as described in the podcast. Notice the chisel tills in the top bin of the sliding till, and the fixed till securly holding the smaller saws. Also notice the rope handles — there is some conjecture that some chests were made with handles long enough that a pike might be slid through each and the chest carried that way. I suppose it’s possible, but then, I don’t need to carry this chest.

What is not visible is, of course, the fixed tills in the bottom of the chest. They often hold larger tools such as bitstocks (braces), and so forth. I use a Stanley No.-8 for my jointing plane; that takes up half of the cabinet, it seems!


The tool chest of H.O. Studley. I hope he was as good at finding the wall studs as he was at fixing pianos!

On the left is the famous tool chest of H.O. Studley. Not only would most Galoots trade their first born for the tool chest, there are a lot of insecure Galoots that would love to have is name, too! There are at least 300 tools in that box, and I’ve heard claims as many as 400, but I have no way of counting them all since a lot of them are nested. Certainly this is not the tool chest of the average home woodworker.

I recently ran across a photo of a rigger’s tool chest on the web. Perhaps my strongest passion is sailboats (ironic, being stuck in the Hill Country of Texas, don’t you think?) Tradtional sailboats in particular fascinate me, and when we limit ourselves to not using unstayed carbon masts and high-tech rod rigging we enter the realm of “the rigger”. Jamie White is just such a man, out of the Sausalito area, and has quite a bit of interesting information on worming, parceling and serving (pirate talk in background, arr.. arr…)


Tool chest of James White, the Rigger. Built with rigour.

Jamie is the real thing, spending a few years “before the mast” on “square riggers” – this should be intersesting even for the lubberly of you. Most relevant is his tool chest, and I’ve swiped a photo to include here. Even the able seamen of today require a tool chest, and no Snap-On for Mr. White, thank you very much. Notice his name inscribed in the front of the chest, and the coachwhpped handles – much more comfortable than hemp rope, to be sure. Notice also the photo background – below the weather deck of a wooden sailing vessel. (Arr… arr…)


Wall hanger. Lots more room for "customization" here, a couple of dozen more boring tools...

Our final exhibit is of a hanging tool chest. I’ve forgotten where I lifted this photo from, but this well-crafted tool chest is typical of the hanging tool chests many Galoots construct for their own use. If you are contemplating a tool chest at this point, consider that each of these and the photos of the hundreds of those out their on the web were all built as solutions to the individual Galoot’s needs. Your tool chest needs to be as personal as your shop space and your work bench — there is no right or wrong in tool chests. Let your tool storage be your sales brochure!

And here’s the podcast:


Episode 14 – The Well-Dressed Bench

Dressed up like a million dollar trouper
Trying hard to look like Gary Cooper
Super duper
Come let’s mix where Rockefellers walk with sticks
Or “um-ber-ellas” in their mitts
Puttin’ on the Ritz…

This week we are covering tap dancing; do you see Fred Astaire dancing around like he’s on strings? Okay, well, go rent old movies. They’re wonderful. And it’s okay, too, because we are Galoots — Retro ‘R Us.


An example of a holdfast in action, and another one on hold... (These are Gramercy Tools offerings.)

This week we are covering bench accoutrements, what the English call appliances and Americans often call them fixtures. These are work bench supplements that help us hold our stock while we work it.

No appliance is really more simple than the holdfast. We just slip our holdfast into a dog hole, or holdfast hole if we use square dogs, apply what Moxon calls the “Beak” to our stuff, and give it a rap at the bend point. The stuff will be held fast. I’ve found that it pays to keep a couple of them around, for they save a lot on your knees. Seriously — you don’t have to climb up on the bench to sit on your workpiece, and you don’t have to jamb your knees jumping down!


The humble, noble, wonderful, simple, bench hook.

I like simple tools. No, that’s not exactly precise; I am enthralled with simple tools, and the simpler the more the attraction. Among the simplest is the bench hook; make it right it your own shop — no one sells these things and that’s because most tool vendors have conciences. You can even make effective bench hooks out of scrap plywood you have laying around, and come to think of it that’s not a bad idea. Mine is made out of 3/4 oak, with each cleat 3/4 x 3/4. I made up another bench hook by cutting 1-1/2″ off of one side of my hook and fastening 3/4 x 3/4 cleats identical to the bench hook itself – a mini bench hood. The idea is that when I work longer stock I can put something with identical dimentions to the main bench hook at the other end of the bench, or somewhere along in there, to support the workpiece at the proper height. Bench hooks are made to hold our stuff whenever we are sawing (primarily) but it does fine for other occasions as well, such as trimming up tenons, etc.


Nice shooting board, Tex!

A sort of variation on the bench hook comes with the shooting board. Designed for one thing, really, and that’s making sure the end of our stock is precisely 90 degrees square with the reference edge of the stock. Used in conjuction with a plane, the shooting board is something we want to make sure is absolutely precise and stays that way. You can tell from the Sketchup drawing at the right that our stock is placed against the fence, and a plane is placed on its side, iron oriented toward the thickest field of the shooting board, and the plane is advanced. As the plane moves toward toward the stock, the stock wants to run, but is trapped by the fence allowing the plane to shave the end grain. I added the trough between the 2 fields in order to keep shavings/dust from tipping my plane out of square. Probably overkill, but it’s mine, dagnabit. If you are a framer (as in, picture frames) you can vary this concept easily by simply changing the angle you plough your dado at. I used a 3/4 dado 1/4″ deep, which gives my 3/4 batten (for the fence) a reveal of 1/2″. This means that if I shoot any stock smaller than 1/2″, I’ll either have to plane down my fence, build another shooting board, or find somebody with a thickness planer (not!) Anyway, one can simply run a dado at 45 degrees, and there is a mitre board. Set up a shooting board for 78-1/2 degrees if you regularly to multi-sided mirror frames or clock faces. Or something.


Shades of "It's a wonderful life," the Donkey's Ear.


Donkey's ear -- all the resonance of Beethoven...

Miters are for putting a 45 degree angle across the face of a board. What if we want to miter the edge of the board? We go out, find the nearest Jerusalem donkey, and lop an ear off! This strange contraption is actually known as a Donkey’s ear. Note the fence on the 45 degree surface, and how that surface forms a fence for our plane to ride against as well. In use, the piece underneath the plane table is chucked into a vice, the stock held against the vice, and away we go! On any shooting board its always a good idea to have the sides of our planes lubricated a bit with paraffin or ordinary candle wax. Here’s another view of the donkey’s ear. I have measured drawings available for any of these (NO, I’m not wearing a flannel shirt and beard!) If you are interested, please email me at mack AT thewoodshepherd DOT com.

Oh yeah…

And now, a podcast!


A Week of Epiphanies

This week has been a week of epiphanies for me. The first epiphany came when Liz came to me and said, “It’s time to rearrange the office for more efficiency.” I thought I was pretty efficient, ensconced in my CIC (that’s a naval term for what used to be the bridge of a ship – now it’s the Command Information Center, and depending on your perspective probably a few other things.) I’ve stalled on the rearrangement as long as I could, and last night fell victim to it. The CIC has been hit with enemy fire, and I can’t find anything… Mayday…

The next epiphany wasn’t mine, but mine to share. I had the pleasure of being a guest on “The Sawdust Chronicles” podcast with Rick Waters and Erik Pearson. Just three guys talking about woodworking, perhaps the kind of conversation that would take place down at the local hardware store when I was a kid. The joy of this podcast is that Rick is especially forthright in the fact that he’s just beginning as a woodworker. He’s following the path that many of us seasoned woodworkers have taken; started out trying to emulate Norm Abrams in making their shop an electromotive glow of wonder that can be seen from space. Ask me how I know this… Recently, Pete Bretzke sent Rick a Stanley No.-7 saved from the brink of death (including a gorgeous knob that Pete had turned out of Zircote.) As we talked about the No.-7, Rick discovered the nomenclature of the plane as well as, and more importantly, how to adjust the iron for square and how to compensate for the backlash. As Rick discovered the joy of hand planes, Erik and I basked in the joy of bringing another soul into woodworking enlightenment.

Epiphany number three came to me yesterday, as Matt Vanderlist of Matt’s Basement Workshop fame sent me a video he made recently. It is scheduled to be a part of another video he’s making, so I’m sure you’ll see it. Don’t worry. In the clip I received, Matt reasoned that in the length of time it would take him to pull out his track saw (sometimes true enlightenment takes a while,) get set up, and make a cut he could pull out a hand saw and do the same job with time left over. I have found this a truism, although I don’t own a track saw. That’s really not all that remarkable, but the stock being saw was… plywood! I have to admit, I’ve never tried to “crosscut” plywood, but there it was – Matt had used blue tape to reduce splintering, and used a red-handled saw for sex appeal. With the pale color of the birch plywood, we had American ingenuity at work!

So, there you have it. Since the week is nearly over and I’ve used up more than my quota of epiphanies, I can now rest easy thinking I know it all. Of course, tomorrow is Sunday, which starts a new week…


When Woodworkers Get Together

I recently had a recording opportunity with Rick Waters and Erik Pearson; names that sound remarkably like the co-hosts of The Sawdust Chronicles podcast (I really wish I would have thought of that name!)  The experience was a great one — I had the pleasure of describing my “rustic” shop (that’s what they call it in the country, a city-dwelling friend of mine would have described it as a “ghetto-shop.”)  I was given permission to vent my spleen on Galootdom, and helped Rick discover the joys of making a Stanley No-7 usable.  The experience reminded me of somewhere I’ve been before…hmm… Oh, Yeah!  Berea, Kentucky – the Woodworking in America conference.

There just isn’t any doubt; woodworkers as a group are the nicest, most supportive group – as a group – that I’m aware of.  And the funniest — laughter is inevitable.  I’m convinced that Star Trek:TNG got their idea of the Borg from woodworkers (“You cannot resist.  You WILL be assimilated.”)  Beats the heck out of school; “You WILL be marginalized.”

Every Friday my junior high school held lunchtime “dances”; where a about 200 acne-infested, geeky boys whose greatest talent lay in tripping over their own feet would sit on one side of the gym and the girls whose teeth looked like they had emptied out the nearest Ace Hardware sat on the other with the juke box playing, “It Never Rains in California” (that would be the original Albert Hammond version, if you need the context).  One might get similar imagery for getting woodworkers together — I have no hard data to prove this, but I would think that a higher percentile of woodworkers compared with the general population would tend to be introverted because much of the work is done holed up in our shops, working alone — only with coffee and doughnuts rather than Reese’s and Twizzlers.


Again I remain impressed at the collegiality, warmth, and sense of comradery from these two guys whom I count as friends!  Where else can you go and forget about social strata, politics, and other anthropological detritus?  Not even the Church practices such liberty!

Thanks, guys, for such a great time!  I’m sorry the tree that came down and cut the power to all of the little town I dwell in had to end things abruptly, and I’m looking forward to a return visit!

Why don’t we do this stuff more often?

You can find The Sawdust Chronicles on iTunes or wherever quality woodworking podcasts are sold near you.

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