Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Walnut Box

About four years ago I hosted two meetings of Matt's Cub Scout Den.  The theme was woodworking and there were more than a dozen boys. Having them all buld something worth keeping successfully and safely was quite a challenge and thankfully most of the parents pitched in.  The result was more than a dozen small open boxes made of salvaged redwood, just the right size for stashing a stack of notepads.

Afterwards, Anne repurposed the prototype box as a stand for her makeup mirror.  The box was a little too narrow, which left the mirror slightly cockeyed, and not really tall enough.  Anne never complained about this, even after years of hunching over to get a good reflection.

I have to admit that my woodworking projects are rarely completed promptly or perfectly but this year, for Anne's birthday, I finally made a replacement box.  It's both wide and high enough to hold the mirror properly and it has a drawer.


I made the box from a rough walnut board I had packed from New Jersey late last year, and the last small walnut board that Dicky had cut from a log filched from someone's yard.  There was a fair amount of work involved in coaxing rectangular raw material from the wood and there was quite a bit of sapwood.  I tried to highlight the sapwood, rather than hide it.

The drawer has through box joints in the back and half blind box joints in front.  I had to cut the half blind joints by hand.   It was difficult to get a tight fit and I ended making a bunch of splinters to fill in the ugliest gaps.  The outside of the drawer and the inside of the box is finished with a couple of coats of wax.  I'm quite proud of how the drawer fits, I planed it until it fit perfectly and the wax is pretty slippery.

The drawer front is raised about an 1/8th off the bottom so that it doesn't drag when you open it.

The last thing worth mentioning about this box is the wood's color.  The wood from last year's trip to New Jersey has a beautiful slightly reddish hue that really came alive when I applied the finish.  The other board is very uniform and distinctly different shade of brown. The difference is most noticeable in bright sunlight.  I do not think that Anne minds the contrast.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

David Builds an Airplane

It was the late 1960s and I was one of the kids playing around Vreeland's farmhouse down the street. I remember traipsing through the workshop in the house's basement and looking up at the ceiling where there was nothing but model airplanes. Flying model airplanes, the kind made of balsa and tissue paper stretched perfectly smooth over an intricate wooden skeleton. There were more of them on the workbench, surrounded by newspaper sized construction diagrams, half completed pieces, and small sharp tools. The planes glowed with perfection, smooth curves from spider webs of balsa covered with brightly colored skins. By the time we'd passed through the basement door and back outside, I'd caught the model airplane bug.

My grandfather took my brothers and I to a department store after Christmas sale and I plunked down a few dollars for a Comet flying balsa model airplane kit. I was probably 8 years old. The kit contained long narrow sheets of balsa printed with the outlines of dozens of spars and formers, each one pockmarked with even smaller notches to carry the airplane's ribbing. To assemble the model, each part had to be cut from the sheet precisely, each tiny notch opened up without inducing a crack in the paper thin sheet of balsa. My X-acto knife and 8 year old skills were no match for the Comet.

Over the next couple of years I made a few more attempts with different kits, making sure to select ones that featured "die cut parts". I got better at the process of cutting, assembling, and finally covering the models although perfection was always a long way off. The last model was a large yellow biplane which I hoped to use as credit towards a Boy Scout merit badge. Doing so required bringing the plane to the merit badge counseler, so I carefully placed it on the back seat of our little Volkwswagen Beetle. Leaving the door open, I left to gather the rest of my things. Our large German Shepherd dog, sensing an opporunity for a nice drive with head out the rear seat window, leapt on the back seat and smashed the airplane. I was cured of the model airplane bug.

Christmas 2010. My son Matthew lets on that he's picked a flying cardboard airplane book for his older brother David. This wasn't a spec gift, David had more or less picked it out. I doubled down and bought David a Guillows "Javelin" balsa model for about $12. The airplane appeared to be pretty simple structurally and, if the artwork on the box was any indication, the design had evolved very little in the past 50 years. I made sure that the kit featured die cut parts.

David also recieved a Mountain Bike this year and if it hadn't rained nearly every day while he was home from UCSD for the holiday break, I don't think that the model airplane box would have even been opened. It turns out that a long series of rainy days is perfect weather for assembling a model airplane and David applied himself to the task. Very carefully, methodically, and with close attention paid to the instructions.

As he went through the process, from pinning and gluing the simplest parts, to constructing the wing and covering everything with tissue paper and dope, I couldn't help but notice that the boy was avoiding some of the old man's boyhood mistakes. It turns out that following -all- of the detailed the directions, constructing parts in the order that you're instructed, taking care to understand the planned result of each step before blundering into its application, all of these habits lead to a much better outcome. It also helps to check intermediate results carefully against the plans, and immediately make corrections before moving on. I can't claim to have passed along any of these lessons, but it's very nice to see them put to good use.

The model occupied a card table for over a week. Tools: an X-acto knife, a tube of glue, a little sand paper, and foul smelling "dope" for sticking the tissue paper to the wooden frame.

Here are all of the parts, just prior to be covered with tissue paper. Everything has been sanded smooth, particularly the trailing edges of the wings, which require more work than anything else.

The plans called for gluing wire to the leading edge of the struts that the wheels will be mounted to.

The wheels are attached to their struts with a bent pin that's been glued to the back of the strut. The implication is that the plane will take off and land on its wheels. This seems very unlikely.

David with the completed airplane skeleton and with the finished plane. The final construction step required the rubber band that's attached to the propeller to be carefully fished through the inside of the plane with a coat hanger, and then slipped over a tiny dowel rod that passes through a specially reinforced portion of the fuselage. This procedure was at least as difficult as endoscopic surgery and the first time, working together, we got the rubber band on backwards. My inclination was to punt, by David persevered and after another grueling session with the coat hanger, managed to attach the rubber band correctly.

Two views of the finished plane. Stephen and I made the first photo with a five second exposure in a dark room and a single hand held flash to illuminate the plane. Although the tissue is translucent, the flash really helps to show the plane's internal structure. Applying the tissue is possibly the most difficult part of the entire build and it comes at the end, when you're likely to be weary. Carefully stretching the material over the featherweight frame, knowing that just a tiny slip will put a thumb sized hole through a week's work, reminds one how fragile the entire airplane is. And how unlikely it would be to survive one crash landing.

David really (really) wants to launch the Javelin, even if its maiden voyage will be its only flight. Thankfully it was raining when he left for the winter quarter and so the plane will have a few months to glow perfection until he returns from school.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Southern UC Campus Tour

UCSD's Geisel Library

We've just returned from a tour of many of the southern University of California campuses. This traditional rite of passage for parents and students is essentially a shopping trip to find just the right school for your High School junior, and bragging rights for the parents. Bragging rights don't come easily, all of the California schools fit into a rigid hiearchy with UCB at the top, UCLA next, UCSD after that and so on. No official brochure provides this breakdown, but every single campus tour parent could recite as much from memory, with a passion usually reserved for fantasy baseball draft picks and the relative merits of BMW's 5 and 7 series. It's a tough crowd.

The tours are conducted by students who are selected for their ability to enthuse for one or two hours while walking backwards and fielding questions from eager parents. Prepared spiels about academics, food, housing, sports, campus life and so on, were supposed to elicit similar questions and, usually just to be polite, someone would offer up a topical inquiry. Once that formality was out of the way, the dam would inevitably break, and the admissions questions would begin. Admissions to the UCs are very competitive. Ridiculously so. The average grade point average for an incoming UCLA freshman is 4.15. To make sure that GPA isn't inflated by stellar grades in idle pursuits like physical education or woodshop or music, the UCs only consider worthy studies like history, math or science, and then only grades earned in the student's sophomore or junior years. Even perfect marks in high school classes will not distinguish applicants, since one can only earn a "4.0" for an A. To truly distinguish themselves, students must take college level Advanced Placement courses, since letter grades are worth an extra point, 5.0 for an A.

We attended a special admissions presentation at UCSD where a genuine gatekeeper held forth for about 45 minutes on what eligibility really depended on. Exactly 77% depended on GPA and test scores, and the former could be goosed by spending summers and evenings taking qualified courses at the local community college. Don't think you can take a break as a senior he warned, UCSD would consider the final year's courseload in figuring the final 23% of your student's score, so don't give in to the temptation to slow to a jog during the final lap. The not too subtle message in all of this seems to be that the ideal UC candidate will have completed 2-3 years worth of college coursework before entering college.

Perhaps it's because incoming freshman are expected to have a substantial part of their college education taken care of by the time they arrive, the UCs appear to have generous funds available for landscaping, building, and beautification. All of the campuses we visited were gorgeous. The grand old buildings had been restored to like-new splendor, the new buildings were sparkling and sometimes architecturally daring. The landscaping was impossibly perfect, and the facilities, the gymnasiums and pools and fitness centers, and parks and libraries, were all large, well appointed, and radiating that healthy glow that can only come from truckloads of money. I've always been dismayed by the somewhat shabby condition of our public elementary and high schools. We Californians send our children to be educated in places that would never pass muster as offices or eateries or fitness centers for the adult population, but we seem to be content to send our children to institutions whose physical plant has only seen three coats of fresh paint since the 1960s. I'm pleased that the same is not true for California's universities.

All of the UC campuses we visited, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Irvine, were well represented by their student tour guides who did their level best to advertise the variety and quality of academic and campus life their institutions offered. They didn't need to draw attention to the beauty of the campus itself, an hour's walk around any of these campuses on a sunny afternoon would impress anyone with functioning senses. Sadly, being granted a position in the freshman class is a privilege that few will enjoy. For example UCLA only accepts 23% of those who apply (the medical school accepts a whopping 4%). Budget cuts will reduce the overall UC student population considerably this year and so it's likely that admissions will only become more competitive. One other aspect of admissions that seems borderline bonkers, is the implicit requirement that a 16 year child pick their life's career.

Admission to UCLA is by college, and blended into our tour guide's peroration about the dizzying heights of the faculty's ivory towers, was the warning that once admitted, switching colleges was very difficult. And don't forget to tailor your high school coursework and resume to the college you're applying to. The not subtle implication of this is that all of the striving that's expected for prospective students had better be purposeful and narrowly focused on a specific career goal. Wavering will only yield the competitive edge to a child so precocious that they'd made up their mind about their life's work shortly after graduating to solid foods.

There's no risk of that kind of clairvoyance in our family, so we'll just have to see what happens. California is home to a vast kingdom of public universities, all capable of teaching and training and housing and grooming and completing the education of our teenage children. So, no matter where my sons end up, the end result is safely in their hands. And even if they aren't admitted to a school at the very top of the pyramid, I'll still brag about them.