Broken River Joinery

A New Project

One of the benefits of living on the western most edge of the Eastern Deciduous Forest is an abundance of hardwood trees both in town and in the country. At any given time, it seems someone nearby has a Walnut or Oak that needs to come down or has fallen over in a storm and often times these beautiful trees get cut up for firewood or worse, sent to the chipper. And that in part is what motivated my good friend and I to invest in an Alaskan chain saw mill recently. We also are fortunate to have access to a number of fallen trees on some river bottom land on his acreage.

We had to preorder it as each bar and ripping chain are manufactured on demand due to their size. It took about 5 weeks to arrive. We went with the 36″ bar which gives us an effective cutting width of 34″. The bar itself is closer to 40″ and is double ended but with the mill cage, the workable length is significantly reduced. Nonetheless, the size of the bar is almost comical and gives one pause about what you’ve really gotten yourself into.

Once we got the mill assembled and the bar and chain attached and tensioned, we went for a walk on the land to locate a suitable first candidate for the trial run. We came across a large Red Elm that had fallen some time ago and most of the cork and cork cambium were gone with a little rot in the secondary cambium. To get the trunk to a manageable length we needed to cut about two feet off one end and this would tell us if the rot went much further.




Once we got through, it was clear that the trunk was still in really good shape so we set up our slabbing bracket to get the first cut. But before we could do that we needed to roll the log out to an area we could work in and also to get the optimum slab width on the trunk. This is where the lever and fulcrum are your friend. It felt a little bit like building the pyramids, but after about half an hour of levering and fulcruming we were ready to go. We used two 2×4’s that were as straight and level as we could find and attached them to two metal cross brackets that we then leveled from front to back and side to side and nailed in to the trunk.


IMG_3764Since there were only two of us and running the mill is a two person job, I don’t have any photos of the mill in action but here’s few pics of the process. This image shows the trunk after we pulled the first cut off. After that, as long as you make a nice flat cut, the tree itself is the guide for the mill and all you have to do is determine the thickness of the slabs (we went with 8/4 for the duration).

IMG_3765And here’s a few more in between slabs.


IMG_3768By the time we had 6 slabs cut we were losing daylight so had to call it a day. Here’s Johnny (and Lily) taking a break on what we have left. We should get about 3 more slabs before we hit the bottom. The trunk is just over 7′ long and 32″ wide at the widest part.


IMG_3770We had to close up shop for the night so we did a quick hack job of stickering and piling but we’ll get back to it and finish slabbing out the rest and coating the ends so it doesn’t dry out and check/crack unnecessarily. Then in 18 months we’ll have some slabs to work with…


Thinning Out

I’m paring down my tool collection (along with a few other things) and before I push them out via craigslist/ebay I want to offer them to my fellow woodworkers/followers. Right now I’m looking at pick-up and pay but if someone is interested in having an item shipped we can work through Paypal. I’m located in the Quad Cities so if you are close by we can arrange a time for you to stop by and take a look. I can only accept cash for in-person transactions and all prices are firm. If you are interested, leave me a note in the comments section and I’ll be able to contact you directly through email.

I will be adding a few more things in the next couple weeks so keep checking back.

Thanks for looking!


Delta JT160 Shopmaster 6″ Benchtop Jointer: $175.00

The new version of this falls under the Porter-Cable brand and retails new at $249. There are some minor blemishes on the in-feed and out-feed tables and on the in-feed knob adjustment stem. There’s also a small piece of plastic missing on the black button on the cutter guard which is entirely cosmetic. I replaced the knives about 6 months ago but only used it a couple times after that so they are in pretty good shape. I’ve owned the jointer for about 3 years and have moved to primarily hand-tools for jointing so I find I’m not using it any longer. It’s been gently used and runs fine. It comes with the original owner’s manual along with the two factory push blocks.













Grizzly H7583 Tenoning Jig: $45.00

This retails new for $88.59. It has a few cosmetic blemishes from general use but otherwise is in great shape. Comes with original owner’s manual. You will need to adjust the settings to fit your particular table saw and the owner’s manual details how this is done.








Mr. Heater Portable Buddy Propane Heater w/10ft Hose Assembly: $75.00

The heater and hose assembly retail for a total of $118.27. This also comes with a travel bag. It’s a great indoor/outdoor heater and packs a decent amount of heat for the size. You can buy the propane canisters at any outdoors or big box store. I ended up barely using this thing so it’s in nearly mint condition.







Epson Perfection 4990 Scanner: $500.00

This is a very desirable and dependable scanner among photog types and goes for around $800.00 bucks on Amazon as they don’t make it any longer. It’s a tough one to get rid of but I just don’t have the time to use it anymore.

The scanner is in superb condition and does an amazing job of scanning large format negatives (I was a photographer in another life) and comes with all the original accessories and software/cables. You can read a great description here. There is a very minor cosmetic scratch on the plastic lid casing (you can see it in the photo below).

Here’s the technical deets with photos following below:

Detailed item info

Product Identifiers
Brand Epson
Model 4990
MPN B11B175022
UPC 010343852181, 8715946270630
Technical Details
Type Flatbed Scanner
Family Line Epson Perfection
Form Factor Desktop
Supported Operating Systems Apple MacOS 9, Apple MacOS X, Microsoft Windows 2000 Pro, Microsoft Windows 98 Second Edition, Microsoft Windows Millennium Edition, Microsoft Windows XP Home, Microsoft Windows XP Professional
Color Depth 48 bit
Film Scanning Capabilities 35mm Filmstrip, 35mm Slides, Negative Film, Positive Film
Scanning Resolution 4800 x 9600 DPI
Connectivity FireWire, USB 1.0/1.1, USB 2.0
Input Type Color
Media Type 35 mm Film, 35 mm Slides, Film, Plain Paper, Slides, Transparencies
Scanning Element Type CCD
Preview Speed 7 Sec
Gray Levels 16-Bit (64K Gray Levels)
Media Load Type Manual Load
Width 11.97 in.
Depth 18.74 in.
Height 5.28 in.
Weight 14.77 lb.














On Time

“Indeed, it occurred to me that Erik had an absolute respect for time, to the point that he was able to exist inside any particular moment with tangible contentment. He understood that the value wasn’t to be extracted by rushing to get to the next project, but rather by truly inhabiting each and every moment he was fortunate enough to experience.”

-Ben Hewitt, from “Saved”

Something I will take with me on the next foray in the woodshop (and hopefully beyond)


Form and Function and Design

A recent article in the New York Times, “Simplifying the Bull…“, discusses a series of 11 lithographs by Picasso, as a tool to model product designs in order to reduce them to their most fundamental and functional aspects. It’s an interesting piece that delves into the design and decision making process at Apple Inc., and that opens up a broader discussion on design itself.


Picasso’s “Bull” Christmas 1945

(The progression moves from top to bottom beginning with the far left-hand column-click on the image for a more detailed view)

Much has been made in the art world and beyond regarding the psychoanalytic vestiges inherent in the particulars of this work, which I’ll gladly leave to the post-modernist critics and anybody else who may be interested in trundling down that path. My intent here is to examine the evolution of the above drawings in relation to the design process as exemplified through the craft of wood furniture production, particularly of the type generated in garages and basement workshops every day, from tinkerers to professionals and beyond.

Let’s dive in.

Initially, through the first two drawings there is a growing complexity to the bull, whereas beginning with Plate 3, a progressive deconstruction ensues, rendering the final plate a seemingly simple line drawing that in fact exhibits the primary elements of the idea, encapsulating both the rudimentary nature of the design and espousing the power that is the essence of the thing itself.


Plates 1, 2, & 11

This brings up a fundamental question in the art/design process; namely, what is the first step? Does the artist/designer imagine the final piece (subject to revision) initially (Plate 1) or do they construe something more basic (also subject to revision) in their mind’s eye (Plate 11)? Take a dining room table for example: is it the finished product that first appears mentally or rather a flat surface with 4 legs to support it? Ultimately, I assume it varies widely from person to person. However, we woodworkers possess what I would consider to be an additional advantage, i.e. function. More specifically, I would guess most woodworkers wouldn’t place themselves in either of the above camps which both subscribe to Form/Idea as the maximal origin and conclusion. Rather a woodworker tends to be cornered by the constraints of their predicament, such as, “I need a place to eat, and this cardboard box just isn’t doing it”,  and voila….a dining room table results. Of interest, once the impetus is established, is what’s the most effective method to arrive at the end result, i.e. a dining room table.?

As a side note, it’s important to add that there are several if not countless additional components that feed into this design recipe. Items like skill set,  awareness of past and current design trends, aesthetic preference, the size of one’s dining room, the size of oneself and one’s family, availability of material, associated cost, time available, each of which merit their own further discussion.

So when we look at Picasso’s Bull, what we are really privy to, are the stages of an accomplished master artist’s thought process from initial spark to final conclusion. It is curious to note that there is a degree of increasing complexity from Plate 1 to Plate 2 at which point the series gradually distills down to its more fundamental elements. This may indicate an intimate look at the initial idea (a bull for whatever reason), an exploration into what that fully represents (Plate 2), and then ultimately a paring down to the basic and final most effective form (Plate 11). Regardless, the end result is the same.

In some ways, the medium of sculpture would seem more closely related to the woodworking idiom instead of a 2D representation of a 3D object (drawing of bull versus actual bull). Like Michelangelo reducing a block of marble to something as incredible as David. But this still leaves out function. At least in the practical sense. Functionally, David, may in fact bring a certain mental satisfaction to the viewer that they then carry with them and that too is grist for another conversation, but functionally speaking methinks trying to balance a dinner plate on David’s kneecap would prove entertaining at best. But I digress.

Where then, does that leave the inspired woodworker? True, the sketch pad, scrap paper, napkin, etc.  seem like an obvious first choice. But to really get to the heart of the matter, one cannot leave it at that. The inspiration, the need is there. The image presents itself in the mental/visual landscape. The 1st drawing materializes. Then what? Some latitude is necessary here; each woodworker processes the making manifest of an idea differently. A cardboard mock-up for some, a scaled down model for others. Even a rough version of the intended piece. While critical, the details of this stage do not matter so long as one takes the step itself. Beyond this there is the actual piece. And pleasant it may be. But finished it is not. For at the end of the day we are a different person than the face that greeted us that same morning in the mirror. And so our work follows. And thus life. That dining room table then, is never quite finished. Especially when we are faced with it each day. We see where it may have been a little lower or a bit wider or the base less heavy. We see where we might have made it better. But we do not lament. We instead make a promise. To build that table again, to change what need be changed as we have changed and the world along with it.

(this essay was revised at least  17 times prior to publication)

778 Sq. Ft. Japanese Small House

778 Sq. Ft. Japanese Family Small House by Alts Design Office

-note the 4-panel sliding shoji divider. Also note, there seems to be a “Put a Bird On It” theme throughout these photos. And lastly, and I could be wrong but I get the distinct impression that someone likes Ash furniture; note the coffee table, dining room table, etc.

alts design office 768 sf japanese family small house 001 600x899   Minimalist 778 Sq. Ft. Japanese Family Small House

Images ©

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On Ash

The simple joy of planing the end grain on an ash board.







On Finding Your Place

“My consciousness comes to inhabit the tip of the knife and the tooth of the saw, so that I am not only in the world, but somehow of the world.”

-Peter Korn

From Why We Make Things and Why It Matters.

Screen Shot 2014-07-19 at 6.27.58 AM

Taughannock II

I was fortunate to locate a set of Ash book matched slabs some time ago and as I’ve been in need of a desk for several years now, the Universe smiled and they magically appeared in my shop. Total length runs to about 8′ with 3′ width. Two years ago I designed and built a coffee table for my sister, naming it the Taughannock. I used Walnut for that project (and White Oak for the leg) and wanted to expand on that design with a bigger piece. I also kept one of the live edges and for this piece, I’ve decided to remove both live edges, which is closer to the original design.

IMG_3554The first step was to joint the edges for glue-up. It took me 2-3 hours for each edge using a 22″ jointer and my low angle block plane in tandem. I ended up sharpening both blades twice for each leaf. Ash is a pretty tough wood and tear out comes easy, especially with a dull blade. It’s difficult to check for a completely flat edge along the length of an 8′ piece. I have a 3′ straightedge that I basically side-stepped all the way down and then used my longest engineer’s square. This was done multiple times throughout the course of the jointing.

IMG_3559Here’s the edge with the sawyer’s marks.

IMG_3561And then after jointing. Ash has a lovely grain that when planed properly results in a unique surface. It has some similarities to Oak in its appearance but I find it to have a finished quality all it’s own, one completely distinct from Oak.

IMG_3560And the glue-up. The Roubo bench came in handy here. It’s weight was more than enough to offset the incredibly heavy Ash and the side panel clamp allowed for me to use gravity to my advantage during the gluing and clamping. I used 3 cauls to help insure everything was lined up properly. (a good tip here is to cover the cauls with duct tape which prevents them from being glued directly to the piece).

IMG_3570And the top after the glue-up. ps its very heavy now…

IMG_3576To take the bark off, I used a draw knife my dad gave me a year ago when I went to visit him. It was my great-grandfather’s tool and is really in good shape-it needs some cosmetic work to look pretty, but for now it just needed to be sharpened. My great-grandfather was born in my hometown in IA in 1871 and so I think this would date the tool to about 115-120 years old. I’m blessed to be able to give this tool new life and to know it was held in the hands of my namesake over 100 years ago. There’s a goodness in that history that I’m too poor with words to describe. If I can do it even the smallest amount of justice with my woodworking now, then I will have taken a small step in honoring my family and my work.

IMG_3567After a bit of work on the Tormek.

IMG_3571Here’s a dry fit to test the 45 degree mitre. It took a few passes and was no easy task given the weight and size of the pieces. I was able to use my table saw to cut the 45 on the leg, but the top of the desk was a different story. This involved using the circular saw and a series of clamps and a straightedge and a soft touch if that’s possible when slicing a 45 degree cut across a 1 3/4″ thick and 30″ wide piece of Ash.

IMG_3592The fit is actually pretty tight-I didn’t draw it too tight with the clamps for fear of damaging the joint prior to glue up but when I held it with just my hands, it came together nicely.

IMG_3593And here are all the pieces. The final design will be slightly different than the coffee table, primarily to account for the extra support needed for a piece as large and heavy as this one. You can see some live edges here that will eventually be incorporated into the base. I wanted to incorporate that aspect of the wood but have it be more subtle on this design.


Next Shoji Project

Working on the tenons and mortises for the 4 joints of the screen. The tenons are haunched and the jaguchi chamfer will be cut just prior to assembly. I’m using Poplar for this project and following the instructions for the 1st of the three screen designs from Des King’s Shoji book.








Paul Discoe On Post Footings

Six+ minute video demonstrating how to fit a post to a stone using traditional Japanese joinery. Check out the hybrid sawhorses at 3:30. A cross between typical Japanese sawhorses with added height to appease Westerners.


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