Dust Collection in the Drakyn Workshop

It’s been almost two years since I posted the original article Cyclonic Dust Collection.

The cyclone collector isn’t seeing much action these days as the entire dust collection system has been replaced. It started with a Delta unit that seemed to be as powerful as I could get without upgrading to 220 volt electrical. Next in line is a Thien Separator (24″ diameter, 12″ tall) with 32 gallon collector. The separator in turn is connected to a 5″ metal trunk line with branches to different work stations. The duct work is all metal until the last few feet to each machine.

I haven’t done any real tests with the Thien separator but we’re still get excellent air flow, the 32 gallon drum is filling and the bag on the Delta is almost empty. That most likely means the .05 micron filter isn’t getting gummed up with fines so there should be a lot less maintenance on the DC.

Thien Separator and Delta Dust Collector

Thien Separator and Delta Dust Collector

Thus far the collection system pulls from the following work areas, selectable with some very solid blast gates from Penn State:

Down draft table (4″)
Workbench (4″)
Table Saw (4″ cabinet + 4″ on Sharkguard)
Lathe (4″)
Band saw (4″ on lower wheel + 2″ just below table)
Thickness planer (4″)
Jointer (4″)
Belt Sander (2″ on disc + 2″ on belt)
Scroll Saw (2″ below table + 2″ above table)

I can’t say enough good things about the decision to go with all metal ducting. The original plan was to use ABS plumbing pipe to reduce cost. Once the numbers were all in and the quality of the fittings was taken into account (especially the blast gates) it was only slightly more costly to use metal.

What’s missing now is solid dust collection on some of the hand sanders. That’s where the old cyclone and the shop vac are going to get put back into service. Our sanders are “vintage” and don’t have dust ports. They are next to be replaced as it doesn’t make a lot of sense to do a great job on dust collection in 90% of the shop and then blow fines all over the shop with a couple of outdated tools.

The plan from the outset was to build a system that could be incrementally upgraded and the Delta vacuum unit could be swapped out for a more powerful unit without wishing the lines were all 1″ larger. A lot of research and planning went in to matching the diameter of the lines with the volume of air the current unit could move. We’re at the upper limit of what the Delta can handle so an upgrade should be well within the comfort zone.

So Much To Do, So Little Time

I have been remiss in my responsibilities to Drakyn for the past six weeks. I confess that I have barely set foot in the shop nor have I done any serious writing in that time.

I would feel guilty, but I do have an excuse.

It would seem that retirement from the IT industry is still down the road somewhere for me. I’m pleased to announce Razyr Networks. Drop by to see what the fuss is all about.

I do intend to keep Drakyn active, however the pace is going to slow down behind the scenes as the new company is keeping me quite busy. I hope that in the weeks ahead, the pace over at Razyr will slow down somewhat and I’ll strike a natural balance between there and here.

As they say, life is what happens while you are busy making plans.

Bruce

Drakyn Upgrade – New Processes and Tools For Writing and Woodworking

Coyote Catapult Blueprint

Blueprint For Success

This year I set aside the month of April to upgrade and implement changes to my work environment, processes and tools – both as a writer and a woodworker. Metaphorically, it was a time to sharpen the saw. In reality, there were days when the entire upgrade process seemed like a gigantic make-work project. The apparent light at the end of the tunnel was both dim and distant.

Writing Upgrades

My first order of business in upgrading my writing environment was to reduce the clutter in my head and in both my virtual and physical work spaces. This meant taking another step closer to adopting a more formal approach to David Allen’s GTD system. I did a brain dump and wiped my work spaces clean by sorting everything into actionable items, items for research and reference and liberally tossing anything that I knew was best filed in a compost heap. It is amazing how your mind becomes receptive to creative instincts and influences when you dump the brain trash. When you take down the barriers which you subconsciously create to protect your sanity from task and information overload, creativity flourishes.

Next on my list for writing upgrades was the addition of a second Kinesis Advantage Keyboard to my office. This in turn prompted me to cast off my evil QWERTY habits and adopt the Colemak keyboard layout. “Upgrade April” seemed to be an appropriate time to disappear from the world while learning to type using the new system. I’m still fighting a bit of QWERTY muscle memory, but I do feel that the effort and minor setback was well worth the added comfort and probable speed increase. I will reserve a final decision on that for a few more weeks when my speed is back up over 90 wpm.

April also brought not one upgrade, but two Tinderbox upgrades from Eastgate. I have yet to check out the changes, but now that May is here and I’m back to writing, I look forward to seeing what improvements Mark Bernstein has brought to this truly innovative piece of software.

They say that a change is as good as a rest. Having made substantial changes to my work environment and essentially taking the entire month off from writing, I feel supercharged!

Workshop Upgrades

With the recent increase in activity in the Drakyn workshop I became concerned and more aware of the health and possible safety risks of sawdust in the shop. In the past six weeks I have learned far too much about respiratory illnesses, dust collection systems, air volumes, static pressure calculations, duct design, working with sheet metal and the correct application of band-aids.

Like any good renovation or upgrade, the task grew in complexity as it progressed. Originally I was simply going to swap out the shop vac and existing plastic ducting for a system with higher capacity.

Since the shop was out of production and all of the equipment moved away from the walls, I used the opportunity to upgrade the shop’s electrical service with new breakers, wiring and 20 amp outlets.

I wanted to add a downdraft table and a new saw to the mix, which meant drafting a new shop layout and work flow in SketchUp.

Once the new floor plan was finalized, the tools were moved and mock runs were done with stock to ensure that real world clearances matched the 3D model.

With tool locations confirmed, the new five inch metal ducting and blast gates for the dust collector were installed. (My self-administered first-aid skills improved significantly during this phase.)

The new saw was installed and the new downdraft table built.

The shop’s wood storage system was dismantled, restructured and moved.

Pegboards were moved, modified and reorganized.

Some tools were modified to upgrade collection ports to four inch flex tubing. In the case of some of the older equipment, dust collection housings were designed and built.

All components were tested, refinements made as required and retested.

Back to Work

The upgrade process was a huge undertaking but clearly a decided success and well worth all the effort, time and expense in both the office and the workshop. The atmosphere in the office is warm, uncluttered and conducive to concentration and writing. The shop area is uncluttered, clean, healthy and a true joy to work in.

The secret of any creative venture lies largely in one’s attitude or mind set. If you feel good about your work and your workplace, your mind can focus on creativity with enthusiastic energy.

I’m stoked.

Is Woodworking a Green Technology?

Northern Ontario's Abundant Forests - Imagine of trees and beautiful lake

Northern Ontario's Abundant Forests

Having grown up in Northern Ontario, I have always had a deep appreciation for the natural beauty of this area and a deep respect for those who work diligently to conserve our natural heritage. I want to support green technologies as much as I am practically able without completely giving up my lifestyle. As a woodworker, I would like to think that I am contributing in my own small way by producing items from trees, which are logically a renewable resource in and of themselves.

Out of necessity my analysis of the question as to whether woodworking is a green technology needs to stay superficial. When I contemplate what is going on behind the scenes, my self-righteous, wanna-be-do-gooder, “Jesus was a carpenter” perspective begins to crumble. Here are my issues:

Ethical Tree Harvesting

I confess that I have a weakness for tropical woods. They truly are beautiful, but I have to try very hard not to imagine the amount of deforestation that is occurring in certain parts of the world when I go shopping for wood for a project. I do know that there are some companies which are making extreme efforts to harvest tropical wood in a responsible and renewable fashion. Since I can not trace the source of each piece of timber, I can only hope that my upstream suppliers are doing the right thing and select vendors who are not clear cutting. Certainly wood is a renewable resource, but proper forest management is rare, particularly in developing regions. Trees are only a renewable resource if we renew them.

Carbon Footprint of Wood

As I stated, I live in Northern Ontario. I am surrounded by forests, yet it is quite difficult to purchase quality lumber which was harvested within 500 miles of my home. Even the 2×4′s in our local building supply centres are shipped in from British Columbia. Local lumber mills are struggling and of course course the big chains don’t deal with local suppliers. Ontario’s lumber industry in general is floundering. In 2002 the Province of Ontario exported nearly $3 billion dollars in wood products to foreign markets. By 2011 this had fallen to $780 million. That is a decrease of nearly 75%. If we are not selling wood locally and we are not exporting it, I think it is safe to state that our forest industry is in serious trouble. (Source: Industry Canada, “Canadian Total Exports, Wood Products, Distribution by Province”)

As a consumer, I am paying inflated prices for lumber because it is being shipped for a thousand miles or more to get from the forest to my workshop. I am paying not only in dollars and cents as energy costs drive up transportation costs, I am buying boards with an increased carbon footprint. Every additional transport truck or railway car that crosses the country to move lumber is significantly adding to the environmental costs of what should be a very green industry. Forests need to be managed as well as preserved and we need to seriously look at local sources for almost everything that we use in our day to day lives. It is quite possible to have a healthy forestry industry and to preserve the natural beauty and sanctity of our forests.

Trees Cause Cancer

Woodworkers have ignored the health risks in their workshops for far too long. “Wood is organic. It comes from nature. It must be harmless, right?” Unfortunately, the answer is an emphatic “No”. Inhalation of microscopic sawdust particles (<10 μm) has been linked to serious respiratory illnesses, including cancer. The really tiny particles get drawn deep into your lungs, where they remain. This is particularly true for the man-made wood products such as MDF, particle board and plywood, which in addition to wood particles, contain significant amounts of glue and toxic chemicals. The really scary part of this for woodworkers is that many commercial dust extractors do a good job of removing the visible sawdust, while essentially acting as a highly efficient airborne distribution system for the invisible and most dangerous dust. Your shop may look clean, but your lungs are still taking a beating.

As a woodworker, there are three things you need to do to adequately protect yourself:

  1. Wear a respirator when using any tool that generates sawdust.
  2. Replace the bag filter on your dust collector with a high quality .5 μm cartridge from a company such as Wynn Environmental.
  3. Use an air cleaner to circulate and clean the workshop air (not just the air at each tool) using a device such as this Jet Air Filtration System.

Yes, wood is organic, natural, green and earthly. No, that doesn’t mean it is necessarily healthy if it gets into places where it does not belong. Sawdust in the lungs may be a decidedly slower, yet equally as effective means of killing a woodworker as driving a wooden stake through the heart of a vampire.

Conclusions?

Frankly, I am not certain that I can make any conclusions at this point. I try to be aware of what I purchase and the impact it has on the environment. I also know that the end products which I am creating in the Drakyn workshop have a lasting value and that they are not going to contribute to the mass of plastic and metal in a local landfill site.

I do know that I would prefer to purchase locally harvested wood. I also know that I am not about to give up my table saw in favour of a hand saw in order to reduce the carbon footprint of my own workshop. While I am not terribly proud of that fact, I do know that there are limits to how far I am going to voluntarily change my lifestyle. I suspect you are making similar compromises in your daily life – unless of course you are reading this from a bicycle-powered computer.

Ruko Reborn – An Old Knife Gets a Facelift and a Name – Part II

I had intended the work on my old knife to be a project for the weekends. Today, I simply couldn’t leave it alone.

When we left off in the previous blog entry, the knife was taped up and ready for the sandblasting cabinet. It has been quite a while since I last used the sandblaster, so I was a bit nervous subjecting “my precious” to its erosive stream. I gave it a light blast to remove the small amounts of corrosion and then carefully cleaned it up to evaluate the work thus far. As it turned out, I was overly cautious. The first session in the blaster did in fact remove the corrosion but I was hoping to remove most of the printing on the blade so that I could do some engraving in that space. A second and then a third session did little to further my cause. The blade was clean, but the printing was most persistent.

Knowing that I was finished with the sandblasting phase at least for now, I changed my focus back to the handle of the knife. I began carving with no particular plan, striving only to approximate the form of the grips. As I shaped the lignum vitae, I was getting a very glossy finish with each slice of my carving knife. My vision of the completed project began to change radically for I realized that a highly polished handle was not at all in keeping with the character of the blade. As I continued, I roughed up the surface and gradually discovered a shape and texture which I found pleasing to both my hand and my sense of what this knife was all about. The handle of the knife was the branch of a tree! It just seemed so obvious.

I left the workshop and went to my desk. I looked at my drawings for the blade engraving from the night before. I had several sketches which were distinctly Damascus-inspired. Obviously they were all wrong for this blade. I did another rough sketch and instinctively knew that the design had to be simple and an natural extension of the tree branch. I came up with this.

Rough Sketch for Knife Blade Engraving

Rough Sketch for Knife Blade Engraving

The blade received a name. It was to be called “Lyfe”. Too many knives have names that sound like characters or props from “Conan the Barbarian” or worse yet are not recognized as worthy of naming. This blade is a tree. Trees are the source of life and inspiration.

So back to the workshop I did go, anxious to finalize the nature and final form of the handle. I made several gross adjustments to conform the handle to my right hand and then proceeded to do the final shaping and texture work. I needed to grow the branch of a tree from my two pieces of lignum vitae.

The handle is quite irregular and lacks symmetry. At first glance one might think that it was misshapen. The original handle was perfect in my hand when I bought it at the age of thirteen. As an adult, I always felt the handle seemed a bit lacking. The new handle has significantly more mass, both in size and in density. It lends a perfect balance to Lyfe. If I hold it in my left hand, it simply feels wrong. When I hold it in my right hand, it comes alive. It’s warm and slightly rough in the hand, just like the bark of a tree. It has a unique and slightly spicy aroma which lingers on your hand after you have been using it. It is as if the blade is reminding you of a bond that shall not again be forgotten.

I confess, I could not not contain my excitement with the changes. I had to polish the blade and sharpen it. I did not want to wait until after I had completed the engraving. I had to put Lyfe to work. The blade did clean up quite nicely. Most important of all is that it sharpened to literally a razor’s edge. Both of my forearms are now entirely devoid of hair as I tested various parts of the blade during the sharpening process. Lyfe was hungry and needed to be fed.

Here is what Lyfe looks like at this point in time.

The Knife That is "Lyfe"

The Knife That is "Lyfe"

I am going to keep the rough engraving diagram on file and strap Lyfe to my hip as I go about business in my workshop. I have higher priority projects which require my attention and I suspect that it may be some time before I’ll get around to the engraving. In the mean time, I’m very happy with the new “Lyfe” that my trusty knife has assumed.

Do you have an old friend that has been neglected and needs a facelift?

Ruko Reborn – An Old Knife Gets a Facelift and a New Design

I ran across an old friend today and he was looking a bit rough around the edges. This friend is a Ruko knife which I purchased in 1970. The leather sheath had held up well and the edge still keen, but I noticed some light pitting on the blade and I suddenly felt very guilty.

This knife served me well. It was at my side the first night I soloed a weekend backpacking trip at the tender age of 13 and then on countless canoe and camping trips for the next 30 years. It was on my hip on virtually every photo shoot from 1980-1995. It also accompanied me on multiple training courses and into the dark on far too many late night forays with the Halifax Regional Ground Search and Rescue from 1995-2000. After Halifax, we sort of lost touch with each other – until today.

Ruko has carried a wide range of knives over the years. Some of their current knives sell for hundreds of dollars, while others are cheap knock-offs that appear to be made in China. This particular blade of mine was made in Germany from Rc60 Solingen steel. It has always held an edge extremely well without nicking or chipping with hard use. It did have a few nasty dings in the Space Age polymer grips. (Yes, in 1970 everything was “Space Age”.)

No More Plastic on This Knife!

Motivated by guilt, I began to formulate a plan to restore the dignity of my old friend. “Space Age” or no, the first step would be to get rid of the original grip. I drilled out the rivets which were holding the handle together and it came apart in three pieces. The core of the handle is extremely solid stainless steel to which the tang of the blade is securely attached. This blade is sturdy, even when stripped down.

Next I went to my secret stash of special wood and retrieved a small piece of lignum vitae which I felt would be a perfect match for the character of the blade. Lignum vitae is the hardest wood on this fair planet. It has been used for drive shafts in ships and I heard recently that our local steel mill uses it to make bearings in equipment which operates in extremely dusty conditions that would eat up steel bearings in short order. You can read more about lignum vitae over on Wikipedia. I had been saving this particular piece of wood for just the right project.

Stabilizing The Knife Grips

Ruko Knife Grip Modification

Knife Grip Modifications

I did not want to expend a huge amount of artistic effort on this venture if the raw material was structurally flawed or the design mechanically weak. I looked carefully at the design of the tang and the handle core and determined that a few minor modifications were in order to properly secure the new grips. I drilled three 1/8″ holes in the core and then cut, shaped and polished three stainless steel pins, one for each of the holes. The pins protrude about 1/4″ out either side and are used to secure the grips from lateral movement. I then roughed the lignum vitae to the approximate shape of the grips, carefully measuring and beveling the ends, then drilled 1/8″ holes to correspond with the new seating pins. Finally I drilled two 1/4″ holes, one that precisely matches a corresponding hole in the tang and pushed through two maple dowels. These will eventually be glued to keep the grips sandwiched tightly to the core.

Even without gluing, everything fits together so snugly that I have to work fairly hard to separate the pieces. Presently the knife looks more like a shiv that was made in a prison workshop than the noble blade that it is, but this will change in short order. I now have the luxury of carving the handle to precisely fit my hand and to add my own design elements. I can already tell that the heft of the lignum vitae is going to make a big improvement in the balance of this knife.

For the moment, the grips are just rough hewn approximations of their final shape. Even so, the lignum vitae has made a radical change in the character of the knife. It is warm to the touch and feels almost alive. One of the reasons for choosing lignum vitae is the natural oil in the wood. It is extremely durable, will polish to a warm lustre and require only occasional maintenance. Nothing will come between my hand and the warmth and life of the knife. I feel even bees wax would ruin the tactile experience.

The Pits

This brings me finally to the blade itself. On close examination, the pitting is worse than I thought – not deeper, but covering more of the blade surface. What I had hoped was pitch (and may have once been) is now etched. This became obvious once I tried using my usual pitch remover from the workshop. More drastic measures are in order.

So I close this episode of the Drakyn blog with a cliff hanger. Sweet Polly may not be tied to the railway tracks, but Ruko is bound with masking and awaiting his fate in the sandblast chamber. In the mean time, I am working with outlines of the blade, contemplating exactly how I will engrave it. This knife now needs a name.

Stay tuned. Part II

Cyclonic Dust Collection In The Woodworking Shop

Dust collection is something that every small workshop struggles with.  It is simply too important to ignore.   Sawdust represents both a fire and an environmental health hazard and must be controlled.  If you are at all like me, you hate dumping your shopvac, so the thing labours as it gets filled and clogged with all of the dirt which has been sucked up on previous days.   Each day the vacuum moves less air, is less efficient and is closer to burning out from being over-burdened.

Dust Collection – Mission Impossible

Workshop Made Cyclone Dust Collector

Workshop Made Cyclone Dust Collector

Recognizing my laziness and the impossible task being asked of my lowly shop vac, I did some research. I came across a YouTube video from Ron Walters showing how to make a simple vortex or cyclonic collector.   After a few hours and ironically huge amounts of sawdust from sanding all the beveled edges, I came up with this little creation.  The wood is all scrap so my total investment was about $8.00 for the ABS vacuum extension wand from my local Home Depot.  Ron had suggested using ABS pipe, but the extension wand is already the correct diameter to connect your existing vacuum hoses and is easily shaped to fit.  The cyclone body was then attached to a wooden disk which snaps down snugly over a five gallon plastic pail and the entire assembly placed between my tools and the shop vac.

Immediately I began to wonder just how effective this simple device could possibly be as a first stage filter in front of my vacuum.   I decided to begin an experiment.  I carefully cleaned out my shop vac.  I removed the filters and thoroughly washed out the canister.  To get a really clear idea, I put the large cloth bag/filter through our washing machine.  This did much to endear myself to my better half, but the bag did come out looking pristine and white.   Now I’d be able to see exactly how much sawdust was getting trapped and by what part of the system.

Dust Collected By The Vortex

Over the weeks to come I collected approximately four and half gallons of sawdust in my plastic pail(s).   I can see through the plastic just enough to know when the pail is getting to be about half full. Simply swapping buckets minimizes the mess normally associated with cleaning out your shop vac.  For demonstration purposes, I have combined the contents of the two pails in the image to the left.

The Surprise Inside

Dust Collected By The Shop Vac Canister

Dust Collected By The Shop Vac Canister

Of course the real test was to open the shop vac and see just how much dust had bypassed the vortex and made its way through to the main canister and filter.  I have to say I was pleasantly surprised at the outcome of my experiment.   The bag filter had only a few slightly discoloured patches where you could detect a very small amount of sawdust accumulation.  Obviously this was catching some of the finest particulate matter before the air was exhausted through the fan.  Prior to using the vortex, this filter would get caked with extremely fine wood particles.  Looking down into the canister was the really big surprise.  This photo is of the four ounce water glass into which I poured the entire contents of the canister.

Calculating the Efficiency of the Vortex

Using some very rough math and some very conservative estimates, I have approximately four and half gallons of sawdust in my vortex and less than an ounce in the canister.  Let’s be very generous and say that the dust trapped in the cloth filter would fill up the glass enough to equal one ounce.  These are Canadian imperial measurements so I have

4.5 gal x 160 = 720 oz in Vortex : 1 oz in canister

My results and calculations in this experiment would indicate the vortex is collecting 99.86% of the sawdust pulled off my tools and shop floor. This is approximately seven times less sawdust entering my shop vac than would be expected based on figures advertised by most commercial vortex vendors. From this I have to conclude that they are just being conservative and that my shop-made vortex is working at least as well as commercially made offerings.

I am about to upgrade my entire dust collection system to handle the increased workload in the Drakyn workshop.  The first thing I will do is to build a larger cyclonic collector for the new four inch ducts. In addition to the obvious efficiencies in having a two stage dust collection system, the cyclone also adds one significant safety advantage. The use of a cyclone all but eliminates the chance of a bolt or other piece of metal from getting pulled into the metal impeller in your collector. A bolt sailing through your vacuum hoses could not only cause significant damage to your impeller, but could also spark and possibly drop an ember to smolder in the accumulated sawdust in your system.

I’d like close with a big thanks to Ron and would encourage you to check out his version of the cyclone separator.

Also see the updated article from 2014 on the current state of dust collection in the Drakyn shop.

Clock Fundamentals – Understanding Mechanical Pendulum Clocks

I’m going to make a brief posting today as I’m working on a new design for a tool for prototyping clock gear trains. There is something beautifully recursive in this process. I can’t wait to see how it all comes together.

The child in me loves to watch gears go round and round and round… I am simply fascinated by mechanical contraptions, marble machines and of course the game “MouseTrap”. In that spirit, I believe you will enjoy spending the next eight minutes on today’s entry in the Drakyn blog.

The Four Parts of a Mechanical Pendulum Clock

Pendulum driven wooden clocks share the same fundamental design principles as the brass 1914 E. Howard & Company clock in this excellent video by Trevor Murphy.

If you would like a breakdown of several basic clock designs, the good folks at Encyclopaedia Britannica have a simplified view in their exhibit Clockworks: From Sundials to the Atomic Second.

Monitors: If You Don’t Stop You’ll Go Blind – Tools for Writing

This is the second installment of “Tools for Writing”. We continue our look at the barriers that exist between our brain and the printed word. In the first article we looked the exit point for our ideas, namely our hands and computer keyboards. In this article we’ll examine the other end of the feedback loop: our eyes and computer monitors. All of the articles in this series will conveniently be collected here as they are released.

Eye in the Monitor

Treat your eyes to a good quality monitor

When we are young, our eyes are often sharper than our brain. As we grow older, this relationship has a tendency to invert. Regardless of your age or the relative sharpness of your brain, you need to be able to see what you are writing without straining, which means investing in good quality computer monitors.

As writers, we tend to spend long hours at the computer, often without breaks. Some of us like to work from our office caves with the lights dimmed, perhaps working by the light of only a single desk lamp and the glow of our monitors. While this may be a great setting for our concentration and creating ambiance and inspiration for your Goth novel, it is definitely not doing your eyeballs any favours. Let it be a dark and stormy night on the pages of your work, not in your office.

Having spent many years in the IT industry and countless hours in front of computers, I have some suggestions based solely on personal observation.

Several factors influence the suitability of a monitor for writing. The best monitors for playing computer game or for professional photography may not be the right choice as an author. Gamers are often focused on refresh rates. I don’t know how fast you type, but I can assure that the refresh rate of your monitor is not a huge concern in programs like Scrivener or Microsoft Word.

Photographers and graphic artists obsess over colour accuracy, again not much of a concern when writing and the technology to give this level of accuracy often comes with a heavy slam on your pocketbook.  With that said, “photo quality” monitors a generally very easy on the eyes.  You can see the difference in both the quality and the price tag if you go to your local big box store and compare one of those sexy Apple displays to the average LCD monitor attached to the PCs.

Resolution, Sharpness and Contrast

As a writer, I’m looking for three things in a monitor: resolution, sharpness and contrast. Resolution is simply the number of pixels on the screen. The more pixels, the more text I can squeeze into more windows. I just cant seem to satisfy my desire to have more information on the screen so I invariably set up multiple monitors to enlarge my virtual desktop to even greater resolution.

Sharpness has to do with how well defined each pixel is. This is somewhat of a subjective measurement and is often difficult to judge when looking at monitors in the big box store. You want each letter to be crisp so that as your eyes grow weary, they are not struggling to differential an I from a lower case L.

The other factor in sharpness is the physical size of each pixel and the distance which you will be viewing the monitor from. Laptops typically have very highly compressed pixels, hence the reason why their displays are significantly more expensive to produce. This does mean however that the shiny new MacBook Pro that you just brought home is going to produce some fairly small text on screen. Your big screen HDTV might have a similar pixel count, but if you examine your TV screen closely, you’ll discover that the pixels are far apart and best viewed from a greater distance. Televisions make for horrible computer monitors.

Contrast is closely related to sharpness in that it influences how crisp the black text is on your white background. Newer LED monitors are almost too bright and need to be toned down when you unpack them, particularly if you are working at night or in an office with dimmed lighting. If you want a bit of extra help without getting overly technical in calibrating your monitor, have a look at the PhotoFriday Calibration Tool.

One obscure and often overlooked factor when shopping for a new monitor is the reflectivity of the monitor display and the bezel. You may be able to position your new glossy monitor such that you do not get any reflection from light sources in the room, but the bezel might beam the afternoon sun straight into your eyes. Bezel issues can usually be masked, so don’t discount an otherwise perfect monitor for that reason alone. I have even resorted to colouring a post-it note with a black marker and then trimming it to fit a spot that is causing problems. I have one monitor that I’m seriously considering repainting the entire face complete bezel in matte black. When you’re selecting and setting up a new monitor, you definitely want to avoid either direct or reflected specular light shining directly in your eyes. When possible use diffuse lighting sources in your office to eliminate this problem entirely.

Monitor Ergonomics and Efficiencies

Ergotron Dual Monitor Arms

You'll have to pry my Ergotron dual monitor arms from the clutches of my dead fingers.

Personally I like my monitors mounted on a swivel arms so I can reposition them easily and maximize the space on my desk. Many of the new monitors do not have VESA mounting holes so you are forced to keep them on their often shaky, plastic stands.  As with keyboards, we want to have our monitors positioned ergonomically – a comfortable reading distance away with the upper third of the monitor at eye level.  Monitor arms let you make these adjustments easily and change them if you grow fatigued in one position or just want to reorganize your desk.

Final Tip – Swallow Your Pride

Assuming that your monitors are properly calibrated and positioned, there is one final step that can ease your eye strain at 2:00 am. This one is often the most difficult. It requires that you swallow a bit of pride and consider bumping up the default font size a wee bit in your favourite writing tools. Personally I struggle with this one somewhat. My eyesight is not what it used to be, but I am still pixel hungry and I want LOTS of screen real estate. My 17″ MacBook Pro is wonderful when I am on the road, working from a hotel desk, airport lounge or attending meetings. When it is on my desk in my office, it gets pushed back farther to allow for keyboards, track pads, notepads and general work clutter.   In my office the text on my near-perfect laptop seems a bit small. Consequently, I tend to do most of my writing on the larger external monitor and save the laptop screen for my research notes.

Whatever setup you decide on, don’t be afraid to make adjustments in font, calibration or monitor position if you feel it’s just not working out. I have found in the past that simply moving a monitor an inch or two can improve the legibility of the text dramatically.

Our objective at the end of the day is to write. Invest in a decent display for your work, set it up properly and you will find it pays for itself over and over on those late nights where you otherwise would have to pack it in because of eye fatigue.

Custom Furniture By Necessity

Custom furniture design came into our home by necessity. My wife and I simply grew tired of paying premium prices for low quality furniture that didn’t fit our lifestyle.  After several lengthy conversations together, I pulled all of my notes together and started drawing up plans in Google Sketchup for our next addition.  We had a long list of requirements, but once we had reviewed the final plans together, I started construction.   The end result was a five piece wall unit with an entertainment centre and ample lit display areas, including two curio cabinets.   Needless to say, when the project was installed, she was ecstatic.

Custom Furniture - Meeting Needs Of The Individual

Custom Furniture - Meeting Needs Of The Individual

Custom furniture is unique in that it is built to match the lifestyle and decor of an individual, family or office. Form, function and aesthetics all merge to deliver a piece of furniture which merges seamlessly into your world, unbound by the preconceptions of designers and manufacturers who are often working from plans that have been unchanged for decades. Having a Colonial styled entertainment centre is wonderful, but don’t you think it’s time the manufacturers made adjustments for flat screen televisions, surround sound audio, gaming systems, proper heat dissipation and managing bundles of power and data cables?

So much of today’s factory built furniture looks beautiful in the store, but fails scrutiny on closer inspection. It is very hard to find furniture which is made from real wood and assembled with quality materials and craftsmanship. Picture yourself in the average furniture store, filled with a veritable maze of offerings to tempt you to open your wallet. Imagine if we were to take away everything in the store that has a cardboard backing of any kind. This will eliminate most of the computer desks, wall units and entertainment centres. Suddenly there is a lot more room in the store. Next, imagine that we will take away everything that is held together by staples and nail guns. Magically, there is a lot of extra space in the store where once sat most of their inventory of dresser drawers, night tables, love seats, couches and comfy chairs. Finally, we’re going to remove all of the items made from particle board that is masquerading as real wood through clever use of vinyl or insanely thin wood veneers. If you are lucky, there may be a few pieces of furniture left in the store to choose from.

Since we can’t magically remove poor quality furniture from the store when you go shopping, I can give you some guidelines to help you identify “the real thing”. If filtering out the junk leaves you with a poor selection, consider commissioning someone to design and build custom furniture that matches your exact needs and decor.

Beyond checking measurements, scanning for obvious flaws in the finish such as cracks, checks, dents and scratches, here are a few guidelines to help you shop.

Quick Signs That You Are Probably Buying High Quality Furniture

  • Check out of the way places – Look at the inside of drawers, underneath tables, flip over chairs, loveseats and sofas.  If they cut corners, you’ll spot it here.
  • Advanced joinery (dovetails or box/finger joints) is almost always a sure sign of a well made piece – particularly if it’s hidden from normal view.
  • Adjustable hardware – Wood changes seasonally.  Hinges in particular should have adjustments to accommodate.  This is an easy place for manufacturers to cut corners so if you see quality hinges and drawer slides, that’s a positive sign.
  • Raised panel doors – A common feature of hutches and china cabinets, but watch for the real thing and not cheap substitutes.  Real raised panels have separate styles and rails which border the panel body like a picture frame.
  • Plywood – This one is tricky, but high quality plywoods such as baltic birch are often used as a reasonable alternative solid wood in places where warping is a problem.  High quality plywood has many thin layers with no gaps or roughness between the layers.
  • Quick Assembly Hardware – I’m listing this one on the positive side just so I can say something nice about European designers and companies like IKEA.   IKEA has many great designs and a huge range in the quality of their furniture.  These Euro assembly bits and pieces are wonderful,if they are used in high quality wood.  Some times you just need to plan for a piece of furniture to come apart. This is where custom furniture design comes in.  Personally, I purchase of all of my assembly hardware through Lee Valley on projects where it is required.

Signs That You Should Be Commissioning Custom Furniture

  • Cardboard – If any part of the furniture is made of cardboard, you can be sure they cut corners everywhere.  This is typically a sign of budget grade furniture.
  • Particle board – Never a good sign, but generally the finer the wood particles, the better the board.   MDF is often used in less expensive furniture.  It is dimensionally quite stable and easy to surface and finish, but it does not hold nails, screws or other fasteners well.
  • Plywood – Construction grade plywood has no place in fine furniture.  You can spot it easily because it has fewer, thicker layers, often has gaps between the layers and chips easily.  Consequently it does not hold screws, nails or staples well.  It is sometimes used to manufacture internal sections of lower quality love seats and couches.
  • Repeating Wood Grain Patterns – If the wood grain pattern repeats like wallpaper, you can be certain it is a man made veneer (likely vinyl).  This is not to be confused with “book matched grain” on very fine pieces of furniture where the grain pattern is mirrored only once and is never the same on two pieces of furniture.  If you see two pieces of furniture with identical grain patterns,  it’s definitely a man-made laminate.
  • Sharp, loose or “catchy” edges are usually a sign that laminates have been used in construction.   Chances are the “wood” underneath is actually glue and sawdust compressed into varying grades of particle board.
  • Nails or staples will work free over time, particularly if the furniture is moved or bears a lot of weight in normal use.  Staples are OK for the little crates that they use to ship oranges in, not for furniture.  Nail guns are suited for house construction, not for custom furniture. Screws are preferred over nails and staples.
  • White plastic guides, rails or stops are usually a sign that the rest of the furniture is made of particle board.  A good craftsman would use hardwood or brass hardware.
  • A bag of plastic caps – Usually to disguise unsightly hardware for “do-it-yourself” assembly.  A craftsman would use a complementary wood as an accent to the design of custom furniture.
  • Quick Assembly Hardware – I have seen some bad hardware and frankly I don’t understand it.  It looks almost identical to the good hardware and must cost about the same to produce – it just doesn’t lock properly.   Even good quality hardware isn’t going to be able to do the job over time in particle board.  It’s tough to judge the hardware until you have the furniture spread out on your floor and you’re trying to fit “H” into “Assembly Q”.  By then it’s a bit late.  It wasn’t a lot of fun carrying the thing into the house, it’s going to be even less fun to return it now that the packaging is all torn open.

Next time you are out shopping for furniture, have a keen eye for the details.   Evaluate your purchasing decision carefully and always consider the option of commissioning the construction of custom furniture through Drakyn.