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.

 

Puzzle Boxes: The Devils and Dragons Within

Dark continents, lost worlds, unexplored temples and mystical artifacts have captured the imagination of readers and movie goers for generations. From Indiana Jones to Hellraiser, we are fascinated by secrets, the unknown and the forbidden. Puzzle boxes give us the rare opportunity to capture and present the unknown in our home or office.

Puzzle Box from Hell Raiser Image

Hell Raiser Puzzle Box "Lament Configuration"

Puzzle boxes have been around for centuries in various forms, but the Drakyn puzzle boxes are inspired by “Drakyn”, a new fantasy novel in the works by Bruce MacKay.

While each and every Drakyn puzzle box is unique, they do fall into one of four general design categories.

Arcane Puzzle Boxes

The Drakyn guard their most valued secrets and possessions in puzzle boxes bound by the arcane knowledge of the ancients.  The Drakyn craftsmen are masters of misdirection and subterfuge.  It is rare to find an Arcane puzzle box not in the possession of a Drakyn.  They do not part with them readily.  Consequently very little is known of the secrets of their binding.  To embark on such research is both dangerous and challenging.

Mystical

The Mystical puzzle boxes are the product of sorcerers and their apprentices who seek to emulate the Arcane designs of the Drakyn.  The mystical boxes require cunning and patience but can be opened by mortals with sufficient study.

Enchanting

Some puzzle boxes are nothing more than mere parlor curiosities designed to tease and amuse.  Like lingerie, their mystery is in the presentation.  They are meant to be easily solved and their beauty appreciated.

Earthly

Earthly wooden boxes share the balance and symmetry of their more advanced cousins, with one significant difference:  the instructions for use state simply, “Grasp the lid and open”.

The Drakyn puzzle boxes are as delightful to view as they are to hold, even if you’re not up for the challenge of opening one. They tantalize the brain, excite the imagination, stimulate the nose and are soothing and warm to the touch.

The initial lineup of puzzle box offerings will be announced and made available through this site in June, 2012.   Keep your eyes open for sneak previews in the weeks ahead.

If you enjoy puzzle boxes, you are no doubt familiar with the long standing legacy of the very fine Japanese craftsmen at IZUMIYA. Their work is unparalleled. Do pay them a visit.

 

Wooden Clocks: Soothing Heartbeat for the Soul

Wooden Clocks and Farmhouse Kitchen

Wooden Clocks and the Farmhouse Kitchen

If I close my eyes and reach back to my most comforting childhood memories, I find images, smells and sounds from my grandparents farmhouse.  My grandfather is smoking his pipe and slowly rocking his chair while my grandmother is busy at the wood stove prepping enough food to feed three families.  The fruit and vegetables are fresh from the garden and the combined smell of home cooking with that faint woodstove aroma have everyone eagerly anticipating dinner.  There are often long pauses in the  conversation, but the atmosphere is warm and contented.  Always underlining the serenity of their home is the steady, yet subtle tick-tock of the wooden clock on their kitchen wall.   It provides a comforting reminder of the natural order of life and the significance of the time we spend together.

Mankind has been fascinated with the movement of the stars, moon and sun for thousands of years.  As civilization grew, our need for accurate time keeping progressed through sun dials, water clocks, foliots, pendulums, wooden clocks, brass mechanisms, springs, electric motors, crystal oscillators and finally the vibration of atoms.  The first mechanical clocks were stone towers.  Over time, clock technology became smaller and eventually portable enough to take on board a ship – providing a significant boon to navigation.  Clocks appeared which could fit on the fireplace mantle in a home and eventually were small enough to fit in one’s pocket.   Time pieces traditionally have been treasured.   Many are preserved in museums or have been passed from generation to generation as family heirlooms.

Satan had two tricks in his bag when he started down the path to defile the human race.  The first was an apple.   The second was an electric clock.  The apple was devious;  the electric clock more so.

Wooden clocks provide a heartbeat for the soul

When clocks lost their pendulums and stopped emitting that slow, deep tick-tock, we collectively lost a piece of our humanity.  It was as if each of our hearts was replaced with a cheap wind-up toy.  Where wooden clocks had warmth and character,  the new clocks became plastic, digital annoyances with piercing alarms and a constant 60 Hz hum.  With the loss of the audible ticking, something in our nature was unplugged from the source.   We were disconnected from analog time.  Our lives grew stressful.  We became obsessed with managing time without subconscious acknowledgement of its passing.

Wooden clocks provide a heartbeat for the soul.  Drakyn wooden clocks have wooden gears and movements that make a rich, soothing, resonating sound that would be a welcome addition to any home or executive office.

While hardly a traditional wooden clock, you may perhaps be interested in reading a bit of horological history in The Story of Big Ben.

 

Keyboards and the Spanish Inquisition – Tools for Writing

This is the first installment of “Tools for Writers”.  It begins with a look at the barriers that exist between our brain and the printed word – in this case, the computer keyboard.  As the other articles appear, they will conveniently be collected here.

The Evolution Of Man

The Evolution of Man

I am a big believer in using the correct tool for every job.   I don’t use my pocket knife as a screwdriver.  I don’t use my wedding ring as a fishing lure.  I don’t light a match to check the gas tank in my car.  When I write, my choice of tools is equally important. Whereas some writers are blocked if they don’t have the right pen or if someone swaps their Moleskin for a Blueline, I can’t get by without the right computer keyboard.

The Keyboard and the Spanish Inquisition

Generally, computer keyboards are instruments of torture, whose primary function is to inflict prolonged pain in the wrists of writers.  They were designed by chiropractors and physiotherapists to ensure that the children of these same medical professionals could attend the very best schools.

Not satisfied with securing their children’s education, the physiotherapists put forward a new keyboard design which they called “The Laptop Keyboard”.  This Machiavellian refinement of the original desktop design subtly expanded the ailments of the writer to include the muscles in the shoulders, neck, upper back and most of the spine itself.   Absolutely brilliant!

I have always been a fast typist, so I prefer using a computer over pen and paper to collect information and organize my ideas.  I worked for years on generic desktop keyboards as a programmer and technical writer.  When my wrists started to bother me and I noticed my typing speed was suffering along with my body, I began looking for alternatives.

Keyboard Relief

Both Microsoft and Logitech had introduced what I would describe as marginally ergonomic keyboards which were available as commodity items in the local electronics stores.  These two new designs gave me some relief, but I was burning through the key contacts in under a year.  After going through four various keyboards from MS and Logitech in just over three years, I still had some numbness in one hand and pain in both wrists.  I required a more permanent and complete solution.

Kinesis Advantage Pro ergonomic keyboard

Kinesis Advantage Pro ergonomic keyboard

In doing research, I found a few outrageous ergonomic designs that looked more like Borg implants than keyboards, but eventually came across a device that was both ergonomic and highly functional.  The Kinesis Advantage Pro ergonomic USB keyboard is compatible with both Mac and PC and provides significant relief to sufferers of repetitive strain injuries (RSI).

Knowing that there was going to be an adjustment period while my muscle memory converted to the new keyboard layout, I made another radical change.  I committed to switch from QWERTY to DVORAK layout.   The first day in DVORAK Land was definitely a test of my commitment.  My typing speed dropped from mid 90′s to under 30 w.p.m.  Fortunately I was on vacation and didn’t have any projects approaching deadline.  Adjusting to the ergonomic keys on the Advantage Pro was trivial.   My battle was DVORAK-centric.  Over the next few days, my speed steadily improved.  In less than two weeks I had surpassed my original speed and was consistently achieving over 100 w.p.m.  Best off all, I was RSI symptom-free within two months.

Life was wonderful.  My typing speed had increased.  The pain was gone.  I had a spring in my step and the sky was a deeper shade of blue.  I was unaware that a dark cloud was looming just ahead.   My job was about to radically change such that I would be expected to work on many different computers.  I was to frequently work on site at Fortune 100 companies and would appear to be a complete dunderhead when I took control of the keyboard.  What had escaped me at the time was that my tiny brain and the muscles in my hands and forearms were incapable of maintaining a reasonable typing speed on both DVORAK and QWERTY systems.   After months of trying to ride two horses in the same race, I had to throw in the proverbial towel and abandon DVORAK.

My Kinesis Advantage Pro is not going to win any design awards, unless I perhaps use it to accessorize my Buck Rogers costume next Halloween, but it works as well today as nine years ago when it came out of the box.   Since then it has seen thousands of hours of very heavy use.  It is a joy to work with.  The keys have a definite natural, but subtle click which allow my ears to keep my fingers and brain in step.  The slightly recessed bowls which hold the keys are a natural extension of my hands.  I don’t type  _on_  this keyboard, I slide into it.

If you are using a flat PC or Apple keyboard, especially if you are regularly typing directly on a laptop, you owe it to yourself to investigate alternatives.   Your body and your publisher will thank you.   You can check out the offerings directly from Kinesis or search online for one of the many ergo-friendly resellers carrying Kinesis and competing products.

 

Woodworking Designs: My Early Influences

The new Drakyn woodworking designs which will be introduced in the months ahead reveal a strong sense of harmony and balance.  Here’s a look under the hood at where the inspiration for their creation originated.

I have never learned how to draw.  In fact, my Grade 3 teacher was concerned that I might never learn to legibly use a pen.   It turned out that she was correct.

I did however become very interested in a Kodak Brownie camera that I found while on safari in our linen closet one day.  I’m sure my first photo’s were horrid images of my cat and my back yard. With more experience I became fascinated by light and photography.    Growing up in Northern Ontario, I was surrounded by beautiful lakes, rivers and forests such that my love affair with photography flourished.

Even in the 1960′s, it was getting hard to find film for the 127 format, so I saved up my birthday money and allowance to purchase my very own Kodak Instamatic 124.  Shortly afterwards, my father let me use his 35mm camera.  I quickly became spoiled by the higher quality images possible because of the exposure controls and manual focusing.  I learned early on that life was going to be a constant race against changing technology.  While other kids were remained interested in art class, I was bored and thinking of my camera.  I was convinced that painting was for weenies and that the future was going to be photography.

One evening everything changed.  My parents insisted on dragging me to the local art gallery where the work of some local artists was on display.  “Wonderful!  A bunch of local yokels with paint brushes are showing what they learned from the Saturday morning art class at the public library.  I can’t wait to see another gummy oil painting of someone’s barn.”   Fortunately, I was a dutiful son and accompanied my parents on the outing.

It was on this evening that I first heard the term “egg tempera”.  It turned out that the showing was not the work of a bunch of random local yokels, but of one yokel in particular.   His name was Ken Danby and this was the first painting that I saw as I entered the gallery.

Pancho

"Pancho", egg tempera, Copyright 1973 Ken Danby

I don’t think I moved for twenty minutes.  The extreme realism of the painting had me enraptured.  This was one of those life changing events where you know at the time that nothing is ever going to be the same..  It was on this day that I first understood and embraced the concept of “attention to detail”.  I was completely lost in the shadows, the rain drops, the wisps of smoke trailing off his cigarette and the coarse textures of the wall.

I gained a new respect for those who call themselves artists, but my first love was still the camera.   Surely, someone must be doing artistic photography which was on par with what Danby could accomplish with a brush? I would have to wait several more years before I had a satisfactory answer to my question.

It wasn’t until I went off to university that I discovered the works of the great photographic masters.  I happened to be wandering in Mirvish Village in Toronto when I stumbled on the The Canadian Centre For Photography.   Then and today, I tend to think that photographic art has to be black and white.  Colour has always felt like a gimmick in photographs.   To be an artist in a monochrome medium, you really must understand light, lines and composition.

The Flatiron Building, Edward Steichen, 1904

"The Flatiron Building", gum bichromate Edward Steichen, 1904

Once again I had stumbled upon the work of a master.   The CCFP was showing two photographs by Edward Steichen. Again I was spellbound, first by one image and then the second. After leaving the gallery, I started scavenging the book stores looking for fine art photography. I soon discovered the work of Alfred Steigletz, Paul Strand, Imogen Cunningham and of course Ansel Adams.  I also realized that while coffee table photography books were of excellent quality, nothing could simulate the nuances of the original works.  I would have to seek out more galleries.

Designs From Nature

I spent most of my evenings, weekends and all of our family vacations for the next ten years pursuing tree stumps, frozen streams, storm clouds, craggy cliff tops and stone churches.  Otherwise I was in the darkroom coaxing the fruits of my week’s labour into what I hoped would be art.  I had mixed success, but I knew that nothing made me feel quite like being under the black canopy looking at the upside down image on the ground glass of my 4X5 camera.

My 4X5 camera has long since been retired and I am afraid that not much of my early work was preserved.   What I have retained through the years is the attention to detail and a strong sense of harmony and balance in composition.  Those years of studying the work of the great photographic masters and painstakingly photographing nature with the 4X5 were not lost.

I strove with the new Drakyn woodworking designs to reveal a strong sense of harmony and balance.  I hope you’ll enjoy them.

I would like to close off this entry in the Drakyn blog with a quote from Ken Danby and encourage you to visit his web site.  Ken passed away in 2007, but the legacy of his vision remains in both his paintings and writing.

We do not see with our eyes, but through them. The mind does the actual seeing, and it can only evaluate a visual experience according to its degree of visual awareness. Every person who is capable of sight deserves to have this faculty expanded, as part of the process of enlightenment, just as much as being taught to speak, hear, read or reason. Art is a necessity. — Ken Danby, 1984