More Combs

Why break a perfectly fine comb? Well, to see if it can take some punishment.

January being my month for prototyping and study, I eventually settled on combs as a project. If you view many Youtube videos about making a comb, it appears to be just a one-two-three proposition, and there you have it. But, unfortunately, what seems to be straightforward is not. as is often the case, things can become a little more complicated than they first appear. Yes, anyone can make a comb using the video as a guide. How practical, durable, and effective that comb will be may be an issue, though.

At a show, one year couple came to my booth, and while the wife was picking out spoons, the husband was flexing them to see how sturdy they were. Luckily none snapped, but I was alerted to a tendency of some people to absent-mindedly bend and twist woodenware. Since then, I’ve designed the shafts of spoons to be graceful but strong. With combs, I’ve adopted a similar practice and put a bit of effort into testing the structural abilities of some of the prototypes to bend. Can you still break it? Sure! But I’ll know that much more than average effort was required.

The key to the added strength is making the comb’s spine thicker. It turns out that this also aids in making it easier to grip and use the comb and improves the appearance. You get all this from the cracks and crunches of breaking an otherwise good comb.

Why does a wooden comb need a thicker spine? Because the strength of the comb teeth requires that the wood grain flows the length of the tooth; be perpendicular to the body. Too thin a spine, and the lovely piece of wood cracks.
I am still making prototypes. There is a bit more to test out, and time spent at this stage on structural concerns means fewer issues later in making the combs. My wife has agreed to test the product but insists that the drawings I’m working on of hairsticks for long hair get a priority on the work schedule. There is a certain amount of compersion, a joy in seeing my wife get pleasure from using the comb I made, that exceeds anything possible if the comb had merely been purchased.

Combs of wood, ivory, bone, and shell were probably the origin of good grooming. A good comb can shape, hold, or groom hair into shapes. Combs are found in archeological sites going back thousands of years, but most of us never give more than a casual thought to something essential to beauty.
Like a spoon, a comb is something essential; its utility is valued, but its aesthetics makes it a pleasure to use.

bad coffee

What do you complain about the most?

Griping about things is part of being a sailor. I discovered this from my father, a Merchant Marine engineer, and had it confirmed while in the Navy. Griping as an art form was re-affirmed to me while working in the marine trades as a carver and catch as can boatyard worker.
Griping is not necessarily pejorative of other people. We don’t just complain about the bosun, the carpenter, the skipper, or the boat owner. We complain about the food, weather, and workloads. But, of course, a cherished area of complaint is coffee. We can complain about coffee until the third pot of the day is downed, and the thought of another cup will make us bilious.

OK, I’ll say it – take any random sampling of castaway sailors on a desert island with nothing to eat but coconuts, and their biggest complaint will be the lack of coffee. When they get tired of griping about no coffee, they’ll move on to the lousy coffee they’ve had. After exhausting that, they’ll move on to bad chow, the rotten bunks they had to sleep in, the worst liberty ports they visited, and then the miseries of being at sea in heavy weather.
Regardless of political orientation, they’ll rage on all evening about this stuff until they are exhausted and sleep. Then, the lack of coffee will start the day rolling in the morning.

I hate to side with the officer class, having worked for a living myself, but the continual griping is why it’s crucial to keep sailors of any sort busy. Let them sit around and get bored, and the complaints start.
Maybe that is the reason for all the rotten coffee? Give the apes something to gripe about that’s safe.
Rats! I make my own coffee. It’s unfair that I can only complain to myself.

Fakes

I slouch around in loose dock pants, a slouchy beret, or a leather seaman’s cap. No one goes to a museum store to buy replicas of my gear!
So you wonder why my usual demur, sometimes inscrutable style of writing has become agitated? It’s the bloody New York Times.

The Times had an article on people buying replicas of famous artists’ gear. Want to look like Warhol – there’s a platinum wig. You can get Picasso’s shirt if it’s your particular kink. Klimt’s painting smock is also available. They suggest that it’s no longer enough to buy notecards with art reproductions or wear T-shirts with artists peering out at the world. Now you can dress just like the artist. You can be an avatar of Pablo or Gustav.

They have all the panache but none of the angst of trying to create, no sitting there looking for motivation, struggling with technique, and worried about if it will sell.

It’s the ultimate in an already fake society. You can’t or won’t try to create, but you’ll fake it till you make it.

Perfection, not in a day

January is my month to discover and prototype new things. The shop and the rest of life are slow, so taking advantage of this to do something that you may be too busy for otherwise is a good use of the time. But the creation process does not happen in a blinding flash of light with celestial trumpets blaring. Instead, things gradually fall into place, sometimes with a bit of annoyance and pain. 

It helps to have a process. Some of the methods and strategies I use came out of a background in Japanese Martial Arts. As a teenage Judo student, I was taught to examine my technique and progress and strive towards gradual improvements. Unlike cinematic martial arts, students often don’t have spontaneous inspirations or become black belts in a thirty-second montage. Instead, progress is made through good practice and incremental conscious work. Many businesses have heard of this as Kaizen, which has been at the root of many quality improvement techniques.

As I mentioned, I use January and February to investigate and create things I haven’t mastered or want to make. Right out front, I’ll tell you that carvers don’t bury the things that don’t work out. We either keep them around to learn from or use them to heat the house.

The real glaring failures feed the woodstove. Those with “promise” decorate the house. They are imperfect prototypes of things that I later mastered. Some examples are the curves on the little dolphin that are just a bit too chunky or the lovely portrait of the 1900-era trawler not designed with enough negative space for framing.

The prototype combs below are good examples. I set out to make some wooden combs only to discover that lots of the information available were “nuanced.” Some information was not given, some didn’t work for what I wanted, and some were bad when I tried to use it. So after research, I had to take the good information and my insights together and create some prototypes.

Prototypes are not finished products. They are functional but imperfect. Lots still need to be worked out. They say, “OK, it can be done.” Then the tough work of making it pretty and functional starts.

With regard to the combs, some things that needed working out were the wood species, grain orientation, the thickness of the comb along the spine, and the thickness of the teeth. Combs are available in various exotic kinds of wood, and some I have on stock from when I carved quarter boards and transoms for boats in teak and mahogany. But sustainability and material costs are significant issues for me. And I frequently need to apprise customers about how sustainable the products are. Luckily the species I use are both local and sustainable in New England. So my initial choices are cherry and maple. They have the strength and beauty needed.

OK, I have the basics worked out. Now, work on making it pleasing to look at and use. Perfection does not come in a day. We work at it bit by bit.

Xenia Houdini

I don’t care what my sister said. I was not being an impulsive brat! I was merely going out for a bit of exercise. No reason for mother to shriek at me!
That hound, he dropped the dime on me, ratted me out to father. Howling at the door until they came running.
Of course, it was pleasant to watch as they ran to and fro, trying to find out how I had gotten out without their noticing. That will remain my little secret. It’s so endearing seeing them flummoxed.
I’ll have to get on father to do more shoveling. That icky white stuff is soooo messy. I know my cousins in Florida don’t have to put up with the nasty stuff!

In the meantime, I’ll warm up on the heated blanket and ponder how I can precipitate more mayhem. It’s so much fun being an evil genius,

Family Traditions

Write about a few of your favorite family traditions.

Humans have a prodigious ability to create and destroy. The very concept of culture ( big C or little c) is something that we are continuously developing and eliminating. So traditions exist as a process; we continually reshape them even as we celebrate them. I’ll have to beg the reader’s forgiveness; although I no longer work as an anthropologist, I’ll never shake the orientation.
Family traditions offer a look into the processes of development and loss. In October of 2023, I’ll initiate the 50th anniversary of the Carreras family fruitcakes. Were fruitcakes a Carreras family tradition before then? Nope. And I honestly do not remember why I settled on making fruitcakes that fall fifty years ago. But every fall since I start on the family fruitcakes – which after baking, settle in for a long rum-soaked gestation before being shipped off for family eating during Christmas.

I was looking for something to replace my grandmother’s Poppyseed bread. Grandma had died years before without leaving a recipe and without taking apprentices. So her tradition, dating back generations in her family, effectively died with her.
Replace a traditional Hungarian treat with fruitcake? As a family, we tried to duplicate her recipe without luck. She had always been elusive on her secrets, a sort of “pinch of this, a pinch of that” description of the process that guaranteed it could not be duplicated. So as a family, we eventually threw in the towel on reproducing it. A family tradition lost.

That was where we were the year I first made my rum-soaked fruitcakes. The first year I only made two; one for myself and my wife and one for my parents. Things evolved. Over the years, the recipe evolved; ingredients were added, quantities changed, and the rum-soaking technique matured. Eventually, I reached about twenty cakes and distributed fruit cakes in early December to any family member who appreciated them. There is a bit of drudgery involved in making that many. but commitment is part of tradition.

At fifty years, I can look back and see how the tradition started, developed, and is being passed on. A few years ago, my oldest son apprenticed, transcribed the recipe, and can now make the cakes. I fully expect that, over time, his cakes will vary from the ones I made. That’s part of what makes traditions alive; they change and develop while staying steady parts of our expectations in life.

About seven years ago, I was able to replicate grandma’s Poppyseed bread. I now bake this for the family at Christmas time and tell the story about how she rewarded and punished family members by giving them loaves with more or less filling. After all, it’s not only the food that makes the tradition; it’s the telling of the stories surrounding it.

Families are microcosms of culture, and family traditions connect members across generations leading back to the past and forward to the future.

Savy

Is there a Bible quote that the nefarious will always be with us? If not, maybe there should be. Before writing this post, I was sifting through my regular email and found one from an outfit that assured me that I had a relationship with them, and here was my new newsletter. OK, I do lots of business online for my job, blogging, games, and carving. But despite their bland assurances, I sent the post directly to the junk folder where all subsequent SPAM from them will reside.

They just assumed I’d yield to their assurances that they were part of my online family of vendors without verifying if I used their services.

Even if the email were innocuous, once I opened it, I’d be spammed continuously – Dear Louis, such a deal we have for you today!

Not being perfect, I have to admit that I’ve fallen for the routine once in a while. Luckily, without consequences. 

But evil seems to ride on the coattails of the innocent these days. So it’s more challenging to take active steps against. It’s not some weedy-looking idiot at your door, not even some phony on the phone telling you it’s the IRS – at least you can be insulting to those idiots. No, any response at all guarantees a dumpster load of SPAM. They note, “Hey, Harry, this one is alive; sell the email address!”

If only a physical response were possible! A quote attributed to Blackbeard, the pirate, advises, “Let’s jump on board and cut them to pieces.” My reply would be a hearty “Arrr, Matey!”

The Bevel Gauge

A Flashback Friday Presentation

Before starting full-time studies at Boston University, I worked various jobs to pay my part-time tuition at Metropolitan College. Some of that work was as a personal attendant for older people. There was the doctor who thought he was still in practice in Dorchester and the former wool shipping magnate who dragged me to all the finest private clubs in the Boston area, and at last, there was the ship carpenter.
John was the son of a ship carpenter who had worked in the East Boston shipyard of Donald McKay. John’s dad has worked on many of Mckay’s clipper ships. John himself had been a carpenter in several New England shipyards and was proudest of the work he had done during World War II in the South Portland shipyards building Liberty ships for the war effort.

This job did not pay me as well as babysitting the well-to-do. John’s brother controlled the purse strings and held them tightly closed for his brother’s care. His brother and nephew Paul were all the family John had, and where John was garrulous and generous, the brother was tightlipped and would play games with pay if you didn’t watch. But he paid in cash each week, which made the tuition bill disappear all that much faster.
John was a motor mouth, but on topics he knew, ship carpentry, his stories were fascinating. He’d been his father’s apprentice late in the old man’s life and had learned old-school methods alongside newer ones. His love in later years had been finish carpentry, and once a month or so, John would have the nephew and I dig out the old tool chest that had been his father’s and tell us about each tool and the tricks of how to use them. He maintained that the marine carpenter’s most needed tool was the bevel gauge. The bevel gauge is a long flat metal piece with a slot in the middle. Into the slot fitted a bolt and a closure nut on a long brass and hardwood handle. Adjusting the nut and changing the sliding metal piece’s angle allows you to approximate almost any angle you need. Because there were so many odd angles in marine cabinetwork, John maintained that you could not do without it. ” ninety degrees? Those are hard to find on a boat.”

The nephew, Paul, was a young man searching for a life. His father wanted him in finance with him. But he loved to hear the stories John told about shipyard work and also loved to quiz me about my interest in history and anthropology. His preferred companions were his uncle John and me. We could make an afternoon fly by swapping tales. I’d leave by four-thirty in the afternoon to go home, feed my cat, and get ready for evening classes.
It was a good year. I had time to study on the job, good companionship, and cash every Friday. It couldn’t last. One day I showed up to find that John had been taken to the hospital. Two weeks later, Paul called to tell me that John had died, and the ceremonies had been family only. Then he told me his father was planning on selling the tool chest and all the contents. He hoped to “recoup” some of the expenses of the funeral. I thought it was sad that a family heirloom chest of tools dating to the 1840s would go to auction rather than stay in the family.
Paul asked me: ” Dad has no idea what’s in the chest, and I want something to remember my uncle by. If I took just one tool, which do you think it should be?”
We discussed it. A set of well-crafted saws, chisels, and some handmade wooden planes were in the chest. But when we turned all the options over and over, we realized that it had to be John’s well-used bevel gauge, the indispensable tool.
The next semester I began to study full-time as an anthropology major at Boston University. I heard nothing further from John’s brother or his nephew.
Years later, though, I read an article in one of the Boston paper’s Sunday magazines; in the article, there was a photo of John’s nephew in his law office. In a case prominently set on the wall was John’s bevel gauge. The caption read: “My uncle’s bevel gauge is a reminder to me that not everything in life is square or plumb, nor does it need to be.”
Well, it’s true. We are a society that prefers things square, plumb, and regular, just so in their place. But life isn’t that neat, and that’s where a sort of mental version of the bevel gauge comes in handy.

The Union

OK, take a look at these optics; the Peaceable Kingdom. Kitty and doggie share a minute of peace over a shared family meal. Who’d guess that most of the last nine months have been spent growling, hissing, and swatting at each other? Perhaps the tedium of enduring dispute became too much to bear? Nope, a need to get lazy humans to get their dinner to them by the contractually dictated five PM.

You see, pets in our house have a union. The union has a contract, and woe is to a mere human to violate the agreement. A contract magnifies the God-given rights of Cats, Dogs, and other creatures as defined in the contract.

However, unity is essential. It took some months for Xenia, the Local’s combined Shop Steward and Business Agent, to get the new talent to start paying dues.

So this is how it goes down around quarter to five in the afternoon. The cat strolls into the kitchen. Obstructs traffic, begins to look first at the clock on the wall, and glares at whatever human is in the kitchen. A few minutes later, the dog wanders in, sits in front of the fridge, and starts looking at the clock and then at the humans. Eventually, the thickheaded people get the idea before the grievances are filed, the wildcat strike is called, and the International Teamsters are notified. This flurry of activity typically ends before five, as soon as they are fed. After this, they saunter off to warm themselves before the woodstove, another victory by organized labor over management. I swear I can see the copy of the “CONTRACT” sticking out of the cat’s rear pocket.

It’s important to note that no human in our house speaks cat or dog language. We’d love to. It might explain how two enemies communicated and came to coordinate against management. One can only imagine the closed-door sessions in the kitchen when the house was asleep. 

Unity is powerful!

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