Friday, March 19, 2010

Hands on

I took a drafting class years ago.  Thought it'd be nice to while away winter evenings by taking a class of some kind. Mechanical drafting caught my attention, seemed fitting for the furniture making I did. Before this I'd done some self study and was proficient already at reading blueprints. There'd been some exposure to the subject in high school. 

The idea of working with sharp pencils and onionskin paper, tasked with detailing drawings and getting a better understanding of the principles, was truly my idea of fun. I saw it as a chance to hone or add to what I already knew.

As it turned out I had little trouble meeting the class goals, and did a decent job on my assignments. I enjoyed revisiting techniques for drawing in perspective, scaling objects, line pressure with the pencil, and so on.  I tried to produce a distinctive lettering style all my own, but others had more impressive results here.  My handwriting is merely expedient in daily scribblings, and though I can carefully block letters into an architect-ey appearance, I think it is a chore to maintain. So except in class, or on paperwork for a client, my lettering isn't very artful.

The truth is, I just liked the tools of the trade.  The pencils, paper, special erasers, the thin erasing shield, protractors, triangles, the whole lot.

On the very first night of class, I was the last one into my seat. I made it on time, just.  Under the high workstation, next to my tall drafting chair, I set a wooden box down. Made from solid cherry and a couple of panels of baltic birch plywood, it held a small collection of drafting tools and supplies, according to the instructor's list of required materials. (Picture the curious looks from the other students....)

The telling thing about this box was that I constructed it with an enthusiasm that outweighed the ambitions I had for the actual class. I sketched a plan, planed and jointed the wood, mitered the cherry frame and rabbeted it for the birch panels. I detailed it with holders and fasteners to keep everything organized. Outside, I fastened a small drawing board with a protractor and a sliding straightedge. The box when open could have its upper half propped at an angle for drawing. Lifting the lid, a narrow box with a long row of holes for pens and pencils was built as a hollow compartment, with foam inside to keep the lead points from breaking. A small lid covered another compartment for leads, erasers, sharpeners, and the like. Behind a divider, large pads of paper could be safely stored.   Triangles, rulers and protractors  nested between foam holders on the inside of the upper lid. To finish, I carved a cherry carrying handle and attached it with wooden dowels so it could pivot.  I completed the whole thing about a half an hour before the first class was to start.

Obviously, my real focus was on making the thing drawn. Doing the hands-on work. It became quite clear that although drafting and sketching is enjoyable, and a useful part of my bag of tricks, what I really want to be doing is raising the physical object into reality. My pre-class drafting box folly was proof of that.  

After more than twenty years, I may have forgotten the intracies of drawing three-point perspective, but I still use that drafting box. A lot of projects have passed over its drawing surface. 

Monday, March 15, 2010


Today I fingered my keychain as I got in my car. It has been slowly growing as to number of keys. I've even indulged in a little faux-key that is really a tiny pocket knife. I used to hate having to carry too many keys. I would make keychains that pulled apart so I could travel light. But after several instances of not having a key on me when I needed it, I accepted that the locks and locations in my life need for me to have the keys on hand.

When I was a kid, I had a cigar box full of keys. To me, it was a wondrous collection. I enjoyed having them in that box, and I would go through them from time to time.  I think many of them came from my dad, perhaps from locks he no longer had, or houses we no longer lived in.

 I would add to the collection, usually from finding a cast off key in the street somewhere. There was a sense of loss when I came upon a lost key, at least a sense that the owner had suffered a loss--what would they do without it? It represented access to a unique location, a door or a chest or something that needed to be locked. And unlocked.

I knew that each key was unique, that a key only fit a certain lock. Sometimes I would line them up with each other, looking for keys that were cut alike. The different shapes of the heads of the keys were something I could arrange in groups. I preferred brass, and liked the Lego-like jagged edges of some keys over the smallish Kwikset pattern with it's Volkswagen "VW"-like cutout. Skeleton keys for old mortised locks held extra charm. From their bony name, and from the idea that many of them would fit a wide number of door locks. The elusive "Master" key was a tantalizing concept.  Once I'd outgrown wanting to be a trash collector, I harbored visions of becoming a locksmith. (the garbagemen in our neighborhood frolicked with early morning raccoons, and hung in daredevil fashion from their awesome truck. Didn't you want to be a trash collector? I thought everybody did.)

The weight of my box of keys felt like a stash of coins. I may have had the idea that at some juncture, a lock somewhere would need unlocking, and maybe, just maybe,  I would have the key to fit. I did like to be prepared for anything, but never was asked to produce such a key.

There were several personal additions to the box.  Keys from bike locks I had lost,  and old skate keys.  Or more poignantly,  from houses I had moved from.  I had moved some 3,000 miles when I was nine, across an ocean.  I would revisit particular old house keys with a feeling of sentimentality. Those house keys were a touchstone to my former homes.

 I have a lockbox on my office shelf now, that holds the keys to houses in other states, houses for which I still have active ties. Somehow the keys in the lockbox are less alluring; they represent responsibility.  My treasure box of keys seemed to represent possibility more than anything else.

When the day finally came that I no longer saw the need to keep that cigar box of keys,  I was somewhat at a loss for what to do with them.  I didn't need to worry about keeping them secure, they were obsolete. But as I grew older and acquired more things, it seemed silly to keep them around.

 I reluctantly threw them in the trash. I wonder what the garbageman thought when he saw them.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Go Fly a Kite

Benjamin Franklin had his turn. Had mine yesterday. Took a friend and two kites to an open field, and we let them fly.


It was in a large way just an excuse to get outside on a rare warm Colorado winter day.  The thermometer made it to 50 degrees which brought thoughts of spring to the foreground. Being Colorado, the snow is sure to return a few more times, so days like yesterday are meant to be siezed upon.

Flying kites seemed like the thing to do.  The kites had been purchased on an impulse a few weeks ago. Long plastic tubes contained cleverly fashioned fiber skeletons with nylon fabric skins.  One, a butterfly, the other, a cheeky dragon with realistic shiny green eyes.  It took less than 5 minutes to arrange each one for flight. Kite string reels were pre-assembled and ready to hook to the string harnesses on the kites.

If you know Colorado, you can think of at least two reasons why kite-flying in this locale might be a fool's errand.  (Not including that it is child's play and my childhood days are a few decades gone....)  The first reason in most seasons would be the nature of the wind. Notoriously fierce, that is.  In the spring especially, gusts of 50 miles per hour are not uncommon. Easy to imagine losing a kite to the stratosphere, or at least the next county.  The other reason is more sobering, and may exclude a large part of the summer from safe kite flying.  Thunderstorms and lightning strikes occur here in abundance, perhaps more than any other state in the union. 

No worries about lightning on an early March day, thankfully. The warm winter day also  proved ideal in the wind department, even perhaps a bit on the slack side.

I'm no Benjamin Franklin, but I found myself analyzing the effects of the wind at different heights from the ground. The flying field we chose had a small berm at the south end, and the prevailing wind near the ground was coming from the south. It seemed to me that it helped to move some distance north of the berm to get a bit more consistent wind.  The kites we were using each came with a cheap plastic wind meter; if I read mine right (and if it was accurate) we had less than 5 mph of wind at the site. After a while, I observed that any attempt to let out my kite to a height further than some 20 or 30 feet from the ground resulted in a quick collapse, and several times the dreaded "death spiral."  When I maintained flight at the lower level, my dragon held its posture nicely, with decent tension on the kite string.

After an hour of flying (actually a little less due to the occasional death spirals) I practically had to drag my friend away from the field, she was enjoying it that much. She logged more flight minutes with her butterfly than I did with my dragon.

The view from our location was a great background for our flying friends. I'm looking forward to the next flight.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Because It's There

That's supposed to be what a climber said, when asked why they climbed the mountain. An offhand kind of answer, saying little, yet saying much. But if explaining an elemental need, desire, ambition or impulse, how better to describe the reason? The mountain being there, being what it is: so high, visible for miles, seemingly unreachable, a beacon to the eye. It is there. I am here. I want to be there, be up there. This perhaps is the draw, the siren song of mountains.

There is a great mountain six miles away from my house. Broad based, surrounded by partnering foothills and reaching well above treeline. A mantle of snow clings to the steep upper features. A picturesque scene. You cannot escape seeing it from nearly any location in the city, the county, even beyond.

Rambling around in this 1920's house, I am amazed to note, not for the first time, that though generally well-appointed with windows, there is not a single one that affords a view of the great mountain. There is one tiny window in an upstairs bathroom, that teases the eye with a hint of the peak. How can that be?

I think of the time when the house was built. The title reveals that the owner was a woman. The building took its place on this street that was the end of the known city limits. The street was the starting point for parades, on the main drag a few blocks west. ( It is still considered the parade start point.) A copy of a faint plot plan with township lines reveals a development wherein the entire block was up for sale as lots.

This corner house with no view has a grand wraparound porch. In recent times I hear the neighbors and passers-by refer to it as "the big house." Smaller houses of varying architecture line the street. Victorian styling is well represented, but bungalow, saltbox, and modest variations on themes appear. Perhaps only one other house approaches the size of this one.

With its seemingly grand position on the street, I can't help but wonder what the original owner thought about the view potential. Did they attempt to site the house for a view, but hit a bureaucratic snag? Was the modest little house to the west built first, and did that dictate that the new house keep its facing windows small to meet some code? I somehow suspect codes were less in evidence at that time. Yet common sense might suggest that neighbors in closely spaced housing would avoid large windows peering over at each other. Perhaps cost was a factor; some fine features on the front of the house bear witness to the pride and means of the owner at that time, but budgets being what they are, it seems likely that cost savings were realized with smaller windows away from the front of the house.

I may never know why the view was dismissed in the planning and building of this house. I do know that it seems strange to me to have to walk down the front steps, and go stand in the middle of the street to see a sight that never fails to impress.