Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Spoon

In late October, I rode my bike from central Pennsylvania to southern, southern Virginia where my parents own a farm.  They are in the process of renovating the farmhouse that sits on the property and I traveled down in order to assist.  I've spent the past two weeks patching and sanding and painting and putting up molding and all of the sorts of things that you do to old houses to give them new life.  Yesterday, as I finished a couple of hours of scraping 50 year old carpet glue off of a staircase, I decided to take a little break.  An aside if you will.  I was going to make a spoon.

A spoon?  Yeah, I'll bet you didn't see that one coming.  Well, if you know me or you've read enough of my ditherings, you already know that logical transitions aren't my strong suit.  But let me explain myself...

Just about everyone at some point in their life, be it as a child or an adult, thinks to themselves, "Wouldn't it be great to just go off in the woods and build a cabin and live there and forget about the 2012 election/terrorism/my 401k?"  You can silently muse about this, but once you voice it aloud, your mother/husband/rabbi quickly tells you that this is not possible.  And that's precisely when (hopefully) you also hear about Dick Proenneke.  Dick was dropped off at a lake in the interior of Alaska in 1968 where he went about building a cabin by hand, alone.  He also constructed much of the other items necessary for daily living out of natural materials or castoff packaging.  Proenneke would live by himself in the cabin for about 30 years (aside from occasional visits from a float plane and a couple of trips back to the lower 48 to see family).  Whilst he went about all of this, he filmed himself and kept a lengthy journal which were the basis for the documentary Alone in the Wilderness.

Whenever I am hanging out with my friend Ieva, conversation begins with a normal discussion of how things are going and how much we have or have not been climbing/biking/running.  With pleasantries aside, we switch to the important stuff: building cabins, goats, sewing your own clothing, persistence hunting, etc.  About a month ago, we got together in order to watch Alone in the Wilderness as I had still never seen it.  Upon watching it, I felt like all of life's troubles were washed away.  I knew what to do with myself.  To seal the deal, we also watched the sequel, Alone in the Wilderness II.  Ieva and I were understandably excited to go out and immediately build a cabin, but we let logic prevail and decided to start with something simpler: making a wooden spoon.

In Alone in the Wilderness II, Proenneke shows the process of making a spoon.  As he is a superb craftsman, he makes it look really easy.  Also they edit out all of the laborious parts to shorten the footage.  We felt like this gave us some idea of what was going on and set about finding the necessary tools.  One implement called for is a gouge (a rounded chisel) and Ieva and I went to two different hardware stores and searched around town, but couldn't find this specialty tool.  The effort sort of lost steam at that point.  My father is a devout woodworker so I asked him to locate a gouge for me while I was bicycling down to the farm.  When I arrived, a gouge was awaiting me and I thus had the tools I needed.  So, without further adieu, I give you the process for making a wooden spoon by hand.
Select a young tree that is slightly bigger in diameter than how wide you want to make your overall spoon.  Chop it down.  I don't have my copy of The Foxfire Book on me but it has a good discussion of what wood to use for what purpose.  I selected an oak because there were a lot of oak around.  (Before anyone decries me for cutting down a healthy tree instead of using deadfall, you should know that "green" wood is much easier to cut and shape.  You can now return to reading this post inside of your house made of 2x4s.)

Next, "limb" the tree.  That is, cut the protruding limbs off of the trunk.  I really like to use the Gransfors Bruks Scandinavian Forest Axe for this.  Its large enough to fell a tree and limb it and light enough to use for small shaping functions later in the process.  During all of this cutting, be EXTREMELY CAREFUL that you do not cut your foot, leg, hand, fingers, etc.  You can do a lot of damage with a sharp axe.  And then as Gem says in The Town, "there goes college soccer".

Haul your tree trunk out of the woods to your cabin/yurt/commune and put it up on sawhorses.  Okay, Dick Proenneke would have used a tripod made of other tree sections, but I didn't want to make my parents apoplectic by cutting down the entire forest.  Get yourself a carpenter's saw.

Cut a blank for your spoon.  It should be relatively straight and free of large knots.  You want it to be a bit longer than your desired spoon length and a touch wider.  This blank that was about 20 inches long and 3 inches in diameter yielded a finished spoon of 12"x2".

Flatten one side of the blank with your axe.  A small hatchet could make this easier (and perhaps safer).

Continue by flattening the other side taking care to try and make the sides parallel.

Draw the outline in pencil of your overall spoon shape and the area where the "bowl" or concave portion should be.

Begin cutting out the bowl of the spoon using a gouge.  I was using a #7 sweep 3/8" gouge which is good for small and medium sized spoons.  For a larger "serving" sized spoon I might use a wider gouge.

Continue chiseling until you have the concavity as deep as necessary.  Don't worry about how thick the "walls" of the spoon are at this point.

With your axe, now rough out the top profile of the spoon around the bowl and along the length of the handle.

Then draw the side profile of the spoon in pencil and then rough it out again with your axe.  Leave the "walls" of the concavity thick still.  Trying to shave too closely with the axe at this point can ruin your whole project.

Next, step in side.  Cozy up to the fire.  Put on some NPR or some folk music.  Make yourself a mug of tea.  And get out your hunting knife.  I suppose you could use some sort of carving knife, but that's just unnecessary baggage when you're taking a float plane in to your homesite.  Start slowly whittling the spoon towards its final form.  Go slowly.  Use your index finger and thumb as "calipers" to gauge how thin you're making the bowl of the spoon.

After you've gotten it to where you're happy with it, break out some sandpaper and smooth out the surfaces of the spoon.  Yes, Dick had sandpaper with him.  I found that it was ineffective to sand the wood while it was still quite "green" and damp, so I am letting it season and dry for a few days before giving it a proper sanding.

And voila!  You have a fully functional spoon that you made with your own hands.  Proenneke finished his spoons with shellac or varnish or something that I cannot recall.  I'm fairly sure that the health industry would frown upon that these days.  My friend Lauren teaches youth in the outdoors and occasionally they make spoons as an activity.  She said that they finish them with a cooking oil.  Makes sense to me.  Once this gets its final sanding, I'll rub a light coat of olive oil on the spoon to protect the wood.

For my first attempt ever at making a spoon by hand, I think it turned out pretty well.  I believe the scoop portion of the spoon should be deeper and the walls should be thinner.  I was a bit timid with the chisel and later whittling as I didn't want to make them too thin and ruin the spoon.  Rome wasn't built in a day and even Dick Proenneke probably didn't make a perfect spoon the first time.  But, this first one is perfect for putting dollops of sourdough batter on your cast iron fry pan to make pancakes, as Dick would do.  I believe that my friend Liz, upon hearing of Ieva and my intentions to make spoons, laid claim to the first one that I made. Hopefully she'll put it to good use.  Kindling is not a "good use".

If you've read this far, you probably need no justification on why you should make a spoon.  But there's probably someone out there thinking "Why waste your time?"  It was fun.  I hate eating with plastic.  It's rewarding to actually make something in this day and age.  Or in the words of the cashier at the consignment shop in Mount Joy, PA who rang me out for a Foxfire book and a guide on bowmaking, "the way the world's heading these days, you're gonna need to know this stuff".  In either case, I hope that you enjoyed the step-by-step explanation and are perhaps inspired to make something yourself!

Monday, November 5, 2012

J.A. Stein Mini Cassette Lockring Tool

What follows is a review of a really esoteric and very specific piece of bike equipment.  If a thousand people read this post, perhaps one might find it useful.  Which is excellent.  Except probably only four people read this blog.  Oh well.
On a recent multi-day ride, a friend and I pulled off of the road into a the parking lot of an Italian restaurant buried in central Pennsylvania.  Our chains were dry and shrieking for want of lubrication and it was sorta time for a lunch break too anyways.  My friend rummaged through his panniers and happened upon the correct one with his repair stuff in it.  As he removed everything to find a bottle of chain lube, I noticed something wrapped up in a grocery bag.

Me: "Is that a chain whip?"
Him: "Yep."
Me: "I really wouldn't want to carry that."
Him: "Yeah, me neither.  But what are you going to do if a drive side spoke breaks and you need to remove your cassette?"
Me: "Commit seppuku with a tire lever."

First off, I am not criticizing my friend.  Both of our bikes (and wheelsets) have over 10k miles on them.  We carry lots of heavy stuff in our rear panniers.  We ride over things like rough trails, the cataclysmic streets of Baltimore, hippies, etc.  Prime situations to break a rear spoke.  And we do all of this often at great distance to a bike shop.  If you break a spoke on the drive side of your rear wheel next to the cassette, you need to remove the cassette in order to replace the spoke.  The usual necessary tools are a chain whip, a cassette lockring tool and a crescent wrench.  Unless you're my friend who opted to carry these along, you're not likely to find such specialized tools outside of a bike shop while out touring.

I have always been aware of this potential situation.  For many thousands of miles of touring, I simply adopted the "I hope that a rear spoke never breaks but if it does make it right by a bike shop" mentality and tried not to think how royally screwed I might be in certain places.  Perhaps somewhere like Wyoming's Great Divide Basin.  I assure you that I am not alone in this mindset.  Actually, I'll bet that many cross country cyclists have never even considered the predicament I just laid out.  But right then and there, in the parking lot, I promised my friend that I'd determine a solution.  We had both heard of "emergency" lockring removers, but hadn't purchased one since they cost about $40 and we had no idea how they worked.

The only such tool in current production that I have heard of is the J.A. Stein Mini Cassette Lockring Tool.  It's been recommended by other long distance cyclists, but I could not find anywhere that clearly explained how the tool operates.  I ordered one through Harris Cyclery for $35.95 and I would urge you to call them and try to negotiate their $10 shipping fee since what I received could have been essentially mailed in an envelope.  For your forty odd dollars, you receive a small plastic bag with several loose metal bits and you begin wondering if you've been swindled.

Now, I have the advantage of having removed my cassette a couple of times to replace it.  I used the ubiquitous Park Tool Cassette Lockring Tool and Chain Whip and a crescent wrench.  This gave me an overall expectation of what had to happen here.  If you haven't removed a cassette using conventional means, it would probably behoove you to ask for a demo at your local bike shop before playing with the Stein tool.  But once you look at the Stein tool, you will note that the larger plate has splines machined on it much like a conventional lockring removal tool.  With your skewer removed, you engage the splined plate with the lockring on your cassette.  Then with a 3mm allen key, you attach the smaller arm to the plate.  With the wheel in your bike's dropout, you reinstall the skewer, clamping down the slotted end of the arm.  As you rotate your crankarms in the easiest gearing, the tool rotates until it contacts the frame whereupon further crankarm rotation causes the lockring to be loosened by the now immobile tool.  By changing the orientation of the tool slightly, you can tighten the lockring back on by rotating your rear wheel backwards by hand.

This may sound quite complicated.  I assure you it isn't.  It's just hard to put into words.  If you have experience with a usual cassette removal procedure, you will be able to follow the directions that come along with the tool.  You will need to be carrying your own 3mm allen key and if you are the type to carry an emergency cassette remover then it would stand to reason you're also packing a multitool.  The tool worked fabulously once I read through the instructions.  I had to remove a bolt holding one of the fender arms on that would have blocked the tool's rotation.  In order to get the lockring to "break free" I sat on the bike and pushed down on a pedal with my foot.  I doubt that handstrength on the crankarm alone would be enough force.  And likewise, reinstallation of the lockring was a snap too (albeit with one caveat that I will describe below).  I can absolutely recommend carrying the Stein tool along on bicycle rides that take you far away from the bicycle shop or your home workbench.  Just remember to bring extra spokes as well, otherwise this is all for naught.

DISCLAIMER for Surly Long Haul Trucker owners:  I have an LHT and by my observation, a heck of a lot of other cycletourists do too.  When I went to reinstall/tighten the cassette lockring, the directions are at odds with the LHT dropouts.  When reinstalling, you set up the tool with the arm pointing 180 degrees in the other direction and thus the arm contacts the frame by the chainstay, instead of the seatstay as in the loosening operation.  If you look at the above photo where the tool is installed for the loosening operation, you'll see a flange of sorts where the chainstay meets the dropout.  If you follow the tools directions, when you are tightening the lockring back on, the arm of the tool will ride up onto this flange and get bent.  I know because I did it.  I was able to hammer the arm back flat and I'm sure it will work fine in the future.  What I would do next time is allow the tool to contact the back of the derailleur hanger instead of the chainstay.  The directions clearly say that you should not do that as you may damage your derailleur.  With that in mind, I would probably unbolt my derailleur first since it isn't necessary for the tightening function to avoid damaging it.  Again, if you own an LHT and are using a Stein tool, this will make immediate sense when you're sitting there looking at it.