The Case of the Rattling Awl

The first car I remember my parents owning was a 1977 Chevrolet station wagon—blue, with fake wood paneling on the sides. A few months after buying the car, Dad reports, something within the passenger-side rear compartment wall, near the spare tire stowage, began to rattle. Soon, the noise irritated him enough that he disassembled the interior paneling to find and silence it.

Which is where he discovered this tool, a hand awl, presumably lost or abandoned there by an upholstery installer on the assembly line. Dad, who has never been a big fan of organized labor, at least once advocated the latter theory, i.e. that the awl was abandoned in the car, on purpose, by a worker exploiting union regs to the effect that he or she could not be required to work unless provided with the correct tool. Being considerably more liberal, I am prepared to give that long-ago UAW member the benefit of the doubt and believe it was walled up by accident.

Dad put the awl in the top drawer of his toolbox and it’s lived there ever since, though the car it came in is now thirty years gone. It’s heavy, solid, and quite well made, with a turned aluminum handle and replaceable pommel- and tip-fittings. I used it just today.

Knowing where to drill is most of the bill

My Dad, who has been an electrical engineer for 40-odd years, likes to tell this apocryphal story about Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the famous German-American engineer who, in the early days of General Electric, was a pioneer in the development of alternating current technologies, specifically power transmission and A/C electric motors:

Late in Steinmetz’ life, he was called in to consult on a vibration problem in a newly-installed piece of large, rotating machinery at a major factory. Steinmetz—who was afflicted with dwarfism, hunchback, and hip dysplasia, and stood only 4’3″ tall—looked over the blueprints for the machinery, examined it, took measurements, scratched figures.

“Bring me a drill,” he said, eventually, “with a one-inch bit.”

So tooled, he climbed up on a large electric motor, located just the right spot, and drilled a single hole in the casing.

“That,” he said, “should fix it.”

And, of course, it did. The machinery turned smoothly, everyone shook the great man’s hand, and he departed.

Weeks later, the management received a bill for $10,000. Steinmetz died in 1923; using that year as a base and adjusting for inflation gives just over $125,000 in 2010 dollars—a princely sum for a few hours’ work. Chagrined, the company responded with a respectful request for an itemized invoice. To which, the story goes, they received the following reply:

Drilling hole in motor casing:      $2.00
Knowing where to drill hole: $9,998.00
TOTAL: $10,000.00

Concrete bowl with bottle glass aggregate

Last Spring I got it in my head to make a concrete bowl. Mom had a book—Concrete Crafts by Alan Wycheck, specifically—with a project for a bowl made by casting concrete with colored glass fill between two cheap stainless steel mixing bowls, and we decided to try it.

I had a bunch of blue and green glass bottles on-hand, and broke these up by submerging them in a big galvanized washtub and bashing them with a fence-post driver. The water works nicely to prevent flying shards. Once the glass was pounded down to about US quarter-size, on average, we dumped the washtub out onto an old bedsheet on the lawn, in the sun, and gathered up sheet and glass together when everything was dry. We didn’t bother to remove the labels, first, which proved to be a mistake, in the long run, because we were picking bits of paper out of the glass for most of the rest of the project. It was an annoyance, not a critical error, but in hindsight I’d recommend spending the time to take the labels off, first.

We mixed up the concrete per Wycheck’s recipe (2:1:1 glass:sand:Portland cement, by volume, plus water to “taste”), spritzed the inside of the large bowl and the outside of the small bowl with generic “mold release” from Hobby Lobby, and dolloped in a generous portion of the wet mixture before inserting the smaller bowl and compressing until concrete oozed out around the lip. We set the stacked bowls in a corner of the porch, covered them with a soaking-wet towel, covered that with a plastic garbage bag to hold in the moisture, and weighted everything down with a pair of cobblestones. Then we left it for week. (Concrete gets harder the longer it stays wet during curing.)

The following weekend, there were a few tense moments when it seemed like the mold would be impossible to open without destroying its contents. But repeatedly dropping the stack on a towel spread over a cement patio floor, from a height of a few inches, eventually worked both inner and outer molds loose and a cleanly-molded concrete bowl popped out.

The instructions in Wycheck’s book, at this point, advise the reader to “sand or grind the surface to expose the glass.” In practice, in my experience, those nine words entail about 95% of the time, and 99% of the physical effort, expended in the project. I spent about 20 hours, all told, over the course of several weeks, working over the outside of the bowl, using an auto-body grinder with a six-inch-diameter flexible rubber pad and a set of diamond-impregnated abrasive pads, to achieve the results shown here. I turned the bowl upside down and fit it over an old barstool so I could work on it standing up.

These diamond polishing pads were not available locally, and had to be ordered online. They came in a set of eight grit sizes ranging from 50 up to 6000 grits, attaching by Velcro to a hard rubber pad threaded for a standard grinder arbor. That hard pad very quickly overheated, the first time I tried to use it, causing the adhesive holding the Velcro on to melt and the Velcro layer to come loose from the pad. When I complained about this to the seller, fortunately, their response was really outstanding: They sent me a new, soft rubber pad, for free, explained how I could fix the broken one with rubber cement. I had no problems with the soft replacement pad throughout the remainder of the project and, indeed, the hard one was good as new after the recommended repair.

With my equipment problems resolved, I set to with the grinder. I spent about 10 hours at the largest (50) grit size, just grinding away the so-called “cream” to expose the glass, and then worked down to smaller and smaller grits, spending about two hours each on 100, 200, 400, and 800 grits. There was a really striking improvement in the step from 400 to 800, and for a day or two I fully intended to polish the whole bowl all the way out to 6000 grit. But then I lost patience and just applied a polymer sealant, specifically Arrow-Magnolia International’s Glo-crete (some of which was leftover from my condo renovation), inside and out. This provided a nice, shiny, “wet-look” gloss.

I’m quite pleased with the finished product, which I gave to Mom as a gift.  But damn. It was much, much, much more work than I’d planned on, and I feel like Wycheck’s book should’ve done a better job of preparing me for the time commitment, and of providing guidance about the specialized equipment that would be needed to get it done.

“Sean becomes a tropical storm”

My mother, who has been tracking the 2011 hurricane season very closely in anticipation of my eponymous storm, seemed a bit disappointed to learn that Sean will likely not achieve hurricane strength. I have mixed feelings, myself. As much as I would love to devastate eastern coastlines (particularly south and central Florida), there are, reportedly, actual human beings living there, presumably capable of experiencing suffering and loss, and I guess, in the final analysis, admittedly, I would rather not hurt anyone.

In 1983, Hurricane Alicia (Wikipedia) smashed into Texas, causing almost $6 billion in damage in adjusted dollars, making it among the most damaging (or “bad ass”) hurricanes in our state’s history. Mom, whose name is Alecia, was, I think, hoping I could also experience the pleasure of having one’s name on everyone’s lips as an unstoppable force of nature. Looks like that will have to wait until The Omega Device is complete.

But it won’t be long now, mother. Not long at all.

My Dad, cleaning the floor

He’s in his early seventies, and that thing in his hands is a modified weed-whacker.

Back story: Mom and Dad decided, recently, to polish the Saltillo tile floor in their home, and Dad bought a floor polishing machine off Craigslist, for that purpose, for a song. The guy who sold it had been using it to grind concrete floors smooth, but it came with “soft” buffers, and Dad had no problem putting them on and getting them up and running.

Dad uses the machine to buff the floors.

And discovers, to his great annoyance, that some previous owner of the house had sealed the floors without cleaning them, first. The polisher will cut through the sealant on the tile, but the dark grime in the grout, between the tiles, is sealed in and will not come off with cleaners or mechanical buffing.

The grout, he decides, will have to be abraded away, where it’s dirty, and replaced.

He buys a cheap electric trimmer—at Harbor Freight, I think—and replaces the line reel with a wire brush, supposedly made from brass and unequivocally purchased at Harbor Freight.

Using this contraption, he discovers A) the brush is too hard and tends to erode the surface of adjacent tiles, as well as the surface of the grout, and B) every so often, it gives off sparks. Which brass does not do. He holds a magnet up to it and, whaddya know, click, it sticks. The brush is steel plated with brass.

He replaces the fake-brass brush with a special nylon brush he’s found online and ordered through the mail. And it works: The dirty grout is ground away, but the adjacent tile is not marred.

And that’s a picture of him, up top, abrading away the grout between the Saltillo tiles on the floor of the home he shares with my mother, using a tool improvised from an electric weed whacker and a special-purpose nylon brush. In his early seventies.

I do love him so.

John Ford’s point, Monument Valley, Spring 2004

From a road trip with my father. Both he and I appear in the panorama. He photographed one angle with me in it, and I photographed one angle with him in it. Previously published at full resolution on one of my old pages.