Design Lab: Sawhorse

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Lunch hour sawhorse It turns out that you can build a sawhorse in an hour.

Or, at least, I can.

It helps that you’ve built an adirondack chair and a quartet of tables first, of course.

The construction is pretty simple: I looked at a bunch of plans on the internet, and found most of them overly complicated.  It’s not that they would be hard to build, although with the hinges for folding and the angled cut to make the legs level and so on, they might be a little tricky.  It’s that they would be difficult for students to recreate.

And as I noted in my post about the second pair of tables, I want everything in the lab to be replicable.  I want a kid to come into the room and say, “Could I build that?” And I want the answer to be “yes!” The little ones might say “maybe,” but the big kids should be able to say “Yes, definitely!” by the end of their time with me.

That should be normal.

Lunch hour sawhorse But that means that I also have to be confident that I can do it. So, today, I printed out one of those pictures/diagrams with the sawhorse measurements on it, and I built one.  All of the skills that I learned in building the Adirondack chair at Eli Whitney Museum came to the fore:

  • How to cut lumber square
  • How to square lumber before attaching it
  • How to square elements of a larger construction before attaching them
  • How to level elements
  • How to measure (three different ways, at least twice)
    • Using a tape measure
    • Using a bevel square or speed square
    • Using an exemplar already cut correctly
  • Pre-drilling
  • driving screws
  • working with a level
  • working with a power sander.


The tool-set is not complicated. The patience and care are… not exactly easy to learn, but come with practice.  The sense of transformation and accomplishment that result? Well worth the time.  Plus, it’s amortization of the circular saw, which cost around $100…  At eleven cuts per sawhorse, and sixteen per table… let’s see… one sawhorse, that’s 12, four tables that’s 64 and 12 is 76.  It’s cost us around $1.36 a cut for the use of the circular saw.  Given that we’re making three more tables (48 cuts), three hutches (estimated 22 cuts each or 66), a storage cabinet (30 cuts), and another sawhorse (12)… 76 cuts + 156 more cuts…  $100/232 cuts is forty-three cents per cut.

More than that, though… I’m beginning to feel that if we were told, “you have to be in the new design lab by Friday of next week,” we could do that. We’d move our stuff in, abandon what we’re going to abandon, and finish construction of our remaining equipment in the new space.

And that’s empowering to me.  I feel like I can pack up and move rooms, and not fall behind in my program.  I feel like I have power to get this done.  I feel like another couple of days of construction and we’ll be ready to go in a new space and new place.

Tai Chi Y3D343: Working


Did the work this morning. Just learned that someone is in town, and would like to have a bite to eat.  Off to the races we go this morning!

Today’s practice was weak and unruly.  I think about how strong my practice was, last week, in the company of others, and how happy it made me.  It still makes me happy, but today I felt like I wasn’t moving in water, so much as rushing through air.  I was able to manage the right level of power in my work upon returning; but today it feels like a wholly different kind of effort to get to that kind of strength-training feeling that I had in my work last week. Are those four days of effort just going to melt like snow in July?

I guess we’ll see… around here, at the current rate, we may still have snow in July.

Design Lab: Construction

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With the help of a parent, Mike, I built another two tables yesterday and today. They look great.Design: lab benches Mike was dealing with a cracked rib, and yet he, like me, was up and down from the floor to a standing posture all through Tuesday evening and Wednesday afternoon.  I have to credit him with tremendous endurance. And yet he said, “I can’t let it get me down. You have to work through things like that. Move or else.”

We spread the work over two days because I’d miscalculated how much lumber I’d actually need.  Oops.  I wound up making a 7am trip to the lumber yard this morning for ten more 2×4’s at 8-foot lengths. They fit in my car, but it was a crazy ride into school this morning. Usually my computer rides shotgun. Not today.

We’re getting better at assembling the frame of this particular workbench, too.  I took myself off to a local Harbor Freight Tools for a set of a dozen bar clamps, and  we used those to help us square and true the frames of the two tables.  Bar clamps are incredibly useful things. We used them yesterday to clamp a level to a piece of plywood, to use the level as a guideline for the circular saw.  A circular saw is likely to drift away from your cutline if you’re not careful, so the bar clamps hold the level in place so you can use the edge of the level as the guide for the edge of the saw.  Brilliant. Picked up that trick from Dan before vacation.

Design: lab benches

Mike installs a bar clamp on a recalcitrant corner.

These are not complicated pieces of carpentry.  For maybe $200 in tools, and $50 in lumber, maybe $20 in fasteners, you too can build one of these tables… and then amortize the cost of the tools by building a bunch of stuff on the table you built. That’s certainly my intention — if I don’t get a few hundred projects out of these tables, I’l be surprised. Mike thinks they’re likely to outlast us both.

So the new Design Lab has four such tables now.

And Mike, brilliant and careful guy that he is, had a brilliant suggestion when I broached the subject of him helping me build the North Wall Workbench (it’s capitalized, because it scares me — it’s the most complicated piece of our construction plan).  He said, “So don’t build a thirteen-foot long workbench. Build this five-foot long workbench that you’ve got the plans for… and build two of these two-by-four tables. Two times four is eight; and eight and five is thirteen. It’ll fit perfectly. And all your furniture will match, and you can rearrange the furniture however you need it to go.”

Blink. Blink.

Holy.  Cow.

Mike is my new hero.    He had a couple of even better ideas, too… extending the construction of the 2x4s from the legs up to the ceiling to be the frame for the peg boards for tools, and having the two end-tables of this construction be somewhat more idiosyncratic that our planned design.  But no matter.  He helped me get two more of tables built, he solved the ‘weird workbench’ design problem with some simple arithmetic, and then he taught me a few more carpenter’s tricks besides.

Way to go.

In the tai chi workshops over vacation, Doctor Yang said, “a well-considered word from a teacher can save the student a thousand days of empty practice.” It’s apparently a common theme in Chinese martial arts training.  But it turns out that it could apply to carpentry, too.

Mike remarked several times that we weren’t doing professional joinery work by a long shot, with something of mild disappointment in his voice. I said that didn’t worry me: we were building a quick-and-dirty workshop, not a studiolo for a nobleman. I asked him if he was a cabinet-maker, as well, and he snorted, “no!” laughingly.  But in our continuing conversation, I said, “nothing would make me happier than having a student ask if he could build a workshop in our workshop… that is, construct duplicates of our furniture to take home… and then doing it.”

May it be so. May a kid in school now eventually have the inclination and space to want to learn how to duplicate our tools for his or her own workspace.

Tai Chi Y3D342: Up, Down, In, Out, Split

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Over my vacation, I met with Greg, who is an acupuncturist.   He offered to see my form, and give me some specific ideas about how to improve. He was the guy who first corrected my stance, and who gave me advice about recognizing the form’s potential to move in five specific ways during the form, so that I had a chance to practice my moves according to those frames of reference.

Those five ways?

Inward — This means, when the energy is gathered toward your center, are you moving as if in water? In other words, are you engaging musculature and tendons and bones in such a way that there is apparent resistance?  Is the movement engaged? Is it too forceful? Is it not forceful enough? The goal is to be engaged — not to let the arms and body move through the air alone, but to move as if you were standing chest-high in water, with your arms underwater.

Outward — Are you likewise engaged when pressing outward? Is that movement through water happening? Does your body feel engaged and actively using the isomorphism present in your musculature and tendon system? Are you balanced?

Upward — Yep: when your arms and body are moving upwards, are you engaging yourself in that movement, and using the body’s strength in an upward push? Is your body engaged? Are you pressing too much? Not enough?

Downward —  And this all also applies to downward movement.  When your knees bend, when the body sinks, are you engaging n such a way that your arms do not merely droop?  Or are you just flopping downward? Or is the downward movement aware and intentional?  Are you struggling to keep your balance in the swift-moving river as you press downward as much as inward or outward or upward?

Splitting — Look at those movements when the position of your hands is widening.  Is the left arm going out in one direction, and the right arm in the other? Are you moving your arms down or up? Or in or out? What about sideways? Isn’t that motion really about spreading or splitting?

And the answer is, no. I’m not doing those things yet.  I tried today, to pay attention to all of this.  It was exhausting.  There’s another year’s worth of work in just these five postural stances.  And it would be enough to worry in practice about one of them: “Oh, look, my arms are rising here. I should engage the core muscles, the obliques and abdomen, as well as the biceps and shoulders and forearms!” Trying to figure out all five simultaneously is a mug’s game for a new student.  Time to work on one of them at a time.

I’m starting to see how I have always had the outer form — the actual movements. But Theo remarked on Deb’s blog that magical techniques, as in Aikido, tend to be the same dozen techniques or fifty techniques for the advanced students as for the beginners; they’re just differently applied.  So it is here…  There’s a new set of principles involved: Up, Down, Out, In, Split.  There’s a new practice: where these show up in your form, engage with them.  There’s a new discovery: it’s not possible to engage in all five at once.  There’s a recognition of limitation, and a modification of the practice: work on them one at a time, then put them together.  The beginner can do none of these, because he doesn’t see the subtlety of the movement.  The advanced student can maybe do three or four at a time, for short periods of time, because she’s practiced more and sees the subtlety. The master, though, does all five as easily as breathing.

Tai Chi Y3D341: A Mix of Messages

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Today was a half-hour series.  I did tai chi, some qi gong, some yoga, and some meditation in that half-hour. Sort of a mix of messages, really.  Would it be better to do all of one, and none of the others? Or half tai chi, and half qi gong, and save the rest for other occasions? Doctor Yang reported that he does about two hours of qi gong every day; but then, he’s got a busy teaching schedule in New York.  Me, I have a busy teaching schedule — but not teaching tai chi.

No matter.  I’m moving, and that’s what counts. Despite the 12° weather last night, I bundled up in hat and coat, gloves and scarf, and went for a twelve-block walk around the neighborhood. The sidewalks are ice — our mini thaw of Sunday has resulted in ice floes over all the sidewalks, far thicker than I could chop through without a pickaxe or something similar. Tai chi balance skills saved me a couple of times, really.  I could have been on my butt, and instead I just found myself one-legged for a brief moment or two.

I’m around four weeks of work out from the end of my Bardic-grade curriculum in DOGD.  I was planning on making it three weeks last night, but the walk took longer than I expected.

Tai Chi Y3D340: Qi and Yoga


One of the things that Doctor Yang affirmed was that it’s about getting to the posture rather than being in the posture that matters. I think that’s hugely important.  He described the action of his qi gong form as being like moving through water; you need to be steady and determined in movement, or the water will push you over.

I didn’t get there today.  I wish. Footwork was bad; I didn’t bother to correct every little bit of my foot-placement. The form was ok, but movements from Dr. Yang keep trying to sneak into my tai chi form.  I found myself raising my hands at odd times where they don’t belong, or moving into postures that are in his form but not mine. In all, it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great. But it didn’t matter: I was happy with my practice. I was a little sweaty, and a little out of breath.

I had a few extra minutes, so I grabbed my yoga mat and did a pair of sun salutations: one on the left side and one on the right. This was another outgrowth of the experiences of last week.  These sun salutations consisted of: mountain pose, back bend, namaste, mountain pose, swan dive, L pose (this probably has a different name), swan dive, downward dog, plank, chittaranga (?), upward dog, plank, downward dog, crescent warrior, warrior II, downward dog, plank, chittaranga, upward dog, mountain pose.

It reads more beautifully than it looked.  It wasn’t bad, and it wasn’t as hard as I was expecting it to be.  But unlike Dr. Yang, in yoga it matters what posture you’re in, rather than how you get there.

On the other hand, I feel more flexible, and stronger, as a result of that little taste of yoga in my day.  In qi gong and tai chi, I never do any weight bearing exercise except with my own legs.  In yoga, I have to bear up something like 50% of my weight on my hands during downward dog, chittaranga, upward dog, and plank.  It’s just how things are.  That physical challenge is, quite frankly, a needed part of my routine.

I got a fair bit more sweaty as a result of those two flows through the yoga postures.  More flexible? Not yet.  But it seems to be of some benefit to try this from time to time.  As I get a sense of whether it continues to be valuable or not, I’ll let you know.

Tai Chi Y3D339: Half An Hour


I did twelve minutes of tai chi, and another eighteen minutes of qi gong afterwards. I feel great. Not surprisingly, really.  Breathwork was good.  Dr. Yang, Greg, Tom, Reba, and some of the other instructors taught reverse-breathing, where the gut is gently sucked in during the in-breath, and relaxed during the out-breath.  I’m really enjoying that a great deal, and I feel like it’s doing me a world of good.  Footwork, based on the recent training in widening my stance, was poor.  I can’t do it deliberately or clearly yet, and it’s going to take a while before I make these shifts automatically.  The physical shifting from side to side was awesome; I feel like my knees are loosening up, and the advice I got about not pushing out so far on my knees was spot-on.  Excellent.  Upper body work? Mmmm… OK, I guess, but I really should be moving more as if I were standing in chest-high water and push-pulling my body and arm movements through that water — steady but as though with difficulty.

Even so, I feel stronger and more balanced this morning. It’s definitely helping.

Oh, and I’m happy.  I mean, I was happy before, but today I was happy during tai chi. It’s continuing to be a source of happiness in my life, and I’m glad about that.  Way to go.

Update: This is post #4077 on this blog.  What a MASH. :-)

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