Engineer & Entertain

Ideas I grapple with

A Class Cut Up

My goal in life, aside from being better than sliced bread, is to engineer and entertain.  I want to make things and entertain people. Roy Underhill does this effortlessly. The main instructor of the Woodwright’s School and personality of The Woodwright’s Shop also enlightens, engages, and educates like a fish swims.

The school is in downtown Pittsboro, NC. It is a quaint town that has not forgotten its 1785 establishment. While waiting for Roy to open the school, I chatted with my classmates. Most of them were from North Carolina and the rest were from the East Coast. Out of no where, Roy turns the corner carrying a 10 foot board of tulip poplar with a box of donuts balancing on it. Clad in a gray vest, a flat cap, and a smile, I was surprised when “Kildare’s Fancy” was not playing.

Our benches were decorated with models of the joints we would soon be learning and cutting. Mr. Underhill quipped we could just take those home and go to the bar now rather than learn the skill.

Guess whose bench this was?

Roy warmly greeted all of us and asked us about our experience levels in woodworking and creating dovetails and mortise & tenons by hand.  There were people with no experience all the way to more experienced than St. Roy. If you think you are not good enough to take a class taught by Roy, you are wrong.

Roy demonstrated the through dovetail and along the way shared hilarious anecdotes and delightful feghoots. He then set us to task and we created our own dovetails. At one point in time I was having difficulty paring. Rather than removing thin curls with my chisel, I was pulling off chips. I called the Master over and he performed the same task with the same results. He blamed the chisel and I was relieved that he used that excuse as well.

He set out to sharpen the chisel and this came to a tangent on sharpening tools. What is typically a 4 minute shop task became a 40 minute discourse on grinding and honing.

With no tools to blame, I finished my through dovetail. There are many dovetails, some better and some worse, but these dovetails are mine.

Shake your dovetail feathers.

After lunch at a soda shoppe next door, we made half-blind dovetails. Half-blind dovetails are like through dovetails, but the tails are shorted and sit in a socket.

Half-blind dovetail wears an eye patch

The method Roy taught us to make half-blind dovetails could easily be used to make through dovetails and vice versa. There are many ways to the tree, Grasshopper.

We then moved on to making a mortise and tenon joint. Mortise and tenons are frequently used in making tables. Roy imparted some great wisdom about making tables, “How long do you table legs need to be? They must reach the ground!”

The joint is very simple in that we are cutting a peg to put into a chiseled hole. That said, I still managed to err the layout of my mortise and tenon. Roy shrugged it off and said I am just creating a new school of art.

What you see on The Woodwright’s Shop is exactly what you get when you take a class from Roy. He is a warm and entertaining teacher. Not only does he teach you a skill, but he teaches its application to bigger projects. With practice, I will be making neater and tighter joints. And in no time, I will be applying them to making tables, drawers, keepsake boxes, blanket chests, and plenty of other items my family will hate to receive for Christmas and gift-giving occasions.

Yes, I am holding a 4 foot dovetail saw.

He signed my lab notebook. “Thank you, Benji. May the grain be with you! Roy Underhill 2013″

Cobalt F. Milanowski, M&M

He wrote hit Ke$ha songs


On 09 Dec 2013 at 1200 MST, Cobalt Foxunit Milanowski, my greyhound, died at a kennel. A staffer at the kennel passed the hound before letting some other dogs out and noticed he was laying around like greys typically do. A few minutes later he returned and noted blood was coming from Cobalt’s mouth. The kennel called several veterinarians and determined Cobalt died quickly and peacefully in a matter of minutes. The kennel called me immediately. I was mid-flight, returning home from a vacation and planning on picking up the dog that day.

The kennel offered to cover a necropsy. The logical side of me that wants to know what happened also told me to let go and let Cobalt have peace. The idea kept turning over in my head; ultimately, my clinical compulsion won and I ordered the autopsy.


Cobalt had swelling on his right rear ankle on 12 Nov 2013. He saw a veterinarian on 16 Nov. The vet’s differential diagnosis included valley fever, a tick borne disease, and osteosarcoma.

A blood panel came back negative for valley fever. Rather than run a tick panel, doxycycline was given prophylactically to treat any tick borne illnesses. A radiograph displayed cortical bone loss which is a sign of canine osteosarcoma. The vet recommended we periodically x-ray the site to insure the loss did not become greater.

The swelling reduced some, but resumed a day before the vacation. My plan was to make a vet appointment for him upon my return, but death intervened.

Cobalt’s past medical history includes a heart murmur when dehydrated, a bout of vomiting (which was never diagnosed, but resolved itself), and cryptorchid which was resolved surgically before we adopted him.


Another vet performed the necropsy. Upon gross examination the vet observed petechiae on the abdomen and free blood in the abdomen and thoracic cavity. He found a tumor on the left atrium (hemangiosarcoma). The disease typically begins around 8-10 years of age. Cobalt was 7; he was detrimentally precocious.

The vet reported Cobalt likely had an underlying malignancy which triggered an autoimmune storm.  A cascade of events occurred in a matter of hours and Cobalt’s death occurred in a matter of minutes.  His end was sudden, quick, and peaceful.


A hemangiosarcoma would not show up on radiographs and would only be visible on an ultrasound. If the disease was detected in its very early stages, then treatment might have been a possibility. Chemotherapy would be performed in addition to a very vexing and delicate surgery to remove the tumor from Cobalt’s atrium. Even with surgery and chemotherapy the hound’s life is only extended by 8-9 months. Furthermore its treatment is generally limited to the expertise of a veterinary cardiologist, something not found in Flagstaff. Cobalt’s life might have been extended, but at what cost to the dog’s quality of life?

Given there were no outward signs nothing could have been done. Even if the disease was detected, at this stage the animal’s death could occur at any time. Early detection is the key to cancerous conditions in both humans and animals.

I am grateful for Cobalt. I am also grateful he did one last thing for me and expanded my knowledge of canine health. I miss my hound. Hopefully his dog brain was able to understand that my wife and I love him dearly.

Hello Sweetie

My wife enjoys Doctor Who and easily cosplays as River Song.

She also resembles a teacher who ignores the liability that comes with field trips.

For a Halloween present I made River Song’s journal.

The result I am hoping for.

I used TravelsAtNight’s video for guidance for making craft foam resemble leather.

My supplies include

  • Navy blue craft foam
  • Journal from Barnes & Noble
  • Blue Uniball Jetstream Pen

    My embossing tool

  • Blue Sharpie
  • Iron
  • Ruler
  • Foam brush
  • Dura Clear Gloss Varnish
  • TARDIS Journal Template

The cotton setting was too hot and the silk setting was too cold. Either setting would work if the iron was moved fast or slow enough. Rayon was the Goldilocks setting.

In my first attempt I used spray adhesive to adhere the template to the foam. I then ran the back of the pen over the template to emboss the foam. This did not work. The paper tore and the lines were very faint.

Instead I used the template as a scale drawing and laid out the lines with a blue ink ball point pen and ruler.

The back of my pen traced over the ink lines to emboss the foam.

The back of the pen repeatedly traced over the lines until the foam was embossed.

A blue sharpie went over the embossing. This covers any stray pen ink lines and adds contrast.

Crayola Markers do not work as the ink rubs right off.

A foam brush applied Dura Clear Gloss Varnish to seal the foam. After the pieces dried, spray adhesive was applied on the back of the foam and pressed onto the book. Weights were used to press the foam onto the book until the glue dried.

I also attempted to create the detailing on the spine with the foam. I was not satisfied with my results and ultimately ran out of time to fiddle with it more.

I am pleased with the final results, but I failed to take pictures of the journal. My wife did take a picture though and it is viewable here. I considered putting spoilers inside, but looking inside is against the rules. I would not want to ruin the Crash of the Byzantium.

On behalf of a grateful spouse

I have always and will always be grateful for those who sacrifice their liberties and lives so that I may have mine. I am especially grateful this Veterans Day because my place of federal employment gives me the day off. With the holiday, I will be able to travel to see my spouse – something many deployed men and women have not been able to do. So, thank you today and every day for making my life comfortable.

Ricin to the finish

One of the greatest series in the history of television ended a few weeks ago. Before you continue reading this post, please note there will be Breaking Bad spoilers in this post.
While I am not surprised by debates of its meaning and other post game analysis, I was surprised to see people question the logistics of Walt poisoning a nervous, stevia addicted, tea fancying, methylamine supplier. This is the guy who built a meth empire, destroyed several ring leaders, had ten people killed in prison in two minutes, and jump started a RV with science.
Ricin is a poisonous protein from castor beans. It kills by shutting down the protein factories in your cells called ribosomes. The signs and symptoms a person experiences depends on how the poison is introduced to the body. If it is inhaled then the person will die of respiratory failure, while ingestion will terrorize the GI tract. Eating 5-20 castor beans can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, tachycardia, and seizures for 4 days until your inevitable the death. There is no antidote and treatment typically focuses on treating symptoms and organ failure.
A stevia packet contains 1 gram of stevia. If you wanted to poison a 120 pound executive of a German conglomerate which owns a fast food chicken company, then you would need roughly 109 mg of ricin. With a LD50 of 20 mg/kg, if Lydia weighed 180 lbs you would only need 1.6 grams.
180 lbs * 1 kg/2.2 lbs * 20 mg/kg = 1636 mg
There is clearly enough space to accommodate the poison and sugar substitute. So how do you get the poison in the packet and reseal it?
I am not a sucrologist so I could not tell what the packet was made from. If it is plastic then you could cut it open, add the poison, and reseal it using an iron or other heating element. Not all that different than how it was made.

If it is a paper sachet then the glue keeping it closed could be dissolved with acetone or goo gone, the poison added, and then resealed.
So what would hinder this plan (aside from having the ethics to not kill people)? Not a whole lot. Ricin is very stable over a wide pH range and does not break down when exposed to UV light. If it is exposed to 80*C temperature for over one hour though it will denature and become nontoxic. Depending on the tea, it should be prepared 76*C to 100*C. The temperature is hot enough to render the ricin useless, but the tea is not likely to be at the temperature for a long enough time.
The biggest issue with the plan is making sure Lydia received a packet with ricin. There might be one stevia packet at the table or a waiter could be bribed to bring her a specific packet.

In conclusion, poisoning Lydia was a minor task for Walt. Let us go back to discussing color and its meaning in Breaking Bad.

Spear Me The Details

Last weekend I had an atlatl demonstrated before me at Wupatki National Park. If you own an dog you may have used this ancient device. After chucking a spear with the paleolithic device I came to the conclusion I should make one this weekend.

The plans come from Make Volume 12. There are many plans available on Instructables as well. It is simple to make and really only requires a handsaw, sandpaper, and layout tools. The build would go much faster with a jigsaw and sander though. If you want to channel your ancestors, then simply find a branch with a fork in it and you are done.

The lines are laid out

A relief cut made

The shape cut with a handsaw

1/4 inch hole drilled at roughly 45 degrees

1/4 inch diameter dowel that is about 1.25 inches long is glued in the hole. It could also be secured with sinew.

The spears were sharpened with a pencil sharpener

A small dimple was drilled in the back of the spear.

The spear is held between the index finger and thumb. The rest of the fingers hold the handle A hole is drilled in the handle for the index finger to go through per the design from Make. This seems unnecessary as it is not difficult to grip the spear without the hole.

Bohemian Gravity

Had I the ability to the sing I would have made this years ago. All I would have needed was the ability to sing. And know physics. And the ability to make sock puppets. But I could have totally made this years ago.

Awesome cover and physics lesson.

Chinle Pow Wow

A few weekends ago I went to a pow wow at the Chinle Fair.  Various tribes from as far as Oklahoma came to sing and dance and share their traditions. As I hate memories I did not take any photos or videos, but another nurse I was with did.

Crate to meet you

Over the weekend I built a Japanese tool box for no other reason than I thought it looked neat. I really enjoy the aesthetic of Japanese woodworking and their tools and tool chests do not escape that enjoyment.

I especially like the way the lid works. It slides in place to close securely rather than rely on a lock or latch. Further more the lid can be flipped over and used as a work surface.

If I make another I am going to make four changes.

  1. Add feet on the bottom that will fit between the lid supports. Hypothetically this will allow the boxes to stack securely.
  2. Add a till that will slide along the length of the box.
  3. Add a piece on the bottom of the lid to work as a plane stop
  4. Cut a rabbet on the bottom of the lid to work as a shooting board

I really like this project because of its flexibility. It can be built with the same amount of effort with hand tools, powered hand tools, or stationary tools. It can be secured with glue, nails, screws, or traditional joinery. The list goes on.

The plans are from Make 34, but there are many plans and design variations available from Giant Cypress, Lost Art Press, or on Lumberjocks by member, MaFe.

Find Your Why

I keep having this conversation.

Colleague: “Do you live in Winslow?”

Benji: “Yes, I just moved here from Indiana.”

Colleague: “Why?”

Benji: “To work for the IHS?”

Colleague: “Why?”

Post Navigation


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.