Turning on the lathe: Another woodworking dream becomes reality

Two weeks ago a chair came in that needed three new spindles for its stretcher assembly. I saw my opportunity. These spindles would be about as simple as wood turning gets (except that they were rather long) so I wanted the opportunity.

chair spindle

Here’s my first turned piece on the lathe — one of three spindles for the stretcher of a chair. The spindle is the center part, the ends are waste material and will be cut off.

I had to make four to get three usable ones — I took too much material off the second one so it was too skinny. Thanks to my boss, Dayan Mossberg, who values learning and didn’t have a problem with me needing to use another 2″ x 18″ piece of oak.

Turning was fun and scary and I was hooked. There were no other turning jobs in the shop so I took advantage of a close resource. A tree right behind us was cut down and I decided to use one of the logs to turn a bowl.


It’s not as finished as I’d like because I got a bit scared working with the lathe and sharp tools, but what I made is kind of cute. The bowl is the top part. The middle is a possible pedestal for it and the bottom is the unturned part of the log I used. The background is the stump of the tree this log came from. The detail shot is the inside of the bowl and its very cool grain. It’s 3 3/4″ in diameter.

I have to get back on the horse and not let my fears prevent me from doing more of this work. Next week I’ll try a bowl from the side of the log, not the end grain. At some point I’ll turn something on dry wood again, not green, wet wood like this.


Is every chair in Des Moines in need of repair?

This really is the apprenticeship of 1,000 chairs

20 chairs
Every week our shop is filled with chairs. Dining room chairs, office chairs, recliners, rockers, and even a couple of “thrones.” As soon as we clear out this space, it fills up again with more finished chairs. How many chairs can there be in Des Moines??

When I interviewed for the job the owner casually called the job the apprenticeship of a thousand chairs. Of course, I thought he was being facetious.

I should have kept count. I’m sure I’m approaching 100. Ok, maybe just 40.

In my first week I worked on my first six chairs. Two weeks ago I did the same Continue reading

Replacing brittle, damaged cane chair seats

Caned chair seat

This is part of a caned seat, showing a typical kind of damage. On the left you can also see how the cane is secured to the chair. Notice how nice and uniform the weaving is.

Way back when, chairs were caned in order to save wood. Cane is thinly sliced pieces of rattan and comes in different widths. With industrialization came sheet cane, which was easier to work than strips of rattan.

Cane gets old, dry and brittle and breaks down and needs to be repaired. But hand caning is a dying art. In Des Moines there are only a few people who are doing it. It’s time consuming and expensive to recane chairs.

A customer brought in six dining room chairs to us, with not only caned seats

but caned backs. The woman we use is trying to retire from the business so she’s asking about $3 per hole, about $1 more than the national average. Each one of these chairs has nearly 200 holes — that’s about $600 per seat. Times six seats. Continue reading

Shifting gears again: putting my woodworking skills to use

At long last, I found a job I think I can stay with

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I’ve been messing around with wood for a long time. I got my first taste of woodworking in fifth grade art class, carving a wooden spoon, and something about it clicked. Though I pursued a career in journalism I kept woodworking as my most significant hobby. For me there’s something spiritual about wood — it just makes me happy to build functional things from it, to see the grain, to feel the smooth surface of a freshly sanded piece.

Functional has always been the key word for me, but other than that, there’s little rhyme or reason to what I make. I’ve made a variety of things from wood including a walnut Continue reading

Her things are not her


Shirley E. Mitchell

Shirley E. Mitchell

Living in mom’s house hasn’t always been easy. We are going to sell it so I’m slowly cleaning it out. Maybe I need to go fast instead because this feels like I’m slowly making mom disappear, which is hard and sad.

I’m not ready to clean out mom’s really personal stuff so I’m cleaning out her bathroom. Slowly making my mom disappear. Hurts a lot.

083016 curlers

Mom has used these curlers for as long as I can remember, from back before the days of electric curling irons. Look at the stains from her hair dye. The things are literally more than 40 years old, how is it that she still has them? Yet, how is it that I can throw them away?

Today I’m tackling her bathroom. Everything I touch to try to throw Continue reading

Does everything in life have a deeper meaning?

mom sudoku

Mom was able to fill in 10 of the squares in the Sudoku puzzle. At that rate, we’ll finish it in about four more sessions. Guideposts in a journey such as this are good.

Does everything in life have — or have to have — a deeper meaning?

This year I was hit with a series of events that I do believe have a deeper meaning: My job was eliminated, I moved back to Des Moines then my mother became very ill and I have been able to be in Phoenix to help her out.

Mom’s illness is now three months old and we are still learning just Continue reading

Learning to live in the desert in the summer

Ninety-nine degrees at 9pm just isn’t fun.

I’m spending the summer living in Sun City, Arizona to help out my mother as she recovers from valley fever. (You can read more about her on CaringBridge.)

My older brother and his wife moved to Phoenix about 30 years ago and the rest of the family has lived in the Phoenix area since 2000.

It took me about 10 minutes in my first visit to dislike Phoenix, vowing to never live here. I have not changed my mind. But visiting for a week in December and living here for a summer are very different birds.

Continue reading

My short-lived trip back to the newsroom

Betting on Gannett didn’t pay off this time

About a month into the job at The Tennessean, working on two laptops and a desktop computer.

Getting oriented back into a newsroom included working with two laptops and a desktop computer, relying on my old systems while I learned the new ones.

Well I gave it a shot. I placed the bet, rolled the dice and crapped out. I know “crapped out” isn’t the correct term (I’m looking at you, Mary Lawrence) but I spent an inordinate amount of time looking for the right gambling analogy and, well, crapped out.

Just a few days past my one-year anniversary at The Tennessean in Nashville, I joined the ranks of the unemployed. (It also happened just four days after my Continue reading

When anosmia becomes more than just a nuisance

My effort to cook dinner this week became a scary, potentially hazardous event, reminding me that something that has been a big bother could also be deadly. I’ve been dealing with the lack of a sense of smell — anosmia — for about six years now. Because the two are so interconnected, typically with the loss of smell comes a loss of taste.

What's left of the oven mitt.

What’s left of the oven mitt.

Yes, not being able to taste makes for a lot of dissatisfaction in life, especially living in Nashville, with all of its Southern food and home to many premiere chefs. It’s sad when a burger from Top Chef Winner Richard Blais’ Flip Burger is no more satisfying than a thickburger from Hardee’s. Textures become really important — mushy meals don’t cut it for me, I need crunch.

Since I can’t taste most things, I’m using my recent move to Nashville as an opportunity to break some bad habits, to save money and eat more healthfully by cooking more meals. The house I’m renting has little kitchen counter space so the flat surface stove (my first) often doubles as a counter.

On Tuesday I was cooking chicken with rice and beans. With the chicken cooking I threw on some water to boil then turned around to the sink to wash some dishes. A few minutes later I turned to check to see if the water was boiling. I have no idea if it was because all I could see was a huge cloud of smoke — I had turned on the wrong burner and an oven mitt was about to burst into flames.

Fortunately one side of the mitt was made of some sort of fire retardant or heat resistant material. Any other type of material would have caught fire much sooner. Instead this one smoldered longer.

Well, those are the facts, here’s the emotion — I was scared to death. I hadn’t smelled any of the smoke that was billowing from the mitt, and that’s pretty scary. The smoke detector didn’t go off. That’s really scary. What if I hadn’t turned around when I did? What if there’s ever a fire somewhere else in the house and I can’t smell or see it? That’s the scariest. So this weekend I’ll be buying a few more detectors and placing them within a couple of feet of the stove. That’s a $20 investment in the lives of me, Frankie, Alvie.

So this is why they build museums

I’m not one for museums. That’s odd for an artist, don’t you think? I don’t know what it is but I just don’t gravitate toward them. You have to drag me almost kicking and screaming to go to one.

This week a new friend I met at a training session wanted to go to the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, and she asked me to join her. I didn’t have an excuse not to go other than just not wanting to. And when I thought to myself, “I don’t want to” it sounded pretty lame. So I went.

This post is about a painting and an experience that should forever remind me Continue reading