Sunday, April 15, 2018

Review: How To Whittle, By Josh Nava

How To Whittle, The Taunton Press, $19.95, 144pp, March, 2018

Full disclosure: I was given a copy of this book by the publisher for review.

This is a gorgeous book. It features 25 projects that are a mix of functional and decorative items, carrying on a centuries-old tradition.

Josh Nava is a hand carver in Nashville, TN, and is the co-founder of Suburban Pallet, which specializes in hand-crafted goods made from repurposed timber.

Whittling may bring to mind sitting around the campfire or on the porch, carving on some fallen twigs with a pocketknife to pass the time. The end result may be a memento to keep or just go into the fire.

The items in this book are of a more permanent nature. This is what I know as treen or treenware, treen meaning "of the tree". Treen was common when everyday household items were carved from wood.

The book starts with a 20-page chapter on techniques, covering choosing wood, tools, sharpening, safety, knifework, preparing blanks, and finishing.

The projects are covered in 112 pages, 3-5 pages each. It ends with a page on resources, and an index.

One of the points Nava makes is that whittling is a very accessible craft. It requires few tools, and the work is done in green wood, using mostly found material.

The results are beautiful and practical, useful for decades. Whittled items show a distinctive faceting that lends a rustic elegance and reveals their handmade provenance. These are personal. Meanwhile, making them teaches you properties of wood, elements of design, and hand skills.

"Green woodworking" means using freshly cut or fallen wood that hasn't yet been processed or dried. I'm familiar with it from the books of Drew Langsner, as well as demonstrations by his protege, Peter Follansbee, and the work of Robin Wood.

Nava does a wonderful job of distilling this into a concise, easy to follow book. The projects provide enough coverage to give you a wide range of capabilities.

This book will have you scouring the neighborhood and countryside for fallen trees and branches. Wind storms will mean good harvest days. Here in New England, there's ALWAYS someone who has something down.

It's a good way to use urban timber, so you might want to check with tree services and municipal maintenance departments for material.


The tool list is short:
  • Knives: used for medium and fine shaping. These are somewhat specialized, particularly the hook knife. They're not common pocketknives.
  • Small hatchets and hand axes: used to prepare blanks (that is, preparing tree trunk sections or branches to the rough blanks that will be shaped into objects) and for rough shaping.
  • Folding saw: sufficient for most harvesting.
You can find the kniveshatchets (including some very fine ones) and saws online, with a variety of commercial and custom products available.

Remember that this is for green wood, possibly some fairly large branches, so a longer saw with coarse teeth is best; he recommends 10-14".

Robin Wood covers some information on where to obtain knives and axes. While it is somewhat dated, you have the benefit of experienced opinion.

As with any tools, investing in quality items will avoid heartache later, so beware of buying the cheapest based on price alone.


The skill list is similarly short. For knifework, Nava goes through five cuts that he uses throughout the projects. To prepare blanks, he outlines five general steps.


Nava opens each project with a page showing a photo of the finished item and a list of materials and tools.

This was my favorite item. Look at the gorgeous faceting of that fork.

He covers each project in a series of steps over the next several pages, using clear captioned photos. The writing is very easy to follow. The whole process has a wonderfully relaxed, organic feel to it.

The layout is easy to read and follow.

Whether you use the item yourself, give it as a gift, or sell it, the user will always be reminded of the person who made it. That's the personal connection in such handcrafts.

One thing I like about this is that you can use almost any wood. That means if there's a cherished old tree at a family house that you remember growing up, if some of it comes down, you can turn it into something that the family can continue to use for decades.

It's also a completely portable style of woodworking that offers great satisfaction. A small canvas bag of tools can go with you anywhere, and you can leave behind works of art and function.

If you sell your work, this is something you can do at fairs and craft shows. With your wares displayed for sale in front of you, you can be working on more the whole time. Then it's production and demonstration as well as commerce.

This also offers an opportunity to engage an audience and pass on the craft. You can let people try the tools after a quick lesson on safety and technique if you're comfortable doing that.

This is a wonderful book that will give you hours of enjoyment.

Psst: Don't tell my wife, but I ordered the set of Mora knives, the Marbles camp axe, and the 14" Silky Bigboy 2000 with extra large teeth that I linked above. This looks like fun!

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Limor Fried Is My New Hero

Meet Limor Fried, founder of Adafruit.

I'm cross-posting this to both my woodworking blog and my software engineering blog (under the LearnToCode label), because even though there's no woodworking in it, this is all about building stuff, so it bridges the worlds. It's the maker ethos.

If you're interested in learning to code, and building the stuff that you're coding on, this is for you. This is all about working on embedded systems, from the hobby level to the professional.

I admit to instant and total nerd-crush. Limor Fried, who goes by the name Ladyada online (for Lady Ada Lovelace, The First Programmer) is the founder of Adafruit.

Adafruit is a small electronics manufacturing company in Manhattan, NY, that focuses on teaching electronics to makers of all ages. You can read about them here.

Electronics is another of those hobbies that I wanted to pursue as a teenager, but never could due to lack of funds. Fortunately I've advanced beyond that impecunious stage of life, and seeing this has fired instant obsession (hence the shopping list below!).

I'm familiar with that feeling of obsession settling on my shoulders. It propelled me into hand tool woodworking, turning into a book. It propelled me into violinmaking. It propelled me into boatbuilding.

Each time, the pattern is the same. I buy a bunch of books, watch a bunch of videos, dig through a bunch of blogs and forums, then buy a bunch of tools and start playing. Last year it propelled me into small engine repair and oxy-acetylene welding after I found Taryl Dactyl (yes, blog posts will be forthcoming).

Now, in my copious free time (that's a joke, son), I'll finally be realizing that dream to get my hands dirty with electronics.

I owe this to Matt Pandina, whom we recently hired at work. It quickly turned out that Matt is a maker and likes sharing information. He has some nice stuff on Google Groups under the moniker artcfox (in fact, one of his articles was coincidentally the answer to the embedded systems programming problem I use when interviewing candidates!).

He made a comment about how Adafruit is doing manufacturing in Manhattan, and I asked, "Who's Adafruit?". That was all it took. Thanks, Matt!

I was tickled to read Fried's favorite quote in the Entrepreneur Magazine article about her:
“We are what we celebrate.” —entrepreneur and inventor Dean Kamen.
Kamen is one of my other heroes. She whose hero is my hero is my hero!

I managed to score his autograph at the 2015 MassMEDIC conference. I was at the 2015 Embedded Systems Conference (ESC Boston), which was being held concurrently at the Boston Convention Center.

When I saw Kamen listed as keynote speaker, I scooted down early and got a chance to talk to him and tell him I wanted to work for him (he probably gets a lot of stalker geeks like that!). Came close the following year, but logistics didn't work out.

Electronics Learning Resources

On the business side, Adafruit sells kits, parts, tools, and books. That's pretty cool (along with being able to pull off a manufacturing operation in Manhattan). But what's truly spectacular about them is their online learning resources.

Fried is a big proponent of open source, sharing the knowledge. So the Adafruit website is chock full of information. There's also an extensive YouTube channel.

You'll also finds lots of cross-pollination with others in the maker community. There are magazines, blogs, and videos by the score, by independent makers like Matt, and by larger organizations.

I've just barely begun to scratch the surface. This is great, because I know how to program embedded systems, but I don't know much about the components that go into them and connect to them. It's the combination of hardware and software that really makes something work.

Pretty much everything I know about digital electronics I owe to Forrest P. Mims 35 years ago. Now, after that brief hiatus, I can take the next step.

Basic Electronics Lab Skills

Step into Collin's lab!

Among the resources is a series of very accessible quick guides and videos by Collin Cunningham. Of particular interest to the electronics beginner such as myself is this set of basic electronics lab skills (you can scan through all these for quick grok of the big picture by setting the speed in the YouTube window settings (the gear icon) to 2x, then come back and watch at normal speed for a second pass):
  • Soldering and Desoldering: how to solder components together properly, and how to pull them apart for salvage and rework.
  • Surface Mount Soldering: how to solder surface-mount components.
  • Multimeters: how to use a meter for basic measurements.
  • Oscilloscopes: how to use an oscilloscope for advanced measurements and waveforms.
  • Hand Tools: the basic hand tools used for assembling and disassembling electronics.
  • Schematics: how to read schematics (no, they're not Greek!).
  • Breadboards and Perfboards: how to combine the parts on a schematic into a functioning circuit.
  • Ohm's Law: understanding the relationship between voltage, current, and resistance.
Once you have these skills, you are unleashed. Just like hand tool woodworking, it takes a little investment in tools and equipment, and a little time practicing with them.

These form the basis of the shopping list below. And of course they lead to lots of other interesting videos, like Collin's videos on the basics of various components:
There are also a number of other introductory Adafruit written guides by various contributors (as well as oceans of more specialized and advanced guides, check them out!):
Shopping List

These are the tools, equipment, supplies, and books to do the work. With the exception of the oscilloscope, these are all links to the Adafruit shopping pages. Prices as of April 8, 2018.

Tools and equipment:
Consumable supplies:
Finally, here are some additional random useful items that they don't carry, all via Amazon:
Total cost: $1269 for everything (I ordered 2 spools leaded solder and 1 leaded Chip Quik, no lead-free items, 10 DC barrel jacks, and all the screwdriver/tool sets, since you never know which tips and shanks will fit, and some cases need special access tools to open), with free shipping from both Adafruit and Amazon. Plus they threw in a free half-size breadboard and a Circuit Playground Express.

Back in my teenage days, $10 was a major expenditure, and $100 was simply inconcievable. This is starting to add up to some real money, but it will leave you armed with the tools, knowledge, and skills sufficient to launch a career.

The really nice thing is that Adafruit provides a curated list of things to choose from, so you're getting the benefit of their experience and recommendations, all guided by that maker ethos. That was a big plus for me.

Bridging three centuries of maker technology.

Once I've gone through some of the books, I'll pick out a selection of microcontrollers to play with.

You can read about my first use of these tools, since I needed them almost immediately.