The Blognosticator will reach 450,000 all-time readers tonight. That’s pretty cool.
I started writing this blog on July 26, 2011, after writing for a while on WhatTheyThink.com and for several years in Graphic Arts Monthly before that. Since “going private” I have had these 450,000, about 85 percent of whom are unique readers, which isn’t so great. But having 15 percent of my readers as repeat visitors makes me proud.
I have written 321 posts, and have received 624 comments. My greatest number of readers in one day was 856, my smallest was 12. My primary audience is in the USA, followed by England, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, Brazil, India and the Netherlands.
I have had one reader from Palau.
On the dark side, I have had 786,805 attempts to post spam in my comments. Spammers try to use blogs to advertise products and other things spammy. To prevent these from getting into my blog posts, I pay Akismet to monitor my site and filter out the spam, which they do exceptionally well.
Akismet has also blocked 155,415 malicious attacks on the site. These are attempts to post malware on the site, and in comments. I am especially grateful for the filtering done there.
So to my reader in Palau, and my 65,000 repeat readers, and to those who only drop in once and don’t return: Thank you! It’s a pleasure to know that you appreciate the effort I make to keep the Blognosticator relevant and to provide information that is valuable to you.
Please keep returning! I have some new stories in the works. Next week I’m traveling to Texas to visit two more Landa press installations. I look forward to seeing those machines in operation, and to writing about it here. And, next month I am attending PRINT United in Atlanta, where I will see the latest printing technologies, and bring back morsels for the Blognosticator.
If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that last week I returned from the 2023 Burning Man festival in northern Nevada. It was a terrific event, full of excitement and artistic energy – until it rained. Then it became a less than wonderful mud bog. We managed; we survived; we will return next year and try again.
My camp is called the Pinhole Project. Our artistic endeavor is to document the art installations at Burning Man using large pinhole cameras on photographic paper. For this we have 10 55-gallon Kraft paper barrels, each with metal plates glued inside, and each with a precision-cut pinhole aperture in a sheet of aluminum that is cemented into the side of the barrel. On top of each pinhole is a “shutter” made out of gaffer’s tape.
We insert a large sheet of photo paper into each barrel in our darkroom – built inside a 20-foot container cargo box – and hold that paper in position with magnets. We then put a steel lid on each barrel, making the entire thing light-tight. Once loaded with photo paper, the cameras are ready for the field.
Every morning we hold a public workshop in our gallery. Interested people show up, sometimes in surprising numbers. We explain how the cameras work, how we develop the photos, and how we re-photograph each finished photo for our digital archive. At the end of the workshop, we invite those present to join us on the Playa to make new photographic images. We have a big pick-up truck for transporting the cameras.
The photographic paper we use is made by Foma in the Czech Republic. It’s designed for use under an enlarger in a darkroom, so the ISO is not published. But we have a Weston Master V light meter and we have used it to estimate the paper’s ISO at about 0.3. This requires a long exposure in the bright sunlight of the Black Rock desert. Our typical exposure time is about 45 seconds.
If people will be the subject of a pinhole photo, those people must stand still for 45 seconds –which is very difficult. We do our best, and the results are very impressive.
One day I took the group out onto the Playa to make photos. I had an idea I wanted to explore. There was a huge sign erected on the Playa saying “NO DANCING” – and I decided to take a large pinhole photo of a bunch of people dancing in front of that sign. It was a simple photo to organize, moving people into place, moving the camera to the right spot. We use wooden camera supports that look like medieval torture devices; each is a plywood piece with teeth on each side. There are two level edges for each tooth so that the large barrels can be placed in a number of positions on the support. We often add a bungee cord to stabilize the camera in wind.
The No Dancing photo turned out very nicely, and I am very proud of it.
A couple of days later I went back out on the Playa with a friend and we took three more large pinhole photos. Mine was a horizontal portrait of three inflated spheres of the Earth, the Moon and Mars that were on the edge of the Playa. These works were exceptional. They were printed on Mercator sections of fabric, then sewn into complete spheres. Illuminated at night, they were a spectacular sight.
I set up the camera and took a one-minute exposure –it was slightly overcast. Then we moved on to take a couple of other images.
Back in the darkroom, we processed all that day’s images, and mine looked very nice. But Mars had an egg shape, a significant distortion of its otherwise spherical shape. I knew this had not been caused by wind, so I assumed it was a camera distortion. Occasionally we have a sheet of photo paper fall inside the barrel when a magnet isn’t placed correctly. This usually causes blockage of part of the image, but it doesn’t cause distortion.
I needed to understand why this distortion was there.
I have drawn two pinhole cameras here: one is the camera we use at Burning Man. It’s a Kraft paper 55-gallon drum with its pinhole aperture on one wall of the camera. The other is an idealized pinhole camera that has its aperture at an optical center that is equidistant from all points of the photo material.
The current camera is far from ideal in terms of its optical path. Light coming in on the edges travels slightly less than half the distance that light travels in the center of the image. I am pretty sure this explains the distortion. The light along the outer edges of the image is traveling much less than the light in the center, and thus, it is being distorted along one axis. The other axis is affected similarly, but to a lesser degree because it’s a smaller difference between the center and the edges of the photo paper.
The idealized pinhole camera would be pretty easy to make and test. I might try it by inserting a modified film plane into a barrel to normalize the distance that the light travels after it enters the camera through the aperture. With that I am quite sure that optical distortion would be eliminated on the circumferential axis.
This is the final chapter of a five-chapter story about designing and building a trailer to carry a military surplus generator for our camp at Burning Man. To read the previous chapter, click here.
Armed with my Work Pass, a permit to enter the Burning Man Playa before the event opens, I drove 554 miles from my home to our camp – The Pinhole Project – at Burning Man. I did this over two days to make it easier on myself. I stopped for the night in Boomtown, on the western edge of Reno, and got up early the next day to complete my journey.
I had driven from home to Reno with the generator’s auxiliary tank empty. I did this to save money –diesel fuel is cheaper in Nevada than in California, and to save fuel – 50 gallons of diesel weighs about 350 lbs. and I didn’t want to pull that weight any further than necessary. So I filled all tanks in Sparks, on the eastern edge of the valley, then set off for the Black Rock desert, a hundred miles northeast of Reno.
I arrived before noon, and found my camp-mates had erected the shade structure, assembled the kitchen area, and set up the darkroom in our container cargo box. This container belongs to us, and we pay the Burning Man organization to store it out there, and to deliver it to our camp location before the event begins. This allows us to leave all the physical equipment in the desert, and not carry it back and forth to the cities where we live.
We positioned the generator in the camp according to a plan we had made weeks before, and we ran cords to it for the darkroom, the kitchen, and a couple of air conditioners. I started it up and it began to send power to all of those things. It worked perfectly.
The generator features a tongue box that I bought from Harbor Freight. That holds a number of important items: extra oil, coolant, a fuel filter, and oil filter, a new V-belt and the tools needed to change those things. I also put a set of socket wrenches in there, and an extra hub in case one of the two on the trailer failed. I tried to cover for any possible failure, and also for routine maintenance.
We ran the generator Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday morning.
Then it sputtered to a stop.
Which was entirely my fault. I had set the machine to run from the internal fuel tank. It simply ran out of fuel. And, when it did, I switched it to the auxiliary tank and tried to start it again. But it refused. I got out the manual and followed the troubleshooting recommendations there. I changed the fuel filter; I checked (but did not change) the air filter; I checked the oil level. It was low.
So I added some oil. I kept adding oil until the dipstick showed a normal oil level. When I got that reading, I stopped putting oil into the engine block.
Then I cranked it over and over and it would not start. The engine was fighting to run, making puffs of white smoke. But it would not start. I started thinking about Plan B. That plan was to hitch it back on my van and drive it to Reno to search for a diesel mechanic. I knew this would be an awful trip because I didn’t know where to take it, and I had no idea if I could get it repaired.
My camp-mates assured me the we could find someone locally to help. The Playa Provides! they told me. We sent two emissaries out to get help. One went to a nearby camp where live music is performed, one that had several diesel generators, and therefore must have a mechanic. The other went to the Info office at Center Camp. There, she was given an address for a camp that specializes in fixing things.
And… the Playa provided! Within a couple of hours we had not one, but three diesel mechanics! One approached the generator (officially known by the military as an MEP 802a Quiet Generator) and said, “I know this generator! I’ve installed three of these!” I was relieved. They prodded and tested; they opened connectors and fittings, and they determined that one cylinder was not firing. So, they disassembled that cylinder’s injector, and determined that it was OK. But there was oil in the cylinder! I had put too much into the engine, and some of it got into the cylinder somehow.
One of these clever men fashioned a Gatorade bottle with two tubes coming out the top (made from a ballpoint pen body). On one tube they put a rubber hose – borrowed from the fuel filter/water separator – and proceeded to suck the oil out of the cylinder into the bottle. It was a brilliant solution to the problem.
Once the oil was purged, the injector was reinstalled and we cranked the engine. It started. At first it was unsteady, but within a few seconds, the roughness smoothed out and it began to purr. We switched the fuel supply to the auxiliary tank, and the generator then ran for another week without trouble.
It was entirely my fault from beginning to end. I thought I was doing the right thing, but I overdid it. I put too much oil in the crankcase.
My three new best friends slapped me on the back, organized their tools, and returned to their camps to fix other people’s machines. We moved on with our purring generator for the duration of the event.
You might have seen on the news that Burning Man turned into a mess this year. On Friday afternoon it rained, and then it rained more on Saturday. The Playa, or lake bed, of the Black Rock Desert is made of a very fine silt that is the texture of talcum powder. That, mixed with about an inch of rain, turned the Playa into a lake of mud. It had the consistency of grease, and that made life there unpleasant. Contrary to some of the sensational headlines, most of us figured out how to maneuver in the mud, and we went on with our lives. We didn’t try to go anywhere, as that was impractical, but we had meals, we gathered with our friends, and we remained happy and healthy until we were finally allowed to leave the Playa on Monday. By then, the greasy mud had dried to a firm, damp surface.
I hitched the trailer to my van on Tuesday morning, and I drove – very slowly – out to the paved road and then homeward, stopping again in Boomtown for the night before driving back to San Luis Obispo on Wednesday.
The generator is here now, resting on private property until next time I need it. I took it to the car wash yesterday and cleaned it thoroughly before storing it.
This is Part 4 of a series of stories about designing and building a trailer to hold a generator for Burning Man. To read the previous story, please click here.
I had the trailer, minus its load, ready to be licensed. This meant that I had to prepare two documents I downloaded from the Department of Motor Vehicles, a bill of materials with costs, and I needed a check to cover the registration fees.
Then I had to tow the trailer to the DMV, and present myself, with the aforementioned paperwork, for inspection. It was a bit confusing. They told me to take the trailer to the back of the building and push the doorbell button on the wall. There was no button, but there was a hole where the button once was. I went back inside and asked for help. The man in the middle of the cubicles said that I should wait outside and that a representative would be with me in a minute.
On this particular morning there was one DMV employee tasked with giving driving tests, bus driver tests, vehicle inspections, and – finally –trailer inspections. He told me to take my trailer and park it in the motorcycle test drive area. I did as I was told. After a long wait, that nice fellow joined me in the motorcycle area and he filled out a form showing that he had inspected the trailer. He applied a VIN number to the tongue of the trailer. Then he sent me back inside to pay the fees.
When my number was finally called, I showed my paperwork to a DMV registration specialist. He went over every expense for every part of the trailer. I assumed he was being really diligent. Eventually he said, “I don’t want you to pay tax on tax, so I’ve subtracted out all of the tax you paid on these parts. That reduces the value of the trailer by $74.00.”
When he was finished, he asked for a check to pay the fees (8.25 percent of the cost of making the trailer). I wrote a check, and he handed me a new license plate. I walked out the door just 3.5 hours after walking in. I was issued a permanent trailer license plate. The California DMV doesn’t want to see me for five years, when they will send me a bill for $20 to cover the following five years. I like that plan.
I returned the trailer to Hank, and he bolted the generator to the trailer, he welded conduits to the bottom to carry the high voltage wires from the generator to the electric service panel. He attached the 50-gallon fuel tank to the front and he affixed the electrical boxes to a bracket in the front, finishing the trailer. Now it was my turn to fish the wires through the conduits, complete the high voltage/high current power to the breaker box, and then to attach the wires headed to the four GFCI outlets in the distribution panel. All of this took me about four hours.
When I was finished, I rolled the trailer onto the street in front of my house, started the generator, and then I plugged in a shop vacuum to test each of the circuits. Everything worked. Since I had spent the better part of two months planning, illustrating, building and wiring the high voltage components for this trailer, I was not surprised in the least. Had anything not worked, I would have been surprised.
The door to the tongue box rattled mercilessly while the generator was running, as did three of the doors on the generator housing. I rode my bike to the hardware store and bought some weatherstripping, which I added to the rattle-prone doors. Soon, I had the generator working nicely without any extra noises. It was a really good feeling.
So the trailer really was finished – not painted – but finished. I drove it around a bit with the generator on it, and it feels OK (I don’t have much experience towing). I bolted the last of the D-rings to the bed of the trailer, all stainless steel to prevent rust. Then I started worrying that the trailer, with its valuable cargo, could be stolen from its spot on the street in front of my house. I hitched it to my VW Touareg, and put a padlock on the hitch, then I put a large cable and lock on one of the wheels. I know that it wouldn’t take long for a determined thief to remove these impediments, but I tried to make it more difficult to steal so that I could sleep at night.
Tomorrow I am leaving for my two-day journey to Burning Man. I will drive the first big leg from San Luis Obispo to Reno on Thursday, then I’ll get up early and drive to Burning Man on Friday morning early.
This is Part 3 of a multi-part story about making a trailer for carrying a generator to Burning Man. To read the previous episode, please click here.
The trailer is ready for licensing, so I have gathered the necessary paperwork, and I have my checkbook ready (what’s a checkbook?) and I am going to take the trailer to the Department of Motor Vehicles in the morning.
I picked it up from the welder’s shop on Friday afternoon and drove it to my house, which was a bit chaotic with house painters working at the same time. Nonetheless, I managed to push the trailer by hand into my driveway where I applied chocks to the wheels and began the process of getting the taillights wired.
For such a small and light trailer, it does not need brakes, so there is no need for wiring the more complicated electric brake systems that are found on heavier trailers. All I have is four lights: rear left and right running and signal lights and two amber marker lights on the sides. Hank, the world’s best welder, installed electrical conduits under the trailer inside of which I ran the wires.
California (I assume that all states have the same requirements) wants all trailers to have a lighted license plate, stop and turn signals, and the two marker lights on the sides. They also want to know how much I have spent building the trailer so that they can assess the license fee. I don’t yet know if this will be a permanent license (only needs to be registered once) or an annual license. I’ll find out in the morning.
To get the trailer to the DMV, they told me to drive it – even though it is not licensed yet. This small act of illegality amuses me. I drove it from Hank’s shop to my house, then once around the block to get it into a different parking place, and then I will drive it to the DMV, with the understanding that if I were to be questioned by law enforcement en route I can say, “They told me to do it!.” (That’s not going to happen.)
Wiring the lights was relatively easy. I bought a wiring kit from etrailer.com, and that came with a complete wiring harness, plugs, wires, clips, and several plastic three-way splicers. I fished the wires from the front of the trailer to the back through the conduits, then attached the chassis ground at the hitch, and worked my way toward the back. I wish I could tell you that it worked perfectly. I had a couple of problems.
The lights use only one conductor per color – yellow for left signal, green for right signal, and brown for all the markers. The second conductor is the steel of the trailer frame which carries the electricity for the ground of all the lights.
The two marker lights along the sides have only one wire coming out of them, and that wire attaches with one of the three-way plastic splicers. These things look effective, and I did try them. They allow the brown wire to slide through without cutting it, and the marker light wire (also brown) to enter through a parallel hole. Then, using a large plier, you push a small steel pin through the insulation of the wires and it makes electrical contact. Once that pin is pushed in fully, there is a plastic lock that folds over the top, keeping the pin in place.
I finished in a couple of hours, and was ready to test the system. I backed my VW Touareg into the driveway and put the hitch on the ball. Then I went to connect the plug and it wasn’t long enough to reach the outlet under the rear bumper of the car. Since I started at the tongue and worked backward there was no wire to pull forward to make it longer, so I had to make a splice to lengthen it (embarrassing!). While I was working on that I also decided not to have four loose wires going between the trailer and the car, so I used some waxed cotton string to make a wire loom by wrapping the string around and around the cable to hold the wires together and to cover up my embarrassing error. It turned out very nicely and looks great,
Hours later I was finished, again, and I plugged the cable to the VW and turned the lights on. Left blinker worked, right blinker worked. Brakes worked. Running lights and license plate light worked. But the two amber marker lights were both inoperative.
I stopped for the day to give my mind a rest and to attend a lovely choral performance in Mission San Luis Obispo. While I was showering to get ready for that concert I realized that it had to be the little plastic three-way connectors that had failed. Since both sides of the rear worked, the marker lights were simply not getting power.
In the morning I tested this theory and determined that it was correct. I removed the splicers and cut the wires, then I put shrink-tube on each set of wires, twisted them tightly together and soldered them in place. Then I slid the shrink tube over the solder joints and heated those with a heat gun to shrink the tubing over the joints. After I cleaned up I tried the lights again and the two amber marker lights were both illuminated. This was what I expected.
With all the wiring complete I am now ready for the legal part of trailer-making. It should be no particular problem to get that done. I plan to be at the DMV when they open, trailer standing by. They will charge me money, give me a license plate, and a VIN number to apply to the trailer. I have no idea what form that VIN will take, but I’ll let you know in the next episode of this not-very-dramatic story of going from a drawing in Adobe Illustrator to a real trailer, ready to be pulled to Burning Man (just two weeks away now, and still a lot of work to do).
I will also show in the next story how I have built the electrical breaker box and power distribution box for the trailer. Those go on after it’s registered. Stay tuned!
I left my detailed plans for the generator trailer with my friend Hank Van Gaale, who is the best welder in the universe.
Then I flew to France, and went on to Switzerland and Germany for four weeks.
While I was gone, the trailer took shape. Hank welded the parts for the frame, attaching the spring brackets, the springs and axle, and then added a diamond-plate deck to the trailer. This piece was water-jet cut by my other expert friend Frank Canaan, proprietor of Central Coast Cutting. Water-jet cutting is one of the most amazing technologies I have ever seen. I wrote about it in a previous posting about the restoration of an antique typographer’s table saw.
Frank’s amazing machine cut the diamond-plate steel with incredible precision, leaving holes for D-rings and bolt holes. That was then welded to the frame of the trailer. The hitch was welded on, the fenders added, and now the trailer looks a lot like it will when finished. What remains are the side railings, the front wall, and electrical conduits for the lights.
Ultimately what we are making is a portable electrical power plant. On the front of this machine will be an electrical distribution panel and breaker box. From there, up to eight power cords can be plugged in to provide electricity to our Burning Man camp’s refrigerator and freezer, several air conditioners, and the darkroom lights. We will also be able to provide power for our photo gallery.
The generator, which is a military surplus 5 KW diesel machine, can deliver electricity in three forms: 110 volt AC, split-phase 110/240 volt AC, or 208 volt three-phase. I have chosen to run it as a split-phase device, delivering two 110 volt primary lines to the breaker box. There, I will split the power to four 15-amp breakers, then feed the output to four ground-fault interrupter receptacles for powering the appliances in camp.
Running power of this kind requires some big wire, #2 gauge, from the output of the generator to the breaker box. I’ll be running these wires through two steel conduits that run under the trailer from back to front. At the breaker box the wires arrive as if from an electric utility.
From there, the power is distributed as if in a commercial building.
The trailer is stout – adequate to hold the 800 lb. generator and a 50-gallon fuel tank which, when full, weighs another 400 lbs. Add to that the electrical equipment and the spare tire and a tool box filled with filters and supplies, and the trailer weighs-in at just under 3,000 lbs. With any trailer it’s a combination of the overall load and the weight of the tongue of the trailer. We’re trying to keep that weight down so it doesn’t overload the vehicle that pulls it. This is done by moving the center of gravity forward or backward by moving the load or moving the axle. We have reduced the tongue weight to a reasonable value now, and the trailer’s load will be secured in these positions.
In order to drive with this trailer, I first have to register it with the California Department of Motor Vehicles. The way that is done is to take the finished trailer to the local office, showing them that it’s correctly built, and that it has stop lights and turn signal lights and marker lights. They check it for safety, then they issue a VIN to the trailer and give me a license plate to affix, and I can hit the road. For that to happen I have to wire the trailer, then get it through registration, then unwire it to get it powder coated.
For the electrical connections, I bought the breaker box and the distribution box on eBay, and I bought the wiring and parts from the local big box store. Now it’s just a function of doing the wiring. This is just like commercial wiring, where all wires are contained in steel conduit (residential wiring does not require the conduit). It’s easy and reasonably fast work to get four outlets wired to the breakers in the box. I did buy exterior boxes for this project, those being able to get wet without water getting inside the boxes. I connected the two boxes with a watertight steel nipple, so the wiring goes between the boxes without risk of water incursion.
I’ll follow-up when I’m ready to get the trailer licensed and powder-coated.
I will be attending Burning Man again this year, my fifth. The event was canceled in 2020 and 2021, and I was in Germany in 2022, so I have missed three years. I will be going out onto the Black Rock City lake bed again this August to join my compatriots for a week of art, unbearably hot weather and blinding dust storms. What fun!
I have written about Burning Man before, mostly about cameras, photography and dust. You can read those articles here and here and here.
I belong to a Burning Man camp – The Pinhole Project. I joined that camp in 2018. Our purpose is to document, using huge pinhole cameras, the artworks that are installed on the Playa at Burning Man. These are the works made by people from all over the world and brought to Burning Man as expressions of ideas as diverse as the population of the event.
As you probably know, Burning Man is a gathering (not a music festival, not a happening – not a lot of things) in the desert of western Nevada. The location is a huge dry lake bed about 100 miles northeast of Reno. Annual attendance is about 80,000. That’s a lot of people – about twice the population of the city where I live. The theme of the event changes annually, but the principles remain constant: radical self-reliance. It is an opportunity for people to gather and express themselves in all ways imaginable. At Burning Man, nothing is for sale (except coffee drinks and ice) – it is a gift economy where everything is freely given. It is also an opportunity for artists to express themselves on a canvas of immeasurable size.
Called Black Rock City, Burning Man occupies a section of the dry lake bed about 10 miles square. There is nothing there before the event, and there is nothing there after the event. People come with tents or camper vans. Some take the bus, some bring cars, some come in private jets (there is an airport). Everyone camps on the Playa, which is set up in a circular pattern with concentric rings and spokes. The rings are alphabetical, the spokes are according to the hands on a clock. Camping is in a hemisphere between 2:00 and 10:00; the concentric rings begin about half-way from the center of the circle.
In the very center is the Man. This is a huge sculpture/structure made mostly of wood that is erected in the center of the site. On Saturday night it is burned, which is where the event gets its name.
The upper and center part of the lake bed, where there is no camping, is called The Playa. It is the location of over 100 works of art, each of which is built by a different group, and erected on the site in the days (sometimes weeks) before the event. Some of these works are huge – multistory buildings, huge sculptures, castles, stacks of wrecked cars – and sometimes they are small. In 2019 there was the Little Chapel of Thoughts and Prayers, a small church-like building made entirely of bullets, shells and gun parts. It was built of irony.
Our camp, as Burning Man group encampments are called, has a large space allocated to it. This year we will be at 2:30 and B (I think). In that camp we put all of our tents, yurts, RVs, cars and our cooking/pantry trailer. Each year we also have a 20-foot container delivered (this is stored in the desert year-round and is delivered by the Burning Man organization each year).
In this container is our darkroom, because the art we make is wet chemical silver nitrate photography. We use 45-gallon hardboard drums, inside of which we mount 30 x 40 inch photographic paper, held in place with magnets. On the opposite side of the paper is an aperture, a microscopically small (0.24mm) laser-cut hole in a sheet of titanium or aluminum. This aperture is the entrance point for light to expose the photo paper. The shutter is a magnetic sheet attached on the outside of the drum.
We take eight of these photographic drums – pinhole cameras – out onto the Playa each morning, and again each afternoon, to photograph the amazing artworks that have been erected there. When finished, we return to our camp and take the cameras into our container darkroom where the large sheets of photo paper are processed in large trays of photo chemicals.
The darkroom has an air conditioner inside. It often exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit at Black Rock City, so we really need it. And, we have a community cooking area with a refrigerator and a freezer, both of which are standard 110 volt appliances. In past years we have had rental generators that run on gasoline to power our electrical needs. Those generators were too small and they tended to fail often. We were looking for something more capable this year.
One of my camp partners found one on Craigslist. It was advertised as a U.S. military surplus diesel generator, designed for field deployment. It weighs 800 lbs. and generates 5000 watts of continuous power. It can run uninterrupted for days.
I live the closest to the location of the seller so I agreed to go get it. I saddled up my Volkswagen Touareg and headed east… a long way east, to buy it and bring it back. En route I rented a U-Haul trailer and attached that to my car (I didn’t need to drag the trailer both ways). After several more hours on the road, I reached the destination where my new friend Cory showed me this behemoth device, started it up to show that it runs, and helped me to get it on my trailer (that required a winch).
After four hours more driving, I pulled up in front of my house then headed off to sleep. In the morning I delivered the generator to the shop of my friend Hank, who is the finest welder I have ever known. My plan is to have Hank build a trailer to carry this new generator so that we can get it to Burning Man, and then use it for the week to make the electricity we need for our camp.
I have never designed a trailer before. I did my research and determined how long and how wide and how strong it needed to be. Then I found several online trailer parts suppliers (eTrailer is one). Over the following weeks I drew variations of the generator trailer, then perfected my drawings to give to Hank so that he can fabricate this work of vehicular art. All of the parts have now arrived and he will begin welding on Monday.
I started my work in Adobe Illustrator, drawing at a reduced scale. I added the generator, a large fuel tank, and a tongue box for tools and extras that we might need – filters, oil, coolant, a spare V-belt. I decided to add a spare tire and wheel, a spare hub and bearing set (can’t afford a break-down in the Nevada desert), and some tie-downs for things I might add to the trailer on its way to Burning Man.
I’ll write a few episodes in this adventure to show the process.
My wife and I recently returned from a three-week adventure to Arizona and New Mexico. We stopped at a number of places en route, including Tucson, where I attended the annual summit of the North American Nature Photographers Association. It was a half-week event of photography and presentations at a fancy golf resort on the outskirts of the city. The hotel had a resident Great Horned Owl (and family), who would pose for photographers every day in his tall Pine tree next to the main building.
The next stop was White Sands National Park in southern New Mexico, where we arrived midday and spent time in the gift shop before driving out onto the hard sand road that winds through the dunes. This is a remarkable place, as the sand is composed of gypsum, which is pure white, and very consistent in texture. The dunes range in size from little hillocks to moderate hills (the largest of them is about 60 feet tall, according to the brochure).
Midday in White Sands isn’t inspiring. The light is flat and uninteresting. We decided to go into town (Alamogordo, about 12 miles northeast) and find our campsite at Lee Oliver State Park, ten miles further to the east. We planned to return to the dunes at the end of the day when shadows are long and the light on the sand would be very dramatic.
White Sands closes its gates at night, and they warn you that you should plan to leave the park before dark. They are serious, as numerour visitors get lost each year, requiring search and rescue. It’s easy to see how easily people get lost in those sand dunes, because (to paraphrase Ronald Reagan) if you’ve seen one sand dune, you’ve seen them all.
This is, of course, not true. The dunes are incredibly beautiful and varied. Hiking on them exposes that variety.
But it is important when you go out onto the dunes that you know how to get back. Getting disoriented while hiking on these dunes would be very easy.
To plot our return, I called on my Boy Scout training. I found a unique mountain in the distance (I dubbed it Backward Half Dome), one that could be seen from anywhere on the dunes, and took a photo of it with my iPhone. Then, using the compass app, I pointed my iPhone at that mountain and took a screen shot recording its compass heading from our starting location. When we set-off on foot to explore the dunes and to take photos, I was confident that I could easily find my way back.
The process is simple: find the mountain, point the compass at the mountain and move left or right until it’s at roughly the same reading as the original, then walk in the opposite direction. You can do this casually by just walking away from that mountain, or you can add or subtract 180 degrees to/from the original heading, then follow your compass at that new heading. This would use battery power on the phone, but checking it occasionally is effective.
In our case, the return was made much easier by a group of people who parked in the same lot we used, then climbed up to the top of the dune adjacent to that parking area to watch the sunset. We just walked toward those people (one of them was wearing a bright yellow dress, making it much easier to see her). We found our way back easily.
The shadows were as long as I had hoped, giving breathtaking dimension to the dunes, and providing me with a host of amazing scenes. I took a number of panoramic photos, most of which have Backward Half Dome in them. Sunset at White Sands is an extraordinary event, filled with visual surprises. It was a joy to be out there as the day ended.
While I was taking the photo of Backward Half Dome, I also captured a screen shot of an app I have called My Altitude. That is a slightly more accurate GPS-based application for hikers and bikers and kayakers. It makes reasonably accurate measurements of longitude and latitude (and altitude, though not as accurately). With a precise Longitude/latitude capture, one could enter those coordinates into Google Maps or Apple Maps and place a pin. Then use the mapping app to follow a route to the pin.
There was scant cellular coverage at White Sands. Without cellular, the mapping approach wouldn’t be possible, but with the My Altitude, I can capture longitude and latitude positions without cellular, so I could use that app to navigate back to a location, though it would be more difficult.
I am also a fan of the Strava application. I often use this while kayaking. It plots the course you have taken, and makes an overlay of your path on a map. With Strava, one could track outbound and follow that track on the return. The only hitch with Strava is that it processes the route offline (requires cellular or WiFi) and presents it to you later – sometimes much later. Like My Altitude, Strava does not require cellular coverage while you are moving. It gathers GPS data that is later collated with map data to create its nice experience maps.
(My only gripe with Strava is their relentless effort to sell you stuff. They want an annual fee for the full-featured app, and they pepper almost every page with advertisements.)
The advantage of using the compass method is that one can just as easily use a mechanical compass (I have one!) and remove the iPhone from the equation. Then the only challenge is to remember the mountain you chose as your distant benchmark point. Using this more primitive technique requires no batteries. That could save your life.
Late last year I decided to make a couple of Adirondack chairs for our upstairs balcony. These were designed to replace two chairs that we bought at a garden store. Those chairs, while quite nice, succumbed to the elements and finally fell apart.
I was determined to replace them with similar chairs made of a beautiful natural wood. After some deliberation, I chose Monterey Cypress custom milled at Pacific Coast Lumber in Paso Robles. The wood was cut for me, then kiln-dried for a month, and I took delivery in April.
I took the lumber to my shop where I let it acclimatize for a couple of weeks before planing it and finish-sanding it to two thicknesses for the chairs: 3/4 inch and 5/8 inch. The thicker boards are for the load-bearing parts while the thinner boards are for the seat boards and staves.
This wood came from a tree that fell in Morro Bay State Park during a storm. I like that provenance, as I have obtained other locally-milled lumber from nearby Cambria and from a tree that fell on a highway east my city. There would be a story here: storm-damaged tree converted to elegant outdoor furniture.
Working with this lumber was more difficult than the romantic picture that I had painted. From the moment I began planing, the lumber’s internal demons began to escape, causing long (and sometimes loud) cracks to appear. While resting one day during the sanding operation I heard a loud crack come from my stack of 5/8 inch lumber. This would not be the last such crack.
I cut all the pieces (covered in previous episodes of this story), and then reduced them to final size both on my table saw and on the CNC machine where necessary. I did some manual cutting on my band saw (where a curve also had a sharp internal angle). Then I followed that with a lot of hand sanding and preparation for assembly.
Almost every day when I was working on this project I was faced with another debilitating crack. These would open up in boards as I screwed them to the frame, or they would open up overnight while glue was drying. This week I had a problem with the final board not fitting the vertical staves correctly. I changed my design, then made a new piece on the CNC machine, and while sanding it, I dropped it to the floor. It shattered.
So I made another one and tried again. That one cracked and broke in half while being clamped in place. So I made yet another one that I was successful in mounting to the back of the chair.
While doing my final sanding, I noticed that a crack had opened up on one of the vertical legs of one chair. Since this is structurally critical, I disassembled the arm and brace, and glued-up the crack with Gorilla Glue (waterproof). I let it dry overnight, then sanded it and reassembled the arm to continue my work.
When I finally finished sanding the chairs, making them ready for a spray coating of clear acrylic, I stood back to admire my work. CRACK! I heard it, but I can’t find it, so I decided to move ahead and get the first coat of acrylic on the chairs. Perhaps the acrylic coating will hold the wood together!
The chairs have a wonderful color when coated. I call it light honey. I completed the first coat yesterday, and the second coat today. After a day to dry, I will do a light sanding and put another very light coat on top, finishing (?) the project. Then I will deliver the chairs from the shop to the house and my wife and I can sit on them in the evening as the sun sets over Cerro San Luis Obispo.
Would I do it again? Absolutely. I will almost certainly make more Adirondack chairs. These are my sixth and seventh, and I really like the design.
Would I use Monterey Cypress again? No. I think it’s lovely wood, and I am sorry that my relationship with it has been so troubled. I think it’s too brittle for this kind of project. I am very happy with the overall appearance of the chairs. They are very nice. But I fear that the cracking is not over… I have recurring dreams about sitting in my chair on the balcony and having a crack streak up one of the rear staves.
Also, this wood was quite expensive compared to other woods available at my local hardwood store. I could probably have made these chairs out of Hard Rock Maple and spent less money on the raw lumber (and it would have cracked less).
What wood should I use next time? In my Adirondack chair adventures I have used Monterey Pine, Baltic plywood (a prototype), red Oak, and now Monterey Cypress. I might try Birch on my next chair, or perhaps Poplar (I have read mixed reviews about Poplar). Birch is hard to get right now, but I can probably find some.
Would I build them the same way? Yes, but I will make small changes to the design to get the vertical staves to fit better. That would make them easier to assemble and complete.
Would I spend the better part of six months building them? Who knows?
Meanwhile, I have started a new project! It’s a custom utility trailer that will carry a military surplus 5KW generator to Burning Man. It’s my first trailer, and it will be made entirely of steel. Since I am not a welder, I’m having the best welder I know make the trailer for me. It involves fabrication, assembly, powder-coating, licensing, testing and ultimately the installation of high voltage electrical circuits to provide power to the Pinhole Project camp at Burning Man 2023.
After a month in the kiln, I picked up my Monterey Cypress lumber at the mill in Paso Robles and drove it home on the roof of my VW Touareg. I was dodging rain flurries for this pick-up, and I really didn’t want the wood to get wet while in transit. I managed to get it to my shop without getting any rain on the boards.
After letting it sit in the shop for a week, I took my planer out into the main work area and connected it to the dust collection pipe there. I then planed four boards to .875 inch thickness and the remaining boards to .75 inch. This would allow me to run them through the drum sander to get them to the finished dimensions.
No good deed goes unpunished though! A rehabilitation of the drum sander was needed, as I don’t use it very often, and it has been a long time since I replaced any of its parts. I bought a new feed board belt from Amazon, and installed it. Since it was an after-market part it didn’t fit perfectly, so I had to disassemble the table and machine slots into two of the original parts that didn’t allow enough horizontal adjustment to make the new belt fit and work correctly.
The Cypress wood is quite brittle, and it is pocked with many small knots. The boards also have a tendency to split along the grain, making a lot of the wood unusable. I cherry-picked the boards (Cypress-picked?) for areas from which I could cut my largest boards. For this I printed my pattern on my Epson ink-jet printer, then used the print-outs as size templates on the lumber. I put pencil marks on each board to indicate which parts would come from which boards.
Once I had determined which boards were for which parts, I cut them to rough size. Then I set up a jig for machining the parts on the CNC router table. I put my T-slot spoilboard on the bottom, and them added low-profile aluminum clamps on the spoilboard, supplemented by quoins that expand to hold the rough cut boards in place for machining.
The trick is to cut the parts with minimal or no damage to the spoilboard. To accomplish this I set my Z-axis (up-down) to zero on the spoilboard itself. That way I could write the cutting code never to cut below zero. This worked pretty well, though there are some cutting marks on the spoilboard now, after all the work was done.
My jig system allowed me to cut a variety of boards with a common lower-left X-Y starting point. I had only to change the clamps and quoins to hold the top and right ends of each board according to its size. I used the CNC machine mostly on the complex parts – the armrest boards and the waist and foot boards where the vertical slats are affixed. For the slats themselves, I machined only the last few inches at the top of each, and the inverse-heart shape on the C-slats. This required cutting out the negative part only. To do this I copied the shape of the heart and made it into a negative shape that I programmed the machine to cut out of the slat. This saved time.
Almost all the parts I machined on the CNC machine were cut with tabs, those being little bridge connections that attach the part being cut to the parent board. These are designed to keep the board you are cutting from getting thrown out of position by the end mill (12,000 rpm!) that is removing material from that board. Tabs prevent damage to the part, to the machine, and potential injury to the operator in the most dramatic circumstances (this seldom happens).
A few of the boards I cut had small cracks that grew into large cracks as the boards were machined. Internal tension in the boards was significant, and sometimes that tension was released as a widening split. To correct this, I glued several cracked boards by injecting waterproof Gorilla Glue into the cracks, then clamping them back together, and allowing the repaired board to dry overnight. This made it possible for me to recover several boards that would otherwise not have been usable.
I removed all the small tabs using my disk sander, and I hand sanded every board in preparation for assembly. This is when the fun starts (just three months into this project!). I bought a can of Varathane acrylic exterior satin varnish for the chairs, as my plan is to leave them in their “natural” wood appearance. Experience has taught me that the wooden parts of any project must be coated or painted prior to assembly, as water has a clever ability to get between connected parts by capillary action, then rot sets in. With that in mind, I opened the can of varnish, and I painted the opposing surfaces of boards that will be bolted or screwed together later. A trick here: if time allows, it’s nice to let the varnish get sticky, then assemble the parts while they are “green” – this makes the seal more effective.
I bought a quadrillion dollars’ worth of stainless steel hardware for these chairs – about $35.00 per chair – and it is beautiful stuff! I bolted the legs together first using carriage bolts, washers and nuts, then positioned the frontmost seat board and the rear “foot” board, where the vertical slats are attached. Once those defining parts were in place, I attached the arm rests to the shoulder board with carriage bolts, and affixed those to the leg tops, using small 90-degree braces cut from the 0.75 inch stock.
Now the chairs are ready to be completed! More on that in the next post, which will come in a few weeks.