Turning my new lathe into a really nice lathe

My plan was to write about some graphic arts subjects. I attended two terrific events related to printing recently, and I will write about my experiences – soon.

But instead, I want to write about my new lathe.

This is my new Delta “midi” lathe, complete with a new digital tachometer.

I have had a woodworking lathe for decades. It is a Sears & Roebuck machine built in 1953. I managed to put a small 1/3 HP motor on it, and I built a nice table for it back in the early 1990s. I took the lathe to a powder coating company and had them apply a blue coating on the machine. It’s really beautiful.

Somewhere along the line someone installed a three-jaw chuck to the lathe. This obviously came from a metal-working lathe. The problem is that they drilled it to the correct spindle size, and threaded it for the spindle a little bit off-center. So, for the past 30 years I have been troubled by a wobbly chuck, which made the lathe almost unusable. It is just awful.

Why I didn’t replace the lathe – or the chuck – in the interim, I cannot tell you. I just didn’t.

…until a month ago when I was invited to attend the Central Coast Woodturners club meeting. This coincided with the annular eclipse of the sun. We stood in the parking lot and admired a projection of the eclipse on a large sheet of paper. It was a pinhole and neutral-density filter combination that made this possible. This was a fanatic way to see the eclipse.

During the meeting, the president of the club announced that someone had donated a Delta lathe to the club, and the club wanted to sell it. The deal included an extended bed and a set of lathe tools, unused. I asked how much the club wanted, and after a vote, I was allowed to buy the whole thing for $300. I convinced a man in the club to deliver it to my house!

I took the lathe to my shop, removed the old lathe from its table, and attempted to put the new one on the same table only to discover that the new lathe is about 6 inches longer. That meant that I had to take the top off the table and put it in the wood stretcher! I built two wings of the same thickness as the original table, then affixed them with wood biscuits to the existing table, adding 10 inches to the table top. A bit of routing and some paint made it look OK.

I also decided that the new lathe would be too high to operate comfortably, so I shortened the table legs by three inches. Fortunately I had made the table with carriage bolts, and it came apart easily, then went back together just as easily.

The lathe had sat somewhere for quite a while, and when I attempted to put the drive belt onto one of the pulleys, it disintegrated. I ordered a new belt on Amazon.

This is the new control box for the lathe, with the power switch on top and the digital tachometer below. One digit is missing in this photo, a product of shutter speed and the refresh rate of the tachometer display not agreeing.

While waiting for that to be delivered, I decided to add an electronic tachometer to the machine so its speed would be indicated clearly (it has a fixed-speed motor with stepped pulleys). I have an ulterior motive also: I intend to replace the motor with a variable-speed motor someday. Having the tachometer on the machine will eventually be more valuable to me.

I ordered an electronic tachometer from Amazon, one that came with a Hall Effect sensor and a magnet. That arrived a couple of days later. I also ordered a plastic box to put the tachometer and power switch and wiring in. I studied the details of the sensor, placing it in various locations on the lathe, but it was too long. I simply couldn’t find a place where I could squeeze it that would be near the spindle pulley. So, I returned to the Amazon application and found a different Hall Effect sensor that is only three millimeters thick. I ordered that.

Meanwhile, I machined the plastic box to hold the components and made a terrible mistake cutting it on the CNC machine. I ruined it, so I ordered another one.

I also had to embed a fixed magnet into the pulley edge in a position where it would pass the sensor at 13mm distance. The pulley is cast aluminum, very light, but it does have enough body on the outermost ring to support a small magnet. To do this, I made a wooden contraption with a negative of the pulley machined into it, landing the pulley flush with the top of the jig for machining. Then I cut a shallow recess the size of the magnet in the rim of the pulley. The magnet is only a few grams, making its weight not much more than the aluminum I removed, so the net weight of the pulley is almost the same.

This is the Hall effect sensor I bought to sense rotational speed. It is a Hamlin sensor, capable of detecting the passing of a small magnet about 13 mm away (embedded in the drive pulley on the lathe). You can see the wiring pushed into the recesses of the casting to keep it away from the pulley and belt.

I couldn’t affix the magnet until I received the Hall Effect sensor because that sensor is triggered only by the south pole of the magnet, and I had no idea which side that was. I waited until the whole circuit was wired and running before rubbing the magnet against the sensor on each side to determine its polarity. Once that was determined, I put the magnet permanently into the pulley with epoxy.

Here, the pulley is mounted in a wooden jig I made to do the machining. I machined a tiny recess in the outer ring of the pulley to accommodate the magnet – shown here. I had to determine the polarity of the magnet before setting it in epoxy on the edge of the pulley.

Wiring was moderately difficult because I had to run the wires where they would not interfere with the pulley, drive shaft and drive belt. I managed to squeeze the wiring into recesses in the casting to accomplish that, with the wire leaving the back of the machine through a waterproof fitting. From there, it goes only a few inches to the control box.

Hall Effect sensors are very clever. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and their basic function is to respond to a nearby magnetic field. When a magnet moves past the sensor, a reference trace in the circuit is affected by the magnetic field. That signal is amplified by a transistor, and sent to the tachometer, where it is “counted.” It is the counting of magnetic actuations per minute that is displayed on the tachometer.

This is my drawing of the control box and the wiring of the lathe motor and the digital tachometer. Click to see a larger image.

The sensor I found is called a Hamlin 55100. I measured the position of the pulley inside the lathe body, and marked its radius with a Sharpie. Then I mixed a glob of epoxy, and affixed the sensor to a spot that is exactly right to sense the passing magnet.

I wired both the lathe motor (110VAC) and the tachometer (9VDC) on the same switch (on opposite sides), so flipping the power switch activates both devices simultaneously. The tachometer circuit is powered by a 9 volt battery mounted in a box on the back of the lathe. I ran all the wires to the control box and connected them according to standards for their voltages.

Now I have a working lathe with a digital tachometer. It’s ironic that the speed must be changed by moving the V-belt, but someday when I put a variable-speed motor on the machine, that tachometer will be more useful.

(And, it was a fun project!)

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Completing my transition to mirrorless cameras

I take thousands of photos: birds, kayaking adventures, landscapes, panoramas, travel photos, and classical music. Lots of classical music.

For 13 years I have been the staff photographer for Festival Mozaic, an international music festival held here in San Luis Obispo, California. The event is now in its 53rd year.

In those years as the festival’s photographer, I have been shooting with various Canon cameras and lenses. My first was a Canon EOS 1D Mark III, followed by an EOS 5D Mark III, followed by a mirrorless EOS R, and recently by a mirrorless EOS R5. In the middle I also used a Canon G4 (also mirrorless) with an adapter that allowed me to use my full size lenses on it. When I bought the R, I bought an adapter to use the full-size lenses with that new type of camera. Canon made it easy; their $100 adapter allows all the previous model lenses to be affixed to the new cameras with full electronic control.

Conductor Scott Yoo’s hands. This photo, taken in July, 2013, was made with a Canon 400mm f2.8 prime lens. I used to rent this lens for ten days each summer during the Festival Mozaic events. It is an extraordinary lens, but it’s big and quite heavy.

The greatest draw of the mirrorless camera for me is its silent shutter. Not having the clip-clop of an SLR’s mirror/shutter makes it possible for me to be in the audience, taking photos without a soul even knowing that I am there. My camera makes no sound at all, and that is the amount of sound that is tolerable in the pianissimo parts of a concerto.

Scott Yoo plays the lead violin in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto (while simultaneously conducting the piece) in July, 2013. This photo was also taken with the rented Canon 400mm f2.8 prime lens.

All of my existing lenses work fine on the mirrorless cameras with the adapter. That’s a good thing because I have acquired numerous lenses over the years, with a wide range of focal lengths:

8-15 mm fisheye
16-35 mm wide angle zoom
28-300 mm wide/telephoto zoom
100-400 mm telephoto zoom
100 mm macro prime

…and a telextender, a 2X model, that makes it possible to use the 100-400 as a 200-800mm lens.

This is a photo of Jonah Kim, the 2022-23 Artist In Residence of Festival Mozaic. He was accompanied by ballet dancers at Cuesta College Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo. This photo was made with the Canon R camera and the older Canon 100-400 telephoto zoom lens.

A year or so ago I had to trash the 28-300 mm lens because something came loose inside it, and I couldn’t afford to have it repaired – or more correctly, I didn’t want to pay $900 to repair it. I put it in e-waste.

This is a photo taken in July, 2023 with the Canon R5 and the 100-500mm lens. I have outlined an area from which I took a section of the photo as a separate still image. The resolution of the original is 8192 x 5464. The resolution of the cropped section is 1872 x 1454 pixels, adequate for a graphic arts quality image at about 6 inches wide. The players are Alice Dade, flute, Scott Yoo, violin, Jessica Chang, viola, and Ani Aznavoorian, cello.

Earlier this year I bought my first RF lens for the mirrorless cameras. It is a 24-105mm zoom. This filled a gap that I had created by junking the 28-300. It was curious that this lens suddenly became my lens of choice when shooting journalistic photos. Previously, I would have preferred my 16-35mm lens.

This is the cropped image. It is a perfectly acceptable photo in its own right. Mr. Yoo is playing a Stradivarius violin in this photo.

I had normalized my lens collection. Then, in May, I attended the annual Summit of the North American Nature Photography Association in Tucson, Arizona. While there, I borrowed a Canon RF 100-500mm zoom lens from the Canon booth in the trade show. They let me have it for a day, and I enjoyed it – a lot. So I returned it the following day, then walked over to the B&H booth and bought one!

I think it’s the perfect classical music lens. It’s longer than my existing 100-400, and it is visibly sharper. I have read that the new RF lenses are sharper than their predecessors, and I expect this to be true if only because they are newer, taking advantage of improvements in lens design, lens materials and lens manufacture. Also, the final elements in these new lenses are closer to the sensor than the previous models, thus the post-diffraction component of the image is not traveling so far to reach its destination.

Alice K. Dade plays the flute in Mozart’s Flute Concerto at the 2023 Festival Mozaic Notable Encounter at Cuesta College Performing Arts Center. Ms. Dade was the featured artist of the weekend, with several pieces chosen that feature the flute. She is a professor of music at the University of Missouri, with a stunning résumé of flute performances worldwide. This photo was made with the Canon R5 and the 100-500 mm lens at 500 mm.

So far, having taken a few thousand images with the 100-500 lens, I am very impressed with the images. I also like its ability to focus faster and more accurately than its predecessor. This is a terrific lens.

Canon makes an RF telextender, which will work on this lens (though it has a limitation on the short end of its focal length). So far I have not needed that device, though I have had momentary thoughts about it – I wonder if the telextender would help right now? I let those thoughts pass and continued shooting with the unmodified lens.

I think that the accompanying images will show how nice a lens this is. I am excited that I can now shoot at 500mm without an adapter, and also excited that the high resolution sensor on the R5 camera allows me to shoot then crop usable images out of the larger photos captured by this camera. Those images are significantly larger than the previous cameras provided.

All told, I’m a very happy photographer with my mirrorless Canon cameras and my new RF lenses, built to work perfectly with those cameras.

I am also honored to be the photographer of these wonderful performances. It’s a lot of work, and the rewards are endless!

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Thank you to my readers!

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.

I will not be building any more trailers.

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Musings on pinhole photography

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.

This is my No Dancing pinhole photo. These photos are negative and reversed. Once they are dry we re-photograph them for our digital archive. There, we invert the image and flip it so that it appears normal.

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.

This is the inverted, reversed and tonally adjusted version of the No Dancing photo.

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.

My very capable camp mate Blanka Hodur is directing the dancers for the No Dancing pinhole photo.The camera is standing on one of our wooden camera stands.

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.

This is the digital version of the Earth, Moon and Mars photo. Note the egg-shaped distortion of the sphere on the left. This confused me. You can see similar, though not as extreme, distortion on the Earth sphere.

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.

This is the pinhole camera we currently use. The distance A is the center; the distance 30° off of center travels just 84 percent as far, and the light at the edges of the photo travels only 47 percent as far. This, I think, explains the distortion I am getting in the spheres photo.

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.

This is my idealized pinhole camera. All light entering the camera through the aperture travels the same distance to the photo material, shown by the lines labeled A. This, I believe, would eliminate the distortion. I’m not sure I want to eliminate the distortion, but I might build one to test it. Because the circumference of the curve is smaller, compared to our existing cameras, the photos would also have a different aspect ratio, and the width would be smaller.

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.

I’ll keep you posted!

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The generator at Burning Man

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.

This is our generator under load at Burning Man. The cotton ties in the foreground are strain-relief ties. This was to prevent any damage to the distribution box if someone tripped over a power cord.

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.

My three new friends: Brandon, Lou and Sam. Between them I had a century of experience fixing things like this!

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 covered the distribution panel with plastic when it started to rain. I also removed the 36-inch stovepipe on the top because it doesn’t have a flapper to close it when the generator is not running. Water should not go into the engine from the exhaust pipe.

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.

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A long visit to the DMV
and traveling to Burning Man

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.

This is the finished trailer. You can see the generator, the large fuel tank, and the spare tire squeezed in between. In front of the fuel tank are the electric panel and the distribution panel.

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.

Though slightly different than my original drawing, this is the trailer as it was built. We made a few insignificant changes as the trailer evolved. I’m very proud of the final product.

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.

This is the high voltage wiring in the electric box. This follows code, and is almost exactly what a residential or commercial 120/240 volt system would look like. The ground bus was added so that I could connect the large ground wire from the generator to a large connector (AWG #2). The ground bus and the neutral bus are bonded in this box, as required by the electrical code. They are separated in the distribution panel (sub panel).

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.

Nothing will go wrong.

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A tale of trailer wiring

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.

This is the unladen trailer, ready to go to the DMV. It’s not painted yet, but that will come later.

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.

This is the left taillight with its three wires coming out: white is chassis ground, yellow is left signal and brown is the common marker conductor.

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.

This is the left side marker light.

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,

This is the clever three-way splicer device. You can see the steel blade in the center that, when pushed in, makes contact with both wires, connecting them. At least that’s the theory. They didn’t work, and I had to cut them out of the circuit and replace them with soldered joints with shrink tubing.

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.

Here is a schematic diagram of the complete wiring system. Click to see an enlarged view.

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!

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Trailering the generator

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.

This is the trailer with the generator, fuel tank and tongue box placed on it in their approximate positions. These will later be bolted to the trailer.

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.

This is the electrical distribution system: a 6-breaker Square-D electrical panel, and a waterproof distribution box with four GFCI electrical outlets inside. The power comes in from the generator at bottom, then to the breaker panel, and eventually to the distribution panel on the left. Click for an enlarged view.

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.

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Designing and building a trailer for Burning Man

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.

This was the Man – a sculpture, a building, an art piece, at Burning Man 2019. The Man is burned on Saturday night each year with 75,000 people standing in a circle around it, enjoying the spectacle. Note the shadowy people in the photo. Typical exposures are from one to three minutes, so anyone not standing still long enough is not recorded completely. Photo by the Pinhole Project team 2019.

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.

The photos we take with our large pinhole cameras are made on 30 x 40 inch photographic paper. After development, they are both negative and backward. To invert them, we photograph them with a digital camera and invert in Photoshop. At Burning Man we show people how triple-clicking on the power button of an iPhone causes the image from its camera to be inverted, making it positive.
This is the same photo inverted and flipped horizontally so that it represents the original scene correctly.

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.

Art installations on the Playa include visitation by illegal immigrants. These Martians were there to see how normal human beings behave.

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.

This is the MEP 802a military generator. Weighing in at just over 800 lbs., it was challenging to load and transport to my house from eastern California where I bought it.

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.

This is my Adobe Illustrator drawing of the generator trailer, complete. When finished, it will have the generator, a 50-gallon fuel tank, and a power distribution system for four 15-amp circuits. The generator can selectively produce 110 volt single-phase, 110/220 volt split phase, or 208 volt three-phase power. It is powered by a Cummins two-cylinder diesel engine.

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.

These are the plans for the Burning Man generator trailer. I over-engineered it to carry a heavy load and take a beating over years of use. I am confident that it will keep us powered up for numerous Burning Man events.

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.

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Making Panoramas
and not getting lost in White Sands National Park

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.

This is the Great Horned Owl at the La Paloma resort in Tucson, Arizona. It was an extra benefit for the many photographers who had gathered there for the annual Summit of the North American Nature Photographers Association.

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 gypsum dunes as far as the eye can see! This is one of my late afternoon panoramas at White Sands. I used a Canon R5 camera and my 24-105mm Canon lens to capture 13 images. I stitched them later in PTGUI software, the best (only remaining?) professional panoramic photo stitching software. Click on the image to see an enlarged view.

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 numerous 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.

This is my photo of Backward Half Dome. It creates the geographic point of reference for getting back to the car.
This is the screen shot of the compass bearing of Backward Half Dome. With this information, I could easily return to our starting point by hiking in the opposite direction. Note that the Compass app also recorded the longitude, latitude and altitude. With these coordinates and a map, one could relatively easily find the 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.

Long shadows? You bet!

Follow-up thoughts:

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.

This is the screen capture from My Altitude, an app for iPhone that is often more accurate than the Compass app. It can be used when there is no cellular coverage, and in airplanes and hot-air balloons. I like its greater precision.

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.

This is a Strava map I made in March when my friend D.K. Philbin and I kayaked down part of the Colorado River from Hoover Dam to Willow Beach. These make great digital records of my kayaking adventures.

(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.

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