Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Digital Upright Project--Ergonomic Mods

A while back, I gutted an old upright piano to make a home for my small music/recording studio. While charming, it fell short in ergonomics. The piano keyboard and computer were too high to sit at and use comfortably for very long, and the studio monitors ended up being too low for optimum sound. So, while I had everything out of the old piano during a remodel of my studio, I moved everything down about 6 inches. Sounds simple, but it took some thought and work.

...and after. Oh, if only I could keep it that tidy all the time! 

First, I took it back apart, and cut out a slab of the keyboard shelf. That left a hole for the digital piano to sit in. I added some brackets I fabricated from galvanized angle metal for my digital to sit on, and put some craft foam on the surface to keep the digital from sliding. The slab became an end table. 

Detail of the brackets. 

Lowering the keyboard meant that the "desk" part was now too high. I decided where I wanted it (just over the top of the digital piano), added a cleat all the way around the inside of the piano shell at that height, and moved the shelf down.

But, where should the speakers go? I added some corner shelves at the old "desk" height. These were made from some trim pieces I removed while remodeling last year.

Lowering the KB also meant that the bottom flap couldn't open all the way. I took off the awesome custom brackets that I made from maple and routed a groove directly in the side of the flap. I then lowered the pins for the groove to ride on and screwed them into the side of the shell. I liked the maple brackets better since they rode the pins more smoothly. Oh well!

Power and cord clutter were two other issues I wanted to address. I added a power strip off to one side, under the right hand speaker shelf. That took care of a lot of the cord clutter I was fighting before. Moving the keyboard down also routed the necessary signal cords under the desk, out of the way. Win, win!

Detail of one corner shelf and power cord management. 

There were a couple other small things. First, I opened up the top (there's a hinge!). That may not seem like a huge deal, but it lets in a lot more light and feels more open. Second, I decided to give up on the idea of ever putting the top cover back on. I removed most of the provisions for doing so, which also freed up some space and paved the way for a couple other little projects (stay tuned...).

Back in action! All in all, it took about 5 hours worth of work, but that was after months of planning and thought. Best of all, it allows comfortable use of one of my most comfortable seats, a drum throne I use for gigging.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

What to do with a big slab of wood/old piano parts? The 3 Hour Endtable!

I just made some mods to my digital grand project, namely lowering the keyboard and desk to make the set up much more ergonomic (more on that later). I had to cut out the existing keyboard shelf. In so doing, I ended up with a large chunk of oak that used to be the shelf for the keyboard. After moving it around the garage for a few days (as I was working on some other projects at the same time), I was inspired by the book Home-Made Modern by Ben Uyeda. He had combined angle iron and 2x10s to make an attractive, industrial-looking bookshelf.

I happened to have a chunk from the old piano, as well as some angle iron cut-offs from an old metal shelf. I cut the oak in half, evened up the legs and cleaned them up with a bit of steel wool and my bench grinder, made grooves in the front edge of the shelf to hide the legs, put it together, made it mostly square, and cut a back to keep it from racking.

I used a circular saw, bench grinder, drill driver, a few measuring tools, and some elbow grease and came out with a fairly attractive, extremely handy end table. It was built entirely for free--I didn't purchase anything for this project.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

What to do with old piano parts (part 2)? Make a quick shelf!

I had the key cover left over from the old digital upright project, and thought it would make a cool shelf.

I screwed through the back to hold it all together, routed grooves and mounted keyhole hardware to the back, and hung it on the wall. I think it's cool that the 1902-era piano hinge is visible, as is the tuning record that was on the inside of the key cover.

The clock, incidentally, was another repurpose/recovery project. I found this old Hammond electric clock at a second hand store for next to nothing, but the movement was shot. I thought about rebuilding the movement, but it turned out to be too much hassle, so I just replaced the movement with a modern quartz one and called it good.

And the cards are from friends, my kids, and students. the banana one is a birthday card that says "one day only matters if you're a banana."

Thanks for reading!

Monday, May 2, 2016

What to Do With an Old Mountain Bike?--Single Speed Cruiser on the Cheap

I cut my mountain biking teeth, so to speak, on this great Giant mountain bike that I got new in 1994. I rode it hard, and replaced most components as I wore stuff out or upgraded. It has survived amazing crashes, trips to the desert, life in Idaho, Colorado, and New Mexico, and even a car wreck in Wyoming.

It served briefly as a commuter--I replaced the suspension fork with a rigid one, put on less knobby tires, and changed the front crankset (from a 44/32/22 ("mountain") triple to a 50/34 ("compact road") double) to give me some downhill speed and control. While it got me where I needed to go, it was just not as efficient as a road bike, especially since my commute is mostly on highway and has a pretty big hill (up on the way to work, down on the way home!). When I found a good deal for a road bike on Craigslist, my Giant Franken-muter was relieved of commuter duty.

For a variety of reasons--mostly sentimental--I didn't want to get rid of the Giant bike, and saw an opportunity to try out a single speed. Single speed bikes are quite the rage right now, and proponents tout greater efficiency of a simpler drivetrain as a primary impetus. Not sure I buy the "efficiency" argument, but I'm all for simplicity. I liked the clean look and low maintenance of a single gear drivetrain for a "ride around town" bike that I didn't have to worry about too much. Here are a few pics and descriptions of the finished product.

Here's my cruiser outside the garage, ready for a B-doubleE-doubleR-UN (beer run...).  

Because a geared bike has vertical drop-outs, there is no way to adjust chain tension. To take up the slack and keep the chain on the drivetrain, some sort of spring-loaded device is necessary. After talking with the folks at Community Cycle, I went with this no cost derailleur set-up. I cut off the cage (hangy-down bit), ran the chain through, and saved $40 (the cost of an actual chain tensioner). I can still make fine adjustments to the chain line since I ran a bit of cable through the guides.

To "power" the thing, I used an old crankset I bought cheap ($26) from the Sports Recycler in Boulder, CO. I just didn't see paying $75+ for a new one for an experiment. I took it apart and put on a like-new 44 tooth chainring I had lying around. Of course, I took off all the unnecessary parts like shifters, shift cables, and the front derailleur.

Call it "ghetto," call it "redneck," but I improvised a lot in the back end of the drivetrain. The rear cog is out of a disassembled cassette, which isn't all that unusual in the single speed world. I sort of guessed on the size, but it works for where I currently ride it, and could easily swap it out if my situation changes. The spacers that hold the cog in place and keep the chainline straight are pieces of 1 1/4" PVC pipe, which slide perfectly over the spindle. 

I added the rigid fork (Sun-Race, $60) and semi-slick tires (~$30 each) when this bike became a commuter. Someday, I'll probably put on fatter slicks for a cushier ride, but for now these Michelin Country Rock tires roll really nicely around the streets.

I ordered both the handlebars (Dimension, $20) and grips (Ritchey, $20) from Tree Fort Bikes ( I wanted the grips to match the cushy faux-leather saddle, so at least something on the bike matched!
The "luxury" item: I bought this cushy saddle ($35) from the Broken Spoke in Santa Fe. It's springy & soft. I've had to lower the seat a lot to make this work as it's a lot thicker than the racing saddle I took off, but yeah, it's super comfy.

All told, I spent about $150 on this project, but saved probably $200 by employing used or old parts. In its current incarnation, it works great for cruising around town, though a rack would be mighty handy for those "grocery" runs. Looking back through the pictures, though, I am amused by the fact that there are only 3 original parts left on the bike--the headset, the seatpost, and the seatpost clamp. I have replaced everything else!

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Reusable Part 2: Find Alternatives to Disposable Plastic Bags!

Years ago, my wife (then girlfriend) introduced me to the idea of a reusable cloth bag for grocery shopping. This was a novel concept for me. I grew up in an era of paper bags that gradually gave way to plastic bags, and so did my wife, though she was raised by Boulder hippies who lived through the energy scares of the 1970s and therefore strove to conserve raw materials and fuels. The idea makes great sense for every kind of shopping from groceries to hardware. The grocery store gives a very small credit for reusing a bag (either cloth or plastic) and that's one less plastic bag I have to deal with after I get home.

But oh, how plastic bags rule! They are so simple, so inexpensive, and kind of reusable. Many of us happen to use the cheap polyethylene grocery store bags to line trash cans (in our county, unfortunately, trash in the dumpster has to be in bags, partially due to an abundance of food waste and a lack of community composting). But they tear easily, and when they do, they become useless trash themselves. Best case scenario: the bag ends up "secure" in a landfill, where, in a few hundred years, anthropologists will dig it up and scratch their heads as they examine the contents. Often, however, these bags end up blowing on the breeze, where they eventually do this:

or this

and may become part of this*:

But how else do you get your stuff home from the store? If you have more than a few small items, there's no way you could carry them all the way from the store to your car without a bag! And, once you get home with the car parked safely in the garage, taking the groceries in the house without bags is next to impossible!

If you need a bag, maybe try one of these: is not supporting me in any way. Just sayin'. But, I like canvas bags. A cloth bag is extremely durable and can be repaired should a handle come undone or a hole appear.
 And, of course, buy less stuff. My grad school roommate rode a bicycle everywhere, and used his backpack to carry the groceries home. He didn't need a car for a grocery run because he didn't buy much at any one time. Nowadays, I have a similar approach, though I have a milk crate I can strap to the rack on my bike to keep the weight off my back. The bike works great for those "milk, eggs, and bread" kinds of trips.

One of my heros, the so-called "zero waste" lady, has modified a catchy mnemonic--refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle--that applies here.

- Refuse: do you really need a bag for a pack of gum (do you have pockets or a handbag?) and a bottle of soda (you should have brought your reusable cup, anyway!)? Do you really need to put your apples or oranges into a plastic bag at the produce stand, which will then be placed into another bag at checkout**? Given the choice, put loose apples (or oranges, pears, carrots, peppers, etc.) straight in your cart rather than putting them in a plastic bag. You're going to wash them when you get home anyway, right?

- Reduce: again, don't double-bag your produce. If you really want to gather up produce (beans & peas might fall into this category), then take a smaller mesh bag with you to the store and have the cashier weigh it before you shop. This concept, incidentally, can apply to any bulk item from dry, shelled beans to soy sauce to honey to shampoo. Take your own container (could also be a jar, can, or foil bag) and refill it rather than getting another one.

- Reuse: take your plastic bags back to the store and reuse them. Better yet, make or acquire a more durable option like this

These bags are woven from recycled polyethylene or polyester rather than a natural fiber like cotton or hemp. But, they are reusable and created from a waste stream, and that's at least a step in the right direction.

which you can stuff completely full without worrying about a blow-out on the way to the car. The grocery sackers at the grocery store are often surprised at how much stuff these bags will hold because they are used to limiting the number of items that go into plastic bags. In addition to bags, you can also reuse old containers and jars for bulk items ranging from nuts to shampoo. 

- Recycle: when those polyethylene bags are torn up and destroyed, bundle them up and take them to a recycling center (often, your local grocery store!), don't just toss them in the trash. They could, quite possibly, make their way into something else, like the bags shown above or a fleece sweater or new plastic bags. We don't want them floating on the breeze or in the ocean.

One more important point about plastics--they are made from petrochemical feed stocks (or sometimes from corn, which is only better in the sense that the plastics are biodegradable***). I'm certain that in the not-so-distant future, we will be faced with the choice of having plastic bags at the store or burning fuel in the car to get to the store. There is no better time than right now to address this. The further down the road we kick the can, so to speak, the worse the problem will be.

There are arguments for cheap plastic bags. They are inexpensive and easy to make, requiring far less energy to make than paper bags (and probably, the textile bags, but I haven't looked that up) and being largely subsidized by companies. They can be reused, like I stated above, for a variety of unpleasant tasks like picking up dog poo on the sidewalk to lining your trash can (though in both cases they end up in the trash). These arguments are as weak as the bags they are for. I'd like to see community calls for a large-scale compost for food waste, increased recycling of paper (only 20% of paper is actually recycled!). And, I know I'm going to get some criticism for saying this, but the best place for dog poo is probably out in the sun on the sidewalk where it can break down, rather than buried underground. Not that I'm going to start encouraging my dog to crap on the sidewalk any time soon.

I should note here that I'm not a political activist. While I see no real place for plastic bags in society (even if I believed that every shred I put in the recycle bin was treated as advertised), I'd rather have thoughtful people work to eliminate the plastic bag market through their choices than see laws passed banning the bags outright. So, if you agree with me, buy, find, or make some cloth bags for your next trips to the store. Or take a backpack. I think you'll find (like I did) that the bags hold more, stand up to more abuse, and are generally more useful than the ubiquitous cheap plastic our society seems to worship. 

Next up: disposable plastic bottles!


*I found this image by searching for "great pacific garbage patch" on Google. There are a few full-length movies and more than a few YouTube videos on the topic. Even if you, like me, live in a land-locked state, your plastic can still end up in the ocean via the breeze or by our waterways. Some estimates I've read put the itty-bitty-plastic-bits to plankton ratio in the ocean at 6:1, which is pretty dire for those critters that depend on plankton. I encourage you to take some time to search for images, view and think about the effects on marine life, ponder how those effects impact human life, and make your choices accordingly. For a tear-jerker, check this video out: And then consider your choices.

**If I had my "druthers," the plastic bags at the produce stand would be long gone.

**The degradation of corn-based plastics may not happen as rapidly or readily as previously thought (hoped?). Furthermore, producing consumer products from corn raises a host of ethical issues. Growing commodity corn does little to directly feed people, as most corn is used to make chemicals, sweeteners, and animal feed (often for animals that aren't set up to digest it, like cows). Land that could be used to grow useful food (like grain or vegetables) is used to produce corn. It's all about money, folks. Don't believe corporate claims of altruism and service. See Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma for a much more complete rendition of this argument (with actual references and citations).

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Reusable Part 1: Bring Your Own Cup!

"There is no "away."-----Scott Anderson (my dad, on discarding trash)

I'll put my challenge up front: get a reusable travel cup with a lid, preferably steel. Carry it with you whenever you leave the house. Set yourself an ultimatum: if you don't have your reusable cup, you can't buy a to-go beverage from a coffee shop, gas station, or restaurant. That includes coffee, tea, hot chocolate, soda, or juice. Simple. It's a solid first step on the path of minimum waste.

On to the logic:

A while back, I put up a blog post about the need to curtail the use of disposable containers, such as flimsy plastic water bottles and paper or styrofoam coffee cups. It didn't exactly change the world, but my readership is still, um, growing. The containers that bug me the most are the ubiquitous white paper coffee cups. They are almost as annoying to me as those blue plastic bags with the smiley faces from 10 or so years ago that you'd see stuck on fences and in trees. I am not trying to vilify the coffee shops (or Wal Mart), but I am trying to get through to those folks who continue to accept single-use paper cups rather than bringing their own reusable, refillable mug. It's a simple issue to solve.

I plan to try to convince you that this issue is a problem from a couple different angles, environmental and financial.

Environmentally speaking, there are several steps in the life cycle of any item, and a paper cup is no exception. The cup, lid, and the cardboard "hand saver" sleeve must be manufactured from paper or plastic, and sent to your favorite coffee shop via truck, train, or ship. After you place your order with the barista, the cup--for the briefest part of its life--is put into use. You enjoy a piping hot cup of joe, hopefully taking the time to note all the wonderful textures and flavors in commercially roasted coffee (usually, a burnt flavor), and experience (or not) the slight paper, wax, and plastic undertone. After you empty your cup, it finds its way into the trash. Someone empties the trash into the dumpster, and a big, diesel-burning truck comes and picks up the dumpster and hauls it to a transfer station. The contents of the big truck are dumped in an even bigger trailer and hauled to a large, centralized landfill. Every weekday, all day, these trucks make the rounds around town, so keep that in mind when you throw stuff away. The upside to a paper cup is that it could possibly break down into building blocks for life, but only if it's exposed to soil & microbes. Burying things in a landfill, unfortunately, entombs them in a sterile cocoon that does NOT promote degradation, not that that makes any difference for the plastics in your cup--they will never break down regardless of their exposure to the elements.

What does that mean for you? Well, for each cup of coffee you buy and consume in a disposable cup with a sleeve and lid, you generate 3-4 pieces of eventual trash. Lest you think that "I am only one person and can't possibly have much impact with my one paper cup," please consider this thought experiment. There are roughly 12,000 people in my town. If 10% of them get a cup of coffee in a disposable cup every day, that is 1,200 cups that end up in the dumpster each day. We happen to have at least 4 places in town where you can get a cup of coffee to go, so I don't think my guess is too high. A small (12 ounce capacity) cup weighs about 0.5 ounces.

1200 cups x 0.5 oz/cup x 1 lb/16 oz = 37.5 pounds of cups per day. According to Google, 1200 Cups works out to about 10 cubic feet of volume, but I'm guessing the volume decreases by 75% or so when the cup is crushed, giving 1200 paper cups a volume of say 2.5 cubic feet. For reference, my 100-pound chocolate lab (Rusty the dog) takes up roughly 3 cubic feet. So, my rough calculation for my small town's daily cup-to-landfill total is 37.5 pounds/2.5 cubic feet.

Every day. Multiply that by a work week (5 days; 187.5 lbs/12.5 ft^3). Or a work-month (20 days; 750 lbs/50 ft^3). Take it as far as you want, but my point is it gets to be a lot of trash, just in cups. To truly illustrate it, buy a cup of coffee each day in a paper cup, but instead of throwing the cups away, stack them in a conspicuous place, like on your nightstand or in the passenger seat of your car. See how long it takes for an unsightly pile to accumulate. If you can, extrapolate that to your town, and then your county, and then your state, and start thinking about where we are going to put all those cups when we run out of landfill space.

Maybe you don't care about the environment. I pity you, your progeny, and all living beings, but unfortunately, I won't be able to sway you from that angle. Let's try money, since most folks have a fairly strong grasp of, and attachment to, that medium. At $2.00 or so, a cup of regular ol' coffee at Starbucks seems fairly expensive. I can get it down to $0.57, though, if I use my own cup (most coffee shops offer a discount for a "personal cup" or a "refill"). Let's say for the sake of argument that that discount is $1.
My favorite reusable travel cup was* the bestickered stainless steel beauty pictured above. It cost the relatively hefty sum of $22, and cost the planet some more in extraction of raw materials (metals for the cup and oil for the handle, lid, and base) and emissions from manufacture. Luckily for me, it was also a gift.**

Let's set the cost of the cup at $20 because, for this argument, I'm primarily concerned with the money that leaves my pocket (and I like round numbers). If I save $1 each time I fill 'er up, my reusable cup will pay for itself in about 20 cups of coffee. If I buy a cup of coffee every work day (which I don't!), the cup pays for itself in 20 days or so of refills. But then, I can also fill it up when I leave home with whatever beverage strikes my fancy (and whatever I have the raw materials to make). I can also take it camping. So, the reusable cup has added value besides replacing a paper cup.

I've laid out a logical argument against paper cups from environmental and fiscal points of view. My arguments echo sentiments that have been expressed for 50 years or more, so, why are paper cups so ubiquitous? I saw two at a small staff meeting last week (2 out of 12 people (16%) had paper cups with lids and hand preservers in front of them!). It could be because they are a simple, easy, no commitment solution to the conundrum of consuming a beverage. Have we reached the point where we are too lazy to keep track of our own reusable cups? Or, maybe a disposable cup is a status symbol, a way to say, "I can afford coffee from shop X so I don't have to care about consumerism." If you value that image, then keep and reuse your paper cup. No one will know you didn't just buy it! And at $1, it's pretty darn cheap, though I doubt it'll last much past a week of solid use. 

The ultimate solution to this cup problem--from both perspectives--is to not buy that beverage in the first place. You don't have to worry about any of the environmental or financial costs outlined above. Brew your coffee at home. Even at the extreme price of $15/pound for the free trade organic stuff, you can brew coffee far more cheaply yourself (on average, a pound of coffee lasts my wife and I a month, and I guess-timate we drink 90 cups/month (3 cups/day) giving a per cup cost of 16 cents. To take the "less disposable stuff" tack one step further, take and refill your own jar or container instead of getting a new paper or foil bag each time you get coffee (beans or ground). Even if you go through a pound a month, that's still $0.50 per day ($15/30 days), far cheaper than commercially brewed caffeinated tar.

Next up on my list of disposable containers to avoid: plastic bags.

Thanks for reading!

For another (albeit similar) take on this topic, check out

*Unfortunately, I left this cup on a plane during a recent business trip, so it has disappeared into the depths of Southwest Airlines' lost & found. Dang it!

**I was sort of curious what the mark up on this cup was, so I did a quick search and found this one (and a bunch of other cheap, fascinating stuff for sale) for about $3.50; though it's not identical, it's similar enough to tell me that a brand-name logo is fairly expensive. I'd have to dig much deeper (and perhaps quit my job and become a freelance journalist with multiple trips to China) to get to the emissions and human cost side of things, but I'm guessing the profit sharing where my cup came from doesn't include factory workers in China.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Mostly Recycled Project: Giant Work Table

I'm always walking the fine line between having a functional shop with a variety of materials and supplies on hand, and having progress-impeding clutter. This work table was an attempt to simultaneously address my piles o' supplies and our need for a large craft table in my wife's art studio, but to do so while buying as few supplies as possible.

The work surface was the basis of this project. For that part, I happened to have a large hollow core door. It was my garage workbench at our old house, and before that, my wife had it as her work table. Long before that, it was an actual door in my wife's childhood home. Anyway, she gave up her work table when we had kids and she had to vacate her studio to make room, but when we moved a few months ago--and she got a studio of her own again--she wanted it back. I had beaten it up pretty good in the garage, and had to resurface it. I chose Masonite (also called hardboard) and had to buy that new. 

The actual first thing I did was plan. I talked her into a trestle-style table base with a shelf on the bottom for storage. That combines good foot/leg room under the table with good strength and stability. Next (and, after I'd started, unfortunately), I decided I needed to practice making mortise and tenon joints, so I chose that as my joinery method (backed up by screws and bolts in certain places). Finally, I gathered up all wood I had around and planned the size and dimensions of the legs, bracing, and shelves around that.

I designed it so it could be broken down and moved easily in 6 pieces--4 legs, the trestle base, and the top.  I chose "lap" joints--where material is cut from each of the boards being joined--to attach the legs, and these were secured with 1/4" furniture bolts and T-nuts (unused from a previous project; 12 in all). With the lap joints, the weight of the table is borne on the wood structure rather than the bolts/hardware. This strategy minimizes hardware (and expense).

End view.
I covered the "door" with Masonite, a hard, smooth, durable work surface. The Masonite was glued down with Liquid Nails "Project" adhesive and held in place around the edges with 18-gauge nails (I have a pneumatic nailer which makes these kinds of projects a lot less tedious and a lot more fun). I had to buy the Masonite and the Liquid Nails new, but that was limited to a total cost of about $15.

Here is the finished product installed in my wife's studio.

Top/corner view, showing the hardboard covering on the top. I was pretty pleased with how it turned out.
Thanks for reading!