Speaker tables

Just because I don’t have enough projects going on right now, today I started another one. I’m taking some old speaker cabinets that Dad made and turning them into bedside tables. The first step is to sand down past the beat up finish to the original wood.
A little more background on the speakers from Dad:
Those were made while I was at Ft. Hood, TX.  Mahogany wood enclosure with Radio Shack speakers and crossover.  They had a wood working shop in the fort.  All you had to do was buy the wood, which they had as well.  They had all sorts of tools and electric saws.  Seemed like I had to pay 40 or 50 cents a linear foot which was really going over board!  I came up with the design myself.
 The electronics had been toast for a while, so rather than trying to restore them to actually be speakers again, I decided that giving them a second life as bedside tables would be a good way to preserve Dad’s work.

Maple candlestick

I’ve finally completed a maple piece that began as a class project in February. During the process, I’ve learned that “candlestick” refers to what I’ve made, not the taper candle that I have put in it.

The goal of this project was to make a mortise and tenon on the lathe. The stem has a tenon that is glued into a mortise in the base. This first picture is what I had at the end of the first class in which I worked on the piece: a roughed out base and too-tall stem. The stem provided for the class was originally 12 or so inches. I decided to part off the top 4 inches to save for another project, because clearly any candlestick taller than a 17 oz. bottle of sriracha sauce is just too tall.

Notice that at this point there’s a bead at the bottom of the stem. On Jim Wallace’s good advice, you want to have a bead or something at the bottom to help cover up the inevitability of your shoddy mortise and tenon joinery. Eventually I got rid of the bead, and was left with a shape that left my shoddy joinery exposed, as per Wallace’s foreshadowing.

rough base and stem of maple candlestick

Below is the finished candle stick shape. At this point it became clear that the two pieces of wood were different colors. I’m not experienced enough to know yet if this means they were actually different kinds of wood or that the cuts were just different enough to make them different shades. I like the profile of the base well enough and am happy that I was able to repeat the 3/8″ cylindrical detail in three places along the stem, along with some curves that were complementary. I tried to echo these shapes in the base…

Unfinished maple candlestick

… but I didn’t quite get there with the part that surrounds the mortise.


I was actually hoping to do something closer to a “hollowed form” there that would make one continuous curve extending under the stem and around to the edge of the base, but I got nervous and thought I should keep it simple for now.

Here’s the first lighting of a candle in the candlestick:


Same soldering iron set up for the pyroghraphy, much more patience.


Overall, I’m happy with the piece, despite the different-looking colors of the two parts and the not-quite-snug joint between them. This was also my first experience with a spray lacquer finish (after an initial coat of equal parts tung oil/mineral spirits /polyurethane). I like the glossy finish and finer sanding job more than I thought I would.

Marie’s thoughts

Yes, Daddy did dip his bird dogs in creosote to treat them for ticks and fleas. I remember watching from a distance, because it smelled so bad, as he dipped them in a 50 gal barrel filled with creosote solution. I assume it was somewhat watered down from the version used on crossties. That was in the late 1950’s. Daddy and the dogs survived.

But given what we now know I believe it best not to proceed turning the timber that was once part of the Minter City depot. I hate that we will not be able to experience those imagined unique turned pieces of history and creativity.

I did some research online and found that The Ayer & Lord Tie Company, a crosstie and railroad timber plant, was built in Grenada, Mississippi in 1904. I believe, pine is native to the hills of Grenada, whereas hard woods are native to the Delta area. Now called Tie Plant, outside of Grenada, is about 35 miles from Minter City. This plant is probably the source of the timber for the two story depot.

The 1914 report of the Mississippi Railroad Commission shows that the plans for a depot at Minter City were presented by and approved. This may be referring to the two story depot in which my family lived. Daddy remembers papers in the depot that stated it was built in 1901, but I believe that was referring to a depot in Minter City built prior to the two story depot to which this report is probably referring.

Back to the creosote. In the book, The Life Of Edward E. Ayer, John B. Lord states, … At first we treated ties with chloride of zinc which is a good preservative, but not so good as creosote. Now our treatment is mostly with creosote, which we import from abroad and unload at New Orleans into large tanks with a capacity of 4,000,000 gallons. We import now an average of one cargo a month.” That’s a lot of creosote! I find it interesting that some very small part of the mentioned creosote still exists in Michael’s piece of wood.

The same day Michael cut the small piece from the railroad timber, I salvaged some tongue and groove beadboard from the Daddy’s shop floor. This, too, had come from the depot that was torn down in 1964. I am planning to make some photo frames from some of the salvaged pieces. Although, it does not contain creosote, the grey paint probably contains lead. And the “mud” in the tiny grooves of the beadboard is a result of the 1973 flood that my parents experienced. I decided to seal these contaminates with clear varnish.

I do not have my camera in the same town as the unassembled frame, but may post a photo at a later date.

Thanks for reading.

Soldering Iron Pyrography

I’m at a standstill with trying to turn something out of Papaw’s wood. Even if he used to dip his bird dogs in creosote, I don’t think I can in good conscience turn it in the public workshop I’ve been using knowing that it could pose a health risk to others. Maybe I’ll try to figure out something else to do with it that involves less spraying of toxic wood chips everywhere.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to hone my skills on less sentimental wood. Today’s skill is pyrography: the burning up of your piece while you pretend to know what you’re doing.

After I completed my first bowl, I promptly hacked the bottom to pieces trying to carve my name into it. Following some bad advice on an online forum, I had first tried using a nail and my new mallet. When that wasn’t working, I switched to a smaller nail. When that didn’t work, I switched to my pocket knife. I now affectionally refer to my first bowl as the “prison bowl” since it looks like I got stabby with a shiv.

Having resolved to be a bit more civilized next time I put my name on a piece, I thought I’d try my hand with pyrography. I have a pretty nice Hakko FX-888 soldering iron (yes, it’s yellow and purple) with an adjustable heat range, so I wanted to try to use it as a substitute woodburning pen. Although pyrography generally requires much higher temperatures than electronics work, my Hakko goes up to 900 degrees fahrenheit. I bought a dedicated tip to use in case something went terribly wrong.

I just completed a votive holder, and thought it would be a good piece on which to try wood-burning my signature. I say this because it is actually the remnants of my very first attempt at woodturning (it was supposed to be a goblet) so it wouldn’t matter much if I screwed it up. Here are the results: soldering iron on the left vs. prison technique on the right.

candle holder and bowldetail of pyrography attempt on candle holder

I can’t say that I love this either, but it does seem like an improvement and I’m sure it will get better with practice. One thing I’d like to experiment with is burning before finishing. The candle holder was already finished with a couple lacquer coats when I burned, so maybe burning first and finishing afterwards could help smooth out the unevenness. And though I had the temperature at 750, I might could go even higher next time. The pen had a tendency to catch on the grain, and perhaps a higher temperature would help with that. The thing that might forever prevent me from reaching the higher echelons of fine pyrography is my “benign tremor,” i.e., my permanently shaking hand. What I really want to try is my library’s new laser cutter!

Here are some details of my, er, mid-century style candle holder. I like the hourglass shape in the profile and that I was able to achieve a very thin wall at the top (just don’t look at the massive gouges inside). Perfectly functional and not bad for a ruined goblet!

votive candle holderprofile of candle holder  

Creosote-soaked railroad tie?

The first part of my woodturning class was taught by Bill Wallace, and I had him take a look at a chunk of Papaw’s wood. The second half of the class was taught by his brother Jim, and I took a different chunk to him to examine. He said, “You’re not going to tell me what Bill said it was, are you?” I laughed and told him he was right, but Jim also guessed Pine. However, Jim added an extra observation that was very interesting.

The wood has a very distinct smell – an olfactory note that I had always associated with Papaw’s shop. I had always assumed that it was the smell of the various machine oils or what have you that Papaw used, but Jim suggested that the smell was creosote, a preservative commonly used on railroad ties. Being a good librarian, I promptly googled creosote and came up with this page from the Montana State University extension program, which then led me to this page from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry As luck would have it, creosote is “probably” carcinogenic to humans. At the beginning of this project, my biggest problem was my inexperience turning. Now the problem is whether I can turn this into anything at all that won’t pose a health risk to my family!


I have started to inquire about turning creosote soaked wood on this woodturning forum. One person there pointed out that not necessarily all of the wood would be treated. In the photo above, you can see that there are clearly dark parts on the outer edges. This would seem to support the creosote theory. The part on the left that is rotted appears to have not received the same amount of creosote as the parts on the right. Some of the turners on the forum caution against touching it at all, and others say proceed with caution. I’m wondering if some of the risk could be mitigated by bandsawing off the dark parts. In any case, this bears further research. I will consult my colleagues at the NC State Natural Resources Library (and probably my cousin Chris!).

The Christmas cactus next to the wood is from the amazing specimen that was at my grandfather’s funeral. We’re not sure yet if it has taken root.

Fortuitous Pine Find

I just happen to have one of the best commutes around. It’s a ten-minute stroll that starts near the Raleigh Little Theater outdoor amphitheater and rose garden, a WPA project that supposedly was built on the site of an old horse-racing track. It ends, most days, at one of the two main libraries of North Carolina State University, D. H. Hill. (Our shiny new Hunt Library is where I spend the rest of my time, a trickier commute.)

The walk really proved its worth today when I spotted this:

pine logs on the side of the roadJim (Bill’s brother, who’s teaching us the spindle part of the woodturning class) had just been telling us that we would have no trouble finding wood to turn. He gets a flurry of phone calls every time there’s a storm, he says. Well, last weekend we got a bit of icy snow, and low and behold: wood on the streets, chainsawed to convenient carrying-sized lengths. This is great, because I wasn’t going to feel like a real woodworker until I had turned somebody’s refuse into something beautiful useful.

Seeing it on the walk home, I got our truck and went back to load up. I got five pieces that range in diameter from 6 to 12 inches. The logs are about 2 feet long and seem to be in pretty good shape, almost entirely free of checks (spits down the grain on the ends) and cup shakes (splits along growth rings).Wood logs in the back of my Ford Ranger

Growing up in Mississippi, we had pine. Lots of it, and it was all just pine, no specific species for me, thank you. Which is to say, I’m no tree ID guru. Five minutes of research with our National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Southeastern States and the internets has led me to believe this may be eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), but it’s definitely pine. While green pine seems to not be particularly well-loved by some woodturners, others seem not to mind as much.

In any case, it is a serendipitous find. My family had believed Papaw’s wood to be cypress, but when I showed the wood to Bill, he suggested that it might in fact be pine. For large beams under a shed, that makes sense to me, but again, I don’t know much about trees. While the green limbs I found today will undoubtedly behave much differently on a lathe than 100 year-old lumber, I grabbed enough today that I can practice some without being too worried about the outcome and still learn something about the nature of turning pine. If it’s difficult to work with, I should get some experience with that before putting Papaw’s on the lathe.

That’s the plan anyway. I’ll also learn something about preparing wood to dry, which will be the subject of a later post.

Hickory Mallet

Hickory Mallet

I’m going to be taking my time with Papaw’s wood. I’m still unsure exactly what objects I want to try to get out of it, but even more than that, I still need to learn and practice the techniques of woodturning before putting any of his irreplaceable wood on the lathe. So this blog will also feature some of the things I learn before finally turning the wood from Papaw’s shed.

At the NC State Crafts Center class tonight, I got my first taste of spindle work (the previous three weeks have been on bowl turning). Essentially there are two kinds of turning: face work where the grain runs perpendicular to the axis of the lathe (bowls, platters, etc.), and spindles where the grain runs parallel to the axis of the lathe (goblets, table legs, pens, etc.). I am more attracted to the bowl form than what I can do with spindles, but Bill suggested I could get two spindles and a bowl out of the medium-sized piece of Papaw’s wood. In order to get the most out of it, therefore, I’m going to practice spindle turning as well as face work.

One of the nice things about woodturning is that you can get a complete piece in a few hours. Ellie is holding a mallet that I made out of some green (i.e. not dried) hickory in a couple hours tonight. Hickory is very dense wood and therefore good for mallets. It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t have a lot of detail, but it’s a mallet, so it doesn’t matter!

I flattened the top and bottom on the shop’s belt sander. I didn’t bother sanding the handle too much to help give it a better grip. Because it was green, we finished the mallets with a mixture of linseed oil and beeswax to keep the exposed end grain from splitting. I’m looking forward to hitting some stuff with it!