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Nursing used to be one of my occupations. For two years, until his death, Jock Harvey was one of the people I cared for.
Jock was skeletally thin, bent, nearly blind, wracked with arthritits, had emphysema ("No fella, I never smoked. It's from goldmining"), his skin was so fragile it bled and bruised at a touch. He was just strong enough to raise a cup of tea. But his mind was as clear as a mountain stream.
When Jock found out that I was interested in him as a person, in his past, and in learning from him, he became a fascinating friend and guide. He was passing on the old ways of doing things even in the last week of his life.
Jock had done everything. During World War II he was engaged in something very dangerous, but so secret that he never revealed any details, except that he had been tortured. As a young man, he worked in shearing sheds, first as a roastabout, then as a shearer. "In those days I could lift a bale of wool by myself -- and that weighs 400 pounds!" He had planted and tended trees, and cut trees down. He worked in timber mills, broke in horses, built houses, ran a farm. He was a dogman during the building of a large dam. This meant riding with a load across a mile-wide valley on a flying fox. He once built a tractor out of three derelict machines, of different brands.
Everything I have ever done or wanted to try has been done by Jock, out of necessity, for fun, as a challenge, or as a favour to someone.
This book is dedicated to Jock Harvey's generation: the battlers who grew up in the Depression, and who were therefore self-reliant, able to turn their hands to anything, and who didn't expect something for nothing but knew that you have to strive to achieve.
Keith Smith, original editor of Earth Garden magazine, and Alan Thomas Gray, his successor, have both repeatedly put me in touch with publishers and recommended me to them. They encouraged me when I kept proposing a concept that refused to fit anyone else's conception of what a woodworking book should be like. Publishers like to categorise, and I have always failed to fit into categories.
Michael Schoo of Aird Books decided to take a chance on me, when he heard from Alan that I had a half written book on woodworking. Michael has been great to work with, a partner and a teacher rather than a business opponent. The book has been improved by his flexibility, tolerance, inventiveness and professional competence.
Writing the book was easy, but drawing the illustrations has been a challenging learning experience. Tom Rayner was very helpful early on, and drew several illustrations. Unfortunately, they had to be cut out because the sections they belonged to were 'held over for another book' (Michael's euphemism). When it came to drawing furniture, Franz Hugens was of great help. My mate Phil Smith was a constant source of help and correction. Many of the drawings would have been completely beyond my skills without his advice. The drawings involving parts of the human figure were re-drawn or improved by Penny Jensz, a professional illustrator.
The writing was done on a succession of superannuated computers, which were made useable and supplied with sofware by my friend Russell Crosser.
Finally, my wonderful family put up with me -- not an easy thing to do when I am gripped by the curse of creativity.
This book consists of stories. Many are true happenings from my past. Others are fictional. Most contain useful parts: they may have one or more recipes (e.g. how to make a coffee table, hang a door, or build a cubby house) or instructions on some skills (e.g. sawing straight and true, or sharpening a chisel).
Where the technical details interrupt the flow of the story, they are banished into self-contained instructional sections you can access via links. These links are right aligned in the text, and italicised in the navigation bar.
The navigation bar to the left allows you to skip anywhere within the book. In most browsers, you can use the mouse pointer to reduce or increase its width to suit yourself.
This book tells you all about working with wood, and quite a few other practical skills as well. However, it is not a textbook, but a story.
Thirty years ago, if I hit a nail with a hammer, it would bend (the nail that is, not the hammer). I tried to service my motorbike once -- then had to take it to a mechanic so he could fix the damage I'd caused. I accepted everyone else's opinion that, while I was bright academically, I was an idiot when it came to practical matters.
Nowadays, I'm acknowledged as a very practical person indeed. I have been involved in the building of many houses of various kinds, including my own (which has no paid labour in it, and which cost me about $10,000 in materials). Between 1984 and 1999 I ran a course for owner-builders, teaching the skills and knowledge needed for all aspects of building. My book on building (the Earth Garden Building Book: Design and build your own house) was first published in 1987, and has so far gone through four editions. People contact me from all over Australia and from countries as far away as Hawaii, Samoa, New Guinea and New Zealand. Most of the time, I can give them the advice they need. And I know that there is no practical skill I can't pick up if I put my mind to it.
I don't mean to brag about my accomplishments. I listed some of them here as an example of an 'impractical idiot' who became highly skilled in many practical fields. Let me tell you a couple of stories...
I was a late starter: nearly 21 when I learned to drive. This is how it happened.
Mr and Mrs Brown ran a boarding house near the University. They had all sorts of tenants, including a petty criminal, some cadet policemen, Chinese students from Malaysia, an Aboriginal boy in the big smoke on a scholarship, and me.
Mr Brown was small, neat and precise, with a sharp tongue. Once a week he put on funny clothes and went off to something called 'The Lodge'. Mrs Brown was large, rounded but strangely graceful. She laughed a lot, sang loudly, and seemed to fill any place with her presence. She looked after 'her boys' with dedication. She liked to pack a few of us into her car and take us for an outing.
We were driving along Parramatta Road on one of these jaunts, past acres of car saleyards, when Mrs Brown suddenly pulled over and stopped. Luckily, other drivers took evasive action, but she didn't even notice. Her eyes were fixed on a strange object in a second-hand caryard. It was a cross between a small car and a scarab beetle: a wheeled, bug-shaped, bright turquoise coloured thing with silver curlicues on its side.
"Look at that! Isn't it lovely!" Mrs Brown breathed.
"That bomb?" said John in the back seat. "It's an old Renault, probably ready to fall to bits."
Mrs Brown ignored him, and by her usual magic teleported us into the yard. I'm not sure exactly what happened then, except that I ended up signing a piece of paper obliging me to pay all my meagre savings for the turquoise Renault. Afterwards I gathered that Mrs Brown had decided that I would buy the little car, and that she would teach me to drive in exchange for sharing its use with me.
She duly took me to get my Learner's Permit. I bought a book on learning to drive, and she actually gave me one driving lesson.
Then she went into hospital.
Until then I had not known that she suffered from bipolar disorder. During the weeks of our acquaintance, she had been in her manic phase. She now got depressed, and needed shock therapy.
I had a car, a Learner's Permit, which was to expire in three months less a week, but no instructor.
At first I satisfied myself by reading the book about driving, but it was like reading a cookbook when you're hungry. One week passed, then a second, but still no Mrs Brown. I was getting desperate. Finally I told myself, If those other idiots can drive, I can learn to do it too. I knew the theory, all I needed was a little practice.
I took off the L-plates and went for a drive -- never mind the law. No disasters occurred. The car did whatever I told it to do. I remembered to push the right pedals at the right times, change gears, and stay out of the way of other traffic.
Eventually I stopped at a garage to top up petrol. As the book instructed me, I decided to check tyre pressure and oil. I asked the attendant to look at the oil while I picked up the airhose.
This device was new to me. There was a gauge at the end of a long flexible hose. A double-ended stalk came out of the gauge. I didn't know which end to use, whether I needed to do anything to activate the gauge, or whether I had to take precautions to stop the tyre from deflating while I was checking it.
"Excuse me, mate," I asked, "how do you use this thing?"
"Strewth!" was all he said, took the airhose from my hand and did the job himself. The look he gave me said a lot though: What an idiot!
He was wrong of course. I was not stupid, just ignorant. Time and again I have come across the confusion between knowledge and intelligence, brains and current competence. To the experienced, it's all common sense. If you can't do what comes easily to them, you must be stupid. Don't you believe it. If somebody else can do it, you can learn to do it too.
When Jolanda and I got married, we had no money. I had a scholarship two couldn't live on. Her Dutch qualifications were not recognised in Australia, so she worked in unskilled jobs as a waitress and a salesgirl (but in a cake shop -- yum!)
We found the last cheap flat in Paddington, a run-down part of Sydney that was well on the way to becoming trendy. Terrace houses, once erected as low-cost housing for workers, were being 'done up' by what were later to be called Yuppies.
Our problem was an almost complete lack of furniture. We'll just have to save up, I thought. Jolanda had a better idea. "We'll go to auctions," she told me. "It's fun."
I've never thought that anywhere they try to get you to spend money might be fun, but we went and she was right. We inspected all the 'Lots'. What lots of junk! I thought, but didn't dare to share the pun. There was everything from boxes of plastic toys to antique sideboards. There were electrical appliances, tools (none of which I was able to use), tonnes of tables of all shapes, mattresses by the mile, long lines of lounges -- you've got the idea. There was quite a crowd too.
The bidding started sluggishly, but soon warmed up. I kept my hands firmly hidden. Jolanda bid for a double bed, but someone else wanted it more. There was a kitchen table with four chairs, but again the price went out of our reach.
We got to Lot 43: a black upright couch. I thought it might have come from an old-fashioned dentist's waiting room, but in retrospect a funeral director's was more likely. "Who'll give me $10 for this solid, comfortable couch?" yelled the auctioneer with false enthusiasm. He praised the wretched object for about two minutes, then started dropping the price. "Anybody offering $8? How about $5 then? Where could you get such a good couch for $5? All right, $4 then, but it's rock bottom. If it doesn't go now, I'll pass it in."
To my surprise, Jolanda raised her hand. The bloke was delighted. "I've a bid, $4 for the couch, anyone else interested? Speak up if you want it... Sold for $4 to the young lady in the yellow jumper."
"What did you do that for?" I asked with dismay. "It looks awful!"
"It's OK, love," she whispered, "I'll make it look nice."
This was the wrong time for a discussion, but on the way home (with the couch on the roof-rack of the Mini, sticking out fore and aft) I started the first disagreement of our married life. "Darling, you must have been out of your mind! I don't want to live in the same flat with that monstrosity!"
"It's OK. I'll take off that black vinyl and re-cover it."
"How would you do that? That's a skilled trade."
"1 can do it. I've done things like that before."
I didn't believe her. Upholstery is a trade with several years' training. I knew it needed all sorts of specialised tools. Besides, anything practical like that was a mystery to me. How could a woman, a woman with no training in the arcane secrets of upholstery, do any better?
Jolanda got busy during her lunch time on the following day, buying material from a remnants shop, a large curved needle, a packet of upholstery pins (things like drawing pins but longer and with dome-shaped enamelled heads), a small hammer, and a few other things I can no longer remember. She told me to cook dinner that evening while she got to work stripping the funereal covering off the monstrosity.
The next evening she cut the new material, using the old stuff as the pattern. Then, while I had to fetch and carry and "Hold this tight here, darling," she finished the job.
The couch's new skin was red, with round yellow and orange flowers all over it. It became the focus of our living room until we had to move interstate. A friend adopted it then, and for all I know it still graces somebody's home.
I didn't know it at the time, but this episode was the start of my downfall, from ambitious (but impractical) academic to multi-skilled (but impecunious) mudsmith. This book chronicles the change. Read it, and perhaps you'll find yourself following in my footsteps.
When Aird Books' publisher Michael Schoo responded to my proposal for this book, one of his suggestions was that I include a section on making billycarts. Well, when I was a child, billycarts were what other kids made. My first involvement with one was when I was twenty-two, living at the Sydney University Settlement.
The 'Settlement' was an old dance hall and a few houses in the slums near the University. It was meant to be a source of Good Works for the people of the area, but was little more than the excuse for an annual fundraising ball organised by the wives of professors. However, it was a cheap place to live. Students could rent a room very cheaply in exchange for time with the local kids. We supervised after-school play, ran sports groups, and took the little monsters on camps.
One day the Students' Representative Council advertised the Great Billycart Race. All Uni clubs and societies could enter, and there would be a $50 first prize. The route was a closely kept secret. Rules were: one person had to ride in the billycart all the way, another had to push uphill, and stay with the cart downhill.
I was training for distance running about three hours a day, so offered to be the pusher. A few of us had a brainstorming session, and came up with a novel design. It would have bike wheels on the back and pump-up scooter wheels on the front. This would make it the fastest billycart in history.
Peter was to borrow the back wheels from his father, who ran a bike repair business. He got Dad to make up the axles too. Sue studied Marketing, so offered to telephone Cyclops and get a loan of a pair of scooter wheels in exchange for 'ads' on the sides of our vehicle. Mark ran an after-school carpentry group with the kids. They would do the bodywork. Jenny offered to do the artwork with her after-school group.
Our super billycart was ready in a week.
The main component was a wooden crate with the front knocked off and the sides cut back at an angle. A piece of timber was bolted on the bottom, dead centre, so it stuck out to the front. A crosspiece was held to this with one bolt so it could turn. Axles were held on with large screws.
Mark decided to strengthen the box with an extra frame at the back. The top was high enough to allow me to push without having to bend over very far. The bottom rib of this frame was a ledge to stand on when the cart was racing downhill.
At the last moment I wanted some way of slowing down. Mark and I made a brake: a large block of wood hanging from an old car tyre's inner tube. I could brake by standing on the block with all my weight so it dragged along the ground.
Learn all about Bolts (and nuts and washers)
We lined the inside of the crate with an old foam mattress, and even nailed on an old car seatbelt. There was one problem. No-one at the Settlement was willing to be the jockey. I mentioned this lack to everyone I knew, and eventually found a volunteer, called David. Like me, he was a psychology student. He was a large, blond young man who rode a motorbike.
The trouble was that by the time I'd found David, it was the day before the Race! We needed some practice. So, just before dark, when the University was practically deserted, David and I took the super-billycart over to the Uni to try it out. Not knowing where the course was going to be, we decided to go up and down University Drive. This is quite a steep road with an S-shaped wind in it. We reckoned that if we could cope with this road, we could handle anything.
Pushing the cart up the hill with David's bulk in it was hard work. We turned at the top, I hopped on the ledge at the back, and off we went! We must have been doing 50 km/h before the first curve. That may be slow in a car, but not in our gravity-propelled vehicle. The wind whistled past us, the roadside was a blur. I stood on the 'brake', but to no effect. The curve was right on us. We were going faster and faster. The wheels on the right side lifted off the ground. I leaned to the right, but not enough -- over we went!
David was unhurt, thanks to his motorbike helmet and the seatbelt. I lost some skin, but not enough to worry me. The real problem was that I'd put a foot through a back wheel, which buckled beyond repair. It was late evening, and getting dark. The Race was on the following day.
"I suppose we'll have to pull out," I said half despondently, but also with some relief.
"No way!" said David. "The bloke who services my motorbike sells pushbikes too. Come on, we'll see if he can help."
We manhandled the lame billycart back to the Settlement, fortunately without being spotted, then I got behind David and we rode off to his contact.
The bike man was unwilling to lend us a wheel. Given our record, I couldn't blame him. However, he was willing to sell us one. There went my savings! After all, it was my foot that had assaulted the original wheel.
I started the day of the race with butterflies. Would we tip over again? I was already stiff and sore from yesterday's mishap. But by 10 o'clock we were at the marshalling area, with about 25 other teams. Bright sun poured down on the large crowd. I inspected the opposition. We stood out like a giant -- all the others had little flat fruitbox things with tiny wheels: ball bearing races, pram wheels and the like.
End of the free ride! You can buy the book to find out how the race went. :)
There is a large variety of bolts, for different uses. A bolt is a rod with a head at one end and thread over some or all of the shank. Its purpose is to hold together a number of members, e.g. two pieces of timber, or a metal bracket to timber. This is done by drilling holes through corresponding locations in each member, passing the bolt through the holes, and putting a nut on the threaded end of the bolt.
The head may be hexagonal or square so it can be turned with a spanner. A small bolt may have a slot for a screwdriver. It may be smooth and rounded, when it is called a 'coach bolt'; in that case, there is a square part underneath. This is meant to bite into the wood to stop the bolt from turning as you turn the nut on the other end, and no washer is used under the head.
a) Typical hex-head bolt: shank is thicker than thread
b) Washer: needed under both bolt head and nut
c) Nut, to match bolt in diameter and thread type
d) Full thread bolt
e) Small machine bolt: flange under head acts as washer
f) Coach bolt: shank thinner than thread
g) Square nut for coach bolt
h) Coach screw: shank is thicker than thread; coarse thread bites into timber; end is tapered.
Bolts come in a great variety of diameters, lengths, and, most important, thread patterns. I won't scare you with terms like 'Whitworth' and 'ASA'. Just note that the thread on the nut must match the thread on the bolt.
If you need long bolts, it's a lot cheaper to buy threaded rod (or 'allthread') which is cut to length with a hacksaw and has a nut placed on each end. For my house, I needed lots of 300 mm long, 12 mm diameter bolts. Instead, 1 bought 12 mm threaded rod, and nuts and washers to match. Total cost was less than half of what it would have been for bolts, despite the need for twice as many nuts.
Washers are important. They spread the pressure exerted by the bolt head on one surface, and the nut on the other.
The hole for a bolt must be a loose fit. The bolt works by pressure on outside faces, not by grabbing the inside of the hole. At best, a tight hole wastes time if you wind the bolt in with a spanner. At worst it leads to damage if the bolt is hammered in. Note that the unthreaded part of the shank is often thicker than the threaded part. The hole must be large enough to let the unthreaded part turn loosely.
Vibration loosens nuts. You need a locking device to fight this. Here are four: split pin and 'castellated' nut (a), nut with nylon insert (b), spring washer (c), and locknuts (d). (Locknuts were used on the steering of the super billycart.)
Never turn a bolt or nut with toothed tools like pliers, because the mild steel head (or nut) gets eaten away. Avoid shifting spanners too. The setting on the shifter tends to enlarge as you apply force. This also rounds the nut.
The best spanner is a socket, but it can only be used if the nut is near the end of the thread. Next best is the ring spanner. Finally, if a ring won't go over the nut, use an open-face spanner.
You must use the right size spanner. Too small or large is unusable. The bad case is the one that fits, but loosely. It will damage the nut, to the point where nothing will turn it. Even a shifter is better than a spanner that is a little too large. This problem occurs when you use a spanner made for one thread type on a nut/bolt with a different thread, e.g. a 'metric' spanner for an 'imperial' nut or vice versa.
Often the whole assembly insists on turning round as you try to move the nut. Use two spanners of the right size: one for the bolt head, another for the nut. Or use a pair of locking pliers like 'Visegrips' to hold one end (or the middle of the bolt if it is exposed). Locking pliers are toothed. However, they will do no damage if adjusted correctly, because they don't move relative to the bolt.
A bolt-nut assembly can be tightened to varying degrees:
A nut mightn't go onto the thread, or go a turn, then jam. This may have one of a number of causes:
Sometimes the nut won't loosen. The following may help:
There is often a need for holes in various materials. Here is a sample of techniques for making them.
A small-diameter hole can be made with a nail and hammer, especially in softwood. Hammer the nail in, then pull it out. This is suitable for jobs like mounting a catch on a flyscreen door.
However, for holes up to 6 mm (quarter inch) in diameter, the usual tool is the twist drill bit. Buy a good quality set of 'high speed' drill bits. They are already sharpened at an angle that makes them suitable for both metal and timber.
The drill bit is turned by one of several devices:
With all of these, ensure that the bit is centrally held in the chuck, as tightly as possible. Most drills have a little oil hole in the shank just above the chuck. Frequently squirt oil into here, but do not get oil into the chuck or the drill bit will slip instead of turning around.
This is hard work, even for an electric drill. Use a drill press if possible. You might need to go in a number of steps if you want a large hole through thick metal. For example, if you need a 10 mm hole, first drill a small (say 4 mm) hole, then a 6 mm hole, then go to 10 mm.
Before starting, make a mark in the right spot with a centre punch. Otherwise, the tip of the bit will skate around, and the hole will probably end up in the wrong place.
When the hole is almost complete, the bit often gets caught in the burr of metal created when the tip of the bit breaks through. This is especially likely with thin metal. Turn the drill in reverse, and move the bit up and down through the hole. This should break the burr off.
Warning: the fine slivers of metal extruded by the bit are sharp. Don't cut your hand on them.
Again it's a good idea to locate the hole with a centre punch. A nail will do. Especially for a deep hole, take care at the start that you are drilling in exactly the right direction. You can't correct halfway through if you go off at the wrong angle. Trying to do so will break the drill bit. However, you can make a platform for the tip of the bit if you have to drill at an odd angle.
Drilling makes a powder that is raised out of the hole by the twisted flutes of the bit. After a while the flutes become clogged, causing friction in the hole. This makes the bit heat up to the point where it expands and jams. A thick bit will refuse to turn. A thin one will break. It is essential to periodically pull the bit out of the hole and clean the flutes. Keep the drill turning clockwise while pulling the bit out. You may need to restrain the piece of wood with a foot, knee or clamp to allow you to do this. Pull without twisting sideways, or you will break the bit.
You sometimes need a hole of a set depth. You can buy an attachment called a depth stop to help with this. It is clamped to the bit so that only the desired length sticks out. I don't own a depth stop. Instead, I drill through a cork or piece of softwood, and use that.
Twist bits have to be sharpened occasionally. This needs a grindstone, and is a skilled job because it's easy to make the bit lopsided. You can buy a 'jig' to guide the job, or take the bits to a professional.
The brace and auger bit is a development of the auger, which has the same kind of cutting head, but is on a much longer shank with a ring at the other end. Put a handle of some kind (e.g. a screwdriver) through the ring in order to turn the auger.
Here is how to use an auger (or brace and bit):
Sharpen an auger with a 'fine cut' flat file to put a shine on all cutting edges. Don't touch the outside face of the cutting head, or you reduce its diameter. Then the higher parts will jam in the hole. Leave the screw alone too.
With an electric drill, you can use a spade bit instead of an auger.
You may need holes in brick or concrete. Use a masonry bit. This is a twist drill bit with special hardened tips on the cutting edge. It is driven by a hammer drill. Many electric drills have a hammer option that is easy to switch on.
Concrete usually has steel reinforcement in it. This can knock the cutting tip off the bit, so stop and pull the bit out if you feel a different resistance to your drilling.
The only other potential problem is that if you hold the drill loosely, the hammer action can move the bit around sufficiently to give you a larger hole than you expected.
And that's enough to show you what the instructional parts are like.
Published by Anina's Book Company
1/7 McGregor Ave
First published by Aird Books, Flemington, Vic. Australia, 1994
Text and drawings by Dr Bob Rich
Cover design Dr Bob Rich. Photography by Misu.
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