The thing about Baltic Birch

Baltic Birch (BB) has nothing to do with a type of birch tree, but more to do with a type of plywood manufactured in the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea, with the two biggest producers being Russia, and Finland. In Europe it is mostly used for cabinet making. In addition to Baltic Birch, there is also a product called Finnish Birch which is generally quite thin, and used for tasks such as building aircraft, musical instruments etc, with the 3-ply plywood version as thin as 1/64″ (0.4mm) (typically available from aircraft parts suppliers like Aircraft Spruce Canada).

Baltic Birch is composed of multiple layers of 1.5 mm-thick solid birch veneer, cross-banded, and laminated with exterior grade adhesive. Why spend more on BB ply versus cheaper versions? Firstly, BB produces a void-free core which makes it better from a fastener holding ability, and produces cleaner joinery. The face veneers are also thicker than traditional cabinet-grade plys. Finally, the exposed edges of BB are aesthetically pleasing and don’t need to be covered up. 

Baltic Birch ply comes in 1525×1525mm sheets, which approximates to 5’×5’, and is often sold as 3/4” ply in North America (although one can now find 4’×8’ sheets). But here’s the thing – it isn’t. It is only manufactured in metric, so the 3/4″ equivalent is roughly 11/16”, or 18mm, whereas 3/4” = 19.05mm. 1mm may not seem like much but it does make a difference in cabinetry which takes board thickness into account. The trick when measuring out is to remember this, and either work completely in millimetres, or convert to inches. 

What’s the deal with “one-time” tools?

There are some companies that just do great work in tool innovation. Woodpeckers seems to be such a company. They exude innovation, with some very cool measuring tools, jigs and fixtures. They even manufacture in the USA. There is only one problem, most of their tools are part of their “OneTIME” tool program, where they manufacture a tool for a certain period, and then “retire” the tool. It seems like an odd way to do business. Imagine the effort involved in designing and then manufacturing these awesome tools, then selling just a small quantity. A case in point is the “MT Center Gauge & Doweling Jig”. It seems like a really cool jig, but the order deadline was Nov.11, 2019. With any of these tools, you don’t exactly have a lot of time to think about ordering one, before it becomes EXPIRED. Weirder still is that the expired tools are often still on display on retailers websites. Is this some cruel way of saying “hey, see what you missed out on?”. Talk about rubbing it in your face.

Imperial versus metric?

I grew up using the metric system, where millimetres (mm) are the base form of measurement. Now, in Canada I live in a quasi-metric world, where “officially” metric is the system, but from a practical viewpoint imperial measurements rule, especially in the building industry. While at first I thought inches were somewhat archaic, to be honest as a woodworker, I prefer imperial over metric. I should point out here that there is no right or wrong, everyone has their own preference.

Imperial measurements are a throwback to another time, and north America is one of the few hold-outs. Although having said that, the worldwide airline industry still uses feet as the measurement of choice when designating altitude, and the nautical mile is used as the unit of measurement by all countries for air and sea navigation. Canada uses a bi-measurement system largely due to proximity to the US. Most wooden products bought here are specified in imperial, and grocery stores often sell produce by pounds (with kg also indicated). But why use imperial measurements?

I am sure from a scientific point of view, metric is better. Liquid measurement for baking makes more sense in millilitres. But that’s mostly because in the kitchen there is rarely need for measuring things down to the ml. Baking using grams also makes more sense, but then there are digital scales to do the heavy lifting. In the metric world, the divisions are millimetre, centimetre and metre, although the latter two never really seem to be used from a measurement perspective, i.e. you don’t see 137mm expressed as 13cm/7mm. In some places they even specify building specs using mm.

Measuring in inches

In metric we start with the millimetre, add ten of them together and you get a centimetre – 100cm gets you a metre. The problem with metric is divisions, or rather the lack of them. I think a mm is too small a measurement, and cm is too close to that. Add too many mm together and the number gets too big. In imperial there are inches, and feet which are conveniently different enough to be useful. Larger numbers can be broken down into smaller units. Smaller values are easier to remember, and deal with. Of course there is the decimetre, equivalent to 10cm, but hardly used. European cookbooks will often use decilitre to signify ml, e.g. 3.6dl instead of 360ml, but some things don’t seem to translate even within measurement systems.

Measuring in mm

From a woodworking perspective, 1mm is a tiny unit, akin to 1/32nd of an inch, which from a tolerance perspective may be too small. I tend to work only to 1/16th inch tolerances, so while 1mm may be even more precise, I wonder how relevant that is. How fine is too fine? How many woodworking projects need that level of precision?

At the end of the day, sometimes imperial measurements are just easier to visualize. My house is 14 feet wide, which is easy to visualize, because one foot is easy to visualize. 168 inches is less easy, and 4,267mm, not so much. You can measure roughly what a foot is, so you can approximate distances – doing that with metres is not as easy. There are some companies that make what are termed “engineer’s scale” tape measures, which use a decimal scale, i.e. divide the inch up into tenths. A good example is the Stanley Powerlock “Engineer’s Scale”.

Never underestimate the utility of a caliper

Whenever I go to the tool show there are always tools that sit on what could figuratively be called the “end of the bench”. These are not traditional woodworking tools by any means, and usually involve measurement tools, more akin to be used by a machinist than a woodworker. But here’s the thing, there are times when an instrument such as a caliper is worth its weight in gold. There are many forms of caliper (or calliper), an instrument used to measure the distance between two opposite sides of an object. 

Outside and inside calipers.

Calipers have not really changed that much since Roman times. A Roman caliper was characterized by two bowed legs, joined at one end so they can pivot. The caliper was used to transfer measurements between two pieces of work, or between a schematic, and a piece of work. 

Roman calipers.

Most calipers used by woodworkers are of the form that have two legs held together in some manner such as a riveted joint. These are typically in the form of simple inside, outside, or combination inside/outside calipers. Others such as the “Lancashire pattern” are more complex, in either wing or spring varieties. In the wing caliper, a curved wing is attached to one leg, and passes through a hole in the other, and is used for fixing the legs in the required position with a small thumbscrew. In a spring calliper, instead of being connected by a movable joint, the legs are connected at the top by a steel spring. The distance between the legs is regulated by a wing nut fitted to the end of a threaded rod which is pivoted to the centre of one leg, and passes through a hole in the other.

Spring calipers

These calipers are often used by woodturners. Outside calipers are used to measure solid cylindrical work, whereas inside calipers are used for measuring the diameter of turned recesses, hollow cylinders etc. There are also some quite interesting versions of calipers, usually designed to resemble legs of come sort.

Lady’s legs calipers

NB: Machinists often use a micrometer caliper. These tools measure in terms of thousandths, or 1/10000s of an inch. They can be in the form of inside, outside or combination micrometers, or even depth gauges (or gages).

Whatever happened to the Monsanto House of the Future?

From 1957 to 1967, there was an attraction at Disneyland’s Tomorrowland called the Monsanto House of the Future. Sponsored by Monsanto, it was advertised as the “Plastics Home of the Future”, demonstrating the structural and household application of plastics, and their “limitless potential”. The 1,280 ft² house was comprised of 16×16 foot utility core, atop a 16×16 ft² foundation. Projecting from each side of the core was a 16×16 ft² cantilevered “wing” module, each formed from two 8×16 foot U-shaped moulded modules [1]. A great series of pictures showing the construction of the house is available in this article: Living in the Monsanto House of the Future. It, like so much of the cool architecture of that era (e.g. Montreal’s Expo 67) was demolished later, but what ever happened to the concept of plastic houses?

One of the main idea of this house was the notion of modular design, and soft, curved surfaces. The winged design in the shape of a cross was suppose to provide daylight in every room, and reduce noise. It was the complete plastic house, which had moulded units in the bathrooms, urethane foam for insulation and cushioning in furniture, and upholstery, draperies and carpeting made of acrylic fibre and nylon. Sounds great right? Well, likely anyone living in such a house long-term with the all those 1950s plastics might not exactly feel that great (imagine all that plastic off-gasing).

However the concept was remarkable, at least from the perspective of the house itself. Now I don’t like plastics, but I wonder if there isn’t some place for modular house built from recycled plastic (like this one in Nova Scotia)? Part of the allure of this house is of course the fact that it is curved. Curves make for a much more aesthetically pleasing abode. That’s largely because in the environment there are few natural objects which have the sharp lines of human houses. Most things are naturally edgeless (except rocks or course).

Monsanto House of the Future, by Ralph Crane, licensed under CC BY 2.0

The other cool thing about this house was the fact that its skin was practically seamless (theoretically, because the designers had no idea how plastics, and sealants would hold up over time), and designed in such a way where water would just run-off. Every room would have access to ample light. Utilities like plumbing were designed to sit inside the floor cavities, the houses were termite-proof, fungus-proof, but not exactly fire-proof. In a 21st century version of this house the skin would be covered in some form of flexible solar cells, and rain-water could be collected for gray-water use. The house could even be designed to rotate to make the best use of available sunlight. Of course it’s hard to know how such a house would truly function, especially in cooler climes.

The concept of modular houses has been around for a long while, but we never really advanced in implementing the more radical designs. Yes, there are modular houses built from shipping containers, or even more traditional frame houses that are modular, but something truly innovative? What if we took all the waste plastic in the world, ands recycled what we could, creating a plastic which could be formed into modular houses, that could be used for situations where people needed housing because of natural disasters or the like – but permanent, sustainable housing. Recycled plastic might also be useful in designing earth-sheltered houses.

The Bubble House

There were of course other modular plastic houses, such as the Bubble House by Jean-Benjamin Maneval (the prototype was unveiled in 1956). But the only thing we could have taken away from these plastic houses we ignored – simple, modular design that is capable of adapting to differing environs and our changing lives.

[1] Ernst Behrendt, Plastic House, Popular Science, Apr. 1956, pp.143-147

The Carpenter

There is a very interesting picture book called Orbis Sensualium Pictus (Visible World: OR A Nomenclature, and Pictures, of all the Chief Things that are in the World, and of Men’s Employment therein), which is a textbook for children written by Czech educator John Amos Comenius and published in 1658. It is a visual encyclopedia of sorts, with a picture numbered with items that are described in the verse-like text below. On one page is “The Carpenter“.

This picture comes from the 12th edition, published in London in 1777.

We have seen Man’s food, and clothing:
now his Dwelling followeth.
At first they dwelt in Caves, 1., then in
Booths or Huts, 2. and then again in
Tents, 3. at the last in Houses.
The Woodman felleth and heweth down
Trees, 5. with an Ax, 4. the Boughs, 6. remaining.
He cleaveth Knotty Wood with a Wedge, 7.
which he forceth in with a Beetle, 8.
and maketh Wood-stacks, 9.
The Carpenter squareth Timber with
a Chip-Ax, 10. whence Chips, 11. fall, and
saweth it with a Saw, 12. where
the Saw-dust, 13. falleth down.
Afterwards he lifteth the Beam upon
Tressels, 14. by the help of a Pully, 15.
fasteneth it with Cramp-irons, 16. and
marketh it out with a Line, 17.
Thus he frameth the Walls together, 189. and
fasteneth the great pieces with Pins, 19.

Aesthetics and tool design

The useful and the beautiful are never far apart. – Periander

The ancient Greeks had a saying that the useful and the beautiful were always allied.
– Tuckerman

Prehistoric humans were concerned with survival. That is not to say that aesthetics did not play a role in the tools they made. But let’s face it, catching food took precedence over making a tool look pretty. Tools were often at the core of social, economic, and cultural life of these Paleolithic societies. However in their own way many stone tools were aesthetically designed, whether their makers realized it or not.

Aesthetic – concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty

The modern use of the term “aesthetics” was introduced in 1750 when German philosopher  Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten wrote a book titled “AESTHETICA”, written in Latin using many Greek words. The word had existed before and meant sensation, to mean taste, or sense of beauty. Baumgarten defined taste, in its wider meaning, as the ability to judge according to the senses, instead of according to the intellect. In the first paragraph Baumgarten defined “aesthetica”:

Aeasthetica (theoria liberalium artium, gnoseologia inferior, ars pulchre cogitandi, ars analogi rationis,) est scientia cognitionis sensitivae”.

Which roughly translated means:

Aeasthetica (theory of the liberal arts, the lower gnoseologia, the art of thinking beautifully, the art analogy of reason,) is the science of sense perception.

Aesthetics today has three major fields of meanings:

  • Aesthetic = Artistic (cultural)
  • Aesthetic = Aisthetic (perceptive)
  • Aesthetic = Callistic (beautiful)

Beauty is objective and universal; thus certain things are beautiful to everyone. Aesthetics in the simplest sense has to do with the beauty of an object. When you pick a raspberry from a bush, you tend to choose the bright red, firm raspberries, with no apparent visual defects.

Atomic espresso machine
An atomic espresso machine

The Atomic coffee machine is a great example of aesthetics (Atomic was a trademark and slightly different designs were manufactured by companies in Italy, Austria, Hungary and the UK). Made to percolate coffee on a stovetop, the design was the work of Giordano Robbiati, and was introduced in 1946. It is an icon of design, proving that aesthetics has a role to play in designing tools.