Our Blue Solarity

This year we did something that I have been wanting to do since at least 1970–power my shop purely by the light of the sun. We invested in a solar power array for the Samurai Woodworks studio, placed on our ample 8-in-12 pitch south-facing roofs. It is a bit scary taking this step, but I think it will ultimately be well worth it, not only in terms of helping with the bills, but helping with the world. I feels good to think that no more coal and gas will have to be burned to power this one small corner of it.

Not only does solar power generation save money over the far future, it’s a pretty incredible deal economically for the right-now: the federal government, and KCP&L, Kansas City’s electricity provider, both provide financial help towards  solar power arrays. The installation here will cost us only a fraction of the total, something which made it economically possible for us to do at all. In addition, over the years we will have reduced shop electric bills that will more than pay for the investment.

Sun Source Homes of Kansas City did the installation for us. Wanna see? Here’s a video of their crew putting the project together:

As time goes by, I will watch to see how the unit performs. Perhaps I’ll post again in a few months, and share how well or poorly the new solar array works. Perhaps I’ll be using only liquid golden sunshine to power the computer!


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Walk in the Woods

It’s the first thing you hear. It will take a few minutes before you notice, but eventually you will realize it’s been shouting at you ever since you set foot in the woods.

The silence.

Once you’re past the tangle of underbrush at the edge of the forest, it shouts even louder, as all evidence of civilization slowly dissolves between the leaves, and you stand alone, in silence, in a place that has not been touched for ten million years.

There you are with the trees. You can see why J. R. R. Tolkien put walking, talking trees into his story of the hobbits and the Ring. Here, you know the trees are alive, because you can hear them, talking to you. Standing still, waiting. And talking, in a raspy rustle of a whisper that somehow makes perfect sense.

Stand a little bit with them, then. Just for a moment. You could go back to the world again, and you will, of course, eventually, and do all the things that you will do. But for just a moment, you get to stand still with them and listen to all they have to say.

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Challenge to Self

I had a great idea for a brain-teasing design challenge the other day. I thought of it when I was thinking about a time when I was eight years old. I had always hated onions, and one day at dinner I told my mom about my dislike. Instead of telling me to eat them anyway, all she said was, “Well, you could learn to!” 

Here’s the idea:

Pick a genre of creative endeavor — painting, dance, music, literature, architecture, poetry,  Kabuki — any medium of expression and creativity. It can be your favorite genre, but it doesn’t have to be.

Got it?

Okay, now, within that genre, pick a particular example that you absolutely loathe. If you’re a Sinatra person, for example, perhaps it’s dirty ghetto rap that sets you off. Or maybe you love rap, and for you it’s the German Flugelhorn that will get you wailing. If you love deep poetry and inscrutible prose, how about television ad jingle lyrics?

Whatever it is, make sure it is a mode of expression that you detest, hate,  despise, one that makes you squirm, sets your teeth on edge, perhaps even pushes your buttons. Got it?

The challenge is: Make yourself listen to it. (Or watch, read, attend, play with, dance to, or whatever your genre requires.) Absorb as much of that genre and style as you can lay your hands on. Spend an hour or a couple of hours just listening to the songs that make you nauseous. Go to the museum and force yourself to stand motionless before those boring portraits of dead guys that you detest. Do this over and over: whatever you consider the awfullest stuff, go out and overdose on it. Take it in until you’ve had it up to here.

Okay, enough, don’t overdose. You’re done now.  Go back and listen to your beloved Wagner or read Proust or whatever it is that really floats your boat, and get it all out of your system.

Part two of the challenge: go back over your memories of that horrible time when you exposed yourself to all those horrible things. Think about which, of all the things you sampled during your brave voyage of discovery, was the least disgusting.

Not the best, since you probably hated all of them. But the least vile. Maybe one that you liked even though you didn’t want to.

Once you’ve picked it: Part Three.  You liked that piece more than the others, or at least disliked it less. Why? See if you can figure out what aspect, what characteristic, what difference in style, content or presentation  made this example more likable?  Was there some unexpected depth to the lyrics? Did a sudden musical phrase catch you off guard in a good way? Did you find all of a sudden that you didn’t mind those endless expanses of  burnt umber in  paintings of the Kansas plains, and could see their beauty for the first time? In other words, if you liked this example more than the others, discover what it had that the others didn’t.

Got it?

That’s it. I’m not sure what it is that you’ve got, exactly, but it can’t be all bad. After all, I do love onions!

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Design is Spelled with a “See”

“All right, that’s it!” I thought. “It’s time.”

There it was, a vase full of tulips sitting on the kitchen table, right in front of me. They’d been sitting in front of me for twenty minutes. I hadn’t seen them. Their delicate petals were already pulling away from the stem and curling outward to begin their ending, the blown-out look of withered blossoms.

When my wife walked by and I commented on the flowers, she told me she’d put them there herself two days ago. That’s when I decided. It was time.

I had forgotten how to pay attention.

How to see, how to look, how to observe — in short, I’d been focusing on everything else but what was around me.

Maybe we all have a tendency to fall into a rut: our eyes get lazy and simply stop looking at things outside the path of our daily doings. We don’t stop and smell the flowers. But this was crazy. I sat right in front of something without seeing it, for two days.

It was time to practice looking again.

I headed toward the Nelson Atkins Museum. I figured an art museum is a good place to start.

I looked up the old masters wing. You know, those guys from long ago: Monet, Manet, Pizarro, Titian, and a hundred others. I started looking. Sure enough, soon I saw a painting that seemed to flash off the wall and pull my eyes back in with it. So real! And then, another. See what I mean? Right there, beyond that hill in the distance, it looks so lifelike, I can’t believe it’s just goofy paint! On canvas! Then I think about the fact that this guy could do that, trap the essence sunlight  in oils and keep it trapped for five hundred years. I feel like an idiot, standing here centuries later gawking like a baboon.

I round a corner and see it there again, the light. It’s glinting off a purple finch over here in one of the Water Lilies, it’s streaming down from heaven over there in a landscape, it’s commanding the edge of each blade of grass over amidst the pointillists. It’s everywhere. I stand in the rays, bathe my eyeballs in it. Sweet and colorful, the purple finch light here, the glorious red there, the singing dancing whirling colors.

Then wham! I turn around and it hits me in the face like a flat shovel: a stab of sunlight breaching the museum window. I never saw it! But there it is, sneaking past a corner wall, smearing the far wall and seizing all the interior space by force. All the paintings wince.

I look out the window. There’s a gardener mowing the lawn outside the museum wing. He crosses back and forth in front of the window, a moving work of art, an art of work, part of the scene and part of the art. I forget where I am. The gardener follows his own spoor around a corner and disappears. I start betting with myself how long he’ll take to return. I see his return path, the point where he’ll probably appear. I wait. And wait again.


Pop! There he comes, striding workmanlike over the vast green sea, taming it row by row. Does he know I’m watching him? He sees me. I wave. Does he know he’s part of the art exhibit? I can’t tell.

Where is the art again? I’ve lost track.

I walk home, somehow satisfied. I am amazed at just how many things I seem to notice on the walk back to my own part of the world.

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Building Furniture is Really Easy

When I first began building furniture, I loved doing it so much that I wondered why more people weren’t woodworkers. Everyone I met would say, “Gosh, I’ve always wanted to do that for a living!” But they all did something else for a living that they enjoyed far less. I felt pretty lucky by comparison, and thankful. They had to sneak in their fun on the weekends, while I could do it full-time! This will be so easy!

Well, it turns out that woodworking is easy. It’s the “for a living” part that’s hard.

I quickly learned that there are a whole swarm of tasks that are part of “doing it for a living” that I had never thought about, or felt I had to think about. Most were a real pain in the butt. Marketing. Bookkeeping. Packing and delivering. Designing. Logo design, for gosh sakes!

For a long while, I did these things resentfully, wishing I could hire someone else as a Man (or Woman) Friday. Someone who could talk to the customer, design their project, price it, do whatever paperwork was called for, and just give me the working drawings so I could stay in the shop and do what I loved. Then this Friday person would go deliver it, get paid, deposit the check, and leave me alone. In my most ridiculous fantasy, Friday would varnish the piece too.

These were all things I just didn’t want to do. What eventually had to happen was either that I find a Friday somewhere or learn to do these things myself. I discovered that no one alive could do all these many things all equally well, and that nearly no one would want to. Sure, I could contract any of these tasks to someone else, but not all of them. And contracting to someone else is not necessarily the easiest, simplest, timeliest or least expensive path to getting a thing accomplished.

Well, then, I’ll give a quick list of it all:

Preparing: Finding somebody out there to buy the work. Meeting with them. Shaking hands, discussing their needs. Finding out what they would like. Or, helping them decide what they like. Making sure both you and the client agree on the design; in other words, is the picture in their imagination the same as the one in yours? Establishing their financial commitment to the project. Establishing your ability to provide them with the project. Getting their approval for you to begin work. Finalizing the design and producing working shop drawings. Producing a drawing for the customer to see. (Not necessary, but very useful for that mutual imagination thing.) Giving them an anticipated time schedule. Inviting their participation in the project as it proceeds, with questions or suggestions. Going over the details (it is not possible to overdo this part) to make sure nothing was overlooked. Finally, saying, “I’ll be in touch in a few week when your piece is ready!”

Okay. Then just go build the furniture, and you’re done!

Just kidding. You weren’t fooled, were you? You’re so smart.

Now that the piece is built and finished: Getting the furniture ready to deliver. Packing (or shipping) and delivery. Arranging help and supplies to deliver it, if needed. Packing the piece into the truck. (Need gas?) Delivering it to the client’s house. Placing or installing it: attaching, repairing, detailing, and readying the piece for its lifetime of use. Sweeping or vacuuming up your mess. Thanking the client, explaining anything they need to know about the use and maintenence of their new custom furniture. Arranging for payment. Letting them know your availability if they have any problems.

Alright, NOW you’re done.

Sorry, not quite. There are those long-term tasks that will greatly help your future Mr. or Ms. Friday. Putting the client in your client list. Following up with them in a month, or a year, and finding out how they have enjoyed your work, or if there have been any problems (problems they may not have called YOU about but will tell you if you call.) Storing any records of the project, drawings, or important papers in your permanent file. Done?

Hurry, before I change my mind. Go cash the check.

Having tried to learn these peripheral skills through the years, sometimes painfully, I found that the process of just sitting down and devoting time to learn something about them, though sometimes a struggle, made the sitting down more enjoyable. It was very satisfying to know how the world of accounting, or marketing, or shipping, or designing, works, or at least to master some basic skills.

And every so often, perhaps after you’ve stopped thinking so hard about it, you look around and realize: “I can do my own bookkeeping!”

I heard a phrase the other day, “Lifelong Learner”, that seemed to sum it up.

Few things are more fun!

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