Saturday, 31 January 2009

Hand Saw Massacre

I had the distinct pleasure today of having to cut up some 3/4-inch birch plywood by hand. Ok, it was really neither distinct, nor a pleasure, but I did it.

Over the years I have used a number of different computer desks, a few purchased, a couple I built myself and one that was make-shift (on the boat I took over the dinette). A few years ago I finally got down to building what I thought was the perfect unit. Twelve feet long, the whole thing rested on three bases. At one end I built a two-drawer file cabinet and at the other, a two-door cabinet for stashing the printers, a scanner and the like. The center unit holds my hard drives; one Mac and one PC, both resting on a pad that rides on full extension slides. The base is 28” from floor to desktop, which I find perfect for keyboard and mouse use. At either end, bookcases run to the ceiling. The whole thing was built out of 3/4” birch ply and stained a deep walnut with a few coats of satin varnish (spar for the top). It looked like a million bucks, give or take for inflation. After throwing in a good pair of 5:1 speakers, I had the perfect set-up.

I spend half my life at that desk. When the decision was made that we were moving (one day my wife will explain to me how “we” came to that decision), there was no question the station was coming with me. Once the burly men with the strong backs had dumped all our possessions in our new abode, unceremoniously I might add, a glitch reared its ugly head. My beautifully designed 12-foot long computer station now had to fit into a 9-foot wide room.

It took me about 24 hours to finally come up with a solution. The only solution was to turn the straight run station into an L-shaped one. That part was easy, it was deciding which unit to put where that was the problem as I had to have space for the office chairs to slide in and out from under it without banging on either side each time. Surprisingly, the bases of those chairs are wider than my butt – who knew? I played with scale models digitally, moved, switched and tweaked the real life ones around and mucked with the figures on paper. It took a while, but I finally hit on what I thought would be the ideal arrangement.

Once the configuration was confirmed and the bases set into place, I was ready to install the tops. The originals were 28-inches wide and were flush with the face of the base cabinets. This was my only flaw, more because of aesthetics rather than serviceability. Because of that, I decided to replace the tops with wider units, going for a width of 29-inches. Ok, I’ll admit it; I’m anal about these things. Anyway, the tops were easy once I found a Home Depot that had their panel saw working.

With the tops installed, stained and with a few coats of water-based varnish (horrible stuff), I was left with two 6-foot pieces of ply that was already finished on one side. As my book and text collection has grown leaps and bounds these past few years I thought it would be prudent, environmentally friendly and just plain convenient to cut these pieces up into 10-inch strips to use as book shelves. Glitch number two.

To thicken the edges of the tops and make them more rigid, I had glued and screwed three 3-inch strips of ply to the underside of each piece; one down each edge and the third down the middle. You know what happens when you try to separate glued plywood lay-ups – they take a layer of ply along with them and that is exactly what happened.

The result of all of this was that after an hour and twenty minutes of pumping my Disston #12 Cross up and down, I ended up with my four 6’ long pieces of shelving. I had to hand cut 48-feet of 3/4-inch play to get them, each shelf requiring two cuts, salvaging the undamaged sections between where the removed lay-ups left their scars. Over the course of this exercise, as the aches grew more intense and the sweat more earnest, I kept thinking, “God, how did these guys build whole houses using these things?”

They are now off in the corner drying after having their undersides stained and shellaced. Tomorrow, I’ll give them a couple of coats of varnish (the real stuff if I can find it) and by Sunday, I should be able to unpack the remaining six boxes of books that are currently pilled in the hall outside my office door. It will be a treat to be able to walk out of the room without walking into a wall of cardboard.

Whose idea was it to do this hand tool thing, anyhow?