Sunday, November 6, 2011

How Much Wood Would a Woodworker Work, if a Woodworker Would Work Wood

I'd love to have a shop. Even a garage.

I've been working my way back into building things. I have every intention of following the Pulp Adventure hand cannon, plus the medal clasps, space pilot badge, retro style headphone amp and so forth with new props. I invested in basic casting supplies and re-learned some of the technologies. I taught myself how to leverage AVRs to control servos, lighting, and other effects. I started a basic collection of home tools. It is time to start in on some projects!

I'm particularly interested in trying out the quick-fabrication technique of laminating and shaping MDF and sintra over a simple steel core, to make prop guns and swords. This is a natural task for a scrollsaw, which I have been thinking may be my next power tool acquisition.

I've already been asked to consider a stunt version of the Fury Gun, plus a display stand for the one I already made, and to finish a Lewis Gun kit for that matter (and I have a handful of smoke grenades waiting on the final part).

But I'm also very intrigued at making a musical instrument or two. A solid-body electric guitar (or uke) is about the simplest luthier project possible, outside perhaps of a nearly-finished Saga kit. Trouble is, the mechanical demands (strength, weight, tone projection) pretty much require hardwood. And that means that hand tools and a Dremel would take a very, very long time.

And there's two good reasons not to expand my home power tool collection in that direction. One is cost. The other is that an apartment is simply inadequate for sturdy benches, space to lay out, and even basic dust and noise control.

Small tools (aka, a tool that is undersized for the job) suffer from the same flaw as cheap tools; they take longer and, in the end, cost more.

(A cheap tool may get you through one project before it breaks. Try to do more than one, and by the time you finish replacing blades, handles, and finally the whole thing (with another tool of equivalent cheapness) you could have gone ahead and gotten a decent one. And the decent one would have made the cuts faster, neater, taken less clean-up, had less risk of ruining a workpiece requiring you to start from scratch, and, oh yes, less chance of ruining YOU causing you to at the very least spend a lot of money in the local Emergency Room.)

(It's the "Vime's Law of Boots" all over again, and places like Harbor Freight make a great business selling cardboard soles to those who haven't the capitol to invest in better.)

If I were to stick with smaller hand props and softer materials (aka plastics and softwoods, not hardwoods and stainless steel), I could get by with the kinds of smaller tools I already own. It still isn't as FAST, however, as having a full shop. With a full shop you have space to multi-task; paint is drying in one corner, glue setting up in another, and power tools operating in a third.

With a full shop you also have the ability to work fractally. That takes a word of explanation! If all you have is file, you can cut a shape. You just keep filing until you've removed all the wood that doesn't look like the final shape. If you have some tools but limited space, you can get out and set up a jigsaw to rough in the shape, then finish with the file. That is working fractally. But in that limited space, it isn't always worth the time to set up that other tool, and the other tool may not be capable of hogging that rough cut anyhow. So you still end up doing a lot of tasks start to finish with the same tool.

In a full shop, you can stop in the middle of filing, slap the shape on a table saw to cut off most of the excess in one swoop, carry it to the bandsaw and rough in the cut, carry it to the belt sander to do a quick round-over, chuck it back in the bench vise to finish up with a collection of rasps and files, then plug in a hand sander to clean up.

At each point in the ongoing tasks, you can divide it into zones where one tool is more appropriate, do that sub-task, and immediately shift over to the tool most appropriate for the next sub-task. This makes the work much, much faster.

With jigsaw, scrollsaw, dremel and hand files I would have three fractal levels (overlapping quite a bit) to swiftly shape wood and softer metals of smaller thicknesses. The tools would bog down on the largest cuts necessary to build a rifle-sized prop, but for the sizes under I'd be within the zone of efficiency.

These tools, however, are completely out of their weight class in dealing with the 1 3/4" thick hardwood slabs of a solid-body electric!

Right now my best options seem to be an external shop. I could try to sneak a little time in the scene shop at a place I do a regular gig at. It would be semi under-the-table, however, as their insurance doesn't cover outside workers. A better option just might be TechShop. They have the tools. To get access to them, you need both membership dues, and a safety-and-basic-operations class for each tool/class of tools. Those classes can add up quick, at $60-80 per class. And there is no test-out option.

However. The woodshop SBU at the local tech shop includes not just the band saw, table saw, and radical harm///radial arm saw (which I am very, very familiar with after some twenty years in theater scene shops), but panel saw, scrollsaw, and a couple of other things I wouldn't mind so much paying $65 to get up to speed on.

Of course, the wood lathe is another $65, and the planer-joiner and the router table are another $65, and the former is a great tool for prop-making and the later group are both assets to the luthier.

At least the check-out classes last forever; you can think of them as up-front costs. After that, you can just pay for a one-month membership when you've got a project coming up that needs it. Not as convenient for the kind of crazy schedule theater imposes, or the "work on it for a weekend, put it aside for a bit while you work on something else" style most of us are accustomed to. But if you can't afford the money or space for a 4 x 8 foot shopbot at home...

At the moment my plan seems to be to drop in at TechShop SF and see what it really looks like -- how crowded, how well set-up, how conducive to working on a project I could schedule in there. I'm also going to attempt a task breakdown for the solid-body uke to see if I can sneak the larger hogging into the scene shop on a visit or two, and complete the rest with the tools at home. And while I'm out, refresh my memory of power tools available at the local hardware stores, and check out the stock of hardwoods at McBeath.

And if it works out, get some kinds of tools that will allow me to continue on prop making that will also handle carving up a mock-up to see if my ideas look realistic for a playable instrument that would be worth the cost of building.

The cheapest I can get this thing to happen is still over $200. The fish-tail design I came up with requires custom headstock and with that, and quality hardware, the price increases to at least $300 parts and materials. One way or another, I think I need to add another $200 for tools -- whether that is TechShop membership and class dues, new power tools, or (most likely) a combination of the both.

And seems very much sensible that into that matrix of options I need to throw those combinations of tools and plans that have me building a couple of items I KNOW I'm getting paid for.

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