December 27, 2011 — 1412

Japanese waterstones

I got a Japanese waterstone for christmas. I’ve wanted for some time to learn how to sharpen an edge properly on a stone, rather than with one of those little sharpening jig things. There’s an old oilstone sitting in the basement somewhere but it always clogs extremely fast…from what I’ve heard, waterstones are generally faster and cleaner and fairly straightforward to use.

(Lee Valley)

I soaked the stone for half an hour to get it properly loaded, and watched a couple of videos online to get the idea of the proper technique. With time you apparently develop a sense for how the blade is sliding on the stone and the sounds it makes to know if you’re working it properly, but at this point I’m only really able to tell by feeling the edge and trying to guess whether it got sharper or duller. 😛

So I sharpened a whole bunch of knives, starting off with some of the cheap old ones sitting in my toolbox to get the idea. Getting the angle right is critical, of course, and the required pressure was more than I expected. I think I did a decent job: I turned a completely dull and rusted knife that I found on the road into something that’ll cut a tomato, got my pocketknife sharp enough to slice paper like an X-Acto blade at the tip, and honed a Japanese carpenter’s knife into an edge sharp enough to shave with. Seriously. It’s pretty clear from that how the different grinds and steels affect the sharpness of the blade — the Japanese knife has the shallowest grind and is made of very hard, very brittle high-carbon steel, while the Found Object knife has a pretty steep grind and the blade is flexible, so it’s probably mild steel or something equally cheap. Of course that does mean that the Japanese knife is fragile, while the Found Object stands up to much more abuse. Always a tradeoff.

My sister says I look like a sociopath sitting at the kitchen table slowly sharpening a pile of knives one by one. But any boy scout can tell you that a sharp blade is safer than a dull one…and besides, who doesn’t like having nice tools?

December 15, 2011 — 1612

Fixed the power drill

I got the aforementioned power drill with great bearings all cleaned up and working beautifully again! I decided to make a separate page about it, though, so you can find that over here. Suffice it to say this is one heck of a piece of machinery, and a design lesson to boot.

December 09, 2011 — 1637

This is a good bearing

I’m repairing a power drill (more on that later), and I found inside it a rather excellent ball bearing.


* Why is “ball bearing” a synonym for “steel ball”? A ball bearing is a bearing, i.e. a rotary fitting that supports a spinning shaft, that uses balls to reduce contact area. It isn’t a marble made of steel. I’m guilty of calling the balls “ball bearings”, but the more I think about it the more I wonder why we needed a more obscure and less accurate metonym for “steel ball”.

December 05, 2011 — 0605

A strange new camera

Guess what I found at the flea market today!

It’s heavy — 15 to 20 pounds. It’s clearly made entirely of cast steel or brass, painted with a pebbled black anti-reflection finish. It’s beat all to hell and has a military ID plate on it. It is a Fairchild K-20 Aerial Reconnaissance Camera. And it cost 30 dollars! Awesome.

(“Light weight”? You have GOT to be kidding. I guess compared to the behemoths that they mount in dedicated reconnaissance planes it’s lightweight, yeah, but this thing is three times of the weight of any other camera on my shelf.)

This is certainly one of the strangest cameras I own. It has a fixed focal length and only three shutter speeds, but a steplessly variable aperture. The shutter release is a pistol trigger on the right handgrip. The flip-up viewfinder is an enormous glass lens with a crosshair inscribed on it and bent wire with a ball on the end sticking out in front — you align the ball with the crosshair and you know you’re on-axis. Incidentally, this is exactly how aircraft gunsights worked before the reflector sight was invented.

From what I understand of the history, these cameras were most commonly used in B-17s and B-24s in the Second World War to assess bomb damage on the ground. Someone would basically just hang out the window (or look down through the bombardier’s pit) with the camera around their neck and snap photos of the destruction for later analysis. Given where I found it, it’s more likely that this was used in training, but It’s possible that someone could have taken it up in a CF-101 or similar.

The thing uses 5″ film. Not 4×5 sheets; a 5 inch, 200 foot roll that would I suppose hold around 450 exposures. These types of aerial cameras also usually have a vacuum system that holds the film flat against the plane while shooting; I don’t see a vacuum connector anywhere on this camera, so it likely has an internal vacuum pump (yep, really). I cracked the back open in the store and saw that, amazingly, this thing still has film in it. I quickly closed it back up — not likely to be good any more, but if there was anything on it hopefully I didn’t fog the internal shots too badly. I’ve avoided opening the back again until I can get it into a darkroom for developing. I wonder what’d be on it? There was a recon wing at CFB Trenton back in the 50s and 60s, which would have been about the right era for this camera to be in use…aerial photos of southern Ontario farms, then? Or will it turn out to be Soviet missile bases? Stay tuned…

November 25, 2011 — 1649

M2 License

My plastic M2 license has finally arrived in the mail! Finally I can quit carrying around these various “photo ID only” driver’s licenses and the dumb paper forms that stick out of my wallet funny.

I have two nearly identical invalid licenses now, though, because when I went in to get a temporary motorcycle permit to take the course they said “oh, no, your license says ‘AVENUE’ and we need it to say ‘AVE’, that’ll be 17 dollars for a new card please”, and then they mailed me a replacement plastic license which arrived about three weeks before this new one did. Now that I have a GM2 license, the G-class AVE card is no longer valid. Oh well — more ice scrapers I guess.

Anyway, now I can officially ride a motorcycle at night, go on 400-series highways, and carry a passenger. And that sort of terrifies me, because I don’t in any way feel confident enough in my skills to do any of those things yet. I plan to spend at least another couple of days puttering around at low speed in the neighborhood or the college parking lot…like I said in the earlier post, it takes a surprising amount of coordination to effectively control the engine and handle the motorcycle at the same time. And that’s coming from someone who drives a standard* and commutes by bicycle.

Can’t do any of that without a motorcycle, though! To Kijiji I go…I’ve heard good things about older Honda CBs. A CB350 would be just perfect, I think:

*Why is it still called a standard? I’d say about 90% of North American cars have automatics in them. And now we have cars with CVTs and planetary gears and odd gas-electric hybrid drivetrains…I imagine the term is going to get really confusing to teenagers learning to drive in the future when a “standard” is something only old, rare classics have any more.

November 12, 2011 — 1922

Driving Lights

I recently finished installing some new lights on my car.

Long story short: In order to register a car less than 15 years old in Canada, it needs to have daytime running lights. American cars usually don’t have them, and my Ohio-Arizona car was no exception. I had to officially import my car from the USA in order to keep valid insurance while I’m up here, so I needed to install DRLs.

I tried a couple of different strategies. The legal requirement is that when the car’s ignition is in the RUN position, a set of approved daytime running lights must be on. The statute has some fairly draconian rules about what is acceptable and what isn’t, and the specific details of how much light output you need etc. change according to how you produce the light. You can turn on your low beams at full power, or your high beams at 40% power, or your turn signals all the time, but they must go out when the headlights are on and in that case they have to be specially qualified lenses…and so on and so on.

So I tried a few different techniques.

Attempt #1: the Ford ZX2 is available in Canada with daytime running lights of the “low beams on all the time” variety, and in the fuse box there’s an empty socket labeled (DRL). Could it be as simple as installing a fuse there? Plug one in and no, of course, it couldn’t be that simple. No dice.

Attempt #2: Maybe there’s an additional module needed to control the DRL systems. That makes sense, since legally the running lights are required to turn off when you have the headlights on. They wouldn’t install this extra module in a car that didn’t have DRLs, because it would be a waste of money. So maybe I can find one of those at a junkyard and snap it right in? Internet searches suggested that there might be a module that fit in the passenger wheel well, but I couldn’t find a clear answer either way so off to the library for the Escort (1996-2002) service manual. I spent a while looking at wiring diagrams. Eventually I concluded that it wasn’t just one module — it was a couple of relays that needed to be installed in different locations, and possibly a different wiring harness for the headlights. I’m certainly not going to rip out the whole harness for something that I can do in a much simpler way, namely:

Attempt #3: Splice a relay directly to the headlights and connect it to something that has power when the ignition is on, like the thermostat or the stereo. I bought a good high-current relay and screwed it behind the left strut tower, and started stripping the wires going into the left headlight. Connected the relay to the headlight and to power, touched the relay trigger to the battery terminal, and….

…the left headlight came on. Not the right. Are you kidding, Ford? You made two separate circuits for two lamps that will never, ever need to be operated separately? What could possibly be the reason for this? You made so many good decisions in this car, too…I love my non-interference engine and those unexpectedly comfortable seats. Why would you do this to the headlights?

Oh well. That means that I have two choices: go back and start stripping the wiring harness much further up the chain, where it’s an inch-thick bundle that I REALLY don’t want to mess with; or make a second splice into the right headlight and run some wires across the engine bay to power it. But why would they be on two separate circuits? Are they fused separately, or something? Maybe there IS a reason the two lamps are on different circuits, and I’d be making a big mistake by connecting them together. Probably should avoid blowing up my ECU.

So…what else can I do? Well, there is one other option…

Attempt #4: Put a whole new set of lights on! I went to Canadian Tire and asked them whether a set of driving lights would qualify as DRLs, provided that I installed them within the right parameters (40-130cm above the ground, as far apart as possible, visible from certain specific angles) and aimed them properly. They said “basically, as long as there’s light on the front of the car when the ignition is on, it counts.” Awesome! So I picked up a set of 3″ driving lights.

Finally, something that’s likely to work. I installed the lights behind the grille, peeking out. I powered them up and measured the light throw with a protractor — they fit within the government requirements. From there it was easy to hook them to the relay I’d already installed for the headlights, and aside from a minor headache trying to get the relay trigger through the firewall’s rubber cable boot (pro tip: tape the wire to a barbecue skewer and use it like a giant needle) it was straightforward to get the lamps going. Find something in the fusebox that’s live when in RUN and dead at other times, splice into that, and ta-da, new DRLs! Full compliance with Canadian MVSS regulations, and I hooked it up so that they go off with the low beams but come on again in parallel with the high beams for maximum illumination. Oh, and when they’re off, it makes the car look like it has little fangs. Cute.

Fun fact: I don’t actually know what I connected the relay to. I just measured things with my multimeter until I found one set of contacts that worked the way I wanted them to. I think it might be the positive line to the fuel pump but without going back to get the wiring diagrams I can’t be sure.

So with that, and the other various things I had to do to get the car registered up here…I now have a completely legal Canadian car that also still has its US federal compliance sticker. Hallelujah! I can bring it back and forth across the border and register it in either country with minimal hassle, wherever I end up going. It’s a dual citizen, just like me.

October 24, 2011 — 1532

Motorcycle course, part II

Well, I’m hooked. Gotta get a motorcycle now.

I rode one of these

And man, what can I say? Everyone should at least try this, even if they never go on to get a license and a bike. Maybe it’s just my love of cycling, and this is like, cycling (^n)…but it’s completely a blast. Well, in a different way — bicycling has its own strengths. But leaning over 35 degrees in a turn? Twisting your wrist and surging effortlessly forwards? How could anyone NOT love that? Controlling the machine is a bit of a physical puzzle, too — coordinating all four limbs at once while steering and leaning. All the better.

Once I get my car properly imported and legalized in Canada, I’m looking for a bike. Vroom vroom

October 17, 2011 — 1555

Motorcycle course

I decided to take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course at St. Lawrence college. I figure that given my interest in bicycles, and these ongoing ideas to convert some of mine to electric power, I should probably get licensed to ride a motorcycle. The MSF course, well, it sure seems like a no-brainer thing to do if you want to ride a motorbike at all, and at the end of it you’re qualified to get the M2-class license without having to deal with the Ministry road test. I’ve never ridden a motorcycle before, but I do love those single-track vehicles, and there’s something really appealing about the look of an old British standard…


(Image is from  Great site — you don’t need to know a single thing about motorbikes to appreciate this level of mechanical art.)