Rebuilding a bench

Driving home from work one day in April, I spied this bench sitting in front of a neighbor’s house. It had a sign on it that said, “Free. Just needs new boards.”


It certainly needed new boards. The metal also had some rust and I figured if I was going to the trouble of disassembling the thing to add new boards, I’d refinish the metal, too.

The next question was what wood to use for the boards. About a week after I acquired the bench, I was out at my friend Mike’s place. He had an old cedar post that he had no use for. Said he’d been saving it for me because he thought I might want it for carving wood.

So I took the post to TechShop and cut it into boards. Here it is on the bandsaw, shortly after I started cutting it up.


And here are the rough cut boards, all of which are between one and one and a half inches thick. They’re about five feet long and almost eight inches wide.boardsI put the boards up in the garage rafters to dry for a while (about two months), and put the bench aside. I also took the TechShop class on sand blasting and powder coating so that I could use that equipment when it came time to finish the project.

I had some time on my hands last week because I found myself between jobs for a week. So one day I went to TechShop with the metal pieces and the boards, planning to finish the bench. It took almost four hours to sandblast the sides and back, and another three hours to powder coat them. A long time, but the results were worth it.

My next task was to dimension the lumber: plane it down to 3/4″ thickness and cut the slats to size (2″ wide by 48″ long). Planing went as planned and when I finished I went to check out the table saw key. But the saw was down due to a faulty safety switch.

Two days later the saw was up and I got the boards cut to size. Then I set up a jig on the drill press and put the screw holes in the end. At about 6:00 that evening I put the bench together for a test fit.



I was so happy the way it turned out. I knew I’d have to take it apart, of course, to put a finish on the wood, but it looked so nice! Until I sat on it and sagged. Turns out that, although beautiful, that red cedar isn’t nearly as strong as whatever wood was originally on the bench. I’d have to strengthen the boards or the bench would be just for show.

So the next day I went back to TechShop and spent some time adding a spine to the bottom of each seat slat:


The spine is simply a piece of wood that’s 1″ wide by 3/4″ thick, and about three inches shorter than the slat. The spline is attached with screws and wood glue (and on this one, a couple of dowels). The spline is attached vertically (i.e. it’s one inch tall in this picture), and more than doubles the strength of the slat. By now it was Friday night and I had to let the glue dry for at least 24 hours before applying a finish.

I applied the finish on Sunday morning: two coats of Teak Oil. I let that cure for about 10 hours, and Debra helped me put everything together.

benchdone_640The bench now sits in a flower bed in the front yard.

More than anything, this project was a learning experience for me. I had to learn how to use the sandblasting cabinet (no trouble, really), and how to powder coat something. Although the powder coating turned out okay, there are some things I could have done better. I also learned how to dimension the lumber and make sure that all of the boards were exactly the same size. Even setting up the drill press and making sure the holes were all in their right places took a few tries. I was smart enough to use some scrap wood for that because I had only enough wood for one mistake. And that ended up being used because one of the slats ended up with weak spot that would have broken the first time I sat on it.

And I certainly didn’t save any money on the thing. These benches are available band new for $70 or $80 online or in local stores. I spent nearly $50 on the brass screws! The powder for the powder coating was another $20, although I have about half of that left over. All told, the thing probably cost me $100 out of pocket for various hardware items and tools, not counting the cost of the class. Much of that, of course, can be amortized over many projects. It’s not like I’ll have to pay for another class when it comes time to powder coat the porch furniture that’s losing its paint.

It took a good four or five days of work between cutting up the lumber, stripping the paint prior to sandblasting, and then the sandblasting, powder coating, and extra wood work to add the spines. Learning new things takes time.

But it’s the best looking bench of its type!

Besides, I’ve said before that no self-respecting hobbyist would pay $20 for something he can build himself for $50.

It really was a good learning experience, and I could probably do it again for much less money and in a lot less time. If I run across another of these benches free for the taking, I’ll pick it up. I don’t have enough cedar to do another one, although I could likely get more if I wanted to. I do, however, have plenty of other types of wood that would look good on such a bench.



A chance meeting

Debra and I went to Phoenix last week to attend a court hearing (a family matter), and to get some things she had in storage. The trip itself was not exceptional except for one thing.

When we arrived at the court house on Tuesday, Debra went to the information desk to find out which room the hearing would be held in. I was seated not far away answering a work-related mail message on my phone, but within earshot. I could hear that people were talking and even pick out Debra’s voice, but I wasn’t paying attention to what was being said. But then I heard another voice that I sounded very familiar.

When I looked up Debra was walking away from the information desk, and the familiar voice was coming from a Sheriff’s deputy at the desk who was looking in her direction: from my perspective facing more away than in exact profile. I suppose you could say that I was seeing his right rear quarter.

The voice, combined with the profile and the uniform, prompted me to walk toward him and say, “Bob?” He turned around and, sure enough, the deputy was indeed Bob: a guy I knew in military school. We’d met at a few reunions since then, and when I saw him eight or ten years ago he was a deputy with the Maricopa County Sheriff.

We chatted for a while and marveled at the unlikely meeting. Bob’s take on things was “It’s a small world,” and I couldn’t disagree.

But on the way back from the hearing I got to wondering, “what are the odds?” More precisely, what was the probability that I would run into that person at that time. At first it seemed highly unlikely, but then I did a little calculation.

The number of Sheriff’s deputies in Maricopa County is something less than 1,000. If you assume that we had to encounter a deputy, then the odds of it being Bob were, at worst, one in 1,000. That’s not so very unlikely. If you narrow it down to deputies who have that court duty (probably fewer than 100), then it’s only one in 100. And if you restrict it to deputies who have duty in that particular court building, then it’s probably better than one in ten.

Given the conditions, that I ran into Bob is not terribly surprising. It wouldn’t seem surprising at all if I lived in Phoenix and knew that his current assignment was at that building. In fact, I probably would have been looking for him when I entered the building and might even have been surprised if I didn’t see him.

Mathematics aside, a seemingly random encounter with an old friend was a pleasant surprise.

I love this. It’s what? I hate that!

When we were kids, we spent a lot of our summer days at home, playing in the pool and jumping on the trampoline. And nearly every day, Mom would make sandwiches for our lunch, which she served outside on the patio picnic table. Those sandwiches were usually lunch meat: bologna, salami, or something similar, along with Miracle Whip and some lettuce, and maybe other stuff. The details are a little foggy now, 45 years later.

I do recall that at some point Mom began making the sandwiches with leaf spinach rather than lettuce. One day, after several days of eating these slightly modified sandwiches, my youngest sister, Melody, commented: “Mom, I really like this new lettuce!” That was a mistake.

You see, of the five of us, the three oldest (myself included) knew that the “new lettuce” was actually spinach. I’m not sure about Marie, who’s a year younger than I, but I know for certain that Melody had no idea that she had been eating spinach for the last few days. And of course my brother and I thought it was our duty to educate our sister. I’m not sure which one of us actually said, “That ‘new lettuce’ is actually leaf spinach.”

Melody looked up at us skeptically (we might have played some tricks on her before), and then looked at Marilyn (oldest sister) for confirmation. Marilyn had already done a face-palm, knowing what the reaction was going to be, and Melody took that as confirmation. She put her sandwich down and said, “Ewwww. I hate spinach!” She wouldn’t finish her sandwich and for weeks after that she’d carefully inspect whatever was put in front of her to ensure that Mom wasn’t trying to sneak something by. If she didn’t recognize it, she wouldn’t eat it.

Understand, Melody was maybe five or six years old at the time. So I guess I can cut her some slack.

Back in the late ’90s, a friend came to visit and Debra and I took her to have sushi. Our friend liked a particular type of sushi roll, and was excited to be having it again. I don’t remember exactly which roll it was, but one of the things she really liked about it was the crunchy texture and the taste of the masago (capelin roe) that was on the outside of the roll. Since she liked sushi and was ecstatic about having that roll, I figured she knew what she was eating. So I said something about fish eggs.

Her response was worse than Melody’s: she put down the piece she was holding, spit out what was in her mouth, and then drank a whole glass of water to get rid of the taste. This was after she’d already eaten two pieces of the roll while enthusiastically telling us how much she liked it. But after she found out that masago is fish eggs, she wouldn’t touch another bite.

Since then, I’ve seen similar reactions from many other people. I call it the, “I love this. It’s what? I hate that!” reaction. I can almost understand it with food, because I’ve been in the position of being told what something was after I ate it, and I felt the internal turmoil of having eaten something that I probably wouldn’t have eaten had I known what it was beforehand. But I can’t at all understand that reaction when applied to other things. Politics, for example.

I’ve actually seen conversations that went something like this:

Person 1: “That’s a really good idea.”

Person 2: “Yeah, when President Obama proposed it, I ….”

Person 1: “Obama proposed it? What a stupid idea!”

And, of course, several years ago I saw similar conversations, but with “Bush” replacing “Obama.”

I would find it funny if it weren’t so common. It seems as though, when it comes to politics, a large fraction of the American public is more interested in who the ideas come from than if the ideas have any merit. We call that “tribalism.” It’s stupid in the extreme.



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