Words about construction

How did I get here?

I think it’s fascinating the reasons people have for starting a business, or for not starting one. I wish I understood the difference better between people who work for themselves and those who prefer to have a job.

To start with, I have noticed that many of the people I know who prefer to have a job don’t think of themselves as working for some one person in particular. The people I know at Amazon know that Bezos is up there, but I don’t get the sense that many of them think of him as their boss- he’s more like a figurehead or a mascot. Kinda like Bill Gates was at Microsoft. Not many worked for Bill, they worked for Microsoft.

My ex’s dad was an employee. Or, as he would say, he had a career. He didn’t like me because I was self employed and, in his eyes, that meant that I was someone who wasn’t reliable enough to create a career. I wasn’t made of the right fabric to be significant in a real place.

That, I believe, is one of the things that keeps some people in the role of employees- they have a path, they have a goal, and they know that these places will pay them to be on that path and will reward them at the end by supplying the necessary benefits to achieve that goal.

Some of us don’t have a path that they can see, much less a goal. That takes time, sometimes.

I started off my working life in the fishing industry in Southeast Alaska. It wasn’t a very normal beginning in any sense of the word; we were living on a small island and we were the only residents. It was about fifteen miles by boat to the nearest town, Elfin Cove. It is sixty miles by air (or around a hundred by boat) to Juneau, the nearest city, and the only real hospital near. My mother fell ill and we hitched a ride on a passing tugboat that was heading to Juneau. I still remember paddling out there in the blue plastic skiff we had, the salt spray and the rope ladder dragging in the water. When we got to Juneau Mom was admitted to the hospital and we (I have a twin brother) somehow wound up staying on the tugboat for a few days. We walked the docks and offered to clean people’s boats to get some spending money, and a couple people bit. We were cleaning a skiff when another fisherman, Harlan, came along and recognized us as the kids from the island.

He asked what we were doing, where our folks were. After hearing that our mother was in the hospital he left to see how she was doing. We went back to cleaning, finished up the job and were sitting on the tug when Harlan returned with a proposition. “I talked to your mom, and she said you can come fishing with me. You guys will be my deckhands. You can keep all the humpies (Pink Salmon), and I keep the rest.” That’s all we needed to hear, and off we went. By the end of the second day Harlan let us know that we were going to have to change the deal a bit as the only thing we were catching were humpies. I think we were a little disappointed, because we’d been keeping track.

Work has always been a place of skills acquisition for me. That first job was fascinating- we learned about charts and perused them when Harlan would let us in, looking at his hand-scribbled notes about catches, weather, and true depths. We learned to change out the bait at different times of day, about keeping track of what was catching, how to spot when we had something on the hook and how big it might be. We learned about cleaning the fish; this was an ice boat, and these would be prized fish sold whole at the markets, so we had to gut them perfectly. Harlan had shown us to keep the roe in a bucket, he kept the hearts and would fry them up with eggs for breakfast. The bloodlines were cleaned with a spoon, only the rounded side so you don’t rough up the lining.

When we returned to the mainland work had become expected. I washed dishes at my father’s bakery, worked at my mom’s short lived landscaping business, prepped and cleaned at my stepfather’s painting and drywall business. When we lived in farm country there was always work at the dairies and bucking hay, or picking filberts. Everything we did had some story, some skill to be learned. It doesn’t take long to figure out that the more you know the fewer ditches you’re being asked to dig.

In Seattle there were computers. My friend Noah had a bulletin board. This was in 1981 and the computers were cobbled together out of what parts we could scavenge or buy. Floppy discs and modems and purloined phone cards to cover the cost of roaming the world. I realized that I didn’t have much interest in computers then, but figuring out how to use them was fairly easy. If I’d been more interested I probably would have been able to make one of those “careers.

Instead I left school and fell back to fishing. Work the summer, travel the winter. I knew enough to know that even though the money was good in winter, the work was tough, cold, and filled with people who didn’t have anything else to do. Or they were making a career. Perhaps if I’d had some better captains I would have made a career out of fishing, but I wound up working for a couple bad apples and didn’t see a path to getting my own boat or even a job on a boat where it would be worth staying.

I am not afraid to try new jobs, new industries. I worked in restaurants- there, too, I didn’t make my choices on finances, but on what was available to learn. Instead of working the front of the house waiting tables or tending bar, I chose the kitchen where I traded learning how to use knives and how to cook during long hours for a fraction of the pay the waitstaff made in their 5 hour shifts.

Poor perception of the markets has been one of my achilles heels. In Portland I helped a friend set up his iMac. This was the first generation, and those introduced millions of people over the age of 50 to the magic of email. If only they could figure out how to set up the machine. From my perspective it was about as easy as computers get- it was all pre-loaded on the machine. All you had to do was follow the prompts. That was too much for people who pretty much wanted to play solitaire and send emails to their kids. Setting up one led to setting up another, and then people were offering me money to do it. Way too much money, in my opinion at the time. $60 to spend 1/2 hour working, and another hour explaining email while being fed coffee and cookies? Kinda like stealing money from babies.

That did lead to a job at Oregon Health Sciences University. One of the iMacs was owned by a secretary to one of the lead cancer research doctors and they were working on their Federal Cancer Research grant, one that they do every 10 years and designates them a Cancer Research Center. They needed someone to install, troubleshoot, and get a program going that would automate the footnotes and links. They had the program. I set it up in a morning, and then sat around making sure it worked for 2 weeks for them. Two weeks only because they wanted to be sure it worked. I got paid too much and was allowed to browse all the research papers and had full, free access to all the medical journals. That was payment enough. Again, a position was offered, but I couldn’t see the value in setting up programs anyone should be able to do- all they have to do is follow the directions and keep track of what it’s doing. It’s not rocket science. Except it turns out that it is rocket science, and has a lot of value for some reason.

All this is to say that I don’t make a great employee. What I see when I have a job is an endless procession of days doing things that are not very difficult but are complicated by politics. I started taking classes to get a Project Management Certification. That was fascinating. The points about project management were good, but basic; managing projects is all about front-loading everything you can, and if you can organize it and have all questions answered before you need them, then it’s a really easy position. In my opinion, the only reason a project manager is needed is if there is a lack of skills and ability in the people under the PM. What really turned me off about the class was that more time was spent teaching people how to discover who the important people were and methods of getting the attention of people otherwise too important to pay attention to you. I’ve got too much ego to have to worry that someone might be too important to talk to me.

Fishing was always a percentage job. You are an “independent contractor” and earn a share of the catch, less expenses (boat, fuel, food). Your value is in production and ability. A restaurant kitchen is much the same- your value is in how much you can do well. You don’t get paid for that skill, so you do it for your own satisfaction, especially as you know that there won’t ever be a bonus or respect given. That’s what I liked about kitchens, and why I didn’t stay in them- at some point you have to create your own kitchen or you become one of the production drones that the people with passion can’t stand; it’s the fear that you’re going to wind up being that one day. The IT jobs were dull, overly profitable for what was being done.

That line; “overly profitable” is my worst dilemma. I haven’t ever worked just for profit, and the idea of being over-paid has always been uncomfortable, as though I am doing something wrong. I know a lot of people who suffer from some variation on this theme- some of it’s not being sure that they are worth anything more than what they get, some of it’s just not being from a place where anyone earns enough to live on. My family was always on the edge, always moving, so some of it is the wages of poverty; not believing that you should have enough to be comfortable.

Which gets us awkwardly back to the question of why would someone start a business?

My first construction business was started because I wanted to become a better carpenter and there was no opportunity for me to learn from any company around me. I should say that I couldn’t see any company doing the work I wanted to do that would allow me to do it. I wanted to build better than the people I had worked for, I wanted to do custom woodworking. I wanted to follow a path that interested me, not the path someone else told me to take.

This was an offshoot of a fortuitous experience a few years earlier. I had been working as a bike messenger in Seattle and was tired of the grind. I needed to get out of Seattle, and decided I would take a bike trip. I went to San Francisco with my friends Al & Jen, with their newborn baby Elliot, and set out after a few days. I winded my way through Santa Rosa, Yosemite, Death Valley, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Santa Fe (where I wound up getting a job that took me back to the Grand Canyon to cook for a crew filming a Charmin commercial), and got snowed in in Taos.

In Taos I had the good fortune to meet Jonathan Taintor, a sculptor who had started out his career as a carpenter. John traded room and board for my labor helping him finish his house. He had a fantastic carpenter running the show for him who had retired a few years before and moved to Taos from Southern California. He had entered the trades working for German Cabinetmakers, then went on to be part of the post WWII building boom. He was highly skilled; he had run the renovation of one of the Hearst Mansions. He also gave me a book, “A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time” by John Brinkerhoff Jackson, a book that really opened my eyes almost as much as that job in Taos.

I wanted those experiences. I wanted to see what I could do. In Portland I had been working for a mediocre company that did everything, all of it under the table. That allowed me to learn how to do plumbing and electrical work. I shouldn’t have been doing it, but I learned how- I read books, learned how to calculate loads and load drop. That learning curve was enough to keep me there for a couple years, along with buying a house and getting married. As I learned more, though, I learned how much we weren’t doing to be better- we hit code, and did an average job, and that’s really all that the owner cared about. That and him not paying taxes, which meant I paid all my own taxes. I was also getting better at what I did, and as I was left on jobs to do them start to finish, the customers started requesting me. I became a reason why people came to the company, I was creating work. Eventually I had customers who wanted to fire the company, but wanted me to come back to do the work. They preferred my honesty.

I finally realized that the way to do what I wanted to do was to start my own company. I would do it legally, and do all my work legitimately. I could do work that was better than okay, learn how to do more things, and get paid for learning!

That business was really an education. Profit wasn’t my main motivation, education was. I wanted to build skills, and I learned how to find people who know how to do what I didn’t know. I found resources online. I built a stable of other small companies who were also interested in doing better work, and we would team up on projects. We all undercharged. I would make money on one job, lose it on the next. I learned how to do books better, and learned how to estimate.

I built my ideas about what a company should be through all of those experiences. I also learned that there is value in having respect for yourself. For me, starting businesses and working in new jobs has been about growing as a person. Some of it has been about trying to define where I am in this culture, in this society. That seems like a good enough reason to start a company.

Time, Cost, Quality

In a recent discussion the old saw “Time, Cost, Quality- pick any two” came up. This is a common triangle of choices that describes the main points in any sale of services and is based on the tension between the three elements; you can only emphasize two of these at any given time. In other words, if you want it cheap and fast you give up control of quality. If you want high quality and fast speed, you give up control of price. If you are concerned with price and quality, then you have to give up control of time.

Something has always bothered me about this triangle. Two of the choices are simple; time and cost are definable qualities. Everyone knows what a dollar is and everyone knows what an hour is. Time is an easily definable facet; it will be done in 6 hours or it will be done in 6 months. It will cost $100 per hour, or it will cost $50,000; these are fixed concepts that don’t rely on an individual to supply anything more than quantity. Quality is a whole different matter.

Quality is, in my experience, where the ability of the parties to agree parts ways most often.

What is quality? How do I know it is quality? What part does quality refer to? These are tricky questions all by themselves, and made more difficult by being points that have to be both defined and agreed upon. The service provider is hampered by knowledge and the particular blindness that can come with expertise- how do you find out what the customer knows and separate that from what the customer thinks they know?

To make this even more difficult, quality is a fluid concept that changes with education and proximity.

Coming to terms on quality is probably the most difficult part of creating a construction project. There is no strict definition of quality. There are a few organizations that have attempted to qualitatively define “quality”, such as AWI. This often means that there is a set of rules about how a project can be inspected, such as “flooring will be inspected from a standing position or at a distance of 6′.” Diamonds are graded on qualities of color and clarity, both being aspects that take experience and training to know how to do; the average person isn’t likely to be able to see the difference.

In services this becomes important because it means the client’s expectations change through the process. This may seem fickle, but it is really an aspect of knowledge. The client is often the one with the least knowledge, and as that grows, things that they didn’t think were important become important.

As a service provider this can be frustrating. On the one hand you may want to educate the client from the outset- to inform them of all the details and the decisions they will need to make. That takes a lot of time, energy, and unless the client is intensely interested in the product the subject likely isn’t compelling enough for the client to understand, no matter how many words you use. On the other hand you may want to be brief at the beginning and create a good change order process so the job can be modified as the client reaches plateaus of understanding and can answer questions. This often leads to piles of change orders and a final cost that is far above the original estimate.

I don’t know if there is any one answer is to this dilemma. It is lessened by familiarity- any return customer is already trained to some extent and will have an idea of what is to come. I think one of the best methods may just be to explain this to the client. Let them know that there will be changes, that those changes will become more significant as the project progresses, and give them an idea of how much you think the project will change. That’s where your experience comes in, and the honesty may help cushion the pain of additional costs.

Unintended Consequences

The world is a complicated place.

This morning I was reading a section of the Seattle Times, the PacificNW magazine insert, which featured several homes that were built. This magazine follows a standard format of choosing a home and celebrating the architect and the largess of the people who hired the architect, often with plenty of tidbits about the homeowner’s trips to exotic places.

This sort of writing bothers me, it gets under my skin and itches. It makes me difficult to be around. So I tried some meditation methods, a little DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy), but these didn’t work. I kept circling around to think about how meditation and these behavioral modification methods seem to me to be a system of pacification; how do you get a large population to accept the status quo? You give them a practical method of acceptance. It is much better to have a docile population that accepts things as they are. Even if it disturbs them to step over the homeless on their way to work, you want them to think about how to give the homeless food, but you don’t want them thinking about the larger structural elements that create a situation where you can have people making $200,000 a year stepping over homeless people while worrying about how expensive it is to live.

I know- you’re wondering what that has to do with an article about people who hire architects to design their homes.

It’s all about connections. The world, as I noted at the beginning, is complicated. Everything has its connections.

I have been in construction continuously for a couple of decades now. I have worked with designer/builders, designers, architects, and homeowners where I worked off of napkins. I have never worked on a project where one person had everything figured out to the nth degree.

Those buildings that the PacificNW magazine writers gushed over were written in good faith, written to fit a certain space. The writer needed to fit words and pictures into a limited structure that was defined by the editor. It’s a lot like construction (I’ve written for the trades, and writing is a lot like construction; you have to fit a limited space and budget). It’s a lot like construction in too many ways- the writers knew the expectations of the editors, they have a model in mind of what this writing looks like (see Architectural Digest, Lux Magazine, et al), and they met that expectation.

Here’s the thing- none of that writing tells the homeowners how a house is designed and built. Any house that gets built, especially in the custom market, is a collaboration between all the parties at the table.

Architects provide a concept. They bring the idea of what it will look like. In a perfect world they have a cohesive design with a consistent aesthetic. The architect generally (but not always) works with an engineer to ensure that what they have drawn is physically possible and is strong enough to withstand what nature will throw at it.

Their clients, the homeowners, have a part in this as they provide the requirements and their preferred aesthetics- they know something of what they want, although it may be fairly vague.

One of my favorite lines from architectural writings comes from Witold Rybczynski when he is explaining his first custom home commission. The clients explained that they were pretty flexible on the design, but that what they really wanted was a “comfortable home”. While he could have glossed over that rather open ended little request, Rybczynski was cursed with a reflective, thoughtful mind, and the phrase sent him off to educate himself on what it means to be “comfortable”.

The builder is the group responsible to take those ideas from concepts and line drawings and turn them into a physical reality.

I can’t think of any builder who does everything. There may be companies that do everything “in-house”, meaning that they have employees who can do everything, but they are rare enough to be non-existent. Even the design/build companies hire out significant parts of any structure.

In a very real way the General Contractor is a coordinator. A person (or in the case of these complex, large, custom homes, a group of people) who keeps track of all the various parts of the project and coordinates to ensure that what is on paper (the architect’s designs) is buildable, that the aesthetic requirements of the clients is being met, that all the codes are being followed, and that all the details are completed.

What happens during a build is not even that clear-cut. There are always omissions in the design and engineering. The GC will find most of these and will be sending the architect a steady stream of RFI’s (request for information) through the project. The various trades find additional places where the design needs to be re-worked, and the architect and engineer get to stay busy through the foundation and basic structural construction re-working the design and engineering to fit the changes that need to be made.

Many of the design changes are not solely from the architect. The trades working on the house tend to have vastly more experience in their particular area than any architect or engineer, and they have suggestions, ideas, and often completely different ways of creating the look that the architect and/or homeowners really want.

This is also when the electrical, plumbing, and HVAC contractors start to weigh in. They have requirements for what they need to do, but also suggestions for other ways to get the same effect, or suggestions for new designs that may not have been considered.

This design manipulation continues through the project. Once the foundation is completed, the finishes begin, and there again the design is often light, or it doesn’t turn out to look quite as good in real life as in the renderings. The various finish trades bring ideas to the project, different cabinet designs, other handrail types, different flooring or wall coverings.

All of these various people have an impact on the life of the building. The landscaper who makes sure that water doesn’t drain into the house and makes sure that trees are planted far enough away so that their roots won’t grow into the foundation. The siding installer who makes sure that all the flashings are integrated into the weather resistant barrier. The roofer who creates kick-out flashings and advises on better roof designs. The tile installer who knows how to waterproof the walls and floors.

Building a house is a collaboration. Even tract builders, who are closer to manufacturers than we in the bespoke trades are, refine their designs and processes according to input from their tradespeople and trade partners.

This is why the writing in the magazine bothers me- it ignores the real process that creates a great house that will last and be comfortable. It’s not just a client with money and one superhero architect.

More, this type of writing contributes to the small thinking that damages so much of the country. It’s not an intentional thing- the writer is only intending to do well; they are praising a good design for (hopefully) interesting clients. But the end result of the writing is a stratification; it presents the idea that there is one person who is special and the rest are dispensable.

This type of writing is to buildings what the one-line political quote is to politics; reductive and simple. Brevity is great- it is fast, easy, and it is shallow.

Too often we avoid the complex because it seems hard, or it isn’t clear. It is much more enticing to find something simple, easy, and sure- if you can say it in one line, then you have a clear concept, right? Wrong. All of the one-liners, slogans, and that article that praises the architect without mentioning the people who built it? They all rely on preconceived notions. They aren’t simple, they are filled with prejudice and lazy thinking.

This avoidance of looking at the big picture is why we have people earning $200,000 a year organizing to allow for homeless encampments in their city (hopefully not in their neighborhood, though). It is easy to be depressed by the plight of homelessness and to organize to feed them. Head off to meditation, do a little yoga, feed the homeless, go to work. It’s all part of the world, right?

It is- it is the status quo. But all the organizing to feed the homeless isn’t going to do anything to solve the question of why they are there in the first place. It is much easier to think about how to get blankets to them than it is to ask why there can be almost 2,000 children under the age of 18 living on the streets in Seattle.

It is much easier to look at a 17 year old homeless kid and think “runaway” than it is to think about what they were running from. It will break your heart to meet the 12 year olds who are also living out there, but they will probably be surrounded by a bunch of 15 and 16 and 17 year olds, so you won’t really think about that 12 year old.

It’s sad, too, because the complexity of the world is also most of what makes it beautiful. Go look at an old cathedral. You are looking at a beautiful piece of the religion that it is part of, but you’re also looking at the product of many hands working together.

Go drive down the Columbia Gorge on the old highways. Look at the amazing bridges and intricate rock work. Those, too, are the creation of many people collaborating to make something; they are the culmination of lifetimes of skills passed down through generations.

When you look at the built environment you are looking at a very real history of human learning. Whether it is the blacktop road out front of your house, the bridge you drive over to work, or the trim in your brand new tract house, you are looking just as much at thousands of years of the creative process as you are when you travel to see the Taj Mahal.

Talking to my wife about this she said that she thinks of meditation as a different way to approach these things. I think she is right, for her they may be. For me, I worry that these are also the ways that people are taught to be complacent, to accept things as they are, and to think only about changing themselves.

Humanity has come a long way. It hasn’t gotten there by being happy with how things are. Every advance in technology and culture has come from people who were not happy with how the world was. Sure, some used meditation and some prayed, but they didn’t stop looking at the world and being discontented. They created saws, paper, cotton gins, and computers. We are able to support more people than ever before, and we are more peaceful as a whole than ever before. This is a good thing, it is progress, and it means we are moving in the right direction.

That direction is not defined by the status quo. By definition, the status quo is the state of society as it was, and for humanity to progress we need to continue to change. We need to move past how we were, never to return to what we once were. That edict doesn’t just apply to war or to technology, it applies to how we think and to what we think about.

We didn’t think about women’s rights 500 years ago. We do now. We think about removing barriers to equality based on gender, sexual preference, and we are starting to think that, just maybe, people with mental health problems and a criminal record might be people, too.

One of the longest lasting and most difficult struggles has been against hero worship. This is the tendency to see people in power as superior; to look at kings and queens as Gods, at the famous as having been smiled upon by Heaven, to think that that doctor or lawyer over there is a better human being because of their degree or their income.

As we have evolved, we have learned (slowly) that those people in power are not inherently special. They can be amazing, but so too can the taxi driver.

When I read those articles it brings all this up in me. I see the worship of heroes, the lazy, easy path of adoring the Architect while fawning over the possible achievements of the homeowners, while simply omitting the people who didn’t matter. It looks like hero worship to me, and I believe that is lazy. It promotes the idea that people deserve what they get, and that carries with it the idea that the people who don’t have it don’t deserve it. That they are less human, and these people are more special humans.

I would much prefer to see these articles have more about the real process of the design and building of those homes, and less selective royalty. I want to know who put the wall together, who the arborist was that showed them how to build next to a Fir tree without damaging it. I want to see the people in the trades celebrated for their ability to make other people’s ideas come to life.

I want this because it brings respect to everyone, and I think that having respect for all the people involved breeds more respect for everyone. I think that learning to have that respect will teach us how to look at that 16 year old living on the street and give us the ability to have compassion for their plight. That just might allow more of us to look beyond their appearance.

I believe that learning to have that respect will also give us the insight to look at a person who is starting to struggle and ask why they are struggling instead of blaming them for not working harder. There is no person on the streets that wanted to be there. All of us should take pause to realize that there are that many people who can say with conviction that they are more comfortable living there than they are living in the society that we are part of, that we create.

It doesn’t matter where you find the space to give respect and caring. But it does matter that you and I look at the things that promote this separation between us, that diminish the chance to feel respect for others. When we have learned to have respect, we can have an idea of how to give another the means to feel they matter.


It’s been interesting to be working with various stains and finishes lately. I prefer to have specialists do finishing, but as a woodworker, we wind up doing our fair share.


Stains are (mostly) pigments or dyes.

Pigments are, essentially, solid colors ground to a very small particle and suspended in a solvent of some sort. They will soak into wood some, but basically sit on top of the surface. With open grain woods, like Oak, pigments will fill in the open grain and can enhance the grain pattern. On closed grain woods pigment stains will often wipe off, especially if the wood is sanded too smooth. This is why pigment stains contain binders- basically glue to hold the stain onto the wood.

Pigmented stains are a lot like paint, and there are some “stains” that are designed to act like paint. Arborcoat is a solid pigmented “stain” that is painted on, but not wiped off later. The binder is designed to be strong enough to hold a full film coating onto the surface.

Dyes are soluble salts that, when dissolved, are much smaller than a pigment. With closed grain woods, like Maple, a dye will react to the different grains in the wood and can enhance differences in the grain. With open grain wood the effect can by to muddy the wood as it soaks into the open pores and dyes the rest to a similar color. Dyes can be used to add much more, and more vibrant colors than pigment stains- that flamed Maple Fender Stratocaster most likely has a dye.

In general, stains are designed to color or tone wood, possibly to bring out or highlight grain patterns. Stains are then coated with a clear finish to protect the wood, and perhaps the stain, also.

Penetrating and Film Finishes

There are basically two types of finishes that are applied to wood (and stone, for that matter); Penetrating finishes and Film finishes.

Penetrating finishes are generally oils- Tung oil, Linseed oil, Flaxseed oil. The oils used to finish wood need to be stable, won’t turn rancid (start to smell), and this generally means they dry to a hard finish.

Tung oil and Linseed oil are commonly used to finish furniture, taking many, many coats with extended drying times between each coat (even with drying agents, these oils often require 12 hours between each coat). As each coat is applied (often wet-sanded or buffed between coats) it becomes glossier and harder.

Many deck coatings, such as Cabott, are penetrating oils, often with a pigment or dye in them to create a more uniform look to the deck.

Penetrating finishes cause the wood to become more moisture resistant by filling in the outer layer of the wood, causing it to become more water resistant.

Film finishes sit on top of the surface, binding to it through chemical and mechanical means. Examples of film finishes are Paints, Lacquers, Varnishes. Film coatings protect the wood by coating it in a hard surface. The benefits to film coatings are that they are continuous over the surface and do a better job of preventing water and sunlight to damage the underlying surface.

Film coatings are good in climate controlled places and on non-wearing surfaces. IE, paint is better than a penetrating finish for most walls because it doesn’t get a lot of abrasive wear. Decks generally are not painted because they quickly start to peel from wear; as the paint is cracked or scratched, water can get underneath the film and breaks the bond. Floors, which generally get a film finish these days used to only be oiled with a penetrating finish. Today we can use film finishes, but they are expensive and require extensive preparation and careful application.

Lacquers and Varnishes

There is a historical difference between these products, but as time goes by and technology advances how we can create and suspend polymers the distinction becomes more of use than of ingredients. There are water based “Varnish” products, Epoxy “Lacquer” coatings. Even the concept of a water based Lacquer requires that the ingredients be something that hardly resembles the original. So the following is a light explanation of my reading on the subjects and is based partially on my own bias and not-deep understanding.


Varnish was originally tree resins dissolved in turpentine. As the tree resin dries it hardens into a protective film.

Today most Varnishes are Alkyd resins that use mineral spirits as a solvent and linseed oil as the carrier. The benefit to Varnish originally is that it dried slowly to a very hard, thick, coating. That has been maintained as a primary difference in how Varnish is used- high solids (solids can be thought of as how much wear the product can take).


Lacquer originally referred to a resin secreted by the Lac bug. It was used extensively through Asia. Shellac is the pure resin, cleaned, and is soluble in alcohol, which makes it very easy to use. It also can be a food-grade finish, depending on how it is processed; it is sometimes used to coat apples and some candies to give them a shiny look and to prevent them from melting. Shellac dissolves in alcohol.

An interesting thing about Shellac- it has the reputation of getting “rings” from water glasses, etc., is actually the wax absorbing the water. Wax is used to protect the Shellac from scratching or dissolving should someone spill their wine or whiskey. Shellac is very brittle, scratches easily, and dissolves in alcohol- French polish’s benefits; oil to make the wood grain pop and help keep the shellac a little more plastic and wax to protect the shellac from alcohol. Shellac naturally has some wax in it, and that can cause difficulty with some finishes, and the wax gives Shellac an orange-tinge. Fortunately, it is easy to de-wax Shellac, and de-waxed Shellac is a (nearly) universal covering. It will stick to nearly anything, and just about everything sticks to it.

Today lacquer generally refers to a polymer dissolved in volatile organic compounds. The early polymer resins were Nitrocellulose, and that is still available, but is being displaced by Alkyd and Acrylic.


Okay, now what’s an Alkyd? And what is an Acrylic?

Alkyd is a Polyester made of alcohol and organic acids. Alkyds are the most common resin in “oil based” coatings. Alkyds are flexible, take color well, and last relatively well.

Acrylic is a plastic created from an acrylic acid. Lacquers mostly use an emulsified Polymethyl Acrylate. Wikipedia explains that “Acrylic resin is a general term for any one of the plastics (resin) generated through chemical reaction by applying polymerization ninitiator and heat to a monomer.”


Now that we have an idea of the fancy films, that information translates well to paint.

Latex is a rubber derived from many plants and trees. The famous “rubber trees” were first used to make tires, but other more reliable methods of creating latex quickly supplanted that. While we can buy latex gloves that have natural latex in them (which is what some people have allergic reactions to), virtually all latex paint is made of synthetic latex or vinyl.

Acrylic latex is Latex paint (that may be vinyl) with Acrylic added to create a stronger coating that wears longer and retains color better.

Solid Acrylic paints are more color stable and have better wear than Latex or Acrylic Latex paints, but the formula.

Enamel. Enamel used to be synonymous with a tinted Varnish in that it was an oil based coating that dried to a thick, hard surface. Today it is mostly a term meaning that it dries to a very hard finish. Oil based enamels are mostly Alkyd resins, while water based are Acrylic or resins. There are also Polyurethane enamels.

Polyurethane. Polyurethane coatings are a stronger plastic than Acrylic. Most automotive paints are Urethane paints, and the chemistry gets very complicated. Polyurethane paints comes in three types- Water-based, Oil-based, and Oil-modified Water-based! Like Acrylic, Polyurethane can be added to Latex paints to increase the durability, although there are some color concerns. Oil based Polyurethanes tend to yellow.

Well, that’s enough for now. More later!


Jack Straw table

Jack Straw Table.

This table was designed by one of the lead carpenters at Method Construction with one of the managers of Jack Straw, an upscale clothing retailer in Seattle.

The carpenter had drafted a basic set of line drawings with dimensions using an existing slab and table base that I have since lost. I took those drawings and put them into Sketchup, a 3D design program, where I could easily adjust dimensions and get a better sense of the eventual look of the table.

jack straw 3d drawing

The curved section of the table is the difficult part of this table; I decided to build a form that I would use to vacuum form sheets of MDF.


I sent the drawing to Warmington & North, a cabinet shop located in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle. Carter Warmington transferred the drawing to a CAD file that he used to cut parts for my form.

16372127274_227c746b2c_oWhile I could have created a template and cut allthe form parts myself, I was working on other projects and had a limited budget for this one. CNC is very accurate and was more economical than my time would have been.

Once the parts were cut I built a form for the curve.


Glue up can be intense, and I never got around to taking pictures of the vacuum in place. This one especially was exciting. Vacuum creates a lot of pressure. The basics of how it works is that by removing the air from a space, the full weight of the atmosphere exerts itself on the parts. We don’t feel it because the pressure is equalized and we are used to it, but the atmosphere is 14.7 pounds per square inch. This is like when you jump into a pool- you don’t feel the weight of the water just above you, it is fairly evenly distributed all around your body.

The process looks like is: we set up the form, cut the sheet goods to size- in this case the form is wider and longer than it needs to be so the sheet goods don’t extend past the sides. We spread glue on each sheet and stack them up to reach the thickness we need. I was using 1/8” MDF and had 6 sheets to get them to a total of ¾” thick. Once all the sheets are glued, they are placed on the form and one side of the layer of sheets is screwed to the form. Then we pull a thick plastic bag over the whole thing, seal it, and attach a hose that is connected to a vacuum pump.

We have to help push the stack of sheets down onto the form in order to keep them straight, make sure the bag doesn’t twist the form or get stuck between the sheets we are bending and the form as that would create a hump at the sides.

We got the form together, the sheets on, and the vacuum on, everything 16372210854_2e3b6328ab_oseemed good. I was heading to get my camera when I hear this loud explosion! I run to the shop and see that the form has blown in. We had to pull everything apart and rebuild the form with doubled up sheets of ¾” MDF on each side- and added a center support.

The curve is approximately a 3’ tall half circle. That comes out to around 56.5 square inches per side, or 831.27 pounds of force. The MDF just couldn’t take it and imploded with enough force to shatter 2 interior sheets of ¾” MDF. The second attempt worked great.

16993224192_0597119eec_oI made the drawer box and fit the internal ribs around it, epoxied into place. I used woven fiberglass to reinforce the ribs to give that big “foot” some extra strength. I was worried about what sort of stress that a commercial desk could be subjected to and didn’t want it collapsing after someone decided to climb on top of it for some reason.

As you can see, the inside cover was epoxied into place and sheets of fiberglass reinforcement added.

The drawer box was built and veneered prior to placement. Much care was required to keep epoxy off the veneer surfaces.

This picture shows the outer surface being glued into place. Lots of clamps and lots of epoxy! If you look at the ribs, there is one missing on the front. This is the side has a bank of drawers.

16993744951_79a5ae9c12_oHere is the piece with the outer layer of the curve installed. You can see we screwed the center to the ribs. I was worried about getting enough pressure to push the panel onto the ribs over that distance, and as the piece was getting painted I could fill those holes.

The top and bottom sheets were fitted,creating a torsion box of the table. I filled all the screw holes with thickened epoxy and coated the entire table with a thinned epoxy designed to penetrate the MDF. This soaks into the MDF giving it a uniform, hard surface that also reduces the chance of standing water causing any damage.16807177410_94025e17b8_o

16968914426_a2a4a311b5_oPaint was a long, tedious process. I used “Nuwave White Water Based Lacquer” from Rudd, a good local coatings manufacturer. This is a nice product, water based which means that it requires fewer chemicals and doesn’t off-gas toxic fumes. The Oak was finished with the same product in a clear satin.


The oak drawers miter into the corner, creating a seamless look.


The completed table with slab mounted on top. To install the slab I drilled holes in 4 spaces to fasten through the top of the table. This allows the fasteners to be hidden, but also allowed the holes to be over-sized so that the slab could move without cracking or destroying the table below it. The slab had a bit of a twist to it, but that is also part of the charm of the wood.

Jack Straw Table, finished, drawer side