Make: Lamps!

 

Some time ago, roughly four months ago, I was watching a show called The Librarians.  I enjoy it because it’s silly and escapist and it’s filmed in Portland.  In the past they have used many familiar landmarks including the sub at OMSI (and OMSI) and their secret lair is under the base of the St. Johns Bridge.  So, it’s always fun to watch and spot landmarks.  Give it a shot if you’re in the mood.

As I was watching one episode, I spotted a lamp which I thought was kind of cool.  I have noticed the show likes to fill the background with lots of stuff which is kind of Steampunk-ish or maybe Retro or Urban or something which I’m sure has a name that I don’t know.  In any case, the lamp caught my eye.  Enough so that I took a few screenshots of the television.

Here’s the best:

I liked the wood, I liked that I could identify that most of it was built from industrial pipe, I liked the bulbs, which I would later identify as Edison Bulbs.

Later, in another scene, I spotted a single bulb version which was similar, but had a glass shade.  

After that I went to Google and started searching for similar lamps and finally ran across this one off a link on Pinterest.  I won’t link to it since the Pinterest link dead ends and the domain is for sale, but here is the lamp which the ad copy says was “heavily featured on The Librarians”:

So, again, nice wood, rustic pipe, cool bulb.  I wasn’t as jazzed about the glass shade, but I liked the concept.

That sent me down a rabbit hole of Googling, but mostly around how to build DIY lamps using pipe, looking at fixtures, bulbs, lamp shades or cages.

I thought I could figure out how to do everything except I had no clue how to build the base.  I haven’t done any woodworking since woodshop in junior high (shout out to Mr. Janke who had lost a few fingers to things with blades, was a bad-ass with the industrial vacuum and taught us to taunt folks from Sweden with “Ten Thousand Swedes, running through the weeds, chased by one Norwegian!”).  

Fortunately, I know my own bad-ass woodworker and he has all his fingers and is a friend, so I was able to ask him some questions and he was very, very helpful in pointing me in the right direction and steering me away from a couple nasty potholes.  Thank you Larry!

The first problem I had was how was the base constructed?  To those with more knowledge than me, it is probably obvious, but I didn’t know.  Larry told me that this is done by gluing the right sequence of strips of wood together after you cut them on a table saw.  Easy Peasy!  Yeah, right.  

Well, I followed up with, what kind of crazy rare wood is that likely to be?  He again put me on the right path: “Those look like fairly common species that aren’t terribly rare and expensive.  I’d say mostly walnut, maple, and a couple of others.

In the end, after a trip to the wood store, examining the options and spending an hour talking with the very helpful wood salesmen, I settled on the pretty common White Oak for the light, Black Walnut for the dark and Cherry for the warm brown color.

I will not take you down the odyssey that that process became but I learned how to use my table saw (correctly), I learned how to plane (and how not to plane) wood.  I learned that it’s far better to do it correctly the first time than try and sand out the mistakes later.  I followed the woodworkers path of turning larger pieces of wood into smaller pieces of wood with the application of power tools and elbow grease and the production of copious amount of sawdust.  Like “fill up my wet/dry vac” volumes of sawdust.

Then came the lengthy process of gluing, which was terrifying only because it seemed like it would be hard to undo if I did it wrong.  Then there was routing to round over the edges for the smooth look in the image above.  Then came the sanding.  And more sanding.  And then there was some sanding in there somewhere.  

Eventually I had a base and it was time to drill the holes for the legs and the hole the electrical cord would go through.  I managed to scratch my wood (stupid mistake) which necessitated more sanding to fix my error.

We had some really awesome winter weather this year in Portland, so that killed nearly a month of time I might have worked in my shed, but I didn’t want to because it was really, really cold and breathing in a shed where you are producing sawdust without sufficient ventilation is really unpleasant.

Finally, about a month ago, the weather turned sufficiently and I put in the time to get the bases close to done.  Then it was time to turn them from a dry looking piece of wood into something nice and once again Larry steered me in the right direction: “For projects like that I prefer a rub on finish.  I finished one of my first woodworking projects with Watco Tung Oil.  Like boiled linseed oil but penetrates better and leaves a warmer tone.  Boiled linseed oil is ok, but not what I think of as a satisfying finish.”  It was his next piece of advice when we talked about how many layers to apply that cemented the realization that woodworkers are nuts: “Just wipe on, let sit for a half hour, wipe off – then wait a day.  They say a coat an hour for a day, a coat a day for a week, a coat a week for a month, and a coat a month for a year, and yearly thereafter.”  Yeah, nuts.  I gave up after a dozen coats.  They looked nice.  I was happy with them.

In parallel with this i acquired the pipe fittings.  I figured (correctly) that they were ½” pipe and fittings.  I did some quick figuring for parts and made a trip to my local big box hardware store and bought the basic pipe bits.  Unfortunately, they’re pipes.  From a hardware store.  So, they were greasy and kind of gross and I wouldn’t want them in my house, so I had to do some cleaning.

As I was putting together parts and looking at what I wanted to do, I started to notice that a lot of Steampunk uses brass or copper.  And some of the shades and lamps that I found were kind of cool looking with brass accents.  So, I decided that instead of strictly industrial, I was going to class mine up a bit and I would use brass bits (technically termed ‘nipples’) to connect the pipe parts.  And, I would paint my pipe black so I’d have the wood and black pipes and brass accents and old-timey bulbs.

I wanted to find some nice sockets but I didn’t want the standard pull cords or knobs to turn them on/off because I planned on using a switch on the cord.  That resulted in me exploring a very cool store my wife and I happened upon one weekend in Portland called Sunlan Lighting.  They source any number of cool bulbs, sockets, wiring, lights, lamps, hardware and various bits and bobs.  It’s a very cool and very Portland store and everyone in there was very nice and very helpful.

Here I found several difficult to find things:

  • Exactly the right lamp base I wanted – though it had a ⅛” threaded base
  • ⅛” threaded bit
  • ¼” threaded bit
  • ⅛” to ¼” coupler

This combination allowed me to thread the bulb base directly into the pipe fitting which ended with a ½” to ¼” reducer, which was a big deal and solved several problems!

Finally, after searching through options, I settled on these “Vintage Edison Bulbs 60W Squirrel Cage Filament Incandescent Antique Light Bulbs”:

And these covers, “Metal Lamp Guard, Industrial Wire Iron Bird Cage”, mostly because I liked the black and brass:

I found some cool cord, “Black Twisted Vintage Cotton Cloth Covered Cord”:

and some classic looking plugs:

And, finally, some inline rotary dimming switches.

After months since I’d started with “Hey, those are cool, I wonder if I could make something like that”, I was able to start assembling the results this last weekend to see how they would look.

Here are the results.

Now, they’re not 100% done.  I still need to paint the silver screws attaching the Black Iron Floor Flange Fitting to the lamp base.

I’m trying to decide if they’re too short relative to the base, but I think I’m good with that.  Additionally, I wonder if they need some aging to make them look less like something that was completed last weekend, but those are details.  Oh, and the caps that will sit on a table need something to protect whatever they will sit on or they will scrape the heck out of whatever surface that will be.  And, frankly, these are likely just going to end up in my office, anyway.  I won’t impose these on the rest of the house.

Looking back at the images that started me down this path roughly four months ago, my result definitely turned in to my own thing versus recreating an existing prop, but slavishly copying an existing thing wasn’t my goal (this time).

I learned a bucket load about woodworking and the bases certainly wouldn’t have turned out as nice as they did without the help of my friend Larry.  Having said that, I could point out half a dozen mistakes in the base that will likely only ever irritate me, but I also know that I would probably only have half as many of them if I ever do something like this again.

If I apply any reasonable value on my time, then these are ridiculously expensive, one-of-a-kind lamps, so I have once again failed to stumble on some money-making second career, but that was truly never my goal.  I simply wanted to make something cool based on something else cool that I saw one day while watching television.  I’m happy with the results, so I’ll call that a success!

Here are some links to pages I found that were helpful or gave me inspiration

How About Orange : How to Make an Industrial Floor Lamp http://howaboutorange.blogspot.com/2014/04/how-to-make-industrial-pipe-floor-lamp.html
Home Depot Blog: DIY Industribal Lamp: Cool Desk Lamp Made From Pipe

http://blog.homedepot.com/diy-industrial-lamp-cool-desk-lamp-made-from-pipe/
Steampunk Lamp: Dan is building cool things and blogging out what he did and how he’s doing it.  Excellent read and answered a question from me, which was appreciated. http://www.dplivingston.com/steampunk/steampunk-lamp-1

Make: 3D Printed Stackable Height Risers for RPG Minis

One of my goals for the year is to document some of my projects. Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame is credited with saying “Remember kids, the only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down”. Side note: according to Adam, it was actually Alex Jason, a ballistics expert working with them on one of the episodes. In any case, my head variation is “The only difference between actually doing something and fooling around is writing it down”. To that end, I’ll do some little after-project write-ups from some of my little side projects by way of differentiating between fooling around and whatever results I get, good or bad.

In this case, I was talking with the GM (Game Master) from our weekly Game Night and we were chatting about things including my 3D printing and I was lamenting that I hadn’t done much with it lately. He noted that if I was looking for a project, he would like small, stackable elements that he could use to differentiate players or non-players and the various elevations. This comes up because it’s easy to forget something was up in the air or how much versus a simple 2D position.

The conversation stuck and I started noodling and thinking about designs. So, step 1 was sketch and this is what I came up with:

As I started to think about how a 3D printer works (think of squeezing out a tube of toothpaste with a very narrow mouth, but instead with melted plastic and in 3 dimensions), it turns out it’s kind of tough to make something flat like the sketch standing on legs, because the printer prints in layers from the bottom up and going from legs to the platform will not work easily. I then realized I could flip it over and print the top surface first and the legs last and suddenly I had a plan.

The next step in prototyping is building a model. In this case the easiest and quickest solution was to build it using TinkerCAD. TinkerCAD is free, online CAD software that has enough functionality to do what I needed. So, after coming up to speed on the UI and how it worked, I started knocking out the design. In a CAD program, what you’re building is a series of shapes/solids and other shapes that act as holes which you use to cut, well, holes or shave pieces off the solids.

Here is what that looks like:

Or, rendered as a solid:

Now, with that, I can export that information in a file format that the 3D printer understands (typically a .STL or .OBJ). Next I import that file in to the software which communicates with the 3D Printer (in this case, Cura). Cura is used as a way to set up the print, describe options like quality and other obscure things like infill, whether to use support structures, etc. Once I was happy with those, I hit Print and wait 20 minutes for the results (and hope the 3D print doesn’t come loose and waste 20 minutes and the associated material).

Even with that, there’s a difference between what you picture in your head and what works in reality. In this case, what I determined after iterating on the design a few (like, six) times is that what I really wanted were legs that were narrower than the holes they fit in to to allow easy stacking that felt connected and wasn’t sloppy but you also didn’t have to force. So, yeah, only six or seven tries.

Before I offer the end result, I’ll show what I’ll call my Pile of Sadness. This is a combination of failed iterations and failed prints. This is what the middle bits between idea/inspiration and a working prototype look like:

The result, though, was pretty good. I was happy with it and will print up a number of them for our GM to use (or not) in our game. Because, in the end, it was really about making something that didn’t exist before as much as it was about solving the problem. But, solving the problem (satisfying my customer) also feels good.

And, as an additional bonus for lasting this long, here is a print I did just for fun of Baby Groot. (Design credit to Tom Davis and the model found on MyMiniFoundry)
Note: This will only be cool if you know the Guardians of the Galaxy movie and its sequel.

 

Thanks!

Make: 3D Printer!

I grew up on Star Trek. It was an escape for my imagination and it was a place where technology, albeit fictional technology, usually played a part in saving the day. Scotty, the ship’s chief engineer on the Enterprise, would often complain about the impossibility of a request, but always managed to come through. Smart people, whether the First Officer, the Doctor, the Engineer or even the Captain, were never denigrated for being intelligent and using that intelligence to save the day, one one-hour episode at a time

It wasn’t until Star Trek: The Next Generation, though, when they introduced the replicator. On the show, the replicator could be used to produce any material or object, so long as the pattern existed on file. So, Captain Picard could walk up and request “Tea, Earl Grey, Hot” and the tea along with the cup would magically appear.

We’re nowhere near that kind of technology today, but the 20th century is filled with examples of science fiction serving as fodder to help foster new ideas. The flip phone cellphone looked like it did because they modeled it after the communicator from Star Trek. Actual physicists and engineers will talk about things like Warp Drives and tractor beams which don’t exist, but they wonder if they could some day.

3D printers have been around awhile, but much like the PC in the early 80s, mass production and the reduction in cost of technology have caused the price to drop enough that the current state of the technology is increasingly accessible to the average person. It’s not sufficiently advanced for it to be interesting or useful to most folks, but for the tinkerers and the dreamers, it’s enough to make it interesting!

Most consumer grade printers available today print using a couple of variations of plastics, PLA and ABS. One is corn-based and the other is petroleum based.

The current generation have the ability to take in this plastic material, run it through a hot tip and extrude it in 3d space for a given X,Y,Z coordinate in the build space of the printer.

Typically, the technology uses a layered approach and prints the base of the object then prints layers upon very narrow layers until the object is eventually finished. I think it looks a bit as though a hot glue gun were married to a computer which could think in three dimensions.

I purchased a Printrbot Simple Metal after watching the technology for the last few years. I’ve been reading yearly reviews that Make Magazine produces yearly, watching the price come down as the quality increases. I chose this model because it was a reasonable trade-off between price and quality as well as openness of the technology. This particular model is modifiable to accept either PLA or ABS materials as well as others that are based on this basic technology. They also didn’t lock in the consumer to only use their branded materials as some others have done, following the printer approach of using DRM so that you can only a manufacturers materials with their printer.

This particular printer has a build volume of 6” cubed, which is mid-range for consumer printers. I can also mod the printer to handle up to a 10” cubed volume for a reasonable cost, but for now that’s sufficient.

Here’s my setup in my garage for the 3d printer. I have it in the garage because of both noise and the smell. My wife, though very understanding, is likely to respond poorly to the smell of melting plastics permeating the house. The noise isn’t bad, but it’s not silent by any stretch.

Garage Setup

The first thing I was directed to do was print several small boxes. This is to allow me to dial in the printer accurately. This went fine and I adjusted the printer accordingly once I figured out the right settings.

Next I wanted to print a shroud for the fan which blows air on to the extruder. The shroud would focus the air flow and is supposed to result in more consistent quality.

In the next pic you can see the results of my first attempt to print the shroud.

Failed Shroud Print

As you can see, it did not go well. The blue tape on the bed of the printer is simply blue painters tape. It gives a reasonably grippy surface for the print, but it’s not infallible. In this case, I printed on the same tape that I’d used to calibrate earlier and it appears that the shroud came loose from the build plate. Of course, the printer doesn’t know that, so it merrily goes about printing the remainder of the shroud, not realizing it’s gone from printing usefully to making modern string art.

LESSON 1 Change the tape between prints

LESSON 2 Print times are larger than any rational person would like.

The shroud took something like an hour, so I lost time when the first build failed and more time and materials to print it again. But, the printer is in the garage, so if the print fails, I won’t know till I go check, which I did roughly every 20 minutes. And, all I can do once it does fail is cancel the print and clean up the mess and decide whether I’ll try again.

Here is a pic of the results of my first nights attempts. As you can see, the pile of the left represents the successful prints. The pile on the right are the failed prints. Those piles are roughly 50/50, meaning my confidence in doing anything more complicated is not high at this time.

Success/Failure Ratio

I did try to print a little robot which has moveable joints, mostly in the legs, shoulder and neck. Sadly, my success with the printable joints was also about 50% and it took two tries to get him to print.

LESSON 3 Start reducing the number of variables to increase the odds of success.

Right now I basically try and print and see how it goes. Roughly half the time it works and half the time something goes wrong with the print coming loose or messing up in some number of ways.

I need to figure out why they’re messing up and what knobs and levers I have access to to make it more predictable. There are a plethora of configuration options in the software that controls the printer. Right now I’m using a basic setup and haven’t yet dug deep in to those other options.

Additionally, I suspect I’ll want to try with the other main material, ABS. That means an upgrade to my machine to add a heated bed and perhaps a new extruder. The PLA is very rigid and not very forgiving and I believe I may get better accuracy and results with ABS. Additionally, you can get different effects from ABS because you can sand it and even dip it in solutions to get a smoother finish, options that don’t exist for PLA.

That means this next phase is about trying to understand how to get the most out of this printer. I can’t treat it like a paper printer and hit Print and walk away. The technology is just not there, yet.

It’s a fair question to ask: What are the requirements for people to start buying these in volume for their homes?

I think we can look back to the days of the personal computer to answer that question. Having lived through those dark ages lo these many decades past, my belief is that killer apps were what caused people to adopt those early computers. And that meant two things:

  1. Games
  2. Business Applications (spreadsheets and word processors)

Because my crystal ball is terrible, I don’t yet know what the parallel would be for 3d printers.

Also, the technology needs to be much more reliable.

My first computer, a Commodore PET, was built out of sheet metal steel and the body could be lifted like the hood of a car and it even had a steel rod to hold the upper half up. This was necessary, at least in part, because I occasionally had to reach in to the guts of my computer to reseat the bus connector that connected the video to the main board. Imagine having to do something similar to a computer or a video game system today. We expect them to work and if they stop, as often as not, many people will throw it out and buy another one.

Here are the things I think will happen in the next decade to bring this technology in to the home:

  1. Prints have to succeed 95+% of the time, preferably 99%
  2. The speed of the printer has to be measured in minutes, not hours.
  3. The variety of materials and the characteristics of those materials needs to be sufficiently broad. This would include things like metals, ceramics, wood-like, teflon, rubber, etc. Did you know some people are already experimenting with printable food using chocolate and sugars and other ingredients? The food synthesizer of the original Star Trek doesn’t seem so far away now.
  4. The tools to make or re-mix a new thing need to be easy to use. Current tools and software require a great deal of patience and knowledge before you can be effective.
  5. The technology will probably be paired with a build-in low-cost scanner.

Back when I was making the case to my Dad to try and justify spending the then prodigious sum of $300 for my first computer since I didn’t have that money, he asked me a very rational question: “What are you going to do with this?” I didn’t have a great answer then, because I hadn’t had a computer before, but I probably talked about learning how to program and writing games, both of which I would later do for a ridiculous number of hours. That first computer undoubtedly put me firmly down a path which has paid off that investment many, many times over.

Recently when I was talking to my wife about 3D printers, she asked a similar question: “What are you doing to do with it?” There was similar hand waving and attempts at justification, but at the end of the day, I don’t need a 3d printer any more than I needed that first personal computer. But now, as then, I’m convinced that this technology is on a similar cusp of enabling amazing things and amazing times and, at the end of the day, I want to experience that joy of learning and joy of discovery much as I did 35 years ago with my first computer. So, what am I going to do? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be cool!

Looking at Apple’s SWIFT

SWIFT_500x500Apple recently made some press with their release of the Swift language. That release provides me an opportunity to do a couple of things:

  • Catch up on what’s going on with the latest Xcode
  • Play with and learn a new language

My first language, roughly a millennia ago, was BASIC and if I sat down to list the number of languages I’ve learned since then, I suspect it’d be between 10 and 20, especially if I count scripting languages like bash/csh and my love/hate relationship with Perl.

At that time, I was self-taught and I can assure you my code demonstrated that. I pored over examples from the few magazines that published code or books that had examples I could type in to figure out how they did what they did.

I had the occasion to look back at a program I wrote which was published in a book of games (you had to type in the games line-by-line with a checksum at the end to determine if you typed it in accurately) and the code might charitably be described as ‘spaghetti’. More accurately, it was clearly the code of someone with a great deal more enthusiasm than knowledge.

In any case, in that BASIC from days of yore, I might have typed the following:


110 LET D=8
120 LET E=12
130 LET RESULT = D + E
140 PRINT "RESULT =";RESULT

I was tickled, to say the least, to see the return of the ‘LET’ keyword in Swift, not only for the reminder of code gone by, but to see that, as with many things, what was once old can be new again!

In Swift, I might now say something like:


1 ​let​ ​apples​ = ​3
2 let​ ​oranges​ = ​5
3 let​ ​​fruitTotal​ = apples + oranges
4 println(​"I have ​\(fruitTotal​)​ pieces of fruit.”)

Not that different, No?

However, not all is as it once was. Where I was limited to upper case variable names, we can now use a variety of unicode. Not entirely sure that in all cases it’s a good idea, but in Swift we can do that following:


let​ ​π​ = ​3.14159


let​ ​你好​ = ​"你好世界"

(Excerpt From: Apple Inc. “The Swift Programming Language.”)

Yes, we can now name our variables after sensible things like Pi, but we can also name them using (the aged Programmer in me shudders slightly) emoji.

For those of us with a C or a C++ background, we can continue to use either /* style comments */ or // Comments.

Because Swift, where possible, is trying to make things easier, both generally and for beginners, we can also leave out declaring data types in many cases.

Swift is smart enough to infer the type based on the value, for example:

let intNumber = 3

let floatNumber = 3.14159

This versus the more explicit approach of C:

int intNumber = 3;

float floatNumber = 3.14159;

Note Given the amount of time I’ve written C code, my fingers REALLY want to keep hitting a semi-colon at the end of the declarations (or any line!), as in the C example above, but in SWIFT, they’ve gone away. I shouldn’t miss them, but clearly my reflexes, at least, do!

For all that Swift felt like a pleasant melange of languages still banging around in my head, there are definitely some new concepts which I still have to wrap my head around.

One of these is the Optional, a notion which doesn’t exist in C or Objective-C.

Basically, and without duplicating the language document, an optional says that a given variable may take on values of a given type, say an Integer or they may take on a nil value indicating that they have no value – not just a zero or something like that, no value at all. This is still a bit of a head scratcher, but if we look at something like the following it becomes a bit more clear:

1 ​var​ ​serverResponseCode​: ​Int​? = ​404

2 // serverResponseCode contains an actual Int value of 404

3 serverResponseCode​ = ​nil

4 // serverResponseCode now contains no value

(Excerpt From: Apple Inc. “The Swift Programming Language.”)

In this example we see that the serverResponseCode can not only hold an Integer value, but it can also, validly, simply be a nil. The question mark (‘?’) allows the programmer to make this explicit.

Related to this, the exclamation point (‘!’) has been overloaded in a similar context to say “I know the optional referenced definitely has a value, so use that”. It looks like this:

1 ​if​ ​convertedNumber​ != ​nil​

2 ​  println​(​"convertedNumber has an integer value of ​\(​convertedNumber​!)​."​)

3 }”

(Excerpt From: Apple Inc. “The Swift Programming Language.”)

Another thing that appears to have gone missing entirely with Swift (and likely not missed by many) is the absence of the ‘&’ or the “address of” operator.

Additionally, one of the challenges with C or Objective-C (or C++) was memory management which, though it improved over time, could still be difficult to manage.

With Swift, Apple has now implemented what they call Automatic Reference Counting (ARC) which should make it more difficult to leak memory (though I’m sure not impossible for the dedicated!) and easier to manage memory in general.

One of the other features of Swift, or really an extension built in to their IDE, Xcode, are playgrounds.

Playgrounds allow developers to develop code “live” on a running system and see the effects of changes immediately. Effectively, it’s an excellent way to short circuit the compile/link/run loop of the past in favor of making changes and seeing the results immediately.

Below I’ve linked to the Balloons playground which is a fun way to play with graphics and the Sprite library an see the effects immediately. Using playgrounds, you can also build in documentation and live tutorials and play with them in real time. This strikes me as a very powerful tool for teaching new programmers.

With the release of Swift, Apple is trying to accomplish several things:

  1. Provide cross platform support for application development for both iOS (iPhones and iPads) and OS X (Mac apps)
  2. Provide a powerful language that allows the advanced developers to create applications
  3. Provide a language designed to be easy to use for beginners
  4. Provide a language that allows application to run faster – Apple claims more than 2x faster than Objective-C and more than 8x faster than Python (obviously for some applications)

Any one of these are probably not enough to justify Yet Another Language, but taken in concert, it’s a pretty powerful combination.

I’ve been working through some tutorials for Swift, playing with Playgrounds and knocking some of the rust off the programming parts of my brain and it’s been a great deal of fun.

I haven’t even touched on some of the major advancements that have come with some of the latest iterations of iOS like the SpriteKit and built-in physics engines.

One of my favorite ways to learn, and this has been true since I was a kid, is to either modify an existing program or write something with a graphics element – okay, just call it a game – by way of making learning more fun and I can say I have had fun learning Swift and playing. And, really, at the end of the day, that’s why I started programming in the first place – because it was fun. It’s great to feel that again!

Links:

 

Project: Brisket!

This last weekend I decided to take the plunge and attempt that most manly of pursuits: Making a Brisket. (This for certain values of “manly”)

The results were a mixed bag and I have lots to learn and to try and do better/differently the next time I try this.

I thought it’d be fun to share some of my research, data and results – not the actual brisket, I’m eating that.

Choose Your Meat

This, like most thing surrounding making a brisket, is filled with lots of conflicting data. One thing that was clear is that this was going to be a large piece of meat.

A couple of the best pieces of advice:

  1. The quality of the meat is paramount, so buy the best cut you can afford. And, if you can, get a full brisket, not just the flat or the point. That’s the terms for the flat muscle and the point that make up an entire brisket.
  2. You can find a full brisket (around 15 pounds) vacuum sealed and if you can find a good quality cut, this is a good way to go.

We have Cash and Carry around here, so that was a good thing for this exercise. Still, a nearly 15 pound piece of meat at nearly $4 per pound meant this was going to be a spendy project.

BrisketUncooked
Brisket Before

Trim or Not to Trim?

Simply, this is the decision whether you are going to remove any of the fat that runs (probably) along one side of the brisket. I chose to not trim because there seemed to be decent evidence that the fat would help keep the brisket moist and you can always remove it when you’re done and before serving.

Rub

Most brisket experts I read said a rub of some sort was good and that many of these experts used a simple mix of salt and pepper and that doing anything else was largely a waste.

I opted for a simple rub made of some things I had around the house:

  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons dry mustard

The rub was added after I brushed the brisket with a light coat of vegetable oil to give it something to stick to.

I applied the rub the night before, put the brisket on a large pan, covered it in plastic wrap and let it sit over night.

Wood Chips

I wanted to smoke the meat, too, but I am using a gas grill. This fact may have led to some of the issues that occurred later. In any case, I bought a small bag of hickory chips and soaked them in water overnight by putting them in a bucket and covering them in water. I put a plate on them and a weight on the plate to keep the chips submerged.

 

Hardwood Chips
Hardwood Chips

Pump It Up!

I wasn’t sure I was going to pump, which means use some sort of injection mechanism to insert some kind of liquid in to the meat. This is all to try and make sure you end up with moist brisket.

In the end, because it was cheap to purchase, I did try this and used beef broth.

This probably led to the most embarrasing part of the experience as I clearly did not know what I was doing because when I attempted to inject an ounce of beef broth in to the brisket the night before, it either expanded like a balloon, only to seep out later or it sprayed out comically from some other place like a water balloon with a leak.

Cooking Temperature

Based on my research, I knew I could let the temperature of my grill float between 225 and 250 degrees and it would likely have very little impact on the end success of the project.

Where Does It Go?

The brisket should not be on direct heat. My grill has three burners running from end to end of the grill. So, I turned on the back burner, put the smoker box on that and planned on the brisket covering the front two burners so it would only have indirect heat.

Texas Crutch

The Stall is one of the things that many of the sources talked about. This is where the temperature of the brisket will stick at 150 degrees for a long period time. I won’t duplicate the content here, but if you’re curious about the explanation, you can read about it more here.

When Is It Done?

There is lots of information out there about the right temp or checking doneness by, literally, “sticking a fork in it”. Testing brisket, one article claimed, is where this saying comes from. The writer was from Texas, so there may have been some hyperbole, I don’t know.

I settled on 203-205 degrees as my goal.

How long will it take?

Well, based on my reading, I was prepared for 12 to 14 hours. Working backwards from a goal of actually eating my brisket for dinner on Sunday, I worked backwards and my math said I needed to get up at 4pm to pull the meat out and start the grill. Then, according to my reading, I would need to add more chips every hour or so. Suddenly my major concern was the sleep I was going to miss. Yawn!

Carving

The brisket is made up of those two parts mentioned earlier: the flat and the point. These two pieces were much more easily identified (for me) after cooking.

Some folks separate the flat and the point and cook them at the same time, but separately as the flat can finish more quickly then the point can take a bit longer. I chose not to do this because I lacked any confidence in my ability to separate them before cooking and I didn’t believe my grill had room for both chunks of meat and still allow the brisket to not be on direct heat.

The right way to carve a brisket involves separating the flat from the point and then cutting the flag perpendicular to the grain of the meat. I forgot this in the end and cut parallel to the grain. It still tasted good, but it was one of several areas where I didn’t execute correctly despite my research.

Barbecue Sauce

Some of the sources I read indicate that “real” brisket doesn’t require any sauce or will use something more akin to a gravy than a sauce, but since we’re not in Texas and it’s my damn brisket, I can do what I want and I like barbecue sauce on my brisket.

I was hoping for something with a bit of kick, but in the end I ended up with something sweet that was close to a sauce you might find in Kansas City.

Here is the (nearly) recipe I used:

Kansas City Barbecue Sauce

By Derrick Riches

This variation of the traditional Kansas City BBQ Sauce is a thick sweet sauce with a touch of heat to give it a little kick. This is a great barbecue sauce on BBQ Ribs.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 40 minutes

Yield: Makes about 3 cups

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/4 cup ketchup
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/3 cup cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup dark brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon celery salt
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne

Preparation:

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan over a medium heat. Stir constantly for 5 minutes. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Sauce should be thick. Allow to cool. Store in an airtight container. Refrigerate.

Modifications:

  • Added a quarter cup of honey
  • Added 2 tablespoons of hot sauce

Major Steps

Here are the major events that I knew to expect:

  1. Prep for the night before. This would include:
    1. Make and apply the rub, cover and in the fridge
    2. Make the sauce (see above)
    3. Soak the wood chips
  2. Steps for 4am in the morning
    1. Pull out the brisket to let it start to warm
    2. Start the grill
    3. Put chips in the smoker box for the grill
    4. Set up the thermometer (more on this later)
    5. Brisket on the grill
    6. Put the thermometer for the meat in to the meat, in the point, in the thick of the brisket
    7. Go back to sleep for a while
  3. Next steps
    1. Check the smoker box hourly
    2. Check the temperature of the meat and the grill
    3. Wonder why the chips aren’t smoking
  4. When the meat hits 150 degrees
    1. Take it off the grill and wrap (twice) in heavy duty aluminum foil
    2. Add a bit of apple juice because apparently that can help keep the meat moist as well
    3. Re-insert the temp probe in the point, in the thick of the brisket
  5. Monitor the meat
    1. Keep an eye, at least hourly, on the internal temperature of the brisket
  6. Brisket Reaches Done Temperature
    1. Remove it and wrap it in a couple of towels and place all that in to a cooler. This is known as a “false cambrio” and it’s very effective in maintaining the temperature of the brisket for even several hours, but plan on at least an hour to “rest” the brisket before carving it. This allows the moisture to recirculate throughout the brisket.
  7. Carve and Eat!
    1. When you’ve let the brisket rest for a while (at least an hour), take it out and carve it.

End Results

BrisketDone

BrisketLeftovers

Required Gadgets

One of the key things I needed and made this whole process was a dual probe barbecue thermometer – one for the meat, one for the temperature in the barbecue. The one I chose also had a remote so I could carry it around with me. Additionally, it had alarms for low and high temperature on either probe. I didn’t use those this time.

The one I chose was this one from Amazon for $45. It was easily worth the peace of mind and the ability to know whether I needed to adjust the barbecue temperature or when the meat reached the necessary temperatures.

Barbecue Thermometers

I also purchased a cheap smoker box, which is just a metal box with holes in the top and bottom to hold the hardwood chips (choose your favorite flavor – I used hickory).

Data: Time To Cook

It’s not science if you don’t have data and one of the pieces of data I wanted was the temperature versus time. Data below for posterity and so that I can draw upon it next time.

Here is a link to the Google Table doc with my cook times.

Key Learnings

  1. The Texas Crutch did, in fact, decrease the total cook time though it might have been at the cost of the brisket’s signature “bark” or crust.
  2. My sense of taste could not tell you whether my rub made any real difference.
  3. Like many, many things, we get better at the things we practice.  I suspect my second brisket would be better than my first.  But, even with all the research and prep I did, I still made several mistakes which I hope to avoid the next time.

Things I Did Wrong

  1. I should have taken more pictures
  2. I did not really get a “bark” on the brisket. That’s the hard sort of crust which looks almost like it was burned on the outside. This even after turning it hourly for nearly five hours on indirect heat of 235 degrees. Not sure what I did wrong here.
  3. The wood chips didn’t really ever smoke. No clue what I did wrong here, either. One person I talked to said that it’s pretty impossible to get the bark or smoke in a gas grill and recommended a Traeger smoker to address both.
  4. I cut my brisket parallel to the grain and not perpendicular. So, my pieces were long slices/strands of meat. Not sure what difference this would make, but next time I’ll make sure and do this correctly.
  5. I’m not sure this was wrong, but I put the probe in the point (the thickest part of the brisket) which means that by the time it reached 205 degrees, there was a chance the flat part was overcooked. It may have been a bit drier, but was still good. Perhaps I should have pulled it when the flat was done then later removed the point and finished cooking it. I don’t know.

Things That Went Well

  1. The dual probe thermometer was fantastic. I could check temperature from wherever I was in the house with confidence.
  2. The brisket was tasty and now there’s none left – we shared it with family. So, that’s good.
  3. The barbecue sauce was pretty good but I’d like something with a bit more kick.

Conclusion

This was a fun project but also very time intensive. I don’t know of a better way to get good brisket, but it certainly would have been cheaper to just go buy it at our favorite barbecue joint and less time intensive, but that wouldn’t have been as much fun.

When you look at the cost of the gadgets, supplies and brisket itself – taking aside entirely the cost of my time, it was the most expensive dinner we’ve had at home in a very long time. But, I’ll get a good return on the gadgets.

Of course, if I look in to a Traeger smoker, I could really

make an expensive brisket!

I’d recommend trying this, to anyone who is interested, at least once. Getting to eat something you spend hours working on is always rewarding.

Links

Here are a few links to sites I accessed in my research and are well worth checking out, especially the first one which is a pretty definitive course on brisket:

Mortality and Immortality

As I get older I’m being forced to acknowledge that my physical body is not accepting my mental premise that I’m pretty much the same as I was when I was 18 years old.

I’m forced to rationalize more things to myself.

I tell myself I’m wiser though strangely slower to learn some new things.  I have a slower metabolism while at the same time recalling the days I could eat anything and everything that passed within reach of my hands and mouth and suffer no ill consequences aside from occasional indigestion.  I still have hair that hasn’t gone gray (yet), but either my forehead is getting taller or (*gasp*) my hairline might be receding.  I can still play a good game of volleyball and jump pretty well, but I seem to walk a bit funny the next day and getting out of bed my ankles or perhaps my knees seem oddly pained.  Oh, and I have full-grown kids, near adults where before that I used to have children then infants then … well, more intent then opportunity to explore the joys of the opposite sex.

All this has caused me to start to wrap my head around the fact that, to use a golf metaphor, which probably firmly places me with my elders, statistically I seem to be on the back nine of my life.  More life behind me than I likely have ahead of me.

The time I have ahead of me will probably be marked more by the passing of my ability to do things I’ve taken for granted like playing volleyball without pain, jumping high without warming up, learning quickly, staying up till 2am programming something interesting, eating spicy foods and not suffering the punishments of my digestive tract.

Instead, I’m learning of the joys of Tums, ibuprofen and the reality that creating muscle mass becomes more difficult on the back nine of this course.

What else?  Oh, yeah.  I seem to forget things more easily.  Names, things that I remembered five minutes before, what brought me in to the room I’m standing in while I try to reconstruct the last five minutes of thoughts to see what drew me here.

At the same time, I’m certainly thankful for where I am now.  I’m healthy, happy and have purpose.  I am loved and I love.  So, all in all, not a bad deal.

This thought process also had me thinking about immortality.

Not the living forever part, though if I could choose to do that as my 25 year old self and still know what I know that might have some appeal. But, that’s really nothing more than a fun way to wile away a bit of time, like thinking about what you’d do if you won that $200M powerball lottery.

Failing science coming in the next 40 years and figuring out how to clone my body and create a 25-year old version of me that I can download in to, I’m left thinking about other demonstrable notions of immortality.

Before I go on, I want to make clear that I’m not even going to touch the spiritual part of this discussion.  That’s not something I can prove or disprove.  It’s a matter of faith and that’s a different discussion.

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s define terms.  The dictionary defines immortality thusly: “the quality or state of being immortal: a: unending existence b: lasting fame”.

I’m going to define it a bit differently and talk about immortality in the sense of what we leave behind after we are gone from this world.  Even if it’s not forever, immortality is what persists after we are gone.

With that in mind, I think there are three demonstrable forms of immortality that are worth thinking about.

They are: our children, the things we make and our acts.

Our Children

Our children are our most direct “product” in terms of literally leaving something of ourselves to persist and continue in the world.  But, the same applies for adopted children since the impact a parent has on the child in terms of day-to-day interactions is at least as critical as the genetic component.  It’s not Nature versus Nurture.  It’s Nature plus Nurture.

We don’t get to pick which of our natural traits we get to pass on to our children, so there’s certainly a somewhat random melange there.  They will likely receive both the worst and the best of us.

One of our main added values is in trying to help our children do better with what we’ve given them than we may have done ourselves.

Our children will grow up and become independent individuals that carry the legacy of our genetics as well as the everything we’ve tried to be as people and parents.  Hopefully the net result of that is more positive than negative.

Scientists can, in some cases, trace the genetic drift of certain chromosomes which allows them to track characteristics back thousands of years to a time and place.

That’s certainly a certain kind of immortality.  Someone was born with a mutation for red hair (likely multiple someones) and the characteristic persists today.  Perhaps some characteristic of my genetic profile will persist hundreds or more years in to the future, albeit mixed with whatever comes in from elsewhere in future generations.

So, we see that while our children inherit (some might say suffer) the largest piece of our genetic legacy, that continues, albeit diluted, in to later generations.

Similarly, what we teach them about how to be in the world, right and wrong, how to handle disappointment, how to work hard, what’s truly important (to us).  These, too, will persist in some form.

The difference is that later generations will largely be a random mix of genetic tendencies, but our children will consciously choose what and who to be.  Or not to be.

We’re not doing genetic engineering of our offspring (yet), but generations have partaken in values engineering or behavioral engineering as we choose what to take from our parents and perpetuate in our own lives.

In the end, this form of immortality is one of the most direct ways to influence the world we leave behind.  But it’s certainly not the only form.

Things We Make

There have always been people who created art in various forms, be it painting, poetry, music or any other form that has existed through history.

We know who painted the Mona Lisa, we know the Eiffel Tower was named after the guy who created it, most of us can probably quote a least a bit of poetry and hopefully the author, or a bit of Shakespeare or a few bars of a classic piece of music and the composer.

This is the most recognized form of immortality in the form of the Things We Make.

Will they persist forever?  No, but they will certainly last long after the individual is gone.

But, you might say, everyone can’t be a DaVinci, Michaelangelo, Shakespeare or Mozart!

And, of course, you’d be right.

So, what, I would probably reply.  Maybe you won’t create the next Eiffel Tower, but that doesn’t stop us from creating something that can live on past our time.

I have a couple pieces of wooden furniture and toys created by my step-Grandfather, Pappy.  Each has a small brand on the bottom of them that says “Hand crafted by Pappy”.

When those pass on to my children or they give it to their children (one of them is a small stool shaped like a turtle with a cushion on the top), my kids will know that this came from Pappy.  They may not have known him (he passed away before they were very old), but I will get the chance to tell them the story of how the stool came to be and how much Pappy loved making things for people.  This is a form of immortality.  He will live on in the things he made.  Are they the Eiffel Tower?  No, but watching my son sit on the turtle stool while learning to tie his shoes is a memory that is far more real to me and touches me deeper than when I stood in front of the Eiffel Tower.  Is it impressive?  Sure.  But it lacks an emotional component that that little stool will always have.  And that emotional connection will hopefully grow as my son passes that little stool down to his kids and they make their own stories and create their own connections to that piece of wood and stuffing.

Thanks for that, Pappy.

There’s been a movement afoot that I’ve noticed in last few years.  People are Making more things.  Average people.  They’re learning skills in wood working, crafting, electronics.  They’re taking things that other have built and twisting them in to new and amazing things.

You can read about this in great blogs like Make (http://blog.makezine.com).

Frankly anything that helps turn people from Consumers to Producers is a good thing for our world.  And I’m not talking about producing more cars or *stuff*.  I’m talking about the fact that a proportionally very small number of people Produce the material that the rest of the developed world Consumes.  I’m talking about art, music, books, media in all its forms, games, etc.  Think how many people passively absorb the results of the hard work of a relatively small number of producers.  Millions see a movie that hundreds (perhaps thousands) of people made.  Millions read a book that was written by a single person.  The proportion of Consumers to Producers for media and art is skewed very heavily towards a reducing number of Producers and a growing number of Consumers.

Thousands of people lament how long it takes a popular author to write the next book in a beloved series.  Millions consume that series.  One person created it.  If our society persists in creating a system that reduces the number of Producers down to a one to a million kind of ratio, it will become unsustainable.  Or, rather, it will be the death of a variety of voices as the only choices available via mass media marketing are those where millions of Consumers pay for the output.

Makers are turning that around.  They produce things.  They Make things and music and art and words!

Certainly the Internet has helped facilitate that.  It allows people to communicate from one-to-one or one-to-many.  Bloggers can have audiences of a few family and friends or have thousands of people reading their material.  One person can create a plan for something as simple as an Adirondack chair and share that on the Internet so that instead of just his chair, there are hundreds of chairs out there.  And each person is welcome to tweak the design to suit their need when people open that design up to others.

That’s an immortality, too.

Personally, I’m a dilettante with intentions to improve in the Making space.

I write sometimes, though I’ve published nothing, yet.  I’ve written computer software that was published in a book.  I’ve created animations and I’ve had images I created on the computer featured in books.  Not bad, but I can do better.

I believe we can all Make more than we do.  Paint.  Write.  Draw.  Learn the guitar.  Create a game.

Maybe it is only seen locally or only by family, but the act of creation is an amazing thing.  That energy gets transformed in to something that will persist.  Maybe it persists in itself or maybe it influences someone or encourages them to make something themselves.

That act of creation can have far more impact than the work that went in to it.  That’s immortality!

Our Acts

The final area where we have an ability to have an impact even after we are gone is in our acts.

This last is certainly more amorphous, less prone to easy measurement.

By our act, I mean the ways we touch, both intentionally and unintentionally, those around us in the world.

These can be as small as opening a door for someone or smiling at someone and asking them abou their day.  And listening to the response like you care!

They can also be large.  An endowment or scholarship fund.  Think what you will of Bill Gates, but his Gates Foundation is likely to have a profound impact long after he is actively involved and likely long after he has left this world.

But, there’s much ground in the middle, too.

Think about someone who volunteers at a soup kitchen, or cleans up garbage in a community.  What about a Big Brother, Big Sister or a Foster parent.  These people have an effect from the very local, even to a single person, up to something as large as our local community.  And those changes, those ripples that we introduce in the pond around us, can have profound impacts long after the act that caused that ripple.

You might recall the 2000 movie “Pay It Forward” where the main character had the idea of doing a good deed and asking the recipient rather than paying them back, to pay it forward to someone else in need.  The ripples continue after the initial stone is dropped.

Finally

In the end, we all pass on and leave a legacy of some form.  Few people manage to leave this earth without having affected someone in big and small ways, or made something that is left behind, or without having loved and been loved.

That’s a real sense of immortality.  It’s tangible.  We can wrap our heads and our hearts around it.

And, at the same time, it gives us something to strive for.  It gives us a checkpoint that we can take to look at ourselves and ask questions about how we are living our lives, who we are touching, what are we making, what are we doing that makes some difference?

That kind of self-analysis, that mental and emotional check-in is an important opportunity to make sure that our life doesn’t just slip away from us between all the moments and days where we just do the next thing without thought, without reflection, without direction.

Time is an arrow and it can’t be stopped.  Like Ferris Bueller said: Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Don’t miss yours.

New Things

Painting is hard.

A recent article I read determined that it took roughly 10,000 hours to become good at something.

If you do the math, that’s 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year (vacations are good) for five years.

So, a full-time jobs worth of work for five years and most of us can become good at whatever we set our minds to.

It’s no wonder that most of us lament that we can’t write, can’t paint, can’t draw, can’t make wood furniture or sculpt or whatever.  We can’t do those things and we are unwilling or unable to put in the five years to change that and unwilling to accept whatever spped progress we can invest towards that goal.  So, many of us give up.  Or, better yet, I suppose, putter around as and when we have time and just do what we do and let the rest work itself out.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Painting is hard.  (Worth mentioning twice)
  2. Patience is hard.  And a virtue, I hear.
  3. Observation is critical.  Certainly I have plenty of snow to look at, yet the result is less than satisfying.

‘Twas The Week Before Christmas

This was written after a long day of dealing (unsuccessfully) with the incredible weather we’ve had around here.  Worst storm in 40 years, according to the weather wonks.

‘Twas The Week Before Christmas

Twas the week before Christmas, in old Portland Town,
And the cars and the busses were sliding around.

The stockings were sitting on a chair by the tree,
Had they feet in them ready, they’d probably flee.

The kids were still nestled for warmth in their beds,
‘Cause the power was out, no juice from o’er head.

My wife in her socks and me in my mukluk,
Were trying to phone PGE with no luck.

When out in the yard there arose a large crash,
I fell out of bed and proceeded to dash

Away to the slider I stumbled half aware,
Grumpily, crankily, ready for bear.

There may have been a moon somewhere out on the snow,
But since everything was covered, you’d really never know.

When what to myopic eyes did appear,
I’ve really no clue, where are my glasses, right here!

There was no driver of sleds or of plow,
Though we certainly could use one, right here and right now!

Heavier than dandruff, white as can be,
the snow it did fall, oh deary me.

“Now, Crap! And Oh, poop!  Now someone must clear it”,
I wonder if Christina will do it if I claim to not see it?

Like dunes of sand in places far warmer and south,
the snow was everywhere!  I cursed with my mouth.

There up on the house-top the snow it did sit,
waiting to fall if I even touched it.

There was four inches of snow and a half inch of ice,
And more snow piled on top, this was great, really nice…

As I pulled in my head and wished I could go back to bed,
Snow did fall down the chimney instead.

So there was snow in the house and snow on the stoop,
Snow on the dogs and snow on their poop.

The things sitting under our fake Christmas tree,
did not include a shovel for little old me.

Nor boots for my feet, nor a weather proof pant.
“Who needs that stuff here!”, I miserably rant.

Now what to do in this world gone so white,
With no power, no shovel, no boots and no light?

So I shambled outside, ill prepared for the day,
ready to grumble, complain and to say:

“This weather ain’t normal, it’s nuts and it’s crazy,
I just wanted to stay home, be warm and be lazy!”

But this I do wish before the snow melts out of sight,
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.”

-Darrin Mossor, 12/2008