Stories from middle America

Recently I’ve been cleaning and organizing our storage areas–garage, basement, shed. A main goal is to gain a place for everything and catalog what we still need or is broken. Our tools are all over the house and as I started getting them wrangled up, I thought about how much a person needs. I started making a list that is turning into a series about the essential tools every homeowner (and renter) should have.

Not everyone has a garbage disposal. But, I’m pretty sure all of you have drains and sinks of some kind in your home or apartment. Whether it’s the kitchen sink, bathtub, shower, or bathroom sink, we’ve all had that moment when the water stops draining and starts filling up from the other side.

I’ve made this mistake several times, thinking I can put everything in our disposal before I started composting most of it. Eggshells, vegetable waste, rice, pasta, you name it. Then it was only a matter of time before both basins would fill up, and nothing would work to get them clear. Not Drano, not a plunger, not two plungers, nothing. So out comes the phone and the plumber gets called. After a couple times of this, and coughing up $100 each time, I decided that this was the kind of thing I had to be able to solve on my own.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to put plumbers out of business; there are many, many things I would never attempt to do myself. If it involves water pressure, or temperature, or this, I’m calling those guys immediately. But for a backed-up drain, you’ll save time and plenty of money if you just invest in a pipe snake.

Most times, especially in the kitchen, the backup lies in the p-trap, the bent pipe under your sink. That’s just a matter of removing that (with a bucket under it!) and cleaning it out. But for the real bad blockages, the snake works best. There are several types, some that attach to power drills, small plastic models, but I prefer the kind with the spinning drum. It’s cleaner (because when you pull that auger back out of your drain, it will most certainly be the most foul-smelling and looking thing you’ve ever seen) because it winds back up into the plastic drum, and easier to control. With the drill types, it can spin and whip all over the place, making a wet, black mess all over your kitchen. Don’t get me wrong–there is some work involved with clearing a drain blockage, but the satisfaction of fixing something yourself, and not having to pay someone else to do it is more than worth it.

Hopefully, you won’t have to use it very often, but even if you only do one single time, you’ll have saved a fortune. So next time your toilet explodes, call the plumber. But next time your drain backs up, fix it yourself.

General Pipe Cleaners R-25SM Spin Thru Drain Auger with 1/4-Inch by 25-Feet Cable, $15.97 at

September 26, 2012

Mixing Materials

wood and metal table

[image courtesy]

I’ve been lending some friends and clients a hand with some simple art and design projects lately. A few of these projects have included mixing materials – wood with metal, installing art on brick or stone. These are challenging combinations that can require access to materials or tools that most people probably don’t have. But when paired together, these natural materials can create bold interiors for a home. Here are some tips on how you might mix materials, whether you need the perfect placement or prettiest pairing:

1) Invest in a masonry bit or two. Whether you inherited it from your grandpa or your parents left it with you when they dropped you off freshman year, most people have a drill, or a drill-like device* and basic bits. What you might not have–and what may come in very handy–is a masonry bit. These guys come in all sizes and are made for drilling into stone, including brick. They take a little more umph to use, but it’ll be well worth it when you don’t have to constantly bypass hanging shelves or art on your beautiful brick or concrete wall. A decent masonry bit and a set of plastic anchors that will hang your whole art collection should cost you less than $10 at most hardware stores.

art on brick wall

2) Plaster walls can be a real bitch. If you’ve ever tried to pound a nail into plaster, only to be greeted by the sound of chunks falling behind the wall like a pachinko machine, you’re not alone. But as with anchoring into concrete or brick, you can use the same expanding plastic anchors in plaster. Just drill a pilot hole (I like to use wood/metal bits in plaster as opposed to the more aggressive masonry bits) into your wall and (gently) hammer an anchor into place.

3) *Please skip the as-seen-on-TV gadgets and buy a real drill. And unless you’re going to use it everyday, skip spending $150 – $200 on a fancy cordless one. You can get a cheap, reliable corded drill for less than $50 that will work perfectly and isn’t dependent on whether or not you remembered to charge the battery after you used it for that one thing back in July.

4) Turn it up to 11 and use some metal! Metal isn’t something that’s on our shopping lists when we make a trek to Lowe’s or Home Depot, but consider how cool a thin piece of metal might be if it were used as a shelf or table top. Do a simple Google search in your area and you’re sure to find a manufacturer or machine shop that will sell you pre-cut, pre-drilled pieces of sheet metal at a competitive price. Up the ante by inquiring about what kind of hardware (shelving brackets? drawer pulls? railings?) they might be able to sell or make you. The point is, just because you can’t buy it at Home Depot or cut it on your table saw doesn’t mean it’s not accessible to you.

peter cales woven paper chair

[image courtesy Peter Cales at]

5) Paper or Plastic? As with metal, fear not considering paper or plastic! Both are easily attainable and manipulated to bring a modern touch to your next project. I’ve been using paper as seat cushions for years. The next time you want to want to reupholster your dining chairs, consider investing in a $40 roll of watercolor paper from Dick Blick that can be dyed, woven and stretched around a seat for a comfy, durable and colorful alternative to fabric.

And plastic in the form of plexiglass or opaque sheeting of various thicknesses is readily available from retailers and wholesalers. It would make a great frame attached in strips directly to a wall, or as a colorful set of coasters. And it’s easy to cut with a fine tooth blade, or scored with a razor knife and snapped apart.

For your next project, think about how you can use natural elements to add rich textures and bold accents to your home.

Cales table top

Commissioned art piece, photo courtesy Peter Cales.

When I started making things for people as my job, I quickly learned there were several ways to approach the commission process. This goes for both the maker and the consumer. Commissions are important to me because of the financial stability they afford me and because they allow me to approach the design process with clients in a personal way. I try to make the design process with clients a special experience, and those clients who respond positively to that approach tend to be the ones who I form longer-standing relationships with, both professionally and personally. Over the past few years, I’ve gained several good friends and acquaintances because I took the time and effort to approach the work they wanted me to do in a personal way.Designing and creating commissioned pieces of furniture (and occasional so-called “fine art” pieces) are my financial bread and butter. In any given month you can typically find me working on a combination of various tables, chairs, toys, sculptures or the random cabinet.

Balloon sculpture

Commissioned “steam-punk inspired sculpture. Photo courtesy of Catherine Bosley.

I also recognize that a personal design experience isn’t for everyone. Some people want a specific thing and aren’t interested in anything other than having the finished product, well, finished. While I understand that approach, it just doesn’t click with me as much as sitting down with a couple or family and designing a piece that is a reflection of their environment and style and my design aesthetic.

Cales table in living room

Photo courtesy Catherine Bosley.

But enough about me. Having a commissioned piece of furniture or art should be all about you. So if you’re considering trading in that dining table from Nebraska Furniture Mart or the storage piece from IKEA you bought for your first apartment, consider these…considerations:

1) Be prepared to spend some money – Yeah, shocking, I know. It’s probably going to cost you more to have a one-of-a-kind piece made by hand for you than it is to just go back to that big box store and buy last year’s solid oak, brown-stained dining table. The value in commissioning a piece is that you get exactly what you want (as opposed to “kind of what I was looking for”) and you have a one-of-a-kind, handcrafted heirloom to pass down to your kids or cool, favorite niece.

A tip: Give a younger, less-established designer-builder a chance. You might get a better deal from someone on their way up as opposed to a fully established craftsman in high demand.

Cales table

Photo courtesy Kevin Jones.

2) Know your budget – You’ll likely have better luck getting what you want if you approach a designer with a pre-existing budget or range in mind. This will save everyone time, and will likely result in a better value. I’m much more likely to add something special into a piece if someone gives me a specific budget rather than designing something awesome and then finding out my prospective client’s budget is lacking a comma or has a decimal point in the wrong place.

3) Know your designer – Certain designers and craftsmen specialize in certain things. You’ll likely have a better experience if you know who to approach with your project. For instance, I specialize more in tables, chairs, sculpture, kid’s toys – all individual objects. When clients ask me about kitchen cabinets, I point them in another direction, such as my friends at dkiser design.construct.

Dining table

Commissioned dining table for a Birdhouse client. Photo by Christopher Van Buskirk

Similarly, some designers will happily make you a knock-off of a piece you saw at Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel. Still others occupy a space in the reproduction market making Mission-style work. A minimal amount of internet research should reveal what designers in and out of your area are most adept at creating.

4) Finally, transparency, honesty, and clarity are paramount in the design process. Having a strong idea about what you want in your home or office saves time and money. I love being given creative license by a client, but in those rare occasions this happens, the opportunity for conflict or disappointment is much higher. For that reason, don’t be surprised if you’re presented with a very specific, though amendable contract, detailing dimensions, colors, patterns, etc. Contracts might take the sexiness and excitement out of this special process, but ultimately, they protect you and your designer and make sure that everyone leaves–or in the case of furniture design–sits down at the table happy and satisfied in the end.

Do you have experience working with a designer on a custom project? How was the experience for you? Are you looking for a new dining table made of locally milled hickory? If so, drop me a message at

I talk with a lot of hobbyist craftsmen and woodworkers. At the end of these wood chats, there are two things that are apparent. The first thing is that most hobbyists read a lot more Fine Woodworking magazines and books put out by Taunton Press than I do. The other thing is that they tend to rely on the easiest (and often most expensive) sources for their supplies. Don’t get me wrong; if you have a specialty woodworker’s supply store near you where you can find more exotic hardwoods, high quality chisels and hand tools, consider yourself lucky. These stores are fantastically fun to browse, and any chance I get to visit one, I take. But the drawback of these kinds of stores is that their selection of hardwoods is very expensive, with prices typically 25% to 50% higher than wholesale for even domestic hardwoods (walnut, cherry, birch, oak, etc.). You’ll likely find a similar (or worse) pricing structure at Lowe’s, Home Depot, Menard’s or whatever your regional big box store is. One of these stores, which will remain nameless, even shrink wraps their hardwood boards. I’m not sure what that’s about, but I know I don’t like it.

So with your best interest in mind, and a hope that you’ll veer from the path most traveled, here are a few ideas for where to find some great building materials at even greater prices.

Table detail

1) Local sawmills: Local sawmills are far and away my favorite place to find unique materials at a great price. I’ve been to sawmills all over the midwest, and I’ve never left any of them with empty hands or an empty wallet. My favorite wood to work with is walnut. At my local sawmill, I generally pay about 1/3 the cost per board foot for walnut as I do at my local wholesaler. But besides the value, the main reason I love sawmills is because they tend to offer more unique cuts of material. When you go to a box store or woodworker’s supply, most of the material you’ll find will be the ideal version of a wood species. They carry the straightest grain available, devoid of knots, empty of heartwood or other discoloration. These kinds of unique “imperfections” are part of what drew me to wood–and woodworking–in the first place. At sawmills, you can find all sorts of unique pieces of wood to build your dresser drawers, quarter sawn coffee table top or any other project you have in mind. Additionally, you can often pick up more unique cuts, from oversized widths, super thick pieces for turning projects or table legs, and fancy grain patterns.

If you’re unsure about how to contact a sawmill in your area, there is of course Google. A better, more vetted source might be to ask a seasoned carpenter or craftsman or a builder familiar with nearby rural areas. I’ve also known people who have portable sawmills they can bring to you. So if you’re feeling adventurous and patient enough to wait a year or more for some lumber, find a downed tree or log and have it professionally milled for you. Seriously. Trust me, it’s worth the wait.

2) Architectural salvage: If you’re unable to find a sawmill nearby, it’s out of your comfort zone, and you don’t have the ability or patience to wait for freshly milled lumber to dry, check out a nearby architectural salvage. These pickers’ paradises are known for their ornate reclaimed hardware, mantel pieces and stained glass windows. But you’ll likely find a treasure trove of lumber, from worn floor boards and barn wood to moldings and stair spires. Give haggling a try and walk away with a carload of goodies for your next project.

Habitat for Humanity ReStore

3) Habitat for Humanity ReStore: Every state in the U.S., with the exceptions of North Dakota and Vermont, has at least one Habitat for Humanity ReStore. I recently visited my local ReStore and was quite pleased with the selection of items available. While you’re probably not likely to find a pile of reclaimed cherry or walnut boards, you will find plenty of more common materials, and things you could saw down into more manageable pieces. You might also decide it would be easier (and cooler) to turn an old $50 door into a table top. The best part about ReStores is you never know what will be there from one visit to the next, since they’re constantly taking donations. So check back early and often to get your hands on the best stuff.

Reclaimed piece

4) Found materials (not for the faint of heart): It may not be glamorous, but don’t rule out the power and quality materials that abound in and around dumpsters. I know a local furniture maker who uses almost exclusively discarded materials found in dumpsters and trash piles. A little dumpster-diving could land you a treasure trove of reclaimed pine you could have milled for your kitchen floor remodel, or some cool old bricks for your new patio. If you’re not too squeamish, uber-creative or maybe just a little desperate, look for construction sites or areas that are being redeveloped and dive in. But remember, only take the discarded stuff.

If you have a piece you’ve made from any of these non-traditional material sources, drop me a message and a picture at I’d love to add your special source to my list the next time I’m in your neck of the woods.


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