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Portfolio. Some of my favorites: ~mike gradziel.

oak step stool Step Stool. June 2013.

I am making wood projects again and it feels great! Home improvement projects are so much less creative, and more time consuming, and they have kept me occupied for the past three and a half years. But now, in June 2013, I have made some time for a small project: a step stool for Joy's closet. I installed a double level of hanger rods since her clothes are small, and she needs a stool to reach the upper level. Even though people will seldom see this stool hidden away in a closet, I wanted to give it a sculptural quality without straying too far from the beauty of rustic simplicity. The result: a solid block of oak with a hole through the middle providing a handhold for moving the block to various positions, and reducing its weight. Plus, it looks cool. I stuck felt furniture pads in the four corners on the side that is usually down. To dry it out and dispatch any bugs I packed it into my oven overnight at 200 degrees. It smelled so good I would have eaten some if it was possible. The rest of those blocks are part of my new tv stand.

oak stepstool

About that tv stand: here it is, pictured below at left, finally finished in January 2015. I had been using it for a year and a half with the walnut planks rough sawn and impossible to dust off, so finally I got around to planing them smooth (though not flat -I just stacked up felt furniture pads until things stopped rocking) and adding a few coats of finish. I like to say this looks like stonehenge: solid, heavy, stable; a suitable base for a heavy old television. The big black chunky electronic equipment with tangled cables behind it needed heavy woodwork to draw attention away, and I like the simplicity of the arrangement. If you look close you will see ropes running from the back of the tv up to an eye bolt in the window frame, to toddler-proof this setup. It's plenty stable except when used as a climbing gym.

oak and walnut tv stand

the ring Engagement Ring and Presentation Box. November 2009.

I designed the ring, from concept through CAD models, but it was made (in absolute secrecy) by Joy's friends Sara and Mandy at RedStart Design in San Francisco. After churning through dozens of ideas I had a sudden change of course and sketched exactly this on a scrap of paper. Right from the start, it was perfect: two alloys with subtle color differences joined with a dovetail on the palm side, and on the other side with a special joint locked in place by a small diamond. Actually, silver solder locks the joint but it appears to be held by the diamond chockstone. The stone is protected, small enough so as not to cause undue worry, yet still sparkly in the way only a diamond can be. My claimed innovations: a round stone set in a square hole, and woodwork-style joinery bringing relevant themes. RedStart does really nice work. Palladium and 18 kt palladium white gold, inner diameter 15.0 millimeters.

engagement ring with presentation box

And for my part of the endeavor, I made a tiny wooden ring box cut by hand from black African mpingo (the most difficult wood I've ever carved) and purple-heart (a fitting use for that piece of wood Grandpa gave me years ago). This was surely the most challenging joinery I have ever done. Carefully vacuuming up wood chips from the kitchen floor after each carving session, I managed to keep it a surprise. The joints aren't watertight but they glide effortlessly past each other and line up surprisingly well for something made with only chisels, a saw, a file, and micrometer calipers. A small ring takes a small box: it's a one inch cube at its widest points.

She said yes!
So we set about planning a wedding. My ring is a similar design, but I swapped the stone for a rose gold pin and Sara suggested a triple dovetail which I like because it maintains the fine scale of the design on this wider band.

joinery wedding band

maple shelf Maple Shelf. September 2009.

Before moving to Northern California, on a drive from Pasadena to San Diego, I bought 23 linear feet of 10" maple boards from my favorite lumber store. Sitting on my tailgate at the beach, the wood laid out in the truck bed, I sketched this design inspired by something I saw in a furniture catalog. The plan was to put a flat-screen television on top but as it turned out I kept my old projection TV. Almost a year later the shelf is finally complete, 60" x 31" with joints that come apart for compact transport and storage. I like the joint style with its triangular intersections, attractively concealing the robust square slots.

maple shelf

Fuerhand kerosene lantern (West Germany) converted to an electric lamp with a touch switch brightness control Kerosene Lantern Conversion. March 2009.

San Mateo, California is four hundred miles from my old workshop at Caltech, so the big wood projects will be slowing down considerably. But I still have time for small things, like an electric conversion for this Fuerhand kerosene lantern originally made in West Germany and tarnished through many years of use. I wanted a dim light source with an adjustable warm light level, something reminiscent of the flame humankind has used for nighttime illumination for thousands of years. I settled on a touch sensor that cycles through four light levels, and a clear incandescent globe bulb seated where the wick once was. The job took a great deal of grinding to enlarge the wick opening so the touch sensor could be inserted into the former fuel reservoir; however now that it's finished there is no indication of what's inside or how it got there. Old meets new, though frankly a candle would have cost me a lot less (the lantern was $25; the sensor, socket, power cord, shrink tubing, bulb, and grinding toolbits add up to around $40 more).

dining table and bench, hickory Dining Table with Bench. October 2008.

This is an outright copy of a design sold in popular stores. Theirs costs upwards of $1200 while the materials and parts for mine cost just $370, and I chose my own wood: I really like the rustic warmth of hickory. It is tough, hard, durable, and inexpensive; it has beautiful grain patterns, and the natural dark inclusions will distract from future dents and scratches. There is something attractive about clean cut furniture made from earthy rough wood: unlike veneers or polymer laminates, the surfaces look and feel authentic and ready for hard work. I wouldn't want to sit down to anything less at dinner. I miss doing my own design, but I did come up with the understructure and joinery. Steel threaded inserts and stainless screws allow the legs and side bars to come easily apart for transport; the legs are hollow to reduce weight. Dimensions: 72x39 inches.

solid hickory dining table with bench.  Steel inserts and stainless screws hold this together; the legs and side bars come apart for easy transport.

apple cider press in maple and walnut Apple Cider Press. March 2008.

A number of years ago new legislation was introduced to require pasturization of all apple cider sold commercially in the US. To get that rich, fresh, true cider flavor that tastes like autumn chill and crispy white apples and warm cider donuts, I built my own press. It makes wonderful cider, but frankly it isn't very economical because of expensive California apples and the small batch size which makes it somewhat inefficient. About ten apples will yield a pint of cider. After testing a prototype that ended with a little over a cup of cider in my glass and at least another half cup on my kitchen floor, I bought some maple lumber from a wholesaler in East LA and drew up my plans. I designed the press to have minimum mass, so as not to clutter my apartment with a huge traditional load frame; the central threaded rod (which is coated in paraffin to prevent rusting) is pinned to a wood block that sits in a square socket in the wooden base. The handle drives a nut that rotates against a heavy duty thrust ball bearing. Ten pounds of force on each side of the handle generates around two thousand pounds on the round maple press plates, enough force to send rivulets of golden goodness trickling out from the layers of grated apples and down into a waiting jug. The handle and anti-rotation feet / carrying handles fold up for storage.

Cider is best used within a few days, and one of its best pairings is with fresh cider donuts. Commercial donuts usually all come from the same mass-produced donut mix, so just bringing home a cinnamon-sugar donut won't deliver the coarse crumbed, crusty morsel you need. It really is a simple 30-minute project: Combine 1/4 cup white granulated sugar, 1 tbsp. butter, 1 egg; cream together. Add 1 tsp. baking powder, 1/8 tsp. salt, 1/4 cup apple cider; mix well. Add 1 cup white flour and mix to a thick batter. Spoon sticky gobs the size of large grapes into hot vegetable oil an inch or so deep at about 250-275 degrees F and flip them over several times (chopsticks are great for this) as they puff up and brown. Cook until the centers are done - you'll figure it out. Drain on paper towels, then toss in granulated white sugar with cinnamon. Eat.

apples, prototyping, carving the cider catchment, and the finished cider press

maple, walnut, hickory, and oak table Maple, Walnut, and Hickory Table. July 2007.

Rich dark walnut, creamy smooth maple, warm golden hickory streaked with bands of dark and light grain, and toasty oak all sound like things one might eat with a dish of vanilla ice cream. They look wonderful too, combined as they are in this new sturdy table that replaces - for the moment - my delicate maple walnut coffee table, which resides in a closet for a change of appearance in my apartment. The new table came about because one day Nghia wanted to pick up a load of cherry from Bonhoff Lumber, a wholesaler with massive inventory. We took my truck to East LA and loaded it up. I spotted these short thick walnut planks and soon had a stack in my stairwell begging to be laid edge to edge in a shimmering expanse of chocolate brown. I accented that with the four maple posts set in tight holes and built an airy understory to store books, support feet, and add some strength to the table without blocking light or hiding the carpet. Uneven ends and the wavy understory stir the smooth lines to keep the appearance casual and comfortable.

maple, walnut, hickory, and oak table

cherry burl and ash box Cherry Burl and Ash Box. February 2007.

I built a cherry burl and ash box just like this one in 2003: it went off to a lady and after a time neither was ever seen again. I really liked that burl box. In 2007 I realized I had just enough ash and cherry wood left to make another one, and fortunately I still had the original pencil sketches. The dimensions are important: the lid is a golden rectangle, that beautiful shape first identified by the Greeks thousands of years ago, and the proportions and curves were carefully designed. I cut curves on the sides of the box and positioned the ash bands to convey a feeling of strength as if the box was bound with cords. The wood is black cherry and white ash from the low forested Berkshire hills in western Massachusetts. When I was quite young I noticed the burl where it grew beside a trail, and though the stump had rotted away by the time I thought of collecting the wood I found the burl just where I remembered it, fallen over and leaning against a sapling. I chopped the burl out of the trunk and hauled it a mile through the snow on a sled, then sawed it into slabs with a chainsaw and brought them inside to dry. The ash wood came from from my Dad's firewood pile in the late 1990s; it was of exceptionally fine and clear grain so I saved a piece for some future project. The fourteen inch wide logs could be split in half with a single tap of an axe. The ash accents are cut so the hard white wood layers face upward or inward and the bottom of the box is thin quarter-sawn ash set in a groove. The lid pilots on chamfers at the four corners so it fits perfectly. This one also goes to a special lady...

cherry burl and ash box
how the design came alive

hickory and walnut barrel Hickory and Walnut Barrel. February 2007.

I bought a hickory plank one day because it had a nice contrasting grain cut through the sapwood and heartwood. It stayed in my stairwell for months until I finally settled on a new way to showcase the grain without building another coffee table: I would build a barrel. Immediately I set to work, sawing and planing the lumber into thin strips and building a jig to bend them into their final curvature so I could bevel the edges on the jointer. This, however, required that I use the top surface of the jointer fence as a guide - and that surface wasn't machined square or smooth. Becuase of that and my imperfect, late-night jig building the joints of the barrel aren't very tight and I have new respect for people who built waterproof barrels centuries ago without machine tools. I used hose clamps to assemble the slats and then built up walnut veneer layer-by-layer at each end, orienting the grain differently in successive layers to build up a tough composite ring that I then trimmed to size and pinned in place through the holes first used for clamping the slats to the bevel jig. The finished barrel is 32 inches tall and the bottom is wider than the top. It was a fun project, but I'm not really sure what to do with the barrel. Right now it sits in a corner with some curly branches arranged inside.

hickory and walnut barrel

maple walnut coffee table Maple Walnut Coffee Table. January 2006.

This one has been years in the making. The walnut top was one of the first pieces of wood that I bought after arriving in California in 2003. I didn't have much of a plan when I started designing the table top, and I had to buy tools along the way to get the job done - dovetail saws and good chisels and hand planes and rasps and a router and slot cutting bit. Other projects came and went but still this one sat in a corner of my living room. Finally in January 2006 I took the risky leap of drilling holes through the legs for the dowels. To make the hole pattern at exactly sixty degrees I built a special drilling fixture in my garage using a one-meter precision ball slide from work, my power drill, and a brad point bit. It was a big relief to see it all fit together! This isn't kid-proof or party-proof - it's plenty strong but you can't sit on it, and even with the top covered by a sheet of 0.090" thick clear acrylic there are too many joints for spills to get into. The entire table has glue in only a few places, on the last maple slats to go on the ends and in the joints that make the curved legs. Everything else is held by joinery and dowels. I like the curves and angles of this piece. It was partly inspired by sealskins I saw stretched on frames in the Canadian Arctic - that and the thought that in the Arctic, whalebones would make curves like those in the table. Like many of my pieces, this one can be taken apart and packed into a flat box for transport.

maple walnut coffee table
inspiration from Arctic Canada

schools of fish carved from butternut wood Fish Carvings. 2003, & 2005.

These are my favorites of many small carvings I've created from butternut logs pilfered from my dad's firewood stack. The trees have a layer of pale colored wood under the bark that is separated from the light brown inner wood by a thin gray boundary, an ideal structure for making the body of a fish with its gradient of color from bottom to top. I've seen exquisite agate carvings created from natural stone that ranges in color across the spectrum such that the purple frog sits on a green leaf or the field mouse has a gray back, brown ears, and a white belly, but sadly to me those end up looking like dyed glass knockoffs. The same is true for wood: a quality piece of art needs to be rough enough to show its origin and plain enough to communicate its meaning. I carved each of these fish with a detail knife I ground thin from the broken blade of a pair of scissors and set in a handle carved to fit my hand. Commercial knives are too thick to cut well. Each fish is swimming in a particular direction, twisting or gliding or leaping, and the fins are set appropriately for each motion. The fins are white ash split radially to show a ribbed texture. The carcing without fins has so many fish that I decided fins would clutter the flowing form. I assembled the schools on pins, each in a fluid formation. One swims over a bit of lodgepole pine weathered by wildfire and alpine winters and colored by the sun ten thousand feet high in the eastern Sierras and the other follow a bit of pine branch from the western Sierras.

schools of fish carved from butternut wood

maple burl and walnut end table Maple Walnut End Table. August 2006.

Fitting this maple burl slab into a piece of furniture has been a challenge for me ever since I bought it on an impulse with little thought several years ago. Irregular but chunky, rather small, and studded with sharp thorny bumps about its perimeter, it didn't lend itself to the headboard I first had in mind. I put stubby legs on it, but then it looked squat and boring. Now I've searched deeply in my imagination and created this odd piece, keeping with my maple walnut theme. The curves of the understructure are meant to reflect the shape of the top while lending an airy feeling to the otherwise heavy slab.

maple burl and walnut end table

cherry and walnut dresser Dresser. 2004.

Cherry went on sale at the lumber store so I bought a carload and lay out plans for a dresser. Working to arbitrary dimensions I started with the lid and then designed the rest of the dresser as I got to it. Using more Berkshire cherry burl and black walnut pruned from the neighbor's tree back home, as well as birch and cherry planks, I shaped the molding and cut a round into it mainly with a belt sander. I chose clear pale birch for the corner posts and used the same design on the side panels as I'd put on the lid of the burl box. Dark walnut pieces define the top and bottom and accentuate edges. The back is made from thin poplar planks and the drawer faces are carefully selected cherry planks with decorative bands of birch. The drawer bodies are partly aromatic cedar, partly cherry, and some are poplar. The drawer slides are shaped cherry fixed to the frame with dowels. To make the drawer pulls, I procured copper grounding wire from an old utility pole my dad got from the town to cut and split for fenceposts, and two-inch copper nails from a barrel in the barn where they had resided since the early 1900s when copper nails were used to put in slate roofs. At the shop I forged the nails into eyes on the anvil, melting and shaping the metal with a hammer and oxy-acetylene flame. After hammering and forming the wire bails I drilled the eyes and slipped them onto the bails, melted a ball of metal on each end of the bail to retain the eyes, polished the handles, and pressed them in place secured with glue. The piece is very solid and quite attractive. It weighs a ton!

cherry dreser with burl, birch, and walnut trim

Jade and Silver Necklace Jade and Silver Necklace. February 2006.

I bought a small piece of jade from an old man on the curbside in China's remote western autonomous region of Xinjiang, where the huge desolate expanse of the Taklamikan Desert meets the towering Karakoram mountains. The nearby Jade River occasionally reveals bits of precious clear green and white jade and the local people scour the gravel banks for lucky finds while camels nibble on dead grasses beside spindly poplar trees. Back in California I sectioned the stone into thin wafers with a small hacksaw, a process that took hours, then sanded them smooth with a progression of fine sandpapers and polishes. I drilled holes and soldered stirling silver loops through the stones and a silver chain that seemed to fit the design well. I haven't done much work with precious metals or stones but nonetheless this was a fun project.

maple walnut coffee table Spice Rack, Maple, Walnut & Cherry. June 2006.

This was an afternoon project one Saturday assembled from scrap lumber. Joy had moved into a new apartment, a studio, and knowing that space would be a little tight I decided to get right to work on the first space-saving furnishing I could carry onto an airplane. Actually, it's an inch taller than is allowed by the airlines... I built it thinking I would transport it in pieces - if the eight screws are removed it disassembles into a heap of wood slats - but once it was together I decided it might make more of an impression fully assembled than in a heap of slats. Here's an amusing story: I built it for spice jars of the size I like to buy. Joy buys taller jars, so we had to take some shelves out to make them fit. Now that we live together, the shelf is again configured my way. But I do all the cooking.

oak chopping block Oak Chopping Block. June 2006.

Joy's studio apartment didn't have much kitchen counter space, and my stairwell was full of three inch wide slats of oak that I'd salvaged from discarded shipping pallets. The logical result was this oak chopping block, 42 inches wide with birch legs and trimmed with scrap walnut from the coffee table project - already cut to the right shape when I made the table legs! I installed a lattice shelf below for pots, leaving leg room in case the piece ever gets used with bar stools as a breakfast bar. Two half-inch threaded rods with twin nuts on each end hold the pieces together in compression as well as deck screws throughout to secure the smaller slats.

cherry dreser with burl, birch, and walnut trim

Great Grandpa's Tool Chest Great Grandpa's Tool Chest. May 2005.

This piece came from my Dad's barn. It sat there in a corner covered in dust, hayseed, and grease, painted black and filled with an assortment of old pieces of junk. My great grandfather made it probably around 1915 or thereabouts and kept his woodworking tools in it. Now I'm going to do the same, having stripped off layers of blackish paint and sanded off the greasy dust and applied several layers of tung oil. It's not quite a living room piece - the lid is a little too battered - but it sure will look nice in my workshop.

oak chest Oak Chest. 2005.

Karen commissioned this piece - or something like it - to store an odd-sized Christmas decoration. Neither of us really thought about how big it was going to be if I didn't give special attention to making it small, so here it is: 50 inches long, 25 inches wide, and 17 inches tall weighing about seventy pounds! I put a curvature of 3/4 inch top to bottom in the sides to keep it from looking too boxy and mitered the corners (a difficult task) for a lighter-looking structure. The internal brackets are cold wrought strip steel blacked on the stove with oil (better than paint!) but I didn't do the handles myself this time. Also the inlay strip around the edge of the lid is a commercial piece.

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