Sunday, July 12, 2015

Watching Miyazaki, and thinking about sticky stuff.

A couple of nights back, needing some visual comfort, I scoured the Internet and found a streaming, Japanese (w/English subtitles ), Miyazaki's "My neighbor Totoro". It's like my absolute favorite movie in the world, ever. Maybe it was our long deprivation, not having watched this movie for nearly a year, but the Japanese version seemed even funnier than the English dubbed version. Or maybe it was the beer, that might have contributed a bit, haha.




I am a slow learner, slow at working, slow at many things it seems. Also slow to take suggestions. Sebastian and I were chatting about usage streams, the cascade of materials use that is the essence of recycling. In conjunction with this concept, my particular interest was on means of food production and use, how leftovers can be stored for later use or used in different ways. I think this was when I was studying rice glue.


I love rice glue. Simple to make and it works tolerably well for many different things. Sure, it's not some crazy miracle glue that will fuse two materials "forever" and under all conditions. I mean, it's a starchy sugar that you can eat, for God's sake.


It just so happens that rice paste will give two matching surfaces just that little bit extra grip that is so desirable in woodworking. It is wood movement, that wiggling back and forth that causes built objects to fall apart. Think of your favorite chair.....It was fine for years, until that one leg started getting loose. Two years later, the thing feels like a prospect for a mean spirited April fool's gag. Anyways, glue is the material that can delay the early onset of the dread wiggle. The key is that the two surfaces need to be closely fitted.




My relationship with glue has been a long and troublesome one. As a thoroughly middling woodworker, I've had a great need for the stuff, but I can't say that it has been an entirely amicable relationship. Yellow PVA...use too little and the joint is dry and brittle. Use too much and you spend the next week cleaning up after yourself. The magazines (back when I read magazines, haha. Fine Woodworking was like my life preserver.) were ripe with techniques that promised ease of glue cleanup. Bury the wood in tape, then cut the joinery...or, slather everything with paste wax, then glue. Ugh.


My glue was everywhere, fouled up my finishes, stuck to my tools and ruined my clothes. It definitely stuck things together. Still though, if I was using solid wood, sooner or later the joints would break free from the inexorable forces of expansion and contraction. Well, I learned how to deal with that. Plywood.



In small boat building, much of the work that is currently done relies on plywood for structure, then epoxy for adhesion and isolation. This combination of materials allows a new type of design freedom, and lets novice builders create a beautiful little shell that sits lightly on the water and, more importantly, requires very little of the traditional maintenance typically required of boats. These are wooden cored composites, not actually wood boats at all, but rather a boat shaped object that LOOKS like it's made of wood.


I know a little about this. For nearly 15 years, I followed the "new" boat builder's evolution of obsession. From cedar wood/canvas canoes, to plywood "stitch and glue"canoes, wood"stripper" canoes and kayaks, I was obsessed with all of these. It was my vocation as well as my avocation. It was a fantastic 15 years, and a very noble way to starve, haha. I had a perpetual waiting list, but my means of production was too slow and my volume too few to be a viable business. I didn't care that my business plan/model didn't work, I just needed to build boats!


Day in and day out, lots of machines, lots of dust, lots of glue. This obsession that I now show for sharpening stones and strange Japanese tools? I was the same way with epoxy back then. Reams of paper dealing with relative modulus values of different brands of epoxy, personal shop experiments of temperature/time consideration on adhesion to different species of wood. Studies on how "grippy" different weaves of fabric reinforcement could be, and the relationship to flexoral stiffness.....God, I wish that I could've blogged back then, written some of it down, because I've forgotten SOOO much. A different world then, for me at least.


Wood and glue get along OK, but not great. As my depth of study increased (along with concerns over warrantee terms and product liability ), the natural progression was towards greater use of more specific materials and process. Towards the end of things, I was molding carbon composite elements using resin infusion and vacuum bags, Kevlar wear strips and reinforcement, and just tons and tons of stinky sticky crap. Finally I came to my senses and quit, thank god.


So yeah, glue. We were friends, but let's be polite and say that we decided to follow different opportunities.


Nowadays, I think of glue as not so much a permanent adhesive, but as something more analogous to tape. You use tape to hold things together, sure, but the connection is temporary. In woodworking, all connections are temporary, and once I started to accept that, things started to really change for me. Glue is great for giving your work that extra bit of "stick" that holds stuff together longer.

If you want your work to REALLY last, plan for the future. Plan for repair, because it will break. Don't shoot yourself in the foot by using a glue that doesn't "fix". PVA is a great example of a glue that makes future repair so difficult that most likely anything built using it will end up in the trash. Sad but true. That's a lot of wasted wood out there, furniture that was built using glue that won't handle secondary bonding. Remember that chair with the wiggly leg? Did you try to repair the joint by squirting glue in the separated joint? How long did that repair last?

What the heck was I talking about? Oh yeah, recycling I think.

So, rice glue.....and low energy lifestyles.

Before bed, you soak the rice for the next day in some water. You leave it sitting on the counter and when you get up in the morning it only requires a small energy input to cook that rice, because you were planning ahead. Eat some for lunch,eat some for dinner (still no refrigeration ), then you soak the next days rice. But what about today's rice that you didn't eat? What to do with leftovers, if you don't have refrigeration, that is ?

Rice glue is better if it is made from 2-3 day old rice, because the bacteria and enzymes are working to break down the starches, letting those protein strands really do their thing. At least that's how I understand it, and I do know that 3 day old unrefrigerated rice is insanely sticky. Your kids will never have a lack of paste, just give them a tablespoon of old rice, have them smoosh it up and start sticking stuff together. It's that simple. Rice glue. I love it.

So what I like about the rice glue example, the concept here that I am looking for, is that this is a low energy cascade of use. Start as food, turn it into something else that is also useful, then at the very least point, the remainder gets given to the animals / compost/ etc. All of this requires no refrigeration, and since I am trying to live with as little refrigeration as possible, I was bemoaning to Sebastian the lack of good ideas that I had found on the Web.

Zeer pots don't work well in areas with high humidity, you know? Maybe it would, I haven't actually tried one, but there are few real world examples of it being used in areas like this, only failures. Actually, the only good examples of no-refrigeration lifestyles are in my old sailing/cruising books. It's not refrigeration that I'm thinking of though. Again, I digress.

The idea is making a simple lifestyle change (eat more rice) that will reduce some other energy demand (driving to the store to buy some glue). It's funny, but little things like this are cumulative, have large effects ultimately, but the tricky part is to change our ways of thinking. Expectations of permanence,say, an ostensibly small thing like glue and furniture...forgoing the convenience of making rice that lasts for a week in the fridge but gaining free glue.....what I am looking for are ideas like this.

Working with hand tools exclusively is a little along the same lines. We have no plug in stuff, no expensive tools to wear out, and sure, it's slower. But SOOO much cheaper than buying a generator/gas/power tools, and though it's slower, it's not THAT slow. I don't build much ultimately anyway. Where would I put that furniture? I would need a bigger tool shed/house. I would need book for those shelves.

My friend Brandon sent me a link to a TED-talk, about the relationship between the developing new architectural paradigm and Moore's "law". Moore's law is familiar to us as the reason that our phones now have more computing power than the room full of computers I once saw as a child. Semiconductor technology has allowed the compression of ever smaller bits and bytes, squeezing more into less, so that computing power effectively doubles every two years. I can carry an entire library in a shoebox. Heck, with Internet access.....who needs a shoebox?

Our lifestyle has changed so radically from what I knew 40 years ago. Ironically for me, I am now living the dreams of my childhood, playing in the jungle, building stuff, looking at bugs and talking to animals. My daughter is designing and building a rabbit hutch out of materials scrounge from the dump, while I upload monologues that the entire world can see. I have good friends on the other side of the world who I've never met, but share my interests. Some people say that technology is causing us to become more isolated as individuals, but at least I have friends who I can talk to about this strange stuff. If my wife had to listen to all of this stuff in my head.....well...she has things tough enough as it is. 7 months in, and we are still pooping in buckets for God's sake, haha.

Holy cow! TMI!

So I was telling Sebastian about my rice glue saving the world kind of thoughts and he said, " You should read "Just enough", by Azby Brown."

And last night I found an e-book version at my local library (support your library....Borrow, don't buy!), and 4am started reading. Already, so much that I've read is familiar in a strange way. The key concepts of economy of use, avoid waste, and an appreciation of the finely made familiar.

Though I am notoriously cheap, I will glad give away most anything and would actually be ecstatic if someone else could find a use for something that I would consider waste. This can be a " gift" economy, and it just makes sense for me. This is similar to a barter arrangement. Remember "Bootstrapping" from the 70's? For me, the attraction is a reduction of waste. Now when I watch those YouTube videos of old guys sharpening saws, and you see them collecting all of the steel shaving in a box....I thought that was just a way to keep things tidy, but those shavings would be useful to the neighborhood blacksmith, as one of the ingredients of welding flux. Where do you buy iron filings? You don't....the sharpening guy gives them to you for fixing his hoe/knife/whatever. Cool, but also economical.

As I read more about Azby Brown's thoughts on Edo Japan, I see his examples and what I really am seeing is Hiyao Miyazaki anime cartoons. In each of his movies, there is the appreciation for the country lifestyles and values, although he isn't explicit in any of it. He shows much of what Brown writes of, I just didn't know enough to appreciate what was there. As I read Brown, even more I want to watch my old favorites. Now if only I had a dvd player.....

Our life here is becoming something different. More simple in many ways, but also more complex. Much that I am learning now was common knowledge only a generation or two ago, but now nearly lost. With the help of many friends and their knowledge learned, I can envision an economical life of less money/tv/stuff, but more time for peace and beauty. I don't want a big truck, a big house, none of that junk, and I feel almost a pity for those that do. How insecure they must feel.

Most all of our goals in life are related to security. We need wealth, to be more secure against poverty. A big car is safer than a small one when you get in a wreck. You buy insurance to protect you house/car/health/life.....all of this is fear. I don't know.

I need to cut my Project Mayhem joinery.....part of my doing more, using less, requires me to get better at what I DO.


  1. What a beautiful way to put it my friend. If I may quote an Austrian friend of mine: "Happiness is the deferred fulfilment of a prehistoric wish. That is why wealth brings so little happiness; money is not an infantile wish” It's really good to read you are happy.

    It's funny you mention Miyazaki... I have a text on him I'm sending you right now. All his movies are about the same, and it's this other way of living, older but also new. A sense-full life. It's so good that Ellie is living one of Miyazaki's movies, that's what every child should live.

  2. I hope I get a chance to read "Just Enough" by Brown. I listened to a podcast of it, god, it was 2012:
    I just ordered Des Kings book 2 of Shoji design, where he covers the three way mitsu-kude joint for hexagonal jigumi. Super excited! I've puzzled out how to cut it from the few sources online, but nobody mentions how to attach the jigumi to the frame...


Like all of us, I am figuring this out as I go, so when you see something that is incorrect or flat out wrong (and you will!), let me know. This is a learning process. Real people and names, please. Constructive comments and questions are very welcome, but hate speak/politics are not! Life (get one!) is too short.

Thanks, Jason