The Fat Lady Sings

fat ladyThere is a saying: “The opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings.”  Apparently coined by sports information director Ralph Carpenter during a 72-72 tied game between the Raiders and the Aggies in 1976 and reiterated any time someone is in a close contest.

For most of us recently life has been a close contest.  Economic disaster has pushed many to the brink of ruin.  And some have gone over the brink.

I’ve been building furniture for over 30 years.  It started as a hobby, making things for my own home, then friends and relatives.  Eventually word got around and my friends’ friends began calling on me to build things for them too, and furniture making moved from hobby status to side-line business.  This side-line grew until I cut my full-time employment to part time to test the waters as a full time woodworker, then quit my job altogether.  That was about 12 years ago (1998) and I’ve been working full time as a self employed custom furniture maker ever since.

There have been a few lean spots where things got particularly tight, and there have been times when demand for my work has been so great that I had a 12 month long waiting list in spite of the fact that I was working 12-14 hours a day 6 days a week for weeks on end.

Yet, somehow we never seemed to reap the benefits of all this work.  Even when our busiest year came to a close and we tallied up all the numbers in our annual report to Uncle Sam, profitability was disappointingly low.  How could that be?

Then I found a series of articles in Custom Woodworking Business magazine written by consultant Anthony Noel in which he addressed this very issue, pointed out many expenses that often slip through the cracks to feed upon your profit margin and taught us to build a spreadsheet for tracking those costs and calculating them back into our hourly shop rate.  I awaited each installation of that series with much anticipation and when it was complete I had my spreadsheet and began tracking down all those misplaced profits.

We recalculated our shop rate based on the results of that study and were confident that we would now be able to start tucking away a little for retirement.

Then the economy tanked (2008).

For a while people who still had money to spend on quality furniture were finding us and we were getting along, but last July either those people started feeling the need to hang onto their money or we were no longer able to get our name in front of them and things began to get really tight.  But, the fat lady hadn’t sung yet.

Almost another year has passed and nothing is getting better.  I believe I hear that buxom soprano starting her aria.  It’s decision time.

Having furniture custom designed and built for you is expensive.  It’s much like the difference between selecting a suit off the rack at your local department store or going to a tailor and having a suit specially fitted to your physique.  A tailor made suit will be many times the cost of an off the rack suit.  More so if you choose a particularly spiffy fabric.  But there are men who feel that $500 to $1000 (sometimes more) for one suit is money well spent.  Marie spent many years as a seamstress in a popular dress shop in St. Louis and she knows first hand the extraordinary amount of money women will put into custom made gowns.  And we hope to meet some of those people again soon as they will be the ones who are willing to spend money on high quality furnishings that are designed to their specific needs and tastes and built to last for generations.

But those are not the people who have been contacting us lately.  As an example, there was the fellow who wanted a table and benches designed for his children’s use.  After discussing his needs with him I estimated the job at around $1,000.  His budget for the project was $350, and that had to include delivery to the east coast!  This was just one example, it is typical of most of the dealings we’ve had lately.  We’re just going to have to move in a new direction if we are to survive.

Over the years there have been certain items that have been very popular and have sold consistently.  The higher pricing dictated by the need to actually show a profit as cooled the enthusiasm for even these items.  But if I can get pricing back down to the previous levels, we may be able to revive interest in those pieces.  How do we do that? Volume production.

I have always considered myself as something of an artist and as such have always considered production work to be distasteful.  But then, so is starving to death.

If I can produce our most popular items in batches of 10 to 12 pieces I can economize by making the parts of these pieces in runs, and saving labor overall.  How does that work? Well, it takes time to set up a tool to make a particular cut.  Depending on the tool and the cut being made, it can take 20 minutes to fit the jigs and make test cuts to home in on perfection.  If making parts for a single piece of furniture, all that work will go into making one or two finished cuts on parts (which may take all of 30 seconds to make the actual cut) and all that time gets billed to the one piece of furniture.  If making 12 of those pieces of furniture, once the set-up is done it can be used to make parts for all of them and the 20 minute set-up time gets split between the 12 pieces.  Instead of adding 20 minutes of shop time to each, less than 2 minutes is billed to each.

This is not to say that we will be able to slash our pricing to ½ of the current rate, for assembly and finishing of each piece of furniture will still consume most of the construction time and that must be done one piece at a time, with careful attention to detail or the quality of our work will suffer greatly.  And it does not take 20 minutes to set up for every cut made.  But if economizing in the parts making stage will help us reduce costs, maybe we’ll get some of that business back.

This will mean that what we build will not be customizable.  Asking us to make a set of tray tables 2″ wider than the ones we normally make seems a simple enough request, but it would in fact require re-designing and re-making all the jugs and templates for most of the parts used to make those tables.  So, full custom work is being sent to the bench until the game turns around for us.  The fat lady has sung.

Stepping up to a 3D Book Cover

Writing for Profit or Pleasure: Where to Sell Your Work - book imageToday I took the next step in the full-publication process of my latest book. That step being to produce a PDF version that I can sell on my web site. Most people who buy and read PDF books are accustomed to seeing snazzy, 3D book cover images that look like a photo of a real book. So the flat 2D image that I’ve been using in the bookstores isn’t going to be quite good enough if I want to look “professional” as an author of PDF books. But, I can’t spend $700 on Photoshop (the most popular software for doing this) nor do I have the time to learn it even if I could afford it.  So I went looking for alternatives.

I found a bunch.  Several were plugins for Photoshop to make setting that up easier – no good if you don’t have Photoshop. {Gong} They’re disqualified.  Continue reading “Stepping up to a 3D Book Cover”

The Voice of the Appalachians

I’ll call this Tribute Tuesday, and talk about a powerful writer and local (former) resident who loved this region, it’s people and it’s heritage.

Wilma Dykeman, who passed away at age 86 at her Asheville North Carolina home in December of 2006, has been heralded as “The Voice of Appalachia” for her literary works about the history and people of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Brief Biography

Wilma_Dykeman PHOTO Asheville Citizen-Times
Wilma_Dykeman PHOTO Asheville Citizen-Times

Wilma Dykeman was born on May 20th 1920 to Bonnie Cole Dykeman and Willard Dykeman in the Beaverdam community of Buncombe County, North Carolina, which is now part of Asheville N.C.  Her father was 60 years old when Wilma was born and he passed away when she was 14.  Dykeman would later credit both her parents for instilling a love of reading and her father in particular for arousing in her a love of nature and a curiosity about the world around her.

She attended Biltmore Junior College, graduating in 1938, and Northwestern University, in Chicago where she graduated in 1940 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in speech.

In August 1940 Dykeman was introduced to her future husband, poet James R. Stokely, Jr. a  Newport, Tennessee resident and a son of the president of Stokely Canning Company which become Stokely-Van Camp Inc. The couple married just two months after they met and produced two sons, Dykeman Stokely and James R. “Rory” Stokely III.  Both sons grew up to become writers as well, co-authoring several books with their mother.  Continue reading “The Voice of the Appalachians”

Lights Out for Incandescent Bulbs as GE Closes Last Plant – New Technologies Loom

incandescent bulbAmerican manufacturing icon, General Electric, brought an era to a close today; Friday, September 24, 2010 as it flipped off the lights and locked the doors at its Winchester Virginia light bulb plant. This was the last G.E. plant in America to make incandescent bulbs, an item that has been a staple product for G.E. since Thomas Alva Edison’s innovations in the 1870’s.

This closure is a direct result of the energy conservation measure passed by Congress in 2007 which mandates that incandescent light bulbs are too wasteful and must be eliminated from American homes by 2014. The resulting savings in energy and greenhouse-gas emissions are expected to be immense. But this move also has unintended consequences.

To start with, 200 G.E. employees, most of them in their 40’s and 50’s and many of whom have worked at this plant for decades, are now heading for the unemployment office. Employees interviewed as they left the plant for the last time expressed concern over being able to find another job in this economy, at their age, and with no other experience.

G.E. did look at retooling this plant to produce the new Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFL) which will meet the governments efficiency guidelines for 2014, but the $40 million conversion cost and the much higher level of labor involved in twisting the tubes of the CFL as opposed to making a round bulb would result in a bulb that would have to sell for a price that is 50% higher than those currently being produced in China. They didn’t feel Americans would pay $12.00 for an American made bulb if they could get a Chinese made bulb for $8.00. GE does plan to build a CFL factory – but they’ll build it in China.

Globalization Impacts the Job Market

When our government began pushing for “green” standards and “green” technology it was said that this would result in more jobs as the technologies developed and companies were built to serve these needs. But government regulations and the high cost of labor in the US appears to be shooting this concept in the foot as companies who want to make products to serve this new “green” revolution go overseas to build their factories.

Under the pressures of globalization, the number of manufacturing jobs in the United States has been shrinking for decades, from 19.5 million in 1979 to 11.6 million this year, a decline of 40 percent.

CFL Bulbs and the Environment

CFL First to burnThen there are the environmental issues. The Compact Fluorescent Lamp uses considerably less energy to produce an equivalent amount of light than an incandescent bulb. But a prime component of the CFL is mercury; a highly toxic element that is highly frowned upon by environmentalists.

Each CFL contains up to 5 milligrams of mercury, which I admit does not seem like much at first glance. But, when you consider that these are to become the defacto lighting source in our homes, and the number of homes and businesses there are in the US… it adds up quickly.

For example; I counted 29 light bulbs in my home (a very modestly sized bungalow) and 33 more in my workshop. So once I convert all of the se lights to CFL I’ll have around 310 mg of mercury in my living environment.

Is that dangerous?

I wanted to find out, so I went looking. The EPA says only 3.7 micrograms of Mercury is safe to ingest. A microgram is 1 1,000th of a milligram. 310 milligrams (the amount of mercury in the CFLs in my living environment contain 310,000 micrograms, when only 3.7 micrograms are considered a safe level of exposure.

But, this mercury is safely contained inside the CFL right? Yes, it is… as long as you don’t break one. The General Electric web site lists the steps for properly cleaning up a broken CFL, it starts with this warning:

Before Clean-up: Air Out the Room

  • Have people and pets leave the room, and don’t let anyone walk through the breakage area on their way out.
  • Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.
  • Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system, if you have one.

Also, you cannot throw them away like you did ordinary light bulbs. According to G.E.’s web page on proper disposal of CFL’s you need to take CFLs to a recycling center that accepts them. Their site includes two links to organizations that help you locate companies that will recycle fluorescent tubes and CFL bulbs, but when I followed the bread crumb trail to find out how I am to do this, I ended on a page that stated, “Contact your local solid waste management company for locations and dates of the next suitable recycling event.”

It does say that if state and local regulations do not (yet) prohibit disposing of CFL bulbs with other public waste, wrap the CFL in two plastic bags and be sure they do not get sent for incineration.

But wait … there’s more!

Liz Schwab posted on her blog an article that describes the effects of CFL lights on her autistic son. It seems that the faint flickering that any fluorescent bulb will produce, including CFLs, causes autistic children to become agitated and combative. As soon as she changed the bulb in her son’s room back to incandescent, he settled right down again.

Advantages of CFL bulbs

With all these potential down-sides, is there any good news about CFLs? Yes, there is. Let’s start with the reason that CFLs are replacing incandescent bulbs in the first place; they are much more efficient producers of light.

An incandescent light bulb is better categorized as a miniature space heater than it is a light because only about 10 percent of the energy is consumes is converted to light, the other 90 percent goes out as heat. A fluorescent light on the other hand uses 75% less electricity to produce the same amount of light and produces almost no heat at all.

Most CFL bulbs are touted to last for at least ten times as long as an incandescent bulb. In fact any bulb that is identified as being Energy Star certified has a minimum life span guaranteed. If the bulb goes out too soon, check the bulb for the manufacturer stamp, and contact them to obtain a full or partial refund of the purchase price.

Recent Improvements to CFL Bulbs

New packaging standards are being rolled out whereby CFL bulbs will be shipped in boxes with a selfsealing plastic liner to contain the mercury vapor should the bulbs be broken in transit.

And companies such as ArmorLite are producing a shielded CFL bulb with an incandescent-like outer bulb made of tough plastic that will offer some protection to the fluorescent tube and contain glass shards and mercury vapor should a bulb be smashed.

What’s Up Next in Lighting?

With all of the problems CFL bulbs represent, it’s not hard to imagine that many people are looking for some other option for lighting their home. The most promising technology is the LED.

This is not a new technology as LEDs have been with us for decades but new developments have helped to refine the product to yeild more light and longer life. Several companies are producing an LED product designed to replace standard bulbs in home use.

A typical Listing

A19 9W High Power LED Bulb, Standard, White

LED light bulbBest LED replacement for common 60W incandescent bulbs!  Excellent for table lamps, desk lamps and reading lights.

The NeoBulb!

This is a 120vac high power led bulb the size and shape of an ordinary incandescent bulb. It is 2 3/8 inches (60mm) in diameter and 4 3/4 inches in length. The 8 high power leds are made by a US company, and have a unique patented structure. The advanced design yields superior heat dissipation giving the LEDs greater stability and longer life. The bulb is available in daylight white and warm white. The bulb will maintain 70% brightness for 20,000 hours and has a total expected life of 50,000 hours. UL listed.

Disadvantages of LED Lighting

The downside of LEDs is that they are currently quite complex. The interior of the simple looking bulb pictured above contains many light emitting diodes that produce the light. LEDs do produce some heat, and that has to be channeled away from the diodes and dissipated through a heat-sink assembly. The complexity of manufacturing translates into a bigger hit to our wallets – typically LED light bulbs start around $30.00 and go up to $89.95 for the NeoBulb pictured above. Yes, that is per bulb!

As with any new technology, manufacturing costs will come down as they perfect their techniques and find new ways of accomplishing things. But I doubt I’ll ever be able to pop into Dollar General and pick up a box of 4 60 watt bulbs for a buck like I could with good old incandescents.

Oh well, such is the way of the world.

Best Laid Plans

When I first started my woodworking career in earnest, many years ago, I was a young man with a dream; and a plan. I planned to go sailing about the world on a 28 foot Bristol Channel Cutter, earning my way by doing carpentry work in the ports I visited and writing about my adventures. This was before laptop computers, so I planned to do my writing with pen and paper, mailed off to a typist who would put it into manuscript form. The woodworking angle took a little more planning. I refined my tool kit to a selection of the essential hand tools that would fit into a pocketed oilskin tool roll about the size of a big duffel bag. Hand tools only because electricity would not always be available. With that, a knock-down work bench, several reams of paper sealed in freezer bags and a fair bit of ingenuity I felt confident I could accomplish my dream.

I practiced by building furniture for friends and neighbors using just this tool kit in my back yard. I got to be pretty good at it. I was already pretty good at the writing and had sold a few articles and one book.

Following in the Footsteps of Others

I felt confident that I could do this because I had some great role models. I had read all of the books written by Lynn and Larry Pardey about their adventures as they cruised the world in their 24 foot Serrafyn. Much of their writing was about handling rough weather in a small boat, navigation and cruising on a shoe string; being a “Self Sufficient Sailor” as a common thread through all of their books and the title of one of them. These folks provided the blueprint for my plan and their tag-team style of writing (Larry writing some and Lynn writing some) kept me guessing as to who was writing what.

I enjoyed a pair of books by Gordon and Nina Stuermer, Starbound and Deep Water Cruising. In them the Stuermers spend two and a half years circumnavigating the world with their family aboard the square sail ketch, Starbound. Gordon used a fair bit of humor to keep things entertaining, and includes many practical tips on deepwater sailing.

I also added Blown Away and You Can’t Blow Home Again by Herb Payson to my library. His first book, Blown Away caught my fancy by his writing style. Herb and Nancy Payson, she a cocktail waitress and he an experienced sailor, decide to sell everything, buy a boat and sail the world. Herb writes about their adventures aboard their 36 foot wooden ketch, Seafoam. He injects a good amount of humor and uses self deprecation to counterpoint his obvious skill as a seaman. With a large boat, a bankroll to live off of and plenty of family who rotate through as crew for a working vacation, these folks were the exact opposite of the Pardeys; but the books were very entertaining

And of course Chapman’s Piloting and Seamanship is a reference book no serious sailor should be without. It covers everything from tying knots to weather prediction to navigation.

Since I planned to build my boat by finishing out a hull and deck kit, I also devoured all of Ferenc Maté books beginning with From A Bare Hull. It was his Best Boats To Build that helped me decide on the Bristol Channel Cutter.

Phase One: A Real Boat

T hen I bought a sailboat. Not the Cutter I wanted, I lived inland and needed a boat that could be used on the local lakes yet would handle like a bigger boat. I did some research and chose the Victoria 18. With a full keel, 550 pounds of lead ballast and a sloop rig, she would respond and handle on the lakes like a large boat would on the ocean. I had already taught myself the basics of sailing using a Sunfish. I traded the sunfish in on a Victoria, christened her Pegasus and set about learning to handle a real boat.

Pegasus came with a small outboard engine, but I loathed using it. I didn’t even take it with me most of the time. Instead, I learned to SAIL the boat. I learned to tack my way up the narrow channel to the marina, learned to watch the water for wave patterns that indicated wind shifts, and to maximize whatever winds were available. I went out sailing in all weather from near calm to 35 mile per hour winds that whipped the lake to huge, foam crested waves, spray stinging my face and the wind howling through the rigging. Pegasus seemed to enjoy the rough weather sailing as much as I did. And I learned a great deal about sailing single handed.

I did have a little Welsh Corgie named Brandy, who enjoyed sailing with me in fair weather. I trained him to stand on the foredeck as I worked into the dock, foreline in his mouth. On my command, Brandy would jump over to the dock, run around a cleat and jump back into the boats’ cockpit where I sat and give me the rope. I’d then snug it up, stopping our forward motion and drawing the boat up to the dock gentle as a falling leaf. This little maneuver tended to leave the spectators on the dock staring gape-jawed. It was great… once we got it down pat. There were a few scary and embarrassing moments along the way!

The First Snag in the Plan

I was well on my way to accomplishing my dream. But then I fell in love with a young lady, and this young lady had no intention of bobbing around the world in a boat.

Rather than trading the Victoria in on a Bristol Channel Cutter and going off to see the world, I kept the Victoria and spent the boat money on building a woodworking shop and got married.

In retrospect, I should have held onto the dream, and let go of the girl. But that’s another story.

Because The Young Lady wanted a fine house filled with expensive toys, the woodworking got relegated to a part time hobby and I took on a full time occupation with its more predictable pay rates. I divided my spare time between tinkering with furniture and sailing. But The Young Lady discovered that not only could I build lovely furniture, but that I could do so much more affordably than buying commercial furniture of the quality she demanded. Thus furniture production became a priority over sailing and Pegasus sat on her trailer; neglected, decaying, and lonely. I hated to see that happen to her, but just didn’t have the time even to keep her maintained let alone taking her out sailing. So I sold her to someone who had long admired the boat and promised to take good care of her. So long good friend.

In retrospect, I should have held on to the boat, and sold the girl. But…

Pressing On: A New Plan

Over the course of my years my life has endured many changes. I’ve attempted a number of different career choices, some with more success than others, and lived in many different locations. But through it all, were my woodworking and writing. I kept at those no matter where I lived or what I did to earn a living. At one point I took a year off from formal employment to try my hand as a professional writer. I did OK, but just OK. Eventually, I got tired of eating beans and decided to earn my living from the woodworking which looked to be far more lucrative.

I was again establishing a reputation and business was building slowly. Then, divorce cost me my first workshop and everything in it. Time to start over.

Same Plan: New Start, New Partner

When I met Marie I was living in a small apartment, with no space for a shop, and being bled white by the divorce I had no funds to rent suitable space and buy tools. But I was teaching woodworking at a local Rockler store and writing articles for woodworking magazines.

While on a vacation, we stopped at a visitor’s center on the Blue Ridge Parkway that houses a store for local artists. Marie was marveling at some lovely turned wood bottle stoppers and saying that they would probably sell well to the wineries back home in Missouri. Yes, Missouri actually has quite a few wineries. I commented that I could make those if I had a lathe.

So she bought me a small lathe and a basic set of turning tools and I began making bottle stoppers. And we sold them to local wineries; we sold lots of them. With the proceeds we bought more tools and built more things. And it mushroomed from there. Back in business.

Almost Heaven Joins the Plan

When we moved from St Louis to the mountains of East Tennessee, we brought the tools with us and bought a mountain side property with a small workshop already in place. Over the next three years we built it up and earned a reputation for making quality furniture. Along the way several people have come to help out.

Marie and I worked together here full time right from our move. But in 2003 we hired a web site designer to improve our web site and use her SEO skills to bring us more traffic. Instead she destroyed our traffic and nearly bankrupted us. At this point it was decided that Marie would seek employment to be sure the bills got paid while I continued to keep the woodworking going and re-build our web site. When the orders began flowing again, Marie chose to stick with her new job, just in case.

Moms HouseWe moved my Mother and Step-dad out here in 2006, setting up a double-wide for them on our property to keep them close so I could help them; they were both getting on in years. Mom helped out as shopkeeper in the gallery we opened in Cosby. Pat tried helping out in the workshop, but it wasn’t something he enjoyed, so he went to keep Mom company in the gallery.

W e met Brian and Linda Hinschberger while buying Mom & Pat’s house. Linda was our salesperson, and mentioned that her husband also did woodworking. We got together and he was very helpful for a time; then he got a shop of his own set up in a huge old barn on his property. I was a little envious of all that space, but wished him well as he headed off to create his own company. We continued to help each other out, subcontracting things back and forth, for quite a while.

M y nearest neighbor, Tim stepped in to fill the void. A born-and-raised mountain man and retired truck driver he had no furniture making skills but had done carpentry work. He built us a wonderful little storage barn. He had a good eye for detail, was willing and eager to learn and was a hard worker. He was very helpful until it was learned that he had stomach cancer and would soon be going on to join the Lord.

That left just me; once again a one-man shop. Back where I started, but content with that.

When the economy tanked in 2008, work began to slow down, my comfortable back-log of orders shrank, then disappeared. In October of 2009 I began gearing up for the Christmas rush. Every year about that time things would get very busy and I’d end up working 12 to 14 hours a day six days a week trying to get orders out in time for Christmas delivery. But that year the Christmas rush never developed. A few orders came in, but nothing like years past. I actually got to spend that Christmas season with my family decorating a tree and the house and baking Christmas goodies to send to our families. Well, OK, Marie baked, I conducted quality control checks.

Between Christmas and February was always slow, it would pick up in late January or early February. It always had. I was sure it would, and we planned accordingly. But it didn’t.

Another New Plan

So the woodworking got set aside and I began to focus more on my writing. Being a part time endeavor it had never brought in much – a few hundred dollars a month at best. And though I had tried being a full-time writer before and failed, the world is a very different place now. No longer do printed manuscripts have to be boxed up and mailed off to potential publishers where they lounge around for weeks (or months!) awaiting a review. On-line publishing makes it possible for anyone to publish their work for the world to read at little or no cost. Building a portfolio of work on-line should make it easier to query publishers for works I hope to have formally published. Or I can publish my work in e-book format and sell it on Amazon. Whether or not I’ll be able to earn anything approximating a living doing this is yet to be seen, but I have high hopes. Like any new thing, it takes some study to learn how to use the mechanisms that make it all work. It takes some perseverance. It takes a positive outlook. And it takes a plan.

My current plan is already bearing some fruit; reaction to my work posted here on Hub Pages has been mostly positive. My personal Blog The Daily Prattle is rapidly building traffic.

Part of that traffic were the editors of Grit Magazine, a rural living publication in print since 1882 who have asked me to write for them as a regular contributor. I will be writing a column/blog called Of Mice and Mountain Men.

Other deals are in the works. The Plan seems to be unfolding nicely. I just need to remember the wise words of a Chinese proverb: “When you want to test the depths of a stream, don’t use both feet.”

Racing Solar Powered Cars

For many (many) years I have been a fan of automobile racing, in High School I did some rat racing with cars I souped up myself and, later on, I seriously thought about purchasing a Legends Racer and trying my hand in those competitions. But I settled instead for being an avid fan of NASCAR Cup racing, as well as taking in the occasional Nation Wide Series (formerly the Busch Series) and or a Camping World Trucks race (formerly Craftsman Trucks). I have a brother-in-law and two nephews who are all involved in drag racing. One of those nephews, Paul Timmermann, recently branched out into a new form of racing; solar powered cars.

Team Mercury

solar race car
ISU Mercury III

Illinois State University’s Mercury III team is a multidisciplinary team of students and faculty who volunteer their time and energy to advance their skills and the promise of renewable energy. Led by music major Al Hackel and chemistry major Jason Savage, the team consists of more than 20 students and alumni from four departments at Illinois State University. The student team is advised by Professors Dan Holland, Brian Clark, David Marx, and Jim Dunham in the Physics department. The team entered their car in the 2010 American Solar Challenge; a competition to design, build, and drive solar-powered cars in a cross-country time/distance rally which ran 1,100 miles along public roads starting from Broken Arrow Oklahoma on Sunday, June 20th, wound through Kansas, Missouri and ended at Naperville Illinois on Saturday June 26th. There were stage check-points at Topeka KS, Rolla MO, and Normal IL where the teams would stop for the night and start out together the next morning. Racing times between check-points were cumulative with the lowest cumulative times determining the three winners.

2010 American Solar Challenge Winners

The winners were: First Place: car #2 – University of Michigan with a time of 28:14:44, Second Place: car #35 – University of Minnesota with a time of 30:26:53 and Third place was the unusually shaped car #10 – Bochum University of Applied Sciences (Germany) with a total time of 30:34:50.

A Winning Spirit

The Illinois State team did not place highly due to a series of mechanical failures, but they were awarded the Esprit de Corps. The A.S.C. web site says,This award recognizes the team that most lives up to the mission of the foundation and race to promote education and outreach.”

Laurie Timmermann, mother of Team Mercury member Paul Timmermann states, “Those guys earned that award; they worked really hard, going for days with little or no sleep to overcome the challenges that cropped up. They simply refused to quit and go home. The team’s official time of a little over 70 hours looks really terrible on paper, but is grossly inflated due to penalties. They actually finished just a short time behind the leaders.”

I.S.U.’s Team Mercury states, “We plan to continue competing in races across North America and the world as a way to test and improve our skills and promote a greener future.”

A Saga of Courage and Determination

Illinois State University’s Dr. George Rutherford chronicled the team’s progress and challenges, his notes provide the following account. The complete saga is available [here].

The Race Team:

  • Al Hackel, a music major
  • Jason Savage, a chemistry major
  • Josh Burnet, a biology major
  • Paul Aplington, a renewable energy major
  • Paul Timmermann, a business information systems major
  • Jim Dunham and George Rutherford, advisors

Many others worked hard in the weeks before the race but who couldn’t go on the trip.

​The saga officially begins on June 12, 2010; scheduled to be a travel day, but some of the newly acquired solar cells still need to be attached to the car, so the team decides to work on that first and leave early the next morning for the drive from Normal IL to Texas Motorsport Ranch in Cresson, TX. The caravan consisting of three automobiles and a race car hauler borrowed from Timmermann Construction Company set out at 6:00 Sunday morning and arrived in Cresson just before dark that same day.

Suspect Suspension

A few solar cells still needed to be connected, so Josh B, Paul A, and Paul T. removed the upper shell from the car and worked at the hauler to complete the task while the others took the chassis for inspection.

The safety inspectors decided that Team Mercury’s front suspension parts were too lightweight to withstand the long road race ahead and insisted that if the team were to compete, heavier suspension parts would be required. The inspectors did agree to allow the team to qualify the car with its current set-up while they manufactured an entirely new front suspension.

The Formula Sun Grand Prix

Qualifying the field of solar racer cars that showed up to compete in the “American Solar Challenge” was accomplished with the “Formula Sun Grand Prix”; a closed track race of 100 laps around the 1.7-mile track in a single day or a total of 150 laps over two consecutive days.

Team Mercury felt confident that they could complete their qualifying the first day; Thursday June 17th. Trouble reared its head early when a part of the solar array began to smoke. It was determined that the solar cells along the rear edge and front edge of the car were being shorted out by carbon fiber seam tape – which is electrically conductive. A team brain-storming session yielded a creative solution; plastic playing cards, slid in under the solar cells isolated them from the seam tape and allowed them to get in the race.

Team Mercury was 12 laps from its goal when a tire blew, taking them out of the race for the day. They would need to run at least another 62 laps on Friday to qualify. They did this easily posting a respectable speed on a course with hills, sharp curves, and no-passing zones.  The team took the car immediately back to the trailer area in order to disassemble the front suspension.

Suspension Fabrication

To fabricate a new suspension system, the team needed a full machine shop and a heavy TIG welder. The TIG welder the team brought with them proved to light to weld the heavier metal of the new suspension parts.

Through former ISU colleague Shaukat Goderya, now at Tarleton State University, Team Mercury obtained permission to use the shop facilities there.  The next challenge came when it was discovered that TSU’s heavy TIG welder was not working. But the team engineered a solution to this problem too; they combined TSU’s power supply and their small welder. The heavier power supply allowed the smaller welder to produce the heat needed to weld the heavy metal parts, but a safety system shut the welder down after about a minute of welding and required ten minutes for the welder to cool to safe levels before it would start up again. So the one-hour welding job took the team ten hours to complete, but complete it they did.

Dr. Rutherford states, “The team owes great thanks to Dr. George Mollick, head of the Engineering Technology department at TSU, for his time and generosity.”

However by the time the new suspension was installed, it was early Sunday morning, and the “American Solar Challenge” race was to start at noon in Broken Arrow, OK, a six-hour drive away.  Now the team faced its toughest decision. They could drive through this night and arrive at the race start in time to enter, but they would have to drive the entire day after having gotten no sleep at all that night and precious little sleep for the previous 3 nights, or they could trailer the car to the first check-point in Topeka KS, get a good night’s sleep and begin their race in earnest from there. The down side was a heavy penalty in points is assessed for trailering a car during any part of the race. Team Mercury decided to sacrifice the points in the name of safety, loaded up their car and headed for Topeka.

In the Race Again

Team Mercury rejoined the race on Tuesday, June 22 after some much needed rest and time to tune the car. During pre-race inspection it was found that a brake light switch had gone out. A spare was available, but the new switch was larger than the old, requiring that the shank hole be drilled out. Drilling the hole broke the weld holding the small bracket together, requiring that the welder be brought over from the team hauler, 1000 yards away. By the time the bracket was re-welded, the new switch installed and tested and the gear all put away ready for the caravan to pull out, the race had re-started and Team Mercury was an hour behind the others. The Mercury III car was capable of some good speeds, but along the way to the next check-point; Topeka KS, they blew two tires. Still, they finished the day only 12 miles behind the other teams.

An Uphill Battle

Wednesday, June 23 found the teams racing through hilly terrain and Team Mercury hit another snag when Northwestern University’s car gave out just before the crest of a hill, and in a no passing zone. Team Mercury, of course, was behind them and had to stop and wait while the NU team pushed their car to the shoulder. Getting the Mercury III car going again from a dead stop on a steep uphill slope exceeded the limits of a safety device that restricts how much current can be fed into the motor, so ISU’s team was forced to push the car a bit to get it going, and earned another penalty.

The hilly terrain also took a toll on the battery and near the end of the day, with the sun setting, the team decided to stop for a while and tilt the solar array toward the fading sunlight to juice up the battery. This delay caused them to miss the official closing of the day again, but by less than 15 minutes.

More Suspension Woes

A quick inspection the next morning showed uneven wear on the front tires and great concern about the potential of blowing out more tires enroute. A realignment of the front suspension was performed, causing another late start for Team Mercury, but they set out confident of better racing ahead.

Along the way a drive sprocket wore out and needed replacing. With no spare on hand, Al Hackle set out for a farm supply store in hopes of finding a suitable replacement. What he found was close, but needed modification. Luckily the store owner had an old arc welder and allowed Hackle to use it to make the needed modifications. This delay caused the team to miss the closing of the day again, suffering yet another penalty in points.

The team over-nighted at an Ameren power plant near Alton IL where an inspection revealed yet another imminent failure in the drive train. This time the team pulled out cell phones and cobbled together a support system through friends and relatives in rural Illinois that resulted in spare parts from ISU being delivered to them by motorcycle.

Although Team Mercury was the last team to roll out on the road from Normal, improvements to the drive train and power systems the night before allowed them to pass four other teams along the road to Naperville and cross the finish line an hour before the official closing of the race.

A Poor Finish Is a Good Finish

In conclusion, Dr Rutherford says this of his team, “Of the 15 teams who actually qualified for the road race, Team Mercury came in 13th place, last of the teams who finished the entire race.

Even this modest result was the best of any ISU road race team, since Mercury III drove the lion’s share of the race – every mile from Topeka to Naperville – using only the power of the sun.  Given that the road team was only five students and two advisors (the smallest of any team in the race) and that the team’s budget, including gifts in kind, amounted to only about $40,000 (the smallest of any team’s budget, often by a large factor), I stand by my original description of this team: extraordinary.”

Dr. Rutherford’s complete account is available [here].

Lawn Mower Man’s Busy Day

lawnmower troubleI’ve been having trouble with my lawn mower.  All 3 of them.  But the one I’ve been using to actually mow is a Craftsman self propelled walk-behind mower.  It’s kind of a wrestling match to use on this hilly terrain, but it got the job done, until recently.  It’s been getting harder and harder to start, and the past two times it has tried to yank my fingers off when I pull on the starter rope.  I’ve decided that it’s firing the spark plug too soon: before T.D.C., and shooting the piston back down the cylinder, turning the crankshaft *backwards* thus instead of ratcheting on past the pull-starter pawls it locked in the pawls and ripped the cord back down – along with two of my fingers.

Seriously, it took most of last week for me to get the pain in the two middle fingers down to where I could use them.  I thought I’d dislocated them.  Last night after work I went out and tried again.  Why?  Cause I’m either stupid or incredibly stubborn.  After 9 or 10 fast, consecutive yanks on the rope, just as I was about to pass out, the thing coughed and jerked back.  I picked up my fingers and shoved the mower back into the shed, totally disgusted.

I’ve been trying to decide what to do about the mower.  I could take it to the repair shop in town, but I have no idea what it would end up costing to fix because I have no idea what’s wrong with it.  On a car, or at least a decent sized 4-stroke engine, I’d know where to start looking.  But on these little two strokers, I don’t even know if one can adjust the timing, or where such a thing would be done.  It would have to be on the crankshaft somewhere, but I’d have to tear the engine down to go looking for it.  I’m not tooled up for that.  I build furniture, not engines.

Add to that rather helpless feeling the fact that this mower is something my Mom gave me when she moved out here, and Brian (my half-brother) gave her when he moved to an apartment.  The last time he was out here visiting he saw me mowing the lawn with it and commented that he was surprised it was still running, “That thing has a LOT of miles on it!” So maybe it’s just time.

Add to that the fact that it is built like a tank.  And is almost as heavy.  Being sturdy is a good thing, but having to man-handle it around all the obstacles and up, down and across these slopes gets to be quite a work-out.  Which is not all bad, especially for someone who is 50 pounds overweight.  But, still… there are limits.

OK.  So when I started suspecting that this day might be coming up on us, I started doing some research.  Assuming that I don’t want to use a regular riding mower because of the DisneyLand E-Ticket ride qualities of trying to mow these hills on a rider, and the fact that I’ve rolled the rider twice and the fact that I can’t possibly afford the wide, low slung, kind of riding mowers that are made for this type of terrain (they start around $4,000.00) and I don’t really want to fence in the yard and buy a herd of goats for Zadie to chase around, what kind of mower would be best for mowing this yard?

Distilled form many reviews, articles and discussions these are the prime requirements:

  • Self propelled
  • Multi-speed transmission
  • REAR wheels powered, not the front
  • Biggest wheels possible, especially the rear ones.
  • Sturdy but not too heavy.
  • Thrifty on fuel is nice.
  • Option of using side discharge, not just a bagger.

Armed with these specifications, I went searching for a mower that encompasses as many of these attributes as possible – and falls within my very limited budget.  I found several that sold for $600 (too much) to $900 (way too much) and one that sold for under $400.  High but doable – if it is a good mower.  Specifications are [here] if you are interested.

I looked for reviews and user commentary.  It looks like this model has just been added to the Troy-Bilt line.  I found ONE comment and that was posted as reader feedback on a Poplar Mechanics review of lawn mowers, he was telling them that his mower would run circles around all of the ones reviewed, and they should have included the Troy-Bilt in their review.  Over all, comments on Troy-Bilt mowers are good.  One fellow cursed them up one side and down the other, but I think he was trying to use it as a brush hog, and the other users of that discussion forum ‘splained it to him too.  Especially the Troy-Bilt owners.

So, I found my mower.  Now, where can I get one.  There are several places (fairly) locally that are Troy-Bilt dealers, but none of them stock Troy-Bilt.  They can order one and have it in a week to 10 days and all of them had the same pricing.  One told me that Troy-Bilt and Cub Cadet are both built by MTD and are essentially the same mowers.  OK, does Cab Cadet make a model with these same specs? “Um, well, no they don’t.” So what what was your point?

More poking around and I find that Lowes sells a version of the TB86K XP; the TB340 XP which is identical except that it has a Briggs & Stratton engine instead of a Kohler.  I know Kohler makes good engines in the Marine Diesel line and commercial grade gas engines, but discussions with the mechanics at the dealerships I called (gotta love that Magic Jack phone: free long distance) confirmed that these small gas engines were something new to Kohler.  They agreed that Kohler makes good engines, but no one could attest to the reliability of these small engines.  Briggs & Stratton is a name I know and have trusted for decades.  They know small gas engines.

So I called the local Lowes – fully expecting to be told that they do sell the TB340 XP but are sold out or they are a special order item.  WRONG!  Surprise!  They have 6 on hand.  So I added Lowes to our list of places to go today.

Then I ran the truck over to the shop and started loading it up with all manner of stuff.  Some was plain trash, some was recyclable trash, my dead U.P.S.  and a baggie of dead batteries, 20 or so cabinet doors, a couple large trash bags of clothes that Marie doesn’t want any more, and so on.

I took the truck back over to the house.  Marie was still dressing, so I went down to Mom’s house.

Mom had borrowed my garden sprayer to mix up a batch of herbicide and spray her driveway to kill off the grass and weeds.  But, she couldn’t get it to work.  Or, so she said.  So I want to look at it.  I pumped up the pressure, twisted the nozzle to open it up and pulled the trigger – worked fine.  So I figured that this was her sideways way of saying that she’d like me to spray her driveway for her.  So I did.  Took all of five minutes.  Then I transferred her weed killer mix into another container, took the sprayer up to the shop and mixed up a batch of my own weed killer in the sprayer for use later on.

Back home again.  Marie was ready to go.

First stop was the local Convenience Center (where rural residents take their trash).  Trash-trash went into a dumpster, paper and cardboard into the bin for that, steel cans (and a few worn out bandsaw bands) into the steel bin, plastic jugs into the bin for plastic.

On down the road to Wilton Springs Hardware.  They were having “Bucket Days” today.  Ninety nine cents gets you a sturdy 5 gallon bucket (always handy to have) and anything you can fit into it is 15% off the marked price.  We found a few things we needed, talked with Mitch the manager, enjoyed a couple of free hot dogs and sodas for lunch, C93 radio was doing a live remote, Cowboy Kevin was the on-the-scene DJ.  We know Kevin well.  We declined to go on-air with him, but when we went through to have a hot dog he came and sat with us.  We discussed the various meanings of “chilly dog” depending on what part of the country you are from.

Next on the itinerary was the Goodwill store in Newport.  We donated the cabinet doors, clothing and some light fixtures.

Then down to the Wal-Mart parking lot and the Electronics Recycling drive that was going on this weekend.  I gave them the U.P.S.  and the baggie of batteries and chatted with Elizabeth the director of Keep Cocke County Beautiful and David a K.C.C.B.  member and R.I.D.  (Remove Illegal Dumpsites) mucky-muck.  Elizabeth commented that you’d think that after doing this drive a couple times a year for several years, you’d start running low on junk electronics, but not so; each time, they get MORE than before.  They already had enough computer equipment to fill a semi trailer all by itself and boxes and boxes (big boxes) of small appliances.  Amazing!

Finally we went on to Lowes and got the mower.  The display model had a sign in it saying “Was $399.00, now $379.00”.  Bunk!  Everywhere that sold the TB86K XP and the Lowes web site listing for their version all said the price was regularly $379.00.  I was of a mind to tell the department worker who fetched a cart and got the mower down off the shelf for me that I knew better: it is NOT on sale, that is the manufacturers stipulated price.  But, he did get the box down without my assistance, so I left him alone.  No sense picking on him, he probably doesn’t make those decisions anyway.

At the check-out line we ran into a couple of old friends we haven’t seen in a long while, so we stood around outside for a time and got caught up.

We got the boxed mower in the back of the truck and headed for home… well, the workshop.

lawn mowerOne of the cool things about this mower is that it came fully assembled, so I didn’t have to spend half the afternoon bolting on wheels, handles and chutes.  It even had a quart of oil in the box.  All I had to do was straighten out the handles, tighten a couple of wing nuts and pour in the oil.  (I did have to supply my own gas)

It took two pulls to get it started the first time.  Any time I shut it down thereafter, it restarted on one pull.  It mowed through even the deepest thickest grass (over the septic field) like a bull at Paloma, climbed the hills like a mountain goat and handled easily – once I got re-trained to using a rear wheel drive mower.  I had not realized how accustomed I had become to turning around by pushing down on the handle to raise the front wheels (the driven wheels on the old Craftsman) off the ground instead of messing with the drive engage lever.  Doing that on this one didn’t work!  But once I got retrained, the mower and I worked very well together.

I even tried to “brush hog” Mom’s jungle – a steeply sloped, over-grown area under a big willow tree in front of her house.  Right job, wrong tool – I abandoned that effort quickly.

I got the whole yard mowed in one session.  It took a couple of hours.  Using the Craftsman I usually had to split it into two sessions or by the time I was done I’d feel like I was going to die, or more like I had died but hadn’t fallen over yet.  Today I was tuckered out, but not dead.  I took the mower back to the workshop, let it cool off while I sat down and had an energy drink.  Then I cleaned the mower off and put it away in the shed.

To make room for it I had to do *something* with a wash tub full of coal.  Don’t ask me why I have a wash tub of coal, we’d be here all night.  So I divied up the coal into 4 plastic buckets (one was the one I got at Wilton Springs earlier today) that could be tucked away into smaller spaces, leaving the large space previously occupied by the wash tub for the mower.

Next up I took the sprayer full of herbicide and put it where it would do some good: the driveways, walk ways, around decorative stone, etc.

Then I got out the weed whacker and trimmed up around all the trees, under the bushes.  I chopped back The Jungle some and cleaned out the ditch along side the driveway up to our workshop.  Then I cleaned up the whacker and put it back away.

While taking the truck back home I stopped at Mom’s house to pick up the tape of last nights NASCAR race and put in another for tonight’s race.  This is our primary entertainment on weekends.

Then it was back home, get cleaned up and changed into some lounging clothes in preparation for Marie’s home made Racin’ Pizza and our race tape.  A good evening spent together enjoying something we both like.

I do realize that for some of you Type A personalities, this is just a normal Saturday, but here in the mountains folks don’t usually cram quite so much into a single day.  Heck, some folks don’t cram that much into a single week!  So I feel I’ve gotten a good bit done today, it all went very well, I am feeling grateful for God’s blessings and wanted to share.  Thanks for indulging me!


The Troy-Bilt walk behind was purchased in April of 2009.  It is now October of 2014 and that mower is still running strong.  I do the usual annual maintenance, and it has needed no major repairs.  I’m very pleased with it.  I have purchased a riding mower to do the majority of the main lawn, but the walk-behind still serves well for the steeper slopes.