Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Dressing for the season

It has certainly been a few weeks since I posted, so we'll try and get back on track her somewhat regularly. Today's post is inspired by questions a friend had on winter camping

What is it?

When we go out into the elements these days, we often only think of it in short bursts. Running to the car, heading into work or a shop, checking the mail. Sometimes we're out for an hour or so shoveling, working hard and keeping warm. But what if you have to walk some distance? Maybe your car stops on a back road, maybe you're snowed in, or maybe you want to get some exercise by taking a walk. Knowing how to dress for the weather will certainly make everything far more bearable! This becomes more vital when we look at things like skiing or (for those of us slightly off our rocker) winter camping.

Why do it?

You don't want to freeze, do you? ;) Seriously, this is an area I think is getting lost as we spend less time outdoors. There was a time when most people spent at least a little time outside each day, either tending to livestock, visiting the market, fetching water, or any number of other tasks. In our age of central heating and warm automobiles, fleece jackets, and indoor entertainment, we often feel like we can best Mother Nature. All too quickly we can learn how wrong we are. Frostbite is certainly the first thing people think about, but hypothermia is a far more insidious threat, and one that can lead to lethargy, unconsciousness, and death. Good reasons to bundle up!

How did I learn it?

Yep, you guessed it - Boy Scouts. This blog sometimes reads like an add for the BSA, but it remains a great place for the passing of practical skills to boys and young men. The Girl Scouts could be similar (and in some troops, is) though I fear they too often focus on "feminine" skills to the exclusion of outdoor skills. Of course, the popularity of these and other outdoor organizations has waned in popularity amongst the youth amidst other options, so many of these skills are ones we need to pick up as adults.

As a Scout, I was fortunate that my Troop had a very motivated Scoutmaster. He was of the firm opinion that we should do an outdoor event each month, including the winter months. Additionally, our council held a "Klondike Derby" which required outdoor camping and practice of skills. The base of all this was, of course, staying warm!

How do you learn it?

I'll provide you some key points, though I think there is some variation from person to person. We each have our own unique make-up and chemistry that will change what we might feel comfortable wearing. My wife is always colder than I am, so when and how much she wears is certainly different from my choices, though I feel the basics remain the same. Experiment, but do so wisely! Cold related injuries are some of the worst, and also some of the easiest to come by. When cold moves to pain, GET WARM FAST. If it moves to no longer being cold, it might be too late to save things like toes and fingers, or worse yet, your life. Don't mess around with this. Seriously, try it out near home, spending an hour or so out in your yard when you can move back inside if you get cold. Sledding, winter walks, snowshoeing, and skiing at a commercial slope are good ways to test out your gear before doing something like a weekend long camping trip.

Of course, everything here is my opinion and should not be taken as scientific fact. I hold no responsibility if your toes fall off.

Materials - In this age of microfibers and nylon, there is an understandable urge to use the "latest and greatest" out there. I can sympathize and have, more than once, jumped on the wagon myself. However, after many years, many materials, and lots of exposure, I have yet to find anything that beats wool. Wool is natures miracle fiber, especially in winter. It will help absorb moisture, yet has a level of water resistance even after all the natural lanolin has been removed. More importantly on the cold front, it can keep you warm even when completely soaked! This benefit cannot be overstated and has yet, to my knowledge, to be duplicated by modern materials. Of course, when wet, wool becomes heavy, but heavy is better than dead, and avoiding it getting wet in the first place certainly helps.

That leads, quite naturally, to staying dry. Often winter equals snow, at least in may areas, and if not snow, ice and rain. This is where modern technology shines. Fabrics like GoreTex and its "descendants" provide a mostly waterproof barrier that greatly reduces the chances of you getting wet. I say mostly as seams are a weak point in any waterproof clothing. Proper care and taping helps considerably, as do treatments (which we'll talk about in a minute) but be aware anything can wear down. I prefer GoreTex and the like to things like PVC and vinyl as GoreTex will allow moisture to escape your body without allowing it in. Thus, when you work hard, some of the excess heat and sweat can get out, while PVC rainsuits keep that in and result in your being wet from the inside instead of the outside. Using a light GoreTex style outer layer will help keep the under layers dry and doing their job.

Additionally, waterproof garments tend to be windproof. Wind can kill really quickly, which is why folks make such a big deal out of windchill at this time of year. That's because the wind will blow all the warmth right out of you, no mater how many layers you might wear. Wool does provide some wind protection, depending on the weave, but a good windproof outer garment will do wonders to keep your body warming itself up.

There are other places for modern fabrics, like wicking undergarments, which I'll touch on in a bit. Fleece is another one that I do utilize, though normally in coordination with others. Fleece is light, somewhat water repellent, and great insulation. I prefer thinner fleeces as they don't cause you to overheat as fast and are easy to remove, though I tend to limit it to one layer that can be removed, as we'll discuss below.

The one fabric I almost entirely avoid is cotton. There is an old saying that "Cotton kills", and while that may be an oversimplification, it isn't off the mark. Cotton is fabulous in warmer weather and I certainly wear my share of it in the winter. I have flannel lined jeans I'll wear for going to work, clearing off the car, or hanging around the house. However, if I intend to spend more than 15 minutes outside, except on the driest days, the cotton stays in the house. Cotton absorbs water very well, as evidenced by it's heavy use in things like towels and cotton balls. Once it has that water, it is reluctant to give it up and becomes very heavy, more so than a similar weight wool, yet it no longer insulates. In fact, it becomes a channel to cool your body off very quickly! Please, leave the jeans inside when you're spending any time outdoors in the winter.

Layers - Your mother always told you to dress in layers, and with good reason. Not only do layers allow you to vary how much you are wearing at any point in time, they also create additional pockets of air that help insulate. As odd as it sounds, air is really what is keeping you warm, whether it is the air trapped between fibers of something like wool pants or the air between that long underwear and your long sleeve shirt. Your body heats that air up and the layers keep it trapped inside. See, your mom was right, even if you found it annoying.

I prefer multiple small layers. While I have my heavy-duty winter coat (a blanket-weight wool trench coat, actually), if I'm spending a lot of time outdoors, it isn't what I grab. Instead, I dress in numerous lighter layers. These allow me to not only stay warm, but if I start to sweat, I can take a layer off keep from getting too drenched inside my clothes. I like to start with long johns (sometimes these are cotton, though I prefer silk or modern fibers) and build out. Consider using vests or short sleeve shirts (again, close to the body and less likely to get wet) as you'll find that keeping your chest warm is fairly critical. Arms and legs are a little more used to being cold, so can often do with a little less cover than your torso can. Additionally, you'll restrict your movement less in this manner. This is one of the places I will often wear fleece, in the form of a vest, though I recently picked up a wool vest that I absolutely love and now tend to grab first. Build outward and figure out how many layers you personally need. For me, the number is about 4-6 on my torso, 3-4 on my arms, and 2-4 on my legs, depending on what I'm going to be doing and how cold it is. It sounds like a lot, but with thinner layers it's actually pretty easy to do and still move around.

Hands and feet - The areas that, arguably, are in the greatest danger are those furthest away from your torso. When you hear about frostbite cases, it is invariably in the toes or fingers. When I mentioned cold turning to pain earlier, this is where you're most likely to feel it (or possibly the tip of your nose, but we'll get there). Everything listed above about materials and even layers applies here as well. First, the fingers.

Gloves seem like a given, but not all gloves are created equal! In fact, if you look at the cultures that have faced the most extreme cold, you will see that very few of them actually use (or used) gloves very often. The mitten is the preferred winter hand garment. This is because it puts all your fingers in one place to share warmth. Of course, we now feel the need for fingers to do detailed work, but being honest there is so little we need our fingers free for while outdoors. Yes, when driving a car we might find it more convenient, or doing something like building a fire it becomes easier with our fingers free, but consider whether you'll be doing short (under a minute) tasks with your finger where it might not be better to have a mitten that you take off then put back on, allowing your fingers to warm each other.

It might also make sense to wear a thing glove liner under a pair of mittens, or look at some of the mitten/glove combination. I prefer the fingerless style myself as my fingers share more warmth that way and I get greater manipulation. If you do wear gloves, be picky, read reviews, and make sure there's a little extra room in there for that all important air. Skintight gloves might be nice for driving, but they're really just a barrier between you and the cold steering wheel. They won't keep your hands warm for long outdoors. Of course, an outside layer that is waterproof is great when it's wet or snowy, so factor that in as well.

Your feet are often a bigger problem. Honestly, if your fingers get cold, you can tuck them inside your coat, under your arm pits, or in your pants if need be (yes, it might seem a bit vulgar, but keeping your fingers takes precedence over propriety, in my opinion). Your feet spend all their time far away from your core and are tough to tuck under your arms unless you're very flexible. Now we're in the realm of boots, which can be a bit of a minefield in which to tread. Let's go down the path I've followed before.

For an outer shell, I prefer leather, though I think some great work has been done on the combination leather/fabric boots in recent years. This is partially a care factor for me as I only have to think of one type of treatment. There are sprays designed to work on both, so this is really a preference point. Leather has a lot of give and flexibility that allows you to move over rough terrain, it can be fairly well waterproofed, and does provide a slight barrier to the cold. Your only other real option is rubber, which I find works well for short periods outside but isn't giving enough for anything more than tromping through the snow. Additionally, without insulation, rubber gets cold really quickly. Conversely, it traps moisture more than leather and can end up soaking your feet in your own sweat.

When it comes to what's below the boot's shell, there are really only 2 things to consider here - insulation and waterproofing. Waterproofing may seem an odd thing to mention as we've already talked about the outer layer, but many boots now come with a GoreTex (or similar) inner liner. This is added protection and I find it worth the extra cost. I consider it insurance on keeping my feet dry, and I get cranky when my feet are wet. Insulation works much like other areas we've talked about above. Better to have a thin layer in the boot with additional layers underneath than one really thick one. If you're just wearing it out to clear some snow, this isn't a big deal, but more than an hour or so and it's nice to have the option to remove or add more if needed. Additionally, too much insulation tends to lead to a stiffer boot.

We have to wear something between the boot and our toes, and that something is socks. I am a fan, not surprisingly, of wool socks and actually wear them year round. There are a variety available, many with modern materials incorporated to add stretch and make them more washer friendly. Consider wearing more than one as well, possibly a thinner sock with a thicker one over top. This is something to consider when buying your boot, too, as you don't want something that is too tight. Tight boots will cause cold spots on your feet, so wear your extra socks when you go to try your boots on at the store.

Topping it all off - By far the most important thing to do is cover your head. The vast majority of body heat (between 70-85%, depending on where you look) escapes through your head, so capturing that is critical. Consider as well that your nose, chin, lips, and neck are hanging out there as well. For moderately cold days without a lot of wind or wet, I will use a knit or fleece hat that is easy to remove and tuck away if I get too warm. This is one layer you can always quickly remove for some quick cooling down while exerting yourself. If I'm camping, I prefer a thick hat (I have a great fur one) that works well when not moving around a lot, and a thinner one for exertion. Having a waterproof hood to pull up is also great to have.

At times when it's really bitter, I'll add either a scarf or a balaclava to the mix. A few years ago I picked up a balaclava for motorcycling (I'll ride year round, though a lot less in the winter) that is windproof and amazing at keeping my nose and neck warm, even at 20 degrees and 75 mph. You can easily move it down to ease breathing if needed, though breathing through fabric isn't as bad as your brain tends to tell you. And for those of us with facial hair, it prevents the icicles that tend to form in mustaches!

What else can you tell me that may not be common knowledge?

Take care of your gear and it will take care of you. I like to treat any new boots I get with waterproofing right after I get them, regardless of what the manufacturer did to them. Then I break them in (at least a week of heavy wear) and treat them again. Every few months, they get shined and treated, always with special attention to the seams. Waterproof outer garments get washed with a treatment like Tech Wash yearly or as needed. Follow wash and care instructions on garments, they're there for a reason (though I do wash all my wool, with Woolite, but I do not tumble dry).

Figure out your safety points and don't exceed them. Practice makes perfect, so don't rush out for a full weekend of winter camping without a few shorter outings to get a grip on what you can handle. Most of all, have fun!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The value of a handshake

What is it?

This came in as a request from a reader, and it's something I have certainly thought about quite a bit. There's actually a fair bit that can be conveyed in a handshake, maybe more than you think!

Why do it?

We encounter people all the time, many of them we know and others we are meeting for the first time. How you greet them conveys a lot about who you are and what you expect out of the meeting. A handshake can also convey far more than a greeting or departure, having traditionally been used to signal agreement or to lock in a verbal contract.

How did I learn it?

This is something most, if not all of us, learn as kids. There was a time that it was really only boys that learned this, but it has changed significantly over the years. Scouting introduced me to a few variations on the handshake, as did my work at Renaissance faires. Over time I've learned that some people take such things far more seriously than others, often to my chagrin.

How do you learn it?

What you intend to convey will have a big impact here. There are a few basics that almost always apply:
The approach: extending the hand perpendicular to the ground but palm turned slightly upward is an inviting and friendly way to start a shake. It implies a willingness to help. It is always safe to extend a handshake to another man and to most women under the age of 45 or so. Older women may not shake hands as this is a fairly recent change in our society. Allow them to extend first. Often a mutual start of shakes will imply a fairly equal station and eagerness. When unclear, it can be fine to wait for a shake as the initiator will often appear inviting.

Of note, do not extend your left hand unless encountering someone who is obviously unable to shake with their right. This is still considered rude (barring inability) to many people.

The grip: thumb wrapped over the top, fourth and fifth fingers (depending on hand size) below. Grasp their hand firmly, though not forcefully. A soft or lame handshake is often seen as a sign of weakness or lack of interest. Too hard is rather juvenile and unappreciated. Never should your handshake cause pain.

The pump: One or 2 short pumps convey sincerity, especially when punctuating a greeting. These should follow the same rules as the grip, being somewhat firm but not overly vigorous. Don't pump too hard, fast, or often, as this belies a level of extreme excitement which may be construed as rude.

The eyes: this is a handshake, so who cares about the eyes? Everyone. Making eye contact while shaking shows you are as interested in meeting the person as they are in meeting you. It implies sincerity, trust, and an earnest nature. Failure to do so will make you appear uninterested at best and shifty at worst.

The release: Most handshakes will last 2-3 seconds, at which point both parties will release. If pressure is removed by the other party, take the signal and let go. Too long can become awkward.

Things to avoid: aside from the items mentioned above, it is worth noting a few other pitfalls. Greatest amongst them is avoiding a shake. This is considered a serious insult to the other party, implying a lack of interest or outright disdain for the presenter of the shake. If one needs to avoid a shake, perhaps for health reasons (IE, you're ill), this should be immediately vocalized with an apology. Similarly, wiping your hand AFTER a shake (it is acceptable before, especially if you have a dirty or sweaty palm) is very rude, akin to implying the other person is unclean or unworthy in some regard.

Variations: There are a number of uses for the handshake outside of greeting and farewell. When conveying concern or care, a second hand is often wrapped over the other person's hand, thus suggesting support and willingness to aid. this can often be seen at funerals and weddings. It has become popular in recent years for the handshake to be used by men of close acquaintance to initiate a hug, pulling the other person in but often maintaining the handshake. This allows a sense of physical separation while embraced.

Traditionally, a handshake has been used to conclude business and convey a sense of willingness to abide by any agreements discussed. In fact, it may be specifically asked for (IE, "Let's shake on it.") to seal a deal. Such a shake implies a willingness to take each other at your word and honor to follow through on any agreements in lieu of a contract or until one can be drawn. The breaking of such an arrangement signifies to the other party a lack of trustfulness.

What else can you tell me that may not be common knowledge?

There have been a variety of handshakes over the ages, but many scholars believe it began as a method to show that a person intended no harm. As long as 2 people were gripping primary fighting hands (often the right), they could not fight. During the middle ages when the sword was normally worn on the left, holding a grip would prevent the drawing of the sword.

At some points, the forearm was clasped instead of the hand, further restricting movement, even though it brought 2 people closer into contact.

Feel free to weigh in with other thoughts below!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Preparing the inside of your car for winter driving

What is it?

There's a list of things to be done to your car when prepping for the winter. snow tires, anti-freeze service, lighter weight oil, winter wipers...the list isn't too long and not always applicable to every vehicle. Some of you may be living in areas where winter is what we in New England call "fall". I want to speak instead about the things we can take with us as we drive during the colder months in the event something goes awry.

Why do it?

Being stuck somewhere with a flat tire, a dead battery, or worse is never fun. During the colder months, it can be downright dangerous! A little bit of money, some pre-planning, and you'll be a lot happier. Years ago (OK, decades ago) while we lived in Ohio, my father got stuck on the way home in a massive snow storm. It took him over 6 hours to do a 30 minute commute. Fortunately, he had a full tank of gas and had taken some precautions, many of which I think get ignored by the modern traveler. We expect gas stations on every corner to be open 24 hours, roads to be plowed minutes after the first flake is spotted, and AAA to have response times better than Dominoes pizza. Hopefully, all 3 are always true, but reality is a cruel mistress.

How did I learn it?

I know I keep saying it, but Boy Scouts had a big impact on my urge to be ready for whatever can happen. "Be Prepared" is a motto that tends to stick with you. There have been times in my life where I've forgotten to follow that motto and I've always regretted it. With my first car, a few things always got carried. Now, I'm more prepared than ever, probably over-prepared, but it provides a level of comfort I feel is worth the loss of cargo space. I'm continually looking at how I can better refine my needs.

How do you learn it?

I'll give you some of the key things I carry and why. Hopefully others will weigh in with their thoughts.

To prepare we have to think about what can happen and look at the likelihood and duration of the problem. These will give us areas to tackle. Most will be mechanical, some environmental, and maybe a few catastrophic. We'll begin with a list of everything I carry with me, then we'll talk about why I do it. I'll skip those items that are standard on most cars (spare tire, jack, etc), though I will mention them in some of the areas below.

Motor club membership (I have AMA, many use AAA)
Jumper cables
Tire repair kit
Wagan PowerDome
5 Gallons of gas (whenever traveling more than 50 miles)
basic tool set (metric, as that is what my truck uses)
windshield washer fluid
pre-mix anti-freeze (50/50)*
flashlights (2)
"escape" or rescue tool
ice scraper (2)*
hatchet and small saw
first aid kit
hat and gloves
spare sweatshirt
wool blanket*
winter boots*
rain poncho (2)
cell phone
Nalgene water bottle
trash bags
candle lantern
lighter (2)

Aside from those marked with the *, these items remain in my truck all year long. I actually carry a lot more than this, but these I consider the bare minimum. Many of them reside in a single backpack that can be easily moved around the vehicle, or taken with me into another car, etc. My wife has a very similar setup in her car. It takes up surprisingly little room when all put together, and much can fit into the existing small spaces in your vehicle (glovebox, wheel well, etc).

So, why all this stuff?

Mechanical issues - the things most likely to happen are problems with your car. They can happen anytime, but a few are more likely in the winter. As I mentioned above, prepping your vehicle for winter is a REALLY good idea. Part of the benefit of this is it makes you look at some of the critical areas of your car and make certain it can handle the season. A good tune-up will also help in this. If your mechanic can catch a problem before it happens all the better! Changing tires for snow tires means someone will have seen the tires before you drive on them.
Of course, things still go wrong. A dead battery or flat seems most likely. A flat tire can be dealt with by having a spare in good repair and a decent jack. The battery is a little tougher. In an area with other vehicles, you can likely get a jump, but only if you have jumper cables. What if no one is around? This is why I like the Wagan PowerDome, since it is a stand alone unit. Additionally, it includes a radio and an air compressor, both very useful tools. Finally, the inverter means you can charge cell phones or other devices if your car is dead.
I like having tools so I can deal with stuck hoses, air filters, etc. Even if you don't know a lot about car maintenance, someone may stop to help and not have tools themselves. Having a flashlight or 2 (since one could go dead) to light your way, flares to let others know you have a problem, and extra fluids in case you overheat is further insurance.
If you don't have AAA or an equivalent (I use AMA as I'm a motorcyclist, but the coverage is very similar), get it. It is really worth the annual fee to have a safety net when you need it.

Environmental issues - snow, ice, sleet, freezing rain...none of these are pleasant while driving, but are a reality for many of us. They come with other possibilities like getting stuck, frosted windshields, and slick driving conditions. A shovel for getting snow out from around your tires is invaluable as even a well plowed parking lot may leave your car blocked in a snow bank. Scrapers are great, though often break, so I carry 2. Since I drive a pickup, I carry sand in the bed of the truck, and some of that can be shoveled out to aid in traction on icy spots. And don't forget that trees weighed down by heavy snow and ice can break and block your way, especially on rural routes. A saw or hatchet can make quick work of these obstacles, not to mention warming you up a bit for your efforts.

Catastrophic issues
What if any of the above happens in the middle of nowhere? Or if there's a massive weather emergency that has all the emergency services, including AAA, tied up for hours? Worse yet, what if you have an accident, either alone or another vehicle? These are all things we hope never happen, but we're better off if we prepare.
Certainly you can't expect to fix everything that might happen in such circumstances. This is why I list a cell phone as invaluable. Calling for help is critical, just make sure it's charged and ready to go! A cheap, pre-paid phone that is left in the car isn't a bad idea, either.
If you're stuck in your car (or out of it) when it's cold, extra clothing may be the difference between life and death. I leave gloves, a hat, and boots in the car in case I'm even stuck wearing dress clothes when something goes wrong. Leather-soled dress shoes won't serve me well and may plant me on my butt! If I need to sit in the car for any period of time, a wool blanket helps a lot, and a long-lasting candle lantern will provide light and even some small amount of warmth with little risk of fire.
When you're out of the car and it's raining, a poncho is great and also keeps some heat in. Trash bags can be placed on snow to keep your clothing dry, used to cover broken windows, or as a way to keep either wet things contained or dry things dry.
In the event you need to get out of a vehicle in an accident, I like having a rescue tool within reach to cut the seatbelt and/or break out a window. Cheap money for a little more piece of mind. A basic first aid kit can deal with some of the after effects if you find yourself in an accident.
Finally, I like to have water on hand as you can't go very long without it. During the winter, water goes in and out of the car with me, lest it freeze. It's fine when you run into a store for an hour or 2, but longer than that and it comes with me. I do also carry a steel cup that I could use to melt snow with my candle lantern, but that may be more extreme for some of you. :)

What else can you tell me that may not be common knowledge?

Various stats show that you're likely to be in an accident every 6 years, with an average of 6 million happening a year. Most of those will be minor, but in the winter even a minor setback can be difficult. Personally, I like to be ready whenever possible and work to reduce risk where I can. Little things like proper maintenance and refilling your tank before you're on 'E' help. Why not take a few more steps to get safely to your destination, even if it takes longer than you expected?

One final word of caution to everyone who thinks 4-wheel drive means you won't get stuck. If you hit ice, it doesn't matter how many wheels have power, they all start spinning. Take some time to practice with it and realize it doesn't mean you should drive faster than everyone else!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Basic sewing

What is it?

Putting needle and thread together to make clothing helped elevate our species up the chain of civilization. Nearly everything you wear has stitching involved, from hat to shoes. For now, we're talking about the basic hand-sewing kind.

Why do it?

Ever lost a button, or had a pair of pants that was just a little too long? Mom eventually gets sick of you calling her for help, and these days you're unlikely to find one of your friends who can stitch for you, so why not learn how yourself? It's a heck of a lot cheaper than throwing away that sweater!

How did I learn it?

Around the time I was 10, my mother decided (as she did with many such things) that her boys should know how to do their own sewing repairs. Thus were we shown how to do basic hand stitches and attaching a button using pieces of old sheets. This certainly wasn't elegant, but it meant we did all our own simple repairs moving forward, making us better at it. One of the first things I did was take my very worn and abused sock monkey and do some serious repairs. When I was done it more resembled a mummy than a monkey, but it helped me understand the basics.

Eventually, mom sat me down in front of a machine and made me learn how to make my own costumes (I was 18 and working at the local Renaissance Faire), but we'll save that for a future post, shall we?

How do you learn it?

Like so much of life, practice is key. But this one is cheap and easy. First, you need a few supplies. Go off to Joann Fabrics, Wal-Mart, or your mom's sewing box, and gather the following:

- Sewing needles (for right now, assume that most needles are essentially the same, but don't get TOO big of a needle. Look for those around 2 inches and you should be fine)
- Thread - pick black or white, for ease. Choose "all purpose" for this
- scissors - sharp is better (not the point, but the blades), standard scissors are fine
- fabric - Old sheets or t-shirts are good for this

First, go watch this video on threading the needle.

Now try making a few stitches. Start from one side of the material, stick the needle through, pull it almost all the way in, then stick the needle back down into the fabric. Do this a few more times, in one side, out the other. Now, even though you've only done one piece of fabric, you've done a stitch! It may not look pretty, it may not bee in a straight line, but you're sewing. It really is that simple.

Now take the fabric, put 2 pieces together, and do the same thing about 1/2" in from the edge. This time, after you first pull the thread through the pieces, go back down about 1/8" further along the edge. Now, run the needle through the small loop of thread prom your first past, right by the knot in the thread. Pull the rest of the thread through that loop and pull it all tight, anchoring the thread in place. Now start stitching along, trying to maintain that 1/8" distance 1/2" in from the edge. When you get down to about 3-4" of thread, push the needle through to the side where you first started. Take the needle and slide it under one of the stitches, then pull tight. Do the same thing under the new stitch you just made, but before you pull it tight, loop under from the same direction creating a loop of thread. Push your needle through this loop and pull everything tight to make a knot. Congratulations, you've just joined 2 pieces of fabric by sewing!

Some other nice tutorials to help get you going:
Sewing on a button
Hemming a pair of pants

What else can you tell me that may not be common knowledge?

Once you get these basics down, you can do a lot more with sewing. Embroidery, cross-stitch, and other needle arts are really just forms of sewing. Buttons become simple, and you might eventually find you want to take on bigger projects. That's when sewing machines come in handy, but there will always be a place for hand sewing!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Gearing up for motorcycle riding

What is it?

When deciding to hop on the saddle of a motorcycle, it doesn't take long to realize there isn't a lot between you and the asphalt flying by your feet. Deciding what to wear while you do so is a decision with life-saving potential.

Why do it?

Many of us who ride motorcycles put a lot of thought into our surroundings, our technique, and what is going on with our bike. Many folks undergo training, starting usually with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Basic Rider Course. Bare none, this is the best bet for developing safe riding habits, which are your best protection. After all, better to avoid the accident than need to survive one!

But that's the problem with accidents, we can't completely eliminate them. As riders we know that we're surrounded by vehicles many times larger than us, often piloted by distracted drivers. We can't see everything. So why not wear something to give us an edge if things go sour?

How did I learn it?

I've been riding for just over 2 years, having come to it rather late in life. As a kid I did a few trips on a dirt bike, but my mother was adamant that we wouldn't get motorcycles under her roof. It was many years before I was in a position to feel I could afford a bike and that the urge really welled up. I knew about the MSF course and decided it was a great way to see if it was something I wanted to do. My (now) wife took the course with me.

Fortunately, I have friends who've ridden for much longer and pulled me into the right riding group. These were all folks who loved to ride (I mean, really ride. A lot!) and encouraged me to not only look around and pick the right bike for me, but to wear gear while riding. Any questions I had, they answered, and if I weren't so very tall I would likely have been able to borrow a lot of gear. I found there is a lot more to it than just wearing a helmet and gloves.

now having over 20,000 miles under my belt (I told you, we ride a lot :), I'm what is called an "ATGATT" guy. ATGATT stands for "All The Gear, All The Time" and means you gear up for each ride you go out on. I'll admit, if I go the 1/2 mile to Lowes, I don't wear my riding pants, but I still wear everything else. Further than that, it's ATGATT.

How do you learn it?

I'll give you a general run down here. The concept is easy, choosing what you personally wear is then up to you. Before I go any further, let me state that, while I encourage ATGATT, this is your choice and needs to be. I don't favor legal requirements for safety gear. I just personally find that the insurance and slight discomfort of gear is an insurance policy I'm glad to have!

Helmets- The obvious, and in many places required, piece of starting equipment. First, you must understand that not all helmets are created equal! The half-helmet seen on many cruiser riders, often to meet the minimum requirement, will not provide the protection of a full-face helmet. You can read a great article here that can give you a lot more detail, but in short a full-face helmet not only protects your face should you crash, it takes a lot of strain off your eyes, keeps bugs out of your teeth, and - when properly fitted - is quite comfortable for hours on end. When picking one out, I recommend going to a dealer and trying them on. Wear it around the store for a while. Notice any pinch points or discomfort. I bought my first helmet because I really liked the style, but I can't wear it for more than 30 minutes without a headache! I have an odd head shape and eventually spent a little over $500 on the right helmet. Yes, $500, but most people won't have that issue. Still, $500 is cheap insurance I hope never to need!

Gloves- You'll want these. The cheapest option is to go to the Home Depot and pick up some leather work gloves. While better than nothing, they may come off in an accident and provide less impact protection. I currently have 5 pairs of gloves. 1 in a rain pair I don't wear often, another is for summer and is vented to keep my hands cool (but also has armour!),1 pair is for cold weather riding, and 2 leather gauntlet-style pairs with additional armour in the knuckles. Of the bunch, these are my favorites. The added benefit of covering the wrist and lower forearm is worth the expense, though there are certainly fine, less expensive options.

Jacket- The days when a leather riding jacket was your only option are long past. While leather still gives some of the best(if not THE best) abrasion protection, textile jackets are quite tough. to boot, some of the fabrics are designed to actually slide along asphalt, which may sound strange until you read about the damage from rolling. either way, both materials are far, far better than bare arms. The old saying is that the road demands payment in skin. Better it be from a cow (or artificial, for the textiles) than your own! Additionally, modern jackets often have armour around your joints (shoulders, elbows, back) to reduce impact damage. While I've only been riding for 2 years, 20 years of armoured sword fighting has taught me how valuable the stuff is. Coming off a bike at 50 mph onto a shoulder sounds painful. Doing it while wearing armour sounds...well, still painful, but less likely to leave me in traction for the next year.

I should mention while discussing jackets and pants that comfort is the biggest reason people seem to give not to wear the stuff. Well, this, too, has been thought of. While not as protective as the regular gear, there are "mesh" options which breath very well and still provide a layer between you and the road. I wear mesh when it breaks 80 degrees as I sweat like a cold Coke otherwise. When I'm moving, I find it's not far off from maybe a long sleeve t-shirt. If you can find it in something other than black, all the better!

Pants- Everything I said about jackets applies here. I will say I'm not a fan of chaps as they leave one big gap, IE that part humans seem the most likely to slide on! However, adding a pair of armoured jeans underneath would help take care of that vulnerability. Pants are so often overlooked as we often feel jeans offer plenty of protection, but try slamming your knee into a door and you may reconsider. :)

Boots- This is an area most riders do right away, often right after burning their ankle on an exhaust pipe. Anything that comes over the ankle is a good call, especially in leather. A quick look will show you a number with additional armour and protection. I like to try boots on when I have the option, as I have odd feet, but I've found some places will let you return them if you have any trouble.

What else can you tell me that may not be common knowledge?

I consider staying dry important. I ride as much of the time as I can, which means if the roads are dry and not salty, and the temp is over, say, 30, I'll hop on the bike. My new bike has better wind protection, so I expect that temp to go lower this year. Except for my mesh gear and many of my gloves, everything is "waterproof". I use the quotes because this stuff sees a lot of wear and will lose it's protection over time, so re-waterproofing is important.

There are one-piece suit options, as well, that make it easy to get in and out quickly. I would love one, but with my size, Aerostitch is my only real option. I do like the versatility of jackets and pants, though, as I can mix and match, or take a jacket off when arriving somewhere wile leaving on the pants.

Finally, if you ride late into the season, consider heated gear for underneath everything. Just don't exceed what your motorcycle can put out in power and you'll stay nice and toasty!

Friday, September 10, 2010

The value of carrying a knife

More coming soon on the chest, but recent events have made me consider that I should throw this out there now.

What is it?

It wasn't that long ago, probably under 30 years, that most men carried at least a penknife wherever they went. We've progressively gotten away from that as a society, even while technology has improved our options for what we might carry. I'm not sure on why we've moved this way, but it is a good habit to be in and comes with its own set of skills.

Why do it?

Almost every day, I have need of a knife. Most of the time I'm in a kitchen and cooking, so I have a variety of knives at my fingertips. But quite often I'm at work, out with friends, working in the yard, or a number of other places where there isn't a wooden block with a variety of blades at my beck and call. That is when carrying a knife comes in very handy. Whether it is opening up the plastic on the latest gizmo you bought, cutting a piece of twine in the garden, opening a box at work, or trimming the end off a plug you just placed in a flat tire, having a knife when you need it is a level of security well worth the effort of carrying it each day. Those times you don't have it and need it will just drive the point further home.

How did I learn it?

As I've mentioned in prior posts, I'm an Eagle Scout, so pocket knives go hand in hand with Scouting (well, except in England). In Cub Scouts we started learning about them and being allowed to use them on specific projects. I'll admit, I was given one a bit too young (IE, I wasn't yet mature enough) and cut up my mother's easy chair, for which I didn't see one of my own until I was a few years older. Losing it made me seriously appreciate it when I got one again, and I stopped doing such stupid things. As I grew older, I always carried one on camping trips, and eventually I carried one every day. What I carry varies, as I'll mention below, but I have at least one knife on me whenever I leave the house, and often I have 2 or 3 nearby.

How do you learn it?

This is easy. if you have cut vegetables, you know the basics of using a knife. There are a few other things worth noting when you carry a knife:
#1 - Sharp is safe, dull is dangerous - I had this drilled into my head when young, and it makes sense when you consider that a dull blade will cause you to apply more force, yet be less likely to cut when and where you want. This can lead to slipping of the blade, often into something you DIDN'T intend to cut, like your skin!
#2 - Observe what you are cutting and what is nearby - should you slip, what will the knife hit? What if you drop it? Whittling a piece of wood on your leg is a bad call!
#3 - The knife is a tool, not a toy - I've seen a lot of injuries come from people flipping blades around in their hand, playing mumbley-peg, or generally doing something dumb with a knife.
#4 - Cut in a safe direction - which generally means away from you and everyone else. There are times and certain types of knives that require cutting towards you (drawknives, for instance), but those require a lot more attention and are the exception, not the norm.

But what kind of knife should you get and carry? That's a tough thing to answer as it is very personal. I personally have different knives for different situations. I almost always have a Benchmade Griptillian in my pocket. It's small, locks very well, and has a clip that keeps it from sliding too deep into my pockets. I often carry, or have very near by, some form of multi-tool, like my Leatherman Charge TTI. A multi-tool has some big advantages over a pocket knife, offering screwdrivers, saws, pliers, and any number of other useful bits. They are, however, heavier and bulky, thus normally requiring carry on a belt. Because I wear armoured pants over my pants and belt when I ride my motorcycle, carrying the Leatherman has gone from an everyday item to a nearby one. Additionally, I have a few fixed blade knives, like my SOG SEAL Pup, that reside in bags for really big jobs, but for most people that would be too much knife for everyday work.
Let's see if we can't break out a few questions to make it easier to select one for yourself.

1)How will you carry it?: Is this going into a bag or purse, a pocket, on a belt, or residing in a vehicle? The smaller the place it will reside, the smaller you want the knife to be. Something in a purse can be larger, like a multi-tool, where a pocket may call for a more traditional pocket knife.

2)How big do you need?: I tend to err on the slightly larger side, but honestly, a 3-4 inch blade will meet almost all of your cutting needs, yet can fold down quite small. Too small can leave you with not enough blade surface or not enough grip

3)Folding or fixed?: Nowadays, you get strange looks if you have a straight, fixed blade (those that need a sheath and can't fold in half) hanging off your belt. Our society sees knife and thinks "weapon", not "tool". However, a fixed blade is far stronger than any folder can hope to be as the blade actually extends up into the handle as the "tang". Thus, when you cut, you are exerting force on one solid piece of steel, not a joint like with a folder. Of course, you can't keep it easily in a pocket, it takes up more space, and is hard to conceal. For an everyday knife, you will almost always answer "folding"

4)Carbon or stainless steel?: Carbon steel has long been the favorite of "serious" knife fans. There was a time when stainless steel was new and would not hold an edge well, becoming dull very quickly. However, stainless is less likely to rust, which can become a serious problem on a folding knife where the pivot point could rust making it hard to open or close. Well, modern carbon stainless has dealt with this issue. Yes, maybe a truly skilled sharpener can get a better edge on a strictly carbon blade, but for most of us this will never be enough of a difference to warrant the drawbacks of wear and tear. In fact, it's tough to find a pocket knife made with anything BESIDES carbon stainless, so accept it and enjoy.

5)Straight or serrated: For general use, a straight blade will do good service. It is easier to keep sharp and less likely to get caught up. A serrated blade is nice for those items on which a straight blade might slide, such as webbing or tomatoes, or those that are very tough to cut through. My preference is for a straight blade as it is far easier to sharpen, but I do have a few that are straight at the front and serrated in the back half of the blade.

6)Locking: For almost all pocket knives and multi-tools, you can get a locking version. This keeps the blade open and prevents it from closing on your fingers when in use, a very useful addition! Some will also lock the blade closed. It is well worth it to have. Some may work better than others, but most work well enough.

7)Thumb assist, spring assist, and other fanciness: When most of us think of pocketknives, we think of little indents in the blade to slip a thumbnail in and pry the blade open. Things have changed, and for the better, making it simply a matter of using a thumb while comfortably holding the handle. Personally, I think this makes for a safer opening.
There are also additional assist options which speed the opening, all the way up to the switchblade. Please check on the legality in your area before getting one. Be aware, too, that some switchblades, especially cheap ones, that can open in your pocket!

8)Handle materials: This is really a matter of personal preference. I personally like something with a bit of grip to it, which means I often opt for either a checkered grip or something with rubberizing. If you see "glass" in the options, don't worry about brittleness. These tend to be made with a very high impact form of synthetic glass. Think "fiberglass" and you'll feel a lot more comfortable! You also want a handle that's long enough to fit in your hand comfortably.

9)Price: This is the most defining/restricting choice of all. You can spend $5 on a cheap knife, or you can spend $500 on a custom model with Damascus steel. Keep in mind that this is a tool, an every day item, and keep your spending in reason. If you're the kind that loses things a lot, consider owning a few cheaper ones you won't cry over when they're gone. I generally opt for the $30-75 range as knives are one thing I seem to be able to keep from disappearing. Within that range you'll get good quality without feel you've been raked over the coals.

When it comes time to buy one, I really recommend going out and handling them before just buying off the internet. Go to a sporting goods store, especially one with a knife counter (Cabelas, Bass Pro, EMS, REI, even most Wal-Marts will have one) and physically pick them up. Open the knife, see if the blade wobbles within the handle, figure out how the lock works, feel the handle in your hand. Does it feel like it is worth the money? Is it solid enough to do work? Will it fit in your pocket or chosen bag? If so, why not take it home? I guarantee, after a week of carrying one you'll wonder why it took you so long to do so!

What else can you tell me that may not be common knowledge?

You may eventually want to add more knives to your collection. it's worth looking at multi-tools as an option. I'll talk about them in the future.
Knives with clips often allow the clip to be removed if you prefer not to use it.
You want to keep your knife sharp, which we'll talk about in a later post. For now, know that you want to avoid electric sharpeners!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Woodworking 101: Building a six board chest. Part 1 of 4

What is it?
For many years before things like closets and clothes hangers, much of our stuff was stored in chests. The easiest forms of these were built by most men for their family's use, while more impressive ones were made by professionals. The technique is such that it can easily be scaled up or down based on need.

Why do it?
There was a time when every boy (and more than a few girls) learned some basic woodworking from his father and built on those skills throughout his life, allowing him to make many basic household items. In our "disposable" society, such skills have become the exception, not the norm. Yet, many of us have treasured heirlooms or value antiques for their craftsmanship. Why not take a little time to do it yourself? Throughout the process, you'll pick up some basic skills like using a saw and drill, measuring, basic joinery, and finishing. Any of those can come in handy in home repair. Plus, you'll be able to say, "That? I made that."

How did I learn it?
I've been playing around with woodworking since I was a kid, including things like shop class and Pinewood Derby with dad. But honestly, my father was never super handy, nor motivated to work on projects at the end of the day. My brother turned out to be the truly skilled woodsmith in the family, making heirloom toys and now running his own handyman service. Over the years I became more skilled in things like blacksmithing and tailoring. Eventually I started needing to build props, sets, and staging for renaissance faire acts, which pushed me to learn more and more wood working, but mostly on a large scale.

Last year I helped start a reenactment group and we needed some furniture. I built a basic table with mortise and tenon construction and found I not only enjoyed it, but my prior skills helped ease the process. This summer I decided to try my hand at a chest and found it quite simple, not to mention gratifying!

How do you learn it?
There are a number of patterns on the web, but I'm going to try and make this as basic as I can, giving you each step, links, and pictures. It will likely take a few posts to get it all out there, but I hope it is worth the effort. I'll throw in some optional stuff as I go if you're feeling particularly motivated. So let's jump into it! Before we start, we need some tools and some wood.

This style of chest has been made, literally, for hundreds and hundreds of years. I know of similar versions used in Norse times, and they remain popular well past the days of American colonialism. Thus, you won't need a ton of power tools if you don't want to use them. However, they certainly will make your life easier! I'll detail most of this using the following, offering hand tool options where possible:

Table Saw (or a good handsaw and miter box)
Power drill (either corded or battery powered, or an auger/hand crank drill if you want to be old school)
Sandpaper (optionally, powered sanding equipment)
Wood glue (Elmer's Carpenters is fine, or any of Titebond's wood glues. I recommend not using Gorilla until you've played with it a bit as it expands and can get messy)
Tape measure
Square (either a small carpenters square, speed square, or my personal favorite, a combination square)

Additionally, you might need the following depending on the options you choose:
Router (with bits sized to your chosen wood)
Screwdriver (or #2 bit for your drill)
Rubber or rawhide mallet

This is a huge topic, but I'll try and keep it very basic for our purposes. First choice is softwood or hardwood? We could go into a big discussion on the differences, but go here for that. For our purposes, we just need to know that hardwoods tend to be stronger than softwoods. On a project like a chest, it all comes down to the weight it has to hold. If this will be fairly small, or if you will only ever have light items in it, then a softwood (any coniferous tree, like pine) can work fine and be considerably cheaper. If you've never done any woodworking before, get pine. It's available at any of the DIY outlets (Lowes, Home Depot, etc) in a variety of sizes, it's cheap, and if you screw up you won't be terribly upset.

For something we want to last the ages, hardwood is your best bet. It certainly costs more, but it will hold up to abuse and handle far more weight with smaller dimensions. Oak is a perennial favorite and has been used in furniture for a very long time. Poplar works well and is much cheaper. Here in the US, maple is very affordable. And, of course, cedar is a popular choice for anything holding cloth due to it's moth-repellent abilities. If you go with hardwood, look around you for a lumber yard instead of using the DIY outlets. I recently purchased wood for a few chests after making my prototype from wood I got at Lowes. The cost went from $100 from the first chest to $63 for the second! Well worth the extra time.

If you do go to a lumber yard, expect a few oddities. The DIY places have been "dumbed down" for us common folk, so they only sell "dimensional" lumber. This means things like 2"x4"s and the like. The odd thing is, a 2"x4" is actually 1.5"x3.5" in size. This is because 2"x4" refers to the width before planing to a standard size. Lumber yards, on the other hand, often sell hardwood by "quarter" sizes. Thus, 4/4 refers to 1" lumber. Here again, this is before planing, and so 4/4 is actually 3/4" thick. Be aware that planing of hardwoods is seldom as smooth as on dimensional lumber and may require extra work to finish it out. Generally, however, at least one side is very good and you can hide any unevenness inside, or work it into the character of the piece. I consider the price savings and variety to be worth the quirks.

The dimensions of this particular chest will be for roughly a 2 feet wide, 12" deep chest that is just over 16" tall. This will provide us with legs that are about 4" tall and allow for a bit of decorative cutting. Using these dimensions, we'll need 12 feet of 12" lumber. If this is dimensional lumber, it will really be 11.5", which is fine for what we need. You can get this in 6 foot lengths if you prefer. Here are the lengths we'll be cutting down to so you can figure it all out.

Front and Back: 2 @ 24"
Sides: 2 @ 16"
Lid: 1 @ 26"
Floor: 1 @ 22.5" or 23" *

*Note: if you would rather make the floor of the chest thinner, you can opt to use plywood. I would recommend picking up hickory plywood for this, 1/4" thick, easily found at the DIY places. You generally need to a get a bigger sheet (at least 2 feet by 2 feet), but then you'll have extra for your next chest. You know you really want 2, anyway.

Next time, we'll measure and cut!

Thursday, August 19, 2010


What is it? 
CardioPulmonary Resuscitation, that's CPR to most of us. You can learn all about it across the web. The American Heart Association is a great resource and sets the standards. They also create many of the training courses you might attend. The reason this is the first skills post in this blog is that it is, in my opinion, the #1 thing everyone in the world should know how to do!

Why do it? 
First, let's be clear; CPR is unlikely to restore someone's heart beat to normal. It is really designed to keep the blood moving to the rest of the body, especially the vital organs, like the heart, lungs, and brain. As an EMT in a 911 contract area I performed CPR...I don't even recall, certainly over 20 times. I only once recovered a normal heartbeat through compressions. However, the technique allowed the successful application of other techniques, such as defibrillation, that has a much better chance of restoring a standard heartbeat. The earlier you receive CPR in a cardiac event, the better chance you have of survival. That means you could very easily be the difference between someone living and dying. In a way, it makes you a bit of a superhero!

How did I learn it? 
In Scouts, we had to learn CPR as part of the First Aid Merit Badge. I kept it up every few years after that point until my involvement in our company Trauma Team while employed at a textile mill. That experience led me to become an EMT, which is where I actually put that learning into practice.

How do you learn it?  
Take a class! Often times you can find cheap classes near you either sponsored by community groups, fire departments, or even your employer. If you haven't taken one in a while, consider doing so. Things have changed considerably over the past decade, including a change of compressions to breaths and, in many classes, instruction in the use of the AED, or Automatic External Defibrillator. As more and more AEDs pop up in public places, their very simple yet effective use makes it even more likely someone will survive a cardiac event.

What else can you tell me that may not be common knowledge?
When in class for the Trauma Team, our instructor stated, "If you ever have to do this in the real world, you may feel and hear a cracking." This cracking is the breaking of ribs. Yes, it happens. A lot. In fact, if you do compressions on an adult, it is pretty much a guarantee. In the times I performed CPR, I recall exactly three in which ribs did not break. The first as a 2 month old baby. Next was an 11 year old boy. The only adult I performed CPR on where I didn't break ribs was when the person in question had already broken most of them in an auto accident (this also was the one time I recovered a standard rhythm with compressions.) Certainly you need to worry about using too much force in compressions, especially when your blood is pumping with excitement, but it is always good to be prepared for the cracking of ribs to happen.

If you can handle it, volunteer for your local fire department or ambulance to gain experience. If not, make sure you renew often, as during an emergency you will fall to the level of your training, not rise to the level of your knowledge. In other words, if you aren't used to doing it, if it isn't ingrained, you might freeze.

Always call 911 first, or have someone do it. CPR is exhausting, you don't want to do it by yourself for long. Getting emergency personnel on scene ASAP is always your top priority.

Next time we'll focus on something less gruesome, I promise. In the meantime, go take a class!

Welcome to my collection!

For years, really as long as I can remember, I have been gathering, honing, and utilizing a variety of skills. It has led me to interesting jobs, taken me on adventures, and generally kept me active beyond what most people consider the norm. Many seek out the shiny new car, I look for something I don't know how to do and seek to at least gain a proficiency. Not always do I succeed, but I always learn.

I believe the Boy Scouts of America are at least partly to blame for this behavior. The nature of the Merit Badge system, whereby Scouts are encouraged to meet a set of requirements demonstrating a passing knowledge and proficiency in various skills, lends itself to a "Jack of all trades" disposition. In order to obtain the highest rank in Scouting, that of Eagle Scout, a boy must obtain a certain number of required skills and a similar number of those that interest him personally. Skills range from camping and first aid to citizenship and personal finance. Like many Scouts, I had far more of these badges than required when I earned my Eagle. And I suppose I just couldn't stop.

What skills are we talking about? What will I talk about here? Well, here's a list of a few of them that I already have. Personal history suggests the list will continue to grow!

Emergency Medicine
Writing (technical and creative)
Fire starting
Sword fighting
Various Computing skills (basic networking, HTML, Word, Excel, podcasting, etc)
Cooking (including baking, open fire, dehydration, grilling...the list goes on)
Straight razor shaving
Personal finance
Food storage
Sewing (from buttons to full blown costuming for theatre productions)
Training (both hard and soft skills)

OK, that was more than a few, but you get the idea. My goal here is to touch on different skills; why they are important, how you can pick them up, and how to fit them into your life. Some will be fairly out there, others will be immediately within reach, but hopefully most will be of interest. I also hope and expect to pick up a few more from those who stop by to read.

The goal is to do at least a post each week. Feel free to keep me honest! Let's get to work, shall we? Where to begin...