Monday, October 22, 2012

Books, Bikes, Art...and Mixing the Three Together a book.

This isn't just any book; this is the one that renewed my faith in publishing. 

A year and a half ago, I was in London doing assorted Grown-Up Things when I stumbled across a large advertisement that was simply various and imaginatively designed bicycles set on a black background. It literally stopped me in my tracks and I quickly learned the book was called Cyclepedia, and it was by Michael Embacher and published by Thames & Hudson.

At the time, I knew absolutely nothing about the book, the publisher or the author. I didn't know how much it cost. I didn't know what it looked like. I didn't even know if it was available in the U.S. (as it turned it, it wasn't at the time). All I knew was that I wasn't going to leave London without it. I dropped what I was doing, located a copy of the book and bought one without asking how much it cost first. I then had to carry this big, heavy book around with me the whole rest of the day and cram it into my suitcase at the end of my trip.

That's the thing about books. It's not about the cost or the convenience, but whether the book triggers such an emotional response in the consumer that they don't give a rat's armpit about either of those things.

I quickly found I enjoyed simply thumbing lazily through Cyclepedia.The book also has practical uses: one day when I found a bizarre-looking bike at a store in Hudson, New York, I went home and looked it up. Long story short: if you ever see an Alenax, you'll know. The picture I took came out badly. The photos in Cyclepedia, taken by Bernhard Angerer, do that and every other bike some serious justice.

Just by itself, the book is inspiring. Cyclepedia even inspired me to spend a few hours in the welding room to see what original design I could come up with.

I had a lot of raw materials in the form of Saved from the Scrapheap bikes.  The rusty blue Raleigh Sports, which hailed from England and had already been immortalized by framing the crank in a shadow box, was taken off the Wall of Frame and met its end with my Ryobi reciprocating saw. A green Peugeot I got for free at a tag sale couldn't be remotely fixed (probably why the guy gave it away) was also quickly sawed into bits. The silver Fuji Espree had lost its handlebars with the dried-booger finish and was also added. A trashed purple mountain bike frame from China joined the mix, and a green made in the USA Columbia frame, possibly from the late 1960s, was picked up for $5 at another tag sale.

Five bike frames total from five countries, and I decided that for what I wanted to make I needed only the top tubes, seat tubes, and down tubes. Ten tubes all, and I used my metal chop saw to cut them to the right lengths since it was far faster and more precise than the reciprocating saw. I even built a special rig to make sure four pieces would be cut the exact same length, and wore my Dexter Morgan face mask to shield my eyes from sparks.

I've learned the hard way that metal, especially stuff that's been painted, needs to be extremely clean in order for welds to hold. So I used a Dremel rotary tool to clean the burrs on the inside of the tubes...

..and a wire brush on the drill press for the outside. That was a big help since all I needed to do was hold the tube in my hands up against the brush which made short work out of the various paint.

As I played around with the tubes, I discovered some of them would fit nearly perfectly inside of others – which was great since what I wanted to make demanded two tube more than three feet long. When I had nested the tubes inside each other at the proper length, I marked the inner tube with a felt-tipped pen and ground out all the ink with the brush on the drill press. Once done, I reassembled the tubes and used magnets to hold them in place for the welding.

Mindful of the disaster when building the DiamondSchwinn, I made sure to turn the voltage dial down so I wouldn't burn through the thin bike tubes. Since I was patient this time some of my welds looked rather...dare I say...pretty.

Once that was done, I had to make my first angle welds. I again used magnets to hold the tubes in place and made a square to be sure it would go on at a right angle. The metal tabs on the Peugeot that had held a frame pump long ago would become useful once again – as would the frame pump tabs on the Raleigh.

I had to do that tricky weld three more times, and luckily there were no real problems. Finally I came to the part of the build that would be the toughest: I needed the four seat tubes to be the exact same length and weld them perpendicular to each of the four corners. I used the rig on the chop saw to cut the seat tubes, and though one must have slipped out of the rig slightly (thus making it almost imperceptibly shorter than the others) I was pretty sure what I had in mind for these would work. In case you're wondering, from left to right it is France, Japan, England and U.S.

I tack welded each seat tube first, and only once did I have to break it off when the angle wasn't right. But soon enough, everything was set up the way I wanted it, and everything was set up to cool while I headed out of the welding room so I could clean the last part of the build: a piece of tempered glass which had come from a cheap stereo cabinet years earlier. For years, the glass was stored in various locations in and around my house, and finally, after furiously cleaning both sides, it was ready for what I had saved it for, and my build was finally complete.

I once joked that Cyclepedia was so beautiful I wanted to make a coffee table to put it on. But over time I thought: why make a joke at all? Why not make a coffee table instead? So that's what I did. The elbows came out straight and true, and the metal tabs on the Raleigh and the Peugeot frames that held frame pumps were now supporting the weight of the glass. It's as if the glass is the Chunnel between France and England.

Nesting the tubes together for the long pieces made the table unbelievable strong and stiff – not to mention surprisingly light. Also, I intentionally made the legs with the seat tubes mounted upside down so in the future if I could round up enough seatposts, I could make the legs on the table longer and turn it into a pretty rockin' desk. But now, it is the DIYBIKING.COM signature coffee table; the one that will become an iconic image should I ever get my own TV show (much like the engine block coffee table seen on Top Gear).

So that's how a book about international bikes inspired me to build an international coffee table. If you want to buy your own copy of Cyclepedia, please contact your local independent bookstore. If you want to see mine, stop by to visit sometime, but keep your feet off the table. Thanks for reading.

(Follow me on Twitter at @michaelknorris)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Ride a Bike to Tomorrow's Clothing Drive

When I was at the recycling center the other day – I'm sure you enjoy any post that starts with that phrase – I found this.

I rarely bring kids bikes home, but I couldn't help myself: I don't see 20” wheels with five speeds too often. Both tires were flat and the handlebars were loose and twisted about in an unusual manner. It was also covered with stickers, many of which conveyed unnecessary and perplexing information.

Here's what I did: I recentered the handlebars, gave the brakes a quick adjustment, and then carefully peeled off all of the stickers on the frame. The tires even held air, so getting the bike back up to street-ready speed was easy to do and didn't take very much time.

In other words, it was a major dissapointment, and this Saved from the Scrapheap post would have otherwise gone on the cutting-room floor of DIYBIKING.COM's corporate headquarters – if I had one.

Now it's okay if you're throwing away a bike that has been in an accident or has been truly ruined – those are the ones that are the most fun for me to retrieve and work on/strip for parts– but please, if the former owner of the Yellow Bike is reading this or if you have an unused bike in your possession you want to get rid of: don't trash gently broken bikes. If you want to get rid of an old bike that isn't totally gone and could be fixed, please donate it to the Work & Learn program at Domus. Even though the students there are deeply involved with building a one-of-a-kind hybrid bike, they are always looking for decent bikes, so please contact Mitch or Mario at Domus if you have a bike (preferably adult-sized) you'd like to donate to the program.

I'm not sure the Yellow Bike's fate is with Domus as they are mostly looking for bikes with 26" wheels, but I wondered if it could go on a worthy adventure before I decide what to do with it. Before long, I had my answer. 

It has been a while since I used my bike mover/converted child's trailer. I think the last time was when I was retrieving shopping carts and bringing them back to the proper Stamford supermarkets. But I wanted to let you know that Person-to-Person is having a big clothing drive (which has the inspiring moniker, Stamford Take Off Your Clothes) and day of good food and family fun at the UCONN Stamford campus tomorrow between 11 and 3. Since fall will soon spill into winter and you're probably about to change out your seasonal stuff anyway, please take the time to pick out some clothes and bring them to Stamford Take Off Your Clothes. You can bring your donations with a bike, you can bring them in your car, you can leave your hat on. Thanks for reading.

(Follow me on Twitter at @michaelknorris)

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Secrets to a Clean Workshop (Got Any?)

Don't be fooled by the sight of the 304 (my name for my series of plastic organizers that yield 304 little drawers total), my workshop is not as organized as it looks. It's an illusion, like that guy in Times Square who was electricuting himself last week for several days.

Because my workshop is in the basement of the home I live in, it is under a lot more pressure than, say, a home office. Things get stored in and around my shop. The furnace and water heater are nearby, to say nothing of the washer and dryer. Worst of all – and the spouse-of-a-workshop-keeper may have trouble understanding this – when anything needs to be built, modified or improved for any other part of the house, the workshop, the poor workshop, shoulders all kinds of thankless pain.

This is a picture I took last week while standing in the middle of the floor, looking toward the wall: you've got bikes on the floor (that aren't being ridden or worked on), a small exercise bike on the cluttered workbench, clothes that need to be taken upstairs, and a dreadful bathroom vanity that I desperately need to get rid of. A distressing sight, and your shop might look like this too. And even worse, some of the clutter (in any good shop) doesn't even look like clutter. Check this out:

This is a 24V Spartan Sports FS-101 electric scooter. I bought it a month after I moved to Stamford in 2004 and while it was great to go the 13 blocks from Grand Central Terminal to my girlfriend (now wife) in Manhattan and back again, I haven't used it since Bush was in office - not that those two things are connected. One day, it just stopped working.

The thing is, I have the parts I need to fix it. Till then, it can sit in the unused space right next to the furnace. Eventually. I'll get around to it. One day, when I have some time.

Any of those phrases sound familiar?

Then you have stuff like this:

This I bought at a tag sale a couple of years ago. I think it is for files or something. I just liked the casters. It has no use in the shop. None. I already have a huge plastic tub filled with casters (and this very weekend I have to go out and get more, as none of the Strategic Casters Reserve has the kind I want for a project) so this is something else that should really go out the door.

I knew I needed to finally get rid of some things and organize the workshop. If you feel like you need to organize your workshop, you've come to the right...well, you've come to a blog.

Here goes: there are only two things found inside any workshop – and I do mean any workshop: density, and empty space. If you're like me, a lot of your time spent in the shop is dealing with those two things. If things are pushed together, they take up less space, and when they are spread out, it seems like they take up more. As a rule of thumb in my shop: the more dense an item is, the more likely it should be placed as far away from the center of the shop as possible. Tools used the most get placed closer to the center, stuff used the least gets pushed further away. The more empty space there is in the middle of the shop - where walking, hammer-swinging and so forth take place - the better.

So I wandered around the basement, looking and thinking about density and empty space, when I found a whole lot of the latter on the wall behind the clothes washer.

I don't walk on the air behind the clothes washer. I don't have to reach through it to get anything. The drill press doesn't hover in that space. It's valuable empty space. So what should go there?

While biking one day I found a unicycle at a tag sale and thought to myself, as naturally I would: that may be useful someday. So I C-3PO'd it to my back and pedaled it all the way from Westchester County back to Stamford. Since then, it had hung on a hook among all of my other bikes, taking up valuable hook space. I don't know when, how or if I will use this unicycle for anything, but it seems to be made to hang on the hook like that. The seat is even perfectly shaped so that it isn't touching the drain pipe.

Next to the unicycle I hung some coax cable. Too much to fit in a tub but not something I'd need several times a day, so on a hook next to the unicycle it goes.

Moving the unicycle freed up a hook on the 'bike wall' which is where...wait, hang on a second....okay I'm back: seven bikes are presently hanging.

However, something began to bother me: Because each front wheel was hanging from a floor joist, all of the hooks were exactly sixteen inches apart. That meant each bike wheel was sixteen inches apart – and that left a lot of empty space between the bikes.

I made the decision to move all the bikes to the other side of the wall, where they would all hang from one joist. That way, I could put the hooks as close as possible. If you do this, I recommend you do some kind of reverse Tetris: bikes are shaped different, and if they are hung along a wall in a certain way, you can fit a lot of them in one place. I have also more or less arranged them by frequency of use, and even have a little sign above the hooks reminding me where each bike is supposed to park. It sounds goofy, but it worked: the same number of bikes stored in less space – which freed up more space.

Seeing this picture reminds me: I need to find a better place for the skull (what can I say: others have battled this workshop and lost).

Now I have a few more bikes, as you know. South Norwalk is a folding bike and can sit on the floor next to the DiamondSchwinn. But for now I found some more available wall and hung it there, and it can probably stay indefinitely since its small shape keeps it out of the way of just about everything. (As you'll notice, I finally added a bigger DIYBIKING.COM logo, but because the top tube was so small, I had to go lowercase).

Another rule of workshop organization I try to follow: when possible, put it on wheels. Especially the heavy stuff. I like that my homemade bike workstand, which began life as a Craftsman rolling tool cabinet, can roll away from the center of the shop when something else needs to go there. I also put casters (I have plenty, you know) on those heavy-duty shelves you can find at Home Depot and elsewhere.

Even if you don't think you're going to move big shelves after you put them down, put them on wheels anyway. The unit pictured above was to hold all of the tubs of seasonal clothes and some other seasonal items. Since it needs to be accessed exactly twice a year, I was fine with putting it in a fairly inconvenient spot: under the shop stairs, there's a lot of empty space, and I don't mind spending a minute rolling the big shelves underneath twice a year. It takes the tubs further away from the central part of the shop – freeing up empty space for tools and other useful stuff. There also I placed a couple of tubs of stuff that, literally, will stay dormant until my wife and I move into another house (admit it, you have some stuff like that too).

You'll find some stuff with wheels needs a place to go when you're not using it. Take my modified tag sale find table, for example.

Now, there's a lot of empty space between the table and the rolling frame on the floor, so I hit on the idea that the unit could nest inside a heavy-duty shelf. As long as the bottom shelf gave enough room for the wheels and one wouldn't put tall items on the middle shelf, it could work...if I modified the shelves slightly. I cut the shelves, and took a piece of steel (in this case, a leg from an unused shelf unit) and bolted it to the shelf supports. The shelf seems just as sturdy as it was before, and the tag sale table is not only completely out of the way when not in use, but it is in easy reach when I want it.

When my dad was upgrading his shop years ago, he gave me a rolling bookcase which stores a lot of plastic tubs with bike parts in them. It's great, but I wanted to see just how much floor space I could get. So after realizing that I never use the workbench area to the right of the chop saw for anything remotely useful – and there's a lot of empty space there - I took the bookcase apart and temporarily transferred the plastic tubs to another bookcase my dad actually built (which I put hidden casters on and it eventually went in the area next to the furnace the scooter once occupied).

By having the two older bookcases side by side instead of one tall unit, I didn't have to stoop to pick up any tubs and everything could be seen and reached a lot easier. Plus, it gave me one more long shelf along the top – empty space that I easily filled. I could still cut long pieces of wood on the chop saw without the tubs interfering. The result was just brilliant.

Then I went through and consolidated tubs, since tubs had stuff in them as well as empty space. For instance, I saw no reason why front derailleurs couldn't fraternize with rear derailleurs, so I put them both in a single tub and labeled it as such.

Throwing away and donating stuff was easy once I got in the right mindset; and was carring a trash bag with me and had a donations box next to the 304. For instance, I don't need or use the little round plastic tubs that come with a roll of electrical tape. Tape is where it is and doesn't need a cozy. Likewise, I don't need screwdriver bits that are worn. Instead of throwing them away instantly I'd return them to the drawer. Maybe it's like putting a pen that doesn't write back in the pen caddy thinking tiny dwarves will refill it with ink at a later date. Never mind.

A few 'maybe I'll work on this/fix this/rebuild this/use this someday for something items' went away. I'm already having trouble remembering which ones.

The final touch for the organizational spree was another steel bookcase (this one, sadly, without wheels) set up next to the shop sink. This was great because it led to another inspiration.

Yeah...I could fold the scooter I'm never going to fix and put it on the wheeled thing that I never use. That way I can roll it under the bookcase next to the diner booth I never sit in, and, when the time comes, someday, in the future, when I have the opportunity to work on the scooter, I can pull it out and do just that.

So that's the wisdom this week on shop organization: by thinking of everything in terms of density and empty space, pushing the seldom used items further away from you and putting the more common items closer, and everything in between on wheels, you too can become an expert at organizing things you never use. Thanks for reading.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Riding in Manhattan with a Suit and Tie

 So I had to go to Manhattan the other day to do grown-up stuff. It meant I had to wear a suit and tie. 

I don't like wearing a suit and tie.

I was also faced with having to go from Grand Central Terminal to the Financial District for Meeting A. Later, I needed to go to the west side for Meeting B, not far from the Intrepid Museum. Finally, hours later, I had Meeting C, which was to take place about forty blocks south from Grand Central Terminal. Then I wanted to cap off the day by having dinner with a friend in Soho.

I decided to do something that I had never done but had always wanted to do: take a bike into the city and do it all without the hassle and expense of gas, parking garage fees, subways, buses or taxicabs.

But I worried I was opening myself up to all new hassles. I needed to bring a folding bike because there was no way around Metro North's no-bikes-on-at-peak-hours rule. Ideally, I'd bring a Brompton and just fold it up and carry it inside, but I don't have a Brompton. I could have done that with the South Norwalk bike, but it would be like wearing filthy jeans to the opera. You just don't do it.

The Dahon Matrix was the bike to take. Rugged, dependable, easily lockable, and comfortable to ride without padded shorts.

However, I needed to make some adjustments before its grand day out: First, I took off the rear rack and bike box. Next, I secured the Cane Creek Thudbuster to the frame with a Knog lock to discourage theft. Then I added some highly reflective tape to the rear fender to discourage cabs from running me over in the dark.

I then added three other necessities.

Going left to right: The essential Kryptonite lock I bought more than four years ago but I can count the number of times I've used it on one finger – it is a special occasion lock, after all. Next is a Serfas USB powered blinking bike light I could fit in my jacket pocket and fasten to the handlebars at sundown. Finally, the Reisenthel Airbelt shoulder bag my wife bought me over the summer. That really is an airplane seatbelt used as a buckle. I like it because the next time I fly I can help with the safety lecture.

I also picked out a suit that was a dark color to hide grease stains (should I acquire any). Also, remembering what I learned when I visited the Brompton factory and saw their Oratory jacket, I picked a suit that had a jacket roomy in the shoulders so I wouldn't stretch or split it when leaning forward for handlebars.

Also, I brought my helmet with the little rearview mirror. Protecting the skull always pulls rank over good hair.

The day started easily: it was a cool autumn day so I didn't have to worry too much about sweat as I pedaled off to the station. The next good piece of luck came when I discovered my train was one of the nice, new ones.

There was also an open seat, so I sat down. Since I was right next to a very professional-looking woman, I carefully checked her reaction. She didn't recoil at any odor I had, real or imagined, so I figured so far so good.

When the train arrived, I waited until my car had emptied before taking my bike from the station. It was just after rush hour and I thought I'd easily make it to my first meeting.

I wasn't prepared for a couple of things. Bike lanes would appear and disappear frequently, and to my dismay I discovered that pedestrians seem to enjoy stepping into traffic with a cell phone to their ear. Even my Incredibell was powerless to penetrate their shell of Personal Haze.

But I really, really enjoyed biking to the first meeting. Wind going through the jacket, blowing the tie over my shoulder, it all seemed to work. Not only that, but I made it to where I was going and was confident enough to lock the Dahon with the NYC Level One configuration:

So the plastic bag used to keep the lock in my shoulder bag was used to cover the seat (and hide the seatpost), and the Special Occasion lock was threaded through the frame and the front wheel. I didn't lock the rear wheel or remove the seat. I was satisfied. The bike next to mine looked safe enough, even though it included an ominous warning.

I guess that's the thing with bikes that blend into the city landscape (at one point in the day I had to reprimand a fellow who was leaning on the Dahon and nearly about to sit on the top tube while he was talking to a friend. Occupational hazard for city bikes, I suppose).

With my helmet stowed in my bag, my hair somewhat in place and my body oder not repelling anyone (that I noticed), I transformed into a grown-up and attended the grown-up meeting.

Nearly an hour and a half later, I left Meeting A and headed outside. The bike was still there so I began riding it north. On the way, I got hungry, and at a red light I noticed I was next to the Soho location of Dos Caminos. I dismounted and walked to the sidewalk before the light turned green – thankful that the bike had given me some flexibility to stop anywhere.

But, as is sometimes the case in most cities, I didn't have the flexibility to park the bike anywhere. I ended up asking the hostess of Dos Caminos permission to chain the bike to the railing. Thankfully, my permission was granted.

The Soho location has a nice bar seat area that allows one to people-watch while eating.

After lunch, I again thanked the hostess for allowing me to park my bike at the railing and I headed off to my next meeting. This time I was greeted by a rack put in place by the 34th Street Partnership. I again used the NYC Level One configuration to lock the Dahon.

After Meeting B, I was faced with a few hours before Meeting C. So I went to another one of the great public spaces in Manhattan: the High Line. Made from an old elevated freight train line, this park, maintained by Friends on the High Line, is a work of art. Since bikes aren't allowed on it, I locked up under one of the entrances.

I then headed up the stairs to the park, and alternatively sat and took a stroll.

After some Zen-like time on the High Line, I headed to my final meeting. I was quickly reminded at how much of a preferable mode of transportation a bike in New York City can be.

Since the bike was to be locked up as day would turn into night, I decided to lock it with NYC Level 2 configuration: removing the front wheel and threading the Kryptonite lock all the way through.

The bike stayed safe through sunset, and before long the workday was over and I was ready to have dinner with my friend. When we said goodbye, I unlocked the bike, put it back together and attached the Serfas light to the handelbars. I kept the cars in sight with the helmet rearview mirror. Cabs would sometimes pass very close, but in the city, it happens. I even had a fairly comfortable ride up Park Avenue, the same street Will Smith drove his Mustang in 'I am Legend.'

I made it to Grand Central Terminal just in time to make the 9:07 train back to Stamford. There was plenty of room on the train so there was no need to fold the bike in the vestibule. After the 44 minute train trip it was a simple 1.7 mile ride back home, and the Serfas light still had plenty of power to make me seen. The day was a complete success. I made it everywhere I wanted to go, saved money on parking and transport, and I got to see more than I ever could have seen out the window of a cab or a subway. I didn't stink, and most importantly, I enjoyed myself. It made me hope others would consider biking on a weekday: with a special occasion lock and a good bike, there is little in NYC that can't be done. Thanks for reading.