Cutting boards from a stair step

Cutting board

Cutting boards are sort of the “hello world” of woodworking. Nearly every hobbyist’s first few projects will at least involve the building of one and I was no exception. Since they unanimously make such great gifts, are quick to make and can be batched out easily, you always end up making a few once in a while for occasions where present giving is expected. You can get absolutely crazy with end-grain cutting boards pattern (google it), but frankly, the simplest layout will expose the beauty of the wood in a way that is guaranteed to please everyone.

A step
A step

I found out not too long ago that the process can be made a lot cheaper and faster by recycling stair steps easily found in any scrap wood pile at relevant shops where they make custom staircases. Occasionally, they will put the wrong finish on a set of steps and instead of tossing it, they will plane it one more time and sell it as scrap because it no longer has the required thickness. The steps that I got were 10$ a piece and made of maple, but I suspect one could get them in all sorts of varieties. Worst comes to worst, you can probably buy them new and unfinished and it will probably not be that much more expensive considering you are getting nice wood and that part of the gluing-up is done for you.

Step all cut in slices to expose the end-grain
Step all cut in slices to expose the end-grain

Afterwards, the process to transform them into cutting boards is as trivial as cutting them to lengths and softening the edges but if you want and end-grain cutting board as opposed to edge grain, that is a board on which the actual growth rings are visible on the cutting surface (looks nicer and easier on the knives), there is a bit more work involved. The steps have to be cut down in slices, rotated 90 degrees to expose the end-grain and then glued-up this way. Then comes the more complicated part.

Gluing it all up
Gluing it all up

If your tools are as execrable as mine, chances are the dried-up result will be all crooked and encrusted with glue. No need to panic, find the flattest side and work at it using a belt sander (or elbow oil if that is all you have) until reasonable flatness is achieved. Then, if you own a drum sander or have access to one, send it through a couple times on each side and you should end up with something that resembles a kitchen accessory. If you do not own a drum sander, you can use a planer but in doing so, be extremely careful to make your planing increments as small as possible. Planer are not meant to cut perpendicular to the grain, it will be hard on them and will cause massive tear-out, be prepared to glue sacrificial wood or cut up what has been messed up. Overdo it a tiny bit and you might split the board in half (like it happened to me), ruin you planer in a spectacular explosion of metal and plastic shrapnels and/or send the board back the way it came in at supersonic speed. There is a bunch of horror stories on forums.

Unfinished cutting board
Unfinished cutting board

Next comes the sanding of the cutting surface and the edges but before that, decorations should be added to make the board stand apart from the ones you can get at Ikea. It can be a nice bevel, and asymmetric cut, handles, or like I did, inserts using a different type of wood.

Finally, seal the board by wiping a couple times it with your favorite product. What I had handy was heavy mineral oil but I know other solutions exist on the market. Sealing is primordial as it will prevent any organic matter into getting inside the board, rotting and contaminating food down the road. This is especially important with end-grain cutting board as end-grain, having been evolved by nature to conduct sap up the trunk to the leaves, is very absorbent and efficient at conducting liquids. So much so that completely saturating it with oil might take a few passes over some days, once every use for a week, once a week for a month, monthly for a year and then as needed. You will know when the board is saturated when the board stops absorbing the oil altogether and see drips on the underside. Better finishes do exist, such as a mix of paraffin and oil, food-safe vanishes, etc, google them or check this very instructing video by the Wood Whisperer.

Enjoy the giving of a gift anyone will appreciate and do make it a requirement that you will come over to their place for a meal in exchange. Buying something for someone is nice but thankfully, most can still appreciate the much higher value of a present that was hand-made.

The obsolete computer parts sarcophagus (or coffee table if you prefer)

IMG_3609
A close up of the finished table with its lighting on.

I’ll admit I’m a bit of a hoarder when it comes to computer parts. Over the years, I have collected a fair amount of equipment with the hope than one day, some of it might come handy. Well, a GeForce 3 from 2002 is not like wood scraps or loose electric cables, the more time passes, the more it becomes useless. Standards evolve and with them connectivity; there is just no way this type of video card will fit in a modern computer (now that everyone uses laptops too). I have had a need for small servers for some projects and an old PII with linux on it would have made a perfect candidate, but then again, the power consumption of those machines are just not worth it. A small embedded computer or shared hosting would pay itself back in no time.

One day, I came across this project through Make and thought it would be a perfect way to give purpose to all that junk, especially that like the inventor of the first table, some of it was from my first machines and while it was now devoid of computational value, still retained sentimentality. Electronic circuits have a mesmerizing power for the knowledgeable and the profane likewise. While staring at an A7N8X for hours will not give the non-engineers any further understanding on how bits are turned into pretty pictures on a monitor, it could nonetheless spark educative discussions on the general role that it plays into this process and at least help dissipate the “black box” effect of modern personal computers. So I proceeded to file the link in my ideas folder, knowing I was then lacking the woodworking skills and tools required for this type of project, and at the time not really thinking I would ever come to have my own computerpartscoffeetable.

A CAD plan of the table. Save a few millimeters, the end result is the exact same.

Coming back from some time in Europe and having only worked with my brain for over a year (except for this project), the time felt right for a physical challenge. Drawing inspiration from this other computer parts table, I opened FreeCAD, got drawing and in an evening came up with a design of my own: something less imposing, with more modern lines, all without sacrificing the “sarcophagus” effect.

This is not a how-to so I will spare the building details but for those that are interested, feel free to download the CAD file, leave a comment or write me. Basically, the table is build around a frame of particle board which also serves as the bed for the parts. At both ends of the frame are two dark walnut glue-ups with some chamfering all finished with several coats danish oil. Frankly I was not expecting the end-result to be so stunning, the images do not do it justice. The panes of glass fit in a grove carved in the leg members and with the top glass being 10mm (3/8), this makes one solid and stiff piece of furniture. It takes two fully gown men to move it around.

The table is lit up from two led strips at a 45 degree so they can illuminate both the top and their respective side. Powering the strip is the actual only functional circuit of the whole display: a switching power supply I built for the occasion (also something that had been sitting on a shelf for a couple of years).

Money-wise, the project was a bit on the expensive side. I did maximize reuse and recycling, but as every woodworker will confirm, precious wood will cost you, in fact a lot more that what is normally found in hardware stores. Add to the total the price of thick custom cut glass panels and the addition is somewhere around 400$. A coffee table at Ikea is a tenth of that price, but the commonalities ends with function: there is nothing like the quality, craftsmanship, the beauty of a solid piece of wood furniture.

Since I am travelling again and did the finishing touches the day before my departure, I cannot provide a picture with a few happy people around some empties. For now, it is quietly sitting in my workshop under a protective blanket, patiently awaiting my return for merry moments with friends or a lazy coffee the Sunday morning after.

OD3D: a software oscilloscope for 3-dimensional visualization of signals

Project

OD3D stands for the french « Oscilloscope Digital 3 Dimensions » which means Digital 3D Oscilloscope. It was me and my partner’s 4th year university project. Simply put, it’s a completely functional computer based oscilloscope that works on three axes instead of two. This permits more complex visualization of waveforms, especially in the historical mode, where you can see what the signal looked like many samples ago. Any way, If you want to better understand what it does more than a classical oscilloscope, I urge you to look at the video above and the screenshots below.

It was developed under the course of a year mostly during our free time. Even if it did not ranked very well compared to other projects (try to match the bling factor of a motion-sensing automated gun-turret …), we had plans to continue its development until life took us somewhere else (and made us switch to Unix based OSes). Sadly, it sat on our hard drives for more than four years before we decided that it would be a shame to let so much work rot to obsolescence so we decided to release the whole source under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license so someone can hopefully use it in another project or draw inspiration from it.

The goal of this project was to offer greater possibilities in signal visualization, build a complete, powerful and versatile software oscilloscope suite and more generally explore something new. Someone told us it could have interesting applications in conjunction with sonars (3D waterfall display) and we almost go it to act as a semiconductor curve tracer (Id vs Vds vs Vgs).

Short architectural descriptions

The whole project is actually made of two programs, the oscilloscope itself and the generic 3D engine.

We did not get as far as commenting the whole thing. In fact, there are almost no comments at all in the code but if you actually follow the logic and understand the pipeline architecture, you should have no problem figuring out how the oscilloscope part of it works. As for the 3D engine, I suggest you start with checking the demo that comes with it. Furthermore, it is not completely debugged, so you should expect it to crash pretty often.

 Oscilloscope

During the actual implementation of the oscilloscope, we tried to abstract things as much as possible in order to make the project extensible. For now, it can only use sound cards or a virtual signal generator as an input, but it would not be too hard to use a USB device (another thing we were working on) or some other custom solution. This also holds true for all the modules that sit in between the source input driver and the actual display (trigger and resolution filter), where the architecture enables you to easily build and integrate one of your own (like a spectrum analyzer or a data logger). The whole thing becomes an oscilloscope when you order and connect those modules in a specific manner: Input->Trigger->Display.

Many Inputs can connect to the same display or many displays can be connected to the same input. There are no limits on the number of channels or displays; you can go as far as your hardware resources will permit you. Back in 2008 when we presented it, we ran it on an Athlon 800 with 256MB of RAM and a GF2 MX400 to show that it was not very taxing on resources. If you want more technical information, go take a look at the specificities section.

3D engine

The 3D engine (named Motr3D) was developed as a standalone solution as opposed to being totally integrated in the oscilloscope, this means that it can be used for other stuff, like in the demo that comes in its executable folders, where we recreated a the solar system. As opposed to the oscilloscope, which is pretty functional, the 3D engine is very primitive and will not get you beyond displaying and moving polygons and basic shapes around. From the start, it was programmed to be as abstract from graphics API as possible (it uses Direct3D but it could be implemented with OpenGL), be fully object oriented and have a runtime architecture like a tree, where every 3D object (even the camera) is part of a tree and inherits from a common type. Even if the project consisted of an oscilloscope, the 3D engine is the part we are most proud of because it was both very challenging (80% of the programming time) and by far the most fun we had programming something. If you want more technical information, scroll down to the specificities section.

Specificities

Oscilloscope

  • Supports as many channels as your hardware will permit.
  • Supports as many displays as your hardware will permit.
  • Abstracted pipeline architecture for modularity.
  • Can work with any type of input, but only sound cards or a virtual signal generator are implemented.
  • Programmed in C# for the Microsoft .NET framework 2.0.
  • Has been tested on Windows 2000/XP/Vista.

3D engine

  • Fully object oriented in architecture.
  • Supports many primitives (cube, line, spheres, etc.)
  • Programmed in C# for the Microsoft .NET framework 2.0.
  • Works with Direct3D (managed) but can be made to work with OpenGL.
  • Has been tested on Windows 2000/XP/Vista.

Source: OD3D.zip

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Screenshots

A milestone

Too bad I work alone and mostly at nighttime. Otherwise, I would have some people around to share the sheer joy that I am experiencing right now. For a lack of that, I’ll turn to the web. Just an hour ago, I completed a major milestone in my main project line. I am ecstatic as with work of this magnitude, the light at the end of the tunnel is always months away( and right after, you get into another tunnel…) Here is the writeup on the situation.

I have had a fascination with oscilloscopes for a very long time. While being incredibly useful (for those who are into electronics that is), they have a mysterious sense to them that still gets me after all those years of hanging out with complicated machinery. I remember clearly seeing rows and rows of them during my first university year, having only a very rough idea of what they were for but still knowing, judging by their numbers, that they must be very useful for every electronics bench to get its own. They are what epitomizes the knobs and dials (screen in this case) strange and obscure apparatus of the modern age.

So much so that I decided to program one from scratch for my final engineering project; I had very ambitious plans for it. The electronics would be managed by a Microchip PIC18F4550 – a USB microcontroller – and the application on the host PC would be programmed in C#. Its killer feature would be that its display would be 3D, giving the user one more dimension for visualizing, combining and probing waveforms. Turned out implementing the USB stack was a major bitch (should have used Microchip’s ready-made one…) so I decided to get signals through the sound card input. No big deal, the main application was agnostic as to where its data came from. Then, the 3D part was a huge headache too (80% of the code, a primitive but complete 3D engine), but I got trough it and in the end it worked well enough for a public showing. I will post all its code and some screen shots when I find the motivation too, but for reasons that will be developed upon at this time, I decided no to further its development. Simply put, I had discovered the world of Open Source and realized that platform-locking my project (DirectX, .NET) was not inline with my philosophy of getting good electronic tools in the hand of the masses.

This new one is implemented on an OS of mine (Elements, but beware, the post is very outdated) and thus completely web oriented and RESTful. The user interface is described in XHTML, SVG and JavaScript with all of it getting served along with the oscilloscope function by an ATMega328p with 32kB of static EEPROM storage. That’s a web server, TCP/IP stack, a file system and oscilloscope running on 32kB of Flash, 32kB of EEPROM and 2kB of RAM embarked on a 16 MHz chip! It had been a web server for quite a while, but tonight, I got it to behave like a usable oscilloscope. I am a happy man…