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Skull in the Woods

September 12, 2018

It was a beautiful fall day down on the farm. A happy group of hikers (two moms, four boys) returned from a trip to the ice pond excitedly shouting that they’d found a dead animal. The boys were full of gory details. It had its neck ripped open; there were lots of bones—maybe it was a fisher cat. I was intrigued, but doubtful. Firstly, fisher cats are pretty rare. Some years ago, my father told me he’d heard it’s eerie call – half-avian shriek/half-feline yowl. I tracked a recording down online and couldn’t help but wonder what it must have sounded like to the first Europeans to hear it. I am sure it caused those Pilgrims to pray with increased fervor and sense of purpose. Secondly, how would these kids know what a fisher cat looks like? Thirdly, fisher cats are large-ish members of the weasel family. What would be able to dispatch one by ripping it’s neck open? More than likely it was an unfortunate cat or dog that had met up with a coyote. But, as I said, I was intrigued. I posted my “Back in a few” sign and took off at a trot for the woods, shouting thanks to the hikers over my shoulder.


When I got to the ice pond, the sight was even stranger than I had imagined. For one thing, the skull was almost clean, and I was fairly certain it was not a cat or a dog. For another thing, not only did it seem it had been killed by a bite to the neck, buy it seemed to have been torn inside out. The spinal column and rib cage were both fully exposed and the skin was attached to the skull only at the chin. It was as if something had grabbed it by the neck and swung it around until the skin flew off. At this is the part I began feeling a bit like I might be in the midst of a Jurassic Park moment. I detached the head from the carcass and the neck from the spine and carried my prize back to the ox barn in a plastic bag.


Twenty-four hours later I found an old camping cook pot, popped the skull in, and set it to boiling. Those one or two of you who have followed my blog may remember a story I posted many years ago about my grandmother Cornelia, and what a good sport she was. It concerned the time my Uncle Peter found a seal’s head at the beach and how he boiled the skin off it in one of her cooking pots on the stove. Well, now I truly understand what a good sport she was—and, as it turns out, what a good sport my lovely wife Lisa Dee is—because my little skull boiled over on our stove and it. Smelled. Foul.


Lisa Dee simply closed the door to the room she was in and kept on working. I removed the pot from the stove, cleaned up the mess, and attempted to boil something fragrant to cover the stench. (Ed. Note:It did not work.) I then set up a small camping stove in the backyard and continued the boil. After several hours I was able to remove all the skin and most of the ‘gristle’. I soaked it in Chlorox for a half-hour or so, rinsed it, and soaked it in hydrogen peroxide overnight. The next day I rinsed it again and re-assembled the pieces. The skull was so complete the re-assembling consisted of little more than putting about seven teeth back in to their sockets and gluing the others that were loose. I scraped a few last bits of ‘gristle’ off and glued the jaw to the upper skull.


My current theory of the poor critter’s final moments is that it met up with two canids (possibly coyotes, but I guess dogs because the carcass was not consumed) – one grabbed its neck and one grabbed its tail whereupon a vigorous tug-of-war ensued, which our protagonist lost decisively.


The only mystery now is what was the poor creature? I have looked at many skull images online. It certainly could be a fisher cat.  It is not a dog, fox, or coyote (snout too long).  Does not appear to be in the cat family (face too flat).  It is too big for a mink or weasel, though it looks very similar. The view that shows the most definitive differences is the top view. There is a distinctive ridge on the skull and a narrowness between the eye sockets which I did not see in any other images. So, if you have anything to add, please feel free to chime in.

Skull from the woods

“Fisher Cat Skull”?

You never know what an early fall day down at the farm will bring.

Why It’s Easier to Cut With an Angled Blade

August 5, 2018

I am doing something a little differently this time.  I am posting a video i made in which i talk about why woodworkers often use their cutting tools (chisels, planes, drawknives, and the like) at an angle.  Let me know what you think.


Build a Bench

July 7, 2018

A few weeks ago, i posted a series of photos on Facebook.  They are images i took as i was making a solid walnut bench.  The wood came from a tree that had been cut down a couple years ago.  The bench seat is made from a slab i split out of the log last year (2017) and allowed to season somewhat over the winter. The legs come from another log i cut and split this spring.  The “rudimentary lathe” is a jig i build for making legs, but is not a true lathe as it does not spin the wood, but merely holds it firmly while i work it.  There is a typo in one of the photos near the end (i hope it doesn’t diminish your enjoyment of the pictures.)   The resolution is not the highest (it didn’t load properly at the highest resolution.) I hope you will enjoy it.  And if you have any questions, please feel free to ask.

10 Day Forecast

July 2, 2018

School ended one week ago. We had a beautiful spring. An early jag of heat in May or early June got everyone complaining that we’d jumped straight to summer. “Typical New England,” was the oft repeated phrase. But, no. We had a wonderful spring–enough rain, many days that could have passed for autumnal if it weren’t for the crocuses and tulips popping up, or forsythia bursting forth. the nights were cool-to-cold, but no frosts to freeze the blossoms as happened last year. And now school is out, my days are free, and the temps are soaring. We are in the midst of a five- or six-day stretch of 90+ degree weather. Typical New England.

How can i be so sure it is typical? Every July 4 i stay home and watch the folks on TV attending the Boston Pops concert and fireworks down on the Esplanade. And every year, there is Keith Lockhart, the Boston Pops’ conductor, drenched in sweat, while the undaunted audience searches the sky for fireworks and lightening. they always get the former and frequently the latter.

But, believe it or  not, i didn’t not take pencil to paper (yeah, I still write on paper) to complain about the weather. I am writing not to complain about the abysmal weather, but to whine about the weather reporting.

Most people complain about the forecast never being right. I hate how accurate it is. Sure, sometimes they say we will get a foot of snow when we only get an inch or they call for snow and we get rain. But they get the temperature within a couple of degrees and that (those few degrees) makes all the difference. And the current ten-day forecast is as accurate as a two-day forecast was twenty years ago. So, when i see a six-day stretch of 90+ degree weather, i know they may be off by a couple of degrees but my fate is sealed. Of course, improvements in weather forecasting are a boon to farmers, power grid planners, and managers, etc. But, as is so often the case for me, i am out of step with the times. I miss uncertainty because in this case the old uncertainty meant hope. So, I am hoping these days will pass quickly, and that they don’t keep me from getting to enjoy this Typical New England weather.

New Chair, Old Wire

April 30, 2017

Over the past few months, I have been working on an armchair. It is similar to the pair that I sold last Fall to my Aunt and Uncle in Virginia.

P1010997The originals had rope seats, as you can see in the picture. I had to buy the rope which I am not so keen on, and so when I ran out in the middle of making this seat, I tried a number of things instead. I attempted to weave using less rope in different patterns, but none was very satisfactory. I tried using twigs and rope, which worked, but I didn’t like the look. Then I tried a semi woven pattern using very heavy gauge copper wire. I have had the wire for years, but it is so stiff  (it is about 1/4″ in diameter) that it really hasn’t worked for anything in the past.

As I was struggling with the wire, it occurred to me for the first time since I found it that it is probably the wire that was originally used to electrify the barnyard. It hangs from very crude insulators on several trees and then drops to the ground, where it is buried under the leaf litter between several of the barns.

The farm has been in my family since the 1840’s, but my grandfather, Richardson White was the first one to try his hand as a farmer in the 1930’s. He built and/or oversaw the construction of several of the farm buildings (including an blacksmith shop, a tomato barn, a saw mill, horses stalls, and an ox barn – wherein I play furniture maker). This was in the early to mid 1930’s and this would have been just about when electricity would have been installed in these sorts of buildings for the first time.

My grandfather’s father also lived on the farm (at least he did in the summer) while working in Boston. He commuted by train when he was in Cohasset. The rest of the year he walked from his home on Marlborough street, Back Bay to his job at MGH every day. He had a couple phobias. On was a fear of burglaries, and apparently had multiple locks on his many doors. He was also frightened of the possibility of fire, particularly on the farm. I don’t know whether it was a relief when they replaced the gas fixtures in his house on the farm with electricity, but I do know that it did not end his concern. Even when he had his own family, my grandfather ate dinner with his father. My grandfather’s livelihood depended on rain, for sure, but also on sunny weather in abundance enough to dry out the hay he fed his livestock, to dry out the fields enough to plow, and to nurture the vegetables he trucked into Boston. Yet my father, Donald recalls my great grandfather dining with his family and exclaiming to one and all that, “what this country needs is a good soaking rain!” To which my grandfather could only grumble quietly to himself.  When I was a teenager.  I had a copper bracelet that I had bought in Northern Michigan.  While i was visiting my grandfather, someone asked what it was.  I explained that I only knew for sure what one of the symbols on it meant, rain.  My grandfather was kind enough to merely groan, but refrained from throwing it out the window.

So after decades transmitting electricity to the barnyard barns, some old copper wire is holding up a seat on a twiggy chair.  And I think once again on my good fortune getting to be a part of a long chain.



Back in the Saddle

April 18, 2017

It has been a long time since i have written anything, and rather than write about that, i am just going to post some pictures and try to work my way back into posting more regularly.  Here are a bunch of benches i have made over the past year or two.  Many of them are made of walnut from some trees that were taken down to increase the sunshine on the educational garden round the other side of the barnyard.  Several of the benches were made as gifts.  The most special (to my mind) is the love seat.  It was made from an enormous oak tree that came down some years ago.  I convinced my brother, Owen to help me split a slab off its trunk.  He saw immediately that i didn’t have nearly enough wedges to do the job and that i had totally underestimated the difficulty.  But he worked on it with me for hours.  It was cold and exhausting, and initially unsuccessful.  But the following week i bought more wedges and finished the job.  The following summer i cut it down to size and made the seat, and a year after that, July 2016)  i was able to present it to him and his wonderful bride, Lyra at their wedding.

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I hope you enjoy these pictures.  I should have more soon.

More Stuff

August 9, 2016

No excuses, I’m just not feeling much like writing. However, I have been making stuff, despite the very hot weather. So, this post will be mostly pictures.

There were a number of infrastructure projects that needed to be taken care of. Firstly, there was a leak in some plumbing that runs in front of the ox barn. To repair it, a large hole had to be dug in front of the shop to get at the cutoff valves. I did not do this job. However, when it was done i did fill in the hole. See the hole. See it filled in. Yeah!

My father and brother Arthur are having quite a bit of work done on the surrounding buildings. They are also getting the ox barn clapboarded. So, I decided to build new doors for the ox barn. I am planning on painting them soon. The last bit of infrastructure was to deal with the heat and sun. I put up a large canvas awning. It is supported by bamboo poles from my front yard. I am glad they’re of some use, given what a pain they can be.

The first new piece of furniture is a love seat I made for my brother Owen and his new wife Lyra for their wedding. The seat comes from a large oak trunk that he agreed to help me split a couple years ago. The trunk was huge and we were woefully unprepared (only two wedges) and I know he thought the enterprise was mad. But he hardly squawked at all, and gave it his all. We got it partially split. I bought a few more wedges and finished the job and this is the result. I hope they enjoy it for a good long time. Lastly, a new Adirondack-type chair. It is a full sized chair with short legs, and it is quite comfortable. That will do it for now. I hope you enjoy the pictures.

Stove in the Ox Barn – 2016

February 8, 2016

After a strange non- winter, we have gotten a couple storms in a couple weeks. Today is my second snow day of the year. I may even be able to get out into the woods next week and do a little harvesting. In the meantime, I have finished a couple recent projects. Today I finished a new pair of deerskin gloves with rabbit fur lining. Here are some pictures.  This is my third pair of deerskin gloves and first with the backs completely linded.


The other big project was the repair and installation of an old woodstove I found in one of the barns. When I found it, the stove was covered in rust. I thought it was a stove that had been in the Kennedy Cottage when I lived there. (The Kennedy cottage was named for Dick Kennedy a farm hand who worked for my grandfather in the late 20’s. Dick Kennedy and his wife and three children all lived in the tiny two-room cottage. Later, the cottage was used by my grandparents on weekends while they lived in Brookline before they built the “Big House”.) As I worked on the stove I realized it was not the Kennedy Cottage stove. I was surprised that, although I had all sorts of identification on the stove, I found very little on the Web about the model. I found a picture of the stove in the catalog of the Adirondack Museum, and plenty of mentions of the company that made it, but nothing about the model #124


I brought the stove to my day job, Dearborn Academy, and one of my students got very involved in refurbishing the stove. It was great to see his interest, and a great help in getting it all done. We started by taking the whole thing apart and removing the old stove putty. I was able to remove most of the bolts using Liquid Wrench Penetrating Oil. I have to give credit where credit is due. The stuff worked very well. It smells as if it has some sort of solvent other than the oil, and I wouldn’t want to spend to much time working with the stuff. But it did a better job than the other penetrating oils I usually use. We used a wire brush on a corded drill to do most of the work. Actually, we used a couple different wire brushes to get into the different shaped spaces. After we cleaned off the rust we applied stove polish. This is another smelly job, but it really looked beautiful after the job was done.

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I bought a new set of fasteners from the Bolt Depot and was ready for re-assembly. I took the whole thing down to the Holly Hill and put it together, sealing all the joints with stove putty.

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I will not go into the trials and tribulations of getting the stove pipe, but I will mention that it was such a drag trying to figure out what I needed and where to get the parts that I very nearly gave up several times. I have been thinking of putting a small stove into my shop for years, but the odd thing is that even on the coldest days, it is always quite cozy. I have often mused that perhaps the residual heat from those beloved oxen that lived in the barn all those years ago is still emanating in that special spot. It is really only on the very coldest and cloudiest days that it is cold in that barn. But last weekend I gave the stove a test fire. The permanent stovepipe is not in place, but I put a temporary pipe up through the roof and lit a fire that was sufficient to set the stove putty and burn off the polish residue. February break is next week, and I will try to get the chimney finished. That is if there is not too much snow on the roof.

Stump Stools

July 31, 2015

The dew point has finally fallen below 70 degrees. It is dry enough to sit in our sunroom (where the computer resides) and do a bit of writing. A real writer cannot be kept from writing. I learned long ago that I am a real tinkerer. In grad school (Columbia School of International and Public Affairs) the accomplishment that made me the proudest was repairing the beautiful old Electrolux vacuum cleaner I had with nothing but my pocketknife. It takes very little to put me off writing, though I like it, but nothing can put me off tinkering.
This has been a really good summer for me. I have been feeling well and getting lots done, both at home and in the ox barn (or the “studio” as some of my visitors have pleasingly called it.) My attempt to have a sale last month was a total failure, but that’s fine. The past few weeks I have had more visitors than I did at the official “open house”. And, as thrilled as I would be to sell some of my work, it is still talking with folks about it, especially the kids, that I enjoy most of all. It is still a treat to see youngsters visiting the farm and enjoying the barnyard. One of my favorite attractions is Abby the goat. Not sure what it is about her, but we seem to have a special bond.

Selfie with Abby

Dear Abby

As you may know, we had a bit of snow this winter – many feet of it. But it was a dry spring. The growing season started out looking as though it might be a very dry summer and a lot of the growth was stunted. But since mid to late June the rain has be sufficient and things on the farm have been growing nicely. They have even started selling tomatoes. I have made it down to the farm most Saturdays and have made quite a few new pieces. In particular I have made a few “stump stools”

Stump Stool

Stump Stool

I start with a short log and split it in half. This is easily accomplished with a sledge hammer and a couple of wedges (provided, of course, that the grain is straight). For my latest I had to cut it to square up the end as well. Fortunately, I had my magic saw to do the work for me. Otherwise it might have taken an hour or so and been mighty sweaty work.

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After getting the half stump the right shape I have to figure out whether to flatten the seat or make it concave. The latter is preferable, but challenging. I have tried using a variety of tools – adze, slick, block plane, spokeshave – all with varying success. The adze and the slick (a 3” wide chisel with a two foot handle) leave a very rough surface, at least when I am doing it. The block plane leaves a flat surface. The configuration of the spokeshave makes it difficult to work wood wider than the tool face. There is a type of plane made for this sort of work called a compass plane.

Adjustable Compass Plane (convex)

Adjustable Compass Plane (convex)

Throat of the Plane

Throat of the Plane

It has a sole that is curved to plane a curved surface. I have had an adjustable compass plane for a couple years, but have never been able to get it to work because the throat (the opening in the sole of the plane that the blade peeks through) of the plane gets smaller when the plane is set to do convex work. This week I finally took a small file to the throat of the plane and tried to enlarge it. I will see tomorrow whether this worked. In the meantime I bought a convex sole plane from Lie-Nielson tools. [If you haven’t heard of Lie-Nielson check out their website to see some of the pertiest tools in the world. They are wicked expensive and I reserve buying them for special occasions. In this case because Lee Valley – another great source for tools that are very reasonably priced – didn’t have an equivalent.] The Lie-Nielson plane is a beauty (although it was slightly smaller than I expected) and it worked perfectly out of the box (you can expect that with this company).

Lie-Nielson Plane

Lie-Nielson Plane

Using the little convex plane (convex plane to make a concave seat) I got the seat to the general shape I was after then I finished up with a card scraper. I will try to write about card scrapers some other time, but they are blades and despite their name when used properly they cut rather than scrape.

Card Scrapers

Card Scrapers

They are great for smoothing surfaces and can leave a better finish than sandpaper.
After I have shaped and finished the surface of the seat I flip it all over and drill four holes for the legs. I generally drill then at a slight angle for stability with my two inch auger. This is basically a large auger bit, but rather than going into a bit brace, it has a permanent wooden “T” handle. I bore holes approximately 3” deep and then decide what sort of legs to give it. I have used a froe to split billets and then round the ends that are going into the holes and leaving the legs very rough. I have used interesting bits of saplings such as in the first picture. Notice one of the legs has a deep spiral groove in it made by a strangling vine. And sometimes I use the shave horse and spokeshaves to shape a leg. I could of course use a lathe if I had one available down at the farm. In any case, once the legs are fitted and inserted, I through a coat of Danish oil on it and it’s done. The first one I made years ago to put my tool chest on. I had arrived at a craft fair and didn’t have anything to serve that purpose. I was able to find a short log in the firewood pile and turn it into a suitable stand in about forty minutes. I have enjoyed making them every since.
As always I will try to write more regularly, but there is always so much tinkering to be done.

Open House and Sale Saturday July 11th

June 30, 2015

While I have done no writing for the past four or five months, I have been making furniture. If you are anywhere near Cohasset, Mass July 11, swing by Holly Hill Farm (226 Jerusalem Rd) and say, “hi”. I’ll have most of my stuff out for viewing (and purchase if the spirit moves you). I’ll also be working if you want to see how it’s done.


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