Bigger Sound

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As a tinkerer and gadget lover, I couldn’t not be an aspiring audiophile too. Though, when the term ‘audiophile’ is thrown around, it conjures up some lofty, expensive, snobby impressions sometimes. (BTW, someone had a JBL Paragon on Portland Craigslist the other day, listed for $20,000.) I’m all for clean, beautiful sound, but I tend to look at these things differently – as part aesthetics-loving designer, part bargain hunter. I think the best deals in audio equipment should be attainably priced, and deliver a noticeable improvement in listening quality. That’s what we all want, right? When you’ve spend hard-earned money on something, you want to seriously notice an improvement.

Anyway, all of this brings me to a couple reviews of some inexpensive, yet high quality audio goods. This post is about the NuForce uDAC-2, and later on – I have one planned for my Cambridge phono pre-amp.

So, what is a DAC? DAC stands for digital audio converter. When you have music files on your computer, they are probably MP3 or similar format. MP3s are compressed, so you lose quality of the recording to get a much smaller file – so you can fit more of them on your portable devices. Which is fine… but when you have decent headphones, you’re going to hear a difference in quality. As your computer plays digital files, before coming out of your headphone jack, it has to convert them to an analog signal. Inside your computer is a tiny, and not terribly accurate, DAC. What an external DAC gives you is much cleaner, more accurate representation of the music, and even makes low-quality files sound much better.

Why do I need a DAC? Well, no one really NEEDS this crap, right? But, if you’re inclined to pay for better sound, this makes sense if you listen to a lot of music from your computer and have a quality set of headphones. (Mine are Grado SR60s, by the way.) Most of my audio files are MPEGs and AAC files from the iTunes store, and when I’m working, they are playing from my MacBook Pro. The NuForce DAC also has RCA outs, so you can easily plug it into your home stereo input as well. They do make a cheaper version with just a headphone mini-jack out, but I thought RCAs would give more versatility.

Well, what’s the result? Upon purchasing, I was still slightly skeptical, but was really hoping it would live up to the good reviews. When I got it, I plugged it in and started listening. Immediately I could tell a difference. Recordings sounded more detailed, cleaner, with a bigger soundstage than before. (‘bigger soundstage?‘ That sounds pompous.) What I mean, is that there seems to be more definition in the instruments… a analogy would be to think of how your favorite band would sound crammed together in your bathroom – and then think about how they would sound while playing in Nigel Godrich’s basement*.

What is the lesson here? You obviously don’t NEED this item, but if you like gadgets and crave good sounding music, it’s definitely worthy. Comparing its $129 price tag to the amount of time spent listening to music at my desk, I don’t regret it one bit.

*yes, I know it’s not his personal basement.

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French Porteur Handlebar

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I have a perfect bike. It did NOT need to be tinkered with. However, and you’ll soon realize this as I create more posts, I seem to have an addiction and it is only cured by changing things and customizing. Houses, cars, furniture, bikes… everything. The other day, I chipped the end off one of my cork grips. It was right about the time I saw a vintage French porteur bike, so what better time than to change out the entire configuration!

I have a Sturmey-Archer three-speed hub and had been using their supplied grip-shifter on it. Somewhat clean, looked good when I cut down the grip… but then I saw they have a super-svelte bar-end mounted model! I was instantly in love. I had been wondering how I could convert an antique non-indexed model before finding this and it was going to make my job so much easier. Next up was to find a simple reverse brake lever, and I found them at my local bike shop, a DiaCompe model that was supplied from Velo-Orange.

My current bars are Nitto, the Dove model, and they are superb. Nitto makes gorgeous parts, and the finish was excellent. I wanted to stay with them, but they won’t accept my bar-end mounted components, and the Nitto model that does, was at least a couple inches wider. I really like the Dove because it’s nice and narrow – I’ve heard it was built for the Japanese market to navigate narrow streets and sidewalks?  After looking around a bit, I came back to a Velo-Orange model, called the Porteur (of course!). Initially, I was worried that the bars would be too chrome-shiny from their picture, but I was going to wrap them completely with cork tape anyway, so it didn’t really matter. After receiving them, the finish really surprised me. Clean, satin-polished finish – not quite as muted as the Nittos, but still very nice.

I went with cork tape instead of cloth tape to get a little more cushion, and I’ve had shellacked cork grip before and really liked it. This process could be easily done with cloth tape too. In fact, there’s some great coverage of this at Lovely Bicycle. More good cork info too from Rivendell. Both of those sites are great reads. If you want an excellent tutorial on wrapping handlebars, the Park Tools site is very good, although I had to wrap my bars from top-down instead, so the cables could sneak out successfully.

To begin the install, I mounted the new handlebars and components to get the general feel and fit. Then figure out cable lengths and tape them into place with electrical tape. (You can wrap right over the elec tape.) Make sure your brake and shifter lines have ample curve to smoothly operate. I left cables un-attached at this stage, so I could more easily apply the wrap around things. To start with the wrap, I cut an angled piece to go along the stem, and started wrapping from the top-down. Be careful, and go slow. Wrapping bars is kinda tricky, ESPECIALLY if you’re gonna get weird if they aren’t perfect… like I do. One thing you don’t have to get perfect is the ends, because you can cleanly wrap them with some cotton twine and shellac over the whole thing. If you tuck your cork into the bar-end, you’ll make it lumpy, and it wouldn’t have even fit with my components. Cleanest, most classic way is to use twine. Rivendell has some good links for this as well.  My secret with the twine is instead of tying, I use a little super-glue and trim it to the glue and it’s perfect. Once you shellac, it’s all completely sealed up.

Final step is the shellac. I bought a small can of amber and a cheap brush from the hardware store. Applying shellac is easy enough, but know that it will soak into the grip material and be somewhat un-even for the first coat. Still probably un-even for the second coat. I applied two coats to start, and a third coat the next day. (note in the pics, I did this inside where it was warm. Don’t paint or shellac when it’s snowing out.) Each coat will darken it a little more, and by the third coat, it will have a beautiful, deep, leather-looking finish. If your shellac cracks, you can smooth it out with a little denatured alcohol, and apply a new coat when it is dry.

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ReadyMade Project Feature

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To my surprise, I received an advance copy of the upcoming ReadyMade magazine yesterday – sent to me because I have a project in the Dec/Jan issue! I’ve been waiting to spill the beans since I was asked to contribute a couple months ago, and it’s finally, nearly released. Some of you might have seen me post the process in my flickr a while back, but I’ll post a few new pics here too.

There’s a funny story about all of this. I submitted the idea to them a few months before, and I received a polite rejection email. It stated that “if selected for a future issue, someone will contact you.” It was worded kindly and very professionally, but even so – I still took it as ‘Grade A’ reject status. After that, I was still convinced that it was a neat idea, and figured surely someone might like it too, right? So, with that, I hatched the idea for this blog (to teach my rejector a lesson? Surely not…). While working on it and creating posts for launch, ReadyMade wrote me back and asked me to be in the NEXT issue! In the end, what I deemed as rejection, motivated me to just get out and make something on my own. Another cheesy ‘after-school-special’ comes true! Heh.

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Store Launch

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Today, I’m rolling out the store component, and I’m super excited about it. I’ve been so grateful for all the new readership and encouragement on the blog, and I hope you find some interest in the store as well. I’ll be experimenting with products and stock amounts, so please let me know any feedback you might have.

I’d like to showcase an item in this post, and it’s one that I’m really proud to carry. I’ve used a similar bag for a while now, but it wasn’t the greatest quality and I was looking for a tougher, better-made version for a while and wasn’t finding what I wanted. Enter Heritage Leather Co. I think I found these guys via svpply.com, and was immediately impressed with the look. After reading up on them, I was even more excited. Their bags are made in America, and are of excellent quality. Good leathers, strong canvas, solid hardware. After talking with them, I decided to order a small quantity; one spec’ed simply and one with a little more refinement. In the shop, you’ll see I have one with nicer leather and an included strap.

For this feature, let’s look at the standard model. It’s made with heavy ‘moccasin’ leather bottom, heavy cotton canvas body, and top-grain leather handle and straps. Super sturdy and ready for your pile of tools, outdoor gear, camping supplies… anything. I’ll be offering two sizes: 20inch is roomy for lots of gear and a 16inch that is great for fewer tools, but still a generous size. The 16in could even make a good briefcase or laptop carrier.

P.S. So thankful to the amazing Lisa Warninger for the photos!

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Mighty Clouds Record Review

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It seems rare these days that I find an album where I love every single song. Even some of my favorite records contain at least one that isn’t my taste. For the past five days, I’ve been listening to a new self-titled album by Mighty Clouds and I think I love every song. I’ve even gotten to the point of worrying that I burnt myself out, but I keep listening – and I’m now growing even more fond of it.

Mighty Clouds is a new project led by Fred Thomas and Betty Marie Barnes, who’ve previously recorded together as the band, Saturday Looks Good To Me. That band’s album, “All Your Summer Songs” was an endearing record, reminiscent of vintage pop and multi-instrument bliss. It was a warm, familiar sound, though to me, kept trying to be too many things. Each song seemed to take it’s own path, whereas on “Mighty Clouds”, there seem to be one, unified plan. I’m not saying “All Your Summer Songs” is bad, because it’s excellent… just different. In my current listening pattern, “Mighty Clouds” is the winner.

This album has a well-crafted build to it. Fred Thomas is a crazy-busy artist and he’s obviously put in the allotted ten-thousand-genius-hours a long time ago. The song “Past Lives” starts out with Betty’s amazing vocals and some sparse acoustic guitar, but soon rolls into a comfortably lush sound. There’s so many instruments building into the album, but it never feels crowded. Each song seems to build on the previous, making it so cohesive – you could never buy just a single song. I feel bad even having it shuffled. So many good elements to this project, the vocals are playful yet gripping, guitars perfectly jangly, bells, horns, percussion… but my favorite might be the bass guitar. Once you get to “Spell It Out”, the bass drives the song, and every other element accompanies perfectly. On “Stay Single”, it sneaks up on you ferociously and with so much fuzz, you’ll go crazy. (“Stay Single” is a free download from Polyvinyl too!)

A side note to the fuzz: This sound was first made popular with a country record – a 1960 hit by Marty Robbins, “Don’t Worry”. It was due to faulty electronics, though the sound engineer, Glen Snoddy, decided it must stay in the record. Kubton.com has a great history of fuzz, and to hear the recording – check this video. The magic begins about 1:37.

I really feel this is going to be one of this years’ darlings, so seek it out… listen to some samples… and I know you’re gonna want it. I got my copy via Polyvinyl, where they are offering the 180 gram cloudy vinyl with an instant download. If you’re a digital kid, the band is offering the album with audiophile quality tracks at their site for super bargain of $5.00!

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Store Preview of Paumes Books

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I received an exciting package today, and am too excited not to share. Though, there’s a little lead-up first. As some of you might have noticed, there’s a shop tab at the top that isn’t active yet. To help offset costs of hosting and development (and neglecting my clients when I’m writing), I thought I could offer some interestingly curated products that I really love and hopefully you might too. I don’t intend for the store to get very big, and this is all a trial-and-error type of component for me, so as I roll items out, please let me know what might be working and what doesn’t. Your thoughts mean a lot.

SO, with that windiness out of the way… I received some PAUMES BOOKS! A few months ago, I discovered these in a post from the delightful Victoria Smith, and bought a couple for myself. Though I couldn’t find them in the US (I think one came from the Netherlands and the other from Japan), they were fantastic and so worth it. Apart from me wanting more for myself, I though I could be a good source if any of my US readers wanted a home-country shipper. I’ll only be carrying a few titles, and small quantities to start – so again, let me know what you think and what you might want to read.

I’m thinking the store should be up by next week, so hopefully you check back!

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Pickled Brussels Sprouts

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You’ll need some tools:
  • half-pint mason jars and lids
  • large pot for boiling jars
  • two medium sauce pans
  • bowl of icewater
  • jar tongs
You’ll need a few ingredients:
  • About 4 cups tiny, baby Brussels sprouts
  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 teaspoons course salt
  • a few pinches of peppercorns
  • 1/2 garlic clove for each jar

I wasn’t intending for my next article to be about Brussels sprouts. Sure, I think they are great, but really, my recipe is super easy and not blog-worthy. Though, upon mentioning that I was harvesting some from my garden, Anna requested I blog about them. Not sure if she was being serious, or just trying to keep me motivated… but here it is.

I planted about eight stalks of Brussels spouts many months ago, and I finally took a harvest today. Boiled some up, had them for lunch and they were great. After realizing I could make an article of this subject, I figured I should try a little harder. Cooking them is easy… but in the rare case you don’t want your home to smell like farts, how else can you prepare these little cabbages?

Pickled baby Brussels sprouts! I’ve been wanting to pickle some things for a while now. That was actually the major motivation in tending my garden, but the season was late and short, and I only grew a couple tiny cucumbers and a handful of peppers. The one thing that blew up was the sprouts… and I have lots of young ones that aren’t going to grow before it gets cold, so let’s pickle’em. You can snack on them, garnish your Bloody Mary, maybe your Dirty Martini?

First thing is to clean and prep things. Peel off the sprouts’ loose leaves and cut off the stems (Half or quarter them if you’re using full-sized sprouts). Clean your garlic and rinse your dill.

I had three pots on the stove – a large pot to sterilize and boil my jars, a medium one to create the brine, and a smaller one to blanch the sprouts. Boil your jars for about 15 minutes – which can be stared while you are prepping things. It helps tremendously to have proper jar tongs, because they will be slippery and very hot.

In the medium pot, add your vinegar, water and salt, and bring to a boil. In the other third pot, boil some water and blanch your sprouts, for only about 2 minutes, then pull them out and submerge them in some icy water to cool.

Once your jars are ready, add the seasonings, your sprouts, then using a funnel – pour your brine to about a half inch from the top. Carefully (because the jars will be HOT), screw on the lids tightly and then re-submerge in the large boiling pot of water. Boiling will allow the lid will seal, giving you that popping sound when you re-open later. Boil for about ten minutes, then cool and store in a dark place. Sprouts will be ready in about fourteen days!

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Wooden Crate Headboard

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You’ll need some tools:
  • Hand saw or electric saw
  • Drill with phillips bit
  • Sandpaper and sanding block
  • Orbital electric sander with 60 grit paper
  • Rags for stain
  • Brush for poly
You’ll need a few materials:
  • 4 qty 8ft long 2x4s
  • 8 qty 8ft x 5.5in x .5in cedar fence planks
  • 3in drywall screws
  • 1.25in finish nails
  • water based stain
  • water based polyurethane

Bedrooms in my house are very, very small. A queen-sized bed fits – but without much room on either side for nightstands or storage. I had a small nightstand, but after piling a large alarm clock and lamp and anything else on it and it looked ridiculous. After pouring over ideas, I thought about making a built-in solution. Now I have a huge shelf to stack my junk, extra books, lamps, blankets, trinkets, whatever! Also, figured if I was building it, why not give it some doors and use it for extra blanket/pillow/sleeping bag storage? This works great for me, and maybe it would for you too.

Plans are based on my build, but you can surely adapt them for any configuration. For facing boards, I used cedar fence planks, mainly because they are readily available and inexpensive. I would have loved to have built this with some reclaimed Fir, but I was impatient and started building and couldn’t find what I wanted to finish the job over the weekend. If you want antique wood, search some out before beginning your project – however here’s my plan based on 8ft x 5.5in x .5in cedar planks.

First step: Measure your space and sketch it out. I always recommend a sketch for built-in projects. If you plan this part correctly you’ll limit the amount of lumber you use and have less cuts to make. As I built, my plan kind-of adapted, and I had more cuts to make, but I’ll give you hints to avoid this. Things to remember: 2x4s are actually 1.5 x 3.5 inches – so note actual lumber size when formulating.

Build the facing frame: If you have uneven walls like mine, measure and cut your floor-length board first. Measure and cut your verticals, and make sure they are close enough together for decent support – no further than 18″ apart. I cut five verticals, 24.5″ each. Lay your verticals on the floor, then screw your floor-facing board to them with your screws. Once assembled, set your frame in place, and measure and cut your top board. Because my walls bow, it was important to cut this board to it’s location height. If you have plumb walls, you can completely built out the frame and set in place. Before screwing the ends of the top boards, level your frame and screw the end boards into the wall. Make sure you’re anchoring to a stud, because this is your main support/anchor points. I chose to not screw the frame into my floors, and the wall mounts were secure enough to accomplish this. After your facing fame is in place, I attached 2x4s to the back wall as supports for my top doors. Make these even height with your top frame board. I left space between boards to feed electrical cords behind the doors easily. Then for added strength, I attached the facing frame to the back wall with a 2×4. This board also helps support the door tops, which will rest on the facing frame top and the back wall boards.

Facing boards: Now your frame is complete and secure, you can begin the facing. My cedar fence boards are VERY rough, so I sanded the harsh surface with an orbital sander and heavy grit paper. This left them still rough in a rustic way, but not splintery. After sanding, sweep off the sawdust. Between the boards and the frame, I attached heavy plastic, so when I stored things inside, they wouldn’t catch on the board surface. This is just an option if you use rough boards and don’t want to snag anything that might rest against them. Then nail your boards over the plastic covered front frame. I used small finish nails that would be easily hidden. Make sure your boards are level and then nail them in place. If you’ve measured correctly, your top facing board should come above your frame top by 1″ so your doors will be counter sunk. (I did not make this important calculation before-hand, so I had to attach a cut trim piece to take up the gap.)

Top doors: Once your facing boards are in place, you can measure you top door depth. Again, my walls are un-even, so each one is different and cut accordingly. Don’t make them too snug either, mine each have a small gap at the back, so I can easily feed my lamp/clock electrical cords though. The top boards are just made with the fence planks, two support boards each, glued and attached with small screws. For handles, I drilled holes and used scrap leather strips, fed through and knotted. You could use drawer handles, rope, large finger holes, whatever you like.

Finishing: You can finish your facing boards and doors before attaching, but I finished in place. I used water based stain to darken the boards, let dry and then coated with water-based poly. I used water based products since I’ll be sleeping in here, and the fumes are way less noxious. Because the boards are very coarse, I used three coats of poly with a vigorous hand sanding in between. It was more about building up a thick finish to prevent splinters than creating a smooth topcoat for me. After a day or two drying, I could place move everything back in place.

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Clark’s Wallabees Review

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So, from time to time, I think I’ll throw in a review here and there. These are not sponsored, and completely unpaid. I’ll only talk about products/items I fully like, and they must be relevant to the Wood&Faulk theme. With that said, let’s talk about my new pair of Wallabees.

The current trend of throw-back, mocassin-style, established-company, old-world-thing has brought many classic styles back into popularity, and I’m sure for Clark’s – they are thankful. Even though being in business since 1825 isn’t a really trend, it sure fits what is currently trendy, right? I love the classics… but am I just caught in the current trend? Do I act all pompous and wax poetic about classics and tradition and such bullshit? I like to think I’m a classic fellow, but will I be wearing some TRON-looking outfit in two years? Anyway, I’m way off on a tangent. Let’s just talk about the shoes.

First impressions are great. Clark’s has great attention to detail with the clean box, the fringed tag on the shoes, the little book with their story included. The shoes are simple enough, but well crafted. Not in a “Yuketen well-crafted” way, mind you – but for a factory-made shoe, they are quite well done. I ordered taupe, which turns out is a distressed colorway, and they had just the right amount of distress as to not look all shiny-poindexter. Some clothing distressing tries too hard, and I’m not really a fan of that when it’s faked. Or poorly faked at least. These passed the test.

Upon wearing around the house, I had to get used to the stacked gum-eraser sole, but they were certainly comfortable. Like walking on over-inflated tires. I was a little concerned about wobbling off the gummy edge, but after a little while I didn’t notice it. The suede is very supple and the insole is quite comfortable; although without tons of support. Laces are cloth, and being the same color, don’t detract from the leather in any way. Worrying about suede in a Portland climate, I sprayed them with protector after a couple wears, which thankfully didn’t affect the color at all, and surely helped keep them looking great after a couple rainy days. I’ve had them for a few weeks now and have been wearing them quite often. I really love the style with jeans, and being so comfortable – they might just be your new favorite.

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