This is a tale in three parts. It starts with a tree, has an interlude with bacon and smoked chile and ends with Christmas present woodworking. I’m sure it will all come together. Let us start with the tree.
There’s a 40’ mesquite tree in the front yard. It’s a nice tree, but is unfortunately heavily compromised by a desert mistletoe infestation. I’ve tried to keep up with it, pruning back branches, removing clusters; but this is not a nice tree. It is peppered with 2 inch surgical needles. Every time I try to clean it up, I lose ½ of my total blood volume. So over the years, I’ve neglected the upkeep and the infestation worsened. It was not long for this world.
So over the course of a many weekends, each with the requisite blood sacrifice, across a couple of months, the behemoth is slowly dismantled – I’ll spare the details; I didn’t take any pictures during the demolition, this is really a job for a montage. In the end, it was reduced to a stump, a couple of large trunk sections, and the firewood in the background – the firewood will make another appearance in the bacon and chile section of our presentation.
Oh, and several relatively straight limbs that could, with the help of a chainsaw mill, be converted into boards for an aspiring woodworker; said planks will make an appearance in our Christmas present woodworking section. Note, when picking up the limbs and trunk sections to cut the planks, be careful where you grab. Interrupted this little fella’s dinner when retrieving straight logs from my pile for processing.
Now to the smoking. In the culinary sense, you degenerates. Every couple of months, I make bacon. Not as in cook up some bacon on the stove (that happens significantly more frequently), but turn a couple of pork bellies into something resembling bacon. The essential process is to acquire 1 or 2 slabs of pork belly, brine or dry rub for a week or so and then smoke for somewhere around 12 hours. I don’t use any cure, just salt and spice, so it’s not the normal sort of thing you think about when when you think bacon. It’s smoked pork belly.
While sometimes I’ll buy some pecan or apple chunks, in the vast majority of cases, I’ve not planned ahead and end up using mesquite chunks from one of the several mesquites in the yard. With the aforementioned demise of the large mesquite, for the last several sessions, I’ve exclusively used the mesquite harvested from that adventure.
Now the homemade “bacon” thing has been going on for several years; somewhere along the way, I realized, “hey, I like chiles, why not make some chipotles while I’m at it?” So now with every bacon session, I usually throw 20-30 jalapenos on the smoker and after smoking set them out on the window sill to fully dry and then grind them up – and presto! homemade chipotle powder.
Over the course of several sessions, I added poblanos (ancho powder) and a random selection of New Mexico, anaheim, etc and made chile powder. Basically, whatever chiles looked good at the store the day before the smoking session. Maybe one day I’ll grow my own chiles and can then have a completely homegrown product, but I seem to have misplaced my green thumb somewhere along the way.
Since I like all sorts of chiles even those that might not be amenable to the smoking treatment, I’ll often add a bunch of habaneros or thai chiles to the window sill drying session. Here are some pictures of the latest chile roundup that inspired this post. Thai, Habanero, chipotle and ancho and the final powders. I only hope that the mask is better at stopping virus particles than chile powder or we’re all being forced to live a lie. I assure you it doesn’t stop one from getting a snootful of habanero powder up your nose.
Now, at this point, you may be wondering, what the hell does this all have to do with woodworking and Christmas? Well, it goes like this. I mentioned in passing to an acquaintance that I made chipotle powder and they were of the opinion that this was ‘neat’ and I volunteered that I’d bring some next time I saw them, never intending to follow through. However, now Christmas time was approaching and I’m in my usual quandary brought on by lack of imagination. What to get people for Christmas?
Well the less-Putrid member of Chez Putrid suggested spice mixes. Well that sounds good – easy, minimal investment of time, inexpensive… Perfect! But then it occurs to me that it’s kind of weird to just get a plastic jar of spice. Well, less-Putrid has another suggestion – why not make a spice rack and give a sample of spices in a home made spice rack? As is the norm, she comes up with ideas and the only thing I have to figure out is the implementation and execution.
But it is a great idea – chiles smoked with mesquite from the Putrid Estate, dried in the beating sun filtering through the dusty windows of the Estate, and presented in spice racks built from wood recovered from the Estate grounds? Modulo the lack of a green thumb, that’s kind of a neat home grown story. Plus I only have three friends, so I only have to make three samplers. Well, two friends really and an annoying brother. Thus begins the final, Christmas woodworking portion of the presentation.
The first task was to design the racks and build a crude mock up out of plywood to make sure it will work. Figured I would include 4 spice bottles, so ordered an 18 pack of 2 oz glass jars. Jars in hand, I have the dimensions, so can lay out the design and build the “template”. Seems to work – but I sure hope the final product looks better!
Next step is to pick the best boards out of my stock of processed mesquite limbs. At this point, the chainsaw mill has been used, with very little expertise, to generate moderately flat boards with lots of rough imperfections. So these will need to be planned and squared off. Normally, you’d run these through a jointer to flatten one side and edge to have a good reference to square up the board. However, I want to keep rough, rustic edges. And I don’t have a jointer.
I do have a planer. Now conventional wisdom is that the rollers on the planer will flatten the board temporarily while it cuts the stock and leave you with a cupped board, while a jointer has a hard flat surface. I haven’t had that experience; a planer can, if inefficiently, flatten a board. I help it along by building a stiff plywood base to run through with the board. So anyway, I flattened the boards with the planer.
Next they need to be squared off – which is no simple task with no straight reference edge. So I roughly drew a straight line following the grain and referenced edges perpendicular to that line and trimmed with the chop saw.
From here, we extract 3 tops, 3 bottoms and the corresponding sides. Since the edges are staying ‘rustic’, the sides and tops and bottoms don’t really line up, so need to pull out the scroll saw and rough cut the edges to line up and blend with the tops and bottoms. The joints will be cleaned up later with sanding. For the joinery, I decided on half lap glue joints re-enforced with very small brad nails. Don’t like mechanical fasteners, but I don’t have time (or skill) to do good dovetails. The nail marks can be filled pretty well with a mixture of wood glue and sawdust.
Now we take a 2 inch Forstner bit to cut the 4 holes in the tops where the spice containers will eventually fit. Prior to glue up, I went through a series of sanding rounds, up to 800 grit. Smooth as a babies bottom. Not that I’ve ever felt a babies bottom. But alone, in the dark, when I imagine what a babies bottom feels like, this is it.
After the sanding, glued them up and tacked with the brad nailer. Once everything sets up, there’s a new round of sanding – to blend the sides into the tops and bottoms – that required a fairly aggressive grit at 150. Once everything is blended as best I can, went back through with a series up to 800 again with the random orbit sander followed by a final pass by hand with a 1600 grit. The final passes need to be by hand since the inside parts can’t be reached with the tool. We are now ready for the finish.
For the finish, I elected to go with two coats of ‘natural’ stain – doesn’t change the color, just darkens and accentuates the grain. Often times on wood with a beautiful grain structure like this, I’ll just go straight to the finish coat, but decided to try and make the grain pop a bit more. For the finish coat, 3 layers of polyurethane with a light sand with 1600 between each coat.
Fill up each spice container, label, insert into finished rack and vio-la, all done. Now to pack them up in a manner that will ensure they survive UPS – or at least minimize the chances for damage.