Monday, July 07, 2008

A Petch House Miracle!

On January 25th, 2005 I walked in to The Blue Ox Mill carrying an 1895 head block that I needed to get reproduced. As I said yesterday, sheetrockers had destroyed many, and I needed others for new construction on the first floor of my house. I had a sinking feeling in my gut that day that they were not going to be able to do it. A few days earlier I had taken that very same head block in to Tim at Mad River Millworks and was told he probably couldn’t reproduce it exactly like it was.

The head block is elegant, and seems simple enough, but it is surprisingly complex to make. When I took it in to Mad River Millworks Tim looked at and turned it over several times. He’s not a real talkative guy so I stood there silently while he looked at it. He went back in to his office and pulled out a few books. He got on the phone and called a supplier of router bits, I assume. He made a trip out to the shop and rummaged around while I stood there quietly. After about 15 minutes he came back to me and suggested maybe it was made of several parts. He pulled out his pocket knife and scrapped away the paint on one side. Nope, it was all one piece. He finally said he wasn’t sure if he could make it. If he did, it would need to be made in 3 parts and then glued together. I left very disappointed.

So then on January 25th I took it to Eric at The Blue Ox and asked him about reproducing it. Eric is also not very talkative. Maybe it’s a woodworking thing. Eric looked at it from all angles and finally said, “How the heck did they do that?”. My heart sank. Eric muttered a few more things under his breath while I stood there quietly. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any more and I asked, “Well, can you make it!?!”. Eric looks at me and says, “If they made it 100 years ago, I can make it now”. He said he would need to study it and he would get back to me. I left the head block with him hoping for the best.

A few days later I got a message from Eric, or maybe it was his wife, Vivianna, saying they could make the head blocks. I needed to come back in so they could write up the order and I would need to leave a deposit. I’m sure I was in my car before the message finished playing. As I said, Eric is quite and usually looks like he is at the end of a long day no matter what time it is. When I walked in to the office he comes up to me with the head block and he’s very animated. He goes on and on about how complex the head block is to make. I think he said it takes 17 different steps to produce one head block. At this point, the important thing to me is that he can do it, and he did. A few weeks later I had a box full of new head blocks.

I know all of this happened on January 25th, 2005 because they wrote my name, the date, and the order number on the back of that head block I took in. As I wrote yesterday, now three and a half years later, I need 4 more of those head blocks. Three and a half years ago when I counted how many I needed I didn’t anticipate all of the changes that would happen in the house. So today I took that same head block back in to Blue Ox to get 4 more made.

In 2005, when I got the others reproduced Eric told me he documented – with photos – all of the steps it takes to make one head block. I felt confident I would get my head blocks, it was just a question of when I would get them and how much it would cost.

So I walk in to Blue Ox on my lunch break today with that same head block. Eric and the book keeper are the only 2 in the office. Eric is rummaging around for something. I hold up the head block and say, “Remember these? Would you believe, I need 4 more?”. Eric mumbles something to me – at least I think it was to me, and heads out to the shop.

A lot of time goes by while I stand there at the counter by myself. I pass the time trying to get Tanks attention. Tank is a cat that in the past has been very friendly to me. She is sitting on the floor of the office, not quite in the middle of the room, but not really off to one side either. It is enough to be in the way, for sure. She is not lying down, but just sitting there with her back to me. I whistle to Tank and try and get her attention. She turns and looks and is not interested. After a few attempts, she doesn’t even bother to look anymore. The bookkeeper tells me Tank is mad about something but no one knows what. I don’t give up, because I’ve got nothing better to do, but Tank wants nothing to do with me.

After about 5 or 6 minutes of standing there by myself my internal clock starts to wind down. I'm about ready to go out in to the shop and hunt Eric down. Obviously he had something on his mind but I’m on my lunch break here. Just then Eric comes back out of the shop with 6 head blocks just like the one I’m holding. In fact, they are my head blocks! They are covered in saw dust and they’ve been sitting in the shop since January of 2005! As it turns out, when he made the 40 or 50 head blocks for me three and a half years ago, he made 6 extra ones. It was as if they had the damn things in stock and all I had to do was go in and pick them up.

So now I’ve got my head blocks and the butler’s pantry is trimmed out. The bookkeeper hunted for the old order to find out what they charged me back then, but couldn't find it. They switched to a new system a few years ago, so the order number of the back of the one I brought in was useless. Finally Eric just says to charge me $25 each for them. That is exactly what I speculated I paid for them in yesterday's post. I could look that up if I really wanted to because I know exactly where the receipt is. I put it in the wall that I rebuilt between the kitchen and dining room where they installed a Murphy Bead in 1926. I could look it up, but I would need to demolish the wall to do it.


capdiamont said...

Ok, dumb question time. Couldn't you just use some sort of Computer aided woodworking tool? True you would have to make a computer drawing 1st.

HPH said...


Greg said...

That's a good point. Honestly, I don't think that tool could do it. That is a hobby level tool.

If someone would take the time to make a computerized wire-frame model of the block it could probably be fed in to a CNC (computer numerical control) router and reproduced, with the right router bits.

The only problem there is finding someone to make the 3D model. That can't be cheap and probably not cost effective for such a limited run. I would also need to find a mill that has the right bits for their CNC router. Custom bits would sky-rocket the cost. The two mills I work with are old-time woodworking shops and specialize in custom reproduction work of this nature. They don't have full-time CAD developers on staff. And they don't have CNC routers.

StuccoHouse said...

I love it when stuff like that happens. Kudos to that guy for having the forsight to make some extras.

You know when you have someone that gets excited about trying to figure out how something difficult is done, you've found a true crafstman (or woman).

Greg said...

I'm not sure if that was foresight on their part or just a screw up. Either way it worked out great. It wouldn't surprise me if I'm not the first to do this and they just learned it is easier to make more when you have everything set up.

Oliver's Bungalow said...

Greg, you did take all 6 home with you, didn't you? You never know when you'll need 2 more.

Eureka Observer said...

Every time I get annoyed with Eric he manages to do something like this. Quite an amazing guy, and we are lucky to have him here in Eureka. Not only did he make your head blocks, but I would not be surprised he used the same tools they used 100 years ago.

Sandy said...


Greg said...


Would you believe I didn't. I only took 4 and it was bugging all night last night. I should have taken all 6. They're not going any place so I can always go back.


You may be right. They do have a lot of modern tools, though. I do know that Eric didn't make all of these himself. He figured it out and got the steps down, and then handed off the work to someone else.

Jennifer said...

Wow! Good luck!

On the computer aided carving... myfather in law does stone carving and such... the machines to do this in stone run $100,000 and have to be individually programed foreverything. They are really only used for mass production of stock things, therefor. He doesn't have one... he does the custom stuff they can't doo. I bet the same is true for wood.