Wooden Time Machine

I don’t know how to start this introduction, but the punchline is: If you don’t want to go broke buying picture frames made from reclaimed wood that is probably just chemically treated  new lumber, then spend between $10 and $20 and a couple hours making your own. I did and this is how I did it.

Very recently, I found that I needed a frame for an oddly sized poster. The image on the poster is an 1852 map of San Francisco. Since I’m not a fan of highly ornate antique styles (which I guess might have been appropriate for a wall-hanging object from the 1850’s), a rustic-styled frame was the clear choice since it would make the poster and frame seem like a “found” object. I looked into buying one, but the closest thing I could find to what I imagined were picture frames that looked like they were made from reclaimed wood, but they were so prohibitively expensive they would have cost several times as much as the poster. Since I’ve made a thing or two out of lumber, I knew I could make a frame. The trouble was, how would I get the lumber to look like I wanted? Thanks to the infinitely available information on the internet, I was able to easily find more than a dozen websites describing the process for “distressed” wood finishes and quite a few for “reclaimed wood” finishes. If you’re planning on doing a similar project, you should spend some time looking at the different ways that other people have done similar processes.

The website I used for reference described how to give boards an artificially aged look using three steps: paint the wood, roughly sand a majority of the paint away, then stain the exposed wood to make it look weathered. With this in mind, I bought a sample jar of paint in a light blue color that I chose to be close to the colors in the room. The sample jars of paint only came in flat which is fine because it doesn’t look shiny and new, but the paint will take the stain a little. I also chose a darker stain because I figured it would give the best contrast between the aged and worn and the ‘old’ paint. The stain I used is Minwax’s Jacobean which ended up being a little darker than I was expecting. Your mileage may vary, but I needed a little less than 16 feet of 1 x 2 lumber for my frame design. I chose a material at Home Depot called Trim board primarily because it’s not particularly expensive (20ft cost me ~$7) and also because a couple of the sides are pretty roughly cut. It’s so rough in fact, you’re likely to get a splinter just from looking at it. The roughness works to my advantage over a smoothly cut board because the paint will settle in the low points of the wood, making it easier to leave behind paint remnants when I sand in the second step. After the finish is complete, I’ll need nails and wood glue to hold the whole thing together. One trick I learned the hard way was if you’re going to use wood glue to hold parts together, do the surface finish first, assembly second. The glue chokes the wood grain which prevents the stain from taking hold and the finish will look like salt water dried on the glue joint.

Very Rough Lumber Sanded much smoother
Rough Lumber from the Hardware Store Much more suitable after some sanding

Even with a simple project like this, its best to work from a drawing or a sketch so you don’t get confused and cut the wrong board, so the very first thing I did before I put saw to wood was spend a little time making a post-it sketch. After cutting the boards to length, I spent some more time preparing the wood for the next steps. The little details that go into a project are surprisingly important to giving the finished product a believable appearance. For example, sharp edges and splinters make the boards look new, but breaking the edges and removing the splinters with rough grit sandpaper automatically makes them look older and more worn. As an added bonus, the splinters would have clogged my paint brush if they had stayed, so they must go. I know it must seem like a contradiction that I bought rough wood only to sand it, but I didn’t sand it completely smooth and if you saw how rough this wood is, you would understand completely. Even though I had more than enough paint 100% of the lumber many times over, I didn’t want to waste it (or my time), so I carefully picked which faces of the wood would be showing once the frame was assembled so I knew where the paint needed to go.


Full Paint Coverage Not Required

The next step is really easy: slop some paint on the boards and let them dry overnight. The next day, after the paint has completely dried, I used my orbital sander with fine grit sandpaper (the medium and coarse just take the paint away too fast) to work the paint and wood down until there were just remnants in the grain. If you take on a similar project, be careful to sand safely, but don’t be too careful in sanding uniformly because sloppiness will look like age and wear. I made sure to wipe, brush, and blow away the dust before I began staining to keep from cross-contaminating the stain in the can, but also I wanted the frame to look old, not dirty. There’s also one trick I remembered after I was done that I wish I had used here. Instead of just jumping straight into staining this very dry wood which soaks the stain up like a sponge: Spray some water over the boards and let it soak in, then wipe them off before getting started. The water will hinder the stain from setting in too quickly, making it easier to make the grain pop out like aged wood does without turning it all even and dark. I applied the stain, then immediately wiped it off. Because I didn’t do my trick with the water, it ended up a lot darker than I wanted, but the look grew on me. I found that the flat paint I used seemed to soak up some of the stain, but it makes even the paint look a little older, so maybe that’s a good thing, but it’s something to consider when picking your paint color. I let the stain dry out some before I started gluing parts together.

Paint mostly sanded

Painted and Sanded. Ready for Stain.

When I was ready to assemble, it went together in minutes. Just glue, and nail. Glue and nail. I used a sturdy, level table top to make sure the frame was flush as I assembled and a pneumatic brad nailer to fasten the pieces together. When the glue had dried, I attached a couple rings to the back to hang it on the wall and mounted the poster to the front with upholstery tacks that looked like hammered brass. The tacks fit the rustic look I was going for.  Then the most important step: hang and enjoy!

Picture Frame

Finished ‘Reclaimed Wood’ Picture Frame

That was my project day, how was yours?

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Build a Virtual Anything with Cardboard

What do you get when you combine two parts velcro, two parts magnet, two parts glass, and fold them into a little bit of cardboard? According to Google, that’s how you get a glimpse of the future… and the view is GREAT!

In June of 2014 at the Google I/O event, a team of three developers presented a simple DIY device that could transform your smartphone into a virtual reality headset which they simply called Cardboard. The presentation they gave (shown in the video below) demonstrates them using the cardboard hardware with a software development kit to build an app. The reality is, it takes a lot more than leftover shipping material to make your own Cardboard headset. The hardest part to source is the two biconvex lenses you’ll need to reduce eye strain. With the event long over and these lenses in high demand, you can find many versions of Cardboard as kits and they save you just enough headache to make it worth the extra cost. I got mine from DODOcase. The design is basically the same with perhaps a little less cardboard (the material) involved.

Google I/O 2014 – Cardboard: VR for Android

So, how did Google take a simple building material to make such an impressive device? I thought I’d never ask… The basic technology at work here is stereoscopic photography which is an optical trick that’s been around since before penny arcades. I remember being mesmerized by the picturesque landscapes of my View Master, which did basically the same thing. What happens is each eye is presented with one of a pair of pictures which are taken at roughly the same distance apart as your eyes. When you do that, your brain stitches the images together just like you were looking at it in person and PRESTO! you’re overlooking Niagara Falls from the comfort of your living room. Google then took that and added the accelerometer and gyro in your smartphone to allow you to move around within these virtual, stereoscopic pictures making them more immersive. They also use a magnetic field interacting with the hall effect sensor in the phone to give the ability to interact with the virtual space.


The DODOcase Cardboard VR Toolkit Assembled

There are lots of technologies that have been developed in the pursuit of letting people see in three dimensions. The one people my age can remember from childhood are the red / blue tinted 3D glasses. These work by taking one image that you can focus on and splitting the color information between each eye. A similar technique is used in 3D films where polarization is used to split an image instead of color. Active Shutter 3D glasses also split a single image into information for each eye by rapidly alternating blacking out light from each eye at the same rate that the image on the screen changes. The Cardboard technique is a little older and doesn’t bother trying to overlay one image on another. On the plus side, you can get really good 3D imaging results without much technology to figure out (which means lower cost, etc). On the negative side, however, this technique can lead to eye strain because not every pair of eyes is the same distance apart. To illustrate, lets say that your eyes are 1cm closer together than the average pair of eyes that Cardboard was designed for. Then lets say that the simulated image is a ball floating in air straight ahead of you, so the simulated image for an average person would have the image of the object just slightly off center toward your nose so that both eyes settle on the image and your line of sight is where the object would be if it were actually there. To your slightly narrow-set eyes, the image would appear closer to right in front of your eyes, making the object seem further away and distorts the 3D effect. Don’t misunderstand, eye strain of this sort plagues every 3D viewing technique, but it can be more pronounced when the actual image is closer to your face.


The Business-End of Cardboard

The head-tracking feature is a pretty exciting one, too. It works on the principle that in any cartesian coordinate system, movement can be described by 3 dimensions of translation and 3 dimensions of rotation. I’m guessing that the apps on the phone will not account for translation. I came to this conclusion from experience and also by imagining idiots like me holding the VR headset up to their faces while tripping over furniture. Using the information from the accelerometer to tell the phone which direction is down and the angular rate from the gyro (that’s how fast it’s turning), the phone can calculate about which direction you’re facing. There are apps that do this very well with very sophisticated integration and error correction algorithms and there are others that don’t do this well at all. One app that comes to mind will track your head if you move, but once you stop moving, the image slowly drifts back to dead center again. It’s possible that this was done deliberately to keep the viewer’s eyes up front, but I can only guess.

Obviously, I think this technology and implementation are awesome and I’d like to see more happen with it. Some things in particular are more stereoscopic videos on youtube and for NASA to convert it’s library of stereoscopic images from Mars to work on Cardboard. Perhaps the technology could even be extended to augmented reality.

That was my project day, how was yours?

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