Mar 26 2018

Redwood Planter Boxes, the Sequel

By Max

We had a lot of pots taking up floor space on the deck in the new place, so I built these redwood planter boxes for our herb garden.  I’ve gotten much faster and more accurate with woodworking generally and dovetails especially then the last time I made one of these.  I’m now cutting out waste with a coping saw instead of chopping it out with a chisel, which is about 3x faster.   I’m also smarter about things like not trying to get the crummy construction-grade lumber I’m working with perfectly straight and true, and for these I used plastic inserts to hold the soil which greatly simplified the design and will be more durable I think.

I finished it with a couple coats of very thin shellac to try and get the shellac as far into the wood as possible, then with a layer of wood waterproofer over that, and a coat of furniture polish over the top of that.   Then it rained for a solid week (Mediterranean climate!) and the photos above were taken just after another shower.  I’m seeing some water get into the endgrain but that’s to be expected I guess.

The new setup gets us more space, while making the deck feel a little more enclosed.   The planters should get plenty of sun from the southern exposure, but it’s still San Francisco so probably no tomatoes.  But thus far I’ve planted the cilantro, which was harvested from last year’s crop.  I was worried that the seeds wouldn’t be viable because what do I know about any of this, but turns out they were very viable and I’m having to thin them pretty aggressively:

The dill just started to come up, they look like aliens:

The sage was a transplant from the old planter, but seems to be settling in:

Moments after taking this the spider went jumping  off the balcony on a stream of silk.  I guess he didn’t like the cell phone right up in his grill, and who can blame him?

After planing the sides, this is the quantity of shavings.  It’s really satisfying to make simple, beautiful objects like this.

Thanks for reading my dumb blog post about gardening!

Sep 4 2016

Parklet Design Assignment

By Max


Another project I did for my Arch 134 class.  The assignment was: Design a parklet!


I started with the Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco where I lived at the time (life has changed drastically in the last two years!).  Typically parklets provide some kind of public amenity, an eddy to step out of the stream of pedestrian traffic.  If you put a parklet on Eddy street it would immediately become a venue for people to do all the things that you don’t want them to do, but it’s not like the neighborhood doesn’t have unmet needs.


So, I get it.  We don’t want to pay for public restrooms for homeless people.  In addition to the considerable expense associated with operating a high-traffic public restroom, it requires constant vigilance to make sure the facility is actually being used as a place to do your business, not your “business.”  Actually I’m not sure which usage would get the euphemism quotes, but anyway my point is, whether you want to pay for this or not, you’re going to pay for restrooms for homeless people.

Have you been to the main San Francisco Library at Hyde and Grove?  It’s a nice enough library, in an inoffensive 90’s postmodern way.  It’s also the only available public restroom in a 1/4 mile radius, and so the restrooms are always packed with people who don’t have another option, and have to constantly patrolled by security officers to keep the chaos to a low roar.  The streets east of Larkin and south of Geary are full of evidence that this facility isn’t nearly enough to meet demand.  So I decided to design a parklet around public restrooms.


I placed the parklet between the current day-use public restrooms at the Public Library, and the current after-hours restroom, the Lawrence Halprin-designed fountain in the middle of U.N. Plaza.  I like that this location breaks up the formal scenic view between U.N. Plaza and City Hall in a somewhat obnoxious way.

Map Capture with markups

Programming and Design

In addition to providing public restrooms, I wanted to provide public showers.  I included a micro-retail space as well, since I figured that there would have to be some kind of revenue-generating function as well to keep the whole thing going.  Using shipping containers would make it easy to set up and move.


Access to shower/toilets are via facebook check-in.  I think that sets a balance between the desire for these facilities to be available for all (facebook accounts can be created for free at the adjacent library), and the need to control access to prevent non-sanctioned use.

floor 1

The first floor incorporates three toilets, the stairs to the second level, and the handwashing station.  I was imagining the back wall behind the stairs as some kind of mesh or grillework, to keep the space open and ventilated.

floor 2

The second level is showers, and would be at about eye level to the adjacent statue of Simón Bolívar, and would have nice views on City Hall.    Also included on this level is a micro-retail, to provide some income to pay for operating costs.  Placing all of this on the second level allows access control after hours, versus the restrooms that are envisioned as 24-hour facilities.


This was a class project done over a weekend, so think of it as a sketch rather than a 100% build-able proposal.  But, if you’ve walked by the Tenderloin Pit Stop on Ellis St, you can see that this sort of thing can work.  Similarly, Lava Mae is doing fantastic work upcycling retired transit buses to mobile shower units.  It’s a simple way to improve the quality of life for everyone that shares the city.




Nov 28 2015

West Berkeley Public Library: A Case Study in Zero-Net Energy Lighting Design

By Max


I wrote this article on lighting design strategies for zero-net buildings for the Journal of Green Building.  As a case study, I used my West Berkeley Public Library project, for which I won an Illumination Award of Excellence.  It’s written for owners and architects that are looking for practical strategies to lower the energy density from lighting in their projects, and some of the issues that can crop up when you are trying to integrate architecture, electric lighting, daylighting, and lighting controls as one cohesive unit.

Hope you enjoy it!

West Berkeley Public Library: A Case Study in Zero-Net Energy Lighting Design

Nov 27 2015

Window-Box from Redwood

By Max


I made this windowbox.  In the past, I haven’t been satisfied with my efforts at woodworking, so I went slow and tried to really work on the fundamentals.  And hey, turns out everything is a hell of a lot easier if you have the ability to do things like cut to a line with a handsaw, and make boards square and true.  So I got pretty good with hand planes, chisels, scraper cards, and learned how to re-cut and sharpen saw teeth so that I could make a handsaw functional and sharp again– I had broken a bunch of teeth on mine and they were the induction-hardened type that you can’t sharpen.  I also made some tools like a depth gauge and a marking knife:20151026_221351

It’s made out of redwood, which is cheap and rot-resistant, and also has a really pretty grain I think:

Redwood Grain

Using a scraping card is easier than sanding and gives a much better finish.  That shimmery effect is caused by the grain switching directions, and so it was quite challenging to work with the handplane.  I have a contractor-grade Stanley #5 and a Craftsman block plane from the sixties that I got on eBay, so I took the time to set both of those up properly, and by the end I had them both singing.

Drainage is important for plant health and also can be kind of difficult to get right.  In addition, I didn’t want any excess water to drain near the house.  So the bottom panel of the box is on a slope, and there’s a 1/4″ trench drain the entire length of the box, which I then covered with mesh.  This has worked very well, I haven’t had any issues with root rot:

Window box drainIt was my first time attempting dovetails, and I didn’t get them perfect, but with four corners to do I got some good practice in:

Dovetail attempt #1 Dovetail attempt #2You can see the plugs where I had to insert shims because there was a gap if you look closely.  Also in the bottom picture the insert I made to cover up a really ugly knot in what is otherwise a nice looking piece of wood.

The bottom piece is held in with a housing dado on three sides.  I cut this by first running lines with my marking gauge, then working along with my chisel.  It worked okay, but the next tool that I’m going to make is going to be a depth router, because it was pretty tedious.


I have the old-style wooden sash windows and I made wedges that slot into the window tracks and the box so that it installs securely without any screws or fasteners:


Having done this I think I could take on some cabinets or a bookshelf with no problem– the time spent learning to use woodworking hand tools is a great investment.  I have about the most basic toolset possible, with a cheap saw, a 1/4″and 1″chisel, carpenter square, marking gauge, two inexpensive hand planes, and a scraping card, and I was able to get perfectly acceptable results.   It’s so great to use something that you’ve made every day.


Oct 9 2015

Rolleicord Shutter Repair

By Max


Thanks for nothing, Vivian Maier: So this starts with a trip to Chicago.  While we were there, we visited the Chicago History Museum and it turns out they’re a little butthurt about the whole Second City thing, but anyway the main attraction was a Vivian Maier exhibition, which blew my mind.

October 31, 1954. New York, NY

So long story short I got all inspired and bought a twin lens reflex camera on the ebay, a Rolleicord Va.  I’ve shot on medium format but I’ve never tried to work with a Nifty Fifty focal length before, but I like the way it forces you into an editorial mindset– the field of view isn’t very large, and you have to make choices about what you’re going to include.

But: Unfortunately like most cameras that are 60+ years old, the one I bought had a sticky shutter.  If I warmed up the shutter by test-firing a few times it would work fine, but if allowed to sit or in cold weather it would randomly stick open.  Which isn’t something that you want the camera shutter to do, for all of you budding photographers out there.  The remedy is a shutter overhaul performed by a professional camera repair technician, which will be a strange older guy with a wizard beard.

So I decided to get right in there and do the shutter overhaul myself, because what could go wrong.  While doing the overhaul I took a boatload of pictures so that I could get it all back together again, and since it seems a pity to let them rot away in my automatic backup folder, I’m posting them here, with sarcastic commentary and salty language.  This isn’t intended as a comprehensive walkthrough, but if you’re contemplating taking this on yourself  or perhaps need a little help getting humpty dumpty re-assembled, this may help.  If nothing else, it makes the $150-$200 that Beardo wants to charge you for a shutter CLA seem entirely reasonable.  Also, don’t fuck with wizards.

DISCLAIMER:  I’m just this guy on the internet.


Where is your god now?

But Seriously: So, I’ve got some experience with complex repair projects, and I felt like I was lucky to get through this one without fucking up a nice old camera.  So if you’ve got a camera you don’t want to ruin, totally just pay a pro to do this for you.  In my case, a CLA would cost considerably more than I payed for the camera, and I figured that even if failed the knowledge would be helpful in future projects, given my weakness for buying obsolete industrial crap.   All of the tricks I’ve learned taking apart other things to fix them and breaking them worse instead came in handy here: work in shifts so you don’t get sloppy, take lots of pictures, read the service manual and anything else you can get a hand on, etc.  Also, if you’ve ever broken something working on it, you remember what you were doing just before it broke?  So for each step, think about how much force you should have to apply to do what you’re trying to do, and if you’re applying that much force and nothing is happening, stop and re-assess, you’ve probably missed something.

Fuck it let’s go already: Assuming you know what you’re doing, I’ve omitted words like ‘carefully’ and ‘gently’ because like this entry was long enough already.  And with that, let’s get started, yeah?  Oh hey and there’s two service manuals you need, one for the Rolleicord/Rolleiflex model you’re working on, and a separate service manual for the shutter model you have.  Two different companies.

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