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What’s new

The 2nd edition Lapera DS hydraulics look, at first glance, a lot like the first edition. BUT they are not!

  • Here is what’s new in the redesigned boiler and hydraulic system:
    • All boiler components are 316L stainless steel and are welded by The sTIG® 
    • Double-flanged boiler opens at both ends for cleaning
    • Engineered o-ring gland seals on the main boiler openings and the group (which seal to higher pressure at significantly lowers levels of torque) – trust me they are just better
    • Monolithic cast-stainless heat exchanger brew reservoir
    • New layout of upper and lower pipe runs for ease of installation and service
    • New slimmer over-pressure safety valve
    • New (La Marzocco) anti-vacuum/burp valve and silicon tubing (with an heat-shedding extension to prolong the life of the otherwise slightly fickle o-ring in LM’s design) – no more steam and condensation in the boiler compartment during warm up
    • Redesigned end flange incorporates a dedicated rigid connection for the safety pressurestat
    • Redesigned breakout circuit board with upgraded connectors to facilitate assembly and maintenance (this has nothing whatsoever to do with the hydraulics, but it is new and in this photo… so)

A quick word on the pressurestat, which I perhaps haven’t discussed elsewhere:

The p-stat is primarily a safety feature as the machine is electronically piloted by the Lapera controller using PID. In its current configuration, it serves to cut electricity to the entire system in the (unlikely) event of runaway heating and overpressure (in which case it will also deploy oxygen masks to all passengers). Under normal circumstances it will never operate. However, electronics are inherently more complicated than everything else here and are therefore, by definition, orders of magnitude more prone to failure. To address this issue, we have taken a “black-box” approach to the control and interface design of the Lapera DS: the control electronics are all gathered together in a single, literal black box and the user interface itself is unobtrusively tucked away out of sight inside the bodywork. In thirty years when, say, a power supply capacitor reaches the end of its life, what will happen? In most machines made today, finding spare parts to replace the electronics that are likely integrated into the user-facing interface of the machine three decades from now will be challenging, if not completely impossible. With the DS, simply by changing two wires inside the machine to put the p-stat in line with the heating element you can have a fully-functional machine again while you wait for your ten-year-old to build you a replacement for the black box control electronics.

Please note however, that while batteries are included with the DS, ten-year-olds are not – that part is on you.

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Some-say

Some say that he spends three hours a day staring directly into the sun and that his
visor is actually entirely opaque. All we know is that he is called the sTIG.

This series of posts is about invisible updates to a largely invisible part of the machine: the boiler. This particular upgrade however, is both the invisibilest and the most important: the person doing the welding. I’ve said elsewhere that welding is both a skill and an art. Like very few other industrial activities, welding, especially TIG welding, is a manual skill akin to playing an instrument that requires both talent and vast amounts of practice. There are good welders and bad welders and the latter vastly outnumber the former.

I am a passable welder. I, at least, know what is supposed to happen, what is not supposed to happen and how, in theory, to achieve / avoid both. The execution, on the other hand, is a different story. Malcolm Gladwell1 introduced the idea of the 10,000 rule hour in his hugely popular (in both senses of the word) 2008 book Outliers. The precis: the greatest are great at what they do because of talent, opportunity but mostly because they spent at least ten thousand hours mastering their craft2.

In welding, the 10,000 hour rule applies. I break out the welding equipment perhaps once a month for small jobs and a once or twice a year for more extended sessions. I took one welding course once upon a time over a summer while I was at university. I didn’t spend years learning the craft as an apprentice to a master welder and I haven’t spent the three hours a day for ten years practicing to develop and maintain the skills required for TIG welding. This occasional use makes me an amateur as opposed to a professional, a Sunday painter as opposed to a Jackson Pollock and a Sunday driver next to the sTIG.

The Lapera workplace, while sometimes intense, tends not to be over-populated with people who punch other people when they don’t get a hot dinner. We will also depart slightly from British Motoring Television tradition by naming the man behind the helmet: Martin Berthelot is a professional welder. And rather a good one. In fact, an insanely good one. And it is he, as opposed to me who will be welding the Lapera boilers.

So let’s see how our very own sTIG handles Hammerhead and Gambon.

First things first: the bolt rings that hold the end plates and seals in place – important, you know, for keeping the water in the boiler. For this, of course, we built a jig. And a very fancy one at that. The shoulders of the bolt studs need to be held up against against the ring from the underside – so the pockets that they sit in are spring-loaded.

And then the best bit: the fingers that hold the ring down extend and retract to allow the ring to be installed and removed after welding.

Finally, the screw is tightened with the giant handle (with a thrust bearing to manage the considerable load) and forces everything down onto the aluminum heatsink in order to draw away the distortion-inducing heat as quickly as possible after the completion of the weld.

And look at that: loads of wheelspin off the line (and barely any HAZ (Heat Affected Zone)) as the sTIG powers down the straight towards the first corner.

Perfect overlapping fish scales with almost no coloration of the weld bead. Mindboggling control.

The next step is to complete another sub-assembly – or sub-weldment: the heat exchanger (HX). The HX is comprised of a 316L stainless casting and a capped 316L tube. The casting replaces a far more complicated weldment which was a composite of five separate parts. Simpler is (almost) always better.

The sTIG handles the oversteer going into the first corner with aplomb delivering an impeccable “full-penetration” weld, so-called because the material of the parts is melted all of the way from the outside to the inside and is mixed with “fresh” filler rod material to create a perfect corrosion-resistant weld.

Now we move onto another jig, affectionately known, for reasons that will no doubt be apparent to the knowledgeable readers of this humble blog, as “The Slayer“.

This jig does double duty for the fairly complex task of alignment and clamping for positioning the bolt rings at both ends of the main boiler tube.

And down into Hammerhead, the trickiest corner on the track, with the argon gas purge lines in place the sTIG is feathering the throttle to achieve the delicate balance between weld penetration and heat input.

Heading into Gambon then, the sTIG is making it look easy. In fact, this one, the interior junction of the HX and main boiler tubes, is really off-the-charts crazy. This weld is performed inside the boiler tube. I don’t know, I can barely get my hand inside, let alone weld in this space and the sTIG is not a small man (but he does have small children. Hmmmm.) Not only that, but some parts of the weld are not visible while you are welding, even if you use a mirror (in which case you have to weld upside-down and backwards – ever tried cutting your own hair in the mirror?). Judging only from the intensity of the light given off by the weld arc hidden around the corner, the sTIG can actually weld blind.

And he’s across the line. Here is the grand tour of the main boiler, welded entirely from the inside to minimize corrosion.

At the risk of overextending my professional racing driver metaphor, every corner on a race track is distinct and is more or less difficult, requiring a particular approach speed, breaking point, line through it etc. It is the sum of the driver’s successes (and failures) in the individual corners that make up the overall time for the lap. A mistake on any one of the corners results in either a bad time or going off the track. The welding here is also a sequential process. The individual welds, none of which can be regarded as particularly easy, are performed one after another. A mistake on any one of them will ruin the part. High stakes indeed. Fortunately for us, the sTIG is a consummate professional.

1 – Not quite an apologist for laisse-faire industrial capitalism, but almost?

2 – Others have since argued, compellingly in my opinion, that the fourth ingredient is the quality of instruction. What and how you practice during those 10,000 hours turns out to be, unsurprisingly, important.

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Puuuuuuurrrrrrrge

1

One of the major advantages of the diagonal heat exchanger boiler in the Lapera is that there is a separate water path to the group. This means that the water from the boiler is not used to actually make coffee. If you have ever seen the inside of a well-used boiler, you will know why this is a good thing. The major disadvantage of the diagonal heat exchanger boiler from a fabrication point of view is there is a separate water path to the group. The separate path requires a second chamber that passes through the boiler – a volume that pierces another volume. This means, topologically speaking, that instead of there being just an inside and an outside, there are two insides and one outside – three surfaces that have to be protected simultaneously during welding where they intersect. When welding from the outside things are fairly easy: cover all the holes, fill all the interiors with purge gas and the gas from the torch itself protects the exterior surface. But what if you want weld from the inside (which we do, because it’s waaay better, trust me on this)? One of the solutions is removing all of the oxygen from the room in which the welding is taking place. But this, oddly enough, is not very popular with the people doing the welding. Other solutions require some kind of localized, gas-filled shroud that covers the exterior of the parts being welded. This can be more or less complicated depending on the shape of the parts that are being assembled. The boiler is a bit on the complicated side of the shape scale, so the shrouds, which also have to fit in/around the jig that holds the parts, are a bit, well, tricky.

Cutaway of the boiler – one volume piercing another creating a separate path for fresh water to reach the group. (The casting is (unfortunately) not pink in real life. Were that it were.)

Shrouds in place to protect the outside of the inside of the inside.

The shroud for the lower end of the heat exchanger (HX) is straightforward-ish. The only minor complication is that the HX tube does not pass exactly through the central axis of the main boiler tube, so the radius cut through the shroud is not quite symmetrical. After welding an end cap onto a small section of square aluminum tubing, the radius cut is easy enough if you have a CNC mill. Which, lucky children that we are, we do.

Quite a few bits of turned and threaded lumps of brass and various adaptors later and, good-enough-for-not-very-close-friends-and-family-whose-company-you-don’t-particularly-enjoy-but-keep-asking-you-to-weld-this-piece-of-their-neighnour’s-friend’s-dishwasher notwithstanding, one lower end purge shroud.

Where things get a little more challenging is at the top end of the HX with the new boiler casting. Both of these purging shrouds, it has to be said, were a bit of an afterthought in that they were thought about after the alignment jig was built. Both of the shrouds could have (and should have) been integrated directly into the jigs themselves. Last time I had my eyes tested, I was shocked to fined out that I don’t have 20-20 foresight.

Not having the right size of tubing on hand, I thought it would be quick to weld a few scraps of angle together.

Yeah, well, not so much. I had forgotten just how hard it is to weld aluminum. It took an entire morning of failing to weld with much swearing, vaporizing of electrodes and grinding out of contaminated welds before I remembered that welding aluminum is like going to McDonalds: I go to McDonalds about once every four years in order to remind myself why I don’t go to McDonalds more often. Also akin to a trip to the Scottish restaurant, once it is in the past (and you machine away most of the mess you make) it is just a bad memory.

A perfect 60 degree angled cut through the not exactly perfect DIY square tubing.

Looks like something. Don’t know what yet. But it definitely needs a cap. Yup.

Now we just need a knife.

Sorry…
…This Old Tony.

And a couple of flanges (close your eyes if you don’t want to be exposed to the welds – but cut me some slack, it is just a jig for Pete’s sake).

Oh yeah, machining hides my sins.

And now for a hole and the clever bit.

Laperas have magnets too.

Thanks for reading!

1 – Syrup of prunes

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jig-jig

Aidan Heart’s somewhat unnecessarily controversial sculpture of the mythical figure of púca, half man, half horse – dancing a jig.

As promised, this week’s post is all about jigs (not about jig-jig, despite the title). Well, jigs and purging. When all the parts are finally made, checked, polished, rechecked and sterilized in the autoclave ready for surgery (only mild hyperbole), two more things have to happen before the magic moment when the arc strikes and two pieces of stainless steel become one: they have to held together in the correct alignment and all of the oxygen in the air surrounding the weld location has to displaced or purged – usually with another, inert, gas. This is where jigs and purging come in.

But before we get to the the fancy bits, first some ground-work.

Cutting the stainless tubing to rough length on Soco Xiānshēng. The 3-phase Soco gearhead cold saw, by far the highest quality tool in the building, used to be known as Soco-San but, it turns out, is actually Taiwanese, so this may have been cultural appropriation, inappropriate and/or just wrong. So even though Soco-San sounds better, Soco Xiānshēng it is.

The before: replete with sharp hairy edges, nasty burrs, greasy mill finish, dents and scratches.

The after: squared and chamfered on the lathe, polished and de-greased to within a nanometer of clean-room cleanliness.

Heat exchanger tubes and flange castings ready on deck.

The first alignment jig ensures that the side-to-side and axial orientation of the tube is correct with respect to the flange casting. Kissing cousins?

Now things start to get a little more elaborate: a dry run with test parts of the heat exchanger (HX) and main boiler tube alignment jig. This setup fixes the depth of the HX through the main boiler tube and ensures that the boiler tube is level and aligned with the bolt pattern on the group flange. Ever-ting gonna be nice’an straight.

So I promised purging as well, but I only got as far as jigs and I am already a day late on my deadline. I’m afraid you’ll just have to come back for more.

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Titanic Upgrade

HMS Titanic boilers1

The Titanic, according to my admittedly mildly-unprofessional research, had 24 of these gargantuan boilers, made by Harland & Wolff Shipyard in Belfast (I doff my hat to you and struggle to maintain control of my lower mandible), that collectively consumed 600 tons of coal a day (shoveled by 200 workers!) in order to maintain the ship at cruising speed. 600 tons. I’m gonna say that again: 600 tons. 15 Jumbo Jets. A day. Mind boggling. So to describe the Lapera boiler upgrade as Titanic is a bit of stretch. OTOH, the Titanic’s boilers were only in service for 4 days and 3 hours (if you include the brief period post-iceberg) so we are already well ahead in that regard.

So why a blog post about this? Well, the boiler has undergone a major design revision for the second edition and, as it is by far the most complicated part of the machine and is completely unseen hidden away inside, it deserves a little more narrative-intensive attention and continuity than the Gram can provide. This will require backing up a little so if you have been following the stream there will be a little repetition to allow the narration to catch up with the intervening flow of time (time only going the one way and all that (another corollary of that pesky Second Law of Thermodynamics)).

The biggest and invisibilest upgrade to the boiler is the change from 304 stainless to 316. 316 is generally and significantly superior to 304 in terms of corrosion resistance mostly because it contains a much higher proportion of nickel. The high nickel content makes it quite a bit more expensive than its baby brother. Which may, or may not, be a factor explaining its non-universality in coffee machine boilers. No judgements here. Just saying.

So on to some of the bits and pieces, of which there are a quite a few, that make up the beating heart of the Lapera machine. First up: the main boiler tubes. Cutting these tubes, or rather finding someone to cut them without screwing them up, has been, until recently, the second-greatest problem / source of irritation since the start of this project in 2016; second only in hassle-quotient to the foundry work. Here they are, cut on an completely over-kill bus-sized lathe this time around because I cannot, to save my life, find anyone with a laser tube cutter who will do this correctly. Done also, despite the 500% increase in the price of nickel in March and subsequent collapse/suspension of the London Metals Exchange where all the world’s nickel is traded. (The causes and ramifications of this is a fascinating story btw. At least to me.)

Close-up of the engraved logo. These are a whole other source of complexity as the final appearance of engraving is very dependent on maintaining a consistent depth of cut -which is extremely difficult to do on a solid that deviates at all from its Platonic ideal. This was trivial when the tubes were laser-cut. Don’t get me started.

Next but not least are the threaded inserts that are welded into each opening in the boiler wall to provide ports for all the comings and goings of two flavors of water phases. This package contains an infinite number of said inserts, which is surprising because it (ie. the package) fits comfortably on the table.

They seem to fit 😉 Who knew?

Ok, now that we are more or less caught up. Here is something new (and quite exciting if you are into that kind of thing) to end today’s post: a cast 316 stainless group flange. This casting replaces the original flange that was a built up from individual pieces of sheet metal, all of had to be cut, machined and then welded together. The neck angle is also integrated into the casting which promotes precision of the boiler weldment by a considerable degree. Oh boy, this is soooo much simpler and simpler is soooo much better.

A little QC and a few corrective measures on the all-important flange faces.

The next post will be about jigs and purging I think.


1 – advanceair.net

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Laying the keel

1

“And I can recall our caravel:
a little wicker beetle shell
with four fine masts and lateen sails,
its bearings on Cair Paravel.” 2


The Gist.

We make things, unlikely things, in small quantities, mostly by hand, and in a place where it is expensive to do this. The second edition Lapera DS is available now for pre-sale and the price is $12k Canadian. This is a lot by any measure, but not, we feel, and if you understand the process, by any means excessive.

The Longer Version.

I grew up in England in a place where they used to build working sailing ships. It was on the estuary of a minor river and the boats were smallish, made of wood, and slightly dogged. The pubs had nautical names and low tide revealed a collection of rubber boots claimed from the unwise and unwary by the estuary mud. There was a rose-covered bower at the bottom of our garden made from an old rowing dinghy, its stern buried in the ground, and a mysterious sail loft, far larger than the surrounding houses, towered over the garden wall. All that was left of the industry along the waterfront was a collection of empty sheds, crumbling quays, collapsing slipways and a strong air of pathos – now of course all erased by rather unimaginative imitation Victorian housing estates, definitely colder, if not also sadder than what was there before. As with many other places in the West, industry, not to be confused with industriousness, has moved on: where I come from they don’t make much of anything anymore.

I like boats. You may have noticed. There are similar distinctions to be made in boat building as there are in the making of coffee machines. There is a world of difference between “a silent, sweet sailboat slipping through the cool water”3 and a hole in the water lined with wood. Unlike espresso machines (no matter how you feel about your morning coffee), boats have that edge of life-and-death about them: if the water is cold, if it is deep, and most especially if it is angry, you very much want to be in a tight ship and not a wood-lined hole. Both coffee machines and sailboats are outdated technology: one is essentially a steam engine and the other has, well, sails. Coffee machines however, unlike sailboats (beautiful and graceful as they may be), retain a deep relevance to contemporary society: rather more people drink coffee at work than sail to get there. Ultimately, both sailboats and coffee machines are cultural as well as technical objects, inextricably tied to their time and place and to the people who make and use them. How something is made, how deeply its maker understands it and how closely that person is connected to the people who will ultimately use it, are, in my view at least, important. Put simply, culture is difficult, if not impossible, to outsource.

The city of Montreal dates back to the French colonial fur trade and has always been heavily enmeshed in the textile industry. My first three studio spaces in Montreal were in former textile and fur lofts in the old part of the city. The building in Montreal’s Mile End, where Laperas are made, was a leather goods factory (which had been variously and previously: a car wash, a body and transmission shop, a gas station and a stable). Historically, Mile End served as a gateway to successive waves of European immigration. After the second world war, the textile industry grew rapidly until it drew a nearly twenty-thousand strong labour force from the mostly European diasporas (Jews, Greeks, Portuguese, Italians) of the immediate surrounding populations. As with many other kinds of manufacturing, low overseas labour costs coupled with dirt-cheap containerized shipping led at first to the slow decline and then the rapid collapse of the local needlework trade. The loss of tens of thousands of jobs almost overnight had a huge impact on the people who worked there, and left a ghost town of empty factories. Into that vacuum rushed the artists, tech startups and other post-industrial actors in search of cheap space. Now the main industry in the area (other than flat whites) is video games; as about as post-industrial as it gets. The vast flow of European immigrants has left its mark on the neighborhood in the form of churches and synagogues, bakeries and delis, the world’s best bagels (sorry New York, you’re just wrong) and, of course, proper coffee.

Da capo al fine is an Italian term (all the good ones are) in music, meaning “repeat from the beginning” (literally “from the head to the end”), or, as Humphrey Bogart actually didn’t say in Casablanca: “Play it again, Sam.” So, after a few months spent sweeping under the tables, sharpening the chisels and polishing the chandeliers, it is time to take it from the top. We have come full circle and are laying the keels of the second edition Lapera DS: twelve serial numbers from 0010 to 0021. Based on the experience gained during the production of the first edition and the feedback from the Founders’ Circle owners, this edition will have quite a few tweaks to improve, refine and better what can be improved, refined and bettered. So we’re playing it again, Sam, only a little bit better. The price, from beam to beam and stem to stern, is $12k Canadian. A lot, I know, but they don’t build ’em like this anymore. The edition should ship, if all goes well, in the first part of 2022.

For aforementioned unscientific and capricious reasons, the majority of this edition is already spoken for. There are still a few machines in search of a good home however, so please get in touch if you would like one. 

Thomas


(1) Howard Chapelle, 10 ft Rowing and Sailing Dinghy
(2) Joanna Newsom, Bridges and Balloons
(3) Annie Proulx, The Shipping News


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Launched

1

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” 2

Well, here it is: the missive I’ve been promising for quite a few years now – the one in which I announce the price and the pre-sale. This is it; the moment has finally come. Sort of.

Very short summary if you aren’t interested in / don’t have time for the medium-long read:

1st thing: This is new. There may be problems. Or there may not.
2nd thing: I’m giving them away (ish).
3rd thing: The pre-production Founders’ Circle Edition Lapera DS machines will cost $8888.88 CAD plus shipping.
4th thing: The next ones will be more expensive.

Before we unpack all of that, please indulge me in a minor digression.

Not too long after graduating from architecture school I put a perfectly good career designing bridges and office buildings on hold and maxed out my credit cards to go on tour with the band. The band in this case being the first work that I had created with another artist: the Symphony for Dot Matrix Printers3, a half-hour long orchestral performance for obsolete office equipment. Fast forward twenty years, after many art projects that investigated questions of technology and obsolescence, and an awful lot of time spent looking for good coffee while on tour, it occurred to me that coffee is one of the very few areas of everyday life where steam engines, i.e. technology from the 18th century, are still considered cutting edge. And so began my third career.

Actions, or so the aphorism goes, speak louder than words. Whatever you may think of his actions, you must allow that Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush (remember him?), has a way with words. His quote about the “unknown unknowns”, possibly a bit long to be an aphorism but getting there, neatly encapsulates and conveniently compartmentalizes all knowledge and identifies a distinct category of events which are, by definition, unforeseeable. The lesson being that you must plan for every eventuality knowing that you cannot know all the eventualities. Given who he is and how that all went, the irony of the implicit caution against hubris is, to me at least, rich.

The new Lapera machines have been tested, very thoroughly and rather strenuously, in the controlled conditions of our atelier. I have tried to anticipate all of the problems, from bad water to cosmic rays, before they arise. But what will happen when they venture out on their own into the wide and wonderful and dangerous world? What will happen when they are left alone with your ten year old nephew (no, don’t do that, bad idea – “oooh, a catapult!”). What will happen when someone leaves a pound of butter to soften for baking on the cup warmer and then gets distracted by an Oprah re-run? It is possible, as with all designs entering this Rumsfeldian world, that something not immediately apparent may present itself at some point in the future. Or it won’t. Who knows? At this point there is only one way to find out.

At the beginning of 2016, sitting by a pool in California, I drew the design for the main casting of the Lapera group in my sketchbook. Because, well, that’s what you do when you sit by the pool right? I started with the group casting because it is the most difficult component to make. If I could make that, the rest, I thought at the time, was eminently doable. I also thought that it would take about eighteen months or two years to complete the project. Since then, other than some short breaks teaching architecture and showing at art exhibitions, I have done nothing but work on realizing the DS. Five years is a long time: more than 10,000 hours working a regular nine to five – which of course this job is not. Five years of running costs of my studio. Five years of investment in the materials and labor necessary to iterate the design. And what is that all worth, what did it cost? Suffice it to say that even if I were to charge ten times the amount that I am asking for this first edition, I won’t come any near to recouping my costs. But that is not really why I am doing this. This is not a sensible project. Nor am I, it would seem, a sensible person. Who quotes Donald Rumsfeld in a product launch and suggests that early adopters are potential canon fodder? What you are buying is not so much a coffee machine as it is a love letter to a way of making things that is exceedingly rare today. A work of art. A piece of me.

So this release, the Founders’ Circle Edition of nine single digit serial numbers, fully functional prototypes if you like, is for the risk takers, the early adopters, the beta testers, the kind of people who are willing to put their faith in me. And it is priced accordingly. Of the nine single digit machines, two, I am very proud to say, have been sold into some of the most important private collections of coffee machines in the world. The remaining seven pre-production DS models are available for purchase at the initial price of $8,888.88 CAD (that would be Canadian dollars, U.S. Dollar’s baby brother).

I obviously work very slowly and it is not my intention to scale up the production to the point where I have to forego the level of quality I need in order to get out of bed in the morning. It is unlikely that production volume will exceed the dozens for the next year or two. This means that this price is not sustainable over the long term. Consequentially, the price of the next edition will start with a one and may or may not have any eights in it at all.

If, after doing and saying all of this, I am fortunate enough to have more than seven people still interested, the criteria for deciding who gets one will be thoroughly unscientific: first dibs will be given to the insiders who have been following the project since its beginnings as a series of posts on a coffee forum, the people who have lent a hand and offered encouragement along the way, and the people who I think will take good care.

So who wants one? Just say so and, this time at least, words will have the upper hand.

Thomas


(1) Dream Boat, Monastir, Tunisia, 2018. Available as an NFT for $69,346,251
(2) Donald Rumsfeld
(3) You can look it up. It won a bunch of awards.

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If it ain’t Baroque…

If it ain’t Baroque… don’t fix it.

This morning, I re-read Adolf Loos’s monumentally amusing 1913 essay “Ornament and Crime”. Loos of course, didn’t intend to entertain: the colonial and classist condescension was most emphatically ernsthaft. Eurocentric, racist and chauvinist (to the point of effacement) it may be, the essay nonetheless looms large in contemporary design’s collective unconscious. As Wikipedia puts it (with more than mild understatement): “The essay is important in articulating some moralizing views, inherited from the Arts and Crafts movement, which would be fundamental to the Bauhaus design studio, and would help define the ideology of modernism in architecture.” The central thesis is that ornament is not only wasteful (and therefore immoral) it is also culturally backward: the more ornament you like, the less civilized you are.

Aaron McGruder The Boondocks 1999

A particularly howl-worthy passage:

“Tattooed men who are not behind bars are either latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats. If someone who is tattooed dies in freedom, then he does so a few years before he would have committed murder.”

Lot of, errr, degenerate aristocrats about these days it would seem.

One can’t help thinking that Loos wouldn’t have been a particularly fun guy to be around. Quite apart from hating the heart shape of heart-shaped gingerbread:

“The vegetables [twentieth century man] likes are simply boiled in water and then served with a little melted butter. The other man doesn’t enjoy them until honey and nuts have been added and someone has been busy cooking them for hours.”

Tell that to Jamie Oliver.

Now where am I going with this? Anyone who has been following this thread will know that my design aesthetic is, shall we say, somewhat austere, and that ornament is, more  or less, anathema (less being more and all of that).

Separated as we are by more than a hundred years from Loos’s century, it is both unfair and conceptually fuzzy to judge him by the morals of ours. In short, he is a product of his time and I’m sure that in addition to being a pompous ass he was a good dad. Or not. What is certainly true is that his thinking both presages and underpins a large part of twentieth century design. Without Loos there is no Mies.

To be continued.

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Precision wobble?

Today’s post is all about freedom. And the Queen.

It seems to me that the design of mechanical systems might be described most simply as the selection of a set of idealized rules that, taken together, define how objects are allowed to move with respect to themselves and one another. For example: in addition to turning, the front tires on your car can rotate to the left and right (the steering) and move up and down (the suspension), but bad things have happened or will likely happen if they move either along or perpendicular to the direction of travel of the car. These rules or constraints are most often defined in three-dimensional Euclidean space in which there are three imaginary axes, each representing a single dimension, that pass through the centre of an object and (with engineering’s typical disregard for unintended double entendre) 12 degrees of freedom, or ways in which that object might move with respect to the axes: it can be translated, moved like a chess piece, in six directions, left-right, front-back and (unlike normal chess pieces) up-down and rotated backwards or forwards around the same three axes.

So before I get to the first production run of the pieces of the Lapera lever group, I thought it was worth revisiting the prototype piston assembly that I made some time ago. Rather than the fixed piston head and piston rod design typically used on most contemporary lever groups, I opted for a slightly more complicated articulated or floating-head design. The downside of complexity of course is that it always comes at a cost: more parts to make, more parts to assemble. The upside, which I think considerably offsets the disadvantages, is that the articulated piston is self-aligning: it automatically compensates for angular misalignment and eccentricity between the axes of the cylinder bore and the piston rod. This results in loads and consequent wear patterns on the piston seals that are more symmetrical. Even wear on the seals promotes seal longevity – which is a good thing!

The piston mechanism is perhaps best explained by an analogy to a part of the human anatomy: the wrist. Your hand is free to wave from side to side (like the Queen),

forwards and backwards (like Mikey)

and also to rotate (although this is not actually a design requirement for the piston assembly but I couldn’t resist the plastic, solar-powered Queen).

These rotations, or degrees of freedom, have limits of course; otherwise it gets really weird and creepy (think The Exorcist). In addition to rotating, the wrist permits the piston to translate laterally – similar (though not actually via the same mechanism) to another body part: the head.

So the piston assembly is sort of like a wrist, or a head, or maybe a neck. I don’t know anymore. I guess body part analogies only get you so far when trying to describe mechanisms. But I, at least, enjoyed the animated gifs. The upshot of all of this is that the chosen set of constraints embodied in the design of the wrist allow and restrict the 12 different types of motion and permit the force from the seals as they press against the cylinder wall to rotate and translate the piston into perfect alignment with the bore. Or perhaps you got it months ago and I could have saved myself a lot of writing by just posting another gif:

Here is a reprise of the fabrication process for the prototype of what I am still insisting on calling the wrist. Starting from a piece of 2″ C360 brass round bar stock:

Two slight angle cuts on the tip approximate a radius – this is quicker to setup than cutting an actual arc and makes little difference to functionality.

Then, using a cut-off/grooving tool, we add an undercut below what will be the flange. Spoiler: this is the clever bit of the design.

Another wider groove is cut above the flange to create the boss that will align the spring.

Then the part is cut off the stock…

…and flipped around to be drilled…

…and tapped with an M10 thread.

Then the part is moved over to the milling machine to complete the remaining features. This process starts with finding the centre with a touch-probe.

Then three clearing holes are drilled in the flange and boss.

After a little cleanup – a finished wrist prototype.

And here, with some very slight dimensional tweaks to adjust the permissible amounts of rotation and translation, is the production wrist part in the final material – AISI 304 stainless steel.

Mmmmmm – shiny 🙂

Next post will be on the piston. Can’t bear the suspense myself.