Step One: Make a Compass

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I’m a mathematical Einstein. More specifically, like Einstein’s mother. When she was 2.

In middle school, I whizzed through geometry. But then came algebra. When I nearly failed calculus, my dad promised I’d still become the next Gary Kasparov. It turns out, not so much. After I flicked the bird to Combinatorics and P-Chem in college, I prayed that I’d never have to “do math” again. And so it went for fifteen years. Then I met “By Hound & Eye.”

I couldn’t sleep last night, so I printed out the excerpt Chris posted. It was fast, fun and addictively satisfying. Like crack. Er, I mean Sudoku, that first time you played it. Armed with nothing more than a pen, some napkins and a pair of chopsticks, I’m now equipped to show all my art historian friends how mankind first invented that perfect 90° angle.

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If, like me, you tend to think descriptively, you might want to approach By “Hound & Eye” as if it were titled “Da Vinci For Dummies” or “Shop Trignometry 101.” The entire exercise on squaring circles, pages 41-55, took me nine minutes to complete. The second time, just two minutes. So that brought my total investment to 121 minutes. Oh wait, did I forget to mention what I did for the first 110 minutes of insomnia? That’s how long it took me to find a compass.

The problem is that I’ve thrown all my compasses in the waste bin. The most recent iteration was a “Made in Germany” model by one of my favorite writing brands. I’d paid about $30 for it at a nice art store, in hopes of improving my Arabic calligraphy. But man, that compass was one of the most frustrating, imprecise, cheap-#@$ pieces of %^&@ I’ve ever purchased. I tolerated it for five years. Then last summer, after seeing my three year old draw a better circle by hand, I chucked it in the trash. It turns out globalization has brought us not only thousands of tool-like-objects, but also millions of writing-like-instruments.

So last night I spent 90 minutes scouring the house in hopes that my wife still had a cheap compass squirreled away somewhere. Turns out, I must have thrown hers away too. (Yes, I have a bad habit of burning things that don’t work. I know some people resell their junk on e-Bay, but I just can’t bring myself to pretend – even to a complete stranger – that an object that doesn’t do what it was designed to do is worth even a penny.)

Around minute 90, I started deliriously screaming expletives in the basement. I’d forgotten it was 2:15 a.m. Startled, my pregnant wife wobbled downstairs to find out what the crisis was. I explained. Confused, she asked me, “Don’t you have a bunch of those in your workshop?” “No,” I replied, “Those are dividers. A compass is like dividers but with a pencil on one side.” Still bleary eyed, she yawned for fifteen seconds, then went into my office, picked up a pencil and handed me a roll of scotch tape. I blushed.

This now-obvious solution works better than any compass I’ve ever owned. First I used a wooden pencil and the tape. Then I found that a mechanical pencil with rubber bands was even sturdier and faster to adjust. Both variants allowed me to draw the concentric circles on p. 46 on my very first try.

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So, if you haven’t completed the excerpt yet, here’s my promise: it will only take you 10 minutes. That’s assuming you already have a Starrett 85. Otherwise, this exercise will take you 12 minutes, because you’ll have to first spend two minutes making your own compass.

Oh, and save some trees. Unless you want to use the excerpt as a coloring book, the only pages you’ll need to print out are pp. 46, 48, 51 and 56. Go get ‘em, Albert.

— Brian Clites, your new moderator and author of TheWoodProf.com blog

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11 Responses to Step One: Make a Compass

  1. Jeff Faulk says:

    A creative thought. I’ll have to try that with my own mechanical pencil and dividers (Zebras FTW!)… thanks!

  2. marvthompson says:

    I pre-ordered the book and got the download as bonus. I promptly printed it out and 3 hole punched it. Put it in a binder and have been having fun ever since. Found the compass right away, I use it in the shop frequently, but really like the mechanical pencil idea.

  3. mauriceu2014 says:

    My 60 year old Ditzgen and K&E defeating tools work amazingly well. I’ve no experience with newer compasses, but the vintage tools are easy to come by, via eBay, or local second hand shops. A shop in these parts has 2 or three complete sets of tools that they can’t seem to sell, so I’m sure the investment is not too much. We scour around for vintage woodworking tools, or pay top dollar for new premium chisels and planes, why scab something together with spot and bailing wire (or tape), unless it’s to cure insomnia?

    • Brian says:

      I will keep my eyes out for a D&K. I prefer used dealers over eBay. Ever since some press chose dividers as their logo, however, compasses and such have been harder to obtain at fair value. But all of this is besides the point — I want other novice and apprentice builders to try the exercises, so I shared my experience for the benefit of those who do not yet have a full kit of layout and drafting tools.

      • jenohdit says:

        A full set of drafting tools has its place but it is far from necessary. Those exercises are literally elementary school or junior high math and or art class basics. Any store with school supplies has all the tools you need. I found a compass and ruler online for less than $6. That’s a national chain that has those items in stock a 5 minute drive away.

        Large vintage drafting sets are large because they have both pen and pencil tools and multiple sizes of compasses. Later sets 70s-90s used screw in precisions ruling pens, earlier sets were adjustable dip. Someone will probably start blogging about how great dip drafting pens are and it will be the thing to do but not yet. One mid-sized pencil compass is all you need.

        If vintage tools are your bag, K&E are Starrett level tools made for drafting professionals. You can’t go wrong with any of their tools, assuming they aren’t damaged. Deitzen and Gramercy are great too. Alvin tools aren’t my favorite but are solid tools and common college level tools. My favorite compass is a 60s era Riefler with a screw adjust. There are excellent values readily available on all of those right now on this internet thing.

        In the shop, I have never regretted that investment I made in a Starrett 92-9 Carpenters’ Divider, which brings up another issue. Geometry as it developed came from a scale larger than the human body. It was the measurement of the earth. The Ancient Greeks drew in the sand.

        Geometry’s subsequent history is a series of attempts by humans to find order in the universe, discover the secrets of man’s relationship to that to impose order on the earth. In short, pyramids => classically inspired furniture.

        If you really want to open up your inner eye as well as the rest of your senses, draw those exercises with shop quality tools at furniture scale. Better yet draw them on a wall or on the ground with the square sized to the span of your finger tips. That illustration of the Vitruvian man is all about the significance of that particular square.

  4. mauriceu2014 says:

    DRAFTING TOOLS, not defeating tools, and SPIT not spot. Damn auto correct! Wish that Word Press would allow edits.

  5. proclus153 says:

    If you really want to get deep into compass and ruler geometry, Euclid is a fascinating read. The Elements of Geometry mostly consist of proofs, but they’re arranged as though the ultimate purpose of the proofs is constructions, culminating in the constructuon of the Platonic solids. One of the most interesting propositions is the construction of a regular pentagon, which hinges on the ability to divide a line in “extreme and mean ratio [Heath tranlation]” (also known as the golden ratio). I can’t recall whether Euclid’s method is simple enough to be useful in practice, but it’s certainly interesting.

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