Bike Repair

January 28, 2010

Like most Bostonians, I tend to ride a bike.  Biking is an amazing way to get around, be outdoors, and be a part of a community.  As you find yourself biking more and more, you tend to refine the relationship between yourself and your bike, which is when things in your life start to change.  You might begin to catch yourself wondering what kind of handlebars are right, drop or commuter?  Or you find yourself arguing over the pros and cons of fixed gear vs. single speed.  Or you somehow know the names of everyone at your local bike shop.  Fortunately, you are not alone – there is an amazing community out there to help.

As you bike more, you will undoubtedly learn a little bit about your bike.  If nothing else, you will at least learn to change a tire.  But the more adventurous may start to learn the in’s and out’s of their bike.  Bike building and repairing is both meditative and inspiring. When you work hard to gain a complete understanding of something, I always feel that you find an incredible feeling of satisfaction.  This certainly holds true for bikes.

I bought my bike at Bikes not Bombs a few years ago, and have since changed everything but the frame and the brakes.  First the handlebars got an upgrade, then went all out and took off the gears in exchange for a single speed 16t cog, a new bottom bracket, a new crankshaft, and a 48t chainring, and then finally new wheels and tires a little bit after. (Oh, and I also may have spray-painted my back fender an obnoxious neon green)

Most of what I know comes from my good friend and former roommate, Brad Osgood.   He has been into bikes for much longer than I have, and with a bit more gusto.  I wanted to pass on what he told me regarding bike building and repair:

“As far as bike repair, I learned pretty much everything I know from Sheldon Brown ( He was basically the fixed gear and bike self-repair guru. Until about last February, when he died from MS, he worked at Harris Cyclery in Newton. He was married to Harriet Fell, the CS professor at NU! It’s a small world, after all.

Anyway, he is famous on the internet for having the best bike repair how-to’s. Also you can google for it, and it usually takes you to an article at, which is great as well. He frequented there and you might see something like “AUSBHTA” (as usual, Sheldon Brown has the answer).”

Its true, Sheldon Brown’s site, although sometimes painful to navigate, is a wealth of information.  I have used it countless times in the last few years and always leave it feeling fulfilled.  In the end though, it is best to use your local bikes shops.  The people who work at bike shops share the same passion, and can help you do anything from changing a tire to changing out a bottom bracket.  You can never replace the value of actually talking to someone.

Some paintings I did in Moosehead Lake, Maine over the summer.

DIY Still

January 18, 2010

Because Nirav, Chris and I are all interested in anything DIY, we wanted to try out making our own homemade still.  There are countless versions and variations scattered throughout the internet, and we tried to choose some of the best ideas and modify them to our own needs.  There are a number of characteristics that we wanted it to have.  First, we wanted it to be a pot still because we understood the mechanics and principles behind them.  The downside of a pot still is the near complete lack of reflux – meaning that you will end up with less pure alcohol, which tends to be fine for rum where you want some extra flavors, but is not so good for vodka for example, where you want it to be as pure as possible.  Second, it had to be small and adaptable enough to use indoors on a standard kitchen stove instead of a clunky propane stove that you have to use outside.  Third, it had to be relatively cheap.  And fourth, it had to be easy to make.

The hardest part was deciding on a pot.  It needed to be fireproof, it needed to be sealable, and we wanted it to be glass so we could see and control the process as it happened (unlike in our big copper still).  We chose to invest in a pyrex erlenmeyer flask.  We bought the biggest ones we could find on eBay – 4000ml at the time (although 5000ml and 6000ml are also available).  Mine cost about $20 because of a small chip on the top, but generally they run for about $30-40.  This was by far the most expensive part of the entire still.

Everything else was pretty simple.  We bought 8′ of 1/4″ flexible copper tubing from the hardware store, two drilled rubber stoppers, and a small plastic trash can.  With the stopper in the top of the erlenmeyer flask, we ran the tubing out and coiled it into the trash can.  We formed the coil by wrapping it around a roll of paper towels, but you can make it any way you want depending on the size of your trash can.  We then cut a hole near the bottom on the side of the trash can and put the second stopper in where the copper tubing exited.

During operation, we fill the flask with about 3000ml of batch per run and put the trash can in a sink under a faucet.  Using a sink to cycle cold water through the trash can is the easiest option, although Nirav has rigged up an aquarium pump setup to cycle water that works great too.  If gas starts coming out, dump ice cubes in to try to get the water colder.  The advantage to using this still over our big copper one is that you are working with a smaller batch at a time, and you also have more control over the heat, so you can be more efficient and end up with more distillate.  Other than that, it works just like any other still, and can be made for under $30.

DIY Watercolor Sketchbooks

January 16, 2010

For my trip to Spain and France, I made two sketchbooks from scratch.  All it took was some $4 large format sheets of 140lb watercolor paper I picked up at Utrecht, a 4-ply sheet of black museum board for the front and back covers, and my old office’s binding machine with some bronze-colored coils.  I cut the sheets to 24 pages at 7″x9.75″ and the museum board covers to 7″x10″ so that the pages have some extra protection on the ends.  The result was a lightweight, durable, cheap, and pretty handsome sketchbook.  The advantage, besides being half the price, is that I could choose the size, number of pages, and kind of paper that I made it out of.  Plus you get the satisfaction of making it yourself.

Here are some watercolors from a trip I took this summer to Spain and France. Most were quick 10-15 minute sketches done on site.

Distilling: Part 3

January 15, 2010


So, now that you have a wash and it has stopped bubbling, it is ready to distill.  First you need to rack it, which just involves siphoning most of it out to leaving behind the yeast sediment on the bottom.  Then take it and put it in your still.  

A basic potstill is made up of a few parts.  The pot is what sits over the heat source and where you put the wash.  In the wash, ethanol (alcohol) is evaporated before water because ethanol boils at 173°F vs. 212°F for water.  The now gaseous alcohol travels through the lyne arm, which is a narrow metal tube that comes out of the top of the pot and goes to the condensor coil.  The condensor coil is coiled metal tubing that sits in ice or cold water, where the gas is re-condensed back into a liquid.  The liquid then comes out the end as distilled alcohol.

So, now that you have some terminology down, fire up the still (preferably over a gas stove/heater because they are easier to control) and bring the batch to somewhere around 180°F.  After a tense period of waiting and talking about how the still is not working, you should start seeing clear liquid coming out the end of the still.  If you see gas coming out of the end, it means that your condensor coil is either not long enough or not cold enough, and you need to fix it to avoid losing more alcohol.  The liquid that comes out of the still first is called the foreshot, and contains acetone, methanol, various esters and aldehydes, which are mostly toxic and should be tossed.  Methanol is what causes hangovers in small quantities and blindness in large quantities.  The boiling point of acetone is 133°F, and methanol at 150°F, which is why they come out first.  There are online calculators that can tell you how much to toss based on the size of the batch, and I generally just double that amount to toss.  For a 3 gallon batch, I generally toss 50-100ml.

After that, you should be getting alcohol starting around 140 proof that will lower in concentration as you continue.  You can keep everything that comes out after the foreshot, but it is best to shut the still down when you hit a concentration of about 30% alcohol.  Because it is difficult to measure the alcohol content of hard alcohol, we (we=Nirav) developed a useful trick that gives you good ballpark estimate.  While distilling, periodically set a few drops of collected alcohol aside and see if it will light on fire.  If it does not burn, then you are at a point where you should probably stop the still.  You can also calculate beforehand how much waste and how much distillate you should expect, which is another technique to knowing when to stop.  A third technique is to use hydrometers at all stages of fermentation and distillation to calculate when the batch is done.  Here is a useful calculator for this.

The key to pulling out as much alcohol out of your batch as possible is to keep the water from boiling.  This can be done either with a thermometer or by turning down the heat once it gets going (this gives the alcohol more time to evaporate before the water starts boiling).  The amount of alcohol you end up with can vary drastically depending on how well you kept the temperature and how good your batch was.  I have ended up with anywhere from 2 to 5 wine bottles filled with about 100 proof alcohol from a 3 gallon wash of rum.

While distilling, it is sometimes better to keep the different parts of the batch separate.  Because you get different flavors at different times of the distilling process, if you keep the parts of the distillate separate, you can blend them back together at the end based on taste and smell for a more refined product.

Once you have distilled alcohol, you are nearly done.  All you have to do is water it down to taste (or not) and spice it.  Spicing recipes are totally up to personal preference.  It is best to use solid ingredients over ground ones because you don’t end up with solids at the bottom of the rum that you would have to filter out.  For our rum, we like to add one or two cinnamon sticks, two cloves, two oak chips, and a couple of spoonfuls of molasses and let it sit for about a week before taking the spices out.

It seems that every aspiring painter has a guru.  Mine is Jason Heinze, a former co-worker at Machado Silvetti and friend of mine.  However, since he is already taken, I figured the least I could do is pass on his own personal guru:  Although it is a bit hard to navigate at times, Handprint is mindblowingly extensive.

I also wanted to mention some of the brushes and paints I find to best. In terms of paint brushes, I have tried many different types and styles, but I always end up going back to the two brushes Jason gave me for my birthday last year: a #8 Synthetic and #6 Kolinsky Sable pocket brush.  They are brilliant.  Their tips are flawless and the brush has amazing capacity.  It feels great to paint with because of the weight distribution being towards the brush.  Plus because they are reversible, they are amazing for traveling and painting on the go.

I also put together a 20 color palette (here is my favorite palette) last year based on handprint, Jason, and my own personal preference.  The key is to get paints with only one pigment when possible.  It is always under construction, but here is the list:

Yellow Azo Yellow (M. Graham) PY151
Yellow Green Gold Ochre (W&N) PY42
Light Yellow Naples Yellow (Grumbacher) PBr24
Earth Yellow Yellow Ochre (M. Graham) PY43
Orange Chrome Orange (Schmincke) PO62
Earth Orange Burnt Sienna (W&N) PR101
Red Scarlet Red (Schmincke) PR254
Deep Red/Crimson Perylene Maroon PR179
Earth Red Terra Rosa/Venetian Red  (Utrecht) PR101
Brown Burnt Umber (Schmincke) PBr7
Violet Red Quinacridone Violet (Utrecht) PV19
Violet Permanent Violet (Utrecht) PV29, PV23
Blue Ultramarine Blue (Utrecht) PB29
Light Blue Horizon Blue (Holbein) PB15, PG7, PW6
Blue Green Prussian Blue (Utrecht) PB27
Teal Colbalt Teal (Utrecht) PG50
Green Sap Green (M. Graham) PG7 & PY110
Dark Green Pthalo Green (Schmincke) PG7
Gray Davy’s Gray (W&N) PG17, PBk6, PBk19
Black Neutral Tint (Schmincke) PR122, PB60, PBk7

The list is always being refined as I test out different brand’s versions of particular colors, because certain brands make very good versions of certain colors.  So I’ll post updates as they come.