Part-time Passions: September 2013

These IEEE members enjoy woodworking and choreography

23 September 2013

Victor Skowronski

Going for Baroque

IEEE Member Victor Skowronski discovered he had a penchant for contra dancing in the 1980s. With its easy-to-follow footwork and the custom of changing partners with each dance, it allowed him to show up alone, without a partner, and still participate.

As time went on, Skowronski—a systems engineer who works with Jacobs Technology Engineering and Technology Acquisition Support Services, in Lincoln, Mass.—progressed in his ability and moved to a more difficult style known as English country dancing, which originated around the time of the Age of Exploration. Its patterns are more complex than those of contra dancing, and that appeals to the engineer in him, he says.

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He has since taken his hobby to a still higher level by choreographing dances. His engineering career and hobby have much in common, he says, noting that developing dance steps helps him stay inspired between engineering projects.

“I need to do something creative on a regular basis,” he says. “If my technical work is at a lull, I end up choreographing dances.”

Creating a dance to fit a specific tune and presenting it in a clear format so that people can follow it add a problem-solving aspect to the process, he says. After writing the choreography, he tests it at the end of organized dances with fellow dancers and choreographers who volunteer their time.

“Every English dance has its own tune,” he says. “I am particularly enamored of Baroque music, which lends itself well to English country dancing. There are many danceable tunes in this genre.”

Skowronski looks for tunes that are still to be choreographed. “The problem has yet to be solved for that tune,” he says.

He spends about four hours each week on some aspect of English country dancing, he says, whether it’s dancing, organizing events, or working on choreography. “My time spent on choreography varies greatly,” he says. “I might go months without working on a dance. Then suddenly I get an inspiration and have something ready in a week or two.”

He attends country dances around New England. He’s a member of the Country Dance Society, Boston Centre, and is on the organizing committee for its Harvard Square English country dance section, which focuses on introducing the style to new participants.

Skowronski posts his choreo­graphy and tunes using a program ​called MusiXTeX, which helps people understand how the two are in sync. He offers free downloads of his choreo­graphy, with music that’s in the public domain.

“I just ask that if a group uses one of my dances in a program, they spell my name right,” Skowronski says. “That’s no small feat.”

Scott Olsen

Tool Time

As a child, IEEE Member Scott Olsen loved to visit his grandfather’s garage, where he would watch his granddad wield woodworking tools as he modified and repaired his home. But it wasn’t until his mid-20s that Olsen became friends with a full-time furniture craftsman and realized he wanted to make woodworking a lifetime hobby.

As a senior engineer for Madison Gas and Electric Co., Olsen spends his days troubleshooting how buildings can use energy most efficiently. He finds the hands-on aspect of woodworking a complement to the thinking processes involved in his job.

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“There’s something satisfying about working with your hands and having an end product,” he says. “Furniture making has a lot in common with an engineering project. There’s the concept design phase, visualizing the building process, securing or making the tools to build it, selecting the materials, and building and finishing the piece.”

And he adds: “I like improving my technique with time and making a valued, high-quality piece so that people will be using and talking about what I’ve made long after I’m gone.”

Olsen is mostly a self-taught woodworker. He relies on a combination of his grand­father’s pointers, a high school shop class, and woodworking magazines and videos, along with an engineer’s penchant for solving problems. Along the way he developed a passion for figured woods with ornate grains and textures, and he learned how the characteristics of different woods respond to his tools.

He spends 10 to 15 hours each week making furniture. First, he sketches his designs on paper, sometimes incorporating into the design wood he finds on the street. He prefers the rounded-edge, streamlined midcentury modern and Danish modern styles and uses mostly local hardwoods such as maple, oak, cherry, and walnut. “I also like to use figured woods with more ornate grains—curly maple, walnut burls, quarter-sawn white oak, and curly cherry—and burls as accents,” he says.

His apartment is furnished with his work, and he’s thinking about starting a sideline business selling wooden picture frames, tables, bookcases, headboards, and desks.

The hobby can get pricey. Start-up costs range from US $3000 to $5000 for power tools, plus the ongoing costs of equipment maintenance, workspace rental, and material.

“Cherry lumber, for example, can cost $50 to $80 a board, and a bookcase usually requires 20 to 30 boards,” says Olsen, who is looking into ways to incorporate LEDs and other electronics into his furniture.

Olsen recommends that aspiring artisans start with local clubs and so-called hackerspaces: community-run workshops where woodworkers socialize and collaborate.

The hackerspaces often rent shop space and tools and can offer guidance, Olsen says. “And as a craftperson improves, there is a need for high-precision tools to get high-quality results,” he adds.

Olsen believes his hobby has benefited him in his day job. “It’s made me a better engineer,” he says. “Parts of what I do can be fairly rote. But making a new piece of furniture—and trying new processes to make it look good and work well—show me the advantages of pushing myself to do better.”

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