Wit’s End: Design and Fabrication on Cortes Island 

 Wits End: Design and Fabrication is setting up shop on Cortes Island.  Arne Olafson was looking for a space to use his equipment, when he walked into the Squirrel Cove General Store last December.  

“Curt’s a really friendly guy and he’s super helpful. I was asking who had room for such a big machine, and Curt said that I could move into the shop here. I moved in. There was just some sweeping up, and then I had to build a table for my machine because I couldn’t move my whole table from Hornby Island. I did  move the top part of the machine, which fits in my van,” he said. 

Olafson has been living on Hornby Island for the past 7 years, but is well known to many Cortes Island residents. 

Arne Olafson – submitted photo

Arne Olafson: “We haven’t officially moved yet. I’ve made about six trips and I still have a few more to make, and some heavy tools, but we started moving here last Spring. I do fabrication in all kinds of media, including wood, plywood, resins, metal, modern composites. All kinds of things and they can be mixed together. It’s a creative fabrication lab.”

“The main current project is Puzzle House and plywood furniture to go along with the puzzle house.” 

(Puzzle houses are something like tiny houses.) 

“I don’t know if any of your listeners remember, but I made the Moon Swing that was in front of the co-op for years and years.” 

“I also make engraved signs and I’m set up to do industrial quantities for decks or siding with the Yakisugi technique.” 

Cortes Currents: What is the Yakisugi technique?

Arne Olafson: “It literally means ‘burned Cyprus.’ The Japanese Cyprus is almost identical to our cedar from a woodworker’s perspective. It’s the scorching or burning of the wood, and then you brush it to make it burnished. The burning process burns away  the quick soft summer growth  and leaves more of the harder winter growth.  You get a really sliver free deck or surface.  It makes the wood very beautiful and it makes it last longer as well.” 

 Cortes Currents: How long have you been working with wood?  

Arne Olafson: “Ever since I was a kid really? I grew up in an art gallery and I learned  picture framing, which is fussy work.  Then  after a year of university, I dropped out to take guitar building with Michael Dunn. I worked in cabinet and furniture making shops for years and years.” 

“Wit’s End was established in 1992. Originally I made hats and garments. I moved into juggling equipment manufacturing, and then took several years off while my children were growing up.” 

“My daughter decided that she wanted to help me make and sell the moon swings.  I decided that pattern routing was too dangerous and uncomfortable for her, and especially in the summer. It’s just a nasty business. The rest of the finishing is really quite fun, getting all the edges smooth and round and getting everything jointed and just right.  The aniline dyes are delightful. I mix my own colours from the Lee Valley aniline dye collection. The plywood is all dyed up, with a MinWax finish. All the pieces are hanging up  around the yard and it looks like a giant candy store. It’s really fun and the colours get all mixed and matched. Every moon swing was unique.” 

“I decided  that palm router for pattern routing was not good enough and I decided to learn CNC operation.”  

“CNC is  a flying robot drill cutter for the non-technical . A computer drives a router around a table up and down back and forth and side to side.  So I can cut things out of wood and it also makes engraving so  I can put  a VG groove bit into it and swoop in and get all my corners and everything just right, if I’m lucky. I went down to Vancouver to MakerLabs, took a course and qualified for use of their CNC router and started making moon swings.”

“I had to get the hang of the vector drawing and  Adobe Illustrator or Inkscape. My skills have improved  in the vector drawings. I’m pretty quick at getting cut files ready now.” 

“The dream is to get some of these designs that I have out into the world and start providing people with really inexpensive lodgers and tiny homes for starters.” 

“I’ve applied the same principles of the moon swing to the puzzle house project,  namely mechanical-jointed plywood. That moon swinging was stress tested. An immense amount of force: two large guys  trying to find out where it would break. Eventually we just gave up on the experiment because we were worried about the eight inch thick tree branch breaking.” 

“The puzzle house has the same principle of mechanical jointed plywood, and that’s what gives it its strength.”

Cortes Currents: Tell us about the structure, and strength, of the buildings you’re making.

Arne Olafson: “This demo that I made really snuck up on me. I didn’t have the technique for building it correctly, and I do now after my fourth building. I’ve learned that it needs to be completed from the inside out too,  not the outside in. And that way everything’s square and everything goes smoothly.”

“The last one that I made is  a pint size puzzle house, which is a four by eight footprint. It’s very similar to the Puzzle House except it is quite small and it went from pre-assembly all the way up to lockup and doors and windows in four hours. I imagine the Puzzle House can be put up in a day and I’ll know soon when I build one myself.”

Can you give me a price on these Puzzle Houses? 

Arne Olafson: “The last time I checked it was $3,000, including the polycarbonate for the Harlequin glass and also the EPDM for the roof.” 

“That was without the floor. Since then, I’ve developed a technique for building torsion box floor which is quite economical, goes very quickly and is very sturdy.”  

“The torsion box is commonly used for making cabinet shop tables or anything that needs to withstand quite a bit of weight  with very minimal deflection. It consists of plywood being cut standing up and notched out so it can interlock into a grid formation. Once plywood is set on top and below the grid,  it provides  a very sturdy structure.”

“The aluminum composite panel that I use for sign making is built on the same principle.  It’s a thin layer of aluminum bonded to polyethylene on either side, and then powder coated, matte on one side and gloss on the other. The end result is quite a rigid panel, ideal for sign making because it withstands weather and doesn’t expand or contract.”

Cortes Currents: How big was the one that cost about $3,000.  

Arne Olafson: “That’s 9½ feet to the peak of the arch, by eight feet wide, by 11 and a half long. I lose three inches for every puzzle shaped mechanical joint along each truss where it acts as a nailer.” 

“The trusses are compound laminate veneer lumber, (LVL), truss, I believe, or arch. It’s components are made of ¾ inch Canadian exterior plywood, all cut on the CNC with puzzle shaped joints.  There’s 21 of them in the eight wide truss, and they all get glued and fastened together.  Once the glue is set, It behaves as a single piece of lumber.”

“That’s the principle behind laminate veneer lumber. If you look it up on Google, it will give you all results pointing to laminate veneer lumber being for making larger beams out of plywood.” 

Cortes Currents: You told me a story that illustrates how strong these tiny houses are.  

Arne Olafson: “The demo snuck up on me.  It took me a long time to make where I was.  It ended up, I was too busy to finish the roof and I didn’t even have the battens on it. We had between 8 to 10 inches of snow, that was rained on immediately, and then froze for days. I can’t imagine a building going through more, I guess you’d call it, slush load. It did not buckle in the least, and it had no battens, which are its main structural component.” 

One of these houses has even hit a tree.  

Arne Olafson: “When I was trying to move it out of the driveway,  I learned a lesson. You don’t remove the chains from the trailer until the ball is released fully. I released the chains and then when I hit the pin on the trailer ball, the entire building went flying backwards onto a tree. I heard this loud crushing sound and I went to inspect the damage all that had happened was  a piece of the three eights inch plywood had shattered on impact. It’s a testament to their strength.”  

Cortes Currents: So in many cases, it actually would withstand a tree falling on it. 

 Arne Olafson: “It can withstand being flown at a tree. We can say that.” 

Cortes Currents: Are you open for business right now? 

Arne Olafson: “I’m open to visitors.  Sometimes it’s quite noisy, but if people want to come and see  the robot. I’m usually here in the afternoons. You can reach out to me on the website if you would like to book an appointment, or to talk about some custom fabrication, or a puzzle house, or a pint size puzzle house.”

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