The Scorcher Menace

This was originally posted on my old, defunct blog and proved to be one of my most popular pieces of writing. Please enjoy, and feel free to add to the conversation.


Bicycles are a mainstay on most college campuses, and are becoming increasingly prevalent throughout urban areas. As both a cyclist and a pedestrian I have on more than one occasion been 'buzzed' by a biker, they zoom past from behind with no warning. I have even heard (a small minority of) cyclists complain about pedestrians on sidewalks and brag about riding past them closely. Last year while walking to class I was clipped by a bike and dropped a very fragile and expensive project I was to present that morning. It should come as no surprise that when I encounter a fast cyclist in a crowd I will usually tell them to slow down, get a bell, both, or worse. As it turns out, this isn't a new problem: during the american bicycle boom of the late 19th century, fast bicycle riders called 'scorchers' were considered a public menace, they inspired whole new police divisions to be created just to deal with them and even a medical hysteria, all before spandex or ironic mustaches.

The first bicycle craze happened in the 1860s, when 'boneshakers' briefly gained popularity, though their harsh ride quality drove them out of fashion quickly, to be replaced by the equally uncomfortable 'penny farthing', or 'regular' which had an equally short life in the limelight. When the 'safety bicycle' (what would become the modern, diamond frame bicycle standard) was invented, it revolutionized individual transport.



We could easily go off topic talking about the ways that the safety bicycle changed the world (lightweight steel tubing, pneumatic tires, gearing systems) and paved the way for automobiles (literally), but today we're discussing the scorcher fad that came with the bicycle boom of the 1890s.

Bicycling had traditionally been the realm of spry young men, mostly due to the extremely difficult riding conditions of the boneshakers and penny-farthings, but when the safety bicycle came to the world many of those conditions disappeared or were lessened considerably. So not only did a wide new range of people take up cycling for fun and commuting, but they could do so at greater speeds than ever thanks to the chain gearing and the bicycle's new, low center of gravity (which made 'taking a header' practically a non-concern). Young men began challenging themselves to reach ever greater speeds.




Cycling was considered a very feminist activity, giving freedom to women everywhere. Though even most feminists advised against wearing men's clothing.

As early as November 1895 citizens were writing in to their local paper complaining that:

"The number of "hoodlums" scorching along... with heads down, with no regard to the safety of persons crossing, is rapidly increasing"

There were cries for police intervention, and arguments that horses would never be allowed to travel so quickly through a crowd. 




Theodore Roosevelt created a “Scorcher Squad” in December 1895, made up of 29 police officers on bicycles. In his autobiography, Roosevelt praised the squad for having “ not only extraordinary proficiency on the wheel, but extraordinary daring.” The Scorcher Squad, in addition to chasing down and ticketing fast bicycle riders, ran down out of control horses and even automobiles, forcing them to slow and eventually stop; some of these events even sound like action-movie fare, such as one officer who made a habit of catching up to runaway horses and getting “alongside the horse and seize the bit in his left hand, keeping his right on the crossbar of the wheel,” at which point he would either dislodge an irresponsible rider or simply calm the horse until it slowed and stopped. These ‘wheel mounted’ police made 1,366 arrests in their first year (though not all of these were bicycle scorchers). Denver, Colorado and Grand Forks, Minnesota began bicycle squads in the summer of 1896, “to control scorchers and sidewalk cyclists.” In Chicago, apparently, bicycle police were using slingshots to hurl lead balls at the spokes of scorchers, the impact would break the rim and bring a cycle to a sudden halt.



Police bicycles had enormous front sprockets to give them an advantage in catching the fastest scorchers.

Police bicycles had enormous front sprockets to give them an advantage in catching the fastest scorchers.


All the additional attention from the police gave some hope that scorching might soon be eradicated, one New York Times columnist wrote in June, 1896 (under the headline Scorchers WILL Be Suppressed):

"Scorchers are the most dreaded of all evils which terrify the wheeling element. But decided steps have been taken to abate the nuisance, and the consequence will be that shortly the bow-backed fiends will be run to earth and suppressed entirely."

However, two years later scorchers were still considered a menace, and by this time they had automobiles on the road to contend with, “nearly every Sunday the spectacle is presented of reckless wheelmen racing with the cars.”



Many incidences of pedestrians being injured in collisions with cyclists were reported in the last years of the 19th century. In October of 1900 a 55 year old pedestrian died following a collision with a 16 year old scorcher named Harry Morton, who was said to be charged with manslaughter. What became of Morton was not discovered by the time of this writing. 

By the late 1890s, the public had become convinced that not only was scorching dangerous and irresponsible, but that it posed a serious health risk to the riders themselves. The “bicycle heart” was said to come from fast riding, which, according to an army recruiting doctor, had a "tendency to enlarge the heart and thus interfere with its proper action.” The French Army also rejected potential recruits for fast bicycle riding, saying that riders had heart trouble. In July of 1899 the New York Times reported that a fast ride had killed a scorcher, the scorcher also happened to be 64 years old and suffered of heart disease.



The second bicycle boom is considered to have ended by 1903, and the golden age of the scorcher along with it. No single event caused the end of the scorching fad, but the rise in automobile use along with social pressure probably contributed. In The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Bicycle Police Ross Petty claims that police motorcycles were being used as early as 1908, and that “closed cars became more popular not only for  patrol work, but for pursuing criminals who frequently attempted to escape in cars that could travel at increasingly faster speeds.” So most of the young men and women likely either grew out of the scorching practice or graduated to internal combustion speeding. Bicycles have seen at least two major revivals since then, and more than likely the scorcher has been encountered in each one.

You can peruse my research page for more information, or if you have anything to add please do so.


Building to Tolerance

Tolerance is more than an old, old wooden ship that was used during the Civil War era. A quick search defines tolerance as “an allowable amount of variation of a specified quantity, especially in the dimensions of a machine or part.” When building anything one must consider the tolerances available in construction; being 1/8th of an inch off will generally not make a difference while framing a house, but being 1/8th off on a jewelry box could ruin it.

Before starting any project the tolerance should be established. Last week I built a couch out of reclaimed pallets. I don’t generally like working with pallets, the material is only vaguely square and often has twists or bends, it also is rarely cut to any standard size. Because of the rough nature of the material and the timeframe I had for the actual construction I knew the tolerances would be fairly loose.

I used a reciprocating saw to cut half-laps into the runners (the thick boards that go under the pallet) and a large angle gauge to set the rake of the legs and back. Deck screws and corner braces held the joints secure. Keeping the tolerance in mind these joints are not very tight, and because the runners had slightly different spacing I had to use shims of 1/2 inch and 3/4 inch mdf to fill gaps. The legs are made of 2x12 lumber from the home store, with a shallow taper cut to lean the couch back slightly.

I referenced a chart of common furniture dimensions from a Core77 article to determine the angles used in this couch, though I kept the seat far more level than recommended at 3 degrees tilt rather than the 12 degrees specified.

This couch has proven popular with my partner and our dogs:


I used deck screws because I anticipate this couch going outdoors one day, after I make a more refined piece of furniture (with tighter tolerances).

See how I made it here:


Duplicating a Disguise

    I made a clay mask and raku fired it with white crackle glaze, it turned out beautifully. Unfortunately raku fired clay does not reach its ultimate potential strength, so this mask (and others) was very fragile and I was not comfortable wearing or selling it.

    After removing the leather lining I placed the mask upon a plaster cast of my own face and covered it with Rebound 25, once the two coats of silicone rubber had cured I used plaster/gauze straps to give the mold a hard outer jacket. Removing the mask from the mold is what finally broke the delicate clay.

    I slush cast the rubber mold with jewellry injection wax, which was attached to a base by wax rods called sprues. The entire assembly was placed within a custom flask (a container) and covered by investment (specially formulated high temperature plaster). The filled flask was placed into a kiln and slowly heated to 1350° F, the wax will melt out of the flask and leave a void perfectly replicating the original piece.

    Once the flask has been cooled back to 1000° in the kiln the bronze is melted in a crucible inside a gas furnace; just before the metal reaches its boiling point it is removed from the furnace and poured into the hot flask. Once the metal has solidified and cooled to below 800° (indicated by the metal no longer glowing) the flask is quenched in a tub of water. The quenching process shocks the hot investment and blows it off the metal. There is usually still investment left on the bronze, this can be cleaned in an ultrasonic bath or scrubbing with soap and a wire brush.

    The sprues can be cut away and the surface of the piece finished in any way desired; I left the front as-cast and sealed it with a spray-on clear coat.


Embellishing a Box

Still on the shop cabinet. With the carcass of the cabinet complete, I needed to make it pretty. With an item like this, essentially a shelf that could be bought at any big box store, I think it's important to really justify making it yourself. Honestly, just building the shelf took several hours, along with the cost of the plywood I couldn't possibly compete with the shelves available in retail stores. The cost and effort of making something like this for yourself is justified by having exactly what you want in the end. If you're going to bother with making it, make it your own.

As an avid admirer of the Art Deco style I wanted to incorporate some of those elements into the cabinet. I have always enjoyed the bold, angular geometry employed by designers of that era, inspired by the sun rising over the mountains of Albuquerque I played with the idea of a rising sun, with a crest made of sunbeams. 

Fabricating the decorations was mostly straightforward, two triangles and a disc are light fair; the crest was a bit more tricky. Adapting a wax-carving strategy I've used in the past I was able to create the crest on my tablesaw using the dado blades. I used half-inch spacers on the fence to form the regular intervals that make the pattern possible. Those spacers were useful also on the bandsaw when I cut away the last waste from the crest.

The biggest challenfe from this part of the build was applying gold leaf to the sun/disc. This was my first time ever attempting leaf and it swung between frustration and elation as I got to know the material. I was very lucky to have my more experienced partner assisting me with this task.

Though I have to admit that my painting skills are rusty I'm still quite pleased with the outcome and especially so because I can now start moving books out into the studio where they'll be most useful. 

Watch how I did it all here:


Building a Box

The absolute best piece of woodworking advice I ever received went something like this:

"Everything we make is a box."

Once you start to look at furniture you'll notice that everything truly is some form of a box. Sometimes the box has no sides, only edges, such as a chair where the legs and seat can be seen as a box with only one side. A table is the same, entertainment centers are collections of boxes. 

Following this rule closely is the bookshelf, a box missing one side. I'm currently building a shelf for my studio to hold reference books and technical manuals, as well as a few of my favorite pieces of sculpture or memorabilia. One important consideration for this project is that my studio often gets very dusty. Between sawdust, metal dust, and dust-dust things in the studio tend to be covered in a fine layer; so my shelf will need a covering, like doors, but I want to be able to see what's inside so they'll need glass panes inset.

With these criteria established I began the build of my Shop Cabinet.

See the basic construction here:


Greetings, Starfighters

I used to blog semi-regularly on a Blogger page where I would update about projects (mostly motorcycle stuff at first) and my thoughts on random subjects (such as bicycle history). This blog is likely to be similar, though with less motorcycles.

I'll be trying to keep visitors up-to-date on my major projects, some thoughts and musings, and showing some behind-the-scenes content from my studio.

Check back regularly, expect me when you see me.