Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Romance of Craftsmanship

A Constant Reminder of Purpose
I had the good fortune to be born in 1948.  I grew up in the decade of the 1950's and came of age during the 1960's.  I was a product of the Baby Boom generation, which had its ups and downs.

During the first decade of my life I sought out and read every science fiction book I could find.  My bedroom was filled with such authors as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, Philip K. Dick and, most importantly,  Kurt Vonnegut.  ( I know he was writing later but I lingered on the genre...)

Every chance I had I went to see the movies and was inspired by the Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, War of the Worlds, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and scared to death by the Blob and amused by the Crawling Eye.  I still believe that Forbidden Planet is one of the best movies of that time.  After all, the monster was the Id!  How do you deal with that?

Naturally, my hobbies reflected my fascination with science.  I built sophisticated rockets.  I repaired electronic devices, I even built my own Heathkit tube tester so I would not have to keep running to the drug store to test suspect television and radio tubes.  The invention of the transistor changed everything.

During the early 1960's, when I was in Honors Physics in High School, we were required to submit a Science Fair project.  I decided to build a linear electron particle accelerator.  I have mentioned this before, but when I took top honors at the Science Fair and was selected to represent San Diego at the National Science Fair, I decided to go to Europe and ride a bike for the summer instead.  It is fair to say that my Dad was not pleased with my life choices.

During my entire youth the only things I built with wood were forts, made from salvaged materials.

However, the three months I spent riding my bike around Europe exposed me to museums and castles and the world of Decorative Arts that I did not even know existed before.  For the first time in my life I was thinking of the past rather than the future.  Living in Southern California all my life I thought the oldest thing around was the first location of the McDonalds.  Honestly there were a few Victorian houses in the older neighborhoods but nobody took them seriously.

So it was only natural when I returned to California and started my college education at UCSD,  that I would be interested in classes in History, Philosophy, Literature, Music and Humanities, in addition to the standard Math, Chemistry and Physics.  In the words of Paul Saltman, the UCSD Provost:  "We will educate you to become Renaissance Men!"

Like many before me, I got married while in college and managed to buy a small house.  To fill that house I needed furniture and at the end of the street was a used furniture resale shop.  I have already talked about buying and fixing these old pieces of history to help pay for my lifestyle.  However, I never considered any career but that of High Energy Physics research.  During the entire 4 years while I was at college, I worked 20 hours a week in the Physics Department earning minimum wage. In addition, during my Sophomore  year (1968) I took classes by mail while I worked 80 hours a week for the entire year at Brookhaven Labs in New York, assisting the team from the Physics Department on a large research project.

I still remember clearly the stark contrast between the "Summer of Love" and the "Year of Revolution".  In 1967 I enjoyed 3 months riding a bicycle around the historic countryside of Europe and in 1968 I suffered in the heat and humidity working around the clock in a large impersonal laboratory adjusting research equipment while the news reported widespread revolts across the globe.

In my mind, I decided it was more peaceful living in the past rather than the present.  The rational part of my mind keeps reminding me that not all of the past was pleasant, but I allowed the romance of the past to transport my sanity into another world.  I fell in love with antiques.

It was during this time that I read David Pye's incredible treatise, "The Nature and Art of Workmanship."  Since I had opened a small antique business buying, restoring and selling antique furniture, I wanted to more seriously research the field of Decorative Arts.  Although the text of Pye's book was esoteric and seriously intellectual in its treatment of Design, Craft, and Workmanship, I focused on the rather basic concept of "Workmanship of Risk" and "Workmanship of Certainty."

I was living two different careers at that time:  Antique Dealer and Research Physicist.  It was obvious to me by working on antique furniture that the pre industrial craftsmen took great risks with their materials and design to create masterpieces.  At the same time, the work of a research physicist was to eliminate risk as much as possible in collecting data that was reliable.  Many of the experiments we were performing produced millions of data points and if even a small percentage of that data was questionable, then the results could be considered worthless.

In fact, as it turned out, all the data we collected during the year at Brookhaven proved to be worthless, as an error in our preliminary calculations made the experiment itself faulty.  It was an eye opening experience.  To see how much time and materials had been exhausted in the search for the missing particle, and then to just throw out the IBM punch cards, like so much trash, made me look seriously at my life choices.

There were compounding problems with the career of a research physicist which began to make me think about my future.  I was exposed to radiation and dangerous chemicals.  I realized that nuclear waste was not being treated properly.  I knew that the development of nuclear power was the wrong solution, both for military and civilian uses.  I felt that I was part of a cult of scientists who believed that they could "control" the atom and that, unless you were also a physicist, you could not be trusted with the secrets.

It took about 5 years for me to decide which direction I wanted my life to go.  In the years between 1969 and 1973 I worked both jobs at the same time.  During the week from 9-5, I was a research physicist, and in the evenings and weekends I was a furniture conservator in private practice with a brick and mortar location, as well as a part time teacher of Decorative Arts in the Adult Education system.  I even managed to produce a 10 part television series for CBS during that time.

In April, 1973, I abruptly resigned my position from Maxwell Labs and walked out the door, leaving behind a guaranteed paycheck, paid health benefits and a retirement package.  In a real analysis, I was leaving a career of certainty and choosing instead a career of risk.  I have never regretted that decision.  Many clients over the years have said the same thing: "You are so lucky to be able to make a living doing what you want."  To me, it was the only logical decision I could make.






Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Brave New World Teaching

I am what you would call an "old fashioned" teacher.  I spent the early part of my career teaching four nights a week in the Adult Education classes which were popular in California during the 1970's and 80's.  That meant I taught Decorative Arts classes for each semester, which required 18 different 3 hour classes.

After 15 years of that type of teaching, I moved on to giving specialized classes in the Decorative Arts at various universities and colleges, generally on the quarter system.  Those classes were very popular at first, but the fashion of collecting antiques gradually went away and after the end of the last century, my teaching was reduced to occasional lectures for various groups.

My teaching  methods focused on providing as much information as possible in the time given.  During a typical 3 hour talk I would spend the first hour with a chalk board giving necessary background data on the subject, as well as introducing all the relevant research material such as books and museum sources.  The second hour would be spent on showing and discussing as many as a dozen examples of antiques for that topic as I was able to bring to class.  It is essential in teaching conneisseurship about quality, style and construction that the student is able to directly examine the object.  The third hour was showing slides of the different objects which represent the topic in question.

When I say slides, I mean that I used two carousel projectors with 80 slides in each.  By showing two images simultaneously you can begin to make subtle comparisons.  Also, with so many slides and so little time there was no falling asleep.  You had to pay attention, as you only had about 30 seconds for each image to see what was important.  I found that by throwing this much visual information at the student in such a short time that they subconsciously were able to absorb quite a bit.

Those days of teaching in person and with "hands on" methods seem like ancient history now.

I am reminded of the time some 40 years ago that I ended up buying a fake console table from Benjamin Ginsburg in New York.  I bought it from photos and when I had a chance to examine it in person I quickly determined it was put together.  However, Mr. Ginsburg (one of the most respected antique dealers in NY) was very old, and mostly blind.  I guided his hands over different surfaces of the table to convince him it was not right.  Eventually he agreed and I was refunded my money.

That was really a "hands on" experience!

These days the new format is YouTube videos, blog posts and more recently Zoom, GoToMeeting and many other apps for internet groups to meet.

Just last week I was able to participate in my very first virtual lecture.  I was asked by George Adams,  representing the New Hampshire Woodworker's Guild, if I could give a group talk about using protein glues.  Of course I was excited to try this new format, so we worked out the technical issues and Patrice helped make it work.

They asked me for a two hour lecture, and I said fine.  It turned out pretty well considering we did not know what we were doing.

You may enjoy the video by clicking on this link:  Protein Glue Talk

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Once a Fake, Always a Fake

Anger Management Issues Much?
Years ago, when I was a popular speaker on the "Antiques/Decorative Arts" circuit, I often presented a talk which was very well received.  The topic of the talk was "When Does A Fake Become Antique?"

My main point was that fakes can live long enough to be considered antique, simply by age.  For example, at the Getty Museum there is a French piece of furniture, made around 1790.  At that time it was a fad to deconstruct old Boulle furniture (which was probably in poor condition) and use the elements to remanufacture new pieces.  Therefore, what might be considered a fake in some intellectual circles now is proudly displayed in a major museum as an artifact of that period.

The other point of my talk is this:  If you counterfeit money and take it to the bank it is recognized and destroyed.  By keeping fake money out of the market, the true value of real currency is protected.   However, there are thousands of examples of actual fake antiques which are bought and sold every day.  When these are recognized, they are then considered to have "decorative" value instead of "antique" value.  Often the price is the same.

I think I have told the story of a rather large "Louis XV Television Cabinet" that has been living in Los Angeles for several decades.  I was first confronted with this object when I was hired to provide my expert opinion as to its age.  It was fairly easy to determine that it was put together with the parts from two different 18th century French armoires.  However, the price that the client paid was $240,000.  When our report was submitted to the client with our findings, the decision was made to return it to the dealer.

About 5 years later I was again on a job in Los Angeles, in a wonderful large mansion.  I was asked to look at a sideboard in the dining room.  As it was my first meeting with that particular client, I wanted to impress him with some of my background experience, and I told him about the "Louis XV Television Cabinet."  His expression was of utter shock and he said that I had better look at the antique armoire in his master bedroom.

Of course, as I entered the room I was immediately aware that it was the same piece.  And that it had been purchased at the same ridiculous price.  Fortunately, he was able to return it to the dealer.

A year later, as I drove down Robinson in Los Angeles, past the antique dealer's shop, there it was, sitting in the window, ready to be sold again.

Last year I gave a lecture at my old school, UCSD, to a group of collectors.  You can watch the talk which I posted on an earlier page of this blog.  After this talk, two of the audience members brought an antique to my shop for restoration.  It was carefully wrapped and had been kept in storage for several years.  They mentioned that it had been in the family for generations and was valuable.

As soon as I saw it my heart sank.  I do not like being the bearer of bad news, but I am compelled to speak the truth, and my many years of experience provides me with the background to know what I am talking about.

"Unfortunately, this is an English fake which was made around 1900."

They were crestfallen.  They just asked what it would cost to restore it, and then decided to just walk away.  It was free to me and a terrible loss to them.

It was supposed to be a William and Mary dressing table from around 1700.

Got to Love the Legs!

This was what it looked like:

Veneer Attached With Contact Cement
Old Finish Covers Sins
To make it worse, someone had removed the legs and added cheap modern alder cabriole legs:

Proper Turned Leg or Modern Cabriole Leg
I went ahead and started turning proper William and Mary legs, as it was a form I had never done before.

Rough Turning in Walnut

Since the fake had rather nice brass hardware and lock, and the casework and drawers were rather well made, I decided to skin it and add the proper burl walnut veneer with herringbone banding and hand made molding.  I also designed and veneered a proper stretcher.


Still a Fake
I used an interesting flitch of French walnut to make the top attractive:

I Like the Pattern
I also used some fine burl veneer for the cabinet:


Big Improvement
All the veneer was laid using Old Brown Glue, which made the work very efficient.  A few coats of shellac and some paste wax and the poor old fake was ready for its new life as a modern fake.

I wonder if at some distant time it will be considered important and stand in a major museum as an example of this time?

Just sayin...


Now What Do I Do With It???


Fake Antique



Thursday, April 23, 2020

Five SAPFM Cartouche Woodworkers

Some of My Peers
This post is a test.  As you noted the last few blog posts have had their photos removed.  I do not know what caused this, but I will work to fix it soon.

In the mean time, please read older posts.  It seems that they are still in place.  This started with April posts.  Before April, 2020, all remains.  That's 10 years of material.

If you know what I can do to fix it, send me a comment, please!

NOTE:  I have solved the problem.  I deleted the images and reposted them.  Back to work.)

Monday, April 13, 2020

Three Centuries After A.C.Boulle

Boulle Work


Imagine creating a form of furniture decoration that is inherently unstable and extremely expensive that somehow has lasted over three centuries.  Not only creating the decoration but having your name associated with the design, the process, the material and the end result.  Also having the most important trade school in Europe named after you.

That is the legacy of Mr. A.C. Boulle, cabinetmaker to King Louis XIV.  His work was so significant that the King gave him a large room in the Louvre to set up his workshop.

Only the very rich could afford to have Boulle furniture.  Only the very skilled and highly specialized furniture makers and restorers can create and maintain these objects.  Even if boulle furniture is kept in a controlled environment and protected from extremes of temperature and humidity the complicated surface will begin to lift within a decade or so.  Such is the problem of gluing brass, pewter, tortoise shell, ivory, mother of pearl, horn and other non wood materials to a wood substrate.

The reason is that all these diverse non wood materials expand and contract in different ways than the wood they are attached to.  In the hot dry climate the metal expands and the wood shrinks.  In the cold damp climate the metal shrinks and the wood expands.  Only one type of protein glue seems to work: fish glue.  In addition to using this specific glue the metal needs to be toothed on the glue side and rubbed with a fresh clove of garlic just prior to application.

This method was perfected in the last decades of the 17th century by Boulle and others, and in the subsequent centuries no modern adhesive works better.


Beyond Repair?

Perhaps the most serious threat to this type of furniture is the ignorance of furniture repair shops, who think they can repair loose elements with epoxy or even nails.  They do not realize that the unique quality of fish glue is that it allows the surface to actually creep during environmental cycles and remain stuck.  Using nails or epoxy fixes those repairs to the wood substrate and when the environment changes it causes other elements to lift, creating new damage.

Epoxy Failure

Another more recent problem is that the material itself (tortoise shell) is a controlled substance, listed on the C.I.T.I.E.S convention.  This means that it is not possible to purchase or transport across country borders.  I have been in business for over 50 years and have a good stock of shell which I purchased years before it became a problem.  There is also the possibility to recycle used pieces of damaged shell from furniture that is beyond repair.

Nails Damage the Surface
Animal Horn, Hawksbill and Green Turtle Shell


Recycled Scraps of Antique Tortoiseshell

In our shop we use thermal fax paper to capture the shape of the missing element and then find a suitable scrap of matching shell.  With the French chevalet we are able to cut the proper piece to fill the hole in the surface.

Thermal Fax Paper with Tortoise shell Elements

Match The Repair Element Above with These Losses
Patrice Lejeune at Work



Once the surface is stabilized and properly glued down the cleaning can begin.  There is a unique French product which is designed to clean oxidized brass and polish shell.  It is called "Eau Japonaise" and is slightly acidic.  You use cheese cloth and this product to clean the surface.  The results are dramatic.

Before and After Cleaning
Always Dramatic Results!
Final Cleaning

Several months ago Patrice and I received a call from a client who wanted us to restore their boulle table.  We travelled some 50 miles up into the mountains and down a long dirt road where they met us and took us to a large open barn.  Inside the barn, along with other household goods, was an amazing boulle center table from the Napoleon III period.  It had sat there for decades, exposed to the dirt and heat, without protection.  It also had a finish which was very damaged and not original.

The biggest problem with it was that all the shell elements were dry and blistered and falling off.

Before Restoration

Apron Before Conservation
Wrong Key and Keyplate

Sitting in Open Barn

Gilt Bronze Mounts with Horrible Modern Finish

We were asked how much it would cost to restore this table.  Before I could provide a proper response, I wanted to know if they were going to keep it or try to sell it.  They indicated they wanted to sell it.  Therefore, I advised them to offer it at a low price and sell it without any further investment.  The only way it makes sense  economically is that the person who wants to own this poor thing to be the person to invest in its restoration.  Further the restoration must be done professionally or not at all.

We left them standing in the barn to decide their next step.  It turns out that they took my advice and posted it online at a very modest price.

The next month a client came into my workshop with this very same table for restoration.  They wanted it done right and could afford the price, which was not cheap.  However, our workshop is one of the few actually qualified to do this kind of work, so we took the project.  In my career, this was the most difficult boulle restoration I have every attempted.

Initially, Patrice and Luke Addington began the process of rehydration of the shell surface.  Luke is a serious furniture conservator in Tucson and was invited to help us in this project, as I had other jobs to do at the time.

Missing and Lifting Shell Elements


Vacuum Bag Rehydration of Glue






It took several months of very precise and tedious work to stabilize the surface.  In addition it involved cutting and fitting elements of missing brass and shell.   When the boulle surface was ready it was time to scrub off the modern finish and polish the brass.  This took a month of work to clean using acetone and Scotch scrubbing pads.

We had help from the client himself who hired a person to clean the gilt bronzes.  He did a wonderful job and saved the client a lot of money.  Usually we send these mounts to Paris, but with the current Pandemic this was not an option.

When the table was finally put together this week I just stood back and appreciated the result.







I love my job!

Happy Days


Monday, April 6, 2020

Waiting for Negentropy

No Further Words Needed..

This post is intended for everyone today who is staying inside their homes and working to do nothing so that we can "flatten the curve."  I do not need to explain since we all are in this together.  When the Beetles sang "Come Together" they should have added "with a respectable social distance, of course."

From time to time I play Judy Collins' album "Colors of the Day" and it always gives me the emotional support I need to get through the day.  I also like to look up and appreciate the wonderful variety of clouds that change from day to day.

For those of you who are not outside, I would like to post some of my favorite cloud images, along with the lyrics from Judy Collins:

I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It's cloud's illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all











































My head is always in the clouds!


I REALLY DON'T KNOW CLOUDS AT ALL...