Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Woodworking in America Calls

I am really looking forward to meeting all my good friends and woodworking peers this weekend.  I have been asked to teach a couple of classes, and my wife Kristen and I will also have a booth in the Trade Show area of the conference.

To see a list of classes click here:WIA Lectures

Our booth will be representing the American School of French Marquetry, and I hope to attract new students both to my school in San Diego, and also to Marc Adams School of Woodworking, where I will return to teach next fall.

Marc has graciously sent to the conference one of the chevalets he built for my class.  Unfortunately, the classic chevalet doesn't fit into the typical baggage requirements, so having one of his on loan is a great help.  Thank you Marc.

We are also selling bottles of Old Brown Glue at our booth.  That is assuming the TSA doesn't look at a 49 lb bag of gelled organic glue as a threat.  We included in the package the MSDS just in case.

I used to wonder at Don Weber, the "bodger of paint Lick, Kentucky," when he would stay with us.  His baggage contained a dozen razor sharp turning tools.  I guess if you look authentic, they don't mess with you.

I have had my share of interesting stops by TSA.  One I am thinking of was the time I transported 2 kilos of sand, which I paid a good price for in Paris.  This particular sand comes from Fontainebleau and is used for burning wood in marquetry.  As they ran their hands through the sand, looking for something, they finally asked me, "What is this?"  All I could say was "Sand."

But the most memorable and dramatic event was when I arrived from Paris to clear customs in Philadelphia.  I had a bag which was 50 pounds.  I had purchased a variety of traditional stains, in powder form, as well as kilos of pumice and "soie" which is a silk filtered mineral for French polishing.  At the same time, since American pewter is different than traditional French pewter, I had several sheets of 1mm thick pewter lining the sides of the bag.

So, when I was asked to open my bag for inspection, the inspector looked into a bag, lined with lead sheeting and filled with hand made brown paper kilos of different powders.  He asked me to empty the bag, and as I lifted each kilo out to place it on the table, different colored powders would leak out.  I tried as best as I could to explain why I had placed pewter on the sides of the bag, but he wasn't impressed with my knowledge of traditional marquetry and special materials.

As he reached for the telephone to call a superior my heat sank, thinking my stop over in Philadelphia was going to take longer than I had expected.  However at that same instant a 777 had just arrived and there were about 300 people rushing the gate.  He just gave up, looked at me sternly, and said, "Pack your bag and go."

I guess it does matter if you look authentic. Hope to see you in Winston Salem!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Simple Painting In Wood Etude


Always Start With The Basics


When I decided to open up my marquetry workshop to students, I had to decide what kind of curriculum to follow, knowing that I would have a wide range of students with a wide range of abilities and experience.

Therefore, I followed the musical format which I learned during the decades I was involved with classical music.  At the age of 12, I saw a kid playing the violin on the Ed Sullivan show on TV.  I immediately told my parents that I wanted to learn the violin.  Fortunately, they were able to buy me a moderately good quality instrument and find someone to teach me.  I went every week to get a lesson and made a good effort to practice daily.  I was not always successful, and my teacher would always know when I had practiced or not.

There were fingering exercises, bowing exercises, scales in every key, and very simple practice etudes. It was all about technique.  My teacher was a very old man, and had learned himself from a Russian teacher.  He insisted that I learn the basics before I even thought about playing anything by some composer.  He was right.  I was soon able to join the Civic Youth orchestra, where I sat first chair, second violin section.  (I never had any aspirations to play first violin.  That takes a certain ego.)

In college, I naturally took music and had the good fortune to study with Bert Turetzky, a famous double bass player.  He listened to me play my violin and immediately said, "Forget it.  I need a viola player.  Can you learn to play the viola?"

I went back to my teacher, who was in his 90's and retired and asked him if he could help me.  He was generous enough to show me what I needed and I spent my college years playing the viola in the UCSD quartet.  Some of the most rewarding days of my life.

My point is that, if I had not been shown how to hold the instrument, how to tune the instrument and how to execute the most basic technical aspects of it, I would never have been able to perform Schubert's string quintet in C major successfully.

Thus, since I only teach two weeks of classes every quarter, it is essential that I teach the basics.  How to fit the chevalet to the worker.  How to hold the saw frame and set the tension.  How to make a packet and cut it. How to execute simple etudes over and over.

The first week is the Boulle method, where it doesn't matter much if you can follow the line.  Most students are able to learn fast enough and have enough control to stay on the line by the end of the week.  The second week is the Classic Method (Piece by Piece) where it is essential that you not only follow the line exactly, but are able to cut away exactly half the line consistently.  That takes good eye/hand coordination, and that takes much more practice to master.

There is an etude which is in between these two methods: Painting in Wood.  With this method, you do not have to follow the line exactly.  The pieces always fit, since you are basically using the Boulle method of cutting the layers of the packet in super position.  That means the elements of the design are cut at the same time as the cavities of the background, which is in the same packet.

With the Classic Method, the elements of the design are cut in a separate packet and the back ground is cut in a separate packet, so if you are not careful, they will not fit.  The French developed the Classic Method and were able to keep most of the secrets of this process in Paris.

At the end of the 17th century, the rest of Europe began to evolve the Boulle Method into the Painting in Wood method, as the desire to create more naturalistic marquetry designs became the fashion.  With Boulle, the packets were usually layers of ebony, pewter, brass or tortoise shell, and the overall design was either a positive or negative form of the design ("premiere-partye" or "contre-partye").



Boulle Marquetry Project for Art Institute of Chicago
When the fashion began to change, and the desire to include more types of woods as well as more naturalistic images of flowers and birds became popular, marquetry artists developed the Painting in Wood process.  Instead of solid sheets of material in the packet, they began to include smaller pieces of exotic wood veneers, strategically placed in ares of the design where they were needed.

I wrote an article explaining this process in detail in Woodwork, February 2008, where I show how I made one of my tall case clocks.

The success of this method depends on making sure the elements of the wood you need for the design are exactly in place inside the packet, and that you are able to include as many different species of woods as possible in the fewest number of layers.  Generally, using 1.5mm sawn veneers, I limit my packets to 8 layers of veneer, plus the 3mm back board and the 1.5mm front board.  When using 0.9 sliced veneers, it is possible to include as many as 12 layers of veneer.

I first make multiple copies of the design.  Using those copies, I begin to place my woods in each layer where they are needed.  Then I fill in the gaps with a scrap veneer so there are no voids inside the packet.  I am careful to keep the outside corners of the design for proper orientation.  I usually include at least two different species of woods for each flower, which gives me the option at the end of selecting the proper woods for the best effect.

Working from the back of the packet, I first start with a 3mm back board and a layer of grease paper.  The back layer of veneer is always the back ground, which in this case is ebony.  Note I have colored on the design those parts of the background which are isolated and would tend to get lost if I didn't pay attention while cutting.

Layer F (Background Veneer)

(Note there is no ebony veneer in this photo, since it was used in the project.)

Each of the following photos shows the design for that layer on the left and the layer of the packet on the right.  Since this example is one I use in class, I have covered the layer of veneer with clear packing tape, and you are looking at the back of the layer for clarity, since it is covered with veneer tape on the face which holds everything together.

The next layer is generally either a layer of green or brown for the branches or leaves:

Layer E
Here is the next layer in the packet:

And so on, each layer with its design:

Layer D


Layer C

Layer B

Layer A
Note that I have colored the design with yellow for the parts I need.  That allows me to quickly visualize the final result, making sure I have the desired woods in every part of the picture, before I assemble the packet and begin cutting.  As you can easily see, this process allows for efficient use of small pieces of veneer which otherwise would be discarded.  Plus you can place the grain direction the way you want for the best result.

I make a final drawing and use it when I cut out the packet.  This design shows me all the information I need to select the proper layer of wood from the plug of veneers, each time I cut them out.  The rest is discarded.  I keep only the woods I need for the picture.

Cutting Guide
There are several reasons I like Painting in Wood.  Since I am not very good at drawing, but I am very good at cutting, this process allows me to "improve" the design as I work.  As I said already, it also allows me to use very small scraps of my sawn veneers, which are expensive.  I also find it very stimulating to mentally create the final image and "see" the picture while looking at the layers of the packet.

One of my students, Paul Miller, seems to have also found this process interesting.  After he returned to his workshop and built his chevalet, he sent us a card with the photo of this etude on the cover:

Paul Miller's Card

I really appreciate it.  Soon he will be performing Schubert!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Jewel Cabinet Backstory Revealed




A Little Pride Showing
When I started this blog, I selected one of my favorite pieces to use as the Banner.  The Jewel Cabinet I made nearly 10 years ago has an interesting story and I often use it during my lectures on Painting in Wood to illustrate my favorite method for decorating surfaces.

This Jewel Cabinet was first exhibited in the SAPFM member's exposition, "Contemporary Classics: Selections from the Society of American Period Furniture Makers," at the Telfair Museum in Savannah, Georgia, and I distinctly remember it as being the only piece of European furniture in that show.  Subsequently, it was also on exhibit here in San Diego, at the Mingei Folk Art Museum, as part of the "Forms in Wood and Fibre" exhibition.  I must say it also stood out from the rest of the show, as being from another planet.  My good friend, John Lavine, editor of Woodwork Magazine, was kind enough to place this cabinet on the back cover of issue #101, October 2006.  It is in a private collection today, and I get to see it from time to time.  The last time I looked at it, my first comment was "I could do much better today!"  Then I realized that my thoughts should best be kept to myself.  This craft is an amazing thing: you spend 45 years working every day trying to master it only to find out that there are still many more things to learn.

The art of French polish is a good example. Once, in the most prestigious restoration shop in Paris, I approached a worker who had spent 10 years in that shop and his only job was polishing.  As he was working on a beautiful mahogany table, rubbing away, I watched his darkly stained hands moving expertly over the surface and asked, "Can you tell me some of the secrets of French polishing?"  As I understood his response, in French, I heard, "I've been doing this every day for 10 years, and I still have a lot to learn."

As the photo of this Jewel Cabinet is an iconic part of this blog, I thought it was time I should explain what led me to make such a thing.  Also, since Paul Miller just wrote me and asked if he could use my piece as an inspiration for him to make something similar, I want to post some more details for him to use.  I have no problem with others copying my work.  I have done the same thing all my career.  The difference is that the craftsmen I choose to copy have all been dead for a couple centuries.

In any event, I first saw this cabinet in London, at one of the most well known and expensive antique dealers in that city.  I will not name the company, for reasons which will become obvious in this post.  As I walked through their showrooms, I was impressed with the quality of the objects and the perfect condition they appeared to be in.  In one room I was stopped in my tracks by a wonderful marquetry cabinet with ivory feet and pulls.  I asked the salesman for more information, as I "might have a buyer" and he obliged by handing me three glossy 8 x 10 photographs and the price sheet.

Here is the description on the price sheet:  (Dealer name covered by blue tape)

Name Deleted to Protect the Dealer

There are several points raised by this sheet to consider.  First of all, it is attributed to "France, circa 1690."  Secondly, it is called a "Cartonnier."  Third, it is very strongly attributed to Boulle, without exactly saying so.  (The word is "comparable.")  Forth, it is 116cm wide (this fact will soon be recognized as very significant.)  And, finally, it is 18,500 British pounds.

As soon as I was able to return to my library and do basic research, I found this document:

The Evidence Exhibit A
The type is hard to read, but it says: "Flemish..Antwerp, in the manner of Van Soest..." This page is from an auction sale around the same time as I saw the cabinet in London, and the auction estimate was 7-10,000 British pounds.  I do not know how much it sold for.  I do note that the top section is"a removable superstructure of inverted breakfront form, with a central cubgoard door inlaid with a vase of flowers, flanked by eight drawers..."  More importantly, the width of the cabinet is 116cm.

I doesn't take a lot of conjecture to imagine a person buying this desk, throwing away the base section (since it needs a lot of work), adding ivory feet and pulls to the upper section and calling it French.  The motive is simple: you double your money.

My first suspicion that something was not right, was the term the dealer provided for the object: "Cartonnier."  I know from my reading and visiting museums that a cartonnier in French furniture is a different shaped cabinet which stood at the end of the bureau plat.  In simple terms, it was a filing cabinet for the paper work.  Generally quite tall and shaped to match the Louis XV forms popular at the mid century.  The dilemma faced by the dealer was what to call it, since it no longer was associated with the Flemish desk that used to support it.

In any event, here are the photos supplied by the dealer and what I did with them:

"Comparable to Outstanding Boulle Marquetry"
This first photo is of the central door and two of the small drawers.  The marquetry is very crudely executed.  My process is to trace the designs, rather quickly on tracing paper, so I can begin to memorize the details.  This is the result:

Rough Drawing of Original
At this point, I was convinced that I would not use any of the marquetry designs on the piece.  I could do much better by adapting some of the traditional French designs that are included in all of Pierre Ramond's books.  So I kept the same dimensions and form and redrew the designs completely as follows:

Final Drawing of Marquetry
You might notice that I am not afraid of cutting very little pieces.  The eye of the bird, for example, is less than 1mm in diameter.  I prefer the way the flowers stand in the vase and the perspective of the table top supporting the vase gives depth to the image.  I like to use olive oyster sawn veneers for the vase, as it lends a look of marble to the object.

I cut out the solid woods for the carcase, using quarter sawn white oak and beech.  I rough out my stock and set it aside, with stickers, for a season (at least one year) to adjust to my climate.  I cut out more pieces than I need, so I can pick the best ones when it comes time to build the piece.  While the wood is set aside, I turn my attention to cutting out the marquetry panels, using the Painting in Wood process.  I remember there are 18 panels plus the running bands on the face.  Several of the panels are identical in design but inverted in polarity so as to appear different.

For example, the two large panels on the top ends are the same design, but mounted left and right, with the individual colors of the elements selected as opposite colors.  The 8 drawers are made from only two drawings.  One has an orchid in the corner and the other has a rose.  By flipping the images left and right and changing the woods, it appears that there are 8 different designs.  There are 32 different wood species and all of them are natural colors, except the blue and green woods which are tinted using traditional methods.  Of course all the veneers are sawn material I purchased in Paris from Patrick George and are 1.5mm thick.

Here is the top of my cabinet:


Top of Cabinet
I needed ivory for turning the feet and pulls, so I contacted my friend, David Warther.  He kindly sent me the proper pieces of ivory along with a legal "Affidavit of Origin" documenting where he purchased it:

Legal Ivory
I included this paper with the cabinet when I sold it.  You may check recent posts on this blog to see how current legislation is affecting the trade in ivory, both legal and antique.

I might mention that I like to use full blind dovetails for my cabinets and boxes which are veneered.  This way the dovetail pins do not telegraph through the surface over time.  I did the same for this cabinet.  Everything was hand surfaced and toothed so I could press the veneer in place.  After the panels were laid down, the cabinet was glued together and the ebony and boxwood banding applied.

Here is the front of the original cabinet:

Made by Hand in Antwerp late 17th Century
Here is my cabinet:

Made by Hand in Southern California 21st Century
Here is the back of the original piece:

Back of Cartonnier
Here is the back of my cabinet:

Credit for Design to Louis XIV Coffer 
When I applied the shellac polish, I found myself being detached from the object in a very strange way.  As I stepped out of the job of making the cabinet and transitioned into the job of polisher, I began to wonder "who made this?"  It sounds strange, but when I am in the middle of a project, I can think of nothing else.  But when it is done, I forget all about it and move on to something else.  So, as I polished the ebony and marquetry surface, all I could think of was how amazing this object was, and how lucky I was to be able to work on it.

All told, I spend 800 hours building this cabinet and it sold the day it was finished to the first person who saw it.  Life is good.  There is still a lot to learn.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

New Furniture?? Not My Problem!



Me Looking At New Furniture
During my career restoring antique furniture, I have gotten fairly good at screening calls.  I am always amused at prospective clients who have lived with a piece of furniture for years, perhaps even their entire life, and who have never really looked at it.  Until it broke or was damaged somehow.

Then they call a refinisher to see about getting it "restored."  Of course, these people are people who actually have jobs and hobbies and spend their time doing other things than looking at furniture like they were in love with it.

So I have a series of simple questions, like: "What wood is it?"  When they don't know, I ask the back up question: "Is the wood red (ie. possibly mahogany), brown (walnut?) or yellow (oak for sure).???"

Another series of investigation starts out "What do the feet look like?"  To which the standard answer is "I don't know, I never looked."

The final question is the most obvious: "How old is it?"  And I always get the same response: "It's old!"  Which, of course, is meaningless.  Old compared to what?  Your car?  Your dog?  At this point I hit them with my best shot: "Is it an antique?"  That is when they always say, "I'm not sure, but I know it's old.  I got it from my grandmother."  Always the same type of response.  In the end I insist that they send me a photo since that is the only way I know what they have.

I anticipate the email with photos so I can find out exactly what kind of work is involved.  The majority of the time it is disappointing, and some of the time amusing (to me; not to the client I'm sure) and in rare instances it is amazing and exciting.  A good example happened this week when a caller asked about repairing water damage to their dining table.  Here is the photo I received:

"Water Damage"


Clearly, if you have a table made of MDF with paper thin veneer and finished with a conversion varnish, it is probably not the best idea to use it outdoors in the rain.

I am writing this post since there were three instances this week alone which made me think of the consumer and modern furniture production.

The first one was a call which mentioned a Mission Oak Dining table and "several mahogany pieces."  When I arrived I was shown a Mission Oak table which was very clearly brand new.  The finish on the entire top had peeled away from the wood, leaving large bare spots all over the table.  The finish which was not peeled was cracked and ready to delaminate.  When I asked how old was the table, they informed me that they had bought it two years ago, new.  The "mahogany pieces" were actually mahogany (African) and old (1940's).  I sent them to another refinisher.

Then something exciting happened.  A young couple came in and purchased 4 nice New York dining chairs from me.  These chairs were made in 1850 and were solid Brazilian rosewood, with the original seat upholstery.  They told me they had been buying IKEA furniture, but it always fell apart after a few years, so they wanted to "do the right thing" and buy something with a "low carbon footprint."  I think that furniture manufactured over 150 years ago must have a very low carbon footprint.  Actually, I think at that time it was a whale oil footprint.

When I delivered the chairs, they immediately placed their IKEA chairs out on the curb and, within 5 minutes they had disappeared.  Talk about recycling!

But the most amazing story just happened here at work.  The door bell rang and I opened it to find an older gentleman.  He asked me if I could fix his drawers on two chests he had.  I started to explain that wood drawers often wear out on the lower edge of the sides and the wood runners would also need some repair.  He said that wasn't the case.  I then said that some more modern drawers have a center slide under the drawer, and if that was not in the right place the drawer would be hard to open.

 He said "No.  Actually there are metal slides for the drawer."

"Oh, I see.  What you have is more like office furniture?"

"No," he replied, "It's high end furniture I just bought it, and I paid a lot of money for it."

At that point I told him that I couldn't help him.  But he said that what was wrong was the screws holding the slides were coming out and he could see that they were in the way.

"Why don't you just screw them back?" I asked.

"Because it would void the warranty," he insisted.

"But, if it's high end furniture and under warranty, why don't you just have the store fix it?"  (I suppose this was a dumb question, but I was now in new territory.)

"They have already sent out a repair man twice and he can't seem to fix it!"  He was exasperated.  All I could mutter was "I am sorry, but I can't help you."

As I closed the door of my workshop, I was relieved somehow that it was actually closing out the modern world, and that I could return to my glue pot and workbench in peace.



Wednesday, August 20, 2014

OBG Raises Questions and Provides Answers


Made Possible by Old Brown Glue


I developed and used Old Brown Glue nearly 10 years before I began selling it to the "public." That was almost 15 years ago, and I was naturally concerned about how others would be able to use this glue and what questions they may raise.  Since that time this glue has been used for making American Indian rocket ships, artificial kidney stones, as a bonding agent for exterior sprayed finishes, applying veneer to 10' tall architectural columns in Florida, Alaskan native drums, "craquelure" finishes, and too many other odd projects for me to remember.

Of course, my intention in making and selling OBG from the start was so that other woodworkers would be able to use it and appreciate its unique features, as I have.  So I was pleased to see the increasing number of furniture makers and luthiers who are using this glue on a regular basis.  And, since my name and phone number is on the label, I am constantly hearing from these people and answering their questions. I am happy to be of assistance, and always ready to respond to emails or phone calls, since I feel somewhat responsible for the success of their projects.

In order to fully understand how glue works, it is instructive to discuss not only the glue but the properties of the wood itself.  How the wood is prepared, what species it is, how it is joined and other factors contribute to the success or failure of the work.  That is why studies of adhesion spend a lot of time discussing the material and how it is prepared.  See the article in Fine Woodworking, "How Strong is Your Glue?"

The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) defines an adhesive as a substance capable of holding materials together by surface attachment.  There are a variety of forces at work which make this possible.  The most common is called "mechanical bonding" meaning that the surfaces are held together by an adhesive that has penetrated the porous surface while it is liquid, then anchored itself during solidification.  With some adhesives, there are also other physical forces of attraction, which are referred to as "specific adhesion".  These include intermolecular attraction forces which form bonds between the adhesive polymer and the molecular structure of the wood itself, such as van der Waal's forces and hydrogen bonding.  I believe that covalent bonding is also a factor, which is 11 times stronger than hydrogen bonding, but at this time there is no clear evidence that such bonds constitute an important mechanism in adhesive bonding to wood.

The reason I suspect that these molecular forces are a factor is that water has a strong molecular attraction to wood, primarily through hydrogen bonding with hydroxyl groups of the cellulose which is in the wood.  Since protein glues are carried by hot water, it is obvious to me that they would have excellent penetration into the wood surface and form specific adhesion with the molecules of the wood itself.

Animal glues are derived by the hydrolysis of the protein constituent collagen of animal hides and bones.  They are described as "hydrolyzed collagen', and are actually various amino acids which join in polypeptide linkages to form long chain polymers.  Studies have indicated that most glue molecules consist of single chains terminated at one end by an amino group and at the other end by a carboxyl group.  Cross linkage between protein molecules is possible through hydrogen, ionic and covalent bonds.

These glues are manufactured in a wide range of average molecular weights but are graded for commercial use by a test instrument called a "Bloom Gelometer." In general, woodworkers use glues rated at 192, 222, or 251 average gram strength.  The higher the number, the faster it sets and the more brittle the bond.  The lower the number, the slower it sets and the more flexible the bond.  I have used Milligan and Higgins hide glue, gram strength 192 for the past 45 years, both in the glue pot and it is the basis for the formulation of Old Brown Glue.

The addition of urea to protein glues acts as a gel depressant, simply lowering the gel point.  Franklin and Titebond both manufacture and sell a similar liquid protein glue, and they use other chemicals to achieve the same result, such as ammonium thiocyanate or dicyandiamide.  Because of the large number of hydrogen bonding sites on the protein molecule, an amazingly diverse number of additives can be used to modify animal glues, producing a wide range of results.  My goal was simply to lower the gel point, using the most basic organic chemical, and I chose urea.

The inspiration for this decision was my participation in a research group in France some 20 years ago.
The group was called ADEN, and was a joint collaboration between the Musee des Arts Deco, in Paris and the Ecole nationale Superieure des Technologies et Industries du Bois, in Nancy.  One of the research projects involved testing the use of protein glues, with and without modifiers, in bonding wood to wood and wood to metal.  Long term environmental stress testing was done to anticipate aging.  The results wer published in a paper in a paper by Aurelie Garcet in 1996, titled "Etude des Colles D'Origine Animale Utilisees Pour la Restauration de Marqueteries Anciennes."  The general results of that testing included adding thiourea to the glue but thiourea is a known carcinogen.  The only difference between urea and thiourea is that thiourea contains a sulfur molecule, so I decided to do my own testing with urea after I returned to my workshop.  It took me 37 different formulations to achieve the results I wanted.  Surprisingly, it did not take a lot of urea, but for obvious reasons, I cannot exactly state how I formulate the glue.

The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) has a subgroup, the Wooden Artifacts Group (WAG) which I have been a member of in the past.  This group publishes papers in their WAG Postprints, and in 1990 published a paper by Susan Buck, from Winterthur.  The title was "A Study of the Properties of Commercial Liquid Hide Glue and Traditional Hot Hide Glue in Response to Changes in Relative Humidity and Temperature."  Of course, this was before OBG was developed, so she used "a new, unopened bottle of Franklin Liquid Hide Glue with an expiration date of January 1991".  I should mention that Franklin was the first company in America to sell liquid hide glue.

Her conclusion states:

Based purely on strength characteristics this testing indicates that liquid hide glue is the glue of choice for repairing a join which will undergo significant stress, such as the structural join of a chair in regular use.  But, more importantly, that decision must also take into consideration the environmental conditions.  Under normal conditions of 50% RH and room temperature liquid hide glue provides the strongest bond.  However, hot hide glue proved to be the more stable of the two glues under extreme conditions of high heat or high humidity, and thus would be the ore desirable choice if fluctuation environmental conditions are anticipated."  The "extreme" conditions in her testing occurred at 84 % RH and 150 degrees F.  This is not surprising, as protein glues are reversible and those are the exact conditions under which the glue converts from solid to gel to liquid.

In fact, reversibility is one of the most important features to me in deciding to use protein glues in my work.  All furniture needs repair.  If you cannot reverse the finish or bonding agent easily, the furniture cannot be repaired easily.  One of the reasons antique furniture has survived for centuries is that it can be easily repaired.  As soon as modern adhesives or modern catalyzed finishes or epoxy fillers are used, the antique is damaged severely.

The fact that protein glues are "reversible" always raises questions, since modern synthetic adhesives are not, in fact, reversible.  You need to get both humidity (water molecules) and heat to the surface of the glue to liquify it.  That means that, if the wood joint is well made and tight, and there is a protective finish applied to the wood, and perhaps a wax is applied to the finish, and the object is in an environment which is not the surface of Venus, then the glue will hold.  However, if you throw the chair or guitar into the jacuzzi and leave it overnight, it will come apart.  Seriously, luthiers need to repair their instruments, and I understand that they use a range of glues for different reasons.  Liquid hide glues as well as hot hide glues in different molecular weights are commonly used and work perfectly, and there are instruments which are centuries old to serve as a testament to this fact.

All modified liquid protein glues have a shelf life.  Unmodified dry hide glue has an infinite shelf life, but when the protein is in solution the presence of water facilitates a chemical breakdown of the glue.  The pH changes over time.  Normal protein glue is in the 6 to 6.6pH range.  OBG is formulated to start at 5.5pH when fresh and decay to 6.0 after 18 months in the bottle, regardless of storage conditions.  Keeping it in the refrigerator prolongs the shelf life, and it can be frozen and thawed as many times as you wish, further extending the useful shelf life.

What happens to the glue over time in the bottle is that the viscosity changes as the pH changes.  It starts out as a gel in the bottle, which requires heating to use, and eventually becomes quite thin and liquid past the due date.  It also develops a strong ammonia smell, as a result of the chemical breakdown of the urea, and this is an indicator that the glue is no longer good.  I always recommend you buy it and use it fresh, before the due date, and if you are not sure, do a simple overnight test.

You can also heat and cool it for normal use as often as you want and as many times as necessary.  We do this all day long to adjust the viscosity for our work.  Simply take hot water from the tap and place the bottle in the water.  In a few minutes it is ready for use.  One advantage is that you can use the water to clean your hands since the glue gets very sticky and we often use our fingers.  Of course it is not toxic at all.

There are questions about how the urea affects the glue strength over time and why it is softer than hide glue on the surface.  My research seems to prove that OBG cures over time by loss of moisture, which is a factor of the wood and environment.  Thus, when the glue is applied to a joint or other surface and pressed together, the wood absorbs the moisture, allowing the glue to cure fairly rapidly.  However, the glue which squeezes out and rests on the surface retains a high degree of water for a fairly long time.  It might take days or weeks for it to completely dry out, which makes it softer than hot hide glue, which always dries brittle and hard.  I think this is an advantage in my work, since I often work with period finishes and the hot hide glue will damage the finish when I try to remove it.  I find the liquid glue cleans up easily with cold water and a sponge, conserving the original finish.

Thus, inside the joint, after the water has dispersed and the glue has cured, there is no longer any reaction between the protein glue and the urea modifier possible.  The glue is stable over time, and I have tested many projects over my career which gives me the confidence to continue using and promoting this wonderful material.

Further reading can be found in my article, "Why Not Period Glue?", published in the Society of American Period Furniture Makers Journal, November 2001.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Fine Art or Decorative Art? It Makes a Difference!

Made of Wood.  How Can This Not Be Fine Art?

Three things happened to me when I lived in Paris off and on for a decade in the 1990's.  First of all, I sat at the feet of Pierre Ramond and sucked up all the valuable knowledge he was happy to throw at me.  Secondly, I got to meet many of the most important furniture and museum conservators as well as discover their suppliers, like Patrick George.  However, the most significant aspect of those travels was being accredited by ecole Boulle to receive their students in my workshop for a "stage" of work.

"The Shack"  by Patrice Lejeune

In total, I received 18 different marquetry and ebeniste students, and each one was a valuable experience for both of us.  They got to work in an American workshop.  They got to live in San Diego, which is, in my opinion, one of the nicest places in the country to live.  I got to speak French and teach as I worked.  It was wonderful, but terminated suddenly when Pierre retired in 2000.

"White Cockatoo" by Patrice Lejeune

I had just about given up on having any other workers in the shop at that time.  After all, I had worked alone for 30 years and I had a comfortable routine.


"Gaetane" by Patrice Lejeune
Then I was contacted by Patrice Lejeune, who had already graduated from ecole Boulle and was working in Paris. He had just gotten married and they both wanted to leave France and live in America.  He had heard about me from one of his friends at school, who had spent a stage here.  When he wrote to me, my immediate concern was could I afford to hire him and what was the process for a work visa (H1-B)?

"No Child Left Behind" by Patrice Lejeune ($50 shown for scale only)

The short answer about the visa is that it was time consuming and expensive.  Believe me.  First of all, I had to prove the "equivalence" of his education and that he would not replace an American worker who could do the same work.  As to his education, we spent a lot of money hiring a professional search team and they could only find one school in the country which would provide his education: the American School of French Marquetry in San Diego!

"3ism" by Patrice Lejeune
As to him putting an American out of work, we were required to post the job requirements in many different places.  We got a lot of calls.  However, the job requirements were that they know how to make and restore French marquetry, and are proficient in French polishing and traditional restoration.  Nearly every applicant said the same thing: "I can learn that!"  Sorry, but I needed experience in the field and Patrice had already both the education and the professional experience.

"Four Different Aspects of a Nebulous Thought" by Patrice Lejeune

He now has his green card and is a full partner in the business.  He has really contributed to our success and the level of our work has been dramatically increased, since we both criticize each other's work and we are both obsessive about perfection.  Sometimes at the expense of cost and deadlines...

"Dance Muse" by Patrice Lejeune

There is one thing that Patrice has done here that I would never have thought of.  He has made modern marquetry art.  Lots of it and in many different styles.  He has also pushed the process of marquetry into a new direction with new techniques that he developed.  He has also won awards and sold several of his pieces.

"Circle of Life" by Patrice Lejeune

In France, where marquetry has a long and respected tradition, there are often shows in different parts of the country which feature marquetry "art" and these shows are well attended by the public.  Readers of this blog should know by now that I consider marquetry, and specifically Painting in Wood, to be a fine art.  Unfortunately, the history of this field in this country is that, unless you glue it onto something functional, it is not appreciated.  That means that if it hangs on the wall it never sells.

"Cherry Blossom" by Patrice Lejeune

That is a crime.  Art made with wood as a medium is just as valid as art made with oil paint, or water colors or chalk.   It takes just as much talent.  It should be considered, at least, as "mixed media" which is a legitimate form of art, and can be quite valuable. In my opinion, marquetry art is a fine art.

"3ism #2" by Patrice Lejeune

That is why I thought it was time to post some of Patrice's work.  After all, it hangs on the walls of the workshop and school, and I get to enjoy it every day.  I thought I would share it with you.

"Summer in the City" by Patrice Lejeune

In particular, he has developed a series of contemporary mosaic designs which are abstract.  They are new and colorful and evoke images of modern life.

"Tide at Torrey Pines" by Patrice Lejeune

Finally, in case you like dogs as much as I do, here is a portrait of a dog in wood.

"Orpheo" by Patrice Lejeune

Friday, August 15, 2014

American Folk Marquetry





English Apprentice Board c.1885

The last few days I have been thinking about geometrical designs in marquetry.  One of the reasons is that I need to prepare new samples to take to the WIA show next month in Winston Salem.  The other is that I just finished restoring a series of nice pieces which had amazing marquetry surfaces.

It seems that my work goes in stages, from one topic to the next.  Perhaps the secret of my success is that I just follow the flow as it arrives and focus my talents on the job at hand.  Early in my career I realized a pattern to the work which made it easy.  The first week, for example, I remove the hardware and finish, studying each job as to the proper approach.  I would do this with several projects at the same time.  I cannot really work well if I have only one job.  I need to juggle many jobs simultaneously, to be happy.  The next week would be spent with repairs, filling the bench with clamps and glue.  The next week after that I would focus on sanding and coloring the surfaces as needed.  Then I would spend time cleaning up the shop so I can shellac and polish everything at once.  Since the shop was then clean, I would spend a week upholstering.  This pattern would repeat itself with little variations for most of my career.

That said, there are exceptions.  Yesterday I spent the day outside the shop weaving cattails into a natural rush seat for an antique French chair.  The weather was nice, and I have a place in the shade on the North side of the shop with a gentle breeze.  It was a pleasant distraction from the routine.

However, back to the topic this morning.  American Folk Marquetry.  What is it?

In 1998 there was an exhibition at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York and a book published by Richard Muhlberger, which is in my collection.  This book "is the first volume to record the history of marquetry and the American masters who handed down the tradition from father to son.  Never before has American folk marquetry been investigated, cataloged, or recognized as a distinct body of work."  Obviously more work needs to be done in this area.

In reviewing this book I notice a common thread.  All the work relies on some form of Tarsia Geometrica and Tarsia a Toppo, and the last two posts on this blog have been an effort to explain how this work is done.  One of the important facts about this work is that it is made with either a veneer saw or knife.  A chevalet is not needed, but in some small areas a hand held fret saw is used for curves.

Another fact emerges in this book.  The most important analysis of these pieces focuses on how many pieces of wood and how many species of woods were used.  No discussion of the form or overall design is really attempted.  Most of the pieces stand as a miscellaneous combination of unrelated marquetry motifs.  There is no serious relationship between the form and the decoration.

Here is Frederick Hazen's (1829-1908) secretary, made in Massachusetts between 1862 and 1869.  The  author is careful to mention that it contains 21,000 pieces of wood.



Lots of Pieces!
Another thing I note about this book and its discussion of these pieces is the terminology.  The term "Male Quilting" is promoted and a long discussion of the relationship between marquetry and sewing makes the strange claim that they are somehow connected.  "The making of quilts and marquetry is similar in that they both depend on a patient, additive progression from detail to detail, until plain cloth or naked wood is embellished with multiple designs that are also made of cloth or wood."

By this reasoning, I can easily point out that Painting in Wood and Painting in Oil are related.  Therefore, marquetry is an art and deserves to be appreciated exactly like fine art is in the market place.  Unfortunately, the real world does not support this idea.

Here is a rather standard Davenport desk form covered with Tarsia Geometrica, and featuring the cube:

Circa 1860
Here is a box on stand with drawers covered in Tarsia a Toppo:

Not made by Shakers!
I am fortunate to have a talented business partner, Patrice Lejeune, who graduated from ecole Boulle and has worked with me for nearly a decade.  He spends his "extra" time here at work picking up scraps of veneer from projects and designing modern marquetry panels.  He is not American nor is he a Folk artist.  His work is very professional, modern and high style.  That said, I think you might be able to see a relationship with his work and the American Folk Art shown above.

For example, this is one of his pieces of wall art:


"Rain on the City" by Patrice Lejeune

Here is another:


"City Map #2" by Patrice Lejeune
I think his work is wonderful and something I could never do.  I am too old fashioned.  However, when I see his designs, the first thing that comes to mind is not, "how many pieces?"  What I think of is how beautiful the art is, and the deeper subliminal meanings it inspires.

Finally, in reading the Forward to this book, American Folk Art, I find this interesting observation:

"The craftsmen whose work is celebrated in this book did not make their livings at marquetry.  The hours of labor necessary to ornament an object with marquetry were worth far more than anyone was willing to pay for the product.  Consequently, the men who made folk marquetry always required a means of support other than selling their fancy woodwork."

That remark reminds me of the day I proudly opened my antique store in June, 1969.  Another antique dealer in the neighborhood walked in to examine my stock and the first thing he said was "What do you do for a living?"  As if being an antique dealer was a hobby and you needed a "real job" (as my father always reminded me) to survive.  My immediate response was "I'm an antique dealer!"

Well, it has been 45 years and I still make my living as an antique dealer, furniture conservator, furniture maker and, most importantly, marquetry maker in America.

That said, Patrice's work is Art and should be worth millions!  Support the Arts!