Thursday, December 30, 2010
There are many individual steps to create a marquetry panel, and I love all of them except one. From the inspiration to the design, the selection of materials, putting the packets together and cutting out the elements, shading each piece in hot sand and gluing the picture together on an assembly board, making the mastic and gluing the final picture in place, and...finally...removing the kraft paper to discover your finished work of art. I look forward eagerly to each step of the process, except shading in sand.
This is kind of weird, since the first "Is Good!" compliment I got from Pierre was when I shaded the ribbon on my third etude. Up to that point, which was two months of school, I had only heard him say "Is Bad." So I assumed I had done something right.
To be blunt, shading elements in sand is boring and a little dangerous, if you forget for a moment what you are doing. The sand is very hot (around 600 degrees at the bottom) and the pieces are very small. There is a strong temptation to reach in and grab a piece if it disappears. Resist that temptation. In fact, do not place any part of your hand over the pan. Use very large tweezers and keep your body parts away from the pan and the sand.
In the winter there is some relief that the heat is comforting, but in the summer...
If, for example, your project has 1500 elements and you made 3 copies then you have about 4500 pieces of wood to place carefully in the sand at exactly the proper depth and angle. Each piece sits in the sand for a few seconds. That means you will need to sit in place working without stop for 22,500 seconds, which is over 6 hours.
When I first tried to burn wood in sand, I just went to the local beach and brought home some sand and heated it in a pan. Not only did I destroy the pan but the beach sand created the most interesting smells as some of the "foreign matter" burned up. I then tried Home Depot play sand, but the grains were different sizes and I could not get an even burn. Then I tried sifting sand but couldn't find the proper screen to work.
So, during my first visit to Paris, I purchased a kilo of sand from the supplier to the school. As I went through customs I was stopped and asked to open my bags. The officer asked me what was in one bag, and I replied: "Sand." He just stared at me and repeated, "Sand?" like I was an idiot. I started to explain the technique of marquetry and what the sand was used for, but he simply waved me through.
This happened again at the airport in Portland, Oregon. I was vacationing with my wife at Cannon Beach and discovered the high winds created wonderful spots behind rocks which were full of the finest sand, very even in size. I picked up several pounds and put them in my bags. At the airport I watched from a distance as my checked bags were opened by TSA and the officers gathered around to sift through my "special" sand. They shrugged and I could tell by their body language that they also thought I was an idiot.
Isn't it amazing how we choose to spend our time?
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
One can only imagine what it must have been like standing in the center of Andre-Charles Boulle's workshop during the peak of his career. The piles of exotic materials, like imported hardwoods from all corners of the world's forests, the tortoise shell, ivory, brass and copper sheets, gilt mounts, complex hardware, all formed a backdrop for the magnificent projects which were being constructed with great precision by dozens of talented workmen. From time to time the king or his representative would visit and verify that all the work was done to the highest level possible anywhere in the known world
All that was destroyed by a fire in the workshop around 1720, and the loss was beyond measure, both to the King and France, and to the history of furniture making. Boulle never recovered and died a decade later in debt. The fashion for "Boulle" decoration declined and was replaced by the more colorful marquetry decoration of the mid 18th century made possible by the French invention of the picking machine and the development of the chevalet.
By the way, I must admit that I like the work of Pierre Gole better than that of Andre-Charles Boulle, but that is another post.
The reason I mention this brief history of the trade is to discuss how tradition is kept alive through the centuries. During the 19th century the use of marquetry surface decoration almost disappeared. Many of the shops closed or changed their work to adapt to the clean, "modern" lines of the newest fashion. What tradition persisted in the old ways was transmitted by individual workers to their assistants. Even the traditional Guilds were abolished by the Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution threatened to eliminate much of the historic knowledge of the past masters.
Around the time of Napoleon III it was obvious that a school needed to be created to reestablish the methods of furniture making which were made famous in the 18th century. It took about 20 years, but at the end of the 1880's a new school was built and opened its doors to the first class of 60 students. That was ecole Boulle, and it stands today as one of the most important trade schools in Europe. Its mission is to preserve the historic trades of the past.
During the 20 years that this foundation of learning was being established there was a renaissance in the Faubourg St. Antoine, in Paris, where workshops again returned to making highly decorative marquetry. Much of this marquetry was applied to local creations, but some of it was made for export, and one of the more well known New York shops, Herter Brothers, purchased their marquetry at this time for their own use. I was restoring a famous Herter Brothers table before I attended ecole Boulle, and took pictures of this table with me when I entered Pierre's class for the first time. He pointed to page 60 of his book and stated that the marquetry on this New York table was made in the Guilmet workshop of Paris around 1880. More research needs to be done on this particular transmission of material from Europe to America during the late 19th century.
I have direct evidence of this trade. Years ago, at the end of a lecture I had presented on Decorative Arts, I was approached by an elderly woman, Jonna Aase. She asked me if I would be interested in some marquetry she had inherited. I asked "What kind of furniture is it?" She replied, "It's not on a piece of furniture. It is just marquetry."
When I visited her home, she produced several pieces of marquetry which had never been used. After I purchased them, she provided me with a note: "These are imported inlay woodwork brought to Odense Denmark by a Danish importer of veneer woods. Made in Paris about 1874. This date established by a newspaper backing on the reverse of the inlays dated in March of 1874 in the French language. Purchased in Odense by Chris Anderson and brought to America in October 1914." These panels were made with sawn veneers, highly tinted and faced with paper, as is the normal method. They even have prices!
I used these examples in my lectures and classes for years. Since I had several examples, I took many of them back to Paris and presented them to Pierre Ramond and Michel Jamet and Patrick George and other mentors who had helped me in my studies. I felt that returning these small samples of French work from a century ago would somehow contribute to the continuation of the grand tradition of design and culture.
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
The craft of marquetry does not travel well. By that I mean that, during my career I have demonstrated in public at woodworking shows, SAPFM conferences, school classrooms and, for three years, in the Getty museum galleries. What a chore!
You need to move the chevalet, all the hand tools and materials, set up the glue pot, assemble the picking machine, and not drop the trays which are full of pieces. Any unnecessary movement of the trays means that time must be spent putting all the pieces back in order. That can easily take hours...
At the workshop in ecole Boulle there is a wall cabinet which holds all the trays of work for the students. Each student is provided with a tray or trays according to his project, and the position of his trays within the cabinet is decided by the teacher. You do not put your tray back in a different slot. There is no messing around with the trays; too much is at stake.
I noticed that, like all students where there is a close friendship bond, there is a certain amount of humor and jokes. It happens from time to time that one student will do something to another student to create a moment of laughter. This is really because the work is serious and challenging and it makes the working environment more enjoyable when people have fun.
However, it is never fun to mess with a student's tray. You do not touch it. If it is in your way, you find the owner and ask him to move it. Too much is at stake.
I was at school for so long that I took this rule as absolute and obvious to all. Unfortunately, not all Americans understand this idea. Years ago, when I was demonstrating at the Novi convention center in Detroit (I think?) I had all my work and materials spread out on the tables for the public to see. I was working for several days on my chevalet, making a project, and putting the parts in the tray on the table as I cut them out. I encouraged the visitors to handle much of the material and tools which I used to show the process, but I had a small "do not touch" sign next to the tray of parts.
When my back was turned a kid about 10 years old, standing with his father, used his hands to stir up the parts in the tray, breaking many of them, and spilling them on the floor. What I said next caused all the people within a 50 foot radius to stop talking and stare. It was not nice. The father covered his kids ears and quickly disappeared into the startled crowd. It was several minutes before I regained my composure, and I never was able to complete the project, which had taken 3 days to cut.
Now that I have my own school, the American School of French Marquetry, I never need to travel. Everything has its place, and the space is wonderful to work in. I am a lucky camper.
You are all invited to visit when you are in San Diego. Anytime...just don't touch the trays!
Monday, December 27, 2010
Before I went to Paris to study with Pierre I had been working over 20 years restoring antiques and making marquetry. I had read all the books that existed in English and that was the source of much of my knowledge as well as my problems.
I have mentioned before in this post that the first time I saw a copy of Pierre's book, "Marquetry," which was published by Taunton Press in 1989, I was introduced to methods which resolved many of the difficulties I had encountered. I was already using a chevalet to cut designs, since I built my first tool 15 years earlier. However, it did not come with any instructions! I had to teach myself by trial and error as well as deduction.
My first mistake in building the chevalet was that I placed the blade in the saw in the wrong position. I knew that it cut on the push stroke and was held horizontal in the jaws. However, I positioned the blade with the teeth cutting on the left side, not on the bottom. That meant I had been cutting for 15 years by feeding the material into the blade from the left, cutting sideways.
When I arrived at ecole Boulle, I knew that I would be able to use the chevalets with confidence, since I had been sitting on one for a long time and had lots of experience. After all, my first project was cutting a table top which was 4' x 15' (which took 300 hours). Imagine my surprise when I sat down and realized the blade cut down and not sideways!
There was another aspect of the French method which had eluded me as well. I had used lots of gummed veneer tape to hold my work together, as most workers do in countries outside France. I would start to salivate as soon as I saw a roll of tape, and had licked miles of tape in my career. I wonder what the protein content of veneer tape is?
The biggest problem with taping projects together is that the layers of tape are not even all over the surface. In some places there were many layers of tape and in other places there were only a few layers, or none. That created problems when the marquetry was put into the press, as the pressure did not evenly reach all the surface of the veneer at the same time. Other problems were caused by tape not properly adhering or not pulling the pieces together properly.
In reading Pierre's book, I noticed a short mention of the kraft paper, which he uses. On page 73 is a paragraph which describes the 4 types of paper used in marquetry. "Grey kraft paper for gluing and inlaying," is the only mention of this material, and no where does he discuss making an assembly board with this paper. Clearly, it is such an obvious trick that he does not feel it necessary to explain further.
I have posted previously the proper method for making an assembly board using kraft paper. (Post dated 10/10/10).
When I saw the students building such amazing projects with this method I realized what an important part of the process this was. It allowed the pictures to be built face down, which created a clean front with all the elements pressed forward properly. It allowed the work to be done from the back, where tool marks and mastic were not seen in the final result. The paper was easily removed after the picture was glued to the project by using cold water and gentle scraping. Most importantly, it allowed even pressure to reach the entire surface, since there was only one layer of paper holding everything together.
Unfortunately, kraft paper is not available in America. I have to import it at some expense from France, and I sell it for my students to use at a reasonable price. I wish it were more generally available. It seems that in our modern world we are so anxious to have the newest electronics, but who cares about such a simple material as traditional paper?
Friday, December 24, 2010
I have had a lot of experience in the world of Decorative Art. I have read literally thousands of books, visited hundreds of museums and attended professional conferences all over America and Europe. I have reviewed auction catalogues and had lengthy discussions with museum staff and still do not understand the prejudice against considering marquetry as "fine art."
Clearly, the marketplace makes a distinction between fine art and decorative art. It is obvious that paintings will easily bring millions of dollars and that only a rare few examples of furniture have sold for above one million dollars.
So, in effect, the marketplace has determined that paintings, considered as fine art, are more than one hundred times more valuable than furniture, considered as decorative art.
Even the terms are inherently prejudicial. "Fine" is naturally a good term. "Decorative" is somehow less important, as if it is just wall candy. "Fine" stands the test of time. "Decorative" can change as fashions and fads change.
On one hand, I can accept that porcelain, furniture, silver and other "trinkets" are not in the same market as a Picasso. (When I include porcelain, I immediately visualize the incredible painted decoration which is used and wonder...) But on the other hand I cannot understand why marquetry is not considered a fine art by itself, which just happens to be attached to a cabinet.
Then there is the wall art, produced by marquetry artists. Even in the 17th century this was referred to as "Painting in Wood." Isn't that enough to be classified as fine art today? If not, why not? After all, modern artists work in mixed media, and their work is often considered fine art.
Just click on the two photos I have posted here and tell me if it's "fine" or "decorative."
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
As I watched the students in the marquetry workshop at ecole Boulle choose their projects, I noticed that there was a preference for transforming art into marquetry. Some of the most popular design sources were from M. C. Escher, who was responsible for much of the black light art posters of my young college days. Yes, I experimented...
Another source of inspiration was that of a Polish artist I had not heard of previously. Wojtek Siudmak was born in 1942 and moved to Paris in 1966 to study art at the ecole des Beaux-Arts. He is the most famous proponent of "fantastic realism" which, to the normal viewer could be described as "science fiction art." I suggest you visit www.siudmak.com to see for yourself.
I have included with this post the original paintings by Siudmak along with the marquetry panels which were produced by the students while I was there. The detail is amazing.
I have included a photo of one of the students, Stephen Delage, who is shown in front of his work during a marquetry exhibition around 1992. These exhibitions were grand affairs, with the Minister of Culture and other official dignitaries opening night. They were usually held in some large room, which by itself was worth viewing. It was an impressive feeling to see the artists, their work and all the public standing around discussing the works.
Stephen also produced the second image of "the man who stopped the world" loosely translated by me from the official title: "L'homme qui arreta la Terre." The name of the work which Stephen is standing in front of is "L'infranchissable obstacle." That means something like "the insurmountable obstacle."
I do not know who made the marquetry picture of the third image or the original title. This panel was located under glass in the office of the school, and was made before I got there. I cannot actually find my picture of the full panel, but I was able to find a picture of a detail, which I show here. When I get the time to search for the full picture, I will post it.
In the meantime, just enjoy the detail of the work, and the faithful interpretation of the original work. Far out, Man!
Monday, December 13, 2010
In total time I spent ten years at ecole Boulle, staying only once or twice a year during that decade, and less than 3 months each time. It was like I discovered a new existence, and (like an untold number of visitors before me) I began to consider parts of Paris my "neighborhood." I would sit on the metro or in a cafe and read French newspapers, carefully holding them up between me and the tourists next to me so that they would not ask me directions (in English!)
I was reminded of my first time in France, way back in 1967, when I was a healthy, young bicycle racer. I had purchased a custom Rene Hearse bicycle and was traveling around Europe for the summer. It was the "Summer of Love" and there was a very unpopular war in Viet Nam, which the French had lost and we were losing. I carried a small Canadian maple leaf flag which hung from my bicycle and that prevented people I met from asking questions about the war. I discovered that Canadians were generally treated with polite respect, and I was free to experience the true excitement of being a cyclist in Europe. There are some great mountains and many days I would spend all day climbing, only to be rewarded with the entire next day descending.
So my goal in returning to Paris as a student was to be assimilated into the local culture as a resident, not a tourist. It was obvious that I was not French, since I stood a foot taller than everyone on the Metro, so I became a German or American or Dutch or Canadian visitor, depending on the situation. By that I mean if an American asked me directions, I would answer in German, or if a German asked me directions I would answer in French Canadian, and so on. It was just a game, and a lot of fun.
One thing I did have which connected me to the city was a pin, which I wore on my shirt at all times. This pin changed each year, and was made by the students at ecole Boulle, to identify them as students. I have ten different pins, each one designed and manufactured by the students in the engraving/jewelry workshop.
This pin opened doors. When I would walk into any museum they would immediately notice the pin and grant me free entry, as well as clear passage to the workshops and back rooms. Versailles, the Louvre, Musee Camondo, D'Orsay, all museums large and small were happy to let me in and show me anything I wished to see. It was amazing.
It also worked in visiting different cabinet shops and supply houses, since they also showed preference for the students of ecole Boulle. I was spoiled and soon took it for granted that I would get "special treatment."
One year there was a request from the administration for the marquetry workshop to produce a small number of unique pins for some visiting dignitaries. This was unusual, since the pins were normally made in the metal shop. However, the marquetry students were happy to provide the pins, which were made in pewter, bone and purpleheart.
The cutting was done on one of the overhead saws which sat in the center of the marquetry workshop. I was completely amazed to see the precision of the work, as well as the size of the elements. It is hard to believe but the students produce this kind of precision on a daily basis, without any obvious consideration that it might be difficult.
You can judge for yourself by looking at the metric ruler next to the pin. This is not a pin that I was able to get. I had to be content with the normal student pin, but that was just fine with me.
Friday, December 10, 2010
I cannot say enough to explain how much Dr. Pierre Ramond, professeur d'marqueterie a l'ecole Boulle, changed my life.
On a human level, he demonstrated to me that passion and enthusiasm are just as important as solid research and knowledge in your work. We live our lives surrounded by thousands of acts of human genius, and it is normal that, since we are involved in our own egocentric world view, we often fail to open our eyes to the miracles that surround us. The difficulty is understanding the balancing act which is necessary between passion and objectively.
On a professional level, he demonstrated how much there is to appreciate about the range of methods, materials and historic processes used over the centuries in our trade. He would look at a marquetry surface and explain at great depth how the woods were selected, how the colors were achieved, how the pieces were cut and glued together, how the style and complexity could be used to indicate the age or origin, what was good and what was bad.
In fact, when I first met him, he did not speak much English, and I spoke no French. The first three months I existed on two phrases, which he used often: "Is Good" and "Is Bad." In the beginning I thought all he could say was "Is Bad." It was several weeks before I knew he could say "Is Good." Understand that he did not say these phrases with any particular emotion. It was not punishment to hear my efforts were "bad." It was just a fact. There was no way to explain to me how bad or what I could do to make it better. Just the fact that I could make it better was the only conclusion I could make.
When he finally said it was good, I was elated. At the same time, since it was just a simple fact, I had no idea how good it was or if I could even make it better. As I worked in the school, the other students began to help me understand what he meant and how I could better communicate my questions.
Pierre had a small class, compared to the other teachers. He normally had about 15 students, which included in the same class first, second, third and fourth year students. Each student helped the other. Pierre watched over them like a proud parent. Most of the time he listened to the sound of the saws as they worked. It was amazing how sensitive he was to the sound of the workshop. Anytime there was an unusual sound, he immediately was at the student's side to assist in the problem.
He always encouraged. He was always positive. He always was ready to discuss new ideas or elaborate on old techniques. He was also involved at the same level as the students. By that I mean that he had the ability to relate to students, visitors and staff on an equal basis at their level of understanding. As a direct result of this ability he was able to elevate their insight to his level, which was at the highest professional level possible.
I first noticed this during class, each day at 10am and 3pm. That was coffee time. Class would start as usual in the morning with all students greeting each other and starting work independently. Pierre would stop class at times for all to meet together to get a short lesson in some technique, then back to work. Promptly at 10 coffee would appear in the center of the room, and all would stop to drink and tell stories, like a big family. The coffee was prepared and cleaned up by different students each day, and this task was organized among the students for the benefit of all. It was strong coffee and, after 15 minutes the group returned to their tasks.
Pierre was just one of the gang, during coffee time, and he even had an open door for the school staff and workers to show up and take a break. After coffee, he transformed into the professor who was always assisting the student as needed. His quick smile and honest sense of humor was always ready to warm the room.
Pierre provided the glue which held us together. I will be forever grateful for having met him. "Is good!"
Thursday, December 9, 2010
Nearly 20 years ago I looked at my wife, Kristen, over the dinner table and asked her if we could borrow money against the house so I could go to Paris and study with Dr. Pierre Ramond. What made this conversation more difficult than you might expect is that we owned the house free and clear. It is a tribute to her trust and understanding that she agreed to the proposal.
Pierre had met me at the Getty museum and had invited me to study with him in Paris for a "Stage" which is a short term of study for a specific project, usually lasting less than 3 months. It was the most exciting offer I had ever had in my career. After all, he was recognized as the world's expert in the field of traditional French marquetry, and ecole Boulle was the most difficult trade school in France to get into. Without his invitation, it would be impossible to even visit the school, except during the annual week in January when the school opens its doors to visitors.
The first day I arrived in Paris I was invited to dinner at Chez Jenny, a famous restaurant at Place Republic which specializes in food from Alsace. More importantly, the walls were completely covered with marquetry by Spindler, a three generation family of marquetry artists from that area in Eastern France. Around the table, at the request of Pierre were the conservators of many museums from France and England, and I realized that this was my official introduction to the world of marquetry, at a very high level.
Of course I was tired after 12 hours of flight and I wanted desperately to have some French coffee. The maitre d arrived (in a tux) and asked everyone at the table (in French, of course) what they would like to drink to start. "Wine, beer, wine, wine, beer..."etc was the response as he went around the group. When he looked at me, I said "coffee, please." He took a few moments to speak and raised his eyebrows, looking sternly at me and repeated "coffee???" I just said "Yes, please, I would like a coffee." He turned and walked away.
As he left the room, I turned to the only person at the table who spoke English, the conservator from the Wallace Collection, and inquired why the strange response. He just looked at me and replied, "Coffee will damage your taste for the food, and should be consumed after the meal." I looked around the room at the other, elegant diners, and said, "That person is smoking, that person is smoking, all those people are smoking, and that person is smoking and feeding her dog oysters from a silver tray!"
"Yes, of course!" he answered, and then clarified his response, "But tobacco does not affect the taste." Welcome to France. Immediately, the maitre d returned and served everyone their drinks, without looking at me. I did not get my coffee until after dinner.
The real reason I am remembering all this is because I spent several years in Europe and always had my cameras at my side. I managed to take thousands of slides and prints of the school, marquetry exhibitions, workshops and the trade in general, as it existed at that time. Little did I know that I would document the end of an era, since I have noticed, in recent visits, that most of the business activities of that period have changed completely. It is a different world today, and I hardly recognize it.
Fortunately, I have the record on film, and I have begun to transfer this material to digital format. I will use this blog to post much of this material so that others can appreciate the work of the European masters, both ancient and recent. I think you will be amazed at what professionals and students are able to do with the technique of marquetry.
As I write this post, I am enjoying a nice hot cup of Peet's coffee, black, made with a French press. I have not yet eaten. Fortunately, food has not spoiled my taste for the coffee!
Saturday, November 27, 2010
If you have been reading all the posts of this blog, you may ask "Why is this post 'Graduate Student Work IV'?" I should have mentioned that the post, "Butterflies Are For Eveveryone," which featured work by Karen Kaminiski, was actually ASFM Graduate Work III. It is my goal to feature work by students who contact me and provide me with photos and information about their creations. If you have completed any studies at the American School of French Marquetry, please send me something so I can use it to inspire others.
One of the first students in the school was a brain surgeon, Dr. Ken Stover. He is the kind of person who constantly asks questions and is pushing the envelope. It was a lot of fun having him in the class, and he returns as often as possible when class is in session to meet the new students. He is the person responsible for suggesting the third exercise in Stage I, which we call "beer coasters."
After completing two stages, he built his own chevalet and converted his garage into a large marquetry atelier. He purchased lots of sawn veneers from Patrick George, in Paris, and decided to create his masterpiece.
I often suggest that students practice on more basic etudes before attempting something grand. More often than not, they do not listen. Aaron was such a student, and so was Ken. He fixated on the table top made by Riesner, which was illustrated in Pierre's book, and announced to me that he would produce that design for his headboard, which would be 36 x 60".
To accomplish a project of this size required that he make a saw frame with a throat of 67cm for his chevalet. Still, he had to bring the full size packet to the school to use the overhead saw to cut it into smaller pieces. When he left, he had cut the project into 11 individual packets, which he could then cut further with his chevalet at home.
Using a 2/0 Pebeco German blade, and the Painting in Wood method, he began work. Over several years he cut pieces, when he had the time. From time to time he would bring in part of the project to share with me and the class. The total time spent was 1650 hours and there were over 5,000 pieces total.
All of the necessary elements were then put into hot sand to create shadows, and the picture was assembled on an assembly board. Mastic was applied and it was glued to a substrate and cleaned up, as usual. Shellac finished it off.
Ken asked Aaron Radelow to carve the frame, and he did an exceptional job. You may remember Aaron as having created the fantastic ivory and horn tables, featured in an earlier post (ASFM Graduate Work I). It is obvious he has a wide range of talent.
It is odd...I have a background in physics, and I often say to people, "Marquetry is not rocket science." In this case, I should add, "Marquetry is not brain surgery." Just do it.
Friday, November 26, 2010
Some people never move. I am one of those people. I have spent nearly 40 years in the same building doing the same work. I find it very pleasant and rewarding.
One of the problems with never moving is that you tend to keep stuff that you might have thrown away during relocation. I have never had to make that difficult decision; should I keep it or should I throw it away? Quite the opposite happens. When my wife and I decide to discard something from the home, my answer is "I will take it to the shop, in case I can find a use for it later."
My obsession with keeping stuff started at a very young age. In 1960 my parents built a home on the top of a hill. The house was on a dead end road, and just behind the backyard fence was the city landfill. That might sound like a problem to some people, after all, the smell was noticeable. But to me, it was like living next to a general store where everything was free.
During those years it was not the policy to cover everything up with dirt. So, at the end of the day, the workers went home, and I went to work. I found amazing things and drug them home, much to my parents "delight." There were lots of black and white TV's being thrown away, most of which worked perfectly. I built a Heathkit tube tester and fixed them, giving them to all my friends.
I found furniture, which I took apart and repaired, starting a career, before I even knew what a career was. One of the best parts of this broken furniture was the wood screws. I kept thousands of wood screws, sorting them according to size. I had no interest in Phillips, but selected all the slot head screws I could find. I still use these screws today, as the currently available screws are terrible, if you can even find a slot head to purchase. I consider myself an expert on the wood screw, and have devoted considerable research to the topic.
Getting back to the topic, I first opened my workshop in an abandoned church, kind of like Alice's Restaurant. I hired some other independent workers and made an effort to create a co-op restoration business. Within 6 months I realized most of these workers did not work well together, and someone broke in and stole all my hand tools. I took what I could salvage and retreated to my garage, working alone.
Around 1974 I was walking my son to school and I noticed that the TV Repair store was vacant. In short order I was talking to the owner of the property, an elderly lady who lived down the street. She agreed to rent me the store, if I would escort her to her weekly hair styling appointment and help her purchase her groceries. That sounded like a fair trade, since the rent was low, and the store had nice windows facing the school. It was three blocks to work.
Over the next 36 years I purchased the location and expanded into the entire property, removing all the interior walls, and adding a two story building in the back yard. I started with 250 square feet and ended up with 5,000 square feet. Needless to say, most of the shop is full of stuff, since I never learned to throw anything remotely useful away.
After all, why put it in the landfill when it still has something to offer?
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Today I volunteered to sit at a table to promote SAPFM (Society of American Period Furniture Makers) during a two day event sponsored by Lie-Nielsen Tools. I used to do lots of woodworking shows and events and have talked to thousands of enthusiasts over my career.
The group, SAPFM, is one of the best groups in America for promoting traditional woodworking skills and design. They have an annual meeting at Williamsburg each January and a mid-year conference sometime in the summer at a different location.
Today, when I walked in, the first thing I noticed was a bench full of beautiful, hand made wood planes. The maker, M.S.Bickford, was casually making a dado on a piece of wood with one of his planes. There was a single person standing there watching him. The sound the wood plane made as it removed shavings from the dado was like classical music to me.
On the other side of the room was the tables filled with Lie-Nielsen metal planes, probably the finest made currently in the US. Scores of people were busy crowding around these tables as the demonstrator worked to remove shavings from a block of wood that were perhaps a million times thinner than a human hair.
I have to confess that I don't use metal planes, mostly because I cannot remember which way to turn the screw adjustment (really a stupid argument) and also because they hurt my hands, which do not usually fit the tool. I have rather large hands. It seems that I manage to hurt myself each time I pick up a metal plane. Nicks, bumps and scrapes are normal.
I have hurt myself with wood planes also. Mostly it happens when I have too much junk on the bench and my finger gets between the end of the plane and what ever it runs into.
I think metal planes are more attractive to most woodworkers because there is a perception that they are more precise. I suppose that is true, but precision is not my primary goal, and has never been. Anyone who has seen my work realizes that it is not perfect, in the absolute sense. However, it has a certain impact, and seems to impress most people who look at it, in spite of the imperfections.
There is a large group of woodworkers who are really machinists working in wood. They have expensive and dangerous power tools which perform precisely and make their job easy. They are workers who are exposed to excessive noise, toxic dust, dangerous cutting edges, and powerful tools that can eject a piece of wood with enough force to go through the wall.
I prefer the sound of a nicely tuned wood body plane as it moves through the wood, cleanly cutting the proper joint, which may be approximately perfect. The pleasure, for me, is in the process.
By the way, I tried clamping my head the other day, and that hurt a lot. Bad idea.
Friday, November 19, 2010
The greatest gift I can receive from teaching is experiencing the diversity, creativity and imagination of the people who are "students" I use the traditional term "teacher" and "student" which schools have always used to represent who is giving and who is receiving, but I know that I am not alone in my profession when I confess that I am learning more from my students then they are from me.
Sure, they are taught the methods and techniques, the tools and materials, the history of the trade, and how it has always been done in different countries. But, time marches on. New workers have new ideas and new twists on the formula. History evolves constantly. Each time I talk with a new student, I learn something from them which makes me realize that we are both playing part of this evolution.
I have had students who wanted to make clothes with marquetry. Students who wanted to use materials which I would never consider appropriate, but which created discussion that launched new ideas for thought. Students who found creative ways to change the process.
Fortunately, I am open to new ideas (as long as they are for other people). Personally, I have found my style and my reputation is secure. But I realize that my style is not for everyone, and I always encourage each person to find their own "voice."
One of the graduates of the American School of French Marquetry is Karen Kaminiski. She has a delightful fascination with butterflies. I share this interest, since one of my early tables is the Butterfly Table, which I talked about on this blog months ago. However, when I make a butterfly it is in veneer and set into a design which is glued onto a piece of furniture.
Karen had other ideas. First, she decided to make her own material, since veneers are thin these days, and thick veneers are expensive and hard to find. She uses Old Brown Glue to make thin veneer "plywood" by pressing layers of veneer together. In this way she could make her own material which was strong and decorative, at a very cheap price.
Then she used the piece by piece method she learned in Stage II to cut out butterfly patterns and the separate pieces which she then fitted into the cavities of the wings. Then she cut out trees which would hold these butterflies.
Each time she would create a new piece, she would show up at the school and give it to me. Each time I would encourage her to sell them, or let me buy them. Each time she refused.
She has given them away to all her friends as gifts. Her beautiful and unique butterflies are now fluttering around in rooms all across the country. What a wonderful gift.
Thank you, Karen, for the gift of a new idea.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
One of the first questions I asked, when I entered ecole Boulle and met Dr. Pierre Ramond, was "When was the chevalet de marqueterie first invented?" To my amazement and disappointment, he replied, "No one really knows."
Perhaps the invention was kept secret for decades, and the inventor died without recognition. Perhaps the French actually know, but still want to keep it secret. Perhaps actually no one really knows.
As I walked around the museums in Paris, looking at the magnificent workmanship in the marquetry surfaces, it seemed obvious to me that the chevalet de marqueterie, which must have included the saw support arm, was being used early in the 18th century. How else, I wondered, could such large and complicated work be executed? Certainly the illustration of the worker, shown in Roubo's book, holding a fret saw in his hand, did not explain it completely. Something was missing. Something was kept "secret."
One piece of the puzzle was found in reading Herbert Cescinsky's 1931 book, "The Gentle Art Of Faking Furniture." I prize this book, and it is certainly important reading for any collector who wishes to invest in quality pieces. On page 89, he writes, "The marqeterie-cutter's saw, in its guides, with the 'chops,' which open and close by foot pressure, to hold the veneers while being cut, and his seat at the end (the 'donkey,' as it is called), have (sic) hardly varied at all in two hundred and fifty years." That statement puts the chevalet de marqueterie invention as early as 1680, when the Dutch and English were busy making lots of "painting in wood" surfaces.
It also means that Andre-Charles Boulle had the chevalet, with the supported arm, in his workshop, and that it was in common use, since his shop employed some 60 workers at the peak of his career.
Regardless of the opinion expressed by an Englishman about the existence of some obscure French "secret" tool, the fact is that the chevalet de marqueterie has existed for more than a century. Generally, the worker made his own tool, but there were also tool dealers who would make and sell the same tool. It is also to be noted that this tool was almost exclusively used in the region of Paris, France. Very rarely does it appear outside Paris, from my research.
I was encouraged by Pierre to transfer this technology from France to America, at the time he retired from teaching. I take his suggestion seriously, and have made it my goal to introduce this wonderful and unique tool to anyone who would listen.
To that end I engaged a machinist to fabricate the necessary parts, like the sliding mechanism and the jaws and other parts which require machining. I also have collected all the odd bolts, screws, blades, and other elements of hardware which the tool requires. I then drew up a full scale set of very detailed blueprints, including notes on parts of the tool which require specific attention. I need to order a dozen of these kits at a single time to gain some advantage in cost, and, even at that point, I make about $75 profit each time I sell a kit. I also make a sturdy wood box to ship and can send this kit anywhere in the US for $50. The total cost of the kit is $500 plus the $50 shipping.
Each person then needs to supply the wood and put it together. I estimate it takes about $750 in wood and perhaps 2 weeks to do the job. It can take more or less time, depending on your shop and much less if you use scrap wood. The best wood is ash, beech or oak, and most of the large elements can be laminated from 4/4 stock.
The value of a complete tool is about $2500, and I have purchased and sold these chevalets over the years for that amount. I can tell you there is not much profit to be made in making them for sale, since it does take a fair amount of woodworking.
But, as they say, where else can you have so much fun for so little money?
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
There are many tricks to falling asleep. For example, just stop drinking coffee and work 24 hours a day. A more practical method is to count sheep. However, I doubt that many people who live and work all their lives in the city even know what sheep look like. They certainly have no idea what a flock of sheep smell like.
I have a method which works every time. It is a book, originally published in 1936 in Germany, by Dr. Hans Meyer. Fortunately, Linden Publishing has chosen to make it available, although not in large circulation. I found my copy at a tool show years ago, and when I picked it up to ask about the price, the seller was visibly surprised that anyone would even touch it. Usually, I can get through about 3 or 4 pages before I fall into a deep coma.
The name is "The Book Of Wood Names." It has no pictures. It has 564 pages of very small type which simply list all the names of commercial woods then currently in existence in the world. Every local name, every commercial name, every nickname, every latin scientific name, every different country is considered, and it took 20 years for Dr. Meyer to compile. He must have had a very interesting life. At the rate I am making progress reading his life's work, it will certainly last me a century.
The point of this is that there are a lot of woods in the world. Each one is different, and each one has a color. That provides a person who wants to make marquetry art with a wide range of colors. However, even in the natural world of wood colors, there are some which do not exist. Therefore, for centuries, artisans have struggled with different methods to transform woods from one color to another. Kind of like turning lead into gold, but with wood.
The most elusive color is blue. I have a piece of veneer which I purchased nearly 30 years ago that has a natural blue tint. It is a piece of a beech tree which was infected by a specific mushroom and that produced a chemical reaction within the tree that turned it blue. I probably will never cut up this piece of veneer. I just like to look at it, sitting on my tool shelf.
I have heard stores of people who dug down into the roots of trees and put metals, like copper and iron, as well as other materials, and then waited years for the tree to react, before they cut it down in the hope that the wood would be interesting. There are also many specialists who took to their graves the secret of how they made a certain color, like the tobacco color which Oben and Riesner used for the King's desk at Versailles.
For the past several weeks, my partner Patrice has been soaking some veneer in plastic tubs, to dye wood for future projects. Using different species of wood produces different shades, even with the same dye. Today I looked outside the shop and was rewarded with a spectrum of wood colors, from blue to green. Tomorrow, we get to dry the yellow batch. We are still searching for that elusive blue, the holy grail of wood colors.
What I love most about being an artist who paints with wood as my medium is that the natural supply of wood colors is almost unlimited. However, I am not against adding my two cents worth (of dye) to get it exactly right.
Monday, November 15, 2010
It was always my desire to introduce the special tool for cutting marquetry, which has been invented and developed in Paris for two centuries, to the world outside Paris. I am fascinated at the general lack of awareness of the existence of the chevalet de marqueterie, or marquetry cutting easel. With the exception of small independent workshops in parts of Holland and England, the world of marquetry cutting outside Paris has always done things differently.
Looking at the illustration of the marquetry cutter sitting on his tool, which was published in Roubo in the 18th century, you begin to appreciate the fundamental difference this tool provided. The blade travelled in a horizontal position. To my knowledge, this tool is the only tool which exists to cut marquetry which uses a horizontal blade action. Hand held fret saws, jig saws, overhead saws, and all other methods used in history for cutting material relied on a vertical blade action, while the material rested on a cutting surface, held in place by the hands.
When the material is held vertically, the sawdust naturally falls away from the blade. The action of the saw is easy to control, since it is directly in front of the eyes. The feet, not normally used, can control the clamps, which frees up the hands for manipulating the material. Finally, and to some more importantly, the worker can work while sitting.
Do not underestimate the importance of sitting while working. Comfort is important, if you want to work long hours, an essential part of the job description of marquetry artist. If you are comfortable, and your coffee mug is handy, there is no reason to quit cutting.
At the American School of French Marquetry we currently have 6 chevalets. We have a 54, 55, 56, 57, 59 and 61cm selection. The size is the distance (in cm) from the top of the seat to the blade, when it is in a resting position. In this case, the size of the tool needs to be selected to fit the height of the person, when sitting. Usually, I suggest the handle of the saw be about the height of the top of the collar bone, or at the adam's apple on the throat. It depends a little on the physical comfort of the worker, but it is important to get a good fit.
Therefore, as you may note, we do not have a tool which is 58cm or 60cm, and that is what we are building. In addition, we are making two more tools for sale to students who have requested them.
Normally, we just sell the hardware kit and plans. Most woodworkers do not mind making their own tool. However, sometimes a student just wants to purchase a tool and get right to the work.
In this case, we decided to make a total of 4 at the same time. Just a question of efficiency.
This will solve the problem we currently have when we offer classes and several students are looking to use the same tool. After all, the difference is only a centimeter, about a half inch. Sometimes just a half inch is all the difference in the world between comfort and happiness and struggling with the tool to achieve good results. Above all, we want our students to be happy.
Sunday, November 14, 2010
When Woodshop News contacted me last year to ask if I would like to be interviewed for a story, I was a little surprised. I have received and read a lot of woodworking magazines over the years, and the majority of them simply don't speak to me, personally.
When I have discussed my issues with different editors in the past, they all offer the same version of the argument: Magazines are in business to make a profit. The profit comes from the industry of selling woodworking machinery. Therefore, we need to appeal to the sector of the market who consumes that product the most.
It is the pyramid theory of woodworking. The group of woodworkers in the world fit into a pyramid. At the bottom, the majority of people who work wood simply make utilitarian objects in their garage when they have spare time, and consume a lot of things in the market place, as well as reading the most magazines and articles on how to do it. In the middle sector of the pyramid are the woodworkers, both amateur and professional, who are experienced and able to create interesting projects which are at a more advanced level. These woodworkers know more about the tools and methods and represent a more sophisticated consumer, who is willing to pay more for certain things. That is the market most woodworking magazines hope to attract in choosing their articles and advertisers.
That leaves the top of the pyramid. At the smallest level of the market are the individual artists and craftsmen who have managed to establish a reputation over the years. These people are likely to be members of the Furniture Society, or the Society of American Period Furniture Makers, or other, more local groups, often in a leadership position. Unfortunately for me, most magazines do not focus as often as I would like on articles which would appeal to the top of the pyramid, and that is a complaint I am always willing to express.
Woodshop News has established a secure market share which represents the "industry" of woodworking. If you want to spend a lot of money investing in the most advanced machinery this is the magazine which you would usually read. Tod Riggio has done an excellent job for a long time keeping this magazine positioned at the top of his market pyramid. From time to time there are articles about individual "artists" or "craftsmen" but the thrust of these articles is always presented from a business position.
So, when I was contacted by Jennifer Hicks, from Woodshop News, about an article, I immediately told her that I would not fit into their normal format. To her credit, she persisted and told me that she was looking to expand their coverage of woodworkers in the market. I was impressed with her professionalism and knowledge when I met her, and working with the photographer was very easy and enjoyable.
Now that the November issue is out, I am receiving calls and compliments from woodworkers across the country. Looking at Jennifer's column, "Taking Stock," I find her insight into why they choose to include me: "So the question here is whether Woodshop News is simply following the evolution of the industry or suggesting that shops that rely on traditional skills are a dying breed." I have often wondered about this very question.
She continues, "Interestingly, Edwards points out that the industry could evolve in a backwards fashion--and it just might. For one thing, the environmental movement continues to gain momentum, making the use of veneers and sustainable materials more popular than ever. Also, We can probably all agree that individual craftsmanship will always be valued, and, when the economy finally improves, customers will be willing to pay for it again."
I often think I am a dinosaur. The term "dying breed" hits close to home. All the elder statesmen who I looked up to when I was learning the trade are either dead or no longer productive. I have a very few good friends who can exist with hand skills in this business. Mike Dunbar, Roy Underhill, Al Breed, Don Webber, and a dozen other peers make up my world.
However, when I realize that all these men are teaching, like myself, I am encouraged. Perhaps we can keep the tradition alive and actually change the world. At the very least, we can change the way of thinking about the process of work. Embrace the Workmanship of Risk!
It is significant that an industry standard would choose to feature alternative methods of work at this time. It has been a century, almost exactly, since the famous "Form ever follows Function" lectures of Louis Sullivan, which defined the relationship between Man and Machine for the entire 20th century.
Is it possible that workers in the 21st century would return to "Form ever follows Process?"
Saturday, November 6, 2010
I find that my schedule has filled up over the years, instead of free time I now have no time. One result of "success" in my field is that I have been able to contribute "pro bono" community activities in support of non profit groups which I believe need my help.
So, now in my 6th decade of life, I find that I am running two corporations, full time, and sitting on 6 different non profit boards with different agendas. That has required me to work on remembering names and relationships which I was never particularly good at in the past.
My business is located in an historic business district in San Diego. In fact, North Park is the first business district to be developed outside of the proper downtown, located on the opposite corner of Balboa Park and initially served by the street cars of a century ago. When I selected my home and found a commercial location in the 60's, the dollar meant a lot, and prices were very low compared to today. For example, you could purchase a nice Craftsman home back then for less than $20,000, and I took advantage of that opportunity.
During the 1980's I realized that North Park was in hard times, and there were lots of commercial vacancies, and the rest of the stores were thrift shops. I discovered a State law which allowed for business districts to organize themselves and I began to walk, store to store, to see if I could get support for creating a North Park Business Improvement District, or BID.
When I was successful, I was elected president of the BID, and my civic activities began. Over the years I have been elected to serve on other boards, and I continue to do so as much as my work will allow. Currently, I am sitting on the board of directors of the North Park BID, the Lyric Opera, the Redevelopment Area PAC, the North Park Historical Society, the BID Foundation and the San Diego BID Council, where I currently sit as President. In that last position I represent 16 BIDs across the city which include 12,000 businesses.
I do not mention this to promote myself, although when I look at it it does seem excessive. I mention this because I have found that there is not any part of my schedule which is left open for me to leave town. I used to travel a lot. Taking a month off and going to Europe or the East Coast was easy. I just closed the door and drove away.
Now I have this iphone which shows me all the dates on my calendar which require me to be at some meeting or activity. This is retirement?
My father's family were woodworkers, and built Craftsman homes in Montana a hundred years ago. They had a mill and workshop in Whitehall, Montana, which today is essentially a ghost town. During the 20's they decided to build several cabins at Ennis lake, about 60 miles away, on the Madison River, in the Rockies. I grew up fishing the Madison, and I suppose I can be considered a pretty good fly fisherman and hunter.
Last week I just left. I decided that I could miss a few meetings, and told the other directors and staff that I had some "emergency business out of town" which required my attention. I got on a plane and 3 hours later I was chopping wood for the stove, drawing water from the artesian well, and fixing fence in the meadow.
Thank AT&T that I had no signal.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
When I first entered ecole Boulle, my professor, Dr. Pierre Ramond, did not speak any English except for the phrase, "Is Good" and "Is Bad." It all depended on those two statements. In other words, my work was Pass/Fail. To make the situation worse, I did not speak any French.
We had quite an experience at first, with lots of hand gestures, and a lot of confusion. Fortunately, I was familiar with all the tools and materials that were being used in the workshop, so I was able to start learning the basic words for things. One of the methods I used to learn the language was to use a pocket cassette recorder and record the entire day. Each evening, as I sat in my hotel room, I would play back the recording and try to associate the phrases with what I remembered happening at that time.
As I was not able to ask detailed questions or even understand the answers, I did not understand fully the significance of the teacher's choice of design. The first thing Dr. Ramond did was show me three different marquetry designs. He indicated that I should choose the design that I wanted to do during my Stage. There was a very simple design, a second which was intermediate and the third would have taken me the full three months I was planning to stay at the school.
I had done complicated designs before, so I was not concerned with the degree of difficulty. I did not want to spend all my time working on only one project, so I picked the most simple design. Pierre was surprised and amused. He said something which I did not understand. One of the students told me he had asked why I would pick such a simple design.
I said, "If you want me to cut circles or squares, I will do that. I am not here to impress you with my talent. I am here to learn exactly how the French method works, and I want to do as many projects as I can. So I picked the easy design."
When the student translated that to Pierre, I saw his expression change. He smiled.
After spending 4 years at ecole Boulle, with Pierre, I learned that his most important goal was providing the best design for the student to grow and learn properly. The design needs to be slightly more advanced than the level the student is comfortable with, to encourage him to get to the next level. By selecting the basic design, Pierre understood that I wanted to start at the beginning, even after 20 years of working in the business of marquetry production.
During the third year, soon after I arrived, Pierre walked up to me and handed me a design with the title "C.A.P." I had no idea what that meant, but, one by one, each of the other students in the class came over to me and shook my hand. By then my French was much better, and as they congratulated me they explained that I was given a design which was a test. The "Certificate of Aptitude Professional" or C.A.P. indicated that the worker was competent in the professional skills of the trade.
I need to explain that I was not a full time student. I was taking a 3 month "Stage" each year. To be a full time student and pass the C.A.P. is very difficult. I was only given a design, which is just a small part of the C.A.P. test. Still, it was an indication of the confidence that Pierre had in my work that he decided I should execute that particular design. I was very proud.
When I opened the American School of French Marquetry, I asked Pierre if I could use his designs for my students. He supported me in every way, and encouraged me to follow in his footsteps. I also decided that it would be best for the Stage I students to do three exercises in the first week. Three simple exercises, which would reinforce the process by repetition.
The third exercise has several degrees of complexity. I look at each student during the week and decide how well he or she is cutting and at what speed. Then I select the proper variation of the third exercise that will allow the student to complete on time and still challenge their abilities. So far, it has been very successful.
By the way, I eventually learned French from the students, who discovered that I knew all the lyrics to all the Pink Floyd songs, as well as what Roger Waters was thinking when he wrote them. We made an agreement: if they could teach me French, I would be able to explain what the songs meant. Just try to explain the lyrics to "Comfortably Numb" in French.
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
When Kerin Lifland showed up for class the first day, I knew I would learn more from him than the other way around. He was a talented artist and accomplished woodworker. He was also very kind and humble, so it was easy to work with him of projects during class.
One of the first exercises in class requires the students to draw their face. Not everyone draws in two colors, in such a way that it can be properly cut into a marquetry picture. Kristen and I usually allow at least an hour for the students to take a photo and trace the outline properly. Kerin was done in about 10 minutes. That was the first clue that he had done this before.
He had also worked in marquetry extensively before he arrived, and, except for the chevalet and some other minor aspects of the craft, was just interested in taking his talent to the next level.
You can visit his site at www.kerinlifland.com.
After he finished the classes, I went to Los Angeles to visit with him and was amazed at his workshop. He had basically built a large shop behind his house, and had independently created many fixtures, jigs and other creative solutions to woodworking problems that were unique. I am always surprised when I am in a shop which is not limited (as my shop is) to hand tools.
Years later, Kerin called me late at night in a panic. He said that he had created a large marquetry work of art and something had gone terribly wrong. He had glued it down with protein glue but, in working to clean up the surface, the pieces had discolored and lifted, damaging the surface. Not only was the surface damaged but it was in the most important part of the design...the face!
This is one of the most important differences between woodworkers who create new pieces and woodworkers who spend their time in repair and restoration of damaged pieces. I am more of a restorer and I have always had the ability to solve difficult repair issues, even on the most complex pieces.
He was in such a state of concern that the entire project was ruined, that I calmly said, "Bring it here and we will fix it. No problem."
The next week both Kerin and his wonderful art was sitting in my shop. I put on my Optivisor, got out some clean water, some heat and tweezers. Working carefully, I reset all the damaged elements, using fresh Old Brown Glue. Overnight in the press finished the repair.
Next up, Patrice cleaned up the surface, removing the stains. Careful work resulted in a successful repair. When we finished, you could not see any damage, even with a close examination. Kerin was grateful and surprised at the same time.
More importantly, we all got to spend some quality time together.
Sunday, October 24, 2010
The American School of French Marquetry has just concluded its first decade of operation. It has been a very promising start. We have three full time teachers and classes that are well attended and have exceeded our expectations in results. I found myself looking back and reflecting on the significance of our work and what the future may hold.
First of all, we have continued the teaching methods and materials which were used at ecole Boulle by Dr. Pierre Ramond. We are the only school in North America to offer this program. We also have successfully introduced the chevalet de marqueterie, which is a Parisian marquetry tool unknown previously in this country. (I know that there were a few French workers who actually owned and used such a tool, in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, but they did not make its use public.) I was actually encouraged by Dr. Ramond to introduce the technology to this country.
We have had several hundred students over the past decade, from all countries. Students from Europe, Canada, Australia, Thailand, Philippines, New Zealand, Korea and all across America have sat on our chevalets for the first time and been introduced to a new method of making marquetry art. We have had all ages, from very young to very old, men and women. Every one was able to successfully complete the projects.
By making kits available for the chevalet, we have made it easy for the graduate to build their own custom "chevy" and continue working in their own workshop. Nearly 50 kits have been sold in ten years. That may not seem like a lot, but I consider that number amazing. When we started, I actually thought, "Who would want to do this?" I mean, I love it, but I am a little eccentric.
The personalities of the students who attend classes is diverse. Of course we have professional and amateur wood workers, both at the start of their career and at those who have spent their life pursuing the craft. In addition, we have had corporate executives, brain surgeons, Formula 1 race car drivers (retired), artists, housewives, nurses, museum conservators, teachers, and others who I cannot classify in normal terms.
They all share one thing in common: excitement and amazement at learning something completely new. Me too.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
When you stand in front of an elegant marquetry surface on a piece of furniture made centuries ago you are looking at a surface which has been dramatically altered by age. Visitors to museums do not realize that the woods have lost their color and the range of shadow created by the maker using hot sand. What they are looking at is often uniformly brown, and appears two dimensional and flat.
When the marquetry was originally made it was full of bright colors. Natural colors of wood veneers range from absolute white to absolute black, with all the colors of the rainbow in between. Purpleheart, tulip, rosewood, holly, and hundreds of exotic hardwoods made up the palate of the marqueteur. Each was selected for its depth of color and grain. In addition to those natural colors, workers would dye woods using methods which are now lost to history. Blues, bright reds and a wide range of greens were created using natural vegetable dyes, and these colors are fugitive in sunlight.
Over time, all the colors that made the design beautiful fade. First the reds, then greens, and eventually most of the woods turn light brown, so that the design looks uniform in color. Museum visitors who think that the marquetry they are looking at represents the original intent of the maker are mistaken. The restorer who removes the marquetry surface is rewarded with seeing the original colors that remain on the back of the elements. It is one of the joys of this business.
In addition to the colors, the marquetry maker would spend hours placing each element of the design in hot sand to slightly burn the edge. This required the designer to create the appropriate shadow on the drawing which would provide the guide for the work. If the marquetry was being executed in several copies, each element would have to be burnt exactly the same. One by one the worker places the small pieces of veneer in just the right angle in the hot sand. The sand needs to be very hot so that it only takes a few seconds to create the burn. I like to make dark, dramatic shadows, and Patrice likes to make light, subtile shadows. Each his own taste.
Each time the surface of the wood is scraped or sanded you loose the shadow. After generations of refinishers have had their way with the surface the three dimensional quality created by the artist is lost. It is a sad fact of our trade.
I can tell you that it does take a lot of time and attention to do this properly. This post shows two students who are burning the elements of the rose etude. So far, we have had hundreds of students and not one has burnt his fingers. How lucky is that?
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
The American School of French Marquetry has one of the best student/teacher ratio in the country. Since we limit the class size to a maximum of 6 students and have 3 full time teachers, it is at least 2:1. Last week we had 4 students taking Stage I and this week we have 3 students taking Stage II. Thus, we have one teacher for each student.
Patrice is our French teacher and can correct me any time I say something either not correct or not proper French. He is also able to teach about more contemporary marquetry designs and experimental techniques. He has created a type of marquetry we call "fusion marquetry" and another technique called "sprinkle marquetry." I will write more about these methods in a future post.
I am more interested in passing on the traditional methods which I learned at the feet of Pierre Ramond. I still live in the late 17th century, but am willing to discuss all the methods and styles popular until the end of the 19th century. Not everyone is still stuck in the past, so being able to have Patrice in the school gives the students a full opportunity to explore their own interests.
Kristen is special. She is a true artist, having spent her entire life studying calligraphy, water colors, stained glass, color theory, jewelry making, and art history. She spent many years teaching art at the High School level, as well as adult classes. All her close friends are artists, and they range from graphic design to textile art to bead making to painting and other fields too diverse to mention.
Today the students are getting a short lesson in light and shadow. It is important to understand how light works and how shadow creates depth. When you make marquetry pictures, you use hot sand to burn each element in exactly the right place so that the final picture looks real. To be good at this, you need to fully understand how the eye is fooled by light and shadow, and how different techniques of creating shadow effects work together to make it realistic.
As you can see, the school has a rather extensive library of research material. All the students are welcome to use this library. I
think it adds a wonderful dimension to the experience for the student to search through all the materials available, and then use a book search engine to add the same book to their collection. I used to spend a lot of my time in used book stores. Now I spend a lot of time on the internet using book search engines.
Tag team teaching makes the time go quickly and keeps the students occupied. Always something new to learn.
Sunday, October 17, 2010
I was just watching again the superb 10 minute video of J. George et fils at work in Paris. I have discussed the difference between sawn and sliced veneer in an earlier post. I have also mentioned how important it is for me to visit Patrick George and purchase veneers as often as I can. He always selects special flitches of wood for me and knows my taste.
I don't know exactly how to put the proper hyper text for you to click on, but I can direct you to the video. Just go to YouTube and search for "au bois montant." The first video you see is by darius 1400 and is a professional 10 minute documentary of the veneer business at George's, including the machine which saws the wood.
Update: I just figured out how to link this video. Here it is:
Patrick George Veneer Saw
"Au bois montant" is French for "as wood rises." This machine, invented in the first decade of the 19th century by the French, saws the wood veneer as the wood is raised up from a pit into the moving saw frame. The speed of movement against the blade is exactly equal to the amount of wood removed by the saw. Note there is a large gap in the spacing of the teeth, and the teeth are rip teeth cutting in both directions.
Even if you do not understand any French, this is worth watching. What you are experiencing is a business, run by four generations of the same family, which continues to work in a tradition that hasn't changed in two centuries. Living history brought to you by YouTube.