When you look at the last 50 years of collecting American antiques, you must appreciate the influence Jackie Kennedy had on our generation. When I say "our" generation, of course I refer to the Boomers. As I was born just after the War, I have lived my life along with a herd of others, always hearing about the Baby Boom and its impact on everything from Rock and Roll to housing costs.
Tuesday, August 31, 2010
When you look at the last 50 years of collecting American antiques, you must appreciate the influence Jackie Kennedy had on our generation. When I say "our" generation, of course I refer to the Boomers. As I was born just after the War, I have lived my life along with a herd of others, always hearing about the Baby Boom and its impact on everything from Rock and Roll to housing costs.
Before Jackie walked into the White House, antiques were a dusty relic of rich "old money" families. Stuff that had always sat in the unused rooms of ancient mansions. Remember, before 1966 antiques were defined as "made before 1830" and who could afford those things?
However, when Jackie decided to decorate the White House with American antiques, it caught the attention of everyone. All eyes were on her efforts to draw attention to the culture and craft of early America's past. For the first time in my young life, I started to focus on furniture and Decorative Arts as something interesting, as well as the history behind their creation.
My family took a trip to Washington, D.C. during this time, and I was lucky enough to tour the White House as a teenager. When I walked into the Blue Room I fell in love with everything I saw. And right in the center of the room was this round marble top table with a dark mahogany skin that reflected the light like a beautiful girl laying on the beach covered in sunscreen. Little did I know that, much later in life, I would have a mid life crisis that required me to make that table.
I have already talked about my success in veneering columns. It was a simple decision to make this table, since most of the work was making the three columns. The bronze dore mounts were ordered from Paris, along with the capitals and bases for the columns. I spent thousands of dollars on the mounts, choosing mercury gilding and chasing by a Parisian expert who had graduated from ecole Boulle. The rosewood was veneer I had kept in my veneer cave for years. The polish was French polish, which takes some time to do properly.
The real difficulty was in turning the molding around the top under the marble. The only machine I have in the shop is a 1952 Shop Smith. I purchased it when I started business in 1969 since I thought it was a good lathe. I threw away all the other attachments since I had no use for the jig saw, table saw, disc sander, etc. I just wanted a good, cheap spindle lathe for making parts. I kept the face plate attachment, which was 4" in diameter.
Now I needed to turn a cocobolo molding which was over 3 feet in diameter! I was filled with the challenge and a good helping of respect and fear for my life. I used cocobolo since I did not have enough solid rosewood to use, and I thought cocobolo would be a close match in color and grain.
I made a plywood circle and bolted it to the 4" face plate. I turned the Shop Smith motor and head around to turn outboard, so the large plywood blank would just clear the floor. I loaded the bed of the Shop Smith with as much weights as I could find, several hundred pounds. I mounted a tool rest on a stable bench just near the edge of the turning. I glued the cocobolo segments to the edge of the plywood and went home.
I could not sleep that night.
When I approached the lathe set up the next day, I said to myself "What was I thinking?' I even went so far as to put protective barriers around the lathe so that if (when) it exploded it would minimize the damage to the room. I put on lots of clothing to protect myself and flipped the switch. Long before the spinning plywood reached full speed I turned it off. As it slowed down I pressed a chisel against the edge and began to smooth it down. On with the switch, wait 10 seconds, off with the switch, cut with the chisel. Repeat. Each time it got more balanced and I could leave the power on longer.
After a long time I was able to turn it on and leave it on, while standing in the far corner of the room. When it did not explode, I finished the turning. I was covered in cocobolo dust and shavings. Later I found out that some people have a sensitivity to cocobolo dust. I was more worried about dying.
Never again will I do something that foolish. Do not try this at home.
Monday, August 30, 2010
I spend a lot of time visiting nice homes. I guess you could say I am fortunate as my shop is within easy driving distance of several areas where very expensive homes are located. The term, "McMansions" has been created to describe this genre of living. Homes with excess of 10,000 square feet would certainly qualify as having more space than is necessary for two people to exist in comfort.
As I have walked through literally hundreds of these McMansions over the years, I have become somewhat immune to the impressive scale and luxurious furnishings, many of which are simply decorative or even fake. What stands out in my mind, as I wander the marble halls, is the occasional period antique that is interesting or rare.
Dining rooms are a particular problem for the antique decorator to furnish. Actual dining tables were not made before the end of the 18th century, and most of the large scale dining tables are made up in the late 20th century to look antique, as the demand rose. On the other hand, period chairs are available, but often broken and repaired so poorly that they no longer serve their function.
Then there are the sets of chairs which have been "expanded." This is more common than you might think. Just take 4 antique chairs, for example, and knock them apart completely. Make duplicate parts, as "repairs" and you then assemble them to be 8 chairs. Each chair is 50% period and 50% "restored" so the collector/dealer can brag about how rare it is to have a large set. And they have been "restored" so they are ready for use!
One day I visited a home and discovered a set of 6 really fine Chippendale mahogany dining chairs, which had never been worked on. They impressed me as to the structural design, with stretchers, tapered legs, and a solid pierced splat on the back. They needed a little regluing, so I took them into the shop, where I made some measurements and a sketch for the future.
Later, when a client asked me to make some sturdy and early chairs, I was ready to go to work. I purchased two Honduras boards, 6/4 and 8/4. One board was slightly darker than the other, so I used the darker board for all the vertical elements and the lighter for the horizontal pieces. This is a traditional practice for 18th century furniture, to accentuate the vertical proportions of the piece. All the parts for 12 chairs were cut from these two boards. I should mention this was a long time ago, when you could still purchase nice Houduras mahogany.
As the client ordered 10 chairs, I made 12. The reason was that I could deliver the best 10 and keep the remaining pair for myself. The seats were standard slip seats, made with a maple frame and upholstered with horsehair stuffing. The client wanted hand made custom needlepoint coverings, so I found an elderly lady who agreed to do the needlepoint.
By sheer coincidence her name was Mrs. Edwards, and she was no relation to me at all. She was in her 90's but willing to make the seat coverings, a few at a time. She took longer to make the needlepoint than I did to make the chairs, but the client was understanding and patient.
Mrs. Edwards made a vow to complete the 10 needlepoint seats, each pattern different, with birds and flowers, before she passed away. As we waited for the final seats to be delivered, we wondered if she would complete her assignment. I must report, with great respect, that she passed away shortly after she finished the last panel.
I choose to cover the two seats on my chairs with damask.
Thank you, Mrs. Edwards.
Sunday, August 29, 2010
One of the best decisions I ever made was to hire a professional photographer to record my work. A close friend of mine recommended Glenn Cormier, who was famous for his commercial interior work. Glenn would take a restaurant or home interior and light it perfectly. That meant that everything looked "natural" but all the lighting placement was intentional and artificial. He studied at Rochester Institute and learned about "Painting with Light," a special technique used by many photographers to put the light where it works, and use the shadows for dramatic effect.
I contacted Glenn and asked him about his schedule and prices. To say he was expensive is an understatement. He was also busy. That made it difficult, as I would usually finish a project the day before it was to be delivered, and he was not always available. So, in addition to my work schedule to complete a job, I had to project the timeline to include his possible openings for shooting the work.
As for the cost, I simply included it in the final costs for the job. Since most of the work I made was fairly expensive, it did not increase the final price much, and having a quality portfolio of work paid off in the end. My prospective clients would always be impressed when I showed them my folio, and I think it was as much for the quality of the photos as the work itself.
After years of working with Glenn, he asked me to make him a dining table. Finally, I had something to trade with him, to offset the costs of all these pictures he was taking. He told me about the size he wanted and the style and I set to work.
I had a quantity of French cherry veneer in stock. Both the French Walnut and Cherry species are quite different in appearance from the American varieties. The French Walnut has much more dramatic grain, and a wider range of color than American. The French Cherry has a more open grain and a lighter color than the American.
I used the basic form of my Butterfly Table, except the proportions were different. The Butterfly Table is a center table, so it is a Console table height: 32". Dining tables must be as close to 30" in height as possible, not more than 1/2" above or below for comfort. That meant the shape of the pedestal was modified for the lower height.
The top was also much larger: 54". On a circular table this size would seat 6 people comfortably. But I also wanted the top to be stable when used. To guarantee this, the footprint of the base would need to be 2/3 the diameter of the top. This would also allow space for the feet when seated at the table.
Finally, to insure a stable top, I engineered the following attachment, which would make it extremely stable when assembled, yet allow for the top to be easily removed when necessary. I took a 1/4" piece of steel, 12" x 12" and had a large nut welded to the center of it. This piece of steel was glued into the center core of the top itself. The top was made with veneer on top of 1" wood, the steel underneath, and 6/4 solid wood under that. It looked like a solid wood top in all respects but underneath there was a hexagon hole in the center of the table where the steel plate and nut was visible.
The pedestal was also made of solid wood, with cherry veneer. Through the center of the pedestal was a hole large enough for the threaded bolt to engage the nut. The top of the pedestal was cut into a octagon tenon, which exactly fit into the hexagon socket under the top.
To install the top you placed the top upside down on a blanket, located the pedestal into the hexagon socket and installed the bolt from the bottom, through the pedestal, into the nut. When tight, the top was absolutely rigid and stable, but could be easily removed by reversing the process.
Finally, I added a nice black veneer star in the center of the top, and some black trim as an accent to the cherry. This touch is common in Biedermeier design to add detail and contrast with the lighter veneers.
Glenn was very pleased with the result, and did not charge me for the photograph.
Friday, August 27, 2010
You may have realized by now that I rediscovered a method for veneering columns using traditional protein glues many years ago. It opened a chapter in my career where I found projects which included columns and I could turn those columns from solid wood and wrap them with any veneer I choose.
This was neat. Up until that time, it was not really possible to use a vacuum bag, unless you created a special bag application. You couldn't use synthetic glues or contact glue. Nothing worked easily and with a certain amount of guaranteed success. But using the liquid glue (Old Brown Glue) and wrapping with elastic straps allowed me to create any column perfectly and with 100% success.
In case you are interested in this method, you may visit my website and read the article on my Consulting page. I should mention I have several articles on my site and they continue into more detail than I wish to include here.
I was surprised and honored to receive Best of Show at the San Diego Design In Wood show for my Boston pier table, mentioned earlier in this blog. As I had sold it, I thought that I should make another, with some variations in the design. I knew Stuart Feld, at Hirschl and Adler Galleries in New York, and showed him a photo of my table. He was kind enough to compliment me on my work and supplied me with a 1960's black and white photo of a different table they had by the same makers.
This second Emmonds and Archibald had very similar features, including the black ovoid feet, but the mounts and detail were more refined. Also, the mahogany veneer that the Boston Museum of Fine Arts table was covered in was instead Brazilian Rosewood. Because the veneer was different, the black marble was changed to white marble.
Dalbergia Negra (Brazilian Rosewood) is listed on the CITIES endangered species list, and, since 1986, has been a controlled material. Fortunately, I have anticipated this and managed to collect some very nice rosewood prior to the restriction. Since 1986 I have continued to purchase this wood when it has become available, but only from certified dealers who can provide proper papers, like Patrick George, in Paris. For example, the rosewood veneer I used on my tilt top Louis-Philippe tables was harvested in 1952 and sold by George with full documentation.
Building a console table is relatively easy and profitable, assuming you can veneer columns. Essentially, you need 4 feet, a veneered plinth, columns, pilasters, antique mirror and frame, top apron frame and marble. Fast, elegant, practical and a necessary element of classical interior architecture. A perfect place to show flowers or sculpture, often situated in an entry with a second mirror directly above. These tables are called Console or Pier Tables, depending on the country.
I went to Paris and selected some wonderful gilt bronze mounts to show off the rosewood. Much of the time building this table was spent cutting mitres on the bronze molding which seems to cover every edge of the table. For the larger, decorative mounts, and the capitals and bases, I paid extra for chasing and mercury gilding. People who study French furniture appreciate the quality of the mounts, and look closely at the work involved in making them look like jewelry. You can purchase a bronze mount "brut" which is simply cast, and unfinished. Such a mount might cost less than $100. You can the select the type of gilding, which is either electroplate or mercury. That can add a cost ranging between $100 and $500. Then you can have a master use punches and small chisels to chase the detail further. This is the most skillful part of the job. Each element of the bronze is enhanced and refined with these tools so that the mount shines in the light. That can add as much as $1000.
On this table, I paid for all of that work, and it made this project into a masterpiece, in my opinion. However, it did not influence the judges at the next Design In Wood show, where this table received a second place! I asked the judge after the show about how he could give me a Best of Show earlier on a table which was not nearly as nice as this entry. He replied: "I want you to do something different. I already saw this table last year."
Kind of like the Shakers, who would approach a clockmaker, gaining a reputation for his excellent work, and tell him that it is time he learns how to make bricks. You can never master humility.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
I love the Empire style of furniture. It is strong and clean in line, classic in ornament, rich in wood and was popular all over the world for nearly the entire 19th century, in one form or another. There is one problem: it doesn't live well with other more delicate periods of style. It fights with all the French Louis, doesn't live happily with lesser woods (like oak) and cannot stand small rooms with no architectural character to feed off of.
Early on in my collecting, I resolved to purchase a nice early secretaire abattant, in mahogany with black marble top. I searched for years, always finding some reason to not purchase each one, since it had some flaw or weakness (in my opinion). There was a dealer I knew who loved chinese porcelain and hated Empire furniture. As it happens, he had a great secretaire abattant which he considered useful strictly as a pedestal to hold his prize porcelain bowl. The bowl was easily as large as the entire top of the cabinet, and it sat there untouched year after year.
He refused to sell the cabinet as long as he had that bowl.
One visit, I noticed with glee that the bowl was gone! I gingerly asked about the secretaire and he said he would sell it for $600, but that it was not French, but German. That day was the last day I could pay my property tax, and instead of paying my tax on time (and instead of consulting my wife, which is worse) I took the tax money and bought the cabinet.
As he was helping me load it into the truck, I was lifting the top and he was lifting the base, and he said with a surprise, "Hey, there are paper labels under the base!" I asked what they said, and he replied, "Don't know, they are in French."
As I enjoyed living with this secretaire, the desire to do similar work grew in my mind. "What if I could do work as nice as that?" I thought. Perhaps then I could call myself an ebeniste, I reasoned.
Years later, at another dealer's shop, I stumbled upon a beat up French Empire Bonheur du Jour, which I purchased for a lot more money than it was worth. When I got it back to the shop and studied it, I concluded it would be easier to copy it than to actually restore it. That started the journey of fulfillment which led me to call myself an ebeniste.
I have already discussed making veneered columns so this part of the problem was solved. I also had purchased some fantastic plum pudding figure Cuban mahogany from New York 15 years earlier that I knew would be perfect. All I had to do was purchase the bronze mounts from Paris and measure and copy the original which was sitting on my bench.
Everything went much better than I could have expected. There were problems to solve, lessons to learn and always careful attention to detail, and having the original to study got me through. However, when I put it together it looked different, and I spent days looking at the copy and the original from every angle possible to discover what was different.
Finally I realized the problem. The square back posts on the base have no taper to their sides, but the two front turned columns have a slight taper. I had mounted the turned columns vertical, and when you looked at the base from straight on there was a difference with the original. The original had the tapered columns moved a few millimeters out to produce an exterior edge parallel with the back posts. This created an effect in perspective like at the Parthenon where the columns are not exactly vertical. I had been looking at the desk up on the bench at eye level. When you viewed it on the floor, where it was used, and stood in front and above it, the turnings looked perfect!
I immediately moved the turnings out and it solved the problem.
This piece is in my collection and is one of my favorite pieces. It was pictured on the back cover of Fine Woodworking (Issue #173) from December 2004. I wrote a Master Class article with it to instruct readers on how to veneer columns using protein glue. The only response I got from a reader was to ask about where I got the mounts, and did I have plans available?
Bonheur du Jour is translated as "Good time of the day". I must say that this piece does not fight with others, and has lived in my home in peace and quiet for years.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
I am not able to design contemporary furniture. No matter how hard I try to be original, as soon as my pencil hits the paper centuries of furniture design cloud my vision. That is why all the work I have produced is historical. I guess you could say I was into historical revivalism in the late 20th century.
I have also lived in Paris and travelled around Europe on many different trips, all expensed as "business". Sometimes I travel with my wife, but usually I travel alone. She likes the country; I like the city. So, even when we travel together, the schedule of activities is the subject of often heated discussion.
A few years ago, to celebrate our anniversary (don't ask me which one...), I offered to take a trip with her that was "not business". That meant I was not to visit museums, dealers, suppliers, antique shops, and would be forced to lavish all my attention on her needs. I know she appreciates what a sacrifice this was for me.
To make it interesting, we purchased Eurorail passes and I told her that all our gear must fit into one backpack, which I would carry. That would leave her free to enjoy the trip, and carry the water bottle that she never is without. No plans, no route determined, no reservations, no limitations at all. If we liked the area, we would stay days, if not we moved on down the road.
Well, we LOVED Florence, so we stayed. Found a nice place just in the center and enjoyed the Botero exhibit which was on the plaza at the Uffizi Museum. (I admit, she enjoys museums as much or more than I do.) How we talked our way into the museum for free ahead of a 2 hour wait line is another story.
While having the most amazing lasagna in the world at ZaZa's one evening, I couldn't help thinking about my Quilt Tilt table. While my lovely wife was talking to me about something (I forget) I was thinking about how I had to make two tables to show both surfaces of the marquetry design. Would it be possible for me to make a table which had two surfaces? A table which would show both tops in a new and creative way? What about pivoting the top on the corners so it could spin along a horizontal axis? What about spinning it at the same time along a vertical axis? How would that work?
By dessert, I had rejoined my wife's conversation with me and kept secret the new design I had worked out in my head. A quick sketch on a scrap of paper preserved the idea for me to develop when I returned after the trip.
Thus I created the RockeTable. Cut out of sawn veneer (purpleheart) and pewter, using the same quilt design as before, I engineered a mechanical system out of aluminum and covered it with more purpleheart. This system provided arms which rotate along a vertical axis, like a lazy Susan system. The top is fixed at two corners on pivots which allow it to rotate 360 degrees along a horizontal axis, so either side could be on top.
If you look at the four photos, you can see the different aspects of this table when it is set up in each mode. After over 40 years of working on period furniture, this is the first "original" design I have produced. It is not for sale.
Sunday, August 22, 2010
One day I was looking through a magazine and saw an add for a hotel in Hawaii. The graphic used in the ad was an antique Hawaiian quilt. I was fascinated by the design, and the more I looked at it, the more creatures appeared.
There were frogs, dragons, bats, pineapples, and other mysteries contained in the repetitive pattern. In addition, the balance between the design and the "negative" space of the background was almost a perfect 50/50. This meant that it would be a perfect design for boulle cutting in two materials, since the "premier partie" and the "contre partie" would be relatively equal.
The other aspect of the design was that it was made with scissors and sewing, so that the pattern was slightly irregular and primitive in origin. I thought it would be interesting to execute that design with wood, so I copied it and went to work.
In selecting the two woods for this project, I wanted to make it as challenging as possible, so I could have some fun. I selected a walnut burl and padauk. The burl was difficult to control, as it was fragile and would expand in the glue, testing my speed at putting the picture together on the assembly board. The padauk had a very strong straight grain and would easily break if poorly handled.
More importantly, the matching of the padauk would provide a certain depth of field or perspective in the final picture, as the linear grain would create a tunnel effect. Of course, the bright red of the padauk would not last long, and over time it would fade to almost the same color as the walnut. I thought that would also add a certain charm to the picture, and it did.
As you will note, making the top was fairly efficient. The top is made up of 4 identical squares and each is made up of 2 woods. All I had to do was make one packet with 4 layers of burl walnut and 4 layers of padauk. Using the chevalet I cut all the design out with a 2/0 blade and I got 8 times the surface area. Thus 1 square foot of packet makes 8 square feet of design.
I glued the two assembled marquetry tops to a maple top and turned some Federal tripod bases. I really did not spend much time working on the bases, as I just wanted to use the tables around the house as occasional tables and, when not in use, they would rest upright in the corners of the room. For contrast, I used solid padauk for the frames of the tops. I gave the bases a dark finish to make them appear older than they were. The maple had a wonderful figure which the stain made stand out.
I think when you look at the two tops you will see images from the Hawaiian tribes, transferred from fabric to wood.
Friday, August 20, 2010
I have worked for many collectors, dealers and museums over the years, and had the good fortune to have in my shop an amazing amount of furniture. Over the years I feel that I have developed something of a 6th sense about furniture. How it was made, how it was restored, used, abused, and how it might have failed from some form of design flaw. I find that frequently I know more about the pieces in the first 15 minutes than the owner of the piece who has lived with it for decades.
In addition to this specific insight into furniture, I also find that I have what might be called total recall. By that I mean that I have in my collection over 18,000 slides of antiques which I have taken over the years, all over America and Europe. Once, for example, I was visiting the Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C. and returned to the room which shows Pilgrim furnishings. Although I had taken photos of that same room years earlier, something about it was different. I took more shots and compared them to the earlier slides when I returned home. They had changed the bannister back chair, replacing it with a reverse bannister back chair. That was the only difference.
One of the local dealers I worked for specialized in high end and high priced European furniture, and for many years provided me with a constant supply of work, all very challenging. I worked on ivory and tortoise shell cabinets, gilt-bronze mounts, complicated locks, marquetry restoration and French polishing. Every time I delivered a finished piece she had something more to give me. One trip she gave me a hexagon top marquetry table with bone inlay. The top was beautiful, but the legs....horrible.
Although the legs seemed original to the top, they were not a good match. Imagine 6 carved cabriole legs with ball and claw feet attached to this marquetry top. As you walked around the table and viewed the legs, there were always several which looked crooked and basically fought with the legs nearby. It was clumsy and awkward from the top down. A very bad design.
I restored the top of the table, waxed the legs and returned the table, after making a drawing of the top design. One feature of the top is the repetition of the four panels around the center. This allowed me to cut out all four panels at one time, saving labor. All the white flowers are bone inlay. The bluebirds are blue tinted sycamore, as is the butterfly in the center.
All the material for the top is sawn veneer, and the background is made of two matched leaves of sawn French walnut. I wanted to suggest in matching the two leaves of the background that the entire top of the table is like the two wings of a fancy butterfly. You have to have quite an imagination to believe that.
Of course, I changed the base completely. I made a solid wood base, veneered on all sides with French walnut, and attached the top with a long bolt through the base structure, just like they would have done in 1820.
For some reason, I really enjoy looking at the photos of the top of this table. I hope you do too.
Thursday, August 19, 2010
What I appreciate about being a student and teacher of Decorative Arts is that everything goes into fashion and then out of fashion constantly. Objects which are well crafted and designed survive for centuries, but at different times in their life are either highly sought after or neglected. That is one important fact for collectors, like stock brokers, who seek to buy low and sell high, anticipating trends in design.
During the 90's Biedermeier was in fashion among a certain strata of designers and collectors. Biedermeier is a name for a period in Germany, Austria, Italy and other middle European countries where the emergence of a middle class created a demand for stylish but affordable furniture. The name, loosely translated into common American, would be something like "John Smith Style" as it relates to the common middle class of society, and a furniture which was made in large quantities and a wide range of quality.
It is also, by its very nature, architectural in its proportions and detail. Pilasters, plinths, columns, and many of its general elements reflected the home interiors directly. Also, there were a lot of newly created and highly specialized forms which evolved to serve the new demands of this middle class.
In my opinion, the imagination of the Biedermeier designers was unsurpassed in adapting these new forms and creating an almost endless variation of the theme among them. For example, you would think a simple chair or table would be easy to design, and that a simple design would work well for all chairs and tables. Not so during the first half of the 19th century. I've looked at thousands of designs in books and real life which are all variations of the same form. Many are simply amusing, some are brilliant, all are different.
So it was, while I was walking on rue Bac on the left bank in Paris (just to name drop), that I saw in the window of an antique shop the famous Tulip Chair from Vienna. Wow. Now I had seen everything. I was not prepared for the original version of the Eero Saarinen plastic chair made famous by the movie 2001. Like I said, what's old is new, all the time.
So I purchased Angus Wilkie's book, "Biedermeier" and looked at the center fold, page 90, and there, in glorious color was the same chair. Now, the question remained, how to make it?
In spite of all the wonderful variations found in Biedermeier furniture, there is one absolute common feature: matched veneers, usually walnut, with a black trim to contrast. Fortunately, I have a large supply of French walnut veneer flitches to choose from.
The bigger problem remained: how to create the form, and would it be comfortable? To answer that question I went to Home Depot and purchased sheet foam insulation in a variety of thicknesses. By cutting up the foam and pinning it together with wire, I was able to mock up a full size replica of the chair, strong enough to sit in. This mock up allowed me to adjust the form and proportions to perfection. Then I was able to build the actual chair by measuring the foam model.
The chair itself is built of solid tulip poplar, laminated and carved to shape. All the surfaces were then veneered with walnut, using hot animal glue. This proved to be a challenge, as wrapping the veneer around the tight curves on the arms was "fun", to say the least.
The upholstery is done in a traditional manner, using horse/hog hair on a fitted frame, which then locks into the chairs using clips, which make the upholstery removable in the future.
When I showed the final product to a designer, she asked me if the chairs had wheels. I replied, "When you sit in these chairs, you don't swivel around to meet people, they walk around to meet you." They now reside in Sacramento and, if asked, no, I would not do it again!
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
When I started collecting antiques over 40 years ago, American oak furniture was found in the thrift stores and second hand shops for little or no money. I purchased sets of press back oak chairs for $5/each, square and round tables (with leaves) for $50 and nice roll top desks for $200. As the market woke up, prices went up quickly.
There were several factors in the rapid rise of awareness in collecting American antiques. Most importantly, the legal definition of what an antique was changed overnight in November, 1966. That was when President Johnson signed a law which had an amendment changing the legal status of antiques (only for importation into the US) from "made before 1830" to "100 years old". The concept that antiques were made before 1830 was established by the passage of the Hawley-Smoot law in 1930, and recognized that antiques were made before the Industrial Revolution. By 1966 there was a lack of real antiques available, and the antiques lobby (imagine!) added the amendment to include new (Victorian) objects for sale.
This started a rush to purchase the "new antiques" and Belter furniture and Tiffany lamps came out of the trash and were placed into the front showrooms of the best auction houses. Boomers like me were encouraged to jump in and invest in this new market, and I was excited to go on a treasure hunt like others. By the Centennial, I was selling roll top desks for more than $1500 and making a good living traveling the states and spending cash in small town antique shops.
During these "business" trips, I would also visit all the historic homes, villages and museums that I could find. So, on one of these trips, I found myself wandering around the great Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It was there I met Emmonds and Archibald, "face to face".
This team of cabinetmakers worked together in Boston during the first decades of the 19th century and produced a wonderful series of pier tables, and the Boston museum had on display a wonderful example of their skill. I was struck by the way they were able to veneer tapered columns using protein glues, and I began to research and experiment with this technique to see if I could do the same. Since I knew it was fairly common for furniture makers before the Industrial Revolution to veneer columns, I thought it would be a simple trick. I was wrong.
It was 15 years later when I discovered how it was done. And it was in a completely different country and while researching a completely different topic that I learned the "secret". (Is it still a secret if it is just a forgotten skill?)
As a founding member of an international conservation group (ADEN) working on modifying animal protein glues to conserve marquetry surfaces, I learned of the addition of urea as a modifier and how it changes the characteristics of the glue. Without getting too scientific, the urea attaches to bonding sites on the protein molecule and prevents the covalent bonding of the adjacent electrons as the glue cools. This allows the glue to remain liquid at a lower temperature, which allows a longer working time.
I immediately restarted my experiments on veneering columns using urea modified glue, and it worked perfectly the first time. Soon I was manufacturing and selling Old Brown Glue, which is a urea modified protein glue, and now OBG is a staple in many woodworking shops.
The first thing I made using this rediscovered "trick" was a recreation of the same pier table I remembered seeing in Boston. I used old mahogany veneer, antique mirror, black marble, imported gilt bronzes from Paris, and my new glue, and in sort time my wife was placing flowers on our own pier table. I entered it in the Design in Wood show that year and was honored with "Best in Show" and $1000 prize.
Thank you, Mr. Emmonds and Mr. Archibald
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
I first fell in love with English tall case clocks when I entered the room at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and met Tompion. I had no idea who Tompion was or that these kind of clocks even existed. I immediately began researching this period and this man and that started a long term affair which occupies a good portion of my time.
R. W. Symonds' definitive book on Thomas Tompion is required reading. As a "retired" scientist who has studied my share of mathematics and mechanics, I can only wonder at the genius of those early clock makers who were able to construct such advanced clockworks that could not only tell time (basic problem solved) but were able to include in their systems devices which could accurately determine the position of celestial bodies, phases of the moon, and even the tides at London Bridge.
It was in 1655 or 1656 when the famous Dutch mathematical genius, Christian Huygens discovered that using a pendulum as a clock regulator, clocks could be made to keep accurate time. The effect was immediate, and in 1658 clocks using pendulums were advertised in London. For the first time in human history it was possible to keep accurate time and everyone who could afford a clock placed their orders.
It is important to understand that the clock works were made by the man who put his name on the dial, but the clock case was made by the local cabinetmaker, who is usually forgotten by time. Men like Tompion, considered the Father of English clockmaking, were so popular that they employed several different craftsmen to make their cases, and all the cases are different.
During the Golden Age of English clockmaking, around 1680, the cases were elaborately decorated with the newest fashion of marquetry veneers, in the Dutch style, after the French fashion. These cases are amazing, with the use of sawn imported hardwood veneers, bone, metals, tortoiseshell, ivory, and mother of pearl inlays. Olive wood was favored, as it polished like marble and had glorious colors in the grain which was dramatic, especially when the moldings were carved from short vertical grain. The olive was also cut in an oyster or sausage veneer which created circles or ovals of pattern.
The Tompion clock at the Met inspired me to make a similar clock for my own house. I acquired the materials from Patrick George, in Paris, and ordered the works made by David Lindow, in Pennsylvania. Lindow cut the hands, made the face and sent it to London for engraving. Every element of the mechanism is authentic to the period.
The only difference is that my name is on the dial.
Note: The Tompion Clock is on the right. My clock is on the left. It has been sold and lives in Dallas, Texas. Each time I make a clock for myself it ends up sold before it is completed...
Monday, August 16, 2010
When I started out as a woodworker, I was self taught. That means, since my entire educational career was designed to get a degree and work as a nuclear physicist, I never took wood shop or even considered woodworking as an activity. It was my decision to abandon the nuclear industry, on moral grounds, which caused me to try something completely different in life.
So, I started buying and repairing antique furniture. I evolved quickly into a cabinetmaker, finisher, furniture maker, upholsterer, and Decorative Arts instructor with a TV series on antiques. It was fun, exciting and more importantly, economically rewarding. I was able to purchase a nice Craftsman home in a historic neighborhood with my hard work and skill. Shortly after I purchased a commercial location just a few blocks down the street, where I still work today.
Since I was self taught, I had reservations about considering myself a "master" of anything. I was deeply involved in historic research, and understood the meaning of "master, journeyman and apprentice". The apprentice was a young boy with no experience who was signed over to the master for 7 years of work. In exchange for essentially being a slave to the master, the master was obligated to provide a place to sleep, candles and the "mysteries of the trade".
The apprentice eventually was taught how to make his own tools and toolbox. At the end of the 7 years, he was considered a journeyman and it was normal for him to take his tools and toolbox and travel to work with other masters, using his toolbox as a "portfolio" to demonstrate his abilities. The workshop would provide the bench and candles.
At some point, when he was able to open his own shop, he would build his workbench and the customers would then judge his talents on the quality of the bench and the tools. In my mind, it is very important for the bench and tools to reflect the skill and attention to detail of the craftsman for potential clients.
So, after 10 years in business, I set out to Pennsylvania to capture a beech tree for my bench. I found a farm with 60 acres of trees and a sympathetic farmer to let me cut down a tree, which I did with an axe and handsaw. I paid $20 and a case of beer at the local sawmill for them to saw it into 4" thick center cuts, which I drove back to San Diego and air dried for the next 10 years.
In 1989 I built my workbench in 3 weeks, using only hand tools. All the vices are wood thread. The top is 4" thick throughout. It weighs about 500 lbs, and has never moved. I have used it daily for the past 20 years, and surface the top occasionally with a toothing plane.
The day I was finishing my bench I heard a news feature on the radio about numerology. It said that at that moment something unique was happening. At precisely 1:23 o'clock and 45 seconds, it would be 6/7/89. So I waited until the right second, and signed my bench "WPE built at 1:23:45 on 6/7/89.
This is my office, and my bench is my desk. My clients can judge me now.
Thursday, August 12, 2010
At my age I should be able to complain about my body and the "problems of aging". However, I don't have much to complain about. When someone says to me that I look much younger than I am, I always give them my secret: "Don't drink, don't smoke, eat raw foods slowly, go to bed early, get up early, work at something you love to do, and have good genes." Then they look at me in a strange way and walk away as quickly as possible.
That said, the first problem I notice is my eyesight is gradually getting worse. I have worn glasses since I was 12, every day of my life, so I guess you could say my eyesight was never "perfect". The unfortunate fact of life (for me) is that it takes so long to learn the techniques of the trade that, by the time you are a "master", you have trouble seeing what you are doing.
This is the reason I love to make marquetry using the "Painting in Wood" method. This process, which was the favorite process during the last half of the 17th century, was universally practiced in France, Holland and England, and is often found on the tall case clocks of that period. I have fallen in love with these wonderful clocks made during the Golden Age of Painting in Wood, 1680-1700.
A few years ago one of my favorite English clients who has impeccable taste asked me to make her a tall clock. She
is a devoted gardener and has a fantastic knowledge of flowers. She and I worked closely on the elements of the design to be sure that the flowers were accurate, and that the overall effect was similar to what her garden looked like in the summer.
As I said, Painting in Wood has the advantage for me in that you do not have to exactly follow the lines of the design. There is room for interpretation and, even if you go off the line, it always fits together. That works for my eyesight perfectly. I can still cut very fast and not worry too much about staying on the line all the time.
Painting in Wood is actually cutting in superposition. That means all the elements of the picture are placed inside a single packet and the cutting is done with a blade perpendicular to the packet surface. The packet is made up as follows: a 3mm back board, grease paper, single layer of the background veneer, single layer of green tinted sycamore, several other layers of diverse hardwood veneers strategically placed in positions where the flowers are located, a 1.5 mm top board and the design glued onto the face of the packet, all held together at the edges with veneer tape.
Obviously the most important part is to be sure the internal placement of the selected hardwood veneers is where the flowers are located. This takes some layout planning, and you need to be able to see "through" 8 layers of material to be sure (in your mind) that all the proper colors are in the proper places, before you start cutting.
When you then cut out a piece of the packet, you have in your hand 8 different woods, all cut out the same shape. You only keep one of these layers, and the rest is waste (unfortunately). That is why Painting in Wood is so expensive. In addition, since I use only sawn veneers, it becomes very expensive to do this process.
I think the results are worth the cost. My clients agree.
Saturday, August 7, 2010
I'm old fashioned in many ways. For example, my wife just bought me an iphone 4 and I refused to open the box. She had told me that, as soon as I pressed the "on" button, my old phone service would be stopped. As a luddite, that places me in a situation for which there is no good result. I need to tell you that, many years ago, when I was told (by my wife) that I needed a mobile phone (so she could always reach me wherever I was) and I went to the phone store, I realized all the sales people were much less than half my age, and each carried at least one phone. I got into trouble immediately when I indicated that I just wanted a "phone" and not a camera, or web browser, or email connection, or GPS, or blue tooth (whatever that was).
My phone manners are terrible, as I always consider it an interruption, and my initial response is "Hey!" I think my longest phone call was almost a minute long. Now she buys me an iphone, which I "need desperately". I'm a Luddite with an iphone...
None of that is relevant to the blog topic I wanted to post today, when I sat down in front of my computer with my coffee. (I'm a Luddite blogging on a computer!) Life is full of inconsistencies.
I wanted to explain my views on the pieces I make and the terms people use to describe them. Terms like "copies, creations, re creations, and reproductions" are used by furniture makers and it is important to use accurate words properly to communicate meaning.
I have spent over 4 decades as a furniture conservator in private practice, working on high end pre industrial furniture. I have seen great pieces from the inside out, and learned from the masters. I struggle every day to "re create" their work. The traditional craftsman working before the Industrial Revolution was hired by the customer to "create" furniture for a specific purpose. At the time it was made, it was in the "most fashionable taste" or, using today's term, "contemporary".
Of course, those workmen were influenced by the current style of fashion, either locally, regionally or internationally. There were design books published, and the clients and the craftsman worked together to create furniture which reflected the current taste. I refer to these pieces as "creations" and that is why I tend to use the term "re creation" to describe most of my work. I struggle every day at work to "re create" the process of work, using period tools and methods as well as original materials and historic finishes to end up with a piece of furniture that would satisfy the most critical collector. At the same time, I have researched the period Price Books which define how long it took to make each piece, so that I am, in fact, working at the same pace as the period cabinetmaker. I "re create" in every detail the original "creations" of historic period woodworkers. I make "re creations".
In a sense, I am a counterfeiter, but in a good sense. That means I do not make any effort to "fake" or age my work. My pieces are made exactly like they would have been in the original period, but new, without any distressing, artificial age or synthetic patina. They look exactly like they would in 1810 or 1760 or 1680, whatever period the piece is supposed to be from.
I prefer not to use the word "copy" to describe my work, even though in many cases it is an exact copy of an antique. Many of my pieces are inspired by original pieces which I have in the shop for conservation, or I own. These are in fact, exact copies in every respect. So, why not call them "copies?" The short answer is: I don't like the term, it sounds cheap, and my pieces are not cheap. (This answer should generate some comments, I hope.)
As for the "reproduction" term, that is more simple. Industrial furniture was produced in a production line process, resulting in multiple "copies". (See, another reason not to use the term "copy"). So, if I were to make a piece of industrial furniture using modern production techniques, then it would be a "reproduction."
As a dedicated Luddite, working at my computer, I do not make "reproductions". Comment?