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.
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.
When I finished this clock I asked the photographer to take a picture with me next to the clock. One of the reasons I did this is that I have a fairly large ego and am constantly struggling with my urge to control my ego with a superficial veneer of humility. I am sure I am not the only person on the planet with this problem. After all, some of us have no confidence at all (unfortunately) and some of us have more confidence than is earned by our actions. Where is the balance?
Anyway, this is not a therapy session. I am just trying to be honest about why I took this picture. The "real" reason is that I wanted to show some sense of scale; how large is this clock, compared to a "normal" person?
On the other hand, when I saw this photo in my computer, it reminded me that my tall case clocks were all sold and that I never had any trouble making them and selling them, even at very high prices. Why? Is it just that they are nice to look at?
There is more to it than that. Tall case clocks have very "human" characteristics which appeal to all of us. In many homes, they are placed in the entry of the house, so that they greet you when you arrive and are the last image you see as you depart. They have a face, which is at eye level. The face has hands, which signal the time of day, down to the minute and second. Some clocks also remind you of the day of the month and the phase of the moon.
The case has feet, a waist, and, inside the bonnet, cheeks which support the seat board of the works. There is also a back to the case, just to carry the analogy a step further.
It was the English clockmakers who first discovered how to use a pendulum to regulate time in the last half of the 17th century. The tall case was necessary for the pendulum to operate, and the weights to drop, which provided a full day of power. Soon, clocks were engineered to run for a full week, then longer. The weight on the pendulum could be adjusted up or down a few millimeters to adjust the speed of the clock. For the first time in history, it was possible to keep time down to the second.
Another human feature of these manually operated clocks is that they need human contact. They require that the owner wind them on a regular basis, and adjust them as necessary, or they just stop short, "never to run again," as the song goes.
It was later, in the 19th century, when a popular story was written that talked about the "Grandfather" clock. Poems were penned, and it was common to speak of "Father" time. In other words, the tall case clock, which had always stood guard in the entry of the home, came to represent the generations of the family who had lived there. Often, their names were recorded inside the case, for children to read and appreciate.
Time marches on, but the Grandfather clock stands sentinel; a sentimental reminder of our past.
Saturday, October 16, 2010
I compare my work to that of the custom tailor. It may sound different, but we both are concerned that the "client" looks good in the "fabric" that we fit to his body. Obviously, a fat client should not have large horizontal stripes in his suit. Also, it is nice to dress a redhead in green. There are simple rules which make the job easy.
In my case, the "fabric" is the wood veneer I purchase, generally in Paris. I need to mention that the business of veneer supply has changed dramatically since 1995. You may refer to my earlier post on sawn veneers vrs. sliced veneers. Suffice it to say, the veneer which is being produced these days is not material which I would purchase or use, as it is too thin.
That said, I anticipated the problem many years ago, and I spent lots of money I didn't have at the time to buy more veneer than I needed. My veneer cave is stocked with the most amazing flitches of wood veneers, and I call it my "bank account." By that I mean that, for the rest of my career, I can only rely on what I have already purchased. The only exception is the rare occasion where I discover some old pieces of veneer in some back room which are available since the owner will never use them. That said, if you know of any good veneer which was cut before 1995, CALL ME!
I have mentioned Patrick George, in Paris, before. He is my primary supplier, as his business has been selling exotic wood for 4 generations. He treats me right, and I give him all the money I can. When I walk through his warehouse, I don't even ask about price. I just say, "Give me that, some of this, and everything over there!" Somehow I always end up short when the total is presented, but he understands. By leaving me in debt, he knows I must return to settle up next time. I am always in his debt.
One of these visits, I purchased some wonderful burl flitches, including highly figured ash. That flitch sat in my cave for years, until a delightful small English Pembroke table walked into the shop for a restorative face lift. Not too much. Just a slight adjustment so she could stand in the corner of the room without people staring.
As I was working on cleaning her smooth surface, gluing some loose elements, and protecting her patina, I fell under her charm. She was so simple, yet elegant. Just the right amount of marquetry trim. Nice figure. You know, she had chemistry.
While she recovered in the work shop, I paid homage by making two exact copies. I figured, since she was so beautiful, that should anything happen to her in the future, these honest copies would continue the gene pool. I selected the ash veneer I had purchased years before, and applied an appropriate brown water stain to create the same effect. The clothes fit perfectly.
When I finally returned the original to her home, I came back to work and was delighted to find her sisters standing proudly in my showroom, consoling me in my loss. We had breakfast together.
Friday, October 15, 2010
I have always enjoyed visiting antique shows. I rarely go to buy anything, since I never seem to have "lots of money." I go to just learn and expand my understanding of the world of ancient objects. I guess that is why a lot of people spend time wandering through antique shops and shows. You never really know what to expect or what you will find.
For example, if I need a pair of shoes or some food, I know where to go, how long it will take, and what I am looking for. It is really more of a chore, since there is really no excitement, and perhaps there is actually disappointment if the store doesn't have what I am looking for.
With antiques it is the opposite. No matter what city or country you are in, you can always pass a pleasant few hours walking through the antique stores or shows. You do not need to purchase anything to experience the joy of discovery. There is never disappointment. Often you discover something which you already own, and often it is priced higher than you might have paid, so you feel rewarded. You might trip over something which completes your collection, but is rather expensive. However, if you look at the average price of all the similar objects in your collection, you could perhaps justify the extra cost, just to add value overall.
One of the best shows in the year happens each spring in Maastricht, Holland. I have had the pleasure to have been invited to that show for several years, during the 1990's, since I knew several of the dealers and collectors who attended. It is amazing. Everything is the highest quality (and price). The dealers often will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars just to set up their booth. The convention center is huge, and was built by the city exactly to the show's requirements. Thousands of fresh tulips fill the aisles, and are replaced as soon as they show any fatigue. The antiques range from medieval armor to modern art. It might take you two days to see the show, assuming you walked fairly quickly. The combined knowledge and experience of the exhibitors is beyond measure.
One year, as I drifted through the halogen lights, from treasure to treasure, I discovered a small stool, or tabouret, sitting at a desk, with a large price tag. Actually, none of the things at Mastricht have price tags. That would not be classy. The normal procedure is to ask, and the dealer will usually hand you a glossy printed book or professional photographs, along with a letter of provenance and, at the end of the material will be the price. That way, you know why it is so cher.
In this case, I happened to think of my dear client, in Sacramento, who owns my Biedermeier jewel cabinet. That cabinet has lots of secret places, and lots of locks with several keys. She often needs to call me to ask which key does what, or how to open a drawer where she keeps something special. She also has never found a good place to hide all the keys, and constantly forgets where they are.
So I asked for the information, and was handed a nice set of photos, along with dimensions. When I returned to the shop, I selected some interesting French walnut veneer and made the tabouret. There was one important change. The original had a simple silk covered seat, fixed in place. I decided to add a "secret" compartment under the seat, which lifts up on hinges, after you unlock it with a single key. The interior cabinet is lined with silk, and provides a secure place for all the other keys that work the jewel cabinet, along with "hints" to remind the owner how to access the secret areas.
Everything in one place, accessible by one key. Even a place to sit while you decide which jewels to wear that evening.
Thursday, October 14, 2010
I was a difficult child. I was determined and self-centered and would not take direction well. My first year in school I would not submit to naps when all the other kids were told to lay down and nap. (Yes, that was a different era.) In reviewing my early reports from school, I discovered the comment, by the frustrated teacher, "Does not play well with others."
I was always busy building things. I made more forts than I can possibly remember. I had forts in trees, forts in canyons, forts underground, forts with several floors, forts with rooms too small for adults to enter, and forts made in the house out of furniture (which my mom did not really appreciate.) Some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouth. I was born with a hammer in my hand. People soon realized that it was not a good idea to try to take away my hammer.
I was also a dedicated recycler. I would spend days with my hammer straightening bent nails. I mean, why buy nails when there are plenty of good nails around that just need to be repaired? Buckets of nails, all sorted according to their size and purpose. There was also lots of good wood available once the nails were removed. I never bought anything. Everything is there, all you have to do is pick it up. My favorite day was trash collection day. I would get up early and go out into the neighborhood to see what the trash fairies had brought me. Christmas every week!
I haven't changed much in 60 years.
The only difference today is that the hammer is a veneer hammer.
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
After all these years I still get excited about teaching new students the "art and mystery of the trade." Techniques and methods which I take for granted become fresh and new when I start to explain the process to a student who has never been exposed to such things. I believe that I get as much enjoyment out of the class as the students do (I hope).
With every student there is a different personality, a different tool box of talent, and a different perspective. I am always amazed at the varied approaches they bring to the table. "Why do you do it that way? Why not do it this way?" These types of questions lead the class down a different road every day, even though the structure of the program is essentially the same. I love tangent thinking.
My real pleasure is derived from the transformation of the student, essentially overnight, when they start out awkward, uncertain and uncomfortable sitting on the chevalet, trying to stay on the line and not break blades. With just a little encouragement and time the very same student is smiling, sawing with amazing accuracy and working as if they have been sitting on such an unusual woodworking tool all their life.
Since each of the chevalets also have their own quirks, my job is trying to fit the student to the tool. First of all I have to guess the best tool height for the sitting height of the worker. Normally, the knob of the saw frame should be about at the same height as the neck, when the person is sitting comfortably. This is not a very hard rule, but is a good starting point. Since the tension of the blade is set each time the blade is locked in by bending the saw frame, it is important that the saw be low enough to press the knob against the top of the shoulder. The upper limit is where the saw is easily visible in front of the face, so if it is too low the worker needs to bend over, creating a problem with back strain. Finding the right fit is the start.
Then there is the subjective comfort level of the tool. Perhaps the seat is too wide or narrow, the foot rest too low or high, the handle of the saw too large or small, the clamp worn out or fresh. It seems that I spend a great deal of my teaching time going from tool to tool and solving small details for the benefit of the student. Usually that process is resolved by the second day of class.
I attached a photo of two of the current students who are happily cutting out extremely small elements of their respective projects. The student in the front is now happy since I suggested that he change chevalets. He had started out on a 56cm tool which historically had been difficult to use, for reasons I cannot put my finger on. I have tried to improve it with modifications and have made it work much easier, but, with certain students, it still resists.
On the other hand, I have a 57cm size tool, which is actually the first chevalet I ever built in the 1970's. This particular tool has been through major modifications and so many parts have been changed or replaced that I affectionally call it my "frankenstein." You would think that naming a tool "frankenstein" would discourage students from using it. In fact, it is the only tool I have which can be changed from left handed to right handed use. I do not recommend making such a tool. Either you build it right or build it left, but do not make it both. It always takes a lot of time to make the proper adjustments each time I switch it from right to left or left to right. Always a poor compromise.
It took me two days to get it adjusted this week, and I was complaining the whole time. Finally, I got it right, and at the same time the student working on the 56cm chevalet reached a point where he just asked, "Is it me or the tool?" I confided to him that it was most likely the tool, and, perhaps, he should just try the frankenstein while I worked on his saw.
The minute he sat down and started sawing, his smile lit up the room. I had to smile too.
Sunday, October 10, 2010
Marquetry woodworkers and students who do not have a chevalet always ask me, "Would I learn anything useful if I took your class and did not own a chevalet?' It's an excellent and logical question.
First of all, most people who have tried their hand at marquetry have used a knife, fretsaw or jigsaw. They either do not have the room or money to invest in a fancy cutting tool which is foreign to them. Old familiar habits are hard to change.
However, there is an important and fundamental part of the French process for making marquetry which works in all cases, independent of the method used for cutting out the pieces. The French name for this is "cale tendue" which translates directly as "paper stretched over a board." Obviously this name just doesn't roll easily off the tongue. So, in order to teach students and explain to other workers what I use, I have adopted the name "assembly board."
Most people who make marquetry pictures work from the face of the design. If they use the bevel method or window method or any other method, they normally build the picture looking at the front and use glue or tape to hold it together. One of the drawbacks of this is that, if the design is very complicated, you need many layers of veneer tape to hold it properly. These layers are not even over the entire surface, so that when you press it the pressure hits the top of the tape on the high spots, and the veneer is not held in place. This can cause wrinkles, as the veneer moves before the glue sets.
There is another problem with working only from the face. It is impossible to add a mastic, which would be used to fill the gaps left by the kerf of the saw, from the front without damaging the veneers. Mastic is normally made of dilute hot glue and fine sawdust, and when it dries it is like cement. I compare it to tile grout, since it actually forms a structural bond between the elements, and also makes the surface flat under the finish.
The French solved these problems centuries ago by creating an assembly board. They use a Kraft paper, which is common all over Europe. This paper is made the old fashioned way, so that its thickness is made up of layers of paper fibres. All paper made this way can be split down the center of the thickness into two surfaces. Unfortunately, book collectors have used this trick to remove historic prints from books and split the single page into two pictures. The front picture is split away from the picture on the back of the same page, so that two pictures can be sold where a single page existed before. Many great books have been destroyed by this trick.
The Kraft paper also has two different surface treatments. One side is glossy and resists moisture and the back surface is matt which absorbs moisture. Normal American butcher paper is not like this. American paper is finished the same on both surfaces, and cannot be used for making an assembly board. I have not found an American paper supplier of European Kraft paper, so I have to import large rolls of it at some expense for my work. I make it available to students at a modest price, so they can continue the work here in this country.
To make an assembly board you do the following: Start with a board (solid wood, plywood or MDF) larger than the final picture. Cut a piece of Kraft paper large enough to cover both sides. Lay the paper glossy side up on a waterproof table and wet the paper with a sponge. Turn the wet paper over so that the matt surface is up, and make sure this surface is dry. Wait a few minutes and the paper will expand, creating wrinkles. Stretch the paper again so that there are no wrinkles. Put hot hide glue on all the edges of the board and lay the board down on the dry surface of the paper, so that it is only on half the page. Working quickly, fold up the paper around the three edges of the board and stick it to the glue. Take a razor blade and cut around the three edges, with the blade in the center of the edge. Remove the scrap of paper which is cut away and then fold the rest of the paper over the top of the board and stick it to the glued edge like before. Again take the razor blade and cut around the three sides along the center of the edge. At this point you have the wet surface of the paper showing on the outside of the board and the paper glued around the entire edge. Add veneer tape to the edge as a final attachment to hold the paper in place. Place the assembly board in a warm place to dry.
As the paper dries it shrinks. This produces a flat surface with the paper pulled tight and the glossy surface on top. The board has two sides which can be used, making it practical for two pictures, one on each side. Often we prepare boards in advance so that they are handy when we need them.
To build a marquetry picture we always take a prepared assembly board and put hot glue on the paper. Then we put the veneer face down in the glue and press it on the paper. All the elements of the picture are placed face down into the glue, working quickly. If the picture takes longer to put together, and the glue starts to gel, we add fresh hot glue with each additional piece. It is also possible to reheat the elements with an iron and remove or adjust them as required. When the picture is fully assembled, it is pressed flat onto the paper for a few hours using a piece of plexiglass.
By this method all the elements of the picture are pressed fully forward so that the picture face is perfectly flat. If there is any difference in the thickness of the materials they can be adjusted by sanding or scraping away from the back surface, since all pieces are glued in place on the paper face down.
Finally, a mastic of glue and sawdust can be applied to the back surface of the veneer, filling all gaps. It doesn't matter that this mastic creates a mess on the veneers, since the back surface is also the glue surface, and hot glue bonds to hot glue. The last step is to lightly sand away any bumps or roughness created by the mastic, once it dries. Now the picture is ready.
Cut away the paper around the picture and you have a marquetry panel that you can use directly, store for future use or send to another woodworker to use in his work. The picture is glued down on the final project with the Kraft paper on the face. After the glue sets, the worker applies water to the paper (which is now the matt surface showing) and the paper begins to dissolve. During several minutes of water application and scraping the paper and any glue residue is easily removed from the surface of the picture showing the beautiful marquetry for the first time. By this technique it is not necessary to remove any veneer at all and the surface is nice and flat, with mastic filling all the gaps, ready for finish.
I know you will have questions about this. Trust me, it is the greatest thing since sliced veneer.
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
One of the comments I received on a previous post on this blog is how to handle large designs. Keep in mind that workers in America, England and European countries outside Paris usually don't use the chevalet de marqueterie as a cutting tool.
The use of overhead saws is one way to solve the problem. I have in the school an overhead saw which I constructed of welded frames, wood tables and an enormous old Sears Craftsman motor. The need for a larger cutting saw became obvious early in my marquetry career. My first large project was in the 1970's when I received an order for a table top that was 4' x 15' in size. Even though the design of the top allowed it to be cut into smaller sections, the largest section had a 33" length, larger than the 28" throat depth of my chevalet.
I struggled through with that project using only the chevalet. That meant that when I was cutting the 12 different packets, each 33" in length I would hit the saw frame or the depth stop on the chevalet on a regular basis. I would sit and cut the design until the packet would hit the tool, then stop. By careful manipulation of the packet, I would then rotate the packet 359 degrees around to continue the cut a few millimeters, stop and then rotate back to continue the cut. It was difficult to say the least.
Years later, after I had been accepted to study at ecole Boulle, I discovered that the school had several 19th century iron jig saws, including an overhead saw, which was suspended from the ceiling. This saw had a base, with a speed control operated by the foot, and a separate frame which hung from the ceiling and contained a wood bow for returning the action. The only connection between the top and base was the saw blade.
As soon as I returned to work, I designed and constructed a similar saw. At that time, the ceiling height of the shop was 8 feet, and I engineered the upper structure to fit. The top frame was welded steel and suspended from a "T" shaped plate. By using a tripod attachment, it was fairly easy to adjust the alignment. The square steel tube was filled with loose lead shot, which I figured would neutralize the vibration. The base was also welded to conform to my design, and included a foot lever that was connected to the leather belt drive.
I determined what diameter wheel would reduce the drive speed of the motor to 180 rpm, and made two wheels. The drive wheel was connected to the drive shaft, and the second wheel was loose on the shaft. Thus, by pushing on the pedal, the drive belt would slide over from the fixed wheel to the loose wheel, causing the speed to drop gradually. By carefully pushing on the pedal, I could adjust the speed from 180 rpm to a complete stop.
The top structure was designed to be adjustable so that the blade alignment was exactly vertical in both directions. The ash bow was made to return the blade and lubricated with some grease. The bow was connected to the upper saw clamp by leather belts purchased at the sewing machine store. (Yes, you can still purchase leather belts at some stores,)
When I built the second floor on the shop for the school, I made the ceiling height 10 feet. That required me to order another welded steel frame to make up the difference in height. It took several men to move the saw. I attached the "T" frame to the ceiling rafters so that it is bolted in 4 places along the top of the "T", with each bolt connected to a ceiling joist at the same distance from the wall. The longer arm of the "T" is only connected to a single joist at one bolt position, several feet away from the wall. The reason is that, during the day, as the roof moves heats up and cools down, the joist moves slightly. I can easily correct the blade alignment by turning the single mounting bolt a half turn one way or another.
The saw also has a table which lifts up for larger projects. The distance to the wall is 54" which is the same dimension for the inside width of my manual veneer press. I could have made the distance larger, but I decided to make it the same as the press.
I also am posting a picture of the chevalet with the longer saw frame. This is one of the normal features of the chevalet. You can replace the saw frames easily to adapt to the size of the project. I always choose the smallest frame which will complete the project.
I do not want to go back to those days when I had to cut 33" packets in a 28" saw.
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
I love meeting with other woodworkers who collect tools. I guess it's like any club where the members share a deep knowledge of the topic and new members discover another world exists.
I have been sneaking out before dawn for years to meet with other like minded collectors at secret locations, known only to the people on the inside. Parking lots, behind stores, in hotels, anywhere which will allow a small group of crazy people to set up tables and park their carts or trucks.
The experienced people always bring their flashlights and bags and lots of small bills. In a special place they usually put a few folded hundreds, "just in case". They are the first to arrive, but they do not set up their stuff immediately. They wait for the next person to arrive, and they pounce. They pick through the boxes of tools in a hurry, anxious to see what there is to find. Often just a quick glance is enough to tell them if further digging is required. Like a scientist digging in earth strata, they know exactly which layer might produce the next discovery.
A quick, quiet offer is made, cash is exchanged and the purchase moves from the bottom of the junk box into the collector's sack. Later, after the sun breaks through the morning mist, the same item appears on his table, ready for sale, at an enormous appreciation in value. Only the fellow dealers get to hear the details of the transaction. The buyer never knows that he could have purchased the same tool only a few hours earlier for a fraction of the price. In fact, the buyer is more than happy to buy it at any price and considers himself lucky to get it.
After years of attending, dealing and purchasing antique tools at these meets, I have heard some amazing stories. There is the dealer who showed up with rolls and rolls of perfectly sharpened high quality carving chisels, hundreds of them. When I asked him how he got them, he said he had gone to a garage sale, and the lady who was selling the tools in the garage mentioned that her husband had died, and she just wanted to clean out the space. There were the normal tools, bent and rusty handsaws, an old table saw, and other average tools which had no special value. Just before he left, he asked her if there were any carving chisels. She said, "See all those cabinets at the back of the garage? He just kept buying chisels and sharpened them and put them into drawers. He never used them. You can have them all for $100." You can imagine what passed through his mind when he opened the cabinets and found he had purchased hundreds and hundreds of high quality carving chisels.
Another dealer I visit frequently sells antique furniture keys. I pay him from $3 to $5 for each key. After years of buying these keys, 10 to 20 at a time, I asked him why he never seemed to run out of keys. He said that he was at a sale, and found a large basket full of keys, over a thousand. When he asked about them, they said the price was $5. "For each?" he asked. "No, for all of them," was the reply.
The saw posted here is one of my stories, although not quite as profitable, but just as exciting. I noticed a group of dealers standing around at the corner of the meet, and silently approached to see what they had. Each person was passing around this saw and trying to figure out what it was used for. When they noticed me standing there, they said "Give it to Pat; he might know." I was handed the saw and the first thing I said was "How much is it?" I then purchased it immediately.
After I bought it, I announced with great certainty, "This is a very rare English veneer saw, probably made during the late 18th century. Thanks." I then retreated with my find to look for more treasures.
It is a wonderful tool, and I made several copies for gifts to my friends in Paris. I love old tools.
Monday, October 4, 2010
I encourage every woodworker I meet to use animal protein glue. In 40 years of preaching about the glue and its advantages, I have not yet met a person who could convince me that he had a better glue for woodworking. Believe me, I have had some lengthy discussions about the merits of glue.
For example, the advertisement that one glue is "the strongest glue on planet Earth" always seems to come up. I won't address the facts that hot glue and liquid glue tested stronger than that glue in Fine Woodworking's objective testing (Issue #192, July/August 2007). The real question is: do you want a glue that is actually going to cause the wood to break before the glue fails?
There is a study online from the Wooden Artifacts Group of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic Objects, published in 1990 which discusses this question, and compares liquid to hide glue for furniture conservation. The 16 page research paper concludes that liquid hide glue is actually preferred over hot glue in many situations.
However, there is still a reason to keep the old hot glue pot cooking. In the shop here, we have had a glue pot cooking every day for the past 40 years, and I think I have a good understanding of its working properties. Although I use Old Brown Glue (my own liquid formula) for about 80% of the repairs and construction, there is still a necessity for keeping the hide glue hot and ready. I use it for hammer veneering, rubbed glue joints, and, of course, those quick repairs that need a fast acting glue.
The real problem is finding a glue pot. I am on ebay every day looking for used antique glue pots for purchase. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of my students who are also looking and bidding against me. I used to have antique tool dealers in England collect them and send them to me, but the postage and breakage (not to mention the weak dollar) put an end to that.
There are also tool dealers online who sell glue pots. But if you just google "glue pot' you end up with a variety of hits, most of which are not related to woodworking. Fine, if you want hair extensions, but not so efficient if you just want an old rusty pot.
That is why I recommend that you search "toothing plane" in quotes to find a glue pot. Strange idea? In fact, a tool dealer who knows what a toothing plane is most likely also has a glue pot sitting in the back of the store. Just ask him.
What is a toothing plane, you may well ask? As I have a rather large collection of wood tools, I have always had a toothing plane. The very first plane I made was a toothing plane, in 1975, when I really began working veneers with hide glue. I could not find one for sale, so I made one to fit an old toothed iron I purchased.
The toothing plane is one of the most forgotten wood tools in history. It was created soon after the "ebenistes" in France started working with veneers, during the late 17th century. The "teeth" were chiseled into the plane iron, much like the hand made rasps were made. There were fine teeth for cleaning up the saw marks on the veneer, and medium and coarse teeth for surfacing the hand hewn surfaces of the oak carcase.
The blade is set at a steep (scraping) angle, with the teeth forward and the bevel on the back. The usual shape of the body is similar to a smoothing plane. The iron is sharpened only on the bevel side, and if you even touch it to a grinding stone it will burn the teeth. It must be hand sharpened on a stone, working only on the bevel to sharpen the teeth.
The pattern of tooth marks on the surface of the wood indicates the "truth" of the work. That means the ground work is evenly flat and ready to receive the veneer. It also removes any oxidation or dirt/grease which might be present. Most importantly, it increases the glue surface area, and prevents glue starvation which might occur when using non porous woods.
Therefore the tool kit for traditional veneering is a veneer hammer, glue pot, veneer saw (I use the French style saw shown in the picture), and a good toothing plane.
Ready? Set. Go!
Sunday, October 3, 2010
It's that time again. Time to clean the school. Not as simple as it sounds, but absolutely necessary for the business to continue. The American School of French Marquetry occupies the entire second floor of the business, Antique Refinishers. During most of the year, the entire building is used for work, including marquetry restorations and creations.
That means that the "school" facilities are used by Patrice and I to do all sorts of projects, and that means it becomes a mess over time. We use the light table to create designs, the chalk board to discuss theory, the tools to cut and assemble, the glue pot to make assembly boards, the trays to contain projects in process, and even the coffee pot to waste time. A lot of coffee and a lot of time spent drinking it, it seems.
The real reason we only schedule classes during 3 or 4 months of the year is that every 2 or 4 months of the year we need motivation to reset the shop and clean the floor. I am sure when the students show up they think that it always looks neat and clean. At least I can appreciate the space each time we open for students. It is always nice to have a fresh start.
The second floor was built for the school, since we needed a better space for teaching almost as soon as we had the idea to establish the American School of French Marquetry, Inc. There is 2,000 square feet of work space, with skylights. There is a lecture/study area with a projection screen, lots of books and bookcases, tables and chairs, and light tables. There is a computer area which has two Macs available for student use. There is a large cutting area which has an overhead saw, a long row of different sizes of chevalets, and a foot powered treadle saw. There is also several picking machines, both antique and modern. There is the assembly/work area, with the glue pot, hand tools, tables and stools for everyone to sit and put together their projects. And there is the break/snack area, with coffee, fruit and nuts, energy bars and tea. Plenty for all.
Since we have very small classes, there is a close connection between the teacher and student. Patrice and I teach the techniques, and Kristen teaches art theory and design. If we have a class of 6 students, the student/teacher ration is 2:1.
So far we have enjoyed great success in helping all students to complete the projects in the proper amount of time. It is a unique experience, and we appreciate the positive and diverse feedback we receive at the end of each class.
Most importantly, we appreciate making friends with all people who love the art of marquetry. See you in school!