Saturday, November 27, 2010

ASFM Graduate Student Work IV

If you have been reading all the posts of this blog, you may ask "Why is this post 'Graduate Student Work IV'?" I should have mentioned that the post, "Butterflies Are For Eveveryone," which featured work by Karen Kaminiski, was actually ASFM Graduate Work III. It is my goal to feature work by students who contact me and provide me with photos and information about their creations. If you have completed any studies at the American School of French Marquetry, please send me something so I can use it to inspire others.

One of the first students in the school was a brain surgeon, Dr. Ken Stover. He is the kind of person who constantly asks questions and is pushing the envelope. It was a lot of fun having him in the class, and he returns as often as possible when class is in session to meet the new students. He is the person responsible for suggesting the third exercise in Stage I, which we call "beer coasters."

After completing two stages, he built his own chevalet and converted his garage into a large marquetry atelier. He purchased lots of sawn veneers from Patrick George, in Paris, and decided to create his masterpiece.

I often suggest that students practice on more basic etudes before attempting something grand. More often than not, they do not listen. Aaron was such a student, and so was Ken. He fixated on the table top made by Riesner, which was illustrated in Pierre's book, and announced to me that he would produce that design for his headboard, which would be 36 x 60".

To accomplish a project of this size required that he make a saw frame with a throat of 67cm for his chevalet. Still, he had to bring the full size packet to the school to use the overhead saw to cut it into smaller pieces. When he left, he had cut the project into 11 individual packets, which he could then cut further with his chevalet at home.

Using a 2/0 Pebeco German blade, and the Painting in Wood method, he began work. Over several years he cut pieces, when he had the time. From time to time he would bring in part of the project to share with me and the class. The total time spent was 1650 hours and there were over 5,000 pieces total.

All of the necessary elements were then put into hot sand to create shadows, and the picture was assembled on an assembly board. Mastic was applied and it was glued to a substrate and cleaned up, as usual. Shellac finished it off.

Ken asked Aaron Radelow to carve the frame, and he did an exceptional job. You may remember Aaron as having created the fantastic ivory and horn tables, featured in an earlier post (ASFM Graduate Work I). It is obvious he has a wide range of talent.

It is odd...I have a background in physics, and I often say to people, "Marquetry is not rocket science." In this case, I should add, "Marquetry is not brain surgery." Just do it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Home Sweet Home

Some people never move. I am one of those people. I have spent nearly 40 years in the same building doing the same work. I find it very pleasant and rewarding.

One of the problems with never moving is that you tend to keep stuff that you might have thrown away during relocation. I have never had to make that difficult decision; should I keep it or should I throw it away? Quite the opposite happens. When my wife and I decide to discard something from the home, my answer is "I will take it to the shop, in case I can find a use for it later."

My obsession with keeping stuff started at a very young age. In 1960 my parents built a home on the top of a hill. The house was on a dead end road, and just behind the backyard fence was the city landfill. That might sound like a problem to some people, after all, the smell was noticeable. But to me, it was like living next to a general store where everything was free.

During those years it was not the policy to cover everything up with dirt. So, at the end of the day, the workers went home, and I went to work. I found amazing things and drug them home, much to my parents "delight." There were lots of black and white TV's being thrown away, most of which worked perfectly. I built a Heathkit tube tester and fixed them, giving them to all my friends.

I found furniture, which I took apart and repaired, starting a career, before I even knew what a career was. One of the best parts of this broken furniture was the wood screws. I kept thousands of wood screws, sorting them according to size. I had no interest in Phillips, but selected all the slot head screws I could find. I still use these screws today, as the currently available screws are terrible, if you can even find a slot head to purchase. I consider myself an expert on the wood screw, and have devoted considerable research to the topic.

Getting back to the topic, I first opened my workshop in an abandoned church, kind of like Alice's Restaurant. I hired some other independent workers and made an effort to create a co-op restoration business. Within 6 months I realized most of these workers did not work well together, and someone broke in and stole all my hand tools. I took what I could salvage and retreated to my garage, working alone.

Around 1974 I was walking my son to school and I noticed that the TV Repair store was vacant. In short order I was talking to the owner of the property, an elderly lady who lived down the street. She agreed to rent me the store, if I would escort her to her weekly hair styling appointment and help her purchase her groceries. That sounded like a fair trade, since the rent was low, and the store had nice windows facing the school. It was three blocks to work.

Over the next 36 years I purchased the location and expanded into the entire property, removing all the interior walls, and adding a two story building in the back yard. I started with 250 square feet and ended up with 5,000 square feet. Needless to say, most of the shop is full of stuff, since I never learned to throw anything remotely useful away.

After all, why put it in the landfill when it still has something to offer?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

How Dangerous is Hand Tool Woodworking?

Today I volunteered to sit at a table to promote SAPFM (Society of American Period Furniture Makers) during a two day event sponsored by Lie-Nielsen Tools. I used to do lots of woodworking shows and events and have talked to thousands of enthusiasts over my career.

The group, SAPFM, is one of the best groups in America for promoting traditional woodworking skills and design. They have an annual meeting at Williamsburg each January and a mid-year conference sometime in the summer at a different location.

Today, when I walked in, the first thing I noticed was a bench full of beautiful, hand made wood planes. The maker, M.S.Bickford, was casually making a dado on a piece of wood with one of his planes. There was a single person standing there watching him. The sound the wood plane made as it removed shavings from the dado was like classical music to me.

On the other side of the room was the tables filled with Lie-Nielsen metal planes, probably the finest made currently in the US. Scores of people were busy crowding around these tables as the demonstrator worked to remove shavings from a block of wood that were perhaps a million times thinner than a human hair.

I have to confess that I don't use metal planes, mostly because I cannot remember which way to turn the screw adjustment (really a stupid argument) and also because they hurt my hands, which do not usually fit the tool. I have rather large hands. It seems that I manage to hurt myself each time I pick up a metal plane. Nicks, bumps and scrapes are normal.

I have hurt myself with wood planes also. Mostly it happens when I have too much junk on the bench and my finger gets between the end of the plane and what ever it runs into.

I think metal planes are more attractive to most woodworkers because there is a perception that they are more precise. I suppose that is true, but precision is not my primary goal, and has never been. Anyone who has seen my work realizes that it is not perfect, in the absolute sense. However, it has a certain impact, and seems to impress most people who look at it, in spite of the imperfections.

There is a large group of woodworkers who are really machinists working in wood. They have expensive and dangerous power tools which perform precisely and make their job easy. They are workers who are exposed to excessive noise, toxic dust, dangerous cutting edges, and powerful tools that can eject a piece of wood with enough force to go through the wall.

I prefer the sound of a nicely tuned wood body plane as it moves through the wood, cleanly cutting the proper joint, which may be approximately perfect. The pleasure, for me, is in the process.

By the way, I tried clamping my head the other day, and that hurt a lot. Bad idea.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Butterflies Are For Everyone

The greatest gift I can receive from teaching is experiencing the diversity, creativity and imagination of the people who are "students" I use the traditional term "teacher" and "student" which schools have always used to represent who is giving and who is receiving, but I know that I am not alone in my profession when I confess that I am learning more from my students then they are from me.

Sure, they are taught the methods and techniques, the tools and materials, the history of the trade, and how it has always been done in different countries. But, time marches on. New workers have new ideas and new twists on the formula. History evolves constantly. Each time I talk with a new student, I learn something from them which makes me realize that we are both playing part of this evolution.

I have had students who wanted to make clothes with marquetry. Students who wanted to use materials which I would never consider appropriate, but which created discussion that launched new ideas for thought. Students who found creative ways to change the process.

Fortunately, I am open to new ideas (as long as they are for other people). Personally, I have found my style and my reputation is secure. But I realize that my style is not for everyone, and I always encourage each person to find their own "voice."

One of the graduates of the American School of French Marquetry is Karen Kaminiski. She has a delightful fascination with butterflies. I share this interest, since one of my early tables is the Butterfly Table, which I talked about on this blog months ago. However, when I make a butterfly it is in veneer and set into a design which is glued onto a piece of furniture.

Karen had other ideas. First, she decided to make her own material, since veneers are thin these days, and thick veneers are expensive and hard to find. She uses Old Brown Glue to make thin veneer "plywood" by pressing layers of veneer together. In this way she could make her own material which was strong and decorative, at a very cheap price.

Then she used the piece by piece method she learned in Stage II to cut out butterfly patterns and the separate pieces which she then fitted into the cavities of the wings. Then she cut out trees which would hold these butterflies.

Each time she would create a new piece, she would show up at the school and give it to me. Each time I would encourage her to sell them, or let me buy them. Each time she refused.

She has given them away to all her friends as gifts. Her beautiful and unique butterflies are now fluttering around in rooms all across the country. What a wonderful gift.

Thank you, Karen, for the gift of a new idea.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What Is A Chevalet Kit?

One of the first questions I asked, when I entered ecole Boulle and met Dr. Pierre Ramond, was "When was the chevalet de marqueterie first invented?" To my amazement and disappointment, he replied, "No one really knows."

Perhaps the invention was kept secret for decades, and the inventor died without recognition. Perhaps the French actually know, but still want to keep it secret. Perhaps actually no one really knows.

As I walked around the museums in Paris, looking at the magnificent workmanship in the marquetry surfaces, it seemed obvious to me that the chevalet de marqueterie, which must have included the saw support arm, was being used early in the 18th century. How else, I wondered, could such large and complicated work be executed? Certainly the illustration of the worker, shown in Roubo's book, holding a fret saw in his hand, did not explain it completely. Something was missing. Something was kept "secret."

One piece of the puzzle was found in reading Herbert Cescinsky's 1931 book, "The Gentle Art Of Faking Furniture." I prize this book, and it is certainly important reading for any collector who wishes to invest in quality pieces. On page 89, he writes, "The marqeterie-cutter's saw, in its guides, with the 'chops,' which open and close by foot pressure, to hold the veneers while being cut, and his seat at the end (the 'donkey,' as it is called), have (sic) hardly varied at all in two hundred and fifty years." That statement puts the chevalet de marqueterie invention as early as 1680, when the Dutch and English were busy making lots of "painting in wood" surfaces.

It also means that Andre-Charles Boulle had the chevalet, with the supported arm, in his workshop, and that it was in common use, since his shop employed some 60 workers at the peak of his career.

Regardless of the opinion expressed by an Englishman about the existence of some obscure French "secret" tool, the fact is that the chevalet de marqueterie has existed for more than a century. Generally, the worker made his own tool, but there were also tool dealers who would make and sell the same tool. It is also to be noted that this tool was almost exclusively used in the region of Paris, France. Very rarely does it appear outside Paris, from my research.

I was encouraged by Pierre to transfer this technology from France to America, at the time he retired from teaching. I take his suggestion seriously, and have made it my goal to introduce this wonderful and unique tool to anyone who would listen.

To that end I engaged a machinist to fabricate the necessary parts, like the sliding mechanism and the jaws and other parts which require machining. I also have collected all the odd bolts, screws, blades, and other elements of hardware which the tool requires. I then drew up a full scale set of very detailed blueprints, including notes on parts of the tool which require specific attention. I need to order a dozen of these kits at a single time to gain some advantage in cost, and, even at that point, I make about $75 profit each time I sell a kit. I also make a sturdy wood box to ship and can send this kit anywhere in the US for $50. The total cost of the kit is $500 plus the $50 shipping.

Each person then needs to supply the wood and put it together. I estimate it takes about $750 in wood and perhaps 2 weeks to do the job. It can take more or less time, depending on your shop and much less if you use scrap wood. The best wood is ash, beech or oak, and most of the large elements can be laminated from 4/4 stock.

The value of a complete tool is about $2500, and I have purchased and sold these chevalets over the years for that amount. I can tell you there is not much profit to be made in making them for sale, since it does take a fair amount of woodworking.

But, as they say, where else can you have so much fun for so little money?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Wood To Dye For

There are many tricks to falling asleep. For example, just stop drinking coffee and work 24 hours a day. A more practical method is to count sheep. However, I doubt that many people who live and work all their lives in the city even know what sheep look like. They certainly have no idea what a flock of sheep smell like.

I have a method which works every time. It is a book, originally published in 1936 in Germany, by Dr. Hans Meyer. Fortunately, Linden Publishing has chosen to make it available, although not in large circulation. I found my copy at a tool show years ago, and when I picked it up to ask about the price, the seller was visibly surprised that anyone would even touch it. Usually, I can get through about 3 or 4 pages before I fall into a deep coma.

The name is "The Book Of Wood Names." It has no pictures. It has 564 pages of very small type which simply list all the names of commercial woods then currently in existence in the world. Every local name, every commercial name, every nickname, every latin scientific name, every different country is considered, and it took 20 years for Dr. Meyer to compile. He must have had a very interesting life. At the rate I am making progress reading his life's work, it will certainly last me a century.

The point of this is that there are a lot of woods in the world. Each one is different, and each one has a color. That provides a person who wants to make marquetry art with a wide range of colors. However, even in the natural world of wood colors, there are some which do not exist. Therefore, for centuries, artisans have struggled with different methods to transform woods from one color to another. Kind of like turning lead into gold, but with wood.

The most elusive color is blue. I have a piece of veneer which I purchased nearly 30 years ago that has a natural blue tint. It is a piece of a beech tree which was infected by a specific mushroom and that produced a chemical reaction within the tree that turned it blue. I probably will never cut up this piece of veneer. I just like to look at it, sitting on my tool shelf.

I have heard stores of people who dug down into the roots of trees and put metals, like copper and iron, as well as other materials, and then waited years for the tree to react, before they cut it down in the hope that the wood would be interesting. There are also many specialists who took to their graves the secret of how they made a certain color, like the tobacco color which Oben and Riesner used for the King's desk at Versailles.

For the past several weeks, my partner Patrice has been soaking some veneer in plastic tubs, to dye wood for future projects. Using different species of wood produces different shades, even with the same dye. Today I looked outside the shop and was rewarded with a spectrum of wood colors, from blue to green. Tomorrow, we get to dry the yellow batch. We are still searching for that elusive blue, the holy grail of wood colors.

What I love most about being an artist who paints with wood as my medium is that the natural supply of wood colors is almost unlimited. However, I am not against adding my two cents worth (of dye) to get it exactly right.

Monday, November 15, 2010

La mutiplication des chevalets de marqueterie

It was always my desire to introduce the special tool for cutting marquetry, which has been invented and developed in Paris for two centuries, to the world outside Paris. I am fascinated at the general lack of awareness of the existence of the chevalet de marqueterie, or marquetry cutting easel. With the exception of small independent workshops in parts of Holland and England, the world of marquetry cutting outside Paris has always done things differently.

Looking at the illustration of the marquetry cutter sitting on his tool, which was published in Roubo in the 18th century, you begin to appreciate the fundamental difference this tool provided. The blade travelled in a horizontal position. To my knowledge, this tool is the only tool which exists to cut marquetry which uses a horizontal blade action. Hand held fret saws, jig saws, overhead saws, and all other methods used in history for cutting material relied on a vertical blade action, while the material rested on a cutting surface, held in place by the hands.

When the material is held vertically, the sawdust naturally falls away from the blade. The action of the saw is easy to control, since it is directly in front of the eyes. The feet, not normally used, can control the clamps, which frees up the hands for manipulating the material. Finally, and to some more importantly, the worker can work while sitting.

Do not underestimate the importance of sitting while working. Comfort is important, if you want to work long hours, an essential part of the job description of marquetry artist. If you are comfortable, and your coffee mug is handy, there is no reason to quit cutting.

At the American School of French Marquetry we currently have 6 chevalets. We have a 54, 55, 56, 57, 59 and 61cm selection. The size is the distance (in cm) from the top of the seat to the blade, when it is in a resting position. In this case, the size of the tool needs to be selected to fit the height of the person, when sitting. Usually, I suggest the handle of the saw be about the height of the top of the collar bone, or at the adam's apple on the throat. It depends a little on the physical comfort of the worker, but it is important to get a good fit.

Therefore, as you may note, we do not have a tool which is 58cm or 60cm, and that is what we are building. In addition, we are making two more tools for sale to students who have requested them.

Normally, we just sell the hardware kit and plans. Most woodworkers do not mind making their own tool. However, sometimes a student just wants to purchase a tool and get right to the work.

In this case, we decided to make a total of 4 at the same time. Just a question of efficiency.

This will solve the problem we currently have when we offer classes and several students are looking to use the same tool. After all, the difference is only a centimeter, about a half inch. Sometimes just a half inch is all the difference in the world between comfort and happiness and struggling with the tool to achieve good results. Above all, we want our students to be happy.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Cover Boy

When Woodshop News contacted me last year to ask if I would like to be interviewed for a story, I was a little surprised. I have received and read a lot of woodworking magazines over the years, and the majority of them simply don't speak to me, personally.

When I have discussed my issues with different editors in the past, they all offer the same version of the argument: Magazines are in business to make a profit. The profit comes from the industry of selling woodworking machinery. Therefore, we need to appeal to the sector of the market who consumes that product the most.

It is the pyramid theory of woodworking. The group of woodworkers in the world fit into a pyramid. At the bottom, the majority of people who work wood simply make utilitarian objects in their garage when they have spare time, and consume a lot of things in the market place, as well as reading the most magazines and articles on how to do it. In the middle sector of the pyramid are the woodworkers, both amateur and professional, who are experienced and able to create interesting projects which are at a more advanced level. These woodworkers know more about the tools and methods and represent a more sophisticated consumer, who is willing to pay more for certain things. That is the market most woodworking magazines hope to attract in choosing their articles and advertisers.

That leaves the top of the pyramid. At the smallest level of the market are the individual artists and craftsmen who have managed to establish a reputation over the years. These people are likely to be members of the Furniture Society, or the Society of American Period Furniture Makers, or other, more local groups, often in a leadership position. Unfortunately for me, most magazines do not focus as often as I would like on articles which would appeal to the top of the pyramid, and that is a complaint I am always willing to express.

Woodshop News has established a secure market share which represents the "industry" of woodworking. If you want to spend a lot of money investing in the most advanced machinery this is the magazine which you would usually read. Tod Riggio has done an excellent job for a long time keeping this magazine positioned at the top of his market pyramid. From time to time there are articles about individual "artists" or "craftsmen" but the thrust of these articles is always presented from a business position.

So, when I was contacted by Jennifer Hicks, from Woodshop News, about an article, I immediately told her that I would not fit into their normal format. To her credit, she persisted and told me that she was looking to expand their coverage of woodworkers in the market. I was impressed with her professionalism and knowledge when I met her, and working with the photographer was very easy and enjoyable.

Now that the November issue is out, I am receiving calls and compliments from woodworkers across the country. Looking at Jennifer's column, "Taking Stock," I find her insight into why they choose to include me: "So the question here is whether Woodshop News is simply following the evolution of the industry or suggesting that shops that rely on traditional skills are a dying breed." I have often wondered about this very question.

She continues, "Interestingly, Edwards points out that the industry could evolve in a backwards fashion--and it just might. For one thing, the environmental movement continues to gain momentum, making the use of veneers and sustainable materials more popular than ever. Also, We can probably all agree that individual craftsmanship will always be valued, and, when the economy finally improves, customers will be willing to pay for it again."

I often think I am a dinosaur. The term "dying breed" hits close to home. All the elder statesmen who I looked up to when I was learning the trade are either dead or no longer productive. I have a very few good friends who can exist with hand skills in this business. Mike Dunbar, Roy Underhill, Al Breed, Don Webber, and a dozen other peers make up my world.

However, when I realize that all these men are teaching, like myself, I am encouraged. Perhaps we can keep the tradition alive and actually change the world. At the very least, we can change the way of thinking about the process of work. Embrace the Workmanship of Risk!

It is significant that an industry standard would choose to feature alternative methods of work at this time. It has been a century, almost exactly, since the famous "Form ever follows Function" lectures of Louis Sullivan, which defined the relationship between Man and Machine for the entire 20th century.

Is it possible that workers in the 21st century would return to "Form ever follows Process?"

Saturday, November 6, 2010

My Walden Week

I find that my schedule has filled up over the years, instead of free time I now have no time. One result of "success" in my field is that I have been able to contribute "pro bono" community activities in support of non profit groups which I believe need my help.

So, now in my 6th decade of life, I find that I am running two corporations, full time, and sitting on 6 different non profit boards with different agendas. That has required me to work on remembering names and relationships which I was never particularly good at in the past.

My business is located in an historic business district in San Diego. In fact, North Park is the first business district to be developed outside of the proper downtown, located on the opposite corner of Balboa Park and initially served by the street cars of a century ago. When I selected my home and found a commercial location in the 60's, the dollar meant a lot, and prices were very low compared to today. For example, you could purchase a nice Craftsman home back then for less than $20,000, and I took advantage of that opportunity.

During the 1980's I realized that North Park was in hard times, and there were lots of commercial vacancies, and the rest of the stores were thrift shops. I discovered a State law which allowed for business districts to organize themselves and I began to walk, store to store, to see if I could get support for creating a North Park Business Improvement District, or BID.

When I was successful, I was elected president of the BID, and my civic activities began. Over the years I have been elected to serve on other boards, and I continue to do so as much as my work will allow. Currently, I am sitting on the board of directors of the North Park BID, the Lyric Opera, the Redevelopment Area PAC, the North Park Historical Society, the BID Foundation and the San Diego BID Council, where I currently sit as President. In that last position I represent 16 BIDs across the city which include 12,000 businesses.

I do not mention this to promote myself, although when I look at it it does seem excessive. I mention this because I have found that there is not any part of my schedule which is left open for me to leave town. I used to travel a lot. Taking a month off and going to Europe or the East Coast was easy. I just closed the door and drove away.

Now I have this iphone which shows me all the dates on my calendar which require me to be at some meeting or activity. This is retirement?

My father's family were woodworkers, and built Craftsman homes in Montana a hundred years ago. They had a mill and workshop in Whitehall, Montana, which today is essentially a ghost town. During the 20's they decided to build several cabins at Ennis lake, about 60 miles away, on the Madison River, in the Rockies. I grew up fishing the Madison, and I suppose I can be considered a pretty good fly fisherman and hunter.

Last week I just left. I decided that I could miss a few meetings, and told the other directors and staff that I had some "emergency business out of town" which required my attention. I got on a plane and 3 hours later I was chopping wood for the stove, drawing water from the artesian well, and fixing fence in the meadow.

Thank AT&T that I had no signal.