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.

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