Sunday, September 25, 2011

It Always Takes Longer Than You Think

Some time ago (6 months!) I received an email from a new client in Chicago. They had found me on the internet and wanted to know if I could add some marquetry to kitchen cabinets in a house they were building. Not my usual kind of job, but, in this economy, you cannot say "no" to work.

I was asked to provide some rough design ideas, so I turned to Pierre Ramond's book, "Marquetry," always close at hand. There, on pages 57 and 58 I found some examples that fit the dimensions provided by the customer.

I worked out a price and time frame and we reached an agreement to begin work.

There were some assumptions which were made that turned out to create problems almost immediately.

One of the problems I created for myself was to include much more detail than necessary. It is hard to draw designs with simple elements, after years of trying to add detail wherever possible. Why draw a flower, for example, with 5 elements when you can draw a flower with 30? Leaves should have multiple parts so that they can be shaded. Every time I added a line with the pen I thought it looked better, but I didn't consider the added work required downstream to cut, shade and assemble that extra part.

Another part of the job that I forgot to address was that I needed to glue my designs down to their doors, which were already assembled and finished.

That created the biggest problem: matching the cherry color to the existing finish. The doors supplied were finished with modern stains and spray finish, that created a deep blue-red color to the cherry. The color was a combination of the stain layers and the hue of the lacquer.

Marquetry is not normally stained. Staining marquetry with different woods only hides the work. About the only type of color that can be added to marquetry comes from using potassium dichromate, or other chemicals, which react with the acidity in the different woods, turning some woods dark and leaving others alone. For example, when boxwood or holly is inlaid in mahogany, you can use potassium dichromate to darken the mahogany without darkening the inlay.

We tried the potassium on the cherry, and it darkened it, but it was brown and not the blue-red we needed. So we built a waterproof box, bought an aquarium heater (large size!) and took all the cherry we needed for the project and started soaking it in a series of stains. Using various organic materials in the water, we were able to change the color of the cherry over time. In this case it took nearly a month of work to get it right.

After soaking, we needed to dry out the cherry and press it flat, which took several weeks of pressing and repressing, changing the paper frequently. More time lost.

All the projects were too large to cut on the chevalet, so we needed to cut most of the work on the overhead saw. Of course, that takes more time than the chevalet, so again we fell behind.

All the elements were placed in hot sand to create shadows, and, again, having more complex designs than necessary, that took longer than predicted. There were a total of 8 large panels.

Throughout all this delay the client was patient and understanding, fortunately. Instead of 3 months it took 6. The completed project was shipped out last week, and I expect that with the addition of the finish the cherry will be very close to the rest of the kitchen.

Moral: no matter how long you have been doing something in your career, always consider what can go wrong and, as the saying goes: PLAN AHED!


Chuck said...

Patrick, I have experienced this phenomenon restoring antique music boxes. The per hour rates were idiotic more often than not. Discussing this with my mentor in such activity we concluded that we really did it "for the love of the craft". Of course, we were not dependent on the work for livelihood. I suggest you go the extra mile for similar reasons even at the expense of time.


W. Patrick Edwards said...

I have always worked for my own pleasure. That is why I am not rich! (I am happy...)

Autumn said...

Ditto! I'm completing a one-year project I anticipated would take six months. I'm not financially rich either, but I am richly satisfied. It's great to hear your clients were so understanding.

Anonymous said...

Bravissimo!...just to bring the Italian back into it. Your work really inspires me and I don't say that too often.

Have you spoken much about how marquetry made the transition from the Italian artisans to the French? And why?

W. Patrick Edwards said...

Your comment and question is interesting. The evolution of the craft of marquetry is not as well documented as some other crafts in Europe. However, it is generally agreed that the artisans in the Mediterranean all began with cutting cavities into solid material using a knife. It was the Italians, around the time of the Renaissance, who invented the fret saw and changed the method completely.

At the start of the 17th century the Italians were working in 4 different methods: tarsia certsonia, tarsia geometrica, tarsia a toppo and tarsia a incastro. The first three use a knife or hand saw to form the elements, and the last method used the newly invented fret saw.

When Louis XIV in France decided to create Versailles and improve the palace at the Louvre, he pushed his craftsmen to a higher level of work. In the field of marquetry, he employed Andre-Charles Boulle to be his court ebeniste, and the method of tarsia a incastro became known as "Boulle" in France and "Buhl" in Germany.

It is not clear exactly when the fully developed chevalet de marqueterie was created or the picking machine, but it is a fact that both were developed in France. These tools combined allowed the French to create a new method: "element par element" or "piece by piece".

This new method, developed with the support of the kings of France during the 18th century, was not exported to other countries for over a century, guaranteeing France supremacy in this field.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking the time.