Saturday, December 31, 2011

Looking Back To The Future

Well, another year is put in the memory bin. It seems like such an arbitrary moment to change everything and start over. All the invoices, bills and receipts get filed into boxes. New folders are in place, ready to receive new invoices, bills and receipts. New calendars are on the wall, already filling up with dates and events which are planned in the next few months.

It seems rather arbitrary to me, since I am a native of Southern California, and there is no actual climate change to signal the end or start of the seasons. It will be in the mid 70s today, sun shining, clear skies, no breeze, just like any other day. I am at work, doing what I always do, just like every day. Pick up trash, put away tools, sharpen chisels, sweep the floor, heat the glue and repair something valuable, talk to clients, and in general just solve problems.

The one thing unusual about the start of the year is that I tend to get rather nostalgic. I often think back over the years and reflect how my life is the culmination of events and decisions which seemed insignificant at the time, but later proved to be decisive and very significant. I am fortunate to be in business and thank my clients for their support all the time. I frequently have clients who mention that I worked on something for them "years ago" and they were very happy with the results. I also have younger clients who mention I worked for their parents or grandparents and now they need me to do a project for them.

Having never believed in spending money of traditional advertising, I realize how important it is to have my named passed around by "word of mouth". It takes years to build a good reputation and only a few mistakes to destroy it. That is why I have always gone out of my way to make the customer happy with my work.

For example, early on in my career I had a decorator client who brought me a standard upholstered club chair. Not really an antique, but a nice frame made in the 1930s. She had picked out a very wild and contemporary fabric that looked like a Jackson Pollack painting. I proceeded to upholster the chair, which took some time. When she came to pick it up, she was shocked. "You put the fabric on wrong side out!" she exclaimed. I showed her the surplus roll of material, and how you can tell the front surface from the back. "This is a brocade weave," I explained, "and the pattern is made by pulling different colors of thread from the back through to the front surface. If you look on the back side, you can see all the loose threads which are not part of the pattern. The front side is smooth and finished." "No," she answered, "the back side is the show surface. I expected you to know that!"

So I took all the material off the chair, turned it carefully over, and put it back in place, wrong side out. She was happy with the results, and I never heard from her again.

Another time, I picked up two reproduction French armchairs with new white upholstery. The beechwood frames were painted a dark color. She asked me to refinish them "natural". I went through a lot of trouble to protect the upholstery, as I used paint remover to remove all the paint, sand the wood and apply a clear shellac finish and wax. When she saw them, she was shocked. "I asked you for a natural finish!" she exclaimed. "Like that!" and she pointed to a piece of "shabby chic" which had been painted white, then rubbed with solvents until most of the paint was worn off.

I returned with the chairs, covered the fabric again and painted them white. The client was happy with the results, and I never heard from her again.

Those clients are part of the past. It took years for me to recognize the subtle hints which indicate whether the client is right for me or not. During the early years, I took every job which walked in the door. I met a lot of people who liked what I did and some who were never satisfied, no matter what the result was. I learned to avoid the latter. It is much easier to walk away and not look back then to get involved with a project that can have no successful conclusion.

These days, because of "word of mouth" and lots of kind articles which have been written about me, I seem to get wonderful jobs and satisfied clients most of the time. In my business, getting references and work is like a miner who discovers a gold streak in the earth. By working for clients with nice pieces, I get referred to other clients with nice pieces. And so it goes...

Certainly the past year was a challenge in many ways. Compared to the year before, it was somewhat better, and I am always optimistic. In the long run, it all averages out. The antique business is a wonderful business. The objects are often extraordinary, the clients are involved, and there is always something new to learn about the masterpieces of the past.

I look back on the choices I have made in the past and wouldn't change a thing. It is always exciting to see what new project will arrive tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Shop Tour: Library

I used to travel a lot more when I was young and gas was several gallons to the dollar instead of several dollars to the gallon. I had a nice Ford pick up truck with two extra 20 gallon gas tanks and a fully furnished cab over camper. I was self contained: I could eat (beans), sleep (on a hard futon), wash (with a cloth and hot water in a pan), and even use the toilet (plastic porta potty ((just as much fun as it sounds))).

I spent two decades just driving wherever I wanted to East of the Mississippi, looking for "old stuff" and talking with like minded collectors. Gee, I guess I lived the life of those two guys on TV now who use a Sprinter to find bicycles in barns! Only, no producer thought my life was worth recording at the time.

I met some interesting people. There was a guy in Natchez who made fakes for a well known New York antique dealer. He showed me his private collection in his house, and the entire house was furnished with newly made "period 18th century Americana". I met a character straight out of the pages of Dickens, who owned a large town house on Pine Street in Philadelphia. He had filled several floors with beat up real antiques that were stacked one on top of the other, until they nearly reached the ceiling. When you walked down the narrow isles of mahogany, the floor moved and these large stacks of bureaus and tables threatened to come crashing down. I met a gas station worker in New Hampshire who was so amazed at me getting out of the truck with bare feet that he couldn't even give me directions.

Of all the memories I have from those trips, it is the used bookstore experience that stands out most. Every town and city I visited had used bookstores, usually situated in the run down, older parts of town. Brick buildings, that used to contain banks or restaurants, were full of book shelves, and stacks of boxes of old books. The people who operated used book stores were in a class by themselves. They would sit patiently at their desks, sorting through books, marking each one carefully on the inside page with a pencil price and code. They were proud of the fact that they knew where every book was in their store, and always asked the new customer: "Can I help you find something?"

I never asked for help. I have been in so many of these stores I had developed an uncanny instinct to go directly to the areas where I could find books on Antiques, Crafts, Museums, Architecture, and even early American History and Travel. I could spend less than 30 minutes, find what I wanted, drop $20 and go on down the road.

Most of all I remember the smell and light and quiet that these stores shared. It was another age. All that is gone now. Even the large retail bookstores have closed. I am sorry that young travelers these days will never know what an experience that was.

The popularity of the internet contributed directly to the demise of these wonderful places where you could find like minded souls. At the same time, most of these book dealers have closed their shops, they have opened virtual shops online. Now you don't have to travel. You just use book search engines. That is, if you know what specific book you are looking for...

For many years I had "hippie" bookshelves. You know, stacks of bricks and pine boards. Very practical, since they can be put up and taken down quickly, or changed to fit the space. Also very ugly.

That all changed a few years ago, when I was visiting a client's home here in town. They are wonderful supporters of my craft, as well as other artisans, and are able to contribute to the arts across the board. They had purchased a large quantity of bookcases, but they were changing their minds and decided to have other bookcases built instead. They asked me if I was interested in having their "old" bookcases. Free.

Gee, I had to think for almost a second about it.

It took several truck loads to move all the bookcases. I now have over 50 cherry cases, with bevel glass doors, and bases and crests, which were enough to fill the school room at work as well as my private library at home and also the kitchen of my partner, Patrice. What an amazing difference!

Now the students who attend the American School of French Marquetry have a real library to access, and we have a rich source of material to examine for our projects. I have every Antiques magazine ever published, from January 1922 to today. I have all the museum catalogues, books on French, German, Italian, English, Russian, and American furniture and Decorative Arts, as well as the related trades and technologies.

At home I have my rare books which I enjoy that are fully protected inside their glass cases.

Each time I open the glass door to extract a volume, I am instantly transformed back in time to the moment I entered some obscure bookstore in some obscure downtown for the first time. I hear the patron ask, "Can I help you?" and I hear my response, "No, I know where to look."

Every time I departed with my purchases, I would sincerely add: "Thank you very much."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Shop Tour: Wood Storage

Like a lot of woodworkers, I cannot throw away a piece of wood, no matter how small. I would qualify for one of those shows on TV about hoarders. I can easily imagine them following me with the camera and mic, as I climb up the ladder, searching for exactly the right piece of material. The anticipation of all that wood falling down and crushing me would be perfect for modern television viewing.

I can spend half an hour searching for the perfect piece of wood to make a 10 minute repair on an antique "just right." I seem to remember each piece of scrap wood that I put somewhere, and it is weird that I can remember where it is, even though I cannot seem to remember someone I just met the day before.

I have devised ingenious ways to sort my scraps: by length, width, thickness, species, age, character, color, purpose, etc. I have used boxes, trash cans, racks, bins, and any corner that otherwise was free. No matter what I do there is always the problem of dirt. It seems that lumber storage is the most difficult area of the shop to clean, and, in a finishing shop, that is a problem. At least I don't have power tools contributing to the dust problem.

For the first 30 years the wood just "collected." I never had to throw any out, so it was ridiculous how much out of control it was. When I decided to build the new addition to the shop, I had to move all the wood to storage. That is when I realized that I had enough wood to completely fill a 20 foot room floor to ceiling, stuffed up to the door.

I designed a room in the addition for material storage, mostly for repair pieces. I had a welder create wall mounted brackets which I attached to the upper wall, for short lumber. I also had the welder build much larger brackets to attach to the main wall of the addition for longer material. These brackets are extremely strong. I used a lot of 1/4" thick steel angle iron, which is 2 x 3" in section. For the main lumber, I ordered 7 units made. The piece which attaches to the wall is 8 feet tall, and has 26" angle iron arms welded every 18" apart to support the wood. These units are bolted with 3/4" lag bolts, using an impact wrench, directly to the 2x8 wall studs, spaced 32" apart along the wall. That results in easy storage and access to all my large pieces of wood, and the rack is just inside the roll up door at my delivery ramp.

I am amazed at how much lumber I can keep on these racks, and how easy it is to get at it. I have no idea how much weight is there, but I am confident that the design of the rack is sufficient to carry the load, which includes me when I climb up to get to the top. Since I need to buy lumber which is generally kiln dried, I do not like to use it for several years. That means that new lumber needs to go to the bottom of the pile, and older pieces move up to the top.

The parts room is more of a challenge. I have wood in there which is ancient, for exactly the right repair. 18th century cherry, Cuban mahogany, old pieces of boxwood, Brazilian rosewood,Victorian walnut, old growth pine, and so on are carefully kept in special places, ready for the client who needs them. There is also a huge pile of broken furniture parts: turnings, feet, drawers, sides, table tops, and other elements, which could be used if necessary.

To give you an idea of what I did with the wood from the storage room, when I moved back in to my new space, imagine this: I have a long driveway on the side of the shop, over 40' long, inside my fence. Each trip from the storage, I would just dump the wood on the driveway and begin to sort through it. Over several weeks I culled the wood, picking up the best pieces and installing them in my new building. Towards the end, I would just dig through the remaining pieces for that occasional treasure find, carefully looking at each piece, thinking how it might be useful.

Sad to say, at the end of that job, I ended up taking a full truck load of scraps to the dump. It was the bravest thing I have ever had to do. I understand how the hoarder feels when they watch others dig through their "stuff" and make the decision to toss it. It seems that the minute it is gone, you find a use for it.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Instead of Chestnuts and Open Fire

This is the time of the year for seasonal activities. Of course, the holidays bring with them absolute deadlines, which must be met, if the elves are to deliver to Santa their special work product. We all know that elves work day and night; there is no "overtime" in elf land.

It is also the time of the year in San Diego when we can actually wear unusual clothing, like long sleeves, flannel shirts and even sweaters. There is always a hint of "rain" in the air, and a "chill" which natives complain about and others, who migrated here from distant parts of the world, seem to actually enjoy.

Currently, Patrice and I are building a series of late 17th century letter boxes, inspired by an original which recently sold in Europe. The exterior is covered in marquetry, with Gaboon ebony background and 22 different exotic hardwood species comprising the design inlay. All this work is done using the rich inventory of sawn veneer material I purchased from George, in Paris, some 20 years ago.

These "Painting in Wood" boxes will have interiors that use olive wood, kingwood, boxwood and tulip, to contrast with the exterior. I am currently working out the details of the release for the secret panel which hides the secret compartments that these boxes usually have. I love designing secret escapements. I think about them all the time. First you imagine complicated mechanisms, with sliding arms, levers, springs, gears, string, wire, magnets, etc. Then you throw all those ideas away and reduce it to the most simple function you can think of. Then you simplify it again, and it might work.

The design of a secret release system needs to be durable, to work for centuries. It needs to also be repairable, in case it fails. It needs to be hidden, but accessible. It must be simple to use, and not difficult to reset. A good design is always a challenge.

While I was building the case for the box, using beech wood and full blind dovetails, Patrice has been busy with the marquetry for the exterior. He started out designing the overall pattern, for the top and sides, while I assembled the veneer into packets. He then went to work on the chevalet, cutting all the elements in 4 copies at the same time. We decided to use the Classic Method, since we want to make a series of 4 boxes with the same marquetry.

As he completed trays of parts, I then put them all into the proper area for inventory control. This means we have several trays with stacks of 4 identical pieces for each element of the design. Trays for the top half of the top design, bottom half of the top design, front and back panels and side panels. Each tray is carefully handled, and covered at night, so Gigi (the shop cat) will not mess them up.

There are something like 1500 elements in the marquetry for one box. With 4 boxes to build, that means 6000 tiny pieces of wood. Each element of the design needs to be placed in hot sand long enough to create a shadow by slightly burning the wood. I guarantee you that this is the most essential and most boring stage of marquetry work.

That is why I am pleased that it is winter! It is "cold" here and working over the hot sand is rather pleasant, especially with a nice cup of coffee near by.

Patrice spent the entire day yesterday (12 hours) listening to French books on audio, drinking coffee and carefully placing marquetry pieces in the sand. Sometimes it takes 10 seconds, sometimes longer, but each species of wood reacts differently to the heat. It takes all your concentration not to loose a piece in the sand, or let it combust, and the work means you are constantly moving pieces, with tweezers, from the tray to the sand and back again.

What you see in the photo is the tray with the top half of the top design. Today Patrice will start the tray with the bottom half of the top design, and "so it goes." The first box in this series was purchased the day we started, and is supposed to be under the tree soon.

How soon is Christmas again?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Shop Tour: Cave a placage

It is not too far from the truth to say that I spend all my time at the shop. Since I am fortunate to live only 6 blocks away, it is easy to walk or bike home for lunch, and I enjoy the short walk to work each day as my primary physical activity. I go home to shower, eat and sleep, but the rest of the time is spent inside this large building I constructed over the years for my "sport".

It started out as a run down 1926 Craftsman home, located in a commercial district in historic North Park. Across the street is Jefferson Elementary school, where the happy sounds of children playing have provided the background music at work forever. In the years just after the second War, the previous owners added a 500 square foot stucco showroom to the front of the house for their business: repairing tube type televisions. When tubes went out of style, they closed up the shop, and I got it. I am the second owner, and I began to remove interior walls to make room for my business.

Now, over 40 years later, the building is completely converted to my use and includes a large 2 story addition where the back yard used to be, bringing the total size to about 5,000 square feet. It is what you might call a big playground for woodworking. I have everything I need to exist: tools, materials, hardware, veneer, wood, projects, food, kitchen, showroom, school, etc.

Frequently, people visit for a tour. We have found visitors from all over the globe knocking on our front door, asking politely to see what is inside. We enjoy these visits, and have a standard 5 minute tour which usually takes longer, depending on the various topics of interest.

One of the neat things about my workshop is that I have the luxury of space and the shop is set up with a variety of designated work areas as well as specific storage areas. Looking at it from the visitor's perspective, I can see that it would be informative to showcase some of these areas on the blog. Others, who wish to set up a business, or are just curious as to how I work, might enjoy this series.

To start, I chose the room I built for my veneer storage: the cave a placage. In many ways, it is my veneer vault, since most of my profit over the years sits on these shelves, waiting for a project. Many woodworkers who have veneer store them improperly. I have seen lots of shops where the veneer is placed high up on a shelf where it gets heat and dries out. It also gets dusty and dirty. It is difficult to sort through and gets broken.

When I designed my addition, I added a room just for veneer. It has 10 foot ceilings and is about 150 square feet, with welded steel shelving on all walls. It has 8" thick walls and is completely insulated on all sides, as well as being air tight. Therefore, it remains extremely stable in both temperature and humidity. Note the monitor on the shelf. Usually the reading is about 65 degrees and 65% humidity.

Veneer storage is exactly like cigars, wine, cheese and mushrooms. Not too hot, not too cold, not too wet, not too dry, and no light. This room provides that perfectly. I have seen the humidity drop overnight here in San Diego, when the Santa Ana winds blow in from the desert. It can go from 70% to 10% in under 24 hours, and unprotected wood goes into shock from the sudden loss of moisture. Inside the veneer cave, it remains stable, as long as the door is closed.

When I started buying veneer in the 60's and 70's, I could order from Constantine, in New York, and spectacular veneer would arrive in the post. I could get sawn Brazilian rosewood for 28 cents a square foot. I could spend $50 and get the "marquetry pack" which contained a gold mine of shorts, more than I could ever use. All these veneers were 1/28" (0.9mm) or thicker.

During the 80's and early 90's the quality and availability of veneers declined dramatically. I realized that I should buy as much as I could afford, since I could see that the "end was near." In 1995, in Paris, I witnessed the demise of the largest veneer processing plant in France. All the machinery was sold for scrap and the business changed forever. The only place left for me to purchase good material was Patrick George, who was a 4th generation French veneer dealer. He operated a veneer saw, the "scie a bois montant" which I have discussed in an earlier post. Be sure to check out his video.

His sawn veneers are the best in the world, and the price reflects that quality. They are all between 1.5 and 2.0 mm in thickness and sold by the weight. They average between 100 and 350 euros per Kilo. For many years, when I returned to Paris, I would drop about $10,000 on his veneers, stocking up my vault with the most wonderful woods, ranging in color from Gaboon ebony to English holly. I have a treasure trove of materials to select from, including bone, ivory, horn, shell, and brass and copper.

Now I don't have the extra money to spend, and much of the material available is not up to my standards. I realize I need to be very responsible and conserve what I have for the next 40 years. It took me 40 years to stock my cave and it will take me 40 years to consume it.

I am a very fortunate woodworker.