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?

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