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.


TenLayers said...

You're saying the quality has sunk. Is this because the wood available is of lower quality, veneer cutters are cutting it thinner and backing it on paper or people aren't willing to pay for premium veneer?
I'm just trying to understand why the drop in quality..

Chuck said...

ll I can say is "wow", that is sure an order of magnitude above the concrete block, sand, and plastic tarp cave that you had before! Yet, that ingenious structure did its job more than well. So far, I have not been able to figure a good way to store my meager stash of veneers here in the northeast where the humidity varies from high in the summer to quite low in the winter.

Chuck Walker

W. Patrick Edwards said...

There are many reasons why the industry has changed the quality and production of veneers, worldwide.

First of all, the value of the world's surviving forests is not in exotic hardwoods, unfortunately. Most of the trees are simply ground up as a mass harvest for paper pulp. Large areas are also just burned to make way for cattle. Saving a single tree just doesn't make sense.

From the consumer side, less and less artisans are using veneer, and more and more large industrial manufacturers are becoming the primary market. IKEA and other concerns, like Steinway and architectural suppliers are tooling up to handle extremely thin material, often on MDF substrates.

Individual craftsmen, like us, are usually willing to pay more for quality material, but the volume we consume does not impress the suppliers enough to change their marketing strategy.

Unless you can find a specialized veneer supplier, like Patrick George, in Paris, you will need to start sawing you own material.

Good luck finding the log.