Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Treasure Box Series I (Part A)

I love Google search using "images". I can waste hours sitting and scrolling through page after page of images. It is amazing. Add to that the Google "alert" feature and I am in heaven. How did I ever survive life just a decade or so ago, when the computer took hours to load up any image and, before that, I needed a CPM operating system just to read the screen?

I am one of the Boomers, who are the first generation to grow up in a home with a television (black and white). When you turned it on a white dot would appear in the center of the dark screen, gradually expanding to fill the entire area, as the tubes in the set warmed up. Often the picture would scroll up or down, and you would have to reach around the back where there were several control knobs to adjust the horizontal or vertical hold. Not to mention that there were 13 VHF channels. Period. No UHF. No cable. No reality shows. Just news and the Disney channel, and Gunsmoke and, the most wonderful show of all: the Twilight Zone.

Just to put into perspective (for the younger generation) how cool it is to just put a word into the search box and, as quick as you can press the "return" key, the world of information is in front of your eyes. And you can do that on your phone while sitting in a cafe having a coffee or walking on the beach.

So, a few months ago, when I received an alert on "marquetry," I found a wonderful marquetry letter box for sale from the late 17th century. I thought it would make a nice project, so I captured the image and sent it to Patrice for digital manipulation. He corrected the perspective with photoshop, using edit>transform>skew. then, using illustrator ( you can also use inkscape), he created a vector drawing. We prefer to make this line a series of small dots, using the stroke feature. It was important for us to have small dots, since we decided to use the Classic Method ("element par element") in cutting this project, ultimately making 4 identical copies. (Needless to say, Patrice improved the original design tremendously, as you can appreciate by comparing the pictures.)

The reason we draw with dots is because, even if you use a fine pen (0.01mm tip) you still have a line. Trying to see if you have cut away exactly 1/2 of that line is difficult. If you have a series of fine dots, then you can more easily see if you have cut those dots in half or completely cut them away or left them whole. This type of accuracy is important for the pieces to fit properly, and the "chevalet de marqueterie" is the only tool I know of which makes this possible.

Printing out multiple copies of this design, we proceeded to the next step: choosing the colors and woods. We wanted to make this box using authentic materials, so we went through our veneer cave and selected a wide range of sawn veneers, typical of the species that were used at that time. We selected some wonderful sawn Gaboon ebony for the background. I love this period of marquetry and had a lot of fun filling in the design with exotic hardwoods, choosing from a rich and diverse palette. These woods included: holly, hornbeam, bow, sycamore, lemon, cherry, pear, "my lady", olive, walnut, padauk, bloodwood, satine, and other tinted woods.

We put together 22 different packets for this job, with each packet consisting of a 3mm backer board, grease paper, 4 layers of sawn 1.5mm hardwood veneer, and nails at each corner. After cutting the pattern into individual pieces of paper, for each element of the design, we glued the appropriate paper pieces to the selected packet, numberes 1 to 22. Finally, we held the packet tightly together, placing veneer nails in between each of the paper pieces.

I assembled the packets while Patrice worked on cutting out the elements. Each cut would produce 4 identical elements, which were returned to the tray and placed in their respective position, relative to the design. This project contains about 1325 individual elements in the design, for the top and sides. Thus, with 4 copies, we needed to keep over 5,000 different pieces of wood in order, without loosing any during the process. Just cutting out the pieces took two weeks.

After all the elements were cut out and placed in the tray, we turned on the hot sand and drew the desired shadows on the design. Following the drawing, we placed each of the 5000 pieces of wood in the sand just in the right angle and for the right amount of time to create the burn we wanted. Since some of these pieces were microscopic in size or extremely fragile, this requires a lot of focus and attention. It is also rather time consuming...but, without adding the shadows, the picture looks flat and unrealistic. The goal of this work is to create fine art: Painting in Wood.

(Post to be continued)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

More ASFM Student work

We have another class this week at the American School of French Marquetry. We only have one student, but classes are held no matter how many students sign up. Actually, it is fine with me, since this student is returning for his Stage II class. He originally took the Stage I class two years ago, and has used the Boulle method to decorate a sideboard.

Warren is a professor of electrical engineering at Georgian College in Ontario. He has a garage workshop and, like most woodworkers who are not professional, can only work on his projects in his spare time. Aside from some small Mission style end tables, this is the first large project he has done, and it took about 4 months.

He used the lessons from Stage I to adapt the Stage II designs included in the ASFM handout to the Painting in Wood method. Therefore, he made packets with both the background veneer and the different colors of woods for the design in the same packet. The design on the end of the sideboard is the "bird chasing a bug" design and the drawers have the "Williamsburg SAPFM Demo" design, while the center door has the "flowers with ribbon" motif. Normally these would be cut using the "piece by piece" (Stage II) method, and that would result in identical pictures. However, using the Painting in Wood method resulted in the same design, but each picture has different colors.

This week he is here cutting the rose, using the proper method, making three identical copies, with no saw gap. I expect that, when he returns, he will be able to take his work to the next level. After he took the Stage I class, he returned home and made his own chevalet from beech and ash. He had some help from the school where he teaches in making the more difficult metal parts.

As I write this, the sweet sound of his cutting mixes with the blues music on the radio.

Two weeks ago, another student, Matthew, returned home with his completed Stage I projects. I had recently posted a note about that class. I just received an email from him and post his comments here:

Message from Mathew Nedeljko:
Hello everyone! Just wanted to drop you all a quick line and say thank you again for the wonderful time at ASFM last week! Despite having a great time at the school I was not happy about bringing home a cold with me! What happened to the great sunny weather I have always heard about. Anyway, I have been working on completing the class exercises...thought I would send you some pics to keep you in the loop! Patrick, these are mounted with the hot glue, which I love working with. Obviously I am going to have to place another order soon! Thanks again for everything last week and I look forward to coming back for Stage 2 next year!

I have also posted his photos with this post.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Chevalet Mechanic Tips

I love fast cars and I love fast chevalets. I am fortunate to own a fast car and I am also fortunate to have a stable of chevalets. The primary difference is that I pay a mechanic to work on my car, but I am the mechanic for the chevalets. That is probably because the car is German and the chevalets are French. This seems weird to me today, as I reflect on my life, since I passed my language proficiency in college in German, and never took a class in French in my life. However, my French is much better than my German (unless you ask my partner, Patrice, what he thinks...something I usually avoid.)

Back to the point. Owning a few marquetry cutting tools requires a bit of normal maintenance. Now that others in this country are discovering the advantages of this unique tool, it might be instructive to pass on some tips for the owner/user to make their experience more enjoyable. When I have classes, I spend a bit of my time adjusting these tools for the students, and there are some normal things to consider to keep them working properly.

The first question is: does the size of the chevalet fit the worker? Traditionally, the worker would build his own tool, so it would be built to fit his sitting height, and whether he was right or left handed. The height (or size) of the chevalet is measured in metric centimeters from the top of the seat to the blade, when the saw is resting in the chops. In the school I have 6 different sizes, from 54cm (the size illustrated in Pierre's book) to the largest which is 61cm. That is about a 3" difference in height. The best height for a worker is determined by where the saw sits relative to the body, when the worker is sitting normally on the bench. The saw should be at about the same height as the base of the neck, or the collar bone. The reason is that to adjust the saw blade tension the worker pulls the frame together with his arm, pressing the knob of the saw against his shoulder. Thus, it should be low enough for that to be comfortable. At the same time, it needs to be high enough for the worker to see the blade in front of his eyes when sawing.

If the tool is not the right size, then it is often possible to replace the wood jaws of the clamp to better fit the worker.

The next step is to determine if the saw is cutting exactly perpendicular to the work. That test is done from time to time, or when it seems that the tool is no longer cutting properly. Use a piece of wood about 1/2" thick, and I prefer tulip poplar, since it is easy to cut. Mark the piece "front" and cut a keyhole test. Pierre describes this test in his book on page 207. The test cut should pass easily in and out of the wood from either side. If the top edge is not parallel, then an adjustment is made to the horizontal support for the saw carriage. If the cylinder is cone shaped then the adjustment is to the vertical. Note that there is a relationship between both the vertical and horizontal adjustment. Usually, it is mostly one and a little of the other. Continue cutting test pieces until it works properly. Another tip: using a very small blade makes this adjustment more accurate, before using a larger blade to cut the project.

When the tool is new, it is normal for the saw frame to work properly in a horizontal plane. Over time it is common for the saw frame to warp or the chevalet arm to bend slightly. It doesn't take much deflection to change the accuracy of the cut. That is why older chevalets have a saw carriage tilted up on the vertical adjustment, which you would think is bad. Not so. The only thing that matters is if the test cut is proper at the face of the jaws.

There is another adjustment that I make from time to time. Since the packet is manipulated around the saw blade, it is important that the chops or clamps press only in the center, where the blade is cutting. If the clamps grab the packet on the edges, then the pivot point is moved away from the blade and it is more difficult to get a smooth cut. Thus, I take a piece of paper (see photo above) and put it only in the center of the jaws and clamp it shut with my feet. It should grab. Then I test the paper on the edges of the jaws and it should pass freely. To make this work, I use sandpaper or a rasp to remove some wood from the jaws on the edges, so they only press in the center.

Finally, when I sit down to cut, there is usually dust on the sliding rod for the saw carriage. I wipe it clean with a rag and add a small drop of oil to the bushing. I also add a drop to the pivots at each end of the carriage which allow it to operate smoothly. These pivots should not be tight. There should be a little "end play" in the pivots to allow the carriage to swing easily.

Following these tips should make the driving experience more enjoyable. Remember, speed counts, but don't go so fast that you go off the line and crash the project.

I'm thinking of either a seat belt or air bags for my chevalet??

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

American School of French Marquetry

We just finished another class in marquetry here at the school. ASFM has been offering classes since 2000 and we have enjoyed the company of hundreds of students. I find the character of the "typical" student who spends the money to learn French marquetry can be summarized in one word: "unusual." We have, in general, type A students who show up: corporate executives, scientists, airplane pilots, researchers, conservators, artists, craftsmen/craftswomen, and even a retired formula 1 race car driver.

One of the benefits of having regular classes every few months is that we are forced to clean up the shop. I think that, absent the students, the shop would be a real mess. No matter how much we think we are sweeping the floor and taking out the trash, it always gets ahead of us. That is why the classes are like the "open house" period at ecole Boulle. It gives the staff the necessary motivation to stop working and pay attention to the surroundings.

This past week we had a rather unique class, where 3 of the 4 students already owned a chevalet. This is very cool. Almost all the time we are just introducing new students to the special features of this tool, and this time we could jump in the deep end the first day. It was a lot of fun. Of course they still had to do the basic exercises. There is a method to my madness which seems to work with most students.

I stress the process by starting out with a simple exercise and repeat with a slightly more advanced exercise and, after that, another exercise, which illustrates a different feature of the process. By completing three similar exercises in one week, the student has the opportunity to learn the basic process necessary to do Boulle marquetry. That is, select a design, select the woods, build a packet, cut out the elements in a specific sequence, sort the parts properly, build an assembly board, glue the project together, add mastic, glue the marquetry to a surface and (finally) clean off the Kraft paper from the front of the picture.

When we have time, we discuss other topics of interest, like hammer veneering, French polishing, geometric marquetry, protein glues and anything of interest to the student.

I sincerely enjoy sharing this pastime with these students, and I think I learn as much from them as they might from me.

Here is a link to a nice post and video from last week's class.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

I Am Not a Carver...But I Play One in Real Life.

If you have seen any of my work, you will notice that the primary decoration is flat surface veneers, and that there is an obvious lack of carved elements. It is not for lack of tools.

When I started buying tools nearly a half century ago, it was a different world. Tool "collectors" and "users" were rare, and the dealers who offered them hard to find. Most of the antique wood tools were found sitting on the floor, under the table, in the back of the antique shop, next to roller skates and abandoned toys. They were universally priced from $5 to $10 dollars, without any concern that they might be rusty, missing parts or museum pieces. The fun was in the hunt. But you had to cover miles of junk to find anything.

During the 1970's there was a change in the market, as tools became recognized for their merits and value. They went from the independent antique shops to specialized dealers who know what each tool was worth and its history. Books were written on the history and function, including names of makers, with dates and research into the types of tools that were made. This period saw the rise of the tool "collector" who was, in many respects, like a coin collector. They gathered collections which were designed to include every type of a specific tool ever made. Stanley tool collectors, for example, searched frantically for the number 1 plane to complete their series, regardless of the fact that the number 1 tool is essentially useless for woodworking. ( I know this statement will generate some hostile comment, but I am not a Stanley collector. Sorry.)

I began "collecting" wood spoke shaves during this period. However, I soon realized that there was an infinite number of variations of this tool, and eventually quit buying them when I had collected nearly 500. Since I had paid an average of $20 for each spoke shave, I now wonder what I could have done with that $10,000 instead, if I had just bought 3 or 4 good ones and quit looking? Now, I try to imagine what my kids are going to think when they open one of my 8 tool boxes and find drawers and drawers of wood spoke shaves. I think they will say, "No wonder there is no money left!"

Starting in the 1980's there was a shift in the marketing of these antique tools, with the emergence of the specialized tool catalogue. Don and Anne Wing were some of the first to create this method of focused selling, with their regular catalogue, called "The Mechanick's Workbench." These catalogues were professionally printed, with excellent photos and descriptions of tools carefully selected for their value and quality. They were priced accordingly.

The distribution of these catalogues was done in a staggered way, geographically, so that they would (in theory) arrive at all points of the country on the same day. Most of them were sent from the East Coast and I lived in San Diego, so naturally mine usually arrived after everyone else. The instant that I got a new offering in the mail, I would read it cover to cover, budget my money and make a list. Within hours I would call in and find that 75% of my preferred tools were already sold.

At the same time as Don Wing, there was Bud Steere, and soon after that Richard Spurgeon, Tom Witte and Martin Donnelly, among others. By then, it was impossible to find any tools at the local antique shop, since they were all bought up by pickers who then sold the best to these centralized distributers. Simultaneously there appeared regional tool collecting groups where you could meet other like minded collectors and buy and sell or trade for what you wanted.

There are a couple of tools which historically have been hard to find. The first is clamps. It seems that no one wants to sell their clamps. The other is good quality carving chisels. They are expensive to buy new. The new chisels are not as good, and most of the old chisels have been used to open paint cans at some point. I don't want to think of the chisels which have been repeatedly sharpened on high speed grinding wheels...

In one of the early catalogues, I was able to buy a set of carving chisels that was amazing. I bought a set of 75 Addis (English) carving tools, all from the same carver, for $11 each. That was a big purchase for me at the time, and I wonder where I got that much money since I was earning about $15/hour. Sometime after that, I found another collection of 75 tools for sale, at a price of about $15/each, which were used by O. Highley, master carver working in California around 1920, who specialized in rococo carving for the churches.

The amazing thing is, when I set out all the 150 chisels on the bench, that there were very few duplicate shapes. It was like they each did different things and, combined, I had purchased a rather complete collection of Shieffeld tools, mostly made early in the 19th century.

I built a wood case for the wall to hold these tools. It was made of three doors, held with piano hinges. It closes nicely on the wall, which both hides the tools and keeps them handy near the bench when I need to use them. I have them organized in the racks with the different sweeps assorted according to size. Each tool has a small number stamped in the handle, so I can put them back when done. This also keeps the tips from being damaged.

Obviously, the internet has replaced the printed catalogues, and the excitement of opening the mail box to find the latest offering. For me, some of the excitement of the search and find is gone. But, that may be also because I have all the tools a woodworker could ever want.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Historic Ecole Boulle Video

Very few foreigners have ever been accepted at ecole Boulle, in Paris. It has always been a quiet and rather selective institution, focusing on training French artisans in the traditional skills of furniture design and fabrication, as well as upholstery, architecture, interior design, sculpture, metal working, and many similar trades.

I was only allowed in because Dr. Pierre Ramond invited me to be there. In fact, the only time visitors are allowed to walk in the door and get past the guard is during the annual open house in late January. This provides the entire school a chance to clean up and show off to the "public."

At that event, busloads of people from all over Europe arrive to examine the student's work. Each workshop sets up an area where the best efforts of the students is on display, and the students stand ready to explain how and why they decided to do that project.

Not much has changed in the century that ecole Boulle has been teaching the historic trades. Certainly the most obvious is that female students and teachers are now part of the school. Another difference is the first floor, where the heavy machinery is located. The old cast iron belt driven power tools have all been removed and are replaced with the most modern CAD and industrial machinery. As you can see from this video, probably many fingers have been saved by removing the old machines.

Fortunately, upstairs nothing has changed. The work benches, tools, patterns and floors show the marks of thousands of talented workers who have passed through these rooms. It is, for me, one of the most authentic historic experiences of my life. When I saw this video, I was transported back to the same place, like a time machine.

Recently a friend sent me a link to this old video of ecole Boulle in the early days. Enjoy!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Old Brown Glue Invades Canada!

For years now we have been selling individual bottles of our Old Brown Glue to several different countries. We are, in fact, international in scope, thanks to the web. We have had people in Germany, France, England, Australia and other countries inquire about distribution and supply.

Until now, we have only sold our glue in the states, either directly from our business, Antique Refinishers, Inc., in San Diego, or through Tools For Working Wood in New York, Highland Hardware in Atlanta, Woodcraft in Alphretta, Georgia and Mahoot Tool and Supply in Fort Bragg, California.

One of the problems with international sales is the relatively high cost of shipping. For example, to send a $20 bottle of glue to a person in Canada, the postage is usually more than $34. Even at that cost we have been selling a good amount of product to that country.

I suspect that one of the reasons our glue is so popular up there is that it is not affected by freezing. As most woodworkers know, if a synthetic glue freezes, it never works properly after it thaws out. Old Brown Glue returns to its normal state after freezing, with no negative results. Think of the qualities of water, for example. Water can be frozen, liquid or vapor, depending on the temperature. It can go from one state (solid, liquid or gas) to another as many times as you want and always remain H2O.

Old Brown Glue is exactly like that (except for the vapor state). It can be solid, gel or liquid depending on the temperature and humidity. When it is frozen or dry (in the joint) it is solid. In the bottle at room temperature it is a gel. When heated to operating temperature (120-140 degrees F) it is liquid. Like water, you can go from one state to another as many times as you like without damaging its qualities.

Now for the first time Old Brown Glue is available through a major distributor in another country, Canada. We are very pleased to have been asked by Lee Valley & Veritas to supply them with our product. We were waiting for them to stock their stores and post the page in their online catalogue before we made this announcement.

I have always admired Lee Valley & Veritas over the years. During the many wood shows I participated in I would always spend lots of time in their booth. I am sure that they spent a lot of time removing the drool marks I left on their samples. It is an honor to be associated with them and I am personally glad they have decided to carry our particular glue, since it is a modern formulation of a traditional glue which is unique in its working properties.

If you are a woodworker in Canada, I suggest you get some of this glue and do your own testing with it. I believe that you will appreciate the fact that it has a longer open time, easier clean up and superior strength that makes it a joy to use. It is also important that it is non toxic and made of simple organic protein modified with common urea, so that there is no hazard to your health, your kids or pets in the workshop.

After you try it, send me a note and tell me what you think. Of course, since I have been using it every day in my restoration business for the past 20 years, I am ready and able to answer any questions you may have.