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.


Anonymous said...

Soooo......why don't you carve?

W. Patrick Edwards said...

Actually, I do carve. I was able to take a class from Ian Agrell up in San Francisco, and had a good time.

The difference is in the profit. I can make very complicated marquetry surfaces all day long with an efficiency that is profitable. When I carve something, it seems to take forever.

Mostly, I carve missing elements on antiques which need restoration. I would not imagine designing a piece which depended on a lot of carving.

Lately, I have been outsourcing my high end carving to a very talented artisan here in San Diego.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, didn't know there was such a well respected carver/teacher up here in SF.

W. Patrick Edwards said...

Yes, I have always admired Ian Agrell, since I first met him on the show circuit. He did some amazing work in England and runs a small carving school in Marin county, just across the bridge from the city.

Not only is it a wonderful environment to spend some time, but he has a good program for beginners to learn the basics of fine carving.