Monday, May 20, 2013

Le Vrai Roi Roy!

My Small Tribute to Roy ©Antique Refinishers, Inc.
A true philosopher is a person who is in touch with his immediate surroundings and understands the complex relationship between the physical existence and limitations of the human body as well as the unlimited rational and spiritual potential of the human mind.  For countless centuries, philosophers have been driven to develop a complete cosmology that would help to explain simple existence.

It has always been summarized by the running joke which ends up with the person climbing the hill and asking the guru  who is sitting at the top of the hill the same question: "What is the meaning of life?"  The punch line varies from story teller to story teller, depending on their agenda.  In fact, there is never a clear answer to this question, as the true meaning of life is constantly evolving.  It is the process of living that defines life, and the ends do not justify the means.  In fact the end is the same for all of us.

What matters is "how" you live your life.

It is also important "when" you live your life, as those events and people who surround you and influence you must be considered as significant contributors to your understanding of your "purpose."
"No man is an island" is another common expression, and it is true, unless you were raised by wolves actually on an island.

I am fortunate to live during the same time as Roy Underhill.  His career and teaching has touched literally thousands and thousands of people, and they are changed forever by his unique approach to life.  I still remember the first time I saw him on television.  There was no laugh track.  There was no quick edits to distract from what he was doing.  There was no diversion.  It was simply a man working a simple material, wood or iron, and telling a story about how and why it was done that way.

Like the Shaker expression: "Hands to work."  I was fixated as I watched him work and sweat and talk and bleed, constantly in motion, always on task, guiding the viewer step by step through the ancient process of creation.  For the past 30 years The Woodwright's Shop has remained one of the most important "reality" shows on television.  There is nothing fake about Roy.

Meeting Roy and working with him on his show years ago was not only a great influence on my life but a verification that my belief in hand tool methods was important and worth preserving.  Walking with him through the native hardwood forests which surround his home was, for me, a humbling experience.  His understanding of his surroundings and ability to communicate his knowledge in clear concepts allowed me to appreciate the subtle meaning of nature and man's relationship to nature.

After all, I was born and raised in Southern California.  Our "native" hardwood forests are all planted in front yards by residents.  There is nothing more artificial than the environment that has been created out of the desert in SOCAL.

I am thinking of all this today, since I discovered a  VIDEO on the web which is an interview with Roy.  He is older and wiser these days, not much slower, and just as involved with his career as he ever was.  He remains a leader in a historic movement which has persisted through time.  To me, the old joke is slightly changed: As I climb the hill and reach the top, seeking truth, I find Roy sitting on a stool he has just made from a tree, with his axe resting beside him.  "What is the meaning of life?" I ask.

Roy simply replies, "Work with your hands."

Someday, his hat will rest in the Smithsonian Museum, and we can all thank Roy for his wisdom.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

"Classic Method" Video

Oeben Table J. Paul Getty Collection
Several years ago the J. Paul Getty Museum had an exhibition which illustrated the various stages of making a table by Oeben which is in their collection.  It was a well produced effort, and involved many of the workshops and artisans who I know from my time in Paris.

In particular, Michel Jamet was involved in the ebenisterie, and Pierre Ramond directed his top students in the recreation of the marquetry surface.  They are not given credit in this video, but I would like to mention that they produced this work at ecole Boulle, in Paris.

The exhibition discussed the sawing of the veneers, the making of the carcase out of oak, the bronze dore mounts, the polishing and, of course the marquetry.  Note the veneers used were sawn veneers which are 1.5mm thick and supplied by Patrick George, in Bagnolet, France.

If you have visited the museum, you will recognize this table as one of the great masterpieces in their collection.  It was made by Jean-Francois Oeben, around 1754.  The top of this table slides back which opens the drawer for access.  That, in itself, is a neat trick, since you do not have to move any of the stuff sitting on the top and get full access to the drawer for the writing tools inside.

The inside of the drawer is finished as elaborately as the outside of the table.  I particularly love the grill and flower motif ("jeux de fond") which decorates the aprons and sides of the drawer.  In this method, each of the individual flowers were cut into their respective backgrounds with conical cutting.  Then the grill was laid down and, one by one, the flowers were positioned into their appropriate cavities.

The Getty video is a very accurate representation of the Classic Method, invented by the French in the 18th century, also called "element par element" or "piece by piece."  The essential part of this process was making copies of the design using the picking machine, or even using a pin to poke the holes by hand.  This early "Xerox" method allowed the artist to make as many exact copies of the drawing as needed.  Each part of the design was then cut out and applied to a packet of veneers, held together by nails.

It is important to understand that this method relied on cutting the outside half of the line away for all the inside elements and the inside half of the line away for the background.  The accuracy required for the proper execution of this method depended on two things: using a chevalet, which is the most controlled and accurate tool for cutting veneers, and the simple trick that the inside elements were cut clockwise around their perimeter and the background packet was cut counter clockwise around the perimeter.  Once you understand this, you will see the advantage of this method.  Not only does it minimize waste and eliminate the saw kerf completely, it allows the worker to make many copies of the marquetry as he wants, all exactly identical.

I was fortunate to be involved in this exposition.  I was hired by the Getty Education Department to make twice weekly public presentations in the Gallery adjacent to the installation.  I had a picking machine, chevalet, and all the tools and materials used to make marquetry set up and demonstrated the techniques which were shown in the video.  These 2 hour talks allowed the visitors to ask questions and see exactly how marquetry is traditionally made in France.

Demonstrating Marquetry at the Getty Museum

Let me know if you have any questions.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Paris 11th Arrondissement

They Have Everything You Need!
There are, in my mind, three basic types of Americans.  The first type is an American who lives their whole life in the same town, city or state, never venturing outside the limits of their horizons.  The second type is an American who travels within the USA and takes the time to visit other states, gaining a wider view of different lifestyles and cultures.  Even though there are accents which reflect the diversity of our heritage, this visitor can rely on speaking English to communicate.  The third type of American is the one who leaves this country and travels to foreign countries.  This requires a bit of physical stamina, a willingness to learn other languages and taste sometimes strange food, and an open mind.

My advice is to travel while you are young.  Too many wait until they retire and then are physically limited in the scope of travel available to them.  I first went to Europe when I was 18 and travelled for three months on a bicycle, visiting 7 countries.  It was the most important decision I have ever made, and I still reflect on the events of that summer, as if they were yesterday.  Later, when I was in my early 40's I lived in Paris for a few years while I was a student at ecole Boulle, living most of that time in the 11th arrondissement.  The city of Paris is divided into districts, called "arrondissement" which are numbered and start in the center, rotating like a spiral out to the limits of the city.

The 11th district is the historic furniture making district in Paris.  It is a district which is not often visited by tourists, as it is mainly full of furniture stores, workshops and the different speciality supply shops which furnish the materials to the trade.  It generally starts from the Bastille and goes to Nation, where ecole Boulle is located.  I walked those streets literally thousands of times, and it became my "neighborhood."

Years ago there was a series on TV called "Barging Through France" with the host, Richard Goodwin.  I just found a copy of an episode on YouTube where he explores the 11th.  A highlight of this video is a visit with my dear friend, Patrick George, who supplies the most exotic materials in France for woodworkers.  This is a special video, where George, in his distinctive beard, speaks English, although with a heavy accent.  I think you will immediately appreciate his personality and passion for the trade which he pursues, and with the understanding that he is the 5th generation of his family to keep the business open.

Enjoy:Paris 11th Tour

Mr. Goodwin ends this segment with a prophetic wish, "Let's hope the developers don't move in too soon and rip out the heart of Paris."  In fact, each time I return to this district, I find fewer and fewer actual ateliers and more and more condos and upscale gift shops.  Paris is changing, and modern lifestyles have little interest in ancient trades.