Thursday, September 8, 2016

Am I Really Obsolete?

Tools of The "Forgotten" Trade

I remember vividly in June of 1969 meeting an old man who was a traditional upholsterer.  It was in a  shop around the corner from where I lived, and, in fact, just a block from where I still work.  He was trained in New York in the ways of making furniture comfortable and stylish.  I can still see his muscular hands, even though he must have been nearly 80 years old, pulling the cord to tie the springs, working the muslin to get it even and stitching the burlap, creating a perfect edge from the horsehair.

I remember being shocked when he casually used his magnetic hammer to pick up a bunch of upholstery tacks and put them in his mouth.  Who would even think of doing that?  As he worked he would rapidly put the hammer in his mouth and put a tack on the end, then driving it in place with amazing precision.

This was the first time I saw a worker "spitting tacks."  I had to try it, and almost immediately discovered that I could make a good living restoring upholstery on antiques.  In fact, the ability to not only work on the wood frame, but to be able to upholster as well, put me in a class by myself.  No longer did the client have to take the frame from the refinisher to the upholsterer to get it done.  One stop shopping.

Of course, during those early years a lot of places were able to supply traditional materials.  I would go shopping on a regular basis in my area and get quality muslin, burlap, spring twine, tufting cord, cambric (not the synthetic stuff...actual black muslin), pounds of 100% horsehair, 50/50 cotton batting, coiled springs in various sizes, and boxes of tacks.

Much of that list is no longer available these days as the trade has completely changed.  Foam and staples have become the standard process and more than a few upholsterers I have met have expressed shock and surprise that I don't even have a staple gun.  (Woodworkers also are surprised to find I don't have a table saw or router, but that is another story.)

I charge extra for projects which have been "converted" by other workers who throw away the original stuffing and staple on their synthetic materials.   I hate staples.  They don't hold well and removing them is a pain.  Usually I bleed from some unseen fragment of a staple which gets me as I work the job.  I think modern upholsters use their staple gun like a 2nd amendment enthusiast who goes to the gun range and fires thousands of rounds.  You cannot believe how many staples I find.

Tacks in Different Sizes, Including Gimp Tacks

The simple fact is that I have spit tacks all my life.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands of pounds of tacks. All sizes: 18, 16, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 3, 2, and even 1 1/2.  To be honest, any tack above #10 I don't put in my mouth.  They have a tendency to get stuck in the top of my mouth which hurts, so I just place them on the hammer individually.  However, it is rare to use such large tacks, as a skilled traditional upholsterer will understand to use the smallest tack which will do the job, to minimize the damage to the wood frame.

Spitting tacks is important.  It allows the right hand to work the hammer with precision, as the left hand manipulates the material and holds it in place.  This allows amazing speed and precision.  Most people do not even know how to work the hammer properly.  Notice the head is curved on a radius.  If you hammer from the elbow or upper arm you cannot hit precisely in the same spot each time.  You need to pivot the hammer just from the wrist, holding the upper arm steady against the body.  Since the distance from the wrist to the head of the hammer is fixed you can swing the arc exactly the same each time.

That means you can set the tack and hit it several times without missing.  Also you can work next to the polished wood frame or gold leaf frame of the chair with confidence.  People who watch me work are stunned that I never seem to miss the target and can hammer with a certain force right next to the edge, perfectly and precisely,  all day.

About 20 years ago the local supply house stopped selling tacks.  I bought all the surplus they had, but those are long gone.  I started to shop nationally and even internationally in order to keep my supply of tacks from running out.  One by one the old companies stopped production.  Nobody bought tacks so nobody made them.

As a side note, one day a ballet teacher came into my shop and showed me a #12 upholstery tack.  She wondered if I had any like that.  I showed her several boxes, each weighing a pound.  She was shocked.  "These are special tacks for ballet slippers.  They are sold in Florida and cost $12 for a package of 6!"  I handed her a dozen and said "Have a good day."

I also remember using tacks to attach my cleats to my shoes when I raced bicycles.  That is another application which is no longer done.  Toe straps are gone and you buy a bicycle without pedals!!

A Cobbler's Tray 

In desperation recently, I found a supplier in New York who said they could get me tacks.  I ordered and received 50 pounds of #3, since that is the most common tack I use.  They tasted terrible!  They were crooked and different sizes and I imagined they had been gathered up from the floor and put into a box.

I complained and received this note:

"For years our former supplier of the cut tacks "Crown Nail" of England (no longer in business) made the best cut tacks around the world and went the extra step to insure his quality and sterilized products do to the amount of 'spitters' years ago...We would not recommend doing it 'the old fashion way' i.e.; putting them in your mouth any longer as we do not have the same relationship with the Indian supplier as we had in the past with Crown Nail and we do not know the methods of 'degreasing' the products."

I can work around the lack of materials, like silk or 100% cotton damask, silk or wool mohair, and even good quality horsehair.  I cannot work without tacks.

Am I obsolete?  Is the craft of the traditional upholsterer dead?

I cannot believe I am alone in this trade.  If you read this and know of a supplier of good quality sterilized cut tacks, please let me know.

PS:  You may notice the comments to this post.  I am unable to imbed a link in the comments section so here is the link to the "Tack Spitter" Master Tack Spitter Video

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Disposable, Renewable or Enduring?

I was raised in a very thrifty environment, a direct result of my parents working hard to hang onto the lowest rung of the middle class ladder.  I remember my great uncle telling stories about earning 10 cents an hour polishing beans for the local grocer.  I was amazed.  "Polishing beans?" I asked.

"Yes, and I was glad for the job at that time.  Beans would sell for a few cents more if they were shiny, so I would take some wax and dip my hands in the beans and work them until they were clean and shiny."

This man was the same man who never had more than 20 dollars at a time in his pocket all the years I knew him.  I suspect it was the same 20 dollar bill as I never saw him buy anything.  "Everything you need is already at the local dump.  And it's free for the taking."  It turns out that when he died, we discovered he had substantial savings accounts in dozens of banks across the country, so that wherever he visited he had some reserves, if needed.

That durable and practical generation which lived through the Great Depression is now just a faint memory.  What the world experienced in the past decade was shocking but nothing compared to the 1930's.

I have spent my life restoring historic furniture, saving it from the trash heap of time.  I have a deep respect for those who had the knowledge to select the proper tree, and be able to transform it into a beautiful and practical object using only wind, water and human power.  We could learn a great deal of important information if we would just take the time to analyze those objects and understand the process which produced them.

Antiques represent a culture which is enduring and still important for us to appreciate even centuries later.  Of course, not everything was wonderful.  There was disease, poverty, poor sanitation, uneven distribution of wealth, war and conflict.  As I list these problems, I realize that they are still part of our society today.  I guess we haven't evolved as much as I thought.

I ask myself, "What will my generation leave for the future?"  The answer is not pretty.

When I was born the United States had just dropped the atomic bomb on Japan.   I am the child of the first nuclear age, and, like others who came of age during this time, I was fascinated with the prospect of understanding the atom.  So much so that I built an electron accelerator ("atom smasher") in High School and took several awards at the Science Fair, going on to work at Brookhaven Labs and getting a degree in Applied Physics at UCSD.

I know a few things about the atom, I guess.  Enough so that I decided to walk away from my chosen career over 40 years ago when I realized that science could not solve the nuclear waste problem.  Science can create radioactivity but cannot find a way to keep it out of the environment.  Talk about an enduring legacy:  It is a fact that human generated radioactive waste will be polluting the earth thousands of years after the pyramids have fallen into desert dust.  That is what my generation will be remembered for...

At the same time, we live in a disposable society which has no concern at all about making and selling computers and phones with toxic materials, at great expense, only to make them obsolete after a few years of use.  Make, Consume, Discard.  How much longer can we sustain this business model?

It seems logical for corporations to find workers on the other side of the planet who will work for less and make something a few cents cheaper than someone else.  However, what is the real carbon footprint of that object by the time it reaches the consumer?  Take IKEA furniture, for example.  Much of the material used in IKEA furniture is manufactured using toxic chemicals and synthetic materials.  Then it is transported a great distance in shipping containers which are disposed of by the consumer in a landfill.  It is "cost effective" and serves its purpose but lasts only a few years before it falls apart and is replaced by a similar, but cheaper item.

Compare that with a piece of antique furniture.  The tree was either locally harvested by hand or transported by ship using wind power.  The wood was processed by water driven saws and shaped by human talent.  It was transported overland with water or horse power, and later by steam.  It was only when steam was created by burning coal that it started to produce a carbon footprint.

That same piece of antique furniture produced subsequent jobs for workers who repaired, polished, upholstered and restored it from generation to generation.  It created memories and connections to the people who used it, strengthening family history and direct connections to the land.  It provided comfort and a sense of culture as times changed, providing a constant reference point in a world of flux.

In simple words, it was a renewable source of material culture, and will continue to function in that important capacity as long as we respect its integrity and original purpose.  That is why I have devoted my talents to restoring antique furniture.  It gives me a great deal of pleasure knowing I have saved something from the past and that it will continue to exist long into the future.