Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Picking Machine

The history of French inventions is full of objects which Americans believe were invented here. Unfortunately for our culture, Americans are an ego-centric animal who believe all thought and ideas begin and end within our borders. I am sure, if you asked people walking down the street, who invented flight, cinema, photography, bicycles, submarines and the Xerox machine, the clear majority would respond: "USA!"

It is easy to click on google and discover pages and pages of inventions which came from France. I just discovered, for example, that the taxi was invented in 1640, in France. Amazing!

Add to this list the concept of the duplicating machine, normally referred to by its American corporate name: Xerox. It was created in France to solve a difficult problem which was essential for the evolution of the craft of marquetry.

Before Louis XIV, all the historical methods used to create decorative surfaces were developed in the Mediterranean Sea, from Egypt to Italy. The most interesting at that time was cutting several materials in a packet, using a fret saw held at a perpendicular angle, so that all the elements and background were cut simultaneously. This method was called "tarsia a incastro" by the Italians and renamed "Boulle" by the French.

However, Louis XIV and his successors wanted to elevate the craft of marquetry to another, more complicated level, and keep the secrets of that trade all to themselves. They devoted money and time to all the trades, from furniture making to tapestries, from sculpture to architecture, to insure that France would be the most highly sophisticated country in Europe during the 18th century. And they succeeded.

The primary problem with Boulle method is that the drawing is placed on the packet and cut along with the material. Therefore, the drawing is destroyed in the process. Of course, no matter how carefully you were, it was impossible to exactly duplicate the design by hand. A method of making exactly precise copies of the drawing was needed.

The inspiration was provided by the traditional Fresco painters, who used a piece of paper punched with holes to transfer the design to the wet plaster. By placing the paper on the surface and pouncing a colored powder over it, the dots of the design would remain for the artists to use as a guide. The idea was simple; the transfer of that method to woodworking was more complicated.

At first, paper was picked by hand, in a laborious process that must have driven artisans to drink. It is not recorded when the picking machine first appeared, but by the 19th century they were manufactured in French workshops and sold in supply houses for the trade. I have three antique machines in my shop, made in Paris and Lyon. I have a fourth machine, made in 1980's in Paris for Dr. Ramond at ecole Boulle, which is driven by a motor.

All the antique machines use a foot pedal to turn a large drive wheel in the lower cabinet. The cable which travels up through the hollow brass tube transmits this energy to a series of gears, which adjust the speed, and on down the front tube to a small crankshaft in a box near the end. This crankshaft converts the continuous rotary motion to reciprocal motion, which is connected to the needle shaft, making it move up and down very nicely.

The needle has a stop which can be adjusted so that it moves only slightly. The needle is a "number 12 sharp" which is very hard to find. It must be adjusted to that it only passes through three layers of paper, no further or it will hit the table and damage the tip.

The design, which is hand drawn, is pinned to two layers of Kraft paper, 48 grams weight. The needle is traced around the entire design, punching holes through all layers of paper. It is important that all the lines are traced, and no duplicate lines are punched. The spacing of the holes is important: too close and the paper will tear, too far apart and it will not serve the job.

When the design is fully punched, the middle layer of paper is removed and the back side is abraded with a pumice stone to clean up the paper tear out around the holes. This piece of paper becomes the master design, which will remain in the shop for decades, and can be used over and over.

The master design is then placed over some white Kraft paper and a pounce is used to apply "bitume de judee" which is a fine, oil impregnated dust. The bitumen leaves a dot of power at each hold, and it is necessary to fix the powder to the paper to make the design useable. The paper is placed across a heated piece of metal and the heat melts the powder to the paper. Thus the essential idea of a Xerox machine.

Using a picking machine allows the worker to make dozens of copies of the original drawing, each design exactly like the other. The use of a picking machine along with the creation of the chevalet allowed the French to perfect the "piece by piece" method of marquetry, which has many advantages over all the other methods. This method they kept to themselves for almost two centuries.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting!...and not what I thought a picking machine was going to be at all.
Thank you, I learned quite a bit from that.
But talking about a national ego...why did France want to be the most sophisticated country in Europe?

W. Patrick Edwards said...

I asked my partner, Patrice, who was born and raised in Paris, about the national ego. I asked, "why did France want to be the most sophisticated country in Europe?"

His immediate response: "We didn't want to...we just are!"

Thanks for asking.

Anonymous said...

Do you still use the Picking Machine now that there are other ways to make precise copies of things?

And Patrice's comment made me laugh out loud.


W. Patrick Edwards said...

I enjoy owning and using the different picking machines here at the school. It is a rare tool.

Patrice uses the computer. It is a common tool.

To each his own.

Chuck said...

I recall trying to use the picking machine that arrived at ASFM some years ago. Trying to treadle and guide the picking needle over taxed my coordination capabilities and was met with much derision from the head master! It must be an acquired skill. For now, I'll stick with the computer and the digital copier at the art store.

Chuck Walker