Monday, January 21, 2013

The Glue That Binds Us Together

When I first had the idea of modifying protein glue with urea to extend the open time, it was driven by purely selfish motivations.  I wanted to use protein glue for my work, and the hot glue pot required me to work fast to get good results.  Also, if the phone or doorbell rang during a glue up, it was trouble, as I had to decide whether to stop and answer it or start the glue up all over again.

Therefore, I embarked on a series of empirical tests to see what formulation of urea, glue and water would produce the best results.  I cooked and tested and threw away 37 different batches of glue, at some expense, all the time keeping records and charts of my progress towards that goal of reducing the gel point to room temperature, without affecting the glue strength.

When I got the recipe right, it solved my problems.  At last I was able to use protein glues for restoration and fabrication without worrying about interruptions creating a problem.  It was particularly good at penetration of fine cracks in wood, and the extended open time allowed me to put together damaged fragments of broken furniture before it gelled.

I never thought I would start selling glue and end up in the glue business.  But, over time, other woodworkers found out about it, and I started giving it away.  Word quickly spread and, at some point, I got a call from Joel at Tools For Working Wood, in New York.  He was very persuasive and insisted that I put it in a bottle and label it so he could sell it.

I needed a name for the glue.  Frustrated at the commercial success that Gorilla Glue had achieved, in spite of the fact that it was toxic and difficult to use, I thought of an animal name.  At first, I thought of "Pit Bull Glue" since I have had pit bulls most of my life, and thought the image of a snarling mouth full of teeth would look good on the label.  Then I thought of "Old Yeller Glue" since I am old enough to remember the movie and crying when they shot Old Yeller, who had rabies.  That name didn't last long, since it would be confused with the standard yellow glue most woodworkers use.

That made me think of white glue, yellow glue, and of course, brown glue. Thus the name "Old Brown Glue" was created, and instantly was criticized by everyone.  "You don't use the term 'old' when you are trying to sell something!"  Really? I thought, I like old things.

Now the glue is being sold all over North America, by Tools For Working Wood, Rockler, Lee Valley, Woodcraft, and others.  I have had many positive testimonials and answered many questions about using protein glues.

Perhaps the most interesting thing that selling Old Brown Glue has done is to introduce me to such a diverse audience of people, beyond the regular woodworking crowd.  I have had questions about its application and use from an amazing range of creative people.

There was the research professor at Johns Hopkins University who called me one day, as I was chopping wood behind my cabin in Montana.  He was developing a machine to zap kidney stones, and wanted to use my glue to make "artificial kidney stones" so he could test his machine.

There was the American Indian, in Kansas, who wanted to use my glue to make an "organic" wooden rocket, whatever that is.  I told him it would probably work to make the laminated wood tube, but I couldn't guarantee that it would not burn up.

There was the contractor, in Florida, who wanted to use my glue to veneer around 12' tall fiberglass columns in his building, so they could be finished to look like wood columns.

There was the scientist in Norway who wanted to thin the glue and spray it.  When I asked him about his idea, he said he was working on a secret process and didn't want to talk about it.

There was the contractor in Los Angeles who ordered 3 gallons of the one time.

Last week I received an amazing email from Catherine Thompson with the photos posted here:

Hi Patrick
I thought that I'd let you know that I used your Old Brown Glue to glue the hides to a Tsugaru Shamisen that I have recently completed making.
The traditional glue is a mochi rice glue for regular Shamisen with the recent addition of some other non organic ingredient for the Tsugaru Shamisen due to the higher skin tension in that instrument.
Your glue worked wonderfully. The open time was a godsend as it takes a good 30-40 minutes to fully stretch out the hide. As I was tightening the hide I put a damp towel over the hide. I am in Banff AB, where it is very dry at this time of year and I thought the towel might help with a longer open time.

I wrote her and asked for more information about what she was doing.  I asked her if I could use her photos and text on my blog, and she said she would be "honored."  I was "honored" and amazed when I saw what she was doing and what kind of lifestyle she lived.  She wrote back immediately:

The instrument, Tsugaru Shamisen, is a sort of 3 stringed Japanese banjo. There are other types of shamisen but the Tsugaru version is the largest with the thickest neck. It was originally a sort of street musician's instrument with close connections to the Goze, blind women travelling musicians and Bosama, the male version. This connection with nomadic music making is what drew me to the instrument in the first place. I also live a nomadic life mostly in the west of Canada. For the past couple of years I have been travelling in the spring and summer across saskatchewan and alberta with 2 horses camping, exploring etc etc. Much of my work *(most of which is musical in nature) explores this sort of living and contemplates the continuing destruction of wild lands and ways to try and be closer to the land.

I remember watching Kung Fu on TV many years ago (40 years ago!), where David Carradine would walk barefoot around the wilderness playing his flute. As I watched her videos and listened to her music, made with native materials, I was instantly reminded of the zen peacefulness that David exuded (when he was not fighting bad people).  This lady, Catherine, is aa amazing artist, living the nomadic existence, wandering around the wilderness, making music that truly comes from the earth.

You should visit her website: Catherine Thompson Blog  and see for yourself.

I don't know how she found me, but I do know that it was the internet that brought us together.  What an amazing time we live in.  A true musical nomad and a woodworking luddite brought together by a shared interest in the glue that binds us.

I could have named it "Human Glue" but I can see where that might be problematic.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Why Cuban Mahogany?

I have a lot of books.  I have always found the money for books.  I buy books instead of food.

I have several old editions, large format, which document the history of English furniture by wood.  One set, in four volumes, was published in 1906 by Percy Macquoid, and includes lavish illustrations of important examples of each type and period:  The Age of Oak, The Age of Walnut, The Age of Mahogany, and the Age of Satinwood.

When I started out collecting antiques, I instinctively followed this method of analysis, instead of the historical terms for the periods.  After all, as a young man, it is more difficult to think of Queen Anne and Chippendale, when trying to decide between a walnut chair and a mahogany chair, then to just look at the wood and pick the best example.

As I began my teaching career in Decorative Arts, of course I studied the historical periods and used them to discuss the different styles.  Always, in my mind, there was a clear evolution from domestic woods to imported woods, over time, culminating in the exotic selection of imported woods used in marquetry surfaces, which I found fascinating to look at.

As a collector, my budget determined what I could acquire.  During the 1970's I made a lot of money buying American Oak and refinishing it for the local market.  It was everywhere.  Oak is durable and plentiful.  There are different styles and many different forms, from Golden Oak to Mission Oak and from dining room sets to bedroom sets.  Quarter sawn or flat sawn, carved, turned and veneered.

At one point, I had a 6' diameter round oak table in my dining room with a dozen chairs around.  Many parties were enjoyed around that table, and it survived in good form.  It is now taken apart and stored in the back room of my shop, just because I couldn't get rid of it.

At some point, in the 80's, I started to buy walnut furniture.  That meant that, instead of furnishings from the 1880's to 1900, I was bringing home Victorian Renaissance furniture from the Civil War era.  Soon the oak was gone and the dark walnut was everywhere, accented by white marble tops and black teardrop pulls.

After that, I enjoyed a brief period of rosewood furniture, but it was scarce and expensive and I couldn't furnish the entire house with it.

That is when I discovered mahogany.  Amazing Cuban mahogany.  The true royal wood.  Huge solid slabs of wood, highly figured and rich in color, with a finish that you can fall into.  The perfect wood for furniture, whether veneered, turned or deeply carved.  Overnight the walnut and rosewood was out and the place was filled with mahogany.  Still is.  Can't get enough of it.  Even my 10' tall canopy bed.

See if you can find a book, published in 1926, edited by William Farquhar Payson, called "Mahogany, Antique and Modern."  It is the best and most complete book I have seen on the history of this wood.
As late as 1926, lumber dealers in the East Coast still were able to buy and sell enormous quantities of this wood, as seen in this illustration from the book:

Yes, that is a man standing there next to the pile of logs.  The caption says: "The supply of this mahogany is rather scarce, and the logs are obtainable now in comparatively small sizes only."  I suppose you can complain when you only get 20 foot logs that are nearly 3 feet in diameter. Just imagine the size of the logs that were used a century earlier!

Within 10 years from the publication of this book, the supply was gone, for all practical economic purposes, and the furniture industry began a coordinated effort to justify using African species of the wood.  I have a book published by the Mahogany Association, Inc., which actively promotes African woods as equal to Cuban in all aspects.   It includes a map of the regions where mahogany grows and states: "The map below indicates the only natural habitats of Mahogany trees.  Woods alleged to be Mahogany but coming from other than the regions indicated, are not mahogany.  Woods purporting to be some kind of Mahogany but not from the regions listed above, should not be accepted as Mahogany."

Remember these words when you visit your local lumber yard and try to buy mahogany today.

One of the reasons it matters, what type of mahogany you have to work with, is that Cuban mahogany is much more dense and has a much greater strength than Honduras or African woods.  Most of the Cuban trees were ancient inhabitants of the tropical forest, some as old as 400 years when they were cut down by European invaders and their slaves, some 200 years ago.  That means that the wood in my Empire table started growing some 600 years ago.  I would be surprised to know that any "mahogany" being sold these days was more than 50 years old!

As an example, last week a client brought in a Hepplewhite shield back chair from his dining room set which was nicely carved and well designed.  He had the idea that it was from 1800, but, as soon as I saw it, I complimented him on the quality of his "reproduction."  He was a little surprised and more than a little disappointed to learn that, but I patiently pointed out the various features that clearly indicated it was a reproduction.

Most of all, I said that, if it were made of Cuban mahogany, it probably would have not broken.  By making a true shield back design in Honduras mahogany, it was inevitable that it would break.  The wood does not have the strength to support the normal use that a chair sustains.

Not only was it badly broken, but it had been repaired with a combination of super glue, "the strongest glue on planet Earth," and putty.  None of that worked.  Repairing a shield back chair is one of the most challenging repairs, as the design violates all the normal strength elements of wood.  Add to that problem the difficulty of removing synthetic glues and putty and it becomes an interesting project.

It is hard to see, from the photo above, but I used elastic bands, tape, wood clamps, bar clamps, "C" clamps, and my imagination to reconstruct the chair back.  First I cleaned off all the broken surfaces, using a toothing plane and small chisels.  Then I went through the sequence of assembly, without glue, so that I clearly understood where to start.  Then I cut and attached blocks of pine where I needed to put the clamps (see my post on Vector Clamping).  Then I warmed up the room and glue and started to put it together.  Of course I used Old Brown Glue.

This project took 2 hours of preparation and nearly 30 minutes of actual assembly.

By the way, in 1976 I was quoted a price in Paris for Cuban mahogany elements of antique furniture at $6000 for a cubic meter.  That is one of the reasons I started buying the stuff.  When everything else fails, I can still break up all my furniture and sell it for scrap!