Sunday, April 28, 2013


I have given lectures, done numerous television and video episodes, written articles and taught for years, but nothing compares with the worldwide influence the web has provided these past few years.  It is truly amazing that I can sit down in my office at work,  turn on my computer, and create something that literally thousands of other like minded people with be able to see in seconds.

A good example of how this works as a specialized communication tool is the emergence of focused speciality interest group sites, like Lumberjocks.  On the one hand, it provides a central discussion and information platform for thousands of woodworkers who can share their experiences and talent.  But at the same time, I wonder how much work is actually being done, as these guys spend their days in front of the computer instead of standing in front of the bench.

My partner, Patrice, is spending a fair amount of time posting online lately.  He cuts some marquetry, then posts.  He designs some more marquetry, then posts.  He does some French polish, then posts.  I can't complain, as the publicity is great for business, and it is important for others to see the kind of work we do here.

Recently, he posted a wonderful series of photos which explains in detail how we made the Treasure Box.  His post in Lumberjocks is much more clear than the post I made here on this blog.  You should check it out and can find the link here.Patrice Lejeune Treasure Box

Also on Lumberjocks is a new club, started by Paul Miller, who lives in Vancouver and is a big supporter of marquetry.  He had the idea of having a "chevalet club" where others can share their photos or questions about this unique tool.  What a great way to spread the news.

You can see this thread here. Chevalet Club

I remember the first time I saw a real chevalet and realized how cool that tool was.  That was nearly 40 years ago and it was virtually unknown to woodworkers in North America, except for a couple of workshops where Italian, German or French workers operated in secrecy.

Well, the secret is out!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Cross Grain Molding

A Good Day's Work
©Antique Refinishers, Inc.

When I was a young cabinetmaker, I did not have a lot of money.  Actually, I still don't have a lot of money.  However, I do have a lot of clamps.  I was joking with my wife today and said that if I just sold all my clamps for a dollar each, we could pay off the mortgage.  Almost.

I was fairly smart back in the 1970's to invest in tools and clamps.  There was a store, which was way before WalMart, Costco, or any of those "big box" stores which cover the landscape these days.  It was called "Fedco" and you needed to be a member to shop there.  The prices were great, and since I was employed part time as a teacher at the local colleges, I was eligible to join.  Something like $25 or so, as I recall.

We bought everything there, from kitchen sinks and paint to cameras and film.  One of the most important acquisitions I was able to find there was a beautiful woman in the Kitchen section, who was kind enough to become my wife.  But I digress...

Each time I went there to get something, I budgeted $25 dollars on clamps.  They had a neat hardware section, and the large iron "C" clamps were $3.99 each and the Jorgensen Pony clamps were not much more, depending on the size.  So I always returned with 5 or 6 clamps, no matter what.

Over the years, I eventually got hundreds of clamps.  One of the nice things about clamps is that they don't need sharpening, hardly ever break, and make money.  I used to tell my clients that they could pay me $75 to glue their broken chair or $5 per clamp, which would actually cost more.

From time to time, other cabinet shops in my city would go out of business, due to the economy.  I would show up at the sale of tools and watch as all the other woodworkers rushed to buy table saws, routers, sanders, drills, and diverse power tools.  I went straight to the clamp pile and immediately staked my claim.  Often they were sold as a lot for $1 each.  Gee, I wonder if I could pay off my mortgage?  But I digress...

The past few days I have spent some time preparing the molding for the Lecount clock.  Since the grain of the molding is usually cross grain on clocks from this period, it is usual to cut the stock and glue it onto some long grain backing.  I know what you are thinking.  Cross grain and long grain will eventually come apart.  Exactly.  Take a look at any late 17th century clock or cabinet in any museum.  If it hasn't been restored, there is always a gap between the edges of the short grain molding elements.  That's authentic work.

The reason they used cross grain was so that the wood grain would be vertical and add a visual height to the design.  It was also because they were a little crazy about doing things the most complicated way possible.  Note that with a complex molding profile, and cross grain wood, you cannot use standard molding planes to make the molding.  You must carve it by hand and finish off with a shaped scraper.  Take a look at the first clock I made, a copy of the Tompion clock at the Metropolitan Museum.  All the molding was hand carved.  I earned my stripes on that job.

This clock has much more simple profiles, and the olive is contrasted with ebony molding, which will naturally be done long grain.  There is no reason to use ebony short grain, since it is absolute black and you cannot see the difference.  With the olive, the figure is so strong, it becomes a very decorative element.

So I cut a lot of olive into short grain elements, and used Old Brown Glue to press these onto oak sticks the proper size for each of the molding lengths.  Each stick had a single clamp to pull the pieces together and individual clamps for each piece to hold them in place. Using the OBG allowed me the longer open time I needed to get everything properly positioned.

Rolling Work Table with Clamps
©Antique Refinishers, Inc.

The next day I removed all the clamps and put them on my rolling work table.  Just a note here about the table.  I have used this table during my entire career.  It is just one of the most practical "tools" in the shop.  It is low and on wheels.  The top is covered with a rubber linoleum which has survived 40 years of abuse, glue and chemicals.  I use it to hold work while I upholster, sand, glue, finish, or clamp.  Then I use it to hold all the clamps, so I can push it around as I place the clamps back on the wall.  You need one of these.

Cross Grain Molding Blanks
©Antique Refinishers, Inc.
Here is a shot of the molding elements, roughly cleaned up.  They will now be shaped to the final profile and cut to fit the case.  There are three of each profile.  The long one is for the front and the two shorter ones are for the sides.

It is a good day at work when you run out of clamps.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Lecount Project

Just Enough Clamps and Old Brown Glue
I was able to clean up the marquetry and oysters on the base and sides by using water and scraping away the Kraft paper.  Then I cut some boxwood strips a few mm wide from some sawn boxwood veneer I had.  I selected a few pieces of sawn olive wood veneer to cut into crossbanding and applied them around the panels.

I placed the boxwood inlay strips in their position and held them with veneer tape to the center panels.  Then I squared off the edges of the rather short strips of olive wood crossbanding so they would nicely fit side to side along the edge.  I taped them together with veneer tape, so that I had the entire frame of crossbanding and boxwood inlay assembled in one piece.

Then I carefully cut away this veneer "frame" from the center panels, which were already glued down in place.  I warmed up some Old Brown Glue, and heated up an aluminum panel for the manual press.  By brushing the OBG onto the edge of the panel, all the way around the center oysters or marquetry, depending on which part I was gluing at the time, I could then simply replace the taped "frame" of crossbanding in place and put the panel into the press, face down on newsprint.  The heated aluminum caul would allow the glue to liquify and flow evenly under the veneer.

Removing the panels from the press the next day, I moistened the veneer tape and scraped it off.  That exposed the nice crossbanding, inlay and oysters, which are similar to the original Lecount clock case that I saw on the internet.

Now I could add OBG to all the joints and clamp up the case on the bench.  The lower box has full blind dovetails on the corners, and a dado joint on the back board edge.  The side panels are also joined to the back board with a dado, and the face frame is loosely clamped in place to keep it square.

This morning I removed the clamps and, for the first time, sat the Lecount works in place, in a case which is a copy of the original long lost marquetry case, from about 1690.

Lecount Stands Again

It's about time...(pun intended).

Monday, April 15, 2013

Lecount Project

The Design Department of ASFM

I received an interesting email recently from another furniture maker who asked me where I got the designs for my work.  He said that he was an amateur and had made some pieces "in the style" of a current studio artist.  That artist had threatened him with legal action and he had to take down pictures of his work from his website to avoid trouble.

That reminded me of another incident which happened a few years ago.  One of the students who had taken classes from me at ASFM had gone on to produce some amazing work.  His favorite style was Ruhlman, and he made a magnificent sideboard, which was influenced by that great French artist.  This student was impressed with some photos I had taken of myself standing next to my work, and decided to do the same, but dressed in a tuxedo.  He printed up some postcards and was immediately  served with a legal "cease and desist" letter from some attorney in New Jersey.  This student lives in Southern California.  The attorney was representing a well known marquetry artist who has made his living with Ruhlman copies, and, in this letter, claimed to have "trademarked" the image of an artist in a tuxedo standing next to his work.  Wow.

When I searched his website, I found that he preferred jeans and shirts, like all of us guys, and no photo of him in a tuxedo could be seen.  In any event, be careful not to dress too fancy when you get your photo taken.

All of this leads me to try to bring some perspective to the issue of design.  We all know Sam Maloof made an iconic rocking chair.  Honestly, how many hundreds of furniture makers have copied his rocker?  There are several issues to consider.  Sam was a professional, and master of promotion.  Most of the copies are by amateurs, who just aspire to create something "Maloofian."  No one seriously would value a copy of a Maloof rocker as much as the original.

The irate artist in New Jersey who made his living with Ruhlman copies has no reason to be concerned with another artist in California who also was inspired to do the same.  What is that about "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?"

As to my career, I can say that I have made exactly one original design in my life.  That was the RockeTable,  which I have never sold and have only made the single prototype.  All the other pieces in my portfolio are either exact copies or strongly inspired by "dead" cabinetmakers who lived in other countries centuries ago.  So far, their attorneys have not contacted me, thank goodness.

As to the marquetry designs for the late 17th century clocks, I have two sources to access, which are "public domain."  The first is the excellent three volume set by Pierre Ramond, "Masterpieces of Marquetry," which has dozens of precise drawings of antique furniture.  I have made lots of copies of these designs in a range of proportions of enlargement.  I can select an element, like a flower or leaf, from this stack of drawings and place it in exactly the position I want to create a new design.  The design is new, but the elements are old.  I suspect period designers did the same, as many of the elements have a similar form, from one piece to another.

The second source of design is from the many pieces of period marquetry I have restored and conserved.  I take thermal fax paper and make rubbings of the marquetry, which works really well, and also use tracing paper to copy elements for my archive.  Some of the flowers are simply amazing, and may contain as many as 50 pieces of wood, just for one flower.

So, nothing I do is original except that I sign my work and brand it.  Go ahead and feel free to copy any thing I have made.  Fine with me, as long as you don't sign my name on it.

Toothing The Groundwork

Over the weekend I took a toothing plane and surfaced all the oak material for the clock.  Then I selected some nice yew wood oyster sawn veneers, which I purchased in 1994 from Patrick George, to decorate the sides of the case.  I prepared them, glued them to Kraft paper and cut the joints for them to fit together.

Back of Panel with Mastic

I also took some hot water and diluted the hot protein glue, then added some very fine hand sanded Cuban mahogany wood dust to make a mastic.  I prefer mahogany for the mastic, as it is a fine powder and doesn't swell up in the wet glue, like some woods.  It also has a very nice dark brown color.

Finally, I have all the panels ready to glue down, which I did in the press today.

Panels Ready for Glue

As to the copying of designs, even Chippendale stole from others!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Lecount Clock Project

Not your typical "Cut List"

I'm not very good at keeping records of my work.  I guess that is because I enjoy so much the actual process of working by hand at the bench that I just don't think of taking time to photograph or record what I am doing.  I go to sleep thinking about what the next steps are.  I get up and walk to work visualizing my job.  I start the glue pot, walk over to the bench and start working.  At the end of the day, I go home and start over.  I guess I still have an abundance of enthusiasm for my job, even after doing it for over 40 years.

In any rate, I have decided to try to post some photos of this project, as I think it is interesting on several levels.  It is the fifth tall case clock I have made in the past decade.  As usual, I start building these clocks for my own house, and as usual, they get sold before I can get them home.

To start with, I gather some wood and make some notes about overall dimensions, using metric measurements.  I never took wood shop in school and never learned about a "cut list" or "plans."  I am an analog thinker, so I just imagine the job, select some nice wood from the wood pile, and start cutting.  With the clock I just build the case directly from the back board.  Starting with the lower box, which I posted earlier showing the full blind dovetails, then clamping together the middle section after that.

Everything so far is dry fit and held with clamps.  The reason is that I now need to take it all apart and glue on the marquetry surface, using the press.  Once the marquetry is in place, I can then glue together the case and cut the moldings.  Once the lower case is assembled and the works are set on the cheeks, I can take some final measurements for the bonnet, and start building that.

Lecount born again on the bench

Last week I got the oak case clamped up fine.  This week I spent drawing the marquetry panel for the lower front box, and building the packet, cutting it out and putting it together.

I like to capture the style and use the process that was used during the last decades of the 17th century for these clocks.  Typically, the design has large flowers placed all over the panel, with leaves and branches connecting them.  No attention was paid as to whether the same branch had different flowers or not, and it was not supposed to be a realistic picture of nature, as was done much later in the 18th century.

The Painting in Wood process requires that all the different species of wood are placed in their proper position in the packet, in different layers, and cut at the same time as the background.  The blade is at 90 degrees and leaves a gap.  Inside the leaves and flowers the gap is decorative and filled with a mastic.  On the outside of the elements, the gap is generally not visible, as the background is usually ebony during this period.

Working with scraps to determine the color placement

This process is somewhat wasteful of material, so the pieces of veneers are cut only slightly larger than the design element requires.  The area between the veneers is filled with a cheap species of veneer so the layer remains flat with no voids.  Usually a design with 10-20 different species can be assembled with a packet using less than 8 layers.

Typical layers with different species in place

Note I am using sawn veneers, as usual.  These veneers are 1.5mm thick, and including the 3mm back board and 1.5mm front board, the total thickness of this packet is 13.5mm.  The packet includes (from back to front): 3mm back board, grease paper, full layers of ebony (background), green dyed veneer (leaves), mahogany (branches), three layers of multi species veneers, and 1.5mm front board with the design.  All these layers are taped together to make a solid packet.  No nails are used; only veneer tape.

Using the chevalet, I cut out all the elements and keep only the wood species I need for the design.  The ebony background is then placed on a board covered with blue masking tape, face side up.  Note: this is a "modern" idea that I got from Paul Schurch, a good friend and very talented artisan in this field.

Burning the elements in hot sand, with coffee

The individual elements are carefully burned in hot sand to create a shadow according to a drawing I made.  This is the boring part, but without it the picture looks flat and lifeless.  Sawn veneers take more heat and much longer in the sand to properly shadow.  I use a very fine sand I purchased in France and an industrial hot plate made in Germany.  You need at least 1500 watts or more, and the sand needs at least an hour to reach proper heat.

Ebony background ready to place on blue tape

By using the blue tape to temporarily hold the background in place, I can assemble the picture face up, so it is much easier to follow the design.  This also allows me to exchange any pieces which I think are not the best choice of material before everything is glued down.  As most of the flowers and other elements have at least two different colors, I can change the composition of woods as I want.

Front of Panel held on blue tape

Then I make an assembly board using Kraft paper.  I put hot glue on this assembly board paper and place it down on the face of the marquetry in one motion.  I then put the entire panel into the press, using a layer of 10mil plastic and a 1/2" piece of wallboard (Homosote or Celutex material at Home Depot) and a plywood board to distribute the pressure.

What this does is that, since I am using sawn veneers of slightly different thicknesses, my goal is to push all the material forward into the hot glue on the Kraft paper.  By pushing from the back (where the blue tape is temporarily holding everything in place,  the relative softness of the wallboard reaches into all the different pieces and pushes everything forward properly.

The nice thing about the blue tape is that it comes off even after being in the press.

Back of Panel on Kraft paper ready for mastic

Now the panel is ready for mastic.  That is the job for today.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Graham Blackburn Videos

I remember when MTV first appeared and for the first time we could watch music videos on our TV.  Then YouTube was developed and we could watch videos on demand on our computer, and eventually, on the portable devices which everyone in the world now seems to have in their pocket.

All this is recent history, and I seem like an old guy when I talk about "when I was young..."  However, this is not the world of video which I entered in 1973 when I taped my series on CBS.  I had ten shows at that time, tracing the evolution of furniture design from the pilgrims to the victorians.  What I remember most was the cameras.  There were three cameras, each about the size of a Volkswagen, and they were on these wheeled tripods, moving slowly around the room, following the action.  You didn't move too quickly, or you would miss your blocking and the operator couldn't focus fast enough to capture the information.

Talk about the dinosaur era of video.

Technology has changed all that, of course, and it is now possible to "film" using hand held cameras with natural lighting, and sound.  (I wonder how long we are going to use the term "film" to talk about these digital files...)

I have done a lot of video over the years, and am trying to make these past efforts available online.  I am still working on Roy Underhill to get his episode, and he assures me that, when he gets some time to put it together, that will happen.

In 2007 I worked with Graham Blackburn to shoot some material in my shop.  He was very easy to work with and the result was very informative and professional.  Graham has been involved in traditional woodworking as long as I have, and I have always had the deepest respect for his work.  I was honored to have him in my workshop and we really enjoyed each other's company.

The result was a series of video "magazines" which were called " action!!!"   They were available on a subscription basis, and each issue included a long list of diverse workers and their work.  I was featured in Issue 6 and Issue 8.

I had forgotten about these videos until recently.  That was when I found out that Popular Woodworking had purchased them and was making them available again.  I contacted the publisher, Kevin Ireland, and floated the idea of linking to my videos directly from this blog.  He was very supportive and generously made it happen.

Popular Woodworking has posted my two videos on a private YouTube link, which you can access directly from this post.

Here is the link.  There are two videos on "Recreating a Process" which include part one (handtools and veneer) and part two (pickers and chevalets).  Just scroll down from the first video to see the second.

Blackburn Videos

Be sure to thank Popular Woodworking for making these videos accessible.