Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Roubo Redux

Patrice and Agnes Reading Roubo in French
I first met Mr. Roubo at the Getty Museum Conservation Lab around 1975 or so.  There was a French conservator there who had a copy and used it for his reference.  I was interested in it, since it was full of amazing drawings of various tools and woodworking methods I had never seen before.  As I did not speak or read French, I began asking him questions hoping he would translate.

His response was rather cold.  He seemed to think that it was only possible to understand the mysteries of Roubo by understanding both the French language of the 18th century and the specific French history of the woodworking methods shown.

I was left with a feeling of frustration, knowing that a book of knowledge about a trade I cared very much about was not accessible to me.

20 years later, when I was attending school in Paris, I would divide my spending money between veneers at Patrick George and books at the Librairie d'Ameublement, which specialized in books about woodworking and the trades.  I bought books in French, German, Italian and English, and my bags were always at the limit.  Of course, Air France back then allowed me two checked bags (30kg each) and a carry on (no weight limit!).  And they provided a great meal inflight.  Those were the days...

Anyway, each time I returned to Paris, I would rush over to the bookstore and ask what was new.  The owner remembered me and my tastes, and would direct me to exactly the books I needed.  In one section of the store was the Roubo, which was very large and very expensive.  And in French.

Each visit, I would ask the same question:  "When will it be available in English?"  Always the same answer, "Probably never, since there is no demand for it by English speaking people."

I eventually was able to acquire a wonderful full size edition (in French) which was printed in 1975.  That date is ironic, since it was the same time I first heard of Roubo.  However, I only received this edition, which included all four volumes, just last year.  My partner, Patrice, was much more helpful in translating the work, and my understanding of French has improved over the years.

Nearly 20 years after I finished my studies in Paris a team lead by Don Williams and Christopher Schwartz managed to complete the project.  Last Saturday, after I finished teaching a class in French Polishing at MASW, I got into my car and drove (at a high rate of speed) down 74 from Indianapolis to Cincinnati.  I was in a rush to get to the last hours of the Woodworking In America trade show to visit Christopher and Don, as well as many other friends and professionals in the wood industry.

I was also there to pick up my copy of Roubo in English.  For the first time in over two centuries people who don't read French can now enjoy the wonderful insight and information which Roubo captured in this important work.  Lost Art Press had printed a limited edition of large format books which sold out immediately and will not be reprinted.  However, for the rest of us, where the book may end up on the workbench as a "working" copy, Chris has printed a smaller hardcover edition.

That edition is very reasonably priced and available here:  Lost Art Press: Roubo

You cannot imagine my excitement to finally be able to read, in English, the information which had so long eluded me.  Chris and Don and the team deserve the MacArthur award for genius for their efforts.

I was also honored to be able to contribute the Preface to this historic edition, along with my friend and business partner, Patrice Lejeune.

Life is full of amazing surprises!


The New School of French Marquetry
I realize that, in the world of French marquetry, there are a few "chevalets" sitting in workshops in large cities like Paris, Brussels, London and New York.   However, these tools belong to the artisans who built them and use them for highly specialized work, usually restoring period furniture for dealers.  In general, the design and function of this tool has remained somewhat "secret" over the centuries.  You could just say the "chevalet de marqueterie" is obscure.

In fact, there is only one school in Europe where students can get instruction and practice using these tools.  That school is ecole Boulle, in Paris.  Even in that school the chevalet is part of a curriculum which includes Colombo Filippetti  jig saws and other cutting tools to make marquetry.

When I was there as a student some 20 years ago, Dr. Pierre Ramond taught a rather strict traditional approach to making marquetry which focused on the chevalet.  There were 12 such tools in the class and a similar number of students, working diligently every day to design, cut out and assemble real masterpieces of art in wood.  The new professor at that school has a new building and encourages a diverse mix of traditional and modern methods to create the work.

In 2000, when Pierre retired, I asked him and received his permission to create my own school in San Diego, where I endeavored to continue his work, using many of his exercises and methods.  I built 7 chevalets and created a simple introductory program for students which would allow them to experience the amazing properties of this tool.  That program has been a great success and I have had hundreds of students, of all ages and skill levels, over the years.  Every one of them is delighted to have the chance to use this tool, and many of them have followed up by building one for their own use.

During the past several years, Marc Adams and I have had phone and email conversations about me teaching at his school.  Although I had never visited his school, I had had many students here at ASFM who also were graduates MASW, and they encouraged me to go.

The biggest problem is that the chevalet is a large tool and cannot easily be transported, so it would be necessary for Marc to build a chevalet for each of his students who wanted to take a class.  That means, essentially, that there was no profit motive for him to do so.  It is to his credit that he decided to proceed, and the only motive I can suggest is that he really loves woodworking and his desire to create the best and most diverse woodworking school in the country is sincere.

At any rate, Marc built 8 chevalets this summer, and I agreed to fly out and teach a class.  I was impressed and amazed at the facilities and quality of instruction which I discovered when I arrived.  I had no idea how complex and professional the facilities were.  He is celebrating 20 years of classes and it shows.  The walls are covered with student's work and souvenirs of past instructors, many of whom I know and admire.  On top of it all, it was spotless.  Imagine all the woodworking machinery and activities running continuously and not a spec of dust anywhere.

First Class at Marc Adams
I was provided with a room to myself, full of benches and a chalkboard with video hookup.  In the center of the room stood 8 beautiful new chevalets, ready to use.  I arrived a day early to run through the final tune up procedure so they would cut properly and empty my bags.  I had brought 100 pounds of materials and supplies to run the class and it took some time to set that stuff up for class.

Cleaning Up the Marquetry on Friday
I was pleased to meet the 8 students who showed up bright and early Monday morning for the first class.  It was an honor to be able to bring the chevalet to another school in America, and I personally want to thank Marc for his vision and support to make this possible.

I had suggest that Marc build his chevalets in several different sizes, but he chose to build them all the same size, which was 61 cm.  This size tool is fine for a person who is over 6 feet but one of my students was only 5 feet tall, and that presented a problem.  I have different size chevalets here in my school, and it makes it easy to fit the student to the tool.  The solution we came up with at MASW was to make a second seat blank and use wood spacers to raise the seat.  This required raising the foot pedal an equal amount with a block of wood, and allowed the shorter students to easily work the larger tools.

Adjustable Seat Height

At the end of the week, all students had successfully completed the three basic projects in Boulle technique.  Everyone was pleased with the class and I felt that I had contributed to the diversity of the woodworking program that Marc has developed over 20 years.  It was an honor to add my name to the list of famous and distinguished instructors who have passed through these doors over the decades.

Now there are twice as many woodworking schools in America as there are in France where students can create art using the "chevalet de marqueterie."  The American School of French Marquetry, in San Diego, will continue as usual to offer classes, as we have done since 2000.  Marc Adams School of Woodworking, in Indiana, will offer similar classes in the future, so keep watching their schedule.

I am rewarded each time I see a woodworker sit for the first time on this tool and smile at the results.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Mr. Lecount Ready For Adoption.

Meet Mr. Lecount

Over the years I have lectured to groups, large and small, thousands of time.  Public speaking is easy for me.  Just tell me how long you want me to talk, pick a subject, and let me go.  I never talk over the time allowed.  I can easily tell a story which is adapted to the audience with facts and anecdotes, letting the questions from the audience direct the presentation.  If you were to ask me how I do it, I would tell you a few basic rules:  have the confidence in your material, speak clearly and vary the delivery to "sell" the story with enthusiasm, and, most importantly, maintain eye contact with everyone in the audience.  As you speak, there will be those who nod in approval.  That means continue on that topic.  Also there will be those who nod off in sleep.  That means change the topic.

Original Works from 1690
It is important to use humor at times to put the audience at ease.  Knowing what kind of humor is the secret to success.  Having a joke fall flat is perhaps the worst type of mistake a speaker can make.  I have a good selection of humorous remarks that fit nicely into my presentation, and I am never afraid to use them when it feels right.  For example, when I am talking about making furniture and the amount of time it takes to do it by hand, they always have a question like "That must take a lot of patience!"

I then quote from Toshio Odate, a wonderful woodworker who says, "Why would I do something in 10 minutes that I could do all day?"  In other words, it is not "patience" but "passion" that drives me to work the way I do.  When you are passionate about your activity, it is not "work" but a "lifestyle."

As I remember from Be Here Now, the bible of the 60's, life is a journey, you better enjoy the trip.

Olive, Yew Wood Oysters, Marquetry
At times I am speaking to a small private group of mature individuals and I can use a  metaphor which exactly explains how I feel when making a piece of furniture.  I tell them that I enjoy being pregnant, what I don't like is kids.  In a crude way that illustrates that I enjoy the creating process, giving birth to a new form, but I don't want to take care of it when it's done.  I just put it up for adoption and then start over.

This is where I am with Mr. Lecount.  I have labored over it for over a year to get it to stand up on its own and be ready to face the world.  Now that he is finished, I hope he finds a good home.

When I returned from my vacation, I finished applying the shellac finish, installed the glass and gold mounts.  Then I fixed the hinges for the upper door and installed the latch which keeps the glass door closed.  I rubbed out the shellac and applied a coat of Kiwi paste wax, which gave a nice patina.

Bullseye Bellybutton
The last thing I did was install the hand blown glass bullseye in the lenticle.  The lenticle is an oval window in the door which allows the owner to see if the pendulum is moving or the weights are down a certain length.  When clocks evolved from the marquetry period to the Georgian period, for some reason the lenticle was no longer popular.  I like it and think it is an attractive feature.  With the bullseye glass, in my mind, the lenticle becomes the belly button of the clock.

It seems appropriate that, as a parent giving birth, the belly button would be the last thing to do, since cutting the umbilical cord is the actual last act of separating the child from the parent.

Now all I need to deal with is the postpartum depression.

Blue Birds of Happiness

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

We've Got Nails!

Tools for Nailing Veneer Packets

When you practice an art form which was perfected in France over 200 years ago, it is natural that you will need some specialized materials, usually not available in America these days.  Home Depot carries a lot of stuff, but they do not have animal protein glue or cast iron glue pots, as I understand it.

Some of the things I need to do my job properly include sawn veneers in a variety of exotic species, bleached bone, 16cm fret saw blades, backer board (ayous) in both 3mm and 1.5 mm thickness, Kraft paper and, of course, veneer packet nails.

Veneer Packet Properly Nailed

"Veneer nails?" you ask.  Why, those are easy to find.  Perhaps, if you don't want the "correct" nails which are used in France exclusively to make the veneer packets.  The problem is that the nails you find in America are more like pins than nails.  The shape is wrong.  The point is not sharp.  The steel is the wrong hardness.  They usually have no flat heads.  Otherwise, they work ok, I guess.

Some years ago it was easy to bring in kilos of the correct nails from Paris, packed in Kraft paper and carried in my carry on bag.  That was before paranoia changed air travel.  Heck, I used to bring liquids of all types, powders in paper bags, tools, and a wide variety of professional materials all the time.  Now I worry about how much toothpaste I have in my bag.  How long does 3 oz last?

Anyway, the last kilo of nails lasted a long time.  So when I returned to Paris and made a trip to the nail factory which had operated in the Faubourg St. Antoine for more than a century,  I expected that it would be easy to buy another kilo.  I still remember standing in the street, looking at the building which was completely gutted and the impressive sign which proudly announced the new condos soon to be finished.

No more nail factory...Instant panic set in.  What now?

Searching on the internet made me realize that nail guns had replaced brads generally with the special nail strips that these guns used.  Useless for my projects.  Other than that I found small brass nails which were used for model building.  I couldn't believe that small nails had become obsolete.

These nails are used in building packets of veneer for marquetry.  They have a special hardness which makes it possible to drive them through hard woods, and, after the excess length is cut off, the ends are riveted in place.   They come in different lengths for different thicknesses of veneer, usually 15 mm and 20 mm in length.

Finally, after some time searching for another factory which understood the special type of nail we needed, we got a tip from Yannick Chastang, ebeniste working in England.  He pointed us to a factory in Creil, near Chantilly, North East of Paris.  I discovered this factory was the last factory in France which was able to make these nails, but they had a minimum order requirement of 50 kilos.  That meant that to place an order I had to spend more money than I had.  Also, 50 kilos of these small nails would last me for a century.

Not only that, these nails were not normally in stock.  The minimum order was because they needed to actually make the nails for us on demand.  We needed to order 25 kilos of any size before they would tool up and make them.  Note on the label that there is the date (11/9/13) which is September 11, 2013, the actual date of manufacture.

It took me two years to get the money together to place the order.  So two months ago I sent the money transfer for 25 kilos of 15mm nails and 25 kilos of 20mm nails.  Naturally, they took August vacation, so the shipment was delayed.  Then it was sent by air freight, which added to the cost, and arrived in Los Angeles to clear customs (even though I told them to send it to San Diego.)  Thus, I had to pay the duty and trucking to have it delivered to my shop, which further added to the investment.

15mm Nails in Can or Box

Last French Company Making These Nails

15mm Length
What a crazy thing it is to spend all this time and money for a bunch of tiny nails!  The  only consolation is that I will never need to buy nails again.  Also, I can now supply nails to students and other marquetry workers here in the States so that they don't need to go through what I went through.

20mm Nails in Can or Box

"Acier Clair" means "Bright Steel"

20mm Length

I am making these nails available, if you need them, at reasonable prices, for several sizes of packages in both lengths.  These nails are 0.7mm in diameter which is American wire gauge #21.  The 15mm length is packaged in tins which weigh at least 200 grams or 7 ounces and cost $15.  The 20mm length is packaged in tins which weigh at least 100 grams or 3.5 ounces and cost $9.  The 15mm length is also available in a box that weighs 1Kilo or 35 ounces and cost $50, and the 20mm length is sold in a box which weighs 500 grams or 17.5 ounces and cost $25.  Shipping is extra for any size, of course.

Please contact me if you want to get some of these nails for your project.  I will be happy to send them to you, and you don't need to invest the kind of money I did to get them.  Frankly I am amazed that any factory still makes them, and I wonder how much longer this supply will be available from France.

I also import 90gm/square meter Kraft paper and sell it for $3/meter and the impossible to find backer board in two thicknesses, 3mm for $3.50/square foot and 1.5mm for $3/square foot.  These are speciality items for the serious marquetry professional, and I need to purchase them in substantial quantities to be able to offer them in this country at these prices.

If you are interested, just call or contact me by email.