Sunday, September 13, 2020

Technomania Cult

 When I was an impressionable young man, I wanted to be a nuclear scientist.  I have written here many times about that period of my life.  The worlds of science fiction and the reality of my existence were so mixed up that I did not even try to keep them apart.  The future was exciting.  Man had entered space, landed on the moon and was able to control the atoms themselves.  Nuclear power promised us that soon we would have access to all the free electricity that we wanted.  Movies like "Back to the Future" showed us that not only was time travel a real thing but you could power your flying car with garbage!  How cool is that?

I was a willing participant in a cult, if such a belief system can be called a cult.  Technomania means that you have a passionate enthusiasm for technology.  We were told that, no matter the problems we faced, science and technology would soon provide a solution.  And, of course, since applications of scientific discovery were market driven, it would be affordable to everyone.

I was working as a research physicist in my 20's when I had an epiphany and a dramatic revelation about my personal cosmology and quit my job.  I went from the cult of Technomania to the cult of the Luddites. Just to be clear, if you are not aware of the history of this group, the Luddites were a secret, oath driven group of radicals in England who decided to destroy the weaving looms.  It was clear to this group that the new invention of the loom for weaving would eliminate thousands of manual jobs, mostly employing women in the lower or middle class.  It was argued that technology and the emerging Industrial Revolution was dangerous to traditional jobs, which drove the economy.

Of course, the argument made by the makers of these looms was that it would make fabric better, quicker and much cheaper.  This was the argument that won the day and it was impossible to stop progress by attacking the machine itself.

The essential force behind the Industrial Revolution was the introduction and widespread use of low cost fuel, starting with coal and ending up with the illusion of my youth: nuclear power.  Natural power sources, like water and solar, have remained in the background during this entire time.  This is an interesting observation.  Water power has been used since the dawn of man.  Building dams in recent times has proven to be a reliable source of electricity, even at a certain cost to the environment.  Sunlight has been essential for all growth, plant and animal, and recent developments in solar panels has begun to be accepted.  I have solar panels on my house.  If every house in Southern California had solar panels, we would be exporting electricity to the rest of the country.  However, for that to work, we would need a Federal electrical grid distribution system that doesn't exist.  

The universal decision to use coal for heating and steam power started the introduction of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in increasing quantities, leading to the global greenhouse effect we see today.  The similar introduction of nuclear power and widespread distribution of nuclear waste elements has created biological diseases that were previously unknown.  This has been the cost of progress.

So, I am not an actual Luddite.  I have solar power.  I drive a car.  I use the internet.  I am not a caveman.

But I still believe in the initial concepts promoted by those early 19th century radicals.  Human jobs are essential for human happiness.  Jobs that are rewarding and well paid.  Jobs that provide a certain intellectual challenge for workers to achieve a sense of pride of accomplishment at the end of the day.

This is why I have been content to do the same job every day of my life with pleasure.  As a furniture conservator in private practice I am constantly faced with new challenges.  I am always looking for solutions to problems, while following the simple rules of my trade:  Conserve all original material, respect the original intent of the maker, use reversible materials at all times, follow the "six foot six inch" rule.  (That means that the restoration should not be visible at a distance of six feet, but a knowledgeable person who examines the object from a distance of 6 inches should be able to see the difference.)

There is a considerable amount of forensic analysis required for each project to determine how it was made, what historic repairs have been done, and what should be done to restore it to its original function, since furniture is essentially functional art.

When I sat down to write this post, my initial point was to illustrate that antique furniture was designed to be repaired.  Those woodworkers in the past knew that the business of furniture making was supported by the job of furniture repairing.  They could sell a piece of furniture from time to time, but there was always work and money to be made repairing damaged furniture that was in constant use.  That is why they designed their furniture so that it could be taken apart and repaired by another furniture maker when necessary.  Protein glues, shellac and wax finishes, and general construction methods were all used to support this secondary business of repairing damage.

The Industrial Revolution changed all that.  Can you imagine a business today which relied on repairing IKEA furniture?  Modern furniture is designed to become obsolete and also to be so cheap that it makes more sense to just throw it away instead of paying a worker to fix it.

The same can be said about cars, phones and televisions, clothes, and all modern consumables.  They have an enormous carbon footprint, are designed to become obsolete in a fixed amount of time, and are also economically impossible to repair at some point.  Just more waste for the planet.

As I write these words, I am aware that this post has ended on a sombre mood.  People are out of work and the climate has dramatically changed due to our desire for faster, quicker and cheaper goods.  

I am old enough to remember the television advertisement slogan: "It's Not Nice To Fool Mother Nature!"

It is time for me to get back to work.  I must put down the computer keyboard and return to my work bench where an English marquetry tall case clock is waiting for my attention.  It has stood the test of time since 1690 and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future after I am finished with the restoration.

I am a fortunate survivor of a lost trade.

Saturday, September 5, 2020


                                "ICI NOUS SAVONS LE PASSE POUR LE FUTUR"

 Yesterday I participated in another Zoom group presentation sponsored by the Ruskin Society of Los Angeles.  It was 90 minutes and generally focused on my workspace and projects.  At the end I sat down for a short time to try to discuss my philosophy of work and naturally, when it was over, I immediately thought of concepts that I failed to introduce.  

It seems that every time l end a conversation or lecture and am alone with my thoughts, my brain starts to bring up ideas that were important.  There is always more to add to any discussion no matter how long it may last.

The minute I pressed "end" and the meeting went dark, I thought of the wisdom of Toshio Odate, a nationally recognized woodworker who lives on the East Coast.  I have mentioned this anecdote before in this blog and many times in lectures, but I failed to bring it up during the Ruskin talk, when it would have made an impression on the viewers.

It happened during the American Woodworker shows that were popular many years ago.  These shows brought together noted woodworkers to present their skills.  I was invited to demonstrate French marquetry, Roy Underhill was the keynote speaker and always brought the crowds, and Toshio would set himself in a booth to silently work his skills.

I was in a nearby booth and set up my chevalet, cutting a marquetry project out during the three days of the show.  This would involve many small pieces of wood and lots of discussion with the spectators.  In general, most middle age woodworkers who attended these shows were retired engineers, and they would often look at my wooden tool for a few minutes before offering their opinions about how they could improve it.

"Why don't you hook it up to a motor?"  they would suggest, more often than not.  I would patiently reply that it was designed before the Industrial Revolution when human power was normal, and that I had a lot of respect for the traditional methods and tools.  

I could see in their eyes that they were not satisfied with my answer, as if I was some old hippy who was reluctant to join the modern age.  At some point, when they determined that I was not going to see it their way, they would wander off to look at some new power tool demonstration, searching for that elusive tool that would make them a better woodworker.

However, there was another common statement that I would hear several times a day.  As I would carefully saw out tiny pieces of wood and place them in my tray, over and over for hours, I waited for the inevitable response: "That must take a lot of patience!"

My reply at the time was this:   "No.  Playing golf takes a lot of patience.  I don't see the point of hitting a ball and then chasing it, only to hit it again.  That takes a lot of patience."

I now realize this was a poor answer.  Many of the men who were standing around watching me work were amateur golfers.  This reply only served to alienate them.  I failed to see what they liked about playing golf and they failed to see what I liked about creating marquetry.

During one of my breaks I walked over to watch Toshio demonstrating.  He had an enormous Japanese hand saw in his hands and was re sawing a piece of wood that was about 24" wide, 2" thick and 6' long.  He was slowly and carefully sawing this piece of lumber into veneers.  Without saying a word, he would work for long stretches of time, paying no attention to the audience.

At one point, as I was watching, one of the woodworkers spoke out: "That must take a lot of patience."

Toshio would stop for only long enough to reply:  "No, it takes passion."  Then he would continue, silently.

At that moment I realized the problem with my response to the same question.  These woodworkers loved to play golf because it was a passionate hobby of theirs.  I loved to make marquetry because I was passionately involved with the process of the trade.

When I was working as a physicist, so many years ago, I patiently waited for the end of the week so I could do something that I really loved to do.  As soon as I made the decision to quit working in physics and was able to spend all my time working as a furniture conservator in private practice, I started hearing from my clients the same comment: "You are so lucky to be able to make a living doing what you want to do!"  

Isn't that the point of life?  Do what you love.  Follow your passion.  Be happy.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

"To Die With a Secret is a Sin"

Reading Roubo
I am slowly being dragged with great reluctance into this modern virtual age of teaching.  In a way, the act of creating a blog and posting over the past decade has set the stage for this.  However, when I post something it is more of a personal reflection of my current activity.   When I use an online app to meet with actual students, it is a completely different situation.

Yesterday I had my first Zoom lecture.  Tony Fortner, who is an old friend and instructor at Cerritos College in  the Los Angeles area, invited me to present a talk about my career.  I was initially trepidatius about the technical aspects, but we had a trial run and it worked ok.

Tony had sent me a couple of pages of specific questions that the students had raised before the talk and I was able to answer them in one way or another during the presentation.  However, after it was over and I had a chance to reflect on my response, I realized that these were very insightful questions and that they deserved to be addressed in a more thoughtful way.

Therefore I am posting here the questions and my full answers.


Q1.  What makes up your R & D process for your creations?  What goes into the development and experimentation (if any) to arrive at the finished product?

A:  I do not make original designs or contemporary pieces.  I make rather exact copies of existing antiques.  During the process of conserving and restoring existing pieces I take the time to closely examine all the visible tool marks as well as the traditional construction methods, which vary from period to period.  In addition to this, I collect and read as many books as I can about antiques, and visit my friends in the various conservation labs in museums around the world to share observations.  There is no real "experimentation" as it is instead more of a "discovery" of how they did it in the past.

Q2.  How do you choose/decide on a piece to create?  Do you ever recreate a piece verbatim?  Or is more the style and process that you are creating?

A.  There is a term in the historic trades that has been popular during my career.  It is "adaptive reuse."  This means that you are free to take elements of any period and "reuse" them in a new and contemporary way.  I do not do this.  I have a great amount of respect for something that was made centuries ago by a talented craftsman and has survived the test of time.  When I make a "copy" of that piece it is an exact copy in every way.  I like to call this a "re creation" and not a "reproduction."  In my mind a "reproduction" is what you call furniture made in a factory with modern methods.  I have always stressed the original process of workmanship is the most important aspect of my trade.

Q3.  How much are you depending on historical design, and how much historical context.

A.  When I started my career in this field I realized that growing up in Southern California did not fully provide any historic context of what life was like on the East coast of America or in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries.  I decided early on that it was essential to travel to visit museums and historic settlements and see for myself how people lived and in what context the particular example of any antique would be used. These pieces often had a specific use which may no longer   be understood today.  They drank tea, played card games, and even used chamber pots in the bedroom and all of these activities required unique pieces of furniture.  In my mind it is impossible to separate the historical design from the historical context.

Q4.  How much of providing yourself new challenges factors into what you make?  Does that enter into your thought process when it comes to your designs?

A.  I am a problem solver.  I love a challenge.  One of the first problems I faced when making and restoring early 19th century furniture was how to veneer a turned column with protein glue.  I observed that veneered columns were found on numerous Empire sideboards, bureaus, tables and other pieces, and I reasoned that it must be a simple trick if it was so common.  In fact, it took me 20 years of research and experimentation to solve the problem.  It was the primary reason I developed Old Brown Glue, which is a liquid form of the traditional protein glue.  I immediately began making furniture using turned columns with veneer using OBG with great success.

Q5.Why did you decide on a leather writing tablet for Box II- what influenced that decision?

A.  We had made the box much shallower than the first series, so there was not a lot of room in the bottom for a secret compartment.  We decided to have a gilt leather tray instead, and that "secret" tray pops out just in time for the client to use it to write the check!

Q6.  How many hours does it take to complete one of the three original boxes?  How much did your charge for the boxes you created?

A.  It normally takes about 2 years to complete a series of Treasure Boxes.  I am pleased to work with a partner, Patrice Lejeune, a graduate of ecole Boulle.  He is half my age and twice as talented. We make 4 exact copies at a time for each series.  We are very fortunate that they have all sold before the completion of the work.  Treasure Box I series sold for $20k each.  Treasure Box II series sold for $25k each and Treasure Box III series (which includes a matching stand) sells for $50k.  We are in the design stage for Treasure Box IV which will be more affordible in the $15k price range.

Q7.  What do you use to stain bone and where does the bone come from?  What animal?

A.  Unless you have a strong constitution, you do not want to Google "green bone."  If you do, be prepared to enter a strange world of medical conditions...Instead I decided to ask my friend Don Williams, and he provided the answer which worked.  Previously I had had limited success with TransTint colors, but bone is difficult to color as the pores are very small.  Don suggested we contact BASF and ask about the "micro lith" colors they produce for ink jet printers.  These colors are made with extremely small molecules.   We used Oral Yellow 167 mixed with Oral Blue 855 to create a green color which was beautiful.  The bone is from a supplier in France and comes from the leg bones of cows, processed in a way to make it uniformly white.  Always use protection when working with organic animal materials.


Q8.  How often do you have to recreate the materials in a restoration and what happens when you can't acquire the original material?  Have you ever not been able to source the raw materials?

A.  I have saved every antique nail, screw, lock, key, piece of blown glass, scrap of Cuban wood and veneer, ebony, tortoise shell fragment, ivory scraps and other materials over my years in business.  Nothing is thrown away.  In addition, I had the foresight to invest a lot of money purchasing materials in France before they became scarce or controlled under the CITIES act.  I am in a position where everything I could possibly need to restore a valuable antique is already in stock in my business.

Q9.  What makes a piece worth restoration vs. replacement?  What could make a piece not worth restoration?

A.  You can spend the same amount of money restoring a vintage VW as you can restoring a vintage Rolls Royce.  I guess it depends on how you want to spend your money.  It is not my place to tell some client that it is not worth it to restore something that may have a great sentimental value.  However, I tend to be realistic and provide gentle advice in cases where it is obvious that they should not do it.  In general, if they intend to keep it, then go ahead.  If they are spending money so that they can resell it, then my advice is not to do it.  In most cases, investing money to restore something for resale takes away all the profit.  Better to sell it "as is" to an end user who will then invest in the kind of restoration that works for them.

Q10.If you find an inconsistency or an error in a piece that you are restoring, do you maintain it as is or correct it?  Why, what affects your decision?

A. Is it structural or cosmetic?  If it is a structural problem then it needs to be fixed.  If it is cosmetic then you can choose to leave it as it is.  For example, all wood shrinks, and cracks are common in antique furniture.  If the crack is the result of a structural failure or creates structural instability, then something needs to be done to remedy the problem.  If the crack is simply cosmetic, then it is best to leave it alone.  Generally my experience has been that any effort to fill a crack with wood or putty will fails eventually and make it worse.  Sophisticated collectors understand cracks are a sign of age.

Q11. Are there designs that you find unattractive, but appreciate and enjoy working on nevertheless (sic)?

A.  I do not like 20th century furniture and refuse to work on it.  It is not designed to be easily repaired.  I tend to appreciate the designs of the end of the 17th century as much as the designs of the early 19th century.  I don't work on furniture I do not like.


Q12.  Do you find restoration more or less challenging than original design?  Why?

A.  I am functionally incapable of creating any original design.  My talent is that of a master counterfeiter.  I find something that is amazing or beautiful and I copy it.  The act of restoring existing antiques is how I learn what to do to create a duplicate.  From the start of my career I believed that if something was made by a human in the past then I should be able to figure out how to do it again with the same results.

Q13.  Which do you prefer--being commissioned and working with a client to design a piece or designing it and selling your work with your design and intention already in place?

A.  I do not like to work for Designers or clients who tell me what to do.  I already know how to do it, and I am sure they do not have that knowledge at the level that I expect.  The problem with commissions is that most clients do not know what I am capable of doing and therefore limit my abilities or do not understand what to expect when I am done.  It is best for me to make spec pieces using the finest materials available and then when a prospective client sees the final result they can either buy it or not.  When a contractor decides to build a spec home, and choses the perfect location for his design, using the finest materials available, the house sells itself.

Q14.  As a professional and someone who is paid for your work, do you put the same amount of effort into every piece you work on, or are there some pieces that you give "extra" or "special" effort to restore?  Do personal pieces you make for a loved one surpass your "day job" pieces?

A.  Every project I work on gets the same attention to detail in every way.  The reason is that once the piece is left in my care I become the "client".  I restore it as if it were my personal piece.  I always do extra work in areas where I can see problems, even though the client will never know.  It is not done unless I am satisfied with the result.  Always give the client more than they expect and they will say nice things about your work.  Word of mouth is my only advertisement.


Q14.  It was really interesting learning about your path from being a physicist and antique dealer to becoming a maker, conservator and restorer.  What was the learning curve like to go into such a specialized field and could you talk about what that transition was like?

A.  If you read the previous post on this blog you will understand the 5 year transition period I went through from 1969 to 1973.  During that period I worked equally in both fields (physics and antiques).  When I quit physics and walked away from that career choice I never looked back. As to the "learning curve" I guess if you can understand High Energy Physics, then it is not really a challenge to understand how furniture is made.

Q15.  You mention on your blog that you ran an antique business in college.  How did you get into antiques?  Was it a dealership or were you already doing restoration at that time?

A.  I got married in 1969 and bought a house.  I needed furnishings and used furniture was the solution.  As I bought more pieces I realized that I could restore and sell the extras.  I opened a small antique shop and sold at yard sales and swap meets.  You quickly learn the value of things when you sell person to person.

Q16.  Did you at one time use modern materials (such as glues) for your woodworking, and then switch to the more historic methods.  If so, what was the eye-opening experience that caused this?

A.  One of my first projects was to make a backgammon board to use.  I got some masonite and white glue and tried to veneer the surface.  It was a spectacular failure.  I immediately began to investigate traditional protein glues and have used them with great success ever since.  As a furniture conservator in private practice I have always stressed reversibility and authenticity in all the materials I use.

Q17.  Are you anti-power tools, or do you simply prefer hand tools?  Are hand tools preferable because you get better results or because they're more efficient?  Or is it a spiritual type of preference, i.e. less noisy, more peaceful in the shop, some type of internal reward from the physical action as opposed to pushing a button or moving a lever, etc...

A.  Now we are talking about the "meaning of life."  I have written articles about "Form Follows Process" to explain why I do things the way I do.  I was deeply inspired by the philosophy of David Pye after I read his 1968 treatise, "The Nature and Art of Workmanship."  Essentially, the question is who is the "master"?  Following the "workmanship of risk" that Pye discusses, the worker manipulates the tool against the material taking a risk.  When the "workmanship of certainty" is followed the worker feeds the material into the tool, and the tool becomes the "master."  To compare the two, when you want to be a better worker using risk, you learn how to better manipulate the tool.  When you want to be a better worker using certainty, you buy a better tool.


Q18.  Who are your top makers/restorers (living or dead) that you admire and we should know about?

A. All of the SAPFM Cartouche Award winners.  I am honored to be included in this distinguished group of talented craftspeople.

Q19.  If you had to pick one book that influences  your craft, what book would that be?

A.  David Pye

Q20. What is your favorite piece of furniture?

A.  Every woodworker should make a tall case clock before he dies.

Q21.  Is there an item that you would pay any price to get your hands on?

A. A really good viola.


I really enjoyed my time with this lecture.  At the end of the talk I left them with a simply thought: "To die with a secret is a sin."  What I meant is that during my career I have enjoyed meeting many of the finest people in this trade in the world.  They have each contributed to my education and shared many secrets with me.  Now I am at the last stages of my career, and it would be a crime to not share this valuable information with the next generation of seekers.  In this business, much of the knowledge and skill is transmitted from one generation to the next.  We can only advance civilization by passing on the secrets that we know.  If you die without passing that secret on it is wrong.  We are all educators whether we realize it or not.

Everyone is an inspiration to some one.  You are an inspiration to me.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Romance of Craftsmanship

A Constant Reminder of Purpose
I had the good fortune to be born in 1948.  I grew up in the decade of the 1950's and came of age during the 1960's.  I was a product of the Baby Boom generation, which had its ups and downs.

During the first decade of my life I sought out and read every science fiction book I could find.  My bedroom was filled with such authors as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, Philip K. Dick and, most importantly,  Kurt Vonnegut.  ( I know he was writing later but I lingered on the genre...)

Every chance I had I went to see the movies and was inspired by the Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, War of the Worlds, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and scared to death by the Blob and amused by the Crawling Eye.  I still believe that Forbidden Planet is one of the best movies of that time.  After all, the monster was the Id!  How do you deal with that?

Naturally, my hobbies reflected my fascination with science.  I built sophisticated rockets.  I repaired electronic devices, I even built my own Heathkit tube tester so I would not have to keep running to the drug store to test suspect television and radio tubes.  The invention of the transistor changed everything.

During the early 1960's, when I was in Honors Physics in High School, we were required to submit a Science Fair project.  I decided to build a linear electron particle accelerator.  I have mentioned this before, but when I took top honors at the Science Fair and was selected to represent San Diego at the National Science Fair, I decided to go to Europe and ride a bike for the summer instead.  It is fair to say that my Dad was not pleased with my life choices.

During my entire youth the only things I built with wood were forts, made from salvaged materials.

However, the three months I spent riding my bike around Europe exposed me to museums and castles and the world of Decorative Arts that I did not even know existed before.  For the first time in my life I was thinking of the past rather than the future.  Living in Southern California all my life I thought the oldest thing around was the first location of the McDonalds.  Honestly there were a few Victorian houses in the older neighborhoods but nobody took them seriously.

So it was only natural when I returned to California and started my college education at UCSD,  that I would be interested in classes in History, Philosophy, Literature, Music and Humanities, in addition to the standard Math, Chemistry and Physics.  In the words of Paul Saltman, the UCSD Provost:  "We will educate you to become Renaissance Men!"

Like many before me, I got married while in college and managed to buy a small house.  To fill that house I needed furniture and at the end of the street was a used furniture resale shop.  I have already talked about buying and fixing these old pieces of history to help pay for my lifestyle.  However, I never considered any career but that of High Energy Physics research.  During the entire 4 years while I was at college, I worked 20 hours a week in the Physics Department earning minimum wage. In addition, during my Sophomore  year (1968) I took classes by mail while I worked 80 hours a week for the entire year at Brookhaven Labs in New York, assisting the team from the Physics Department on a large research project.

I still remember clearly the stark contrast between the "Summer of Love" and the "Year of Revolution".  In 1967 I enjoyed 3 months riding a bicycle around the historic countryside of Europe and in 1968 I suffered in the heat and humidity working around the clock in a large impersonal laboratory adjusting research equipment while the news reported widespread revolts across the globe.

In my mind, I decided it was more peaceful living in the past rather than the present.  The rational part of my mind keeps reminding me that not all of the past was pleasant, but I allowed the romance of the past to transport my sanity into another world.  I fell in love with antiques.

It was during this time that I read David Pye's incredible treatise, "The Nature and Art of Workmanship."  Since I had opened a small antique business buying, restoring and selling antique furniture, I wanted to more seriously research the field of Decorative Arts.  Although the text of Pye's book was esoteric and seriously intellectual in its treatment of Design, Craft, and Workmanship, I focused on the rather basic concept of "Workmanship of Risk" and "Workmanship of Certainty."

I was living two different careers at that time:  Antique Dealer and Research Physicist.  It was obvious to me by working on antique furniture that the pre industrial craftsmen took great risks with their materials and design to create masterpieces.  At the same time, the work of a research physicist was to eliminate risk as much as possible in collecting data that was reliable.  Many of the experiments we were performing produced millions of data points and if even a small percentage of that data was questionable, then the results could be considered worthless.

In fact, as it turned out, all the data we collected during the year at Brookhaven proved to be worthless, as an error in our preliminary calculations made the experiment itself faulty.  It was an eye opening experience.  To see how much time and materials had been exhausted in the search for the missing particle, and then to just throw out the IBM punch cards, like so much trash, made me look seriously at my life choices.

There were compounding problems with the career of a research physicist which began to make me think about my future.  I was exposed to radiation and dangerous chemicals.  I realized that nuclear waste was not being treated properly.  I knew that the development of nuclear power was the wrong solution, both for military and civilian uses.  I felt that I was part of a cult of scientists who believed that they could "control" the atom and that, unless you were also a physicist, you could not be trusted with the secrets.

It took about 5 years for me to decide which direction I wanted my life to go.  In the years between 1969 and 1973 I worked both jobs at the same time.  During the week from 9-5, I was a research physicist, and in the evenings and weekends I was a furniture conservator in private practice with a brick and mortar location, as well as a part time teacher of Decorative Arts in the Adult Education system.  I even managed to produce a 10 part television series for CBS during that time.

In April, 1973, I abruptly resigned my position from Maxwell Labs and walked out the door, leaving behind a guaranteed paycheck, paid health benefits and a retirement package.  In a real analysis, I was leaving a career of certainty and choosing instead a career of risk.  I have never regretted that decision.  Many clients over the years have said the same thing: "You are so lucky to be able to make a living doing what you want."  To me, it was the only logical decision I could make.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Brave New World Teaching

I am what you would call an "old fashioned" teacher.  I spent the early part of my career teaching four nights a week in the Adult Education classes which were popular in California during the 1970's and 80's.  That meant I taught Decorative Arts classes for each semester, which required 18 different 3 hour classes.

After 15 years of that type of teaching, I moved on to giving specialized classes in the Decorative Arts at various universities and colleges, generally on the quarter system.  Those classes were very popular at first, but the fashion of collecting antiques gradually went away and after the end of the last century, my teaching was reduced to occasional lectures for various groups.

My teaching  methods focused on providing as much information as possible in the time given.  During a typical 3 hour talk I would spend the first hour with a chalk board giving necessary background data on the subject, as well as introducing all the relevant research material such as books and museum sources.  The second hour would be spent on showing and discussing as many as a dozen examples of antiques for that topic as I was able to bring to class.  It is essential in teaching conneisseurship about quality, style and construction that the student is able to directly examine the object.  The third hour was showing slides of the different objects which represent the topic in question.

When I say slides, I mean that I used two carousel projectors with 80 slides in each.  By showing two images simultaneously you can begin to make subtle comparisons.  Also, with so many slides and so little time there was no falling asleep.  You had to pay attention, as you only had about 30 seconds for each image to see what was important.  I found that by throwing this much visual information at the student in such a short time that they subconsciously were able to absorb quite a bit.

Those days of teaching in person and with "hands on" methods seem like ancient history now.

I am reminded of the time some 40 years ago that I ended up buying a fake console table from Benjamin Ginsburg in New York.  I bought it from photos and when I had a chance to examine it in person I quickly determined it was put together.  However, Mr. Ginsburg (one of the most respected antique dealers in NY) was very old, and mostly blind.  I guided his hands over different surfaces of the table to convince him it was not right.  Eventually he agreed and I was refunded my money.

That was really a "hands on" experience!

These days the new format is YouTube videos, blog posts and more recently Zoom, GoToMeeting and many other apps for internet groups to meet.

Just last week I was able to participate in my very first virtual lecture.  I was asked by George Adams,  representing the New Hampshire Woodworker's Guild, if I could give a group talk about using protein glues.  Of course I was excited to try this new format, so we worked out the technical issues and Patrice helped make it work.

They asked me for a two hour lecture, and I said fine.  It turned out pretty well considering we did not know what we were doing.

You may enjoy the video by clicking on this link:  Protein Glue Talk

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Once a Fake, Always a Fake

Anger Management Issues Much?
Years ago, when I was a popular speaker on the "Antiques/Decorative Arts" circuit, I often presented a talk which was very well received.  The topic of the talk was "When Does A Fake Become Antique?"

My main point was that fakes can live long enough to be considered antique, simply by age.  For example, at the Getty Museum there is a French piece of furniture, made around 1790.  At that time it was a fad to deconstruct old Boulle furniture (which was probably in poor condition) and use the elements to remanufacture new pieces.  Therefore, what might be considered a fake in some intellectual circles now is proudly displayed in a major museum as an artifact of that period.

The other point of my talk is this:  If you counterfeit money and take it to the bank it is recognized and destroyed.  By keeping fake money out of the market, the true value of real currency is protected.   However, there are thousands of examples of actual fake antiques which are bought and sold every day.  When these are recognized, they are then considered to have "decorative" value instead of "antique" value.  Often the price is the same.

I think I have told the story of a rather large "Louis XV Television Cabinet" that has been living in Los Angeles for several decades.  I was first confronted with this object when I was hired to provide my expert opinion as to its age.  It was fairly easy to determine that it was put together with the parts from two different 18th century French armoires.  However, the price that the client paid was $240,000.  When our report was submitted to the client with our findings, the decision was made to return it to the dealer.

About 5 years later I was again on a job in Los Angeles, in a wonderful large mansion.  I was asked to look at a sideboard in the dining room.  As it was my first meeting with that particular client, I wanted to impress him with some of my background experience, and I told him about the "Louis XV Television Cabinet."  His expression was of utter shock and he said that I had better look at the antique armoire in his master bedroom.

Of course, as I entered the room I was immediately aware that it was the same piece.  And that it had been purchased at the same ridiculous price.  Fortunately, he was able to return it to the dealer.

A year later, as I drove down Robinson in Los Angeles, past the antique dealer's shop, there it was, sitting in the window, ready to be sold again.

Last year I gave a lecture at my old school, UCSD, to a group of collectors.  You can watch the talk which I posted on an earlier page of this blog.  After this talk, two of the audience members brought an antique to my shop for restoration.  It was carefully wrapped and had been kept in storage for several years.  They mentioned that it had been in the family for generations and was valuable.

As soon as I saw it my heart sank.  I do not like being the bearer of bad news, but I am compelled to speak the truth, and my many years of experience provides me with the background to know what I am talking about.

"Unfortunately, this is an English fake which was made around 1900."

They were crestfallen.  They just asked what it would cost to restore it, and then decided to just walk away.  It was free to me and a terrible loss to them.

It was supposed to be a William and Mary dressing table from around 1700.

Got to Love the Legs!

This was what it looked like:

Veneer Attached With Contact Cement
Old Finish Covers Sins
To make it worse, someone had removed the legs and added cheap modern alder cabriole legs:

Proper Turned Leg or Modern Cabriole Leg
I went ahead and started turning proper William and Mary legs, as it was a form I had never done before.

Rough Turning in Walnut

Since the fake had rather nice brass hardware and lock, and the casework and drawers were rather well made, I decided to skin it and add the proper burl walnut veneer with herringbone banding and hand made molding.  I also designed and veneered a proper stretcher.

Still a Fake
I used an interesting flitch of French walnut to make the top attractive:

I Like the Pattern
I also used some fine burl veneer for the cabinet:

Big Improvement
All the veneer was laid using Old Brown Glue, which made the work very efficient.  A few coats of shellac and some paste wax and the poor old fake was ready for its new life as a modern fake.

I wonder if at some distant time it will be considered important and stand in a major museum as an example of this time?

Just sayin...

Now What Do I Do With It???

Fake Antique

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Five SAPFM Cartouche Woodworkers

Some of My Peers
This post is a test.  As you noted the last few blog posts have had their photos removed.  I do not know what caused this, but I will work to fix it soon.

In the mean time, please read older posts.  It seems that they are still in place.  This started with April posts.  Before April, 2020, all remains.  That's 10 years of material.

If you know what I can do to fix it, send me a comment, please!

NOTE:  I have solved the problem.  I deleted the images and reposted them.  Back to work.)

Monday, April 13, 2020

Three Centuries After A.C.Boulle

Boulle Work

Imagine creating a form of furniture decoration that is inherently unstable and extremely expensive that somehow has lasted over three centuries.  Not only creating the decoration but having your name associated with the design, the process, the material and the end result.  Also having the most important trade school in Europe named after you.

That is the legacy of Mr. A.C. Boulle, cabinetmaker to King Louis XIV.  His work was so significant that the King gave him a large room in the Louvre to set up his workshop.

Only the very rich could afford to have Boulle furniture.  Only the very skilled and highly specialized furniture makers and restorers can create and maintain these objects.  Even if boulle furniture is kept in a controlled environment and protected from extremes of temperature and humidity the complicated surface will begin to lift within a decade or so.  Such is the problem of gluing brass, pewter, tortoise shell, ivory, mother of pearl, horn and other non wood materials to a wood substrate.

The reason is that all these diverse non wood materials expand and contract in different ways than the wood they are attached to.  In the hot dry climate the metal expands and the wood shrinks.  In the cold damp climate the metal shrinks and the wood expands.  Only one type of protein glue seems to work: fish glue.  In addition to using this specific glue the metal needs to be toothed on the glue side and rubbed with a fresh clove of garlic just prior to application.

This method was perfected in the last decades of the 17th century by Boulle and others, and in the subsequent centuries no modern adhesive works better.

Beyond Repair?

Perhaps the most serious threat to this type of furniture is the ignorance of furniture repair shops, who think they can repair loose elements with epoxy or even nails.  They do not realize that the unique quality of fish glue is that it allows the surface to actually creep during environmental cycles and remain stuck.  Using nails or epoxy fixes those repairs to the wood substrate and when the environment changes it causes other elements to lift, creating new damage.

Epoxy Failure

Another more recent problem is that the material itself (tortoise shell) is a controlled substance, listed on the C.I.T.I.E.S convention.  This means that it is not possible to purchase or transport across country borders.  I have been in business for over 50 years and have a good stock of shell which I purchased years before it became a problem.  There is also the possibility to recycle used pieces of damaged shell from furniture that is beyond repair.

Nails Damage the Surface
Animal Horn, Hawksbill and Green Turtle Shell

Recycled Scraps of Antique Tortoiseshell

In our shop we use thermal fax paper to capture the shape of the missing element and then find a suitable scrap of matching shell.  With the French chevalet we are able to cut the proper piece to fill the hole in the surface.

Thermal Fax Paper with Tortoise shell Elements

Match The Repair Element Above with These Losses
Patrice Lejeune at Work

Once the surface is stabilized and properly glued down the cleaning can begin.  There is a unique French product which is designed to clean oxidized brass and polish shell.  It is called "Eau Japonaise" and is slightly acidic.  You use cheese cloth and this product to clean the surface.  The results are dramatic.

Before and After Cleaning
Always Dramatic Results!
Final Cleaning

Several months ago Patrice and I received a call from a client who wanted us to restore their boulle table.  We travelled some 50 miles up into the mountains and down a long dirt road where they met us and took us to a large open barn.  Inside the barn, along with other household goods, was an amazing boulle center table from the Napoleon III period.  It had sat there for decades, exposed to the dirt and heat, without protection.  It also had a finish which was very damaged and not original.

The biggest problem with it was that all the shell elements were dry and blistered and falling off.

Before Restoration

Apron Before Conservation
Wrong Key and Keyplate

Sitting in Open Barn

Gilt Bronze Mounts with Horrible Modern Finish

We were asked how much it would cost to restore this table.  Before I could provide a proper response, I wanted to know if they were going to keep it or try to sell it.  They indicated they wanted to sell it.  Therefore, I advised them to offer it at a low price and sell it without any further investment.  The only way it makes sense  economically is that the person who wants to own this poor thing to be the person to invest in its restoration.  Further the restoration must be done professionally or not at all.

We left them standing in the barn to decide their next step.  It turns out that they took my advice and posted it online at a very modest price.

The next month a client came into my workshop with this very same table for restoration.  They wanted it done right and could afford the price, which was not cheap.  However, our workshop is one of the few actually qualified to do this kind of work, so we took the project.  In my career, this was the most difficult boulle restoration I have every attempted.

Initially, Patrice and Luke Addington began the process of rehydration of the shell surface.  Luke is a serious furniture conservator in Tucson and was invited to help us in this project, as I had other jobs to do at the time.

Missing and Lifting Shell Elements

Vacuum Bag Rehydration of Glue

It took several months of very precise and tedious work to stabilize the surface.  In addition it involved cutting and fitting elements of missing brass and shell.   When the boulle surface was ready it was time to scrub off the modern finish and polish the brass.  This took a month of work to clean using acetone and Scotch scrubbing pads.

We had help from the client himself who hired a person to clean the gilt bronzes.  He did a wonderful job and saved the client a lot of money.  Usually we send these mounts to Paris, but with the current Pandemic this was not an option.

When the table was finally put together this week I just stood back and appreciated the result.

I love my job!

Happy Days

Monday, April 6, 2020

Waiting for Negentropy

No Further Words Needed..

This post is intended for everyone today who is staying inside their homes and working to do nothing so that we can "flatten the curve."  I do not need to explain since we all are in this together.  When the Beetles sang "Come Together" they should have added "with a respectable social distance, of course."

From time to time I play Judy Collins' album "Colors of the Day" and it always gives me the emotional support I need to get through the day.  I also like to look up and appreciate the wonderful variety of clouds that change from day to day.

For those of you who are not outside, I would like to post some of my favorite cloud images, along with the lyrics from Judy Collins:

I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It's cloud's illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all

My head is always in the clouds!