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.