Thursday, September 30, 2010
People often overestimate my woodworking skills. I am not being humble, as that word is not in my vocabulary, I am being realistic. As the creator of the marquetry furniture you see on this blog, I am more aware of the faults and mistakes than anyone. My work is never perfect, and that has never really been my goal. My goal is to push myself and take risks, measuring myself against other woodworkers by the degree of difficulty.
When I see perfection, it stops me in my tracks.
Last night, at the local meeting of the San Diego Fine Woodworker's Association, I had the honor of introducing SDFWA member, Aaron Radelow, and his latest accomplishment. I first met Aaron when he entered the Design in Wood show, where I was acting as Superintendent, during the 1980's. His work was huge, unrefined and difficult to assemble. I immediately challenged him to change his approach, directing him to focus on more refined and human scale projects. I suppose I was critical and direct in my comments, but to his credit, he listened to what I had to offer.
When I opened the American School of French Marquetry, he was one of the first to attend. I introduced him to the chevalet, and he took to it quickly and naturally. His cutting was exceptional. He had a genuine interest in the methods and techniques, and quickly produced exercises which I consider advanced, like the lion which is on the cabinet at the J. Paul Getty museum. You can see the difference between the first etude he cut the first day of class and the lion which he completed soon after building his own chevalet.
During the class, I often show examples of great marquetry. One of these pictures was of the Pierre Gole ivory table which resides at the Getty Museum. When I explained that this table was (in my opinion) the greatest piece of furniture in the collection, and that it had never been copied, he boldly replied, "I want to make that table!"
My response was immediate: "Impossible." I offered many reasons why I thought he should focus on more reasonable projects, but he persisted. Since he seemed determined to continue with this challenge, I offered advice and suggested solutions to some of the problems which I believed he would face.
Over the next few years, Aaron continued to visit the school and my workshop and report his progress, as he solved each stage of the project. There were setbacks, but he was never discouraged. One of his great talents is his ability to reflect on his problem, do the required research, perform direct experiments and find a solution. In the process, he rediscovered tricks of the trade which surprised me.
He was assisted by Brian Considine, chief Decorative Arts conservator at the Getty museum, who allowed him full access to the original table, and provided insight into its construction. When Aaron was finished, Brian allowed him to place his two tables next to the original and photograph the three together. I am indebted to Brian for his assistance in this project.
I would like to mention that my partner, Patrice Lejeune contributed to this project by applying the French polish after the tables were completed. When he returned from that job, he told me that they were, in fact, perfect.
The resulting tables, executed in legal ivory and blue tinted horn, with gilt bronze trim and French silk, defy description. No amount of praise will equal the effect these objects have on the person who is in their presence. What Aaron has done is historic. For a young American woodworker to accurately create such a famous masterpiece is sensational.
I mentioned how proud I would be if a student of mine could be awarded the McArthur genius award. I would like to nominate Aaron Radelow.
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
When I decided to start my school it seemed a natural progression for me. After all, I had been fairly successful over the years making marquetry furniture, and had spent several years in Paris and visiting other marquetry shops around Europe. It was the natural thing to do. I even asked my mentor, Dr. Pierre Ramond, if he thought it was a good idea. As he was retiring in 2000, and leaving the school in Paris which he had helped make famous, he was enthusiastic about me continuing to teach his methods in America.
In fact, in Volume II of his "Masterpieces of Marquetry" book, he featured me on page 62 with a photo and the statement: "The perpetual transfer of techniques between continents can be illustrated by Patrick Edward's equipment. this cabinetmaker-marqueteur from San Diego, California, traveled to France and bought a framed jigsaw built at the beginning of the twentieth century, which had belonged to a worker who was active before 1950 in Paul Spindler's famous workshop at Ottrot (Alsace). After a training period of several months at the Ecole Boulle, this American craftsman built his personal donkey as well as a model for his hometown museum, where he is in charge of furniture restoration."
That was published in 1996, several years before he retired and I was encouraged to start the American School of French Marquetry. I still remember my surprise at visiting my friends working in the conservation department of Musee des Art Deco, in Paris, when I returned to Paris on a trip from San Diego. It was just after the book had appeared and I had not yet seen a copy. They all applauded me when I walked into the shop, and I wondered what I had done to deserve such attention. Then they showed me the page.
Now I have my own school, and I remain faithful to the methods and exercises that Pierre used to teach me. When a student takes a class he is learning exactly the same beginning etudes as I did at ecole Boulle the first year. It is the same process that the French developed at the end of the 17th century and the same process they still use today.
The real problem I have is that people sometimes see my work and think it is too complicated or difficult. They often are intimidated into thinking they don't have the ability or patience to execute such designs. However, I have my first marquetry project still hanging on the wall and, when they see that, they aren't so impressed anymore. We all must start at the beginning.
At least if you start with the traditional French process, you have a good chance of producing work which others will be amazed at, and wonder how you did it. Remember when you first learned to drive a car? I am sure you were timid and concerned that you would hit the nearest object. You couldn't see beyond the hood ornament, and afraid to go fast. After driving for some time, now I am sure you don't even think about it. All it takes is practice.
The photo with this post is a family who attended one of my early classes in the school. Both the parents and their son took the same class, and they were a lot of fun. They all were able to do the work perfectly. It was a wonderful experience to see a family sharing the same learning experiences and bonding around a "lost art."
It gives me hope and pride that I can inspire some young enthusiast who may, someday, win the McArthur genius award.
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
I have made a career out of working with veneer. I learned by experience. All the books I read at the start provided me with information which turned out to be wrong. These "how to do it" woodworking books told me to use the wrong glue, the wrong substrate, the wrong veneer tape, the wrong veneer saw...it is amazing that I even persisted long enough to get it right.
That is exactly the point I make to people who ask me about hammer veneering and working with a hot glue pot. Just do it (sorry about that Nike). Nothing beats experience and practice. Use scrap wood and scrap veneer and just work with the glue until you develop a system that works for you. Don't spend time reading books (or blogs, for that matter) and thinking others can tell you the best way.
In the first place, the business of cooking hot glue in a shop is almost a lost art. American woodworkers threw out the glue pots soon after the first World War, in favor of the new synthetic glues that modern science promised us were much better. Now, if you want to buy a wood glue, usually you go to the local hardware store and ask the salesman, which is best for your job. This salesman never used the glue, I suspect, but knows which brand he is promoting that week, and where the profit is for the store, so he hands you a product with confidence. Don't get me started about the strongest glue on earth...
In this post I will direct you to Keith Cruckshank's excellent site, Woodtreks.com for his videos; just click on the link on the right. He offered to visit me recently and produced several excellent videos on working with protein glue, hammer veneering and my workbench. We spent a lot of time shooting the video on cooking glue and understanding the properties of animal hide glue. We shot take after take during the process so he would have different camera angles and could edit it professionally. It came out fantastic.
When we finished, he said that it was time to shot the hammer veneer video. He was very concerned when I said "Get ready. It happens quick. You only have one chance, since it is something that only takes a minute." He was amazed when I picked up a piece of veneer, put the glue on the board and pressed it down with the veneer hammer. It was done before the minute expired. My complements to Keith for expanding that demonstration into a 10 minute video.
The tool traditionally used is called a veneer hammer. It is not a hammer, but looks like a hammer. In fact, it is held backwards, with the head pressed firmly on the surface of the veneer by one hand, and the handle pulled, pushed and moved from side to side by the other hand. It is not a hammer but a squeegee. It is used simply to press the glue, while it is liquid, quickly from the center of the veneer panel out to the edges. This motion must be completed before the glue gels. If the project is too large, an iron set on low heat is used to work the veneer ahead of the hammer to keep the glue liquid.
In the early workshops, if the project was large (like a piano top) several workers worked at the same time to hammer the veneer as quick as possible. This was a challenge in cold shops in winter. What talent!
The reason this method works is that the atmospheric pressure on the surface of the veneer exerts over 13 pounds per square inch of clamping, as long as there is no air under the veneer. As soon as the glue gels, it prevents air from entering under the veneer and the job is done. That is why the worker keeps pressing the veneer with the veneer hammer for several minutes until the glue reaches room temperature and gels. That's the entire "secret" of hammer veneering.
You won't believe it until you try it. Stop reading this blog and start cooking your glue. (Watch the video first!)
Sunday, September 26, 2010
I have no desire to own or use power woodworking tools, but I cannot even think of living without the computer and internet. What an amazing time to live.
I was born at the same time television was introduced, and I remember watching the first color broadcast of the World Series through the glass window of the bank downtown Los Angeles. That was the only place where we could see a color TV. Everyone I knew who had a TV had a black and white, and I was amazed that the grass on the field was so green. It didn't much matter that the color was slightly blurry or that the flesh tones were not exactly normal. It was in COLOR! NBC's peacock was revolutionary.
Now I think of the widespread use of the internet in the same light. Every person walking around has immediate access to the web, which has permeated our existence like the air we breath. Just typing a word into a search engine produces a million sources of information in a tenth of a second. 10 years ago no one even knew what an algorithm was; now there is a movie out on the youngest billionaire in America who made over 6 billion dollars in 10 years by writing an algorithm.
The reason I am thinking of all this is because, out of this internet web, I receive emails and questions from people all over the world, who I have never met.
One of these questions recently was from a woodworker who wrote me about a veneer saw he purchased at an antique tool meet. It seems that he was told this saw was used to cut veneer and, since I was known to work veneer, he wanted me to tell him how it was used. When I opened the attachment, I immediately knew he needed assistance.
I went into the shop and picked up my mitre saw and jack and asked my partner, Patrice Lejeune, to demonstrate while I shot some pictures. Patrice is a very talented "ebeniste" and graduated from ecole Boulle, in Paris, before running his own cabinet shop in Paris for nearly a decade. I asked him to move to San Diego and work with me since he is experienced in all aspects of furniture making and finishing, including French polish.
What he had was a mitre saw, probably French. It was used with a mitre jack to cut 45 degree and 90 degree cuts when making trim, picture frames, or specialized woodwork. It usually was sharpened with little or no kerf, to reduce the tear out of the face of the jack. It had a large one sided handle for both hands, and was sharpened with cross cut teeth.
The mitre jack was made of wood, and was a standard bench accessory. It mounted either on top or on the side face of the tail vise, and had a second screw to tighten the moveable jaw. On one face was the 90 degree cut and on the other side was the 45 degree cut. The wood was placed into the jack and the saw was slid along the face, using both hands. This produced a rough cut at the correct angle. After that a specialized hand plane, also called a mitre plane, was used on the face of the jack to smooth and trim the cut to final dimension.
Thus, the complete set included the mitre jack, the mitre saw and the mitre plane. It is sad to think that such a lot of traditional methods and specialized tools from the history of woodworking is not well understood in this modern age. Woodworkers today would enjoy using these tools if they only did the research to discover their use, and realized that there are traditional alternatives to modern woodworking methods which are equally effective.
I believe that the internet will allow us to return to that pre industrial age if we use it to its full potential. What irony.
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
I received my last official paycheck in 1973, when I walked away from a secure, $10k/year job in the physics industry. When I was working, I had my own office, with a desk and everything. I had a large experimental lab to play in and all the fancy new electronic equipment I wanted. All I had to do to justify my paycheck was submit my Weekly Activity Report by Friday each week. I found it ironic that I was paid for my WAR Report, and, as a peace activist, I eventually decided to just walk away from that future and that industry.
Now I work "at the bench" every day. I listen to either old fashioned Rock and Roll (read: Pink Floyd) or Classical music (read: Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert), depending on my mood. I work when I feel like it, and take breaks when I want. My desk is my bench. I have all the antique tools I want. All I have to do to justify my paycheck is deliver the final product, satisfy my client and cash the check.
This photo shows a typical day working on the Federal tall case clock I made early last year (or the year before, since I now have a terrible sense of time). In my mind, it was either yesterday, or "years ago" or "many years ago." When you work every day, it is hard to even notice holidays.
I am often asked about how I calculate my price for working, since I have been self employed for so many years. I started out charging $5/hour, then $10/hour, and, after 15 years, $15/hour. My business policy was always to present a proposal to the client before work began, which set the price and time agreed upon by both parties. If I was able to do the job faster, than I made a profit, and if I took longer than I thought, I lost money. In any event, I always got paid in full when I delivered the final job, and there were no surprises.
There is a big difference between working at a job with a salary and working for yourself. When I submitted my WAR Report, I got paid, regardless of how much actual work I completed that week. As a self employed worker, I can say I charge $25 or $100/hour or what ever price I want, but I don't actually collect that amount for each hour I am at work. The real question is how efficient am I at what I do? No one is 100% efficient all the time.
When I started my business, I decided to log my time in a book. This book had the hours for each day broken down into 15 minute intervals. For 2 years, I would stop each quarter hour and log into this book who was paying for that time. If I was sweeping the floor or sharpening chisels, or just goofing off, the time was paid for by the business (lost income). However, if I was working on a job, or even thinking about a project, I could bill the time to the client (earned income). Eventually, I realized that to be 40% efficient was good, and to be 60% efficient was great. While I was at work 10-12 hours each day, I was only earning somewhere between 5-7 hours of pay.
The next thing I did was to calculate my overhead. That means that I took the total cost of my business for the entire year, which included everything I spent to stay in business, and divided it by 365 to get my actual per diem cost. It was very interesting to realize that I needed that amount of money earned every day just to break even, and that was if I actually worked every day of the year.
As a good professional business man, I also needed a profit to grow the business. Assuming a modest 20% profit on all work, and perhaps a 10% set aside for retirement savings, these figures would need to be added to the daily overhead cost.
Since I don't actually see the value in weekends, I choose to take my weekends (52) and divide them into three separate months of time over the course of the year. That means I work 7 days a week for 3 months, and then I take a 1 month "week end" to travel. The result is that I actually work only 260 days a year, but I am "at work" an average of 10 hours a day.
The end result is I need to take my total of 2600 hours a year and divide into the total cost of overhead, plus profit, plus retirement account, multiplied by the efficiency, to get my actual price per hour billing time.
This formula has allowed me to stay in business for many decades, satisfy my customers with good value for the cost, take regular long "weekends" and, all I have to do to keep the doors open is actually complete only 5 hours a day of good, earned income.
Much more satisfying than writing a WAR Report every week.
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
I have discovered that there is a curious relationship between who you know and what you do in life. People you met in school years later show up in new and significant relations which provide opportunities. Clients which brought you an insignificant job, like repairing an ordinary kitchen chair, then refer you to the best client you ever had. Business relations, even though unrelated directly, often end up with referrals which pay the day's wages.
For nearly a decade in the 70's and 80's, I was working as the furniture conservator at the Phineas Banning Residence Museum, in Wilmington, Los Angeles. Although not as well known as some historic houses, the Banning house is the most important Greek Revival private residence still on its original foundation West of the Mississippi. Built in 1864, it is 3 stories high and, when I arrived, my job was to assist the Director in placing the furnishings appropriately. We decided on the Period Room format, setting up each room as if it was a different decade, from 1850 to 1900.
Years later, the Director moved to San Francisco and was in charge of the California Historical Society before retiring to operate a business selling fine art. Nearly 20 years after completing the Banning project, I received a call from a Sacramento collector to ask about making a cabinet. It turns out my name was recommended for this project by my good friend, the Director.
I had purchased a flitch of highly figured French walnut veneer previously in Paris, so I took the entire bundle of wood with me to meet this new client. As I laid out the veneer on the floor of their front room, both clients looked at me strangely and asked, "What is that?" They were sophisticated collectors in many fields of fine and decorative art, but they had no idea how a bundle of wood veneers would look when glued onto a cabinet. I just said, "Trust me."
The lady of the house showed me her problem. In the large walk in closet of the master bedroom, there was no room to walk. The entire floor was covered with shopping bags from jewelers. Each bag had its purchase inside, and that was her system of keeping them in order. She would just seek out the Harry Winston bag, or Cartier, or Tiffany, and then locate the appropriate item for the evening. After the big event, it went back into the bag on the floor.
I realized she needed a rather large jewel cabinet.
She produced a photograph of a Berlin Biedermeier secretaire, with a fall front. She said she wanted the doors to open 135 degrees to the side, and the top to be low enough for her to reach the clock she wanted to place on top. Also, she wanted a secure locked safe in the base, and as many secret drawers as I could create.
I built the cabinet in three sections. The base supports the center cabinet, and the top fastens with secret bolts. Therefore, the doors pivot on hinges located in the base and center section, and the alignment needed to be secure to guarantee proper function. There are more secret compartments than visible drawers, and for several years after delivery I would get the occasional phone call asking me to explain how to open a certain area.
The figured walnut was spectacular. I veneered the columns to match. The interior section was covered in a similar but more dramatic veneer, creating "hearts" in the wood. The inside doors was veneered with walnut which created the German eagle figure (if you squint your eyes...).
There is not a single square inch of wasted space in the interior. What you think is molding is really a pull. What you think is structure and solid is open inside. There are secret levers, and releases, and springs and lots of hidden features which open everything for use.
Needless to say, the cabinet is completely full, and the clients were very pleased with the result.
Sunday, September 19, 2010
My wife and I both enjoy visiting historic houses, museums and good antiques shops. Years ago it was a different era in the antiques business, and it was normal to find quality antiques dealers who owned independent shops and specialized in various fields in the business. When we travelled to the East coast together, it was always a pleasant and exciting afternoon to stop in on David Stockwell, or Albert Sack or Benjamin Ginsburg, or any number of established dealers and spend time discovering treasures from the past.
What I miss most from that time is the expertise these dealers passed on when discussing their collection. For example, I remember Carl Yeakel, a dealer in Laguna beach, who was still at work after more than 50 years in business, even though he was suffering from advanced Parkinson's disease. He was excited to show us both the mark on the bottom of a very large and valuable Chinese porcelain bowl, and insisted on lifting it up off the table for us to see. As he held it in the air, shaking all the time, we held our breath. I appreciate his desire to share his experience with us, and I remember that mark and the quality of the porcelain still today.
Most of those old school dealers are gone these days. The antiques market changed during the past decades and the "antiques" shops these days are filled with flea market finds, garage sale left overs and odd lots of miscellaneous collectibles. It is rare to find any shop where the owner knows his inventory, and there is no real educational value to be found in the pastime of antiquing. You must bring your own expertise with you and rely on your own knowledge.
In this sense, it is an advantage for some collectors who suffer through the hours spent walking the isles of clutter that fills these shops today. It is sad but my wife and I no longer look forward to spending the afternoon visiting these shops.
However, one day, several years ago, when we were driving to Los Angeles to visit friends I had the impulse to stop in Carlsbad and see what had become of a shop that I used to enjoy. Actually, I needed to use the restroom. I was disappointed to note that my favorite shop was now an "antiques mall" which is code for "junk." Since I had to use the facilities anyway, I went in and quickly walked to the back of the store, glancing from side to side at the individual booths of stuff.
Suddenly, out of the blue, I was struck by lightening. My heart stopped. I spotted an English Hepplewhite work table, with original finish, surrounded by roller skates, frying pans, dolls and supporting a cheap vase filled with plastic flowers. It had a price tag of $150. I had to go into the bathroom and wait until my hands stopped shaking and my heart rate dropped below 100.
When I came out, I tried to casually walk up to the counter and ask about the table. The clerk said it had been there for months and that they were just discussing the possibility of sending it out for refinishing so it would be more attractive. I said, " That's not necessary. I will take it 'as is'."
That table was spectacular. It had a large oval of satinwood on top, surrounded by purpleheart, boxwood inlay and tulip wood crossbanding. The workmanship was the highest quality. I had to make a copy immediately, and arranged to fly to Paris to select the materials I needed.
When I arrived at Patrick George's veneer shop outside Paris, I showed him photos of the satinwood panel on top. I knew it would be impossible to find the same kind of wood today, but I hoped he would have something with the same character. He just smiled at me and told me that he had some Cedar of Lebanon veneer which was sawn in England in 1850 that had never been sold. 4 pieces. I needed a piece 35cm x 67cm for the top and these pieces were 32cm x 74cm in size. They were also $2000. I bought them immediately.
I quickly sold the original table to a dealer in New York at a very handsome profit. I then made and sold the duplicate table at the same price, plus the $2000 I needed to pay for the veneer. It was an exciting project, and I learned a lot about the methods used during the 1780's in England which produced extremely elaborate furniture decoration with simple hand tools and animal protein glues.
Since I purchased 4 sheets of that fantastic veneer, I did make one change in the copy from the original. The original had a plain back; I decided to veneer the back so that the four sheets of historic veneer could continue to live together on the same piece of furniture.
Friday, September 17, 2010
I'm going to try something new this post. I have a video which Anatole Burkin recorded at Williamsburg some years ago. I will post it here for you to view.
At the time, Anatole was editor of Fine Woodworking magazine, one of the hosts of the conference. The conference was one of the early meetings of the recently formed group, the Society of American Period Furniture Makers, which was held during the "Working Wood in the 18th Century" event at Williamsburg.
I joined this group as soon as I discovered its existence, and was presented with membership number 170. I am sure that there are more than 500 members currently, and one of the benefits of membership is the annual Journal, "American Period Furniture." I contributed articles to each of the first three Journals, copies of which can be found on my website, under the Consulting page. The current issue is number IX, and has evolved into the finest source of traditional techniques and trades available.
The SAPFM group continues to hold their annual event at Williamsburg in January, plus an additional mid-year meeting at other locations. Chapters of this group are active in Ohio, Virginia, New England, Great Lakes, San Francisco, St. Louis, Georgia and the Carolinas. Each year a member is nominated to receive the Cartouche Award as a lifetime achievement in the craft of furniture making.
I was a presenter at one of the first conferences, demonstrating French marquetry techniques. I built a large crate, and inside that 4' x'4'x'4' cube placed an entire marquetry workshop. I had veneer, glue pots, hand tools and my chevalet, along with lots of examples of the process used by the French to create these wonderful designs. The box was full and it took me several efforts to get everything in place before I screwed it shut.
After the show was over, and before I packed away my gear, Anatole suggested that we should shoot a short video. He had the camera, and I sat down and made a brief talk about the tool. We only had one take, and the lighting was poor, but I think you get an idea of some of the features which the chevalet offers.
This video is also available on the Fine Woodworking site, along with all the videos which were shot during these SAPFM events. They are worth watching, as they document some of the best woodworkers active today.
Thursday, September 16, 2010
Since I opened the American School of French Marquetry in San Diego, there has been increased interest in the cutting tool called the "chevalet." I opened the school with the primary goal of introducing this unique tool to woodworkers who previously were using hand held fret saws, jig saws or even knives. I have travelled all over Europe and the US visiting marquetry workshops and it is amazing that only in Paris is the chevalet used as the primary tool. The Dutch, German, Italian, English and American workers universally use cutting tools with a vertical blade action. The French are the only ones to use a horizontal blade action, as illustrated in Roubo and Diderot.
There are several advantages to using the chevalet. When the packet is held vertical and the blade is horizontal, the dust drops away from the design. Also, the blade is cutting directly in front of the face so it is easy to see and follow the line. The bench provides a comfortable place to rest while working, and the feet easily clamp the packet so the left hand is free to manipulate the work. The right hand simply pushes the saw back and forth, and the saw support keeps it exactly at 90 degrees to the work. There is even a place for the coffee cup and tool tray.
Most of these tools were made individually by the craftsman, and each tool is fitted to the size of the worker. In my school I have 8 different sizes for students, from 52cm to 61 cm in height. The size is measured from the seat top to the blade when it rests in the cutting "V". The tool illustrated in the back of Pierre Ramond's book, "Marquetry," is a 54cm tool, much too small for most American workers.
We use Pierre's book as a textbook in the school. It is out of print, but there is the original Vial edition in English, the 1989 Taunton Press edition, and the 2000 Getty edition available online, using normal book search engines. There are not a lot of these copies that were printed in the first place, so I recommend you get one while you still can.
When I studied with Pierre, he had a particular request relating to the book. He directed me to find another word for the tool, instead of the usual English term "donkey." I understand that the term "donkey" is not the most flattering term in the world. That fact was driven home to me when, during a national woodworking show in the East Coast, as I was demonstrating marquetry using my chevalet, the other woodworkers made a wood "donkey tail" and (as a joke) tried to blindfold me and make me play "pin the tail on the donkey." I was not amused.
It turns out that the term "chevalet" was translated into Dutch during the late 17th century as "eazel" which is translated into English as "ass." Eventually, the term was cleaned up to be "donkey" and most of the English references to the tool since that time use donkey.
I took another approach to solve the problem. I looked up the term "easel" in my Harrap's dictionary and found "chevalet." There was "chevalet de peintre etc." The "etc" indicates that there are different uses for the chevalet. One of these is the "chevalet de marqueterie." which is the proper French term for donkey.
I like this alternative. During the late 17th century, when I believe the chevalet was created, the most popular type of marquetry was called "painting in wood." It included vases of flowers and other naturalistic images, which were exactly like the fine art painters of the period, except executed in wood, tortoise shell, ivory and other materials. These were expensive and required a high degree of skill. So referring to the chevalet as an easel implies that the worker is an artist creating fine art with wood as a medium.
Much better than working on your donkey.
Saturday, September 11, 2010
When I started restoring antiques, I was not alone. There was a large, popular movement to collect and restore antiques during the 60's and 70's which supported a lot of competition. I wanted to do projects which were unusual, complicated and required a higher degree of skill, so I could charge more money, and get all the jobs the others walked away from.
I soon discovered that most woodworkers avoided veneer in general and marquetry in particular. Since I was working with traditional hot protein glues, and had sources for high quality veneers, I studied everything I could find on the subject. Most of the books in English were full of bad advice. It seems that these books were written by authors who had only read other books written by authors who had no practical experience, and were simply passing on bad information. Since I was learning by experience, my experiments with glue, veneer and inlay taught me to avoid believing what I read.
Two of the books I thought were accurate were written in the 18th century by French authors: Diderot and Roubo. Both books contained illustrations of early woodworking trades and tools, including marquetry. In one illustration a worker is shown sitting on a bench, with a foot operated vice, cutting marquetry packets with a hand held fret saw. I was fascinated. I immediately purchased an American harness makers bench in Nebraska, and modified it to work exactly as the illustration showed.
You can see me trying to cut on this tool above. I also include a picture of my good friend, Yannick Chastang, working on his replica of the same tool. He is living in England, and is a graduate of ecole Boulle, and was, for many years, the furniture conservator at the Wallace Collection.
It was difficult to work properly. The biggest problem was holding the saw perpendicular, and the jaws had a shallow throat, making it impossible to execute larger projects. This was in 1975. That year the Getty museum opened to the public in Malibu, and I was practically the first person in line to get in. I soon met the young French man, hired to conserve the collection, and we became friends. He invited me to his home, where he had a complete woodworking shop in his garage.
Unlike most American woodworkers, his workshop had no power tools, and a large bench stood in the center of the room, with a wall of hand tools and several nice, expensive and early restoration projects sitting nearby under sheets.
We both shared a passion for racing bicycles, and I owned several expensive custom frames, which I offered to bring the next visit for him to try. During one of his rides on my bike, I lifted the sheet on one of the objects, fully expecting to see some nice early cabinet. What I saw was an amazing tool: the chevalet de marqueterie. I instantly recognized it, and realized it had a saw and arm support system which was not illustrated in the early French books. Problem solved.
The next thing I know, a cabinet shop in Hollywood contacted me to see if I could make a marquetry top for a dining table commission. It seems that they had not found any worker in Los Angeles who was able to do the work, and someone had mentioned me. At that time, the largest marquetry project I had completed was about one square foot, using my primitive, modified harness maker's bench. This job was 4' x 15' in size, an area of 60 square feet!
Without any hesitation, I proposed delivering the top for $6000 (1976 dollars). I immediately built my first chevalet and a large manual veneer press and, after 300 hours, was driving to LA with a 15' marquetry table top hanging out of the back of the truck.
The lessons I learned on that project are another story.
Friday, September 10, 2010
I wonder how many antique card tables exist in the world? I know I have seen hundreds of them over the years, in homes, shops, museums, books, and on the bench being repaired. It is amazing to think that practically every home in America or England before 1850 had a card table like every home today has a TV.
I suppose, when you really look at it, the card table satisfied many functions. It could be simply placed against the nearest wall, either closed or open. If it was open, it provided a nice view of the wonderful polished wood against the wall. Either way, it allowed a perfect horizontal surface for candles, pictures and other object d'art. It also could be used as a stand alone table in the room, providing a place for your tea or book next to the sitting area.
The best use, of course, was when company arrived, or during the slow evenings of winter, when it could be opened and provide a perfect small table for games of chance. How different our lives would be if we did not all sit and face the TV but sat across from each other and engaged in traditional social intercourse.
These tables had several options for their operation. In the Federal period, when Hepplewhite and Sheraton designs were popular, they either had 4 legs or 5. These legs were either square tapered or turned, depending on fashion. In either case, there was one or two legs which were attached at the back of the apron with a finger hinge made of wood. Cutting this hinge was a challenge and required exact hand tool skills for proper function.
There was a variation of this form, called a "concertina" action. In this case, the frame of the apron had two parts which expanded, and both back legs remained attached to the rear frame which slid away from the table, allowing the top to flip over. This method was popular in England and not common in America.
During the Empire period the form changed dramatically. Instead of legs at the corners of the frame, the table was supported on a central column, which was normally veneered with figured Cuban mahogany. Since there was no longer a swing leg to support the fold open top, the entire top itself was made to pivot 90 degrees, and when open rested on the fixed frame supported by the pedestal. This provided an added convenience: the top exposed a shallow till inside the frame where the cards could be kept.
I have made several card tables over the years. I enjoy the form and find it a wonderful way to display matched figured boards or veneer to best advantage. It also gives me a chance to use simple marquetry decoration on the legs and apron, which makes these projects attractive.
When I made this table, I copied exactly the original English table which I had on the bench for conservation. In this case both back legs swing, so I had to make a double finger hinge. My initial effort was done in haste, without much concern for details, since my ego was telling me that it was not really a problem. When that effort failed, I tried again, this time slowing down and trying to do it right. Again, when the legs moved 90 degrees they did not remain vertical.
Finally, I returned to the bench with the proper respect for the job. The third time it worked perfectly. To remind myself of this failure of effort, I kept the first two hinges on the shelf, and when I feel that I am not paying attention to my work, I take a few minutes to reflect on the two failures sitting in the corner of the shop.
Next to the first drawer I tried to dovetail in 1969.
Tuesday, September 7, 2010
Yesterday I enjoyed the visit of a respected English antiques author and his wife. As we walked around the place, I began to reflect on how many different visitors have knocked on my door and asked if they could see my workshop. At different times, over the years, I have hosted organized tours for groups like the San Diego Fine Woodworker's Association or the American Society of Appraisers, or different museum docent groups. But the normal visitor is just curious about how a pre industrial wood shop looks and functions.
I don't really spend much time thinking about it, since I live here the majority of the time.
One of the first questions I am asked is "Where did you get all these tools?" And, as most of the published photos of my shop include the wall of tools, I thought I would answer that question.
When I started working on antiques, I decided not to purchase power tools, for several reasons. First, they were expensive, and I was broke. Second, I had never taken a wood shop in my life, so I knew nothing about using woodworking tools. Most importantly, I believed that power tools were dangerous, and I knew about woodworkers who had lost fingers, or their hearing, or developed respiratory problems from breathing dust. Another problem was that my work space at that time was very small, with only room for a bench. In fact, when I started in my garage, the floor was dirt, so it was not practical to even use wheels.
I started by reading books and purchasing small hand tools as needed. A hand saw, jack plane, some chisels, you know, just what I needed to do the job at that moment. As I learned more and more about traditional woodworking "at the bench," I began to travel East and stay with other woodworkers, like Michael Dunbar, who taught me the tricks of the trade.
During the summer of '78, I lived for three months in the parking lot at Winterthur Museum, in Delaware. I walked from my camper at 8am to the library, and returned to my quiet place in the corner of the lot at 10pm after spending all day studying in the library. It was there I discovered Charles Montgomery's research data which listed inventories of the workshops of cabinetmakers who died before 1840. Each inventory provided a list of the wood, hardware and tools which were in the shop at the end of that craftsman's career.
I compiled a comprehensive list of specific tools which were on the different inventories, and, armed with this "shopping" list, began to aggressively seek out these same tools. Fortunately, this was before the internet was developed and before regional tool collecting groups were formed, so I had little competition.
There was a dealer in Maine, I recall, who had a large barn which was completely full of tools. Each table had piles of wood planes, and each table had a set price. One table had $5 tools, another $10, and several tables had really nice tools for $25 each. So I took my shopping list and some cash and began to put together a collection of tools that would be representative of any pre industrial wood shop.
As time went on, there appeared a couple of tool dealers who offered regular sale catalogues. These catalogues were sent out a few times a year, and the dealers made every effort to post them so they would arrive at the same time in all parts of the country. When the mail arrived, I would immediately search through it and call to place my order. I had to select more tools than I wanted, as many of the tools were already sold by the time I got through. It became very competitive, as more people got involved in the search for these artifacts.
On two occasions, by way of these catalogues, I was able to purchase a collection of 75 English Shieffield carving chisels at very good prices. By luck, when I laid out the two collections together, I found that there was very little duplication of shapes. Today, I have over 250 chisels, most made by Addis, a famous chisel maker.
In fact, I now have 850 hand planes, on shelves around the shop. I haven't bought a tool for many, many years now, and I really don't need to look any more. I have a few French planes, several English and the majority of them are American, made before 1850. All are functional, as I was careful to purchase "user" tools and not "collector" tools.
The planes are on both walls of my primary work space, near to the bench. That makes them handy and ready to select when I have the need. I am not sure, but I just might have the best equipped hand tool workshop in the West. It only took 40 years.
Monday, September 6, 2010
We have probably not given Mr. Edison enough credit. Just try to imagine the amazement that people had just about a century ago at the electric illumination of their homes and streets. Mr. Edison tried hundreds of different types of material in his electric lightbulb invention before he discovered exactly the right material which would burn brightly without destroying itself. Thus, the light bulb was created, and life changed forever.
Imagine a country with a workforce which could only work during daylight hours! Imagine trying to light homes and businesses with gas fixtures, and not have accidents. How did we exist before electric light?
Well, candles have been the standard source of light for thousands of years, and still are preferred when romance is involved. Beeswax and cotton cord combined to produce "one candle power" until the start of the 19th century. At that time, if you wanted to light, for example, the hall of mirrors at Versailles, you needed hundreds of candles, which required dozens of people to keep lit.
Then along came a French man, Mr. Argand, who, in 1780, invented an oil lamp with a circular chimney. The oil saturated wick was circular and the rush of air up the center of the wick created much more light than a single candle. As much as 10 candle power of light from a single lamp. I have a pair of Argand lamps on my sideboard, made in New York by Clark and Coit, which have two wicks on each lamp. Thus, if I could find a source of whale oil, without violating any laws, I would have 40 candle power of light just from these two lamps.
Later in the 19th century, kerosene replaced the more expensive whale oil, but the idea of the circular wick persisted as the most effective way to create light. Unfortunately, both the whale oil and kerosene created black smoke and a smell which did not contribute much to the ambience of the evening.
Thus, I return to the candlestand. This candlestand is a copy of the original which I purchased from that distinguished Yankee lady's estate mentioned yesterday in this blog. It is elegant, simple and very functional. Wherever you wish to sit, it is easy to place this stand close to the chair and it allows a convenient place for your cup of tea and a candle. When not in use, you can tilt the top up and place it in the corner out of the way.
I made this stand out of some wonderful curly maple I purchased from a violin maker. It has a great figure, and takes a wonderful polish. I made the top in two parts, with a bookmatch, just to confuse those collectors in the future who may attempt to pass this table off as antique.
I gave it to my wife, Kristen, on her birthday back in 1988. It remains one of the few pieces of furniture in our house which is not for sale. It is nice to turn off the lights and light a candle.
Saturday, September 4, 2010
I have discovered some rare and fine examples of antique furniture in San Diego over the years. As San Diego is not a very old town, compared to the cities on the East Coast, I have developed a theory as to why such important objects from the 18th century should exist here. I think that, as old money and old families decide to leave their East Coast homes, perhaps as a way to find better climates, they often choose between Florida and California. When they move they take only the best pieces in the house, leaving the rest behind, as they downsize. Thus, over the years, nice pieces of antique furniture have been transported West, away from the searching eyes of East Coast antique dealers.
That means that I have little competition for these wonderful objects when they become available on the local market. Since market forces are driven by supply and demand, the down side of this opportunity is that it becomes difficult to sell these early pieces at a good price here. The end result is I purchase and keep, until I run out of room. Fortunately, my workshop and residence are rather large, but also rather full.
An example of this is an estate sale I was involved with in the 80's. The person who passed away was a single lady, nearly 100 years old. She lived in a nice established neighborhood and had moved there around 1900. When she moved to San Diego from New Hampshire she brought the entire contents of her home, and everything was still in place, undisturbed. As I walked through the front door I immediately felt that I was in New Hampshire; it even had that Northern Yankee atmosphere of quiet, solid, conservative, practical and stability. The Grecian rocker sat in front of the fireplace. The wood works clock sat above the mantle. The rugs were hooked oval rag rugs, the candlestick sat quietly on the candlestand. An amazing experience.
The estate had been cleaned up and all the objects were priced for the upcoming sale. The sellers were relatives of the distinguished lady, and were also close personal friends of mine from high school, so I was there to do a favor and verify their pricing before the sale opened.
As I walked from room to room I was transported back in time to the 1790's. As I entered the back bedroom my heart stopped; next to the bed was the bottom half of a Dunlap chest-on-chest. The top was missing and in its place was a mirror so that the piece functioned as a dressing table. But it was impossible to not recognize the base as Dunlap, with the famous bandy legs and shaped apron. It had a price tag of $1100.
I immediately asked, "Is there a chest of drawers in this house?" The reply was "I think in the upstairs bedroom there is a chest." I ran up the stairs, not even breathing. At the back bedroom I found the top half of the Dunlap chest-on-chest, which was sitting on some simple bracket feet. It had a price tag of $800.
I informed my friends that these two pieces were not going to be offered at the sale.
Back at my shop I placed the original top chest on the original bottom chest and stood back to admire the most beautiful John Dunlap chest-on-chest I have seen outside any museum. Research later determined that the last such chest found was in 1952 in Texas, and this example was #29 or 30 of the 32 known to have been produced by Major John Dunlap. In addition, I found that John Dunlap's records included the name of the ancestor of our distinguished lady as the purchaser of this piece, completing the provenance.
It sold for $66,000 at Christies the next year, which in today's money is closer to $250K.
I received a nice commission for my work, and was able to purchase a corner chair and the candlestand (with the candlestick) from the estate. I made copies of both and sold the originals to a New York dealer.
The corner chair I produced was in curly maple, and a lot of fun to make. There is one difference in the copy from the original. The original included a chamber pot under the upholstered slip seat. Not a lot of people realize that the corner chair, and often the Easy chair were chairs of "convenience." These chairs resided in the bedroom and made it "easy" and "convenient" for the owners to relieve themselves in the middle of the night.
The deep apron on this chair was designed to hide the function. I would have included a chamber pot if I could have found the pot. Unfortunately, chamber pots do not survive in the modern age as much as you would think.
Friday, September 3, 2010
Lately I have been noticing a change in the antiques business. It is not just that the economy has collapsed. It is not only the fact that the housing market is nonexistent. It is not even the problem that antiques have become harder to find; in fact there are more and better pieces available now and at better prices than in the past 30 years.
There is an entire generation of Americans who simply aren't interested in owning or collecting antique objects. Their parents, who have been my clients for years, report that their kids just don't want this stuff. In addition, the parents, who are of my generation, are logically downsizing and would like to pass on their collection, but the kids walk away.
Some of this I attribute to the failure of education in America. Without getting too political, I always believed that an educated population was the natural strength of any country. Creativity, aptitude, initiative, research, and a diverse educational background all combined to make this country the world's leader during the 20th century. When I entered U.C.S.D. in the 60's as a freshman, Dr. Saltman (the Provost) addressed us as we were the first freshman class of the new university, and he wanted us to understand that we would become "renaissance men." In addition to my studies in math and science, I was required to study history, humanities, literature, music, religion, and many other subjects which represented a diverse spectrum of Western Civilization.
I realized the importance of this approach when I decided, for many reasons, to walk away from the nuclear physics industry and teach Decorative Arts classes, while simultaneously opening a pre industrial furniture conservation business. I thought to myself, if I can do physics, how much harder is it to fix furniture?
In fact I became a green business which relied entirely on recycling materials, organic glues and finishes, and human power. At the time no one was concerned about global warming, depletion of natural resources, or the ozone layer. Now everyone is discussing the problems of industrialization. All business has become "green" and "organic" as a selling point.
I assume that antiques, by their nature, will not disappear from the earth. They have been around for centuries, and at different periods have been ignored or sought after. The collecting of well made and well designed objects will always be significant. But, when this young generation realizes that the early furniture represents a balanced management of the hardwood forests, with raw material harvested by humans and animals, transported by sea using wind power, worked into the final form entirely without a "carbon footprint" and finished with insect excretion, how can they not be interested?
Finally, the picture shows me fixing yet another broken table. This poor Victorian table has been repaired by some farmer, using what was available to him in the barn. Although he made considerable damage to the table at the time, he prevented his wife from throwing it out. Thus his efforts kept it alive, until it became valuable enough for a professional restoration effort.
I can report this table is now back on its feet, and you need to look very closely to see any damage. The next generation of collectors will have the opportunity to discover it in some dusty antique shop and place it proudly in the center of their room for all to see.
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
I have been honored to have met great men in my life. I guess it is true that your life is shaped by those who you meet, and tempered by those who meet you. No man is an island, they say.
I am lucky that I live 6 blocks from work. I have often thought about how many times I have walked or ridden my bike those 6 blocks in the past 40 years. It is a perfect break and gives me time to reflect on my life.
One day this thought came to me as I walked home from a very fulfilling day at the bench:
A strong man knows when to quit.
A great man goes beyond what is possible.
A wise man knows his limits, paces himself, and realizes his full potential in the time he has been given.
It is curious how the mind works. I am not a poet, but I often reflect on how words can create ideas. I enjoy writing, and part of the meaning of the above thought for me is that I need to start working on my book. This blog has given me purpose, and I hope others see in it something of value.
For years I watched Roy Underhill perform on his famous show, The Woodwright's Shop on PBS. I was impressed with his style and his knowledge of the trades, as well as his passion for life. When he asked me to participate in his show in 2008, I was honored. Working with Roy reinforced my opinion as to what a great man he was. We became close friends, and when he announced the opening of his school earlier this year, I sent him a "woodworker's toast."
May Your Chisel Rest Sharp.
May Your Saw Stay Straight.
May Your Plane Prove True.
May Your Feet Rest On Shavings
All The Days Of Your Work.
I ask all woodworkers who have been enthused by watching Roy over the years to contact him and tell him how important his work has been. He deserves it.