Tuesday, March 31, 2015

See It In Person

A while back. during a family vacation, I visited the Indianapolis Museum of Art. In one of the first galleries I found an original Greene and Greene dining set designed for the Charles Millard Pratt House. Darlings of the Arts and Crafts style, G&G furniture always grabs my attention. I own several books about them and have read many, many magazine articles written about original pieces, reproductions, and “inspired by” work. I have never had the opportunity to see any original in the flesh.

I hovered and studied the table and six chairs for more than a half hour. Moving around the peninsula dias to see all the angles and even setting off the proximity sensor alarms.


I’m not really interested in building a reproduction or “inspired by” piece, maybe I was once, but those days have passed. so that wasn't the intent of my scrutiny. I was trying to decipher the mystery of my attraction to the Greene brother’s designs and I found it in the subtle details I could never quite pick up on in photographs.

Whether it’s a Greene and Greene dining set or a Philadelphia Highboy, many woodworkers experience these pieces only through measured drawings, cut lists, or a Sketchup models. Isn’t it odd that in a three dimensional medium like furniture making, the majority of our knowledge is transferred in two measly dimensions? Catalogues that come full of pictures of fantastic furniture, isolated against sterile drop cloth backgrounds only tell, at best, half the story. These photos hold no regard for how a piece lives in space, how it can command or deflect attention in a room, or truly convey the subtle details and textures that act like punctuation in a well written sentence.

Museums are the flagships of the art world because they allow people to experience a masterpiece in person. As an art student years ago, I was encouraged to imitate the styles of the masters to learn from them and better imitation sprang from time put in studying a master’s work. It was a given that seeing a masterwork in person was a superior experience. Photos in books will never really show the texture and color found in a Van Gogh painting. The way a Rembrandt changes subtly depending on the angle you view from. Or the way a Picasso draws a visceral feeling from you as your mind takes in everything both familiar and alien.

Translating that experience into broadening your woodworking horizons is easy. All it requires is that you step out of the shop for a while and look for opportunities. Visit an antique dealer and open some drawers to look at the hand cut dovetails. Find a museum or historical home in your area and see what they have to offer, you may be surprised at the cross contamination of ideas that comes from looking at great works other than furniture. Better yet, volunteer and get the chance to spend extra quality time around those pieces. Make a pilgrimage to see great works: The Gamble House in Pasadena, Winterthur Museum in Delaware, The Museum of Southern Decorative Arts in North Carolina.

Get out and see the work that inspires you in person. I promise it will only inspire you more.

Ratione et Passionis

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Plugging My Inappropriate Holes.

One issue with the new workbench was the scars of it's past. Constructed of reclaimed barn beams scattered through the top were 7/8" inch diameter holes. They're related to the original joinery. The sad thing is my holdfasts are made for 3/4" holes and these holes just don't work.

I laid out and drilled a series of holdfast holes based on the "Patented Chris Schwarz Holdfast Plan" and my new holes became intermixed with the old holes (There's immature comic gold in that sentence) After working with mixed holes for a bit I became slightly fed up mistaking one for the other.

So I picked up some dowel and spent a little time today plugging my inappropriate holes.

I left them a little proud of the benchtop so once the glue sets up I can cut them off with a flush cut saw and plane them even to the benchtop.

Then I will no longer mistake one hole for the other.

Ratione et Passionis

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

So....Uhhhh....What's Going On?

Things have been quiet here on the Blog for a while, but the shop has been lightly bouncing along. I thought everyone deserved an update on the goings on round here.


The work on my book based on building the furniture depicted in the Morgan Bible. I submitted a query to one publishing company, Lost Art Press. The quality of their books and their expertise really made me want to work with them even more than my original ideas of self publishing.

Unfortunately, I was turned down by Chris and company, not because the either the concept or I lacked merit, if it were simply that I would have a green light, but more because at the moment they are bogged down in a mountain of projects. Enough to keep them busy for the next five plus years. That would put me on the back burner there for a while even if they said yes, and thats not something I'm completely comfortable with either.

So the plan at the moment is self publication, or as I'm calling it, "I'm gonna Konovaloff the sumavabitch." It may take longer, but the complete control of the entire process suits my personality flaws.

Chris has been kind enough to help fill some of my knowledge holes about the publication process and I do have an open invitation to resubmit it to LAP when I've finished. I'll make that decision when it's time, but until then,, it's time to apply foot to gas pedal. Whether that means you will see more or less of me here, I cannot tell for certain.

We will have to both be surprised.



I've been reading "Oak Furniture: The British Tradition" (V. Chinnery) and building an small arming chest of from white oak for a very good friend and fellow medieval enthusiast. A short passage in the book writes about how a lot of 17th and 18th century furniture was lined with wood block printed paper. My art education years (centuries ago) had included a decent amount of time doing printmaking.

There is no greater power than to give an imaginative teenage boy the skillset and materials required to make his own propaganda.

So I resurrected some of those skills and cut a couple 6x6 blocks to print with. From what I understand, historical printed papers were not carved in the same style as the outside of the chest, (two different craftsmen doing two separate jobs) and the ink was like Henry Ford's pallet choice.

"Any customer can have a car painted any color he wants so long as it is black."

Often my problem is that I cannot leave well enough alone.

Chess anyone?


The workshop. The weather has turned here in Wisconsin and the shop has migrated back out from the four season porch I dubbed "The Winter Shop" to the full sized shop that takes up our garage. The best part is through this spring cleaning and rearrangement I finally feel like I've gotten things arranged the right way and I've added a new area to the shop I've been wanting for a while.

We established my control issues earlier, Now I will be able to have more control of the steel and hardware that gets used in my work.

I have a forge.

Ratione et Passionis

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Forced to Rearrange The Shop.

All I need is one more distraction in my shop, but here I have happily stepped up to the plate to go about modifying my entire shop set up to make room for this.

It's a small forge (I'm told it's called a rivet forge) with a lever action blower.It needs a little clean up and a little TLC but everything is there or can be made. 

I've had this anvil for ages. It was given to me by my father in law. I've used it some as a hammering surface here and there, and when I put together a small soup can propane forge late 2013, (that experiment was more one and done as the forge deteriorated quickly after the first firing) but mostly it's been waiting to be paired with real fire.

I've done a decent amount of reading, as I always tend to do, and realize serious blacksmiths don't like these small forges. They're too small for a lot of work that can be done at a forge. The air bellows is inefficient and insufficient for quickly heating up large stock and the fire is more difficult to manage than on a full sized forge like the fantastic one in Master Tom Latane's shop

My response . . . duh. 

Would I love to work everyday out of a forge like that? Hell yes. 

But here's the thing. I don't want to spend my time as a blacksmith. I am a woodworker. I want to be a woodworker who has the access and ability to make his own hinges, nails, and possibly a tool from time to time and there by become less beholden to others. Less dependant on others and more self sufficient. 

Besides. living in a small city as I do, I think a large forge like Tom's may invalidate any homeowner's insurance and run into any number of city ordinances. This small forge in akin to a charcoal grill. In fact that's the fuel I intend to burn to forge with, hardwood pieces and lump charcoal. 

This past weekend I took some time and drove to Tom Latane's shop to take a little beginner's instruction on forging the simple things I'm after. Tom's been extremely generous with me and is fast becoming a very good friend. We finished a pair of gimlet hinges (aka snipe hinges) and a half a dozen nails. Mine need a lot more work, but it's satisfying work. 

First I have to make a couple exciting things. A nail heading tool and a cut off hardy tool. But first I have to finish piecing the forge together and get it up and working. Of course all this means changing the shop around to make a safe area for this new diversion. If you ask me that's a small price to pay.

Ratione et Passionis

Friday, February 20, 2015

Every Precious Little Thing

Not every project requires the precious precision of the persnickety.

I started woodworking in the late '90's, a carry over from buying a house and teaching myself to do some home DIY renovations. A little over a year later, after the passing of my wife's grandmother, I was told I could take whatever I wanted from her grandpa Setles's tool collection. (He had passed away several years before)

Anything I didn't take was to be sold at auction and so I grabbed many things, whether I knew how to use them or not.

Setles was not a woodworker, he was a tinkerer, a fixer, and a maker. The tools spanned from automotive to woodworking to blacksmithing. Tools weren't super precious or overly cared for, they were used and used hard and if they broke, you saved them to scavenge the parts from to fix something else. The man never threw away a screw or bolt if he didn't need to. and if he needed a shelf to store things on he didn't head down to Pier One Imports and buy one. He tore apart a pallet he picked up for free and built one.

One wall of his shop was lined with these pallet wood shelves. The wood still rough sawn and raw with no finish or paint save what was spilled or splattered. (There must have been a hell of an accident with some light green paint at one point, it was splattered around like a Jackson Pollack, including spots on a lot of the tools.) The shelves were well built. dovetailed corners and dadoed shelves.

I knew enough about woodworking to think I could pick out the mistakes he made. The big one I saw was the dovetailed corners were oriented wrong if you consider a hanging shelf. Set to hold the sides instead of resisting the forces of gravity.

A little while ago I decided I needed a shelf in the winter shop and I thought fondly about the shelves in Setles's garage. The spirit of Furniture Of Necessity. (Can't wait for Chris's upcoming book) With no collection of old pallets to draw from (they don't make those like they used to either) I picked up a couple standard grade pine 1x8 boards and proceeded to knock out the shelf in a quick evening in the shop.

Complete with dovetails facing the "wrong" direction and reinforced with wire finishing nails.

I shot some time lapse of the first half of the evening.

I owe Setles and his mismatch tool collection a huge debt. In the car full of tools I carted home was the saws and #5 Stanley that got me thinking "You know, I should figure out how to use those things." It took me a few years of looking at them to make that decision but look where I am now!

Now I have to decide whether to Jackson Pollack the shelf with paint of let that happen organically.

Ratione et Passionis

Iron Buff.

I'm not much of a risk taker in the world outside my shop. I wear my seatbelt, show up to my day job on time, and don't enjoy slot machines or lottery tickets.

Inside the studio is another matter. It seems like I enjoy it most when I'm pushing the boundaries. They may not be boundaries to everyone, hell, it may be old hat to some, but I'm content when something is new to me. It seems that when something is predictable and in my control, I'm bored.

I have a friend I owe a carved box to. A couple weeks ago I finally got him nailed down to some specifics regarding size and use. He's going to use it in conjunction with his own medieval reenactment and I've wanted to build a dry run of one of the chests shown in the Maciejowski Bible.

 The box itself would be fairly simple but I wanted to play with some of the treatments. The Box in the miniature is colored black and paint works and it is medieval accurate, but I wanted to try a different approach.

I have a blacksmith on the line for the lock and straps for the "good" box for the book, but I wanted to try and play with some off the shelf options from the home store to offer alternatives to readers. I also wanted to play with lining the inside of the box with some wood block printed paper after seeing some examples of this treatment in Victor Chinnery's book "Oak Furniture: The British Tradition"

I remembered reading about doing a surface treatment on oak that would stain it black. I think I first heard about it from Stephen Sheperd over at Full Chisel Blog, he refers to it as Iron Buff, which is probably a better name that what I've been calling it (dirty vinegar). It's basically vinegar thats been charged with iron filings and it so happens I started a jar priming several weeks ago.

I knew oak was particularly receptive to a reaction to iron buff, and it just so happens I had a board of white oak earmarked for this box already. All I had to do was saw it up and plane it down to size

A single coat of iron buff changed the color of the oak dramatically. The board in the foreground was connected to the stained one in the back. I know others have done this before, but for me this was magical to see. I just layered it on thick with a brush and set it on some painter's triangles to dry. After a few hours it was dry but still had a slightly vinegar/metallic smell and

I didn't want the box to smell like a pickle jar every time the lid was opened and the dried iron buff left a light residue that would rub off on my hands. I solved both of these issues with a coat of clear shellac.

I was curious how deep the buff had penetrated and the best way to figure it was to carve or cut into it. The geometric designs I came up with crossed a line into new territory for me.

A combination of 17th century techniques and influences of gothic tracery mixed with a lightly botched initial layout led to something terribly unique yet balanced in a pleasing way. I wasn't sure if I liked it at first but after passing by it In the shop for several days it's really grown on me. 

This may be the first carving I've done that I will be sad to let go of. 

Experiment in your shop. Accept the accidents and mistakes, roll with the punches, and you may just really like what turns up. 

Ratione et Passionis

Monday, February 16, 2015

We Must Be Careful

These words are printed big and bold on the wall of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis. They're from his book Mother Night.

It's something I worry about a lot, even before I had these words to sum it up. I think this phrase of wisdom dovetails well with my recent post on Art and Craft and Woodworking.

The gyist of what I was really trying to say is summed up in the finishing point.

There comes a point where you have to stop listening to what everyone is telling you to think and think for yourself, and I am at the point where I am starting to listen to my own little voice over the noise of the crowd.

If you ask me, that practice is at the essence of being an artist, no matter what the media.

Ratione et Passionis