Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Making Shoji.

"A Japanese craftsman's common saying is, 'Technique is not taught, one has to steal it.'" - Toshio Odate in Making Shoji

The last issue of Popular Woodworking put into my hands an interview with Toshio Odate. A wonderful and thoughtful craftsman and one of the few worthy of the overused term "master." The article didn't truly introduce me to the man. I was aware of him and his work. I think the serial story the lost Woodwork Magazine ran of Odate and the Mighty Oak he transformed into a massive slab table is one of my enduring favorites.

The interview spurred me to pick up a copy of Odate's book "Making Shoji"

Shoji are the Japanese sliding doors and screens covered in rice paper. The work that goes into them is delicate and exacting, just my kind of thing. Naturally I am enamored of the Transom, the geometric pattered flowers suspended in the center of a frame.

And the instructions for making rice glue are something I may have to experiment with.

A room with shoji borrowed from Wikipedia. 
The book is well done. Odate explains the process clearly and with a concise style I wish I had. The work is interspaced with short sections that tell a story or memory from the days of his apprenticeship in Japan. These are the gems that make this work so excellent.

There is a pervasive reverence for the tools

, the wood, and the process of making. There is a deep love for the craft and a life that's circumscribed by it. There is a joy in passing on the knowledge and a lament for the days of apprenticeship that have since past.

I wish I could write a book just like this one.

I am not abandoning what I know and diving into Japanese woodworking and tools. Last time I used a Dozuki was at the H.O. Studley exhibit, sizing a board for the vitrine. I handed the saw back to Don when I was done and loudly reconfirmed my love of the western style saws.

I'm not even thinking about making shoji, (yet) I just very much enjoyed the book and the experience.

Ratione et Passionis.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Final Pics Of The Studley-esque Frame

The frame and tools have made their way to their new home. I feel compelled to share the final pics after dragging everyone along with me down the path.

"A work of art is not always created exclusively for the purpose of being enjoyed, or, to use a more scholarly expression, of being experienced aesthetically. Poussin's statement that 'the goal of art is enjoyment' was quite a revolutionary one, for earlier writers had always insisted that art, however enjoyable, was also, in some manner, useful. But a work of art always has aesthetic significance (not to be confused with aesthetic value): whether or not it serves some practical purpose, and whether it is good or bad, it demands to be experienced aesthetically."

  "Now, when confronted with a natural object, it is an exclusively personal matter whether or not we choose to experience it aesthetically. A man made object, however, either demands or does not demand to be so experienced, for it has what the scholastics call "intention." Should I choose, as I might well do, to experience the redness of a traffic light aesthetically, instead of associating it with the idea of stepping on my brakes, I should act against the "intention" of the traffic light"

 "One thing, however, is certain; the more the proportion of emphasis on 'idea' and 'form' approaches a state of equilibrium, the more eloquently will the work reveal what is called 'content.' Content, as opposed to subject matter, my be described in the words of Peirce as that which a work betrays but does not parade. It is the basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion - all this unconciously qualified by one personality and condensed into one work. It is obvious that such an involontary revelation will be obscured in proportion as either one of the two elements, idea or form, is volontarily emphasised or supressed. A spinning machine is perhaps the most impressive manifestation of a functional idea, and an 'abstract' painting is perhaps the most expressive manifestation of pure form, but both have a minimum of content."

***  All three passages are taken from Erwin Panofsky's book, "Meaning in the Visual Arts"  specifically the essay on "The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline."

 Ratione et Passionis

Monday, January 4, 2016

Medieval Mystery Hour.

NOTE: This post is NOT directly about woodworking (per say) and sawdust posts have been few and far between here lately, but I did promise I would chronicle some of my work and research going into the process of writing my book and I've vowed to set everything else aside until I finish a rudimentary first draft. 
A big part of that process is collecting and organizing the various sources and research from a scattering of ideas into something real. It's also about following up on leads that were too deep down the rabbit hole to chase the first time through. If you're only here for the sawdust - hold on, it will return. 

Eugene Viollet-le-Duc casts a long shadow over any research into medieval architecture and furniture. He was a French architect who lived between 1814 and 1879 who developed a fascination with medieval buildings and furnishings, going as far as to "renovate" or "rebuild" some medieval structures in the manner he believed correct. Wikipedia lists his attempts as combining "historical fact with creative modification."

Towards the end of his career he set to writing. Particularly of interest to my work is two tomes: "The Dictionary of French Architecture From the 11th to the 16th Centuries," and "The Dictionary of French Furnishings From The Carolingian Period To The Renaissance."  Every book I have referenced along my path, from Victor Chinnery, to Penelope Eames, to Eric Mercer and beyond sites Viollet-le-Duc's work extensively. In some instances this is the only source work available.

Unfortunately for me I am a failure of higher education and culture in that I am distinctly uni-lingual, (and barely so at that) and though the Architecture Dictionary has been translated and is available, the Furniture Dictionary is still stranded in French. This leaves the unsatisfying task of filtering the book through Google Translate followed further deciphering of what has passed through.

This morning I started work on the chapter on Beds.

Bed shown in Morgan Bible Folio 38 Recto shows Ishbosheth, Son of Saul, Slain in his bed 
by two of his own captains after the support for his kingship had eroded away. 

The beds shown in the Morgan Bible are frustratingly without substance beyond their bulbous feet. Every one is heavily draped in textiles. When the bible denies me enough detail to work from I am forced to search for other credible and connected sources.

The first and best clue came from the stained glass windows of Chartres Cathedral. They were created in the same window of time as the Bible and you'll notice a similarity in style that has lead some to speculate the artisans who illustrated the Book were truly stained glass artisans who were "moonlighting."

The Charlemagne Window- Bay 7 Panel 3 -  in Chartres Cathedral.

Now I have some idea of what a headboard, footboard, and side rails might look like. Unsurprising it's similar to the construction of the chairs shown in the Bible. It still doesn't tell me anything about the suspension of the mattress. I had this image from "The Illustrated History Of Furniture" by Frederick Litchfield (1893) showing a "Saxon State Bed"

But the image seemed weird and out of context. It does show a rope suspension system for underneath the mattress, something I suspected to be, but was struggling for documentation on, but Litchfield doesn't give the source or location for the original image. How can I trust or work with it then?

This morning, working through Viollet-le-Duc's tome I same across this image ;

The complete image! Obviously Litchfield had borrowed from Viollet-le-Duc in a way not all that unusual. Better yet Viollet mentions the source! I gleefully began to click around the internet, there are many archives of medieval manuscripts about and the trick is finding access to the right one through strong Google-Fu.

The manuscript is called the Hortus Delicarium, started in 1167 as an illustrated encyclopedia by the Abbess Herrad of Landsberg. What a source! An illustrated encyclopedia? How Had I not heard of this before?


Unfortunately the manuscript itself was lost to history. In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, German bombs on the boarder town of Strasbourg destroyed the Municipal Library. The manuscript (and many other valuable historical treasures and documents) burned. All that remains are some of the images copied by those able to study it. You can find a taste in the Digitized Archives of the British Library.

Morgan Bible Folio 42 Verso  showing Bathsheba abed with the son she bore King David in the cradle. 

The end of this is both happy and sad. I gathered enough circumstantial documentational evidence to move forward on a piece that's been difficult to figure out, and in the process I've learned about yet one more fantastic bit of knowledge removed from our consciousness through the useless aggression of mankind. We often talk about the cost of two World Wars in terms of cultural history but forget the shit did not start or end there.

Still, I am decidedly not a lament what's past kind of guy. Remember no matter where you go, there you are. but if we go here, then what.

This is Viollet-le-Duc's illustration of a Carolingian Era (8th to 9th century) daybed taken from a manuscript and cleaned up for perspective by his artist. I'm having trouble deciphering the source, but I've seen representations with a side rail from this time before too, and this could be an answer as well. a bare bones frame held all around with ropes, and check out those far out corner brackets. . .

It's always interesting.

Ratione et Passionis

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Studley Effect.

Photo courtesy of Narayan Nayar  (Thank you buddy!) 
It gets into your system, standing this close, peering into the . . . Studley-ness of it all. It's a virus. It's probably terminal. Some part of it nested in my skull and hatched it's eggs in my mind. The subtext of my year, the thought behind nearly every action in the shop since that weekend in Cedar Rapids Iowa has been sifted through this filter.

If it's a disease, it's a delightful one.

Crop from the photo above.
The night after the last day of the exhibit I spent a few hours in my hotel room cruising eBay. One of my saved tool-monger sellers had a nice pair of jewelers hammers that were, to my eye, the siblings of the matched pair that belonged to Henry O. and to up the ante - the handles were crafted from ebony.

I returned home, life returned to normal and in a little while the hammers showed up on my doorstep, and though they'd seen a hard life, they're wonderful.

I followed up by buying the Studley-esque register calipers from Lee Valley.

I am not a tool collector, I try very hard to fill my chest with tools that earn their keep. The register calipers do that, to a point, and the hammers may come in handy in some instances, but they are both excess. They are the type of tool that warms my heart to handle, I could almost use the word fondle.

They required something better than being tossed into the tills of my chest and rattled around for several decades. They required something Studley to hold them. The Studley cabinet loaded with tools is opulence and wonder, the Studley cabinet with the tools removed is a challenge to any woodworker.  Doubt me? Narayan's photos are in the book, study them for a bit. You'll agree with me.

An entire cabinet is too much for three tools, but I took inspiration from a couple of the removable frames in the cabinet and decided to make an appropriate home for these tools myself. To test myself today against the skill and ingenuity of Studley.

I had a small stick of mahogany, not the genuine kind, the African kind, enough to mill down into the parts of the frame. Coming in at around 3/8" thick it took some fine chiseling to create the mortise and tenon joints.

Once the frame was assembled I started work on the moulding elements. Lacking any ebony I made the darker elements from walnut and ebonized them in a small ammonia tent for a while. Once I freed them from the bog of eternal stench I still wasn't pleased with their darkness so I stained the wood further with black india ink.

I especially enjoyed designing the layered moulding elements along the one side. A trick I haven't had to pull of in furniture much before, but something I'm looking forward to doing more of.

I let the frame percolate a while before I came up with the next design element. Dots and darts of course. But instead of marrying mother of pearl or some lighter element to the already light colored mahogany I chose to inlay a darker colored veneer.

This meant sawing out several matching elements and the marquetry trick of bundling a packet of veneer together seemed the best trick. Four small sheets of veneer between two thicker sections of pine, all bundled with tape. A little time with the fretsaw and I had what I needed for darts.

I made a punch from a metal tube by grinding and sharpening one end and used that to cut the dots. Then I laid things out on the frame and cut away for the inlay with chisels and carving tools before gluing it all down with hot hide glue.

The work on this frame was not fast. I spent a long time, sometimes a month or more, pondering elements and stages before moving on. In fact devising the holding for the hammers themselves took a lot of navel gazing. But there is one element of art school that I have always held dear. The lesson of pushing my boundaries.

Everything was set, The tool holding, the oil finish was on and dry, but an element of sparkle was missing. Something to reflect light the way the tool chest does. This lead me to step up to a plate I have been putting off for a while. Gold leaf gilding.

For at least one (if not several) pieces in the medieval furniture book I'm writing, I will have to attain a certain amount of comfort water gilding techniques, but there are other techniques using oil size and slow set adhesives as well. A local hobby store sold the adhesive so I thought I'd give it a try on this smaller project.

After some work scraping and refining the work I achieved the look I wanted, though I'm not completely satisfied. I will not be using much of the adhesive in the future, it left a texture to the leaf I don't like.

In the end the frame was done. I packed it up and shipped it off to it's new owner. The hammers were intended as a gift to a good friend who gave me the opportunity of a lifetime. I will hold off on posting the final pics of the project until I'm certain it's in his hands.

Ratione et Passionis

Monday, December 7, 2015

Detail in Medieval Manuscripts

I have come to the decision that research is the most aptly created word ever. If search is to look then re-search is to do it again and again and again. . .  Seems obvious now, maybe it's just weird than I never thought of it like that. 

This morning, while doing more research, I found the most amazing manuscript that will probably have nothing to do with the book. It was created around 150 years after the Morgan Bible and almost none of the furniture shown correlates to the styles I'm hunting. That does not diminish the amazing detail or artistic competence shown by the artist. 

The manuscript is a romance based on the character of Guiron le Courtois, A character from the French take on the Arthurian legends. He's a Saracen and contemporary of  the parents of many Arthurian characters. Apparently George Lucas was not the sole inventor of the prequel. 

This particular manuscript is from Milan Italy and dates from 1370 - 1380. Sadly too late to connect to my other work. But the details abound are amazing. If you have an interest in reenactment of the late 14th to early 15th century this manuscript is prime source material. 

The perspective is near perfect in the many illustrations, something a bit novel for surviving manuscripts, though by the late 14th c. that was evening out. but the detail including the wood grain. 

Three fashionable men on a bench

Detail at the end of the bench. 
There are two things about this I'm packing in to take with me. 

One, if I understand the art historians books then furniture was always painted bright colors from top to bottom, but this manuscript tells a different story where colors are accents and there's not a fear of having wood colored wood. 

Two is that eventually, I may have to build this bed. We've been headboard-less for a long while and there's something about this one I like a lot . . . with some of my own twists of course. 

Here's one more. I like the covetto cuts for the legs, and sneaky Rasputin on the right. 

But really, check out the National French Library's digitized facsimile for yourself. It's pretty fantastic.

Ratione et Passionis

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Put A Medieval Finish To It

If you're expecting dovetailing or panel raising . . .today's just not gonna be your day here either.

 * * *

If we know very little about actual medieval furniture, then it goes to reason we know even less about the finishing of these pieces. Guesses and assumptions can be made, but there is little to say for certain.

What do we know?

Percy Macquoid writes in "A History of English Furniture" That furniture represented in MS Miniatures is often colored, combine that with traces of paint remaining on surviving pieces and supposition says domestic furniture was painted, and often in bright colors. He goes on to say "These colors were mostly rendered in some form of tempera or wax."

Penelope Eames in "Furniture in England, France, and The Netherlands from the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Centuries." tells that painted chests were common with red and green as favorite colors but some references to white, yellow, and black exist.

Other ornaments Eames discusses include applied wrought iron strapping, incised carving, applied carvings, painting of heraldic images, and rarely marquetry or inlay.

Of course there is gilding as well. The application of gold leaf to a prepared bole field. Something I will have to become somewhat comfortable with to pull off the Sella Curulis or Faldstuhl shown in the bible.

Then there are techniques done in and with Gesso. Gesso is a background medium, In a modern sense it's a chalky acrylic paint best known as a background treatment for artist's canvases. It gives a smooth texture that also has "tooth" or the ability to hold the pigments well as the paint medium dries.

In a traditional sense Gesso is a combination of size (hide glue), water, and whiting (fine chalk or marble dust). It's a thinner substance than the gloppy modern stuff and many more coats are required to build up a field. It's an important background in gilding and painting, but the medieval mind used this traditional mixture more effectively than art class taught me was possible, maybe because it's not easily possible with the modern stuff.

The fantastic chest or Cassone is Italian from around 1350. It lives in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. (317-1894)

It has the iron strapping and red and blue colors that are still vibrant after nearly 700 years, but it's the white figures that draw the eye. The figures are raised from the surface and many are repeated over and over. They come from shallow stone molds into which gesso was poured and allowed to set. Then once the casts were nearly dry they were stuck to the gesso already applied to the carcass. A miracle not possible without the wonder of animal protein glue.

Another take on this concept was to build up a very thick layer of gesso, then work back into the field and relief carve away an image.

This shield survives from the early 13th century and lives in the collection of the Swiss National Museum. (LM 3405.178) The rampant lion so prominent was built up and carved away in such a way before being covered in silver leaf. It must have been a powerful symbol of status in it's day. Bright reflective silver set off by a brilliant blue background.

But we haven't even spoken about the rabbit hole of paint with the multiple recipes for both tempera and casein bases.

The problem isn't with options, obviously I have those and I have a bunch of experimenting to do. The problem is I figure it'd take me another lifetime to chase down every lead and work out every possibility and though I may eventually walk those paths, I don't want the creation of the book to wait that long.

I've narrowed myself down to a handful of trials to undertake over the dead of winter. I'm going to work in:

1. Melted colored wax.
2. Solid colored wax
3. Egg tempera paint - both homemade and commercial.
4. Casein (milk protein) paint - Homemade and possibly commercial.

I hope I gather enough answers and knowledge to write intelligently about it. Starting tomorrow I plan to start practicing at the draft board, drawing some medieval design motifs from the great source; The Grammar Of Ornament. (A fantastic source: check it out HERE)

Ratione et Passionis

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Studley Effect

Even though my exposure to the H.O. Studley tool cabinet and workbench was more than six months ago, the effect is still a constant in my life. It's like a perfect brownie with warm gooey chocolate goodness beneath a thin crusty, crunchy top layer. I had been aware of the cabinets existence from shortly after I started woodworking in the late '90's, but the intense time I got to spend around Mr. Studley's work helping Don Williams with the exhibit in Cedar Rapids. Even with some distance from the event, I'd call it life changing. 

Before I was even home from the experience I had found on eBay a couple small jeweler's hammers similar to those in the cabinet and bought them with no hesitation. Once I had the them in hand (complete with shaped ebony handles) I knew I had to something special for them. 
Seeing the cabinet with all the tools in place is one fantastic thing. Seeing it without tools…another level. It's a challenge from Mr. Studley stretching across time. A line in the sand. He's saying, "Here's what I can do…how about you?"  

This photo is Narayan Nayar's and I stole borrowed it from one of Chris's blog posts somewhere. 
I started a frame to hang the hammers in before the end of May and I've been slowly puttering on it as my confidence rises and putting it to the side when it falls, but the challenge of it taunts me and I can't abandon it.

I do not consider myself a finesse woodworker. I refuse to work within the confines of a fraction of an inch's dictating success or failure. I don't believe wood is that kind of medium. But at the same time I am obsessed with the details that matter, at least that I consider matter. I can accept some gaping in my dovetails if I can nail a work's proportions and pull off some fractal repetition, Still I've never been into "perfect" (whatever that means) but with this stupid frame, I'm trying for it. 

I've stalled out for a while trying to work out hanging the actual hammers to the actual frame. But today, newly relocated to the warm haven of my winter shop, I sat down at the bench to re-enter the ring with Henry the Stud again. This must be round eight of who-knows-how-many. 

He's the champ, and I'm sure to lose. I just pray it's by decision and not by knockout. 

Ratione et Passionis