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

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

There Comes A Point…

I consider myself a conscientious guy. I like to make people happy, I like to fit in. Who doesn't?

But I also know fitting in never really got anyone anywhere they want to be.

I've been doing a lot of pondering lately, listening to one of my favorite storytellers, Ira Glass, talk about the things that can hold people back in creativity was a spark and getting my hands on a great book about the phenom Charles Rohlfs was the fuel.

I provided just enough oxygen to make flame a fire.

 My shop is my sanctuary, and my work is my salvation. Without that outlet.(and this blog) I'm not sure where I'd stand. But there has always been something about my work and time that has frustrated me. I often feel like I'm playing follow the leader.

I will have ideas and notions incubating and while they form I will find someone else is hunting the same path and they've managed to pull things together ahead of me. Follow the leader has it's merits, it's a fantastic way to learn and grow. But the old saying is . . .if you're not the lead dog on the sled team, the view never changes.

To use a sports analogy. The great players don't waste time where the ball "is" instead they focus on where the ball is "going to be"

You can chase or you can lead.

It started after the Nail Cabinet was done and over with. I started planing the build with the notion it was an awesome blank canvas I could experiment with. I hadn't figured it would take off on me and lead to parts unknown. It challenged me and my creativity at every turn, and once it was hanging on the wall, I found myself fatigued.

I needed some recovery time and that was strange because my inclination it to maintain momentum.

Then I remembered feeling the same way the last time I built a wall hanging cabinet I called "Moving On"

There are obvious similarities, Will wall cabinets always wear me out? Or was it the creative endeavor?

I began to think back, to remember 20+ years ago, and my formal art training. I remember the fatigue when I finished large and involved projects then too. Like building rest times into a physical training regiment to allow muscles to heal and strengthen.

I began to think back to when I started playing around with woodworking and when I started to get really serious about it. My instincts were to approach it as an artist, like I'd dreamed about being in school.

Then I started doing a lot of reading and listening to people who were obviously smarter than me, and I realized I had a lot to learn about technique and proportions to dial this thing in right. The more I read and learned about techniques from others, the more I absorbed their philosophies as well.

Because we all have philosophies. . . just like we all have belly buttons.

I found myself torn in an ongoing debate that digs to the heart of the matter. The value placed in a single working craftsman.

On one side stands people who want to revere the work and the pieces. Place them on pedestals and label them as Art. Art with a capital "A". On the other stands people who dislike the nose-in-the-air haughtiness that follows Art-with-a-capital-A. They want people to have their hands on an item, to touch, feel, and use it. They want to call it "craft."

For a long time I've sat proudly and firmly straddling the fence.

I understand both sides of the argument, but I've come around to a decision.

I don't give a shit about your fences, or your labels.

I came to this media as an artist, that's where my heart lies. The standard woodworking media of magazines and books only tells half the story out there. I have been looking at furniture built for art gallery display in magazines and online for a while. (Yes, there is sawdust outside the bounds of Popular Woodworking and Fine Woodworking) and most everything I've seen in the last few years is utter crap.

Poorly proportioned, poorly executed out of poorly sourced material. It's artists who haven't taken the time to master the techniques of the medium playing out a line drawing from their sketchbook. I can do better than what I've seen.

For a while I felt ashamed I had the instinct to shoot for a gallery show of my work, That the "woodworking" world would no longer accept me, and small successes, especially here with this blog have only reinforced it, but I'm shaking it off.

There comes a point when you have to stop listening to others and trust yourself. There comes a point when you have to be yourself. I am at that point. I'm interested in being my own man.

Reason and Passion
Ratione et Passionis

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Eyes Open Approach.

If you've been reading at all here this past year you'll know I've been hot on the trail of researching and building for a book on medieval furniture. Specifically the furniture shown in the pages of the storied Maciejowski Bible. That work has moved into a holding pattern for the short term as I try and put the horse back in front of the cart and convince a publisher to believe in me so I can deliver work to their standards instead of working backwards to redo / reshoot things.

That doesn't mean I've stopped researching, reading, and drawing. In my mind the work becomes more and more organized with every day.

Outside of religion and politics, I have never known anything to be more the victim of preconceived judgement and notions than medieval Europe. People love trivia and they like to display their intelligence, (I'm no different) so they spout off whatever the last thing they saw on the history channel, or in a movie, or read in a dogeared copy of John's Bathroom Reader. One of my goals spending the last two decades as a medieval reenactor, has been to try and gently add some common sense to the weird things people believe.

Buy me a beer and I will tell you some of the conversations I've had.

Furniture is no different a victim, perhaps it's even worse because it settles into the background on most people's tapestries. When was the last time you gave any real thought to your dining room chair? It's simply there when you need it. Most of us see people and stories, I spend the Lord of The Rings movies trying to decipher the joinery of the chairs in Rivendell.

So what was furniture like in the Middle Ages? The Dark Ages? How about more specifically in France around the years 1240 - 1260 AD? How can anyone know? What has survived.

The answers are there in front of us, you just have to open your eyes and mind to see them.

I saw a video this morning on a man named Lars Andersen who has taken an eyes open approach to medieval archery. Take a quick few minutes and watch it. It will impress you.

The evidence and answers to Lar's questions were in ancient writings and manuscripts. He wasn't the first person in a thousand years to read the words or observe the manuscript representations of archers. But he looked at things with his eyes open and thought maybe he should try to do things like he sees them instead of doing them like he'd always been told he should.

But how can we trust the artisans of medieval times. We all know the term "artistic license" means those bastards can make up anything they choose. Besides their perspective is all wonky, how can you trust them.

I had the same thoughts and worries until I was studying some pages from the Morgan bible one late night and found a detail that made me a believer.

This is Folio 39 Recto. It displays King David leading a crushing rout of the Palestinians on the top and below the good people of Israel celebrate the victory around the Arc of the Covenant.

Let's look closer.

As we look closer at King David and the battle more details in the armor, weapons, and attitudes come to light. I think it's fun to realize the Israelites are shown dressed in what would have been considered "State of the Art" armor in 1250 AD France and the Palestinians are depicted wearing what would probably have been considered "outdated."

There's an interesting commentary there I'm not interested in wading into.

Let's look closer still.

We're starting to focus in on King David. resplendent in his painted full face helm and accessorizing crown. The epitome of masculinity and virile combat prowess.

Closer . . .

As we look below King David's mount we can really begin to see some details present in the work. Representations of the individual rings of steel in the maile armor. Fluting for added strength on the nasal helm of the prostrate warrior and and etching or decoration present on the helm of the oddly smiling character behind him.

I particularly like the leather straps at the ankles of both King David and the trampled Palestinian. From experience I would surmise these are either to help tie the maile chausses (armored leggings) in place to keep them from slipping and binding at the ankle joint and/or to tie on a symbol of knighthood. A set of spurs.

But the details go further . . .

As I was looking at the picture my eyes settled on these red brush strokes on the underside of King David's mount. After pondering it for a few moments it occurred to me . . . these were representing the marks that would have been made by the King's royal spurs as he urged his mount into battle.

My mind was blown.

I woke up my wife to show her I was so excited.

I'm still paying for that. . . .

Seeing this was my second Ah Ha moment chasing this subject. This is the kind of thing the person who created this page of the manuscript would have seen commonly. The men who illustrated the Morgan Bible were drawing snapshots of the world they experienced, and they were doing it in great detail. It's the closest thing I can hope for outside of finding photography or film footage from that time.

Come to think of it, the only thing that could be better is a Delorean, a Flux Capacitor, and 1.21 Gigawatts of power.

So I've decided to do my best to trust the artists who created the Morgan Bible. To just try and look with my eyes open at their work and try not to pile my own baggage and ideas into it.

It's difficult. In the end we will see how well I do. Eventually I have to trust my own filter and focus too. Maybe the best I can hope for is a balance between both visions.

Moving forward . . . Eyes wide open.

Ratione et Passionis

*** EDIT: Since the video above of Lars came out, I have seen more and more evidence refuting his claims, or at least calling them into question. I consider this to be a healthy thing. Peer review is important in many respects. To be fair though, most of the criticism is to his sloppy references and claims.

Most experts chiming in on Lars video relate to the depictions by artists of battle techniques as suspect because there is little chance they were there and directly observed the action. Some go on to say that things the artists could personally observe (they reference directly clothing and armor)  should be considered accurate.

That being said my main interest in the Morgan Bible is not the hypothetical battle scenes, but the furniture. I would argue that furniture falls squarely into the realm of "direct personal observation."

I guess I won't know for certain until I face my own peer style review.