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

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Tray For Tea Part 4: Finished Up.

After cutting and detailing the fretwork the rest of the work on my daughter's tea tray was like walking downhill.

I started the process by burnishing beeswax into the parquetry with a charged polissoir.

Then I fit the tray inside inside the fretwork sides. I glued the meeting long grain together and countersunk a couple finish nails on each side to hold things in place until the glue set. Before I fit everything together I took a few minutes and wrote a couple nice thoughts and wishes to my daughter around the tray bottom, where the sides will cover it and no one will ever see unless they disassemble to whole thing.

It's a Hidden Magic habit I've gotten into as I finish pieces.

I let the glue dry overnight and did the final shaping and sanding of the sides and glued 1" leather pads to the bottom four corners. Then it was off for the rest of the finish. Three coats of garnet shellac and a slathering and buffing of paste wax.

There were a ton of details that went into this small piece, of course it always seems that way. I can pick apart the slight gapping of the dovetails in one corner, and a couple errors in grain direction and accuracy of cuts in the parquetry, but overall those are small concerns. I am content with the outcome, but more importantly, my daughter Fayth is overjoyed.

What more can I ask for?

Ratione et Passionis

Gut Instinct

I've been interested in medieval furniture for a long time, it really isn't just something I decided needed a better book and I could be the one to write it. I've been chasing the subject for a while. I started carving based on that search.

An oak box I carved a while back.
I started carving following Peter Follansbee and what he calls a "17th century style" based on the fact the work just felt medieval to me. I hadn't found any documentary evidence to back up those feelings, and most of the examples I work from are 17th century in style.

But dammit it felt right.

Today I was once again cruising through the British Library's collection of digitized manuscripts, this time I was predominantly looking for images of Noah, tools, and woodworking in general more than pieces of furniture. I found a manuscript Add MS 15268 that comes from Acre, an important city in the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem. Acre was the capital of the Kingdom after the fall of Jerusalem itself. The information calls the manuscript 13th century, predating the fall of Acre itself in 1291.

When I saw it I was struck by the details representing carvings on the edge of the kings throne on the right and on the side of the bench seat on the right. This isn't definitive proof to back up my suppositions regarding the style of carving I enjoy working in and 13th century furniture, but it's a compelling bread crumb.

The designs do have a bit more . . . middle eastern feel . . . I'm not sure how to comment on that clearly, but the basics are there of the "S" style carving and the feel imparted into a lot of the work I've done.

For completeness, here are some of the woodworking images I found in the manuscript. I love how the tools being used are pretty readily correlatable to more modern hand tools. I love the claw hammers in particular, but it's very nice to see a frame saw as well.

Ratione et Passionis

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Step Stool Morning

One of my neighbors was looking for a step stool they could use outside in the garden. He couldn't find what he was looking for so he asked if I'd build one when I had a chance. That was in the neighborhood of two months ago. I decided to finally get around to it. 

I started with a couple of 1x12 offcuts and zero plan, but the end results turned out really nice. I was sad to see the stool go, I kept some measurements and may build another couple as time permits. 

I started by cutting the two ends of the stool and went a little "By Hand and Eye" using the spread width of my hand to set the length (open hand - distance from pinky tip to thumb tip) After cutting one end I used it to measure the second end, Then I squared the two to each other. 

I knew I wanted a strong corner joint, so it was off to dovetailing, marking out wide strong tails and gang cutting both sides together, making sure the "outside" faces of the boards were indeed facing out. Dovetail saw, coping saw and chisel to the scribed line and done. 

I used the ends to mark the mating part for the top. Repeat the dovetail saw, coping saw, chisel routine and we have a joint. There was a gap I would have shimmed on a fine walnut cabinet, but this is a pine garden step stool. Let's just move forward. 

I started to think about the ends again. I wanted a cut out to make legs but the standard arch or ogee just wasn't feeling right. By this point I'd started thinking about the step stool as a riff on a six board chest's design. I remembered a couple boarded chests I'd seen at the Chipstone collection exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum a few years ago

Off hand I'm not certain of the nomenclature for this style of cut-out, my memory calls it "bootjack" but I'm unreliable. At the time in the shop I didn't even bother to go in and look up these photos, I just cooked something up from memory and tried to proportion it well to the size without removing too much wood and thereby strength.

The end result was successful to my eyes. Just what I was looking for. Now I weighed my options for supporting the span of the step and decided keeping with the boarded chest theme to make notches in the ends and rip another 3/4" off each side of the top to make space for sides to be nailed in place.

At some point along this path I drilled a couple 1 1/4" holes along the center of the step and with a little more chisel work made a pick up hole. I glued up the dovetails, nailed on the sides and started to clean things up for finish.

I eased all my corners with spokeshave and chisel and sanded everything down to 120 grit then set the piece aside for the rest of the day.

 I wanted a somewhat durable finish for the outdoors that wouldn't be too slick with a little wet or dirt. Again my memory kicked out reading about glue finishes and I decided to give it a try. I diluted down some PVA glue with water in a 1:1 ratio and brushed on the concoction in three layers, allowing 45 - 60 minutes in between. I shook a little fine sand between the 2nd and 3rd layers to add a little texture to help shoes grip.

The finish came out alright, it sealed end grain and gave a little bit of an egg shell shine without modifying the color of the pine. What more are you looking for? The proportions of this build seem to hit the right notes to my eyes, and that might be the most fun.

I think this is an important exercise. From time to time enter the shop with a vague idea for a simple project, no plans, no measurements, and trust yourself to come up with something on the fly. It tests your problem solving, your creativity, and your skills. Have fun, it's only woodworking.

Ratione et Passionis