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