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|On the Bench I Saw a Holdfast|
A few years ago I was on a cruise ship and I made it a daily ritual to approach the front desk and complain about something trivial, like a pen that didn't work or something. The patient young lady at the desk was named "Lovely" and she was, always smiling at this funky old man who stood in line to complain about nothing. At the end of a magnificent cruise, just before I left the boat, I approached her one last time.
"Good morning, Mr. Edwards," she smiled pleasantly. "How was your cruise?"
I said, "I want to register a complaint!"
I paused just long enough for her to think to herself, "What is it now?"
Then I said, "There's nothing to complain about!"
In my mind that was funny, but I can understand how she must have been relieved that this was the last time she would have to talk to me. She smiled nicely and said, "I look forward to seeing you again." She was one of the most optimistic and happy people I have ever met.
Life is a process, getting through every day with as little pain as possible and as much pleasure as you can create. If you are happy then the people you meet will be infected with happiness. Life is also a great risk. The only certainty of living is that we will eventually die at some point. Knowing that I will be 70 puts a rather uncomfortable limit on the time left to do the things I need to do.
On the other hand, celebrating the past 50 years of living as a woodworker has been very satisfying and I hope that the rest of my time in this business will continue as much as possible with the same satisfaction.
People I meet often say that I don't look my age. My hair is not grey, my face is not wrinkled, and I am still very physically active. I usually tell them my secret rules for a good life:
Go to bed at 9 and get up at 5. Eat healthy organic food. No alcohol, drugs or tobacco. As little social life as possible. Most importantly, work every day at a job you love. Live with passion.
This year I have been invited to return to Williamsburg as a speaker. They are celebrating their 20th annual Working Wood in the 18th century conference, and the topic is "Workmanship of Risk: Exploring Period Tools and Shops." I am honored to be included. My good friends, Roy Underhill, Peter Follansbee and Don Williams will also be presenting, along with staff members of the Williamsburg cabinet shop and curatorial departments.
For the project we will be discussing an amazing marquetry tool box lid, currently on loan to a museum in England and the property of Jane Rees, a tool historian who lives there.
Her website is: Jane Rees, Photographer and Tool Historian
Jane will be bringing the tool box lid to the conference and she will be discussing its history as well. I look forward to meeting her and listening to her perspective on woodworking tools, many of which I use on a daily basis in my profession. She has been kind enough to send me detailed photographs of the marquetry, and those which I post here are under her copyright protection.
When I "retired" from my career working in High Energy Particle Physics, back in 1973, I made a conscious decision to abandon technology and live, as much as possible, a pre industrial life. Of course I own a car, but I walk to work every day. Of course I own a clock but I never use the alarm. Of course I have a computer but I killed my TV. Of course I have a woodworking shop but I never use power tools. My lumber is naturally air dried over many years.
Early on I was influenced by David Pye, who introduced me to the "Workmanship of Risk" and the "Workmanship of Certainty." Recently I read his book again to prepare for this conference. It still resonates with wisdom and insight.
I have struggled to reduce his philosophical perspective to simple concepts that are more easily transmitted to students who are curious about how I approach my work. There are three elements to working wood: Worker, Material and Tool. The difference between "risk" and "certainty" is in the relationship between these three elements.
In the "Workmanship of Risk" approach the Worker manipulates the Tool against the Work. Using basic hand tools, like a chisel, plane or saw, the Worker learns to control the Tool and takes risks producing the final Work. Learning from his failures the Worker gains a deep sense of pride when the Work is successful.
In the "Workmanship of Certainty" approach the Worker manipulates the Work (material) against the Tool. If the Tool is properly adjusted then the result is certain. Setting a fence on a table saw to 2" produces a 2" board every time. The Worker basically is feeding the Machine. If the Worker wants a better result he purchases a better Machine. Thus consumerism was created by the Industrial Revolution. Bigger, Better and Faster. Also Cheaper!
The pride of ownership replaced the pride of workmanship.
The marquetry tool box lid, which is the centerpiece of this conference, is very interesting. My initial analysis from photos is that it represents several different historic marquetry processes, and was probably made in England around 1800 or so. It shows a worker at the bench, surrounded by his tools and work, drinking a beer. This image is in the center of a sunburst ray of veneer with flowers on the corners and decorative banding around nicely figured crotch mahogany ovals.
I can identify "tarsia geometrica" and "tarsia a toppo" and "tarsia certsonia" and I am researching the images provided by Jane for evidence of "Classic Method" but so far the results are inconclusive. There is also a great deal of tinting and additional decorative lines in both black and brown ink.
I will be producing copies of each of the decorative marquetry elements in this lid for the conference, and the Williamsburg cabinet shop is actually making a full tool box copy to complete the lid.
I can easily relate to the image of the woodworker as executed in the center of the design.
|Working At the Bench|
He is surrounded with the necessary hand tools of his trade: the glue pot and brush, mallet, hammer, planes, drills compass, square, chisels, hand saws and the toothing plane (under the beer.) On the end of the bench he quietly admires the result of his hard work and experience: a decorated tea caddy. Tea caddies of this style were purchased by wealthy clients who could afford the elaborate marquetry decoration shown on this example.
|Put Down the Hammer and Pick Up the Beer|
This worker is dressed in fine clothes, representing a good income and his respected position in the professional trade. He would fit right in with the other workers at the shop in Williamsburg or in any shop in any large city at that time.
His face shows the faint glimmer of a smile. His work is done for the day. He is satisfied with the results. His reward is a tall glass, with a nice head of foam.
Tomorrow he will deliver the tea caddy to the client, and get his well deserved paycheck along with sincere appreciation for a professional job well done.
|A French Marquetry Atelier in Indianapolis|
I am pleased to be invited back for another teaching period at Marc Adams School of Woodworking.
I enjoy the atmosphere and support by the staff at MASW. It is an environment which is full of energy and ideas. The students all work together and many of them seem to actually live there full time. Some of them really do. Others return again and again to share and learn more about different and diverse aspects of woodworking.
I also enjoy meeting other teachers who are working there at the same time. These are professional woodworkers that I read about and follow online, but, without actually teaching at the school, I would never have the opportunity to spend quality time with them.
This year I am teaching three classes, and I welcome you to check out the schedule and see if there are any openings left.
The main class is, as usual, working a full week with the "chevalet de marqueterie." Marc has made 8 of these tools, and it is exciting to see (and hear) a full class sawing away, cutting precise elements from marquetry packets. I should mention that in North America there are only three schools where you can have this instruction. Paul Miller, in Vancouver, is a past student of mine and has the Canadian School of French Marquetry, with 4 chevalets. Of course, I was the first to open such a school, the American School of French Marquetry, in San Diego. I have currently 8 such tools, and have ordered more from David Clark, in Missouri.
David Clark has set up a business making custom chevalets, following my blueprints, and builds tools that are cost effective and precise. His website is www.chevaletkits.com.
A few years ago I convinced Marc to also build 8 such tools and he sets them up each year in a classroom for me to use.
|Waiting for Students to Arrive|
All instruction is following as close as possible the lesson plan developed by Dr. Pierre Ramond, who taught for decades at ecole Boulle, in Paris. I was fortunate to have studied under Pierre for most of the 1990's, and have dedicated my teaching career to continuing his efforts. French marquetry is the only method in the world which uses a horizontal blade, cutting the packet at 90 degrees on a special tool, the chevalet.
There is more information about this process in previous posts.
This year, from October 9 to 13, I will teach a 40 hour class on French marquetry, focusing on the Boulle process (tarsia a incastro) as well as the Painting in Wood variation of this process, depending on the student's experience and goals. If there are any returning students I will be happy to include the Classic Method ("piece by piece").
|Simple Method for Veneering Columns|
On October 14 I will spend the entire day teaching about my method for gluing veneer onto turned wood elements, like columns. Years ago I had such an article published in Fine Woodworking ("Master Class") and one of my pieces with veneered columns was on the back cover. I have worked out a simple method which is easy and low tech. You can turn the elements out of any wood you want and then veneer them with exotic veneer to match the rest of the project.
On October 15 I will follow up this with a full day discussing the properties of traditional protein glues. For nearly 50 years I have used protein glues exclusively, and have researched them extensively. I was involved in an international conservation group in Paris that did specialized research into these glues and I have developed my own liquid protein glue formula, Old Brown Glue. I will be sharing my knowledge and experience about how these different protein glue work and what you need to know to use them in your shop.
As they say, "It is worth the price of admission."
I look forward to meeting you there. Contact www.MARCADAMS.COM for more.
|American Victorian Louis XV Bergere circa 1850|
You may have read my post recently about how modern museum methods are causing traditional upholstery methods to be lost and the craft of upholsterer subjugated to that of the frame maker. As I was working on restoring upholstery I thought it would be a good educational post to demonstrate how I approach conserving upholstery in my business.
I had to recover two English Georgian Lolling Chairs, an early crewel wing chair, some embossed leather Belgium side chairs and a nicely made circular Victorian bergere chair. All of these are now completed and the last one, the Victorian chair, provided me with detailed step-by-step photos of the seat conservation.
In general, I follow as close as possible the methods used by the original upholsterer , conserving the springs and stuffing material, except the cotton batting. I replace the damaged elements using materials which are as close as possible. Jute webbing, spring cord and twine, burlap, muslin and cotton batting are added as required. If necessary, new 100% sterilized horsehair is added where previous stuffing was lost.
Here is a photo sequence of the procedure as it normally happens:
|Replaced Jute Webbing|
|Evidence of Original Webbing|
|Back Foundation Still Good Condition|
|Torn Burlap/Hair Dislodged|
|Previous Conservation Stitching|
|Back Layers/Original Burlap and Stitching|
|White Hair added by Previous Conservation|
|Original Burlap/Spring Cord/Twine|
|Seat Foundation Removed/White Hair Added Previously|
|Underneath Seat Foundation|
It can be cleaned with a vacuum or actually washed and dried using TileX as a detergent. If necessary it can be fumigated by a professional.
|Original Spring Cord Undisturbed|
|Back Foundation Stitching Original|
|Same Mark on Seat Frame|
|Cleaning With Alcohol/ Fresh Shellac Added|
|Springs Sewn to Jute Webbing (4 knot)|
|Springs Sewn to Webbing|
|Original Spring Cord Pattern (8 knot)|
|Note Method of Holding Springs|
|New Cord Added over Old (8 knot)|
|This Will Last a Century More|
|New Burlap Cut to Fit Around Arms|
|New Burlap Sewn To Springs|
|Lead Weight Holds Seat in Place for Tacking|
|Seat Conserved Ready for Fabric Selection|
|Beautiful and Functional But Why?|
I need your help.
A few weeks ago one of my old clients came in with this curious box. He hangs out at estate sales and finds things on Craig's list and is always looking for something unusual. He often discovers amazing things.
After all, isn't that one of the reasons we collect stuff? Not that we need it. If we need something essential we go out and get it. If I need gas I go to the gas station. Not much excitement there...
On the other hand, when I travel I always take time to explore old used book stores, antique stores, used tool shops and even, in some cases, thrift stores. It's the lure of the unknown which keeps me searching.
So this client walks in with this box. It is amazing. Made of Brazilian rosewood with boxwood trim. Made by a professional, probably British. It is about 11 x 12 x 22" in size. I think it' either British or even American since the writing on the drawers is in English.
The locks, keys, hinges and screws all indicate a period before 1850.
|Mid 19th Century Script?|
The secondary wood is Spanish Cedar.
|Lift Top With Two Trays Inside|
The front has double glass doors and the top lid lifts up. There is a lock on the glass doors and a second lock on the lid. Whoever had it wanted to keep the contents secure.
When you lift up the top there are two trays in a till. A very shallow tray on top of a deeper tray. The deeper tray is missing a divide which would go from side to side.
|What Are These Trays For?|
Inside the double glass doors are 4 fake drawers over 6 functional drawers, each with turned ivory pulls.
The amazing and curious feature is how the drawers are divided into strange and complex compartments. I have no idea how these compartments could be used. My only guess is that there was a fad of collecting exotic sea shells in the past. Perhaps these compartments could be designed for shells.
|When I Saw These Drawers I Was Speechless|
However, as the drawers are fairly deep and the compartments rather small, it would be difficult to reach some of the contents.
|What Would You Keep In These???|
Please help me find out what this is. If you have any idea just post in the comments.
Understanding the lost mysteries of past cultures is why we explore.
|Grecian Sofa with Modern Upholstery|
Two recent events are now pushing me to blog once again about my concerns. First, as you know, I just got back from an extensive tour of the East Coast. From Williamsburg to the Met to the Boston MFA and the Getty, I saw the same thing over and over: Important and iconic examples of early upholstered furniture with obviously fake upholstery, evident from across the room. It doesn't even pass the smell test.
The second event occurred this week as I picked up a copy of the 1997 book "American Furniture" edited by Luke Beckerdite. I love this series of books, published each year by the Chipstone Foundation. They are wonderful and full of research. But, when such a distinquished journal publishes articles which can damage the field of decorative arts they need to be identified as such and the article needs a full discussion among professionals.
|Surviving Example of Easy Chair Upholstery|
This is what concerns me. The process of removing original upholstery and replacing it with modern materials has been established by "tradition" for so long that it is no longer questioned as valid. I feel like I'm fighting an uphill battle to get authentic upholstery methods understood and properly conserved before they all are lost forever.
The article which caught my eye is by Leroy Graves and F. Carey Howlett, titled "Leather Bottoms, Satin Haircloth, and Spanish Beard: Conserving Virginia Upholstered Seating Furniture" (Pages 267-297). It represents the state of the art of this process of saving the wood frames at the expense of the upholstery, and, if you go to the Wallace Collection at Williamsburg you will find nearly every piece in the collection has been treated this way.
Let me quote from this article and then respond using simple logic and scientific questioning.
"Because so few objects survive...the preservation of the chair in its current state takes precedence over restoration to its original appearance."
This statement indicates the concern that more and more examples which retain original upholstery layers are being lost. I would therefore conclude that the surviving examples must be protected in their untouched state for future analysis by more competent conservators.
"The conservator is faced with two difficult tasks: preserving extremely fragile upholstery materials when they survive and reconstructing the appearance of the original upholstery..."
Of course the visitor to the collection should be presented with an object which reflects, as nearly as possible, its original condition. My question is: does the replacement of original upholstery with copper, plexiglass, Ethafoam and Velcro effectively present a visually authentic result? Also, what methods are to be used to conserve the fragile materials which are surviving? Are they to be placed in a drawer in a research laboratory completely removed from the object to which they belong?
|How Does This Preserve Upholstery Methods?|
"The conservator's work is typically complicated by the overlapping evidence of numerous upholstery schemes. Distinguising individual schemes can be time consuming and in some instances virtually impossible. To produce a credible reconstruction of historic upholstery, one needs to develop a thorough understanding of the techniques, materials, and tastes of the period and place of production."
This single statement reveals the most important flaw in the logic of this process. Frankly current museum conservators are not seriously researching the upholstery methods, including subsequent upholstery commercial restoration treatments, as much as they are researching the wood frames. When a conservator uses "time consuming" as an argument, he is neglecting the most essential part of his job description. He is tasked, by definition, with taking all the time he needs to fully understand every aspect of the historic object under his control. Upholstery is actually more important than the frame, but the frame gets all his attention.
There are still many old professional upholsterers in most large cities who understand traditional methods of upholstery, and how those methods changed over the centuries. I am a good example. You can just search this blog for "upholstery conservation" and see what I have learned over the past 50 years or so. In particular look at the post from last November (11/29/16) and see what simple conservation methods can produce.
I have learned traditional methods of upholstery by careful deconstruction of original layers, which allows me to understand what was original and what was restored, and when the restoration must have occurred. I then simply replace any damaged or rotten materials with similar materials as closely as I can to the original. Jute, burlap, muslin, cord, twine, cotton are used to replace the same. The springs and organic stuffing are cleaned and retained in all cases. That means treating horsehair, wool, Spanish moss, straw, excelsior, and any other organic material used as stuffing with respect and care. The final result is as close to the original appearance as possible, and can still provide comfort for many years.
As to the damage the upholstery nails cause to the wood frame, which is the main reason for this new "non invasive" upholstery method, that can be resolved with proper techniques. Using the smallest upholstery nail which works is one way. Using a protein glue and a covering of muslin or burlap on the wood is another. In serious cases it is also possible to remove a portion of the damaged wood (which is under the upholstery) and replace it with similar wood.
In the worst case, where the wood frame no longer supports the upholstery a "chassis" or new wood frame can be built to fit inside the old frame. This new frame can then be properly upholstered with traditional techniques and that serves to provide understanding of traditional methods for future analysis.
|This Is Not Period Upholstery|
"The goal of treatment may be to re-create the appearance of one of the early schemes, but this task must be accomplished using unconventional, nonintrusive techniques."
This final statement, which is at the beginning of the article, represents the actual failure in the logic of this approach.
I consider the task of deconstructing upholstery layers similar to that of archeology. In each profession it is the job of the scientist to carefully analyze and document each layer in succession as it is exposed. During the 1870's there was a German archeologist and con man, Heinrich Schliemann, who claimed to have discovered Troy. In fact, he dug without any consideration to the process, throwing all the debris in a trash pile, passing through the historic layer of Troy itself, continuing until he found gold.
Subsequent archeologists now have the difficult task of digging through the trash pile in an effort to understand which object came from which strata.
I see a similar fate for future conservators who struggle to understand historic upholstery methods by looking at a naked frame, covered in nail holes, without any context or relationship to the missing materials.
The next time you wander through a museum looking at the upholstery, take a moment to determine if what you are looking at is authentic or fake.