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

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Buried Below The Skin.

My take on the Roy Underhill / Chris Schwarz nail cabinet is done and hanging on the wall of the winter shop. The ending of a project is always a curious time. You're simply too close to be objective, Some things you're proud of and some things you would like to take a lit blowtorch to.

Often after perspective settles in those things are not as sharp in either direction and some time spent with a piece lets you mellow as it grows into it's old skin.

At this moment, I can't say I really like it. It's over the top and folk arty in a ballistically bombastic way. Once I started down the path I figured in for a penny, in for a pound and pushed it as far as I could. That exploration I'm a little proud of, with or without the technical misses. It's the technical misses that always kill me in the end.

When I built my new work bench this past autumn I decided to add a little bit of flair with a small amount of dot and dart inlay veneer. I decided to repeat this on the nail cabinet.

I wasn't interested in inlaying into the outside of the cabinet. I had plans to milk paint and keep the outside a little rustic to contrast the veneer and parquetry work on the inside. So painting the dot and dart seemed appropriate. That leaves two options for consistency: stencil or stamping. I chose stamping.

I used some two part silicone mold making material to build a flat block and some sharp razors to relieve the simple design from the blocks. I brushed the stamp with black tempera and made the marks around the cabinet. Working back in with a brush to crisp up the lines and cover big voids.

The effect in the end worked out just like I wanted. Once the blue milk paint and black stamps had a couple coats of shellac the look was very nice. I will have to repeat this finish again.

The beginning concept I worked from on this cabinet was to have a stark difference from the outside of the cabinet to the inside. I have a thing about looking inside boxes and behind doors. Museums drive me a little nuts in the fact I can't get a look on the inside of some beautiful work. I like to see the details go all the way through and live more than skin deep.

The veneer work on the drawer fronts is satisfying. There are technical misses and mistakes but those things are to be somewhat expected when exploring a new skill set. In the end I don't like the knobs and I may look to replace them with small porcelain pulls at some point in the future.

The parquetry panel in the door was acceptable to me as a first time exploration, mostly on my own with my own assumptions and mistakes. A close look makes some of the problems very evident. I could have dove in to trying to repair these things and mired myself down. Instead I chose to accept how it turned out and move forward.

Several people more experienced than I were kind enough to offer critique and advise on where I went wrong and what I can do to improve. Including a treasured note and email exchange from W. Patrick Edwards, whose work I love. I'm looking forward to the day I win the lottery and can afford to spend time taking classes from the modern masters I admire.

The inlay banding around the panel is also paint. It was a chance to practice some faux techniques used in grain painting. I have a piece I want to build that has these banding techniques and I wanted to give it a shot here. From two feet away it looks great, closer inspection not as much.

In the end I have to thank Chris Schwarz. When he saw my build on instagram he offered to send some Lost Art Press postcards to adorn the inside. I added a couple other post cards of my own to the mix and I'll keep looking myself for things to add in the future.

So this project is done, on the wall and in use. My wife threatens to steal it for inside the house so I have to fill it with nails, screws, and other hardware quickly so it's too heavy to lift off the wall.

Ratione et Passionis

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Parquetry Requires Patience

One of the surgeons I work for often uses a line I love.

"I'm not interested in making a meal out of a snack."

A more poetic way of saying Keep It Simple Stupid.

I suck at listening to that advice and the humble nail cabinet has paid the dear price. It's like putting a ball gown on a dancing bear. There is no need to add frills to something that is already a spectacle. Still, I have been looking for the proper canvas to experiment on.

Alas the humble nail cabinet.

I'd veneered the drawer fronts and painted the inside of the cabinet is black, You can see it HERE. It was time to start on the door. The original had simple mitered corners. It never matters how careful I am, getting miters as perfect as possible is a challenging thing for me. I didn't want to struggle and I wanted something that felt a little more like me.

I went with hunched mortise and tenon. I will even peg them once everything is put together. I like the permanence of this joint.

I ran out of my pine stock and needed to go buy a board to make the door. I picked up a piece of Aspen because it was more economical than clear pine and because I'd never worked with it before. The stuff works like styrofoam complete with the sticky static cling. It's glaring white clearness makes me consider using it in the place of holly stringing for future inlay projects.

I used the same string inlay cutting device I used to cut the circles on the drawer fronts to cut my variety piles of commercial veneer into 1 1/4" wide strips. Don Williams, Papa Parquetry himself, cuts his own veneer at 1/12th inch thick, much thicker and easier to manage than these thin potato chip veneers. But you play the hand you're dealt, and this time around I had a variety of things.

Following along with Roubo and the Don of Dons, I made a quick cutting jig to turn the strips into parallelograms by making 60 degree cuts.

I spent most of a day in the shop just cutting these veneer "lozenges"

This whole process is something I would certainly love to take a class and get some first hand instruction in this parquetry process. Preferably I'd love to head east to Don's Barn and spend a week or so pestering him with questions and absorbing as much information as I could. Again I'll play the hand I'm dealt and give this a go alone in the shop. I'm girded by the writings and tutorials of both Master Roubo and Williams so the word "alone" is far from true.

Still there is something to be said for striking out alone. Mistakes are life's best teachers and sometimes you figure out a way that works better because nobody was there to tell you it wouldn't work.

I will make it to the Barn one of these days. I'm not going to tackle Boulle Marquetry on my own.

I started out the next day with a field the size of the door panel marked out on a big piece of brown craft paper. I poured a decent amount of Old Brown Glue into a mason jar and immersed that into a hot water bath maintained in an old small crock pot donated to the cause.

Then it was a couple hours of brush glue on the paper, brush glue on the veneer piece, pay attention to the grain direction and veneer color, and stick it down to the paper.

 I understand the intention of parquetry is a lot like using gesso to prime a canvass for painting. The intention is to create a background into which something like floral marquetry is placed and this was my original intention. Maybe not floral marquetry but something like a mariner's compass.

But with such a variety of species to my veneer, and not enough of any one "tone" I had to change the plan and instead of burying the parquetry behind the star, give it a shower, slap on some lipstick and put it in the spotlight. To do this I alternated the tones of light, medium, and dark to make the illusion of directionality and light. It adds to the three dimensional optical illusion that the cubes create on their own.

Besides it makes me think of the old video game "Qbert"

Once the space was filled in I left the piece to dry overnight. I was careful, so careful with the grain directions and colors. It wasn't until the last row I made an error and didn't notice until I was looking at the photos later that evening.

Sigh.  Oh well.

Turns out I had a lot of lozenges left over. I may start doing this to everything. Veneered benchtop?

As I looked at my glued up paper this morning I was a little disappointed at how several of the lozenge corners had curled a bit and lifted off the paper. One more point for the thicker shop cut veneer. Still I didn't think it would be a very big deal.

I brought up the pine panel that was to be the substrate and covered both surfaces with glue.

I have my Roubo Press Vise but only the one right now and it's only wide enough to press half the panel. So I went low tech and piled a shit poop crap doodie big load of books on it.

Half a day later I could feel the glue that dripped down the side of the panel had fully set. What the heck, let's get those books back to holding the bookshelf down to the floor instead.

Here you can see the outside face of the panel. scored for a raised panel. Adhered down to the veneered sheet. I used my hybrid filed tenon saw to cut the excess from the sides.

Then I used a sponge and lukewarm water to wet the craft paper and loosen it's grip on the glue so I could peel it off with my fingernails and a piece of cut saw plate.

Now the panel is sitting and resting. Allowing any of the glue I loosened taking the paper off to reset and later tomorrow I will tooth it, scrape it, and lightly sand it. I'm gonna go polissor and beeswax for the finish here.

My technique is for certain imperfect. There are a few slightly bubbled spots I'll deal with as I move through the final stages. That shouldn't be a big deal. The two important things to remember are this is just a nail cabinet and so I shouldn't fret so and the first one's down and nearly done. Some lessons are learned and my next one will be better.

The first step is supposed to be the hardest right?

Ratione et Passionis

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Thank You Indianapolis.

This past weekend was the last family Christmas get together of 2014 (there is still a friends party to go). This year the my wife's family chose to gather in Indianapolis. I'm not good at sitting still and doing nothing constructive, so I took the chance yesterday and took off with my 15 year old daughter to explore the city.

We went first to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Of course I was most interested in the furniture.

It was fun to see a cabinet like this after the drawer front veneering I've played with lately. I have definitely gained a new appreciation and respect for this work.

 On top of that are some closeups of the boulework on a stand up clock. This work is beginning to intrigue me more and more.

The inlay and detail is amazing.

I have looked at lots and lots of photos and measured drawings of Greene and Greene furniture over the years. Of all the Arts and Crafts movement they are one of my two favorites (Charles Rohlfs is an easy favorite too) but I have never seen any of the pieces in person. I guess I can't say that any longer.

There was a dining set from the Charles Millard Pratt House.

The details on paper and in books are one thing. To see them in person is another thing completely. If you ever can, go see real pieces of inspirational furniture in person. It will fire those synapses in your mind like nothing in a book ever will. That's saying a lot considering how much I love books.

I was truly taken with these brass pin details against the ebony. These are the types of detail I strive for in my work. I often fall short of this, but it reminds me to do better.

There was a gallery of classic American furniture, I found a great example of a corner chair. I'm quite taken by this form.

But this small tiger maple mixing table, was really something special.

It had a slate top, wooden knobs, some subtle grain painting, three drawers, brass wheeled hardware on the legs. Great joinery, proportions and subtle elegance that made it stand out in a room of much more grandiose furniture. Given the high boy in the corner versus this table, for me the table wins hands down.

I'm considering building this one. Maybe even trying to write an article about it. I just have to get my hands on some tiger maple and get someone to fabricate the brass wheels.

There was a large galley of modern design as well. I am not a real fan of these styles or sensibilities. There is something to be said for the timeless fashion of good proportion and construction. I especially have trouble with the postmodernist stuff.

I understand exploring this territory from an artistic point of view, but that's about where my understanding stops. Just looking at it offends my sensibilities a bit.

The only thing in the modern design galleries I found that I liked was a modern dutch chair designed by Hans Wegner and made by Johannes Hansen.

On top of this there are great works by great masters of the Arts. The Van Gogh they have on the walls is one of my favorites (by one of my favorite artists) Several Gauguins and Cezannes. There is nothing quite like visiting a museum in person to add some fuel to your own creative endeavors.

Ratione et Passionis

Friday, December 26, 2014

Finished With These Drawers

There are benefits to writing on a woodworking blog for a length of time. You get the chance to connect with some people you may never meet with otherwise. Those connections pay off. For instance, a little friendly internet banter and the incessant posting of progress pics of a nail cabinet on Instagram and you too may get Chris Schwarz to offer to send you a Calvin Cobb postcard for the door of your nail cabinet.

When they arrive, you know it's Christmas, (or close to it) because  he sent you a few additional postcards to round out the collection.

Thank You Chris.

The veneering of the drawers went well. Considering it was something I had never attempted before. I'm not going to share the process I used because I can't say I've enough success or experience to believe I did any single thing right. In the end the veneers worked and that's great, but I believe in absolute dumb luck and that's possibly the case here.

The veneers only highlighted some of my drawer fitting errors. Well, less errors fitting the drawers and more errors squaring up the egg carton dividers. For whatever reason, doing that before I secured things into place didn't occur to me. Live and learn.

But I knew how to fix hide mask the error. Shadows are swallowed by black so the answer was to paint the inside of the cabinet black. I used a primer followed by a good quality tempera paint. Why tempera? Because it's what I had on hand. The good stuff is better than the cheep crap they hand out to kindergartners by the gallon, the pigments are much more vibrant. They aren't the most durable of paints and the black will wear off in places over time. I am perfectly OK with that. I love when a piece of furniture looks lived in.

I added a layer of wipe on poly over the black, It will add a little wear-ability to the paint. Not too much I hope. I wavered and flip-flopped on the knobs. The wooden ones I bought didn't fit the screws that came with them, frustrating. I fished around and came up with some new screws that worked better. Pan head pocket hole screws. Not a super satisfying solution, but what the heck. It's a nail cabinet for the shop. I soaked the knobs in the last bit of a very, very dark oil based stain for a day and let them sit and dry for two more days after that. The dark little accents are pleasing.

The inside of the cabinet is finished.

Now we can start on the door. Raised panel on the outside and I'm working on ideas for the inside.

Ratione et Passionis

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Dressing Up My Drawers

I've been working hard in the shop on a wonderful distraction. Honestly the Underhill nail cabinet is a fantastic project, just challenging enough yet straight forward enough. It hits that intangible Goldilocks's zone of "just right."  I'm very happy I decided to build one.

I'd spent some time building the carcass, filling it with some egg crate dividers, and attaching battens around the outside. Last Sunday I started the day in the garage at the table saw hacking up every piece of pine I had in my possession to make the drawer parts. I attached the back and fashioned a french cleat to hang the cabinet from.

Getting in on the wall and off my bench was important to clear up space to work on the drawers.

I sorted out the parts into the drawer spaces and called it a weekend.

Throughout the week I'd spend an hour here and there fitting each drawer to it's opening. I'd plane the pieces to fit side to side and then mark them to length. I'd size the bottom to the opening and use that to dictate the rest of the drawer.

When I'd finish fitting all the pieces in a vertical column, I'd build those drawers before I moved on. No highfalutin dovetails or trick joinery here. On the original the drawers are put together with butt joints, glue and brad nails. I sought to replicate that. Until I had an issue.

I've had a little electric staple gun / brad nailer for around fifteen years. I've had a package of 5/8" brads for it for nearly as long, I knew I was running low but after two drawers I had run out. I took off to the home store to find more and thought I was successful. I brought home several packages of 5/8" brads that listed the make and model number of my little nailer on the box.

Unfortunately I was swindled. The brads were all 1/16th too long to fit into the gun. Though it occurred to me I could file or grind down each group of brads to fit that seemed like needless fussing as well. I returned the brads and resolved myself to use staples instead.

I was disappointed at first. I mean what self respecting woodworker uses staples? After a bit I remembered not to take myself so seriously. After all the original was built from a packing box, in the end, staples seems fitting while in this phase of mass drawer construction. Though they are decidedly less dynamic a fastener.

If repairs come up in the future I'm sure to use whatever odd and end I have on hand.

By Friday night I had finished all the drawers.

Now to play a little.

Shop furniture is the perfect place to experiment, I've wanted to do some work with veneers for a while and here was the perfect place to jump in and learn to swim in the current. I wasn't going to be satisfied with just a straight piece of veneer covering the drawer front. Nope, I had to do some pieces and assembly.

I don't own most of the typical tool kit associated with veneering. I've been collecting it slowly, but there are big pieces missing yet. After taking stock of my options I decided, why should that stop me.

My mother is a quilter, I've watched her do it all my life. Parquetry and marquetry remind me very much of her quilts, Different pieces fitting together for a whole. I know a common quilter trick for repetitive pieces is to make (or buy) a Plexiglas template. I decided to do the same, making two templates for the two drawer sizes.

The templates offered support and rigidity to the veneer, allowing me to cut it to size with a rip and crosscut backsaw.

I cut enough so the outside vertical lines of drawer could have dark colored back grounds and the middle line would be light in color. Several years ago I picked up a couple multi-sample packs of commercial veneer at a woodworking show. There was too much variety to do much significant with so I've just held on to them. but the variety is fun to play with here.

A little while ago I managed to get my hands on the Veritas string inlay system. I have plans for a chest with large line and berry string inlays. I lightly hacked the tool to remove circles from the center of every drawer front by using the string cutting blade and the compass point together.

This allowed me to swap the center dot around and get the same fit repeated over and over. No toothing plane in my repertoire, but I do have a fine toothed gentleman's saw I dislike so I held that at 90 degrees to the surface of the drawer front and used it much like a card scraper and achieving a similar surface effect, (I'd almost forgot this part, a shout out to Freddy Roman who reminded me via Facebook. Thanks man!)

A little warmed Old Brown Glue and into the press vise for a few hours.

Out of the press vise. A little trim and work with a card scraper. I think that will do nicely.

It's an odd pairing, stapled drawer joints and veneer. Let's see what else I can do to mess with this concept and get away with it.

Ratione et Passionis