Monday, June 15, 2009

My Bug Door

I had an idea rattling around in my head for a while, several years in fact. I'm always scanning the horizon for forms that will translate well into carvings. I loved experimenting with Celtic knotwork and imagery in shallow relief. The lines stand off the background in something of the same way that veins stand off the skin. I love that veinous quality, especially when it is exaggerated by inter-twining.
Insects struck me as delicately sculptural. They also represented a challenge.. the detail would be daunting. The idea of a door with ten panels and with a different insect portrayed on each panel seemed like a formidable piece of work and I was intrigued by the overall look of such a door. It reminded me some of an oriental carpet with a panel motif.

The drawing in the Peterson's Field Guide provided the image exactly as I hoped to carve it. Symmetrical, flat and with a lot of good detail. As the idea evolved I saw the door almost like a quilt. A quilt found in an Egyptian tomb. I enlarged the image to a dimension that fit well into the panel and made several copies. With one copy I cut out the body so that I had one template for body and one for legs.

When I studied with Ian Agrell in San Francisco I was annoyed at his teaching style, which was to poke his head into the studio in the morning, ask if there were any questions, and head for the bay for a day of sailing. A very hands-off instructor.
I was having some difficulty with grain lifting out on an acanthus leaf and I asked his advice. His suggestion was to lean into the piece... get right down on it, and say to myself "don't lift the grain,,, don't lift the grain". At the time I thought it was pretty absurd advice, lacking in any kind of real technical help.
Carving, though, provides a very immediate and accessible flow of information. The quickest way to learn how to carve is to carve. The feedback is unmistakable. As I went after some of the more delicate elements, the legs and tentacles for example, I found myself getting very close and saying to myself... "don't lift the grain". This is a tricky operation, especially on an inside corner where the grain is going against the direction most easily approached with the gouge. The tendency is to push your luck, and in fact, sometimes the grain doesn't lift. But when it does it can be disastrous and most often it does.
After my summer with Ian in San Francisco I sent him a scathing evaluation of his teaching style. I owe him a follow-up acknowledging his wisdom.

I do my best work when I attempt something that seems initially beyond my capability. Part of the attraction to a project that seems over my head is compensation for having never completed my formal education and although I agree with the sentiment that the education of the self-taught is inherently limited, it's how I learn. The two sides of that coin are, heads.. the excitement of the challenge, the satisfaction of pushing myself beyond my current limits.. and, tails...the trepidation and doubt that I can actually ascend to the aspired-to level of expertise. I experience both of these aspects fully.
Watching TV a few weeks ago I stumbled onto American Idol, the pop star competition. They were auditioning potential contestants and were getting a lot of mileage out of showing the most inept auditions and then the brutal, devastating critiques from the panel of judges One after another of these poor deluded souls tried to pull themselves up to another level by screeching an ungodly version of some pop tune. Even in the face of the rudest rejection, these unfortunates were convinced that they had what it took to get to the top. This is deluded, not admirable.
Early into the insect carving phase I imagined myself similarly deluded and without a Simon Cowell to set me straight. No one had the nerve to tell me my carving sucked and that I ought to consider another line of work before I embarrass myself again by pawning off amateurish carvings as art.

Saturday, May 30, 2009


My wife and I remodeled our 1923 bungalow last year. As often is the case, the scope of the work mushroomed as we uncovered structural weaknesses, water damage, and the normal ravages of time on natural materials. The one gaping detail that remained unfinished (there are some others, less gaping) was our closet doors. I have been guilty in the past of allowing unfinished details to remain unfinished for, well, for as long as I could get way with avoiding them. I'm getting better about this and as Catharine's birthday approached I thought it would be fun to complete the shoji doors for her birthday, surprising her in more ways than one.

We found a great source for the shoji paper in Wisconsin..... They offer a broad selection of materials ranging from the traditional washi, usually, and incorrectly referred to as rice paper, to rigid translucent panels for outdoor use. We chose a laminate that is flexible and light, like paper, but far more durable and washable.

I'm not accustomed to working with such delicate structures as the thin lattice in shoji. The "kumiko" lattice is 1/4" x 3/8" and where the pieces overlap with a half lap joint they shrink to 1/4" x 3/16". It's very easy to snap the kumiko at the lap joint. I anticipated this, though, and made plenty of extra. The lattice strengthens with each operation and when the lattice pieces are mortised into the frame the whole thing starts to hold together. Even the paper adds rigidity. The engineering is such that the completed panel is just strong enough to do its job as long as you don't get too rambunctious around it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Cloud Lift

We live in a world full of details, swim in an ocean of small things. We define ourselves as either one of those types of people who is detail oriented or is better at managing "the big picture". Architectural detail seesaws its way through history giving us at various times the Temples of Khajuraho in India, dripping with erotic ornamentation, not a square inch of surface left unadorned, and at another time the sleek but numbing vacuity of mid century unadorned modern.

I'm thinking now, though, of one detail, the cloud lift. The Cloud Lift probably originated in China and shows up extensively in Chinese furniture like this lamp table.
That little upward curve in the lower rail is a cloud lift.California bungalow masters Greene and Greene built a significant career and a durable legacy on the shoulders of this humble detail using it, seemingly, at every opportunity. As ubiquitous as the cloud lift may be in the homes of Green and Greene it never seems over used. The simplicity of the cloud lift is stunning. It's as if you took a straight line and just nudged it over a little bit. A little curve in the road.
If the cloud lift was a sound it would barely squeak... if a musical passage it would be a whole tone interval played "pianissimo".

What's the point? You might ask that about any level of ornament but I'm especially curious about this subtle and pervasive little piece. The simple answer is that it takes a plain straight line and makes it prettier or more interesting. I think, though, that there is more going on than meets the eye. A detail, even one as gentle as the cloud lift, engages the attention in a way that demands that we notice where we are. It plucks an aesthetic/emotional string and sets up a resonance between us, internally, and the space around us. If we've forgotten, it reminds us that we actually have an internal life and that we have a say in what we hold in there with our attention. That might seem obvious but I notice how often I walk around with my sphere of attention hovering around my ears like a swarm of mosquitos, oblivious to much of what is appearing before me. How I manage my attention has everything to do with my experience and with how connected I feel to the world around me. So I thank the humble cloud lift for goosing my consciousness out of its self absorption.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Nora Hall is a Human Treasure

Nora Hall is an 87 year old third generation carver originally from Amsterdam, now living in Michigan. She learned to carve in the Classical European style from her father and has been carving for around 70 years. I just returned from three days of instruction with her. I am a lucky guy.

I discovered Nora on the web a couple of years ago. On her web site she offered her instructional videos for sale or for download. The cost to download for a thirty day period was ridiculously inexpensive, a practice she has since discontinued, understandably. The information on her video was so profoundly helpful that it radically improved my carving and reduced the time I spent on a project. Better carvings in less time. What was most interesting about her advice was that it was in direct contradiction to the instruction of my first carving teacher. I had to ask...what else did I learn from him that was fostering bad habits? Plenty, it turns out.

Learning to carve, it turns out, is a lot like learning a golf swing. It's very hard to explain, involves complex and elusive combinations of muscles and movements, and requires seemingly endless repetition to drill into your muscle memory. Nora reduces the process to some simple basic components that are fairly easy to grasp. Anchor the wrist of the hand holding the gouge. I had been anchoring at the forearm. Make small controlled shallow strokes. I had been gouging out the wood in wide passing strokes. I thought that's why they called it a gouge. And never..... NEVER MAKE A STOP CUT. A stop cut involves stabbing the end of the gouge straight into the grain of the wood, a technique I was introduced to by my first teacher, who remains unnamed.

I came to the three day class a bit cocky. I've been carving a while. I'm no master but nor am I a beginner. I was quickly humbled by the first simple exercise she gave us, a very basic flower. Using Nora's unfamiliar methods I struggled with it like a father's first diaper change. The movements were awkward and unfamiliar and my flower didn't look any more advanced than anyone else's. The diaper change metaphor was apt on so many levels. It became clear that the weekend was to be an exercise in re-training my muscle memory and not one of producing a carving of any consequence.

Nora is hands on. She pins your wrist to the bench with her forefinger to emphasize the weight that should be anchored there.. down into the bench. She picks up your gouge and in a few deft strokes erases your last two hour's progress and shows you a better way. She stresses the importance of carving right and left handed. She shows you how when she pushes with her right hand she grasps the end of the gouge but when she pushes with the left, she pushes with an open palm. When you try this out you notice the difference.

She tells stories of getting through the war in Holland, of people tearing up the timber cribbing that supported the trolley line for firewood. She tells about working in her father's shop as a young girl, about how she took on a project her father declined for a furniture maker who had 400 dining sets with six chairs each that needed carved backs. The carving was very simple... but do the freakin math!

I am not going to have stories of that caliber to tell younger people when I'm 87 and I'm afraid we're just not making people like Nora Hall anymore.

Thank you for staying with me for this. I have one last thing, if you'll bear with me. Look at this photo. Look at the strength in this woman's hands. What's less apparent, but far more profound is the knowledge contained therein. I cannot tell you how awed I am by that.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

My Current Project

This is how a project starts. A simple sketch. I don't use CAD because I can do this faster, it has a human quality, and it conveys the idea at least as well as a computer generated drawing can. My customer needed interior doors as well. I've had the thought that there should be a hierarchy of detail that lavishes the most elaborate detailing on the exterior door. The interior doors should echo the front door but should be more simple. Like this....

Even the drawing is simpler. The customer liked the design for the exterior door, and although one of the consequences of the ravaged economy was to postpone the exterior work on the renovation, they chose to use the more elaborate design for the ten interior doors.

My shop is small and an order for multiple doors takes a good bit of planning and careful utilization of space. Storing enough lumber for ten doors takes some consideration. In order to complete this project efficiently, all 120 parts had to be put through each phase of fabrication together. This not only adds efficiency, it's the only way to insure accuracy. I don't want to have to set up a tool for an operation more than once. It tempts fate and invites error even if miniscule.


I buy a lot of my lumber from Cramer Lumber, a large outfit in Hickory, NC. They have three large yards on the east coast with many hundreds of thousands of board feet of inventory. Much of their business in Hickory was supplying a large and thriving local furniture market. Outsourcing has made a lot of that business go away and Cramer has had to adapt to a shrinking market. This has been good news for me in that they welcome my small orders of 200- 500 board feet of lumber at a time. I'd order more but storage space in my shop is limited. The guys at Cramer have done a great job of making me feel like a real customer. That goes a long way toward building customer loyalty with me.

The pictures above and below show the 600 board feet of cherry for the set of interior doors. Below is a bunch of it jointed, ripped, and planed to thickness. The above picture shows how the lumber arrived, random widths of rough cut boards. I pass the rough boards across the jointer to get one surface flat. The planer cuts the other surface parallel to the jointed one and then shaves the board down to the desired thickness.

The wood in the rough state can be quite irregular. The surface can cup in the kiln during drying, a board can bow or warp along its edge. The jointing process is critical for creating a flat surface in irregular lumber. If the irregularity is severe, you can remove a lot of material on the jointer before you achieve flatness. You have to start out with rough lumber thick enough to leave you with the desired thickness after jointing and planing. These boards were about 1 5/8" thick in the rough state when they arrived. That gave me about 1/4" to get flat and parallel at 1 3/8" thickness. It proved to be enough, although I had to pick through the pile to find pieces flat enough for the longer stile pieces (the vertical parts). The advantage here was that I didn't have to spend a lot of time getting the boards down to the proper thickness. It didn't take too many passes through the planer and the planing resulted in a minimum amount of waste.


Setting up a tool for a specific operation can take far more time than the actual milling of the part. To be able to run ten or twenty pieces through a single operation adds a real economy the production process. Here the door parts have been milled, except for the panels. I check for fit before proceeding with the mortise joinery. A good bit of hand work comes into play as I prepare to mortise, cleaning up joints and making sure the components are tight. Once I have a good fit and the mortises cut I go ahead with the glue up. Glue up is a little stressful in that you have a limited working time once you apply the glue, depending on the type of glue you use. I always make a dry run with tenons before gluing. I don't want to be interrupted at this point and have been known to bark at the unexpected visitor who happens to stroll into the shop during a glue up.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Cast Glass Panels

This is the fifth project my wife, Catharine, and I have worked on together. She is a glass artist, by way of a couple of decades hand-building porcelain sculpture. She has been casting glass panels for my doors and I haven't been this excited about anything in a long time. Catharine starts out making an exact replica of the panels in clay. The pieces are thick and chunky and contain designs in relief. A panel can range from 3/8" thick to 1" or more. From these original pieces she makes a plaster mold into which she can arrange glass powders of different color and opacity and then adds larger chunks of casting glass to fill out the background. They get fired and annealed and any final adjustments in size can be made by grinding and polishing. The end result is a panel that does not resemble anything else. It doesn't look like stained or leaded glass. There is a frosted quality to the surface and a marvelous optical quality. The edges of the raised areas refract light beautifully.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Seal of Martin Luther

I was asked by a Lutheran Church to create a door for a chapel. The only design specs the pastor asked for were a carved Celtic cross on one side and the seal of Martin Luther on the other. The seal is an the emblem of the Lutheran Church and it is a lovely image.... a rose with heart in the middle and a cross inside the heart. I grew up in the Catholic Church, which is to say that I grew up believing that Martin Luther was an awful heretic. After researching the man and his seal I've come to view Luther as a courageous man who went up against a very powerful and corrupt authority in Rome.

The seal was a pleasure to carve. The Celtic cross was not so much. It was a lot of detail to coax out of a very coarse grain. Here's the cross: