March 2012 Archives

Spring 2012
In designing furniture — and I daresay anything else — one must first have some acquaintance with mechanical work. Without this it is Impossible to decide how the material — in this case principally wood— can be used to the best advantage, without cumbersomeness on the one hand or fragility on the other. After this, convenience must be studied. Is the design suitable for its intended purpose? To take an extreme case for the sake of illustration, in designing a chair for ordinary use would anyone raise the seat three or four feet from the ground? To do so, of course, would be absurd, for such a height would, except for special purposes, not be pleasant. One could not sit at an ordinary table in such a chair nor put it to the intended use of a chair. Fashion, further, has much to do with design, for it must not be forgotten that those who cater for the public must do so according to popular demand. If one asks who creates fashion, what can the answer be? It is a species of evolution, but in its origin is so intangible that it cannot be grasped. It is like the fog — very undefined, but with a very unmistakable reality. Is, then, the fashion in furniture not influenced by the designer or the manufacturer? To a great extent it is, but he does little more than apply his skill in such a direction as may, in his opinion, best supply the demand. For the rest the designer must rely on his own resources and his general ideas of what constitutes a beautiful object. At the present time fashion seems to require that everything must be cheap as well as pretty, the latter being an unknown quantity.

D. Adamson, A Chat About Furniture, Work: The Illustrated Weekly Journal for Mechanics Voi. 1 No. 1. March 23, 1889
Stickley 72 Magazine Stand

I finally made it through this one. It's a copy of a Stickley #72 magazine stand, and it only took me 7 weeks and much fussing and cussing. I learned a lot though, including the lesson that I prefer hand tools for most precision work. I screwed up the legs on this piece twice and had to make them over due to router mishaps. I bought a plow plane, and things finally made more sense. The primary problem with power tools is that you can't really see what you are doing most of the time and when things go wrong, it's almost always fatal. There are some botched spots on this, but they didn't mean starting over— they just meant accepting that I'm human.

I like the way the top finished up:

Stickley 72 Magazine Stand

I pretty much followed the plan from Popular Woodworking's Arts and Crafts Furniture Projects except I did curve the sides to match an actual Stickley piece from an auction site. I thought it looked a bit better that way. Next up, I think I'm going to build a Limbert bookcase with glass doors. I have most of the panels glued up and the pieces rough cut already. I've been sticking to cherry wood for this crop of projects. I actually worried that it was longer than seven weeks since the last finished project, a faux Arts and Crafts bookcase from the same book:

Latest project

I didn't write anything about that one, because it was pretty basic. Nonetheless, it did involve 24 mortise and tenon joints and was a good thing to practice on. This magazine stand, however, marks my first attempts to use the router plane, the plow plane, and the spokeshave. Of course it's got its rough areas, but eventually I think I might actually become passable at this furniture building stuff.

I used to think that the running thread in your work was your interest in objects—the tools, for example—whereas now it seems that the real running thread is your interest in translating those objects into pictures.

Yes, that’s the running thread—the alchemical aspect of it—turning shit into gold, hopefully. That’s always been my intention. I’ve never been a reporter. And if I have a romance with the objects that I’m drawing, it’s more important that I have a romance with the mark that I am making.

. . .

I’m also going to have a show at Pace[Wildenstein] in April 2007 of paintings and sculptures of Pinocchio. I’ve been making the sculptures in wood for two or three years, cutting them in wood with a chainsaw.

I can see that you’re fascinated by the story.

This idea of a talking stick becoming a boy, it’s like a metaphor for art, and it’s the ultimate alchemical transformation.

Robert Ayers Interview with Jim Dine

Discussions about tools are a sore spot for me. Don't get me wrong, I use tools, research them, and generally have a good working relationship with them— but I do my best to resist fetishizing them. I think it's just my background as a photographer. One of my favorite sayings (I'm not sure of it's origin) is that what separates painters from photographers is that painters can have long discussions that don't involve brushes. The obsession with equipment that drives most "hobbyists" is what separates them from those who I think are serious about the craft. Yes, to make things you need tools— but there is absolutely no reason to discuss them all the time.

I remember listening to a National Gallery podcast discussion with Jim Dine a while ago and the moderator asked him "why tools?" Dine replied that his family owned a hardware store, so they were simply around all the time. Dine is obsessed with drawing, and drawing involves looking very intensely at things. Yes, there are metaphorical connotations to tools, but mostly they were there to look at and explore drawing. Looking at things hard is the cornerstone of interesting photography, in my estimation, as well. It is seldom rewarding to read significance into things instead of looking at them. The attachment of inflated symbolic significance to objects is an accurate definition of fetish. The antidote for that, I think, is simply looking — not glancing or casual looking— but looking hard.

Nonetheless, looking can itself become a fetish because privileging it symbolically gives priority to one sense above all others. I've always been attracted to sculpture because in a lot of ways it is a relief from the rigors of concentrated sight. This is not to say that sculpture isn't a visual medium, but rather that it is so much more than that. To appreciate a sculpture, you've got to move around it. Some sculptures also invite touch. Touch, I think, is the most natural way to relieve the stress of looking. If it looks smooth, you can touch it to know its texture in a far more profound way than you can by any amount of concentrated looking. Traditionally, the activity of reading also involved touch because one holds the page and feels the presence the book, even if only liminally. Computers/readers are changing that.

I find it interesting that contemporary books on woodworking deploy cliché photographic techniques (black and white, selective focus, close cropping) to emphasize texture and warm sepia tones evoking nostalgia to promote the fetish nature of hand work. It's part, I think, of the transposition of reality to screen which has brought these tired techniques to the forefront. You can't touch the book/screen to feel the finish so this probably seems an improvement to most authors and editors over the traditional glossy-color wet page with illusionistic depth. In the end, this arty photography provides less information. A reader is unable to see the full dimensions of an object. From the perspective of technical communication,  it's a huge fail: useless "pretty" pictures.

To match these new visual strategies, there are also new/old rhetorical techniques: Good old fashioned purple prose. My most recent encounter with it is a very handsome, lushly illustrated volume from 2009 by Tom Fidgen, Made By Hand. I like the book quite a lot, and the emphasis of the book is less detailed regarding tools themselves while maintaining focus on the new/old perspectives facilitated by classic tools. The projects are a cut above the typical do-it-yourself content, though I was really dissappointed in the level of detail regarding the joinery. An Amazon reviewer summed it up nicely, remarking that the pictures were pretty but the explanation left much to be desired. I hope Fidgen does another book avoiding the Pinocchio affect:

Enter the hand tool woodshop. People can easily spend small fortunes on the newfangled handsaws and reissued hand planes. Imported chisels from foreign shores where they're still being made to serve a practical purpose and not for the enjoyment or entertainment of the amateur woodworker.

There is a place for these tools, working towards a reachable level of fine workmanship in the home or hobby woodshop. A work space may be only a small room in a condo, rising out of a skyline 50 stories above the street. No trees for miles, an asphalt landscape, where finding anything handcrafted would be next to impossible. Even here, in this cold space of steel and cement, the woodworker hides, dreaming of crafting that perfect piece of furniture. Wishing only to use his hands and his hand tools: quietly shaping and sculpting.

A modern day Gepetto, creating thoughtful pieces of woodwork, worthy of true magic.

Tom Fidgen, Made By Hand (11).


Post junior-high woodshop, around 1982, my most memorable project was a set of record crates from oak to hold my record collection. I set about building them in an upstairs apartment with no patio. I nicknamed the place "The Holiday Inn" because the place looked just like one. Using a workmate and hand power tools, I dusted the walls of the apartment with sawdust— this was long before this new "hand tool revolution." It wouldn't have been any more romantic with hand tools, I think. It was frustrating and I never could afford to build enough crates. Wood costs money.

I was a stone-broke Geppeto with only a few tools. The few crates I made were smashed to bits when the U-Haul truck rolled during my move to Arkansas in circa 1994. Most of my remaining tools disappeared in Arkansas; I left a lot behind for the move to Minnesota. 

I haven't had a lot to show for my labor lately. A great deal that has been going on is adjusting to different tools and the way they work. I was a bit surprised to see this segment on the Cobert Report on the possibility of new table saw legislation a few weeks ago, and then yesterday I discovered Don Bowman's Power Tool Song. There aren't any transcriptions of the lyrics about, but one of my favorites is regarding chain saws: "the only tool that comes with a first-aid kit and a 'Hire the Handicapped' bumper sticker." Tools can be dangerous. I have all my fingers and toes after many years of working with them and I aim to keep it that way. The best way, I think, is probably to avoid using table saws at all. I have only recently figured out why: basic physics.

The centrifugal force of a round blade spun by a powerful motor does some tricky things. It is mostly impossible to cut a truly straight line on one because the blade pulls the rear of the workpiece into the blade, creating a subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) banana shape to the line. Coupled with a rip fence, this can cause binding and kick-back where the tool throws the board back at you. Wood is not velveeta, and contains internal stresses as well that can pinch the wide round blade aggravating the problem. It's not just a matter of not putting your fingers into the tool, it's also a matter of not having the tool suck you into it! I'm on my second or third little contractor saw, and it's probably going to be my last. I'm tired of fighting with these things.

Hand tools can be a problem as well. Not because they are prone to injure you, but because it's easy to slip and mess things up. Or, in the case of saws, cut cock-eyed or twisted. It came to me in a flash what the basic problem is: it's not the tool that screws things up, it's the motor. In the case of hand tools, the motor is your body. If you stand wrong, you saw wrong. It's not the quality of the tool that fails, generally, it's the quality of you and your skill level. That puts a different spin on it entirely.

An aside: I often find myself complaining about Chris Schwartz's tool fetishism, but I must say that when I wanted to figure out how to use my new plow plane The Anarchist's Tool Chest had the most succinct and useful description of how to approach it.

Building a cattle grate
Dad finishes up the cattle grate for his place in Summerfield, Oklahoma- photo by my mother.

Although my father apprenticed as a carpenter, his real core skill area was the torch. I'll never forget the time I twisted off a tripod screw in the bottom of my first camera and my dad fixed it— with an oxyacetylene torch. Working next to springs and wires scarcely bigger than a hair, he delicately brazed a piece of rod onto the stub and twisted the broken piece out. No damage to the electronics of my old Canon FTb. I was impressed. I was more used to him welding old drill casing together into fence rails, or building gates. Much of my childhood was spent unloading his truck as he hauled old metal scrap home (at 20$ a ton, as I recall) to make the stuff that surrounded our home: irrigation systems, fences, clothesline poles, etc. He made jack-stands and A frames for hoists, virtually anything you could think of to keep a small farm equipped. Even after he retired, it would never occur to him to buy most things— he'd rather make them with scrap metal and fire.

My father was never picky about his tools. He was constantly on the lookout for things people lost by the side of the road, or things that broke at the shop he worked at in the oilfields. There were very few things in his tool assortment that hadn't been touched by a torch. Some things worked better than the stuff you could buy, such as his heavy metal jackstands. Other things, well, not so much. After he died (about nine years ago) I bought my mom a new set of pruning loppers. Dad used a pair that had half-inch pipe brazed on as handles because the wooden handles had broken. He fixed them, but my mother could no longer lift them without him. Many of the objects he made are rotting in a collapsing house in eastern Oklahoma, along with his tools. He gave them to my brother Steve when he could no longer use them. Arthritis in his hands finally got the best of him.

When Dad died, I was engaged in symbolic work. I was never very good at the manual trades; my brother was much better. I'm pretty sure he'd be happy I work more with my hands now, but he'd also be chuckling at my ability to overcomplicate things. I think though, in retrospect, that I came by this tendency naturally. Exhibit A, a tiny (6") pair of vise grips from my dad's toolbox:

My Father's Vise Grips

The repair to the upper jaw is fairly obvious, but what doesn't show at first glance his "repair" of the spring that holds the jaws open. Apparently, it was slipping off so my dad fixed it, quite literally.

My Father's Vise Grips My Father's Vise Grips

The third detail, which I didn't photograph, is the way my father "improved" the screw threads on the main adjuster. The large screw at the back is threaded through an opening in metal that has just been folded together- a detail common to all vise grips. My father apparently felt this was weak, so he brazed the metal closed around the screw without damaging the threads. That's the overkill/overcomplication gene at work, I think. To buy a new pair of vise-grips would have just been a couple of dollars, but why do that when this tool could be fixed?