Sunday, January 29, 2017

An 18th Century Style Inlaid Candle Box

I made this box a couple years ago - back before the inception of my blog. This past autumn it sold at the Waterford craft show; so this post is, in part, a chance to show to the kind individual who purchased it, a little "behind the scenes" look at the production process.

As with most things that I make, there was a picture which was the inspiration
for this project; found on a random web-search

The original 18th century box had charm but not enough flourish to be Johann-esque; it was a good source of inspiration, however.

Slabs of locust which will become the box; just enough for the project. Two
will be for the back, one for the bottom, and the last for the top. They are
long enough that two of the cut-offs will make the ends

In 1998 I bought a very large band saw for the purpose of re-sawing timber to make veneer and thin panels, such as these. (I sold it in 2009 when the economy went down the drain) When it was delivered I looked around for something to "try it out" on, and a chunk of locust firewood became the hapless victim. I had no idea at the time what I would do with the pieces once I sliced them up, and most of it got shifted around in my shop for 15 years before inspiration struck on what to use the them for. By that time, they had taken on a nice rich amber orange colour which I so much love in this species of wood. Unfortunately, all of that colour was lost in the planing; intense exposure to sunlight gets it back fairly quickly however.

Planing a glued up two plank panel for the back

Most people have fancy workbenches with lots of ways to hold and cramp their stock in place to plane it; I do not have such luxuries, so I improvise; a couple pieces of five millimetre plywood cramped to the top of the bench serve to keep things in place whilst planing thin parts.

Cutting the shape out for the back panel after planing

My method of trimming dovetails

There are a lot of ways of cutting dovetails and I am no expert at it, I manage to make serviceable joints. There are many ways to cut them and trim them; To work the area between the pins I use a square block to true up the edges with a chisel after cutting away the waste with a coping saw.

Pins and tails cut to match

Final assembly. Notice the worm-hole which can be seen in the second from
left piece in the photo which shows the rough cut stock; this hole might be a
"defect" to some, but for me it is "character".

Looking through several sets of pictures for various projects, I noticed a trend in my habits. I seem to take a lot of pictures at the beginning of the process but as the work progresses, I usually become more involved and forget about keeping up the photography. I have no pictures of making the hole in the back, carving the moulding around the edges, (it was carved with a gouge, not done with a "scratch stock" or plane), nor any aspect of making the lid.

This box and a few other pieces which were made during the same work
period of activity

As soon as it was done I knew that it was not done, because even with the slightly embellished moulding around the edge and the "fancy" hanging hole, it was still just too plain and I was not satisfied with it. I spent a week debating with myself about carving or inlaying the front panel. I did not even attach the bottom because I knew I would have to do more work before I could give it my "seal of approval" or sign my name to it.

Cutting a channel for the inlay

In the end, the inlay idea won out. Nearly as old as the planks which were used for the box was a block of inlay that I had made up to do a restoration project on an 18th century chest of drawers. I made up the individual pieces of ebony and maple and cut and glued them together, then re-cut and glued them up as necessary to achieve the desired pattern. I cannot locate any pictures of my process of making that inlay but below is a picture which shows various stages of different patterns made in the same manner.

Pictured above are various inlay patterns in different stages of production
below that is one of the original 18th century drawers with a piece of the
same inlay banding inset, before colouring to match the original

Finished box with inlay banding; now it looks right

Showing the lid open

I did not plane the back because I wanted to leave the original aging colour
which 15 years of standing around the shop had given to the wood.
When a small piece is finished it gets my logo; larger ones get a signature
and date

Another view which highlights the hand-made character

Locust is a difficult wood to plane because it tends to tear and the fibres are very "stringy" If the grain goes the wrong way you are liable to get a very long splinter ripped out before you know it. The best way to plane the stuff is across the grain, then scrape it with a cabinet scraper to smooth it. This leaves a somewhat undulating surface, but that is fine with me. It is these characteristics which cannot be achieved by machine work but compel me to make my things by hand in the first place. I do not strive for 'dead flat perfection', because I find no beauty in 'overly perfect' objects. They look machine made, and I find no real beauty in them; wood is a natural thing, and part of the beauty of nature is giving the appearance of perfection, but not actually being perfect. The subtle waviness, and variation are what give life and vitality to nature. They are also what makes hand made objects so beautiful, desirable, and worth making in the first place.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Exercising to Stay In Shape and Improve

Most everyone knows that the best way to stay fit is to exercise. I know it, and I also know that I hate doing it. Exercise for the sake of exercise is incredibly boring and even tedious to me. Fortunately I enjoy working so I do not need to exercise so much; I also love dancing, and as long as I make sure to get on the dance floor a few times a month, I get enough aerobic exercise that I do not need to do push-ups and jumping-jacks. I have recently realised that my attitude to the exercises of carving and drawing, though, are much like my attitude towards physical exercise. To me it has always seemed pointless to just carve or draw with no apparent purpose (as in, not producing something). I also have realised that, metaphorically speaking with regards to carving, I am very flabby, and need lots of exercise.

I have always liked drawing with a Biro, I usually use black ink but this
blue ink looked nice on Manila paper.

When I was working on the drawings for my moulding project, I realised that even though I know the general look and feel of Rococo design, I am very illiterate in the language of this style. The artists who developed this new art of the 18th century were constantly surrounded by the types of ornament which led up to it, and were surrounded with these elements every day. They also worked in shops in which they were employed doing carving or plaster work on a daily basis and thus were very adept in this type of work. I, on the other hand, grew up in a world where most people almost never even see anything carved let alone are fluent in the language of a particular period of artistic taste. Because of my lack of fluency, if I want to design something I have to pour over books looking for pictures of things that looks similar to what I wish to make and then try to adapt them as best I can. I get very frustrated at my inability to transform from my imagination to physical reality in this style.

When I was making this hanging shelf I really struggled with the design for the
carving; in the end I just fudged it as best as I could. It works for anyone
who is not intimately acquainted with 18th century art, but it would not fool
any serious art historian. (good thing I was not trying to)

It has recently occurred to me that one of the ways I can improve my abilities in this regard is by the simple act of exercises. In drawing classes one of the biggest obstacles which students must overcome is the inability to let the eye observe what is actually there instead of letting the mind dictate what it thinks it sees. The best way to overcome this problem is to keep drawing things and forcing the eye and hand to focus on the details. This is useful when it comes to carving as well, I see a leaf, a flower, or a "c-scroll" and think I know what it is, but since I am not fluent in the language my end results are very much like a person learning to speak another language; no matter how much thought he puts into what he says, and tries to remember what he has learned, he will still sound like a foreigner learning to speak another language. The only way to become fluent is with lots of practice - Exercise.

A lack of proficiency and rustiness in the field of drawing means that I need
lots of exercise 
I do not like New Year resolutions and thus never make any, but perhaps an
unofficial one this year is to spend more time drawing and practicing.
After all, I call myself an artist.

I have been doing a bit of exercise this week with the aim of more careful observation of the elements of 18th century French design, because I would like to be able to 'speak' more eloquently in the art, and realise that my best efforts are currently not much better than "Me Tarzan, you Jane". I have come across a couple of artists over the past year (Patrick Damiaens and Alexander Grabovetskiy) whose carved works puts me to shame; it also gives me inspiration to try to improve my abilities and therefore I must get into the 'gym' and get busy doing some exercising.

Doing these drawings actually helps in two ways, I learn to observe the details of design better and I practice my draughting skills at the same time; the more beneficial exercise is, the less tedious it can seem. I know this is no masterpiece, and will never hang in a museum, but one can still feel good about his work if he has put honest effort into it and works with the aim of always improving; never being happy with remaining the same. Sometimes it is difficult to get better at doing something, but anyone who does not wish to do the work required to improve himself certainly will not.

One of the best ways to keep at an exercise program is to be able to see
results. It feels good, and gives one something to feel good about.

Happy New Year