Nooz from the Woodies
– No3 December 2007
“Lucky old Jack”
I am lucky enough to say that i have a friend who owns an entire village. Not a big village mind you, but a relatively small Devon village not too far from where I live. It’s a very pretty village with a mediaeval church and a post office and a school and a row of little houses on the main street all owned by my friend Jack. Now Jack is a decent enough chap. He’s lucky enough to be the beneficiary of a family trust, which owns from what I can gather a large part of St John’s Wood in London. Income from the trust being distributed around the family and used to maintain their various properties. Jack I have to say doesn’t do a stroke of work but keeps himself gainfully occupied whizzing here and there having a nice time. Now Jack tells me he gets a terrific amount of satisfaction out of the improvement and maintenance and keeping in good heart of these properties in this village. They all look now in good repair, all painted in the colours of New England Martha’s Vineyard seaside properties and everything is Tickety Boo. But when I quiz Jack about his actual involvement it comes down to the fact that his architect has made most of the aesthetic choices, his contractors have done the actual work, his tenants are the grateful beneficiaries, but Jack’s the guy that feels he’s done something worthwhile.
So what’s that got to do with the price of eggs, as my mother would say? Well I strongly believe that in order to have genuine fulfillment one has got to put something in. Actual involvement, real physical doing. I know that sweat and toil is not fashionable this month but there is no getting away from it. The act of making is putting in, sometimes tough physical putting in. The act of dragging a piece of furniture out of raw timber can involve us in months of head scratching and graft. True, these days like Jack I can sit in my studio and write Nooz letters. I don’t make much furniture, and every attempt I have to get back on the bench seems to be thwarted by a cleverer and cleverer client offering me extraordinary riches to stay away from the chisels and design them new and wondrous furniture. But we are making and we are doing and we are creating pieces of furniture out of the raw boards and bringing them into the world. That “doing” seem to me rather rare and rather different from waving your arms and getting hold of architects and builders to do the job for you.
Running a workshop like this means my time is chopped up into little pieces and I barely have the concentrated making time to polish a sample for a client or make a model for a prototype chair, but something in my water tells me that if I were to give up my bench space to more useful workshop members than me it would be weakening. I would be damaged by it. Around about this time a year ago I promised myself a Madonna like reincarnation. I know that I have about, if I’m lucky 20 or 25 more years of good wood working in front of me and that could be a real Golden Period of furniture making if I treat it carefully. I could make some informed, challenging, and gobsmackingly beautiful pieces of furniture in those 25 years, but to do that I need to manage my time much more carefully. I need to probably work for fewer clients who have greater vision and larger pocket books and the ability to let me off my leash now and again. So for the past year I have been looking very hard at what kind of jobs we are taking on, really in an effort to stop running around after clients so much. Looking hard at jobs that are not taking me in to new ground. I’ve always found my clients challenging and a necessary part of my creative process, but sometimes you do need clients that give you a degree of freedom and autonomy. It seems also that just as i am trying to cut down my work for clients new faces emerge to tempt me to do something extra ordinary……
I spoke last week about the “definitive dining table” that I am pleased to say we now have had confirmed and know that we are going to be making in the coming couple of years, but this month I want to talk about “The Great Bed Of Thame”.
“The Great Bed of Thame”
It began one morning when an e-mail came through asking me to contact somebody about a possible commission. I saw the e-mail address was a corporate website and very nearly didn’t respond to it. I don’t do much corporate work, I find working on boardroom tables and CEO’s desks one of the least inspiring pieces of work that a furniture maker can be asked to do, especially if an architect is involved. It’s alright if you’re working for one person, it’s going to be their desk, that’s not so bad, but if it’s a whole corporate committee you are into a nightmare scenario, which is why I work almost exclusively on private commissioned work. Stuff for peoples homes.
I like working on peoples homes and i have seen some spiffy places in my time but I wasn’t quite prepared for this home. I rang this chap and he turned out to be somebody I’d met nearly 15 years ago at an exhibition in London. I’d done some drawings for them at that time, but they decided at the time to proceed in a different direction. Rather than buying modern furniture they’d decided antiques were the direction that they would go. Anyway, now they were back with me again, 15 years later would I come and look at their Grade 1 Listed house just outside Oxford and give them advice on a bed. So off I toddle. Now I wasn’t quite prepared for this. I’ve seen some pretty amazing houses in my time but this place took the biscuit. The lodge house was all tumbledown and the gates were locked when I arrived, but a phone call and a park keeper soon unlocked the gates and sent me up to the main house. The house was surrounded by a parkland and was approached by a half mile long driveway, one should have had Elgar playing in the background. The facade of the house was Georgian and extended back around a quadrangle to much older sections of the house including Elizabethan and earlier wings. The site of the house had been a Cistercian Monastery with fish ponds and all the trappings of a mediaeval dwelling. Our lovely clients had bought this house 6 years ago after it had been empty for nearly 20 years and had embarked on a 6 year program of restoration and repair to turn it into what was becoming very slowly a very beautiful family home. Their dedication and commitment to dragging this house back into habitable state is awe inspiring. The standard of workmanship and the quality of work done is spectacular, from the elimination of death watch beetle down to the reinstallation of solid oak floors that had rotted out around the edges, to Elizabethan plaster work and linenfold panelling, all done with care and skill and probably at eye watering expense.
Now at last after six years of builders and decorators they were getting near the stage of dressing and assembling the various pieces of furniture they want in each of the rooms. Interior decorators had come and gone and finally my client was getting the hang of assembling modern contemporary glass and sculpture with fine antiques and faded wall hangings. Any client in this situation needs courage to make mistakes and get things wrong in order to arrive at what will be a personal statement. If they don’t, if they’re not prepared, they will be forever in the hands of the professional interior decorator who will assemble period pieces into pastiche of days gone by and all you’ll get is a feel that this is more like an expensive hotel than a personal home.
P….. and M….. were trying to break out of that look and feel and hopefully are now going to use artists like myself to create for them something that is theirs, something that stamps out P…. and M…. home as something of the 21st Century as well as being something of the 17th and also the 15th Century. Well I cant turn this one down.
In up dating the gallery on our website go see here I got to see what some former students are up to as we checked out their websites Our quiet irish friend Michael Connolly at FineIrishFurniture.com seems to be making lovely boardroom furniture for the Irish tiger economy. Also go and see Christian O Reillys site at http://www.christianoreilly.com/ a lovely website though, as his wife has just had another baby Christian is going to be busy and tired
I found myself stamping around the workshop this week waving my arms around uncontrollably as some unknown newby in the workshop had borrowed my Norris plane and tried to sharpen it, unsuccessfully. I’m not especially precious about my Norris plane, though it is the first thing I’d grab if the place were burning down and I were running for the door. When we start students off here we let them use tools in the workshop in order to help them make choices in their buying of a kit of new tools, and quite often tools take 2 or 3 weeks to arrive so they need our planes and chisels to get on with a whole series of projects right at the start of the course. So it’s not unusual for students to come and grab a plane from underneath my bench and go off and whittle away with it.
It was in this case my fault for not saying ‘don’t sharpen it, I’ll do that’. Like most craftsmen with a bench plane I have a very slight curve across the width of the plane. I like to keep a relatively narrow shaving, about as wide as my thumb and to do that that curve has got to be quite precisely controlled. Once it’s established the curve changes every time you hone the iron on the sharpening stones, so after 4 or 5 honings what had been a nice gentle curve has now got a flat in the centre and needs re-establishing again. Well this Yo-Yo had been and flattened my whole iron out from corner to corner.It took me the rest of the day to get over it and get the plane back into the kind of working order I wanted. It’s a little bit like taking someone’s hunting rifle, [ if you had a hunting rifle, which I havent] and fiddling with the sights. They are set up for you, the curvature on the iron of the bench plane is pretty much like that, it’s very very personal. So dont do it again!
What makes it even more worrying is that the iron in my Norris plane has about an inch of useable life on it and I intend it to last me out so I’m very sparing about how many times I put that iron on the grinder. Perhaps this is tool fetishism, now that is worrying.
If that isnt, then this surely is. I came across the rather unfortunately named Dick Fine Tools I know, I know, i really should get out more, but their Reindeer Leider Hose Ohh…………. and the ability to hand sanded stingray skin or catfish leather just kept me….Oh go and see at http://www.dick.biz
The great machine shop flood.
I suppose due to global warming we are experiencing more and more flood warnings in this country. Recently East Anglia was threatened with a combination of rising high tides, winds from the North East and low sea defences. Luckily the high tide just lapped the top of the sea defences and large parts of East Anglia were not flooded as had been predicted. However, we came in this Monday morning to a flooded machine shop. Although the tide doesnt get this high we are not near the coast and people are here in the bench shops over the weekend, the machine shop which is in a separate building is locked up Saturday and Sunday. It had been raining very heavily on Saturday and heavier still on Sunday. That, combined with autumn leaves clogging the drains, sent a torrent of water that should have been passing by, down into our machine shop. Luckily everything is up off the floor so the judicious application of sawdust and a fair bit of sweeping seems to have sorted the matter out.
Daren Millman’s tip of the month
This is another one learnt from Daren that isn’t in any of the books. It concerns flattening burr veneers. Any veneers, most especially burrs, are quite lumpy and cockly and will require quite a lot of pressure, certainly more pressure than a vacuum bag could apply to press them down. A way of overcoming this is to flatten them. This is best accomplished by dampening the burrs on both sides with a spray bottle of ordinary tap water then laying those burrs between sheets of white lining paper. Lining paper is stuff we get from decorating shops and is the paper that is put underneath good quality wallpaper. We buy it in rolls about 18″ wide and several metres long. These sheets are placed under and over each damp leaf of burr veneer making a pack then a flat board is put underneath and a flat board is put on top and either weights are placed on top of that or G clamps are put all round it so that an even pressure is applied. This needn’t be as much as a press but it can be enough to keep the now flexible burrs in contact with the paper. Key to this process is to start it early in the morning and change the sheets of lining paper 3 or 4 times in the day, replacing each time with dry lining paper. At this time the workshop can look like washing day at Mrs Woo’s Laundry because sheets of damp lining paper are hanging over every available surface. Last in the process, Daren measures the dimension of the burr each time he takes it out of the pressing. First and second times he’ll observe a considerable shrinkage as the veneer moves from being quite damp to quite dry. Once that dimension is stabilised and doesn’t change he knows that it’s as dry as it’s going to get in this process.
Change the paper or mould will grow overnight on the sweet timber and its is not just surface mould it strikes right though the veneer and can ruin blonde veneers.
Thank you so much to those of you who have already responded to my request to tell me what you want me to do with this “Nooz’ I am still playing with the technology so sending images and drawings are on my list. I will where possible also send links to existing pages if relavent as i can see that many of you follow those links and seem to enjoy them.
Please continue to send me opinions ideas for content and grumbles if you have them get me on [email protected]
Noo Gallery Pages
We have learnt that most visitors go straight to our gallery so I have spent a ton of time this fall updating the gallery pages working with our web designer Pete Duggan. This is now on line but may have bugs please have a look if you think I have screwed up please tell me about it the page is https://finefurnituremaker.com/gallery/gallery_contents.htm then reload the page if you have been there before.
As we are nearing the time of Christmas holidays can i wish you all a happy holiday and a prosperous New Year
Have a nice woody day