A woodworking friend of mine has the most boring tattoo ever.
It’s a single black dot – about 1/16″ across – on his hand. He put it there as a reminder. Whenever he sees that dot, he is reminded to stop messing around and get back to studying or working or some such.
This morning, I’m pondering a trip to the tattoo parlor myself. I need some totem to remind me to lay down my tools when someone is yakking at me.
This week I am in the heat of finishing a run of Roorkee chairs, and I’m down to the part where I am cutting and assembling all the leather bits. This involves hundreds (maybe a thousand) intense freehand cuts with a utility knife and punches. One miscut and the piece is spoiled.
For the last three days, I’ve been standing alone at my bench making these cuts. I have neat piles of hundreds of components. Zero mistakes.
Yesterday a neighbor came into the shop, asking me to make him a walking stick (he’s been using a tomato stake to help him get around lately).
First mistake: I kept working while we chatted.
Second mistake: I should have offered to simply buy him a walking stick at the drugstore a block away.
Third mistake: I installed a buckle on upside-down, and I had to then destroy and remake the piece.
Fourth mistake: I fixed the problem while he kept talking. My repair turned out to be half-assed.
Fifth mistake: I cut the belting for a chair’s thigh strap 1-1/2” too short, completely ruining an assembled $150 component.
I put down my tools and wished the neighbor a happy new year as he left, tomato stake in hand.
I know a tattoo can’t fix stupid. But you think I’d be smarter after working in group workshops for the last 23 years.
One of the reasons we’ve made Lost Art Press books as durable as possible might seem silly. Perhaps it is the result of growing up in the Cold War, but I’ve always worried that human civilization is on the brink of collapse.
And after that happens – whether it’s from war, climate or economics – people will need to build things without the help of YouTube or television. Maybe our books (which have already endured floods, babies and dog attacks), will survive as well.
Lately, however, my morning walks into Cincinnati have changed my mind.
Just about every morning I walk along a stretch of the Ohio River that features a geologic timeline of earth’s history from 450 million years ago until the settlement of Cincinnati in 1788. Each tile in the path is about 36” x 36” and can be covered in a single stride. And each tile represents 1 million years. Some of the tiles are decorated with the animals that developed during this period (227 million years ago: The first mammals are 6 in. shrew-like animals) or what was happening with the climate or the continents.
The entirety of human history is covered in the last of the 450-plus tiles. It’s a sobering thought to consider our lives and our work against such a grand clock. Even if you build things from solid stone, they are no match for time on this scale. Building a chair with excellent joinery so it might last 200 years suddenly seems laughable. In 1 million years, everything we know will all be dust anyway.
If this sounds like I’m headed down a path to existential despair, you’re wrong.
On the whole, I consider humanity to be a generally greedy, selfish and destructive force. But we are all capable of good. For me, the two most important things I can do are: Take care of others and create things that are beautiful. By “beauty,” I don’t mean the stuff in art museums, the books in our libraries or the soaring buildings in our cities. I mean the small (and big) things that we do everyday.
Beauty can be a rude chair that is nice to sit in and draws your eye from the other side of the room. It can be a handplaned surface. A moulding that creates bands of light and dark. A song that is sung at the end of a day’s work. A meal that you make for your family.
All these things are temporary; some last only an instant. But these bits of immediate and ordinary beauty (what you see, taste, smell and feel) make a moment – perhaps the one you are in right now – better than moments without them.
This beauty does not require a particular talent or decades of training to create. This is one of the reasons I’ve always been drawn to vernacular furniture and architecture, outsider art, folk music, folk cooking. Anyone can do it. Anyone. Even if I’m making a chair from Curtis Buchanan’s pen, singing a song by Ralph Stanley or making a recipe from the Lee Brothers, the act of creating it (or creating it again) is what keeps me in love with life.
If you are a cynic, you might think this blog entry is my way of explaining that we are going to stop sewing the signatures of our books. Or quit using the fiber tape that reinforces the casebinding. Or heck, we’re just gonna have monkeys read our books out loud on YouTube. After all, it’s all going to be dust as soon as the earth steps forward onto the next tile.
But no. I think that making something well – even if it lasts just an instant on the geologic timeline – is a form of beauty and brings pleasure or delight to others (as it does to me).
Gotta go. I’ve got some leather scraps that need to be riveted together into something that – I hope – will bring joy to a man in California and a man in Idaho.
Earlier this month, John Kunstman gave a presentation at the Lost Art Press storefront on how to make breadboard ends using both power tools and hand tools.
For the attendees, John also prepared a nice 15-page handout on the process that illustrates the process with words and photos. I was supposed to print the handout for the 25 or 30 attendees, but I had too many things on my plate that day.
So I’m posting it here for everyone.
The handout covers just about everything you need to know, from panel preparation to drawboring. John even shows a few of the common mistakes he made.
The download is free. You don’t have to register, or sign up for anything or give away your social security number. Just click the link below and it will download to your device.
As a woman who has been building furniture and cabinetry since 1980, when there were so few of us in woodworking shops that we prompted stares and questions (“What’s your real job?” “Did your husband teach you how to do this?”), I have a sense of how much better things are today. “Better,” of course, is not synonymous with ideal; some have tales of ongoing insult, from lower expectations and mansplaining to crude name-calling born from resentment. Nevertheless, images of women building furniture and working in other trades are increasingly common, and most prospective customers, at least in my experience, no longer assume that our work will cost less than that of our male counterparts (“because it’s not as good as a man’s” / “because your husband supports you”), or that it will be adorned with ducks and bunnies.
I’m always interested in hearing about other women who have been working professionally in this field since those lonelier days. Several months ago Chris Becksvoort introduced me to the accomplished woodworker and teacher Lynette Breton, whom I profile here.
As with many furniture makers, Breton’s woodworking career grew out of her interest in art. In the 1970s she moved from her home state of Maine to San Francisco, where she planned to attend art school. At the time, California’s state colleges offered tuition-free education to state residents, a promise that proved a powerful draw to many young people. To qualify, Breton had to earn California residency, so her first step was to get a job. She was working as a bookkeeper when a friend suggested she apply at a cabinet company down the road; the Women in Apprenticeship Program was placing women in non-traditional fields, and she thought Why not try it? She applied and was hired.
Breton was one of four people in the shop, which fabricated kitchen cabinetry and other built-ins. With no previous experience in woodworking, she dove in at the deep end and was trained by her colleagues on the job. “I became completely impassioned by it,” she says. “I read everything I could and studied on my own. Fine Woodworking had just come out; I was glued to that, as well as anything else I could find to read. Technical books by Tage Frid, Krenov and designers Judy McKee and Wharton Esherick were my inspiration.” She loved it so much that she abandoned her original plan to attend art school. Instead, she worked her way into the drafting department, so she was able to combine building and design.
While working at the cabinet shop, Breton stumbled into an evening job at Pacific Atlas Woodworking, a business that built frames and chairs for upholstery. She describes the sight that captivated her when she peered through the open door: “I [remember] standing in the Pacific Atlas doorway, gazing at the turn-of-the-century production equipment and heavily-used pots of hide glue and brushes, heated for the workday in the assembly area. There were pattern templates, at least 500, hanging from the ceilings.” Her employer was so impressed by her growing skills and her eagerness to work that he took her on specifically to make things that were beyond his other employees’ capabilities, such as a three-legged table with mortise-and-tenon joinery. “I had never done anything like that,” she remembers, “but he could see my enthusiasm and gave me those opportunities.”
Inspired to deepen her knowledge and sharpen her skills, Breton took a furniture design class through the University of California-Berkeley Extension School with instructor Merryll Saylan. She also shared studio space with John and Carolyn Grew-Sheridan; she ended up working with all three artists and taught classes with them. “Carolyn Grew-Sheridan was a very recognized woman in the field [in] her time,” Breton notes. “[She died] suddenly of pancreatic cancer, and it was a big loss for many of us. I have searched for info on her through her husband, now John Sheridan, because when the Making a Seat at the Table exhibit came up, it brought up the memory of her work for me, wondering where she would have gone with it all if she had lived. I do want to memorialize her with some writing at some point but her legacy has vanished in this digital time.” (Breton sent me an article from Tradeswoman magazine, which you can read here.)
After a few years in the Bay area, Breton wanted to return to Maine. “I loved California but missed the seasons.” She and her partner decided to travel across the country, living in a camper, until they found a place to live in Maine. Unlike most people, Breton didn’t go out and buy a camper for the back of her truck; she built her own, which she describes as “a cross between a boat and a gypsy wagon.”
On arriving in Portland, she parked the camper in a friend’s driveway, where she stayed for a few months. The camper turned out to be important for more than sleeping. “That camper was my portfolio,” she says with a laugh. Eventually she drove it over to Thomas Moser’s shop. He hired her on a trial basis.
The first job Moser gave her was refacing the kitchen cabinets in his own home. She built the new doors and drawers in his shop. “It was still a small company,” she recalls. Chris Becksvoort and Kevin Rodel were her fellow employees. Each cabinetmaker built custom pieces from start to finish, cutting all their dovetails by hand. She worked for Moser three years.
In 1985 Breton and her friend Ann Flannery, a cabinetmaker, finish carpenter and boatbuilder, started their own business, Breton Flannery Woodworks. They bought a building in Freeport with a view to specializing in furniture and cabinets mostly of their own design. For the first couple of years Moser sent work their way – invaluable support to get them started. Eventually they began being hired for whole-house interior projects such as designing Southwestern style furniture for a home in the Bahamas and built-in cabinetry for renovations and new construction.
As the workload and scheduling became too much for two people, they hired employees. Lynette built select pieces while doing all the drafting, designing and customer contact. Ann led the shop employees, ordered materials and helped with estimates.
They ran the business for 10 years until a significant economic downturn led Ann to pursue a different path. Breton decided to close up shop.
From there she transitioned into teaching at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, where she was responsible for two- and 12-week programs. She taught there for nine years.
Finally, Lynette was ready to have her own shop again. She bought a timber-frame kit and in September 2004, had a traditional barn raising with all her woodworking friends; they completed the frame and roof sheathing in one weekend. After that, she finished the building with a few helping hands and by December she had the place running, with heat.
Some friends who had houses in Hawaii, as well as in Maine, became prominent clients, hiring her to build the furniture and cabinets for both of their homes. Breton also designed the interior of a new house for them and oversaw its construction, in addition to building some of the furniture, a process that took 2-1/2 years. Today she continues to run her business, Lynette Breton Design, taking commissions for furniture and teaching classes in her shop.
There are a few tools that I consider essential to making a living. Most professionals in the U.S. live and die by the table saw. I don’t. But I think that’s because I don’t use sheet goods much.
For me, it’s a three-way tie between the planer, my old 14” band saw and my HVLP system. The planer and the band saw are – I think – obvious choices. The HVLP system might be a bit of a surprise to some.
My first woodworking job was in college at a door factory where I assembled and finished entryway doors. That was my first taste of spray finishing, and I have an apparent knack for it. As a result, I’ve always had a spray system on hand – mostly cheapos. A spray system can save days of work compared to applying finishes by hand. Today was a good example.
I’m finishing the parts for three Roorkee chairs, The parts have lots of facets, coves and tapered mortises and tenons that need to be finished (or look finished) to be presentable. Each Roorkee has 10 parts (plus two replacement stretchers), so I had to finish 36 parts today with garnet shellac.
While shellac dries quickly, getting it into tight corners and mouldings with a brush, rag or pad is a challenge. With a spray system, a job that should take eight hours takes less than one hour. And (my opinion is that) the results are superior.
Even when I want the final finish to look hand-applied, I use the spray system to build up a few preliminary coats. Then I apply the final coat of paint, shellac or lacquer by hand so it looks less than perfect. Is that cheating? I don’t believe in the word when it comes to making ends meet.
With spray systems, you don’t need to spend a lot of money to get great results. I started out on a Binks systems – arguably the best. Now I use a cheap Earlex 5500 (basically a converted vacuum cleaner) that produces the same results. I can spray anything except latex.
Honestly, the equipment is not as important as thinning your material properly and simply knowing how to spray intelligently. Before buying the Earlex more than 10 years ago, I had a Fuji spray system, which was the budget leader back in the 1990s. (However, do stay away from the Wagner systems at the home centers. I have yet to produce a decent finish with one of these. Which is curious.)
There’s a learning curve with a spray gun, just like with any tool. I can teach people to spray (decently) in about an hour. Learning all the tricks takes a little longer (two hours?).
If you struggle with finishing, maybe your problem isn’t a result of the medium. Maybe it’s the messenger.