World Ever New

Currier & Ives. Happy New Year. 1876. New York: Published by Currier & Ives. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2002695831/.

“True taste is for ever growing, learning, reading—”

It is well-nigh impossible to begin a New Year without some stirring of the pulse. Anything may happen to us, for good or ill, during the coming year. There is a certain sense of adventure in the air until the year is well launched and the same old pattern begins to repeat itself and the same old routine threatens to submerge us. But need it? Sometimes I think that, in an age which is pre-eminently one of change and experiment, we are often very slow as individuals to become interested in either. Most of us at heart do not like change. What we most dread about war is the major uprooting it makes in our lives, and rightly we dread it, because that is the kind of change over which we have no control. But when it means setting ourselves against new ideas, new methods, simply because they are new, then we are in danger of closing our minds to much that is interesting and stimulating in the world to-day. And a very good resolution for many of us for the New Year might be to take down the shutters from our minds, the self-imposed iron curtain by which we try to shut out the changing world.

***

Behind it we accumulate a somewhat formless litter of preconceived ideas, cosily familiar tenets and shibboleths and judgments, acquired many of them during schooldays and early youth, which have become a great part of our mental make-up. As such they will limit and cramp us unless we are determined to keep our vision clear, our minds receptive, by deliberately looking out upon the world with the eyes of maturity, noting and comparing the new with the old, and prepared to find interest and pleasure in whatever is good in both. In this way we shall remain mentally alert, and in fair way to become men of trained judgment and good taste. Which, for the woodworker who wants to become a first-class craftsman, is essential. For it is the habit of really looking at things for their own sake with intelligent, seeing eyes, and a habit of comparing and contrasting, which teaches us the difference between mediocre and fine work wherever we may find it. And not only in furniture. We can draw inspiration from anything that man has made when the work is good.

***

The great difficulty is how to hold the balance between a readiness to seek out the best in what is new and yet not to be led astray by the vagaries of fashion. We all know how from time to time a change of fashion can inundate the furniture world, so that wherever we turn, in every shop window, our eyes are caught by a new style. Whatever our first reaction may be, the fact remains that when we have seen it sufficiently often our critical faculty becomes dulled. We find ourselves liking it simply because it has become familiar. “It grows on one,” we tell ourselves, and any plans we have for making furniture can be influenced for better or worse. How are we to learn to discriminate, to keep on the one hand an open mind that is prepared to learn, on the other hand not to be led away by every passing eccentricity? 

***

I fancy that there are no easy rules. That the answer can only be found in that gradually maturing judgment which comes through continued, thoughtful, observation, a weighing-up of points which, as experience accumulates, becomes an instinctive habit of mind. Ruskin who, amid a welter of words, can be relied upon for flashes of golden insight, sums it up thus: “The temper by which right taste is formed is characteristically patient. It dwells upon what is submitted to it. It does not trample upon it, lest it should be pearls, even though it looks like husks. It is a good ground, soft, penetrable, retentive; it does not send up thorns of unkind thought, to choke the weak seed; it is hungry and thirsty too, and drinks all the dew that falls on it. It is an honest and good heart, that shows no too ready springing before the sun be up, but fails not afterwards; it is distrustful of itself, so as to be ready to believe and try all things, and yet so trustful of itself that it will neither quit what it has tried nor take anything without trying. And the pleasure which it has in things that it finds true and good is so great that it cannot possibly be led aside by any tricks of fashion, or diseases of vanity; it cannot be cramped in its conclusions by partialities and hypocrisies; its visions and its delights are too penetrating, too living, for any white-washed object or shallow fountain long to endure or supply.”

***

Life so lived ceases to be the drab kind of affair that subordination to routine would make of it. For there need be no subordination of the mind except to what is true and good. And a habit of constant, eager observation will show us that “every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest.” Once such a spirit is kindled within us life becomes something vital and glowing, full of new interests and potentialities. “True taste is for ever growing, learning, reading, worshipping, lamenting over itself and testing itself by the way that it fits things,” says Ruskin. “And it finds whereof to feed, and whereby to grow, in all things.” Which is a pretty heartening thought to take into the New Year.

— Charles Hayward, The Woodworker magazine, 1951

Posted in Honest Labour, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Why We Are Hermits

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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.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Personal Favorites, Uncategorized | 28 Comments

Immediate and Ordinary Beauty

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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.

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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.

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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.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Personal Favorites, Uncategorized | 27 Comments

How to Make Breadboards, by John Kunstman

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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.

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Thanks to John and everyone who turned out on Dec 14 for our last open day until June. It was a fun day with cameo appearances from Nancy Hiller and Peter Follansbee.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Lynette Breton

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A Southwestern chair by Lynette Breton and Ann Flannery

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.

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Breton in her studio

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.”

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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.

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Breton and Flannery with the chair that was published in Fine Woodworking‘s “Design Book Five.”

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Staircase by Breton Flannery Woodworks

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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.

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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.

Lynette studio

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.

— Nancy Hiller, author of “Making Things Work.”

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A recent commission, this window seat curves to fit a round wall.

 

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Lynette Breton and Ann Flannery will host a weeklong Maine women woodworking adventure in June 2020. For details, check her website and posts on Instagram @lynettebretondesign.

 

 

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The Power Tool that Makes the Money

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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.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Uncategorized | 23 Comments

Gifts from the Boneyard

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When I build chairs, I always make extra parts – spare legs, stretchers, arms and even seats. Sometimes I need these parts when I (or a student) takes a chairmaking dump. But mostly, the parts pile up in the background until a day like today.

I’ve been designing a lowback chair in my head and on paper for months. The next step is to make a half-scale model (I did that yesterday) and then build a prototype that can answer my questions about the model. I also want to try out some new techniques I’ve been pondering for drilling stretchers and cutting tenons.

So this morning I gathered up an armload of spare parts and started building a lowback while I waited for finish to dry on three commission chairs.

What is on my bench is a 100 percent disastrous failure of the chairmaking craft. The front legs do not have the same rake (it’s not even close). The back legs need about 10 more degrees (holy cow that’s a lot) of backward rake. The front medial stretcher is wildly cockeyed.

The experiment for drilling stretchers was a 50 percent fail. The tenon-making technique was a 100 percent success.

But despite all this, this evening I’m not drinking to forget. I know exactly what I need to do to make this chair work (at least from the seat down to the floor).

Tomorrow I will likely fail to make the arm and the short sticks that connect it to the seat.

When it’s all assembled, I won’t even glue the parts together. I’ll take the chair apart and send the bits to fireplaces, compost bins and chicken coops around the greater Covington area.

I am sure that some people will call me wasteful – I could make a sittable (if ugly) chair from these parts. Or I could fix all the mistakes with plugs and paint and build a half-decent chair with 20 extra hours baked into it.

The way I see it, wood decomposes and provides food for worms and other slimy creatures. It burns readily and can warm some locals who might not be able to afford a gas furnace. Chickens love to poop in it. And life is too short to make something ugly or half-baked.

— Christopher Schwarz

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