It is rare that a book review makes me even chuckle, but a new post by furniture designer/maker James Watriss about Nancy Hiller’s “Kitchen Think” made me laugh aloud (and not just the introduction, in which he worries “if the world really needs a blond-haired white guy praising a woman for writing about woodworking”). Along with making me laugh, he teases out much of what I love about this book:
“There’s a strong emphasis on design, because that’s as important, or more, than simply doing a good job of executing that design,” he writes. “If the end product flows in an uninterrupted way, the skill involved shouldn’t need to stand out, because the goal is to make something the homeowner can live and cook and relax and eat in comfortably. It’s not a Goddard high-boy, you don’t need to masticate in awe.”
Of the kitchen designs themselves, he writes, “Each has very individual character, none of the layouts look remotely similar, some are modern, some are vintage, but they all look comfortable, workable, and… like home. I don’t have a good way to put a finger on what makes that happen. Clearly Nancy Hiller does.”
On Friday, Lucy and I walked to get some dinner at a Mexican restaurant after a typical and trying week of work. As we were finishing up, my mom sat down with one of her friends, Sandi, at a table next to us.
Before I could even say hello, my mom’s table was swarmed with people from the neighborhood who stopped by to chat. I stood up, and we talked for a few minutes. As I left, I kissed her on the head and said, “Love you, mom.”
Affection is completely out of character for me in a public setting. And as I walked away, I wondered what had gotten into me. On Monday, I found out.
My mom, Jean Terry West, died unexpectedly overnight. As I’m sure most of you know, losing your parents can feel like the rug has been pulled out from under you. One of the ways I deal with grief is writing and building. And my coming days are going to be filled with that and taking care of the arrangements and my family.
In the meantime, I’d like to repost this essay I wrote last year about her and her importance to Lost Art Press and my life as a woodworker and writer.
I miss her already.
— Christopher Schwarz
At Popular Woodworking, we begged readers to send us submissions for the magazine’s last-page essay called “End Grain.” The problem was that almost all the essays we received had the same theme. It was such a problem that the theme became its own compound adjective.
Me: So what’s the essay about?
Fellow editor: It’s another grandpa-was-a-woodworker-so-now-I-am-too piece.
To be fair, my grandfather on my mother’s side truly was an accomplished woodworker. He taught me quite a bit about the craft and inspired me to be a woodworker. So I am in the sizable cohort that I appear to be mocking (though I am not).
Instead, I want to call attention to a fact we sometimes forget. Here it is: We are not clones.
When I write about the woodworking I did as a kid, it’s easy to focus on – duh – the woodworking parts. My grandfather was an enthusiastic woodworker, and I spent many hours in his Connecticut shop making things. My father was also a woodworker and a carpenter and a mason and a talented photographer (and 100 other things). And it’s easy to explain my interest in the craft through those two people.
But that’s just shorthand. And it’s incomplete.
As my father got older, his patience for work in the craft grew veneer thin. When he was younger, he would spend months laying hundreds of bricks by himself (sometimes with the help of my mother) as he started beautifying our first home in Arkansas. After he designed the two houses for our farm, he spent most weekends there (dragging us along whenever possible). These houses took more than a decade to construct. But despite the overwhelming task, he moved forward every week, joist by stud.
Once in his 60s, however, he confessed to me that he’d lost the drive to take on big projects. He was still interested in making things. But he wanted things to be quick. He wanted to learn to turn. And to carve small objects. Up until the end, his hand skills and his mental acuity never wavered. When he did pick up the tools, it was humbling to watch. But it was more difficult for him to ignite that spark. And to keep it going.
I think about that a lot. I have now entered my 50s, and I still want nothing more than to build things day in and day out. For years I worried that I would turn into my father and lose the ember that’s necessary to tackle difficult furniture pieces.
Luckily, I am not a clone. I am also the product of my mother.
My mother, now in her 70s, is as active and entrepreneurial as she was in her 20s or 30s. As a kid, I watched her teach natural childbirth in our traditional (some might say backwards) Arkansas town. She started a restaurant there, and then she worked at restaurants and catering businesses all over the country (Dallas, Santa Fe, Connecticut, Little Rock). Today, she still runs a catering business from her house and cooks every week as a volunteer at our local shelter. And she still embraces new technology (we’re both exploring the world of cooking with sous vide and an Instant Pot these days) and new ways of working.
She has had a more tumultuous life than my father, especially after they broke up. But she doesn’t give up. And she always finds a way to make things work, whether that’s throwing together a great meal with scraps or starting her life over in a new city.
So while it might look like Lost Art Press and my love for woodworking is the direct result of my time in the workshop with my grandfather and father, that’s not quite right. It’s my mother’s influence that gave me the strength to give the finger to my corporate job. And in the 1990s when I failed at my first publishing business, it was my mother’s genes that gave me the strength to say: Hell yes, let’s do this again and start Lost Art Press with my business partner, John.
And it’s also her genes that likely will keep me going.
As I get older, my patience for woodworking has only increased. I am still interested in learning new (and sometimes very old) techniques. And John and I have a business – publishing high-quality woodworking books – that is as ridiculous on paper as running a restaurant or a catering business. But we make it work.
So while grandfather might have been a woodworker, it’s important to also remember this: Mama was an entrepreneur.
My late colleague and dear friend Melvin J. Wachowiak, Jr. once remarked that anything made more elegantly than necessary for its usefulness was Art. By that assessment, with which I agree, the Studley tool cabinet is unrestrained Art. There are a multitude of visual and physical moments in the cabinet that did not need to be there. Their presence is either to aesthetically enhance the whole, or to demonstrate the maker’s virtuosity at his craft and his delight in it.
The Inlays To a modern woodworker the tool cabinet might seem opulent, even garish, but in the late-Victorian world of organ and piano building, the exuberance made sense. The material vocabulary is what you would expect for a palette of inlays on a piano-maker’s toolbox: ivory, ebony and mother-of-pearl. The inlay techniques Studley used on the cabinet were straightforward and exacting. For the round, button-like inlays he likely used a drill bit to excavate the pockets. The inlays vary in size, but most are in the range of 1/4″ in diameter plus or minus, with a few in the 1/8″-diameter range.
Almost all of the 136 ivory inlays are buttons or roundels.
The 217 mother-of-pearl inlays are more evenly divided between buttons and roundels, and pieces of other shapes (alas, I did not conduct a count on that distribution). The shaped pieces were “made to fit,” but there is no way to identify which came first, the void or the infill.
Typically intarsia (a technique by which pieces are literally “inset” into a background) is accomplished by first creating the decorative element, then creating a void to fit that element by scribing the outline of the element on the background and excavating a void. My microscopic examination of the inlays was cursory and inconclusive, but
I did not see any tool marks on the background surfaces.
Regardless of their material or shape, on all but a few of the inlays there are no irregularities until extreme magnification is employed.
The opulence of using ivory buttons, inscribed with inked numbers to mark the progression of tool sizes (for example, the graduations of the drill bits) is awe-inspiring.
There is place for every drill bit in the graduated set, and an engraved ivory button for each drill bit. Also take note of the subtle but elegant treatment of the bottoms of the spacers between each Gothic arch; the curved double-chamfer is found in numerous locations throughout the cabinet, almost never glaringly obvious.
Concurrently, the mother-of-pearl elements used as mere decoration impart an intense luminescence to the cabinet, especially as the light or the viewing position changes.
The Sculpted Details The strictly sculptural elements of the cabinet, by which I mean those that are rendered and presented to the viewer in three dimensions, number literally in the hundreds. Because it is not possible to rank them in importance or even prominence, I will cluster them into four major areas.
First are the roundels, turned button-like elements scattered throughout the cabinet, never haphazard and always enhancing adjacent elements. There are many different sizes of roundels, ranging from about 3/8″ to 1-1/2″ in diameter. Most, but not all, of the roundels are festooned with round mother-of-pearl inlays at their tips, about which I will speak more in a bit. Each of the roughly two dozen roundels is turned from solid ebony.
Closely related to the roundels are the drawer pulls and stopper buttons at the ends of the metal tubes containing tools. I include these 17 examples here because, like the roundels, they are small, turned ebony elements.
Second are the shaped decorative elements, which are further subdivided into those that are 1) functionally similar to the roundels in that they are applied to the background, or 2) movable tabs or catches used to restrain tools. Most of these from either category are further enhanced by mother-of-pearl inlays and reflect the element outline as a whole.
Of the first group, numbering roughly 90, many serve to frame a space but others are demarcations between tools belonging to a graduated set, such as the chisels and drill bits. The second group consists of about 50 ebony tabs.
The third type of sculptural enhancements are carved elements serving as stand-alone sculptures in their own right. The most prominent of these is the drop pendant that tops the arch above the niche containing the Stanley No. 1 plane. The detail on this element is breathtaking, all the more so when you consider its scale; it is roughly the size of a dime. There are only a dozen or so of these examples in the case, but they are spectacular and attention-grabbing.
The final widespread instance of sculptural exercises in the cabinet includes the arches and their buttresses, most notably around the set of four awls above the Masonic symbol, along with those around the chisels and the two sets of drill bits, which are in the upper right portion of the cabinet on the second and third layers. The arch-and-buttress vignette framing the awls takes its place proudly among the most beautifully designed and crafted artworks I have ever seen.
Quantifying precisely the inventory of these decorative details is nearly impossible (is it a series of a dozen arches, or is it a single element of an ascending set of arches?) and frankly not especially useful. But because you asked, I number the total of individual decorative elements to be in excess of 500.
Perhaps the most gifted craftsman I know recently replicated a single inlaid mother-of-pearl and ebony element from Studley’s cabinet and found it to be a vexing and time-consuming effort. If we fixate on the Herculean labors of Studley we might become obsessed with the mechanistic minutiae of envisioning and fabricating hundreds of stylistic touches, each consuming some quantity of a superb craftsman’s time.
Instead I ask you to think of them – and the case itself – as a unified cornucopia in which the whole is infinitely more affecting than a summation of the magnificent individual components.
Writing a book is a lot easier than completing the writing of a book.
With more than 500 pages of “The Stick Chair Book” written, designed and ready for proofing, I should be thinking about the foreword, the appendices and the bibliography. But instead, tonight I am picking through my “boneyard” – a pile of chair parts that I have been tending like a compost pile since 2003.
That’s because as I was finishing up the drawings for one of the comb-back chairs in the book, my brain pooped out a new arm design. This new arm fixes a small design flaw that I have been struggling with for months.
As many of you know, “force-poop” is never a good idea. Not in the brain or otherwise. And inspiration comes when it comes. Sometimes when you bear down, and sometimes when you least expect it. (Please don’t read this blog entry to your children or pets.)
Thank goodness for the boneyard. Within five minutes I had all the parts I needed to make a new comb-back. Oak legs, ash stretchers, maple seat, poplar arm, cherry comb and sticks from cherry and old heart pine.
So there will also be paint.
I don’t like keeping scrap around (just ask Megan), but I make a huge exception for chair parts, and they fill up a bunch of five-gallon buckets in my cellar.
And if the chair turns out like I hope, then perhaps I can finish the book with the updated drawings.