Wednesday, July 30, 2008

One from column A, and one from column B...

Having established that I'm just stupid enough to try to build the things I do, and having come up with a design and actually convinced some kind and generous soul to pay my bills while I build it, it's time to find the material and figure out how.

I have a love/hate relationship with "the how." Clearly I love the challenge, or I wouldn't sign up for doing something I don't know how to do every single time the opportunity presents itself. And I think I'm actually pretty good at the math and the engineering part of it all, but I'm also aware that I hate it.


I procrastinate, I do all kinds of tricks to avoid it, I draw full scale on the walls and the floor and on sheets of plywood to get around it, and when can't avoid it any longer and I'm sitting down to do it, I chain smoke and drink too much coffee. I often have to stand up and walk away, take a break because it's making my teeth hurt and I can feel my eyebrows beginning to smoke.

But, as I say, I must love it, because I seek it out, and as much as I don't like to focus on the "craft" aspect of my work when talking about it, I'm privately proud of my ability to figure it out and execute it.

I'm just glad that all the engineering happens first, because when I finally complete that aspect of the job, my reward is usually hundreds of hours of carving and shaping. And I really love that part.

To properly engineer a piece, you need to know what you're going use to make it. Not just what type of material, but what material specifically - what does it look like, how big is it, what part of the tree is it cut from, etc. - these things are all limiting factors to be considered, and the more of them you can remove from the equation, the luckier you are.

Of course, on the other hand - if you haven't done any engineering at all when you go looking for your material, you don't know what you actually need. So really the two things have to happen simultaneously. I often think of it like juggling - keep moving in all directions, keep the balls in the air until everything is set for you to let them drop and are prepared to catch them.

As I began to draft these chairs, one thing that became immediately clear is that I was going to need some insanely thick stock. Laminating pieces together is always an option, but it has its own issues, and I was hoping to avoid it. It would need to be clean and defect-free (we call that "clear"), because I was going to shape deeply into it, exposing whatever was going on inside, and I would need the ability to control each piece's orientation within the growth rings of the tree. How a board is cut from the tree determines what the grain looks like on its face, and how it will behave.

I should point out that when I say these things became "immediately clear," I mean after dozens of hours of drafting. We'll talk more about that in my next post.

Anyway, if I made a list of all the minimum requirements for the needed material, even leaving off the "best case scenario" stuff, and taken it to any lumber dealer or sawmill, or even a specialist in exotics, I would've been laughed at. Ebony is extremely rare, even Macassar Ebony(as opposed to Gabon Ebony, which is nearly impossible to find in anything other than scrap-sized pieces). With each requirement I was looking to place on the material, it becomes harder to find.

And not just hard to find - expensive, often absurdly so. A common average for this material is around $70 per board foot (an industry standard meaning a 1" thick section, one foot square). For comparison, I buy really premium walnut for around $14 per board foot, and that's nearly triple what standard walnut goes for. And obviously, I want premium Ebony for this project.

A dozen phone calls later, and I'm nowhere. The thickest material I can find is 2" thick, and it's all fairly narrow as well, which isn't going to work for me. I begin to regret my decision to talk my client into the beauty of Ebony.

Research, research, research. More phone calls. Looking through the ads in the back of trade magazines. Scouring the internet. Mild panic.

And then I find a key little piece of information.

Hundreds of years ago, many of the homes throughout Asia were built with supporting columns of Ebony, both Gabon and Macassar. If not for the utilitarian use of a such a stunning and sought-after material, it makes perfect sense - it's stronger than steel, it's virtually indestructible, it scoffs at nature's attempts to make it rot, and it is native to the Asian and African continents.

More phone calls, more research, more scouring, more panic.

And then in a casual conversation with my good friend Tucker Robbins, I mention my dilemma. Tucker imports all kinds of beautiful objects from all over Asia and Africa. He often travels to small villages and works with the artisans there to design products for our sensibilities and tastes, and he's very successful. He's an interesting and eccentric and charismatic guy, with a heart of gold.

And I want to have his babies when he utters the following words:

"Oh, I have a bunch of columns of Macassar Ebony that I brought back from Indonesia! They're massive - you should come by and take a look at them."

And so I go and visit Tucker. Several times. The columns are huge and they're gorgeous. They are basically whole trees, cut square. Panic is replaced by intimidation and excitement, and an almost embarrassing desire for everything in his storage room.

Back and forth from the drafting table to Tucker's place. Now I have no limitations at all, and suddenly this is a new "problem." Because I know what I'm going to do - I'm going to make these chairs the way they would've been done before we had things like lumber yards and sawmills, where you could just go and get a board already milled to your specs.

I'm going to cut these chairs directly out of a fucking Macassar Ebony tree. I'm "just stupid enough to try to build that," I remember, and dozens more hours at the drafting table later and terrified by my own audacity, I take my truck to Tucker's studio.

The columns are 12" square, and 8 feet long. Insane. Impossible. And very, very heavy. Dense and smooth, they weigh about 550lbs. each.

It takes four men and three hours to get two columns into my truck. They stick out the back and weigh down on my leaf springs dangerously, and I drive back to my shop like a 75-year-old on her way to the early bird special.

Four more men and only two hours this time (I can learn!), and the columns are laying in my shop.

I am exhausted.

I am excited.

I am terrified.

I have absolutely no idea how to do what I am about to do.

And I couldn't be happier.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Quick Q & A/Link break...

Just because most people don't read the comments, and it'd be nice if I could provide links to all these, here are answers to some questions from the last post:



Wow dude, I've really been enjoying your last couple of posts. Probably because I relate to it with my music processes, but still. You write really well about it. I'd be curious to know if there is a circle of people within your industry or other people you know that are involved in this stuff that keep blogs like this too. Really impressed.



Thanks, Brett. I don't know anyone within my own industry doing it, which is why I do it - I want it to exist.

But there are lots of people out there writing about their work - check these out, off the top of my head - If I can think of others, I'll post them: - Hugh McLeod's awesome cartoons and manifesto-laden diatribes. - Rudius Media editor documenting his own growth as a writer (and a person), while also posting some great writing. - Saville Row bespoke tailor Thomas Mahon writes about his practice. - I've been really inspired by the way Tucker Max and Nils Parker are chronicling the making of their movie. and - In between stories, both Erin and Mike often talk about the process of actually doing the writing.

And here's something really important about the concept of "just keep working" - when you truly understand what it means to work, to put your head down and just fucking put in the hours - you don't necessarily need people to tell you about it. You can just look at it, or listen to it, or read it, and you know. You just know what went into it, and it blows you away, and no one has to speak a word of it.


Hey Suapyg, could you possibly provide a couple of examples of great furniture art? I want to gain some perspective on your art vs. others.

Good post by the way.


Wow. I could do that all day, and I'd still be afraid I wasn't scratching the surface.

Here are a few friends who inspire me - this is a wildly incomplete list, maybe in the future I can do a whole post about all the people whose work makes me want to pursue a career in refrigerator repair.

If you are a friend of mine, and I have left you off this list - I'm SO SORRY - I have to get back to work at some point today!

Jesus, I could keep going forever. Also check out some big name superstars:

Here are a couple bigshot galleries:

There are many others who don't have websites, largely because they don't need them.

Apparently, at some point I'm going to have to put up a real post about this. As I said, this list is wildly incomplete, and of course, it's without commentary.

Also, keep in mind that some of those people don't consider their work "art," they'd argue that it is just furniture. I'll have to elaborate on that, as well.

And most importantly, remember that this is only a tiny sampling of contemporary work - these people are all alive and still working. Any true representation of the field would have tons of history in it, as well - while my friend and fancy Yale scholar Ned Cooke would tell you that "studio furniture" has its roots in the 1940's, I would argue that it goes all the way back to the Egyptians. And I'd mean it.

And I'd be right (this is me sticking my tongue out at you, Ned!).

I don't necessarily want this blog to be specifically about studio furniture or art furniture or design art, or whatever the hell they're calling it these days, it's more about actually doing the work, and what the work is, doesn't really matter.

But in order to give people an idea of the scope and diversity in the tiny little corner of the world where I live, I'll try to put up a good summary somewhere down the line.

For the next few weeks (months?), though, I'm going to build these chairs - and if you're interested, I'd love it if you'd come with me and watch me do it.

See that? Y'all just got two posts for the price of one.

Just keep working.

We've had something of a heat wave here in New York over the last week or two - I've been coming home every day soaked in sweat, sore as hell, completely covered in black dust, and happier than I've been in a long time.

I'm well into a new project, and anxious to start writing about it. This isn't regular work. This is the reason I do what I do, and I haven't been able to do that for far too long.

Let's try to start at the beginning.

I get asked fairly often how I get clients, how a job begins, and how the designs happen. Each one is different and has its own variables, but there are enough common elements to generalize. Most people find me through one of three channels - word of mouth, seeing my work at a show, or finding an article about my work in a magazine.

As anyone who makes anything can tell you, not every piece is a home run. In fact, even for the best of us, you're lucky to get one or two out of every ten. This is why it's so crucial to keep working, and it's what's so intimidating about that elusive, "next piece," especially right after an important one - you have to get over the notion that each piece will be better than the last. Just keep working, the work will take care of itself.

Anyway, about three years ago, I hit a bonafide home run. It got a lot of press. Then I got asked to do it again a year or so later, and it got even more press. In that particular round of people paying attention to me, it was published in ForbesLife magazine.

Now, when a piece gets published, it generally results in a flurry of calls and emails, inquiries about commissions, etc. I try to find common elements and figure out a general percentage of how many of those inquiries end up as actual work, but the more it happens, the more I realize how pointless that is. It's completely different every single time. Just keep working, and the work will take care of itself.

Of course, since this was Forbes, and the fancy price tag was right there in the article, I assumed that I'd get fewer calls than usual, but a higher percentage of "quality" inquiries. The people at Forbes warned me that this was going to change my world, that I'd better gear up to handle the deluge. That the attention I'd gotten from the NYTimes article was nothing compared to what I was about to receive.

Uh huh.

For weeks, I got nothing. A "congratulations" from the couple who was kind enough to lend me back the piece for the photoshoot.

And then I got one phone call. From one of the biggest Design/Architecture firms in New York. To this day, it's the only call I've gotten from that article.

And it resulted in a $28,000 commission.

Thanks, Forbes. Deluge or no deluge, you did me right. The photoshoot was incredibly professional and pleasant (thanks to a great photo editor and a really impressive photographer), the copy wasn't filled with errors or nonsense, the article looked great and was well placed.

One call, one great job. I'll take that ratio any day.

So I talk with the design firm, and they graciously decide to put me directly in touch with the client (which is highly preferable, but also highly unusual). The client loves the bench. The client doesn't need a bench, though, the client needs a pair of chairs.

This is a very common occurrence - someone sees a piece I've done, and falls in love with it for whatever reasons, but has a need or desire for a completely different thing. It's my job to find the elements that spoke to them, and find ways to transfer that to a new idea. It involves a lot of questions and listening carefully to the answers, and a lot of gentle suggestions to make them fall in love with what I want to do. As my Dad once taught me, "I want everything to go my way, and I want everyone to be happy about it."

After all - when it comes to the big ones, the jobs that I know are going to take every ounce of blood and batter every muscle and test every skill and challenge every cell in my limited brain - I don't do this for them, I do it for me.

I just need to convince them to support me while I do it.

In exchange, I give them what I've done. That's the deal.

It often hurts, to give that up, but that's why you have to keep working. Just keep working, and the work will take care of itself.

So. The client tells me all the things that they love about the piece they've seen. It's a pleasant process for a narcissist, to sit and listen to someone tell you how they're deeply moved by your work. Then they tell you what else they love, and they show you pictures of things that have nothing whatsoever to do with what you do, and they ask you to somehow combine the two. Almost every time, this happens.

That part doesn't feel quite as pleasant.

But okay, it's a challenge and that's fun, that's what takes you into new territory, makes you find a place you haven't been, and if you're smart about it, you can steer that ship and take it somewhere exciting.

In this case, that's exactly what happened. The chair they showed me was horrible, an obviously uncomfortable abomination, a mixture of styles that contradicted each other and resulted in a coarse and angular piece that appears to be sticking its tongue out at me:

But that's alright, that's also common. There were things about it that they liked, and I listened carefully to what those things were, my brain working diligently in the background trying to tweak and caress those things into my own style, to swallow those ideas and find a place for them within my own vocabulary. And then when I open my mouth, I can find the words to make them happy about what I want to do.

They liked the sharp lines and the angularity, I made them softer. They'd seen the striped odd beauty of the wood from a palm tree, I explained that a palm can't deliver what we wanted - I've always wanted to do a piece with Macassar Ebony, I said, it's also oddly striped and marbled, and incredibly rare and opulent, an astonishingly beautiful material - it will be far superior to a piece made from what is essentially very thick grass.

They agreed that the tongue was silly. The liked the way it leans forward, I convinced them to make it lean back. They liked the curved rectangle for the back - I don't, but I gladly traded that for more curves and the chance to elevate the seat so that it appears to be floating.

And at that point, I agree to go away. We discuss a general price, and I take 10% of that to go away and design something. Depending on the piece, I'll come back with a little model, or a full-scale mockup, or a series of doodles, or a full 2D rendering, or even a set of working blueprints. If they decide to go with it, that 10% becomes part of the price, and I take a full 50% deposit to get going (obviously, there are little tweaks and such, within reason). If not, they are free to say, "no thanks," and I've been paid for the work I've done thus far, and everyone's happy.

I think - that's never actually happened. I mean, really - how can anyone resist my charms?

Moving on...

Someday maybe I'll do a separate post showing examples of all those different presentations, explaining why each was appropriate for its situation, but for now let's stay with this project.

For these chairs, I ended up doing a series of doodles and a full scale mockup of the back leg. The doodles because I was playing with line and stance, with the posture of the thing, and knew that a lot of the finer detail would come out as I actually did the pieces - they were going to have to trust in my ability to find it. For now, I just wanted them to know how they would feel, more than the perfect representation of how they would look.

I showed them these little sketches, and a sample of Macassar Ebony:

And we agreed to get started, on the condition that I would show them more detail as it came clear. They gave me a whole bunch of money, and I came back later with this slightly more defined sketch, the beginnings of the working shop drawings (drafted blueprints), and the mocked up leg:

Last adjustments were made - let's make them an inch taller, let's make the seat a little less deep, that kind of thing - and I'm off and running.

The next step? Figure out where the hell I'm going to find enough Macassar Ebony to make these things, and even more of a challenge, figure out how the hell I'm going to make these things. I'm reminded of something a friend once said, looking at a sketch in my notebook.

"Nice. And you're just stupid enough to try to make that."

Just keep working, and the work will take care of itself.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Dirty Tricks. (Part 2)

During my apprenticeship, all the finishing chores fell to me. That includes all the surface preparation, touch ups, color matching, and staining, as well as all the things that happen once you begin to put actual finish on the piece.

I hated that aspect of the work while I was still learning, but it was an incredibly significant bag of skills that I really wasn't giving the proper respect. The ability to make problems disappear, to read color and pattern and grain, to do all the tiny little things that can make a surface sing is something that I've found to be incredibly rare. There are millions of talented woodworkers - I'm always amazed by how many of them don't know a damned thing about finishing.

My old boss, John Fischer (no link - crazy ol' coot doesn't have a website!), used to call a lot of those little things, "dirty tricks." There's something on every job, some tiny little bit of tearout or some anomaly in the grain, or an imperfection or a mistake, whatever - there's always something that needs to be fixed, touched, made to disappear, and that often has to happen before the finish goes on. The skills I learned in doing that for John have proven themselves invaluable over and over again throughout my career.

And the massive crack that I showed you on my last post was going to take every single bit of skill and trickery that I had amassed, over years of dirty tricks.

After being told by the client, in no uncertain terms, that I had to find a way to make that crack disappear, I was pretty distraught. Even discounting how expensive that particular board was or how much work had gone into it thus far, you have to remember that everything on the cabinet is matched from slabs cut consecutively from the tree - you can't just swap out one board and get on with your life. We would have had to almost start the job all over again.

Not an option.

So I did a little research, and found that a lot of the guys who do big slab work will often just fill in the cracks with more wood from another board of the same species. It looks coarse to me, amateurish - the grain doesn't line up, the color is slightly different, it makes the crack stand out from the piece. When the piece is intended to be rough or rustic, or even based on the philosophy that you don't intrude on the "natural beauty" of the wood, that's fine, it doesn't look too bad, but it's not for me.

I tend to get more involved in my projects, I like to get deeply intimate with the material, and there's a relationship that develops between me and the tree. I know it sounds corny, but it's there. I've used this analogy before, but it's really the best I can describe it - working with an organic material like wood can be like I imagine taming a wild horse to be. You carefully push it a little farther than it will allow, and then back off a bit and let it push back, and keep doing that until you've created a relationship that is deeply intimate - until you know each other so well that you can ask it to do things it wouldn't normally do.

So I figured I was going to try to fill this crack with walnut, but a)I wanted to do it differently that most would, I wanted to really try to find a way to make it disappear, and b)I had to quickly grow intimate with this particular board - remember that Kate was the one working with it, not me. My relationship with this board was fairly distant, I was watching and reading it over Kate's shoulder and knew some of its little secrets and certainly some of its quirks, but I had no relationship with its growth patterns and its personality. Again, I know that sounds weird, but it's part of working with wood on this level - the events that shape a tree's life, the ways in which it grows, have a profound effect on the way you work with it. You can only cut the grain in one direction, or you'll tear it out instead of cutting it cleanly - but that direction changes and has a rhythm and a flow all its own within each board. Learning that rhythm is a part of developing a relationship with the board.

I spent some time with the board, really analyzing and inspecting it from every angle, learning to understand the patterns that made the crack happen. And I started to get a sense of how I could make my little plan work. Once I began working, it was going to be a no stopping fly by the seat of my pants reading and reacting on the fly type of experience.

So. The first thing I did was to take a pencil rubbing of the crack:

I wanted to be able to reproduce it exactly. If you recall, I mentioned that the cabinet is made from three consecutive slabs. What I had realized in analyzing the situation is that we had the board that was cut from the tree immediately next to this one, the adjoining faces were almost identical. And we hadn't used the part of the next board that corresponded to the cracked section of this one.

So once I had a pencil rubbing of the crack, and some marks to align exactly where on the board it came from, I was able to find the exact same spot on the adjacent board, and glue the rubbing down on it (backwards, because it's a mirror image!), matching the grain patterns perfectly, creating a positive image of the negative space left by the crack.

Next, with my bandsaw table tilted slightly, I carefully cut the "crack" out of that board - the table is tilted so that the piece I'm left with is a wedge, that can be pushed down into the crack, getting tighter as it goes. That piece needs to be perfect, so I then take it to the crack and fit it, very gently and carefully shaving and shaping it until it's a dead on match. It's finicky work, the little piece is very thin and fragile, and one wrong move will ruin my only chance to get this right.

Once satisfied that it's a perfect fit, now I have to find a way to hold everything in place, and keep the board from splitting further. For that, I have to cut some joinery out of the underside of the board, and it will have to go deep, so that it's effective. So I clamp the board flat and cut out a bowtie shape that will hold the crack together once everything gets glued. We call these, "butterflies" - they're cut out, traced onto the place they're going to live, routed freehand, and then chopped to their final exact shape with a chisel and a steady hand. Once everything is clamped flat, it can't be unclamped again until all the work is finished, so I have to make a beam for the top surface that has a cutout in it, to allow me to slip the new piece into the crack without taking the clamps off.

Once those are fit and ready to go, it's time to glue it all up at the same time - the whole operation is a process that takes several hours of setup and preparation - once you start, you can't stop until it's done.

First, the crucial piece gets glued in and clamped up tight - it's extremely fragile, so the crack is wedged open as the piece gets slipped in carefully:

Then, it must be trimmed a bit so that the board can lay flat when turned over for the next step. Epoxy is dribbled into the crack from the underside, the butterflies are hammered in, and the remainder of the crack is filled with little wedges to fill it all in (you can see the trimmed offcut of the repair piece laying off to the side with my tools):

With everything clamped in place and glued up, and all the excess glue cleaned off, and everything checked, checked again, and inspected for any last adjustments, then you drink. Heavily.

Everything sits like that for 24 hours. At that point, the clamps and the beams come off slowly, with much praying and listening carefully for the horrible horrible sound of another crack, and then everything has to be trimmed and planed flat and flush to the surface.

The butterflies and extra crap jammed in on the underside (this part doesn't have to be pretty, just smooth and flush):

And then the repair (click to see closer):

With all that done, the entire board has to be planed square again, and trimmed, so that Kate can re-cut the dovetails properly - that center tail will now be 3/16" bigger than the others, because of the new shape of the board. A small price to pay.

Months later, after the first coat of oil goes on, any anomalies in the grain and color of the repair are carefully painted in with alcohol stain, in between layers of finish.

The end result was as good as I believe is humanly possible - I was satisfied and the client was thrilled. Can you see it? Yeah, if someone points it out to you and you look very closely, you can. But then it becomes a great story for the client to tell, and it is forever a part of this piece made from a living thing.

I realize this was an exceptionally long and boringly detailed post, but the point of it all is to show just how much work can go into one tiny little step in the overall scheme of making a piece. This is not a unique experience in that way - this is what my work is, this is what I do all day, every day.

And it's what any artist must do - for every beautiful thing you've ever seen, there is blood and sweat and passion and fear behind it.

And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Tree wood will break your heart. (Part 1)

Way back when I was first discovering that I enjoyed making stuff, I was working for a guy making big planter boxes for corporate lobbies and roof decks. It was fast and furious, hard work and not much else. I wanted to learn to make nicer things, and one day at lunch I mentioned that to my boss and his shopmate, a guy who made his living inventing toys.

They started to talk to me about making plywood cabinets and such, and I corrected them, saying, "no, I mean furniture - tables and chairs, solid wood."

"Oh, you mean tree wood," said the toymaker, "aw, tree wood will break your heart, man."

That phrase has never really left my mind, and it has come back to haunt me pretty regularly. Before we get all caught up in my new project, I wanted to describe one of those moments, because it happened on that walnut piece my last post talked about.

With a vengeance.

And besides, a very dear friend of mine has been encouraging me forever to share stuff like this with you, that I should show you as often as I can just how much work goes into creating something. And she's right - people need a better understanding of what it takes.

So let's go back to that other dear friend you met on my last post, Kate Hawes. Kate is generally a reserved and quiet person, not prone to outbursts or sailor's language.

One afternoon, Kate is cutting the dovetails on the parts for the cabinet. The way that is done is to first cut all the kerfs (a fancy word for sawcut) with a handsaw, and then go back and remove all the material in between your sawcuts by chopping with a chisel. She's got the kerfs cut on both ends of the bottom board, and one end of the top, and is working on the last corner. The board (which is 7 feet long and 24" wide) is standing upright on end, chucked in the vise on her bench, and Kate is standing on her bench. I'm working on something else about 15 feet away, and her back is to me.

Suddenly, I hear Kate shout, "FUCK!" Full of surprise and anger - sharp and strong.

I look up, surprised myself to hear something so unlikely from Kate. She has stepped back from the piece, and the windows are behind her - I can see light coming through each of the kerfs she's already cut, each looking perfect and consistent, 1 3/4" long. But then I see the last cut she's made. And it's about 18" long, and far too wide.

I can't quite process what I'm seeing, and Kate is now facing me, standing up on her bench with a face that looks like it's just been slapped.

Here's what happened:

The board that we chose for the top of the cabinet was stunning - wide and clear and filled with motion, it came from a part of the tree that includes the "crotch" - the point where the trunk first splits into two or more branches. This is a particularly beautiful spot, the grain tends to do crazy things right there as it splits.

It's also somewhat unstable sometimes, and has a lot of tension in it. Each time you cut it, or remove material, the wood will find a new equilibrium to realign the tension. So when Kate's saw hit just the right (or wrong?) spot in the board, it popped. It split wide open, and rearranged itself until it was comfortable.

And it broke our hearts.

If you care to look closely at the grain pattern (click on the photo for a full size image), you can see that it released right where the smaller branch came off the larger trunk. Not the first time I'd seen something like this happen, but devastating nonetheless.

For the most part, this little event ended the day for each of us. That board was roughly $1500, and part of a matched set of three. The work that went into getting it to this point is ridiculous - I won't bother describing it, but let's just say it was hundreds of hours, all told.

We sat and stared at it, we got up and walked around it, we started sentences intended to be filled with ideas that simply turned into mumbles and trailed off into the air.

We agreed to sleep on it.

And I did what any self respecting artist would do. I packed up, went home, and drank myself to sleep.

In the morning, I had dozens of ideas. Kate turned to me and said, "this is your design, it's your name, it's your client. Whatever we're going to do, you should do it. I'll help you, but you need to do this. When it's a usable board again, give it back, and I'll continue."

She was right, of course.

It was time to call the client. My mind swimming with visions of filling the crack with silver, or a handful of other ways to accentuate rather than hide it, I picked up the phone. This is a unique design opportunity, I told myself, not a disaster.

What I didn't know was that as the phone rang in my client's hand, she was sitting in the doctor's waiting room awaiting the news that she was pregnant with her third child.

Have you ever had an important client scream at you while crying?

Yeah, well, I hadn't either, up until then.

The jist of the conversation was this: No. No new details, no fancy ideas, no silver or precious metals, nothing. "I want the piece we talked about, I want what you drew, and I don't want to have to readjust to some new idea that's going to change the feel of the whole piece."

All yelled through uncontrollable sobbing. Bear in mind that this couple owns well over $100,000 worth of my work, and has given me opportunities to stretch that no other clients had, at that point. They are precious to me.

Fair enough.

I spent the next several hours walking around the piece, now laying prone on horses. I turned it over, I turned it back. I studied the crack and the pattern of the grain. I gently pushed a little wedge into the end to see if it wanted to crack further. I measured and inspected to gauge how badly out of square the board had become.

I formulated the beginnings of a plan.

And then, mentally bankrupt and emotionally exhausted, I did what any self respecting artist would do. I packed up, went home, and drank myself to sleep.

Tree wood.

To be continued...

Sunday, July 13, 2008

I didn't do it, Katydid.

I just got the following comment on an older post:

I really don't know the process you go through to create the furniture, but do you have a staff or do you do it alone?

"Just to break it down a little further, each leg of this bench has approximately 40 - 60 hours of work in it."

That sounds like a lot, but with a staff of 4-5 workers, wouldn't it take a much shorter time? Is it not as profitable or do you just not trust others to create your art?

Tangent: Do you feel that if you don't physically produce every part of of your art, it's not yours? I've always wondered how Michelangelo felt about having all his assistants and I was hoping you could give me some insight about it.

Interesting timing on this question. I'm just about finished with the drafting/engineering on a pair of chairs, and thought it would be cool to post about the process of actually making them as I go, so look for that to begin within the next few days. I'll post pictures of the progress, and describe what it takes to actually make these things - not a "how-to," but more a look at how much work is involved, and how deep the dedication has to be.

And, honestly - I thought it'd be nice to show a bit of the stuff I love so much, and stop whining all the damned time.

As for the actual questions -

Generally, I work either alone or with a part time assistant. I don't produce enough to have highly skilled full timers, and unless they were ridiculously good, I couldn't even if I had them. Hopefully some of the upcoming posts will explain that better.

There is some reality in the difficulty of finding people who are as skilled as I am, and yet are interested in producing someone else's work. I know how pompous that sounds, but the facts is the facts, and much of the work I do requires some really intense skill. My dear friend and an astonishing craftsperson in her own right, Kate Hawes, has done a bunch of work for me in the past, for example, but is now concentrating on her own work exclusively (which, by the way, is incredible work).

But Kate is an excellent example for an answer to the next question, do I feel that I must be the one doing the work?

No, I don't. I have to be involved, as any good artist/designer should. Let's look at the last piece Kate and I built together (click the pictures to see larger images):

This piece is my design. Kate did all the casework and the doors. She cut those beautiful dovetails with the mitered front corners, she fit the doors so that they slide like butter. She matched all the grain so that it wraps perfectly around the corner from top to sides.

Because I asked her to. I was right there, ten feet away the whole time. We worked together as we looked at the three consecutive slabs of walnut, drawing with chalk all over them to determine where the parts would come from. We worked together in choosing the details, in reading the wood, in creating the overall feel of the piece, and Kate did what Kate always does - she fucking nailed it.

When it comes to straight up crisp woodworking, hand cutting perfect dovetails and things like that - I think Kate is better than I am. And it was the perfect use of her skillset.

On the other hand, when it comes to carving and sculpting free hand, flying by the seat of your pants, my personality is better suited to that kind of thing. So there was never any question about who would carve the drawer fronts:

That part fell to me, and I did what I do. I nailed it.

It's obviously more complex a relationship than that, and both Kate and I would argue on any given day that the other is better at either of those styles, but the point remains.

I enjoyed that process immensely. Watching the thing that was in my head take shape across the shop every day was hugely rewarding, regardless of whether I was making it or not. It was what I imagined, my silly little notion coming to life. I got to play a part in every decision, no matter how small, and I got to go and work on something else as Kate realized my vision. And then, at the very end, inspired by the great work she had done, I got to come in and do the glamorous work, the fancy carving.

Hell, if I could do that on every piece, I would.

But it's not always that simple. Sometimes you just don't know exactly what a piece will turn out to be. Sometimes you have to go and chase that shape yourself. Sometimes it's much easier to do it yourself than to try to explain it to another.

And sometimes, you just can't find someone skilled enough.

Either way, in answer to the one question I ignored: 40-60 hours is 40-60 hours, whether I'm doing it or someone else is. If five people were working on it and qualified to do it right, than it would happen in 12 hours, but it would still be 60 man-hours. And the truth is, no matter how skilled, no one is going to be able to find a shape that came out of my skull faster than I am.

Maybe in a later post I'll talk about the possibilities of computer aided manufacture, but for now we'll just leave it at an old-school conversation.

I'll leave you with a tease - the two chairs I'm about to start are going to come from two 12" x 12" x 8 foot long columns of Macassar Ebony. That is unheard of - this material is unbelievably rare. It's also wicked heavy - they weigh in at about 550lbs each.

But they're absolutely beautiful, and I'm dying to cut into them and get started...