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.


OpenID brettcrudgington said...

Awesome. Those pieces are beautiful. I'd be intimidated too knowing I'd have to work something nice out of those massive things. Looking forward to seeing where the hell you actually start - good post Scott.

10:54 PM  
Anonymous George said...

You're a really good writer. But I'm curious - how did you go from drummer to furniture maker? They don't strike me as two closely related career paths.

6:33 PM  
Anonymous Hybridvigor said...

Nice wood. Who's the young dude?

1:20 PM  

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