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...


Anonymous vicki said...

Actually, it was my second child. After reading this, I realize that I had the better end of the deal; my birthing process was less painful.

5:34 PM  

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