Musings

Picking Away (At Silica Deposits)

After much noodlin’ and experimenting I wound up in the place of resolving the problematic silica flatting agent deposits in the interstices of the antique wood of Mrs. Barn’s clothes cupboard doors.  Unfortunately the destination was a place I did not necessarily want to go — picking out all the offending material with dental tools.

A few hours of work (I did not keep track as I popped in and out on the process) was all it took to get things back to a good place from which to proceed.

I really did not mind, for most of the past forty years I became accustomed to delicate, tiny-scale work, frequently under a stereomicroscope.  I guess if you find such work intolerably tedious, art conservation is not a good career path for you.  At least in this case I was not tethered to one of my microscopes, reading glasses and good directional lighting were all I needed.

One project from the past came to mind as I was picking out all the bits of crumbly whitened varnish.  It was a late 19th Century Alexander Roux cabinet that had been gifted to the Institution, needing a fair bit of work.  The original base had rotted off due to the cabinet sitting on the mud floor of a basement, so it needed a new base along with all the bronze mounts.  I sculpted the wax patterns for the new mounts and cast the bronze myself.

But, the most nettlesome aspect of the project was the intractable accretion of untold layers of linseed oil-containing furniture polish on top of all the surfaces including the patinated copper and bronze on a large cameo medallion that was the visual centerpiece of the cabinet (the main purpose of the cabinet was to hold either one piece of sculpture or a flower arrangement on the center of the top).  Over the years the linseed oil had hardened into something akin to Scotty’s transparent aluminum due to imbibing metal from the substrate leaving an encasing residue essentially un-removable by ordinary means.  The only effective technique was to formulate and slather an ultra-high pH Laponite gel, which coincidently removed the patination on the underlying substrate.  That was not a desired outcome.

Eventually I wound up fabricating some ivory scrapers to chip off the deposit, working entirely underneath a microscope to protect the undulating surfaces of gilded bronze and patinated copper.  The ivory scrapers looked like dental tools and were used because they would chip off the rock-hard contaminate yet not scratch the substrate.  In the end I was exceedingly pleased with the outcome.

But back to Mrs. Barn’s cabinet doors.  After removing all the deposits with the dental tools and scouring the surface with a wire brush, it was time to try applying a new coat of gloss oil resin varnish.

 

Whew.  I can now proceed to completion, building up the finish to a matte presentation.

Tool Cabinet – The Surface Design

My parquetry design for the tool cabinet is a residual memory from the Roentgen Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in February 2013.  Which itself makes for a somewhat amusing story.

I detest cities.

The bigger the city, the greater the animus.

It sorta explains why I live happily in a county of fewer than 2500 people, almost 200 miles from Ground Zero.  That means I view NYC pretty much as a barbarian coven.  During my career at the Institution I had to travel there several times to work at the national design museum, The Cooper Hewitt Museum, and near the end of my tenure to install the Chinese Pavilion exhibit in Queens.  Mrs. Barn had to hear my griping about these trips and that fetid megalopolis for weeks before and after the fact (I never did get used to the stench of the place).  I recall once riding the train with my pal MikeM to Manhattan for an editorial meeting at Simon&Schuster, and as we walked out on to the sidewalk from Grand Central station I instantly turned to him and said, “Okay, I’ve had enough.  I’m ready to go home.”  I may be twice his size but he is Sicilian, so he won the argument.  That particular book in question never came to pass mostly because by the time push came to shove, I had lost interest.

A couple months after I retired, I announced to Mrs. Barn that we would be making a day trip to NYC to attend the mondo Roentgen furniture exhibit at the Met.  Her dumfounded expression confirmed her suspicion that aliens had abducted her husband and replaced him with a metrosexual or some other life form.  I was adamant that we would not stay overnight so we caught the 5AM train and arrived at Penn Station about 8.30.  Rather than subject myself to the subway system or a cab ride I made her walk all the way to the Met.  That’s 3-1/2 miles.

My friend M, a conservator at the Met, gave us a guided tour of the exhibit complete with a running commentary of some of the technical features of the pieces she had examined and conserved.  It was a grand day, complete with lunch at the fancy schmancy Met restaurant and an afternoon session examining the contents of the Duncan Phyfe tool chest before a delicious meal at a restaurant en route back to Penn Station and heading home, arriving sometime around 2AM.  The day was totally worth it, even for an urbaphobe like me.

Anyhow, even though the Roentgens were best known for their innovative veristic marquetry creations, I found greater resonance with their parquetry.  Some of those parquetry expressions never left my consciousness and when it came time to start noodling this tool cabinet the visual memories came flooding back.  Almost immediately I gravitated to an alternating diamond-and-stringing concept for the presentation surface.  As I mentioned before I was using 18thC white oak for my veneers rather than the exotics favored by Roentgen patrons.

Equipped with my vision for segmented 60-120-60-120 parallelogram diamonds I started rough cutting the sawn veneers from which I could begin to assemble the diamonds which would then be sawn and trimmed en toto.

I recognized early on I had to devise a precise method to both saw the 30-60-90 triangle segments, and then to layout, saw and trim the completed diamonds perhaps even more precisely.

Stay tuned.

 

Blast From My Past (not woodworking)

Several months ago while dining with Elderdottir at her house I was telling a friend of hers about my experience as a college radio station program host, when I hosted a weekly Tuesday evening jazz program and was in the rotation for every other weekend of late-night jazz on Saturday.  One byproduct of this era was my acquisition of thousands of vinyl records, now in storage in the space above the master bathroom.  Elderdottir’s friend was very excited about it (I believe she is a vinyl record buff herself) so we tried playing a record on the living room turntable.  The turntable had not been used in almost thirty years and did not work well.  On examination I could see the cartridge had been damaged, or at least the stylus had been damaged and was unusable.

In the intervening months I found a new stylus cartridge online an ordered it.   FYI $25 cartridges are now $150.  One of the items on my Thanksgiving Week agenda was to install the new cartridge and see if the turntable was still operable.  It was, except for the “Cuing” function, which I hope is just womperjawed and creaky from sitting unused for three decades.

Elderdottir retrieved one of the two dozen large boxes of records from the storage compartment and when I looked through them I knew instantly which one had to be the first choice for the re-commissioning ceremony – the proto-punk Holly Beth Vincent album Holly and the Italians.  Soon the living room was rocking.

Last I heard Elderdottir was planning on having friends over to listen to her dad’s old records while they drank tea.  A wild bunch they are.

BTW I hope your Thanksgiving was as celebratory as ours, as we were reminded of the blessings and trials God has placed in our lives to draw us closer to Him, and this year was especially noteworthy as L’il T is now part of our lives (and he is progressing nicely!).  Mrs. Barn has been cooking up a storm and in her glory, ministering to and surrounded by the family she loves (plus she and the Barndottirs play board games every evening, something that holds zero interest for me).

Tool Cabinet – A Little HO Studley, Much More A&D Roentgen

As I slowly move forward with my ultimate tool cabinet the reminders and memories of the Studley Tool Cabinet are ever operating in the background as I strive to integrate the maximum inventory of tools into the space.  Fortunately (?) my tool cabinet will be five times more voluminous than Studley’s, which presents a multitude of opportunities and headaches.  Sure, I can include five times as many tools, but like Studley the multi-layered layout must be accomplished by hand and trial-and-error.  I expect that hugely time-consuming process will continue to infinity and beyond, or until I run out of tools to put inside.

Less problematic, at least in principle, is the decorative treatment of the presentation surfaces.  There I have a starting premise and need only to fine tune the execution.  My goal is to assemble a complex diamond-and-stringing parquetry surface evocative of the creative genius of Abraham and David Roentgen who, like many of the monumental French ebenistes, were Germanic.  My parquetry surfaces will be based on some of their work, but without the over-the-top exuberance.  As for decorating the interior surfaces, I have plenty of black dye, mother-of-pearl, and “bone,” both genuine and artificial.

Since beginning the project my efforts have vacillated between fitting the tools inside and mapping out the parquetry process.  For the latter I needed to create a very rough proof-of-concept panel that could provide useful information about tinkering with the size and proportions, and the process of executing whatever/wherever I wound up.

One of my foundational starting points was to use wood from Roentgen’s era for the veneers.  Fortunately I had a large inventory of leftover white oak scraps from the FORP gatherings in Georgia, which employed timbers that were literally growing at the time the Roentgens were active.  While none of the wood pieces were sizable, they were certainly process-able.

With a newly tuned bandsaw and brand-new, variable spaced teeth bandsaw blade I set to work making enough sawn veneer to execute the sample panel.

Stay tuned, this project will consume dozens of blog posts over the coming months.

Another Interview (*not* woodworking)

My longtime broadcaster friend Brian Wilson invited me back on his show Something Completely Different Tuesday to discuss the elections, or perhaps more precisely, the electorate.  Find it and listen at your own risk.  If pungent opinionating and analysis is too much for you, avoid it.

Just In Time

Our little community is down to one chimney sweep, a not inconsiderable logistical problem when there are probably around a thousand fireplaces and woodstoves in use here.  Getting on Rick the Chimney Sweep’s calendar early is an important consideration, and this year we did not get on the calendar as early as we should.  But just in time for chilly weather he worked us in to clean out our beautiful stone chimney.  Fortunately, our exhaust flue is not prone to build-up and combining that with the choice of fuel — always well-seasoned hardwood — gives us a lot of latitude, chimney cleaning-wise.

The easy part for Rick is to climb a ladder to the top of the chimney and sweep it from the top down a la Bert the chimney sweep from Mary Poppins.  I’m not afraid of heights but Mrs. Barn insists that my amygdala is not as sensitive as it should be so I take more risks than I should.  Thus, she is delighted we can hire someone to work at the height required.

Rick is, among other things, an enthusiastic spelunker so crawling around in the fireplace behind the insert suits him just fine.   He gave our fire exhaust system a clean bill of health and said that we may not even need an annual cleanout.

His ministrations were just in time as the temps will drop precipitously over the next few days with snow coming next Tuesday and Friday.  I expect we will fire it up in the next 36 hours or so if for no other reason than Li’l T and his parents are visiting for several days and we want to keep him warm.

As for the barn, it is easy enough for me to disassemble and clean the stovepipe, which I did last spring.

All set.

PS  I’m about halfway through the task of splitting and stacking firewood for next winter, and by the time I finish with the entire mountain of wood in the parking area next to the barn I’ll be ready through winter 2024/2025.

A Fascinating Discussion

One of my regular podcast listens is The Darkhorse Podcast hosted by husband-and-wife Biology professors Drs. Heather Heying and Brett Weinstein.  Though our general worldviews are definitely not overlapping too much I enjoy their conversations immensely as they are informative, gracious, and usually good-humored.  Their quiet earnestness and quest for truth (with little tolerance for b.s.) keep me listening.

Recently they discussed the inter-relationship between science (I loved how it was described as a tool rather than a sacred totem) and the structured problem solving inherent in artistic creation.  Part of the reason for my interest is fairly obvious, my career was spent occupying the space resulting from the intersection of materials science and artistic and cultural artifacts in the world’s largest museum complex.  At one point of my career trajectory, I was a principal in a project to create a high school interdisciplinary curriculum merging the hard sciences with the world of artifacts and art.  As I said in the funding proposal for the beta-test, “When the scientific analyst describes a material as having such and such properties and the artist says he wants art materials to accomplish this or that expression, they are talking about the exact same thing but from a different perspective.”  My organization’s priorities changed with new management and the project was never brought to fruition.

I think you just might find Bret and Heather’s comments to be interesting.  This specific topic begins around the 23-minute mark.

Formulating

Many years ago, when I was Director of the Smithsonian’s Furniture Conservation Training Program, I was meeting individually with each student in preparation for their fourth-year fellowship, during which they were required to undertake a project that would result in their Master’s Thesis.  The students had great latitude in their projects, some were purely historical aesthetics, some were about historical technology or craft, and some were analytical.

After our conversations I would arrange for each student to have a “mentor” to help them with guidance along the way.  For those projects reliant on analytical data I brought in a highly respected statistician with a specialty in experimental design and data analysis to advise the students in designing their project, gathering data, analyzing that data and formulating the conclusions.  One of the great beauties of DC is the abundance of research institutions and their scholarly communities. (The stories the statistician told me sotto voce about “research” shenanigans made me distrustful of any “science” ever since, even before the anti-“science” of the past three years.  One tale literally revolved around a “researcher” bringing in a box of lab notebooks and dropping them on the statistician’s desk the with the instructions, “My conclusion for this project is XYZ so you need to review this data and arrive at this conclusion.”  As the experimental designer told me then, “science” is not a thing, science is a process, and if the process is corrupt then the outcome [data and conclusions] is worthless.  From that perspective I can barely withhold laughter when public luminaries now tell us to “follow the science.”)

Back to my student.  The topic proposed for the thesis project was an evaluation of shellac properties, the particulars are lost to me at the moment.  I only remember that the number of variables combined with the number of identical samples required for a statistically valid set of results would have require formulating and preparing approximately seven million samples.  Needless to say, the student changed their project rather fundamentally.

Which brings me to work I am undertaking in the studio right now and probably for weeks or months to come.  I am not the trained experimental scientist in this household — that would be Mrs. Barn — but I am fairly able to harness and focus my curiosities from time to time.   My demonstration of making my artificial tortoiseshell several weeks ago has re-lit that fire for me and I have been working on refining the formulation and process ever since.  Although my paper from two decades still stands up well, it only gets about >95% of the way to a really good imitation vis-a-vie the physical properties of genuine tortoiseshell.  >95% is not the same thing as ~99%, which is where I want to go.

Like my student’s those years ago every variable change requires a group of samples to be formulated and made.  Unlike the putative shellac researcher I am NOT weighing each variable as random and equal.  I am not making the number of samples that might be required if the variables were purely random; I am testing one variable first, then applying the second variable once the first spec is established, then the third once the first two are established, etc.  Even so I am creating hundreds of samples to assess for their properties based on a menu of options I must consider.

What grade of collagen should I use?

What concentration?

Which plasticizer (if any)?

At what concentration?

Which protein reaction catalyst to use?

In what proportion?

In solution or infused ex poste?

How long to cure?

At what temperature?

My tools for this undertaking are fairly simple and non-specialized; an analytical digital scale, disposable pipettes, disposable cups, a old microwave, an ancient ebay stirring hotplate, a rice steamer (most samples curl when they dry and need to be steamed flat), drying screens, and a desiccating chamber, a/k/a a Gammo pet food storage unit filled with conditioned silica gel.  By far the most time for the sample involves drying them to the lowest moisture content possible, at which time the most extreme properties become manifest.  Yes indeed, most of the time is watching samples dry.

There is simply no point in ongoing daily blogging about that, or in changing formulations by a hundredth of a unit proportion, but I will report back when I have results that I find encouraging in directing my final minute adjustments.  In the meantime when there is radio silence on the blog, you can assume I am either splitting firewood for next winter and beyond, or tinkering with formula minutiae.

One of my real headaches at the moment has to do with a German chemical component that has a) become unavailable, or b) become unaffordable.  My current dwindling inventory was a 100g jar given to me by the president of a chemical company almost twenty years ago, and in the intervening years I have seen the price go from a couple hundred dollars a kilo to several hundred dollars per kilo to a few thousand dollars a kilo to a quote yesterday of almost $100k per kilo.  I’m really wishing I’d bought a big bucket of it fifteen years ago.  Obviously, I am doing my best to work around that headache.

Stay tuned.

Seasonal Splendor

Even on a slightly hazy morning, the drive back from the hardware store featured a landscape of almost fluorescent colors on the mountain behind the cabin.

Autmn beauty is a fleeting thing here in the Virginia Highlands, a good year giving us at best three weeks of polychromy.  This year we had about a fortnight plus a day or two.

Hard to not be distracted when this is the view from the window.

During that fat fortnight the drive up the road and the view outside the shop windows was glorious.

Another splendiferous happening during autumn in these parts is the annual making of apple butter the old-fashioned way. Twice we have been able to go to our friends Pat and Valerie to help cook, stir, and can apple butter in accordance with Pat’s mom’s recipe (I think), using a giant copper-lined cauldron resting above a wood fire.  This year we had brilliant, crisp days for the event and garnered almost 150 pints each day.

The assembly line firing on all cylinders.

Perhaps the truest from of magnificence on these days is when we got to scrape caramelized apple butter off the bottom of the cauldron with fresh biscuits and popping the treat into our mouths.

Words do not suffice.

Advice For A Young Adult

In recent weeks I’ve been corresponding with a friend-I’ve-never-met about a wide range of topics, and the question came up (paraphrased), “How can I best help my teenager to pursue a life of skilled woodworking?”  (The Dad is a brilliant woodworker but has a more-than-full-time profession).  The young adult recently visited the North Bennett Street School and was much impressed.

But, what are the other options?  It’s not a question I have given much consideration before now.

The family in question does not live in the US so moving to attend NBSS is only one option on the table.  Any good fit for the youngster will be considered regardless of location.  From conversing with the Dad I think anything from long-term apprenticing with an excellent mentor to finding a first-class skilled trade school is on the table.  The only objective is to obtain a thorough grounding in the craft, so two-week workshops are not in the cards, nor is necessarily a BFA at a university as the goal is to impart the complete skills necessary to live a long and productive life as an artisan, not inflict malignant social/political indoctrination.

What are the other options for becoming a skilled furniture maker, boatbuilder, musical instrument maker, traditional timber framing, or anything similar?  The things that come to my mind are Ecole Boulle in Paris, West Dean College and City and Guilds in the UK, some luthiery and violin-making programs, etc.

I will check more with the Dad to find out any particular proclivities of the prospective student, but if you have any good ideas please let me (and him) know about them.