shellac wax

Ex Poste Analysis (Mel’s Wax) – Part II, The Cause

NB – This is not only my 1,500th(!) blog post over the past 8+ years, it is the longest one I’ve ever written.  By far.  Normally a post takes me from 30-90 minutes to create, occasionally longer or shorter.  For this one, depending on your timekeeping system it took me a) four weeks, b) four months, c) four years, or d) four decades.  So which one was it? 

The correct answer is, “Yes.”

In order to tell this tale with some completeness I need to give you a tiny bit of background context.  (In truth it turned out to be something more than a “tiny bit” but it is far less than a proper detailed exposition.  I think that would be too much for 99.8% of you, and since I have about 300 readers that pretty much eliminates everybody — DCW)

To determine the cause of the soup-iness of the batch of Mel’s Wax, it should be the viscosity of a lotion and was instead the viscosity of heavy cream, I needed to go back to the beginning to reflect on the original concept for the formulation.  This will be  long and winding tale but provides the fullest possible explanation I am able to share about the reason for the batch “failure” (as I said earlier it was not really a failure, it was just not the precise outcome I had expected.  In the end it turned out just fine.)   I should probably break it up into three or four posts, but I decided to just put in one big steak rather than several smaller burgers.  So, settle in with a snack and your preferred beverage for this ride.  I don’t think you necessarily need to buckle up, but if a discussion of solvent thermodynamics gets you all worked up into a rave perhaps you need to restrain yourself as well.

BTW This post borrows heavily from the section that has been the bane for the past year of writing A Period Finisher’s Manual.  And yes I have finally solved that particular puzzle and am back at work on APFM almost daily.  Yup, it has taken me over a year to get a handle on one part of one chapter.  Were it not so important to the craft of wood finishing I would not have bothered, but it is and I did.

From the beginning of our careers, even before we met and worked together, Mel and I formulated and mixed our own furniture maintenance polishes because we were not content with the products in the market.  The commercially available products often used ingredients we knew  a priori to be potentially deleterious to historic finishes, or used ingredients in proportions we thought were not optimal (for the furniture), or were simply too difficult to use.

So, the product Mel finally derived (I withdrew from direct participation fairly early for logistical reasons once we knew the development was on the right track; the easiest way for the project to move forward was for me as Mel’s Supervisor to assign him the task of taking it to fruition with me providing oversight and the occasional observation, review, or suggestion.  Participating directly, as a Supervisor and programmatic manager [read: fiduciary] would have been an administrative nightmare) fulfilled splendidly our goals for “the ultimate furniture polish.”  I do not believe it to overstate the case when I note that from a formulary’s perspective, it was balancing along a knife’s edge.  That balance was lost minutely in mixing this batch of the polish, but that is all it took.

Here were the original goals, which Mel fulfilled brilliantly and deserves all of the credit and the Patents* that were issued.

  1.  The end product was archivally stable.
  2. The product was chemically benign regarding historic finishes.
  3. The product was physically benign regarding historic finishes; the product was easy to apply and bring to a high sheen.
  4. The product was very high performance for both the presentation of the object and its ongoing maintenance.
  5. The product was easily removed with no damage to the surface from the removal process.
  6. The production of the polish did not require exotic technology
  7. The product was safe for the user.

These features are not independent variables per se, no component of any formulation or application is separated from the others, but they are different conceptually and thus I will provide exposition on each one.

Archivally Stable

“Archival” is at best a vague word without objective quantifiable meaning, but for the sake of this discussion simply use it to mean that some material or composition of materials does not degrade unacceptably fast and that any degradation by-products do not become manifest as pernicious actors in the realm of deterioration.  That does not mean the word/concept has no utility when formulating a composition or even a practice.  For Mel’s Wax the ingredients and their proportions/mixing were chosen with great care, and selected for long-term stability.  This has pretty profound influence on the making and shelf-life of the product.  Though the primary ingredients of Mel’s Wax (the waxes themselves) have a half-life that is near-infinite within the context of recorded human history, others were selected for the longest possible half-life, such as the exotic emulsifiers.  And, the ingredients were selected with essentially zero cost consideration.  Think about an old favorite like Murphy’s Oil Soap, which retails for a few dollars a quart.  The emulsifiers used in Mel’s Wax, again, selected because of their stability vis-a-vie their degradation curve and chemical neutrality (see below) wholesales for *hundreds of dollars a liter.*

Chemically Benign to Historic Finishes

One of the truths of this particular cosmos is that the Law of Entropy cannot be repealed by even the most highly self-esteemed persons.  “Ashes to ashes dust to dust” is not merely funereal homily, it is an inexorable reality in a cosmos governed by the laws of thermodynamics.  So, as furniture finishes age they become closer to the “dirt” aspect of the verbiage just cited.  As a practical matter this means that historic surfaces and finishes become more chemically imbalanced over time (usually due to UV damage or the imbibing of oxygen) and thus more susceptible to chemicals that impart damage because the chemicals deposited on the surfaces are thermodynamically similar to the surface and will thus impart undue harm to the said surface.  This means that we have to maintain as close to a neutral balance or “polarity” for the chemical concoction being deposited on that surface.  This, in turn, affects the choice of ingredients to be the most benign possible, which in turn influences the procedures for making Mel’s Wax.  Those crazy expensive emulsifiers I mentioned earlier were selected specifically because they are less aggressive in creating the lotion-like polish, and thus less likely to inflict harm on  chemically fragile surface.  Further, the proportion of the emulsifiers in precisely calculated since excess emulsifier is a vector for accelerated chemical reactions, a/k/a “deterioration.”  Also, the selection of the organic solvents used in creating the  oil-and-water emulsion were selected for the maximum benign characteristics for aged surfaces.

Physically Benign to Historic Surfaces

There are some fine archival and chemically neutral furniture care polishes on the market in the form of paste waxes.  Unfortunately many of these products require sometimes aggressive rubbing of the surface to bring their applications to a conclusion.  Whenever you are faced with a physically delicate surface the last thing in the world you want to  do is rub it hard to burnish the maintenance coating (paste wax).  Given that reality based on what we knew it was pretty apparent that Mel’s Wax would need to be a creamy emulsion requiring very little physical impact on the surface for either application or completion.

High Performance

“High performance” is just another way of saying “It is physically robust and looks good.”  It is and it does.

Easily Removable

For long term preservation and care considerations any museum artifact maintenance product must be removable with the minimal physical or chemical impact on the sometimes fragile underlying surface.   Mel’s Wax was designed precisely to be removable with non-polar solvents and soft wipes like cotton swabs or lint-free felt.

Easily Produced

This was the point that precluded commercial-scale productions.  It is very fussy to make, in fact my experience is that it would be difficult to make in anything larger than a five-gallon batch; I normally make Mel’s Wax just over a gallon at a time.  The ingredients must be mixed precisely and with a fairly strict time frame.  Further, the thermal ramping (the rate of heating up and cooling down) is a real stinker.   Commercial enterprises, used to making home-care products in vats of several hundred gallons at a time, could simply not get it right.  Many companies tried, including some you might recognize; they all failed.  Instead the protocol Mel derived was a fussy micro-batch process that can go south with just a fraction of a percent of deviation.  In that regard it failed the “easy to produce” goal.

Safe to Use

Not incidental to the formulation design is that the end product would not only be benign for the artifact, it would be (comparatively) benign for the user.  Yes Mel’s Wax does contain organic solvents that are by definition deleterious to human consumption, but they are not acutely toxic compared to the overall landscape of industrial chemical engineering and formulation.  Eating or drinking it would end you up in the emergency room rather than the morgue.  As Dixie Lee Ray articulated in the Foreword to her brilliant book Trashing The Planet, under many situations di-hydrogen monoxide (water) is a lethal chemical.  Like, for example, if you were to experience extended, intimate and excusive exposure for more than a couple minutes, e.g. unmitigated complete submersion.  That would be a fatal incident.

Back to “The Cause”

This, my friends, is here the adventurous rabbit trail of solvent thermodynamics comes into play.  As I mentioned earlier the formulation for Mels Wax was a razor’s-edge situation; if any component of the manufacturing was off by just a smidge, whether ingredient, proportion or process, the delicate balance of the formulation would be undone, or at least modified from where it was supposed to end up.

And that is what happened, but not in the way I was expecting.  Solving the problem was an energizing exercise in synthetic thinking, combining the phenomenon (that which can be observed) with the noumenon (that which can be imagined).

When I was making this batch I was relying on my old faithful solvent, odorless mineral spirits, from the hardware store.  There is nothing wrong with generic or even common ingredients like this provided they are the same thing from the manufacturer every time.  I’d had great success with this particular solvent over the years.  However, this time when I opened the container and decanted the necessary amount of the solvent into the weighing vessel (the formula is designed to assemble the ingredients by weight, not volume) the solvent coming out of the container was the consistency of chunky sour milk (fortunately it was odorless).  Clearly some “shelf life” issue of the solvent and its plastic container was at work here.  I tossed all of that and cleaned up to move on to the next gallon jug.  Same thing.  Repeat and rinse.  Same thing.  And with that I was out of my trusty tried and true odorless mineral spirits.

No big deal, I just picked up some new solvent, from the same company to (supposedly) the same manufacturing specs, and proceeded as normal.  The solvent looked fine, the procedure went smoothly and I set about with other tasks until the polish gelled to the expected creamy lotion viscosity.

I came back in an hour and the polish had not gelled.  No reason for hysteria, it as a very warm day and the thermal ramping was just being petulant.  I came back in the morning and the gelling was still not to my satisfaction.  Hmm, what was going on here?  I even refrigerated one jar and it did not thicken to the desired viscosity.

At this point I stepped back from the entire episode for two weeks, just letting the stuff sit on the benchtop of the Waxerie while I cogitated.  After those fourteen days I revisited the batch of the polish and noticed something peculiar — there was a stratum of pure solvent at the top of every jar.  In a moment I knew what had happened.

The Crystal Set/Key-and-Lock Analogies – The Solubility Parameter

Have you ever wondered why substance A will dissolve in solvent X but not solvent Z?  That question is perhaps one of the very most important questions in coatings technology and you would be wise to contemplate it.  There is a real answer and I am going to tell it to you in a roundabout fashion.  Hey, it’s my blog and I can tell the story any way I want.  Hint -it all has to do with interatomic/intermolecular energy matching.

Stick with me now.

When I was a kid I got a crystal set radio, an earth-powered (actually it was the charge from the earth through the grounded radio chassis that made it work) primitive AM radio that allowed me to get the closest radio station to the house.  I would spend many evenings listening to that local radio station, and after dark when the locals went off the air I could tune in the station from the next town over.  Even though the crystal set had no power source I could listen to broadcast radio.  Why?  because the crystal of the crystal set allowed the unit to align, or match (receive), the frequency of the signal being broadcast with power being derived from the ground (I am not a radio engineer and did not stay in a Holiday Inn, so cut me some slack.  I’m trying to explain a concept, not enter the debate about Marconi vs Tesla vs. Edison).  Even with only the nearly unmeasurable electrons flowing through the crystal set it could “dissolve” the radio signals being broadcast because they were matched to each other.

Let me try another analogy.

Assume you come to visit me and my barn is locked (the punch line of my all time favorite joke is, “Assume a can opener.”).  Not to worry, you’ve got the biggest honkin’ key known to man in your pocket and you go after the lock on my door.  (I am assuming this action is done with my permission or you would have likely suffered a less beneficial outcome).  Is this going to work, are you going to get in?  Probably not. Why?  Because the configuration (the energy) of the key does not match the configuration (the energy) of the tumblers in the lock.

And that my friends is why the polish was soupy.  Let me explain.

The “solubility parameter” is the aggregate of (at least) three fractional components, which are in turn very specific intermolecular energy values. We use a graphical tool called the Teas Diagram to visually plot out the dissolving characteristics of both solvents and solutes, although this is an incomplete tool for selecting ingredients in a finish formulation. I discuss this at some length in A Period Finisher’s Manual.

The formula for Mel’s Wax depends on an organic solvent blend of a particular energy balance or “polarity” in order to walk the razor’s edge and fulfill all the preferences described above.  To work perfectly the energy holding the solvent blend together (the key) had to match the energy holding the ingredients together (the lock)  precisely —  not perfectly —  in order to accomplish the end point we wanted.  My old dominant solvent had the exact correct energies to match the ingredients were were putting into solution in this particular operation.  This phenomenon is called the “solubility parameter” as it is literally the aggregation of the interatomic and intermolecular electrical forces holding everything together, at least in the universe of solutes and solvents.   Often it is reduce to the verbal shorthand of “like dissolves like.”

Yes, there are solvents for Mel’s Wax that could do the dissolving more efficiently than others.  Solvent/solute compatibility is a range not a fixed point since no solute or solvent is 100% a pure single molecular content, and within one particular range we got the desired outcome.  Was this solvent blend the “perfect” one to create the solution?  No, because perfect solvation was not the preferred outcome since that “perfect” solvent blend would not fulfill the previously stated goals.  For that we needed a milder (less polar) solvent blend.  As I said the solubility parameter allows for a range of options to accomplish similar goals and characteristics.

Getting back to the original issue, why was this batch of polish soupy?  Because even though the new solvent as ostensibly identical or similar to the previous solvent (it was similar but not identical) and still well within the “safe” range or creating our archival polish, it was just enough different as to perform more efficiently as a solvent.  In short, each unit of solvent dissolved more of the polish ingredients than the previous solvent, so less of the new solvent was needed to accomplish the task of doing the dissolving.  In a normal solvent/solute solution this is usually no big deal, the solution is just a tiny bit more diluted than would otherwise be expected.  But, in a two phase system like an emulsion combining an oily fraction with a watery fraction even minute deviations can impart huge differences.

In the end, the polish was soupy because there was excess solvent that had nothing to do but sit around and be liquid adjacent to the two phase emulsion.  Yes I could force it to go into the emulsion but it would not stay there.  As I showed last time the performance of the polish was unaffected.  It was just soupy, that’s all.

But I didn’t want soupy so stay tuned for the next episode of As The Polish Turns to see how I responded to the problem.

Ex Poste Analysis (Mel’s Wax) – Part I, The Effect

Normally at this point of the formulation the molten polish is an almost transparent amber liquid. It usually does not obtain this white-ish opacity until after it has been transferred into the jars and cooled for an hour or so, a little longer on a warm summer day.

With a recent batch of Mel’s Wax behaving oddly, becoming white-ish much earlier in the process than I have come to expect but nevertheless attaining the expected appearance when fully cooled. This batch remained almost fully liquid when it should have congealed into a soft lotion, and I set it aside for several days to cogitate over the cause(s).

Just to make sure I was not completely misguided I tested a bit of this liquid polish to judge its performance, and it did just just fine.  So I did a contemplation deep dive to consider what might have “gone wrong.”  In retrospect “gone wrong” was not the correct perspective, it had just developed differently than previous batches.  But still, the question was “Why?”  (A second question was, “Is this a new product?”)

When I returned to the jars after letting them sit undisturbed for a week I noticed an even more distinct stratification of the contents than had been suggested immediately after the making.  In fact the top quarter inch of every jar was a near-pure fraction of solvent.

Using a disposable pipette I decanted the free solvent from the top of every jar, depositing the excess into a single large paper cup.  According to my digital scale the contents in each jar included 20% excess solvent.  Hmm.

Once the excess was removed the emulsion polish fraction underneath the solvent fraction was much more like the polish should be, and again performed precisely as it was supposed to.  This observation made me reflect not only the original formulation from 15 years ago but also my materials used the previous week.  It was a noumenological exercise, a/k/a “thought experiment,” that in the end bore great fruit.

Next time – The Cause.

A Mel’s Wax “Hmmmm”

Once apon a time I thought making and selling Mel’s Wax would be a foundational activity for me in “retirement.” I believed the product invented for the archival care of furniture and wooden artifacts while we were together at the Smithsonian would grow into a prominent role at The Barn (half of any proceeds go to Mel’s widow.)  The custom-designed performance and formulation was unlike anything else available to furniture caretakers, and one major player in the home care products market whom we approached to manufacture it declared it to be (when cutting through the corporate-ese)  “…the best product of its kind we have ever seen, but we have too much invested in our own brand to pursue it.”

Instead it has become a minor amusement for me as there seems to be little interest in the product.  Admittedly this might be because I will not turn it over to some third party for  production and marketing.  It is a fussy product to make, and its applications may be too niche.  We found that every potential producer who tried to make it cut corners and substituted more “convenient” ingredients (read: cheaper) or made other modifications to the formula and process to the disadvantage of the product concept and performance.

So, instead of working at anything near my capacity of a one-man shop, even if expanding that to a one-man-and-his-really-smart-wife, I find myself making  batch (28 units) every so often.  Last year while mail-order businesses boomed in general, I sold exactly 17 units.  This year is better, having outsold 2020 by a factor of three already, so I was needing to make another batch last week, the third one this year!  Normally I make it during the winter when things are cool in the shop (I keep it around 60) but we are now in the throes of a heat wave (low 80s).

While making the batch it seemed “off” and I set it aside for several days to settle down (sometimes it takes a while for the emulsion to fully set).  When I checked back a week later it was still “off” (had not settled into the “lotion” viscosity) and I wondered if ambient heat was the issue.  I’ve placed it in the basement of the barn (60 degrees) to set for a day or two and I will check it again.  If I still do not like it I will make a whole new batch.

Aside from the digital analytical scales I use to get the ingredient proportions correct, the most important tool in the process is a laser thermometer. Ramping up the temperature and (as important, if not more so) ramping the temperature down is vital to making Mel’s Wax.

This episode not only made me go, “Hmmm,” but reminded me how finicky it is to make.

Historic Woodfinishing Course Openings

In keeping with my current “marketing” (non-)  strategy for workshops, a while ago I was approached by a group of fellows commissioning a Historic Wood Finishing weekend workshop at The Barn.  Once we set the schedule it turned out that there would be two slots open for anyone else who wanted to take the open places.  If this interests you let me know.  As always, the emphases will be on shellac and wax finishing for three days.  The schedule for the workshop is October 9-11, 2021, and the tuition is $375.

Another Batch of Mel’s Wax

After not making any Mel’s Wax for nearly a year I finally ran out and needed to make another batch.  It is an enjoyable process for me, requiring careful lab protocol weighing, heating, melting, mixing and decanting.  The laser thermometer is a godsend.

It’s been an interesting phenomenon watching the product go nowhere.  I had thought that making and distributing Mel’s Wax would be a major component of my retirement activity but that has not materialized, and at this point I am not sure what to do (if anything) about it.  Apparently I do not know how to market a cutting edge product to the people who need it.  Last year en toto I sold 14 units, so even if sales double this year this latest batch should get me through 2021.  Oddly enough I have had half as many orders for Mel’s Wax in the past fortnight than in all of 2020.

Perhaps this year will be the one where I can answer Mrs. Barn’s question, “So when are you going to act like you are retired?”  I will soon be 66 and perhaps ease off the gas just a little bit.

2020: “Top that!”

2021:  “Oh yeah? Hold my beer.”

On the other hand my mom was almost 104 and fully lucid when she died, so I expect a lot more good years of woodworking, writing, metalworking, fuming about the collapse of Western Civilization, chopping firewood…

 

Dwindling Inventory

On my most recent visit to the Post Office to mail some family packages I was informed that they are no longer projecting packages to arrive before Christmas due to bottlenecks throughout the system.  That’s good to know, so if you were planning on sending any of my wax or polissoirs for Christmas I can mail them immediately but do not expect to receive them before Dec 25th.  Early December  is the only time of the year where I regularly go to the post office more than once a week to mail packages.

Much to my surprise I made it to this date with a bit of my dwindling inventory remaining, I had my doubts.  It’s been a few months since I received any new polissoirs since my broom maker has been dealing with some serious health issues and has not had the strength to sit and make brooms or polissoirs.  At this point I am down to about a dozen of each model in stock (way fewer than in this picture).  I’ve got plenty of wax blocks and can always process more, ditto Mel’s Wax.

I spoke to the broom maker last week and he is determined to get back into his shop this week.  I hope it is true because that means his healing will be nearly complete.  That will be great as we can start building excess inventory to prepare for Handworks 2021 on Labor Day weekend.

A New Wax Product?

Recently I have been working with planemaker and friend Steve Voigt to help him create a wax polish for his exquisite new historic-style wooden planes.  Well, Steve has been doing all the work, I am just supplying the materials and a few formulations based on the results I’ve had in recent years.  His desire was for a beautiful appearance and a non-slick surface so that his planes could be handled with the tiniest bit of tack against the bare hand.

Based on some correspondence and a recent Instagram post, he has apparently arrived at the finish line.  He is strongly recommending I make this product for others with similar interests and asked if I had ever made this formulation before, because it was in his words, “Da Bomb.”  You can tell he has been a college professor, what with all that hipster lingo.  (He is actually a pretty hip guy, especially compared to me being just a lovable curmudgeon shouting at the clouds)

My reply was, “Yes I had, and yes it was.”

It just might be time for a new product in the Don’s Barn Store.  I’ve actually been playing with quite a few ideas…

Stay tuned.

Prices and Postage

This is not a “happy” bog post.  It might be a little too much “inside baseball” but I thought you should know what is going on and what is coming down the pike.  It’s probably bad form to discuss openly the costs of running a business, even a hobby one, and I will give that concern all the consideration I think it deserves.  Okay, I’m done with that consideration.

It has been almost a decade since rediscovering the amazing surface prep and finishing tool called the polissoir, or polisher, and connecting up with a local craft broom maker to supply me with them.  In that period I have sold and shipped thousands(!) of polissoirs and blocks of beeswax etc., and I hope to continue that success and match it with that of Mel’s Wax in the coming months and years.  I delight in sharing the polissoir-and-beeswax’s almost magical qualities with the enthusiasts who have joined me in this trek taking a giant leap backwards in wood finishing.  To encourage these tools’ adoption by the woodworking world I have kept the pricing stable almost since the beginning, folding the postage into the purchase price and keeping that unchanged since we went “official” with the Shop function on the website.

Unfortunately the postage increases implemented by the USPO over the past two years have affected me to the degree that, all by itself, postage now consumes over 15% of my gross sales revenue (and nearly 25% of the net), a nearly 100% increase in just the past year.  This is so far out of whack I can hardly wrap my head around it, but the unavoidable result is that some of the heavier items in the Store will necessarily increase in price to reflect this grim reality as soon as we can edit the page.

(I am not griping about the post office, they provide excellent service to me and are convenient; I do not realistically have any other parcel carrier option out here in the hinterlands.  I usually make the five-minute drive to our one-window post office in town once a week with a canvas tool bag full of parcels to mail.  Making a three-hour round trip over the mountains to a parcel depot is not in the cards for me.)

To respond to this new cost reality, after long thought I’ve decided to raise the price of hand refined beeswax by $1 to $14, raising the Blend 31 to $17, and the shellac wax to $21.

All three models of the one-inch polissoirs will remain at their current price since they are so light weight and have apparently — thus far — remained below some postage threshold, but you never know with the USPS.

The large polissoirs, the two-inch woven-sheath and the Model 296 wrapped polissoirs, will be going from $47 to $49, and the two-pound bag of shellac flour will now be $75.  Postage for Mel’s Wax is also 50% higher per unit than expected but I will leave that price alone for now as a strategic move.

I’m not apologizing for the increases: even though this is a labor of love for me I simply can’t keep selling and shipping products at the previous prices given the rising costs of postage.  That is just a plain and simple fact whether I like it or not.  I will be sad if these price increases diminish interest in polissoirs and waxes and such, but as the pundit says, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.”

And, given the recent disruptions in the bee hive health I am doubly glad I bought a lot of raw beeswax for us to hand-process into blocks and polishes just before the colony collapse crisis.  I’m hoping that the raw material comes back down in price before I need to buy more at the end of this year, but at the moment the prices for beeswax are about double from when I bought some last.

Stay tuned and wish me luck.

Mel’s Wax on Instagram

My friend LenR posted this in his Instagram page, featuring his use of Mel’s Wax.  It is much appreciated, and prompts me to think seriously about how to market this remarkable product.  At this point I am selling about one unit per month, when in reality I should be moving it by the case load.  I’ll be turning my attention in this direction imminently.   I’m definitely interested in ramping up production, but refuse to sub it out and am not really interested in wholesaling it.  Those might be two intractable problems with my plan.

Any thoughts?

Rethinking, or, “State of the Barn Address”

 

It’s been almost thirteen years since the skeleton of the barn was erected, nine years since it was outfitted with the first of more than a dozen workbenches, and over six years since the first blog post.  Now safely ensconced in my 65th year, lately I’ve been contemplating the entire enterprise, reflecting on how blessed I have been and continue to be.  Whether it is good news or bad news, after serious consideration I have no plans to change the fundamental structure of activity on the homestead for several more years, but at some point life in the mountains will simply become too physically taxing and the barn and cabin will be in my rear-view mirror.  Until then, however, it is still full(?) speed ahead with a big smile on my face, albeit not necessarily in the exact same direction nor the exact same speed.  I’m working just as hard as I did when I was 30, but the output is demonstrably less.   My Mom is 102 and lucid so I’ve got to think about another forty years of engagement and productivity.

Here is a sketch of what future activities might look like.  No telling if it is accurate.

Conservation Projects

Early on I maintained a fairly vibrant furniture and decorative arts conservation practice but have no plans to continue much of that except for specific projects and clients.  Yes, I will continue to work with the private collection of tortoiseshell boxes that I’ve been working on for more than a decade.  Recently I was approached to collaborate on a couple high profile on-site projects and if those move forward, fine. I love it but at this point I’ve got other things I want to do on the priority list.  And I want to truly perfect my artificial tortoisehell.  And I want to explore new uses of materials in furniture preservation.  And invent new materials, or novel uses of existing materials.   And, and, and…

Making Furniture

I make no claim as a furniture maker of any note, but I hope to concentrate on making more in the future.  I would love to maintain a small output of Gragg chairs every year, and even modify them and take them in directions Samuel Gragg never went.  I also have enough vintage mahogany for eight more Daniel Webster Desks, so perhaps there are some clients who might want one.  Only time will tell.  I’ve always had a hankering to make some furniture in the milieu of Charles Rennie Mackintosh or Alar Aalto, so maybe that becomes part of the equation.  And I have these sketches for pieces representing a collision of Roubo and Krenov while they are sitting on the porch of a Japanese temple.  And Mrs. Barn has a list of things she would like for the cabin.  And exploring parquetry more intensely.   And finally get pretty good at woodworking in general.  And, and, and…

Metal Work

I’ve always had a interest in metalworking since my boyhood when I would spend time with my Dad in his shed, melting lead weights and doing a little brazing and welding.  Many of those skills have grown fallow but I am trying to get them back and take them to new places.  My love of tool making has been rearing its lovely head in recent times and I have every intention of bringing that focus closer to the bullseye.  And part of that has to include getting my foundry back on-line.  And tuning up all my machine tools like my machinists’ lathes and mill.  And getting really good at brazing and silver soldering, maybe even welding.  And, and, and…

Finishing Adventures

I remain committed to looking both backwards and forwards into the realm of finishing materials, ancient and super modern.  I truly believe Mel’s Wax to be a transformative furniture care and preservation product for which I have not yet discovered the key to marketing.  But I will keep at it because of my knowledge of its performance and my commitment to Mel’s vision for it.  And as for beeswax and shellac wax? Finishing with them may be among the oldest and simplest methods, but they can be extremely difficult and I cannot pretend to have mastered them.  And what about my fascination with urushi and its non-allergenic analogs and the beautiful things I want to make from them?  And what about the fifty bazillion things I do not know about shellac?And, and and…

Writing

My plate of writing projects is full to overflowing, building on a strong foundation of completed works.  Notwithstanding my current struggles with the manuscript for A Period Finisher’s Manual, due entirely to my having too much esoteric material to include in a reasonably consumable book (really, how much solvent thermodynamics does the typical woodworker need to know?), I enjoy every minute I am writing even when it is driving me crazy.  I’d better because my collaborator Michele Pagan is one full book ahead of me in the Roubo Series.  And there are two or three more volumes after that one.  And some day I need to finish the almost-completed manuscript for A Furniture Conservation Primer created with a colleague while at the SI and thus will be necessarily distributed for free via the web site.  And what about my treatise on the technology and preservation of ivory and tortoiseshell?  And the dozen mystery/thriller novels I have already plotted out?  And who knows how many short stories about the life of First Century craftsman Joshua BarJoseph?  And, and, and…

Web

My first of almost 1,200 web posts went up six-and-a-half years ago, which I understand in the world of hobbyist blogging, where blogs come and go like the tides, puts me as some sort of  Methuselah.  But certainly not in the same class as The Accidental Woodworker, who has been blogging daily for even longer IIRC.  Ralph, I tip my hat to you, sir.

I once thought the web site/blog would be a useful portal for soliloquies about my projects and things I’ve learned over a long and rewarding career, but now I am not so sure.  A while back I decided to make a concerted effort to blog at least five times a week for a year, and I think I came pretty close.  Surely this would increase my web traffic!  Well, not so much.  At the end of this effort my web traffic was 2% lower than when it began.  Despite fairly consistent blogging my visitorship has dropped by almost half over the past four-plus years.    So I just scratch my head.  I’m not whining, but instead recognizing that the flock who is interested in my musings is shrinking, not growing.  Oh well.  This is not a good or bad thing, it is just a thing, helpful in me making decisions about priorities.  I have no plans to really change anything about the blog, we’ll just wait and see where it goes.  When I am not somewhere else, with someone else, or doing something else, I will blog.

Recently I was chatting with someone who informed me that web sites and blogs are now passe and the currency du jour is the unholy trio of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.  Given that and my antipathy towards the latter two it is likely that I will undertake the former at some near date (yes, I know the relationship between Instagram and Stalkerbook) .  Something inside me rebels at the notion of validating the post-literate world, however.  Still, the economic treatise presented by Larry the Liquidator is not only dramatic but accurate.  Even the Professional Refinisher’s Group is moving forward, transitioning from a moderated email forum to a private Facebook Group, which will leave me behind.  But they will survive without me and I intend to maintain contact with that circle of fellowship regardless.

Trouble is, I am by temperament a bizarre mélange of buggy whip maker and hardline “emergent order” Hayekian.  Hmmm.  Not really sure how that works out.

Workshops

Integral to my vision for the barn was to have it be a place of learning.  As the facility was coming together, whenever I spoke to any kind of woodworking gathering the verbal response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic.  The reality that unfolded was anything but.  I now realize that my vision was a faulty one and the enthusiasm was superficial.  Quite bluntly, almost no one wants to come to such an isolated location where local amenities are practically nonexistent, to spend a few days engaging in subjects I want to teach.  Fair enough, the barn is too remote and my topics are too arcane.  Like I said before, this is not a good thing or a bad thing, but just an instructive  thing to add to the equation.

As a result and in recognition of reality I plan to deemphasize workshops at the barn, perhaps even eliminating them altogether, notwithstanding that I created dedicated spaces for the undertaking.  Should a small group of enthusiasts approach me with the request to teach them, I will do so.  That is precisely what a quartet of guys have done for next June.  And, I might do an occasional blockbuster-type workshop (a Gragg chair class would be such an example, if that ever occurs; I had thought a ripple molding machine class might be such an event, but with zero response…), or I might travel a bit to teach but otherwise that part of the portfolio is likely to close.  Not definitely, but likely.

Videos

Hence my transition to teaching via video.  If I cannot get folks to come here perhaps my best strategy is to go to them.  I have a multitude of ideas (more than twenty full-length [>30 mins.]video concepts on the list) and a brilliant local collaborator to work with.  I am committed to this path to the degree that I have the time, energy, and resources.

Further I have decided that making shorter, self-produced and thus less polished “shop technique videos” might be a useful undertaking to post on donsbarn.com, youtube or Vimeo.  I will explore this avenue in the coming weeks and months.

The Homestead

With several buildings, several gardens, and a power system to maintain and improve there is never a shortage of things to do here on the homestead.  I want to build/expand more garden capacity for Mrs. Barn to spend time doing the thing she loves best.  And fruit and nut orchards.  And I want to finish creating a rifle scope for shooters like me who have lost most of the vision in their dominant eye.  And another hydro turbine downstream from the current one.

And, and, and that’s all I’ve got to say on the subject.

That is The State of the Barn Address, 2019.  To quote one of Mel’s favorite songs, “The future’s so bright I gotta wear shades.”  Yes it is.  I am living the dream.