Musings

Replicating the Studley Collection

JimM continues to amaze with each new visual offering.  I look forward to the next time I see him in person to heap praise on his head.

In this ensemble are examples of tools purchased and tools made.  Sort of like Studley…

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Pursuit of the Ultimate Decorative Surface, Path 2.1

The second major path for the pursuit of the ultimate decorative decorative surface is one that, GASP, requires the wood to be covered up entirely!  How crazy is that?  Yup, I’m talking about paint.  Yes, in order to follow this path you have to obscure the wood and those magnificent joints you want to show off.

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I remain bewildered by talented craftsmen who expend sometimes nearly psychotic attentiveness to the fabrication of structures (seriously, I have seen woodworkers using micrometers on their joinery) yet blithely disregard the finishing process with any more conscientiousness than was required to puke out some polyurinate onto the surface.  And painted finishes, to be done well, require a high degree of fussiness and often take many, many days to complete.  Not many, many days of constant work to get complete, but fancy painted finishes in particular require a lot of drying and curing time, sometimes followed by painstaking polishing out.  These realities tend to chase off many woodworkers, but I am here to tell you that the rewards are worth it.

A second hurdle is that many craftsmen are like me, well at least some have to be like me in this regard, in that I find artistic creativity of the kind made manifest in paint to be intimidating because “I don’t have any artistic talent.”  That is certainly the curse I have been laboring under for lo these many decades.  Fortunately for me, and perhaps you, I am not unique in the history of artisans in surface decoration.  You think that the acres of decorative work in ages past was all accomplished by artistic geniuses?  Think again, and thank goodness!

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Gifted artists have been as rare in the past as they are now.  In order for the decorative enterprise to move forward the accomplished ones came up with techniques that allowed the less talented folks like me to labor productively in the arena.  Design books.  Rote hand skills (yes, hand skills are an integral part of surface decoration just as they are in any other craft undertaking).  Recipes.  Step-by-step illustrated instruction manuals (School of Painting for the Imitation of Woods and Marbles by Van der Burgh, c.1900, comes to mind, but there were many other earlier tomes).

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I became fascinated with faux finishes during my late teens, perhaps even before I was at the Schindlers’ shop.  There was in South Florida a renowned decorative painter whose name was Mr. Lachanina  (?, it has been over 40 years), who was academically trained, perhaps even at the Rome Academy, as a fine art painter.  But his career was winding down he spent virtually all of his time creating faux finished furniture.  He would purchase pieces “in the white” and apply fantastic graining and marbling to them.  I observed many of his pieces in the homes of customers for the high-end furniture stores for whom I worked as a deliveryman and touch up guy.  They were exquisite, really breathtaking but not the least bit kitschy or gaudy.  Suffice to say they made a life-long impression on me.

 

His workshop was next to my sister’s place of business and when I visited her there I would look through the windows at him working or at projects in progress.  Much to my great regret I made no effort to meet him, much less take the opportunity to learn from him.  Ah, the stoopididity of youth.  His skill and reputation was such that in his hands a small cabinet that he would purchase for a couple hundred dollars would then be sold for a few thousand dollars, which at the time (1972?) was a fortune to a kid like me.

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Shortly thereafter I purchased the book that was the yardstick for faux at the time, Isabel O’Neil’s The Art of the Painted Finish.  The plates of faux finishing in this post come from that book.  I still have that original edition I bought more than forty years ago but have since augmented it with a couple of “user” paper-back versions to save the first one.  Though less glitzy than subsequent volumes like Finkelstein’s Art of Faux and Marx’ Professional Painted Finishes along with many others, I found myself returning to O’Neil and recommend it to you without reservation.

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At present my only foray into the world of faux is actually a somewhat vicarious one, through the brilliance of my dear friend and colleague DanielaG as she creates the peacock feather for the Gragg chairs I build.   Well, actually only one completed chair thus far but two more are in the pipeline for later this year.  My goal is to document Daniela’s process so fully that a video on the topic can be the result.

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Over the years I spent many an hour musing about a time in my life where I would do just like old Mr. Lachanina, purchasing furniture “in the white” and creating sumptuous painted surfaces on them.  And of course selling them for a fortune.  That day may yet come.  In the intervening time I never lost touch with the world of faux, employing it often in furniture conservation and restoration projects, but have not done as much new faux as I would like.  Not because of disinterest per se but because my projects are so varied and time-consuming.  But, I will return to that territory soon.  I am already on the lookout for unfinished cabinets, tables, and chairs to serve as the canvas for the ultimate decorative surface version 2.1.

Up soon, ultimate decorative surfaces 2.2.

An Excellent Contribution From A Reader Regarding Hide Glue

In responding to my post about hide glue from a few days ago, reader JamesW emailed me with the following:

An obscure but sometimes important point about bond strength: you noted tensile strength and shear strength; it should be expanded to be reasonably complete to include peel strength, the strength of adherence between the glue and the substrate (which differs in some important ways from tensile strength).

I have no experience with the high gws hide glues you refer to in today\’s post, but I would suspect from a measure of experience in adhesive technology that the shrinkage related glue line failures you describe may, in some cases, be a loss of substrate adhesion by exceeding the peel strength of the bond.  This would be signaled by bare, intact substrate surface areas that would not be consistent with a pure tensile failure of the glue or tensile failure of the substrate itself.  Perhaps you\’ve seen enough of such failure to know.  I certainly don\’t.

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James is of course correct and I was remiss in not incorporating this major glue failure mechanism.  If the glue line is too thick and the glue gws too high (thus rendering the glue too full of water for the particular application), as the glue dries and shrinks it will sometimes peel away from contact with the adherend.  And yes, James, I have seen this in effect.  Any time you see glue failure and the putative surfaces are glossy like this, the culprit is likely the shrinkage of the glue line causing it to withdraw from the adherend.  It is almost the dispositive evidence of peel strength failure due to shrinkage.

Thanks James!

More From the Sleepless Man

JimM has me drooling with each new shipment of pictures of his homage to HO Studley.

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Learning Opportunities From Tortoiseshell Contamination

When giving the final polish to the domed lid with the cracks after removing the glue and cloth support on the face, I noticed that the surface underneath that support was badly blanched.  It was a startling and sobering development, one that I had never before encountered.    So, instead of getting the project done and returned to the owner I am now reflecting on the problem in the hopes that it will be a grand learning opportunity.

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I was thunderstruck at the effect, as it was the first time I have ever encountered this.  I corresponded with colleagues who have restored tortoiseshell, and none of them had ever seen such a problem.  So I set the project aside for a couple of months to think it through.  I came to deduce that the blanching is the manifestation of residual oil polish that had been slathered over the surface at some time perhaps long past.  The whiteness is the result of the moisture from the aqueous adhesive  used in attaching the temporary support on the outside encroaching into the aged and probably partially crosslinked oil that had absorbed into the tortoiseshell.
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All that to say that this is a tremendous learning episode for me to solve a problem I had never encountered before.  At the moment I am employing rotating poultices of organic solvents to leech out the offending oil residues, and am optimistic about the final outcome.
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Stay tuned.

One Implication of Hide Glue “Gram Weight Strength”

So there I was, mixing up a new batch of traditional gesso to use as the ground (primer) on some japanning samples I was preparing for an upcoming video shoot at Popular Woodworking.  The first step is always the soaking of the glue in order to cook it twice before adding the calcium carbonate (a/k/a whiting or pulverized chalk) to the mix to create the ground.

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I was using 444 gram weight strength (gws) glue for the mix because I could not put my hands on my jar of 512 gws granules.  My working process has always been to put dry gue granules into the bottom of a jar filling approximately 1/10th of the height, then adding water to let it hydrate in preparation for the cooking.  I usually let this sit overnight.

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As always, within minutes the glue began to swell as it adsorbed water into the dry protein coils, and expand until it was fully hydrated after a few hours.  This visual reminder in turn caused me to reflect on an important truth about hide glue and how we use it.

Now, the relative tensile strength of glue is a fairly linear function of its gram strength fraction, so logic would lead us to conclude that the highest number of glue fraction would yield the highest bond strength.  (Tensile strength, the ability for a material to resist being pulled apart, and shear strength, the ability of a glue line to keep two adherends together while they are being puled apart parallel to the glue line, are fundamental factors in glue performance.)

Higher gram weight strength glues result in the best performance, right?  After all they have the higher tensile and shear strength.

Not so fast!

The water uptake for total hydration is also a linear function and I could show you the data I derived in my testing, but my lab notebook for glues and their manipulation is somewhere in the remaining boxes of books awaiting unpacking.  But the point is this: the higher the number of the glue grade/fraction, the more water is required for complete hydration.  Coincidentally, my testing confirmed that the viscosity of all grades is the same at total hydration, but the amount of water uptake for total hydration can vary dramatically as the longer protein chains of the higher grades need a lot more water.

In other words a low number glue and a high number glue can have the same hydration ad viscosity despite the fact that the solids content percentage for the higher number is only a fraction of the solids content percentage of the lower grade.

What does this mean?  Well, for on thing the higher glue grades require a lot more water to achieve the same working properties of the lower grades (there are many other considerations, but this is an important one).  And, all the water that goes into the hide glue system has to come out in order for the glue to achieve its maximum performance.

Seriously, what does this mean?

What it means is that the “stronger” higher gram strength glue may not yield the strongest glue line.  Since a higher glue grade has to take on more water to be used, it will in turn lose that water in curing, and that water loss is accompanied by shrinkage of the glue mass, or, more likely, the in-building of internal stresses (sometimes breathtakingly huge) into a glue line, setting the stage for glue line fracture and eventual failure in the future.

I used to use 315 gws glue a lot, sometimes even 379 gws.  However after some simple testing my strategy has changed pretty dramatically such that I now use 192 gws glue (or even lower) for most of my routine joinery applications and leave the higher gram weight strength glue for other applications.

Excellent Book, Nice Resume’ Enhancer

I got a package from FedEx today with an Ottawa, Ontario return address.  Had I ordered something from Lee Valley and forgotten about it?  That potential is not outside the realm of possibility.

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Instead of a hand tool, it was a brain tool.  In fact, it was a really good book that had been in the works for a decade or longer.  It was published by the Canadian Conservation Institute, a renowned research and preservation treatment entity within the Canadian government, and edited by my friend and colleague Jane Down (who may be the best adhesives researcher on planet).  It will be a tremendously useful resource for anyone interested in the subject of adhesives and their use for a wider range of artifact types.  I expect to use it with some regularity.

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The Table of Contents reveals the breadth and depth of the concepts, materials and practices covered.  Were I still interested in such things, being invited to contribute would be a very nice resume’ enhancer, but at this point in my life I am just trying to live out my friend Mike’s dream to “do interesting projects with good people in great places.”  Of course, for me that “great place” is The Barn.

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More Pics From the Man Who Must Not Sleep

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JimM has been doling out images to me in regular increments.  He is perhaps just extending my time of admiration for his workmanship and vision in replicating the HO Studley Tool Cabinet.

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With his permission I am sharing them with you.

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Pursuit of the Ultimate Decorative Surface

We live in a generation that is seeing perhaps the most remarkable renaissance of woodworking in history.  After decades of professional scholarship revolving around historical furniture-making technology, I think that we might be living at a time when more good furniture is being built than at any time in history.  Much of this is production is driven by passion rather than commerce.  I recall a presentation by Adam Cherubini some years ago when he posited that the future vitality of woodworking was in the hands of avocational craftsmen rather than vocational artisans.  In this proposition I am in complete agreement.

Yes, vocational woodworking is flourishing in a manner I thought I would never see.   But this pales in comparison to the tens and hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts who are, in particular, often pursuing historical hand tool skills, or like me adopting a hybrid approach of using hand tools and machine tools in concert to produce exceptional furniture.  Precision joinery, exquisite wood selections, and generally orthodox forms are the hallmark of this new movement.  And evangelists like Chris Schwarz, Paul Sellers, Mike Siemsen,  and a multitude of others (especially in New England) are providing the cheerleading.

Further, there have been many modern explorers of the lines and forms of furniture, based on views to the past and into the future,  including in recent generations folks like CR Mackintosh, Alvar Aalto, Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Gerrit Rietveld, Charles Eames, followed by a crew of our almost-contemporaries including James Krenov, Sam Maloof, and George Nakashima, who undoubtedly inspired many of you along with me as they attacked the boundaries of design. Our own contemporaries include luminaries like Peter Galbert, George Walker and Jeff Miller who are merging the past and future in teaching us to be better aesthetes in wood.  The roster of crazy-good artisans currently working is astoundingly large, and I admire and respect them immensely.

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I am fully capable of executing competent joinery and employing superb woods (as I blogged earlier, 2016 will be the Year of Making for me), but in truth my furniture-craftsmanship affinities lay elsewhere.  My own creative inclinations furniture-wise reside vaguely at the crossroads of Krenov and the Ming and Tokugawa Dynasties.  Whether by native temperament, imprinting during my first real job in the furniture restoration trades (42 years ago this week), or simple curiosity (read: contrariness) I have long been intrigued by technological/craft/materials science innovation, but even more by the artistic expressions generally un-explored by most of our contemporaries: the decorative surface.  I intend to expand my facility by continuing my trek down the road of surface decoration and exhort others to join me on the journey over the coming decades.

This journey will have two simultaneous paths.  The first is marquetry, in particular, parquetry.

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The appeal of exquisite marquetry representations in  Andre Roubo’s L’Art du Menuisier eventually grew into our ongoing efforts to bring this monumental treatise to English language audiences.  In an amusing ex poste exchange, Lost Art Press Publisher Chris Schwarz confided that I was presenting the Roubo volumes exactly backwards from the woodworking publishing perspective.  By starting with the information that interested me the most — marquetry and finishing — I was standing the series on its head by bringing to press first the sections of least interest to my fellow woodworkers.  So sue me.

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My affection for 18th century French veneerwork artistry has been incorporated into my own craft vocabulary for almost thirty years now, itself sprouting from my exposure to dozens, maybe hundreds, of examples of the real thing in mansions of Palm Beach when I was just starting in the trade.  Though comparatively dim at the moment, the torch of marquetry is still being carried by a few gifted men right now, including my long-time acquaintance Patrick Edwards (whom I have known since before he went to France the first time), Silas Kopf, whom I met only last year, Paul Schurch whose acquaintance I have yet to make, and Craig Vandall Stevens (ditto).  What makes their artistry most interesting to me is that their artistic techniques differ from each other, and none of them do it the way I do.

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Now that I have finished with Henry O. Studley and I am fully mobile I can hardly wait to expand my adventures in this decorative surface technique.  Even by simply copying the Roubo syllabus faithfully the palette is nearly inexhaustible.   And this is just the beginning as I have a lot of parquetry ideas awaiting birth.  Think Galle meets Riesener with seasoning by Ruhlmann.

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Next time: the second route to the ultimate decorative surfaces, which itself splits into three separate paths

Portrait of A Man Who Must Not Sleep

I have mentioned in the past that the quantity of hard facts we know about Henry O. Studley is so sparse that the only personality profile we have of him is his ensemble of the tool cabinet and accompanying workbench.  Anything more is at this point speculation.

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On the other hand I am acquainted with JimM a bit, I know we have met and chatted at an SAPFM meeting last summer when I was speaking about Studley and presenting a demonstration on replicating aged, historic surfaces.  I’d heard through the grapevine that he was replicating the tool cabinet as precisely as possible, including the contents, and we corresponded a time or two about details of the cabinet.c tool set

And then he sends me the pictures posted inside this blog entry.  Though I know the barest minimum of facts about JimM, I can see clearly from these images that this is a man who must not sleep much.

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With this project JimM has set the bar very high for that multitude of you in the lignosphere who are equally captivated by the virtuosity of Henry O. Studley.

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Well done, JimM!  As the monomaniac who completed his homage to Studley the first, I will have to think of an appropriate prize for you.