Musings

King Midas’ Card Table

On my recent jaunt through The Heartland I stopped to visit my old friend RickP in northwest Arkansas, and got to see in person the amazing table Rick researched over a two decade stretch and constructed from around 2010-2013.

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The original table, shown above, was excavated from the c. 800 B.C. archaeological site of Gordion, Turkey.

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The table is a tour de force of design and fabrication, and one of the most astounding examples of contemporary woodworking I have encountered.  While the design might be almost three thousand years old, the fabrication is obviously contemporary, as Rick is gladly still with us and approximately my vintage.  The detailing on this table is simply eye-popping.

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To me the most compelling overall design feature is the means by which the original builder three millenia ago figured out how to make a four legged table compatible with what was probably an uneven, perhaps even dirt, floor.  What they did, both the original maker and Rick, I mean, was to combine two of the legs into one foot, in essence turning the four legged table, which would always be a problem on an uneven floor, into a three legged table, which would never be unsteady.

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The original table was constructed of boxwood, if I recall correctly, while Rick used ancient kauri wood for the base and walnut for the top.  In keeping with the flavor of the wood, Rick used kauri copal resin as the finish, employing a varnish component far more ancient than even the original table.

Rick just sent me a copy of the paper he presented at the American Institute for Conservation Annual Meeting two years ago, where I was part of a presentation at another session of that meeting even though our paths did not cross there.  Rick’s paper will be available at some point at the archive for the papers from the Wooden Artifact Group of the AIC, and I hope in the meantime that Rick can someday get it into the more popular woodworking literary world.

I mean, who wouldn’t be fascinated by the prospect of replicating King Midas’ table?  I know there are features of the table informing my future furniture-making designs.

Gold Leaf at Groopshop 2015

Several months ago a thread discussion on Groopmail revolved around the question, “What can be used as a substitute for gold leaf?”  My answer was short.  “Nothing.”

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In response to much of the discussion I presented a brief demo about gold leaf at this year’s Groopshop, showing real gold leaf, which was the first time many of the attendees had ever seen it in the flesh; my preparations for the ground beneath the gold leaf, and finally the manipulation of the leaf and its laying onto the substrate.  It was, in short, a more brief version of my talk at Woodworking in America last year.

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The actual demo was less successful than I would have liked, mostly due to the atmosphere in the room, but it did give a good idea about the process.

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Gold leafing brings into focus the importance of the first of the Six Rules for Perfect Finishing — if the substrate is not well prepared, nothing else is going to work out well.

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I moved through the preparation of the glue base for traditional gesso using a dilute solution of hide glue (I started out with a 10% solution of 444 gws glue granules in distilled water)

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then the mixing and application of gesso itself,

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smoothing the gesso and applying the bole.  I’ve found that a polissoir does a terrific job a working the surface after I use abrasives of scrapers to get it ready for the next step.

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Then I moved on to the handling of the leaf itself on the gilder’s pad, readying it for the application over oil size or by water gilding.  Like I said, the room was a bit iffy for the process, but at least they got the idea of how it is done.

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One of the things I did ex poste that was a lot of fun was to apply a layer of Finish Up to a panel and lay gold leaf into it immediately.  Definitely something worth exploring further.

Groopshop 2015

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For almost a decade and a half I have been an active participant in the on-line discussion, The Professional Refinisher’s Group.  What began as a custom crafted email list with mostly strip-and-dip shop proprietors in attendance it has over the years evolved into a sophisticated lightly-moderated forum for conversations surrounding the practices of finishing and furniture restoration.  Soon after I joined, the idea percolated for Groop, as we affectionately call this entity, to grow into something greater than, and more personal than, a daily exchange of email threads.  In response to this impulse we have gathered periodically in the flesh to have times of fellowship and learning.

Recently I attended, learned, and presented at Groopshop 2015 in Pontoon Bach, Illinois, hosted magnificently in the spacious and tidy shop of John Hurn and John’s associate Michelle Veit, (with a ginormous shout-out to Mrs. Hurn and their daughter).  Both John and Michele are graduates of the famed (and now demised) Woodfinishing Program of the Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount, Minnesota, just south of St. Paul.  My beloved friend Mitch Kohanek was their instructor and mentor at DCTC, as he was for many of the artisans in attendance.

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I learned immensely from the other presentations, ranging for retired Mohawk technical services guru Greg Williams’ demonstrating wood bleaching and the use of “Finish Up,” an ultra high performance waterborne urethane that blew me away.

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Other sessions included Mike Mascelli’s demos (with Michelle Veit) on upholstering techniques and materials.

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Fred McLean gave us some great insights gleaned from his recent explorations of lighting options for the shop, resulting in better illumination and dramatically lowered costs.

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Martin O’brien shared his passions about paste waxes

I was actually so busy paying attention that I didn’t take as many pictures as I should have.  Missing from the pictures are Ben Myre’s discussion of shop marketing, Mark Faulkner’s presentations on shop business strategies and accounting, Freddy Roman’s demonstrations of veneering and banding, Randy Bohn reminiscing about a thirty year career in the antiquities restoration world, Dave MacFee talking about upscaling mundane projects into revenue enhancers,  and Karl Kennedy leading our wrap-up discussion.

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I presented a session on gold leafing, and a practice run of the HO Studley talk I will be giving at the upcoming Woodworking in America.  I’ll post about that next time.

If you are hankering for an excellent forum for discussions on all things finishing and furniture restoration, give “Groop” a try. You won’t be sorry you did.

Recycling the Exhibit Parts

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When closing down the HO Studley exhibit, one of the things I had to do was remove all of the exhibit paraphernalia from the exhibit hall, including the exhibit case for the tool cabinet, but also the platforms for the workbenches.  This required me to rent a large cargo van to fit it all in for the drive back home.

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I haven’t figured out what to do with the exhibit case, but the platforms are already recycled into terrific assembly tables.  Inasmuch as they were exceedingly stout well-buily 4×8′ platforms with 12″ skirts, all from cabinet-grade tulip poplar faced 3/4″ plywood, they were easily transformed into these new accouterments in the barn.

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For each platform-now-table I took a single 8-foot 4×4 and cut in into four identical sections to serve as the legs.  At each corner I screwed a leg into the two converging aprons, then affixed big casters to the bottom of each leg, flipped it over, and viola, a new and lovely work table!

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I moved one into my main workshop to serve as a workstation for either conservation or assembly projects, and the other is currently  against the wall in the classroom.  But since they are both on wheels, it is 100% likely that they will simply be moved from place to place depending on the needs of the moment.

It sure made me glad I am no longer bound by the 220 s.f. footprint of my former shop in the basement of the Maryland house.

Now THAT’S Commitment!

It has been said that in characterizing the participants for a ham-and-eggs breakfast, the chicken is a contributor, but the pig is committed.  While it is not a perfect analogy, I am mindful of the commitment of the many hundreds of folks who took time and trouble to come and see the Studley exhibit.  I have a special warm place in my heart for the several dozen attendees who met me with greetings from foreign places around the globe: Finland, England, Germany, Italy, Austria, Mexico, Massachusetts, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, which sent a substantial contingent.

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The poster child for this might very well be MattR from Melbourne, who reveled in the exhibit with a gregarious intensity that was infectious.  When I announced during his original time period of 11AM-noon on Sunday that given the sparse attendance expected for the final stretch I was going to extend visitor privileges on that final afternoon, he immediately bought another ticket for 3PM and stayed with us until the bitter end.

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Recently he sent a note of thanks and congratulations, and included pictures of his copy of Narayan’s poster and his exhibit admission ticket, matted and framed together, displayed prominently in his very cool shop.

Yeah, passionate aficionados like MattR from Melbourne made it all worthwhile for me, so thanks MattR!

Making New Finishes “Look Old”

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This year I was invited to be a presenter at the SAPFM Mid-Year Meeting in Knoxville.  My topic was “Making New Finishes ‘Look Old’,” a theme that built on my presentation of four years ago, “Traditional Finishes.”

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The host of the East Tennessee Historical Center was a wonderful choice, not the least of the reasons being some magnificent stained glass, for which I am a total sucker.

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They also provided a near-perfect setting for theater-in-the-round demonstrating that I like so much.

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Just like my Simple Rules For Perfect Finishing, I created a set of Simple Rules for Getting That “Aged Look” Finish.  There was great demand for the information, and I will no doubt include it in the upcoming Historic Finishers Handbook, the manuscript for which I will begin as soon as I get done with R2.

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I touched on and presented the techniques for doing just that, including various approaches to hand rubbed finishes, shading and highlighting the varying surfaces that would be the result of generations of use and environment, adding the requisite schmutz that builds up in the crevices of furniture over the decades, and finally working out on the ledge of “controlled craqueleur” that understandably inspired fear and shaking heads throughout the room.

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Our sessions went far afield at times — at SAPFM Mid-year the speakers give the same two-hour demonstrations three times in a row on the same day — including forays into color theory, gloss and transparency, refractive indices, and of course a cursory review of traditional finishing materials and methods.

It seemed as though a good time was had by all, at least there were no career-ending injuries.  But at the end of the day, I was ready for bed.

c.1720 Italian Tortoiseshell Mirror Frame #2

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Immediately on my return from Cedar Rapids, I reloaded my duffel with clean clothes and headed off for week of work near Mordor on the Potomac.  The purpose of the trip was completing the conservation of the second of the two tortoiseshell-veneer mirror frames.  The process for conserving the second frame was conceptually similar to that employed for the first one a couple of months ago.  The only substantive difference was that the areas of damage this time were larger but fewer and “cleaner”than for the first mirror.

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As before, once the mirror was in the work space the first task was to systematically work my way around it to document the specific areas of interest (read: damage) for the treatment.

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Once that was completed I proceeded to clean the surface in order to remove the accretions of oil, a traditional but ineffective, somewhat deleterious maintenance protocol and get it all ready for the next step.  These depositions were dealt with easily through the damp wiping with naphtha on cosmetics pads from the pharmacy, almost instantly removing the molasses-like oil and dirt amalgam.

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The incursion of oil underneath the lifted tortoiseshell veneers was resolved through gentle insertion of a toothpick or bamboo skewer to lift the affected area, then the insertion of blue shop paper towels and wicking them with naphtha, sometimes several times, to remove enough of the contaminating oil to render the glue margins acceptably clean.

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The lifted tortoiseshell was re-adhered to the frame substrate with 192 Special grade of hot animal hide glue from Milligan & Higgins, and pressed into proper configuration during gluing through the application of shaped polyethylene foam block cauls, with two pieces of food vacuum-pack wrapping membrane in between the tortoiseshell and the foam caul.

Once the glue was hard, I removed the cauls and separating membranes, cleaned off any wandering glue with distilled water on pads, then applied Mel’s Wax to the entire surface, which brought the mirror frame to life!

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In a way, the most challenging part of the project was the transport of 300-year-old mirrors the few miles from the client’s home to my work space safely, and the handling of them at each end.  To accomplish this I fabricated a custom tray/litter with XPS bumpers and supports below and above the engraved and mirrored glass, with the whole unit being suspended in air through the gentle application of winching straps.

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Safely completed and transported and re-hung in the client’s magnificent home, I joined the client in celebrating the project and the beauty reclaimed for the mirrors, and was delighted to be photographed alongside the second one.

Great Guy, Great Lids!

On my way home from returning Mr. Studley’s treasure back to Mister Stewart, at the invitation of Narayan Nayar, the polymath who was my photographic collaborator for Virtuoso, I ventured into the alien universe of Chicago to connect with him.  I have gathered many treasures along the path to getting to “done” with the book and exhibit, and his friendship is first among equals in this regard.

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Narayan may or may not share my ambivalence towards fashion in general, but we absolutely possess an appreciation for fine hats.  I’m not sure of the genesis of this proclivity for him, but for me it was growing up in Minnesota, where a hat kept your brains from freezing, followed by adolescence and early adulthood in Florida, where a hat kept your brains from frying.

The topic of hats came up periodically during our hundreds of hours working together with the Studley collection, time that was simultaneously exhilarating and bone-numbingly tedious.  He noticed my hand-made beaver-fur-felt Borsalino, I noticed his hand made Optimo (although I did not know the brand, only that it was one fine looking lid.)

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So we met up at Optimo’s hat making shop in southern Chicago.  To hat aficionados, it was like Handworks was to toolaholics.  I arrived a bit before Narayan, and wandered about the showroom in a near-stupor at the hat exquisiteness all around me.  These were indeed the finest hats I had ever encountered.  And thanks to Narayan’s beneficence I would soon be getting one myself.

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By the time he arrived a few minutes later I had narrowed down the selection to two hats, one a fedora, the other a Panama.  In the end I simply could not choose, so he bought one for me and I bought the other for myself.  A week later they both arrived at my doorstep.

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One of these will likely be on my corpse’s head as it is fed into the incinerator before my ashes get scattered on the mountain behind the barn.  That’s a proposition that is decades off.

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After we left Optimo’s we supped on some of the famous Chicago style pizza, reminiscing on our project, then parted as we each headed for home.  His drive was a few minutes, mine was fifteen hours.  When parting, Narayan handed me one final gift that in the end allowed the exhibit to be a break-even proposition, demonstrating once again his generous spirit manifest in his time, talents, and treasures.

Great lids, great guy.  I look forward to the next time our paths cross, and hope that somehow a project evolves that allows us to work together again.

Heroes and Hired Guns – Part 2

In addition to my volunteer Heroes for the Studley Collection Exhibit, an almost equal number of “Hired Guns” were on board, people whose services and products were paid for out of exhibit ticket sales proceeds and my own bank account.

In more or less alphabetical order, the Hired Guns were:

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Kathy Donnelly of Martin J. Donnelly Antique Tools — I learned fairly late in the process that simply designating and paying for insurance was not enough once the value of the artwork and collection got to nosebleed heights.  It required a valid, legally binding appraisal.  Urgently I contacted a number of appraisers I thought might fit the bill, but only MJD Tools stood up the the plate, all the rest chickened out.  In a sense it might have been understandable, the Studley Collection had changed hands only once since Henry conveyed it to the Hardwick Family, and that most recent change of ownership had been by private contract.  There was no way to truly know the value of this treasure, and except for Kathy and Martin, no appraiser was willing to put their name on such a document.  In essence, Kathy and Martin Donnelly put the reputation of MJD Tools on the line for me and you to enable Studley to come before the public eye.  There is no way I can truly express my thanks to them for this.  And to top it off, Kathy was writing and shepherding the appraisal process right in the middle of one of their humongous tool auctions!  Truly, if Kathy Donnelly had not come through, the exhibit would have been cancelled at the last minute, for me a humiliating and reputation destroying catastrophe.   I am anticipating with joy the opportunity to look them in the eyes with heartfelt thanks at their July auction, with a hearty handshake for Martin and a fervent hug for Kathy.

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Douglas Heath/Scottish Rite Temple — Truthfully I was torn on whether to include Mr. Heath among the Heroes or the Hired Guns, as he was properly aligned with both.  In the end I included him here because as the Registrar of the Scottish Rite Temple of Cedar Rapids, it was he to whom I sent the payment for the exhibit venue.  That said, there can be no mistaking his enthusiastic personal support for the project, and no legal length to which he would no go to make the exhibit a success.  The set up day on Thursday before the exhibit opened was a perfect case in point.  Mr.  Heath arrived at the Temple between 6 and 7 AM as normal, yet he stayed with us until the final person departed around 10PM following the evening reception for the Handworks tool makers.  And during the event hours, whenever he was not occupied with some other mandatory duty on behalf of the Temple, he was in the gallery looking at Studley along with everyone else.

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FedEx Custom Critical Fine Arts Transport aka “The White Gloves Crew” — They got the Studley Collection where it needed to go in perfect condition, ahead of schedule, and on-budget.

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With aplomb they nudged the scheduling at my request, understood my changing needs, and responded to them with a timely stream of correspondence and telephone confirmations throughout the entire event.  I am not sure I need to elaborate much here.

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Travis Newell/Unique Events — After the fiasco with the original lighting vendor I was faced with the options of 1) finding a new competent vendor with less than a week to go, and 2) staying up all night for a week fabricating the lighting system.  Thanks to the bird-dogging of Jameel Abraham I got in touch with Travis Newel of Unique Events, a mostly wedding and dance party staging company.   Museum exhibits was definitely their focus as a business, especially one as idiosyncratic as Studley.  I was dubious, but after a lengthy conversation with Travis Thursday evening, a walk-through of the Temple, and a demo at the Unique Events offices, I was convinced.  It was clear that Travis and his crew were as passionate about good lighting for events as I was.

 

They showed up exactly when promised, executed an amazing lighting scheme (drawn almost literally on the back of an envelope) that both highlighted the exhibit yet remained unobtrusive.

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Using magnetic-base battery-powered LED units, they came every morning to mount the lights on the ceiling fan housings, then returned every night to take them back down and get them charged for the next day.  Huzzahs all around!

Debby Peak, Senior Vice President, Huntington T. Block Insurance — HTB is a big player in the fine arts insurance world, well known to almost anyone who needs specialized art-based insurance for almost any artifact-related purpose.  Miss Peake was terrific at brokering the insurance underwriting, no small task given the odd nature of the need and the tiny size of the exhibit.  Our folder of correspondence was substantial, but it worked out exactly as she said it would.  Without her, the exhibit could have literally been impossible as Mister Stewart was sensibly not going to allow this treasure to depart from him without the level of insurance coverage he wanted, and rightfully so.

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Ramsey Creek CabinetworksJosh Yoder‘s crew at Ramsey Creek was the foundation for building the physical infrastructure of the exhibit, the mahogany trimmed vitrine base and the pair of black platform holding the two workbenches.  (Josh is in the brown shirt)  I sent them specs and drawings, they built them exactly as promised, and delivered them to the Scottish Rite Temple exactly when we needed them as I was composing the exhibit space.  Josh also coordinated with Jim Rogers (see below) to make sure the plexiglass case would fit the base precisely.  Purrrfect!

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Perhaps my greatest pleasure in my dealings with Josh was when he brought the entire fabrication crew (backs to camera) to the opening session of the exhibit.  They were every bit as entranced as the other visitors.  As Josh tells the story, the crew was bemused at the prospect of needing an hour to look at “one thing” until the end of their session, when they were begging to stay longer.

Jim Rogers/Plexicraft — When I  inquired about getting the plexiglass vitrine fabricated for the exhibit given my peculiar specs for it, almost without fail I got the answer, “There’s this guy in Iowa City who makes medical equipment.  Check with him.”  Well, “this guy” was Jim Rogers, whose work is primarily the fabrication of ultra precise housings for medical and biology research instruments.  The scale and purpose of the exhibit case was way outside his normal range of activities, but when I dropped in to see him last fall he agreed to give it a try.  He tried and succeeded.  If you were at the exhibit you can attest to the plexiglass case being  highly functional and at the same time not overpowering, a sympathetic housing for the contents.  Making a display case this large with the complexity required — removing the front at the bottom of every hour so that I could manipulate the contents and make your experience a the richer — was no easy task, but he pulled it off.

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Special Note

Now that the exhibit is finished, and with no plans for anything else similar, I happen to have a superb mahogany-trimmed plexiglass-vitrine exhibit case that is just taking up space in the middle of the shop.  If you are interested and need such a piece, let me know.  Case contents not included.

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Rapids ReproductionsAll those giant panels in the exhibit?  Rapids Repro did them.  The banners with images of the front cover?   Ditto.  They did what they said they would do, delivered at the precise time promised, and matching the specs I provided.  On budget.  ‘Nuff said.

Staples (Staunton VA) —  Once we had the tickets designed I simply went to the nearest Staples and handed them the memory stick and stood back.  Though he was already clocked out for the evening, the print shop employee remained and got all the tickets printed on the stock I wanted, then trimmed the sheets for me so I could take them all with me instead of having to make a second 100-mile round trip.  Little things like that are in fact pretty darned big things when a complex project depends on them.

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Jason Weaver — Jason came up with a perfect visual design for the exhibit website, and got the site up and kept it running even though the site server got completely smoked during the opening of the ticket sales when over 500 people tried to log on in a fifteen second stretch.   That took a little getting over.  The mere fact that you had tickets to buy, and a record of that transaction to get you into the exhibit, was all Jason’s doing.  Were it up to me, we would still be trying to figure things out.

So there you have it, the Heroes and Hired Guns who were instrumental in making the once-in-a-lifetime exhibit happen.

HO Studley’s Tool Cabinet Goes Home, and So Do I

At the conclusion of the exhibit, you got to go straight home, but I did not.  Remaining was the arduous task of examining the artifact components, packing archivally for the trip home, and re-installing the collection back at its home.  Then I got to drive the two days back to the Fortress of Solitude.

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Fortunately for me a sizable cohort of Heroes remained behind for the day of deinstallation, even a second day for loading the crates onto the fine arts transport truck.

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The routine of an exhibit de-installation pretty much the reverse of the installation.

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You might think it would go more quickly, but conscientiousness argues the opposite.

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For  valued treasures, you have to be just as careful disassembling them as you were in assembling them.

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Once again, the collection was loaded and secured onto a dedicated “high security” fine arts transport vehicle.  When I say “dedicated” I mean that there was noting else on the truck for either leg of the trip.  When I say “high security” you can conclude about that what you want.  That type of service is not cavalier, but it is required at this level of the world of artifacts.  The insurance underwriters won’t cover it otherwise.

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Hours later the collection arrived back at its home, and was unloaded and the crates were rolled into the gallery and left for my ministrations as the transport pulled away.  The only thing I wanted accomplished on that day was getting the crates opened and empty, and the cabinet hung on the wall.  With that accomplished, along with placing the bench top on the base, the work for the day was finished.

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The next morning brought about the installation of the cabinet’s contents.  Well, that’s what happened after I spend part of an hour taking one last round of detailed photographs for my own amusement.  I intend to integrate many of this detail vocabulary into my mahogany traveling tool case.  Stay tuned on that one, as this coming autumn will hopefully bring me time to noodle that exercise.

Each box was emptied and the contents arranged to allow for an inspection, then piece by piece the cabinet contents were placed in their proper location.  Because of my recent familiarity with the collection, it actually took only a little more than an hour to load the tools.

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On previous visits to the collection, given that they were many months apart, the pace was considerably slower as I had to remind myself each time where things went.  Not so this time.  Having unloaded and loaded it three times in the previous six days, it went quickly and without a hitch.  At noon the final piece was put in its place, and as a nod to my own interest in the mallet as the favorite tool, it was the last thing to go home.  Another half hour of clean-up and closing the crates, and I was heading back for home.