Tools for Working Wood

 Joel's Blog at Tools for Working Wood

The Modern Split  


I was at the Met this past weekend with a guest, and we ended up in one of the 20th century galleries that I almost never visit. On display among the paintings were four 20th century chairs (from the left). The "Zig Zag" chair by Gerrit Rietveld (1937), an armchair by Koloman Moser (1903), the "31" armchair by Alvar Aalto (1931-32) and the "DCW" Side Chair by Charles Eames (1948).

By the very fact of the display, the Met shows that it considers these chairs important landmarks of 20th Century furniture design. But to me, the chairs also signify the shift in furniture craft: from the craftsman making furniture for a client to the designer making furniture specifically for mass manufacture.

The Rietveld and Moser pieces were designed to be made in a typical cabinet shop. We sell a great book about Rietveld, complete with plans, and you can pretty much make everything in his book with a fairly basic shop. I am not familiar with Moser, but the Moser piece is also pretty accessible. It's woodworking. I get it.

The Aalto and Eames pieces were designed for manufacture. Their clients were furniture corporations, not a person. To make either piece, you would need forms, presses, and equipment. Even if you only want to make one chair, you would still have to make molds and forms for the bent plywood. Most of the work is in the forms, and once you have done that, making multiples is fairly easy.

The Aalto and Rietveld pieces date from about the same time, but it's clear to me that Rietveld is looking backward at the A&C movement and its idea that furniture should be accessible to anyone to build. Aalto, on the other hand, is looking forward to the disconnect between the factory, which can manufacture his flowing designs, and the individual maker who is then left in the dust.

Now, before you point out to me that most American furniture was made in factories, let me point out that the furniture factories of the early 20th Century America made traditional furniture the traditional way -- just faster, with the aid of machines. Stickley made his A&C furniture in a factory, but he published plans so that any competent shop, amateur or professional, could make a copy. (Maybe not as efficiently, but certainly as well.)

These chairs document the two paths furniture has taken in the past century. It's not about traditional versus modern design. It's about designing for mass production versus designing for small production. I am not saying mass production is bad, just that the designs for mass production don't leave room for traditional workshops. And so the modern small shop is caught between two worlds: a desire to explore the limits of craft, and the mass vocabulary of manufacture that people are used to and have come to expect.

Tags:Woodworking Tools and Techniques,Historical Subjects
Comments: 3

This Weekend: Maker Faire AND The Saturday Market Project at The London Design Festival  


One of the fun things about running a business like ours is that you get to meet cool people interested in process and manufacturing. At last year's Maker Faire we met Melinda and Laylah from Saturday Market Project. Over the past year we got together a few times and we decided to collaborate on something.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Saturday Market Project retails online through their website. They're based out of the US and UK and have slightly different product offerings from both. Their main focus is on collaborating to develop project kits, and selling raw materials for maker and craft type projects.

Whats interesting about SMP is that in addition to fancy french string, wool, and really nice staplers, they're selling electronics kits, resistors, and a paint pen that draws in conductive ink link.

The idea that those products make sense together is really contemporary - and I think reflects how interesting the maker movement is becoming as it grows. The idea that something like SMP would, or even could exist 10 years ago or even 3 or 4 years ago is impossible.

For those of you in the UK, you may already know that the London Design Festival is going on this week. There are more events that we can mention - but suffice to say that were jealous of any of you who are in London this week.

During LDF, Saturday Market project is hosting a space for, as they put it "making, material experimentation, masterclasses, demonstrations, free drop-in workshops and a temporary shop" in Shoreditch near the Old Street tube stop.

We provided a set of Gramercy Saws, rasps and Hammers for the work bench at their space, and they've got events all weekend including a cool (LDF runs through the 21st)

If you're in London check it out and tell them we say Hi!!

For more information about SMP at London Design Fair check their Tumblr here.

Or visit their website.


Meanwhile, In New York, It's Maker Faire and this year I'll be making a presentation on Sunday at 2:30. Check here for details.
Tags:Product News, Sales, and Promotions,Misc.
Comments: 0

The English Arts & Crafts Movement  


A small exhibit on Pre-Raphaelite art at the Met was an opportunity for me not only to take another gander at the lovely Jane Morris but also to revisit the Cabinet by Sir Edward Burne-Jones that, for me, epitomizes the early English Arts and Crafts Movement. The English A&C movement was founded based on ideas by John Ruskin, and William Morris was one of its most important proponents. While the movement was the inspiration for the American A&C movement, there is very little commonality of styles.

The American A&C movement as promoted by Gustav Stickley, The Roycroft Movement and others, was very much a machine-made movement. For all the accessibility of the designs for modern makers, the originals were designed and built in furniture factories. Stickley published his designs because he felt strongly that people should be able to make the work themselves; however, his fumed finishes, for example, were done with strong ammonia by professionals in a factory - a technique really outside the ability of all but the most determined amateurs.

Greene & Greene and Frank Lloyd Wright represent the high end of the A&C movement in the US. Greene & Greene and Frank Lloyd Wright were very much like their English counterparts in that their work was fancier than Stickley's and custom made. Both were also heavily influenced by Japanese styles.

The early English Arts and Crafts artists, Burne-Jones and Morris among them, were also part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of artists who wanted to roll back time and work in styles that existed before the time of Raphael. They also were stuck in a Dungeons and Dragons world of knights, shining armor, damsels in distress, and long tales of chivalry. J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis both were inspired by the long tales that Morris wrote (poorly).

This piece from 1861 of painted and gilded pine, painted leather, copper hardware, and painted iron hinges is called "The Backgammon Players" and was designed by Philip Webb and painted by Burne-Jones. It was one of the earliest pieces manufactured by William Morris' company, and one of the first pieces of the English A&C movement. Morris's furniture, and English Arts and Crafts furniture in general, very much reflect 19th century interpretations of what a knight would want in his baronial hall or boudoir. This piece, stripped of its paintings, is a fairly straightforward Victorian cabinet. With its decoration and painted scene, it becomes a masterwork of the Pre-Raphaelite era, and a really cool English A&C piece.

There is a lesson to be learned here, of course. What would happen if you took a fairly simple cabinet, and painted it up? Wouldn't that be cool? It certainly would be a much more interesting piece of furniture than lots of the stuff we see today. But it also shows off a difference in the way modern designers view furniture. Today, we look at furniture as a form, and the interest comes from the way the form interacts with the surrounding spaces. Material and grain choices are used to amplify the form. Contrast this with what Burne-Jones did. He created a complete narrative in the work. The interest in his piece comes from the story in the painting and the rest of the decoration reenforces that narrative and the mood of the piece.

N.B. There are exceptions to the modern fixation about form, notably that of Silas Kopf, a master of marquetry whose work very much is about the story on the piece in addition to the materials used and form of the pieces. But he is a glorious exception.

In Other News
I am very sad to report of the passing of John Whelan at age 93. The author of two seminal books on wooden planes, "The Wooden Plane, Its History, Form and Function" and "Making Tradition Wooden Planes," John was one of the giants in the field of American tool collecting.

Tags:Product News, Sales, and Promotions,Historical Subjects
Comments: 2

Maker Faire 2014 - Sept 20-21, NYC - My presentation  


Buy Tickets to Maker Faire Today!
Last week I found out that I am presenting a talk at Maker Faire 2014 in New York City on Sept 20-21 entitled: "How One Small Company is Using Maker Technology to Stay Competitive in an Old World Industry".

What my talk is about is how we have been automating our Foley Saw filing machine to allow us to do some operations automatically and also enable some very complex filings that an all mechanical Foley filer can't do. The reason I find this subject so interesting and why I wanted to give the talk is I think that for the past ten years the Maker Revolution has been building infrastructure so inexpensive that anyone can make pretty complex robots, CNC stuff, and general gadgets. At Maker Faire 2013 we saw a lot of cool stuff and then when we decided that we needed to add some automation to some of our processes it made a lot more sense for us to go the Maker route instead of the substantially more expensive, and much harder to implement, industrial machinery route.

While my specific professional interest is in tool manufacture the revolution in personal automation will (and maybe has started to) effect woodworkers all over the country. But don't think that the job of being a cabinetmaker will be any easier. Good construction is good construction, whether or not you use a hand saw, a giant factory saw, a table saw, a CNC router, or a fancy Altendorf. The difference is really in the amount of capital the maker has and the volume that is produced. As CNC equipment becomes less expensive and easier to use some cabinetmakers will find ways of lowering their costs without compromising the type of quality they are interested in offering. Some cabinetmakers will come up with whole new ideas in design and assembly that weren't possible before. It's mostly all good. Low cost automation might give a small shop a way to compete with factories. And the traditional factory will lose lots of their advantages.

I already know a fair number of shops that have CNC routers, laser cutters and some of them are doing some very interesting stuff. But don't jump down my throat. I like early American furniture. I love lots of early, sometimes very decorative forms. The big sin of furniture makers over the past generation has been simplifying and simplifying forms until most of the stuff I see in stores is pretty boring. I don't expect any machine to be able to grind out a colonial highboy - ever. And I would hate that anyway. I don't want dumbed down designs. What I want to happen, and I think it might, is that with new machinery will come new techniques and new designs. Hopefully furniture makers of the 21st century will produce stuff as new and exciting as say Chippendale furniture was to the customers of the mid-18th century.

Here is the link to Maker Faire NYC . It's an awesome show. And every year I am truly overwhelmed at what folks are making. Bring your kids!! you will all have a great time. If you don't live anywhere near NYC there are Maker Faires all over the country and the world. Even Mini-maker faires for smaller venues that are just starting up.

NB: The snapshot of the most excellent Rhode Island furniture is from the renovated rooms at the American Wing of the Met. OMG. I was rushing en-route to another exhibit and I drolled only a little. I will return for a proper look.

Tags:Woodworking Tools and Techniques,Misc.
Comments: 3

Woodwork On The Streets - And Other News  


Every year since 1931 the streets of Washington Square Park are filled with booth after booth of artist and craftspeople exhibiting their work. The "Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit" took place this year last weekend and will reprise next weekend (Sept 6-7, 2014). The works range from big paintings for several thousands of dollars to small work in the tens and hundreds. Some of it I would love to hang in my living room, some you would have to pay me to hide in a closet. Unlike the rarefied world of galleries in Chelsea and Soho the art here is more approachable. The artists range from working artists to weekend warriors, all excited by the idea that over the days of the show thousands of people will walk by and some might stop and like their stuff. It's a great way to find decorations for your house. In addition to the many artists and sculptors there were many jewelery makers, fabric arts people, and yes, a few woodworkers. Three that I found, each were looking for a different type of customer, and each had their own slant on how to approach their audience.

Michael Manus is a woodturner who has exhibited at the show for over 20 years. This year he won first prize in the "Crafts Wood" category with a turned piece "Hollow form with finial". When younger he used to exhibit at many shows. Now, in semi-retirement, this is the only show he does. His work is mainstream turned wooden-ware. Well executed, mid-priced pieces from around $40 and up, most of his pieces are designed to be functional in the house. He told me that he's always done well at the show and certainly part of the reason for his success is that his work is priced for the impulse purchaser and can easily be carried away.

Santino Alvarez, furniture maker was exhibiting for the second year. I had a very pleasant talk with Santino and his wife. If I had to characterize his style it would be a very interesting take on modern rectilinear forms, with an organic feel. His work is all custom and the larger table in the photo starts at just under $1000. I asked about how business was because with furniture purchases, even a several hundred dollar purchase isn't really impulsive. Santino said that last year (their first at the show) they sold very little at the actual show, but there were many follow-up commissions which made the show for him a rousing success.

Peter A. Allen is a primarily architectural woodworker hailing from New Bedford, MA. (the exhibitors come from all over) and decided to show some of his original furniture designs at the show. The table, of wide English Brown Elm boards, is on a base of buffed copper pipe. The use of copper really sets off wood and both the brown elm and the copper accent each other without either overcoming the piece. While obviously Peter can use this theme for any custom situation, this particular table is $4200. The smaller solid Wenge coffee tables are 1800.

A city street isn't the most effective means of showing off someone's work so click on the maker's names to check out their websites. (Michael Manus does not have a website).

These were all the woodworkers I saw. Each working in their own milieu, and their own economic model. The problem of course with woodworking as a craft fair product, and the reason for so few woodworker's exhibiting, is that almost any furniture or wooden object is too expensive for an impulse purchase and most custom furniture is out of the average budget. More significant I think is, that in general, as a society we don't understand the idea of what custom furniture can do for you, and understand its value, like we do with clothing and jewelery. This is what I feel is so important about these furniture makers with the courage to exhibit. It turns out to be profitable for them, which makes it sustainable, but they are doing a great job of planting the idea in people walking by that they can get something special, made by a person, not a factory. The show eases people in. How many people bought their first piece of custom furniture only after getting used to the idea of wood as craft by impulsively buying a turned bowl? More than a few. How many people, who would never consider getting anything made for them, start talking about "maybe we should get a proper table for the dining alcove that actually fits?" More than a few. It takes time and many shows. I hope for some viewers, after seeing this exhibit, commissioning some furniture maker somewhere is an idea a little less far fetched. For me the entire show, with it's tens of thousands of visitors walking by, is on the front line of making people aware that not everything they buy needs to come from a factory in a far-away land paying starvation wages and you can get nice stuff made just for you.

N.B. If you wandered past the first exhibitors in the 1931 show you could have picked up a Jackson Pollard or Willem DeKooning for not a lot of money as both according to the exhibition brochure were not yet famous and needed rent money.

Maker Faire is in a few weeks. I'll be giving a presentation called: How One Small Company is Using Maker Technology to Stay Competitive in an Old World Industry. I'll write more about what I will be talking about next week, but I would love to see you come and say hi to me. We might even have some prototypes of new stuff we are working on.
Tags:Product News, Sales, and Promotions,Misc.
Comments: 1

Ken Hawley, MBE 1927-2014  


Ken Hawley MBE, probably the most important figure in modern tool history passed away on August 15th, 2014. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Ken and his work, Ken ran a hardware store in Sheffield starting in the 1940's. To have a little interest in the store window he put a few old tools on display. Over the years people, retired craftsman, widows, etc, would stop by and offer their no longer used tools to Ken. He became a collector. Then, and this is what is so important he started collecting, not so just the tools that were made in Sheffield, but the tools that were used to make the tools. As the tool making industry of Sheffield began to collapse Ken collected whole workshops of tools and records. Without him all of this history would have gone to the dumpster. Pattern books, catalogs, patterns, mother planes. Everything. As he got older Ken's collection was assembled into a trust, and now is part of the Kelham Island Museum.

Ken was also an enthusiastic evangelist for tools. If you had a question he was prepared to dig and find you the answer. I only met him once. On a trip to England in 2000 he made time in his busy schedule to sit with me and show me some of the collection. He answered my pretty simple questions without smiling at my ignorance. When I asked about file making, he took me down to the shop where he had a file-making setup and showed me how easy it was to actually cut a file by actually cutting a file. Then, when I mentioned that my specific interest was in English steel or infill planes he apologized saying that in Sheffield there just wasn't much. However, from deep in the collection he handed me a shoebox of what he had. It took a few minutes but I realized what he handed to me was a set of patterns, templates, and jigs from the workshop of Arthur Price, the last of the traditional infill plane makers. It was really something.

Ken's collection of tools and equipment has been fortunately preserved and will educate and illuminate toolmakes for generations to come. This is one enormous and important legacy. But we not only lost a really wonderful person we lost a lifetime of all the knowledge he collected and was so generous in sharing.

Our condolences go out to his friends and family. He will be missed worldwide.

N.B. The picture of Ken is from the Hawley Collection web site.

Tags:Historical Subjects,Misc.
Comments: 2
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.
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