Sunday, October 27, 2013

What the wobble?

Ok, if there is anyone out there with some experience with turning bowls, can you explain this?
 Below the core and the mandrel you can see where I am chasing a bead down, and yet in just one part of the bowl the bead is sort of wavy, and only in that portion.  I was working hard to hold my tool steady, but maybe I was not working hard enough.  You can see it a little better below:
Was the mandrel loosening up and causing a weird wobble?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Treenware at the MET

This weekend Alyssa and I were lucky enough to be in NYC and had a wonderful date at the MET.  Wandering through the "visible storage" section, full of just amazing works of furniture and carved chests, I came across a very small display of treenware.  Several turned bowls, and two spoons.  Two objects caught my eye.  The small bowl/porringer below seemed to bare the marks of treadle lathe turning.  The long, thin handle made it feel more like a scoop than a bowl.  As the stem joined the bowl below the rim and the bottom of the stem angled up slightly, I imagine it would not have been bad to hold, cupping the bowl in your palm and bringing your thumb over the top of the stem.  Still, not much to hold onto.  Maybe 6" across and 2.5" tall.  Dates from somewhere between 1700 and 1900.
You can also see small 6" plates on display on the lower shelf.

You can also see a large burlwood bowl in the background with a crack in the rim, also turned.  

There was also a small spoon on display, maybe 7" long, that caught my eye.  The handle met the bowl in a very simple way, with no curve when seen from above.  The maker did not have to deal with changing grain direction.  These in a way look like some of the English spoon designs I have seen--certainly not Scandinavian.  The rim of the bowl was flat. I tend to make mine with a bit of a curve to the rim to let the upper lip easily contact the bottom of the bowl.  The spoon was also generally dated as from between 1700 and 1900.

The small scoop behind the spoon was made of bone or something.  The larger spoon to the left was less interesting.

I think what was amazng for me was to see how little woodware was on display, compared to the ceramics and metalwork.  It really illustrated to me how rare historical examples of woodware is.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

On knowing and understanding

For going on twenty years now I have made a living teaching history, usually some version of United States history.  And some time every January I have found myself discussing the Industrial Revolution, the plight of the craftsperson and the changing nature of labor.  I have always wondered at the cruel irony where, say, shoemakers watched their businesses wither as cheap, mass-produced knockoffs flooded the market, only to find themselves forced by necessity to take a job in one of the competitor's shoe manufacturing facilities, endlessly stamping leather into the same patters, having lost all control of the design and production process of which they used to have such intimate mastery.  Craft was integral to our cultural DNA, expressed in such surnames as Turner, Smith, Potter, and Fletcher, and to watch it die out so quickly must have been a major shock. But what I never really understood, though I knew and even taught others about it, was the complexity of the skill sets that were lost.

Like I said, I make my living teaching.  I like to think I am pretty good at explaining things.  But when faced with the complexities of bowl turning, with so many "moving parts," I find myself at a loss for words.  Beyond the intricacies of wood selection, moisture content, etc..., just the methods of grasping the tools and presenting the hooks to the wood are immensely complex.  The hook of the tool should be at a right angle to the piece, rotated slightly to "present" a bit of the blade to the wood. But when you consider that the blade can be moved up and down, fore and aft, in and out, and rotated, and remember that the surface you are working is concave in some instances and convex in others, understanding the right angle of attack is not an easy thing.  And at times I find the best way to remove wood is to bring the blade nearly parallel to the surface.  Which of the three hooks should you use?  Should you use it hook side up or hook side down?  Should you work on a plane level with the centers, or below the centers?  Should you hold the handle under your arm, or in your hand, or cradle it like a baby?  Banging around in my basement, with no guidance other than a few you-tube videos, I have longed for someone to look over my shoulder and give me some guidance.  But no one around me does this type of turning.  I think there is one guy in Western Massachusetts that teaches bowl turning on a treadle lathe.  There are also several folks out in Wisconsin and Michigan.  But I felt pretty alone in that moment, and truly understand, not just know, what skills were lost with the Industrial Revolution.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The lathe in action

Traditional Turning

About a year ago, as I became more and more frustrated with the noise, expense and dust involved in "brown" woodworking (using seasoned wood and power tools), I came across the following video.  It is a gem, and well worth 7:43 out of your day.  This video changed my whole perspective on woodworking.

Lovely, yes?
In the video Robin Wood describes his first encounter with George Lailey's work, and has this initial response: "I imagined it would be quite straight forward" and  "It can't be that hard, why is no one doing this?"  I have to admit, upon seeing Wood's video I thought the exact same thing--how hard could this be?  Looking at the lathe, there is nothing too complex in its construction, right?  And the tools--they are dead primitive.  So why not do it?

I looked on line for plans for a bowl-turning treadle lathe, and some exist, but most plans are for spindle turning lathes.  Such a setup is much lighter, as the machine does not have to resist the mass of the spinning bowl as it changes direction.  So, I took the basic design elements from the spindle-turning lathe and just overbuilt it.  Overbuilding is not hard to do.  In fact, I think it is our default mode whenever making anything.  Expertise is shown in what you can take away.  It is about simplifying, as Robin speaks to.

Anyway, first I sourced the beams.  There is an old, dilapidated barn near our home in New Hampshire and I figured the owners would not mind if I repurposed some of the hand-hewn beams lying about.
These are amazing beams, with axe marks from the hewing process, mortice joints with pegs, all the details of a past art.  After hauling them back to my driveway, I removed the nails and washed the wood with a deck cleaning spray that stops mold from spreading.

Once dry, I set to building the lathe.  3/4" threaded rods are all that hold it together.  I did cut notches for each piece to fit into, but really it is the rods that holds the whole thing together.

Leveling the bed

And now, the lathe lives!
But I will tell you something--when Robin Wood said it took him five years just to learn the basics, he was spot on.  I would be lucky to learn the basics in five years.  There is so much to consider, including the state and type of wood, preparing the blanks, sharpening the tools, making sure everything is in alignment, how to use the tools, how fast to push the treadle, etc, etc, etc...  This is not easy.  And yet, one thing amazes me.  With such little precision (the "centers" aren't even in the same plane!) and such crude construction, that darn thing works!  I can't believe it actually works!  Magic.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Mike Loeffler

Some lovely two-tone painted spoons by Mike Loeffler, shown on Jarrod's site. I imagine that with wear the undercoat will start to poke through...  Looks like milk paint, which I am starting to experiment with now.

Alistair Dargue

Jarrod StoneDahl

As part of the scrapbooking function of this site, here are a number of shots from Jarrod StoneDahl's site.  He carves beautiful, more Scandinavian
spoons, and also has shots of some lovely ones he did not carve himself.

Artist's Statement

My friend Michael, head of the Visual Arts department at Dana Hall, wants to exhibit my work in the school gallery.  I am pulling together some of the spoons, cups and bowls for the exhibit, as well as various tools.  Michael even wants to install the lathe in the gallery and have demonstrations!  Should be a lot of fun.  Anyway, in preparation for the show he asked for an "artist's statement."  I was not sure what such a statement looks like.  I am certainly not an artist, and hardly a craftsperson, but I banged out the following for the purpose.

My interest in making spoons, cups and bowls for family and friends really comes from my interest in stories. There are moments in our busy lives when we have the fortune to interact with meaningful objects. We sit in our grandfather’s chair, or slip on the sweater a loved one made.  And in those instances a significance and a narrative enters our everyday lives. I think people today crave those stories more and more.  We want to know where our clothes were made or where our food was grown.  We can all eat a delicious meal in a restaurant, but what many of us crave is a homemade dish.  Why? In part I think this is because we live in a largely mass-produced society, filled with objects made a world away and destined for the landfill.  It is hard to cozy up to an Ikea bowl and think, “Wow, this bowl was made by machines in China, shipped to me in a container ship, and when it breaks I will throw it away and think nothing of it.”  That is not a memorable breakfast narrative. 
Yet many mornings in my house, as I rush around preparing my kids breakfast and packing lunches, I find my six-year-old daughter Mae calmly pouring her glass of milk into a small wooden cup I made her.  Of course she could have just as easily drunk the milk right out of the glass I served it in, but she wants the pleasure of drinking from “her cup.” 
“This morning, I drank milk from the cup
that dad carved for me.”
Those are the moments I am seeking out more and more these days, and hand carving spoons, cups and bowls is part of that.
Each of these objects is made from specific bits of wood: birch and beech cut from my home in New Hampshire; cherry cut from my mother’s back yard; Norway maple salvaged from the trees recently felled on the Brook Path.  Each object is made with hand tools only.  All pieces bare the marks of their making, and none are sanded.  And each piece is made for a particular person or occasion.  Many of my spoons are now in the hands of family members, and they won’t give them up: baby spoons for my brother’s new child; anniversary spoons for my in-laws; serving spoons for my mother.  Those items that did make it to this show are used daily in my house: breakfast bowls, coffee cups, special spoons.  Eating with wood is “quiet, warm, and comfortable,” as one craftsman put it, and the utensils grow more beautiful the more they are used. 
               I hope you enjoy them, but do it quickly, because Mae wants her cup back.

grand opening

For about a year now I have been messing around with green woodworking, and it has been a really interesting ride so far.  I have been inspired by many people out there who graciously maintain blogs for the benefit of all, like Robin Wood and Peter Follansbee, so now I am trying to give back.  Not sure who will read this except friends and family, but if any get inspired by what I post here, great.  If none find anything interesting, that is OK too, as I will also be using this blog as a scrapbook of sorts, keeping the tricks and techniques and inspired designs that I want to emulate in one place.  Hope you enjoy.