Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Art of the Carved Letter

When working with Dave Fisher this summer, one of the many things that really impressed me about his work was his engraving.  Using a simple pen knife he created the most beautiful and lively letters.  The profile of the blade and the qualities of the wood helped shape the types of cuts he could make, so the "font" he uses is, in many ways, an expression of the tool and the wood as much as his sense of what a particular letter should look like.

Along similar lines, I enjoyed this video on stone engraving.
I found this video fascinating from start to finish, but a few moments stopped me in my tracks.
About 4:40 in, one of the artisans paints "Anno Domini." The grace of his hand movements and the fluidity and vitality of the brush strokes is mesmerizing.
About 15:20 in there is a time lapse shot that shows how the sunlight moves across a letter.  I found it a great reminder that when I engrave wood I am not just drawing lines.  Instead, by incising surfaces I am creating shapes with light and shadow.  Many of our workspaces are flooded with electric light, making it hard to see what effect our engraving really has.  Yet when I worked with Dave this summer, I was struck by how he turned off the overhead lights when we got to work, letting the natural light rake across the surfaces we were carving, revealing the faceting of the tool marks or the shape of the engraved letters.

"What is he" by DH Lawrence.

Robin Wood posted this on his blog, and it is so good I just have to repost it here to make sure I can find it agin.
What is he? 
-A man, of course. 
Yes, but what does he do? 
-He lives and is a man.
Oh quite! But he must work.  He must have a job of some sort 
Because obviously he’s not one of the leisured classes. 
-I don’t know.  He has lots of leisure.  And he makes quite beautiful chairs.
There you are then!  He’s a cabinet maker. 
-No, no 
Anyhow a carpenter and a joiner. 
-Not at all.
But you said so 
-What did I say? 
That he made chairs and was a joiner and carpenter 
-I said he made chairs, but I did not say he was a carpenter.
All right then he is just an amateur? 
-Perhaps! would you say a thrush was a professional flautist, or just an amateur?
I’d say it was just a bird 
-And I say he is just a man. 

DH Lawrence

Monday, December 16, 2013

Elopement Spoons

My dear friend Andy and his new wife Michelle visited us in New Hampshire this weekend.  They were driving back from Nova Scotia, where they had eloped!  I could not be happier for them both.  When I heard that they were coming through our neck of the woods, I dropped everything and started  making them a wedding gift.  I decided on a pair of spoons cut from the same apple branch.  Michelle is a farmer and manages an apple orchard (in fact they were rushing back to PA so she could start pruning the trees for the winter.  Good thing too, as we got a foot of snow in the North East this weekend!) I also turned a porringer for them to share.  I thought it a nice analogy for marriage: two spoons but a single bowl.
In my haste I did not take photos of the bowl, but here are the spoons:

Friday, December 13, 2013

Art vs. Craft

Recently I posted a thread on a green woodworking newsgroup that got me thinking about the art/craft debate.  I was writing about my experiments using hot oil baths on my spoons and bowls, and one frequent participant asked:  Would you not be wiser to spend more time carving another spoon and less time decorating?   Hmm.  Well, I see oil as a protective and not a decorative thing, but his point is well taken.  One essential element of craft is the skill involved in making something.  To "craft" something is to make it carefully, lovingly, by hand.  In fact, craft can be a verb, where as art can't, emphasizing the centrality of "making" to the word craft.  So I respect his suggestion that I carve another spoon, as only with practice does someone acquire such hand skill.  

Yet his comment about spending "less time decorating" might also echo another concern among craftspeople; that "craft" connotes things cheaply decorated without thought or aesthetic taste--think macaroni art that kids make at summer camp in their "Arts and Crafts" class. Or, at its most depraved, this:

If craft and art are at opposite ends of a spectrum, this is one of the dark extremes of the craft axis: decoration without thought or aesthetic taste.

On the other end, the art end, of that axis might be something where art is full of thought but lacks skill or craft, which was one of Duchamp's points when he submitted this "Fountain" to the Society of Independent Artists.

Here, thought reigns supreme and the artist and skill have been taken out of the equation.  Obviously, much is lost without the artist's skillful hand.

Anyway, the first participant's "less time decorating" pejorative touched off comments from others on the site, one of which wrote the following: The reason for decorating is to make your piece more pleasing to the eye and to show a little bit of artistry in your work. Could the time be better spent making another spoon? Perhaps, but artistry is the difference between being a craftsman and a mere producer.  My ears perked up at the word "producer," a common term used to describe the new role that craftspeople took when, unable to compete with mass-produced copies, they lost their craft business and were forced to become workers on an assembly line, many times "producing" the very thing they used to craft.  "Producer" it seems to me reflects the loss of skill during the Industrial Revolution.  It would seem here that a "mere producer" is one who makes innumerable objects without thought or an aesthetic sense.  Again, we are back to BeDazzling, in a way.  Yet this also points at another contour of the craft/ art debate.  Craft relies on making many objects, where as art relies on making fewer.  Photography and printmaking certainly play with this idea, but those artists usually reproduce only limited series, carefully signing and numbering them to maintain their "artiness" (though craftspeople often add makers marks and dates to their work...)  

It would seem the trick of craft is not to make so many of something that the thought goes out of it, but to make enough to develop skill.

Another dichotomy in the craft/art debate certainly involves form and function.  While art is made for contemplation, craft is made to be used.  That is definitely the case with Robin Wood and his beautifully turned bowls.  He wants them to be used, and yet he has gained such fame that many people are probably collecting his pieces.  If a craft object is put on the wall and stops being used, does it become art?  If art is useful, does it become craft?  
Are my spoons now art?

Are they now craft?

Because craft is about usefulness, craftspeople work hard to develop forms that are functional and effective.  Those forms are developed and refined over long periods of time, generations even, and are passed down from one craftsperson to another.  Thus craft tends to be more traditional, where as art aspires to innovate.  Art looks for new ways of thinking about the world, and tries to break free of traditions.

As far as the maker movement goes, I am not quite sure what it entails.  It does seem to focus on the DYI ethic and on ways that the internet can bring information and establish new communities.  I have certainly learned a lot from the internet.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Simply Yoav from Schwachter X-photography on Vimeo.

So much of my interest in green woodworking has to do with leading a simpler life.  Well, that is not entirely true.  With family I find it hard to think I might live in a yurt.  But the principle of it still appeals to me.  Also, what if I burn out entirely on teaching and just can't go on?  What then?  I would like to think I have a skill set beyond academic education.  Maybe my interest in this is a way of designing a back door on my current life?  Who knows.
Anyway, above is a lovely video about living simply in Israel.

Monday, December 2, 2013

"Firing" bowls and spoons in oil.

This summer I experimented with heating wood in oil, and posted a thread on the Bodgers site.  https://www.bodgers.org.uk/bb/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?f=23&t=2881 Lots of dialogue in that thread, but here are the basics of my post.

I bought a $30 slow cooker/crockpot to do the heating. Blanks of various woods in various states of dryness have been submerged in flax oil and are happily warming now. I have it on the "low" setting, which seems to be about 275 degrees. After the first few hours the oil came to temp and moisture began to condense on the lid, which means some wetness is getting forced from the wood. I also saw lots of little bubbles coming from the ends of the wood as air escaped and oil entered. Now eight hours into the experiment and the bubbles have slowed considerably and no more moisture is condensing on the lid. I will unplug before bed and let cool overnight and see what it looks like in the morning. Of course I have been doing all of this outside, with fire extinguisher handy! :D Tomorrow I plan on cutting a few of the blanks in half to see how much penetration I got. I am curious to see if the oil reached the center of the blanks and if the moisture is still in the greenest pieces. I also wonder if the oil has penetrated to the center, if it has cured or if it will still be wet. If still wet, I will probably take some bits and put them in the oven at 225 degrees and bake them. Maybe I can force them to cure? Or maybe I can start an awful oil fire in my home. My wife should love that. More later.

Hi everyone,
So, some background info on where I got the idea from. Dan Dustin, in his little book "Spoon Tales", talks about a New England tradition of cooking axe handles in oil to harden them. He says he learned it from a blacksmith in New Hampshire named Norris Patch, who was a friend of his grandfather. Anyway, he writes that he raises "the temperature slowly over a period of about eight hours, then 'cook[s]' the spoons for about two hours at 213 degrees Fahrenheit in a mixture of about half beeswax and half walnut oil, boiling off the moisture and replacing it with wax and oil." When I spoke with him recently he said that he also soaks his wood in water for years before using. Not sure of all the other tricks he has learned over the last forty years of spoon making, but the results are really different than my spoons. His are heavier, stiffer, yet really fun to hold. Thanks to him for the idea. More on my results soon.

Hi again.
So, the results:
After "firing" the wood in oil and letting cool overnight, I cut each piece in half. All of them were fully saturated with oil. It penetrated right to the center. No wonder Dan's spoons are heaver than mine. They are truly full of oil. Once that oil polymerizes and hardens, the wood should be quite strong. No wonder artists have used linseed oil for centuries as a medium for oil paints!
Second, after "baking" pieces of the "fired" wood in the oven at 225F for 2 hrs, I found that very little oil left the wood. No real change in color or texture or weight. I will keep an eye on them over the next few days and see how the baked ones cure compared to the ones simply fired.
I will abstain from weighing in on the reasons for decorating crafts, though oiling does not seem like decoration to me. It seems like protection, allowing for a long, useful life for your spoon.
Next, I will "fire" one of my first bowls. I just built my first lathe a few weeks ago, and finished my third bowl today (along with running this experiment).

More (and more dramatic) results to report:
My eldest daughter was turning eight yesterday, and had been asking for her own special bowl like what Mommy and her sister have. So on Friday night I set about turning her a little kuksa out of relatively green maple. The wood cut wonderfully and even spun moisture out the ends during turning. Definitely green wood.
Emboldened by my recent experiments, on Saturday I put that new bowl into a mixture of linseed and beeswax, along with an older bowl that had already air dried. I cooked them both for eight hours and they reached a max temp of about 270F.
The results:
As you can see, cracks emerged in the end grain and the edge distorted pretty significantly in the green bowl. Live and learn. I will probably try to repair with epoxy.

Besides cracking the green wood, the oil/wax cooking also had an interesting impact on the dry bowl. Below is a shot of two bowls made from the same spalted birch. The one on the right has been simply soaked in oil for a few days. The one on the left was cooked in the oil/wax bath. It turned much darker than the other bowl, and did seem to warp more along the rim than the other.