Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sig's Eagle

I don't get to do a lot of carving, and when I do it's often a simple decorative surface treatment on a new piece of work. This particular job was different. Sig brought me an antique carved eagle that had been in his family for several generations; it had large parts of its wings and feathers missing, and the arrows clutched in its powerful talons were broken. It looked to have been gessoed and gilded in an earlier life, but most of that was gone now, as were several coats of paint, revealing old, dark, oiled pine underneath. Sig's directive: replace the missing sections and fix the broken spots so they look like they've never been missing or broken. Simple enough.

When I work on anything I think might be valuable, I like to get an opinion as to what I can do to it without affecting that value. My friend Barbara, who has an antiques appraisal business, told me as long as what I did was reversible, I could do what I pleased. With that as my stepping off point, I used hide glue to attach sugar pine blocks to the missing sections, and I got out my carving tools.

The carving was fun: as long as the tools were sharp, the pine carved easily and crisply. Matching the old finish took a bit of doing: multiple coats of dyes and acrylic colors built up in glazes, combined with a bit of orange shellac. The good news is you really can't tell what's old and what's new, and I'm not going to tell either.

Monday, December 15, 2008

History Repeating

My great-great grandfather was a Pennsylvania Dutch furnituremaker. I have two pieces he made; I like them because I can see the evidence of his hands in the work, and that work connects me more deeply to a part of my family history. I also love the fact that even though the pieces are well over a hundred years old, I'm still using them every day.

This same old German-American had two Keller grandaughters, Kay and Edna. Kay is my grandmother. Among Edna's grandchildren is Kathy, who is a chemistry professor and also my second cousin. About four months ago Kathy sent me an email and asked if I would design and build a buffet for her and her husband Tom.

It's always great to build something for your own family. This commission was particularly meaningful because I felt I could give Kathy -- and her heirs -- the same opportunity to connect with a part of their history as I had. As I built the buffet, I was very careful to use methods I knew would ensure the piece's longevity; I've fixed enough furniture in the past 27 years to have a pretty good idea what lasts and what doesn't. And so I dovetailed the case and the drawers, used mortise and tenon joints on the frames and doors, and used the matching, highly figured mahogany veneer on top of solid poplar rather than plywood, since I've seen a lot of delaminated plywood over the years.

When it was done, I felt like I'd done what I set out to do: With just a bit of good fortune, one of Kathy's great-grandchildren will be connected with a tiny bit of her past, just as I am today.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Designing with Your Customer

Roger is my doctor, my friend, and now also my customer. He owns an antique brass tray that was his parents'; it had been used by a construction crew working in the post-war rubble of Birmingham, England, to cook their morning sausages, but that's another story. Roger thought it would be cool to build a table to display the heirloom, remind him of its history, and actually use it; and so it was that he asked me to design and build a tray table for him.

To work out some details, I decided to build a full-scale model of the table. I built the one at the bottom first and invited Roger to come look at it. He thought it both "clunky" and "stark", and had some ideas how to improve it. I sulked when my wife agreed with him. Model #2, in the middle, incorporated Roger's suggestions and gave him different leg and apron treatments to consider. He selected the legs he liked, argued a few subtle points of design, and chose a dye and glaze combination for the finished piece. The completed table is shown up top.

The design process for this small tray table was as important as the design itself. It gave Roger a real sense of ownership, allowed him to flex his aesthetic muscles, and ultimately claim the piece as his own. For the maker, it's always satisfying to make something your customer really likes.