Wendell Castle

I read today that Wendell Castle died.   Just a few days ago, I was thinking of what I had learned from him and posting a note and the photo below to a draft for the website.

Wendell spoke at the 2016 Furniture Society Conference.  His talk was clear and meaningful.  I took notes.  I was rereading these notes these few days ago, because hearing him talk, I had thought:  These things I believe, these words are sterling, and I can use them.  On one line, I wrote “clear and meaningful.”  I used it above.  It can apply to paragraphs and to furniture.

The following paragraph is mine…as much as anything is…but it is inspired, informed, and invigorated because I heard Wendell Castle speak.  Words from my notes appear in italic.

The art of furniture making, and making a living from it, is limited by form, materials, facility, and patrons.  For success, autonomy, and reward, the furniture must be in touchsensible, practical, and reasonable.   I do not design for myself, but for the experience of patrons.  Finding the art and the patron requires daring and risk.  I’ll take no path, but leave a trail.  Of this path I blaze and knowledge I gather along it, I am only caretaker for a while.

“Share everything you know.”   Wendell Castle.

Gary Weeks and Wendell Castle

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Pecan Special Editions

Twenty-four years ago, I designed the rocking chair that anchors this business.  We saw ourselves as a Texas company and made the chairs from wood of the state tree of Texas, pecan — selected for heartwood.  As the internet made our market the world, we began to build the chairs of other woods.  About the same time, our reliable source for heart pecan ceased that operation.  We couldn’t find what we needed elsewhere.  We dropped pecan rockers as a catalogued item.

Pecan is difficult to work and to match into pleasing compositions of figure and color.  The wood is difficult to dry.  The trees are mostly sapwood.  The sapwood is white and boring unless creatively used in contrast with heartwood.  The heartwood varies in color dramatically from tree to tree.

http://www.garyweeks.com/our_medium.htm#heartwood_sapwood

Brandon Berdoll, https://berdollsawmill.com does an impeccable job of drying pecan, and beyond that, he marks his lumber so that boards from a tree can be tracked.

As we near the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Weeks Rocker, it is fitting that we offer pecan rockers as special editions.  We bought enough lumber from Brandon for 8 or 9 rockers.

Austin began marking the lumber September 16 — marking the wood so individual chairs will have wood from the same tree.  Each chair will be predominately heartwood with some contrasting sapwood and will have coherent color and figure.  They will be ready to ship November 2.  They will cost $2750.

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The Furniture Society Conference

Leslie and I attended the Furniture Society Conference in Philadelphia, June 23-25, 2016. We joined the Furniture Society 10 or 12, or more, years ago when it was new.  We remained members for several years, although not active ones.   It seemed that we didn’t fit very well and we dropped out.  This year, we re-joined and attended the annual conference.

The theme of the conference was “Craft-Facturing.”  I had never heard the term but knew what it meant for it is what we do.  We apply the efficiencies of manufacturing to the craft of furniture making.  I asked if I could speak on what I have learned of this.  The conference committee said yes, and I spoke.

No one walked out.

GW at FSC

The members of the Furniture Society who make furniture tend to make “one of a kind” or bespoke furniture.  Their furniture often emphasizes the art over the function.  Some members collect, sell, or curate such furniture.  Some members are teachers of woodworking and decorative arts.  Some are students.  Few “craft-facture” a product and build a business of it.

Wendell Castle spoke to the entire group.  I took notes, for he was eloquent and I search for terms and phrases to describe what we do, why it is worthy, and how it feels to do it. This is one phrase I noted: “Share everything you know.”

gw and wc

gw and pw

I tried to share some of what I know about earning a good living making furniture to those who chose to attend my talk–one of five options at that time.  I hope it was of benefit.

Our stay in Philadelphia was a pleasure.  We made some friends, we walked the streets of Ben Franklin, we stood in the buildings where the nation’s founding documents were signed, we sat in Christ Church and looked out 300-year-old glass at the tops of big trees, bells rang…  It was a trip to elevate craftsmanship and citizenship and allegiance.

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Mahogany Recovered

When the sailing ships first delivered mahogany logs to Europe, it inspired and delighted the cabinetmakers and became the premier wood of choice.  By the 1980’s, the trees were endangered and their extinction seemed possible, even likely.  By regulation, conservation, and certification, a sustainable harvest can now be imagined.  The article copied below from the Forest Stewardship Council Newsletter addresses this promising turn of state in Brazil, but it applies through much of the range.  With rare exception, we have purchased FSC certified mahogany from Central America for our furniture.  The wood delivered here is not the same old, slow growth wood from giant trees that so pleased the cabinetmakers of the past.  But the wood from younger, quicker growth trees that is delivered here retains much of the character: color, workability, strength to weight ratio, and durability outdoors.

Excerpt from “News and Views – FSC Newsletter 06/2016 – 22 March 2016”

Welcome Back, Mahogany!

Welcome Back, Mahogany! (© Agrocortex/Photo: Forest view)© Agrocortex/Photo: Forest view

Mahogany is back on the market with FSC®certification.


One of the most beautiful and famous Amazon timbers, the mahogany, will return to the market. Mahogany became a target of deforestation in the 1980s, after its beauty and strength attracted the attention of consumers. Due to intense exploitation, the extraction and trade of mahogany was prohibited from October 2001.

Now limited trade is being allowed again. Currently, extraction is only authorized by the Brazilian Government in areas of sustainable forest management, following strict criteria established by the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (known as the CITES agreement).

The return of the mahogany trade, this time with FSC certification, is an achievement for the Amazon and for all of us. Previously a symbol of deforestation and concentration of wealth with a few, today the restored trade in the mahogany shows that it is possible to responsibly manage native forests, with environmental and social benefits guaranteed.

In responsible forest management, the forest portion where trees are extracted is divided into several sections, called forest stands. Analyses are performed to define trees that are of adequate age and size to be harvested. This way, the forest cover is maintained and its value conserved.

FSC certification is one of the main tools to fight deforestation. It is also a powerful tool for the protection of biodiversity and maintenance of ecosystem services – such as carbon sequestration and storage, watershed services, and soil conservation. On top of that it encourages improved workers’ rights and welfare and better relationships with local communities and indigenous peoples, as well as adding value to products.

 

 

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A Natural History of Trees

My library is small.  I have culled it deeply (too deeply) several times and loaned or given many books that were worthy.  One of the books that has stayed with me for decades is A Natural History of Western Trees, by Donald Peattie.  I bought it new in the 1970’s.

Bob O’Brien, tree artist now (robrien.home.texas.net/art_catalog_A_C.html) and graphics artist for our print catalogs back when, called last summer to recommend a book, A Natural History of Western Trees.  After the call, I took the book down and reread the sections on trees whose woods I have worked or in whose shade I have walked. I remembered why I kept it.  Bob particularly praised the scratchboard art of Paul Landacre that illustrates the leaves, cones, fruit, seeds, and crowns.  Bob had made scratch board art for our early catalogs.

Three panels of our second “catalog,” circa 1995. gwblog0002

Scratch Board1

Jim Fish, webmaster, called last week to recommend a book…the same book.  He sent an audio file.  You probably wouldn’t think the text of a book appearing to be taxonomy text is worthy of an audio version, but this is far more than an aid to identification, a description of range, and a list of uses.  It is a character study.

Yesterday, I listened to the sections on the Sequoias.  I can relate.  At the time this book was written, my dad was building redwood fences (among his many endeavors), so as soon as I could help, I did too.  Redwood was abundant.  There were lumberyards that specialized in it and even the typical lumberyard had some dimensions and grades of it.  We built fences of soft, sweet, tight-grained lumber that even at age ten I knew was golden.  I listened to the reading in reverence, joy, and sadness: reverent for the majesty of the trees, joy in recalling the working of the wood, and sadness at our treatment of the forests.

I keep a few pieces of redwood in the shed and use it with great care and a bit of ceremony.

I went online.  There is a companion, A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America.  I found a good copy used.  It likewise will survive any future thinning of the bookshelves.  This new, old copy is in the showroom now, on a table by a rocker.  I have marked four chapters: those on black walnut, pecan, wild black cherry, and sugar maple.  I have told this story to my colleagues and have asked them to read the bookmarked pages.  Peattie reveals the soul in wood.  We work accordingly.

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Refinishing a Porch Rocker

We have a mahogany rocking chair on the porch of the showroom.  Last summer, it had been outside for ten years.

For maintenance of this rocker, we had done nothing more than wiping it from time to time with a slightly soapy cloth for cleaning and an almost wet one for a rinse. We did this about three times in ten years. It went out new to the porch as the pale brown of fresh mahogany. In a year, it was a rich, red brown.  Over the years, it became grey brown. Between wipings, it would become unevenly soiled with patches of light and dark. Cleaning evened the color to a pleasing weathered grey–at least pleasing to us. In this photo, the seat has been wiped with a damp cloth, but the rest of the chair is the uneven color of benign neglect. The joints are tight.

 

Weathered mahogany, occasionally wiped down, would not appeal to everyone, so we decided to refinish this chair, beginning with a deep cleaning. We made a mix of water, Murphy’s Oil Soap, and a 1/4 cup of household bleach. Austin scrubbed the chair and rinsed it well.

 

We let it dry a few days and sanded it lightly with 220G.

 

Oiled it.

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After the refinishing, we re-wrote the maintenance guidelines on the website,

Outdoor Furniture Maintenance Guide.

We build the seats of our mahogany rockers with openings as expansion joints and we leave the tenons through the arms proud, so that changes in humidity do not stress the seat or make an uneven surface under your hands. The contour of the chair and therefore the comfort for the sitter are the same in our rockers of any wood. Many of these mahogany rocking chairs are used indoors.

Mahogany Rocking Chair

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The Blanco River Flood of May 24, 2015

Recently, a woman came who was taking photos and collecting comments for a book on this town of Wimberley. She took some pictures and asked if we would write a few words or a paragraph on what we like about living here. I planned to write on the big cypress trees along the Blanco River. On the morning of May 25, they were almost no more.

The flood made the front page of the New York Times. One hundred or more houses were destroyed or completely washed away. Maybe fifteen hundred were damaged. More than a dozen people died. The stories of near escapes are chilling and so numerous that it is a wonder more people were not drowned. Most of the big cypress trees went down or lost their bark — thousands of them, some over five hundred years old.

John Michael who works with us was able to make two trips to the car with chosen items before he had to get away and leave his cabin to flood.

We’ve had floods before. They are a regular occurrence. Sometimes a few houses get water in them. But this one put four feet of water in houses that one would say were on the bluff — and took out the trees.

There is a lot of wood along the riverbank, some of it useable. But because there are few living trees along the river now, the downed trees are the bulwark against erosion and can be nurseries for new trees. Without woody plants along the river to hold the soil, normal floods will scour the soil from the banks and eliminate the possibility of a cool, shady river for those coming after.

We have been working on the effort to preserve and restore the riverbank. Will has skillfully managed a Facebook page: Blanco River Restoration Project. In the first 24 hours, this site had been viewed 40,000 times. There is a lot of interest in this cool, clear River.

Another good thing about this town is the people and their willingness to volunteer and help. The morning after the flood, many hands went to work cleaning up and salvaging. Gary Weeks and Company are today back to work, mostly.

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National Pi Day

This morning, I heard a piece on the radio about National Pi Day featuring a mathematicians speaking of pi and its utility. He said there could be no technological sophistication without calculations involving pi: no automobiles, no space flight. I realized there would be no Weeks Rocker, or any of the chairs we build or plan to build. Or at the very least, they’d be hard to build and likely wouldn’t fit together so well. This is a great day of celebration.

Our chairs, comfortable chairs, are forms of curves and profiles that come together, and fit, at critical points. These points and the relationship between the mating parts cannot be easily described in a way that makes the making of the chair a relatively simple process of precision rather than a more lengthy and haphazard one of “cutting to fit.” But by taking a section (finding a plane) within the solid form, mapping tangents to curves, and solving triangles using pi (and trigonometry), we can build very exact jigs, fixtures, and tools to make parts that meet in space, surface to surface, glue-line tight. I love pi.

This week, I was designing a curved bench for a patron. To find the number of slats in this drawing, I used pi to find the length of the arc described by the intersection of the seat and back slats — a simple use of the formula: circumference = pi times diameter. The drawings are handy enough to post here.

End elevation of bench

Section -- center of all benches

Plan view of curved benchPi calculations for curved bench

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Conference Room Furniture

The West Texas Rehabilitation Center provides a range of health care services and have since 1956. The mission of this non-profit “is to improve the quality of life of those we serve regardless of financial circumstances.” Over the last decade, we have given several rocking chairs for the annual fundraising auction. They are building a new headquarters in San Angelo. A member of the staff asked us to make a proposal for the furniture of the conference room. He gave us a floor plan drawing showing a 12 foot long, boat-shaped conference table, two buffets, and a wall of base cabinets with book cases above.   In addition, seating for 14 is needed. Mesquite is the wood of choice — for it is the tree, the scourge, and sometimes the delight of West Texas.

The budget is limited. WTRC is dedicated to spending for service, not administration. We can give and we will. But our best and their most dictated fewer pieces and a few compromises to features. The wood will be a mix of mesquite and red oak. (Red oak grows around too.) We won’t be building the mesquite, red oak, and leather rolling office chairs I sketched, only a couple of side chairs for overflow. The wall of cabinets will be simpler. The table will be simpler than our original notion as well. But that table will be the centerpiece of their organization and a challenge for this one.

Drawings made for the proposal:

conference room floor plan

conference table elevation

conference room bookshelf elevation

conference room buffet

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The New Website

Our website presents our work to the world. Most of our patrons find us in a websearch. We built a website early, 1998 or so.   Jim Fish, able webmaster, has managed it since 2000. We have made changes to its structure from time to time and have added to it continuously. We were still hearing compliments on the site, and it was working well enough, but by the beginning of 2014, it needed a major remodeling.

As I dug into the site, it began to remind me of a 100 year old farm house that had been added on to ten times by farmers of varying ability. It was necessary to tear down most of it and begin at the foundation. Here we had a choice to make: Should we continue to build a site from “scratch” using HTML code or should we use a template/content management system, as most sites are now using. We chose to stay with HTML — the more laborious method, but the method that permits a wider latitude of graphic control and, we hope therefore, enables an individual and distinctive presentation.

Simpler navigation, new categorization of products, consistent elements, more and better photos, clearer text — these were the goals. The tasks were myriad. I found that much of the tailoring of the presentation required an analysis of the business: its priorities, costs, and organization. New photos had to be taken and the photo archive had to be excavated, culled, and ordered. More than the site has been refreshed.

I wrote sentences, edited photos, and chose other elements to send to Jim with suggestions for placement. A quick count shows 517 emails, 97 word documents, and 600+ photo files sent to him from June 9 to December 26–the time it took. We also talked on the phone almost daily.

2014 remodel folder

This is a photo of Jim’s file of notes taken from email, word doc, and phone.

The process generated the thought that a two page, print friendly, catalog sheet of each product would serve the clientele well. And then I realized that these sheets will be our catalog of the future — easily maintained and changed. We have printed several versions of catalogs over the years, catalogs that were very nice in your hand, but shortly after ink hits paper one sees something to change — now we can.

The site at launch was 230 pages with 1,278 photo and 81 graphic files. Please have a look. (Note: if you have been to a page on the site recently, you may have to click your refresh button to see the latest version.)

The new homepage

The new homepage.

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Designing a Ladderback Dining Chair

While we were working on our upholstered chair design, (a long and involved process, see previous post), Austin noticed the obvious: We could relatively quickly design a ladderback dining chair as a variation of the chairs we have already developed. That is: Knowing the curving plane that is comfortable to and supportive of one’s back, we could find an arrangement of horizontal pieces (the ladder), use our existing seat, and have a comfortable chair with a new look. Looking at various arrangements, we were pleased at the support and comfort that these pieces could provide. But we could not quickly decide what would look the best. So we are posting the photos below (here and to Facebook) and asking for comments. We have never asked for comments before and don’t know if it is proper, but it may be a way to obtain the results one would get from a focus group.

The photos are cell phone snapshots of rough mockups, so imagination is required.

Which of the chairbacks below is most appealing to you?

Do you have any comments, general or specific?

Ladderback chair designs#1                                                   #2                                                     #3

Ladderback chair designs 2#4                                                      #5

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Designing an Upholstered Dining Chair, Part One

The last addition to our catalog of dining furniture was the Heflin Barstool.  We developed it in response to requests for a barstool with a back — designed and built to our standards of comfort, style, and durability.  It has been proven.  On the website, there is a page describing its genesis:  www.garyweeks.com/designing_bar_stool/htm.

The way we do it, the design and development of a chair require a very large investment of heart and mind, time and money.  To make that investment, we must perceive a need and receive an inspiration.  It’s not all toil; it’s some fun.

We are now responding to a new category of comments and requests, for example:  “Do you have an upholstered seat dining chair?”  “We need color in our dining room.”  “Wooden chairs are kitchen chairs and upholstered chairs are dining room chairs.”

We have an idea, and we are designing an upholstered dining chair.

We have studied upholstered chairs, researched the literature, queried others in the trade, and experimented with materials and arrangements.

First, we had to choose the category of seat to develop.

Will the upholstery be on a panel that sits on the finished wood chair frame, will it be on a panel that drops into the chair frame, or will it be directly attached to the finished chair?  We chose to design a chair with a drop-in, upholstered seat, where the upholstery is an integral part of the sculpture.

Knowing the category of seat, we were ready to test.  We built a “fitting booth.”  The fitting booth has adjustments for the pitch of the elements and for the relationship of the upholstered seat to the lumbar support.  Since we are using our proven lumbar and upper back support, we have not had to develop those curves and surfaces, a big plus.

Chair Fitting Booth

Upholstery being a new medium for us, the fitting booth has been in the shop for months. Many friends and visitors have helped us find the way.

A fitting booth trial

Another fitting trial

Another fitting trial

How do we keep flesh from being compressed between bone and the wood of the upholstery frame without using so much cushioning that you feel “perched on top, rather than settled into?”  (This is a quote from a perceptive client helping us test.)

Concurrent with testing webbing and foam, we developed the upholstery frame shown below.  Note the sculpted relief and imagine the “settling into.”  There is relief at the front for your thighs.  There is relief at the back to locate your hipbones so that your lumbar is supported by the chair splats and to make room between bone and wood.

Upholstered Seat Frame

For the webbing over the frame and under the cushioning, what is the best material?  What is the best spacing and tension for it?

We ordered samples of webbing with different widths and flexibility and tried different spacing and tension.  In the photo on the left below, I am applying some webbing.  In the photo on the right, I am tearing out some webbing.  We could have taken many such photos.

Experiments With Webbing

What is the best density and thickness of foam for the cushion?

Again, we ordered samples.  We ordered various densities and thicknesses and tested them with different webbings.

Fitting Booth

I rigged up a way to test the difference in compression of latex and polyurethane foam with wood scrap and a bucket of bolts.

Testing Foam Seat Padding

Here is the booth with some of the materials we used for testing and some failed upholstered seats.

Fitting Booth

The typical upholstered frame used today is a piece of plywood with a hole cut in it and webbing over it.  We tried one of those early on, knowing it was not going to work, for when sitting back in such chairs, your tailbone is right over wood at the edge of the hole cut for the webbing.  In the top photo below, you can see the point of contact at the tip of Austin’s finger.  In the lower photo below, you can see the relief for tailbones that we have formed on our seat frame.  Sitting back in our chairs is essential to experience the comfort of the lumbar support, and they are designed to locate your hips and tailbone deep in the chair seat.

Unrelieved Seat Frame

Relieved Seat Frame

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Pecan Rockers Again?

In 1992, as I was designing the Weeks Rocker, I was considering what wood to build it out of.  Pecan appealed to me because I have spent many days under the trees, it is the state tree of Texas, and I thought chairs of it would appeal to my Texas clientele.  This was before the internet gave us a world-wide clientele.

Pecan is hard, strong, and tough.  Its heartwood can be a very lovely and variegated red-brown.  Pecan is difficult to dry without cracks and shrinks and swells more than most furniture woods.  The sapwood can be a very bland white.  There is much more sapwood than heartwood.  Most of the pecan lumber in the primary commercial channels is actually hickory.  Hardwood lumber rules allow them to be sold together.

For many years, I made rockers of pecan that were mostly of the red-brown heartwood with some creamy white sapwood carefully matched into the compositions.  I used exclusively pecan, no hickory, some from Texas, and some from Mississippi.  In Texas, supply was sporadic from small mills with often questionable drying and grading abilities.  The lumber from Anderson Tully in Vicksburg, Mississippi, a venerable mill with impeccable practices, was delivered dry and flat to a specification of 80% heart on the best face.

Early on, maybe 1993, we joined the Wimberley Chamber of Commerce.  Some folks came out for a ribbon cutting.

Ribbon Cutting

Overtime, I despaired of using Texas pecan because of the poor color selection, the poor drying performance of the mills, the presence of powderpost beetles in a couple of loads, etc.  One day, Anderson Tulley quit milling pecan in 2” thickness.

People still ask for pecan rockers from time to time.

Last week, Austin and I visited Swift Pecans.  Troy Swift harvests pecans, the nuts.  He has begun harvesting the trees that die along the San Marcos River.  We might be able to specify, and obtain, what we need for making some rockers from Troy.  There are still problems and inconveniences not present in cherry or walnut that I don’t miss, but we brought home a slab of pecan.  It might make two rocking chairs.

Pecan Slab

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Shoes to Fill

Aaron Jones came to work with us when we were building the shop and showroom, almost 14 years ago. He stayed on. He came as a carpenter’s helper and became one of the best craftsmen and leaders of production I have seen. He saved his money and bought 35 acres with a house and barn on the Sixes River in Oregon. He moved last week. We wish him well in this adventure, look forward to fishing the Sixes, and miss him badly already.

Aaron sawingAaron sawing

Aaron at work

Aaron at work 2

Aaron at work 3

Aaron at work 4

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A Batch of Mesquite Rocker Back Legs

Mesquite trees do not grow straight or tall. They tend to make multiple trunks and to make branches low to the ground.  They twist. Most mesquite trunks of 12″ in diameter or more have many radial cracks, i.e. cracks from the heart of the tree to near the sapwood.   Other cracks appear randomly. Knots and other defects are numerous. The grain runs in wild directions.

Therefore, it is difficult to find and produce sound and beautiful parts from cuts of mesquite wood. I would not use the term “lumber” for cuts of mesquite wood for “lumber” implies a structural integrity to the piece. We must search for a few parts in a sea of waste.

Recently, we received some mesquite wood that had been selected for us by the sawmill from a large volume of wood. At the mill, they used our patterns to find backlegs, but they did not understand our specifications and how strictly we adhere to our specifications. Hoping against certainty, we marked and milled this wood.

Austin re-marking backlegs — on a shipping day.

Austin re-marking backlegs

We sorted the legs that we developed into three categories, with the worst face up.

  • Top: Firewood
  • Center: Let us look again and maybe…
  • Bottom: We can use these.

Legs sorted

Firewood

Firewood

Looking again . . . These are firewood.

Firewood too

We can use four of twenty-four.

Four we can use

This was an unusually poor yield, but it is illustrative of the amount of waste and the rarity of good, sound mesquite worthy of fine chairs. The mill went through another mountain of wood and sent some better rough blanks. The backlegs that meet specification are in the kiln.

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Taking Photos of Rocker Making

We build rocking chairs in small batches, or runs, of 8-12, usually of the same species.  We are “running” walnut rockers now and taking photographs of the process.  Some of these photos will appear on this shoplog, some on the website, some in the catalog, some may be submitted for press of some sort, and some will molder in their digital shoe box.

A run of rockers usually takes 8-10 workdays to get ready to assemble, but the photography is drastically slowing us down.  The chairs have been underway for 8 days now, and we are about halfway.  It takes a while to decide what needs taking, choose the angle (figurative and literal), get the light right, remove the clutter, and find the depth of field and exposure — and then, and yet to come, the editing of hundreds down to … fifty?

Cell phone photos of taking photos:

taking photos 1

taking photos 2

taking photos 3

taking photos 4

taking photos 5

taking photos 6

taking photos 7

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Assembling a Standup Desk

We are building a small standup desk for a patron who found the new desk section of the website: http://www.garyweeks.com/desks.htm.

Gary Weeks Standup Desk

The frame of the desk was assembled in two days.  On the first, the two sides were glued.  This post features photos taken on the second day of assembly.

Assembling the Front and Back Rails to One Side Frame

glue up a desk

assembling a standup desk 1

assembling a standup desk 2

assembling a standup desk 3

Adding the Other Side Frame

assembling a standup desk 4

assembling a standup desk 5

assembling a standup desk 6

assembling a standup desk 7

assembling a standup desk 8

Clamping

assembling a standup desk 9

assembling a standup desk 10 assembling a standup desk 11

Driving the Wedges and Pins

The through tenons are wedged.  The blind tenons are cross-pinned.

assembling a standup desk 12

assembling a standup desk 13

assembling a standup desk 14

assembling a standup desk 15

assembling a standup desk 16

Washing the Glue from the Surface

We keep a bucket of water with a rag and old toothbrushes to scrub away the squeezed out glue.

assembling a standup desk 17

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A Fine Woodworker in France

In Semur-en-Auxois, Burgundy, France, I asked if there were any furnituremakers in town.  I was directed to the shop of Christian Boisseau.  He was just the man to see — competent, successful, and friendly.  I spent about an hour and a half with him in two visits.

(left) Christian with a door for a church restoration.  Note the molded and carved panel.Christian Boisseau(right) Christian with a set of patterns from a desk he built for his daughter.

Christian and his two employees build doors, cabinets, interior elements, and furniture, and restore such items. They integrate moldings, carvings, inlay, and marquetry in their work.  Everything is made to order.  By chance, they built the staircase in the house we had rented for the week.  The name of his business is le Meuble dans tous ses Etats (Furniture in all its Forms).  The website is http://www.lemeubledanstoussesetats.com/.  Have a look at the desk (patterns shown above), and its marquetry, on this home page.

In France, as in the US, fine woodworking is a demanding, and tough, business.  I told Christian that I couldn’t make it as a custom builder.  I don’t have the temperament; I tired of working all the time; and the margins are too slim.  I am glad to have a small catalog of items to build (and demand for them).  He said he could understand the appeal of that, but in his shop, they never build the same thing twice.  Knowing the demands of that and seeing the level of production in progress, I asked when he slept.  He often gets up at three or four.  Coincidentally, a friend and client dropped in to say, “He works all the time.”

The shop is about 3000 square feet and fully equipped with good machinery — very good, well-made machinery.  “Fully” equipped in two senses: they have what they need, and the building can hold no more.

The front of the shop.  They were enclosing the section to the left to place another machine.Front of shop

Shop interior

Shop interior

Shop machinery

They use a lot of recycled French oak.  French oak is fine.  French oak from 100 years ago is marvelous

The lumber storage was rudimentary and open to the damp Burgundy air, but they have an Italian made vacuum kiln.  Christian said the kiln would bring the moisture content of wood that had sat out or in the shed for months from 25% to 7% in four days.  My experience with vacuum kilns (Woodmizer) has not been good, but this machine was clearly well-designed, clearly well-made, and highly praised by its owner.  It made his work possible.  My photo of it turned out badly.

The lumber shed and stacks of wood.Lumber storage

Lumber storage

I asked Christian if he drew his designs to make proposals, and he brought out a big stack of drawings–beautiful, perspective drawings with line, shading, and color.  It was an impressive moment.  I remain impressed with the quality, clarity, and conception of these drawings.  I believe the drawings, and the perception and commitment illustrated by them, are key to his success.

Design drawing

Design drawing 2

Design drawing 3

Design drawing 4

I commented that there were no dimensions on the drawings and asked if he used full-size sticks or paper to develop dimensions and parts lists.  He does.  He had taped some paper to a bench and was working out the details of a piece, full scale.  Just as we do for our casegoods.

Paper design

Paper designChristian Boisseau and his wife.

Cabinetmaking and furnituremaking have historically been highly developed in France (with an apogee in the 16th and 17th centuries.  It was a pleasure to find that these skills still exist at a high level.  I could sense tradition and continuity.  It was a pleasure to find such a person.  I could sense character and judgement.

“Enfant, j’ai grandi dans les copeaux de bois que mon père faisait au cours de ses réalisations. Peu à peu, j’ai appris que le beau meuble vient en y mettant toutes ses convictions, toutes ses trippes. J’ai pris le temps de regarder les réalisations de mes pairs et j’ai finalement eu cette passion du beau meuble capable de traverser les âges.

J’aime écouter mes clients pour dessiner leur rêve et concrétiser une idée. Je dessine, puis je réalise les meubles à la mesure dans la tradition et dans le respect d’une qualité d’antan.”

Christian Boisseau

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Copyrights to Photos of Furniture

At our recent demonstration at the Texas State History Museum, a woodworker who had visited our shop came up and said, “They are selling birthday cards at Target with a picture of your rocking chair on them.  Did you know it?”  I didn’t.  He said he would buy one on his way home and mail it to me.  He did.  They were.

Rocking chair birthday card

Rocking chair birthday card - inside

Andrew McMeel is a publishing company of some size — big enough to publish Calvin and Hobbs.  It seems that they publish the majority of their humorous greeting cards under the Zero Gravity brand.

I was flattered and flustered.  Should I be outraged?  The photo is the one of a walnut rocker that I took and used on the prices and shipping dates page of the website.  Is this “harvesting” of photos from the internet standard practice for what seems to be an established company selling to Target?

I called Zero Gravity and was directed to the voicemail of the Art Department.  I called Andrew McMeel Publishing and was directed to the voicemail of the Rights Department.  I still wait to talk to someone.

I called a couple of copyright attorneys.  They called me back.  I am grateful.  It seems that, yes, I have an inherent copyright to my photo, but that true protection and legal action require that each photo be registered with the U.S Copyright Office . . . for $30.  And yes, Zero Gravity,  Andrew McMeel Publishing, and Target will respond to a letter from an attorney threatening action in Federal District Court.

I don’t want action in Federal District Court . . . or cascading invoices for billable hours.  It would have been nice to read “Rocker by Weeks Furnituremakers” in small print on the back of the card . . . I think I’ll just be flattered and go on.

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Plumbing in the Woodshop

Leslie Weeks’ father and grandfather were plumbers.  I inherited their tools.  They have been well used.

In June of 2008, we installed  (finally) a compressed air system.  We had a small job-site compressor to perform a few tasks, but it was completely inadequate to drive pneumatic sanders.  We had built many, many pieces of furniture, and sculpted many chairs, with electric random orbit sanders, knowing that pneumatic sanders would save time — and wrists, but we were daunted by the cash investment and the time required to put an excellent, trouble-free  (and moisture-free) “utility” in place.

This earlier post shows installing the compressor and addresses how important it has become.

https://garyweeks.wordpress.com/2013/02/25/compressed-air-utility/

At the original installation, we built a loop of 1″ iron pipe around the shop with drops to various stations and machines.  Things change.  We moved the pump sander and designed and built a pneumatic control valve for its dust ports, so we had to add a drop.  Giving thanks for pipe unions and family heirloom cutters, threaders, and wrenches, Austin cut the main loop and added the drop.  His grandfather and great-grandfather would be well pleased.

Plumbing in the woodshopPlumbing in the woodshop

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Edge Banding Plywood

We use a little plywood.  We build machine housings, dust hood, jigs, fixtures, cabinets, and shelving for the shop and office, and from time to time, we build cabinets and shelving for ourselves or the public.

We stock several sheets of the best domestic, 3/4″ maple, veneer core plywood that we can find.  My opinion of plywood imported from Asia cannot be written here.  We mill and store a supply of 1/4″ x 25/32″ x 96″ maple edge banding.  If we are building something with many parts of similar width, we rip the plywood and band the edge or edges of each ripping before crosscutting.  For other projects, we cut panels to size and band one or more edges.

We apply glue to the edge of the plywood and secure a banding with masking tape.  With the right technique, you can obtain good speed and pressure.  After the glue dries, these bands are stuck tight.  They must be sawn off to remove.  The panel can be cut or milled without the possibility of hitting a fastener.

Edge banding plywood

Best to leave a corner of tape loose, so you can peel it off easier.

Leave a loose corner for tapr removal

After removing the tape, we sand the band level with the panel on the stroke sander.

sanding level with stroke sander

The new dust hood for the edge sander (in progress in this photo) has parts made of edge banded maple plywood.

Edge sander dust hood

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The Tenoning Jig

(see the Otwell Side Table post of March 25, 2011)

We use a Delta Tenoning Jig to cut the cheeks on most of our tenons.  This tool from the 1980’s is well-made, stable, safe, and easy to precisely adjust.  I hope the new ones are made so well.

After cutting the tenon shoulders on the crosscut table saw, we set the jig to cut the cheeks–thus defining the thickness of the tenon and the fit into the mortise.  Note that the jig indexes off of  opposite faces of the rail, therefore if the thickness of the parts in a run are different, the thickness of the tenons vary, and not all tenons will sweetly fit.  We do our final dimensioning on our wide belt sander, not the planer.  We keep our wide belt sander finely tuned, so that, end to end, side to side, and part to part, the variation in thickness is less than .005.

Tenoning jig

Test fitting is crucial to find that sweet fit that requires just a little clamping pressure to assemble.

Test fitting a tenon joint

Once set, the jig allows us to cut the cheeks of the tenons quickly and consistently accurate.

Cut tenons ready for assembly

The rails of our Otwell Table, and some of our other tables, are joined to the legs by through tenons that must be offset, high and low.  We set the fence on the bandsaw to notch the tenon for the offset.

Offset tenons

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A New Office Desk for the Catalog

We have built many writing desks and several stand-up desks as custom items.  Recently, we took commissions for a writing desk and an “office” desk.  They turned out so well that we realized that it is time to add a desk section to the catalog.  We offer a writing desk, a stand-up desk, and the office desk featured in this post.  Each of these desks has been designed to our standards of construction, visual appeal, unity, and utility.  The wood, dimensions, and features of each of these designs can be specified by the patron.

Design

To design a desk, or other item not a chair, I make small scale drawings at the drawing board to establish proportion, balance, and harmony.  While making these sketches, I make full scale drawings of construction details to solve the problems that arise when building the piece in my head.

Paul's desk

Layout

Studying the sketch and detail drawings, we make a layout stick.  On one face of the stick, we draw, full scale, all the horizontal lines apparent or critical to the elevation.  On another, we draw all the vertical lines of the front view.  On the third face of the stick, we draw the lines relevant to the depth.   On the fourth, we draw the lines of the back.

desk layout

After the piece is built, we will be able to hold the layout stick up to it and see that the lines on the stick fall right on the openings, intersections, and thicknesses of the piece and parts.  By studying the drawings and the lines on the stick, we can list all the parts.  Measuring line to line on the stick, we write the dimensions of the parts on the list.  This method of measuring actual desired distances to develop a cut list almost eliminates errors by eliminating assumptions and calculations.

creating the desk parts list

Beyond dimension, each part has individual requirements of prominence, coherence, and structural integrity.  These requirements emanate from who we are as makers; they are applied to every design, piece, and part.  Reviewing the sketch, we know which parts look and function best if cut from edge grain and which from flat grain.  We know which parts benefit from interesting figure; we know how to relate the grain and figure of a part to that of its relatives.  We know how different orientations of wood grain respond to loads.  Taking what we know to the lumber, we mark each part, or family of parts, on the boards.  This work is “design,” too.

selecting parts for desk

Making Parts

Starting at our shop-built, straight line machine, we cut the parts oversize and organize them.

cutting desk partsUsing our jointer, planer, ripping tablesaw, crosscutting tablesaw, and wide belt sander, we bring the parts to precise dimensions: thickness, width, and length.

refining desk partsUsing the tablesaws and shaper, we tenon and profile.

tenon and profile desk partsMost of our mortises, dados, rabbets, etc. are made with a plunge router and fixtures.

plunge router mortisingThis desk goes in an office overlooking the capital of Texas.  Its patron requested a Lone Star be inlaid in the back panel.

star inlay for desk

star inlay for desk

Sub Assemblies

Sections of the desk were put together as sub-assemblies.  Once together these units usually require further shaping or sanding before joining a subsequent sub-assembly or the final piece

The drawer rail is cut apart and put back together to make a precise opening for the pencil drawer.

desk drawer railThe top is glued-up for sanding to level and edge profiling.

gluing up desk top

gluing up desk topIn all frame-and-panel construction, we prefinish the panels to be sure they can float in the panel groove without revealing raw wood.  The sides and backs are glued-up oversize.

gluing up desk panels

gluing up desk panelsTenons are cut on the sides and backs to fit mortises in the legs, and the sides are glued to the legs.

mortise and tenons on desk parts

desk sub assembly

desk sub assembly

The drawer stack sections are particularly demanding to put together.

assembling desk drawer stack sections

assembling desk drawer stack sections

assembling desk drawer stack sections

Assembled

desk assembled

desk assembled

desk assembled detail

Finishing

finishing desk

finishing desk

Finished

office desk drawer sideoffice desk inlay side

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Cutting Round Tenons on Chair Legs

Gary Weeks chairs

The tenons on the front legs of our wood seat dining chairs come through the seat and are wedged — making the attractive and obviously strong “through-wedged mortise-and-tenon joint.”

through-wedged mortise_and_tenon joint

The front legs of our chairs intersect the seat at an angle so the tenons and their shoulders are not parallel to the axis of the leg.  We cut the blank oversize so we can cut the angling and tapering leg out of it — but that is another story.  This is a story about cutting round tenons with square shoulders in a small shop.

Chair front legs

We have three Newton, two spindle, horizontal boring machines made in Temple, Texas until about twenty years ago.  The machines were well-designed and well-built for making doweled face frames and other joints,  but “pocket screw” technology and foreign competition eliminated their market, and they closed — also another story.  Notice the foot pedals on these machines at one end of the shop.

Newton machine foot pedals

One of these machines we have adapted to run a tenon cutter.  The adaption entailed, among other things, changing sheaves to turn the cutter at its optimal speed — much slower than boring bits and the Newtons were designed for.  As is common to most of our machines, we built fixtures to hold the various parts.

After producing the leg blanks to true dimension, we cut slightly oversize square tenons on them at the tablesaw, thereby reducing the wood that the tenon cutter must remove and creating square shoulders to fit against the seat bottoms.  In the photo below, you can see a “run” of legs, some show the square tenon (before), some show the round (after).

Tenon making "leg" run

Will uses his leg muscles to maintain the proper feed rate of square tenon into round cutter — concentration and control are required.  Feed too slow and the wood burns and the cutter dulls; feed too fast and the machine stalls or the tenon is not accurate in diameter.

Cutting round tenons

Posted in Barstools, Dining Chairs, Machines, Rocking Chairs | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Photographing Furniture on a Backdrop

I have rarely been satisfied with the photographs of our furniture.  We try to capture the sculptural form and wood figure of the individual pieces isolated on a backdrop, and we try to capture the “presence” and utility of the furniture by shooting pieces or sets in a setting.  In the beginning, I hired acclaimed professionals, paying lots of money for mediocre results.  This motivated me to buy some equipment and do it myself.  For the last ten or twelve years, I have accepted my own work — accepted, though aware of the weaknesses.

This week, I broke through from reluctant acceptance to a certain satisfaction — and with some more practice and development, I might reach pride.  The breakthroughs came in lighting the piece and lighting the backdrop in a studio shoot of a Mitchell Trestle Table.

As before, I set up a “studio” in the living room, moving the furniture to the corners, hanging a backdrop from a long, wooden light fixture, and placing the flash stands.  I like the look of the furniture against a white backdrop, but this complicates things, gray or a color would be easier.  It is hard to keep that backdrop white in the photo.  Light bouncing off the furniture onto the backdrop will tint it — cherry tints pink, walnut tints lavender.  To cover the tint, it is necessary to overexpose the backdrop by adding a backlight flash or two.  Enough light to overexpose the backdrop will bounce back across the furniture, erasing the wood figure in areas and “wrapping around” to highlight the edges.  I have “accepted” a degree of tint in the backdrops and some wrapping around of the edges, and probably always will, but we figured out how to reduce both.

Another major hurdle is lighting the piece.  Furniture has nooks and crannies.  It is easy to get too much light in places and make “hot spots” and not get enough light in the shadows to show the wood.  Again, we figured out how to reduce both.

This is the first photo I took as a test.  As we had done many times, we set a flash on a side to “wash” the backdrop, a main flash for general exposure, and a subsidiary flash to light the shadows.  You can see pink in the backdrop and the almost loss of figure in the tabletop.  There are a number of photos on the website and in the catalog with these defects.

Photographing furniture -- initial photo

In preparation for this shoot, we painted some cardboard sheets flat black.  The next photos show the effects of holding the cardboard behind the table and lowering it to baffle the light.  The location of the backlight is different in these photos also.  We hung it flat against the backdrop aiming down.  You can see that the “glass-top” look has been eliminated, but there is not enough light on the top to show the wood.

Photographing furniture - lighting experiments

So we worked with the main and the subsidiary lights.  We raised the main light and lowered the subsidiary, bouncing light from it off a reflector on the floor.  Another innovation: we hung a parachute cloth diffuser all along the right side of the table and backdrop instead of using a softbox as before.  This reduced hot spots and made a more even and pleasing light, without flattening the piece.  I have found that if the light is too soft, it removes dimension and any dramatic effect.  This photo is getting there.  It needs, among other light improvements, a cropping and the digital recreation of white above the table.

Photographing furniture - almost there

Changing to a wide-angle lens, I took a picture of the set-up.  You can see the parachute cloth to the right.  The main light is about 3 feet behind it and six feet high.

Photographing furniture - final

Notes:  The camera is a Canon Rebel xsi.  There is a ring flash on the camera at the tripod. The exposure is ISO100, F8 at 1/250.  The lens is a prime 50, 1:1.4; I can see distortion in even the very best zoom lens.  Furniture is architecture; the lines are important.  The lights are Alien Bees.  Seeing these results, we are going to build three sturdy, flat black panels (1/8” plywood laminated to a each side of a frame) that can support themselves in various ways.  I ordered another light to go behind the baffles.

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