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Top 5 “Wooden experiences” in France

Kat and I just returned from France—spent one week biking through Normandy, visiting many World War II battle sites and memorials, then another week taking in the aura, museums, vibe and foods of Paris.

I always keep my eyes wide open for extraordinary uses of wood. Here are five cool things I found:

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We visited Eglise St-Catherine church built in the 15th century—one of the largest wooden churches in the world. Legend has it that masons were in short supply, so the townspeople, primarily shipbuilders, used their boat-building skills to craft a magnificent church. Weird twist: The bell tower is a separate structure perched on the ground—built that way, perhaps, for fire prevention.

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We visited Pegasus Bridge. Seizing it from the Germans was one of the first objectives on D-Day. Six Horsa gliders, made almost entirely from wood and plywood, carried 180 men to the site at midnight; some landing within 50 yards of the target. The mission was a success. Visiting sites like this gives one great appreciation for the troops that put it ALL on the line.

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We biked to a rural chateau that had been in the same family for 250 years. One of the primary products of the area is Calvados—a distilled liquor made from apples. It packs a wallop and every restaurant in the area provides a complimentary glass of the stuff after each meal (except breakfast.) This is the large “smashing” wheel used to crush the apples; goat powered.

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At the D’Orsay Museum I encounter this “chaise” crafted by Arthur Simpson in the early 1900s. The lines and design are so graceful and fluid I wanted to sit in it—but the guards had other ideas. This may be the inspiration I need for my next woodworking project.

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In the D’Orsay Decorative Arts section I also encountered this whimsical nightstand that incorporates mice in various positions of frolic as the drawer pulls. It’s magnificently crafted—and a joy to know woodworkers of all eras have had a sense of humor.

 

THE BIRTH OF A BOOKCASE (actually 4 of them)

I was asked to build a memorial bookcase for the Stillwater Library in memory of a long time library lover—Mabel Linquist. The mission was to design something to display new fiction books in the original rotunda area of the 1905 Carnegie Library. I began doodling—and my pencil kept drawing round things (hey, it’s a rotunda!) Another goal was to have the bookcase(s) flexible and movable. I began doodling with the idea of four “quarter slices” of a circle. As I circled in, I wound up with the preliminary design (below.)

 

4 bookcases

I ran the sketches by the folks at the library and all seemed to think it was worth pursuing. I built little foam core models to begin with, then went ahead with a full size mock up as shown below1) bookcase 3:4 viewIt seemed like a historical library needed bookcases with some history to them. So Librarian Carolyn Blocher and I rummaged through some old storage rooms and found two really cool possibilities: 1) Some shelves from the original 1895  library (Stillwater’s first) and 2) some cast iron brackets also from the original library. I goofed around with the shelves (turns out they were yellow poplar) and realized they might make the perfect raised panels for the sides. The brackets could become “back rests” for the books on top. It also seemed, since Stillwater was founded on white pine, that using that wood would be cool. I contacted Conrad at Forest Product Supply and discovered he had some slabs of white pine from a tree in Marine that had been downed in a storm. That’s be a good top, eh. So I went at itDSC_0891 I wound up bending wood every which way: Cutting curves, laminating thin pieces to make curves, and just outright bending stuff to make it curve. Twas a labor of love: Love of books, love of woodworking, love of the idea of a memorial bookcase.DSC_0882

A few weeks ago we installed them. And here’s how they look. The plaque below also gives a rundown of what the bookcases are made from.IMG_4310

The plaque:

1) Mabel plaque

Go check them out, while you’re visiting the library, checking out books. (One of the bookcases even has a magnetic panel with magnetized cars and animals that kids can play with while their folks are browsing the fiction area.

 

What makes a chair a chair?

Kat and I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC a few days ago and wound up in a trance-like state wandering through the “Decorative Arts” section of the museum. There we began encountering chairs of every race, color and creed.

 
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Chairs made from carpet pad, plastic, metal and, of course wood. Chairs exhibited next to Dyson vacuum cleaners and beside royal desks.

 
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Chairs you could never fall asleep in and chairs that make you never want to get up.

 
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Chairs that are one-of-a-kind and chairs that are mass-produced by the millions.

Statistics maintain the average person spends 423 minutes per day (slightly over 7 hours) sitting (this does not include sleeping). Comfort hasn’t always been a priority; in fact in “Home: A Short History of an Idea” Witold Rybczynski points out that, not just the word “comfort” but, the very concept of comfort didn’t evolve until the 18th century.

 

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So the question might be posed not as “what’s in your wallet” but rather, “what’s under your wallet.” What do you spend your 7 hours a day perched upon?

An Off-Beat, Off-Center Sort of Turner

Six times a year I write the “Great American Woodworker” profile for American Woodworker magazine—which means six times a year I get to interview some outrageously gifted and unique woodworker.

Mark Sfirri's "Rejects from the Bat Factory"

Mark Sfirri’s “Rejects from the Bat Factory”

The Feb/March issue of AW features the work of Mark Sfirri; a woodturner who has perfected multi-axis turning. Here’s the man and his work (and play).

Mark Sfirri

Mark Sfirri

Here’s an excerpt from the article.

While some of Mark’s pieces are meticulously planned, others are simply inspired. After turning a baseball bat for his son, for example, Mark began thinking about its elegant form and perfect engineering; about how every part-from the knob on the end through the slender handle to the meat of the barrel-was built for pure function. “I began thinking about what a perfect blank canvas this would be for multi-axis turning,” he says. Rejects From the Bat Factory has become one of Mark’s signature works. His rejected bats are tied in knots, double handled, curved, cut in half and comically indented. Mark’s brightly painted, cartoon-like food cans and containers combine the best of Andy Warhol and Popeye. His inspiration for them came during a teaching jaunt to France, where he became intrigued with container shapes and how to animate them while trying to decipher the labels. You gotta love a guy who creates a can of Fromage Wiz. Humor is a serious part of Mark’s work. “But, it’s not like I’m laughing the whole time I’m making things,” he says. “Creating the illusion is a very measured process.”

A hall table of an unusual bent
A hall table of an unusual bent
From Sfirri's lathe (and wild imagination)
From Sfirri’s lathe (and wild imagination)
Madonna and Child
Madonna and Child

 

 

Firewood stacking for creative people (or those with too much time on their hands)

A friend of mine sent me some photos that the 10-degree below zero temperatures inspired me to share.

Sort of a HOOT!

Sort of a HOOT!

Timbered timber

Timbered timber

Why not?

Why not?

Doing it inside makes so much more sense

Doing it inside makes so much more sense

Stay warm everyone!

Stay warm everyone!

 

 

 

 

Windsor chairs and backwoods bodgers

I spent part of last weekend at a delightfully old house (Arcola Mills), watching a pair of delightful young-at-heart men (Jim and Mike) build the parts to a delightfully old piece of furniture (a Windsor chair) using delightfully old tools and techniques (riving tools, draw knives and shaving horses.)

mike windsor chair
The morning was full of one-line zingers that stuck in my brain. One was, “If you want to be a woodworker, you first have to be a metalworker,” referring to the notion that you need to have sharp plane blades, chisels and other tools to get any woodworking done.

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Another great line came after Jim and Mike used a riving tool and shaving horse to rough out a chair spindle. “Yep, after a day of doing that, people didn’t head to the gym.”

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Another interesting notion was proposed: When folks moved from the old country to the new country they were usually allowed one chest to bring on the boat. Given the sparseness of space, and the necessity of tools most people just brought the metal parts of their tools with them. The handles, plane bodies and other wooden parts were crafted upon arrival. The main thrust of the day was cranking out parts for a Windsor Chair. Spindles were crafted, legs were turned and hoop for chair backs bent. While turning legs Mike began musing about “bodgers.” There were a unique breed of men that turned chair legs for chair builders. Rather than hauling wood into a shop, then over to the chair makers, they found it more efficient to simply set up shop in the woods. They had their pole lathes, riving tools and planes in the great outdoors. It wasn’t unusual for a bodger to crank out a gross (144) parts in a day. No need for the gym indeed.

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Bending the hoop back was another highlight. Jim had a steamer concocted of PVC pipe, tubing, an old gas can and a propane burner.

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After steaming the wood for 15 to 20 minutes, Mike and Jim bent the back over a form. I won’t way their motions were like those of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, but-given the 30 seconds they had to get the hoop out of the steamer and into the mold-moved in exact harmony to get the job done.

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It was a thing of beauty-both in the making and in the final product.

bend complete

For more information about Mike’s woodworking school, visit schoolofwood.com. For more information about Arcola Mill, visit arcolamills.org.

Roaming the Roman and Ancient Worlds

Kat and I are back from a four week-long vacation: We spent one week in London, one week in Rome, one week sailing the Isles of the Aegean Sea and one week recovering from jet lag and reverse culture shock. I’m just emerging.

A confessional from a church in Rome: Extraordinary craftsmanship using hand tools

A confessional from a church in Rome: Extraordinary craftsmanship using hand tools

Traveling is one of those activities where there’s a lot of Yin and Yang (which, by the way, translates from the Chinese words “shadow” and “light.”) It’s both invigorating and exhausting. It’s relaxing and tension-filled —like when you think you’re stranded in Istanbul. It’s good to get a break from the day-to-day routine, yet you realize you sort of like that routine. Sometimes being immersed in other cultures make you think the American Dream isn’t all the dreamy, while other times you feel there is truly no place like home.

Salvaged from an ancient shipwreck, these clay amphoras were designed to cleverly stack in the curved hull of a boat

Salvaged from an ancient shipwreck, these clay amphoras were designed to cleverly stack in the curved hull of a boat

When I travel, I usually keep one eye open for amazing things crafted from wood; jewelry boxes, cathedrals, chairs—everything is fair game. I found lots of amazing wood things—more on that in later posts— but the thing that struck me on a more general level was the incredible craftsmanship and artistic eye our ancient relatives brought to things both great and small.

I’ve included a few outstanding examples.

The design and proportions of the Celsus Library in Ephesus blew me away. Built in 117 AD, it once contained 12,000 scrolls (making it the third largest library in the world at the time). The city is surely a testament to our changing world; once a seaport, it's now 6 miles from the sea.

The design and proportions of the Celsus Library in Ephesus blew me away. Built in 117 AD, it once contained 12,000 scrolls (making it the third largest library in the world at the time). The city is surely a testament to our changing world; once a seaport, it’s now 6 miles from the sea.

Great Place, Great People, Great Door

Kat and I just spent a fabulous week cruising around Montana and Idaho. We got to spend precious time with our daughter Maggie, granddaughter Anna and son-in-law Mace in Missoula. (The Saturday morning farmers market is beyond compare.) We spent a couple of days with Kat’s sister, Ruth, and husband Craig in the hinterlands of Idaho. And we got to spend a few days reveling in the beauty of Priest Lake, great conversation, great companionship, long hikes and some mediocre card playing with our good friends Dan and Gretchen.

Stuck in between all of this, we spent two nights in Sand Point, Idaho at a place unlike any other we’ve ever visited. The name of the place was Talus Rock, and the place is part bed & breakfast, part farm, part commune, part spiritual retreat and totally cool in its construction and conception.

talus exterior

Talus is the labor of love of Bruce and Heather Pedersen and their children Kipling, Rio and Selkirk. The profits from Talus go to lots of great organizations including the Orphan Children’s Choir which brings together kids from around the world to create a touring choir.

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This plaque tells a lot about the place and the people that reside there. If you’re anywhere near Sand Point, you gotta stay there. The post and beam structure was crafted from beams from a couple of old structures from the area.

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Even entering the front door to the place is a sort of spiritual experience-especially if you’re a wood junky. Check it out.

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door detailUnique place, unique people, unique wood, unique experience.

Norm Sartorius — Spoon Maker Extraordinaire

Six times a year I write “The Great American Woodworker” column for American Woodworker magazine -which means I get to interview six truly unique, talented woodworkers every year. For my next few blogs, I’m going to briefly introduce you to a few of these amazing woodworkers. Visit the American Woodworker website.

Norm Sartorius in his shop

Norm Sartorius in his shop

Today you get to meet spoonmaker, Norm Sartorius. Though his area of expertise may seem quirky, it’s served him well. He’s been able to make a living plying his specialty craft for over 30 years and currently has spoons in the Museum of Art and Design in New York City, The Smithsonian, the Carnegie Museum of Art and dozens of other private collections and galleries. Some of his spoons sell for as much as $4,000.

One of the reasons he loves making spoons is that the design possibilities are endless-his work will attest to this. During the interview Norm explained, “Spoons are an infinite category. You can make thousands of them and no two are the same. I still have fun making each one.”

Spoon made from Paela Burl (photo by Jim Osborn)

Spoon made from Paela Burl (photo by Jim Osborn)

He’s used woods from a tree planted by George Washington, from the famed. fallen Wyatt Tree, and from woods that people from around the world have sent him. He’s used 5,000-year-old river gum, exotic amboyna burl and mystery woods found in the desert.

Spoon crafted from cocobolo wood

Spoon crafted from cocobolo wood

In most cases he lets the shape and grain of the wood determine the size and shape of the spoon he’ll craft from it. Once the wood speaks to him, he does the initial roughing out using bandsaws, die grinders and pneumatic sanding drums, then switches over to scrapers of every shape and size (dental picks included) and sandpaper. His spoons aren’t for stirring soup, but rather to “stir the soul.” See what you think. To see more of his work, visit Norm’s website.

Spoon crafted for folksinger Pete Seeger. "Art or not, Pete told me he was going to use it," explains Norm.

Spoon crafted for folksinger Pete Seeger. “Art or not, Pete told me he was going to use it,” explains Norm.

Northern Woods Woodworking Show — WOW!

I’d heard a lot about the Northern Woods Woodworking Shows. And I’d seen lots of photos of furniture pieces displayed there. But this weekend, my wife and I journeyed across town to take in the show in person. WOW!

There were chairs of unspeakable beauty, natural edge slab tables you wanted to take a bite out of, turned bowls that seemed impossible, kayaks fit for an art museum, carvings that nearly came to life. The craftsmanship on every piece was flawless-so it’s a little unfair to circle the work of three woodworkers in particular. But I’m going to.

Thomas Schrunk, an “Artist in Lustrous Materials” was displaying an enormous (10 foot? 15 foot? 20 foot?) standup paddle board. It was one of the largest and most amazing pieces of veneer work I’ve ever encountered. Schrunk has also create not one, not two, but three Steinway Art Pianos-one of a kind creations commissioned by the grandest grand piano maker in the land. Below are two examples of his work: The first is the Europa piano, the second a fabulous tabletop. You can find out more about his work here.

Europa

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The second amazing woodworker-and one of the organizers of the show-is Richard Tendick. For a while he specialized in Cryptex containers-the vessel made popular in “The DaVinci Code.” His latest amazing creations are bowls he “turns” on a tablesaw. I hope to run a few photos of his work soon. The third artist is a fellow by the name of Mark Laub. I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing him a year or so ago for the “Great American Woodworker” department I write for American Woodworker magazine. His latest cabinet-one, that in Mark’s words, took him “20 cases of wine to build”-is art, philosophy and craftsmanship all rolled into one. His work speak for itself. Here are some of his recent creations. You can find more at Mark’s Website.

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Based on the size of the crowd and the quality of the work, it’s safe to say woodworking isn’t only alive and well-but forging into newer and braver territories all the time.