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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.

 

Trade In Your Timex for a Bag of Balloons—A Tanzanian Adventure

Kat and I just returned from an indescribable trip to Tanzania. We worked at an orphanage for special needs kids and Boma ‘longombe secondary school. This was my fourth trip and Kat’s first. Here’s a piece about the experience I wrote for my Facebook page. More about the wood part of it later.

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When you go to Tanzania, trade in your Timex for a bag of balloons. The balloons are infinitely more useful and you’ll never regret the decision.

When you trade in your watch for balloons you can sit on the steps of a guesthouse in remote Bomalongombe, laughing while you make balloon animals with three dozen children. It means you can teach one another: Mbwa means dog, pua means nose, mbili means two, their presence means they trust a stranger traveling in their midst.

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Your watch will only make you anxious over the graduation slated for 10:00 a.m. that starts at 1:15 p.m. Your watch will make you forget it’s more important to have tea and connect with old and new friends than to stick to a schedule that makes you hurry and scurry, so you can hurry and scurry some more.

Balloons let you give something new and mysterious to a one year old-and to learn about parenting in return. My grimace says “I fear your child. biting this balloon, will get an unpleasant surprise.” The mother’s smile says, “Yes. And that way my child will learn it’s not a good idea to bite a balloon.” It makes me think we no longer let our children bite balloons; we hesitate when it comes to letting them, regardless of age, learn about the natural consequences in life. We take away balloons, fearing the “pop” will scare or scar them.

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Balloons grant you passage to the back of a village church where the choir is practicing hymns; songs where the words are different but the melody is the same. Balloons help you realize that music and faith link us together though we live half a world away. Balloons make a mother trust you enough to let her 2-year old sleep in your arms while you listen to her sing in the choir. Balloons make you realize if the tables were turned you might not feel the same trust.

Balloons help you cheer on the blind youth choir singing to welcome you. Balloons help you celebrate the 103 students graduating from school, heading into a world where opportunities are slim compared to ours. Balloons help you contain the joy you feel in seeing a four year old walk for the first time under her own power. Balloons make the work of building bunk beds for 100 students a little lighter.

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Balloons help you realize the nine people you’re traveling with for two weeks are all kids at heart. Balloons make me realize how incredibly lucky I am to have a fearless, loving wife by my side as we travel.

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Balloons allow you to give away something to kids that aren’t given much; to add a splash of color to a life that can be dusty and dry. Balloons are hugs and hope. And when they sail away you realize hope is a fragile thing.

When you trade in your Timex for balloons you trade in your anxiety-Am I going to lose it? Scratch it? Gum up the mechanism? It allows you to exchange something made of steel for something truly enduring-memories that can only be had by living.

A balloon allows you to leave a part of yourself-your very breath-in Tanzania. Fitting for a country that takes your breath away.

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?

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.

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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.

Ripping Boards with a Machete (and Other Tanzanian Memories)

About every two years I head over to Tanzania for a couple of weeks to work alongside the students and staff at Bomalong’ombe secondary school to improve their water and electrical system and to help build dorms and classrooms. Last time I was there I promised the school carpenter-a gentleman by the name of isaak-that I’d get some hand tools over to him. I can’t go this time, but while I was packing up tools for the group going over there to take, I began reminiscing about the day I spent building chairs with Isaak.

Isaak and students working on chair components

Isaak and students working on chair components

Power at the school is scarce, so Isaak does all of his work with hand tools. The morning I arrived to apprentice with him he explained that our first task was to rip the material we needed for the chairs down to the proper width. With that he broke out a machete and in 6 or 7 deft strokes “ripped” the chair legs to the exact width needed. The blade came within fractions of an inch to his fingers, but he was so skilled he never even flinched. When it came time for me to “rip” some material to width, it took me 10 times as long.

Spike cutting tenons using a box miter saw

Spike cutting tenons using a box miter saw

The day involved much sharing of information, much laughter and much building. The workbench was a rickety old table with crossbracing. We used planes to plane; brace, bits and chisels to create the mortises; saws and chisels to create the tenons; draw knives to create the scooped seats and curved backs. By the end of the day, Isaak had created five new chairs and left an indelible impression upon me. What was impressed?

  1. Isaak proudly displays one of  five completed chairs

    Isaak proudly displays one of five completed chairs

    That having the right skills trumps having the right tools

  2. That every woodworker has things to learn from every other woodworker
  3. That woodworking is a universal language.

For more information on Mission Tanzania, visit Mission Tanzania, Trinity Lutheran Church.

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.

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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.

Wooden Bikes & Golden Moments

In my day I’ve interviewed incredibly talented woodworkers, ridden amazing bikes and met wildly imaginative inventors-but I’ve never seen all three of these come together in such a neat package as last June in Tanzania.

While troubleshooting the water system in Mwatasi-a village in the highlands region of the country-we encountered these five young gentlemen with their latest creation: A wooden three wheel bike. It may not look like much but look closer. For here you will discover resourcefulness, cooperation, imagination, an understanding of physics and geometry and an overwhelming sense of pride.

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As woodworkers we can bemoan not having the space or finances for the latest high tech tool. As bikers we can complain about the potholes and narrow roads we need to navigate. As parents we may even gripe about the lack of educational opportunities for our kids. Whenever I start whining, I look at this photo and recalibrate my brain. Wooden bikes are more popular around the world than you might think. Below is a photo of bikes ridden in the Banaue region of the Phillipines (note the rear braking system!)

wood_bike_PhilipinesTo see other ingenious bikes, visit cool wood bikes.

The Vasa: Salvaging The World’s Largest Woodworking Blunder

If you visit the most popular tourist attraction in Sweden, you won’t find yourself in the midst of an amusement park, strolling through a 20 acre shopping mall or standing atop an 80 story building. No, you’ll find yourself-as have 25 million other visitors-in a dimly-lit building housing a ship that sank almost 400 years ago. It may sound a bit ho-hum, but if you like woodworking, you’ll love the stories behind the building, launching and restoration of this incredible war ship. Visit the Vasa Museum.

The short version of this long tale goes like this: In 1628 the Vasa, intended to be the premier warship of its day, was launched in Stockholm harbor. It’s double-decker construction was intended to give it the upper hand in battle; the tallest ship, since it can shoot down on the decks of shorter ships, could command the seas. Its double-decker construction also made it a wee bit top heavy. But what made this ship truly unique was its ornamentation. Over 500 wood sculptures-depicting Greek and Roman rulers, mermaids, sea monsters, lions, biblical characters and, of course, Swedish Kings-decorated the boat. It took six sculptors along with teams of apprentices over two years to craft just the sculptures.It was a riot of colors. Much of the other ornamentation is equally impressive. Many considered it “a floating work of art.” The ship set sail on its maiden voyage in 1628. It traveled a few hundred yards, opened its gun ports to fire the traditional salute, caught a not-so-strong gust of wind, healed to port, took water in through its open gun ports, then sank before the unbelieving eyes of the thousands of spectators lining the shore. It’s surmised that converting the ship to a double decker design after construction had begun coupled with a lack of ballast caused the disaster.

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After sitting on the bottom of the harbor for 333 years, the ship was raised. (I cover the story more thoroughly in my book, A Splintered History of Wood: Belt Sander Races, Blind Woodworkers and Baseball Bats.) The ship was raised to the surface in 1960 (a story in and of itself) and a heroic restoration effort was begun. It required the fitting together of over 13,000 pieces that had separated or fragmented over the years. Five hundred sprinkler heads sprayed polyethylene glycol (PEG) over the hull at 45 minute intervals to replace the water as the ship dried out.

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And today the Vasa is a thing of unbelievable splendor-to woodworkers and non-woodworkers alike.

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I left the museum with two woodworking notions in the back of my mind. The first had to do with the remarkable craftsmanship displayed, despite the builders having only rudimentary tools and crude plans to work with. The second has to do with my own woodworking prowess. The next time I slip up making a dado or dovetail, I won’t despair. I’ll just think about the Vasa—the biggest woodworking blunder of all time. I’ll just yell out, “Whoops—I just made a Vasa.”