Said, woman, take it slow it’ll work itself out fine. All we need is just a little patience.

Wise words from Guns N’ Roses indeed. Somehow the time just felt right?

Here are some images of the beginning of rocker mock-ups. I’m following the Weeks’ method of laminating quarter-inch strips from the same board over a form by clamping them down starting in the center and then working outward. I cut this dense foam on the band saw and then sanded it by hand and on the belt sander. Don’t worry, I protected myself from the foam particles.

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In other news. I think I decided on a wood to use (mahogany) and I still need to do more drawing. I need to move the bend in the back frame to coincide with the armrest and adjust the backrest accordingly, try a version where the taper on the front elevation happens at the top as opposed to the bottom like it does now, and, at Mark’s request, I am going to refine the “alpha” design a little bit more, even though I’m not wild about it. Images soon…

While I’m anxious to get moving on the actual chair, as one of my biggest fears in life is poor time management, Mark is right to draw out the design process a little longer and make sure I’m not missing something and that all my decisions have been thoroughly thought out.

Again, this is a good reason to draw by hand. It means I am taking more time to consider each iteration. Part of why I do this work and want to continue to do this work is to be more patient and to give reverence to each step. If my theory is that this connects me more to the world and gives me a sense of place within it, I should certainly practice what I preach. Fittingly, I was lucky enough to hear Tod Williams and Billie Tsien lecture at UT a couple days ago (you may remember them from my “Knowing Jack?” entry). I couldn’t help but feel like their visit was the universe throwing me a bone. I kept a list of words they repeated over and over again as they presented their projects and came up with honor, nobility, and modesty. They emphasized repeatedly how important it is to them to recognize and honor all the hands, people, and steps that go into a process. They opened their presentation of one of their buildings with a photo of a note scribbled in their phone message book saying that the then-potential client had called, recognizing this post-it-like communication as the actual inception of the project and a step worthy of documentation. They also showed beautiful, imperfect hand-drawings that made the time spent making them evident in an indescribable way. Remembering these aspects of their work is helping to keep me from jumping ahead of myself, as much as I want to, and to place the importance that is due onto all of the steps, not just on the object itself.

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Changes Afoot

I have refined one of the drawings based on my conversations with Mark and have also started building a full-scale mock-up to sit in and test out heights and angles for comfort.

I glued up the surface of the seat, cut the taper on the bandsaw, and smoothed the edges on the jointer. Then I screwed and clamped boards onto it at the approximate angles in my drawings.

I’m realizing it will be hard to figure out what feels right without also mocking up the rockers, but I should be doing that anyway.

The more I “refine” things, the more I realize how hard this is going to be.

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Milling Things (Over)

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Esherick chair with wild diagonal

I’ve looked through my sketch models with both Mark and Igor and I still have work to do and decisions to make.

Notes from Mark: Can the taper of the seat also somehow translate to the front and/or back elevations of the chair? (He cites an exercise Igor does where he translates an elevation into a new plan). How can I further refine what we’ve deemed to be called “The Offset” design in the details of the armrest and the joinery? And can we push this form even further, perhaps by looking at the work of Wharton Esherick, who has some crazy diagonals and triangles in his chairs? There is a possible extreme version taking shape.

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Another Esherick triangular beauty

Notes from Igor: Does the backrest have an alliance? Right now it’s neither “of” the seat/armrests/rockers nor of the side frames. Can it be its own entity? How does this get formally expressed? The back of the seat needs sculpting on the opposite underside. Can the profile of the back of the seat inform the profile of the backrest? Igor suggests laminating the backrest vertically, which sounds pretty out there to me, but I appreciate his point.

So, this weekend will be spent considering all these questions through drawings and working on the full-scale seat/backrest mock-up. I’m just using two by fours for this. So far I’ve milled the framing lumber to make sure I’m working with square boards. 

Steps to square your boards:

1. Cut boards oversized on the miter saw.

2. Run a face over the jointer. The jointer has spinning blades that totally flatten the face.

3. Run the opposite face through the planer. Once you have one flat face, it will register to the flat bottom the the planer. The planer works somewhat like the jointer, but the spinning teeth are on the top.

4. Run an edge over the jointer. Now that you have two parallel, flat faces, you can register one flat face to the side of the jointer and know you will be cutting the edge at a true right angle

5. Trim the other edge on the table saw. Again, the edge you just flattened will register to the fence of the table saw, so you know you now have a square board.

We’ll revisit this process with the hardwood once the piece itself is getting made. It’s hard to do anything without a jointer, planer, and table saw.

One of my peers in the design department is doing a project on objects of ritual and he plans to make them out of wood. I told him this is the perfect material to use since these first steps are the same with pretty much any project. They are the familiar ritual before entering into the unknown of a new project. They warm up your hands and put you in the mindset of making.

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miter saw

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jointer

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spinning  jointer blades

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planer

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table saw

Trees are People

Throughout my course of study, I’ve been looking for a class on forestry: something that offers me knowledge about the business of wood, the practices that bring it from “forest to table,” so to speak, and how these practices affect the culture of the people around them. Of course, now that I don’t need to take any more courses and I just need to be focusing on my thesis, one is being offered. The professor, Ulrich Dangel, is graciously allowing me to sit in, and it is fascinating.

We’ve begun by learning about the Carbon cycle and the different ways it is impacted by the use of wood versus other building materials (steel and concrete, for example). In an article titled “Carbon 101: Understanding the Carbon Cycle and the Forest Carbon Debate” the author, Dr. Jim Bower of Dovetail Partners, offers an analogy between the life cycle of a tree and that of a person:

Like humans, trees are delicate when young and typically grow vigorously when given proper nutrition and a suitable environment. As juveniles, they form tissues that differ from those formed in mature trees. They respire, and they require a balanced intake of minerals to maintain health. They metabolize food…If wounded, they react quickly to effect healing. As age progresses, vigor is maintained for a lengthy period but then begins to wane. The top may begin to thin. Life processes eventually slow to the point that the tree has difficulty healing wounds and warding off disease. Finally the tree dies.

While it is easy to see the way in which natural materials–wood, stone, brick, clay–connect us to nature and the flow of time in that they show their age and wear, it is also easy to miss the way in which wood stands out from these materials as offering an even more “human” experience. While we recognize nature in all of these materials, we may recognize ourselves in wood even more so in that it is the only one of them that was truly alive in the same sense that we understand that we are alive. While we may not be overtly conscious of this fact, we inevitably know, somewhere in our memory or subconscious, that the material upon which we sit, or upon which our dinner dishes reside, was once a dynamic, living organism, a complex system that transported nutrients and grew from a seedling into a large, robust body.

And this kinship must be real in that we also experience discomfort as we bear witness to wood in its death. The tree stump refuses to recede. It stands as a dismembered body, lobbed off at the ankles. We need to “hire someone to grind the stump” because we can’t bear to continually experience the evidence of the life that was. It is too tragic, too poignant to witness every day. But, even when it is ground flat, we still cannot escape its then-lifeless plateau, covering ground like a freshly-filled grave. Eventually, it decomposes, slowly, in the earth as we do.

Risky Business

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The clean, quiet woodshop before the storm.

9I made a larger model. It feels a little boxy and the side frames feel a little thin compared to the broad seat, but this is all good to know! I’m getting somewhere. I cut the basic shapes on the bandsaw, used the belt sander and sanded by hand, 11and glued the thing up. I had to get a little creative laminating and gluing the 1213 141720 rockers. As I’ve been working on this I’ve also been reading David Pye’s The Nature and Art of Workmanship. Pye, who was a furniture maker and design professor, wrote this semi-manifesto in the late 1960s, when industrial production was exploding and it seemed we might lose the art of handcraft entirely. Obviously this didn’t happen, and he admitted himself that he ultimately may have taken too apocalyptic a stance, but he was reacting in a real, emotional, and educated way to what he thought was a threat to his livelihood. And he was not wrong, just somewhat overzealous. The Nature and Art of Workmanship will be a good source of inspiration for me as I think more and more about my paper as a manifesto.

What I perhaps love most about Pye though, is the distinction he draws between what he coins the “workmanship of certainty” and the “workmanship of risk.” The workmanship of certainty is essentially that of mass production, where the entire process is controlled by machine and the human hand does not determine the success or failure of the outcome. The workmanship of risk, conversely, is that where, at any time, you could screw the whole thing up, to put it bluntly. In the workmanship of risk, one relies on one’s actions, decisions, and physical coordination in order to complete the process one has planned to engage in.

For the self, this is meaningful in that one is always negotiating one’s own trust and confidence in oneself. One questions oneself and draws on knowledge and the ability to acquire knowledge to find answers. Another important aspect of the workmanship of risk is that one is inevitably exposing one’s process and method of work to others and, in doing so, is sharing with them the possibility and hope of success, but also the possibility of failure. This is risky, exposing your potential failure to others, but does it not make success even that much more rewarding? And does it not allow the user/viewer to appreciate the outcome more?

Other things I love about Pye are his insistence that everything is imperfect, his acknowledgement of the deficiency of language in describing the experience of making and of experience itself, his acceptance and regard for the wear on a piece of furniture as a reminder of our mortality and at the same time a connection to a vastness of time that lets us live on, his reverence for wood as a material that offers a user an infinite “diversity” of experience (as he puts it), his acknowledgement of the possibility for subjective, private experiences of materials, and, last but not least, his distaste for John Ruskin and critique that those who do not make things ought not to try to posit what it feels like to be a maker. So, consider this project and this blog a total commitment to the workmanship of risk. I lay before you my entire, convoluted process of making and hope for the possibility of success.

A Gentle Manifesto?

I met with Igor Siddiqui this afternoon to go over what I’ve been working on. While Mark will be my primary adviser for the actual making of the chair, Igor will be my primary adviser for figuring out how to talk about it. Igor is a professor of Interior Design and has done a lot of his own work focused on writing about making while actually making. While his projects have actually utilized a very different approach than mine, as he uses digital fabrication, he explores several ideas directly related to my thesis inquiry, particularly, how one shows temporality, the celebration of the life of a material, the network of people and places created by doing this work, and the network beyond that this work, once made, makes possible.

It’s good for me to be working with someone who is a digital fabricator. We talked about this a bit today in the form of a sort of warning. It is easy for me, in trying to articulate what it is I’m problematizing by making things by hand, to go up against methods other than mine, paint them negatively in trying to show why my method is good. But this is not my intent. In particular lies the obvious fact that digital fabrication is actually pushing innovation forward. To try to combat this would be silly of me, and I find myself falling into the pattern of doing this in defense of the work of the hand. What I need to do, rather, is show how the work of the hand can actually be a new paradigm, as opposed to some anachronistic method that must be revived for the sake of nostalgia. Can it combat the culture of consumption created by technology? Can it reconnect us to nature? Can it help us stay rooted in history while still pushing us into the future? Clearly my answer to all of these is yes, and I need to focus on how and why.

Igor suggested I consider writing the paper portion of this project with less of an intention of writing a critique and more of an intention of writing a manifesto. A manifesto is something I could start on now, by making a short declaration of a set of values and, over time, fleshing it out by considering how committed I actually am to these positions and who out there is supporting them with their own theory. I can use this manifesto to help drive the making. He also encouraged me not to lose sight of the material aspect of my theory as I get more and more involved in the philosophy behind it. I need to keep sight of the material specificity of wood, of its transformative and sublime qualities, of the the way it is WOOD that has inspired all of this thought and action.

Stay tuned as the manifesto experiment begins…