Archives for category: Quality

Arts and Crafts

A.V. Walters

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When I refurbish a piece of furniture, I have a couple of rules. This is not to say that my way is universal, or that I pretend to be some fancy, high-end professional restorer. But, I do try to maintain the integrity of the piece. My rules, in short, try to restore the piece to its original condition, respecting the aesthetic of the time; when possible (in keeping with the first rule) try to reveal the beauty of the wood (or other materials); and maintain, or return the piece to its original functionality. It’s not enough to be cool-looking and old; I want it to be useful, too.

There are exceptions—just as our aesthetics are shaped by our experiences, sometimes we make substitutions. What we modern people admire about classical Greek sculptures—the revealing beauty of the white marble—is not what the Greeks had in mind. Originally, those marble statues were painted! Accustomed to the elegant monochrome, my eye is offended whenever I see a “fully restored” Greek figure. To my eye, with paint, they look garish and cheap.

My favorite era of antiques is Arts and Crafts—sometimes known as Mission. This artistic movement was a backlash against the frippery and soulless excess of industrialization. At its best, the lines were clean and simple, harkening back to a time of craftsmanship and honest labor. (At its worst it can be chunky and monolithic, crude for crude’s sake.) The philosophy behind Arts & Crafts reflected the relationship between the materials and the craftsman, showing each to its best potential. Of course, once popular, its designs were copied and manufactured, en masse, by American factories. Savvy manufacturers, like the Stickley brothers, created a design cult and a “buy in” mentality for their lines of cottage-style furnishings. The success of the movement’s philosophy, and marketing, soon made it another passing fad. By the start of The Great War, the style was already fading. Its American heyday was between 1905 and 1915.

I like the furniture of that era, featuring rich woods, quarter-sawn oak or aged natural cherry. Like many antiques, there’s additional caché for a piece when it has its original finish. Sometimes, that’s an original “fumed” finish—and I laugh. What we see today in those fumed finishes, often dry feeling and nearly black in color, looks nothing like it did when it came from the factory. They were ammonia based “lusters”—added after the standard wood finish, a process that created an iridescent color—almost a glow, in pastel tones. But, the factories knew that the fuming was ephemeral. It didn’t last. In fact, the fuming actually degraded the wood. So current antique emphasis on an “original fumed finish” puts a premium on what was really a failed experiment from the start. It’s not unlike the Greek statues—completely different in their own time. I’ll sand and refinish a fumed surface—regardless of the premium (breaking my own first rule.) I once sold a chair to an appellate judge who wanted a blond mission rocking chair, specifically so that he could experiment with fumed finishes. Now, that’s a purist. I pale by comparison.

Recently I found a lovely little “sewing rocker” on craigslist. From the picture, it had nice lines, but was nearly black. I figured I could refinish it, so long as it was solid and the joints tight. At thirty-five bucks, it was worth the effort, especially since I need a small chair for the downstairs bedroom. In person, it was just as dark, but it didn’t have the dry feeling of a fumed finish that I’d expected. I bought it. Once home, we found a faded label—Otsego Chair Company. A quick trip to the internet told us that Otsego was a Michigan company that closed in 1915. So our little rocker is at least one hundred years old.

With winter slowing us down outdoors, this is a nice time for indoor projects. I’m still waiting for the rest of my banjo parts, so I pulled out the little chair. I wondered about the nonstandard color—near black. I decided to start with a thorough scrubbing with Murphy’s Oil Soap. What a shock. This piece was never fumed; it was just filthy!

Underneath all that grime was a lovely little chair with a slightly weathered, rich patina. I didn’t remove the original finish, but, in the interest of my second rule, I did cheat a bit and enhance it with a layer of penetrating stain. The oak is quarter-sawn and highly figured. That means that the wood was cut for structural stability—and to enhance the variation in the wood’s grain. Before adding stain—I hit the “rays” with a lighter, golden-oak stain, another cheat. That way, they resist the overall, darker stain, and emphasize the contrast in the natural oak grain. I think it came out nicely. A coat of beeswax polish and it will be ready to put back into service.

 

 

 

 

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The Sum of Its Parts

A.V. Walters–

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We tend to be do-it-yourselfers. Both Rick and I come from families where you fixed it, before you replaced it. Sometimes, if whatever “it” was, was not within your field of expertise, you paid somebody to fix it. Sometimes, cost or convenience inspired you to do it yourself. There’s a little bit of a mantra to it, even if “it” is intimidating, “Well, how hard could it be, really?”

All the way to building a house.

That history, combined with an appreciation of older things, has led us, separately and together, to a good bit of investigative repair and reinvention. My home is filled with rescue-antiques. Rick is the mother of invention when it comes to building and repairing challenges. We have accumulated no small measure of experience in woodworking, refinishing, building, tool maintenance and repair, mechanical and electronics repair (mostly Rick), art restoration and the mending and making of things in fabrics (mostly me.) We have projects upon projects. Which brings us to the Paramount question.

In the midst of my mid-life upheaval, I decided I needed an intellectual challenge (because writing novels wasn’t enough?) I wanted to learn to play an instrument, and in so doing, to immerse myself in a participatory way, in the language that is music. I had to choose which instrument would be appropriate for a (then) solo, middle-aged woman. It had to be something I could play alone, and maybe with others. I envisioned myself playing and practicing on a big porch with a view. My first choice, violin, wasn’t a good fit—as a previous car accident had left me with neck issues. I thought about the sax—but even the idea of relearning the breathing for a wind instrument, left me winded. So, I decided on the banjo, mostly because I could not think of any banjo music that sounded sad. I picked up a cheapie banjo on craigslist and began learning and plinking. I have a long way to go.

But, as things work out, once you open the door in a particular area, opportunities step in. When my brother learned that I had an interest in the banjo, it turned out he had a contact for an old banjo with history. He sent it my way.

It is a Paramount, tenor banjo from the mid-twenties. It’s beat up and beautiful. For a number of years it’s been sitting, disassembled (thanks to a “well intentioned” friend) in its case. I’m coming very close to having that lovely long front porch, overlooking the valley, so I thought it was time to get the Paramount in shape. Rick, as is his way, raised an eyebrow.

The banjo needs a lot of work. First and foremost, it needs to be completely disassembled and cleaned. Then, a new “head”—the stretched skin that gives the banjo its distinctive sound. The choice was whether to use a synthetic head material, or the traditional calfskin head that was used when the Paramount was first manufactured. We also need to replace the tuning pegs—which raised the question,again, of new versus old. The Paramounts had ingenious Page, geared pegs, new back in the day, and no longer manufactured.

In the past, everyone had said that I need an expert to help with this banjo renovation. So, I asked around and received several referrals to a local guy, who was reputed to be both better, and less expensive, than the “ship it off to Lansing” guys used by local music stores. I called and made an appointment. First, he gave me his tour of successes—a line-up of string instruments, hanging awaiting pick up by his other customers. They were lovely—so we got to the Paramount. His eyes widened when he saw the disassembled banjo. A Paramount is an impressively machined instrument, sturdy and buttressed with all manor of hardware. The expert marveled that the parts were mostly there—you could see that he was positively itching to get to the task. He knew that I had contacted him mostly for assistance with the installation of the new head—but soon his enthusiasm overflowed to the rehabilitation of the wood and the nickel-plate parts. He pointed out the accumulated finger grime on the mother-of-pearl inlayed finger board. I hadn’t noticed how bad it was. He insisted that the entire instrument be disassembled, lovingly cleaned, then reassembled, before a new head could be stretched. He was adamant that only vintage parts should be used—and of course, a calfskin head. He explained the intricacy of the stretching of a banjo head, a process not unlike stretching the canvas for an oil painting. His enthusiasm was contagious, and I was completely on board. As he described the work necessary to restore the banjo to its former glory, the dollars were mounting. He looked up at me, but I didn’t blink. I’m a pushover for any argument favoring an antique’s original integrity. I was sucked in by his description of the painstaking task. With the vintage parts and laborious restoration, my “free” banjo was fast approaching a thousand dollar rehab.

“That grimy fret board,” I asked, “what would you use to clean it?” I expected to be drawn further into the secret and arcane world of instrument restoration.

“Oh, Windex will do it.” He said offhandedly.

My heart skipped a beat. “Windex?” I’ve done enough antique restoration to know that you minimize “wet” treatments, especially near inlay or marquetry. He noticed my alarm.

“Why, what would you use?”

“As mild a cleaner as possible. Probably Murphy’s Oil Soap, with very little water, a damp cloth to wipe it clear and then dry it immediately with a soft terry.”

He nodded, “Yeah, that’d work, too.”

But he’d now handed me the tail-end of the thread that would soon unravel the spell he’d woven.

“And the nickel-plated parts?” I asked.

“Ammonia soak—you know the Windex, and then, where needed, a little steel wool.” My eyes widened and he followed up, “Don’t worry, that steel wool wouldn’t hurt for the tough spots. Why, what would you use?”

“I like Never-Dull. It doesn’t scratch and can clean most any metal finish.”

“Never heard of that.” He pulled out a polishing compound he sometimes uses.

I had to press further. “What about the areas on the neck, and the other wood surfaces, where the finish is worn?”

He looked at me seriously. “There’s a temptation to refinish that—but it’d be a mistake. As long as the wood integrity isn’t threatened, you keep the value of a vintage instrument by maintaining the original finish. You can do that with a little Pledge.”

The bubble didn’t just burst, it imploded.

Pledge?”

“Yeah, you know, or any polish and wax finish.” I had visions of 60s era homemaking commercials and gingham aprons. I needed an exit strategy.

“This is adding up. We really just need help with the calfskin head—the cleaning part is grunt work that we can really do ourselves.” His face fell. It wasn’t just that the fish had slipped the hook—you could tell that he had really wanted to get his hands on the banjo. There’s genuine satisfaction in the restoration of a beautiful old item. He nodded. And helped me repack the banjo parts back into the case. He was really a nice and genuine fellow. He was, after all, the person most recommended in the area.

I took the banjo home and told Rick the tale.

So, really, how hard could it be?

We went online, researched and ordered the replacement tuning machines, and the calfskin replacement head material. We even broke down and bought an original Paramount wrench to stretch the new head. (They look kind of look an old skate key.) There are You Tube videos that show the many phases of banjo restoration, including stretching a calfskin head.

Rick helped disassemble the rest of the banjo, and I started the painstaking cleaning process, starting with the inlaid fret board, using the materials of my choice. The expert was absolutely right (in part)—cleaned up, it is beautiful. The nickel plated, metal parts have been gently restored to their former gleaming glory. We have some wood repair still to do, but I’ve ordered all the replacement parts and look forward to the challenge of finishing the job.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Timing the Jump.

It’s About Time

A.V. Walters–

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Lately, my job has been sanding. It gives me a lot of time to think. I work in a bubble—face mask, ear protection, hat and eye glasses—for safety, but it keeps me in my own head. Of course, there’s always the day job, so my attention is split, part to regular work and part to building. While I sand, Rick has been busy working the site, rough wiring, and building, installing the boards that I’ve finished sanding.

In the Zone

In the Zone

I learned sanding from my Dad. I think I earned that chore as a little kid because I was observant and, well, anal. I have a constitutional tolerance for the tedious. Now as I sand, I hear my Dad’s voice—and it’s a comfort.

“No, go with the grain. There, that’s it.”

The task of sanding is so integrated with my childhood memories that the sandpaper, the smell of sawdust, and the feel of sanding are enough to bring my Dad back. His voice and advice is a part of the physicality of the job. I’m using the sander he advised me to buy. I’d burned through two Black & Deckers, prepping my house for a paint job, when he said I needed better tools. So here I am, twenty-six years later, still using the Porter Cable he’d recommended.

We’ve had a lot of trouble with lumber on this project. We’ve rejected nearly a third of what we’ve ordered from local building supply houses. We even tried the local “specialty” builders’ outfit—and paid a significant premium for what was supposed to be custom picked lots. You can get quality lumber from the discount guys, but you’ll have to spend a ton of time picking through it. So, we swallowed hard and tried a “pro-builder custom order.”

It was a more than a disappointment. It was just as junky as if we’d picked from the top of the rejects pile at the discount stores. For this we paid an extra 25%? I called to complain. Rick and I sorted the pile into junk, usable and good. The sales guy lives not far away; he said he’d drop by. When he did, he looked at the pile and shook his head. “Yeah, that’s just not right.” Even then, it took two more deliveries to get it right. Another delay.

Every glitch just burns daylight. We’ve had snow flurries already so the delays are really a problem. We want to achieve a “defendable” enclosure before any serious snow accumulation. As for lumber, we’re back to hand picking on our own—it’s cheaper and, if you get junk, you know who to blame.

“Check your sand paper. See, if it clogs up like that, it’s time to change the paper.   Here, let me show you.”

“Daddy, how will I know when it’s done?”

“You’ll know, honey, your fingers will know.”

My dad had a belief that sometime, in our past, there was a Golden Age of Tools and Materials. Even when I was little he would curse the shoddy workmanship in building supplies. When materials fell short of the mark it was the fault of some national disgrace. I grew up to the litany of, “Goddamn Canadian nails!” or “How can they sell this shit!” He cursed like a trucker.

Rick shares this creed. He’ll eye a 2 X 6, shake his head and throw it back in the pile. “You just can’t get quality materials anymore!” (Another kind of echo from my Dad.) Picking up yet another bowed or twisted 2 X 10, he points out the wide soft wood between the growth rings, “See that, plantation lumber, grown fast and weak.”

Was there really ever a NeverNeverLand of strong nails and straight lumber?

I don’t believe it for a minute. It’s an argument about quality that’s been going on at least since the Industrial Revolution—and probably back beyond that—to the woodworking guilds of the Middle Ages. Wood is an agricultural product. Trees are not perfect. What makes lumber true, is time. Time and effort. Somewhere in the chain of commerce someone has to care enough, or make enough money, to make it worthwhile to spend the time to do it right. It’s the same for building and for any craft. In a world of mass production, suppliers will produce any product that will sell. Unfortunately that means that the quality will be as marginal as the market will bear.

As my father aged he became more and more of a fine craftsman. He complained less about milled lumber, not because it got any better, but because he bought raw, and milled and finished it himself. Towards the very end of his life the furniture he built was more art than craft. He was not fast. He certainly couldn’t have made a living at it. But he knew the work was good and it gave him great satisfaction. He reached the point where he’d select wood for its “flaws,” knots or whorls, and then fashion the piece to highlight these natural features.

In the months before he passed away he and I were enjoying morning coffee at a walnut table he’d made. “See this?” he tapped a spot where the grain swirled and rippled, catching the light. “That’s where I let the sun out.” He smiled and ran his hand along its smooth edge.

Rick and I are building a log cabin. The purveyors of the materials would prefer we call it a log home, but ours will be a modest dwelling that fits within the cannons of the design’s history. It’s suited to the simple lines of its primitive forebears. There is a lot of natural wood. Rick is taking the time to position the beams to their best advantage, even to straighten them with weird clamps and strapping devices of his own invention. I don’t think a builder could afford that level of care on a paying gig. This will be our home.

A traditional log cabin would have beams across the log perimeter, with a heavy plank ceiling that served as both the ceiling above and the floor for the second level. We searched for the right material that would work, and be in the spirit of a log cabin. We settled on kiln dried, southern yellow pine, beveled, tongue and groove, 2 X 6s. It was a special order so we had to take the quality on faith and wait several weeks for it to arrive.

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When it did, it was a huge disappointment. The wood was much more knotty than the catalogue description. It was not “finish-milled” and ready, as described. Rustic shouldn’t be synonymous with slivers. This wood bore the deep mill markings, chatter and the “tear-out” that you get when the mill’s blades are not sharp. Worse yet, the wood arrived moldy. And I’m not talking about the ubiquitous blue stain that comes with some pine. This wood was alive with green and orange colonies of mold. (Again, I can hear my Dad’s voice, “Kiln dried, my ass!”) Our expensive special order was a bust. We had to decide whether to reject it (and pay the chunky restocking fee AND wait for new wood) or whether to roll up our sleeves and solve the problem, which brings me to sanding.

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I am neither as strong, nor as skilled as Rick in building. I am really just a knowledgeable gopher, but I can sand. And that’s what we did. We bleach treated all the areas of mold and then sanded it all to remove any sign of mold or mill markings. All 150, 12-foot lengths, both sides. (There I was, sanding pine, a wood my father didn’t think was worth burning!) It took me an extra two weeks—while Rick worked on site grading and electrical. It’s up now, and looks really good. A silk purse from a sow’s ear.

I have my hands on my hips now. “Really Daddy, how will I know, how will my fingers know?”

“You’ll know it’s done, honey, when it’s as smooth as a baby’s ass. You just keep sanding ‘til then.”

 

My Dad's Sandpaper Box

My Dad’s Sandpaper Box