E N Curtis

Handcrafted Furniture and Art in Wood

Some turning, an end of an era, and a well-earned vacation

My last week at CFC as an workshop assistant was with Nick Cook, master turner from Georgia, who was both a very skilled turner and a really nice guy. Part of the perks of being the assistant, as you've seen, is the ability to participate in the class when it isn't full. I had that ability last week and learned a ton. We made coffee scoops, rolling pins, muddlers, honey drizzlers, salt shakers, pepper mills, and more. It was informative, but more importantly, I think, it was fun. After all, I didn't get into this business because I don't like to make things out of wood. 

As the week passed, I enjoyed my waning time at the school. It was fun to see old friends for a time, meet new people, be around folks just discovering woodwork, and, of course, to have a nice summer in Maine with my wife. It was work, no easy breeze to be sure, but it was well worth it. I'll go ahead and proclaim that my time at CFC was an era, because hey, Mohammad Ali was the self-proclaimed "greatest" before he was the champ. So why not?

This next week and a half I'm out in LA with my wife visiting family. I may do another post in that time, but I'll leave it to inspiration. When I get back, I'll keep you up on the work I'm doing.

A week of making self-bows

This week at CFC was spent with Brian Persico, a furniture maker and bowyer from Brooklyn, NY. Brian's been making furniture for a few years after graduating with a degree in industrial design, but about two years ago ventured into bow making and now, I think, can be considered a full-fledged bowyer (the proper title of a bow-maker). And some of his bows are the kind of thing that makes you want to become a bowyer yourself. 

When I think of bows, I think of all the classic things a little boy thinks of. Cowboys and Indians. Mongols. Robin Hood. Elvish warfare. There's something romantic about bows and bow-making that's akin to longswords, camp fires, and roasted mutton. And, having partaken in this week-long class and made a longbow myself, I can say that the process of making the bow was exciting, and almost as fun as shooting it. But it's entirely different from furniture making—rather it's more akin to carving, in that you are always reducing, trying to form the overall picture, before you hone in on the details; of course, this is specifically to self-bows and does not include laminates and compound bows. The major difference in bow-making is that once you reach a certain point in the process, you make a small adjustment, and take the bow outside to shoot, get a sense of what you want it to shoot like, and adjust accordingly, repeating the process until it functions in the desired manner. This only makes the process so much more fun because you get to constantly go shoot your bow as you're working on it. 

The process itself was surprisingly elemntary—split the stave, get the back face to one growth ring, and shape to needed width and thickness. That's really the basic process in a nutshell, and you can make many different styles with those three steps. You can, of course, get fancy by adding recurves, stylized nocks of horn or antler, arrow rests and strike plates, handles, or sinew and horn to the limbs to make it more powerful. Brian's done all of these things—I added a recurve, a little horn arrow rest, and a leather handle. But I had loads of fun doing it. And if anyone is interested, you can visit Brian's website to see some of his work. In the meanwhile, enjoy some of the pictures from the week past, including our end of the week archery tournament.

A fantastic two-week journey...

If carving is at all something you are interested in, whether starting or just getting better, I urge you to do your best to learn from Chris Pye. He is not only an immensely accomplished master carver, but he is a natural teacher as well. He understands how to communicate the basics and essentials of carving, and strips this mystical work down to a very understandable level. And as you can see from my pelican, he is superb at helping beginners progress through a project to the point where they feel confident making decisions on their own. 

Not only am I impressed with Chris's ability to teach me, but I was also very impressed with the level of skill and dedication of those in the class. 12 people in the class, only two were doing the same project (3 including me), and a great variety of experience levels made for a situation wherein you could learn from listening to Chris talk about each person's project and progress. What a great situation. 

Here are some pictures from the last two weeks. There are many of folks working, like this one of Don working on his fish relief, as well as some finished, or nearly finished, pieces mixed in. Some of the finished pieces you'll see are Phil's relief, Mark's ornamental, Jonathan's pelican, and my leaf. Just take note of the contrast between my leaf and my pelican, as it's the second and third carving of my life, respectively. A bit of a jump, no doubt, but I had some very good guidance along the way!

A slice of Pye...

Oh puns, how you slay me. I think that's a really fresh joke. I feel like I could really carve out a niche for myself as a writer of puns. Oh... I've done it again.

Hilarity aside, I do regret to inform you that I accidentally deleted my pictures before I got a chance to upload them from the end of last week. Almost everybody had a bench that went together, most had them glued up, and all should be proud of what they accomplished. What they left with at the end of two weeks was more than a simple bench, but a new understanding of how how joinery works and how to execute it. There really is no middle step between that and creating your own pieces of furniture from your mind. If you can imagine a shape and figure out and execute the joinery properly, well, that's furniture making. That's all it is. So kudos to everyone who participated in the last two weeks of the Basic Woodworking course. You should be pleased with your results and proud of what you accomplished.

Now, for these next two weeks, I have the great pleasure of working with Chris Pye. Master carver and "sometimes sculptor" as he said, we're embarking on two one-week classes for the next steps in carving. We have some very ambitious projects and I'm sure all will accomplish some great things under his tutelage. I will also get to do some carving during the classes. I do have plenty of other responsibilities to make sure the class runs smoothy, but as much carving I can possibly do with him around I will—and I'm very much looking forward to it. Carving was a fascination of mine even before furniture making; gargoyles and green men, ball and claw feet and Ionic columns. Perhaps now is the time to sally forth in those great unknowns with more gusto than I have in the past. But for now, I'll start with a simple relief carving of a leaf.


Teaching vs. Making

There was a choice I made about two and a half years ago to chase this dream of making furniture. It started off as an interest, and has developed into a full-blown obsession. The kind of life-consuming obsession that you felt for that girl in 7th grade when you were sure that nothing else in the world mattered in any significant way. I wake up in the middle of the night with ideas for a design. I think about ways to execute a piece while sitting on the beach or walking through the woods. And I love every minute of it.

Taking some time to assist here at CFC, however, and getting to do a little teaching with Peter Korn and Ian Kirk this week and last has allowed me to watch people completely new to woodworking come to new levels of appreciation for craftspeople, and new levels of interest in the craft. Some folks came in with no woodworking experience, and didn't know a chisel from a spokeshave. They are now cutting beautiful dovetails as we work through our bench project. Others came in with some knowledge but no experience, and they are working their way through various stages of dovetails, hand-cut mortise and tenons, and shaping on their benches—and they should be tremendously pleased with their new found abilities. To learn any "hand-craft" in a couple of weeks is no easy task, and on top of that they've sat through lectures and demonstrations every day, so you have an appreciation for how much time they've all put in. 

The reason I mention all of this is not because it holds any greater significance to the cosmos; it won't cure aids, feed the hungry, or stop war. But if my goal as a human is to give something to the world—something to make the world even slightly better, or slightly more beautiful—then helping people to learn the craft is just as good a cause as making something myself. If I can help people to find what fulfills them and their creative impulses, what makes them happier, then I submit that is indeed making the world a slightly better place. It's not much, but it's something.

In the meanwhile, I've continued to play with a new design for a hanging cabinet. I'm trying to step outside my normal work—that is to say, more traditional design—and find my own voice. It will take some years to accomplish this, but I have to start somewhere. So with this piece, I started with a very traditional shaker style cabinet, and from there tried to think about it from a different perspective. In this case, a "mad-hatter" perspective. Again, this is simply a first prototype used only to get a better idea of the piece in physical reality. But I have been pulled away from this process the last two weeks as some commissions have come in that I've needed to design and discuss in the small bits of spare time I've had apart from assisting. When I work on these pieces, you'll get to follow along and see the steps. 

An Intro to Escherick

It's difficult for me to describe Wharton Escherick. I've heard people talk of him as the Dean of American Craftsman, a painter, a sculptor, and a hermit. But as best as I can see he's a man not wholly dissimilar to me—someone who wants to leave his creations behind for the world in hopes of making it just a bit more beautiful. In that, I believe he succeeded. I think the best way he's been described is as follows (borrowed from whartonesherickmuseum.org):  "His legacy lies not in establishing a style, his designs were too unique, but in pioneering the way for successive generations of artists working in wood to exhibit and market their original, non-traditional designs."

In my mind, however, his genius lies not in his ability to create unique, non-linear furniture designs and execute them with the skill of a master craftsman, but in taking some design that is more akin to sculpture and giving it a shaker-esk function. Form did not follow function, as is the more traditional shaker sense, but rather they were united into one complete and equal entity. A perfect example, and perhaps his most famous piece, is his spiral staircase at left. It's impossible to tell whether he set out knowing he needed a staircase and so found a material that inspired this piece, or if, in a more Krenovian fashion, he found the material and was inspired to make such a stairway. The form of the piece sheds the limitations of any traditional staircase, spiral or no, and looks like something out of Seuss's "Oh The Places You'll Go." And yet it's function is blatant and it's daily use since it's construction in 1930 speaks to the quality of his craft.

On the opposite end of the Escherick spectrum, at least in the furniture sense, is his bed and drawers pictured at right. His practicality led him to some ideas that seem shaker-esk as I said earlier, and yet when placed within his home amongst so many pieces of art and sculpture they seem all the more mad. The drawer in the picture is part of his dresser, which sits under his bed, both in order to raise his bed to the level of the southern facing window bay, and also to leave more room for his beloved books. He hated searching through drawers, however, for articles of clothing, so instead he made several shallow drawers which would be only a couple folded shirts deep. 

Escherick was arguably the most important figure in American crafts, or at the very least one of them, in the 20th century, and he was downright fascinating. If you are ever in the greater Philadelphia area—Paoli to be precise—you should visit his home, which is now a museum. And if you are searching for inspiration, don't forget to look deeper into Escherick. I've spent several weeks now learning and reading about him, and I'm far from tired of it. If one day I stumble upon an idea as wonderfully utilitarian and yet beautiful as this library step, then I'll know I will have done something special.