Friday, October 30, 2009

A Tale of Two Cabinets

James Krenov, who just passed away in October (2009), taught an entire generation of woodworkers to converse with wood; to listen and respond with a thoughtful approach; the dialog informing the very shape and feel of a thing. Design is a tricky thing, but through such a conversation we can at least arrive at a semblance of design quality. We can follow the threads which challenge our notions and preconceptions and thus raise the tenor of the look and feel of a piece beyond that which typically lies within us. Often those ideas raise our skills pushing us to explore new methods and new approaches.

Sometimes a design comes together just as conceived. But, more often that which was pictured or drawn fails to live up to expectations. Something says no, we listen, it morphs, we adapt; and after a while we arrive with something that looks better for the conversation.

The following tale brightly illuminates this process. I like to make two of something, especially when there are many steps and many problems to work out. I recently wrote in Cabinet-Failures and Illusions about making a handle for a cabinet. I also made an identical cabinet to the one pictured in the aforementioned post; however the two cabinets, although cut at the same time of the same species of wood, have such a different look and feel. One has a more formal feel; tall and straight-grained, clear and uniformly colored. The other one is soft with little obvious grain, but with subtle shading and hue. Dark areas define the panels and the chocolate tone of the wood is quiet and somber. It would be easy to assume that two identically sized and constructed cabinets would look good with identical handles. But, the handles for the chocolate cabinet don't compliment the tall cabinet. I had a long discussion (most of the summer) with the tall cabinet and I eventually ended up down by the creek looking for branches. I found some chokecherry and cut several branches and after stripping them of branches, leaves and bark set them aside to dry . Upon discovering the shape and length that fit and cutting them to size I turned some walnut rings which I could slip over each end. Each was sized to slip to a certain point and then stop. I intended to dowel them through the back and into the cabinet. It just didn't look right. The walnut interrupted the line of the branch and took away from the simplicity of the line. I decided to eliminate the walnut altogether and let the shape of the branch define the cabinet front. That worked. I embonized each handle and mounted them using walnut dowels.

Friday, May 01, 2009

A Thousand Measureless Minutes

Tim slid down the chute feet first. Now, there was no going back, no return. The lip was four feet above the black pool and there was no way to reach it once plunged into the darkness. The sides were slick, polished, and beautiful. The pool opened at the opposite end into a slot; a narrow, deep, twisting slot just as dark and beautiful as the pool. Somewhere the slot opened up, somewhere unknown.

When Tim plunged in he took a moment to surface and I heard the slight panic, the thrashing, the unmeasured breaths. I felt the tension. His struggle lept off the walls and echoed down the canyon. It lasted a while and stopped and then between deep sucking breaths I heard, "It's cold."

We had been hot - very hot. We had covered the three-miles up the canyon with all of our ropes and gear in about a half-an-hour and it had been difficult to get into the deep part of the canyon, now several hundred feet above us. After walking the ledges we had repelled and then down-climbed into the deepest hole. The world changed. Gone was the ragged, wind-eroded sandstone. Replacing it were the sensuous curves of this half water world; elegant, towering, twisting, fantastic; irreducibly complex - horrifyingly simple.

I slid down the chute. I struck and forgot everything. The hole was numbingly cold and the shock from sweat to freezing was instantaneously alarming - panicking. I had perhaps ten-pounds of gear on and my feet found no bottom, my hands no grip. Air seemed in short supply. The channel was too narrow to swim. A frantic dog paddle found another curve and another. Then the narrow opened, my feet found a bottom and Tim stood at the end laughing....

I clearly remember walking down the trail after climbing all day at Seneca. Gear jingling, laughing, fooling around. It was 1993 and we were single. Besides work, we climbed. I perfected lead-climbing and Tim learned rope work, gear placement, and the craft of climbing. We ate pizza at the general store and drank too much in the evenings around the fire. They were the best days.

...The valley lay below, far below. The truck, perhaps a mile away, appeared as a speck. Only a few feet separated me from the summit of Six Shooter, but the move was committing and the fall not very appealing. A smear, an incut hold, and a mantle was all that remained, but I didn't like the smears on red sandstone.
Earlier, I had slipped on a very solid layback; the sandstone shoving my foot downward, and now I was thinking about the consequences of a fall. On lead, I sometimes go up, then down, and up again, testing, feeling the holds, readying myself for the moment when I move up regardless of what lies above. I yelled at Tim, "Watch me." I torqued my foot onto the soft rock and climbed. The moves were easy. I stood and nothing else was above me.

The top was about the size of a good Thanksgiving table. To the south the Abajo's broke the deep blue sky. To the north, the LaSalles, fresh with new snow beamed white against the red rock of Indian Creek. To the west, Canyonlands, The Maze, and Needles lay all around. I readied the ropes and brought Tim up. We had climbed as one; connected by the ropes, by our long friendship, by the trust forged in our many adventures. The rope; our bond, our suffering, our tears, our easy laugh, our deep friendship.

Desert spires are special. These unique summits give only after taking, but leave you giddy with wonder. I've stood amongst the lumbering, snowy summits and glaciated peaks of North America, yet these summits, who fall in just a day, never fail to leave one awestruck. We shared the summit, another place marked our passing and etched our memory. We readied the repel...

The brambles in Quebec demand skin in trade for passage. Each taking their meager portion - only a bit, a small sample. But, they are countless hordes. They ate at us piece by piece. Bit by bit through the night. We have a picture of our legs after the race. More blood and scabs then skin. It was the first time - the first adventure race. Crack for junkies like us.

....We sat and surveyed the expanse below and plotted our route. Perhaps a thousand feet below Salt Creek cut into the valley floor and began its relentless destruction; each layer of sandstone giving up begrudgingly and suddenly falling to the next until after twenty-miles a hundred layers lay breached. We plunged off the edge of the mesa hoping to find water but also quench our thirst for a place no one had been. In a little hole in the rock we found water and in the slot canyon we quenched our desire. Cougar tracks gave away the ghost who traveled this place at night. The canyon narrowed and became a slot. It slithered through the pinions, gathered itself together and fell hundreds of feet in one crashing, silent crescendo. We climbed up and around. We spent the remainder of the day clambering through and sandstone and the pinions. In the end we climbed back up the mesa and sat around the fire eating and talking into the night. We went out to see the stars above the mesa; shooting stars celebrated the night and the place. Orion lay deep on the western horizon, lord over the winter no more. The stillness was profound. The immensity fathomless.

I was puking on the road; great heaves and spasms, but nothing was coming out. There was nothing. We had been racing for solidly for over 24-hours over what seemed like weeks and I had eaten almost nothing. I was done, but Tim was in front - pushing, pulling. Each of us came and went - equally spent and equally energetic. When one stood; when one pushed, we both stood. We won that race. 350 miles and seven days. It marked a new point in what we thought was possible - everything.

We bounced up and down Comb Ridge like bunnies spurred on by the Anasazi and the country itself. Two-days of ruins, petroglyphs, and sandstone. I have written about this place many times and I was happy to let Tim fall under its spell. Our climbing skills were put to good use as we searched the deep washes and climbed the ridge again and again.

To have American antiquity spread before is humbling. We are brothers with the people who called these places home. We felt them. Restless, they discovered everything and filled every corner. The West; these mountains, buttes, and open spaces stirs men who were born in the wrong time. We are better suited to walk with Colter, Powell, Bridger, and Lewis.

Just this week the intrepid explorer, writer, and artist Everett Ruess bones were found on Comb Ridge. Fitting, the mystery of his disappearance was solved this week and his bones were found in this place. He was killed by Utes in 1934 - perhaps the last man killed by Indians. I suspect he would have liked his resting place. It's curious and fitting that William Posey also died about 10-years earlier at Comb Ridge. Perhaps the last Indian killed by whites. Ruess said,

Adventure is for the adventurous.
My face is set.
I go to make my destiny.
May many another youth be by me inspired to leave the snug safety of his rut,
and follow fortune to other lands.
God, how the wild calls to me.
There can be no other life for me but that of the lone wanderer.
It has an irresistible fascination.
The lone trail is the best for me.
Throughout the trip we were reminded of the vastness of space in the night sky and the vastness of time in the stones around us. We noted these things and talked of our adventures together, we laughed easily and enjoyed the wind in our faces. We talked about one day being forced, like all men, to leave these places and return from whence we came.

Ruess said much of this far better.

"Music has been in my heart all the time, and poetry in my thoughts. Alone on the open desert, I have made up songs of wild, poignant rejoicing and transcendent melancholy. The world has seemed more beautiful to me than ever before. I have loved the red rocks, the twisted trees, the red sand blowing in the wind, the slow, sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of moonlight on my bed at night. I have seemed to be at one with the world. I have rejoiced to set out, to be going somewhere, and I have felt a still sublimity, looking deep into the coals of my campfires, and seeing far beyond them. I have been happy in my work, and I have exulted in my play. I have really lived."

My dying breath will fire my last thoughts and they will be of the wild places and the people I've shared those places with. There are a handful of people, many places, and there is still time....

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Yin and Yang Vase

For the last several days the trees at the office have been getting trimmed. Wood is scarce here on the high plains and I couldn't let good hardwood be turned into mulch so I snagged a nice piece of locust. I used the crotch out of the log and turned this yin and yang vase.

Winter is quickly fading and I'm being pulled outside; away from the shop; toward other interests. This vase fits nicely with the idea being puled in opposite directions; of wanting different things, opposite things; and achieving some balance between all of those interests. Yin and Yang are about disjunct or opposing forces which are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world, each giving rise to each other in turn. Yin and yang are bound together, yet they are in opposition. So is a balanced life. Our interests are in opposition each to the other - we can only do one at a time, and the pursuit of one keeps us from perfecting the other. Yet, each informs the others. My woodworking informs my business interests. My interest in science improves my ability to perfect rational thought. Climbing, mounting biking, and other outdoor pursuits all inform each other. My interest in Western history informs my exploring. I can explore more remote places because I keep pursue all of these sports. Hard physical exertion in turn improves the mind. A sharp mind is necessary in the business world. Rational thought ties everything together. Each make me better at the other. Each turns on the other. They all nourish each other and they all nourish me.

Tammi is an artist and a scientist. Each is necessary for the other. There have been some studies lately which demonstrate, rather pointedly, that right brain activities (art, for example) improve the abilities of physicians (a generally left brain activity). For me, not only does all of the varied things I do make everything I do better, but it keeps my life sharp, vibrant, and new. The cycle is self-renewing, self-propagating; regenerative.

The duplicitous and adulterous wanderings of both our psyche and our amorous attentions are good. Like a good sports team these various sojourns build depth; strength. The key is limiting their practice so as to build strength in their cross-pollination and not foundering around trying to milk all of the blossoms.

I think I'll go work in the shop, well, a good book would be nice, no - I need a ride, ah - what I really need is a week in the desert.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The New President - An Historical Perspective

Regardless of your politics, ideology, religious beliefs, or affiliation there is a element of this election that reaches beyond simple history. This event is one of those foundational movements in history when things shift. Events like the crossing of the Delaware, the return of Lewis and Clark, Hiroshima, and the Arkansas Nine.

America has always represented an ideal; an egalitarian society; a place of almost limitless possibility. Perhaps the first in the history of civilization and certainly a place that, at least on its face, represents the future of humankind. However, that ideal has been tainted by racism; by the specter that some are not equal. For our lifetimes that fact has been just underneath our collective skin; our promise unfulfilled; our destiny derailed. Photo: Revolution Studios

There is something new. Nothing ends, yet no one had such a bold dream that the pendulum of history could change with one event. That is why the old men weep. The victory in this election is not Obama's alone, but it is the exhaling of a million held breaths. Perhaps the victory is not Obama's at all. It is our victory. The realization that history will mark this single point as an end to what Truman began is, for many, beyond words. That the silent protest of Rosa Parks, the cries of King, and the sacking of Detroit are not only behind us, but that we did in fact produce a more perfect Union. That we can go froward. That the dreams of all can now be our collective dream.

If possible, there is even something bigger. Beyond these shores, there are children in Kenya and university students in France who look to us, and with joy and hope, wonder if what we have accomplished - they can accomplish. We can only hope.

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Cabinet - Failures and Illusions

"As a perfectionist, you exist only so long as you are tying to make that perfect piece: on second thought, "perfect" is perhaps not quite what I mean, since the very word implies something beyond criticism and also remote from the warmth that keeps our work alive. But I have now and then wanted to do a piece - just one single thing - which would be the sum of all my efforts, and could justify my existence as a craftsman. Of course, that urge serves best while it is an illusion. And what is that perfect piece? You complain because it eludes you--and are secretly glad because you have to complain. You mutter about the a detail or a whole piece being not quite as you wanted...Some mistakes you make and correct...You stand in front of a piece all evening wandering, is it good? Yes, but what about THAT part: is it a mistake? What will happen if you back up and change it? You'll spend time, run the risk of spoiling the whole piece and the result will be - a line: too straight to be quite alive? An edge: if you make it more even will this be a loss, or a noticeable gain? You are not so much worried about the effort or even risk involved, as over something else...." James Krenov - A Cabinetmaker's Notebook

I almost failed the cabinet.

Handles are important. Either they are hidden; unobtrusive - allowing only the piece to exist, or they call out for you to use them. Mostly they do the latter. They beg you to open the hidden; to explore a drawer, open a door. I wanted mine to invite you to look inside and to provide something new on the outside; something unique, something complete.

I envisioned a simple walnut handle, but that was somehow too simple. I wanted it to be a very elongated oval. The shape of the piece suggested something elongated. I plotted how to turn it, how to hold it, how to keep it from spinning out of control. After roughing out the knobs and using a considerable amount of time I was ready for the oval. It was disaster. I couldn't see the knob to turn it. I spun one and quickly destroyed my prior work. My idea of perfection was shattered, my vision marred, and failure seemed like a likely end.

I brooded for days while doing other things. I knew failure could be turned, but that is seldom easy and often fraught with doubt. It is difficult to replace a vision - a concept. A spark finally lit, a new vision started to form and I liked it. I went and got a small piece of ebony and cut up some cardboard in some possible shapes. I liked it. I changed the radius a bit. I cut a wooden template. I liked it. I cut some walnut into 1/4" slices and made the handle. I liked it. My outlook improved, but I still had a long way to go with something I had never done before. I needed to mount the handle; to fix it to the doors. Numerous configurations lead me back to the lathe.

I cut up the ebony and readied it for the lathe. I turned it down, pulled it off and decided it was too big. I turned it down some more and was pleased. The other three fell in quick succession.

Often, with cabinet work you spend tremendous amounts of time on something which can then be destroyed so quickly, so thoroughly, that the last steps are almost painful. There is a kind of terror in the air. I had to put a deep, angled mortise down the center of a very small, very hard knob. 1/32" was too much error.

I played with some ideas and arrived at a reasonable solution which would accomplish the task and keep my fingers their original length. My jig worked ok, and a little bench work cleaned up the remainder. I hurriedly finished the remaining work so I could see it finally together. I always get inpatient at this point - wondering if the proportion is right, if the line is good, if it works. I have to mentally slow down; appreciate the ending; not screw up. There's no mistake at this point which wouldn't ruin everything and the pieces were fragile and small.

Once it was finished I was pleased. The handles did invite you to open the doors. The chocolate tones of the wood wooed the walnut and ebony. It was a whole.

Victory comes in small steps. Each piece a part of a whole becomes so intertwined, so dependent on the other, that the victories become indistinguishable. New failures await - the pursuit of perfection presents this foreboding horizon and we plod on to our demise and our ecstasy. It all binds the craftsmen, the cabinetmaker and the artist in its wonderful grip.

I still have my illusion.

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