{ Category Archives: daily handwork }

My Bonfire Coat

bonfire coat

My Bonfire Coat dries by the fire, draped over a shovel handle

My Bonfire Coat is a herringbone Harris Tweed from the 1960’s. I found it at an AMVETS in Chicago in the early eighties and wore it everywhere for about the next decade when I moved from city to city to country to city. I built a house and a boat in this coat one very cold winter in upstate New York and cleared land and burned brush in Exeter, Rhode Island that spring. I met my wife while wearing this coat at the Aldrich Estate in Annandale-on-Hudson on October 1, 1988. I’ve kept the coat in my woodshop since we moved to California and mostly wear it on chilly mornings while I get a fire going in the woodstove. I also wear it for our annual bonfire, a seasonal ritual born of accumulated apple prunings, wood scraps and giant fallen ‘widow makers’ from the redwoods. The coat keeps me dry in a light rain while shielding the sparks and intense heat of a roaring fire. This year I noticed a disturbing cluster of moth holes and was tempted to throw the coat on the fire as it burned down. I think I’ll give it one more year.

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Return of the Glass Banjo

banjobanjoh01

Glass Banjo, 2001, hand-blown glass, aircraft aluminum, marine plywood

My trusty Glass Banjo will be included in Southern Exposure‘s juried exhibition, This Will Never Work, on view in San Francisco from November 22 – December 14, 2013. I made the piece over twelve years ago and it’s never been exhibited, rarely even seen, so I’m anxious to see how it will be received.

The Glass Banjo is part of a series of ‘field equipment’ I made to support site specific projects in remote destinations, particularly a progression of treehouse structures I orchestrated on either coast beginning in the late 1990s. After a long day in the tree and foraging the forest for materials, my volunteer crew and I would relax under the boughs, admire our work and plan for the next morning. Our twilight reverie would inevitably require libations and music, so I thought to make an all-weather banjo for impromptu song-making. I thought it’d be interesting if all project documentation were limited to made-up banjo songs.

I based the proportions of my Glass Banjo on a late 19th-Century fretless Haynes Bay State model I had purchased in the 1980’s on Bleecker Street. I reduced the number of parts to the barest minimum, choosing materials and engineering the structure to withstand outdoor living. The hook at the back of the head allows the instrument to be hung from a tree limb, within easy reach should inspiration strike.

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Proof of Concept

masselli3

Whether the intended outcome is a new sculpture, furniture design or product idea, I often begin the ‘Proof of Concept’ phase with a stroll through the salvage yards. My absolute favorite is Maselli & Sons in Petaluma, CA. With over seven acres of neatly organized machine parts, scrap metal, salvaged tools, motors and hardware, it’s easy to find what you’re looking for, and even easier to find what you had no idea existed but could not do without.

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For me, Proof of Concept involves building a working model, with the goal of establishing an idea’s feasibility. Demonstrating Proof of Concept, however schematic in form, makes it much easier to proceed with cost estimates and material requirements, the next steps in planning a production when collaborating with fabricators and engineers. It also often leads to a better idea or technique than originally conceived.

masselli1

For Spinnradl, I need to prove that a hand-cranked, acoustic music box will produce a decent sound when rendered on a monumental scale. Once I know the components that produce the sound, it’s relatively straightforward to make a repeating melody. For my first experiment I found parts to make a large scale, tuned ‘comb’ of hardened steel, like a giant kalimba. Next I’ll play with how best to amplify the sound by making an integral resonating box.

 

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Research Topics du Jour

The_North_Star

spinnradl2well's inclinometer

 

One of the challenges and pleasures of developing site specific, public sculpture is following several threads of research simultaneously and trying to find unexpected connections that make sense. Here is a sampling of some topics we are researching as we design a series of kinetic sculptures for the Pendleton neighborhood of Cincinnati:

 

1. Polaris

2. Spinnradl

3. Ragtime

4. Radial Moire

5. Peg Leg Joe

6. Appalachian Hymns

 

 

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Clifford E Martin and the Stanley #57

stanley57_1a

 

Original patent drawing of the Core Box Plane, Stanley #57

For reasons beyond my grasp, my mother’s side of the family has always been somewhat shrouded in mystery. It was often a challenge to parse reality from myth in her stories, and in truth the two were often interchangeable. True, her mother tamed foundling birds and played ragtime piano, her father designed derrigibles and other early aircraft, but not much is certain beyond that. I knew her father grew up in Greenfield, Massachussettes and was among the first to graduate from Pratt’s engineering program. I still have his textbooks on mechanics and engineering graphics, dated 1911-1914, along with his Brooklyn street address.

Since my mom passed away just over two years ago I’ve found myself wanting to solve some of her family mysteries. I miss hearing her stories, and researching her background helps me cope with her absense and stay connected in some odd way. My detective work has led to reading Census Reports beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, and following leads as far as I am able via public records on the internet. The most startling discovery thus far is that my great grandfather on my mother’s father’s side, Clifford E Martin, has a few patents for wood-working tools.

On the Census Reports from Greenfield, Mass, Clifford E Martin was listed either as a Pattern Maker or Tool Maker, employed by the Greenfield Foundry, or Greenfield Tool and Dye. I know the company well because many of my favorite antique hand tools bear the Greenfield stamp. One of Clifford’s patents is for the Core Box Plane, a hand plane used to make precise concavities in wooden ‘patterns’ to be cast in iron, and was in production as the Stanley #57 into the mid-1940’s when it became obsolete to the industry.

The connection may seem mundane, but to me it is revelatory. I use many tools familiar to traditional pattern makers in my sculptures, making ‘patterns’ or ‘originals’ in wood that are then cast in bronze. Most sculptors work in clay, foam or wax before casting in bronze, but I’ve always preferred the precision and aesthetics of working in wood, not to mention the technology in the form of vintage hand tools, like the Stanley #57 Core Box Plane designed by my great grandfather, Clifford E Martin in 1909.

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Reconsidering Shellac

lac beetle

Shellac is a natural by-product of the lac beetle’s secretions.

Like so many craftsy kids who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, I had my own rock polisher, a wood-burning set, access to my dad’s tools, collections of yarn and twine, old National Geographics, mucelage, rubber cement and shellac, and a basement, attic and garage for a studio. Whether I was making fake antique signs or a decoupage vase, I always seemed to have an open can of shellac, and learned to associate it’s candy amber gloss with other craft icons of the era such as tie dye, macrame, stamped leather, etc. It’s peculiar how such ancient techniques were consistently defamed by their appropriation into middle class America in the 1960’s and 70’s.

I haven’t changed much since then, and I live in a place that is almost entirely and un-self-consciously unreconstructed since about circa 1978, so maybe it’s fitting I should be reconsidering shellac. But there’s more to it. As a wood finish, shellac meets my requirements on several key levels:

1. Shellac is a non-toxic by-product of secretions by the lac beetle (lacifer lacca), whose flakes are easily dissolved in denatured alcohol, another bio-degradable agent, so it uses no harmful chemicals or petroleum products.

2. Shellac can be applied at almost any reasonable temperature or humidity level, so is particularly well-suited to our typically cool, damp conditions; and it dries fast, reducing time for application of multiple coats.

3. Shellac penetrates the wood and seals it while protecting from darkening through exposure to light. Also, by using de-waxed flakes that have been processed to make a clear resin, it’s possible to attain a very pale finish on wood.

4. Shellac is easily repaired, and its surface can be rendered virtually flat either through the use of polishing abrasives or integral ‘flattening agents’.

Shellac has been used in some form since ancient times as a wood finish, gaining wide-spread popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries in the form of a technique called ‘French Polish’, but was rendered practically obsolete during the Industrial Revolution with the introduction of varnishes and oil-based resins. I’ve spent the majority of my wood-working career trying to match my approach to wood with an appropriate finishing technique, having most recently convinced myself that wood is best left raw, gaining a patina through exposure to the elements over time. My recent rediscovery of shellac has me thinking otherwise, and I’ve begun using it exclusively for all of my interior projects. Who knows, maybe I’ll break out the rock polisher next.

lac beetle2

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Deep Craft video

I’m proud to post the final episode of Kirsten Dirksen’s three part documentary she filmed in one day this past winter when she was visiting from Barcelona, home base for her company, faircompanies.com. This is my favorite one and I think it does a wonderful job of presenting the core of my Deep Craft philosophy. I especially appreciate her featuring my Deep Deck so prominently, which I’m poised to launch this summer at Storefront Lab in San Francisco through a three week pop-up store project I’m calling Deep Craft Atelier (more about this soon).

To watch the video on Kirsten’s site, read her commentary and link to her other video productions featuring “community and access to tools on sustainable culture”, please click here.

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