{ Category Archives: studio process }

Proof of Concept

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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.

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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

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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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Announcing deepcraft.com

deepcraft home

I recently launched my new deepcraft.com website. Though still in prototype form, deepcraft.com has five live pages that I’m hoping will generate traffic as I continue build to out its content and ecommerce potential over the coming months. For now, the site features my Deep Deck longboard, available for commission as a made-to-order item. The longboard is a kind of ‘hero’ product around which I will develop a distinct Deep Craft line, including furnishings, clothing and other essential wares that live up to the Deep Craft Ethos. If you visit the site, which you can by clicking here, please hit the ‘contact’ button and drop me a line so I can add you to my mailing list. Thanks!

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Orphan Tools

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I’ve so far drawn the line at a scale of operations I call ‘Forklift and a Warehouse’. If it ever seems like I need a forklift and/or a warehouse, I know I made the wrong turn somewhere. My current production capabilities allow me to efficiently make one-offs, prototypes and very small production runs, but not much beyond batches of 4 or 5 of any given thing per week. While I love the creative flexibility inherent in running a small shop, I am beginning to find clients for production versions of my designs, and am poised to scale operations to meet demand and still offer a competetive price point.

Investing in a few new tools will increase my efficiency exponentially, so I’ve subscribed to a handful of online auctions for woodworking tools, and scour daily posts for re-saws, glue spreaders, wide belt sanders and the like. At first, I greedily scrolled through listings, knowing exactly what I was looking for. As the daily emails persisted, I became painfully aware of how many small manufacturers were closing throughout the US, predominantly on the East Coast. I began to see the tools differently, as orphaned tools, tools that had been loved and maintained, tools that had supported livelihoods, helped put kids through college and pay mortgages. Suddenly the images had such poignancy. The images themselves are what appeal to me now, as an incidental archive of a major shift in the culture of (not) making things in the US.

I would love to make an exhibition or publication that simply collates and displays online auction house photos of tools for sale. Meanwhile, I still seek the perfect tool to expand my capabilities, but worry about the fate of so many obsolete or unwanted tools (and skilled workers) in the process.

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Nettoyez les Champs

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A bonfire on a chilly grey morning always reminds me of our time in West Africa. There was a common saying among village farmers, on doit nettoyer les champs, clear the fields, which pretty much always meant building a fire. Before the rainy season, entire fields would be burned to recondition the soil for next year’s crops of yam, millet, corn and sorghum. When crops were mature and needed tending, farmers would set out on foot at dawn from the mud huts of the village to collective fields ringing the compound, short-handled, hand-forged hoes hanging deftly from one shoulder.

Au debut, if faut nettoyer les champs. Before working the fields, the farmers would gather loose, dry debris to build a fire, harvesting a few ripe yams in the process. The fire would be built on top of the yams and the farmers would go off to rebuild earthen mounds, redig trenches for irrigation and harvest enough produce to carry back to the village. By mid-day the fire would be down to embers and the hot sun high in the sky. Charred yams would be raked from coals, their blackened crusts expertly removed with a few strokes of a razor sharp coup-coup, and the farmers would gather for a feast of roasted yams with spicy colico before an afternoon nap in the neem grove’s shade.

Our annual winter bonfires may be less prosaic, but they always give me a chance to relive our brief time in West Africa, where I was lucky enough to see the seasonal shift from harvest to rain au village. To contribute less of a carbon footprint, we typically chip or compost most of our green debris, but each year still yields a ‘burn pile’ of apple tree prunings, storm fallen branches and other less expected wood waste, and I always look forward to setting it all on fire, sans yams.

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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.

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