{ Category Archives: studio process }

Return of the Glass Banjo

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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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Experiments in Wooden Planing Hulls

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Top and bottom of my latest bellyboard, laminated from cedar and walnut veneers.

I’m a purist when it comes to riding waves. Or maybe a minimalist. Or both. I grew up bodysurfing on the Jersey Shore in the Seventies, learning about tides and wind, sandbars and swell. We surfed beach breaks exclusively, daily, no matter the size of the wave, which rarely raised higher than overhead and generally capped out at chest height. Some used surfboards and boogie boards (which were just finding their way to the East Coast), but the break was never very far from shore and the set up was generally over a sandbar, where a bodysurfer could often stand to catch a wave unaided. With a little swimming over the gully, you could ride the bigger waves all the way to shore, catching the second break when the tide was just right.

I’ve continued to bodysurf since we moved to the San Francisco Bay Area over twenty years ago, adding a wetsuit and fins to suit the more extreme conditions. I’ve flirted with standing surfboards but have yet to get past the learning curve to really enjoy it. I also just prefer direct body contact with the wave, especially given my lack of dedicated time in the water. I began to research bellyboards as a possible alternative a few years ago, and have recently been making experimental prototypes as an extension of my skate deck manufacture. I use the same laminations cut from local woods I’ve milled and dried myself, molded over improvised forms and hand shaped for optimal hydroplaning and adequate buoyancy.

My latest design is a hybrid of traditional Hawaiian Alaia and Paipo shapes, informed by the hydroplaning experiments of naval architect Lindsay Lord. Measuring about 3′ 6″ long by 19.5″ wide, the board is composed of a sandwich lamination of two cold-formed layers; two 3/16″ thick, book-matched claro walnut veneers on the bottom, and three 3/8″ thick veneers of Western red cedar on the top. The specific gravity of the cedar, left to its full thickness, adds to the board’s buoyancy. The relatively hard walnut veneers are shaped to taper to about 1/8″ or less at the edges, making for a sharper edge and abrasion-resistent surface. The combined stability of each layer, combined with the slightly cross-grained lamination, prevents the finished product from undo warping or cupping.

 

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Introducing the BLAKE

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The BLAKE table in situ (photograph by Mimi Gibion for Remodelista)

I call my latest table design the BLAKE as an homage to the pioneering surfer/shaper Tom Blake, inventor of the hollow surfboard.

BLAKE is a minimalist sculpture as much as a functional dining table, a floating white torsion box, compatible with Shaker and surfer alike.

The top is a seamless, folded miter skin of MDF around a honeycomb core, covered with six coats of a durable resin, polished to a high gloss. The legs are solid walnut, milled from horticultural salvage in Northern California, finished with hand-rubbed tung oil.

BLAKE is the latest in my ongoing exploration of tables and chairs and their relationship to community and place. BLAKE is available exclusively through TURPAN.

blake hollow board

tom blake

 

 

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Update from Swell Break: Deep Craft on the Edge

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Rodeo Beach, viewed from the trail from Headlands Center for the Arts

Located on a barren bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the Marin Headlands, the Headlands Center for the Arts (HCA) feels remote, like the edge of civilization, despite its close proximity to San Francisco. Founded in the early 1980’s, HCA occupies a series of decommissioned military buildings predating WW1, originally part of Fort Baker, with the bulk of activities clustered in two identical structures originally intended to house infantry.

One of the more compelling consequences of siting military facilities along remote coastline is that they ultimately serve to protect that stretch of coast from commercial development. Upon its eventual resusitation after closing as a military base in 1950, the Headlands has emerged as a major cultural and natural treasure, a beloved destination for surrounding urban communities seeking solace, recreation and inspiration. I designed my recent workshop at Headlands, Swell Break: Deep Craft on the Edge, to tap this desire for natural/cultural engagement by positing the potential for a former military base sited in close proximity to a major surf break to be repurposed as a research lab for the design and testing of surf craft tailored to a specific break.

The Swell Break project proved to be a huge success despite the inherent challenges of scope and time. Over the course of a Labor Day Weekend, in collaboration with my friend, sculptor/surfer Lawrence Labianca, we mentored 12 workshop participants in the design, prototyping and testing of a series of simple wooden bellyboards, designed to negotiate the break at Rodeo Beach. The project has been both a follow-up and distillation of my ongoing pursuit of collaborative, artisan-scale making informed by the unique characteristics of a bioregion, particularly when it engages boat-building, skate or surf culture.

Click here to see complete photo documentation by Hans Kwiotek.

Related projects include: Micro-Expedition, Deep Craft Atelier

Click here to read more about Swell Break: Deep Craft on the Edge.

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Bellyboards Galore

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Top and bottom view of my EggBellyboard in Western Red Cedar and Walnut

I’ve made a few bellyboard prototypes for my upcoming Swell Break project at the Headlands. The first batch are deceptively minimalist, egg-shaped, about 39″ long and 23″ wide, 5/8″ thick at the middle, feathering out to about 5/16″ at the edges. I cold-laminated two layers over a contoured block to arrive at the final shape; the bottom is claro walnut, and the top is Western red cedar. The next cold laminated version will use the same woods, but will be a bit longer, narrower, and with a concave tail for better speed and tracking in the surf.

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‘Fort Cronkite’, the point break at the Headlands off of Rodeo Beach

I shaped my second prototype from a solid blank of laminated pine I found at Home Depot. These 18″ x 48″ x 3/4″ pieces sell for about $18 each , which is perfect for a temporary, collaborative project involving extreme experimentation. I plan to work with the group of workshop participants to produce a series of bellyboard shapes with integral graphics that identify the boards with the natural and cultural histories of the site, suggesting a new kind of visual surf language.

Click here to read more about the development of Swell Break: Deep Craft on the Edge.

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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

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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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