{ Category Archives: waste streams }

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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Makkeweks Progress

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The Makkeweks sea monster sculpture upside down, roughed out in stack-laminated cork

No matter the depth of scientific knowledge there will always be monsters. You don’t have to look very hard to find them. Politics, industry and information technology are a few obvious breeding grounds. I’ve been thinking a lot about monsters as I begin to carve my Makkeweks sea monster sculpture for the City of Oakland. Even the pile of new materials jamming the studio is a kind of monster. As I commence to carving the beast, I’m finding monsters to be a surprisingly apt metaphor for the age (as well as my mental state).

MAKKEWEKS SCHEMATIC

Sketch showing the arrangement of laminations over the underlying, midsection form

The sculpture will be cast in bronze from a wax positive but I’m making the original out of solid cork. The material comes from the cork oak, Quercus suber, the word ‘cork’ being a corruption of the latin ‘quercus’. I’ve made stack laminations to rough out the shape of the sculpture from sheets of industrial cork from Portugal. The material cuts easily with a chain saw or cross cut handsaw, and carves beautifully with a wood rasp. The surface can be sanded very smooth, especially if skim coated with plaster. It can also be burned with irons to create detailed surface texture. I’ve begun to carve the underside/belly of the beast to put my tools and techniques to the test. The underside will not be very visible in the finished piece, so I’ll learn what works best before flipping the form to sculpt the top/back.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I designed and made my own 26″ long rasp from expanded metal lath and 1 x 4’s

Unable to find a rasp long enough to make smooth contours over a large expanse, I designed and made my own. I discovered that expanded metal lath is sharp enough and has open enough voids to cut the cork aggressively. I bent a slight arc into a 26” length x 9” wide section of lath, bent the longwise edges to right angles at about 1.5” in from the ends and screwed the material around a 26” long 1 x 4, capped with a slightly narrower 1 x 4 for a grip. My invention works like a charm, and its weight makes for a steady swipe over the material for as long as my arms can bear it. The work is slow going but satisfying, a work out, and I am able to meditate on the monster as it takes shape.

I’m particularly satisfied with my choice of material. Sheets of industrial cork are expensive, but comparable to foams of comparable density. Unlike foam, the cork is non-toxic, and the scraps and shavings are biodegradable. Also, carving the material leaves crumbs about the size of vermiculite and there  is no air born particulate, so I do not need to wear a mask or other special protection.

To learn more about the development of Wowhaus’ Makkeweks Project, click here.

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Arborigin

arborigin cover

Arborigin is a collaborative project that brings together artists, designers and artisans to produce fine products from a single elm tree salvaged from Chicago’s urban forest. We invite those interested to submit a proposal to use some of our inventory of cured lumber and hope to bring the finished products together for a pop up store in Chicago in 2014. In simple commerce we aim to incubate ideas for ongoing partnership.

Arborigin is akin to the farm-to-table movement in food. The project asks us to consider what kinds of products a single tree might yield when the means of production, distribution and sales are highly localized. What stories and values become embedded in everyday objects when we know exactly what they were made from and who made them? Arborigin asks us to think differently about trees, about things and how they are made and used, about the relationships that connect us to place. 

The Arborigin Team seeks proposals that model an approach to designing and making that celebrates the inherent attributes of wood from a single tree. We hope to produce products that are multiples; affordable, repeatable objects, that are both useful and artful. Proposals will be solicited by invitation and through an open RFP. Proposals can be for either: 

• Fine Art: sculpture, painting, conceptual work

• One-off/prototypes

• Design/ Craft:  preferably small multiples of everyday objects such as furnishings, housewares, toys and games, instruments, or other functional objects.

To learn more about Arborigin and register to participate, please click here (www.arborigin.com).

To read about the development of the Arborigin Project, please click here and scroll down.

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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.

masselli2

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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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.

lac beetle2

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Bull Kelp Harvest

kelp leg1

Each winter since we’ve lived on the Sonoma Coast and made a daily practice of walking the beaches, I become mildly obsessed with the bull kelp that washes ashore in great heaps after storms. I’ve tried weaving the kelp into seat blanks, drying it as an iodine-rich jerky, and brewing it for a savory stock. My experiments have not been utter failures, and the waste product makes for nutritious compost, but I have yet to find its ideal use.

This year, I harvested several large heads of the kelp, selecting the freshest and most well-formed. I’m considering casting these in bronze as a table leg for a new design commission, and have carefully cleaned and wrapped them for freezing until I’m ready to make the molds.

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