The Jay Martin Chair

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In summertime when I was a kid my family would make the annual pilgrimage to the Connecticut coast to visit my mother’s parents, who lived in a converted ‘pony barn’ a few hundred yards from the Long Island Sound. My grandfather was an accomplished woodworker, and their humble home was filled with furniture he had made from local maple and pine. His chairs and tables were fastened with exposed dowels and had soft, curvy contours after the Heywood-Wakefield furniture he emulated. He would burn his shop scraps for the morning fire, and I remember watching the knots and wane burn brightly in the fireplace, smelling the sweet smoke of New England sapwood.

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My grandfather was a retired aeronautical engineer, and graduated from one of the first degree programs at Pratt Institute in the early teens of the last century. He designed zeppelins during their heyday and kept piles of photographs from the shop floor, showing dirigibles and other early aircraft under construction and being tested.
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I liked how the photos looked like a past long gone but at the same time futuristic, the ‘old world’ of horses and hand tools giving way to machines. I liked the attitude of the workers and draftsmen- wiry guys with gleaming eyes, wearing hats, neckties and field boots, working in teams to design and build the amazing new flying machines.
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But most of all I liked seeing that wood featured so prominently in the realization of something so innovative. I developed the notion that if you could imagine something, you could probably build it with wood.

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Along with these photos I inherited my grandfather’s drafting tools, his technical books and a few of his planes and chisels, all of which I use to this day. They share a distinctive “W.A. Martin” engraved by his hand (‘Jay’ was a nickname presumably adopted to lighten the more formal ‘Wilbur’).

I designed The Jay Martin Chair as an homage to my grandfather, who died when I was eight years old. Though still in prototype phase, I plan to have a limited production available for sale this fall, based upon the prototype pictured above.

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Lessons from Samone

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I had a tiny shop in our garage in the flatlands of North Oakland when Ene and I first moved to California in the early nineties after circuitous travels through West Africa, across the United States and into Alaska. I had been deeply inspired by working with the village menusiers of Togo, and was just beginning to find my own language in wood, adapted from my yankee training and informed by living in the joyful spirit unique to ‘traditional’ cultures.

I felt at home in the Oakland flatlands, where slow-cooking oak fires smoked chicken before dawn on a weekend and people took time to stop and gossip on the street. My only power tool was a re-worked band saw, which I only used to re-saw wood I had salvaged from the dump or from drive-by chipper piles on the side of the road. Our neighborhood was densely populated so I did my best to keep quiet, using hand tools for shaping, and steam-bending for forming on weekends, in keeping with the smoky patterns of the neighborhood.

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While I waited for my stock material to saturate with steam, I would cook a lunch of fried yams over the fire, spiced with hot peppers from Ene’s garden, and played West African music on the boom box to remind me of our recent time abroad hanging out in gas-lit buvettes.

After a few months of this routine, a neighborhood kid began to appear predictably. He’d scale the plank gate by the sidewalk and hover around while I worked, asking endless questions, showing off his vocal beat-box skills and entertaining me with his comic acrobatics. His name was Samone and he lived in the ‘crack house’ on the corner, sadly lorded over by his ancient Granny. He must have been about ten years old, but possessed a formidable wit and nerve I’ve rarely seen in anyone of any age to this day. Samone volunteered as my apprentice for a few months, before his house was fire-bombed by a local gang and we lost touch. I was assured he was OK but the family moved and were reluctant to extend an address.

During these few poignant months, Samone used the the scrap from my already scrappy material to make things for his beloved Granny. He wanted to make her proud and for her to know that he had the heart and curiosity to take care of things if necessary with his own hands.

Bull Kelp at Salmon Creek Beach

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I’ve been collecting Bull Kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) to experiment with its material properties and possible use in a woven structure, such as a seat for the California Windsor Chair I am developing. This time of year the kelp beds are far offshore, but I’m hoping to prepare for the fall, when storms begin to wash enormous, tangled deposits onto the beaches of the wild Sonoma Coast. With just a small amount of kelp I can test some ideas and perhaps make a prototype over the summer.

This morning I ventured out to Salmon Creek beach just after sunrise to see what the beach would yield on a -0.7′ low tide. The beach was empty when I arrived, the weather calm, and the tide still going out. I harvested several fresh young kelp strands and noticed a few clusters eddying in the gully. These pieces would be perfect for my experiment, being much smaller in diameter, shorter in length and generally more manageable than the monster clusters of the winter months.

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I sat and watched the outgoing tide, drinking tea and munching frittata made from our own delicious eggs and loaded with tender spinach from the garden. Several seal heads popped up in the gully as I dined and I realized they must be eating breakfast too. I thought of another strategy for the Deep Craft Manifesto:

Prepare for Unintended Consequences

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There appeared to be fish in the gully and I brought along my surf rod just in case. I’ve seen stripers, ling cod and sea perch caught here, usually by Mexicanos using live shrimp or anchovies for bait. I made a dozen casts into the slack tide gully and trolled my silver lure around rocks and beds of seaweed, waiting for more young kelp to wash ashore. I did not catch any fish, but enjoyed the clear-headed casting and loaded my backpack with shiny brown kelp before heading back up the ridge to home. Next time I’ll bring bait.

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Jig-Cam on the Elder Chair Production

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Wooden chair frames traditionally have a bent back leg. The legs need to splay out towards the floor to carry the load back and keep the chair from tipping, and they need to splay out upwards to ease the sitter back to a comfortable angle of repose. Round stock is often steam bent to achieve this, and square stock is band-sawn. Band-sawing requires a wide board in order to yield the curved or raked part, and produces quite a lot of waste material in the process, often exceeding the yield of the final part in volume.

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In developing the Elder Chair, I invented a technique to make a bent back leg out of a single piece of square stock, dimensioned to the final part. Making a single cut to the stock at a carefully chosen angle (see the video clip above), then flipping and laminating the upper portion to the back of the lower portion yields a stronger leg while producing no waste, saving time and adding a compelling visual feature by reversing grain patterns.

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The technique requires designing and building a ‘jig’ to position the piece and secure it in place for a safe pass over the table saw. It is best suited to small production runs and may not be suitable for one-offs due to the time invested in building a jig.

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Rough stock is graded and milled to produce the most seamless effect while ensuring structural integrity. Even in a fairly automated process, the chair’s design is strongly informed by a knowledgeable maker.

I have designed a ‘Jig-Cam’ to illustrate this simple process, and will continue to incorporate a camera mount to my jigs in the future.

Dairy Barn Chair

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I discovered this chair in an abandoned dairy barn in Tomales, California, among artifacts from a formerly productive cattle ranch just down the coast in West Marin County. It is a good example of “maintenance equals improvement” in that the original rush-woven seat has been replaced by a woven leather seat improvised by the deceased rancher, consisting of a single strand of raw hide, diagonally laced across the seating frame. The seat itself has remained strong and tight, and amazingly shows no sign of decay, despite it’s obvious age and neglect after so many years living in the barn. Also, it is very comfortable.

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I would like to adapt the pattern to another material if possible, and have been experimenting with kelp foraged from beaches nearby. I harvested a load of kelp a month ago, and hung the long strands to dry in the sun. I was impressed how the kelp kept its shape on contours, and how it remained stiff yet flexible.

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More to come…

Peg and Awl

Peg and Awl, (version by the Carolina Tar Heels)
In the days of eighteen and one, peg and awl! (twice)
In the days of eighteen and one, peggin’ shoes is all I done,
Hand me down my pegs, my pegs, my pegs, my awl.
In the days of eighteen and two, peg and awl! (twice)
In the days of eighteen and two, peggin’ shoes is all I do,
Hand me down my pegs, my pegs, my pegs, my awl.
In the days of eighteen and three, peg and awl! (twice)
In the days of eighteen and three, peggin’ shoes is all you’d see,
Hand me down my pegs, my pegs, my pegs, my awl.
In the days of eighteen and four, peg and awl! (twice)
In the days of eighteen and four, I said I’d peg them shoes no more.
Throw away my pegs, my pegs, my pegs, my awl!
They’ve invented a new machine, peg and awl! (twice)
They’ve invented a new machine, prettiest thing you ever seen,
Throw away my pegs, my pegs, my pegs, my awl!
Makes one hundred pair to my one, peg and awl! (twice)
Makes one hundred pair to my one, peggin’ shoes ain’t no fun,
Throw away my pegs, my pegs, my pegs, my awl!

I think of this song and others like it when I am in the tedium of production handwork, as is now my daily charge. The song speaks to me on several levels, and illustrates at least one precept for the Deep Craft manifesto:

Handwork may be the bedrock of innovation, but nostalgia for handwork is quicksand.

The song itself is what I would consider an example of Deep Craft. Though presumably written by an anonymous cobbler almost two hundred years ago, its message remains relevant, like an early 19th century version of Moore’s Law, and the song’s survival both transcends and acknowledges the passing from a craft-based to an industrial production paradigm. Yet it manages to romanticize neither.

My argument here is that progress in manufacturing most often has origins in craft tradition, but the inevitable backlash which leads to craft revivals (Ruskin, Morris, etc.) has origins in academic nostalgia for a romanticized past. On some level, even in the Information Age, there will always be ‘handwork’. What needs to change is how we perceive its value. Deep Craft is not inherently anti-machine, but posits a more time-tested relationship to machine production, informed by the ethos of handwork and its more communal by-products, manifest in songs and celebrations.

The origin of the word ‘toil’ has two Latin derivations. As a verb, it derives from ‘tudes’, to hammer; as a noun it derives from ‘tela’, a web.

The Hammer and the Web. Cool.

As illustrated by the song ‘Peg and Awl’, making things offers an opportunity to elevate the ‘toil’ of handwork into something more timeless, like a memorable song, which might outlive any of the practical products of artisanry (shoes?). The cadence of the song and collaborative exchange of its interlocking parts hints at a kind of pre-machine logic. The low-energy instrumentation and light-hearted delivery captures a comic ambivalence and reluctant enthusiasm for the dawning Industrial Revolution. More so than shoes, ‘Peg and Awl’ is the exalted product of tireless handwork, and sounds like its authors knew exactly what they were doing.


Lightning Tree House at Mildred’s Lane

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Beach Lake, Pennsylvania

NOW AVAILABLE: Rare archival footage of the construction of Lightning House 2001. Click here for details.

I am continuing with the theme of revisiting old projects as a way to reflect on my current trajectory, see old friends, and make new discoveries. This past fall I traveled to upstate Pennsylvania to assess the condition of a tree house I built in 2001 at Mildred’s Lane Historical Society, the home and experimental rural project of my good friends the artists J. Morgan Puett and Mark Dion .

I had received a distressed message from Morgan that the host tree, a 100 year old white pine, had been struck by lightning and that the tree had died. Though one trunk of the forked tree fell to the ground, my tree house had survived unharmed. Morgan wanted me to come East to assess the damage and consider designing a new project around either preserving or salvaging the tree and tree house in its dramatic state of decline.

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I was not surprised by the news. The tree bore the scars of having been previously struck before I built the structure, and the secondary trunk was already leaning at a rakish angle. I chose to use the tree regardless at the time, due to its visual proximity to the main house, aural proximity to the stream, and its austere presence in a meadow criss-crossed by dry-laid stone walls. I designed the structure to cantilever off of the main trunk in anticipation of the leaning trunk eventually falling, and made only one supporting connection to the leaning trunk. I did not anticipate the death of the tree from lightning and was startled by the haunting rawness of the bare tree and newly exposed tree house against the cascade of autumn colors.

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My thoughts turned immediately to an operational strategy I developed in the course of building the tree house, oddly confirmed by these recent events, which is the fourth axiom in the Deep Craft manifesto:

ENTROPY ADDS VALUE

The functionality of a thing by definition incorporates/embodies its decomposition.

I had built the tree house in ten rainy days in May 2001 with the help of a crew assembled by Mark and Morgan for the final push over a long weekend . The crew included the artists Bob Braine, Alison Smith, Hope Ginsburg, Brian and Rebecca Purcell and several others who came up from New York for the tree house festivities and Morgan’s famous Southern hospitality.

I had developed the tree house program after completing several ambitious public projects, culminating in the Tool Barn at the Edible Schoolyard. While these projects allowed me to experiment, they were taxing in that they required the complex management of multiple entities, including funding organizations, public institutions, neighbors, municipalities and permit processes. I wanted to radically loosen the reigns on design requirements so that emphasis would shift to the real time relationships at the heart of collaborative, community-based making. The tree house projects began as a ‘thought experiment’ by observing what conditions put people at their best, regardless of their background or skill set. I wanted to see what a small group could build together as an extension of simply hanging out over a few days with no distractions.

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Everybody knows exactly what to do when the parameters of tree house construction are narrowed to the use of hand tools, materials found within walking distance in the forest, and no penetrations to the tree. Some people forage, some climb, some cook, some entertain. The actual building emerges as the boid-like residue of hanging out, talking and strategizing, and survives as the record of its own making, containing the memories of a shared, lived experience in and around a tree.

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For the un-making of Lightning Tree House at Mildred’s Lane, I would like to gather the same group of people, disassemble the structure, document the parts as anthropological artifacts, and incorporate them into a new and more inhabitable structure in a related white pine. I hope to achieve this as artist in residence at Mildred’s Lane in 2009, and will maintain a daily log of the process on these pages while it happens.

Over the coming months, I will be featuring products I have developed through this and other tree house projects, some of which will be available for sale as GOODS.