Thursday, October 20, 2016

Finished 'M' box

Here is the completed 'M' box.  It is going to be used as an urn for a beloved dog's ashes.

For the lid lift and drawer handle, I used some ebony salvaged from an 1895 piano headed for the dump.  From what I've learned, old pianos cost a lot of money to tune and/or in thousands of dollars.  People end up not wanting them because of this, and once they decide they don't want the piano in their home any more, there's nowhere for it to go.  Sad, really.

The box is finished with shellac, then buffed with wax.  The finishing process is much more complicated than that simple sentence conveys.  It's really 9 steps in all (couple coats of 1# cut shellac, wet sand, more shellac, wet sand, more shellac, wet sand several times, then buff with wax).  The result is a beautifully smooth surface that you have to touch to understand.

See my previous post about some of the other construction details.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Latest box - the "M" box

I've been working on a custom box for a customer lately.  They chose Macassar ebony for the box, with a circle of bird's eye maple and an imbuya pommele "M" inlaid.  I was going to build this just like a humidor, but they wanted a small drawer in the bottom so it changed up the construction a little bit.

First off was to get the veneers.  I'm trying to swear off commercial thin veneer, anything under 1.0 mm.  It's too easy to muck it up.  And thick veneer is so forgiving.  Exotic Hardwoods in Frederick had some small pieces of 6/4 Macassar ebony, so I bought a "board"...all of about 2' long and 4" wide.  It cost almost $70.  Glad I was making veneer out of it.  Here's that "board".

And here's the 1/16" (1.5 mm) thick veneer I cut it up into.

I figured it was just enough to do the box.

Next up was the inlay.  But the only imbuya pommele I could get was commercial thickness, and I had commercial thickness bird's eye maple.  So I made thick veneer out of it by taking 3 layers of each species and gluing them together in the vacuum press.  It matched pretty closely to the thickness of the Macassar ebony.  Then it was on to cutting the inlay.  I cut it on the chevalet, of course.

The M loosely put together in the cutting tray
I decided to jazz up the top a bit by laying the ebony in a reverse diamond pattern.

The box itself is constructed using full blind dovetails and shop made plywood for the top where it is veneered.  The edging is walnut with some holly stringing.  There will be a walnut molding base, as well, but I haven't gotten that completed yet.  Here's the box with the drawer, sans base.  I was careful to use the offcut veneer from the front to veneer the drawer face so the grain flows.  And all the seams in the sides, front, and back line up perfectly.

I have rounded over the corners all around (sorry, no pic).  I'm currently working on installing the lock and hinges.  Then there's some lining to create a seal, attach the base, make and install a handle and a pull, and brush on some shellac.  There is a lot of work in a small box done well.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Custom Humidor

Just in time for Christmas, I finished this custom humidor.  As I hinted to in a previous post, the flag on top is the 31st Virginia Infantry battle flag.  The client has a lot of interest in his family's involvement in the Civil War, and apparently they fought for the 31st Virginia Infantry.  I also added his initials, monogram style, to the front.

The humidor is built out of Spanish cedar, veneered in walnut.  All of the veneer is 1/16" (1.5 mm) thick.  The marquetry is white oak and dyed maple.  The edging is Brazilian ebony and holly.  I finished the humidor with shellac and wax.

To ensure the humidor outlasts me, I built it using full blind dovetails.  This provides plenty of strength without having joints that telegraph through the veneer.

The divider has felt on the ends and is movable (it's just a snug friction fit).

I believe the most challenging aspects to this were the dyeing of the veneer and cutting such a thick packet on the chevalet.  I want to explore dyeing thick veneer more and try to perfect that process.  This one worked out OK, but I think I can do better.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Assembly board used in the French method

The following is a description of how to use the assembly board and how to make one. Patrick Edwards and Patrice Lejeune have some really great videos involving the assembly board on Youtube HERE and HERE.  Also, I cannot stress enough the value in going and learning directly from Patrick and Patrice in San Diego.

I learned to cut marquetry on the chevalet de marqueterie (the chevalet, for short) using either the Boulle method (packet cutting) or the piece by piece method.  I was quite fortunate to learn this from Patrick Edwards and Patrice Lejeune at American School of French Marquetry
After cutting out all the marquetry pieces in either of these methods, you end up with a bunch of pieces that need to be assembled into the final picture; sometimes, it’s a pretty intense jigsaw puzzle.  See Figure 1; this is a fairly simple one.  
Figure 1

The method of assembling the marquetry picture that the French developed centuries ago involves building the picture face down on paper stretched tight over a board.  The French call it cale tendue.  For simplicity in the English language, we’ll use the name “assembly board” as Patrick Edwards adopted.
An assembly board is simply paper stretched tight over a board, much like an artist’s canvas.  I’ll explain how this is done later in the article.  Hot hide glue is spread on the paper (Figure 2), and the pieces of the picture are placed face down in the glue.  
Figure 2

At this point, the face of each piece is on a single plane with the paper.  At this stage, I press the picture for a couple hours to make sure everything bonds well and stays flat.  Once the glue dries, the back of the veneer is facing up (Figure 3).  
Figure 3

The back of the picture can be sanded to even out any thickness discrepancies.  Mastic (glue and sawdust; I use hot hide glue) can then be applied to the back of the picture to fill any gaps (Figure 4).  
Figure 4

After the mastic hardens, the back of the picture can be sanded again to get rid of high spots.  And if hide glue is being used for the mastic and for mounting to the final substrate, doing a perfect clean up job is not necessary.  Hide glue will bind to hide glue.  Just one of the many wonderful aspects of hide glue. 
The final picture is cut away from the assembly board and is ready to mount, store or send to someone else for use (Figure 5).  
Figure 5

If you’re going to store it for any length of time, I recommend sandwiching it between a couple of boards to prevent warping.  To mount the picture, glue it to the substrate with the kraft paper facing up; the face under the kraft paper is the show face.  Once the glue dries, the kraft paper is wetted with cold water; the paper absorbs the water and is easily scraped away.  The hide glue underneath is also scraped away (the same cold water softens the hide glue on the face) and the final surface of the picture shows through.  Since the back of the marquetry was flattened and the front of the marquetry was already in the same plane and flat, there is precious little that needs to be done once the picture is mounted. 
One advantage of this method is that the face surface is flat.  The alternative is layers and layers of tape, which results in high spots on the face.  When the picture is pressed onto the substrate, these high spots must be compensated for or bubbles are likely in the final piece.  Another advantage of the assembly board is that it is easy to flatten the back and apply mastic. 
To make an assembly board, you need a few things: a board larger than your picture, hot hide glue, European kraft paper, water, and some veneer tape. 
I suspect that the veneer tape is not entirely necessary, but it’s how I learned and is probably cheap insurance. 
I’ve never tried making an assembly board with anything other than hot hide glue, but I suspect it wouldn’t work as well.  The advantage of the hot hide glue is that it gets a fast tack and grabs before the paper begins to dry (you’ll see this in a minute).  I’m not sure other glues would work, but maybe that’s an experiment worth performing.
I have tried using paper other than the European kraft paper.  It just doesn’t work.  The European kraft paper is shiny on one side and dull on the other.  The shiny side is somewhat moisture resistant.  This is critical in making the assembly board, since we are going to wet the shiny side.  This is also the side that the marquetry will be glued to in the end. 
To start with, cut some kraft paper so it is more than twice as big as the board (Figure 6). The kraft paper is going to wrap around the board like wrapping a present.  Cut it big; you will trim it and throw away the waste.  
Figure 6

Lay the kraft paper shiny side up.  Now wet the shiny side with a sponge (Figure 7).  It should be pretty wet.  
Figure 7

Turn the paper over so the shiny, wet side is down and the dry, dull side is up.  Keep the dull side dry.  Now wait.  Waiting is the hard part.  While you are waiting, the paper is absorbing a bit of the water and expanding.  When the paper starts to wrinkle, spread out the wrinkles and move on to the next step.  Grab your board with one hand, hold it over the glue pot, and spread hot hide glue on 3 edges (Figures 8, 9, and 10).  
Figure 8

Figure 9

Figure 10

The edge you are holding will be the hinge side of the paper and will get glued later.  Put the board flat on the paper and fold up the paper tight over the 3 glued edges (Figures 11 and 12).  
Figure 11

Figure 12

Take a razor blade and slice off the paper about halfway down the thickness of the board (Figure 13).  
Figure 13

Now spread glue on the hinge edge of the board (Figure 14 – you may notice that in the pictures I put glue on this edge prior to slicing off as shown in Figure 13 – woops! But it worked out.).  
Figure 14

Grab the far side of the paper, pull it up tight on the hinge side, and fold it over to the far side (Figure 15).  
Figure 15

Stick the paper to the other 3 edges (Figures 16 and 17).  
Figure 16

Figure 17

Since you sliced away the paper from the first fold about halfway down the thickness of the board, you have some exposed glue to adhere to.  Again, slice away the excess paper (about halfway down the thickness of the board) and discard the excess (Figures 18 and 19).  
Figure 18

Figure 19

Put veneer tape over the 3 edges that were trimmed (this is cheap insurance to make sure the edges don’t lift off for some reason…Figure 20).  Now put the board in a nice spot to dry. 
Figure 20

The glue will grab the paper on all 4 edges.  As the paper dries, it will contract and pull tight across the surface of the board.  Since it is only glued at the edges of the board, once your marquetry is glued to the paper, it can easily be sliced away as described earlier.   

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Flag marquetry progress

The latest project involves an American flag from the Civil War.  Specifically, a southern state infantry battle flag (looks remarkably like the Confederate flag, but without the center star or white stringing between the blue and the red).  The client's ancestors fought in this particular infantry.

Below are some progress pictures of the marquetry cutting.  With this piece, I've started using thick veneer (1.5 mm thick, or 1/16").  I am using the painting in wood method along with dyed veneers.  There are 3 shades of blue and 4 shades of red to get a realistic effect (hopefully).  I might have been able to use natural woods to get the effect for the reds, but the blues required dye so I figured I'd dye the red, too.  I intend to post something later about the dyeing process (rather than the dying process, which thankfully I'm not intimately familiar with).  Especially with this thick maple veneer, it was not terribly simple.

My humble cutting corner.  I look forward to having a large shop some day.

Almost half done cutting

Pieces in the tray

12 layers - almost 1" thick!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Presentation at Chesapeake SAPFM

Yesterday, I had the opportunity and honor of demonstrating the chevalet and traditional french marquetry for the Chesapeake chapter of SAPFM (Society of American Period Furniture Makers,  This is a group of people very interested in period furniture, and they are all open, helpful, and eager to learn more.

The meeting started out with a bit of brief requisite business, then I was up to do my song and dance.  In a little over an hour, I demonstrated the chevalet, cutting marquetry using tarsia a incastro (or Boulle technique, stack cutting, cutting in superimposition, all the same thing), the french assembly board, and putting together the marquetry. The crowd had some really great questions and was very attentive.  While I was talking, I think only 2 or 3 people fell asleep out of over 30...not a bad percentage!  The whole thing was video taped and mic'd.  Hopefully, 6 years of having kids has trained my mouth to stay PG rated.

I am glad that I was able to spread a little knowledge of the chevalet and traditional marquetry techniques.  Maybe someone will be inspired to go to San Diego, learn from Patrick Edwards, then come back and spread the knowledge a little more.

We also heard from Brian Landis, who demonstrated how he inlays shell into curved surfaces.  Apparently, shell has virtually no flexibility, so you can't wrap it around a curved leg, for example.  Brian's approach was to route a cavity so he could lay the shell straight into the cavity, but leave the shell proud.  Then he would come back and make it flush with the surrounding wood.

After a bit of show and tell and lunch, Freddy Roman ( spoke for about 3 hours.  Freddy touched on a bit of everything, including hide glue, laying out Louis cubes, toothing planes, laying up solid lumber for marquetry/veneer panels, and finishing.  It was fantastic, and I hope I can learn more from Freddy some day.

Thanks go out to Mark Maleski (chapter SAPFM president) for inviting me to present.  It was a wonderful experience, and I look forward to sharing with others again in the future.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Going high tech when using old world techniques

One of the key steps in the piece by piece method of marquetry (or element par element, or the Classic method) is to have several exact copies of the drawing.  The drawing is a line drawing, and the "lines" are made up of tiny dots with small spaces between them.  The purpose of using dots to make up the "lines" rather than, say, a line is that the dots make it easier to tell if you are straying away from the cut line.  When I was taking the Classic method class from Patrick and Patrice at American School of French Marquetry, Patrice would pick up the pieces I cut, look at the paper glued to the front, and immediately tell how well I was cutting based on how much white he could see around the dots.

In the old days, the way this was done was a drawing was made and then pricked with a needle all along the lines.  The drawing, now with tiny holes along the lines, would be placed over blank paper and carbon would be spread over the drawing using a pounce bag, I believe.  The carbon would fall through the holes onto the paper beneath.  The first photocopier.  I'm certain Patrick Edwards has blogged about this already.

Thank goodness for computers.  Today, we can use scanners and vector drawings to make this much easier.  Although I'm being a little unfair...I haven't even tried the old prick method (sounds rather derogatory, doesn't it? You old prick...)  Regardless, I'm going to demonstrate the method I use to get a drawing ready for use in the Classic method.  This computer based method has several advantages over doing this strictly in paper, namely the drawing in the computer is infinitely scalable (since it is vector art, in the end), the file is easily stored AND BACKED UP (seriously, you're backing up your system using something like CrashPlan, right?), and the file is easy to share.  It's also short order to grab pieces of different drawings and put them together.  So this is also useful for tarsia a incastro, or Boulle technique.

I'd like to start by saying that I am in no way an expert at using Adobe Illustrator (or any of its alternatives).  I am near certain that there are people out there who know better, faster, easier ways to execute some or all of this.  If you are one of them, PLEASE leave comments and enlighten all of us on how to improve.

The method I'm going to discuss involves using Adobe Illustrator (CS4, specifically, since that's what I have).  The retail price on Adobe software is pretty ridiculous, so if you want it, I suggest looking into some discounts.  Students used to be able to get discounted Adobe software, and some employers offer discounts on it (which is how I obtained it).  There are also alternatives.  See this Lifehacker post:

The first place to start is with a drawing.  If you're doing something original, well, pick up a pencil (or pen) and start drawing.  You're going to want clean lines in the end, nothing sketchy.  If you're copying something, I find it easier to trace it if it isn't already a clean line drawing.  If it's out of a book, sometimes I'll photocopy it, then trace it on a light table.  The important thing here is to end up with clean lines so that Illustrator can easily tell what's a line and what isn't.

Next, you've got to get your drawing into the computer.  I scan it into a pdf file.  From there, I will open the pdf in Photoshop to clean it up, if necessary, and convert it to a jpg.  (See the Lifehacker link above for alternatives to Photoshop.)  By "cleaning it up", I mean trying to eliminate stray pixels.  I find it really helps to have the cleanest lines possible at this point.  Try messing with the Levels in Photoshop.  Once you're satisfied (or just plain done with it), save it as a jpg.  You may be able to just save it as a psd file, and go right to the next step.

Now that you have a jpg of your clean line drawing, open up Illustrator.  Place the image in Illustrator by using File/Place.

Once it's placed, select the image and go to Object/Live Trace/Tracing Options.

This will open a Tracing Options dialog box.

I like to check the Preview box so I can see the changes as I monkey around with the settings in the Tracing Options dialog box.  Having Preview enabled slows things down a lot, so be prepared to take your time.  Now monkey around with the settings in the Tracing Options box.  For our marquetry purposes, we are only going to want paths in the end, so I check Strokes and uncheck Fills.  Then I play around with the settings until I minimize the artifacts and get the best lines.  This will pay dividends later as you clean it up in Illustrator.

Once you're satisfied with the settings in the Trace Options box, select Trace.  Now select Object/Live Trace/Expand.  This removes the original image and replaces it with vectorized line art.  At this point, you've probably got a lot of cleanup to do in Illustrator.  I'll show you an example of cleaning up, then move to making the picture into dots.

In the image below, you can see a bunch of artifacts (or junk) that Illustrator interpreted as paths based on the settings we used in Live Trace.  Note that I am viewing the Outline (View/Outline), rather than Preview.

I first use the Selection Tool (V) to select and delete this trash.  Then, armed with the original drawing, I start moving anchors and handles to connect and smooth out the lines.  I may even join lines, add anchors, and delete anchors as necessary.

Once the drawing is all cleaned up (which this example is not), it's time to turn the lines into a series of tiny dots.  At the top of the screen is a Stroke selection (see picture below).  Click on the blue Stroke.  A small panel will pop up.  For the tiniest of dots, I use the settings shown below.  I'm not entirely sure if the Miter Limit does anything, I've tried it with different values and didn't see any difference.

Now go to View/Preview, and your picture should be shown as a series of tiny dots.

When you cut out the parts for the Classic method, glue them to your veneer packs and start cutting, I recommend a pair of diopters.  These dots are tiny.  I have really good eyesight, but I find the diopters invaluable.  I think I picked mine up on Amazon (hell, I buy nearly everything off Amazon).  As a bonus, the diopters are awesome when trying to remove splinters.