Monday, February 25, 2008

Byrdcliffe Wall Cabinet, Pt. 3

The Byrdcliffe wall cabinet completed with three coats of Watco Danish Oil Natural and one coat of Watco Liguid wax Light. The oil darkens the poplar and highlights the contrast in the grain.

My logo branded onto the inside of the door.

The inside of the cabinet with a stop block on the lower left corner.

The rare earth magnet inside the upper hinge.

A good view of the purple, black, and green colors of the poplar.

The complete project ready to be hung on a wall.

Another shot of the relief carved iris, hand colored and blended. This being my first hand carved project I think it came out really well. In the original the iris was just carved around the outline, I tried this at first using a small round burr on my dremel tool but I was not happy with the results so I decided to outline the flower and carve away the background leaving the flower and leaves flat.

The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life. William Morris

Friday, February 22, 2008

Byrdcliffe Wall Cabinet, Pt. 2

Today its time to finish the Byrdcliffe wall Cabinet. Last weekend I mainly focused on carving the door panel and preparing the stock. The plan called for 8 inch wide sides, top and bottom, but in an effort to be more economic, and to keep this project simple for beginners, I used 1x8 poplar from Lowes. After carefully chosing the best grain patter for the sides I rough cut the boards on my mitersaw. I then took the boards to the tablesaw with my extrawide miter guage I cut the stock to the correct lengths.
I ripped down some nice pieces for the door stiles but I left the side stiles long, I'll trim them down after glueup. A little bit of glue on the tenons and in the ends of the stiles, none on the panel, I glued up the door leaving the stiles running long. The panel has been carved and a sealing coat of clear shellac was applied. I borrowed a technique from Robert Lang out of Popular Woodworking Magazine and used water color pencils and to color the flower and then artist brushed dipped in water to blend the colors. After it dried overnight I sprayed on two more coats of clear shellac to seal in the watercolor paint.
I set-up the dado blade to match the thickness of the poplar, 3/4 inch, setting it at 1/4 inch high I ran the rabet's for the sides, the dado's in the top and bottom for the divider, and the dado's in the divider and the left side. After a careful dry fit I set up to run the rabets in the sides and the top and bottom to receive the back. The nice thing here is that because of the design of the sides and top and bottom, there is no need to cut the corners out in the back rabet. The 3/4 inch x 1/4 inch back rabet meets up the the top and bottom rabet to form a nice clean corner.
I sanded all the parts to 180 grit and carefully glued up the case. Checking for square by measuring diagonally from all corners while the glue is still wet.

Once the glue up was all clamped I measured the height of the back panel and cut the boards to length. I then run a 3/8 inch x 3/8 inch rabet along each side of the back slats, one on the front, one on the back. This is called a shiplapped back, it allows for wood movement along the cross grain to long grain. The original piece has a solid back panel running horizontally across the back, and while this small of a piece movement shouldn't be too big of problem I've decided to follow the Popular Woodworking plan and use a shiplapped back running vertically. With the boards cut I lay them out in the rabet using a Quarter as a spacer between each board. I determine the width of the side pieces and rip them to size on the tablesaw. Laying the boards out one by one I glue only the tops and bottoms and hold them in place with 5/8 inch brad nails.

When the glue has dried and the clamps removed I reinforce the rabet joints with brad nails for a little added strength. While I know how alot of you feel about brad nails, its a perfectly appropriate way to add strength to this piece. Byrdcliffe was never known for complex joinery and in fact some pieces were just held together with nails.

Once the glue has dried and the clamps removed I trimmed the door to size leaving a 1/16th inch gap around the door. I then used a black plane to bevel the inside of the knob side of the door. I installed the non-mortise hinges using a quick and easy method I read about in a woodworking magazine some time ago. I placed a mark at 2 inches from the top and the bottom and used two sided tape on the back of the hinges, lining them up I press the tape onto side of the cabinet. This holds the hinges in place while you drill the pilot holes and intall the screws.
I drilled a hole for the knob centered on the stile and at the centerline of the shelf. I placed a stopblock at the bottom of the cabinet and used a favorite trick to hold the door closed. Instead of mounting a closure divice on the side I drill a 3/8 inch wide hole inside the open space on the fixed side of the non-mortise hinge and insert a steel cup and rare earth magenet, the magenet holds the hinge closed until you gently pull on the knob. Lastly I branded my log on the inside of the door and handsand the entire piece with 220 grit sand paper and a sanding block. The next step is a few coats of clear danish oil to highlight the grain in the poplar followed by a coat of clear wax to give it a the piece a nice feel. This is a beautiful piece that is meant to be touched and used. In the next post in this series I'll apply the finish and show you closeups of some of the details.

Better the rudest work that tells a story or records a fact, than the richest without meaning. John Ruskin

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Harvey Ellis, architect, artist, designer.

Harvey Ellis had a varied career, he was a noted painter and teacher, a draftsman for several firms and an Architect. He finished his career and his life in the employ of Gustav Stickley. His father, thinking that young Harvey needed more discipline had him enrolled in West Point. He was discharged on January 12, 1872 for tardiness, personal untidiness and gross neglect in his French assignments. There is also some indication that Ellis's downfall was the result of a forbidden affair with an actress. Soon after the expulsion from West Point, Ellis's father sent him to Europe. Because I guess that is what you did in the 19th century when you got kicked out of college for having an affair with an actress and neglecting your french, you get sent to Europe... go figure.
His marriage annulled, his future uncertain, and exiled in Europe, Ellis developed a passion for painting that he would pursue for the rest of his life. His time in Europe was not long, and in 1872 he returned to his family, now living in Albany, NY. Family relationships were soon strained and Ellis moved to New York in 1875 where he was employed by an engineering office and studied architecture under Arthur G. Gilman. Dissatisfied by this static position, Ellis left New York in 1877 for Albany where he met and grew to admire the architect Henry H. Richardson, whose Romanesque style inspired Ellis's later work.
Ellis accompanied his family when they returned to Rochester in September, 1877. Shortly thereafter he and his brother Charles established the architectural office of H. & C.S. Ellis. The firm was quite successful and Harvey Ellis was able to spend his time designing while Charles Ellis attracted new clients. Many commercial and residential buildings were designed by the office, the most important commission being for the new Federal Building (now Rochester City Hall) built in the Romanesque style.
In 1885 mounting friction between the Ellis Brothers prompted Harvey to move once again, first to Utica, NY then to St. Paul, MN. In 1886-87 he was employed as a drafsman by the St. Paul firms of J. Walter Stevens, Mould & McNichol, and Leroy S. Buffington. Buffington claimed to be the originator of the metal skeleton frame that made building tall structures feisable and he took out a patent on the process. His claim to be the inventor of the skyscraper was refuted, but using the designs created by Harvey Ellis, Buffington is credited with playing a pivotal role in refining the new method of construction.
Ellis continued to design houses, churches, banks and pubic buildings (many never built) for Buffington and submitt renderings to architectural offices in St. Paul, St. Louis, MO and other Midwestern, and perhaps Southwestern, cities. He returned to Rochester in 1894 and rejoined his brother's firm. At some point he was married and lived in a rooming house on Lake Avenue with his wife. The economic depression meant fewer architectural commissions, but Ellis found employment decorating interiors.
Ellis's appreciation of the aesthetic principals of the Arts and Crafts movement is apparent in the designs he created during this period. He was a founding member and president of the Rochester Arts & Crafts Society, one of the earliest such organizations in the country. In 1894 he helped organize the Society's first exhibition, a display of Japanese prints and modern French posters.
In 1903 Harvey Ellis made the arrangements to display in Rochester's Mechanics Institute an extensive exhibition of arts and crafts decorative arts. The display was organized by Gustav Stickely and first shown the previous year in Syracuse. Following the exhibition Harvey Ellis, now separated from his wife, moved to Syracuse at the invitation of Stickley to write for The Craftsman. Ellis published several articles that included his designs for arts and crafts homes and interiors. Ellis's use of curves and inlays brought a more elegant and lighter style to Stickley's rectilinear furniture.
Harvey Ellis died on January 2, 1904 at the age of 52 due, in part to acute alcholism. He was buried in an unmarked grave in St. Agnes cemetery in Syracuse. A marker was placed on the grave in 1997 by the Arts and Crafts Society of Central New York.

From the January 1904 issue of The Craftsman.

In the death of Mr. Harvey Ellis, which occurred on January 2, The Craftsman lost a valued contributor to its department of architecture. Mr. Ellis was a man of unusual gifts; possessing an accurate and exquisite sense of color, a great facility in design and a sound judgment of effect. These qualities were evidenced in his slightest sketches, causing them to be kept as treasures by those fortunate enough to acquire them. As a teacher, Mr. Ellis was very successful, while many of his fellow students, among whom are several eminent painters of the country, have acknowledged their debt to him lying in the counsels and criticisms which he gave them. As an architect, Mr. Ellis showed style and distinction; his ability having received public recognition through the award of the first prize in the design competition for the tomb of General Grant. Mr. Ellis was, further, a connoisseur of Japanese art, the principles of which he assimilated and practised. Altogether, he is to be regretted as one who possessed thes acred fire of genius.

Mr. Ellis's design was never used for Grant's tomb. It seems that he had alot of influence in the architectural, art, and design world in his short, trouble filled life. In the year that Ellis worked for Stickley he designed some of the firms most enduring furniture. You can tell his designs by the use of inlays, a nice height to the piece, and the use of exagerated curves. My favorite Ellis design in the single door glass front bookcase. I made this one from the plans in Robert Lang's Shop Drawings series. I used "water glass" instead of plain sheet glass for the bookcase to give it an older look, I also had the stained glass shop make the top panels leaded from 4 pains just like the original. The case has the 1:1.6 ratio of the "golden rectangle" of perfect proportion. The details such as the pinned through tennons, the small plinth block at the top edge, and the bottom arch all combine to make this one exceptional design. The flash in the photo to the left show's clearly my lack of skill when it came to sanding this piece, I think I was a victim of wanting to get some color on this piece and get it moved out of the shop. Every evening when I see it I wish I had spent a few more hours sanding and checking every edge. I've learned quite a lot about sanding and scraping in the two years since I made this piece. While it is one of my favorite projects, I wish I could have a "do over" on this one. The joinery and wood selection was just fine and the color of the finish was what I was shooting for, but a lack of attention to detail makes what would have been a great piece, into just a good one. Luckily its only something that me or you would notice, most people don't even see it. Have you ever looked back on a project and thought, "If I only know then what I know now"?

A little more persistence, a little more effort, and what seemed hopeless failure may turn to glorious success.

Elbert Hubbard

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Byrdcliffe Wall Cabinet, Pt. 1

This is the first in a two part post of the Byrdcliffe Wall Cabinet from the plans posted on Popular Woodworking's project site, this project originally appeared in the March 1998 issue #101 of the magazine. It also has appeared in Popular Woodworking's Arts and Crafts Furniture Projects: 25 Projects for Every Room in Your Home on the bonus CD, and in Authentic Arts and Crafts Furniture Projects. The original cabinet was designed by a Byrdcliffe artist Zulma Steele, I posted an article on the Byrdcliffe arts and crafts colony earlier this month here. As I stated in the previous post the original cabinet's door panel was a low relief carving and the Popular Woodworking version uses a scroll cut glued on method. I have made one of these cabinets before using the Popular Woodworking designs and methods. This time I'm going to try my hand at carving, this will be my first carved project.
Late last year I purchased a Proxxon Carver as I was planning on making this project and I know from using chisels that it plays hell with my carpal tunnel syndrome and I wanted to try something besides carving chisels. I want to tell you that carving through the poplar with the Proxxon was like cutting through butter. It offers a great deal of control and with interchangable blades gives you a variety of carving shapes.
I started with selecting a piece of poplar with an interesting purple streak in it, poplar is mostly creamy white when cut it can have streaks of purple, green, and black, the wood will age to a nice olive color while exposed to light and air. Poplar is also a tight grained hardwood that machines and cuts nicely. I had printed out the pattern for the Iris design and I transferred it onto the poplar using carbon paper. Using my dado blade on the tablesaw I trimmed the panel to 1/4 inch thick 1/2 inch wide around the perimeter as per the plans. Using the proxxon, my dremel tool and a few carving gouges and a carving knife, I shaped out the design leaving the flower and leaves and cutting away the background. After the carving I hand sanded the panel, inside the carved areas and across the background.

Once the carving was complete and sanded I used a technique taken from Robert Lang's article on the Byrdcliffe Linen Press in the April 2006 issue. His method of coloring the panels started with a sealer coat of shellac, then using watercolor pencils color in the areas you desire then blend them with a wet brush. I sprayed on a coat of clear shellac that conveniently comes in spray can form, then using purple and blue watercolor pencils I colored the flower. I dipped an artist brush in water and used this to blend the colors to the level I wanted. One of the nicest things about this method is that you can remove colors and tone them down using more water, you can add more color with the pencil or take it away with the wet brush. I then used green, light green, and yellow to color in the leaves. I blended the color the same way. Once done I left it to dry while I cut the wood for the cabinet itself. It is a very straight forward project, simple joinery, just dado's, as stated in the article it is very much a tablesaw project and within the skill level of a beginner. This is something that you can make from off the shelf poplar from Lowes or Home Depot, only straight cuts and dado's you could even do it without a dado blade if you wanted.
Now comes the dilema, you can plainly see from the original that they used a plain, flat, horizontally oriented poplar back, this was also the way it was shown in the original Popular Woodworking article. However in the books that followed and on the online plan they call for a shiplapped, beaded in one, flat in the other, vertically oriented back. So, which do I go with? I'd like your comments and thoughts on this as it will be a week or so before I can get back into the shop. Please leave your comments here and I'll read them and do what the most of you think.
The best preparation for good work tomorrow is to do good work today.
Elbert Hubbard

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Fuming White Oak

Well I've fumed the sample pieces of quartersawn white oak and finished them I have to say that it was cool to see how much the oak really did change color with the fuming, but man that ammonia stinks. I did go out and get a respirator, you have to be careful and find one that works for ammonia, and it worked great, but the wood after being fumed continues to smell for a few days. That first day just standing over my bench and handling the wood my eyes and nose started burning. I set them outside to air, I opened the shop door and turned on the fans.

I placed a few samples of white oak in an airtight rubbermade container with a small plastic dish of aqueous ammonia, I left this to sit for 6 hours then removed one piece. I removed another piece after 12 hours but noticed very little difference in the color so I replaced it and left the rest for another 12 hours, 24 in total. You can see the difference here, with no fuming, 6, and 24 hours with not additional finish.

This is the same samples, no fuming, 6 hours and 24 hours with an intial coat of 1lb cut of shellac. You can see that the color looks warmer and less grey on the fumed peices.

These are the peices finished with a coat of Brown Mahagony Gel stain, two coats of 2lb cut amber shellac, and finished with a coat of dark wax. I liked the results but I have to say that I like the way the dye/stain combination contrasts the ray flake as opposed to the fuming that tones the differences down. You can see in the 24 hour sample that the ray flakes are almost invisible.

One of the problems with fuming white oak is that the sapwood will not turn as dark as the heart wood, whereas dying lets you equalize the differences. If you look at the picture on the left you can see how much lighter the sapwood is in the left and middle picture compared to the sample on the right with no sapwood.

I think after this experiment I've found that fuming is no easier than dying wood and the toxicity of the ammonia makes me want to stick with the water based dyes. While I do have to sand the raised grain after dying and I wouldn't have to after fuming I think that the tradeoff of having to time the exposure to the ammonia is more inconvenient. My method may be less authentic but its also less toxic and easier to control the color. From what I've been able to find out I don't think that the Stickley factory uses fuming today to color their furniture either. Fuming may have been the state of the art in coloring wood in the 1900's but today we have other choices.

The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.

William Morris

An award from a friend.

Today I recieved some nice news. Margaret from the blog "The Earthly Paradise" passed on an E for Excellence blogging award to me, I'm not sure how official this is but I have to say that it means alot to me because I enjoy her blog and her views on the Arts and Crafts Movement. Here is what she wrote:

"Thanks, Bebe! This is my first award so I'm quite excited. I'd like to pass this award along to Paula at The Beautiful Life, who inspires me with her creative needlework. Also to Brad, at Tree Frog Furniture, who always writes such informative and interesting posts on Arts and Crafts Furniture, and finally to Tracy, at Pink Purl, who always inspires with her creative posts."
I'd like to thank Margaret for her kind words and I'd like to thank everyone that is taking the time to read my blog, I'd also like to thank Marc at The WoodWhisperer Network who inspired me to start this and has been working so hard to promote online education in woodworking.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Lessons Learned

I was thinking today about my evolution as a woodworker. I've been interested in woodworking all my life, I can remember cobbling together shelves in our storage shed when I was 12, and there was this hiddeous box I made sometime in my early teens that managed to make it to college and back before it gave up the ghost. In my twenties I worked in construction and learned structural framing and then moved into trim carpentry. I changed carreers at 30 and while I was no longer building things for a living I was doing it at home. A 120 year old house in Charleston, SC, took up most of my free time fixing up and making right.

Some friends of mine were interested in a 1920's bungalow in Charleston and asked me to take a look at it for them. I really liked the layout and design and it was nice in that it had missed the remodeling craze of the 1970's. Not having alot of extra money they asked if we could make the kitchen cabinets instead of buying them, I'd made some cabinets before as a trim carpenter and fell into the research whole-heartedly. I checked out every book on making cabinets and on bungalows I could find in the county library. Now I had been a fan of The New Yankee Workshop and This Old House for years, so when I found Norm's books I was excited. I read these and thought "well thats not THAT hard". My friends ended up not buying the bungalow but it was too late for me. I checked out everybook they had on woodworking, doing this I discovered Gustav Stickley. That was it, I was hooked.

Now living in a house in an old single house in downtown Charleston is not conducive to fine woodworking, for one thing, no garage. What I did have was a one car wide gated driveway. I managed to collect a respectable collection of portable tools and plastic sawhorses. These I used as benches and workspace with the addition of 3/4 inch plywood. I purchased a plastic shed and a plastic closet from Lowes and made my storage area. I worked out in the heat under a 10 by 10 foot pop up tent like you see at the farmer's market. I had a serious case of garage-envy but I did manage to make some passable pieces there on Saturdays, when it wasn't raining, or too hot, or too cold....
Now, we loved the house downtown, historically correct lack of storage and everything, but I finally convinced myself that it was time to move, I wanted a workshop something awful. We found a lovely craftsman style house on a small culdesac of like styled but totally diferent houses. So I went from a house built in the 19th century that had been remodelled countless times, to one built in the 21st century based on as early 20th century model. Life was good. But still no workshop, but a beautiful space at the end of the driveway surrounded by mature trees. So I finally got to build my shop, my haven, my place to finally grow as a woodworker.
All my old tools and supplies are in that portable storage unit next to the shop.

This is where my skills started to build, I no longer had to completely take down my whole work area and put everything away in the little plastic sheds at the end of each day. I could leave my work and just walk away, come back when I had a few free hours or the next weekend and nothing would have changed. Its heated and air conditioned, keeps the humidity stable. Its got great lighting so night isn't a problem, and the door closes so the bugs don't eat you alive. I could finally buy some nice stationary tools, I could place my benchtop tools where I wanted them and not have to set them up on a saw bench whenever I needed them.
I noticed right away that with some better tools and a nice big flat assembly table my work was better right away. Now, in my shops third year I can look back on how my skills increased with each project. I learened alot about finishing when I didn't have to worry about where I was going to leave my piece while it dried. I learned alot about handtools when I could take my time and not rush through each process. I learned alot about wood when I had a place to store it and tools to joint and plane it so that I could use nicer stock. I learned that yes, you cannot have too many clamps when I clamped up a morris chair, an ottoman, and two sidetables on the same weekend. I learned to take my time sanding and that it was smarter to work up through the grits than to skip right from 80 grit to 150 grit. I learned by reading everything I can get my hands on. I learned by watching woodworking shows even if I wasn't thrilled about the project. I learned that there is a fantastic community of woodworkers out there to offer support and share their knowledge. And yes, I learned that developing woodworking skills is an evolution.
Do your work with your whole heart, and you will succeed -
there's so little competition.
Elbert Hubbard

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Win a Steel City Tool Works Granite-Top Tablesaw

Win a Granite-top tablesaw from Popular Woodworking Magazine and Steel City Toolworks. I came across this give away last night on the Popular Woodworking website. While normally I'm not in the practice of posting about contests but I thought, someone has to win, why not me, then later, I thought, why not you. So go here, read a few paragraphs, answer a couple of questions and take your chances. If I don't win it and you do, send me a thankyou message, If I win it and you don't, well, dems da breaks.....

Monday, February 11, 2008

Inlays for your Arts and Crafts Furniture made easy

Inlays were used extensively in the Glasgow School of Arts and Crafts but did not make a huge impact into the American Arts and Crafts movement until the addition of Harvey Ellis to Gustav Stickley's Craftsman Furniture company. Stickley saw Ellis's work at the an exhibition of arts and crafts decorative arts at Rochester's Mechanics Institute. Ellis was a founding member and president of the Rochester Arts & Crafts Society, one of the earliest such organizations in the country. In 1894 he helped organize the Society's first exhibition, a display of Japanese prints and modern French posters.
In 1903 Harvey Ellis made the arrangements to display an extensive exhibition of arts and crafts decorative arts. The display was organized by Gustav Stickely and first shown the previous year in Syracuse. Following the exhibition Harvey Ellis moved to Syracuse at the invitation of Stickley to write for The Craftsman. Ellis published several articles that included his designs for arts and crafts homes and interiors. Ellis's use of curves and inlays brought a more elegant and lighter style to Stickley's "mission" furniture. Ellis died in 1904 from complications of alcoholism.
Inlays of this detail are beyond the scope of many craftsmen making arts and crafts furniture. But luckily for all of us inlay challenged individuals Mitchell Andrus is producing inlay veneers and furniture parts available through his website, . You can find complete finished pieces, and several pre-assembled veneers all taken from the original Ellis and Stickley designs. You can even find pre inlayed chair backslats ready to make a Stickley Rocker.
The website gives a very nice example of the process, the veneer arrives complete as you see here. These pictures come from the website.
One extremely nice thing that you can get with these inlays is a staining stencil, its a precut vinyl mask that shields the inlay from stain while you finish the piece.
You can see that you carefully align the mask over the inlay and thanks to the clear backing sheet you can get easily do this.
You then roll it flat so that no voids are left to allow stain to seep in.
Then you can remove the backing sheet leaving your inlay completely masked.
The surrounding veneer can be carefully stained and once dry the overlay removed leaving the inlay unstained and ready for finishing. What you are left with is a very impressive inlay that is period correct and ready to decorate your next arts and crafts piece. Now, if you are more ambitious and want to make your own inlays you can find shop drawings complete with instructions in Robert Lang's book Shop Drawings for Craftsman Inlays & Hardware: Original Designs by Gustav Stickley and Harvey Ellis .
A little thought and a little kindness are often worth more than a great deal of money.
John Ruskin

Thursday, February 7, 2008

More thoughts on an Arts and Crafts Finish, My Recipes

I have received many emails about how I finish my furniture. As part of the "fuming oak v. dyes" series that I'm working on I'm going to give you my favorite "recipes" for finishing quartersawn white oak. Now I can't claim to have devised these recipes or techniques on my own, I think I've read every woodworking book on Arts and Crafts techniques, and If I find a magazine with anything "mission" or arts and crafts in it, I buy it. I've also searched through the forums and websites for good ideas. Some of the best that I've found are Jeff Jewitt's article at woodcentral, and his article at Fine Woodworking. There are many articles in magazines and books, some I've seen invlove roofing tar, some as simple as a single stain. Taking ideas from all these sources I've come up with a method that works for me and gives me a finish that, to my eye, compares to that of antique Arts and Crafts furniture that I've seen.

These are my color sample pieces, I recommend making some of your own so you can experiment with different dyes and stains and then have a good idea of the finished product. I write the steps on the back of each so that I can reproduce it. From left ot right the base colors are undyed wood, honey amber, golden brown, medium brown, and dark mission brown. I use transtint concentrated dyes as my base coat, I disolve these in pint bottles of spring water. A lot of articles recommend distilled water, I've never had any problems with spring water and the bottles are very convenient but I would avoid tap water as any chemicals in it could change the color. You could also use denatured alcohol as a base, this would eliminate the grain raising effect of the water, but many sources say that the color will be more likely to fade. I've never tried using alcohol as a base, mainly because of the lack of fumes when using water as a base.

Here's my recipe, it works for me, and I've changed it over the years, and if I come across with a better idea I will change it again so please feel free to comment if you have a different technique.

  • Sand piece to 150 grit and clean with tack rag or vacuum.

  • Wipe a good coat of dye on, be sure to cover all sides and keep dye from puddling in corners and at base. Leave to dry for at least 24 hours.

  • Lightly sand to remove raised grain with 220 grit, avoid oversanding especially at corners and edges.

  • Pad on a 1LB cut of amber shellac or sanding sealer.

  • Using a 320 grit sanding pad gently rub surface, clean with tack cloth or vacuum.

  • Apply Brown Mahagony Gel stain being careful to not cover too large of an area because once dry its very hard to wipe off. Once the gel starts to haze rub it off with a clean lint free cloth, I prefer old T-shirts. This gives you a warm rubbed in look. Let dry overnight.

  • Pad on 2-3 2LB cut coats of amber shellac, I tightly fold a square of T-shirt material, then soak it in the shellac and squeeze out excess, rub it in until it starts to drag then let dry. The coat of shellac should dry in 30 minutes or less. Repeat until you get the build you want.

  • Again, using 320 grit sanding pad gently rub surface, clean with a tack cloth or vacuum.

  • Take a few minutes to go over the whole piece with your clean hand, checking the surface for any rough areas or holidays.

  • Using a clean square of T-shirt rub in a thick coat of Watco Dark Liquid wax. Avoid plain or light colored waxes as these may leave white residue in the pores of the oak. When the wax is dry buff it out with a clean square of T-shirt.

Once the wax is dry you are done. This is my favorite time of a project, when you carry it in the house and place it in just the right spot, stand back, enjoy the view and accolades from a grateful family, and go start something else.

Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort. - John Ruskin

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Some thoughts on an Arts and Crafts Finish

Most of the recipes for the "authentic" Arts and Crafts finish that I've found in the modern literature are concerned with making the medular rays in the Quartersawn White Oak "pop", that is, highlight the flakes. During my reading of "The Craftsman" at the digital archive I came across this passage by Stickley.

In my experiments, however, I decided that a far more pleasing and beautiful result would be obtained by softening rather than heightening the distinctiveness of the flake. So for months I persisted in my endeavor to discover a way by which I could "bring together," harmonize, as it were, these two markedly contrasting features in the same piece of wood. This was finally effected by the use of ammonia, either by direct application or by fumes. The ammonia combines with the tannic acid in the oak to produce a chemical change, and thus "tone down" and color the flake to the desired shade. As far as I know this is the only practically successful method yet discovered to cope with the difficulties offered by the ray flake. Pigment applied to the surface of the flake has no appreciable result, as it is almost as hard and impenetrable as glass. In what I have written above I would not have it thought, because of this somewhat lengthy description of my own experiments, that I make any claim to the discovery of the use of ammonia. Many others have used it, and still do so, and others may have produced the same results on oak, but in my case it was the outcome of personal experimentation.

Now this leaves me in kind of a dilema, my favorite finishing recipe are all centered around making the flakes "pop". I think that part of the beauty of the Arts and Crafts style if they distinctive look of the quartersawn oak. The method I prefer is dying the wood with a concentrate disolved in water, to give the base color for the wood, followed by a coat of shellac, a darker gel stain, more shellac, and finally a dark wax. But from the reading and talking to a few professionals I've found that the most authentic way to achieve an authentic Arts and Crafts Finish is by fuming the quartersawn white oak with aqueous ammonia (NH4OH), this is the method that Gustav Stickley popularized.

The fuming is not an especially difficult process, but it requires a good deal of care, for the piece must be put into an air-tight box or closet, on the floor of which has been placed shallow dishes containing aqua ammonia (26 per cent). The length of time required to fume oak to a good color depends largely upon the tightness of the compartment, but as a rule forty eight hours is enough. When fuming is not practicable, as in the case of a piece too large for any available compartment or one that is built into the room, a fairly good result may be obtained by applying the strong ammonia directly to the wood with a sponge or brush. In either case the wood must be in its natural condition when treated, as any previous application of oil or stain would keep the ammonia from taking effect. After the wood so treated is thoroughly dry from the first application it should be sandpapered carefully with fine sandpaper, then a second coat of ammonia applied, followed by a second careful sandpapering


Some pieces fume much darker than others, according to the amount of tannin left free to attract the ammonia after the wood has been kiln dried. Where any sap wood has been left on, that part will be found unaffected by the fumes. There is apt also to be a slight difference in tone when the piece is not all made from the same log, because some trees contain more tannic acid than others.

So with this in mind I'm going to attemp an experiment, I've obtained some aqueous ammonia from a local blueprint supply house and after consulting with my friends that us it, I'm going to fume some samples to different darknesses and finish them, then I'm going to compare them to my samples of the recipes I have been following and decide which is more, a. authentic, and b. more visually pleasing to the modern eye. Stay tuned for the process, details of each recipe, and the results.

Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together.

John Ruskin

Monday, February 4, 2008

Byrdcliffe Colony, an Arts and Crafts Utopian Community

Byrdcliffe Colony was formed in 1903 by wealthy Englishman Ralph Radcliffe-Whitehead, a student of John Ruskin, near Woodstock NY. Whitehead, who along with his American wife, Jane Byrd McCall, attempted to establish the perfect environment for an art guild adhering to the ideals of Ruskin and the Arts and Crafts Movement. Whitehead, was influenced by John Ruskin's passion for Gothic art and his social reformist ideals. The views of the British designer-craftsman William Morris, a Ruskin disciple who pushed for the return of design to its intimate relationship with processes and materials, also had an effect on Whitehead's thinking.
Seeing art as a factor in the improvement of society, and wanting a purpose for his life, Whitehead aspired to build his own arts and crafts community. His ideas found an echo in those of a socially prominent American artist, Jane Byrd McCall, whom Whitehead met on a trip through Italy. A Ruskinite, too, she joined Whitehead in helping realize his project. He divorced his Austrian-born wife and moved to the United States, where he and Jane were married in 1892. After travel abroad, they built a luxurious Tuscan villa called Arcady in Montecito, Calif., where they lived while planning ahead. Their aims for the colony (called Byrdcliffe from an amalgamation of their middle names) were that it should support itself by selling beautiful handmade objects; offer classes in all the crafts so that it could perpetuate itself; and provide a healthy life on a working farm that would also help to support it. But it wasn't until June 1902 that Whitehead, after months of looking in other areas, was alerted to the possibilities of Woodstock by a close painter friend, Bolton Brown. In a gorgeous setting at the foothills of the Catskills, Woodstock had the added advantage of being close to New York City, rife with commercial opportunities.
At its peak between 1903 and 1910, Byrdcliffe had about 200 working artists and artisans. Some rented studio space and worked on their own, some worked collectively with others, and younger artists from the Pratt Institute, Columbia University and elsewhere flocked to Byrdcliffe for classes. In a beautiful, rural setting, Whitehead built first class accommodations to attract artists and friends. Artists from around the country converged at this Utopian setting where they created pottery, textiles, metalwork and some furniture while enjoying the company of other craftsmen. No more than 50 pieces of furniture were ever produced and most of these were kept and used at Byrdcliffe. Production of furniture lasted only until 1905. Financially, Byrdcliffe never was successful, but it’s importance in the history of the Arts and Crafts Movement is second to none.
As an experiment in utopian living inspired by the arts and crafts movement, the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony was built sparing no expense. Byrdcliffe was a wonderful setting for practicing the art of living through creative manual work. The arts and crafts movement stressed reform of social, environmental and economic conditions to combat the slums and degradation fostered in the industrial regions and Byrdcliffe's Woodstock site offered a pristine environment for the creation of Whitehead's utopian enclave.
Although the arts and crafts utopian experiment soon ran out of steam, the continuing magic of Byrdcliffe enthralled many notable persons including the educator John Dewey, author Thomas Mann and naturalist John Burroughs. Isadora Duncan danced at White Pines; Bob Dylan lived in a house at Byrdcliffe in the '60s and early '70s; Joanne Woodward was involved in the river Arts Repertory at the Byrdcliffe Theatre. After Whitehead's death in 1929, his widow, Jane, and son Peter struggled to keep the colony alive. After Jane's death in 1955, Peter sold much of the land to pay taxes and maintenance on the heart of the colony which he kept intact. The Whiteheads intended to preserve Byrdcliffe "for the purpose of promoting among the residents of Woodstock...the study, practice and development of skill in the fine arts and crafts, as well as a true appreciation thereof..." Byrdcliffe remains a vibrant part of the cultural life of the Catskill region thanks to the careful stewardship of the Woodstock Guild.

Byrdcliffe is also an important regional example of the movement to create various types of utopian enclaves in America. British reformers especially saw America as a fertile and cheap land for the creation of visionary communities. The horrors of the working conditions of the industrial revolution led Robert Owen to establish his New Harmony, Indiana, community in the 1820s. Owen had a wide influence in America and a score of communities patterned on his theories were founded including one in Haverstraw, New York, and another in Coxsackie, New York, although these were both very short lived. In the 1880s Thomas Hughes established his Rugby Colony in Tennessee, inspired by Ruskin and espousing creative manual labor. Other arts and crafts communities were also founded in America, including the Roycroft Community in East Aurora, New York, which was established in 1895 by Elbert Hubbard on the principles of the guild system and the aesthetics of William Morris.

These various efforts to create "communities of aspiration" form a vigorous part of American culture. New York State saw successful Shaker communities in the late 18th century; the successful utopian community at Oneida which was established in 1848 near Syracuse and still exists, although not as a commune but as a residence, inn and conference center; the creation of the Chautauqua Institution near Jamestown in 1874 which today draws 300,000 annual visitors for a summer season of arts, education, recreation and religion; and the continuing existence of Chautauquan-style communities at 1000 Island Park on the St. Lawrence River, and at Round Lake near Saratoga. In the 19th century the rise of the Hudson River School of painting drew artists to the region, and Byrdcliffe has a place in the history of artist's retreats which includes the late 19th century Pakatakan Colony near Arkville and the Cragsmoor Colony near Ellenville. Before Byrdcliffe, artists were drawn to Woodstock for stays at the Overlook Mountain House and Meads Mountain House. After Byrdcliffe's zenith the classes of the Art Students League brought many artists to Woodstock. However, it was a result of Byrdcliffe's creation that Woodstock attained its prominence as one of America's premier art colonies.
It is estimated that about fifty pieces of furniture were made at Byrdcliffe before production stopped in 1905. Only a few pieces were designed specifically for use at White Pines. The rest were supposed to be sold to the public. It was not all made of indigenous woods, as John Ruskin decreed. It seldom had the exposed mortise and tenon joints that were the marks of honest joinery for Stickley. It was not made by the person who would ultimately use it, and it was very expensive, which meant that the common man, so central to democratic arts and crafts theory, could not afford it. Scholars today make the case that Byrdcliffe became an essential part of the arts and crafts story after the arrival of Zulma Steele and Edna Walker. This is because these women studied at the Pratt School of Design in New York City when Arthur Wesley Dow was teaching there.

Most Byrdcliffe cabinets have the same problematic proportions that plague the furniture Whitehead made for Arcady They appear ponderous and usually lack the details that might minimize abrupt transitions. By contrast the piece here is one of two known cabinets that are narrower than the standard two-door Byrdcliffe cabinets, which are sixty-one inches wide. In this case the span between the legs is short enough to allow a visual connection between the corner brackets. Finally, the cornice molding is more attenuated than that on the wide chests. Still, all these refinements to Whitehead's basic design would not have carried the piece without the panels of delicately tinted swirling sassafras leaves designed by Steele and colored by Jane Whitehead. The low-relief carved panels Steele designed are the most distinctive elements on Byrdcliffe furniture. Robert Lang reproduced this piece of furniture in the April 2007 issue of Popular Woodworking, you can also find it in Popular Woodworking Press's recent book, Popular Woodworking's Arts & Crafts Furniture Projects: 25 Projects for Every Room in Your Home (Popular Woodworking)

Though Byrdcliffe brimmed with spiritual moxie - and fun, too, as attested by photographs of picnics, parties and such - its most important material product was the beautifully decorated Arts and Crafts furniture turned out by the colony's woodworking shop. This production spate lasted for only two years, from 1903 to 1905, because of cost factors and more efficient production and promotion by competitors, like the similarly ideological enterprises run by Gustav Stickley and Elbert Hubbard. Still, the 50 or so examples of furniture produced at Byrdcliffe, executed by workmen from artists' drawings, are superbly Arts and Crafts in their rugged but elegant design; their boxy, rectilinear build; and their dark wood tones and rustic finishes. They are simply adorned, with carved floral decorations taken from local plants, but some even have painted scenes.

One well-known example shown here is a sturdy small oak cabinet (called at Byrdcliffe a chiffonier) from 1904. Its two door panels were painted with a single composition, a lovely scene of a river meandering through a green landscape, by Hermann Dudley Murphy (1867-1945), an artist who taught at Byrdcliffe in its first two summers.

Several pieces are adorned with decorations by Zulma Steele (1881-1979), a painter, potter and designer very active in colony life and work. A drop-front desk in green-stained cherry with its three panels painted in iris motifs is one of her most appealing contributions.

A big, heavy dark chest of poplar is lightened by Edna Walker's delicate tulip design in peachy-orange across a horizontal front panel. Walker and Steele, both Pratt graduates who had studied with the famous painter and teacher Arthur Wesley Dow, together designed a house, the Angelus, at the colony, where they lived for many years.

This wall cabinet features an Iris design by Zulma Steele, unlike most Arts and Crafts furniture its made from Poplar, the original has a greenish stain with a relief carved iris. I also found this original drawing on Ms. Steele's iris motife. This cabinet is going to be my next project and I'll try my hand at the carving on the door
panel. I've previosly made his cabinet from the plans from Popular Woodworking Magazine, , the plans are also included in the CD included in Popular Woodworking's Arts & Crafts Furniture Projects: 25 Projects for Every Room in Your Home (Popular Woodworking). The cabinetry is simple in this project but stock selection is critical, poplar is white when cut, but ages to green, it can also include black and purple streaks which you want to avoid. In the Popular Woodworking plans the iris is an aplied cut-out using a scroll saw which I did on the first cabinet, this time I'm going to use the same design, included in the plan, but I'm going to carve it, or attempt to, stay tuned.