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Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2005
Boy, that was the quickest two weeks lapse of entry’s ever.

I can’t make suitable excuses other than the tiresome chestnut of work. I’ve got a maniac trying to open a chic restaurant and the needs never stop arising, as it were. And if a 10 day stretch with nothing pressing to do is not uncommon in my world, so too is a two week balls-to-wall marathon, culminating in the gasping, the finale, the opening of an eatery destined for much hanging out by the crustier of the upper crust, and all the caterwauling made obvious by same.

Plus, people like This Guy can go a month without updating and keep a thousand fans on tap, get double or triple figure comments. Sheeplike, I follow him as well, and wonder how in hell he gets away with being the Diva of Diaryland when all he does is write witty things in an efficient manner, with many pictures, once every cycle of the moon.

Hell, maybe if I could write half as well these little lapses wouldn’t be so traumatic. For me anyway, if not for you all.


Working solo has been working out pretty darn well so far. I wouldn’t say I’ve been freed of any particular burden since the departure of (former) Corporate Partner Stu. I always did the paperwork side of the business, in addition to the whole spectrum of carpenter/cabinetmaker/installer hands on stuff. Having Stu on hand, a very much excellent mechanic of wood in his own right, was a big bonus and it made us successful for a long time in terms of small businesses. Having his son and a menagerie of occasionals who added their talents (or mimicked ours) made big jobs manageable. It worked. For a long time it worked.

But being on my own has its own peculiar charms and, of course, drawbacks. Finding ways to do things that really ought to have two people in the same saddle is a challenge. Unloading (or loading, for that matter) a $5k piece of hand built furniture and a pickup truck by the dawns early light, solo, is a matter best left for those who have desperation in their hearts and a healthy amount of ingenuity. Two people? It’s easy, a set of hands of each end and the old heave-ho. One people? An entirely different set of engineering and physics.

Similarly, a partnership arrangement in the world of things wood means different skills, different approaches. Stu was talented in ways I hadn’t touched, and me the same for him. Take, for example, the whole sphere of how best to apply a finish to things. And by finish, I don’t mean a sense of finality. I mean lacquer. Stain. Polyurethane. Varnish.

The glossy stuff that keeps smeared Cheetos and grimy fingers from totally spoiling the sheen of the aforementioned $5k sculpture, even though you could swear you only put about $2k into it. The finish. The thing that defines what is built from your average glot of fast food furniture available from the guy on TV, with discount prices and no payments ‘til next January.

I don’t know if all of you have seen a truly well finished piece of architectural millwork. Maybe if you’ve been in someone’s corporate digs, that corner office with the mahogany raised paneling that is tailor-made for the room, with a credenza deftly placed in the middle of the wall, crown moulding and an entrance door to match. All of it stained in a rich and even way, with a top coat that puts out a glow worthy of kings and kingdoms. An understated shine, something that says ‘Wood Underneath!’ with no suggestion of plasticization or laminate or (gag) thermo foil.

That kind of finish.

I’ve been fortunate in my wood forming life, there has always been a finisher on hand. When working in the big shop in my mid-career job, we had one of the best stain ‘n shine guys in this part of the country. An artist with a spray gun, a genius with stain. The man could do anything with chemicals and a spray booth, he truly could, and still does.

But with every artist goes the conditions. And Rob had a million conditions, he did.

“Geezus Outfoxed,” he would moan. “Ya only sanded that reception counter down to 240 grit. Now I got to spend a whole day takin’ it down to 320, and look! Ye missed fillin’ in two nail holes (out of, let’s say, 50), gotta hit that to. Gawd, do I have to do everything?”

Or, if faced with staining and finishing a thousand feet of walnut crown moulding, he would summon the entire contingent of cabinetmakers and helpers to sand it all by hand. Never did a spate of slaving over a sander for a day bring forth a spirit of esprit d’ shop for Rob. He knew his forte, knew it well, and manual labor was not a part of it. The foreman hated him, “All he wants to do is pull the trigger on that damned gun” was his rallying cry, and everyone agreed save for the company owner. Who saw the final, glistening product and forgave every sin. For the finish truly did sell the product, and many’s the job that came our way based solely on the fact that Rob could dance lacquer onto a cabinet until it shone like a Stradivarius. He was good, knew it and capitalized on it. He was presented with an endless parade of helpers, apprentices, yearning to learn the secrets and tricks and he routinely ran them off. What he knew was deep within him and he wasn’t about to give it up to some kid half his age.

More recently, with the Outfoxed Crew, Stu took the reins as driver of the spray finish carriage. Maybe it was the fact that he owned his own spray gun, or did the very first spray job we ever did, or claimed that particular talent as part of the general division of labor. I dunno how he got stuck with the title of ‘Chief Finisher in Charge’ but he bore it well, sprayed with aplomb, and made our stuff look good. I wouldn’t say he was quite the artist that Rob was, but then damn few others could claim that, either. Stu had a steady hand and an eye toward quality and that’s a lot of what makes a good finisher.

In the meantime, over the course of many years, I avoided the whole thing with a passion. Oh I knew the terms and conditions, the reducing, the cutting of topcoat, the naphtha, the alchemy and mysterious goings-on with mixing stains like some mad scientist let loose with a color chart and a vat of bubbling brew. The variances of heat, and light, and air pressure to a surgically clean spray gun, the down draft and overspray theories.

You can’t help but pick up on the stuff of the process over the years. If not the talent, or the need to demonstrate it. I never got much beyond what most of you could do with a hand sized spray can of stuff from Home Despot, with the same resultant runs and bare spots. Just happened to be the way things were. I could execute a Presidential desk in maple with exotic veneer inlay, ebony accents and burl writing surface with scarcely a thought (well, that’s a stretch, but bear with me) so long as the actual coating of the thing was left to someone with the touch, the mastery of the goo, the maker of shine.

Which brings us, of course, to the present. The fine art of flying solo, and loading trucks at 5 am, and shop space shared with a washing machine and lawn mower.

Naturally enough the first shop job I was asked to produce? Pre-finished oak, and plenty of it. The buyer was confident. The product was simple. Light fixture boxes to be hung over pool tables, housing a pair of fluorescents and suspended by chain. He already had a dozen of them in place but was unhappy with his previous guy. Who’d made the grievous mistake of making them the wrong size and then bailing on the whole thing in panic.

Well by God. I could, at the very least, make them the right size.

Even in the Dwarf Shop this was an easy fabrication. Long slender things work well in a single car garage, they stack easily, they pile well. But I was working towards the end product here. A finished, coated box. With a semi-gloss finish. And there were ten of ‘em.

Probably, maybe, if there had been only one light box required, the old ‘finish in a can’ trick would have been good enough. But ten? Oh and did I mention, there’s a pool tournament next week, and can we have them all in place by then? And that the stain on the existing light boxes was, shall we say, god awful? But that anything new should match? Just to, you know, provide a sense of uniformity?

Crisis. Or that sense that comes when working alone that you believe yourself to be talking aloud, to no one, a great deal of the time.

“Hmmm. Hope that Home Despot’s got some kinda stain that matches this color (it was a lively shade of darkish purple over red oak, if that tells you anything). I just know that other dipstick got his stuff from Despot. Amateur. Hack.” All the while looking at the fact that this time, at long last, there was no world-class finisher waiting in the wings, no Stu with a waft of spray from his own gun. There was no one to answer to, except for me.

The stain was found, thankfully. As finishes go, getting the right color is a big part of things, and I wasn’t about to go dabbling into the mysteries of mixing colors to obtain that perfect shade. I nabbed a stray paint brush and spread Minwax straight from the can, leaned a series of boxes against the wall and waited for it to dry.

Two days later I was still waiting, poking a tentative pinky at obscure spots on the boxes and coming away with a sticky purple digit, howling at the slowness of it all. Now granted, I’d put the stain on kinda heavy. But gee whiz, it was a dark purple. Damn near black, it was. How was I suppose to know? Maybe two lighter coats would have been better? Sorta build my way up to the color? Oh God. And a coat of sealer and at least two topcoats to go.

Two days to delivery, and I had a wet, oozing wall full of light boxes that shrieked of needing a home, and I was reading for the fourth time that little manifesto on the clear topcoat spray can that said “Dry to the touch in 4-6 hours“, which is usually very hopeful. I didn’t have that kinda time. Not for two or three coats. No way.

I knew that even with the time that spraying gook out of a pressurized can wasn’t going to cut it. Not in my world. I’ve seen the best of finishes, and they don’t come out of a 16 oz. can that makes a rattling noise when shaken.

It was time.

I get in a zone with this work at random intervals when the path is clear. When truth comes shining out of the clouds and the big sigh is heaved, and I don the chain mail of old and mount the horse with the metal faceplate and go chargin’ with lance splayed at a 15 degree angle toward whatever windmill might suggest a target of itself.

In other words, I take checkbook in hand and prostrate myself to the sellers of more trinkets to add to the Tool-Time safeholding that the Dwarf Garage has become. A spray gun, a medium duty affair since I was in possession of neither skill or fundage to opt for the more radiant ‘professional’ model. Manly sized 5 gallon buckets of sealer. Topcoat. Thinner. It was comforting because it was for professional use, the sort of thing never to grace the orange racked jungle of the Despot, whether because of its lack of colorful labeling or its general superior quality, I just don’t know.

Come the dawn, and a shaft of sunlight on battered sawhorses with a light box mounted in purplish repose (is it dry? Oh Lawd, is it dry yet?) like some sort of coffin for the anorexic, awaiting the kiss of sealer from a trembling hand with a spanky new spray gun.

I’ll spare the flowery, the hyperbole. Because . . .

It turned out great.

I built up finish like layers of thin glass. A touch of sandpaper here and there. But that last coat was like a choir singing, a lake without ripple, a hint of grain and color with that look of being at once old, yet glossy new.

The buyer was enraptured, as I dropped off his light boxes with a hugely affected air of nonchalance. “Wow, these things look awesome! Better than my furniture at home! Look at that sheen, and that color. Damn!”

Well. Of course. Ain’t buying from some hack off the street now, are ye?

You’d think he was expecting something built in somebody’s garage, for crying out loud.

But I’ll tell you something. I now know why old Rob was so secretive, so conniving about doing nothing but pulling the trigger, about acting as an artist in residence. There’s a skill to it, a movement of body and tool, an eye and a knowing just what’s going to happen with every pull of trigger, every mix of cup and gun and chemical.

One of the more skilled old timer woodworkers I’ve met in my days had a saying he was fond of breaking out for all of us apprentices. “Anybody that says he knows it all in this game is a damned liar. You can spend a lifetime learning just some of it, and I ain’t never met anybody who comes close to knowing it all.”

Very true. More true every year that goes by, quite honestly. This is a craft and a living that often is just out of reach, a span of things to know and tools to have and a soul of creating that plagues and seduces.

But come to think of it, I never saw that old guy with a spray gun in hand. Not even once.

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