Friday, March 27, 2015

FAIL! Cross Grain Tenons?

This project is sitting at my studio waiting for me to come back to finish it up. If it weren’t for my stomach-wrenching flu right now, I’d be there getting that one out the door. That is, believe it or not, a plant stand that has fallen to pieces over the years. I was amazed to find all but one of the sixteen tenons on the rails to be broken right off. (The eight rails are stacked two high.) This is 100% design flaw. Because the stand is a circle, the rails were cut out of straight stock into quarter circles. This means that on the ends where the tenons are, the grain is virtually perpendicular to the tenon. This is insanity. Don’t build like this, please. It makes it hard on us conservator types.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Jon Brandon, Mentor and Friend

I have a few very dear professional mentors that have been key to my growth over the years. My first mentor was Mitch Kohanek, founder of the National Institute of Wood Finishing, where I trained. Like a father to us, Mitch provided the groundwork to most of my understanding and technique in restoring antique furniture. The next friend and mentor came a little while later. His influence on me has also been profound in further development of conservation theory and treatment methods. Don Williams is not only highly influential to me, but he is the guy often referred to as “inimitable”. My third and most recent professional mentor is Jon Brandon in Brunswick, Maine. I met Jon maybe 3 or so years ago and ever since then he has been gracious enough to answer many questions and guide me in my professional development. Because the past few years have been so helpful, Jon has agreed to begin a more official mentorship relationship with me.

This past week I was fortunate enough to be able to spend time with Jon in his furniture conservation studio. We spent time discussing many issues and I was able to work alongside him for a little while. He was even gracious enough to have to me stay at his house. It was a memorable and worthwhile experience.

Neither he nor I know exactly how involved or formal this will end up becoming but we both have decided that the commitment is worthy. Our plan is to take it as it comes. We both have our own practices two and half hours apart while life is busy and both our bills need to be paid. But at the very least, Jon will have my back and be there to support my growth in the profession.

I am grateful for Jon’s generosity and openness with me. He explained that he wished he had a mentor when he was at this point in his career. Before he attended Don’s Smithsonian Furniture Conservation Training Program, he had so much time “plugging along teaching himself” along the way. I am grateful for the generosity of these men to take me under their wings these past years. One thing is sure… I don’t take these opportunities for granted.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Walnut Measuring Spoons

Made Julia a set of walnut measuring spoons for her birthday this year. I carved it out of air dried wood all at the bench... totally different than the “green” spoon carving craze. 

I like my spoons sanded smooth so to sand the inside of the bowl I came up with these wooden “knobs” chucked into my drill. It worked awesome. I calibrated the bowl volumes by transferring salt from my shop measuring spoons. Finish is flax oil. Box is spruce. The pictures should be pretty self-explanatory.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Ethos of Working Wood

There is a common sentiment that gets passed around about hand tool woodworking. It goes, “Our society today is so hustle and bustle. Fast cars, smart phones, and whiz-bang gadgetry abounds. Our kids are lazy and dumb. Uninhibited consumerism is causing the downfall of society as we know it. If only we lived in the good old days when people had to work hard, sweat a little, bleed a little. If only we still had that connection to the tools of the trade that made the men of the past earthbound. Then… yes, then we would gain ground in the recovery of our souls. We’re damned without the sweat on our brow.”

It’s easy to dismiss this as naïve anachronism. But you know what? Sometimes I think they might be on to something.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Lots of Good Old Stuff

Courtesy: Skinner

Interestingly, one of the most frequent questions I get as a conservator is, “How much is my ______ worth?” Especially because of the popularity of Antiques Roadshow, people who have been cleaning out their attics wonder if they’ve found something like Claire’s Seymour Card Table.  It is understandable that folks conflate the appraisal profession with conservation but these are not the same. The Code of Ethics recommends that conservation professionals avoid “considerable potential for conflict of interest in activities such as authentication, appraisal, or art dealing”. I feel this keenly. When you develop a proposal for treatments totaling say $1,000 and the client turns to you and says, “Sheesh. That’s a lot of money to me. Do you think it’s worth it?” what am I supposed to say? How could anyone in good conscience wear both hats of appraiser and conservator? (Lest you think this example is hyperbole, I assure you I have this conversation all the time.) I always have to inform the client of the conflict of interest and direct the client back into the driver’s seat of decision making.

Courtesy: Skinner

All that said, is it fun to see what objects sell for at auction? You bet. I enjoy wandering the auction sites to see what people value in the decorative arts world. One of my favorite sites is Skinner. They recently ended their American Furniture and Decorative Arts auction in Boston and all of the results are posted on their website. I love the clear photographs, measurements, provenance information, etc. It’s great fun.

There are 334 lots and a lot of it is good old handmade American furniture with beautifully patinated surfaces. I urge you to take a look at the pages and see if there isn’t something that peaks your interest. Drop a comment about your findings. I’d love to hear what elicits your admiration.

Courtesy: Skinner

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

All I See is Yellow Lines

As a radical departure from work as usual, I received an inquiry from a local boat yard about touching up gaps and small defects in a larch veneered 74’ modern daysailor they were working on. After meeting with them and spending an afternoon demonstrating the inpainting possibilities, we worked out logistics for me to begin work.

This thing is modern and minimalist. Larch veneer covers the entire inside with no molding anywhere. Any tiny gap in joinery stuck out as a big black line. They have done immaculate work considering the complexities of the build but small glue lines were inevitable. 

Also there were some spots in the laminated deck that got marred in routing and were filled. These areas need the laminations painted back on.

I’ve been spending afternoons over at the boat yard the past few weeks plugging away at these lines. It’s a weird change of pace. I am realizing how spoiled I’ve become working in my quiet cozy studio. It’s good to try something else for a little while but I wouldn’t trade my job for the world.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Restoration vs. Conservation: What’s the Difference?

Some people use the terms restoration and conservation interchangeably while others use them as polar opposites (often with restoration used as a pejorative). Do restorers and conservators do the same thing but conservators are more “purist”? Or more skilled, perhaps? Or are we to think these practitioners use radically different solutions to accomplish the same goals? Where is the truth?

Finding answers to these questions requires considerable hashing out but the way I understand it conservation is a profession which is broken down into two categories: “Active” and “Passive/Preventative” conservation. Active relates to implementing treatment on already damaged historic artifacts while preventative refers to control of the artifact’s environment to avert future damage. Most folks are familiar with the active part as this is the only thing sexy enough to make the headlines. Active conservation is the side we are concerned with in this essay.

Restoration is part of what conservators do. The simplest definition for the word restoration is “a process of returning to a known or assumed past state”. Regular conservation treatment entails a variety of tasks: cleaning, repairing broken elements, and compensating for losses (replacing missing parts or color). All of these activities are, by definition, restorative.

So is it possible to do restoration without it being conservation? Maybe. Part of what sets conservators apart from restorers is adoption of a code of ethics. Many American conservators have adopted the AIC Code of Ethics. Among other things, the Code specifies a commitment to documenting the treatment process. This includes description of before and after treatment condition as well as treatments performed. So a practitioner who treats an object outside ethical constraint or without any documentation may be considered as working outside the conservation profession.

Do restorers and conservators perform identical treatments? Yes and no. The Code of Ethics obligates the conservator to choose “materials and methods appropriate to the objectives of each specific treatment and consistent with currently accepted practice”. Hmmm? What does appropriate mean?

I think this is where the world of conservation in private practice comes into the discussion. There are many conservators who work independently rather than as museum staff. These conservators frequently receive objects in their studios which are in regular use unlike their institutional counterparts. Are the “objectives of each specific treatment” different when the object is in regular use? You betcha. When a museum’s historic chair is treated for structural damage there is no objective of making it “sittable” again. But that same treatment may be inappropriate for a chair that will be in regular use. What this means is that appropriate conservation treatment is determined based on understanding the context and values of the object in question. Is it utilitarian? Is it historically significant? Does it hold sentimental value? Conservators treat objects with all these values and their objective is to preserve or enhance those values.

I have friends and colleagues who refer to themselves as “restorers” and others that have adopted the title “conservator”. When they talk shop there is so much overlap it is hard to discern what the difference is. There are many ways of understanding and conceptualizing the subject but this is my take on the matter.