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.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

With Hammer in Hand - Free Download

The Dominy family’s Long Island workshop, on display at Winterthur, is the most complete example of an 18th/19th century American cabinet and chair maker’s shop. That corner of the second floor at Winterthur’s museum gallery building is mecca for period furniture makers.

As helpful as the exhibit, Charles Hummel’s With Hammer in Hand, first published in 1968, documents the collection of tools and furniture from the shop. In comprehensive catalog format, each object is depicted and briefly described. I have found this book very useful as a reference tool. On the used market, this out-of-print book currently goes for around $90. Though not as lushly photographed as modern exhibition books, the book’s utility is worth its weight in gold.

If you couldn’t or didn’t purchase a copy yet, don’t fret. Recently, the entire book was digitized and added to the University of Wisconsin’s Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture. All of the book’s content is downloadable and the pictures can even be viewed larger than in the printed book.

I highly recommend you look through this book. There are few tool collections as valuable to our understanding of period furniture makers. 

Without further ado here’s … With Hammer in Hand.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Fresh Answers for Furniture Historians

“The Dominy material is good,” Hummel told me, “but it isn’t perfect.” There are no inventories – only lists of tools bought or bartered- and questions remain about the way the shop was used. Even if everything were known about the Hay and Dominy shops, it would still be presumptuous to make broad generalizations about thousands of unknown shops based on only two examples.

Still, it’s hard not to imagine that somewhere in the countryside another workshop might provide some fresh answers. Indeed, I’ve heard about one or two recently discovered 19th century sites, but none are as old or as well documented as the Dominy workshop. “I really do hope that there is something better,” Hummel told me. Until an intact, more definitive example is revealed, or a time machine is perfected, we will have to wrestle with these questions on our own.

-Scott Landis, The Workshop Book

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Bitterest Along with the Sweet

We have been getting dumped on for weeks. As soon as we finish cleaning up from a snowstorm another one is on its heels. By now, we have probably three feet blanketing the ground and the snowbanks stand taller than our cars.

The extra work can be wearying.

It’s as easy to wax poetic about the beauty of the season as it is to murmur about the inconvenience of the matter. So rather than tell you stories about furrowed brows, aching backs, and muttered expletives, I will share pictures of the beauty of the snowfall. May it remind us yet to cherish the bitterest along with the sweetest of life.

Friday, February 6, 2015

How to Build a Cyclorama Wall for Tight Quarters

Conservators take documentation photography seriously. It is important to take “Before Treatment”, “During Treatment”, and “After Treatment” photos for treatment reports so that all interested parties (both present and future) will be able to properly interpret the object. For clarity purposes, it’s advisable that before and after shots are taken with an uncluttered and neutral background.

One of the frustrating parts of having a small studio space is fulfilling the need for uncluttered photos without having to move things or reassemble anything every time you need to take a picture. In my current studio I’ve always had to move objects out of the way and then lay a white sheet on the floor in front of a blank white wall. Only then I could move the object onto the sheet. Though it was nice that it took up no floor room when not setup, the hassle of getting the sheet “just so” and wrinkle-free was getting old. And I didn’t like the final look anyway. What I really wanted was a seamless background but I didn’t want to mess around with fabric backdrops or backdrop paper.

In my mind I invented a permanent seamless photography wall. It was a great idea… I would figure out some way to build a permanent seamless arc from the wall down to the floor. It’d never be removed and would never need wrinkle fiddling. Genius! I trolled the internet to try and come up with ideas on how to achieve this only to find out that I re-invented a standard fixture for studio photographers. It’s called a “cyclorama”. Go figure.

All the “cyc wall” curves I saw online protruded from the wall 2 or 3 feet using 1/8” Masonite. In my 14’ x 17’ studio every square foot is precious so I decided to try to make a much tighter radius curve to minimize the footprint into my workspace. I was thinking one foot would be maximum but I doubted Masonite would bend into such an extreme radius without cracking now or in the future. A hardware store employee suggested I try Lexan. Once heated with a heat gun, you can easily bend it into whatever shape you want and it will stay put when cooled.

Back at the studio, I started by making the braces for the curve from ¾ plywood scraps. The curve was a 9” radius. Once I had these pieces cut I cut the Lexan and clamped it into the braces. From there it was a matter of heating the material so that it would remain in that shape after it was released from the form. The heat gun did a great job. I heated the Lexan until it was definitely too hot to touch but not melted at all. After half an hour of cooling, I released the clamps and voila!

I screwed the Lexan to the braces and then the braces to the wall and floor. In front of the curve I laid a sheet of 1/8” Masonite so I would have a nice smooth floor. Both the Masonite and the curve were sanded and primed with a neutral gray paint. (Benjamin Moore “Steel Wool” in Eggshell.) The next day I applied joint compound and taped the joints. It took at least 3 more applications of joint compound until I got an acceptably smooth transition. Sanded smooth, the wall was painted with two coats of the neutral gray paint.

I am reasonably happy with the results. I think it looks a lot classier than the sheet on the floor and will only require a periodic fresh coat of paint. I will lay a moving pad over the Masonite when not in use so that light objects (chairs, etc) can be placed on it. With that in mind, I am losing less than a foot (x 6’ length) of floor space. Because this setup requires no setup and looks a lot better, that’s a tradeoff I am willing to take.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Advice for Prospective Bloggers - Part Four

This is the final installment of a list of advice for starting your own blog. To catch up, read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

11.       Conscious Diversity
                Having a variety of types of entries is kindness to your readers. There are so many types of posts possible that it’s impractical to list them here. Google “types of blog posts” or something. You’ll find hundreds of ideas. Pick a handful (but not too many) and rotate through them. My consistent readers will notice I have how-to’s, event announcements, personal journal type updates, quotations from books, photo essays, Glossary entries, shout-outs to other blogs, etc. Keep it fresh and your readers will stick with you.

12.       Be Involved
                Because blogs are a communal form of writing, getting involved in other social media will only help. Be friendly with others connected in your blogging niche through Facebook, Twitter, forums, other blogs, etc. Comment on their blogs. “Friend” them on Facebook. Bloggers blog because we want to network with others who share our interests. None of us can afford to be in all forms of social media but never interacting with your readers or others bloggers is incongruous to the form.

13.       Work Efficiently
                Lastly, develop a writing and photo editing work flow that eliminates extra motions. Make it easy on yourself by refining this process. I write in Word, and copy and paste into Blogger. Every post has a folder of pictures on my computer. Uploaded to Lightroom, they are exported back to that folder. They are all easy to find. Though maybe backwards to others with more experience, I find this process seamless and quick. Find a way to streamline the monotonous mechanics of posting so that you will want to do it more.

Blogging is not for everyone but if you are interested, give it a go. Get connected. You’ll grow as a writer, photographer, and artisan. It’s time well invested. Feel free to add any other tips you have in the comments below. The conversation at the other posts has been good so far. What do you think? What is important to you when you write or read blog posts?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Advice for Prospective Bloggers - Part Three

This is Part Three of a list of advice for starting your own blog. Also read Part One and Part Two.

8.       Content, Content, Content
                This goes without saying, but it needs to be on the list: Write interesting stuff. Be explicit not secretive. Blogs are not for hiding information but for sharing it. This cannot be overlooked. Good blogs freely share lots of great content. Without it, you’re destined for failure.

9.       Don’t Be Tricky
                People aren’t dumb… we all can sense when someone is trying to trick us into buying something. Don’t be that guy. Surreptitiously linking to sponsors or links that make you money is tacky. If you are going to monetize your blog, be honest about it. There nothing intrinsically dishonest with direct monetization but I just find that the pennies one makes on it don’t justify pestering readers with salesmanlike conduct. Just share yourself and your knowledge and things will take off from there.

10.       Get Comfortable with Photography
                Writing is only half of the work of good blog posts. Especially since the advent of digital photography, for better or worse, people expect clear and attractive pictures to accompany good writing. Successful photography provides not only clarity to the text, but also visual interest to the site. As silly as it may be, high quality photography suggests authorial competency.

This is the end of Part Three. To catch up, read Part 1 and Part 2. Last installment coming soon…

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Advice for Prospective Bloggers - Part Two

This is Part Two of a list of advice for starting your own blog. If you missed it last time, read Part One.

4.       Show Thyself
                Show us your face. Even though blogging exists in the realm of ones and zeroes it still is a method of personal communication. If you don’t have a picture of yourself on your sidebar, make sure you regularly include yourself in pictures. People like to see people. Make it personal. Come to think of it, I think you should even create an “About Me” page.

5.       Understand the Format: Brevity and Beauty
                Blogs are not books. They aren’t even lengthy articles. It is tempting to write long posts either because you think readers will enjoy it or because you aren’t good at editing your writing. I’ve made this mistake before. I put a bunch of time in one long post only to find it feeling inordinately protracted. Think about the format here: it’s a blog. It’s more like a coffee table book than an essay. In the blogosphere, concise writing coupled with clear and attractive photographs is much more readable than a wordy tome. I better stop here or I will be violating my own rule.

6.       Be Honest – Not full disclosure but transparent
                It’s tacky to try to impress people with how talented you are. Just be yourself and people will enjoy it. I have found that my readers actually enjoy periodic posts that include my wife or kids. I never would have imagined but I get more comments about Eden than hand planes. It was then that I realized I valued learning about the lives of other bloggers.  Imagine if Peter Follansbee never shared about his wife and twins? It would be a different blog for sure. One caveat: There is a fine line between being transparent and being narcissistic. Tread carefully.

7.       Be Regular
                The beauty of short posts is that you can afford to write frequently. Think of blog reading like grazing rather than gorging. Frequent, brief posts providing a glimpse or thought from your day or elaboration on previous writing is much more digestible and leaves readers room for another course. Besides, frequency helps you hone your writing skills.

This is the end of Part Two. Part Three soon...

Monday, February 2, 2015

Advice for Prospective Bloggers

Periodically, I have readers ask me for advice about starting a blog. There are a few things I’ve learned the past four years of regular blogging but I am only able to share from my limited experience. I don’t blog for money so I can’t tell you how to get rich doing it. I spend time writing at The Workbench Diary for three reasons: 1. The connections to other artisans 2. The mutual education it provides. 3. The writing practice. Oh, and it’s fun. If that lines up with your vision of blogging, maybe something on this list will be helpful to you in your journey...

1.       Ask Yourself, “Why?”
                Before you start building your blog, the first thing I recommend you do is spend some time thinking through your motivations and goals. What are trying to accomplish by writing in this format? Marketing your business? Trying to get rich from writing? Proselytizing? You may discover some of your goals are realistic and some are less so. But until you ask these questions, you won’t know how to design your site to best achieve your goals.

2.       Analyze Your Favorites
One of the reasons you’re considering blogging is probably because you’ve read other blogs you enjoy. Take a critical look at those sites and figure out what it is that sets them apart from others. Is it the types of posts? The photography? Their writing style? Their transparency? Figure that out and see if you can’t incorporate those elements into your blog. My posts have evolved over time as I continue to identify which ones work and which don’t.

3.       Fit Your Niche
                We don’t need another Chris Schwarz. The reason we all enjoy Lost Art Press is because they found their own niche and embraced it. It’s not good form to try to slavishly copy another blog’s content. Think about exactly what knowledge, insight, or interests you have that others don’t. That’s what you wanna share.

This is the end of Part One. Part Two coming soon…