Thursday, May 30, 2019

Wharton Esherick Museum

"If it's not fun, it's not worth doing." - Wharton Esherick
Portrait of Esherick (1887-1970)
Having recently seen some of Esherick's work, I can totally understand his attitude.  A lot of his work just looks like it would have been fun to conceive and create.

I had no idea my trip back to the New Jersey area would be so filled with woodworking experiences.  We just sort of happened upon the Esherick museum as we were making our way towards Lancaster County, PA, and it was a real thrill.

I first read about Esherick some years ago (it might have been this article by Chuck Bender in PopWood) and I recall being amazed at his work.  His use of curves was so far from my rectilinear thinking.  As a younger man, he was primarily a painter.  He started doing some decorative carving for the frames of his paintings and in the 1920's he began doing sculptures with wood as his primary medium.

At some point, he started into making furniture.  I read somewhere that he had a hard time selling his artwork, but his furniture was selling, so he did more furniture to support his family.  But I also read that he was becoming very well known for his sculptures, some of which were on display in museums.  Through his art and furniture, he made many contacts and was able to continue his work.  He really combined art and furniture - just look at any piece of his furniture and you see it.

Here is a picture of a couple of his sculptures.
Two very tall (16-20 feet tall!) sculptures - beautiful flowing curves.
IIRC, the lower floor had to be excavated to be able to fit them in the building.
The buildings were interesting, too.  The garage he built, which is now the reception area for the museum, has a roof line that is slightly catty-cornered relative to the rectangular structure that it covers.
Garage, turned museum reception area.
The roof line angles from front right to back left.
It takes a different way of thinking to come up with this stuff.  Even the stairways he built in the house were extraordinary.
This was WAY cooler in person
(and solid as a rock, too)
Esherick was doing things that inspired such greats as Sam Maloof.  I believe Maloof's iconic rocking chairs with the M&T joints so nicely shaped were a direct influence of Esherick.  Esherick was doing that type of work much earlier.  Maloof had called Esherick the "Dean of American Craftsmen".  Here are a couple examples of Esherick's work.
A tall Arts and Crafts-inspired chest with lots of nature-inspired carving
A beautifully curvy music stand.
The angle this photo was taken doesn't show the curvy legs very well.
The last two pictures that I wanted to share, I'll just have to give a link to - I thought I had my own pictures of them, but I can't seem to find them.  Look at the last two pictures in Chuck Bender's article in PopWood.  The three-legged stool is one of Esherick's more famous pieces and the three-step stool is just plain awesome.

Esherick was a painter, sculpter, furniture maker, poet and probably more.  If you ever get a chance to visit the museum, you won't be disappointed.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Henry Chapman Mercer

[This post at first might not seem relevant to woodworking - have patience and keep reading.]

Last week's post was about my visit to the Stickley Museum in Morris Plains, NJ.  During that trip back East, I also visited a couple other woodworking-related museums.  This post is about the first of those: the home and museum of Henry Chapman Mercer.
Henry Mercer
(Picture from Wikipedia)
Henry Mercer chose his parents very well.  He was a child of privilege, being born into wealth.  He attended Harvard and later studied law at U. of Pennsylvania.  He never practiced law, however.  He traveled throughout Europe for much of the 1880's, and after his return he spent much of the 1890's as curator of American and Prehistoric Archaeology at the U. of Penn Museum.  It's my guess that this only added to his interests in archaeology, paleontology and history, among other things.

Mercer is famous his ceramic tile manufacturing plant and for the concrete castle he built around 1908-1912 in Doylestown, PA.  The tour guide said that Mercer once built a bonfire on an upper floor balcony of the castle just to show how the castle was fireproof.  The fire drew the attention of many fire-fighters who responded to the scene, only to find no help was needed.
Fonthill Castle
Fonthill Castle was an interesting structure, made mostly of poured, reinforced concrete.  Some of the furniture even had concrete casework.  Chests of drawers were built-in and had carcase of concrete and drawers of wood.  Bookcases were made similarly.
Chest of drawers made from concrete with drawers of wood
This support column shows the grain of the wooden "mold"
that was used to form it.
But the really unbelievable thing about it was the tile.  Practically every floor, wall and ceiling was covered with tiles that he either made in the tile manufacturing plant or that he had collected from throughout the world.
A ceiling decorated with tiles
Another ceiling just loaded with tile
Tiles above a doorway
Many of his tiles displayed aspects of early American rural life.  And while the tile work was the main show, there were a few interesting pieces of furniture.
A nice long Windsor-style bench
And interesting chair
You could see through his tiles that Mercer had a soft spot for early American life.  He felt that industrialization was destroying American society (much like the thinking behind the Arts and Crafts Movement).  It was partly for this reason that he started collecting tools and other items that were rapidly being lost to antiquity.  He collected so many things over the years (over 30000 objects) that he decided to build a museum.  Hence the Mercer museum was born.

This museum, also in Doylestown, PA, was fantastic.  It had sections devoted to individual aspects of early rural life.  Things like all the tools, barrels and knick-knacks needed for butter churning and storage.  You wouldn't believe how many things were needed for meat tenderization, preparation and storage.  Hay raking, gunpowder making, fruit preservation, nail making, coopering, cider making, the list goes on and on.  There were stagecoaches and boats hanging from the main atrium ceiling!  Everything was made of wood, metal and sometimes a little leather.
Horse-drawn carts hanging in the atrium
(check out the size of the monstrous wooden screw at left)
Some cooper's tools
More cooperage tools - something's not right with the long stave-jointing plane.
Can anybody put a finger on it?  Seems like the plane body is upside down and iron is in the wrong way!
All of this stuff was great and I could have spent several days here and not seen enough.  But I couldn't wait to get the the woodworking exhibit.  Unfortunately the exhibit was behind glass, so some pics don't look so good.
Yours truly at the woodworking exhibit
A big-ass frame saw, with several types of ax on the back wall
A nice old chest loaded with moulding planes
Wooden braces
An interesting treadle lathe (there were 2-3 others in the exhibit)
An old saw with user-made handle
A (probably) not-as-old saw with broken, more ornate (mass-produced?) handle
And in another area of the museum were some cool lathes.
There's a "great wheel" behind the concrete pillar attached to the right-most (cast metal) lathe
Interesting treadle lathe with wooden frame and metal head- and tail-stocks and treadle wheel.
Note the changeable pulley sizes for adjustable lathe speeds
Just so much stuff.  It was tool porn to be sure.  I could've stayed there for many more hours, but unfortunately time was running short.  Bummer.

Henry Chapman may not have been a woodworker, but he did the woodworking world a huge favor with his collections and museum.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Gustav Stickley

I was recently on vacation in New Jersey, seeing some old friends.  I moved away from Jersey 21 years ago, about 5 years before I got into woodworking and into the history that goes along with it.  But man!  There is a lot of history in New Jersey.

One place we visited was "The Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms".  (note - there is another Stickley Museum in Fayetteville, NY, but that is for the work of Gustav's brothers Leopold and John George, who had a company of their own.)  I'll intersperse some pictures between paragraphs below, but the pics have little to do with the text above or below them.
The main building of the Stickley Museum in Morris Plains, NJ
Photo: K. Lees
Gustav Stickley was born in 1858 in Wisconsin, and moved to Pennsylvania as a child, eventually working for an uncle in a chair factory.  By the age of 25, he started a business with brothers Albert and Charles and later moved the operation to Binghamton, New York.  My tour guide mentioned that all five Stickley boys were furniture makers, so I'm fairly certain this business was a furniture business.
Photo from The Stickley Museum website
In the mid-1890's Gustav traveled to England and France and was introduced to the English Arts and Crafts and the French Art Nouveau styles.  From what I gather, the Arts and Crafts movement was borne out of a desire for well-built, hand-made furniture and was sort of a backlash against the poor treatment of factory workers and the poor quality products brought on by the industrial revolution.
A monstrous 10-foot long sideboard
Inspired by the furniture he saw, Stickley got together with designers and came up with a line of furniture of his own.  He embraced the idea of simple, well-built furniture made from good materials.  His wood surfaces were not all fru-fru with carvings and other decoration.  The wood grain was the decoration and mortise and tenon joinery was on display.
A poor picture of a 5-leg table (OK, 4 legs plus center post)
Much better pic of the table's undercarriage - note the exposed through tenons
Photo: K. Lees
His furniture sold well and eventually he had over 100 distributors nation-wide.  The fist 13-14 years of the 20th century saw lots of expansion for his business.  He started "The Craftsman", magazine in 1901, which promoted the A&C philosophy and the magazine ran for about 15 years.  Among other things, the magazine published many house plans and even plans for making his furniture designs in a home shop.
A more famous 6-legged, hexagonal "Library" table.  Note the through pegged tenons.
Photo from the Stickley Museum website.
He eventually made New York City his headquarters, while his family and factory remained in Syracuse.  I can't find this on the museum website, but the tour guide mentioned that he owned a department store in NYC - perhaps that was in the same building as his headquarters.  Quite a thing - running a furniture company, being a magazine publisher, and having a department store - probably among other things I can't remember.
A bed for a daughter's bedroom
During that growth period, he purchased land in New Jersey and called it "Craftsman Farms".  This became his "country estate" and is the site of the current museum.  Sometimes it's hard to think of New Jersey as being in "the country", but it was then.  And by the way, New Jersey is still quite beautiful if you stay away from the greater NYC metro area.  Can you tell I'm not a big fan of cities?
A corner cabinet in the dining room
(there is a far better picture on this page of the museum's website)
Things changed near the start of World War I and then the war took its toll.  Stickley had over-extended himself and by 1913 the interest in A&C furniture started to decrease.  With increased competition - including from his own brothers - the company started operating in the red.  By 1915 Gustov filed for bankruptcy.  The magazine ended in 1916 and he had to sell the NJ property in 1917.  His brothers came to his aid, forming "Stickley Associated Cabinetmakers" and incorporating Gustav's old factory.  He moved back to Syracuse, where he lived until his death in 1942.
Upper, right corner of a picture frame, showing the bridle joint
with over-long shaped ends, and pegs holding the joint together
A side note on the A&C movement:

Stickley was greatly influenced by the writings of Englishmen John Ruskin and William Morris, both active in the mid to late 1800's.  Ruskin spoke out strongly against the new British factories that produced crappy furniture and robbed workers of the joy of creating well-made things with their own hands.  Morris started a company that made textiles, wallpapers and furniture, among other things.  His company put Ruskin's philosophy into practice and eventually his work contributed to the start of the Arts and Crafts movement.

Reading this stuff about Ruskin made me think of today where we can get such crap from China or places like Ikea.  I guess things haven't changed all that much over the last 150 years.  Or maybe they've just progressed in crappiness over that time.
Image result for gustav stickley eastwood chair
The iconic "Eastwood" chair - similar to a Morris chair
Picture from eBay

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Moulding Plane Organization

I don't have a lot of moulding planes, but the ones I do have never seem to be sitting quite right in their shelf.
The moulding planes and wooden plough plane on a good day (not too messy)
They fall over, get mixed up and generally it bugs me.  So I thought it was time to use up some more old wood and create better organization.  The wood for this project was from an old rickety shelf that was in my old house when I first moved in in 1998.  So the wood is probably 25 years old or more.  The shelf was made of pine 1 x 12's, which are really about 3/4" thick and 11 1/4" wide.  But these boards included the pith, which had cracks and caused warping.

I cut out the pith, flattened one side, straightened the edges and glued the boards back together to get boards approx. 9" wide.
The stock I'm working with, flattened, dimensioned and all cleaned up
Here's an interesting thing about using 1 x 12 wood.  If the boards contain the pith, the rest of the boards are very nearly quarter-sawn.  So I ended up with nice wood that should be fairly stable.
End grain showing quarter-sawn grain
The tough thing about this wood was that it left sticky pitch on my tools very quickly.  I would have thought that in wood sitting around this long, the pitch would have hardened.  But I had to clean my irons and chisels frequently to remove the pitch.  I do like the look of this wood, but the pitch was a real pain in the rear.

The case is a simple rectangular box, dovetailed together at the corners.  Then I chopped stopped dadoes in the top and bottom to receive some (scrap) plywood dividers.
Marked the tails on top and bottom boards, ready for gang sawing
After removing he waste and paring to the lines, using tail board to mark the pin board
First fitting of all four corners - came out pretty good
Routing the bottoms of the dadoes for the dividers.  Had to use my makeshift 1/8" router plane
for one dado that I marked a bit too thin to use the quarter inch iron on the regular router. 
Fitted the dividers and then shaped their front edges
The glue-up went well, though I had to manipulate the clamps to get the carcase square.  When gluing up dovetails, I use small plywood pads and cauls to put pressure exactly where it's needed.
Using an internal corner gauge to check diagonals for square
If you look carefully in the above picture, you can see the little plywood pads under the cauls.  The pads are stuck directly on the tails.  The cauls are also planed a little bit convex so that good pressure is exerted in the middle of the row of dovetails even when no clamp is there.
Can't argue with this
I like the way the quarter-sawn end grain matches the face grain of the mating pieces.  These dovetails came out great!  I feel like I'm getting better at keeping crisp, clean lines, especially with the chisels.  And BTW, the chisels that I recently made new handles for performed extremely well.

I gave the project two coats of shellac, sanding lightly after each coat had dried.  And here it is in it's home.
Appeals to my sense of organization
It may not look like to big a change from the way it was before, but when the planes are in action it will definitely help keep things in order.