Monday, December 21, 2015

From the sublime to the dull in a weekend.

Here is a list

  • Hayao Miyazaki
  • Monocle
  • Brian Eno
  • National Gallery of Australia
  • Star Wars: The Awakening

It is a list in time, equal parts of wonder and puzzlement, a weekend spent in the capital of middle ranking wealthy nation of white privilege, a settler society culture with a history of savage dispossession, luck and a social notion of itself that is slipping toward neo-liberal hardheartedness.

We still have publicly funded broadcasters and cultural institutions but decades of conservative governments have chipped away at their purpose however they are still capable of throwing up treasures. I spent some of Friday evening watching Miyazaki's Spirited away on SBS - I'm in turn astonished and moved by something as profound and artistically whole as Mitazaki's animated films. Spirited away and Howl's moving Castle are both an embodiment of Solnit's notion of hope, where a character makes choices Buddhistic in their seeming simplicity and virtue. Weaving together folk traditions, Shinto and animistic beliefs, critiques of contemporary Japan and perhaps even neo-liberal late capitalism, these are examples of the achieve of the thing - animated film at its most excellent.

The morning after browsing in a local newsagent up swam 'Monocle'. Their Urbanist program is broadcast by Radio National but I hadn't seen the magazine before and so forked out a ridiculous amount of hard earned curiosity. What a strange and inelegant beast, almost one of Miyakazi's spellbound fools, shapeshifted into something not quite solid, not quite recognizable. 

Part The Economist, part National Geographic for those of a designery bent, it seems to be the playsheet for the rich urbane, the wunderkinds of our digital lives, all foreign traders, entrepreneurs, start up czars, the middle children of Russian oligarchs. The notion of design, the designed object as an end in itself, revered in its branded glory is given top billing here - a guide to aesthetics for the fuckwitted. Buy this, desire that, wear our definition of your uniqueness. The pinnacle of its narcissism lay in a list of 50 World Wonders which did not take its readers into the real world at all, but was entirely bound by the chimera of endless travel, movement. the next craved destination as airports, train systems, accommodation, the planes themselves, the paper you should carry on board, everything to ensure the perfect experience of pure disenlightenment. So many Aetos Kaukasios who daintily eat our planet, three Michelin starred mouthfuls after another after another after another.

I was thrown by Monocle and its lifeless promises wrapped in self-serving authority, so retreated to the workshop to grind half an inch or so from a plane blade abandoned in a garden shed by previous neighbours (lovely folk but not very tool savvy). Then up galloped Andrew Ford on his charger, Music Show, waving the pennant of sanity as he played Brian Eno's John Peel Lecture from earlier this year. Antidotes are rarely so powerful but Eno's lecture is everything Monocle will never be. I did wonder by the end whether Eno has read Morris's News from Nowhere but for a pure shot of Yes making art and stuff and craft and art and things is important for very good reasons, well it doesn't get much better. As Andrew Ford says in his introduction, Eno comes as close as he has ever heard anyone come to describing what art is, why it matters and how it works. God bless you Mr Eno.

As the day's temperature rose and rose, the air-conditioned quiet of the National Gallery called with its hum of chilled promise. The current blockbuster is a Tom Roberts retrospective which I am as interested in as learning how to knit shredded cheese. I gather by the tumbleweeds blowing through the exhibition's entrance, not many other folk were interested either.

But the NGA has just had what is probably its biggest rehang since opening in its Madigan concrete dolls house. Ostralan art is now downstairs, contemporary everything else upstairs, but there are themes also running through the refit. Asian art remains in the outer kingdoms on the northern ramps, filled with some beautiful objects asking the incessant question of where was I stolen from? Whose gods are now missing as I sit here unworshipped and silenced? 

There is always something that prods its way into the log of possibles, something that will nag and rub its way into a sketch or marquette but my overwhelming response was one of sadness as the collection just seemed parochial, dully safe and irrelevant. Vapid concrete halls filled with the nation's treasures. Two hour old toast. There are new acquisitions sitting near the upstairs entrance, very new works, works with labels boldly proclaiming in red that they are new but it feels like a struggling sideshow adding adjectives to its roadside banners in the hope of luring back its long departed audiences. 

There are fascinating, interesting, brilliant, daft and bonkers works piled upon piles in the NGA, but what is on show is a thin smear, a Year 8 trip through art over the ages, Alice in Unwonderland. Dragged to the NGA, thousands of Australian school kids will be turned off art for life. It looks like a response to the pants down hoolah of MONA in Hobart or the gleaming of GOMA in Brisbane but it ends up appearing as undignified as a balding paunchy middle aged man skateboarding down the Pitt Street mall.

The last thing on the list is one of those films I've gone to with my son over the years - not really my taste but he's not particularly keen on Von Trotter either. The family movies. the blockbuster most of which are fork in head awful, some coming back around crap and meeting up with entertainingly dreadful. 

When I first began working full time, I worked for a venerable bookshop which had numerous manifestations including Australia's first SF and fantasy bookshop where I did a half day shift once a week. This was in the early 1980s, and geek and nerd were yet to enter the lexicon of social acceptance. The kids who grew up on choose your own adventures had done just that and decided that somewhere in a galaxy far far away, they were in fact a Jedi knight, not a payroll clerk for the Water Board and their portal to their true self was somewhere in the aisles of Galaxy Bookshop.

This was in the heady days of the first three films of the Star Wars franchise, leading to chronic overexposure to the madness and an equally strong intent not to engage at all. Until last night, I hadn't seen any of the Star War films. but even so the references and images have so saturated our culture that yes Princess Leia and the rest of the team were all terribly familiar. Overwhelmingly so, so overwhelmingly so that I found Star Wars: The Force Awakens boring, derivative, predictable, hammed up (the ending was just Miss Piggy in a robe)  and well, boring. And yet again, I read the reviews afterward and wondered if I'd accidentally seen the wrong movie. It wasn't awful, but it was pretty bland; Disney sanitised and rather like the NGA. Except this blockbuster will have no shortage of willing eyeballs. 

Friday, December 4, 2015

Wooden planes in a summer climate

Some things in the workshop are simply too much fun. Making tools in particular. Especially when they work better than expected.

I did a bit of tool making with Ian Percival, polymath and inventor extraordinaire while at CSA, plus turned a mallet with Richard Raffan (and an extremely ugly lidded container I seem to recall) and have fiddled about since with the various things that you have to make or modify.

A couple of months ago, I picked up a Hock Krenov style block plane kit which has sat acclimitising in the tool cabinet. But this week with free time as the rock maple side table is done and dusted, I have time to spend a couple of days faffing about.

The kit components were a bit rough but I wasn't expecting to end up with a Holtey so it was more about the process. Pretty straightforward and a quick introduction to how they go together and what needs to be prepped better.

It's actually quite petite, very sweetly balanced, sits nicely in my hands and works single or double handed. And cuts a very fine and consistent shaving.

I had to go to Krenov's Fine Art of Cabinetmaking where he covers plane making in some detail as I wasn't quite sure from the instructions as to the final height of the wedge relative to the blade top. As always with Krenov, the text is not simply a how-to but a why and what for which means that because I've had so much fun with this one, I've now hauled out the carcase of something I started at CSA at least fifteen years ago.

Comrade Stafenbiehl and I were intent on building a fleet of specialist planes such as shoulder rebate with brass soles. I'm not quite sure why I ended up the body of walnut and jarrah that I have and the fleet didn't eventuate either.

I also have no idea why the gap between the two blocks is so large, nor why I cut the bedding pitch block at 20 degrees. If I drew anything or made plans, they've long since been lost in one house move or another. Mysteries one and all, but it means I can treat this an exercise in let's see if this will work, and not shed a tear if it doesn't.

I haven't a blade that's suitable either, so I'll make do with a Sorby blade that was part of an infilled smoother bought, unwisely once again, from a tool swap. It's a nice hefty 3/16th but for the purposes of this exercise, I'll leave the chipbreaker off and use it up bevel up.

However the blade is not flat. Lord knows what happened to the poor bloody smoother at some point in its past - there are two cracks in the casting that someone has tried to repair with brass brazing, and putting a twist in a blade of this thickness takes talent. So will I wander over to the engineering workshop in Mitchell and see if they can squeeze it flat with one of their boofy vices or muck about with the wedge instead?

To be pondered, along with my crazy idea to fit the cross pin with a slip on triangular body. And of course I now need a brass hammer to tap the blade, so I've also dug out some brass pieces I turned up for some other project long forgotten and am eyeing off some sassafras cylinders as likely hammer heads. Two ounce heads seem to be the size of choice, and I'm looking forward to shaping up a drop style handle.

And after the play with the walnut body, there's a large pile of ash waiting for my attention, and oohhh look Lee Valley have blades without chipbreakers plus there are the Hock short blade sets to play with as well. This will be fun.

And here's the wee plane adjusting hammer with a brass face glued in using CA glue which I suspect won't last for long at all. Sassafras head and an ash handle.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Rolling out the door

A just completed table which will be in 'Conviviality' - opening Thursday at Strathnairn Arts and running until 20 Dec.
'Print' uses recycled oregan sourced through Thor's Hammer at Yarralumla which came out of the Government Printing Office at Kingston.
Apparently they don't stock oregan very often so it was a matter of making a virtue of what they had. A short 1360mm 70mm thick section was deeped, revealing the nail holes and staining. It was an interesting pattern and rather than filling with resin or epoxy, I've left them raw and open.
Also took the chance to play with a new finish. Thor's Hammer use and sell Osmo finishes. They mainly use Polyx oil which is applied with a microfibre roller. I went the Osmo hard oil and I'm not sure what I think about it.
Like all oils, my french polisher beady eyes sees streakiness and when it's rubbed out, the sheen is a bit uneven. It's also got a whitish cast which is not a bad thing necessarily but it did result in the leg assemblies which were finished in shellac being warmer in tone. If it yellows, this will come to balance and the oregan will darken over time as well. Low gloss though which I was pleased with.
The oregan had some issues of compression which could be from its felling (sometime just after WWI so this is pretty venerable wood), or the stresses the pieces were under in the building. Plus there were as you can see a couple of knots. I can say the new #62 low angle plane rose splendidly to the occasion (and yes I do need to write Post #2 about that plane). But it was also intended to not be perfect, but an engagement with recycled timber and everything that may mean.
The pieces available from Thor's Hammer also dictated the design of the leg assembly.I am curious about how well it will function. There are no cross rails and the assemblies have been screwed into the top through tapering holes using #12 screws. Given the age of the timber, I'm not too worried about movement.
If it does prove to have too much rack, I can add haunched rails very easily. But I do like playing with the removal of rails when possible as they are a pain when sitting at a table and in some circumstances, just more visual clutter.
This now the fourth table where I have also used a central beam in the top. This one is not thicker than the top neighbouring boards but it widened what would otherwise be too mean a top. The central piece is also a bit denser than the other boards, so the joints will have extra heft. 
A small breakfast table for two or one with a paper and coffee. Or should that be one with an iPad Pro and coffee?
But as always, it's a reminder that I need to shoot stuff in a slightly more orderly manner than when they're being loaded into the back of the ute. There is something, well not quite.... about an oil stained driveway as your backdrop. I did broom it though.
More information on the BFD website.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

#62 low angle - finessing a plane

By the time you've had a couple of decades of buying, using and making hand tools, the dictum "You get what you pay for" generally holds as a pretty good summation of tool quality in relation to cost. Of course there are those bargains found at tool swaps or garage sales or even the tool which though relatively expensive, is such a pleasure to use, the initial high price becomes irrelevant very quickly.

And then there are the disappointments of which I've had a few.

The #140 skew angle block plane circa 1900 found at a tool swap. I should have known better. I really should have known better - the seller had re-japanned it and done a fine job but that had only hidden the problems the plane had (and still has) which make setting the blade correctly nigh impossible, Suffice to say, it cuts very well on the side of the mouth near the detachable fence.

But I'm frequently puzzled as to why people seem terribly disappointed if their brand new plane or second hand treasure doesn't schwish along a piece of timber the first time they use it. I keep reading or seeing endless Youtube clips of user reviews which bemoan a tool not primped and primed right out of the box. I'm sorry folks, but if you don't know how to coax, tend and set the tool up, well you're going to struggle to get it to perform at its best even if it comes to you beautifully set up some other experienced hand.

I've got a fair range of hand planes, all of which earn their keep. I can honestly say that, hand on heart, none of them loaf about just for the sake of occupying a bit of space in the tool cabinet. The Record #7 had its Stay-Set cap and blade replaced with a Hock set and is much the better for it. The US Bailey #6 has a laminated Samurai blade and it is a lovely thing to use, particularly on the shooting board where the plane's weight is a positive. The Davey replacement rear handle was one of those great buys which needed almost no reshaping.

The Bailey #5 will probably lodge a complaint with the RSPCA as it really is used as a roughing plane, with a set of variously configured standard Australian made Stanley blades which hold an edge much better than I would ever have expected and are quick to resharpen. And yes it does have a Carter rear handle - I dropped and cracked a very dearly loved 1950s Carter #5 but recycled the handle as it is incredibly comfortable for my smaller mitts.

The Bailey #4  has a Stanley blade that Academy Saw Works in Rydalmere were selling in the 90s which is reputed to be about R62 and whispers sweet nothings to whatever timber it is gliding over. The US Bailey #3 has a Sweetheart blade which though a bit pitted is absolutely lovely when sharp, zinging along with a cheery finesse that always make me smile. (The wee #3 raises a question for me about the usefulness of a #2 - even with my hands, I'd find anything smaller than the #3's handle uncomfortable. And I have a scraper and know how to use it)

Plus there's three block planes, a compass plane, sweet little 1/4" infill shoulder plane with a Hearnshaw blade, couple of bull nose rebate planes, a Record #71 router plane and a Boker scrub plane I bought from Leon Sadubin in about 1991. If I can get a good edge quickly on the blade, it stays. I use waterstones, King brand from memory, up to 8000 (but I've just ordered a 16 000 Shapton glass stone)

As most of the planes were bought or procured second hand, you can't expect to just pick it up and start working. Second hand planes certainly require pulling apart, cleaning, sole and frog lapping, perhaps replacement parts, and a fair bit of grinding, lapping and sharpening of the blade if it was usable. The #7 and #6 were lapped in a university engineering workshop and so they are truly flat. But apart from that, it was hours of back and forth on sheets of wet and dry on the jointer bed, filing mouths, and lapping blades on the waterstones.

Which finally brings me to the actual subject of this post. Most of the time, cranky grain is schwished away with a newly sharpened blade in the #6 but occasionally even that won't defeat a spot of poorly behaved myrtle, or bad tempered English ash or some eucalypt or another. I had heard the legends of the #62, defeater of the cranky grain, but was shocked at the prices either at tool swaps or online via ebay. Beloved of collectors and very prone to fracture between the mouth edge and the sides, $500 or more didn't appeal. Over the years, various new versions have appeared from Lie Nielsen, Veritas and Stanley themselves and finally a Chinese manufactured version from the Quangsheng Tool Company which is marketed as Woodriver in the US, an in-house brand with Dictum tools in Germany and in the UK with a number of major retailers.

The Quangsheng planes excite a lot of tapping fingers on the 'net, with people claiming they are direct copies of Lie Nielsen planes, and/or infringing their copyright, and dreadfully inferior. As someone who works on copyright questions in one of my consulting roles, all statements I've seen so far concerning copyright infringement are complete balderdash. Many of Lie Nielsen's planes are based on Stanley planes as produced during the twentieth century, including the #62, contemporaneous with many other plane makers including Record, Marples, Clifton, Sargent, Carter, Pope making exactly the same planes. The patents and copyright on the planes Bailey or Stanley made had lapsed prior to WWII. Hence Lie Nielsen being able to manufacture their versions of bedrocks - designs which Lie Neilsen can't patent or apply for copyright on as they are not dissimilar enough from the Stanley products to be able to be defined as unique designs.

Nor are the Quangsheng planes direct copies of the Lie Nielsen planes. They may look the same at first glance but the lever cap is different, the blade shape on the Quangsheng plane is the same shape used by Stanley during production and the adjustment mechanism is different again. My observations are that the LN planes are better made, visibly better made, their tolerances on the parts are tighter, the blades are higher quality and the planes are fettled, yes ready to go from the box. You would have to be very new to the world of tools and have significant sight loss to mistake a LN plane for a Quangsheng plane.

But are they dreadfully inferior? As I've just bought a Quangsheng #62 from McJing Tools in Sydney, I hope I can at least answer that question in the next week as I fettle and fiddle with the plane I picked up yesterday.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Reading Harrod and why b is for.....

A couple of months ago, Hyphen Press released a collection of articles, reviews, short journalistic pieces and obits by critic and historian Tanya Harrod. Called The Real Thing: Essays on making in the modern world, it's a very dense and thoroughly enjoyable edition of short writings Maupassantian in brevity and polish.

I've been a Harrod fan for years, even subscribing at eyewatering expense to Crafts magazine just to be able to read her monthly column - until I realised I could read the copy at the School of Art library. But there are many pieces of her writing I couldn't access as they appeared in British papers and magazines, some prior to the internet and some simply because the paper or magazine doesn't place all of its content online. So The Real Thing is all the more joyful as it brings together what Harrod has herself determined to be important, interconnected and about "areas of facture that generally go unnoticed by art critics and which are rarely considered by writers on design and architecture", delivered with Harrod's breadth of knowledge which she shares with elan and wit.

And this is what Harrod does so well - write about craft with deep insight (she trained as a potter) and deep love of all of our arcane and evolving practices with the warp and weft of that particular British radicalism which some social historians instill in their work. My first readings of her work made the same impact as reading AJP Taylor had when I was just starting to engage with history with some seriousness at uni.

My copy of the book is pockmarked with underlinings, bent and crumpled post-it notes. Reading her work is, though it doesn't make sense that it is, it is nevertheless seemingly an exchange as Harrod is generous in her knowledge and ability to write about art where so many write to obscure that in plain sight, so that you become a willing accomplice in her view of a world of meaning, of making, of purpose, of true worth. The reverse of Wilde's aphorism about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Is that why craft matters? That it has some worth which eludes pricing but embodies value which we intrinsically recognise? Well not all of us*, but as Grayson Perry or Colin Painter have shown, people who most of the artworld gate keepers would see as unworthy of attention can be brought into the conversation and contribute and embrace the made, the crafted.

If that's the case (and it's perhaps an empty argument but this is my polemic and I'll polemic if I want...) then to push this analogy off the cliff of reasonableness, is design now about being very knowing of the price of everything?

I'm currently reading Deyan Sudjic's B is for Bauhaus which Penguin published last year (which I bought from one of only two independent bookshops left in Canberra - Book Passion which gamely sits among the greengrocers, fishmongers, butchers, bakers, poultrymongers, health food shops and cafes at Belconnen Markets). Sudjic is the director of the Design Museum in London and has written widely, being one of the editors of Blueprint in the 80s. B is for Bauhaus (shouldn't it be bauhaus?) started as a dictionary of design but morphed into a batch of short essays - 39 in all - covering a board range of designery topics from authentic to zip. There is something paper dry about architectural writers and critics; reading them can be like walking on a windy hilltop. All the clouds of doubt and foggy aesthetics get blown away by a decent blast of cold hard truth. Or so they believe, but if ever there was an area of human endeavour that needed to be examined through the lens of social history, it's design.

Sudjic's essay on bauhaus might usefully expose some of the accidental histories which helped establish both its reputation and model in so pre-eminent a fashion but he also ignores two key elements which do help justify its importance whilst so focused on the personality cult of great white male designer.

Firstly, all of the staff from the completely bonkers Ittens to the unkind Mies van der Rohe were covetous in their engagement with the new materials and processes - from steel to early plastics, electro-plating, photography, industrial dyes and pigments. Explore, push, play, fail and repeat. Where Sudjic finds success in William Morris's design project when viewed as a critical design practice, he fails to apply the same logic to the work and pedagogy of bauhaus in all of its iterations. This duality, the exploration of materials and process and the finished object itself embodying a critique is one of the two most valuable gifts passed onto all subsequent makers, artists, craftspersons and designers.

That their explorations further opened up industrialised manufacturing of domestic consumer wares is also overlooked (or ignored) by Sudjic. Whether it's a steel frame chair or ceramic tableware, the potential exploitation of newly industrialised materials and processes to make millions of the same object and profit for the manufacturer might have taken decades to reach maturation in Robin Day's Polypropylene Chair, but the notion that such a thing was both possible and desirable owes much to the serendipitous explorations of bauhaus associates and the parallel rise of materials and processes that could profitably make those objects. The question that Sudjic doesn't ask is to what degree promotion by corporations of their 'design icons' has ensured that they are exactly that - iconic and handily available for purchase which also ensures iconic status for the designer in our received histories.

The other gift of bauhaus is the insistence on the hand, on making, on the experiential where the discovered and imaged potential of materials and new forms can be explored and validated by the maker or the designer, or both in conjunction. This is to some degree under threat as digital ways of both designing and making offer the opportunity to produce the previously unmakeable with now cheap 3-D printers, but few of these experiments are more than curiosities - like a two- headed calf or a dog that sings and plays the piano - diverting, funny or perhaps slightly scary, but not necessarily offering anything of lasting importance apart from technical development..

Which is not to invalidate that process - by no means, but I think we are playing with the limitations of digital world views and current technologies, cramped by linear realities which the hand and eye had overcome generations ago when we first fashioned exquisite stone tools, or wove materials into 3 D forms. We're captivated by our cleverness and blind to how infantile those accomplishments are. Craft builds on its vast storehouse of knowledge; too often design is seduced by generational newness, the art and practice of the amnesiac.

* Our current Federal Minister of the Arts seems in particular to struggle with a definition of 'arts' that includes anyone other than a fur draped certainty last seen in 1950s Wagga Wagga.