The Tactile Process

I started a few days later and came in with no attitude, no agenda and was as quiet as a church mouse. Naturally, I did as I was told. I helped move parts, helped in organizing the flow of work and mentally prepared myself for training. Looking back from where I am today, holding these antiques and being careful to not hurt them or damage them, I learned to be respectful of what we would be doing and honor the process. 

I was blessed to be in the right place at the right time and wide-open to a perfect training. Since I wasn’t any wiser as to what to expect, the entire experience could have disintegrated if I had apprenticed in a shop that was of questionable quality. Luck was definitely in play.

Since it was only Robert and I, everything was first person, one-on-one, and he was always working in the shop. We were shoulder to shoulder in every aspect and both of us was involved in every step of the way. I would ask, he would respond. However, like any good craftsman, he would withhold key information until he believed, and convinced, I was ready to absorb new techniques. I do the same today. 

There was an “old timer” union carpenter, Jack, that came by every now and then to either help out briefly or work on something of his own and use the shop. Yep, he smoked Lucky Strikes, wore the khakis and the hat that matched and had a great carpenter’s tool box filled with hand tools. Clean shaven like a sheared sheep, his face was a gentle road map of blended wrinkles and crevices. He was short in stature, but held a good fighting weight. 

A few times I made the mistake by wandering too close to see what he was doing. He was prepared though. He would either turn his back and hide what he was doing if I was far enough away, or stop working and hide his work under paper and lumber.

We spoke very little to each other or rather he spoke very little to me. It was the classic “there is no way I’m going to let you see what I am doing” craftsman attitude.

Back then, you really had to honor the lack of communication between apprentice and master—and one would to become accomplished. 

It’s a rite of passage, paying your dues, whatever you want to call it. There would be a long time before he would share anything with me outside of the occasional grunt. Come to think of it, I don’t remember him ever sharing anything. 

Not like today. 

Everything now, is shared on social media. I’m not sure how I feel about that. It’s too easy to learn anything and therefore you may not completely own it and lack a real respect for how you did learn it. We had the public library and constant experimentation. That was it.

This training was perhaps the best anyone could have in any hand making craft building. 

Some of the lessons I learned was essential:

Always have a back door. Be ready to catch misfires and oversights immediately. Think ahead at least 3 steps, stay alert and on point in every step. Of course, I did not learn that overnight and I can’t remember too many mistakes (well, I do remember one really bad mistake) along the way. It felt and seemed, well, seamless. I was aware that my hands were of a musician that translated into the same dexterous hands of a craftsman. Therefore, the work became easier. I had good fingertip control.

Once I got into the swing of things and Robert could trust me to work independently, my abilities grew rapidly. I remember running around measuring all the parts with wooden rules, metal rules, small calipers—inside and outside. Every imaginable measuring device was employed and we were comparing our set up results to the original piece. We made our own knives for the small shaper work to duplicate the original profiles. And all saw marks had to be eliminated. We used scarpaers, chisels and hand planes to tune up parts if we had to. I believe our rejection rate was in the neighborhood of about 10% which may seem a tad high, but some of our pieces were ¼” by 3/8” by 5” in length. You could just barely hold onto them!

The sequencing was fascinating. Mill, rabbet, bead, cross cut, miter, sand, and stack. That was one set of steps, in sequence for a total of 12 parts. There were other jigs and set-ups, but you get the idea. We would double check the first few pieces before running the required 200 pieces or so. The batches of completed finish product ranged anywhere from 50 to 150 with each piece having at least 10 parts up to 30 parts that had to be produced.

One of my favorite tasks was gluing up small frames for the lanterns and mirrors. It required patience and a delicate touch. Just as in playing guitar requires a light touch, so did this.

Robert had developed and built several sized jigs in multiple lots; each one named and marked for the completed assembled part. There were lefts, rights, tops, bottoms, etc. and you really did have to have your wits about you while pulling material. We were constantly marking one edge for registration to maintain orientation.

The assembly jigs were made of a plywood base with wooden angled pieces for each corner on the 4 sided frame units. There was no clamp that could clamp these delicate frames together. Not even miniature model making clamps. They had to be wedged and had to be spot on when dry.

We would apply glue on the joints (with virtually zero squeeze out), place wax paper down, place the frames in the jig and then wedge the frames together at the corners with walnut wedges, tapping the wedges in with small 10 oz. hammers. The problem was the rotating aspect—many were rabbeted frames—and the miters could drift, hence the delicate touch and application. There was always some kind of minor adjustment to get them to align perfectly. We used yellow glue allowing set time in the jig for about 20 minutes per frame. This was one of many dedicated jigs we made to make this whole thing work accurately throughout the whole process. Perfection is achieved through practice.

And there was plenty of practice, practice, practice.

Makers of Things

Before I return to my beginnings, I want to write about who we are. I have struggled for years in an attempt to describe our company to others (the proverbial elevator speech) and this morning I had an epiphany. This realization isn’t new, I was ready to fully embrace it and understand it. It brought me clarity.

We are “Makers of Things.”

Our range is wide and deep.  We have built almost anything and everything in wood. 

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I was holding one of only two in existence.

Robert had been loaned one of the 18th century wall hung walnut lantern cabinets to be measured and reproduced in limited run quantities. The matching pair of lanterns hung on opposing walls in one of the stairwells of Independence Hall. And he had 50% of them in his shop. That’s what the new parts were for on the trays, the measured drawings, the profile tracings. It now made sense. I hadn’t been to the Hall in a few years, actually it was back when my dad was working on the Pass and Stowe book, but now there was a more elevated purpose. I made a mental note: “go to Independence Hall tomorrow.”  

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An Entrance

When I first started out I had no idea how to go about finding an apprenticeship let alone become an apprentice. Having been a musician for several years, it was a different kind of mindset. But as it turns out, many woodworkers or crafts people are both. I have seen a lot of drummers become woodworkers, for example. I myself was lead guitar in an original rock band. I thought that was my calling and it was strong, but something else became stronger.

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