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. Of course 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, I realized I had had a “National Treasure” moment; holding these antiques and being careful to not hurt them or damage them. Like Riley in NT, I learned to be respectful of what we would be doing and honor the process. There were no secret maps though!

I was lucky and blessed to be in the right place at the right time and exposed to a  perfect training. Since I wasn’t any wiser as to what to expect, the entire experience could have blown up and I would be doing something else today. Luck was 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 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 I was ready to absorb new information. I do the same today. Yep, you need to earn it.

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, or, at the worst, put everything away quickly and get ready to leave. 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” response. Back then, you really had to honor that—and you would. 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. Come to think of it, I don’t remember him ever sharing anything. Not like today. Everything is shared on social media. I’m not sure how I feel about that. You had to be scrappy. And finally, really smart. Woodworkers are constantly correcting others’ misfires and mistakes. It’s our lot in life, but back to our process.

To reproduce these exquisite pieces required a process with precision and thoughtful sequence. This training was perhaps the best anyone could have in any hand making craft building. It is 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 hands of a craftsman. Therefore, the work became easy. 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 sequence for maybe 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 as you were 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 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.