Join me on May 4

Hayrake table carving

Decorative gouging

To celebrate the impending appearance of English Arts & Crafts Furniture: Projects and Techniques for the Modern Maker (scheduled for publication May 30 from Popular Woodworking Books), I will give a short talk at Bloomington’s beloved By Hand Gallery as part of the First Friday downtown gallery series. I will have my version of Ernest Gimson’s 1908 hayrake table on hand and will be happy to answer questions about joinery, carving, finish, etc.

The gallery will also have copies of Making Things Work, in case you’d like to buy a copy and have it signed.

Hayrake table lambs tongue layout

Lamb’s tongue layout

Please follow me on Instagram (@nrhiller) for updates on ordering the book.

Hayrake table stretchers assembled

Hayrake stretcher system assembled dry

Hayrake table almost done

Once again, big thanks to Megan Fitzpatrick and Scott Francis, both formerly of Popular Woodworking, for offering me the opportunity to write this book.

Never stop learning

One of the things I love about my work is the constant learning. Whether I’m researching the life and work of a less-known maker of English Arts and Crafts furniture or making my way around a new machine, I find myself challenged on an almost daily basis, which is rewarding. This week I experimented with some tweaks on familiar joinery and finishing techniques, drawing on articles and advice from a few people I know: Mike Pekovich, Chris Schwarz, Kelly Mehler, and Tim Puro (in the order in which they appear below).

I’m finishing up a wall cabinet that will be a project article in Fine Woodworking. (Don’t ask when it will appear; we don’t know yet.) The sides of the little cabinet are joined to the floor with dovetails. After nearly 40 years of transferring tail positions onto pin boards the same way I was taught at the Isle of Ely College in Wisbech by dear old Mr. Williams and curmudgeonly Mr. Slater, I decided it was time to try the Pekovich blue tape method. It worked like a charm. (Jump to end of post for evidence that Mike has a sense of humor.)

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Another enhancement of my dovetailing life comes from Chris Schwarz, who recently recommended sawing closer to the baseline when cutting pins. I’ve always stayed well away from that line and chopped the rest with a chisel. No more.

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As for that auxiliary bench, several years ago, while teaching a class at Kelly Mehler’s School, I asked Kelly about his benchtop bench. He gave me a copy of the Fine Woodworking article with Jeff Miller’s plan; even though I’d been reading and subscribing to the magazine for years, it was the first project I built based on a magazine article. (I pretty much design what I build, but where technical accoutrements such as this are concerned, I’m grateful that someone else has worked out the bugs.) This little workhorse is a boon to those with aging backs and eyesight.

Because my bench is 38″ high, the benchtop bench ends up a few inches higher than ideal for me. Last week I found the perfect solution: I dragged the semi-useless toolbox that I made as a dovetail practice project in 1979 over to the work area and turned it into a platform.

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To finish this piece I decided to use Tim Puro’s recipe for giving mahogany a richer look (in the current issue of Fine Woodworking).

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Step one: oil-based dye

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After sealing with Zinsser SealCoat, I applied a layer of Old Masters gel stain in cherry. (Tim suggests wiping stain in cedar, but I had this gel stain handy.) Yes, that’s a little remnant of glue at the corner of the bottom rail and left stile. Watch what happened next.

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Two coats of shellac later, I scuff sanded with 320 grit paper and applied a glaze of Old Masters wiping stain in Dark Mahogany (still wet here). Note that the glue spot has in effect disappeared.

I’ll topcoat with Osmo because I want to seal the glaze well — and quickly — but don’t want a shiny finish.

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No, this is not a real cover, nor do I wear a safety helmet to work at my bench. This is a spoof created by Mike in 2006 as a gift to a client of mine who I knew would love it. I was never a pin-up girl, and that is not me on the wall in the background. That is Nicky, or Alexis — I don’t know her real name — one of the models in a 1976 calendar I bought as a 30th birthday present for my then-employee, Daniel, who astutely observed that models of yore had thinner lips and less, well, “pneumatic” breasts than many models today (but you won’t see them here, thanks to blue tape).

 

 

 

 

No words necessary

Lost Art Press

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Several weeks ago I received the image above via text message from Megan Fitzpatrick. Just the picture. No accompanying words.

I knew immediately that she was copy-editing the book I’d written about English Arts and Crafts furniture.

“Trust Megan to find one of those,” I thought with a pang of guilt.

Find one of what? you ask. A Stonehenge-themed key fob.

***

A couple of years ago, Megan gave her colleague Scott Francis my name. Scott was the books editor at Popular Woodworking, and he was looking for someone to write a book about English Arts and Crafts furniture. He called me. I was certainly interested; by that time I had done a fair bit of research on one particular English maker of Arts and Crafts pieces, and my enthusiasm for the Arts and Crafts movement went back many years. Writing the book would also give me an opportunity to…

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Publish and Perish, Part One

It’s superstitious, I know, but I take comfort in the saying “bad things* come in threes.” The final week of 2017 brought a trifecta of anxiety-filled events, so I’m hoping we’re done for now.

Ever since I was a child, people have asked me “Why the serious expression?” My take on these expressions of concern (or criticisms of my physiognomy) is that those who make them have no idea what it’s like to have the rug pulled out from under your feet — and this, after you’ve taken pains to fasten the floorcovering down with bulletproof double-sided tape.

The final week of my year began with a fraught email from a current client, prompting a Boxing Day-morning bout of angst-ridden research. Thankfully, that problem turned out  to be no problem at all. But the wear and tear on my psyche was real.

The next morning brought a cascade of pre-dawn texts from a client of my husband’s. The job is a new house designed by the client, an architect, and built to rigorous structural, energy-efficiency, and aesthetic standards. The client had just moved in a couple of weeks before. Now, winter had descended in force, with lows in the single digits.

“*&%@#! My water is frozen!”

“Water meter?”

“S**t yeah it’s the water meter. It was open to the world. Dropped a 100 W light down and covered with a blanket…”

No cover on the water meter? Mark pulled up the last picture he’d taken of the house, a few days earlier. It showed the meter pit covered. He drove over to investigate. The meter pit had been covered, but the lid supplied by the city utilities department was barely large enough to cover the opening and had apparently fallen in. To be fair to the utilities department, they’d installed the meter before the final grading of the front slope had been done, and so had no accurate guide to the meter’s depth. Fortunately no pipes, people, pets, or furnishings were harmed in this drama (though goodness knows, they could have been). Responsive plumbers for the win, and kudos to the city for quickly coming back to make the pit deeper.

***

As concerning as those two mornings’ events were, the third took the cake. I’d submitted a piece to an online publication in good time to allow the editor a chance to look it over. After noticing that it hadn’t gone live when I’d expected, I asked the editor whether that was intentional. He replied that he’d forgotten to schedule the piece (this was in the middle of the holidays) and said I could make it live myself or have a fellow editor do so, as he was away from his computer.

I’ve learned that when dealing with organizations, it’s better to check with the next authority in line than go it alone in the belief that I’m saving others trouble. Unless your skull is made of steel, you only need to be hit over the head with a frying pan worthy of Snuffy Smith’s Loweezy once, as I have, to learn this kind of thing.  So I contacted the other editor, who gave it a look, made a few tweaks, and hit “publish.”

A little later, between gluing drawers, I took a quick look through the published piece to make sure everything was in order — and found to my horror that the square-bracketed note I had embedded in the text, clearly addressed to the first editor, was still there, for all the world to see.

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This was not the first time I’ve had this happen. I’ve written for enough different publications, in print and online, to have experienced a variety of the potential disasters out there (and these are just the potential disasters from a contributor’s point of view; those facing editors and publishers can be far more devastating). Missing (or duplicated) lines of text. Images unaccountably cropped. (“I’m so sorry. It didn’t look that way on the screen”.) The conclusion of an argument edited to fit a little more neatly on the printed page, with the result that it now contradicts the entire point of your essay.

Experience any of these delights and you develop an anxious awareness that they could well bedevil you again. So, if you care about the reputation of the publication (never mind your own), you do what you can to prevent them. That’s what I was doing in this case, which involved a word whose homophone** is often used, incorrectly, in its stead. Aware of the editor’s familiarity with another publisher among whose works I have seen the homophone misused, I inserted a note saying that despite its appearance there, my version was the correct one. And behold: This potentially insulting statement had been sent out across the interwebs. I immediately deleted the note. Fortunately the post had not been live for long.

***

“Lesson learned,” my husband lectured me during our debriefing session that evening. “Don’t embed editorial notes in the text.” But embedding such notes in the text was itself a hard-learned lesson. I’ve made similar points to other editors in cover emails and cover letters in the past, only to have them overlooked. For instance, it’s galling to correct the line breaks of one of your favorite poems in galley proofs, only to have the designer’s original version, which completely ignored those line breaks, end up in the printed book.

I get it: We’re all busy and pulled in multiple directions, so things fall through the cracks. Hence what I thought was my more efficacious tactic of putting the bracketed note directly in front of the editor’s eyes, where it could not be missed.

Or so I thought.

Here’s to less anxiety in the new year.

Back field view

*good things being the alternate version

**a word that sounds like another but has a different meaning and spelling such as “their” and “there”

Simple by design

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One of these things is not like the others.

Last week I attended a holiday party held by a local publication. This biannual event is always characterized by classy live music and an atmosphere of big-city sophistication found so rarely in the south-central Indiana college town where I live that it always seems to verge on the surreal.

Another defining feature of the event is the elaborate presentation of food. A central table holds crudités, charcuterie and fish. On this occasion the fish were two strapping salmon (discreetly shorn of their heads and tails) festooned with cucumber-slice scales. The muscular fish were artfully arranged side by side to evoke their movement while swimming. (Nothing says “eat me” like a headless corpse positioned so as to suggest its once-lithe motion.)

This pair were joined by a regiment of jumbo prawns hanging from the edge of a silver tureen, as though hitching a ride on a passing ocean vessel. Or perhaps they were meant to evoke a still from a synchronized swimming performance.

Arranged around this table of plenty were servers at designated stations offering roasted meat, stuffed duck and vegetables. I headed for the vegetables, at least the ones I could spot — namely, the mashed potato station, which had sweet potatoes and white potatoes, some plain and others with garlic — comfort food at its most comforting. The entry end of the station was set up with the dishware into which your choice of mash would be spooned: cocktail glasses. Now, I’m no snob when it comes to dishes; I’ve eaten my fair share of meals out of cardboard boxes, melamine bowls bought at thrift stores and even, in a pinch, off roughsawn boards. But the prospect of mashed potatoes in a cocktail glass when regular ceramic plates are available strikes me as no less distasteful than a headless salmon swimming coldly across a serving board in a cloak of cucumber.

These glasses were clearly intended to make a statement. You may be eating the most common dish in Midwestern cuisine, they seemed to suggest, but in this establishment, you’re going to do so with Style. Or perhaps they were meant to be ironic. (Then again, we are in Indiana, so probably not.) Either way, I couldn’t handle the pretension. So I went over to the main serving table and got a good old-fashioned hors d’oeuvre plate.

A stern woman was standing behind the potatoes; there seemed to be a problem with one of the tureens, and she was trying to fix it. Feeling slightly abashed at violating protocol, I explained that I’d rather eat potatoes off a plate, because I found the cocktail glasses affected — perfect for a sidecar or martini (full disclosure: I have never had a sidecar), and even fine for zabaglione or sorbet. But mashed potatoes? I meant my comment to be received as a gesture of solidarity with the server.

Well, no such luck. She looked pointedly at my name tag. (This is one of those events where you get a name tag at the entrance, so other guests know who you are and which business you work for.) “Design?” she sniffed. “You’re in design? And you find the idea of eating potatoes out of a cocktail glass just ‘too too … ‘?” She trailed off, allowing me to complete the sentence.

Taken aback, I looked at her name tag. And realized that I had just unwittingly offended the director of catering.

The word “design” appears in my business name because when I started the business in 1995, I wanted to make clear that the thinking and intentionality implied by the word “design” were central to the kind of work I wanted to do. In other words, I wanted to design, as well as build; I wasn’t setting out to operate a mill like the one at a then-flourishing lumberyard, where you could take your sketch for a toilet seat and see it made three-dimensional in burly walnut, or hand over your drawing for a pair of corn hole boards to coordinate with your FratBoy Blind Date Horror game. This interest in maximizing my agency in an enterprise where I am working not for myself, but for clients, on every job, is not synonymous with a sense of obligation to demonstrate my chops by adopting the latest sparkling novelty or trend. To the contrary.

–Nancy R. Hiller, author of Making Things Work

Note: The mashed potatoes in the picture above were not from the party but made at home from yellow potatoes, and I have the greatest respect for the late Esther Williams.

Adam Nahas, Cyclops Studios: Foundryman-metal smith

Adam Nahas is an artist who makes his living by offering resources and creative services to other artists, in addition to selling his own work. “The sculpture business never really is consistent,” he says, describing one of the realities of a professional artist’s life. “So I’ve done my best to make myself versatile, taking jobs as they come to me.”

Adam Nahas

Adam Nahas

Nahas has run Cyclops Studios, a multi-service art business offering project design, modeling, metalworking, welding, and more since 2005. He became interested in sculptural art in college at Indiana University after starting out as a singer/performer, then switched to theater. Theater work sparked his interest in stage craft, which led him to special effects and mold making, then finally to casting and metalsmith work; this in turn delivered him into majoring in fine arts. He graduated in 2007 with a BFA in studio art with concentrations in sculpture and metals and a minor in art history.

While at college, Nahas did an internship with Mark Parmenter at the White River Foundry in nearby Owen County. Mark and his shop foreman, Charlie Savage, taught him to make molds, build armatures, cast various alloys, form patinas, and chase (the technique of sculpting details on the face of hammered metalwork) – a range of skills applicable not just to fine arts metalwork but to hardware and architectural components such as handrails and decorative fixtures.

Nahas has long been active in Bloomington’s arts scene. His first studio was in a small warehouse that he shared with multi-disciplinary art friends from his college years. Within a few years it expanded and became established as the Trained Eye Arts Center, sharing space in an larger warehouse along the railroad tracks, now the B-Line Trail. Besides pursuing their own work, they held demonstrations and classes and did benefit shows for area nonprofits. Nahas is also a longstanding member of the illustrious Krampus Krewe, that group of creative souls who put on Bloomington’s annual Krampus Nacht. (You can see a video of the fire breathing Krampus from the 2017 event here.)

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The pulls Adam made for my latest reproduction Harris Lebus sideboard, one of the projects in my book about English Arts & Crafts Furniture, forthcoming from Popular Woodworking in June 2018.

In 2014 Nahas took the business model of Trained Eye Arts and started a new venture called Artisan Alley, a community of artists who collaborate and share common space and amenities, encompassing a tool library, gallery, and events venue while offering professional fabrication and artistic services for hire. It’s an outgrowth of his affable nature and skills as an organizer, combined with a real-world need to make a living. “My market shouldn’t just be the end customer,” he realized a few years back. “My market should be the artists: a community of artists that support artists.”

Utility Dovetails – Nancy Hiller on furniture in the wild

Over the Wireless

IMG_8006These dovetails (which Jim McConnell joked may have been cut with an axe) are rough in the extreme, but the drawer still moves smoothly after many decades in use.Whenever we stay in holiday cottages I find myself drawn to the old pieces of furniture you usually find in these places. I open the drawes to check for fit and look at the dovetails, peek inside casework to look at joinery and for evidence of whether the maker processed their stock by hand. As I’ve written about before, such pieces can be a useful education in furniture that was made for daily use by ordinary folk, I have found that such exploration can be really useful to illustrate, and ground, the principles that Joshua and the team write about in Mortise & Tenon. The Cotswolds cottage we stayed in earlier this month was stuffed with furniture that had…

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Variations on a theme

It’s always interesting when readers take a design from a published article and turn it into something new. Robert Gaughan recently got in touch with some pictures of a doll display cabinet he built for his wife, based on the English Arts & Crafts style bookcase I made for the December 2015 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. It’s a dramatic example of the point I made in a post about not getting too hung up on following published instructions.

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Robert Gaughan made this display cabinet for his wife’s doll collection, adapting the design of a bookcase I wrote about in Popular Woodworking.

Here’s a little excerpt from Bob’s message explaining the changes he made:

I was trying to build an A&C style case to somewhat match my A&C tall clock I had just completed. However, for the clock I made coved molding under the top, (I’ll email you a separate picture so you can see what I mean). I didn’t want to add molding for the doll case because of wood movement on such a large case top. Your decorative brackets and top attachment were a great alternative and I loved the overall look of your bookcase.

I added the “hidden” drawers as usable space and this allows the dolls on the bottom/floor shelf to be at eye level with the glass in the doors. My only other  changes (besides the dimensions, lights (to display dolls), and overlapping oak case sides), was the tongue and grove wainscoting back. Also, the top and bottom decorative bevels (and the small bead frame around the doors) were made with walnut for a little wood contrast.

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A good view of Bob’s display case showing the decorative sides, hidden drawers, and back

The other design details Bob refers to are in a case clock he built, shown in the image below, which he sent with his other pictures.

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Lovely work, Bob. Thank you for taking the bookcase design in a new and artful direction.

Hoosier kitchen cabinetry for sale

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A picture of very similar cabinets (note: this is NOT the seller’s kitchen) from my book. 

About a year ago, Patricia Poore at Old House Journal referred one of her readers to me for information about his kitchen cabinets. His house was built in the late 1930s and still had its original kitchen cabinets, made by the Hoosier Manufacturing Company. In the end, he decided to redo his kitchen. He contacted me yesterday to say that his cabinets are for sale.

I’m posting this information as someone who loves old cabinetry and kitchen history. The seller has authorized me to share his phone number; he is in Mount Vernon, Illinois. (I am not publishing his name, in an effort to minimize the kind of identifying information that could encourage spam, etc.) If you would like to contact him, please do so during regular business hours and mention that you read about his cabinets on Nancy Hiller’s blog so that he doesn’t think you’re “Cynthia from credit card services” or some scam artist offering a free mountaintop vacation in Holland. 618.315.7392.

Please do not contact me. I know nothing about the cabinets other than what you see here; I am not acting as a broker, just trying to be helpful because I would like to see these cabinets find another home.

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Please note: These are not metal! They’re wood painted to look like metal. (You can read about this trend in my book The Hoosier Cabinet in Kitchen History; link in image at top of page.)

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Integral bread box

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Paired doors. The one on the right has the latch (the pointy thing). I have seen these in other kitchens. They’re swell.

Anne Ryan Miller, glass artist

The following is a profile of Anne Ryan Miller from my forthcoming book on English Arts and Crafts furniture, scheduled for publication in June 2018 by Popular Woodworking.

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An example of Anne’s metal overlay work from her website (http://www.anneryanmillerglassstudio.com/metal5.html)

Considering the depth and vitality of Anne Ryan Miller’s work, it comes as something of a shock to hear her say that in her younger days she “never really liked stained glass.”

“I grew up in the Detroit area. Stained glass was ‘old.’”

That view of stained glass as a relic of historic architecture changed in the early 1970s when she visited a friend during a trip to Bloomington, Indiana. Her friend, Mary Ott, had just learned to work in stained glass. Miller helped her with some projects, then did some experimenting on her own, with Mary’s encouragement. She fell in love with the material’s beauty.

Miller moved to Bloomington in 1976 and went to work with Ott. At first they ran their studio, Graphic Glass, from a garage. As the business grew, they moved to a storefront on the downtown square, where they worked for several years.

“Glass work became a way to communicate about nature,” says Miller, whose educational background is in environmental science; she has a bachelor’s degree from the School of Natural Resources and environmental education at the University of Michigan and a master’s in alternative education from Indiana University. “Artistically expressing our respect for nature has been a kind of calling for many of us.”

Miller developed a distinctive technique that has become her signature: She layers glass with metal. Using an X-acto knife, she cuts a design out of 1.5 mil copper foil which is applied to the glass in a process she compares to drawing. She typically begins with a sheet of opalescent glass. By applying metal to the front and back of the opalescent glass, she can create a sense of depth. Added dimension comes from one or more layers of clear glass with metal on top; the layers allow her to build near-, fore-, and background. She works other imagery into the space between the layers using copper foil, adding solder to the metal’s surface for texture and body. Looking at her scenes of lakes and mountains, you have to remind yourself that the far distant peaks and shores are a mere ½” or so away.

For more than 30 years Miller has lived and worked in the Brown County seat of Nashville, best known for its connection with a group of early-twentieth-century painters. One of those painters was Dale Bessire, who came to Nashville in 1914 and made it his home. Miller’s studio, next to the house she shares with her husband, architect Steve Miller, originally belonged to Bessire, her husband’s grandfather – this time, a happy coincidence of stained glass and old buildings.

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Anne checks the color and pattern of a piece of glass against a window in her studio that looks out to the forest.

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Completed panes for my reproduction Harris Lebus 1903 sideboard, one of three projects in the book

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The completed sideboard with Anne’s glass in the upper section appears on the cover of the November 2017 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine.