Live and Learn

Some people have the vague notion that when you’ve been a woodworker for decades, you know how to do everything. If only. No one knows how to do everything. Experience in a variety of techniques may be transferable to new forms, but just because a technique will work does not mean it’s especially good in structural or aesthetic terms, let alone efficient to use in specific circumstances.

When faced with a woodworking mystery–say, a look I want for a finish, or some convincing 3-D effect I’d like to produce in an 1/8-inch-deep relief carving–I like to try to answer the question for myself before I seek the answer from others. The effort of thinking a problem through will often give me deeper insight into methods others recommend, and it’s especially satisfying when I find that “my” method is the one used by other woodworkers I respect.

I’ve enjoyed a few such moments while planning how to build a hayrake table for the book on English Arts & Crafts furniture I’m writing for Popular Woodworking.

Gimson table drawing

My contact at Bridgeman Images provided a hi-res image of Gimson’s original drawing for the table, which we will purchase the rights to reproduce in the book.

I chose this particular table based on an original drawing by Ernest Gimson that I came across online. The artistry in the rendering is delightful, and the table fit the bill when I was looking for a furniture form distinct from the other two projects in the book, a chair and a sideboard. It wasn’t until I was at the lumberyard looking through stacks of sassafras that I got wind of the fun in store for me, thanks to a message from Frank Strazza. “The challenge is getting all 5 shoulders to meet perfectly, everything is scribed to fit,” he wrote in an Instagram post to which he referred me. My blood ran cold. Then I adjusted my perspective: This table is a puzzle.

In for a penny, in for a pound, as they say across the Atlantic. Here are a few of the thrills I’ve enjoyed on this journey to date.

The lamb’s tongue
I love the look of a lamb’s tongue, but in more than 30 years of work as a cabinetmaker, I had never before had occasion to make one. I devised my technique based on what made sense, starting with a saw kerf to make the clean transition from chamfer to carving. I made a sample; it worked well.

Lamb's tongue trial

Yeah, it’s super rough. It was a quick experiment in a piece of discarded wood. But I figured out how to make a lamb’s tongue.

When you’re writing for publication, you want to be informed about these things. I was especially concerned that my use of the saw kerf might be way out in left field. So I did an online search. Up came a Lee Valley post written by Chris Schwarz, who starts with a saw kerf and follows through with a chisel, as I had.

Yes.

The joint between the stretcher and the legs
The hayrake table form I’ve seen published most often is based on one by Sidney Barnsley in which the stretcher meets the legs at a 90-degree angle. I’d seen the same leg-to-stretcher orientation in a gorgeous hayrake table made by Ernest Barnsley at The Wilson last spring. But the Gimson table’s stretcher rails meet the legs in a V—commonly known as a bird’s mouth in the realm of architectural moldings, which presents a challenge.

I could see the joint being an actual bird’s mouth (in molding terms, if not in ornithological terms), preferably with a tenon or spline to lock the stretcher mechanically in place. Not that I was sure about how I’d create that mechanical part. Alternatively, the stretcher could be notched into the leg.

This time I consulted Christopher Vickers, an English craftsman-designer who has built several variations on the Gimson hayrake theme; we met last spring when I interviewed him at his home in Somerset for this book. (Look out for a post on Vickers, coming soon. You’ll be blown away by his shop.) “Your first guess is almost correct,” he wrote back, “in that the legs are notched for the stretchers but with the addition of a short tenon on the end of the stretcher with a mortice (1/3rd width of the stretcher) into the leg.”

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Cool again. It’s so fun to learn a new technique that builds on stuff you already know.

Mitered mortise and tenon joint
The hayrake stretchers meet the center stretcher rail at 45 degrees, and the drawing indicates a pegged mortise and tenon joint. This all seemed fine until I experimented with chopping the mortises. How would I get the point at the far end, I wondered—that is, make a mortise that ended in a pointed V?

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A trial tenon for the hayrake-to-center-rail joint, placed next to the full-scale layout. I tried to cut that sharp far point of the mortise but wondered whether it was really necessary.

It seemed to me that it would make more sense to make that end of the tenon square, but I was worried that this might be cutting corners. (Ouch.) So I looked up Mike Pekovich’s article from 2012. Mike cut the far end of the tenon square.

Happy dance.

Hedge your bets by leaving parts over-length until you need them cut to size

It seemed like a good idea to leave the stretcher parts long, cutting each joint in a logical sequence called for by the structure. This way I wouldn’t cut the joint on one end of a part only to find I’d thereby made the part too short to allow for the joint on the other end. Leaving the parts long would also allow me enough material to redo a joint if I messed it up. If I was correct, the parts should come together like a puzzle. It was nice to see that Mike recommends just this approach in his article, although the joinery in that table has significant differences from that in the Gimson example.

And so it goes. We live and learn.–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

The Sad Tale of Tom Turkey

Warning: The following is not about woodworking, so if you wish to limit your reading to that subject, you may prefer to substitute an installment of Routers I Have Loved (my personal favorite was my 1980 Elu) or wait for Chris’s next post about Roman Workbenches (which I am, in all seriousness, eagerly anticipating). This anecdote was excised from Making Things Work on the grounds that too much of a good thing is, well, sometimes too much. It will be included in a future collection. Also, you probably won’t want to read this story while eating.

A few days after Thanksgiving, my phone rang. “Oh, hello, Nancy.” It was Andrew, my client at the time. His tone was suspiciously cheerful considering our recent contretemps over the installation of his 1.6 gallon per flush toilet.*

“Look, I hate to ask you, but there’s no one else I can call. I had an accident on Thanksgiving morning. I know…it was stupid of me, really. Should have known better. I was on the top of a ladder cleaning leaves out of the gutter on the garage when I leaned over too far. The ladder collapsed and I broke my ankle.”

“Oh no! I’m so sorry,” I replied.

“Thing is, the accident happened when I was defrosting a turkey in the kitchen sink. I didn’t have a chance to get it out before the ambulance arrived. So it’s been sitting there for several days….

“As I said, I hate to ask, but since you have a key, would you be willing to go by the house and get the turkey out and put it in the trash?”

This assignment would have proved challenging for the most dedicated carnivore. But for me? I had been a vegetarian since the age of nine; the smell of even the most delectably seasoned turkey roasting in an oven can send me to the brink of nausea. Still, I felt sorry for him. I mean, who wants to spend Thanksgiving in the hospital?

“Sure!” I said. “Don’t give it another thought. I’ll take care of it.”

“Um, Nancy?” he added. “You might want to take a candle and some matches. It might be smelly.”

“Smelly” does not come close to capturing the miasma that hit my nostrils as soon as I cracked the kitchen door. I found the hapless turkey stranded in the half-filled sink. The sight was so pathetic that I could almost hear the bird addressing me: “Damn. I spend my whole freaking life crammed in a barn with a million other birds only to get slaughtered, plucked, and frozen. Then this clown doesn’t even have the decency to eat me?”

Just as horrifying as the stench was the bird’s sheer size. It reminded me of a story my sister once told me about a photo she’d seen of a pig in South America that was as big as a VW bug. She was so repulsed by the image that she swore she’d never touch pork again. Of course, the pig couldn’t help its gigantic stature. Nor could the turkey. But Andrew was a confirmed bachelor He was cooking for one person. Why couldn’t he have purchased a quail or a Cornish hen?

“It’s all problems,” I told myself, feeling a little like Dorothy chanting “There’s no place like home” but without the prospect of being magically transported out of Andrew’s kitchen. Holding my breath, I rummaged under the kitchen sink and found a pair of Playtex gloves. I quickly pulled them on and plunged my hands into the still, cloudy water, only to feel the stinking broth gush into the glove on my right hand. So much for Plan A. I ran outside, retching. It was a cold, overcast late-November morning, but the fresh air tasted so sweet that I felt lightheaded. I pulled off the useless gloves and threw them on the ground. This turkey and I were going to have to get up close and personal.

I ran back inside and pulled a blue bath towel out of the linen closet. Then back out to fill my lungs. Inside again, I threw the towel over the turkey to keep my hands from having to feel its cold, stubbly flesh; the thought of touching it almost made me vomit. I heaved with all my might and lifted the sodden carcass out of the sink. A trail of fetid water flowed from my arms as I carried the mass out the back door and lowered the terry-shrouded turkey as respectfully as I could into the jumbo Rubbermaid trash can.

After half an hour of mopping with disinfectant to clean up the floor and sink I went home and dove headlong into the shower. Maybe, I thought, I should make my peace with cabinetmaking instead of trying to make a go of it as a remodeler. At least a workshop smells better, even if the shop cat occasionally presents me with a disembowelled headless mouse first thing in the morning.–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

*See “It’s All Problems” in Making Things Work

Why I married my sister

I published my latest book in March. Publishing it myself was the last thing I originally had in mind. I’m well aware of the stigma attached to self-publishing. Chris Schwarz puts it as starkly as anyone ever has: “In the media world, publishing your own book is akin to marrying your sister. Most self-published books are about encounters with aliens that involve wax paper and Wesson oil, or Klingon wildlife poetry, or recipes for curing cancer with celery salt.”

With Maggie 1963

She’s the one without the fake smile.

The book was a longstanding thorn in my side, albeit a thorn of my own placing. I started working on it a dozen years ago, fitting the writing in around the edges of my daily work. The book would respond to two of my professional peeves: (1) the widespread public ignorance of what it costs to make things when you’re doing so for a living and have to cover the many expenses, beyond labor and materials, associated with running a business; and (2) the romanticization of furniture making as a way to make a full-time living. My model, authorially speaking, was Michael Pollan; I hoped to present a detailed picture of what goes into making a table, a dresser, or a set of kitchen cabinets and explain the related costs – in existential, as well as financial terms.

One year in, I began to wonder whether I would ever find enough time to complete the research and get the necessary distance from my manuscript to do the subject justice. Out of the blue, a client asked me to write a book directly in line with my interest in period cabinetry for the Indiana University Press; she even arranged for a contract with an advance. How could I turn that down? Two years later, I had an opportunity to work on a book about another subject that has long exercised me: the way many of us form relationships with our home, especially when living without a human partner. That book was published by the same press. All of which is to say that it was easy to be distracted by writing other books with firm contracts, in contrast to the nebulousness of the book I still felt compelled to write but didn’t really know how to.

The book continued to nag. I worked on it when I could. One day I was working in the kitchen of an especially trying client, marveling at how Fawlty-Towers-surreal the job had become, and it hit me: Maybe Michael Pollan was not the best author-model for me. Maybe David Sedaris was a better fit.

I went back to square one, making many of the same points, but now through humorous tales drawn from real life. A friend put me in touch with a literary agent who had secured not one, but two lucrative offers from prestigious presses for her husband’s book. The agent graciously discussed my book and agreed to represent me. We worked together for several months, during which he provided some good critical feedback. But I never quite felt we were on the same page.

When the time came to discuss pitching the proposal to publishers, the question of blurbs arose. “Of course you know who the obvious choice for a blurb is,” the agent said matter-of-factly.

“Sedaris?” I wanted to respond, but kept my mouth shut, knowing that Sedaris is on what he calls a self-imposed “blurbatorium.”

“Jimmy Carter!” the agent exclaimed with a note of triumph.

My heart sank. My agent and I really weren’t on the same page. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a serious fan of Carter, the man. But he doesn’t strike me as the right woodworker to blurb a book in which the F-word appears four times in the first two pages. I couldn’t reconcile the former president with the ribaldry that colors daily life for so many of us in the crafts and trades. What I needed was someone edgy, with contemporary clout.

“I think Nick Offerman would be more appropriate,” I replied.

“Who’s that?” the agent responded.

Maggie and I 1962

She has always been the cute one hamming for the camera.

It was starting to look like I would need an alternative plan. As anyone in the book world is aware, barring some inside connection it’s all but impossible to get an East Coast publisher to look at a manuscript without an agent. Getting an agent is a challenge in itself, and I’d already had a taste of what working with one can entail. I wasn’t even sure I’d want to write a version of my book that my agent was likely to deem marketable. And if I got a contract with a big-time publisher, I would face the prospect of who-knows-how-much-more reworking to bring my manuscript in line with an editor’s vision for what he or she thought the book should be.

Shortly after this dispiriting conversation with my agent, I was discussing my projet with Megan Fitzpatrick. She urged me to publish the book myself, having it printed and bound by one of the firms used by Lost Art Press. “You may not sell as many copies,” she said, “but you’ll make more money [on each copy] than you would with a commercial publisher.”* I took her statement with not a pinch, but a pound, of salt. As one of my editors in the world of woodworking periodicals, she was familiar with my work in words, as well as wood. But she hadn’t even read the proposal for my book, let alone the manuscript. For all I knew, she and everyone else might consider it a load of rubbish. What if I couldn’t even sell enough copies to break even?

In the end, my agent and I parted ways on friendly terms, and I took Megan’s advice. I sent the manuscript to some of my most discerning friends for critical feedback, then hired a professional copy editor, book designer, and graphic artist to ensure that it would be as close as possible to a commercial publisher’s quality. It was a big financial risk (OK, a drop in the bucket compared to the risk taken by Lost Art Press to bring Roubo Deluxe into being, but a big financial risk relative to my resources); I had to borrow the several thousand dollars it took for printing and binding.

Fortunately, Megan and Chris Schwarz both wrote enthusiastically about the book and recommended it. Thanks to those who bought the book on their (and subsequent readers’) recommendation, I broke even after two months. Huge relief. Another early reader saw to it that a copy found its way into the hands of Nick Offerman, who wrote the kind of blurb a writer can only dream of.

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Photo via Instagram, courtesy of Offerman Wood Shop

These poignant, honest, sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes hilarious but always masterful stories are so much more than woodworking anecdotes – they are nakedly human moments…. A necessary read for any aspiring craftsperson, but just as requisite for the clientele. I can’t decide in what retail section this book should be displayed – fine woodworking? Sure, that’s easy, but the integrity of Ms. Hiller’s voice, the tenacity of her principles, and the respect with which she endows honest, hard work compel me to suggest instead the shelves of philosophy, self-help, etiquette, or even religion, goddamnit.–Nick Offerman

Selling a book becomes a job in its own right. I’m grateful to everyone who has read the book and recommended it to others.–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

*I’m always shocked when I hear someone talk about authors “getting rich” from their books. Sure, some best-selling authors make a good amount (a few make a very good amount) of money from book sales. But many authors make $1-$2 per copy in royalties. The odds are tiny that sales of Making Things Work will ever cover the cost of the time I invested in writing, let alone promoting the book. But when you feel compelled to do something, you do it.

 

Do You Really Need That Gourmet Outdoor Kitchen?

1024px-Edouard_Manet_-_Luncheon_on_the_Grass_-_Google_Art_Project

Edouard Manet, “Dejeuner sur l’herbe”*

A recent search of kitchens on the internet turned up several articles on gourmet outdoor kitchens. These articles described in glowing terms a range of “necessities” for outside entertaining. Among these objects appeared the predictable favorites—comfortable seating, easy-to-clean tables, umbrellas for shade. But there was more. It seems that Harry and Henrietta Homeowner have moved beyond the Styrofoam cooler, charcoal grill, and paper towels of days gone by. Today’s outdoor kitchen is designed to duplicate, or perhaps even outdo, the cooking facilities inside the house. The modest cooler has been relegated to the garage in favor of an outdoor fridge and ice well sink. The charcoal grill has been replaced by a “professional” version powered by gas and made of stainless steel. Families were once content to revel in basic outdoor senses—the balmy warmth of the sun, the gentle twittering of birds, and the occasional crack of Johnny’s softball bat as he ran around the yard with friends. But now, apparently, it is essential to incorporate into this outdoor scheme a large flat-screen TV. And for those engaged in such modernization, it may also be worth considering a marble fireplace for the outdoor kitchen, to help create a living room atmosphere in their home’s backyard….

Far from contributing to the actual possibility of meal preparation, the proliferation of such “gourmet level” facilities stems from marketing pressure exerted on behalf of the manufacturers of kitchen-related appliances and building products. The desire for state-of-the-art equipment is not born of any genuine need—consider the very plain kitchens of many truly great cooks, even professionals—but from social one-upmanship and a culture which has persuaded people that consumption should be regarded as a patriotic duty, as well as one of life’s greatest pleasures.–Excerpted from The Hoosier Cabinet in Kitchen History by Nancy R. Hiller, author of “Making Things Work

(It seems that what you really need is to put some clothes on.)

*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Dejeuner_sur_l’herbe#/media/File:Edouard_Manet_-_Luncheon_on_the_Grass_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg (public domain)

WOO!

Last Friday I gave a presentation about Making Things Work at A Workshop of Our Own, a collaborative professional shop in Baltimore for women and gender nonconforming woodworkers. Several months into their lease, the group, founded by furniture maker Sarah Marriage, learned that their building, which is located in a great old industrial neighborhood, was going to be put up for sale. They secured first right of refusal to buy the building and have since been racing to raise the necessary funds for a down payment. Please consider making a donation! Every donor’s name is added to the wall; yours can join those of Nick Offerman, Megan Fitzpatrick, Laura Mays, Wendy Maruyama, the American Society of Furniture Designers, Penland School of Arts and Crafts wood studio, the Philadelphia Furniture Show, and many others.

Here are a few pictures from the evening.

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Just your typical darkened room — well, other than the ubiquitous woodworking equipment — ready for the slide show (Photo by Sarah Marriage)

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A few girls goofing around. At left is Jorgelina Lopez of La Loupe Design (www.laloupedesign.com), who kindly met me at the airport. I have never had an escort from the airport to my destination, but I was grateful for the help in schlepping a heavy suitcase of books. Thanks, Jorgelina! Jorgelina’s website is well worth a visit.  (Photo by Sarah Marriage)

Audience at Nancys talk

Discussion after the talk (Photo courtesy of John Holmes)

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Your name could join those of many others on this wall. (Photo by Sarah Marriage)

With Sarah Marriage

With Sarah after the presentation (Photo taken by our kind bartender)

Thanks also to Laura Cohen of Lady Brew Baltimore and her partner, Ryan, a professional upholsterer, for hosting me and returning me to the airport in the morning.

Size is relative

For the past week I’ve been having a grand old time working on a smaller-than-usual commission: a 2/3-scale baker’s cabinet based on one I built a few years ago that Popular Woodworking turned into a video. That earlier cabinet was made for a client in Chicago; she recently commissioned the miniature version as a gift for her mother’s 75th birthday.

It’s so little! I thought, charmed by the unfamiliar proportions. When I texted my client a snapshot of the tip-out bin (which is all of 11″ tall), I couldn’t help commenting “Squeee!!!!” 

miniatures 5

A bit dusty, but you get the idea

 

That was before today. At lunchtime I opened my email to find a message from Althea Crome, queen of tiny knitting. We’d never met, but her reputation preceded her; Althea’s the one who knitted the star sweater and striped gloves for the main character in the movie Coraline. (Well, to be precise, she didn’t just knit one sweater and one pair of gloves. It was more like 14 sweaters and six pairs of gloves, thanks to the demands of stop motion filming. “I’d get these little body parts in the mail so I could fit them,” she said, calling to mind a bit of distinctly Tim Burton-esque imagery.)

“Why I am really writing,” went her missive, following a friendly preamble, “is because I was recently made aware of your work and it just so happens that a dear friend of mine is in town for a few days who I would love to introduce you to. I think you may have a lot in common and would truly enjoy meeting each other.

“His name is Bill Robertson (A.K.A. Wm. R. Robertson) and [he is] one of the finest miniaturists working in wood and metal in the world.  He is also an avid collector and self-made scholar of antique tools and techniques.  In 2015 he won the Joe Martin Craftsman of the Year award: http://www.craftsmanshipmuseum.com/Robertson.htm.”
She happened to include a link to an image of a miniature tool box, the same image that a friend had posted on Facebook a mere few days before, tagging my husband and me. The tool box was completely out of control: so tiny. And so perfect. When I see such things, my mind feels ready to explode – first with How?, then WHY?, followed by “OK, this person is a god.”
Obviously I was not going to say no to a chance to meet that guy, not to mention Althea herself. The two of them showed up just before 5 and sat down for a cup of tea in our kitchen.
Miniatures

Althea is holding one of a pair of earrings. Inside the glass ball is a hand-knitted sweater at 1:80 scale, with about 80 stitches to the inch. No, you can’t really see it, especially in this picture, but even in person. It’s that tiny. The sweater is fitted on an armature made of malleable plastic that she eased into the glass while the plastic was still soft. How? Why? This person is definitely some kind of god.

miniatures 4

Bill brought over a miniature table. The frame is dovetailed together. All of the parts function just as they do in the full-scale version. He even selects wood that has the same relative number of growth rings per inch (in miniature scale) as the original piece.

miniatures 3

I know what you’re thinking. “OK, that top, at the very least, is plastic.” Nope. Each one of those 35 porcelain tiles was handmade and hand-painted (each with its own biblical motif) by Bill’s friend LeeAnn ChellisWessel of DemiTasse Miniatures. (http://leeannchelliswessel.com)

Miniatures 2

Here’s a glimpse of the table’s underside.

Althea, a former respiratory therapist, has been knitting miniatures since the turn of the millennium. You can see her work here. Bill, who built race cars in his youth, has been supporting himself as a world-renowned builder and teacher of miniature furniture making for 40 years. And no matter how successful he becomes, he continues to push himself. “You can’t just float,” he says. “Each piece has to be better in some way than the one before.”
All of which was more than enough to blow my mind. Needless to say, my 2/3-scale baker’s cabinet seems positively elephantine.
If you’re going to Handworks later this May you’ll find Bill at his friend Chris Vesper’s booth.

David Berman of Trustworth Studios, Part Two

Wallpaper: both literally and figuratively in the background…the setting against which the real action takes place. Yawn.

Not.

I’ve been a fan of wallpaper ever since the early 1980s, when my friend Bronwen and I drooled over each new edition of the Laura Ashley catalogue. (I know, you’re thinking “Laura Ashley? How twee. And aren’t their paint colors now sold through Lowe’s?” But those 1980s catalogues were gorgeous productions, not to mention surprisingly forward-looking in their use of dramatic settings to showcase everyday products.) From Laura I graduated to Bradbury & Bradbury, whose swatches I could count on to lift my spirits on even the gloomiest day. Starting in the mid-1990s I became aware of more period wallpaper makers, among them John Burrows, Carol Mead, and the masterly Adelphi Paper Hangings. But for years I’ve had a special fondness for Trustworth Studios.

Among Trustworth’s offerings you’ll find E.W. Godwin’s fabulous Aesthetic creation Bamboo, as well as the luscious Hydrangea, based on an 1896 pattern by Lindsay P. Butterfield. But the main reason why Trustworth has become my go-to source for late-19th century style is Voysey–or more precisely, David Berman’s interpretation of the architect C.F.A. Voysey’s designs. They’re not just gorgeous to behold, but often also funny: Always clever, sometimes dark, they were created by an artist of small stature and large intelligence whose grandfather, an architect, knew Ruskin, and whose father, a reverend, was expelled from the Church of England for denying the doctrine of eternal damnation; he later founded the Theistic Church with help from prominent individuals such as Charles Darwin. More (much more) on that in my book on English Arts & Crafts furniture, which will be published in 2018 by Popular Woodworking.

For now, take a little romp through a fraction of the work by means of which Trustworth Studios patterns come to life. This is no case of crude cutting and pasting.

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The process begins with David tracing an original design, using a stylus. Here the pattern is Trustworth’s “Falcon and Lily.”

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Next begins David’s work with color. Look closely at the outlines of the lily petals and you’ll see that they are made up of two lines, one a medium terracotta, the other darker. The same will eventually apply to the stem; here, David is building up its texture.

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The pattern becomes richer. David is working on the colors and introducing texture to emulate that of the original design, in the following image.

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Here the pattern contains far more detail, but there is still more to go.

Lebus sideboard with Trustworth paper at Popular Woodworking shoot

Here’s “Falcon and Lily” as the background for the book cover shoot at the studio of Popular Woodworking in Cincinnati. That’s Megan in the mirror. As this picture shows, the effect of the paper is quite different when the pattern’s spread across a large area. Instead of reading as a distinct pattern, it imparts to the room a certain feel.

David Berman of Trustworth Studios, Part I

David Berman of Trustworth Studios is a man of uncommonly varied accomplishments. Born in Brooklyn, he was raised to follow his father into the family business, D. Berman and Son, which sold high-power electrical equipment. But after a stint as a purchasing agent at his father’s plant he rejected this white-collar fate.

“Boredom with the corporate world forced me into my true nature,” he says, recalling the satisfaction of changing his old car’s exhaust system on his off hours and the joy of restoring antique musical boxes to working order.

David Berman_playing pianola

David Berman at his restored 1901 Aeolian Pianola 65-note push-up player with Merryweather standing by

Berman moved to Massachusetts in his mid-20s, as did many of his college friends. It was the 1970s; as so many of us do today, you earned a bachelor’s degree (Berman’s was in English) and promptly found work in painting or construction. In partnership with a friend, he formed a company that specialized in rehabilitating old houses. Learning on the job, he found he had a knack for shingling. One day, while working on the roof of an oceanfront house, he happened to glance toward the water and saw the Mayflower sailing by. “I’m having a hallucination from heat stroke,” he thought. But it really was the Mayflower.

As his skills increased and his appreciation of historic buildings grew more refined, Berman took on more challenging projects. In 1979 he moved a barn to Nantucket and converted it to a house. He then constructed a frame house entirely from scratch: the fictitious house to which the barn might originally have belonged. The new “old house” would be used to accommodate guests.

The business partnership dissolved in 1982, and Berman moved to Trustworth in Scituate, Massachusetts, the iconic Arts and Crafts home of Henry Turner Bailey. “H.T.B.,” as Berman calls him, famously championed public education in the arts and authored the 1914 book Art Education. “It was like moving into Sleeping Beauty’s castle for Arts and Crafts,” he muses. He spent years restoring the house, hoping to purchase it from Bailey’s heirs.

While living at Trustworth he began making furniture in the style of New England antiques. “No one wanted to buy it,” he comments, so he turned his focus to furniture in the English Arts and Crafts style. An English course in high school had introduced him to late-Victorian literature; in an effort to bring the period to life, the teacher had shared a photo of the parlor at Wightwick Manor. Berman was entranced by the vision of wood-panelled walls, stained-glass windows, and Morris wallpapers, which he says “percolated in the back of my head.” The archives at Trustworth offered a treasure trove of research material. Berman immersed himself. Especially fascinated by the work of C.F.A. Voysey, Berman built a clock, numerous light fixtures in wood, glass, and copper, and a variety of furniture in his favorite designer’s style.

David Berman light fixture

One of Berman’s Voysey-inspired light fixtures made in wood, glass, and meticulously hand-cut metal

 

In 1994 Berman’s dream of buying Trustworth fell through and he moved to Plymouth, where he purchased a 1910 shingle style cottage. “Not really habitable,” he describes its state at the time, what with broken windows, a leaking roof, and no working plumbing or electricity. He threw himself into restoration, then ran the place as a bed and breakfast for a few years. In the meantime he returned to building furniture and lighting, the income from which proved barely enough to scrape by on.

It was at this point that Berman realized he could parlay his knowledge of historic architecture and interiors into period design consulting. Which brings us to the subject of wallpaper. The digital technology for printing papers was “just good enough” at the time. He taught himself to use a computer, and as the printing technology improved, his skills grew with it. Basing his patterns on meticulously researched original Arts and Crafts designs, Berman produces a growing line of wallpapers and fabrics for residential and institutional interiors, in addition to commissioned papers for historic houses. You’ll find them at the Peabody Essex Museum, the High Line Hotel, and other institutional and commercial locations, as well as in homes on several continents.

David Berman_Voysey chair straight on

An original Voysey chair with “Isis,” one of Berman’s Voysey wallpaper patterns

 

“It’s the most fun I’ve ever had,” he says of his work translating original drawings and paintings by Voysey, Godwin, Mackintosh, and others into wallpapers and fabrics. “When I am drawing and have music playing, I am happy. It’s a bit like puzzle solving: You have to break [a basic design] down into color, and you have to figure out the pattern breaks. There’s also the bliss of color—things that shouldn’t go together, but when you put them together, they just go.”

Coming next: The nuanced art of period wallpaper design

A spirit-filled exercise

Please join us at Bloomington’s own craft distillery, Cardinal Spirits, on Wednesday, April 26, from 6 to 8 p.m. for luscious locally produced spirits (check out that copper still!) and a book signing.

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Putting pictures to names

A reader of Making Things Work remarked that it was nice to see a picture of Daniel (a.k.a. the returning hero), because it enabled him to put a face with the name. Here are a few others.

Mary Lee with drill

Saffron Walden view over rooftops to cathedral

The view from the attic room of our skinny house in Saffron Walden, on a rare snowy day in 1986. The beauty of this image makes my heart ache.

Nancy working circa 1976

I have often wondered how I came to be smiling in this picture, considering how much I hated my weekends working with my mother and stepfather on those houses in London. It wasn’t the work I minded, but the cold, which was miserable. Hence the many layers of clothing you see in this picture, circa 1976. (Don’t even ask why I was using a surform to flatten a board. That was the tool provided to me.)

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The munchies cart from which my [now extraordinarily law abiding and ultra-responsible] sister happened to take some cash circa 1969: a marvel of ingenious construction.