On a bleak February morning I drove north from Cambridge to Gloucester, MA, headed for John Cameron’s fine furniture workshop. For ten months each year John builds the furniture customers have ordered, on commission. But toward the end of winter, while spring is deciding whether to come to New England, he sets commission work aside and plunges into the annual “spec” piece, an originally designed piece of art furniture to be displayed in craft shows and galleries the following summer.
The rough feel of wood under his hand, and its response to chisel or plane, are always a pleasure to John, but the spec piece is uniquely gratifying. “It’s just so satisfying to see something you’ve conceived of brought to three dimensions. For each one, it’s the first time ever doing the piece, seeing what works. There’s an element of drama, partly because of potential failure, that seems real.” In designing and building the spec piece John pushes his art forward, year by year. His excitement about the artistic and technical challenges of the spec piece echoes that described by sculptors, jewelers, musicians, and others who use their hands as instruments to bring their ideas to life. With their hands and their technical skill they coax out the beauty, and deal with the limitations, of wood, clay, silver, or sound. John’s spec piece this year would be an elegant, contemporary sideboard made of narra, an Indonesian hardwood, with bronze legs. It would first be shown at the juried Smithsonian Craft Show, scheduled for May.
When I arrived at John’s workshop young dog, half husky and half shepherd, startled me with several very loud, but not hostile, barks. Bright and alert, she seemed conflicted, wanting to make friends but a little nervous. John beamed a greeting, his face crinkling upward in friendship. A small man, his hair was short and silver, large wire-rimmed glasses setting off thoughtful blue eyes. He wore sturdy work shoes that protected his feet from mishap, baggy jeans, a green plaid shirt with long sleeves rolled up, and his “glue outfit” – a carpenter’s apron reaching to his ankles and covered with thousands of brown smudges from frequent wipings of gluey fingers.
“This is Savanna,” he said. “She isn’t aggressive, she’s just noisy when people come in. She seems to want assurance that you’re ok to have in her territory.” Savanna provided companionship for John’s solitary work.
John led me into a large workshop where I would spend many hours in coming months observing his work. He pointed me to an orange Eames chair on wheels, positioned so that I could stay clear of his work but still see. He apologized that the room was dirty. I discovered this for myself later that night when I pulled my sweater over my head and a small cloud of wood dust flew into my Cambridge apartment. Lesson for the future – wear things that could be washed easily. And so began several months of sitting in the orange Eames chair two days a week, watching an elegant piece of furniture emerge from piles of boards, and listening to John talk about working with wood.
On the first day of work on the sideboard, John made a wooden model from which the sideboard’s bronze legs would be cast. Starting with a stick of butternut four feet long and several inches wide and deep, John worked for four hours with a variety of planes, reducing the baseball bat of butternut to the approximate shape of the leg. He then sculpted its curves in detail. “This is great wood,” he told me. “It’s hard enough to hold detail but soft enough to shape really easily. So it’s perfect for me. I hope it’s ok for the metal guy.”
He cinched the butternut in a pattern maker’s vise, which could rotate, pivot, and tilt, permitting work on irregularly shaped wood from many angles. Savanna lay closer to him than usual, snoozing beneath the vise. While many fine furniture makers might have used a band saw for the first stage of this work, John’s tool of choice was a large metal plane. In deciding whether to use power or hand tools, the furniture maker is choosing where to put his energy and his time. Many would use power at this point, working quickly, and saving their energy for later stages of the work when the precision of hand tools would be necessary. John liked working with planes.
Planing involves the entire body. “It starts in my legs; I set them before I start.” As he worked, his legs were set wide apart and he rocked from back foot to front, pushing the plane forward and pulling it back with his body weight, adding lots of shoulder and elbow action. When the plane hit a high point in the wood he could feel the resistance in the muscles and joints of his hands, and follow its ripple through his arms, shoulders and into his back. “To some extent every time I use a plane, the feedback from the tool tells me when to even start. I hold it on the wood and feel for it to be flat – that is, in plane with what I want to cut. Even though it looks like I’m working quickly, each push of the plane finds the footprint of the plane, pushes, and then finds the footprint of the plane again. It’s this little shearing action that could be done at any speed. When I teach I have students do it very slowly. I want them to feel the sole (bottom) of the plane solidly on the wood. I’m deliberately feeling the plane fully contacted with the surface. It can look fast, but it’s the same action.”
As he worked, the sound of plane on wood repeated, “whish, whish,” the forward push a slightly higher pitch than the return pull. At the beginning I heard rhythmic patterns of clunk and silence with each forward push, the plane noisily gripping higher places in the wood, then sliding over lower spots with a hush. I was surprised to discover the importance of sound, as well as touch, in this work. John confirmed this, saying, “If I go blind I could still do this work because you can tell so much by sound.”
Alternating with the push and pull of the plane, John continually ran his fingers over the wood’s surface, exploring its evenness. In boat builder’s lingo that has migrated to carpentry, he explained, “What’s important in a curve is that it’s fair – smooth, with no flat spots. I’m using the plane to fair the wood in two dimensions.” He planed, felt with fingers alert to the possibilities, and then sited along the wood to see if there were still flat spots. Then planed and felt again. “Then I’ll start sculpting, bringing it into round.”
After taking a substantial amount of material off the butternut, John switched to a wooden plane for finer work, “so I can feel it better.” He continued, “Handmade wooden planes are really sensitive. You start to feel the flexibility of the wooden planes as you get used to them and it’s wonderful – you can lean a little bit into them and get a slightly different result.” Tools speak to the craftsman’s hands.
John’s attachment to wooden planes came from woodworking school. In the 1990’s he went to the College of the Redwoods’ Fine Woodworking School in California, created and led by James Krenov. Krenov was a master woodworker whose contemporary furniture has been collected by museums in Sweden, Norway, Japan, and the US. At his woodworking school among the first exercises for students was making their own tools, including wooden planes. “The plane,” Krenov believed, “is the cabinetmaker’s violin.”
Hand planes are ancient, originating thousands of years ago. Early planes were made from rectangular blocks of wood with a V-shaped slot cut across the center of the body. The cutting blade was inserted in the slot and held in place with a wooden wedge that was tapped into the slot against the blade and adjusted with a small mallet. Planes of this type have been found in excavations of ancient sites as well as drawings of woodworking from medieval Europe and Asia. Today’s wooden planes are similar.
As he worked on the leg with the wooden planes, shifting from larger to smaller and now working more with hands and fingers than legs and arms, the work became carving, the careful removal of small bits of material to reveal the shape he had in mind. He used a set of spokeshaves for even finer work. Spokeshaves are planes about an inch wide with handles on each side, looking rather like razor blades with horns, used to shape wooden rods, wheel spokes and chair legs. “They have a really short sole, and therefore a tight radius, so you can get inside curves,” John explained.
He knelt under the vise, climbing over a recumbent Savanna, and looked up through the vise to his hands above. He carved the place where the leg suddenly, within a space of 2 -3 inches, became very narrow, tapering to the ground. He held the leg up. “It’s getting there. I want it to look visually supported but not fat. It’s pretty symmetrical right now. I need to do a little more but I don’t want to do too much.” With a pencil he drew a line down the outermost edge of the leg. “I’m putting a line along it to be sure that I don’t touch that rim, because the shape is good. Ah, that’s getting better. It’s losing its shoulder. It was too fat.” This carving was done by eye, feel, and heft. “Better, better. It feels thinner.”
As he worked, John told me about the distinction the British woodworker and designer, David Pye, had made between what he called the workmanship of risk and the workmanship of certainty. In the workmanship of risk, the quality of the product is not predetermined, but depends on the judgment, dexterity and care that the maker exercises, again and again, as he works. The essential idea is that the quality of the result is continually at risk during the process of making. In the workmanship of certainty everything is automated, predetermined. The process of manufacture entails little risk. I imagined machines stamping out millions of yellow plastic Lego’s. As I watched John work on the leg, I held my breath any number of times as he carved off a layer that, miscalculated, could change the leg’s shape beyond redemption.
“A lot of the success of this piece depends on the legs,” John commented. “By success I mean whether or not, and to what degree, I create an object of beauty. I’ve had this design in my head for several years. But I’ve never got it together to build it. These legs have the potential to be very sweet. The whole thing will be carried by the curve of the legs, so I have to get that right, right now.” He kept planing and sighting along the inner and outer sides of the curves. All the while curls of wood shavings brushed Savanna’s ears as they headed for the floor, piling up on her coat, around her neck, and on the floor around her. There were hundreds of wood shavings on the floor and her by now, each about the thickness and color of an onionskin. Emerging from the blocky rectangle of butternut was an elegant leg. Long, lean, with a gentle curve from top to bottom on the outside, flat on the side that would abut the case, and tapering slightly inward as it reached the floor. The leg had taken shape gradually, as John subtracted the wood, one onionskin at a time.
When I arrived at the workshop one rainy afternoon in March, John had just begun putting veneer on the top of the sideboard. The most beautiful stretch of veneer would be selected and applied that day. This was a difficult glue-up because the piece was big, 55 x 16 inches, and important. The top always would be the center of attention – under soft candlelight at night, reflecting the gleam of silver and crystal; as a bar at a party, littered with bottles of booze, half-empty glasses, and crumpled napkins; or wiped clean and smelling of polish in the sunlight of the next day.
The date for photographing the sideboard for the Smithsonian exhibit had been moved up a month putting the project in a time bind. Shaking his head, John complained, “So, I’ve got to work day and night. This is my favorite part of the year, and here I am, having to rush. Deadlines do produce work, no doubt about it, but I was really hoping to savor this one.” John expected to work late that night so he could stay on schedule, getting the top into the veneer press where it would be under pressure overnight. “But,” he warned, “if something does not go well with the glue-up tonight, you might hear a lot of swearing.”
By 8:30 John was ready for the critical glue-up. “The simplicity in this glue-up is that it is only one piece. The difficulty in this glue-up is that it is big.” He filled his glue bottle in order to move quickly without the interruption of refilling, and opened the veneer press in readiness. “I have to glue the veneer onto both sides of the substrate, attach blue tape lightly around the edges to hold them together, and then get it in the veneer press as quickly as possible,” he explained. “If I go too fast it throws glue all over the place, if I go too slowly the glue will dry.” He stuck strips of blue tape to the side of the outfeed table for quick and easy access. “All right, here goes.”
Using a little roller, he spread a generous layer of glue on what would be the interior side of the top. “Oh, it’s already getting tacky. I can feel it.” He flipped the five-foot long top onto the veneer where it landed, glue-side down, with a thump. He nestled the top into place on the veneer and then spread glue on the exterior side of the top, saying, “This is a serious amount of glue,” and dropped another long piece of veneer onto it, again quickly adjusting its position. He lightly attached top and bottom veneers with strips of blue tape, not pulling them too tightly together. Picking up the five-foot long sandwich, he crossed the room and slid it into the veneer press.
The veneer press, which had been sitting tamely in the corner, was about to take center stage. At six feet long, four feet wide, and five feet high, it looked like a giant, cast iron insect. With four pairs of legs lifted to different heights, it seemed about to clank out of its corner. The “legs,” eight enormous upside down screws, were its most striking feature. The heads of the screws were six inches in diameter and three inches thick, the threaded shanks several inches in diameter and about two feet long. The end of each shank, opposite to the screw head, was shaped into a square. A four-point socket wrench attached to a wheel rested on top of the press, waiting for John to jump onto the top, halfway to the ceiling, and use it to tighten one giant screw after another. “It’s called, ‘Driving the bus.’ ” Each upside down screw head creates a cone of pressure on the wood below, extending out about 45 degrees. The cabinetmaker piles a collection of boards between the piece being veneered and the screws, distancing the tightened screws from the veneered piece and broadening the zone of pressure.
Still moving quickly, John centered the veneer sandwich in the press, layered on newspaper to absorb any extruding glue, and then inserted what looked like a giant aluminum cookie sheet. With effort, he heaved on a very large, flat board that covered the entire surface, and then a dozen or so heavy boards, together rising more than a foot above the veneer’s surface, to extend the pressure from the screws. He scrambled up onto the top of press, and “drove the bus,” partially tightening each screw, then tightening them all again. He gave each a third, hard tug, putting lots of body weight into the task. “I’ll come back and make it even tighter after I’ve cleaned up and before I leave, in case there is some migration of glue,” he said. As he began to climb down I imagined he must have been satisfied with a good day’s work but tired from the mental concentration of the past hours and the physical effort of operating the press at the end of a long day.
On his way down he saw something that shouldn’t have been there – a sliver of an underlying layer of cross- veneer. He dropped to the floor, dramatically slumping over the end of the press, and lay crumpled for several seconds, inert. Not even enough energy for the predicted swearing, just exhaustion and perhaps despair. I couldn’t gauge the degree of calamity or what it might mean for the future of the sideboard. After a few moments of collapse he collected himself and jumped up, grabbed a ruler, and measured. Less than 1/8 inch of cross-veneer was showing; very little, but too much. Pye’s workmanship of risk had just taken its toll.
There were no good choices. He could leave it to dry overnight in the veneer press, then cut back the size of the entire piece to eliminate the place where the cross-veneer showed, or he could open the press immediately and try to adjust the veneer while the glue was still “open.” That would likely cause the veneer to rip. He decided to let it dry overnight.
At 9:00, as I was preparing to leave, he began to clean up the workshop for the night. I offered to help but he said, “No, it will make me feel better to do the work.” Putting on my jacket in the office, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, that he had leapt back onto the press and was frantically loosening the eight screws with the wheel. Then, jumping down, he hastily pulled the dozen heavy boards out, clattering them onto the floor. Clearly he had changed his mind and decided to try to move the veneer before the glue dried. I slipped out without saying goodbye, not wanting to interrupt. It was a long drive home.
John later told me the veneer had slipped, because glue acts as a lubricant before it acts as an adhesive. The moments before glue becomes tacky and starts to adhere are critical. Sliding all those heavy boards into the press had moved the veneer. There are ways to keep veneer from moving in the press. “Sometimes I’ll build a little piece of sacrificial wood and glue it on and tack it with a brad. But I didn’t this time ‘cause I was working fast. I thought I had plenty of overhang so I cheated, and got caught, basically.” He was unable to move the veneer, and so cut 3/32nd of an inch off each end of the top, retaining its symmetry. The tiny amount lost would not affect the aesthetics of the piece or its structural integrity. But he worked all weekend to resize and re-edge all previously completed pieces, and earlier measurements for the doors on the joinery plan now were obsolete. He would have to work faster than ever.
The next time I saw him John had a scabby 2-inch gash on a swollen right temple. He had continued to plug away on the sideboard but, in weariness, had dropped a board on his head one night while working late. For the moment he was no longer the handsome cabinetmaker passionately engaged in his work but a lop-sided, dogged one. Even with a throbbing head he had high expectations for himself and the sideboard, saying, “I’m not building this to be OK, I’m building it to be unbelievable. My peers are really close judges of quality and I am happy beyond words to enjoy a really good reputation among these picky-assed peers I have. I am not going to build shit.”
The last time I visited the workshop, in June, a party was in full swing. A crowd had gathered for the annual open studio given by John and the other artists in his building. Each studio displayed an array of work, collectively including paintings, pottery, textiles, and furniture. Guests, who wandered from studio to studio, were typical Gloucester artists, in jeans or shorts, T-shirts of modest and immodest cut, and a few dramatic caftans. The conversation burbled in high and low tones, with the rhythms of jazz, punctuated by the clink of wine glasses.
John’s workshop was cleaned up for company, with several previous spec pieces on display. The Smithsonian show had been a success, attracting several commissions for new work. The sideboard, now named Neptune, was having its local debut, standing on a low, rectangular stage in a gallery-like corner. Its polished surface rippled red and brown with hints of gold under halogen lights. Bronze legs, echoing the darkest vertical grain on the side, curved their way to the ground, and the cool and elegant engraved brass escutcheon invited one to open the door to the delights within. It was a classy island in the barely tamed clutter of the workshop. To John’s delight, guests gravitated toward Neptune, asking, “May we touch it?” and then ran their fingers over its silken surface, opened doors with the gentle tug needed to release the catch, and eased out drawers, loosing the subtle root beer fragrance of the drawers’ sassafras wood into the workshop. Hidden in the glow of the wood, on the back of the small rim that trimmed the top of the sideboard, John had carved his initials and the year. JC 13. Neptune was finished and ready to greet the world.
© 2017 Barbara Scott Nelson
Note – This story was read at the Friends Meeting at Cambridge in May 2017. It is composed of excerpts from a longer story of the same title, written to be a chapter in a book about craftsmen and their work, with stories on fine furniture making, hairdressing, sculpture, jewelry making, violin making, and musicianship. Each chapter describes the artistic and technical challenges that face craftsmen who use their hands as instruments to coax out the beauty, and deal with the limitations, of wood, clay, silver, or sound. BSN