Saturday, June 4, 2011

It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.

It’s been a hectic month. For the past three or four weeks I've been running around bouncing from place to place, task to task. I feel like I've spent more time [driving] in my car than in my own bed. So this week, it came as a real relief to have a couple days to myself in the studio to play.

Earlier in the week, while walking to the L train, the construction at building shown above on North 11th and Wythe St caught my attention. This 100-year old textile factory is one of the many beautiful old industrial buildings in the neighborhood that is being transformed into upscale conversions, in this case a hotel. This building was bought by developers five years ago and has been “under construction” ever since. Like most of the construction in the area, it has been stalled or following the economic downturn. However, the developers are back in the black ink, due to a $15 million dollar tax-free federal stimulus shot in the arm, and this spring there’s been a flurry of activity. I’m glad to see that the government is finally addressing troubling lack of yuppie-boarding in the neighborhood. Drrr.

This week they gutted the bones of this old gal and they were displayed on the curb side for all to see. What a spectacle!
There on the sidewalk there had to be probably several 100,000 board feet of old growth timbers. Granted a lot of it was in rough shape, full of splits, nails, and soaked in some sort mystery (likely toxic) oily business, but the sheet volume was staggering
My first response was holy #$%^#!  that’s a %#@&-load of wood
My second reaction was I really need to look into buying a Semi with a crane.

It was amazing to think that locked up in this building, only a block away from my shop and the middle of NYC, was more old growth lumber than will ever pass through my hands in many lifetimes. There’s so much history there! In the most of the larger timbers, you can clearly count the growth rings and most were easily 200 years old. To think, those trees were saplings long before this country even existed! Then you consider the efforts of men who felled, milled, and constructed these massive beams it boggles the mind- a Herculean task!

I don’t know what is happening to this material, but I hope that it is going to a better place. It makes me ill to think that all of this history could end up in a chipper, burn pile, or landfill. I hope that it is reclaimed and reused appreciated as an irreplaceable relic of times past. While I'm glad that this building isn't getting demolished, I always find it sad to see examples of places where people used to work and actually MAKE things be replaced by development that serves a culture than produces nothing. The irony of this situation is that is that this building is right across the street from two of Brooklyn's perhaps most visible manufacturers: The Brooklyn Brewery and Rosenwach Watertanks.
If you see a wooden watertower in NYC (BTW the majority of them are still wooden)it was more than likely made by Rosenwach.

Anyway, back to me and my three days of “me time” in the shop.
In between projects/jobs, I always like to do something either for the studio or for skill building. This week, I was determined to accomplish both and finally build a proper sawbench. Originally, I was going to build it using some nice Ash or Oak, but after seeing all those timbers on the street, I thought I should use some of the copious waste that I have been squirreling away. I had just the junk to for the job: the leftovers from the very first think I built in the studio, the lofted mezzanine. Over the last two years, I have been nibbling away at this material here and there. I used up the bulk of the nicest boards extending my storage racks across the entire width of the space, but the remaining odd sized (considerably less desirable) pieces have just been clogging my storage racks.

A sawbench is an utilitarian shop appliance which is essential for handwork. They don’t need to be fancy or made from nice material, after all they are going to see a lot of the business end of handsaws. Since this project was as much about building a bench as it was having some fun, I decided to make a bit of a “showy” object. I constructed the bench with some fancy-pants joinery and to make things more fun I decided that I would do it all by hand.

While, I loved every minute of it, there was a bit of a learning curve. I am used to working with clear hardwoods, so working with this soft, spongy-cheese-like, knot-filled, construction grade lumber was an extra bit of a challenge. A fingernail or a hard stare could make an impression in the stuff and it was prone to splitting and spelching at every turn. Accurate paring and chopping took sharp-sharp tools and I had to liberally wax my sawplates to keep them from binding and sticking in their kerfs. When laying out all the joinery, I made the best to attempt to avoid knots and defects in critical areas. Even breaking down the boards, I had to be careful to select pieces that could yield large enough boards after all of the cup and twist was taken out of “raw” pieces. That being said, planing the stuff was dreamy. Dressing the boards was effortless. You could basically ignore the grain direction and still get glassy smooth surfaces (filled with knots).

All things considered, I am pretty pleased with the result.
The picture above shows the finished bench along with all of the lumber that now remains from the loft-build. I think I have just enough wood to build a second slave-bench that will nest underneath this bench. The twist of irony in this project is that this little bench might be one of the last projects that I will finish before I move the shop out of the studio this summer.


zeke said...

Sometimes it is the most utilitarian projects with the most pedestrian material that are the most satisfying. Maybe because they are less fraught than those that have a client or more precious material. Not sure why, but they can be so relaxing sometimes.

nielscosman said...

This was a pretty low-stress high fun little project. Working with pine completely bypasses my normal wood-guilt OCD building style. I normally fret over all the details before even thinking about the wood, not with this project. I little sketch on a piece of paper and I started milling wood. It's certainly not "perfect", but it was just what the doctor ordered.

Commission/fabrication work can really throw off my mojo. My working standards usually blow up way out of proportion and my anxiety level with it- usually unproductively. Shop projects are a nice reassuring way of bringing me back down to earth.

This summer I'm planning on building at least one or more fullsized benchs (with mostly hand joinery). The speed and ease of making this bench was a huge confidence builder in my handwork skill set. Of course, the hope is that these skills will be trickling more and more into my regular work.