Misadventures in Laser Cutting

Here at Root Simple we have a tendency to only post our successes. This can lead to the impression that we live in a state of transcendent Martha Stewart perfection, obscuring the reality that DIY projects are as arduous as climbing a mountain. There’s an initial enthusiasm followed closely by alternating periods of triumph, self doubt and pain. Hopefully you learn from your mistakes while acknowledging that you’ll never un-see the flaws nobody else will ever notice.

My latest episode of DIY mountain climbing involved a laser cutter. When I found out that the LA Central Library had a laser cutter that you can use for free I jumped on the opportunity. As an experiment I thought I’d try making a woodblock for printing as well as etch a few images on wood.

For the woodblock I downloaded an image from the internet by the Belgian turn-of-the-last-century artist Félix Vallotton. I used a combination of Photoshop and Illustrator to change the downloaded JPEG image into a vector file suitable for laser cutting. The actual laser cutting was fairly simple. I loaded my Illustrator file into the library’s PC based CorelDRAW program and then hit the print button. A screen pops up with a set of options for the laser cutter which includes materials and depth of cut. I used birch plywood and checked the thickness of the material with calipers. I ended up having to run the laser cut twice to get a deeper cut in the plywood so that the cut portions of the wood wouldn’t soak up ink. It was almost as easy as printing a normal document on paper.

A few days later I asked Kelly (since she has the art degree) to assist in printing the woodcut. We made a trip to the art supply store to get a brayer, paper, and some ink. I fashioned a baren, used to press the paper onto the woodcut, out of scrap wood and a doorknob.

We managed to pull two not-so-great prints. The problems fall into two categories: materials and concept. First, I should have sanded the birch plywood before laser cutting. The surface of the wood left too rough an impression in the print and soaked up too much ink. I probably would have better results had I put linoleum in the laser cutter instead of wood. Or, perhaps, I should have sanded and sealed the plywood more thoroughly. I did put a coat of shellac on the wood but that wasn’t enough.

Conceptually, using a computer and laser cutter to make a woodblock can remove what is interesting about a woodblock: specifically the irregular line qualities introduced when a human hand cuts wood with a gouge. This does not mean that using a laser cutter to make a print block isn’t worth doing. But I think you might get more interesting results where you acknowledge, rather than try to disguise, the use of a computer and laser. For instance, artist Patrick Collier uses photographs with a halftone pattern to make large lino prints. In a similar process, Toby Millman deomonstrates in a YouTube video how she turns photographs into colored lino prints. The advantage of using a laser printer to make a printing block is that you can do effects that would be impossible to do with a gouge as well as make large prints that would take weeks to cut by hand. Getting the right balance of concept, materials and tools is, of course, one of the central struggles in making art.

Printing on Wood
After completing my print block I had some extra time in the lab so I thought I’d see what it looks like to simply etch in wood. First I tried an image of our cat Buck, one on birch plywood and the other on a scrap of quarter sawn white oak. With some more tweaking in illustrator I probably could have gotten a better image on the birch but I didn’t have time. The oak image did not work at all because the figure of the wood competes too much with the image. If I had my own laser cutter I could probably spend my weekends sitting in a booth at cat shows making laser printed wood cat portraits but that’s not a future I look forward to.

I also tried cutting a more complex image by the symbolist illustrator Carl Otto Czeschka. The results prove that the laser is capable of very fine line quality. I’m thinking of experimenting with some intricate Islamic patterns on a small wood box. Laser cutters can also cut entirely through thin materials so that opens up more possibilities to do things that would be difficult to do by hand. I’m intrigued, for instance, with the possibilities for making three dimensional folding paper cards. You could also use the laser cutter for screen printing, making stencils, wood inlay or marquetry.

Many thanks to the knowledgeable staff of the Octavia Lab!

Save the Foot! Save Lost Words!

A neighbor has stepped up, so to speak, with a petition to save our neighborhood’s iconic Happy Foot Sad Foot sign.

The Sunset Foot Clinic on Sunset and Benton Way is moving, and the iconic rotating Happy Foot Sad Foot sign is currently slated to come down at the end of August when the clinic moves.

The sign was installed in 1985 and has become a Southern California icon. One of the last signs grandfathered to rotate in Los Angeles, locals claim that it can tell the future – or at least whether the observer is going to have a good (Happy Foot) or bad (Sad Foot) day, depending on which side they see first.

Featured in several novels and multiple songs and videos, as well inspiring the HaFoSaFo nickname of its surrounding area, the Happy Foot Sad Foot sign is a Silver Lake original, and a Los Angeles cultural resource to be preserved.

In the 1990s, the LA Department of Cultural Affairs saved, landmarked and restored many signs across Los Angeles. Landmarking now falls under the jurisdiction of the Cultural Heritage Commission via the Office of Historic Resources within the LA Planning Department.

We ask that:

(1)  Council District 13 and the Cultural Heritage Commission support designating the sign an Historic Cultural Monument to preserve it in place; and

(2)  the owners of the site incorporate the current sign into their plans for a new restaurant on site.

Please sign to help keep the Happy Foot Sad Foot sign prognosticating for all Angelenos – current and future – and may all your days be Happy Foot!

Put your best foot forward and sign the petition here.

Lost Words
Reader fjorlief inhaga left a link to a Brain Pickings blog post on the Oxford children’s dictionary’s ham-fisted decision to replace words such as fern, willow, and starling with modern abominations such as broadband and cut and paste. Brain Pickings notes a response by author Robert MacFarlane’s and children’s book illustrator Jackie Morris that resulted in an elegant “wild dictionary” called The Lost Words: A Spell Book (public library). And, thanks to Brain Pickings, I now know how to link to books via your local public library.

Seat Weaving for Fun and Profit

I finished the last step of that quirky C.F.A. Voysey chair this week: fiber rush weaving. Even if you never build a chair from scratch, mastering seat weaving opens up a whole world of thrift store furniture rescue. I remember seeing a nice ladderback chair in a San Diego thrift store last year in great shape but in need of a new seat. Learn to weave your own seat and you could easily encircle your dining room table with a nice set of inexpensive, second-hand chairs. Seat weaving ain’t rocket science and it’s a whole lot more useful than sending idiots to mars.

Traditionally, this type of woven seat was made with cordage harvested from water plants. Beginning in the early 20th century, in the U.S., most rush seats were made from a rush substitute called fiber rush which is made out of spun paper, the same paper used for grocery bags. This is what I used since it’s cheaper, lasts longer and is easier to work with. Fiber rush comes in a light and dark color. I used the light color. It also comes in thicknesses between 1/8″ and 3/8″. I used the 3/16″ thickness to match the type on the original chair. I ordered it from Frank’s Cane and Rush Supply for $9.75 for a two pound coil, which is just about enough for one chair. I ordered two, 2-pound rolls since I correctly anticipated making some mistakes the first time and I’m planning on making more of these chairs.

I found a helpful seat weaving tutorial on YouTube by Ed Hammond a.k.a. Peerless Rattan. Hammond has sixteen videos on how to weave and cane a variety of chairs. Please note that in addition to ladderback chairs there’s a lot of mid-century Scandinavian chairs that have a slightly different kind of woven seat. Learning to weave Scando chairs will lead you to the “profit” promise in this blog headline as you help supply all the Silver Lake Shamans with refurbished mid-century thrones from which to enjoy a $15 juice while Instagraming their house plants.

Most chairs narrow at the back and you have to account for that when weaving the seat. Hammond shows this first step at the beginning of the video. My chair is square which allowed me to skip this first step. It’s also woven on a frame that fits into the seat. This is convenient in that I was able to weave the seat from the comfort of the vise of my work bench. But I don’t think a ladderback chair would be much more difficult–you just have to straddle it as you weave and remember to peek at the back periodically to make sure you’re not making any mistakes.

Sloppy first attempt on left and improved second try on right.

I’ll send you to Hammond’s oddly soothing video for the details of how to weave the chair. It’s easier to show than to describe in words but I’ll add a few lessons learned. Most importantly, take your time and make sure that each strand is tight and straight as you weave the chair. It’s not a race. Stop frequently to tap the cords straight with a hammer and wooden wedge. If you make a mistake, go back and fix it before proceeding. You can clamp off the cord with a spring clamp in order to take a break or straighten out the lines.

There’s apparently some disagreement over the need to pre-moisten the fiber rush in the chair weaving community but I found wetting the cord with a spray bottle made it easier to bend over the frame. Towards the end of the weaving process you fill the voids under the fiber rush with pieces of corrugated cardboard, being careful to put the writing side down.

When complete, I gave the fiber two coats of shellac in case someone spills a beverage. I’m also hoping that I didn’t spend many hours making an elaborate cat scratcher but so far there’s been no feline interest.

Let me also note that this skill is basketry adjacent. Learn seat weaving or basketry and you’ve got a witty, skill boasting riposte to those who suggest you “learn to code.”

Relax and Enjoy the Soft Caress of the Fun Fur

I realized that I never got around to posting photos of our completed living room so step on in!

Alas, the shag lined Root Simple headquarters exists only conceptually. While I’m just old enough to remember the era from whence these photos from the book Creating modern furniture : trends, techniques, appreciation (1975) originate, they seem like artifacts from some alien planet, perhaps the one depicted in Barbarella. Water damage from the Los Angeles Central Library fires of the 1980s only adds to the otherness of these images.

At the risk of sparking inter-generational snark warfare, let’s take a look at some more:

This blog post would have been so much better had it been written whist enthroned on this bucket seat/bookshelf combo.

After writing said blog post I could rest my laurels on this foam lounging thing. But how to exit the foam loungy thingy in a dignified manor?

Maybe I’d be better off pondering my poor dental hygiene.

This looks like a bar stool from one of those lesser, final season, 1960s Star Trek episodes.

For the young folks, driftwood furniture was the 1970s equivalent of today’s ubiquitous live edge river table. Driftwood was mandatory prior to 1980. At the very least you had a driftwood coffee table. Only the upper crust had a driftwood throne like this one.

Who knew you could make a kid burrito with 70s fiber art? I do like the idea of sleepable art.

This kid, however, looks terrified and/or trapped in her 70s sculptural play environment.

Someone please suggest the right prog rock concept album to listen to in this chair.

You’ll need to relax after the terrifying dinner party.

Lastly, yes this is Frank Gehry.

I’ve Been Working on This Chair When I Should Be Doing Other Things

Having a degree in music and being a fan of Wagner’s operas means that I get to drop the word Gesamtkunstwerk in casual conversation around the house. Most often translated as “total work of art” it has, when applied to architecture, come to mean a control freak fantasy of designing everything in the house down to the paperclips.

The English architect C.F.A. Voysey (1857-1941) caught the Gesamtkunstwerk fever early in his life and drew up all furnishings down to the desk accessories in the houses he designed for clients. When I spotted some of the quirky chairs he produced in the years before WWI, I knew I wanted to set about replacing the random dining room chairs in our living room with a sextet of Voysey’s “One-Heart” chairs. I liked the strange devil-like horns, the fuddy-duddy heart, and the odd hexagonal, tapered legs. Voysey used the heart motif almost to excess in his work, so much so that his client H.G. Wells made him invert the symbol to make a spade.

I’m almost finished with the prototype that I based on a photo and from a measured drawing of one of Voysey’s “Two-Heart” chairs, by woodworker Nancy Hiller. The last step will be to weave a rush seat insert. Thankfully Los Angeles hosts not one, but two caning and rush seat supply shops–Franks Cane and Rush Supply and Cane and Basket.

Voysey’s original chair has an eye-catching dovetailed back splat. While aesthetically pleasing the design is a woodworking no-no as it involves grain tied together in two different directions with no allowance for wood movement. On most of the originals, unsurprisingly, the back has split. I omitted the dovetails in my Voysey chair remix opting for an unglued mortise instead. This small detail illustrates why designers and craftspeople need to be in dialog with each other.

Voysey said, “To produce healthy art one must have healthy surroundings; the first effort an artist should make is to sweep ugliness from him.” In our degraded and utilitarian times I’ve come to the insight that the pursuit of beauty is a good thing in itself and a moral obligation. Have a look around our cities and the places we live and work and you’ll see a whole lot of ugly. How depressing that art and music are some of the first things on the austerity chopping block. In our homes and communities we need to start sweeping away the ugliness and get to beautifying. We need to stop telling our children and young people that art is a waste of time. We need to plant gardens, make music and build happy, healthy and beautiful places to live and work.