Asphaltum as a Wood Stain

The end result.

Brown stained furniture is way out of fashion right now, cast aside by the blond wood and brass aesthetic tyranny of the Silver Lake Shaman. As a hopeless contrarian, I’ve spent the past few years attempting to replicate the shades of brown favored by American Arts and Crafts furniture designers of the early 20th century. But last week, I did a brown stain experiment that just might get the attention of the Silver Lake Shamans.

One of the oft mentioned ingredients in these old-timer brown stains is asphaltum. Asphaltum, also known as bitumen, is a semi-solid semi-liquid form of petroleum. Confusingly, it’s also called “tar,” but tar is actually a byproduct of coal and petroleum distillation that can also be obtained from wood and peat. To stain wood I needed asphaltum not tar.

You can buy asphaltum in one of two ways, as an art supply or in five gallon buckets of roofing cement. But get ready for confusion. A tube of “asphaltum” oil paint I picked up did not actually contain any asphaltum and was expensive. It was just “asphaltum” colored. Art supplies that actually contain asphaltum were not to be found at my local art supply store. You can get asphaltum in the form of non-fibered roofing cement but, for some mysterious reason, I can only find fibered roofing cement Los Angeles and those fibers mean that it won’t work as a wood stain.

But a light bulb went off last week when I realized that asphaltum can be wild harvested at one of Los Angeles’ oddest tourist attractions, the La Brea Tar Pits. If you haven’t been there, this park consists of a paleontology museum dedicated to ancient creatures that got stuck in the tar as well as a fenced off and stinky pond with a tarry waterline and occasional methane bubbles. The large expanse of grass surrounding the pit was sparsely populated on the weekday we visited. In the distance I could see the ongoing demolition of the LA County Museum of Art. As I said goodbye to the high 60s modernist art museum cafeteria my mom used to take me to, I scanned the park for asphaltum plumes.

Thankfully, park employees facilitate hipster artisinal asphaltum collection thanks to cones marked “tar pits” to keep people from spreading their picnic blankets over the foul smelling, sticky stuff.

I discovered one particularly prodigious asphaltum seep and gathered a small amount for my stain experiment. When I got back to the workshop I mixed the asphaltum with some paint thinner and rubbed it on a piece of white oak. It worked beautifully. White oak has a very open grain and the tar both accentuated that grain and gave an overall brown hue to the wood. I wore a respirator to apply the finish but once dried I couldn’t detect any fumes. If I was using asphaltum on a piece of furniture I would top coat the wood with a wipe on varnish or shellac.

The Tar Pits in 1910.

But will I actually ever use asphaltum? The gel stain I use as part of a multi-step process to simulate Stickley type finishes is pretty similar to asphaltum, safer (maybe?) and gives reliable and repeatable results. But perhaps it’s worth using wild harvested asphaltum just for the bragging rights. Watch out for the drop of my new La Brea Tar Pit furniture collection!

A tarry digression

I put on a jacket for this expedition that I hadn’t worn since the beginning of the pandemic. I fished around in the pocket only to find a wrist band for the museum and remembered that we had gone to the Tar Pits in January of 2019 with some friends and their teenage son. This triggered a hauntological memory. On March 24, 1985  a friend needed to get some socks so we set off for the Ross Dress for Less on 3rd street near the La Brea Tar Pits. I have no idea why I was along for the ride. Just minutes before we got there the store exploded due to the methane deposits in the ground in this part of LA. By the time we got to 3rd street it was blocked off but, in the distance, you could see flames shooting out of the sidewalk. It was just the sort of apocalyptic scene that’s fodder for countless LA disaster movies. While there were no deaths, several people suffered serious burns. The real blame for this incident was due to the area’s legacy as an oil field but this was swept under the rug.

On our way back from the park, I was shocked by the state of the city during these quarantine times. Kelly and I haven’t left the house much in a year. Wilshire Blvd. seemed abandoned, with lots of closed businesses and hardly any people. It was unseasonably warm and it hasn’t rained much in a month. The pandemic and George Floyd protests of the past year could have been an opportunity for the city to make dramatic changes, to seize hotels to house the homeless, to deal with the hot mess that is the LAPD, to make it easier and safer for our elders and children to get around. Sadly, it seems we’re still stuck in the tar like those doomed prehistoric animals.

Relics From the Age of Repair

Kelly went through some of my mom’s sewing notions this week and discovered a few relics from a pre-fast fashion era when people used to repair, rather than throw out, their clothes.

For instance, when you bought a box of White King Granulated Soap you got a set of sewing needles.

My mom saved a lot of these needles. On a side note can we please bring back this period’s handsome graphic design?

She also saved these hosiery mending kits that look like match boxes.

Inside was a needle and threads plus some match-like sticks that you moistened and applied to stop a run.

My mom was tall and had to shop for clothes and shoes in specialty shops.

When you bought something at the now defunct Over Five-Seven Shop you got this gimmicky miniature clothes line.

Busting Open an iPod Touch

Cracked screen next to new screen. Yes, this iPod is loaded with Art Bell episodes because I’m crazy.

I now know what the inside of an Apple iPod Touch 5th Generation looks like and I can’t get it out of my mind. Consider the feeling a mixture of demystification and empowerment, the sense that it’s within our power to take control of these tools that too often control us.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon repairing Kelly’s iPod Touch that’s been banging about a junk drawer for years since she broke the screen. I’ve found old Apple iPods and iPhones useful as mp3 players. In my shop there’s a iPhone 3 a neighbor gave me that, while it no longer functions as a phone, still works perfectly well as a jukebox and clock. While I have plans to use the iPod Touch as another mp3 player I was, frankly, more interested in just seeing how it works, what the inside looks like and gauging how practical it is to repair these devices.

I went to the iFixit website, reviewed the lengthy instructions, and bought their and tool kit and iPod screen replacement. While I like iFixit and have used the site in the past, I found their instructions for this particular device inadequate. The instructions showed how to take the iPod apart but not how to install the new screen. The instructions said to simply “reverse the steps” but it’s not as simple as that. In addition they suggested the unnecessary step of removing the battery. Thankfully, I found a detailed YouTube video from iCracked, a phone repair company which, as far as I can tell, doesn’t exist anymore.

I lost track of time doing the repair. It took hours of intense concentration and was one of the most tedious things I’ve ever done. While I had plans to document the repair, there was no way I could break my concentration to stop and take pictures. A lighted magnifier I found in the street was a necessarily tool as some of the parts bordered on microscopic. As usual with modern electronics, the hardest part is opening and closing the case. These devices just aren’t made for easy repair. Lately, Apple even made DIY or third party iPhone 12 repair impossible. Try to replace the logic board or battery on an iPhone 12 yourself and it won’t work unless you take it in to Apple.

To test the iPod I took a selfie. The look of worry and exasperation is real.

Apple’s minimalist design aesthetic, while making devices that are visually appealing, gets in the way of their use and function. This iPod is so sleek and slim that it just wants to slide out of your hand and break, which is how I came to this repair, of course. The funny thing is that in order to keep the thing from getting broken you have to buy a third party case. From a design perspective (not a capitalist one, of course) it would make more sense if this device had it’s own protective case incorporated into the design, which would also allow for a more repairable and spacious interior. The slim design, presumably so you don’t have an unsightly bulge in your Prada, means that the inside of these things are a tight packed tangle of tiny connectors and microscopic screws (in four different sizes, by the way).

While my iPod repair was difficult, at least now I know what’s involved and have a better feeling for how to open and close the case. Like any other skill, electronics repair takes practice. I’m thinking that the next time I have to throw out an unrepairable electronic device, that I should take it apart first to see how it works. I have a broken iPad mini and iPhone battery replacement up next on the repair bench.

It must be a special kind of hell to work on an electronics assembly line. Snapping in the tiny connectors, tightening those microscopic screws, and inhaling adhesive fumes is no way to live or work. An NYU student, Dejian Zeng, went undercover on an iPhone assembly line a few years ago and documented his life. His task was to screw in one of those infernal microscopic screws 1,800 times during a 12 hour shift. He was not allowed to listen to music or even talk with fellow workers while his bosses constantly asked him to go faster. The rest of the day he spent in a dorm room with seven other workers. I find myself thinking more and more about William Morris’ linking of the well being of workers with the environment and aesthetics. All are interconnected, and I’m thankful I don’t have to spend my days doing nothing but tapping in tiny screws while Apple executives get rich.

But back to my iPod repair–the bottom line is that, in the case of these small Apple devices, you can fix them yourself. My suggestion is thoroughly reading directions and watching multiple YouTube device breakdown videos. There’s also not one right way to do it. The best DIY repair sources go into detail on how to open and close the devices, which is, in my opinion the hardest part. If you get stuck I’d suggest stopping and sleeping on the problem. This is how I finally got the iPod closed.

Cracking open and understanding these objects could help us all demystify their control over our lives. One of the side effects of the pandemic will be, I believe, even more addictive and invasive technology. What if we were, collectively, to figure out a way to gain control over these things? To make them tools rather than becoming tools of the tools? In the coming years we must crack, hack, split open and reprogram our tools so that they serve us.

Special thanks to friend of the blog Michael W. who offered to help me with Linux and got me thinking about spending more time making these electronic tools work for me rather than me working for them. Micheal also tipped me off to a great post from Low Tech Magazine “How and why I stopped buying new laptops.”

100 Years

This year marks the 100th birthday of our house, or at least the centenary of when the first resident moved in as I think the house was under construction in 1919. I suspect it was a kit house produced by the Pacific Ready Cut Company. There’s a nearly identical house a block down the street.

The construction of our house took place at the tail end of the last bad pandemic. Apparently, LA city officials did a much better job 100 years ago dealing with the Spanish Flu. Our house’s birthday is overshadowed by the Fyre Festival that was 2020.

To commemorate our 100 year old bungalow I thought I’d post a few pictures I took this morning without tidying up for the photos. The one above shows the room I do most of my reading and pontificating in. There’s usually an unsightly pile of books next to my throne.

We’ve populated the house with a mix of furniture I built and a few antiques in the arts and crafts style. The original inhabitants of this house would have, more likely, had furniture that looks like this:

Our old house requires constant, daily maintenance. Something is always busted, wonky or dusty. As I run about fixing stuff I think of the ancient Greek philosophical conundrum of the ship of Theseus. The story goes that a ship leaves port and, in the course of the journey, the ship’s carpenter replaces every single board. The ontological question posed: is the ship the same ship that left port?

In the case of our house it’s mostly the same ship since the previous residents, thankfully, never did any misguided remodeling (nor did they do any needed maintenance). Nevertheless, our bathroom is a Disneyesque fiction. We gutted, retiled and switched out the cheap 80s fixtures. Essentially we put the room back to the way it was in 1920. Out went the cheap and shoddy shower and in went a clawfoot tub and shower curtain. The salespeople at the plumbing supply store thought we were crazy to do this. They were wrong. It’s fine.

Egyptian Court Apartments, San Diego.

Kelly and I have been living in 1920s buildings since we met in San Diego in the early 1990s. Our first apartment was in a spectacular, if rough around the edges, bungalow court with an Egyptian theme. While the outside was styled like something out of a Boris Karloff mummy movie, the inside looked exactly like what our house looks like now.

There’s a few things I’ve learned living in 20s buildings over the past 30 years:

  • People had less junk.
  • The 20s was cottagecore before #cottagecore
  • Other than the still working phone ringer box in our hallway there were no consumer electronics. Radios stations start popping up around 1921.
  • People in the 20s, because of previous public health issues including the aforementioned flu pandemic, liked clean tiled, somewhat hospital-like kitchens and bathrooms.
  • Double hung windows with weights and cloth cords are easy to maintain and can last for a hundred years. You can make them less drafty but that’s a project I haven’t gotten around to yet.
  • Electricity, a telephone, indoor plumbing and a two car garage must have seemed futuristic in 1920.
  • There’s a distinctive, musty-dusty 1920s building smell. I want it as a cologne.

Between our church, Sunset Boulevard’s commercial buildings, the Central Library and our local movie theater (another King Tut themed building), in the before-pandemic times it was possible for me to spend a whole day in pre-WWII buildings. I have to be honest and say that I prefer pre-WII vernacular buildings to more recent architecture. And I’d say that it’s well past time to bring back the King Tut architecture thing.

Kelly and I are very lucky to own a house in this very expensive city. Many people are facing eviction and homelessness due to the pandemic that has only worsened the housing crisis in LA. This holiday seasons let’s use this crisis to do something for those who don’t have a roof over their heads.

Enzo Mari’s Autoprogettazione

Thanks to friend of the blog Mosscarpet for a tip on another modernist DIY manual, by the Italian artist and furniture designer Enzo Mari. Following in the footsteps of William Morris, Mari’s Marxist design philosophy is both liberatory and egalitarian. Unlike Morris, Mari embraces the materials of industrial culture, 2x4s and nails, to offer designs that anyone can make without specialized training. Comrades can download Mari’s 1974 manual Autoprogettazione (roughly translatable as “self design”).

The goal of Autoprogettazione is not to just offer measured drawings, rather it’s a manual to teach a vocabulary you can use to design and build your own furniture. Mari says,

Therefore the way should be to involve the user of a consumer item in the design and realization of the item designed. Only by actually touching the diverse contradictions of the job is it possible to start to be free from . . . deeply rooted conditioning.

It’s no easy feat to make attractive furniture from 2x4s and nails but, especially with his tables, Mari succeeds, in my opinion. Some clever folks have even, in a subversive judo move, made Enzo Mari pieces with Ikea furniture parts.

The 1918 flu epidemic claimed the lives of many creative people including Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt. I’m sorry to report that we lost Mari to Covid-19 in October.

Thanks again to Mosscarpet–I’ve already used some of Mari’s ideas to design a roof for our adobe oven.