Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Many thanks to all of you, our dear readers and listeners for your kind comments, input and support.

In lieu of sending a gift to each and every one of you, we offer this link to a downloadable version of William Morris’ fantasy novel, The Story of the Glittering Plain illustrated by Walter Crane and suitable for your tablet thingy or online reading. The book, published in 1894, influenced a young J.R.R. Tolkien.

May you all have a productive and happy 2019.

The Art and Architecture of C.F.A. Voysey

As a tangential way of following up on my overly hasty post on turn of the last century street scenes let me begin by saying that I’m not interested in an uncritical nostalgia for the past. Rather, I’d like to question why we assume we’re on the only right historical trajectory. What would happen if we could see that the way things are now are not the only possible way things could have turned out? In the case of those streets, for instance, what would have happened if we had planned cities on a more human scale and had not ceded so much real estate to automobiles? And why can’t we change the way we do things now?

C.F.A. Voysey: Design for a house.

Questioning this myth of progress is one of the reasons I’m so obsessed with the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I have a sense that many art historians don’t like this period because it doesn’t fit neatly into a linear progression from representation to abstraction. It also combines a contradictory, conservative interest in historicism along with radical socialist politics. So, just like reconsidering our streets, how about we ponder what would have happened if the Arts and Crafts movement had not died in the horrors of WWI.

C.F.A. Voysey: cabinet.

Looking for some dining chairs to make for our living room, I stumbled on the work of C.F.A. Voysey, an English Arts and Crafts architect and designer. He took an obsessive gesamtkunstwerk (total art work) approach to his architectural commissions, insisting on designing not just the building but the furniture and everything down to the pen trays. Very conservative politically, he was an exception to the more progressive bent of the movement. It’s also obvious that he spent every spare moment of his life obsessively drawing.

C.F.A. Voysey: Birds of Many Climes c.1900.

Voysey’s work points to an alternate trajectory in which our art and our cities are entwined with a reverence for nature instead being at the service of machines. Instead we have the cynicism, self absorption and nihilism of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. And all we have to look forward to are cites soon to be clogged with self driving cars.

C.F.A. Voysey: design for wallpaper.

Though we ended up in a great crapulence, at least we can still get Voysey’s wallpaper. Put it on your kids walls and maybe it will inspire them to figure out a better future.

The #700 Bookshelf

I’ve been fortunate to have some spare time in the past year to be able to raise my rudimentary carpentry skills to a level where I can make some rudimentary furniture. And, as you might have guessed, I have an obsession with unfashionable Arts and Crafts furniture and art.

The #700 bookcase as seen in the 1909 catalog.

My latest project was making a copy of Gustav Stickley’s #700 bookshelf, originally manufactured in 1904. The $30 price in the 1909 catalog would be around $900 today, not cheap considering that a good salary at that time was between $2,000 and $5,000 a year.

In my cranky opinion the pre-WWI Arts and Crafts era marks the pinnacle of American design. It’s all downhill from this point. The #700 bookcase may have been designed by the architect Harvey Ellis, though there is some controversy about this. Having spent so many hours building it, there are some details that make me think an architect had something to do with the design, particularly the odd little pilasters that hide the face frame seam on the front of the bookcase.

Stickley’s furniture can, occasionally, be a bit crude and boxy. The details of this bookcase set it apart. The arches at the bottom, reminiscent of a bridge, give the design a lightness and grace. The overall proportions are like a turn of the century Chicago skyscraper. The door is, pleasingly, divided into three glassed sections. The glass door also keeps the dust out. And the original had a lock to, I think, keep the kids from climbing the shelves. The beauty of quartersawn white oak, with its striking medullary ray pattern, speaks for itself. I opted for a dark stain to hide some less than optimal wood.

As usual, mistakes were made. But I did pick up a few new skills. While my solder joints are a bit messy, I got to learn how to make a leaded glass window thanks to some great advice from Stained Glass Supplies in Pasadena (they have classes if you’re interested).

Making the bookshelf was easier than paring down our book collection to fit in it. I made sure to leave enough room to display the plaster neanderthal skull which every aging 1990s hipster in Silver Lake owns. Next up is a settle and desk.

Let’s Bring Back Picture Rail

Why the hell did The Man take away our picture rail?

Picture rail is a small piece of molding placed either at the top of a wall or a few feet shy of the top, that holds hooks on which you can hang pictures using a chain, cord or ribbon. Picture rail allows you to hang pictures without putting a damn hole in the wall. This is especially important if you have wallpaper. It’s also great if your walls are made of lath and plaster rather than drywall, since tapping on an old lath and plaster wall can easily cause half the plaster to cleave off. But even if you have drywall, picture rail allows you to easily reposition pictures in seconds and not have to worry about filling holes.

So why did they take it away from us? Picture rail disappeared in the mid-twentieth century when wallpaper and lath and plaster went out of fashion.  It also may have had something to do with the mid-century disdain for molding in general.

My DIY picture rail.

Thankfully we can bring back picture rail. You can buy it online but I figured out a way to make it myself on a table saw equipped with a dado set (you could also do it with a router). I picked up some door and window casing at the Big Orange Store and used the dado set to cut a groove in the back of the molding. Put it up and pick up some picture rail hooks and you’re ready to hang art. Picture rail hooks come in a variety of sizes and we had to test a few to find the right fit. The picture rail hooks fit standard, rounded picture rail better than my DIY effort, but my improvised picture rail works okay.

New picture rail and crown molding in our bedroom.

The living room of our house already had picture rail so I just had to add it to the other rooms of the house when I redid the molding this summer. Hopefully you’re lucky enough to already have picture rail. If not you can even get it in a contemporary style to easily add to any room.

To use picture rail you need to attach either chain, cord or wire to the back of your frame. We went with brass chain since we can pick it up at our local hardware store and we’ve got some heavy pictures to hang. You can either hang from one point on the frame or two. If you’ve got tall ceilings you can attach the chain or cord lower on the frame so that the picture tilts downward to make it easier to view. You can stack pictures on the wall by attaching them to each other or by hanging them from individual hooks.

Say goodbye to holes in the wall!

The print at top is “California 2 Mt. Shasta” by Frank Morley Fletcher that we got though the Legion of Honor online gift store. I made the frame on my table saw and router table.

Measuring With a Shaft Key

Need to make a precise measurement or adjust a tool? Get yourself a set of square shaft keys.

Shaft keys are used in the world of machinery to connect a shaft to something that rotates but we won’t be using them for their intended purpose. Rather, we’ll make use of the fact that they are made in precise metric and imperial sizes to use them as a measurement aid.

Shaft keys come in different flavors and shapes including curved, square and tapered. We’re looking for the square ones. Every hardware store has a set of shaft keys in a dusty, seldom opened drawer. My local store carried shaft keys between 1/8″ and 1/2″. You can buy a whole set for mere dollars. I used a sharpie to mark the dimensions of my set of shaft keys.

I use them mostly for setting the depth of my router and table saw. Using your sense of touch, aided by a shaft key, is much more accurate than using your eyeballs and a ruler.

But I also found them handy for assembling a new fence over the weekend. I wanted 1/4 inch gaps between the fence slats and used a shaft key as a spacer when I assembled the fence.

Stuff the stockings of the accuracy challenged housemates on your Christmas shopping list with a set of shaft keys!

Thank you to Bob Van Dyke for initiating me into the mysteries of the shaft key.