My gappy first attempt at a hand-cut blind dovetail. I’ve got a lot of practice to do!

I spent the past weekend taking a magnificent class with woodworker Chris Gochnour. In addition to being a master of his craft he’s also a talented teacher with many years of experience. Now, this is not a woodworking blog because I’m soooooo not qualified to opinionate on the subject. But I would like to share two things Chris taught that I think apply to any worthwhile task.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson of the class was getting a sense of how to pace work. Sometime in the late afternoon of the first day there was a building crescendo of aggressive pounding and sawing and I think Chris could sense that we were all getting a little too frenetic in our actions. He stopped us and said, “steady, work steady.” He explained that we should not work so slow as to be inefficient but that we shouldn’t rush either. That “steady” pace will, of course, be different depending on if you’re a beginner, such as myself, or further along on the learning curve. I found myself through the rest of the weekend, when I found myself rushing, hearing Chris’s voice in my head saying, “steady.”

The other thing he said that stuck with me is that you, “don’t learn to play the violin in one day.” Skills take practice. I’m familiar with this from studying music and yet I forget that the other needed skills in my life need to be built slowly over time. In music, you have to set aside some time every day to practice your scales.

But where to find the time? Lately I feel like I’ve been paying too much attention to the news. While I think it’s important to know something about what’s going on, I don’t think that I need to follow the day to day drama. What if I devoted the time I spend reading the newspaper to practicing cutting dovetails by hand? What if, instead of falling into the daily political reality show, we practiced sewing, or drawing or learning a language or playing musical instrument? We could probably catch up with the important news in just an hour every week.

While not eschewing power tools, Chris ended the class with a moving plea to consider the more “steady” pace of working with hand tools. “Steady” is not the same as “slow.” “Steady” implies a skillfulness that comes with practice and focus. “Steady” is counter-cultural, at odds with the always distracted ethos of our cheap, plastic, ugly, restless and isolated Empire. So, my brothers and sisters, steady.

The Glorious USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection

Chestnut. Ellen Isham Schutt, 1913.

Over the past few months I’ve been reviving my long lost drawing hobby, partly as a way to fend of the temptations of phone addiction but also as a way of training myself to take the time to really see what’s around me. Anyone who has tried to draw knows that what it teaches is to observe the world without the preconceptions imposed by language. Before the advent of inexpensive photography, drawing had a central role not only in everyday life but also in science. The United States Department of Agriculture’s online collection of watercolor illustrations of fruits and nuts demonstrates how scientific illustration can be both useful and beautiful.

The collection spans the years 1886 to 1942. The majority of the paintings were created between 1894 and 1916. The plant specimens represented by these artworks originated in 29 countries and 51 states and territories in the U.S. There are 7,497 watercolor paintings, 87 line drawings, and 79 wax models created by approximately 21 artists. Lithographs of the watercolor paintings were created to illustrate USDA bulletins, yearbooks, and other publications distributed to growers and gardeners across America.

Rimmer Apple. Deborah Griscom Passmore 1901.

The collection showcases the diversity of fruit and nut varieties before industrial agriculture took it all away and replaced it with easily shipped but tasteless produce.

Pomegranate. Mary Daisy Arnold, 1932.

The human eye can see and perceive things that a camera can’t and the artists who made these exquisite watercolors must have had an encyclopedic knowledge of the fruits and nuts they portrayed. The collection has 3,807 images of apples alone.

Should you have some blank walls in need of art let me point out that all of the images are available in high resolution.

The Prints of Frances Gearhart

Frances Gearhart (1869-1959) was a print maker whose work celebrates the California landscape. Influenced by Japanese block printing, Gearhart’s work combines a close observation of the natural world with a vibrant color palette. We were lucky to snag a reproduction of one of her prints thought the Legion of Honor gift shop.

Methinks we could all benefit from having more images of trees and mountains in our lives in addition to surrounding ourselves with, well, real trees and mountains. Museums should also include more work by women artists who make up just 2% of the world art market.

If you’d like to see more of Gearhart’s work check out

The Minneapolis Institute of Art has an exhibition open through March that includes some of Gearhart’s prints along with the work of other artists of the Arts and Crafts era.

The Buddha of Oakland

A friend and I took a wrong turn in Oakland once and accidentally stumbled on this shrine in an otherwise unremarkable cul-de-sac. This unsanctioned intervention began when a local resident Dan Stevenson, fed up with illegal dumping and graffiti, had the idea of installing a Buddha statue to calm things down. Stevenson is not a Buddhist, but the statue was adopted by the Vietnamese community and what started out as a modest gesture became something much bigger. The short video above tells this amazing story. You can hear more about the “Buddha of Oakland” on this episode of 99% Invisible.

Here in Southern California shrines and murals of the Virgin of Guadalupe fulfill a similar role.

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Christmas in SanTana #virgendeguadalupe #lit #feliznavidad

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We need more of these sacred surprises in our cities.

My New Thoughtstyling Throne

As an aging gen-x blogger I decided it was time to build myself a throne from which to harangue, cajole, abjure and speak ex cathedra. Said throne is a replica of Gustav Stickley’s Bow-arm Morris Chair #336 from his 1901 catalog as shown above with a cat for scale.

The differences between the original English Morris chair and the American versions say a lot about our cultural differences. An Essex based carpenter, Ephraim Colman, designed the chair that William Morris would take into production for his company in the 1860s. While the English chair is delicate, Stickley’s American versions are beefy, aggressive and man-spready. The #336 begs for a cigar and whiskey accompaniment along with the assumption that you’ll be using it to oversee your various robber baron hustles. With its adjustable back the robust and elegant #336 is the spiritual ancestor of the BarcaLounger which shows you how far this American Empire has declined.

Making Stickley’s #336 involved an nerve racking steam bending process. The wood went in a makeshift box fed with steam from a wallpaper steamer. After an hour in the steamer the wood was quickly rushed to a form made with plywood. I had to actually sit on the arm to get it to bend. On the first attempt the arm broke and I had to do it all over again. When I was done with the arms I had to steam bend the back slats of the chair. All this took many, I should add pleasant, hours of focused labor blissfully apart from the distractions of the interwebs.

Of all the furniture in a house chairs get the most abuse. Each time you sit down and get up you stress the joints. The arms on the #336 attach to the legs via a sturdy, handsome and labor-intensive through mortise. Details like this explain why Stickley went out of business. His competitors made fake versions of through mortises to save a buck. While my chair was at the upholstery shop someone wanted to buy it but the price offered was way short of the amount of time required to do the steam bending and to fit the four (!) through mortises. The chair sold in 1909 for $31.50 which would be around $900 today.

It’s interesting how much Stickley’s design depends on the attractive ray pattern of quarter sawn white oak. I’ve seen versions of Morris chairs like this made with much cheaper plain sawn red oak and they look horrendous and primitive as if made by Fred Flinstone.

As usual, mistakes were made in building this chair. The principle one was not reading the fine print in the directions in the book of plans I was using that noted that Stickley added two inches to the legs between versions make between 1901 and 1909. I was able to counteract the lack of height by having my upholsterer make a thicker cushion. Since Kelly and I are of the tall tribe I need to pay better attention to customizing fit. If I’m going to go through the trouble of making furniture myself I might as well take the time to make sure it’s a custom job.

Now lets hope this latest DIY project doesn’t lead to the sort of bad ideas that afflict other throne owners: