Stick with a little style

A few weeks ago Manish, who is a student at PFW, called to say he’d taken a fall down some stairs and hurt his ankle. Hurt his ankle? When I saw the i-phone photo he sent of his injury, I thought he would never walk again. Well, with the aid of an ankle brace, Manish is back on his feet – sort of.  But hobbling around with a brace is tough – and very slow.  Manish is an energetic and smart young executive who supervises scores of subordinates and travels all over the country. He’s a very busy guy who can’t afford to lie around while his leg heals. He’s got to be on his feet and on the move. Manish needed to be less of an invalid and more of a man in charge. How could we transform Manish’s condition from one of immobility and helplessness to one of action and accomplishment? Historically, men of power, wealth and style carried canes. It might have helped them get around, but a cane was also regarded as an essential part of a gentleman’s wardrobe; a symbol of his influence and refined taste. Oscar Wilde carried one, so did the Marquis De Lafayette and Price Albert; the Duke of Windsor had a collection of them.  Manish needed some panache. We had to replace his stagger with some swagger. A walking stick might be the answer. I suggested the idea to Manish and he jumped on it. This was also a chance to improve his turning skills and get in a little shop time. I made a few of sketches, pulled a couple of walnut chunks for turning blanks, and found a 36” length of walnut, about 1 1/4” square. Perfect. The idea was to turn a slender staff and top it off with a sculpted handle; attached to the staff with a wedged through-tenon. The project skills weren’t difficult at all. This was a matter of good planning; executing each task in the proper order for the best results, in the least amount of time and with the least effort. Below are a few shots taken as Manish’s stick took shape. It wasn’t difficult and didn’t take too long. I think we were both pleased with the result. Although it still had to be sanded and finished, Manish tested out the stick. As he wrapped his hand around the sculpted handle and placed his weight upon it, the walnut staff seemed to suit him; standing straight and strong, his confidence and authority were restored. By the time he reached our parking lot, Manish had adjusted his gait to make the most of his new accessory. I could already picture him waving his new cane to hail a Center City cab; entrusting it to coat check clerks at Philadelphia’s finest restaurants; using it to point out local landmarks to admiring colleagues. Manish was his old self again. Mario  

The rough carved handle has been drilled for the staff's through-tenon.


The handle has been glued to the staff. Now the ebony-wedged tenon must be trimmed.

Manish inspecting progress on the carved handle.

A Grobet detail file is used to fair and smooth the handle.

The completed walking stick.


Shooting the Shoot

What do I do at PFW when not teaching or preparing for a class?   Well, a number of things, I suppose.  But one of my favorites is researching and writing an article for a woodworking publication.  Writing for a peer-reviewed publication is a privilege; woodworkers are the line editors at nearly all of the major woodworking magazines. Last week we welcomed Steve Scott to the shop.  Steve has been an editor at Taunton’s Fine Woodworking Magazine since 2004, and, of course, is a woodworker. Steve came down from Connecticut to photograph an article I am writing for Fine, which does all of its own photography.  Other magazines rely heavily on the author’s photography.  Mario does the photography for my writing, and for his. What is involved in a photo shoot?  Basically, the shoot is an opportunity for Fine to not only obtain the artwork for the article, but also to challenge the author to produce what he is writing about under the unforgiving eye of the camera. The shoot is a process.  The author needs to be ready to work with accuracy and speed.  It is a challenge to make everything work, on time and on budget.  Photoshop is not an option when the editor is looking over your shoulder.   This was a fun shoot.  Steve and I were concentrating on a close-up shot, and suddenly we both heard Mario, camera  at the ready, saying “Freeze”.  We had told Steve beforehand that we wanted to photograph the shoot and blog it, but by now it was mid-afternoon and we had been working steadily since about 8:30 am and had forgotten the plan.  It was a full day; we didn’t finish till just before 6 pm, so Mario only got a couple of shots.   So, how do you break in to the process of being a freelance author in the woodworking field.  Usually, you need an idea, and you need to pitch it to the right editor.  But I got a real break.  My first article came out of the blue.  One Fall day I fielded a call to PFW from an Editor in Chief; he was looking for a garden arbor to fill the cover of his forthcoming Spring issue.  I was on it, with Mario’s good eye as the principal designer.  I built the arbor, several times to adjust the proportions, wrote the article, and was off and running.  For subsequent articles, it was the process described above.  When pitching the article idea, some close up photography can be helpful, as well as an abstract or outline of the article.  I have found that tools, techniques, and process articles sell better than project based articles, the experiences of others may well be different. Look for the article, edited by Steve, in FWW in a couple of months. Alan Turner PFW

A Visit to Betsy’s House

I just completed my re-design of the Thomas Jefferson Lap Desk for a PFW Master Class. This is a pretty cool project. The whole thing is about the size of a small laptop computer; practically the same size as the original l8th century desk. (More to follow in future blog entries on the construction of the desk) The original desk was made by Benjamin Randolph, a Philadelphia furnituremaker, as a portable desk that could also be used as a book rest and to store writing supplies. It was made of mahogany. Before building my version, I consulted Lon Schleining’s article, written for FWW in 2001, on his copy of the desk made for the Smithsonian. He did a masterful job dealing with several cross grain issues and problems that plagued the original, which I believe was executed upon a hasty request and an urgent need. At the time it was built, I don’t think either Jefferson or Randolph imagined the desk would survive or that it would ever achieve any historic importance.

The Jefferson desk by the bedroom window at the Betsy Ross House

Lately I’ve been constructing backdrops to better showcase our workshop projects.  I think shooting furniture in a period context makes for a more effective- and beautiful presentation.  Sometimes people’s imaginations need a little nudge and seeing a piece in a realistic setting and not against a monochromatic seamless background makes a stronger case.           Once the Jefferson lap desk was completed, I wanted to get a shot of it for the website. I could have cooked up a period backdrop; a worn table top pushed against a faux paneled wall; illuminated by a flickering candle and accessorized with an assortment of table top antiques. Then I thought of my friends Dave and Carol Spacht. Some of you might remember Dave (of Spacht’s Sawmill) as the subject of a short Taunton video on boutique sawmills. To this day, it’s one of Taunton’s most popular video offerings. Carol, who is in charge of school tours for Dave’s sawmill, works at the Betsy Ross House as a Betsy Ross interpreter. Well, the original desk was made right here in Philadelphia, so what better place to photograph my copy.

The Betsy Ross House on Arch Street in Philadelphia

I contacted Carol to ask about access to the house and she didn’t anticipate any trouble, but had to go through channels first. She got back to me within a couple of days with a green light. Alan and I assured Carol, and the curator, that we wouldn’t be dragging a load of equipment, cables, lights, or screens; just an SLR digital camera on a tripod and the lap desk. We also mentioned that we had some experience handling historic antique objects; to assure her she wasn’t letting “a pair of bulls into her china shop”. The curator, archivist, and staff at the house all possess advanced degrees and/or special training in the conservation of antiques, to include: furniture, paintings, paper, glass, metal, and fabrics. Their cardinal rule is: Don’t disturb anything, if you can help it! Dust, excessive light, traffic, and the careless handling of objects all contribute to the premature demise of these precious artifacts.  Public tours, maintenance and cleaning, and historical research are all carefully conducted in order to manage the inevitable aging of the objects. If something must be moved, it’s always lifted with two hands. Lighted candles or open flames of any kind are prohibited. Even the intrusion of sunlight is controlled and minimized with low voltage lighting, window blinds, and UV filters. All these precautions are taken while providing access to over 250,000 visitors each year. Good thing we traveled light. The small and narrow Betsy Ross house, built in 1740, is 2 stories tall with a basement; it’s only 2 rooms deep, and has a tight winding staircase running the height of the building. Standing, huddled in one of the upstairs bedrooms, we hardly had room to turn around. And when I started maneuvering for a good camera angle, it became more than a little tricky. I wanted to showcase the desk, perched beside Betsy Ross and steeped in early American ambiance. My plan was for the desk to be in the foreground with Betsy seated behind it, in the shadows and slightly obscured. This was a difficult shot because to achieve the desired effect, I needed to establish the proper distance between Betsy and the desk; which didn’t leave much room to maneuver with a camera and tripod. And there were technical factors, such as camera shutter speed, aperture, and ISO to be managed. All the while, small groups of tourists, students, and house staff were filing by, peeking in, asking questions.  Pressed against a chest of drawers while maintaining my precarious balance, I framed the image in the viewfinder, held my breath, and took one shot, and then another, and another .  .  .  .

The open lap desk with Betsy working by the window.

Through all this – and more – Betsy was patient and cooperative; willing to pose any number of ways: holding the flag up, letting it down, draping it across her lap, taking a stitch, holding perfectly still, head up, then down; and all this while keeping in character. After the shoot, our last stop was a visit to Betsy’s workshop, where she held a room of visitors spellbound. We stood quietly in the back of the small shop and watched her at work. Carol Spacht was something. She is the real thing; trained in theater, Carol is also an accomplished writer and a die-hard history buff. This Christmas she received an antique sewing bird and a copy of the latest G. Washington biography as gifts. She even commutes to work in costume.  When addressing visitors, Carol strives to “catch a sense of the period” and works to “open doors of discussion”, often engaging visitors in a dialogue. If you ever catch her interpretation of Betsy Ross, you’ll know it’s not just a job for her.

Carol Spacht, who portrays Betsy Ross, holding the flag.

Just before we left the house, Carol spoke about Betsy’s suggestion (to Washington) to use a 5-pointed star on the flag instead of one with 6 points. Betsy’s reasoning: it was simply easier. As a demonstration, Carol first folded a small paper square several times into a tight triangle; then made a single scissor cut. When she unfolded the piece, there was a perfect 5-pointed star; a very impressive finale. Thank you, Betsy. Mario