Sunday, November 1, 2015

Paul Spencer, traditional violin maker

Many Salt Lake City residents probably take this for granted, and even more might not even realize it exists, but our downtown is home to a world class violin making school.  As there are only three such schools in the country, this is definitely a big deal.  Established in 1972, the Violin Making School of America attracts students from around the globe.  The program takes 3-5 years to complete, and focuses on traditional techniques with an almost complete emphasis on hand tool use: no sandpaper allowed!  I've been lucky to know a number of students during my dozen years in Salt Lake, and I'd like to introduce Paul Spencer, a recent graduate, who is doing amazing work and has a serious dedication to his craft.

Paul grew up "back East", as the expression goes, and he and I actually attended the same school (Vassar College), albeit at different times.  After graduation, he found himself working in an office in New York City specializing in Italian translation.  He eventually found himself ready for a change, and he thought back to a rather seminal experience he'd had years ago.  A violin player himself, he had visited a shop to pick up a violin, and the visit made a huge impression.  He remembered seeing people doing precise work and a quiet, unhurried pace, and making beautiful things.  Having built a violin from a kit back in high school, he was able to imagine such a future for himself.  The rest, as they say, was history.  He moved to Utah, spent four years at the VMSA, and began his official journey as a luthier.  During this time, he also began working for John Moroz, a violin maker of some renown and himself a former student at the VMSA.  Paul credits John for teaching him everything he knows about the repair and setup of instruments to enable them to perform at their best.

Paul's ultimate goal is to be an independent maker who sells directly to musicians or through shops that specialize in fine instruments.  He humbly notes that it is a lofty goal, because the standards are very high, but he is definitely making great progress: the instrument shown in these photos has recently been on "on trial" with a local violinist, and it appears to be her favorite of a number that she has tried.  My fingers are crossed that she chooses it, because it would be a great milestone for Paul. Speaking for myself, I've played it, and I'm blown away with it.

Paul's next career move may include spending a few years in a large, high end shop, probably in a major city, where he'll gain some experience with extremely rare and valuable instruments and continue to hone his skills.  While I am impressed by how skilled he already is, he is pretty modest and pointed out that it takes a long time to fully develop one's skills.  To make the leap to working on his own and being taken seriously, he figures he'll need one more stage of apprenticeship, so to speak.  He says that it isn't uncommon for people to spend 4-7 years in such a role.  I'll be curious to see what his future holds;  I'm sure he'll ultimately enjoy a great deal of success on account of his dedication to crafting such beautiful instruments.

Here's a small gallery of additional photos: 

Despite its "antiqued" appearance, this is a new instrument.
This type of finish is quite popular among modern makers.

The body of the violin consists of thin wooden strips that 
are built around a "mold" (the perforated piece of wood in
the center).  Once the body (aka "rib structure" is complete, 
the mold is removed.

Reflecting, I would hope, on a job well done.
The tools of the trade...
Traditional makers use pretty much exclusively hand tools. Dang!
Hi Peachy!  Every shop needs a mascot, right?

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Etsical- Ethical Etsy

Have you heard about Etsical?  They're a great voice in showcasing fine.handmade goods

In their own words: 

"Etsical is a curated blog of the most ethical products on  Etsy. 
Shops are selected based on the quality of the products, and my personal taste. Only shops that offer ethical products will be selected. This may include products that are cruelty-free, fair trade, recycled or upcycled, eco-friendly, or somehow good for the planet, or the living things on it."

 I was also recently selected for inclusion as a featured maker.  Thanks, Etsical! 

 I highly recommend that you check out  

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Shop updates- the new building is finally (almost) done

Last Spring, I began building a shop at the back edge of our property.  Such a scenario has always struck me as ideal, and it finally dawned on me (ok, it was my wife's idea.  What's new?) that it might be a viable option.  It is my smallest shop ever, about the size of a two car garage, but it is plenty big. And since my pack rat tendencies seem to have naturally receded with age, I only keep on hand stuff that I have a more or less immediate use for.  I love the feeling of getting more done with less, too.

A few exterior finishing touches remain, and I'll get to them (I promise!) but having just finished the interior drywall and gotten a couple of coats of paint up, it feels finished enough to post about.

Every shop needs a banjo, right?  Mine does. And a painting of a John Deere 2010, which I spent many many hours on as a youngster cruising around the farm?  Why not.

Ok, I'm not entirely spartan in my outlook: I've been hoarding these 24" wide cottonwood slabs, pausing every now and then to stroke them and say, "my precious" in the creepiest tone possible. They're the last that remain from a log I had sawn up about 4 years ago.  The two on the right will be used soon for a dining table top, and the one of the left will be paired with a reclaimed barn wood base to create a hall table.  You can just glimpse the edge of a bathroom vanity shaping up in the bottom right of the picture.

I've been eyeballing one of the cottonwood slabs (this chunk will be a "scrap" actually, and thus fair game for other things) because I can't help but imagine a fiddle back right there.   It is long enough and wide enough for a one-piece back, which made me immediately wonder if I had enough for two.  Sadly, though, the plank only measures about 1 3/8", so not even the most judicious resawing could provide me with two plates that are thick enough.  Oh well, it'll still be a beaut!

But before that fiddle gets much attention, this below is next up. I figure it'll be a nice winter project.  My friend Chris Jacoby called this grain "fierce" and I couldn't agree more.  I am super psyched to get moving on it, although its hardly first on the list of things to do.

The source of this wood is super special: when I lived in Ithaca, New York, almost 20 years back, I bought lots and lots of wood from tiny local sawmill operations.  I usually paid around $1 per foot, which is a screaming deal).  Anyway, most of the lumber was sold "rough", which is to say unplaned and often in quite gnarly condition.  I remember the day I bought this board: I got a pickup truck full of maple, some of it pretty twisty and janky, and most of it covered in dried mud, but I only paid about 75 cents per foot, so it still represented a pretty good haul.  Shortly thereafter, my wife and I built a lovely walnut bedframe for ourselves, and we needed a bunch of slats to span between the sides to hold the mattress up.  So I grabbed the cheapest, most expendable stuff I had kicking around, and cut a bunch of boards to the proper width.  After sleeping on that bed for 15 years or so, we decided to get a larger bed.  Well, it was actually her idea, and I railed against it for years, but she turned out to have been right.  (Side note: It has taken me a long time, but I have now embraced the fact, cliched as it may sound, that my wife is pretty much always right).  Anyway, when I finally took a closer look at those slats that I had been sleeping on for the better part of two decades, I saw there was gold in them thar hills.  Or, in this case, flame in this here maple.  Great story, right?

Back to my minimalist tendencies... This is most of my tools, right here!  Not pictured is my 10" Jet tablesaw, but honestly, I barely use it anymore now that I've discovered the joys of track saws.  I even sold my Powermatic jointer, which is heresy to most woodworkers, but that's how much I like the tracksaw.

Oh, and that reclaimed barnwood table base?  Yup, here it is.  And the hand plane I'm using has a great story too: I found it inside my buddy Paul's wall while we were opening it up to install some cabinets.  It is just an old hardware store block plane from the 50's, but boy does it have some hustle to it.  It is my go-to for everyday use.

Ye olde no-name block plane.  So modest, but so sweet.

Here's that hall table shaping up.  Still very much a work in progress.  I'll be inlaying a few wooden "butterfly" keys on the top in a couple of key locations.

Butterfly keys are a classic way of working with cracks in large wood slabs.  They serve as a way of stabilizing the crack and preventing it from opening up further.  They're also a lovely way of embracing the imperfections in the world.  It corresponds nicely to a Japanese worldview called wabi-sabi, which seeks to accept or transcend the impermanent and imperfect and find beauty in things as they are.  Can't argue with that.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Blogging days are here again AND a backyard chickens update

Ever start a blog?  Get real excited and post a bunch of thoughtful, interesting stuff?  Maybe you too have made lists for future posts, and found yourself scribbling down notes about common threads that link them all together and create Profound and Valuable Insights?  I hope so, because those are some good times, for sure.  If you’re like me, however, you’ve also hit patches where you look up and suddenly realize that its been weeks or months since the last time you posted anything, even though you can't actually come up with much of a reason for the lapse.  Having been through it a few times in the three or four years that I’ve had a blog, I’ve come to view it as a cycle, with peaks and valleys and seasons and all those other great metaphors from nature, rather than a narrative that just cruises forward in the kind of straight, unbroken line that I might've originally imagined.  The good news is that, this time around, I’m happy to say that I’ve finally stopped beating myself up about it; I’ve stopped feeling guilty, stopped identifying as a slacker, stopped being sure that I’ve failed at what has to be the lowest stakes game out there.  In other words, I’ve just gone ahead and embraced the fact that its completely fine for a blog to have a life of their own.  The tide comes in and the tide goes out.  This time around, no worries; I readily admit that I’ve just been farting around with lots of other things in the non-digital sphere instead of pontificating in front of a partly real and largely imagined audience, and I’m cool with it, and now, as of August 24, 2015, I’m ready to squeeze the bellows and fire things up again.  I’ve always had Things to Say; I’m simply recommitting to getting back in the harness and doing it again.  Until my next lapse, at least. 

photo credit: Austen Diamond
A while back I added a teaser post about the upcoming relaunch of our adventures in chicken-keeping, and I promised to add details for the fun of it.  So I’ll do that now, and I also want to add a plug for my good buddy Austen Diamond, as he was kind enough to interview me during the summer and do a nice profile on Chris Gleason, coop builder in the October issue of Salt Lake Magazine.  It isn’t the largest hat that I wear, if you’ll forgive a lousy allusion, but it is definitely in the mix, and I take a lot of pride in trying to build coops with 100% reclaimed materials and helping to keep things local.  I also like to come up with unique, creative designs, and after more than 30 coops, I’ve never built the same one twice. 

Our new flock is a small one- just 4 birds (in the past we’ve had up to 25, which is admittedly way too many).  We've got 4 different breeds, including a bantam silkie.  Silkies have smooth, fur-like feathers and they're the only kind of chicken that my wife Michele has ever really warmed up to.  Unfortunately, the last one turned out to be a rooster, in spite of being named Veronica, and his tenure was thus short-lived. We've got our fingers crossed for the new recruit (Petunia), and so far it hasn't displayed any overt male behavior (aka bossiness, strutting about, or crowing) so I have to say that I like our odds.

They get so shy when you try to photograph them

Petunia is the smaller bird on the left

This is the "sidecar" where we'll
collect eggs starting in about a month

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Wood Pallet Projects: A Live Demonstration at Weller Book Works Saturday May 2nd at 2pm

Writing has been a huge passion of mine for many years. One of my most popular books has been Wood Pallet Projects.  I'm proud that it provides a lot of information on how to transform old shipping pallets into a whole range of different items that you'd actually want to own.  It details a number of fun projects that span a range of ability levels, and I'm pleased to be doing a book Signing and live public demonstration on Saturday May 2nd at 2pm. I think I'll tackle a retro-looking, mid-century modern birdhouse.  Heck, Mother's Day is just around the corner, and what Mom wouldn't want a birdhouse?  It also just so happens that the book shows a complete plan for a birdhouse.

May 2nd is national Independent Bookstore Day, and I'll be doing the event in conjunction with Weller Book Works in downtown Salt Lake City.  They've got a full day of events planned, starting at 11am and running through 9pm.  

There'll be free bagels from The Bagel Project and free coffee from Coffee Connection as long as it lasts.  Whoo hoo!

For more information, here's their site:

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

From Outdated to Timeless: a Mantle Renovation with Barnwood & Painted Brick

I've recently been working with some new clients, and they've just purchased a great 1980's home.  The only trouble is that some of it is, well, still stuck in the 80's.  So I'm helping them to design some key features that are currently clashing with their own style, and here's one of them.  The before pic pretty much says it all.


The rest of this post will illustrate how I did it, beginning with a scale drawing.  At first we considered just using the brick on the lower half, but quickly decided to take it all the way up and around.