Production

One of the toughest things for a small furniture designer/maker to master is production and all it entails; efficiency, pricing...uh, well that about covers it really.  I suppose what it comes down to is figuring out how to make the same piece over and over quickly enough for it to make economic sense (so you don’t have a $3,000 dining chair on your hands), while maintaining quality and-this is very important-some sense of enjoyment in the work.  No one wants to be an automaton making the same cut on the table saw 100 times a day or any such nonsense.

 roughing out a spindle on the table saw

roughing out a spindle on the table saw

 

For me this has always meant employing hand tools wherever I can.  They’re quiet for one thing-I can hear my music-but they also impart a connection to the work that’s hard to replicate with a machine.  Like riding a bicycle versus driving a car.  Then there’s quality; it’s difficult-some would say impossible-to produce work of a level that well tuned hand planes, spokeshaves and scrapers can achieve with an orbital sander.  It’s an altogether different product that I’m not really convinced the average consumer notices, but I’d rather plane and scrape any day than stand around with a noisy sander.  Then there’s the freedom hand tools give their user; one could either set up a bunch of router jigs and shape a chair seat with exacting means, or they could sculpt one with an adze and travisher.

 fine tuning with the smoothing plane

fine tuning with the smoothing plane

 

The key though is to find the balance between the two.  Some guys seem to be capable of making work quickly and efficiently with hand tools alone; I’m not one of them.  Others are content to run machines all day long and take great joy in bringing the production time of a piece down by nano increments-which would drive me crazy, although I’d probably make better money.  But I truly believe-even in the age of the CNC mill and the 3D printer and the Konig coffee maker (well, I guess we’ve had those for a while, but still very impressive) that there is room for the hand made good.  I mean truly hand made; as in taking a piece from the milling equipment and shaping it with one’s own hands before assembly, by hand.  

 

A good designer-maker strikes that balance.  They know just how much of the process to run through on the machines before heading over to the workbench to fine tune-not spend all day removing a bit of wood that could have been done in 5 minutes on the bandsaw.  Instead making use of the bandsaw, then sharpening the spokeshave and taking those final shavings that make the workpiece shimmer.  I think this is very important, this preservation of the human touch in the manufacturing process.  It’s easy to write off such thoughts as over romantic, but someone has to carry the torch-to keep making usable items that people interact with in daily life-by hand.  

I've been thinking a lot about all this lately while making an order of one of my chairs.  The subtleties that can save an hour here or there and the adjustments made in technique that make the process much more enjoyable.  I had 30 spindles to shape for the chairs backs-which would be a bore on the lathe and take for ever with just knives and shaves.  So I settled on a combination of table saw work and hand tools.  I cut the round tenon with a special setup on the table saw, then turned the square spindle into an octagon by setting the blade at 45 degrees and taking all the corners off.  All this didn't take much more than an hour.  Then I carried the sticks over to the bench and went about finessing them into their final shape with the planes and shaves.  It's all a lot of fun, much more than it sounds anyway.

 

I'll post updates on the chairs in the coming days.

 cutting the taper with drawknife and spokeshave

cutting the taper with drawknife and spokeshave

 the finished spindle

the finished spindle

JB Blunk | artist, craftsman, Californian

'I began making wood sculpture in 1962. I knew how to use a chainsaw and it was one of those things – one day you just start.'

 JB Blunk, sculptor

JB Blunk, sculptor

For woodworkers in California, the generally accepted official state hero is Sam Maloof.  Though Sam was an undeniably talented maker and designer, his forms were extravagant, some might even say a little over the top.  There was, however, at the same time a man who lived on a small plot of land in a nature preserve near Inverness, California that was making wooden furniture that was elegant yet almost primitive in form, though in a way that could only be described as supremely natural, as if it had simply grown there in the northern redwood forest.  

 entrance to Blunks Inverness home

entrance to Blunks Inverness home

The man was JB Blunk and he'd initially studied ceramics at UCLA, graduating in 1949.  His mentor, Laura Anderson, had a strong Japanese influence which made a deep impression on Blunk.  Almost immediately after graduating he was drafted into the Army and sent to Korea.  After two years of service he managed to get himself discharged and, already in the general vicinity, decided to go to Japan.  While there, he visited a mingei (folk craft) shop, and was rewarded with a chance encounter with the prominent sculptor Isamu Noguchi.  Hearing of his common interests, Noguchi introduced JB to the famed potter Rosanjin Kitaoji, who took him on as an apprentice for several months.  He stayed on eighteen months after his apprenticeship working for another ceramist before returning to the US.  After a few years working as a potter, Blunk acquired his small plot near Inverness in Northern California and began building the home that would eventually come to be regarded as a masterpiece and is now preserved and run by his daughter as a cultural destination with an artist in residence program.

Woodworking, like other crafts, came naturally to Blunk.  He arrived up north, and simply started building his home-largely from salvaged material -and working in the area as a carpenter.  At one point, he took a job building a roof for the surrealist painter Onslow Ford, which would prove to be a turning point in his career.  Wanting to make a gift for Ford after the job, he settled on making a chair.  Having thus only worked in wood on a large scale, he now saw the appeal of making small, sculptural pieces, and was soon earning a living designing and making furniture for local clients.

JB Blunk's legacy is alive and well through his daughter, his hand made home, and the work he left behind.  He's a beacon of light for designer-woodworkers, especially those, like him, who are intoxicated by the mountains, trees, and emerald sea of California.

 doorway, front entrance; the influence from his time in Japan is evident

doorway, front entrance; the influence from his time in Japan is evident

 house as sculpture, interior view

house as sculpture, interior view

 Blunk's whitewashed workshop

Blunk's whitewashed workshop