Burl and I

Another chapter in the story of Burl and I.

Before I tell this story any further, I suppose I should first reveal the history of this long-standing relationship I’ve had with Burl.

For twenty years, give or take, Burl has been around in my life as a loyal friend, as loyal as an inanimate object can be. To begin, a friend felled a diseased elm (Dutch Elm) and, while dividing into manageable sections, he separated off a rather sizeable burl on one section of trunk. And, as I was the only person he could think of who might revel in a 250 lb. lump of elm, he loaded and delivered it to the threshold of the shop on First St. N., just around the way from the current location.

And there it rested, in a storage area, away from any notice or proper respect. I guess I was waiting for the requisite amount of energy and inspiration to make something of it. My inanimate friend deserved better (probably a lot of my animate friends would attest to that).

Louis von Koelnau (Red), a sculptor in the neighborhood, was in one day. I introduced him to Burl. Where I had faltered, Red could see potential in having Burl around in his studio. I loosed my hold and waved goodbye to my friend as it was wheeled around the corner to a better life.

As fate would have it, ten years later I was reunited with Burl. Red had retired and his studio emptied. A cabinetmaker friend in the building dangled the idea of another Lamprey Pass move. I’d already moved the shop 6 times in 25 years, so I’d gotten pretty adept at it. Plus the cards sent out announcing yet another move were becoming collectable. So the mountain of materials and machinery made the move. The thing that made it fateful was that the only object remaining there to welcome was my old friend Burl, looking ageless, purposeless, and alone. I could sense disappointment.

Perhaps knowing this history, you might understand the importance of finally including Burl in some purposeful reason. So last month, Burl and I went off in the F-150 to Somerset, Wisconsin to meet friend Russ Rastetter at TW Lumber, and his idling milling machine. Here’s a shot of Russ getting acquainted. I stood idly by as the milling commenced.

And more photos of Burl riding the milling machine. Thanks to Russ for his skillful, patient handling of this process.

I could feel regret at this rather brutal dicing, if this were the last chapter. There’s solace in seeing these startlingly beautiful surfaces, and in knowing they will be made into something finally, something fitting and worthy after all. More chapters with photos to follow.

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Burl and I
Work Journal

What’s in a Name?

A Strongback and Hunching Over Benches

Work Journal

Sometimes there’s a thin veneer between success and failure.

What follows is an account of a project that we had hands on in April of 2008. I should forewarn you that for the uninitiated, some of the particulars of this project could elicit some squeamishness. When failure is close at hand, even those hardened with experience and having the steadiest of hands will succumb to the unexpected.

Fortunately, we weren’t visited by failure this time.

I was invited to give my assessment of damage to a very exquisite Irish-made cabinet from the 1700s. The back-story is that the cabinet had been purchased in the UK, crated and shipped to the purchaser in Minnesota. The cabinet, after examination on arrival revealed nothing out of order, remained crated in a small, overheated office for several months. Maybe you’re forming a picture of what the damage might be.

These photographs illustrate the consequence of transporting a crated cabinet acclimated to a region of the world relatively close to sea level, the air filled with moisture, to an environment almost devoid of moisture for an extended period. When the crate was finally reopened and the cabinet moved to its executive office destination, there was obviously a problem. The panels in the lower doors had forcefully warped themselves partly out of the frames. And these weren’t just any panels. The faces of each panel were covered with very intricate, irreplaceable veneer inlay or marquetry.

What’s an artisan to do? I had a solution. I had to convince the owner who was prepared to send the cabinet back to the seller (Harrods) and their restoration staff to make it right. I made a proposal, a counterproposal to that from the UK group, and the owner consented.

And the repair commenced. The doors were removed from the cabinet and taken to the shop, under the hot lights and closer scrutiny. The curled panels were gingerly separated from the sections of the frames that still held them. The panels were then clamped between strongbacks, as the photo shows, to prevent further curling and distress. This bought me time to tool up and to embolden myself for what was ahead. After all, if this method failed, I’d have to certainly disappear, with a new identity and in a new unrelated profession, like selling tires in Sri Lanka.

Brace yourselves, as the next series of photographs are graphic illustrations of a project on the threshold of failure. I’d proposed that in order to relieve the tension in each panel, I’d have to make kerf cuts into the panel’s mahogany backside, plunging down, at quarter inch intervals, to within a whisper of the pristine veneer surface. And then replace each resulting void with a shim the length of the panel, very slightly wedge shaped to counteract the panel’s warped memory. Well, it sounded good and entirely possible. Better I thought than routing away the mahogany backing entirely from its veneer face and then regluing the face to mahogany of similar vintage, as the UK group had proposed.

And so I began. I purchased a small-scale plunge router (Trend T4 1.1 HP variable speed) to be my ally. I then fabricated a jig to contain and guide the router. I summoned a calm from somewhere and began routing each groove, starting at one end, the panel clamped to a rigid sleeper beneath. But only for a short length as the warp in the panel wouldn’t allow obviously for straightening the entire width. In this way, I worked my way across the panel, checking constantly the depth of the cuts, that the bit hadn’t slipped in the collet, and that the jig was securely clamped. After all the grooves were routed, the wedged strips, hide glue applied, were inserted in place across the panel. In all of this, failure was not an option. In this, there was only success. These photos will back me up.

The final steps then were to sand the back of each newly flattened panel, and to veneer over the back with mahogany to hide my method. Then to stain and finish properly with the help of finish guru and friend, Jim Goulding, from the Restoration Workshop. The panels were returned to repaired frames and remounted into the cabinet. In the end, we were all quite relieved that the result was as intended. As of this writing, the cabinet hasn’t misbehaved, the doors are now apparently resigned to their new surroundings across the pond. And the owner I think is still baffled how the problem was solved so well. Unless he reads this, the secret is ours. Now that I’m apart from the experience, I could say enjoyed it, but not enough that I look forward to the chance to fail so readily again.

What’s in a Name?

First, a bit of biology and foreboding.

Lamprey eels are a varied group of jawless fish, which very much resemble a conventional eel in that they have no scales and can vary in length from 5 to 40 inches. Some of a lamprey’s more attractive features include toothed, sucking mouths, large eyes, a single nostril on top of the head with a battery of gill pores on either side. Some are parasitic and attach themselves to other fish, and as parasites do, they feed on the blood and fluid of their victims. The lamprey eel’s invasive and threatening presence in the Great Lakes, specifically Lake Superior, has been a fairly recent phenomenon. Because of the lamprey’s growing population, there’s real concern for the health and number of other indigenous species.

Who wouldn’t want to name a business in Minnesota after this creature?

Truth be told, the lamprey in Lamprey Pass Workshop has no relation to the lamprey eel. The real basis of the name is a lot less slithery and insidious. So please read on if you’re curious. 

North of Minneapolis, about thirty miles, lies a wondrous tract of land now in the hands of the DNR. Approximately 1300 acres surrounding Mud and Howard Lake, in both Washington and Anoka County, this land remains a natural, undeveloped area. In the late 1800’s, a St. Paul attorney, Uri Lamprey, who was also a conservationist and hunter, purchased this property to establish a private hunting retreat. Since named the father of the Minnesota game conservation movement, Mr. Lamprey there began his quest to establish guidelines to both conserve and hunt responsibly. So, the Lamprey Hunt Club became a haven for retreating and hunting. The terrain included a section of open land between the lakes, a pass, where natural blinds would conceal club members awaiting the plentiful game bird population to fly from one lake to the other. Lamprey Hunt Club, later just Lamprey Pass, carried on in the guiding shadow of it’s founder, until the decline of bird populations and urban encroachment contributed to its end as a hunting club around 1970.

During one hunting season in the early 60’s, I traveled up to Lamprey Pass with my father, whose father and grandfather were among the past and then present membership, arriving predawn to barking dogs and an awakening clubhouse. The smell of the place is still a palpable boyhood memory. I can almost conjure it. Burning fireplace logs and bacon, then leather oil, gun cleaner, wet dog, tobacco, whiskey, and more subtly, the musty mix of fallen leaves and day dead game.

Years later, in 1975, after college, and finding my way, I was asked to watch over Lamprey Pass by the owners until a decision about the land and its future was made. While there, my decision to stay in the life as an artist and artisan was made. I was joined with this place and the family connective tissue. And so it seemed right to name a business after Uri Lamprey, after Lamprey Pass. And so, in 1978, after moving back to Minneapolis, the Lamprey Pass Workshop came to life. I still walk there once a year, usually in autumn, usually alone. But there’s always much to walk with. 

The land, acquired by the state in 1981, in cooperation with the Nature Conservancy, continues on under the designation the Lamprey Pass Wildlife Management Area. Although its expectation as a thriving sanctuary for heron, egret, and cormorant populations has waned, it remains a preserved, natural area, and a work in progress partnered with the DNR. The state invites hunting and fishing within the area during the season, following the state guidelines for entry and all requirements of licensing. Consult the Lamprey Pass Wildlife Management Area website for further information. 

The best part is that anyone can go in regardless of the season, if not to hunt or fish, to explore and be taken in by the beauty and diversity of Lamprey Pass. Simply pull off 35W going North at 97, cross the overpass, take a right turn off 97 and go again North on gravel alongside the West side of the highway to the end and a small parking area. There, enter on foot, skis or snowshoes. Bring binoculars, a notebook, and an appreciation of this wildness. 

Also there’s a really comprehensive chronicle of Uri Lamprey, and Lamprey Pass, with accounts of native history on the land and the steps to state acquisition, written by Marie Jones, for the Minnesota DNR, entitled “Uri Lamprey: Father of the Minnesota Game Conservation Movement”. Maybe there are copies around although I think currently out of print. I have a few. I could duplicate for anyone who wants to press on further. 

Probably more than you bargained for. But that’s what in a name.

A Strongback and Hunching Over Benches

In construction, a strongback is a beam or some other form of girder used to add support to an otherwise weak expanse. In furniture or cabinetmaking, it’s still true. A strongback is a stout and true material placed to strengthen or add rigidity. Without it, material of a certain thickness or length would surely deflect or sag.

This is leading me to say that this work or any other requiring constant movement as in lifting, bending, twisting, crawling, sometimes contorting, will also require a strong back. A healthy back is as fundamental in my world as a tape measure and pencil. Without it, most tasks would grind to a halt. A finger or two down, yes. A less than limber back, no. Over the forty years as a furniture and cabinetmaker, my back has forgiven me for the most part. I haven’t regularly practiced any downward or upward facing stretches. I guess I’ve been spared the inevitable.

However, constant bench work has given me a certain back curve. My assuring wife says my posture is typical for my age and work. Maybe she’s been doing a quiet study on the range of back curves in men, which I’m thinking could be anywhere from Colin Firth to Quasimoto. I’m slightly hunched I’ll concede. I’ll take it.

Fifteen years ago, I’d written these words. I’ll risk repeating them here.

The figure of the artisan
alone, standing before his bench.
His back arched
to draw him closer to his purpose.
That telltale curve
says nothing
but a life of intimacy with work.
He stands more upright
only in his mind
knowing he’s been truthful.