French Polishing with Matt Rubendall

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Matt Rubendall has been crafting fine hand-made classical guitars in his Red Hook workshop since 1998. As a form, the classical or nylon-string guitar is deeply steeped in tradition. Many makers spend their whole careers emulating long-dead masters of the craft without changing the form one jot. Matt is not one of those makers. While he draws inspiration from those great makers of years gone by, he also looks critically at the process of making. His years of experience have led him to make a number of innovations in his instruments, but they are all guided by the same principal: practicality. This month, Matt showed us his take on that most traditional of fine finishes: the French Polish.

For those who may not know, French Polish is at its heart a hand-rubbed shellac finish. The shellac is applied by using a cotton pad (called a fad, tampon, or muneca, depending on where you live) and is rubbed on in very thin coats building up to a glossy finish that is almost without equal for its clarity and depth. After hundreds of years and vast technological advantages, the French Polish is still one of the most desirable finishes available for fine furniture and musical instruments.

For the hardcore traditionalist, French Polishing may involve a long sequence of steps which starts by filling the pores of the wood with pumice. Rubendall takes a slightly different approach though. “When you think about who was doing this type of finishing years ago, they didn’t have time to worry over every step. They had to get it done and move on to the next piece.” The pumice, he says, does a fine job; but it takes a long time. So he’s found a commercial pore filler that makes the job easier. “It’s not the stuff you’ll find at Home Depot, I have to special order it, but it’s a similar idea and it works great.”

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For shellac, he uses ultra blonde, dewaxed shellac that he mixes himself.  The shellac comes in flake form and is dissolved in alcohol. Matt’s solvent of choice is an obscure Polish liquor that is 96% pure grain alcohol. “You can drink it, but I wouldn’t recommend it,” he says. He warns against using the denatured alcohol you might find in your local hardware store as it contains all sorts of additives that can be bad for your health. To this basic mixture he will sometimes add small amounts of other ingredients such as sandarac, lavender, or myrrh. These serve to change the elasticity or toughness of the final finish.

To lubricate the pad and keep it from sticking while he applies the finish, he uses extra virgin olive oil. The rest, he says, is elbow grease. “Keep the pad moving. You can watch the alcohol flashing off  as you move. That’s how you know how fast or slow to go or how much pressure to apply. It’s really a feel thing.”

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Matt will do four or five one-hour sessions on a given guitar, then let it sit for a couple of weeks. Once he’s sure the finish has hardened sufficiently, he’ll go back and do what’s called ‘spiriting off’ which just uses a small bit of alcohol to redissolve the outermost layers of shellac and make it really shine. Then he might give it a light touch on the buffing wheel and that’s basically it. “The finish is so thin and evenly worked that, unlike lacquer or other finishes, there’s not a lot of wet-sanding and buffing that needs to be done.”

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Matt was kind enough to bring one of his guitars to show us the final result and it was simply beautiful. As woodworkers, there is often a tendency for us to blindly revere “the old ways” and slavishly dedicate our efforts to reproducing them. Listening to Matt’s demo though was a heartening reminder that if you peer behind all the mystique and romance of time-honored tradition, you’ll find that the people who do these things for a living don’t want to make things more complicated than they need to be. They find what works and keep it simple, and that’s what we should all strive for.

 

For more about Matt Rubendall’s guitars: http://www.mattrubendall.com

 

Musicwood Title Card

Coming to a theater near you: Musicwood

Starting tomorrow, a new documentary starts a week of screenings (11/1–11/7) in NYC that I highly recommend you go see.

Musicwood is a film about a collaborative effort between Greenpeace and three of the country’s largest guitar companies (Martin, Gibson, and Taylor Guitars). Together, they travel up to the Tongass National Forest to talk to the Native American-run corporation that manages the forest. The Tongass is home to the vast majority of Sitka Spruce trees in the world and they are rapidly disappearing, being harvested to supply the global lumber trade. Sitka Spruce is also one of the most desirable and widely used woods for making guitar tops. Together, these guitar makers and Greenpeace try to persuade the corporation to refrain from clear-cutting vast sections of the forest and adopt more sustainable practices so that they can continue to use these wonderful tress for years to come.

As an added bonus, on Monday, November 4th, I will be joining a panel discussion following the film to talk more about the issues.

For Tickets: click here

Fornari bowls

Jim Fornari turns wood into bowls

Jim Fornari has over thirty years experience turning wood. He was kind enough to stop by the Guild this week and show us a trick or two that he’s picked up over the years. As you can see in the picture above, Jim’s pretty much done it all.

The tall vase was beautiful as well as technically impressive but in terms of sheer daring, I would have to give the prize to those oblong bowls that he carved out of branches. As a relatively inexperienced turner myself, the thought of taking a sharp object and sticking it into piece of wood that’s spinning like a propeller at a couple hundred RPM is still a little unnerving.

One aspect of turning that I had not considered until Jim pointed it out was the effect of grain orientation on the aging of a piece. Naturally, as you carve out the bowl shape from a block of wood, the moisture trapped inside will be released and the piece will shift. However, you can control (to a degree) how that shifting occurs according to how you align the grain when you put it on the lathe. For instance, the small-mouthed bowl above was originally spherical when it was carved twenty years ago. As it has aged, it has become slightly compressed and more ‘squat’ looking. A different arrangement of the grain would have likely yielded a different shape.

Of course, it’s better to show than to tell so after a brief intro to some of the principles of turning, Jim took us over to the lathe to watch him make some shavings. He started off with a block of Myrtle and began by shaping the outside, fairing up the curves little by little. With each pass, he would alter the angle of his approach with the gouge slightly, angling it upward a bit at a time. This allowed him to get more of a shearing action as he cut, yielding a finish that felt as if it had been sanded above 320.

As we all stood watching, it was impossible not to notice the array of tools Jim had accrued over the years. Some he had purchased but most he had made. You can probably guess which is which in the photos; but don’t be fooled. Though the rough handles might look slightly slap-dash, Jim walked us through some of his tools for carving out pieces like that tall vase on the table and they are nothing shy of laser-precise. Literally, he has a homemade laser-guided jig to tell him the thickness of the walls when he is carving into places he cannot see!

In just under an hour, Jim had turned that solid block of Myrtle into quite a handsome bowl. If it were for real, he said, he would probably take the time to fair out the sides more and thin the whole thing down a bit but his progress in such a short time was remarkable nonetheless. And he probably would have gotten much further if he hadn’t had a group of people stopping him every thirty seconds to ask him a question.

So thanks, Jim, for your time, your skill, and of course your patience! I’m gonna go make something round…

On The Factory Floor

Factory Floor poster

For the past few years, the mere mention of “Brooklyn” has cultivated a certain cache of local artisanality and an air of craftsmanship it has not known in close to a century. We like our beer micobrewed, our coffees poured over, our pickles … well, pickled, but in a really special way. Our furniture is no exception.

There are so many woodworkers around Brooklyn these days it’s truly inspiring; and the field is as varied as it is populous. Nowhere is this more evident than at the makers’ market known as the Factory Floor in Sunset Park, which runs for one more weekend. We stopped by last week to peruse the wares, make some new friends, and as luck would have it, check in with some old ones.

One of the exhibitors is none other than, Ethan Abramson, who was there for some of the earliest NYCWG meetings, when we were just hashing out the idea for the group. Since then, he’s heeded the siren call across the sound to Port Chester, NY where he now has his own furniture workshop where he handcrafts his own designs. He told me about a finish he’s now using that is perhaps the most enviro-friendly thing I’ve heard of. If you are at the show, be sure to stop by and say hi.

Overall, the range of styles and aesthetics of the exhibitors offers something for everyone. Some designs are sleek and modern, some are minimal with live edges, others still are deliberately left rough-edged as a testament to their previous life as pillars of bygone industry. The best part about the whole show by far is getting to meet the makers and talk to them about what they do. One thing is for sure though, once you get to see and hear how much goes into creating something that is not merely functional but artistic and unique, it’s tough to go back to Ikea.

 

glen guarino carving mirror

Mirror, Mirror, on the wall:
Glen Guarino talks design and process

Most of us devote considerable time and energy making sure our work is square and level. We like our work to execute perfect geometric turns as evidence of mastery. We impose rigid order on a material that begs to twist and warp. Thankfully, there are those out there who see things a little differently. Glen Guarino is one such person.

Though he is certainly more than capable of creating traditional pieces — thirty-two years of teaching woodworking will do that for you —  Glen’s designs seem to eschew the right angle in favor of organic curves, where each contour flows seamlessly into the next. This month, we were lucky to have Glen stop by to walk us through the process of creating some of his beautiful custom mirrors, from rough sketches to finishing.

Despite the freeform appearance of his work, Glen’s approach to the design of his work is meticulous. He begins with small scale freehand sketches, sometimes eight or nine for a given piece. From those, he will select two or three favorites and present them to the client. He then scales those sketches up to full-scale drawings from which he will layout his templates and that’s when the work really gets going.

The key to constructing one of Glen’s pieces is a method called “stacking”. Rather than starting with a large block of wood and carving it to shape, Glen breaks down each curve into sections, joining pieces at an angle such that it maximizes the long grain of the wood along that curve. These pieces reinforce each other, adding strength and stability to the entire work. Stacking allows Glen to utilize smaller individual pieces and create any shape he desires without having to worry about a section of short-grain threatening to, as he says “snap, snap, snap.”

Since each curve involves multiple pieces, Glen will often make templates for each layer and carve the pieces individually before assembling. That can mean three or four templates per corner. He points out that keeping track of left and right becomes very important at this stage. Once the templates are all laid out and happy, Glen moves on to the carving. Lots of carving. He sometimes uses a power grinder or rough carves on the bandsaw, but the bulk of the work is done by hand with various spokeshaves.

One amazing aspect of Glen’s process was his constant willingness to reevaluate his work as he goes along. He showed us one mirror where, just before he was set to begin the finishing (an ebonizing process which involved soaking steel wool in vinegar for up to ten days), he thought one area looked too bulky. So he did what any of us would do: he took this piece he had spent weeks creating and put a two-inch spade bit right through the corner! Of course, to look at it, you would think this was part of the plan all along. We should all hope to be able to keep such a keen critical eye on our own work from start to finish.

Glen’s talk was both inspiring and educational. He is clearly a natural teacher; but even he picked up a new trick from one of our members, Michael Stone (pro-tip: sprinkle some salt into your yellow glue to prevent movement during clamping!). In addition to talking about  “the work,” he and his wife, Marie (who manages much of the business side of things), spoke candidly about the challenges of putting a price on your work and leveraging digital media to increase your visibility. There really was something for everyone at this meeting.

We thank Glen and Marie for being so generous with their time and look forward to seeing you all next month! Stay tuned for more info!

For more of Glen’s work, please visit: www.guarinofurnituredesigns.com