Category Archives: guest speaker

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

 

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…

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

Candice Groenke, fine furniture, clock, handmade

Two Local Artisans: Stefan Rurak & Candice Groenke

Last night, we were thrilled to have two very talented woodworkers, Stefan Rurak and Candice Groenke, share with us some examples of their work and discuss their inspiration, their techniques, and what it’s like to be a skilled craftsperson working in New York. Though their paths to their professions couldn’t be more different – Candice worked as a carpenter for years before attending the College of the Redwoods for Fine Furniture, while Stefan trained as a studio artist before a sudden conversion to woodworking led him to apprentice with Brooklyn-based craftsman, Palo Samko – both speakers highlighted some important challenges we all face as woodworkers and how they manage them in their own work.

Candice showed us two of her pieces: a gorgeous wall clock she made as a thank you gift and a commissioned keepsake complete with a hand-carved top and a pressure fit tray that floats gracefully into place. She explained how she chose woods based on their particular properties whether visual, tactile, or if they “make you want to sink your teeth into them.” Over the course of a couple of months, she meticulously tested adhesives, experimented with clamping methods for unusual elements, and even made four different doors for the clock before she had the perfect one.

Stefan gave us a virtual tour of some of his seasonal collections, which tend to be thematically- rather than categorically-related. These included ultra-modern chairs inspired by the works of Nietzsche, a knockdown table that incorporates tusk tenons (a nod to Norse boat-building techniques), and a decorative chest made from a reclaimed oak beam with cylindrical drawers, which he drilled out using a vintage hand drill gifted to him by his father, just to name a few.

Listening to these two speakers one after the other, it’s hard not to draw comparisons. Both are clearly talented, highly-skilled artisans who are totally absorbed by the process of creation. Perhaps the difference lies more in what their work represents, rather than the work itself. In Candice’s work, one finds the pursuit of perfection, each element carefully considered and beautifully executed. Stefan’s work on the other hand is more like an evolution. Each piece is an experiment, building off of the previous incarnation toward something new. Together, these two exemplify the delicate balancing act all woodworkers must learn to manage between the desire for perfection in every piece and the necessity of completion in order to move on and continue to grow.

However, more interesting than the differences between the speakers are the commonalities. Both Stefan and Candice ended their talks on a similar note: the importance of friends. Friends offer a willing base of customers as well as a valuable marketing strategy for individual makers (nothing beats word-of-mouth). We all rely on our friends for support of all kinds and that’s really what NYCWG is all about, supporting each other and building a strong community. Many thanks to our speakers and to everyone who came out to support them. See you in all again in June!

Candice Groenke, keepsake, box, handmade, Brooklyn

Candice Groenke’s Pearwood Keepsake

Stefan Rurak, chair, handmade, Brooklyn

Stefan Rurak’s W 25th St. Lounger.
www.stefanrurak.com