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

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