A gift from Bonner to a budding woodworker
On this Veterans Day I’m re-posting this tribute to a woodworker and mentor, Bonner Hall.
Bonner Hall stooped down and flicked a Japanese beetle off the barely open rose blossom. He paused to relish the fragrance and take in the beauty unfolding before him. Bonner was sixty years my senior, quiet, spent most of his time putzing in his rose garden and cleaning freshly caught bluegills, his wrinkled hands now struggling to keep a knife blade steady. He was a hobbyist woodworker with a tiny shop tucked away in his basement lined with baby food jars nailed to the rafters filled with screws and tacks. He had an assortment of 1950’s vintage Sears power tools. All underpowered and wobbly by today’s standards, but somehow he managed to turn out some beautiful furniture pieces. I remember the first time I stood in his shop in the early 1980’s. He was finishing up a doll bed for a very lucky great grand daughter. “Doll bed” is such a poor way to describe it. More like a wonderful miniature with a piece of nicely figured walnut highlighting the graceful headboard. Like that rose blossom, one of those pieces that begged you to pause for a closer look. Bonner took note that I at least had eye enough to appreciate it, and that moment somehow bridged the gap between our ages.
On the wall above his workbench almost hidden amongst the collection of chisels and workshop flotsam was a small framed portrait. A pastel sketch of a young army officer with ruddy cheeks, a strong jaw and penetrating blue eyes. Bonner tapped his pipe against the edge of his workbench and didn’t look up as he said,
“That was me in Paris on leave, right after the battle of the Argonne Forrest in 1918, hard to believe I was ever that young?”
Like most veterans he had few words to share about what he endured in the Meuse- Argonne offensive that claimed thousands of American soldiers, other than it was rough. He changed the subject by pulling down an old wooden bench plane from a cubbyhole and began loading me up with a box of hand tools and a small bundle of walnut cutoffs.
Bonner’s generosity is one that I know so well amongst woodworkers. Passing along tools, wood, and freely sharing hard won knowledge. But Bonner passed on something more. Apart from being a fine example of a man, he unashamedly brought his love for the things he cherished into the furniture he created. It makes no sense to put so much labor into a rose that can only be appreciated for a moment, or a doll bed that may not be appreciated by a child until Bonner was long gone. Yet he had other reasons to squeeze life out of every moment - 14,000 of them buried in the fields of eastern France. It’s somehow fitting that when Bonner’s heart finally gave out, he crumpled to the ground out in his beloved rose garden. We should all be so lucky.
George R. Walker
Klismos chair design by Philip C. Lowe, Drawing by author.
Our western tradition in building has as it’s cornerstone the maxim that a design should embody Firmitas , Commoditas & Venustas - which roughly translates as sturdiness, function, and beauty. This is closely linked to another ancient western idea, that to be human, is a search for Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Ephraim Chambers in his circa 1680 Cyclopedia touched on this traditional approach in a discussion of Greek architecture.
“A Greek building has not a single ornament but what adds beauty to the whole. The parts necessary to sustain or shelter it, as the columns, cornices, etc derive all their beauty from their proportions. Everything is simple, measured, and restrained to the use it’s intended for. No daring out of the way strokes; nothing quaint to impose on the eye. The proportions are so just that nothing appears very grand of itself tho the whole be grand.”
Beauty and our search for it are the most human of endeavors. Here is a short video clip from an unusual source that highlights one human facet of beauty. Enjoy.
George R. Walker
There’s only one reason the Handworks 2015 event is going forward. This unique gathering of woodworking enthusiasts somehow caught lightning in a bottle last time around in 2013. That’s no small fete, as that first event seemingly broke all the rules. No slick marketing plan, no big corporate underwriters, and they held it out in the middle of a cornfield in Iowa.
Yet somehow it was like that memorable pickup ballgame when you were a kid. The one that went past sundown just for the pure joy of playing. It won’t be easy to catch that magic the second time but the ingredients are there. Most of the toolmakers are returning as well as some new ones who kicked themselves for missing last time. In addition there will be ongoing demos and the chance to pick the brains of some really accomplished toolmakers and artisans. If that weren’t enough there will be a unique showing of the iconic Studley Tool Chest in near by Cedar Rapids. Click the link below for details on tickets to get your Studley on.
Studley Exhibit Tickets
I’ll be there and look forward to seeing you. Don’t miss it!
George R. Walker
Last Spring I had an interview with Charles Brock from The Highland Woodworker lined up, so I took a cue from Ron Breese and deep cleaned the workshop. Ron mentioned that he touched every thing in the shop and I vowed to do the same. It quickly reached a point I call the “Nadir”, with the usual side effects of self loathing and regret. Seventy two trips up the stairs to assemble a pile of junk visible from outer space and everything that escaped execution got scrubbed, scraped, and put right. Why didn’t I do this years ago?
Oh by the way, we had fun filming this segment for The Highland Woodworker and they even managed to make this old snapping turtle look respectable. Take a look.
The interview begins at 25:35
Note: Many of the furniture shots were from some of the fine folks who allowed Jim and I to display their work in our book By Hand & Eye. The curly maple desk and tall clock are pieces I made.
George R. Walker
I’m a firm believer in re-visiting work after some time has passed. Be it writing or woodworking, a few years allows for a more disinterested judgment. If it holds up, you may be onto something. If not, there may be lessons to learn. About fifteen years ago I began to venture beyond printed plans. I built this little maple table for Barb. Although the joinery was solid, the design – not so much. It’s largely a failure in details that add up to mush to my eye. It began with a nice chunk of bird’s eye maple that I glued up for a top and aprons. I didn’t just do a poor job of joining together pieces for the top (cut from the same board no less), I managed to make them look like they were two different species of maple.
Instead of using a crisp moulding profile for the edge, I settled for a simple round-over that always had a feeling like some rolled out pizza dough. The curved apron patterns were based loosely on some pictures from a book on period furniture but I had no eye for curves and I fell into the mire that plagues so much massed produced “Early American” furniture. It has not the grace of the fine urban originals or the folk of the back country originals. It screams, “ I don’t know Jack about curves!” Finally I topped it of with an oil varnish finish that couldn’t take spilled beverages and hot coffee mugs. Game, set, match.
What is one to do?
Perhaps I can salvage the legs and build Barb another table.
More to come.
George R. Walker
It’s really special when an artisan can design something profound in a tight discipline. In a world where bling draws the spotlight, I’m always thankful for someone who can craft an extraordinary wine, shotgun, handplane, or chair. Here’s a short video about Martin Wenham, a letter carver who offers some insights about design. Take a moment to savor his thoughts and work. I’d like to thank Dave Fisher for sending me this link.
A rainy day in a great workshop
Dave’s workshop is down a few steps from the kitchen, but feels like entering a sanctuary. A place dedicated to creative work. I had the privilege and honor of spending an afternoon with Dave Fisher – one talented, creative, imaginative artisan. Everything in the compact shop space had a purpose, from the razor sharp tools within easy reach of the well worn
shaving horse, to the decorative carvings and pictures peaking out from every nook. Each a reminder that the pursuit of excellence is also a pursuit of beauty. We talked for hours and could have talked for days about carved wooden bowls, design, and how the curves from a Hosta leaf in the back garden can inform the eye. Dave is a great example of a contemporary artisan who is extending our craft tradition by honing both his technical skills as well as his creative intuition.
I’m working on article profiling Dave’s approach to design in my Design Matters column for Popular Woodworking Magazine. Keep an eye out for it.
George R. Walker