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
Education is learning what you didn’t even know you didn’t know.
Daniel J. Boorst
Game changer! That’s the comment I hear most often during a “By Hand & Eye” workshop. Lights click on, gears start to mesh, and frustration and doubt gives way to confidence and big smiles. Folks who shied away from curves can’t wait to do some off road woodworking. I have one more workshop this year and 2015 is beginning to take shape. Consider signing up for an experience that will influence every aspect of your woodworking. This weekend I’ll be traveling down to The Woodworker’s Club in Rockville Maryland for a Saturday session with the Chesapeake SAPFM chapter and then a two day design workshop on Monday and Tuesday. There’s still a few spots available for the two day. 2015 workshop dates are firmed up but not yet open for enrollment. I’ll post when signups begin, but for now you can mark your calendar.
- Saturday Nov 1st Rockville Maryland – Presenting to the Chesapeake Chapter of SAPFM, The Woodworkers Club
- By Hand & Eye Workshop, Nov 3-4 (Monday and Tuesday) The Woodworkers Club, Rockville Maryland. Sign UP
- By Hand & Eye Workshop, Jan 24th- 25th, R. Grell Fine Woodworking Workshops, Hudson Ohio. Details coming soon.
- By Hand & Eye Workshop, Feb 13-15th, Southwest Center for Craftsmanship, Pheonix AR. Details coming soon.
- Design presentation, March 28th-29th, Northeast Woodworkers Association Showcase, Sarratoga Springs, NY. Details coming Soon.
- By Hand & Eye Workshop, Oct 17th-18th, Marc Adams School of Woodworking. Details coming soon.
George R. Walker
With Halloween just around the bend I’m reminded of one of my favorite haunts (no pun intended) for thinking about design – old graveyards. The monuments in all shapes and sizes are like a lexicon of design, sort of a mini museum without the alarms. My last blog post had a photo of an obelisk shaped town marker in Nantucket which inspired Dave Fisher to send me these obelisk
photos from a nearby cemetery. I had to grin inside at the thought that I’m not the only one strolling through the democracy of the dead, trying to keep my designers eye alive. Dave crafts free form wooden bowls which are featured in the November 2014 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. He commented “To my eye, the most beautiful obelisk in the entire cemetery is the Mathers obelisk. Much of the reason, I believe, has to do with the base (plinth?). The quickening curve of the base roots it firmly to the ground, then leads the eye on a ride up to the obelisk itself. There is still a clear indication of where the obelisk itself begins, but without jarring the eye on the way up. The whole piece is organic, much like a tree rising from the ground. ”
I concur with Dave’s educated eye and would add that several other examples, the Roberts and Packard obelisks, look like they took a standard monument and plopped an obelisk on top of them. Not certain I ever noticed that before until they were side by side with the Mathers example. One is a unified organic composition, the others are just combinations of parts. There’s a powerful lesson illustrated here. How often does a design or a work of art fail because it’s a busy mechanical assemblage of parts rather than an organic flowering? I’m interested in your thoughts as you compare these different interpretations of a design.
George R. Walker
Mathers base detail
“We need to be willing to let our intuition guide us, and then be willing to follow that guidance directly and fearlessly.
If you are new to design, telling you to trust your eye sounds like some joke that everyone’s in on except you. How do you know what your eye is telling you?
First of all, those times when your eye feeds your imagination with rocket fuel is a rare event even for gifted artists. So much so that when that explosion of juice starts to flow, it’s wise to ride it irregardless of eating or sleeping. Magic should not be squandered.
But aside from those rare bursts of inspiration – every day our eye talks a lot. Mostly it’s like that beeper on a garbage truck when it’s backing up the alley. It tells us what it doesn’t like. A crude example of this is plumb and level. Even though we have accurate tools to measure level and plumb, most of us can do a fair job of gauging it just by eye. In fact, our inner eye is pricked when that picture frame on the wall looks tilted in spite of what a level tells us. Our eye is filled with judgments, mostly negative about proportions. We may not think all that negative feedback is that valuable. It may feel frustrating, like we hired a travel guide who tells us all the sights not to see. But if you realize that this is the eye’s way of guiding, you can learn to listen to it and best of all, learn to train it. I may get a burst of inspiration, a spark of an idea of what I want to design. But the actual design process is listening to a series of nos that gradually morph into yeses.
This Doric Classic Order is a lesson in proportions. Drawing by Author
But training the eye? Traditionally this was done by studying masterful work. All the old design guides waxed glowingly about the classic orders. Truth is you may never incorporate a single element from a classic order in any of your furniture designs. Yet, drawing the classic orders gives your eye a reference library of no’s that are inescapable – pushing you, guiding you, until the nos start turning to yes. With a basic understanding of proportions, you can let your eye be tutored by great buildings, furniture, nature, and art.
George R. Walker
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