Monday, May 7, 2018

And so it begins

I needed a picture so this is it
    I've been considering documenting the way I work. I want to share the methods and skills I use to make the things I make.  I know there are a lot of books that show how to smith or weld or chase or engrave or whatever.  They are pretty dry, but also absolute.  I don't do absolute very well.  These books contain good information, but they also leave a lot out,  and sometimes they make the whole process so stinking hard.  I have a book on blacksmithing published in the early 20th century.  The first thing it instructs the new smith to do is make a set of tongs  You will need tongs.  I guess the problem for me at the beginning of the 21st century is that I don't know how you will make them without all the other things you will also need.  We no longer live at a time when there is going to be a forge and anvil at your disposal just down the street.  That makes me unsure how you can even begin to make tongs.  That's problem one. Problem two is that this book instructs you to make the tongs from 3/4" square bar.  I think that's insane even if you do have a forge, an anvil and a power hammer.  I don't know why anyone would make tongs from 3/4" square bar unless they really wanted to spend days making them.  My advice is that when you are starting out just go buy a pair for $40 and call it a day.  Later on when you need specialty tongs and you have experience, you can make them  from 3/8" x 3/4" flat bar or even 1/4" x 3/4" flat bar.  Why anyone would ever make a pair of tongs from 3/4" square bar is a mystery to me.  Better yet, if you really want to learn the lessons that you can  learn from making tongs, make a pair of tongs every day for a month.  After about 20 pair you will feel pretty confident about your ability to make tongs.  Make at least ten more pair.  Then you will have the knowledge that making tongs can give you and you will have a bunch of tongs.

     Anyway, there are also classes and conferences and YouTube videos where people show their skills, and you can learn an amazing amount from them.  I would never discourage anybody from taking a class.  Classes give the opportunity to work in a shop that has all the equipment you need to do the things that are being shown with an expert right there to get you past obstacles.  This is amazing and is a great way to start.  It will also be just like every other class you have ever taken.  As you can tell from my advice on making tongs, I don't think you will have learned anything if you just do it once.  If you did those calculus problems from high school every day until you really understood them, one at a time, and then did them a few more times, you would know calculus.  Maybe that's just me.  Still, you need to spend time practicing each skill until you feel comfortable with it.

     Conferences and videos are also valuable ways to learn.  I do think in order to learn from them you need a bit of background.  The demonstrators have practiced whatever they are showing until they are sure they won't make mistakes, but by the time they get to demonstrating they skip a lot of valuable information in order to do a better show and if they don't you walk away because it's so so so boring.

     Please don't misunderstand.  I'm not saying that my way is the best way, nor is it always the conventional way.  It's just my way.  Working with metal and making things is how I make a living.  I'm not a purist.  I think I have some practical information that might be valuable even if you never intend to make anything from metal.  I hope that looking closely at how I do my work will help you do yours.  Problem solving is problem solving.

     I want this to be the first chapter of an ongoing series. I intend to go deep, to share my successes and failures, my processes and my thinking.  We all struggle.  I will try to make my struggles entertaining.  Feel free to laugh even if I'm crying.

     There are a lot of skills that are guarded because we all fear competition to some degree.  My animal brain has lots of fear, but my rational brain knows that sharing my skills won't really create competition.  My work has me in it.  Your work doesn't.  Because of that, I will share my knowledge without fear. Besides, at the rate I write these posts, it will take a decade for me to get to the end.

    There are a finite number of skills and an infinite number of ways to manipulate them.  Maybe not infinite, but there are a bunch.  I will include sketches, even though I really can't draw with a pencil.  I will have videos and photos to help with understanding.  I will explain how I do things and why.  Along the way, if you have questions, I hope you will ask them.  There are a lot of ways to reach me.  Pick the one that works best for you.

      Each of us has a finite amount of time.  I want to leave some of my knowledge behind.  Some of it is useful and I'd rather pass it along this way than by having my brain kept in a jar.  I don't think that would be a good look for me.

     That's my plan.  Over the next ten to twelve appallingly slow years I will make a metal artisan of you all.  If you use it as a reference because you want to try working with metal, that's great.  If you just use it to know that you are not alone in the struggle to master your skills, that's good too.  After all,  it's always nice to know you are not alone.

So...until next month when we meet again

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

From bedspreads to traffic interchanges ... or something

     I've had the same bedspread for the last few years.  It has stitched stripes.  At the risk of revealing too much about myself, I will tell you that I always make my bed in the morning.  For me, that makes evening like my birthday where I get to open a present to get into bed.  Since getting this spread, I have very carefully lined up the stripes of the spread running the long way down the bed.  Over winter break my daughter was home from school and slept in my bed.  In the morning I walked in and she had very considerately made it.  Only she had the stripes running the other way, across the bed.  It turns out I had been making the bed the wrong way the whole time.  The spread fit correctly her way.  I now make the bed this way, with the stripes running cross-ways,  but it doesn't look right to me.  The spread fits right but the stripes go the wrong way.  I feel like it makes the bed look stubby. 

     This is a design thing.  Line is a fundamental element of design.  The most basic element.  Line leads the eye.  I don't want to look back and forth across my bed as if I were reading a book.  I want to take in the length of the bed.  I want to enjoy the idea that I will be long and horizontal on the bed.  I don't want myself all chopped up.  The professional designer who designed my spread obviously disagrees.  Eh.

     There are a few elements of design.  There are also principles for the use of the elements.  Ideas about the effect of the use of design elements.  People study this stuff for years, but I think all of us know the difference intuitively.  My drawing professor made merciless fun of people who said I don't know anything about art but I know what I like.  What you like is what speaks to you.  It's okay to educate yourself about art but it's also okay to like what you like.  Design is the same in some ways.  We all know when something is visually a bit off.  We also know when we feel comfortable in a space or with an object.  All of us intuitively understand balance and harmony in design and we understand emphasis. 

This is the first thing designed by Philippe Starck that I loved the design of.  It's just a juicer but it's so elegant.

        This doesn't mean that design needs to be predictable.  One of my favorite designers is Philippe Starck.  I still feel bad about correcting a snooty sales clerk in a furniture store who mispronounced his name.  Ok I feel a little bad.  The clerk was one of those people who ... I don't know, I'm sure the Germans have a word for it.  Anyway, I love the work of Philippe Starck because he redesigned common objects and made us look at them.  He made us see.  There's really nothing more magical than that. 

Which is not to say that he didn't fail.  This is a tea pot and a function failure, but it's interesting to look at.

      We are so used to sitting in chairs and sleeping in beds, eating with forks and cooking in pots, that we forget all the design work that goes into all of these things.  Making things that look good and work is not easy.  Making people really see those things is even more difficult.  All of us design.  We decorate our homes.  We set our tables.  We pick sheets for our beds.  Some of us are probably better at it than others which is fine if it's your home or your sheets.  If it's public, or if you make your living doing it, you should understand what your choices say.  Design choices like statements in art need to be deliberate and conscious.  I'm not saying there can't be serendipity.  I'm just saying if you are being paid to do something you should think about and understand what you are doing. 

    There's an interchange in Las Vegas where four lanes of traffic are forced to squeeze into a single lane to access a highway.  There is no time, day or night, where this bottleneck isn't moving at a crawl.  The funny thing is, there is room for another lane.  Maybe I don't see the future plans for this traffic spot, but it seems like bad design to me.  I think most people would agree.  

It's probably not possible to see the giant mess that the design of this interchange creates.
You can get a sense from the map and satellite view though.

      I don't think there is any real difference between designing a traffic interchange and designing a chair or a living room.  Function is the primary focus of designing something functional, but even that can be overdone.  Often design isn't good because the single object is forced to have too many functions.  Witness the sofa bed.  They are usually terrible places to sit and worse places to try to sleep.  The metaphorical jack of all trades master of none.  

     If you pay attention you can get a huge amount of information from design.  You can learn what the designer wants to emphasize, what the designer values, and how the designer wants you to feel.  Design can direct your eye and your heart.  You can be told without a word that something has value or that it is cheap.  Look at the Tiffany's window vs. the Woolworth window (another thing learned in school).  Clutter in design, too much information, usually says cheap.  Clutter is not the same as detail.  Detail creates value.  That single piece of jewelry in the Tiffany's window has exquisite detail.  

It was a little bit hard for me to find a window display from Tiffany, but this is one.  It tells one story.

I don't know if there are any Woolworth stores left.  The windows have a lot of stuff.

     I'm thinking about design a lot lately as I try to navigate how to present my work to the public.  I don't really want to work in a vacuum.  I do, but it's not really my goal.  As I move forward, I will need to apply good design to remaking my website, creating my work, and creating a public presence.  Even if my work is art, and as I've said before I'm confused on that front,  I will still need to use deliberate and good design to present my work.  And I will have to own it.  I will have to take control.  Trickier than you might think for someone who is temperamentally a Luddite like hermit. 

     Scale being one of the elements of design, I think I will start there.  Micro.  That's the scale I am starting with.  I'll let you know how it goes.  Look for a new website from me in the next couple of months.  This will be a huge challenge for me because I need to figure out the primary function of my website and not try to make it have too many functions.  I don't want the Swiss army knife of websites, but I don't want to have multiple sites either.   Once it's up I hope you will comment on the design.  Let me know what you think.  Also look around and be a critic of all the design you encounter.  Also, soon I will have a new bedspread. Those stripes are making me nuts.

Back to work.  I have much to do

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A dragon a day keeps the scorn of teens away

six demo dragon heads
The six dragon heads from the demo.  Two have horns. 

A couple with beards
     A couple of months ago, actually just before winter break,  my daughter's art teacher asked me if I could come to the school and do a demo.  It would take place right after winter break.  Without really thinking, I said yes.  Then I thought it through..  You know how you spend the first 25 or so years of your kids lives telling them to THINK ABOUT THE CONSEQUENCES OF THEIR ACTIONS.   I should have paid attention to myself.  I guess the tone of my voice really is inaudible, although, it seems my kids did listen.  Where was I while I was blathering on about this crap. 

Side view. 
     I will admit that I have always been a girl who can't say no....sigh...get your mind out of the gutter.  I mean when it comes to work.  I very rarely say no when I am working.  There has to be a really good reason.  Like the plan defies the laws of physics or something like that.  Otherwise I will try everything I can to make it happen.  No is so final.  Final is done.  Done is beautiful.  Done without being right might be beautiful but it isn't satisfying.  It won't satisfy my customers and it doesn't satisfy me.  I'm a people pleaser.  What can I say?  Phooo...if you know me, you know that isn't true, but you also know how much I despise the automatic no response.
     No is easy.  Yes is a challenge, and a challenge met is a pleasure.  So I said yes to the demo.
I've never done a demo.  There are a lot of reasons for that.  I don't see work as a spectator sport.  I can't think of anything more tedious than watching someone work.  Also PERFORMANCE ANXIETY.  Big sigh. 

I like this one
     I said yes to this without having any details.  Yes can be problematic.  I found out after saying yes that it wasn't so much a demo as six demos.  One for each period of the day.  After hyperventilating for a few..well it seemed like days, I tried to figure out what I could possibly show.  What could I possibly demo.  I have a fairly wide range of skills, but some of them would be really painful to watch so forging something seemed safest.  The next question was what could I forge that would be magical enough to hold the interest of high school students.  

steps to make a dragon head
These are the basic steps to convert square bar into a dragon head.  Easy without an audience.

I don't know why I curved the neck
     A couple more days of panic and I finally settled on dragons.  I would forge dragon heads from square bar.   To forge dragons I would need a forge, an anvil, a vice and a few hand tools.  I could do this.  I felt that I should be as prepared as possible because there's nothing quite as unpleasant as the scorn of teens.  That's what a group of teens should be called.  A scorn.  A herd of cattle, a murder of crows and a scorn of teens.

Different lower lip
     It's impossible to predict all the problems you will encounter in any situation until you have lived through something similar.  My nervousness about this whole demo business led me to what I now call "A dragon a day month".  Yes, I did make a dragon almost every day for a month.  And yes, I now have a bucket of dragons that I will have to do something with.  It was actually a nice way to warm the shop in the morning. 

This is a nice trio
     A couple of days before the demo was scheduled, the art teacher asked what kind of power I needed.  I had been worried over the detail questions.  I told him I didn't need power.  I was honest.  I said I was bringing propane, an anvil, a vice and some hand tools.  I also said it should happen outside.  Apparently he had the sense not to mention to the schools administration that I was going to have any of these things.  He claimed nobody asked. 

     So...the demo happened.   

There are so many
     On the up side, I was able to make six dragons in front of six  groups of teens in the courtyard of the high school without lighting myself on fire, or drawing any of my own blood, or shooting a tool across the intervening space and skewering a student.  I consider that a win.  On the downside, there were so many things that I did not anticipate.  I work in a cave.  It's dark and there's no climate control.  Out in the courtyard in the sunshine,  I could not see the color of the metal.  I was never sure if it was hot enough.  I realized how much I rely on the color of the metal to gauge the heat.  Also I was staged under a tree.  I don't care what the poem says, it's not good under the limbs of a tree.  There are roots to trip over.  

     Also, high school is weird.  There are a lot of people, and these are adults, that just seem to aimlessly wander around.  They were distracting.  Oh yeah, and some kids were setting up for some event in the courtyard for the last three periods of the day.  I had probably practiced too much so I made my dragon heads too fast and had to fill.  That was a pain that will linger.  I can barely hold the interest of my own teen.  Other people's teens, there was just no way.

     All in all, though, it went really well.  That the art teacher didn't bother to tell the administration I was bringing a 100 lb bottle of propane, or that I would have a 2000 degree open flame made it much easier.  And nobody got burned.  That's a win.  Plus the final period kids helped me load the tools back onto my trailer so I could get out of there.  

     Now I have six more dragons to add to my collection. 

Dragon candle holder.  Black heat horn mishap
     I don't know if I will ever do a demo again, but at least now I have some idea of how, and in front of the toughest audience anywhere.  Six scorns of teens.  It doesn't get any tougher than that.  I can demo for anyone now. 
Dragon door pull



     This is a fairly bad video I made of the demo.  As you can tell if you watch it, it is really hard to see the color of the steel in the sunlight.  At 3 1/2 minutes it's also incomplete.  It was hard to get video without blocking the view of the kids so the angles aren't very good and a lot of the demo is missing.  The sound was horrible so I turned the audio off.  But it will give a bit of an idea.  I'm working on my video skills so maybe the next video will be better. 

If it doesn't load it's on YouTube.  Here's the link

  Ok, back to work.  Lots of dragons to process.