Saturday, July 23, 2011

Ring Cycle

Every once in a while I get a call from a reporter or publication wanting to include me in an article about what they perceive to be what I do. -- Try to say that three times fast. – The last call was from a guy who was doing an article with a “green” angle.  This brings me to two things that I believe deep down.  The job of reporters is often to make news where there is none, and there is no such thing as “green” as defined by reporters.     

Art, manufacturing, business, even humanity are inherently not green.  It is impossible to produce or consume without destruction and waste.  Always something must die to feed the life of some other thing.  You may not be surprised to find out that I didn’t end up in the article, but it made me think about my approach to my work.  I am pathologically averse to waste.  This doesn’t make me “green”.  It makes me …….well, probably crazy.  
I make a lot of hardware.  I make a lot of drapery hardware.  I make a lot of curtain rings.  Sometimes, as you can see,  I line them up to make pretty patterns.  
unfinished rings

              Making curtain rings involves bending straight rod around a round arbor. 

1/4" rod around 1-3/8" arbor

Because the rod needs to be clamped at one end and held at the other, there is waste involved.   

Rod and arbor in clamp before bending.

Formed rings before separation.

Drapery rings mid process

Set to weld tab ring

Rings in tumbler

Finished rings on rack drying
The waste from forming ring

It is possible for me to carry these small cut off bits to the recycling plant.  They would become the raw material for all new steel bars or sheets or whatever was necessary.  Recycling is green, but smelting steel is not.  It takes huge amounts of energy to bring steel to the melting point and huge amounts of energy to form it.  And though it takes less energy to recycle steel than make it from ore it still isn’t easy on the environment.   
It’s also a bit of a trek to the nearest scrap yard.  I don’t think driving twenty miles each way with five hundred pounds of steel scrap in my tiny truck could be classified as entirely green either.   So instead, I make things out of the cut off ends. This can only be classified as green in that it possibly takes less energy or is less wasteful than the other options.  But I like to make things so that is what I do.  
The process of making curtain rings is cold.  At least these curtain rings.  That is to say, I don’t use heat to do the bending and forming.   There is also, for the snobs in the audience, electric welding involved.  But the curtain rings are commissioned.  Their size, shape color and finish are predetermined.    Set by the designers and non negotiable.  The things I make out of the end cuts are hot formed and have no welds.  This is for the purists which I can sometimes be.   They take shape as I work them and often I don’t know exactly what they will be until I finish. 

Sometimes they become rings.  

Forged steel ring

Forged steel ring

The process of transforming small bits of debris into objects is fairly simple.  Heat and beat.  The result can be surprisingly sweet, and the process surprisingly therapeutic. 

Heat to begin work

Heat after straightening

Forming ball end

Ball end formed

Drawn rod

I know that one day rust will wash away everything I have made.  There will be no evidence left of my work or life, but for now and for as long as I have remaining, I will enjoy my contribution to “green”.

Bottle opener made from ring ends

Now back to work……..

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


I’m pretty sure that I leave a part of myself in everything I make, but some things get to keep more of me than others.  Those are the things that leave me, as a buddy says, a shell of my former shell.  They are the things that have a specific destiny before I even begin them.  

I don’t remember how I started, but I make urns.  I think I probably thought I was just making fancy boxes, but they became something more.  And up until now I have never made one for a specific situation or person.  I didn’t think it would be so difficult to do.  This particular urn was commissioned by a relative of mine for her sister who after a lifetime of fighting was succumbing to pancreatic cancer.  And here I am going to have to admit that human dynamics are a mystery to me.  I just mostly don’t understand people.  People have talked to me about custom urns and I have sold urns that weren’t made for a specific purpose, or should I say, person, but most people don’t seem to want to spend much on . . . ashes?  And as I write this I am still waiting to hear if the children will approve of the urn I made or not. 

Two sisters born over eighty years ago and the older one still wants to protect and care for, maybe even touch, her sibling one last time.  But maybe she won’t be allowed to after all.  So you can see how tricky this was for me.   

First I had to find a way to design a vessel that would pay tribute to a woman who, among other things, had twice defeated breast cancer thirty years apart, had raised four successful and productive children, had been the city desk editor at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times for many years starting at a time when women weren’t supposed to work.  This is a woman who deserves respect and admiration.  Love is a given.  The urn, though, was also to house her husband’s remains.  He too had died of cancer.  And all of this had to satisfy everyone.  

I know what you are thinking. How hard could this be?

Yeah, cake.  I made about thirty cardboard mock ups.  All sorts of shapes, flowers, plants, all the things these people enjoyed.  It wasn’t really coming to me.  Sometimes it’s intuitive and you have to let go before you can find it.  So finally I had an idea that I thought would work and I started to build the urn. 

The urn itself would be a combination of metals.  Yeah, I know.  Any couple is made up of two individuals and with luck the combination is transcendent.  So I chose aluminum and steel.  Two very different metals, one light weight and color, one dark and heavy.  The canister would be aluminum and most of the framing and detail would be steel.  This was incredibly generous of me because I don’t like to work with aluminum.  I particularly don’t like to weld aluminum.  Or grind it.  Or breathing its fumes.(I wear a respirator)  I made the canister aluminum anyway.   A hexagon that had to be seam welded.  Truly I must love somebody. 

Aluminum is difficult.  It’s unforgiving and it’s sneaky.  There are a number of ways to weld aluminum.  I use a TIG (Tungsten Inert Gas) welder, or heliarc. The name heliarc apparently comes from using a helium combination as the shielding gas.  I use pure argon.  So I don’t think I can call what I do heliarc.  Anyway, aluminum is a heat dissipater.  This means it gets hot all over and can suddenly decide to become liquid and because it’s aluminum it doesn’t change color with heat.  It’s always the same color.  Relentlessly.  It’s really easy to burn yourself.  Aluminum also needs to be really clean to weld and it’s not always easy to tell that it isn’t clean.  So if you are going to try this at home, be sure to clean the aluminum surface before welding.  That milky stuff is oxide.  Aluminum rust. Sometimes you can see it.  Sometimes you can’t see it.  Either way it will mess up your weld.  As I said, aluminum is not easy.
Aluminum seam weld

Aluminum seam weld
Because I wanted to fit the canister into the steel frame, I had to grind the welds.  Aluminum is gummy and, as you can see by the video, there are no sparks.  It just clogs up the grinding disc. 

If you are wondering why I cut and welded rather than bent, there are two reasons.  The first is I didn’t have a large sheet of aluminum.  I had scraps from another project.  The second reason is I probably can’t do the math.  I haven’t tried but you only get one chance with aluminum so this way was safer.  Also I don’t have sheet metal tools.  No brakes or shears. See, bad math.  That was three reasons.

I wanted the frame around the canister to be steel.  And I guess the interesting thing about this, as I tell it, is that by comparison steel is easy.  It’s forgiving and it’s straight forward.  I also use a TIG welder when I weld aluminum but that’s just because I like it.   

Fitting parts

Clamping for a snug fit
 The frame was mostly about fitting though, and once I had the outside done, I moved on to the base and lid.  As far as I know, you cannot weld aluminum to steel so in the places where they needed to be attached to each other I used bolts or screws.  Then I did the coloring.  I brushed the aluminum and blackened the steel with heat in the forge.

Fitting base
Fitting lid

Heating to color steel
I am happy with the juxtaposition of metals in this piece and I am happy with the other small comments and tributes that are hidden in the form.  I hope that it will be well received.  I hope that it gives comfort.  And ultimately, I hope that it manages to be a visual reminder of a life beautifully and well lived.  To Joy.  Aptly named.


 Now, back to work.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Pain, echoes and Ghosts

I’m sort of fascinated by how easily I deceive myself.  Normally I begin the New Year and end the old by prowling the desert alone.  This gives me comfort and an inner calm that is hard for me to describe.  And each year, for the last decade or so, has run into the next without much change or real personal or professional growth.  At least it’s all been sort of imperceptible.  This New Year was different and, because of that, I had high expectations for this year.  It turns out that, so far, this has been a year filled with pain, echoes and ghosts.  I’m trying not to take this personally.

When I first started out in business every job was painful on some level or another and, therefore, a learning experience of some sort.  Either I would miscalculate the amount of time it took to do the job and end up working for very little, or I would not put some vital piece of information in the bid and it would cost me, or sometimes I would just take jobs that I didn’t have the tools or equipment or knowledge to do and that too would cause problems.  I think this is a normal learning curve.  After a couple of years I had moved past most of these situations and I had consistent customers and a fairly consistent product.  I had an array of tools and equipment and I had developed much more knowledge and many more skills.  So the challenges got farther apart and actually less interesting.  Every once in a while one of my customers would ask for something out of the ordinary that required me to stretch and I enjoyed that.  

Now, primarily because of the changing economy, I have been forced to expand my customer base and, with that, the types and styles of products I make.  And I am back to making mistakes similar to those I made when I first started.  I am enjoying these encounters with the ghost of my younger self.  They show me how much more competent I am now than I was when I started.   My craft has improved exponentially.  My ability to do business is better as is the way I solve problems.  It’s too bad that it has taken such a painful year to show me this and I could use some relief soon.  Not that I'm not enjoying this level of pain.

I am choosing to continue to deceive myself about the way this year will ultimately go.  I am choosing to look forward to making beautiful things and learning new ways of communicating.  I am choosing to believe that the pain I am feeling will bring me positive growth.  I am choosing to continue to push myself and I am choosing to try never to become complacent again.  Finally, I am choosing to experience the pain, listen fully to the echoes and embrace the ghosts.  I do hope this works out.

These are the final words of

Uncle Vanya

by Anton Checkov

SONIA. What can we do? We must live our lives. Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya. We shall live through the long procession of days before us, and through the long evenings; we shall patiently bear the trials that fate imposes on us; we shall work for others without rest, both now and when we are old; and when our last hour comes we shall meet it humbly, and there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered and wept, that our life was bitter, and God will have pity on us. Ah, then dear, dear Uncle, we shall see that bright and beautiful life; we shall rejoice and look back upon our sorrow here; a tender smile--and--we shall rest. I have faith, Uncle, fervent, passionate faith.  We shall rest. We shall rest. We shall hear the angels. We shall see heaven shining like a jewel. We shall see all evil and all our pain sink away in the great compassion that shall enfold the world. Our life will be as peaceful and tender and sweet as a caress. I have faith; I have faith.  My poor, poor Uncle Vanya, you are crying!  You have never known what happiness was, but wait, Uncle Vanya, wait! We shall rest. We shall rest.  We shall rest. 

I only saw it once but it made an impression.

I will get back to work. 

Friday, April 15, 2011

I try to cope

Years ago I was working with a very successful writer on a play he had written that was being workshopped in Westchester County somewhere.  He had been one of the writers on All in the Family and . . . I don’t know what.  I think, actually, he wrote for the Dick Van Dyke Show.  And truly I would name drop here if I could remember his name.  I can’t.  Anyway, he had this amazing gigantic garden apartment in the West Village.  I lived in Little Dominica, which may or may not be what it was or is actually called, in a roach and rat infested hovel somewhere between Harlem and some nice place farther north.  On occasion, you know a clear day, I had a view of the guy across the alley getting out of the shower. It wasn’t really a selling point. 

It was a nightmarish trek to get from the workshop space in Westchester to my apartment in the upper reaches of Manhattan.  It took anywhere from two to three and a half hours depending on the trains, planes, buses and my feet.  Oh and the time of day and perhaps even the time of year.  Consequently one night when we had worked very late the playwright offered me a ride home.  Successful sitcom writers do not ride public transportation.  He drove a BMW.  I naturally accepted his generous offer because turning my three hour commute, at that time of night, into a 20 minute car ride was a no brainer as they say.  I discovered very quickly though that he didn’t take direction well.  So naturally we got completely turned around in my neighborhood after getting off the highway and while I was trying to get him pointed in the right direction he ended up going the wrong way on a one way street. And again no surprise this happened in front of a policeman.  I know that you somehow knew that was coming.  Of course he got pulled over and the officer, as if following a sitcom script, said “sir, are you aware that this is a one way street?”.  Remember this is a sitcom and he was a sitcom writer so his response was naturally “I'm only going one way”.   Apparently someone forgot to point out to him along the way that NYC policemen carry guns. I guess you can get away with that if you are driving a BMW in a crappy neighborhood in upper Manhattan at 1:00 in the morning and you look terrified.  So he didn’t get a ticket and I got home.  He also made it home which I know because I saw him the next day.  

But I learned from this experience that the one way to do something depends on your situation and perspective.  And yes there is usually a best way but sometimes that is just not possible.  I also learned that terror is not always useful.  Panic can definitely get you turned around.  So the other day I got an order for some brackets that are probably a variation on a design from some major European drapery hardware manufacturer.  Only there is no way for me to confirm or refute this because, as with most of the orders I get, it came in the form of a napkin drawing.    And don’t pretend that you don’t know what that is.  Every designer and workroom I have ever worked with does it.  It’s usually a crude pencil sketch of a complex part with some dimensions.  They are actually a remarkably efficient way of communicating in my opinion.  They just look rediculous.
How could I have questions?
The thing about purchase orders from designers is that they are a little bit like sheet music if you aren't a musician.  They make no sense and somehow they can be translated into something beautiful by people who have spent years alone working on their craft and therefore can understand them. This napkins sketch was of a bracket that looked to be entirely machined.  How can I tell?  Trust me. Ahhh, I love saying that.  Anyway, this would be tricky because, although I do have a lathe and grinders and a drill press, I do not have a milling machine which would have been the best way to do this.  Not the only way, however.  The brackets consisted of a ¾” round solid bar about 11” long with a 1 1/8” dia. cope cut out of one end for a rod to sit in.  They mounted on a hidden stem that was attached to a covered back plate.  Very slick.  I'm sure you can see all of this in the napkin sketch.   

After looking at the sketch for about a week I concluded that getting the cope was the trick without a milling machine.  The rest of it was cake.  I finally decided that my best choice was to use a drum sander in a die grinder.  My only question was how ugly would this be.  Okay, not my only question.  I did wonder if it would work at all. 

Turns out it was noisy and it was dirty and it was probably a little slower than a mill would have been but in the end the brackets came out looking just the way the designer wanted them to look.  So, although I went the wrong way down the one way street, I still managed to get to my destination.  

Coped round bar

There is probably no lesson here, there almost never is, but feel free to take what you want from it. I enjoyed making the tools I had do the work that needed to be done.  

The unfinished completed brackets

Now back to work.