It’s about Time

The part of my life that pays the bills puts me in an interesting position. I work for a large, US based multinational, but spend most of my working time in Africa. What I find very interesting is the juxtaposition of Western Time and African Time. Time as we use it in our daily lives is an artificial construct. We have taken the movement of the Earth around the Sun and divided it into Days, Hours, Minutes and Seconds, and then enslaved ourselves to that construct.

The standardization of time started with the development and expansion of the railroads system. Back in the days of yore, almost every town took its local time from the position of the Sun. The local church tower kept time and chimed the hours of the day so workers, mostly those in the fields, would know when to start work, when to eat lunch, when to pray and when to head home. But with the railroads, a standard measure of time became necessary. If your train was arriving at 11h50, it had to be the same 11h50 everywhere, or the system simply never worked. 

The first piece of wearable technology was the pocket watch. Much like the technology we wear today, it was a status symbol. And much like the users of technology today, people have been faking it since the start. Those that owned elaborate and ornate pocket watches advertised the fact  with a beautiful fob chain linking their watch to a button on their vest. Those that didn’t own a watch, simply wore a fob chain. The natural extension of that was to be punctual, because that meant you  not only had the chain, but there was watch was attached to the end of it. And so the West became obsessed with time and punctuality. 

Africa never developed extensive railroad networks so we Africans tend to have a fairly loose association with time. I have often found myself spending hours sitting outside an office of a high ranking official in a government official waiting to see them for a scheduled appointment only to be told that they are not available. Or arranging a training session set to start at 8h30 am  only for the last person to arrive at around 10am. My American and  European colleagues find this very frustrating. I spend a lot of time trying to explain to them that running a project in Africa according to a strict timeline is like trying to slice hot custard with a bread knife. All you end up with is frustration, a very sticky knife and no custard in your bowl. Its much better to be flexible and gently coax these things along and let them unfold in their own time. 

We own a chiming wall clock. I have been listening to it chime away the hours most of my life. I am not sure when it first arrived in my parent’s house. I have a vague recollection of my father hanging it in the entrance hall of the house. That was somewhere around 40 years ago. It has a huge sentimental value for me. The position where it hung was  above my head; my bedroom was on the other side of the hall, and my bed directly beneath it. I never owned an alarm clock, but knew to wake up when the clock chimed 6. As I write this I can hear the steady soothing tick-tock of the pendulum and it has just chimed nine o’clock.  My mother gave me the clock shortly after my wife and I moved into our first home.  I was chatting to my mother on the phone one day and heard the clock chime in the background. I suddenly felt very homesick and told her. That weekend she arrived at our new house with the clock as a house warming gift. It’s hung in every house I have ever lived in and makes it feel like home.  

My wife recently had a major back operation.  We have both been patients of the surgeon who looked after her. He repaired my mangled finger after I ran it through a table saw, saving the tip and nail and leaving me with a fully functional finger.  He also performed carpal tunnel surgery on my wife’s hands. He is an excellent surgeon and a fine doctor. These are  all skills that come with time, but being such a great human being is innate. My wife has made excellent progress after her surgery, and we wanted to give him a thank you gift for the care he had given both of us. After spending some time thinking about it, I decided to make him a wall clock. His consulting room is decorated with oak furniture, mostly from wine barrels. I assembled and cleaned a couple of staves from my special batch of aged oak barrels and fitted a clock mechanism. I found some laser cut numbers and added them to create the face. We handed it over to him at my wife’s last appointment.  A couple of months later he bumped into my wife at the hospital and after asking after her health told her once again how happy he was with his gift, and how pleased he was that I had taken the time to make something unique for him. 

Following on from the success of the wall clock, I decided to try and make a mantle clock. No question about the style of course. It would have to be Art Deco. With the Empire State Building as inspiration, I spent a long time working on the design. I am normally not very good at translating what’s in my head into sketches and I have never been very good with pen and paper; my handwriting is totally illegible, even to me.  Almost all my plans, are scratches on bits of paper or scrawled marks on the chalk board. But for this project I took a lot of time to work on the design. One of the reasons I like Art Deco is that it is well proportioned and timeless. That is what I wanted for this piece. I dug through my pile of wood scraps and found some Beech and beautifully grained Kiaat. I cut and fitted and changed and re-cut and played, and in the end finished with a piece that almost looked like my design on paper and exactly what was in my head. This was just a couple of geometric pieces that I had to cut and assemble, but it me a long time to get it right. Each matching piece had to be identical. I even tried to match the grain to make it symmetrical. I built jigs and and guides to make sure that the pieces were placed perfectly. The end result is a beautifully proportioned clock. But what really made me happy was that I spent a great deal of time quietly working on this. This was truly fine woodwork and a step up in my skills. It didn’t matter how long it took, just so long as the end result was perfect.

I am in two minds as to whether I should sell the clock or hang on to it. Its not that I need a clock to tell me what the time is, I am a proud African and know that the time is always right now. But this clock, represents something special for me. It represents a coming of age for me as a woodworker and as a maker. This is one of the finest pieces I have crafted. Its incredibly simple, but its not something I would have been able to achieve in the past. This is a talent that I have only managed to develop over time. It was inspired by a thank you gift I made for a truly gifted human being, which in turn was inspired by a sentimental gift that reminded me of home.  I am sure that in the future, I will find time to make clocks. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let There be Light

My love of lamps was inherited from my mother. We grew up in a house filled with lamps. Bedside lamps, table lamps, reading lamps, desk lamps. They were made from wood and brass, and plastic, and steel. The shades were plastic and glass, vinyl and cloth. Any type of lamp you could think of, we had in the house. Of course, me being me, I pretty much disassembled and reassembled every single one of them at one stage or another. Most of the time without my mother knowing.

After I moved out of the house and into my own place, I forgot about lamps. Life was full of adventure and travel, work and marriage. However, nature is strong and it was inevitable that I would return to the lamps.

I built my first lamp in 2016. I was leaving the office one night when I spotted an interesting looking pallet lying outside our neighbor’s warehouse. The pallet had collapsed and was being thrown out. What caught my eye though was the base of the pallet. There were three solid pieces of what looked like rosewood. I stopped the car and loaded them into the back.

Whether they were truly the rosewood species used for making fine furniture or not is a matter of some debate. But they were definitely a hardwood with a feel and texture like rosewood. It also had that beautiful smell rosewood gives off when it is worked. It nearly burnt out my table saw it was so hard to work, but there was enough of it for me to create a free-standing, articulating reading lamp. I unfortunately can only find one pic of that lamp. The piece consisted of three articulating sections and it could be raised or lowered depending on the users preference. The wood perfectly complimented the style of the lamp. It never looked like wood reclaimed from an abandoned pallet.

Articulating Reading Lamp
Articulating reading lamp. I have another three pallet bases. Hmm… Maybe another one of these is on my event horizon.

I was hooked and started looking for my next lamp project. I had a rosewood door frame that had broken in half while the carpenter was installing it. We could not fit it and had to replace it. I had kept the frame and it had moved to Cape Town with us. I had already used parts of to make a set of candy striped occasional tables, and I thought a pair of candy stripe lamps might be a nice accompaniment. I got some white oak and the candy strip lamps were born. My in-laws had just moved to the Cape and mother-in-law took one look at the lamps and immediately lay claim to them.

Candy stripe table Lamp
Candy Stripe Table Lamp made from virgin white oak and rosewood.
I love the feet on this and which were added as a last minute addition. I would like to incorporate this into other designs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My next lamp project was made from some reclaimed oak barrels. I got these from a wine farm in Robertson. They had been abandoned outdoors after the barrels had collapsed. They had spent a lot of time outdoors, and the staves looked beaten and broken. But the amazing thing about oaks is how tough it is. Cleaning off the weathered wood revealed the beauty of the oak beneath, and I quickly assembled five of the staves into a lamp. The curved based taking the shape of the original barrel while the two upper staves reach gracefully upwards and join to hold the lamp. This remains one of my favorite pieces.

Reclaimed Wine Barrel Lamp
The reclaimed wine barrel lamp, proving just how tough oak is.

 

 

 

The base of the lamp follows the gentle curve that the original wine barrel would have had.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My next project was a prototype of a desk lamp. I love articulating joints, and I that seems to be trendy in desk lamps. I recently bought a stack of wood from my late friend’s wife. The family were moving to a new house, and she had to clear his old workshop. He was a shipwright and a master woodworker. He had loads of bits and pieces of scrap and odds and ends that he had squirreled away over the years. In among the pile was some Oregon pine. It was perfect for what I had in mind. It was just supposed to be a prototype, but the wood worked beautifully. It practically assembled itself, and the result is a beautiful modern articulating desk lamp. I will be making more of these from various woods that I have in the workshop.

Articulating Desk Lamp
Articulating Desk Lamp. These are for sale on my website, and are extremely popular.

I believe that everything has a story. I think that the standing lamp worked because the wood had been abandoned and was given the opportunity to show how beautiful it was.  The barrel lamp was testimony to how graceful oak trees are, but how tough, long lasting and versatile the wood is. The articulating desk lamp captured the spirit of my late friend. He was easy going, friendly and respected by everyone who knew him. He was deeply loved by his family and friends, and I still look back fondly on the many evenings we spent sipping brandy and sharing stories. He always had a good story to tell. That lamp captures his spirit.

But perhaps my favorite story about lamps takes me back to mother. When I first started working, I worked a late-night shift and would travel home in the early hours of the morning. I was still living with my parents. I would come home at two am and go into my parent’s bedroom, where my mother would leave her favorite tiffany lamp burning. They would be asleep and I would turn the light off. If my mother woke up during the night she would know I was home safe and sound if the light was off, and contently go back to sleep. I always think of her and that story whenever I make a lamp.

The articulating desk lamps are for sale in various wood species. Prices range for R540.00 to R750.00 depending on the type of wood. The sample shown here is R540.00 including the fancy light bulb.

Oak Table

The Beast!

“Well, what do you think?” asked Neville, my newly acquired co-conspirator and fellow furniture fundi. He was standing next to a round oak table in his furniture store. It was bulky, yellow and possibly the second ugliest table I had ever seen. The only one rounder and uglier than that was the one that stood in my parent’s voorkamer for 20 odd years. “I am struggling to sell it.” He said. “Most people are not interested in round tables, and those that are say it’s too big. I am not sure what to do with it. The owner wanted to dump it and I thought I would try and do something with it. Any suggestions?”

Saturday rolled around, and so did Neville, trailer in tow, along with the ‘The Beast!’, as it came to be in my mind. We hauled it off the back of the trailer, down the drive and got stuck at the door to my workshop. We couldn’t get it in. It would have to be dismantled outside and brought in in pieces. Ten minutes and a thousand wood screws later, the top was off and rolled into the corner of my workshop. After carefully maneuvering the base through the door and having it take up most of the floor space, I came to the realization, that I needed a bigger door and a bigger workshop.

As with most projects when I don’t know what to do, I ignored the problem and hoped that it would go away. But ‘The Beast!’ was not going anywhere. The top sulked in the corner of my workshop demanding my attention. Mostly because I kept having to roll it out of the way every time I needed to get to my stores. The base just sat there tripping me up every time I walked past it. Eventually, in frustration, I took apart the cross braces, folded the legs together and stuffed it in front of the sulking top. Which simply meant that I now had to move two pieces of The Beast! every time I wanted something out the stores. “Enough!” I cried, “You win! I will deal with you now!” after the tenth move of the day.

I had not looked it over properly yet, and began my inspection. The table top was made of 20 mm  thick solid Oak.  At some point in its 40 odd years of existence, the jointing had started to fail, probably because of shrinkage and the movement of the Oak. Several bad attempts had been made to repair it. The first involved gluing the separating pieces together. Clamping a round table together is really difficult to start with. Without the proper tools it becomes a nightmare. The first attempt had involved spreading wood glue into the crack and then applying vertical pressure across the separating pieces to hold them together. When that failed, nails, a couple of wood screws and a few self-tappers followed. Surprisingly that too failed to solve the problem. But a bigger problem appeared to be developing. The stretchers had started to work themselves loose, and these needed to be repaired. The expert solution was to first glue and then nail square strips of wood into the stretchers. With the base stabilized the repairer expertly glued four pieces of thick meranti onto the oak, and screwed that in place with the 1000 screws we had to remove to get the top loose. Despite the messiness of the job, it managed to get the table past its 40th birthday. I am just grateful that no one has had to do that to me, just yet.

I loaded the top onto my table saw, as this was the only surface I had big enough to hold it. Measure. Ponder. Measure. Ponder. Go play with the dogs.

The problem was I had never squared a round table before. It was too big for my table saw so I would have to use a circular saw. I wanted to to cut it so the grain kept its neat straight lines. Eventually I worked out where the center of the table was, and measured my first cut. I would be able to cut it square and remove most of the damage caused by the expert repairs without loosing too much table top. With one side squared, the others took shape and voila. The Beast! had been reduced. If nothing else, it was easier to move it around my workshop. The top now measured a respectable 1 sqm.

I ripped four 40 mm thick strips out the long grain left over from the removed ends and cleaned the varnish off them before running them through the thickness planer. I flipped the table top over and cleaned and scraped the underside before gluing and screwing the strips onto the edge. This provides a solid look and feel to top and a neat edge. The surface of the table was in pretty good condition, despite its age. Shrinkage and bad repairs aside, it had clearly been looked after. But the yellowed varnish had to go. I first scrapped the surface using a shaving hook, followed by a Stanley blade. I sanded the bare wood till it was smooth, oak-white and beautiful. A quick turn with the round over bit and the router to smooth the edges and it was done. I then turned my attention to the legs.

Each leg was 75 mm thick. They were joined together with a 150 mm wide stretcher, mortised into the leg. These ran diagonally under the table. A brace across the bottom added further stability to the legs. I cut through the center joint on each piece separating the legs. I removed all the additional glued bits, screws and nails before cutting the mortise joints flush against the edge with a tenon saw. I scrapped off the varnish and ran each piece through the thickness planer to square them up again.  I squared the top and bottom on the table saw and made sure each leg was the same length. A quick pass on the router table with a round over bit and the legs were ready. I ripped each stretcher to 75 mm wide. I removed the varnish and squared each piece on the thickness planer before rounding the edges.

I used pocket holes and pva wood glue to attach the stretchers to the legs and used more pocket holes to attach the top to the base. A couple of coats of teak wood stain, followed by three coats of a mat polyurethane varnish completed the look.  And with that, The Beast! was truly vanquished. In its place stood The Elegant Lady. A sleek modern looking four-seater table, perfect for open plan living.

This piece has sold.  The asking price was R4400.00. I can create tables like this, from virgin wood, or trim and shape existing tables or reclaimed materials. These can be made to any dimension you need. Prices will be supplied on request when assessing your needs. 

Chest of Drawers

Mid Century Memories

I found this chest of drawers while poking around a second-hand store in Clairmont. The piece had some minor surface scratches and scuffs on the top, some  water damage and a nasty oily spill that had marred the surface.

Chest of drawers
Top of the chest of drawers. It was badly scratched with water damage and a nasty oil stain to one side

The french polish had long lost its luster and had taken on that faded and gray look common in pieces exposed to the harsh SA climate and too much sunlight. Aside from a small crack in the skirting near the front foot that had caused the foot to work loose, the carcass and drawers were in excellent condition. The wooden drawer pulls were recently chipped and damaged, and the drawer fronts were badly scratched. I suspect this was caused by people moving around the cramped confines of the shop.

Chest of drawers pre renovation
Front of the chest of drawers showing scratches and chipped drawer pulls

The piece was probably made in the mid 50’s or early 60’s. It was manufactured by the McNamee factory, most likely in their Pietermaritzburg factory. I have seen several pieces from that factory and they all have a similar style. The top is solid Imbuia with a roman ogee profile finishing the edge. The drawers have a beautiful series of horizontal curves that are matched by vertical curved pieces on the sides. The drawer fronts are a single piece of solid Imbuia, attached to the drawer carcass with dovetail joins. The drawer carcasses are plywood that have been lightly stained. The side panels are solid Imbuia and are seated in a frame with gentle curves. Ball and claw feet with a grooved skirt finish the footer. The wood has a beautiful grain and the drawer fronts have been well selected to show the beauty of the wood.

The original serial number or model number is punched in the back, and the original manufacturer’s tag is still attached. The manufacturer’s button is embedded in the bottom drawer.

To start the restoration I removed the feet and skirting which were held in place with old fashioned steel wood screws. The damage to the skirting was probably caused by the piece being dragged across a tiled floor and the foot catching in a grout line or on the edge of tile. I first worked the foot loose from the skirting before gently opening the crack. I added some pva wood glue into the crack then clamped and left it to set overnight. The dowels were drilled out and replaced before gluing the foot back to the skirt.

 

Front leg
Front leg after disassembly and before repair.

After cleaning and sanding the repair is invisible. I  scraped, cleaned and sanded skirt and feet before resetting the skirting on the base of the cabinet using the original wood screws.

Invisible repair on the foot

I scraped and cleaned the french polish from the wood before hand sanding the bare wood to a smooth clean finish. Imbuia has a spicy fragrance and the wood takes on a well polished finish as you work through to a 220 grit. I cleaned the sawdust off with a cloth moistened with mineral turpentine before coating the piece with three coats of matt polyurethane varnish. I slightly distressed the surface between coats with steel wool and polished the final coat with steel wool and teak oil. This will  will provide a hardwearing finish that will be stain, and water resistant.

 

The matt polyurethane finish which will be stain and water resistant.

I replaced the original drawer pulls with a copper-finish drawer pulls from my local hardware store. 

Brass pulls and and a patina that matches the age of the piece and highlights the beauty of the wood

 

This is a beautiful piece of quality furniture that will provide years of service. It is well constructed and was built by master craftsmen. These furniture pieces were made before mass production, when time and care went into the manufacture of each piece. That shows in the attention to detail in its construction and quality of the wood that was used to make it. These were made to last a long time.

Chest of Drawers
What a beauty!

 

This piece is still for sale. Asking price is R4200.00