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Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Atelier System

An atelier is a group of students working through a highly ordered series of activities with a master who is also a working practitioner. The system works by building knowledge and skills through a blend of research and practice, with the bias towards research in the early stages and practice in the later stages. It is common in this system for tasks from seemingly unrelated disciplines to be used to illustrate and develop skills that are pertinant to the craft being learned. Another unusual feature is that students of different years are taught together. You cannot learn a skill and learn to teach it at the same time, but revisiting a skill that you have already perfected in practice helps you learn how to teach it to others - and only when you have cracked both can you truly consider yourself a master of the skill.

This is the system employed at Rowden Farm Workshops, where David Savage and Master Craftsmen Daren Millman and Steve Perry teach enthusiastic young makers. The workshop has a powerful energy that is apparent the moment you walk through the door, it's not like the fleeting slap of a wave but more an irresistable tide of inspiration - within minutes you have a sense that you couldn't spend more than a few hours there without developing an uncontrollable urge to make an exceptional piece of furniture. This is not David's energy, nor Daren's or Steve's, they would be drained in minutes if they tried to invoke this sort of atmosphere, it comes from the students. All the masters do is direct and focus their ambition - like a lens focusing the energy of the sun to make gentle warmth into fire.

The first thing that David does is teach students to draw - life-sized and accurate. This is exactly the same starting point that Rembrandt set out from and David is adamant that if you don't have the observational skills, sense of proportion and scale necessary to draw an object as it is, then you cannot even begin to conquer the comparatively monumental task of making something that barely exists - a mere concept in your mind - three dimensionally in wood.

Here's an example of an early lesson on drawing curves:

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Lovely Figure

For me one of the most appealing things about working with wood is that you can never be quite certain about what you will see when you cut into a piece of it. I freely admit to staring at trees and trying to envisage what the grain would look like if it were sliced in a particular way. You can have a rough idea from the species and and obvious factors like a bend in the bole will cause cathederal grain. If there is a branch sticking out you will get endgrain in the face with a knot at the centre gradually shrinking back in a cone shape to the pith that runs down the centre of the tree. When you get further into it though there are more subtle differences that can be predicted by looking at the tree in the ground.

Trees that grow out of a hillside tend to have a curve at the bottom of the bole, this produces compression timber which is valued by boatbuilders and Japanese temple builders for it's unusually high strength, it is also less stable than straight grained timber and more prone to variation caused by the elements. A heavy snowfall or high winds increase the strain on the bend, all of which causes localised variation in the width of growth rings and the resulting figure can be quite stunning. Trees that grow very close to water are prone to mineral deposits in their timber which causes flecking in the surface of the board and various fungal and viral infections can produce ripples, quilting or fiddleback grain variations.

A particular interest of mine is burrs (burls in 'murca), the cause of these is not well documented so I have been experimenting with a couple of holly trees. I pollarded them about 18 months ago which has delivered the expected vigorous regrowth. As well as shooting from the top where the branches are they have produced shoots all over the previously smooth trunks. In a couple of places I'm just letting the shoots go, but on the rest of the trees I'm removing them as they appear, replicating the activity of animals grazing on them or brushing up against them in the wild. Nipping the shoots of as soon as they appear doesn't stop them coming, a couple of months later they are back and seem to be all the more vigorous for it. I'll persevere and see which method produces the best burrs, if only to convince myself that burr formation can be managed to maximise the value of timber.