Thursday, March 26, 2009


so i was thinking about nails. Not the kind on your fingers, but the kind you hold things together with. Specifically, I was thinking about trunnels. "Trunnel" is a colloquial contraction of "tree nail," which is the name that was given to the wooden pegs that used to be pounded into post-and-beam houses to hold them together. They were of two varieties, either split out square from a tree branch or trunk, or formed round. The square variety used to be pounded into a drilled hole (which was round, of course), and the parts that did not fit sheared off, so that the trunnel completely filled the round hole. This is where the phrase "square peg in a round hole" came from. It's modern meaning is something that dos not fit, that is in the wrong place. The original application, however was using a context (the round hole) to make an existing situation(square peg) applicable. I like that idea more, myself.

Anyway, tonight I was thinking about trunnels. A couple of summers ago I was with a friend in a place that is the kind of place that people make things like trunnels. And there was this elderly gentleman sitting with a pile of "billets," which are the square pieces that have been split out of the tree, and a circular chisel, and passersby could try their hand at making a trunnel. Interesting to watch. My friend knew this guy, and he chatted for a minute and then sat down to pound a billet through the circular steel hole. Tap tap tap. Quiet little hits, almost timid. Took a while. eventually, a perfectly round trunnel fell out of the bottom. I was watching him thinking "man, you could really send that through with a couple of good hits. Why is he holding back?"

He looked at me and offered me a turn. True to form, I lined up my billet, and raised the mallet.


Out of the bottom falls a sort-of-trunnel, rounded on one side, but only rounded on the other for an inch or so, and square the rest of the way up. My friend looks at me and says, "No, you need to tap it through, so that you can alter how you hit it, depending on it's angle as it goes through."


So I was thinking about this today. About how misguided one's actions can be if one does not stop to fully grasp the nuances of a situation. I need a lot of reminding in this regard.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

coming and going

i have been doing a lot of traveling back and forth from Syracuse, New York lately. There are some pretty exciting things happening over there, with regards to design education and how it is carried out. They also have an inspiring commitment to sustainable practices with regards to design, and seem to be embracing our responsibilities as designers and makers and our abilities to positively affect consumer culture for whom we are designing and making objects. There have been some very good conversations, and, as I have been writing, they are not only tolerating my relentless exuberance with regards to the water wheel, they are actively encouraging me. It has been fun.

The drive out there has started to get familiar in a comforting way. It takes me through the Berkshires, which are beautiful, of course. This past winter there was a huge storm, though, and the highway is lined with trees, some of which are pretty venerable for second- or third-growth trees, that got snapped like matchsticks. They stand broken sentinel along I 90, mute evidence that the forces of nature are as violent as they are benevolent. The beauty of the vistas glimpsed through the trunks contrasts with the melancholy of these broken giants in a way that is profoundly touching.

Coming down out of the mountains, 90 follows the Erie Canal for quite a while. I drive by Lock 14 and then Lock 15, then 16, before the Canal winds away for a while. It eventually meanders back, wide and flat and pregnant with stories and traditions. I have gotten into the habit of listening to Tom Waits as I cruise along the Canal, hurtling along at a rate that was unthinkable when the ditch was cut. Something about the poetry of his lyrics (especially Rain Dogs) and the jangly, chaotic music seems to fit nicely with the ghosts of the bargemen plying the water outside the window.

Just before I get into Syracuse, the drive is through flat land populated by callow young trees, all slim and straight and growing on land that is free for the most part of underbrush so that they make a staccato picture of lines picked out by the sunlight. When there was snow on the ground, these black lines were grounded in a white field, which enhanced the straightness and blackness of the trunks so that they looked more like a stage set than a forest.

Also along this drive here and there are train tracks, many of which are still used, which thrills me. I love trains. In addition to being a more sustainable way to move stuff around (still fossil fuels, of course, but more efficient, at least), they are so romantic and such an icon of American History and such a provider of so many of the songs and stories that I love that my heart beats a little faster whenever I see them rolling ponderously along.

This last visit, we were driving around Syracuse with a friend who is a brilliant photographer. He was taking photos for a publication that is being put out by the interdisciplinary design center that I am working for, and we came upon some rusted out boxcars sitting on a siding. It is impossible for me to help myself, I got out of the car and went down and started running my hand over the huge couplings and the brake rods and the door locks. Such an eloquent contraption, a box car. Beautiful in its decrepitude, a wholly American version of wabi-sabi, the Japanese idea of beauty in decay.

The miles and miles on these old cars, the places that they have been and will go, the hands that built them, the hands that loaded them, the people who have climbed into them and have coupled them together and unloaded them on the other end, who sprayed graffiti on the outside, the power of all of those lives colliding in this one object washed over me. For a minute, it was hard to breathe, even, swept off by the weight of the pictures in my head.

I looked down at the gravel at my feet. I love the road bed of train tracks. It tends to have captivating detritus, bits of iron and rusted steel, massively strong tie rods impossibly twisted into knots, the kind of stuff that makes me swoon. I found some good bits of junk, but there was something more interesting: coal. This particular bed was littered with coal. It must be coal that fell out of hoppers coming from a mine, somewhere, as it is not likely that it is still lying there from the days of the coal-fed steam engines. It put me in mind of the Utah Phillips lyric “When I was just a kid/living by the tracks/us kids would gather up the coal/in a great big gunny sack,” relating in verse a reality that was known everywhere there were train tracks at a certain period, and where money was often scarce. Coal that fell from the tenders would be gathered up to be burned in the coal ovens that wer so ubiquitous then. On the ground around my feet was enough coal to heat a house for a whole winter. I picked up one piece and kept it. I am looking at it now, the deep glimmering black remains of thousands-of-years-dead plant or animal life, that we still depend on for so much of the power the we use to do things like run this computer. Seems so old fashioned, that we should be so dependant on coal still, after all of these years, and after all that we have learned.

And here I am, back around to the water wheel.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

the two bums

the bum on the rods is hunted down
as the enemy of mankind
the bum on the plush is driven 'round to his club
is feted, wined, and dined.

and they that curse the bum on the rods
as the essence on all that's bad
greet the other with a wining smile
and extend the hand so glad.

the bum on the rods is a social flea
who gets an occasional bite
the bum on the plush is a social leech
bloodsucking day and night

the bum on the rods is a load so light
his weight we scarcely feel
but it takes the labor of dozens of men
to furnish the other a meal.

as long as we sanction the bum on the plush
the other will always be there
but rid ourselves of the bum on the plush
and the other will disappear

so make an intelligent, organised kick
get rid of the weights that crush
forget about the bum on the rods
get rid of the bum on the plush

author unknown
recorded by George Milburn in
The Hobo's Hornbook, 1941

Y'u'd think we'd learn.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

becoming part ii

i have not really been able to get this idea of "becoming" out of my head. The more I think about it, the more I have felt compelled to try to address it. Not because I think it will change the world, but because it seems important to my process as a maker. If I am to bring things into being, it seems to make sense that I should know when they are a thing. A good friend and studio mate who used to be my teacher said that maybe the reason I did not connect to the cabinet is that it was a familiar furniture form, one that has to be done in a certain way, which depersonalises it to a degree. She may be right about that, but of course the hope is that I would get attached to every project.

So I embarked on a little project yesterday to explore this. I had a chunk of red oak left from another project, and I thought that I would do a quick project to see if I could identify the moment that it ceased to be parts an became a whole. As it turns out, though, I think I chose a form that pushed that perception unfairly.

I have a piece of beam left over from a dining table that I made, and I am just in love with it just like it is. It is covered with the marks of the hands of the people that shaped it a hundred years ago, with layout lines and augur marks all over it. I had been wanting to make it into a piece that honored the labor of those long-dead makers, and I had hit upon the idea of making a little figure out of oak (the beam is oak) that would sit upon the beam, as a visual statement about how small each of us is individually when compared to our work, which is what we have that will last after us. So I thought I would make a small figure as this "becoming" experiment, and finish off that piece all at once.

The thing about the human shape, of course, is that it is the one shape that we are trained from the very beginning to recognise in whole or in part. So I guess it is not terribly surprising that my little figure took on an identity very early on. I have been calling him "Mr. Block," after the U. Utah Phillips song, although he has nothing at all to do with the content of the song. Here he is sitting on his perch on the beam.

The idea was to make a figure that was repeatable in a variety of sizes and that is totally androgynous, although I have assigned this one a gender. I thought I could keep them gender neutral, but found very quickly that I have a very hard time not assigning an anthropomorphic object human attitudes and emotions, which made it necessary to assign it a gender so I would know how to address it. As time allows, I want to make a lot of these figures.

Here is a video that my good friend Kevin put together out of photos that I took at every step of the making process. Thanks Kevin! You rock. The interesting thing to me about it is that as soon as the head is put next to what will become the torso, it starts to look human to me, and starts to take on the qualities of the finished piece. Once the head, torso, pelvis and legs are laid out, there is no question in my mind, it is a human figure. By that point in the process, I had started talking to him, telling him about what I was doing, and what part I was working on next. He was very patient. Now he is reclining on my workbench, after a photo shoot this morning of him sitting in various places around the studio.

So I have not reached any conclusion about the question at hand. Probably I never will, of course. The answer so far seems to be that it just depends on the project, and about my attachment to it. It is something that I look forward to continuing to explore. In the meantime, I think Mr. Block might have some adventures, which I will do my best to document

Saturday, March 7, 2009


carl sandburg wrote: "...the bar of steel is a gun, a wheel, a nail, a shovel,/a rudder under the sea, a steering gear in the sky,"

Today in the studiodio I was assembling the drawers for this little cabinet I am making. Nothing fancy, just a small maple carcasse, dovetailed at the corners, with four drawers (what up here are called "draws," but down where I am from are called "drah-wurs"). I needed a place to keep my hardware. For a furniture maker this does not mean hard-drives and monitors and keyboards but instead hinges and bolts and screws. Hardware, you know? Real hardware.

So I had this maple salvaged from someplace, I forget, that is not too interesting, really, but certainly served the purpose. And I made a little chest of drawers.

This morning and afternoon I assembled the drawers, and as I was gluing them up I started thinking about becoming. In the sense of parts becoming a whole. This wood was a tree, of course, at one time, and if I had experienced it then, I would have thought of it as a tree. Then it was felled (or fell in a storm, I don't know and wish I did), and became lumber. Which is how I experienced it, so I think of it as lumber. Now I have made it into a cabinet, a chest of drawers. But I am conflicted.

I tend to anthropomorphise objects, assigning to them personalities and desires which I am convinced they have. I do not like to go too long without using one tool or another, as I am dead certain it will feel neglected. I often stroke pieces of furniture that I have made, telling them how happy I am that they are made and will have a new life. But then, I also do that with the chunks of wood that litter my studio, talking to them, listening to them, spinning yarns about what they will be, one day, and also nodding in agreement if they tell me that is not what they want to be.

I had this sudden thought today about this little chest of drawers. It was material. It was a pile of wood. Now it is a little chest. I hope that is what it wanted to be. I think it is. But now I am unsure how to address it, whether as a collection of parts, or as a finished piece. I have never had this particular problem before. So far, all of the pieces I have made have seamlessly become a finished piece, and have ceased to be a bunch of parts.

I am not sure what this means, to be honest. Maybe it is a momentary flight of fancy. I certainly think of the boat chair as an object. I think of my guitar "Johnny" as an object. I think of the dining tables I have made as objects. This is how I talk to them, how I listen to them. For some reason, this unassuming little cabinet has thrown a wrench into those works, and is still a group of parts clamoring to be heard.

I think maybe I was not as sensitive as I should have been to the desires of the material, and that I have forced these parts to be something they did not want to be. I certainly hope not. It felt so good to finish the project, maybe I was too intent on barreling ahead, and forgot to listen to the material.

But it has gotten me to start thinking about the moment of becoming. When do a few parts become a piece of furniture? When do some words strung together become a poem or a song? When do a group of like-minded people become a movement? There is no answer, I guess, but for every object or poem or song or movement or relationship there is that moment, that turning point when a new reality is obvious, when it becomes necessary to use a new vocabulary to describe what is going on. Often, that moment goes unnoticed, and the new way of thinking becomes the norm without fanfare. I think what is jarring about my little cabinet is that that moment has not happened yet. So I am not sure how to think about it.

Maybe that was the purpose of this piece, to make me think about my role as a maker, and about how important it is that the materials speak through me, instead of speaking because of me.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


well, as often happens, my romantic proclivities got the better of me. Instead of doing the research that I know I need to do, I got all lost in reverie thinking about the Erie Canal. The Canal did, in fact run right through the center of Syracuse at one time, but its route is now filled in and called "Erie Boulevard." It now no more flows past the Warehouse than the Suez Canal does.

I hate it when reality trumps poetry.

The water flowing past the Warehouse is, it turns out, the Onondaga creek, which feeds the intensely polluted Onondaga Lake that is in Syracuse. This creek flows past and is contaminated by (at last count) about 40 combined sewer overflow structures and contributes greatly to the mudboil situation in the Lake.

Ah well.

Good news, though, is that this does not negatively impact our ability to get a water wheel there. On Tuesday afternoon I went to an amazing lecture on biomimicry that just blew me away. There was a reception afterwards at which I met the head of an organisation called the Syracuse Center of Excellence, whose mission is to "create innovations in environmental and energy technologies that improve human health and productivity, security, and sustainability in urban and built environments." Their website is Pretty good group of folk, and COLAB, which is who I have been working for, has a few projects going on with them.

So I met the guy who runs it, and he is super excited about the water wheel. He was standing there talking to this architect, a fellow Syracusian (Syracusite? Syracusino?) and they started talking about how the Haudenosaunee tribe (which translates into something like "people who build long houses") were the ones who stood there on the sore of that lake a long long time ago and laid forth the idea that they must live so that the land and water and forests and skies would be untouched for their descendants of the seventh generation from then. That is where Seventh Generation came from you know. Those folk standing there on the shores of that now-polluted lake. It was the clan martiarch that spoke. The company that sells toilet paper or whatever the hell they sell got their name from that moment.

Anyway, I am standing there talking to these two guys, and they are all excited about my little project, and the C of E guy says "next time you are up here, come to my office and we will get things figured out and start moving forward." Then he turned around and called this very nice woman in a blue jacket over. "He says this is Dean ________, she is the Dean of the College of Engineering. We need to get her involved. She can tell us how big a generator we need." Turns out her father was a labor organiser, and we started talking about old IWW hymns and organising songs, all of which she grew up with. So she is all right in my book.

The point being, even though it is not the Canal, it may be a reality. And if this can really happen, if we can get all the rights and forms signed in triplicate, and construction documents and environmental impact statements and public safety authorisations and everything else that we need, if it can happen here, there is no reason it can not happen somewhere else. And then somewhere else. And somewhere else again. As Arlo said, "then friends, it'll be a movement!" The Learn-From-Your-Elders Anti-Petroleum Power-Generation Movement.

T-shirts and stickers to come.

Monday, March 2, 2009

sudden thoughts

i feel like ebenzer scrooge. Right at the end, when he wakes up and it is Christmas morning and he is giggling and spinning around and cries out "I am as giddy as a schoolboy!" That Scrooge, that is how I feel.

See, I had this sudden realisation, and boy, it has me all fluttery inside.

I have been working for Syracuse University, setting up a wood, metal, and plastics shop for them. I have been doing layout drawings and talking to architects about dust collection. I have been inventorying tools in existing shops and talking to faculty members about what kind of usage these shops get and about what kind of usage the new shop might get. It has been fun, in a geeky-tool-using kind of way. I mean, I am having conversations about the role of making in a design curriculum, and about its place in the design process, and these folk are really listening to me when I talk about how important I think it is to have the ability to teach making in a well appointed shop. There does not seem to be a tradition of that, here, and it sounds like they want to change that a little bit. That is not the sudden realisation.

The building that the new shop is going in to is called the Warehouse. It is not on Main Campus, it is downtown. Isn't that a nice photo of it all lit up? It is what it sounds like, an old warehouse that has had a lot of work done to it and is now going to house all of the Design programs at Syracuse University. Interior Design, Industrial Design, Communications Design, all of it. All under one roof, with a wood and metals shop on the first floor and a plastics shop and a spray booth in the basement. This is all just background. It is not the sudden realisation.

So in recent conversations I had been talking about putting a Vertical Wind Air Turbine on the roof to run the shop with. Seems like the wiring would support it, and there is something undeniably sexy about running a TIG welder off of air power, you have to admit. The problem with VWAT's, and, indeed, with air power in general, is that if there is no wind, there is no power. So maintaining a steady stream of juice to the shop or the building is hard. There are a lot of really smart people working on this. And we could set up some kind of augmented power plan, but that is sooo not as cool as saying "Yeah, we get all the power for our shops from the wind." The folks here are open to the idea of a VWAT on the roof, but they want to wait until the technology is all figured out, which is still a ways off. There are, in fact, a couple of buildings on campus already with versions of VWAT's on the roof, so the University is definitely open to the idea. This was not the sudden realisation either.

What you can not see in the lovely promotional photo above is that on the side of the building there with all of the windows runs the Erie Canal. I mean THE Erie Canal. Like "I've got a mule and her name is Sal." That one. The water road that opened the American Middle West and made Chicago what it is and made it possible for the Nation's Breadbasket to be built into what it is (even though we now realise, of course, that industrial farms like that are rife with problems but since this has nothing to do with my sudden realisation we will talk about that another time, maybe).

The Erie Canal. I had been staring out the window at it a couple of days ago, watching the water rushing along, looking at the fine lace of ice along its edges and thinking about what it must have been like to ply that water in flat bottomed barges from the mighty Hudson all the way to Buffalo. I know very little about the Canal, really, and am excited to do a little research.

In 1993, I think, the summer, I was in college in North Carolina. A friend there had been working for Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, NY, and got me a summer job in the prop shop there, making props for the summer season and then being on the running crew back stage. I was not very good at it, I now realise, and a lot of people were very patient with me for which I am somewhat belatedly thankful.

I did a lot of rock climbing back then, and a friend and I used to drive about 45 minutes to Little Falls NY (I think, memories are a little hazy) which had a nice little wall that we spent a lot of time climbing around on. This is a photo of me doing that. Anyway, it was right on Lock 17, which at 40 feet high is the tallest lock on the canal. If you have ever been on the fourth floor of a building and looked out the window, that is what we are talking about here. Your feet would be wet. Pretty tall. I remember watching the boats slowly slowly rise up from way down below as we were resting or setting up a new climb. The wonder of that achievement was lost on my callow little mind. I would like to revisit that lock with a slightly more open prespective. One day I shall have to.

So I was standing in the Warehouse in Syracuse, looking at the Canal and thinking about it and about Glimmerglass, and my friend Kate who got me the job there, and watching the water run, and that is when I had my realisation. You know what it is by now of course. It was that waiting for new technology to be developed makes so much less sense than using technology that we have understood and harnessed for hundreds of years.
Water power. I want to run the shop off of water power.

The building is right smack on the Canal. The water is not frozen. It seems to constantly run. All it would take is a generator of an appropriate size and a hole in the side of the building. It is completely sustainable. It is brilliant. It is simple. There is no good reason not to do it.

I mean, I am sure there are a lot of reasons not to do it, and I am going to have to do a lot of convincing, but damnit am I excited. We are going to run a 21st century wood and metal and plastics shop off 500 year old technology that we put into a monument to 19th century ingenuity.

The poetry of the whole thing just knocks me right out of my socks.

I am trying not to brag too much. I know it is unbecoming. But it is so rare that I have an idea that feels this right and this good and seems this achievable that I have decided to let myself revel in it for a little bit.