09 August 2018

Latest Project; New Tools

two round planes
My most recent project left me with a dilemma. I've been using three sources for this reproduction effort, which I shall write fully about anon. The piece is full of interesting details, each with its merits and relevance. In particular is a crown molding detail that required me to consider purchasing new tools to adequately complete it or to get by just using card scrapers. Since I am in China, I must abide by the market limitations in choosing what I can reasonably obtain.
Mujinggfang is a woodworking tool company that I have written about and critiqued previously so this essay follows in that vein. I was able to buy these planes readily from Taobao, guessing at what sizes might suit my needs to create the cove of the lower section of the molding. The planes are marked as veining planes, which likely accords to their intended uses in Chinese woodworking, which I cannot comment on because I have never seen anybody using these planes in China. As such they don't conform in terms of geometry with European style hollows and rounds.
Not quite circular but roundish
I bought 6mm and 10mm models, thinking that I could makedo within this range. I knew that I could rough in the contours by ripping on a tablesaw but that refining the profiles with only a card scraper would be too tedious.
After receiving the planes, I set about to sharpen them. I found that the blades can do with an upgrade. It's not clear why there is a slight taper along the length but this isn't even the main problem. The blade appears to be stamped out of a rather soft steelish metal. I noticed while lapping the back of one that the length appeared warped; so with finger pressure, I merely pressed it flat enough to continue. Yeah.

The bed angle is at about 45 degrees but that is about the only overlapping feature. This is not a side escapement so keeping the throat clear is markedly more difficult, As can be seen with the above wedge, it doesn't have a flat bottom. I don't know whether I have a faulty model or this is how it is supposed to look.
Roughed out cove and astragal
Adjusting this plane is also very challenging. Since the plane has such little mass, the blade cannot be tapped back with a hammer. The small chamfered head of the wedge makes tapping it forward and retracting it also a challenge. I managed to shape the cove section of the molding. Upon reflection, these veining planes are likely intended for making fluting on furniture elements. They were difficult enough to use in SYP so I am mystified as to how Chinese furnituremakers, who routinely use tropical hardwoods, manage to use these same planes effectively.

The completed molding profile
I don't have many complaints about the results. I was in a bind and these planes helped me out. And so I present a sample as a teaser for those who follow as to what the ongoing project is. I shall be writing more fully about it and offer a critique of its significance.
Happy Summer

01 August 2018

Real Wood Needs a Better Name

Seating furniture which only great designers could imagine
I've written a few times about the manner in which plastics have altered our collective perception of modern material culture, namely plastic items made to resemble wooden objects, and the ways in which industry has both exacerbated and exploited this uncertainty. Even as one can observe trends, it's difficult to both accurately identify the causes and, importantly, to give such a phenomenon a proper name, which is easily associated and neither too narrow nor too broad in scope. Recently I came across the above example that compelled me to finally find a name for this undeniable phenomenon that according to the trends, which I have been witnessing with growing alacrity, is getting only worse and more comical.
Barked as in nature
I first came across these images on a Chinese WeChat thread where they were likely reposted from this website.  It's indicative of how fast these viral images spread that reveals how much so many see such design features as desirable. I can only directly comment on the situation in China but even citizens of the middle kingdom only casually interested in woodcraft salivate upon seeing such products.  This is a country built of concrete with few forests. Most interiors are finished with plastic surfaces that is not expected to last long. The desire to recover a market friendly idealization of the natural world might explain some of the appeal. 
Real Masonite on an Ikea 'real wood' cabinet
In at least one essay, I recall putting quotes around 'real' to highlight how industrial designers go to extremes to demonstrate that their products are constructed of real tree material, even when they are constructed of plastics to some degree. These ironic quotations marks have lost their meaning now that I notice that craftsmen have also incorporated such extremes to proclaim that real trees were killed in their craft. This is no longer a phenomenon limited to industrial design and manufacturing. It's sad when the standards and aesthetics of industrialists redefine those of handicraft. I don't think that Nakashima personally has this mind but this is where we find ourselves. Industrial woodworking manufacturers first duped consumers into believing that uniformity and glossy surfaces were the marks of quality furniture. As it happens, that is also what industry consistently produces the best! Similarly, the fashion industry must love that consumers have become so willing to buy clothes that have been intentionally torn and ripped. Because the holes makes them more real according to the common wisdom of fashion magazines!

Ragged chic in the prezombie apocalypse era
And in deference to all fashion victims the world over, I came up with a name. The best term is to refer to this trend as Real! Wood in the same pathetic vein that the GOP tried to rebrand the other Bush for president as Jeb! as though a bit of punctuation would override all the associations with his brother's disastrous and ruinous presidency. Did I mention criminal
Looking at these rebarked chairs and wondering how the bark (is it even of the same tree species?) has been affixed to the surfaces, I recall a story of a similar theme. It happened that a master housewright was involved in a dispute with an architect as to the reconstruction of historically accurate slave cabins at a very progressive living history museum. The drawings of the cabins showed the logs having retained their bark. The experienced housewright mentioned that even if the bark were not manually peeled off, it would drop of its own accord after a season of weathering. The architect insisted that for the sake of rustic authenticity that slave quarters would have the bark reattached to abide by his vision. While the specific wording of this spirited academic debate is lost to the mists of fading memories and professional decorum, one member of this conversation felt compelled to submit his resignation over the architect's aesthetic insistence. I even had a chance to chat with the housewright but I only have heard this eventful story secondhand.  Calling out nonsense is seldom popular. Consumers who buy purposefully torn trousers with holes made in them by anonymous tailors in third world sweatshops believe that they are acting fashionable and expressing their indivuality; not mindless and duped. The world is much better off for his stand.

19 July 2018

A virtual guided tour of Jinze

A bridge among many
Jinzezhen is located in a suburb of the prefecture of Shanghai. It is still far enough from any subway that makes accessibility fairly limited. It retains many of the endearing qualities of Chinese canal cities. It is neither poor nor wealthy which might explain its relative lack of modernization although it shows signs of attempts by the CCP to create a workers' paradise. The damage is not yet completed.

At one end of the city are a few underused factory buildings constructed some time after 1949. They all seem to have been based on a standrd construction method. I saw similar details at the Shanghai Expo where the former industrial site of Pudong was given over to adaptive reuse.
Branded Factory

Waterfront factory

We were told that a Hongkong businessman was running a kind of architectural salvage and reuse operation in these buildings.  It's certainly positive that some of the building elements were appreciated and perhaps some of the salvaged pieces might go into restoring designated buildings, but the bulk of the business likely served to act as decoration in new construction.

Screens awaiting new breezeways

Stone column bases

Upcyclable building materials

Familiar timber framing elements

I was impressed by just how much salvage had been amassed in one place that still felt empty. The workmen were getting ready to leave for the day so I wasn't interrupting their workflow and they seemed happy to know that a foreigner was interested in their work.
The most common style Chinese tablesaw

Planing bench

Beam in transition

The most common style of worksite bench

Repaired timbers

New wood with witness marks
The projects spilled out into the courtyard of the former industrial site.  All this activity was adjacent to an armory that served multiple regimes, which also sat mostly empty except for an artist residency program.  Where once was a military tank assembly line, a sewing factory had been in the same buildings which explains the remnants of dropped acoustic ceiling tiles.
Foreign artists and workspace

Clerestory windows of former arsenal

My wife and I ended up spending the night in one of the artist residences. I learned from the director about the location's history and his pessimist attitude to the program's long term viability. It's seldom that one receives a straightforward, logical answer in the Middle Kingdom. The concern is that the Shanghai municipality wants to protect its water supply by moving heavy industry away from waterway areas, which is completely understandable as it applies to foundries and metal plating factories, less so to sewing machines.
Every campus must have its perimeter wall

The Jinze Art Center main gate

One unexpected discovery was an art school located centrally. I'm stil not clear as to all that is taught therein; the gate was closed during both times that we passed by.
Stone posts lying next to brick pile in a garden

Stacks of used rooftiles

Warehoused cut stone

Cut stone stacked between empty industrial buildings

Walking deeper into Jinze and away from the canal sides, I began to discover that the whole area was dotted with piles of architectural elements in odd corners in surprisingly large amounts.

Xu Family Hall, protected status in 2010, left hand side plaque; street sign indicating 12 residences

Xu Family Hall plaque,(right side)  updated protected status 2017

One complex in particular afforded many intriguing clues as to its erstwhile splendor and the degree of laborious details that were lavished upon it. Two plaques apparently issued by two different legal entities hint at the importance of this structure. Although it appeared that some of the residents were no longer present, it's impossible to confirm how many still called this a home.

Interior courtyard looking outwards
Stone carving details

The layout is a sequence of courtyards with doorways at each threshold, presumably indicating degrees of transition from the public to the private and various household functions. The

Purlins and carved roof beams

Dougong motif in relief (斗拱)
Portico connecting courtyards

Breezeway tracery


2nd floor apartment

There are no clear indications that preservation measures are yet underway on these or any of the other plaqued 'protected' buildings. Keeping residents in these apartments until formalized preservation begins might be a low cost form of security. Much of the damage due to conversion and utility upgrades occurred decades ago.
safety scaffolding

vegetables amid the rubble

I did see one example of a vain attempt to encase a building with scaffolding that is sadly too far gone to save. The scaffolding now seems to act as a barrier to protect residents and other houses when it finally does collapse. 
Signage seemingly only used in Jinze

"This is a dangerous house; pedestrians attend to safety; no entry, no loitering/ squatting (?)"
As I wandered more deeply and confidently through the twisting alleyways, I lost track of the number of structures that are likely too far gone to save. I spotted a sign that is far more detailed than most Chinese warnings yet equally ambiguous as to intentions. My wife conformed that she had not seen such a sign elsewhere. It's not clear whether a legal authority was condemning the buildings, giving fair warning to explorers, or subtly encouraging longterm residents to leave of their own volition.

dereliction porn centerfold

before the fall

Impending rubble

residential area
garden feature

Many buildings didn't even merit this sign. Lack of ownership or title leaves so many salvageable houses to succumb to demolition by neglect. Perversely, many locals might simply regard these old structures as resources to be mined for their materials. It's a sad tangle of neglect, poverty, and complacency as best as I can fathom.
 Ming style Cabinetry

Cabinets inside the porn dereliction building

Amazingly these derelict structures are often still full of stunning pieces of furniture. Even one building with a partial roof was being used as a warehouse for packaging materials.

abandoned housewares in unsafe house

Traditional wooden door hinges

As it happens so often old things are left outside or abandoned. There is an emphasis on newness and few Chinese know how to evaluate high quality furniture or preindustrial architecture. Even fewer know how to repair it. I was often able to photographed these items by extending my arm through unglazed window openings so exposed these areas are to the elements.
Coopered chamber pot

yoke and rack table

discarded handmade cabinet near trash bins

Splayed leg table

And in other places handmade furniture is left outdoors, almost as to highlight the contempt for such reminders of the past. My plan is to return in a year, and yearly thereafter to witness how Shanghai manages the challenges of preserving and renovating Jinze to respect the past while acknowledging the needs of the present future residents. I am cautiously hopeful since I see the greatest amount of civic pride amongst Shanghai denizens. The most positive changes in the PRC often enter in through Shanghai.
a bridge and commemorative plaque