Sunday, April 26, 2009

FAQs (and their answers)

In preparation for the Baltimore show, I decided to write up a list of Frequently Asked Questions (and their answers) to help visitors understand my work more completely. In other shows I have gone to, I have found it almost humorous to hear the same series of questions over and over, almost in the same order. It is often impossible to give complete answers without boring visitors to death so I figured a handout would be helpful.

How do you get your colors?

I seal the wood surface with many coats of clear shellac before painting with tinted shellac. It is not a stain. By reworking and mixing the colors as I build them up, I create natural looking colors with gentle gradations.

How do you get the high gloss finish?

I use a technique of applying shellac called “french polish”. It involves rubbing the surface with a ball of cloth filled with shellac, alcohol, and oil. When done correctly, a microscopic layer of shellac is laid on the surface as the alcohol dissolves the previous layer. The technique was developed by a Frenchman in the early 1800’s and was widely used on furniture into the early 1900’s. However, due to the laborious process it has been widely discarded in the furniture world for easier finishes like sprayed on lacquer, polyurethane, and rubbed on oil finishes. It is still used by specialty finishers on very high end furniture, typically 19th century reproductions. Ironically, although a french polish is very difficult to create, it is much easier to repair than other wood finishes.

Do you use aniline dyes?

No, I use modern lightfast dyes made under the brand TransTint. They have very accurate primary colors and they retain their color much better than traditional wood dyes.

What is shellac?

Shellac is a natural resin secreted by the lac bug on tree bark in southeast Asia. It is edible and is even used as a covering for candy and pills. Unlike other wood finishes which cure after they are applied, shellac retains an ability to dissolve in its solvent (alcohol), allowing it to be reworked and repaired as new layers bind with existing layers as one single layer. In addition, its unique clarity creates a magnifying glass on the surface of wood, making every grain highly visible.

How many coats do you apply?

It is impossible to say for a number of reasons –

- I often remove layers before applying new ones.

- I don’t use the same concentration of shellac throughout the process so one layer may be several times thicker than another.

- Each pass with the cloth in the french polishing process is technically a layer (on a microscopic level) and there may be hundreds of passes.

- Different sections of a painting may have different numbers of layers.

- The process is done in stages over an extended period of time.

On the back sides I apply at least five coats of heavy shellac.

How long does it take to make one piece?

Typically, I work on a piece for several months, three to five is average. About twenty percent of my pieces have two dates on them, the first one is the date is when I originally thought I was done (or wanted to be); the second is when I went back and modified it (often six to twelve months later).

How does one care for a shellac painting? How durable is it?

Shellac paintings are comparable to encaustic (wax) paintings in terms of durability. There are no special actions that need to be undertaken to care for it. Occasional dusting with a feather dusting is all it should need. The polish and colors are archival, but as with any painting, it should not be placed in direct sunlight. In addition, shellac will soften at high temperatures so things placed on top of them can leave impressions in warm weather. When transporting shellac painting, I like to wrap them in flannel sheets; however, when shipping them in summer months I crate them so that nothing is touching the surface. The high gloss french polish finish should never need to be retouched but if damage does occur to the surface, I can repair it fairly easily (scratched wood is more problematic but still repairable). In addition, if I am not available, a furniture restorer competent in french polishing can also repair the surface.

Can you make me a table (or other functional object)?

Theoretically yes, but . . . I believe that wood is art and that it should be appreciated for what it is rather than what it can “do.” I would rather spend my time making fine art than functional objects.

What art school did you go to? Where did you learn this technique?

I am a self-taught artist. I started making furniture as a hobbyist in the mid-90’s but slowly became more interested in the natural beauty of the wood than the functional things I could create with it. The techniques I use are based in traditional woodworking methods. Although I have not taken a formal art class (since 8th grade) I am constantly studying art informally.

Is your work in any major museums or collections?

Not yet, but I’m always preparing for a MoMA retrospective.

Friday, April 24, 2009

SDA 3C 200 Proof - It Rocks!!!

I received my order of denatured alcohol last week. Two five gallon boxes of SDA 3C 200 proof - Fed speak for Specially Denatured Alcohol with 95% 200 proof ethanol and 5% isopropanol. The final price was a little higher than I expected. When I called earlier, it was $115/box. When I called to order it (a couple of months later), the price was $125. And shipping needed to go though a company that had a special flammable liquids certification so it cost another $95. In total, $345 for 10 gallons, or $8.625/quart. There really isn't a cost saving to buying this rather than Behkol ($6.95/quart plus shipping) but I feel a lot better about the vapor exposure and I think it is a better quality for dissolving shellac. In addition, now I know what it takes to get the stuff, and how much it costs -- nagging questions that are finally resolved. I'd still rather have pure ethanol but I'll have to wait until I become associated with an alcohol tax exempt organization (or set up my own distillery).
I was surprised by the size, I had imagined five gallons would be larger; and the weight, I though 78 pounds of alcohol would be heavier. And, thankfully, it comes with a spigot for easy draining. I typically loose a lot of product pouring Bekhol out of the container, so there is probably a large cost savings there.

(Update April 26 - I mixed my first batch of shellac with it and SDA 3C 200 proof truly rocks! Very low odor, just slightly different than moonshine, and a very fast rate for dissolving shellac, with just a few shakes I was able to dissolve a very high concentration of shellac in a little over an hour - usually you have to plan on 24 hours to dissolve a batch.)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

New Work

I'm busy rushing to get some of the pieces I've been working on ready for the Baltimore Fine Furnishing Show that I'm going to May 2 and 3. Getting these pieces from almost finished to finished is extremely frustrating. The worst part about it is that when I start the polishing process I always find mistakes that weren't noticeable before and have to be fixed before finishing the polish. With these epoxy pieces I've found many small gaps/holes that were invisible before but as soon as a polish is applied they become glaring craters. In many cases, while filling these craters, I've had to rub the color out, resulting in having to go back and repaint once the holes are filled.

It is nice though, when I get close to finished and I can see what I have been striving for. The depth of the figure with a french polish finish on top is just ethereal, and when I begin to see it, I have to stop and just stare.

I have gotten close enough on a number of new pieces that I have added the hanging mortises. Here are the ones that are closest, along with tentative titles.

Horst and Graben 10.5" x 28" x 1"

May Rain
29" x 12" x 1"

26" x 11" x 1"

Green Grass - Summer Day 26" x 11" x 1"

I included an image of the one above a few weeks ago (image below) and didn't like it much. I took out the blue sections and added blue to the yellow sections. I like it much better now.

Likewise, I made a number of changes to the one below but still don't like it. I think I'll just take all the color out and start over, but not until I get back from Baltimore.
15" x 11" x 1"

It is better than it was (below) but could be better. The problem is I just don't like any of the colors. Some ugly colors would probably be good but all ugly colors is just ugly.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

David Hurwitz Profile (Part II)

The following is a continuation of my profile of David Hurwitz that I posted a couple of weeks ago. With David's recent successes in having his work published in a Fine Woodworking book and 500 Tables, I thought it was a good time to interview him (before he became too famous and/or busy) to get a better sense of the origins of his work and to highlight what others could learn from his experiences.

Why Vermont?

David was born and raised across the lake in Plattsburg, NY and while his mother studied at Goddard College (in Plainfied, VT) in the summers he would hang out and bike around with his dog. He also hiked the Long Trail as a student. Although he has lived in other areas, he always felt he would come back to Vermont. He doesn't feel that it has influenced his work as much as his work shares an affinity with the culture and environment of Vermont. Some of the designs he is still using were developed years ago while living in suburban surroundings that didn't match his head space. By living and working in Vermont, he feels that his headspace now matches his surrounding environment.

Why Wood (and not metal, glass, stone, clay?)

David first learned woodworking in a 1st grade woodshop where they taught hand tools. Although he has learned and enjoys many other media, including metal, glass (blowing), jewelery, and concrete, he has returned to wood because
at some point there isn't enough time to learn it all and it is better to master one than be mediocre in many.

Favorite Wood

None, loves them all!


The first name he mentioned was Charles Rennie Mackintosh the Scottish Art Nouveau (early arts and crafts) period furniture maker. David doesn't see any influences in his own work but he greatly appreciates his work. I see a little more similarity with the next name he mentioned Isamu Noguchi, a major sculptor to the 20th Century, but only distantly in that they both use asymmetrical designs and 3-point stands. David is also a great admirer of Carlo Mollino, the Italian architect, photographer, furniture maker, race car driver, and engineer. You can see more direct influences in his work, although where Mollino's designs might be more ridgid and mechanical, Davids are more curved and lively. David also listed Alexander Calder, Dr. Seuss, and "The Jetsons" as influences. Specifically, the small table below was designed with the "Jetsons" cartoon in mind.

"Elroy Table"
©David Hurwitz
Working with Clients

David feels that clients get his best work when they give him basic criteria related to how the item should function and then give him broad artistic license. Also, he truly enjoys commissions that push him to do something he hasn't done before. He finds most individual clients are good about giving him the freedom to create but he has noticed that when dealing with professionals (e.g., interior designers) the end product can sometimes be adversely affected by the "too-many-hands-in-the-pot" syndrome. The lesson being, if you are going to hire David, or any other studio furniture maker because you like their work and their designs, you are more likely to get a great product if you give them design freedom.

Below is a life-sized drawing of a current project that David is working on.

©David Hurwitz
Lessons Learned
David said that, without a doubt, his best career move was moving to Vermont. He has found that it has provided him with a number of good marketing opportunities because there is a focused effort to promote wood products and he hasn't seen the same level of organization in other areas that he has worked. People work together to promote the craft, whether through the Guild of Vermont Furniture Makers, or the Vermont Wood Manufacturers Association. The GVFM has also set up a blog so that follow studio furniture makers can promote their experiences as a group.

As far as his worst decisions, he said he felt they were more learning experiences than mistakes. These lessons include:
-- Be prepared for shows -- the first time David did a crafts show he was ill-prepared with marketing materials and bad lighting. After studying what others were doing, he has since been much better prepared for subsequent shows.
-- It is important to talk to other craft artists to avoid making mistakes they have made, such as always having a signed contract before beginning work on a project.
-- Don't put work in distant galleries with an unproven sales record. David had a bad experience with a gallery about 500 miles away in that they weren't able to sell any of his work; it was a major hassle to get work down there and pick it up; they damaged all of the pieces; and they used his table tops as very elaborate pedestals for other work - rather than leaving them clear as works of art on their own. From this experience he learned to be selective.


As with all woodworkers, having his own spacious studio (rather than renting his current dark, windowless, uninspiring quarters) was first on his list. In addition, he would like to develop stronger gallery connections on a national level. Other desires include developing a better web presence so that he can get more web-based commissions and spend less time traveling to shows; and being able to go on a vacation that wasn't essentially a business trip.

As a final point of interest, below are blocks and drawing of what will be two of David's signature taffy lamps.

All designs and images Copyright 2009, David Hurwitz

Thursday, April 2, 2009

An Official "Industrial Alcohol User Permit" Holder

After a 6 week application process and many hours of research, I finally have an Industrial Alcohol User Permit from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Now I can legally purchase 10 gallons of high quality denatured alcohol (95% ethanol/5% isopropanol) from Pharmco. Just in time too - I had bought 3 quarts of Behkol a few weeks ago to hold me over and I'm already down to about a half a quart.