Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Theft - the chandelier saga

Good artists copy. Great artists steal. This is an unsourced quote of Picasso who might well have stolen it from T.S. Eliot ("Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal"). Why this quote? Maybe I am trying to rationalize my theft because, for some reason, I am a terrible designer. I always start working on a piece thinking if it goes badly I can fix it up later. Artists can usually pull this off, can cover up, or can even ignore flaws. Designers have to get everything right in their execution.

But to the point, my wife and I were in Design Expo, the fancy Home Depot, getting some track lighting for the kitchen. I noticed a very nice looking light (Hunter-Conroy Geometry Light) and thought it would be great for the dining room ceiling. They had a sale so I talked myself into paying $200 for the light which, as seems typical of of Design Expo, was out of stock. Two months later, it finally came in and when I was installing it I noticed that one of the components was off by about 1/4" - it was not square. I tried to convince myself it would not matter - but it did. So I returned it, waited another month, and then they told me it was no longer available. At this point I had to have the light so I started thinking how to make one.

The design was four rectangles of square tube, each containing a rectangular halogen light. I could not locate a square halogen light but I could find round ones. So I changed the design from squares to linked circles. Solving the light problem I now had to figure out how to bend square tube into circles. Not sloppy circles, but nice circles. Moreover they had to be joined together nicely because in design you simply can not fake bad workmanship. This was beyond my skills, I had met my match. But I still had light lust in my heart and satisfying that lust was worth two hundred bucks.

A few weeks later we were in Design Within Reach buying a couple of chairs. I wandered around and saw a very cool chandelier. $2,600 was a little more than the $200 I was willing to spend but the more I looked at it the more I thought I could make something like it. You be the judge -- is my chandelier a copy or a theft? (Note: the pic in this blog entry is the DWR chandelier).

Postscript: after I finished the chandelier I got a new catalog from King Architectural Metals, a great resource for fancy gates and fences. They now carry square tube circles so maybe my first idea is something I can make.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Metal yards part 2 - Drops and Cut Offs

The first metal yard I patronized was Alco Iron and Metal in San Leandro. I was referred there by my welding instructor, an attractive lady blacksmith, who said she got great prices with a little flirting. The best deals, she told me, were 'cut-offs' or the left over pieces when they cut something for another customer.

When I went down there I knew flirting would not work. I'm not gay and neither are the guys in the yard. But I did remember to ask for cut-offs and was eventually given directions to an area of shorter pieces, all jumbled together, and was gratified to get a discount. Service at Alco turned out to be reserved for big orders and little orders like me got short shrift from the yard guys and the counter guy. And, should you wonder, every person in a metal yard is a guy.

Several months later I discovered Naylor Steel in Hayward. Viva la difference! A much smaller operation than Alco but everything was organized. The yard guys were helpful, efficient, and even loaded up my truck. However when I asked for 'cut-offs' I got a blank look. When I explained, they said, "Oh, you mean 'drops.' " They too were neatly organized in bins according to shape and size. At the front counter is a display showing every steel shape they have in stock, measuring tapes you can borrow, and wipes to clean your hands if you forget to bring gloves.

Naylor is 20 minutes further than Alco, but they got my business.

Carhenge and my dream

An email from a friend about big cubes somehow reminded me of Carhenge . It was designed by Jim Reinders, student of Stonehenge, and built by his family and friends. It is a memorial, a tourist attraction, and many people think it is a kind of joke - or at least something to smile about or perhaps smile at.

Having wandered about Carhenge several times there is also a quality of mystery about the space just like it's namesake, there is a way the dolmenic shapes organize the space of the plains, and there is the surprise of seeing an Edsel.

Wonderful things can happen when artists intersect with junk. As for my dream, it is to someday be artist in residence in a scrap yard.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Metal yards - starting with junk

Just as wood comes in shapes so does steel. There are only six; bar, rod (square and round), tube, pipe, plate, and sheet. That's it. When I was a beginning wood sculptor, I would find interesting branches and roots, and then combine them with machine cut wood or plywood to make a sculpture. Eventually my technique improved so I could do whatever I wanted. My method evolved from starting with a branch to visualizing the finished piece and then making it.

When I first started to make welded sculpture I barely could weld two pieces of steel together. I could not 'see' a finished piece in my head and fabricate it. I started visiting junk yards, looking for odd pieces of steel in the same way I looked for branches and roots. To the chagrin of my neighbor, I filled my driveway with junk metal so I would always have an interesting piece to kick start the creative process.

My favorite yard was South Bay Metals in Gilroy. They had acres of treasures so every time I got down to Gilroy I would stop by. A few years ago I would never have revealed this treasure lest other artists get the good stuff. This treasure can be revealed because, alas, they were not making enough money in the scrap business and started cleaning up the yard. The acres of treasures have been reduced to just a few desultory containers. I still stop by but it is not the same.

Fortunately my technique has improved to the point where I no longer need a piece of inspiring junk to get me started. I am not as facile with steel as I was with wood but I am pretty much to the point visualizing the piece and then being able to fabricate it. And I have (mostly) cleaned up my driveway.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Finally a good picture!

It is amazing how hard it was to take a good picture of this chandelier. The background is distracting, the colors are wrong. the light is too bright, not bright enough. My amateur photographer son got the best one - daylight with a fill in flash. And, yes, I did replace all the plastic candelabra tubes with steel. Turns out that 3/4" EMT is the perfect size.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A new knee

Many years after a youthful life with several motorcycles, including one broken leg, the knee on that leg needs replacement. At a pre-surgical orientation meeting the nurse passed around a couple of knees. They are heavy suckers - maybe 3# - look like ordinary stainless but turn out to be a Cobalt - Chromium alloy. The outside surface is highly polished so it can slide on the plastic insert but the inside surface looks like unfinished casting, which I assume is deliberate in order to provide a better surface for the cement.

Orthopedic surgeons are the evolution of 'sawbones', sort-of kind-of the way folks who program CNC equipment are the evolution of blacksmiths. I think in a lot of ways blacksmiths understand more about metal than CNC programmers. Now let's see, this means my surgeon ? Well, I hope he turns out to be an artist with CNC.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Does Google know about 'the life in steel'? Not yet, but the phrase brought up a paper on the philosophy of the body.

The steel nails forged by traditional Japanese blacksmiths contain more impurities than modern nails produced in the smelting furnace. Yet, it has been discovered that nails taken out from structures built six hundred years ago are still without rust and in perfect condition to be reused today. This fact, which goes against the theories of science, may not in itself demonstrate the belief that everything was alive, but it does suggest how the blacksmith’s long-standing conviction of the life in steel could be poured into a single nail to become a powerful and lasting life force.

The Idea of the Body in Japanese Culture and its Dismantlement, Hiroyuki Noguchi

International Journal of Sport and Health Science Vol2, 8-24,2004 p13

Back to the shop - sort of

Took a close look at the chandelier and noticed that one of the candelabra covers was shorter than the others. Hmm, what's with that? Turns out my wife left the chandelier on all day because she liked it (thank you!) and it melted one of the plastic covers that had slipped a little bit so the end was touching the bulb. At least it did not start a fire!

This is what I get for using plastic (with chrome spray paint) like the lamp parts guy told me to do. My apparent choices were cardboard and plastic but, as the name of my blog says, I'm going to find some steel.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Half done

Here is a pic with about half the crystals hung, the rest are still on order. Hard to see it well but you get the idea.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Finished the grooving and more!

This weekend I finished the grooves, Had some chattering until I centered the cutter very precisely and then it cut beautifully. Welded some ends on the tube - my first stainless steel welding with mig. It too worked beautifully although the welding seemed pretty hot. Might be due to using regular mig Argon mix (75% AR, 25% CO2) rather than the tri-mix you are supposed to use with stainless. I was too cheap to buy a whole tank for two minutes of welding.

The piece is going to be a chandelier and in a few weeks when I get all the crystals hung on it I'll post a pic.