A Tiny Snail on a Big Mountain Trail.

I am a Canadian sculptor and metal artist, currently exploring elements of the Japanese metalworking tradition.

Flowing into brick walls.

One of the topics of discussion that came up repeatedly in my martial arts practice is that of plateauing, or a levelling off of discernible progress. As I move along the path of my current project, there are times where I’ll put in a day of highly satisfying work but at the end, it looks like nothing has changed or progressed. There is a sharp disconnect between two elements that are worthy of consideration – the flow of the work, and the assessment of “accomplishment” after that flow has come to an end. This is especially frustrating when it happens over the course of the long period of work.

By “flow”, I’m referring of course to the groove of being entirely connected to an activity, and the positive mental state that comes from finding that “flow experience” (as coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”). It is our relationship with the activity itself that brings joy, purposefulness, and satisfaction. But what happens when that flow experience is diminished by the lack of physical evidence of the accomplishments achieved? Are these two opposites that are actively and constantly at odds with one another, an allegory for a struggle between satisfaction and productivity? Is the experience an equal partner to accomplishment, or are the two mutually exclusive?

Something tells me that this disconnect will only be overcome once this portion of the journey is completed, and the project has reached its conclusion. Until then, there will be many more days of seesawing between big grins at a good day on the bench, and the itch to keep working “just a little more, just to finish this bit.”

And since I know y’all love “work in progress” photos… 😉

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Freshly pierced, I actually took this photo a couple of months ago.

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Carving right along.

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Some of the curves are bothering me a little, but it’s nothing a bit of filing can’t fix. Still needs a bit of fine stoning of the carved “sweeps”, but I decided to rough in the shapes on the ura first.

 

Namaste.

Making and renewing connections over shared metal geekery.

This past weekend was a good one, I was fortunate to spend a bit of time with friends/fellow makers Marcus Chambers and Allen Rozon. Amidst the pints and conversation, we also swung by the Canadian Knifemakers Guild show at the Sheraton, then on to Tosho Knife Arts in Mirvish Village.

If you’re in the GTA and haven’t been to Tosho yet, I highly recommend it. Ivan and his apprentices have an excellent range of handmade Japanese kitchen knives, utility knives/tools, kamisori and sharpening stones, in addition to their expert sharpening service.

This photo is of a tamahagane knife they recently brought in, and I must say that I’ve never been rendered speechless by a blade before. The hada is spectacular, and the coloration is a shimmering cascade, very reminiscent of the rainbow coloration of raw tamahagane. I have no clue how the smith did it, but wow!

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And I wouldn’t want you to think I’m slacking off, so here’s another little teaser photo of the big project I’m working on:

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Namaste.

Rain, rain – feel free to stay.

Rainy days in summer are the best for working in my studio space, I think.

My apartment/studio is on the second and third floors of a house that has no air conditioning or central air, save for a small window-mounted unit on the third floor. This requires a clever (if I do say so myself) network of fans to blow the cool air into the bedroom, so that sleeping in the high temperatures (that are inevitable when doing so next to a poorly-insulated roof) is somewhat bearable. Unfortunately, the studio is at the opposite end of the house, so all that cool air blowing by is but a tease – working in my studio at this time of year is usually a sweaty affair.

Except when it rains. Everything cools off to a perfect temperature, and the simple act of opening a door allows the outside to meld with my workspace, making the whole environment as big and comfortable as it will ever be.

I’m not sure what it is about the rain that to me is so calming and cathartic – working seems to progress “better” within its soothing drone. Smells of the surrounding trees and vegetation waft in through the doorway to my rooftop deck, somehow adding a fleeting bit of life to the work, almost promising that it can achieve the sort of clarity that is just outside. The patter of each individual drop is a counterpoint to every hammer strike and saw cut, creating not a cacophony, but a symphony as the flow of the work adjusts itself to the surges between each swell of rainfall.

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Back to Basics.

Sometimes, you have to take a step back.

You may have noticed that my Facebook page (which is my primary online tool) has been quiet lately, apart from the occasional link. This is intentional, because I’ve recently developed a huge problem with how Facebook uses information that is posted. While it is necessary as an artist to maintain an online presence, I’ve decided explore other means by which to develop that presence, and restructure how my work is introduced into the online world.

The plan is to move all online content to a new, “proper” website (which is under construction) that will integrate this blog as a primary communication tool for links, photos and other content. That way, everything is centralized and can be distributed across various social media as desired – hence the cross-link on Facebook from WordPress.

I realize this is kind of backwards, going from social media to a static site – but I’ve never been a conventional learner. I will continue to be active via the Facebook page because it is still a valuable tool, and I don’t currently have any contact with many of you outside of that page  – but content that is directly posted to the page will consist mostly of links back to this blog/website. Same stuff, just cross-posted from WP. Feel free to follow the blog for more direct updates.

Regarding work updates, I really don’t have much that is showable at the moment! There are many irons in the fire – lots of work in development, lots of exercises, lots of experimentation. I have a solo exhibit happening in October that I’m producing work for, and doing a bit of writing for the new website. It’s the calm before the storm, so to speak – although there’s nothing calm about my life at the moment.

More to come, but here’s a little taste…

 

The debilitating effects of Frustration.

I have a tendency to take my time with writing on this blog. Most times the things I’m writing about are either ideas that have been bubbling away for a while, and merely being “polished”, or ideas that are taking an initial form via the writing itself. I generally don’t like to blurt things out “on the page”, because the written word is something that I take very seriously, and a momentary pique is hardly something to spend time writing about.

HOWEVER…

There is nothing in life so limiting and infuriating as frustration. It can destroy the most even temper and bring the most productive activity to a sudden halt. The slightest inconsistency can dredge up multitudes of things previously thought unimportant, bringing everything to a standstill.

And the worst thing about frustration is that there is a simple cause: the seeming lack of a solution to a perceived problem.

There are two ways to look at this: a deficiency of knowledge leading to the lack of a solution, or a problem of perception that there is even a problem.

I don’t know which it is, and this is also driving me to distraction.

Rant concluded.

So, chemistry is useful after all. Or, the joy of melting things, Part Three.

Now that the entire apparatus was assembled and tested, all that remained was to put it into use.  I’ve recently become very aware of my use of materials and consumables, and didn’t want to go charging into using up propane and raw materials without a clear goal in mind for the process. As it turns out, I have a new project in mind that requires some shinchu, which is a specific composition of brass that uses a smaller percentage of zinc than standard “yellow” brass – this was an ideal opportunity to do some experimentation.

Before any casting could be done, I needed to do a few calculations to determine what materials I needed.  Brass is a standard commercial alloy made up of copper and zinc. The brasses we are mostly familiar with as plumbing fittings or hardware is typically made up of 30-35% zinc with the balance being copper. The alloy I was after has less zinc in it (15%), and patinates to a pleasant ochre colour. Since I had lots of scrap copper and yellow brass, it was no difficult thing to calculate a series of charges that made use of the zinc in the existing brass. I made two charges: one for an ingot of 80Cu/20Zn, and one of 85Cu/15Zn. Given that zinc has a much lower melting point than copper, I suspected that there might be some burnoff – the zinc content in the final cast ingots would likely be lower than measured, but I didn’t think it was significant at that point. I now know to expect up to a 20% loss due to burnoff, so will adjust my mixes to compensate in the future.

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The actual process of casting took less time than I had anticipated, but the prep time took much longer than I thought it would. Setting up for the first time was difficult, because I was very conscious of being able to move around easily between the propane tank, the furnace and the workspace where I had the mold. I set up a small sandpit under the furnace in case of any kind of structural or crucible failure, and had every piece of protective gear I could imagine.  Grating and cutting bits of charcoal to put in the crucible was a time-consuming process, but necessary in order to create a reducing atmosphere around the melt (copper alloys have a tendency to absorb a lot of oxygen when liquid, so much care must be taken to prevent this). However, once everything was ready, I was able to cast three good ingots inside of an hour. Not bad for a noob!

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I still can’t figure out why the ingot came out in that weird black colour – I suspect it was a combination of the soot I used as a mold release and the factory blackening of the steel I used for the mold.

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You can see some really crazy stuff happening in the the solidified metal in this photo, most notably the flow pattern: there is a clear vertical pour pattern visible on both ingots. I was worried that the either the melt or the mold weren’t hot enough and that this was causing mild “cold shuts” as evidenced by the layering features most noticeable on the the 85CU/15Zn ingot. Also, there is a a stream of solidified bubbles on the 85Cu/15Zn ingot. This had me worried about the structure of the metal, so forging out the plates became a large priority.

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I spent the rest of the day forging the ingots in order to make sure they were sound. I found no problems, and so felt quite deserving of a frosty beverage once everything was cleaned up.

To go back to the Part One briefly, and the whole “value” of making your own materials and tools – there was an indescribable sense of satisfaction when it was all finished and I was reflecting on it at the end of that day. The entire R&D process for the apparatus felt like I was beating my head against a wall, and I had innumerable headaches due to postal delays while waiting for components. But when it all finally comes together – it’s like when a piece of art finally starts to take shape and assume a life of its own: suddenly you think “Oh. Now it all makes sense.” I can’t even begin to describe how empowering the act of taking something that isn’t of use and manipulating it into something that is not only useful but unique is – needless to say, it is a process that will be put into use a lot over the next while.

Many thanks to my teacher Ford Hallam for putting up my unending stream of questions about this, and to the folks on the Iron Brush forum for sharing their perspectives on this process as well.

Making fire. Or, the joy of melting things, Part Two.

I’ve done a tiny bit of metal casting in the past – it was a relatively simple affair involving a number of old .925 sterling silver rings, a propane torch, a ceramic crucible, some firebricks and a homemade ingot mould. It was an interesting and informative exercise, one that yielded a nice 3oz ingot of sterling silver – but the process wasn’t going to be enough if I wanted to make larger ingots to make into tsuba (which was exclusively where my thinking was at the time).

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My first thought was an electric melting furnace – they are compact, quiet, and more than sufficient for the required task. The downside was price – the local supplier had them on hand for around $900, and ordering one online seemed ridiculous given the cost of shipping. Plus, since I’m on a “making tools” kick, it might be more educational to make the apparatus.  I ruled out a homemade electric furnace – the engineering seemed quite involved, and I couldn’t quite wrap my head around doing the calculations for the heating coil (maybe in the future I’ll revisit this). This left using either propane or coal – given that I only have a limited area to work in my downtown apartment, I opted for propane and got permission from the landlord to use a bare portion of the back yard as a foundry space.

With the decision made, I broke down my requirements thus:

1. A heat source that would be able to bring the temperature of the chosen material to “liquidus” – that is, slightly above its melting point so that it is entirely liquid.

My research yielded many simple DIY propane burner designs, all made with easy-to-find parts and varying degrees of engineering to improve efficiency. I decided on the simplest approach, and built what has become known as a “Reil burner”. This is a self-aspirating burner that makes use of gas pressure to draw oxygen into the tube for mixing with the propane – the temperatures attainable with this burner are more than sufficient for melting copper-based alloys. I was able to construct the burner with parts acquired in a single trip to Home Depot – which is good, because using propane in with fittings other than what are commercially available is tightly controlled in Canada, and you need a gas-fitter’s license to buy anything other than barbecue fittings.

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With the burner built, I then needed to get an appropriate gas flow moving through it. For this I used a standard 20lb propane tank, but needed a high-pressure regulator to adjust the flow. Standard barbecue regulators only put out 1-2 PSI, I needed up to 10 PSI.  Through a bit of online searching and trial-and-error, I was able to acquire a relatively inexpensive regulator, and found a pressure gauge at a local Home Hardware (handy for measuring the gas flow, obviously).

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Just for fun, here’s the (shaky) burner test video I shot:

2. An enclosed space that would hold the heat around the chosen material long enough for it to go to liquidus (a furnace).

Again, there are many possibilities for this, ranging from very simple to very complex and efficient furnace designs. Since I was trying the process for the first time, I opted for one of the simplest options, that of a stack of standard insulating firebricks (the ones used to line ceramics kilns).  My design simply involves two bricks mortared together for the bottom, 2 layers of two mortared bricks with a hole bored in the centre to create the chamber, and two bricks mortared together with a 2” hole bored in the centre for the lid. Another hole bored in the side acts as a tuyere for the burner. I was unsure of how the bricks would stand up to the temperatures I would be subjecting them to (they have a tendency to crack), so I assembled a tidy little frame out of slotted angle iron – the frame keeps the apparatus together and provides nifty carry handles.

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3. An appropriately-sized mold in which to pour the molten metal.

Since I was using a smelting setup that I’d never used before, I opted to use a closed ingot mould instead of trying a water-casting setup. I wanted to limit the number of variables the first time around, and decided that a mould was easiest. I built it tsuba-size out of some mild steel plate with nuts and bolts to hold it together.

Next up: how it all went down!

The value of Value. Or, the joy of melting things, Part One.

Sooner or later, you have to just make the things you need.

For the kind of work I’m learning to do, there aren’t any “tsuba-making” stores and there aren’t any “classical Japanese metalworking stores” (at least not in North America). Of course, many of the tools and supplies that I use are cross-disciplinary – they can be acquired at any well-stocked jewelers’ shop. But what about the more esoteric tools and supplies – the little carving chisels, Japanese patination supplies, exotic alloys, and the like? Certainly, I could order these from Japan, or sweet-talk friends into picking them up for me while they’re in Japan. But I’m starting to believe that there’s an elusive truth to be found in inaccessibility – if you can’t easily or affordably acquire the things you need, you must make them; and in so doing you build a certain level of independence from established supply networks that many artists/craftspeople are (potentially) slaves to.  I think there is a lot of value in this idea – not only is one able to get the things they need to do the work they want to, but the process of manufacturing those things adds another dimension to their knowledge. Knowing that the chisel can cut the copper in a pleasing way is one thing; the fact that it cuts because the artist has shaped, hardened and tempered the chisel using raw stock tool steel – this is something else entirely. An artist that makes and uses the tool successfully has a deeper connection with the tool, and thus (in my opinion) a more personal experience and connection with the work.

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One facet of this is the concept of making alloys to spec. As I understand it, properly trained/apprenticed goldsmiths are more than capable of making the metals they need – drawing their own wire, rolling their own sheet, or casting their own alloys (typically carat golds, apparently). This “independence” seems to me to simplify the creative process, in that there is a more direct line from design to execution: “I need A, B, and C – I have A on hand, I’ll draw out some B so it’s the correct size, I’ll cast up some C and roll it out to the correct size.” Simple – no waiting for supply orders to show up, or making do with D because you couldn’t acquire any C.

So this idea, for whatever reason, has become one that I have placed a lot of “value” on. The fact that being able to do simple casting seems to be a “fundamental” coupled with the relative inaccessibility of Japanese alloys in the West (commercially, that is) has placed this concept pretty high on my hierarchy of things I “should” be able to do.

And let’s face it – being able to say that your “making” of something begins at the raw material stage…that’s  just COOL, no?

A global conspiracy.

Sometimes, when things aren’t working out the way I think they should, I take some solace in the fact that there is a rich history of craftspeople that made the same mistakes and had the same frustrations as me. I also draw strength from the existence of a growing community of individuals that are walking this path – there is some great work being done out there, and I count myself fortunate to have met these people (online, anyways) and be exposed to their work and experiences in doing the work. To name just a few:

Lorenzo Amati – Italy

Marcus Chambers – USA

Patrick Hastings – USA

Remo Nogueira – Brazil

Roman Urban – Poland

And of course, Ford Hallam – South Africa

I know there are more out there, but I don’t have websites or blogs for them. I’d be interested in seeing them if they exist, please feel free to add them in as comments here.

Namaste.

Updates!

No rest for the wicked, it seems. I’m in the process of updating all my photography of finished work for posting here on the blog. Please wander over and have a look at the Past Works and Works for Sale pages, as there will be some more stuff posted there over the next few days…