Friday, November 14, 2008

More on Frank Klausz

As I said earlier, it was amazing to be able to watch Frank Klausz work and hear what he had to say about his life as a woodworker growing up in the Hungarian trade school system and his views on the craft. I saw him in two sessions today, the first was on the age-old Pins first vs. Tails first argument with another woodworking icon, Roy Underhill. Klausz is a pins first guy. Before he came to America, he had never heard of anyone cutting the tails first. That's the European tradition. He was describing his very simple method for cutting dovetails, which involves no measuring at all, no bevel guages, no try squares. He cuts the pins first and he cuts them where they need to be. Fretting over measurements and symmetry is a waste of time -- time that could be spent doing work. He has a simple way of spacing dovetails on a board. He cuts a half-pin on each side, then roughly judges where to cut the internal full pins just by where they seem to belong.

Someone in the audience asked about what formula he uses to space dovetails, and, somewhat incredulously, Klausz responded that they just go where they need to go. In fact, he emphasized, they shouldn't be spaced perfectly evenly. He said, "Handwork has character." He described the coffin made for Pope John Paul II, saying that the Vatican cabinetmaker had decided on three large dovetails for each corner -- each three inches wide. He said that they looked beautiful, but he would have made them differently. He said it is up to the maker. That is an essential part of the character he was describing. Dovetails, in almost every configuration, are strong and will do their job. It's up to the individual maker to decide how to make them.

In the next session, Klausz demonstrated open dovetails, half-lapped dovetails and mitered (hidden) dovetails (which he said he had made maybe 12 times in his whole life). At the end he was asking for general questions from the crowd. They ran the gamut of technical considerations. I raised my hand and asked, "What gives handmade work its character?"

He seemed to think a moment, and then he said that sloppiness isn't character. Obvious mistakes aren't character. Different sizes of dovetails and different tail angles are character. Decisions made by judgment and not measurements are character. He said he taught his son (who has a degree from Harvard and an MBA from Wharton) how to make dovetails and that his son uses a different angle. He said, whatever angle you want, "take your angle and cut it." "Make it to the top of your knowledge."

He went on to describe what he thinks is a fine piece of furniture. It must have the right design. It must be made of the best materials possible. It must have appropriate and well-executed joinery. It must have a proper finish. There must be no visible machine marks. Tool marks inside the piece, however, are character. For the top of a table, there should be no machine marks. Underneath the top, tool marks -- even those from a scrub plane -- are not only acceptable, but add character. If you use plywood for backs and drawer bottoms, you are making a beast -- not a future antique. He often mentioned that he makes furniture for his children and grandchildren and that it must last. He said his favorite piece of furniture to make is the Queen Ann Lowboy.

After all this, someone from the audience actually asked if Klausz thought it was ok to use plywood for the back of a lowboy. His response may seem a little harsh (though the person asked just after Klausz was talking about why not to cut corners, so the guy sort of had it coming).  This is a paraphrase, but he basically said:

"If you use plywood, it's junk. Number one pine costs only $30 bucks more than plywood. $30 bucks. It is not worth your time to make it. You couldn't pay me to have it in my house. You may as well not make it. You may as well make a bird house. No, not even a birdhouse because a bird won't roost in it. Think about that. A bluebird won't roost in a house made of plywood. Is a bluebird smarter than you?"