Tuesday, November 4, 2014


I have been living with the shelf in my apartment for a couple months. I am quite happy with the way it divides the small space into two distinct areas, as well as the way it draws attention to the high ceiling. I am still not convinced that staining was the best idea- it is still sometimes a bit sticky. But I am also happy that I chose to make wooden connections. I think they are truer to the idea I had conceived.

L'étagère avec tout le bordel du quotidien!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Ceci n'est pas du béton?

I recently visited a factory that makes prefabricated concrete parts. I was astounded by the amount of handwork and artistry is involved in making the pieces, just as I was at the plywood factory. It turns out that brick - which has the connotation of being close to the hand and human scale - is in fact the construction piece that can be fabricated with the least human contact. (see here)

Concrete, the actual substance of cement mixed with aggregate, is the least of the ingredients. Prefabricated concrete parts are actually made of a lot of carpentry and a lot of metalwork. The density of metal was impressive. Each rod has to be bent to the right shape and tied into place with wire.

The bending of the metal is done mostly by machine, especially for the repetitive pieces. But the wiring is done by hand. I watched a worker deftly twist many pieces using a kind of large crochet hook.

Reinforced concrete is probably the construction technique that has had the most impact on architecture. It seems like an ideal match. Steel is strong in tension but rusts easily, and concrete is strong in compression, starts off as a fluid that can flow around steel bars, and sets to a durable finish. However, there are still some problems that have to be addressed.

The first is getting the concrete to flow around the steel bars without them sinking. They have to almost be suspended within the mold. To solve this issue, there are little plastic caps that are tied to the rebar. The hollow form minimizes the gap within the material and the dome shape allows for a minimal point of contact with the outside surface.

The second problem is concrete's poor insulating capacity. The smooth continuous surface of concrete is a useful finish to have both inside the building and out. But there must be insulation in the middle. They make sandwich panels by pouring two walls of concrete with solid foam insulation between. First, the outside finish is poured, because the nicest surface of the concrete is always the one that was at the bottom touching the mold. Then, the layer of insulation is put down and the second wall is poured using that insulation as the formwork. There are special stainless steel hooks that link the two walls. The pieces, when finished, are airtight and waterproof.
To change the nuance of the outside finish, they can change one of four things- the combinations of these four factors are almost infinite. First is the colour of the cement, grey or white. Next is the colour and size of the aggregate. Next, to put more colour, they can add powdered oxides. Yellows, browns and reds are easy to achieve (and cheapest) because these can all be obtained from iron oxide. To make green, they add copper oxide. Blue, the most expensive and hard to make, is from chromium oxide. Finally, they can change the finish. It can be smooth from the mold, sanded, acid-washed, bush-hammered. For one project they spread sand on the bottom of the each mold and poured the concrete on top to make a finish that was rough and three-dimensional.

The most amazing thing about the factory, though, was its Escher-like stockyard with pieces of buildings lying around- walls with doors to nowhere, spiral staircases. A lot of the pieces are tests and failures - most finished parts are delivered fairly quickly to the construction site, and do not hang around for long. But these failures have an appeal of their own.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


When I tried to express my concerns for changing and disguising materials (see previous post), a colleague replied very aptly: "But it's not about disguise. When they add a coat of lime to stone walls, it's not a question of hiding the stone, but of protecting it, and reflecting the sun." So she knew intuitively the conclusion I came to through experience.

For the shelf I initially wanted all the pieces just to slot together or hold by friction. I changed my mind because I wanted to be sure they would stay straight, even with heavy books, and my sawing skills were a bit too approximate for my liking. Then I was thinking I would use wooden dowels to peg the pieces together. Finally, I decided I would assemble it with screws first, just to make sure the pieces fit, and then make the wooden connections. But it has been several weeks and I have been using the shelf with the screw connections, trying to decide if I want to take it apart to put it back together with wood. 

After consideration, I think it is purely an aesthetic/texture decision. I can't say that having removable screws is an important characteristic (such as for Ikea furniture) because I designed this shelf for this apartment, and even a particular place in the apartment. If I move, the shelf stays. I can't say that having wooden dowels will make it stronger, or are necessary to resist torque. I guess if I use dowels it would be so that I can acquire the skill of how to make those connections.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


I am staining my pine boards with a pigmented oil. The label on the can says "oak". I am quite conflicted about this. 

This blog began from the premise that every material has essential qualities that should not be imitated. These qualities are much more than visual- they include texture, density, reaction to outside forces (weather), and methods of working and tooling. There is absolutely no way of making an oak shelf from a pine board. 

In French, the word for "species" of wood is "essence". But in English, the word means a core substance that concentrates all the qualities of something. By colouring my boards, am I denying their essence- in both senses of the term?

But it is sometimes hard to decide what actions suppress the essence of a material, and what actions simply bring out its latent characteristics. For example, when I oiled my door handle, the wood became darker and more lustrous. I was amazed to see and feel how different the walnut was after oiling- almost like another substance. 

I picked this oil not because I wanted my pine boards to be oak, but because I wanted them to look darker. I didn't like how light they are compared to the rest of my furniture. Applying the oil highlights the grain of the pine and all of its variations, knots, checks, chips and all. It will also (says the can) protect the wood and make it easier to clean. Perhaps 'untreated pine' and 'treated pine' have different essences? Alchemy, or camouflage?

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Basics

My current project is to make a set of open shelves to divide my one-room apartment into 'eating' and 'sleeping' areas. I've learned from experience that when it comes to making, I have to simplify my initial concept until it can be reduced no further- economy of labour, material, and the clarity of the finished object all dictate this minimalism. 

I thought for these shelves I had done my thinking well. One vertical post. One inclined post. Five horizontal surfaces. One inclined surface. I just need to make a few cuts and it will be done, right?

Of course, it seems simple, but there are a whole series of small tasks that take time to do properly- time that I don't often have between working full time and not being around a whole lot. As a result, four months later, the few cuts I need to make still need to be made. Well, I've done most of them, but there are still some left.

I've been learning a lot about working with pine. The difference between pine and walnut is sort of like...celery and carrots. If you snap a carrot, well, it breaks. Cleanly. (unless your carrot is a few months old). If you try to snap celery, a bunch of strings get left behind. The same with pine. I tried to work it with a knife, like I worked the walnut, and the fibres would shear off or not cut at all. The same with trying to work with a chisel- the edge gets ragged. Eventually, I figured that the best, and maybe only way to work pine cleanly is with a serrated blade- the finer the tooth the better. I've been making my (very few) cuts with a jigsaw, a small handsaw, and a coping saw.

Here's one of the basic skills I have learned: cutting a notch.

First, make vertical cuts to the depth of the notch. I read online that you can use your thumbnail to guide the first draws of the saw- that works well. I also scored the line with a pencil beforehand.
Next, cut down from the middle at an angle to remove a triangle of wood.

Same on the other side.

Then I used the coping saw to cut the bottom flush. I tried to clean some with a file afterwards, but I realize that when working with pine, it is best to be accurate the first time with the saw to avoid too much filing- again, because of the ragged edges. But I was pretty content with my fifth notch.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

La force de l'âge

I have a memoir by Simone de Beauvoir by that name. It traces her journey as a young woman before the Second World War. She starts by describing what she feels is absolute freedom- having her own apartment, making her own decisions, exploring Paris. As the memoir progresses and France is occupied by Nazi forces, she realizes that her individual freedom is completely conditioned and circumscribed by her environment. In her case, 'la force de l'âge' is a pun- it means both her physical age, as she grows older and wiser, and the era, its Zeitgeist. Both of these affect the way she understands 'freedom' (liberté).

I find myself in a similar position as Simone (I think we're on first-name terms!) at the beginning of her oeuvre. I, too, am starting out in my working life, living on my own, exploring the city of Lausanne which I now call home. And I find I am also discovering the force of age in two senses. The first is the real history of the constructions and the city (it has its origins as a Roman settlement in the first century B.C.). This includes the way it has weathered, and the way it has buried itself into and built out from the steep hill that is its base topography. The second is the attitude of the Swiss and the way the country functions today. There is a political system of "direct democracy" meaning any issue can be voted on by the people, not only by members of parliament. And that means that ignorance and fear in rural areas (where there is a high percentage of Swiss citizens- who have the right to vote) can affect my status as a foreigner in the city. It is a country that holds tight to its traditions and heritage, sometimes at the expense of freedom.

Yet it is this same heritage which I find so appealing. I like feeling the age, knowing the history, making connections in my mind between current and past constructions. It is even more exciting for the very reason that it is not my culture. I have to infer, from my position in the present, information about the past. So I thought I would leave you with some pictures from my apartment. What is the history of these objects? Who made them? What has been their journey since then? The mysterious force of age...

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Trust the Jig

Perhaps due to my recent visit to a plywood factory, I have been interested in plywood and its properties. I wanted to try bending legs for a chair, just to get a feel for the material and how it works. This being my first time bending plywood, I made some foolish mistakes. The first one was to cut the strips along the grain, which made them much harder to bend. I used 1/8 inch, which was the thinnest I could find, but it was still pretty tough.

I soaked the strips in a bath for a few hours to loosen them up. 

When they were wet, I clamped them in position and left them to dry out a bit. They took a long time to dry, though, because they were clamped together.
After a day or so, I took them out, glued them, and clamped them back. The glue on the top of the leg was dry after a few hours, but the bottom, where it touched the base of the jig, was still sticky. I took the piece out of the jig and clamped it separately. But, here was another mistake: I was afraid the leg would "relax" and loose a bit of its curve, so I reinforced it with string. The picture below is just a mock-up so you can see where the string was.
I learned, afterwards, that I hadn't pulled the two legs equally, so as a result they had different curves. 

Lesson learned: trust the jig! I think they would have been just fine if I had clamped them without the string. I guess my chair will have to wait.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Handling walnut

I have recently bought myself a carving knife and I have been testing it on some walnut that a friend gave me. Due to my interest in the tactility of architecture - or maybe due to Vancouver's new bylaw banning doorknobs - I decided to try carving a door handle.
After deciding on the basic outline I cut the shape with a jigsaw.
I could really feel the fibres of the wood as I was carving. Pushing up from under them would cause it to splinter easily, and shearing them downwards took more force but was more controllable.
Walnut oils really nicely, completely changing the character of the wood. I used olive oil because I didn't have any other kind.
To fit the existing latch of the door I had chosen I used a dowel carved into a square rod.
The part I had the most trouble with was the spring mechanism. I tried first with an elastic threaded through the centre rod:
That did not have enough force to pull the handle back up, so I tried next with a clothespin spring:
But, the metal was too easily bent out of shape. I finally went back to the elastic, but arranged differently.