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Thirty-nine. “Old Faithful Inn’s Architectural Tree Art”

The following is the text of a brief article I wrote as an introduction, a first publication in an expanding series of articles and essays written as a tribute to the remarkable “Lodgepole” pine trees.  My ultimate goal is to write a book, illustrated with photographs, titled Contorted Lodgepoles: A Poet’s Tribute.  One chapter of that book will be an essay that expands on my observations about architect Robert Reamer’s “architectural tree art.”

Here’s the photograph that accompanied the article.

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This photo dramatically illustrates the “architectural tree art” of the Inn’s lobby. Architect Reamer combined both the ideal and the deviant “Lodgepole” pine tree trunks. The photo also illustrates the elevations, processions, and ascensions that I mention in this article. The Crow’s Nest is “nestled” in the pinnacle of the vaulted ceiling. What a masterpiece it is …! (Jack Waller photo)

Explore Big Sky
August 8—22, 2013 issue, “BACK 40”

“Old Faithful Inn’s architectural tree art”

By Jack Waller, Explore Big Sky Contributor

I’m one among a multitude of admirers of Yellowstone National Park’s Old Faithful Inn.

Designed by architect Robert Reamer in 1903, the inn is a monumental example of rustic architecture. For well over a century, it’s been a destination for millions of visitors, and the voluminous subject matter of devoted scholars, historians, writers and photographers.

One essential element of its rustic appeal is what I call “architectural tree art,” the extensive use of lodgepole pine tree trunks both on the building’s exterior and interior.

Reamer’s design, especially in the lobby, combines the shapes of both the straight and the contorted types of the species, Pinus contorta var. latifolia. The magnitude of Reamer’s structural and decorative uses of these trees evokes amazement, awe and a sense of architectural mystery.

In the late 1980s, three seminal events led to my becoming a tree art furniture maker. I moved to southwest Montana to live in a lodgepole pine forest; I visited Old Faithful Inn for the first time; and I read Craig Gilborn’s Adirondack Furniture and the Rustic Tradition.

“Tree art” and “tree art furniture” are terms I first learned from Gilborn. For the most part, they refer to the use of recognizable tree shapes in the design and construction of rustic architecture and in furniture making, respectively.

In July 2012, after more than 20 years of making tree art furniture from contorted lodgepole pine trees, I took a private bellhop’s tour of the upper levels of the inn’s lobby.

Public access was closed in the late 1940s for safety reasons, due to the large numbers of inn visitors. Now twice a day, a group of four people can, by reservation only, accompany a bellhop to the inn’s rooftop either for the morning or evening raising or lowering of flags.

Ascending to the lobby’s upper levels, we arrived at the pinnacle of the lobby’s  vaulted ceiling, and arrived at the crow’s nest.  From its great height in the peak of the vaulted ceiling, it overlooks all the interior architectural tree art – the lobby floor, the surrounding column-brace-beam frameworks, and the lower balconies with their interconnecting staircases, catwalks and platforms.

A small, enclosed, cage-like structure, the crow’s nest epitomizes the inn’s architectural tree art. As a tree artist, I recognized the recurring motifs that I’ve identified in my own work: swan necks, tuning forks, alpenhorns, shepherd’s crooks and arches. I also saw there the mastery of the carpenters/tree artists who executed these elaborate designs.

The crow’s nest door is positioned near an exit staircase, with another door leading outside and up to the summit of the inn – a long, rectangular roof platform with panoramic views of the Old Faithful geyser basin.

During the tour I realized an essential element of Reamer’s plan was to provide all guests with the experience – both physical and psychological – of elevation, procession and ascension, all culminating on the rooftop.

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Thirty-eight. The bench: my artist’s statement

(I originally posted this as a draft on July 22, 2013, which preceded post “Thirty-nine.”  I decided today to go ahead an publish it.)

The architectural tree art of Old Faithful Inn was an original inspiration for me in the late 1980s.  Since then I’ve made  tree art furniture, sculpture, and architectural details, using contorted lodgepole pine trees.

From its beginning, I designed and made this bench with Old Faithful Inn in mind.  As tree art furniture, its design echoes the architectural tree art of the Inn, especially that of the lobby’s log framework bracing, balconies, staircases, catwalks, and the “Crow’s Nest.”

In July of 2012, I took a private bellhop’s tour of the upper levels of the Inn’s lobby for the first time, ascending to  “The Crow’s Nest,” and out onto the flat roof’s viewing platform.  I repeated this privileged and inspirational tour in June of 2013.

These tours deepened my appreciation of the artistry of architect Robert Reamer’s designs and of the craftsmanship of those he employed to execute them.  The tours also increased my sense of connection, as a tree art furniture maker, to the Inn’s architectural tree art and to the contorted lodgepole pine trees. And they also evoked a desire to exhibit my tree art furniture in the lobby of the Inn, for public use as seating, portrait photography, and to serve other  educational values.

Lastly, the bench was made in conjunction with my writing of an essay titled  “Architectural Tree Art of Old Faithful Inn”, for magazine publication and to later become a chapter in my forthcoming book length manuscript, Contorted Lodgepole Pines: A Poet’s Tribute.

“Tree working” Processes

I began the bench in December of 2012 and “finished” it in June of 2013.  The various phases of the project are documented, in detail, on this blog.

Components

The design includes 19 individual, naturally grown, lodgepole pine tree trunks (no limbs or branches), and five tree art “motifs”:  swan neck, alpenhorn, arch, ox-bow, and tuning fork.

I chose the individual trees and combined their shapes to serve both structural and decorative purposes.  The overall design emphasizes the individual “character” of each tree, while  also achieving a symmetrical pattern and functional unity.  The natural “defects”—cracks, gnarly grain patterns, insect activity, discolorations—are essential rustic details of tree art furniture.

Joinery

The most-used joints are round mortise and tenon, saddle notch, and mate cut edge-to-edge butt joint (on the seat slabs).  After gluing and clamping, most of the joints were reinforced with either wood dowels or wood screws.

Detailing and Finish

The project included tedious and time-consuming processes of cosmetic detailing:  shaping of joints; chamfering of edges; filling holes and cracks; scraping and sanding away of coarse tool marks, wood filler, and excess glue.  Stain pens were used to blend colors and to conceal cosmetic flaws.

I first applied two coats of penetrating natural Watco Danish Oil.  The final finish is  two top coats of satin polyurethane.

Specifications

The bench is 8 feet long overall, with a backrest height of 46 inches.  The slab wood seating area is 71 inches wide between the armrests.  I estimate its weight at about 200 pounds.

Here are front and back views of the bench as it sits in our greenhouse-to-be …

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Thirty-seven. Getting close …

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After too many hours of fixing its cosmetic flaws, the bench now has two coats of penetrating Watco Danish oil (natural) and two top coats of satin polyurethane.

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I wanted to preserve and enhance all the varied natural colors of the individual trees, but I did use some stains, especially Minwax stain pens, to conceal tiny blemishes and blend in wood fillers.

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The horizontal pencil lines on the bottom of the two legs are guideline for a final trimming of the leg. Each of the bench’s four legs was marked to the same height from the floor by using a measuring block.

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In this 3/4 rear view, I like the repeated and stacked use of five arched shapes, combining three tree trunk motifs–“ox-bow,” “C arch,” and “swan neck.”

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I took this photo as a close-up, primarily to show the variety and colors and grain flows. The leg and armrest are from beetle-killed trees.

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This is the better of the two leg and armrest saddle notches.

Thirty-six. Starting the finishing.

Bench photo

I’m building the bench on the indoor deck of our attached greenhouse. Since I often look out from our living room at the work-in-progress, I decided to take a photo through the window.

With all of the components now in place, I’ve started the tedious and time-consuming processes of cosmetic detailing.  This is strictly a matter of appearances, mostly by removing  tiny areas of remaining bark or cambium; removing excessive glue, and  tool marks left by coarse grinding, rasping, chiseling, sanding; filling counter-sunk screw holes and less-than-perfect joineries; shaping/sculpting joints so they flow together; and chamfering/rounding all edges.

The final stages of sanding require multiple types of electrical power and hand sanders and grit abrasives, all depending on the desired final appearance.  Another cosmetic process is using stain pens of different shades to conceal the wood filler in the joints and screw holes.  I try to blend differences in color with a stain that matches other colors in the tree.

I have to admit that I’ve recently arrived at the point where my desire to have the bench finished is almost as strong as my desire to do the best possible job. That includes dealing with a sense of diminishing returns.

I’m often told that I will be the only one who will notice the imperfections, that everyone else will have a general impression of the bench.  That’s probably true, with the exception of other woodworkers or carpenters.  That’s when I remind myself that tree art is not comparable to fine woodworking.  Even the best of tree art furniture lacks the precision construction and sophisticated  finish that defines fine woodworking.  The trees (as unprocessed “wood”) are not comparable to the exotic hardwoods used in fine woodworking.

Thirty-five. “Ox-bow” stretcher on back legs

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In preparing to place the ox-bow stretcher, and locate the mortise holes at each end, it was important to measure the difference between its two ends on a single line, by clamping an 8 foot straight edge on what will be the lower end. The goal was to place the holes at levels that would place the entire ox-bow in a horizontal position when installed.

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This view, from the other end, shows the offset and the required difference in the round mortises.

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The position of the lower mortise is marked for drilling a 2 9/16″ hole. The straight line on the leg is a guideline for the drilling angle, because the tenon will enter at angle lower than level. I’ve used two boards under the stretcher to support it at a height the keeps the entire stretcher in the desired position.

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The opposite end of the stretcher required a saddle notch, because of the difference in the heights of the two ends. The end of the stretcher was left in its full diameter.

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The 2 9/16 inch hole is located in a solid part of the leg. The appearance of the location was also a design consideration.

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This end has a solid saddle notch fit, that I’ll secure with two countersunk 3/8″ lag screws.

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This is the overall look of the rear ox-bow stretcher.

Thirty-three. Armrests for the bench

With the addition of the armrests, the bench’s components are almost completed.  As the armrest design evolved, I had to give up my plan to have the bench come apart in two sections.  With the armrest’s fixed connection between front and back legs, the bench can no longer be disassembled.

I still have to add an “ox-bow” tree trunk stretcher between to two back legs.  I’ll also add a horizontal brace under the front of the bench seat, using the front “ox-bow” for support.

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This 3/4 view from the back shows one armrest roughed-in. It also shows the growing number of the bench’s component tree trunks. There are, I think, sixteen tree trunks in this photo. When the bench is finished I’ll do an exact count.

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In this 3/4 front view, both armrests show. Each is fashioned from a slab of lodgepole pine, with a curved underside and flat surface on top.

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This close-up shows the armrest support brace, made of a segment cut from a little tree trunk naturally grown in an arched curve. For added strength, it is inset both into a recess in the front leg, and into a groove chiseled in the armrest. It is secured with Torx finish screws.

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A view from the other end.

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This top view at the bench’s right end shows the front leg and armrest joined by a coped saddle notch, with the arched support left “wild” for later trimming. The bottom of the photo shows more of the coped saddle joinery, four at each end of the bench, used as a key element of the bench’s design and its structural strength.

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Here are the two coped saddle notches of the armrest. Sequence was critical in cutting them. The first notch had to be cut and fitted to the back leg, because the armrest moved the depth of the notch toward the back. Once the back notch was finished, I could accurately lay out the front notch. Such double joineries require multiple attempts at fittings.

Thirty-two. Another project: coat–hat–boot rack

While the bench project continues, I finished a coat–hat–boot rack for our own family use.

The height is over six feet. Except for the two slab pieces of the base, the rack combines twelve lodgepole pine tree trunks (and limbs?). The large central tree is a “swan’s neck,” my favorite contorted lodgepole pine motif.  All of the hooks were  “mate-cut” to fit flatly and tightly to the central tree, and joined with trim head Torx screws.   I’ve included two close-ups of the joinery, that also show insect activity and other “character traits.”

No stains were used. The different colors result from aging, weathering, and insect activity.  The finish is natural Watco Danish Oil.

It is rare that we get to keep any of my tree art, and especially pleasing to me because I like this piece a lot, both for its appearance and its usefulness to our family.

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