An Annotated Portfolio & Project Documentaries

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Twenty-six. (A) Making the bench backrest … Feb 28, 2013

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The flat iron bar is inlaid into the underside, to be concealed, and secured with long, countersunk wood screws. The end to end butt joint of the swan necks is also reinforced by a one inch diameter hardwood dowel, centered and penetrating more than 3″ into the end grain of each piece.

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These round tenons are made by hand with a draw knife and sizing jig to fit a drilled mortise. In this piece I’ve also used free form tenon and mortise joints.

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Here’s a piece clamped in the shaving horse, with the sizing jig and hand-forged drawknife in use.

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The swan neck is clamped in place and both the placement of the mortise and the shoulder of the tenon are marked.

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I’m using a long straight edge just to get an approximate location and length of the paired swan necks.

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This round mortise is on the underside. Also visible is the dowel that goes up into the end of the arch on top.  I always use numbers, letters, arrows, etc. for replacement after repeated fittings.

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Here’s #2 mortise and tenon in place. The joint is drawn tight by a concealed wood screw entering from the other side.

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The slab is placed here just to check the length of the four swan necks. It seems to work, so it’s time to put the slab in the shaving horse.

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Twenty-five. The Making of a Tree Art Bench

January 1st, 2012.  After exploring a lot of design options, both functional and sculptural, and with many choices and indecisions, the project is now underway.  I finally decided to make a large seating bench that could serve in a public space, possibly in the lobby of an historic, and monumentally rustic, inn?

I began taking photographs in the workshop after selecting trees, some new ones for this project and others  I had previously prepared then not used for other projects.

I’ve decided to publish this documentation as the project proceeds, as a”work-in-progress,” similar to what I did in documenting the making of the trestle table a year of so ago.

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Getting started by selecting component pieces, each a lodgepole pine tree trunk–four “swan’s necks” and one “tuning fork”.

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The drawknife and long arch held in the shaving horse. This is an example of the difficulties, the awkwardness of securing the irregular tree shapes, and of how helpful the shaving horse is.

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These four tree trunks will become the bench legs that will also support, I think, slab wood armrests. They were originally prepared for use as dining table legs.

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Here are sketches (not very artistic) and notes, some old ideas from my 3-ring design binder combined with new options as my thinking about the piece evolved.

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Here I have positioned all the pieces into a design for the backrest of the bench. I’ve joined the two swan’s necks end to end, after drilling a 1 inch hole into each piece and inserting a hardwood dowel to maintain the alignment when I web clamped them together.

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The bench will be about 8 feet long, so I had to add a board to my workbench top to support the swan’s necks. Using the wood clamps this way solved the problem of how to hold the two swan’s necks upright, so I could begin fitting the arch.

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After clamping the joint, I marked the pieces with a connecting straight line, so that after I’ve disassembled the joint for gluing I’ll be able to realign it as it was marked. After gluing, I’ll size and shape the joint by hewing and rasping away the excess on the one piece. And I’ll inlay the flat iron piece on the underside.

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This piece of flat iron is drilled, holes with with countersinks, for flathead wood screws. It will be concealed, inlaid on the underside of the two swan’s necks to span and reinforce the end to end joinery.

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A next challenge was to place the arched tree trunk on top of the swan’s necks to make the joints. That’s a recurring challenge because hand holding and clamping the irregular shapes securely isn’t easy, but necessary to cutting and fitting the joints repeatedly.

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At this end of the arch, I decided to make a shallow mortise to secure the joint, again making an alignment mark.

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Here I’m using a Japanese rip saw to make a “mated cut,” a coped joint in which the saw is cutting both the arch and the swan’s neck at the same time. This takes repeated passes, using a wedge to prevent the saw kerf from pinching the saw blade as the cut progresses.

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After the mated cuts were done, I laid the clamped pieces flat on the bench and drilled a 7/8″ hole from the underside of each swan’s neck and up into the end of each arch to reinforce the joint. The dowels are extra long so I can twist them out for gluing. I’ll wait until the other pieces have been dry fitted and joined, so i can glue, clamp, and dowel them all at one time.

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The web clamp secures the joint as the dowel is inserted without glue until the other components of the backrest are dry fitted and joined. The black line on the swan’s neck shows both the location of the drilling and the alignment for entry into the end of the arch.

Twenty-four. Tree Art Assemblage: A New Challenge

This post will be brief, as an announcement of a new, and very challenging, tree art project.  I’m planning a series of posts to document its makings and, hopefully, its public placement as a tree art exhibit.

I’ve begun to design a tree art assemblage, essentially as a tribute to the contorted Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine–Pinus contorta v. latifolia.

I’m working with an urge to select a variety of  contorted lodgepole pine tree trunk motifs (see below), and to assemble them into a sculptural forest, a “stand” of pines that is both physical and figurative.  Within this stand, I imagine interconnected chairs and benches to serve as public seating.

For many years I’ve thought about this kind of project, and came up with the term “monumental tree art” to describe it.  Part of its being monumental would be the architectural setting, which I’ve imagined as a rustic hotel lobby or an art museum foyer.  (I have the perfect place in mind, the best setting I can imagine for my tree art, but it would be premature to disclose it.)

I admit that this challenge is great enough–in terms of design, workmanship, and finding a public placement–that I might not be able to make it happen.

As preliminaries, I’m looking in my storage to select component trees.  I’ll take photos and make sketches to include in a later posts.  Below is  a graphics display, prepared for a Creighton Block Gallery exhibit and talk last year, of the recurring contorted lodgepole tree trunk motifs I’ve identified over the past twenty-plus years:

Twenry-three. Trees (in transit)

We sold our across town “Tree Art Studio” (and storage building) last April, 2011, and have been moving trees ever since. Those in these photos are awaiting, in the alley behind our home, their winter storage.  They are a small fraction of our total tree inventory.

Here you can see how I’ve sorted the trees by “motifs” (the recurring, naturally grown shapes of the tree trunks)–fork, arch, swan’s neck, loop, spiral, and some one-of-a-kind, eccentric shapes.

Storage, and the handling that goes with it, have always been essential to the making tree art.  I’ve moved some of these trees countless times over the past twenty years since I found them in the forest.

I still marvel at what each tree accomplished to overcome injury, gravity, crowded and shaded circumstances, and long winters.  And I’m still working–physically and figuratively–on an illustrated book about these trees, with the title:  The Contorted Lodgepole–A Poet’s Tribute.

Twenty-one. The ars poetica of tree art

There are many preliminaries and other indirect activities in the making of tree art.  I imagine that any poet (maker) knows, regardless of the particular poem (thing made), that it resulted from the complicated processes of poetry (making).  I like to think that the phrase ars poetica applies to both the making of my tree art, and to each individual piece I make.

For over twenty years, I’ve used pocket notebooks and clipboard tablets to record the process of making tree art–with descriptions, introspections, and philosophical reflections.  These voluminous scribbles and word processings might someday become a published book.

I started keeping design sketches and notes in this 3-ring binder in 1990. It has sections on: tree motifs and their possible uses; specific types of furniture–chairs, tables, beds,toteboxes, lamps, etc; workshop fixtures, templates, jigs, tools; and marketing ideas.

These are drawings of what I came to recognize as recurring "Lodgepole pine" (Pinus contorta var. latifolia) tree trunk shapes. They also became figuratively significant to me as runes--runic figures/characters in a forest calligraphy.

Twenty. The Creighton Block Gallery Collection

This is the first time I’ve had this many pieces of my tree art, eight in all, in a gallery collection.  Almost every piece I’ve made over the past twenty years has been privately collected as soon as it was finished.

The Creighton Block Gallery in Big Sky, Montana, is located in a commercial center near the ski area.  I very much appreciate that Colin Mathews and Paula Craver, the owners, have been enthusiastic hosts and promoters of my tree art.

 Here’s Colin trying out one of the chairs on the day I delivered them .  He wants me to give each of them a mythological name ….

 Trestle plank table and armchair with the “Egyptian Chest” in the background.

 The other end of the table with second chair, and “The Magic Mushroom Table” and “Pagan Dancer” in the background.

The chairs and table go well together although they may be sold separately.

“The Magic Mushroom Table” and “Pagan Dancer” are in the background.

“The Magic Mushroom Table” and the sculpture “Pagan Dancer”

“The Egyptian Chest” and table lamp.


I took a turn in the chair (I’d done that a few times before while making it) and Colin took the photo, which is now on my Facebook page.

Nineteen. Two ceremonial armchairs

A conversation of armchairs

These two armchairs were designed for several possible uses together: with the plank and trestle dining/conference table; or on opposite sides of the magic mushroom table; or in an entryway or other hallway.  That’s the way most of my tree art pieces begin, with a very basic decision to make a particular piece of furniture, in this instance to make a chair, rather than a bed, or a table, etc.

I had one Douglas fir plank that was long enough to make two seats and two backrests, so I decided to make them  “plank chairs” to possibly go with the plank trestle table.  Then the challenge was to select components for the arms and legs. This is when the process I call “design by experiment” began.  I tried a number of different tree pieces that didn’t work and were set aside for possible future use in another piece.

In the designing and making of these chairs, there were basic structural requirements and dimensions to consider.  Beyond those, the challenge was to select and combine naturally grown tree trunks into a functional and sculptural assemblage.  With  both the design and the making of these chairs I tried  to embody a tree art esthetic, visually and kinesthetically, that evokes  a ceremonial “presence,” to enhance dining, conversation, or contemplation.

I wanted the back legs of both chairs to extend higher than the backrests.  Fitting these tall back legs was done by “mate-cutting” each of them to the edges of the backrest planks.  The legs and backrests were then  glued and dowelled together.

The four arms of both chairs and the curved supports underneath for the front legs are all  made from matching Lodgepole pine, naturally grown, tree trunks.  I like the balanced look of repeated shapes of the curved arms and braces.

     This photo details the mate cut chair leg and backrest.  After the joint cured, I “sculpted”  the leg and backrest with rasps, files, and sandpapers,  to create a curving and flowing design detail.  “Flow,” whether of the tree’s growth rings, or of the tree trunk shape, or of my sculpted joinery,  is an essential element of all my tree art designs.

This photo shows a number of different details, especially of the “treeness” of the chair and of the  joinery.  The armrest is joined to the back leg with a full size tenon set deeply into a matching mortise, glued, and reinforced with a wooden dowel .  The armrest support is joined to the seat plank, to the back leg, and to the underside of the armrest by the use of several mated cuts.

Other design details in the chairs include burned scars, sapwood rubbing scars, worm tunnels, knots, and multiple natural colorings due to age, insects, and fire.


This view is of the underside of one of the chairs (the other chair is assembled and joined in essentially the same way, and with matching tree shapes.) The front legs are a single “trident fork” of a Lodgepole pine tree trunk, joined to the seat with a full mortise and tenon joint.  For additional support I added the curved brace, which is also joined to the legs piece with a full mortise and tenon joint.  Each of these joints is reinforced, either by concealed wood screws or wooden dowels.

In the making of these chairs, I was aware of both the amount of work, and the challenges of workmanship, that are involved in the many processes of finishing my tree art pieces.  There is a lot of tedious, cosmetic detailing that only has to do with appearances, a matter of removing or concealing flaws, none of which have any effect on the strength and durability of the chairs.

Eighteen. A Sculptural Pine Tree Biography

This little "Lodgepole" was found near Georgetown Lake, Montana. I must confess that it was alive when I came upon it. I admired it greatly and forced myself to walk away from it in search of other trees. Obviously I returned to it later, and in a heart-felt ceremony cut it and lifted in into my arms .... (The three photos in this post were taken by my gifted friend, Steve Hulse.)

This tree is in our home, a treasured piece of naturally grown sculpture. My time spent preparing it reinforced my admiration for what it had accomplished. I'm still living with a bit of guilt about taking it. In this photo, at the point of the first break in the tree coming out of the stone base, there is a round, cupped shape that I have never seen on any other tree. From there, upward, this little pine (about 30 inches tall in this photo) lived a truly tortuous (contorted) life. I consider its crooks, twists, and curls to be a heroic biography and figurative allegory.

According to Ed Ruppel, retired Montana State Geologist, the stone base is vessicular basalt from the Virginia City, Montana, lava field, 34 million years old. I thank my friend G. Karl Marcus for skillfully drilling the pilot hole in the stone.

Seventeen. The Magic Mushroom Table

Putting the finishing touches on "The Magic Mushroom Table"

In this studio photo, I’m applying the finishing touches to a table that took over 500 years to make.

The mushroom’s convex. umbonate cap and base are made of two burls sawn from an ancient Ponderosa pine.  The trunk of the tree was over five feet in diameter.  It was standing dead, and about to fall on a log home, in the mountains between Philipsburg and Georgetown Lake, Montana.  The stem is a section of a burled Lodgepole pine tree trunk from the same area.

The three pieces are joined to create the look of an organic, sculptural whole, as if the table grew into its mushroom shape.  I shaped a tenon at each end of the stem and inset them deeply into mortises cut into the base and cap.  Inserting the burled stem into the burled base required over a hundred tries to achieve a tight fit.  The joinery is reinforced with epoxy filler.

To make the mushroom functional as well as sculptural, I flattened the top of the cap and hollowed out two niches on opposite side of the rim.  (I imagine the table in use between two arm chairs, with a lamp or candle on top, and a wine glass in each niche).

The finish is two topcoats of satin polyurethane applied over two penetrating base coats of Watco Danish Oil.  Each coat revealed the complex swirls and natural colors of the burls’ flowing growth rings and woodgrains.

“The Magic Mushroom Table” weighs over 100 pounds, so I installed four furniture glides under the base.  The finished height is about 27″ and the oval-like diameters of the cap and base average 24 inches.


The table will be delivered to Creighton Block Gallery in Big Sky, Montana, this coming weekend, and be for sale as part of Colin’s and Paula’s gallery exhibition of five pieces of my tree art.