Tuesday, May 18, 2010

In Which Ted Finds Splitting Hairs Would be Easier

This morning I had a frustrating experience. I've decided to make the next lute bowl of Macassar ebony. Some time ago I'd come across a stick of this rare material at the local exotic wood purveyor. My tape measure told the tale... the board was just large enough in all dimensions to yield the 14 pieces needed.

Ebony is a rare substance. It's hard, heavy, black, and it's always been glorified by those who work with wood. In fact, the French word for master cabinet-maker is "Eboniste". I paid a handsome sum for the little board.

As a person of conscience, I go through periods of some doubt where exotic woods are concerned. It's true that this little board passed through three or four pairs of hands and likely experienced a 100% markup at each stage. I'm against unregulated forestry practices. The sad fact is, this board's other likely destination was a fire pit. Unchecked population growth in its place of origin means that trees are either burned to make way for farmland, or burned for heat.

Does using such a scarce resource for a creative endeavour devalue the material? Or increase the desire for it in the buying public, thereby making worse exploitation probable? I'd like to think that through employing it in a high value object designed with longevity in mind I'm somehow making sustainable harvesting a better economic opportunity than destruction by fire.

Recently I was watching one of those "Let's make your house palatable to hip young home buyers" shows. "Crash" went the sledgehammer as the old kitchen cabinets made way for new. I was a little outraged by what happened next. The new cabinet doors were made from photo-print foil laminate in the pattern of... macassar ebony. Or, "mer-crasser", as the bubbly hostess repeatedly called it.
Sigh. I think of some materials as utilitarian in their scope. Gold-plated toilet seats are wrong on many levels. If you're going to make a plastic-faced cabinet door, it should say something about plastic as a material. Utilizing the image of a scarce and beautiful natural material for storage purposes inoculates us against what a miracle the real thing is.

I had to psyche myself up to cut the ebony. I put it off for a few days until I arrived at a morning I was feeling up to the challenge. I spent some time tuning up my rickety old band saw and made test cuts to dial in the fence just so.

Wood does not sleep. It's in constant motion, gaining water or losing it. The block had been slightly larger when I bought it and had shrunk a little though drying out. Recall, if you will, that it was just wide enough to provide 14 strips, including the material lost to the saw blade. Had it rained this morning, I'd likely have been okay. As it was, I ended up with 13 perfect slices... and one too thin. By half a millimeter. Either the saw blade expanded with friction, or the fence was misplaced. By 1/24th of a millimeter. Cumulative error is an awesome thing.

So, I'm left with a decision. I could make a so-called "beach ball" lute with alternating dark and light staves. (They always leave me cold.) I think I will take the thin stave and use it for the capping strip, padding it out with a piece of veneer on the reverse side to make up the thickness. Such is life!

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