My Unusually Small Workshop

by Dilo Marcio Fernandino
Belo Horizonte, MG, Brazil

Last October I found the Highland Woodworking website by accident. This was a very pleasant discovery for me. I browsed the tools advertised here as well as Highland's Wood News online magazine with its tips & techniques. Eventually I purchased a Japanese mini-drill set (a bit brace) to be sent to Brazil, where I live. Although I was concerned about the import requirements, the drill was delivered according to my expectations.

Then when I received the December issue of Wood News, I read the editor's challenge: "Why not write your own article for Wood News?" The desire to share my story outweighed my worries about my poor written English, so I boldly decided to submit my true personal story.

I am now a 60-year-old man living in the city of Belo Horizonte, the capital of the Minas Gerais estate, and a major metropolis of Brazil with around 4 million inhabitants. Since my college graduation I have worked in business management. I have never had woodworking training, nor exposure to other wood artisans. However since childhood, woodworking has always been my secret passion. As a child I used to make toys while sitting on the ground outside (no table available) using my father's blunt handsaw, a hammer and a rasp.

Woodworking Workbench
From the age of 18 to 28 I had to stop "playing" with wood because of my adult life duties (university, profession and marriage). However this gap in time became a very important period for my mental evolution. I realized that my hobby had evolved to an artistic level, and I discovered the existence of international literature about woodworking techniques by authors like Herman Hjorth, C. H. Hayward, Ernest Scott and Rinaldo Donzelli. Consequently, I became a self-taught wood artisan.

Considering that my passion for woodworking encompassed everything from shipbuilding to making miniatures, early on I decided to look for a single woodworking activity that might satisfy my needs, while also avoiding most of the common inconveniences. In addition, my urban lifestyle and limited funds made it necessary for my woodworking aspirations (and the consequent investments) to be downsized. So my motto became "the minimum of minimum."

Hence I resolved to replace most of the usually mechanized operations with the single specialty of woodcarving, partly because woodcarving does not require machinery and also because it dramatically reduces the size of the investment and the amount of space required (as well as the amount of dust and noise produced).

Naturally I took for granted that this approach would require a tremendous improvement in my woodworking skills, as well as an avoidance of deadlines. And as an amateur, it has never been my intention to make money from woodworking. All my pieces remain with me, as if they have become part of my family.

I also decided to focus my woodcarving activity (which comprises my personal way of cabinetmaking) and my limited time available (weekdays after 8 PM , plus weekends) on a unique style in order to develop some proficiency. The style I selected was Brazilian colonial baroque, which is directly influenced by the Portuguese baroque and the French rococo styles. My preferred wood is Brazilian rosewood (jacaranda), reclaimed from demolished country barns.

With my thinking thus organized, I purchased a tiny carving bench (23" x 23" top) and sharpened my few old chisels. My first "workshop" was the kitchen of my rented apartment. My first adult-age project was a double bed with matching side tables, all carved from solid planks of rosewood according to my own baroque-style drawings. It is quite remarkable that my wife, who has an obsession for cleanliness, manages to still love me. This remains possible because early on she established strict rules for my woodworking routine, (including the use of a rubber mallet to reduce noise) which I have managed to follow.

A few years later we moved into our own apartment where my wife granted me the exclusive use of a tiny service closet (7 ft x 6 ft), where I have now been working for over 30 years. Despite its lack of elbow room and my wife's prohibition against dust and noise, this tiny space became my "paradise" where I have managed to build a few very nice pieces.

The average time to complete each piece has been about three years. This is because of the time constraints imposed upon me by my professional work, as well as the amount of time invested in creating each piece, since I never copy an existing one. I usually try to conceive each one in accordance with baroque/rococo principles, then I make drawings of the entire project. Considering that I use no power machines, I like to play with the rococo "poetic license" by including carved details that surpass and overlap the straight limits of moldings and friezes.

My present set of tools is comprised basically of an Italian-style workbench, a small carving bench, a hand power drill, a miter saw, handsaws, planes, files and rasps, chisels and gouges (over 200), hammers and mallets, scrapers, pliers, clamps, screwdrivers and a few measuring instruments. I usually spend only 30% of the working time using handsaws, bowsaws, planes, rasps and scrapers. The remaining 70% is dedicated exclusively to woodcarving, using only chisels and gouges. I believe I have been working wood in exactly the same way it was done in the 18th century, which means painstaking physical effort and low productivity, yet high quality.

The rough wood that I occasionally buy from farmers comes from various kinds of rosewood, whose patterns and colors differ greatly. The trees from which it came were felled a century ago, and the wood seems to be almost vitrified. Some of the wood has specific density greater than one. Because of the wood's extraordinary hardness, all my chisels are bought from the best international makers, and they are hand ground to an angle below the usual 25 degrees so they can be sharpened as if they were razors.

The large pieces of rosewood are carefully examined, almost as if they were rare gemstones, so that I can best utilize their beauty and structure. As a result my original plan for each furniture piece must then be adapted to the actual wood that is available. Rosewood logs are characterized by hollows and cracks across their pith, and this damages much of the heartwood. Also, the color and pattern vary so much within each piece that a great deal of patience is required to achieve a pleasing combination between adjacent pieces.

One word must be said about the Rio rosewood, which is the king of them all. It is a real delight to see what comes out from sawing through an old-growth log. Its color is almost black, with red stripes, and the appearance of each board differs from the previous one. The patterns can be parallel, cathedral or ovoide.

After I have made a preliminary examination of a rough piece of wood that I have found, I put it into my automobile (over the seats) and drive it to a professional workshop in a nearby town, and there have it sawed into regular planks. That is the only time my lumber is worked by a power machine. My personal way of replacing most of the other mechanized operations requires several successive woodcarving operations in order to approximate the final goal. This method can be tiring and boring, but fortunately I am not in a hurry!

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My instinctive reaction to the question "What are my philosophical thoughts on woodcarving?" would be to say that I have none. However gazing around my micro-workshop, I stare at two maxims that I have pinned on the wall. They say:

"Art does not love the coward" (Vinicius de Morais, Brazilian poet); and

"When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece" (John Ruskin, English art critic).

Therefore I conclude that an unconscious philosophical reason has moved me to express them.

Observing that love is a word common to both maxims, now I can consciously assume that love is the essence of my woodcarving. My primal motivation is the passion for winning a new technical challenge, not the future usage of the finished piece. For me, every complete work must represent a new technical achievement. In addition, my unconditional love for the wood, regardless of its species or the object made, makes me believe that I am a wood addict. In short, I love the challenge of discovering the secrets of woodworking, particularly because I am a self-taught amateur.

My process of creation always begins with the most important carved section of a piece: the pediment. I also feel strong attraction to intricate moldings, complex joinery, odd angles and solid rosewood bendings. I enjoy interwining a carver's "poetic license" (unlimited fluidness) with the cabinetmaker's geometric precision (straightness), juxtaposing these two professions' opposing sentiments. So my fantasy flies high because I am not tied to a customer's taste, and the rococo style offers me all the inspiration that I could want.

I would not be completely honest, however, if I did not reveal that, along with its many highs, woodworking has also sometimes evoked in me a negative feeling, as if I were a clandestine in a foreign country. Perhaps this comes from the impressions of bothering my wife, of stealing time from my professional activity, and of doing a kind of art looked down upon by many Brazilians (including some art specialists).

However, I must also say that my determination to row against the stream has been intimately rewarding.

I used to feel as if I were a wanderer in a lonely desert, with no trek mates and no destiny. The only people who ever see my work are a few friends who sometimes call me "nuts." However the Internet has changed my perspective, because it made me aware of the many other "nuts" around the world.

I hope that the unusual way in which I must accomplish my woodworking may cause woodworkers elsewhere to feel a little less frustrated.



Dilo can be reached via email at dilofernandino@gmail.com


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