The London Plane Project
The London Plane Project is a comprehensive exploration of one material - the timber of the London Plane tree, and restricting my palate to this one tree species I have designed and made a small collection of contemporary furniture.
In the last two years I have become fascinated by this ubiquitous London tree, sucking up our pollution and dulling the noise – doing everything for us when alive but as a furniture timber it remains underused. Between the commission furniture that accounts for the majority of my practice, I have taken the opportunity to comprehensively explore this specific tree species to discover its versatilities and possibilities and have a lot of fun doing it.
My first major work using London Plane was a timber re-use commission for a large residential developer in 2016, making furniture pieces from timber felled on site. Since then I have explored the material; the young pale tones and the old tea orange brown and everything in between, applying different techniques to produce a variety of tones, textures and forms. I have steam-bent it, laminated it, burnt it, ebonised it, bleached it, carved it, gouged it, scraped it, wire-brushed it, made dovetail joints, fox tenons, finger joints and lap joints and dowels.
Along with an illustration of the processes and techniques, the final collection of tables, seating and objects will be displayed at the London Design Fair in September 2019.
The furniture Design
After many experiments and prototypes, the final designs have a modernist styling with very simple lines and jointing to showcase the power of the Lacewood grain figure whilst exploring the visual versitility of London Plane. This approach also illustrates how sympathetic the material can be to a myriad of techniques.
Occasional Table - Lacewood & ebonised Lacewood frame with hand gouged & ebonised London Plane tabletop
Plant Stand - Ebonised London Plane frame with hand gouged & ebonised London Plane tabletop
Occasional Stool - Lacewood & ebonised Lacewood frame with hand gouged & ebonised London Plane seat
Timber & Techniques
The London Plane Tree (Platanus × acerifolia)
The London Plane tree was formally described in the botanical literature by the Scottish botanist William Aiton in his 1789 work Hortus Kewensis as a variety of P. orientalis.
The London plane is one of 50 Great British Trees The Tree Council selected in 2002 in honour of Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee. The list specifically mentions Britain's first London plane being in the city of Ely, Cambridgeshire.
The London plane is the perfect city tree, dealing with the street pollution by absorbing it into it's bark, which it then sheds like battered pieces of armour. This is what gives it it's mottled camouflage look.
Planted in great numbers in the mid 19th century to help soak up the soot and dust of the gathering industrial revolution, the London Plane remains invaluable. Bizarrely it may be their very ubiquity that renders them invisible to most people. Spot one and give it thanks for making your city a little more breathing space.
The oldest London planes date from first plantings around 1660-80. The oldest living examples are at Buckden, Robert Sanderson, (Bishop of Lincoln 1660-1663), is said to have been presented with two London planes; both are still growing healthily. At Ely, Peter Gunning, (Bishop of Ely 1675-1684), also planted gifts of trees, including a London plane which is now colossal.
As part of the London Plane Project I have been recently experimenting with ebonisation, a process of darkening or colouring a timber in a natural and respectful way – i.e. without the use of noxious chemicals or without covering the grain and figure of the wood in paint. An ebonising solution reacts with the tannins that naturally occur in the wood - acidity in the sap to be precise.
London Plane doesn't have a lot of tannin in it so it doesn’t turn jet black as with Oak or Ash but rather a pleasing grey colour (London Plane grey?), which works in perfect contrast with the unebonised lacewood.
Making the ebonising solution would, I have worked out the following about the ebonising solution;
The solution needs to be quite old, like craftspeople and wine it picks up qualities through its maturity alone.
It needs a lot of rusty old pieces in it. At first I thought it may get redder in tone but no.
And it needs to be exposed to the air as much as possible. It will evaporate if left perfectly uncovered but try to give it lots of air daily.
Application. When using the solution prepare the timber with a tannin heavy liquid such as tea or red wine. This draws out the tannin in the timber to make the reaction stronger - especially important for a timber like London Plane. Strong tea is perfect, the wine is powerful but does make the final colour redder. Rules;
Make sure the tea completely dries before applying the ebonising solution, the pale patches left on the wood is where the tea was still wet!
Cut back the timber after the tea has dried with some of those grey Mirka pads or something very fine.
Apply the solution consistently as if a stain or a paint – it will streak and blotch.
Wear double gloves. The stain on your hands are extreme.
Gouge Carving – The thoughtless drift
I am a cabinet maker, a furniture maker – not a carver. My work is structured and organised using technical drawings with precise dimensions and the figurative and tonal palette of a specific and familiar timber. There are basic engineering rules to be adhered to and techniques that are studied and practiced and enhanced over a period of time. This foundation does not invite much innovation or risk taking and generally I wouldn’t attempt to do things that I have learnt.
I have had no training on carving, even on the basic textural stuff I use, and I have done very little reading. I bought tools that I liked the look of and liked the feel of in my hand and just got on with it. This approach is unburdened by expectation or ideas of perfection and has had two major impacts on my practice. The first is the thoughtless drift it sends me into - a mindfulness I guess, which has all the associated benefits to my wellbeing and is a lot of fun and motivating generally. Secondly it adds a randomness or wildness to my work. This randomness isn’t just a decorative motif added to the otherwise restrained lines of the furniture but is also a way of adding narrative value – piling up layers visual and textural detail. The viewer/buyer can see exactly what I have been doing and understand the time and effort that has been applied.
Its interesting that despite knowing nothing about carving when I started, it only took a few days before I began to collate my own rules on technique, specific to the timber and the chisels I owned. So obviously I started to develop expectations of myself and then anxieties. Not only did tacit knowledge build around my use of the chisels but I also developed ideas about quality and work ethic. Typical! Well it was fun while it lasted.
Anyway, achieving what you want, or getting close to it is still fun. This is what I learnt;
When holding the chisel, hold the chisel as low down to the timber as possible and support the blade with the other hand.
I am using a - Dig the centre of the cutting edge in into the timber and scoop upwards.
The direction of the grain is so important to how evenly spaced the gouges are, how consistent their sizes and shape. I carve slightly across the grain – gouging along the grain is tricky to control and carving directly across the grain produces a very rough finish to the gouged depressions.
Randomness in shapes, pattern and quality of the gouged depressions also depend on the wildness of the feathered or lacewood figure and the amount of sapwood. You can get very different results from each particular square cm of timber so always pay attention to how the character is changing across the timber, especially if the panel consists of several butt jointed boards.