David Wolfgram: Reclaimed Woodworker

7 February, 2011: David Wolfgram: Eco-Hardwoods

Ogden, Utah. With a couple of weeks available to devote to the Project, I’ve set my sites on a westward journey. With an ultimate destination of California, I figure that along the way I’ll look for tradesmen in Utah and Nevada. Calling on my resources in those regions, it is my friend Reese Zollinger that makes some notable recommendations in the Salt Lake area. As a native with a historical perspective on farming and handwork in the area, Reese suggests that David Wolfgram is someone I should meet, a renaissance man who is living an “artisanal existence.” An email introduction is made, and soon I am driving into Ogden to see for myself just what that means.

Before our meeting I am not sure if David will qualify for the themes of my photo essay. While a jack-of-all-trades is always interesting to me, the breadth of skills exhibited by that type can overshadow the specialization of the tradesman. After all, the investment in and mastery of a particular skill is what this project is about. Knowing that David makes a living from his woodworking puts us in the ballpark, but learning that he uses only reclaimed wood is more profound.

The Wolfgram residence is located in Central Ogden, in a middle class neighborhood comprised of tidy blocks of early 20th century single family homes. If ever there were a Norman Rockwell town, this would have to be it: a tight grid of sidewalks, stop signs, tree lawns, churches, and, as a bonus, glorious views of the Wasatch range down every east-west avenue. But, upon closer inspection, the Wolfgram residence is different: besides boasting a double lot, it is covered with massive pines. In fact, this is the cue David has given me on the phone: “Just look for the pine trees.”

I am greeted at the door by an athletic fellow with bright eyes and an impressive beard. This is David, and immediately he wants to know if there’s anything I need after my long drive. He and his lovely wife Shauna are intent on making me feel at home, and I am nearly overwhelmed by their hospitality. No sooner than I’m through the door am I treated to a multi-course spread of homemade vegetarian stew, homemade bread, homemade beer, and homemade cheese, around which I am given a tour of the house and grounds.

The former is a fixer-upper David has been working on since buying the place several years ago. It’s filled with personal touches expressing a craftsman’s attention to detail, with an emphasis on workability. He’s leveled the foundation and replaced the floor– not with a prefab product or lumber from The Home Depot, but with a thoughtfully designed mosaic of reclaimed–and personally milled–hardwood. He’s added a passive solar hot water system to the roof, an efficient wood burning stove to the living room, and he’s rented out the upstairs apartment to offset the mortgage (which he makes extra payments on at every opportunity).

The latter is a multi-zone patchwork of permaculture, including various gardens and beds, grape vines, DIY sculpture, and a pond project in mid-construction. A few chickens patrol the area, and lay eggs in their coop. Though it is still winter and no crops are growing, it seems that nary an inch of the double lot is wasted. David admits that it is difficult to justify any presence of lawn where food production can be maximized. This refinement ethic, combined with seasonal canning sessions and a killer root cellar, necessitates few trips to the grocery store. “We’d love to have some goats around here, but I don’t know where the neighbors would draw the line.”

As impressed as I am with the degree of sustainability the Wolfgrams have created, I am not convinced of David’s role in my photo essay until I see his handmade furniture and the troves of reclaimed wood that comprise each piece he makes. Filling his shop and the storage area behind, massive trees have been milled and re-stacked into logs to cure–typically for years–and await a speculative future as fine furniture.

After observing various examples of superior craftsmanship supported by a creative eye for what I would term ‘wabi-sabi’ design, it is the anecdotal evidence of david’s ethic that excites me the most: An old Mormon family was forced to cut down an ancient, dying tree from their backyard, a stately black walnut that had served generations as host to swings, hanging tires, tree houses, and as a canopy to countless picnics and weddings. The tree, the family expressed, was itself a family member and should be revered. They worked with David to carefully dismantle and mill the boards, and from it create a dining room table that would serve future generations.

“It took nearly a year to create the table, leaves, and twelve chairs but I’m really pleased with the results.”

And what about the design? Did the family embrace the naturalistic, minimalistic style that seems to personify your work?

“No. What they wanted was a classic expression, but not Old World classic. They didn’t want future generations to be alienated by that old antique-y feel. They wanted something timeless but classy, modern yet traditional, so that’s what I strived to come up with. Fortunately, they were satisfied. I am too. The set is down near Salt Lake City, but I could show it to you.”

And so I’m sold. Being that the majority of David’s unsold work is currently in a gallery in SLC, a field trip to the city is in the cards. And so we agreed that in a couple of days, after the necessary phone calls to the owner of the dining room set, we’ll do our shoot–during which I’ll be shown a cross section of tool usage and practices that bring about David’s unique, characteristic, hand-worked results.

* * * *

On the morning of the shoot I am greeted at the door by a trimmed-down version of our hero. I inquire as to the whereabouts of the spectacular beard, but a reticent David proclaims it had been getting out of hand, and today was a good excuse to take care of it. A look from Shauna suggests a popular consensus.

We begin our day with some tool sharpening and a bit of family history. (Of course I am treated to homemade waffles and a fine cup of French press coffee while all of this is conducted.) Much of the work David does is in the hand, or to be more precise, is worked with a non-powered, bladed instrument. David introduces me to the adz, which I know as a handy Scrabble word but had never before encountered. It swings as a pick axe does, but the business end is a sharp spoon or gauge, efficiently removing bits of wood like a melon baller. This dynamic of motion informs other tools as well, in varying sizes and shapes of blade, from curved to flat. The variety of choices gives David remarkable control over the results of the work, but necessitates the blade being very sharp. In fact, keeping the blade sharp is its own skill, the process of which is quite meditative. From whetstone to sandpaper, there is no compromise when it comes to honing an edge. Observing David in this process, it’s clear that this regard for and interaction with his instruments is itself near the heart of his passion–to the degree that David has on occasion made his own specialized tools, each with a unique purpose and expression.

Though born into a Mormon family, David conscientiously chose a different path. As a young man he left the Church, began working in construction, and with his first wife journeyed to the jungles of Hawaii, whiling away the cold Utah winters living a subsistance lifestyle. There in the bush he found an old rusty World War II-era machete, and with it, built shelters and harvested coconuts. The first serious project he undertook employed that salvaged machete: a djembe, or African-style drum, carved from the trunk of a coconut tree. For five years David made the seasonal round trip between homes, though it was in Hawaii that his first son was born.

Years later, with the skills he had refined with more sophisticated tools, David crafted a second djembe from a reclaimed piece of Ogden cherry. As a tribute to the growing Kaleb, he illustrated a favorite icon of his son’s memory of the islands: the hammerhead shark, surrounded by the narrative history of Hawaii. David discovered that cherry is not a forgiving wood for such delicate work, as it dries quickly and is prone to splitting. As the neck of the instrument began to separate, he carved a ‘butterfly’ to stitch the split together. The butterfly he designed in the shape of the hammerhead–an example of form following function. As his work with reclaimed woods evolved, this practice of ‘butterflying’ natural splits continued, becoming a theme in his work.

Throughout the morning, David gives me an immersive tour of his space. We inspect some black walnut boards that have been curing for years, and we compare those with a recently milled cottonwood whose ends have been waxed to regulate the drying process and thus control splitting. We are joined by David’s two youngest boys, Jonas and Kaleb, to cut some cherry with which to make a rustic bowl. Then David demonstrates the process of laying in a butterfly, with the scribing, chiseling, hammering, and pole-sawing required to make a seemless joint. Finally, to emphasize the point of minimizing waste and maximizing product, David has me select a bit of scrap hardwood from which to make a modest gift. I choose a small block of cherry, and David asks me what kitchen implement I’d prefer. No sooner do I suggest a flat-edged stirring spoon does David have the shape roughed out on the band saw. Then it’s inside we go, to the coziness of the fire, to bring my spoon to life.

Sitting there by the stove, one man and a blade and a hunk of wood, the archetype of the whittler comes to mind. I haven’t seen this kind of work done since I was a boy visiting relatives in South Dakota, where my great uncles would while away the evening hours on the farm with a pocket knife and a tree branch, sharing stories of barn dances past, the Dust Bowl, and The War.

Joining us in the living room is Shauna and Kaleb, the former eschewing Legos and even video games for some carving time with Dad. It’s unfortunate that me and the camera usurp the discussion, as this opportunity of quality time has become a commodity for the typical modern family. As commonplace as this social time was for my kin, it seems exotic now–and I confess a certain excitement to know that the one-of-a-kind spoon being made, by hand, right now, with such soul, would belong to me. And every time I would use it, I would have this great memory of David and the Wolfgram clan to recall.

David explains that on cold days he’ll spend his hours here creating specialty pieces that can be sold at farmers markets, or online. “It’s much better than burning the scraps, which is typically what happens on the mass production scale.”

About this time, David’s expression takes a sour turn. He’s just jammed a small and very sharp gauge into his thumb. We’re in the middle of that odd moment of shock where nothing makes sense, where time kind of stops. There is blood. It drips on the floor, and it drips on my spoon. Suddenly David grabs the offending appendage, and the sheepish smile forming on his face betrays an interesting truth: David hasn’t had an accident in a long time. A very long time. So long, he can barely remember what it feels like, never mind how to act. Same goes for the family: Kaleb is on his feet, a little freaked out, while only Shauna can remember where the band-aids are.

I feel terrible. I attempt an apology for being the obtrusive photographer, sending everything to hell in a handbasket. As the bandage is applied, I think better of making the obvious joke about blood, work, and the one going into the other. Kaleb stands at Davids knee, knife tenuously in hand. He’s looking for some reassurance from Dad.

Dad looks him in the eye with a confident smile, and concludes the thought originally meant for me. “This hardwood is valuable, the old stuff is getting rare, and most people don’t even realize we’re losing it. If we respect what we have, it will take care of us.”

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Joel Larson: Letterpress Printer

1 February, 2011: Joel Larson: The Cowboy Printer

Taos, New Mexico. Just as there are individuals who prefer the organic sound and tactile experience of the analog LP to the digital CD, there are graphics aficionados who find a particular allure in the graceful imperfections of the letterpress-printed product over the laser-produced: the subtle embossing of the letters on exotic paper, the intricacies of the registration and alignment of characters and blocks over multiple impressions, the color and consistency of hand-mixed ink and the integration of that ink with the design … The grace of the harmoniously imperfect.

These are the reasons I wanted to create calling cards for The Journeyman Project using a letter press. The trick was in finding a skilled printer, and for that matter, a skilled printer with a working press. How great, then, that Joel Larson would be a stone’s throw from my house.

Though technically we’re neighbors, I only made Joel’s acquaintance this winter when my new girlfriend made mention of her housemate’s old printing press. After a bit of follow-up, I was introduced to Joel– bartender by day, caretaker of a sprawling Taos homestead by night, activist, musician, puppeteer, experimental filmmaker, illustrator, and letterpress printer.

As many artists in Taos are from somewhere else (myself included), it didn’t surprise me to learn that Joel was originally from the Midwest, by way of Los Angeles (myself included). There he’d dabbled in the indie film scene, and worked days as a commercial artist and press setter at an exclusive printer in Beverly Hills called Soolip.

After moving to Taos several years ago to pursue a ‘better way of life’ (read: affordable property, clean air, community, nature, and an environment of rich history and romantic inspiration), Joel acquired an 1886 Chandler & Price press. Originally intended as more of an instrument with which to explore creative pursuits and less as a tool to conduct business, a growing demand for the one-of-a-kind results afforded by his expertise guided Joel’s efforts back to the same niche industry he inhabited in Beverly Hills.

As a former graphic designer, I’ve long held an obsessive appreciation for typography: Serif and sans. Bold and italic. Lead and kern. When I was an art student, a set of graphical characters comprising the complete alphabet, in combination with requisite numbers, symbols, and dingbats, was known as a ‘typeface.’ Twenty years later, the same set is known as a ‘font.’

With the advent of computer desktop publishing, the evolution from analog to digital has had a sweeping effect on the printing industry, rendering the classic method of printing impractical, if not impossible to the revenue-minded professional. Digital printing today provides the masses with an out-of-the-box equivalent, one that yields a cost effective and precise result, which, by comparison, makes an analog printing press an obtuse endeavor– heavy, clumsy, replete with the trappings of dirt, grease, waste ink, and the need for copious amounts of storage and the organization that must accompany the multitude of movable type and graphic blocks.

The printer in Joel’s possession is a stately dinosaur. The precision of its operation is a wonder. The thing looks like it would just as soon mangle you and spit out the bones as soon as it would lay a delicate pinpoint of ink on tissue paper. Yet, when the switch is thrown and a worn leather belt brings the gears to life, it is with nary a whisper. When the rollers lap the surface of the ink wheel, the choreographic exchange of color is silent, flawless, and belies the force of its massive iron gears. When, on one side, Joel lays up the registration clips to accept the blank paper, and on the other side, the frame of type/character blocks that accepts the ink from the rollers and transports it to the blank paper, I find myself bewildered by the painstaking attention to detail that Joel must command in order to make a registered, straight impression that is neither too hard nor too soft.

Joel toils away in a laboratory of creative artifacts. From the dusty Bolex on the shelf to the creepy puppet hanging in the corner, from the Moog setup to the VHS shrine to Hollywood intelligentsia, to visit The Shop is to enter Joel’s mind. It’s worth the visit. Throughout the course of my coverage I become acquainted with a recurring cast of characters: Joel’s writer-editor wife, Shawna; nine year-old gymnast Lily; five year-old super hero, Cole. But that’s not all. Holding court in this colorful country is Bernie the Cat; emanating a particular Zen is Henrietta the Chicken; and keeping the dust on the move is Whiskey the Dog. Over four separate visits, I observe Joel in the throes of the various stages of his work: design, layout, block repair, frame set up, press maintenance, cleaning, smoking, and, eventually, printing.

“The work? It’s all in the set up,” he says. “And cleanliness is everything.”

So I learn. Printer’s ink is thick, sticky, and insidious in the way it can sneak up on you. From burying chunky or watery ink into old phonebooks and monitoring its proper consistency on rollers, to de-inking the rollers and plate with (Trade Secret Alert!) Pam, to be a pressman requires copious visits to the restroom to scrub up. At the conclusion of a project, Joel re-commodifies the unused pallet of otherwise corrupted colors by scraping them up and laying them down on large boards. The resulting effect is Pollock-esque, albeit in a Cowboy Printer way. These compositions are, of course, art. And they’ll eventually be cut up and used as texture or base layers for future avante garde press projects.

We make a service call to a local copy center to administer some TLC to a vintage industrial paper cutter. Apparently it’s visage is intimidating to mere mortals, but here Joel coaxes and cleans, oils and adjusts, and he waxes poetic about the functionality of the old beauty. “There’s a reason why this shop doesn’t replace this thing.” At Joel’s invite I cut a phone book in half to test the calibration of the clamp against the blade edge. The enormous lever handles the task in short order. “This would save me a lot of time in my own business,” he says.

Which strikes me as less than ironic, since we all know that time is money. This is exactly why Joel is trying to assess if the inherent limitations of the “printer’s conventions” can be made valuable in the minds of customers who, while they might appreciate the luxurious output of his work, may not justify the expenditure of time necessary to deliver that work. That consideration is substantial, and is inversely proportionate to the care and talent it requires to yield a satisfying result. Joel’s pursuit mandates a painful attention to detail and an obsession with craft– not to mention artistic ability. That he exhibits all three is miraculous.

It’s late, and the shop has a quite different mood at night. A couple of desk lamps put cones of light only where it’s needed. Right now, that happens to be on the set of moveable type that will print the backside of my business cards. It is comprised of a small, 10-point Century typeface. After a fourth test impression on the printer, Joel has returned the frame to the bench, and, with the ‘key’ tool, pulled the set for additional surgery. What he’s trying to do is coax a problematic “o” into printing harder, and an “a” to back off a bit, all the while maintaining the aesthetic harmony of proper typesetting: the delicate balance of horizontal negative space that resides between each letter and between each word, and the vertical space above and below each subsequent line of text. On this night, the tools required for such finessing include Scotch tape, a razor blade, an awl/punch, a needle, and … a porcupine quill.

At this juncture I cannot know if we will have business cards tonight, tomorrow, or next week. All I know is that they will look great, and it’s because of Joel’s obsession with rightness. He takes a drag on his cigarette, and through the smoke, laughs.

“Can a truly successful business sustain this craft? Will people pay for such ‘printer’s conventions?’”

While it is true that the Information Age has all but rendered the offset letterpress printer extinct, I can’t help but think that the same Age may be its salvation. After all, it’s the world wide web that provides the conduit to the kind of clientele needed to maintain such a boutique trade. Digital fabrication of plates for graphics and font layouts has become quite affordable, allowing designs to be emailed in. Thanks to a ‘craft letterpress’ revival brought about by individuals looking for a personalized look and feel for micro-press publishing, stationary, posters, and advertising, I wonder if Joel isn’t in fact catching the market at a most opportune time.

Can the Cowboy Printer survive in the 21st century? I sure hope so. I’ll be needing new cards soon.

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Jeff Erway: Brewer

18 January, 2011: Jeff Erway: La Cumbre Brewing Company

Albuquerque, New Mexico. I’ve been a fan of craft beer for years, so I was looking forward to photographing a brewer at my earliest opportunity. In the first season of Dirty Jobs we paid a visit to Long Trail Brewing company in Vermont, and having dabbled in home brewing enough to appreciate the process, I hoped to spend time with a brewer I was a fan of. Jeff Erway is that guy.

After nearly a decade of driving between the airport in Albuquerque and my home in Taos, I’d come to appreciate a local establishment by the name of the Chama River Brewing Company for their exceptional beers. I saw fit to join their brew club, which gives a discount on the refilling of growlers (half gallon glass jugs that provides an alternative to store bought beer), and allows you to enjoy your favorite beers at home.

Long impressed with CRBC’s quality and consistency, in late 2009 I introduce myself to their head brewer at a craft brewfest at Taos Ski Valley. At that time Jeff was the man, though it was rumored that he would be leaving the company to pursue his own enterprise. I remember feeling a particular disappointment, but over a year later, La Cumbre Brewing Company is the result.

It’s mid morning when I arrive at the brewery, and Jeff is running around a large, empty space that resembles a warehouse. As I set up my camera, Bruce Springsteen’s recording of Pete Seeger covers fills the cavernous space with gritty Americana. In his work clothes, Jeff looks more the old school gas station attendant than entrepreneur, especially with the sweat glistening on his face. Camera now ready, I catch up to him as he heads to a closet-sized room in the corner, where he is loading bags of German malt into a hopper which transports the powder to a massive kettle in the main room. Emptying the bags is interspersed with jogging to the kettle to monitor the mixing of malt and barley. As he monitors the mixture, he regulates the temperature of the kettle. Then it’s back to the hopper for another bag of malt, stealing a swig of coffee en route.

The brewery is only a month old. Jeff’s grand opening is still fresh in his memory, and fortunately for him it was a good one – a testament to his reputation in town as a talented brewer, and an auspicious sign that his business just might make it. There is certainly room for expansion, and Jeff is already considering the ramifications of a potential foray into distribution. “Cans are where it’s at,” he says. “Quality control and superior preservation of the beer is enhanced with cans, and we have enough space here to set that operation up. It’s only a question of expense, because the demand is certainly there.”

I’m aware that at least one brewing company in New Mexico has made the transition from on-site brewery-restaurant to distributing brewery: Marble Brewing Company. Their current Director of Brewery Operations, Tim Rice, taught Jeff the ropes when he was head brewer at Chama and Jeff was his apprentice. Several years later, their respective successes have fostered an evolution in regional brewing. In this writer’s opinion, Marble makes exceptional beer. With bottles now available in local grocery stores and tap offerings becoming ubiquitous in better restaurants, I am not the only one who believes this.

It is this dynamic that I come back to throughout the day: Jeff, a young entrepreneur, seems an upstart competitor to not only the company that gave him an opportunity, but to the master brewer who gave him his knowledge and ethic. How does that fly?

“There’s a large and growing market for craft beer, and while it’s true that we are considered competitors, there’s still tremendous room for growth. In this way, you could make a case that our independent success helps our market, which in turn helps each other.”

I see this, I say, realizing that conventional mass-distributed beers have actually lost market share to the surging craft beer scene. Craft beer has grown to 4% of the beer market in this country, and fans of microbrews tend to appreciate variety as opposed to one brand. You might call it a movement, if not a craze. “It’s true. The brewing community is very supportive of one another, and of course we drink each other’s beer.”

I ask if Ted is supportive of Jeff’s endeavor, and he stops for another swig of coffee. This is not a convenient question. “I have to believe that he is, though to be honest, we don’t talk much.” After further probing, I learn that Ted’s reputation as a master brewer is defined by excellence through quality and consistency, and not by social graces. “Ted is a professional and taught me everything I know, which informs everything I do and what I subsequently passed down to my own trainee at Chama. But Ted and I didn’t always see things the same way, nor should we,” he says. “No, we are very different.”

“How’s your trainee at Chama doing?” I ask. “Justin (Hamilton) is doing a great job, and he’s a great brewer. We’ve become good friends. We get together to taste each other’s beers, and we’re always helping each other out. It’s a tight community in our industry, and I love that about what I do.”

Apparently Jeff has a reputation as someone who helps others. During the course of the afternoon, a couple of inspired individuals pay the brewery a visit to discuss logistical requirements of their own speculative breweries, such as building codes, water and gas lines, and sewer capacity. One guy has the MLS data for an industrial property not far away, and the floor plan looks great for a brewery. When Jeff inquires about the date of the last building code inspection, explaining that a particular code certification is required for buildings of certain age and the exorbitant costs associated with upgrades should they be required, the gentlemen scrawls notes and backpedals out the front door.

Jeff looks at me with a smile. “So many home brewers want to go professional. They think a ribbon or two in a home brewing contest is the validation they need to go big, and they fail to see the demands of the business owner. I’d say one in twenty people will get it together enough to go into business as a brewer, which explains why there are so few owner-brewers out there.”

Jeff goes on to explain that it pays to serve as an understudy, if only figuratively. “Brewers aren’t getting rich, so if you’re going to brew beer, you’d better love beer and the craft of making it. Serving as an apprentice and then assistant brewer was vital for me. Only by training under a master could I efficiently excel in my craft. It would have taken years to master certain techniques through trial and error alone.” He laughs. “Then again, this comes from a guy who studied jazz guitar in college. Now look at me.”

Fair enough.

Are there any recipes you’re particularly proud of? “My favorite original recipe is definitely my Bohemian Pilsner. While my IPA is ever evolving, I think it rocks pretty hard as well. While it might not be my favorite to drink day in and day out, my Baltic Porter at Chama, 3 Dog Night, has won 3 major medals in competition and that is something I am certainly proud of.”

Jeff’s wife and partner, Laura, is on-site with their baby, Miles. Laura is managing the books, and has opened the front of the house for the day’s customers. As our acquaintance grows throughout the day (with my periodic visits to the front taps to research the product), it is clear to me that the establishment exudes a friendliness not unlike the family that owns and operates this space. And, as evidenced by the number of casual visits to the back (for a friendly shout out to Jeff ), the customers at La Cumbre are an extension of that family.

By the end of the day, after Jeff’s hopping and secondary hopping of his batch of Elevated IPA (India Pale Ale), emptying of the mash and it’s donation to a local rancher for use as cattle feed, assisting a truck driver with an overheated engine, and finally a long session of copious cleaning (“Cleanliness is everything”), Jeff and I are able to enjoy a beer together. The front tap room is packed with happy patrons, and Laura is filling the growlers I so thoughtfully remembered to bring. The vibe is chatty and warm, and despite only a month’s being open, everyone seems to know each other. By the end of my pint I’ve met a beverage distributor delivery driver, a photographer, a Ferrari restorer, Laura’s brother and his scientist girlfriend, and a competitor brewmaster from a joint down the street.

It is this brewmaster that poses the most important question of the day, and it is directed at me: “Well, what do you think?”

“I have a new favorite brewpub,” I say.

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