The Artist’s Corner – Arthur Miller, Woodworker

As a writer, I like to keep it simple. A spiral-bound notebook and a no. 2 pencil sharpened to a precise point are all I need to make my ideas a reality on the page. I love the sound of the pencil scritching across the paper. It’s the sound of progress being made. But every now and then, a writer needs to raise the quality of her writing instrument if for no other reason than the sheer pleasure it brings in owning a piece of artwork.

I cannot describe the thrill of writing with my custom-made fountain pen created by woodworker Arthur Miller. So far, I’ve saved my beautiful pen with its specially chosen color of ink for journaling. But art such as Mr. Miller creates is beautiful, functional, and durable. It would be a shame to keep my pen locked away for only occasional use. I simply love the feel of the pen in my hand and how the silky flow of ink makes even a humble grocery list look like a masterpiece of calligraphy.

Mr. Miller was gracious enough to share his passion for woodworking and explain the process behind the fountain pens and other beautiful works of art he creates in his studio.

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I was born in Akron, Ohio. I attended Springfield Township Schools and graduated from Buchtel High School. The Vietnam War was on, so two years after graduating I joined the U.S. Coast Guard. My first airplane ride was from Cleveland to Philadelphia, where I boarded a bus for the trip to Cape May, NJ where I attended boot camp. I have been stationed in Ogdensburg, NY on the St. Lawrence River; Cleveland, Ohio; Honolulu, Hawaii; Cape May, New Jersey; Little Creek, Virginia; New York City, and back to Cape May thus completing thirty years, two months, and fifteen days of service and retiring as a Chief Warrant Officer, CWO4. Following retirement, I worked for a durable medical equipment company, at a hardware store, and at a destination resort in Cape May. I have always been interested in wood turning, and my hobby, now in full force, somehow got out of control.

I am married to my first wife, Diana (from Medina, Ohio), and have two married daughters who live close by, and one grandson.

How did you develop your interest in woodworking? Was it a career or hobby? How long have you been at it?

I have long loved wood. Our childhood home was made from wood of one form or another: barn siding in the kitchen, pine paneling boards in the living room and office, mahogany panels in the bedrooms. The only plaster in the house was in the bathroom. I loved the smell, the feel, and the look of wood since forever except when we moved and I had to remove all the green paint from the oak paneling and woodwork in our new city house. I loved to climb trees and build things from wood. In high school, I took wood shop from Mr. John McKay who further enhanced my woodworking experience.

Are you professionally educated/trained in wood working or self-taught?

While I have been exposed to several of the foremost wood turners in the country since starting my business, and I don’t make any claim to match them. I am largely self-taught beyond the high school years.

What tools do you use in the process of woodworking?

For tools of the wood working trade, of course there are the lathes of which I have three: two bench top (a 10 in. x 24 in. and a 12 in. x 24 in. capable lathes) and a larger 16 in. x 36 in. floor model. The smaller number indicates half the distance from the spindle to the bed x 2 which is the maximum turning diameter over the bed. Of course, the lathe can be reconfigured. The headstock can be moved to the end of the bed where by the maximum diameter is half the distance from the spindle to the floor—in my case about 7 feet. I am not turning 7 foot diameter items at this time!

Then there are the tools of wood turning. They come in two types: HSS (High Speed Steel) and carbide. The HSS come in several categories, gouges, scrapers, and specialty. This category of tool is sharpened on a diamond grinding wheel. Carbide tools are not sharpened. The cutting surface is replaced when it is no longer sharp. Both tools are important in the studio of Sweet N Round. Resins are another important tool used for casting.

What are some products you make from wood?

The product line at Sweet N Round is quite extensive. I make Pepper Mills, Salt Mills and Shakers, Coffee Mills, Platters, Bowls, Kaleidoscopes, Pens and Pencils, Sewing and Knitting items (Seam Rippers, Yarn Minders and Yarn Barns, Crochet Hook Sets), Marker Rings, Shawl Pins and Rings, Key Rings, Pill Boxes, Purse Hangers, Clocks, Garden Dibbles, Pizza Cutters, Bottle Openers, Wine Cork Extractors and Stoppers, and many other items.

Do you make furniture, sheds, toys, porches, framing, or other large items?

All items are made in my studio. Funny, in 1996, my brother-in-law and I built a shed. Soon, since I did a little mechanical work at that time, it was called a “Shop.”  Today, that same building is now called my “Studio.” I do make toys—toy tops and kaleidoscopes.

Describe the process of making a fountain pen.

How to make a pen: first and foremost, select the style pen to make—be it a simple ball point, an advanced ball point, a roller ball, a fountain pen (which also come in simple and advanced), or a dip pen.

Most pens share these steps: select the kit (metal parts which will make up the pen), match with the material (see more on material later), we will call this the blank. Mark the blank to maximize the probability the grain will match. Cut to length then drill a proper hole for the tube that holds the workings inside—ranging from 7 mm to 27/67 inch. The drilling is done on the lathe using a special chuck, which holds the material tightly on the lathe, and of course the proper size drill. All brass tubes used on the interior of the pen must be roughed up with sand paper. This process is also done on the lathe using a mandrel. Tubes which will be used in acrylic pens must next be painted white. When the blanks are measured, drilled, and ready, the tubes are glued into the blank using either CA (cyanoacrylate) or two part epoxy glue. You know CA by its more common name, Super Glue. When the glued blanks have set, the next step is to mill the ends of the blanks (make the ends of the pen square with the tube). Once squared, the blanks are almost ready to be turned. Each blank is marked inside to indicate the end. In my shop, the mark is either the nib end or the finial end. In the case of many high-end writing devices, the finial end is larger than the nib end. Finally, the piece is turned. The blanks are mounted on a pen mandrel and turned to the proper sizes—sanded to usually 5000 grit in the case of wood—and then an appropriate finish is applied. In the case of acrylic or other similar products, the blanks are finished to 12,000 grit, polished with cream, and then buffed on the buffing wheel.

If wood, the finish may be wax, wax and oil, or CA. If CA is used to finish, seven coats of CA are applied and cured, and then the blank is finished in the same manner as acrylics.

What types of wood do you work with? What’s your favorite wood to work with?

The most expensive exotic woods used at Sweet N Round are composites. A composite is wood or other material which, standing alone, has no value. The wood or other material is cast in different materials and then cut into blanks. Seashell blanks come to mind. The seashell material destroys regular cutting tools. Think of sanding sand in resin with sand paper.  It cannot be cut using a regular saw, drill, etc.

We work with local woods (maybe from my back yard), domestic and exotic woods, acrylics, Corian, antler, horn, composites, and other materials.

My favorite woods to work with are those that smell nice. Pau Ferro, aka Bolivian Rose Wood, of the Rose Wood family comes immediately to the front. Included in this family is Cocobolo, a wood from Mexico. Many people are allergic to these woods though once finished it poses no issues to the user.

What other materials do you work with?

I like to turn a variety of acrylic and Corian although at the initial turning stages the chips are shrapnel. One must protect oneself from the hundreds of flying sharp pieces. Also a consideration in wood turning is the dust.  Air filters are an absolute must in a closed shop and studios. Masks are also a must to protect the lungs from the dust. However, they also cause the eye protection to fog, so everything comes to a halt until I can see once again. Another wood I use is color wood. Grown in Maine, bass is cut, sliced into thin plies, dyed different colors, glued into slabs, cut to size, and sold to me for a ton of money. Colored wood items, such as mills, sell ten to one over the most beautiful grained cherry, oak, mahogany, maple, sassafras, etc.

What has been your biggest challenge with woodworking?

Finishing. Most of the time I use a finish called friction finish. It is mostly shellac and carnauba wax. I have no problem with small surfaces, but bigger surfaces are not always so good. I would like to learn lacquer and colors.

Many artists love turning a concept into a reality. What is your dream project?

I would like to turn items frozen in ice. Assorted shapes, permanently mounted on a base of some type, and then frozen in a block of ice to hold the smaller pieces in position. The result would be perhaps a wood or other material ball with a concave shape cut into it or a pyramid or a box. I’m still thinking about it.

What has been your most complex project to date?

I’m thinking the most complex, which should be the simplest, drilling a hole through a baseball bat.

What do you enjoy most about woodworking and/or working with your hands?

I like taking a piece of wood, conceptualizing, mounting on the machine, and then have the wood dictate to me what it wants to be.

Does your chosen craft require practice? If so, how much?

How do ya get to Carnegie hall? Practice, practice, practice. I often get pieces of wood from someone’s family farm, or the yard, or something Grandpa always liked. The instruction: “I dunno, see what you can get from it”.

How critical are you of your own work?

I’m pretty tough. My quality control lady (wife) is way tougher. My burn box is full of items that did not make the grade.

Of what product/piece/project are you most proud?

I like my “Dark Side of the Moon,” my “Lunar Lander,” and my large “Natural Edge Cherry Burl Bowl”—I don’t know what to name it.

Do you teach your craft to others?

Absolutely. Belonging to the Cape Atlantic Wood Turners, an AAW affiliate (American Association of Wood Turners), one of the missions of our club is to spread the word. Each member has some private instruction arrangement and several of us teach basic wood turning at our local Technical Night School.

Do you participate in trade shows, craft shows, lectures, demonstrations, or conferences?

Shows are where it is at. I enjoy meeting the people, explaining, demonstrating, showing, and selling my work. It is a joy to see someone come to my table and their eyes just light up. One show, it was a Sunday afternoon, a lady came to my table, and tears immediately filled her eyes. I didn’t know what to think. Her son was about to graduate from college and her husband, a Vietnam Vet, had just passed away. She was looking at my wooden Sierra Vista Pen, which was a rendition of the Vietnam Service Ribbon, in wood. Something we enjoy but have not done a lot is the home parties.

Are all your pieces unique? Do you work by commission?

I tell people all the time that my pieces are unique. I never (well rarely) measure. If you find two alike, it was an error or a forgery. Bring it back!

I am honored when people ask me to do commission work. I once made a lid for the urn for Uncle Fred’s ashes.

When I do this kind of work, we understand we will aim for this or that goal. If my work misses your goal, we will try again until you are happy. However, woodworking is an art form.

Where would you like to go with your woodworking?

I’m pretty happy with where I am though not stagnating. There are items I must make to sell—that is what pays the bills—and there are items I call bait. Be they big or small, bait are items people want to drool over but really, where will they put it or how will they afford it?  I like to make captured ring items.  Typically a wine glass looking piece with a ring of the stem.

Does your skill set include carving or wood burning?

I burn my fingers all the time! I do not (have not) carved. Occasionally, I will burn a ring into a piece as accent.

What are you currently working on?

Pens, pens, pens. I make usually sixty pens at a time. Pepper mills for the summer.

Where is your workshop set up?

My shop is at the rear of my home. It is 12 x 16 feet. I have no radio because I want to hear the machines and the work as it is developing.

Where can people find you on social media?

We call ourselves Sweet N Round, and we can be easily found on Facebook.

Sweet: because we are honeybee keepers. We also honor my wife’s heritage as a Medina Bee. Medina is the honey capital of the world and home of the A. I. Root Company—formerly the largest honeybee supplier in the world and now the premier candle producer in the world.

N: for a conjunction

Round: well, I make round things.

Genius Indeed

Anyone who knows me knows that I read more than I watch movies.  It’s not that I have anything against movies, there are some excellent ones out there, but I love the place reading takes me.  A little prose to tantalize the senses, characters with whom I can relate or debate, description that draws me in:  I lose myself in the writing to the exclusion of everything around me.  But when a fellow book-snob recommends a movie, I seriously consider watching it.  Such was the case with Genius starring Colin Firth, Jude Law, Laura Linney, and Nicole Kidman.  The movie chronicles Scribner’s editor, Max Perkins, as he oversees the careers of Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway with the emphasis on Wolfe.

The first three actors immediately caught my attention because they are among my favorites.  Turns out Nicole Kidman portrayed Aline Bernstein, Thomas Wolfe’s unofficial patron and jilted lover, with an incredible amount of skill.  She’s matured quite nicely as an actress beyond being a pretty foil for Tom Cruise’s macho-man roles.  When she asks Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe if he knows how hard she’s worked to look at him and feel nothing, her strength radiates from the screen.

As for Laura Linney, who never fails to please, I thought she was underused in this film in her role of Max Perkins’s wife, Louise.  Her character was strong when she stood up to her husband, demanding he spend more time with his five daughters and less with his author, Thomas Wolfe, but she seemed a titch on the peripheral.  I understand the movie focused on the relationship between Perkins and Wolfe, but why waste Linney’s talent on one impassioned plea and nothing more?

Colin Firth as Max Perkins appealed to me as a writer.  Firth’s portrayal was solid, marching steadily on as an editor, drawing lines with his red pencil through a writer’s work with the precision of a scalpel.  I thrilled and cringed all at once watching those scenes.  But the one that delighted me the most was when Firth/Perkins sat on a train reading Wolfe’s manuscript that would become Look Homeward, Angel and realized it was worthy of publication.  Again, I was drawn into the movie by Firth’s slight smile, drawn into his head to the point I could see the wheels turning because he knew he’d hit upon literary genius.  Ah, to be a writer in those days when the relationship between editor and author meant hashing out the chapters line by line while secluded in an office.

The first thing about the movie that caught my attention was the cinematography in the opening scenes depicting the 1920s.  Usually pictures or films from this era are shades of gray or sepia.  Such was the case with the movie until it slowly faded to color past the opening credits.  Only the coloring didn’t change all that much because the streets of 1920s New York were rather gray and brown anyhow.

Now think beyond the splash of color implied by jazz and flappers and you’ll realize this was a great technique to employ in a movie about writers.  You’ll see it throughout the movie from Max Perkins’s cigarette smoke-clouded office slanted with rays of sunshine, to Perkins’s white home against a plain background, to scenes of men in breadlines during the Depression.  This may sound rather boring, but I believe it was a skillful attempt to capture black words on a white page, i.e. writing.  In fact, the whole movie was so brilliantly black and white, that I must give high praise to whoever thought of transitioning the written word to the viewed image in such a way.

Make no mistake, however; the movie was anything but colorless.  Jude Law as the larger-than-life Thomas Wolfe was so over the top with his portrayal.  Clearly Wolfe was a genius, but I flinched every time he opened his mouth, romping around scenes like a Great Dane puppy, and baying his slightly crazy, writerly musings.  I could see why Wolfe needed reigning in and taming by Max Perkins.  Law was at his most unsophisticated, un-Jude-like self; I forgot that he was acting and not truly Thomas Wolfe.

Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway provide two nice cameos of the authors.  More exciting was the camera panning what looked to be first edition novels by said authors on the shelves in Max Perkins’s office.  Even if they weren’t, I’m sure I wasn’t the only writer salivating at the dream of getting my hands on a first edition of any of their works.

One small sidebar to the Perkins/Wolfe drama was the tiny restoration of my faith toward F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with F. Scott and banged him up pretty bad on my blog.  (F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Short Stories, Dear Scott, Sincerely HL, Under the Influence).  The viewer is given a small glimpse of F. Scott as the tender caretaker of his mad wife, Zelda.  For me, this persona never came out in Fitzgerald’s writing.  To see him as something other than the money-grubbing, mad-for-fame author in pursuit of the “top girl” was refreshing.

I’ll not spoil the ending of the movie as it delivers more emotionally impactive word-to-image scenes, but I’ll close by saying it was the best movie I ever read.

Tabloid City by Pete Hamill

tabloid-cityI enjoy sharing reviews for books, movies, and music in the section of my blog by the same title. Every now and then, I mention one that didn’t quite hit the mark in my opinion because I also enjoy generating discussion on the material especially if a follower disagrees with my review.

Such is the case with Pete Hamill’s novel, Tabloid City. I would never discourage anyone from reading this book because I allow people to come to their own conclusions but mostly because I’m hoping he or she will point out what I missed. Until then, I believe this novel would appeal solely to people who lived or are living in New York and/or are currently employed or retired journalists. Unfortunately, I don’t fall into those categories.

It’s not that I find New York and journalism boring, but the way both subjects were presented in Tabloid City did nothing to pique my interest regarding them. It’s not unusual for me to grab my phone while reading to Google something for reference even if it’s a subject with which I am familiar. Many of my favorite authors spur this kind of self-education in me, and I love it.

Let me also say that I adored Forever, North River, and Snow in August also by Pete Hamill, and that one mediocre book will not keep me from reading his other works. Still, I’m not sure what the author was thinking when he wrote this jargon-filled tale. I know he writes his passions into his works (New York and journalism), and while I can bestow an A for effort here, I cannot go much beyond a D- for the result.

tabloid-city-2Tabloid City is incredibly disjointed. It’s a scattering of stories that read like newspaper clippings replete with jagged backstory and each character’s knowledge of New York, other characters, events, etc. I kept searching for continuity in this laundry list of stories, something to tie them together or make me care for the characters. Slow going defines the novel until about page 104. The thin thread of a tale about a Muslim terrorist and his police officer father and another about the demise of newspapers and libraries saved the book; otherwise I’m left feeling that this was the framework for a better story handed off too soon.

Let me end on a positive note and encourage you to read the other three books by Pete Hamill I mentioned above. Also, I haven’t read the Sam Briscoe mystery/thriller trilogy written by Pete Hamill, but fans of the books will be happy to see Sam reappear in Tabloid City.

Welcome to The Apple Crate

welcome-to-the-apple-crateOne of the most well-known results of Prohibition was the speakeasy. In total rebellion against the laws meant to curb crime and drinking, speakeasies popped up almost everywhere from 1920 to 1933. According to one article I researched while writing my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, for every legal saloon operating prior to Prohibition, at least six speakeasies opened after Prohibition. With all that temptation, it was understandable that John and his two best friends, Sam and Claude, would end up in one of the illegal establishments pushing the boundaries of youthful adventure.  Here’s what I discovered while creating The Apple Crate, a speakeasy located below a grocery store owned by a gangster of my inventing, Leo Jenkins.

Like legal establishments and today’s clubs, some speakeasies offered entertainment in the form of singing or jazz bands. Entry into the club required knowledge of a password letting the doorman, often the owner or manager of the club, know that you weren’t law enforcement and to keep the government from finding the location. A personal introduction or presenting of a card may also have been required to ensure security against raids.

The term speakeasy came from a bartending term. To speak easy meant to act casually so as not to draw attention to oneself with quick, nervous behavior when purchasing illegal alcohol. Terms used to conceal the identity of bootleg liquor included coffin varnish, monkey rum, white mule, horse liniment, panther sweat, tarantula juice, and rot gut. Not very appealing names for the barely drinkable booze served, but it didn’t keep people from seeking out alcohol every chance they had.

Speakeasies were also known as a blind pig or blind tiger, but these terms were reserved for lower class establishments. There is debatable history surrounding these names. One story claims that entertainment involving pigs resulted in the first name. People supposedly paid to see the pig and a drink was thrown in for free. Blind tiger was purportedly the name used when the identity of the seller was concealed.

While gaining access to a speakeasy required connections, locating one probably wasn’t as difficult. They were everywhere in America and Canada, usually set up in stores and businesses, operating right next to or within legal establishments. Speakeasies were most common in New York where the famed 21 club had the extra security measure of safety switches meant to short circuit and deny access to all the of the doors that contained alcohol.

Because respectable women weren’t welcome in a public bar prior to Prohibition, many started flocking to speakeasies after the Eighteenth Amendment took effect. These women, easily recognized as flappers, would dance the night away to music performed by jazz bands.

Gangsters were often associated with speakeasies, the most famous being Al Capone, but luckily John and his friends didn’t encounter any during their night out. Hustling illegal liquor was an extremely profitable venture for gangsters, and many became quite wealthy at it. Unfortunately, many regular people also became rich by supplying the demands of thirsty Americans.

Some of the crazier methods of transport included hip flasks, hot water bottles, false books, garden hoses, carriages with babies placed on top, carpenter’s aprons, coconut shells, and in one interesting case, eggs. Supposedly, a creative soul emptied the eggs of their true contents and refilled them with liquor.

The interior of a speakeasy could range from the extremely elegant to an unsophisticated hole-in-the-wall. Depending on the success of a particular speakeasy, drinks might be served in appropriate barware or from chipped mugs. In either case, people ranging from the famous, wealthy, and artistic to the downtrodden streamed to speakeasies during Prohibition. The only thing that went away with the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment was the crime involved with selling alcohol. Well, most of it anyways.  (See:  By the Light of the Silvery Moon)

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