Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Spirit in the Wood

“…The tree, which is used for the body of the drum, contains a living spirit. Great care is taken to make sure that the wood of the drum is alive.” 
from: “The Beat of My Drum: An Autobiography” by Babatunde Olatunji

Ask my family. Most of my adult life I have wanted a hand drum. That might seen to be an unusual desire coming from a retired white guy in the suburbs, but it was an itch that just wouldn’t go away. At first I thought I wanted a conga drum. Then I attended a drum circle where they had an assortment of African drums to use for the evening. Most of the drums were djembes, the familiar West African style drum, but a few were different. They were taller, had a slightly different shape and a much deeper, richer sound. They are called bougarabou, a bit of onomatopoeia, since the drum name is the sound it makes (bou-gara-bou). I immediately knew what type of drum I wanted. It was a perfect fit for my baritone soul.

Last week I finally got my drum. I love it. I bought it from a shop called “Spirit in the Wood”. With a name like that, how could I do otherwise? Spirit in the Wood is a small, one-man operation. That man is Conrad Kubiak, a professional drummer, drum teacher and drum maker. Conrad is an interesting character. He may be a reincarnation of Leonardo DaVinci. He works out of a small house with detached garage/workshop, on a small road in rural Bucks County, PA. There is no sign and most people would just pass it by. Most people, yes, but any person who works with wood would notice the collection of hefty log sections sitting in his driveway, especially since half of them have large, interesting-looking burls on them, waiting to be turned into works of art.

There is no doubt that Conrad is a wood craftsman. Just like all other wood turners, Conrad has a lathe. The only difference is that while some turners make pens, Conrad makes conga drums. He turns his own drum shells on a monster industrial lathe that must be 100 years old, and takes up half of his workshop. He has personally developed special tooling and techniques that sets his craft apart.

Sure he makes high quality drums out of fine hardwoods, but if you look closely on the dusty shelves you will also fine beautiful bowls turned out of burl and fine crafted wooden boxes that will be magnificent, if he ever gets to finish them. Conrad knows drums, and he also knows wood.

My bougarabou drum

I bought my drum from Conrad, but not one of his hand-crafted works of art. Since this is my "beginner’s” drum, I bought one that was hand carved out of iroko wood by a craftsman in the Ivory Coast, a genuine West African drum. But who knows? If I get good, maybe I’ll upgrade to one of his eye-popping cherry wood originals.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Look, Touch and Smell of Wood

I remember visiting Duckloe Furniture in Portland, PA several months ago. They have exquisite examples of American hand-crafted furniture. Their showroom is filled with everything from Arts and Crafts and Shaker styles to Windsor Chairs that they have been making themselves for over 150 years. The woods and grain patterns are awesome. Words like bird’s eye, tiger, quarter-sawn and burl are used a lot in the wood descriptions of the items on display.

Like a naughty child, I found myself touching everything. As I ran my hand across the top of a table or over the carved decorations I realized how much I love to touch wood. There is a tactile sensation that brings me joy. The smoothness of the finish, the beauty of the grain pattern, even the smell of the beeswax and oil, all contribute to my sensual enjoyment.

I get a similar feeling in my own workshop. It may be the fine sawdust that remains in the pores of your hand after sanding; or feeling the contour of a piece you just carved. I’m sure many of you fellow woodworkers know what I mean. I remember finishing a spoon with wax and mineral oil and then sitting watching TV and just rubbing the finish with my bare hands for quite some time. It was a comforting sensation. You may argue that velvet or leather also gives tactile pleasure, but when it comes to hard materials, nothing beats wood.

I just completed my Salamander Cane. It was my first attempt in carving a critter wrapped around the cane. Instead of carving a detailed snake with hundreds of tiny scales like the award-winning artist, Dave Stehly, I chose a much simpler piece for my first attempt. The salamander is a lot smaller and its skin is smooth and easy to carve. I liked the feel of the wooden cane handle. I realized why canes and walking sticks are made of wood. For some reason, it just seems natural.

Has working with wood heightened your sensual awareness?