I already blogged about my visit to the V&A's Clothworkers Centre on Tuesday and that same day I went over to the main museum to visit the Wedding Dress exhibition (pretty spectacular) and the Italian Glamour exhibition (not really my thing). The advantage of paying to be a member of the V&A is that I can dip into these shows without having to buy a ticket or queue.
Then I spent two exhausting days down in London, in Kensington, attending an IGMA course with master artisan Geoff Wonnacott, who is internationally famous for his amazing miniature furniture pieces which are works of art. The course was to build a Chippendale Corner Cabinet on Stand. The IGMA information describes the piece and states that "A finish will be applied and brass keyplate fitted. Completion in the allocated time is likely...A spray finish could be applied in class, time permitting....All tools and equipment will be provided. A reasonable skill and ability would be an advantage." The picture shows an impressive finished sample with hinged door decorated with applied moulding, a fretwork pediment, and a shaped lower shelf and tapered legs.
I believe this is the first time the IGMA has co-ordinated with the London Dollshouse Festival to put on a week of courses with IGMA fellows. The courses are not cheap - the two-day course with Geoff was £225. I booked it back before Christmas when I saw the announcement of the IGMA involvement, when I was feeling flush with our house sale proceeds sitting in the bank. My rationale for spending so much was that I have been in the 'amateur leagues' for a long time with my dollshouse miniatures and I wanted to learn from a master 'how to do it properly'.
I have very mixed feelings about the course and am finding it hard to decide what to say in this review. I think Pros and Cons would be the most neutral format.
- Geoff is a lovely man, friendly, funny, patient, full of energy even at 7pm at the end of a long day after an over-running class, not in any way a diva.
- I didn't have to fly to America or Europe, I could travel to the course on public transport to London.
- I met some nice fellow students, including international attendees, and the usual serial-course-attendees who have been all over to Castine and Denmark and all the big miniatures shows. It was nice to talk minis with fellow enthusiasts, and there was a bit of a holiday feeling at times in the room.
- I have an assembled Chippendale cabinet with a first coat of sanding sealer on it, which will make a nice addition to my collection when it is fully finished. It's not perfect, but I feel a sense of achievement.
- The kit, in walnut, was precisely cut and beautifully smooth, with minimal tidying up required.
- I did learn some useful techniques, mostly fairly minor stuff like a good way to apply super-glue, using spacers to glue shelves in level and correctly spaced, using a marking device to consistently mark multiple pieces with an identical measurement, etc. And I learned from observing the kit, about applying decoration and mouldings to improve a piece.
- The classroom, a hotel meeting room, was shared jointly between three classes: our two tables, two or three tables of people sculpting dolls with Jamie Carrington, and two tables of stitchers working on miniature tapestries and samplers. Although the room was fairly quiet, you were still getting some noise and overhearing instruction going on at other tables. Our class were probably the worst offenders as we were running power tools and painting on smelly sanding sealer all in the same room. This was a normal meeting room, it wasn't a ballroom or big conference room. I suppose I have been spoiled by attending classes in America when each group had its own room.
- The class size was too big for Geoff's teaching style. We had 12 students and it would have been 14 (two people dropped out for health reasons), sitting six on a table. Although a book of instructions with some illustrations was provided, it was not sufficiently informative to follow ahead on your own. For example, the three bags of numerous kit pieces were not labelled so we needed Geoff to show us which pieces to use for which step. Key information like how to align pieces correctly when glueing, or where to cut them, or how to sand them to shape, was not included in the book or was not very understandable from its terse text. Geoff worked hard to get around everyone but due to people's different working paces and various hiccups with the power tools that needed sorting out, there were many occasions when some or all of the people on my table were sitting idle waiting for Geoff to tell us what to do next. Worse, by necessity, there was a fair amount of student-to-student teaching as Geoff would show one person, then get sidetracked, so that one person would have to show her neighbours and try to describe what Geoff had said/shown. This even resulted in some Chinese whispers and wrong information getting passed on.
- I was very disappointed that this course was all about putting together the kit. There was no sort of 'master class' teaching on techniques such as proper sanding, or finishing, or tips on how to use the hand or power tools. The entire emphasis was on assembling the kit, and even though I am generally a fast worker, I often felt rushed as we had so much to do in the two days yet so much time was wasted waiting around for instruction or for tools. Most people didn't even get any instruction on how to use the scroll saw to cut the fretwork, you just took it over from the person who was ahead of you and if you were lucky the student showed you how to unhook the blade (so you could thread it through the drilled holes in your fretwork) and where the power switch was. I had at least used one before. But I wouldn't pay £225 for a kit, even a nice walnut one. And even more frustratingly, we were not shown how to make our kit look like his beautiful sample. His fretwork, for example, is so delicate, and I would love to have learned how to do that. I even asked him but he just said that it just comes out that way when he cuts it. Not much help to me to refine my technique to be better. Most of the kit was pre-cut so for the most part we were just assembling components. We did cut the curve of the lower shelf, the fretwork of the pediment and bracket, and cut a few other straight pieces to length but for the most part it was just an assembly job.
- There were not enough hand tools provided, so you frequently had to wait to use one of the three chisel blade knives on the table, the one bottle of fast-setting superglue, the one template provided to set the shelf at the right height (to be fair, he produced a few more templates later in the day when he saw we were all having to wait), one of the 2 or 3 needle tools, one of the two metal rulers etc. I suppose the rationale is that not everyone works at the same pace so we wouldn't necessarily all need the same tool at the same time. But on our table we hit a couple of stages with, for example, intense chopping of small pieces of wood where we all needed one of the chisels. Even the glue applicators were parsimonious: we were given one cotton bud which had to last the whole of the first day and became hopelessly gummed up (I brought some from home the next day and Geoff did give a few more out the second afternoon). After cutting the fretwork on the scrollsaw (and to be honest, I'm not sure anybody did a very good job) we were all asking for needlefiles to refine our cut-outs, but there were none available. Geoff's suggestion was to cut tiny bits of sandpaper as he hadn't brought any files, but that really didn't work in these tiny holes and I actually broke a bracket trying it (I was luckily able to repair it with superglue). I had to take my brackets home and use DH's needlefiles to clean them up, and other people brought their own ones in on the second day if they had them.
- Lighting was not wonderful. My eyes are weak now that I'm middle-aged, I had brought a magnifier visor but I really need good light. I had brought a daylight lamp and extension cord, but there was no powerpoint near to our table to plug it in. The other table had a powerpoint, and had some lights plugged in, and the stitchers had mostly brought battery Ott-lites. The room lights were fairly bright, but they were behind me and I was working in my own shadow if I bent over my work. This was particularly a problem when applying the delicate tracery to the glass of the door. I thought I had tight joints but found out later when I held it up to the bright light that there were in fact gaps I hadn't seen.
- The working station for the power tools was very poor, just a single hotel banquet table which had to accommodate the scroll saw, the large power supply, the drill press, the Dremel mototool, a disc sander, a second scroll saw, a light on a stand, and various boxes of equipment and spare bits. The power tools were all crowded together, the drill press literally about two inches away from the scroll saw, so that you had to awkwardly crowd in together with other people to use them. The non-ergonomic height meant that you had to either kneel to use them (drill press) or stoop over dramatically (scroll saw) trying to see your work. Although Geoff had brought some scraps of carpet underlay to tackle vibration, the vibrating scroll saw was amplified by the bouncy hotel table so that the entire plate was furiously vibrating - not good when you are trying to cut out intricate fretwork (while you stoop over awkwardly and in poor light). I waited about 45 minutes while Geoff got out and set up a second up-and-down scroll saw, but it turned out to be faulty with the blade cutting erratically and I ended up ruining my piece with mis-cuts and had to start over again on the vibrating scroll saw. These are his small-size power tools that he takes on tour, I'm sure he has better stuff at home.
- We did not finish our pieces and there was no way we could have finished our pieces. I would say I was one of the faster workers, when I wasn't waiting around, but it was only by staying over an extra hour and pushing through my exhaustion that I even got my cabinet assembled and a coat of sanding sealer on it. And then only because Geoff re-did one of my hinges for me because it hadn't worked the first time. He was actually doing some of the steps for other people on my table at the end of the day, to get them along closer to finishing, and a couple of ladies were planning to work on it again the next day when they were back in the room to take a different course with Geoff, so they didn't assemble theirs. This meant that we received almost no information on how to sand the piece effectively (something I always struggle with) nor how to give it the lovely finish that the sample had. I did ask Geoff how to do it, but he just advised spraying a couple of coats of satin acrylic finish. I pushed a bit more, and he laughed and said finishing the piece could take another couple of days and there obviously wasn't time to do that in the class.
- I am not fully satisfied with my end product. It looks ok, but I know I could have done a much better job with properly set up power tools, better lighting, more consistent tuition, proper demonstrations of techniques like cutting fretwork, and more of a chance to look at the sample (it got put away) with perhaps Geoff pointing out aspects relevant to our current stage like how the miters are configured on the door glazing. Having paid £225 for this kit, I feel frustrated and, to be honest, like I didn't get my 'money's worth' out of the two days. I feel guilty for writing that, because Geoff was lovely and I know he teaches all over the world. Some of the above may be down to IGMA not booking appropriate facilities or over-filling the class. I don't know. I'm sure compromises had to be made to host the courses in such a central (expensive) location.
I squeezed in some sewing time and completed the four corner blocks for the Jelly Roll Sampler Quilt, and four of the filler blocks. It's hard to take a picture of my faux-design wall because the room is so small.
It's nice to be sewing again. I just wish I was better at it...
In the post this week arrived my copy of The magic of Shetland Lace Knitting by Elizabeth Lovick, which I had seen in a knitting magazine.