For the aspiring cellist to spend three days with Yo-Yo Ma would be something special, certainly. For an aspiring box maker to spend three days one on one with Andrew Crawford is similar. Earlier this month, I had the pleasure to visit Andrew’s shop in Shropshire, England, and had such a great experience others might like to hear about it.
Andrew builds what I consider “traditional” boxes. I confess to a clear preference for boxes that look like boxes. Many types of containers fall into the category of “boxes” these days, and I in no way wish to demean the more eclectic and scupturally oriented creations, some of which are truly remarkable in their elaborate eccentricity. But, it is the traditional finely crafted box that I personally find compelling. Crawford certainly makes some of the finest boxes being created today. His current backlog is nearly two years, despite the fact his boxes can be very expensive.
We boarded a flight in Grand Rapids Michigan, and finally disembarked the train in Church Stretton the following afternoon. No delays, no volcano ash problems, and cool, but decent English weather.
If you’re not familiar with Andrew Crawford’s stunning boxes, check out his website at www.fine-boxes.com and click on slideshow for some good photos of his boxes, his shop, and the surrounding area. The site is really well done and it’s easy to spend a long time gazing. He has begun offering a variety of courses from novice to advanced. In my case, I had built several of his designs from his books. Hence, I had a long list of very specific questions and interests best addressed in a one on one session. He addressed them all clearly and openly, making my time with him a great value.
Andrew is a truly charming fellow and a skilled teacher who openly shares his vast command of box making methods, tips, and processes with clarity and enthusiasm. Gluing a few pieces of wood together into a container with a contrasting lid and finger joints is not all that difficult. A perfectly acceptable, workmanlike box. Creating a fine box of the caliber Andrew produces is something else altogether. And he is indeed willing to show you how.
We began by talking ...discussing goals for the visit, interests, questions, and just getting to know each other. We discussed, in detail, general construction, veneering tips veneer selection, and how he obtains his perfect book-matches. Yes, there are some tricks. We began early on finishing, and each day continuing the steps he uses to accomplish his flawless french-polish finishes. And I do mean flawless.
I was also curious how he built and adjusted the intricate drawers and interiors in his more elaborate boxes. He walked me through how he goes about it, including his really neat hidden spring drawer mechanisms and fitted pigskin suede lining. We spent time on inlay and decoration - how to do it so it looks as if it all grew together on the same tree. This is fun, but time consuming and finicky work. A single small box can easily involve forty or more fine inlayed lines and edges. If they’re not perfect the flaws really stand out. But, with a disc sander, a simple jig, and a methodical approach, perfect line inlays are very possible.
We visited the curved shapes that are a hallmark of Andrew’s work and how to make proper forms for construction. As you can imagine, veneering curved sides or lids requires a closely fitted form and a means of pressing the veneer evenly. For the modest investment in time and cash, a whole new world of precision woodwork becomes possible.
Amidst all the “showing and doing” we talked about design, and planning of each project. Design is a very personal and ethereal thing, but a poorly designed box, even when perfectly executed, can still be a sad and awkward thing. He won’t make you a world class designer in a couple days, but you do quickly pick up on the principles, values, and approaches he applies in creating his masterpieces. Then the sky is the limit as you apply similar methods in building your own masterpieces.
Andrew is an unusually creative builder of jigs and fixtures for his specialized small scale work. The fixtures are important, and he goes to some length to demonstrate how small scale precision woodworking is different from general woodworking. He regularly works to a few thousandths of an inch tolerance. He showed me how his fixtures work, discussed the importance of using abrasive techniques to achieve extreme precision. I guarantee anyone’s box making will benefit immensely. I thought mine were pretty good, though now the bar has now gone up considerably. I do now know how to go about getting there.
By the way, while I was having a great time with Andrew at the shop (a really neat nineteenth century stone farm building and generally fun place to work) my wife was happily off walking the many trails around Church Stretton, enjoying the charming village and generally having a really good time of her own. (Believe me, I would have known if she wasn’t.) Our accommodations at Mynd House B&B were outstanding, from the great room, sumptuous breakfasts, and genuinely proficient and friendly owners Dave and Sue. There are several great pubs and restaurants in the immediate area. My wife is already asking when we can go back.
If you’re interested but can’t get to England, look for his detailed book “Fine Decorative Boxes,” now out of print, but some may be available used on Amazon. Mine is very dog-eared from use. He’s working on a new book for early next year and may do some seminars in the U.S. in 2011.
From Shropshire we moved on to London for a few days, but the high point was clearly the time in the workshop, spent with a very engaging fellow who is quite possibly the best in the world at what he does. For me, that’s pretty special. Furthermore, I don’t think it ended up costing any more than we would have spent on a similar holiday here in the states.
So, if you have the urge, my advice is to do it. You’ll have a great time.
NOTE: The boxes shown were built before the trip from the information in Andrew’s books. The first is veneered in English yew with a cherry tray and lined with blue velvet. The second is figured bubinga veneer with lacewood crossbanding and is ready for the hardware and lining.