Monday, July 25, 2016


Courtesy of The World of Chinese
What is Zen? By its own premises, as we will subsequently consider, words are an inadequate means
of description. Yet, the following brief may start us along the path: an awakening from the dream state of convention, a liberation into direct experience.

Humankind's capacity for convention is one of the marvels of our genetic endowment. The primary manifestation of convention making ability is spoken language. We categorize or group together subjects, objects and actions with verbal utterances serving as symbols. This of course extends to the written word as well as other manifestations of symbol such as mathematical, musical and chemical notation. Our ability to express ourselves thru various forms of convention and be understood by others is more than remarkable, it's undeniably powerful, often intoxicating and potentially perilous. How so?

Western intellectual society since the so-called Enlightenment has sought, with a great deal of success I might add, to restrict the totality of human knowledge within a virtual straight jacket of convention. Laws, standards, codes combine to dictate human behavior more invasively than anytime in human history. We have conflated an artificial system of abstract, generalizing symbols for our infinitely particular reality. For example, it remains obvious that neither the conventional word "water" nor the chemical notation "H2O" will quench your thirst any more than the musical symbol "" will ring in your ears. This level of commitment to abstraction by society at large requires years of investment in undermining the natural human capacity for direct experience. I'll commence with a few comments on the all too familiar: Western society's modern philosophical commitment to a rational education, or perhaps more appropriately expressed as an hyper-rational indoctrination. This will serve as a prelude to contrast with what is the wholly natural and human yet now seemingly remote concept of Zen.

Indoctrination vs Education

Common Core K-Prep
Words are such funny creatures. In any thesaurus you'll find that 'indoctrinate' and 'educate' are synonyms. Yet, we instinctively know better don't we? The "heart" of their long displaced origins still throbs. How about you, would you prefer indoctrination to education?

The English word 'indoctrination' comes from the Latin root 'doctrine', meaning 'teaching'. Similarly the original sense of 'doctor' simply referred to a 'teacher', notably one who had undergone some recognized academic training to thus qualify for said title. We have the legacy of this meaning in the 'doctorate' awarded to someone who is recognized for achieving the highest level of instruction, e.g. a 'Doctor' of Philosophy. The prefix 'in-' maintains the same meaning, to put into or inside. Indoctrination thus means to put 'teaching inside of'. It starts with a premise: that the student is ignorant, knows nothing, is an empty vessel to be filled. From this foundation the typical child in Western society is subjected to a minimum of13 years in the public school system and up to 20+ years of unrelenting indoctrination if they go on to pursue university studies. Indoctrination is the shaping, molding, construction of the individual.

Courtesy of Kelly Anne Photography

'Education' likewise finds its etymological roots in Latin. It originates from 'ducare' meaning 'to lead' not in the sense of 'lording over', rather 'to draw' or 'to pull'. The prefix 'ex-' meaning 'out' combines to give 'educate' the sense of 'drawing out'. The flavor of the words 'indoctrinate' and 'educate' could not be more different. 'Educate' begins from the premise that the student is wise, knows everything. The role of the teacher is akin to that of a spirit guide who simply 'draws out', brings to the students awareness the knowledge that already exists inside of them. This tradition of 'education' marked the pre-Enlightenment liberal arts of the West that focused on critical thinking, liberating the student to later pursue their own interests, a process that was typically achieved in 4 or 5 years. Education is the cultivation of conditions that encourage personal growth. An Eastern Zen master therefore is somewhat akin to our own traditional Western educator from this point of view.


Courtesy of Steve Shriver
The word 'Zen' arrives to the West from Japan that was in turn received from Buddhist China with ultimate origins in India where the Sanskrit word Dhyāna ( ध्यान ) carries the meaning of 'absorption', most often translated as 'meditation' in English. Particularly with its development in China, a certain Taoist flavor was adopted so that certain schools came to develop Za-Zen, a 'seated' form of meditation that implies stillness, quiet contemplation. However, it has been acknowledged that a number of human activities might qualify so long as one approaches practice in a state of complete fixation and absorption. Particularly, in the former sense of requiring complete attentiveness, Zen practice lends itself to traditional crafts such as carving, playing music, weaving and cooking to name a few. Zen practice might also extend to what are thought of as leisure activities. Personally, I find surfing a calming medium to cultivate this attentive state. To be able to ride an ocean wave, one must literally attune completely with its frequency and amplitude. As waves of one kind of another (visible light, sound, infrared, etc.) are our window into all sensory experience, the opportunity to interface with a wave in a 1:1 ratio with your body, harmonizes one to the very fabric of reality itself. Needless to say, I highly recommend it.

Visceral Experience

Brick making as Zen experience
I've had the experience of being called a lecturer or professor, ostensibly teaching traditional plastering, technical draughtsmanship and other subjects. One of the first things I confess, to the shock and dismay of potential students, is that I don't expect to teach them anything; furthermore, I conceive it an impossibility. After all I don't know how I plaster. It is largely not something to be explained anymore than how I might explain how I digest a peach. I simply do plaster. Plastering like traditional handcrafts generally are experiential arts, one learns by doing. Yes, I might demonstrate while others observe, perhaps offering a comment here or there. However, these exhortations are only helpful as occasional guidance to students who are actively teaching themselves. In Zen this visceral experience is captured in the Sanskrit term Upaya ( उपाय ), which has been interpreted as direct pointing. In this way traditional handcrafts lie at the frontier of self-awareness which permits us to tap into our profound unconscious intelligence that circulates our blood, grows our brain or manages any number of other bodily functions, adjoining it with that sliver of conscious mind that may follow a particular interest.


It is purported that the practice of Zen ultimately leads to Satori ( 悟り), the Buddha nature, enlightenment, an awakening. What then might Zencraft awaken us to? Liberation from the dream of separation, division and isolation, an awareness of the deep interconnection of all things.

In the dream state one believes he or she is individual, separate and distinct, not just from others, but from everything. Yet, everyday crafts deny this as fantasy. For example, perhaps we imagine the craft of carving is our exercising our intellectual prowess upon unorganized raw material, a type of chaos typical of nature, be it stone, wood or clay. Yet is it not the nature of the material that determines how we carve? Would we even conceive of carving if these materials did not exist? Does the human create the carving out of stone or is it the stone that generates the human that carves? Wake up! The tendency to identify with this abstraction, this ego if you will, is a grasping for abstraction because abstractions are simplifications. Are you and the universe two? Hold your breath!

Human perfection is not the perfection of the equilateral triangle, neither is it to be found in the Ionic order or any other form of contrived convention. Rather it is the perfection and order of the cloud with its dynamism, spontaneity and undifferentiated borders. Zencraft is therefore not a mere symbol, a representation of nature as some 'other', rather it is the full expression of her. Seen in this way Satori, the Zen awakening is nothing exotic, just the realization of being completely human and living it.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Setting up a Plaster Shop

There are many plasterers out there who do a variety of what is called 'flatwork' or 'solid plasterworking' such as stucco, traditional lime or gypsum plaster, veneer work or various decorative plasters. Many are intrigued by plaster mouldings but might be intimidated by the work itself, visually looking so different or by the thought of setting up a plaster shop, not knowing what it entails or how much it might cost. My experience has been that plasterers take to fibrous moulding work, both shop production and field installation, very quickly. Regarding setting up a plaster shop and getting tooled up for the field, plaster is really one of the most inexpensive trades to get started in. For about $10K and a little sweat equity any plasterer can be up and running. Compared to other trades, such as smithing or millwork, that's a bargain, a fraction of the cost easily covered by one or two projects. The really good news is that plaster has been steadily making a comeback in contemporary architectural specification. The market demand is there, the work is profitable and enjoyable. At this point we just need more individual plaster shops servicing local communities. For this post I'll pull back the veil of secrecy and show at least how I've set up a plaster shop for myself and others.


This is where the sweat equity comes in. Build your own tables from off the shelf lumber from the local stockist. Your main table will be for straight runs. I like a thin long table 2' x 10' if you have the space. It should be between 37" and 39" high depending on your height. High production shops might invest in a granite top. I've found that with a bit of maintenance a high quality, smooth surface 3/4" plywood doubled up and sealed with several coats of shellac performs admirably. This running table is your bread and butter, the important thing is that it is dead flat. Don't shy away from using 2" x 4"'s to create a solid frame underneath. I always like to incorporate a shelf into all my tables down below for quick access to supplies used for repeated work on that table. For my running rail I use extruded storefront aluminum, 1" x 4", it's dead straight and won't wear out or warp, exactly what you'll depend on to keep your run mouldings straight.

The next important table is your circular for radial work. I've found an 18" radius top works well for most things. Build it to the same exact height as your running table (actually build all your tables to the same height). This will allow you to attach an arm to it when you have large radial runs. The circular table acts as the pivot point, the running table the surface. You don't want the table moving when your running a large radius so build it sturdy with a heavy duty shelf below that can hold some sand if you need the extra weight to keep it steady. I like to use a 5/8" or 3/4" threaded rod right down the middle secured to the table with nuts and washers in three places. Again, you don't want either your table to shift or your pivot point to deflect when your in the middle of running your radial piece. Depending on the size of the piece, I'll use either a 2"x 4" or 3/4" plywood for my radial arm securing it between combinations of nuts and washers above and below.

The last table you'll need is really just a workbench that I use for quick sketches and to mount equipment such as a scroll saw and vise. It doesn't need to be nearly as sturdy. I'll suggest a couple of additional items to construct. First a fence as you'll need a flat vertical surface to run against for certain pieces such as cornices. Again, you want this surface dead flat and straight. I attach 3/4" ply to two pieces of 2" x 4" extruded storefront aluminum the length of my running table. Height can change based on your needs, I find 18" will service most needs. Finally, a large mitre box for trimming your mouldings with one 90° slot and two 45° slots going in both directions. 

Shop Tools, Equipment and Supplies

Yes, you'll need eye, ear, hand safety equipment and basic tools like tape measures, screwdrivers, wrenches etc. However, rather than exhaustively go through every possible tool or supply you'll need, I'll focus on ones more particular to plaster shop work. 

There is a bit of carpentry work involved in plaster mouldings. I have the following cordless power tools from Makita: circular saw, drill and impact driver set, multi-tool and jigsaw. The impact driver is very important for working with plaster, especially for affixing in the field. Same goes for the variable speed multi-tool, it makes delicate cuts in plaster, slicing through like butter without risk of fracture. Add to these enough batteries to go around and a variety of clamps in various sizes.

For constructing my running moulds I use smooth quality 3/4" plywood. For the actual knife a traditional method is to use zinc, layout the pattern with a scribe and punch, bending till breaking with pliers and cutting with aviation ships respectively. I quickly switched to thin sheet aluminum. I find it still cuts and files easily but is more damage resistant and won't bend under pressure when running. I get the .032 thickness online from Metals Depot. To cut I use the inexpensive Ryobi scroll saw available at Home Depot. I tried a couple of other more expensive scroll saws and went back. It uses 5" pin blades and can rotate up to 45° for kerfing the plywood stock backing up your profile. A good supply of coarse blades for kerfing the plywood come with the saw and are available from Home Depot and other stockists. For the finer blades for delicate cutting of the aluminum I buy online from Olson. Their 25 TPI regular is recommended and I'll admit it will turn on a dime. The 18.5 TPI skip blade is a bit sturdier and is my workhorse unless the profile has a lot of detail. A word of advice of cutting sheet aluminum, to reduce vibration back the aluminum up with some 1/4" MDF. Finally, you want a set of files and a vise to hold the aluminum for cleaning up your knife.

For tables, plaster cores and other utilitarian uses I use shellac as a sealer and an oil soap for a release agent. For plaster models I use Superseal and Universal Mould Release available from Reynolds. I'll use urethane rubbers, particularly if I have a mould that needs to be very rigid, having a shore hardness of 50 or higher also available from Reynolds, distributors of SmoothOn. However, I prefer the slightly more expensive silicone rubbers working in Charleston, South Carolina as urethanes have some issues in humid environments. They can go up to a shore hardness of about 40, which is firm enough for most application before they start to lose tear strength. I get mine from Silicones Inc. Added expense but nice options to have eventually for removing bubbles from rubber are an adjustable speed, 120 volt vibrating unit available from Vibco that can be mounted to the underside of your running table (this is also great for plaster castings) and a vacuum setup for silicone rubbers (SmoothOn has good specifications). You'll also want to have clean translucent measuring buckets and paddles set aside exclusively for mixing rubbers. Some additional miscellaneous materials for the shop:

1/2" mixing drill
drywall screws ; assorted sizes 1" to 3"
1/2" foam for crating

Last but not least I should mention plaster. I prefer USG® No. 1 Moulding Plaster for running and will combine it with or exclusively use USG® Hydrocal for casting. Georgia Pacific and National Gypsum are the other moulding plaster producers.

Field Tools, Equipment and Supplies

Some of the tools of course carry over from the shop, particularly the drill and impact driver and your mitre box. For layout you'll want a good quality 6' mason's level, a chaulk line and eventually a quality self-leveling rotary laser. Let the contractor provide you with a centreline for the room and a vertical benchmark and plan on installing your mouldings straight and level unless otherwise directed in writing. Ceilings may have dips and walls bows that will force your mouldings to depart from the specified face of finish. It is the architect's and ultimately the contractor's responsibility to give you direction in writing as to how they want the mouldings installed. Just because you're a plasterer, flanking is not your automatic responsibility anymore than it would be for a millwork installer. 

Usually precast mouldings are first dry fit. A minimum nominal 1/8" off the wall and 1/4" separation between mouldings if sufficient for a good bond. Cut plywood scrap can be used for temporary support underneath and a variety of shims to get the piece situated just right. I use both the typical wedge shaped cedar and pine shims as well as the flat drywall paper shims. Keep a number of countersinks on hand, using the drill to pre-drill for attaching the moulding with drywall screws of appropriate length using the impact driver. For permanent affixing of the mouldings with plaster you'll want to have a trough or large tub onsite so you can thoroughly hydrate the mouldings. I use a blend of moulding plaster and USG® Durabond 90 to affix the mouldings. Durabond (please note USG® Easy Sand is not an appropriate substitute) is already formulated to adhere to drywall without bonding agent and contains retarder giving you time to work. 

For pointing, filling the joints, edges and any dings in plaster, you'll want to have a spray bottle for repeatedly hydrating the surface and a set of ornamental tools, available from The Compleat Sculptor. I usually will use my moulding plaster and Durabond mix for the initial pointing and finish up with just moulding plaster. The addition of plaster retarder will give your pure moulding plaster mix more time. The Compleat Sculptor also carries USG® Plaster Retarder

Finally, I'll mention a word about painting. The plaster installer is primarily responsible for providing good geometry and a finish ready for flat paint. Plaster is no different than millwork in this regard. For higher sheens the painter has the same responsibility and essentially the same process for surface preparation. 

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Pragmatism of Craft

Catedral de Santa María de Teruel
Craftsmen have an inherent affinity for the pragmatic and a brief consideration of the etymology of the term illuminates why this tends to be so. English inherits the word 'Pragmatism' more or less directly From the Greek pragmatikós (πραγματικός), meaning "active", derived in turn from prássein (πράσσειν) the Greek verb "to do", interpreted as "practice". Acting, doing, practicing...Pragmatism could be said to be a philosophy of action and results. The love of knowledge but of a particular kind, one acquired thru experience that is in turn enriched by observation and contemplation, an experiential knowledge that enables the craftsman to impose reason upon the concrete and material. The pragmatic outlook assures the craftsman full participation in life as an experiential philosopher yielding practical results in the world.

Architecture: from a Practical Craft to a Theoretical Profession

Image Courtesy of Jack Duncan III
Since the dawn of human civilization and continuing for thousands of years, the art of building otherwise known as architecture had been a very practical affair. Once again, we are indebted to the Ancient Greeks for the very notion of the architect; the arkhitéktōn (ἀρχιτέκτων) was a master technician, literally the "chief craftsman", typically either a carpenter or mason.  Highly skilled craftsmen continued to furnish Western civilization with its built environment throughout the Roman Empire, continuing during the Medieval period and well into the Renaissance. Andrea Palladio furnishes a Late Renaissance, 16th century example of the master craftsman as architect. Apprenticed as a stone carver, he had gained practical skills through hands on experience, mastering the tectonics of masonry. Palladio aggregated upon this foundation of experiential craft knowledge empirical observation that included measured drawings of Roman antiquities. Furthermore his famous architectural treatise, I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura, clearly demonstrated his clear intellectual grasp of abstracted systems of geometry, harmony and proportion as exemplified by the Classical Orders.

from Architectural Shades and Shadows
Although treatises featuring rationalized measured drawings such as contained in the Quatto Libri were still quite unique in the 16th and 17th centuries, by the 18th century drawing had become the primary method of teaching at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris where initial steps were underway to organize the study of architecture as an academic discipline. Several significant distinctions should be noted between the then modern, alternative study at the École in contrast with traditional paths to becoming an architect. The development of descriptive geometry was utilized for technically precise drawings that separated the act of design by the architect from that of building by the craftsman, increasingly regarded as little more than a technician. In short order, the rationalized approach to design subsumed the meaning of architecture itself; a drawing on paper could now be considered architecture. In the course of 19th century the Beaux-Arts methodology became adopted and its curriculum incorporated into universities throughout Europe and eventually America. Accepted architectural instruction relentlessly collapsed into a closed system of highly rationalized refinement whilst measures were undertaken by prominent academically indoctrinated architects to impose obligatory examination and licensing standards, separating architecture as a theoretical and therefore ostensibly superior profession distinguished from craft and building. The model of the craftsman architect would slowly diminish, eventually being fully discredited in the early 20th century.

The Empirical versus the Rational

There has been an open tension in the world of philosophy, a longstanding yet uneasy commingling of what might be called the rational versus the empirical temperament. Whereas the rationalist tends to favor thinking in terms of ideas, principles and eternal truths his empiricist colleague prefers to rely upon statistical data and observable fact. Of course, in practical terms humans depend both on ideas and observation to get by. Our modern world, for example, is largely a scientific one, as fact driven and empirical in its temperament as it ever has been. That being said the disconnect between raw scientific data received and potential meaning depends for resolution upon interpretation, correlation and generation of new theories, distinctly rational activities that direct subsequent empirical observation.

However, this oscillation, commingling, interdependence between empirical and rational modes of thought is largely absent from the contemporary field of architecture as a profession. Instead, architecture has become the largely abstracted, formal and expressive contribution to what I might otherwise give the name of 'shelter', be it intended for biological or mechanical use. In so restricting itself to the theoretical, architecture grows ever more separate from the recently formed professional specializations of engineering and building construction that attend to the material, labor resources and mechanical execution of shelter. As with science there forms a disconnect. Unlike science, the feedback loops between the professions are not sufficient to achieve resolution and provide our built environment with coherence and substantial meaning.
Proposed Main Museum, LA courtesy of Archinect

There are prominently two opinions of this account of the state of architecture. The first I would classify as complete denial; the unfounded belief that everything is fine if not getting better all the time (see pictured example above). Secondly, and perhaps more commonly, there is an admission of a serious crisis in architecture, yet clinging to the vain hope that urgently needed reform can set the ship right again (see pictured example above). I would contend that the contemporary model generating our built environment is fundamentally flawed, lacks an adequate philosophy, is of a temperament that does not align with people's needs and will inevitably necessitate complete replacement (yes, see pictured example above).

The Experiential as a Pragmatic Mean

For the traditional hand craftsman the feedback loops between his senses of sight, touch, sound, even smell and taste applies to the material objects he's working with and his own internal conception of pattern and design that he imposes upon the materials are introduced through experience and strengthened through repetition. Anyone who has witnessed a master potter at a wheel or a master carver at the bench will remark at the uncanny mastery humans can achieve at direct manipulation of material. Nevertheless, what has been apportioned out as separate and distinct modes in philosophical thought influencing professional practice, remain in fact completely integrated in traditional craft practice. I would like to briefly consider one example of how pragmatic, that is to say experiential thinking can serve as a mean, a negotiating point of view between the seemingly intractable philosophical modes of empiricism and rationalism.

Empiricism                         Rationalism                         Pragmatism
facts                                   principles                             behavior

Beautification, beauty as an human activity
Courtesy of Hunt Studios
By the above, what I'm really introducing are the concepts of truth and Truth. By facts, what the empiricist claims is observation or discovery of bits of truth, raw data as it were that comes from the sensory perceptions of objects that exist in reality. For the empiricist this is the only truth we can possibly know and it's admittedly unreliable. By contrast the rationalist thinks of Truth in terms of eternal principles that take a certain form and possess transcendent meaning. In this sense even abstract ideas such as beauty or justice are seen as possessing a True immutable form, an intrinsic meaning as mental or spiritual objects, more true in fact than the shadows of reality we perceive through our senses as interpreted by our consciousness. Pragmatism doesn't regard truth as an object to be discovered at all, rather truth for the pragmatist refers to distinctly human behavior. When we speak of verification we're talking about "making truth", this is the literal meaning veri (truth), fication (making or doing), Latin (veritas and facere) by way of French. Traditional hand craft is one example of truth-making (or truth-doing, a likewise valid and interesting interpretation) as an human behavior, activity, process. This logic can likewise apply to beautification and justification as human activities rather than objects of the physical or psychological world.

If some of this sounds familiar, well that's to be expected. Philosopher William James described pragmatism as, "a new name for some old ways of thinking." Experience and common sense wisdom have guided much of human activity and has contributed mightily to our ability to grow and thrive. That we have neglected this practical approach to life has only been to our detriment. Below are a few other comparisons, each set meriting further contemplation for the architect, craftsman and layman alike:

Empiricism                         Rationalism                         Pragmatism
entropy                               progress                              change
past                                    future                                   present
observation                        abstraction                           experience
mechanistic                        static                                    relational
actual                                 imaginary                             possible
vulgar                                 classical                               traditional
sensational                         intellectual                           holistic
object                                 idea                                      process
skeptical                            dogmatic                               practical
nominal                              formal                                   instrumental
nihilistic                              eternal                                  continuity
material                              spiritual                                human
pessimistic                         optimistic                              engaged
chaos                                 unity                                     particularity

Courtesy of Patrick Webb