Graduate student combines architecture with woodworking
By Jill Elswick
Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 35 - July 16, 1998
Mark Gibson has a love-hate relationship with the Industrial Revolution.
As a woodworker, he's nostalgic for the days when craft was the basis of all industry. But as a beneficiary of the freedoms yielded by a mass-production economy, he is thankful for choices. "If we want to become great blacksmiths, we can do it in our backyards," he said.
Gibson is a master's student in architecture at Virginia Tech. Designing buildings is his career choice; woodworking is his hobby.
This hobby, and a fortuitous social connection, recently combined to offer Gibson a unique opportunity to make tables for marketry designs created by a Hungarian master over 70 years ago.
Marketry is a process by which a woodworker cuts thin slices of veneer into decorative pieces that will fit together--like a jigsaw puzzle--then glues them down to plywood for later use in a piece of furniture. (Marketry is often mistakenly referred to as `inlay,' an unrelated process which involves carving out a piece of solid wood and filling it with materials such as wood, pearl, and gold.)
Gibson's wife Monika, a Tech employee in the Graduate School dean's office, is a native of Hungary. When a local Hungarian couple befriended the Gibsons and learned of Mark's woodworking skills, the man called his brother in Ohio, who had been holding four aged marketry table tops in storage for many years. The Ohio man wanted tables designed for the exquisitely fashioned tops, which were created by his forefather in Hungary.
Gibson was skeptical when he heard the story of the old Hungarian master's table tops. After all, these designs had been tossed around in plastic bags and stored in the attics of a succession of relatives for decades.
"When they told me about them the first time, I thought `Yeah, I'll look at them but I doubt very seriously they'll be restorable' because restoring marketry is very, very tricky. And when I got them my hands actually started to shake because I couldn't believe they were in that good shape being over 70 years old."
Gibson immediately went to work creating five potential table designs for the marketry tops. His client chose the most difficult and expensive one. The design used curvatures that would complement those of the furniture of the old master's time; it also featured a clever mechanism that would allow the whole table top to be tilted vertically for either display or storage purposes.
Gibson's work was, literally, cut out for him. He was contracted to restore two of the four marketry pieces and to create tables for them according to his special design. The finished products would be shipped to the Ohio man's two sons for a surprise Christmas present.
But Gibson, obsessed with the responsibility of co-working with a master, found it difficult to start the project. "This guy built these pieces over 70 years ago and then handed them to me 70 years later and said, `Okay, you do the table for it.' And it's intimidating. It sat in my shop for months before I could ever do anything with it...I'm not a master," he said.
Nevertheless, Gibson eventually got on with it. His work was extremely detail-oriented and time consuming. Damaged through the years, the delicate wooden tops were curved in many places, not flat like they needed to be. So Gibson invented a process to flatten them through wetting them down and pressing them with homemade clamps. "For each one of the tops, to get them flat, both of them took over two months," he said.
Gibson also had to scrape tape off the surface of one side of the marketry. Tape is used on the side that the woodworker eventually intends to display, to keep the pieces in place while the other side of the marketry is glued to a substructure, like a piece of plywood. The tape is later peeled off to reveal the marketry.
However, in this case, the tape glue had stained the wood on the side that the Hungarian master had intended to display. So Gibson had to scrape the tape off that side and use the other side as the top.
Gibson created a homemade carving knife from maple and a piece of a circular saw blade. While using this knife for the painstaking task of scraping tape off the marketry, he experienced a revelation he'll never forget.
"I realized that when this man made these pieces of marketry, they didn't have Exacto knives and laser machines. He made his own knives...I realized that I was doing the same thing that he did 70-some odd years ago and it was almost an electric connection to a master doing the work that he did," said Gibson.
Gibson fashioned his tables and their round top moldings out of cherry. At first, his Ohio customer was concerned that the cherry part of the table was not dark enough to complement the multi-colored marketry--made of walnut, holly, and other Transylvanian woods. Gibson reassured them that cherry darkens with time.
Otherwise, Gibson's customer was delighted with the finished products; he ordered one of the two remaining pieces of marketry to be made into a table for his own home. As for the fourth and final piece of marketry, Gibson is awaiting word on whether another family descending from the old master, still living in Hungary, will want him to make it into a table as well. If so, he says he and his wife will hand-deliver the table to Hungary.
For Gibson, the connection between architecture and woodworking is simple; he loves to design and build things. To feed his hobby, Gibson collects rare woodworking tools--not as trophies, but for use. He's particularly proud of a Stanley Tools multi-plane from the 1940s or 50s, still in its original box.
Multi-planes are used for molding window frames, doors, and creating ornate bead work. Gibson saw one just like his go at auction for $800, but his is not for sale. He also owns an even older multi-plane from the 19th century, with ornate Victorian flowers molded into its cast iron handle.
"This one tool is where American craft slammed head first into the Industrial Revolution," said Gibson. That is, the most effective multi-plane was created by the Industrial Revolution--but, ironically, a multi-plane is used for a craft that the revolution virtually wiped out.