Woodworkers Learn Old-School Basics

By David Collins

April 20, 2008, The Santa Fe New Mexican


Los Alamos builder Dave Ramsay is no stranger to woodworking. Before he turned to remodeling the Atomic City's aging inventory of Cold-War era homes a decade or so ago, he built Spanish-American furniture for about 15 years.

On Saturday, Ramsay returned to the basics, learning to use manual hand tools to create a replica of a shelf that Spanish carpinteros might have constructed around 1850. Along with five other students, Ramsay studied basic woodworking at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art on Saturday under the tutelage of George O'Bryan, a Rio Arriba County craftsman who has studied historic woodworking arts and created reproductions or reinterpretations of earlier works for 40 years.

Located in El Guique, O'Bryan's Obras LLC makes doors inspired by historic Northern New Mexico designs, including those of John Gaw Meem, the architect widely cited as the leading proponent of what became today's Santa Fe style.

"We're all thieves as woodworkers," O'Bryan said. "Everything we know is taken from somebody."

Students at O'Bryan's exclusive class made out like bandits Saturday. Not only did they benefit from several hours working with a lifelong craftsman, but they each also took home a set of expertly crafted hand tools O'Bryan made just for the occasion.

Using the dense wood of fire-killed Gambel oak gathered from federal land in Northern New Mexico along with some newer chunks of white oak and some peach wood, O'Bryan made for each student two planes, a mallet and a bucksaw similar to those 19th-century woodworkers used in this area. "The value in these planes would be the iron," O'Bryan said.

For tool blades, early New Mexicans relied on iron carted by animal labor from either Mexico City or St. Louis, O'Bryan said. For the blades of his surfacing planes, he used modern spring steel, but for the shaping planes, he ground blades from old nails salvaged from a historic house in Bernalillo County.

A seasoned woodworker, Ramsay caught on to the age-old skills quicker than other students, but he still had some things to learn. At first, like others in the class, he pulled upward rather than pushed the bucksaw downward through a Ponderosa pine board. The board chattered against the saw horses as he tried to work the blade through a difficult curved cut.

"I would stand up on it," O'Bryan suggested.

After a practice cut and a stab at a different technique, Ramsay got the hang of bracing the board with his foot and came close to mastering use of the bucksaw to create cuts that modern carpenters more often make with powered jig- or band-saws.

"It is every bit as versatile as a band saw," O'Bryan instructed students as they enjoyed their newfound skills.

The technique was new to Ramsay, but the bucksaw has been used by carpenters for some 1,000 years. A book O'Bryan showed students says the bucksaw appears in Spanish Romanesque paintings dating from 1100.

Early Spanish furniture, when examined with an educated eye, shows irregularities typical of wood worked exclusively with manual tools, O'Bryan said. He described the gently waving lines cut by early carpenters who worked with scribes and eyesight rather than with pencils and tape measures as "sensuous." He demonstrated techniques for marking cuts without measuring or using pencils.

It took Denver artist Frank Zamora a bit longer than Ramsay to catch on to the pre-electric "band saw," but after cutting several notches in a piece of pine to be used as a decorative railing on his shelf, he gained some confidence. He plans to sell retablos at Santa Fe's Spanish Market this year, painted on boards worked with tools O'Bryan made for him and taught him to use.

"It's going to give them that really funky — that rasquache look," Zamora said.

After teasing Zamora that it was a parochial term used only among his family, museum staff turned to the Internet to decipher the meaning of rasquache. An online essay says the term once referred to lower-class members of Mexican society but was retooled by Chicano artists to reference art that celebrates the underclass with simple, irreverent and spontaneous techniques.

Apprentice carpintera Vicky Jacobson of Santa Fe took a tumble as she stood on two saw horses to make a practice cut with her new handmade bucksaw. She was soon back on her feet, using a piece of charcoal to sketch out an ambitious saw-tooth design on her shelf rail.

The piece she made Saturday will be the first of many for her, she said. She planned to use them as valances on her windows.

"I envision these all over my house. I have so many different windows, I thought it would unify them," Jacobson said.

Saturdays' class was the final installment in a series of workshops the museum has offered for crafters interested in early Spanish art. Other classes included reverse glass painting, retablos painting, Cordova-style wood carving and wheat-straw appliqué. Each of the techniques can be found applied in historic items on display in the museum.