HackSpace: You’ve done almost too many things to talk about. But what really catches my eye is the brass, the carving, the mechanisms that you use all look so old-fashioned. So, I’d like to go into why you seem to hate the Industrial Revolution so much. The reason I ask that is that most people who are making cool things use CNC or 3D printing. Hand-machined brass and carvings I would associate more with the 18th century, before the Industrial Revolution.
Uri Tuchman: Let me try to answer a more general question about modern tools, more advanced technologies and things like that, which I deal with a lot.
It’s always a balancing act.
There is a very strong come-back to hand tools, especially in wood working; there’s something very therapeutic about it, something very nice. There are lots of reasons why you would want to use more traditional tools than the newer ones, some of which aren’t that obvious. But the tool really dictates the outcome sometimes – I’m not talking about the nice finish that you get from a CNC machine, or a grinder or something like that, but rather that different tools dictate what kind of project you take upon yourself, like what cuts do you want to make.
Aesthetic features, like carvings, like intricate engraving of flowers and such, they came hand in hand with the tools you had at the time. If they had had CNC machines back then, I’m not sure they would tackle the same aesthetics, the same kind of organic shapes.
Sure, you can do organic shapes today as well, but it coincides with the way you craft things with your hands. And so, if you want to use a CNC to make flowers, engravings, it feels like you need to force the machine to do that – like you’re telling it to do something that [it] is not really made to do. It can, but it’s actually probably easier and faster to do it by hand.
If you want to mass-produce, that’s a different story; if you want to have millions of copies, CNC machines will win every time. But if you want to do a one-time piece, a lot of the time, hand tools have the advantage.
And there’s also the human touch: you interact with the thing that’s right in front of you, it’s a hand-to-hand interaction. And so, if I had a CNC machine, if I had a laser cutter or something like that, then it would change the things that I make. I don’t have anything against modern technology, it’s just that they don’t fit the kind of things that I want to make.
Do you feel a different connection with machines and tools that you’ve made yourself?
UT: Yes, of course. Just like an oiled machine is nice to work with; you tend to give it more attention and time to make nice things. If you have a machine that is limping a little bit and isn’t very well-tuned, you tend to rush through the work to get it done, because it’s not as pleasing to use. So you make a bad job with it.
I think a good-looking machine also gives you the same feeling that you want to spend time with it. And you want to take things more slowly and have more patience with them. Making my own tools is a great joy.
I’m actually working on a new tool now, and I’m putting a lot of effort into making it better than anything on the market. It’s going to look great. But there’s also a thing that happens to a lot of makers: you start making tools for your shop to make nicer tools for your shop. And you just keep on going in this loop, so you never actually make things with your workshop, right?
You use a pigeon as a maker’s mark on a lot of your work. Where does that come from?
UT: When I was in [the] last year of my time in art school, as my final exhibition, I made a whole bunch of things in the exhibition, including electric violins and all sorts of weird stuff that was hanging in a lobby-type environment, a waiting room. I made a photo book for the waiting room, which was supposed to be the most generic photo book ever. So I called it the Big Book of Black and White Pictures of Pigeons.
And because I wanted some sort of volume in the book, I really didn’t care about the quality of the photographs; the photographs weren’t the main thing. The main thing was that I have a book of photographs. So I just took a whole bunch of pictures of pigeons, and that was the first kind of project with the pigeon. I also painted the pigeon on a snooker table for the same exhibition, I think.
Why pigeons? I think it’s a great animal. There’s something very cool about the fact that it’s adapted to being in the city. It’s not a very natural animal, weirdly enough, it’s just like a city animal by now. They’re not elegant any more. People call them flying rats, and yeah, it sounds kind of a bad thing.
But I don’t know, what does that say about us? We also live in the city, right? And we also throw garbage everywhere. And so there’s something that I can relate to in those pigeons, in that we all have to live in this environment that we created for ourselves.
As well as hand tools you’ve also worked with milling machines and lathes. Do you have any mechanical or engineering background, or are you just looking at things from the perspective of an artist?
UT: I never studied engineering. I worked for six months or so with an industrial designer, so I’ve learned the basics of SolidWorks, though I’m still pretty bad at it. Having said that, I’ve always tried to use it again, or use Fusion 360 or something like that. But I never get around to it. It’s too involving for me to actually start designing the project this way.
I guess you can see that in my products as well. I do learn from one project, and the next one I do get slightly better and more methodical. But you know, I make a whole bunch of mistakes, and that’s how you learn which ways you want to connect joints or things like that. CAD works well enough for robots, but it’s not for me.
There’s a phrase you use in one of your build videos to describe a mistake as a “happy little accident.” That’s a Bob Ross saying, isn’t it? You get to follow the art along as the artist is making it, rather than having it presented to you as a fait accompli.
UT: I work in a way that is very direct; I make one thing after another, which has its downsides. Planning ahead can be very useful and very efficient. The comparison you can make with Bob Ross is that his method is called direct painting, meaning that he does a painting in one sitting, so to speak. He goes to the canvas, and he paints everything immediately – that’s going to be the final picture. OK, maybe there’s a few layers that he’s going to put on top. But basically, he works with just wet paint on the canvas and on the palette, and he works on them together. As opposed to more of a kind of Venetian painting, or Dutch paintings where you [add] layer after layer after layer. You wait months in between for the layers to dry, and then you get optical effects and so on. Today, nobody has time for that. Bob Ross is very much the essence of working in one sitting and working just with wet paint.
I guess that brings you back to SolidWorks and not wanting to spend too much time planning things when you just want to make a start.
UT: Yeah. Even though I sometimes really feel like I would be faster if I planned ahead, I just like to get my hands dirty. So I need to think about that as well.
Do you have a favourite object that you’ve made?
UT: One of my favourite-looking pieces is the callipers, with the hand and the foot. This is one of my favourites for sure. And the astrolabe, I really loved the astrolabe. It’s a beautiful item but it’s less my design. Yes, I put my ideas into it, but it’s more of kind of a universal design for the astrolabe. Yeah, I would say these two are two of my favourites, of course – the small automata I love as well. Yeah, these three are my top.
For the astrolabe, in particular, I had to do some research on the celestial side of things. I wanted to get the basic concept of how this works, which is fascinating in itself. But most of the research in the astrolabe was the translation of the linguistic stuff, like the names of the stars and the constellations.
I know Hebrew, and my Arabic is pretty garbage I’m afraid to say, but almost all, maybe 98% of astrolabes, were written in Arabic, with a few in Latin, and on rare occasions you find them also in Hebrew. Because a lot of goldsmiths and metalworking guys were Jews living in the Islamic world. Nowadays, we’re more familiar with [Jews being associated with making jewellery], and it kind of coincides. That’s why you see some of them with Hebrew texts, because maybe a rich Jewish person in Spain ordered all the way from Jordan, or something like that. And it was in Hebrew, but normally, they would do it in Arabic. The cool thing is that they would write it in Hebrew, but it’s actually Arabic – it’s only phonetically written in the Hebrew script. And the weird thing is that the Arabic is ancient Arabic.
It’s a huge process to understand all this, and it’s thrown up all kinds of interesting stuff. The best example I can think of right now is that you have the star signs – the crab, the goat, whatever. And so, you have the twins. But instead of saying ‘twins’, they point to the two stars that are at the bottom of the legs of the twins, and it just says ‘leg leg’, one after the other. Those ancient metalworkers had very little real estate to work with.
Your other favourite, the animatronic hand, has made it into an exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. How did that happen?
UT: I’m not sure who threw my hat into the ring. But it’s a group exhibition with three artists, one of them Chaya Hazan. She had an idea for an installation, and she was looking for someone who could make the mechanism she had in it… And so, yeah, she called me and we talked and we got things rolling. It was almost a year in the process, just like thinking and working things out and figuring out what it will look like and how it will function. And then, yeah, then I start making the project at some point.
How much time do you spend engraving? It looks like a slow, deliberate process.
UT: It very much depends on how intricate you want to make it; even then, it’s not that straightforward. You’ll see master engravers talk about something called background removal. Background removal is the least creative work… but it’s also the most time-consuming, and that’s why it makes the projects much more expensive. Background removal can quadruple your time spent on the engraving, or even more sometimes – it depends, because I do it by hand. So that background removal just takes days. But if it’s just engraving with minimal or no background removal, just the scroll-work and the elaborate things like that, and if you already have the design printed and everything in place, a credit card-sized workpiece can take three or four hours, or even less if you’re in the groove.
That’s in theory: in practice, engraving always sucks in more time than you think. You need to stop to go to sharpen the tool, and to take a coffee-break and do something else, then you refine the design. Then, all of a sudden, three days have passed.
If you were just taking your first steps in brass engraving, where would you start?
UT: I would say get your sharpening right, because if the tool is not sharp, you will struggle. It will feel impossible. But just a little bit of adjustment on the sharpening can be night and day. All of a sudden it’s like the best thing ever.
So, if you don’t manage to get the sharpening right, you won’t understand what’s happening and you’re not going to have the confidence to know that it’s just about the tool. And so, you need to eliminate problems and only concentrate on your own practice of engagement.
The second thing is a good vice helps a lot. After you get the hang of the strokes, you’ll want to turn the device effortlessly. Even with a swivel vice, there are angles that you cannot reach, and as it turns around the pivot, a swivel vice takes the work away from you. And it will become a headache very, very quickly. Weirdly enough, the ball vice that I use is actually not the best thing for hand engraving. So I normally don’t rush to recommend this for people who want to start engraving… one alternative is to buy a bowl, just a metal bowl and fill it with pitch. This is a kind of clay material that you can melt and then embed the workpiece in it. Usually you use it for embossing, to make three-dimensional shapes in metal. But for engraving, it’s also fantastic; you can turn it and it’s very solid. It’s much cheaper than a ball vice for sure. I don’t know why I haven’t done that yet.
And you’ve also been working on a guitar build. How did that come about?
UT: The square guitar? Ben from Crimson Guitars sent me an email out of the blue, asking me if I want to get involved in a guitar-building competition. He’s a super-nice guy. It’s been a lot of work, this guitar. I’m not a guitar maker.
I’m only just starting to make a guitar now. I’m finding it very liberating, because I know that the first one is going to be not very good, so it’s taken away the fear of making mistakes. So far, the hardest thing has been getting hold of the right saw.
UT: That’s not a bad approach, but you need to be careful, because if you already tell yourself that it’s not going to be great, I don’t know how much motivation you’ll have. You know what I mean? Maybe you’ll not want to put as much effort as you should into the fine details, if you know that the product is not going to be the best thing. But I don’t know, maybe that’s how I feel at least when I do projects like that, I suppose. Right?
I visited this guitar maker, like top-of-the-line, amazing handmade, hand-carved guitars. They’re amazing. And he has a wall covered with all of his tools. And it feels like none of the tools that he uses are standard tools. All of them are special, especially for guitars. So, yeah, it can [become] quite expensive really quickly.
I think the coolest thing he showed me was a set of files. Of course, you have to have funky files for guitars. And some cool chisels: chisels that have a very thin body, and that open out wide at the blade like a square. Weird tools are the best.