In Chris Schwarz Blog, Personal Favorites

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Yesterday I was at a local auto body shop, poring over an El Camino in the back room and struggling mightily to see what was 6″ from my eyes.

Let me back up a minute: I’m having a mid-life crisis. And the way it is manifesting itself is in a most foolish enterprise: Restoring a 1968 Volkwagen Karmann Ghia. These cars have beautiful Italian lines, pokey 1,500cc air-cooled engines and a tendency to rust out from the inside (as mine is).

So I took it to a guy who specializes in restoring cars and we go over the details of the job. What he will do. What I will do. And how many visits I’m going to have to make to the plasma donation center to pay for it all.

Then he asks, “What chrome do you want replaced?”

“The chrome looks fine,” I say. “Leave it.”

I can tell that he’s trying to stuff down an urge. He shakes his head and takes me to the back room with the El Camino. He shows off the beautiful two-tone paint and then points to the chrome strip that traces the top of the truck’s bed.

“See,” he says. “This dull chrome looks horrible next to this paint job. I hate it.”

I cannot for the life of me see what he’s talking about. The chrome looks fine; it’s not flaking a bit. After a few minutes of examination, I realize that this is a lot like learning the craft of woodworking and furniture design. Most beginners (and non-woodworkers) are blind to the palette of grain and color match that most of us struggle with. The things that we work so hard to achieve (tight reveals on door and drawers, for example) are lost to most.

Even when I point these details out to people on a piece, I can tell that most of them don’t see it. As soon as their eyes move to another piece of furniture, the lesson I tried to teach them on the first piece is completely gone. They simply cannot see the details until they have tried to achieve them in their own shops or have had them pointed out 10,000 times by another woodworker (sorry about that, Lucy).

That same evening I drove home with some friends from a bourbon tasting and we discussed some bookshelves I will design and build for them this fall. To begin, I ask what furniture styles they like. And I list a few.

Silence.

I probe a little shallower. Do they like antiques? Contemporary furniture? What furniture catalogs do they like? Where would they like to buy furniture if they could afford anything?

“It’s hard to say” is the response.

OK, it’s time to hit the books. I assemble a stack of furniture books and catalogs and ask them to page through them and put a sticky note on anything they like. A style. A color. A detail. A shape.

While I wait for them to do their homework, I’m going to do mine. I’ve been paging through Malcolm Bobbit’s book “Karmann Ghia: Coupe & Cabriolet” to stare at acres of chrome. So far, I still don’t see it.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 13 comments
  • Cigars

    I love Volkswagen cars. It’s my favorite type of car. The way they look and how they’re made is great. Moreover the Germans are very good at building cars, in my opinion.

  • City View-Bisque Fabric Sofa Collection

    I always loved woodwork, i find it most expressive ans it can easily be identified with art. I always choose for wood when it comes to furniture…

  • Jeff Skiver

    Chris,

    This struck me as a brilliant piece.

    Perhaps it is my woodworking experience totaling a mere 3 years, while I
    have been a "car guy" since before the last millennium rollover, but it
    struck me on so many levels.

    Most of those items have been addressed by others, so I will only comment
    on where I thought the story was going when I read the introductory
    sentence…

    I was fully expecting that one of these days while on the Bridge driving
    South from the Queen City I would hear Billy Squier belting out the words
    of "THE STROKE" at about 450 decibels. Then, as I look over at the North
    Bound lanes, I would see an El Camino with a narrowed rear end running on
    19 inch wide Mickey Thompson radial Drag Slicks and something else….

    Is that really what I think it is????

    Yeah, that’s it…

    an El Camino with drag slicks and a Highboy strapped down in the bed
    clipping north at a high rate of speed.

    But, alas, that image quickly faded with your second paragraph…. Trust
    me, one never hears Billy Squier blasting out of a Karmann Ghia.

  • Gye Greene

    Chris,

    Great insight/analogy.

    I think what the restoration guy is looking at is the shininess of the chrome: a mirror-like paint job butting up against non-mirror-like chrome.

    Like a high-gloss varnish adjoining a "rustic" beeswax finish (on the same piece)?

    –GG

  • Mattias in Durham, NC

    Chris, keep the old chrome! It’s a lot like if you’re buying a house where there are brand new carpets; you will wonder how badly mistreated the house was before they replaced the carpets, and what else might be wrong. On the other hand, old carpets that are clean and in good shape will tell you the house was well taken care of for a long time. Same thing with classic cars. Good luck with the restoration.

  • Mike Siemsen

    Old chrome on a "new" car probably looks as bad to your body man as new feet and base moldings on an antique would to me. We tend to do the opposite and distress the new parts to make them match the old. I don’t believe old iron really develops a nice patina like old wood does. Most "restorations" I have seen, either automobile or tractor go way beyond what was original to the vehicle. That is what is expected in the show ring. As the old car guys would say, "whatever turns your crank"]
    Mike

  • Chris K.

    I am figuring that the guy at the shop is a dude that goes to car shows where the "judges" deduct points for "original" chrome on the points scale. Its a way to raise the bar, its up to the other participants if they want to play along or make due.

    When woodworking I strive for the point where I dont say good enough. Because to me that is settling, I like to push myself and that does not come from settling. Now there are "limits". I restore old woodworking machinery from the 40’s and 50’s. I started 4 years ago doing this just to make it look nice (not rusted) and perform well. I did that for a while then I was pushed by others doing the same thing to "up the anty" a little more orginal with parts, etc. Its been fun and I love the machines that I have restored, but there is a limit to what I will spend to get "100% orginial". What is boils down to is where do you draw the line and who are you trying to impress.

    Enjoy what ever you do to the extent you want to take it!

  • Noel

    As even just a highly amateurish woodworker, I know that I tend to look at furniture differently than others, much as my wrench-head friends look at cars differently than I do. But this gets me to wondering, do you think that these different modes of seeing hobbies as art contribute to what we focus on?

    For example, the huge focus on dovetails. Certainly, they’re an effective joint, but when you consider the many reams of newsprint given over to them, it’s not just their effectiveness, or even their aesthetics, that’s being considered. Rather, might it be their obviousness that makes us focus on them?

    At my stage of skill (read: minimal), a well done dovetail joint is a benchmark of skill, and an obvious sign of good work. Much like the right piece of chrome or a properly carbureted 350 small-block is obvious to my Dad.

    What I think I’m getting at is that what we focus on must be a sign of where we’re at as woodworkers. I’m looking forward to the dovetail or mortise and tenon not being the focus of everything I do (as they must, until I make them better), just as I’m sure most gearheads look forward to worrying about something beyond rust and a straight body.

  • Christopher Schwarz

    Gary,

    You point out a really interesting point about the differences between furniture and automobiles. Restoring a piece of furniture can be difficult to do (in today’s environment) without reducing its value. Not so with cars (yet, though that seems to be on the horizon).

    My furniture urges have always flowed into the cars I drive (this is my third car restoration job). I like stock – just like I wouldn’t repair a piece of original Arts & Crafts furniture with pocket screws.

    I’m not saying my approach is superior, just that it’s how I do things. Can’t do it any other way.

    But a Goddard/Townsend desk with flames on the sides….

    Chris

  • Gary Roberts

    Chris

    Could you imagine taking an original Townsend desk, breaking it down to it’s individual parts, stripping everything, re-crafting anything that does not look ‘proper’ and then applying a modern finish that replicates what you think was the original? That’s the lot of the ‘frame-up’ car restorer. Coming from a woodworking bent, we tend to cringe at the idea of this level of restoration. Leave the chrome and enjoy looking at it, knowing that is the original, not a replacement or one with a re-chromed, mirror like finish. Me? I’ld rather see an antique car in it’s original state than one that looks as if it just drove off the dealers lot.

    Best
    Gary

  • Christopher Schwarz

    Dave,

    The three planes I’ve sold are but a drop in the bucket. Though the money will pay for some new seals, I mostly put them up because I have entirely too many planes to possibly use them all regularly.

    The POR-15 stuff is cool. One of my mechanic friends also uses a product from Germany, Wurth.

    http://www.international-auto.com/index.cfm/fa/p/pid/2769/sc/8140

    He put it on my battery tray and we couldn’t scratch it with any tool in the shop.

    Chris

  • dave brown

    re: the car

    Have you discovered POR-15 yet? If not, do a web search.

    It’s a rusty car’s duct tape. 😉

    Dave

  • dave brown

    Congratulations on the restoration project. NOW I know why I’ve seen so many of your extra planes for sale. 😉

    I think every guy at some point in their life wants to restore an old car. My dream car is a 1960’s Porsche 912.

    have a good one,
    Dave

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