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Hand Eye-Supply Debuts an Ode to Classic Sign Painting

Before the 1980's, nearly all of the commercial art in the country was either hand-painted, bent from neon tubes, screen printed, or a combination of these. Sign men drove around in trucks, vans and station wagons spattered with stray enamel paint in all colors, sometimes themselves sporting subtle to wild graphics advertising the tradesman's services. Sign painters were often eccentrics, men who had chosen what was a solitary trade. As a craftsperson, it was also one of the few trades one could make a living from at the turn of the century. In an increasingly mechanized world, fine woodworkers, blacksmiths, and others of their ilk were being made obsolete by factory-built furniture and modern welding techniques. 

Photo via Shorpy

It wasn't until the 1980's that we figured out how to replace sign painters with something faster and cheaper. To say the hand-painted sign industry was decimated by computers and vinyl plotters would be an understatement.

Colt's design for HES

Within a few years, the bulk of sign work was feeding stock fonts into a machine that would spit out perfectly uniform stickers that any rube could slap on a window or car door. Skill and practice were no longer required. Anyone with the ability to use a word processor could go into the sign business. No longer was it a trade that required practice to develop an eye for colors and composition. There are even faux vintage templates for giving signs that ol' time hand-painted look. 

But it's not all doom and gloom. In the last decade or so, many younger folks have begun to appreciate the challenge and skill required to create something with their own hands. There are more young furniture makers and neon benders now than there have been in decades. One of the old trades that is making a comeback is sign painting. Any tattoo shop or fancy bar worth its salt will opt for a hand-painted and gilded sign. Small businesses of every kind appreciate the statement a hand-painted sign makes about them. It suggests an appreciation for quality and tradition.

Colt Bowden

One of the most vocal supporters of modern sign painting culture is Colt Bowden. Colt runs Mac Sign Painting out of McMinnville, Oregon, where he uses an elderly Vandercook Press in his garage/studio to publish books on sign painting by himself and members of the Pre-Vinylite Society, as well as reprints of books by the now deceased master sign painter, Lonnie Tettaton. 

Colt drives a faded red ’63 Ford Pickup that leaks a little oil and has a hole in the muffler — the roar is greatly appreciated by his kid, Fox. The old Ford can be seen throughout Northwestern Oregon as he rambles around emblazoning store fronts with loopy casual letters hocking a good cup of coffee or stern Roman type warning of a no parking zone. He can also be found all over the country with his painting kit in hand taking jobs as far flung as Salt Lake City and Brooklyn, New York. His sign painting chops have been used to decorate album covers and dust jackets of books, and we can now proudly say he has painted Hand-Eye Supply our very own pocket tee.

José of Orox Leather wears the new Hand-Eye Pocket Shop Tee designed by Colt Bowden

A couple of us here at Hand-Eye were pondering what makes the best kind of graphic tee. We decided it’s the sort of shirt you might find secondhand, advertising a business you aren't familiar with, but is basic and comfortable enough that you don't feel self-conscious wearing it for twenty years and will mourn its loss when the neck seam finally gives up the ghost. The ink only needs be one color, white is fine, and the shirt should be black or gray, as this is a color anyone can wear (not to mention it will hide stains!). It should also have a pocket to stick your pens in. We tasked Colt with whipping up a timeless graphic that could find a home at a 1950's hardware store or right here on the shelves of Hand-Eye Supply.

You can grab the timeless tee here.

Snag one of Colt’s books while you’re at it.

And finally watch his talk on Portland area sign painting here.

Carol of Fuller's Restaurant in the new tee
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What Is Cut Crystal? See 3 Ways The Fancy Stuff Is Made

As the Northwest is menaced by a drippy attempt at a hurricane, I'm finally starting to understand sauna culture. Who cares that nature wants to drown or freeze you if you have a hot box to sit in? But Oregon isn't a sauna culture, so we're doing other things storm-tossed people do to survive: lighting candles and drinking. If you've ever studied a piece of nice glassware in candlelight, you've probably wondered how the thing got to be so... sparkly. The answer is surprisingly un-simple. Here are a few insights into the making of cut crystal and nice barware that I've gathered whenever my power comes back on.

"Crystal"—more literally known as Lead Glass—is over 1000 years old, and cut crystal is close behind. Crystal differs from standard glass in a few key ways, none totally doctrinal but all functionally important. Where a common drinking glass is largely composed of silica + sodium oxide + calcium oxide, "crystal" adds lead. This has been seen from Venice to the Czech Republic, ancient Rome to Edo era Japan. Unsurprisingly, different countries and practices differ on the minimum lead content that earns a "crystal" classification—as low as 2% by weight in the States and twelve times that in Europe. Crystal drinkware generally contains 18-35% lead, and it goes even higher if the piece isn't for mouth use... but I'm not drinking out of crystal statues today, so we'll ignore those. 

Czech style faceting

Overall, lead oxide and antimony are added in significant amounts because they allow a softer glass body, which makes deft shaping and cutting less difficult and less likely to blind the artisans with brittle chips. They also increase material clarity and heighten refraction of light, which is an important feature in good glassware that becomes amplified with facet cutting. Higher lead content also reduces viscosity, making the material more elastic and easier to work with at lower temperatures than standard glass. The possibility of lower working temps also means ability to eliminate air bubbles and other imperfections while melting and forming, which has helped build crystal's reputation as a flawless and pristine material. 

To make the crystal itself, the silica, antimony, lead oxide and any other chemical variants are melted together over the course of a day. Broken pieces of crystal are often blended in to help smooth the consistency and reduce waste. Once melted, the glass is kept temperature controlled in batches that correspond to output. 

That brings us to the second key component of fine drinkin' crystal—it's almost never produced strictly by mold. Despite using molds for generic glass production for centuries, and tons of technological advances in the last 50 years alone, crystal is traditionally hand crafted, and most mid- to high-end companies still hand blow their pieces. Nearly each piece still passes through the hands of several skilled blowers and formers. This is where it starts to get fancy and expensive.

Whether stemware or a stouter cup, a crystal glass will usually start as a taffy-like blob daubed around the end of a blowing tube. It's inflated carefully, spun and shaped to spec inside a custom wooden mould, aided by a team of glass technicians. 

After the piece is blown, molded, hand formed, and its tube is removed, it is ready to be cleaned and patterned. Even this step is largely done by humans, cleaned individually and marked freehand by craftsmen with an intimate knowledge and eye for the patterns used. The marking is sometimes a direct representation of cuts to be made, and sometimes it's a guiding framework for more delicate and organic designs. 

The cutting is the hardest thing to understand, from a modern production standpoint. Despite the prevalence of lasers, automation and etching fluids, most crystal companies still use just two kinds of cut, applied by hand with simple rotary diamond cutters. At heart, cut designs are all variations on a flat facet or a beveled cut, created by either round or angled cutters. Much like lapidary and gem cutting work, the enormous diversity of crystal patterns boils down to the size of the tools and the skilled "vocabulary" of the craftspeople using them. 

What do you know! We're from Toronto!

The Waterford Company uses a mix of techniques at its famous Irish factory. In the tourist video above you can get a sense of the labor intensive blowing, and improbably steady hands, behind their perfect looking glass. You can also get a gander at irrationally patient craftspeople who can keep focus on their work while entertaining smalltalk from friendly Canadians.

Satsuma Kiriko pattern
Edo Kiriko pattern

Japanese cut crystal also dates back several hundred years, but some of the most striking and lasting styles became famous during the Edo period of the 1800s. Delicate cups for tea and sake feature similar bevel and groove type cutting with a distinctive set of tonal patterns that pull from textile design and natural motifs. 

This video shows the Edo era practice of two-color crystal cutting, called Kiriko or Satsuma Kiriko. The level of detail in this is… a bit boggling. The design is super nuanced, and you can start to forget that behind every cut is just one guy holding a glass bowl. 

Look up Kiriko on YouTube if you're having a bad day.

This next video, the longest and most self-congratulatory I found, goes more in depth into Czech methods, both traditional and modern. Start at 2:25 for actual glass action. 

Long, but if you've got a downed tree blocking your driveway it's a soothing watch.

While cut crystal might seem like an over the top indulgence left over from a Hapsburgian era where wealth was hereditary and no one cared about drinking lead—cough—the practice is a little practical. Food and drink, particularly liquors and wines, are enjoyed with all the senses, and adding light and depth to the drink glass can heighten the drinker's awareness of the drink's colors and qualities. While it's not as literally impactful as a wine decanter, a cut crystal glass changes the perception of what's being enjoyed.

Common version of a Waterford design

Today a lot of standard barware copies traditional cut crystal patterns. Standard glass is often machine cut to pretty convincing effect. From faceted bases on tumblers to the simple "manly" Waterford grid used on rocks glasses, crystal designs are reproduced in standard glass using molds and forming. Generally, the nicer the quality of glass and the nicer the quality of the mold, the closer to "crystal" it'll look.

To see if the fancy set you picked up at Goodwill (or snuck out of your parents' prized liquor cabinet) has real crystal in it, look for extra sharp corners on the cuts and precise tight-radius definition of facets. Thanks to its lead, crystal is also comparatively heavy and gives a long ringing note when dinged by a fingernail or silverware. For comparison, your IKEA water cups give a thunkier standard glass tone, and cheaper glass throws a lot less light into and through your drink. 

Regardless of leadedness or cutting pedigree, a satisfying glass is a great companion. Stay safe and stay warm! 

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The MovPak: The Backpack That Carries You

The two-wheeled "hoverboard" trend appears to be over, at least in NYC. Last year they were a common sight on sidewalks here, but the whole spontaneously-bursting-into-flames thing appears to have hurt sales, and I haven't seen one in months. Perhaps the MovPak will be the next trend in alternative personal transportation:

The 17-pound MovPak will carry a 240-pound person, or at least that's what the developers recommend as the maximum weight capacity. The range is 10 miles, presumably helped along by the regenerative braking. The lithium-ion batteries reach full charge with two hours of plug-in time.

Seventeen pounds sounds like a lot to carry on your back before you've even loaded it (unless you're one of these guys), so it's clever that they've designed it to be rolled around like a carry-on bag. The developers are claiming that the bag has ample storage space alongside the board and motor…

…though the amount of call-outs they're using does make you feel a bit suspicious, like a blind date reciting their entire resume:

Nevertheless, 150-plus IndieGogo backers have no doubt that this is a good solution, and at press time they'd received $103,510 in funding on a $50,000 goal. The $599 object is projected to ship in September of this year, and there's still a month left to pledge.

(One caveat: The MovPak was developed in sunny Florida, and those of you that live in Oregon are S.O.L.; read the fine print and you'll see the MovPak cannot be ridden in rain or where there is water on the ground.)

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We believe that a truly good product is inherently beautiful and useful. This kind of beauty does not happen by accident though! At Formost we do not only find good products for you but we test them and tell the stories of the people behind these products. This way you experience a story while receiving something which shall last for generations and accumulate some nice stories itself.

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