In 1982, I was approached by designer Barnes Davis about the possibility of building and carving two large doors of cypress for a development on Lake Travis near Austin, Texas. It was a grand concept, with the 16 foot pocket doors to be contained in an 18 foot stone wall. The doors traveled on a section of track on railroad car wheels installed in the base of the doors. The faces of all four sides of the doors would be hand carved. Recognizing a once in a lifetime opportunity, I set my furniture conservation business aside and made preparations for the project.
My recommendation for material was Honduras mahogany, for beauty, carveability and permanence. 4,000 board feet of pattern grade mahogany was purchased from Allwood-Shroeder in Houston. The material was surfaced to 2 3/4 inches, with random widths from 10 to 18 inches and 18 feet in length. A 20-foot steel table had to be constructed to joint the enormous boards, and a hand planer was customized to joint the boards to a tolerance of 1/32 inches. A hand hewn effect was quickly accomplished by creating a radius on the hand planer blade, and randomly attacking the boards.
Welder Steve Burcham built the 20-foot by 20-foot table on which the doors were assembled. Two layers of boards were fitted into a bronze frame, and were held in place by large copper rivets piercing the boards. Quarter-inch stainless steel rods installed laterally held the boards evenly apart. A layer of half-inch expanded steel walkway grating was galvanized and installed between the layers to prevent rot.
Each door had Stainless steel lifting devices installed through to the base so the doors could be lifted when necessary. Easels were welded and the doors were lifted by crane into the easels for vertical carving. Scaffolding was created on all four sides so two layers of carvers on each door could work simultaneous.
David Wilson was hired to produce the more than 200 same size drawings required, while I busied myself carving samples and solving carving problems. I began interviewing assistant carvers as it was obvious it would take one man twenty years to produce this much carving. Carmello Pampalona of Sicily became the first assistant. Together we carved many practice samples of grape clusters, leaves, and vines.
All work was done with traditional carving tools and mallets. I began sculpting the first door in full sized clay pattern, and we began the first door. It became apparent that all carvers had personal styles, so for unity carving was compartmentalized. That is, one carver executed all the grapes, on only did vines, one only draperies, etc, until it appeared that one hand had carved everything.
Jeff Vaughn carved all the grapes. Gary Bush was hired to help develop the clays. Simon Lewis carved the draperies and produced some of their drawings. Sam Atchison, a Dallas fireman, carved the vines and tendrils. I carved the Swan scene, while Alvin Harbert carved leaves. Roger Hewitt sculpted clays of birds. Michael Moraway carved ropes, tassels and medallions and some of the bee scene. Augustine Escobedo carved the garden bouquet. Maria Marszalowicy carved the domestic flower bouquet. Jim Estes carved a large part of the bee scene and clay work for that. Roger Hardin worked on the bee scene also, and Timothy Hinz worked mostly on the elk clay. Assisting were Marshall Fulmer and his son Mark. All joined in the final carving of the scenes.
The project lasted two years and the doors were eventually lifted dramatically out of the roof of the warehouse by crane, loaded onto trucks, and delivered to Austin where they were installed in the wall. Motors with worm gears opened the giant doors with a dramatic rumble to admit visitors.
In 2006, 18 years after installation, I was called by the Vineyard Bay Homeowners Association, to see what might be done about the condition of the doors. The doors had suffered UV damage and blanching of the oils to the exposed areas, and were dirty and darkened in the protected areas. The motors had long since burned out, and the doors had sadly been left neglected in the walls. Many residents had never seen the opened doors, and new wrought iron gates had been installed for security. The doors could still be opened by hand crank, but even one of those was broken.
I power washed the doors, and discovered it removed most all of the blanched oils and discoloration, revealing a like new color to the mahogany. Two coats of polymerized tung oil completed the treatment, and the crank was repaired. Unfortunately, replacing the impressive motors was not in the budget, but the guard will let you roll out the doors if you ask, and you can still see what 40,000 man hours of carving is like.