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Building the “Badger Reputation”

May 18, 2012

My first sign, the “duct-tape” one

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In the very late 1960s and into the 70s, there were a bunch of guys in Los Gatos and in the surrounding hills that were very intent on building things; houses, restaurants, geodesic domes, fern bars, restoring the groovy, old buildings in town. I was one of them. I called this bunch “the Woodchucks.” While many of them had grown up in the construction trades, many, like me, had no real construction experience, just the desire and ambition to create useful, artsy, and unique things, our own legacy. And, pretty much all of us wanted to do fancy, classy stuff, not the cookie cutter stuff like they used in tract houses. We wanted to make the old “Victorians” in Los Gatos, even more Victorian than they were originally, more ornate, fancy and far out. After all, this was the 1960s and we were very hip, groovy and artsy guys.
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These folks maybe had great ambitions but they were pretty smart dudes and they were somewhat aware they didn’t know everything. We spent a lot of time collaborating, connecting and comparing. It was a big, bustling community of young, big time dreamers just getting started. Truly, anything was possible.

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We usually all started the work day at the Broken Egg, now the Los Gatos Café, where, basically, all they served were omelets and coffee. They had this ultra long trestle table running down the center of the narrow structure and all the wood chucks would gather ‘round it every morning and see who needed help on a job, who had problems on a job, who was getting ready to bid a new job doing whatever. In retrospect, the Egg was a de-facto union hall where there was no union. By 8:00 a.m., the Broken Egg was usually pretty empty save a few older people coming in to read the morning newspaper. The boys had put on their tool belts and were slamming 16 penny nails by this time. “We’re burnin’ daylight” as they used to say on the cattle-drive in the western movies.
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On Saturday mornings, one of my art professors from San Jose State College was teaching a sculpture class up at West Valley College and I was up there every Saturday using the great facilities there. They had everything from a casting furnace to pottery kilns. As these classes were just once a week, they were four hours long so my professor friend stowed a case of beer and adequate ice in his classic VW bus to comfortably carry him through all four hours and his afternoon drive up over Summit Road. It was a great way to spend a Saturday morning.
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Word spread throughout the woodchuck clan about my Saturday outings and my interest in sculpture. When the guys would run into something that required a little carving or shaping, they ended up calling on me. If they couldn’t cut it with a saw or drill it, they got real impatient. I, on the other hand, got great pleasure cutting the wood by hand and started doing it when I was just a kid. One of the guys got an inquiry about making a “sand-blasted” sign for a private school. He forwarded the job to me. I talked to several others and no one knew about this sand-blasting technique. I went to a sand blasting place in San Jose and talked to them. They said the way it worked was that you put a “resist” on the area you wanted to leave raised and smooth and then bring them the wood slab and they would blast out what remained uncovered. Well, that seemed simple enough. I could see that. You weren’t building up material, you were taking it away.
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At the Broken Egg, I asked around about what the “resist” might be. All we came up with was duct-tape. OK, so I’ll use duct-tape. A friend with some milling equipment made me up a redwood slab. I went to Rural Supply Hardware Company on the mountain side way out of town and bought a whole bunch of duct-tape rolls. I had enough experience with this fine redwood to remember to apply several ample coats of varnish to the smooth redwood surface so that when the duct tape was removed, it wouldn’t pull up the soft redwood grain with the tape. It would pull up only the varnish.

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I spent an entire day applying layer after layer of duct tape. I’d rub out each layer when it was completed to push out any air trapped between layers. When the layers got about a quarter of an inch thick, I traced the image onto the last layer of tape. Then I made sure I had a new pack of x-acto knife blades. This sign was about eight by two feet and it was two inches thick. I placed the slab on a table in the middle of my small living room and pulled all the furniture back to the walls so I could attack the sign from any side.
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After about two days of prep, I started cutting the duct tape. A tiny exacto blade would only last about six or eight inches of the image’s line before it became so dull as to be useless. It took about a week to cut this image into the duct tape. I had purchased a million packets of blades and my fingers were numb and aching and so cut up I gave up trying to clean up the blood until the day’s cutting was done. How could anyone make any money with such a tortuous process? This was an absurd method and only a person with my highly tuned sense of stubbornness would ever finish such a job, but, I was determined. After all, this was my first sign job, I had to finish it, and it had to be right. If I got it right, this could become a career.

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A friend with a pickup truck took me to the sand blaster’s yard early one morning. I was very nervous wondering if I had put on enough duct tape to really protect the very expensive kiln dried, straight grained redwood. As my friend with the truck had a very busy day in front of him, we just dropped the slab off with my name and phone number on the back of the sign. A couple of days later I had a call on my tape machine that the sign was done. I arranged for another pickup truck ride as my VW was way too small to carry it. We got to the yard in late afternoon. This time there lots of trucks in the yard, maybe a dozen guys hanging around, waiting for their jobs. In fact, there were three or four guys checking out my duct tape sign. We walked up to the sign and I was amazed at how clean and tightly close the deep cuts were to the lines I had cut in the duct tape. Boy, it was a very attractive effect, but, so much work. The guys who were looking at my sign asked if it was my work.
“Yeah,” I answered,
“It’s my first one.”
“We sorta’ figured that,” and this guy pinched the sleeve of my jacket and pulled one of my hands up for inspection. Everyone in the yard looked at my black and blue fingers and they all howled with laughter. I had never been so humiliated in all of my life. What had my hand told them? They were wiping tears out of their eyes they were laughing so hard. My friend stepped away from me, not wanting to be so near the center of all this attention. One of the tall guys near my sign pulled some of my duct tape off the sign and waved it over his head and the howling and jeering rose to a new, more intense level. The heat coming from under my collar was now a choking steam. The smart ass who was waving my duct-tape reached over and put his arm around my shoulders,
“Brother, forgive us, almost all of us have done the same thing.”
“Done what?” I ask myself.
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One of the other guys waved at me to follow him. We walked around the side of a big truck in the shed next to the blasting booth. He pulls back a tarp (because of the constant cloud of sand dust in the air, everything was covered with one fabric or another) and he pointed to a collection of various marble headstones, with the unlettered areas of each stone not showing marble but a coating of something that was light green. He took his small pocket knife and swiped the corner of this green stuff. He pulled this corner up and it revealed the marble underneath.

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The laughter subsided and a couple of these others gathered round and they explained to me that the grave stone cutters had been using the sandblasting techniques since the 1930s. The rubber and plastic manufacturers had been perfecting this specialized sand-blasting masking material on an ongoing basis since then. Some grades of this stuff were called “butter cut” because it was as easy to cut as butter. Another guy walked up with this roll of some material that was about as thick as old style felt. But this stuff was plastic, smooth and had an adhesive film on one side. This was the mask material they were talking about. Someone else came up with a piece of my “mask” with the duct-tape about five or six times thicker than this well developed product used to make grave stones. It was only in the last few years that the sign makers started using it.
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All I could think to say was “where do you get this stuff?”
The yard broke out into riotous laughter once again, me included, looking at my ruined hands.

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My first “art” sign

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A “bread and butter” job

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(to be continued — The Badger stuff will be there . . . )

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