Tag Archives: new orleans

The Making of a Firehouse Chandelier

This month I finished work on a commission to design and build a custom chandelier for a firehouse that is being revamped into the greatest dance and dance fitness studios that New Orleans will ever know.  Nathalie Gomes Adams, creator of Dance Quarter, has been a professional dance instructor for years (she taught me how to dance east coast swing, lindy hop, balboa, and a slew of other styles) and has always longed for a great venue in which to teach the New Orleans community how to dance to the music it created.  So she and husband Craig Adams bought the decrepit firehouse at 1719 Toledano Street and have been working tirelessly to turn it into a swanky space with a cafe downstairs and four open studios in which to host classes and dances.  My job has been to make the chandelier in the entry way, or, as Nathalie put it to me, “the first thing people see when they come in the door that makes them go ‘whoa’.”

I love the challenge of doing custom work, but it is time-consuming.  We first began discussing ideas for the chandelier in August 2012, and I just finished and installed the thing yesterday, November 2012.  My guidelines were only that it had to have that “wow” factor and that it be made, as much as possible, with non-traditional parts (read unusual).  So, my first step was making a pinterest board with all the chandelier images I could find that I thought fit the bill.

Once she picked out a few styles that she liked, I started thinking logistics.  How high is the ceiling?  How high off the ground should it be?  What size chandelier will fit the shape of the room?  With these questions in mind, I made some simple drawings to help figure out what shape it would take.

My original idea was to use a bicycle wheel wrapped in LED lights with some sort of glass hanging from the spokes.  But after figuring out the dimensions that would work best for the room, a bicycle rim seemed too small so I ended up using a piece of ornamental Iron grating that Craig salvaged from the building.  My dad took on the task of getting all the grit and old paint off the iron with a wire wheel on a grinder.   Thanks pops!

The glass hanging from the chandelier was tricky to figure out as well.  I was going to have to drill  a small hole in the bottom of whatever glass we chose, so we searched for something that wasn’t too big or heavy that had a nice shape, but that also didn’t have too thick of a base.  If you’ve ever drilled glass, you know that those bits are expensive and will burn out quick when having to drill thru thick walled glass.  We ended up using a style of votive candle holder that was the size of a small drink tumbler.  Drilling glass underwater helps extend the life of the bit, and my dad helped with this too (he’s not a bad helper, for an investment broker!)

To string the beads to the iron, I thought that a heavy test fishing line would do the trick nicely, so I went and got some from a local fishing supply store, and then I went to The Bead Shop (4612 Magazine Street) to get some beads which I planned to thread on the line to hold the glass in place.  Mind you, I’ve never done anything like this before and i’m making it up as I go along.  And this is also the part of the story where I give props to the people at the Bead Shop for saving me from making a huge blunder.  While explaining to them what I was trying to accomplish, one of the three salespeople helping me (pretty good service, eh?) warned me that fishing line gets brittle over time and may eventually break.  Glasses plummeting from thirteen feet high onto the heads of people below is decidedly not the effect I was going for with this piece, so I ditched the fishing line and ended up getting some silver coated heavy-duty bead string that will last forever.  So, if you only take one thing away from this story, it is that supporting your local business can save your a**!  I could have gone to Wal-Mart or whatever and bought my beads and never would have spoken to a soul, as there would have definitely not been an expert there or willing to help me.  But I gladly will trade the pennies I would have saved for the advice and customer service I received from the local joint, and the disaster-aversion advisement was included in the price.

So, once I had all my supplies and all my glasses were drilled, I sweet-talked my wife into helping me string the glasses up to the iron grate.   I’m used to working alone, but there was no way I could have done this part without a second set of hands.  Trying to space out the glass, tie knots of micro thin wire, and support the line of glass all at the same time would have meant a lot frustration and possibly some more disaster had I attempted it on my own, so here are some more props, this time for my wife.

Finally, when it was all made, I bubble wrapped every single piece of glass to protect them in the transport to the firehouse.  My dog Max helped me with this too, but he gets no props.  He was a terrible helper.

After the iron and glass were up and suspended from the ceiling rafters, the bulk of the chandelier was done, but I still had to illuminate it and there was really no way to know for certian how the light would refract thru the glass and how many bulbs would be needed until it was up.  I tried a centralized cluster of three bulbs in the middle of the glass but that didn’t seem enough so I ended up using seven sockets spread thru the fixture and it looked good.

The bulbs you choose for a fixture can make all the difference, so I showed them a few options (vanity globe, silver-capped) but saved the one I knew they would choose for last.

Everybody loves Edison bulbs.

And so it was finished, just in the nick of time.  The firehouse opened last night to a big and very excited dance crowd.  And yes, I did overhear a person or two say “whoa” as the looked up at the chandelier, so I guess that is mission accomplished.



Filed under chandelier, design, Uncategorized

Design Inspiration

I never went to design school, or ever had a class in furniture design, so the things I make are purely influenced by my surroundings and however my untrained mind chooses to translate raw material into functional form.  Since I work in historic preservation in New Orleans, I regularly find myself in edifices that are in an advanced state of decay.  Inside these buildings, I often play archeological inspector, following the clues left behind by the former generations of inhabitants and the changes to the structure itself perpetrated by both man and nature.   Once a house starts to degrade and the plaster falls down or is “gutted” in order to put up drywall (a far inferior finish by the way), then all that is left is the lath and studs.  Laths are the thin wooden strips that cover the walls and ceiling of old houses that were originally installed to hold up the plaster.  A house striped down to lath is full of texture and patterns and has a skeletal feel, like being in the belly of a wooden whale.  Here are some pictures of one such house that I was in recently on a site inspection after hurricane Isaac, and all the textures and archeological ephemera therein that will be my impetus for furniture and lighting design in the future.  I’ve mixed in a few images of things I’ve made from similar materials to show what the detritus can become with a little vision and elbow grease.

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Filed under design, lamps, Presetvation resource center, Salvage, tables

Channel 26 WGNO News Story on Prince’s Foundation New Orleans Summer Program

Anne Cutler, news reporter for WGNO and author of the Hammer and Heels Blog came by and shot a story on the Prince of Wales Building Skills Summer Program, with an appearance by yours truly.   Check it out: Prince’s Foundation News Story


You can also see Anne’s blog post on the program here!

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Filed under Millwork, Presetvation resource center, prince of wales

Teaching Traditional Woodworking to the Prince of Wales Traditional Building Summer Program

I was asked to teach the woodworking portion of the Prince’s Foundation Summer Skill Building Program here in New Orleans, and was tasked with both giving a lecture summing up the importance of joinery as well as educating the students in my workshop for two days. For the workshop section, I decided to give them a taste of both the old and new tools of woodworking, and split the day into two parts to do so.  They spent the first half of the day learning how to use the modern machines that I use everyday in the shop to make architectural items such as doors and windows, focusing on what it would take to run a production shop: drawings, cut lists, safety, and machine operation and technique for dimensioning of lumber.  In the latter half of the day, the students were given a schematic of a simple lap joint frame that i drew up and were told to cut and assemble the frame by hand, using the dimensioned lumber from the first section of the class.  Though the lap joint is one of the simplest joints to cut in woodworking, it can be quite a challenge to cut a straight and square cut with a hand saw if you are not used to using one.  The idea was to not only challenge the students and let them get their hands dirty, but also to instill the appreciation for the skill involved in woodworking, particularly in millwork that was made before our current, modern improvements in tool technology.  Though tool mechanization has made the life of the craftsman easier, without the basic skills needed to do a task without a modern tool, the craftsman can become complacent and lose the understanding of the art and finesse that are the differentiating qualifiers between fine woodworking or plain old carpentry.  Plus, what do you do when your power goes out and you can’t use your table saw?  Or when you are asked to restore a historical piece that can’t be done any other way than by hand?  The students rose to the challenge, and each ended up with a handmade frame that will fit the certificate they’ll receive upon completion of the program.  For more information on the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Community visit http://www.princes-foundation.org

From the Princes foundation website: “Our crafts and architecture Summer School teaches how traditional building repair techniques can be applied to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. It’s an intensive three-week course, one aimed at architects, planners, developers, builders and craftspeople. Through a series of lectures, workshops, drawing and building exercises and field trips, our Summer School participants develop an in-depth knowledge of traditional building and repair techniques and how these can be applied.”

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Filed under Millwork, Prince of Wales Building Trades Aprrenticeship Program, Uncategorized

Making a bracket

I had to make some copies of existing brackets that were damaged on a historic home in the Irish Chanel in New Orleans. I made them out of spanish cedar to resist moisture and cut them out on a scroll saw.




The black stripes help me remember what is to be cut out.


scroll saws are perfect for bracket work because, unlike a band saw, you can detach the blade and thread it thru a hole to make isolated cuts in the center of a block.



once you have a good drawing to work from, all you need is transfer paper to copy the design onto wood.


The cutoffs all look like sea serpents to me.

I made three. Important that they all match!

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Filed under Millwork, preservation, Presetvation resource center

The Prodigal Spool of Wire, a Treatise on Honor

So I bought this spool of vintage cloth wire on ebay that i was really excited about.  The cloth covering is black with silver stripes, is from the 60s, and reminds me of these friendship bracelets my friends and I used to wear in the late 80s (except not nearly as dorky).

totally tubular.

Vintage Cloth Wire is a really popular item on ebay and it i’ve seen prices go up to $250 + for a 150ft reel.  Well, I somehow was able to get my 100ft of wire   for $18, so you can see why I was like totally stoked dude to receive this awesome wire and use it for my totallly radical lamps.  I checked the tracking information every day for a week, watching my package eek its way from New Jersey to New Orleans via the United States Postal Service.  Finally, the day came when i checked on the package from work and it said that it had been delivered!  When I got home a few hours later, i hurried joyously to the mailbox (we have one of those neighborhood cluster boxes) but it was not there, and then to my front porch where most delivery men leave the packages behind a column; not there either.  My fiance must have brought it in, i thought, as i ignored the growing sense of panic in my throat.  But Leslie hadn’t been home at all that day, i knew, and the package was nowhere inside.  I checked the computer again to make sure i had the right package.  I did.  I looked all over the porch and checked the mail box again.  Nothing.  I asked my neighbors on the left and right if they had seen the package and they hadn’t.  It was then that the despair set it. Though a very beautiful place, New Orleans is full of awful and dishonorable people and there was no doubt in my mind that someone had nicked the package off my porch in the 2 hours that i sat there between the time it was delivered and the time I got home.  I see so many people doing terrible and immoral things on a daily basis that i’ve grown pretty jaded as of late with humanity and the future of this city.  All that aside, it is a terrible feeling to wait expectantly for a package to arrive only to realize that it will never come.  Something one-of-a-kind and irreplaceable, gone because of some jerk with no morals.

I still had a tiny hope that it was all a mistake and my package was still on a truck out there somewhere, so i called the US Postal Service 800 number.  After spending half an hour on the phone with the USPS computer voice, I finally tricked the system into letting me talk to a human and she said i would have to talk to the local post office and my area code supervisor.  I talked to him later and he confirmed that the package had, in fact, been left on my front porch right in front of my door., according to the delivery man.  “Why didn’t he hide it somewhere like everyone else does?” i asked him.  He responded, “Why? Is it a bad area?”  I didn’t know how to respond.  The man was obviously from New Orleans judging by his accent, so how did he not know that this city is All bad neighborhoods, with only a few islands of good ones?  Infuriatingly, he went on to tell me that this theft was pretty much my fault for not leaving a note on my door asking the delivery man to hide the package.

But I still would not give up.   I figured that is someone stole my package they would be on foot, and would open the package in a block or two to see what treasure they had procured.  After discovering that the contents were something that is of no value to anyone (except a lighting dork like me) they would have dropped the package on the ground or dumped it in the nearest trash can.  So, the next morning, i took a walk around the ‘hood.  I went four blocks in each direction, peaking in trash cans as I went, searching for my precious.  I also looked on the porches of other abodes that had my same number address or even just close to my numbers.  I saw the neighborhood post man and asked him about my package, and he said that he wasn’t on my route on the day it was delivered, and that it was another guy.  He knew to hide the package, but the other guy didn’t have as much sense.  He was understanding, but there was nothing he could do.  Finally, I gave up the search.  It was gone.

But wait!  This blog post is not called the Prodigal spool of wire for nothing!  This depressing story does have a happy ending, one that restores the lost faith in humanity and fixes all that is wrong with the world!  Well, sort of anyway.  The doorbell rang this afternoon, and it was my neighbor from three doors down with a package in her hand.  Could it be?  “The post man left this on my porch a few days ago,” she said, “and i’ve been waiting to see you to give it to you but I haven’t so here it is.”

Her address is nothing like mine, by the way, so the post man just got it way wrong.  Still, my heart soared to have in my hands what I had given up for lost.  I mentioned before the awfulness of loss,  but there is also a truly amazing feeling that can only be experienced when that thing that you thought was gone forever comes back to you.  I can only think of one other time in my life that I’ve  felt such elation (long-lost cat coming home) and it was awesome – i did a stupid happy dance, ask leslie.

So, the moral of the story is this: The world is a bad place (mostly) and people do dumb things (often), and this leads us to expect the worst in people because the worst is usually what you get.  But sometimes, every once in a while, it isn’t as bad as you think, and you get a little pleasant surprise that makes you do a little dance.

So, without further ado, here is my precious, the comeback wire, the monowatt surprise, the spool that wouldn’t quit, etcetera etcetera. Keep your eyes peeled for this magical wire in future lamps!


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Colorful transom



I have to replicate this transom window for a house I’m working on, and man does it have some colorful paint on it! I count five different colors on this window, convering most points on the color wheel.

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Filed under Millwork, preservation

More Trees.

Three more I finished editing.  This brings the series to 19 images, and that is it until I go shooting again, I have to focus on building lamps now, i’m way overdue to make some.  I’m going to try and contact the “friends of city park” and see what they think about doing a show of these images.  Long shot but we’ll see.  more tree images on my website, jrportman.com

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Filed under Photography, Trees of City Park