The important American Studio woodworker Emil Milan (1922-1985) is the subject of an almost ten-year research project in which I participated. The culmination of the project is the beautiful book EMIL MILAN MIDCENTURY MASTER. I invite you to learn more about Emil and the book and visit the Emil Milan Art Group on Facebook.
Emil’s approach to woodworking was very similar to the direction I followed and as I’ve learned more about him, it’s become reassuring that I was on the right track. I met Emil only once, but it has had a lifetime of impact.
My Afternoon with Emil Milan
The only time I met Emil Milan was when I visited him for a few hours on May 18, 1983 and it was a memorable experience. How different that afternoon would have been had I known that, thirty-four years later, I would be anxiously awaiting publication of a beautiful book about Emil, crowning the efforts of four researchers. I have tried to confine this narrative to what I clearly recall, not allowing all the other information we’ve learned about Emil to intrude.
In the 1980s visitors to my booth at craft shows, particularly the ACC Baltimore Winter Market and the Morristown (New Jersey) Craft Market, would mention Emil Milan, saying that he also made wooden spoons or that they had some of his spoons. After hearing this several times I determined to find out more about Emil and to meet him. I’m not sure how I found him in those pre-internet days, but I recall a series of communications, both telephone calls and letters. I’ve found a note indicating that I called Emil in March of 1982. I don’t remember why that call didn’t lead to an immediate visit but months passed, and then I had to wait (at Emil’s insistence) for winter conditions to end and spring mud to go away. I was finally granted permission to visit on the pretext of his providing tips on how to make spoons.
On May 18th I drove south on I-8 to Great Bend, Pennsylvania from where I proceeded east on Pennsylvania Rt.171 towards Susquehanna and Thompson. I followed Emil’s directions onto increasingly minor roads and finally turned right onto “Milan Road”, indicated by a small wooden sign. Once on this dirt road I realized that Emil hadn’t told me where on Milan Road he lived, but kept going until the road seemed to end at a former farmstead.
There was Emil’s house, slightly elevated on the right side of the road, and an old dairy barn on the left. Water was running from a pipe protruding from the basement of the house and two or three derelict vehicles (later explained as being solar wood drying kilns) were sitting on the unmowed lawn. While I was debating which structure to approach Emil appeared at a door of the barn. I’d never seen an image of him nor had anyone described his appearance but he looked very much like the Emil in the photograph that will appear on the cover of the book. Some people might have been put off by Emil’s disheveled look but I thought: “picturesque”.
He invited me into the lower level of the barn and spent perhaps a couple of hours demonstrating how he made spoons. Nothing in the barn-shop appeared level or plumb and neatness and order didn’t seem to be concerns. He mentioned that he had three band saws but, glancing around, I saw only two. When questioned about the third he gave the intriguing reply,” Oh, that’s up at the house”, but it didn’t seem appropriate to inquire further.
Emil demonstrated hollowing spoon bowls with a Forster bit (I recall his using a drill press rather than a portable drill) and using a burr chucked into a half-inch portable drill for additional hollowing. We now know that at times he would hollow the interior of a spoon or bowl first and then shape the exterior to conform and I suspect that was what he was showing me. I don’t recall what sanding techniques he used for spoon bowl interiors but he must have shown me his “world’s smallest belt sander” technique, something I’d previously found in a woodcarving book and used regularly in a pale imitation of Emil’s effectiveness.
He demonstrated the operation of his belt/drum sander. I particularly recall slack belt sanding. There was no dust collection for this machine and, when I inquired, he said that he simply dragged it closer to a door that he would open to provide an exit for the dust, typical of Emil’s “practical” solutions to problems! I believe this door was the one reached by walking down the slope from the road on the right side of the barn. I also remember a relatively large duplicator sitting in the same vicinity but no evidence of it having been recently used.
Finally Emil took me over to the large band saw and demonstrated carving (yes, “carving”) the exterior of a spoon. To my amazement, he selected a chunk of hard maple slab wood, placed it on the saw table bark side up, and, without doing any preliminary marking proceeded to saw the outline of a spoon! He subsequently showed how he used the saw to carve the other surfaces but, as I was already doing that type of band sawing, that wouldn’t have seemed as remarkable as it was. Particularly impressive was his not needing to draw any lines and sawing in a single continuous cut to obtain the desired shape. The great fluidity and rhythm of his motions were wonderful to observe. In talking about a sequence of steps for making a spoon (or any other carved object) he admonished me to, “Never do in an early step what can be accomplished in a later step.” This contradicted my understanding that, as long as there was adequate control, as much work as possible should be done by the more aggressive tools used in preliminary shaping. Because it was Emil, I refrained from commenting but still wonder why he preferred that sequence.
I had shown him spoons I’d brought and later traded one of my large decorative spoons for a spoon, spatula and garlic crusher of his. I also gave him a bottle of wine as a hospitality gift. To accomplish our trade he led me to one or two sizable cartons, each full of finished spoons lying in a heap. This was startling to me as I wrapped my utensils quite carefully, often individually. All of the spoons both Emil and I made were asymmetrical with some designated right-handed, others left-handed. What he called a right-handed spoon I saw as primarily left-handed and vice-versa. Explaining that my wife Barbara was left-handed I selected two “left-handed” utensils, because they felt better to me as a right-hander! Neither of us was right or wrong; it was simply two different interpretations. We must have discussed finishing materials but I have only a vague memory of his using a linseed oil-based concoction.
The utensils in the boxes were all the same configuration except some had bowls (spoons) and others just blades (spatulas). They varied considerably in size, undoubtedly intentionally. Some of the shapes seemed to be executed more smoothly than others. Far be it for me to criticize Emil’s work and I imagine he could make a spoon in a fraction of the time it would take me. He had the production-oriented, workmanlike approach that I’ve never been able to latch onto. I also had the feeling that Emil was “tired” of woodworking in comparison with what were more exciting earlier periods for him. Now that I know the situation of his later years, this was probably an accurate assessment.
I don’t recall visiting the upper floor of the barn but Emil invited me into his house. I was only in the front (living) room and it showed all the clutter other visitors have since reported. And, now, I saw the third band saw, a 14″ or 16″ floor model Walker-Turner sitting right in the living room anchored in a pile of sawdust! The reason it was there was because he was using the slab wood as both material for his spoons and as fuel for his heating stove. If he noticed that a piece of “firewood” had promise as a spoon he didn’t want to carry it down to the barn, rough out a spoon, and carry the burnable scraps back to the stove. While not appropriate as fancy decor, the band saw in the living room made perfect sense in terms of Emil’s efficiency-based mindset!
There were several cartons of finished work in the living room, either taken back from, or waiting to go, to galleries. With no transportation of his own, it’s unlikely Emil “delivered” much work. I remember Marge Zap of the Craft Barn in Florida, New York telling me, years later, that the only way she could get work from Emil was to pester him and then finally drive to Thompson and pick up cartons of spoons (and maybe other work as well). Research partner Phil Jurus and his wife Sandye had to do the same for their gallery. The only other thing I remember from the house was a sculpture that was probably the maquette for the never-produced figurehead for the South Street Seaport’s ship Wavertree.
I didn’t learn much in the way of new techniques but just observing Emil was valuable enough. I’m not conscious of the form of my utensils changing much after the visit though I did try to incorporate an element of his spatulas into my corresponding utensil. Perhaps the visit influenced my work more than I think. A few years ago friends were showing us the interior of their new house and I noticed a small bowl that looked to be one of Emil’s but it didn’t seem plausible that they would have a piece of his. Confused, but excited at possibly coming upon something of Emil’s, I picked up the bowl and turned it over to look for his signature-only to find mine! Then I recalled making this bowl as a gift several years earlier.
Emil was known for telling stories and here’s an example. At some point during the visit I remarked about his wearing a beret. Emil’s response [paraphrased] was: “Oh, this[the beret]? Story goes with it. A few years ago I started getting these bad headaches. Went from doctor to doctor but no one found a cure. Then I tried one more doctor and he explained that in rare instances this sort of headache could be brought on by a draft hitting only one side of the head. He asked if I had some situation where I was encountering such a draft. I thought for a while and then realized the driver’s door on my van was sagging and a gap had developed between the door and its frame. That must be the source! So I went out and bought this beret for three dollars. Now when I’m going somewhere I pull the beret down like this [over the left side of his head]. The draft is blocked and the headaches are gone!” This is just one more example of Emil’s ingenuity. He had found an inexpensive, easily applied solution to his problem.
I have a vision of Emil, at the end of my visit, standing near my car holding the large spoon I’d given him and telling me that I should make my spoons “lighter,” undoubtedly apt advice. It’s worth noting that, in accordance with his positive approach to instruction, he didn’t say, “Your spoon is too heavy.” Emil was sixty-one when I visited him. I’m seventy-six and, no matter how many young and middle-age images of him I’ve seen while working on this project, I still think of him as that grizzled man looking older than his years, standing at the barn door.
It is unsettling to contemplate that visit from the perspective of our project. If only I’d taken along a camera or an audiocassette recorder! I now understand that, as intensely enjoyable as that visit was, I only grazed the tip of the iceberg of the man, his wisdom and his humor. These are excerpts (slightly edited for clarity) from two letters I received shortly after the visit: “As for being inspired to create work in a newer vein that’s the challenge of seeing peoples’ work and to meeting other artists.” and, “Even the best of artists get inspired by what’s been done by other artist friends or just being around people who are doing things.” and, “I love going to my friends and other craftsmen’s shops just to see how they work and what they are doing now. How they solve problems, their tools etc”. And, “I think crafts people have to help each other as there are not enough of us to go around.”
Thirty-four years after my single brief visit with Emil, I realize that I was, for a few hours, in the presence of greatness. Observing his woodworking path has strengthened my belief in the importance of well-executed small functional objects and in the value of sharing methods for their creation. I’ve also been reassured that it is OK to have equal affection for both my powerful shaping sander and my favorite carving knife.
Barry Gordon, 2017