handmade

Anatomy of a Specimen

As regular visitors may know, I like to put some effort into what I do. My recent expansion into mailart is no exception to this. Actually, I have spent an disproportionally long time on some of the things I have made to send out. Mostly experimental stuff too, more often than not needing more attention as you try new things or explore new materials and techniques. So  as I began to formulate an idea for a mailart piece, I decided to bring it to the blog.

Inspired by visits to the Sedgewick Museum of Earth Sciences and the Museum of Zoology in Cambridge with students early in September, I wanted to explore self-contained artifacts, boxes, and containers. I was very much taken with the original labeling, and appreciated the immense patience and precision it must have taken to examine and formally catalogue, but then was distracted by the presentation. Each group of samples and specimens must have been considered in some detail, especially the fragile and perishable stuff, and must have been subject to some form of economical judgement –


before deciding upon a suitable method of presenting each and every item, no matter how large or small, in order that it can be best preserved, studied and referred to almost indefinitely.

Many of the exhibits were encased in custom made glass tanks (full of formaldehyde preserved ghoulies) and many were laid out on slides, in boxes and on uniform strips of stiff cardboard. Having spent part of my day wandering around traditional museum displays; lots of dark, polished wood and glass panels, locked drawers and custom cabinets, I decided I would like to make a wooden container inspired by these resolutely old fashioned and non-interactive displays.

I started out with some thin balsa wood from a local craft shop. I will say this now – I am no woodworker – although I have used it as a base for another mail art piece, I have not used balsa wood since at least 1982 in school, so this was quite a little adventure. I did do a few drawings and worked out a few measurements first, then cut all the sides, ends and bases with a sharp scalpel.

I then glued them all together with wood glue, using small strips of masking tape to hold them while the glue dried.

A light rub on a sheet of fine grit sandpaper brought the corners to a satisfying smoothness.

I then painted the insides with gouache – this will be distressed a little later on.

At this point I learned that an earlier mail art piece constructed from balsa wood had got pretty damaged in transit and that this wood was not robust enough to withstand the rigours of the modern postal system. So off I went, back to the craft shop to buy the more expensive wood I had originally passed over for the cheaper and lighter balsa!

Instead of scrapping the half dozen boxes (plus a tester piece) I decided clad the balsa boxes – after all, I had done a fair amount of calculating, a lot of cutting, gluing and sanding to get to this point – and was very much disinclined to abort all the work so far.

After some more measuring, cutting and checking (this was more expensive wood – not hugely expensive like ebony you understand, but I am a true Yorkshireman and we don’t mess with our money.)  The new pieces were then glued to the balsa boxes – this would add some welcome strength to the structure and hopefully ensure that this one will arrive intact.

The longer sides were glued first and wrapped with string for good pressure.

The ends were then prepared. I wanted to affix a brass handle or ring to each one, to give the impression that each was a a drawer from a miniature cabinet. I used my tiny Archimedes drill and a scalpel to create the holes and trough.

I eventually decided upon ordinary household string for my drawer pull, partly because I had failed to come up with a suitable metal alternative, and partly because I liked the feel of the string – the same stuff I used to wrap everything while gluing.

The ends were glued down into the trough with PVA, and the long sides were prepared by cutting away any excess and smoothed again with a vigorous fine git sandpaper.

Mmm. Flush. The end panels were not though, because of the string:

So using my trusty lino-cutting gouges I carefully removed some material to allow the end panels to sit flush to the balsa:

And another gluing session, complete with string wrapping (not shown this time – don’t want to overdo it!) followed by another sanding to level off the corners:

As mentioned previously, I had painted the insides with gouache so that i could more easily distress it – a light sanding allowed some of the grain to come back through. A minor detail, but one that I am pleased with.

Now some of you may know that that the Lestarets’ have a new addition to the family in the form of a beautiful whippet. Said whippet has slowed things down considerably. These little boxes have been sat for several weeks now, waiting for the next stage.

A coat of gloss varnish (two, actually) to bring out the richness of the wood, and whilst they were drying, I cut lots of 1cm squares of board and glued them together in stacks of four. These will be the mounts for the specimens. A bit dull, but still a part of the process.

I then cut some board to fit the open top of each ‘case’ to act as a template. These I used as a template to cut some 2mm acrylic sheet which will be glued down to seal in the contents. I’ve left on the protective film to preserve the surface quality for now.

Time to turn my attention to other details now, and after a good look through my photographs from the Sedgewick and a bit of internet research, I created a small museum label using a Romanian (I think) sample with a few small alterations:


This was created in Adobe Illustrator, duplicated and printed out, where I added some asemic writing to each using Indian ink and a fine antique mapping pen:

Whist these were drying, I broke in my new rubber stamp, made especially for this, but with a view to employing it further upon anything that may take my fancy!

The design mimics old manufacturing seals and makers marks, often found stamped in out of the way places on bits of old furniture, cabinetry and instruments…

Each case was stamped on the bottom, and gave a different result as the ink spread and seeped into the grain. Nice.

I then glued in the labels and the mounting blocks made earlier.

And everything then needs to sit and dry under weights overnight (weights = stacks of coins glued together and small metal cubes)

As each case is slightly different (despite the meticulous measuring) each acrylic ‘lid’ was made to fit a specific box, so I have been careful to keep them together, hence the rather OCD layout of the photograph above!

There is one last element that I had briefly considered at the start. I always envisaged these as a sort of ‘mail order curiosity’ and would require some additional packaging, so I set about creating a sleeve that would give me essential graphics space and protect the acrylic from scratches.

I began by delving into my resource files – lots of assorted graphic imagery, collected over many years and just waiting for the right job to come along. I found a PDF file with a number of grotesque faces and cleaned a few up in PhotoShop and then converted them to vectors in Illustrator.

It was then a matter of having fun with the text and being careful with the styling – I wanted to get the feel of a traditional Victorian bespoke business, so needed to keep things relatively simple whilst suggesting a sense of playfulness or mischief.

The font was IM Fell English – which has a most elegant italics and works very well at small sizes. The language? Well, there’s a little of everything, especially Esperanto! Hours of fun on Google Translate!

The background was created from a composite of vintage paper textures – I use these quite a lot in my mail art, but no two are ever the same – and printed onto a linen finish cream card. I also printed  a repeat pattern using the images I cleaned up and rejected earlier on the reverse!

They make a really nice stack. By the time this is posted to the web, these will have been posted around the world.

So what’s inside? Hmm. That would be telling. Ok then. Each one contained a small ceramic tile, screen printed with a monetary fragment. The one shown below has an embossed piece. This one’s mine.

The composite image below shows all five of the ones sent out.

And of course, on the back of each is my new stamp…

Let me know if you get one…

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6 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Specimen

  1. I am staggered by the time you take and the care you lavish on your mail art … you are totally inspiring and they look, as my 12 year old son has proclaimed, ‘proper sick’ (i.e. brilliant)! I want to make some time to indulge in lovely experimentation like this. Hope the whippet is providing you with lots of fun can you post a pic?

  2. I just shot over here from IUOMA and I’m even more impressed and inspired! Beautiful work, I will be following 🙂

  3. Specimin No 02 arrived here a couple of weeks ago and I have been marvelling at it ever since. While opening the package I had no idea what it could be; then I removed the final cover from the box and I still had no idea. It’s beautifully made and presented, whatever it is. Sometimes the pure pleasure of making something is all the excuse you need. Thank you again!

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