Alex Watson – Woody Boater’s roving reporter from Northern Michigan has prepared this remarkable story about a unique and talented artist named Charles Bingham. Charles describes his artwork this way…
“I cut small pieces of different exotic woods by hand with a knife and fit the parts together to form an image. There is no stain or dye used. What you see is only the natural colors and woodgrains. The true art to marquetry is using those different exotic wood patterns to mimic the element of the picture it represents. When you can make the wood look like water, sky, sand or trees, that is when the artwork really comes to life.” – Charles Bingham
The Teeny Tiny World And The Enormous Artistry Of Charles Bingham
by Alex Watson
If you’re like I, you’ve spent at least part of your Summer up at dawn, wiping down your classic boat, gazing at it lovingly, and then snapping about 1,000,000 photos, trying to capture it in just the right light, at just the right angle, with just the right background.
Ok, so you’ve now got a favorite shot of your baby (boat, not offspring).
You could make it a screensaver. Yawn.
You could frame it. Borrrrrring.
OR, you could reach out to Charles Bingham and have him turn it into an incredibly personal piece of art you will treasure for the rest of your life.
Charles’s artistry and extraordinary gift is marquetry. Marquetry is the art and craft of applying pieces of wood veneers to a surface to form decorative designs or pictures. What separates Charles from others, is that he focuses on portraying classic boats in marquetry and he certainly does more of that than anyone else nationwide.
It makes sense doesn’t it? To have your best photo of your favorite possession immortalized in the material of its construction: wood. (If your favorite possession is Classic Glass, immortalizing it in wood works beautifully too. So do keep reading.)
Before I relay to you my wonderful experience working with this artist, and show you the stunning heirloom piece he created for me, here are a few examples of his work so you have a sense for what he does.
My Project With Charles
For years, I had seen Charles’s booth at the Hessel Boat Show. While the other artists displays of watercolors, wooden models, and photos of classic boats were very nice, I had never seen marquetry outside of furniture and framing. And I had never imagined marquetry of classic boats. I was intrigued.
On February 25, I was so homesick for my hibernating boat that I decided to scratch the itch. I e-mailed Charles three photos of Marion E., my 1949 Chris-Craft 25’ Sportsman, in order to obtain an estimate. The warmth, helpfulness, and promptness of his response made it easy to proceed.
Charles helped me narrow my choice to two photos. The first was easier for him to fabricate. Owing to the setting of the second, it was more complicated and, hence, costlier. I chose that one because, IF he could do justice to it, I though the result would be amazing. The composition of the photo I chose also had a sentimental appeal to me. It showed the boat tied to our 1968 crib docks, which had bravely stood the test of time, and had weathered to a lovely grey, as cedar will do. These docks are slated for replacement this fall and it will take years for the new ones to gain that same patina.
Here is the photo I chose, taken in the early morning sunlight.
Phase 1 of Charles’s work was to create and send me a full size sketch of the photo I had chosen.
We used this sketch to tweak and ensure the attributes of the boat were captured to my satisfaction. We also used it to determine what in the original photo could/should be included and what should be omitted from the marquetry to make the work more attractive. (For instance, I elected to leave out the fenders hanging from the dock in the original photo, because I felt they took away from the beauty of the piece.) When I approved of the sketch, it formed the basis for the shapes of the wood pieces Charles would cut.
It was at this point where Charles and I discussed two attributes that mattered to me. 1. That the seat backs of the boat wood look as luxurious as they actually are, not flat. 2. That the dock pilings would look round, not one-dimensional.
We also discussed whether showing the shadows cast by the pilings across the dock would help the image or make it too busy. Charles assured me he could make the seat cushions and the dock pillars look realistic. And he seemed to relish the challenge of making the dock shadows work for the piece.
Phase 2 was really a series of steps. (I suppose that makes it more like a walk. Ha.) Charles would e-mail me regular descriptions and photos of his progress — sometimes daily, but at least twice each week.
It was at this point that I realized a huge part of the enjoyment and excitement of commissioning this work was the “getting there” part. By involving me so intimately in his creation, the artist was doing the equivalent of sending me multiple “gifts.” When I saw the little jewels he was creating which, in sum, would form the finished piece, I began to truly appreciate how talented this man is.
By example, check out this photo of the “rope” he made from wood, by cutting it diagonal to the grain.
Want more? Deck striping is hard in the real world, right? Try it in Charles’s itty bitty world. Here’s what he wrote me about them… “You can see the medical scalpel I use for much of my cutting… the white stripes on the boat are some of the finest cuts I’ve made on any picture. I takes a very steady hand to cut them at a consistent width.” (You can bet he drinks decaf.)
Or how ‘bout this one. Check out all the hardware pieces he made.
Now look even closer at just this bow vent.
Yep, that is indeed a sparkle he cut and inserted in there! (And yep, it is in the photo I sent him.) He did the same thing for the navigation light. In his words: “Here is one of the front scoops…I thought it was missing a little something, then I thought “it needs a glint of light…” Arrrggghhh! (That last word was mine, not his.)
Ok, I was saving the best two for last… Those two circular vents on the inside rear board? Each needed to be sectioned out, like an orange. THEN, each sectioned out area needed to be perfectly re-filled with a darker tiny piece of wood to create the cumulative effect of holes.
And the bow pennant and stern flag? I’ll wager each star on the flag is not much larger than Lincoln’s nose in this photo.
From time to time Charles would involve me even more intimately, by e-mailing me options, and asking for my preferences. Most memorable among these was the choice between Australian Walnut and Imbuya. To help me make an informed decision, Charles sent me photos of each species, and educated me as to how each would change in appearance, once finish was applied.
I could barely contain my enthusiasm. I reached out to Matt and said “this man’s talents need to be brought to the attention of the Woody Boater community!” Matt’s replies, when he saw the painstaking detail of Charles’s work, began with: “very cool. They grew to: “this man is insane.” Then to: “he needs medication.” And then ultimately to: “there is a room at a special place with lots of pills waiting for this guy.”
Like I, Matt was blown away by the skill and indescribable patience it takes to do what Charles does. Is there such a thing as ASD (Attention Surplus Disorder)?
Matt and I doubted Charles would show us his trade secrets to explain some of them on Woody Boater. Much to our surprise, Charles replied that he was happy to.
I now know why. It’s a case of monkey see, monkey doesn’t have a hope in hell of doing. Because the average monkey would need years of practice to learn to “do.” And because the average monkey would probably fry his brain with the frustration of trying to “do.”
Here are just three of the “secrets” Charles shared with us to create the right look of a particular component of the work.
1. “Sand shading” of the seat backs, to give us the luxurious, padded look we wanted. When you think about it, it is the progression from lighter to darker that the eye discerns to be a contour. Sand shading is simply scorching the edges of wood to create this illusion.
Here is a cool video of Charles making my seat backs.
(He assures me that’s sand. Although man that looks mighty illegal to me, like a scene straight out of “Blow.”)
2. Using multiple wood species for each dock pillar, to add realism and to create the illusion of roundness. You will recall how important getting the docks right was to me in this piece. Here’s how Charles tackled it, in his own words: ”I am now working on the dock poles. I asked for some help finding a really good ‘weathered’ looking wood for the dock amongst several woodworking friends. A guy in Colorado said that there is a really interesting wood in his area that would work quite well. He said that there is a beetle infesting much of the lodgepole pine trees in Colorado. The bugs are killing the trees, but the odd effect of their infestation is that they cause a natural discoloring phenomenon throughout the tree. He sent a photo of what the wood looks like… here is what he sent me…”
Later, Charles e-mailed me this: “I’ve been putting together the dock. Each pole is made of 4 or 5 different strips of grey wood put together starting with the lightest and ending with the darkest. Keep in mind some woods may not look very dark, but each wood darkens to a different degree once a finish is put on. So, the darkness of the parts now are different from what they will look like with finish.” The dock poles, therefore, were assembled from different wood species. The variance in color of these pieces is what allows them to progress from lighter to darker, creating their contoured look by a different means than “Sand Shading.”
Had Charles not assembled the poles using different woods, had he merely “sand shaded” a single piece of wood for each, the contour illusion would be much less realistic.
3. Cutting dock boards imperfectly to achieve realism. Here’s how Charles described this to me. “I’ve learned from past experience that if you make things too perfect in representing an imperfect structure like this dock it won’t look real. It would look ‘funny’ in a way you couldn’t quite put your finger on. I purposely made an effort to keep from making the lines even and parallel since none of the lines on the real dock are either.”
At the completion of Phase 2, the work has been assembled. Here is the “pallet” of woods Charles used for my particular piece, and the places where he used them. (He provides this Legend with each finished work.)
We were nearing finished artwork at this point. As with Phase 2, Phase 3 was really a series of steps. First, Charles glue-pressed all the little pieces to a backing board, following which the assembled work was lightly sanded, after which he applied the first finish over the work, called a sanding-sealer.
Then came the step Charles always enjoys most: applying finish. He e-mailed me a video clip of that process, so I could share in his “high.” As I watched it, I understood why this step is so personal for him. Despite his knowledge of scores of wood species and their best applications in marquetry, he doesn’t get to see how beautifully his working with these will all come together until their color and grain is brought forth with finish. This is akin to a composer writing a symphony, note by note, and finally getting to hear it performed. See this amazing transformation for yourself. He calls this video “Marquetry Moment.”
When I watched the video, I finally understood that the skill of marquetry isn’t merely about expertly cutting and piecing together tiny pieces of wood. It’s also about knowing how various rare wood species will look when mated or juxtaposed with their neighbors. A painter paints with colors. A marquetry artist “paints” with wood species. There is no “coloring.” How cool is that!
Here are a couple photos of the artist’s studio. Check out the inventory of woods!
And here’s a photo of Charles at work. That can’t be good for the back. Or the eyes.
Once the finish had dried, Charles applied two coats of clear lacquer to protect the work.
Phase 4, the final phase, was to choose the wood species and finish I wanted for my frame. I was offered Maple, Mahogany, Cherry, and Walnut, while stain choices ranged from clear (none), to ebony. I chose a medium stain Mahogany because I felt it conflicted the least with this very complex work, and because I thought it fitting that the frame and the real-life boat were of the same species.
Here is the finished 22” x 28” (before framing) work, quite sizable in sum but comprised of many many miniscule pieces.
(Click on the image for an enlarged version)
And once again, here is the photo on which it is based. (Click on the image for an enlarged version)
To appreciate how well the artist did justice to the original, focus on a specific part of the photo, then toggle back and forth between that and his rendering of it in wood.
The finished work I received was lovingly packaged, and accompanied by a CD with video clips of the “sand shading” and finishing processes, as well as scores of photos of various stages of his work.
All the above, which took approximately 2-1/2 months, was done without the knowledge of my wife or kids, as a family surprise. They were delighted, and we are privileged to have it hanging prominently at our cottage.
I hope to have Charles portray other boats I own in marquetry. That goal has me working even harder to capture them strikingly in photos.
Amazingly, after many years of wooden boat marquetry, and after attending dozens of wooden boat shows, Charles and his wife have never actually been in a classic wooden boat! It will be my great pleasure to meet them at the Les Cheneaux Antique Wooden Boat Show in Hessel this August, and to host their first ever classic wooden boat ride. In the very 25’ Sportsman Charles rendered for me.
Contacting Charles Bingham
Here’s how to reach Charles:
185 Bedford Road North
Battle Creek, Michigan 49037
Tel: (269) 964-6996
Website: www.binghammarquetry.com or just click here to go directly to Charles Bingham’s web site.
To see what he can do for you, you might want to send him your best photo (or photos) of your boat. He will get back to you promptly with his suggestions and some indication of cost.
Regarding pricing, Charles gives estimates based on the customer’s preferences for detail and the complexity of the photo to be rendered. (Complexity is dictated by the amount that is going on in the picture you want done. In my case, the 25’ Sportsman was a fancy and curvaceous boat, and all those poles and boards of the dock were challenging and time consuming.)
Should you elect to commission a work, be that for yourself, your spouse, parent(s), or sibling(s), a good friend, a good customer (if you are a restorer, for instance), or for any other purpose, I can say with utter confidence you will not be disappointed in the process, or the result of working with such a service-oriented, talented, and inspired artist.
P.S. – Remember me telling you I had an itch in February that I scratched when I commissioned my piece from Charles? I truly believe had I not scratched that itch this way and become so absorbed with the work-in-process, I’d have probably gone out and bought another boat. The feeling I had when I opened the package from Charles, was actually of taking delivery and owning a new boat.
“So you see, dear, this really didn’t cost us money. It saved us MONEY!”