Road Map Series – Clay Harmon


Road Map Series — Clay Harmon3-clayroadmapsmall

I am working on a series that combines my love of Wet Plate Collodion photography, a passion for cartography, and a (burgeoning) interest in woodworking. These Road Maps serve as a visual chronology of an individual’s life and this is my second piece in the series.

These abstract wet plate collodion photographs on aluminum (tintypes) are of the locations the subject has lived throughout their lives. I try to seek out older 1800’s era maps of the town/city/region – I’ve really come to love the typography and design in these historic maps.  Then I choose a composition that feels fitting. These images are extremely close focus so there is often a wonderful out-of-focus “bokeh” that’s achieved. Through this particular series I have come to really enjoy and embrace the messiness often evident in the wet plate collodion process … stalled developer flowing, inconsistent silver bath sensitizing, etc. The abstract nature of the subject is fitting to these characteristics.

Here you’ll find my passing effort to take snapshots throughout the process of creating Clay’s Road Map series to share a bit about how I create these. It will become evident that it’s a pretty organic process. Most all of it is just loose concepts that become finalized as chemistry is poured and sawdust is made.


Creating the “Maps”

First things first. I need an ordered list of locations. For this one, I had to do-it on the sly and Lynn (Clay’s wonderful and beautiful wife) helped out.

1 Ft. Rucker, AL
2 Ozark, AL
3 Ft. Rucker, AL
4 Surgoinsville, TN
5 Abingdon, VA
6 Greeneville, TN
7 Bowling Green, KY
8 Greenville, IL
9 Atlanta, GA (Georgia Tech)
10 Bloomington, IN (Indiana University)
11 Lafayette, LA
12 Bloomington, IN (Indiana University)
13 Kingwood, TX
14 The Woodlands, TX
15 Asheville, NC

Now the fun part – yes, seriously – scouring to find maps of the locations using online resources like, University of Texas Perry-Castenada Library Map Collection, and google images. After I get the images I’m interested in …

(click on the images to zoom in)


Print them out in reverse – that’s basically all I do.  You’ve seen behind the Wizard’s curtain and it’s just a tiny awkward looking guy….Hopefully ALL the magic isn’t lost.


Here’s where the magic happens. Pouring plates and making tintypes. Above is my beat-up 8×10 Seneca Improved Camera with a 4×5 reducing back perched on my beat-up Ries tripod. I use a Jody Ake InCamera Industries 4×5 holder – they’re incredibly well made and I highly recommend them. Jody Ake is a talented artist and an equally talented craftsman.


This was a nice long, hops sponsored Saturday. 4×5 tintypes in the wash, wash, wash, and more wash.


Sawdust Stage

Now’s the part that is both exciting and incredibly nerve-wrecking…making the container and means of presentation. I knew there were 15 4×5 plates and I knew I wanted them stored and displayed vertically. At first I thought about creating a double opening front and top glass door framed container but ended up veering away from that once I started buying wood stock.
This is how my woodworking projects seem to go. I have an idea of what I want to make, maybe even with some pretty specific expectations, then I start the process of actually creating the piece and it changes … a lot…everything goes out the window and it turns out completely different.

I found some African Mahogany with a texture and weird translucence that just seemed fitting as a container…it became the front and back face.

Now for a rough outline of the process of making it. (But if you’d like to skip ahead … here’s the final 4×5 tintypes … and here’s the final shots of the box.)


Blank 4×5 aluminum for sizing. To the left is the 3/4 x 10″ x 24″ Ambrosia Maple for the base.
Above that is the African Mahogany for the front and back faces.
The American Cherry for the short sides is above that.


To create the channels/dadoes to store the plates, I ripped down the Mahogany to size and set a (roughly) 1/8″ blade depth on the table saw.


Then I ripped down the Cherry for the sides and created the rabbet joints. This is before a lot of elbow grease sanding to smooth them out.


Mahogany is HARD. I wanted to round/smooth out the channels for the plate storage….Sanding. Sanding. Sanding. Sanding. Did I mention sanding?


Testing out the joints for any adjustments needed. Fit pretty damn good on the first try. (Notice the “T” … reminds me what side is up because I turn into a dumbass and forget pretty quickly. Also, Chaco toes…not OSHA-approved).


Marking out the placement of the countersunk screws.


This is a tiny detail that probably doesn’t matter to anyone but me and I love it. I took my little handheld router and put a 1/8″ roundover edge on the interior channel/dadoes. Minor, but felt like it made a big difference.


This is to illustrate what I mentioned earlier about it being an organic process for me. I created this chamfered lid as a mockup from a piece of scrap Cherry to see how it “felt”. I didn’t go with my original design/plan for the lid, but the chamfer turned out pretty good so I kept it to make a box to fit in at some point.


I didn’t take any photos of the screws and plug stage, but you get the idea. Clamped and glued before I sand and smooth.


Ambrosia Maple for the base. It’s hard to describe how cool and unique this wood is. Even raw and unfinished it’s got so much character. At this point I was trying to finalize the top. I couldn’t quite figure out what I wanted to do, but knew I’d get there. Trust the process, that’s my mantra.


Glued and sanded, and sanded, and sanded. I’m not quite sure how much sanding I did. 80 grit, then 120, then IPA, then 220, then Saison, then wet 600. Rinse (with beer) and repeat. Cleaned up nice though, even after the IPAs. I have no doubt there’s spilled beer in there.


Then it clicked…Ambrosia Maple on the lid to help tie it into the base. It made sense to ground the top to the bottom. At this point I forgot about taking photos because I was excited about solving the lingering lid quandary. I wish there was a synonym for quandary that started with an “L”, for alliteration purposes. Lots happened before this photo. I ripped small 1×3/4′ pieces to created the rabbet-joint frame for the lid; I created a dado in all four for the glass; and cut down said piece of glass for the lid. The scraps of paper towel are for when I glue and clamp the lid frame so that it doesn’t get stuck to the main box.


Detail of the dado for the glass. That Ambrosia Maple has so much character. There’s a beautiful gnarly knot right on the front face. Did a bit of wood filling with some glue and sawdust from the orbital sander catch bag.


Glass placed in with some clear glue (that I’d eventually have to do extensive razor blade scraping because I was too messy). Then glued the wood and clamped away.


Another of the clamping but this one shows the tiny strip of dark walnut I used as a handle on the front. Trimmed out a notch for it to fit into.


This photo looks innocuous. It’s not. After gluing the lid with the glass and the Maple frame they didn’t quite fit as cleanly to the main box as I wanted. This proved to be an extensive amount of work to carefully smooth the lid to fit with the main box comfortably. As my friend so beautiful describes it … a wonderful AFOG (Another Fucking Opportunity for Growth and learning). NPR was on and This American Life helped ease the pain.


This is me further brainstorming the organic nature of woodworking projects, getting a sense of where to trim down the Ambrosia Maple, where the display plates will sit, how many, etc etc. I’d sorta finalized that I wanted to display multiple plates. One of the reasons I love this series is it gives people a chance to swap out plates over time. So having a few maple to be displayed seemed fitting. Also liked that the display was at a similar angle to the main storage bod. Cold brew coffee seasoned with saw dust as well. That piece of Cherry at the top of the image, that’ll be fun in the future for something.


These nice little (overpriced) “antiqued” hinges were sufficiently tiny and nerve-wrecking to install.


Detail shot after I’d used that 1/8″ roundover bit at the join between the lid and main box to help visually soften the connection.


Another photo after numerous steps. I decided to have the main box sit atop a piece of the Ambrosia Maple because it seemed deserving of more surface presence. So I set the main box at an angle and then had to pencil off where it lined up to mark off the counter sunk screws from below. It was a logistical endeavor that I refused to let best me. This is after it was screwed, glued, and clamped.


Another showing it all glued up and clamped together.


Mock up shot.


Alternate set up, because it works either way.


I think I mentioned this previously. Sanding, sanding, sanding, sanding, sanding, sanding. So much sanding.


More sanding.


Look at how different the left piece of Mahogany looks to the right with the Danish Oil. I love this stuff.


All pretty and Danish Oiled.


Danish oil on the display piece.


Finished piece with a print out of the plates. Ready to be lovingly wrapped up and packaged for mailing at my local UPS Store.

Again … final 4×5 Wet Plate Collodion tintypes  and some final shots of the presentation.

Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed.

— Magruder


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