Solar Etching

A custom furniture maker by trade, the author discovered making and selling solar etchings provided more income and more time for art.
By Daniel Leahy
May/June 1980
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LEFT: Trees and landscapes are among Daniel's favorite subjects. RIGHT: Working with the grain of the wood creates subtle, but marvelous, effects.
PHOTO: ERIC NEVERLIN AND DANIEL J.LEAHY
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In 1976, I was working as a custom furniture maker in San Jose, California when I ran across an eight-inch plano convex lens in the wreckage of an old theater. The piece of salvage lay around collecting dust for several months before I realized its potential as a sun-powered wood-burning tool.

Even then, I initially thought of the lens simply as a means of adding detail to some of the lamps, beds, doors, etc. that I constructed... but I soon discovered that I could make a better living by selling the solar etchings alone!

Elaborate Preparations

During the course of the following year, I figured out how to make circular frames and developed a method of "double-lensing," where one lens acts as an amplifier for the focal point of a smaller lens in order to produce tiny lines. And, of course, my woodworking skills were an asset... because the more solar etching I did, the more elaborate my formats became.

Sometimes it takes five days of preparation before my wooden "canvases" ever reach the sunlight. I cut, laminate, and hand-plane the lumber, in addition to making the frame. Then, after the etching is done, I brush off the ash, sand the wood, clean it with an eraser, and put three coats of lacquer or Varathane on the surface.

The composition which I call "Vision Through a Keyhole" incorporates, for instance, over 75 separate wood pieces, including a bentwood frame. And, in the summer of 1978, I started what may well be the world's largest solar wood-burning project. With the help of an assistant, Daniel Ondrasek, I collected scrap 2 x 4's from building sites and constructed an 18' x 7', 1,500-pound slab that had to be rolled out into the sunshine on a special platform. The etching, which took over a year to complete, depicts a 1920's view of the Santa Clara Valley—then called "The Valley of Heart's Delight"—from Mt. Hamilton . (Today, the area is full of tract homes, the sites for some of which provided the scraps for our giant artwork.)

Cooperative Nature

My chief subjects are boats, plants, trees, and landscapes... and are usually burned into the redwood and pine commonly found in California. Most of the time I'll work along with the material's natural grain, but I also laminate wood on occasion. I prefer to use Brooks pine, which has a lot of blue (as well as other natural colors) running through it, while I mostly use redwood for frames and as a color accent in some of the laminates. (I have no problem burning an image into dense oak, maple, or walnut... but such hardwoods are quite expensive in the West.)

I've found my salvaged lens to be so powerful that it can strike a flame the instant I bring it into focus, and the light is so bright that I've permanently installed a set of No. 5 welder's lenses into the back of my sunglasses, for safety's sake.

Most people are quite astonished when they first see the lens turn sunshine into fire, but they also seem to be a bit disappointed that I sketch in my image first with a pencil... somehow, my "audience" considers that to be a form of cheating. However, I prefer to predraw my designs, so that I can erase anything I don't like before I burn the wood. (Erasing—or simply lightening the image—can also be accomplished by sanding the surface.)

A Way of Life

In 1977, I had to teach to supplement my "art" income, but a year later my solar etchings had made me totally independent... and my sales have doubled every year since I started.

I used to sell the pieces (priced anywhere from $10 to $500—sometimes even more—depending on the materials and time involved) at art and craft fairs. Now, however, I'm concentrating on marketing my work exclusively in art galleries. That way, I can spend more time at home experimenting with the many forms that sun, trees, and imagination can create.


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Post a comment below.

 

Sherian Borbon
6/21/2012 6:31:17 PM
I have one of Daniels early pieces! It is signed and dated - June 1982 1-1. I love it! I used to love to go to the Art and Wine Festivals in the Bay area to watch Daniel work. This particular Etching resides in Oregon now. It has traveled many places and gone through 30 years of living with me. If solar trees could speak, oh the stories it could tell.

Garnishz_1
11/2/2009 12:37:10 AM
The first time I saw this type of art was on the island of Anegada in the BVI in 2005. Using the local driftwood, a solar artist "pre-burned" the Restaurant or Bar's name. He added generic trees or bushes or fish outlines, I believe, then personalized them for couples or added the date onto them by request. People were dropped off at different times of the day and the art was ready by the time they were to be picked up. Extras made it to the walls of the bar as part of the ambience.

Dan Ondrasek_1
9/28/2009 2:33:34 PM
Jonathan, I just want to begin by saying I am honored - I have looked you up and your work is beautiful and you deserve all the success you are seeing. I would love to come to meet you and see your work in person one day. To my friend Chris- I can not beleive I am writing you. It has been so many years and I think of you often. Please let me know how to track you down....we have to get caught up. All the best, Dan

Chris Markham
9/17/2009 12:45:32 AM
I witnessed the creation of the large solar etching that Dan Leahy and Dan Ondrasek made on the streets of San Jose in the mid 1970s. As I recall, that great work was purchased by Bank of America and then donated to the Martin Luther King Jr. Public Library in central San Jose, CA, where it hung in the lobby for many years. The library has since moved and I haven't been back there to see if they re-installed "The Dans'" work. Leahy was way ahead of his time, using the lens of a carbon-arc projector recycled from an old movie theater to create his wonderful works of art. Either Dan, feel free to contact me, I'd like to know what you're doing these days and where.

jonathan beartusk
9/12/2009 12:26:03 AM
THANK YOU, Mr. Ondrasek... for inspiring me to go where few men have gone before. There is talk of a international hotel chain wanting me to burn a billboard using a magnifying glass and the sun. If it weren't for your oversized project I wouldn't have even thought it possible to take on such an endeavor! (I hope you see this sometime) Namaste.

Dan Ondrasek_1
8/19/2009 11:52:00 PM
My name is Dan Ondrasek and I was the assistant on this project 32 years ago. I came across this article and it warmed my heart....it is a fond memory even though I complained each time I had to roll out that huge piece every afternoon....I wanted to send this out to Daniel Leahy who I have lost contact with and think of often. Daniel: Thank you for this great memory and I wish you love, health and happiness always..... ...and Thank you Mother Earth.

jonathan beartusk
12/5/2008 10:48:38 AM
My name is Jonathan Maxwell Beartusk, I live on the Crow indian reservation in Montana. About five years ago a friend of mine brought me some old magazines to read in between making lattes at my drive thru espresso shop near the Little Bighorn Battlefield. One of them was this particular magazine. (he has every issue all the way back to like 1971 or something) This article caught my attention because I am a portrait artist and I had a magnifying glass. I tried it and developed my technique over the years. I have since put the espresso on hold and am strictly doing solar pyrography and have an agent in London! (mindthecurb.com)This article has changed my life! THANK YOU, Mother Earth News! Please, check out my site. (danceofthesungallery.com)








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