Saturday, January 31, 2009

Shin•Gi•Tai

When you are as enraptured by roof work as I am, you find yourself becoming familiar with a lot of triangles, mostly of the right-angled kind. Stare at them long enough, and one starts to see triangles everywhere - even thinking in terms of triangulation in unrelated fields.

One triangle I want to talk about today, comes to me from the Japanese martial art world, a place where I spent a fair amount of time at one point in my life. This triangle doesn't have a strict geometry as such, but, like all triangles - or tripods - remove one leg and the whole show comes down. I think this triangle bears on the question of the Master Builder tradition, 'mastery' in general, and the effects of specialization looked at in previous postings.

This triangle applies to more than martial arts, it applies to any 'way' of practice, or path in life. This triangle goes by the name Shin-Gi-Tai, the three words defining the three individual parts of this particular triangle.

The first of these, shin, is written with a Sino-Japanese ideograph (kanji) that looks like this: 心 

This character in fact derives from a pictograph of the human heart, which looks like this:

Hopefully it is fairly obvious that this is a picture of the heart muscle, if not, please take my word for it. This character has a range of modern meanings, stemming from the idea that the heart is the place where the deepest feelings are concealed, such as: mind; breast; center; core; thought; consideration; meaning; taste; spirit; sincerity; emotion; feelings.

In the case of Shin-Gi-Tai, the character shin takes the meaning of both 'mind' and 'heart', and relates to the aspect both of engaging completely with one's heart into what one is doing, and to engage the mind fully in contemplating the path both in detail and in a big-picture view. The person with shin is sincere in their efforts, considers their art deeply, and engages their intellect. They do not approach their work casually or without connection to it. They study everything they can relating to their art. They realize the depth of the art and find both humility and profundity in that.

The next character, gi, is written in Japanese as '技'. This character is a little more complex than the previous one described, and is in fact composed of two separate characters put together, namely '手’ (seen in an abbreviated form on the left side of '技'), and '支' which is on the right side.

Digging at the roots a little more, we find that 手, a very common element in Sino-Japanese characters, stems from a pictograph which looks like this:



This pictograph, though it may not be obvious, is a representation of a hand with the fingers spread out, the middle finger curled. When it shows up as part of other characters, it therefore is telling you that the character has something to do with the use of the hands.

The other piece, 支, also has a distinct meaning of its own, existing as a character in its own right, and comes from a pictograph which looks like this:



The bit at the bottom is another hand, a right hand, holding the forked upper bit, which is a branch. This character on its own has the meaning of "branch", "support" (i.e., to prop something up with a branch), and "hold (in check)" (i.e., using a forked stick to keep an enemy/animal at bay).

Combining the pieces to get the character '技', the meaning becomes, "handle a stick or wooden object with the hand", which implies in this case, "complicated artistry", which in turn gives the character an overall meaning/sense of "technique", "skill", and "accomplishment". In the phrase shin-gi-tai, this character gi relates to the use of the hands to do something skillfully. In the context of woodworking, it is the skill to produce a sharp blade, or set up the plane to produce a thin shaving, cut joinery cleanly, to saw to the line, to create strong and efficient structures, and so forth. The Japanese word for 'technique', by the way, is 'waza'.

The last leg in the trinity is tai, given by the kanji '体’. If you thought the previous kanji etymology was a little complicated, well, this one is far more involved, despite its relatively benign appearance. The character is in fact a simplified substitution for a more complicated older character that looks like this: '’, which is composed of an element on the left, '' meaning 'bone', and an element on the right, '', composed of a bunch of food (the upper bit), piled on a table、'豆' (the lower bit)- - it means " abundance", and "plenty". Thus, that which has an 'abundance' of 'bones piled together', is a reference to "the body", a place with an abundance of bones (or an abundance of flesh on bones, depending upon how prefer to remember it). So, tai refers to 'the physical body', and in relation to woodwork, this means a good sense of balance when walking along a beam in the air, the strength to lift stuff, swing an axe or hammer powerfully, to drive a hammer squarely onto the nail, to fit pieces together adroitly and without making a mess of everything, to have the endurance be able to hand-plane for hours on end, and so forth.

Tai can also refer to the physical body of what objects we make, that they be soundly constructed, nothing missing, nothing to excess, and have pleasing proportion and line.

The complete artisan has shin-gi-tai elements in balance. The Master Builder or the Master Potter embody shin-gi-tai in their art. It's holistic, all-encompassing, rather than specialist in nature.

A carpenter or furniture maker who can only work from plans prepared by others may well have gi and tai in abundance, but shin is lacking. The craftsperson who has lots of skills but is careless and unconcerned about what they do also lacks shin. The designer or architect who never actually builds stuff with their hands may well have shin in abundance, and has gi in a narrow sense only, and comes up way short on the tai component.

To even hope to be a Master of one's chosen craft, in my view, requires devotion to all aspects of the process described, as denoted by shin-gi-tai. While specialization may well result in a hypertrophy of one aspect of development, the other parts are retarded, and thus the finished product is also short of what it might be otherwise. Carpentry as an art can be as cerebral as any other discipline, and requires the same devotion to study and development as any other (and I include medicine, architecture, engineering, pro Athletics, and so forth) if one is to fully grasp it.

If you've been focusing purely on technique and the physical skills, churning stuff out, its time to round out your base by engaging the mind a little more. If you only build from plans drawn by others, start considering design more. Study layout, history, botany, architecture from other countries, structural engineering. If your engagement in your field is primarily with your brain however, get out there, learn to wield the tools, and build your designs, as that provides far greater feedback than anything else might. The secret to producing great work I think lies in having good balance between elements, and a well-rounded approach to one's art.

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Master Builder Tradition - what happened? Part II

Before plowing on with this topic, I wanted to look again at what I said about General Contractors in Part I- I would say my characterization of them was limited and perhaps came across as dismissive. I respect anyone who works hard for their daily bread, and the nature of work for a General Contractor is fairly complex and demanding, especially with larger projects. I was only seeking to compare them to a Master Builder, and I definitely have a greater esteem for the former over the G.C., and I'm sure that came across loud and clear. My description was simplistic for sure, and my lack of regard for the G.C. is rooted in some larger issues and objections I have to the specialization.

It's definitely true that the hat of 'manager', is one of the important legs of the business triangle mentioned by Gerber in his book "The E-Myth", that of entrepreneur, technician, and manager. And many fail in business because of their weakness in one of these legs, often the managerial component. So, those with strengths in this area can receive good financial rewards - I guess I resent that this may often be disproportionately more than the crafts-person. Just because you are a fine carpenter or bricklayer does not mean that such technical proficiency translates into success in business - it may well work against success, if one spends too much time focused on technical matters as opposed to managerial ones. And if one ignores the entrepreneurial vision the business essentially lacks direction.

Management is in fact directly connected with the decline of the Master Builder tradition, or should I say, the 'cult of scientific management' that has come to have great sway over our society. This 'cult' originates in the former empire known as Prussia, a former state in North central Germany. Prussia went to war with France under Napoleon in 1806, and was thoroughly trounced in the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt. As a result, Fredrick William III had to flee and Prussia lost about half of its land area. It was humiliating for the country, and the Prussians went back, as they say, 'to the drawing board'. Prussia became ever so much like a re-made Sparta in a few short years - the education system was revised along 'scientific' lines, with compulsory attendance, and the military was also re-organized along similar lines, with military service also becoming compulsory. This was a society so regimented that women needed to make report to the police every time they got their period. If you're wondering where modern forced schooling got it's start in the US, look no further than the Prussian model. The Japanese adopted it too, and school kids there today still wear uniforms straight out of Prussian Naval and Army academy patterns.












These re-organizations of Prussian society along 'scientific' lines led to the creation of a much more effective fighting force, and in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Prussia got it's revenge, playing a key role in the defeat of Napoleon. Other countries 'took notes' as it were, seeing Prussia's dramatic comeback, and re-acquisition of lost territory. They were clearly onto something. Soon thereafter, the French intensified their development of the military academies started under Napoleon. Same in the US, with places like Westpoint, begun also in the first few years of the 19th century, solidifying its curriculum in 1817, a curriculum still in use today.

By the 1880's further developments in the social sciences lead to the development of "Scientific Management" also known as Taylorism, developed as it was by Frederick Taylor. These ideas dovetailed perfectly with the needs of the rising class of industrial entrepreneurs, known affectionately as the 'Captains of Industry', less affectionately as the 'Robber Barons'. These people, such as Carnegie, Vanderbuilt, Dupont, and of course J.P. Morgan, made their money on the back of the explosion in use of coal as a source of energy, concomitant with the advance of the industrial revolution and steam power.

One of the great fears of these magnates was that of 'over-production' - that some upstart might take it into their head to actually start their own coal-based business and, god forbid, compete with them. They weren't interested in competitors, self-directed entrepreneurial types or polymaths, of the likes of Benjamin Franklin, or Edison, so they set about applying their vast resources to solving the problem of 'over-production' and the main vehicle for this was the funding of a forced schooling system, where pliant workers could be molded along the lines of scientific management's wildest dreams.In such a controlled environment, the individual's spark for learning and discovery could be controlled and carefully dampened, if not snuffed out altogether. These financiers spent vast sums, far more than the US government did, in helping to set up the nation's school system along the Scientific Management model.

Part and parcel of this process was a debasement of any forms of worker associations, like craft guilds. Craft guilds held a monopoly on labor and specialized knowledge, and they had to be broken, because these interests ran counter to those of industrialized production. Scientific Management called for work to be broken into small discrete tasks that could be mastered and thus improve efficiencies. Thus increase profits. Of course, this becomes another race to the bottom in many cases. Japanese management culture, I might add, is modeled on Scientific Management as well. It's a highly successful method.

Let's say you are an artisan who makes sewing needles, start to finish, raw wire to finished product, and you make them by hand, or possibly with the aid of a few jigs. Let's say this process of making takes 10 steps. The scientific management perspective and approach to the rationalization of production, would apply a solution whereby each of those 10 steps will be done by a specialized worker, who does nothing but that one particular step, and the production sequence will be arranged in an assembly-line fashion (sometimes termed 'Fordism' after Henry Ford. It might be said that Taylorism + Fordism = Americanism. Interestingly, Stalin modeled the Soviet Union's 5-Year Plans on these very ideas). So, one worker cuts the rod to length, another flattens the eye-end, another drills the eye-hole, another sharpens the point, and so on. Inevitably, if you only do the one mind-numbing task all day, day after day, you will become quite practiced, possibly developing improved shortcuts and better jigs, in time being far more skilled in your task than the artisan who used to make the entire needle. It all makes great 'sense', and is very 'rational', until one considers the position of the person doing the work, and the nature of that work. As William Torrey Harris, US Commissioner of Education from 1889-1906 said:

"Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual..."

The scientifically managed school and workplace seem determined to maintain that situation. It works beautifully, and very reliably. Well done chaps!

Only problem is that none of those people working on the assembly line knows how to make a pin themselves, just part of it. Of course, this is but a simplistic analogy, but I hope it transmits the point. The work that most people have in producing stuff is hardly what you might call inspirational. For a look at how this model plays out in a country that makes a lot of our stuff, China, I highly recommend the film documentary "Manufactured Landscapes" The scene of the woman testing aerosol nozzles still haunts me.

Specialize, specialize, specialize -it's the good old, tried-and-true, 'divide and conquer' approach. This killed a holistic discipline like the Master Builder Tradition more surely than any other factor I think. It has created a nation with forced schooling from K-12 with a 70% literacy rate (or is it lower than that now?), and where most school graduates have come to absolutely hate, viscerally, the beautiful language known as mathematics. It's too bad - even industry wants people who can perform basic arithmetic after all, so the math-phobia is a matter needing some re-calibration at the education end. It can all be managed, tested, streamlined, made more 'efficient', right?

So, the Master Builder tradition does appear largely dead, but I would argue that it need not be buried. I think it offers a way forward in terms of improving our built environment, and I hope to explain why I think so in upcoming posts. --> on to part III.


The French Connection, part deux

Yesterday I showed what the sawhorse Olympiad looks like, and today we look at the three-legged race: the Trépied Établi, or three-legged joiner's bench. The perspective drawing is a bit odd, as it appears to show the rear-most cap beam rising up jauntily, whereas it is in fact horizontal like the other two beams to which it connects. The right leg looks like it is more sloped than the others, when in fact it is the same slope as the one to the left. I think the intention of the artist was to show what the mortises in the top beam looked like in that particular spot, though, puzzlingly, in other spots he omits to illustrate the mortises altogether.

In the sawhorse mentioned previously, the braces are are normal in orientation to one another where they cross, and it is the legs which are in a variety of rotational positions. Here, in Trépied Établi, the situation is reversed: the legs are all oriented in the same way in terms of rotation and slope to the floor, while the braces cross in a variety of rotations. The braces by the way are called "Les Criox de Saint André" (St. Andre's Cross), and the set facing us in the drawing is oriented with the two pieces normal to each other. On the left side, the braces are 'faces aplomb', meaning that each brace is rotated so its side face is in plumb. Then there is the set on the right side, "faisant lattis aux chapeaux", meaning that the braces are rotated so that their upper face meets the top of the beam (the cap, or 'chapeaux') flush. To the left is a drawing of this joiner's bench I did a while back. Again, I have at least 100 hours into studying this piece, and again, the drawing shown is incomplete and there are a couple of mistakes (at least!). In this version I haven't illustrated the Saint Andre's Cross for the right side. That in fact turns out to be the difficult one to figure out. The braces which are oriented plumb are the 'easiest', and the other set is, for lack of a better descriptor, 'medium'. I am actually at about the 90% mark with this drawing now, so it's getting pretty close.
There are yet further 'bracing possibilities', and in fact there is a second drawing set later in the book showing one of them - the same bench, in which one brace is rotated in plumb to the floor, and the other one crossing it is rotated to bring it's upper face flush to the top. Other configuration and combinations of course spring to mind. I've been thinking about designing a 5-sided version, a Cinqpied Établi, each of the 5 sides with a different combination of brace relationships, and putting a glass top on it. It would make an interesting dining table, or perhaps in a shorter version, as a coffee table.

This drawing starts to get pretty congested with projection lines when you draw the whole thing out, like a bunch of angry wasps swarming something, so I have been drawing a bunch of separate versions, each showing only one set of braces. I feel like I'm closer to solving the layout issues with this bench than with the sawhorse, so I may be making the bench first. Certainly the top beam assembly and legs I could start on any time. I need to get some wood - I might get African Mahogany from the window and door manufacturing place down the road for a final version, and perhaps some Yellow Poplar, which is inexpensive for the prototype. Again, the first one I make is likely to have some 'issues', so I would be smarter using some inexpensive material for that go-round.

Just for those who may be wondering about the drawing business - "what's the point of that?", you might ask. Well, the only way to figure out how to cut - uh, wait a minute, not the only way, just a very elegant way - to figure out how to cut the various pieces where they intersect is through creation of a developed descriptive geometrical drawing. This method of drawing, in fact, was invented by Gaspard Mongé in the late 1600's, a Frenchman, and the subject of a future posting. Carpentry is forever in this mans debt, though many carpenters the world over have never heard of him.

Japanese (and Chinese) traditional carpentry does not make use of diagonal bracing to such a significant extent, for various reasons, so my study of French brace layout is a means of filling a gap in my knowledge. I am a strong believer in the benefits of triangulation, except for, uh, the interpersonal kind.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The French layout challenge


What you see here is a kinda complicated French sawhorse. At first glance, it may appear ridiculous to some - what possible point can there be in constructing such an object?

Strictly speaking, as far as sawhorse 'requirements' are concerned, this unit is clearly beyond any performance need. As the description for the piece reads, it is "très résistant". Much more than that though, this sawhorse is a vehicle for study of roof layout, particularly the layout of hipped roofs with diagonal bracing. As an example of roofwork featuring this sort of bracing, I attach a picture of one application, a Mansard roof:
There's more to this sawhorse than meets the eye at first. Take a look at the legs. You will see that one pair, diagonally opposed, are rotated so the corner of the leg meets the corner of the floor plan of the horse, and the other two legs are rotated 45˚ along their axes, similar to the way a hip rafter is commonly oriented (i.e., the side of the rafter is aligned plumb to the floor). Even the pair that are rotated so their corners meet the floor are subtly different from one another - one being aligned to the long axis of the plan, and the other aligned to the short axis. To this melange of leg orientations, we interconnect x-braces, and then even inter-connect x-braces between cross braces. It's quite insane! I get dizzy just looking at it. The layout problem condenses into determining relationships of positions between parts, as there isn't wiggle room between pieces, with so many crowded into the same space. To complicate it further, the pieces are all through-tenoned to each other, which means the shapes of the tenons vary and the mortises are shaped to suit. Even the cut out of the mortises will be difficult, given their shapes.

Why tackle something like this? Can I sell it for big bucks? I doubt it, and that is most certainly not the point. While some may question the value of doing anything if there isn't a pot of gold at the end, the study of this sawhorse, and the successful incorporation of the layout technique into my repertoire will lead to something quite wonderful: to be able join a piece of wood, at any rotation and orientation, to another piece of wood, at any orientation or rotation. This is a powerful possibility, and opens up wide design possibilities, as does any new capability. There is endless material that can be studied through the 'vehicle' of the sawhorse, and I will cover versions of Japanese sawhorses, which are complex in a different way, in subsequent posts.

I want to make this sawhorse, but I can't make it yet. Despite nearly a hundred hours of study, and multiple re-draws, I still do not understand this sawhorse completely. I'm getting there though, and expect to get to the construction phase within a month. Then I expect that the first time I make it there will be some goof-up, something I didn't see quite understand. If I don't understand a drawing, then I draw it again and again until the truth is gradually revealed. If I make it and something doesn't fit right, then I make it again until everything fits. It's a bit of a 'brute force and ignorance approach', more dependent upon perspiration than inspiration, but that is how it goes sometimes. Sometimes I wake up in the morning suddenly understanding what was a mystery the night before.

Here's what the drawing looked like a while back, to give you an idea of what is involved in determining the cut lines for each piece. This drawing is about 80% complete, and has a few problems, so I will be drawing it again. I need to rest a while and let some stuff soak in. I'm also in communication with a campagnon du devoir to help understand some of the, er, 'sticking points'. Not the best pun, but worth a try, no?

If you click on the drawing, it will become a bit larger and clearer. Welcome to my dream.



Okay - interested in reading about the actual build?

Go to part I


Want to skip the build and see how it turned out in the end? Click here.

For the next post on the subject of French carpentry in general, click here.

The Master Builder Tradition - what happened? Part I


Some have told me, indeed I often say it myself, that "you should have been born 200 years ago." This is not because I harbor some sort of dewy-eyed romantic view of the good ole' days, and it's not due to any thoughts that developments in technology, medicine, civil rights, and so forth are to be sneered at (in fact I am a social progressive). No, it's because of the sorry decline in our built environment here in the west that I perceive which leads me to wistful thoughts of a day when the old tradition of carpentry, and respect for craft was practiced. The products of this bygone age still exist around us, so there is ample material for study.

We live in a culture that, due to the wonders of our capitalist economic system, which is supposed to provide us, we are told, with the greatest diversity of products and services of any system yet dreamt by humankind. Yet, when you look around, we are inundated with uniformity and the bland. The 'choices' seem to run in a rather narrow trough actually.

Our built environment, which surely conveys our attitudes towards space, both public and private, wealth and status, beauty, and of how we choose to use materials to effect that, seems to have turned our surroundings into one long strip mall, box stores interspersed with cookie-cutter sub-divisions, from coast to coast - indeed, this infection is now spreading to other countries. It is what they call a 'rational' development, strange to say.

Where does one see the creative hand and spirit in our built environment? Why is a beautiful living space such a rare thing to find? What happened to the long-developed traditional design practices, and why? If our 'shared' cultural heritage is primarily that of Europe, how come their cities look so much more diverse and interesting than ours? How come the Germans build houses to last generations and the banks there provide multi-generational mortgages, where here we live with the phenomenon of McMansions, and properties that feature 30 year-old houses categorized as 'scrapers'? Why is a million dollar house built pretty much the same as a tract home, only bigger and with fancier faucets? Why do people want this built environment- or do they, in fact, want this? I don't think most people want it, if they allow themselves to think about it, since it is at the core fundamentally alienating to all that is human.

This is indeed a complex set of questions, and not open to simple clear-cut answers. I'd like to look at it from the perspective of a builder and designer, and student of the history of building. Let's take a walk back in time first, to the day when the 'Master Builder' tradition controlled much of the built environment.

The earliest European settlers were a diverse group in many ways. The Puritans, being from the East of England, brought with them a half-timbered building tradition, including such classic 'East Coast' forms as the 'saltbox' and the 'Cape Cod' house. These are East English building patterns.

The Quakers who settled in the Delaware Valley brought with them a tradition from Northern England favoring chunky stone wall construction over timber. These are a couple of examples out of many. The Dutch brought their ideas about building, as did the Germans, etc. The indigenous practices of building in North America were roundly ignored and destroyed of course, being deemed 'savage' and 'primitive' and largely in the way of 'progress'. Here I am greatly simplifying a complex story, and there is much source material available out there for an interested reader to discover more on this topic.

The craftsmen who were first here naturally drew upon their native building patterns, however, soon enough, due to the availability of such things as trees with 100' of clear trunk, and other wonders, they began to make some changes to how and what they built, still adhering however largely to pattern, doing what was done before because that looked the best to them and made the most 'sense'.

Now, over time, certain families and groups would develop specializations in the building arts, housebuilding being one of them. The son of a builder would have started helping his father out at a relatively young age, and have learned the trade from the bottom up. By the time the young man was in his twenties, he would have a solid grounding in the family's building practice. Since work was not always steady in a given location, just as today, a builder might have to move around from time to time, whereupon he would hire himself out to another builder, and have the chance to learn a few new tricks, thus broadening his viewpoint. Perhaps he would do a spell of a few years in the city, working under a celebrated master builder, and would learn the latest trends in design, style, and construction. These ideas would be brought back to the countryside and toned-down to suit local conditions, and if accepted, gradually translated into vernacular practice.

By his late twenties, such a builder might then return to his hometown and set about building a house, settling down, getting married and having a family. The house he built would be a showcase for his skills in workmanship and design. Since the house would take a few years to build (imagine that!), and most locals got about on foot or by horse in those days, instead of rushing by in a blur, ensconced in a car, many people in his surrounding area would have ample opportunity to keep an eye on the goings-on of the building project, and make determinations as to the skill of the builder. People could tell a lot about a builder's skill, because they could discern quality work from inferior, and would notice what was fresh and new about a builder's work, compared to others in the area. Nowadays a house goes up in a matter of weeks, and most of us have lost this contact with our community and it's artisans. Who has time for extended observation, especially if what is being built looks pretty much the same as any other stapled-together production?

This process I am typifying in the traditional building practice is similar to that discussed in a book called "Two Carpenters", which details a multi-generational family of builders from the town of Northfield, MA, in the first half of the 19th century. We can see learn that the young builder, once his reputation was established in a town, would then have the opportunity to develop his craft over time, eventually earning him, perhaps, the distinction of 'Master Builder'. In larger towns and cities, this process was naturally more codified and organized, leading, in the European model, to the formation in time of craft guilds, which relied upon the tradition of master and apprentices, and carefully controlled access to the secrets of the guild.

The Master Builder is termed 'tō-ryō' in Japan, 棟梁, a word which also means 'ridgepole'. Thus, the Master Builder is as vital to the structure as the ridgepole, and a central unifying element in the constructive process. These men still exist in Japan today, though they are a dying breed, as the 2x4 and nail gunning onslaught continues apace.

A Master Builder is someone who knows not just about carpentry, but also about excavating and foundation work, about the behavior of soils, about the selection of wood, both in the forest and on the job site. Nishioka, one of the last of the great Tō-ryō, described how his father, a temple carpenter, sent him to study agricultal science before his carpentry apprenticeship began, as the knowledge of the soil can only give a deeper understanding as to the nature of the trees that grow in it.


The Master Builder started out as a 'grunt', simply performing manual labor for the first while, then graduating to simple carpentry tasks, then handling the tools, eventually working his way through all aspects of house building, interior and exterior, rough and finish work, including estimating and dealing with sub-trades, be they millwork shops or stone masons. So, not only does the Master Builder use wood to build houses, but he is intimately familiar with that wood since he has worked it for many years. There is a huge difference between knowing a given material from the experience of working it, and simply selecting it from a design or standards book, one among many possible, upon the basis of its color or technical stats. alone as many designers and architects do these days. A huge difference. Without intimate knowledge of a material, wood, stone or otherwise, and without long experience in making things from that material, a modern designers' view of the potentials for that craft medium are naturally going to be narrower and less reality-based than the Master Builder's view, it seems to me.

The Master Builder eventually works less upon the more mundane tasks of woodworking and building fabrication, and increasingly concerns himself with the study of patterns, geometry, and design. He designs the building, creates the drawings for the apprentices to work from, and creates templates for more complex things, like staircase parts, curved hip rafters, patterns for moldings, and so forth. You'll note he comes to this phase at the end of a long education process, one steeped in a comprehensive learning of the building process, and hands-on tactile familiarity with the materials he works with. This is an utterly different thing than a 'designer' today who graduates from an industrial design school with, often, a limited amount of hands-on experience with any material. The modern way is about a person starting with the design end, and who gradually attains a certain familiarity with the materials they design in, but remain otherwise at a desk their whole career, and never actually works with the materials they design with.

The old tradition is different than the modern idea of a General Contractor. A G.C. is not a Master Builder. The G.C. is someone with some degree of building experience, who discovers they can make more money skimming 10% off all the trades, then working by the hour banging nails. Any book on the ins and outs of becoming a general contractor will tell you that the first thing to do is 'hang up the tools.' It doesn't matter how skilled a carpenter a G.C. might have once been - to be successful he/she must learn to become a good manager and salesperson. That's a different kettle of fish altogether than the richly complex world of the Master Builder.

So, given the inherent logic of the Master Builder tradition, and the marvelous works that were produced by it, some of which remain today, what happened? How come this tradition has faded into the history books, by and large? Surely in the capitalistic system the 'best' ideas win out in the marketplace, taking us all to a shining future of continuous improvements? Again, the answer is not so clear cut, but one can at least identify the start of this process of change, which in North America was in the 1860~70 period; some historians would place it a little earlier, around 1830.

A number of developments conspired against the traditional way of carpentry and building. While these were improvements in their own way, it can be said that in sum they did not lead to improvement in our collective built environment. There was the development of the thin-kerf saw blade, which permitted the economical re-sawing of small scantlings from a log, without the waste engendered by thicker saw blades. This enabled framing to be done economically with smaller timbers than before, which paved the way for the development of 2x balloon framing ,which in time was supplanted by 2x platform framing, the method practiced today. There was the invention of the wire nail at this same time. Formerly, metal fasteners were minimally and selectively employed in construction, as the fasteners were laboriously made by blacksmiths, and thus were costly. Timber construction employed wooden joints to fasten timbers together. The mass-produced wire nail ushered in a quicker and therefore cheaper way of construction, in concert with the 2x studs. Cutting joinery was less cost effective, when in a 'race' with other builders to produce at a given price point. The simple fact is that these sorts of races are always races to the bottom. We are very good at these sorts of races in the west.

In time, carpentry has moved from being a deep art and a holistic practice, to one of increasingly narrow specializations and the master builder has become replaced by a type of carpentry that is little more, in my view, than the glorified assembly of industrially-produced materials. I will delve more into this topic in future posts.

Added to the technological developments discussed above, was a period of disillusion amongst many in the early 1800's with social conditions and the 'promise' of America. Many began to think that the only 'true' things were the bible and ancient Greek culture. Next thing to appear was the 'Greek Revival' period in architecture, where large pseudo-stone columns, porticoes, and sophisticated architraves were added to otherwise humble buildings. It was as if everyone wanted the grandeur of the local bank, which was after the cachet of legitimization through association to classic Greek building forms. This came to be popularly ridiculed in the time, but the die was cast and the tradition of building by pattern and connection to the classic geometer's instruments of straightedge, compass and string were supplanted by a series of building fads and ephemeral styles, and subsequent reactions against those fads, which continues to this day, albeit with diminished intensity. Each fad brought with it a certain debasement of building tradition. When anything goes, sometimes nothing counts.

Then we have the advent of the profession of architecture, and the growth of architecture schools, which really got moving in the years between WWI and WWII. I'll save a discussion of this topic for a future post.

Today's pictures are of the same joint pictured in the previous post, the conventional version of kanawa tsugi. Well, this one is somewhat conventional, except for the stub tenons, or mechi, in the broad face of the timber, which are doubled instead of single. The version shown is executed in a 4"x10" Douglas Fir wall plate (a beam that runs along the top of the posts in a wall structure). The Yellow wedge that locks the joint tight is made from pau amarella, a South American hardwood also known as Yellow Heart. I'll talk more about joinery and wood in detail in future posts.

--> go to part II

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

First Post!



I'm Chris Hall and this is my blog. You might say traditional carpentry and furniture-making are my obsessions. It is not only my career path, but a focus of lifelong study. Carpentry arts run in my family - my Great Grandfather built library interiors and other forms of high-class casework in Manchester, England, and my Grandfather was a builder of clocks, making every piece down to the cutting of the gears on his lathe. On my mother's side, Grandfather was a Master Decorator and Painter, and my Grandmother was a Master Seamstress. So, the way of the artisan sort of runs in my veins, and I am keen to develop carpentry as far as possible with my time here.

You see, the carpentry and woodwork I see around me today, while not always a complete disaster, is but a pale shadow of the shoulders it stands upon - this is my perception at least. Thus, I follow not the way way of current times, but the example of past masters. The carpentry that inspires and influences me is not of the 21st century - not even of the 20th.

I observe the path of Japanese traditional carpentry and its works of architectural art, its intricate and evolved joinery techniques. I lived in Japan for 5 years, living rurally and in a situation of cultural and language immersion that has strongly shaped my perspective on traditional crafts. I study Japanese roof layout techniques and use of the framing square extensively and occasionally have the opportunity to teach these techniques to others.

I drool over the works of Chinese Ming and Qing Dynasty furniture makers and their incredible pieces found in museums around the world, which demonstrate a masterful approach to joinery and technical virtuosity without equal. No richer tradition exists, in my opinion, and Chinese traditional fine furniture forms an almost inexhaustible source of design and technical inspiration.

Of late I have developed a strong fascination for 19th century French timber carpentry, particularly their layout systems. Where the Japanese are masters of the sublime in architectural mood, the French have whimsy and humor that I find delightful. I took a week-long class in French carpentry drawing with a campagnon a couple of years back, and have continued my study with renewed zeal of late.

Finally, I am a fan of natural building techniques, and seek to promote such methods in my own work. That means light clay/straw wall systems and earthen plasters, and an avoidance of off-gassing toxic materials as have become so common in conventional building practice.

I hope to explore these topics in this blog, to describe how I go about designing and building pieces of furniture and buildings, and share my views on traditional building and making, as a designer-builder, in light of the modern context. I hope to reach an audience who also find these topics of interest, I hope to inspire others through my exploration of the beauty and glory of traditional carpentry, as it is tremendously inspirational in my own life. This is the carpentry of solid wood, not veneers and glue, the art of joining with mortise & tenon, goose-neck and wedge, and peg, instead of biscuits or dowels, and the skills of the sharp plane blade instead of the sanding block.

I hope you enjoy following this path as much as I do! My thanks go out to those who encouraged me to start blogging. Thank you!

P.S.: the pictures I've posted are of my first attempt at an oblique version of a Japanese traditional scarf joint called kanawa-tsugi (金輪継ぎ). I had never seen this version before, but came across some examples of diagonally-oriented scarf joints in a French book, and decided to try it with this joint, normally oriented square to the timber face. I ripped a block of yellow cedar into two pieces with a handsaw, planed it square and straight, and then cut the joint by aid of other saws and chisels. I feel okay about it for the first run-through. The oblique abutment lines help hide the mechanism of the joint, a virtue in Asian carpentry practice. If this joint were to be used for real, then the piercing wedge-pin would be trimmed flush, and hopefully leave the joint hard to spot!