Sunday, April 25, 2010

French Connection 10

Previous Posts in this Series:

French Connection
, French Connection Part Deux, French Connection 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9.

After putting the Mazerolle book back on the shelf for a while, due to the vexing nature of a text which is simply ridden with mistakes and drawing methods that elude comprehension or logic, I got in touch with a heavy hitter at the Timber Framing Guild who, in the course of our conversation (mostly me whining about how many problems I had found in Mazerolle's book), mentioned another old French Carpentry text. This text in fact was a four volume set from about 1900, and apparently was quite similar in content to Mazerolle's book. Unfortunately, the fellow said that he wasn't sure where his photocopies of it were located, but that he would let me know if he managed to dig it out.

I was intrigued, and a few weeks later I received an email where I learned that the material had been located, and that he would be sending me what he had, on a loan basis - he had three of the four volumes. I was pretty excited to say the least!

The four original volumes are by a certain Emile Delataille. I had never heard of the author or his work, nor had I come across them previously. A search of the Library of Congress database revealed they had no copies either, and the same went for the Boston Athaneum and other similar sources of ancient tomes.

The set is available for sale in a couple of places, if you want to part with a lot of money. One set in nice condition that I came across was 400€. Too rich for me, but the ad did display two of the the original covers - here's part 1:

And here's part 2:

Each volume covers some 26 examples, so for 400 euros one could have a collection of 104 different carpentry examples.

Unlike Mazerolle, where the drawings are fairly well described and labeled (yet erroneous in many spots), Delataille's drawings take 'cryptic' to a whole new level. Most of the illustrations of the descriptive geometry are unlabeled entirely, or, once in a while there will be a few sparse identifying marks, like A-B-C-D..., or 1-2-3-4-5, etc. Otherwise nothing beyond the odd carpentry mark, and a simple section of text which describes the drawing.

I presume some readers will remember the drawings of the Mazerolle sawhorse in my 50-part tréteau series from earlier this year? Delataille shows the same sort of sawhorse - here's the Delataille drawing or a similar piece:

I could show many similar examples - this stuff is nearly impenetrable!

I found a section on the noulet problems in the book similar to the ones I had been working on from Mazerolle, in the series I did recently called "Following Mazerolle". I was able to decipher Delataille's drawing after a few hours of staring, and puzzling out, and it did produce a correct result. OMG! So there is hope there, if I am prepared to devote a lot of time to figuring out the puzzles. I probably am going to do just that, but not right now as I have a few other things on the go.

Dalataille's work did confirm some of my suppositions concerning the Mazerolle tréteau being impossible to assemble as illustrated. There are a few versions of that sort of sawhorse shown by Delataille - here's the one most similar (not identical) to the one I built:

Notice that nails are shown at all the connections and no through tenons are depicted. That makes sense.

Here's a different one:

In the above example, pegged through tenons are shown, and the arrangement would be workable, given the way the Saltair braces (Saint André's Crosses) are in axial rotation relative to one another and not in the same plane. Thus the x-braces cannot be lapped from two pieces but must be constructed from three pieces each. Essentially, this version of the sawhorse is like a combination of the Mazerolle sawhorse with the Mazerolle trépied établi, or three-legged joiner's bench, which is an exercise in dealing with such funky brace arrangements. I must confess, even after all the work to build that last sawhorse, I am entertaining the idea of tackling another sawhorse like the above example, as it would be a more useful piece to me than the trépied établi. Not this year though.

Anyhow, it's nice to see that the horse depicted by Delataille makes sense and would be constructable if the drawings could be deciphered. I feel a bit vindicated by that.

I'd like to share with you all some of the curious structures depicted in the work by Delataille, as I think they are inspiring, if not bizarre.

Here's an asymmetrical ogee roof on a square plan:

Next, a semi-circular wall plan surmounted by a pair of towers, which produces a highly unusual valley:

Another semi-circular, or perhaps elliptical, wall plan, topped by a pair of conical turrets:

If you cross-breed Saint André with a Hershey Kiss™ , one might expect something like this:

Here's the definition of 'bizarre':

Merging a flat plane roof with an ogee - neat idea! And then add in a Saltair cross for extra challenge.

This is one of my favorites - a vault with curvilinear timber work located in a geometrical staircase arranged around a staved cylinder:

An intriguing continuation of truss bracing out along a hip:

Here's a Mansard roof, in ell form, with a descending ridge (though the lower roof plates remain horizontal) running over to a tower which is square in plan, and connects at the tower's corner:

A related example to the previous one, and a piece I have already sweated a few hours over, the fan-shaped dormer (lucarne évantail):

This is a similar problem to the one in the Mazerolle tréteau, in which a brace joins a faces aplomb leg:

I find the pegging at the lower connection a little odd, given that it goes right through the barbe.

A couple more - here's a truly demented sloping table:

And, if you are looking for an even more difficult challenge in table construction, try this one for size:

Well there's a lifetime of study in the Delataille work, and some thoughts occurred to me in relation to that. Delataille of course stands on the shoulders of several carpenters before him, especially the creator of descriptive geometry, who was not a carpenter at all, but a military officer, a certain Gaspard Mongé. Dalataille's work is valuable in that it shows many original and intriguing ideas in terms of how wooden architecture might be arranged and combined. Unfortunately it falls down in terms of how difficult the material is to access, given both the rarity of the text today, and in the nature of the unlabeled drawings.

Given the way of things these days in the world of carpentry, where the staple gun reins supreme and all things done hyper-fast are to be admired and financially rewarded, such work as shown in Delataille is on the cusp of total obscurity if not irrelevance. How many are likely to pony up 400 euros for a chance to look in a book that, as laid out (no pun intended), is accessible only to those prepared to spend many hundreds of hours to study? I for one am willing to study, but I can't afford the outlay right now to buy the originals. And then of course there is the matter of opportunity to build such things, beyond the world of models, in today's building climate, and this serves as another killer of motivation for many I'm sure.

It's a bit sad to me to see this treasure of carpentry knowledge on the cliff edge, all but lost to the modern world. I've resolved to do my bit, in that I plan to incorporate what useful lessons I may glean from Delataille and Mazerolle into my Art of Carpentry Drawing series. Just as the work of these French carpentry masters has projected forward in time 100 or more years to land by chance on my desk today, I imagine that my own efforts to bring forward some of their insights in what I write might also serve to keep this knowledge alive for another few years yet, to land on someone's desk who finds such material similarly intriguing. One can only hope at least. We can't let this knowledge die.


  1. Hi I am trying to construct a french turret on a building in France and have been struggling to find any decent drawings on their traditional timber constructions. Are their any links or other blogs you have come across that may help. the type of turret is cylindrical
    many thanks

    Mr Anderson UK

  2. Hello Mr Anderson UK,

    if you email me directly, I can provide you with some materials. In the meantime, you might want to take a look at the following post, which has a link to a French turret restoration:

    There are many varieties of cylindrical turret, so I would ask you for a bit more specificity when/if you contact me.



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