Wednesday, November 30, 2011

And then a light bulb went off...

The recent premature death of my computer's speaker system, along with the recent lunacy observed in connection to the frenzy known as Black Friday, with people pepper spraying other shoppers to get what they wanted, etc., had me thinking about consumer society. That led in short order to the topic of pre-planned obsolescence once again. Funny how I often end up in the same place! By chance I came across an interesting video which deals with this topic in some detail, called somewhat ominously The Lightbulb Conspiracy. Thought I would share it here in case readers hadn't seen it. A bit less than an hour in length. There's an icon on the lower right corner to click if you want to go full screen:

I'd heard about extremely long lived light bulbs before, but didn't realize people we even throwing birthday parties for such things. Well,  I can't help but say, in light of a 100 year old bulb, more power to them!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Not A Build Thread (II)

A few more pictures so share of this quick build of a shelf unit to store some compact discs. Not really a build thread, more of a show and tell with minimal descriptions.

The curly Cherry was a delight to plane but not so easy to photograph:

Since this rack can be hung on a wall or placed upon the ground or a table, I decided to form small feet on the bottom of the case sides by relieving a portion, and then decided to add a little detail:

Roughed out:

You can't say that I am without heart.

All of the shelf components, except for the back, planed and ready for assembly:

A gave each piece a wipe with shellac, mostly for the shelf boards as Cherry can be uneven in how it accepts finishes:

The case got assembled by a crack team of elves, and here I am trimming the double-wedged shelf tenons flush to the carcase sides:

The saw I am using in the above picture, my jobber flush cutting saw, is very slightly dull, so it does not cut perfectly flush - I used a paring chisel to clean up the remains:

Next I planed the corner joints flush with the sides of the cabinet:

Setting the case to one side, I turned to working on the framed back panel parts. First I planed one side of the 5/16" thick Cherry panel:

The frame for the panel is made from some quartersawn Jatoba scraps, and is 3/8" thick. The frame is assembled with haunched mortise and tenon joints, the tenons being only 3/16" thick, 1" wide by 3/4" long. Assembly went without a hitch, and after slathering on some glue, I clamped the parts together for assembly. I let that sit for a few minutes, and I then took the panel out of the clamps and placed it in the cabinet, and then re-clamped. This ensures that the framed panel will fit without a hitch in the cabinet:

The upper frame member on the back has a 3/16" wide, 3/16" deep tongue which engages into a corresponding groove on the carcase top board. The framed panel it tipped in upper end first, then rotated down and into the rest of the rebate on the carcase.

A view from the front after assembly:

Another view:

So there you have it. I will fix the back panel to the case using four screws through the back panel's Jatoba frame into the back edges of two of the shelf boards. Then I will put 4 holes into the back panel frame so that I can use another four screws to fix the cabinet onto the wall. I don't use metal fasteners very often, but in this case, where the entire case it to be screwed onto the wall, it seemed appropriate.

All that remains to do it a round of oiling or two, a scrub off with some 3M abrasive cloth or #0000 steel wool, and then a coat or two of wax.

Thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way - comments always welcome.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

WayStation: Follow Up

In a post (<-- link) from a couple of years back, I described my quasi-apprenticeship with Watanabe Korehira, a swordsmith living in Hokkaidō, Japan. I recently came across a film clip of Watanabe-tosho, and thought I would share it with readers here. It gives you a good sense of the man and his dedication to his art:

Handmade Portraits: The Sword Maker from Etsy on Vimeo.

I'm glad to see that he seems to have found an apprentice, perhaps one of the 'one or two' on the entire island that Watanabe-tosho thought might possibly have what it takes to be an apprentice. I'm glad for him! It was moving for me to see him again in the film and hear his voice. I well remember my time there. Sometimes I wonder, just for a moment, how my life would be if I had decided to apprentice with Watanabe-san. Forks in the road....

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Book Review: Get Your House Right

In some recent reading, I came across a reference to a book by noted architectural designer Marianne Cusato, entitled Get Your House Right: Architectural Details to Use and Avoid. The description of the contents convinced me it was worth a read so I added it to my library. Having read through the work I feel it has some excellent points to make and, at the same time raises certain questions in my mind concerning some of the fundamental assumptions that underlie the work. I thought it would be worth taking the time to share some of my impressions here.

I think the Preface to the work is a really excellent piece of writing, and is a contribution by Leon Krier, himself a personal adviser on the topic of architecture and urban planning to a most famous modern critic of modern architecture, The Prince of Wales. Prince Charles in fact writes the Foreword to Get Your House Right, and his 'Carbuncle' speech (<-- link) from 1984 remains a classic.

Back to Krier though - I thought the Preface so astute a piece of writing that I would like to quote it in its entirety:

    "Americans visit Fallingwater in religious awe, but when they choose a home, they turn for inspiration to Williamsburg and Mount Vernon, to the vernacular and classical models. Despite sustained efforts to re-educate the public according to modernist ideals, traditional designs have never ceased to dominate residential architecture in the United States. And yet even though "houses of the future" no longer look futuristic, the modernist propaganda has done lasting damage. The scandalous truth is that the vast majority of architecture schools today simply do not teach the theory and practice of traditional house design. worse, they have erased the subject from their technical, intellectual, and artistic horizon.
    The battle cry "Bauhaus instead of our house" has rallied the profession. It blinds it to environmental problems, to the reality of the housebuilding industry, and, paradoxically, to the taste and wishes of most house buyers. It is as if architects were trained to serve an alien people on a distant planet. They themselves go on living, working, and vacationing in traditional environs, but don't see the irony when it is put to them. Instead, a student or teacher who shows more than a passing interest in traditional concepts will be isolated from the academic cocoon like a blasphemer in theology class.
    Imagine the fate of plain English if American schools ceased to teach the common language and began to ostracize its speakers. This is exactly what traditional architectural disciplines have been subjected to for more than two score years. The institutional attrition helps to explain the fact that the last half-century has, despite its unparalleled material wealth, produced the most debased traditional building styles in recorded history. The ill-sized, the ill-fitted, the ill-designed and ill-constructed, have become the norm in a field that represents a large part of the gross national product and absorbs much of family savings. The triumph of kitsch sensibility - the culture of the mean, the synthetic, and the fake - may be seen as the unintended results, the distorted mirror image of modernism.
    Ironically, the most serious threat to traditional culture today comes no longer from modernism itself, but from "traditional" simulacra. Architectural analphabetism produces stunning, sometimes comical results. Discussing this book in a prestigious Washington, D.C., hotel, the authors overlooked the new pool house with its twelve sparkling Tuscan columns erected upside down, standing on their capitals. This scandal didn't raise an eyebrow among the fine clientele, nor did it cause headlines. such and more serious mistakes in construction and design are now so common that they have become the signature of our time, as style with specific characteristics. 
    Curiously, the mistakes are "cultivated" with conviction; they are frequent and repetitive, they are stubbornly and sometimes proudly committed by all building trades, by professionals and amateurs. They are built by house builders and bought into by house buyers. They have spread ineradicably across five continents and through almost all cultures. How can such confusion triumph so completely without causing organized reactions or public protest? And why don't the buildings themselves collapse under the weight of their misconception?
    Traditional and classical architecture can be thought of as a language - a grammar of constructing buildings from natural materials such as wood, stone, earth, sand, lime. Mistakes in joining, laying, or framing these materials become quickly evident through uncontrollable behavior, settling, cracking, or collapsing; even a genius cannot build a lasting mistake out of nature's materials. But synthetic materials (concrete, steel, wood derivatives, plastics) and their specific joining techniques (casting, gluing, bolting, soldering, nailing) allow anyone to realize foolish forms without facing immediate ruin. When these materials and techniques are used to ape traditional designs, technology and semantics go inevitably on a collision course, ending in grinding - and lasting - incongruities.
    To iron out the resulting anachronisms is taxing to an individual's capacities. The authors of this book have all tried and failed too often. It is sheer despair that has brought them together to draft ways out of the maze. The problems illustrated here are at once of a formal and technical nature; they are not, as ideologists claim, of a philosophical kind. Nor are they so complex as to be beyond the grasp of practical intelligence. To build a fine traditional house isn't that much more of an effort than to make a mess of it. It requires, more than anything, aesthetic sense, knowledge, judgment, and a passion for joining materials into meaningful forms that bring true and daily enjoyment to those who look at them, use them, and live in them.
   In this book we do not belabor the reasons for what is nothing less than a cultural catastrophe, nor do we want to make converts for what can seem like yet another cause. Instead, we offer a primer to help those people who are already passionately convinced of the good sense of traditional building. The latter is neither a religion nor a mystery. It is about technique and means of solving building problems with elegance and intelligence. Its solutions are self-evident and rational, practical and lasting, and when guided by talent, they are blessed with grace."

That was very well put and I am in agreement with much of it, particularly the criticisms of the modernist movement and it's failures, and the apocalyptic landscape of McMansions and soul-sucking poorly built ugly faux crap that characterizes the vast portion of the built landscape, particularly here in North America. Did I state that too strongly?

What I find slightly ironic is that architectural designers and such - in which I mean the authors of Get Your House Right - are arguing for a reset back to an age when there were no architects, at least for residential construction. They are making a case, in a certain sense, for a return to the Master Builder paradigm, in which pattern and not fad ruled the day. Sadly though, as I detailed in a series from a few years back, the Master Builder tradition is in the graveyard, likely to stay until the bubble in which we live, the one produced by the industrial revolution and which has surged for 150 years on the back of cheap energy, has popped. So, really, at best all the authors can argue for here is for builders and architects to select better quality industrially-produced building products and components, and put them together in a way which honors the constructional logic that led to the creation of the forms in the first place.

No one would be fooled if they saw a car produced with the wheels placed sideways, the headlamps facing the driver, or the steering wheel on one side and the pedals on the other, however with vernacular architecture, for some strange reason, people do not notice incongruities of a similar scope. I laughed in reading the description of the upside down Tuscan columns in the upscale D.C. hotel mentioned in the Preface. It is absolutely unsurprising and absolutely humorous at the same time. How is it that a builder/architect/installer wouldn't understand what column entasis (<-- link) is all about? Curiously, the word 'entasis' is sufficiently unusual that the blogger spell-checker is red-lining it - that should tell me something.

So, most of Get Your House Right: Architectural Details to Use and Avoid deals with architecture in a section-by-section basis: doors, windows, facades, massing, roofs, etc., in a similar manner to many 19th century pattern books - with the added benefit of showing the reader, often in a side-by-side format, what NOT to do. In most cases it is readily apparent why the things to be avoided are inferior to those things they say we should use. Those who build or design vernacular N. American architecture really should have this book on their shelves. I would be most gratified if even 10% of the guide points suggested in the work were taken up on a wider scale. I'm not going to spend time in this review going over any of that material however. The authors make their case quite convincingly and it is undoubtedly true that the built environment would look a lot better if more of these types of buildings followed the classic patterns with greater fidelity.

What I found particularly edifying were the illustrations showing the origins of the classical orders and what the various parts related to. Stone architecture was generally in imitation of wooden antecedents, and it is interesting to learn which stone parts correspond to which wooden ones:

Columns topped by a beam, then floor joists, a rafter plate and then the rafters. Nice and straightforward, direct, and rational.

In wood at least.

When the same elements above are rendered in stone however, a certain degree of abstraction occurs - compare the following illustration, labeling the same parts as the above picture:

The scale of the parts has altered. Note how slim the architrave is in the stone structure - in wood, such a depth of beam would be inadequate, especially in proportion to the parts above. And who would have guessed that the ogee-shaped Cyma is actually representing a gutter? Or that the Bedmold is in reality a rafter plate?

It is no great surprise that the stone structure, though it imitates a wooden one, has different proportions of parts. It has to. After all, different materials have different qualities and respective advantages/disadvantages. Stone, for instance, is great for columns but not so strong when used as beams. While the earliest stone buildings would likely have been fairly close in imitation of the 'traditional' wooden forms which preceded them, over time, designs done in stone and upon stone's qualities would have moved/evolved further and further away from the starting place.

So the ancient Greeks and Romans massaged and adjusted the proportions of these parts over many many years and produced the stone temples and public buildings which have formed the underpinnings of the Western architectural tradition.

And then a funny thing happened in the 1830's, when the so-called 'Greek Revival', an architectural fad which was not particularly Greek, nor was it a revival (in the case of houses at least - what was being 'revived' were the forms of temples, which were to be applied to banks, government buildings, and houses). Perhaps, though, in this culture, the temple = bank link is not so hard to make :^).

A curious inversion took place with the advent of this fad - in the case of houses, wooden forms were now to be configured so as to imitate stone forms which in turn were themselves imitating wooden forms. A copy of a copy, and in that copying, an important message was lost.

And thus I find it a little whacky that the authors of this book, while taking the trouble to make clear how the forms of the orders derived from wooden architecture, then advocate we continue on with an imitation in wood of patterns which were established by copying wooden forms in stone and then abstracting these forms over hundred of years. And yet they also talk about truth to materials in this book, arguing against vinyl siding in place of wood, against fake, wire-cut, or machine make brick in place of real brick. So, I find this aspect curious, however maybe they are simply being pragmatic. If people are going to build this way, then let's show them the 'right' way. Hmm.

One of the issues I have with such prescriptions of what is 'right' and 'wrong' however is the simple fact that there is an overlay of logic onto something which didn't entirely make sense from the get-go. This is exactly the same as those who tried to overlay rules of Latin grammar onto English - it doesn't quite fit. Ditto for the borrowing of Chinese characters into Japanese. In such cases it would appear inevitable that things will become somewhat convoluted when you try to assemble such disparate parts, and no matter what, it's never quite convincing. I teach SAT test prep as a part time gig, and some of the rules of grammar in English, which were largely invented in the 19th century, don't really make a lot of sense, and are still in fact subject to intense debate by those interested in such topics. I'm not one of those people, I'm just stuck with the task of trying to explain obscure rules of grammar that virtually no one uses to hapless high school students.

Anyway, why are we imitating Grecian/Roman temples in our houses? It's absurd. It would be as odd if the we started building housing subdivisions composed of structures which imitated wooden bridges, or Gothic Churches. Houses, barns, and temples have their architecture configured in specific way as a result of how the building is used. And as much as I have my reservations about Frank Lloyd Wright, he was astute in his observations about our houses composed of interminable little boxes -well, perhaps I should quote him directly, from The Natural House (1954):

"What was the matter with the typical American house? Well, just for an honest beginning, it lied about everything. It had no sense of unity at all nor any such sense of space as should belong to a free people. It was stuck up in thoughtless fashion. It had no more sense of earth than a "modernistic" house. And it was stuck upon wherever it happened to be. To take any one of these so-called "homes" away would have helped to clear the atmosphere. The thing was more a hive than a home just as "modernistic" houses are more boxes than houses. But these "homes" were very like the homes Americans were making for themselves elsewhere, all over their new country.
   Nor, where the human being was concerned, had this typical dwelling any appropriate sense of proportion whatever. It began somewhere down in the wet and ended up as high as it could get in the high and narrow. All materials looked alike to it or to anything or anybody in it. Essentially, whether of brick or wood or stone, this "house" was a bedeviled box with a fussy lid; a complex box that had to be cut up by all kinds of holes made in it to let in light and air, with an especially ugly hole to go it and come out of. The holes were "trimmed"; the doors and windows themselves trimmed; the roofs trimmed; the walls trimmed. Architecture seemed to consist in what was done to these holes."

Like FLW, I have to wonder why North Americans must continue patterning their boxes after pseudo Greek temples, and why we don't develop an architecture for ourselves, based on this natural environment and the materials it is blessed with. Do we have no originality? Why if Americans are so proud to have escaped the yoke of colonial British rule more than 200 years back, in to 'freedom' and all that good stuff, are people still clamoring to have colonial style houses? It's kind of weird if you ask me.

And another point - what is with this urge to emulate ancient Greek or Roman architectural patterns, when the average person in North America knows next to nothing, or perhaps I should say NOTHING, about those cultures otherwise? I find the whole thing rather bizarre. But then again, if I might make an aside, this is a culture where people were seriously talking at one point about renaming French fries as 'Freedom Fries'; I'm thinking that these same people are probably wearing 'All American' blue jeans without realizing that 'denim' originates in France (named after a place called Nîmes, that is a product 'de Nîmes', and that the word 'jeans' is also French, from the French word for Genoa Italy, Gênes, where the first denim trouser were made). Yes, I digress.

It's not as if Western civilization couldn't construct beautiful buildings without paying heed to the classical architectural orders -  take a look at this German half-timbered house, and you'll see that things can look quite alright without Cyma moldings and entablature, etc. (photo by D. McAnany):

I could similarly dig up examples from England, like this little cob cottage:

Similar examples could be shown from any number of other countries. Beautiful houses can be built of natural materials, in a manner that honors the qualities of those materials, without any recourse to hair-pulling about whether the moldings are built up in the right patterns, whether the windows should have muntins or not etc. Even if one does make use of classic architectural details, they can be combined sensitively without slavish obedience to the classical orders, like this example, the Broadgreen Historic House (1850) in Nelson, New Zealand (picture by PDL Photography):

That house is also made of cob. Not a material mentioned in Cusato's book, and I'm sure the combination of elements seen in the above photos is a mish-mash of styles in terms of the classic orders, but I find it pleasing all the same. Personally though, I would avoid placing valleys in the roof like that.

I guess, in the end, this book Get Your House Right: Architectural Details to Use and Avoid teaches you how to think inside the box, carefully and with fidelity to the logic of classical patterns. It still assumes a house built of factory-produced standardized components, trucked to the site and assembled. The architect's job is now to pick wisely from a component catalog. That's as far as an argument for craftsmanship seems to go in this work. Cusato's argument that a key aspect of what makes for sustainable architecture is that the buildings be sufficiently attractive that we want to keep them instead of calling in the demolition company is an excellent point with which I wholeheartedly agree. If one builds or renovates wooden structures that are in imitation of the classical orders in their decoration and fenestration, then it is vital to understand that those orders had a logic and a beauty absolutely worthy of study, since the finished result is much more seamless and, well, orderly. Understanding the whys is a key to sorting through the hows and the whats of any developed form of architecture. I just don't get the part about why we should continue to emulate ancient temples as a pattern for housing.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Not A Build Thread

I thought I'd post a few pictures - and it really is a few - of the progress of the CD rack I am throwing together. Not really a build thread, just the odd picture or three.

After I had cut the joints, I did a partial trial assembly to make sure everything was lining up and to see how the Black Cherry and Lacewood were looking together:

At this point, the shelf boards are a hair oversize and do not insert into the housings cut on the inside of the Lacewood stiles, so the joints are about 1/8" (3mm) from closing up:

Everything seems to be connecting as it should:

From past experience I have learned that Lacewood is not a wood that can successfully be put together with PVA glue (it will fail to adhere to the Lacewood), so I will use epoxy for the case's dovetail connections. Since there are no good glue surfaces in the connection between the shelves and the stiles, except the sidewalls of the tenons, I'm planning to only apply glue to the wedges and their kerfs. It will make for a stress-free glue up, of which I'm all in favor! The joints fit tightly, so that is the key, the glue only acts as an insurance/back up.

The next step in this project is to plane all the boards to finish, cut the wedges for the through mortise and tenon joints, and work on putting the back panel together.

The back of this piece is of frame and panel construction, with a Jatoba frame and a Cherry panel. The whole affair is quite slim, with the frame only 3/8" (9.52mm) thick and the panel about 5/16" (8mm). The frame members of the back will join with very skinny haunched mortise and tenons. The case is designed so that it may stand on the floor, or upon a desk, or be mounted on a wall. The initial installation will be hung on a wall, so I'm intending to hang the case from its back panel. The contents are fairly light in weight so I think it should all work out to hang everything off the back even though it is a slender assembly. The back panel will be made so as to be removable, and I'm still deciding how I will connect it to the rest of the unit. I might use screws, as after all, this is a 'quick and dirty' project making use of some scraps. We'll see....

Thanks for visiting!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Code Alert

Been a little lax on the posting of late. No major projects to write about, however I have been a bit preoccupied with familiarizing myself with the International Building Code (IBC), the International Residential Code (IRC), the Architectural Access Code, the current Osha Regulations, and the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC). That's right, I'm preparing to take my unrestricted contractor's license in Massachusetts. While the neighboring states of Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and New York lack statewide licensing requirements for home building contractors (along with 19 other US states), Massachusetts requires that a contractor be licensed if they are to take on a significant housing repair or construction project.

So, I'm taking a 7-session class to prepare for the exam, and we meet once a week for 3.5 action packed hours of thrills and spills, looking stuff up in the code books. Our instructor likes to say, 'answer is A - Apple', and 'C, for Cat', stuff like that. Actually, I'm learning a lot of good stuff - who couldn't, when faced with a pile of light reading like this?:

We get a fair amount of homework after each class, so I spend a good chunk of my remaining week looking up obscure regulations concerning such things as nailing schedules, widths of egress, heights of fire alarm pulls, masonry fireplace design details, approved ceiling finishes for class I and II buildings, etc etc. I also had to obtain notarized letters of attestation from past employers so as to prove at least 3 years employment as a carpenter, and will have to pony up another bit of cash to take the exam at the end of the course. The exam is open book, multiple choice, and administered by computer. You have 3 hours to answer 75 questions, which is actually pretty tough sledding. 'Pass' is achieved by getting 70% correct or better. I'm feeling at this point that I have a good chance of passing based on my homework gradings so far. We'll see. It's going to cost me about $800 when all is said and done.

I will admit that I do have mixed feelings about the building code, a hefty binder which grows fatter with each issuance (about every three years a new edition comes out). First off, it is a little funny to me that it is called an 'International' code when the dimensions, weights, and other measures are given in the inch/feet/pounds scales (often, though not always, with metric measures alongside in parentheses). A lot of the rules, especially concerning fire safety, accessibility, materials testing and so forth make good sense. I guess where I find it less enthralling are where they get prescriptive, telling you HOW to do something and with what materials, rather than giving a performance objective to meet.

You know, the Great Pyramid at Giza likely wouldn't meet building code regulations - note sure if the means of egress has clear markings and appropriately configured 'EXIT' signs, and what about the lack of handrails? My god, what a disaster that was. They should tear is down and replace it something more conforming. I can think of a lot of indigenous building ways which would not conform to these code books either, and I fear the growth of such books and the tendency among most bureaucratic systems to gravitate towards self-enlargement and ever-increasing realms of control will ultimately tend towards a narrowing sterility in terms of what we build. It's already happening and has been happening for 100 years or so already. There's the point that the code is about minimum standards, which are not generally what you want to be following if you want to create a well-made structure. There's also the case to be made about buildings codes being configured to suit industry above and beyond other concerns, whether it be the insurance industry or those companies making building products, but I'll take that up some other time perhaps.

Philosophical objections aside, the pragmatic argument is that in order to get work here in Massachusetts, a lot of potential clients are going to be filtering their choices through the licensed/unlicensed divider. If you want to list your services on Craigslist, for example, you need to state whether you are licensed or not, and that - being unlicensed as I am at present -is going to cause some folks to not even consider my services. Insurance companies and banks issuing construction loans also stipulate that the contractors be licensed, so in order to increase my chances of obtaining work, I need to hop over that fence and stand on the other side. And I think it certainly doesn't hurt to become familiar with the regulations which govern construction, as this definitely can help avoid costly mistakes where you have to rip out something you just built because, say, the balusters on the handrail are too widely spaced, or some such thing.

In other news, I'm building a little CD storage rack for the household. It's not much different constructionally than the bookcase I made a few months back, so I'm not going to bother with a build thread. I'm making it out of leftovers and scraps - and despite a certain temptation to screw and glue something together all quick like, I decided that that wasn't what I wanted to do. The case sides are Australian Lacewood, the top casing and shelves are Black Cherry, the back panel is Black Cherry and the back panel frame is Jatoba.

I thought I'd share few pictures of where things stand at this juncture. Here are the joins for the carcase upper corners (right 3 boards) and the shelves (left 4 boards):

The shelves are multiple-tenoned, housed, and will also be wedged. Here I'm sawing the kerfs for the wedges on one shelf board end:

First one side, and then the other:

It took about 40 minutes to kerf all the tenons:

I'll post up a few more pics along the way and share them with you. Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way.