Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Cap and Boots (III)

This marks the third post in this thread examining defects common to older homes in particular. I guess I'm trying to address a couple of questions:

-is an older home worth fixing up?
-what are the downstream effects of the way we build houses, and is there a better way?

So far I've looked at roofs and foundations in post 1, then wiring in post 2. Today, I'll, uh,  pipe up about another critical house system - the waterworks.


The word plumbing relates to the Latin word for lead (plumbum). If you are looking for the atomic symbol for lead on the period table of the elements, you'll be looking for Pb, not L. It's number 82 on the table. Lead was a very common material for piping in years past.

Lead has a bluish white color when freshly cut, though this soon tarnishes to a dull grayish color with air exposure. Lead pipe is malleable and easy to work. It is also toxic to ingest lead, even in very tiny quantities. The ancient Chinese civilizations, along with the ancient Greeks and Romans, had documented lead poisoning problems. Here's a picture I found on Wikipedia of an ancient Roman lead plumbing fixture:

Lead water pipes were still in common use in the early 20th century and remain in many households. For some reason, the lessons of the ancients were not brought forward however this is an all-too familiar story hardly worth remarking upon. If your house was built before 1930, you can be fairly sure lead piping is present in the plumbing system. Repairing plumbing with lead piping is problematic. In the US, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) required that after June 19, 1986 only "lead free" pipe, solder or flux could be used in the installation or repair of public water systems, or any plumbing in residential or non-residential facility providing water for human consumption, which is connected to a Public Water System. More specifically:

"The law prohibits any person from introducing into commerce any pipe, or plumbing fitting or fixture that is not lead free after August 6, 1998, except for a pipe that is used in manufacturing or industrial processing."

In an older house, so long as the water is not soft or otherwise corrosive, the interior coating on the pipes from years of water moving through means that there is little likelihood of further lead leaching into your drinking water and poisoning your young children. Still, if you do have young children, or are planning to have them, (or a pregnant woman resides in the household) are you willing to take the risk? Blood and brain disorders are no fun.

If you have a problem in the plumbing and need it worked on, your plumber is going to insist that all lead components be ripped out and replaced. Lead is porous and very difficult to solder onto, and non-standard old pipe sizes make connections to newer equipment problematic.

An alternative to lead piping seen fairly commonly is galvanized water piping, especially in homes built more than 50 years ago. This form of piping tends to corrode over time from the inside out, especially on horizontal runs, and of course since the damage is internal it can present a nasty surprise. Last year I was working on a bathroom renovation in an old house in West Hartford CT, and the pedestal sink's drain tied into a 1.5" galvanized nipple coming out of the wall. In an effort to remove the fitting from the galvanized nipple, I sheared the pipe off - inside the wall of course. A case where a simple repair operation becomes more involved. I had to open the wall up to access the stack vent pipe, and a 10 minute task became a couple of days long and a lot more costly. The 1.5" nipple had rusted away on the inside, and that's why it shredded when I tried to unscrew the fitting. It's best not to underestimate what may be involved with repair work to older plumbing systems.

I'm not a plumber by trade, so can hardly claim true expertise in the area, however I worked as a commercial irrigation installer for much of my twenties, and have glued miles of PVC pipe and sweated miles of copper pipe. I feel quite comfortable working with plumbing fittings, however certain tasks are only properly performed by licensed plumbers.

Another problem associated to internal pipe corrosion is a build up of debris and mineral deposits in areas where the pipe interior becomes less smooth, build-ups which can eventually cause blockages. Often householders will deal with blockages by pouring caustic chemicals into their system, which, though it might clear the blockage tends to accelerate the damage to the interior pipe wall, further exacerbating the problem.

Even new plumbing piping is not always a bonus. Between 1978 and 1995 polybutylene piping was commonly installed, and this has proven to be a disaster. The majority of leaks begin to make their appearance 10~15 years after installation. Apparently the presence of chlorine compounds in water will cause deterioration in the internal structure of the plastic and its fittings. There was a massive class-action lawsuit, Cox vs. Shell Oil, which lead to a $1Billion settlement. Building codes in both Canada and the US now prohibit the use of polybutylene piping and fittings in new construction.

Finally there is the stack vent pipe itself, which is designed to help the entire drainage system function. The modern standard is a 3" pipe, however older homes often have smaller vent pipes which do not allow the system to drain properly, and this in turn can contribute to the formation of blockages on the inside of pipes. It's like they develop atherosclerosis - and the heart attack may indeed come when you find out the cost of replacing these aged piping systems. Think about this too in regards to replacing a toilet with a low flow toilet - if the vent piping is too small, the draining will be less than ideal with a low water flow, and this is possibly going to engender other problems in the system, especially blockages.

The bottom line with piping is to go with copper if you can afford it. Nothing beats copper, and if current metal commodity prices continue in the upward direction seen in the past few years, that copper piping could be an alternative investment to buying other precious metals. You may have to protect it with a gun however. I'm only sorta joking.

Old plumbing fixtures are a mixed bag. They tend to be of much higher quality materials than new fittings and are generally fully serviceable and rebuild-able - if you can get the parts. Old toilets though are water hogs and there's no argument about the benefit of replacing them, especially if your water is metered and you live in an area with water shortages. If the porcelain on the old bathtub is in poor shape the cost of refinishing is a bit daunting. Old faucets, while of good materials and rebuild-able, often lack the flow rates of modern units so they may disappoint. Further, old faucets are not often ADA compliant, with extended lever handles, and thus many people can have difficulty operating the older faucets.

Cast iron sinks and and tubs from yesteryear are significantly stouter than their modern counterparts, and even if you choose to remove them, you'll get some good money for the scrap cast iron. Personally, I've always preferred sinks with the faucet mounted on a vertical surface rather than a horizontal one - this is what I've seen in at least some hospitals, presumably as a means of reducing places for germs to hang out. You want horizontal surfaces, where water will sit, to be easy to wipe clean. For some reason however, most modern sinks have provision for the faucets on the horizontal surface and obtaining wall-mounted faucets is becoming a little more difficult, at least from what I've observed in the plumbing display at local home improvement center. So, you may need to special order. Wall mounted faucets also have the advantage of freeing up counter space, and this gives a more streamlined look as well.

As a final point in regards to plumbing systems, if you are designing from new, it is well worth taking the time to design the plumbing system, especially the piping, so that it can be accessed for repair and modification. Think about how the pipes may have to penetrate other structural members and design so as to have as few penetrations as possible. Design so that there is room for more piping to be added in key areas if need be. Think ahead. Think how the building is going to learn - how likely it it might be that it require some modification 10 or 15 years down the line. Make sure the main water shut off for the house is easy to get to so that in an emergency the water can be shut off as soon as possible. 

In the next post I'll take a look at old house systems in terms of the materials used. Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way.

Sunday, January 29, 2012


Well, I may be a day late, but I thought it would be worth posting up that this blog, with today's post being the 490th, and the page view total getting dangerously close to 400,000, is three years old! what long strange trip it's been, and I look forward to the 4th year with much enthusiasm and anticipation.

Compared to when I started, there are a lot more people blogging these days, however I've noticed that the vast majority of blogs never really get off the ground, and just sit static, and of those that are active, many seem to devolve into content consisting of little more than re-posting from other sites, video links, and other twitter-esque postings. It's not easy doing anything steadily, especially when the projects have not been as steady as one might hope. So, I'm feeling good in what I have managed to achive and feel that I provide content no available elsewhere. When you boil it down, it's all about content.

I'm thinking the same will hold true with the new study group that is forming and which will be getting underway in just a few days. I realize that there are other online sites where people can join study groups and work on projects but I think I will offer something unique with the Carpentry Way group. I'm not targeting the absolute beginner woodworker, as I don't think most beginners have any awareness of what is involved in Japanese woodworking and joinery, and therefore no interest. So, instead of spending time working on spice racks, calendar frames and that sort of thing, this study group will just jump right in to some challenging material. The first project is a new take on a Japanese standard - the wooden tool box. Ours will be fully joined, not nailed, and will feature a wide range of joinery. Here's a sneak peak:

So, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the readership for coming by with regularity to this site over the past months and for giving me the encouragement to forge onwards and upwards. The next year is going to be a good one I'm sure and you can look forward to my ongoing commitment to posting up on a wide range of topics pertaining to traditional carpentry and woodworking, East and West. The 'Cap and Boots' and Gazebo series both have a few posts to go yet, and soon I'll be starting a series on the Japanese plane's chipbreaker, uraba, which should run several posts. I've actually manage to persuade Mike Laine, a former co-worker of mine in California, to contribute a post on the blog here. I think you'll find his perspective invaluable - if there is anyone who is a Japanese plane guru, it is he.

Anyway, I hope where you are the shavings are coming off cleanly and the joints are light tight. Thanks for coming by and hope to see you again next time.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Orphan: The Story of the Gazebo

The word gazebo is a curious one, as it seems a bit of an orphan, as do the structures themselves. According to what I have read, the word has no etymological history - no provable cognates in any European language. As Chamber's 20th Century Dictionary notes, "etymology dubious". While false etymologies have been put forward (for a discussion see here), and other etymological dictionaries mention several examples in that vein, the word is thought to most likely derive from some corrupted form of Chinese term. In fact the earliest citation of the word appearing in the English language is from 1752, in a book entitled Rural Architecture in the Chinese Taste:

William Halfpenny, the author, was an 18th century English architectural designer-  he also went by the name of Michael Hoare, and the co-author of the book, John Halfpenny, was purportedly his son though he may or may not have actually existed. Putting that aside, it should be noted that Halfpenny's book predates Chippendale's The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director (1754), and thus is an important text in the history of furniture - certainly Chippendale was not the first person to introduce 'Chinese taste' into Britain, and in fact Halfpenny mentions in his book's Preface that buildings in "the Chinese manner" had been "already introduced here with success." By whom I wonder?

If the word 'gazebo' derives from Chinese, and Halfpenny shows and illustration of a tower as a 'gazebo', then what word in Chinese denotes a tower? One Chinese character for tower is '', a character which originally referred to an earthen tower, or stupa. The pronunciation of that character in Mandarin is 'tā'. Not sure than helps much.

Another word for a Chinese structure of two or more stories is '', which is pronounced 'lōu'. The character '' is literally a continuum '' of wood ''. Again, the pronunciation of that character provides no connection to gazebo. The word for a two-story pavilion in Chinese is '' - a character pronounced as ''. Now we're getting somewhere perhaps, as this sounds quite close to the first phoneme 'ga~' of gazebo. The Chenghuang Pavilion in Shanghai is a recently rebuilt example of an especially elaborate '':

Usually though the character '' is found as a suffix, not a prefix, so it would be a stretch at this point to speculate much further on how the character might tie to the word 'gazebo'.

How William Halfpenny would have obtained any idea as to 'Chinese rural architecture' is anybody's guess. He certainly didn't visit China, so he must have seen sketches/paintings, possibly of Chinese origin, possibly done by a traveler to that part of the world. It would be a worthwhile research project to dig into this matter further, to try and see what sort of resources a British person in the 1700's would have on Chinese architecture.

I note that in Jame's Monckton's 1873 work The National Carpenter and Joiner, a photocopy of which I have on my bookshelf, a picture is shown of a 'floral bower' which looks like it might be derived from 'oriental' (and I use that word most carefully) archetypes similar to what is shown in Halfpenny's work. I came across a picture of a similar American pavilion, from the late 19th century:

It reminds me of a bird cage, and the roof is, well, clunky.

I've been doing designs for pavilions on and off for years. I like small open air structures, and pavilions are nice little modules in which to explore certain framing ideas. Polygons used for pavilions are typically octagons, and less commonly, hexagons and decagons. Other polygons are rarely used. I suppose the reason for this narrowness in types has to do with a couple of factors:
  • geometrically, octagons are relatively easy to work out, as 22.5˚-45˚-67.5˚ angles figure predominantly, and hexagons are 30˚- and 60˚-focused, also easy to work with as they are equilateral triangles and easily constructable with compass and straightedge.
  • polygons with an even number of sides mean that a given wall plate always has another wall plate directly opposite to in in the structure, and this tends to simplify framing decisions
  • once polygons get past about 12 sides they begin to appear closer to a circle thus negating the polygon form to an extent
  • more than about 10 sides starts to present a perhaps onerous amount of extra cutting  - the visual gain, if there is one, from 8 sides to 10 seems hardly worth the extra cut out work required to achieve it.
Still, I find 6- and 8-sided structures so commonplace and standardized that I have frankly grown a bit bored by them. So, I've tended to play around with designs involving 5- or 7-sides. The lack of directly opposed wall plates presents an added challenge in terms of the roof framing. I'll share my solutions soon enough. First though, I'd like to spend the remainder of this post looking at Western approaches to framing gazebos.

Most polygonal structures I come across have a roof coming together at a point in the center. There are two solutions used most predominantly for solving this framing problem - either there is a central piece, a 'King'/'Boss' piece, formed into a polygonal section into which the rafters terminate, or the solution is to eliminate any central piece and have the first opposing rafter pair butt against one another and then the cross-wise pair butt against the sides of the first pair, and the other rafters are beveled so as to wedge into the remaining spaces. A variant on this method is to but the hip rafter together in the same manner, and then place a ring of blocks down a few feet from the apex of the roof and terminate the common rafters onto those blocks, as in this example from a website all about building decks

Here's an example of a fairly cleanly done 10-sided building with a King piece extended downwards so as to receive rafter struts:

I found the above picture doing an image search - the structure is produced by a company in Utah, to which I have no affiliation.

Anyway, in either case, King piece or not, the arrangement of the rafters spreading radially from a central hub is akin to the old common-rafter roofs on rectangular buildings here, an arrangement which tends to engender uniform compression loads to be transmitted from the roof, down the rafters, to the wall plate. The rafters will want to sag as well, and the middle of each plate will be vulnerable to being pushed outward over time by the rafters which land there. Once solution I came across is to place a ring of tension rods around the perimeter, just beyond the wall plate, as shown in this illustration from a DIY deck builder site:

Again, no affiliation. I think the use of metal tension rods, while cheap, logical and plenty strong, isn't the most attractive solution. Then again, most people wouldn't notice, and isn't that supposed to be the ultimate arbiter of whether or not we do something?

Not for me it isn't, and nor is it for most readers here I suspect.

Applying plywood to a roof deck places a shear diaphragm in place which will help keep the roof from sagging and deforming the wall plates outward for several years. Another way though to resolve the loading problem is to construct the roof in a trussed form so that the outward push of the rafters is taken by a horizontal element in tension, like a King piece/King rod truss, or variant. Here's one example, culled from a site I came across:

Not exactly fine timber carpentry, but it gives you the idea. One problem with employing a truss is that things can get rather crowded in the middle of the space, with horizontal ties pieces all meeting at the same point - to frame a structure like that in timber is awkward because the tie pieces can't really be all that strong when sliced and diced to come together in the middle, and the joinery work is fiddly. And finally, with a bunch of timbers crowing the scene, it doesn't always end up looking particularly elegant. I came across an example on a forum which illustrates this well,  I do believe, in another stick-framed example:

So, the gazebo isn't the most straightforward thing to frame when you start considering it in detail.

And then think about this: what is a gazebo for? In classic Chinese gardens, along with Japanese ones, small structures in the garden exist for a variety of purposes, but a primary use for a pavilion is that is it meant to serve as a vantage point from which one looks outward. A pavilion in a garden is typically situated so that it offers a great view of some aspect of the garden, and often sits in a seclude place such that one comes upon it unexpectedly and when seated in it sees a view of the garden not available elsewhere. In the West though, preoccupied as we generally are with surfaces and appearances, we treat the gazebo not as something to be inside and looking out, but as an ornament in the garden to be looked at. There are a million companies selling gazebos out there, stick built, kit, timber framed, you name it. But the designs in the vast majority of cases are all about creating some object which you look out at from your house, or can see in relation to your house from the street vantage point. It's a form of wealth display - look what I got, and oh, did you see my new speedboat and wishing well? These are designs concerned more about the surface appearance of the building than they are as spaces meant to be used and enjoyed.

I think that the design of these structures primarily as objects to be viewed in the West leads to their orphan state, as the blog's title suggest - hardly anybody actually uses these things. They buy them, and abandon them. Why is that? On my travels about here and there, visiting many parts of the this continent over the past number of years,  I have seen gazebos in yards and parks of all shapes and sizes but rarely do I observe anyone actually inside of one. And why would you? The interior aesthetics, especially of the stick-built examples, are often outside the realm of consideration in the design process, it would appear, so they are not terribly pleasant or practical places to spend time - unless people like looking at stained 2x4's that is. Maybe some do.

The gazebo, often plonked in the middle of a lawn, usually offers no view of anything besides the house, lawn, and street. Look again for a moment at the second-to-last picture above - how does the setting for the structure grab you? Nice view. What the structure does offer is an opportunity for roadside gawkers to look at you sitting in the gazebo, presumably enjoying the good life and consuming the right sort of products. They are entirely too self-conscious in that respect. They just sit there, from what I can tell, forlorn in the yard, discarded ornamentation from some dream of the Kingly lifestyle. The gazebo and the fake wishing well are in fact cousins in that regard.

Well, maybe some people use their gazebos, I don't know. I certainly haven't found one yet that is satisfying aesthetically or in constructional terms, though the promise is there. There's untapped potential to be sure. And even if the inside of the roof structure is relatively uncluttered, as it is with the smaller and simpler structures, the interior of the roof peak tends to be a somewhat dark place. In humid places, the interior of the roof peak is a great place for air to sit and stagnate, and this tends to promote mold (fungal growth) over time. It would be ideal to have an opening in the middle of the roof to allow air and light in, and many gazebos in fact have raised lantern portions, however the framing doesn't always make the most of the situation - often the framing blocks the light for the most part.

In the next post in this thread I'll take a look at Chinese and Japanese framing approaches to these small garden structures, and then share with you a design I've been developing over the past while.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way, and comments always are appreciated.  ➪ on to post 2

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Cap and Boots (II)

In the previous post in this thread I dealt with two of the most vital components in terms of keeping a house protected from the elements over time: the roof (cap) and the foundation (boots). You can have the fanciest German triple glazed low-e windows, doorbells with fancy chimes, Brazilian Cherry flooring, and gold-plated faucets, but if the foundation or roof have been shoddily built, all the trimmings amount to little more than lipstick on a pig. The trouble is, the way we build houses, the foundation and roof are two of the parts of a house which are often the most concealed from view. Out of sight means out of mind and the cap and boots tend to receive little to no attention until a problem arises.

Couple this hidden world with a culture that is programmed to be obsessed with superficial concerns, and you end up with some confused priorities. A couple gets a full reno done on their kitchen, gleaming new stainless jacketed appliances which will fail probably in 15 years, particle-board biscuit-joined cabinets with some jazzy veneers that are just making their 10 year detour before the landfill, and some clever accent lighting and tile work. They have guests over who ooh and ahh over the new kitchen, and they feel pride in 'what they have built'. But if the same couple instead put a new roof on or repaired the foundation, they're unlikely to receive the same accolades from their guests - I mean, how does one show off a new roof exactly? "Hey, look at the freshly-pointed bricks" is at best going to elicit an uncomprehending stare, a facile oh that's great!, or a quizzical look perhaps - why are you telling me this? The things that are most important in terms of the integrity of the house we tend to pay little attention to - and I mean that in respect to all phases of the life of the house, from the initial siting of the building without respect to where the sun shines, to its ever-so quick construction, to the places where we spend money on the house, to the areas which are given maintenance.

A constructional system in which critical aspects are concealed from view turns out to be a problem affecting many other aspects of the buildings we inhabit. In this post and the ones to follow I wanted to look as some of the less obvious aspects of a building, particularly old buildings, many of which I have had a good chance to examine over the past few months. First up: electrical.


Wiring needs to be protected from impacts and tends to look unsightly when visible, so we hide these systems in the walls and floors. The problem is, if there are problems with these systems later on, they are difficult to work on without, in some cases, ripping the walls and ceilings out to gain access. If the wall is sheet-rocked, this is not such a traumatic event, however most older houses have lath and plaster walls, not to mention one or more layers of wall-paper, cast plaster moldings, etc., and thus the decision to rip such walls out are not made lightly.

Many old houses around here have remnants of knob and tube (K&T) wiring:

In the photo you can see the 2-piece porcelain knobs fastened to the sides of the studs, and the tubes are the little ceramic pipes which guide the wires through any penetrations - like the wall plate in the above picture. This wiring is visible in old houses, particularly in the basement and attic. K&T wiring is/was quite safe when installed properly. The porcelain standoffs have a virtually unlimited lifespan, and even if the fabric jackets on the conductors is in poor condition the porcelain connectors keep any wire, even a bare one, safely insulated. The open air aspect of the design allows any heat in the wires to dissipate readily. Another advantage: by arranging wires on opposite sides of building structural members, some protection was afforded against short-circuits that can be caused by driving a nail into both conductors simultaneously.

It's a safe system in certain respects, but after 80~100 years, well, not so much. Two main weaknesses of this system are the lack of a ground conductor and a switch-protected neutral which could turn off a circuit (but not, unfortunately, the current).

The reason that K&T wiring was employed in early electrified structures was that it was, surprise-surprise, the cheapest option. According to one book, Wiring Houses for the Electric Light (1916), flexible armored cable cost about twice K&T, and conduit cost about three times the of K&T.  Knob and tube wiring persisted since it allowed owners to wire a building for electricity at the lowest cost. Not much has changed I guess. The alternatives were armored cable (commonly termed 'BX' cable), and using conduit.  In the aforementioned book, page 84, the matter is spelled out clearly:

While this K&T system was adequate in its day, problems do arise over time, as the building learns, to borrow a term from Stewart Brand. One issue is that of subsequent splicing of new wires into old. With additional branches and fixtures added, fuses are likely to blow more frequently. Then what people will do is install larger fuses, an unsafe solution since the wire and fuses are meant to be related to one another in capacity. The wires in such a system then tend to overheat from the added loads, which causes their insulation to become hardened and eventually the insulation starts to disintegrate.

Some people do not grasp that these cloth covered wires in their basement actually carry electricity, and may do unwise things, like hang their damp laundry off of the wires. Another problem that crops up with K&T wiring systems is that of retrofitting insulation in the hope of improving energy efficiency - this being installed quite often in attics where the K&T is also placed. Fitting insulation in and around the conductors of a K&T thwarts their ability to dissipate heat, and thus a potential fire hazard is created. Of course, this practice is now forbidden in building codes, but not every householder chooses to employ contractors who adhere or are aware of provisions of the building code.

Certain rodents seem to like to chew on the conductors - probably they like the fabric. Basically, houses with the old K&T system still installed are living on borrowed time. Many insurance companies will not provide insurance unless all the K&T is removed, and tearing it all out can be costly. Some older houses have had parts of the old wiring ripped out, but if the job was not done thoroughly and carefully, there still could be remnants of the system in place which are live. Then you have a mystery wiring situation on your hands, where it can be hard to tell what is part of what.  I've run into this problem doing renovation work before - an old wire is thought dead, the breaker switched off at the panel and then you go to cut that wire and zzzzzzzzz!  Not recommended!

The system which supplanted K&T after about 1930 in most N. American households was one based on encasing two or more conductors (but no ground wire) in a polymer sheath. This system is present in most houses built before the mid 1960's. If the receptacles in the wall only allow for two-prong plugs in your house, then you have this system. Since the early 1960s, wiring in new construction has required a separate grounding conductor used to bond (electrically connect) all normally non-current carrying parts of an electrical installation. To bring an older non-grounded electrical system into line with modern practice is costly and may require walls to be ripped open, so a lot of old houses have not had their wiring upgraded. The very way in which the wiring is placed in the walls, passing through studs and stapled into position, makes it a hassle to repair or replace. It's not an integrated part of the building system really.

In my current rented accommodation, only two receptacles in the apartment accept three prong grounded plugs, and this is inconvenient to say the least. My computer, for instance, is plugged into a surge protector, but the surge protector in turn has to attach to an adapter so that it can connect to the two prong receptacle. I can fasten a small screw to the adapter which connects it to the receptacle, but have no idea if the receptacle is properly grounded. So I live in hope of not having to have this system tested by a voltage spike.

I agree with that 1916 wiring book - the best way to wire a house is to put the wiring inside of conduit. It costs more to do so, maybe, but it allows wires to be pulled in and out with relative ease, which makes the system more resilient and adaptable over time. It's a question, I suppose, of having foresight so as to devise a system with problem-prevention in mind, which is relatively cheap in the long run, versus a system which might be cheapest to build initially but has no allowance for anything but problem-cure, which is often expensive. If the wiring isn't easily repaired and adapted to new circumstance, then the wiring tends to become a drag on development and in many cases a trade-off happens between the cost of making changes weighed against the risk of having electrical problems down the, uh, line.

In the next post I'll get the lead out with a look at plumbing. Thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way.  ➦ on to post 3

Monday, January 23, 2012

TAJCD Revamp: The New Volume II is Ready!

After a lengthy slog of re-editing and re-illustrating, I'm happy to announce that Volume II of the TAJCD series is available again!

The cover shows a mortise and tenoned hopper, a project detailed carefully in the essay:

Table of Contents, page 1:

Please click on the illustration for a clearer view.

Contents, page 2:

A few selected page shots to give a better idea as to the layout and detail:

 A look at the mortise and tenoned hopper joint:

Several joinery options for hoppers, including the twisted dovetail is covered:

Various methods are shown for deriving the hopper cut lines:

This essay is priced at $25, or is $10 for those who purchased the earlier version and want the upgrade. This volume runs 138 pages.

With this rewrite completed I will be turning my attention to getting Volume IV ready, which is slated for a mid-February 2012 release. Please contact me directly if any of the TAJCD volumes is of interest. There is a $15 discount if you purchase the entire set. A library in Canada has approached me about obtaining hardcover versions of the Volumes, so those will be available in the near future as well. Thanks for dropping by the Carpentry Way.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Way Forward (II)

A bit of a follow up from a post from September 2010.

I've been watching a TV series - online - produced by Channel 4 in the UK called Grand Designs. Most of the episodes seem to be about modernist architecture - oh, that's right, I'm supposed to use the word 'uncompromising' to describe that stuff. Frankly I'm sick of these glass, concrete and steel boxes with their flat leaky roofs, and more than few Grand Designs I have turned off after hearing the introduction. The following episode however was a most welcome antidote:

Grand Designs S09E13 The Woodsmans Cottage -... by goranr58

It reminded me of the experience many years back of building a pole shed which eventually became a cob cottage. Compared to many of the other episodes in the series, where couples drop £300,000, 400,000, even £750,000 on their assorted housing dreams (which invariably become extremely stressful build experiences), the 'woodsman', Ben Law, a fellow who earns his living by coppicing trees and making charcoal in the forest, created a lovely spacious home for his family in less than a year with his bare hands using poles straw, and stones, all for £25,000 and no mortgage.

Timber, clay, straw, stone:  these are the materials that connect to sustainable architecture. These are the materials which connect a human build to the natural world. These are the materials which are light on the land, easy to modify,  relatively easy to shape and manipulate.

Reflecting further on modernist architecture, one can have a hot or a cold reaction to the way it looks - people like what they like to a certain extent though it's hard to deny that a certain amount of marketing comes into play in terms of shaping opinions - but what clearly separates it from traditional building practice based on pattern and precedent is modernist architecture's treatment of, and reliance upon, materials. Not so much in terms of which materials are used, though invariably they are largely high-tech industrially-produced non-local high embedded energy materials which invariably offer low recyclability at the end of their life cycle, but in terms of the fact that the very way modernist structures are often designed involves an utter reliance upon materials to do the job of keeping people warm and dry. A job, I might add, once a shared task between materials and geometry, with geometry being the more crucial aspect. By 'geometry' I refer both to the angles in which pieces are arranged and their spatial relationships to one another.

The flat roof relies upon a rubberized membrane  to keep the water out, as a flat surface's geometry does not tend to drain water especially quickly. And if that membrane is not perfectly installed, if the contractor was in a hurry and perhaps cut a few corners, if a piece of flashing doesn't quite fit properly, if environmental conditions at the time of install were not totally favorable, or a later bit of work on the roof involved some change with a component attached to that roof, like swapping in a new air conditioner, then failure is likely in that roof sooner rather than later. And when such a failure occurs, the result is invariably rather catastrophic. Most people want a roof to keep the weather out, not allow water to pour down their sheetrock and drip onto the dining table. And yet they think a flat roof is a safe bet? Are they nuts? Or was Frank Lloyd Wright correct when he quipped, "If the roof doesn’t leak, the architect hasn’t been creative enough"? When the owner of the building continued complaining about the roof leak, Wright said: “That’s how you can tell it’s a roof" (see the article in Architecture. November 1989: Fixing Fallingwater's Flaws). Perhaps architects aren't interested in technical quality, just in how it looks? Naw, that's a crazy theory.

Now, with a conventional pitched roof there are equal opportunities for shoddy installation and sub-standard materials, adverse installation conditions and so forth, but at least the geometry of the roof - it is sloped - encourages most of the water to run off.

Similarly, many modernist boxes, uncompromising as they surely are, have no eaves to speak of, and thus the walls bear the full brunt of the weather. Again the same issues affecting the quality of installation of those walls are a significant factor. So, premature degradation of those walls, increased likelihood of water ingress, and increased maintenance costs are the almost inevitable result. Many of these modernist cubes now have their walls planked in wood, which seems like an especially fancy way to put wood out to rot. How long is that going to last? The old sawmill across the street from where I used to live had pine planks on the exterior walls over 125 years old - and it had eaves.

Another aspect to this reliance upon materials in modernist architecture comes into play when you have designs featuring large expansive flat surfaces - like most of the walls, inside and out. When the surface is monochromatic and large, it is easy for the eye to spot defects in the flatness of the wall and evenness of the finish, which means that such surfaces present significant technical challenges to both the fabricator. A case in point is the new bus station being built in the town in which I live, an avant garde assemblage:

This building has a lot going for it in many ways, with all the trendy upbeat sounding stuff - Zero Net Energy, low v.o.c. finishes, passive solar, geothermal, low-e glass, etc. And that's most heart-warming. The upper part of the structure, a bowtie-shaped box, is clad in roughly 2' x 3' copper (or copper-anodized aluminum) sheets. In the architect's rendering, the wall is smooth and presumably reflects light evenly, however in order to achieve that outcome one must fold the edges of such copper sheets very cleanly and carefully and install them without introducing any distortions from either handling or fastening. The surface to which they are to be attached must also be very even, or can be readily adjusted so as to be even and straight. Tough to do. The panels must also make it to site without being dropped off the truck or strapped carelessly to the flat deck of the truck, or thrown over the fence by the Fedex guy.

This 'perfect' and 'ideal' outcome has not happened during this installation, and the wall, which I observe almost daily on my commute, giving it little more than a quick glance as I cruise by, shows all sorts of wrinkles and irregular reflections, especially when the late afternoon sun is on it. I imagine the architect would be, as least I hope,  frustrated by such an outcome, as it is anything but the coveted sleek, however part of the responsibility lays with architects designing structures with such crisp flat surfaces. It's pretty hard for humans, especially with tight budgets and rushed construction schedules to produce perfection in installation, however it is not at all hard for humans to spot unruly surfaces. If an entire surface is uneven, it is one thing - like a hand plastered wall shows slight imperfections and undulations - but a wall that is supposed to be dead flat looks like a mess if just a few spots here and there are out of whack.

And so you can see given such outcomes that the choice would be to either specify surfaces which are inherently more variegated, or to find more sophisticated industrial methods to produce 'perfect' materials ever less reliant upon the skill of the installer to put in correctly. And that latter choice seems to have become the reflex. And of course the less reliant one becomes on skilled craftsmanship, the less on tends to need skilled craftsmanship, and the few skilled craftspeople there are over time. Many appear to have either starved to death clinging to principles, or became installers.

I think there is something wrapped up in the modernist ideal of some sort of gleaming sleek technological future we all must move towards, a future filled with marvelous materials that pop out of the lab on a weekly basis and find their way into buildings. And if this one fails there's sure to be another one coming out soon that will be even better and more marvelous and chock full of all sorts of benefits.

I'll grant that some modern materials are quite excellent in various ways, however most are made with the concern of economy above all else. To place such faith in materials when it comes to architecture seems decidedly odd to me - absolutely impractical really. The time proven lesson is that buildings work best when they rely upon geometry to weather the seasons, and not materials - pitched roofs, eaves, solid foundations, quality flashing and roofing materials, and so forth. Materials are important but it is more how we arrange them that counts.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Copper Palace

Today I'd like to share with you a Tōkyō residence formerly known as the Isono Mansion. This structure is one of the more unusual residences in Japan. Construction commenced in 1905 and was completed 7 years later, similar to the Ellison Residence I worked on many years back. Like Ellison's place in Woodside, the Isono residence was built without limits on the budget or construction schedule. When completed, this copper clad house, glinting in the sun, was quickly christened the Akagane Goten, or Copper Palace (銅御殿) by neighbors. It is one of at least three structures in Japan that go by that name by virtue of copper-shingled wall and roof cladding:

An island of beauty in a sea of modern ugliness. There is a site with an English page describing this house - otherwise all the resources I came across - and there aren't many - are in Japanese. I stumbled upon it while searching for something else - not an uncommon experience with a Google search, no?

The client, Isono Kei (I give the names as per Japanese convention, last name first), had made his money in the lumber business, and in fact was nicknamed the 'King of Forestry', or san-rin-ou (山林王). He wanted a house built that was especially earthquake resistant, took its design cues from temples, and which was highly fire resistant.  Did Isono therefore seek out an architect for his unusual requirements, someone with a knack for drawing and model making but who probably wouldn't get his hands 'dirty' with actual construction? No. Did he seek out a designer, someone who 'sees the big picture' but who also probably won't show up on site, someone who is nowhere to be found when the little details start to matter? No. Did Isono seek out a pre-fab kit house manufacturer? No.

Isono put his faith in a 21 year old master carpenter named Kitani, Yonezo (北見米造). Kitani was given the discretion to oversee not only the budget, estimate and the carpentry work, but the design, planning and material sourcing. Materials were sourced from all over Japan, including fine Kiso Cypress, of which he bought an entire mountain's worth, as a Japanese saying goes. According to the website I found, Kitani didn't just buy wood from Kiso by the truckload,

"...he stationed a blacksmith there to make an edge tool tailored to each tree. Then he would make the rift-cutter carve the wood, and would make him do the process of checking the curve and then carving it over and over about 3 times, allowing not a single mm of impreciseness."

Unlike many 'palaces' created today, which are often essentially little more than gaudy boxes to show off trinkets, expensive art purchases, etc., the Akagane Goten was built with the constructional art uppermost, front and center:

"The materials, the finish up, the construction, all marked the best quality of that time. The interior was fully focused on the art of carpentry techniques. i.e., it excluded paintings, sculptures or other artwork to emphasize the beauty of the formulative (sic) design of wooden architecture.

One of the interior walls are said to have been painted eleven times by 2 Meisters. Not one crack was found after the great The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, proving the quality of their work.

I think they meant 'formative' there, and 'plastered would have been a better choice than 'painted', but it's actually quite well written in comparison to a lot of natively-translated Japanese material one comes across online. That this building survived both the Kanto Earthquake and the incineration of the city by the US in the mid-1940's, is a testament to some mix of luck and a successfully-realized design. It has resisted earthquakes, and it has resisted fire. Apparently even the sub-floor has some innovative construction which makes it damp-proof. I'd love to find out what those details are. Successful old buildings are a veritable goldmine of information about what works and what doesn't over the years.

I hope I have sufficiently whetted your appetite to see this place. From the street, it is much like a lot of high class Japanese residences - you can't see much:

The main entry gate is quite unusual. The carpenter built it out of dunnage, material from the lumber yard used generally considered as scrap, for weighting down other piles of material, etc. He had this scrap pieces charred by a gardener and then combined them together in an artistic manner, meticulously joined. The doors are solid Camphorwood (called kusu no ki, 楠の木, by the Japanese) planks, and seem to have stood up well for 100 years:

The carpenter's aim was to build an imposing gate, without using any metal fasteners - a gate no one else could make.

The main support posts have 30cm-long tenons going into stone plinths:

You see, 'rustic' can be done with a high degree of skill.

Past the gate and looking back:

The uplift on the gate eave edge is an interesting feature - not quite an eyebrow or kara-hafu (cusped) in form.

Approaching the house:

As mentioned, most of the exposed walls are shingled in copper:

 The main sitting room of the house has an outstanding ceiling, a type referred to as ori-a-ge-tenjō (折上げ天井), what would be called in English a coved ceiling:

The fan raftered decorative eave is quite sublime, as are the wide plank boards in the center of the ceiling.

The use of 'cloudlifts' in this part of the house reminds me of Greene and Greene's ultimate bungalows, funny enough, though the level of craftsmanship in the Copper Palace is, I'm sure, several notches higher:

I really wish I could find more interior pictures of this house! The site linked above has some old black and white photos showing some of the interior detailing, especially the variety of shōji patterns, but I hunger for more!

I did find one picture showing part of what is presumably a portion of the guest room:

The 'moon' window behind the staggered shelves, chigai-dana, has a sweet pattern of kumiko, a bit reminiscent of Klein Quartic Hyperbolic Tiling:

Anyway, from all accounts, and from what I can see, this house is a masterwork of carpentry and is definitely on my list of houses to visit next time I'm in Japan. In the meantime, if any reader happens to be in the neighborhood of the Copper Palace please let me know!

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Carpentry Study Group Update

The Online Carpentry Study Group has been running now for about 6 months and we are about to start our next project, which will be a roof model. A few readers have expressed to me that they would be interested in podcasts showing Japanese woodworking techniques, and I've also heard from a few people who have indicated an interest in carpentry study outside the realm of descriptive geometry and mathematics.That makes good sense, and I have noticed that the more complex drawing work is really of appeal to a fairly small group of fanatics.

So, in effort to bring Japanese traditional carpentry and joinery work to a wider audience, I have decided to expand the scope of the online study group. Starting February 1st, there will be a new section of the Carpentry study group created, a section devoted to those looking to learn more about the fundamentals of Japanese joinery and woodworking.

The first project will be a toolbox, or dōgu-bako (道具箱). This box will be made in a slightly higher class manner than usual, as we will make most of the box using joinery. Both hand tool cutting and machine techniques will be shown. Participants can tailor the tool box to their personal needs, and after all, as one gets more into Japanese woodworking, a place to store and protect tools is worth having.

Besides the podcasts, study group members will receive mailings with project drawings, cut lists, and tech tips. I haven't done a podcast before, so it should be fun! We'll be tackling projects you won't find anywhere else online, and exploring complex joinery, both Japanese and Chinese, as we work through project after project. I'll also be covering topics such as jig making, tool sharpening, and Japanese plane set up and tuning.

The memberships are priced quite reasonably, and the more months for which you are prepared to commit, the better the price gets. Here's the breakdown for new members:

3 months: $100
6 months: $150
12 months: $200

There is a 30-day, 100% money back guarantee for new members. Members who renew will have 6- and 12-month options, and receive a further price break on their memberships.

In addition to the mailings and podcasts, there will be an online forum available, where members can discuss their projects with one another, post up any questions, and post up pictures of their work - and you'll be able to get some idea of what the carpentry drawing group members are working on.

If this is something which might be of interest, please drop me a line. My contact info is found on the right side of the page. We're starting in two weeks and its going to be a lot of fun. Hope to see you there!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Cap and Boots

My wife and I have been looking at real estate a fair bit over the past few months. This seems like a good time to buy, with the post-bubble real estate market in the US essentially on life support, but so far our search has been quite uninspiring. The houses we have looked at, regardless of when they were built (and finding 150-year old houses is nothing unusual around here), are pretty much crap. The reasons they are crap, besides the fact that I'm perhaps picky in what I consider 'well-made', boils down to a cluster of factors, but by far the two most significant are the cap and boots. The fundamentals of good architecture are cap (the roof) and boots (the foundation) - if these parts are not done properly, the rest of the building, no matter how swank or delightfully detailed, will not stand the test of time and stresses of the environment.And chances are, frankly, if the builder did not fuss over the roof and foundation detailing, it is not likely the rest of the house was fussed over either. If the owners of the house neglected maintenance over the years, these troubles only compound.


Invariably old houses around here have problematic foundations. The common foundation arrangement you will see in pre-1900 residences around here is one which consists of  a hole dug in the soil at least 48" down, with the walls of the pit lined with dry-laid granite fieldstone slabs turned on edge, or stacked. While I think stone is a fabulous foundation material in certain situations, what you see in house foundations here with the fieldstones is essentially a damp pit lined with the stones. More than a few basements I've looked in are flooded to some degree when it rains. The flooding of course tends to lead to the lower few inches of the household furnace and boiler rusting sooner than even the manufacturers might have hoped. Groundwater is high in some areas, sometimes the houses are build on sloped ground, gutters are in poor repair or are non-existent, and it is often the case that the original foundation back fill has settled thus leaving the perimeter of the house with a sunken ring in which water likes to sit. The water coming into the basement/crawl space in turn produces surface condensation, leading to mildew, fungi, and musty odors, and an unhealthful environment for its occupants. Such continuous moisture can cause deterioration of the foundation mortar, floor joists, beams, supports, sub flooring, insulation, and electrical-mechanical systems. As the foundation settles, the walls buckle, roofs torque, doors and windows cease to function smoothly, etc. I can well understand why Frank Lloyd Wright railed against foundations in his day. It is actually the case that such dry-laid stone walls were often expected to be leaky and provision was made for water passing through the wall to continue across a sloped (dirt) floor and out of the basement or crawl space. A house I used to live in nearby had a river in the basement during much of the year.

Another type of foundation that is pretty common in Massachusetts and surrounding areas, especially in houses built from about 1900~1950, are foundations consisting of brick or concrete mortared units.  These are terrible! The same problems with water coming into the basement, except that the mortar makes up a much larger constituent of the the wall. Mortar cracks and degrades over time, and those cracks allow more moisture in which further degrades the wall. With fieldstone, it may be the case that only one of the rocks has settled, affecting a 3~4 feet of wall, however the bricks or concrete mortared units can develop zig-zagging cracks that can extend for long distances and the wall can easily buckle. Some types of bricks degrade and erode over time as well. A common combination is to have a stone wall in the ground, possibly mortared, with a brick foundation laid on top, and these brick courses are the ones visible above ground.

Foundations problems are extremely common here. My in-laws have a basement which has flooded more times than they care to admit. A common solution is for people to dig/cut a hole in the floor and install a sump pump to take the water outside. Admittedly a band-aid solution, but one which makes the house habitable.

Part and parcel of the crap foundations are the minimal distances these foundations project above the soil - 6~10 inches is fairly common. That means the wooden superstructure is too close to the ground, and degrades more quickly. Rotten mudsills and decaying clapboards are all together too common a sight on many buildings. In the winter, the snow piles up so as to bury the bottom foot of the wall structure, and in the spring means the lower portion of the wall stays a bit damper than it would otherwise. Sadly, this lesson seems not to have been learned, as a lot of newer buildings I see going up have a minimal foundation projection above grade. Well, at least the vinyl siding won't rot.


A lot of the timber-framed structures in this neck of the woods have what is called a common rafter roof. This is one of the simplest forms of roof, in which the 'A' -shape of the roof consists of little more than a pair of sloped rafters which meet one another at the ridge. The ridge may or may not have a ridge board, typically a 1 x 6 or similar. some of these roofs have been 'improved' by the addition of 'collar ties', a horizontal piece fitted to connect together an opposed pair of rafters a few feet down from the ridge. The problem with the 'collar ties' is that they are completely misconceived - not ties at all, but struts. Ties resist tension loads, while struts resist compression loads, and until one gets down fairly close to the wall plate in a common rafter roof, the loading from the rafters is one of sagging, which is a compression load. Anyway, these common rafter roof transmits its load down to the wall plates, creating a spreading force. This spreading force eventually resolves over time by pushing the wall plates outward, more so in the middle of the wall run than at the corners where the adjacent wall restrains movement, and causing the wall plate beams to be rolled over slightly. As the walls are spread outward, the rafters also sink down a bit, which in time obtains the classic look of such a roof: a sagged ridge-line. Compounding all of this is the subsiding foundation, with the result a wall plate bowed outward and bowed downward. Some call it 'charming' or 'rustic', but I tend to think, 'lousy framing method'.

Many of the buildings have minimal eaves. There are several reasons why this has come to be the case, outside the scope of this post. Suffice to say that minimal eaves mean that the weather lashes the walls of the building more severely than otherwise, leading to a greater amount of moisture traveling down the walls, This in turn leads to more water getting down around the foundation, more rapid degrade of wall cladding, window and door sills and casing, and more opportunities for moisture to get in behind the wall's outer surface. Those buildings that do have an eave of some sort often had minimal insulation and lacked a vapor barrier above the conditioned space, which leads to the roof deck getting warmed in the winter, melting the snow above, which leads to ice-damming at the eaves. The ice builds and can cause damage to the edge of the roof and it's covering, which in turn allows the weather in. Attempts to break up the ice dams often lead to damage of the roofing material, which then allows water in. Damaged shingles on the bottom 2~3 feet of roof surface mean water getting in and likely running down the inside of the walls. The house next door suffers extensively from this issue:

Slate roofs often have suffered many indignities over the years, accelerating their demise. Commonly seen are repairs involving roofing cement, or the major no-no of re-laying the roof using electroplated nails instead of hot-dipped galvanized or copper, which means the fasteners rust away prematurely and the shingles come loose.

If the roof has gutters then the ice-damming issue can compound, often leading to great masses of ice, and in the attempts to break up the ice, damage to the gutters. Other houses lack gutters and have minimal eaves, so when it rains, well, it's welcome to mini-Niagara especially where roof valleys are located.

Many older houses here which are built on an 'L'-plan invariably locate the front door to the house at the inside corner of the 'L'. I find this puzzling, since the inside corner of the 'L' is immediately below a large roof valley. In the winter masses of snow tend to follow that chute downhill, causing extra large snow piling right at the front door. In the warmer months, 'Niagara' is emerging right next to the door as well. Welcome to my humble abode - bring your boots and an umbrella 'cause we don't have one.


There's a lot to like about older homes in certain ways, the materials were generally of better quality, the moldings were more interesting, the stairways grander, and so forth. But in terms of an architecture made to work in a cold and wet climate such as we have here in New England, what the frack were they thinking? These older houses have damp basements, damp walls, ice-dam prone roofs, and leak heat like a sieve from every pore. They smell moldy, more often than not. Many houses are heated by fuel oil, which is diesel by another name some have winter heating bills exceeding $1000/month. When you get down to looking at all this housing stock, and I've looked at hundreds of buildings, while a few might have the mythical 'good bones', just dealing with the foundation and roof issues properly (and not in another hack-job stop-gap mode or repair) is daunting - and very expensive. Some houses may be worth the investment, if that was all that was wrong with them. There are other factors at play too, and I'll look at some of those in the next post.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

And then a Light Bulb Went off...(II)

I think this clip from the TV series Portlandia pokes fun quite well at a certain type of 'artisan':

I think many artists/craftspeople, at least those who have moments when they don't take themselves too seriously, can see the humor in the above portrayal - we're not always practical or terribly business-like. One of the points I take from this is that artisans often do not sell the advantages of the their work very well, or at least many in the public might not perceive much of an advantage with something handmade over mass-produced. And if you are an artisan making things "by hand", does it make any sense to compete with your wares against mass-produced items? I guess only if you can convince your market that the advantages conferred are worth the cost difference. I wouldn't pay $68 for a light bulb that was fancy but only lasted a few months, however I would pay that for one which lasted 50 years (even if I don't live 50 years longer!). Not sure though whether a 50 year light bulb is a valid selling proposition in this culture, at least for most buyers.

There are people lined up to buy Richard Mille wrist watches at $400,000, while a $25 Timex will serve a 'similar' function, so somehow those that are excited to buy Mille's products have arrived at a place where they are willing to pay, and handsomely, for a perceived difference. How is this the case in terms of watches and cars and clothing, but not so much in terms of furniture and, I would say to some degree in architecture? Some might ask where the great craftsmen have gone, and unfortunately many have starved to death, literally or figuratively. They failed not as a result of what they made, but largely, I suspect, in how poorly they sold and promoted their work, presuming there weren't other factors involved.

I've been thinking a lot as 2012 gets underway about how to market my work more effectively and meet the clients I know are out there. The economy is what it is, and sitting around waiting for a ship to come in is not often a wise course of action at the best of times, so I'm giving more thought as to how to connect with the market for custom made high quality solid woodwork and architecture. If anything, I suffer from thinking too small sometimes and need to aspire to bigger dreams I think. That's how things seem here in early January. I've been doing a lot of design work and will likely be sharing some of that with readers here on the blog.

It's been very rewarding over the past few years to hear from readers from many countries, and learn about how much they have enjoyed and been inspired by this blog. The tricky bit is to figure out how to connect and inspire those who might commission work from me. I've talked to many other woodworkers about this matter over the years, and frankly, most of us haven't a clue at all. Most woodworkers are simply getting by day-to-day, much like a ship bobbing on the waves, never knowing if a wind will blow them into some new exciting place or whether they might be becalmed indefinitely.  While control might be illusory in certain respects, doing nothing and hoping for the best is really about a surrender of whatever 'control' there might be. I don't want to see myself as a ship adrift on an ocean - I want to hoist those sails (sales?) and go somewhere. Every day brings another opportunity to figure out this puzzle and I remain optimistic that solutions will be found.

I do think that if you believe in what you do, believe in the path you take, that you are the best-positioned of anyone to sell the work you do, because sales after all is nothing more than sharing an enthusiasm with a potential buyer. Many of us are repelled by sales and salesmen because they have to fake that enthusiasm, but with one's own work that is never an issue - more the problem, usually, is being a bit gosh-shucks, it's just a li'l thing I made kinda-shy about the whole thing. Some buyers might be charmed but to others such self-effacement on the part of the artisan comes across as uncertainty, un-professionalism, or vacillation. Not strong selling vibes.

So, where's the happy middle ground? I made this or that piece, and I might at times be proud of what I do, but I'm not going to ram it down the potential buyer's throat either. Surely there's a place between clubbing them over the head and letting the subtle virtues 'speak for themselves'.

I recognize that in this advertising-saturated culture the buyer often has a wall up to any attempt at selling, and is trained to be skeptical and is trained to be unaware of subtle details with many things made from natural materials. They're untrained, let it be said, because those of us specializing in making things with these subtle details have generally done a pathetic job of presenting such information to the buying public. There's a lot of room for improvement.

And I think that one's self-image has a lot to do with whether one advances into areas and endeavors which might not be entirely comfortable. Personally I find it easy to self-identify as a technician and as a designer, a bit less so as an entrepreneur, and even less so as a salesperson or manager. Yet managing a business and creating sales is what allows the designing and creating to take place, and the shop rent and heat to be paid, etc.. I can see clearly what holds me back. So, it's either wish upon a star or work on these weaker areas and see what happens. I'm choosing the latter option. That's the general plan for me and my business, Azuma Design Build, as 2012 rolls along. I'm focusing in on what I really want to do and walking straight towards that, and that means more architectural work. I like creating structures, and while I love furniture, it is timber buildings, especially intricate roof carpentry, that keeps me up at night. I've have the equipment and experience, and invested time and money into obtaining a contracting license, and well, we'll see what happens from here. I'll keep readers posted.

Thanks for dropping by the Carpentry Way.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

TAJCD Revamp: The New Volume I is Ready!

A week ahead of schedule I have completed the revamped version of The Art of Japanese Carpentry Drawing, Volume I : Carpentry Mathematics. It is now available for purchase. Originally about 70 pages in length, this volume now reaches 102 pages. I have completely revised it- redrawing virtually every picture and revising the text extensively in sections. As listed on Ebay the price is $22, however if purchased direct from me the price is $20 - the extra $2.00 covers listing fees on Ebay. This essay is sent out as a .pdf download, and future revisions of this expanded edition, should they be required, will be sent to original purchasers free of charge.

If you purchased the old version of this essay, when it was bundled together with Volume II, the expanded version is available to you at the discounted price of $10.

The cover:
 Here's the first page of the table of contents:

And the second page:

A few pages so as to show the general appearance and lay out:

With that done, I can now commence work on revamping Volume II, which introduces Japanese compound joinery by looking at Japanese methods for working with triangles and a detailed look at the most elementary form of compound joinery work, regular plan, regular slope hoppers. I expect this re-writing and re-drawing will take me another week to 10 days, so look for an announcement here when it is ready for shipment. After that, the new essay, Volume IV (Compound Splayed Post Carpentry) will be completed and made available.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Big Wheels Keep on Turnin'

I was looking at a picture the other day that most readers are undoubtedly familiar with - Pieter Breugel's The Tower of Babel:

Click on it to enlarge if you like. In the foreground there are some figures - apparently the Kingly figure with a few serfs bowed down in front is Nimrod. You know, I am certainly no bible scholar, but I managed to make it to my mid-forties without knowing that 'nimrod', a term of insult not uncommonly shouted out in my primary school days, actually referred to a historical person. Anyway, the oil painting by Breugel is quite stunning I think, especially since it involves construction of a tower! Looking more closely at it I noticed the timber framed devices and structures of various sorts, and a few different sorts of cranes - by far the most intriguing is this one:

Again, click to enlarge. What a funky looking thing! See the two men walking in one of the wheels? I did some digging and researching, and it turns out that is a type of crane called a treadwheel crane. Like a wheel for mice to run in, these cranes operated on the basis of having several people walk in the wheels. The crane pictured in the painting is quite accurately done - here a 1886 photograph of a treadwheel crane from Brugge, Belgium, attributed to Roger Kokken:

Wikipedia has a write up on these cranes of course. I also found a great site with an excellent article on the history of human-powered cranes: Low Tech Magazine. Worth a bookmark - also most definitely worth a read is the article on Chinese wheelbarrows on that site.

What appeals to me about them is their quirky shape and their fairly complex woodwork - here's another example from Brugge - a modern reconstruction:

These cranes with their boarded up covering were quite durable - several of the one's I've come across in my reading seem to have lasted 300~400 years, and such cranes were in use until the latter part of the 1800s when steel cranes began to supplant them.

I wonder what sort of emergency braking mechanisms these cranes had, if any? I mean, you can imagine the consequences with some huge stone lifted high up and then one of the walkers trips...

I've come across many references to cranes and their construction in old French Carpentry texts - Mazerolle, for example, shows a couple of small carpenter's hoisting cranes - chèvre - in the first part of the book, along with other carpentry tools of the day (mid 1800's):

A similar crane, and all it's parts, is shown in the J. Krafft book Traité Sur l'art de la Charpente Théorique et Pratique at the library of Congress in D.C. . Also in that text is shown a larger version for lifting stones:

While this looks at first glance like a treadwheel crane, the front elevation view shows that such is not the case.

It's a great pleasure, if not a voyage of discovery, to look through old carpentry texts to see the sorts of work once considered part of the trade - cranes, timber centering for bridges arches and tunnels, wall reinforcement,  performing arts stages with moving floors, etc.  The replacements for wood in all these fields is invariably metal, which, while it serves it's purpose admirably, is a product of comparatively high technology, high embedded energy, and industrial organization.

I suspect such a system as we have is but one of the many unsustainable bubbles piggybacked upon cheap, abundant sources of concentrated energy (timber then coal, and finally petroleum). It would not be far-fetched to think, given the opposing directions in which the supply and demand curves for energy are heading, that some of these old-fashioned devices made of timber, and the techniques for constructing them may one day have use again. In a funny way, I hope so. I'd rather make a traditional Chinese wooden wheelbarrow than buy a metal Chinese-made piece of junk from a box store. Wooden trestles, wooden cranes - bring 'em on!