Raising Day


The rain finally stopped mid-afternoon, and we were able to raise the frame.  Not a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon.  A few friends who will always show up on short notice, a chance to involve the neighbors.  Block and tackle for the heavy lifting, then marrying up the scarf for the last time.


Everybody got to drive a few pegs…

It’s been a long day.

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There are a lot of opinions these days about what is the best tool, the best bench, the planinest’ plane or the slickest saw to make you the best woodworker you can be.  Is this some kind of competition?  I’m not in that game.  Every beam is a workbench, every clamp is a vice.  Every tool has a purpose, it’s up to us to discover what that is.  The I Ching says, “Everything that has form is tool; everything that is without form is tao.”  It also says,  “The beginning of all things lies still in the beyond, in the form of ideas that have yet to become real.”

For the past couple of months, whenever I could find the time, I have been fitting up a frame out of some seriously twisted oak timbers.  I’ve learned a few things, using some tricks and tools that have been acquired along the way.  Some of this is terrain that most woodworkers never have and never will explore, and I have made some attempt to share the experience.

When I started learning timber framing back in the 80’s, the book to have was Tedd Benson’s.  Fortunately, I didn’t get the memo on that; instead a friend had given me a copy of Cecil Hewett’s English Historic Carpentry.  Hewitt didn’t discuss tools or layout (go-to for roof design and drawing style); as I learned later, Benson didn’t really explain layout.  Neither did anyone else, at least not very well, or with any sense of authenticity.  Jack Sobon hints a bit at square rule in his second book, and there’s an early Fine Woodworking article by Ed Levin that explains  a bit of layout.

The old books on the framing square refer obliquely to this mysterious process called “boxing the joints”, about as useful as the Essex Board Measure table.  In The Timber Framing Book, Stewart Elliott completely missed the point on brace layout, it’s so obvious that he hadn’t looked hard at a framing square or a barn.  Further back, in the 1920’s, Audel’s was seriously misinformed about braces.  Recently, I took a long look back through Roy Underhill’s Woodwright’s Shop series, thinking that I might have missed something.  Nope.  This is one place where the luminaries will leave you in the dark.  They’ll tell you how to cut, what tools to buy, lots of he-man raising pics, but very very little about layout and design.

The thing is, laying out is pretty fundamental.  The lines have to be in the right places, and then you need to know how to cut to the line.  If you expect to make a living, the process has to be accurate and efficient.  Most people, coming from carpentry and cabinetmaking, assume that the timbers need to be straight and square to begin with.  I know I did, and there’s certainly nothing amiss with that approach.  You will get results, your buildings will  just look rigidly mechanical and sterile, because there’s nothing inherently organic about straight lines.  Nature designs with curves.


Laying out bowed, twisted, crooked, waney timbers requires a different approach.  Until a couple hundred years ago, any good European carpenter would have been able to lay out joinery, cut and fit, in just about any sort of timber imaginable.  He would have been equipped to square timbers with an axe, and plane their surfaces with a broadax and slick. Layout would have begun with a plan and section drawn out on the ground, timbers cribbed up on blocking, joinery marked out with a plumb line and scratch awl.

In the American experience, timber was long, straight, virgin…and a new model evolved.  We call it Square Rule, and it’s evident in most barns and houses from about the second quarter of the nineteenth century until maybe the end of the century, depending on where you are.  Audel’s certainly didn’t understand it, or at least they failed to explain the concept.  Neither did any of the mid-20th c. writers mentioned earlier.  Meanwhile, the evidence of Square Rule lay like a blueprint, echoing the Plumb Line in buildings of an earlier epoch.

I have combined square rule layout with plumb line layout in this frame; because it suits me, and planing all that timber square would have been a ridiculous waste of time and wood.  The initial bents were cut in a workshop, and with some adjustment they still fit.  For the main beam and braces, I wanted a more traditional look, and a chance to use some tools that haven’t seen use for a while.  Diminished housings are easier to cut and fit than parallel housings, particularly in twisted timber.  There is no one best way; there is only geometry, sharp tools, good joinery design, and respect for the trees.

Dangit!  I got e-poxy on my knee britches…

The trees, btw, are all second growth, now.  Which is a polite way of saying that we’ve cut all the good straight virgin timber and all that’s left is crooked, twisty stuff that is a real challenge to work with.  Much like what the European carpenters had to work with after centuries of building, war, shipbuilding, war, more war, and general waste and abuse.

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That’s right, Manual-Analog Control.  What I do, every day, what most of the world still does and has done for centuries.  Meanwhile, let the architects and computer geeks be enamored of CNC (merely a glorified router that you don’t have to hold onto for dear life) and let’s get on with more satisfying work.

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Crooked Timber

IMG_1783There’s a bit too much wood on this piece, so I’m setting up to hew an inch from what will become the bottom of the beam.  “Getting my bearings” with those gouge marks as a guide.  There’s also a bit of “frass” to be removed, where bugs and bacteria have been working on the sapwood.

Immanuel Kant said that what we have to work with is the “crooked timber of humanity”.  I’ve been dealing with some of that too, but lately it’s been more of the real thing.  Some things just take a long time to realize, and this pile of timbers collected over the years is becoming a frame.  Most carpenters work with lumber that can be bent or twisted into plane, and square off the edge of the board, cabinetmakers plane every piece flat and square, imposing an external geometry.  Timber, unless you are going to have it sized and squared mechanically, requires a different set of solutions.

To begin with, some oak 8×8’s that were procured to teach a class in square-rule joinery (hang a framing square on each end, sight them into alignment, transfer centerlines and proceed) about eight years ago, then left lying about until they were severely bowed and twisted.  No way the joinery would fit up, I planed the beam tenons and epoxied cheek pieces, re-established the layout and re-cut tenons.  The posts were all re-oriented to the mortice, and the top tenon leveled for reference.


IMG_1792The “establishment” one beam laid over the other, both referenced to a layout on the floor, transferred by plumb-line and dividers.  The little level on the square, and the small level on the tenon indicate layout plane.

IMG_1776 Sometimes timbers need to be “dogged down”

Next the main beam, or rather two beams scarf-jointed to become one eighteen-foot long hand-hewn 6×12 piece of red oak.  Thanks to Matthew Ross for this piece.



That done, on to French-scribing the joints.

IMG_1790 The main joint, a wedged half-dovetail through tenon, with a diminished housing…

IMG_1795 and the brace…

IMG_1793 The essential tools for scribe layout.  I was taught by a French journeyman carpenter to leave the timber faces as they come, and transfer marks as relative to the plumb line (thus shoulders and meeting surfaces would have to be compensated or cut out 0f square).  Over time, I have found it easier to carve bearings across the plumb faces of the timbers with a shallow out-cannel gouge, and bring the timbers into square at the critical points of intersection.

IMG_1798 The gouge on the right is a 2″ D R Barton that was the first one I acquired.  I use it to reduce the waste on tenons.  On the left is a Marples pattern-maker’s cranked out-cannel gouge, sharpened to a bull-nose profile.  The great advantage is that it can be easily sharpened with flat stones, no need for a slip-stone.  In the middle is a 1 ¼” Buck Brothers that has a very gentle sweep along it’s length.  Useful for cleaning up hollow places torn out by over-enthusiastic hewing, erasing/correcting layout marks, a truly elegant tool.

I use the typical array of mallet and framing chisels, rabbet plane, and a few hand-made hollowing planes, but the gouges enhance my ability to produce clean, accurate joinery in a reasonable amount of time.


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I am no stranger to power tools, the ones that require gasoline or electricity to perform work for me.  In the long run, they expand the possibilities of what I can do, and I have their manual/analog counterparts to work with by way of comparison.  Still, in spite of their speed and precision, power tools have no real finesse.

Hand tools, when we get to the level of backsaws, bench planes, and carving chisels, especially those that were made before mass-production, are just inescapably elegant.  Chisels, in particular, are the most elemental tools of woodworking.  I believe that there is a sort of energy embodied in any artifact that was made by hand, but a chisel carries that energy from it’s maker, and the impression of every hand that has ever used it.  Power? Yeah.

I have been restoring old tools for years, fascinated with that genie-from-a-bottle effect of finally getting to a proper edge and putting the old fella to work.  Someone once asked me if all tools have names, and yes they do, but with long use and familiarity they become extensions of ourselves, bonded through generations of craftsmen back to the hearth where this piece of steel first came to life.  I no longer have to think, “the Sorby framing chisel…” or “the small Addis gouge…” consciously.  The tool and I have become an identity, I become invisible, and WE have power.  Preciousss…

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The ragged end of a mid-summer full moon, a new star somewhere tonight.  Another birthday, another sleepless night.  A fresh grave in a clearing back in the pinewoods, hard handed men accustomed to dungarees and work boots standing in well-worn suits, umbrellas raised as they lay to rest one of their own.  Survived by…grief so raw, flowers sermons obituaries, Amazing Grace skirling into gray skies, slow steady rain, God’s tears.

Better days, riding country roads in a pickup truck, stopping at Pop’s place to sit and visit. He goes into the garden shed, comes out with a little oak barrel, pours us each a dram of homemade moonshine whisky (usquebaugh, water of life)…and at that moment I begin to understand what Abraham might have felt taking wine with Melchizedek…truths beyond our ken, genuine culture expressed in the small courtesies and hospitality of country folk sharing what they have.

Below the surface, an older South agrarian and self-sufficient never fully came to terms with the Civil War or it’s aftermath. Nothing to do with flags, plantations, or cheap whiskey, real southern roots are in Saxon England, the Scottish Highlands, Ireland’s eternal struggle…Jefferson’s yeomen farmers, small freeholders carrying in their genes the painful memories of enclosure, transportation, indenture, the loss and humiliation of the Highland clearances.  Determined to be free, southern highlanders didn’t fight in defense of slavery, but for a higher form of liberty.  We hold these truths…

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Work and Play

IMG_1507I enjoy work.  In particular, I enjoy putting my entire body and mind to work using large, sharp pieces of steel to shape timbers into structure.  Broadax, boring machine, framing chisels, the entire kit, pencils to pegs…I live for that.  Everything else is preparation.

Some people become raising junkies.  Dozens of straining bodies pushing, pulling, lifting a bent, the controlled tension of flying huge assemblies into place with a crane, raising is the carpenter’s ultimate test of his ability to imagine and execute.  Everything else is preparation.

When I dropped out of college thirty years ago, I had no idea where it would lead.  A workbench, a modest collection of old tools, a few books, very little money, that seemed like enough.  Just, whatever, get me away from that morally and intellectually bankrupt society on the hill…and so, ironically, I live now in the middle of that society and on it’s margins simultaneously.  My neighbors are college professors, or college-educated professionals (most of them comfortable in their petit-bourgeois suburban existence, never felt the need to question the status quo).

Finally: It was stated at the outset, that this system would not be here, and at once, perfected. You cannot but plainly see that I have kept my word. But I now leave my cetological System standing thus unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the crane still standing upon the top of the uncompleted tower. For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!  [Herman Melville~Moby Dick~Chapter 32~Cetology]

We live in the old house with an unkempt yard and un-finished construction projects (cobbler’s children…a schoolteacher and a carpenter never had enough time and money).  Inside is controlled chaos, our “Room of Requirement” that is, or can become, whatever is needed at the moment.  Like Melville’s cetology, it may never be finished.  I can only hope that someone will come along with better ideas and skills than mine who will at least respect our intentions.

 “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”  Mark Twain

Our language allows that some people play for a living (athletes and musicians, for instance) while others must work.  Work is assumed to be productive, for some it has meaning, for most it is meaningless drudgery.  Play is leisure-time activity, weekend ball games, well-defined recreations.  Aren’t these definitions of work and play a condition of industrial society?  Are we post-industrial, yet?

The current revival of interest in woodworking (St. Christopher and the Roubo workbench, Studley tool chest, etc.) appears to be largely about discovering yourself as an individual, and materialism (there’s an inherent contradiction, btw).  Been there, done that…

We, as carpenters and woodworkers and artisans of all stripes must find common cause, common ground, collective bargaining as skilled professionals.  For some years, I immersed myself in timber framing (paying dues to the TFG, attending conferences, workshops, making a scant living) only to find the altruism and craft skills sucked dry by business and bottom line (bigger power tools=fewer skilled workers) until the bubble burst in ’07.

Sir Edwin Lutyens, the great Edwardian architect, considered architecture an ‘elaborate game’.  Timber framing is the highest form of play that I know.  Everything else is preparation.



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