Tolerance and Precision


Lufkin…Starrett…Brown & Sharpe…The Holy Trinity

Skeat:                                                                                                                                           precision: (L>OF) precis, strict. (L) praecidere, to cut off near the end.                   tolerance: (L>MF) tolerantia, endurance, sufferance.

precision: accuracy, degree of refinement in measurement, etc.
tolerance: permissible variation in dimension or weight; forbearance.

In particular, I am obliged to Mr. H. Wedgewood for his publication entitled ‘Contested Etymologies in the Dictionary of the Rev. W. W. Skeat’. I have carefully read this book, and have taken from it several useful hints. In reconsidering the etymologies of the words which he treats, I have, in some cases, adopted his views either wholly or in part. In a few instances, he does not really contest what I have said, but notices something that I have left unsaid…Hence the number of points on which we differ is now considerably reduced; and I think a further reduction might have been made if he could have seen his way, in like manner, to adopting views from me.
from the Preface to the Third Edition, Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (tolerance and precision, in one brief paragraph…)

I have encountered a lot of different attitudes about precision in woodworking, as in “How close do you want this?” House framers are usually satisfied when the difference is no greater than ⅛” (praecidere: cut off near the end), finish carpenters and cabinetmakers measure to the finer side of 1/32″, hand plane enthusiasts can shave as fine as .0003″ off a surface. As I see it, if you can cut to the shop standard, your work should be acceptable. Tolerance: permissible variation in dimension.

Precision, expressed in the tools of the machinist: accurately divided rulers, micrometer calipers, dial indicators, etc., is thus subject to tolerance, “How closely does it need to fit?” Tolerance can also accomodate changes in dimension of parts, the space that allows a drawer to operate during a humid season, for instance.

On a summer job in my teens, I assisted an older black man, Edward Perkins, a master millwright and a Methodist minister. Perk was an exacting teacher. We spent a lot of time fitting the bearings and sprockets on the massive shafts that pulled the conveyor chains that lumber rides along its way through the sawmill. The shafts: several hundred pounds of cold-rolled steel, three inches in diameter, twenty-some feet long. Once they were on horses, my job was to make a bearing race slide easily from one end. My tools were a large mill file (clerk, “Do you want one of these little bastards?” customer, “Nope, I’m gonna need one a’ them big mother f***ers!”), emery cloth, and a ball-pein hammer.

The other men joked about my teacher, that he was so slow you had to make a mark beside him to see whether he was moving. The fastest way, it turned out, was to do things right the first time. Drive something into place with the ball-pein, and two men and a sledgehammer can’t get it apart. One part out of sequence, and the entire assembly has to be taken apart and done over. All the little empirical lessons of mechanicking…precision, tolerance, patience, sequence of assembly…never force anything. The effort required to move a jammed piece is exponentially greater than the effort required to put it there. Simple in theory, difficult in practice.

So, all measurements are precise within tolerance, OK?

The other meaning of tolerance seems to have been largely forgotten in our society: forbearance, endurance, sufferance. If we add the Latin precedent precis as an adjective, strict tolerance would mean to my mind an imperturbable patience. No one has ever suffered my ignorance any more gracefully than did Edward Perkins during that long, hot Mississippi summer of 1969. In particular, I am obliged

n.b.  The little tool at lower left is (to my reckoning) a patternmaker’s draft gage.

Posted in architecture, boatbuilding, carpentry, traditional building, woodworking | 2 Comments

blue sky


The Russian Bantry Bay Gig, Penetanguishene, 1994

If you can find a copy of Barns, Beams, and Boats online, it is the foundation story behind this boat.  Lance Lee, fresh out of the Marine Corps. in the 60’s, went to Europe to study with Kurt Hahn, then to the mountains of North Carolina to build the first American Outward Bound.  Hurricane Island was the second, and with that experience behind him, Lance approached Pete Culler, the venerable boatbuilder.  Culler later opined that Lance “talked too much.”

Maybe…but what talk.  Lance then went to the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath and persuaded them that the old sail- and oar-powered watercraft, the legacy of the Maine coast, needed attention.  So began the Apprenticeshop, and Barns, Beams, and Boats.  Soon enough, Lance challenged the fiscal authority of the board of directors by setting out to build a pinky schooner.  When they gave him his walking papers, he move on up the coast to Rockport and founded the Landing School.  A second pinky schooner, Perseverance, came down the ways there, and a dory, Cussedness, both belonging to Lance Lee this time.

The stroke of genius there was Atlantic Challenge, designed around the profoundly historic Bantry Bay Gig, a French admiral’s longboat lost off the south coast of Ireland in 1796, recovered from a cellar by American servicemen during WWII, ultimately finding sanctuary in an old church at Dunlaoghaire.  With a group of French kids working alongside his American students at the Landing School, Lance built two Bantry gigs and put them through their paces at the 1986 Statue of Liberty centennial celebration in New York harbor.

The Russian boat came about because a Russian tourist visiting the Landing shop handed Lance a letter from St. Petersburg, inspired by a magazine article.  A log boatshop was built on the banks of the Neva, tools were donated, and by 1994, a nearly finished boat traveled by rail to Murmansk, to be transported to Maine by the Russian Navy,  “Nyet!”  The resourceful apprentices worked their passage on a Russian-Canadian fishing trawler, disembarking in Nova Scotia with a 38 foot longboat and a large bag of kasha to negotiate through customs.  They finished the boat at the new Apprenticeshop in Rockland, arrived in Canada with fresh paint still on their hands and clothes, and allowed us the privilege of rowing and sailing this awesome boat.   Thanks.

Posted in architecture, boatbuilding, traditional building, woodworking | 2 Comments

Lefty, no Pancho


“Each stick was carefully mortised or tenoned by its stump, for I had borrowed other tools by this time.” Henry David Thoreau

There’s a wealth of information packed into that sentence. Most people reading Walden will never grasp that Henry was using square-rule to lay out his timbers, rather than the traditional but more cumbersome plumb-line scribe. Scholars have since determined that the broadax “returned sharper than I received it” most likely belonged to Bronson Alcott, speculated that Henry was carryin’ on with Miz Emerson, and posthumously chastised him for his self-admitted carelessness setting the woods afire. Henry’s technical competence remains a mystery, far beyond the pale of the academy.

I still own a copy of Cecil Hewett’s English Historic Carpentry that I acquired in 1986, shortly after I dropped out of college for the last time; it was good reading material, and I had it practically memorized by the time I encountered an actual timber frame a few years later. That would have been when I landed a job writing for Joiners’ Quarterly, the circus that was Steve Chappell at that time. Fox Maple had been a going timber framing business in the mid-80’s, supplemented by teaching workshops, selling tools, and the publishing venture. By the time I arrived at Brownfield, Steve had leveraged himself way beyond his cash flow, the real estate market had corrected, and he was swimming against the current. I do remember that the first and only actual raising I was part of there was re-erecting an old barn that had real English tying joints, and that we finished up by truck headlights, in freezing rain turning to snow. Deja vu.

Later, having more or less settled down in Arkansas, I met a bright young lesbian woman with a half-finished, half-rotten yellow pine timber frame that some worthless yahoo had just walked away from. A mortise-and-tenon joint in un-seasoned pine, left to the weather for a few seasons, is an ideal place to cultivate rot (there are about seven distinctly different colors of mold that thrive in damp wood, including one that sprouts tiny flourescent orange mushrooms). Wearing through a series of helpers, I spent most of the next year replacing every stick of wood in that entire frame, hoisting the pieces with a thirty-foot oak mast, using a forked limb for a jib-boom and a couple of block-and-tackles. The day I began that job my dog Jake got run over by a car in front of my house. I was jinxed from the start. The owner eventually sold that charming little cottage and paid her way through law school with the proceeds.

During that interval, I worked for a few months at Red Suspenders, Tim Chauvin’s highly regarded timber framing operation in Nacogcoches, Texas. Tim was an enterprising guy who really wanted to be the Texas Tedd Benson. I had to quickly find out who exactly Tedd Benson was, and so I read the brown book, the one that everybody else had been reading while I was absorbing Cecil Hewett and John Ruskin. Timm’s shop was driven by a massive antique square-headed timber-sizer (American, before Yates joined up) powered by a Detroit Diesel truck engine. Noisy, dusty, the occasional small part flying off, it spat out more-or-less perfect yellow pine timbers on a fairly regular basis, and the layout regimen was what has come to be called “mill rule” by the initiated. We were all wearing ear protection most of the time, conversation on the job was limited or mindlessly banal, and nobody ever bothered to explain the resident layout system to me, beyond just “cut to the line.”

The real reason I was at Red Suspenders, though, was because I had been accepted by the Timber Framers Guild as an instructor for an upcoming workshop (standards were lower then). Exciting stuff, an octagonal gazebo, designed by none other than Ed Levin. I was pretty new to the trade at the time, but I did have a fair grasp of geometry and decent carpentry skills. Still, since I hadn’t yet proven myself luminary material, I got shunted off to make some short but necessary 5″ x 5″ posts on a crappy Makita planer that nobody ever used. Which posts some wanna-be-luminary nimrod immediately mis-cut (every last one of them) so I had to find some more stock and make another set of short 5″ x 5″posts. As punishment for nimrod’s mistake, I got sent off to work in a machine shop owned by a really spooky John Birch/NRA type, machining some designed-on-the-fly stainless steel plates to take the place of the really cool curved laminated splines that we were supposed to have made, but somebody had forgotten to bring the epoxy.

Those steel plates became a real problem later on, because the raising crew kept running their only 1 1/4″ auger bit into the steel while trying to drill pegholes. The girts that the splines were being pegged into were doubly redundant, and a smaller peg would have been acceptable. The tie-beams were cleverly splined through the octagonal kingpost on a sort of over and under pattern, while the entire roof load was borne back to the posts with a clever series of braces that half-lapped onto the tie-beams. The half-lap joint was more-or-less 45º. As in 43º or 47º, depending on which tie beam, from what reference plane exactly??? A lot of head-scratching over a problem that could have been easily resolved by lofting over a floor.

Having ingenuously offered to carve the date (1994) and the Guild’s logo (TFG), I ended up off to one side working on one of the redundant girts, a supporting role which I would reprise again at other raisings. Indirectly, that bit of carving led to another couple of jobs, carving chamfer stops in heavy oak timbers and hanging out with some honest-to-God timber framers. I carved all the details on the lych-gates in Atlanta, then spent a couple of miserably cold months in a cow-barn in rural Ohio carving lambs-tongues for what would to become a posh country club clubhouse. At this point, they still weren’t letting me cut any timbers. By observation, I picked up a few layout tricks, Japanese ink lines and Precision Square Rule, that I was able to try out later on my own projects.

Penetanguishene, Georgian Bay, Lake Huron, Ontario, 1995. First time I had ever been outside the good old USA, and we were setting out a French-scribed timber-framed pavilion with a genuine Galois-smoking French journeyman, Marc Guilhemjouan. My introduction to plumb-line scribe technique (this hadn’t been covered in any of the earlier books) and once again I managed to divert a whole lot of attention to carving names and dates into some of the timbers. I still hadn’t earned a seat at the luminary table, and I can’t recall cutting much actual timber. I had taken a few notches in my belt, mostly because timber framing wasn’t paying me jack-shit so far.

Back home (Alice and I had pretty much concluded that the Pancho-and-Lefty itinerant-timber-framer lifestyle wasn’t cuttin’ it…) I came up with a job turning some gorgeous old hand-hewn barn timbers into a frame for a lake cabin. Co-incidentally, we were working in a barn that had been built by s. w. yahoo, mentioned earlier. By now, I was able to discern that his primary canon had been Benson’s brown book, and that his braces didn’t fit very well either. [He (s. w. yahoo, not Benson) had worked off centerlines, and didn’t use a marking system that placed brace mortices definitely one side or thother, resulting in several “special” braces.] Matthew and I cut three lovely king-post trusses with 12″ x 12″ tie beams (off-cut blocks are sitting in my living room) fitted up the frame sans braces as per client’s request, and I was off on another project when it got raised and have never seen the finished frame. Client reports that he loves it, however.

I had been extolling the virtues of timber framing for several years, and finally persuaded the City of Fayetteville to contract with me for a modified version of the Penetanguishene pavilion. We started off in the fall with a truckload of green oak 8″ x 8″ timbers, unceremoniously dropped by a fat guy in a dumptruck, built a plywood floor to loft the king-post trusses over, and cut the remaining timbers by “square-rule”. On the Saturday designated for raising, the sky was falling. Sunday turned out blue skies and sunshine, we quickly assembled a crew, raised the frame without incident, and went our separate ways. No celebration, no acknowledgement, nada. Winter was coming on hard by the time the roof was completed, the parks and recreation director had by this time decided that she could have had a steel structure for about the same cost, so ‘Bye! Still nowhere near becoming a luminary, four months of hard work had netted me about $2000.

The next spring a freak windstorm toppled the maple tree in our front yard, so I limbered up my grandaddy’s broadax and hewed three nicely cambered 6″ thick beams from the limbs. Mixed with leftover oak from the park pavilion, four 6″ X 8″ posts, a couple of 6″ x 6″ plates, and 4″ x 6″ for principal rafters, the resulting frame became our front porch, 8 feet x 12 feet, standing totally detached from the body of the house for several years. The average person can’t tell from the street that I laid out the English tying joints by square rule.

Out at the Botanical Garden on the other side of town, Clancy and I set about cutting a Thoreau cabin completely off-grid, using hand tools on green oak 6″ x 6″s, trying to get the board of directors to see the advantage of having a presence on-site. The executive director was sanguine about solar panels and cellular uplink possibilities, but drew the proverbial line at the proposed composting toilet. The building itself was being done by Saturday volunteers, cost nothing more than materials, and in time the beauty of hand-cut timber framing gave way to the demands of utility; what-might-have-been became instead a storage barn for shovels and flowerpots and fertilizers.

Along about that same time, a local environmentalist camped out in a 150-year-old post oak tree, attempting to delay the inevitability of a commercial development. In the ensuing bonfire-of-the-vanities runup to a mayoral race, the trees themselves became political collateral. Until they were summarily cut down, by which time I had struck a deal with the developer. Turns out, he was a member of the Episcopal congregation in Atlanta, of the lych-gate project several years back, and he just gave me the trees, with the proviso that I move them off-site pronto.
That cost me $1000 cash, and for the next several years I was the exclusive owner of the biggest tar baby in town. Finally, in early 2003, the Botanical Garden reluctantly agreed to re-imburse me the moving expenses and take over possession of the logs, intending to build a new timber-frame barn. I was briefly in the running to direct a workshop, but after I adamantly refused to cut joinery in green oak at an advertised March workshop, to be raised six months or so later, I became persona non grata…
The project was awarded instead to the Timber Framers Guild, to be led by Timm Chauvin. Not a big surprise, exactly. I had been practically begging the Guild to come here and host a workshop for years, and now I had just given it away. Reason prevailed, milling timber and the workshop were re-scheduled for October, raising to follow immediately, massive longleaf pine timbers became available for beams and plates, and my specimen thirty-inch oak logs were reduced to 8″ x 8″s, leaving a lot of siding lumber.

Meanwhile, another project had materialized, a boathouse on the Thames bankside at Abingdon, financed partly with the promise of carving the names of patrons in exchange for donations. I proferred my expertise as a man of letters, and was presently embarked trans-Atlantic. What I hadn’t reckoned; that even though I was technically a member of the Guild, I was not a part of the official Guild delegation (read: not a luminary). This was made quite clear to me at the first meeting, in which American exceptionalism designated “square rule” as the official layout system. I went off to explore Oxford’s bookshops, where I found a copy of Elements of Typographic Style, a great help for anyone who has the need to lay out letters.
The project moved ahead splendidly, a virtual Tower of Babylon, with the English carpenters stodgily thinking along metric plumb-lines, exceptional Americans pedantically evangelizing the advantages of square rule while mentally dividing by 2.54, German journeymen fearlessly defying the British conventions of tool safety and the inevitable onset of tinnitus. Raising was a spectacle, four bents being lifted into place in sequence with a massive gin-pole and block-and-tackle. The fourth and final bent, eight-inch letters proclaiming its importance, went up amid cheers that quickly subsided into sighs of dismay. The bent was noticeably lopsided. Apparently, one post was too long, one quick cut with a circular saw should fix that. But, No! Instead, another £2000 piece of German oak had been relegated to the boneyard.
Quickly lowered to the ground, measurements revealed that somehow the timbers had not been properly referenced to the master plan at the very beginning, and now both principal posts would have to be replaced.
Had English carpenters been allowed to lay out a ground plan and loft their principal timbers off it, rather than accept the compromise of using the unfamiliar square rule method…? Had the Americans been a bit less dogmatic about the rightness and efficiency of their method, would the budget contingency for the entire boathouse…? I can’t say…but I did spend the next week helping to make right what had been done wrong; cutting timber alongside Curtis Milton, the only one of the original Guild delegation to stay.

By the end of 2003, it had become painfully clear to me that there was no reason to continue paying dues to the Guild. I would never be anointed by the luminaries, that much was certain. In the beginning, the Guild had offered access to like-minded individuals, people that I enjoyed working alongside. Those people, ironically, weren’t running the Guild, or the businesses. In fact, more and more, the businesses were running the Guild, and the craftsman-like people I so enjoyed working with were drifting away as well.
What the Guild could never offer: stable long-term employment, competitive wages, collective bargaining; in short, any relief from the predatory labor-relations practices of the businesses which were rapidly becoming its major stockholders.
Freelancing is risky at best; I’ve done it all my life with measured and often dubious success. Putting yourself, your tools, essentially life and livelihood on the road to work for less money than a reasonably intelligent person can make staying home is just shy of lunacy. Or, maybe it’s just for those with a trust fund big enough to cover the shortfall. Over time, I discovered that while the Guild itself might well be a truly noble enterprise, human nature could be venal and self serving if given the chance, and the people I had ended up working for were merely human, at best…

In 2005, Alice and I had paid off our mortgage, then borrowed money to buy a small cottage on nearby Mt. Sequoyah, but when the other buyer that our deal was contingent on backed out, we decided to invest in home improvement instead. A windfall cherry tree from another neighbor’s back yard yielded a 20-foot cambered beam, we spent $1000 on a stack of 16-foot yellow pine 6″ x 6″s, and I stumbled onto some seasoned oak timbers that had been cut for a log-building project, then abandoned. By the following winter, the living room had expanded to join the existing front porch, we were under roof and I was busily hanging doors and making windows.

One door closes, another opens…Winter 2007, a real plum landed in my lap, cutting a smokehouse frame for the state historic museum in Little Rock, on a 12-foot x 12-foot brick foundation, cypress timbers, modeled on a Virginia precedent from the HABS archives. I might have proceeded to lay out by story pole if the museum’s historian had bothered to confirm the foundation measurements sooner. Instead, I was cautioned not to cut any of the sills, joists, plates, or beams to length until the footing had been re-excavated at the penultimate hour. Plenty of time to work on posts, studs, braces, and rafters, and it all worked out fine in the end. Friends showed up to help with raising, a local brewery provided beer, and we had a grand time.

That fall, I started work on the most ambitious house I had ever built, a crossed gable with big valley rafters, working with a client who wanted to start a timber framing business and keep on building. By the time we had raised the frame at the end of the following summer, the building market was on the skids, and his initial enthusiasm had been tempered by reality and a year of hard work. The nascent timber framing business was put on hold indefinitely, Dale set up a law office, and I resumed my old practice of restoring houses and furniture. Timber framing wasn’t happening in a flat-lined economy.

A few years later, the historic museum again, this time a blacksmith shop. Different architect, dumber than a rock. I had to design every aspect of the timber frame for him, and endure numerous pointless conferences and conference calls with masons and blacksmiths from Williamsburg. Finally, April, 2011, timbers on the ground. Then, in the hinkiest deal I have ever encountered, the museum fired me in the middle of a job. Why? Short version is that the museum’s director had rigged a bid with a contractor who should never have been considered qualified for historic work. This deadbeat had absolutely no historic building credentials, no skills, no crew, an expired contractor’s license, a fraudulent bond company, and yet they bent over backward to award him the contract. Un-f***ing-believable. Recovering my equlibrium, I persuaded Dale, the former building client/almost business partner who just happens to be a lawyer, to help me file a breach-of-contract suit against Department of Arkansas Heritage. Nearly a year later we presented our case, and were awarded a $20,000 settlement. By mutual agreement, I will never work for Heritage again.

Co-incidentally, at the same time that I was suing the state, I received a fellowship grant from the NEA for $6,000, which we immediately applied to materials for an upper room addition on our house. Because the terms of the grant required me to teach an apprentice I hired Ben Jackson, and basically let him cut the frame while I was off in Little Rock fighting the state in court. Ben and I went over each layout thoroughly, making sure that he had the necessary tools, and I left it with him. We raised the frame in the summer of 2012, and I am still working on finishing. Ben went on to Bainbridge Island last November (2014), and cut and raised a barn frame, using one of my boring machines and what he learned by working with me. He is way past apprentice, well on the way to becoming a luminary.

Over the years since my inauspicious beginning with Chappell, I have designed, cut, and raised twenty or so timber frames, using various layout and cutting techniques, hand and power tools as the situation required. As part of a cutting or raising crew, as a woodcarver, on several Guild-sponsored projects and workshops, or just helping out, I’ve taken part in another twenty. Enough experience to be able to say with confidence that I know something about how timber framing is done. I can, after a fashion, create value by converting rough timber into sensible structure, and with a proper roof, walls and windows we have a light, open vaulted space that is pleasant to live in. Whether I learned timber framing from being active in the Guild would be debatable. Certainly the Guild helped, as did certain people in the Guild. Most of what I know has been earned through experience, and I have paid dearly for it at times.

What I realized early on: the Timber Framers Guild is not in any sense egalitarian, in fact it is hierarchical and elitist by its very nature and organization. At workshops and conferences, there has always been a marked difference between the campers and the airport/rent-a-car/motel crowd, which is to say there is essentially a blue-collar/white-collar dichotomy. Out of curiousity, I visited the Guild website recently. While I can link to, or visit, any business through the Business Council website, I cannot access individual Guild members. A quick visit to the Carpenters Fellowship website reveals a much different accessibility structure.

Twenty years ago, at Nacogdoches, the Guild’s board of directors revealed to the general membership that the Guild was not actually the 501c3 educational non-profit organization it claimed to be. Instead, when the paperwork had been submitted to the IRS years earlier, the Guild had been designated a trade association. At that time (1994), a proposal was floated to create the Business Council, which would take on the trade association status, leaving the Guild free to pursue it’s lofty goal of educating timber framers and thus qualifying for the coveted 501c3.
Never having achieved more than jack-Mormon status in the first place, I am poorly qualified to judge the Guild’s luminaries. I do know that the same summer I was carpentering in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Benson & Co. demolished an historic 18th c. barn at nearby Concord in partnership with WGBH Boston’s This Old House, and the ensuing Donnybrook almost destroyed the Guild.
Fences were mended somewhat by the successful Guelph Bridge project in 1992, which brought a commensurate increase in membership, a major face-saver after the summary firing of the executive director earlier that same year. Things went pretty smoothly for the next ten years or so. Membership was up, the inception of TTRAG mollified the insulted historic preservationist minority, Bruce Gardner quietly left center stage after bankrupting a couple of companies, and Joel and Will stepped in as co-directors. I never filled out the application form to become a luminary, and finally gave up on the whole damned outfit after helping to clean up their mess at Abingdon.

Which would have advanced the most at the end of a month—the boy who had made his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necesary for this—or the boy who had attended the lectures at the Institute in the meanwhile, and had received a Rodgers penknife from his father? Which would be more likely to cut his fingers?   Henry David Thoreau

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3-drawer Empire chest






Details are Empire, construction isn’t at all typical of Empire.  Cherry primary wood is light in color, suggesting Pennsylvania or further north.  Sides are 1″ thick white pine, drawers have cherry fronts with properly dovetailed poplar sides and roughly planed bottom.  Back is ½” white pine with very heavy circular saw marks.  Original finish appears to be shellac, dissolves with denatured alcohol.  Mushroom knobs are replacements, Philippine mahogany.  Simple, elegant, utilitarian.

Nutting doesn’t offer much on furniture of this type (there’s one Empire chest of drawers in his entire book).  Pieces commonly referred to as American Empire are typically a frame construction.  Heavy posts, 2″x 2″ or more in section, with turned feet, mortised and tenoned rails, and captured panels.  Hallmarks are mushroom knobs, turned feet, and wide tail/narrow pin drawer joinery.   for more on American Empire.  I have found scant historical information on the type.  If you have anything to contribute, please contact me.

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Evan and I spent yesterday afternoon at Mark’s shop, making shavings with a variety of Lie-Nielsen planes, a Veritas smoother, and a couple of vintage Baileys.  We explored the difference between Lie-Nielsen’s A-2, Stanley’s O-1, and Lee Valley’s PMV-11 blades.

IMG_1701There are a lot of choices out there in the new tool market, some of them with a rather hefty price tag.  One advantage is that most of today’s new tool come ready to work.  This is not the everyday shop experience: the opportunity to use and compare bench tools, and workbenches, set up and sharpened properly.

Vintage tools are rarely plug-and-play.  They often require more than cleaning before they can be put to work, and while they can be wonderful to use, some of us don’t have that much spare time.

I spent most of last week tuning up a selection of wooden planes to make a small box, a couple of jack planes, a small beechwood smoother, several rabbet planes and block planes.  Mostly, to make the point that it can be done that way.  A few old tools, carefully restored, will make the basis of a woodwork shop.


The bench is some thirty years old; that early nineteenth century French-wedged plow plane has been gathering dust for years, and now it’s all tuned up.  Let’s put it to work.

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Dowland Manuscript

Vault evolution

The Old Records of the Fraternity of Operative Freemasons, under the general name of Old Constitutions, or Old Charges, were written in the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. The Dowland Manuscript, as reproduced in Hughan’s Old Charges (1872) is believed to be a copy of an older one from the beginning of the sixteenth century; the rather modernized spelling makes it more intelligible to the general reader.


Before Noyes floode there was a man called Lameche as it is written in the Byble, in the iiijth chapter of Genesis; and this Lameche had two wives, and the one height Ada and the other height Sella; by his first wife Ada he gott two sonns, and that one Jahell, and thother Tuball, and by that other wife Sella he gott a son and a daughter. And these four children founden the beginning of all the sciences in the world. And this elder son Jahell found the science of Geometrie, and he departed flocks of sheepe and lambs in the field, and first wrought house of stone and tree, as is noted in the chapter above said. And his brother Tuball found the science of Musicke, songe of tonge, harpe, and orgaine. And the third brother Tuball Cain found smithcraft of gold, silver, copper, iron, and steele; and the daughter found the craft of Weavinge. And these children knew well that God would take vengeance for synn, either by fire or by water; wherefore they writt their science that they had found in two pillars of stone, that they might be found after Noyes flood. And that one stone was marble, for that would not bren with fire; and that other stone was clepped laterns, and would not drown in noe water.

Our intent is to tell you trulie how and in what manner these stones were found, that thise sciences were written in. The great Hermarynes that was Cubys son, the which Cub was Sem’s son, that was Noye’s son. This Hermarynes, afterwards was called Harmes the father of wise men: he found one of the two pillars of stone, and found the science written there, and he taught it to other men. And at the making of the Tower of Babylon there was Masonrye first made much of. And the Kinge of Babylon that height Nemrothe, was a mason himself, and loved well the science, as it is said with masters of histories. And when the City of Nyneve, and other cities of the East should be made, Nemrothe, the Kinge of Babilon, sent thither three-score Masons at the rogation of the Kinge of Nyneve his cosen. And when he sent them forth, he gave them a charge on this manner: That they should be true each of them to other, and that they should love truly together, and that they should serve their lord truly for their pay; so that the master may have worshipp, and all that long to him. And other moe charges he gave them. And this was the first tyme that ever Masons had any charge of his science.

Moreover, when Abraham and Sara his wife went into Egipt, there he taught the Seaven Sciences to the Egiptians; and he had a worthy Scoller that height Ewclyde, and he learned right well, and was a master of all the vij Sciences liberall. And in his dayes it befell that the lord and the estates of the realme had soe many sonns that they had gotten some by their wifes and some by other ladyes of the realme; for that land is a hott land and a plentious of generacion. And they had not competent livelode to find with their children: wherefore they made much care. And then the King of the land made a great Counsell and a parliament, to witt, how they might find their children honestly as gentle-men. And they could find noe manner of good way. And then they did crye through all the realme, if there was any man that could informe them, that he should come to them, and he should be soe rewarded for his travail, that he should hold him pleased.

After that this cry was made, then came this worthy clarke Ewclyde, and said to the king and to all his great lords: ‘If yee will, take me your children to governe, and to teache them one of the Sevean Scyences, wherewith they may live honestly as gentle-men should, under a condicion that yee will grant me and them a commission that I may have power to rule them after the manner that the science ought to be ruled.’ And that the Kinge and all his Counsell granted to him anone, and sealed their commission. And then this worthy Doctor tooke to him these lords’ sonns, and taught them the scyence of Geometrie in practice, for to work in stones all manner of worthy worke that belongeth to buildinge churches, temples, castells, towres, and mannors, and all other manner of buildings; and he gave them a charge on this manner:

The first was, that they should be true to the Kinge, and to the lord that they owe. And that they should love well together, and be true each one to other. And that they should call each other his fellowe, or else brother, and not by servant, nor his knave, nor none other foule name. And that they should deserve their paie of the lord, or of the master that they serve. And that they should ordain the wisest of them to be master of the worke; and neither for love nor great lynneage, ne ritches ne for noe favour to lett another that hath little conning for to be master of the lord’s worke, wherethrough the lord should be evill served and they ashamed. And also that they should call their governors of the worke, Master, in the time that they worke with him. And other many moe charges that longe to tell. And to all these charges he made them to sweare a great oath that men used in that time; and ordayned them for reasonable wages, that they might live honestly by. And also that they should come and semble together every yeare once, how they might worke best to serve the lord for his profitt, and to their own worshipp; and to correct within themselves him that had trespassed against the science. And thus was the scyence grounded there; and that worthy Mr. Ewclyde gave it the name of Geometrie. And now it is called through all this land Masonrye.

Sythen long after, when the Children of Israell were coming into the Land of Beheast, that is now called amongst us the Country of Jhrim, King David began the Temple that they called Templum D’ni and it is named with us the Temple of Jerusalem. And the same King David loved Masons well and cherished them much, and gave them good paie. And he gave charges and the manners as he had learned of Egipt given by Ewclyde, and other charges moe that ye shall hear afterwards. And after the decease of Kinge David, Salamon, that was David’s sonn, performed out the Temple that his father begonne; and sent after Masons into divers countries and of divers lands; and gathered them together, so that he had four-score thousand workers of stone, and were all named Masons. And he chose out of them three thousand that were ordayned to be maisters and governors of his worke. And furthermore, there was a Kinge of another region that men called Iram, and loved well Kinge Solomon, and he gave him tymber to his worke. And he had a son that height Aynon, and he was a Master of Geometrie, and was chiefe Maister of all his Masons, and was Master of all his gravings and carvinge, and of all other manner of masonrye that longed to the Temple; and this is witnessed by the Bible in libro Regum the third chapter. And this Solomon confirmed both charges and the manners that his father had given to Masons. And thus was that worthy science of Masonrye confirmed in the country of Jerusalem, and in many other kingdomes.

Curious craftsmen walked about full wide into divers countryes, some because of learning more craft and cunninge, and some to teach them that had but little conynge. And soe it befell that there was one curious Mason that height Maymus Grecus, that had been at the making of Solomon’s Temple, and he came into France, and there he taught the science of Masonrye to men of France. And there was one of the Regal lyne of France, that height Charles Martell; and he was a man that loved well such a science, and drew to this Maymus Grecus that is above said, and learned of him the science, and tooke upon him the charges and manners; and afterwards, by the grace of God, he was elect to be Kinge of France. And when he was in his estate he tooke Masons, and did help to make men Masons that were none, and set them to worke, and gave them both the charge and the manners and good paie, as he had learned of other Masons; and confirmed them a Chartor from yeare to yeare, to hold their semble wher they would; and cherished them right much; And thus came the science into France.

England in all this season stood voyd as for any charge of Masonrye unto St. Albones tyme. And in his days the King of England that was a Pagan, he did wall the towne about that is called Sainct Albones. And Sainct Albones was a worthy Knight, and steward with the Kinge of his Household, and had governance of the realme, and also of the makinge of the town walls; and loved well Masons and cherished them much. And he made their paie right good, standinge as the realm did, for he gave them ijs. vjd. a week, and iijd. to their nonesynches. And before that time, through all this land, a Mason took but a penny a day and his meate, till Sainct Albone amended it, and gave them a chartour of the Kinge and his Counsell for to hold a general councell, and gave it the name of Assemble; and thereat he was himselfe, and helped to make Masons, and gave them charges as yee shall heare afterward.

Right soone after the decease of Sainct Albone, there came divers warrs into the realm of England of divers Nations, soe that the good rule of Masonrye was destroyed unto the time of Kinge Athelstone; that was a worthy Kinge of England and brought this land into good rest and peace; and builded many great workes of Abbyes and Towres, and other many divers buldings; and loved well Masons. And he had a son that height Edwinne, and he loved Masons much more than his father did. And he was a great practiser in Geometrie; and he drew him much to talke and to commune with Masons, and to learne of them science; and afterward, for love that he had to Masons, and to the science, he was made a Mason, and he gatt of the Kinge his father a Chartour and Commission to hold every yeare once an Assemble, wher that ever they would within the realme of England; and to correct within themselves defaults and trespasses that were done within the science. and he held himself an Assemble at Yorke, and there he made Masons, and gave them charges, and taught them manners, and commanded that rule to be kept ever after, and tooke then the Chartour and Commission to keepe, and made ordinance that it should be renewed from Kinge to Kinge.

And when the assemble was gathered he made a cry that all old Masons and young that had any writeinge or understanding of the charges and manners that were made before in this land or in any other, that they should show them forth. And when it was proved, there were founden some in Frenche, and some in Greek, and some in English, and some in other languages; and the intent of them all was founden all one. And he did make a booke thereof, and how the science was founded. And he himself bad and commanded that it should be readd or tould, when that any Mason should be made, for to give him his Charge. And fro that day unto this tyme manners of Masons have beene kept in that forme as well as men might governe it. And furthermore diverse Assembles have beene put and ordayned certaine charges by the best advice of Masters and fellowes.

If anyone carefully examines this legend, he will find that it is really a history of the rise and progress of architecture, with which is mixed allusions to the ancient guilds of the Operative Masons. Geometry also, as a science essentially necessary to the proper cultivation of architecture, receives a due share of attention. In thus confounding architecture, geometry, and Freemasonry, the workmen of the Middle Ages were but obeying a natural instinct which leads every man to seek to elevate the character of his profession, and to give it an authentic claim to antiquity.

This has been carefully copied from the Encyclopedia of Freemasonry (1918 The Masonic History Company).  The illustration is from Banister Fletcher’s History of Architecture on the Comparative Method (sixteenth edition 1968 Scribner’s), the last page of which is an advertisement for 40 x 27 sheets of the plates by B. T. Batsford, Ltd. London.  As of my last inquiry, Batsford has no available copies of the illustrations.  ML

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Never and Always


Winding sticks on a board, preparing stock.  Mind the gap.  This is the first start-to-finish benchwork project for me in several years, salvaged Asian mahogany from a pallet.  After sorting out most of the embedded gravel, nails, and broken drywall screws with my Parks planer, I have a small pile of ½” scantling, 3 ½” wide.  Just enough to make a small box.  No wonder exotic wood is so expensive!


The G in the masonic emblem, what does that stand for?  Most people will tell you “God”, but if you look back far enough, even the Christian God has had a lot of different names.  I prefer to believe that it represents Geometry.  What one chooses to believe is subjective, but when pressed for an answer, I find that for me there are three constants.  Gravity has never yet failed to present, you can dial it up or down with caffeine or alcohol but it’s still there.  Geometry is constant once you understand that geometry is purely theoretical, reality is made up of crooked lines, and most solids don’t resemble their Pythagorean ideals.  Behind door number three: Gullibility, the original G-spot.

“A man may imagine things that are false, but he can only understand things that are true.”    Sir Isaac Newton 

So much for leprechauns, unicorns, credit default swaps, and conspiracy theories involving tall white aliens…we are all subject to confirmation bias, believing something because it fits our particular interpretation.

Enter the luminary:  Several years ago, I was laying out a particularly complicated piece of joinery, and happened to have a conversation with one of the resident sages of timber framing.  OK, I live on (under?) a rock, and there isn’t enough flat space to set up a decent establishment, so I was busily developing the post heads of my English tying joints by square rule (on the stick), which was working out just fine, thank you.

The luminary informed me that the old  carpenters always laid out the post head “in the establishment” meaning engaged in a pile of other timbers situated over a geometric template marked on the floor (or the ground), of which by necessity there would have to be two in this instance.  When someone, anyone tells you that a particular practice is always or never…listen to your G-spot.  With absolutes such as always and never there’s no room for interpretation and innovation.


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