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

About michaellangford2012

Timber framer, boatbuilder, dreamer, writer, musician; collector of books, tools, aphorisms. "There is nothing, absolutely nothing…half so much worth doing…as simply messing about in boats."
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3 Responses to Lefty, no Pancho

  1. deb says:

    Great first read this Fine Saturday morning. While I don’t know much at all about timber and raising and such, I now know more about you, Michael. And I bet I know which boywould be the first to cut his finger.

  2. bloksav says:

    Fascinating read.
    The part where you got fired after designing the blacksmiths shop made me so angry. Glad that you managed to get the lawsuit through.

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