All God's Dangers: the life of Nate Shaw by Theodore Rosengarten

All God’s Dangers: the life of Nate Shaw by Theodore Rosengarten

Wendell Berry, in his book of essays What Are People For? (North Point Press, 1990) has a short piece titled A Remarkable Man, which is a review of All God’s Dangers.  With no reason to believe that I can write a better review, or a better essay, I will say that Nate Shaw is the most authentic voice of the black experience in the American South that I have ever encountered.

Nate Shaw’s illiteracy, as presented through Rosengarten’s careful transcription allows us to experience Nate Shaw directly.  Here is a personal narrative which has never been influenced by The Book of Job, or Odysseus struggles to return to Ithaca; nor by Maya Angelou, James Baldwin or any other black Southern writer.  Shaw’s wisdom comes from within; in Berry’s words “Shaw burdens us with his character…Here is a superior man who never went to school!”

I read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men years ago; there’s a part where James Agee apologizes for the burden that he and Walker Evans placed on their hosts; he mentions the existence of a few black families nearby that they didn’t visit, out of concern that the requirements of simple hospitality would have placed excessive strain on already meager resources.  I want to believe that Sam Mockbee understood Evans’ sentiments, and for that matter, that he might have known Nate Shaw.

Frankly, I can’t see that sort of compassion in the Rural Studio, at least it isn’t apparent from their press kit.  What I’m seeing in the $20k house is architects being architects,  listening to architects to reinforce their ideas, looking to architects for guidance, and ultimately answering to architects.  I have asked, by e-mail, the same questions to the current Thesis Studio students, to Rural Studio director Andrew Frear, and to the head of Auburn’s architecture school.  And I have received nothing in return.

Andrew, let’s do something remarkable.  How about communicating with someone who isn’t an architect for starters?

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Lost Art, Found Artifact


The 28th Annual Groundhog Day Tool Meet was yesterday, sponsored by the Southwest Tool Collectors Association.  A couple of dozen dealers present.  Looking over the hundred or so attendees, Evan was one of a very few not likely to qualify for the senior citizen discount.  Mark had a similar observation about a major tool show he had attended recently in Kansas City.  Young people just aren’t there to buy tools, old or new.

Some years ago, tool collecting was considered a safe investment, a relatively harmless hobby of acquisition and accumulation, filling in the gaps, trading up for better condition.  The apocryphal notion that tools were useful, or how many hands had worked with them was quickly overwhelmed by market value.  What really mattered was getting a mint condition Stanley #1, in the original box.  Never mind that a #1 was scaled to fit a five-year-old’s paws, it was going on a shelf anyway.


These three pieces of steel cost me $75 total.  There’s a bit of lathe work to be done, the 2″ chisel really should have a London pattern octagonal handle, and while I’m working boxwood, may as well take care of the others.  The French pattern drawknife is great on the shaving horse, and that scribing gouge has a very slight curve along its length.  I bargained the boring machine down to $100 even, found a couple of Eric Sloane books to round out my set…


…and this is the entire haul, mostly.  I let Evan have a 9″ combo square and a #9 ½ block plane.  The little jeweler’s hammer is Alice’s.  For Valentine’s Day…


opportunity cost: lack of access to education, tools, health care…
poverty of means: inability or unwillingness to see beyond one’s own experience…
skills set: the sum total of tools, technique, knowledge and experience acquired by an individual.

There are some things that cannot be learned quickly, and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things, and because it takes a man’s life to know them, the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave.       Ernest Hemingway

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J L Hammond, a working history

J L Hammond and Barbara Hammond are two of the greatest historians you’ve probably never heard of.  In the early years of the twentieth century, they were commissioned by the British Labor Research Department to investigate the social and economic impacts of enclosure, displacement, and attempts to organize labor (combinations), up to the Reform Bill of 1832

Practically, their work discusses the effects of the Enclosure Acts, the systematic disruption of  English village life by taking of common land by the aristocracy.  Enabled in large part by the Glorious Revolution of 1688, enclosure became an instrument of massive land theft by the titled classes, legitimized by Parliament.  Through the penal laws and the practice of transportation, plantations in the American colonies were provided with cheap labor.

The Concentration of Power, the controversial first chapter of The Village Labourer, was only printed in the first edition of the book.

“…differs from previous editions…the original Chapter One has been omitted:  this chapter described the concentration of power in the hands of a small class…”

The middle chapter of The Town Labourer, The Mind of the Rich delves into the self serving impulses and rationalizations of the wealthy.

[Particularly worth reading for Hammond’s take on Adam Smith…probably the most misinterpreted economist in history (invisible hand and other Friedmanesque nonsense).]

The Conclusion to The Skilled Labourer addresses the ideological conflict between the capitalist elites and the working classes.

In their terror of the French Revolution they treated the sovereign hope that has inspired its best minds throughout the long pilgrimage of the race as an overwhelming illusion:  in their confidence in the unchecked rule of capital they made law, order, and justice the sentinels of a new and more terrible inequality between man and man.  The life of a society in which violence so deliberate as this is done to the instincts and passions of mankind turns inevitably into civil war.

We have been following Daisy’s education on Downton Abbey, the gradual progress of a Labor government in the years after WWI, and I have to wonder, has Daisy been reading the Hammonds?

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$20k house redux

I don’t believe it’s fair to criticize unless you can offer a better idea.  If these four guys can actually build a complete house in three weeks, they are carpenters, not mere laborers. This crew is going to spend the next fifty years building these houses, they deserve a better bargain.  Carpentry is skilled labor, and should be treated as such.  $11.57/hr. is not a reasonable wage for a carpenter, even in rural Alabama.

$11.57/hr. may be more than minimum wage, but $22,000/yr. won’t feed and house a family, provide health and dental care, and set aside a nest egg for retirement.  It most certainly isn’t going to send the kids to college…

Premise 1—–16 houses per year @ $20,000 per house=$320,000.

per house: $12,000 materials, $8000 labor, 480 man-hours.  wages: 1@ $31.77/hr.  3@11.57/hr.  typical employer/employee relationship.  contractor receives almost half the compensation package, or almost triple the wage of the workers.  in turn, roughly a third of the contractor’s gross will be paid out for insurance, accountant, equipment, etc.  leaving him with @$20/hr. in actual wages.

Premise 2—–12 houses per year @ $25,000 per house= $300,000.

per house: $12,000 materials, $13,000 labor, 640 man-hours.  wages: (1) 4 independent contractors @$20/hr.  or: (2) 1@ $20/hr.  3@ $15/hr.  $2,600 reserve—–limited liability corporation.  I have added back the $2000 that was stolen from the original labor budget (and added in another $3000 to round out, you shouldn’t arbitrarily take money out of the worker’s pocket.)  I prefer this model, it’s more equitable, there’s a capital fund for business expenses and contingencies, and the workers are fully invested in the business.

Premise 3—–12 houses per year @ $30,000 per house= $360,000.

same model as premise 2 (2), identical business structure and compensation package, just another $5,000 added to cover mechanical work that isn’t in the carpenters’ job description.  still no profit motive here, but at least the workers are receiving a reasonable share of the value they are creating.  for a 600 square foot house, that’s $50/square foot, still less than NAHB $80/square foot.

What I would like to see is some sort of program that fosters building skills in the indigenous population.  All I’ve seen so far is a bunch of upper middle class white kids having a lot of fun designing and building houses.  That isn’t leveling the field, it’s actually maintaining the status quo. By now there must be forty or so young architects who have been through the Thesis Studio.  How many of them would be willing to work for a year building $20k houses under their proposed conditions (Premise 1)?

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langford17 “Any jackass can kick down a barn.  It takes a good carpenter to build one.”  Sam Rayburn

Last week, I had a disappointment.   The previous Friday, Alice and I had driven to Mountainburg (about 50 miles) and bought some gorgeous redwood panels from an old junk dealer.  Perfectly quarter sawn old growth redwood that some enterprise had milled into panels for garage doors fifty years ago, a really poor use for trees that never should have been cut…

The junk dealer happened to mention that he was going to be tearing down an old barn with big timbers the next week.  He didn’t know if it was put together with pegs, “I don’t know much about that sort of thing.”  Turns out it was pegged, which means mortice and tenon, probably braced.  These two yahoos salvaged the lumber before wrecking the frame with a chainsaw and bulldozer.  The joinery (what I call the value-added part) was destroyed, leaving them with a pile of barely marketable old timbers.

Meanwhile, Ben Jackson has just finished timber framing a barn on Bainbridge Island, Washington, for his brother’s farm.  I haven’t seen pictures, yet, but I know it’s a competent piece of work.  Ben helped us with framing the upper room in 2012.  I showed him the layout, saw that he was confident to make the cuts, then left him to work out his process on his own.  When he left us, I made sure he had the skills and tools to continue.

In October, on his way west, Ben stopped in and borrowed a boring machine. Yesterday, I talked with a friend who informed me that good hand hewn eighteenth century barns from western Pennsylvania could be bought, dismantled, cleaned, repaired, transported, and re-erected for $30,000.  For a 1500 square foot frame, that’s $20/sq. ft.  Quite a bit more than the timbers alone are worth.  I could buy the salvaged timbers from the junk dealer and build a decent frame with them, but I just can’t support that level of ignorance.

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The Nature of Gothic

English Tying Joint

English Tying Joint

When Sir Isaac Newton observed that we …stand on the shoulders of giants… did he mean that we should be aware that we are privileged, or that we have somehow conquered the giant?  I’m inclined to believe that it was the former, and that Newton regarded his knowledge and prestige with a certain humility.

Back in the mid 1980’s, I was enrolled at University, ostensibly pursuing a degree in vocational education.  A few weeks in it became clear to me that we weren’t going to actually do anything with that shop full of tools, nor was my instructor particularly interested in teaching anything.  Class periods were spent talking sports with the scholarship athletes who were taking the class for an easy grade.

I dropped out, an old tattered volume of Norton’s Anthology of English Literature somehow came into my hands, and I began reading some of the pieces closely.  A segment of Marx’s Capital, and The Nature of Gothic by John Ruskin impressed me with their theories about the role of human labor in the great enterprises of mankind.  Marx and Ruskin were both political and economic philosophers.

Marx intended a benevolent dictatorship of the proletariat, the workers controlling the means of production (and thus capital) through state-run enterprises.  It quickly becomes apparent that Marx had never actually worked at anything, and relied heavily on the assumption that human nature is altruistic.

…from each according to his ability, to each according to his need…

Ruskin, on the other hand, was a born aristocrat, an artist and aesthete of the highest order.  Son of a wine merchant, he had spent his boyhood summers traveling the continent with family and retainers.  Ruskin had a sublime faith in the potential of the common man to rise to his ability,

…it should not be artists alone who are exercised early in these crafts. It would be part of my scheme of physical education that every youth in the state–from the King’s son downward–should learn to do something finely and thoroughly with his hands, so as to let him know what touch meant; and what stout craftsmanship meant; and to inform him of many things besides, which no man can learn but by some severely accurate discipline in doing.  Let him once learn to take a straight shaving off a plank, or draw a fine curve without faltering, or lay a brick level in it’s mortar; and he has learned a multitude of other matters…

Ruskin defines–Servile ornament: the execution or power of the inferior workman entirely subjected to the intellect of the higher power.  He calls this slavery, and offers a few simple rules for the equitable division of labor without brutalizing the worker:

1. Never encourage the manufacture of any article in which Invention has no share.

2. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake.

3. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind.

Understand this clearly: You can teach a man to draw a straight line, and to cut one; to strike a curved line and to carve it; and to copy and carve any number of given lines or forms, with admirable speed and perfect precision; and you find his work perfect of its kind: but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being.  But you have made a man of him for all that…You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him.  You cannot make both. 

The Nature of Gothic 1851

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$20k House Myth

I have been following (and believing in) Auburn University’s Rural Studio program since I saw Sam Mockbee speak here at the University of Arkansas School of Architecture in ’99 or 2000, shortly before he died.  Later, the filmmakers who produced Citizen Architect were here for a showing, more recently Andrew Frear gave a presentation on current Rural Studio projects.  Particular attention was given to the $20k house, which promises to build small affordable houses for low income people.  All of this is unassailably noble.

Recently, I started designing a small house for a friend, and the talk turned to the $20k house.  Evan and I had both attended Andrew’s lecture, and came away thoroughly impressed with the caliber of work being produced there.  Then, we started crunching numbers, and soon realized that there is no way that the $20k houses can be produced, much less marketed for $20,000.  Not even close.

“A contractor building 20K Houses for 800 people under a rural development grant would put $16 million into the local economy. Financing would come from a commercial mortgage or a Department of Agriculture rural loan program. We figure that since we design 20K Houses so that they can be built in three weeks, a contractor could build 16 houses a year. Assuming a workforce consisting of a contractor and three workers for each house. The contractor would earn $61,000 a year and the workers $22,200 (based on
 a wage of $11.57 per hour, well above the current minimum wage of $7.25).”  

Articles in Christian Science Monitor, and The Atlantic are headlined with the announcement that the $20,000 house is soon to be a widespread reality, Rural Studio will be offering the plans for sale.  There are some minor caveats about the possibility that cost of labor will raise the cost.

“…labor costs will be higher when students aren’t building the houses...”

“The $20K Project involves architecture students developing a range of home plans and prototypes that can be built by local contractors under the USDA’s Rural Housing Service Section 502 Guaranteed Rural Housing Loan Program for construction and homeowner financing.

The Outreach students are embedded in the Thesis Studio and work to further the 20K House. One of the most challenging of all Rural Studio projects, it deals with the question: what kind of house can be designed for $10,000 in materials when the other $10,000 goes for labor costs and profit? This internationally competitive application process only accepts four students each year.

The program is a two semester professional residency for holders of a bachelor’s degrees wishing to participate in the Rural Studio. Participants are admitted and enrolled as outreach students in the non-credit experiential certificate program. Upon successful participation in the program and all related activities, outreach students receive a certificate of completion

Due to the nature of the program, most financial aid programs are not applicable to help with tuition assistance.  Government subsidized loans, fellowships, research grants, and other similar funding programs have not been a successful resource for helping provide tuition assistance due to semantic details.”    Eric Schmid (Outreach student)

The entire thesis (at least so far as it’s been explained to the public) rests on the totally unfounded assumption that in three weeks those three phantom workers are going to build one of these houses under the competent leadership of the equally phantom contractor.  Who are these workers?  Where are they?

This is custom building we’re talking about.  Small houses require more attention to detail, and cost per square foot is relatively higher because features like entry doors, bathrooms, and kitchens are a larger proportion of the package.  A builder whose construction crew has all the skills to build out an entire house is rare these days.  General contractors spend their time driving and talking on their cell phone, the actual work being performed by sub-contract labor (not employees).

Here in Arkansas (and most of the South) masonry, framing, roofing, drywall, painting is the province of marginalized workers.  General contractors, and the licensed trades, plumbing, electrical, HVAC are predominantly white men with an attitude of entitlement.  Amplify that for the profession of architecture, which is pretty much defined by whitemaleness and privilege.

Please read closely:
The $20k houses that they have built have cost significantly less than $20,000.
How’s that?
Materials are donated (RS is 501c3) student work isn’t compensated.
Students are paying for the privilege (looks really good on a resume).
2014 students raised $250,000 on social media, specifically for the $20k house project. It’s pretty high visibility.
Iterations #1 through #9 were 350-500 square feet. According to the article, one house has been appraised at $40,000 which looks like market value to me.

What I am questioning is the singular assumption that a 4-man crew can consistently build these small custom houses in three weeks. There is absolutely no proof (that is the only calculation I have seen: it’s on the website, in the magazine article, and Andrew Frear used the same numbers last fall when he spoke here) but everything is based on that calculation. (originally it was 10k materials/10k labor, later adjusted to 12k materials/8k labor) His calculation was apparently derived from the $20,000 mortgage target.  If there is a spreadsheet, I haven’t been privy to that information.

Meanwhile, the current design iteration has grown to a bit over 1000 square feet, and they are still calling it a $20k house, making the express claim that they (or this mythic contractor and crew) can actually build these houses for $20,000.

Now, Auburn intends to offer the plans for sale. Looks to me like they have branded and trademarked an idea; and even though it’s obvious that a $20k house will cost significantly more than $20,000 they’re going to run with it anyway.

Is this a social justice movement, or a marketing campaign?

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Dublin Green


Some years ago…a friend of mine took up long-distance running.  After training for a summer, he and a group of fellow runners entered the Dublin Marathon.  During most of that time we had been building a timber frame, sharing my tools.  I had given him some framing chisels, he had searched Dublin’s pubs and antiques shops and pubs to bring me back a proper Irish workman’s plane (back row, third from left).  Just a common beechwood carpenters smoother with a fingerprint sized blob of green paint on one side.  In the way that all babies look alike until you have one of your own, all wooden planes look pretty much alike.

A month or so later, Christmas, and my friend showed up on Boxing Day with a smaller wooden plane (really lovely, York pitch, Marples iron, a furniture maker’s Precious) which he asked if he could leave at my house for a while.  Something about an issue with his girlfriend…

A Handplane’s Tale

…we opened presents at Katie’s parents’ house on Christmas eve, there was this one present that I opened, then put aside without remarking.  Katie had given me a Lie-Nielsen #102 with engraved initials, a really nice little plane.  I had shown so little interest in the present set aside, she slipped back in to check out the wrappings after everybody had moved on.

“Who’s Kelli?”  Oh, just one of the other runners I hung out with in Dublin (innocent, ambiguous, gender-neutral)  “Then why does Kelli sign her name in green glitter ink with a little heart over the i?”  So, I thought the plane might be safer here until she cools off a bit.

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The Decline of Craft


Every one is different…

As winter wears on, I spend more time scheming and planning than building.  My building ideas are just on the margin of convention, and we have implemented them freely in our own house.  Mostly, to be honest, because we have never had any excess of money, and we feel strongly about environmental responsibility and reducing waste.  Our primary asset is an abundance of creativity, and lots of tools.

Timber framing departs from conventional construction methods in that it requires some specific skills and tools, a sharp framing chisel if nothing else.  The resulting frame presents an opportunity to create a vaulted roof, which has many advantages over a typical flat ceiling/attic.  Light and ventilation are obvious, but the real gain is acoustic space.

As I watch how work gets done on other houses, the difference between my approach to craft and the way most other tradesmen go about getting work done is painfully apparent. I learned early the advantages of order in the workplace, from sweeping the floor to stacking lumber to sharpening tools.

[the blind man said] “…most men in their lives are like the carpenter whose work goes so slowly because of the dullness of his tools that he hasn’t time to sharpen them.”     Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing

Two distinct features of the current mode are the function of construction loans as the primary financial instruments driving housing, and the near-universal exploitation of sub-contract labor.  Residential construction loans are typically issued on a six-month renewal basis, a practice in which the bank issuing the loan acts as though they are doing you a huge favor even though they are making money on the loan fees.  Their reluctance to renew the loan at six months is mostly cheap theatrics, distracting from the fact that they are once again making money off the borrower, and that they fully expected this action, anyway.

Sub-contract labor differs from the standard employee/employer relationship in that the sub-contractor provides his own tools and receives no employee benefits (unemployment, FICA, health insurance, etc) from the general contractor.  In reality, the sub-conractor may have employees.  He will be liable for withholding taxes and paying benefits on his employees.  This arrangement benefits the general contractor (lower taxes and overhead) but he loses something in terms of quality control.

The time frame established by the construction loan, by the contract, and by various expectations of the owner dictates that progress must be made, regardless of weather, shipping delays, labor issues…Labor has no collective bargaining right, but practically speaking it’s difficult to fire a sub-contractor for sloppy workmanship.  Cost over-runs, change orders approved by the architect, are commonplace.

In most instances, because subcontracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, the scope and quality of work must be clearly presented.  Unconventional work receives high bids, overreaching cost estimates.  Architects become reluctant to design work that requires skills and techniques not generally available, leaving little or no room to be creative and challenging, or to improve existing skills sets.

This is a race to the bottom.  Unless we can provide some sort of craft education for those actually doing the work, and enlist the co-operation of architects and general contractors in developing a better labor force (ultimately a benefit to them), we are stuck in a paradigm of low expectations and workmanship of the lowest order.

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Almond flaxseed bread

IMG_1531“…give us this day our daily bread.”  We have come a long way with this stuff, and it’s still evolving.  Twenty years ago, I was making cornbread from packaged mixes and realized that the leftover Irish oatmeal from breakfast could be added in for a bit of texture.  Soon enough, I discovered that making cornbread from scratch was relatively easy.  A short step from that to experimenting with various shortbread combinations, grinding all sorts of grains and seeds into meal and using a bit of salt and baking soda for leavening.

Like most of my generation, I grew up on Wonderbread; living on a farm, we fed wheat shorts (that’s the bran and germ) to the hogs, not realizing that they were getting the better part of the grain.  White bread eventually lost it’s appeal and I started searching for alternatives, once making my own sourdough pancakes for an entire summer (add a bit of baking soda and sourdough will expand like a soufflé).  My sister gave me a book about baking bread for Christmas one year, there were loaves everywhere that winter.

Eventually, our household began moving away from wheat altogether (the gluten thing), and in time rye, oats, barley, buckwheat were marked off.  Corn (maize) is mostly starch/sugar to begin with, when you consider the probability of GMO contamination, off the list as well.  It’s comforting to assume that Native Americans had cornbread as a staple, or that Jesus ate buttered croissants for breakfast.  More likely, acorns were the staple meal for most pre-Columbian aboriginals as well as our European ancestors, supplemented with chestnuts, walnuts, pecans, chinquapins, beechnuts, hazelnuts, and whatever fresh or dried fruits were available.  Leavening would have been the result of natural fermentation, and salt was a matter of survival not taste.


Almond flaxseed bread:

2 cups almond flour  (~100g @ $5.39#…$2.37)

1 cup flaxseed meal  (~60g @ $2.99#…$.75)

1 tsp baking soda, 1 tsp salt

2 eggs, 1 pint milk  (~…$1.50)


½ cup currants or raisins

½ cup chopped nuts

zest from an orange

combine ingredients, mix the dry stuff first, add milk slowly until the batter is just pourable.  if you have a sweet tooth, try a bit of honey.  heat a cast iron skillet until butter sizzles, lay in the batter, shape it to the pan, bake for 30 minutes at 350º  makes two 1-pound loaves, costs under $5/loaf.   enjoy

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How and Why

Actually (to clarify the last post a bit), this began much earlier, but the photos from that phase aren’t digital, and I’ll eventually have to dig them out and scan them.  For now, the brick part is original and we added all the parts with green metal roofing: IMG_0005 The model: IMG_0980 the porch model: and not quite finished:  (a lot of things are not quite finished here…) IMG_0805 The back room needed a new roof, so we decided to build a timber framed second story instead. IMG_0342 As this expansion progressed toward a finished space, IMG_0505 the roof inevitably took shape, the intersection with the existing roof solution was barely adequate, the runoff spilling onto a skylight over the downstairs bath, and splashing on the French doors.  So, I devised a gabled roof supported by brackets to protect the doors: IMG_1513 And the cricket which I had built to resolve the original roof intersection, IMG_0378 became this: IMG_1516

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Roof Valleys

Trigonometry, once you understand the basics, is fairly easy to use.  The sine curve/cosine curve model works great for electrical engineering, but isn’t very useful for building math.  Really, just the ++ quadrant of a unit circle is sufficient for every trigonometry problem you’re likely to encounter as a carpenter.


This is the intersection of an 8/12 roof and a 5/12 roof.  The cricket has an 8/12 slope on one side, and a 5/12 on the other.  Two of the valleys are regular, they are at an angle of 45º to plan.  The other two valleys are irregular, one side is 5/12, the other 8/12, and the valleys lie at an angle other than 45º to plan.  This requires a slightly more sophisticated approach than the conventional solutions.

Here’s a simple isometric of the basic idea, with the individual triangles lined out in colors.  The trick is to determine a common numerator, multiply through by twelve, then factor down by ten.  These numbers will allow you to calculate all the lengths and angles necessary, then multiply by a factor to arrive at the actual measurement of the project.


The drawing at the bottom is effective, but works better like this:


This drawing can be cut out and folded into a model.  The perpendicular lines drawn across plan and roof plane represent the relationship of roof slope to level plane, and can be used as in the upper right drawing to determine backing angles.  Backing angles are complement to decking bevels, and the roof plane triangle will produce decking angle.

Rise/run=tangent.  Inverse tangent=angle.  A few keystrokes will produce sine and cosine, note them down and use the formulae below to solve for length.


That box in the middle of the roof…Rhenish helm.


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At first, I thought it was just about being alone on the water, floating in a small boat far away from the noise of people.  Yesterday, it occurred to me that air movement lifts ozone out of the water.  In that oxygen-enriched atmosphere, cobwebs clear out of the brain.  The change in the atmosphere before a rainstorm…

[I have been sending all or part of this to various people in the NEA, just trying to get a rise out of somebody. There’s no response so far, and in fact I don’t really believe that anyone cares…people who have never done anything with their hands just can’t understand how much it matters.]

Two years ago, I received an NEA grant from the Arkansas Folklife Program, ostensibly to support training an apprentice. I used most of the money to build a timber framed structure, employing a promising young artisan and teaching him the trade (he has been working in Little Rock for the past three years, but is moving to Colorado because the opportunities are so much better). We photo-documented the project in detail, hoping someone might be interested in what we were doing, but found that the grant administrator (Mike Luster) only distributed the money, and took no further responsibility or interest. (That is truly unfortunate, actually irresponsible as regards the apprentice. Without follow-up and supporting context, you simply lose them to a richer environment.)

On the other hand, there seems to be a lot of support for visual arts, performing arts, documentation, writing projects, etc. but very little support for actual hands-on work. From where I’m sitting, it appears that we are rapidly losing our genuine craft culture. Most of my peers are retirement age, few of them are actively passing on their skills, and the current generation shows little interest or motivation.

I was quite impressed to see Robert Runyon chosen for the Living Treasure Award. I have known Robert for many years, and actually have worked with him. Much as I admire and appreciate Robert, he epitomizes the rugged individualist. His work is not in any real sense replicable, scaleable, teachable, or affordable (if you disagree, I encourage you to prove me wrong). If you were aware of Tim West (he was Robert’s neighbor), he’s a classic example of a well-educated artist encountering the opportunity cost resulting from desperate poverty, alcoholism, and lack of cultural context or support.

Over the past several years, I have managed to become persona non grata with the Department of Arkansas Heritage, beginning with the blacksmith shop project which resulted in a breach of contract suit. Which I won, effectively sacrificing any future status with Heritage (such is principle/politics) and more recently I asked way too many questions about the demise of the Preservation Program at Helena. Heritage continues to use their failure at Helena as an excuse for not pursuing other possibilities.

It is simply inexcusable that Arkansas’ premier state arts organization is incapable of encouraging any sort of comprehensive craft education program. From North Bennet Street to Blue Ox, examples abound of creative, vital efforts. Heritage Crafts Association in Britain is growing, and UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage directive is as applicable to our culture as it is to anyone’s. What do we do???

My efforts to revive craft education in Arkansas have so far encountered:

Department of Arkansas Heritage put a great deal of time, money
and effort into trying to make a trade school work. Despite all that, it
did not succeed. The department has no plans to try to do it again, and
any further dialogue with you on this subject would not change that. [Melissa Whitfield]

I have been thinking about what does work. For years, Little Rock had a perfect example in Becky Witsell. When I visited there in 2007, her studio was involved in restoring the doors and floor-cloths from Lakeport Plantation. She had four or five young workers, all of whom were moving on into graduate school or working as self-employed artisans. Meanwhile, they were earning wages, and acquiring high-level conservation skills.

83. Master and Apprentices*— The fundamental learning situation is one in which a person learns by helping someone who really knows what he is doing.

France has a long history of Guilds and apprenticeship, still providing opportunities for young people. In fact, the Tour de France originated with young men on the journeyman phase of their education taking a walking trip around France, visiting and working in other shops. Germany still has a similar approach to craft education. I have met and worked with several French and German journeymen through timber framing. How about a “Tour de South”?

Markets: There are only a few retail outlets in the state for craft; the Craft Guild shops, Arts Center, Historic Museum, Crystal Bridges, and the seasonal craft fairs. Art galleries focus on 2-D works and modest sculpture, but rarely show furniture or functional craft.
Some years ago, Fine Woodworking had an issue about a venture in New Hampshire, evolved from the Guild of Craftsmen. A selection of furniture makers were invited to participate in a gallery show of their new work. The condition of entry was that the exhibited piece must already have a buyer (not solely speculative). I think there are several levels of incentive in this approach.

The digital landscape has evolved since Heritage’s ill-fated venture at Helena, and it is now practical to manage and market an enterprise with little more than a laptop. Investment in a campus requires massive continuing support (most likely from a private foundation these days), and the classic master-and-apprentice relationship won’t scale into a 30-student classroom.

Old-fashioned thinking about vocational education is just wrong. The fundamental issues are, and always have been, about culture and the development of human capital. As I look at our rural and small-town South, it’s painfully obvious that we are rapidly losing on both fronts.

*A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander et. al.

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Looking for Water

I went for a drive on a recent summer afternoon, looking for a place to fish.  Out of town on Hwy. 45 to Goshen, we passed Twin Bridges, the first possibility.  Headed up Blue Spring Road, there are several places to access Beaver Lake, but it was hot and windy and I thought the river would be better.  No access at the hwy. 45 bridge over War Eagle Creek, so we turned back and took a dirt road around Hindsville, ending up at the old WPA bridge on hwy.  412 east of Huntsville.

The pool below the bridge is deep, heavily fished, fairly clean.  Further down, in clean shoal water I caught sunfish and found a big healthy mussel.  Chippy ran the riverbank, splashed and swam until he was tired out.  I figured out that the paddle blade slips under the foot brace or the seat and I can push upstream in really shallow water with very little effort and lots of control.  I honestly think I could live on a small river like this.

Back in the mid-70’s, I was at Fort Benning, Georgia, for a while.  Part of a series of misadventures that had begun with me joining the National Guard to avoid Vietnam, then joining the Army to escape the tedium of monthly drills and dead-end jobs.  Summertime in Columbus, Georgia, with a broken car, I found a bicycle shop and soon had a nice used ten-speed.

Not too far outside town, a likely-looking creek enticed me to wade upstream casting a fly for panfish.  Within minutes, I was beyond the sounds and sight of “civilization” and marveling at the huge tulip poplars.  Realizing that a relatively undisturbed natural world could be found nearly within a stone’s throw of four-lane America helped to keep me what still passes for sane.

There, and in many other places I have found that people just don’t bother to explore upstream.  Following old roadways, stream crossings are often at a relatively shallow place in the river, where they could be forded by oxen or wagons.  Where there were no accessible shallows, ferries came into being.  The place names are often still used.  What we seem to miss entirely is how often streams actually were the roadways, river bottoms the smoothest and most reasonable routes for foot traffic, small boats moving easily through slow currents and shallow water.

IMG_0324Looking at John Singer Sargent’s Under the Willows, then out of the gallery at Crystal Bridges®, I was struck by the irony that the water there is inaccessible by design.  No shallow edges, no punts floating lazily beneath willows, just water and lots of concrete and glass.


Fisher Ford, on the Illinois River near Siloam Springs, is a Walton™-financed effort to bring more people into contact with water.  Lots of concrete again, weeping willows and lazy punts are nowhere to be seen.  Fisher Ford apparently caters to a sort of high-tech athleticism, excellent for beating upstream in roto-molded plastic kayaks, but certainly not very relaxing.


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Mending Fences

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”  Maya Angelou

As an artisan, the tools and materials you work with are concrete and finite, predictable and dependable. Humans can be capricious, contradictory, vain, temperamental, and (occasionally) refreshingly decent.  Some people just are not honest, and neither handshake nor contract will make it so. If you do succeed in dragging them up to the line, they will forever damn you with faint praise. One of the most insidious manipulations is essentially a twist on the classic victim-persecutor-rescuer triangle in which the disappointed patron switches from loyal supporter to victim of the artisan’s bid for independence. [Don’t hesitate to use your wand, a stupefying spell works wonders here.]

This morning at the Farmers’ Market, I came across several people that I have fallen out with over the years.  Individuals whom I no longer trust to be fair-minded or whose affect is so consistently cynical or sarcastic that their company became intolerable.  Do other people have similar experiences when they live someplace for a really long time, or is it just that I expect too much?  Several of these folks have a substantial improvement to their homes at my expense, and they’ve never made the first move to compensate me.  The others have for a short time made work less than enjoyable, and I’ve done with them.

A meeting of the minds requires effort from both sides.  Eye contact, a smile, an open heart.  Forgive, don’t forget.  “…good fences make good neighbors.”  Several years ago, I was thrown into a living and working arrangement with Clay O’Reilly, a zealous follower of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program.  Not ordinarily a drinker, contrariness moved me to buy a six-pack, go to the lakefront dock and work out tunes on my guitar.  Clay came down later, and told me this story [he was from Arizona, and had married into a Navajo family]:

“I set out for a walk one morning with my brothers-in-law. We came across a break in the fence, and I started back the way we had come to fetch some tools.  A short way down the road, they called me back to resume our walk.  Having found some pieces of wire and a couple of sticks, they had mended the fence.  Just like that.  You learn to work with what comes to hand.”

This summer I replaced our sewer line, after years of living with clogged drains and litigious, entitled neighbors. I seem to have so little in common with these people, but managed to begin mending fences. We share boundaries, love dogs, fly-fishing, and enjoy a certain pride of place. We just won’t talk about politics: immigration, rights of minorities, rise of the capitalist oligarchy, excesses of US foreign policy, inexorable decline of democracy, or the systematic destruction of public education. For now. For now, the plumbing works and I haven’t precipitated a lawsuit.

In the early 90’s, I spent a winter in Maine working for a struggling publication called Joiners’ Quarterly.  We rarely published on time, payroll was irregular as well. The housing market had taken a dive in the late 80’s leaving the owner/editor/publisher financially embarrassed.  Irate building clients, hungry creditors (his father-in-law among them), and a litany of subscribers’ complaints occupied most of his time.  I took to visiting a local roadside diner, where I fell into a conversation with one of the patrons. Something on the order of Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken” ensued, and I had a minor epiphany:  all small towns are essentially alike, everybody knows everybody, they have all had dealings, and some people can only be trusted if you are willing to work at keeping them honest.  Caveat emptorCaveat Artisan!

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The Parthenon Enigma

“Thus, over the course of the fifth century, a new Athenian identity emerges, one carefully constructed to glorify Athens and incite fear in the hearts of its enemies.  The trappings (and overreach) of empire continued to bloat Athenian self-regard.  Still, it must be said that the picture that Athens consistently projected of itself–in funeral orations, speeches in the law courts, dramatic performances, and the sculptures of the Parthenon–stands in contrast to the self-image expressed by other cities.  We continually hear from the Athenians about their exceptionalism, how they are resilient, competitive, aggressive, quick but thoughtful in action, innovative, aesthetically aware, and open to engaging outsiders on the world stage.  And many non-Atnenians accepted this characterization…”

Joan Breton Connelly, The Parthenon Enigma Knopf 2014

This is a brief comment in a fascinating work about the interpretation of the Parthenon’s sculptural frieze, much of which has been looted by Lord Elgin and others.  It is in part an eloquent plea that the pieces be restored to their home, and a magnificent contribution to our understanding of classical Greece.  It just struck me as ironic that the Athenians appear to have been as vain, contradictory, and self-serving as Americans today.  Exceptionalism…Hubris!


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The First Church

I have this rather obscure little book, picked up at a flea market somewhere sometime, The Drama of the Lost Disciples, by George F. Jowett.  Jowett is remarked in the dust jacket as being “…from a prominent literary family.”  which I suppose would include Benjamin Jowett, translator of Plato.

The book presents the argument, supported by various documents, that Joseph of Arimathea, Mary mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and a number of other followers of Jesus were exiled:

“In that year the party mentioned was exposed to the sea in a vessel without sails or oars.  The vessel drifted finally to Marseilles and they were saved.  From Marseilles Joseph and his company passed into Britain and after preaching the Gospel there, died.”

That year was 36CE, and the author of this excerpt was Cardinal Baronius, Curator of the Vatican Library, from his Ecclesiastical Annals.  Jowett proceeds to tell us that in 38-39, Joseph and company proceeded to erect a church near Glastonbury, twenty-six by sixty feet, built of wattle, and that it remained until 1184 when it was destroyed by fire.

Curiously, Jowett steps back and tells us another tale, supported by a letter from St. Augustine to Pope Gregory:

“In the Western confines of Britain there is a certain royal island of large extent, surrounded by water, abounding in all the beauties of nature and necessaries of life.  In it the first Neophites of Catholic Law, God beforehand acquainting them, found a church constructed by no human art, but divinely constructed, or by the hands of Christ himself, for the salvation of his people.  The Almighty has made it manifest by many miracles and mysterious visitations that He continues to watch over it as sacred to Himself, and to Mary, the Mother of God.”

Or, in somewhat plainer English:  Jesus, being a carpenter by trade, was apprenticed as a youth and traveled extensively during the “lost years” journeying as far as Nepal and Britain.  Jowett asserts that while in Britain, Jesus built a small church of timber and wattle in honor of his mother Mary.

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Design and Workmanship

Before the “Maker Movement”, there was David Pye.  If you make things, or design things, and ever feel the need to communicate about making or designing, you should read these books.

In 1964, David Pye published The Nature of Design, a strikingly well-designed little book about how material things come into being and how they are used.  And, incidentally, what they happen to look like.  The Nature and Art of Workmanship, a companion volume, was published in 1968.  They were eventually re-published by Cambium Press, and are still available.

For starters, Pye suggests that we set aside the word “craftsmanship” and instead proposes the more semantically neutral “workmanship”.  He then proceeds to totally skewer the “form follows function” dictum of Modernism and instead offers terms in plain language to describe designing and making things.  At the heart of his argument, Pye invites us to discern making things as workmanship of risk vs. workmanship of certainty.  He rounds off with a scathing critique of John Ruskin’s Nature of Gothic.

“…the sense of quality in general, belongs to the makers particularly, and has come to them not because of making by hand–whatever that may mean!–but because most things can only be made in reach of the hand, and so at a certain distance from the eye.  A maker is in the habit of seeing things close to him and looking at them closely…”

“Technique is the knowledge of how to make devices and other things out of raw materials.  Technique is the knowledge which informs the activity of workmanship.  It is what can be written about the methods of workmanship.

Technology is the scientific study and extension of technique.  In ordinary usage the word is slapped about anyhow and used to cover not only this, but invention, design, and workmanship as well.

Workmanship is the application of technique to making, by the exercise of care, judgement, and dexterity.  As opposed to design, workmanship is what for practical purposes the designer cannot give effective instructions about by drawings or words, although he can envisage it perfectly well.”



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Book review: ‘The Old Straight Track’ by Alfred Watkins

The Hazel Tree

The Old Straight Track (1)Quite possibly my favourite book of all time… I’ve been meaning to review this for so long!

When Alfred Watkins was riding around the Herefordshire hills in the early 1920s, he pulled up his horse to gaze across the landscape, and he had a sudden revelation.

In his vision, every landmark, whether natural or man-made, was linked by a network of straight lines, which he saw as glowing wires laid out over the surface of the land.  The lines passed through hill summits and cairns, linking church spires, prehistoric settlements and burial sites, old encampments and sacred monuments.   Following the route that they took were trackways, straight roads that had been ancient and well trodden long before the coming of the Romans, along which the first settlers of this country would have travelled by day and night, their eyes keenly aware of waymarkers that we, in our age of…

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Piñata of Ideas


Ever have a really good idea, and when you float it out there, someone just can’t wait to knock the stuffing out of it.  Yeah!  Just think of it as a piñata, a little out of reach but interesting enough to take a swing at.  Consider it a sort of backhanded compliment, an inverse relationship.  The more people who try to knock down your idea, the better the chance that it’s actually a good idea.  Good idea…wrong people.

Ad hominem:  a classic response is to simply attack the person who proposes the idea (it’s no co-incidence that attacking someone is called “offensive”) while simultaneously scheming to steal the idea and take credit for it.  Discrediting the person who had the idea originally is often seen as a pragmatic necessity.  “Kill the messenger”  is timeless, and still quite effective.

Attacking the idea itself is more complicated.  That strategy can focus attention on the idea, allowing it to develop it’s own momentum.  Popular movements like Occupy work that way.  Thoreau’s solitary act of resistance in refusing to pay a tax to support a war he didn’t believe in resulted in his essay on Civil Disobedience, which influenced Ghandi, and later King.  Ideas are powerful, and hard to destroy.

“Keep away from people who belittle your ambitions.  Small people always do that.  The really great will make you feel that you too can become great.”  Mark Twain

 If you have the time and interest, the July/August issue of Wooden Boat magazine (available at Barnes & Noble $6.95), devotes the entire Currents column to a dozen or more youth boatbuilding programs.

The program in Philadelphia uses the STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts Mathematics) acronym and lots of grant-seeking language “specific educational objectives, competencies, and key concepts”.
Another program targets “kids at risk of dropping out of school, in hopes of directing them into further technical and trades-oriented educational programs.”
Several of these programs have partnered with Charter Schools and other cultural organizations.
There are many other existing programs, Teaching With Small Boats Association, Rocking the Boat, Building to Teach…they just don’t exist in Arkansas.

I have been occupied with building a small wooden canoe,  my birthday present to myself.
When this one is finished, I intend to build another, and another.

I am not asking for anything, or proposing anything. All that I can do is put this information in front of you, and ask that you consider, not my interests or agenda, but the potential positive impact that a program of this sort might have on young people in our state. I offer imagination, intelligence, and building skills.

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Ghandi

Posted in agrarian reform, architecture, boatbuilding, carpentry, education reform, food for thought, Uncategorized, woodworking | 5 Comments