The Master Builder Tradition – what happened? Part I

Some have told me, indeed I often say it myself, that “you should have been born 200 years ago.” This is not because I harbor some sort of dewy-eyed romantic view of the good ole’ days, and it’s not due to any thoughts that developments in technology, medicine, civil rights, and so forth are to be sneered at (in fact I am a social progressive). No, it’s because of the sorry decline in our built environment here in the west that I perceive which leads me to wistful thoughts of a day when the old tradition of carpentry, and respect for craft was practiced. The products of this bygone age still exist around us, so there is ample material for study.

We live in a culture that, due to the wonders of our capitalist economic system, which is supposed to provide us, we are told, with the greatest diversity of products and services of any system yet dreamt by humankind. Yet, when you look around, we are inundated with uniformity and the bland. The ‘choices’ seem to run in a rather narrow trough actually.

Our built environment, which surely conveys our attitudes towards space, both public and private, wealth and status, beauty, and of how we choose to use materials to effect that, seems to have turned our surroundings into one long strip mall, box stores interspersed with cookie-cutter sub-divisions, from coast to coast – indeed, this infection is now spreading to other countries. It is what they call a ‘rational’ development, strange to say.

Where does one see the creative hand and spirit in our built environment? Why is a beautiful living space such a rare thing to find? What happened to the long-developed traditional design practices, and why? If our ‘shared’ cultural heritage is primarily that of Europe, how come their cities look so much more diverse and interesting than ours? How come the Germans build houses to last generations and the banks there provide multi-generational mortgages, where here we live with the phenomenon of McMansions, and properties that feature 30 year-old houses categorized as ‘scrapers’? Why is a million dollar house built pretty much the same as a tract home, only bigger and with fancier faucets? Why do people want this built environment- or do they, in fact, want this? I don’t think most people want it, if they allow themselves to think about it, since it is at the core fundamentally alienating to all that is human.

This is indeed a complex set of questions, and not open to simple clear-cut answers. I’d like to look at it from the perspective of a builder and designer, and student of the history of building. Let’s take a walk back in time first, to the day when the ‘Master Builder’ tradition controlled much of the built environment.

The earliest European settlers were a diverse group in many ways. The Puritans, being from the East of England, brought with them a half-timbered building tradition, including such classic ‘East Coast’ forms as the ‘saltbox’ and the ‘Cape Cod’ house. These are East English building patterns.

The Quakers who settled in the Delaware Valley brought with them a tradition from Northern England favoring chunky stone wall construction over timber. These are a couple of examples out of many. The Dutch brought their ideas about building, as did the Germans, etc. The indigenous practices of building in North America were roundly ignored and destroyed of course, being deemed ‘savage’ and ‘primitive’ and largely in the way of ‘progress’. Here I am greatly simplifying a complex story, and there is much source material available out there for an interested reader to discover more on this topic.

The craftsmen who were first here naturally drew upon their native building patterns, however, soon enough, due to the availability of such things as trees with 100′ of clear trunk, and other wonders, they began to make some changes to how and what they built, still adhering however largely to pattern, doing what was done before because that looked the best to them and made the most ‘sense’.

Now, over time, certain families and groups would develop specializations in the building arts, housebuilding being one of them. The son of a builder would have started helping his father out at a relatively young age, and have learned the trade from the bottom up. By the time the young man was in his twenties, he would have a solid grounding in the family’s building practice. Since work was not always steady in a given location, just as today, a builder might have to move around from time to time, whereupon he would hire himself out to another builder, and have the chance to learn a few new tricks, thus broadening his viewpoint. Perhaps he would do a spell of a few years in the city, working under a celebrated master builder, and would learn the latest trends in design, style, and construction. These ideas would be brought back to the countryside and toned-down to suit local conditions, and if accepted, gradually translated into vernacular practice.

By his late twenties, such a builder might then return to his hometown and set about building a house, settling down, getting married and having a family. The house he built would be a showcase for his skills in workmanship and design. Since the house would take a few years to build (imagine that!), and most locals got about on foot or by horse in those days, instead of rushing by in a blur, ensconced in a car, many people in his surrounding area would have ample opportunity to keep an eye on the goings-on of the building project, and make determinations as to the skill of the builder. People could tell a lot about a builder’s skill, because they could discern quality work from inferior, and would notice what was fresh and new about a builder’s work, compared to others in the area. Nowadays a house goes up in a matter of weeks, and most of us have lost this contact with our community and it’s artisans. Who has time for extended observation, especially if what is being built looks pretty much the same as any other stapled-together production?

This process I am typifying in the traditional building practice is similar to that discussed in a book called “Two Carpenters”, which details a multi-generational family of builders from the town of Northfield, MA, in the first half of the 19th century. We can see that the young builder, once his reputation was established in a town, would then have the opportunity to develop his craft over time, eventually earning him, perhaps, the distinction of ‘Master Builder’. In larger towns and cities, this process was naturally more codified and organized, leading, in the European model, to the formation in time of craft guilds, which relied upon the tradition of master and apprentices, and carefully controlled access to the secrets of the guild.

The Master Builder is termed ‘tō-ryō’ in Japan, 棟梁, a word which also means ‘ridgepole’. Thus, the Master Builder is as vital to the structure as the ridgepole, and a central unifying element in the constructive process. These men still exist in Japan today, though they are a dying breed, as the 2×4 and nail gunning onslaught continues apace.

A Master Builder is someone who knows not just about carpentry, but also about excavating and foundation work, about the behavior of soils, about the selection of wood, both in the forest and on the job site. Nishioka, one of the last of the great Tō-ryō, described how his father, a temple carpenter, sent him to study agricultural science before his carpentry apprenticeship began, as the knowledge of the soil can only give a deeper understanding as to the nature of the trees that grow in it.

The Master Builder started out as a ‘grunt’, simply performing manual labor for the first while, then graduating to simple carpentry tasks, then handling the tools, eventually working his way through all aspects of house building, interior and exterior, rough and finish work, including estimating and dealing with sub-trades, be they millwork shops or stone masons. So, not only does the Master Builder use wood to build houses, but he is intimately familiar with that wood since he has worked it for many years. There is a huge difference between knowing a given material from the experience of working it, and simply selecting it from a design or standards book, one among many possible, upon the basis of its color or technical stats. alone as many designers and architects do these days. A huge difference. Without intimate knowledge of a material, wood, stone or otherwise, and without long experience in making things from that material, a modern designers’ view of the potentials for that craft medium are naturally going to be narrower and less reality-based than the Master Builder’s view, it seems to me.

The Master Builder eventually works less upon the more mundane tasks of woodworking and building fabrication, and increasingly concerns himself with the study of patterns, geometry, and design. He designs the building, creates the drawings for the apprentices to work from, and creates templates for more complex things, like staircase parts, curved hip rafters, patterns for moldings, and so forth. You’ll note he comes to this phase at the end of a long education process, one steeped in a comprehensive learning of the building process, and hands-on tactile familiarity with the materials he works with. This is an utterly different thing than a ‘designer’ today who graduates from an industrial design school with, often, a limited amount of hands-on experience with any material. The modern way is about a person starting with the design end, and who gradually attains a certain familiarity with the materials they design in, but remain otherwise at a desk their whole career, and never actually works with the materials they design with.

The old tradition is different than the modern idea of a General Contractor. A G.C. is not a Master Builder. The G.C. is someone with some degree of building experience, who discovers they can make more money skimming 10% off all the trades, then working by the hour banging nails. Any book on the ins and outs of becoming a general contractor will tell you that the first thing to do is ‘hang up the tools.’ It doesn’t matter how skilled a carpenter a G.C. might have once been – to be successful he/she must learn to become a good manager and salesperson. That’s a different kettle of fish altogether than the richly complex world of the Master Builder.

So, given the inherent logic of the Master Builder tradition, and the marvelous works that were produced by it, some of which remain today, what happened? How come this tradition has faded into the history books, by and large? Surely in the capitalistic system the ‘best’ ideas win out in the marketplace, taking us all to a shining future of continuous improvements? Again, the answer is not so clear cut, but one can at least identify the start of this process of change, which in North America was in the 1860~70 period; some historians would place it a little earlier, around 1830.

A number of developments conspired against the traditional way of carpentry and building. While these were improvements in their own way, it can be said that in sum they did not lead to improvement in our collective built environment. There was the development of the thin-kerf saw blade, which permitted the economical re-sawing of small scantlings from a log, without the waste engendered by thicker saw blades. This enabled framing to be done economically with smaller timbers than before, which paved the way for the development of 2x balloon framing ,which in time was supplanted by 2x platform framing, the method predominantly practiced today. There was the invention of the wire nail at this same time. Formerly, metal fasteners were minimally and selectively employed in construction, as the fasteners were laboriously made by blacksmiths, and thus were costly. Timber construction employed wooden joints to fasten timbers together. The mass-produced wire nail ushered in a quicker and therefore cheaper way of construction, in concert with the 2x studs. Cutting joinery was less cost effective, when in a ‘race’ with other builders to produce at a given price point. The simple fact is that these sorts of races are always races to the bottom. We are very good at these sorts of races in the west.

In time, carpentry has moved from being a deep art and a holistic practice, to one of increasingly narrow specializations and the master builder has become replaced by a type of carpentry that is little more, in my view, than the glorified assembly of industrially-produced materials. I will delve more into this topic in future posts.

Added to the technological developments discussed above, was a period of disillusion amongst many in the early 1800’s with social conditions and the ‘promise’ of America. Many began to think that the only ‘true’ things were the bible and ancient Greek culture. Next thing to appear was the ‘Greek Revival’ period in architecture, where large pseudo-stone columns, porticoes, and sophisticated architraves were added to otherwise humble buildings. It was as if everyone wanted the grandeur of the local bank, which was after the cachet of legitimization through association to classic Greek building forms. This came to be popularly ridiculed, but the die was cast and the tradition of building by pattern and connection to the classic geometer’s instruments of straightedge, compass and string were supplanted by a series of building fads and ephemeral styles, and subsequent reactions against those fads, which continues to this day, albeit with diminished intensity. Fads suit those who seek to make money from rapidly changing tastes and the waves of consumption that goes with each shift. Each fad brought with it a certain debasement of building tradition. When anything goes, sometimes nothing counts.

Then we have the advent of the profession of architecture, and the growth of architecture schools, which really got moving in the years between WWI and WWII. I’ll save a discussion of this topic for a future post.

Today’s pictures are of the same joint pictured in the previous post, the conventional version of kanawa tsugi. Well, this one is somewhat conventional, except for the stub tenons, or mechi, in the broad face of the timber, which are doubled instead of single. The version shown is executed in a 4″x10″ Douglas Fir wall plate (a beam that runs along the top of the posts in a wall structure). The Yellow wedge that locks the joint tight is made from pau amarella, a South American hardwood also known as Yellow Heart. I’ll talk more about joinery and wood in detail in future posts.

–> go to part II

7 Replies to “The Master Builder Tradition – what happened? Part I”

  1. Chris,

    What a well written and thought out post. I learned much, and felt like you were speaking directly to my feelings of wistfulness about how things (dwellings and other parts of the built environment) are built these days. I am a professional cabinetmaker, and I daily find two of your assertions to be true: 1) the things I am asked to build are often so maddeningly poorly designed and conceived, it is clear to me the person doing the designing has no concept of the making, and 2) I often feel like much of the making world I encounter produces at such a low quality because that is how things are designed and intended to be built. I try my best to improve the quality of what I make where I can, but that is certainly not often valued. I think of a quote I believe I read on your blog, “hammer to fit, paint to match,” or something like that.

    Thanks for your thoughts, and, more importantly, for crafting with such consciousness of purpose and understanding of history.


  2. Evan,

    I'm pleased to learn that my words had an effect, even if the message was not entirely up lifting. At the end of the day, the maker decides about the quality of things which leave their hands.


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