Is it the Way or the World?

A bit of a ramble today…

The last few days have featured a lot of drawing and writing. The writing has been taking place on the Kiku Jutsu essay, The Art of Carpentry Drawing Vol. I and II, where I have been expanding the appendix section on Japanese terminology. That section will be expanded with each essay I will write, and my intention is to eventually include the names of most every Japanese woodworking tool, most technical woodworking and architectural terms, and craft-applicable tree/wood species particulars. Compiled eventually into a single lump, I suspect that the appendix will approach a fair few pages, so it will be a lot easier for me to bite it off in smaller chunks like that. Beyond the various terms and their definitions, the appendix will give detailed etymology of the meanings of the various characters, or kanji, used – not every one, but hopefully the most frequently encountered and/or colorful ones.

I have done some work on the blog, involving going back to old threads and adding page links at the bottom to make it easier to follow one’s way through a build without recourse to the label index or blog archive. Call it a ‘road map to piece’.


So that’s the writing. I’ve been laboring away at the drawing work too. Last post, I was about half-way into a drawing of a Mansard with a sprinkling of bracing problems. This is where I ended up before calling a halt:

The reason I felt a need to stop was that there were some parts of the drawing that I just wasn’t getting. In particular, there are knee braces which run between the irregular hip rafters and the hip braces from the truss, each of which are different from one another in configuration:

It wasn’t that I couldn’t determine how to draw the knee brace. The problem I was finding difficult was how to place that irregular brace such that it was perfectly co-planer with the braces in the main truss:

This is challenging because the hip rafter is in plane with the commons only at two arrises – otherwise it is in a different rotation. There is some piece of the puzzle that is missing for me and that means, yes, back to the drawing board.

I flicked back a few more pages in Mazerolle’s book, thinking that prior models shown in the text might be simpler or more clearly illustrative of particular points that subsequent drawings therefore might omit to mention. Now, here I go again thinking there might be something logical about the arrangement of material in the text. Overall, that does appear to be the case. Mazerolle’s book breaks the information down in the following order:

  1. Glossary of terms
  2. Explanation of French methods of perspective drawing
  3. Geometrical forms and geometrical drawing methods
  4. Illustration of Carpentry tools
  5. Description of Carpentry marking symbols
  6. Layout theory
  7. Dormers
  8. Joints
  9. Description of the piqué technique (the French scribing technique) and three exercises

So that is basically the preliminary section, and is relatively logical in order, except for the section on dormers being where it is. Well, I’m not sure why the section on perspective drawing is included as well, but so be it. Anyhow, after that, the book gets rolling with various architectural pieces, which basically breaks down into the following:

  • Section I. Rectilinear work: roofs, sawhorses, pavillions, floor joist work. One roof with steel reinforcement is also shown, an early hybrid.
  • Section II. Stairs of all kinds, with a few examples of woodwork on steel stairs
  • Section III. Curvilinear work: geometrical drawing, bridge centers, domes, turrets, balconies.

When I stalled out with the Mansard roof illustration I went back a few pages, as I mentioned, to see what further information I could find. After looking over a few different pieces, I came across the initial drawing of a Mansard roof in the book, one I had skipped over previously. This one is without Saltaire crosses but has knee braces that are very similar to the long side braces from the tréteau I completed last month. It shows a Mansard on an irregular plan, with one end of the building having 90˚ corners, and, mercifully, provided some actual dimensions so I was not futzing around so much with my scale rule, which is ever so slightly out of whack with the drawings (I put this down to the drawing being out, not the ruler) and has been a item of some vexation when dealing with the Mazerolle book.

So, I decided to start working on that drawing to see where it lead and what I might find.

Am I done the drawing? No, not yet, but I have learned a few key little details and my understanding of the material has improved I dare say. I’ll post up soon enough. It’s a pretty cool little structure.

Part of the “understanding” (and I use that term loosely) bit involves figuring out the French drawing method, which is quite different than the Japanese methods I am more comfortable with. The other part of it involves deciphering the underlying rationale for how things are arranged. If the French drawing method is the ‘what’, then the underlying rationale is the ‘why’.

One thing I have discovered so far relates to the chosen plane(s) of reference in the drawings themselves.

In Japanese carpentry, one rarely makes adjoining parts the same dimension in a structure, other than splices of course, and the centerline controls the location of the parts in space. Where parts are to align, it is either to one face or to one line- that is to one plane.

The French, however, like to align everything, inside and out. So, a post under a beam is the same width as the beam. If the post is inclined, as in the lower pitch of a Mansard, the upper and lower surfaces of the post meet the beam at two points, often the maximum amount of space into which the part can be fitted, often the arrises of the beam. Clear as mud, right?

How to explain this a little better… take a common rafter landing on a wall plate. In the Japanese method there is a reference line on the centerline of the plate, or a reference line hovering above it in some cases, which is met by the underside of the common rafter at the intersection. The size of the common rafter, I mean how tall the section is, is determined by proportioning methods relating to either post size or inter-columnar spacing.

The French look at it differently. There is the plate and it has a surface of a particular width. The rafter meets it on a slope such that the upper surface of the rafter meets the forward edge of the plate, and the lower surface of the rafter meets the rear edge of the plate. In other words, the horizontal slice of the rafter at slope, its ‘footprint’, is identical to the width of the plate. In other words, the plate would appear to set the size of the rafter.

The Japanese are very particular about issues concerning rafters, as the exposed eave is an elaborated aspect of Japanese traditional architecture. Much thought goes into sizing and spacing the rafters, determining eave projection, and how the material laying atop the rafter surface, exposed to view from below, is detailed.

The French buildings depicted in Mazerolle’s book generally have no eaves, as they sit atop stone walls and are urban structures presumably crammed next to one another. The roof structures, from what I gather, are largely hidden by ceilings and so forth – only with, say, a dormer, might one see some attention paid to how the under-eave space is decorated. So the French seem more concerned with aligning all the parts to provide flat planes inside and out (for roofing, lath and plaster).

The Japanese often have ceilings too, though not always. The under-eave space would rarely be a flat featureless plane, but rather would tend toward variegation and the production of various shadow lines, nige, by having reveals of wood between the differently-sized pieces, rafters, komai, ceiling boards, bamboo strips, etc.. Since the woodwork is clearly visible to view, the Japanese have a more elaborated development of joinery methods to suit aesthetic and structural demands at the same time. With the joints and intersections of the wooden pieces exposed to view, the use of reveals between parts makes sense as it tends to conceal the disparate wood movement between parts.

The French, since much of the roof work is concealed, are quite happy to employ simpler joinery, often with recourse to spiking pieces together. The French do not employ joint housings too much (if at all), which I think relates as well to the fact that the wood will be covered over later, and thus slight gaps between pieces after shrinkage aren’t of much concern.

Those are some of the conclusions I have drawn thus far, and I’m not overly attached to them at this point. Further study will likely reveal errors or misapprehensions in my thinking. My goal is to gain some facility with French carpentry drawing methods, to ultimately attain the conceptual level of being able to do any campagnon’s masterpiece. That said, I much prefer Japanese architecture and joinery methods.

There are a few walls in the way of getting to do the French and Japanese traditional carpentry more extensively, and I am figuring out how to jump them, or knock them down if necessary.

For one thing, I live in a culture which, overwhelmingly, favors the cheap and orients around a short-term paradigm. This is a culture, from my observation, also increasingly alienated from the natural world and ever-more intimate with plastics and factory-produced consumer goods, the vast bulk of which, I dare say, are little more than garbage. It’s been this way for quite a while now and I have really no hope of reversing that flow on a large scale. But I do believe one person really can make a difference. I do believe there are more than a few out there who don’t like this state of affairs very much, both clients and builders alike, but it is a subject largely avoided in the popular discourse it appears.

Another challenge: clients typically would think first to go to an architect, and not a designer-builder. I’m a little outside the radar I imagine. That said, I’m not aware of any architects in North America who could/would specify authentic timber work in their structures employing either the French or Japanese traditional methods and detailing. The best a client could generally hope in this regard from an architect would be a facsimile. No architect could specify this sort of work accurately because architecture school in no way prepares them for it. Craftsmanship comes from working with a material for an extended period of time so one reaches a point of intimate understanding of the material and it’s real possibilities and limitations. Only the Master-builder tradition provides this preparation really. Architects are trained primarily to produce large institutional structures, which are primarily made of glass, steel and concrete, not wood. and if it is to be of wood, invariably it is of the stapled and sheathed variety – light construction. The focus is on exterior appearance at any rate, not intrinsic nature of construction and honoring of material. To be able to specify authentic timber work, the architect would require years of additional hands-on training in the methods, and study of the layout system, and so forth.

For a third challenge, there are virtually no examples of the sort of work I can do and want to do out there in the built environment, and if no one sees it, in a certain sense it might just as well not exist. Now, how many out there were clamoring for ATM’s or Jet aircraft prior to their introduction? How can you want something, generally speaking, you have never seen before? If most poeple have lost grounding in the world of natural materials such that a mortise and tenon joint is something strange, even incomprehensible, well, it seems like it’s quite a few steps to walk from there to a point of appreciating all that goes into an elegant work of timber architecture. I could be wrong. again, I think people appreciate crafted beauty pretty quickly, even if they have no grasp of what technically underlays it. Many find a Ferrari gorgeous without knowing anything about metal quality in their brake rotors, etc. But how is it that everyone knows that Ferrari’s are good, better than say Chevettes, when Ferrari hardly advertises?

Perhaps furniture-making, building, and woodworking needs their own equivalents of Car and Driver magazine?

Fourth challenge, the ocean of media that we’re all swimming in conditions – or should I say bludgeons? – the audience to a shallow mindset obsessed with surface superficiality. The glut of home re-modeling shows, ‘Total Makover’ and ‘pimp your ride’ type of programming, where the focus is entirely on how something looks, and not how it is made or why it is made, or any look into any matter of real technical depth. It’s not what something IS, it’s what something looks like. If you can’t do it, fake it. Rooms, clothes, cars, houses, are to be put on, tried for size, and then thrown off, dumped, when the next exciting thing comes along. And repeat.

To be proffering an approach to building which is about integrity of structure, built-in non-obsolescence, subtle quality, natural humble materials, and so forth, is a bit akin to sending smoke signals against the digital flow. People might notice the smoke signal, but unless you can convince them to pay attention to it for a while, or they are curious for some reason, it is unlikely that the meaning will be grasped. Everything is packaged, from our soft food to our cruise ship getaway packages, for easy consumption. How does one get noticed without recourse to joining in the game, shouting for attention in the crowd of hucksters? Must it all be reduced down to sound bites?

Writing this blog is one way to get the message out of course, but like getting featured in Fine Woodworking magazine (or the like), the audience here is mostly other wood nuts I suspect. My kind of people to be sure. I like sharing my passion for this work with others, and it is very rewarding for me to turn other people on to the stuff I like, so the question is, how to turn on the client to the work? I cling somewhat to the Field of Dreams idea that if I build it they will come: the problem isn’t with the building of it, the problem is that almost nobody notices I built it!

I think about this stuff all the time. As Gandhi said, I do believe, one ought to become the change which one wants to see in the world. That means, if I want to see the sort of architecture I believe in, then I ought to be building it in some form or another or at very least working towards that in some manner. It won’t get built if I sit around watching videos and drinking beer, or simply talking about building it.

Another comment which I long ago took to heart is by the Japanese Buddhist priest Takuan, who said that if one follows the way, one must abandon the world. If one will not abandon the world, then one must abandon the way. I paraphrase, clumsily. By “world”, in this case, the reference is to the status quo. It’s not an oxymoron to say that as far as making things goes, I am into a form of progressive conservatism. You know, its like Back to the Future – maybe I need a DeLorean?

The only way that change is going to happen, as far as the carpentry goes, is to keep studying, keep improving, keep working to make connections, literal and figurative, keep promoting these traditional methods of building, in general and at least so far as in the way I choose to approach it as a maker. I believe there are people out there who will agree with my sense of what is beautiful and interesting, who will agree with the idea of making things to last, to have create a built world worth passing on to future generations, and who will therefore want me to make something for them. The economy is a disaster at the moment, and times are tough all round, but I remain committed to my dreams. In the meantime, I continue to make speculative pieces, develop my business and try to get my name out there as best I can.

On the slate for the next while will be constructing a Japanese screen, or tsuitate. I will likely do a build thread on that. I will be making a Japanese hip roof model for a talk I am scheduled to do in June, and will probably detail some of that process here on the blog.

And as for the French carpentry study – recently, I saw the movie “Julie and Julia” the other day, about a blogger who decides to spend a year working her way through Julia Child’s famous French cookbook, one recipe at a time, and that got me thinking….. While I have no intention to work on every piece in the Mazerolle book, much less do one a day (an impossibility, at least for me, at this juncture) I have decided that it would be worthwhile goal, as a study, to work on drawing as many models as possible, and to perhaps even build a few as scale models. There is so much to be learned there, and every model seems to present a different piece of the puzzle. I want to solve the puzzle and I want to tell y’all about it.

The scale models would also help me when trying to explain and show this sort of work to clients. I’m going to approach this methodically, starting with the basics in the book, and work my way through all the roof drawings, a good number of the staircases, and a good number of the curvilinear examples (truly, the final frontier). I will start a new thread for those models, provisionally called “Following Mazerolle”.

Just thought I’d put it out there, to let you all know what I’m thinking at this juncture, and to let you know where the path is leading me at the moment.

Thanks for dropping by the Carpentry Way today.

One thought on “Is it the Way or the World?

  1. I can asure you are not the only one out there with those ideas and ideals.

    Yesterday I found some gems in an old bookstore in town. Amazingly they where not overpriced and then the friendly old lady even gave me a discount because she 'wanted me to have them', after I told her about my interests.
    On the first page of the four volume 'Audels Carpenters and Builders guide' it reads:

    “When we build, let us think we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such works as our descendants will thank us for; and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come that these stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, 'See! This our father did for us'.”
    -John Ruskin.

    I also found a beautiful book about Western carpentry lay out.
    'The Art and Science of Carpentry made easy' by William E.Bell 1858
    In his introduction he writes about his annoyances of low quality work, the importance of training true experience as in apprenticeship and the importance of understanding basic geometry.

    (Btw: no sawhorses in this book only roof structures, arches, towers and bridges.)

Anything to add?