This One Rings a Bell (16)

I’m sure a lot of regular readers of his blog may have been wondering as to the status of the Japanese bell tower project I was so earnestly designing in the fall of last year. I’ve had a few emails querying the progress on that job, and said I would post something soon enough.

The drawing consumed hundreds of hours of my time and pushed my technical drawing to new heights and limits – much of that due to issues with SketchUp, which is not especially well-designed for double curvilinear work. Other problems were discovered in my Japanese layout texts, and it took me quite a while to convince myself that the texts were wrong and not my drawings. Anyway, in the end I conquered the problems and submitted the drawings to the client as .jpegs, the same pictures shown in the previous post in this thread.

Then the client asked me to put a cut list together, and given that the tower needed some 15,000 board feet of timber, all of it custom sizes, that cut list generation took me several days of work.

Then the client had me communicate with a sawyer in Alaska and indicated it might be better if I looked after all the material sourcing.

Then something happened, I have no idea what. I suspect the price of the material, at @$5/board foot, was more than the client was expecting, in relation to the volume of wood required, which he may not have also been expecting. Suddenly the client wanted to “shop around” some more and talk to other mills. Perhaps he hoped to find cheaper wood. Then the client was talking about taking a trip to Ketchican AK to visit the mills, an idea I had floated months earlier, and then he wasn’t talking about it.

The client asked me to submit drawings to his engineer, which required I clean them up and convert them to .dwg format, and that took some time.

With the drawings submitted, I asked the client about coming to satisfactory contractual arrangements. He asked me to draft a contract proposal. Again, a few more days of work. I submitted the contract proposal, and waited. And waited.

A few weeks later I called the client to ask him what was happening in regards to the contract. He hummed and hawed and said he had read it and was “thinking it over” but with “so much on the go right now” he was feeling “frozen” about the whole thing but assured me he would be getting in touch. He said he was looking to get the drawings through the building department “first”, and that the engineer was “busy with other things”. Okay, whatever.

By this point the Ming inspired table project had taken flight so I decided to give that my full attention and let the bell tower client sort things out.

In mid-December, a few days before Christmas, I suddenly got an email from the engineer asking me to submit the complete drawing again, in .dwg format. I thought that things must be moving along, so I sent the file. Then the client contacted me and asked for photos of a bell tower that had served as a point of inspiration for the tower design. He said he’d lost the ones I’d sent earlier. I sent him the photos and gave a gentle nudge in regards to the contract negotiation.

Then just a few days before Christmas came an email from the client thanking me for my work:

“Regarding a construction agreement for the Bell Tower, I have wracked my brain over this and have been unable to imagine how we might work together successfully given the complexity of the project and your considerable distance from _______. So for now I have decided to try to work with a nearby Japanese daiku who just recently came to my attention. You may know him since he also worked on the Ellison project. His name is ______. If this doesn’t work out, I will again try to figure some way you could work with us. One never knows what the future will bring.

Again, thanks for your formidable effort in designing the Bell Tower. We shall be forever thankful.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!!


“Merry Christmas” he said….

That was quite a stunning and entirely unexpected email to receive, one of those I can’t believe this moments, familiar to all who are self employed.

I was doubly stunned because I had done all the drawing work based on a very clear conversation with the client in the Fall of 2010 where I told him that the only way I could be involved in the project would be if I fabricated the tower here in Massachusetts. When he gave me the signal that that would work for him, I did the drawing work for a fixed low price of $1500. I felt it was a fair exchange at the time and told myself that even if the project didn’t materialize, the chance to draw such a structure would be reward enough. I still feel like I gained so much from designing a very complex Japanese traditional structure – I don’t think there are too many non-Japanese carpenters who could have designed it – and very few on this continent.

I’m really not sure quite what happened, however I suspect that the client was never really comfortable with me fabricating the structure out here, out of his daily purview. I got the sense he wanted more control and oversight of things. He wasn’t very trusting I guess. Many timber frame structures are shop-built at distance from the site where they will be later erected, so it was nothing unusual to me.

So, bummer, but I still view it as a gain overall. I was frankly shocked at the way it devolved, though I must admit that the warning flags had been present from the outset. I made further communications with the client advising him as to copyright regulations and unauthorized use of my drawings, and then received a reply which clarified much about the client’s way of being, which, upon further reflection, has led me to feel most pleased to have no further involvement with that person and his project.

So, I’m sorry there will be no more continuation of this thread, but you never know what might happen and it’s possible another similar project will come along one day. If it does, I am very well-prepared!

I learned some new things too about clarifying contractual arrangements and perhaps being a little more careful when the project is such an attractive glittering jewel to me that I overlook signals in the communication with the client that should have led me to a more prudent course of action. Live and learn.

In my experience so far, the jobs that have gone well have involved a direct personal connection with the client. In the case of the bell tower, the client was someone I never met in person, spoke to only a couple of times on the phone, and had always unnerved me with his terse and inconsistent communication style. For me now, such things are clear warning signs.

I have developed great relationships with the clients I have had thus far, and this experience with the bell tower design process, despite the unfortunate outcome, has only served to cement a conviction in my heart as to how important a successful partnership with the client is to the outcome.

12 thoughts on “This One Rings a Bell (16)

  1. Very unfortunate news you have for us today. I, personally, was looking very forward to reading about this project. For one, it would of helped me in my plans for my own major project.
    However, I understand your frustrations very much. As do many of your readers I am sure. Drawing on my own experiences, I think many of us have been through the ringers with a client such as this. My own personal experience has to do with a set of drawings that I, unfortunately did not pay enough attention to the copywrite principle. After completing the drawings and all related articles for a certain A-Frame structure, the client withdrew his request. Unfortunately, he had already got the drawings, and eventually put them to use. As you said Chris, Live and Learn. But that was when I was young and foolish, now I am older, still a little foolish sometimes 🙂
    In any event, I would like to congradulate you on your accomplishment with this particular venture. Even if you do not get to build it, you have achieved a great deal.
    On to bigger and better projects Chris.

  2. Hi Chris

    Unfortunate outcome indeed. I think many of us go through this same experience with prospective clients and their projects. I'm still learning my way through this process as well. Look on the bright side, it was an experience you have learned from and Spring is just days away and with it new prospects will come.

  3. I had a similar experience with 'star wars' George Lucas, shopping around my design. I asked him how he liked having some faceless person in a basement in China ripping off his copyright of the film and producing zillions of copies to market? Odd, unlike his usual well spoken self as portrayed in the media, he seemed at a loss for words, unable to give an answer. People like George and most possibly the fellow you describe, their retribution for their deeds is that they have to live with themselves.

    No doubt the sincere work that you put into the tower, it will manifest for you in a positive way. Believing such is one of the little encouragements that you need to give to yourself as an artist and craftsman.

  4. Thanks for the comments everyone!


    I also hope to have the opportunity to engage in similarly challenging drawing work in upcoming months, and you can be sure I'll detail it here on the blog.

    RS Johnson,

    as for the copyright principle, it has little to do with possession. Copyright is inherent to the creator of the work, and is granted automatically. If derivative or imitative works are produced without your permission and are demonstrably based on the drawings you have provided, then you have a clear case of copyright infringement. At least that is what is clear to me from looking through the US copyright office website.

    Dale, thanks. Yes, Spring is one the way and I look forward to new challenges.


    sorry to hear of your experience with Lucas. I also hope the positive energy I put into the design, and all I learned from the process, will stand me well in future endeavors, and I am a bit wiser too about the value of the drawing work and won't be selling it so cheaply next time, nor will it be done without firm contractual conditions being established. I've learned a lot about copyright since that event.

    I'm actually skeptical, given what I know of the complexity of that tower, that the client will be able to get anyone to reproduce it exactly. I can;t imagine a carpenter who could actually design a structure like that would simply take my drawings and start working from them. If you can design something that complex, it seems to me inevitable that the designer would want to make changes to suit their own idiosyncrasies. The drawings didn't include dimensions, slopes, and other critical information as well, so reverse engineering will eat a fair number of hours I expect.

    I suspect a cheap(er) facsimile will be the eventual outcome. The other buildings on the client's site are all plywood and stick frame structures trying to look like traditional buildings, if that helps paint a picture…


  5. Good Morning,
    i also love carpentry, in particular japanese carpentry. Do you know my blogs? 1- and 2- I have a very good book on japanese carpentry (in english) prefated by Walter Gropius. If you want some scanned pages, please send me a e.mail to In this moment i dont remember the name of that boob because i am non in my study room. OK?
    Excuse me for my rudimentary english.
    Fausto Baiocco (Architect in Ancona, Italy)

  6. Sorry to hear of your experience Chris. Live and learn I guess. Still, its better to live in trust and be cheated occasionally than to to give in to mistrust.

    Harlan Barnhart

  7. Chris

    This is very sad news. I really enjoyed seeing the drawings and seeing the whole structure grow and evolve. I think a great many of us learned and enjoyed the bell tower.


  8. Ouch! Like RS Johnson said many of us have had similar experiences. Mine (although not as dramatic) involved making custome molding (that I know did not exist anywhere else) for a rotted wood project only to be told he was getting the product somewhere else. My fault for only going on a verbal agreement. I now have a lot of fancy tomatoe stakes!! I loved the design process of the bell tower eventhough I can't follow the build.

  9. Fausto,

    a comment clearly of spam nature, but your heart is in the right place, so I'll allow it. Good luck with your blogging!


    I agree completely.


    your sentiments are much appreciated.


    I hope you've gotten some decently mileage out of those tomato stakes. The school of hard knocks can have a varied tuition..


  10. hey, chris…just checking in with you again, i missed this post as things were pretty crazy in nihon around the time you posted it, sorry to hear but glad you were out before things got weirder…i have been a couple of rounds like this and am slowly learning…as above, not giving in to the spirit of mistrust is important…rock on.

Anything to add?