Mud and Sticks

As a counterpoint to yesterday’s post about the importance of precision, I thought I should bring in something in rather stark contrast to that. You see, while I strongly believe in precision as a requirement for making strong joinery, I also believe that if the only governing factor in one’s work – in my work – was precision, then the work would most likely also be imbued with a hefty dollop of sterility as well. For, if the hand of man (or woman!) is absent, then the ‘perfect’ surfaces and perfect connections leave little space for the human, and the possibilities that imperfection suggests – and thus is engendered, it seems to me, a certain coldness. I think many today who inhabit urban locales often find that too much of their environment has been taken over by the glass, chrome, stainless steel, and other perfect surfaces – all products of the mechanistic culture – and thus many crave some hint or touch of the natural or hand-hewn in their environments, as an antidote for the sterility.

Some may wonder too how I can advocate for precision in woodwork on the one hand, and yet be against automated timber cutting machine like a Hundegger. Aren’t they one and the same? No. They are on a continuum it seems to me, and I choose not to slide along it to the end involving full automation. While on the one hand I recognize that tests on joinery cut by machine have demonstrated the superior strength of certain machine-cut joints – due to the surface profiles having a reduction of stress risers (a topic for another day), I also recognize that the timber cutting machine not only destroys the thinking, creative carpenter, but it really has a much narrower range of expression than what the human hand can bring to the work. It can also be said that certain machines, like 5-axis CNC routers, can do certain kinds of work with high precision that are extremely difficult to accomplish by hand.

So many contrary perspectives. F. Scott Fitzgerald, the American novelist, wrote, “the test of a firstrate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I take that to heart. I think that, reflecting back on my posts about phi, I think there is some golden mean balance between technical precision and perfect surfaces, and the irregularity and charm of the touch of the human hand expressed in the work. I strive to attain that balance, a point of tension between opposing modes, in the things I build. While I cannot always claim to be successful in that regard, such is the underlying impetus to the creative process for me.

I reflect as well, in relation to the tension between what David Pye called the workmanship of risk and the workmanship of certainty when I think of some comments that a great Japanese temple carpenter Nishioka has made. In Azby-Brown’s book, “Japanese Carpentry: The Secrets of a Craft” (linked at the right of this page), he notes the exchange between Nishioka and four senior carpenters, all of whom stood stiffly at attention while Nishioka rebuked them:

Their crime: someone had miscalculated a few millimeters on a hip rafter. The difference was hardly noticeable, even close up, but since the beam was designed to achieve its perfect form only after several years of sagging and shrinking, this small error would be magnified and possibly distort the whole. Fumed Nishioka, ‘They’ll laugh at me. They’ll say, “That’s not the way a hip rafter should look!’ And I won’t be around to defend myself.

Clearly, Nishioka cared greatly about executing the work to a high point of precision and fitment, and, definitely, with an eye to the future – way into the future. In fact, at the Yakushi Temple, Nishioka undertook the rebuilding of the West Pagoda. There are two pagodas in the building compound, placed in axial symmetry to one another, a clue as to the Chinese design for the site design.

The old pagoda, the East one, was originally built in about 2 years. The reconstruction of the West pagoda took 7 years. An interesting point is that Nishioka made the new pagoda slightly taller than the old east one. Why? Well, thinking ahead hundreds of years, he realized that given time, gravity, and wood shrinkage, the new pagoda would end up at the same height as the old one ultimately. Now that’s foresight and a deep understanding of structure, and speaks of a great dignity of thought and respect for future generations! If we had even 10% of that sentiment here in the West I can only imagine how much more satisfying our built environment might be.

After the West pagoda was complete, it must be said that it was perfect in every way. Nishioka made an interesting comment about that. He said that if he stood in center of the first floor of the new tower he could look out through the grilled window openings, and through the perfectly planed and shaped bars and observe the scene in the distance. It was a fine view, yet he noted that when he stood in the old pagoda, same spot, and looked out through the grill-bar divided opening, this time the bars were irregular (the koshi were riven pieces that had been hewn with an axe originally), and he found the view so much more enjoyable. The feeling of the space was much more satisfying for Nishioka in the old place, despite its imperfections. So despite the precision in reconstruction that Nishioka was able to masterfully oversee in the new pagoda, he recognized the beauty of the imperfect and felt that something is lost with the drive to make everything perfect. I think that’s an interesting lesson.

I have worked at extreme ends of the construction world. Today I want to share with you a building that I constructed which would be at the most humble end. This building is constructed of peeled fir poles, wire-tied together, and with cob walls. Cob is a mix of straw, clay, and sand, and is usually mixed with the feet on a tarp. Materials do not get much more humble than sticks and mud. This project occupied my previous girlfriend and I for 6 months of daily labour. We had no money to speak of – this entire project was realized for $4000. It is very much in the spirit of ‘craftsmanship of necessity’. We had no electricity or running water, and I did all my work with hand tools, of the most primitive sort.

I bought a 1-ac. lot on Gabriola when land was a bit cheaper than today. I erected a Japanese timber frame shed at the top of the property, and down at the bottom of the property, wedged in the cedars and next to the fen, I started to put up a wired-pole building, intending to use it for wood storage:

Here’s how the building was initially shaping up, most of the poles having been culled from my property:

Then I got together with a woman (not my current wife), and she convinced me to turn the pole building I had started into a cob house. I resisted for a while, this not being in line with my dreams for the place, but, being in a relationship of course engenders compromise, so I acquiesced. We started in on the project in March, and the first order of business was to create a foundation. Having neither rocks on hand or the time to do a dry laid stone foundation, which would have been my preferred option, we ordered a bunch of concrete cinder blocks from Home Depot, which we dry laid on a bed of drain rock:

I had to scrounge far and wide for materials, which I dragged out of the bush and accumulated piece by piece:

The poles were peeled by drawknife, then wired together using a Japanese wire knot technique, and in the odd spot I also added galvanized lag bolts, for which I pre-drilled with a brace and bit:

Once the pole structure was up, though incomplete, the cob work could be started. this proceeds very slowly, about 4″ added per day, as that is as high as it could be piled before it would begin to slough from its own weight. The dryer the mix the better, though it was far more exhausting to mix a stiff load of cob by foot:

Little by little, as the summer wore on, the walls went up:

While my girlfriend concentrated her efforts primarily on the cobbing work, I spent most of my time on the roof, trying to cobble together the poles into a sound structure. She cobbed, I cobbled:

On the inside of the wall pictured above, I laid up a Rumsford style fireplace directly in the cob, and lined the floor and back with firebrick:

As you can see, I chose an ellipse for the form of the top of the fireplace opening.

Despite the crude pole work, I couldn’t help but do a small amount of timber frame work on the small extension we added so as to have a space for bathing;

Another view, here you may notice some unusual slots in the beams – these are for a special kind of Japanese corner brace, yet to be fitted:

In the above picture you can also see the use of horizontal nuki in the frame, wedges yet to be installed.

Here’s a look at the opposite side of the building, where the main entrance was to be located (right where you see the sawhorse):

A close up of the pole work and use of bowed logs:

I made the window frames out of red cedar, assembled them on a pair of sawhorses, and then they were keyed into the wall structure:

Once the windows go in, the cob addition rate accelerated, partly because the windows occupy a lot of space, and partly because the cob walls taper from thick at the bottom (about 18″) to thin (about 8″) at the top:

A view of the same location from inside the building:

Gradually the cob wall climbs to the plate and the roof structure fleshes out:

Above the main window, I put in a couple of vents, done -crudely – in the style of the Japanese shitaji-mado, which is a wall opening showing the internal rustic composition of the wall, namely sticks:

Since cob building is monolithic, it is not ‘wattle and daub’ (though the word ‘daub’ and ‘cob’ have the same meaning and, probably, common etymology), the sticks in our vent opening were simply applied on and cobbed over, and were not actually representative of the wall internals. Still, they looked nice when all was said and done.

So as not to bog this post down with too many photos, I’ll save the conclusion of this for next time. Hope you enjoyed!  –> on to part II

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