‘Hand-Hewn’ vs. Machine Made: Comparing Historic Tool Finishes To Modern Methods – Part 1

Creating period wood finishes for film and television scenery always involves a certain amount of subjective and creative interpretation. Usually the wood surfaces are finished to a level having more to do with the time period’s distance from modern times more than how old the set would look in relation to the time of the story. So usually anything set in ancient Roman times looks like it’s been through several hundred sandstorms, attacked with a grinder and sand blasted until the early growth rings are worn away from the late growth rings. There were certainly buildings that were very old at that time but there were plenty that looked much newer than the photo below.

weathered wood showing sunken early growth rings

weathered wood showing sunken early growth rings

I was working on a period film several years ago and I noticed that one of the other designers had called out the wood surfaces of their set to be finished as ‘hand-hewn’. I knew the surfaces would have actually been surfaced to a finer finish than a rough hewn beam and I asked why it needed to be so rough. They answered that being pre-machine age, other than furniture which would have required lots of sandpaper, they wouldn’t have had the ability to give the wood a smooth finish. I said that not only was that not true,  in many ways hand tools gave a superior finish to the tools of the machine age, and they had something better than sandpaper.  They laughed until they realized I wasn’t kidding.

Let’s take timber framing. When most people think of a timber frame building they tend to think of the wood looking like this:

fachwerk3

16th century German timber frame or Fachwerk house.

The wood didn’t look anything like this when it was built. The faces of the wood probably looked more like this (minus the checking or cracks):

restored German Fachwerk building from the mid 1600's.

restored German Fachwerk building from the mid 1600’s.

 

Partly because of this trend toward artistic license, and not understanding period construction which leads to misinterpreting the photographic research available (such as the photo below), wood buildings get designed and built with anachronistic finishes.

 

fachwerk2

The timbers of this fachwerk building were originally as smooth as those in the previous example. Many years later the faces were scored to act as a grip for the
plaster stucco-like finish that was applied at one time to ‘modernize’ it, much like some old interior brick walls were scored to accept plaster.

 

Even the building industry can take some of the blame. Here’s a photo of a popular flooring with a simulated jack plane finish. The plane had a curved blade that was used to quickly take a plank down before being planed smooth to its final thickness. A board with tool marks like this would not likely have been used in a decent dwelling.

fake jack plane tool marks

 

 

Today it’s hard to imagine doing all the work involved in processing wood from logs to a finished form without power machinery. How could a hand tool created a finish smoother than a modern tool, much less sandpaper? first of all, the way the tools work today is much different than the way period tools work. And, because it was  a much more labor-intensive process, they didn’t finish surfaces that wouldn’t be seen.

Let’s start with the big stuff. The process of taking logs from a tree to a piece of framing timber in the European tradition in the 16th and 17th centuries involved a number of types of hatchets.

Here’s a video by Christopher Schwarz on the use of hewing axes by Plimoth Plantation’s master joiner, Peter Follansbee:

 

 

By the 18th century the process involved not only the hewing axes and saws but an adze to square the sides followed by a broadax to smooth the sides, and possibly a drawknife to remove the axe and adze marks.

Here is a great little video by Ken Koons explaining the process:

 

 

Once the mortises and tenons were cut they were cleaned up and smoothed using chisels and slicks, which were basically large chisels meant to be pushed by hand rather than hit with a mallet. The photo below is of the largest slick in my collection. Made in the late 1860’s in Ohio, it has a 3 inch wide blade. This big blade is certainly closer to a chisel than an axe as you can see from the closeup of the blade as it shaves off a sliver of my thumbnail. The blade will leave a very smooth surface.

 

A three inch wide framing slick from the mid 1800's

A three inch wide framing slick from the mid 1800’s

framing slick2

 

Here is a short video by John Neeman of a framing slick in use, you can see how quickly and cleanly it cuts a tenon.

 

 

 

Cut timber surfaces were as smooth as their maker wanted, or needed them to be. Here are two photos of the Daniel Trabue cabin near Lexington, KY. The cabin was restored some years ago and returned to it’s 1797 appearance. The clapboard which had been applied later had protected most of the logs from decay. Notice the tool marks on the exterior logs. Now look at the second picture of an interior wall on the second floor. Here the German maker has signed his name with an 18th century cipher. Notice how clear the signature is. It was made with a traditional crayon made of beeswax and powdered vermillion used for marking out work while building. The crayon was found during the restoration, tucked above the front door lintel. The clarity is only possible because the wood surface is so smooth.

front door of the Daniel Trabue cabin

front door of the Daniel Trabue cabin

18th century cipher of the cabin's builder

18th century cipher of the cabin’s builder

 

Next week, in Part 2 of this post I’ll talk about and show you how traditional hand tools can actually create a finish that’s superior to their modern day counterparts and why our ancestors didn’t use, or need sandpaper to surface wood. Also, you’ll learn why every recreation of Noah’s Ark you’ve ever seen is dead wrong.

Designing Without A Ruler – “By Hand & Eye” Explores Designing With Dividers.

By Hand and Eye

There are a lot of design books published every year and occasionally a few get written that are actually worth buying. By Hand & Eye is one of those. It’s a book that delivers where a lot of others have gone and failed. Written in an easy, nonsense-free style, the book sets out to explain the “art” of designing with proportions rather than numbers. I’ve found that a lot of books on design tend to read more like a doctoral thesis than something that will actually explain the material in easily understandable language. By Hand & Eye succeeds because  authors Walker and Tolpin are actually practitioners of their craft rather than just writers. It’s like taking a film course from someone who’s actually made a film rather than just talk about it.

Lost Art Press is a relatively new publisher who’s books are primarily aimed at the traditional woodworking crowd but you’ll be missing out on some gems if you assume their books are only useful to furniture makers. Their books are quality products both in their content and their construction. These are not the cheap perfect-bound high-acid tomes that are the product of most publishers and will end up disintegrating on you shelves. (With that in mind, If you do happen to be a furniture and book lover, and the name Andre Roubo means anything to you, you need to must check this page out immediately.)

Jim Tolpin was the most familiar to me as I own a number of his other books, but George Walker is relatively new to the publishing world. George writes a blog called Design Matters which is a record of his journey in the search for understanding what makes for good design. He and Tolpin met several years ago and found they were both on the same path but had approached it from different directions; Walker from a preference for traditional furniture and Tolpin from a more modern bent. Both were determined to discover the “magic formula” that meant the difference between a chair or building being handsome or ugly.

What they discovered is that numbers don’t matter. In fact much of the time they just get in the way. Most of the treasured icons of furniture and architecture were made before the measured rule was in use. It was the divider that ruled rather than the inch or foot. And this system of working when far beyond architecture and furniture.

The exercises they outline are especially helpful if you have only worked on a computer as you’ll be forced to think purely about the design process without the intrusion of a ‘digital helper’. By learning to think proportionally you’ll approach design from a much less restricted footing. A lot of times computers just get in the way of good design instead of enhancing it. Once you stop using numbers and just concentrating on ratios you’ll realize you can make things much easier for yourself.

The book are also a great introduction to traditional geometry and proportion if you haven’t really studied it before or a great refresher if it’s been a while since you exchanged a mouse for a compass. They are developing a website for online access to exercises in the book and you can download some sample animations of the exercises from this web page. You can also read more about the book and download a sample chapter on this page.

While the book does concentrate on furniture design the information translates to everything else in the design world as most of the principals are found in classic architecture.

column cannon ship

For example, traditional sailing ships and cannon have a lot in common with the classical orders in that they were all based on a proportional system. This not only insured that all the moulds would be in proportion to the length of a cannon barrel but that the trunions would be sturdy enough to carry the barrels weight and that the wall thickness of the tube would handle the explosions of the powder charges. The ship’s rigging was based on a similar system. If you knew the mast length you could figure the thickness of the mast stays and the diameter of every piece of rigging on the ship, all without a calculator.

Even an entire structure could and can be built with just a stick and a piece of cordage. Take a hewn log cabin. The picture below illustrates the only drawing you need for a house. It would be scratched out in the dirt with the cord and stick using the cabin width as the main unit of measure.

cabin plan

The length is easily determined in relationship to the width, resulting in a 1.6 plan ratio. The wall height is determined as 5/8s of the width. The same length determines the diagonal roof line which results in a 3/8 rise or a 9/12 pitch. The intersections would be marked with stakes and used as a full size pattern for cutting the timbers and joints without having to use a bevel gauge or fuss with estimating angles.

By doubling the cord the lengths are easily halved into eighths. The metric system is good if you’re working with numbers, multiples of 2 are better if you are laying out a pattern with simple tools.

At one time or another you have probably struggled with a badly proportioned room without realizing it. If you have ever had to design a paneled room and find that it’s impossible to get the panel sizes to work out correctly from one wall to the next, it’s most likely because the room was designed to a bad proportion. Get the proportion of width to length wrong and period details become a nightmare.

By Hand & Eye is now available through the Lost Art Press website. You can order the book here for $34. Also, if you have a peculiar aversion to quality paper products there’s a digital edition available for $16.

Three Types Of Dividers You Should Own

Thinking that you don’t need dividers if you work on a computer is a real mistake. If you have a set of compasses, a set of proportional dividers and a set of equal-space dividers you can accomplish a lot of things in less time than it takes for you to start your computer.

Here are the three types of dividers you should have and where to find them.

Compasses / Dividers

There are a large number of compass and divider styles available. You need to find the best type to fit your work methods

There are a large number of compass and divider styles available. You need to find the best type to fit your work methods.

Dividers and compasses are both the easiest and cheapest of all three types to find and have the greatest variety. If you are just doing the exercises from the book or doing small design drawings on vellum you only need a typical compass. You don’t need to settle for a cheap office store/elementary school type, there are plenty of quality compasses available on Ebay for as little as a few dollars. Usually they will come as part of complete drafting sets, which aren’t a bad thing to own, but often you can find them as one-offs. A compass around 6″ in length should be all you need. If you are feeling like drawing something larger, you’ll need a beam compass. I own one like this which is the best I have ever found. It’s called a Feranco Beam Compass and it was made by a small firm in Cincinnati. They’re out of business but you can find them second hand. Or, you can use a metal straight edge with a set of trammel points like these.

Proportional Dividers

proportional dividers come in a number of styles, most will work for design except for the type manufactured for nautical calculations.

proportional dividers come in a number of styles, most will work for design except for the type manufactured for nautical calculations.

These are definitely more expensive than a set of dividers but are a huge time saver if you are trying to scale a drawing to a different size or want to design to a giver proportion. The cost for a set of these will run anywhere from $30 to $300 depending on the vintage and make. The pair on the left are a 1810 pair made in London. The legs are of iron which are dove-tailed into the German silver body. The tolerances are very tight on these dividers and they stay put when you set them which is often a problem with cheaper dividers. The vintage sets have points which are triangular in shape and come to a very sharp point, which they need to be. Dull points require tuning with a very fine file or emery cloth. This should be avoided if possible because the accuracy depends on the lengths of the legs being a definitive ratio to each other. The modern sets have round pins which come to a point. The advantage of this being that if the dividers are dropped the pins can be replaced, something impossible with traditional sets.

The vintage sets came in two types: standard or second quality in which the indicators ‘Lines’ and ‘Circles’ are engraved on the front, and first quality in which besides these the indicators ‘Plans’ and ‘Solids’ are engraved on the reverse side. For 2D line work you only need the first two indicators. Also, when you are looking for a used set, be sure that one of the indicators does not say ‘Speed”. These are a pair made for nautical use and won’t be very useful for our purposes.

The better quality sets had designations for solids and planes which are for volumetric calculations

The better quality sets had designations for solids and planes which are for volumetric calculations

When you set the dividers to a ratio, the difference in distance between the longer and shorter legs will mirror this. Set the ‘Line’ scale to 8 and then spread the long set of legs along a straight line. The distance between the short legs will be 1/8th the distance. The same method works with circles. Set the scale to , say 5, and them spread the long legs across the diameter of a circle. You ‘walk’ the legs around the circumference of the circle to divide it into 5 equal segments.

The '10' setting under circles gives you the ratio for the Golden Proportion.

The ’10’ setting under circles gives you the ratio for the Golden Proportion.

If you like designing to the Golden Proportion, you can set the Circle scale to ’10’ and you will have a proportion of 1.618 between the two sets of legs.

Equal Space Dividers

Equal space divider come in two sizes: 6" and 12"

Equal space divider come in two sizes: 6″ and 12″

This type of divider is the most expensive of the three, but for scaling or proportion work from drawings or photographs they are impossible to beat. These are the dividers I use the most of all I own and if I lost them I’d have to replace them immediately, despite the steep price. I bought my set decades ago for $130, new now they list for $350. Ouch. My 12″ set were handmade my Alteneder & Sons in Philadelphia and are collectors items. You may get lucky and find a pair on Ebay. New, a 12″ pair runs from $400 to $500. I’d recommend finding a second-hand pair but make sure the tips are not bent or the accuracy will be nil. These dividers are sometimes referred to as 10-space or 11-point dividers. Check the Ebay sites in Britain and Canada. I’ve seen them show up there as well.

DSC_0044

With these dividers you can very quickly divide a space into as many as 10 units. I used to use them mainly for laying out stairs or room paneling but now they are irreplaceable for scaling off a photograph or drawing while simultaneously drafting on the computer. Trying to scale the material from the computer screen while doing this would be much slower. For the times I do have an image in digital form and need to scale from the screen, I’ll flip a piece of acetate over the monitor to keep the sharp teeth from scratching the screen. It’s fun to watch people with expensive monitors see me do this and gasp in horror.

The Importance Of Locations

I’ve always thought the “A film by” credit was unwarranted. Take any film, imagine it being made with a different cinematographer, editor, composer, production designer, costumer, much less a different cast, and you’ll have a completely different film no matter who’s directing it.

There are a number of films you could say the same about if you had a different location scout. Sometimes a location affects the look of the entire film. It can dictate the look of the stage sets. It can set the psychological mood of the story. A good location scout can bring so much to a film that very few people will ever realize.

The Seaside Community in Seagrove Beach, Florida which served as the main setting for the film The Truman Show.

The Seaside Community in Seagrove Beach, Florida which served as the main setting for the film The Truman Show.

In 2000 I was working on one picture where the head of locations was trying to find a house that set up the story. He found three houses that he believed would all work for the setting. The director mulled them over but said he wanted to see more choices. Every week he and is team would scour the town looking for the perfect house, talking to the owners, doing a full photo survey of each which consisted of photographing the house in and out, processing the film with 4 copies of each frame ( this was pre-digital) and then taping the photos into manilla folders including the long taped-together panorama shots.

These folders soon filled file boxes. A lot of them. Someone from the studio called up wondering how we could have spent over $10,000 in film processing. We told them to come look for themselves.

Playing a hunch, the locations manager went back to the director with another folder. Exasperated, he said he had found one last house that he really felt was the right one. The director looked at the photos, nodded and said condescendingly, “Why did it take you so long to find it?” The locations manager flipped the folder over and pointed at some notes on the back with a date. “It didn’t”, he said. “This is one of the original three houses I showed you two months ago.”

Criterion has released a new edition of the 1997 film, The Ice Storm, (a film I didn’t work on). In this video from the Criterion site, Production Designer Mark Friedberg talks about the importance of finding just the right locations that would convey the psychological picture of each of the families.

A “Sweet” and Cheap Architectural Detail Resource

Yes, I thought it was time for a bad pun. The “sweet” resource I’m talking about is the Sweet’s Indexed Catalogue of Building Construction. Not the modern version, mind you, but the earlier volumes. In particular I’m talking about the first one ever printed, in 1906.

Reprint copy of the first edition of Sweet’s

I found my copy in a used bookstore about 25 years ago, back when 3rd Street in Santa Monica was still a sleepy street lined with great used bookstores instead of chain outlets. It was a 1970’s reprint of the original, in great condition. But the most striking thing about it was how different it was from it’s modern relatives. This book was printed for people who actually drew details, and both wanted and needed to know how things were built.

Most of the products pictured throughout the book had either detailed drawings or photographs of the items, with dimensions and cutaways showing how they operated and how they were integrated into the architecture of the building. This was a far cry from the ‘updated’ version, void of details, which was meant only to be a means of calling out the correct ‘part number’ on a drawing rather than giving the architect a full understanding of the specifics.

The original volume, if you can find a copy, has a green cover. The reprints will have a tan cover. The most useful ones for our work run from 1906 to the 1930’s. They aren’t easy to find but Google has solved that problem. Among the millions of books they have digitized for their ebook site are the 1906 and 1907 editions of Sweet’s. The digital editions aren’t as crisp as a printed copy, but the details you’ll glean from them are priceless. You can download it as a pdf and have it on your computer whenever you want to refer to it. Here is some of what you’ll find:

A sample of a typical advert featuring both photos and detailed sections

details of furnace and ducting showing how the duct and registers are attached to the wall framing

One of hundreds of photos showing details such as trim, ironwork and tile.

Detail of large furnace for an office or apartment building

An early central vacuum system

And here’s proof that people had MUCH bigger heads 100 years ago

Another good source in Google Books is a magazine from about the same time period called The American Builder which has some good articles with details. This ad for a drafting course is great. Considering an average draftsman would have made about 35 to 40 cents an hour at that time, $100 a week would have been top dollar.

Graphic Standards From Across The Pond

Here in the US, the book we primarily turn to for all questions of an architectural nature is the AIA Architectural Graphic Standards. For our work, the third and fifth editions are the most informative because they were printed at a time when architects had to draw everything rather than order most elements pre-made. If you happen to be drawing up European architecture, though, it won’t do you much good.

In the rest of the world, the architectural book most people turn to for similar answers is Neufert’s Architectural Data. Soon to be released in it’s 40th edition, the book is printed in 18 languages and is the architectural Bible in the metric world.

Ernst Neufert

Ernst Neufert worked at the Bauhaus as chief architect under Walter Gropius and later taught at the Bauhochschule until the Nazis closed it down in the early 1930’s. Seeing the need for a book that graphically laid out the architectural standards of the time, the book was first printed in 1936 and soon became a big success. Like Graphic Standards, the book is mainly a visual reference of architectural design and space standards for the European continent.

The book has had a number of English language editions, but the 1998 International is the most useful and easiest to use for the metrically-challenged. A large number of each edition are printed so it should be fairly easy to find used copies. You may have better luck throught British booksellers than second-hand businesses here.

kitchen standards from an earlier edition

In Britain, The book many people refer to is McKay’s Building Construction. Originally published in three volumes over an eight year period, the recent re-publication has combined them into one book. The books are so popular in England that when they briefly went out of print, students were encourage to beg, borrow or steal to get a set.

page on hand-cut stonework

Written by W.B. McKay, who was Head of the Building Department at both Leeds and Manchester colleges, the book is particularly useful for our business as it shows and describes exactly how the various methods of construction (wood and masonry ) are carried out. Filled with hundreds of beautiful perspective drawings by McKay, the book takes up where Graphic Standards ends.

Like Neufert’s, this can be had in used editions, the most recent from 2004. I found my copy in a bookstore in New Delhi, India, so you may have to search around. This is definitely a book that is worth the search.

If you’re in a hurry, you can order it here.

methods of forming masonry openings

The Classical Orders Are At Your Fingertips

So, you need to work out the proportions of Doric or Ionic column and you left your reference books at home. They must be on the web, right? Yes they are, if you look in the right place.

The Institute of Classical Architecture & Art has a nice on-line reference of the five orders that’s very clear and easy to use. You can download each of the pages as a PDF, or just bookmark the site for easy reference. You can find it here.

Each of the drawings is accompanied by a brief but thorough explanation of the order and the proportions and nomenclature for each of the components.

Now you don’t need to panic if you can’t remember how to lay out the entasis on that column.

Doric capitol and entablature

The Historic American Buildings Survey

The Historic American Buildings Survey, or HABS, was established in 1933 by Congress to  create work for unemployed architects and photographers during the Great Depression. Their mission was to document as many representative examples of American architectural structures as possible.

The teams of ‘delineators’ and photographers were hired from all over the country and would document every kind of structure, both public and private. The subjects ranging from well-known structures such as Jefferson’s home, Monticello, to simple barns and gas stations.  They didn’t know that much of what they recorded on vellum and in photos would be the only trace left of these structures as a great many of them were torn down over the preceding years.

In 1969, the Historical American Engineering Record was started as a ‘sister’ agency to record historic engineering and mechanical structures. The HABS / HAER collection, housed and maintained by the Library of Congress, now numbers over 500,000 drawings of 38,000 structures that range from Pre-Columbian ruins to the 20th century. Much of the collection is digitized and is available through the Library of Congress website.

Besides containing a wealth of architectural details, the collection is also a virtual museum of architectural drawing styles. As you look through the collection you can see how the drawing styles of the ‘delineators’ changes as the years pass. The very artistic ‘hand’ of the 1930’s and 40’s gives way to the more spare and graphic styles of the 60’s and 70’s. The collection continues to be added to each year and working on HABS surveys is a right-of-passage for many architectural students.

Below is a beautiful example of a drawing of hardware from 1940. The influence of that period’s drawing style in set design drawings will be obvious to those who have been in the industry since the pre-CAD days.

hardware from the La Rionda Cottage, New Orleans, 1940

Below, a drawing of details from an early Texas home, drawn in 1934.

Texas residence moulding details, 1933

Many of the structures documented were only photographed, but quite a few were documented with drawings as well. A typical survey may include as few as 3 or 4 sheets of drawings. Some contain as many as 20 to 30 sheets of drawings which include moulding and hardware details.

Some, like the 1883 Gruber Wagon Works in Pennsylvania were done as an ’emergency project’, executed when a structure was either in danger of being demolished, or in this case, on the verge of being dismantled and moved to another location. The Blue Marsh Lake Project in the area was the reason for this structure’s relocation.

Documented in 1974 by the HAER  in 11 sheets of drawings and 215 photographs, the wagon factory was a rare existing example of late 19th century American industrial age. It contained most of the original belt-driven machinery, still in their original locations.

1974 HAER survey plan of the Gruber Wagon Works

 

 

Longitudinal Section

photograph of forge area

photograph of workbench

As a reference and research site for our line of work, it’s pretty hard to equal it. Drawings can be downloaded as a reference tool in either a smaller file size for letter-size copies, or at full resolution for larger prints.

You can search by site name, region, building type or one of a dozen other search terms. But, plan to set aside a fair amount of time when you do a search, as you will quickly find yourself distracted by the huge variety of the material in the collection.

You can find the site at:

http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/habs_haer/index.html