“There is a tendency among those accustomed to the large-scale of moulding detail on exterior work in wood or stone to make their mouldings on furniture and interior woodwork too large. The full-size furniture moulding so carefully drawn by Mr. Warne should be of the utmost service not only to furniture designers but to students of architecture and interior decoration.”
“This book covers many different types of English furniture; bedsteads, bookcases, bureaus, cabinets, chests, cupboards, chairs and others. This book illustrates cover this book covers molding details on English furniture from about 1574 to 1820 molding is the method adopted by the cabinetmaker to give definition to the lines of his work and the sections of molded detail very very much as one style has succeeded another through the oak, walnut, mahogany and satinwood periods of English furniture the workings of moldings was then so laborious that the craftsman use them with greater restraint and obtained more pleasing effects by their use than is frequently the case today when profusion often eliminates interest.”
Until you get a print copy, you can download a digital scan of the book below. Scanned from an ex library copy, there are a number of damaged pages but you can get a good idea of the scope of the book.
Chris Schwarz over at Lost Art Press posted a blog entry yesterday with links to three moulding catalogues you can download. The catalogues range from a 1938 catalogue using the old Universal system where the profile numbers were a fairly universal ( at least within the U.S.) numbering system called the 8000 system. The original numbering system begun in the mid 1800’s used a three digit number starting with 1. You can see how the inventory of stock moulds changed over the years as manufacturers offered fewer and fewer profiles. The mid 1800’s catalogues included over 600 different profiles which would dwindle to less than 50 in many catalogues in the early 1950’s.
Here’s three examples that show the slow loss of the variety of stock stop moulds, the first from the 1890’s catalogue, the second from a 1938 catalogue and the last from a booklet from the 1960’s.
In the United States the period of the ornate Movie Palaces lasted from around 1915 to the 1940’s. In that short period thousands of ornate theaters were built all over the country. Of the several genres of architecture that were created during that period, the Atmospheric theaters came the closest to blending the new media of film with theaters’ stage drama roots.
Architect and Designer John Eberson
The Atmospheric movement was created by John Eberson, a stage designer and architect who immigrated from Europe. Having studied electrical engineering in Dresden, he took an apprenticeship with a theatrical designer in St. Louis and worked as a set designer and scenic painter. His first theater design was for a ‘picture house’ in Hamilton, Ohio. By 1926 he had perfected his ‘atmospheric’ concept with the creation of the Majestic Theater in Houston, Texas. Earning the nickname “Opera House John”, he would design over 500 atmospheric movie palaces by the end of his career.
Majestic Theater- Houston, Texas, built 1926
For the average American, spending an evening in one of these theaters was as close to a trip to Europe as they could ever hope to have. Usually designed with European themes, Eberson’s designs featured large coved ceilings that gave the illusion of sitting outside in a courtyard with facades on either side. The ceilings were painted sky blue and a projector called a Brenograph was used to project moving clouds and stars on the deeply coved ceilings.
Eberson’s drawing for a facade for the Paradise Theater in Chicago
Most of the facades detail and ornament were executed in traditional staff of plaster and hemp fiber, painted and gilded.
Saenger Theater, New Orleans
As with most popular trends, the atmospheric theme was quickly picked up by others and expanded throughout the country where the palaces were built even in small rural towns. One such theater is the Holland Theater in Bellefontaine, Ohio, built in 1931. The theater is the only known theater with a 17th century Dutch motif and features a twinkling star ceiling and turning windmills. Turned into a 5 screen multiplex in the 1980’s the theater was hut down in 1998. In 2009 the theater was reopened as a live theater venue and the interior is slowly being restored back to it’s original look.
Recent photo of the interior of the Holland Theater with it’s painted sky, starlight and turning windmill blades
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Art Director Tom Taylor forwarded this video to me this morning. It’s so incredible it will make you weep with envy. Singer / songwriter John Mayer commissioned David A. Smith, a traditional sign-writer/designer from England who specializes in high-quality ornamental hand-crafted reverse glass signs and decorative silvered and gilded mirrors, to design the cover for his latest album.
This short film documents the process of Smith creating the album artwork as well as a few other special reverse-painted glass signs. Watch this video to see a truly gifted craftsman at work in a medium that was once ubiquitous and is now nearly a lost art.
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.