‘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:


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.



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.

Would you like your metrics hard or soft?

Our team is getting smaller and smaller. The Imperial scale team, that is. Right now only the U.S. and Burma still use the Imperial system of measure. Even the British and Canadians have abandoned the system for metric units of measure.  Most countries use a system known as “S.I.” or, System International. Dimensions on drawings are expressed as millimeters, usually without a suffix ( mm ) after them.

With more and more films being made abroad it’s becoming more common for set designers and art directors to have to create construction documents that will be built out of the country. The easiest method is simply to draw in metric from the start and avoid some inevitably strange conversion numbers. Two other methods are the “soft” and “hard” conversions.

In soft metric, you draw and dimension in Imperial and then also give the equivalent metric measurement rounded to the nearest millimeter. In hard metric you dimension in Imperial and then covert to “hard” or non-rounded numbers, meaning you’re going to end up with numbers in tenths of millimeters, which is fine if you’re drawing machined parts. Since a millimeter is less than 1/32″ in length, you won’t be very popular among the people building from your drawings.

Drawing in metric straight from the start is the better way to go once you have some basic metric visualization skills. Here’s a quick list of common sizes converted to soft metric:

1″ = 25 mm

1′-0″ = 305 mm

6′ = 1829 mm

10′ = 3048 mm

Typical door height –  2033 mm  ( 6′-8″ )

Table height – 762 mm  ( 30″ )

Counter height – 915 mm  ( 36″ )

Common Drawing Scales

Here’s a list of metric scales and their closest Imperial scale equivalent:

1:1 (Full Size)

1:2 (Half Size)

1:5  (3″= 1′-0″)

1:10  (1 1/2″=1′-0″)

1:20  (3/4″=1′-0″)

1:25  (1/2″=1′-0″)

1:50  (1/4″=1′-0″)  actual equivalent – 1″= 4.17′

1:100  (1/8″=1′-0″)  actual equivalent – 1″= 8.33′

1:200  (1/16″=1′-0″)  actual equivalent – 1″ = 16.66′

1:250  (1″=20′-0″)

1:500  (1″=40′-0″)

1:1000  (1″=80′-0″)

Conversion Scales

There used to be a company in Philadelphia called T. Alteneder & Sons which made custom drawing scales. I ordered a metric / imperial set nearly 14 years ago and they’re very handy. If you can get your hands on a set, buy them.

Since there doesn’t seem to a source to buy them anymore, I made up a paper scale set for 1/4″ / 1:50 that you can print out and make yourself. You’ll need a 1 1/2″ wide by 17″ long piece of matt board or thin basswood. Download and print out the PDF from the link below on 11 x 17 paper. Be sure to print it at 100% and make sure the “zoom to fit” box is unchecked. Check for print accuracy using the “Imperial” scale. It should measure a true  1/4″ to the foot. You’ll notice that the foot increments on the blue “Metric” scale measure slightly less that 1/4″ so don’t be thrown off by them. Carefully cut out the scales and mount on either side of the board.

When working with a 1/4″ drawing, use the side with the yellow box marked “Imperial”. The opposite edge of the scale will read out equivalent metric lengths. Use the other side when working with 1:50 metric drawings and the ‘feet’ scale will give you the equivalent distance in imperial units.



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

Will The Real Ogee Please Stand Up

Here’s a simple quiz. Which moulding profile below is an Ogee?

1. A

2. B

3. Both

Correct answer: It depends who you talk to. There are a number of well-respected architectural books which will tell you it’s “A”. They’re wrong, and I’ll explain why.

The word Ogee is derived from the medieval French term “Ogyve” (Oh-zheeve), which described a pointed arch as pictured below. The word was Anglicized to “Ogee” and in the late 19th century was shortened to “O.G.”

Cut the arch in half and you have a Cyma Reversa, beginning and terminating vertically.

So why the confusion? Well, there wasn’t any in the 18th century. In fact builders and manufacturers of moulding planes were consistent about what constituted an Ogee right into the 20th century. It wasn’t until the late-Victorian academics got involved that things got convoluted, and I think I know why.

Before the industrial age, wood mouldings were made, or ‘stuck’ by hand with moulding planes. The profiles were cut on their side, like those pictured below. To describe a profile, you need to stand the profile up and read the profiles in descending order. But the people that made mouldings were used to seeing the profiles on their sides, so an ogee, or cyma reversa terminates horizontally when viewed as such.

profiles of complex

Then there’s the terminology. Basically, if a Reverse Cyma is an Ogee, then a Cyma Recta is a Reverse Ogee. At some point I’m sure someone decided, “Gee, that can’t be right. A Reverse Cyma must also be a Reverse Ogee.” Makes sense.

Unfortunately as a wise man once said, “The easiest answers are also usually wrong.” Which in this case is true.