Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The pattern books of Asher Benjamin

This is a post about 2 of Asher Benjamin's pattern booksThe American Builder's Companion and The Architect, or Practical House Carpenter.

I like reading Asher Benjamin's pattern books.
He says practical and personal things when you least expect it.In  his notes about chimney pieces, he adds," Care should be taken, however, not to overload them (the whole mantle) with ornaments, as they are exposed and liable to be broken."* 1
This is a real person. He writes for "all practical house carpenters... particularly those who reside in the country, where they have no opportunity of consulting with an architect." *2  He is talking directly to them.

 My friends have just bought a farm with fields, barns - and an old house - in Ohio  They have many questions. The land was first settled in 1805. The house may have been built soon after that. Its shape and proportions are Federal: center entrance, 2 windows each side, 5 above, end chimneys.

Since Benjamin's pattern books were used extensively as guides by house wrights and joiners in the states west of the Appalachians from before 1800 through the 1860's, I mailed my friends two of his pattern books for their use: The American Builder's Companion, first published in 1806, the 6th edition (which I sent) in 1827,  and The Architect, or Practical House Carpenter, published in 1830, and reprinted through 1850.

This post is an addendum to the books - to help them discover Asher Benjamin's writing for themselves, especially since I live so far away. I also wanted my friends to see how design  and construction techniques evolved in those years and how to read them in their new house.

Three examples:
The mantle of this fireplace in the dining room appears to be original. (The firebox was reconfigured and then closed over the years as central heat became possible and then efficient.)

The mantle  - called a 'Chimney Piece' by Asher Benjamin - has only proportions - barely any moldings, no pattern, no emphasis or flourish.  Those proportions, however, are closely aligned with the shape of the  mantle -  illustrated in Plate 37 of  The American Builder's Companion (shown here). The shelf is narrow and extended on the ends; the board below it is wide; the side pieces are topped with a bead so that they read as columns. It is as if the joiner created a background, a base ready for embellishment.


This would seem to imply that the chimney piece was built before 1830, following the late Georgian style. This style is often referred to as Federal, Adamesque, or Neo-Classical by historians, but also called 'Colonial' by many.

But... What often happened was that the joiner simply copied what he remembered from where he came from - which might have been 30 years ago. Unless someone signed and dated his work, the age of a piece cannot be easily pinned down.

Still, the joiner who built the mantel in my friends' house did not know or disdained this mantle illustrated in Benjamin's next book, The Architect, or Practical House Carpenter, published in 1830.

This is a dramatic departure from the designs in the earlier book: Greek Revival in no uncertain terms!
The chimney piece thrusts itself into the room. The side pieces are real columns set in front of the sides of the mantle. The shelf above has become an unadorned detail with no softening molding above that frieze with its bold, dramatic Greek Key.

Here is the floor plan. The columns are not just round, but fluted.  The mantel shelf is thin, but wide and deep, adding to the sense of the fireplace jutting into the room.

My friends' dining room is quiet - not like this!

The farm house staircase is the second example.
The newel shown here is elegant and flowing, a fitting ending to the rail and balusters.

Not Greek Revival. Maybe tinged with Gothic Revival and Italianate sentiments, or inspired by Renaissance Revival furniture.

Definitely not late Georgian.

Below is Plate XLIII on stair construction from The American Builder's Companion. It includes practical drawings including diagrams for laying out curved stairs. In the upper right is a careful drawing showing where to place newel posts on stair landings. I've added a circle to highlight that detail.

On the right side is drawn a newel post, a very plain newel that is securely anchored to the step, has a little entasis in the shaft, and ends with an elliptic knob that fits the hand.  It comes from a different era than the one in the photograph.

Below is part of Plate XXXIV from The American Builder's Companion, showing what Benjamin calls 'Banisters' and we now refer to as balusters.
There is some relationship between these illustrations and those in the photograph - a solid base, a tapering of the shaft. but not much else.

On the right side of the Plate a line is divided into 6 equal parts. The placement of the curves and ornamentation, the size of the base, is determined by those parts. The balusters in the photograph do not follow those proportions.

If the rest of the house was built c.1810, then the newel and its balusters now in the house are later renovations.

The final example is the hand rail, sinuous, beautiful.  That smooth changing slope of wood was the goal of stair builders since the first awkward attempts in the 1750's.

Benjamin dedicated 10 Plates and more than 15 pages of text in his 1806 and 1830 pattern books to the design and fabrication of that curve.

This is highly technical, and hard to explain on paper with words. Benjamin does it so well that craftsmen today look to his directions.
The railing does not fall at a consistent rate. Lumber is not necessarily curved to match the changes in direction; and yet, the aim is achieved: a smooth continuous flow of wood from the upper landing to the newel at the bottom step.

I have added circles on the smaller print - Plate 48  from The American Builder's Companion- to highlight where Benjamin said the curve was to be to be modified.

Plate LXI from  The Architect, or Practical House Carpenter  shows how "to find the moulds for a stair rail with a semi-circle of 8 winders." Figure 6, upper left, shows how to lay them out on a plank.

The polished sloping hand rail invites us to run our hand along its length, and perhaps even to try sliding down around that curve! It is a beautiful work of art.

revised 1/19/2017
*1 The American Builder's Companion,the sixth edition (1827), Plate XXXVII

*2  The Architect, or Practical House Carpenter, 1830, Third Edition, Preface, page v.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

St Jerome Catholic Church, East Dorset, Vermont

St. Jerome's Church in East Dorset, Vermont. was coming down. Only 4 towns away, not very far!  I would be able to see the frame. The weather was beautiful;  I was itchy for a drive.

Add to that my friend from the 2016 PTN Workshops, Lisa Force, was one of the crew.  Of course I went.

This is Lisa striking a pose in her haz-mat suit.

The church was built in 1874 for the Catholic stone masons who had come to Dorset to work in the quarries and shops. By 2010 it had only 6 members and a large, lovingly cared for cemetery. The church was closed. Naturally the roof leaked; mold grew.
Parishioners realized that if church were gone, the cemetery could expand. Enter Deconstruction Works

Here is the church with asbestos siding: sweet, unexceptional.

Here's what was uncovered: vertical sheathing - classic Gothic Revival siding.  Rustic, rural, right out of the pattern books! *
Able to be built of local lumber cut at local saw mills by local craftsmen, the design fit its pastoral country setting.

A dog house shed for the bulkhead had covered a section of the original siding, leaving it unchanged. The battens which had covered the joints  between the boards were still there. They were fat and curvy , creating strong shadows, beautifully following the lines of the windows.
I admire how those craftsman 140 years ago reinforced the shape and rhythm of the windows as well as the verticality of the church.

The interior had been renovated several times; the floor covering  updated, the ceiling lowered at least three times, the walls painted, most of the stained glass replaced, the alter reconfigured.

The iron tie rods may have been original  - or not. They are visible on the right:  the straight horizontal chords that run right through the curved trusses.

Those trusses simply took off half way up the wall. No base.While they were in front of the posts of the bays and symmetrical around the windows they were built up, not solid timbers.

Way up at the peak, in the gloom above all the framing for the drop ceilings, (and what we thought was the original ceiling) the trusses crossed.

So I came home to draw a hypothetical church with curved trusses.
Lisa critiqued (and I expect will continue to add her knowledge).

This is how I think the church was laid out - a simple and elegant geometric design.

However, the designer, be he master carpenter or fledgling  architect, did not need to know much about Practical Geometry. The elevation  divides the square into halves and quarters The  radii of the 2 arcs is determined by the width of the church . Very simple, not complex,

That the designer understood how the frame could create the sense of the church became clear as the layers of interior improvements were stripped from the frame.

The arches do cross. They are part of all the ribs of the bays from the narthex and the nave to the apse. They are an integral part of the frame.

We saw that crossings were exposed, visible.
They were carefully joined, their edges chamferred  The trefoils and quatrefoils were inserts. The whole assembly was painted in  subtle shades popular at the time: metallic gold on the trusses, brick on the tracery, and on the inside edge of the patterns: red!

Perhaps the colors have faded; the emphasis has not. They were designed and carved to be seen.

The carving, the tracery matched what we saw on the arches and inserts at the transition from the wall to the roof which we had photographed and discussed.  But we had not know what we were seeing. The parts: the strength of the arches,the delicacy of the tracery, and the shapes they created were invisible when they were painted white.  They had lost their grace, their power.

The church is now stripped to the frame. It will be taken down completely in the spring of 2017.

I have not seen a geometric layout like this before. I will make measured drawings; then I look at the frame more carefully.

I own drafting tools from this period. They are drawing instruments, 2 compasses and a divider as well as pens and 2 scales, made for drawing with ink.
Were carpenter using compasses for layout and design in the 1870's?  Time to explore post Civil War Victorian carpenter's tool boxes!

*    The image, "William T. Hanlett, BICKNELL'S WOODEN & BRICK BUILDINGS, 1875", is  from
      Country Patterns 1843 - 1883, edited by Donald J. Berg, Revised 2nd edition, The Main Street           Press,  Pittstown, NJ, 1986.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Practical Geometry, Drawing the Diagrams #2, the 3/4/5 Triangle

Here's the second diagram I taught at the 2016 PTN Workshops.

I did not lay it out as I have done here. Today I think this diagram would have been a good handout.I could have drawn it; the participants could have followed along and had a cheat sheet to take home.

Using the  3/4/5 triangle for construction

 3/4 5 triangles always have a 90* angle where the side with 3 units meets the side with 4 units.

Draw a line and mark off your unit.

Lay out lines of 3 units, 4 units and 5 units.
On my diagram:  A-B = 3 units
                            A-C = 4 units
                            B-D = 5 units

Swing an arc from either end of A-B; one arc with a 4 unit radius, one arc with a 5 unit radius,
Where the arcs cross is E.

Draw lines from A to B  to E to A.
This is a 3/4/5 triangle. The corner at A is 90*

For fun I have laid out another triangle beginning with 5 units, use 3 and 4 units for the radii of the arcs. It is another 3/4/5 triangle with a 90* corner.

We used Gunston Hall, built of brick by George Mason from 1755 to 1759, as an example. Mason  was a real mason; he gave George Washington advice about mortar recipes. He would have used the 3/4/5 triangle when he built walls or, as a Master Mason, instructed others. The triangle was/is one way to keep brick square and true.
It would have been ordinary for him to use 3/4/5 geometry to design his house.

The base of the brick work at Gunston Hall is 4 units. The height of the brick work of the end wall at Gunston Hall measures 3 units. The diagonal is 5 units.

The floor plan is also laid put using the 3/4/5 triangle. See my post for more information and drawings:

I asked the participants at the PTN session to divide the width of the Gunston Hall side elevation into 4 equal parts. I wanted them to draw the geometry for themselves, to see it come to life.

Again a handout with step by step instructions would have been helpful.   
Not everyone knew how to divide a line into parts; but those who did showed those who didn't. It was a excellent group.

One of the first figures in the pattern books on Practical Geometry is the division of a line by a perpendicular. Here is  Figure 5, Plate II, of  Asher Benjamin's The American Builder's Companion, first edition published 1806.

 Asher Benjamin's Figure 3, Plate II,  shows a
simply drawn 3/4/5 triangle expressed with units 6/8/10
with short arc lines at c, the top, to show the use of a compass to make a circle with the radius determined.

His description assumes a familiarity with the language of geometry and compasses.

"To make a perpendicular with a 10 foot rod. Let b a be 6 feet; take eight feet in your compasses; from b make the arch c, with the distance ten feet from a; make the intersection at c, and draw the perpendicular, c b. "

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Practical Geometry - drawing the diagrams, #1

The participants at the hands-on sessions I taught on Practical Geometry  at the 2016 PTN Workshops, asked me to post the diagrams for the basic geometries they worked with.
Here is the first.

How to divide a square into thirds:

We used graph paper for the first geometry so everyone could see the lines develope into a pattern. Everyone could count the squares to be sure they were following directions.

1.  Draw a square 12 units wide and 12 units long. label the corners A, B, C, D.

Add the diagonals - the lines from one corner cross the center to the far corner. A to C; B to D.
The lines will cross in the center of the square. Count the units to prove this to yourself.
Label the center of the square E.

Divide the square in half vertically, F to H - follow the line the graph paper.
Divide the square in half horizontally, G to I - follow the line on the graph paper.

This is the basic pattern. The square can now be divided into 3, 4, or 5 (or more)  equal rectangles as needed.

2. To divide the square into thirds:
Add a line from each corner to the middle of the opposite side. A to G and B to I.
These lines cross the original pattern.

K and L, if extended parallel to A-B, would define a rectangle that is 1/3 of the whole square.

A rule in geometry is that there must be 2 points to establish a line.
 Below is a diagram of  how the diagonals from the corner of a square to the middle of the opposite side give 2 points for the lines which divide a square into three rectangles of equal size.

This division of the square into thirds is often found in pre-Industrial Revolution design.
I do not think framers drew out the whole diagram on a sheathing board or a framing floor. Rather because the diagram was common knowledge they just drew the parts they needed.

An example:
At the workshop I taught the application of this geometric pattern using the plans and elevations from a cabin at Tuckahoe  -

The cabin  is very similar in size and dimensions to the slave cabin at Clermont Farm which was across the way from where we were meeting. 

The end wall of the cabin is  2/3 of a square. The roof  begins on the 2/3 line. Its pitch follows the diagonals of the upper square. the windows, doors and fireplace are centered on the square. That's all.

I then showed the group how Owen Biddle used the same geometry to tell a mason where windows and doors were to be placed.
The  elevation and floor plan are both composed of 2 squares. On both the window placement is one side of the center line. The  diagonals from corner to center call out the window width ( on the elevation and the interior partition on the floor plan.
In the floor plan I have used a dashed line to note the lines dictating the window width.

I did not show them how master joiners layered the squares divided into thirds over each other to call out the dimensions and relationships  between parts of doors and architraves for Georgian Meeting Houses.
Shown here is perhaps how the the main door for Rockingham Meeting House, Rockingham, VT, may have been laid out.
 As I look at it today I think the diagram may be too complex - time to look again.

There is no record of what the carpenters and masons called these geometries. They would have have been explained verbally while taught by doing, never needing to be recorded.
There also may be a notation system that we do not recognize  - yet. .

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Practical Geometry - as described by those who used it, Part 2

The last post  discussed how Asher Benjamin and Owen Biddle presented Practical Geometry in their pattern books in 1805 and 1806.
This post focuses on Minard Lefever, and finally Peter Nicholson, who inspired them all.

Minard Lefever ( 1798-1854) wrote 5 pattern books between 1829 and 1856.
The Modern Builder's Guide was published in September 1833, in New York.
In his Preface Lefever says " will be proper to specify the authors whom I have either consulted or made extractions from,..."
One of these was Peter Nicholson.  Because Lefever copies Nicholson's drawings  directly I will post only the latter's introductory geometry.

Lefever writes 35 pages of  descriptions for 21 plates on "Geometry Adapted to Practical Carpentry".
Here are Plate 8  and Plate 20.

Minard Lefever, The Modern Builder's Guide, NY, 1833, reprint by Dover Publications, NY, 1969.

Peter Nicholson (1765-1844) practiced architecture, mathematics, and engineering in Scotland.  He taught and wrote 27 books.  The Carpenter's New Guide was first  published in 1792 in Great Britain. His books were regularly reprinted in the States.

The book reproduced here was printed in Philadelphia in 1830, his 10th Edition with, he writes,"6 new Plates".  The book is 121 pages long not including the Index.
27 of those pages are of - as his title page says - Practical Geometry for Carpentry and Joinery, "the whole founded on the geometric principals; the theory and practice well explained and fully exemplified" on 10 copper-plates.

In the Preface he says, " is Geometry which lays down all the first principals of building, measures lines, angles, and solids, and gives rules for describing the various kinds of figures used in buildings; therefore, as a necessary introduction to the art treated of, I have first laid down, and explained in the terms of workmen, such problems of Geometry as are absolutely prerequisite to the well understanding and putting into practice the necessary lines for Carpentry."

His introductory geometry plates match those of Asher Benjamin, Owen Biddle and Minard Lefever, all of whom acknowledge him in their prefaces.

Nicholson's Plate 10 is Lefever's Plate 8.

I will bring this book to the 2016 IPTN Workshops in September. It is fragile.

If you would like to read the titles of Peter Nicholson's books, they are listed at the end of his Wikipedia biography.

Other architectural historians must have looked at the first pages of these books. Everyone cannot have just turned to the illustrations of mantles and window casings, building plans and elevations and ignored the plates on geometry. Why hasn't someone else wondered out loud why so many pages on geometry were included in a book about construction?

Someone must have considered that if Nicholson's The Carpenter's New Guide went through 10 editions and was published in the States as well as Great Britain - as well as being directly copied - that carpenters were reading it, using it, that his information was useful, that maybe we should understand what he wrote.

The builders who came before us used geometry to design and build. The knowledge was taught to the next generation hands-on. Books were not needed.
Boys were 'apprenticed', learned their craft and became 'journeymen', traveling to sites to earn and learn. Eventually these men became full carpenters, 'masters', and were admitted to a guild. The guild system was not always possible in the States. Men quit their apprenticeships. moved west or into cities. The skills and knowledge that masters were expected to impart had to be taught in other ways. Asher Benjamin and others set up a school in Boston. The pattern book was another solution - a way for 'young carpenters'  (to quote Owen Biddle) to teach themselves the necessary construction skills, beginning with geometry.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Practical Geometry - as described by those who used it, Part 1

Asher Benjamin, Owen Biddle, Peter Nicholson, and Minard Lefever

What they wrote about Practical Geometry in their pattern books: Asher Benjamin in 1806, Owen Biddle in 1805, Peter Nicholson beginning in 1792, Minard Lefever in 1833.

I want their words to be easily available to anyone who is curious - someone who comes upon this blog or someone who comes to the 2016 IPTN workshops in September.

Remember that the pictures can be expanded - click on them.

Asher Benjamin's,The American Builder's Companion, was first published in 1806, updated and edited through 6 editions to 1827.

His title included the various chapters he has included. The first is  "Practical Geometry".

In his preface he says, " I have first laid down and explained such problems of Geometry, as are absolutely necessary to the well understanding of the subject."

His first 18 of 114 pages are about using geometry to design and build.

I have copied here his Plate I and its accompanying notes.

Asher Benjamin, The American Builder's Companion, Boston, MA, 6th ( 1827) edition, Dover Publications Reprint, 1969. Benjamin wrote at least 6 pattern books beginning in 1797, all popular.

Owen Biddle's book , Biddle's Young Carpenter's Assistant, 1805, was half the size of Benjamin's, easy to tuck into a tool chest. His first 9 pages of 112 are devoted to Geometry.
First comes how to construct a drafting board and attach paper to it, followed by how to make a T square and what kind of instruments to use. Then he says, " I shall now proceed to explain some of the most useful geometrical problems, which every Carpenter ought to be acquainted with". p.4

Owen Biddle, Biddle's Young Carpenter's Assistant, Philadelphia and New York, 1805, Dover Publications reprint, 2006. This is his only book  A respected master carpenter in Philadelphia, he died in 1806.

to be continued....