Saturday, December 26, 2009

how 'deep' a shadow?

This week I went to see the pilasters Jack Cadwell is building for the 1795 re-created entrance.

Of course, they look fine: shiny and new, true copies of our shop drawings.

We like them. We know they will look fine. The details that will make us wince may be glaring to us, but invisible to others. In fact, one of us will probably be aware of how something could have been done better that the other of us doesn't notice.

I will be looking especially at the shadows: are they strong enough? too deep? And at proportions: We aren't making an exact copy: we have nothing that accurate to go by. But did we catch the sense? If not, what exactly did we miss? Did the pattern and proportion put the emphasis in the right places? Does the entrance work as a whole? Does it all 'integrate seamlessly'? (How about those fancy words?!)

This something I can't gauge now because the grain of the wood of the columns is so prominent and I am seeing the parts from 20 ft away, not 200, under interior lighting. The subtlety of proportion and pattern will not be visible until they are painted, assembled with the fan and its surround, and set in place, framing the door - at which point any mistakes we made will be too late to fix...

Thursday, December 17, 2009

a reason why those old houses look 'right'

'The Country Builder's Assistant', 1797, is Benjamin's first book. It was written before the factories in Shaftsbury and North Bennington, Vermont, began to mass produce metal squares.

I am thinking about why those squares were so successful (thus my research on measuring) and how they changed how we build. (Did true squares cause square rule framing techniques to develop out of the centuries old scribe rule tradition?)

So as I read this early pattern book, I was thinking about what was normal - what was the expected training of the carpenters who used the book?

Here's a paragraph which accompanies the first plate:
Note: 'Architraves' are now 'casings', the trim that goes around windows and doors, Friezes and Cornices are added above.

"To proportion Architraves to Doors, Windows, &c. divide the width of your Door or Window, into seven or eight parts and give one to the width of the Architrave: Divide that into the same number of parts, as are contained in the Architrave you make use of, if a Frieze or Cornice to the Door, give the Frieze equal to the width of the Architrave; or it may be one fourth or one third wider, the Cornice four fifths or five sixths of the Architrave."

Hmm, no inches and feet, just proportion: the size of the second part determined by the size of the first. Benjamin spells out what he thinks the relationships should be. No dimensions - just 'parts', parts of a whole.

So while I think I'm researching measuring and metal square, I realize I am understanding the reason for something else:
These buildings still feel right because their pieces weren't just added on as today we might 'stick' a windows here or there. Nor was the size of the window decided because someone 'liked' it and thought it 'felt right'. They, actually all the parts, were sized and proportioned to the whole. They belong. And that sense of wholeness resonates with us still.

Monday, December 14, 2009

'Strong' mouldings and falling water

The plates and comments are from Asher Benjamin's, Th,e American Builder's Companion, published in 1797 in Greenfield, Massacchusetts. These are from the reprint by Applewood Books, Bedford, Mass.

The top picture is Benjamin's description of Plate I.

Plate I is below.

Asher Benjamin is the only writer I know of who discusses why to use one molding instead of another. I have added some comments.

" The ovolo and ogee, being strong in their extremities are fit for supports; the cimarecta and cavetto, though improper for that purpose, as they are weak in the extreme parts, and terminate in a point, are well contrived for coverings to shelter other members;"*
  I love that he asked me, the reader, to see if a molding seems to convey a feeling of strength or shelter. It's only a shape - a bit of trim casting a shadow, if there's enough light.

 "... the tendency of their outline being very opposite to the direction of falling water, which, for that reason, cannot glide along their surface, but must necessarily drop." *
  This last piece of his sentence is one reason I think Benjamin's books were so successful. Not only was he explaining to the carpenter how to think about how a specific molding would communicate an idea, a sense of a building's character, he was reminding the reader of the basic problem of construction: keeping water away.

Asher Benjamin doesn't forget the important stuff: Successful buildings need to do everything at once: delighting the eye while also keeping us dry and comfortable.

*Both of these quotes come from page 27 of The American Builder's Companion, Asher Benjamin, Sixth Edition; Reprint by Dover Publications, Inc. NY, 1969.

Monday, December 7, 2009

An early Christmas present

Yesterday I received a telephone call from Abbot Lowell Cummings. I had written to ask his advice. I thought I might receive a note about when he would be available for a brief meeting. Instead there he was, on the phone!

For you who don't know, Professor (Emeritus, at Yale) Cummings was at SPNEA (now called Historic New England) for many years. He is well known for his basic research on post and beam houses (First Period) in Massachusetts, pre-1715. He also has encouraged many students and researchers over the years. Often when I find some good writing on Asher Benjamin I find a note from the author that refers back to Abbot Cummings.

We discussed books. He suggested some I didn't know, and will now read. But I've only missed a few. We discussed picky points about Asher Benjamin: who trained him? Who helped him go from finish carpenter at the Hathaway House in Suffield, CT, to his first book, "The Country Builder's Assistant"? What about all that geometry and concern about structure in his books, the parts that most historians ignore?

What a delight - to share perceptions with someone I admire! And to be on the receiving end of some of that support!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

primary documents for the new, c.1795, entrance

Continuing to teaching myself how to load pictures (a long slow process), while working on the 1795 House's entrance.

The owners had an old picture of the farm, when
the barn was still there, the driveway dirt.
The entrance is simpler than the other local examples
-not as tall and imposing. It has an elliptical fan, and columns, a roof. But the columns stop at the fan, and there is no broad architrave (the piece above the fan) below the entrance's roof.

When I blew up the picture, it was clear the fan's curve ends with straight sides, maybe 3" high. The 'joiner' - the traditional name the millwork guy chooses to use for what he does -tells me this detail makes for an easier joint: square instead of at an angle.

The other entrances in town of approximately the same date are both too grand to copy. The entrance we needed to recreate, as you can see in the photo, was lovely but less imposing.

So, what size was it? And what shape was the fan?

Show all

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

a new c. 1795 entrance

This is an experiment - me teaching myself how to load a few pictures -

The owners of this farm house c. 1795, asked me to help design a new entrance. The one in the picture dates to the late 1940's, and is in poor repair.

I had already added a garage, screened their back porch, and repaired their family room , a shed which was poorly attached to the house about the same time as the entrance was modified.

This was a new problem. We had an old vague photograph of the house taken from a distance showing the original entrance. We knew of two other houses in town from the same period but their entrances were grander than what our photograph showed. So what should the entrance be? Exactly how big ? What mouldings?

Luckily, I was working with a fine contractor and a millwork carpenter. We knew each other's work and respected each other's opinions.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The quirk and bead, and why they matter

When I began to teach myself about mouldings, I didn't even know the shapes had names. One of the first pieces of moulding I learned about is the piece that goes between the masonry of a fireplace and the wood mantle, called a 'bead'.

In the upper right drawing, the bead is the raised hump in the moulding. When used next to a fireplace in this way, the wood on the left side of the bead (see the drawing on the upper left) would be cut off at the far edge of the quirk (the narrow groove carved into the moulding), leaving the moulding to end with the bead. The bead can then be scribed on the back so it fits the irregularities of the brick or stone and sits cleanly against the wood. It is a magical piece because its quirk, maybe as small as 1/16 inch, makes a shadow so that you cannot 'read' the inevitable uneven plane between the masonry and the wood. After I learned about beads and quirks, I saw them everywhere, being used to make joints visually neat and graceful.

The tongue and groove wood paneling system, used extensively in Victorian times, was an excellent surface covering for places that might be damp: bathroom walls, porch ceilings; or banged into: halls, kitchens, school rooms. And in order to make the joint of the pieces less visible, a bead was cut on one edge, and then a bead strip, or two, run down the middle of the panel. When the boards were fitted together, the strips (actually, their shadows) were what caught the eye, not the - possibly uneven - joints. When I realized the trick of the quirk and bead, I was in awe of those who figured it out - what a simple and neat solution!

I discovered that 'quirks' and 'beads' changed size over the years. The depth and width of the channel and the shape of the curve can date a bead moulding and whatever it attaches to. Arts and Crafts quirks and beads are wider and deeper than their Victorian antecedents. Victorian ones are bolder than those cut before the Industrial Revolution. Next time you are in a big box home improvement store, look at the beadboard paneling offered for sale. The quirk is so shallow that a shadow hardly exists. (I can't resist adding: a shadow of its former self.)

Asher Benjamin wrote eloquently about shadow and mouldings, but I skimmed over those plates and discussion with little comprehension until I understood about beads.

Notice to the gentle reader....

Lots of good things have come together for my editor - work, art, and family. This blog can not command her attention the way it used to. When I write that I sound like my father (which is fine, and makes me smile), but I have depended on her to add the illustrations, tweek my language, design the post.

Now I will see if I can write without depending on illustrations, and reminders that not everyone knows what I'm talking about already.

(editor's note - I just edited this....)

Why an early 19th C. architect matters

I've already quoted Asher Benjamin on the difference between the shadow cast by a curve and that cast by an ellipse. He also spent several pages talking about how to combine different sizes and profiles (what a moulding looks like from the side). Here's a brief excerpt: " ...whenever the profile is considerable, or much complicated, ...(it should) be accompanied with one, or more, other principle members; in form and dimensions, calculated to attract the eye; create momentary pauses; and assist in the perception of the beholder." He continues with very specific examples. He is very wordy!

Moldings cover joints, allow buildings to move in the weather without leaking, are a way of fitting pieces together neatly. They give proportion, scale and pattern to spaces and shapes, and by emphasizing a part of the structure, direct our attention.

As far as I can remember, no one ever mentioned those ideas in school. Today I am surprised, but then I didn't know what I was missing. I did not expect to be an architect who took care of old buildings. 'Molding' was not even a word in the lexicon. In the 1960s, we were expected to express the structure of the building by showing it - I don't remember anyone in architecture school, or in my undergraduate architectural history classes discussing how to create ourselves what we saw (except by copying). We loved wonderful buildings, but we did not practice using pattern, proportion, massing, rhythm, symmetry or balance. Those ideas were not in our design tool box.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

an update on the possible Rumford fireplace at Lorenzo

Lorenzo was open and quiet when I stopped by in September. That was good. I wanted to look again at the kitchen fireplace and see if it really did have Rumford boilers. The tour guides were gracious, welcoming, and as curious as I was. One had given me the tour last year. It was fun to continue our conversation as we investigated.

The Lorenzo kitchen fireplace has brick work to the right of the firebox itself with holes for pots to sit in, and openings below where coals could be set under the pots. The flue above the pots belongs to the beehive oven. There is none behind the boilers as Rumford suggests. The system is built very close to the floor, not at 'counter height' as shown in the drawings in Asher Benjamin's pattern book.

The fireplace itself now serves as the alcove for a cook stove. It's been bricked in and is covered up.

Of course, this just leads to more questions: Did John Lincklaen know of Rumford's writings? If not, why are the boilers there? What instructions did he give to his masons? How well did the system work? Did other homeowners around Lorenzo copy this fireplace?

I find I am as interested in the spread of knowledge as in the use of new technology.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Geometry, Taught in 6 Plates

For years I passed over the plates at the front Asher Benjamin's books. At the time, I only wanted to see his buildings, and had no idea why he included plates on geometry and molding profiles.
Now I study them.

The first 5 plates in The American Builder's Companion are instructions on basic geometry because many of his readers were "untaught." Many young men left apprenticeships to seek their fortunes, move west.They still needed to build. Benjamin provided their geometry course.

He begins:
A point is that which has position, but no magnitude nor dimension; neither length, breadth, nor thickness.

Here is Plate 2, the one we might recognize as useful in design. The Figures 3, 4, and 5 describe how to layout perpendicular lines, Figure 12 scribes a square.

By Plate 4 , Figure 3, he is describing "How to find the raking moldings for a pediment" - a semester of academic learning in 6 pages!

It's not just Asher Benjamin who cares about teaching geometry. Peter Nicholson's The Carpenter's New Guide, which ran 13 editions in Britain and the States from 1792 to 1857, spends 126 pages describing what he calls Practical Geometry. He begins with "1. A Point has position but not magnitude." (He's less flowery than Benjamin).

Neither of these pattern-book authors wanted their ideas to only be copied - they wanted their readers to possess the intellectual tools to adapt these designs to their own situations.

Plate 2 above comes from the Dover Publications 1969 reprint of The American Builder's Companion, 6th Edition, published in 1827,

Monday, April 27, 2009

Interlaced, Paired Ribbons: Guiloche

This is the door of the Hiland Knapp House in N. Bennington, VT.

The drawing below of guiloche (paired ribbons flowing in interlaced curves around a series of voids, usually circular) is half of Plate LII from The Architect, or Practical House Carpenter, 1830, by Asher Benjamin.

This close-up - of the frieze below the transom - shows almost the same guiloche on the door as is in the middle drawing:

But the pattern on the door is not an exact copy, and for a good reason. A 'running' pattern (like the one in the drawing) does not have a beginning or an end. But a front door is the visual focus of a house; it's not on its way to someplace because it is the place.

But, adding a curvy piece above the door emphasizes the whole entrance nicely while complimenting the Ionic columns. So what's a builder to do? A simple answer might be to put one circle of the guiloche smack-dab in the center above the door. But it's still a 'running braid': visually it doesn't stand still, it 'runs'.

The builder of this house came up with an admirable solution: the pattern starts from both sides, so that the ribbons meet in the middle, in an open circle. Now your eye traces the pattern to the circle centered above the door - and stops. Voila!

(The design makes me smile.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Copying and Plagarism

Over the past few months, I've been reading other people's writing and research on Asher Benjamin. One such scholar, architectural historian Abbot Lowell Cummings, has reviewed all the earlier pattern books (mainly English) that Benjamin copied. Yes, just copied - plate after plate. It turns out that Benjamin made direct copies from what can be found in earlier pattern books, most of them published in England. And at the time, no one seems to have said, "Hey! This is plagiarism!"

I find this interesting in light of conversations I've had about my own work and ownership of intellectual property. When I, an architect who works on old houses, design a new wing, I pay a huge amount of attention to how the existing house was designed. I am mining the existing house for visual knowledge that will help my wing compliment what's there. Sometimes I just plain copy.

But who owns the design that I copied? The original building may not have had an architect, so could it be the property of the carpenter, or the owner? Does it belong to me, because I adapted it? And should anyone even own it at all?

I'm pretty sure Asher Benjamin wasn't deliberately stealing the intellectual property of his predecessors - I doubt people even thought in those terms 200 years ago. I do think he really liked the designs he put in his first books, and he wanted to share what he saw. His own writing - like his paragraphs about light and shadow on mouldings - are so genuine and earnest, that I can imagine Benjamin choosing the plates for his book with the same passion.

So I'm glad no one slapped a lawsuit on him!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

How Long Is Your Cubit?

I've found another reason for Asher Benjamin's geometry lessons and the proportion diagrams on his plates.

It turns out that in 1800, the various and different measuring systems used in the western world were quite divergent. A cubit seems to have been standard measured: from your outstretched middle finger to your elbow (about 18"). But a yard might be from your finger to your nose, (36") or to your near or opposite shoulder, (30", and 42" respectively).

I think this is great, since I have been measuring with body dimensions for years - using my own body to discretely measure an interesting space without drawing attention to myself by whipping out a tape measure, or helping a client to tell me how big is 'big' by stretching out both arms and saying, "This big?"

In 1793, Napoleon tried to create a standard, a metric system, with some success. And in 1824, the English made a standard yard, also with some success. The process took a good 50 years to take hold, and today we still have lots of regional variations, not to speak of the gulf between inches and centimeters.

Here in the States people measured cloth, grain, lumber using the system they had learned in the 'old country'. A Pennsylvania carpenter who repairs 18th century houses has told me he can tell a house built by a German from one built by a Quaker by its dimensioning.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Measuring - Proportions

How did carpenters measure in 1797?
What does Asher Benjamin assume his readers know when he writes his first pattern book?

Instructions today for building a simple bookcase  - for example - assumes the carpenter will use  a tape measure and a steel carpenter's square.
By comparison, in 1797, a carpenter had a square and perhaps a folding rule.
 He also had dividers and a compass. He used both to determine dimensions.

 Here are Asher Benjamin's  instructions for the moldings around a door (at the end of the descriptions for Plate 1).  Click the picture  to enlarge it - for easier reading!

He gives no dimensions, just ratios:  'seven or eight parts',  'one fourth or one third wide'.
The reader would have used his compass and dividers to  layout the geometry, to divide a door or window width into  7 or 8 parts.

When Asher Benjamin writes his books, we were still making the parts for a house specifically for that house - no buying off the shelf.
When it came to finish work, each molding added at a door opening or chair rail was made to order, regardless of how it was measured.
Uniform measurements for construction were not necessary until people wanted interchangeable parts. If your yard was 36" and mine was 35" it didn't matter.

Benjamin's introduction to geometry - his first plates - and his descriptions of how to draw the profiles of various moldings show his readers to how adapt his patterns to their specific buildings.

The Country Builder's Assistant, by Asher Benjamin, 1797,  shown above,  is a reprint by Applewood Books, Bedford, Massachusetts, 1992.  The originals, (worn. well used and well loved!) are often available in rare book libraries.

Monday, February 16, 2009


I am curious about the tools carpenters had around 1800. Asher Benjamin wrote for the trade. He was a 'joiner' himself. He knew what his readers were working with. His books will make more sense if I too know what was in those carpenters' tool boxes.
It is not easy to find any information that's not prefaced with, " I think..." The list so far includes hand saws, chisels, hammers, plumb bob, planes, wooden squares, bits and braces.

No rulers, no measuring sticks. This last fact really interests me.

Eric Sloan wrote about early American tools in the 1960's. His books have beautiful pictures, some dates, and basic information. He knew a great deal more than is in the books. I wish he had written more.


I want to know what other people have written about Asher Benjamin. The books I want to read aren't in most libraries, but through the inter-library loan system I can borrow them. So I went to our public library where I can ask for 3 books a week.

The first came yesterday. It wasn't a book, but a reprint of an article, a very good read.

The library tells me that some of the books I asked for can't be borrowed - too fragile or unique. However, I can go to them, and many are at Historic Deerfield in Deerfield, Mass., about 2 hrs. away.

Asher Benjamin built a school there, now a museum - I have seen it. I look forward to seeing it again.

Friday, January 23, 2009

"beautiful variety of light and shade"

Asher Benjamin, 1773- 1843  Builder and  Architect

Asher Benjamin wrote for carpenters. He starts The American Builder's Companion with ten plates of basic knowledge a 'joiner' would have needed in the early 1800's, including how to divide a circle, how to layout mouldings.

Many readers seem to skip this technical part of his books, seeing it as archaic. Sometimes historians are interested in how Georgian architecture changed from using mouldings based on the circle (Roman) to those based on the ellipse (Greek). So they note the plates and move on.

They miss the man who knows how light creates. He cares about what he is seeing so passionately that he figures out how to write about it so he can share it with his readers.
I know first hand that it's not easy to put what an architect sees into words that someone else can understand!

Try this:
" In the Roman ovolo there is no turning inward, at the top: therefore, when the sun shines on its surface, it will not be so bright, on its upper edge, as the Grecian ovolo; nor will it cause so beautiful a line of distinction from the other moldings, with which it is combined, when it is in shadow, and when lighted by reflection.
...the Grecian, or quirk ovolo, ... if it is entirely in shadow, but receive a reflected light, the bending, or turning inward, at the top, will cause it to contain a greater quantity of shade in that place, but softened downward around the moulding to the under edge."

As I read his text, I met the man himself.

The quotes are from Plate IX, Names of Mouldings, American Builder's Companion, 1810.

This portrait is from the Dover Publications reprint, 1969, of The American Builder's Companion, Asher Benjamin, 6th edition, 1827. The Public Library in Greenfield was designed by Benjamin.  I have seen the original portrait at Historic Deerfield, Deerfield, MA, where Benjamin built a school.