House Detectives in Training

Each summer I teach a semester long class in ‘Traditional Building’ at the Boston Architectural College in association with the North Bennet Street School as part of the BAC’s Historic Preservation Master’s Degree Program. It’s a low residency program wherein most of the semester is taught online via a series of video lectures and assignments through an online class portal called Moodle, but for an 8 day week the students all fly into Boston for a hands on Intensive session. I have the students from 8:30am-5pm, they get a break for dinner and they have another class in the evenings — it’s an incredibly busy week for all involved but a great way for working professionals to earn a solid degree. This year was no exception.

The Main Reading Room at the Boston Public Library

The Main Reading Room at the Boston Public Library

As part of a class in ‘Traditional Building’ I’m teaching these budding Historic Preservationists the basics of how to ‘read a house’. What does that really mean? It means they are getting an overview of the major building systems used in traditional buildings, how style elements evolved over time and how to look critically at these buildings and learn to read the tool marks and materials to help investigate and document the state of the structure. Effectively it is a crash course in becoming a ‘House Detective’. Certainly a semester is not enough to learn all the ins and outs of a traditional building, but the course helps students get a taste of this wide ranging field and exposes them to some of the tools, trades, experts and other resources that will help them in their careers.

Group Picture in front of the Gibson House Museum

Group Picture in front of the Gibson House Museum

We spent a day touring some major architectural landmarks in downtown Boston — from the Paul Revere House, to the Pierce Hichborn House, to the Otis House, to the Gibson House, to the Boston Public Library and to Trinity Church.

Trinity Church -- by H. H. Richardson

Trinity Church — by H. H. Richardson

We also spent a day in the classroom workshop learning the basics of traditional woodworking. From planing to squaring up a board to building a small tool tote the students got a taste of what traditional bench work is like.

Bill Rainford Teaching Traditional Woodworking

Bill Rainford Teaching Traditional Woodworking

Many students had never used a hand plane or driven a cut nail before so it was a lot of fun showing them the ropes.

Traditional bench work -- squaring up a board etc.

Traditional bench work — squaring up a board etc. (Photo by Patti Vaughn 2014)

Another day during the week we spent with Sara Chase who is a well known Historic Paint Expert.

Sara Chase -- Historic Paint Expert

Sara Chase — Historic Paint Expert

Sara talked about the manufacture of early paints and led the class in mixing their own paints using mullers, oil and pigments.

Making traditional paints by hand with Sara Chase

Making traditional paints by hand with Sara Chase

Students then took some of the paint they made and applied it to the tool boxes they made the day before in the woodworking lessons.

Dierdre and Julie painting their tool totes

Dierdre and Julie painting their tool totes

We took a field trip to the Fairbanks House in Dedham MA which is the oldest standing Timber Frame in North America.

The Fairbanks House -- The Oldest Standing Timber Frame in North America

The Fairbanks House — The Oldest Standing Timber Frame in North America

Erin Leatherbee is the curator at the Fairbanks House and also one of the first graduates of the BAC’s Historic Preservation MDS program.

Erin Leatherbee (Curator) and her intern Aubrey give us an overview and tour of the Fairbanks house

Erin Leatherbee (Curator) and her intern Aubrey give us an overview and tour of the Fairbanks house

Erin and her intern Aubrey gave us an overview of the house and how it evolved over time and also gave us an in depth tour of the house itself.

Field work at the Fairbanks House

Field work at the Fairbanks House

While on site I had the class break out their notepads, tape measures and rulers for some field work.

Stephanie and Patti working on Window Condition Reports

Stephanie and Patti working on Window Condition Reports

Each student was assigned a window and wrote up a detailed window condition report.

Robert Adam talking about historic hardware and fasteners

Robert Adam talking about historic hardware and fasteners at the Saugus Ironworks

During the week we also took a trip to the Saugus Ironworks National Park to tour the facility. It was a very rainy day but with umbrellas in hand we toured the facility and museum, saw the Ironworks in action and participated in a hands on lecture by Robert Adam (founder of the NBSS Preservation Carpentry Program and nationally known preservationist) where he show the evolution of home hardware over time — from wrought and cut nails, suffolk and norfolk latches, patent hinges and all manner of lock-sets. (With all the rain I have very few pictures from that day)

Bob Miller (TA for this class, NBSS CFM Graduate, Historian, and Tour Guide) in his element

Bob Miller (TA for this class, NBSS CFM Graduate, Historian, and Tour Guide) in his element

After the paint lecture we went over to the MFA to tour the Americas Wing. With a baby on the way and good chance I could be called away to the hospital at any time I am thankful to have had Bob Miller as my TA this year. Bob is a graduate of the NBSS Cabinet and Furniture Making Program, an historian, professional tour guide and the perfect fit to help keep the course moving through all the venues we had to cover this year.

Preservation Masonry with Richard Irons

Preservation Masonry with Richard Irons

This year we also had Richard Irons a well known Preservation Mason come by to talk about masonry. The day was a mixture of time spent in the classroom and outdoors mixing mortar, setting some bricks, cutting blocks, re-pointing etc.

A sampling of historic bricks from Richard's collection

A sampling of historic bricks from Richard’s collection

Richard brought with him a nice sampling of some of the many historic bricks in his collection. It’s always interesting to see just how much the look, style and finish varied over time and location.

Felice and Jamie repointing the back of the school

Felice and Jamie re-pointing the back of the school

The students had the opportunity to re-point some mortar joints, lay up some bricks, cut blocks and get a taste for some traditional masonry work.

Dierdre building a brick wall

Dierdre building a brick wall

The last big day of the intensive week was spent timber framing with Brian Vogt who is a fellow graduate of the NBSS Preservation Carpentry Program and is the Carpentry instructor at the school.

Brian Vogt (NBSS Carpentry Instructor) explaining the basics of Timber Framing

Brian Vogt (NBSS Carpentry Instructor) explaining the basics of Timber Framing

After an overview of the tools, techniques and joints used in timber framing it was time to go stand up a frame…

Brian Vogt and Bill Rainford talking about timber framing, 2 man saws etc

Brian Vogt and Bill Rainford talking about timber framing, 2 man saws etc (Photo by Patti Vaughn 2014)

Also unusual about this event was the fact that we stood up the frame in ‘connector’ at the school which is  a new addition that connects two older buildings that make up the main NBSS campus.

Jennifer using the 'Commander' and Susan steadying the ladder.

Jennifer using the ‘Commander’ and Susan steadying the ladder.

It takes a lot of teamwork and heavy lifting to have a safe frame raising and the class did a great job that day.

Another view of the indoor frame

Another view of the indoor frame

With the frame standing it was time to get some quick group pictures and then start the process of disassembling it.

Group shot on the completed timber frame

Group shot on the completed timber frame

I’m exhausted just looking back on all we did that week, but I’m glad we got through it and I am confident that this group will be another great set of ‘House Detectives’ that will be out in the field solving some of the mysteries contained in our historic homes and museums.

Group photo on the last day of the class

Group photo on the last day of the class

If you’d like to learn more about this course or the school, please check out these related posts from prior years.

Take care,
-Bill

 

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First Hand Sloyd

When investigating history there is often no better source than a first hand account. In this post I’d like to share with you a first hand account from my friend James A. Clarke of what it was like to participate in a manual training based program back in 1947. (If you are new to the blog or would like a refresher on Sloyd please check out some of my posts on this topic here) All of my experiences have been fairly recent and/or from research into a lot of Salomon and Larsson’s writings and from old North Bennet Street School newsletters so to meet someone with first hand experience from when the original movement was going strong is quite the treat.

Manual Training Scissors Holder

Manual Training Scissors Holder

Here are Jim’s recollections of the manual training and one of the projects that survives:

Sloyd — Manual Training (Woodworking)

J. Clarke’s Recollection of Early Woodworking Training While in Public School Grades
As a small boy in Toronto, while attending Bowmore Road Public School (from Kindergarten thru 8th grade), between about 1941-1949 I also attended Manual Training Classes held at Norway Public School a few miles (walking distance) from home. How often this was, I’m not sure (can’t remember) — maybe about once per week in the 7th or 8th grades?? One thing for sure it was in 1947, at least, because there is an item still in our possession (a wall hung scissors holder) dated that year, made by J. Clarke. I do remember, however, the teacher being very disgruntled, and disappointed in me because I elected to draw and paint the chamfers (bevels) on the item, rather than use the chisel and plane, because it was easier! (I was always looking for the easy way out!)

Whether or not this was a “Sloyd” program is not clear, but certainly was a “Manual Training” program of the Toronto School System.  ” – by James A. Clarke, July 2014, Age 79

James A. Clarke sharing his love for woodworking with the next generation.

James A. Clarke sharing his love for woodworking with the next generation.

 

In most Sloyd and similar Manual Training programs the teachers were encouraged to modify the set of models they used to suit the personality needs of the class and tastes of the local culture. I don’t know if the project below was from a book or developed by the instructor, but it certainly is in line with the other models I’ve studied in the extant publications on this topic. (I scanned through what I had but didn’t find this exact project — if any of my bibliophile friends find the project, please share it here as that would also be interesting to check out)

Jim shared with me the following photos of the wall hung Scissors holder he made back in 1947:

(The photos above were taken by James A. Clarke, scanned from hard copy by Bill Rainford both in 2014)

It looks like it was a well designed project and has survived the test of time. If you’d like to build your own version of this project — either for yourself or with any children or grand-children who are on their to becoming Sloyders — Jim has also drafted up a very nice and very detailed set of plans which you can download here:

Scissors Holder from James A. Clarke

If you wind up making your own version of this Scissors holder, please drop me a line or leave a comment as I’m sure others would be interested to see it as well.

Take care,
-Bill

P.S. Thank you again to James A. Clarke for sharing this material with us. Jim lives in Hilton NY with his wife Margaret. Jim is an avid tool collector and generous with his time and knowledge. I have his phone and email address but I am hesitant to put that on the open internet, so if you’d like to contact him directly please send me an email or leave a comment and I can provide that info in a less public way. (I don’t want him to wind up with lots of spam etc)

 

 

Categories: Guest Blogger, James A. Clarke, Sloyd | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Building a Timeless House

Every house has a story to tell. Some homes have stories full of history, drama, beauty and mystery. Other homes tell a story of defiance, decadence or even austerity. Each of these homes is a unique reflection of the folks who built them, the times they lived and worked, how they were used and how they changed over time. When you picture a house with some of these memorable characteristics, what do you think of? Do you think of a massive modern McMansion which is often a huge cube with garish gables and conflicting architectural details tacked on? Or do you think of a well proportioned period home that has stood the test of time? Do you picture a New England connected farmstead with its collection of telescoping additions, ells and outbuildings? Or maybe a humble postwar cape?

Anyone who knows me from my writing, teaching or in person has likely heard me go on at length on many of the shortcomings of modern building with respect to to design, materials, size, quality and sustainability. More and more often I keep seeing new homes being thrown up by General Contractors who think they are also designers — they take a stock set of plans, tack on a few dozen more punch list items and ‘upgrades’ that result in a terrible composition and flow and then go on charge an arm and a leg for them. The fact that anyone buys these monstrosities is as sad a reflection on the consumer as it is on that builder.  As of late I’ve driven by a few such properties that pained me enough that I took to posting them on my personal Facebook page and critiquing them with like minded friends — often with entertaining and enlightening results. I’m usually trying to espouse several tenets of my own views on traditional building and can often be heard saying “If you don’t buy a poorly designed and executed home, they won’t build them“, “Invest in quality not quantity” and similar things that seem straightforward enough in isolation but are often missed when folks actually go out to buy or build a home.  I’m concerned that this sort of message is not reaching enough of the home buying and building public.

Building a Timeless House by Brent Hull

Building a Timeless House by Brent Hull

Thankfully I am not alone in having this view. I recently read a copy of Brent Hull’s newest book titled “Building a Timeless House in an Instant Age”.  In this book Brent does a great job of articulating the need for consumers to understand the current state of home-building — from track houses, to higher end spec houses and grand mansions and why most houses being built today have lost a lot of what made those earlier houses so memorable and comfortable to live in. This is not a book for the tradesman to learn how to physically build such a house, but it is a thought provoking primer for homeowners and builders to engage in a more meaningful discussion and help get them on the path to building a house that will meet the owner’s needs now and well into the future.

He starts with an explanation of how many of the elements we often take for granted — and that are in plain sight — have a strong influence on how we interpret and live in a home. As a preservationist we often play the role of a house detective trying to suss out the story of how this home came to be, how it was situated on the original plot, how it changed over time and how it may have looked at a given time. In order to do this we need to understand how our forefathers built these homes — the tools and techniques as well as the layout and design. Brent goes on to talk about how the Classical Orders of Ancient Greece and Rome were based on the human scale and ideals and how they have had a profound impact on the later design of public and private edifices as well as how we as a society want to project our values and beliefs.

“What we build defines us” — Brent Hull

When building a ‘Timeless House’ we often have to address the question of how to judiciously make use of modern technology. In the general haste to always use the latest and greatest, or sometimes cheapest new building method or materials to meet a budget or a timeline the house design and/or execution can suffer. As Brent writes “A timeless house does not rely solely on new technology. It is crafted with a combination of products and skill in such a way that it is built to last. Most of these skills are grounded in historic method.” An investment in better design, materials and craftsmanship will yield a better livable, longer lasting and I would argue better selling home if we can educate the public on what to look for and what level of standards to expect. This is similar to the ‘Not So Big House’ philosophy advocated by Sarah Susanka (Sarah’s books are another great resource for homeowners looking to build a comfortable home).

Most residential construction today is lacking in architectural design with Architects spending their efforts on the more lucrative commercial market leaving the General Contractors and similar folks to try and fill the void. The Architects working in the residential space are note often well trained in classical orders which further compounds the issue.

“A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his client to plant vines” — Frank Lloyd Wright

If you’ve ever visited a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright you’ll see many of these ideals manifest themselves. I enjoy visiting many of Wright’s Usonian homes which were generally of a modest size but made use of modern and traditional materials, had a strong sense of unifying design, were executed under the supervision of someone who understood the owner’s plans/needs/desires/budget and have stood the test of time. Many of these homes exhibit timeless qualities that are often hard to articulate until you start breaking down the building into many of the aspects Brent covers in his book.

How did we lose our way? Since the end of WWII many things have changed in our built environment. There was a pent up demand from the leaner war years, many returning G.I.s looking to start a family, a rapid mechanization resulting from the ever advancing technologies and cheaper transportation means that were being developed and rolled out like that of an assembly line, and a culture that became increasingly materialistic and consumer driven. This perfect storm of circumstances really drove the craftsman from the scene. I grew up on Long Island, NY — about 15 minutes from Levittown which was one of the most iconic instances of production building. These cookie-cutter homes helped a lot of folks get out of the dirty overcrowded city can hopefully lead a better life, but it also lead to sub-urban sprawl and many of its maladies. When folks outgrew their starter cape they simply moved to the next development a few miles further out on the island and repeated the process with another builder. Trading up was encouraged everywhere — do you remember the GM ‘ladder of success‘? — if you were doing well you could trade up from your Chevy to a Buick or a Cadillac. Over time as this model of building became more and more common the average house became a poor approximation of what earlier generations produced. These modern homes were assembled rather than crafted, built from commodity materials that were designed to be replaced as a unit when they failed — rather than being fixed — and leaving many of the homes a rather boring set of boxes with simple trim that was often dictated by price and supplier availability rather than for aesthetic value or historic precedent.

So how do we avoid all this doom and gloom? The solution is education. The book calls out many very good resources for how consumers can educate themselves on what sorts of designs, styles and products they want to include in their homes. He also defines strategies that will help you focus in on what you are looking for, how to articulate it and how to evaluate the folks you decide to include on your team that will help make it all come together.

I’m glad to see that this book was written and I encourage anyone who desires a Timeless House to check out the book and then get out there and start exploring — drive around older neighborhoods and note the things you like. Travel to other locales. Talk to folks you see doing good craftsmen oriented work. Follow blogs that are interesting to you, note pictures you like on Pinterest, Houzz and similar sites. Talk with local preservation groups. All these data points will help you refine what you are looking for and get you on the path to something better.

Go out and tell a story with your home.

Take care,
-Bill

About Brent:

Brent is a friend of mine and a fellow graduate of the North Bennet Street School’s Preservation Carpentry program. Since graduating from NBSS Brent has gone on to develop a nationally recognized Architectural Millworks and Historic Preservation company call ‘Hull Historical Architectural Millworks‘ which is based out of Texas. He is the exclusive millworks supplier for DuPont’s Winterthur and has worked on many public and private projects that have resulted in many awards and accolades over of the years. You can read a bit more about him in an earlier blog post I wrote here, and you can see what he’s been up to on his blog here.

 

Categories: Book Reviews | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

The best $1 you can spend on your workbench

I recently finished off my never-ending project — building a proper workbench. I snapped some photos figuring it will never look this pristine again. Time to press the bench into service…

Things started off great, but I wanted to set my jack plane to take a heavy cut and see how just how aggressive I could get before the bench started to move. I’m 6′-1.5″ tall and 240lbs, so if I really get going I’ve moved many a sizable bench over the years. At 7′ long and made of solid maple the bench has a good amount of mass. The problem I have is a very smooth concrete floor which provides little traction for wood.

With a concrete slab I won’t be bolting the bench to the floor so I needed an alternative. I ran through several alternatives in my head but couldn’t come up with a good solution that didn’t jack up the bench. As I sat on my sawbench looking around the shop I recalled a blog post by Chris Schwarz from earlier in the year wherein he put some sandpaper on a shim and have very good results. (You can see Chris’ post here). Sandpaper didn’t get much traction on the concrete floor, but it triggered a different thought. Years ago Rockler marketed a ‘routing mat’ which was effectively an expensive roll of rubber drawer liner. The cheap Yankee in me promptly went out and bought a roll of drawer liner for a couple of dollars and he has served me well for a decade or so now.  I went to my router station, grabbed the mat and cut out four squares roughly the size of the foot pads on my bench. I put them under the bench and repeated my experiment…

Rubber mat can help your bench stay put

Rubber mat can help your bench stay put

To my surprise it worked great. The weight of the bench compressed the pad so much the bench height is negligibly higher off the ground. I was able to aggressively plane some hard maple scraps left over from the bench and it was solid and stationary. I’m sure someone who really wanted to move it enough could find a way, but the increase in traction was impressive. If you’re also living with a concrete floor in the shop you’ll want to give this a try — it’s about the best $1 bench upgrade you can make.

Take care,
-Bill

P.S. I’ll make some posts about building the bench, but right now I have a some competing priorities taking my much of my time. We have a baby on the way in August, I need to build a crib, and I’m teaching for much of the rest of the summer. I’ll be posting as I get some free time here and there but it may be in spurts.

P.P.S. In digging up the the blog post above from Chris I learned that I am not the first to do this sort of thing with various forms of rubber padding — nonetheless the simplicity and the results were still worth sharing.

Categories: Modern Carpentry, Traditional Woodworking | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

1805 Taylor Old Up and Down Sawmill

One of the hidden gems of Derry NH is the 200+ year old Taylor Sawmill. It’s one of the last surviving and working up and down sawmills in the region and likely the country.

Taylor Sawmill, Derry, NH

Taylor Sawmill, Derry, NH

Powered by a large water wheel, this mill still operates for demonstrations and the occasional bit of restoration work.  It’s amazing to see and hear this mill in action. There is a distinctive noise as the saw makes each powerful stroke like clockwork, and it’s almost scary as you can feel some of the vibration through the floor and feel the air move as this massive timber frame saw blade oscillates up and down.

The mill is powered by a large water wheel which is fed by an adjacent pond.

The mill is powered by a large water wheel which is fed by an adjacent pond.

The blade itself is held in tension by a massive timber frame. You can think of it as a giant frame saw. The blades could be changed based on the type of materials being sawn and desired finish quality results. In the video below you’ll see the mill operating at one of its slowest speeds. Each blade was set and sharpened by hand. As the saw cut the timber, the ratcheting mechanism (driven by the massive geared wheel in the bottom left of the photo below) advanced the entire timber into the blade via a moving carriage.

Up And Down Sawmill in Action

Up And Down Sawmill in Action

The mill itself sits on land in Derry NH purchased by Robert Taylor in 1799. The mill started operating in 1805 and had a fairly long service life. The mill site and 71 acres around it were purchased in 1939 by Ernest Ballard. By that time the original mill itself had been scrapped. Ballard eventually found a similar up and down sawmill in Sandown NH and moved it to the Taylor site. Ernest and his wife spent several years restoring and rebuilding that sawmill. He had to make the missing parts and track down a viable water wheel. Thankfully he persevered and was able to complete this project. In 1953 he donated the mill and 71 acres around it to the state of NH, thus creating Ballard State Forrest.

Back in 2010 I visited the mill with a class of North Bennet Street School students and took several photos and videos which I have edited together into a YouTube video that you can watch  here which includes the water wheel and saw cutting a timber.

 

It was an incredible sight to see, and a great place to have a picnic or do some kayaking. If you are in the area, please check it it out. You can learn more about this mill and plan your visit by visiting it’s official web page here and the Wikipedia entry here.

Take care,
-Bill

Categories: Historic Places, Museum, NBSS, Traditional Woodworking | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Getting the Most from your Combination Square

A combination square is such a ubiquitous tool that many woodworkers take it for granted and do not get the most from it.

Starrett Combination Squares and Accessories

Starrett Combination Squares and Accessories

I recently wrote an article on this topic for Fix.com and thought you might also be interested in reading it. In the article I talk about some of the more interesting uses and accessories that will help you get the most out of your combination square. You can check out the full article here.

Some of you might be asking — ‘What is Fix.com?’

The semi-official marketing answer is:
“We are Fix.com, a lifestyle blog devoted to bringing you expert content to make your life easier. We’’ll cover everything in and around your home, like landscaping, gardening, outdoor activities, home maintenance and repairs. From products to projects, we’ll be providing you with a daily fix of content from our experienced and knowledgeable team of writers.”

My less official answer is:
It’s a new blog site with a distinctive visual style that caters to folks who are passionate about woodworking, cars, exercise, fishing, gardening, grilling and motorsports. It will be interesting to see where this site goes as they produce more content and get a wider base of readers.  If you have a few minutes, it’s worth checking out.

Below is a sample of some of the visuals from this article:

My trusty Starrett Combo Square in the limelight

I’ve got some more articles in the works with Fix.com and you’ll be able to check out those posts as they get linked to my Fix.com author page here.

Take care,
-Bill

Categories: Fix.com, Traditional Woodworking, Woodworking Techniques | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Making Brickbats and Fireplaces

Have you ever wanted to build your own fireplace and beehive oven? It’s not for everyone, but it is something I’ve wanted to tackle for a long time. I’ve talked to a few masons, read all the new and old masonry books I could find, but still didn’t feel comfortable building my own.  I could not find a good source that showed the end to end process. I also don’t want to end up burning my house down.

Completed Fireplace and Oven

Completed Fireplace and Oven

To rectify this situation I figured I’d take a trip back in time. I just got back from spending a week at Historic Eastfield Village in Nassau NY (not far from Albany). If you’ve never been to Eastfield Village it’s a restored colonial village full of buildings and artifacts from the 18th and 19th century. What’s great about the village is that it is a hands on preservation laboratory where  you can stay for free in the tavern and live with all the antiques and artifacts that are normally behind glass in a museum setting. What’s the catch? Well you are living as they did in earlier times. There is no electricity or bathroom. You live by candlelight — make sure to bring white taper candles — and you can cook your meals in one of the many fireplaces and ovens. After a long day of working out in the village it was a lot of fun to have a meal in the tavern, have a drink and play some tavern games by candlelight. Some folks were carving wood, some we playing dominoes with Billy’s ‘Eastfield Rules’ and others were enjoying a good conversation with folks from another part of the country. Staying at Eastfield is always a memorable experience.

Tools Of The Masonry Trade

Tools Of The Masonry Trade

This 5 day class on building a traditional brick masonry fireplace and beehive oven was a special request from me and was filled with students and alumni from the North Bennet Street School’s Carpentry and Preservation Carpentry programs. We used all hand tools much as our forefathers would have used. Mortar mixed by hand with a hoe, bricks cut by hand with brick hammers — making some brickbats as we went, rubbing the face of a cut brick on a stone, setting and pointing with trowels and testing your work with levels. As I am predominantly a woodworker it was interesting to learn the skills required to tackle this project and as the week went on you could see the class pick up speed and some finesse. And I’m sure the next project we work on will be even better.

Group Shot of the Class

Group Shot of the Class

The class was taught by my friends Bill McMillen, his son John McMillen and Don Carpentier who is the founder of Eastfield Village — the village is set on his father’s ‘East Field’ and is Don’s long time home. Billy is also a master Tinsmith and preservationist having worked/taught/lead the preservation efforts at Old Richmond Town on Staten Island NY, taught at the Tinsmith Shop at Colonial Williamsburg and countless other venues. Don Carpentier moved and restored all the buildings in the village — an incredible undertaking and is also a well known historian and craftsmen having worked in wood, tinsmithing, blacksmithing and pottery. Don is also well known for his incredible Mochaware. John grew up around all this and is a skilled craftsman working in the NYC area.

If you’d like to see how we spent the week building these fireplaces, please check out the video below which walks you through the week at a high level (If you are reading my blog via email or some mobile phones you may have to click over to the actual post to watch the video):

You can also learn more about Eastfield Village’s current class schedule via their website here and the village in general via this nice video from Martha Stewart that you can watch here. If you can make the trip out to Eastfield Village for a class I highly encourage you to do so — it’s an experience you will never forget.

Take care,
-Bill

Categories: Eastfield Village, Masonry, Masonry Techniques, Portfolio | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Other Kind of Plumbing

Most of the time when I am plumbing something it means I am checking to make sure it is ‘plumb’ or straight up and down. This week I had to take care of the other kind of plumbing — the kind that involves water, pipes, fixtures, wrenches and the occasional bout of cursing.

As a preservation carpenter, handy-man or DIY-er having a little exposure to plumbing is a valuable skill. You never know when you’ll have to shut off a supply line, change a fixture or repair the work of overly aggressive plumbers that have hacked away at timber framed elements which do not handle the same way as modern stick frame construction.

In my adventures this week I had to take care of a plumbing issue at my own home. We’re lucky enough to live in a colonial home that was well built and only 12 years old. Unfortunately up here in NH the water is very acidic and on my street we have pretty high water pressure, both of which are tough on plumbing fixtures. The bathroom is pretty plain vanilla — nothing too fancy, but the builder picked all name brand fixtures etc — in this case Moen. We’re expecting our first child in August so while my wife and I would rather I get rid of the fiberglass jetted tub for something fancier with a tile surround the baby is fast approaching and I need to build a crib so we agreed on a modest refresh and making sure we have a nice complete and working bathroom ready for the arrival.

Here is what I was starting with — a plain chrome Moen ‘Legend’ Posi-Temp fixture and simple shower head:

The Before Photo (Circa 2000 fixtures as that is when the house was built)

The Before Photo (Circa 2000 fixtures as that is when the house was built)

This tub had two problems:

  1. The downspout when used in shower mode would leak into the wall and water and the can lights on the lower level do not mix well.
  2. The valve was not mixing hot and cold well and unless you like cold and colder showers something needed to be done — and fast

I figured, no sweat I can change the cartridge — it’s a Moen after all I should be able to get parts at my local store and this will be a quick job. On closer inspection of the handle I came to find out the set screw in the handle had fused on. After trying every penetrating oil, WD40, heat gun, allen key and torx bit I could find I decided to drill out that set screw which made the handle and the piece it connected to useless. During this time I also noticed whomever installed the backing plate had tightened it on so tight it was deforming the metal and just about ready to rip through.

OK, if the tub spout leaks, the handle is shot and the cartridge is not working, I might as well buy a full new trim kit and a cartridge….

After getting the trim removed the valve looked fine the surround cleaned up easily and now it was time to examine that downspout. It was a slip-on compression fitting — the spout slips on 1/2″ copper tubing, has a couple of rubber washers to keep water from getting into the wall and is secured with a set screw from below. When I got it off I noticed that half the washer was stuck up in the front where the water should come out, the other was missing and there was a bunch of calking around the pipe at the wall opening. Without that washer holding back the water it made sense why water might be shooting back towards the wall and some dripping through. (Thankfully nobody seemed to use this bathroom much — there are others in the house — so there was virtually no interior wall damage)

Old fixtures removed

Old fixtures removed

So a quick search on Google and I found a replacement trim kit at Lowe’s that should have a compression fitting downspout, a nice new look, fancier handle and shower head. And the replacement Posi-Temp cartridge was another $39.  I got to the store and they told me they don’t stock the trim kits anymore (Even though the website said they should have 2 in stock). The in-store computer said all the stores in the area no longer stocked it as well. So now I had to buy the full kit which meant wasting an extra $20 on a rough in valve I’ll never use — but at least I now have a trim kit and cartridge in hand. Back at home again I used a dedicated Moen Posi-Temp cartridge extraction tool. This $12 tool works a bit like a steering wheel puller.

Moen cartridge extractor in use

Moen cartridge extractor in use

Note which side of the cartridge is labeled ‘Hot’, then line up the jaws with the cartridge, tighten down the screw that goes through the body of the cartridge and then turn the big nut while holding the handle and the tool extracts the cartridge without damaging the valve body or the pipes.

Cartridge extraction tool on a sample valve body

Cartridge extraction tool on a sample valve body

With the old cartridge out I could see all the mineral deposits etc. With no cartridge in the valve body put your finger in there to make sure there is no other debris or damage.

Old cartridge (near) and the new cartridge (far)

Old cartridge (near) and the new cartridge (far)

Install the new cartridge using hand pressure on the white plastic body — do not press on the brass stem as this can damage your cartridge. With the cartridge fully seated (and HC in the same orientation) I replaced the safety pin.

Replaced cartridge ready to go

Replaced cartridge ready to go

I could now re-install the trim around the valve and the new knob. Installation was the reverse of removal.

Here’s a link to a great You-Tube video walking you through this process:

Now on to the tub spout….

I opened the box and was examining the nice looking metal tub spout when I realized it was a screw on fitting which requires a longer pipe with a threaded end. WTF?!  I figured this must be a mistake and I just had to exchange it. Back to the store with that part in hand the clerk told me that Moen came up with new numbering for their products and that both models are thread-on only. (The instructions in the box shows both screw on and compression spouts were made) A change like that is information that maybe they should put on the box and the website — but I guess I am old-fashioned that way — I expected the box to accurately tell me what was inside of it. They couldn’t order a kit with the compression spout fitting but they could order me a separate ‘genuine Moen’  slip-on downspout for $40 (which would be metal looking plastic and not matching the style of the kit they already sold me)  or they could sell me a POS plastic generic model. Judging by the fact that I could see about 6 of these generic compression fittings that were clearly returned and taped back together I could tell buying one would not be a good idea…

Interior of a compression downspout

Interior of a generic compression downspout

So I bought a 5′ piece of 1/2″ copper pipe — from which I only needed about 1.5″, a coupling,  a male threaded nipple, solder and flux. I followed the directions for pipe length and soldered on the nipple. A nice video clip from TOH on soldering can be viewed here. Now time to screw on the spout — 2.5 revolutions and it won’t go on any tighter and its still 3/16″ from the wall and not water tight.  At this point I was really not happy.  I took the spout off and could see that it was poorly milled. It had some slag in it that it embedded into the new copper thread. That slag would not melt with the propane torch and I could not pop it out so I had to file it out with some needle files being real careful not to damage the nipple. I tried re-installing it and it didn’t go any further.

As they say ‘it’s not a proper plumbing project unless you’ve been to the store five times‘…

Back at the store yet again, I exchanged the spout for another of the same model. In the plumbing department the clerk from the first visit said she found the trim kit that she insisted was no longer stocked —  (it was threaded spout only so still not all that useful to me) — and only a day late on finding that part…

On my way home I stopped at Home Depot and they had the same story about slip on tub spouts. In the plumbing aisle I found they did stock a Sioux Chief Smart Spout (which is a much nicer/heavier made, metal slip on/compression spout that has a patented mechanism that keeps it pressed tightly up against the wall, is made in the USA and seemed to have very good reviews online for that sort of fitting. If you decide to go the compression route I would suggest checking one of these spouts out here.) If you do find a slip-on spout you like here is a nice video on how you’d go about installing it:

In talking to the clerk at Home Depot he mentioned that they recently got a batch of bad copper nipples that looked fine visually but were defective and had to be sent back, so I figured I might as well try a nipple from Home Depot before giving up and using the Sioux Chief Smart Spout. I know my wife would not be happy if the spout didn’t exactly match the the faucet set….

 

"Propane and propane accessories" -- Hank Hill would be proud

“Propane and propane accessories” — Hank Hill would be proud

I fired up the propane torch, removed the previous day’s extension and nipple and installed the second attempt. The second Moen tub spout threading looked marginally better and I was holding my breath when I put the spout on. Thankfully the test fitting worked great. I took it off, added teflon tape to the threaded nipple, installed the spout and tested it under pressure — it works great and does not leak at all. We’re now back to having a working tub and shower etc. I also installed a curved Moen shower curtain rod that gives you a few extra inches of space in the shower — it screws into the wall as opposed to the old rods that were a friction fit and was a nice upgrade.

You can see the final result here:

Newly refreshed bathroom

Newly refreshed bathroom

What are the lessons from this marathon blog post?

  • Plumbing is certainly a task you can tackle yourself, but you need to be patient and have the right tools for the job — don’t be afraid to look online or talk to others
  • Make sure you know what type of tub spout you have as the websites are often not clear on what will be in the box
  • Soldering copper tubing with a propane torch is something just about anyone can quickly learn to do
  • Stay away from generic fixtures. Stick with bigger brand names like Moen, Kohler, Grohe, Pfister, American Standard, Delta etc as they are more likely to be around and have parts. (If I were building from scratch I’d go with a Kohler or Grohe fixture with a ceramic cartridge over the plastic cartridge in the Moen Posi-Temp line, but for the price it is a reasonably nice faucet)
  • Make sure you use teflon tape and/or pipe dope on threaded fittings
  • Don’t be afraid to try new things and learn new skills

With all the attention the shower was getting the toilet got jealous and decided to have an issue of its own. If folks are not too turned off by this brief departure into plumbing I’ll make a shorter post on refreshing toilet hardware as well.

Take care,
-Bill

P.S. For plumbing, as we do in woodworking, make sure you follow any instructions, local building codes and use common sense. (Disclaimer)
P.P.S. The Sioux Chief Smart Spout went back to the store today unopened — so if anyone out there gets one and tries it out, I’ll be curious to hear what you think of it.

Categories: Plumbing | Tags: , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Tools for the New Frontier: 1790 to 1840 — EAIA Annual Meeting 2014

Fort Pitt Canon

Fort Pitt Canon

Things have been quiet on the blog front the past few weeks. Some folks wondered if I was kidnapped or worse. Thankfully I am safe and sound, though exhausted. I’ve been working 12+ hour days for the last three weeks straight at the day job. My volunteer night job has been developing a new website for the Early American Industries Association which is one of the oldest and most prolific groups of its kind. Any spare moments beyond that have been spent in the shop or preparing the baby’s room.

I’m proud to say that the new EAIA website has been online for a few weeks now and you can check it out here. It offers a new more modern feel and is built on the WordPress platform. My hope is that we can get more folks involved — especially the next generation of tool and early industry aficionados.  If you have an interest in blogging or would like to share some related content with the group (even if you are not a member) please contact me here.

If you are not already a member I highly recommend checking out this great organization. The two major publications — The Chronicle and Shavings alone are worth the cost of membership. You can find many other like minded folks who are into traditional hand tools, techniques and the study of industries that helped shape America.

The EAIA is also known for it’s Annual Meeting and regional meetings. They are a great opportunity to visit new areas and museums, get a behind the scenes look at a given venue and socialize/network with like-minded friends. You can see some highlights of last year’s meeting in my earlier blog posts here.

This year’s meeting theme is ‘Tools for the New Frontier: 1790 to 1840′ and will be this coming week in Pittsburgh PA. Highlights will include visiting the Heinz Center, Old Economy Village, the Fort Pitt Museum along with the usual EAIA events of the tool swap, tool auction, whatsits? and many mixer events. If you are interested you can learn more here.

I look forward to seeing many of you at the conference.

Take care,
-Bill

P.S. I’ve been busy working out in the workshop and after the conference will be posting some updates on what I’ve been up to. Stay tuned.

Categories: EAIA, Historic Places | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

The Early Bird Doesn’t Always Get The Worm…

Every year the tool show gets earlier and earlier. I’m referring to the semi-annual ‘Live Free or Die Tool Show and Auction’ in Nashua New Hampshire which occurs every April and September. On Friday and Saturday the highlight for most folks is normally the tool auction at the Nashua Holiday Inn. Outside in the parking lot vendors setup to sell or swap tools — many fresh from the auction. That is where I spend my time and money — I’m into nice user tools.

Nice inlaid tool chest

Nice inlaid tool chest

Folks would get there earlier and earlier on Friday. Vendors started getting there on Thursday to be ready. Eventually those folks figured — well if I am already at the hotel on Thursday I might as well setup and sell what I can. This process repeated itself and now some folks are dealing tools on Wednesday afternoon.

Nice selection of sea chests, cabinets and small chests

Nice selection of sea chests, cabinets and small chests

This year I went on Thursday morning again and about 80% of the usual vendors I like to buy from were there and I figured I’d have an edge in getting whatever tool I was hunting for or whatever new treasure I didn’t know I needed until I saw it. Unfortunately the early bird did not get the worm this year — I only bought a couple of small items and only saw a few friends from NBSS. Normally the tool show is one of my favorite days of the years but the meager haul left me wanting more —  so I decided to go on Friday morning to see a lot of my friends from NBSS and meet some more of the new students.

Interesting painted tool chest lid

Interesting painted tool chest lid

Friday was a much better day — less wind and a little sunnier. It was great to see lots of old friends and the rest of the vendors I normally frequent.  I also found a couple of great items that made my day. Throughout this post you can see a sampling of some of the more interesting tool chests and cabinets at the show. It is interesting to see what has survived and how folks laid out their tills and decorated their tool chests.

Sloyd style youth workbench -- though not a Larsson bench

Sloyd style youth workbench — though not a Larsson bench

Directly above you can see an interesting workbench. Designed for manual training or a similar classroom setting, this bench looks like it was a competitor to the Larsson Improved workbench I wrote about here.

Great selection of molding and bench planes

Great selection of molding and bench planes

This year there were more vendors compared to recent years and there was a particularly great selection of molding planes and bench planes.

Classic tool tote

Classic tool tote

The iconic tool tote above looks like it had a long service life — hopefully it went to a new home where it will see some use.

Nice clean modern tool chest with finger joints

Nice clean modern tool chest with finger joints

The tool chest above with simple finger joints and nice hardware looks pretty new, but I am glad to see some more recent projects circulating around.

Incredible telescoping tool chest (for sale by Patrick Leach)

Incredible telescoping tool chest (for sale by Patrick Leach)

The chest above which I believe was being offered by Patrick Leach was an incredible piece. With multiple levels of till, some on hinges and some with telescoping elements this chest looked quite heavy even without any tools in it. It clearly showed off the skill and the massive tool set of its original owner.

Interesting hand drill

Interesting hand drill

I was drawn to this interesting hand drill with a nice turned handle and unusual machined elements.

Cooper's planes

Cooper’s planes

Shown above are a nice selection of cooper’s planes — used to plane down staves — the plane is fixed and the stave is moved along the sole of the plane to make a shaving.

Nice plumb level

Nice plumb level

My friend Billy McMillen (Of Eastfield Village,  Historic Richmond Town, EAIA and CW Tinsmithing fame) had this nice plumb level for sale. The plumb bob and string is a age old way of determining level that dates back to ancient Egypt or earlier times.

One of two Hammacher Schlemmer tool cabinets for sale this year

One of two Hammacher Schlemmer tool cabinets for sale this year

A larger cousin to the Sloyd Tool Cabinet — this Hammacher Schlemmer tool cabinet was home to a large set of tools targeting a high end home user market. I was surprised to see two of them for sale. One model was joined via finger joints and the other was held together via rabbets and nails. The cabinets had an austere look and did not seem to make good use of the space in the cabinets. I spent some time examining the hooks and clips that once held the tools in place, but most of of the clips and hooks were pretty simple and straightforward.

My finds this year -- Stanley 358 Miter Box _ Disston Saw, Carpenter and Joiner's Union Sign, Starret Rules and Dividers, Mini Framing Square, ECE Frame Saw, Heavy Duty Snatch Block, Auger Bit Handle

My finds this year — Stanley 358 Miter Box _ Disston Saw, Carpenter and Joiner’s Union Sign, Starret Rules and Dividers, Mini Framing Square, ECE Frame Saw, Heavy Duty Snatch Block, Auger Bit Handle

And now on to the big finale — what did I get this year? I got some nice items off the nice to have tools list in my head. I’m particularly excited about the large and complete Stanley 358 Miter Box and large Disston saw to use with it — I’ve wanted one of these boxes for a while. Once I clean it up and tune it, I’ll post about it. In the back of the photo you can see a round sign for the ‘United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners’ that will look nice hanging in my shop. On the left side of the photo you’ll see a large and heavy duty snatch block that will come in handy when moving heavy timbers and the like around in the yard. On the miter box you’ll see a Stanley mini-framing square, a handle for square tanged auger bits, a Starret 12″ Satin Rule and a 12″ Starrett Rule that is metric on one site and 1/10ths of an inch on the other. In the foreground is a nice pair of Starrett loose leg dividers. On the right is an ECE/Ulmia frame saw — I seem to be going through a frame saw phase, and given I have more frame saw blades than frame saws I figured, what the heck. All in all, it was a good show. I look forward to putting these new tools to use in the shop. Now it’s time to start saving for the September show.

Take care,
-Bill

Categories: Tool Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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