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- The Handmade House
The Handmade House
Boards cut at a sawmill had a rough surface, scarred by the up-and-down cutting motion of the reciprocating saw blade. Smoothing them for use as finished surfaces involved an investment of time and skilled labor by the builder himsell In a two-step process, the rough-cut board had to be planed by hand. A large plane called a jack plane flattened out the roughest spots and eliminated the evidence of saw cuts. Next a smoothing plane was used to give the boards a smooth appearance.
Notice the verbal distinction: the boards were made smooth to the eye rather than to the touch. In fact, a slight arc on the blade of the smoothing plane meant that hand-planed stock was not perfectly flat like those produced later by machine planers. If you run your fingers across the grain of a hand-planed board, you can feel its contours. This is an invaluable trick for identifying early planed paneling, floorboards, door panels, and other wooden elements, and you can master it in a matter of seconds. Find an old dresser that you think dates from the mid-nineteenth century or earlier. Open a drawer and slide your fingers across the grain of the underside of the drawer bottom. If it's smooth and flat, it's probably a later dresser made with machine-planed boards or even plywood. But if you feel a perceptible hill-and-valley texture, that's a hand-planed surface. A flashlight held at an acute angle to the board will make the rippling texture visible to the eye.
The appeal of a handmade house always comes down to one thing: The hand of the workman. In a way that later houses do not, homes built before 1830 are the product of a craftsman who truly shaped the elements of the house. There are virtues to be admired in houses from all periods—the typical Victorian house will be larger and more elaborately decorated, the twentieth-century house will contain more creature comforts—but craftsmen are a living presence in an early house. Before the turn of the eighteenth century, the nails were made by a blacksmith, the moldings shaped by the builder, the bricks individually molded in wooden forms then fired in a nearby brick kiln, and the windows and doors were made by joiners with planes and chisels. All of the wooden pieces were fitted together individually by the carpenter, one painstaking joint at a time.
While handmade houses have much in common, they are still a diverse lot. Much of their individuality results from the building traditions within which the builders worked. Most carpenter-joiners were English, but Dutch and Spanish traditions also left their marks on American housing stock. And later, the American Federal Style assumed an important place. In the pages that follow, we'll look at each of those.
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