My revolving focus is often driven by a particular bridge, or its Truss Type, or an interest in its developer or Patent holder. My current attentions have once again revolved around to focus on something of deep and long interest, something that is the core of who I am and what I do. And interestingly something of a mystery, one which is perhaps this very year, slipping into its third century of wide use.
Traditional / historical timber framing layout systems became a preoccupation of mine something over twenty years ago now. In part with a growing understanding that the non-traditional layout used by the shops in which the first frames I helped cut were executed did not have a practical level of success, and in part because it was a connection to history and a historical continuum which drew me to this Trade. That and ample example that historical layout systems did possess a level of predictable success and practicality “then” suggested to me that they would still share these same practicalities in the now.
I sought out practitioners of these systems – The Scribe Rule & The Square Rule. (Scribe being the direct transfer of information from one timber or set of timbers to another – Square Rule being the shaping of timbers to a mathematical constant at each of its connections) And have gone on to, as a rule not an exception, regularly practice both, and also to teach traditional layouts in a series of workshops over the last dozen or so years.
Though in part it is out of preference, it is happily also out of practicality that I lean towards the Scribe side of things. With much of my work being Bridge related, and with Timber Bridges being the seeming lone exception (this due to slightly dissimilar pieces in what appear to be like, redundant and, mirror image Panels – Small inconsistencies driven by camber) to an amazingly rapid and geographically vast shift (here on the North American continent) away from variations of Scribe which had been the norm for timber carpentry for millennia.
Scribe layout survived all the many changes humanity brought to its fellowship and the need to house itself, including this migration to a new continent, this particularly well exemplified here (forty or so miles from the coast and just outside of first period settlement) in my little patch of Northern New England. Here settlement was, for the best part of the first two centuries of the then Colony’s existence, incredibly slow to expand. Long hostilities with the neighboring colony including cross border raiding, and raids encouraged from those neighboring colonials among Tribal peoples from both sides of the border. This pressure saw to it that settlement held fast at a standstill from the 1630’s through the 1760’s – As did building technology. As is found elsewhere in the New World, settlement patterns heavily influenced construction, in that colonials brought with them what they knew. This is particularly true of Timber Frame Carpentry, with country of origin and even regional variation in the home country heavily influencing the many regional variations found in the former Colony/ies. Framing style, technique and typology were brought from the Mother Country. Here in New Hampshire that transplanted Mother Country typology would be English Tying, in dominant use from the early 17th Century – the “First Period” on through to an end to the expansion standstill, and on into an area wide expansion and building boom. (settlement beyond coastal areas and nearby river valleys) The building boom and now rapid expansion of settlement brought on by an end to these formerly unending hostilities, this end coming with the close to what is little realized as, but was in truth the real first “world war” one encompassing multiple nations simultaneously on multiple continents – Known here as the French & Indian War, and elsewhere to history as the Seven Years’ War. Both Scribe and English Tying would survive this war and follow the boom of settlement into interior sections and remain in dominance another fifty years until a somewhat mysterious rapid change would morph both long used systems (Scribe & English Tying in both houses & barns) out of use in little more than a decades time.
This mystery of an almost overnight sensation shift away from what even here was a centuries old tradition in Scribe type layout has been high on my mind of late, with the current project being a Settlement Period barn in Bernhard’s Bay New York (here “settlement” was the mid 1790’s through 1815 or so) on the north shore of Oneida Lake. The Bernhard Barn is Square Ruled, and though the exact year it was first built is not yet determined. (research perhaps including Dendro is in the works) In part due to some unusual detailing, I believe it may be the earliest Square Ruled building I have ever put eyes and hands on.
With long study, exploration and preservation work on historic structures in my home region on the edge of First Period development and what might be the Nation’s first building boom, the sudden move to Square Rule and the concurrent move away from English Tying has long intrigued me. This seems to have begun sometime in the second decade of the 19th Century, and somehow saw total acceptance as the norm as not just common practice here in layout, this rapid shift to Square Rule would become dominant practice over the entirety of the then young nation. Everywhere north to south and as far west as settlement carried, and in this same contracted time-frame.
Some few have suggested, and having seen first hand great numbers of timber framed structures from the period, in not just my home region, but also in most all of those areas then settled – I adhere to the theory that the rapidity of this universal acceptance over a hugely wide geographic area is directly attributable to another violent international struggle, one this year marking its bicentennial – The War of 1812 – The theory holds that high hundreds if not thousands of Carpenter’s from all over the country were brought into the war effort (Hundreds did participate in a strategic effort to build Naval ships at pace on Lake Erie to outnumber British craft in what came to be known as the “The Battle of the Carpenter’s”) to build watercraft, bridges, earthworks & barracks buildings. They shared ideas and also a need to produce needed constructions quickly. An ability to throw more carpenters into an effort which lays out individual pieces mathematically than could possibly fit / fold into a Scribe layup assemblage, made this sheer numbers strategic advantage of Square Rule the Layout of choice for the wars duration, and upon its end Carpenter’s in great numbers returned home with a new tool in their kit, one that despite a generations long practice and tradition, and a tendency in humankind to resist change, a foundational shift, a season change uncountable hundreds chose to use and share. And in little more than a decade’s time, carpentry would forever be changed.
It is not impossible that Square Rule is also now marking its bicentennial year, and that this paradigm shift was in part responsible for setting the tone that the rest of the century would take. That conceptually the idea of interchangeable parts and mass production became an accepted norm and expectation and became part of the human psyche. All through this paradoxical chain of events, this bit about the horrors of war somehow leading to wide and rapid dissemination of a useful idea, coupled with humanity’s unending and simple need to house itself – And that this would in time and in turn, lead to techniques of mass production being used to also build, The Cotton Gin, The Springfield Rifle, and one day, The Tin Lizzy.