A Now Two Century Old – Overnight Turn on a Paradigm

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 here in Northern New England 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.

An English Tying frame in Strafford County NH dating to the post F&I Boom-time

An English Tying frame in Strafford County NH dating to the post F&I Boom-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.

A settlement period building, the Bernhard Barn is an early Square Ruled example of a common barn typology

A settlement period building, the Bernhard Barn is an early Square Ruled example of a common barn typology


Tax records suggest the property was held by John Bernhard - The Farm was developed by his son John - Improvements beginning in 1815

Tax records suggest the property was held by John Bernhard – The Farm was developed by his son John – Improvements beginning in 1815

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 – Somehow, this became a new beginning, 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.

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About Will Truax

I'm a timberframer and preservation carpenter, and regularly work on Covered Bridge restoration projects. Bridgewrighting can be a tough row to hoe, for a myriad of reasons. From scheduling issues to differing opinions and philosophies on what is appropriate in methods and materials, to multiple jurisdictions still not sufficiently vetting bidders resumes - Which is to say, just because a company is on that state approved list and capable of building that seven figure overpass, this does not mean they are capable of restoring a wooden bridge... So, I have much to say about all this and more - And despite my tough row observation, I promise not to whine. View all posts by Will Truax

12 responses to “A Now Two Century Old – Overnight Turn on a Paradigm

  • jan Lewandoski

    Will,
    A very interesting hypothesis about a topic I spend a lot of time musing on. I have often thought that the square rule flourished in the newly opened territories (Vermont and upstate NY) particularly after the revolution due to the influx of young persons there, with their tendency to want to do something different than the older generation. On the frontier, any young framer may have had few senior framers to tell him he was wrong. The War of 1812 did produce this type of cross fertilization as well, and may explain why Penn. Germans didn’t adopt the square rule, as they were less likely to be involved in the carpentry wars.
    Jan Lewandoski .

    Like

    • Will Truax

      Hey Jan –

      I was aware of regional pockets slow to transition, but it hadn’t occurred to me that those pockets were maybe peopled by those who maybe sat out the war as pacifists of a conscientious objector like mindset.

      The pocket of Carpenters quietly Square Ruling somewhere before the opportunity to share, and whether any datable body of their work is still out there to be found is perhaps the real wonder.

      Thanks for stopping in.

      — Will

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    • jane

      Jan,’
      also a) the apprentice system falls apart in the early 1800’s, and b) men in new communities need to train themselves – hence the popularity of books like Asher Benjamin’s “Carpenter’s Assistant”

      Like

  • Jay C. White Cloud

    Hi Will,

    I have been working on a manuscript for a few years now and hope to publish in a few more. The subject will cover folk timber framing methods of the Americas and Asia, including this fascinating element of layout methodologies. There are so many holes in our history that most of what we have comes from folks like you, Jan and I digging around in old homes and barns, and speculating about their origins.

    I apprentice with Amish barn wrights from the age of 14 till 23, on and off till I joined the Marines, Since then I have gone on to specialize in indigenous folk timber, stone and earth architecture of the Americas, Middle East and Asia. Each year realizing, more and more, that timber framing was flourishing out side of Europe, (including this country,) for thousands of years before the Europeans moved much past basic Neolithic post and fork methods. That does not discount the wonderful wood culture that did develop later.

    On the subject of layout methods, I watched the Amish barn wrights do things that I still am having epiphanies about to this day, including the use of a snap lines on certain occasions, that used a greasy ink. I never saw them use a tape measure, only dividers, a giant 3/4/5 square, story poles, trammels and the likes. They claimed that the story poles came for the “home land,” and dated to the 13 th century. I could never prove that of course but could assert that they seemed very old, well used and had been treated with incredible reverence. I follow Jan’s theories that these conclaves of specialty wood workers held secrets that only got passed down in oral traditions, as I got to experience. I further believe that “edge rule,” as we know it today, was a spin off of “line rule.” Your observation about the War Of 1812 further aids my theory, in as such much of the craft of the timber wright is shared by the ship wright. There is overwhelming evidence coming in every year, that the Chinese and Slavic Russian Cultures had been building, sailing and trading with First Nation People of the Pacific North west and Canada, way before Columbus came over. Because of the nature of the war of 1812, the need for ships and the use of both “line rule” and “edge rule,” in ship wrighting, I believe that it was an easy leap to our American Barns, then homes.

    Regards,

    jay

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  • jane

    Hi Will,
    I have linked this post to a post about carpenter squares on my blog. I have been thinking about why carpenter squares became such desired objects – 6 factories in our area in the 1850’s all producing squares..
    While I think the new Square Rule framing was partially responsible, your post is the first I have seen to postulate how and why Square rule framing began.
    The early squares in the Bennington Museum have scales on them as well as dimensions, divisions of 6’s and 8’s..
    The markings were clearly done by hand. I have been told they were not standardized dimensions until a method of stamping was invented (rolling a scored plate across the square, I think) and the factory made secure enough that a work bench would not be jostled when a loaded wagon passed by.
    In Bennington, VT, we have also seen scribe marks c. 1790, carefully cut on post and beams, as if done in a workshop. This might have lead naturally into square rule for some parts. Bennington is southwest VT, settled in the 1760’s, older than Jan’s neighborhood, close to Albany NY.

    The Precision Instrument Museum, Windsor VT, build 1820, is square rule famed.

    My blog address is below. If you have any concern, please let me know.
    Jane

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    • Will Truax

      Jane –

      Thanks for stopping by and playing into the conversation. It is particularly gratifying in that your blog is one of my favored, to the level of inspiring, of those that I read – http://www.jgrarchitect.com/2013/01/carpenter-squares-in-1503.html

      Though the only thing new I added to the conversation is the thought that there is a strategic time driven advantage to throwing more carpenters at a Square Ruled effort, (teaching Scribe drives home how only so many fit into even a large Layup) I’m unsure why more is not written of the whys and hows of the rapid and wide spread of Square Rule? It has long been high on my mind, and the driver for that is not just the mysterious concurrent end of English Tying. (having done so suggests why, ET is just plain hard to Square Rule) It has for me been other historic examples with glimmers of the system predating it by hundreds of years – A 16th Century English frame I helped with in which the Riven Studs and Common Rafters were fit into mathematically laid out common width Joints which were were sized to the largest of either example in the frame, an inverse, a sort of Square Rule in reverse – A 17th C New Jersey Dutch Colony example in which the ends of pieces were flatted in a Counter Hewing type methodology to simplify scribing them into place (something I have long done in new work) to a level of refinement to which they had the appearance of reductions / gains at the points of interface. These kind of right place circumstance things have for me kept up the wonder for years now, so I’m all the more puzzled as to why so few others have shared their wonder.

      I do know your Bennington in some small way, should be passing through town today, but today’s storm has other ideas.

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      • jane

        Have you considered how the lack of standardized dimensions influenced the rules? Scribe rule depends on geometry, a story pole. Square rule requires everyone to agree how big an inch is.

        On a work site such as the naval ship yard reference dimensions could have been posted that everyone could use. We know that some medieval towns in Europe posted ‘their’ cubit on the town gates – this would have been similar.

        Here I get lost. As long as a crew works together and has a record (a story pole for example) the exact size on an inch does not matter. It is only when others with no access to the record find value in collaboration that standardized dimensions matter. Thus we see that railroad track need to be exactly the same if freight cars and engines are to travel from one area to another, that interchangeable gun parts give armies an decided advantage.
        But carpenters built one building at a time, in one place. Until we buy parts from a lumber yard – or have them milled off-site, why should a builder care about standardized dimensions or the Square Rule.

        What am I missing?

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      • Will Truax

        Jane –

        I don’t think you are missing anything –

        Though I guess I don’t see the rapid shift as co-incident with the availability of mass produced Framing Squares, patent dates seem to suggest this was just a bit later. Though there was this paradoxical thing of Squares going by a number of names in the 19th – Steel Square, and oddly, in some circles known as Square Rules.

        Nor do I see a standardized Square as necessary to the method, as long as the graduations match on the two or three examples used by any given framing crew things will fit – I also see Square rule and its need for exactitude as having been much more reliant on Story Poles than Scribe ever was, with folks Square ruling before the advent of mass produced measuring tapes as having used various forms – From crude one time use sticks, to clear flatsawn hardwood slats fit with multiple Trammel Points which saw use on frame after frame, as having necessarily been the “Rule of the day”.

        I can’t help with the whys of the rapid adoption. I don’t find it as having any real advantage over scribe, and that the trade offs of exchanging one set of tasks over another as maybe even a poor trade. (As example – non-structural housings and their requisite reductions to a mathematical standard as being so labor intensive as to almost make no sense) It is often said that the advantage is that of less timber handling, this is an argument I simply do not accept. Even putting aside that these were people that simply knew rigging and how to move large objects – Having scribed many layups in the outdoors without the benefit of a scribe floor, I know it to be far more manageable than is imagined by those who have never done so. I also believe that limewash over brick pavers used as scribe floors, both temporary one time use examples, and more robust semi-permanent variants set up in Carpenter’s Yards were far more common than most realize.

        All this has the rapid adoption aspect of this shift, is what has me wondering what it is that I don’t see? A slow shift would be understandable, people do what they know, people often cling to that which they were taught first, and fail to see advantages of those things they are exposed to later…

        It is still the overnight success, shift on a dime, aspect of all this that is for me, the most mysterious part of this shift.

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      • Jay C. White Cloud

        Hi Will,

        I can’t thank you enough for this great discussion. Getting to correspond with someone about this, especially if they have a slightly different interpretation of the subject is most rewarding. As I write on this for publication, I’m challenged to find anyone that has your experience base and, to a degree, a different perspective, which is paramount in truly exploring this topic.

        Now for Jane’s benefit, your other readers, and my own interest, I would like to explore and, perhaps, challenge some of your views if you would be so kind. I know I will benefit from the discourse to good measure.

        I agree with you that Jane was not really missing anything, just perhaps not seeing the bigger picture or from different perspective. I see too, the rapid expansion of the “square rule,” layout method and the name of the tool, “square rule,” as correlated to this techniques rapid expansion here in North America.

        Having studied, observed and done, several “lofting,” and “scribing,” modalities, I would present some variant perspective on the subject. Both methods rely on a “story pole,” if you will, just used in a different context. With Square Rule you could actually use a long piece of wood that had markings on it, or Trammel Points as well, but Scribe Rule is also incorporating the same concept, just perhaps not in such a regimented fashion. (Some have said refine or detailed fashion, which I present, is not the case, since both methods can facilitate very refined structures.) With Scribe Rule you sill have to have registration marks and/or lofting points, ergo your story pole. Put another way, the lofting floor (scribe floor,) is your story pole or “joint map,” as I’ve also heard it called.

        To address the point of “rapid adoption,” I would present these few observations. (Note: this is for North America, as I have stated earlier, Edge Rule has been around for a long time in other countries with “timber cultures,” used in close to the same approach, but often not as extensively.) The nation was in great need for large architectural infrastructure, and timber architecture filled that niche admirably during this state of the “industrial revolution” with its needs of automation and uniformity approach to all things produced. However, there was a challenge of having enough skilled craftspeople to fill the demands left vacant after several devastating wars. Hundreds, if not thousands of skill and season craftsmen, with generations of knowledge left and never came back. With them died all that wealth of acquired knowledge and experience. This does not change the need and very well, I present, expedited the adoption of the Edge Rule method, as once learn, is not as complex or demanding a procedure and “scribe rule.”

        Now this brings us to Will’s premises that there is no real advantage of Scribe Rule to Edge Rule. Here we do have opposing views on the subject and the discourse is of great value, IMO, as Will has considerable and valuable experience on the subject. What I bring to the discussion is a very global perspective (big picture), familiarity with many diverse layout methods (including several not discussed here like “Line Rule;”) 30 years field/academic experience, and long and short apprenticeships under traditional mentors.

        I don’t agree that timber reduction to a standard size, Will’s “mathematical standard,” contributes to anymore work, when done well, than cutting a well fit scribed joint. In this it is a wash; equal in labor for both methods. I’m assuming that someone equal to my experience is performing the edge rule, while somebody like Will is doing the scribe joinery, from the other perspective. All said and done, the joinery will be executed with the same speed and accuracy, presenting no real difference at this juncture.

        Now that brings us to the next point of contention that Will addresses, material handling and logistics. I don’t believe for this conversation we need to define what “scribe rule,” or “edge rule,” is we can just assume the reader knows, or has looked it up. I am definitely of the mindset that one is considerably more labor intensive than the other, and will present a scenario that should reflect my premise. It should also demonstrate some of the reasons “Edge Rule,” took on so quickly over “Scribe Rule,” and why, in other regions (countries,) it evolved further into “Line Rule.”

        We have a bent assembly to layout and prepare for joinery. (Note: this fictitious frame is a compilation of several “Dutch Barns,” I have observed/restored.) This shall be a large Oak hand hewn frame from circa 1820. The posts shall be 8”X 10” and main tie beam (Anchor Beam) shall be an 8” x 18”, with other members like brace, connecting girts, wall girts (wall purlins) and rafter plates, etc., sized accordingly. This is not a treatise of all action steps, just a generalization and which should be clear to the initiated.

        Now we will assume that a “scribe floor,” has been prepared with all the necessary markings, there are enough able bodies to move the timbers, and/or rigging to do so. The first step will be to overlay the timbers for initial layout of joints and scribing of same. This is a considerable amount of labor and will have to be done a minimum of one more time to test fit the joints. After that the bent frame is disassembled once again to trim and joints that did not fit well. In scribe joinery, each joints is unique to itself.

        This next scenario will take us thorough the process of preparing the same timbers for joinery, except this time we will apply the principles of “square or edge rule,” layout methods. There was no need to prepare a lofting floor, as none is needed for this method. The braces and wall girts are going to be acquired from one of the new mills that has opened this past year, which also staffs a competent timber wright who learned his craft from his father and grandfather, both lost in the war (war of 1812.) He has taken his required datum from the story pole that the Dutch Master Barn Wright provided when he ordered the lumber for the braces and the wall girts. The main timbers are laid out in groups of similar kind. All have been accessed and layout will commence to an ideal timber size ¾” less then current stock. No test fitting will be required. Mortise and tenon are all cut to a uniform size, and checked accordingly by gauge. The Principle Anchor beams on interior bents, and all “inboard joinery,” shall be centered, with joinery laid of the “line.”

        It is not just the timber handle that makes one system less labor intensive than the other (not necessarily better,) but when, where, and how the timbers are dealt with. Each time you touch a piece of timber to manipulate it in some way, it reflects on the efficacy of the method. Having done both enough, I can tell you that “scribe rule” is not as efficient as “edge rule,” and neither as efficient as “line rule.” If a “scribe floor,” is not incorporated, than efficiency drops further. Another way to think of it is that “scribe rule,” is the antithesis of custom joinery, each component unique, which is almost always more labor intensive. “Edge rule,” is assembly line timber framing where piece can even be cut at different locations and still fit snugly in the frame. While “line rule,” is the apex of both these methods, allowing the use of “live edge,” timbers, stock that is out of square, round stock, and even tapered; all fitting perfectly without the need of test fitting or even all members cut at the same location.

        Maybe with this insight I have shared, the “rapid adoption,” may make more sense.

        Regards,

        Jay

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      • Will Truax

        Jay –

        I did not mean to intimate Story Poles were little used in Scribe, they were of course used to mark accurate placement of primary pieces – Such as Posts to Plates & Cills – I was merely suggesting that their use and importance kicked up a notch with the advent of Square Rule and they were now used to necessarily hyper accurately tick off joinery of secondary members, Braces of course, being foremost among these.

        I do have to respectfully but adamantly stand by my statements in regards to the efficacy of Square Rule vrs. Scribe – My conclusions were drawn not just from personal observation in years of practicing both forms of layout, but also from the tracking of jobs executed in my “Timberyard”

        Just to explain, Though I purchased and dismantled and transported an Ohio barn in the mid-nineties to serve as shop space, I in the same patch of time decided that being that it was not large enough to support scribe efforts, ( a clear span floor being necessary to this – so an open 28′ X 44′ minimum being a necessity for most projects ) I continued for some years to cut in the out of doors – The choice of Scribe over Square was not necessarily driven by frame design or client wishes, the decision of which to use was also often driven by weather and a desire to not kneel in either snow or mud – I often Square ruled in the Winter & Spring, and Scribed in the Summer & Autumn.

        Scribing over dirt with no snapped out lofting floor or shop advantages of timber handling, and I still came to see effort spent between the two systems as a wash.

        I am talking full blown Square Rule – Housings, Reductions, and unwound Datums – ( though this the same effort and lines snapped on Scribed timbers ) The only layout I trust to see things fit first time every time just as is a known quantity for Scribe.

        Secondary members go from their layup to the cutting – Primary pieces go into their second layup, and then from there to the cutting stations – Yes there is some limited additional handling, but I find it no more demanding of time and labor than the cutting of Housings & Reductions.

        This shop space delay taught me much about how I approach the work, and suggested to me probabilities about how others might have viewed these two systems and their perspectives on the differences between them in the past.

        And not that it is really a part of this discussion – (If that discussion is the influences which may have driven the historical shift) But if you put a scribe effort in a scribe dedicated shop with a snappable floor, an overhead bridge crane, and a small Scribe savvy crew, and there is no comparison – In addition to all its other freedoms and advantages – it is hands down, simply the faster of the two systems.

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  • Jay C. White Cloud

    Hi Will,

    Jane, I’m sure Will is going to give you a good answer to this. Having just read your blog post titled, “carpenter squares in 1503,” and now this I have some insight that may help or only confuse, I’m sure it will generate more questions. I think I shall go to your blog, to address what you have written here and come back to this, after Will addresses it first. Then perhaps add additional comments.

    Regards,

    Jay

    Like

  • jane

    I am reading and enjoying this – might make a comment later.

    Like

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