Commonly Un Common

The Square Rule is, as I suggested in the last entry, not just back on my current, but it is now my actual horizon. A part of my here is now everyday. As is this wondering as to why it was the people who chose to use it, this Square Rule, chose to do so.

It is a funny place to be in in more ways than one. As is the fact that I might gaze through a window few can share – I know what it is to wonder after the efficacy of which system to use for any given Timber Framed construction. To ask which system of Timber Layout, Scribe or Square Rule is the more, or even the most appropriate. This a window common to a few of my contemporaries. Though one last wide open for but a brief while, centuries ago now, when this rapid shift from the Scribe to the Square was yet underway.

And I think the perspective I view all this through, is far from common. To know traditional versions of both systems of layout is not common even among framers. To have a working sense of both historical framing of buildings, and those of bridges is maybe even more so. All this is a circumstance and a happenstance and a perspective, which was once commonly shared. The once sense of everyday of a common country carpenter, but now some of the little explored vagaries of a hyper niche carpenter. That said, I still see myself as a common country carpenter. Perhaps it is the every tree is a timber, commonality traditional timber framing has with the sawlogs we are often involved in “converting” – It is in this work, none so uncommon to choose timber in the woods and on the stump. Something we have done here as part of the Bernhard Barn restoration, the two Tulip stems which will serve as species in kind replacements of the one piece fifty foot hewn from the round Wall Plates still stand in their forest and yet touch the sky, and do not yet know that they will be part of the next chapter in the ongoing story that this Barn will continue to tell.

It often crosses my mind that this thing of being a Framer with an inter-discipline sense of things is an all too small club, one with a membership far far too short in numbers.

So, all that, and with the other high horizon focus, The Blenheim, seem to bring us back to where this blogging adventure began, with Long Trusses and The Square Rule and who might have taught who what, when it came to bridge framing, (see the May & June ’11 archives) now swings back and over into a parallel and perhaps as seemingly and an almost equally unanswerable exploration. Who was it who brought the roots of Square Rule to the table, and where was that place that they called home?

Semi parallel interwoven puzzles and a wonder after both, send us in search of clues to either, and we find yet another letter of shameless self promotion from the good Col Long –

All this information for but three pence, the price of a nail so small, most might think of it as a tack.


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

3 responses to “Commonly Un Common

  • Jay C. White Cloud

    Hello Will,

    As you explore the elements of layout, do you ever go beyond what is here in North America, and look at the vernacular archetypes of timber craft, which seems to be, like so much of civilization rooted in the Middle East? From all that I have gleaned from study, and all that I continue to discover, the craft of the timber wright/carpenter, went East from the Nile Valley thousands of years before it went West and North into Europe. There it flourished into forms of great beauty and complexity in Shang Dynasty, (1700 BCE,) while the rest of the world was still in, or just coming out of Neolithic periods. The layout methods there, still in use today as the oldest method in the world, is “line layout.” I have not been able to gather yet exactly when, (we may never know,) this method evolved from the progenitor of “edge rule.” In as such, the two methods are often used in concert with each other, as the “line,” forms a single imaginary point inside the timber, that all joinery is referenced from, while a reference edge or plan, is used to execute visualization of the individual joints. Like you, every day I read and think a little bit more about this craft of ours, and each day I have more questions. Why is the oldest and most used method of layout, still confined primarily to the Eastern Cultures? Why didn’t the Europeans move to the same logical conclusion about layout? Why did the Saxon cultures develop such elaborate and labor intensive, scribing techniques, instead of the use of templates and reference lines/points? Was this because of the development of paper or just the extra millenia that made the difference? Even the Pacific North West First Nations people used a “line and template,” method for layout that predates Columbus and is our own vernacular form of timber framing here in North America. Did this indigenous culture develop this on there own or because of trade with the East over the millenia, as is now being excepted by more anthropologists/historians. The Pacific North West and the Ainu People of Northern Japan and Eastern Russia have such similarities as to indicate they have a common ancestors. Did these methods come with them? I’m glad there is someone else thinking about all of this and asking these questions?




    • Will Truax

      Jay –

      I have looked, but as you know language barriers aside, such information, but for the heavily studied and shared Japanese carpentry tradition, is a bit hard to come by.

      I’m finding your mention of the First Nations People and their timber carpentry timely and intriguing.
      Our project here on the North Shore of Oneida Lake of course puts me square in territories formerly and still held by affiliates of the Iroquois Confederacy, and there is of course their Longhouse tradition of large and complex buildings, of which there is too little known and seemingly little in the way of serious study. There are those who theorize because of some shared resemblance to Norse constructions, that there might have been influences from the brief north american colony at “L’Anse aux Meadows” and the forays beyond that home base. But I know of no one who has floated that potential that has looked at it from the perspective of the methods and traditions of the carpentry used to build either or a cross comparison of the two.

      I’m also pretty wowed by your having worked with those within the Amish community, and specifically a connection to an unbroken chain in the use of large dividers, large 3 – 4 – 5 Squares and Story Poles. The use of these tools were a daily occurrence in many traditions the world over, including Scribe here in North America, and their use course survived the transition to Square Rule and though I have seen several early and accurate examples of carpenter made linen tape measures, I have no doubt Story Poles and large Dividers for stepping off such Story Poles for ease in transfer of information, continued in common usage far longer than many realize. To touch such tooling, tooling which has been part of an unbroken chain of usage and tradition is an enviable position to find oneself in.

      Likewise, I find it gladdening that there are others out there in the community exploring these aspects of the former everyday of our trade which are now almost lost to time.

      – Will


  • Jay C. White Cloud

    Thank’s Will, for the kind words. I have gotten to a point, that I am beginning to craft a manuscript for a few publishers I know, that have been “hound’n” me for a while about getting the stuff in my head, down on paper.

    I wish, when I was with the Amish, that I knew as a young man just how precious their gift of knowledge was. I do try to honor it the best I can everyday, by practice and teaching. Your words on this blog have really helped me crystallize some of my own thoughts on this subject.

    The trade of knowledge across the Pacific and North Atlantic, will probably never be fully understood, but the evidence of contact, (pre-Columbus) is unmistakable all over. It is funny how Asian and Nordic cultures could trade, share and live with indigenous people of North and South America, for what is appearing to be thousands of years, but you add a twist like fanatical Catholicism and Western European sense of superiority, and it all comes crashing down in less than 500 years.

    Thank you again, for this blog.




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