Carpenters and their Marks

They’re everywhere and they are not, and perhaps that is part of the problem. With Carpenter’s Marks being somehow so ingrained in our collective subconscious, most everyone (even those without interest in historic carpentry and its methods) holds for them some blip of understanding, some seemingly just short of intuitive sense of their necessity and purpose. Perhaps this is why so much assumption is intertwined in much of the written description found on what and why they are.

Much of the supposition as to purpose is wound around how Timber Framed structures were often scribed, cut, and partially assembled in Carpenters’ Yards miles or more from where they were ultimately erected. While this is happenstantially true, it is only tangentially a driver in why the marks are necessary, and over-complicates the case. The real driving need for their use is far simpler than that.

Most Timberframe constructions have multiple copies of the same piece, arranged in assemblages of which there are also multiple copies, be they walls or bents or roof planes, or in the case of bridges, a pair of like trusses and the braced Tie and Floor Beam systems which connect them – Much to keep track of.

An atypical five at a Check Brace / Top Chord connection on Berk's County PA's Griesimer's Mill Covered Bridge - Roman numerals as used by carpenters vary from the norm to avoid confusion - Four is expressed as IIII instead of IV simply to make it impossible to confuse it with a VI - The same is true of Nine / VIIII - But Five is always V - This was in all probability mismarked as a Four and corrected with a fifth I

An atypical five at a Check Brace / Top Chord connection on Berk’s County PA’s Griesimer’s Mill Covered Bridge – Roman numerals as used by carpenters vary from the norm to avoid confusion – Four is always expressed as IIII instead of IV simply to make it impossible to confuse it with a VI – The same is true of Nine / VIIII – But Five is always V – This was in all probability mismarked as a Four and then mistake caught, corrected with a fifth I

Carpenters’ Marks are a simple system to identify place for each individual piece to properly maintain its relationship with adjacent pieces – In the most common form in which such marks are found, that means assigning the low number roman numeral to the reference end / reference corner of the frame, this most often chosen as the Southeast corner – The entirety of the first Bent is assigned Roman Numeral I – Differentiation as to East & West corners (and any pieces found between these) is achieved by incising that Roman Numeral with chisels graduating in size. To these numerals there are often slight variations added to delineate and describe placement as to such things as first & second floor…

Pieces can and do share the same Numeral like they share the same address

Pieces can and do share the same Numeral like they share the same address – These marks are found in The Sandown Meeting House ca. 1773 to be part of a Timber Framers Guild conference tour this coming week – See you in the attic – Though but 22 years of age at the time of its framing, Timothy Palmer of Schuylkill Permanent Bridge & Piscatiqua Great Arch fame is said to have been clerk of the works in the construction of this Meeting House

Scribe type layout is also a driver in the need for this system, with each individual piece, no matter how much it looks like a carbon copy of its opposite other, only fitting in the one place into which it was scribed.

Here a small Scribe Layup is in process, the three timbers above are being scribed into the same configuration as the co-planer set below them, a Rafter Pair with a Collar Tie - As this layup is completed individual pieces will receive their mark as they are taken to the horses to be cut

Here a small Scribe Layup is in process, the three timbers above are being scribed into the same configuration as the co-planer set below them, a Rafter Pair with a Collar Tie – As this layup is completed individual pieces will receive their mark as they are taken to the horses to be cut – Placement is assigned as the process begins

The system however survived the transition to Square rule layout, (See Dec ’12 archival entry – Overnight Turn on a Paradigm) simply as a proven aid in efficient assembly on raising day.

I still use traditional Carpenters’ Marks on both Scribed and Square Ruled frames. I find it both simpler and more interesting than a grid described with Sharpie markers & ABC / 123 – I’ve also found it holds appeal for clientele. This driven home some years ago in a newly raised house, with the owner beginning a friends introduction to the frame, not with a view of some interesting detail in the timber-work, but in pointing out the Carpenters’ Marks in the Great-Room. (These typ incised on reference faces in the area of the Brace joinery on both the Posts & Braces – ie: A standing height field of view) In watching his description of their purpose play out, his genuine enthusiasm for what he was working to describe suggested to me that he felt his choosing to build a Timberframed home was in some way including he and his family, through their home, in some nameless and timeless continuum – Something I feel part of each and every day.

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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

2 responses to “Carpenters and their Marks

  • Jim Derby

    Hi Will;
    I am glad to see you also find carpenters’ marks on old square rule frames. Some timber frame historians are of the opinion that only scribe rule frames have carpenter marks.

    Like

  • Will Truax

    I find them on Square Ruled frames with regularity Jim –

    Perhaps the most interesting twist I’ve ever seen on that was a Parsonage House in Gilford, the first floor marks were the typical most common form of chisels graduated in size, the second floor sticks were marked in the expected places, in the expected Roman form, but with red grease pencils.

    I thought I’d see you in the Sandown Meeting House attic today.

    Like

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