Tag Archives: Plumb Line Scribe

My Metaphoric London Bridge

A tangential slightly off-topic entry this go.

On part of the hows and whys on the road of life experiences and how a long ago project, (though I then had no sense of this connection and what would in time unfold) served quite literally as the very bridge on my career path crossing the void from Timberframing to Bridgewrighting.


A conjectural drawing by C. Walter Hodges – CC BY-SA Liscense 4.0 – via Wikimedia Commons – I had the great fortune to meet Mr. Hodges as he attended a festival held by the North Carolina effort – He was at that moment happily watching two efforts to replicate The Globe play out on two different continents

What I then saw and still see as an opportunity not to be missed, for the promise it held in sharing a then little practiced (at least on this continent) form of timber layout, was accepting a position on a crew assembled to replicate The Globe Playhouse in North Carolina and the opportunity it afforded to work with its chosen Brit Master Carpenter, Paul Russel.


Paul Russell explaining the nuances of Plumb Line Scribe in the 1993 Cruck Framing Workshop we came to know each other through – A life’s work mentor I will forever be grateful to

The Globe itself was borne of a bit of turnabout is fair play in a story of both cunning and cooperation, One worthy of retelling here, particularly in that it drives home the potential portability of timber framed constructions.

The predecessor of the Playhouse was built in 1576 by James Burbage on leased land. Burbage died twenty one years later in the closing months of the lease. The lease specified the lessee could remove any construction built upon the leased land should the landholder refuse to re-let their land. As an underhanded attempt to steal their building, the landholder simply repeatedly put off renewing the lease until it expired while technically never refusing to do so and then intimated that full possession of The Theatre then fell to him. Burbage’s sons and five fellow members of The Lord Chamberlain’s Company, this number including William Shakespeare, formed a “syndicate” a jointly held company to build and operate a new theatre. To do so they would first retrieve their rightful property, taking advantage of their former landlords holiday absence from the city, they would with their chosen “cheefe carpenter” Peter Street begin dismantling it on the evening of 28 December 1598. They would transport the dismantled frame over the frozen Thames to a newly leased plot of land in the “liberty” of the Clink. They then revamped the frame and the Playhouse and reopened it in the Summer of 1599 as The Globe. Their former landlord petitioned the court for damages, his pleas falling on deaf ears. The syndicate would go onto cooperatively run their playhouse for years to come. It like its predecessor would host the inaugural run of many of times most celebrated plays penned by one of its renowned co-owners.


One facet of the of the efforts eighteen sides – Note the specifically chosen naturally cranked Plate – This Plate held a crank at either end all the others to follow would have had but one


This replication was to have in time filled this entire area

As a joiner of wood and longtime admirer of this fellow Will, our languages greatest “joyner of words” I am ever disappointed that there are still those doubters that work to deny Will his works and insist they must have been penned by a learned, well traveled man of a far higher social status. I would suggest genius and natural ability does not know any social status and turn their very argument on its head in suggesting that only someone who straddled both worlds could hold his understanding of trades and tradesman and carpentry and joinery, and I think it plausible some of that understanding came from the part he played in the “theft” of The Theatre and the work he engaged in in helping morph it into The Globe in the late Winter and warming Spring of 1599.


The frame was to have been embellished with the type of carvings typical to the Elizabethan era


Naturally cranked Samson Plates were to have topped the Posts at the vertices supporting the timbers carrying the inner galleries

I have time and time again here on the pages of The Bridgewright Blog alluded to how scribe was and is for reason how timber bridge trusses were and should be laid out. The Plumb Line Scribe I came to fully understand on this months long failed attempt (full funding failed to materialize) to replicate The Globe, is the most versatile, efficient and accurate form of Scribe timber layout I have learned to date. I continue to this day to use it and its advantages and to share it with fellow framers, most recently and currently I am teaching this system of timber layout to a National Park Service – Historic Architecture Conservation & Engineering – (NPS – HACE) – Construction Conservation & Training – Preservation Carpentry crew as we work to replicate one of the timber sluiceways at the Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site.


The efforts flag held the Shakespeare Coat of Arms – In the Globes’ time the raising of the flag signaled to those out of earshot that a play was about to begin – With this play over we lowered the flag to half-staff and returned to the greater world in search of future productions

I would some months after helping raise then lower the Shakespeare Flag to half-staff, return to my home State of New Hampshire with an old, somewhat simple, though very powerful tool in my kit, and somehow found myself that very Autumn, recognized in the pit in a large group of groundlings by The Globes former engineer and he would call me over the fence.

Though as I recall, that is a tale,  I have already told –

                           All the world’s a stage, 
                 And all the men and women merely players; 
                 They have their exits and their entrances, 
                And one man in his time plays many parts... 
                     As You Like It - Act II Scene VII

The Most Important Tool in the Kit

With this entry we speak to tools, or at least the simplest and most important of tools in our kit, and the one which therefore allows for the accurate and proper use of all those that follow.

String is the most important tool in any box – It is a line running though time and history and most every building that ever was or ever will ever be. It is the very beginning, and is even now like a living truth and a real world Möbius Strip, a concept ever connected to an end that never comes…

String, in all likelihood developed from a simple tool used to bind items together for storage or transport, to then be used to build snares and traps and then towards its slightly more complex use in defining strait and true, none so long after our long ago ancestors first pounded and separated natural fibers apart and then twisted them back into cohesion and a potentially unending bit of cordage. This perhaps within generations of that first great leap forward.

All this development coming about long before recorded history. How much time had or has since passed before the first human mind noticed a taut line was strait and then went on to run a string through powdered charcoal with the intent of marking a strait line on something he wished to straiten and to then affix a line to Batters is something we can never know.

It is fitting that those beginnings are yet still just that, the beginnings of most any construction – It all begins with a taut line and Batter Boards, plumbs and the snapping of lines.

My focus on it as still being primary amongst the many tools we have since developed is in part to do with my traditional approach/es to timber layout, though in truth this goes back to my first week in my first carpentry job, in being taught the proper way to string a line and my asking my then mentor who it had been who had taught him the technique he had just demonstrated. His eyes acted almost as a line that day as they belayed the thoughtful recollections and truths spinning in his mind as he thought about it a moment, then he simply said “Well hell, I don’t know, that goes back to way on before the pyramids”


This image of a Merchet and its companion Plumb is seen here as a courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In part this focus goes to my primary chosen system of timber layout being Plumb-Line Scribe. Though no matter the chosen layout,  (Square Rule or Scribe) I am datum-dependent. I almost without exception snap lines on every stick, more often than not I do so on all four sides. These lines physically represent two perfectly perpendicular planes of reference.

In Square Rule these snapline planes of reference are used to accurately cancel out bow and wind and to overcome any lack of squareness not achieved in the milling of the timbers, as well as lending reliable accuracy to an organic and imperfect timber in the layout and shaping of timbers to chosen mathematical constants at each of their connections. In Scribe Rule these snaplines likewise are used to cancel out bow and wind as each timber is lined out and are then used to place each timber into scribe layups aligning the two planes of reference to Plumb and Level, this often over a lofting floor on which is drawn a full sized diagram, itself described with snaplines, pinged not with a line enveloped in charcoal or chalk but one dampened with ink. Upon such placement in these layups timbers and the inconsistencies (unlike the smaller pieces of wood found in benchwork, timbers cannot reliably be milled strait and true – Timberwork requires systems of layout which therefore deal with those expected and natural inconsistencies) found in their surfaces, are scribed to each other, often with the use of a Plumb-line used to gauge those inconsistencies.


Note the Level Mark adjacent to the 6″ Level – It is from that mark that the Datums are unwound – It is with both the Datums and the Level Mark that the timber is placed in the layup over the Lofting Floor – This allowing use of the Plumb Line to covey quantifiable information from each timber to the other

A snapped line, like a line on paper or a computer screen can also be used as a base line from which to develop the geometry to layout any required angles or an Arch or a desired radius or as a control line from which a trusses camber is re-conditioned in a bridge rehab/restoration or developed in a new build.

And in all forms of construction, lines then go onto be used all through the assembly and erection process as a constant reference to insure things are both strait and true and plumb and level.

Though recent advances and circumstance will sometimes demand a laser be the line of choice in the field, reels of string, be they Dry or Chalk Boxes or Ink Lines, will forever and always be, the most important of tools in our kit.