Sunday, December 18, 2011

An Artist's Look at The Landing's Cabinet Shop

Every year The Landing, a living history museum in Shakopee, MN, celebrates the holidays by holding the Folkways of the Holidays. This event is held on weekends in December and shows visitors how Christmas and Hanukkah were celebrated on the Minnesota frontier during the 19th century.  My friends Kevin Alto, Dave Winter and I are always on hand to man the cabinet shop and demonstrate how woodcraft used to be done during the good ol' days. Dave, the shop's Scandinavian flat carver/instrument repairman/fiddler/bowl turner and general entertainer, has developed yet another talent: watercolors.  This weekend he captured the essence of yours truly as I busily worked away on a small hanging cupboard.  

Here I am at the bench cutting some dovetails on the cupboard's carcass.

Here I am "repairing" a 19th century glide rocking chair with
what appears to be a medieval battle axe
I think it looks just like me, though I usually only use my battle axe on larger projects.

Thanks Dave!  I've never looked better!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Tin Cans and House Paint in the 19th Century

For more information about historic paint colors for your Victorian or Arts and Crafts era home, please visit the Historic Design Consulting Website today!

Once in a while a seemingly simple invention or discovery ends up having significant and wide-ranging consequences.  One example is the tin can.  Today tin cans are so common that we give them little thought, but after the Civil War they were a novelty that truly revolutionized commerce, diet and help bring about a consumer society.  Among the many industries that cans changed was the production and marketing of  house paint, as they made it possible for the owners of Victorian homes and professionals alike to buy ready-mixed and colored paints.

At the beginning of the 19th century house paint had to be prepared by mixing ingredients such linseed oil, white lead, turpentine, driers and pigments.  Some of these ingredients were often only available in bulk containers such as wooden casks or barrels while the coloring pigments had to be ground by hand. This made it difficult for homeowners to mix small batches of paint for jobs around the house.  However, during the Victorian era tin cans not only made it possible for professional painters and homeowners to buy smaller amounts of paint, the pre-mixed paint was of better quality.  Since canned paints were mixed in factories in bulk, the quality was more consistent.  Whereas the color and consistency of hand mixed paints always varied slightly depending on the amounts and quality of the ingredients, commercial, ready-mixed paints were uniform.  Commercial manufacturers used  pigments that were finely ground by mills so the colors were even.  National brands such as Sherwin-Williams and John Lucas & Co. tested their different ingredients so they could avoid adulterated pigments and additives that were common on the consumer market.    

The John Lucas & Co. of Gibbsboro, NJ was one of the innovators during the last half of the 19th century and was among the first to package house paint in tin cans.  Founded in 1852 by the Englishman John Lucas, the company developed new pigments, improved the production process of white lead and was a pioneer in prepared and ready-mixed paints. 

This can of Indian red paint from around 1880 is an early example of John Lucas's ready-to-use paint.  The soldered lid was removed with a can opener and the contents poured into a bucket.  Additional boiled linseed oil could be added to thin the paint and the professional painter or homeowner could brush it on the walls, ceilings and millwork.  Since the top was soldered, the can could not be resealed (Henry Sherwin patented the first resealable can in 1877) and all the paint had either to be used or the remainder stored in an airtight container.
A ca. 1880 paint can (still full of paint).

Top of the paint can showing its soldered lid.
Although this little can might not look like much, it represents a revolution in the way house paint and hundreds of other products were marketed and used during the last half of the 19th century.  Small innovations certainly can have large and lasting consequences.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Greek Revival: America's First National Building Style

The Greek Revival has always been my favorite American building style.  I find its simplicity appealing while its strength and solidity remind me of the growing confidence and wealth of the new republic.  The Greek Revival was significant because it was America's first national style.  Although based on a European precedents, the American expression was unique and was found coast-to-coast during the first half of the 19th century.  This popularity was due principally to the widespread use of several pattern books, including Minard Lafever's The Modern Builder's Guide (New York, 1833) and Asher Benjamin's Practical House Carpenter: Being a Complete Development of the Grecian Orders of Architecture (Boston, 1830).  These pattern books were written for carpenters and house joiners who used the books' descriptions and lithographic plates as models for their own designs.

The Greek Revival was a favorite with the burgeoning East Coast merchant class.  The Whipple House of Salem, MA was built in 1843 and is a classic example of the new style.  Jonathan Whipple prospered after he established a factory in Salem around 1835 which sorted and processed copal,  an African resin which was used to make furniture and maritime varnish.

The house has several features typical of the Greek Revival, including Doric pilasters at the corners, a recessed doorway with rectangular sidelights and transom, and a wide entablature running the length of the front.  The trim around the front door is particularly striking and closely resembles a plate from Asher Benjamin's book Practical House Carpenter.

Jonathan Whipple House, Salem, MA, 1843

The Ard Godfrey House was built in 1849 and is the oldest remaining frame building in Minneapolis, MN.  Godfrey was a millwright who moved with his family from Maine after  Franklin Steele, a prosperous speculator and mill owner,  asked him to construct a sawmill in the small community of Saint Anthony.  Godfrey was one of the earliest settlers around Minneapolis and is notable for being the first to bring dandelions seeds to the area.

The proportions and  shape of the Godfrey House resemble those of  the Whipple.   The house is symmetrical with a  similarly pitched roof.  However, its ornament is less bold.  The Godfrey House has Doric pilasters like the Whipple, but they are narrower and molding on the capitals is simpler.  The front door is not recessed but has rectangular sidelights and is framed by a temple-like door surround with two pilasters and a simple but strong entablature.  The Godfrey has a simple frieze board along the top of the wall rather than the Whipple's more elaborate entablature.

Ard Godfrey House, Minneapolis, MN, 1849.

Although these houses were built over a 1000 miles apart, they share many characteristic features of the Greek Revival.  As such, the Godfrey and Whipple houses are excellent examples which show the national character of the building style.

For question about your own home's building style or information about how to restore, maintain or paint it, visit the Historic Design Consulting Home Page.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Selecting Doors for your Historic Home

One frequently neglected step when restoring a historic home is the selection of millwork that is appropriate for the building's age and style.  This includes interior and exterior doors, which are often hastily chosen after thumbing through a catalog or browsing in a showroom.  Few salespeople in home centers or millwork outlets know the differences between building styles such as  Queen Anne, Greek Revival, or Eastlake and are unable to help homeowners make informed decisions.  The result is doors that look out of place and detract greatly from the character of a historic home.

If you are considering replacing doors one of the first steps should be to identify the age of the originals.   Around 1700, frame and panel doors appeared in America and quickly replaced board and batten doors in all but the most rustic buildings.  Frame and panel doors are the type we see all around us today.  They are composed of vertical boards called stiles, two or more horizontal pieces called rails and a number of floating panels fitted into grooves.
Frame and panel door from The Practical Woodworker,  Bernard E. Jones, ed., showing stiles, rails, panels and the mortise and tenon joinery.  

One way to determine the age of a door is to find out whether it was hand-made by a house joiner (a joiner is the 19th century version of a finish carpenter who made and installed doors, windows, molding, stair parts, etc.) or was machine-made in a factory. Before about 1850 much millwork was still made by hand using saws, special planes and chisels. Hand-made doors from this era have a few characteristics that make them relatively easy to spot.

Hand-made doors often had pinned mortise and tenon joints where the tenon was secured in the mortise pocket with a  round or square wooden pin.  Joiners frequently used a technique called "draw boring" where a hole was bored through the mortise and tenon for a pin, but the hole in the tenon was bored slightly off to the side.  When the pin was driven through the mortise and tenon it pulled the joint together very tightly.

Circa 1855 door with two pins securing its tenon in mortise.
 Another way to identify hand- made doors is to look at the way the panels were raised (for an explanation of panel raising using hand tools, look at this earlier post).  Hand-made door panels from the Federal, Greek Revival, and Gothic Revival styles often show tool marks that indicate which tools were used to make them.   Hand planes often leave subtle marks called "tracks" where there is a line left by the edge of the plane's cutting iron.  These marks are especially visible in flatter, Greek revival doors where the cross-grain and long-grain meet at the corners of panels.  The edges on the raised fields of the panels are usually square rather than rounded (which was common on later, machine-made doors).

The faint horizontal lines on this ca. 1853 door  were made by the edges of a plane iron when the joiner raised the panels.  Note also the square edges on the raised panel field.
Planes marks can also been seen on the molding profiles, or sticking, in the rails and stiles surrounding the panels.  Unlike machine-made molding, which is perfectly even, hand-made molding sometimes will have slight variations, chatter around twisted grain, and the occasional "tracks".  

Industrialization quickly changed the way millwork was produced in the U.S.  Aside from  isolated, rural areas, most doors produced after the Civil War were either machine-made or a combination of machine and hand work.   Steam powered factory equipment was well suited to the production of stock doors as it eliminated the need to pay legions of craftsmen to cut, saw and plane hundreds of rails, stiles, mortises, tenons and molding.

One easy way to identify Victorian-era, machine-made doors is to look at the ends of the tenons.  Rather than securing the mortise and tenon joints with pins, machine-made doors usually have two wedges driven into the ends of the tenons.  This causes the ends of the tenons to fan out slightly and hold the joint together.  Although wedging was done by joiners, pinning was more common in early hand work.

Although difficult to see under 120 years of encrusted paint, wedges have been driven into the ends of the tenon to secure it in the mortise slot of this ca. 1870 door.
 Another feature of machine made doors is the coped joints.  Machines that cut the molding in rails and stiles had two cutting heads: one struck the molded profile that was visible and another struck its exact opposite or negative.  This allowed the joints to fit together, where the oppositely struck piece was able to fit snugly over positively molded  section.  This is the way doors are machined today.

The right piece is the stile with a machined  cut molding profile.  The left piece is the rail with a machine cut coping profile, which is struck as a negative of the molding and fits snugly over the positive profile. 

 There are exceptions to this, however, as some plane manufacturers did make coping planes that were paired with door and sash molding planes.   These struck the opposite of the molding profile just as machines did.  However, these planes are rarely found today, suggesting they weren't used often.  When they were used, they were normally used to produce the muntins on windows.

I hope this quick primer will help you determine the age of interior and exterior doors.  Knowing these details will allow you select replacements that are appropriate for the age and style of your home.   The next step is to select the door configuration, including the number and arrangement of panels, the type of sticking or molding, and the dimensions of the rails and stiles.  If you are unsure what configuration you need, consult with a competent professional who is familiar with Victorian homes. 

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Greek Revival

Most architectural historians recognize the Greek Revival or Grecian Style as the first “national” building style in America.  Although based upon classical Greek designs, many aspects of the new Grecian Style were peculiar to America and so is thought of as a truly indigenous, American creation. 

Interest in Greek art and design grew following an expedition to Greece in 1751 led by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett.  Stuart and Revett began publishing a multi-volume work The Antiquities of Athens in 1762 which contained hundreds of engravings depicting the ancient monuments in Athens.  Antiquities of Athens stimulated interest in Greek architecture and influenced the first generation of American architects, including Benjamin Latrobe, whose designs included the Bank of Philadelphia, and Alexander Jackson Davis, who designed the New York customs house .

Greek designs were later popularized by pattern books and carpenter’s guides, including The Modern Builder’s Guide by Minard Lafever and The Practical House Carpenter by Asher Benjamin.  The new style began to be applied to more commonplace buildings such as middle class homes and farmhouses.  Interest in the Grecian Style was further heightened by the Greek War of Independence fought againt the Ottoman Empire. Many Americans, who associated earlier Georgian style and Roman classicism with England, saw much in the Greek’s struggle against the Ottomans that reminded them of their own fight for independence.  As settlers moved west  in the 1840s and 1850s they brought the new style with them and it became the predominant building style through the Civil War.

This ca. 1865 house in Mantorville, MN is a classic example of the Greek Revival.  Builders sought to mimic a Greek temple (think of the Parthenon in Athens) by using rectangular floor plans and presenting the gable end towards the front.   Classical pediments and eave returns were common and exteriors were decorated with details including Doric or Ionic columns or pilasters, wide frieze boards and ogee moulding. 

The gabled front of the house.  Please ignore the horrific paint colors! 
The front of the house features four fluted pilasters with stylized capitals resembling Greek urns.  Wide boards are applied under the eaves of the gable end and eave returns rest upon frieze blocks at each corner.  Like a Greek temple, the arrangement of windows, doors and decoration is symmetrical, proportional and ordered.  The affect of the house is strong and square which seems to reflect the confidence and determination of the new republic.

Close-up of the front entrance.
Greek Revival entrances often resembled miniature temple fronts.  Doors were framed by pilasters or sidelights and topped by  entablatures.   In this case the door is flanked by fluted pilasters with stylized urn-shaped capitals identical to those found on the corners of the building facade.  These pilasters support a squarish entablature with a wide frieze and a molded cornice.    

Detail of a pilaster, capital and frieze.
Detail of the front door.
Greek Revival doors often have four raised panels.  The upper panels are sometimes elongated with wide lock rails and squat lower panels.  High style examples often featured molded sticking on the rails and stiles surrounding the panels.  In this case, as was common on the frontier, there is no sticking and the borders around the raised panel fields is flat rather than beveled.   

Mantorville, MN is located a few miles west of Rochester, MN just off of US Highway 14.  The town is well worth a visit as it has numerous, well-preserved examples of commercial and domestic architecture from the first decades of Minnesota's founding as a state.