Monday, October 1, 2012

Making a 19th Century Door: Or, Why do Modern Replacement Doors Look so Strange on 19th Century Homes

There are many differences between woodworking in today's machine age and the 19th century.  Contemporary carpenters and furniture makers rely on drawings, dimensions, and precise measurements to help them plan and build things.  Before the Industrial Revolution, however, things were very different.  19th century house joiners certainly did rely on pattern books, but these books didn't contain measured plans with precise dimensions for Federal or Greek Revival doors, windows and moldings.  Instead, these pattern books had drawings of various elements with proportions. 

What do I mean by this?  Lets look at a 1797 plan book by Asher Benjamin and see.  If you wanted to build an interior door today you would buy a set of measured drawings for a 2/8, 2/10 or 3/0 door which would give you the standardized width of the stiles, bottom, top and lock rails, dimensions for the molding, etc.  If you look below at a plate from Benjamin's 18th century plan book, you will see that the drawings are far simpler.

Asher Benjamin, The Country Builder's Assistant
(1797)  plate 12.
The first thing to notice is the series of 9 marks beneath each door. Rather than dimensions, Benjamin instructs the joiner to divide the width of the door opening into 9 equal parts or steps of a divider.  If you are building a 3/0 door, which is 36 inches in width (as in the example Benjamin gives here), you would have 9 parts or steps of 4 inches each.  On the 4-panel door each stile, muntin and top rail is one part wide (or 4 inches), the bottom rail is 1 1/2 part wide (6 inches) and the lock rail is  2 1/2 parts wide (10 inches).   

The genius of this approach is its simplicity and flexibility.  If your door opening is an odd size like 2/9, 2/11 or 3/2 (as is common on older homes), you simply step off 9 parts on the door opening's width with a pair of dividers and there you have your base measurement.  You then use the dividers to lay out the width of the stiles (1 divider step or part), the dimension of the bottom rail (1 1/2 divider step) and so on until you have your stock ready to cut and plane.   Regardless of how wide or narrow the door, the proportions of each component to the entire door are exactly the same.  

What's better yet is you don't even need a ruler or to know the dimension of the opening.   You simply mark the width of the opening on a scrap piece of wood or story stick, use your dividers to divide it into 9 parts and start laying out your door.  The idea of not knowing or needing the dimension of a door is hard for modern tradesmen to wrap their heads around, but in the 18th and 19th century this was standard procedure. 

Ca. 1849 Greek Revival Door
Why is this important? These differences in approach explain why modern replacement doors often look so odd in older homes.  In an age where everything is standardized (e.g. the width of door stiles and rails), when modern shops build odd-sized doors for older homes the proportions of the door parts are usually off.  They just don't know the proportions governing the dimensions of the door's various parts and don't adjust their designs.

Whenever I visit an historic home I take careful measurements of doors, windows, molding and other millwork and determine the proportions of each piece. Then, if I make a hand-made door for a Greek Revival home, I can check the measurements and proportions for doors in similar homes and use them to make the replacement.  Not only does my replacement door have appropriate tool marks and construction for the 19th century, its proportions, molding and shape are also correct.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Wall Plaster in a 19th Century Log Cabin

When we think about the American frontier, images of isolation, privation and strenuous labor can come to mind.  Life on the frontier certainly was difficult and dangerous.  A homesteader’s first year was often a frantic race to establish his family before the winter’s first snow began to fall.  The first job was to cut timber to clear land for planting crops and provide logs for building a cabin.  The homesteader's wife and children might stay with a neighbor or even remain back east while their new house was being built and crops and garden planted.  Conditions in their new log home were primitive as most cabins had only dirt floors, almost no furniture and only a small, cast iron stove for heat and cooking.  However, once established in their new home pioneer families were eager to improve their cabins with siding, wooden floors, paint and plaster.  Even on the frontier people did their best to follow the latest fashions and keep up with the Joneses.

German immigrants Wilhelm and Sophia Ney homesteaded along the Minnesota River just east of Henderson, MN in the 1850s.  Wilhelm built a large 22’x 32’ cabin from maple and basswood logs in 1855 which served as the family's home until he built a larger house out of the local, cream colored Chaska brick.  The old cabin was cocooned in board and batten siding and then converted into a horse barn after the family left. However, despite being used to stable horses for many decades, remnants of the original daubing and lath and lime plaster have survived on the rear wall.

Exterior of the Ney cabin showing half dovetail notching and board and batten siding.

The cabin's  interior showing the hewn logs and rafters and plaster remnants.

19th century plaster was made from lime, sand and sometimes animal hair and applied in up to three coats over wooden lath.  The plaster was mixed on site (the lime often coming from local deposits of limestone) and lath split or riven from trees felled in the area.  Wilhelm Ney split his lath from small branches of willow trees which were abundant along the nearby Minnesota River. The lath was nailed directly to the log walls with a straw backing which allowed the lime plaster to adhere more easily. 
Plaster remnants, willow lath and wooden pegs used to hold tack for the Neys' horses.
Close-up of the lath, plaster and straw.
Once the newly plastered walls had cured they could be white washed, painted with brightly tinted oil or kalsomine paint or even covered with fashionable wallpaper bought at the local dry goods store.   Indeed, some plaster, paint, siding and a new frame-and-panel door could make a log cabin look as refined as a frame house built in town.   Only its thick, log walls might betray its humble beginnings.

The Ney log cabin can be visited at the Ney Nature Center located just a few miles east of Henderson, MN along State Highway 19.