I Look Often Into the Past to Learn Future Answers

P1250900In the village, it’s on my way to work, stands a spired church of England church first built in 1180 and subsequently added to in the the 13th and 14th centuries by all accounts. How England can be a church  I don’t know, but there you have it.

The church gate opens to stone steps winding up to the entrance.
The church gate opens to stone steps winding up to the entrance.

The church stand atop a tall hillocky outcrop and stone steps twist and turn ever upward without a break until you arrive at the vestibuled entryway and a large oak door ornately hinged with massive hand wrought, iron hinges.

I don't suppose they are really massive but they do distribute the holding dynamic of the hinges to the oak.
I don’t suppose they are really massive but they do distribute the holding dynamic of the hinges to the oak.
And what of locks and handles too? Built to last more than a generation?
And what of locks and handles too? Built to last more than a generation?

This week we took photographs for a new work we are pulling together about wood and woodworking. I spent two sessions there on consecutive days. I’ve been bemused here before, taking preliminary pictures and such and the thing that struck me wasn’t so much the church proper but another structure beyond the church which is a covered lichgate built from oak.

The church lychgate built from oak with a little chestnut here and there and then topped with stone roofing.
The church lychgate built from oak with a little chestnut here and there and then topped with stone roofing.

This lychgate, gated on the outer side of its frame, stands on the opposite side from the stone stairway. Oh, and if you haven’t heard of the word lychgate you won’t be alone. No one in the office had either, when I mentioned it. I grew up with the term because repair work and restorations to such structures were common enough. Lychgate is also spelled lichgate, lycugate, lyke-gate or as two separate words lych gate too. Its pronounced litch+gate as one word BTW.

I took my tools to separate the parts and felt glad for my lighter weight traveling companion.
I took my tools to separate the parts and felt glad for my lighter weight traveling companion.

My friend, Ryan Cowan, the photographer who photographed my latest book for woodworkers, that’s Essential Woodworking Hand Tools, was working with me to try to capture images we needed for our current work. With my observing and then being photographed by another I was in the unusual position of being left free to pursue mental gymnastics as well as physical ones climbing into the eaves of the lychgate roof area. Investigating a sort of archaeological digging if you will. As I sat waiting, positioning and such, I found myself dismantling the lychgate’s architectural history (for want of a better term) section by section.P1550424

Firstly the main structure originated as oak with some sections in chestnut too. This superstructure records diminishing levels of craftsmanship probably determined by cost and skill levels, lack of aesthetic concern, care and so on, but also a lack of knowledge on the part of the trustees responsible for building maintenance. These are often a common issues.

Here, instead of solid sections, replacements were laminated. Hence the separation in the laminations that starts within a year or two on outsides structures exposed to the elements.
Here, instead of solid sections, replacements were laminated. Hence the separation in the laminations that starts within a year or two on outsides structures exposed to the elements. Notice also the stopped chamfers which do not match the original chamfer work.

Structures like these are indeed things of the past and I am not in disagreement with the fact that that’s where they belong at all. Many structures depict differing eras in the cultures we live or lived in and we will never see a return of them. P1460692I can’t imaging stonework like this returning because just as with culture, architecture and design reaches into the future with change, newness and ever-evolving concepts determined in the age of such developed concepts.

Weathered silver and shimmering in parts unseen.
Weathered silver and shimmering in parts unseen.

On then to my reason for writing. We should never dismiss past concepts and ideas of design  nor the materials chosen in the era. As my eyes worked over the oak, now, well worn by weather, I wondered whether plastic could replace it. Who would have ever thought that plastic windows and doors would replace 80% of wooden windows and doors here in the UK, but it has? People bought into buying plastic, low maintenance versions to eliminate painting wood not realising replacing them comes every 20 years whereas wood, when taken care of with good maintenance, would last a century. A lifetime guarantee is only as good as the company installing. So, lichgates are a thing of the past.

As I sat waiting in photographic resets I looked for ray flecks in the oak that told me that these platelets were more resilient than the open pores forming the adjacent wood.

Here the pores reveal the cell walls as more resilient than the softer wood surrounding to texture our vision and our understanding if understanding can be so textured.
Here the pores reveal the cell walls as more resilient than the softer wood surrounding to texture our vision and our understanding if understanding can be so textured.

Oak is definitively ring porous as a deciduous hardwood so my eyes caught the weather-worn areas with deep, deep interest. Searching each level it didn’t take much to compare the restoration work of the 1970s with the original structure and there see the compromises. How often in my youth did I here dumb lecturers tell me plywood and laminations would last longer than solid wood. I say day dumb because they didn’t actually know from experiencing what they were saying yet they spoke with such confidence and unquestionable authority when the techniques and methods were typically untried and untested. P1550426Here, in the humble lychgate the evidence was real. Laminated wood in outdoor and even indoor circumstances does not last as long as solid wood.

Consisting then of many a million cells we seldom see or should I say take note of, oak cells show remarkably in old and new wood. Close-ups in old and exposed-to-the-weather-wood look like colourless striations forming miniature cliffs.

Notice here that the vertical striations forming a distinct pattern are the annular growth ring we commonly see in the whole when a tree is severed from the root.
Notice here that the vertical striations forming a distinct pattern are the annular growth ring we commonly see in the whole when a tree is severed from the root. The horizontal lines, those protruding on the exposed roundover and those protected below showing as white lines, are the ray flecks we see in the face of woods like oak when we plane the sections of quarter-sawn oak.

 

 

Look in tight and the holes forming the cell walls reflect the durable hardness that gives a dead tree stem the strength to stand for hundreds of years. Thin white lines remind me that they were once gold plates shimmering in the sunlight.

Dismantling a section...
Dismantling a section…
...shows unexposed wood and the gold of the oak but...
…shows unexposed wood and the gold of the oak but…
...there behind the decorative sconce is hidden an original mortise hole into which an original arch long gone was once tenoned into.
…there behind the decorative sconce is hidden an original mortise hole into which an original arch long gone was once tenoned into.

P1550484

Ray flecks reflect light of quarter-sawn sections like this.
Ray flecks reflect light of quarter-sawn sections like this. Notice also the bandsaw marks left in the surface too.

But once again my eyes rest on the separated laminations that were once confidently fitted into the framework of the structure during restoration work. P1550480The men doing the work will likely be gone and their work reflects a misguided belief in lamination. Here you see the cills supporting the whole separated under the weight of the frame and then the stone roof itself. But look here. Stopped chamfers fall short of the originals even though they are simple enough to form. This is flawed restoration at its worst.

"For the sake of a penn'orth of tar the ship was lost." In this case it was a few penn'rth of some lead flashing the whole building has been in need of repeated restoration work.
“For the sake of a penn’orth of tar the ship was lost.” In this case it was a few penn’rth of some lead flashing the whole building has been in need of repeated restoration work.

The other cobbled-on parts show flawed thinking, yes, but more than that it reflects a design where the wood broke down ahead of time for the sake of a little lead flashing.

A triple lamination carries the wole building. It looked OK in its day and probably for a decade or so after being installed, but inevitably it did break down and now the whole superstructure rests on this flawed concept. On the other hand...
A triple lamination carries the whole building. It looked OK in its day and probably for a decade or so after being installed, but inevitably it did break down and now the whole superstructure rests on this flawed concept. On the other hand…
This section here is still the original cill from over a century ago and it's still solid.
…this section here is still the original cill from over a century ago and it’s still solid.

Inevitably buildings do suffer from poor planning for maintenance long term and whereas in times beyond three hundred years men did make clear plans and thought for lasting longevity, today we do see the breakdown allowed in our modernity.

Once again laminations part. It's only a question of time before it will come away.
Once again laminations part. It’s only a question of time before it will come away.

P1550500

What’s the answer? I don’t know. Despite what’s shown here, wood is still one the best sustainable cultures we have if we could only learn to manage our woodlands as a resource for woodworking rightly.P1550443

17 comments on “I Look Often Into the Past to Learn Future Answers

  1. Fascinating examination of the bones of history. In a sense, I suppose one could say the original tree is a “laminate” far beyond our modern manufacturing capability, with its billions of individual cells and — sometimes — hundreds of rings bound together at the molecular level. Nature laughs at our attempts to improve on her designs.

  2. I will look for some of the things you mentioned, now – the laminations, the mismatched repairs and replacements.

    Still one day I hope to build my house and grounds and one of the things I was pondering was if I should choose traditional wooden sash or more modern vinyl, with the triple pane construction. I think for myself I would choose the traditional way but then I have to think ahead and wonder if, should I train someone to take care of it properly, will there be anyone after me who actually will? These aren’t concerns anyone would have had two centuries ago.

  3. Fascinating, Paul. Doubtful that a professional specializing in the archeology of such buildings could match your understanding or insights…

  4. I love old buildings, well old anything, the craftsmanship that it to build them. I wonder if the builders of the church really thought that it would last centuries and centuries. I would really love to travel the UK and Europe just to look at the old world architecture alone. To touch a stone or a piece of wood that a hand crafted cenuries or even a millennium ago. To imagine what the area looked like then. Without the distractions and noise we have today.

  5. I’m in the process or refurbishing three Sash windows The building surveyor graded them as rotten and in need of replacement. 120 years in place still some original 2mm Victorian glass remain although several modern 3 and 4mm glass replacements- the reason they slide down the weights are underweight for the new glass.
    The fact the modern paint has peeled and shrunk means the wood still breath not a sign of rot in the wood.
    As I peeled back the layers of paint the underlining wood where it was less exposed to the element it looks like new but the closeness of the grain we can only wish for today, a pine tough and solid as the day it was made. some study has led me to try linseed paint slow to dry more difficult to apply But what a joy no chemical smell, only pigment and linseed oil a paint finish that will last 40 years with a little rub of linseed oil every 10 years. The wood will breath the paint will last. Can a modern plastic window last as long and still be as good 120 years later?
    Yes the cord is old the pulley original are worn badly more weight is needed
    but at least as I work on the windows I swear I hear the sigh of joy and relief of the craftsman long since past as I save the windows for some time more. Thank you Paul your posts encourage me to give it a go

    • Chris If I may add a couple of comments to your sash refurb, I have worked on many Victorian sashes, using Sandtex flexi paint system….a really superb paint….oil based micro porous. One coat of primer undercoat in one plus two coats top finish. It does not give a high gloss rather a high sheen.
      With regards to heavier glass (4mm) effecting weights, care should be taken if adding extra lead to existing cast iron on top as this will restrict opening. Heavier weights are available BUT longer
      Old frames were made with pitch pine, care should be taken when using today’s soft wood….soak in preservative. Use waxed rope and a ‘mouse’ ie weight attached to string when threading rope through pulley.
      When painting outside ….push inside sash up past top of outside sash by about 4″ to get access to top of inside sash.
      Did you know that the inside moulding called ovolo derives its name from the Greek word for egg and a sash can be roughly dated by the odd leg size of an Ovolo.
      It is possible to slow the decent of each sash with heavier glass by using a thicker parting bead between sashes and moving in the inside staff bead.

      • John
        Thanks for you feedback Much appreciated
        I’m learning a lot from refurbishing the windows are enjoying the process especially think I will in the end extend the life of the windows for many with luck another 100 years.
        These one the surveyor condemned out of expert ignorance!
        I like the name of the wagtail the flapping plate that divide the box the weight slide up and down in.
        Also a lot of houses use to have internal wooden shutter inside of the windows greater security warmer and better acoustically than double glazing but sadly most all gone today!

        The house is made of softer Victorian brick, lime mortar, lime plaster, lime putty, slow grown wood all designed to breath and move with the seasons.
        The main difficulty in modern life is the lack of the stove running 24/7 of which the hoses were designed around.

  6. Stanley/Bailey pattern finishing question. Hello Paul. Really appreciate you sharing years of skills and learning. Question for the Q&A sessions?. Following your sharpening guide, I can get lovely results from old Stanley 4 and 5 planes until I glue up. Once I have assembled and glued the same wood with the same planes refuses to be planed. The wood “cuts up” as if it were against the grain. I am resorting to card scrapers to finish the assembled joints but wonder if I am missing something with the planes? (On your videos the “cleaning up” of the dovetails is done off camera?)
    Thanks

  7. Ah Paul, in 1180 it wouldn”t have been a Church of England though! 🙂 It had a very different set of masters!

    Lovely photos! So much history. Is that Clifton Hampden or Long Wittenham?

    Thanks

  8. I cannot help but think of several life implications from your examination of worn and tested woodcraft. Most of the time, the old paths, and not modern rabbit trails, are better for creating a legacy that will keep our next generation from falling apart.

  9. Hi Paul,
    thank you very much for the wonderful fotos and the insights of the craftsmanship of our forefathers.
    I love these old buildings.
    But furthermore I looked to the both carved bible verses on top of the lynchgate:
    For I know that my redeemer liveth,
    and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. Job 19:25
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XRW-jr_PnbQ
    Hopefully more and more people will recognize him as their redeemer.
    After this these redeemed people joyfully looked forward to the resurrection in christ (2nd verse: For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. 1.Cor 15:22)

  10. Loved your comments on the restoration work. I think you and others are finally showing craftsman what real restoration is. Thanks for your insights to real craftsmanship.

  11. In this posting, you mentioned that the rather more ornate stopped chamfers were quite easy to create.
    Could you include an explanation of this in one of your Q & A sessions?
    Thanks!

  12. I was expecting to see some of the restoration. Was this just an investigation? A quote?

    Ryan’s nostalgic photograph of Paul’s toolbox, paints the picture of how it used to be, but carpenters are no longer the working-class labourers of yesteryear. Arriving on their bicycle with a portable chest of tools and a lifetime of experience. In reality, they’ll arrive in a new 4×4, with an electric chop-saw, to ‘get the job done’. Maximising profit. They demand more money than qualified Solicitors and Doctors.
    Of course the Trustees couldn’t afford to maintain the structure as they would have liked.
    The real question we should be asking, is how did regular carpenters become so valuable?

    • “Carpenters” is a very broad brush these days. Ship’s carpenter, joiner bench, joiner site, first fix joiner, second fix joiner, final fix and so on. None of these have anything to do with furniture making anymore until you go to some countries where everyone who works with wood is a carpenter. I’ve never called myself a carpenter once but not because of snobbism just because the job I took was not for a carpenter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *