You don’t know what you don’t know. How much have we forgotten?

How much do you think you could write about the steel square? I suspect many of you have to ask what a steel square even is, never mind writing about it. I was reminded of this ancient and vital tool as I prepared for a recent talk. I have said before that we have forgotten how to build, and I wanted to back it up with some hard facts. What is a concrete example of something we have forgotten?

One of my favorite examples of our lost skill is this picture.

Greek and Roman Orders
Greek and Roman Orders

It is from the 1926 addition of Audel’s carpentry books.  This picture is a worksheet that lays out the proportions and details of the Greek and Roman orders. The proportions, as many carpenters understood in 1926, helped determined the layout and size of moldings in a room. I suspect most architects couldn’t put this type of sheet together today. It is an example of a forgotten skill.

The steel square is another example of the lost art of building. This simple tool used to have a much greater role on the job site.

Steel_Square-1You may know it as a framing square. It is the simplest of tools, a right angle. This would have been used in Egypt on the pyramids, in Greece at the Parthenon and used in Renaissance Italy by Andrea Palladio.

In the 1870′s a man named Fred Hodgson wrote a 2 volume set of books on the steel square. Yes, 2 books! Turns out you can do a lot with this infamous shape.

I reviewed the books this weekend. Like other early builder manuals, a lot of time is devoted to using geometry. The book covers very simple tasks like the layout of stair treads, to very complicated exercises like double pitched roofs and elliptical arches. Turns out a steel square in the hands of smart craftsman can be quite useful.

Today the calculator is used in place of the steel square. Are we worse for not knowing how to use a steel square? Maybe not, but I would caution the carpenter who thinks is a better or improved craftsmen because he has bypassed this ancient tool. Technology encourages hubris. Technology makes us think we are better or more advanced than we really are. Remember, the best designed and longest lasting buildings (Greek and Roman temples, Gothic cathedrals) were constructed during a time of very low technology. Our technological pride causes us to look past this telling fact. . . We still have much to learn.

The Pantheon in Rome was built 2000 years ago. How many of our buildings will still be standing in 200 years?


KAWS Companion- a poignant commentary

I believe one of today’s more compelling pieces of art is by the artist KAWS and his famous “Companion”. It was outside the Modern Art Museum here in Fort Worth a little over a year ago. It captured me from the moment I saw it. In fact, I continued to think about it for a few days and returned to take a few pictures of it. I was reminded of this piece this weekend because we visited the Modern for an exhibit on NY art in the 80′s.

I shop therefore I am...

Here is one piece from the exhibit, this is Barbara Kruger’s untitled work which captures the “greed-is-good” attitude of the 1980′s. It is about the search for meaning in a seemingly meaningless world.

It is a play of course on the philosophical idea, “I think therefore I am”. This 80′s spin on this idea is striking.

Great art moves us, it challenges us and causes us to reflect. The Companion does it for me because it captures the present age so well. What KAWS has done is given us a glimpse of Mickey and Disney world, behind the scenes. The cartoon figure is a blend of Mickey Mouse and a clown. He appears to be in distress, possibly weeping, but why?

I think we all know why. The façade we put up in life, the utopian ideal that many of us feel compelled to project is false. There is a happy face we share with the world but behind the scenes, there is actually a great deal of shame and sadness in our lives. The Disney world we all want others to see, and the projection of fulfilment and happiness we may share on Facebook is only part of the story.

KAWS I believe is giving us a glimpse of ourselves. This figure is a mirror that highlights the reality of a plastic world, a false world that we should all question and challenge instead of perpetuating.


I share this with you on a blog about Timeless Building because the parallels to the McMansion are very real. We are building “impressive” larger house that are a false façade. They are false either because we can’t really afford what we just built or what we built will not last and is thus very temporal.

I think as a culture we need to explore and pursue eternal values, we need to delve into what is beautiful and pursue eternal beauty. Important things to consider if nothing else.










Tools of the trade: Inspriation from the past

axesIf you look at the inside cover of my book you will find this picture. It is taken at the building tool museum in Troyes, France. It is an awesome multi-story museum filled with cases (like this) of tools for crafting and building. This particular case displays timber framing axes used by craftsmen to fell and shape timbers. It is poignant to me because it is easy to forget, that before the rise of lumber mills, making timbers from logs was all done by hand.

A closer look at these axes and timber tools reveals their wonderful variety and individuality. Note the shape and size of the handles; some are long, some are short, some are curved, some are even left-handed. Each one is shaped and beveled to conform to the hands of each craftsmen. The craftsman’s experience would taught him that some handles break too easily, some give blisters and some aren’t quite big enough, and some need a stop so they don’t slip from my hands.

axes close

The variety and shapes of the axe faces are also revealing. Some are elongated, evidently designed to fit into a narrow spot; maybe a mortise, or maybe the deep crotch of a tree. Some have a small cutting blade, some are very wide which of course would have allowed you to sheer off more wood with each swing. Thought, care and wisdom went into the design of these tools.

To follow are some of my favorite pictures from the museum.

To start the museum is filled with many half-scale building models. These wonderful works help the craftsman work out complex shapes and construction challenges. For example, this circular stair model may have been built to work out the radius challenges of inside and outside rails. …you may also note some children who can’t seem to stay out of the pictures. . .

TM 2












This is a beautiful bow front window model. The bow front window is a great test as compound curves pushes the limits of a craftsman’s skills. Much like in boat building, getting a piece of wood to curve in 2 directions is quiet hard. It is the pinnacle in the art of woodworking.

TM 4













My favorite, was this window model below. Even built with operating miniature shutters and hardware. The French casement window (which is an in-swing-window) is hard to build. It requires precision and care that is a lost art of window making. This great miniature example had all the various parts and pieces. As a craftsmen and designer it was an inspiration. . . you may note my son is not quite as enthralled with the design…

TM 3













From my perspective the museum is a celebration of craft. Thus, there were also fine examples of the tools which help the art of craft. This plaster screed was designed as a beautiful ceiling crown/cornice mold. This is a single tool that saves time and money. To build the same cornice in wood, requires at least 4 different moldings. Also, this type of tool is great for circular work where plaster is much less expensive than making curved moldings.

TM 7










I love this roof tile with a graceful fish scale design.

TM 5









Finally this slate crest detail I love because it highlights a functional and practical way of providing cresting for a roof ridge while at the same time shows off a well-crafted method of linking these top slates shingles so that they don’t need to be nailed at the top. Form and function in perfect harmony.

TM 6











I write in the book about the celebration of craft. The tool museum highlights the personality and genius of great craft. It demonstrates through tool and samples that form and function serve and decorate at the same time. This is part of Timeless design and craft.