By Hand and Eye

I keep an ever growing list of things I should have been taught in school but that were omitted from my California public school and university education. Some examples: the art of memory, philosophy, navigation and that crazy book Moby Dick. I can now add to that list the use of a divider.

Geo R. Walker and Jim Tolpin’s book By Hand & Eye takes you back to a forgotten age when “rulers didn’t rule.” The book introduces you to the vocabulary of proportion. Just as music has a scale, traditional design has a visual scale. Through simple exercises such as creating rectangles, exploring the proportions of the classical orders and creating curves you learn the, sadly, forgotten and lyrical aesthetic legacy of our ancestors.

I’ve always been intimated by design tasks such as creating a website, laying out a newsletter, building a chicken coop or, most recently, creating a spice rack for the kitchen. When it came time to design that spice rack, thanks to By Hand & Eye, I was no longer intimidated by how to begin. I could get out a pair of compasses and start marking out certain proportions that human beings of the past have judged to be more pleasing than others. The door of my spice rack is a golden section, for instance, and the shelf spacing came from an exercise on page 131 of the book. Far from being restrictive, I found the principles in Walker and Tolpin’s book liberating. I now had a starting point for any design project.

For modern folks it’s difficult to imagine working without a ruler. Walker and Toplin explain,

Instead of asking, “How high is this base dimension in inches?” pre-industrial artisans would have asked, “How tall is this base in proportion to the case above it? How wide is this leg in proportion to its height? How much does this leg taper in proportion to its width at the widest part?”

The book walks you through how to apply this knowledge with the hands on use of  dividers, compasses, battens and the forgotten sector (used to divide an object into equal parts).  It’s not a catalog of magical formulas, but rather an introduction into a way of thinking about design that provides guidance from thousands of years of shared human experience.

While written specifically from the perspective of cabinetry and furniture design, I think everyone should read this book. But there’s a downside. Once you know these principles you can’t un-know them. Walker has a disclaimer on his blog:

Continued exposure to the content in this blog may result in serious side effects should you venture into a “Big Box” furniture store. Side effects may vary but may include: nausea, dizziness, diarrhea, and in severe cases convulsions. Even in cases of mild reactions it is known to cause embarrassing and uncontrolled verbal outbursts which may cause you to be escorted from the premises. Side effects are temporary and usually disappear shortly after leaving the store. Prolonged exposure to mass-produced ugly furniture may even result in death, though ongoing studies are still not conclusive.

I’d add that these side effects extend, unfortunately, to the entirety of our modern built environment.

Should you want to go down this dangerous rabbit hole, in addition to By Hand & Eye I’d suggest the following web resources:

But you have been warned. Walker’s not kidding about the side effects.

Bernard Maybeck Mystery Solved

Many thanks to Root Simple reader JE for identifying that strange Bernard Maybeck building that I posted about last week. It turns out to have been a temporary Panama-Pacific Fair building constructed in 1915 for the Concatenated Order of Hoo-Hoo, a sort of goofy fraternal order for the lumber industry. Here’s what the membership of the order looked like:

The order’s origin can be traced to a group of lumber salesman amusing themselves during a seven hour train delay on January 21, 1892, in Gurdon, Arkansas. From the Hoo-Hoo website:

Full of this idea, the group set about to mold the initial tenets of the new order; it was to be a war on conventionality; there would be no lodge rooms with forced attendance; no marching in the streets in protest; no “bothering” anybody; no uniforms or flashy regalia. There would be one single aim: to foster the health, happiness, and long life of its members . . . The word “Hoo-Hoo” had been coined by Johnson himself only one month earlier at Kansas City in describing a most peculiar tuft of hair, greased and twisted to a point, atop the otherwise bald head of Charles McCarer, of Chicago. The name Hoo-Hoo became a catch phrase among the lumbermen in various areas to describe anything unusual or out of the ordinary. A good poker hand was a “Hoo-Hoo hand.” A strange hat was a “Hoo-Hoo hat”. The breakfast which was prepared by the old lady mentioned above was a “Hoo-Hoo breakfast” because the lady’s fingerprints remained on both sides of the pones even after they were cooked. Thus, Hoo-Hoo well described this new order, and since the word “concatenate” means “to unite,” it was decided the two words made a perfect marriage.

Here they are in the mid-twentieth century promoting wooden toilet seats, something I just can’t get behind (so to speak):

After the fair the Maybeck Hoo-Hoo building was put on a barge and shipped to Cupertino where it burned down in 1926.

A digression–the log columns on Maybeck’s building remind me of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s charming goose hut:

For those of you with evenings to fill and ties to the forestry industry, it appears that the Concatenated Order of Hoo-Hoo is still around and still rocking the same fantastic black cat logo. They also went co-ed. Just don’t tell Alex Jones about the order and those wooden toilet seats or the fun will be over.

More info on the order and the fate of the Maybeck building here.

Fun With Mortises and Tenons

Last week, in a moment of fevered DIY insanity, I decided to spend an entire afternoon tricking out our wonky breakfast nook table with mortise and tenon joinery. I found the base of this table in one of Los Angeles’ lesser alleys many years ago and, back when I had higher levels of tolerance for lower levels of craftsmanship, I haphazardly fixed the table with screws and nails.

Making the mortises and tenons took forever even though I was working with power tools–a plunge router to make the mortises and a table saw to cut the tenons. Of course, a great deal of the time in the workshop was spent in idle chatter. My workshop is right on the public sidewalk and serves as a kind of conversational trap for every passing neighbor and dog walker. Kelly suspects that the exchange of neighborhood gossip is the real purpose of the “workshop.” I will neither confirm nor deny this.

But back to the table. Mistakes were made. While routing out one of the mortises I hit a hidden screw resulting in a shower of sparks and a ruined bit. And then there’s those more pressing chores I was ignoring such as fixing broken irrigation lines, finding a decent house painter, rehabbing our forlorn garden etc. Rome is burning and I’m taking the wobble out of a ugly breakfast nook table.

But there’s a real sense of satisfaction when you glue mortises and tenons together. Suddenly, what was just a pile of potential firewood comes together with a solidity that nails and screws simply can’t deliver. You could now park a Hummer on this table which, given we live in Los Angeles, could actually happen.

Fine Woodworking did a stress test of eighteen of the most common joints (article is behind a paywall) used in furniture and found some surprising results. The strongest joint was actually a half lap. It’s not an attractive joint nor would it have worked for my table base.

While the half lap is stronger, Fine Woodworking’s tests vindicated the traditional mortise and tenon over pocket screw joinery (similar to what is used in Ikea furniture). Pocket screws failed under 698 pounds of pressure while a 3/8 inch mortise and tenon was able to sustain up to 1,444 pounds before failing.

Next up, ignoring all those important chores in order to make a fancy new top for the table with some ridiculously time consuming butterfly inlays. I’ll post some pictures of the completed table once the top is done which should be around ten years from now.


The Architecture of Bernard Maybeck

If I had the power to revise architectural history, I’d replace the cold machine aesthetic of Mies Van Der Rohe and Le Corbusier with the quirky, organic and dreamy work of California architect Bernard Maybeck. If you’ve visited Northern California you might have seen a Maybeck building, most likely the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.

Poet and ornithologist Charles Keeler lived in a Maybeck home. In his book, The Simple Home (which you can read online for free) Keeler says,

The home must suggest the life it is to encompass. The mere architecture and furnishings of the house do not make the man any more than do his clothes, but they certainly have an effect in modifying him. A large nature may rise above his environment and live in a dream world of his own fashioning, but most of us are mollusks, after all, and are shaped and sized by the walls we build around us.

The Simple Home is a book length ode to the work of Maybeck and, alas, a manifesto for an architectural road not taken. Somehow we ended up with a world full of parking garages and mini malls.

Let me, at this point, note that Keeler has the best ever author photo:

Maybeck also had a good publicity photo:

Is it time to bring back the smock? But I digress. Here’s Keeler’s library, designed by Maybeck:

Maybeck made masterful use of redwood, sometimes as in a simple way and at other times in an elaborate neo-gothic style as in the First Church of Christ, Scientist in Berkeley:

And if you know what this building is please let me know:

Both Maybeck and Keeler envisioned a paradisaical California of intertwined gardens and homes:

Keeler’s words and Maybeck’s architecture are just as relevant today as they were in the early 20th century.

Lastly, a programming note: my computer problem turned out to be nothing more than a bad power strip, thankfully. Regular blogging and podcasting will return soon.