My highest mark ever for Woodwork was 72. It was also my lowest, six terms in a row.
According to Bushy Shier’s distinctive but clear marking scheme, 76 was outstanding and suggested uplift to the elect. You could get 74 by intense application and copious sandpapering; 70 meant you hadn’t finished your models because you’d been mucking around with the tools although in an appropriately masculinist way; and 72 meant that you were just filling space. (Proof really that a four-point scale can accommodate the seminal issues of assessment. Who said school education wasn’t scientific?) The most complicated thing I made in six terms was a pot stand, five slats on two rails, and before we drown in snorts of derision I think this may still be in use somewhere.
That must have been about 1962. I didn’t return to woodwork for ten years when I made a base for our mattress — a bed I suppose you’d call it really — in a space approximately 2 metres x 80 centimetres x 2.5 metres, a sort of narrow corridor out the side of our Carlton terrace house. Tools: hammer, one short saw with a narrow, rusty and twisted blade, one chisel which had been used to chip out concrete, hand drill brace with two bits, screwdriver with a chipped blade. Sandpaper. I did have sandpaper, and the result stood up and stuck together, so … ever so possibly teetering on the brink of a 74?
Maybe I should say that Myrna and I had done a good deal of our endless years of courting in the half-built houses of Horsham; and maybe I shouldn’t say that this provided a lucid perspective on the nature of building processes at least as much as a romantic environment (which, before you get too excited, generally meant a good spot to sit and talk). I have always enjoyed watching how things go together in the building process.
And then there was The Australian Carpenter. In the various shifts we have made I have thrown out/ passed on/ given away probably 20 times more books than we now have, but The Australian Carpenter by C. Lloyd, Instructor at Swinburne Technical College, Melbourne has survived every one of those paroxysms. In the one bit of zippy fizz anywhere in its 225 pages, the strapline on the dust jacket says: ‘How to drive a nail How to build a house — and all the carpentry in between.’ True. That’s what’s in it. (This isn’t my copy. The dust jacket on mine disintegrated years ago.)
First published in 1948, I have a copy from the second edition (1965) revised after 13 reprintings. My copy comes from the seventh subsequent print run. This is massive. This is enough in itself to keep a publisher solvent. So popular and ubiquitous was this book, woodwork courses across Australia were called ‘Sloyd’. In fact when I was discussing this blog and building just the other day, the woman I was talking with said without the slightest prompting, ‘Oh yes. Sloyd.’
Its tenor belongs to my boyhood rather than my 20s. It is from another happier less complicated time. There is an outline of the ‘Scheme’, Sloyd’s very practical epistemology, which precedes the Introduction.
The work set out in this book, follows in order the training of a lad who has been apprenticed to carpentry.
Part 1. The first section describes work as it should be done in a small workshop where very little machinery is used.
Part 2. In this section the lad is supposed to be sent out to a building to help the carpenters. He works through from the start to finish of a timber house, and has further experience with brick veneer, and brick construction.
Part 3. But he needs more bench experience and is sent back to the workshop; this time to a big joinery mill, where the kinds of joinery he has been fixing on the building, are made. He works here and learns how to set out, and how to arrange his work in order. … He then goes out into the yard to select the timber for his jobs. … and so on.
The effectuality of this theory of knowledge is proposed with enormous implicit confidence. From the Introduction proper:
‘A trade cannot be learnt from a book.’ This saying is often quoted by old tradesmen, and it is quite true that the ability to turn out a workmanlike job, under all circumstances and in a reasonable time, can only be acquired by long practice under actual trade conditions. Unfortunately at the present time [three years after the end of the second World War], it very often happens that the training an apprentice receives is deficient. This can be corrected.
And my nationalistic heart pumps at this —
Most available text-books dealing with carpentry come from overseas, and of course give the subject as practiced in other countries. While with advanced work, this is much the same everywhere, for simple carpentry Australian practice differs considerably. The fundamentals remain the same, but local conditions, such as climate, class of materials available, and the price of land, tend to cause important differences in the design and construction of ordinary dwellings. Cheap land, dodgy materials, especially Australia’s green hardwood — the most common building material of the time — which has a mind very much of its own. That’s what he’s talking about.
Whipping past those issues, The Australian Carpenter is its own sober version of the hippie building manifestos. It implies that, with enough application, you really could, and perhaps if you were a responsible male you really should, do it yourself. So far, so sympathetic.In 102 lessons (‘the first two years of a Carpentry Course in Technical Schools’) with a paired page for each — one of drawings, many of them isometric, one of crystalline instructional text — he sorts you out. For example: ‘Order of working is most important when making joinery, as it is with many other jobs. Set outcompletely, gauge all joints, then ripall the tenons and chisel out all the mortises. … right way round with face edge in, clean up inside edges then cramp and glue up. Only the raw beginner sets out and makes and fits one mortise at a time.’ And in this context who could be thought raw beginner?
This is definitive instruction. It is a course which is not taught, but ‘given’. I loved that then and I love it now. None of this ‘facilitation of self-teaching’ nonsense; none of this ‘look for it online’. If you’ve got the wit to see it, all you need is there right in front of you, authoritatively.
Sloyd provides an articulate version of the voice of that very interesting version of masculinity, the excellent tradesman (carpenter, plumber, farmer, surgeon, accountant, cameraman or bureaucrat) — straight, honest, capable, inventive to a point but only to a point, insanely neat and concerned about clean up; absorbed and driven, within limited horizons, by the idea of ‘the good job’. (Women can and often do have all these positive qualities of course, but it seems, for whatever reason, to gel into a different final form with men.) I’m not one, I don’t want to be one, but the good order and functioning of the world is heavily dependent on such people.
Before I started building I would pour over Sloyd in bed and later, when I was actually doing something with wood, would use it as a constant source of advice. He is/ was (I can’t even find his first name) a man after my own heart. (Colin? Clive? Chris? Cecil and Cedric are the only names I can think of which begin with a soft c.)
Let us begin traversing the vast distance between Sloyd as theory and Sloyd as realised practice.
We rummaged around the wrecker’s yards and found a collection of material that I thought would work okay. I also began an addiction to hardware stores. The brand new 150 gallon rainwater tank, not yet installed here, was the shed’s single most expensive component.
On the first day of the week set aside for its construction the concrete truck eventually ambled up through the track in to dump five cubic metres of aggregate, sand and cement in the box I’d built.
What can I say? Bought too much, wasn’t sure what to with the leftovers. Couldn’t screed it off properly because there were stakes in the way and the screeder wasn’t long enough and warped anyway. (Screeding is the process of roughly levelling concrete by ‘sawing’ back and forth across it and paddling it to get rid of air pockets.) Got the bolts for the bottom plate in the wrong place, the reinforcing mesh fell off the half bricks I was using as spacers. We had no water for curing, in fact I don’t think I knew about curing because we were working on the slab next day. Didn’t cut the formwork away from the slab. In the end it just fell off I think. About 3/8 of the surface was very nicely floated, flat and subsequently pleasant to walk on in bare feet; the rest not so much. Collaboration you see. There were feelings to consider, and notions of manliness.
But I know all those things now. And I only ever did versions of them again. The rumble of the concrete truck still remains an awesome (trad. usage: awe mixed with terror) moment.
The shed, 5m x 4m, was the simplest thing we could have built. (Today you’d probably buy a prefab thing with self-supporting sheet iron walls; but that’s today, and the result would have had far less character.) But the second-hand scantling I’d bought was so hard (40 year-old yellow and grey gum timber is almost literally like steel, nearly as hard and very very strong) we had to hand drill every nail hole. I decided then that I would never use second-hand timber for framing again — the first conscious anti-ecological compromise (and still, don’t tell anyone, a good move).
The shed’s outside cladding began a long relationship with AC sheet — easy to work, excellent painting surface, very durable, and possibly deadly — where C is for cement and A is for asbestos. The A has been taken out of Hardie’s products now; it hadn’t then. However because we had no power tools and cut it by clipping rather than sawing we never raised much dust of the sort that would give you mesothelioma.
The building rose and formed. The pitch of the roof was fine in the dry but a bit shallow when the rains came. Native creatures and insects (Now, under what circumstances would you insert ‘vermin’ there? Who was there first?) strolled inside unimpeded and at will, those that wanted anyway, a select and largely friendly group.
Design was also part of this process, and in keeping with the idea of doing everything yourself that was what I did. I taught myself the required amount of technical drawing, how to write up building specs and given my skill with maths, against all imaginings, how to do the engineering calculations required by the final design. Besides the National Standard Authority’s Light Timber Framing Code, the other book that absorbed my attention was its antithesis — Lloyd Khan’s book Shelter.
One Google request and bang here it is again 40 years later in living colour with a blurb that is still right on the money.With over 1000 photographs, Shelter is a classic celebrating the imagination, resourcefulness, and exuberance of human habitat. First published in 1973, it is not only a record of the countercultural builders of the 60s, but also of buildings all over the world. There is a history of shelter and the evolution of building types. Tents, yurts, timber buildings, barns, small homes, domes, etc. There is a section on building materials, including heavy timber construction and stud framing, as well as stone, straw bale construction, adobe, plaster and bamboo. There are interviews with builders and tips on recycled materials and wrecking.
A cult classic from the heyday of teach-ins and VWs, this large-format book may have inspired more owner-builders to build crazy structures than any other. Organized like a big scrapbook, it seamlessly blends vernacular building traditions from all over the world with far-out American hippie shelters, including geodesic domes, gypsy wagons, tree houses, windmills, and bizarre ferrocement living sculptures.
I began with the idea that we would build a fibre glass geodesic dome. School at the time was full of rolls of fibre glass and pots of resins for a prolonged burst of canoe-making. I made a model dome and bought scads of glass and resin before realizing what an utterly terrible idea it was. And it clung on. Probably the next six series of designs had one or more domes attached to … hmmm … pentagons, galleries, irregularly shaped versions of the shed. It was like Tony Abbott and the paid parental leave scheme — madness that clung.
Geodesic domes may come again, but their time in the sun, full sun anyway, was short and the pictures you see these days are usually of skeletons. And fibre glass … that organic, green ecologically responsible material! It would have been like living in a maths equation wrapped in Gladwrap, IF it had ever got under way. Fred Heinz would have put a stop to it long before the first panels were made. We’ll get back to Fred.
(You may be able to see with this one on the right that a more conventional building has been built inside the dome as a room structure. Occam’s Razor: delete the dome.)
Given the preponderance of sand on our property, I also thought of rammed earth but the sand had been too thoroughly scoured to be sticky enough for pisé. We collected rocks, sandstone, for possible walls of masonry. But there was no stone on our property and suitable types in quantity were a long way away. As well, masonry required skills that I absolutely knew I didn’t have, whereas I thought I could probably manage wood.
It was about this time that the floods came and the site we had chosen for building was largely underwater. We looked elsewhere and found a bump a metre or two higher at the other end of the orchard. That seemed to make a difference. But the site also had a different aspect. It was more buried in the bush, suggesting that the house should be too.
We were living in the shed and most of the time I loved it. With lino on the floor and a bathroom, the shed would be just about the most comfortable place on earth to live. This has consequences for the nature of the house. It is essential that it should be kept simple. No garbage, no frivolities.
I summarised the design process like this.
Phase 1: We got rid of the domes and extended the living room. Phase 2: Squared off the bathroom and provided a nook. Phase 3: The roofing plan is disgustingly complex. The pentangular kitchen took a dive. It’s squaring up. Phase 4: The axis dispute. Should the roof ridge run east-west or north-south? East-west has got to be obvious hasn’t it? Pise looked promising (for ten minutes). Hmm poles cut off the property, 300mm diam. They’d be nice. Phase 5: The cosmic hit. On the way back to Melbourne I was passing these things through my mind and just a mile the other side of Myrniong [a tiny village en route] I saw this very good-looking barn and thought: If we’re going to be simple, let’s be simple. Once on the drawing board (as we in the trade say) it immediately fell into place.
It didn’t of course. It went through a dozen more iterations before I finally sent the finished plans off to Freddy Heinz at the Shire of Arapiles on the 25th March, 1975. The plans came back a few days later with a request for $100 and, because she still owned the land, a signature from Joan stating she agreed to the building. Five or six small other adjustments were required. Nothing of concern. I had convinced him.
It turned out to be one very large room (10m x 8m, four times the size of the shed) with a bathroom cropped out of it with a mezzanine floor where we would sleep, really a very large open space with a pine lining board ceiling following the roof line 5 metres high at the ridge. It would be heated by a large fire place offset a little from the middle — a Jetmaster hollow-back steel construction set into brick, so effective we had to let it go out mid-evening except on the coldest nights. The first budget said nice and precisely $7788. I did another budget three months later when we had chased up and bought a fair bit of stuff: $4400. It finally turned out to be, insofar as you can possibly define such things, $8319.
In keeping with the spirit of things I chased materials all over the place haunting Whelan the Wreckers in Melbourne and later Bert Van Veldhuisen’s yard in Horsham. What I found influenced what we built. Bert was wrecking the old block of Horsham High School at the time and kept pulling out this fabulous mature rough-sawn Oregon (Douglas fir, imported from the US, straight-grained, lovely to work with if not as strong as many Australian timbers) — huge pieces, 300x100mm in section (12×4 in the old money) 5 to 8 metres long was not unusual, 400×50 slabs that I got planed and used for flooring, and the very useful 150 x 75 sticks of which I bought maybe 100 lineal metres. The other thing his yard was full of was white pine lining board that he’d got out the many Wimmera farm houses he’d pulled apart. I must have bought (and de-nailed and cleaned) more than 1000 lineal metres of that. But the availability of the Oregon in particular said build solid — build post and lintel.
I chased other stuff as well. In the absence of finalising the purchase of the land and getting on with the actual business, it provided an illusion of doing something. One of the places I went looking was a farm clearance at Hynam, about half way between nowhere and nothing across the border in South Australia.
3500 in attendance and good madcap sale had by all. A pleasant day full of high level drama. The crowd went mad. NO ONE was going to go home empty-handed: beds $600 [see the total price of our house above], 1940s steel-wheeled tractor (not going) $970, standard (very standard) lamp $140, plastic bag full of empty milk bottles $2.40, 3 sticks of rotten wood $15. I was there to buy a gas fridge that would run off bottled gas which was the second last lot auctioned, and one other couple had stayed late equally determined to claim it. I would have got it for $5 if they hadn’t been there. $95. I hope the damn thing works.
[It’s not sounding very promising is it? But we didn’t stop there. It is to be continued: In MEMORIAM #5]