Was l’art du trait the real Holy Grail?

Posted August 1, 2014 by D.B. Laney
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , , , , , ,

For much of the last millenium, speculation about the nature of the Holy Grail has been continuous.  Christ’s chalice?  Secret offspring spirited away to Europe?  The list of possibilities is extensive and I would like to add another, l’art du trait.


L’art du trait is a method of combining elevation and plan view drawings that allows the craftsman to create any segment of or whole work piece with complete confidence as to its correctness.  In short, these were working drawings created by carpenters and masons that allowed them to build the soaring cathedrals of the Gothic period.  L’art du trait is a subset or extension of what we now refer to as stereotomy, which is, essentially an applied geometry that relies on graphic presentation as opposed to formulaic calculation, geometry without calculus (corrected from mathematics – see comments for reasoning).  However, the art of stereotomy has become associated almost exclusively with the craft of the stone mason and today it has been displaced by computer based descriptive and projective geometry.

The methods of L’art du trait were highly guarded secrets and shared only with those young craftsmen who had been found acceptable to masters of the craft.  This knowledge, jealously guarded as it was, gave masons and carpenters tremendous standing within their communities.  Architects (acting more as project developers and managers) were completely reliant on the knowledge and skill of the craftsmen.  And, this was the case until as late as the middle of the nineteenth century, when architects, engineers began to use descriptive geometry and, in short order, assumed the “mantle of authority” that had been worn by masons and carpenters for centuries.  Sadly, due to the power of commercial and governmental interests, master craftsmen were reduced to the rank of mere workmen.

But the tradition of l’art du trait is still alive and being learned and practiced by a small group of dedicated carpenters in northern Europe, primarily France and Germany.  And, although it has been displaced by modern technology, l’art du trait is considered so important that it has been recognized as part of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity” by UNESCO.


It is interesting that the period in which the construction of the great Gothic cathedrals of northern Europe began was contemporaneous to the rise in power of the Knights Templar.  The Knights have been credited with the creation of modern banking and logistical methods that are still the basis of much of today’s international business community.  Most of these practices grew from the requirements of supporting a large military force at distances hitherto unknown.  And, of course, for a millenium there has been speculation about the Temple treasures supposedly discovered by the Knights, discovered and removed to some other part of the world, presumably somewhere in Europe (or Nova Scotia, Minnesota or a host of other tempting possibilities).  Part priest, part warrior, the Knights were above all pragmatic, energetic adventurers seeking to profit from any and all of their activities.  As Knights (and crusaders in general) were expected to be self supporting, many were the “second sons” of aristocratic families, or the sons of merchants and guildsmen who were capable of insuring the young Knight’s maintenance.


Prior to the crusades, most churches and other public buildings throughout Europe were in the Romanesque style.  It is a style based on Roman military engineering methods, using brick and concrete.  It is straightforward and most examples of this type of building clearly send the message that they have been built to provide fortification as well as worshiping the Almighty.  These were heavy structures with little interior light and decoration.  And then, as if someone had simply turned a page, came the soaring Cathedrals of the Gothic period.  Light and decoration everywhere, witnessing the glory of God.


But did this just happen through some divine revelation?  Europe had gone through a six hundred year period, commonly called the “Dark Ages” in which most or all of classical knowledge had been lost and/or forgotten.  Forgotten in Europe, but still alive in the Middle East.  Enter the Crusaders, with the Knights Templar guarding the Temple, the very center of the Crusader Kingdom, where most of the knowledge lost to Europeans remained, undiminished.

It is generally concluded that Hellenistic and Persian craftsmen practiced some form of stereotomic drawing.  We know that the Knights and other Crusading Orders returned to Europe with renewed understanding of mathematics, philosophy and science.  Could it be that part of the intellectual treasure discovered by the Knights Templar included what was to become the basis of l’art du trait.  And was this knowledge, kept secret, only revealed to the initiated, part and parcel of Freemasonry?  One can only speculate.  But the question must be put forward, was this the knowledge that allowed for the construction of the magnificent Gothic structures, dedicated solely to the power of the Almighty.  Could this knowledge be the true Holy Grail?

If you would like to know more about the practice of l’art du trait, here are some interesting links.  But fair warning, prepare yourself to be challenged and intrigued.

L’art du trait

Steretomy, a multifaceted technique – Joel Sakarovitch


UNESCO website on l’art du trait – video and photos

Traditional carpenters of Northern Europe

Musee du Compagnonage de Tours – Museum of Guilds, their history and their works

Sterotomy – some interesting information about the drawing process

The Carpentry Way – Chris Hall’s excellent blog – a lot of information about drawing methodology

Take one step, then another.  We never know where the journey may take us.



Goldie triumphant

Posted July 20, 2014 by D.B. Laney
Categories: Uncategorized

Oyez, oyez, oyez!  Know that this post is not about woodworking, it is about life.  So if it’s only woodworking you’re interested in, be away with you and come again, another time.  But if you would hear a cautionary tale, told to anyone who has ever treated a wife, inamorata or companion with anything less than complete love and respect, then, by all means read on…

My grandmother had a cousin, Goldie.  In 1920, Goldie was a young woman.  She was always described as lithe, lovely, full of life and full of fun.  Her family were good people, hard working folk, never having more than just enough.  But the family was happy and Goldie well loved.  Apparently, many a young fellow fell under Goldie’s spell.  But she exhibited only the slightest fraternal feeling for any of her admirers.  Then “Chick” came into Goldie’s life.

Chick’s given name was Charles.  There’s no need for family names here.  But, suffice it to say, that both Chick and Goldie were from Irish families who had “outdistanced” Mother Church on their migrations.  But still, there were rules.  Chick, according to my grandmother’s account was a tall, well proportioned man, with dark hair and piercing eyes, not “leading man” quality, but impressive.  He was smooth and more than a bit of a rake.  Had he followed his family trade, Chick would have been a carpenter or a boatwright.  But Chick chose a different path.  He decided to be a railroader.

In those days, everyone in the community drank, to a greater or lesser degree.  Call it genetic predisposition, boredom, fear.  Call it what you like, drinking was wide spread.  Well it turned out that Chick, slick as oil and soft as an evening in spring when sober, was a mean drunk.  And his meanness was without favor.  On payday, Chick would stand a round for the house, but pity the man standing at his side after the fifth or sixth pour.  And his meanness went home with him, as well.  Payday usually meant that Goldie would become the target of Chick’s fury.  But in Irish-American, working class communities in 1920, men venting their frustrations on their loved ones was not uncommon.  And, silence became the accepted practice amongst wives and mothers.

After a payday night’s escapade, that may have left Goldie with blackened eyes and broken ribs, came the loving.  Tearful apologies would fuel the passion and Goldie would welcome her true love and become pregnant once more.  This was the cycle.  Yearly children became the rule.  But after eight births (including several stillborns), Goldie changed.  No longer the willowy darling of the neighborhood, Goldie was tired, very tired.  Most especially tired of Chick.

And then it happened.  Chick falling across the threshold.   Maddened.  Raging.   Goldie, trying to calm him, received blow after blow until finally she stood and said, “if you ever lay a hand on me again, you’ll regret it so long as you live”.  A brutal blow left Goldie on the floor and Chick sprawled on the bed, unconscious in his drunken stupor.

So Goldie, weeping on the floor, next to the pot belly stove that heated the small house, made a decision.  After insuring that the children are asleep, upstairs, Goldie gets her needles and thread.  Goldie, it seems, was an accomplished seamstress.

In a workman like manner, Goldie pulled the sheet around Chick and began her sewing, following the contour of his now limp body.  Stitch upon stitch, until Chick looked as if he was ready for a burial at sea.  With arms across his chest, Chick lay, looking more like a beautifully symmetrical cocoon, than the drunken brute who had collapsed in the bed just hours before.  But Chick differed from the usual cocoon in one regard, the soles of his feet were exposed.

Then Goldie, lithe, lovely, little Goldie laid the flatiron on the stove.  This was the flatiron she had used for years to earn the money she needed to care for her children, as Chick drank away the family’s savings.

When the iron was hot enough, she woke Chick.  He was startled and she waited a moment as his head cleared.  Family tradition has it that Goldie told Chick that she would never be struck again, as she laid the hot iron to the exposed skin of his feet.

As years past, people often remarked how wonderful the relationship between Goldie and Chick had become.  But it seemed that Chick never again knew a good night’s sleep.

The right saw for the job

Posted July 19, 2014 by D.B. Laney
Categories: Uncategorized



If you were involved in woodworking before 1970, you probably owned a rip saw, a crosscut saw, a small back saw, and a miter box saw.  As far as “plate” saws, that was it.  Those were the choices.  And they were the tools that working carpenters and joiners used to earn a living.  Small back saws, used for joinery (especially decorative sash work), were always delivered with a low fleam, meaning that they could be used for cross cut or rip work (dovetails).  It may be the case that over the years a small back saw began to look like a “rip filed” saw, but only because it’s a helluva lot easier to file a rip tooth than it is one with fleam.  And, sometimes, the path of least resistance is the one chosen by a man who has worked hard all the day and would like to get out of the shop and be off to slake his thirst.

Now there is a huge selection of handsaws available to the enthusiast.  There are dovetail and tenon saws to suit every taste.  Brass backed, resin spined, exotic wooden handles, it’s simply incredible, the selection that is available to today’s woodworker.  I just don’t know how the “old guys” got along.  Then I am reminded that I have numerous drivers that have promised me another five to ten yards on the golf course…and I hear Ben Hogan speaking from the past, “it’s never the arrow, it’s always the archer.”

In times past, most carpenters and joiners used rip saws for cutting tenon cheeks.  Yes, that’s right!  Panel saws, filed rip!  The illustration above is from Ellis’ 1902 work, Modern Practical Joinery.  The guy’s using a rip saw, a big rip saw to cut furniture tenons.  The typical joiners tool chest would contain three or four “plate” saws, a coping and/or turning saw and, perhaps a compass saw.  (And, if a carpenter was doing flooring work, he’d have a flooring saw.)  That was it.  A man depended on his skill and his imagination, not just his tools, to get the job done.

My sawing position is little different than the guy in the above photo.  I would guess that I’m a foot taller (the result of enriched milk products) and my choice of panel saws is somewhat different.  I’m using an Atkins 70 1/2 “Toolbox” saw, 7pt rip with a 20″ cutting edge.  It’s a lovely little saw and it didn’t cost much, $15.00, at the outside.  It has a little surface pitting, but that simply serves to reduce drag.  It’s probably close to 100 years old and it’s as true as ever.




Atkins produced some very fine saws.  In my opinion, every bit as good (if not better) than the Disston line.  They touted the ergonomics of their handle, maintaining that the hand position of the sawyer was better placed to use the highest possible amount of available energy.  Here we go again with the 5 to 10 yard thing.  But it does “hang” remarkably well.107

So a logical question to ask would be “can’t you cut closer to the line with a finer back saw”?  Eh?  Not so much.  And remember that when you’re cutting tenons by hand you will be doing some fitting.  You’ll be trimming tenons to thickness, usually with a plane, rasp or float.  And, when using a backsaw, the “start” is critical as it establishes the line that the saw will track to.  A panel saw can be “steered” and will allow for minor changes in direction.

Finally, here’s my point.  Choose projects that intimidate you.  Force yourself to master the tools you possess.  Don’t fall into the trap of avoiding more difficult work until you buy that $10,000 sliding panel saw.  Remember that much of the finest furniture ever built was created by men who stored ALL of their tools in one small tool box.  Game On!

And yes, that is a Delta tenoning jig on the back bench.  Not sure how it got there.  But, when you’re in a hurry…

Good practice is never “out of style”

Posted July 9, 2014 by D.B. Laney
Categories: Uncategorized

Here’s a photo from George Ellis’ classic work, “Modern Practical Joinery”, first printed in 1902:


Just goes to show that “good practice” is always in style.  However, it is obvious that this fellow did not get the message about the benefit of colorful bandanas.

Use your head when boring mortises

Posted July 8, 2014 by D.B. Laney
Categories: Uncategorized

Just a quick tip when boring mortises:  Have some type of visual reference and be sure to be in the proper reference plane when boring.


(That’s an old Spofford brace, just doesn’t get any better.)

Use your head to stabilize the brace while boring.  (Of course, make sure that your feet are positioned in such a way as to create a stable platform.)  A colorful, yet tasteful bandana will add to your accuracy (by keeping the perspiration out of your eyes).   Be sure to keep both eyes open, just like when you’re shooting.  Looking through one eye can create a false reference.  Count the number of turns it takes to get down to the required depth.


You’ll be surprised how quickly you can rough out big mortises with a brace and bit.  A little clean up with a large register chisel and you’ll be ready to fit the tenons.

This technique must certainly be the basis of the old expression, “now that’s using your head!”.

The waking of cousin Andrew

Posted July 8, 2014 by D.B. Laney
Categories: Uncategorized


Well, Jack Plane has done it, once again.  In a short post, about the traditional height of joynt stools,  Jack has triggered my memory to recall one of the most colorful memories of my Grandfather.  Not about my Grandfather, the man, but about a family story of his that is legend.

First, let me say that my Grandfather’s family was Orange Irish.  For those of you who don’t know the history of the Island, just be advised that Gramps’ side of the family were Protestants.  Ultimately they were, pretty much secular people, but in times of trouble or grief, they would have found comfort amongst Presbyterians.  Now, you may think that Presbyterians would tend to be teatotalers.  But not all.  The old man’s family came from that group of Irishmen who understood the “old language” and uisge beatha (whiskey) meant the “the water of life”.

My Grandfather was born in 1896.  His cousin Andrew was several years older and it was clear that Gramps looked up to him.  Andrew was known for his good looks, his pleasant personality and his skill as a boatwright.  He was known never to start a fight, but, indeed, never walked away from an insult.  And, of course, he was known as a fierce man with the ladies.  And for all this, he was only a man in his early twenties.  He was, most of all, “the apple of his father’s eye”.  So, it came to pass that Andrew died.  He may have been a victim of the Spanish flu epidemic or some other illness of the era, but, nonetheless, Andrew was no more.

In those days, the dead (working people and, especially the Irish in America) were “laid out” at home.  The women of the family would clean and dress the body and it would be laid on some type of bier in the house, where grieving guests would be received in order to observe “the waking”.  (And some folks from the West would pray for the spirit’s entry into Tir na Og.)

So there was cousin Andrew.  Laid out upon the bier.  Barrel of beer at one side and a cask of whisky on the other.  His father, so bereft, apparently had far too much to drink and requested that all the men of the family should help him lift Andrew into a standing position in the corner, so’st he could have one more drink with those who loved him so dearly.  It seems that the lifeless Andrew had more than one drink.  In fact, there were so many drinks poured down poor cousin Andrew’s corpse, that the ladies of the family had to remove him from the waking to be washed and dressed, anew.  We should all be loved so much.

The last person I know of who was laid out at home was my wife’s Grandmother.  This would have been around 1960.  It seems strange to us these days, but it was as natural as could be.  Death was simply the ending part of life.  And why would anyone want to do that anywhere else except at home.

Every once in a while I’ll get a little morbid and tell my wife and the kids (all adults now) that I’d like to be “laid out” at home.  I’ve already got the stools and there are boards in the shop.  Why give the Undertaker the money?  Call my friends in for one last toast (and those that aren’t my friends, well, give them a drink and let them have one good thing to say about me), roll me down the hill into the river and, perhaps, I’ll wind up where I’m supposed to be.  They humor me, although, most of the time, they just don’t see my humor.


Is the next Duncan Phyfe lurking in the shadows?

Posted July 4, 2014 by D.B. Laney
Categories: Uncategorized

My friend, Chad Stanton (aka the Big Chopperoo of Wood Choppin” Time fame), suggested that I might enjoy a video of a multi-panel discussion about craftsmanship and the Duncan Phyfe Exhibit, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Well, when Chad suggests something, I’m prone to take his advice.  Chad, a very creative guy, has learned to separate the wheat from the chaff quickly and is not apt to waste his time, or mine.  The video presentation and discussion was good, very good.  But after watching it, one thing stuck in my mind.  I mean, it really stuck!  One of the discussion panelists mentioned that when Phyfe was working in NYC, there was a community of highly specialized craftsman who had been established there for a hundred years or more, that was available to provide service to him.  These guys were really specialized!  I don’t mean like they were carpenters or joiners.  I mean these guys were faux painters, carvers, gilders, brass casters, iron casters, veneer specialists and finishers!  (And there are probably a dozen or more specialties that I’ve never even heard of.)  So, when Mr. Phyfe designed the table below, he had plenty of well qualified help to get the job done.


This is the “brain-child” of an artist.  It is, clearly, not the work of an individual craftsman.  Incredible painting, gilding, inlay, patinating, the list goes on.  Remember, Phyfe was running a business (much like Chippendale, Roubo, Sheraton, Leonardo and the other icons of our craft).  He was cozying up to his clients, pouring them tea and doing his best to draw up the things that they wanted to see.  Duncan’s shop was “crankin'” this stuff out!  He was “bringing home the bacon” at a business in which making friends is much easier than making money.

Now to answer my own question:  I’m sure, that today, there are any number of craftsman who are capable of re-discovering and applying the processes that would allow them to “mimic” the piece above.  That said, I don’t think we’ll see the like of Mr. Phyfe, the entrepreneur anytime soon.  Simply because that supporting cast of characters, that community of highly trained and experienced craftsman no longer exists as a part of “mainstream” trade.  We’ve become accustomed to bringing our furniture home in boxes that are labled “no special tools needed for assembly”.

The other social-economic phenomena that clearly helped Mr. Phyfe was that he lived and worked at a time when the United States was growing by leaps and bounds.  Manifest Destiny was the undercurrent of discussion in the salons and drawing rooms up and down the coasts, and a successful middle class of business people was being born.

The pendulum may swing back in that direction.  But I, for one, don’t think I can hold my breath that long.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 190 other followers