The following is a reprint of an article that I wrote a number of years ago which was published in a several  historic architectural newsletters.  Hopefully it will help bridge the gap between homeowners trying to find a qualified restoration carpenter and qualified tradesmen who are trying to determine the best methods of doing business in a marketplace that can be daunting, at best.  Good luck to you both.


By Dennis Laney

            If you’re reading this article there’s a very great likelihood that you live in a historic home and you’re in the process of restoring one of the architectural treasures of the area.  Also, there’s a strong possibility that you have had dealings with contractors who claim to be qualified in restoration work, only to find that they were not.

            Here are a few tips that should help simplify the carpentry contractor qualification process.

   Is the carpentry contractor familiar with your architectural style? 

            During the early part of the twentieth century an integral part of the Finish Carpenter’s or Joiner’s (A fancy finish carpenter specializing in interior architectural details such as staircases, wainscoting and the like) training was familiarization with classical architectural styles and those styles that were currently in vogue.  (Just as an aside, the Greek word architekton means “master carpenter”.  Interestingly, the Japanese word for Master Carpenter is used to identify any professional architect.)  Any qualified restoration carpenter should be familiar with and conversant in the style of your home.  In many cases the carpenter will be responsible for determining the proportions of renovations in your home.  It is important that they understand the ductus that determines the perspective and proportion of various architectural styles.


Is the contractor familiar with the construction methods of the period?      

            Construction techniques change constantly.  However, your home was built using time honored methods.  Your contractor should be very well versed with those methods.  The careless incorporation of a modern construction technique can ruin an expensive restoration.  Your contractor should be familiar with the following terms:  Mortise and tenon joinery; Housed stringers; Dovetailed Balusters and coped cornices and skirting.  If he or she is not familiar with these terms, there’s every probability that they’re not familiar with the construction methods that were used in the building of your home.

Can the contractor identify the material and does he have a source of supply

Just about every species of American and Exotic hardwoods were used for the interior trim inAmerica’s historic homes.  Cost and unavailability have eliminated the use of many of these materials in new construction.  As a consequence, few carpenters are familiar with the species that are likely found in your home.  For instance:  Yellow pine was used as a trim wood in domestic areas such as kitchens, rear stairs and servant’s quarters.  It is very dense and durable.  It must not be confused with or substituted for with White Pine or Hemlock, which are of low density and durability.  It’s simply not enough to say that your trim is oak.  There are at least five sub-species of oak, not to mention various growth patterns and sawing techniques. Make sure that your contractor knows the material and that he has identified a source of supply.  A caveat; many of the materials used one hundred years ago are very scarce, some are simply unavailable.  All are expensive.  Make sure that materials can be replaced before someone starts tearing off mop boards, door casings and other bits of visual detail.

 How much of the contractors work is accomplished with hand tools?

          Much of the carpentry and joinery work in your home was done using hand tools.  The impact of this on your restoration is very direct.  Simply put, there are details that cannot be shaped with power tools.  They must be done by hand.  Any qualified restoration carpenter will use power tools to expedite the work except in those areas where tool choice affects historic integrity.  If your contractor is not competent  in the use of hand tools, he’s probably not too concerned about the authenticity of the restoration.

 Is the contractor well versed in circular or elliptical layout?

            Curved window sashes, elliptical staircases and other circular details add to the grandeur of many historic homes.  Doubtless, you’ve noticed that they “just don’t build them like that any more”.  Make sure that your contractor understands and can execute circular and elliptical layout.  Simply ask if he knows, and can explain,  the differences between a semi-ellipse (oval) and a true ellipse.  Also, he should be knowledgeable about the special joinery techniques that were used in the construction of circular and/or elliptical details.


Is the contractor comfortable doing the work in stages?

            If you’re not already familiar with the expense of a proper restoration, you will be.  Be suspect of anyone who is unwilling to perform the work in stages that will allow you time to “replentish your war-chest”.  Also, be aware that when you ask for a fixed price bid the contractor has every right to require a detailed scope of work.  This fact poses two distinct disadvantages to the home owner.  First, this type of arrangement proves to be most profitable to the contractor when he completes the work as quickly as possible.  In many cases this will lead to work that is done with time savings in mind, as opposed to the authenticity of the restoration.  Second, if you elect to make changes to the scope of work, the contractor is well within his legal rights to require a renegotiation of price.  This has the potential of new costs being determined on an unusually high price structure as the contractor knows that he, effectively, has the home owner “over a barrel”.

            Consider finding a restoration carpenter who you are comfortable with and confident in and engage him on an hourly basis.  Most qualified craftsman in the area charge in the range of $50-60 per hour (when compared to electricians, plumbers and other tradespeople, a well qualified carpenter is a real bargain and, of course, this cost will be higher in America’s larger cities).  This eliminates the tendency of the contractor to build in contingency pricing and it allows the home owner to make changes when desired and break up the work in stages, at his or her discretion.

The restoration of your historic home can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life or a complete nightmare, depending on how well you do your “homework”.

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  1. Matt Sullenbrand Says:

    Dear Dennis,

    Thanks as always for the post. While one can never really replicate the hands-on experience of learning directly from a trained architectural carpenter, are there any resources you could recommend? I have Carpentry and Joinery Illustrated (Hasluck), but am not aware of others.


    • D.B. Laney Says:

      Hi Matt, Just posted a list of books that have been especially helpful to me over the years (on the blog). Hope it’s helpful. How’s your lathe project going? Dennis

  2. Great post Dennis,
    I wanted to ask if I could repost it to my construction industry blog, I’d be sure to give you credit and a link back to your blog. Email me if you’d like to talk it over.
    Thanks, Joe
    PS: Incidentally I ended up here by getting a link from Nick at about your wooden screw exploits. I think we both need a machinist friends who can make us one of these:

  3. Paul Davidson Says:

    Great article. Thanks for the info, you made it easy to understand. Just in case anyone needs to fill out a General Contractor Application, I found a blank form here This site PDFfiller also has some tutorials how to fill it out and several contractor application templates that you might find useful.

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