Too many lines in the loft


I woke up earlier than usual this morning and decided it would be good to spend the day in the shop. With a dozen or so unfinished projects, I have plenty to do.  While trying to prioritize the work I found myself thinking about geometry.  I mean, HELLO!  Who knows how the mature mind works?  Anyway… I decided I’d take a few minutes and engage in a little “puttering” (one of my Grandfather’s favorite words.  After retiring, the “old man” would spend endless hours in the shop.  Gramma would say, “Bert, what have you been doing out there all day?  Inevitably, Gramps would respond “oh, just puttering”).

So, I grabbed a piece of plywood (one that had been used to demonstrate the layout of an ellipse) and started “laying up some lines”.  The next thing you know, I’m working out some roof geometry, for what purpose?  I have no idea.  But skills must be practiced and the brain needs a little “refresher course”, now and again.

During my Pythagorean exercise, I found myself reminiscing about some of the craftsmen I have known and worked with in the past.  One stood out above the rest.

Decades ago, I spent a number of years in the ship building business.  Our Head Loftsman, Roy, was an Irishman who had trained and spent half of his working life at Harland and Wolff in Belfast (as in Titanic and many other famous vessels).  He was a quiet and reserved man.  He did not “suffer fools”.  And, he was a geometer, par excellence.  He worked on the mould loft floor.  For anyone not familiar with shipyards, sail lofts were used for sailmaking, rigging layout and mould lofts for laying out and making structure and plate patterns. The loftsman would layout the lines on the floor (painted black and, God Forbid, you should walk on a line), then make “moulds”  and measuring “sticks” that would be given to the building crews.  No tape measures in or about the dock or on the ways.  The loftsman ruled.

Roy was so good at his trade. I once saw him build a 1/8 scale section of an ice-breaking bow (all the structure) in order to prove that the plans the naval architect had drawn were incorrect.  Upon seeing the model, the naval architect, very famous and now long deceased, scratched his head, laughed and readily admitted his error.  He and Roy remained good friends until Roy’s death.  It was a friendship built on utter respect for one another.

I remember Roy telling me once, that one had to be careful as it was very easy to get “too many lines in the loft.”  Only now do I realize the depth of his message.

I certainly don’t miss getting up and going to work everyday.  But I do miss so many people that I had the privilege of working with over the years.  The were men with no need to boast.  They knew and honored their crafts and were good stewards.

Mould loft at Harland and Wolff

Mould loft at Harland and Wolff

Loftsmen at work (1958, Hull Daily Mail)

Loftsmen at work (1958, Hull Daily Mail)

If you’d like to know more about traditional building and what it means to be a craftsman, you may well find these blogs and sites of interest.  They are all excellent:

Hovelbenk – exploring traditional building with handtools

Norse Skottbenk Union – ditto

Michael Langford – Timber framing, traditional carpentry, boatbuilding and a good dose of life philosophy

Historical Carpentry – French traditional carpentry, l’art du trait

Peter Follansbee – One of the best known historic woodworkers in the world

Pegs and Tails – perhaps the most eclectic blog on the web.  History, period furniture making, craft, art.  Endlessly informative and entertaining and written with a “bent” toward erudition.




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4 Comments on “Too many lines in the loft”

  1. Great post. I’m fascinated by this geometrical approach to joinery and had seen the wonderful ‘guitardes’ post on Patrick Moore’s site?—beautiful-french-dormers.html

    I’d very much like to learn some of these skills, but for me, Patrick’s tutorials are beyond my means. If you have any links for free tutorials, please let me know.

    • D.B. Laney Says:

      Thanks for your interest. What we’re talking about here is just plain old plane and solid geometry, the stuff that every sophomore had to take in high school. Unfortunately, most of us hoped to get the teacher that would give you an “A”, if you played football. Sadly, there is very little emphasis on geometry these days.

      There are several ways “to get you feet wet”. First, A Treatise on Stairbuilding and Handrailing by W & A Mowat is a classic. It’s probably in your library or it can be purchased on Amazon (buy a used copy). It is worth its price just for the geometry section in the back. Chris Hall’s site The Carpentry Way has a lot about geometry and, in fact, Chris has authored a number of books on traditional joinery and geometry.

      As we’re talking about “the old way” of doing stuff, any book on construction methods prior to 1930 is probably going to be a good source. Asher Benjamin’s “A Builder’s Companion” (and any other book of that ilk) has a great section on geometry. You can thumb through “The Elements” by Euclid. Any old book on the use of the steel square is likely to contain any number of “little treasures” of applied geometry.

      Even if you can’t speak French, l’art du trait, is a good google.

      Since geometry is as much about how we see as it is about mathematics, you might find a book on basic perspective drawing very helpful.

      You might even check the free online courses at Khan Academy.

      Hope this helps. Geometry can become an obsession, so be prepared.

  2. […] joinery. Over on ‘A Woodworker’s Musings’, D.B.Blaney not only seems to know a lot more about this in practice than me, but has also constructed some fine models. I love the pictures of loftsmen in […]

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