Skip to main content

Rudy Christian: A Good Reason to Talk to Myself

The story behind Carpenter's Marks

Ken makes a lot of good points about not just the how but the why of someone becoming a tradesperson. Although I still wonder whether the process is more about discovering your inner tradesperson than deciding to be one. People have often heard me say it’s important to put tools in the hands of young children so they can decide which ones fit their hands and minds.

In the “note” at the end of Ken’s blog he wrote: Timber framers, at least some of them, use “marriage marks” to indicate which end of a timber joins into another. This is essentially true, but more accurately “carpenter’s marks” (the more traditional name) are a way of keeping track of where each piece fits within a “scribe rule” timber frame; kind of like Post-It Notes engraved with a race knife.

A traditional tradesperson in Mandalay refining his skills in the ancient craft of woodcarving. Unfortunately most of his work is headed for the Chinese hotel chain market. Photo by Laura Saeger

A traditional tradesperson in Mandalay refining his skills in the ancient craft of woodcarving. Unfortunately most of his work is headed for the Chinese hotel chain market. 

Timber frames often have hundreds of individual components and when frames are cut using scribe rule layout, which is what we did when we first started building them in this country, each individual piece could only go in one place in the frame because it had been scribed to fit there. I find it interesting that right around 1800 timber framers in America came up with a simpler system of layout, called “square rule” layout, which easily takes 75% or more of the back breaking work out of laying out and cutting up a frame. It also makes the majority of the parts of the frame interchangeable, which meant carpenters marks were no longer necessary.

Curiously, the system of square rule layout never traveled back to the Old World and frames there are still being cut using scribe rule. To me this offers us a fascinating look at both learning and tradition. It would appear that when tradespeople developed their own traditional way of laying out timber frames, that became the standard and accepted method. Although the style of scribe rule layout systems and carpenters marks varies from country to country, within their borders, that the way it is done. The knowledge of how it was done was passed from one generation to the next and that’s how you learned to do it.

In my travels I have been lucky enough to visit quite a number of centuries-old timber frames in the Old World and the new. It’s quite something to study carpenter’s marks in different countries and realize what an ancient tradition their use is and how they have traveled through time across generations remarkably intact. Carpenters marks cut by German carpenters in 1500 look remarkably like ones that are cut in 2015. The same is true in France and England and other counties where the building of timber frames continues.

When you look at frames cut in this country in colonial times you find there are carpenters marks that are exactly the same as you find in the Old World. When we came to this country we brought our tradition of building with us and first generation timber frames were built as we had built them before we got here, but we were building them in the New World. We didn’t have an American timber framing tradition yet.

Working and learning in a world where a young tradesperson was very likely to meet tradespeople of many different nationalities had to influence the very process of learning a trade. Depending on where you were you could very likely end up meeting master timber framers who were English or Dutch or German, each of which brought a different tradition of timber framing to America. Studying carpenter’s marks reveals that very early on in America timber framing began to change. In effect, we were creating a tradition that was both a melting pot of many different traditions and unique.

By 1800 we had a strong American tradition of timber framing. The way we lived, farmed, worked and communicated was different than it had been in the countries our ancestors came from, and so was the way we learned. Rather than learning in a world that was primarily populated by a single nationality that could be traced back over many generations, we were learning in a world made up of mostly American citizens whose ancestry could be traced back to many countries besides this one.

It doesn’t surprise me that the tradition of timber framing that we were immersed in in 1800 was a place where American ingenuity could change the basic way we did timber frame layout work. Having had the option of learning from so many different timber frame traditions, and the option of mixing them together to create our own meant we didn’t look at our trade the same. Our trade was different and new and our own. Why wouldn’t we want to make it easier as well?

Carpenter’s marks are basically carpenters talking to themselves. 

Each time you scribed a joint to fit together, you knew you better mark it so you could keep track. If that mark also told you where that joint was supposed to go in the frame, that was even better. Kind of like reading your own handwriting on the wall. But what if you didn’t need to make all of those notes to yourself? What if you could look at a piece and know where it went? Sounds like an idea worth noodling to me.

So if our own creativity and ingenuity provided us with the ability to improve our own trade and simplify the thought process as well as drastically reduce the amount of physical labor involved, why has it become simply an American tradition and not affected the way it is done in other parts of the world? Does this say something about the very nature of learning?

In Ken’s last post he described his opportunistic approach to learning his trade. It does make sense that once you decide what you want to learn, a good way of doing it is to find someone to learn it from. The question still remains as to whether the desire was one of self-discovery or implantation, but what he didn’t do was go to Japan to learn stone masonry. He decided to learn it where he would be doing it.

What I did learn when I attended the Gewerbe Akadmie with my son in Germany was that what I was learning would be of little if any use here. Learning the traditions of German timber framing is no doubt useful if you are going to be timber framing in Germany, so what point would there be in coming to America to learn the traditions of American timber framing unless you plan to work in America?

The fact that we feel we have a better way of laying out timber frames in America is true if this is where you are doing it, but not if you are doing in Japan, because that isn’t the way it is done there. The simplicity or elegance of square rule layout is lost on Japanese timber framers. The reality is they don’t use scribe rule layout either, but that a topic for another discussion. Right now I think I will just be glad it is the way I learned to do it here. Next I will need to learn how it’s done in Mandalay, which is a new adventure I will have to tell you about later.

Buying Guide Spotlight

Cambek™ Designer Doors Custom Carriage House Style Garage Doors

Cambek - Designer Doors ◆

Cambek™- Designer Doors® is a manufacturer of fine custom entry doors, garage doors, and matching millwork.

Related Articles