Friday, July 24, 2009

Constructive Carpentry and Inside Finishing

These are two titles of books published in 1912 by author Charles A. King.  The books are two in a series of five meant to be used for students studying carpentry.  The two “beginner” books prior to these advanced titles are ‘Elements of Woodwork’ and ‘Elements of Construction’.  The fifth book is a handbook intended for teachers.

‘Constructive Carpentry’ deals with the fundamental construction techniques that a carpenter would use to construct a house.  It outlines the basics regarding where to situate a house on a lot, foundations, damp proofing, brickwork, and chimneys, then discusses framing techniques (full, half, balloon).  Then follows a lengthy discussion on how to use a steel square, with lots of mathematical formulas.  There’s also a chapter on roof construction, boarding and outside finish, roof coverings, and plastering.

‘Inside Finishing’ is a treasure trove on detailing and interior finishes.  There is a basic intro on heating systems in use in 1912, some discussion on plumbing and ice-boxes.  Then comes a good chapter on floor laying and finishing that also discusses inside woodwork.  A chapter on doors, then another on windows follows.  Then comes stair building, which is a great chapter in my opinion as it discusses how to layout a stair design, headroom accommodation, stringers, posts, treads and risers, circular stairs, balusters and handrails.

A chapter on painting discusses how good quality paint contains lots of lead, which I found amusing and a bit scary.

The chapter on inside woodwork is great.  It discusses how wainscoting is prepared, how moldings and casing should be built, and has an interesting discussion on the necessity of closets for storing clothing and linens away from insects and vermin.

Obviously the writing style and much of the content is out of date.  There have been major advances in the areas of insulation, HVAC, plumbing, appliances, ventilation, etc…  But, I found it interesting how much of the content is still very relevant.  The hardwood floor discussions are pretty much inline with unfinished flooring techniques in use today.   And the care given to how to install doors, windows, and casing are very relevant, especially given the careless construction techniques in new builds these days.  Things like attention to the look of details, door opening height, and how to make the most of natural light are all topics that are often ignored in new homes.

I love the way the author and presumably carpenters of the day thought of the homes they built.  Phrases like ‘seasoning of the building’ are used, which treats the house as something that matures rather than deteriorates.  These people built homes to last generations and it shows in much of the detail in these books.  The writing also elevates the role of a carpenter to that of one requiring a very high level of intellect, with knowledge of mathematics, layout, and design, and an integral understanding of how other trades impact and integrate with carpentry.

The books are also inline with the modern concept of buying stock items.  Doors and windows in 1912 were not made by the house carpenter, but rather ordered as stock items or broken-down kits, and just assembled and ‘tweaked’ on-site.  This mass-production technique differs from homes built before the 1870s where much of the materials were still hand-constructed.

Anyone who owns an old home or cares to read up on how old homes were constructed should read these books in my opinion.  They are no longer in copyright, but you can pick up physical copies at Amazon if you want, or download them in PDF or other forms like I did. 

Here are the links to the PDFs:

Constructive Carpentry

Inside Finishing


  1. There are still highly skilled and experienced carpenters out there who are more akin to craftsmen, but they charge appropriately. The carpenter we've used in the past specializes in historical work, and I have nothing but good things to say about him. He also charges $75 an hour, plus materials. This means we only use him for the things we absolutely have to.

    Thank You, Thank You, Thank You for the links! This will be good reading this winter when I'm locked behind 42 doors trying to keep warm and dreaming up projects for next year. It may also reduce the need for our carpenter. :)

  2. Thank you for sharing those! They are perfect for my current project.