An amphibian improves on nature It was in a grey October that I worked on my first house under Mr. N. The house went up somewhat slowly, by professional standards. Each step of carpentry was described to the group, then performed. The basement walls. Floor system. Plywood decking. Stairs, main floor walls, and so forth. I struggled to try and remember all the little steps. Being a thinker and kind of a daydreamer, I don’t believe I was very productive on that house.

Then, in the rapidly darkening November, came the second house. The mountain of little steps that we had painstakingly hacked through on the first time around now had to be repeated all over again, with numerous variations.

“…Horrible myths and doctrines stirred in my mind. I thought how the gods had punished Tantalus. I thought of the place in the book of Revelation where it says that the smoke of Hell goes up forever in the sight of the blessed spirits.” 1

I remembered Mr. N.’s comment that a home consists of around a hundred thousand possible parts & pieces. I began to wonder if, in attempting to really learn construction, I had betrayed my natural aptitudes and had attempted a task too great for mere mortals. I could never eat, drink, and breathe building and design the way the Nyhofs did. I kept swinging my hammer and tried not to think too much about the long future.

Out of the wreck I rise

Very early on in my forays of carpentry, I guessed that construction is not a matter of memorizing a thousand procedures, but of memorizing a few general principles, and ten or twenty more specific concepts based on those principles. I guessed correctly.

Gradually these principles and patterns became discernible out of the mess of procedures endlessly reiterated. I wish they would have been shown to me right at the start; but most who know them are not consciously aware of them; I suspect they thought it was too obvious to bear mentioning. Off the top of my head, I can name four that encompass nine tenths of everything I do.

  1. Square, Level, Straight: Almost nothing is straight or square by default. Trusses are bowed, studs are crooked, foundations are cockeyed. You must ensure that everything is level, square, and straight2
  2. Secure: Likewise, nothing is secure by default. Everything has to be braced somehow. A properly framed house is self-bracing and secure.
  3. Spacing of framing members: Two things affect the spacing of studs and joists: structural needs and sheathing. The first ensures a solid building; the second reduces waste of time & material. You want the edges of those 4×8 sheets of plywood to land right in the middle of framing members, otherwise you will have to cut every piece.
  4. Watershed: In considering window, door, roof and siding details, water should be continually directed towards the outside of the building.

When enlightenment comes, you find that, faced with an unfamiliar task, you can figure out a way to do it, and later you will find that that is the way everyone does it. Everyone takes the same principles into consideration. Everyone eventually arrives at the same solution.

But on a bad day…

You know you have become proficient in a thing, when you resort to it for stress relief. The stereotypical farm boy of the silver screen resorts to chopping wood, and is usually quite good at it. Melville’s Ishmael said he counted it high time to put out at sea whenever he found his hypos getting the upper hand of him, thus giving you some idea of his skill as a sailor.

When you see me punishing my nails, rather than merely pounding them in, you may be pretty sure that although I am not getting much done, I have reached a plateau of skill that admits of my using carpentry as a vent for my frustrations.

— JD

“Die my dear Doctor? That’s the last thing I shall do!”
— Henry John Temple Palmerston, last words, Prime Minister of GB (1855–1865)

  1. C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce 

  2. In the usage I adopted, ‘level’ and ‘plumb’ are the same thing, and whether the vertical or horizontal meaning is meant is easily distinguished from context. The word ‘plumb’ sounds funny to me.