Of roofs and eavestroughs

Europeans know how to build houses. Some of the structures we build in North America, are loosely termed houses, but are essentially garbage. You would think we would take some of the lessons learned over the last thousand odd years of building houses in places that are cold, and wet, and adapt them to our Canadian climes? But no. Thats why we use crappy asphalt roofs. Environmentally unfriendly, transient roof coverings, but inexpensive I guess. Many roofs in Europe are made of metal, or some form of clay tile. Using these roofs means that the lifespan of a roof can be somewhere between 50-75 years.  Now someone will say these roofs aren’t suited to the cold – but really that’s a hard argument to make. Glazed clay tiled roofs can be found all over Norway, which doesn’t exactly have a “warm” climate. In higher altitude regions of Norway, I noticed many ski-lodges, and cottages used traditional turn roofs, which likely have excellent insultating properties. Besides which many of these roofs are far more impermeable to rain. The other issue is the type of eavestroughs, which always seem flimsy here, made of aluminum as they are, and largely incapable of handling large rain storms.

House in Oslo with a black-enameled ceramic tile roof.





Musings on quality woodworking books…

A recent post on the Lost Art Press blog, discussed an individual who was lamenting the fact that LAP did not provide “a more affordable paperback version” of their books. First of all, publishing books to the quality of LAP’s woodworking books is not exactly a lightweight venture. There are many facets to publishing a book, and there are very few publishers that publish books to the quality of LAP.  Some people seem to forget it costs money to publish a book, and printing and distributing a book may be the least of the cost. People think they are buying the paper text, but in reality there are many expenses – from buying publishing rights, to editing, illustration, and marketing costs. And knowledge, you are also paying for somebody’s time and effort to write the book, which isn’t exactly a trivial process.

Consider the book, The Anarchist’s Design Book. This 456 page hardcover sells for US$47.00. That’s less than 10¢ per page, which is shockingly good value.  Now I can fully understand why LAP don’t publish paperback books – from a cost perspective, it doesn’t make sense to undertake two printing processes. There are also definite benefits to hardcover binding – they are more durable,  the paper is usually of better quality (it is usually acid-free), and they are better from a usability viewpoint. Paperbacks most often don’t lie flat on a flat surface – hardcovers do. So what do you do with a paperback – bend the spine? (shock-horror!). The thick cover of a hardcover also helps protect the book. All-round, hardcovers are better for long-term use. It’s the same reasons most cookbooks are hardcover – a nice protective cover, and the ability to lay flat on the kitchen counter-top. Less easily damaged.

Wow! Hardcovers lay flat!

There is also the fact that Lost Art Press is a business, and they have to generate income for themselves, and their authors. It seems that their mantra is quality, and they are one of a few publishers who care deeply about the books they produce. Are the books they publish collector’s books? The answer could be either yes or no, depending how you sit on the fence. They are collectors in the same way that a Sauer & Steiner infill plane could be bought and put on a shelf. But why? Tools are made to be used, and books are made to be read. The discontented individual goes on to say “Books, in order to be truly useful to a learner, should be marked, highlighted, bent, etc. A book is meant to be used up.” What, used up like a roll of toilet paper?  I almost find it sacrilege to deface a book in this manner. Bending pages? Why not use a post-it note to mark a page? These aren’t textbooks where one has to use a highlighter. I cringe every time I see someone bend a paperback book so much its spine snaps, or fold over the corner of a page. Use a bookmark, it’s not rocket science. Want to mark up a book? Plenty of room in the margins – use a B pencil.

One of the last comments made was, “Educators make knowledge more readily affordable.” Has the individual ever seen the price of books in education? A few years back I wrote a textbook on introductory programming. The textbook sold on campus for C$110 (for a paperback, and my royalty was 10% of the $60 wholesale price, or $6. per book). Textbooks are a bad example of making knowledge more affordable, because they are overpriced, and exist in a captive market, i.e. students often *have* to buy them, and hence both publishers and university bookshops make $$$, and authors make very little.

Lost Art Press cares about how and where their books are made. There are however people who will always complain that good quality things cost too much, and ask “Couldn’t you make it a bit cheaper?”. Why should they? Why should any company compromise its principles. Wouldn’t you prefer to pay for a quality locally made product, that employs people is small communities?

If more people took this approach it would likely make the world a better place to live in.


Last, but not least – the bottom deck step

Since I put on the aluminum decking umpteen years ago, the deck has lacked a permanent bottom step. I didn’t exactly know how to tackle it – whether to add a series of stones, a floating step, or some sort of hybrid. Well, sometimes the best solutions just take time. As I have faced the front of the deck in 5/4″ Ipe, I  thought that Ipe should be used for the top of the steps. For the base I decided to form two piers out of concrete, bridged by two 4×4 cedar cross beams.

The concrete? –  6000psi concrete (Sakrete). Overkill? yes, but it produces a nice and tough finish, that is fibre-reinforced, and resistant to freeze-thaw cycling. So I built a plywood mold that has two insets for the 4×4 cedar joists to joint the two piers. Between the two insets is an island with an embedded ¾” copper pipe, used to join the two cedar bridge pieces to the pier. The piers are 11½” cubed.

To join the 4×4 cedar joists to the pier, I used a ½” stainless steel threaded rod.

Adding the 4×4 cedar cross beams :

Now the Ipe will go on top, bolted into the cedar cross beams.

The bottom three inches are below the pavers, but at 70 lbs (32kg) a piece, these piers are not going anywhere.

Roofs made of wood

One of the more interesting things about some of the older buildings I saw in Norway was the fact that they had wooden roofs. Not shingle roofs, but roofs made of overlapping planks laid perpendicular to the roof ridge.  Usually they are made out of 1″ pine. These are quite common in historic buildings, such as medieval churches, some museum buildings and in open air museums. These roofs were classically constructed in the manner shown in the photo below, or in a complete-overlap to produce a flat roof. The roofs were nailed down using iron nails treated with linseed oil (to make them weatherproof), and the roofs coated in pine tar, which provides for a good water-repellent coating. The top row of boards on the roof plank need to be laid so that the curve of the annual rings facing up, while the bottom row of this convexity must be directed downward.

A plank roof at the Norsk Folkemuseum in Oslo.

I wonder how well these roofs would work here in Canada?

A (new) plank roof, on a railway shed in Finse, the highest stop on the Oslo-Bergen railway.

P.S. Wondering where to get pine tar in Canada? Try Swede Paint Enterprises.

Pencil sharpeners are tools too!

When we think of tools, sometimes we forget about the really small ones! Mechanical pencils with 0.5mm leads are okay, but aren’t that well suited to everyday (fine) woodworking. Old-fashioned wooden pencils though are perfect for the job, provided they are kept sharp – and that’s the job of the sharpener. But not any old sharpener… cool ones made of aluminum and brass from Germany!

A different perspective on joints and trim

When I travel I inherently start looking at how things are constructed. Sometimes I think there is a huge misconception about how wooden things are made. Talk about joints and many think dovetails are the ultimate in joints – but few stop to remember that dovetail joints are quite new from the perspective of being such a widely use joint (although they have been around since Egyptian times). Many vintage pieces of furniture, and indeed things like doors made heavy use of mortise and tenon joints. The joint below is from a door in a historic Norwegian house (in Bergen) – the through mortise-and-tenon is wedged with large wedges.

A wedged mortise-and-tenon on a door

Another interesting thing is doors with recessed panels. Conventional thinking would have the frame built for these doors using blind mortise-and-tenon joints, with the panels likely recessed into the door. However older doors often had through mortise-and-tenon joints, and used external moulding on both sides to retain the panel. Not quite what one would expect. Is it lower quality because of this? Hardly.

Recessed panels

Painted or raw, the mortise-and-tenon joints look good, and they tell  story. The external moulding turns into a feature of the door versus a bland piece of household architecture. When did our doors become so boring (and heaven forbid hollow)?


Back… with some interesting posts to come.

Well, back after two weeks travelling in Norway. My goal was to possibly find some vintage Norwegian tools… I did manage to find one two handled plane in an antique shop in Oslo, but it had had its sole planed down so that the mouth was more than ½” across. The end result? Nothing much of anything. I looked around in antique stores in Oslo and Bergen, and couldn’t find much of anything tool-wise. But I did visit a couple of great open-air museums, so I have a bunch of posts in the works on some interesting tools and wooden construction techniques. Stay tuned!