Old Audels, New Audels, No Audels

Recently, I was working with Rick Reynolds (learn about him on our People page) to edit our company Timeline, now up on our website. The Timeline rightfully starts in 1973 when our company was founded, but of course there were certain catalysts before then that pulled me in the direction of carpentry and building. One of those seminal events was the discovery of a volume of books known back then as “The carpenter’s bible.”

When I came to New England, I discovered that my carpentry apprenticeship in Colorado wasn’t a good calling card. In fact, “Colorado carpenter” was a common phrase used by East Coast builders as a contemptuous epithet to describe any hack with poor skills and a bad attitude. While I realized I had some preconceptions to overcome with my new workmates, this was one unfortunate stereotype that had been borne out by my own experiences. I was actually relieved to hear that I might have seen the worst. It seemed that way.

One of the first indications that New England builders were different was their sense of pride about their profession. Those guys liked being carpenters and were challenged by its demands. They cared. And they had skills. I knew I had a lot to learn and asked them if they had any ideas about how I might do some off-work hours learning. There was a quick answer: “Just get a copy of the old Audels and start reading.”

It turned out the “old Audels” was a four volume set that had been out of print for about 20 years at that time. I would have to search old bookstores to find it. In the meantime, one of my workmates brought a set in for me to see what the fuss was about. I turned to the first page of the first volume and what I read I had a big affect on me. It still does.

The Ruskin quote was the frontispiece in all four volumes and set the tone for an amazing construction manual that intends to communicate something about the right attitude to go along with the knowledge and skills. After all, you have to do a whole lot of things well to “build forever.” There’s something inherently audacious about pushing construction into raw earth and building up toward the sky, using tons of raw materials, massive amounts of energy, and “by dint of severe effort.” Ruskin was saying that the act of making buildings is one of those things that if done at all, should be done as well as humanly possible.

I eventually pieced together my old Audels set. It’s been with me ever since. The “bible” reference not only comes from the fact that it was quite obviously the trade reference for quite a few decades, but it is also inspired by the fact that they are black and leather-bound. You feel just a little more reverent having these books in your hands.

Authors Frank D. Graham and Thomas J. Emery put together what they called “A Practical Illustrated Trade Assistant on Modern Construction For Carpenters-Joiners, Builders-Mechanics, and all Wood Workers.” Theo. Audel Co. was the publisher and the original copyright was 1923, with re-printings up until about 1947.

The scope of the information is impressive. It covers a complete curriculum from tools, math, strength of timbers, estimating, and foundations all the way to exterior and interior finish work and furniture.

 

Volume 1: Tools – Steel – Square – Saw Filing – Joinery – Furniture

Volume 2: Builders Mathematics – Drawing Plans – Specifications – Estimating

Volume 3: House and Roof Framing – Laying Out – Foundations

Volume 4: Doors – Windows -Stair Building – Mill Work – Painting

In my first hours alone with my Audels volumes, I can remember blissfully discovering the extent of my ignorance. There was something comforting about knowing the trade required so much knowledge and skill development. It was extremely daunting, but it was also exactly what was missing from my Colorado carpenter days. Those guys knew nothing, but thought they knew all that was necessary. The New England carpenters knew a lot, but at the same time were fully aware of how much more there was to know. (Why is it that ignorance breeds arrogance and knowledge breeds humility?)

Needless to say, much of the information in the old Audels is outdated, but its intentions, attitude and objectives are timeless, making it a good instruction manual even now. Here’s a quote with advice for builders and clients as relevant now as then:

“In the early days when people were content to live natural lives, and before the ruthless destruction of forests had reached its present stage, houses were built as they should be–substantial, well put together, and lasting. Conditions of today, however, preclude such construction. Houses are now usually built with a total disregard for lasting qualities and this is not always the fault of the builder, but of the purchaser who will not stand the expense of first class construction.

To those contemplating building a house the best advice that can be given is to keep the cost down by reducing the size of the proposed house rather than resorting to cheap makeshift construction.”

The word “makeshift” comes up in these volumes pretty often and is synonymous with “cheap” and “objectionable,” and if the authors really want to make the point, they use them all. They clearly had nothing but spite for balloon framing:

“…makeshift framing of the balloon type..having come into general use to reduce cost.”

“This is a cheap and as usually put together a more or less objectionable construction. A well built balloon frame is satisfactory for a moderate sized house, but how often is one well built?  Since the balloon frame is a type which invites poor work and a certain class of builders cannot resist such a temptation, it has a bad reputation.”

At the time, those words rang quite true to me because I’d seen first hand the “certain class of builders” who couldn’t resist the temptation to cut corners, (nor did they resist most other temptations) and consistently made the simplified construction form an excuse to not just be cheap, but to cheat.

Reading the old Audels was, in fact, the first time I became enamored of timberframing. That edition had good illustrations and reasonably good instructions about joinery and particular framing techniques. The joinery section of Audels mixed furniture joinery and timberframe joinery in the same chapter, leading me to the fun conclusion that timberframing was viewed as just extra-large furniture.

Later, as our Timeline points out, I dismantled a 18th century barn, which was further instruction and convincing evidence about the tremendous attributes of timberframe building. I knew I eventually had to try timberframing and it was Audels that got that ball rolling.

In the 1950’s and 60’s, a new edition of Audels came out. It was the same four volumes, organized in the same way. The information was updated, but the opinion and attitude was gone. There was no “makeshift” sneer from the authors. The Ruskin frontispiece quote was gone too.  The leather was replaced with cloth; black became 1950’s orange. It was very modern. And dull.

Dispassion has its place, but my feeling is that to remove values from a discussion about professional practice in an important trade was a huge mistake. “Just the facts sir” does nothing to arouse one’s spirit to get involved too. When you’re learning from mentors, you want their information, but even more importantly you want to feel the power of their passion. You want to know why they care.

The old Audels was one of my mentors. I could filter the information through the contemporary changes and I could filter the attitude through what I had learned and what I believed, but because I heard the attitude, I was stirred to learn.

The new Audels was flat, cold information. I could use it as a resource to look things up if I needed to, but there was no good reason to sit down to read it. The personal mentor side of it was gone.

The new Audels didn’t last long.  By the late 60’s, there was no Audels.

What’s left for a carpenter/builder to learn from today? A few textbooks and a raft of trade magazines. That’s it. And it leaves a gaping void that has sucked the life out of our industry. We need much more instructional information to be accessible to all tradespeople and we need it to come packaged with a mentor who will talk like John Ruskin and harangue about poor practice like the Audels authors.

So I wonder if it’s a coincidence that the very worst of American building practice was simultaneous with the end of the original Audels, “The carpenter’s bible?”

I’m not sure, but I do suggest you find a copy of the four volumes of the old Audels. They’re pretty much available online and you won’t regret the purchase. It would be worth it if only to hold a black leather-bound book and read its first page. If you go further than that, you might want to become a carpenter.

28 thoughts on “Old Audels, New Audels, No Audels

  1. Tedd,

    Great writing and thoughts, until your conclusion! What’s left for a carpenter/builder to learn from today? An almost endless fount of passionate amateur video, that’s what! My son knows more about the basics of the operation of a lathe or a CNC machine than I ever could have had at ten reading Popular Mechanics, or Audels, for that matter.

    The explosion of video learning is amazing to behold, there’s something both new and old about it, Chris Anderson says it better than I can in his TED talk on web video: http://www.ted.com/talks/chris_anderson_how_web_video_powers_global_innovation.html

    A few textbooks and trade magazines might not be able to feed a curious young carpenter’s imagination these days, but I don’t have much doubt about where you would be soaking up information if your younger self was around today…

    Jesse

    1. Jesse,

      Great critique…thank you. I’m a fan of videos myself. I used one a few weeks ago to recalibrate a bike computer, and have found them useful for working on my tractor and assorted other things about which I’m otherwise a klutz. Videos are terrific and may well start replacing print as a dominant method of learning someday. I doubt that, but lots of smart people think so.

      I’ll admit I didn’t even consider video when I wrote about the old Audels. And before I go on, I’d like to say you could be right, but for the sake of this discussion, I’m going to support my thesis and see how it holds up. Like learning to be an architect, learning to be a carpenter is at minimum a life-long pursuit of mastery. To be a good architect, you need to be able to put information and skill-demands in context. After years of learning, you have a sense of where the bar has been set by others and where you want the bar to be set for yourself. In the course of your learning, you’ve listened to teachers, mentors and read about the past masters. Both a carpenter and an architect could learn about designing or building an eyebrow dormer from a video, but only an accomplished architect or carpenter would know if the information was good, accurate and therefore useful.

      The old Audels was both mentor and context. Obviously, it couldn’t tell you all about everything, but it gives one a sense of the breadth of knowledge and skills required for mastery. Furthermore, it adds the dimension of discernment and discipline because, unapologetically, it includes the attitude and opinion of its authors. I found that refreshing, even when I’m not in agreement. How else do we each form our own attitude and opinion about what we believe? You have to hear it from others first, especially good mentors whose judgment you respect.

      Finally, I have seen quite a few carpentry/building videos, most of which are pretty bad. I can imagine an amateur learning how to accomplish a task, much as I learned how to recalibrate a bike computer, but I don’t see how a young person finds his calling by watching videos of people describing things they may or may not know something about. Even the old Audels had its limits, but I found it to be inspiring and useful as it replaced the sage masterbuilders who could teach about both the techniques and the discipline of character.

      But, as I said, I could be wrong.

      Tedd

    2. I have an old Audels Automobile guide the last reprint was 1920. It is a bit worn, but I would like to sell it if anyone is interested. You may leave a message at the above e-mail. Thank you

  2. I’ve ordered a set. Thanks for the hot tip. It’ll be interesting to see if the average price on eBay goes up as a consequence of this article!

    As for where the modern interested carpenter can get their fix of practical explanations coupled with a healthy cynicism about “modern” building practice. I would suggest that they start with “Building the Timber Frame House” and see where they go from there.

    As Jesse comments above, there are many videos on Youtube and the internet itself was a great source of knowledge, but in my experience, I got more useful information from books than from “free” online resources.

    One resource that you may like to browse through is:

    http://www.en.charpentiers.culture.fr/

    The result of a government funded project here in France to chronicle the “art” of carpentry.

    Jon

    1. Oh boy, Jon, you have set off a number of things I need to write about! I urge all readers to check out the link Jon points to that will give you a little background about the French Compagnon guild. Perhaps the reason the old Audels struck me as so important and useful is the fact that there is no training system like the carpenters in France have had available for the last 1000 years. Just look at what the Aspirant carpenters are required to go through to become a master. The equivalent in this country is a PhD.
      Audels couldn’t replace that experience, but as a young man it helped to give me a sense for the body of knowledge and enormous skills that would be necessary for mere competency. It was one of those things that gave me permission to take the trade seriously.
      In an upcoming blog post, I will talk about our connection to the French training system and even a connection to Jean-Louis Valentin, who is one of the featured people on the Charpentiers’ site.

  3. Hey tedd, I think you should put that Builders Curriculum you blogged about a while ago into a book to fill the void that the audels has left, I’ll buy a copy!

  4. My husband has a complete set of the Audel’s Carpenters and Builders Guide which was reprinted in 1949. They are in very good shape with leather covers and we would like to know the value of them. It is volume 1 thru 4.

  5. My grandfather was a maker of fine wooden caskets in an era when few got a pine box. He built his own house with hand tools and a coal oil head lamp, using Adel’s Carpenter’s and Builder’s Guide for instruction. That was during the depression when times were really hard!

    Back in the late 1950’s my grandfather gave me a copy Adel’s Carpenter’s and Builder’s Guide, voles #3 & 4 printed in 1923. I passed many long car rides filled with hours of reading those volumes from my grandfather. That inside page, Carl Ruskin’s quote in those volumes impacted my sense of foresightedness, stewardship and responsibility.
    I chose the same quote from the same place, to represent the mindset and culture of this engineering firm. You will find it quoted on my webpage.

    A few years ago I found a complete four volume set printed in 1951. It was easy to see the change in construction material and methods. HOWEVER, it was equally evident of the love of the craft and trade of building, and the same quote still on the inside front page!

  6. I have vol. 3 & 4, 1923 leatherbound Audels Carpenter and Builders Guide. I am wondering how much these volumes are worth and how to sell them. They are in perfect condition. Thank you, Sharon LaCombe

    1. I believe (though I’m not sure) that the leather bound versions stopped around 1948. After that, Audels changed format and content dramatically. It no longer contained the information about building crafts from the “golden era,” when skills were hard-earned and valued. I don’t know anything about book value. Sorry.

  7. Hi Tedd I came across your article, while I was doing a search on some old books that my Grandfather had, that I now inherited, due to his passing almost a year ago this comming up April 4, 2013. They are the set of 4 Audels Carpenters And Builders Guide Books, the copyrighted dates are all state they are from 1923. The pages on the outside are what looks like gold plated as well, they do have some wear but overall for their age they are in real good condition they are very readable, and are not falling apart there may be some discoloration on some of the pages but not bad. Could you please tell me what the value of thse books might be offhand, if you would know? Thank you very much, sincerely Sharon, P.S. My Grandfather Mindert, was a Carpenter, 🙂 he was 88 when he passed away last year, I sure do miss him.

    1. I’m a fan of the Audels from that era, but don’t know anything about their value. I do know something about the kind of skills and craft attitude your grandfather may have had and I greatly admire the people who were steeped in that tradition. In my own way, I miss your grandfather too. Thanks for mentioning him.

  8. im looking for a vintage audel book or books ,probably 1930 era,that encompasses power plant equipment such as boilers,boiler equipment.steam driven turbines,turbine condensers , and etc.

  9. I simply loved you Audel article. I get what your are saying. I have printed and pasted on my bulletin board the Ruskin quote. Thanks Tedd.

  10. The 1943 era ones aren’t that valuable, full sets of various topics available for $10-$30 on ebay fairly easily…I have found that the reading of these little leather bound tomes is almost a reverent process. More books should be both written and printed with such care. The strength of character in the writing and the quality of the books is a reflection of each other.

  11. A beautiful tribute to a classic work. Thanks, Tedd!

    As an occasional carpenter with relatives in the building trades, I was very interested in a four-volume set of Audels in the Insatiables used bookstore in Port Townsend. After taking it home, I was surprised by its depth, the clarity of the writing, and the passion of its writers.

    It is a remarkable example of what technical writing should be: personal, direct, well organized, with a perfect marriage of text and illustrations. It also qualifies as great literature, both for the impact it has made on the building trade and for its personal conviction and insight.

    Best of all, as you stated, the Audel guides presents carpentry as profession that is not only difficult to learn with years of practice and study, but one that offers immense benefits to society.

  12. I discovered the Audel books years ago and have perhaps 400. I was originally interested in the Automobile books they printed but branched out from there. The engineering guide had 8 volumes and has everything in the world in it, ebay has a lot of Audel books listed but I had been buying the books for years before there even was an ebay. What got me interested in the automobile books was the incredible amount of info in them. You can look up to see which cylinders are in the power stroke on a 16 cylinder engine. It has about 1593 pages and this particular book was first printed in 1938, with mine printed in 1942. You might think they are really dated but this very book has a chapter on super chargers. I have about ten of these from different years.”Theo Audel” also printed the Hawkins manuals. Great books on too many topics to list here. If you are lucky you can sometimes find them in the original boxes they were mailed in and virtually unused or never used even. Those are my favorite ones. Take care, Dick Bailey

  13. I to received a copy of Audels 1923 copy of the 4 book series from the passing of my grate uncle. I have cherished these books and have added many more Audels books to my collection over the 35 years since my first set. To make a long story short, I build, fix or restore every thing I own (almost)
    I have found Lee Valley reprints of historic books of grate value. The web site is http://www.leevalley.com
    Steve Chesonis

    Audels Carpenters and Builders Guide, Vols. 1-4 (reprinted) 49L81.37 $34.95
    Smyth-sewn softcover, 4-3/4″ x 6-3/4″, 1546 pages in four volumes. First published in 1923. Reprinted in 2006 as part of our Classic Reprint Series.

    This Audels four-volume set is legendary in the woodworking trade. The 1500+ pages contain more basic woodworking information than can be found in any other publication.
    This set is of particular interest to those who use hand tools, since it was published in the 1920s before there were any power tools to speak of. It has 47 pages on the use of the steel square, 33 on planes, 56 on woodwork joints, and that is less than a third of just the first volume. For anyone interested in woodworking, this is a pleasant read as well as an excellent reference.

  14. I am very interested by the general character of this post, and efforts you have gone through, and your sincere desire, to build quality buildings. It’s a reminder to all that only part of the building community are cost-cutting hacks.
    I became aware of this same lack of information on design and quality, and am on a mission to do something to help. I have written a book called “Simple Rules, What the Oldtime Builders Knew” that is intended for builders like yourself who do still care. I’d be happy to send you a free copy, if it is something you might be interested in.

  15. Thank you for your awesome post on Audels books, and the writings of Frank Duncan Graham in particular.
    Books by Graham are always a great read, he was a very knowledgeable person based on the wide range of topics in the books he authored.

    I’ve made a page that is dedicated to him http://wkinsler.com/technology/index.html and all of his wonderful writings.

  16. I have a set of Audels Carpenters and Builders Guide Volumes 1,2,3,4, copywrite 1923. My grandfathers name is on the first page dated 1925. They are like new. No folded or torn pages and all the gold edging is still on the books.

    Interested parties can email me.

  17. excellent coverage of the books. especially the arrogance and ignorance part. I found my volume 4 in an old rooming house that I was remodeling here in Columbus, Ohio. I seriously felt just as clueless as the first day that I had started 15 years before the moment after opening it.

  18. As a Union Construction Laborer . I appreciate your quest to further your craft ! I discovered
    Audel’s at public book sale in Des Moines , Ia . I’ve been hooked ever since . I too am seeking
    knowledge in the trade/s . I’ve broadened my horizons to include all the trades – past blue print
    reading & concrete . I realized -we too in our trade we’re lacking knowledge which no one
    seems to mind in Iowa . Well I’ve since moved to Indiana and I discovered the training here
    covers a broader area . The philosophy here is also old world- repair and preserve . Much like
    the east coast ! Lots of the work here is work i’ve been doing over the years through non-union
    and union entity . In Indiana We get to learn the technical side and correct way of doing a project.

    Thank you for you great insight . Let us know of other great knowledge in the trades

    Angelo …

    1. Thanks for your interest and support, Angelo. Our work is so important to homeowners and society! It’s very important that we raise the standards in our industry: first for those who do the building, and as an outcome, the building process and product. It can and should be much better!

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