Monthly Archives: June 2011

Ishikawa and the Compagnons

Good buildings can’t be made without skills and knowledge. But where does one acquire those skills? And where does the knowledge come from? One of the reasons I like the “Old Audels” is that its four volumes give a wide spectrum of basic building education in a manner that is readable and easy to understand, but more importantly they reveal how much more one would need to know to master the craft of building. Too many in the building trades these days are afflicted with what Pythagoras called “compound ignorance,” or ignorance of ignorance. The reason for this is simple. There’s little in the way of training requirements for almost all of the trades; there are precious few active master builders around to teach; and so few places where one can learn anything about building trades in an organized way. The void is just too big. People involved with building in America often assume they know what they’re doing when they don’t. With a serious lack of mentors, teachers and schools for at least the past 50 years, American builders are often lost in their own fog.

The situation is very unfortunate for our floundering industry. Houses are more complicated than ever. With every hurricane, earthquake and tornado, we learn something new about how to make buildings perform better structurally. In addition, the need to make our built environment more energy efficient has raised that particular ante many-fold in just the last decade. The craft of building right now involves a lot of science. Making good buildings now more than ever requires builders to be capable, determined learners, not just good with their hands. In opposition to compound ignorance, the main thing every builder needs to know is that there’s more to know, and the present accepted standard isn’t nearly good enough.

Bridging the divide between our deficient building industry culture and the one we wish would be more dominant is a challenge. In the current context, we can’t reasonably expect our new employees to come to us already educated and trained, making our training obligations pretty substantial in the first few years. While we strive to fill in the all learning requirements for our associates, it’s often hard to find the time and maintain the budgets for the education we know to be critical. Therefore, we sometimes rely on our associates to “learn on the fly” while working with the “job captains,”  team leaders and their co-workers.

Without schools and without industry requirements, we have to depend on our own resources for education and training. We’ve developed a good curriculum, and in our midst we have good teachers for most of the requirements, but we’ve come to realize that the most important ingredient is our associates’ innate desire to learn, and to continue developing their skills. If they don’t want it, we can’t cram it. And if they do…well, it can be a really incredible, unstoppable force.

When I was young, the thing that excited me was being in the presence of master builders whose accomplishments and skills was only matched by their humility and respect for the tradition of which they were a part. You perhaps have never thought of carpentry as the “noble profession,” but when I heard that phrase from a practicing carpenter in his late 60’s, it didn’t sound like hyperbole because of his demeanor, and his explanation about how much buildings matter in the lives of people, and therefore how important it is that we build really well. That was Oliver. He was one of those who inspired me to want to be a carpenter and to learn how to build well. I needed his example for a standard, for a goal.

Since then, I’ve wanted people in our company to have the same opportunity to be inspired and pulled toward a higher standard by example. We spent our early years trying to accomplish that on our own, but while we had the passion and desire, there were some missing links in our craft lineage we were striving to overcome, and the dominant homebuilding culture was going in the other direction. We were swimming hard, but against the tide.

In 1984, we fell into the opportunity to have a Japanese temple builder, Masahiko Ishikawa, work with us for a year. He was at the end of a 10 year apprenticeship and wanted to spend a little time in a different place before going back to officially begin his career. Ishikawa was a 28 year old Oliver from a different place in the world, but from the same disciplined, reverential building tradition. He learned from people, who learned from people, who learned from people…going back 2000 years. When the thread of knowledge is that long and deep, it brings with it grace and confidence.

Ishikawa’s training began when he was a teenager. The path he took through the years of apprenticeship was a rigorous combination of classroom, workshop and field work. They emphasized the mental and physical discipline of the building crafts, but also humility and respect. It sounded like a combination of training to be a Marine and a Monk, while pursuing a PhD in a very specialized form of construction. There was little he didn’t know or couldn’t do if it involved wood, tools and building.

Masahiko Ishikawa

It was transformational to work with Ishikawa that year. We learned an immense amount, became a little bit Japanese, but perhaps most importantly, we had a living example to show us where the bar should be set. It was the starkest of contrasts with the non-caring, cynical building environment we often saw on American job sites. We all knew where we wanted to be on that spectrum. It was an experience and influence that deeply affected and directed us at an important time.

In the early 1990’s, I developed a good connection to the Compagnons du Devoir of France. Their training and building tradition is very similar to the one that Ishikawa was a part of in Japan in nearly all respects. Jon Senior, who lives in France commented on my last blog and pointed us to a web site about the Compagnons. I wrote back to him excitedly because for the last 20 years, we’ve had a regular flow of Compagnons working with our company as a part of their formal training.

The first Compagnon to join us for a period was Boris Noel. At the time, he had finished his decade of training and had accomplished his Masterwork, making him a true “Master builder” as formally defined in their training program. He did for us in the 90’s what Ishikawa had done before: he was an example of the education and skill level we wanted to be our own standard. He reminded us about the “noble profession” in his attitude, work ethic, and skills.

Boris Noel

As an interesting side note, Boris now works for Jean-Louis Velentin, whose story is highlighted on the Compagnon web site. Since Boris’ time with us, he has been our connection to other Compagnons who have joined us for periods and helped to make us a little bit French.

It’s hard to the fathom the difference between a building culture that requires no training with those from Japan and France that require 7 to 12 years of education and apprenticeship.  Having worked with these people and having used their standards to help develop ours, we know why it matters in every way.

Oh yes, we’re also a little bit German and Swiss. More about that later.

Emmanuel Jego
Julien Worms


Remi Chardon


Bruno Sutter

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.