A Carpenter’s Story
By Daniel Foster
I was canoeing on Goose Creek the day I met Dick Knight. My daughter and I were spending the day with Reddy Manierre and his son Stoney and the four of us had stopped for lunch. We had pulled our canoes up onto a gently sloping granite shelf and were relaxing in the sun when Reddy spotted Dick coming down the stream and invited him and his girlfriend to join us, which they did.
Dick lived in The Plains, as did Reddy. The Plains is a small town adjacent to larger and better known Middleburg, in the Hunt Country of Virginia. Reddy’s family had lived there since before the War of Northern Aggression, as Reddy called it. I think it is probably accurate to say that Reddy knew everyone in The Plains.
Reddy introduced me to Dick as an “extremely fine carpenter and cabinet-maker”, which prompted Dick to say that he was looking for a contractor to undertake a renovation of his home in the Dupont Circle area of the District. I was in need of work and interested in the sound of Dick’s project and before Dick and his girlfriend departed he and I exchanged phone numbers and agreed to get together and look at the job in the coming week. We all lounged in the sun for a while and then they took off downstream and we followed sometime later.
Dick had married a local heiress, of which there are many in the Hunt Country of Virginia. They had met when she was a student of his in his Kundalini Yoga practice. After marrying, Dick had taken over a local restaurant and made it successful for a while, though eventually that success would subside and Dick would sell the restaurant and move on to focus on composing music. By the time I met Dick his marriage was over. Dick was left with a property in the District and a simple home in the Plains.
I drove into the District to meet with Dick and his architect to look at the project. It was incredible. It was a brick building strongly influenced by Craftsman style. The street face of the building had very few windows, presenting the impression of a place containing something special inside. A wide door with Craftsman details was painted purple and adorned with a handle nearly three feet tall of handwrought iron in the shape of a dragon, painted green.
The building had been built by Edwin Morse in 1903. Edwin was the son of the telegraph inventor Samuel Morse, who had lived in the building next door, which had also later, for a period, been the British Embassy.
Edwin was a stone sculptor and he built the property on R Street as a studio with living space. A short entry hall led past two bedrooms into a main room 24 feet wide and 42 feet long. This main room was a huge, open area, 24 feet high, flooded with light from a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows on the far wall and a row of skylights on a slanting roof over the rearmost part of the space. The far end of the room was raised three steps. On the left of that area was a spacious kitchen, separated from a large dining area on the right by a long countertop.
Between the entry and the raised area at the rear was the main room, which had once been the sculpting area. To the right was a massive brick fireplace, with an opening five feet wide and four feet tall with a wide, exposed chimney rising to a painted ceiling supported by stout painted beams.
The overall effect was diminished by a previous renovation. It had a seventies look. We were twenty years past that and what had once been cutting edge now looked like the image of the past passing fashion that it was.
I met with Dick and his architect, Bruce Preston, and we spent several hours looking at plans and details of building construction and I learned the history of the building. The overall intent was to reinstate the details and the feel of the original Craftsman design. It was just the kind of project I loved.
I spent several days poring over the plans and having a few additional phone discussions with Dick and Bruce. I put together a bid and submitted it to them and a few days later Dick asked me to do the job.
As the months went by there would be difficulties and joys and saving graces. Dick would be one of the difficulties, time and time again, and I would not fully understand why until the end. Bruce was a saving grace. He was an excellent, thoughtful architect and a prince of a guy. We worked very well together and I like to think that we balanced each other well. Another of the joys was a guy named Mike Atkinson.
Over a year earlier I had written the article for Fine Homebuilding, documenting the building of a kitchen for my clients Bill and Sharon Clinton out of antique long-leaf heart pine. It came out in April of 1996 and when Mike Atkinson read it he called me and said he was interested in working with me. This coincided perfectly with the work at Dick’s. Mike and I met and I hired him. It was a good match. Mike had something of a machinist’s approach to things. He was excellent at tuning and setting up machines and making jigs. He had considerable years experience in framing, a great attitude, and a great sense of humor. I still remember and laugh at things he would say.
The R Street job began with a lot of demolition. We tore off sheet after sheet of drywall and wood studs that had concealed some of the original ceiling work that we would now leave exposed. The existing kitchen was removed and a large portion of one long wall. Most of the existing balcony was removed, leaving a circular stair on one side. We built a massive pile in the middle of the great room, which was only possible due to floor framing originally meant to support large blocks of marble. The floor was framed with true 4×12 inch joists 12 inches on center. It was almost strong enough to support a parked locomotive. When the demolition was done we hired a guy with an incredibly beat up truck to take it away. He loaded that old truck way beyond what I would have thought feasible and took the demo away in several loads.
I purchased my first cell phone about that time. It was huge by today’s standards with a handset that nested in a larger unit about 12” square and 4” tall, but it was amazingly convenient. I felt like quite the big shot, having a portable phone I could use from my car. Then within a year or so we were all using cell phones.
Another player in the construction team was a friend of Dick’s in New Mexico, named Eric. He would be doing woodcarving we would incorporate into the remodel. One of our first orders of business was to select and glue up white oak boards to be used for the mantle, the balcony fascia and the balcony posts. These were sent off to New Mexico for carving there. When the time came, Eric would ship the finished materials back and come to DC to assist in the installation.
The largest framing task consisted of constructing the balcony that spanned the full 24’ width of the building. It incorporated the existing circular stairs and included a curved radius across the entire front. After much head scratching Mike and I decided to create a pattern for the radius by laying it out on full sheets of plywood. We carried three sheets of plywood to a little-used dead-end street two blocks away and laid them end to end across the street. We drew a line perpendicular to these sheets and through the center of the center sheet, extending back the 40 feet or so to create the radius that Bruce had specified. Then, holding one end of a steel tape at that theoretical center point, with a marker held at the 40’ mark, we drew the curvature across the three sheets. Back at the site these were cut out and we had our pattern.
There were surprises as we continued with our construction: framing that was not as any of us expected it to be, areas with unforeseen needs for repairs, and some things that Dick had forgotten to include in his wish list. Some of these things I took care of gratis, but some of them I charged for, making every effort to be fair in my charges. Dick challenged almost every charge and I had to thoroughly justify each to him. We had weekly meetings at which Dick required an explanation of every aspect of the work. It was irritating to have to prepare for these meetings and to have to explain everything constantly.
Another addition to the scope of work involved sandblasting the wood ceiling and ceiling beams, which were covered with several old coats of paint. When we got prices from sandblasting specialists they were very high and Mike and I decided to do it ourselves to keep the cost lower for Dick. Despite such efforts to keep costs down for him, Dick still stayed constantly on our case.
We also coordinated our work with the work of a guy Dick had hired to install a new rear garden. There was a large walled garden behind the building and Dick’s guy hauled boulders and dirt and plants, harvested from the woods near Dick’s house in The Plains, in through the front door and out the rear, to create a fern-filled woodland.
The slanting skylight structure in the rear of the great room also required considerable rebuilding. I was determined to do an excellent job on the entire renovation and gave Dick an extremely fair price to do it.
Another great pleasure on this job was working with Joan Gardiner, a wonderful tile maker from the small village of Unison in Virginia. I had met Joan before, but we had not worked together. Joan’s particular forte is in designing and creating tile murals, but on this job she was acting as a consultant, assisting in the selection of tiles appropriate for the building and working with a Midwestern tile manufacture to find the right glaze. The key use of the tiles was in the counter-height walls surrounding the kitchen, though the same tiles were also incorporated into the fireplace surround.
The two short, paneled walls surrounding the kitchen supported a wide counter at bar height. This divided the kitchen from the dining area on the long side and from the living area on the short side. The long wall was approximately 16 feet in length and the short one 10 feet. The walls would be finished with a solid cherry framework, with 6-inch wide vertical stiles and larger horizontal base and head rails. The spaces between these rails and stiles were one foot by two feet on the long side and one foot by over three feet on the short side, which was taller because it rose from the slightly lower living room floor. These spaces were filled with 4” green tiles. The tiles were all of one color, but geometrically patterned, using several different individual tile patterns to create a larger pattern within each space. The tiles were attached to cement backer board placed within each of the openings for that purpose.
I had given Dick a price to build all of the kitchen cabinets, in addition to building the surround walls and the solid cherry countertop. He and Bruce added several elements to the design as work progressed. The corner of the countertop would now incorporate an S-curve miter joint and a similar joint would be used where two sections of the long counter run joined together. Bruce gave me a drawing indicating the desired design, which was structurally not completely sound. I proposed a revised design, which he and Dick accepted. Unlike a standard miter joint, which runs at 45 degrees across the middle of a corner joint, this joint began with a straight run for an inch or two, then a radius to the left, then a radius to the right, and then another short straight run at the end.
I was also asked to add a series of cherry brackets that looked like they were supporting the overhang of the bar top. I fabricated each of these in my shop, using two pieces of cherry joined at right angles in a miter with a glued spine for strength, with shaped edges.
There wasn’t a facet of this job that I didn’t love, except for Dick’s constant monitoring and resistance to any increases in price for additional work, which I was already doing my best to keep low.
Mike constructed most of the railing for the balcony. This incorporated a heavy rail nearly 6 inches wide and 1 1/2” thick, following the radius of the balcony itself. This ran between four wide square posts, creating three long sections, each supported by thick square balusters. These balusters were about 1 1/4” square and 2 1/2” on center, so there was just as much wood as there was space. All of this was constructed of white oak. I can literally smell the oak as I am writing. Dick’s carver friend carved cattails on the face of each of the posts.
White oak is one of my favorite woods. This is in contrast to red oak, one of my least favorites. White oak was the predominant wood of the Craftsman period, and the furniture of Stickley and many others of that period was most often white oak. When quarter-sawn, meaning sawn so that the rings of the tree are perpendicular to the face of the board, white oak boards contain a strong secondary pattern in addition to its standard grain. These patterns run across the board, in contrast to the grain, which runs along the length of the board. These are the medullary rays of the wood, which are revealed when the board is cut in this fashion. Medullary rays are a secondary system of cells running from the center of the tree to the exterior and are present in all trees, but are much larger than usual in white oak.
Years ago, in that article on a heart-pine kitchen, I quoted the father of a carpenter friend in Vermont. He also was a carpenter. He said, “Son, we weren’t any better carpenters than you. We just got all the good wood.”
It has become rare now to see a fine, wide hardwood board. 6 to 8 inch boards are still easily available, but good 14 to 16 inch boards are much less common. In addition, the desire for uniformity in most building situations means that the highly figured board, such as a quarter-sawn piece with a lot of medullary ray figure, will be played down, rather than featured. It might be considered flawed for most purposes. The wood in current-day kitchen cabinets and elsewhere is often clear, but dull when compared with figured wood, though it makes for the uniform product the manufacturers can market and ship.
Wood is remarkable stuff. It is a bundle of long strands of tubes, coated with a natural glue that holds them together. This inherent structure – cellulose strands held together with lignin – makes it a material that can be bent when heated, and the material will retain that shape when cooled. This is one of two usual ways that wood is made to bend. The other involves taking thin pieces and gluing them together when bent or twisted. When the glue dries, the shape is retained. There have been many styles of furniture that depend on these techniques. The bentwood pieces of Thonet chairs rely on the heating method. The plywood design of the Eames chair relies on the use of the glued method, with veneers.
We used both of these techniques on the balcony stairwell and stair handrails.
The design for the stairwell called for a 10” wide board to wrap around the inside of the stairwell at the second floor level. This began with a straight run for a few feet, then a bend where the stairs began to curve and then another straight run for a few feet to a corner where the second floor opening ended above the descended stairs. The radius of the bend was about 18”. We had decided to form this curved piece by steam-bending the board.
I built a steam box a little longer than the board we were bending, which was about ten feet in length. This box was comprised of a 2×4 frame with plywood fixed on the bottom and plywood on top that was easily removed, held only by a few screws and clamps. An electric teakettle, modified for this purpose, was our steam source.
I had never steam bent a board like this before, so it was all new ground for me. I had done my reading, however. I knew the principles and I knew that white oak was a one of the most suitable woods for bending. I also knew that one hour per inch of thickness was a rule of thumb for the length of steaming time required. The board was about 3/4 of an inch thick. As in most of my career as a carpenter and builder I was doing something I didn’t know how to do. I was learning as I was going.
I set up a series of clamps, blocks and screws that we would use to hold the board in place, once bent into position around the framed stairwell.
The board went in and began to cook. I continued to feed the kettle small amounts of water, so that the steam continued. Condensing water was able to drip out onto plastic sheeting I had placed beneath the steambox.
We let the board cook for well over an hour, doing other things in the meantime, with refills to the kettle as needed. When the timing seemed right, I called Mike and another helper. We donned gloves to protect our hands from the heated wood. We pulled the screws and clamps holding the top of the steam box in place and removed the board.
Quickly we seated the end of the board into holding blocks I had installed at the start of the run for that purpose, and then we all pushed the board towards the bend.
It bent about the amount one would normally expect a board to bend and no more. “Push more,” I said. We were giving it everything we had and nothing happened. I knew the board was cooling even as we pushed. “More!” I said. Nothing happened. And then it did. It was as if the board all of a sudden gave up and surrendered to our efforts. We kept pushing and the board relaxed into the bend, like stiff rubber. We seated it into its final position and secured the clamps to hold it. I had been right on the verge of giving up when it had finally given in.
So I learned. This is how it works. The glue that holds the cellulose together has a resistance to letting go, but once it does, it will continue to move, within a certain range, as long as the heat is still there.
And this is how it always is. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I do the best I can to make it work and I learn. I move ahead and usually things work out. Sometimes they don’t work out and I have to try something else until it works. I have spent almost all of my years in carpentry and building doing things I didn’t know how to do until after I had done them. I am often envious of people who can do things over and over again, and sometimes I have the opportunity to do that and it does feel good for a while, but then I get an opportunity to do something more challenging and just can’t help resist.
The stair handrail was also curved. Here again I set up a series of blocks to secure the wood once bent into position, but here the wood was comprised of 8 thin pieces that would be glued together into their curved shape. The trick here was to get the glue on fast and get everything clamped into position quickly before the glue began to set. It pays to run dry trials until you have all your moves down. Mike and I ran through it several times until we had worked out all the moves on how we were going to apply and spread the glue, how we were going to move the pieces into place, and how were going to clamp the pieces together in position. Once these details had been figured out, it was accomplished fairly easily. Once the glue had dried, we removed the blocks and planed and sanded the railing to its finished form and attached it to the stairwell walls with metal brackets, awaiting finish.
Bruce and I were excited when we learned that the Washington Post was interested in doing an article on the remodel. This would be wonderful publicity for each of us and would very likely result in a boost for each of our businesses. It would not be the first time the building would be featured in an article in the paper. It had been featured in a large spread the last time it had been remodeled, in the 70’s.
A writer from The Post came to the site and spent some time with us discussing the building and the job. The job was still underway, but nearing completion and she could easily envision the job completed.
In the following few weeks I waited anxiously to hear more about the article, but eventually learned that it would not run. Dick had refused to have his name mentioned in the article and the paper refused to do the article without naming the owner. Both Bruce and I were very disappointed.
Part of the problem between Dick and me is that we had grown up in different worlds, architecturally. I had grown up in the world of residential building and remodeling and eventually moved into building fancy interiors. My lifeblood had been in figuring out the difficult or the new, listening to the client and trying to achieve a finished product that would satisfy them completely. Dick’s experience in construction, prior to his marriage, had been in the field of producing installations for galleries and gallery shows, hiring subcontractors to undertake the various elements of construction and installation. He had been successful in doing this and made good money, though I understood that he did this at some expense of his subcontractors, and that they did not fare nearly so well in these ventures as he.
Dick probably could have hired a contractor who could have done what Mike and I did and who would have done things on a more timely and predictable basis, but it would have cost at least three times as much as I charged. Mike and I cut costs by using relatively low-tech and low-overhead techniques. We built cabinets, for example, the old-fashioned way, on workbenches and with simple table saws and other tools, finely-tuned, while the larger shops used tablesaws costing, literally, 50 times as much as mine. We used a lot of power tools, but mostly they were hand power tools: hand held power sanders, for example, instead of ten thousand dollar sanding machines. We didn’t hire a separate demolition company and a separate framing company and a separate glazing company or a separate sandblasting company. We accomplished the work to the level we did and we kept costs lower by doing all these things ourselves. Not every choice to do it ourselves was right, but almost every one was.
The new way is to specialize. Only roofers do roofing. Only framers do framing. Only drywall guys do drywall. Only trim guys do trim. Only cabinet guys do cabinets. Only painters paint. Only foundation guys do foundations. My earliest exposure to building was with outfits that did most, if not all of the work, and in my earliest jobs, we did most of the work. Very typically, the same carpenters would frame, trim, build the stairs, create built-ins, roof and lay floors. Now each of these is usually done by separate people.
There are advantages to specialization, clearly. Where once there were only a few kinds of flooring or a few kinds of roofing, now there are many. There is a lot to know if you want or need to know it all.
But a lot is lost also. A lot of the problems that occur in building are due to poor coordination between the work of different trades, at the transitions of the time and the product of the different trades. The framers didn’t do something properly for the roofer or the cabinet guy didn’t do something properly for the flooring guy, and so forth. Or the framing took longer than planned and the roofer, who was put off for two weeks, now can’t get to it for another two, because he’s off on another job until then. In theory, there’s supposed to be a guy coordinating all of this stuff. More and more, the guy in charge of all this knows less and less. Where this guy should know a tremendous amount about each of the trades work in detail, oftentimes now he or she is now only really skilled in scheduling and paperwork.
Mike and I eventually completed the job. Bruce commented that it was the highest quality work he had ever been associated with. I was worn out and felt like I had been in a battle. Dick had me do a couple of unrelated items at the end and underpaid me for them. I had nothing to lose at that point and I told Dick some of the problems I had with the way the job had been handled and how I had wished we had acted more as a team.
“But Daniel”, he said a little smugly, “don’t you know that the client / contractor relationship is adversarial?”
And with these words all was revealed. Here was the explanation for Dick never being satisfied or pleased, despite everything that Mike and I would put into the work.
And here I was thinking that we were all a team, working together to accomplish something special. No wonder it had all been sour. None of our efforts to please and satisfy him could have ever succeeded. Dick would have always felt it was his job to try to get more and to give us less.
Since that time my eyes have been opened. I look out for the client or contractor willing or hoping to take advantage of the contractor or subcontractor. I try to measure, somehow, the ‘teamwork quotient’ and have learned to protect myself when it is not present, or to walk away.
There was so much about this job that was a delight. Bruce Preston and Mike Atkinson were wonderful to work with. The building was beyond delightful. Bruce’s design and sense of detail was wonderful. Working with the artistic sense and fine personality of Joan Gardiner was a great pleasure. My memories will always be tainted, however, by the atmosphere that was created when one member of the team saw it as a win/lose proposition and this job stands out as one of the least satisfying of all the works that I have done.
I do know now, though, that it is not really my job to make the client happy. I can do fine work. I can do it efficiently and affordably, but it will not necessarily make the client happy. Some people will be forever unhappy, because they have decided to be that way, and it will not be in my power to make them any different.
I build through collaboration. For me there is no other way, but once one member in the relationship decides the relationship is adversarial, all is spoiled. Ah well … live and learn.