Saturday, September 20, 2014

Dozens of 19th Century Craftsmen at Work...

19th Annual Harvest Days at the LSU Rural Life Museum
September 27-28, 2014

In less than a week the LSU Rural Life Museum will hold the 19th annual Harvest Days Festival in Baton Rouge, LA. The Festival consist of dozens of 18th & 19th Century Craftsmen that will be busily working in their respective trades of Black Smithing, Timber Felling and Hewing, Pit Sawing, Timber Framing and Log Home Building, Traditional Pirougue Building, Traditional Bow and Arrow Making, Soap Making, Candle Making, Open Hearth Cooking, Cane Crushing and Syrup Making, Old Time Children's Games, as well as several other trades, crafts and pastimes.

We all know the grandeur portrayed in movies such as Gone With the Wind but those were only a small faction of the population of the charming South - most lived much simpler lives. The LSU Rural Life Museum is dedicated to those early settlers, slaves, farmers, tradesmen and plain country folk of old Louisiana.

All of the demonstrators are experts in their field and are looking forward to sharing history, telling you stories of what the past was like for your ancestors and answering any questions you may have.

The Rural Life Museum is home to the largest existing collection of Vernacular Louisiana Structures, an impressive display of Lower Delta French Furnishings, the most extensive collection of Material Culture items from 18th & 19th Century Rural Louisiana and was placed in the Top 10 Outdoor Museums in the World by the British Museum.

Visiting the Rural Life Museum truly is a step back in time and on no week-end more so than this one.

I, of course, will be demonstrating Lumbering, Hewing, Pit Sawing, Log Cabbin Building, and Shingle Making. I will also be speaking at length about 18th Century immigration to Louisiana particularly to the German Coast.

John Blokker, an accomplished Timber Framer and Historic Preservationist, will be demonstrating Timber Frame Building and will be constructing large Norman Trusses just as they were historically. He will surely speak, with his own unique flair, on whatever related topics come to mind. I have it on good authority he will also be showing a bit of his collection of early Gulf Coast red bricks that were hand made from the banks of the Mississippi and each with their own special characteristics.

Ray McCon, an experienced traditional woodworker and bow builder, will be there with his travelling shave horse and various hand tools to wow you all with his boyer (bow building) skills and talk about the history of bow building and it's uses by various cultures.

As noted above there are many many craftsmen all worthy of note but I think you get the idea.

Come on down and visit! The museum can comfortably handle a couple thousand visitors at any given time and we will see 5-7 thousand guests over the week-end. If you prefer to avoid crowds I suggest coming early Saturday morning or late Sunday Afternoon. We will be open from 8am to 5pm both Sat & Sun.

Sept 27th & 28th, 2014
8:00 am to 5:00 pm each day

Regular Museum admission charged.

LSU Rural Life Museum
4560 Essen Ln.
Baton Rouge, LA
(225) 765-2437

© Jean Becnel, 2014. 
The material found herein is the sole intellectual property of it's author(s). 
Reproduction of this information is strictly forbidden without the written permission of it's author(s)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Hosting the Baton Rouge Woodworker's Club on Sept 6th

We will be hosting the Baton Rouge Woodworker's Club on Sept 6th at the LSU Rural Life Museum

Making an Epi de Faitage for a hip roof I recently shaked
Networking is important for us woodworkers. It serves a paramount role in today's non-guild system and bridges the gap once filled by apprenticing in the trades. If you attend you this meeting you will meet the members of the Baton Rouge Woodworker's Club, a boring lecture and demonstration by Jean Becnel, hot coffee, and a tour of the museum.

This will consist of  a one hour lecture from yours truly on use of the wedge in traditional woodworking, the club's normal monthly meeting, a show and tell by the members where they will display and discuss some of the projects they have in their shop and it will commence with a tour of the museums over 30 historic structures to discuss design and construction techniques of the buildings.

I hope to see you there.

Saturday Sept 6th, 2014 
9:00 - 11:30 AM
LSU Rural Life Museum, 
4560 Essen Ln, Baton Rouge, LA 70809


Jean N Becnel

© Jean Becnel, 2014. 
The material found herein is the sole intellectual property of it's author(s). 
Reproduction of this information is strictly forbidden without the written permission of it's author(s)

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Little Ax Work - Big Fun

I had the privilege of working with a couple of the LSU Rural Life's Jr Docents on Thursday.

They learned the basic principles of axe work such as safety, body ergonomics, sharpening, felling, bucking and only a bit about splitting as we ran out of time. 

We will have another installment soon at which we will practice splitting, hewing and joinery for log houses. 

They were aged 11-14 years old and I was amazed at how well they all did! 

As we progress the Jr Docents will continue to learn these skills and so many more. Homesteading Aggriculture, Flint Knapping and Bow Building, Timbering, Coopering, Wheelwrighting, Cabinet Building, etc. If you live in the Greater Baton Rouge area bring your kids on down... ps, it's free!

These kids will be well on thier way to be the next generation of traditional craftsmen.


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Unplugged Woodworkers Unite

There is a facebook page that I would like to share with you. It's named Unplugged Woodworkers and I am proud to say I have been a part of it since the very beggining. 

It was begun by a talented traditional woodworker and dear friend of mine, Jon, only 6 months ago but has already grown to well over 300 members and in that time nearly One Thousand pictures of hand tooling endeavors have been uploaded. It is a mix of both masters and grasshopers and the number one rule is POST PICTURES! 

Please check it out if you are like me and have a passion for hand tools and the works they create.   



Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Primary Lumbers of Louisiana Furnishings - Q&A

A Pied de Biche Mahogany Table with Cypress
secondary lumber - built by the author.
I recently posted asking what I could do to make this blog more interesting to my readers. This was apparently seen as an opportunity to unload with a bunch of questions, (tongue in cheek) from one particular reader and I simply couldn't see posting that long of a reply in the comments section. Thomas, To answer your questions ~

What was the primary wood used in making creole furniture. I imagine cypress would make the list, was pecan or persimmon also used? What about traditional hardwoods, cherry, oak, maple, etc? Do you see a lot of furniture made with hardwood?...

To best answer this question we have to consider a couple of regional factors and answer a couple of others questions first.
1) What hardwoods were available whether domestically or by domestic importation?
There is a ridiculously diverse mix of lumbers growing in Louisiana. Cypress, Yellow Pine, White Cedar, Oaks, Live Oak, Walnut*, Hickory, Pecan, Cherry*, Tulips, Sycamore, Maple, Sassafras, Locust… The list goes on and on. The reason for the * on Walnut & Cherry is because while it does grow here it is of poor quality due to weather and soil conditions. The lumber to choose from is in no way lacking so let’s look at other determining factors.

2) What harvesting technology was available in a specific region / time period?
Cypress Crib

Primary lumber harvesting on the Gulf Coast and specifically Louisiana was limited to riving or pit sawing until nearly the mid 19th century. Water wheel driven saw mills were not possible as there is not sufficient elevation change to water with any velocity. There was one rather interesting exception to this, that I am aware of, which I will write about some time in the future.

So given this limitation of mechanization we either need lumber easily rived or sawn with human power OR just so coveted that strenuous sawing is worth it in the end. This knocks the list down a bit. 

We immediately lose Live Oak with its incredibly hard and twisted grain, though it was used extensively for ship building. Hickory and Pecan are out for similar reasons to however Hickory would have seen use in tool handles and cultivation implements whereas it’s cousin the Pecan is a terrible choice as it is an absolute honey put for every wood consuming insect on the planet.  Toss out Sycamore on early pieces, later it would become a common secondary lumber after the introduction of steam powered mills and it's stability was recognized. The local Maple is terribly soft and not very useful as lumber for construction or furnishings. Red oak is prone to rot so it is seldom seen in building or furnishings.

We are left with Cypress, Pine, White Cedar, White Oak, Cherry, Tulip Poplar and Sassafras.

 3) What of those above woods have characteristics conducive to furniture building?

Cypress & Yellow Pine
Two Petite Armories and a Corner Cupboard
utilizing Cypress and a primary lumber.
I lump these together for the simple reason that they are very similar. In regions where Cypress was available, very little pine was utilized. Cypress is strong, light and incredibly rot and bug resistant. In the sandy portions of the Louisiana Territories Pine was substituted for Cypress for both structures as well as furnishings. There Are many pieces in collections and in the wild that share nearly identical designs and form from South Louisiana up to more northern French territories of old Louisiana – again IL & MO for example. Cypress was commonly used as a primary lumber on country furnishings.  

Most 18-19th century South Louisiana furniture has Cypress somewhere on it be it as primary or a secondary lumber choice. The most elaborate of Mahogany armoires from this region featured Cypress backs and panels with veneers applied.

Another beneficial trait of Cypress is its ease of tooling. Power tool woodworkers lack an appreciation for
The Walnut and The Cherry Armories
here feature Cypress secondary lumber.
Notice Sassafras chairs in foreground. 
these qualities now days but Cypress possesses a quality that I can only describe as Pine-like but with a crispness not found with pine. It has straight grain wich is readily rived and cleaved yet good nail holding strength and the end grain responds well to a sharp chisel.

White Cedar
This one is a bit odd to me. This may be another lumber that was found in upper northern regions of the territories. I have not found any furnishings or structures made of it in South Louisiana. Early references do mention it however. Used in the Cooperage industry perhaps?

 Interior of a Walnut Armoire  showing the
prevalent use of Cypress in auspicious places
one could hardly consider "secondary."
White Oak
Seen in buildings in Northern areas, found in farm tools, ox yokes, door hinges (yes, I have a door in my shop at the moment waiting to be copied that has Pine boards with Oak battens and hinges)… but not found much in furniture here. Interesting when you consider its prevalent use in French Furnishings.

Cherry & Walnut
These were not abundant in lower Louisiana certainly not sufficient to supply the furniture trade. They both are susceptible to disease and rot in our climate and tend to die at a relatively juvenile age. It was abundant further north in Upper MS, AR, IL, and MO and was sent down river to supply the demand. Both sawn on site and sent down as logs it was coveted for Louisiana Furniture. The lack of local supply meant that it commanded a higher price and explains why Louisiana Ebiniste took the use of secondary lumber to such an extent - using stained Cypress in areas that were quite noticeable.

A common secondary wood. I see it less than Cypress but it is most certainly there. 

Sycamore was likely overlooked early on. It is impossible to split and not particularly worth sawing as once sawn it warps and twist terribly during drying. I have not seen any early pieces but I have come across late 19th Century High Post Beds to feature Sycamore lumber. It was not uncommon to use Sycamore for the corner post, once cured it is surprisingly stable. I see it as a secondary lumber on 20th century and later drawer sides and back panels. 

Though abundant in Louisiana I've only seen this one used for chairs - and quite early ones at that. 

Imported Hardwoods
The only imported lumber found in 18th Century South Louisiana, that I am aware of, was Mahogany imported from the West Indies. It was highly coveted and was brought in as lumber, logs and veneer. Craftsmen skilled in sawing veneer were employed as it allowed cabinet builders to produce their own veneers and veneer values were substantially higher than of lumber.

French Acadian Table in Pine,
typically Cypress further south.
Typical French Acadian
Table in Cypress
Exported Lumber
Louisiana exported a tremendous volume of lumber. The first real commercial sawing in Louisiana was actually to supply the cooperage industry with Cypress wood primarily for sugar crates. As crazy as it is, empty sugar crates were loaded onto vessels bound for the West Indies for use in packing sugar for export to the Americas and Europe as the sugar industry was at this time undeveloped and the process of crystallization would not make its way to Louisiana for quite some time.

This door is one single slab
of Cypress with battens.

Hopefully that answers the first part of your questions, Thomas. As for the rest of your questions, below, I will address that in yet another post after assembling some pictures for clarity.  

Additionally, could you post more pics of the furniture construction? Specific questions, regarding what joinery was used to make the carcass (full blind dovetails, half blind, etc?) Was nails or flat head screws used?


Jean N Becnel

© Jean Becnel, 2014. 
The material found herein is the sole intellectual property of it's author(s). 
Reproduction of this information is strictly forbidden without the written permission of it's author(s)

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

What Does it Take...?

This is just a small blog, I know. 
It doesn't make any money. 
I don't sell anything or my soul to the highest bidder. 
I don't write as often as I should. 
I don't take pictures like I should to share with y'all.

But for some reason I am averaging 70-80 visitors to the site per day. That's cool, I like that. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy... but still.

What does it take to get my audience involved? How do I get you guys to comment, ask questions or make suggestions? Are you coming here accidentally? Did you click just to see what the crazy German-Cajun is ranting about or showing off today? These are all very serious questions I am asking you and I do sincerely hope to get an answer. 

I truly want to share the culture of Louisiana Trades with you all I want you to learn about the cool details and odd features of our furnishings and structures. I want to show you some of the experiences and journeys I have taken down the rabbet hole of researching and emulating the construction of these pieces with the very tools those original craftsmen used.  

So the real question now, is what do y'all want? What do you want to see more of and less of? What can I do to make this site more interesting to you personally? More pictures / less words? More work in progress? More artifacts and historic pieces? What can I do to engage you? I want you to learn about what I'm passionate about, this is the reason I do this for free. How can I better do this and teach you more?

Please do help me out. I want honest critiques and suggestions on what it will take for this blog to be truly interesting to YOU. 

ps. the above pictures are a couple of Creole Cypress pieces in our collection.

© Jean Becnel, 2014. 
The material found herein is the sole intellectual property of it's author(s). 
Reproduction of this information is strictly forbidden without the written permission of it's author(s)

Friday, May 30, 2014

Don't Bother Learning to Plane Boards...

"Just enough broad surface planing should be done in practice to learn the correct method. More planing than that is a waste of time and should be done at the mill." 

Before you get the pitch forks and head down to South Louisiana let me explain! That was written by - Louis Roehl, in 1881, in his instructional manual of carpentry titled Problems in Carpentry, a course in practical carpentry for manual training classes. The qouted statement jumped out at me. How dare he make such a statement? How dare he attack my beloved planes and their gossamer shavings! Blasphemy! Stone him, stone him to death!

My reaction was a bit less dramatic, but you get the point. Roehl wrote this as a guide for instructors of carpentry teaching at a high school level - why would he downplay planing? Granted Carpenters build structures and structures rarely see much need for surfaced timbers but there is much interior finish work to be done with planes and it still bothered me. Roehl's very next statement is as follows:

Edge planing is an operation that a carpenter meets with in nearly every job. 
One should learn to plane an edge at right angles to the side of the board, 
removing the least amount of stock possible.

Ok, well that's a lot better - he got that part right. He at least thinks carpentry students should be proficient in edge jointing stock... but it's still ludicrous to write-off surfacing fundamentals, right? It wasn't to him. He, rather matter of factly, states it is a waste of time and should be done at a mill... Should be done at a mill... SHOULD BE DONE AT A MILL - and therein lies the answer. It was 1881, the mechanizing of industry and division of labor was already in full swing. 

The first planing machine patented was designed by Sir Samuel Bentham in 1791. Though a crude design employing a large mechanized hand plane pushed to and fro - not unlike a sash mill turned horizontally - it still relieved it's operator of the toil of manual timber jointing. Bentham described the essence of the invention as a "method of planing divesting the operation of skill previously necessary, and a reduction of brute force employed" ( Bentham's design may have been a failure but it did pave the way for other's and it was not many years before rotary planers would find their way into production facilities.

Bentham's patent was the beginning of industrialized lumber production and the death knoll for hand tooling. Exactly 100 after the first patented power planer Louis Roehl would write that it is unimportant for students to have a profound grasp of surfacing lumber with a hand plane because it was better left to mills to perform this work with power tools. The demise of traditional craftsmanship had begun.

Add an additional 100 years and we are in 1991, a time when the likelihood of finding a hobby woodworker using hand planes were slim to none. Strangely this coincides with the early rebirth, of sorts, of traditional woodworking. Granted there were a handful of people still clinging to the old ways and God bless them for keeping it alive but it has only been in the last 20 or so years that it has become fashionable to use hand tool and where you can once again find a large selection of tools being produced today that emulate the tools that Sir Bentham hoped we would leave behind us in a wake of progress. 

History tends to repeat itself and unfortunately much can be lost with each cycle. I do not say this of woodworking only but of Art the Natural Sciences and rural living as a whole. The internet is a tremendous resource for the preservation of history - you reading this is proof in the hide glue pudding! As we continue our craft and prepare for this cycle to possibly end let's be sure to document what we've learned by study and research and make sure the next generation of traditional woodworkers and students of history have more to work with than we did. 


Google Patent - Woodworth Planer

© Jean Becnel, 2014. 
The material found herein is the sole intellectual property of it's author(s). 
Reproduction of this information is strictly forbidden without the written permission of it's author(s)