Donning the leather apron

Speak, what trade art thou?
  Why, sir, a carpenter.
    Where is thy leather apron and thy rule?
      What does thou with thy best apparel on?
      – William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
         (Flavius & Carpenter & Marullus at I, I)


OK, we’re wearing t-shirts and shorts and your modern carpenter has bags of power tools, but the essence of the work is still the same.


Modern carpenter’s tools

I’m the carpenter’s assistant this week and we’re installing the last of the trim in my house. Carpenter has a rule (a tape measure) tucked onto his belt and a pencil behind his ear at all times. My job is to pay attention and follow him so I can hold the end of the measure or the end of the piece as it comes through the table saw. I might have to run fetch another pencil or another tool. He’s more polite with me than he would be with an ordinary assistant, since I am also the client. And older, and a woman, but I’m doing my job all the same! Except that I can’t actually lift any of those tool bags. The job site is much neater than it would be with a young male assistant, however.

Here’s Carpenter: Measure, mutter, scribble fractions on a scrap of wood; out to the saws to measure, cut, again measure again. Briskly, briskly! Back inside to fit the piece into the emerging frame around the window. It’s microscopically too big, so he pares it with a razor. Some things get pared with a chisel, like around the door. There’s this whole apparatus for cleaning up a ragged doorknob hole so that it’s perfectly neat and round. He also has a thing called a multitool: a power tool with a flat blade sort of thing that can slip between pieces of trim and slice away any rough bits of wood.


Traditional carpenter’s tools

In olden days, the carpenter would have a vast array of saws, picks, chisels, mallets, tools for prying and pulling, tools for smoothing. The apprentice would have to learn the names of all the tools and keep them clean, whetted and/or polished. “Get me the fret saw. No, the small one, ya daft lad!” Apprentice would still spend exhausting hours standing and holding the thing, watching and listening to the stream of commentary that is chock-full of useful advice but too much to remember. It’s much more tiring and harder on the legs to stand all day watching for the moment when you need to catch something or hand Carpenter the right tool than it is to crawl independently around the house puttying and caulking the baseboards and windows.

(The noun ‘caulk’ derives from the verb, which has evolved through Old French from Latin calcāre to tread, stamp, press close together, press in. In case you were wondering. I was.)

I’ve learned many useful things this week about craftsmanship and the Art of Taking Pains. Lesson one is that it is actually more efficient to get up and get the right tools and do a proper job from the start than it is to keep thrashing at a sloppy solution. And then you end up with something that you’ll never have to fix again. Parts must fit snugly for the whole to be smooth. That has been true since the first building was constructed.


Windows in Shakespeare’s New Place.



Newly trimmed window

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