Consider the New England Tobacco Barn

May 27th, 2010

While riding around the Pioneer Valley here in western Massachusetts, it struck me that the tobacco barn, also known as a drying shed, is one of the few, if only, types of architecture in the area that possesses a distinctly regional style. Yes, we’ve got the usual litany of housing and outbuilding stock that dates from over three centuries, but the variations and nuances are subtle in comparison to those found to the east in Boston or south into New York. There’s very little architobacco-barn-007tecture here that’s distinctly local and would draw the attention of all but the most practiced eye. (Yes, I know Historic Deerfield is a gem, but I’m discussing broad regional variations in form and not the caliber of examples from any given period.)

However, in this region (which is known as the Tobacco Valley and stretches along the Connecticut River from Hartford, CT, to well north of Springfield, MA), tobacco barns are unlike those found in other areas of the country. Theirs are taller and can have more complex exteriors, such as awnings, pent roofs and broad overhanging eaves. Ours are spartan, with almost a Shaker aesthetic, and are often left to weather austerely to brown or gray. It seems a rarity to find one that has been freshly painted; truly, they receive minimal maintenance, except to patch the roof or replace a rotted louver.

These structures are simple post-and-beam affairs that may be sited on masonry piers and invariably have dirt floors. They were not meant to be winterized or even all that suitable for livestock, for they are drafty and best meant for machinery, as our severe winter winds howl through them. Disproportionately long and featuring front-facing gables, these sheds are now typically roofed with corrugated steel. The walls are vertical planks, with every third one hinged so that it swings open horizontally to act as a louver, allowing the breezes to cure the harvested leaves, which are hung, upside-down, in bunches. (Our tobacco is known as shade tobacco; it is grown under tents and used for wrappers of high-caliber cigars.)

The barns are ubiquitous and immediately and distinctly discernible from other farm outbuildings in this agrarian area. When seen from the air, especially at low altitudes, one observes just how prevalent this type of structure is; they dot the countryside. This being New England, their layout lacks the efficient, grid-like organization found in the sprawling farmland of the Midwest; instead, they lie scattered about our compact topography as if they were oversized pick-up sticks.

Subtly iconic, the form of our tobacco barn has been emulated by architects in the design of contemporary buildings in such locations as the Hampshire College campus, which often honors its bucolic locale. Although many barns are still used for their original purpose, others have been converted into workshops, offices and housing, all while maintaining their geographic roots.

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Montauk McMansions

March 8th, 2010

montauk-imageIn 1883, McKim, Mead & White designed a group of houses known as the Montauk Point Association, and Frederick Law Olmsted was consulted on the grounds and common facilities. The homes, which ranged from 4,000 sq. ft. to 7,000 sq. ft., are excellent examples of this firm’s more restrained and innovative work. That is, they were intended as vacation lodges, not the palatial Neoclassical mansions that we normally associate with the work of these gentlemen. The association and its structures are excellently described in Samuel G. White’s Houses of McKim, Mead & White. Each distinctive house, now lovingly restored, sports all of the features that we associate with what’s now known as the Shingle Style – expansive roofs, Colonial Revival trim and facades composed of all or mostly shakes. They’re all lovely and textbook-quality buildings, and I’m sure anyone reading this would love to own, or at least spend a summer in, one of them, staring off into the Atlantic.

In the book, there’s also a mid-1880s photograph showing at least seven of these houses popping up out of the open fields like mushrooms after a particularly rainy spring. So, here’s my annoying rhetorical question: Why are these dwellings different from any cul-de-sac cluster of McMansions that have been plunked down on some formerly pristine coastline or farmland? Yes, they were designed by the greatest American architectural firm of the latter 19th century. (Unless you’re a Peabody and Stearns or Richardson fanatic, and I know I’m conveniently pushing Frank Lloyd Wright to the turn of the century to make my point. So there.) But think for a moment; back in 1883, as the soil was being torn up, do you think the neighboring farmers in Montauk were muttering about whatever the equivalent, late-Victorian term was for “a buncha damned Yuppies with more money than brains?”

The same could be said for many, if not all, of the grander houses we see around us. At one point, someone thought that the Second Empire residence with the five-story, mansard-roofed tower on Maple Street was a vulgar and ostentatious display of wealth. Look at any New England or Upstate New York town common: in the 1820s, everyone was just deliriously happy with their end-gabled Federals and Saltboxes until that pretentious Greek Revival with those huge two-story columns got wedged in between Ye Olde Taverne and the Brewster homestead.

I know there’s a vast qualitative difference between an A. J. Downing Gothic “cottage” and some crappy design-build firm’s Tudor-Ranch mélange, but in 100 years hence, are the residents of East Smudgely, VT, going to mandate preservation restrictions on polyurethane crown moldings?

My grumblings have less to do with the caliber of architecture and are more concerned with development and the disappearance of open space. Don’t we all have the right to build a home to our taste and budget?

Or is it that everyone thinks that their house should be the last one built in any given town?

I don’t think there’s a definitive answer, but feel free to fire back at me.

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A Lone Voice in the Wilderness

December 7th, 2009

clip_image0022See this photo of a dormer? It looks okay: it’s not a great dormer, but it’s a passable reproduction dormer as these things go.

So what the hell is it doing on the side of a Walmart in Hadley, MA? This Walmart is located, as are so many of them, in a sprawling new mall, far, far away from anything resembling residential construction or even anything historic.

I’m not going after Wal-Mart in this column. There are enough folks beating that horse, and I typically write about residential construction. My bone of contention is about the appropriate use of historical detail. No one expects that from Wal-Mart, but we do expect it of our architects who claim to be qualified to create historically influenced buildings.

Unfortunately, my travels have forced me to see a lot of crap.

So, this is an indictment of those who claim to build in the historic manner but are no better than the person who hung the dormer on a Walmart. The folks I’ve profiled in Period Homes are exempt from this, and they’re known for their outstanding residences. Some of them create dead-on reproductions, while others are interpretive, but there’s an artfulness and obvious reference to the forms with which they work. When they deviate from the past, we know why, just as we understand what Robert Adam was up to when he reinvented Classicism.

I’m not necessarily knocking the lower end of the residential market (although Torti Gallas proves that you can be artful and inexpensive), but I’m annoyed with the folks who obviously have the money to do it right and still don’t have a clue. If it was two or three decades ago, when historicism hadn’t emerged, there might be an excuse, but the architects working today have come up through the ranks fully cognizant of the proportions of a Neoclassical gable or the fact that when you design a cobblestone foundation, you don’t then just cobble the faux-bay window and HardiePlank the rest of the façade.

Oh yeah, and when you half-timber something, at least try to reflect on the original structural properties of this building technique. I know the Victorians went at it willy-nilly, but at least they paid lip service to the concept of posts and beams and what they actually accomplished. The stuff I’ve seen should have been rendered in orange crayon, not CAD.

To say nothing of the appropriate symmetry and layout of windows and doors. As an architect friend just said of an addition near me, “It looks like they selected the window locations by throwing water balloons at the side of the house!”

It’s not rocket science: successful historic design is simply plagiarism. There’s so much right in front of you to copy, you don’t even have to go on the Grand Tour anymore. What’s depressing is that the readership of this blog is a captive choir to whom I preach; somebody has to tell the McMansion guys.

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One Man’s Remuddling

October 6th, 2009

I’ve always been one of those preservationists who first turn to the back page of a certain magazine to see how some schmuck has butchered an undeserving old house. Then I smirk with self-righteousness and reflect on how that person has ruined a streetscape and should be drawn and quartered with a Sawzall.

But then, several events occurred recently that made me rethink this position. First, friends of mine purchased a 19th-century house in a neighborhood that was fairly intact from an architectural point of view. The house was nice enough but certainly not an outstanding example of Victorian design; it could be deemed infill housing.

They’ve got grand plans for it; they’re making it a zero-energy building and completely transforming the exterior, including exterior materials, roofline and such. At first I thought, “Geez, what did that house ever do to you?” Then, the second event occurred. I was assigned to write a story for another publication about another late Victorian house in a nearby town. Prominently located on the town green, this place has all the bells and whistles: turrets, decorative exterior paneling, shingle courses and fancy porches. I was thrilled to be able to get inside of it.

I’d stared at the place for years; it was on my commute, and there was always something a little bit funny about the central roofline and the overall massing of the front elevation. While the ornamentation said “Queen Anne,” I had wondered if there was an older house underneath all of that trim. When I met the owner for the interview, that was my first question to her, and, indeed, I was correct. It was a standard-issue 1810 Federal that had been completely Victorian-ized in 1883.

I was led throughout her home and was floored by the caliber of interior work. No traces of 1810 remained. The central hallway had been opened up to the rafters, and a black walnut, barrel-vaulted tongue-and-groove ceiling with stained glass lay-light had been installed. The newels and balusters were exceptional, and every mantel, including tiles, brass surround and fire-back, had been built with top-of-the-line Aesthetic Movement decoration according to the height of fashion in 1883. Did I mention that the walls and ceilings still had their original polychromed Lincrusta on them, in excellent condition?

This being one of my favorite architectural eras, I was completely smitten.

But on the way home, I thought, “I wonder what the good town-folk said in 1883 when this powerful family trashed a perfectly good Federal?” Was this remodeling acceptable solely because I like the 1880s?

Wander around the streets of Cambridge, MA – not the fancy addresses but the once humble triple-decker neighborhoods far away from Harvard Square, where young architects from the GSAD have had their way with a fair share of late 19th- and early 20th-century housing. Many were transformed in the nascent years of the preservation movement. These houses weren’t considered important then, and now their 1970s and later alterations have become less harsh in appearance due to nostalgia.

They’ve become specimens of their time.

Does time heal all remuddling?

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Refresher Course

August 31st, 2009

There’s some time-worn saying about the fact that most New Yorkers have never visited the Empire State Building, and in some manner, this holds true for many of us who reside near an architectural treasure. I live in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, which frames the Connecticut River as it flows southward to Hartford. It’s a place steeped in history and home to one of the most impressive collections of 18th- and early 19th-century houses: Historic Deerfield.

You’d think I would have noticed.

Perhaps it’s due to being a New Englander – we’re sort of accustomed to seeing houses that are 200-250 years old dotting the landscape; yep, Ye Olde Federal Tavern in Sturbridge now serves espresso with a side of free Wi-Fi. We take post-and-beam construction for granted, just like those bright red sugar maple leaves that draw the rest of you up here every autumn.

Historic Deerfield is no more than 20 minutes from my home. I’ve traveled farther for beer, and yet in the 23 years I’ve lived here, I’ve roamed its streets no more than half a dozen times. Typically, my trips were initiated by the arrival of out-of-town guests who were eagerly anticipating a visit, and I would dutifully escort them up US-5 until we turned left at the small brown and white sign.

Earlier this week, errands took me by the entrance of Historic Deerfield, so I diverted and spent some time just cruising about. It’s really an amazing place: rarely do you get to compare and contrast so many subtle nuances of early American architecture (and interiors, if you’re so inclined, as the museum complex includes several houses whose interiors are available for viewing). There are gambrel-roofed Georgians, Saltboxes and Federals all lined up on an original road. Brick façades reside next to hand-split clapboards; the latter are painted in historically accurate hues or left to weather. The variation in porticos alone could fill a textbook for historic preservation majors.

Once you get past the smorgasbord of styles, closer study reveals an abundance of architectural details seldom seen in such number. Striking in its simplicity is a broad, two-plank front door with exposed nail-heads driven into cleats, and the crude split-rail fence at another dwelling reveals the evolution of fencing. This is to say nothing of fanlights, door and window casings or even drop finials on a garrison. It’s all there; you could walk a novice around and point out almost every variation of New England architecture.

I don’t mean to sound gushy or promotional; it’s more that instead of my usually blasé acknowledgement of our indigenous antique houses, I was able to regard Historic Deerfield with fresh eyes and appreciate it for the remarkable architectural resource that it is. I suppose this is true with many museums: after a three- or four-year absence, a return visit, coupled with one’s accumulated knowledge from visiting other sites, exposes yet more information and insight.

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What’s the Story?

July 27th, 2009

Recently, I was interviewing architect Dennis Wedlick for an upcoming profile in Period Homes, and at several points during our conversation, he touched upon how important a house’s story was – that is, the tale of its evolution as he imagined it as he was designing the building. Wedlick is a historicist who unabashedly chooses to reinterpret the past, and one can see various influences and periods in any one of his works; they’re not rote reproductions. One example, the North Redoubt Studio, appears to be a simple Gothic Revival house with board-and-batten siding that eventually had a larger Shingle Style barn attached to it a few decades later.

The same could be said for the firm of Albert, Righter & Tittmann, about which I’ve just written a monograph. They too re-create elements of the past in their houses but also reinterpret it, instead of remaining static at any one point in history. Nowhere is this more evident than in some of their “mini-villages.” Here, instead of building a large house with a monolithic façade, the architects break the elevation up into a series of smaller houses attached to each other with wings that emulate the evolution of a dwelling. For example, a Greek Revival façade may be attached to a mid-19th-century barn with a Shingle Style wing.

All of this is just a roundabout way of mentioning what has become one of my favorite activities while traveling. As I drive or walk by older houses (and buildings), rather than simply identifying when the structure was built, I now pursue its architectural history with a more practiced eye. It may be as subtle as a Greek Revival portico that was added 20 years after a Cape was constructed (or even more subtly, when a half-Cape was enlarged to a full one). The most common changes, I’ve found, are wraparound porches or bay windows that have been added to earlier houses, and I’m always watchful for later entry doors or window sash.

Sometimes, you’ll discover something far grander. In Belchertown, MA, I’ve been driving by two brightly painted Queen Anne houses for years that always looked a little funny to me. Their central massing and roof pitch seemed off for the late 19th century. I was assigned to write about one of them recently, and the owner confirmed my original suspicions. The shallow roofline is still there, and many a tower and dormer have been added. Inside, there’s no trace of the original house; it’s a late Stick Style/Aesthetic Movement fantasy complete with polychromed lincrusta and bead-board wainscot. The central hallway is even opened up to two stories with a barrel-vault ceiling, complete with lay-light.

This is not just a rural pursuit; walk down any street in Lower Manhattan (more so than the avenues), and you’ll often find something such as a five-story 1880s panel brick structure that then had an Art Deco storefront added, which was then again remodeled in the last part of the 1900s with aluminum trim and plate glass.

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The Year of Living Architects

June 5th, 2009

Over the past year or so, I’ve traveled around the country meeting and interviewing some of the most accomplished architects in the field of historic preservation and historically inspired residential construction. Their collective body of work is diverse, and each firm has improved the built environment aesthetically and functionally, often from a sustainable perspective.

In San Francisco, I met with Andrew Skurman, whose stately Classical mansions and European villas grace the Bay Area. Equally adept at Mediterranean and French styles, his work in time-honored styles displays an artistic hand. His recent Neoclassical house was a unique choice for Victorian San Francisco.

Outside of Washington, DC, in Silver Spring, MD, I spent a day with Torti Gallas and Partners, and left heartened with its devotion to rebuilding cities in a New Urbanist perspective. The firm’s charter is grounded in the belief that even a city’s most modest citizens deserve livable, attractive housing that should blend in with the existing historic fabric. Their projects for military personnel and their families beautifully address an oft-neglected facet of architecture.

Cate Comerford of Ocean Grove, NJ, impressed me with her sensitivity working within the tight parameters – both physically and within the building codes – of her town. Her rebuilding of Methodist summer tent cabins that had burned, and her ability to essentially reconstruct shoddily built (to put it mildly) century-old houses from the inside out, displayed much thought and inventiveness.

Kelly Sutherlin McLeod of Long Beach, CA, has made a name for herself as the go-to person for conserving Greene and Greene houses, and she continues that sensitivity with other Arts and Crafts homes in the area, reversing years of neglect and creating seamless additions where desired. Well-versed in more recent architectural styles, she showed me fascinating mid-century and Colonial revival projects.

Geoffrey Mouen of Celebration, FL, is one of the great names in New Urbanism and his single- and multi-family residences reveal his passion for creating livable cities and towns while designing them in the indigenous styles of their surroundings. A highlight was his award-winning house that was able to utilize the prevailing winds to cool the structure, no mean feat in Florida.

It was delightful to observe Connor Homes of Middlebury, VT, design and build top-notch historical reproduction houses with accurate detailing. By using a factory to prefabricate the traditionally stick-built walls, stairways and such, the firm has been able to offer customized, high-quality antique homes designed for contemporary living at substantial savings, while completely avoiding the “kit-built” appearance.

In New Canaan, CT, I was welcomed into the grand offices of Wadia Associates and came away duly impressed with the firm’s pragmatic approach to designing and constructing sprawling estates in and around coastal Connecticut and Long Island. Despite the seemingly unlimited funds available to their clients, the firm insists on guiding them through the design and building process without wasting time and money.

There’s more to come throughout 2009, including Alexander Latham of Long Island. The work I have seen has given me hope for the future of historically inspired architecture and preservation and their responsibility to a changing environment.

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Houses and Spouses

April 30th, 2009

Last week, I gave a lecture at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, NY, entitled “Houses & Spouses: The Dark Side of Preservation.” It’s autobiographical, and based upon my travails in The Butchy Chronicles and my Carpenter’s Stigmata blog. The talk relates what I’ve learned about old houses and how they can simultaneously destroy bank accounts and spousal relationships.

And the audience found it pretty darned funny.

This isn’t intended to be a self-promotional piece. It’s meant to be more about how we, as contractors, designers and architects should be mindful of how traumatic it is to be a homeowner in the throes of a restoration. While I’ve never had to live with a newborn, conversations with those who have indicate that the toll it takes on one’s psyche and interpersonal relationships is remarkably similar to a studs-out kitchen renovation. I wonder if we removed children and old houses from this dynamic, whether our national divorce rate would remain at 50%.

We in the building and restoration trades tend to think of our clients as something between a partner and a revenue source, but we should also learn to empathize and consider what it’s like to be forced to wash dishes in the bathtub for six weeks because the AWOL plumber is waiting for back-ordered fixtures or contend with plaster dust mixed with our coffee grounds.

We’re used to being the ones in work boots clomping through someone else’s house at seven in the morning, but rarely is that boot on the other foot – our struggling into clothes and trying to gobble breakfast while a boom box blares the mandatory unending play list of Journey and Foreigner songs accompanied by the chatter of an air compressor. Sure, it’s a mess ripping apart someone else’s house, but as my friend, who is a criminal defense attorney, says, “Unlike some of my clients, I always get to go home at night.”

I’ve been on sites where the general contractor did a brilliant job of creating a campaign kitchen and sealing off the demolition from the rest of the household, but, even still, the owners and their children had to contend with the various functions of their kitchen being spread out over several rooms and floors of their house. As a job progresses, the inevitable delays and overruns occur, and the owners are worn down not only by the usually familial sagas, but also by the fact that simply making a sandwich takes more effort than going to the sub shop.

This is just at the point when we’re stressing out due to our own cash-flow and subcontractor issues. Suddenly, then, our former partner-client can become a little adversarial. To us, those tardy window units are a logistical problem; to them, it means three more weeks with the fridge in the dining room. Despite whatever challenges await you as tradesperson, never forget what it’s like to be a client: They are at home every night.

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Get Roofed

April 9th, 2009

Last week, I participated in a panel discussion in Boston that was intended to instruct architects and designers, whether currently involved in preservation or not, about how to properly treat the historic fabric of an old house. This approach may seem obvious to those of us in the field, but there are still a lot of professionals out there with minimal familiarity about the tenets of preservation.

We had the usual pictures of horrible lumberyard front doors and replacement windows crammed (with spacers, no less) into the facades of Federal and Victorian houses. I railed about preserving pantries; others chimed in about the beauty of original plaster and clapboards. The panel was mainly comprised of ardent preservationists who were also used to getting their hands dirty as builder-architects – meaning we know what it is like in the trenches as well as in the ivory tower.

Things got feisty about windows. I had a shot of a ca. 1820 house on which the fenestration had been replaced sometime between 1850 and 1870 with two-over-two sash. The moderator of the panel maintained that it was O.K. to leave these, as they were good, old work. I argued that nothing else on the front elevation was post-1820; there was no wraparound porch or Colonial Revival front door; thus, I would replace the sash with authentic twelve-over-twelves. After all, there were only five of them on the façade. We also pondered whether to rebuild the central chimney, which had been replaced with a diminutive brick one when the house was converted to central heating.

For me, the most surprising topic was our discussion about roofing materials. We decried the deteriorating quality of wood (which now seems to last no more than 15 years), and while we all adored a nice slate roof, the challenge seemed to be what to do in the absence of it or what to do on an early house. The panel moved, somewhat as a whole, to declare that the best choice is the lowly triple-tab asphalt.

There was much disparaging talk of “architectural shingles” as they look shaggy and gimmicky and cost a fair amount more. Yes, there’s the promise of longevity (or at least the warranty thereof, should anyone remain in that house for 30-40 years and live to remember where they got them). Triple-tab, we thought, just made a soft, gray plane that did not draw attention away from the architectural detail of the elevations, while the more textured shingles did. By using them, you’re not doing anything irreversible, unless you’re ripping the slate off. Unless wood shingles are mandated, such as in a strict historic district, it is difficult to justify the materials and labor cost. There’s also a huge amount of waste culling the bundles of shake, and that’s not very green.

There’s artificial slate (rather expensive for materials and labor) and actual slate (really expensive for materials and labor), and these are perfect for a 19th-century home but not really appropriate for an 18th-century one. We all kind of looked at each other sheepishly but could not come up with a better solution.

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If I Had a Hammer

March 10th, 2009

I picked up my hammer last Sunday. This in itself doesn’t sound like such a big deal, but now that I’ve retired to the ranks of weekend warrior, coupled with the fact that I prefer my air-nailer, I’ve found that I seldom use a hammer other than when hanging a picture. I choose the nail gun due to a combination of laziness and the fact that I’m right-handed but have a dominant left eye. Hammering has always been a challenge for me because of this; the nail head and shaft always seem to be shifting in front of my gaze. I discovered this trait when learning to shoot a rifle – because I was always hitting the target of the kid to my left.

Most of us become acquainted with hammers through our parents. I don’t mean to be gendered, but a generation or two ago it was typically Dad’s; now it seems that both men and women are comfortable with them. I think this change occurred when we stopped sending boys to woodshop and girls to home economics. Same with drills; I have an ex who never held an electric drill until she was 25.

I learned about hammers at the side of a hippie carpenter – the kind who was immortalized in Tracy Kidder’s House. You know the type; he works alone unless something’s just too heavy and a come-along won’t work – then he’ll call me. Proudly independent, he’ll never be found on a general contractor’s crew unless he’s half-past starving. It was on my first job with him that I used his hammer, and it is the same model that I use today.

Our first hammers are cheap, clunky things. They’re constructed of a metal head wedged onto a wooden handle that eventually loosens or snaps clean off. Unlike this, my hammer is a single piece of steel from top to bottom. It will never break. In fact, I don’t think I’ve even seen one lose the tip of a claw. I won’t mention the brand name of it, as this would seem like an endorsement, and those who’ve worked with me would never give any credence to my approval of anything; but you know who makes this item. It’s a 16-ounce, straight-claw, leather-handled piece, and it’s not the most expensive hammer made nor the cheapest. You can get one anywhere for either side of $35, which means if someone swipes it, a replacement is always nearby.

And then there’s the tightly wrapped brown leather handle with its black and white banding. You can buy this model with a blue nylon-vinyl grip, which is probably more comfortable and a little less slippery, but there’s something about the wrapped leather, especially as it breaks in, that seems time-honored and makes me feel like I’m using the same tool as my grandfather.

Swinging it that day felt good, and it made me reflect on this most basic of our hand tools: there’s a balance to a hammer, and this one feels like an extension of my arm. Its arc is smooth and sure, and my elbow never feels like it’s going off a perfect pivot. Next time you’re at a lumberyard, swing a few hammers around. The inexpensive ones feel awkward and out of alignment. Their heads are too heavy for the handle, and you’ll feel more like a catapult than a carpenter.

I’m sure my comments box is going to fill up with folks claiming that my hammer pales in comparison to theirs; that’s fine. The whole point is that this simplest of tools is actually one of the most ergonomically complex, and each of us demands specific things from them. Don’t walk a mile in my work boots; build a bookcase with my hammer.

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