TRADITIONAL JOINERY  is a term we’ve all heard as a hallmark of historical millwork.  But what is it and why is it so important in preservation of historic buildings?

 


1880’s joiner shop in Germany. Image source: Wikipedia’s Entry on a Joiner

What is Traditional Joinery?

Joinery in general is the woodworking technique that joins together two pieces of wood. What a joint looks like, how strong it is, how long it will last, and other characteristics are all determined by the joining materials and how they are used in the joints. Traditional joinery techniques use only wood elements, while modern joinery techniques use fasteners, bindings, and/or adhesives. Sometimes the two techniques are combined to marry wooden elements and joints with modern adhesives.

Joinery is the woodworking technique that joins together two pieces of wood.

 

Traditional joinery uses the following joints:

Butt joint: The end of a piece of wood is butted against another piece of wood. This is the simplest, and weakest, joint in traditional joinery.

 

Miter joint: Similar to a butt joint, but both pieces have been beveled (usually at a 45 degree angle) before being joined together.

 

 

Lap joints: One piece of wood overlaps another.

 

 

Box joint (or finger joint): Several lap joints at the ends of two boards; used for the corners of boxes.

 

 

Dovetail joint: A form of box joint where the fingers are locked together by diagonal cuts.

 

 

Dado joint: A slot is cut across the grain in one piece for another piece to set into; shelves on a bookshelf having slots cut into the sides of the shelf, for example.

 

Groove joint: The slot is cut with the grain.

 

Tongue and groove: Each piece has a groove cut all along one edge, and a thin, deep ridge (the tongue) on the opposite edge. If the tongue is unattached, it is considered a spline joint.

 

Mortise and tenon: A stub (the tenon) will fit tightly into a hole cut for it (the mortise). This is a hallmark of Mission Style furniture, and also the traditional method of jointing frame and panel members in doors, windows, and cabinets.

 

Birdsmouth joint: A V-shaped cut in the rafter connecting roof rafters to the wall-plate.

 

Finger or Comb Joint: A joint used as a way of conserving timber, as a means of joining random lengths of timber to be machined to a finished piece.

 

 

Source for pictures and joint descriptions: Wikipedia’s Entry on Traditional Woodworking Joints

 

Why it’s Important in Preservation

There are many advantages to using traditional joinery in the preservation or restoration of a historic building.  

Structural Integrity. Using traditional joinery in repairs, restorations, and other preservation ensures the structural integrity of a historic building by matching existing joinery with a joinery technique that’s sure to be compatible with it.  Since traditional joinery is stronger, more durable, and expands and contracts in different ways than modern joinery, using modern joinery alongside traditional joinery can compromise the structure of a historic building.

Using modern joinery alongside traditional joinery can compromise the structure of a historic building.

Time-tested. Traditional joinery is a time-tested method that is much stronger than modern joinery and lasts for generations, even thousands of years.  The mortise and tenon joint is the most ancient traditional joint and has been found in the wooden planks of a vessel 43.6 meters long that dates to 2,500 BCE. Traditional Chinese architecture as old as Chinese civilization itself used this method for a perfect fit without using fasteners and glues.  The 30 stones of Stonehenge were also fashioned with mortise and tenon joints before they were erected between 2600 and 2400 BCE.

Traditional joinery can last thousands of years.

Durable. Proving itself to be able to stand the test of thousands of years, traditional joinery is clearly a higher quality and more stable joinery method than modern techniques.  That test of thousands of years also demonstrates traditional joinery’s ability to withstand the rigorous use we often demand of our structure’s joints because it is a higher quality, more stable joinery method than modern techniques.

Traditional joinery can withstand rigorous use.

Flexible. One of the reasons traditional joinery like mortise and tenon joints withstands the test of time so well is that it allows a joint to naturally expand and contract with moisture and temperature changes in the environment, without devastating separation that weakens the joint and causes (often irreparable) damage to the wood pieces it’s joining together.

Traditional joinery can safely adapt to changes.

Authentic. But most importantly, traditional joinery ensures authenticity in the preservation of our built history by more completely matching the existing materials and construction methods used by traditional trades. Since the traditional trade methods that originally constructed a building (along with regional variances in those methods) are a large contributor to a building’s historic fabric, this is the best way to make sure that historic fabric is not lost to our preservation efforts.  Traditional joinery also better allows for selective repair or reconstruction of individual components than modern joinery methods – a major advantage that helps preservationists retain more of the woodwork original to a historic building.

Traditional joinery maintains the historic fabric.

 

 

For further resources and reading:

PART 2 PRESERVATION MONTH 2020 SERIES

LAST WEEK WE PRESENTED PART 1 on Why Preservation Matters. Part 2 of this series focuses on preserving or saving a building. It’s one thing to read and learn about preservation, and it’s a whole other thing to actively do it. While there may be limitations as to what one can accomplish, there is also so much that grassroots efforts can achieve. As the often-repeated quote attributed to Margaret Mead goes:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Let’s assume you’ve noticed a building that needs an intervention, or someone has announced plans to develop land a historic farmhouse sits on … all is not lost. Read on to explore steps you can take to preserve a building.

Denn House, prior to restoration.

 

GUIDELINES FOR SAVING A BUILDING:

  • Manage your mindset. It’s important to note that saving a building is not easy and not always successful; therefore it is best to know this and the intensity of the process going into it so as not to set yourself up for disappointment if your attempts to save a building are ultimately unsuccessful. First, consider why the place matters to you and why it matters to others; The National Trust for Historic Preservation includes information on the philosophy of why old places matter, and tips on managing your expectations. Determining the practical reasons to save a building can strengthen your own resolve and provide practical arguments when presenting the plan to others.

 

  • Be a history detective and know the threats. It is also essential to know the history of the building, its significance, and anything that poses a threat to its preservation. That National Trust discusses steps to researching, and Wolfe House and Building Movers Guide for Saving a Historic Building also provides suggestions to determine a building’s significance and discern types of threats.

 

  • Determine the building’s future/ongoing purpose. If you have the power to help decide a building’s future or ongoing purpose, or simply want to share reasons the building could benefit the community so that others can see why it’s worth saving, Wolfe House and Building Movers’ Guide recommends determining its possible uses and proposing a plan. The previously-mentioned guide from the National Trust can assist here as well. It is likely much easier to determine the building’s purpose if you are the owner, but even if you do not own it, you can help provide suggestions. It’s also important to decide how to save the building. Wolfe’s Guide also includes information on methods for saving a building.

 

  • Be an advocate and find help. The National Trust first recommends seeking help and support and getting the word out at the grassroots level before taking it to community and government leaders. They also share other ways to spread the word, including the This Place Matters campaign. Gathering community support strengthens the stance that the building is worth something to the community, and therefore carries more weight when you finally do present the project to leadership. Once grassroots support is established, the National Trust and Wolfe’s Guide both share information on sources of assistance, including agencies and governmental organizations at the local, state, and federal levels. The National Trust also includes a list of resources for preservation. Finally, sharing past successes, such as sharing videos of other successful preservation projects, as offered here by the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office, is another way to support your stance on preserving a building.

 

  • Secure funding. The National Trust and Wolfe’s Guide also both include information on how to secure funding or raise money to finance a preservation project. 

 

  • Apply for historic designation AND/OR seek to establish a preservation easement. If you determine that historic designation is an option in the case of your building, the National Trust provides information on many benefits of historic designation at local, state, and federal levels such as protection, funding, and tax credits, as well as suggestions on how to go through the process. If you have the power to do so – usually if you are the owner of the building – seek establishment of a preservation easement as well. The National Park Service discusses easements in detail, and the National Trust indicates that these can be in place in addition/act as a supplement to designations, as they use private legal rights of property owners unlike designations that act at the level of government. Easements – if designated as perpetual – are the only guarantee that the building cannot be demolished or altered significantly in the future. These terms go beyond the protections that a designation can provide. 

 

  • Amplify your reach. Preservation is local. It is also best done as part of a group of like-minded individuals, in a way that works with systems that are already in place.  If you want to ensure that buildings are saved, getting involved with your local preservation group and/or local government is the best way to make certain there is a review process before demolition is allowed to proceed.  You can check your local municipality’s zoning ordinances to  see if historic structures are addressed.

 

 

 

Next week: PART 3 OF THIS SERIES focuses on the Economic Benefits of Preservation.